This past spring the climbing season was tuning down from the grippy, refreshing outside days to the warm weather perspiration fests that beget the east coast from the time around the vernal equinox until the early autumn. The days get longer and, in sync, the bulk of the post-work sessions start to migrate from the communal gymnastic plastic workouts of the local bouldering gym to the greening outdoors and the footpaths that weave their way through it. The foliage is just starting to bloom in the canopy and the ground is starting think about pushing shoots up into the awaiting biome. My body has already forgotten the lung searing fartleks and organ jostling hours spent running up the foot-odometer. Not since the afternoons became dark, frigid events have I stretched my legs in a banter of canter through these revolutionary woods.
Spurred on by a comfortable new set of trail kicks, I started to clock watch on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at work, anticipating that feeling when you drive into Valley Forge National Park and Clark Kent my way into lightweight, breathable gear and double knotted nylon luggers. A new app on the iPhone used GPS tracking to monitor all of the metrics of my runs, allowing me to revel in any progress I was making in wearing off the rust that had formed since last season. My legs were hungry for the perpetual motion that one finds out there while churning out a rhythm that eats the miles away like a hairdryer would melt a pile of snow until the miles were gone and just a refreezing puddle of me was left in a more relaxed and fluid state. This Tino is the person my lady looks forward to coming through the door every night to kiss her and talk about life.
Feeling the stoke so early in the season, i started perusing the interweb for articles, events and new books on the sport of trail running. I often start a book search by entering ‘Once a Runner’, the John L. Parker cornerstone novel, as the seed of my query. Filtering through all of the results of the books that other people had liked who had also read that classic, I would sift down to the ultra marathon related works. The mystique of the state of being one must achieve to keep pushing through physical limits has always been an item of intrigue to me. What is learned about yourself and the world around us by succeeding in traveling so many miles? How does one maintain physical and psychological form to not get eroded away by the pure volume of consistent activity? How is this somehow more fulfilling than sub-marathon distances spent searing lungs and muscle out there in competition against one’s self…and maybe a few of the random people you find yourself near in the middle and later stages of a race?
I came across a phenomenal book called “….” by Henrich B…….” that detailed two timelines in his life that culminate at the sometime into his record-breaking, underdog victory at the 100k national road championships. The story of how he got into running at such a young age alongside his scientific methodologies utilized to mold the training regime and nutritional supplementation in his preparation to set himself up for the race of a lifetime. The stories of his days at school while his parents were away in far off lands collecting species for museum collections pluck the internal chords of the zest we feel in childhood when we find something we really enjoy. At the same time he manages to discuss and debate thermoregulation and mobility efficiency of bees, birds, camels and other animals and comparing them to a human’s evolved system of being able to allow oneself to physically operate so close to the limit of our slow-twitch capacity.
In tuning my brain into the the detailed processes and methodologies of training, I felt that the mileage I was doing was balanced by the documentary-style reinforcement of maintenance of the body and mind that allow us to do such great things. My second great read was “Eat & Run” by Scott Jurek. Though he may be a polarizing individual, Scott appears to have been the Lance Armstrong of the trail running world by making more repeat winning performances in a sport that doesn’t tend to allow ground breaking leaders to last long. His book was a combination of his story of taking the Ultrarunning scene by storm in connection with his discovery of veganism and how he could benefit from that culinary and nutritional style and still put his body through some of the most grueling physical events that one can endure. Events like his streak of Western States wins, the Badwater Marathon, the Spartathalon and Caballo Bianco’s race in Mexico that was detailed in the super popular “Born to Run”, the book that brought the counter-culture of minimalist running to the front pages of magazines and the shelves of every retail sports store in the US. This athletic odyssey gave helpful run-time science and practice as well as a healthy shot of adrenaline; yet in a way that made my next natural web search to be for events…something to train for, something to test myself against.
