I woke to my alarm blaring Aerosmith at 5:15AM. I rolled out of bed and stumbled to the kitchen counter to silence my wake up call. The first thing I noticed when I picked up the phone was the date – October 19. A day that is etched in my conscious. A day I hope I never forget. A day when my entire life changed.
I knew right then that it was going to be a good day. I got that tingling sensation that one experiences when it appears that everything is falling into place. I smiled from ear to ear and stepped out the front door to breathe in some of that crisp morning air that I had been savoring over the past week. Instead, I walked out into a deluge. Raindrops fell on my bare feet as I watched little streams on the sidewalk glistening in the streetlight reflection. My smile fell. But only a little. “Maybe it will stop” I thought to myself. There were still two hours until race start. That would be plenty of time for the storm to blow through. I was tempted to check the radar but I resisted. It didn’t matter what it said anyway. I had a line to toe at 7:30 and I was going to be there rain or not.
I went back inside to get ready. I chugged some water, slathered Vaseline all over my feet before stuffing them into my socks and shoes and pulled on two layers of clothes over my running kit. I would at least be warm and dry for a little while longer.
Before leaving the house, I felt the urge that experienced runners hope and pray for. The smile went back ear to ear. I heeded Mother Nature’s call and once again told myself that it was going to be a good day. I ran from my front door to my Jeep in the pouring rain and thought about the fact that those would be the first of over 50,000 steps I would take that day. They wouldn’t all be as flat and smooth as that sidewalk. Nevertheless, the grin persisted.
Tyler Childers was singing about tobacco juice and moonshine as I cruised toward the Liberty Bell pool in F.D. Roosevelt State Park. I’ve made this drive so many times over the years, it has become like an old friend. Sinking into my seat, I focused on my breath and let my thoughts wander along with the music. I nodded in solidarity as Tyler talked about all the “vices that I’ve let take me over time.”
The rain stopped briefly and then began again with even more intensity. Whatever. I accepted my fate. I have been wet and miserable before. I’m sure I will be again someday. As long as you keep moving, it really isn’t all that bad most of the time. So it goes with many things in life.
I met my friend in the pool parking lot and we walked through the rain to the packet pick up tent where I got my race bib. For someone to get out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness on a Saturday morning just to stand in the rain and watch someone run away from them just reinforces my belief in the innate goodness of humanity. If they happen to be reading this, I hope they know how much that meant to me.
Soon, the race director, Coach K (I think she may hate that nickname but I love it and I’m leaving it in to see if she reads this) gave us some final words of wisdom and sent us on our way. I allowed myself to drift to the back of the pack and find my own rhythm. Too many times I have started a race too fast and paid for it later in the day. These days I have no issue with being in the back of the pack for that first mile or two. I find that I often end up passing people in the later stages of the race and that is usually accompanied by a surge of adrenaline and energy when I need it most.
An hour into the race, the rain was still coming down and the seemingly endless array of rocks, roots and low hanging branches demanded my full attention to stay upright and moving forward. I run the Pine Mountain Trail often and despite the gorgeous surroundings, I most often find myself staring at the 3 feet of real estate directly below and in front of me. I cannot count the number of times I have looked up to see a deer, a waterfall or a fellow runner and immediately found myself intimately acquainted with the ground underneath. So, I focused on the ground, kept my hands loose and forced myself to smile every time I slipped on a rock or stubbed a toe on a root.
I soon caught up with a group of people who had missed a turn and gone half a mile off course. I started chatting with the guy in front of me and soon learned that this was his first ultra. Not only that but he had driven the 6 hours from Tampa to run this race. I just laughed. “I’m sure they have ultras where you live! And they’d be a lot flatter and not filled with ankle destroying rocks too.” Dave grinned and said this race worked best with his calendar and he enjoyed a challenge. Roger that. We swapped stories about CrossFit, Gasparilla and our favorite post run stretches as we followed behind the others along a narrow, technical section that made passing near impossible. I could feel his impatience and mine growing. We were ready to break away.
At one point, Dave asked me how many ultras I had run and I guessed a dozen. Later that evening, I counted them up and I was right. Technically, I’ve ran 26.2+ miles quite a few times more than that what with training runs and a couple DNF’s at longer races but I have officially completed twelve. I didn’t quite realize it at the time that this would turn out to be one of the best.
The people at the front of the group soon made another wrong turn at a trail fork and Dave and I managed to move to the front of the pack on the right trail. I stopped to tell them they were going the wrong way and then Dave and I took off. We never saw them again.
