Sunday, May 31, 2015

Massanuten 100 Pace Report

The first time we saw the dreaded Black Rose was at the pre-race meeting for the Massanuten 100 miler on Friday night. The woman holding the rose called herself the Grim Reaper, and said that the rose was still a badge of honor as it meant that the runner did everything they could, gave it their all and did not quit. They simply ran out of time. Sadly, the runner that I was there to support and pace, John Rodrigue, would end up possessing a rose instead of a finisher's buckle Sunday morning. He fit perfectly the description by the Grim Reaper as there was no quit in John, the clock just moved faster than his feet.

Our journey began Thursday evening after I watched my daughter Maggie's play. She rocked her part and was fortunate to have grandparents there to watch. I said my goodbyes at the conclusion of the play and hurried home to find John and the other member of our team Sean Case at my house with all their gear packed in my VW Bus.

We made decent time traveling south, needing to fuel up near the Connecticut/New York border just after midnight. We had trouble finding an operating gas station, and by the time we did, I figured it was time to find a place to stop for the night. A rest area was advertised not far away on Route 84. So we found the darkest possible spot and popped the top on the bus and crawled into our sleeping bags. It turned out to be a pretty lousy night of sleep, as traffic was loud and a number of tractor trailer trucks changed gears right near our abode before hitting the on-ramp.

A smooth ride continued in the morning. Our only real delay was waiting for our food to be ready at a deli in Hagerstown, Maryland. We were able to get to the race headquarters sometime around three. I was hoping to arrive earlier to give John plenty of time to rest and stretch out his legs. There was plenty of spots to set up camp and despite having the bus, I still set up a tent to hold our spot and a place for me to sleep giving the others plenty of space.

There weren't too many familiar faces checking in but I did spot a couple of guys who I ran the TARC 100 with last year. One of them Giles actually asked me where my father was, as he had crewed me last year. That to me was one of the greatest thrills of the entire weekend.

While waiting for the start of the pre-race meeting a couple from Massachusetts greeted John as they had met him the week before at a race. The guy Russ would be attempting his first 100 miler and his wife Nikki would be crewing for him. They were very pleasant, but I was getting a little anxious about getting the show on the road, and really looking forward to the dinner after the meeting as my blood sugar was getting low and I wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible.

The meeting took much too long and then we were told that the caterers were running late so dinner was going to be delayed. We used the delay to get a few things sorted out for the morning. Once dinner was finally served we sat with our tenting neighbors that had traveled from D.C. to support another first timer Erin.

With our bellies full, we were still thinking about food. Well, food for the next morning of which we really didn't have anything. So we drove back up and over twisty roads hoping to locate a grocery store. The one we found would have been unrecognizable as one if my GPS hadn't sent us there. Unfortunately it didn't tell us the hours, and as we arrived just a few minutes after seven, one of the ladies promptly turned on the closed sign upon seeing us parked in one of the few graveled parking spots. Back to the van, but then a guy stuck his head out of the door and asked us if we needed to buy something. We sure did. Besides breakfast food, we, well at least Sean and I, wanted some beer. I wish I could report that the store was this hidden golden cornucopia of goods after the man's generosity of opening back up for us. Some food was being sold in plastic baggies with ties, there was a good selection of Dickie jeans and gloves but not a decent bagel in the place. At least there was PBR in the cooler, the sad part was that was the finest choice of beer.

After we returned to camp David Bibler and his team of his wife Jess and Amy arrived and set up their camp not too far away. John took a short cold shower while Sean and I enjoyed a couple cold beers while keeping an eye out for ticks. There was little left to do now except to try and get some sleep before the four a.m. start time.

John was in good spirits in the morning, much more awake and alert than me despite having some really real dreams, maybe even nightmares about missing the start of the race. We kept reminding him to be sure to check in before the start and finally did so about fifteen minutes before start time. John was all smiles, even visible in the dark, taking photos and enjoying the moment and opportunity. We pushed John into the starting coral stepping back and began the final countdown. We watched the headlamps move away from us beginning their awesome journey.

Sean and I agreed we could sleep for about an hour before we needed to begin our crewing responsibilities. The first time we could see John was at the twelve mile mark and figured he should be there in about three hours. After an hours nap, we made ourselves some coffee and our way to Edinburg Gap. We got a great parking place and were soon met by Nikki. Runners were already coming in at the two hour mark. David came in around 2:30, and had directed his crew not to meet him there. He looked strong, and I stepped up in case he needed anything at all. This got me more into a crew mood, and soon I was on the lookout for runners still wearing headlamps to give them to crew members versus wearing them for another twenty plus miles.

Most runners looked good, only one skinned up knee and one woman saying she had already thrown up. Russ came in before John and Nikki attended to him while we kept an eye out for John. He wasn't too far behind coming in around the three hour mark and looking good. Of course his spirits were good but he did say he wasn't eating much. He had planned to eat a couple Kind bars every hour, and looking at those bars I didn't think he would have enough time to finish one before he really needed to start in on another. I'm not sure how many he had eaten in the three hours since we saw him last but he was promising to take in more calories, so I did not berate him too badly for not laying down a good foundation for the day.

John took his hiking poles with him as he crossed the road and back into the woods of Virginia with twenty three miles ahead of him before we could see him again. Time for us to get a real breakfast and more coffee in a nearby town. Well it wasn't really a town, just really a bunch of corporate America restaurants found near most highway exits. The one real down home looking restaurant only opened after we drove back past it with our bellies already full.

Of course we had to stop at another grocery store again, as we didn't get too many supplies the night before. The Food Lion had plenty and according to the guy checking out in front of us it had the best $23 bottle of champagne one could find anywhere. Even better than most of the expensive stuff but he may have only felt that way because of the 12 pack of Miller Lite he was buying at eight in the morning.

John did have a couple aid stations before we would see him and I hoped that he was finding something good to eat. Meanwhile Sean was doing an excellent job navigating us in the back country of Virginia. The directions given us were spot on but you really needed to be aware of where you were, especially when there was almost twenty miles of driving between the aid stations. Still, we got to the Elizabeth Furnace station just fine and had plenty of parking, nice restrooms and a few shaded spots to set up our chairs and wait. We set up near the team crewing Erin, the most friendly of the group Keith was foam rolling his body getting ready for pacing duties sometime in the next twenty some odd hours. We had estimates on John's arrival but those were only estimates, and although we knew we would have plenty of time waiting it was unnerving waiting when you just don't know how he was really doing.

Nikki, Jess and Amy also joined us in the small shaded spot which was about fifty yards from the picnic shelter aid station. Although I was already exhausted and tried to get some sleep, I just had to check on the aid station to know what to offer John when he came in. I spotted a cooler, and was so thrilled when I opened it and found dozens of frozen ice pops. I was soon offering them to any runner coming in. I had used frozen pedia-pops on my 100 miler and they were a delight on a hot day. I overcame my tired feeling by playing crew member to anyone coming in. The volunteers were all nice, even when they came around asking people for extra water as they were running low, we gave them one of our two gallons, but they weren't really coming out to lead runners into the station. The ice pops were especially hidden and I don't think anyone refused one when I offered one up.

I was more or less in full crew mode by the time David came in. Jess and Amy got him all set up even before he hit the actual station. I walked him through to make sure he didn't miss out on the opportunity to pig out on any treats, including ice pops. I continued crew duties for other runners; lending a shoulder for a woman to lean on while her boyfriend tended to her blisters, feeding one guy while his wife was carrying around their eight month old. Then Russ came in and sat in the shade with us. I ran off to get him ice pops and then sponged him down with some ice cold water. We checked his feet as he was worried about blisters but they looked fine even for running thirty plus miles. He left in good spirits and then I began to really wonder about the one runner that I was really responsible about that day.

We didn't really have any expected times on when we would see John. He was given some pace tables and although they could be really helpful, he wasn't trying hard to follow any set pace schedule. I just really wanted to see him come into this station healthy and ready to grind out some more miles. A lot could happen over twenty miles and as I saw more runners coming through I stopped helping and spent more time watching for him. I gave him big cheers when I spotted him on the road and Sean and I were ready.

He told us that he wasn't urinating as we led him straight into the picnic area. Someone overheard him telling us about it while we were sponging him down and feeding him watermelon. I was concerned but tried not to let it show on my face. We were told there was a doctor that could see him and so I focused on feeding him and hydrating him. John also told us that he had seen a bear on the trail not so long ago.  Sean took care of his bag for the next phase and a doctor began to question John about his urination. John's facilities were fine. He had no trouble talking to us, was moving around fine but just hadn't been able to pee. The doctor saw no reason why John shouldn't continue on, if the problem persisted then he should withdraw but since it was so hot John was probably just sweating it out instead of peeing it out. It was a little more time at the station than I may have wanted but it was good to know John was going to be alright and we insisted that he should have his bladder bag finished by the next time we would see him in less than five miles.

John may have had to run only five miles but we had to cover much more than that in the VW. We missed a couple turns but realized our errors quickly as we now made it a habit to reset the trip odometer after every turn. We had our longest walk with gear from parking spot to aid station which didn't have much room for all the teams there to support their runners. The air was feeling much thicker and so I put on my Joe Dirt wig in case we got hit by thunderstorms. David was already gone by the time we got there but Jess and Amy decided to hang out to support John. We continued to support Russ when he came in, and he got treated to some of my finest Joe Dirt impressions.

 Amy talked to us more about race strategy suggesting that I begin to pace him at Habron Gap the 54 mile mark. I was planning on running with him later as runners could pick up pacers at the 64 mile spot, or back at 54 if it was after six in the afternoon. And we all figured he would probably be there after six unless he was able to crush some big miles fast.

John came into the station still in great spirits but still unable to piss. Sean showed me his bladder bag which seemed practically untouched and I almost wanted to slap him, but that's not Joe Dirt's style. Actually I didn't have on the wig as John was sitting on it, and I reluctantly put it back on for John at people's request. I dunno, maybe Joe Dirt does smell like ass sweat. Still, I was getting a little pissed. Sean and I continued to feed him and make him drink and I didn't know what to do to make him drink more. So out of nowhere I said to him, "When you drink count to ten. Don't just take a sip. Count to ten." We told him I would run with him at the next aid station, I just wanted to make sure that he not only would make it into that aid station but that he would be able to leave.

To get to the next aid station we actually left some of the back roads and as I was looking around some things seemed kind of familiar. Then I saw a sign for Gooney Creek Campground. I had been on vacation about three weeks earlier in this area with my family in the bus and had almost stayed at the campground but didn't out of fear that we might get butchered in the middle of the night. We eventually found a less daunting spot for the night and were more worried about flash floods than axe murders. Now as I was excited to be in a place I actually knew, the threat of flash floods were once again real as there were some pretty big rollers up in the sky.

Sean and I found the turnoff from the main road without problem but decided to head into the town of Loray for dinner and then get to the aid station. I really wished I could have ordered some bigger down home plates at Uncle Buck's but I settled on Virginia Ham with some fixin's while Sean got the prime rib, and was even given a bigger slice than he ordered as the cook was celebrating her 40th birthday. Of course we got some decent local beer to wash everything down. Speaking of washing down, the skies totally opened up while we dined, knocking out the cable t.v. and making it impossible to see what movie was playing at the theater across the street. If John had more miles to go between stations we might have been able to catch a flick, but that's not why we were there was it.

I really wanted to run with John but at dinner I was getting worried that I would not get the chance to pace him. He had been more than an hour ahead of cutoff times but the urination problem and lack of fueling had me questioning when he would come in. We decided to hit another grocery store to give him more food choices. We went to the same grocery store I had been to with my family, and found the service much more friendly this time around. I picked out a bunch of junk food, basically hiker food, not all that nutritious but fun to eat. I did eye some packs of portable applesauce but decided against that purchase, later on wishing I had bought them.

As we got to the Habron Gap aid station  Jess and Amy were just pulling out and gave us their parking spot as David was already in and out. We figured we still had some time, maybe an hour or more before we should see John, so after I got my running gear together, I popped the top and grabbed a little rest. I was never completely out, as details were running through my head and I couldn't wait to get on the trail with John.

I donned my kilt over my running shorts and kept a lookout with Sean for John. We once again stepped up and helped Nikki tend to Russ who was holding up well and making some gear changes to dry off now that the rain had stopped. Then came the hardest part: the waiting. I kept one eye on the aid table which was getting really depleted and another on the road leading into the station. Finally in came John with a big smile on his face, raising his arms and shouting, "I can piss again!"