By now it is June and the days and evening are spent in a temperature that promotes dashboard baking complemented by enough humidity to turn a starched shirt limp in minutes. The idea of exerting one’s self to the max comes as naturally as dipping one’s self in a pot of boiling oil. You sweat just by sitting down and drinking a cold beer outside…you create torrential rain by running. Your eyes become stinging pools of sweat, any layer you wear becomes a soggy cloth that sticks to your skin and rubs as you with every chafing movement and the physical density of the air alone resists your progress as you try to speed up to an inertia that becomes perpetual. Wanting to run further than you’ve ever run before is a concept needs to be romanced into one’s brain through the mental journey of how victorious it would feel to run a distance of greater-than-marathon magnitude.
I started running what I think of as “distance” back in college. “Once a Runner” was a fresh read and it introduced the journey that is the trial of miles. The ritual that is running is an act that we do religiously, often many times a week to accomplish some internal need tracked by either time, miles, outings, calories…you choose it it; because inning is multi-lingual and speaks to us all differently. We all find something important and essential in running that makes life better.
My story with running had led me up to a 50k that I ran in Delaware in 2006. It was a “Fat Ass” run as they term the informal, early season distance runs that clubs use to start to dialing up the running season that lays ahead. Most people who will run the 50 mile and 100 mile runs that occur across the country use a few events as tuning runs, to get back into the mindset and shape that is required to run more miles than 99% of cars cannot do on 2 gallons of gas.
I was young and running a lot at the time and had an active mind that the body needed to match. The run went well and I finished strong with around a 5 hour time. The finisher’s trophy was a rock with a sticker on it. That’s all and it was perfect.
What better acknowledgement of that fact that we do it for ourselves, for some odd internal gyration that despite how different the root in each of us, it manifests in the want to run, and run, and run, and run some more. This consciousness of humble awards for those who succeed at these tests of human endurance runs rampant through the world of Ultrarunning. Caballo Bianco’s award for his race was 700lbs of corn. However there is theme amongst the great 100 mile running events in the US. Most of these events gift the finisher a belt buckle. A belt buckle with the insignia of the run. This is as poetic as it gets for the mediation of expressing a congratulations for attaining something that less than one tenth of a percent of the people in the world accomplish. There are a lot more millionaires in this world than people who run one-hundred miles.
To run a hundred miles there is a road to get there. The trial of miles is a journey that teaches you about yourself and lets you know whether or not you want to hook yourself into a challenge that would cripple the normal human. Currently, most people start running in their local 5k and 10k events for charity and proceed to get inspired by the historic marathon. The Olympic celebration of the the Greek soldier, Pheidippides, is a story in itself, one that commemorates the passion of one into the passion of all. Since history is remembered as the notes of those who write it, the British royalty were the ones to dictate the 26.2 mile distance as a tribute to the Queen in the 1908 Olympic Games. Then the 70s happened and marathon fever infected the US and everyone’s aunt and accountant began to run marathons. And in lock-step with the human’s want to evolve, a minority of the running community started forging into the territory of “Ultra” distances that had already been done, but fell into obscurity. There was once a time in the US when 24-hour track run were events to not be missed, where mostly men would attempt to break records on how far a human can run in 24 hours.
That was the long-way of saying that everyone’s journey to the “Ultra” distance is different, but many must have faced a synonymous internal dialogue in addressing an inner intrigue with distance running. The steps beyond the marathon can be as simple as the standard array of events, meaning the 50k, 50 mile, 100k and 100 mile runs. Innovative groups of runners have creative events that may travel very specific geographies, multi-day events or some other nuance to make the event more novel or just a little bit different than the rest. This want to diversify goes hand in hand with the mindset of an ultrarunner. Everyone running these distances espouses a certain dogma that is inherently in tune to the specificity of their own mental and physical properties that allows them to endure and succeed. What works for one may not work for another. To one demographic of runner, the novelty of one type of event may be bane of another runner’s existence. In the search for something out of the norm, an event to inspire and salivate over, yet challenging enough to keep me guessing on whether or not I would succeed, did I find the CMMM.
The Cheat Mountain Moonshine Madness is a run put on the the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners organization. The simple layout is a 9pm start for a 50 mile race with 8 aid stations in the Monongahela Forest. You start out with a rowdy band of well-gelled mile munchers from a start/finish line at 4-H club farm and head downhill on a mile or so of pavement. Since this is an out and back course, this mile of gradual uphill to the finish is always in the back of your mind despite how innocuous the grade of ascent may actually be. The next twelve miles roll up hill over gravel roads past two aid stations with a few climbs and a few declines.
