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Once a padawan, now a freaking Jedi. I run really far, I write a bunch, and have super powers that allow me to grow amazing facial hair.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Bigfoot 50K

Coming into December I looked to close out this year's race schedule with a personal milestone. A year ago this weekend I fulfilled my promise to help my friend Debbie Talbott complete her very first ultramarathon. It ended up being a 7-hour long emotional roller coaster, battling against the snow, freezing temperatures, a torn up mud bog of a trail, and various physical ailments (my injured ankle and Debbie's on-setting stomach flu). I "coached" her to the finish line with success, but as great as this story would have been in and of itself, it has significance for a much different reason.

After the first loop, Debbie and I met up with a friend of hers who also happened to be running her first ultra. Despite being well prepared, her friend decided to trust in the pack strategy, and began to run the race with us. I thought she was cute and on top of that, this cute girl was running an ultra... double hotness points in my book. I was fairly smitten, but couldn't exactly spit game on the trail, so I kept my more flirtatious comments to myself. 

Everyone went their separate ways after some post race grilled cheese, but I did get her name. Thanks to the digital world of Facebook, that's all I needed. Her last name wasn't Johnson or Smith, so it made Mikayla Vega an easy girl to track down. I kept in contact with her, running talk became talk about movies, music, books, and then about life... all while I developed a serious crush on a girl that was perfect, but also unavailable. Over the months of talking, getting to know one another and sharing experiences at different races and running adventures, truer feelings prevailed. The girl that I had met through such a random series of events, is now the girl I want to marry and spend my life with. A rough and unorthodox inception that was the start of our relationship together has become something great and brought us back to Lore City, Ohio to run another race. Bigfoot isn't the greatest course, it doesn't stick out in my mind when I think about the dozens of races I have run, but it will always be significant to Mikayla and I. No matter where life ends up taking us, you will know where to find us on the first weekend of every December. So here we are, a year after the chance meeting that changed both of our lives.

As my last few entries would suggest, the second half of 2011 hasn't been kind to me in regards to running success. Going into Bigfoot I was undertrained and injured... not much different than last year. Neither of those issues would prevent me from toeing the start line though. This race had to be run, regardless of the outcome. For Mikayla, she has battled through a tough year and various injuries as well. She was just beginning to build a solid training base coming into this one, but her base so far had been composed of shorter distances on asphalt rather than long distances on trail. She had decided to commit to just the first loop of the course and see how she felt from there, with no expectations of running the whole thing. Given the significance for us as a couple, my strategy was to stay with her the first loop, and then push on, looking only to finish under the cut off. This was a completely feasible plan that was stress free.

We drove from Columbus to Salt Fork on Saturday afternoon, planning on meeting our friends Rachel Nypaver and Steve Hawthorne for dinner at the lodge, the location of which we were also staying, making for an easy 300 yard walk to the starting line the next morning. Rachel was under the weather and ended up being unable to join us, so it turned out to be just the three of us for some carb-loading conversation. After dinner and a single drink (no Marines to incite heavy pre-race partying this time), we made our last minute preparations and went to bed.

Mikayla and I both slept terribly and I was dealing with a cold (that she had passed onto me) all night, but come Sunday morning we were both motivated enough to wake up at 6:30 AM to get ready to kick some trail. As we strolled to the lobby where all the other runners were gathered, we bumped into Steve, this time with Rachel, who had overcome her illness enough to race. It was good to see her feeling better, because it's always a treat to root for someone that is actually going to have a chance at winning the thing. We also saw Nathan Zangmeister, who I had the privilege of talking into running his first 50K back at Tie Dye in April. 

The weather was perfect for a run, the day started out in the low 40's and would creep up to the high 50's later in the day, and though it was a bit cloudy at times, it looked like we would escape without getting rained on. The only issue we really were concerned about was what the previous week's weather had done to the trail, and then what Saturday's 10-mile race had contributed on top of that. We expected a warm but very muddy day ahead of us... a far cry from last year when it snowed the entire time and never seemed to get above freezing.

We started out in the parking lot right in front of the lodge, worked toward the trail head as a big pack, and the race was underway. We had a pretty steady pace going in the cool early morning temperatures and within the first five minutes, the congestion that had kept me from ever really getting to sleep the night before, was all over the woods, and I could breathe again. As we entered the loop and hit both our first stream crossing and climb, I was pleasantly surprised at the effort Mikayla was putting forth. I know she is a strong runner but I didn't expect her to be as aggressive as she was. Instead of walking the hill when we got to it, you could audibly detect her grunt of frustration that people were slowing her down. She started passing people on the climb, forcing me to plow off to the side of the trail to keep up with her. The course was muddy, but in good enough condition that it was still fast. 

We reached the top of a hill, probably just under 3 miles into the course, where there was a flat and relatively smooth trail along a ridge. I was about two or three steps behind Mikayla when I saw her right ankle turn sharply in. Rolling your ankle is about as commonplace in an ultra as sipping water, but in a split second I knew it was more than just an ankle roll. There was a loud popping noise and she instantly dropped to the ground with a shriek. 

I kept running, and as I passed her I yelled back, "See you back at the lodge sweetheart! I have a race to run!" 

Just kidding. I think if I tried to run away from her, not even a broken ankle could have stopped her from kicking my ass. 

I was on the ground next to her as fast as I could, pulling her off the path so we could see if the injury was as bad as it looked. The runner in front of us tried to stop and help us but we told him to keep running and that we'd okay. The two runners approaching from behind though, would accept no such argument. The two insisted that they were nice people, citing the fact that they were Canadiens as their concrete evidence. They were planning on not running a minute faster than the cut-off, so they had some time to kill with us.

Attending to the wounded!

I removed Mikayla's shoe and sock, which even as careful as I was, proved to be a painful experience for her. You could tell the ankle was already beginning to swell, but without x-rays it's almost impossible to tell a broken ankle from a sprained one. Luca, apparently a french Canadian with an affinity for stuffed animal backpacks, had a plethora of gear stuffed into the likeness of Kermit the Frog, including first aid supplies. He wrapped Mikayla's ankle with a bandage and gave some suggestions on what to do next... but the first step was obvious, get her out of the woods and back to the lodge. Runners were passing us during this entire interaction, but none did so without making sure we had everything under control and that Mikayla was, for all intents and purposes, not in any trouble. Luca and his fellow countrywoman, reluctantly left us to continue on in the race, promising to alert the next aid station of our situation.

Mikayla was in good spirits overall, I had known she was tough, but I had no idea to what extent until this dilemma. At this point she couldn't even stand without my help, let alone walk. We would also quickly find that using me or even a stick as a crutch would end up making the trek back an all day affair. Drawing off one of my favorite punishments that the drill instructors inflicted on me at Parris Island, I decided to use the fireman carry to transport my damsel in distress. We initially took the Canadiens ill conceived advice of going off course to short cut the distance back to the start, charging up a brush covered hill. The first consequence of the decision was courtesy of the mud, expertly hidden by mother nature under a thick layer of fall foliage. I was slipping with every step, my balance already compromised by the full-grown (sort of) human being slung over my shoulders. After a fall, which I was able to break with my knees, but not before dinging Mikayla's injured ankle off the ground, I questioned the decision to leave the trail. The other fear we had was due to the fact that it was hunting season and we could hear gunshots in the distance. The trail was marked and the hunters had been notified to stay away from the course, but we weren't on it anymore. At that realization we decided to hike back down the hill and retrace our steps, but in hindsight there was a third reason our original decision was a poor one... once the race staff was alerted, they certainly wouldn't have been looking for us somewhere that we were never supposed to be.

Never have I been happier that Mikayla
is the size of a 12 year old.
Back on the trail we both rested for a minute and once again tried to see if Mikayla could walk with a makeshift crutch. Still no dice, so she went back over my shoulders once again. I was trucking along, a man on a mission, stopping every so often to give both of us a rest. After a mile or so, we came within view of the loop entrance and stream crossing when we saw what we thought was the lead runner entering his second loop. It turned out to be Vince Rucci instead, the race director. He apologized for his delay in finding us. It turned out that once the report was received from Luca at the aid station that there was an injured runner, there was a miscommunication and the staff had gone there to pick us up. Once we crossed the stream, Vince called back to the lodge to have the park rangers send an ATV for transport. 

The plus side of waiting at the beginning of the loop was that we were afforded the opportunity to see the front runners coming through and also be entertained by Vince. We ended up being there long enough to see Rachel, who at the time was battling in 3rd place, Steve who was temporarily ahead of her, Nathan who was on a PR pace, and few other friends we have made over the last few years of our ultrarunning careers. 

Posing for a rendition of the
Wounded Warrior Project logo.
We waited there for a relatively long time, getting cold in our now static position. All three of us were getting impatient after several calls were made trying to figure out what was taking the rangers so long to get to our location. After literally an hour or more of waiting, we decided to continue on our own, carrying Mikayla back. If nothing else, it would make us warm. Not more than 5-minutes after we started, Perrin Peacock, who had passed us during the initial incident, was making his way to the completion of his first loop. He insisted on helping, switching off the duty of carrying Mikayla. The help was most welcomed and very appreciated. We now were making great time back to the lodge, without the assistance of the motorized vehicle we had still been hoping would meet us. Vince was apprehensive about helping with the carrying duties... I assume it didn't have anything to do with the fact that he is probably only an inch taller than the person we had to carry, but rather he didn't want to show off his beast strength.

When we got to the base of the last big climb before we hit the pavement where we could get Mikayla into a car, Vince let his pride get the best of him and took a shift. He insisted that using the piggy back method was the most efficient technique and thus carried out his plan. After about 50 yards, he had showed off enough that he decided to let Perrin take the reigns back. After a good haul, I took her again, and we were close enough to the end of the journey that it was time to thank Perrin for his assistance and let him get back to running. The woods turned to muddy grass which bordered the pavement leading to the start. Vince ran ahead to get a vehicle and I waited with Mikayla in the grass.

