1 Lucky runner
June 13, 2016: Day Tripper
Grand Canyon R2R2R (Bob’s 50th Birthday Bash)-----May 4, 2016
It only took 4 tries to get the trailhead pic. I had to hope that wasn’t a sign of how today’s adventure would go. With that bit of business done we started down the trail and I do, quite literally mean, down. You see today’s task was to run from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, down to the bottom, via the Bright Angel Trail, cross the Colorado River, along and up the North Kaibab trail to the North Rim Trailhead, then turn around and do it all in reverse. A total of somewhere 44 and 52 miles, depending on your source. More on that later.
Another group of runners started out just ahead of us, on the mule trail spur. We were only about 2 minutes into our run when we noticed a headlamp coming our way. It was one of the guys from that group. As he passed us he said, “Already forgot something, not a good way to start.” I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly, you see, there is no support on this particular run. The best you can hope for is that the water line, the National Park Service maintains, is functioning and water is “on” at the various camps and rest stations, eight in all. There are two other options: 1. Other runners or campers will help you out and 2. The Park Service will. From my research I learned that option one is far more likely to happen than 2, but if you think another runner is going to give you some food because you under-packed your likely to be disappointed as they likely figured what they needed to get them through the day and packed just that. With this in mind I sent Jake a note that said, “This is an unsupported run, we either make it or we don’t”. I get to write this because we got option ‘A’.
We soon passed the rest of “Forgetful’s” party. It’s really an interesting experience meeting people on a trail run when it’s dark. Your first impression of them is a white light that bobs, swings and, on a mountain run, makes sudden 180 degree turns when making a switchback. The next is the explosion of reflected light as your lamp hits their high-visibility outdoor gear. Soon to follow are night dampened colors and then the person wearing them. And in the case of most of my encounters the next thing you see is a blazing white light that blinds you as they look to see your face. I’ve often thought when this happens, that muggers should wear headlamps.
It was chilly enough that I was wearing tights and we we’re both wearing jackets and winter hats. With the temp and the fact that the first two hours would be a descent it seemed like the prudent choice of clothing and it was, for about 20 minutes. That is how it came to be that I was naked on the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon at 4:20 a.m. You see, my tights were under my shorts. I did know it would lead to this I just thought it would take longer so I could get off trail a little when I did it. I managed to get my shorts back on and was adjusting the load in my pack when The N.C. group caught up to us. (The previously mentioned group) We chatted a bit here as they also removed layers, and we found out they are from North Carolina. We soon continued our descent.
The descent from the South Rim involves a lot of switchbacks, timber erosion control steps, eroded areas, rocks from pebble to fist size. This is normally a little slice of heaven for me and would lead to me opening the throttle and bombing down the path, but it was far too early in what would likely be an arduous journey so I had to use good judgment and hold the pace back, not just for the mileage but also for the unknowns that might lie ahead.
When the sky began to lighten up our pace slowed as we began to take in the beauty of the canyon. The tricks of light and shade as the sun began to do its work were well worth the time we lost enjoying their display. We were already far enough into the canyon that we were going to be in the shade until we arrived at the Colorado, but we could look up in all directions and catch glimpses of rocks lit by alpenglow. I think it is one of the most beautiful things to see a mountain peak lit up to an almost golden hue, which is exclamated by the fact that it is flanked by two peaks that are a subdued gray because the sun has not yet warmed their faces.
As we moved along the trail there was vegetation, but it was sparse. I suppose this is due to the rocky terrain and small window of daily sunshine available. Then we came to Indian Garden Campground. It very much is the oasis it appears to be from the rim. The bottom of the Garden Creek canyon kind of flattened and widened out, was filled with fuller, taller trees and abundant smaller vegetation. There is a small hike-in campground so we caught flashes of color from tents but due to the time of day we did not see any campers. There is potable water so I asked Bob how he was set for water or if he needed to use the outhouse. He said he was good and as I felt I was good to make it to the next stop we continued on.
By this point the angle of descent had let off a good bit so we were able to open up our stride a little, but not much as we still had about 40 miles (according to the map) to go. With this change in slope and the ability to see with natural light the run began to take on an air of exploration. We could see so many beautiful and interesting things that it was hard to get a rhythm in our running when there seemed to be some rock, plant, shadow or point that just begged to be investigated and photographed or committed to memory. I don’t know how many times I ended up thinking that neither a camera nor my words would do this place justice. Little did I know how much more apparent that idea would become as the day progressed.
Then it happened. One of the scariest, most awful things that can happen on a run. I know you’re thinking, “What can it be? A mountain lion? Rattle snake? Twist an ankle?” No. no and nope. I trusted a fart that I should not have. The volume was neither loud nor large but it was troublesome. Fortunately I could see the Colorado and the roof of the outhouse at Pipe Creek Beach, so we were able to run the half mile to outhouse to take care of business. A quick pit stop here and then we were running along the Colorado River.
Even though it was part of the plan as it is part of course I found myself a little giddy to be running next to the Colorado. It was actually the proof that I was running in the Grand Canyon. To that point there were a lot of indications, but the muddy turbulent River was the thing that made it real for me.
Soon though, running here lost a little of its shine as we the trail turned to dry beach sand... The only consolation was that we had caught a glimpse of the bridge we would use to cross the river so I figured this little bit of misery would be short lived.
The North Kaibab Bridge meant that we would begin a long shallow climb to the Residence pump house. I actually had looked forward to this part of the run, both on the way out and the return as it promised to be quite runnable for us.
Before beginning that run, though, we needed to refill our water at Phantom Ranch. Just as the first building came into view I sited a group of older gentlemen who looked to be setting and adjusting their packs. I asked the first one if there was water close by. He pointed to a well hydrant about 10 feet from me and smiled. I said, ‘Oh, you were hiding it.” He laughed a little and said, “Hi.” As we reloaded we chatted with these fellows about what each of our groups were up to. They were staying at Phantom Ranch and doing day hikes around the canyon bottom and made it sound quite fun… maybe on a later date.
They asked us if we were doing R2R. When we said R2R2R they asked how many days, to which I responded, “Hopefully today.” They said we had better get moving as the day was wasting and laughed. I had emptied my bike bottle and about 2/3 liter from my bladder so was fully replenished by the time this exchange had happened. Just as I finished getting the bladder in my pack The NC arrived. We said, “Hi, Bye” and headed out.
To this point I had eaten two protein bars before the run began, one on the run and two gels.
The next 4.5 miles were spent running along and criss crossing the Bright Angel Creek within the narrow, steep canyon walls the creek had carved out over the millennia. Sometimes the canyon was so narrow that the canyon wall had been carved out undercutting the rock to make the trail. A couple of the bridges were actually paved, yes paved. Now, it was a rough job, but still paving would be a logistical challenge to say the least.
During this section I found myself looking up at the sky and rock formations, back to see if The NC were coming (not racing, just curious) and being aggravated with my Garmin which was bitching at me every time it lost satellite reception. Our progress was slowed by our wanting to absorb the views, experience and my photo documenting. There are so many spectacular things to see in that canyon.
Eventually the canyon opened up and showed us even more of the handy work of rock formations and Bright Angel Creek’s erosion. Sometimes it was as if the little river had worked, intentionally, to carve and mold some stone or rock wall specifically to show off her talent and ability. I would sometimes walk just to get to extend my moment of appreciation of the work.
Just before we came into Cottonwood Camp there was an arrow pointing forward with a “BT” etched into the trail. It meant nothing to me so I continued on and came to the first building within a few yards and saw the water hydrant. I didn’t even need anybody to point it out to me. YAY! I ate a protein bar while Bob filled his bottles. While he was doing so The NC showed up, or at least two of them did. They asked if we had seen Bill. I suppose the blank look on my face told my story so they explained that the trail message was for them. I said we had seen a runner just go out of sight as we entered camp. They had a little conversation about Bill’s progress compared to theirs.
While I was removing the bladder from my pack one of them began filling his bottles. This would have been fine by me but he had one bike bottle and two one liter bottles from a convenience store, which meant he had to fill the bike bottle then put the lid on it then squeeze the water from the bike bottle into the cs bottles. I found this very frustrating to have to stand and watch. It seemed to take two eternities for him to get all three bottles full. I had enough water left in my bladder to fill my bottle, so made my endurox for the next leg. Then stood, watching while he was STILL working at his project. I should have been taking in some food. Hindsight, though is 20/20.
From Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood I took in 1 gel, 1 protein bar, one bottle of endurox and a little over a liter of water.
From Cottonwood Camp to the Pump House Residence the trail took on a rolling quality, which though made for interesting views put me in a slow boil. We would climb a few feet over a short distance only to end up giving half of it back almost immediately. There’s not much that pisses me off more than giving up hard earned elevation on a climb.
During this section the North Rim rock formations came into clearer view. The layers could easily be differentiated from each other. Picking out the demarcation lines between the generations and types of rock that make up the last 3000’of the cliff completely distracted me from the run. I became enthralled with the colors, form, angles and erosive shapes that we were climbing on, up, over and along. We were not moving along at a great speed so there was plenty of time and ability to explore all of these points of wonder.
When we arrived at the residence pump house we topped off our water and continued on.
One bottle of endurox and ½ liter of water.
The climb began to get steeper and the switchbacks commenced. This was great because it gave us multiple views and angles of any point we found interesting. One of the coolest was a small (in volume) waterfall, on the opposite side of Bright Angel canyon that dropped a couple of hundred feet. From the pump house to the North Rim was some of the most beautiful trail I’ve been on and I took it in, all the while climbing ever so slowly toward the halfway point.
When it happened it didn’t hit me like Thor’s hammer, but I can’t say it was a slow creeper either. As the climb steepened the sun began to heat up the day. I paid the price of not treating this like the challenging run it was. I know it seems like I was taking in a lot, but we were about 6.5 hours and 20 miles in and the dry desert air along with energy expenditure had taken its toll. I had been enjoying the views and experiences and had let my hydration and nutrition slip. My first warning was tightness in my left groin. I took salt and start taking a sip of water every few steps. At the same time the energy expenditure became apparent and I knew I needed to take in some nutrition. The problem is that when I let it get this far and I’m running in the heat, I can’t think of any food that doesn’t turn my stomach. This instance was no exception.
According to the Nat Geo map I had this trail is 22 miles long. My GPS showed that I had covered 22.5 miles and still had a little over 2000’ of elevation to go. Using the mileage sign we had seen at the pump house as reference I believed I had about 2.5 miles to go. Quick math told me that I like had 2.5 miles at an average grade of 20% ahead of me.