In these first 13 miles the pack starts to shift and migrate like mercury droplets beading up and separating on a pane of glass. The map runners of similar styles and strengths start to overlay each other showing a blue print that holds the finish roster within a few standard deviations. Though there will be strong from behind surgers, just like there will be leaders that crack, that first shaking out of the population exposes one’s position for a large part of the race. In inherent benefit here is that you meet people that are of similar average speeds. This is an opportunity to talk and share stories and keep your minds active while you churn out the miles with foot blistering monotony. The communal brain starts to even act for the group, as someone moves from a run to a walk and everyone follows without saying a word. When a hill gets steep and you know that there are still 30 plus miles ahead, you instinctively begin to reserve strength to cover. You are all thinking the same thing, and as each person starts walking it is the non-verbal, alongside the verbal, support that keeps the group stoke afloat.
The voices that constitute these sifted packs of people are those with whom you will play leap frog for the next six hours. As the terrain changes with road and trail, inclines and declines, straight aways and crazy weaving sections, each person’s individual strengths will push them ahead and their weaknesses will pull them back. This game is played all night as you meet at aid stations to reconnect, tell each other how strong you look and try to make as efficient of a stop as possible before charging back out into the night. These are the people whose shoulder will pull you along in moments of fatigue and weakness, just as your shadow will let them draft in your energy to lead them through a dark stretch where someone else’s energy can be as guiding of a light as we find out there. We do not understand this until later when we are doing what we can to make it through that mile, that section, that moment.
From Aid Station #2, you head off into the woods on much anticipated single track trail that, if memory serves me correct, crosses a dozen creeks, ascends and descends the same number of drainages and gives the same number of deadfalls over the trail to surpass. The trails wind through some beautiful forest terrain, the only catch is that the beauty is in the running and that which you can see within the focused beam of your headlamp. Though I believe that anyone who runs this course would agree, by far the most memorable sections of the trail were the man-eating mud puddles.
From time to time the trail turns into this soft black bean soup. The far side of the puddle may be out of sight of your torch, making the black abyss seem even greater. Occasionally there are other debris strewn about that provide an opportunity to “variation” your way through; like a log-to-log jump or some boggy marsh grass to provide a little bit of underfoot resistance as you hastily try to avoid getting sucked into the mire. However a few sections of the terrain offer no escape and force you to launch foot first into mud that comes up to shin or the knee. You pray that your shoe does not get sucked off or that the “suck” of the mud doesn’t pull you down into it. This is when you realize that the western side of the Monongahela is a rain forest compared to the rain shadow of the east side. This combination of mud and obstacles makes it just as easy to slip on any of the foothold variations and end up in the dark goo, making the remaining 20 plus miles of running go by while sporting a fresh coat of Monongahela’s finest. The consolation prize to this muddy, slippery, rooty and rocky terrain is the soft ground you travel in the midst of the forest at close to 4000 feet of elevation, especially in comparison to the gravel roads that link the rest of the course together.
In signing up for this run I must have missed that detail in the race description: hard-packed, gravel forest service road. Knowing this I might have brought a cushier pair of shoes to wear for the pounding downhill that waits for your after Aid Station #6. Going uphill in lesser padded shoes is not a problem, you save weight and keep the overall impact forces low due to the biomechanics of ascension; read that there is less time for gravity to play a role in the physics. All of the time spent on the single-track was soft and delightful on the legs, lots of random movement from dealing with the varying terrain is easier on the body than the mono-mechanical movement in running on the road, or gravel road as it is here.
Often, the section of the course spent on dirt would cause you to find yourself alone in woods that you’ve never been in, in the middle of blackness as the canopy overhead blocks out even star light, imaging that you hear the bear-shark tracking you in the woods. Everyone knows that there are black bears and mountain lions in the wilderness of West Virginia, you just try not to think about it as you are running through night hearing crashing in the woods off of the trail outside the reach of the beam of one’s headlamp. It is easy to get convinced that the observed large cat hunting behavior is relegated to the dawn and dusk hours. This thought keeps you calm as you plod through the woods alone at the witching hour.
