Mike Versus The Viennese Table


Mike Baker,


I attended a Christmas party where someone asked, “How the hell did you happen?” This is not, as my lovely wife tried to frame it, a complimentary question. It is akin to someone looking out over the city of Dresden, a crumbling bombed out crater, and saying, “How the hell did this happen?”

This is not, for the sake of disclosure, the first time someone has asked me this question. Usually it’s more a declarative statement like, “The boy ain’t right” or involves eye rolling or speechlessness. I’m not offended. I get it.

One might read my columns like you read the Doofus and Diligent comics in Highlights magazine waiting to get your chicken pox looked at by the doctor. I am a cautionary tale. I don’t mean to be. It just happens that way.

I tried being under control. It’s a bad long term strategy for me. I mean it’s a good strategy. Most successful runners employ some version of it. It’s called disciple and patience or preparation and execution. I really only have a willingness to suffer.

It usually happens like this: I have a plan (good or bad, you’ll see are irrelevant), I work the plan and get some success. This lasts for what seems to be an interminable period of time. I see someone doing a race that looks fun or say, they call me asking if I want to run. This is where things go pear shaped.

This is something specifically NOT on the plan. It’s an easy day and this person wants to run a tempo run at say, Fort Braden. I just ran a speed workout the day before and have two back to back, scheduled, long runs coming up in the immediate future.

This is a bad idea, not just because I went and did it but because in very short time, it will get added to the plan. The truth is I didn’t need any help adding something stupid, dangerous or unnecessary to the plan. I come up with bad ideas all on my own.

Take the training run I created for Hot to Trot, a ¼ mile hill repeat at an 18% grade as a long run or the weekly swim that turned into a run swim run and then it became a run swim sprint and then a run swim sprint calisthenics throw down followed up by vomiting in the middle of Summer.

Either way, a functional 35 mile a week 5k plan turns into a 60 mile a week 50k plan because there was a good looking race and then a few extra tempo runs and then someone told me about this other race called the Georgia Death Race and Oh my God! I got to do that, who wouldn’t, just for the t-shirt, right?

This is exactly how crazy works.

I spent a couple years running in the pre-dawn, working full time, going to school full time and being married. If I didn’t run with you, work with, study with you or sleep with you, there is a large possibility we only saw each other online.

The day I graduated I started looking at all the races I’d put off for two years. Also, I have a credit card. Also, see the first part of this story. Mike just doesn’t make good decisions in the wild. College kids in Daytona in the full Sturm and Drang of Spring Break make better decisions.

I signed up for a lot of races. I had a plan, that’s right, a really ingenious plan where I would do a 50k as my long run, one a month, until February when I would do two a month, rest a little bit and then do a 100 miler in April.

This isn’t how things worked out. Thank god, no one is interested in making a video about middle aged slow bearded ultra runners to sell on late night TV infomercials. See Mike lost in the woods of South Carolina or up on a Georgia mountaintop hoping to break his arm so he wouldn’t have to actually quit.

The New Year came and I thought, “Enough crazy – I will race less.” I should be honest. I didn’t just decide to race less. I was invited to an intervention, for me, put on by another runner who was “concerned.”

Also, a few people pulled me aside to say that maybe I was looking beat up and that maybe I needed to rethink… me. I still had three outstanding races but decided I would forgo them all and then promptly signed up for a fourth in April.

I then decided, I would run the 4th but also a friend had a spot in an upcoming 12 hour race in early February. I would run that too. Okay, to recap, I had three more races left. I decided not to run them. I signed up for two more.

It gets worse. I then decided I could do two of the three I had previously decided not to do. The two “new” races bookended the 12 hour race which meant I now had a race a week until the middle of February.

That’s right: a 50k one week, a 12 hour the next week and 24 hour the week after that. I have a month off until the middle of April and then one more 50k and when I would take a hiatus from racing until November and the dreaded Duncan Ridge 50k part two.

This brings us to The Georgia Death Race. Its run in the middle of March on the same course as the Duncan Ridge 50k except instead of turning back at 15.5, you keep going until you get to something like 68 miles.

The race director doesn’t even know how long this race is in totality because there’s no accurate, and safe, way to measure it. This race has a 24 hour time limit. My 50 miler at Wakulla took a little over eight hours. This isn’t a race.

It’s a monster. It’s Moby Dick. There are places on that course that are dangerous to traverse in the daylight – let alone at night – with a headlamp which might come up if you’re me. It’s dangerous just to think about. One woman who ran the race last year said it was more painful than child birth.

That last bit about the GDR is necessary to put what happened next into some kind of perspective, that the GDR is a very bad thing. Forget Moby Dick. Think drunk Godzilla with Godzilla sized brick bats in each hand and all he wants is you.

How a Bad thing Happens in 10 Easy Steps

  • I told an ultra runner friend what I had planned for the next month e.g. one ultra a week leading up through February.
  • I mistook his response, mentioning the Georgia Death Race, as teasing me. He was actually just musing on the race itself but in the land of crazy we hear things. Don’t judge.
  • I responded via email about how he might be evil. I expressed extreme horror at the idea that he would even suggest such a thing.
  • I then posted on Facebook, “Georgia Death Race, really?” I was still aghast.
  • My friend Jim Ball mistook my comment, confusing my horror at the very idea of running GDR, for signing up for GDR.
  • My friend Jim Ball signed up. I felt really bad for Jim Ball.
  • I started thinking about what it would take to do the GDR, seemingly more plausible when I considered where I might be by nightfall.
  • I realized it was still the worst idea in the world.
  • I told my wife about the whole stupid situation while she was cooking and I was doing dishes. We both knew I was going to do it.
  • The next morning I looked at the Ultrasignup page and saw the open spots had dropped from 11 to 9. I watched the available spots number decline all day until at 1PM, it was at 6 spots and then the inevitable happened…

It’s days later and I’m the only one surprised by how this all turned out. I was stunned when it all came together but no one I told even blinked. They’d been down this road with me before and each likely knows how it will turn out better than I did.

The first race, the Mountain Mist 50k, is less than a week away. I’ve run the Mount Sano trails before, where Mountain Mist takes place, in a half marathon. I rolled my ankle seven times and took two full blown yard sale style face-plants.

One face-plant involved using my forearms in downhill ski fashion to snow plow stop myself as I skidded down a gravel covered hill. I remember standing in the shower, later that night, picking gravel and dirt out of my flesh for a half an hour.

I told my friend Gordon that one day I’ll write one these where things go right, I win the race, get the girl and ride off on a narwhal. I doubt that’s how this party’s gonna end. I have no right to be running Mountain Mist, let alone the next week’s race or the one after that or the GDR.

I’m stubborn that way though. I have always admired the Special Olympics motto, May I be victorious but failing that, may I be courageous in the effort. I love the gift of running up a very big hill. I love running high in the mountains.

I love that moment, exhausted and looking out over everything, when you realize the world is so much bigger than you. Yesterday I couldn’t hang on for a 9:30 mile on stubbly single track down off Deep 20. I just keep reminding myself how I have a plan.