Things got dark folks, real dark. I was hurting, but not bad enough to stop me from doing the math and taking an assessment of what was happening and what I had ahead of me. Here’s the breakdown: If the map is wrong I have this 2 and a half mile climb, then I get to rest, eat, replenish water, take care of my feet and hopefully cool down a bit. THEN I have to turn around and do this whole trip over again in reverse, for a total of over 50 miles. I spent a lot of time working on convincing myself that, yeah, I can actually do that. At the same time I had to pay attention to every little twinge, ache and wave of nausea.
What I did know is that most of the issues were due to hydration and nutrition and I could rectify that. It was just a matter of whether or not I could do any more than resolve the issues. I needed to recover enough to continue on for another 9 or 10 hours. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so scary. The idea of dealing with the afternoon heat in the bottom of the canyon scared the hell out of me.
We had been trading places with The NC all day and as we began this last leg the two strongest of their group were ahead of us and 3 or 4 were behind. Two of them passed me during my Hard Times. They looking quite strong, me not so much. The rest of the climb was just a slow, steady march. During which I picked myself apart like a vulture picks apart a carcass. Bit by bit by bit, I tore at the flesh of my psyche.
Eventually I could see Bob standing on top of the cliff, at the end of the trail. I, with reserved joy, asked, “That it?” and Bob said, “Yep” without even looking back at me. He, apparently, was a little worse for the wear also.
The two NC runners who had passed me in the last stretch were still there, but making near frantic preparations to head back. I guess they were treating it a little more as a timed event than we were (not that I could from this point on anyway). One was ready but was waiting for his partner. I asked “Ready” to take a pic of us by the North Rim TH sign. He did and then they were off and we had the TH to ourselves.
I filled my bike bottle and mixed up endurox to try to get things back on track. Then I removed my shoes and socks, dumped out my pack and convinced myself to eat a wrap. I spent the time it took me to eat the wrap getting all my systems back to a position from which I could hit the big red RESET button that would allow me to begin the second half of the day’s challenge. With the wrap eaten I took salt, ibuprofen and drank another bottle of endurox. At this point I felt so much better I was certain my troubles had been brought on by dehydration and nutrition issues, but I still wasn’t sure I could climb out of the hole I had dug for myself.
With another bottle of endurox in me I began to organize my gear, reapply sun block, prep my feet and put myself together for the return trip. Almost all tightness was gone, little aches and pains had pretty much subsided and I had wrapped my head around what the return would involve.
30 minutes after we arrived we loaded up and headed back down the North Kaibab Trail. It was now just a matter of finishing what we had started. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be taking in our surroundings, but it’s not like we hadn’t just spent 8 hours taking it all in.
As we descended I was excited to get level with the highest/youngest level of rock, a gray limestone that has vertical streaks of green, blue, red and violet. When we had gotten close enough to differentiate the streaks on our way up I mentioned to Bob that I thought it looked like the pattern on somebody’s pants from The Partridge Family. He laughed and said, “Mr. Kincaid!” Now, just a couple of hours later, it still had the same qualities but there was a different hue to the colors, making the rock look soft. It looked, to me, that if I could touch it the feel would be more like a softened clay than stone.
In assessing the conditions for the second half of our run the first thing I noticed was that it was noticeably warmer than just a short time ago. This made me recommit to the plan I had come up with at the North Rim TH. I would drink a bottle of endurox between water stops, make one and slam it at each water stop then make one for the trail. I would drink as much water as I could tolerate while running, take salt every 30 minutes, a gel every hour and a protein bar at Indian Garden, where we planned to take a substantial break before the final 4.5 mile climb. I hoped that following this plan would help keep on the path of salvaging what I had almost ruined on the way out.
By the time we got to the Residence Pump House I had emptied my bike bottle and when I pulled the water bladder from the pack I found that had drunk about 1.5 liters of water. No cramps, tightness or nausea. Things were looking up. We replenished, I drank a bottle of endurox and made another. We loaded up and continued on.
It was only another mile and a half to Cottonwood Campground and still fairly steep, but a little more open, which put us in the sun a little more. That was not a welcome thing as the day was heating up. In the short amount of time (relatively) it took us to get to the campground I drank my endurox and made a sizable dent in my water supply. We didn’t spend much time here, just replenished our water for the next leg, which would be mostly in the desert sun. The temps were already feeling a little like mid-summer at home.
When we were allowed some relief via the grade flattening out we thought it would be an easy, shallow grade, downhill run for about 7 or 8 miles. This was partly true, but most of this run was absolutely devoid of shade and it started to wear on us. After about 3 miles of running without a break from the sun I took note of a small tree on the west side of the trail just ahead. It had a couple of rocks set perfectly under it to sit on. As I got closer I noted that it cast a shadow that very much resembled a skeleton of an umbrella, but I needed to take what relief I could so we stopped for a few minutes rest in the sad little amount of shade offered by Charlie Brown’s shade tree.
We sat there for about 5 minutes, just kind of gathering our wits and catching our breath. We noted how much hotter it had gotten since we had previously been at this point. I had a buff I could wet and put on my head, hoping the evaporation would help, but decided against it. Mistake, big mistake.
Funny thing, within half a mile of our sad little Charlie Brown shade tree we entered the section that had steep, tall walls, creating an abundance of cool, deep, dark shade. Too soon to stop so I took my visor off whenever we were in shade. We alternated between running and power hiking, depending on terrain and shade availability. We continued on, alternating between canyon angles that allowed the sun in, to the sheer rock walls creating just enough shade to allow us to continue at a fast shuffle.
I have to tell you that even with the stresses and rigors of the day the way the light filtered down through and along the canyon could give varying qualities to the area around us. Anything from hot desert summer to autumnal dusk. Absolutely stunning! Sometimes I would look up, slow to a walk and just try to absorb the scene presented to me. There are so many reasons that this adventure was worth the effort, but I would have done it all just for the memories I have from this section of trail.
As we moved closer to Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch we began to see hikers, some with small day packs or just water and a couple with larger, extended trip sized packs. It was one of the latter who seemed to be moving a little slower than the others we had encountered. When I came abreast of him I asked how he was doing, so as to see his reaction and try to judge his condition. He immediately understood my purposeful question and responded that he was warm but ok. To my overheated mind he seemed to be telling the truth.
Shortly after that exchange we began seeing tents and camp folk. Bright Angel! And soon Phantom Ranch, which was our planned water stop. When we arrived at the water spigot we were pretty excited it was in some pretty good shade with rocks to sit on. There was also a latrine and I think the cantina close by so this area was pretty busy.
We exchanged pleasantries with the temporary residents of the little oasis that is Phantom Ranch. One, more notable conversation was with a couple of retired ladies who had hiked down, would stay at the ranch for a few days and then hike back out, taking two days to do so. One had recently run a marathon, her first and was sporting some kinsio tape as a reward for her effort. I found her attitude to be quite upbeat and hope I have that verve for life when I retire. Another, much shorter, exchange happened here also. The hiker that had seemed to be moving a little slow passed by, moving much faster. Now when he noticed us he said, “Whew! I’m happy to see you guys made it. I was a little concerned about you!” and chuckled a little. I waved and said, “Yup! All good!”
After some rest, interesting conversation and replenishing water (I drank a bottle of endurox, one of water and ate a honey stinger. My water bladder was empty) we made our way back to the trail and the task at hand.
We soon crossed the Colorado. This brought on a mixed bag of emotions: 1. Excitement, when measured by distance we were almost 2/3 done. 2. Apprehension, the 4700’ climb that we had yet to do caused me more than a little concern. 3. Elation, we had come a long way since 4 am and accomplished quite a bit. 4. Dread, once across the river we would have to run through beach sand for a little ways and I was just not in any mood for that.
As we crossed the Bright Angel Bridge I took a moment to really soak in the views and enjoy the fact that we had made it back here. The river moves quite fast here and due to sediment and rocks looks a little like chocolate milk in a blender. Yeah, I was tired…and hungry.
Almost immediately after crossing the bridge we came into the beach sand and almost immediately after that I grew frustrated with the amount of spinout there is in this type of trail. “Two steps forward one step back”. So much wasted energy and we couldn’t afford to be burning calories for fun. It’s funny how different the same stretch of trail can change for a runner depending on the point of the run the section comes in. When we hit the sand early in the trip it seemed to be a couple hundred yards long and hardly slowed me down. 32 miles, a mild case of heat stress, and about 11 hours later and I realized that it was over a mile of soft, ankle deep, life-sucking sand. After only a quarter mile I told Bob I didn’t remember it being this long or tough earlier.
Eventually we escaped the clutches of the La Brea Sand Trap and made the turn from the Colorado River to Garden Creek. Just 3 more miles to Indian Garden Campground. 3 quite beautiful miles. The sun was getting pretty low on the horizon, for the people on the rim, for us it was out of sight and our light was completely of the indirect sort that always seems to be in shadow. The change in our position in the canyon coupled with the ever changing light due to the sinking sun caused dramatic changes in the view with the passing of just a couple minutes. I’m actually surprised I didn’t end up tripping and getting hurt during this part of the trip as I was looking at the alpenglow as it moved from one rock formation to another.
When we arrived at Indian Garden Campground I loaded up on water, endurox and had another gel. We took a final long rest before we began our ascent to the South Rim/Finish Line. It was a little melancholy and exciting at the same time. We were at a point that we knew we would finish the way we wanted, as one run. Another goal achieved. Quite exciting, but the run/adventure was coming to a close and that already brought on a feeling of sadness.
As we were loading up to make the final leg of our journey a park ranger came by and asked if we were alright and if we needed anything…We politely declined. I did so even though I was a little concerned about whether or not I had enough salt to finish the trip. I didn’t really expect that she had any so figured it was pointless to ask. As it turned out Bob didn’t need anything but said he wouldn’t have asked for anything so as not to become a statistic. I had enough salt to finish the trip. I didn’t really expect that she had any so figured it was pointless to ask. As it turned out Bob didn’t need anything but said he wouldn’t have asked for anything so as not to become a statistic. You see, the park claims to lend aid to about 600 canyon visitors a year and Bob was fairly certain that if we had gotten so much as a tissue from her we would be counted toward the 2016 total. Knowing how government works and in this instance, how the park feels about R3 runners I’m inclined to agree. If the park can say that runners require the bulk of aid given they can further their apparent agenda of limiting runners in the canyon. Sorry, got a little political there.
Anyway, as the canyon darkened we began the last, steep 4.5 miles to our finish line. As we started to move I looked up the cliff and was able to see what I thought must be the 1.5 mile restroom. As it turned out the canyon played a visual trick on me and what I was actually seeing was the 3 mile restroom. I was more than a little disappointed when I figured that out an hour later.
