A VIEW FROM THE TOP
Connections – – The Black Mountain Marathon, 2011
The secret of endurance isn’t so much a lesson as an imperative. You obey the dictates of the marathon. You cut your losses and keep on. You go numb, bleed out and keep on. You fall, get up, and keep on. You go from rock to rock, from tree to tree, and keep on. You take strength in knowing others care about your effort, and keep on.
-Kenny Moore, Runner’s World, 2004
After one especially difficult race, George Sheehan wrote that if you want to see what you are going to look like in ten years, then look at your face in the mirror after you have completed a marathon. I am looking in the mirror right now, and while I do not necessarily like what I am seeing, it wasn’t in my haggard face.
I am gazing at my feet, they have taken me so far with so little complaint. Maybe a stress fracture once or twice. Many, many years and even more miles. Countless miles, endless runs. Several circumnavigations of the earth if I had counted all of the miles. Maybe several more if fortune smiles upon me. Right now there are at least seven toenails that are candidates to blacken and fall out in the next few days, and they will, from that one particular brutal two mile stretch, a 23% downhill about 20 miles into the race, jamming my feet hard up against the toe box of my trail shoes. But it wasn’t in my feet or toes.
Or the bloody ankle. I limped over to the car after finishing and thought for the first time in several hours, about what my ankle might look like, the one that withstood five surgeries so that I can keep on. It only hurt on the uphills though, rubbing itself raw for 13 or more miles. Every step, like someone grating a little more skin off with each stride. It got so miserable that when one of the safety pins holding my race number opened up and began poking me in the chest after a few miles, I sadistically enjoyed that pinprick of pain because it took my mind off what was happening to my ankle. So, I sat down next to the car and pulled off my shoes. The left sock was hard and encrusted with dried blood and trail dirt, so much so that if you put it on the ground it would stand up by itself. I did not care to look when I pulled off the shoe and then the sock, so I looked instead into Sharri’s eyes. She looked down, then into my face. “God, I am going to be sick” she said. But it wasn’t in my ankle and that will heal up fine in a few more days.
So, if not any of that, what was the Black Mountain Marathon all about?
The marathon course (run in conjunction with the 40 mile Mt. Mitchell Challenge), is deceptively simple. Basically, run uphill for thirteen miles to the turn around at the Blue Ridge Parkway, then run downhill for thirteen miles to the finish at Lake Tomahawk. But it was the hardest thing I have ever done. Race strategy? Run as far as you can, walk when you have to, then run again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At least that was the plan going in.
I am a realist who lacks illusions. There is only so much real race training you can do in Florida for a race in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Been there, done that. But it was not that, we can all go up and down. It just hurts some. A full twenty miles of this course is on rock and boulder strewn single track and jeep trails. All except the first and last 3 miles or so. The higher you go, the bigger and badder the footing. Slippery, slick in places, tripping, turning ankles, stubbing toes and cursing is the order of the day. Snow and ice and a lot of melting streams and wet boggy areas across the trails add to the ambiance. Going up, fine, you pick your way carefully. Coming down is simply sadistic. There is no place to pick it up and run mindlessly like on the roads or graded trails. You have to watch every step, literally every step. Every step for 20 miles. There is very little conversation among runners out here. I was surprised to hear a woman running with me say something about being above the clouds and not being able to enjoy the view of the valley below. What clouds, what valley, all I saw was rocks and rocks and rocks.
The race began in downtown Black Mountain, 7 A.M., 400 strong (I think the drop rate eventually was around 25%). The first three miles are uphill, some through the little town of Montreat, to some single track and then up further to Sourwood Gap. I wanted to run these first easy miles at about a 12 min/mi. pace, no hurry, be patient. I am about a mile into the race, just making mental notes when I hear a police car come up behind me. Looking around, I realize that I am dead last. DFL! OK, time to get going, this will never do. There is going to be a long conga line when we reach the first uphill dirt single track. So, I pick it up to 10:30/mi. and start to pass. Already there is a lady on the side of the road drawing deeply on an inhaler (she recovered and later we ran together for a few miles, and then she ran away from me for good. Gotta get one of those inhalers, I guess), other people pulling out to secure their backpacks or retie their shoes, and still others already heeding the warnings and walking. I silently wish them luck, myself as well. Eventually, the road turns right and some real climbing begins.