Running through the photo-transition in the dawn hours, when you click off your headlamp to adjust to the graying of the horizon, you are focused on the mental energy from knowing that it is the sunrise. The diurnal species that we are enjoys the awakening of the world and feels a boost in the body and the mind by the coming of a new day and finally being able to see the surroundings. There is a bit of that early Saturday morning feeling rising from childhood, knowing that you are the only one up and the cereal and cartoon party awaits. The more logical side to the mind triggers the body to know that you are much closer to the end of this session than to the beginning. A certain nighttime soreness leaves your quads and calves and fresher legs awaken to carry you to the finish. This is your time to shine.
During the pre-race meeting, the race director, Alex, gave warning that the final 17 miles would feel like 26. He was right. I knew that there would be a place somewhere between miles 30 and 45 that would be the darkest hours of the night for me. Where my noobie ultra-mind would fray around the edges and my body’s moans and groans would become a shouting match in my head. Where the want to walk would fight dirty against my will to run forward and eat the miles up.
The seams of my body felt the wear and tear after Aid Station #6 until #8. After #6 the loudest shouter in my head was say that this is longer than I have ever run before in my life…and there was still 16 plus miles to go of high impact road running. My lightweight Pure Grits were trying to do what they couldn’t do, what my body wanted them to do…be like the most Cadillac pair of trainers you’ve ever run in. My Hardrock’s would have eaten up those impact forces and let me cruise downhill. But being at this point for the first time in my life, I figured it was just the standard discomfort the human body would feel after spending so much time pounding itself. And this pounding was happening all alone in the middle of the night on dirt roads, in the middle of a wild-feeling forest in the bowels of West Virginia.
During many of these miles, the sounds that I heard could have been my brain playing tricks on me or it could have been the bear-shark. What, you haven’t heard of the bear-shark? It’s different than a black bear. To scare your basic black bear you can make yourself look big and make a lot of noise and scare it off, especially when the bear is just foraging for berries and nutritional plants. But this thing was more like a shark, since you know it’s out there following you and you have no idea where it is. You can hear it…that is definitely a noise you hear out there in the darkness. When you stop, so does it.
Running down these double track gravel roads you start to migrate to the track that is on the less vulnerable side of the road. It’s not that you really think you’re going to be dragged off to die in the wilderness as the meal of a more predatory specie than us. It’s really more that ultra runners use some innate blueprint of logic to make many of their decisions, from gear choices to running gait to nutritional strategies. It might just seem logical to run on the safer side of the road, since you can’t see the trace of another headlamp in any direction, effectively meaning you are very alone. Amidst these feelings and mental games is the darkest time of the night.
The miles seem to drag on forever, especially if, like me, you don’t have a good gauge on your pace or the amount of ground you feel like you are covering. The stretch from Aid Station #7 to #8 felt like the Pilgrimage to Mecca. One foot in front of another, running as much as i could and walking when i had to, I remained mentally strong and engaged against the pull of the darkside.
The darkside is the side that tells you to walk more, to sit, and to do less. It starts tell you that walking is a very common strategy for ultra races and it really won’t add much time to the clock. The darkside will mess with your head and makes cracks in your foundation, recruiting every associated poor performance and rumor and throwing them at you like darts to the heart. The failure du jour that my mind used for it’s offense was the last long run that I had done before this event. That weekend was supposed to be a 50k to tune up for this run, but I didn’t register in time for the race. So it had to be by myself and it had to be long; as the furthest i had run since 2006 was about 20 miles. So not only was this race the longest I have ever run, it is almost twice as far as I have run in years.