This last section was more an internal battle of the psyche than a physical test. I spent an inordinate amount of time checking my Garmin to see how much progress we had made and comparing my reading to what the map said about the distance to the various landmarks we were passing. The GPS had us closer to home than the map would suggest. It got to be lonely work keeping track of the map distance, GPS distance, the difference between the two, the elevation yet to be climbed and the amount of time it should take to finish.
As I was wrestling with all of this information I heard Bob mutter, “6, jeezus”. I asked what he was talking about and he responded, “I keeping checking the time. First it was 8 minutes, then 5, then 4 so I challenged myself to not look. After what felt like forever, I checked and it had been 6 minutes. Cripes.” I was happy to know I wasn’t the only one worrying over such things. In the end I think it was all we could actually handle at this point.
“There’s the top.” Bob said kind of abruptly.
I looked up to see a shelf kind of sticking out. It was about 300 feet above us and my GPS said we were about double that from the top. “False summit”, I thought to myself and decided to keep it to myself as there seemed to be no reason to crush him with that little fact. A short while later I heard him say, “False summit.” I responded with the fact that I had suspected that earlier but didn’t want to bother him with it.
The good thing was that from the false summit we could actually see the handrail that runs along the rim at the trail head. We would very soon be done.
When we reached the trail head I proceeded to set my camera up to take the obligatory finisher picture. I have to tell you I was sore and stiff in so many places that kneeling down to line up the shot, while holding my headlamp to light up the sign and Bob was painful, and trying. A couple on what looked to be a romantic evening walk offered to help out and take the picture for us. I’m ever so grateful for their assistance. I do, however, wish that I had turned the timestamp function on for this trip, because since we began and finished our trip in the dark the only way to tell the difference between the start and finish is that I looked excited and energetic in the first and tired and disheveled in the latter.
All in all this run took us 17.5 hours, covered 51 GPS miles or 45 map miles, with over 10,000 feet of hard climbing, a little heat exhaustion for good measure and allowed us to remove one more item from our ever growing list of challenges. And one lesson learned. "The trail never bonks."
May 31, 2016: A long and winding road
2016 Boston Marathon -----April 18, 2016
Most runners know about the Boston Marathon, and come to know the history of the thing as well as the distance, location and significance. Non-runner not so much, that is, unless they have a runner in their lives, well they probably get the location part. Me, I’m a little different on this one. Boston has been significant to me since I was 12. My 6th grade teacher, Ray Wood, was a runner who ran Boston a number of times and like any runner he talked about his running. Even without his talking about running, the fact that he would run to and from work (for him), school for me brought it to the attention of his students.
He was a tall, thin angular man who could often be seen running around town, wearing a green wind shirt with a yellow horizontal stripe across his chest. It was almost like some sort of uniform for him. I remember him taking aspirin on a regular basis because of tendonitis (we kids had no idea what that was) and washing the aspirin down with coke. He told stories of long runs where his wife would set out milk jugs filled with water at regular intervals. He told us of Rosie Ruiz who had cheated at Boston 2 years earlier, of wearing nylons under his socks and glopping on Vaseline to avoid blisters. (Thank goodness for polyester socks and body glide.) He even told us about Pheidippides and his fateful run from Marathon to Athens to announce “Victory” over the Persians, only to fall over dead after delivering his message.
I marveled at the idea of running 26.2 miles. Cripes, that’s farther than from I. Falls to Little Fork. Which is 20 miles, the only comparable distance my 12 year old mind could wrap itself around. A drive that seemed to take an eternity when we went there to visit the Oien branch of the family. Mr. Wood ran that far, I was amazed. I had some idea of distance as I had a bike with a speedometer and a paper route that was about 4 miles in length. Every day I would think of Mr. Wood running 6 and ½ times my paper route and wonder how anybody could possibly do such a thing. It boggled my mind.
I understood the Boston Marathon to be an annual thing for him, but am not certain. At the time I thought Boston was the only marathon. Today, that seems silly, but one must remember how different the world was back then. Social media was done via a face to face visit, a speaker to ones ear, microphone close to the mouth and a wire connected to the wall, or through the post office. I know, I know, how did we survive in such a savage time?
Beginning in 1982 I wanted to be a runner, I really did, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me, not then anyway. I was a chubby little bastard who ran, if you could call it that, quite awkwardly. My feet swung out and around to come forward, my heels hit first and my forefoot would slap down. It was awful. When I would do anything like sprinting I pictured myself looking like a mess of flailing appendages much like Scooby or Shaggy. If I jogged it felt less obscene and I seemed to be able to jog quite a distance. As a matter of fact I would jog most of my paper route some days. I never understood (even though Mr. Wood tried to explain) that I could turn that jogging into running with a little consistent work. Mr. Wood knew I wanted to emulate him in his hobby and was very encouraging, but it just didn’t take.
Five years later I joined the Army and had to run. My legs didn’t swing as radically, but I still “flapped” a good bit. My D.I.s, in their infinite wisdom, made me a crossing guard during P.T. runs. I would run at the front of the company and stand at intersections, legs apart, right arm out with the palm up to stop oncoming traffic until the whole company passed the intersection. I would then have to sprint to the front of the company before we got to another intersection. Today I would call this a good training session of hard fartlecking. After the Army I quit running, but Boston was always there.
In 2001 I finally took up running as a winter fitness maintenance activity, but would go back to my bike in the summer as I really didn’t enjoy running. I even ran the only local race I knew of in 2003 and 04. A 10k. By the spring of 04 I knew one had to qualify to get into Boston. To that end I began training for Grandma’s Marathon as it is a qualifying race and just down in Duluth. It was not to be as my marathon dreams died one Sunday morning when I ran 8 miles. It wasn’t an exceptionally hard run, physically, but I was SOOOO BOOOOOORED. I counted mailboxes, timed myself between well-known landmarks and did so much math, so much math, so, very, much, math in an effort to distract myself. None of it helped, so I got on my bike and quit running for the summer. This was pretty much my pattern until 2009.
In 2009 I signed up for and got into the Gary Bjorklund ½ marathon. I trained for and “ran” this race. It turned out to be quite hot compared to what I had come across in training and basically I just melted. No way was I ever gonna run a marathon, let alone get to Boston.
On to 2010 and I signed up for Grandma’s Marathon. This ended up being pretty much the same as the previous year’s half marathon, just longer. Somehow I convinced myself that since I died running 13 miles I could double the distance and do it well. Me smart.
For 2011 I came up with a better plan, was executing it rather well, but the long runs were wearing on me. My marriage was failing and the long runs just gave me too much time to think about all that was wrong. On an April Saturday morning I was scheduled to run 18 miles I awoke to 3 inches of wet, slushy snow and sub-freezing temps. I remember looking out the window at that shit and saying, "Screw it. This ain’t fun anymore.” I scrapped my marathon plans.
2012 brought about my return to Grandma’s and another abysmal run. The only highlight was actually beating Bob, but even that rang hollow as I just had the less bad day of the two of us. After this one I actually thought about not running anymore as it was just too frustrating to not achieve a goal over and over and over. A couple friends talked me into signing up with a training group to see if it would change my attitude. I ended up running the Whistle Stop Marathon that October and finally achieved my goal of running every step. It cost me dearly, as I ended up crawling up and sliding down the stairs of my house for 3 or 4 days after but I had made my goal. My time was way slow for a Boston qualifier, but I had made progress.
2013 Grandma’s should have been a good run, but it just seemed to fall apart, and though I could see it happening I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. I was training for triathlons and the marathon and I think I was just over trained, broke down and tired. No Boston.
In 2014 I ran a lot of races and had a lot of fun, but none were going to get me to Boston and I got burnt out. I got to a point where I loved the races, but performed poorly because I wasn’t training. It’s funny how much fitness you maintain with a little training. But general fitness and racing fitness are not the same thing.
To this point my best marathon was 20 minutes slower than my Boston qualifying standard. It was this realization that caused me to decide that I just wasn’t fast enough to get there. I’d never get to run the race that my revered teacher had told me about so many years ago.
I completely changed my plan going into Bjorklund ½ in 2015. Things were going so well that on May 30th I switched races from the ½ to the full marathon. When my training runs pointed to a possible BQ nobody was more surprised than I. With the help of one of my training partners, Tom, I not only qualified but managed to get in. No small feat in this, the second running boom.
So here I am, lying in the grass of the athlete’s village. A cordoned off, secured area set up on the football field of the Hopkinton School. I’ve been here for almost 2 hours and have one more to go. It’s beautiful day, clear blue sky, big yellow sun, sniper spotters on the school roof, and two helos flying standard observation/interception patterns overhead. Ahhhhhhh, what a wonderful world. Oh and one other thing, a recently divorced American woman and an Aussey flirting, but not quite saying what they want to say, until he finally gets the nerve to ask her what she’s doing after the race. REALLY!? I guess maybe it could work, but before she even began her response I could hear guitar chords from his countrymen being struck as he was shot down in flames. He was resilient and asked about the next night and her response was so whithery he got the hint and let up.
Shortly after this little bit of amusement I decided to head to the starting corrals as I was in need of using the portalet. As it turns out my timing was perfect. By the time I worked my way around, over and along the mass of people to the area that would allow me to access the road down to the starting line and porta potties the p.a. announced that my wave should be staging to head down to the starting corrals.
They’ve been having this race for long time now, 120 years as a matter of fact, so they have the system pretty dialed in. They gave us wave and corral assignments AND even had corrals. I worked my way over to my corral and struck up a bit of a conversation with one fellow who had run Boston three times previously. He gave me a bunch of advice in such a rapid fire succession I would have had to record it to be able to follow his directions. After somewhere between 10 and 200 hundred bits of information he stopped, looked at me and said, “You qualified to get here so I suppose you know how to do this.” I smiled, shrugged and replied, “Let’s hope so.” While thinking, “I’m already hot, so it’s likely to be a shit show, no matter what I do.” We talked a little more until we had to separate and go to our respective corrals.
Once in my corral I began to look in earnest for Tom and Allison. I was really wishing we had coordinated a little so we could at least do some “good lucking”. I really was hoping to talk them into running together in hopes of pushing each other a little. When the announcement came to start heading to the start line I gave up on finding them.
It’s about ¾ of a mile from the staging area to the start line. We walked down a small town street, looking at the local residents who in turn were looking at us. It felt a little like a science exhibit, but I wasn’t sure who was on display for whom.
As we entered the town proper the houses came to an abrupt halt and the port a johns came into view to our left. One glance at the lines and then my watch told me I didn’t have time for a pit stop. Then I noticed that a lot of people were stepping behind the port a potties and doing their business in the wilds, which was really just a vacant lot that was grown over with vines and grass, no real cover to speak of. I usually don’t do so well in a crowd, but this was an emergency so I found a place in the trough, so to speak, and tried to imagine myself alone, in a secluded clearing, deep in the forest. Not easy to do when people are bumping into you as they slide between you and the back side of the port a johns. I managed to get a flow going and for some reason I still can’t figure out I looked up and made eye contact with a woman who was squatting about 20 feet away from me. Miracle of miracles my bladder didn’t shut down. I REALLY had to go.