We sat him down once again, Sean tending to his pack while I grabbed food. We changed his shirt, now he and I would match in our Trail Monster shirts, and we also changed his shoes. He had about six pairs to choose from and put on a pair along with new socks. He still hadn't been eating enough and we tore out a bunch of Kind bars, leaving a few and replacing with junk food; gummi bears, peanut butter cups and a couple other candy bars in mini sizes. I wasn't really sure what John liked for junk food but I didn't give a crap really, he was now going to eat whatever we gave him.

Runners needed to be out of this aid station before 9 pm and we left just around eight with John just ahead of me. Race rules stated that a pacer was supposed to be behind the racer and I followed that rule for about two minutes. We had a pretty big climb coming out of the station and with John feeling good, I wanted to take advantage of this and push him up the hill/mountain. I also wanted to be ahead of him so he wouldn't have to think about navigating the trail. We were back in forth with a couple other teams as John proved to me that he really could urinate again.

The sun was beginning to set and John donned his headlamp before I did and we began to listen for whippoorwills. I began to dominate the conversation, not an easy thing to do with John but I wanted to take his mind of the trail. I spoke about my time hiking on the trail with my wife and other experiences like when I did a night hike to get away from an annoying hiker named Wyoming Skateboarder who complained endlessly about rocks and roots on the trail.

John was in good spirits and climbing really well but had concerns about some chaffing in the nether regions. So when he stopped to do what a bear does in the woods, I made him remove, not force ably, some underwear to give the boys a little more room.

One piece of equipment that I did not have was my GPS watch. I had brought it with me, but I just couldn't find it in the bus. So I was relying on dead reckoning to know how far we might have gotten. We had roughly nine miles to the next aid station and if we kept up a decent hiking pace around three miles an hour we would keep an hour ahead of the next cutoff. John stayed strong on the ascent, and I figured we were moving around two miles per hour and now would need to make up some time on the descent, which in theory should be pretty easy to do even if John was starting to fatigue a little. His body was in fine shape for the descent the problem became his shoes. Of the six pairs he had to choose from, he unfortunately chose ones that were a little too small. Our pace should have been about five miles per hour but it felt like we were moving even slower than our climb and for the first time I heard frustration from John. It felt like I was doing math homework with my daughter who gets frustrated and vocal and I try to keep my cool and keep focus on moving forward instead of the obstacles. There were a couple times he needed to pound his poles to release the anger at his feet getting beat upon and once he was done there was nothing else to do but move forward as quick as possible so he could change his shoes.

As we got near the aid station I congratulated John on toughing out a challenging course and assuring him that we could make better time on the next section with better shoes. We had managed to keep our hour buffer and Sean tended to John's equipment needs while I worked on hydration and nutrition. He still hadn't been eating too well so after he downed a couple applesauce packets, I had him grab an extra one for the trail. I also took in a few calories, being careful not to reduce the food selection for other runners still behind us.

With John ready to go, I put my pack on and immediately felt a cold stream running down my back. I guess I didn't close my bladder bag too well and I don't know how much water I lost but with only six miles before the next aid station I figured I would still have enough water along with some ice tea in a bottle to get us there.

Of course we had a climb out of the station and I pushed the pace once again. We faced more mud than before and I had to remind John that new muddy shoes were better than dry, short ones. The mud wasn't the big obstacle, it was the rocks. John bitched a little about them and I reminded him about Wyoming Skateboarder and so his complaints stopped maybe fearing that I would leave him behind in the woods of Virginia.

The climb was really brutal but John was steady and when I got excited about a switchback, John found it hard to share in my enthusiasm. Of course, I still did not know how far we had gone but when it felt that we had completed the climb, I gave him back props for such a great effort. Unfortunately the climb was not completely over but we got through the rest of it in good spirits. John had already eaten the applesauce but was still not taking in enough calories and I was having a hard time getting him to take in more and did not let up on him to drink as well. He was definitely starting to tire but was keeping up his pace. It wasn't fast but it was getting him forward and I felt it would keep us ahead of cutoff.

There were plenty of lights when we came into the next aid station at mile 70 and Sean had seats set up near a good campfire. While John sat down, Sean tended to the pack and I made my way to the food table. At that time a volunteer called for someone to tend to the generator, to which no one responded and the lights quickly went out. I managed to find what was left of Coke wanting to give John some caffeine to wake him up. Another runner came in and sat down next to John stating that he was done, quitting. A sense of fear came across me that his spirits would enter John's body, who now closed his eyes. We let him have a little shuteye as we were still getting his gear in order and I searched for my clothes to change my shirt as it was getting a little cold at 2:30 in the morning. We still had our hour buffer but it felt like we were only minutes ahead of John being the recipient of a black rose.

Still without a GPS watch, I told John as we were leaving the aid station that we needed to be better than a three mile per hour pace to stay well ahead of the next cutoff about eight miles away. We had five hours to beat the cutoff but with the profile still featuring ups and downs, and I was sure more rocks that we couldn't afford to let up.

Yes, another climb out of the aid station and John was once again very strong, even after his 90 second nap near the campfire, of which he woke himself up and got right to his feet. The climb was not quite as long as the previous ones but I felt his pace slowing up. Our conversations also began to slow down. I had quizzed John about baseball hitting techniques to share with my son. We also played a few games to keep conversation and laughing, now John just mostly said that he was getting really tired. I was hoping his pace would pick up once we were on the ridge, but his tiredness was hard to overcome and so I began to force feed him. I gave him some chocolate covered espresso beans which he hated but I gave him more and more trying to send a caffeine rush through his body. I don't think it had the effect I was hoping for but at least he wasn't face planting in the middle of the trail.

I kept a close eye on my watch, figuring the sun was going to come up in an hour or so and wanted him to feel ready to really move in the daylight. I told him all that we were doing now was moving a few logs at a time in order to move the woodpile. We didn't really need to move a big stack and tire ourselves out. Just a little constant effort and we would get that woodpile moved and be rewarded with a buckle for John. Unfortunately, it was more like moving a single piece of wood at a time but we were moving and most importantly I never heard John talk about quitting. There was no quit in him. He was exhausted, there was little energy left in him. I began to question if I was failing him. I was wondering if my trail friends back at home would question if I had done enough for him. I didn't want John to fail because I failed him. I wanted him to get that buckle.

We continued to stack wood, as now I was feeding him more than ever, just waiting for the sun to appear. I would hand him some food and tell him to take a bite. Then a minute later to take another bite, and so on and so on. I even gave him countdowns to finish whatever was left in his hand. I was being a little bit of a bitch, but really he was my bitch now and I was going to do whatever I could to bring him back to life.

The sky began to lighten up a little, enough so I could turn off my headlamp and I prepared for big speech time. Having done a little coaching in my day, and being a fan of sports I know that you can give a big speech too early and have it's effects wear off too quickly. Now with the sun lighting our path instead of our headlamps it was time for that speech. It was just before six when I spotted a large downed tree and had John sit down. I still didn't know how far we had to go but that we only had an hour and a half to get him in and out of the next aid station before cutoff, and I really didn't think we were going to make it based upon our pace.

I was real honest with John about our situation and that if we weren't going to make it, I didn't want us to do it through lack of effort. I had him suck down a GU packet while I spoke to him that he didn't come all the way to Virginia to quit, and at the pace we were moving was essentially a quitters pace.

Back on our feet less than two minutes later a team caught up with us. The pacer was actually the doctor who looked in on John thirty miles earlier. I asked them if they knew the mileage. The pacer figured we had around three miles. I don't know if John got the charge I did but now I felt energized that we had a really real chance of beating that cutoff that I was so sure that was going to end John's day.

I was treated to my first view of the valley below us at a clearing marked Q's View, which I wish I had a camera for as my son's name is Quinn. The other team took in the view with us and of course I just had to moon all the houses below us. The other team pulled ahead of us but I wasn't too concerned about that. I was mostly glad that John was showing real signs of life again. I continued to force feed him, mostly GU, trying to regain his full strength. The trail had actually become more runnable and although we weren't on Boston Marathon pace, it was the best pace in hours.

We stepped out onto a dirt road only to see Jess driving by in the opposite direction. It was good to see her all alone, as this meant that now Amy was somewhere in the woods pacing David. Then a car pulled up next to us and slowed down. It was the Grim Reaper. Apparently John had done a little flirting with her at some other aid stations so she full well knew who he was. She told us we still had a couple miles on the road. John did his best to run and I pushed him to do so and I set up landmarks to run to before we could walk again. While walking we saw pavement up ahead, to which John said he couldn't run on that hard surface so I pushed us to the edge of the pavement.

Farther up ahead of us was another team. John did manage to run a little on the pavement and so when we caught up to this team, the pacer thought John was the pacer. We slowed to walk with them and the runner was literally falling asleep next to us. We chatted until the other pacer looked back and saw that a big gap had developed between us and his runner. The road seemed to last forever and I kept an eye on my watch was indicating it was around seven in the morning. We had to have John out of the aid station by 7:30 and I was getting real nervous.

After we dropped the other team, someone came running up the road towards us. I saw that it was Keith and asked about distance. We were close. I still couldn't get John there fast enough. Finally the road stopped twisting and we came out to a main road. I checked for traffic and crossed only to have a local sheriff have to stop to let us cross. Then I looked up the hill to see Sean looking down at us. "GU. GU, get as much GU's as you can, " I shouted to him. He took right off and I got real energized about getting John to this point and shared my enthusiasm with him and how proud of him that he had done it.

At the aid station, we didn't even let John sit down as it was quarter past seven. Sean was taking over pacing duties now. It was hard to turn John over to him. In no way was I questioning that Sean was going to do a great job, it just felt like I had invested so much in John's run that I didn't want to lose that control. Besides, I'm sure John must have been sick of my force feeding and drinking, and general nuisance to keep him going. My job was now crew duty, and I was glad to do it.

They took off and I dropped my hiking poles and celebrated the fact that John was still in the race. The other runner came in and sat down, still with a few minutes to get out of the station but really calling it quits. I tried to motivate him  a little, but I myself was spent. I had to hold back some tears thinking that John was going to get his buckle and that I had a part of that accomplishment.

I did treat myself to some food while the crew began to dissemble the station. Erin's crew was anxiously waiting for her to come while the other runner was asleep in his chair. I packed up our gear and drove to the next aid station, less than a mile away but ten miles away for John and Sean.

Upon getting to the Picnic Aid Station, I organized the contents of the bus a little and made a phone call back home to Maine before I laid down for a little nap. John had three and a half hours to cover the twelve miles and stay in the race. Despite getting less than an hours sleep over the past twenty eight hours I still found it hard to rest and was soon up and around. Runners were coming and going. I wasn't expecting John and Sean anytime soon based upon the runners that I recognized.

The aid station was doing better on food than some of the others, I guess because more and more runners were dropping or not meeting cutoffs, so I didn't feel too guilty about getting just a cup of coffee. Runners coming in were in all different states; some tired, some happy, some pretty broken, but not a single one of them quit. Everyone I saw still pressed on. They were at the eighty nine mile mark and the course actually covered one hundred and four miles, and no one was stopping.

I didn't step in to help out other crews like the day before. I stood at the ready but all crews were spot on the job. I was amazed that a couple of the crews were wives with young children. I thought my job was tough, but I can't imagine carting kids through the woods of Virginia at night.

I had no expectation to see John and Sean for quite sometime but after ten thirty I began to be on the lookout. We had to have him out of here before eleven and if he had been able to pick back up his pace he should have be arriving pretty soon I figured. Again, the waiting was the hardest part. Damn you Tom Petty.

Less and less runners were now coming in and there weren't many crews left. The air was cool and it felt like it could rain any moment but I was still more concerned as to John's location than getting caught in a rain storm. I can't sit still. I look at my watch every thirty seconds. I congratulate another runner who heads back onto the course. Now there are only two other teams left and time is moving faster than the runners still out there.

One runner leaves and I start to overhear volunteers discussing how many runners are still out on the course. It is a surprising number, one. That can't be right, there are two teams still here. I don't want to be pushy so I wait for a break in their conversation before I step in and ask them if there are really two and give them John's bib number. Someone radios another aid station to which crews were not allowed to get to, and we find out that yes indeed John and another runner are still out there. That other runner finally comes in a short time later. She doesn't have much time to get in and out but does beat the cutoff. One volunteer quietly says to me that she won't beat the next cutoff, I am glad to report that she proves him wrong and does buckle.

