As I sit here listening to my Red Sox pound away at the Yanks I can't help but think how life is so good. And with that in mind, here is how the day on the Chattooga turned out for me... a first time ultra runner.
I woke up early and Lynnea cooked up eggs, biscuits, gravy and bacon while Joshua supplied some high octane beans for the morning brew. We ate well and headed toward the start. The radio subtly played '3 little birds'. "every little thing, will be all right..."
After braving the john (and maybe hitting the woods a time or two) we were set to go. Terri gave us a few words and announced her intention to run as well!! and then we were off. I settled into an easy pace somewhere around 15th position on the trail. It felt right, and even as the front runners spurted out of view I reminded myself to relax and enjoy. Either they would come back or they would not, but I still had 30 miles to run, including all of the hills. Time would tell.
Soon the lead woman asked to pass a group of younger runners ahead. I took this opportunity to move up a few spots and open up the running a little bit. All systems were smooth and I wanted to see a little open trail for a few miles. I was soon alone and running on without any strain. The overall theme of the day was to be exactly this... no strain, just move ahead and flow with the land. Over then next few miles I worked my way onward. Upon the choice of high water or low water trail I decided to go for the plunge. Judging by the look on the face of the man who was fishing in that spot, I was likely the first runner to make this decision. I have seen some looks of disgust before but I swear this guy was looking for a larger hook as I ran by. I should have been paying a little better attention to my feet though. Soon I ended up fully submerged, baptized in the Chattooga, and just like that the magical waters elevated my spirit... and something great happened. I stood up and laughed... made my way from the water and back to the main trail. Now things were getting started.
Soon I was in the middle of a group of three runners. I followed those red racing flats in front of me and patiently plodded along. Feeling just right, exactly where I was suppose to be. All things had led me here and here and here... as steps faded to steps and all there was to be sensed was NOW. After a few small climbs the trail opened up to the first long downhill of the day. We swooped in a pack through this watershed and eventually made it back to the river. Around 63 minutes we made our way away from the river for the final time on the way out and up toward HWY 107.
I decided to lead the group at this point and was starting to think about who may be up ahead on the trail. How many runners were ahead? How large was their gap? In the more runnable areas I opened up and may have hit 6:30 pace for a few sections of trail. After that craziness subsided I settled back into the long climb up to the first aid station. At 10+ my split was 1:39... a minute ahead of schedule and feeling like I just got out of bed... this is going well.
Lynnea was on point at all the stops and got me everything that I wanted... and before I even knew that I wanted it. Banana... peeled. Clif bar... opened and in hand. Bottles... filled. Off I went. Aid station total elapsed time for the day... 90 seconds. Beautiful. And what a lift to see the most beautiful girl in the world... after mucking around in those woods;)
Lynnea reminded me to slow down and relax... and also that I was leading. She knew my intended splits and was aware that I was a little fast already. Then I thought... what... LEADING??? LEADING!!!! Okay... leading. Not exactly expected but, still here I am and I feel good.
The thought over the next 60 minutes is conserve. Mostly downhill... just maintain, even slow down... still two big climbs to come. Save the legs, as long as I keep it controlled I know finishing will happen. The endurance, I know now, is there. About halfway through this section a young wood pecker learning to fly comes crashing down in front of me, nearly taking me out as well. I said 'hello', saw he was off trying again and continued on down the trail. Hearing footsteps...
I reach the halfway point and see my wonderful wife again. My lead has been cut by a minute or so but I feel even better than I had at Aid #1. Mile 16 split 2:29 (50 minutes). Now I share the trail for the next 10 miles. As runners are heading out we exchange trail cliches and smiles and encouragement. Everyone looks good and strong and I hope I am too. I am feeling fairly fresh despite a small amount of sharp hip pain... mostly when I am running easily so... I decide to not run too easily. It works. From the half way point to the base of the second big climb I average 7 minute miles and my breathing is hardly affected... running with the flow of the land is working well. This is like a dance.
After being warned several times of bees I cross the infamous bridge where they supposedly nest. Honestly, I was not worried about the bees, though I had heard much buzz concerning them. As life would have it... I got stung. I was nearly home free with only a single step to complete to reach the solid ground. Then ZAP!!! Right on my right knee.