With that business done I headed to my corral and got there with about a minute to spare. I was standing there just long enough to notice that the woman next to me had a pace band for a 3:20:00 marathon. That just happened to be my goal so I made note of her hat and shirt and hoped to keep her in sight. I’d love to be able to tell you there was some dramatic event, like a shotgun blast, a trumpet blare or some such, maybe there was, but I didn’t hear it. The people in front of me started moving so I, like the good calf that I am, followed along with just a soft, “moooo” and a chuckle. We walked a few yards, began to jog as the start line came into view and almost immediately went back to a walk as we bunched up. A few steps later and we started jogging and built into a run as we stretched back out. Ahhhh, the old fast march accordion. Even 30 years after boot camp I remember you well if not fondly.
The race starts at on a hill and you run downhill for the better part of the first six miles. On any straight stretch my view was exactly the same, a sea of people 30 feet wide by whatever the distance to the next curve was. Only two places I’ve ever been compare, the main street at the MN State Fair and Times Square after dark, and they were faint comparisons at best. If we had been trying to go in different directions like the people at the other two sites I guarantee you we would have locked up tighter than an overheated engine in a desert drag race.
It took me no time at all to realize I’d be long on distance on this run. There was absolutely no way to run the tangents on the curves. If I had tried I would have had to run farther and change speed every few steps as I dodged other runners, so I decided to just run down the center line until I saw aid stations and then take the path of least resistance to whichever side it led. I would become water. I’m so zen. ;)
One thing about this race is that you are seeded by your qualifying time so in theory are starting with people who run your pace. I have to tell you it was a little slice of heaven to not have to dance and dodge past people who pushed their way to the front only to find that, “Yep, I really should have started with the 5:00:00 pace group.” And thank goodness this was not happening because I’m pretty sure it would have led to injuries galore.
Anyway, I had figured a way to set my garmin up to hopefully do for me what Tom did at Grandma’s Marathon last year… remind me to cool my jets and not run too fast too soon. I set it to buzz me if I was 8 seconds/mile faster than my goal pace or 7 seconds/miles slower. It worked perfectly. In the first few miles my garmin kept me mindful to not let the ease of descent carry me away. It seemed like even though it was hotter than I would have liked things might just work out.
There was a lot of downhill running in the first 5 or 6 miles and although I did a fair amount of hill running in training it just started to wear on me. I started to notice my right IT band (outside of the thigh from hip to knee) would give a little ache on impact, but I was able to ignore it, for a while anyway.
At this point I was still running in a sea of people, but had about a dozen that I recognized from the start corral within sight. One being the gal with the pace band, she was just a few steps ahead and running on the right side of the road. In hindsight this was probably a good move as she was in the shade more often than I. Boy, the sun was bright and I was starting to wish for just an occasional cloud. “A cloud, a cloud, my kingdom for a cloud!”
I had fashioned two water bottles with duct tape strapping so I could carry them without having to hold onto them. I figured between them and the aid stations there was no way I’d get dehydrated and I think my plan worked pretty well. I could carry them most comfortably with the bottles inside my grasp and the strap going over my knuckles and when I needed to use my hands I would put the bottles on the outside like some kind of Polish brass knuckles. Doing this allowed me to get a gel, a salt tablet or grab Gatorade at an aid station.
A number of things factored in to my eventual demise and missing my goal. I think the temperature was the biggest, because it affected more than making me hot. At the third aid station I got a cup of Gatorade that was so strong it almost hurt my teeth when it hit them. I should have spit it out, but that seemed rude so I took it in. Within 100 yards that sweetness combined with the heat caused a bit of nausea. Definitely not the worst I’ve had during a run, but it wasn’t pleasant.
10 miles in and So far I was maintaining my goal pace and keeping silent company with a dozen or so of my cohorts from the beginning of the race, although it was taking more effort than I would have liked and I hadn’t had either of the gels I was supposed to take because of an ongoing nausea issue from the heat and the Gatorade. I was drinking water and taking salt so at least there was that.
I couldn’t believe how many the spectators there were. There were so many, there never seemed to be a gap in them and they were so enthusiastic. I wish I could remember any of the signs they had made, because I remember laughing out loud a number of times. There were the ones that I consider old standards, “You’re doing great! Perfect stranger”, “Worst Parade Ever”, and the like, but there were some that I hadn’t seen before or they fit the situation so well and for some reason I appear to have blocked them out.
Soon, I came to Wellesley College and the famed students of this fine educational institution. This school is known for turning out some great legal minds, creative thinkers, philosophers and the like. Oh, who am I kidding, it’s known for the student body (which happens to be solely female) enthusiastically turning out for the race and offering kisses to passing runners. I had joked (ok, half joked) that if I was off my goal pace by the time I hit Wellesley I would likely not get past there.
It was sooooo loud running by that school. I would guess it was close to the equivalent of being at an outdoor rock concert and I can tell you that my pace picked up, that is until my garmin buzzed me and brought me back to reality. Luckily this happened before I got too far and missed my opportunity. One nice young lady was holding a sign, screaming and pointing at me (probably past me, but…), so I ran straight at her, and when I got there she threw her arms around my neck, pulled me and gave me a nice peck on the cheek. I’ll take it. PP
By time I got to Wellesley I had pretty much decided my day was over. I was hot, my stomach was a little upset from the Gatorade and heat and I was picking up aches and pains at an alarming rate. The most troublesome of these being my IT band, which hurt with each impact and was getting worse. I thought about what I had coming up, the 4 days of touring New England and my running/hiking vacation of the desert southwest in two weeks.
I had to decide if I wanted to race this out, which would likely not include making my time goal, but would include a lot of pain during the race and for the next few days. It would also include making my future vacation a lot less enjoyable.
By mile fifteen something quite amazing happened, I quit. I didn’t quit the run and walk off the course, but I quit the race and decided to save myself for a later date. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. The amazing part was that I was ok with it, maybe even a little happy about it.
The first time I walked was a downhill just after mile 15. I had backed off the pace a little a while before, but each impact, even at this pace, caused my right leg to, if not scream, at least squeal a little. So I said, “Screw it” and walked. I even laughed a little at the idea of walking when gravity would have been doing the work for me. From there on I ran, well probably jogged, between aid stations and walked through the aid stations, sometimes allowing myself to walk about 50 yards if my leg was being worrisome.
I would love to be able to give vivid descriptions of the race, but all I remember is a lot of rolling hills, more spectators than I ever would have expected, that I never felt I had room to move around on the course because there were so many runners and that the students of Boston College did their level best to out scream the girls at Wellesley. Oh, and at about mile 21 there were a bunch of women giving out single roses to whomever would take them. I was tempted, but: a. I didn’t know what the significance was and 2. I figured it would be destroyed by the time I finished.
As I walked out of the mile 23 aid station I came abreast of a guy who looked to be about my age. I asked how his day was going, to which he replied, “My goal is shot so I’m just kind of taking it in.” I said that I was in the same boat and that my day had gotten better for it. We both expanded on the subject a little as we started back to running. As we did this I looked at my garmin and noted that we had 5 k to go. I informed him of this and asked, “How about we set new 5k PRs?” he laughed and shook his head, saying, “Not me.” We ran together for a few minutes, chatting, but he was just slightly slower than I so I ended up pulling away from him.
Shortly after separating from my new 5k partner somebody bumped into my right elbow. I made a “quick” (using that term very loosely) juke to my left while looking to my right to apologize. I was surprised and thrilled by what I saw, so much so that it took a minute for my brain to register that Allison was running next to me. She said, “Hi Paul.” I returned the sentiment and said something I don’t recall and she seemed to not understand so we just ran together for a while.
I remember saying, “Let’s go kid.” and speeding up a bit. I was hoping we could use each other a bit and cut a little time off the last bit of this run. Allison gave a two handed wave of “no” so I backed off. Shortly thereafter I felt myself pulling away from her and thought about the futility of that so tried to slow down. I managed to do so for little bit, but soon we were separating so I just tried to maintain my pace and hoped she would stay with me.
As I passed the mile 25 aid station I began to look for Kate as she had planned to be waiting for me at about 25.5 miles. Just before getting to her location we ran under a cross street and then climbed a small hill. I was expecting her to be on left as I crested the hill. I remembered wrong, in case I haven’t explained it yet, I was pretty fried by now. As I ran past her she let out a scream that probably startled all the cops and security within a mile into action. My head snapped to my right, where she was, so quickly it threw me a little off balance. It took me a couple of steps for me to get squared away and to make sure I could loop around to her without screwing up any other runners. When I could, I did and when I got to her I grabbed her and gave her a big dramatic kiss. I would have dipped her if not for the corral panel between us.
I used the adrenaline rush from seeing Kate to push me through the last ½ mile. When I made the left onto Boylston Street and could see the finish line I decided to burn out whatever I had left. It wasn’t much, but that turned out to be a blessing as I was able to look at and really soak in the idea that I was about to cross the finish line at The Boston Marathon. The. Boston. Marathon.
Now, I don’t normally care about the professional finish line photos, but I wanted this one and I wanted it to be a good one. That was not to be as there was a runner having some sort of distress right in the middle of the finish line, right in front of the street level, still photographers. Really? I just hoped there were more photogs I wasn’t noticing.
I crossed the finish line and cleared the chute. Once I was out of the way I began to look for Allison. When I saw her I started to walk toward her, but a volunteer stopped me and said that I needed to keep going forward. She was right, I was just caught up in the moment. I started moving, but slowly. Allison and I collected our medals, heat sheets and finisher food together and chatted about how the race had gone. I was so happy that she was there, but to be honest spent some time thinking that Nate really needed to be there. That would have made it feel just about perfect.
Ally was having a little bit of trouble due to what I would guess was mild dehydration. After we picked up my drop bag she needed to sit down, but being Allison she didn’t want help. I did manage to get her a water while we rested next to a volunteer tent and after about 20 minutes we decided to go meet with our respective “families”, gave congrats to each other and said our goodbyes.
Life is funny. As you move through it you make adjustments, people come and go. Some of each of these have little effect and some have great effect. In the case of this entry I’d like to say that making the attitude adjustment in 2014 of accepting that I would never get to run Boston made the happening all the sweeter and that I made the atypical (for me) adjustment of accepting my fate during the race made the result not matter nearly as much as the journey.
To say that I feel a man I haven’t seen in 30 years affects me to this day would do him a disservice. I don’t run because of Ray Wood, but I definitely run with him. It’s a rare run that I don’t think of him and I’m more proud to have run Boston because he encouraged me than because I managed to have the run of my life to get there.
