My alarm was set for 4:30 a.m., but I woke up on my own at 4:00 and knew there was no going back to sleep. I unzipped my tent and realized that the predawn air outside was every bit as warm and humid as what I had woken up to inside my tent. It was going to be a long day.
I didn’t wake my daughter Morgan, who was sleeping in the back of my jeep. Start time wasn’t until 5:30, and while she wasn’t running, I knew she was going to have a long day as well. I worked my way through my prerace checklist. Shorts, shirt, socks, shoes. I had filled my water bottles the night before – water in the handheld and Gatorade in the belt carrier. I tucked some gels, a ziplock baggie with a dozen Advil, and a couple of bandaids in my pockets. Lube in a couple of choice spots, bandaids on the nipples, bandana around my neck. I pulled my running gloves out of my bag and chuckled to myself. Wouldn’t be needing those today.
It wasn’t long before Morgan was up, and we went down to the shelter for prerace check-in. The atmosphere wasn’t quite as lighthearted as it had been at the pizza dinner the night before. Most of the gathering runners seemed intent on last minute preparations for the task ahead -a few stretching, most taking periodic sips from their water bottles. A fellow runner obliged when I asked him to take a photo of Morgan and me, and before I knew it we were lining up for the start.
We sang the National Anthem, race director David Horton said a prayer (I had already offered up several of my own), and we were off into the darkness.
The first few miles up the gravel road were uneventful. I took it easy on this stretch, knowing (courtesy of Keith Knipling’s race report) that it was all uphill and that there were roughly 30 miles awaiting beyond it. In retrospect, I probably should have gone out a bit stronger; I thought I was mid-pack but I realized later that I was actually farther back than that. Hard to tell where you are in the dark.
We soon hit the aid station #1, and I dropped my headlamp in the designated box and kept on moving. I had already taken a few sips from my water bottle but it was still nearly full and I didn’t feel the need for anything else.
The next 10 or so miles was a mixture of horse trails and fire roads. A good bit of it was still uphill, but I was keeping a moderate pace and feeling fairly strong. We finally got to some fairly steep downhill singletrack, and I opened it up. I really enjoy this aspect of trail running, flying downhill, stutterstepping my way over rocks and roots, staying in control but realizing all the while that I’m a hair’s breadth away from wiping out. (Hey, the only ultra award that I’ll ever have a shot at is “Best Blood”, so I might as well give it a go.)
The euphoria of this section was short-lived. By mile 15 or so, the heat was really starting to take its toll, even though it was still fairly early in the morning. I had been through several aid stations by this point, and I was refilling my water bottles at each one. The aid stations were well-stocked with cookies, saltines, pretzels, fruit, and my favorite ultramarathon snack, boiled potatoes with a bowl of salt to dip them in. I tried to keep eating – you cannot go for 34 miles on an empty stomach – but my stomach wasn’t taking it well. GI distress was not something that I had planned on. Oh well.
I pushed on. About mile 20, my knee started talking to me. By mile 20.1, my knee started screaming at me. By mile 20.2, I was limping and wondered if I was going to be able to make it. I had considered and rejected wearing my knee band, as my normally troublesome knee had been behaving lately. I took off my bandana, rolled it tight, and tied it off below my kneecap. This improvised knee band saved me; it kept my kneecap in place and before too long I was back to focusing on the heat and the 14 miles I had left to go.
The placement of the sixth aid station is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it’s at mile 26, the finish line for a traditional marathon. Second, it precedes the hardest 3 miles of the race – the climb up Apple Orchard Falls. In retrospect, I should have lingered a bit longer at that aid station.
I knew that I had a tough climb ahead. We had yet to tackle the third peak in the iconic Promise Land elevation profile, and we only had 8 miles left to go. As if I had any doubt, a runner passed me as we headed up the trail and commented that “this is the hardest part of the course.” He also threw out a “you’re looking strong, keep it up”, but I believed his first comment more than his second.
I would really like to run up the Apple Orchard Falls trail as a 5K. I’m sure it would be a great run – the scenery is beautiful, and the falls themselves are breathtaking. But, running up that trail after already having run a marathon, with those mountains, and in that heat, was the hardest three miles that I’ve ever run. I say “run” but in truth I didn’t do much running on this stretch. My focus was on making forward progress, not on speed. Even the forward progress became a stop-and-start affair. I’d make it to one of the yellow Montrail streamers marking the trail, get on the uphill side of a tree, and lean back against it to rest. I saw several other runners doing the same, while others were sitting down on the boulders alongside the trail. I didn’t follow suit – I was afraid that if I sat down, I might not be able to get back up. Every time I stopped and leaned back against a tree, I would say a prayer for strength to help me finish. And, every time I said a prayer, I would feel a breeze that would give me the motivation to keep going.
The falls and stream alongside the trail saved me from getting into some real heat-related trouble. More than once I went off the trail and dunked my head into the cold water. At one point I waded in a thigh-deep pool and stepped into a natural shower rushing down over the rocks. The water was cold enough to take my breath away – exactly what I needed to knock my body temperature down by several degrees.
I’m not sure how long that 5K up the mountain took. It had to be close to an hour. It seemed longer. Eventually, though, it came to an end and I only had 5 miles of mostly downhill running left to go. I filled my long-empty water bottles at the mountaintop aid station (I should have filled them in the creek, but I guess my heat-addled mind didn’t think of that). By this point I realized that I had no hope of beating my goal of finishing in under 8 hours. I also knew, though, that barring some unforeseen calamity I was in good shape for beating the 10-hour cutoff time for an “official” finish. I plodded on – running where I could, walking where I couldn’t.
Four miles. Three miles. Through the last aid station and back on the gravel road that I had traveled in the dark some 8 hours earlier. I really wanted to run those last three miles. My quads and blisters disagreed. We reached a compromise and settled on a shuffle. My only goal at this point was to beat 9 hours.
I saw the finish line up ahead with about three minutes to spare. My shuffle turned into a run. I had the presence of mind to switch my water bottle from my right hand to my left – I wanted that hand free to shake David Horton’s hand at the finish. “Congratulations, strong finish,” he said. And it was done.
Morgan took my elbow and led me over to the creek. I waded out to the middle and sat down in the cold water, joining a number of other runners. Amazing relief. After a few minutes of that, I sat down in a lawn chair at the finish line, savored the hamburger and Mountain Dew that Morgan had brought me, and cheered in the remaining runners. It was amazing how great I felt at that point, considering how low I had been feeling just a few hours earlier. I have added that memory to the emotional reservoir that I will need to pull from during the latter stages of races to come.
And there will be more.