As we worked our way up and down the relentless elevation gradient, the rain continued to come down but our spirits were high. We soon came upon the leader of the 50K race who was now several miles ahead of us and heading back toward the finish. The runner looked strong and breezed by us at a pace that I still can’t quite fathom. It was only after he passed that Dave told me that runner was his friend who had driven up with him. We would later find out that he had finished over an hour ahead of the next male competitor and had set the second fastest time ever at that race. Who knows what he could have done had rain not been an ever present factor…
Inspired by the brutal pace Dave’s friend was pushing, we stepped ours up as well as we made our way to the out and back section past the Rocky Point aid station. It was at Rocky Point that I had my first caffeine craving of the day. As I stood under the pop up tent eating a banana, I enviously eyed the Mountain Dew on the table before me. Coke and Mountain Dew are staples at ultra aid stations and as a true southerner, I love them both; especially when I am 22 miles into a run and feeling a bit depleted. The combination of easily digestible calories, caffeine and carbonated deliciousness is just too much to pass up. Or at least it used to be. This was my 19th day without coffee or energy drinks as part of sober October (I was originally going to eliminate all caffeine but gave in on the green and black tea) and I was determined to keep it that way.
Never before had I started an ultra without at least one cup of coffee in the morning. Never before had I ran an ultra without caffeine. The first week of October saw intense cravings when I cut out the coffee but they had settled down and I found myself sleeping better and having more energy throughout the day without it. But, I was worried about how my body would handle the demands of a race without what is arguably the most popular performance enhancing drug known to man. Turns out, as is often the case, I was worried about nothing.
Subsiding instead on Cerasport, oranges, bananas and a PB&J sandwich, I felt a steady stream of energy throughout the entire race. I never bonked and I ended feeling as if I could have kept going for another 8 hours. Although, in the interest of transparency, I had absolutely no desire to do so.
As we pushed on into the last third of the race, Dave was exploring unchartered territory having never ran more than 16 miles before and I began to see it as my personal mission that he finish. I should point out that as an extremely fit 24 year old, Dave needed no help from me and the mission assignment was purely my own creation.
We started talking about goals for the race and Dave mentioned that he wanted to go sub 8. I do some strained mental calculations in my head and realize that while this is not impossible, we would have to ramp it up. I tell him that after we leave Mollyhugger aid station, we should start to slowly blow it out in hopes of running out of gas 5 feet over the finish line. Dave agrees with the game plan but Mollyhugger is nowhere in sight. My GPS says we should have been there already and Dave says the same but doubly so. I begin to think that I may be responsible for getting this guy lost at his first ultra and maybe he should have stayed with his original group. I look at the map Coach K sent me that morning but it does little to clear my confusion.
At that point, I pass a sign that I don’t recognize or recall and begin to seriously entertain the fact that we may have missed a turn off. Not knowing what else to do, I call Coach K. Surely the race director is not going to answer her phone during a race seeing as she probably has a bazillion other things going on but I don’t know what else to do. At least I can tell Dave that I tried. She picks up on the first ring and asks me if I’m ok. I’ve said it before in my writings and I will say it again – Coach K is my favorite race director and for good reason. The level of empathy and care that she exudes for everyone around her, in and outside the running world is something to behold. She listens to my jibber jabber about my location, the sign, the GPS, etc. and calmly tells me that I am still on course and that I am doing fine. I thank her and tell Dave we really need to step it up.
We soon arrive at the Mollyhugger aid station and guess what?! It is STILL raining. We scarf some oranges and head out knowing we only have 5-6 miles left and we are going to have to hurry if we are going to make that 8 hour cutoff.
The trail coming off the mountain after Mollyhugger is basically a creek at this point. There is no point in even trying to skirt the ankle deep water filling the trail so we plod straight through. We pass 3 other runners in quick succession stopping only long enough to ask them if they are okay before we continue. We keep pushing the pace and every time my watch clicked off another mile, we ramped it up a bit more. I was feeling better than I can ever remember at this point in a race and I was determined to leave it all out there.
The last mile ended up being my fastest mile of the day. When we got to the turn off for Liberty Bell pool, I was running as fast as the terrain would allow and much faster than I had any business doing on such a rocky, technical trail. I thought to myself – “if I eat it going down this hill I am fucked. A fall at this speed in this mine field of pointed rocks would not be pretty.” But I’m so close and Dave is right behind me. The finish line and a road is less than a mile away. If I bust my head open, I’m halfway confident they’d get me to a hospital before I bled out. I give it everything I have and watch the rocks and leaves turn into a blur underfoot.
I cross the finish line in 8:00.38 and Dave comes in shortly thereafter. The race wasn’t an overall 50K personal best but when factoring in the nearly 10,000’ of elevation change, the technical terrain and the endless rain, I chalk it up as one of the best races I have ever completed. I’m not exactly sure what combination of factors transpired to make Saturday’s race such a phenomenal experience, but I look forward to attempting to recreate it soon.
I ate some post-race pizza, changed into some dry clothes and climbed into the car for the ride home. I threw my finisher medal in the passenger seat where my 3 year sobriety pin sat. I sat and looked at them both while I thought about everything I had gone through on that race course and everything I have gone through since October 19, 2016. I will cherish both of those medals and they occupy a special place in my home. But that feeling is tempered. While I certainly worked hard for those small trinkets and that’s all good, they don’t really mean much in the long run; they’re just mile markers on the path. There is no real finish line on this journey as long as I occupy my small space on this “pale blue dot.” Like that gray haired poet from Houston said – “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed keeping up with my journey so far and I look forward to sharing more stories with you in the future. Thanks for taking the time to drop by and until we meet again…
Happy trails 🙂