Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light? Neither have I, but I did run 50 miles this past weekend. Coming into the last Saturday of my relatively short running career, I had completed one 50K, three marathons, and one 50 miler. (I also have a failed attempt at a 77 miler, but lets not go there) Last year the Masochist was the big one, the one that I felt would make me 2legit2quit, the one I wasn't sure I could finish.
A year ago I was in a deep dark place in my life, which is usually reflected outwardly by a lack of running, heavy drinking, and a more than prominent use of tobacco products. I went to the Masochist without a crew, knowing I hadn't run further than 20 miles in several months, and being so nervous about my certain failure that I was finishing up a cigarette less than 5 minutes before the race started so that I could at least calm down.
In ultras, the length of the course and the number of participants allows the field to be spread out to the point where you might be alone for significant portions of time. Last year I didn't wear a watch, and I never pay attention to cut off times at the aid stations, lest they convince me to go slower or faster than I should be going. So I spent almost the entire 2009 race under the impression that I was barely in it and it was only a matter of time before they stopped me from continuing on. I had no idea how well I was doing until after The Loop, just before mile 40. I was keeping pace with two other runners and fearfully asked, "So, do you think we are going to finish this thing?" They both laughed, which I wasn't sure how to take at first, until the one runner answered, "Oh yeah, we are doing fine man, more than enough time to get to Montebello."
I crossed the finish line at 10:07:35, to my great surprise, as the 75th finisher. It made me wonder if I had some sort of superpower that enabled me to perform without training and in spite of body killing habits.
That was last year.
This time around the block I was to have a crew, and three other friends from Columbus in it with me. I expected my friends Betsy and David to be a non-factor in my race, their goal was only to finish together, and my plan was to be at least in the top 75. My worry was the third friend, Matty, who is by nature, a stronger runner than myself. Pride had been an issue since the day we both registered. All of my training was done nervously, wondering if he was training more, training harder, and if I had any chance of finishing faster. Just weeks before the race he told us that he would not be making the trip, and I, in all honesty was relieved. The pressure to perform was off. I did however train for the epic showdown, so I developed a new goal. I wanted to be in the top 25. I estimated from previous Masochist results that I would need to run the distance in a time of about 8:45, an hour and a half faster than last year.
My training was still suspect, but I did have several strong 25+ mile training runs under my belt, smoke free lungs, and a largely dormant drinking habit. I knew the places on the course last year that I had regretted not being more aggressive on, and figured if I could tweak my performance on a few sections, and generally be just a bit quicker, I would have no issues with improving upon 2009's race.
I left Columbus, my disturbingly flat place of residence, Friday morning after making some last minute purchases at FrontRunner. I arrived in Lynchburg just as the pre-race festivities began and met David, Betsy, and several of their family members in the lobby of the Kirkley Hotel. One day I will actually participate in all the extra stuff before and after races, but this time I just dropped in to pick up my race bag, before heading out to dinner with our crew.
The eve of the race was spent carb loading, getting muscles loose in the hot tub, and organizing my race bag and gear. I then did something completely unprecedented and slept. I am a chronic insomniac and routinely have trouble sleeping, particularly before races, so this was a pretty big deal and just added to my tally of advantages over last years preparations.
We woke up at 4:15 AM, and I had a ClifBar for breakfast and got dressed for the 30 degree weather we would have to start in. Following the buses to the start line I was calmer than I had anticipated being, but that queasy feeling that comes when you think about the fact that you are going to spend at least 8 hours of your day running was still present.
After checking in, taking some pictures, a few words and a prayer, the race began and we headed down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had tweaked my left quad playing soccer the week before, so my plan was to start out nice and slow until I was sure it wouldn't be a factor. The first 5 miles of the corse is all asphalt, after about a mile of taking it easy, I picked it up, knowing that once we got to some of the bigger climbs and more technical sections, I wouldn't have the option of going this fast. I cruised down to the first aid station in a respectable time, somewhere around an 8:30/mi pace before heading into the trail.
