"I will never be warm again." The thought wormed its way into my brain as my body convulsed uncontrollably. The naked, gas-fired flame did little to warm damp, chilled digits, and it did even less to remove the persistent thought.
As the crowd around the heater grew, I slipped away to another with fewer people, one closer to the start -- and one where I could get closer to the warmth.
It began to snow.
April 9. Virginia. Snow. I shook my head at the incongruity of all of this: the snow, the crowd, my very presence at this run.
Three months earlier, Kevin and I met up for dinner. We discussed running and cycling (both of which he was just getting into), and by the end of the evening he let out that he and several others were weekend trail runners. "You should come this weekend," he told me. "One of the guys is going to do the long run -- 20 miles -- and I'm planning on doing half that."
Thus was the plan hatched, and therein did I meet the man who would have me slay the 50k beast. Or at least poke it a few times with a kind of pointy stick, lob a coin down an adjacent hallway, and slip by while the thing was distracted.
Kevin was not running with trail goons like the ones I had fallen in with back in Ithaca. My speed was solid, the idea of running a trail fast stayed with me, and I longed to return to the days when a 25k didn't mean slamming on pavement for an hour and a half, but kicking rocks and leaping roots for 2.5 hours. His running partners in this endeavor were slower, more deliberate, prepared for long distances but not too high on extremely rough tracks.
Brian was the 20-mile runner. He wore the traditional Camelbak pack and carried edible treats, prepared for a 4- to 6-hour slog across 20 miles of an out-and back. Kevin, a complete newbie to trails, was doing a point-to-point, and I opted to join him for two reasons: (1) because I knew the guy and felt a little odd ditching him and joining unfamiliar runners for the second 10 miles; and (2) because 20 miles seemed excessive. But with the less experienced runners with us, our trek took over 2 hours, and I closed it with a half-mile sprint up the final section toward the car to make it feel like more of a workout.
Fast forward a month, and I ran with Kevin and Brian - and a different 3rd runner - once again, shortly after my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in a foul mood, and the trail run (I argued to myself) would be cathartic.
At some point, I found myself outpacing the others, and when the trail crossed a river, I waited to rejoin them. They were talking races. Brian asked me about the North Face Endurance Challenge, a 50k along the Potomac. (The particular "run" in which I found myself was also less run and more adventure, but that's a story for another day.) I hemmed and hawed: having finished a single marathon, I didn't fancy myself a long distance runner, but I had thought of these so-called ultramarathons, wondered what they were like, considered whether I could do one at my advancing age -- or whether I could slow down enough to do one.
By mid-February I was looking up the race every couple days, thinking of the feasibility. Then one day I asked my wife, she agreed, and I signed up. It was definite now, something to plan for, and I immediately started lining up child care for the day, writing down strategies for the race, and considering the implications in my training schedule.
Weekly runs would need to ramp up. Daily runs would need to ramp up. Runs in general would need to be more distance-oriented, less speed-based. But there would need to be some speed or I wouldn't make a clean finish. So many details, so little time
I went with Kevin a couple more times, sometimes with other friends of his; I also added my own runs to the mix, and a week out was tapering for the event.
We were at Kevin's house the weekend before when Brian texted him the bad news: He had broken an ankle and would not be running. The one person I knew would be there had now bowed out, and it turned out that Brian’s normal running partner who was also slated to race had trained so severely she wasn’t sure she could run. I made a wisecrack to Kevin about a rule-of-threes.
Three days passed before I made my own stupid mistake, missing the bottom step while moving a couch (er...cushions, actually, but don’t tell anyone how clumsy you’d have to be to manage that) and crushing my right pinky toe. On Thursday I could barely walk, and that Friday involved a lot of limping during the half mile walk from the Metro to my office.
I debated whether to race, not knowing whether the toe would be good enough. I rested it, iced it, heated it, elevated it, stayed off it, stretched it, and popped some anti-inflammatories for good measure. My wife even changed from telling me I was an idiot for signing up to saying she wanted me to run. Injuries are at least good for sympathy!
Saturday morning, 5 a.m.: clothes on, bag packed, toe taped slightly upward. I was on my way. 40F, no wind, cloudy but dry -- perfect running conditions.
Saturday morning, 6 a.m.: at the course, huddled under a picnic shelter. 34F, wind picking up, downpour mixed with flakes of snow.
Thus do we pick up where we left off, the sun now rising behind the clouds and showing pockets of humanity like rookeries, the drenching rain having succumbed to gentle snow and now briefly giving way to a simple overcast.