Now it's only a few minutes before eleven and there is no sign of John. Volunteers are taking down the aid station and I can't bear to look only focusing on where I should be seeing John coming in from. The Grim Reaper arrives upon the scene and I decide to walk down the trail just hoping to see them. At the pre-race meeting, the Grim Reaper alluded that she may let runners continue on past cut-off if they are looking good and don't have any visible trouble. As it is now a minute before eleven I'm hoping for that kind of leniency.

As the minutes tick past eleven and the volunteers pack up, I know our race is over. I want to negotiate with the Reaper but I have no idea what state John is going to be in or when he is actually going to be there. The race director said cut-off times were firm and I didn't want conflict between him and her.

Ten minutes past, no sign. Eleven. Twelve, Damn it. Fourteen, Sixteen. Shit. Seventeen. Mother Trucker. Eighteen. Fudge. Nineteen. Wait there they are. Time for the end of the movie slow clap. John knows it's over. But he's smiling. A small grimace surfaces for a moment, but overall he's smiling. I try my best to, and can't remember what I say, other than how proud I really am.

The Reaper comes over to check on him, and John gives her is numbers, race number not phone number. But this all brings out a greater smile on his face while we get shoes off and a fresh shirt on. I don't question Sean. I help him get some food and liquids. John says he has no interest in taking another shot at a buckle in a race he's already registered for in August. I don't respond back, I just want him to free his mind of racing for a little while. He's been on his feet and racing for over thirty four hours now. He deserves to think of nothing. His only thoughts should be of laying down and getting some rest. Ironically, I find out later that David finishes his race just about the same time as John, but he does it by getting across the finish line.

John is laughing a smiling as he is given his well earned Black Rose. A few photos are taken and we are allowed to take any leftover food we'd like. The reward for being the last team on the course I guess. Sadly we pull out of the area, with a volunteer asking us at the gate if there is anyone behind us.

We do have to go back to the starting/finish area as I've left my tent there and we do get to see a few runners on the road close to the finish. We come across Nikki who says that Russ is past the last aid station and has a few miles to the finish. John is kind of in and out of sleep as we breakdown our tent and make our way out, asking him if he wants to hang around or not. We say that we will go find a motel room for the night in order to get properly cleaned up and a good night's sleep before we try to get back to Maine the next day. Understandably, John doesn't really want to hang out and I'm kind of glad as I just want to get on the road and back towards home.

Still, despite the lack of sleep, I'm pretty wired as we hit the highway northbound. John is now out. Sean once again navigating and we learn there are some pretty nasty storms due to hit the race area so we are especially glad to have gotten out of there. I figure I can drive for about three hours and that will put us somewhere into Pennslyvannia. Sometime after we do cross into that state John suddenly rises up real quick and asks where we are. He can't believe we've gone that far. He must have been in a dead sleep with zero brain waves. He only stays up for a minute before he is back down.

We set our sights on Harrisburg and John is back up before we see signs for motel/hotels. A Holiday Inn has a room with two beds and a pullout sofa at a decent price and we are set for the night. We are all laughing and joking recapping the day's events and thankful for the experience. I am amazed at John's spirit and attitude, knowing that I probably would have been acting much differently under the same circumstances.

It feels good to be clean after a few days of travel and racing and Sean and I go to a grocery store once again. This time for beer and not race food. For dinner we find a brew pub, The Appalachian Brewery and John is so excited they have poutine on the the menu. Sure we question what might have been, or how we could have done things differently but none one us feels like there was never any quit on the course. We discover that someone back home has posted on-line that John dropped from the race, and we, really especially Sean and I go in a uproar that he didn't drop. We were there to witness him doing all that he could do to stay in that race. His feet just couldn't stay ahead of the minute hand. He could have kept going. He could have squeezed out the last fifteen miles. Father time just didn't let him.

After I buy a growler and some pint glasses for my wife's birthday the next day, I already had some other presents ready, we leave the restaurant and get a little off course getting back to the hotel. We are treated to a double rainbow on the edge of the field and it feels a little like hitting an aid station, as nearly all cars on the road are stopping and occupants rushing out.

With a few beers left in the fridge, we share some more laughs before one by one falling asleep. Up and out in the morning and the bus smells like a locker room. The front end is covered in dead bugs and John insists that he is going to come to my house to help clean up. I tell the guys this trip was kind of like going on fishing trip, except we didn't catch anything, but the adventure is going to be an excellent memory.

It is Monday and my wife's birthday and I am looking forward to getting home. I hope to be home in time for my son's little league game and to crack open that growler with my wife. We make decent time until we get stuck in traffic for about half an hour in Connecticut. We make a stop lunch and I decide that I am finally going to turn the keys over to Sean. As he turns over the engine he says the battery light is on. I tell him to back out and let's just see  what happens when we move. He struggles to turn the wheel. He immediately says he is worried about the alternator belt as it is all connected to the power steering, something I did not know.

To make a short story of all this, the belt broke, my so-called service provider was awful and we did manage to finally get someone to tow us to their garage. Sean and John were extremely patient considering the situation, much more than me. The tow driver could only take two in his vehicle, which quickly became me and John, and Sean began the three mile walk to the garage. Upon hearing out story, the driver went back to pick up Sean after dropping us off.

After a little inspection of the bus, I'm told the a/c compressor is blown and there is no way that is getting fixed at four in the afternoon, especially since the part is certainly not stocked. Good news is they can get a belt on and get us home safe and sound. Back on the road, I'm driving with urgency to get home after apologizing and wishing my wife a happy birthday in the same breath.

We can pick up John's dog on the way home as she is staying with fellow Trail Monsters, Pete and Mindy Slovinsky. John says that he'll drive back from my place in Freeport, wanting me to get home, but I insist on stopping knowing my family will be asleep anyway. Sean and John can't wait to urinate and I have to pull into a church lot not far from the Slovinsky's house. Just another part of the adventure.

We drop off Sean in Portland and I finally get home and help John pack up his car left at my place. There's not much left to say at this point. John's happy, I know disappointed but thankful for the experience. And I'm glad as much, after missing a few days with  my family that we have all become better friends and not bitter or upset with one another despite all we've been through.

Months ago when John first asked me to pace I had to check my calendar. Even though it was her birthday weekend my wife insisted that I go help John. I owed John so much for helping me to earn my own buckle the year before. Mo also knew I always wanted to pace and this was a great chance for an awesome adventure. Even though more things filled our calendar for that weekend, she still insisted that I go to Virginia. I am very thankful to her and I know the rest of the crew is as well. I think they got to know and admire her as I talked about her throughout the trip.

Looking back at the whole adventure, that's exactly what is was, an adventure. It was much more than your Sunday morning 5K at the local high school or even any other race where you get a participants medal for finishing. It took courage, extraordinary effort, mental toughness, some bitch-slapping, even some compassion, along with laughs and smiles for John to earn his rose. Less than a week later when John and I were helping set up for the Pineland Trail Festival, John said to me he should have finished the race. I don't know if I told him out loud or not, so listen to me now John. You could have finished that race, they just didn't let you. How could they have let you cross that finish line after thirty six hours with that big smile on your face? People would see your photo and think this race was lots of fun and possibly easy and that anyone could finish. Truth is, it was one hellish race and I am amazed at the attitude and spirit John was able to possess throughout. A job well done John, now you've got five seconds to finish eating whatever is your hand.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Understanding a DNF