Our race had ended less than an hour from it's beginning, but the adventure lasted much longer. I certainly wish that Mikayla hadn't gotten hurt and that our day would have played out as we had planned, but I had made good on a promise. In previous events we had done together we had joked about something happening to Mikayla on the trail (more along the lines of an epic animal attack or a rapist puppeteer kidnapping her instead of a broken ankle) and I had told her not to worry, because I would just find her and carry her out of the woods. Though I did have some help from pretty amazing people, I did just that.

Here is a video of the race from Perrin Peacock (Mikayla and I can be seen at 2:27 and 3:42):

We ended up getting back to the lodge a few minutes before the leaders entered their final circuit. Plenty of time for us to get cleaned up, eat something, and see at least some of our friends finish. After carrying Mikayla through the hotel a few times, the staff finally noticed and provided us with a wheelchair, making the rest of our day a hell of a lot easier on my back.

There are a number of races since Laurel that I look back on with disappointment... poor efforts and missed opportunities. This race isn't at all one of them. Sure, I thought it was going to be different. I thought I would at the very least have another 50K finish on my resume, but that day it didn't really matter.

We are still in our 20's, both a decade away from our peak age for ultrarunning. No race is ever the same and expectations must be kept low at all times, because you really never know what could happen out there. Despite how crippling Mikayla's injury is (it turned out to be a severe sprain and a chipped bone), and how extensive the consequences have been, I don't think it would be worth trading the adventure of our day. What I got was a very unique chance to show Mikayla how much I love her, and we both have one hell of a story to tell.

This was to be my final race of 2011, and so that stands. I am currently attempting to get a lower abdomen pain taken care of that I have been ignoring since before Laurel. I suspect I will need surgery to repair a hernia, thus joining Mikayla in an unfortunate situation that prevents either of us from running for a length of time. Both of us have our sights set on Glacier Ridge in April. We plan on being fully healed and adequately trained for a late start in 2012. Mikayla will be attempting her first 50 miler and I will be after a new PR for that distance.

Stay tuned for my 2011 wrap-up blog!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Race Report: MMTR 2011

Apparently my body and mind thinks that the 2011 race season was only 6-months long. After posting some solid efforts in the early months, I went on a tear, shattering personal records and completing new distances that were previously beyond my reach. The pinnacle of my year was the Laurel Ultra, where in June I placed in the top 20. Laurel is a race that I failed to finish the year prior, but it's also the race that is essentially the reason I run ultras. After being atop that mountain (quite literally), I apparently made the unconscious decision to put on a suck-fest of performances and non-performances for my remaining races. Sure, I was overly ambitious with my crowded race schedule, but my failures since June are really starting to piss me off. A few were poorly thought out decisions not to run, a few were the result of last minute cold feet, and the rest were just terrible showings that I would never have expected of myself.

It started with the Dawg Gone Long Run 50-miler that I failed to find the starting line to... no big deal, it was a low key, cheap race, that was supposed to be more of a prep race for Burning River than anything else. At least that one wasn't my fault, but then when Burning River came along, despite being just hundreds of feet from the starting line on the morning of, I decided not to run at literally the last minute. Sure I was undertrained and nervous to go for my first buckle, but to be there and not even get out of the car? Shameful. Next on the docket was the YUTC 50K, which I skipped so I could pick up just 4-hours at work. That seems acceptable, but for half of a shift I missed a really good chance to better my 50k PR. Then in Columbus, where I fully expected to beat my marathon PR from Pittsburgh, I ended up running my slowest marathon to date (outside of the one where I pulled my groin a few years back). After a great 13.1, I just collapsed mentally and really gave up long before my body. Then there was the Marine Corps Marathon just a week later... no expectations or time goals even involved because we were running as a team to raise money for Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness. All I had to do was finish... easy, right? Well it may have been, except for the fact that I went out to the bar the night before with some of the other Marines, drank too much, and woke up the next morning 30-minutes after the start, never even making it to the starting line. What was happening to me? What IS happening to me?

All my chips were in for the Masochist. 50-miles was the only distance I had left this year without a new PR attached to it. The MMTR is a course I know well, and despite being undertrained as always, I was still in better shape going in than each of the previous years I had finished. It was a sure shot. Redemption for all the missed opportunities since June, just one race away... or so I had hoped.

 The severe lack of training might seem like a big deal except that my best Masochist was ran without any miles in the two months leading up to it and I was smoking about a pack a day at the time (I actually was smoking a cigarette with my brother at the starting line). I wasn't confident in good training as much as I was confident that I had trained more than the last two years.

My good friend and fellow Masochist alumni, David Emch, volunteered to crew for me, which was particularly helpful since my favorite sidekick, Mikayla, couldn't make the trip because of work. I did everything right the day before. We got to Lynchburg early enough for me to hydrate and do some last minute carb-loading at Olive Garden, get all my gear and supplies prepped, a plan in place for David to assist me, and I actually had a fair amount of rest. I don't always prep for races so efficiently, but when I do, it certainly reduces my stress level going into the event. I felt good and was certain this was where things would turn back around.

Waking up at 4am, I had the typical race morning butterflies, but everything was smooth. I woke up with more than enough time to eat something small, get a coffee, and get to the race start with an hour to spare. It was a chilly morning with the temperature just around 32 degrees, but not so cold that running wouldn't warm me up. I chose my place in the middle of the pack as the clock neared 6:30am. My plan was to resist the temptation of running the opening road section too fast. I kept an easy pace and though everything in me wanted to run them, I walked the hills. Running down to the first aid station where the course finally heads to the trail just as the sun was coming up, I was excited to kick some dirt. Knowing my tendency to go out too fast and to trash my quads on the descents, I was extremely conservative. I wanted all the energy I could save for the two major climbs on the course. The plan was to play it safe until after Long Mountain and then shift gears to hopefully run a negative split for the second half of the race.

Plumbing issue at the hotel, everyone went to a nearby
construction site to use the port-a-potties.

I was passing a fair amount of runners and moving up in the field, but I knew I was still going slower than in years past. Even though I was sticking to my plan, I hated it. Typically I latch on to groups of runners and piggy back off their pace until I find a better group, only straying when I know they are holding me back or going faster than I feel comfortable with. Going out as timidly as I did, I never found a group of runners that I could gauge well. As much as I know about racing at this point, I should rethink this strategy. It works out with marathons, because they are regulated, sterile, and have guaranteed pace groups. In an ultra, there are too many variables... in the course, in the runner, in everything.

Using my mix of water, chia seeds, and maca powder, I was staying well hydrated and didn't have much muscle fatigue or other body issues for the first 14 miles. When I saw David at an aid station, I asked, "I'm going a bit slow huh?" His reply was, "Just a little bit. Just be consistent." Lingering at aid stations is never part of my planning unless it's for a gear issue, so I quickly headed back out, knowing I would soon reach the first big climb with Long Mountain.

Long Mountain is basically a gigantic switchback that brings you up about a thousand feet. You're running up a gravel road, trying to get to what you think is the top. When you get there the road turns... and keeps going up. This happens enough times that you begin to believe God is playing a cruel trick on you. It's not so much steep as it is just long. You can, and almost have to, run sections of this to make it bearable. In years past I have always navigated this section poorly, not running nearly enough. This time around I was planning on strict 40/20 intervals, so I would end up running at least 2/3 of the climb. This worked until the first bend when I began to notice some pain in my left ankle when I would push off. General ankle pain is no big deal, if you're running long distances over uneven terrain, there is a high probability that your body isn't going to like it, and tweaking your ankle a bit along the way isn't at all uncommon. This pain was different though and it was also familiar.

Just in case you were wondering why they
call it the Masochist.

Last year the day after the Masochist my right ankle swelled up and ached like I had ninja kicked a brick wall. I hadn't remembered anything in particular that I had done to injure it during the race, but nevertheless, there I was with a bum ankle. After taking a break from running, icing it, and popping some ibuprofen twice a day the pain persisted. I eventually went to the doctor who suggested that it may be a hairline fracture. They fixed me up with a brace, some painkillers, and a command to not run on it for at least 6 weeks. The only problem with not running for 6-weeks, other than the fact I am hard headed and would probably do it anyhow, was that I had planned on helping my friend Debbie complete her first ultra just 3 weeks after the Masochist. It should go without saying that I ended up running a 50K on the very much still injured ankle. It was a bad choice for my ankle, but considering that I met Mikayla there and that I helped birth a new ultra runner getting Debbie across the finish line, I would do it again. I certainly slowed the healing, but my ankle was better by the time my first race of 2011 came around.

Now, a year removed from the original injury, it came back to haunt me. I was in a good deal of pain, trying to alter my stride to negate any amount of it that I could, but I was repeatedly reduced to a less than brisk walking pace. Now instead of moving up in the field, I was drifting further and further back. People, that I at one point probably had at least a 30-minute lead on, were catching me. I hoped to just make it to the top of the mountain so I could reassess the situation, pop a few painkillers, and if I were to be dealt a new set of cards I would try and make some money on the descent to the half way point.

I wasn't in the best of spirits when I reached my self created checkpoint. An ultra virgin, Hollie, who I noticed was struggling with me on the climb asked me where the next aid station was. I told her, knowing, by the look on her face, that she would be dropping out at the half way point. On the way down the back side of Long Mountain my ankle was much worse than on the way up. If the painkillers did anything for me, I certainly hadn't noticed. I started out working the downhill like it was business as usual, but it wasn't long until I realized it was anything but that. Hollie, who I had passed initially, caught up to me again. I started asking her about her running resume, and telling her about some of my experiences on this course and others, thinking maybe it would give her the drive to keep going on after the bag drop. I never brought up my suspicions that she wanted to drop, but I was beginning to share that unspoken thought. I was having a hell of a time keeping up with her, even though she was probably experiencing a new darkness that was probably unfamiliar to her based upon her previous running adventures. Then what was disheartening for both of us, was the onslaught of runners speeding past. My only goal now was to make it to the buses where I knew David would be. Any decision to be made could wait until then, and even though I was falling back, the generous cut-off time would give me a nice chunk of time to weigh my situation.