I take this on as a challenge and distraction from the work ahead. The transition to hill climbing begins and I steadily attack the hill. Halfway up I see Lynnea again at the "turnout". She offers food and drink but I tell her I'll see her in 12 minutes at the top. Onward and upward...
51 minutes from the turn around I reach the final aid station. I've been running for 3 hours and 19 minutes now... and feeling great, feeling fine. I know that this though, this final 10+ miles; is the race... this stretch of running is the reason we all came here today. This challenge validates the countless steps we have all taken along the way.
I am alone. I am relaxed and able to do some simple math... pipe dreams are entering my head now. My time goal of 5:30 is well within reach now... I need only to maintain effort... but, what is my lead? Is it shrinking? There is no way to know and ultimately this does not matter.
I know, as we all do, that the essence of what we do on the trails is simply internal. We know when we give our best, and more importantly when we do not. I continued on with this is mind. I am racing ideals and running with my soul. I attack the descents and flats, still able to open the stride fully. When the uphills meet me I smile and chuckle. I chop my way upward with small efficient steps. Occasionally I peek to the trail behind me and look for signs of activity... nothing... nothing... nothing... I am alone, at least for now.
6 miles to go. NOW, I am starting to feel tired. The trail turns technical with roots, rocks and no rhythm; this race is not done with me. With cautious urgency I move ahead. I have now run 4 hours and 36 minutes... over 26 miles and this from here is all unknown for me. My 5 Marathons are child's play now. Though, mysteriously I feel better than in any of those efforts. Fatigue is here... but not despair, just elation and that thing others call the wall is nowhere. It does not exist. I could run forever like this... I could... but I will settle today for 6 more miles without a fall... 6 more miles of bliss. In moments when I realize my fatigue, my aching I remind myself of all those times when I felt much worse than this. This is fine, this is easy. Just relax, and move.
I reach the high water trail and like most of the runner's on the day's return, I decide to avoid challenging the river for a second time. Not only did I not want to slip on those rocks but I also wanted to check out that section of trail up there. It would be a shame to do all of that running and not see the "entire" trail... even if it meant an extra hill.
At 2.5 to go I finally saw Terri. My eye had been peeled all day for her and I was disappointed at the circumstances leading to her day's events. A runner had been injured here and she was playing the hero, as she did for all of us. After all, without all of Terri's efforts we would not share this camaraderie and this beauty on the trail.
Soon I was moving on after a delay of a few minutes.
"2.5 miles to go... okay... that'll take... 10, 20... 25 or 30 minutes," I think to myself. As is policy in these times, I click a new split on my watch and prepare to count to 30 minutes. "I can always run for 30 minutes."
5 minutes at a time I move ahead. Now I am concentrating on the trail, on my steps and being absolutely SURE that I run on the Foothills Trail and only the Foothills Trail. Home is in sight and a big hug awaits! 15 minutes gone... "good... the tricky trail near Kings Creek Falls should be coming soon." I now recall the early stages of the race.
I recall the underlying anxiety of the morning and all of the months of work that have led to this race. I recall back in January, when I was running only 10 miles a week, and 50k was a near impossibility. I remember the darkness of my training run down in Linville Gorge when I was utterly defeated by the final climb. I think of demons of my past, and a lifestyle that urged me to lay down and stay down against everything that makes me who I am. I take all of this, and hold it to the light of this moment. I am alone on my favorite river to feel this fully. I take my time over this final mile. I am at peace with all that has lead to this moment.
And just like any moment... this fades. I see the face of a young girl. She is waiting at the final turn to run and give the news that the first runner has arrived. I cross the line and see Lynnea. She gives me the best prize of all... all her love. I look at my watch and see my time... 5 hours 8 minutes. A new course record.
Lynnea and I retreat to share our moment of success. We await the rest of the runners and allow the emotions of this process to finally escape after building for 6 months. I am left believing, knowing... the mind WILL achieve anything for which it can formulate a plan.
Over the next several hours we share stories, eat amazing BBQ and exchange understanding with good people from all over the Southeast. My first ultra... but not the last. See you in Goblin Valley Utah... October!