Heading into the trail, I hadn't walked any portion yet, and my goal was to avoid it for any significant lengths until Long Mountain, a couple miles before the half way mark. I love running trail, it's exciting and fun, and after running the first 5 miles on the road, it was like drug. I was tearing my way through it pretty well, and I realized that the mild irritation in my quad was completely gone, which was a great sign. The runners were bunched in small groups on the trail, so my method was to stay with whatever group I was with on the flats, try to keep up with them on the climbs. I found out at the Laurel Ultra, that I am a really strong downhill runner, and it serves me very well, so I used those opportunities to gain ground and catch the next group to pace off of. Coming into Aid Station #4, I was on the exact same pace as I was in the year prior. I really do mean exact... to the second. The crew was at that check point, but I still had plenty of water, plenty of everything else, and I was feeling great, so I ran through. I was just around 15 miles into this thing, still under 11 minute miles, but knowing the difficult sections were yet to come.
Before you get the joy of knowing you are half way done, you have to climb Long Mountain. I don't know how long it actually is, but lets just say that the name is more than appropriate. It's not particularly steep, and it's not technical by any stretch of the imagination, but you better believe the damned thing is long. This is one of the sections I had hoped to improve on from last year, so I had it in my mind to be really conscious of how I was alternating running and walking. This is kind of difficult with other runners around you, because you don't want to walk simply because someone else is, but it's really tempting. I never catch people on climbs, but those were exactly my intentions on this one. Every time I saw the "top" of the mountain, it ended up being a turn instead, with another climb. When I finally did reach the actual end of it and saw I had a down hill, I wasn't nearly as motivated as on the previous sections. I kept saying to myself, "You have to run it if it's runnable. You have to run it if it's runnable" So I started running down the hill. I must have gone no more than a half mile when my quads began to cramp up. It was inevitable, it's happened in every single race I have been in, but I was hoping for it to hit me after the half.
The cramps were ridiculous for the last miles of the half, forcing me to walk sections to knew I would be gaining a lot of ground on had I been able to run them. The feeling this brings is terrible, when something goes wrong, and there isn't any good solution other than waiting for my Endurolyte pills to work their magic. Even though it was only about a marathon worth of running, when I came into the aid station, I was in bad shape mentally. I decided to finally make a pit stop, better to get my head back in the game now before Buck Mountain, than let my thoughts wander too far off on a hard climb. I changed socks, refilled my water, and ate some cookies. This was the second time I saw the crew (that now included Betsy who had to drop because of knee pain) and I found out David's plan was to try and catch up with me, but at this point I wasn't trying to make that easy for him. I had fallen off pace enough that my hope of a top 25 finish was a bit too ambitious, but I still had the potential to get a PR. Buck Mountain is the next big challenge after the half, and it was looming in front of me.
When I think back to Buck Mountain, I also think of another word that is strikingly similar to the name. It's not as long as Long Mountain, but it's steeper and your legs have already done quite a bit of work so it feels even worse than it actually is. As you climb you begin to hear the faint sound of music in the distance, growing louder with each painful step. You soon begin to realize you are listening to a constant loop of the Rocky theme song being blasted from the next check point at the top of the mountain.
Coming into the aid station I made an unwise decision to linger. I stayed there almost 10 minutes, eating snacks, and bullshitting (on a side note, that is apparently a real word) with a fellow Marine who was volunteering. When I finally did start start back down the trail I looked at my watch... I was falling way behind, and a PR was looking less and less likely. Despite being a good ways into the race, I would say nothing is really certain until you finish The Loop, which was my next big challenge.
As I came to The Loop, I noticed the different set up from last year, which was certainly an improvement. Sometimes when you run for hours on end, your mind isn't as sharp and the simplest things will confuse you, so the new design was appreciated. I only briefly slowed to talk to the crew because I wasn't in need of anything at the time, but I did find out that David was about 30 minutes behind me.
The Loop is my least favorite section of the course... legs that just ran a 50K don't really enjoy being subjected to a technical trail. At this point running on packed sand, or soft dirt on a gentle downward slope is about the only kind of path I would be happy about running. Instead I got rocky, root filled, single-track, with nonsensical turns and short, annoying climbs. This is the kind of stuff I would normally enjoy running, but the intricacies of it only serve to force painful movements. I tripped and rolled my ankles more times than I can count in this 5 mile section, but thankfully didn't face plant or twist anything too bad. I kept leap frogging with several other runners through the section making some conversation along the way. I knew that when we came back out of the woods we would basically be in the home stretch, and that if I kept my time on this section under an hour and a half that I could conceivably walk the rest of the way to Montebello if it came down to it. My highlight of The Loop, and the source of one of my new favorite quotes came from a conversation I had with a first time Masochist runner. I was keeping pace with a cute blonde girl, who like me, was fairly new to ultras, and I struck up a conversation. I asked her how she felt and her reply was priceless, "This is definitely the hardest race I have run. I think I'm in more pain than child birth... I have twin girls." The next time a woman uses child birth against me, I will certainly use that one on them.
