Sometime last week I looked into the local racing schedule and noticed that it was once again time for "One of America's Toughest Marathons" the Grandfather Mountain Marathon. This is a tough race and one I ran a few years back... it has inspired many, been written about much and is often true validation of a road runner's toughness. With all of this in mind, local runner Matt Jenkins has created a series of events intended to provide low costs, low key road running for all comers mostly on the Boone Greenway.
This weekend Matt organized 2 races to choose from. Following GMM, runners could partake in either or both of the Flatlander's Marathon on Sunday and then the Jellylegs Marathon Monday.
My friend Wade was running the marathon beginning at midnight on Sunday morning so I decided why not run along with him. It would be nice and cool, a chance to get in some night running and be able to run with Wade as well. Our racing scheduled have been mirrors of each other but we hadn't actually run together yet. So after a day full of river time, a few beers, a kickball tournament and way too much junk food and sunshine I arrived at the starting line a bit fatigued and apprehensive about just running a marathon on a whim... but how bad could it be?
Flatlanders "One of America's Easiest Marathons"
The Flatlanders is run on the Boone Greenway in seven 3.75 mile legs of out and back pavement with an elevation change of say... 7 feet for each leg- but it seems like less. It is flat, it is paved and it is repetitive. In this case the darkness was a true ally! You can't be bored by scenery if you can't see anything.
Wade and I got out quickly and I was already thinking about slowing down- the pace seemed a bit aggressive but soon I settled in and the systems caught up with the demands. Leg #1 was done in a flash and we quickly saw that 3 other runners were out there as well. Bobby, Cliff and Matt were all settling into their morning run too. Cliff had already run Grandfather Mountain Marathon on Saturday morning, was finishing up the Flatlanders Marathon with a leg or two to go (on his way to 40 miles for Flatlanders). We exchanged quick "howdy do's" in the darkness and continued on.
On leg #2 Wade and I caught up with Bobby and Cliff's running direction and stopped to chat a bit. We were nearing 1am and at this point switched up running pairings. Bobby was just getting started on a 60 mile night/day and so he and I paired off for a walk break as Wade and Cliff disappeared into the night. I was never able to get back with Wade for any running as he kept strong, consistent running for a night time course record at Flatlanders!! Meanwhile I ran my slowest marathon of my life plodding along at 50 mile pace and learning a lot about 24 hour running and how to prepare for the issues that arise of a 100 mile event. I tried to soak in the experience Bobby brings to the table.
In the Middle of the Night...
2am came and went and I was getting a bit dizzy near the end of leg #3, just 11 miles into the night I learned my first lesson of long, slow running... you gotta eat. With all of the chatter and adrenaline early on I had not bothered to take in any calories- so I stopped and sat down to eat at the pavilion. Cliff was there as well taking care of some hot spots somewhere around 33 miles into his night. I ate and ate as we talked and then finally, with a bloated belly, I headed into the dark for my first solo leg of the evening.
The silence was beautiful. A few stars twinkled, a breeze blew off of the river as it babbled along. I could hear voices in the hills; kids out prowling for good times and their firecrackers. Occasionally I would run upon a shadow in the trail ahead and most often it was a tree or trick, but there were people out there in the middle of the night too. I was shocked by the number of people out there at 2 and 3 am. A flicker of my headlamp and a mumbled hello gave warning of my presence and then back into the solitude.
Halfway out on the course it got dark, as we ducked away from the open fields and into the tree covered portion of the Greenway. Here, the darkness was so dense that the shadows had shadows and the sounds grew in potential for danger. I was brought back to my youth when night time runs passing an old cemetery would send chills down my spine and speed to my legs. While I knew there was nothing to run from, the imagination is still as pliable as ever and it took some chuckles to break the tension in my mind! Now though, when I am running through the night in the wilderness of South Carolina in 7 weeks at the Wood's Ferry 24 hour- there may be some larger monsters to confront in that unfamiliar darkness! Good to start out small.
Looking on the Bright Side
With the casual pace of the night, I was feeling pretty good as I passed 20 miles. The sky was lighter by the mile and the birds began chirping around 4:30am. I figured I could finish up my marathon feeling well enough to run at least one more leg of the course (plus a tack on mile) for a 50k training run. Wade was finishing up his marathon and my stomach had settled back down after some complications from not eating and then eating too much. This was a great lesson as well. When you are feeling bad- just keep going and let time take care the issue while operating at whatever level you can, even if it is a walk.
While my body felt okay- bounce in the step and freshness in the mind- I was getting tired from a sleep stand point... I was yawning uncontrollably at one moment, while deciding how long I could run before I would be completely useless for the whole of Sunday. I entertained the idea of a 40 mile run- but, figured going home and sleeping until noon would be a better course of action to maintain peace on the home front. I would already be pushing 6:30 am to cover the 50k distance. 10 more miles would be another 2 hours out there.
Picking it Up
With one leg plus to go I picked up the pace a little bit and recorded my fastest leg of the night before turning out for the last mile plus to bring me from 30 to 31 miles. Matt had showed me the 50k turn earlier in the night and upon completion of the night's distance I was informed that I had actually gone a bit farther than 50k- in fact I had run 51k! This became a first for me on several fronts. My longest official race distance, my longest paved surface run, my longest time on the feet... all good things and beneficial to the larger goal at Wood's Ferry.
I also have to say that completing the 50k distance after the recent Chattooga experience was somewhat emotional for me. On the way back on leg #8 I was so happy to be out there running my only leg with full sunlight and being able to see things for what they had been all along. The course I had been covering had been shrouded in mystery and after the time and distance had peeled away the night I had again been able to see that the simple movement of running can center someone in a unique way. It took me more than 6 hours to complete the distance including abundant breaks. I came away feeling just happy about doing this random thing through the night with other odd people like me.
The Elusive 'Why?'
My wife kept asking me... "Why are you running at midnight? Why not just go in the morning?" I didn't really have an answer for that- just a feeling inside of me that it was the thing to do- There were practical reasons such as night training, cool temps, other people are doing it... but in the end the quiet smile of having completing something like this for myself alone was the reward- the completion of a series of steps that brings you farther than any distance you can measure.
I drove the 30 minutes home as Sunday Morning folks came out from slumber to crash down into my bed some 22 hours after I had last been there. A full day done.