The single track is up, up and up, and then levels out some. Then the rocks and roots begin. Sure enough, there is very little passing going on here, but runners are a courteous lot this early in the race. Every now and then you hear a “left” or “right” and someone pulls over to let another one pass. Another curse rings out, the tripping and falling has begun in earnest and no one even has tired legs yet. Just wait.
Eventually, at around five miles, the single track opens up to a jeep trail, the Old Toll Road. Just stay on this all the way to the parkway. The return trip is slightly modified and the turn around is somewhat further than 13.1 miles, but this is a bit of a crap shoot anyhow. The night before at the pre-race meeting, the race director mumbled something about the marathon being a bit shorter than the standard 26.2 miles. How much shorter? He wasn’t saying.
There is supposed to be an aid station at Sourwood Gap, about 5 miles into the race. This is rugged territory for sure. I didn’t see any aid station. Maybe I just ran past it? But my race is coming easy enough for now, all I want to do is make it to the top at this point. I can feel my ankle starting to chafe. There is a sensitive area from all of those surgeries that stubbornly refuses to heal, even years later. I usually can deal with it. But after a short bit, it feels like someone is slowly and painstakingly slicing it up with every step. Stopping is not an option. Besides, there isn’t going to be any meat wagon through here ever to pick you up. Maybe a bear, but not a meat wagon, you realize that if you stop here, that perhaps YOU are going to be the meat wagon. By the same token, I shot my mouth off to a lot of people about coming up here to do battle with the mountains, so as I have been told by a fellow traveler, I’d better come home successful or on my shield. There is no middle ground for me that I can see.
The trail continues up for the most part, with some rolling relief and then another climb. I run through the first aid station that I see, my GPS states that we somewhere north of seven miles. My fluids are holding well, and I remind myself to take a gel. I do, it is chewy because it is about 30 F up here. I guess that we are up to about 3500′ by now. Yuck on chewy gels.
The climbing is getting steeper and the climbs are getting longer, steep trails that require walking long stretches. I hate walking but I am not going to run these pitches, I cannot. My foot is screaming out at me. This is when one of the safety pins holding my number opened up and began to stick me in the chest. It blessedly took my mind off my ankle. We soldier on as a group of around six or seven. The group takes on a life of its own. When the front runner stops to walk, we all start to walk. When he begins to run, we all begin to run. Everyone takes a turn at the front, your little time on the rack for the good of the pack. We are trying to find the best line through the rocks and boulders, but there usually are no good paths. You have to watch it, it is getting all too easy to walk and to not run. Sometimes the trail levels out enough to run, but it is so easy to walk instead. My legs are awfully tired with such a long way to go. This is when you need to discipline yourself to go and not hang back. The group is dropping and falling apart on the steeper but runable climbs, only to regather a short distance later. Every now and then we pass a lone runner or two or three, or someone passes us and words of encouragement always ring out. Always.
Steeper and steeper and more rock if that is possible, and up around 5000′, some snow and ice now. A lot of mud here and there. We are around eleven miles. I want to reach the turn around in three hours, hoping for a faster downhill return, but I can see even now that this is not going to happen. Plus, the faster marathon runners are returning towards me now, having made it to the parkway turn around, and I can see how gingerly they are running back downhill. The return trip is not going to be a picnic, downhill or otherwise. I would like nothing better than to get lost in the effort and become one with the trail but I cannot do it. Lose yourself in the effort and you are going down hard on the mountain.
Then I am running alone, the others have moved on ahead or have fallen behind. Why is it always true for me in a trail race of any distance, that the further I go, the more alone and isolated I feel? My legs are absolutely fried from the effort and I doubt that I am halfway. That little seed of doubt, previously banished, begins to take root.