When I finally came out of the woods, I was feeling pretty good, but needed a little refueling. I refilled my bottle, drank a couple cups of chicken noodle soup and found out that David was still just about 30 minutes behind me, and probably a couple of miles into The Loop.
I started the home stretch with new motivation, running more than I had since the first half. My cramping issues were minimal, so my body must have balanced things out a bit. I had a strong showing until the Forest Valley aid station at mile 43, where exhaustion seemed to completely set in. I knew with complete certainty that I would finish and the only thing I wanted to happen by then was for the race to be finished. I decided that the last 7 miles I had left I would just keep moving forward in whatever way I felt like, even if it meant walking for the next couple of hours. From that point on, I was hoping David would catch me so that we could finish together. I had a tough race and I knew he did as well with losing his wife so early on the course and trying to gain back ground on me.
Somewhere in the last 7 miles my big toe on my left foot began to hurt excruciatingly bad. I don't recall doing anything specific to it, but it hurt so bad towards the end that I was almost certain I had somehow broken it. It hurt to push off, and even though there were sections I would have liked to run, I opted out of most of them because of the pain. Coming into the last aid station with just 3 miles to go, I quickly chomped down some food, and started back out, keeping in mind that most of what I had left was downhill. Last year I flew from the last aid station like I was doing a normal 3-mile loop in Columbus, this year it was more like a slow saunter. I had plenty of time, and no worries. Every time I heard someone approaching from behind, I checked to see if it was David, if he was going to catch up to me, it would have to be now. I never saw David, but every runner that passed tried to encourage me to start running again, but other than short 100-yard stretches of jogging, I couldn't muster anything more than what I was doing. I did however see one familiar face in the last 3-miles, whom David and I paced off of almost the entire first half of Holiday Lake back in 2009.
Once I saw the saw the gate and the power lines overhead I knew I wasn't far from the fishery road that heads to finish line. I was in too much pain still to even run from that point, so I would wait till the last stretch when I could see the time clock. As people passed me (running on the road and driving past) they offered encouragement to run that I chose to ignore. Then came the glory stretch, and I began to painfully run with whatever gas I had left in the tank, as I approached I saw my brother's car. He and my younger brother spent the day trying to find the checkpoints before I got to them in a futile effort, they eventually gave up and just went to the finish line to wait 3-hours in the cold for me to finish. As I crossed the finish line in a humbling time of 11:34:25 I was greeted by Clark Zealand and David Horton with congratulations. In last years pictures of my finish, it looks like I'm ignoring Horton as I cross under the banner. Despite intentionally shaking both of their hands, there is yet another picture where it looks like I forgot to acknowledge them.
After picking up my finishers t-shirt (which were a huge improvement upon last year's puke green colored shirts) I hung out with my crew, my brothers, and congratulated my fellow runners. I was hoping that David wasn't still 30 minutes behind me, because that would mean he wouldn't get an official finish, so I waited anxiously for him to appear on the road. I wasn't quite as anxious as Betsy, but certainly was hoping we would see him soon. Minutes dragged by until the clock was at 11:55:00... he was cutting this one way too close. As soon as started to form my "That's too bad buddy" speech, we saw him chugging along down the road. Betsy ran down to him and they finished together, though not quite the way they planned, holding hands as David crossed at 11:57:01, with only one official finisher to follow him.
I may not have been as fast this year as I had hoped, and there were a lot of circumstances that I wish could have been different, but this was a great race, and I was glad to be among the 215 that made it to Montebello. Despite in-race declarations of "I hate running", and "Why the hell do I do these?" I will almost assuredly be back next year with high hopes and lofty goals. It's an addiction that I am proud of, and I hope to be like Tom Green (the guy who finished after David) and be celebrating 25 finishes one day.
On a side note... anyone who can get the two pop culture references in the opening paragraph without using the internet gets a special prize from me.