Imagine standing on the starting line with a handful of talented runners... a pack of them. Then looking to your right and taking in the sight of a pack of wolves. This was the stage for the 2009 running of the 15 mile Bays Mountain Trail Race.
With the sound of a whistle we were all off and going. Two runners set the pace early and were out of sight for a mile or so as we crested the first climb of the day. This climb was gradual and we were all settling into the day that would be. I did not really understand the difficulty of the course before us. People can tell you 'it is difficult' but we all know that in life until you go through something yourself, you cannot have the proper perspective.
After reaching the fire tower we began running the undulating ridge line on forest road. To this point the hills were not super-aggressive. Just a long effort to the fire tower, then miles and miles of stumpy rollers over and over again. It seemed as if we were climbing just to give it right back before climbing again. Mike (overall winner) and I bridged the gap from the pack of 4 in the chase pack during these miles and built a new pack of 4 with the leaders. Working together we entered the single track, losing elevation as we wound down through the forest. Mike gapped us here with Ultrarunner Jason Bryant (second overall) leading the new chase file of three.
Sometime in here I pulled out my one gel from my side pocket and I dropped it! My mistake was to go on... and think I could run this course without any aid. Things were going well. great leg speed, feeling comfortable, efficient on the climbs, smooth on the descents. I figured if Jason and I could run together that we may have a shot to chase down Mike and make a race out of this eventually. For the meantime, Mike was a ghost... no sign of him, not even a waving tree branch in the distance.
At mile 7 we had made a humble climb back onto the ridge line and dropped back down away from a small saddle. We aggressively lost elevation at this point on a very primitive trail, soft and overgrown in spots but great trail running, on the edge of control and beyond! After a mile or so we had rounded a bend and were headed back up to the ridge line we had just left. The ascent was a full on approach without those friendly switchbacks, just straight up to the top, no nonsense. Passing an old cabin I was happy for the distraction to think about the history of the shelter, now overgrown with neglect...
The climb took its toll. The number 4 runner had faded a little in distance, but he ran smart and I would be seeing more of him later. Breathing heavily, feeling over-extended I chased Jason on and on as we headed back to the saddle to mile 8+. He looked really smooth and I was hanging on... not fully realizing that we had a good amount of ground left to cover and that some real challenges were still ahead. To this point we had no mile markers, just rumors of distances and their landmarks.
We ran down the ridge toward the lake, to the forest road in the wooded valley below. During the descent I was getting really sloppy, just over an hour into the demanding run. Mike was off the front somewhere, his strategy as solid as his fitness. Jason was looking really good and was thinking about catching the footsteps in front of him. I was thinking... nothing really. I was zoned out, no focus and a little lost mentally, staring at the yellow streak in front of me... then CRASH!!!!
I was down... bouncing off of a rock at my feet, landing on the up slope to my left. Feeling the softness of the crinkly leaves as they mixed with the sloppy mud beneath. The autumn smells were released as I disturbed the ground. Upon landing here I rolled and somehow spun around. Now facing back up the trail and laying on the downhill side of the trail... simultaneously I thought, 'stay, you might be hurt/ he's getting away GOOO!!'
Bottom line was that this fall was no accident, it was the mistakes of the day catching up to me. Too aggressive early, leaving my lifeline to energy on the trail behind me... (to save me from a few seconds of stopping) and now losing focus of the fundamental concept of running... staying upright!
At this point I was hurting pretty badly, 65 minutes in and now the course was poking small grades into my depletion to drive the point home. These mole hills were seemingly large, sloppy, slick areas of horror to me in my weakened state. It is no surprise that upon reaching the Mile 10 marker posted in neon at the base of a wall of a hill that I gave in... realizing that this was it. The day was now one of survival, guts and not competition. Will I have learned anything from this to take forward? probably not... it generally takes me a few times of making the same mistakes over and over and over before the lesson strikes me to consider an alternative. This lesson would soon visit me like the ghosts of footsteps and decisions past.
I was halfway up the large hill when the new third place runner approached and provided encouragement. "Only 5 miles to go!" he urged me on. But to me at the time, 5 miles seemed like an entire Marathon... I reached the top of the hill and an aid station! I took water and for some unknown reason declined Powerade??? Though I knew I was severely in need of calories. The folks here were very friendly and their smiles really helped. I believe their comment to me as I limped up the hill was, "Finally, a man with some sense." Just not by choice.
The trail gave me something back now. It relented and I was able to run along at 7 min pace and cover some ground over crushed gravel and flat terrain. Then we turned right, toward the lake.
I knew there were some hills left out there, and that we'd do a full lap around the water. For some reason I did not think that this would take too long, and maybe it did not? Perception told a different story. Like little Frodo I was drifting in and out of despair. Soon I was passed up by runners #4 and 5. The same two I had run up the initial climb with. They were the most consistent runners of the day that I saw, looking fresh and extremely intelligent in their approach to the course. Again, giving the broken down runner encouraging words, they bounded off into the forest.
We reached around finger one, with its climbs. I knew that were we getting close to the footbridge signalling the end of the day. I was miserable... miserable... I knew I was getting close though. 'Keep moving,' I thought. 'Keep moving, each step, a step closer. You still have a top ten... just finish this thing.'
The trail turned left, back toward the lake... hope! then out away again... desperation. Through Soggy Bottom, over a wooden bridge covering a marshy bog, which was beautiful. I was so tired that this 4 foot wide bridge seemed a tenuous balancing act. DO NOT FALL IN THERE... safely across now, and met with a long slope, typical of Appalachia as its crest came at the fold of the Earth up ahead and a downhill waited immediately following. This would be the theme for another mile and the next approach to the lake! This HAD to be it!
Again the trail turned away... just toying with me now. For awhile I had wondered if I had taken a wrong turn? If it weren't for the impeccable marking of the trail I may have wandered. Even in this state of delirium I reasoned that the chances of another course being marked out here were very small, and if so, I'd run into people soon enough. 1:45 gone by now... gotta be getting close.
Running on, another crest... a downhill, a crest and then... the lake! There is that damned bridge... I had made it... under a mile to go. I stopped for a quick second to get rid of some extra weight... Runner #6 was at my heels and soon beyond me. I was in seventh now. Having dropped 4 positions in my epic collapse.
I reached the concrete bridge, "zoomed" above the water below and reached the other side. I could here people, I saw Bobcats and Otters, even the Deer in their cages (as if this is really necessary???) and then I spotted the orange glow of a finishing line cone. Sweet relief.
1:51, 7th overall.
Half a pizza eaten, something cold to wash it down with and home for a nap before getting to spend the afternoon and evening with Lynnea!! A good day, with lessons to remember come next month's 50k.
It was in retrospect, encouraging to use such aggressive tactics on this terrain and still hold out a tired 7 minute pace while dragging myself along the course. If I can get a handle on this pacing thing then everything should be alright! Some risks need to be taken in races leading up to the goal.