Sometimes each of us makes momentous decisions in the blink of an eye. I am seriously considering a drop at the parkway, then I remember the mouse. It is a painting. The mouse is standing in front of a very nasty looking lion. A tiny mouse. A massive scary looking no nonsense lion. The mouse is looking the lion right in the eye. The simple caption says “sometimes the decision is to live a courageous life or not to”.
That seals it for me, I am going on or until I drop. Sharri is waiting for me at the finish. People know that I have come up here, foolishly or courageously, to do battle with the mountain, and I will spill my guts and my blood if need be. Maybe I have no business running a marathon here, none at all. I believe that running is the most honest of endeavors. Few meaningful excuses exist on the roads and trails. You do it or you don’t. You are courageous or you are not. End of discussion, the deal is struck.
I make it to the turn around in about 3:20, about 14 miles. My stop at the parkway aid station is short. One trip behind the parked VW to whiz, then guzzle some water, fill my bottle with Gatorade, down a gel on the way out, and thank each and every volunteer there to help see me through to the end. Whatever that end will be. And a bit of humor from one volunteer: “It is all downhill from here!” We all know that isn’t true at all, there are some more tough climbs to be had on the way back, and the rocky downhill running is going to be a nasty affair for the next few hours. I say in response “Liar”! He says “Yes, but you love me” and we all smile, because at that moment I do. God bless all of you volunteers.
Okay, it is time to head home.
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone
-Bob Dylan, Like A Rolling Stone
There is about a two hundred yard climb out of the turn around, then some long stretches of rocky downhill, for mile upon mile. Passing runners still approaching the turn around, no one looks happy way up here. Still, everyone is shouting words of encouragement to everyone else. Some are marathoners, some are Challenge runners with a long, long way to go. We started at Black Mountain at around 2350′ and have run 13+ miles to the parkway turn around at nearly 5400′ (the Challenge runners continue on another seven miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, at 6684′, and return). I am trying to pick my way at the best possible speed through this endless rock garden, it isn’t fast but it is steady. My legs are exhausted, my mind is starting to wander. All of a sudden at around mile 16, a painful spasm in my left leg and butt almost takes me down. I steady myself and start to walk, to limp, to gather myself. I try to run, I can’t. It is excruciatingly painful to even walk. I cannot believe it! I stop to stretch, to consider my options. It is getting emotional now, there is no way I can make it another mile, much less another ten miles, like this. What am I going to do?
I stretch some more and try to take stock of the situation. I am suddenly feeling lost and very alone in the mountains, more than just a little panicked. I am not a religious person, but prayer appears to be about the only option left. “Dear God, please make this go away, please help me.” I said it out loud without embarrassment, a plea for help. Anyone. Please. I am desperate. And just like that, all of my pain was gone. Call it what you will, that is what happened to me, all alone on the Old Toll Road during the Black Mountain Marathon. Apparently I was not totally alone, not at all.
I keep on running. Now I pass several runners in distress, walking. I give one a gel from my fanny pack. Another needs electrolytes and I am only too happy to comply. Descending, the temperature warms up, my breathing is easier and the day takes on an entirely rosier hue. I need to keep my wits about me and I will finish on my feet, I am now certain of that. That is my number one goal, number two being a finish under six hours, but that may not be possible. Around mile 17-18, the Challenge front runner passes me, and I watch him pick his way down the trail. Not gracefully, but efficiently. Very impressive, it is Mark Lundblad, he is like 15 miles ahead of me. He won this race in 2009, and it beat him up so badly that he did not return in 2010. But here he is again, running his guts out. And what does he do? He shouts words of encouragement to me and I to him.
Another quick pit stop at an aid station where I beg some aspirin from a park ranger. A fill up with water, some Gatorade, and I am on my way. I drop down back into Sourwood Gap. There was some really gnarly trail here on the way up but the course changes on the return trip. Not wholly for the better though. Instead of retracing our steps, the runners are directed down Appalachian Way. A mile or so on a dirt trail then the same on a paved road for a change, but it is a brutally (again) steep downhill, I see later that the grade is around 23%. How did they even pave this road, it is so steep? You can tend to your soon to be totally wasted quads tomorrow.