One last mention. A tip of the hat to a fellow that has a pretty good grip on reality and what’s important. I got texts of congrats after the race, but my favorite follows. It is put more succinctly than I wrote but is exactly what I brought myself around to during the race as things were falling apart.
Tony S.---Boston isn’t really about racing fast, it’s about the honor of being there and the celebration of your accomplishments.
October 6, 2015: A Long Way to the Top
Pikes Peak Marathon August 16, 2015
So this one will start off kind of rambly, but if you stick with me we'll get there. I just wanted to warn you.
I'd heard of this race and even hiked the course as my first 14er summit. That hike was 13 hours of some of the best misery I've experienced, rain, lightning, acute mountain sickness and a little hypothermia. Add to that the fact that I didn't know what I would need so I just brought everything, about 30lbs worth in an old ruck type pack.
My impression of the race was that only elites and mountain residents ran it. Then, one day last winter, Gretchen posted on FB that Tony wanted her to give it a try. I thought to myself, "Mere mortals don't run that, do they?" As it turns out flatlanders are found aplenty in America's Ultimate Challenge.
I've been climbing 14ers for 5 years now so I have some experience with the elevation and how it affects me. My partner in these adventures, Bob, is also a runner and likes a good challenge himself so I called him and proposed we make 2015's trip about the race. He thought it sounded "great". There was a fair amount of sarcasm in that...but he decided to give it a go anyway.
This race has a field limit of 800 and is filled on a first come first served, if you qualify, basis. Bob and I had races that qualified, so now we just needed to make the first come first served part. Bob has no internet access at work and had to work the day that registration opened so it was up to me. A few days before registration opened I received an appointment request for an inspection. I called the requester, a runner himself, and asked if we could do a different time, explaining why and could hear a bit of mirth in his "yes" that seemed to say, "If you're goofy enough to do THAT I'll not be the one to stop you."
I got us registered within 10 minutes of registration opening. Now we just had to wait for our qualifiers to be vetted. That was a loooooooonnnnng week. We knew our stuff was in order and valid, but one is just never 100% sure. My name cleared first, almost one of the first to do so actually. Bob's took almost two more days. Two very nerve wracking days. If only one of us got in it would really put a damper on things. I mean, who would I race?
Now that we were in we had to figure out how to run this thing. Fortunately the race director is really into data and numbers. In just a couple of hours I was able to take the previous 2 year's results and sort them for our age group, flatland qualifying race, flatland runner and a qualifying time of + or - 30 minutes of our qualifying times. After throwing out a few outliers I came up with an average finish time of 7:22:00.
Now we had a "window". What were we going to do with this information? The fact of the matter is that we would, without a doubt, be racing each other. That's just how it is. After a bit of thought we felt that a seven hour goal was challenging yet possible. Some days, during training, the goal seemed easily attainable but on others it seemed to be out of reach. Time would tell.
Five months and hundreds of trail miles, hill repeats and long slow miles later and we're in Colorado, camped at the USFS campground on the road to Mt. Sherman. We had decided to spend as much time above 10,000 ft of elevation as possible in the days leading up to the race. The plan was to camp at 10,000 ft and drive or hike to 13,000+ for as much of each day as possible. We arrived Tuesday and drove straight up the Sherman/Sheridan jeep road. From 12,000 ft up, about a mile and a half the road is about 2 or 3 feet wider than the car, with the downhill side being a sheer drop of sometimes a few hundred feet. We were able to get to the Hilltop Mine, where we spent some time in 2013 on our descent from Mt Sherman. We goofed around up there for an hour or so then drove back to the parking area, at 12,000 ft, when the lightning came in. After a couple more hours we headed down to camp.
We decided to attempt a summit of Mt. Sheridan for Wednesday. Bob took the standard route and I chose to take a steeper, talus covered route. My decision was based on the fact that a number of our planned, upcoming climbs will require this type of route. We spent almost 5 hours atop Sheridan then descended to 13,000 and spent another 3 hours. While lying on a relatively shallow slope on the side of the mountain a helicopter flew over us. We really didn’t think much of it until a few minutes later when a Search and Rescue helicopter flew over. We decided to make movements so as to appear to be alive so they didn’t decide to try to save us.
Thursday, I took Bob to Colorado Springs then headed to Denver to pick up Kate. She would be summiting her first 14er, Mt Sheridan on Friday. (That's another story)
Friday I summited Sherman with Kate. We stayed for about an hour then made our way down. I dropped her in Denver and headed to Colorado Springs.
Saturday was to be for spectating. We watched the start of the Pikes Peak Ascent then drove to the summit to watch the finish line. It was quite inspiring to see the first runners come across the line. They were actually running. Not sprinting, but they were running. We even got to watch two guys have a race to the finish. The speed they could run at 14,115' made it seem like it was playing out in slow motion. Then we headed back down the mountain and spent the rest of the day resting.
Well, if you stuck around, we're finally here, standing in Manitou Springs. The start line is on the main street and situated so you know you'll be running up what looks to be the older part of the town.
We’ve been grouped by our qualifying times. At 7 am those with bib numbers 0 - 199 will begin their trek. 2 minutes later the next 100, then each successive group of 100 will go in 1 minute intervals.
I’ve decided to insert a paragraph at each timing mat to let you all in on how the race between Bob and I was going and give my thoughts at that point and what they would have been if I had known how it was going.
Timing mat number one was the starting line. When I crossed this one I knew he was a minute ahead of me and would be making time on me for the next 13 miles. I was happy for the former just because it meant he was out of sight so I wouldn’t try to catch him. I was hoping the latter would not become too great to overcome.
Bob gets to go with the third group, I with the fourth. It's good that we are separated. That means we won’t be Racing each other and blow up long before the end. When Bob's group heads up the hill I silently wish him luck and breathe a sigh of relief followed by a clench in my gut because I'm suddenly hit by the reality of what I'm about to attempt. Self-doubt floods in like the tide at moon set.
Before the self-doubt can drown me, my group is sent on its way. The first mile and a half is on a paved road that travels through businesses and homes that appear to have been built over a century ago. Most are of the two story square facaded variety that would have been in style when this was a mining boom town. I started out at a slow jog and tried to keep any form of competitiveness from causing me to bolt to an early death. Though it was a paved street it was a pretty good grade. Buildings next to the course had 3 or 4 feet more prominence on the downhill side than the up. Even at what felt like a very slow pace I was inching past other runners fairly regularly. I was starting to feel like this may just go alright. Just short of one mile in I begin to hear Tom Petty singing "Runnin' Down a Dream". I, and a number of runners around me gave a little chuckle at the appropriateness of the song choice.
Mile one clicks off and I begin to wonder when we'll hit the trail. We have spread out enough that I think the transition to single track will be fairly uneventful. Soon the pavement changes to gravel and the road narrows up a bit. This helps us get organized for the upcoming single track.
Just before the transition to single track was aid station number one. Quite few runners stopped for water or whatever. My plan was to carry my necessaries, only getting more water if needed. I passed a good number of runners at A.S. one. Some would pass me back, but would burn a good bit of energy doing so.
When the single track appears it means we are about to enter the "W"s. This is about 3 miles of switchbacks that gain about 2000 feet of elevation. I've hiked up and down these once and run down them numerous times. Running down them is one of my favorite runs, just enough technical running to keep you honest and the occasional fence rails can be used as guardrails allowing one to run a little faster. During this trip up they work to sort us out a little. A few people are able to jog, but most walk. It's just a matter of how fast one can walk. Fortunately, I'm with a group that seems well matched to my pace.
I can tell you that the views of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs are quite beautiful from the "W"s. But what I saw today was shoes. Lots and lots of shoes. "There's those pink Inov8s again. I wonder why they slowed down. Wow. Asics road shoes. I don't think that's going to work so well. That’s an ugly green. I wonder why Nike did that?"
The other thing I noticed was pretty good news. I was power hiking at a pace that was almost four minutes per mile faster than I had anticipated and was not feeling stressed. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy, but I felt I could maintain this level of exertion for the duration of the ascent. I was not close to gasping for air. Yay!
I had a sodium, nutrition and hydration plan. Drink long before I feel thirsty. That's kind of tough in this area because the dry air makes it tougher to gage thirst. Salt and a gel every forty minutes. I could tell within the first half hour that sodium intake would need to be at shorter intervals so I took my first one thirty minutes in and settled on that as my sodium schedule. So now I had to keep track of the rocks, roots, washouts, erosion diverters, other runners, drink when I don't yet need it, salt every thirty minutes and a gel every forty minutes. It's hard to get bored in this race, that's for sure.
Climbing through the "W"s I matched pace with a guy who was wearing a pair of fairly bright yellow shoes. We had small spurts of conversations. What I remember is that he is a local, has run the Ascent, the Marathon and has done the Doubler (both races in the same weekend). There was a woman chugging along with us who was doing the Doubler this year. I began feeling like a slacker.
I said I could never double. Now, I'd like to think their encouragement was due to seeing something in me, but the most probable reason for their "belief" in me is good old sadism. I'm sure when we went our separate ways they high fived, winked at each other and said, "There, we got another one." Yeah, well, maaaaaaybeee...
At A.S. 2 I take a cup of Gatorade and keep on moving, trying to keep my momentum going. It’s not quite as easy as getting a 152 car train moving, but I manage to get it done.
A.S.3 is also the second timing mat. I felt good here, maybe not strong, or fast but I wasn’t hurting beyond a little occasional crampiness in my right calf. I wondered how long ago Bob had crossed but not for long. I saw no need to dwell on the subject. As it turns out he crossed in 1:01:12 and I in 1:05:37 so he was 4 minutes 35 seconds ahead of me. At my pace that amounted to about .3 mile. In most races I’d have been able to see him. Knowing the distance would have driven me crazy.
At A.S. 3. I did grab a cup of water but did not miss a step as I drank it and tossed the cup into the can. I was able to grab a few more spots here. There was something kind of startling at this aid station, a one ton flatbed truck with a 500 gallon water tank. I'm not sure how they got it there but I'm impressed.
It wasn't much longer and we topped the ridge of Rocky Mountain and got our first opportunity to run as we crossed the saddle between Rocky and Pikes. It was two miles of alternating between a slow jog and a fast hike. Depending on the direction of the grade. The trail was also quite wide here so allowed for "easier" passing. In this race one must keep in mind that any form of the word “easy” is subject to air quotes.
As a rule, an aerial shot of me passing somebody would have looked like the pass for the win in the snail race 500. And when I got passed it felt like I had found a way to go in reverse while looking like I was still making forward progress, possibly looking like a reverse moon-walk.