When the road started to wind through farmland and I could see houses up ahead, I knew I was close to the valley floor between Long and Buck Mountains, but more importantly, the half way mark. Closing in on the last half mile, I saw David running up the road to me. He knew something was wrong, because we both were expecting me a whole lot sooner than I arrived. I sat down in the grass, started to change out my wet socks for dry ones and wrap a brace on my ankle, while David retrieved a handful of Pringles and some Mountain Dew for me. He was all about speed of service and getting me back on hunt, but I was mulling over the heavy decision to either drop right then, or see how far my bum ankle could carry me up Buck Mountain. I told him what I was thinking, embarrassed that the thoughts in my head had become words spoken. I decided to drop. David got up to tell the race official, but I stopped him. I still had time enough to reverse my decision if I wanted to. Several minutes passed in silence until Hollie came over, already changed over to normal clothes to tell me good luck. Her race was already over, and mine was about to be. I got up and walked over to the official to tell him I was dropping out.

My day was done, after less than 5 hours on the course. There were plenty of people still out there though, plugging away at the miles of trail ahead, no one had finished yet. I checked with David to see where the leaders were, and then we double checked with the official to get the best estimate of who was where. Not to my surprise at all, fellow Ohian and friend, Sandi Nypaver had a big lead in the women's race, with some thinking she had a shot at the course record. Eric Grossman was leading a tight pack of the guys, who were at the time, somewhere on the Loop. With my DNF already cemented in place, the new race was to get to the finish line in time to see the winners.

We arrived in Montebello in a much different fashion than I had wanted, in my car rather than on foot. None of the other drops had come to the finish line yet, so when I went into the general store near the finish line I had to begrudgingly explain to a number of spectators that no, I hadn't broken Geoff Roes's course record. I briefly spoke to Clark Zealand, who was setting up the time clock, making a promise that I would return to Virginia and someday have a performance there that I would be proud of. I also finally got the chance to meet Shaun Pope, who I have admiringly (and jealously) watched from afar as he has smashed course records all over the Ohio ultrarunning circuit.

Eric Grossman, getting better with age.
We had gotten there with plenty of time, but didn't have to wait terribly long before Eric Grossman came flying down the road for his 7th Masochist finish and 3rd win with a time of 6:58:22! Hot on his trail though was Brian Rusiecki at 6:59:34. Both runners are now top-10 all time finishers for the Masochist. Even though I didn't get to finish my 3rd MMTR, it was awesome to see people finish that I will probably always be behind. David and I were sticking around to see if Sandi could hold her lead. She made us wait a little longer than I had wanted (I was hoping she would get the course record) coming across the line 12th overall, winning the women's race, and securing the 5th fastest MMTR time by a woman with 8:05:11!

Sandi, rockstarring it to the finish line!

Of course looking back to last weekend, I wish things had played out differently, I wish I would have been able to finish, and wish that I had been able to get a new PR. What I need to remind myself though is that I had a great race season overall, with great memories and great people. Even with all the mishaps in the second half, it all adds to my experience and will make me a better runner and a better person. The title of this blog is, "Life is Like an Ultra" because the highs and lows and the pain and elation that come with both. This years Masochist was certainly a low, but my race isn't over, not by a long shot. On to the next one gents!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Race Report: The 2011 Nationwide Insurance Columbus Marathon

The Background

By far the easiest course of any race I have ever run, I signed up for the 2011 edition of the Columbus Marathon with self imposed expectation. Last year was my first time running a race on my home turf, and though I was undertrained, I unexpectedly ran what was then my fastest marathon time to date. (I later improved in Pittsburgh.) It was a great experience, full of familiar faces, running on streets that I see every day. Racing a location you are familiar with and have trained in makes the whole run so personal and emotional that you fall back in love with the same streets you have grown weary of. I cannot tell you how many miles of running I have done on High Street, but I'm certain it's close to a thousand. Running that same route with thousands of other runners and cheering crowds rejuvenates you whether you want it to or not. Coming to those realizations last October birthed more romanticized notions within me than I ever thought possible in respect to a road race. So with all that said, I was looking for something special with this year's outing.

Traditionally, my training falls apart around the end of June and doesn't show much promise until mid-September. I tried to counter that this year by loading my race schedule, thinking that I wouldn't slack off when I always had another race around the corner. I was wrong. I missed 3 races that I had signed up for, a 50K, a 50-miler, and what was to be my first 100-miler, Burning River. The problem though, was not just that I wasn't racing, I wasn't running at all.

Yeah... about that.

Those 44 miles in September had me hopeful though. I hadn't gained any weight, I was still at a relatively high level of fitness, and I was still just as fast as I was earlier in the year in my short mileage. Though I often gawk at 26.2 miles because I am an ultra guy, I sure as hell don't consider that to be short mileage, so there was a little worry over my endurance.

On top of my drop off in training for this race, I also dropped the ball for the charity I had agreed to play a major role with for this year. I had unwisely taken on a responsibility that I ended up not being able to fulfill with Susan G Komen. Starting out strong with grandiose and what I thought were innovative ideas, they all fell apart. Like most great things do, our Marathon for the Cure team survived despite my failures, and I do believe it ended up being one of the more successful years. This had little to do with me, and much more to do with individuals stepping up to the challenge, none of which I am more proud of than my friend Debbie Talbott who as the #2 fundraiser, raised $1,450 of the total $17,902!

Despite my shortcomings for the team, my involvement with Komen did do two very important things for me personally. The first is that I was able to honor my Mom, who is currently battling Stage 4 cancer, by naming a mile marker of the marathon after her. The second was that my involvement was enough to lure my parents out of Pennsylvania to pay their first visit to Columbus.

So to summarize... my late training had enough quality to give me hope but it was not extensive enough to give me complete confidence. In the realm of my charity work for this event, I felt like an utter failure, and to be completely honest I couldn't wait for this marathon to be over so I could stop feeling guilty about it. However the biggest thing for me was my parents. They have never seen me run, not even in high school track. I, despite all my independence, desire their approval and want them to be proud of the things I do. I had quite a few heated conversations with my Dad trying to convince him to make the trip here to see me run and having convinced them, I wanted this race to be perfect.

Race Eve

Friday afternoon and Saturday morning I was slotted to cover the Komen booth at the marathon expo. I was planning on my parents to arrive mid-afternoon on Saturday, expecting to have time between my obligations and their arrival to clean up the apartment. They called me at 11:15 AM saying they were 10-minutes from my place. I was supposed to be at the booth till Noon. This had me in a panic, because there was no way I could beat them home even with leaving the expo when they called. I phoned Mikayla who was also anticipating a bit more time to get ready, which sent her into a frenzied last minute preparation while I doubled the speed limit through residential Columbus.

The photo enforced red light on N 4th St and Chittenden
took this picture on my way home. Luckily they didn't get a good
picture of my license plate.

My parents came hungry and wanted to get a taste of the fine selection of cuisine we have here in the big city, so we took them to Bob Evans. After lunch I was planning on taking my parents around the city, taking them on a brief tour with the specific intention of showing them where they could watch the marathon. My Mom, who as I mentioned is battling cancer, became extremely sick due to some recent changes in her medication and treatment, so the tour was cut short and we took her back to the hotel to get some rest. Our intention was to meet back up later for dinner, but she wasn't well enough to go out again. We all hoped that she would be well enough by morning that she would be able to go to the race, but my Dad called me late that night to tell me they would head back that night because she was getting worse. There was no argument to be made with her fragility and poor health clearly on display to Mikayla and I earlier in the day, but I was certainly disappointed. I stopped caring as much about the race almost instantly. I had just a small amount of motivation to perform well and now it was on it's way back to Pennsylvania with my parents. I went to sleep early, planning on getting to the start line well before the gun at 7:30 AM the next morning.

I woke up the next morning feeling pretty fresh compared to most race mornings... my typical pre race night involves one too many gin and tonics and sleeping for 3 hours in a tent. After getting my gear together and making sure my water and chia gel was all topped off, Mikayla drove me downtown as close as we could get without being in a mess of traffic. This was the third time Mikayla has been with me during the final moments leading up to a race and I couldn't ask for a better person to see me off. She makes me feel like a better runner and a better person than I actually am, and that morning I needed it more than ever. We made plans for meeting up at the finish, and I jogged down the street to the starting line to join the 20,000 runners on East Broad Street. Somehow Adrienne Anderson, ended up next to me  in the corral, just as she did in Pittsburgh. It's always good to see someone I know at marathons, because the crowd is typically so large, you have an awkward sensation of being lonely in a crowd. Yet another reason I prefer ultras over marathons.

By the time the gun had gone off, I had decided I was going for a 3:20 right out of the gate. I had nothing to lose anyhow. As I dodged slower runners, I found the 3:25 pace group and settled into my stride with them. My plan at the time was to stay with that group until I either couldn't maintain the pace or I hit mile 18 where I would pick up speed if I had any left. The trek down East Broad into Bexley brought back memories of the year prior, and the familiarity made the running more comfortable. As we wound are way into German Village I thought back to how I ran into my friend Tad at mile 9 in 2010 and how that was basically the sole reason I ran a PR. I was hoping to run into some familiar face to give me a similar boost, but I would have to wait. As we turned onto South High I felt alone, more of me was in my mind than on the street. In ultras being in that kind of pattern can ruin your race, it had never happened to me during a marathon until then, but apparently it can ruin them as well. I noticed my thoughts creeping to negative things and in an attempt to stop the process I struck up a conversation with a man who I noticed was wearing a Green Jewel 50K shirt... a fellow ultra guy. I was looking for some happy thoughts, but by no fault of his, I found the opposite. We started talking about how much we hate running marathons, road races, going this fast, not having junk food at the aid stations. Then his conclusion was the death blow to my motivation... "All these things are just training runs man, just really expensive group training runs." With the Masochist looming in November, my spirits down, and nothing to really run with my heart for, I almost decided to take the turn with the half marathoners and call it quits.

