Pine Run 2008: More Than Just "Getting by With a Little Help From My Friends"
Gordon Cherr, October 12, 2008
"What would you think if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song
and I'll try not to sing out of key . . ."**
Picture the scene, somewhere on a leaf littered trail in Phipps Park, near Lake Jackson some Saturday/Sunday morning circa late April, 2008. About a week after the Torreya 25K, which we both ran, we are still hobbling along, nursing our sore this's and thats:
David Yon (refusing to make eye contact): "So, do you want to direct the new Pine Run?"
Me: Are you ****** crazy? The Pine Run is over. Dead. Kaput.
David Yon: "Come on. If anyone can do this, you can"
Me: "Go to hell. Drop dead. No way."
David Yon (big toothy Chris Rock grin): "I got Tall Timbers."
Me (looking him right in the eye): "You bastard. OK."
And with that short, intellectually lacking conversation, a new era in Pine Run lore began for me. I had been had. David knew that I might be the only runner with more than a passing knowledge of Tall Timbers and its 4000+ acres of wildlife conservancy. You see, many years ago my wife, Sharri, was the research librarian at Tall Timbers, and I used to regale David and others who might run with me, of the times I visited, ostensibly to eat lunch with Sharri, but really to run where no running was officially allowed, sneaking my way out onto the trails, these incredible trails in nearly virgin forests literally untouched for hundreds of years by man, through seasonal plots of spring and fall blooming wildflowers, in the breezy shade spattered piney uplands, to wood stork rookeries laying low along the shores of weedy Lake Iamonia. This place had it all I would say, and it is right here. Too bad we can't get out there.
Well, now we could, the bait was Tall Timbers, the hook was set and I was the fish. Caught. OK.
"Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends
Mm, Gonna try with a little help from my friends"**
Yeah, I had a map but it was worthless. But more importantly, I had some friends whose help and support was priceless, Gary Griffin, Mary Jean Yon, and David, of course, Judy Alexander and Peg Griffin and Fred Deckert, more generally on the art of race directing itself.
Creating a meaningful 20K course was no easy task. I had long forgotten the trails and there were dozens that I had never set foot on. And all of that was more than 15 years ago. I went out one day to just try to scope the place out and set out a rudimentary skeleton of a course with a GPS and a compass, some stakes and ribbons and a hammer. We had an auspicious start; I borrowed Gary's bike to ride the trails, the thing was better off termed a "death trap" if a bicycle could be such a thing. The front brakes swung loose a metal cable, totally worthless. The cheap seat immediately started burrowing into my bony backside. Then, within 250 yards of starting out from the parking area, the front tire blew. MJ was summarily relieved of her fine, shiny mountain bike, she was forced to walk out by herself, while David and I meandered aimlessly about the property for the day.
Sometimes Gary and/or David would come out and run with me while I peddled and piddled alongside, giving me the runners' perspective, but most times I rode around alone all day Saturday and Sunday, trying to make sense out of what appeared senseless. I couldn't run much, I was still in the throes of recovery from five surgeries to my ankle between July, 2007 and August, 2008, but I learned new found respect for cyclists, especially when forced to tackle what would later become the key uphill climb on the finished course. It is easier to run up a big hill than peddle up it, although many of you who I watched come up that big hill from Lake Iamonia to the Beadel House might still today take issue with me over that comment.
Yet, over time, the course began to take shape. I didn't want any repeat loops, and I wanted the big hills strategically placed nearer to the end. Not at the beginning, where runners would have to carry them in their legs and gut all through the remainder of the race. I wanted those big sweeping down hills for all to enjoy, the flatlands along Lake Iamonia for their shade and solitude, the "out and backs" came later, they were David's idea and those incredible hardwood hammocks and low land swamps are among the best parts of the race course. You may not notice those when you are racing, that's fine, but we had at least two people come up to me after the race to say that the "out and backs" were the best part of the course, they had actually stopped to enjoy the quiet beauty of the swamp and that they had never run in a more beautiful place. Among runners, we certainly define our running experience quite differently one to another.
I didn't plan it to be easy. Trail races are not easy. If you want easy, go to your local 5K road race. The old Pine Run was never "easy", was it? Heck no. I probably rode every trail and pathway over thousands of acres over countless weekends. I did most of it alone. It wasn't a burden, it was a gift. I was treated to owls that followed me for miles on end, hooting their early morning greetings, to short glimpses of a tawny coyote that liked to show up at intersections ahead of me along my pathway (did I ever really see him?), to countless snakes and huge pileated woodpeckers, the first red cockaded woody I have ever seen, and an enormous alligator that scared me silly (and vice-versa) on the second "out and back" when I was marking the course the Thursday before our Saturday race. And fields and more fields of wildflowers that began to get ready for fall blooming right around race day. It was starting to look good.
Then the place was a shambles after Tropical Storm Fay, the "out and backs" and peninsulas totally submerged, a big downdraft shattered several huge trees, grotesquely twisting their big trunks. But given a little time, nature has a way of recovering nicely. And a little help from the Tall Timbers staff did not hurt one bit! I went out early the Saturday a week before the race, finally able to run again, to see the entire course, to feel it from your perspective finally, the only perspective that really mattered. I got there at about 5:30 AM and strapped on my head lamp and set off in the darkness. I had not worn this headlamp since pacing Jeff Bryan all night long for 34 miles through the Ozarks as he ran a tough 100 miles at the Arkansas Traveler some years ago. Gary Griffin had borrowed it recently as he ran a marvelous 100 miles in South Dakota at the Lean Horse 100 and thankfully he had changed the batteries! This damn headlamp has had some adventures!