Breaking my leg, losing control over my digestive system, or poking my eye on an unseen branch would all seem logical reasons for dropping out of a race. So while I was in the midst of running a 50K race with none of those or other things happening to my body,I just couldn't seem to find the motivation to cross the finish line.
     The race was the Big Brad Ultra back in October of 2013 and it was a beautiful fall morning, the kind of day that runner's really dream of. The trees were full of color, the sun was warming the air just enough so that waiting around for the start was comfortable without any extra layers. I had trained well, and knew the course really well as this was my training ground and having completed the fifty mile distance the year before. Everything was perfect. Except for that four chambered organ on the left side of my chest. I didn't know it, even the best doctor in the world  wouldn't have known at the time, that it was broken.
     Runners at all levels will say that your mind can overcome any defaults of your body during a race. I do believe that your brain is a very important organ for running, but if your heart isn't enjoying the thrills of moving your feet over this planet of ours, than your race is pretty much done.
     The trouble with my heart that day didn't happen suddenly in one unforeseen moment. It had begun breaking late that summer with the passing of my grandmother. Elizabeth "Bamie" Pease Whitaker was born on May 1, 1913 in a world much different than the one most of us  know. She lived until August 14, 2013 seeing the world change in how we communicate, how we travel, how we entertain ourselves, how our families are made and how we seek out adventure. Babe Ruth was still pitching for the Red Sox without yet hitting a home run, we didn't even have fifty states, the war to end all wars was happening in Europe and even her husband wasn't quite yet born.
     She had made it to the century marker, a goal that many crazy ultra runners seek to reach. But after reaching that threshold, she didn't really want to go on any further. We had a family celebration a few days before her actual birthday but I was fortunate enough to go to lunch with her and my parents on her actual birthday. As we were leaving the restaurant, the waitress said she would see us next year, Bamie said that she hoped not. Her health was fine, if not good for someone 100 years old, she was still able to go on walks in the woods near where she lived. Her mind was sharp, still reading books, playing cards and enjoying watching golf on television. Truth is, she was just tired. Her husband, Pop, had passed away fourteen years prior, and she was losing more friends than most were making. When an ultra runner crosses a finish line they don't keep going. So after an accident in her apartment, breaking her hip and her body too sensitive to survive a surgery, one that she had actually overcome remarkably well five years prior, she decided that her race, her time to tread her feet across this orb floating through the universe, was to come to an end.
     Nearly two months later, my family was able to gather once again to celebrate her life and to say our good byes. We gathered in Connecticut the day before the Big Brad in order to lay her remains next to her husband in a cemetery not far from where the two went to separate schools, one for the boys and one for the girls. It was a very informal ceremony for our small family, no church service, just a time for any of us to share any thoughts of the last family member of her generation. I had only been to this town previously for Pop's funeral when my niece and nephew were of similar age to my own children. Now my niece Emily was in college and even though she was outwardly the saddest of us all, I was happy to know that she loved and was loved by Bamie and that my own daughter, who was merely seven would be able to have her own memories of a woman that lived a life of virtue, principle and love.
     Spending nearly seven hours in a car was certainly not what I wanted to do the day before attempting to run thirty one miles. There was no way I was not going to Connecticut and there was no way I was not going to give my best in the race. Despite the sadness of the day before, I did arrive at the race in a light mood. How could I not, given the race conditions and also upon meeting up with many running friends prior to the start of the race?
     The race starts by going uphill for nearly a mile, some parts being quite steep when the trail isn't twisting and turning and I paced myself well knowing to save plenty of energy for the next thirty miles. I was feeling very good, and after I crossed a road and an aid station I found myself in a small group as we ran on the East side of the park. I was running faster than I should have, but I was feeling good, and enjoying the company. My thoughts were only of making wisecracks and marveling at what a blessing it was to be on the trails that day.
    The group stayed together through two more aid stations but slowly began to disperse as we began to run follow a road for a little more than a mile. Even though the road allowed me to stop focusing on keeping my footing, it still had a long hard hill that made me slow my pace in order to save energy. It was here that I spoke more with the only one of the pack that was still close to me. His name was John, and this was his first ultra. We discovered we were very similar in that we both had young children and finding the time to train and have a family life was a great challenge.
     John and I stayed close to one another over the next six miles, keeping our pace steady yet not exhausting us for the upcoming second loop of the course. In doing the rough math in my head, I was calculating that we might be able to finish somewhere near the five hour mark. I actually hadn't set a goal for the race as I had loftier goals for an upcoming trail marathon in a couple of weeks. I was pretty thrilled at the prospect of anything less than five and a half hours and as John and I came back down to the starting area I knew I really needed to slow myself down in order to reach my goal time in the upcoming marathon.
     As I refueled my body at the aid station, John's children enthusiastically greeted their father. I looked on in jealousy. My son Quinn was attending a birthday party driving slot cars and my wife was getting alone time with Maggie. I didn't ask them or expect them to spend a lovely day cheering me on. It seemed rather selfish of me to ask that of them. I do get a thrill seeing them at the finish line or anytime along a course but in no way do I make those demands. And I'm sure that John made no such demands either. But as we started back up the long hill I really wanted to see joy and happiness from my own children, and so slowly my race and my heart began to break apart.
     There was a little tweak in my right hamstring that gave me the excuse to let John jump ahead of me and let him take advantage of his new found energy. As I reached the summit alone and looking out to the ocean I wondered why I wanted to go on. Why did I need to finish this race? I moved on, that's all, not sure why other than telling myself there was no reason to stop. Unsure there was reason to go on.
     As I was about to come back out of the woods near the aid station approaching the East side, I recognized among a group of hikers a man I used to coach soccer against. Despite being rivals, we were always very friendly and so when the race forced me only to say a quick and friendly hello, I was slightly bummed I couldn't take more time to catch up. I began to wonder what he may have thought of me being partially demented for running through these woods instead of taking more time to savor the miraculous splendor of nature.  Thus, I began to wonder this myself. I thought of Bamie taking walks and how much she knew of nature's surroundings. She would tell us about the trees, plants and flowers she would see changing through the seasons. If we didn't recognize or know about some of the floral or fauna she would always say incredulously, "You don't know tha?t" Kind of like the way a teenager might talk to their parent about the latest musician or Youtube video. But Bamie knew more about things that were here well before our species ever existed and hopefully after us as well. Even despite all my hours and miles spent in the same setting I am lucky to be able to tell the difference between a pine and birch tree. Was I missing something by moving at my pace? Was I not appreciating this world? And even more important, was I missing the blossoming and flowering of my children?
     I took in nourishment at the aid station before crossing to the East side being rather quiet thinking back to the year before when I witnessed another runner drop from the race at the same place. I thought this might be the time to drop. But I couldn't really come up with a reason why I actually should. The hamstring was a little tight but not disabling me. The race director's wife was acting as a crossing guard and when she said her husband was only a couple minutes ahead of me, I crossed the road at a light pace, where normally I usually set my sights on being as close to or ahead of him in a race. Now, I really couldn't have cared less if he was able to somehow lap me. Understanding that motivation was missing, I searched my soul for a reason to finish.
     My mind raced faster than my feet searching for the motivation. I thought of being strong and finishing in memory of my grandmother. But the more I thought about her, the more I felt the grief I felt back in August visiting her in her final days. Finishing this race wasn't going to ever move that grief away. I'm not going to carry it with me every moment, but it's a part of life, it's part of loving someone.
     Ironically, in close to the same place on the trail where I decided to quit my only other race ever, I sat down. I just flat out stopped running, I didn't start walking to keep moving, I just sat my skinny, white butt down on a rock. My previous withdrawal from a race was at the inaugural Bradbury Bruiser 12 miler in 2007 after I took a bad fall cutting open both knees, bruising my upper thigh bone and quitting only because running or walking was more painful than brushing my teeth with a cheese grater.  The worst part after sitting on this rock for a few moments was that I realized that I couldn't just quit this race. It wasn't like I was out on the Boston Marathon course where I could just walk onto a sidewalk and arrange a ride. I was in the middle of the woods now really all by myself when I instead wanted to be with Quinn racing go karts, or having Maggie read to me. This gave me more grief as I had to get off my skinny, white butt and get home.
     There were only about nine miles left in the race as I got back to the aid station. It seemed so stupid to quit with only nine miles left. I was uncharacteristically quiet at the station, eating some M & M's staring out to the trail that lay ahead. "Oh screw it," I thought to myself and forged ahead. I didn't want to run, but I didn't want to quit. I couldn't find reason to try and track down runners ahead of me who may be getting weak, and I didn't care that runners might catch up with me. The beauty of the day only seemed to piss me off even more as I just couldn't find anymore joy in it.
     Still struggling to find motivation, I found another rock to sit down upon. Why couldn't I be somewhere in the forests or mountains with my family. Hopefully in a few more years Mo and I would have a hard time keeping up with the kids along a trail. How will I be able to find a balance between their future extra-ciriccular activities and my running? As that question popped into my mind, I got up, figuring I should go on while I still could.
     Despite finding a little motivation, it wasn't enough. I barely moved my feet. My mind had gotten my body moving again, but my heart couldn't make it move anywhere near a pace I was capable of running. Then I heard someone behind me. I looked back and saw a guy who I didn't recognize from the 50K field, and figured he must be on his final lap of the fifty miler. He looked more like a sponsored runner from the West more than a father who struggles to find time to train and race. Despite his appearance, it seemed like it took him forever to catch up to me as we wound around many curves while going uphill. I just wanted him to get past me so I could continue on with my pity party. He commented to me on the ruggedness of the course, which I took as a compliment from a Western looking runner as I was one the few runners to complete the course the previous year.
As I thought back to the joy I felt finishing last year's race, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to find the same joy finishing the race this year. I didn't foresee any joy, any happiness crossing the finish line. I looked more forward to being home with my family. Crossing the finish line was not going to feed my ego or id. I didn't look forward to snuggling up with a new hoodie sweatshirt, the prize given to finishers. I looked forward to snuggling up on the couch reading a book with my kids or playing with legos. With this realization, I finally stepped off the course, turning uphill towards the summit versus turning downhill. To have to quit by going uphill seemed like justice to me, and I actually stepped up my pace in order to get home as quick as possible.
     There were runners coming toward me as I now made my way downhill back to the starting area. I cheered them all on and wished them well as I respected each and every one of them. I couldn't do what they were doing that day. It bothered me greatly not to be one of them but I would soon be home. I was hoping to be able to take a side trail to stay out of view coming into the starting area. Instead a fellow Trail Monster runner, Jamie Anderson, had positioned himself in the woods to cheer on runners. As he began to cheer for me, I let him know that I was done, I was quitting. He lead me to race officials so I could officially quit and have my race numbers removed so they wouldn't be looking for me later in the day. He and the officials were questioning me to see if I was physically alright and needed any medical help. When asked if I needed anything, I replied, "Yah, a shrink," and I walked off to my car and headed home.
     It should have been a scene from the Walton's or Family Ties, when the family is so happy to have the family patriarch coming home. Instead, I was faced with the question on why was I home so early. It was hard to answer those questions not only to my young children and beautiful wife, but also to myself. I didn't give any great or totally honest answers and did my best to just engage in some outside family activities. I may have just run twenty three miles, but I still had plenty of energy to grab some tennis rackets and head over to the nearby court. The picture of domestic tranquility I had in my mind became further distorted as the kids didn't really want to do anything outside, and practically had to be bribed into playing tennis despite the fact that Maggie has been asking to play so much. Their lack of skill at the sport and my inability to teach them how to hit a ball made for an unpleasant and frustrating time at the court.
     Back at home, I figured watching the Patriots rack up another victory might have some bonding experience, and I also just really wanted to catch the second half. Instead, the Pats lost to the Jets on a bogus call on a field goal attempt. What else could go wrong on this beautiful day?
Finally, I got the chance to talk with Mo about the race. And to be honest with her. I shared my thoughts on how I might be missing and neglecting our family. How I hated missing being with Quinn racing cars that morning. How I came to the realization of this while looking back at Bamie's life and how she raised my father to sacrifice some of his own ambitions so that my brother and I could seek out ours, with my mother offering all she could to us as well. Mo assured me that I was not absent from our children's lives. That my ambitions of running crazy distances through the woods was not going to result in our children having long mental therapy sessions wondering if their father loved them more than bashed toenails and chaffing in unmentionable places. No. Mo assured me this was not happening. Together we had found a balance to it all, or at least as best as we could. It wasn't going to be perfect, some sacrifices had and would be made.
     Crossing that finish line that day would not have had me realize the joy I do have from running silly distances in silly places. I would have been happy to finish. People would have been proud of me as I finished. I can picture how Bamie would have reacted to me telling her that I didn't finish. She would have just lightly frowned, shrugged her shoulders a little bit and give a slight moan. It didn't really matter. Life would go on. Her opinion of me wouldn't change. She was a constant, part of a generation that knew what mattered most and did whatever it took to achieve success. My success isn't crossing a finish line. My success is to be there as a happy and healthy individual supporting my family. Running helps me to do that. I needed to drop out of the race that day to learn that.

Bloggers note: I was able to get back on that proverbial horse and finish a trail marathon two weeks later. Look back at my blog to November 2013. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Bridge Removal

Sometime over the past ten or eleven years I became one of those slightly deranged people who like to run on trails. I really don't remember exactly where or when or even what motivated me to move from a nice brisk hiking pace to one of sometimes reckless abandoment. Now all I seem to know is that when I spend a number of days living my life like society says that I am supposed to that I am not happy with that person I am at that moment.
One of the first places I can really recall running on trails was at Hedgehog Mountain here in Freeport. I found a nice network of trails there right near our dump, and it became my favorite place to walk with my first husky, Quasi. I'm not sure if I was jealous of watching him gracefully running through the forests or I just wanted to try out some new shoes I had gotten at work that were called "trail runners."
All I know from there is that I loved it. I was fortunate that just about that time a local running club was being formed in the area and that soon I was able to hook up with other people who found the same passion and that there were actual races to compete in as well.
I don't know what the spark was for all those others either but I do know why the spark has become a flame that can't really be extinquished. That flame is a bridge. Not a real bridge, but some kind of metaphorical bridge that exists in our minds and stomachs, can be felt tingling in our fingertips, wondering can I do it? Can I really do that race? Can I run that far? Can I overcome that pain? And will all that training and sacrifice be worthwhile if I do, or don't?
Trails change all the time. It can be due to the change of season when mud overtakes snow, tress fall in the way, trees get removed, landowners aim gets better, etc... Since I started running with Quasi I've seen many changes to the trails at Hedgehog. Most minor that may make my feet move in a new direction as I'm now running these trails with my two year old husky Wild.
One major change took place late this summer on a Wednesday night. There was an extremely heavy rainfall that night that caused some flooding in our area. I wasn't out running that night. I was actually sitting at home worried about my wife who was out running with some friends preparing for a half marathon. Our sump pump couldn't even keep up with the rain, and as I cleaned up the cellar I anxiously waited for her to come home. Fortunately, she made it home safely despite having to drive around some flooded out roads.
There is one bridge on the Hedgehog trails that didn't survive. It was put there by some snowmobilers for them to cross a stream that lies in a gully between some hills. It was pretty wide and not all that even with a good six to ten inches between the planks. Whenever I came upon it running I always had to slow down to carefully walk across it not wanting to slip off it. Not that I would ever drown if I fell. I was more concerned about twisting my ankle or knee, still a nicer concern to have than to be hit by a car driven by a driver texting their grocery list to someone else.
Now what remains of that bridge has been washed downstream a couple hundred feet. Someone did throw a few big rocks in the stream for people to negotiate over to avoid soaked feet. I still need to slow down to cross and even stop to let Wild get a drink.
After having completed my first one hundred miler earlier this summer, I feel as if another bridge is gone. I know what I am capable of. I know the sacrifices I have made are worthwhile as the feeling I have after that race are indescribable but lie deep in my soul. I know that there are still many other bridges that exist that I look forward to crossing before they are swept away by nature and time. Perhaps running on all these trails has helped me live life in this world as it has been created for all of us. All I really know is that despite changes I need to go on being the person I want to be.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Timeless Race