At that point I was still on pace to crush my PR, averaging 7:47/mile but I didn't have it in me to go much further at the kind of pace. When we reached the corner of 9th and High where I had lived for the last two years, I stopped running, it was just before mile 15. I walked two blocks before running again. As we ran through campus I deflated. I wouldn't even make it a mile at a time without stopping again. The mile marker named after my Mom was supposed to be the 18th, right at my proverbial and infamous "wall". I had less than 3 miles to get to that point. I wasn't willing to run a completely bum marathon just yet. I was telling myself I would be happy with a 3:45. I alternated running and walking, planning on going back to a solid effort for the last 8.2 miles.

On campus I ran into Mike Patton whom I first met last December when we ran through Columbus together during the Nypaver's "I Believe" run. We have seen each other at various races since and I know how much faster he is than me, so I was surprised to see him all the back where I was. He was helping his brother finish his first marathon since a surgery, which explained his slower than normal pace. I started to run more to keep him in eye sight. I could make something of this marathon yet, I was getting motivated!

Then as the course turned onto John Herrick, I knew mile 18 was soon. This was where my parents had planned on seeing me, right at the mile marker that bore my Mom's name. I saw the marker ahead, too far away to read yet. As I drew closer, running faster as it came into view, my jaw dropped. It wasn't named after my Mom. I had switched markers with someone who was running the half marathon and I suddenly was angry. They hadn't made the switch. I passed the marker with her name without a thought or notice, expecting it much later. I was angry. I stopped running. I didn't care about anything now. I almost ran to my house, which at this point was a hell of a lot closer than the finish line.

Some of the rational thoughts in my mind prevailed. Why not just finish? Just another marathon finish to add to my credentials, who cares what time the finish is. I ran/walked again, not really putting forth any amount of effort. When I got to mile 22 I instantly regretted my defeatist mindset... the marker had my Mom's name on it. I was glad I wasn't walking when I saw it, but I wished I had gotten there about 40-minutes sooner than I had. My quads weren't cooperating with my complete will, but as long as they weren't locked up I was running the rest of the way.

As I had gone along I was passed by each pace group... first was 3:35, then 3:45. I had no intention of running anything slower than a 4-hour marathon, so I just ran a comfortable pace thinking if 3:55 caught me, I would suck it up and finish with them. I made it to Victorian Village just a few miles shy of the finish line when the 4:00 pacers caught me. There was no 3:55 group. I took off again to stay ahead. The walking had my legs tight, so I wasn't setting any records, but I was staying ahead of the 4-hour group. When I crossed the finish line and saw my time, I realized the pacers were off. I finished ahead of them, but not faster than 4-hours. I checked in with my second worst marathon performance to date: 4:01:04

It wasn't my day, that's for certain. Even if I had put in the training I should have, I'm not sure my mind would have been sound enough for a 3:20 finish. Stoic as I can be sometimes, having my parents so close to seeing me run, and then not being able to, took its toll. I hope my Mom is well enough some day to see me do what I love, but until then I need to refocus my running and do it because it's truly a passion. I run for a lot of reasons, sometimes differing from race to race, training run to training run, but I never knew how much an audience of just two people meant to me.

The day was not wasted by any means. I ran a solid 15 miles at a faster pace than I have ever run that distance. I struggled in my mind for 11 miles more intensely than ever before and made it through. I was a small part of a great team that raised almost $18K for breast cancer research. Despite them not being able to see me run, I saw that my parents cared enough about what I do to make the effort of coming to Columbus with the intention of supporting me.  I saw how supportive Mikayla is of me, despite my performance, being there for me (and my Mom) the whole weekend. I got to meet some cool people and be on the course for some my friends who put up great times. David outpaced me for a new marathon PR of 3:58 and Debbie shattered her previous best by running a 4:13!

I finish out the year with three more races. The Marine Corps Marathon on the 30th, the Masochist on November 6th where I will be looking to PR at the 50-mile distance, and then the Bigfoot 50K where last year I met the girl I'm in love with!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Race That Never Was

A few weeks ago when I was fresh off my first finish of the Laurel Ultra I saw Burning River looming in the distance, with a longer gap in my race schedule than I've had all year. I couldn't resist the temptation of a local (and cheap) 50 miler at Caesar's Creek State Park to quench my appetite, so I signed up for the Dawg Gone Long Run that was to take place this morning.

I didn't get off work till 11PM last night and with the race taking place an hour and a half from Columbus, this left me little time to sleep. After getting home and making some chia gel I racked out and set my alarm for 4:30AM. The park was a straight shot down I-71 South and not at all hard to get to. I arrived on sight just before 6AM, with plenty of time to find where we'd be stepping off (or so I thought). I figured I would see signs, ribbons, or something of that nature once I got close, so I played my cards on the fly.

Yeah, some balloons and an arrow
would have been nice.
I followed my GPS directions, which took me to a place that looked like the site where one of the Friday the 13th movies were filmed. It was a single lane dirt road with overgrown trees leading me to a rusty fence that had a bunch of faded warning signs telling me I was trespassing. I wasn't too worried, after all, I still had 30 minutes to spare. Mikayla called me around that time to try to weasel her way out of running the race, which I wasn't going to let her do, but she was also in the area, just as lost as I was. I then looked up the race website for some clarification and used the exact coordinates on the page to plug into my phone. It said that I was only 5-minutes away, not bad, I could find it and then guide Mikayla in once I was there.

I asked one of the locals for directions,
but all this asshole did was stare at me.
The new directions took me to a random spot on the side of the highway, no one in sight, runners or otherwise. I started going down random roads that led to different parts of the park, but to no avail. It became apparent that I wasn't going to make it to the start in time and Mikayla's less than stellar navigational skills weren't serving her any better. Even after the clock struck 6:30AM I spent another 10 minutes searching without any sign of hope. 

Mikayla didn't really want to run in the first place and to be honest, I wasn't overly excited to do it either. This wasn't the Masochist, Laurel, or some other big race... it was just some junk miles to lead into Burning River. We decided we were done searching and went to McDonalds instead. 

I went to the bathroom and came
out to this. Mikayla has a thing
for clowns I guess?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Race Report: Laurel Highlands Ultra 2011

A Score to Settle

Several weeks before I ran this year's installment of the Laurel Ultra I was having a conversation with one of my friends who has, by my estimation, suffered my acquaintance many more years than most. I feel like I have known Hannah forever, which at my 25-years, equates to about a decade. We were talking about the upcoming race because her husband Ned, who happens to be one of my best friends, was planning on pacing me for one of the latter sections of the course. She made a statement of fact that I was well aware of, but it encompassed with a great degree of clarity, just how important finishing this race was to me. She said, "You've been wanting to do this since I've known you." She was right.

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, not very far from the Laurel Highlands, and it was a rare weekend in the Summer that you wouldn't find me hiking a trail or camping somewhere. I love the outdoors, I love physical challenges, and I love the opportunities I had in the area I grew up to exploit those passions. I first thru-hiked the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail as a senior in high school, completing the 70 miles with my friend Alec in just 3-days. At the time, I would have already considered myself a runner, often taking to the roads and trails around my house as well as being on the track team at school. What I didn't know was that there was such a such thing as an ultramarathon, it didn't even occur to me that people would attempt to run anything further than 26.2 miles, because in my mind it just seemed impossible. So when Alec and I finished our hike, proud of how fast we had done the distance, I was shocked to learn about the Laurel Ultra that takes place on the same trail... not only shocked but intrigued. I knew pretty much from the moment I had heard of it, that I wanted to do it. I became obsessed with trail running and ultras, haphazardly beginning training for something I had only a vague concept of. My decision to join the Marine Corps and then my subsequent life choices derailed my dream for literally years, until 2010 when I finally decided to give it a go.

Last year's effort was a terrible affair. I was grossly undertrained, somewhat injured, and almost completely unmotivated. I went in with doubt and came out defeated, dropping at the very first checkpoint, mile 19. The race that is my reason for running ultras, the race that is my personal  Holy Grail, the one I had always dreamed of being able to run, became my very first DNF. I was upset and angry, but had no one to really fault outside of myself. In conversations with other people and even in my own thoughts, I have blamed it on the exceedingly hot weather that day, blamed it on my stomach issues during the race, and pointed to the 50% finishing rate and the elevation gains in the first 19 miles as excuses for failing. All of that is garbage though. I was simply overconfident and didn't train enough. The course I knew so well from hiking it so many times, kicked my ass fair and square, just like a bully in elementary school.

Read last years race report here!

This year was different, I feared this race and never fully believed with any certainty that I could actually pull it off. So I trained. Every race I scheduled this year was meant to minimize down time where I would normally be tempted to laziness. I logged more miles of racing and more miles of trail in the first 6 months of this year than the last two put together. I completely changed my diet so that I could become more efficient for longer distances and recover faster so that I could run more often. I studied the course, read books on running, and talked to people who are better and more experienced than me.

If I was going to fail this time, I wouldn't let it be for a lack of preparation. I joked (just kidding, I was serious) that the only way I was leaving the course before the finish line would be in the back of an ambulance or in a life flight helicopter. Last years failure became the driving force to what I hoped would be this years success.

The Lead In

Because misery loves company, I had been trying to convince several of my friends to attempt Laurel with me pretty much since last year. During all that time I couldn't find a single person willing to dance with the devil until a few months ago, when I coaxed my good friend and frequent partner in crime, Mikayla, into signing up. I was actually a bit worried that she actually agreed to it, remembering how badly it had broken me off the year prior, but if anyone I know could pull it off on sheer bad-assery it would be her. She has run some pretty serious terrain and finished races when she probably should have been resting injuries. See The Capon Valley Race Report* I really admire her determination and passion for ultra running and think that she can be all legit-like one day if she keeps at it (and I know she will).