I like running in the forest after dark, you gotta go slow and everything looks and smells and sounds different than during daylight. I knew the course well, I just wanted to finally feel it, try to get into your collective heads on race day, hoping that this would be hard but fun and adventurous. And safe enough. I was running down alongside the lake bottom at around mile 4, when the sun rose. By chance I looked up, the bottom of the cirrus clouds were lit a fiery red by the rising sun, the still night lit sky behind it was deep purple-blue. Can a chance encounter like that make your knees feel weak and make you stop to try to take in the moment? You bet. I have run from Yosemite and Big Sur in the west, to Cambridge's Storrow Drive and the Boston Marathon in the east, from Ann Arbor in the chilly December north, to Key West, as far south as our country goes. My favorite Mt. Mitchell in the breath- taking Blue Ridge Mountains. But it never has looked better than what I saw in the morning sky at Tall Timbers last week. Never.
"What do I do when my love is away
Does it worry you to be alone
How do you feel by the end of the day
Are you sad because you're on your own?"**
On race morning, the scene at Tall Timbers on Henry Beadel Drive at pre-dawn resembles the final scene in "Field Of Dreams". A long line of car and truck headlamps as far as I can see, coming my way. Ok, build it and they will come. We have and they are. It is mostly out of my hands now, for the most part. But I am not alone, tables are being snapped together, food and fluids distributed, race volunteers moving confidently to their assigned locations, some nervous runners at the registration tables speaking in hushed tones, Port O Let doors slamming shut, the place is a beehive of activity. I really just want to watch the race, praying that everything will now fall into place and no one will get lost, or worse. Runners getting lost is major in my thoughts, every ultra I have ever run included me taking a wrong turn here or there and Jeff Bryan is legend among us for running "free miles". But 20K runners are less inclined to laugh about such things. If you don't keep your concentration up in trail races you will miss a turn or cutoff or some less than obvious sign on the trail that you are about to change course. Think it doesn't happen? Here is a portion of an email I received this morning from a fellow race director/ultra runner in central Florida about a big well known race, run many times:
For what it's worth, I posted
unofficial results from the
John Holmes (Croom Trail) 50K race today, but they aren't
real meaningful. The entire top half of the field missed a turn
at 1 mile and ran various distances from 32 to 34 miles."
I haven't said too much to the many runners who called me and tried to sound me out about the new race course. My little secret at least for this year. Except for the long hill from about 2 to 2.7 miles,and that nasty steep little bugger at about 3.6, the course is relatively flat or downhill until about 10.5 miles. You might run yourself out and then be in a bit of trouble for then the real fun begins, a sharp .25 mile climb up the Henry Stevenson Bird Trail, a steep plunge to the shore of Lake Iamonia followed by a very tough and long climb up to the Beadel House, a drop down a gravelly road and then a tough nearly 0.5 mile climb up to CR 12 and a rolling little finish. I have situated myself at the top of the big hill that goes down to Lake Iamonia, which would be about mile 11.5 or so. I can see the runners coming out the Bird Trail, taking the plunge and I can follow their bobbing heads all the way down to the lake. Whoa, that's further than I thought. Some folks are really eating up that big downhill section, it must feel good so late in the race. Making the turn and starting up from the lake bottom and looking all the way up to the top of the hill and the Beadel House sitting so majestically over Lake Iamonia, I imagine that someone may be cursing me out.
Actually, Brent Johnson, our cyclist leader, is first up the hill, leading front runner Vince Molosky. I have run that hill and I have tried, unsuccessfully, to pedal up that hill too. Brent is really grinding it out, giving it everything he has to stay ahead. Sweat is spraying off of him in every direction, his eyes are tiny slits, a painful grimace on his face. Lance Armstrong would have been eating his gears that day. Brent, you did a fabulous job, I thank you.
Ah, I want to see the look on Vince Molosky's face as he tops the hill. Vince looks like someone has dropped a Steinway on his back. But he is really cranking, champions do that. I know then that this hill is tough and that the race course is successfully challenging the mettle of the runners.
Here comes Jay Wallace, he is steadily gaining, I notice when Molosky goes down the hill he must have 90 seconds on Jay, but as Jay tops the hill, he looks like he has cut into the lead quite substantially. Jay is deep in concentration as he tops the big hill. Joel Piotrowski looks beat but while he looks beat, he is still moving fast. Myles Gibson is running really hard up that hill, letting it all hang out. The gaps widen and others follow. Kati Gosnell runs down and then up the big hill like she is pacing herself to a huge internal metronome, she just cranks out a perfect cadence. I want to watch everyone but I have to get to the finish line.
There I watch almost everyone finish. Big hearts and awfully tired legs, many smiles too. A few jokingly curse me out, but I know that is a compliment for the course and for the race workers who have also seen them through safely. Everyone has successfully met the challenge of the new Pine Run. It was tough. It was supposed to be tough. I salute you.
So, we'll pack this one away for a while, but about 6 months from now, I'll be tweaking the course, maybe trying to find another trail or little hill that we can fit in nicely somewhere, trying to better mark those few confusing intersections. I'll be thinking about all of you who ran it, all of you who nursed me through it, all of you who lent a hand on race day and at other times:
"Oh, I get by with a little help
from my friends
Mm, Gonna try with a little help from my friends
Oh, I get high with a little help from my friends
Yes, I get by with a little help from my friends,
with a little help from my friends"**
**Beatles-With A little Help From My Friends