Sometime during the summer I decided to stop using my watch for my runs. I knew roughly the distance of most of my runs but did nothing back at home to keep track of just how many miles I was putting in for a given week. I still had kind of a training schedule, with one long run a week interspersed with shorter runs at a faster pace. So when I arrived at Bradbury Mountain State Park for the twelve mile Bradbury Bruiser race, I had absolutely no idea how I was going to perform versus my past performances.
I was really looking forward to this race as I hadn’t seen many other Trail Monster runners over the course of the summer. I had run the Scuffle but missed out on the Breaker as I spent that weekend hiking with my family. So there would be no Bad Ass hoodie for me at the end of this race for completing the series. One of my goals over the summer was not to become a Bad Ass runner but to allow time and opportunity to spend with my family, which for the most part was completed.
Since I hadn’t run most of the summer with a watch, I decided to leave mine at home for this race. I was a little inspired by Bob McGuire who I knew raced sans timepiece. I met up with him and many other friends before the race. When I told Bob I was taking his lead, he did confide in me that he usually trained with a watch, which had me wondering if this was such a good idea after all.
In talking with people before the race, a common question arose, “What race is next?” To which I did not have an answer. Most people didn’t probe too much, but George the Jedi really didn’t accept that answer and probed some more while we stood in the starting coral. So I began to ask him a little about the Massanuten 100 miler. While he excitedly told me all about it, I glanced behind us and noticed that there were a lot more people behind us than in front of us. Normally I don’t like to start in the front at this race as it starts out with lots of twists and turns on the trail and you really can’t get a fast pace going until about three miles into the race so it’s not that bad to move slow and make up time later on.
As the race started I really enjoyed having a little more space than I’m used to. I wasn’t stuck behind a slow moving group and there wasn’t anyone right on my heels either. I ran close to a few runners and there was a little changing of positions. Jim Gott was right with me as we were swapping places with Rebecca Miller. I was pleased I was able to stay on pace with these two as Jim has been training with the upcoming 50 miler at Bradbury and Rebecca has had a stellar summer of races. I caught sight of John Rodrigue and Zak Wieluns and pushed myself to catch up with them eager to strike up a conversation.
I made up a little song for John as I pulled in behind him. I was a little surprised to find Zak not closer to the lead pack, but when he told me about his race a little while ago in Ireland and how he was fighting some bad hamstrings I knew I shouldn’t let him lead our pack and potentially due more damage to his legs. So I pulled ahead hoping that I could pull him and others along, kind of like taking a turn at the front of a bike peleton.
When I got to the first aid station, most of the peleton had fallen behind except for Jim and another runner. I let both of them pass, as I took time to drink my full cup of water and chat a little with Jamie Anderson who was working at the station. I didn’t fall too far behind and was soon within a few strides of Jim.
The trail got a little technical again and I was able to pass Jim while still feeling that I wasn’t over exceeding my effort level. There were a couple other guys close by, one of them whom I had seen at many other races but was never formally introduced. So as we ran together and talked about football games later in the day, I formally introduced myself. He said his name is Nate Pike and that he was going to be doing a Spartathalon next week in Vermont. Although I tend to look down upon many themed races this one was not one I thought your normal weekend warrior could take on without some serious training. I had all sorts of questions about his training but only got to ask a few before we turned onto the snowmobile trail where he and another runner pulled out ahead of me.
The three of us were able to catch up to our race director Ian Parlin, and while the two busted up the hill I spent sometime talking with Ian. At the next aid station I once again took my time, still totally unaware of what my time was but pleased that I was placed near some good runners. I was hoping to be able to catch back up with Ian, and when I saw him just up ahead pulling some leaves off a tree branch I knew I had the opportunity to distance myself from him while he made his nature stop.
As the trail began to take it’s normal twists and turns again I was able to catch back up with Nate and the other runner. The three of us all moved together at conversational pace. The other runner, Bob Arsenault, talked a little how he got stuck behind a small train of runners earlier in the race whom he said were just chit-chatting. I told him that was probably me, John and Zak. And so while the three of us chit-chatted the miles quickly flew by.
Waiting for us at the last aid station was Iron Joe handing out water before we turned onto the dreaded O-Trail for the last couple of miles. I talked a little with Joe letting the others pull ahead and drank down my water. I quickly caught up with Nate and then another runner and then they both let me pull out ahead of them. To those unfamiliar with the O-Trail I will quickly describe it as the large intestine of trails and running on it you feel like a lump of partially digested food making it’s way through the digestive system. To my delight however, I was feeling still really fresh but knew if I pushed much harder my feeling could quickly change.
There are so many twists that you can see many other runners but be totally unaware just how far ahead or behind you are from the others. So when I began to catch sight of Bob once again I just wasn’t sure how close I was. He had said earlier that he hated leading people on this part of the race as it would suck energy away. So when I caught up to him, I thought there might be a chance to get past him. Instead, his pace only increased, and anytime the trail was straight he made the most of the opportunity and pulled farther ahead of me. I enjoyed keeping on his pace even from a distance and was feeling better than usual at this point of the race.
It can be very challenging to stay on the course with all the turns and I really appreciated the orange tape set up at a few of the more challenging turns. The tape was a great addition and perhaps next year there may be a few more places to add some. As I spotted other runners I had to make sure that I clearly saw an American flag sewn on the back of one before I shouted out encouragement to John who was having a stellar performance.
Bob was still in sight when we caught up to another runner who appeared to have all his energy sucked away from him by the O-Trail as we blazed by him. Not long after that I took the final turn off the O and picked my pace up not wanting to get caught in the final moments of the race.
I was unable to catch up with Bob before reaching the finishing chute. I must have been charging pretty hard as I came in when Ryan Triffit hollered for me to stop and then ripped off my info tag from my bib.
Even though I ran the race not concerned about my time, now I had to know. It was kind of like taking a test in school and wanting the teacher to grade it right away. Only now, I had to seek out runners close to me instead of the listing of grades posted on a professor’s door. (Yah, it’s been awhile since I’ve been in school.) I saw the one runner just behind me and he told me that he finished at 1:47. My PR for this race is just at 1:45 and to be about two minutes off was very pleasing. The conditions for the day had been perfect, as the sun was out but there was a chill in the air and the ground was just soft enough to have some good grip.
I hung out for awhile more sharing in the glory of the day with some great people. Before I slipped out of there, I did glance at the finisher’s board (literally a board) and saw that I had placed in twenty-fifth, later I would find out there were about one hundred fifty finishers.
Despite not wearing a watch during the race, I did need to be conscious of the time of day as I needed to pick up the kids and get to work later in the day. Looking back now, I think the real joy of not running with a watch is not about the race itself but that I didn’t need to be aware of any other moments of the day. There will always be time to measure time, why not live moments of pleasure in the absence of time.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Bad Ass Shin Splints

       I will admit that I felt pretty much like a bad ass coming off my hundred mile race. Maybe, justly so a little bit but I know I alone was not responsible for getting my ass across that finish line. And it was hard as hell to cross that finish line but, I found out about a month later that sometimes just getting to the starting line can be something rather epic unto itself.
It was that time of the summer when I go with my family to Indiana to visit my wife’s family. I usually get some free time for a few hours while Mo’ takes the kids off to see old friends or other family members. So what do I do, yah, I go for a run.
I drove down just off the Butler University campus to run along the canal trails. These are not trails like I’m used to running. These are flat, packed down dirt trails that are nearly as fast as running on roads, except you don’t have to worry about getting hit by texting drivers.
The only problem with running on these trails in Indiana in July is that it is hot! I’m on vacation so I don’t want to wake up at 5 a.m. in order to beat the heat, and even then it is usually hotter than I’m used to back home in Maine. So after helping getting the kids ready for the day and while Mo is visiting with one friend before going off to visit another I slip off to the canal sometime around eleven in the morning.
I park just off the campus and stepping out of the car I practically melt. Ugh, this is going to be rough. I have not been running all that much since my last race. Sure I’m still in decent shape but I decide to take it easy and not push the pace like I like to do along these trails.
Most of the details of the run escape me, which is good so as not to bore you the reader. But I’m sure this is mostly what I saw. A few runners and walkers who would not look me in the eye, least of all say hello as they are accustomed to this routine as there are usually too many people to acknowledge everyone. Also, there are turtles managing to find sunny spots to perch on in the canal, either logs or rocks, but I am always amused to see them and remember winning plastic turtles at the fair back in my youth.
I refrain from looking at my watch too much not wanting to push the pace in order to go a little farther rather than a little faster. I manage to make it to the end of the canal path as it meets a road and I do a little u-turn while a young man stretches out in order to get ready for his run. I do a quick inspection of his outfit and shoes and decide that although I may be twice his age I can still probably run his ass into the ground. Why should I even care if I can? Maybe I want him to be humbled by someone like me just in order to inspire him to be someone like me.
On the way back I decided to take a little side trail, which is actually a trail by the Indianapolis Art Museum leading around a pond. It’s less than three quarters of a mile around the pond, but it’s single track and you’ve got to be aware of your footing, so it’s by far my most favorite part of the run.
On the rest of the run back I just keep hoping that I’m close to the car, as it is too friggin’ hot and I’ve got a few ideas on what I want to do for the next hour or so. Which means getting whatever it is I want to eat, and I have a favorite place in Indy that is not too far away.
I keep sucking down water as I pull into King’s Rib Barbeque on Keystone Avenue. Mo’ read about it in a book some years ago and since then it seems that no trip to Indy is complete without going to King’s. It is a rather unusual place as it is a converted car wash and you can only do takeout. Fine by me, and I place my usual order for the tips and am surprised to find out that they now actually accept credit cards. I also order a quart of their sauce to slather on all kinds of food back in Maine.
I am so looking forward to feasting on the tasty tips back at my in-laws but decided to make one more stop before getting back. The Blue Mile is a nice running store located in the Broad Ripple district. And although I can’t remember the last time I ever bought anything there, I always enjoy having a look around.
The store was pretty busy when I walked in, and walked in still feeling pretty much like a bad ass. I was wearing my tech shirt from the TARC 100, which was actually rather inconspicuous. Most of the customers were female, and appeared to probably be on their lunch-breaks while I was the only one who was gleaming of sweat which made me feel even more bad ass since I had dared to run in weather that was only suitable for frying eggs in the parking lot.
I overheard one lady at the counter telling the clerk that she was having really bad shin splints and was hoping for some help. She did not have a runner’s build and the snobbish side of my brain just wanted to tell her to drop about thirty pounds and then the pain would likely vanish.
Meanwhile, I picked out a couple pairs that I just wanted to try and I waited patiently while one of the clerks finally got me some to try out.
I happily bounced around the shop, not in love with any of the shoes, and picking the displays off the wall to try out as well since they were close enough to my size to get an idea of the comfort and support. The lady with the shin splits then sat down across from the clerk and took out a pair of shoes that she had been using, wondering if they were causing her any of the pain in her shins. I secretly began to listen in to the conversation as I was still a little curious about shin splits as I had excruciating pain in my left shin following my century run. It was awful. For sometime I seriously thought I might have actually broken my leg it hurt so much. I had missed some days of work as I could barely get out of bed in the morning and couldn’t get comfortable at night to sleep. My whole body had ached badly after that race but I just couldn’t shake the pain in that leg. My doctor diagnosed what I thought it was but said there was nothing I could do. He also said that I really couldn’t damage it any worse so two weeks after my race I went ahead with previously made plans to hike the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire.
A friend of mine, Andy, had turned forty back in May and wanted to do something epic to celebrate. So on my suggestion we decided to do the Traverse on the summer solistice. He had a couple friends from work join us, who were a decade younger than us. It was by far the most painful twenty miles I had ever done in my life as we summited seven peaks all over at least four thousand feet, and higher. I have absolutely no regrets about putting my leg through so much pain as we had mostly a very clear, albeit cold day. I was especially pleased that at the end of it all I still felt like I had energy left while the young guys who were hard to keep up with during our eleven hour hike were mostly spent.
The pain only got slightly worse while trying to recover from that event. I did finally discover some methods on-line to rid myself of the pain. So I spent the better part of a day stretching and icing that leg and miracuously the next morning when I woke up the pain was gone. I don’t mean that it felt better, I mean it felt normal. Like nothing had ever been wrong. So now I listened to the slightly overweight woman asking what could be done.
She just didn’t say that her shins hurt and hoped different shoes help. Instead, she opened up. She said she was training for a 5K along with some friends that would benefit the American Heart Association. She went on explaining that she had never been able to exercise for most of her life as she had always gotten really tired. It wasn’t until sometime last year however that she finally got diagnosed with some kind of heart disorder. Upon discovering whatever disorder it was, that she had open heart surgery to fix the abnormality. Since then, she had finally been able to gradually build her endurance and now really wanted to give something back by doing this race and getting her friends to join her. It meant more to her to get to that starting line probably more than it has ever meant to me to get to a finish line. I felt more like a dumb ass than a bad ass for ever judging her when I first heard her talking to the clerk. I put back on my own shoes, returned others to the boxes and shelves and after her clerk returned to where she was sitting waiting to try out some new shoes, I walked out with my hand extended.
As I shook her hand, I told her that I overheard her story and wanted to tell her how proud I was of her. I just also had to offer her up some advice beyond the shoes to help get rid of the shin splits, although I’m sure a new pair would help a little. I advised her to stick in there and wished her nothing but the best in the future. There would be no way that I would ever find out if she made it to the starting line of that race. At least there could be no imperical proof. After hearing her and seeing the conviction on her face, I can be nearly certain that she made it to that starting line, and by getting there also getting to the finish.
I walked out of the store actually feeling rather breathless. I continue to be amazed by the sport that I have chosen that it can really inspire people to break away from who they thought they might be classified as for their entire lives and into someone who they are more proud to be. This young lady who might have spent her entire life being seen as the little plump girl who couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs was now seen in my eyes as the strong, young lady who so earnestly wanted to run three miles in order to help other people.
Now I had dessert to go along with my King’s Ribs, Humble Pie!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My First 100 mile report

I quit the race at mile 68. I was sitting down in a chair at the road crossing and just wanting it to all be over. All I wanted to do was to get back to my tent, crawl into my sleeping bag and go to sleep so that somehow the pain would go away. I had convinced myself that I was satisfied with running eighteen miles farther than I ever had. I was also convincing myself that I just wasn't meant to run 100 miles. The problem was that I couldn't convince my crew or a Jedi who would not let me drop out of the race. 