This is pretty much what she looked like.
We left Columbus the day prior to the race, headed towards my hometown of Indiana, PA. I was planning on making the trip as leisurely as possible, giving us plenty of time to get settled in and make last minute preparations for race day. It's a good thing I gave us the extra time, because my counterpart's disgusting habit of chewing tobacco caused her to get violently sick, throwing up out of the window of my moving car. Not only did the vomit streak down the side of my vehicle, forcing us to stop at a car wash, but it also hit the windshield of the car behind us, nearly causing a crash. Add this to the reasons I oft regret being friends with West Virginians! After spending a few hours at my sisters house, visiting her and her family, we finally had to leave because the children were terrified of Mikayla. I don't ever recall seeing a midget as a child, but I'm certain that had such an event taken place, I would have been traumatized forever, so their fear was understandable.

We traveled to the neighboring city of Johnstown, PA which is very close to where the race would end, for the pre-race dinner and briefing. Getting there an hour early provided me the opportunity to hit up a bar that was adjacent to the restaurant so that I could get my usual pre-race gin and tonic. The server promptly filled my order, but Mikayla's fake ID that says she is 26 didn't fly and they refused her alcohol. She has been lying to me about her age since we met, but in my judgement I don't think she is a day past 13. Her true age explains why she isn't yet aware of her "cycle" that resulted in my car needing to be steam cleaned after the last road trip.

Runners began to show up for the meeting, so shortly after my close call to being cited for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, we headed next door. It was there that we ran into Donnie, a really great guy who we had met a month earlier at the Capon Valley race. We had had several conversations with him there about ultrarunning and specifically Laurel, which he was volunteering at. Mikayla and I had talked in between then and Laurel about how Donnie was the guy who we really wanted to see during the race, because he was in charge of the final aid station. Make it to him at Laurel and the deal would be all but sealed. We met some other runners too and had some casual conversations as a side to our pasta dinner. Some of the items addressed in the briefing were a bit disconcerting to Mikayla, particularly bear and rattlesnake sightings. Last time I ran into a bear I was at Union and I woke up the next morning with a phone number on a note in my pocket that said, "Call me anytime to come over for cigars and cocktails!" I made it through that encounter with success, so I wasn't worried about it for the race, I just wondered why they would be out of their natural habitat. Out of the new people we met that night, two stick out in my memory. One was 67-year old Gary Knipling, who is older than my grandparents. Looking at his profile on UltraSignUp.com, it looks like he has logged more miles in ultramarathons alone than if you took all of my training and races together from my entire life and quadrupled it. This guy, who is a senior citizen, was bouncing off the walls at the pre race dinner, excited to complete the Laurel for the second time in his life to add to the dozens upon dozens of races he has finished. He is now one of my personal heroes and I can't help to hope that when I approach age 70 that I'll still be kicking trail and making guys a third of my age look like wimps. The second memorable encounter was with a man we were sitting at the table with during dinner, who was taking great pride in being the very last finisher in the 2010 race. I dropped out that same day, so I wasn't about to mock his achievement, but being the last finisher wasn't the incredible part of his story. The incredible part was that he had suffered a massive heart attack before that race and his concern wasn't so much about his health as it was to finish the race again. These are the kind of people who run these things and I'm glad to be among them, with ultras, everyone has a story to tell, but these guys were freaking epic.

After the briefing, Mikayla and I decided we would camp at the finish line and take the 3:30 AM shuttle to the start line. Everyone else who showed up to stay the night had trucks or SUV's that they were bedding down in. There was some question as to whether we were allowed to set up tents right there and we were the only ones that had the plan of pitching down, so in our nervousness of not wanting to be thwarted by a park ranger we waited till nightfall to stake in. We spent the remaining daylight prepping our gear for the morning so we would have to spend as little time as possible getting ready when the bus came. By the time we had everything ready and our shelter was set up, it was past 11. This meant we only had a handful of hours to rest. As we struggled to fall asleep, the weather turned and a nasty thunderstorm hit us head on. The sound inside the tent was booming and water started to seep in on the floor. For me this was all part of the adventure, because what kind of ultra would this be if I got the proper amount of sleep?

Not quite this bad, but close.

Our alarms went off just before 3am and it was still pouring down outside. After some initial hesitation of braving the storm we both got up, changed into our race clothes, and tore down camp. The area became busy with runners who had stayed elsewhere coming into drop off their cars and get on the shuttle bus. We got onto the dark school bus for the hour and some change ride to Ohiopyle, which invoked memories of riding the bus to school growing up. My family lived on the edge of the school district line so it was always dark when I would catch the bus. Mikayla and I naturally posted up in the very back, because that's where the cool kids sit. It was unfortunate though because instead of catching a little extra sleep I had to endure the conversation of a coastie sitting in front of me who was apparently trying to pick up the chick across the aisle. No disrespect meant, but talking about your deployment with the Coast Guard like it was a scene from Black Hawk Down is a little far fetched. Nevertheless I would have been thoroughly impressed if his efforts to get the girls number were successful. I would make a joke about the Coast Guard at this point, but I don't know any because they don't even rate a rivalry. Another guy sitting near us on the bus asked Mikayla and I if we were nervous because he had noticed "an exchange of cutting glances" between us at the dinner. I don't remember doing this but it was probably true. I don't think it was nervousness though, I was probably waiting for her to somehow force our departure from the dinner like she did when she scared my sister's kids and later got us kicked out of the bar for her fake ID.

Once we arrived at the race start I almost felt like a celebrity. A man whom I've never seen in my life came up to us and was like, "Wait... aren't you Joe Shearer???" My response was, "Why yes, yes I am." Then he accused me of ignoring his messages on Twitter, but with such a large fan base how could I possibly respond to every message? I then signed his chest with a sharpie and took some photos shaking his hand. After that we staged our drop bags, took advantage of some coffee and donuts at the table and made a last minute check on our gear. During this time we saw the mythical figure that I put on par with unicorns... "Gatorade Man". Last year when I had gone balls to the wall in the opening 19 miles I was repeatedly trading spots with a slightly husky man wearing a pair of basketball shorts, beat up road shoes, and tube socks. He started the race shirtless and the only accessories he carried were two full size bottles of Gatorade. Despite his atypical appearance, this man was a freaking beast on the trail, going up steep climbs looked like he was running on an escalator.

To be filed with with my extensive collection
of photos of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.
The Run Down

Time wound down, a prayer was said by the race director, then the start was signaled and we were off. After a very short run on the road we bounded into the woods. I was tempted to jet ahead with the lead pack, but I knew better than to do that after going out so fast last year. To force myself to be conservative, I joined a small group of runners who had a nice slow pace and were strictly walking hills. If I could just get through the massive climbs in the beginning of the course, the rest would be pretty much runnable, all I'd have to do then is put it on cruise control for the rest of the day. The pack I teamed up with was being paced by Jamie Summerlin, a fellow Marine who is also running Burning River next month. I was really glad to meet the guy because now I'm getting really excited about the possibility of joining him for part of a transcontinental run from Oregon to Maryland that he is doing to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that I have also done quite a bit of work for in the past. To check out his plan visit http://www.runforwwp.com

I kept pace with the group despite often thinking of leaving them behind when we would come to a downhill stretch where I could have exploited my strengths a little more. I did this because I was avoiding being overzealous and I have read more than one account of runners storming down hills only to find themselves with trashed quads later on.

My original plan for nutrition and hydration was to eat a gel every 45 minutes for the duration of the race along with two Endurolyte capsules, drinking water as needed and using a gel mixture of water, chia seeds, and goji berries (I call it hippie water) as a backup. When it came time for the strategy to be implemented for the first time I was disgusted by the thought of eating a gel, so I did a shot of my hippie water instead. Several of my gels that I had safety pinned to my hydration belt were ripped off on the trail, so I saw it as a sign for change.

Heading into the first aid station at Maple Summit (11.6 Miles) all I needed was a refill on water. I thought that Jamie had left before me, so my goal was to catch back up to him. Little did I know I had actually left first so I was chasing someone who I wasn't going to catch. After a short time I caught up to two runners who I then decided to pace off of. They were talking to each other as I approached from behind and by their conversation topic I started to wonder if I was going too fast again. They were talking about some pretty serious ultras they had run, one mentioned how he was shooting for 16 hours for this race, and the other relayed a comment his daughter made to him before the race. "Daddy are you going to finish in the top 25?" His answer? "Yes sweetheart, I always finish in the top 25." These guys were more experienced runners than me and I knew it might be a gamble to try to stay with them. At this point the major hills were almost all over with, except for the climb into the first checkpoint at 19.3 miles that was all too vivid in my memory, so I decided I would see how it played out for a while, and promised myself that I would drop back if I needed to slow it up. To soothe my fears I asked Paul (the 16 hour guy) if this is how he usually starts for a 16-hour finish. To my relief he said he was taking it really slow until the bridge detour that takes us on the road for 7-miles and then he would kick it up a notch from there. The pace felt good and was more than manageable so I stayed with them. During this stretch I reached down to umm adjust myself, and to my great surprise I had been carrying two Clif Bars in the liner of my shorts since the start of the race. I put them in my waistband with the intention of eating them for breakfast before the start and had wondered what had happened to them. With the mystery solved, I planned on dropping the Clif Bars and all of my gel packs off at the next aid station.

Coming into the first checkpoint the memory of defeat from the year prior was thick in the air. I felt great this time and even had gotten there 18 minutes faster than 2010. At this point I was sitting happily in 19th place. Stuart and I left the checkpoint together, while Paul stayed back to make some gear adjustments. All I had needed from the station was to drop my unwanted cargo and top my water off again, so it was a quick stop. Just a few miles into the next section we passed an overlook that I decided to stop at to relieve myself. Stuart stopped too and we both agreed that sights like this were one of the best reasons to run these things (the overlook, not me pissing). 