I have to say that even though almost everybody seemed to be running this as a race there was a feeling, with a few exceptions, of great camaraderie amongst the competitors. If I caught up to somebody they, with only one exception asked if I wanted by or made room when I requested to pass. I did the same when the tables were turned. Quite a cordial lot, we were.
Aid Station 5 was at Barr Camp, which is approximately half way to the Summit. I grabbed a cup of water and kept chugging along. A little pun there for ya.
This was also the location of the third timing mat. I felt pretty good, hadn’t let my heart rate get out of control and the cramping hadn’t gotten worse than at the last timing mat. Bob crossed it in 1:46:29 and I in 1:54:34 so now I was 8 minutes 5 seconds behind. At my current pace he was just over half a mile ahead of me, so pulling away at a steady pace. Even if I could see him I doubt I would realize it was him and I would have figured the race was out of reach.
The trail began to get a little more technical here. This meant a lot more running on my toes, which started to cause more of the twinges of cramping in my calves. I thought I had been making progress in this battle. I thought wrong! I put myself on a salt per 15 minutes schedule and drank whenever I could afford the breath.
The technical nature of the trail through the next few miles would occasionally cause bottle necks and an urge to try to pass, but more often than not it seemed like it would take an inordinate amount of oh so precious oxygen to do so. If I felt I would need to do more than three running steps to make the pass I just held back. I became an amazing study in self-restraint.
During this stretch I spent a lot of time just gaging the level of energy I was expending, trying to pay attention to the terrain for the trip down, passing cautiously and getting out of the way of people passing me. Though there were people all around me almost the whole time there was a lot of silence, with one pretty stark exception. I, ever so slowly caught up to three docs who work for the V.A. How do I know this? They were able to carry on a very loud and full conversation about their work. God bless ‘em for the work they do, but their ability to talk so much just kind of rankled me. After what seemed like three eternities I got past them. There was a 40, or so, yard gap to the next runner. She happened to be wearing a “Team Red, White and Blue” shirt that also indicated Naval service. When I caught up to her I said, “Good work Navy! If you slow down a little you can talk to the V.A.” She snorted a little laugh and responded, “No thanks.” I can only assume she preferred the quiet also.
It seems that there was another aid station before the one at the “A Frame”, but maybe it was just some of the safety volunteers. Either way, there was a small group of Search and Rescue folks stationed between Barr Camp and the A Frame. This would be the first group of volunteers I would remember to thank for being there. It seemed that most, if not all of the volunteers at the race were also on the mountain Search and Rescue. When you think about the fact that they needed to be in position before the race started and stay on post until the last runner passed them, you realize how dedicated these people are. They had a long day. Not only were they there to help us if we needed it, but they were very liberal with encouragement. It would be hard for me to thank them enough.
At the A Frame aid station a lot of people within my reach stopped for food, water or rest. I pushed on gaining a lot of positions. I’ve done this hike before and knew passing would get tougher soon, so wanted to make some headway.
This was the site of timing mat number 4. The cramps had backed off a little so I felt things were going in the right direction and now that I was above tree line I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Bob. Had I known that he had crossed that mat 8 minutes 55 seconds ahead of me I would not have bothered. On the other hand I would have been heartened to know that he had only added 50 seconds to his lead in the 2.6 miles since the previous mat.
Even though I knew it would happen, it was kind of surprising to see the first place runner coming at me soon after I left the A Frame. The sight of him was a little disheartening as it meant I would need to be making room for the runners who would soon be following him. The next three miles was a balance of trying to make time, make room for runners on the descent and paying attention for runners who might be catching me. Add to that the slow oxygen depravation, keeping track of salt every 15 minutes, a gel every 40, water before thirst and finally the terrain difficulties. I was about at mental overload
I felt I was doing ok on number one, doing a pretty good job on number two, but apparently not well with three. A couple of fellows that had been in my vicinity most of the race got perturbed with my stopping for the descenders and passed me with a bit of grumbling on their part. For the most part, after they passed me I followed their lead when a descending runner came at us. I feel they cut it close a few times but overall did right by the descenders. For my part I tended to give a bit more room, just to be safe.
There was a group of Search and Rescue volunteers in the Cirque area. They were a pretty entertaining group, with their kazoos, singing and a little dancing. These folks were really into this thing whole hog. They had so much enthusiasm they were able to spread it around to us by reading each runner’s name tag and making little rhymes for most.
It was at about this point that, unbeknownst to me, Kate was first able to see me using some pretty strong binoculars. She yelled out, “Paul! I see you! I love you!” Then she put the binoculars down and realized I was still over a mile away from her. Due to the switchbacks I was about two trail miles away yet.
Shortly after passing the “1 mile to the summit” sign I met Bob. He said, “Come get me.” I’m pretty sure he meant it, but I didn’t see how I could possibly make up a two mile deficit so I just continued running my own race. I bet you didn’t see that one coming, did ya.
When I finally did get within earshot of Kate, she was actually screaming my name and various phrases of encouragement. I suspect she had been holding that in since she had seen me with the binoculars. That’s a long time for her to hold back enthusiasm.
Next was her friend Karen (who took pictures and yelled, “Way to go, Paul!”), then a relatively new friend of ours, Annie (who yelled my name, took a couple very cool pictures and then yelled some encouragement) and finally Gina. She yelled to get my attention. I looked, and saw that she had the same white board she had at Grandma’s Marathon. With. The. Same. Message. “Paul! Don’t poop!”
Gina is a hoot.
So let’s recap who was waiting at the turnaround. My girlfriend. That just makes sense, except that she had to use a significant amount of vacation to be there. Her friend, Karen. She lives in Denver so not such a stretch there. A couple of relatively new friends of mine, Annie and Gina. They were on a vacation that brought them into the area and they adjusted their schedule to be there. The fact that these people took the time and effort to be there coupled with the stress I was putting my body through and the fact that I was doing better than I had expected made me a little emotional. Every time one of my cheerleaders gave a yell I would get a little choked up. It was really a lot of good stuff.
Timing mat number 5 was at the half way point. I crossed it as it showed almost exactly 4:00:00. That would be the gun time. My chip time was 3:55:46. I had started my stop watch when Bob and I crossed paths earlier, it read 11:32. Not good and that only shows the time he’s ahead for my trip up, not his trip down. The reality was that he was 17 minutes 12 seconds ahead. I guessed he was about 19 or twenty minutes ahead and figured I would be able to cut that down but not catch him. Back to the big race…
Kate was the first and last of my little troop of supporters, I came upon as she was about a quarter mile before/after the turn around. She was almost screaming, she was so excited. One of the things she kept yelling was, “Keep going! This is the part you’ve been waiting for!” This apparently bothered a runner that was just ahead of me. I had been ahead of him but stopped by Kate to have her remove my rain coat from my pack, which allowed him to pass me. I caught up to him just as Kate yelled, “Go Paul! This is what you’ve been waiting for!” I guess it was too much for him to hear. With more sarcasm than I’ve heard in a long time he said, “We better watch out. This guy behind us is supposed to be good at this.”
I had just been getting ready to ask to pass when he made his remark. That little remark gave me more inspiration to pass. As I drew up on him I said, “Watch this. You might learn something.” With this I ran on the ledge of the path and passed him and the fellow ahead of him. It made competitive me smile. You know the one, equal parts malice, mischief and happy all rolled into a bundle of “kiss my ass.”
This part of the run was really a lot of fun for me. I was running a quite technical downhill with moving obstacles (other runners, both ascending and descending). I would jump over a rock, juke to the left around an ascending runner, swing wide on a switchback to carry speed through so I could smoothly jump down a large step. Then there would be a group of ascending runners that would split, leaving me to hopscotch through them, while looking for the right place to plant my feet. When I came upon one such group I could tell they were thinking of changing position. I said, “Stay there and I’ll step there, there, there, there and there.” While pointing to the spots I was going to step and followed my directions with my actions. One fellow, from the group, said, “Holy shit, he did it!”
Shortly after this I came upon two guys. I caught up to them quite rapidly and asked if I could get by. The guy closest to me said something I couldn’t understand, but made no move to let me pass, so I asked again. He gave a terse, “We’re racing.”
I thought to myself, “Well, what the hell am I doing?” I thought about it for a second. I asked once, that let him know I was there and faster. I asked twice, that had given him a chance to move out of the way. I think in racing two warnings are enough. So put my hand on his shoulder and put enough pressure on him to move him over enough that I could pass. He gave a startled grunt but was not able to stop me. The fellow in front of him made room for me. I guess rubbin’s racin no matter where you are and sometimes you gotta make your own lane.
After passing those two guys things kind of opened up for a while and I was able to just run the terrain with an occasional single runner to pass or meet. What fun! This led to some complacency that made for one of the more interesting incidents of the race. I rounded a switchback, a little fast and off balance, right into a group of ascending runners. They kind of split, but the trail was not very wide so I had to turn sideways to get through them. I twisted my upper body so my left shoulder was in the lead, and was still leaning out because I was not quite balanced yet and managed to not step on or run into any of them. When I came out of this little gauntlet I over corrected and found myself running sideways for a couple steps before getting straightened out. There was a volunteer not far ahead of me. He must have read my name from my bib because he said, “Here comes weebly, wobbly Paul.” and laughed. I chuckled a little myself. Both at his wit and at my good fortune in not having wiped out.
I caught up to one guy, asked to pass and he responded that he would step up at the upcoming switchback. Perfect! When we got to the switchback he went to the apex, so I prepared to turn the corner tight. Just as I hit the corner my cornering partner dropped down in front of me. I’m not sure if he thought I was past or if he lost his balance but when we collided I grabbed onto him so he wouldn’t go sailing off the corner. I was holding him in what I’m sure looked like a lover’s embrace. I had no reason to dislike him but this was a little too close for me so I made sure he had his feet and let him go. Set him free so to speak. He didn’t return so I guess he was never mine. That was the end of the craziness. The rest of the way to the A frame was just good, fast, technical running.
Timing mat number 6 was the A frame aid station. Bob’s lead was down to 11 minutes 28 seconds, which at my current pace was just short of a mile. I had gained over a mile on him but had no way of knowing and by this point was just running my own race and enjoying the technical descent.
The miles from the A frame to Barr Camp were the most technical of the race. I had a blast through this section. We were now beyond any oncoming runners so I just needed to watch for my footing. The approach speed to anybody I caught was not very fast so I had time to figure how to handle the pass. Early in this section I came upon a small group of runners. Due to the gnarliness of the terrain I would ask one for a pass, pass him then take some time to assess when I could pass the next. Eventually I had only one man left to pass.