The pain had been building over the last twelve or so miles. I was on the third of four twenty five mile laps at the TARC 100. Even though the sky was now dark, much of the day's heat had remained and I just felt like I couldn't go on. My pacer, John Rodrigue, sat in chair next to me and I knew I was really letting him down after all the sacrifices he had made on my behalf. My other pacer, Chris Hayward, was waiting for me seven miles away at the start/finish area, and I felt even worse about him, not even giving him the opportunity to run when he had also sacrificed so much on my behalf. 

The others who equally important to me as I sat there having my little pity party were my father Nate and AG Gillis who had been crewing for me most of the day. AG hadn't been crewing for me all day as he had attempted to run his first fifty miler. Unfortunately he only completed one lap but that was no small feat as he only signed up a week before and really hadn't trained, and as those who were there knew this turned out to be one tough course. Not part of my crew but instead working at the road crossing were George and  Ann Alexion. To have George "The Jedi" there at that moment turned out to be nothing short of a miracle.

I had thoughts of ending my day about three miles earlier as I came into the unmanned aid station at the fifteen mile mark on the course. It was unmanned except for my father and AG as we had scouted out the location the night before and planned for them to meet me there throughout the day, and now night. I was spent after the last five miles that had the biggest climbs on the course, and ironically some of the most runnable sections. Problem was that I could no longer run. John was working hard to keep my pace up but the pain in my knees and feet was too severe to do anything but walk as quickly as I could. I leaned against a fence taking in some food and liquids while keeping mostly quiet about my thoughts of dropping from the race. My dad had my hiking poles at the ready as I hoped using them would aid me in continuing my race. I was going to test them over the next three miles and if they didn't do the job I was sure that I was going to quit. 

Before I ever got to that dark place, I would say that most everything was working out as planned. 
I had assembled an incredibly awesome team and had them all on board with my plans to get me through a hundred miles. My father and I were just about the first team to arrive at the Hale Reservation in Westwood, MA on Friday so we got first choice on a tent-site. We set up my six person tent that had enough room for our cots. AG arrived a few hours later while other teams also arrived. The three of us managed to find a cool restaurant after the place I planned on eating at was closed. After dinner, we hit the packet pick up area where I weighed in and diverted my eyes as best as I could from the finisher buckles and jackets. I didn't want to think about the big picture, I just wanted to keep myself focused on the moments. 

Back at camp, I gave my father instructions and written plans for the day. He has always fully supported me in all aspects and I couldn't think of anyone else, besides maybe my mother or wife, who would do whatever it took to help me accomplish my goals. My lovely wife Mo couldn't be there for me as she was attending her college reunion at Villanova along with our kids Maggie and Quinn. 

I actually got a decent night of sleep even though there was still some activity happening around camp, mostly from a family that had three young kids crammed into a tent less than half the size of my own. I was up a couple times during the night for mother nature calls and actually had to cross the trail that I would soon be running across. The alarm went off at four and I immediately set to work getting ready. A cup of tea, a bagel and banana for breakfast and I also chewed down a couple Pepto tablets as an attempt to ward of any digestive issues that I may encounter during the day. 

As AG offered coffee to an Englishman from Nantucket who tented near us, I was ready to walk to the starting area. AG still had a couple hours before his race was to start. One more pit stop before I got to the starting area and before I really even had time to think about it the race was on. 

I always find it really funny how slow the start is to an ultra race as I was surrounded by about eighty other adventurous souls shuffling along. I caught up with one of the two other runners I knew, Bob Dunfey, and I chatted with him briefly about the previous night. I did not see him again, and was soon following a pack that all knew each other well. As they chatted and shuffled I was thinking that I would have preferred some silence as I could just hear some beautiful bird songs in the air. I was also trying to listen for my watch to beep off the miles reminding me to drink and eat. 

One factor of the race that I could not control was quickly becoming evident as the sun was rising higher in the sky, the heat! All spring many people had been complaining how could it was while I kept hoping that the temps would stay unseasonably low, at least for this weekend. I had been keeping an eye on weather reports and still feeling okay about low seventies but when I heard it would be up in the eighties I got worried, real worried. Heat is my enemy. To battle it I chose to wear my new Pineland Cani-Cross Race shirt as it really was the lightest I had in my synthetic drawer and had given my dad bandannas and sponges packed in ice and water to cool me off at pit stops. Beyond that, I couldn't do much more except tell myself to make sure I didn't drop before nightfall as I may have a chance to finish if I didn't give up when it was to be the hottest time of the day. 

The first aid station was at mile five and I came in fine and my father was there as planned.  So far the trail had been exactly as I expected. Very rolling single track with plenty rocks and roots. The course was well marked but I had to pay attention. There were even signs asking runners to stay quiet as we were running right behind some very nice homes. It was very surprising this massive park/reservation was able to exist in an area with so many homes close to it. 

Over the course of the next ten miles something very slowly bad was starting to happen as I ran up and down more hills and past a number of damned ponds. I was wearing a hydration pack loaded with a Cytomax mix which a few weeks ago I took the time to properly wash out. After the washing suds had formed while inconveniently out for a long run.  I thought I had taken care of the problem. I even tested the bag since then but only with clear water. But now I could see some suds forming in the clear tube. As I am sure it was already close to eighty degrees I began to panic a little.Luckily it remained drinkable coming into the aid station at mile ten, even so I took in a little more fluids than usual. I was a little surprised to have one runner coming in my direction shortly after I left and I wondered if the course had been remarked to come back to this station twice and thus leaving my father stranded at the side of the road.

The course had the greatest elevation change over the next five miles. At one point there was even a good view of the nearby Boston skyline. I had been chatting with a few different people but when a guy from Philadelphia and I began talking sports we somehow found ourselves standing on the side of a road. We both knew we shouldn't be at a road and I actually recognized the spot in the road from our scouting journey the night before. We turned around and fortunately a few hundred yards away we found the spot where we should have turned. Phew, if you're going to get lost on a trail race that was the best possible way to have that happen.

By now, there was nothing but foam in the tube from my hydration pack. I soon found my father waiting for me at the fifteen mile mark. I quickly pulled out some food from my pack and shoved them into my shorts pockets. I grabbed some other treats from him and told him fill up my spare bladder bag and see if it would fit into the pack at the next stop, and if it wouldn't just keep it in the hiking pack it came with. I had also had my father ready with a handheld bottle filled with iced tea. So I took that with me towards the next stop. Yes, I had tried to be prepared for the worst.

The trail can bring a number of surprises but the biggest of the day was when I was approaching the eighteen mile mark when I suddenly see my fellow Trail Monster runner Ryan Triffit charging towards me. I knew his wife Danielle was running the 50 mile race and he would be crewing for her, but why in the hell was he at that part of the course already? Was I moving that slow? After our usual enthusiastic greetings I noticed he had scraped up his leg and was really breathing more heavily than I. He was asking about aid stations and then darted off towards the road crossing. I yelled asking about an extra bladder, to which I got a negative and then he was off across the road. Before I had finished refreshing myself thanks to my father, Ryan came flying again across the road in full panic mode trying to figure where his bad ass wife was on the course. I wished I could have offered more help but I would have had to knock him down with a big rock first before he would have stopped to listen to me. I hoped that Danielle wasn't experiencing any technical difficulties like me.

A little over mile away another aid station waited for me at the edge of a farm and thus a number of fields. There was a nicely mowed path skirting the edge of the fields and made for some of the most pleasant running of the day. The temps were still rising, and as beautiful a place as this was I feared the exposure that I would be facing on the second loop. The station was well stocked like the previous two but this one had a little something extra. Some guy was outfitted in a cow suit including udders. It was hard not to laugh out loud and I just had to comment that 'he' wasn't supposed to have udders. He said his girlfriend's mother had made it for him, so of course he HAD to wear it. I was still chuckling as I enjoyed circling around the fields again making my way towards the end of my first loop.

After the fields the trail got real rough in my opinion. It was just hard to run. There were few spots to get any pace and as soon as you did suddenly a large boulder burst from the ground forcing you edge up it and then carefully ascend it. UGH! I was hoping to complete the first lap in about five hours which meant a mere twelve minute a mile pace and now for the first time when I began crunching the numbers I knew this expectation wasn't going to be meant, and if that expectation for one lap wasn't going to be met, what about the entire race?

I expected the final aid station to be a little closer than it turned out to be after I had recrossed the road. My watch was already indicating twenty five miles but no start/finish area. I had to cross a couple of beaches to finally get there and thrilled to find John waiting for me along with my father. Also on hand was fellow Trail Monster Jamie Anderson who was crewing his wife in the fifty. While my dad handed me over the new pack, John and Jamie led me to the food and drink table encouraging me to eat and drink. I made sure I still had plenty of treats with me in my new pack and set off on my second lap.

The miles seemed to be flying by, not because I was running great, but I found myself in good company of a couple of other runners, both of whom had already completed hundred mile races including TARC's (Trail Animal Racing Club) 100 miler the previous year held at a different location. I knew from others that it had been a challenging race as there was lots of mud and swamp like conditions but these two indicated they were finding this course to be much more technically challenging. One runner was Giles, the Englishman who tented near us. We talked more about soccer than running. Before I knew it I was in mile five aid station. John was really checking me over and my pack, telling me that I wasn't drinking enough and then he and one of the aid volunteers began to question my urination frequency. I had gone a couple of times during the day, and felt that I needed to go, but they said that was not enough. They then made me drink like a lush losing a drinking game of asshole. I really wasn't feeling bad but I obeyed and didn't question as I knew it was going to be a long hot day.

The other runner I spent a lot of time talking to was a woman from Western Mass named Donna who is really a bad ass ultra machine. We talked more about dogs than running which again made the miles fly by. I was still trying to remember my orders from John and took in even more fluids at the next aid station. I was also doing a decent job with caloric intake and really pleased that I was having absolutely no digestive problems. That's kind of a lie, as I did lightly throw up around the 50K mark but that moment passed by quickly. But just like playing a drinking game, what are you supposed to do after you puke? That's right, get right back up to the table and resume the game.

As I approached the peak with the Boston view, I was able to catch a fifty mile runner. I could tell as their race number bibs were in green as opposed to our white ones. He looked like a fit runner so I presumed he must just be crashing a little bit on his second lap. Soon after I spot a guy just off the trail with some nice camera equipment. He calls ahead to someone else that this guy behind me is approaching. He doesn't point his camera towards me, so I tell him not to bother as the guy coming up is much more handsome than myself. Then I don't really know why but when I get to the top I feel like I just need to moon Boston. I love Boston too, well at least it's sports team, and certainly not it's traffic. With my shorts back on I apologize to cameraman number two as I ascend from the peak.

I begin to play cat and mouse with a woman ahead of me who has her game face on. After she overtakes me going up yes another hill, we both are a little surprised to see a couple women coming towards us. They begin to question us if we are on the right trail, or going the right direction. We both try to tell them they are somehow off course but they are in total disbelief. I question which aid stations they have been to and which peaks as well. They can't answer me well and I tell them I don't know where they went wrong but they are off course. They really don't believe me, or at least don't want to. I want to help them but I don't want to get into an argument about how I am right and they are wrong.