Reason number 1,026 of how trail running
is better than road running.
We left the overlook trading places back and forth with one of the relay runners. Stuart slowed up a bit and I passed him. Even though I was now ahead of both runners I had been worried about keeping pace with, I was feeling great and was completely comfortable with my decision. I figured I would see them again anyways, after all we still had a long day of running ahead of us. Hitting the next aid station I did another quick refill of my bottles and I also downed a few cups of ginger ale, one of my favorite in race drinks. At this point I had run the equivalent of a really difficult trail marathon, had no stomach problems, no cramps, no pain, and no other issues whatsoever. Given that I vomited at the finish line of Pittsburgh a couple weeks before and could barely walk to my car, this was a great sign, even though I was only a third of the way done.

At the Seven Springs station, I started keeping pace with Prasad, a teacher from DC. It was good to have a new conversation partner and someone to pace with as I hadn't seen anyone for quite some time. We plugged away at the miles and miles of very gently rolling trail, and it seemed like no time before we hit the next aid station and checkpoint at mile 32.3, just after the 50K stopping point. I again got more water, which I had been going through much faster than I had planned for. Less than 4-miles after the checkpoint we would take a detour because of the bridge outage and run a solid 7 or 8 miles of road until getting back on the trail. I made it to the road just fine, but then I had my worst section of the race. 

I hate running roads, so much so, that I plan on almost completely cutting out marathons for next year and only running trail ultras. After 36-miles of trail, the last thing I wanted to do was take the detour. I would have rather they installed a temporary zip line across the turnpike or make us hand glide, anything but running on pavement. I don't know what it was, but I really started to fall apart and get worried. I was walking a ridiculous amount that I really should have been running. It was at this time I saw Paul coming fast behind me, then he passed and was never to be seen again. His plan was to torch the second half, and when I saw him it looked like that plan was coming to full fruition. Shortly after that, Prasad and Stuart also passed me. Then apparently without the tree cover I was sweating more and so with that, drinking more too, and I ran out. A lovely relay girl was passing by and asked if I need anything, so I took some water and she told me that there was a small aid station that wasn't listed in the course description just a little ways down the road. This was a huge morale boost, and though I still didn't feel very good, I started running more just to make it to the water stop. When I got there I dumped a few cups of water over my head, refilled my bottles, ate a ridiculous amount of watermelon and a few peanut butter cups before heading back down the road. The pavement was unrelenting and monotonous, and my legs were feeling every strike. All I wanted to do was get back to dirt. On the main road I received some cheering up from a fellow Brooks guy, Sean, who I had see running the relay in the first section and was now crewing for a friend. I was the perfect distance in front of his runner, that he ended up pretty much crewing for me the entire latter half of the race as well. Every aid station I hit after that, he was refilling my bottles, getting me whatever I needed and pumping me back up. He was a good guy and I hope I run into him again.

Once I got onto the back road that led back to the other side of the turnpike, there were a lot more runners in my view, so I started to run more out of the simple fact that I could see competition. I started to finally catch people again instead of being caught, which was huge for my psyche. I knew I was close  to the next aid station, I was already on Hickory Flats Road, and knew thats where the first bag drop would be at mile 44. I was hurting pretty good and planned on making a longer stop to do some self maintenance. 

When I came up on it, a volunteer was talking about how next year all the aid stations should have chia seeds. I was a firm believer at this point so I struck up a conversation and informed them that chia seeds and goji berries were pretty much all I was running on. I changed out my socks, put icy hot all over my legs, took a couple pain killers, refilled my hippie water with the stuff I had in my bag, and then I was off again with only about a quarter mile till I was back on trail, which I was really geeked out about. This was where I had told Ned and Hannah to meet me, because it marked where we were finally allowed to have pacers and I was going to use Ned. I had gotten there hours earlier than I had planned, which was good in one respect but I was kinda bummed that I probably wouldn't get to see them. 

The self maintenance breathed new life into me and I freaking tore down the trail, catching people left and right. After about a half hour, I had caught up to Prasad and Stuart who were again running together. They both complimented me on my comeback and noted that the last time they saw me I didn't look so hot, but now I was flying. Prasad was noticeably struggling and after a solid effort of us keeping pace together, Stuart and I wished him luck and then went ahead. At mile 50 I looked down at my watch to see that I had run a faster time to this 50 miles than my time last year at the Masochist! My performance last year at the Masochist was kind of disappointing, but I was still pretty excited about it. The next aid station was just two miles ahead and I was still feeling good despite the expected fatigue.

As I crossed Route 30 and went to the third checkpoint I got a pleasant surprise. Ned and Hannah with their son Jack had just arrived, almost at the same time I did! They went to mile marker 44 of the trail instead of mile 44 of the race which now differed because of the detour around the turnpike bridge. The miscommunication ended up being absolutely perfect. I spent a little time chatting with Ned, getting restocked, and things of the nature, while Stuart went on ahead and Prasad caught up at the checkpoint and then left before Ned and I. I thought that Ned would be a good pacer at this point, despite not being a big runner, I figured I would be tired enough that the pace would be suitable for him. I was in much better shape than I had anticipated so we made a plan that I would leave him if I had to, but that he had to still make it to the next aid station to meet back up with his family, so he would just run it out. Ned and I very shortly caught up to Prasad and ran behind him for a little bit, but he was a bit slower than I wanted to be, so I decided to pass him. I kept motioning for Ned to make the move too, but running on the rough trail was taking its toll on him and he decided to stay back. There was a significant amount of downhill near this part and I wasn't being shy about it anymore. I knew I was styled and dialed for a finish so long as I didn't have a significant injury, so I was no longer being conservative. I ran alone for a long stretch of really good trail work and in a more open section I could see Stuart up ahead of me. I was now running to catch him. I took my time doing it, just keeping the pace I was already on, but eventually I was right behind him again. I ran with him a short while before falling back a bit and eventually I was alone again. I was trudging along at a smooth pace until I realized that I was probably going to run out of water. I began taking bigger shots of my hippie water to stay hydrated, but I really didn't want to run out of that since I didn't have any goji berries and chia seeds in my second drop bag to make more. I spread out my water but not nearly enough, the last few miles were going to be dry. I was on top of a ridge at this point and to leave course to find a stream wouldn't have been worth the effort, so I increased my pace a bit to get to the next aid station. It was around then that I realized that I had given my headlamp to Ned to carry and even though it was daylight, I knew I would need it eventually. I typically don't carry one during night runs, so I hoped the woods weren't going to be thick enough later on to block out all the moonlight. I eventually came to a jeep trail the crossed the trail and though a stream would have been much better, the muddy stagnant water from some tire ruts, felt pretty damn good when I poured it over my head. At that point I would have probably been willing to splash piss in my face. *Insert Joke Here*

This is what dehydration looks like.

When I headed into the fourth checkpoint at mile 62, Hannah and Jack were waiting there, as was Sean. I took my time getting some fluids back in me and getting my empty bottles refilled. There had been some miscommunication between aid stations and they had lost my drop bag, but I wasn't too concerned with not having any of the items it contained other than some pain killers, which Sean spotted me. They volunteers lent me a headlamp to use for the duration of the race, so that problem was solved too. I told Hannah that Ned might be hours behind me if he decided to walk it in, but luckily he toughed it out and ended up pacing with Prasad to make it back to his wife and son. I will make a trail runner out of him yet, that was a good showing from a non-runner in that 12 mile stretch! I had just 4 miles till the next aid station and 15 to finish. My goal now was to make it to my car by 17 and a half hours, and I only had a little over 3 hours to do it.

Had to get my hair done so I
could look as epic as possible
at the finish.
I can't fully remember but I believe there were two aid stations after mile 64, one a little bit down the trail maybe at 72. The race website only has one listed, so I am willing and excited to assume that I finally achieved my most sought after running ailment, hallucination! Though I do believe there were two, only one was vivid, the very last station with Donnie. After saying goodbye to Hannah, Jack, and Sean, I was alone yet again. I plugged away at the miles, walking even the slightest up hills to keep my legs fresh so that I could trash them from the last station to the finish line. The trail came out onto a dirt access road of some sort that had recently had gravel put down, unfortunately it wasn't pea gravel, but instead were huge golf ball sized rocks. This was not fun to run on at all, so where I could manage it, I ran along the road instead. The road was long and open, so to my great surprise I saw a familiar face far in front of me, Stuart! I also had a runner gaining ground behind me with his pacer. The sun had set and I was losing light quickly. I started trying to catch Stuart, but I noticed that he was running the hills. He later would tell me he did it because he saw me gaining ground on him, but was also hoping that I would follow his lead, run them too, and eventually catch him. I didn't take the bait though and stuck to my strategy, but was purposefully trying to distance myself from the guy behind me. I could see lights from the aid station ahead and made my way up the hill. 

At the final stop I saw Donnie, who outside of Mikayla, there was no one I wanted to see more. As soon as he saw me he lit up, "Joe! I told you I would see you tonight! Where's you're girlfriend at?" I then awkwardly explained that despite the fact he had now seen Mikayla and I together in several states multiple times, that she wasn't my girlfriend. I had him check the aid station reports for her bib number, and he apologetically told me that she had dropped. I assumed this meant that she had been kidnapped by her puppeteer friend that was supposed to pace her. Puppeteers cannot be trusted, it's one of the core lessons from my upbringing that I credit with my survival to the age of 25. I would have run back to find her if it was a bear or a mountain lion, but in the case of the puppeteer, I would need to hunt him down as he probably already crossed state lines with Mikayla tied up in his trunk. In light of that, I decided I had to finish to get back to my car before all of that. Donnie fixed me up with some potato soup and grilled cheese, refilled my water bottles for the very last time, and I went back into the woods. The guy behind me had caught up to me at the aid station, but he was just getting in as I was leaving. I hoped he would take a long break so that I wouldn't have to defend my position. 