The first wave was supposed to be sub-9:00 pace, but we all knew that could mean anything from 7:30 to 12:00, depending on trail conditions and depth of pain by Mile 22. At 7 a.m., we lined up, listened to some brief discussion of the trail (which was extremely well-marked and really needed no discussion), then headed out.
Within 20 meters, we were in mud and dodging small puddles. Another 200 meters and it was impossible to dodge the puddles, especially with the number of runners.
I latched on with a group of four who seemed to be about my speed. They appeared to be running as two pairs, with the lead woman (who eventually won the women's field) passing kit between her and her compatriot; the other two simply seemed familiar with one another. I was the odd man out, and my snarky comments from the back probably annoyed them a little. They were serious about this race, dammit, and I was treating it like a joyride.
After the wet start, we went through a stretch of almost 2 miles on a straight compacted-dirt road. The trail took a hard left through the woods on a wide stretch of patchy swampland, then ducked briefly along the river before heading across a golf course. We stayed together through this section, then the front two disappeared around Mile 4. The trail was busy with puddles and mud, but it was still pretty loose and runnable. Up the first hill was a challenge, as footing was difficult, and the descent included a lot of tree-grabbing for secondary stability, but it didn't feel dangerous.
Across the next stretch was more mud, the trail draining a tad now that we were 45 minutes or so in, and we made our way up the next climb: less dangerous uphill, but with a dive into the second aid station (5.7 miles) that took more careful footing. I dropped the other two heading out of the aid station, and began playing leapfrog with various runners about my speed over the next few miles. This section was the only part I didn't know already, with maybe 2 km that I had yet to run. The trail wanders along the river here, then turns away for a creek crossing, comes back for a few small rises, and arrives at the north end of Riverbend Park on a long, flat stretch.
In the park, trail conditions improved dramatically, and I was in my rhythm: 10 miles in, about an 8:30 pace, the run turned into a "race" among 10 of us or so, who paced one another with distance between. The bombing descent just before Great Falls Park was playful in spite of slick mud coating the hillside, and a mile later we were at the 4th aid station. We had also passed our first 50-mile runners.
This was my first experience stopping for any length of time during a race. I spent a minute or so collecting food, drinking water and electrolyte fluid, then shoved a salted potato in my mouth and headed off again.
Out of the aid station I was joined by another runner who really nailed my pace. We ran the first leg out (maybe 2 km) before being passed by an aggressive runner who also approximated my pace on the trails but couldn't contain his newfound energy. My new running partner took off to keep up with him, and once again I was alone.
Trails were clean dirt here, well-drained but busy with 50-milers and 50k runners. Each section was an out-and-back, so we overlapped significantly, and the races began mingling freely. Every "out" included a marking on the bib, and heading "back" about a quarter mile from the end of each I would see the woman I started the run with, her pace not affected by the first 14 or 18 miles.
The final segment in Great Falls was across the rocks along the river, and here I ran into a snag: the mixed races included a run that ended in the park, and many participants were barely moving. I tried not to be pushy, but did not want to slow too much. Rocks are threatening to many people, but after running with another local named Brandon a month earlier, I had regained some of my aggression on them, relishing the stair-like drops and climbs, the need for attentive foot placement, the potential for disaster on anything wet.
I felt like an asshole driver, riding up on someone's bumper until they stepped aside. This happened a dozen times or more, and every time I apologized profusely, but most people seemed to appreciate that, though aggressive, I was not endangering them.
Finally we emerged once again onto standard trail, heading somewhat toward the aid station, but veering north instead. This was the "back" part of the main out-and-back, a little over 19 miles into the run
But here the trail took on a patchwork of difficult and slippery mud flanking more traditional dirt-and-puddles stretches. My fuel was running down, and I was now feeling the pain of having run 20-some miles. It was a short ways to a marathon, though, at which point just 6 miles would remain -- easy by almost any standard.
I ate a little, drank the last of my water, and chugged on, hoping the next aid station would bring relief.
Before the next aid station, though, trail conditions turned to shit.
What had been a series of single-track puddles was now a thick ribbon of mud snaking through the trees. The surface offered little to no traction, and runners for the 50k were still coming. (I have no idea how they expected to finish that run; we were over 3 hours in and they had done maybe 15 km, meaning they had little chance of making the 9-hour cutoff.) Instead of taking on the center track, we were forced to jump from one side to the other, trampling grass and wildflowers, pushing aside new-growth trees.