My father is waiting again for me at the fifteen mile station, also there is another runner who is looking pretty dejected. He has that long distance stare that doesn't want to believe what is happening around him. I fear for his race future. My father tells me that he has been near the top most of the day. The volunteer who was checking me over back at five now pulls up in his truck, and I quickly get my stuff together wanting to get out of his way before he may question my facilities, which I feel are quite well.

Although I do enjoy the company of runners during races, I also enjoy having the woods all to myself, and with less than three hundred runners combined between the two races over a course of twenty five miles, I do find some of the solitude that I enjoy. You really can't get that while running many road races. Maybe if you're in the lead, but that sure as hell won't happen for me in this lifetime. But I do enjoy having someone in front of me even more than anything. So I spot one guy not far from the road crossing and I set my sights on him. I politely say hello as I catch him and tell him that it is good that he is smiling so much, then I see his green bib and tell him of course he should be smiling as he is almost done and jokingly that I don't really like him at which he laughs understanding my humor.

I am thrilled to see new volunteers at the road crossing, not anything wrong with the previous ones, but now Ann and George Alexion are safely helping runners across the road. There is a small amount of food and water available here but I have my father there once again who hands me back my old pack saying that it wasn't soap suds in the bag just excess air causing the bubbles and that John has shown him how to take out the air to keep the cool liquids flowing into my system.I give Ann a hug before crossing the road and introduce my father. She states that she sees the resemblance, I respond by saying, "Do you think he's that handsome?" I'm all smiles and feeling great and give more hugs to George in the middle of the road.

The woman who I had been running close to was now back in front of me and we crossed paths with a fifty miler who said to us, "This isn't any fun." I didn't say it but totally disagreed. I couldn't believe how much fun I actually was having. Sure things were rough and I was a little fatigued and still had more than half my run ahead of me but I was not sharing that same attitude.

I had done my best to keep running with the exception of hills, which were quite abundant. Some I felt were ridiculous to walk even in an effort to save energy. There was one hill to ascend shortly before coming back into the fields. This brought me back to my power-walk and I decided to keep with that pace although I was on the flattest stretch of the entire course. I watched as the woman, who's name I learned later as Lori Wetzl and has an amazing ultra resume, pulled further ahead of me, but I disciplined myself to save my energy as the sun's rays lashed out it's most intense heat of the day. I came into the aid station only disappointed as the cow suit was not being worn by anyone.

An amazing thing happened as I strode out of the aid station, some clouds obscured the sun. I picked the pace back up not wanting to waste this tremendous opportunity. Even though I was again running, Donna last name Utakis, who I also later learned has a stellar ultra career, caught back up to me. I hate being passed in a race but now it was actually pretty nice being able to strike back up a conversation with her. It helped to get through what I still thought of as the toughest part of the course before we got back to the road crossing.

This time after crossing the road, I did grab a little something to eat and this allowed George to catch up with me. He gave me some real encouraging words and basically told me how it didn't matter how fast I went the rest of the race. In case you don't know who George is, let me tell you basically that he is an inspiration. He's not the fastest runner on the trail but he finishes, he finished four one-hundred mile races last year alone. So when he wraps his arm around your shoulder and gives you support and advice how to finish a hundred mile race, you pay attention.

I crossed the first beach heading towards the starting area, which was now getting well used by the local public, and why the heck not as it was a perfect beach day. One boy who looked a little older than my daughter, stood still and just stared at me probably trying to fathom who or what I was. I smiled toward him and asked how the water was. He said it was good and I moved on wishing that I had time for a swim.

Back at the starting area my crew was waiting for me with John all suited up and ready to roll. AG was now on board as sadly his race day was over, but selfishly I was a little glad as I didn't want him totally spent trying to keep up with my father all night. I had a full wardrobe change planned, but just changed that to a sock and sneaker change. So off with my Brooks Cascadias which were a pretty solid shoe that had done their job on the rough terrain and on with practically a new pair of New Balance 1210's, a style that I had gotten plenty of use from but wanted a new pair with as much cushioning as possible. Also on hand at the aid station this time was Ryan, who agreed I should keep my shirt as it was a little damp and that could serve me well as the heat wasn't going to let up anytime soon. He also shoved a piece of watermelon in my face and told me to eat it. I don't like watermelon but I began to take a few bites being careful to avoid the seeds. I also broke out one of my secret weapons, Pedia Lite Frozen Pops. They were in a sleeve just like those one we all had when we were kids, except these had plenty of electrolytes. So although they were no longer completely frozen at least I could drink whatever was leftover. I also changed watches, as I'm sure my the charge on the GPS didn't have much juice left after over eleven hours of running.

I don't feel like I wasted anytime at the stop, as every moment was productive, and soon had John a few paces ahead of me. We only talked shop for a little while and then we just began conversing. I really didn't know John all that well before this race but would learn really what a great guy he is over the course of the next eight and a half hours. I had only run with him once and learned about his experience at the Leadville 100. Close to the fifty mile mark of the race, a fellow competitor who John had befriended fell and needed assistance. John being the extreme high quality individual who he is, of course helped and in doing so missed the cutoff at mile fifty by fifteen minutes. With his timing chip taken away, he and his pacer who was to start with him at this point decided to run the course anyway. John finished the race in a time that should have given him a buckle but his concern for another racer left him with nothing to keep his pants up. That is why I asked John to pace me.

When we weren't talking, John was reminding me to drink. The heat hadn't really let up whatsoever. We successfully got through five mile aid station and although we, well really I was slow, it didn't seem too long before we got to the ten mile aid station. I was really glad to get there as I was feeling like the wheels were starting to come off. I wasn't totally spent but I could feel myself starting to crash. I was kind of surprised to find Jamie there but then quickly spotted his wife Kate sitting not so far away wearing flip flops indicating that her day was done. She showed us a blood blister the size of Delaware on the back of her heel. Ugh! I was having a hard time picking out food while downing some Coke, so John bounced around for me while I took a seat on a picnic table. I started to eat a cup of Ramen noodles when I looked up and spotted the guy who I was sure was going to drop back at the unmanned aid station. He had on Birkenstocks, and no they do not make any running sandals or shoes yet, and even though I looked like shit and was feeling more and more like it, he still said to me, "I wish I was in your place right now. Just get to the next aid station." I was starting to have that same blank stare that I had seen on him earlier so as much as I wanted to really acknowledge and appreciate his kindness I diverted my eyes from direct contact with his. Which wasn't all that hard to do as one of the volunteers came to the tables wearing kind of a short white bathrobe. He had semi-long black curly hair that must have been wet from swimming in the pond, and was also wearing some big sunglasses and a captain's hat and some funky thin sandals. We all looked in his direction and I commented to John that I thought this guy looked like a pornstar director. He seemed nice enough and came over to offer assistance. We were all chuckling a little, when I gave the dropped runner a look and then he asked the volunteer did he know what he looked like. John told him what I said and we all could finally laugh out loud. The guy took it really well and actually said that was the nicest compliment he had gotten in a long time.

Somehow I got down that cup of Ramen, but unfortunately not for long. Just after we left the beach I had that feeling and was soon stooped over with my hands on my knees. I thought it would be quick but really my stomach decided that it wanted everything out. Back at the beach John had been telling me it was okay if things reappeared but it was more important just to get something in first. I felt my stomach retching and felt like that kid losing drinking games once again, oh yah that was me back in college. John kept a little distance but was like that good friend who pats you on the back while your worshiping the porcelain gods, but then he was like that asshole at the party who insists you keep drinking knowing what you just went through. Well John wasn't acting like an asshole certainly but began to tell me that I was now going to feel much better and that I needed to get back to running this race.

John was right. I did feel better and was once again enjoying running. That feeling lasted for only a couple miles until we had to make a couple steep climbs. There were a couple of young girls at the peak looking out towards Boston so I kept my shorts on this time but made sure John got to enjoy the view while we were there.

John must have sensed that I was slipping away once again as he dominated most of the conversation as we made out way toward the fifteen mile aid station. My wheels weren't just coming off, they were shredding into pieces being left on the side of a highway like a dead smelly skunk. My quads and hamstrings were feeling normal enough but everything below my knees hurt like hell. Even with well cushioned shoes and a fresh new pair of socks my feet were screaming in agony and I could no longer run. I knew my dad,AG and poles were not far up ahead and now as I wore my headlamp I searched for familiar sights indicating their presence. Soon there was a light pointing towards us and I could tell it was AG and I asked if we were close, to which he said we were just about there.

I leaned against a fence, that I think is actually a steeple for horses as there were a number of them on this part of the course. I certainly didn't pretend to imitate National Velvet and jump over any of them. I sponged down as the heat had only let up slightly, ate and began to wonder how and when I was going to break the bad news to my crew if I felt like I couldn't recover. One of my goals going into the race was to allow myself the opportunity to recover as the race had a thirty two hour deadline and that no matter what went wrong I should have time to recover. I also had a goal to respect the sacrifices people had given me in my pursuit of that elusive buckle. But now, all those goals were being put aside and I wished I could just silently walk off the course.

With hiking poles in hand we made our way to the road crossing. None of the pain went away and as I became quiet and withdrawn John began to question what I was thinking about. I replied, "Pain." He did his best to keep me talking by asking random questions about me, to which I mostly gave one word answers feeling really guilty that I was probably dropping out very soon. As we came upon an open ridge I turned off my headlamp in order to see that last few colors of the sun for that day. It was beautiful and I was glad to share it with John, hoping that at least I was giving him this beautiful moment.

 John continued to be very encouraging giving me really positive feedback about my efforts but I also knew that he wanted me to run more. He would say it was time to do so and would pick the pace back up and I tried but could only manage short yardage before I felt like I was being sacked by a three hundred pound linebacker and driven back to the line of scrimmage.

When we finally spotted the road crossing with John giving me more congratulations on making it this far, I finally told him that I wanted to be done. As my father pulled up a chair for me to sit in I also told him I was done. There was great disappointment coming from both of them. They began questioning why and I really didn't want to answer or even talk, I just wanted to sit and wallow in my misery. George was soon on the scene saying, "But you've got this Tom." Him and others were telling me just to rest a while, take as long as I needed in that seat but that I couldn't quit now. George soon began feeding me cold coffee and shoved a GU packet in my face. It was all pretty awful. I sat avoiding eye contact even in the dark while the group worked to motivate me. I watched other runners pass going in both directions, each time George sparking up to help them safely cross and saying, "Got to do my job, I'd hate to lose another." Deep down inside I was cracking up. George continued to hound me the most, telling me what I needed to do and how I could do it and that I had plenty of time to do it in. I motioned for someone to hand me my dad's backpack that had a number of supplies in it and was just out reach. I don't even remember what I wanted from it but I heard George say, "I hope you don't have a gun in there Nate." Again, I was laughing tears inside. I was getting cold despite the temps and George even got me a jacket saying it was his first ever ultra jacket and I could wear it and get it back to him whenever or even not. I had managed to take off my shoes which felt great and asked a number of times for my father to bring the truck around. If it had been behind me I probably would have just crept inside it, but it was parked somewhere out of sight and he did not take one step in order to retrieve it. Damn, these guys were making it impossible to quit.

George called out to his wife Ann across the road asking where they had some ibuprofen gel caps. I found out later that she was telling AG that if someone was going to get me out of this state and back in the race, George was the man for the job. I washed the pill down with some of the cold coffee figuring at least I if I did this I would perhaps feel better as I slept the night away in the tent, if someone would ever allow me to get there! I did slip my shoes back on hoping that I would be allowed to go to the truck. George offered to tie them for me but then said, "Maybe I shouldn't, you'll probably kick me in the teeth." More inside tears.

Amazingly the pain in my legs and feet started to go away. I didn't tell anyone, I still wanted to be done. I did however have to get up to urinate. There was sudden silence when I stood up and walked in the opposite direction and not across the road. I began to think, alright it doesn't hurt anymore, I should give this a shot. My shoes were on but untied, and now with my Trail Monster shirt on I grabbed my pack and poles and started to head across the road without saying a word.