This is what I assumed was happening
to Mikayla in some dude's basement
as I finished the race.

Visibility was really really bad and there was no way I could have run the last part without a headlamp. Even with the light it was difficult to run. I had to stare at the ground while I was moving and then to ensure I was still going the right way I had to stop to look up at the trail blazes, any time I didn't I was tripping over something. Drinking water had to also be done with caution in the dark. I tweaked my ankle more than a couple of times on the last section, not catching enough of a few rocks with my foot plant and bending it sharply upward, but I still felt like I was keeping a relatively fast pace for the conditions. Despite my confidence in the pace I was keeping, I heard something behind me and in the distance thought I could see a headlamp from the runner that I left at the aid station. He had a pacer and I imagine having two headlamps would have been a great asset. I picked up my pace, because there was no way I was going to let someone catch me in the homestretch. As I came to a clearing with a lot of rocks I recognized an area that I had hiked to in high school with my girlfriend at the time and I knew I was close to the end. I bounded through the woods following glow sticks that were now marking the trail. The rest of the trail was descent to the trail head. I started to hear voices and then I was flying, leaped up over a tree that had fallen over the trail and then crossed the finish line with a time of 17:47:17. 

I immediately found Stuart and we congratulated each other, we had essentially run almost the entire race together. He ended up finishing around eight minutes ahead of me in 16th place, with me taking 17th. My tail came in about two and half minutes after I did in 18th. Paul, who had blew past me on the road section failed to reach his time goal, but came in respectably in 14th place with a time of 17:31:27. The 77-mile course record fell to Derek Schultz with a time of 13:17:20, a record that will now stand forever since next year the bridge will be repaired and the course will go back to the original distance of 70 miles.

Rick Freeman, the race director congratulated me and handed me my finishers trophy, a nicely carved replica of one of the stone mile markers along the course that was engraved with "77". He remembered my drop from last year, which made the finish all the more special, I had greatly improved. A few minutes later I found Mikayla, who I was glad to see was alright, and not in the puppet guys trunk or mauled by a bear. I rested for a little bit before heading over to my car to drive back to my hometown to crash for the night. 

Mikayla, who had dropped at the same point I did last year and now has a score to settle of her own, apparently felt the sudden urge to dance during the race. She then purposefully disqualified herself, hitchhiked back to my car and then threw a dance party in the parking lot at the trailhead. When I got to my car, there were glow sticks, tubes of body paint, and a large amount of recreational drugs strewn about on the ground. I thought maybe some other runners had had a post race celebration, but then when I tried to start my car, the truth about the dance party came out. She had drained my battery completely, fueling an 8-hour long techno rave. 

My car is beneath all those people.

The engine wouldn't turn over at all, but luckily there were a ton of people at the finish, and I figured someone out of the group had to have jumper cables. Mikayla found a guy, but after about 30 minutes of a solid effort, it was clear either we had bad cables or my battery was trashed (it ended up being trashed). At that point I just needed a quick fix, Mikayla and I had both been up since 3 AM and it was now past midnight. I called Ned to come rescue us and I left my car behind to deal with after I got some sleep. Ned arrived shortly and drove us to a hotel where we posted up for the night, an epic ending to my epic day of running.

The Conclusion

It feels almost anticlimactic with Laurel now behind me. I had wanted this finish so badly and for so long, but now that it's finished I need a new challenge. It was like getting to the end of Lord of the Rings, you loved it, but now you wanted more. How about watch all of them together? Can we get ahold of the extended versions? Sooo, when are they making The Hobbit? I'm certainly relieved and a bit proud that I finally threw the monkey off my back, but now I miss Bobo the Monkey and wonder what he is doing now.

On second thought, I don't miss
Bobo at all, that monkey was a
freaking jerk!
My next challenge is my first 100-miler, Burning River, at the end of July. I honestly have no fear, the course is easier than Laurel, certainly flatter, and I will have more support in lieu of more aid stations, a crew, and pacers. I can't but help think of years to come at Laurel, I have nothing to be ashamed of from my performance, but next year I will be looking to better it, and out of any race that I can think of, I would love to be able to be good enough to win this one someday. Here's to hope.

Visit the Laurel Ultra website HERE!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The 2011 Memorial 100

Behind the Scenes:

Last year a small group of Marines I had served with in Iraq, spearheaded by Nathan Huffman, came together to create an event to honor our fallen brothers that would appropriately take place over Memorial Day Weekend.

The goal of the event we created (Memorial 100) is to reclaim the meaning of Memorial Day and interrupt what the holiday has become... just another 3-day weekend filled with barbecues, mini-vacations, and trips to the beach. I personally don't have any issue with those things in and of themselves, what I do (what we do) have an issue with, is that for a growing percentage of the population that's all Memorial Day is. Many don't realize or appreciate the sacrifices that people have made to secure the freedom to do all of the things we enjoy in our country. Most of the people involved with this run remember where they were on Memorial Day in 2005, and though it was sandy, it was about as far from a beach as you can imagine. At that point in the year we had already lost several Marines and before we would get back home we would lose many many more. For us and for the families and friends that our fallen brothers left behind, Memorial Day became sacred. We believe that it should be a somber day of reflection where we honor the men and women who fought and died to protect our rights and privileges throughout every generation.

Together in 2010 we had pulled off an amazing event that not only brought us back into the much needed brotherhood that exists among veterans, but we also raised nearly $12,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project and also raised a significant amount of awareness in the community for the unmet needs of wounded warriors. The logistics and planning were difficult and at times extremely frustrating, but at the conclusion we had decided that it was well worth all the effort we put into it and that we had to do it again.

This year wasn't any easier on Huffman, who again took on the brunt of the work, but key people stepped in to make the event a reality for the second year in a row. We had decided to switch charities, partnering with Hope For The Warriors, who were more accommodating and helpful to us than I can relate through words, being directly involved from the very beginning of planning to the conclusion of the actual event. The Richmond Police Department again provided key support as well, helping secure permits, permissions, and an escort for the entire length of the route. Tim Beck and Bill Sukitch, teaming up with Beckleys Camping Center essentially took care of all of our support vehicles, without which the run would have been absolutely impossible. Armand Grez and his wife who are Gold Star parents (those that have lost a child in combat)  provided our t-shirts, a huge expense, free of charge. Larry Tremblay, the father of one of our own fallen, Cpl. Joseph Tremblay, was with us again the entire way too. The staff at the Virginia War Memorial also played a huge role for us, making their facility completely available for our needs at the start of the run. Fleet Feet Pittsburgh, via Kyle Ferkett provided a huge amount of nutritional products to fuel us during the one-hundred and six miles of running. All these people and many more came together to make our second outing a staggering success.

This year I ended up taking on a much smaller role than I had planned, regrettably getting distracted by various other pursuits. My fundraising leads weren't nearly as fruitful and I had failed to secure much in the way of logistical support or sponsorship. Despite the existence of my shortcomings, they had no impact on the end result due to various other people filling in the gaps. With everything behind us now, this years run was actually better supplied, better organized, and even more successful than the last. We managed to raise over $17K, shattering last years total and also exceeding our personal goal by over $2,000.

I don't know what to say to thank everyone who donated their time, money, and other resources other than that we are extremely grateful to every single one of you. To everyone who participated directly in the event over this past weekend, I don't think I need to make you aware of anything, because you saw the impact, you felt the fellowship, and you know what an honor it was to be a part of something so incredible... but thank you so much again for being a part of it.

The Details:

I set off from C-bus accompanied by my girlfriend Kayla and her 3-year old son Braxton, headed South through rural Ohio and then East towards Richmond. A late start, traveling with a child, and torrential downpour delayed our arrival a bit. Braxton's good behavior was to be rewarded with a trip to the hotel pool (he thought that was the sole purpose of the entire journey) so instead of going straight to Grandpa Eddie's for the kickoff event, I made good on the promise. I quickly found out that Braxton shares my fear of water, which made me wonder why in the world he would be so psyched about the pool beforehand, but I entertained him by carrying him through the pool (he calls that swimming). After getting wet for 30-minutes or so, we headed over for the official start the long weekend ahead.

When I arrived an hour late I was still among the first to get there, I guess we all assumed because Marines were involved, that it would be the standard "hurry up and wait". Huffman of course was on site, so was Segrist, Larry Tremblay, and the Grez family. Segrist and I spent so many nights together in Iraq on post and on patrol that you would have thought we would have run out of stuff to talk about, but the reunion was still epic.

After Kayla and I ate our portabella mushroom based dinners (the only items friendly to our vegetarianism) and I finished my superstitious routine of consuming a gin and tonic, Leo showed up, whom neither Segrist or I had seen since deployment. Even during deployment Leo wasn't around much because he had been reassigned from our platoon to a STA team. This long gap in face time in addition to the fact that I now look like a dirty hippie resulted in him not fully remembering who I was until I reminded him that I threw up all over him and his gear on the way back from Vegas 6-years ago. I don't recall any of that particular incident, but I was reminded of it by everyone else so often that I figured he hadn't forgot it either... and that was his lightbulb moment, "Oh yeah... Shearer. (insert dirty look here)" Bored Marines with alcohol in the vicinity typically results in heavy drinking, so without any of our other Marines on site yet, Segrist proposed that we all do a shot of Wild Turkey.  This is something Segrist has been doing to me since pretty much the first time I met him. I distantly recall he and our fire team leader essentially ordering me to drink the first night I was with the unit, which because I had never drank before that time, it resulted in me being a hot mess and getting an undeserved reputation with alcohol (though some time later on, I definitely earned that association). Segrist is also the guy who kept anonymously sending rounds of Wild Turkey to our platoon commander anytime they happened to be in a bar together, making Captain (now Major) Darling go on a umm wild goose chase to find out who the hell was always trying to get him wasted whenever he went out to the bar.

