Training for Stupid
The Long Cane 50k/55 Miler – Parson’s Mountain, Abbeville, SC
Some races are wrapped in a story. Some races are more like real life.
The night before the race, the race director Terri Hayes, her grandson and his girlfriend showed me the trail to the start and the first quarter mile of the course. I helped her lay out the finish line the night before the race, ten tiny orange flags in the dirt.
I drank some beer and tried to sleep. All night I dreamed a huge raccoon was standing outside my tent, arms akimbo, laughing at me. The Barkley dream. The raccoon is always Laz, Barkley’s race director.
Terri runs a low key event. There’s no North Face swag and no shirt. There’s no giant blow-up finishing gate. You had best read the course directions, know how to read trail blazes on your own and, by all means, don’t follow the runner ahead of you because he or she is probably lost.
It’s all about what we understand in the beginning and what we don’t. I, for instance, still didn’t understand the first quarter mile of the race and got right up front with some dudes I heard say had run the race a few times.
Saturday was a cool 60 degree South Carolina morning. I went out way too fast with the front of the pack. It felt glorious.
Hubris blinds you, really. My “not getting lost for the first quarter mile strategy” turned into 10 miles at an 8 and a half minute pace, when finally, reality caught a hold of my imagination and I slowed way down. It was like Hot to Trot all over again but with different excuses.
I started walking at mile 15. I walked maybe half a mile when Mike caught me. He’d been way behind me until then. Getting caught like that hurts but what hurt more was realizing why he caught me. He understood where he was at.
I think his plan was to make sure I wasn’t dying and then get about his business. He had no idea how desperate I was right then.
Mike is old school. You can tell because his shoes have been modified by him with super glue, an x-acto knife and spare rubber. He has grey hair, a Fu Manchu mustache and a surly attitude.
I got Mike talking, slowed down just enough so that I could get my wind back. I figured I would coast for five miles and then take off. His stories got the better of me. I would tell you some of them but they’re his stories, so drive up to South Carolina and run with him. It will irritate him to no end.
We walk/run the fifteen miles. It turns out Mike had had five knee replacements; both his shoulders replaced and had just gotten a new hip. He really was a candidate for swimming or yoga, anything but running, but here he was big as life, saving my butt.
We came up on this boy in a red shirt, maybe 22, sitting on a log. He looked done-in and so Mike tried to scoop him up but no dice. Later, we saw him come in at an aid station. That was the red shirted boy’s last rally. We saw him 2 hours later at the finish; I had just gotten out of the lake when he staggered across the line.
I had this moment at Long Cane, the night before, in the campgrounds. I met Sully who introduced himself as a volunteer. He listened to my rambling on all worried and jittery. I realize now he was teasing out of me how unprepared I was. He made it a point to mention most folks don’t finish the 55 miler and drop to the 30k. He said it a few times.
It is the kind of thought that gets stuck in the back of your mind until you need it. It’s like the nagging thought that your wife would be mad at you if were late but she’d be happy if you were on time. He could see I wasn’t set to run 55 miles.
The best people in this sport are not necessarily the fastest. They are usually, to my mind, the kindest.
Ronnie is a big old mountain boy, a Kodiak chewing Southern boy. He looks like a huge lumbering Tom Hanks from Castaway. I met him the day before the race. He was wearing cargo shorts and New Balance Minimus. He was out to run some of the trail.
We talked a few minutes and he told me this was his second ultra. His first, a 50 miler, ended badly. He asked me for advice and, not feeling very friendly or caring much, I gave him that old chestnut about never quitting. I should have said, don’t go for a five mile jog the day before a 50 miler.
The morning of the race, Ronnie shows up late and sprints to the trailhead and starts racing. Terri has to run him down, to give him a number and loaner water bottle. He was just that eager to go and do it, frantic and maddened at the thought of missing out.
Cut to the end of the race: I was sitting on a bench icing my knee, a few hours after finishing the 50k, and Ronnie comes up to me, and says, Lets go out and finish the 50 miler. I say, No thanks and he says, Aw come on. I feel great. And then I realize he’s busting my chops but he has this sweet funny smile.
He sits down next to me and we chat a while about our races. Letting someone off the hook might be the greatest act of kindness. I met his wife and his parents, who volunteered to get everyone’s time at the finish. Terri could find volunteers to get a rabies shot.
There was a lake and hot soup and I’m getting mushy but there isn’t a better kind of race out there. I usually find myself dwelling in these columns about all the big bits: mortality and failure, courage and cowardice but really, it’s like O. Henry said, “A good time was had by all.”
I will say this: I have been wagging my bottom at the sport of running for about 6 months now. My training, much like camp food, has been hot, brown and there has been an awful lot of it to go around. I have showed up to races drunk from the night before.
I have refused to carb load for long races, steadfastly asserting my right to eat BBQ ribs and raw jalapenos in an effort to prove the science we all so steadfastly follow is just plain hokum. One week before a 50k, I logged 40+ miles which included speed work on Tuesday and hill repeats on Thursday.
One weekend I ran the Fishnet 5k, a sidewalk race, on Saturday (including 6 miles of warm up and cool down) and then the Mike the Dog 30k on Sunday. What has all that gotten me? I have a 4:24 trail marathon and more than a few 7 hour 50k’s.
I have chronic runners knee, a yo-yoing weight issue, a huge craft beer bill and an epic failure at the 2013 running of the Barkley Marathons. I clearly have bad judgment. My friend Charles calls it poor impulse control. My friend Gordon says I am afraid to succeed.
My friend Stephanie says I’m just being stupid. I am inclined to think they’re all a little right but that Stephanie is more right than Charles or Gordon. I used to think it was a thing to fix like a transmission or a toaster but I have come to understand it’s just who I am.
My good judgment, like my cell phone, is small enough that in the fury and wildness of the day, it is all together possible I will simply misplace them. It’s like the great philosopher Pogo once said, I have seen the enemy and he is us.
I’m more dog than fox, more squirrel than hawk. One by one I find my clan, my tribe. It’s like when you were twelve and your best friend dared you to jump off the roof, watched you flop sideways into the bush and then shimmied up for his turn at disaster. We’re a stupid tribe, a crazy big hearted stupid tribe.