John managed to quickly get ahead of me and we were off with my main goal being just as George had also been saying, "Just get to the next aid station and give yourself a chance." My dad and AG said they would meet us there, which surprised me as they hadn't been to that station all day. We made it to the field as we discussed the sacrifices our soldiers, including John's father had made during World War II as it had just been a couple days past the seventy year mark of the Allied Landing at Normandy. Those guys had courage and I tried to channel some of that courage as I shuffled my untied shoes as quickly as I could through the dewy grass.

I soon spotted a runner up ahead who was making every attempt to keep a running pace. I felt awful as we passed him walking. I can't remember saying anything to him, but I'm sure John must have given him some words of encouragement, as he seemed to possess an endless bucket of it.

Volunteers kindly greeted us after I announced my bib number. An awesome number it was, 101! I looked around for food while coke was being poured for me and saw some grilled cheese sandwiches sitting atop a grill. "What can I get you?' one of the volunteer asked. To which I replied, "I want a fucking grilled cheese." I wished I said please, but she just laughed and said, "You can have a fucking grilled cheese," and handed me one wrapped in a paper napkin. I make some pretty mean grilled cheese sandwiches but this was by far the best one if my life! The coke was really good washing it down and before I took the time to look for my father and AG I was back on the course. I was told later that they were sitting in the truck watching us, but didn't want to come out fearing I may want to get in.

Getting back to the road was a thrill. I was walking pretty well now and even able to run a little. John had kindly even tied my shoes back up for me. I barely stopped at the crossing, only long enough to give George a hug and say, "Fuck you George," in the most sincere way I have ever said that to anybody.

Now I was a man on a mission. Next aid station a little over a mile away with Chris waiting there for me. I was greatly looking forward to seeing him. I was confident that I was going to get this done. Only twenty five miles lay between me and that buckle, but more importantly my pride.

There were some cheers as I crossed the beach in the darkness with John still just ahead of me. I heard a new voice calling out my name, which I recognized as Chris's and was just able to make out his shadowy figure. My crew took my stuff, as I hugged Chris and made my way to the food table. I took in some food and liquids while John pulled Chris aside obviously giving him some updates and hoping some more advice on getting me through the final twenty five miles.

Before I took back off, I made sure to give John big hugs and any kind words that I could muster in appreciation of the job he did getting me to that point. I gave my father big hugs as well hoping that I would always be able to support my own children in their greatest times of need like he had for me. I kissed a bracelet on my wrist that I borrowed from Mo and a rubber band one that Maggie had made so that in some way she and the kids could be there with me. Just starting that last lap felt better than finishing any race I had ever run. There was no way I was not going to finish.

Chris took the lead and I quickly brought him up to speed on how to keep us on the course and a little what it was like. I also told him that we didn't need to really be running, but a fast hiking pace should get us through the night and to the finish line in plenty of time to beat the thirty two hour deadline.

For those running friends who don't know Chris Hayward, you should. We call ourselves Trail Monsters but Chris is really a Trail Beast, something slightly beyond a monster. Four years ago when I came up with the idea of running the 100 Mile Wilderness of the Appalachian Trail I called Chris asking if he was interested in pacing me for some of it. I did this knowing he wasn't a runner but competed in multi-day adventure races. He didn't understand the whole pacing gig and instead asked if he could just do it all with me. I said sure and we had another friend, Eli Lazurus an accomplished runner join us as well. That day turned into disaster for me as the heat and humidity was far greater than even this day. I managed to do only thirty miles, and that much just because I couldn't stop until we got to our support vehicles. Eli dropped at that point as well leaving Chris all  alone. He managed to do forty five more miles before he had to call it quits.  About a month and a half later he, Eli and another friend of Chris's, Nicholas Ernst, set out on the same mission. I was the one this time to be invited but declined as I had other commitments and didn't want to face that failure again. They became the first people to do that section non-stop taking thirty nine hours to do so, inspiring others to tempt the same fate and establishing themselves as some of the biggest bad asses in the Northeast.

Chris understood what needed to be done as he said to finish that journey they had to pretty much do the same, hike fast and not stop. My watch was losing power and I arranged with my dad and AG to meet us at the campsite with my first watch now all recharged, as well as my spirits.

Chris was doing a great job setting the pace and keeping the course and I was thoroughly enjoying catching up with him. We got to the five mile station where I had another grilled cheese and some other goodies, resetting my watch wanting to track the five miles between the stations more than more overall distance or pace. I really had no idea what time of night it was but only knew it was still going to be dark for a number of hours. I hadn't done much training for the night, so this was a new experience but was enjoying it and feeling really good that I wasn't feeling like I needed to get any sleep. As Sam Shepard said in that fabulous movie Roadhouse, "I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead."

When we spotted our first glow in the dark bracelet on the ground, we figured someone must have dropped one. But then we saw more and more and THEN we spotted the lights at the ten mile station. There was one other runner there and the porn director had changed back into more appropriate attire. I didn't waste much time there and told the other runner that we might be able to catch a good view of the Boston skyline lights. He said he didn't think so, and I wasn't sure if he was dropping or just acknowledging the speed, or lack thereof, of his own pace.

I showed Chris where I had my reversal of fortune and warned him about some of the big climbs ahead of us. Chris was still doing a great job following the course markers and we didn't waste anytime. Our pace was somewhere around a fifteen minute mile. A slow pace indeed for a runner but an impressive one as a hiker. All my years of hiking was paying off. This pace was going to keep me going to the finish. If I had forced the pace any faster I'm sure the wheels would be loosening up once again.

We got to the overlook, and turned off our headlamps to enjoy the moment. We were alone and so I showed Boston my backside one last time. Shit, this was getting fun again!

Still as planned my dad and AG were once again waiting for us. I was glad they were still able to be there as they had to park at an intersection across the road and I feared some local residents may have called the authorities about this strange vehicle that had been parked there at various times throughout the day.

The next time I heard my watch beep indicating another mile done, I realized this now meant that I was now only into single digit numbers to finish this race. I screamed that fact out loud to Chris along with a few other obscenities. During the night we had actually managed to pass a few other teams and now I was determined to keep them behind me for good. So I directed Chris to pick up the pace and we got a little running in. We did stop for a moment turning off our headlamps now to enjoy some of the colors of the sunrise on the same peak where John and I had seen the sun set. I was a much different person now.

I had a little disappointment coming to the road crossing and not finding George and Ann there, but their duties were done. Still, the volunteers were awesome and we barely stopped even with my father and AG also there to lend assistance.

As we got closer to the field I had a moment of panic as I looked through the woods seeing what I thought was fog rolling off a pond. How could that be? We were nowhere near water as far as I recalled. Four times around a place and you get to know it pretty well. Well not well enough for me to prevent slipping and stepping my right foot into some pretty nasty mud. My panic soon subsided as I realized the fog was actually covering the field and I looked forward to some more dewy grass to clean off my shoe, after all it was practically a brand new pair.

The views across the field were breathtaking as we continued our power hike to the aid station. My dad and AG were there and out of the vehicle this time. The guy who had been wearing the cow suit was still there as he had been all race long. After handing me a can of coke I asked him his name, Bob, and sincerely thanked him for all the work he had put in. I wished I could have thanked them all. As I spotted a team across the field coming toward the aid station I made our move to keep them in front of us. I went to hand another volunteer the can of coke but he said keep it and just drop it and that he would walk with us and pick it up. A few more guzzles followed by a burp that could be heard across the field and I turned to hand back the can but he was more than a few steps behind and said to drop it, which I did. Chris suddenly said he would have some just as it left my hand, and I said, "Sorry, ultra foul." The volunteer managed to pick it up and hand it to Chris before too much spouted out.

We were all smiles to the team now approaching us who were running. After my stomach settled I told Chris that we needed to do a little running to make sure that team didn't catch up to us. I did slow it back down to a power hike pace on the hills but soon enough we were out of the field. We ran as best we could with me glad that I was now forever done with what I thought was the most technical part of the course.

The volunteers were very enthusiastic at the road crossing stating that we only had a mile and a half left. One of them, whom I didn't even know, called me by name and told me that I was blowing up Facebook. I felt a little like Ellen at the Oscars.

We walked the paved road uphill and started discussing finishing time. I told Chris how on it was predicted that I would finish the race in about twenty six and a half hours. After checking his watch, he told me that was pretty dead on.

As we got closer and closer to the finish Chris commented on how well the course was marked. I told him he just wasn't used to markers in his events which only gave him maps and told him to get to spots any way possible. We spotted another team up ahead and I just needed to take them down as well. Turns out that they were just completing their third lap but I continued to be motivated to get to the finish as soon as possible.

We crossed the first beach and said to Chris that I felt like I was running in sand. We didn't let up and soon I knew we were close to the final beach and finish line. As I turned the corner and heard some cheers I spotted one more runner ahead. Even as I unbuckled the chest strap to my pack to expose the Trail Monster logo and also unbuckled the band holding my race bib, wanting them both to be in clear view at the finish line, I burst my way past that runner, who also was only finishing his third lap, and crossed the line saying, "Number one o one is done!"

I can't even remember who I hugged first. But whoever it was I hoped they felt the joy rushing through my body. Some race officials quickly told me to go back over the mat as my timing chip apparently didn't take. Throughout the race I worried about this very situation as I never remembered crossing a mat at the beginning and that somehow I might end up by disqualified. So I did as I was told and even though nothing happened one of them said it was alright they had my number and time.

I was giving out lots of hugs and glad that John was there to receive one as well. He had caught some sacktime back in our tent while Chris lead me through the night. Lots of people were asking what I wanted, mostly a cup of coffee was my greatest desire. The race director congratulated me as well offering his services. I said I wanted to weigh myself and he lead me to the scales. I was shocked to see that I had only lost five pounds during the course of the race. As John handed me my coffee he said that was because he had continually forced me to drink.

The director, Bob Crowely, then asked me what size jacket I took. He had me try on a medium and it fit a little loose and he said that would be good as it shouldn't be too tight. I also said I wanted to leave some extra room for all the food I was going to eat over the next week. Then he asked if John was one of my pacers and when I said yes, he offered a jacket to John as well. I quickly told Bob I had another pacer and called to Chris to come and get a jacket. That was and incredibly awesome thing to do for those two, I couldn't think of anything better to give to them for all their support and sacrifices. Then Bob asked if it wanted a buckle. Did I really need to answer that question. As my dad handed it to me, I opened the box and gave it a good old smooch.

Shortly thereafter, John looked me square in the eye and said his duties as a pacer were not yet over. He proceeded to tell me what I needed to do in order recover from running one hundred miles. The first thing I needed to do was to get into pond and cool the legs off. Honestly I would have climbed a tree a nose dived into the sand if he had told me to. How could I not do whatever he told me to do.

I walked into the water, trying to pick a spot with the least amount of pollen. AG followed me and said, "Dude, do you know what place you came in?" Of course I had no idea. "Fifth!" I was shocked. I was sure many people had dropped but not a clue where in the field I was. My smile was suddenly longer than the course itself.

Now with my coffee finished, I sat down in a chair and was handed a can of America's best beer in 1883, Pabst Blue Ribbon. My dad got Mo on the phone and I got to tell her that I was finally done. She had been in contact with my dad throughout the previous day and into the night and I wished I could have kissed her but settled for the marvels of modern technology to share in the moment.

I enjoyed cheering on some other runners coming in for the finish, including Donna who was the first female across the line. I didn't stick around for the rest of the finishers. Even though there were only fourteen after me to complete all four laps out of seventy nine starters with the last one beating the deadline by about half an hour. That computes to a 15% finish rate. Even for a hundred mile race that is a very low percentage. The 50 mile race had plenty of carnage but 80% somehow beat the heat and the challenging course, including DanielleTriffit who was the fifth woman to finish.

Our party winded down as John and Chris left, Chris actually ready to drive back home to Bethel. I told you he was a beast. The three of us headed back to our tents for a little nap before we made our ride back to Maine. I could barely sleep partly due to my legs starting to ache but my soul was still to excited to give my body proper rest.

How'd I do it? The truth is obvious that I had a great team that made sure I met my goal and didn't give up on myself. My father said to me during more than once during the race, "You've got some really great people here for you." I'm so glad that he came away with the feeling that I do these races not only for the challenges they present but to share in special moments with special people. I myself come away from this event more aware of that than ever, and that those moments and people do extend far beyond the rocks, roots and mud. Thank you to all for giving me greater appreciation, I just might never had gotten to that point if a certain Jedi hadn't used his mind tricks to get me out of that chair and away from the dark side.