I was looking at the ground around him to see when I could pass and I noticed something absolutely beautiful. His footwork was almost mesmerizing. Picture Fred and Ginger dancing their way through a forest. I told him how impressed I was with his footwork, he thanked me and we had a nice little conversation about trail running. It’ll be long time before I forget about those yellow Pearl Izumis.
It was not much after leaving him that I was passed by the only person to pass me between the turn around and Barr Camp. And man did she go by me fast. When I heard her footfalls I shouted, “Just say when!”.
To which she responded, “You’re fine.”
Then about 5 seconds later she ran up the side of some rocks and bounded down the trail ahead of me. I was quite impressed with this maneuver and told her so. As I was expressing my admiration I noticed she was wearing sandals. Holy Crap! So I added, “And in sandals to boot. Nice!”
She said, “Yep, it’s pretty easy. I just can’t catch a toe, if I do I break it.” And laughed a little.
I, now had to yell because of the distance, “I get that. Have a great run.” And she was gone.
I ran into her after the race and we talked about the sandals and how she had gotten to the point of running in them. She said she had always had trouble with foot and ankle injuries when she ran in shoes, somebody mentioned these flat, soft, thin sandals so she gave them a shot. The injuries went away after a couple broken toes taught her to be aware of where her toes were. Some lessons are learned painfully, but worth it.
From that point to Barr camp, with one exception, it was just running against the trail. Looking for the magical spot to put my foot amongst rounded rock, crags of broken shale and tree roots. All that while negotiating switchbacks, rock drops and a few knee high crevasses the trail went through, while running a pretty steep decline. I wish I had the ability to describe it as it appears in my memory. Suffice it to say that it was the very rare step that was just on smooth, flat ground. The slope was enough that I was constantly “pumping the brakes” just to get to have the feeling that I had some sort of control. This may sound a bit whiny, but the reality is that I was in heaven. Kate was right, this is what I was waiting for and I was loving every step of it. If I had to choose one trail to run for the rest of my days it would be that 2.6 miles.
Just before Barr Camp the slope let up a little and the techyness did also. The rocks are a little bigger and spaces between them a little more open. I still had to look for where I would step, but could actually place my whole foot on a flat surface. I started pushing for speed and kind of low hurdling the rocks. While doing this I noticed that my quads were feeling a bit tired and “ragged”. This was a little concerning, to me, as I had a little over six miles of downhill running to do and the quadriceps are quite crucial for this. First, they work to be shock absorbers. Second, they are your brakes and third, they are the muscles that pull your leg forward. That last one may seem like a no-brainer in its importance, but there’s more to it. If you trip, it’s your quadriceps that pull your leg under you to catch, and hopefully stop your fall. A big part of my downhill running style is reliant on that part, because I really just fall down the hill and keep my feet under me. Kind of like Buzz Lightyear flying. I’m just falling with style.
I caught a couple who appeared to be running together just as Barr Camp came into sight. He was talking and his voice had a tone of consolation. She seemed to be doing fine, but just about as soon as I had that thought she miss-stepped and fell. The rocks that stick up through the trail here were about the size and shape of sea turtles so when she went down her hands just reached the ground as her chest and abdomen hit a rock. Her partner and I stopped, reached to help her up, but she was already standing. It was then that I noticed she was probably a teenager and thought to myself how nice youth is to have. If I had just done what she had I surely would have gotten the wind knocked out me and would have laid there, impotently gasping, trying to get air back into my lungs.
Barr Camp Aid Station: I knew my bladder was close to empty so filled both my bottles here. Inside I was going 1,000 mph, wanting everything and wanting it now. Outside, I slowly and calmly asked to get both bottles filled, took the lid off one, gave the other to a volunteer who removed the lid while I held bottle one and a nice man used a ½ gallon pitcher to fill it with the slowest flowing water in the history of the Universe. When bottle one was full I put the lid on it and put the bottle in its holder. When I finished that and looked up the volunteers were working together to get bottle number 2 filled. I was pretty sure this was taking 4 days. In reality, the part I watched probably took 3 or 4 seconds. They were long seconds to inside me. Inside, while watching this, I was positively vibrating.
To imagine how jacked up on adrenaline I was and how it made me feel to be standing there, not moving forward while the race clock set a new standard for how fast tempus can really fugit. Think of a chipmunk who happened to get inside a coffee can that is stored in a sugar barrel and ate his way out. Multiply that by 10.
Timing mat 9 was at Barr Camp. I was now within 3 minutes 8 seconds of Bob. At my current pace he would have been about 3 tenths of a mile ahead of me. I can say that I was giving all I had to give from here as it was tamer trail, but I’m sure he was also. If I had been able to see that far down the trail it would have killed me.
Shortly after leaving Barr Camp aid station the trail mellowed out as I was now back in the saddle…I thought I’d let that one sit for a second so it could sink in. From here on it was a lot less technical and just descending a fairly smooth trail that seemed to get steeper with each passing step.
I didn’t pass another person for the rest of the race. I played yo-yo with one runner for about 3 miles, When it was flat or ascending, I would gain on him and when we were descending he would put space between us. By the time we had crossed the saddle I had been passed by 6 people. Yes, I was counting.
I also had assessed that my quads were all but used up. No biggy, I only had 3 of the steepest miles of the race to contend with, followed by about 1.5 miles of downhill road. Who needs the most important shockabsorbing/braking/stumblestopping muscles for that.
The final on course timing mat came 3.3 miles later and shows Bob 6 minutes 14 seconds ahead of me, which would have been about three quarters of a mile. He was pulling away. Normally the next three miles would have favored me, but I was pretty used up. I could only hope things were as bad for him.
Running down the Ws was at least as tough as climbing up them 5 hours earlier. My back was sore, my quads would quiver with the impact of each foot plant and my feet were starting to hurt from being crammed into the front half of my shoes for the last 8 miles. I was feeling a good bit of frustration at the fact that my quads were in bad enough shape that I didn’t dare to just “let go” and let gravity pull me down the hill.
“Just keep running.” That’s my mantra. I’ve used it in most short races I’ve done. I’ll repeat it, in my head, anytime I’m running so hard it physically hurts. This time I was using it for completely different pains than I’ve ever used it for before. My lungs didn’t hurt. My heart wasn’t pounding in my temples. And I didn’t feel like I may lose control of bodily functions. I was just wore out and feeling used up. I reasoned that I should be able to keep running because I was actually running a pretty good pace with the brakes on, so what I was doing really didn’t require any energy.
As I made my long and painful descent an occasional runner would catch me. We would do the “Switchback Tango”. Step 1. Footsteps approach. Step 2. I say, “just say when”. Step 3. A furtive look back as the approaching runner says, “Your fine”. (lying) Step 4. I say, “I’ll go wide.” Step 5. We make the quick 180 and change the lead. Step 6 Slide back down into the trail. 7. Attempt to hold closely. 8. With a desperate longing, watch them leave.
I did match one runner for a while. He caught me just below the intersection with the trail coming from The Incline. Since I was on very familiar ground I thought I would see if I could use him a little. My goal was to keep him behind me so there would be that pressure pushing me forward. I was able to keep this up for maybe ½ a mile, then my left knee just went kind of soft when I planted it to make a right turning switchback. This caused my right toe to catch ever so slightly as I brought that foot forward. Normally, this would be nothing, but in my current state it turned into a near disaster as my upper body carried it’s momentum to the outside of the turn. I had to fight with my torso, twisting to resist the force that was pulling it over the edge of the trail while trying to get my legs back in time, with each other and the speed that I was falling down the trail. When I think about it now, I’m sure I must have looked like Wile E. Coyote running around a corner, chasing the Road Runner. When I got it all under control I slowed, stepped to the side and said, “It’s all yours.” Grateful to let him go and remove the pressure. As he passed he said, “You were doing great.” (Liar) “Nice recovery back there.” (Thank you! I thought I was going to fall off the trail and die).
The rest of my time in the Ws was just me fighting myself and trying to keep things under control. There was a woman at one of the last switchbacks, she said, “A little under 2 miles to go, looking good.” as I went by. It was both a relief and a small torture to hear this. I was hurting enough that I wanted to be done and I couldn’t wait to get onto the road, which would be about the final 1.5 miles, and run on something flat. Just 3 short minutes later I would regret those feelings and that wrong assessment.
I came to the last aid station right where the trail turned to gravel road. I grabbed a cup of water and kept onna truckin’. The gravel road was almost as steep as the trail, but it was wider. Somehow that felt like some sort of consolation, I’m not sure how or why but I did feel better.
Soon the gravel transitioned to pavement. Ahhhh, pavement, this wasn’t very steep on the way up. I remember being able to jog up this part. WOW! Is this steep! And now we have to run on the side? I guess it makes sense, you can’t shut down the main street through town for 10 hours. By running on the farthest edges of the pavement we had to run downhill and deal with a pretty severe road crown. One would think that this would be easy after all the trail obstacles. One would be wrong. It took very little time for this to make my ankles hurt and give my feet an overall annoyed feeling.
It was during this last mile and a half that I noticed a very wet, slippery feeling to my foot movements within my shoes. I took a little inventory of how everything felt down there and became pretty convinced that I was going to lose 5 toenails as a result of this race and that I was probably bleeding pretty good. YAY!
The racing that was going on during this last stretch was pretty competitive, none of it by me, but it was fun to watch. From my first step onto the pavement to the finisher chute I was passed by about 10 people or so. I recognized most…”Hey, there goes Fred Astaire. Oh, hey there green Mizunos. Looking good Noosas (I was kind of surprised to see Tri shoes in this race).” And so on.
Dealing with the road crown got to be so annoying that I ran on the sidewalk whenever I could. Concrete has never been such a relief. It meant ducking overgrown yard trees, sidestepping shrubs and climbing up and down the curbs as the cross streets came along, but it was much less painful than dealing with the down slope and the crown.
Then I heard it, the race announcer as he announced the runner’s names and hometowns as they entered the finisher’s chute. I dug deep, deeper than I ever have before. What I found was a whole lotta nothin’. So I just accepted my lot and trundled along, taking in the moment and the crowd.
This chute seemed to go on forever. Spectators were lined up to the left. They were yelling my name (because it was on my bib) and high fiving as I ran by. A guy could get used to such treatment. I heard my name and hometown before I could see the finish line. That was pretty cool. Then, just as the finish line came into view I saw Kate nearly jump over the barricade, then Karen, then Bob. I high fived them as I went by and crossed the line.
I finished nine minutes, one second behind him. Almost exactly what I would expect as a result if we had run a road marathon. What can I say? Someday, when we’re in the nursing home…
Once I was finished, I was done. The volunteers were asking if I was alright and as much as I wanted to say, “Yes.” and get out of the way I really needed to get cooled down. That last mile and a half was hot and it just kind of roasted my brain. Somehow one guy could see what I needed, guided me to a chair, brought me a baggy of ice and a cup of water.