My toes are being rammed into the toe box of my shoes, several toenails will be a thing of the past, but running on pavement again tells me that I will soon be in Montreat and then it will be a short run to Lake Tomahawk and the finish. There are supportive spectators everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere, then one guy on a bike yells to me, that there are just three more miles and it is all downhill. I am praying that he is right. I am down to less than fumes at this point. Inside I feel totally empty. Empty of energy. Empty of spirit.
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I’m running behind
-Jackson Browne, Running on Empty
Being back on asphalt pavement, I have finally lost myself in the effort. At some point beyond fatigue and pain, is another place where you might become the disembodied ephemeral soul of a runner. It is a rare place for me. Then all I can think about is whether Sharri will be there to meet meet the finish. I want to share this with her. It occurs to me that I have been thinking about her for much of this run, in the back of my mind. And my running buds back home, the ones who get me out of bed at 4:45 AM, to run 10 miles three mornings a week. Or the small cadre of other ultra runners in Tallahassee, what are they doing? The Mt. Cheaha 50K is today and some of them are running it. Are they okay? Am I delusional at this point? Is it a delusion if I want to finish for others, and not just for myself? Do we run for ourselves and for others who care about us? Maybe it was low blood sugar but the thoughts are coming fast and furious. I am exhausted. Exhausted from the climb, both up and down, exhausted from the effort, exhausted from the miles.
Just run. Don’t think. Just run. Then another Challenge front runner passes me and snaps me out of the fog. I look at my GPS and it tells me that I am at a bit more than 21 miles. WHAT! How can that be, I was at 21 miles ten minutes ago? I look again, it says 23.4, I just misread it in my state of mind or what was left of it. I am still not certain how far it really is to the finish but a glance at my watch says 5:40 and maybe sub 6 is in the cards after all. Is there anything left in the tank? Not much, but what have I got to lose, and I am now giving it my all, what little there still is to give. This is the hardest race I have ever run. My feet hurt, my ankle is screaming again, the horizon has shrunk down to the side of the road and some oncoming traffic, there is nothing more for me. It is almost robotic but for the pain. After a few more blocks I am afraid that I have missed the turn to Lake Tomahawk in my haste to finish.
Two women are walking up the road and they cheer me on.
“Is this the right way?”
“Yes, one more block and go to the right, up the hill.”
I am so grateful. Sure enough, there is a bright yellow race sign and an arrow and I surely would have run right past it. Now up the hill, and I am grinding it out still, 5:53, and I am not sure that I will make it under 6 hours because you still have to run a 3/4 loop of the lake. I have no clue as to how far it is.
You hear the announcer first, introducing other runners as they finish, then you see the sparkling lake, then the spectators calling for your number and name. There are three more runners who I have come up on and I can pass them all, but passing people in the last few hundred yards of a marathon or ultra is bush league and a sin, so I settle in behind them. But cannot relax until I see the chronograph clock at the finish line, 5:57 it says. 5:57.
Then I am done. Every cell in my body is vibrating, tingling. There is a faint ringing in my ears. Colors are bright and vibrant. I am higher than Mt. Mitchell for the moment. Some physiologist will tell you that the feeling is nothing but low dissolved oxygen in the bloodstream. Don’t you believe it. I know that will pass, but no one can take that away for now. Of course, Sharri is there, just as she promised. My long run this date has ended. It will not soon be forgotten.
I did not deserve it, but I was blessed many times over in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the Black Mountain Marathon. Beautiful day, wonderful volunteers, supportive competitors aplenty to spur ourselves beyond where we think we can go, a sunny spring day in the mountains, the health to enjoy it and friends and lovers to share it with. As Olympian and writer Kenny Moore said, “you take strength in knowing others care about your effort, and keep on.”
Or as Mr. Natural would say: “Keep on trucking.”