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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.

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.