When we sat down at the counter, I bypassed Segrist's tradition to get it out of the way since I knew it was coming anyhow and ordered three shots of the nasty stuff myself. The bartender knew we were Marines and also knew we were there for an event his establishment was hosting, so to say he was heavy handed with his pour would be a gross understatement. The single shot came in a tumbler and was way closer to being three shots than just one. I'm not the man I used to be when it comes to liquor, so I had to chase it with a beer, which almost wasn't enough to keep the whiskey from coming right back up. I thought that would be the end, or at least I was hoping it would be, but then there was another one right in front of me, this time courtesy of Leo, which may or may not have been payback for Vegas. I complained as we did the second and then immediately closed out my tab. I was well aware of where this kind of drinking was headed and I wasn't about to partake. Segrist stepped outside with me as some of the other Marines arrived whom we quickly greeted. With a bit of magic in us, our conversation turned taboo in topic as we contemplated politics and theology. For a moment it reminded we of the long hours sitting in a sandbag bunker together having similar conversations at the B/U split in Iraq. The weird thing was that the memory was nostalgic in nature and just for a minute I really missed being a Marine... and I missed being in Iraq. Kayla and Braxton were tired from the long drive, so after Segrist and I finished our talk, we headed back to the hotel to get some rest before the run.

I didn't sleep well and certainly not for as long as I would have liked, but when I went down to the hotel lobby, I was certainly in better shape than most. I apparently left just in the nick of time the night before, because half the runners didn't look so great... particularly Leo who had to be put on an IV before the run even started.

He looked just as bad before the run, minus the bloody nips.

Everyone had a solid hour or so to sweat out their indulgences because we were headed to the Virginia War Memorial for a special presentation of a new virtual reality film they just opened. The staff gave our crew a private tour of the facilities, most of which had been built since last year's run, before viewing the film. The whole tour and the film were really neat to see, it was a great privilege that the staff there extended to us and we all enjoyed it.

By the time we were finished inside, it was time to hit the road. When we went outside we were greeted by several TV new crews. Mike Kinnery took the brunt of the media attention, but Huffman threw me as a bone too. Segrist and myself were set to do the first leg, running behind a police vehicle, then our support vehicles and ambulance were in the rear. One of the news stories they ran locally in Richmond can be viewed here, my moto calf tattoo makes a cameo at the end:

"Marines Run From Richmond to Washington"

Then we went. The sun and humidity made us instantly regret this year's later start time, I was losing water like a leaky faucet in less than 5 minutes. After about 15, Segrist started to slow up his pace, which I was more than willing to follow. At about 4 miles he decided to drop to avoid hurting himself and save the juice for later sections.

And so it began.

Boyko hopped out of the van as a relief runner and took his guidon to finish the section with me. At the end of the section Finnerty and Thomas came out to relieve both of us, but I decided to stay out as a third runner for a bit. Not too far into the second section the sun abated and it began to pour rain down on us. The rain was welcomed but it brought on one of my least favorite running ailments... the dreaded bloody nipple! At 9 miles I decided to check out for the time being, not wanting to waste energy I didn't need to in case we were short runners later into the day and on into the night. I hopped into the support vehicle until we met up with the RV that was leapfrogging us to let runners recharge.

The thing about the RV was that after a good number of miles you were glad to see it, but then you'd be there so long waiting for your turn to come around again that all you wanted to do was get back into the van of fresh runners. While on this particular break, I decided to deal with my nipple issue and simultaneously attract female donors to our roadside table by doing some yoga poses. As such, any donations we received during the actual event, which I'm certain amounted in the thousands, I would like to personally take credit for.

Next time I'll shave my chest before applying duct tape.
My time at the RV was spent refueling, rehydrating, having conversations with old friends as well as some new ones, and of course hanging out with Braxton and Kayla who were following along the route in my car. At each stop the RV made we set up tables and manned them for anyone that might be passing by and be interested in what we were doing, so I also spent a little bit of time telling some folks about what we were doing and more importantly, why. The response to our event was almost all positive, with people yelling encouragement out of their windows, beeping their horns, and occasionally gathering alongside the road to cheer us on.

Once the rotation came around, I was more than ready to put in some more miles. I had decided to switch from my Brooks Green Silence to my newer Racer ST5's so that the former could dry out a little more. I was going to be running the next leg with Ferkett who outside of myself was the most experienced runner in our group. Our plan was to knock out two sections at once, keeping our pace a little faster than what had been done up until that point. A few miles into the second half of our distance I began to develop a nagging pain in the arch of my foot. Changing my strike to make it feel better only made my legs tired and the pain still began to worsen. I started to have a growing concern about it and eventually decided to bow out, despite my hurt pride. I went back to the RV and began to doing some self maintenance, massaging my foot, icing it, and doing some basic exercises. The pain didn't improve much, so I took some anti-inflammatory meds knowing I had a good bit of time before my next section.

At this point night was coming upon us and it was nearly time for Kayla and Braxton to go to the hotel for the night. I figured since I didn't have to run for a while that I would drive them up to DC and check them in during the break. After braving the DC traffic to the Iwo Jima Hotel, Kayla drove me back to the RV where I still had some downtime. I had determined that the Racer ST5's offer a little more support than I needed, and that they were sadly the cause of my calamity. In light of this realization, I switched back to the Green Silence, but also kept my foot taped up. I did some strides back and forth across the lot where we were staged and felt a marked improvement. Most of my companions were asleep, except a few hard chargers like myself who chose to forgo z-time. Last year I tried to sleep between my running shifts and it made me feel like a $5 whore in Jacksonville, NC on the 1st of the month. For those who didn't get that joke... Jacksonville is where Camp Lejeune is located and the military gets paid on the 1st and 15th of every month. Get it now? Ok, good. Funny, right?

When the support vehicles came back to pick new runners up, I joined them for my 3rd outing. Myself and Beck did the standard shift of running, but this time we were well into the middle of the night. The temperature was now perfect and the humidity disappeared as we ran up Route 1 toward our final destination. We decided that next year if we can't get an RV that we would be using 7-Eleven as our flagship sponsor and use their ridiculous number of stores along that road as aid stations. Living 200ft from one of their stores, I picture this scenario being a 106 mile run completely fueled on Brazilian Bold coffee, blueberry cheese danishes, and Grizzly Wintergreen.

Only the best for me! Grizzly a 2012 Memorial 100 sponsor? Yes please!

Shortly after our section the whole group went firm in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart so that everyone (the drivers in particular) could get some rest and that we would arrive at the correct time in DC. I again chose not to sleep. I spent the time in conversation with one of Chongo's brothers (by blood) who was running with us, and catching up on some reading. The down time was much shorter than we had originally figured in, just an hour and some change, but not a single person in our group was upset about about being tired, we were all just glad to be a part of something like this.

I initially wasn't sure if I would be doing any more sections before the 3-mile group finale, but I was the most willing to join Ferkett in the final push, so when we were up and rolling again, I got into the Hope for the Warriors support van. The sun came up as the last set of runners to precede us finished up their leg. Ferkett and I jumped into action for a longer section that would take us the whole way to the Pentagon, where we would all stop and get into formation. I was pretty exhausted at this point, which worked into the plan because Huffman was worried that Ferkett and I would be pulling 6 minute miles out of our ass and get us off schedule. Ferkett was probably exhausted too, but his Scott Jurek-like stature allows him to bound down the road like a freaking gazelle and I had to ask him to slow up on several occasions. Less than a mile from the Pentagon we saw a great irony in the placement choice of an Afghan restaurant. I'm sure the proprietors are lovely people and have delicious food, but I couldn't help but laugh that they would choose to operate the only Afghan business I have ever seen in my life, so close to a location that some of their countrymen are so grimly associated with.

Seriously... it was that close. The food on their website looks great though!
As we crested our final hill of the journey the Pentagon came into view and our caravan pulled off to the berm to assemble in squad formation. Ferkett and I traded out our soaked event shirts for our overly patriotic Hope for the Warriors shirts to look like the rest of our crew. Apparently our partners in crime were over-hydrating because this happened:

Yeah... right in front of the Pentagon. 

After a quick briefing, some adjustments, and things of the like, we formed up for the final 3-miles in a platoon sized group being led in cadence by Gunny Fowler who instantly regressed back into his days as a Marine Drill Instructor. As we ran, we passed huge staging areas for another Memorial Day event, Rolling Thunder, where close to a half million bikers ride across DC in recognition for for prisoners of war and those missing in action. Their support and encouragement was awesomely epic as they cheered us on. Huffman briefly took over cadence calling because Gunny Fowler lost his voice, but retook command of us as we came near Iwo. As we ran up the road that leads to Arlington National Cemetery we did a loop around the monument before being called into mark time march, which I completely botched. I was the nasty ass recruit in boot camp that the DI's would intentionally leave on fire watch duty for drill competitions, so it was no big surprise. I think even the civilians that were running with us figured out what was going on, despite it not being pre-planned. Oh well, I was a crack shot on the rifle range and a PT rock star, which I always thought was more relevant to my job anyhow. After some ceremonial commands, we presented the colors to the Grez family and Larry Tremblay, before the Hope for the Warriors staff presented some awards to our more significant contributers. The whole ordeal was very emotional for all of us, many not being able to resist the urge to cry. The reason many of us were there participating in the event was rooted in the loss of some of the best men we have ever had the privilege of knowing, so it was very appropriate.

106 Miles Complete
After finishing up we said our goodbyes and made our exit. Some spent the day in DC, others like myself headed back home. The conclusion was bittersweet, we had pulled it off, but the whole event brought old memories of loss to the surface. We are forever united by our experiences together and the brothers we lost. I can't imagine a better way to remember our fallen than the way we have done it for the last two years and that will be the driving force of the event in years to come. Not a day goes by that I don't think back to 2005, but every Memorial Day you can be sure that whatever I am doing and wherever I am, that I will be celebrating the lives and mourning the loss of those I served with.