I hadn't realized it until last month that I had not completed an ultramarathon since Laurel and the one marathon I had run was my worst race to date. This year I wanted things to be different, more intentional, more calculated, and I expected better results.
My first challenge of the year was Glacier Ridge, a 50-miler just down the street from my parent's house, a newer race in just it's second running. I had heard good things from the inaugural class whose only complaint was an obscene amount of mud, which could only be blamed on that old harlot, Mother Nature. I was excited to finally run a 50-miler not named the Masochist and have a real good shot at crushing my PR which came during my first attempt at the distance back in 2009.
The challenge and the benefit of running races in Pennsylvania both stem from the fact that I was born and raised in the Keystone State. To my benefit I know the terrain well, have been to a fair amount of the parks where races take place and I get to stop at Sheetz on the way to and from. However, anytime I cross the PA/OH border it becomes a logistical balancing act between catching up with friends/family and getting prepared for what I came to do... run a race.
With Glacier Ridge Mikayla and I covertly stopped by to see some friends before heading to the pre-race dinner and briefing the night prior, where we received our fill of the standard fare of spaghetti, bread, and water. Though it would have been nice to stay in Indiana (Of the Pennsylvania variety) a bit longer on race-eve, it just wouldn't have been the type of low key rest I needed.
|A Runner's Pre-race Paradise.|
I was in the middle of the pack at the start, with a short road section to tackle, which we were told was intentionally incorporated to space runners out from the get go. I wasn't paying much attention to the other runners, I was just getting a nice comfortable heart rate built up, mostly to stay warm in the chilly dawn air. Once we entered the woods I had found a comfortable stride and could see a pack of four runners just slightly ahead of me. All I knew at this point about placement was that there were runners ahead and runners behind. I knew what my first goal was and it was to narrow the gap between myself and the pack. Within 20 minutes I was part of the pack, three guys out front and one very impatient man behind me who insisted on running every incline. I was tempted to follow him every time but thought better of it assuming he was green and would burn out, besides we were both hitting the heels of the pack and were likely to both pass, albeit with completely different strategies. Ten more minutes and it was time for us both to make our move and we passed the leading three. The gap widened quickly on the trail and I had estimated I was averaging right around 10-minutes a mile. A long climb seperated all of us and I was alone in the woods, hammering away at the path. A series of climbs pushed me out of eye sight of the still intact group runners but on every descent I was gaining ground on the hill crazy guy.
|By All Means... Run On Ahead... I'm Walking This One|
Working toward the first aid station was a long flat section and I finally caught my prey, he the better climber, I (at the time anyways) the faster pure runner. As we approached the station I caught glimpse of two runners in the distance, one in red and the other in blue. They hit the aid station probably less than two minutes ahead of me when I was coming off the hill. I had no plans of stopping, fully stocked on water and not quite in need of calories just yet. As I came through, the volunteers loudly cheered, which gave me a little prideful boost in speed so long as they could see me. As I was tearing across the road to get back onto the trail, a thought entered my head. The cheers. I have run many ultras and been through dozens of aid stations during them... the people are always great, always helpful, always nice... but their enthusiasm was a bit much. It was appreciated for certain, but I wondered why.
The next section was an out and back... run to the next aid station via the left fork, run back to the one I just came from and then turn around and take the right fork for a second out and back. This part was flat and only mildly technical, almost too much so. I knew my speed had thus far been a bit ambitious so I geared down slightly, knowing that an open run would only leave me out of gas for later. For almost the entire section I was completely alone, waiting for the front runners to come tearing up the trail past me the other way, but they never came. When I reached the turn around I saw the red shirted guy stopping to eat, he was a much older gentleman than myself, which calmed my worries of being too far out front... the out and back was a lollipop of sorts, perhaps the roundabout was longer than I thought... after all I didn't look at a course map before stepping off.
I quickly refilled my bottle leaving the aid station before red and with blue in plain view. He was hauling ass though and I knew if he were to keep his pace for the time being and I were to catch him at some point it would be by gnawing away for hours, not minutes. I kept my stride not wanting to take the bait just yet.
I continued on, revisiting all the trail I had just ran from the other direction. It was a good while before I started seeing other runners coming towards me, that road section to start did as promised, it was a wide open trail and pack runners were few and far between.
At what I estimate was mile 18 I came upon a nice section lined with pine trees which littered the trail with roots. I was going at a good clip without a care in the world and certainly zoned in on my surroundings. That's when it happened. My low to the ground, barely lifting the legs, cruise control stride failed me. My right toe dipped about a half inch too low and caught a root.
In the thousands of miles of running I have done over the years, all the trails, the weather conditions, ice, mud, hills and everything else you can think of, I have fallen just once to the ground. Sure, I have had my share of trips and slips, but I have always, save once, been able to throw my weight in such a way to stop from hitting the ground. But alas, this was a day of fate.
The root caught me just right, at the peak of my left leg flying forward with a good amount of force my right leg ripped me backwards and I did a very convincing split second impression of Superman. I was launched quickly in a horizontal position off of the trail and came to a nice soft landing on a group of jagged rocks.