The next thing I know Bob is there, shaking my hand, congratulating me. I was able to get to my feet and return the sentiment. Once I was standing we were asked to make room for people coming across the finish line.
We took a lot of pictures, stayed in the area to cool down and rest for about an hour and then hobbled our way to the cars.
June 24, 2015: A little taste of success (finally)
June 20, 2015
I’ve heard it said that every story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. That seems logical, right? The problem comes in deciding where it starts, how full the middle will be and when to end it. I mean, think about it for a minute…who’s to say where a story really begins. Take WWII for example. At first blush most people from my generation or later would say Pearl Harbor, but the reality is that it started long before that and depending on whom you ask the beginning is in flux. The middle can be very tough for me. When I write, because I write from inspiration, so it happens quickly, the middle can seem as full as Santa’s belly. I’ll go back and read it months or years later and it’ll look about as full as the belly on Jack Skellington (Tim Burton’s version of Santa). I can become overwhelmed with the urge to fill it out some, but in the end usually don’t and just hope that I’ll remember those morsels when I read it later in life. The end, the end, what to say about the end… I can usually find the ending pretty easily, but at times it just seems to want to continue on like that interminable song sung by Lamb Chop and friends. You know the one. The one that never ends.
My problem with this one is the beginning. I could start at the start line of the race where we stood in 55 degree temps through three pretty serious downpours, but that’s not quite the spot. Then there’s the day that Tom and I decided to team up for the race, but it seems like that would leave me with one hell of a back story to come up with. How about if it started at the point that I realized that I had a real shot at making a goal I had all but given up on. (When I ran my 18 mile, Saturday long run at my goal race pace and felt strong at the end) Still, one could wonder, “How did he get to that, when he thought it wasn’t possible?” This leads the start point being the Tuesday afternoon hill repeats I began in March to prepare for The Pikes Peak Marathon. Well, starting there definitely brings up questions about the possibility of entering PPM being the beginning.
You see how tough this can be? One could keep travelling back in time trying to burrow to the kernel of the thing. It can really be quite maddening to someone who wants to get to the right and proper start.
I could start with Beth’s birthday run. The day that I officially ended my hiatus from running. “Hiatus?” you could ask. Yep, I took about 4 months off because I was just burnt out, needed a break to do something different. At this point we’re 9 months from the day this story is supposed to be about and I just skipped over plenty of middle. Ol’ Skellington just went anorexic.
To fill in that middle I’d have to mention Kate being extremely supportive of my new nutrition plan, even though it was so different from what we had been eating. “Now, where the heck did that come from?” You seem a little taken aback. That really came from two sources: the first being a weight loss competition/program I joined at one of the gyms I use and the second being due to advice from my coach in that program. Gina was able to point out that my protein intake was less than half of what I needed due to the physical activity load I carry. Guess what folks. If you are burning an average of 1,000 calories a day working out and take in little protein it’s hard to build muscle. You get three guesses to tell me how we move our bodies.
Then I could start the story with the day, while signing up for my kettle bell class, I found out about the above mentioned program. That brings up that fact that I was taking kettle bell classes. “Huh?” I know. I know. If I mention kettle bells it bears mentioning that it brought a little joy back into my workout regimen due mainly to that fact that Kelly (the instructor) reminds me of SSGT. Hancock (one of my D.I.s). They both try to be hardnosed and tough but their true nature juuuuust won’t let them do it with a straight face. SSGT. Hancock was better at it, but Uncle Sam had givrn him some acting classes. For this story to not skip a breakfast or two I have to mention the day that Rick told me how much he liked kettle bells at this particular gym.
I could keep going on like this, but if you haven’t gotten the gist yet, you aren’t likely to ever get it. I’ll “end” this part of this story with this. I ran and ran and ran for more than a year after I knew I needed a break from running. The things I did during that break, and finding a compatible race partner made all the difference in the world.
So, if you stuck with me you’re standing on Old Highway 61 in front of a car dealership. “Holy shit! IS it raining!” I hear this from behind me and begin to reminisce about the 2014 Zumbro 17 a little and think to myself, “At least it’s pavement and over 35 degrees.” It soon stops but hits us two more times before we get started. By the time we start running I’ve been shivering for a good 15 minutes but it’s not currently raining and if I know anything about my rain jacket it’s that the thing doesn’t breath. At. All. So I should warm up shortly.
When I decided to drop out of the ½ and run the full, key to that decision was that fact that I would have a running partner to get me through the third quarter of the race. You see, I think most races, no matter the distance, can be broken into quarters. In the first quarter you just kind of sort things out and make general assessments. In the second you start to cruise a little and test the systems out a little. You know, kind push things to see what’s what. “Ooops, that was too fast. Better back off.” In quarter number three you find out if you pushed too hard back there in quarter two and try to salvage things if you did. How things go in the fourth is entirely dependent on how two and three went. If you worked the defense and ran the ball when you could in two and three, four is really an early victory lap. If you tried to air the ball out even though your arm was shot and your vision blurry…well, just find a Vikings fan they’ll be able to explain it pretty well.
The third quarter of Grandma’s Marathon has been my downfall all three times I’ve run it. I get to this little patch of desolate desert on the shore of Lake Superior, with miles of no spectators, pin pricks that my mind turns into bomb craters of pain, universes of self-doubt. It can be 6 miles of eternity. Yes, it’s that bad.
Hey, we’re back to me having a running partner to distract me from that little bit of hell. I hope you enjoyed the trip. I didn’t. So, Tom Clements accepted my proposal and we decided to try and help each other through this race.
I suspected for a while and confirmed at Fargo, last year, that if I had a partner it would go better for me in road marathons. You see, at marathon pace you can talk a little and that can kind of take your mind of the monotony of what you’re doing. When I run trails I’m distracted by tree roots that want to grab my feet, rocks that would love to taste the blood fresh from my split lip and trees that jump out into the trail just for sport. When I run a half marathon or shorter I’m racing everybody in front of me so am hurting so badly I don’t have time, or the ability to think.
Once again, back to Tom and Grandma’s. Skellington’s gaining weight though. I’ll say this about the rain, it didn’t get us much after the race started and by mile 5 I think it was done with us.
I feel like the plan worked pretty well. Tom did a good job of keeping us in check in the places I wanted to let the reins out and I kept an eye on my watch when we caught people to make sure we hadn’t sped up. When Tom said, “I think we need to pump the brakes a little.” The watch usually agreed with him. When the watch said we needed to slow down we listened to it. Having somebody to be accountable to, in the moment, made me race smarter. Having Tom there to chat with on occasion helped distract from the monotony and speed things along. He knows the course better than I and was able to bring me back to reality when I thought, by landmarks, that we were farther along than we actually were. It was much better to be set straight immediately than be expecting something in half a mile that doesn’t show up for three miles.
One of the cool little bits he knew is how “short” mile seven is. The GPS says it’s perfect and that we ran it at pretty close to the same pace as the rest of them but that bugger went by so fast I actually looked over my shoulder trying to see the mile six marker.
Kate was her usual supportive self and offered to be at a few spots along the course to give us fresh water bottles and cheer us along. Her first post was at mile 8. I saw her from quite a ways off, standing in a drizzle with a poster board sign. Unfortunately, it had rained on her pretty hard so the sign was all but dissolved. Fortunately she had the water and gels, so we did a kind of flying pit stop to get our supplies and keep moving. I think NASCAR may just want to look into the whole “flying pit stop” idea.
When we entered the third quarter we both got pretty quiet for while so I tried to force a conversation a few times but it just wouldn’t start. Kind of like Brian Bosworth’s acting career. (sorry, been wanting to use that for a looooooong time) It all worked out though, we had a few snippets in this part of the race and when I saw the marker for 18 I claimed a little victory in that I had now run further than I ever had in a Grandma’s Marathon. That seemed to give us both a little boost.
This turned out to be the first time I actually enjoyed the run through town. It’s amazing how much fun it can be when not tainted by the foul stench of failure. From mile 19 to 24 I had to work hard to keep my pace slowed and it was even tougher when Tom saw people who were there for him. We all do it. We speed up when they cheer. Tom would pick up some speed and I would start to go with him, look at my watch and have to back off. He would go for about 20 seconds or so, look around and wait for me. The role would reverse when we got some open air. I could smell the finish line and my legs just wanted to get there so I could finally have a good long taste of it. 3 times I had tried. 3 god damned times. Tom did his part and reminded me that, “We need to pump the brakes”, or “We need to take a breather here.”
For all the hill training I’ve been doing, it’s quite disheartening how much faster he got up those little hills on the Grandma’s course…except the one from London Road to Superior Street. I made the left and looked over my left shoulder. No Tom. A quick look over my right. No Tom. I’m in a pretty big panic now. In hindsight I realize he must have been directly behind me, but he had fallen off the pace, or I got a little enthusiastic on that hill. As we ran by DRC I was struck by Beth screaming so loudly she was bent over and red faced. Holy Crap!
Next was Sir Ben’s Pub and Gina. And her sign. And her girlfriend Annie. And her sign. Did I mention the sign? She had one of the dry erase signs that Wells Fargo gives out at the expo. It read, or rather, I read it as, “Paul, Don’t Poop!” and immediately laughed because of the fact that the guys at work say I’m not a real runner due to the fact that I’ve never crapped myself during a run. Now, here’s somebody telling me not to do the thing that would make me a real runner. Gina says that it said, “Paul, Don’t Poop out!” Sure Gina, sure.
Mile 24 is shortly after DRC. A few years back I was having a really bad 20 miler and talked myself through the last 6 or 8 by chopping it into 2s. I told myself, “I can run two miles standing on my head, just go two more.” Since then I’ve always kind of relished the last two miles of a long training run and will try to ratchet things up a little for those last two. That’s what I did here. Well, it’s what I thought I did. My heart rate trend shows that I did but my mile splits tell a slightly different story. I’m sure some of that was caused by the wind. There really wasn’t much of a wind until we got to town and it was at our back, by then, so it was kind of nice. Until I turned onto 5th Ave West. Then it was kind of in my face and when I rounded the corner of Harbor Drive it hit me with its full gale force of 5 miles per hour and did its worst. I heroically worked to muster the energy to keep on truckin’.
Right at mile 26 a course official yelled, “Way to go Paul Wilken!” I had to look twice to focus and register that it was Dana.
So little and so far to go.
In the end. Yes kiddies we’re almost there. I ran every step of that thing. My time of 3:21:50 is a new PR (by over 16 minutes) and I qualified for Boston (now to get in). As a bonus I was also able to help Tom do so. With that said, I’d like to thank Tom for helping me finally make this goal. It wouldn’t have happened without you.