The mud formed a perfect medium for suction on wet sneakers that no longer fit quite perfectly after 20 miles of abuse: Every stretch across the center threatened to tug the shoes off the feet. I began counting steps, thinking of the number it would take to get to the end of this straightaway, the end of this mile, the end of this section, the end of this run. Still 8 or 9 miles to go and I was being mentally broken by the mud.
Worse, this was the unknown portion with no familiar landmarks and seemingly endless repetition: 20-meter straight, followed by a pair of small curves, entering into another 20-meter straight.
Every step, I tried to envision a new way to get through the course.
miles until recognizable trail.
until the compacted gravel.
Marathoners appeared at the base of the next hill. I hiked up slowly, aware once again of the pain in my foot, and gingerly dropped down the other side. Forever and a day went by, or perhaps it was 20 minutes. And then I passed the tree Kevin and I had turned around at a month earlier. Mentally that kicked off a small and short-lived celebration; I was officially in known territory! No more than 6.5 miles left! Except, wait, we stopped at the parking lot. How far from the actual start line was that? A mile? OK, 7.5 left. Aid station at 5.7 left, so the next milestone in 2.2.
A runner passed. I quickened my steps to keep up with him, 40 meters back - one curve pair away -- and tried not to let the conditions wear on me through the woods. Slipping left and right, hopping off the trail and back on, dodging occasional oncoming traffic: each action sapped my strength, crushed a small piece of my psyche. And then, a creek crossing! Surely, I thought, the aid station was nearby. But it seemed like the universe might end before the aid station appeared, an impression partly forged by my 12- or 14-minute pace. I didn't know my speed, and I cared only to the extent that it couldn't increase with the trails so ugly.
Finally we crossed the small bridge, turned around a couple bends, and there at the end of an airy but still canopied swath of wildflowers and swamp grasses stood a half dozen volunteers and an abundance of food and drinks.
I got my last signature on the bib, then lingered, drinking several cups of water, electrolytes, and Mountain Dew. I dropped M&Ms in my mouth like they were candy, plowed through a whole banana, feasted on a quarter of an orange. I made small talk with the weather-beaten volunteers, who danced in place to keep warm and seemed entirely too jovial to have been at it since 5:30 that morning; I joined them, happy simply to be out of the worst stretch of the trail.
Another runner came up behind; we paced one another through half the golf course before he passed me as the trail dove back into the woods. Here, a trio of bridges signals entrance into the final park, an informal 3-mile marker. He mounted the first bridge and slid out, muddy shoes unable to grip the wet and also-muddy wood planking. He was lucky to drop to his right, where the lone handrail stopped him.
I checked that he was OK, and we both carried on, paces unslowed by the fall. He began to pull away around the slicker stretches as I became more cautious, well aware that mental mistakes are the most common vector for injury late in races. His lead lengthened to 20 meters heading out of the forest, then 40 meters as we completed the broad stretch of swamp back up to the compacted dirt pathway.
It was here that I regained my composure. There were no uncertainties on this surface: a long straightaway, 8 feet wide, with only a couple small creeks; then a right turn and a straight shot to the finish.
My eyes closed slowly, and a smile spread over my face. My legs picked up again, and at the final aid station I grabbed a drink to go, reached into my pocket for a few M&Ms, and wheeled away without stopping, hearing clearly, "Straight ahead, 1.6 miles to go." I pushed on, the gap shrinking, pace increasing each minute. Now around us were 10k racers and people doing some sort of relay event, runners being cheered by friends and relatives on the sides.
One of them passed me, and I ratcheted up again to keep on her heels. She slowly pulled away -- very slowly -- but I tried to keep her as close as possible. The guy in front of me couldn't hold it, and a kilometer from the end I strode by him. We were now three, the one in front in a different run entirely, but the two of us had clearly renewed energy reserves.
We motored around the final turn (where by "motored" I mean at about an 8:00 pace, which is pretty much motoring in Mile 31), headed down the slight descent toward the river. Wide fields around which we had started the run opened to our right, but we stayed on the paved path, straight down and across the small access road.
I tugged off my hat for the first time, too warm to need it, gritted my teeth, and told myself I would finish strong. I churned as hard as I could -- according to my GPS, my pace went to about 7:30 in here -- and held a 5-second lead over the person behind. And as I crossed the line, 3 thoughts dribbled through my head:
1. I am done, officially done, with an ultramarathon.
2. I need food and water.
3. I am, at last, warm.
Next up: More On Training
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.