Mine, and pretty much anyone's reaction to falling is to immediately get up, this action which my brain did indeed send a signal to do, didn't come to fruition, instead I felt intense pain shoot through both of my legs. Okay... no bouncing up like a cat, lets try just standing up. Nope. Neither leg would move the way I commanded it to, the only result was ridiculous pain. Having run as much as I have, I've had some pretty serious pain in my legs, but this was tops. I was instantly terrified that somehow I broke a leg, or even both legs from the fall. I rolled to my back, not sure what to expect when I looked down. When I did, to my great surprise and relief, there was minimal blood, lots of leaves and dirt, and no protruding bones. Immediate concern was washed away but my legs were both locked, completely straight, unable to bend at the knee or ankle. Mother Nature just gave me one hell of a charley horse.
Being unable to stand, I drug myself to a tree and pulled myself up. Once standing I leaned over to put my hands on my quads, massaging and slowly letting my weight bend my knees till I could easily reach my calves and began working on them. All said, I lost 15-20 minutes from this whole business of debauchery and sabotage. Red shirt passed me... followed by hill climbing dude... followed by the pack that I once was a part of... followed by a random runner or two I had not previously seen on the course.
When I started out again I was alone, no one in sight ahead or behind. My stride was nothing like it had been, the fall and subsequent muscle issue made it feel like I had run twice the distance I had actually covered, my only hope was that the kinks would work out and I would be able to return to form. I ran in a good amount of pain all the way back to the aid station, ate as much salty food as I could stomach, refilled my bottle, and headed out for the right fork. The pain was still persistent and I was slow going. I knew that there were at least eight runners ahead of me and I assumed at the time that there was still more. No one passed me on the short trail section until I came upon a gravel road that skirted the lake. The road impact exaggerated the pain in my legs and I was reduced to alternating walking and running. That's when I started to get passed every couple of minutes. Though I was disheartened I knew I was still on track for a PR if I could keep running more than I was walking. The road wasn't helping my cause at all. It seemed to wind on forever, each turn hoping that there was a trail head was only more road.
NOTE: I'd like to point out at this time my distinction between trail and road... dirt roads are still roads, gravel roads are still roads... if you are running on anything that I can drive on, it's a road. Overall I liked the course, but I found the aforementioned section to be a bit misleading. We were told the only roads were a crossing and the first short bit before the woods... granted the long and winding road I described probably wasn't as long as it seemed and to some it might be considered a "trail", but it was still way more road than I want in a trail race.
The road section ended and took me to a muddy jeep trail (jeeps trails aren't roads, but I prefer single track). I was in an increasing amount of pain, cramping up here and there, more frequently than I was initially after the fall. This section was a true out and back, no loop to speak of, so when I saw blue shirt, followed by hill climber, followed by red shirt I knew why they were cheering for me at the first aid station... I had spent the first 18 miles in the top 5, at one time being in second place. My heart sunk. I knew I was in a good spot, but not that good. The fall's injury was much more than physical now. I felt great before the fall, confident, full of energy. Could I have kept up the pace I was running? Maybe, but probably not. If I could estimate, I think I could have kept it to where they were now, somewhere on the low end between 30 and 40 miles. I decided to set my watch, see how far behind I had fallen, how long it would take me to get back to the point they passed me coming the other way. My mind was motivated but my legs were still stiff. I couldn't go much faster than I already was. In what seemed like forever I finally reached the aid station, ate some food, and then went a few miles further to retrieve a page from a telephone book to prove I had gone out. This section had some pretty steep hills, which in my condition I struggled mightily with. I reached the book, got the page, and ran back to the aid station just in time for the rain to start.
The rain was a problem. I was wearing a singlet and arm warmers. The weather was supposed to stay around 60 degrees and the rain was supposed to come later, after I expected to be finished, not with 20 miles to go. I trudged along, doing as best I could. Runners were catching me left and right. When I got back to the spot where the leaders passed me I looked down at my wrist... more than an hour ahead, much more probably now that I have kept slowing down and I'm sure they continued to surge. Many runners had passed me at this point but I had started counting. I was just outside of the top 20, but at the rate I was being passed, I wouldn't be there for long.
My armpits began chafing. My tape had fallen off, so my nipples were bleeding. It was too cold to take any of the clothes off that were causing the discomfort and the rain was persistent. What had started out as a sure shot of one of my best races was now a heaping pile of garbage. I was falling off a cliff in my mind, knowing that a good finish was out of reach, I resorted to walking, too despondent to convince myself to run.
When I reached the last aid station before the finish, I had just 10 more miles to go. My mind refused to let me run and then the math in my head told me if I walked I would still make it but I would be a long ways off from a time I would be proud of. I sat there in a lawn chair, sucking down lukewarm soup, pondering what to do. I decided to continue on.
I walked up the massive hill that much earlier I had flown down, trying to visualize the remaining distance I had to go until I reached the end. One I got to the top I tried running, stopped after just seconds and stood there. I was cold, wobbly legged, tired, and completely unmotivated. Screw this. I was done. I turned around and walked back down to the aid station. Having just seen me, they asked if I was okay. I said I was lightheaded. Which was true enough to justify to them at least my reasons for quitting but to me it was a lie, I knew that it was not the real reason I was quitting.
A teenage son of one of the aid station volunteers offered to drive me back to the start/finish and I accepted. It was a short drive, a distance that I could have, and most certainly SHOULD have ran. My parents for the 3rd time showed up to a race and for the 3rd time weren't able to see me finish.
If my Mom never gets the chance to see me finish a race, I know myself well enough that I will probably never stop regretting it. The 50-mile distance continues to be that which I struggle with most, failing at as many attempts as I have been successful and never achieving a time that is indicative of my ability.
History might be written, but the future is not.