The last time I went for a long, slow distance day was a wicked hot day in the end of July, less than a month before this event. The training run consisted of three loops on one of my Valley Forge runs to come in around 27 miles. I woke up late and had to run through the absolute hottest time of the day and, despite my camelback, I pushed my way into a solid case of heat exhaustion. Every loop I stopped to fill my water-bag and have some fruit or a bar and to sit in the shade. Every time I sat i felt myself crumble a little bit more. In hindsight, it was great insight into undernourished and overheating on the trail. Unwittingly, I forced myself to bonk and deal with it. This memory was still fresh and in my mind, replaying itself through those dark hours. I knew that I was eating and drinking more than I ever had, and walking more than I had ever walked on a long outing, and I was putting great stock in that the strongest beast i had to overcome out there was the fatigue and soreness from the miles. The conditioning of my body wasn’t exactly where it needed to be either.
Due to a rough spring at work, I spent far more hours in the office in relation to the hours I should have oriented toward self health. I might have skipped a run here or there. I may not have even had a seven day stretch where I ran fifty miles. I may have not have done enough hill workouts or speed drills to make sure I was in-shape enough to have the base level of fitness I believed one should have to get through an event like this When someone signs up for an event like this, the only way you DNF is by getting injured or going out too hard and not maintaining health to the point where you end up like that lady in the Hawaiian Ironman years ago who crawled over the finish line in one of the greatest public showings of human will to succeed ever seen. Where I stood in all of these possible outcomes was still not clear.
Luckily the clarity came after the last rest stop. The eternity of the 7 miles between #7 & #8 ended in the last guy I had passed catching up with me. Even he had thought we should have been close to the aid station and picked out a hairpin turn that he had remember not being much more than a half mile . We ran into the last aid station and fueled up and he headed out as I was still grabbing a snack. This initiated a quick and profuse thanking of the volunteers while I took off with a snack in my hand and a salt pill in my gullet. I slowly watched the runner fade off into the distance as his downhill running speed was much stronger than mine right now. I could run low grade uphills, but my downhill stride was shortened by the fatigue my body was experiencing and I didn’t want to possibly cripple myself but just cutting loose on the last 5.7 miles.
He was in my view for a couple of turns, then he disappeared altogether. At one point I could see many curves in the road ahead, over a quarter mile away I could see Mike and Eric, the two guys with whom I ran the bulk of the first 13 miles of this adventure. They had passed me at Aid Station #7, hungry for the downhills that I was dreading. I slowly felt the cognizance settle in about my position in the run. Unless someone breaks a leg in front of me or a late bloomer sprints in from behind, this is where I was going to finish in the line up. There was a chance that I would make the cutoff for the Western States Ultra, but this is where I was going to finish amongst my peers in this small demographic of individuals that would opt to pound their bodies in the darkness of Appalachia instead of sleep in their own beds at home.
In this section of road I could feel myself remembering some of the road from the night before when we began this excursion. Coming to terms that this long night was almost over and soon I’d be returning to the normalcy of my every day existence was settling in. I felt I had done decently for my first 50 mile run. The goal of simply finishing was going to be achieved and it was to be done with plenty of time. There were no moments of outstanding performance and no moments of great failure. I held my own on the trails and was smart when I needed to be and i was going to succeed because of those key elements in my strategy. I felt so lucky that I could be out there running, taunting the cysts growing on my kidneys that slowly erodes my renal capacity. I was able to be here to represent my passion for my friends and my family, for my new nephew and for life. This passion and contentment relaxed me and my hips began to loosen up and my stride to lengthen as i came into the last 5k of the run.
A gent who I hadn’t seen in over 3 hours came into sight as I rounded a corner. He was walking up a hill, holding his fluorescent yellow t-shirt; his crew cut glistening in the sunrise. Not far ahead of him was the strong-on-the-downhill guy who I had run with into the last aid station, who I thought I not see again until after the race. Feeling energized, I started to reel in the downhill and the succeeding uphill, getting a supportive greeting from the sweating crew cut as I ate up the uphill. Coming around the next bend I could see the downhiller and then i could see Mike and Eric from the beginning of the race. They all seemed like they were walking the light uphill section. It was hard to believe that those sections now looked easy and this solidified my gait as I sped up the relentless forward progress. In one long straightaway I reeled in the group of three by preying on every inch of road that had slight uphill grade.
Coming up behind the group I was energized by the fact that I felt stronger and stronger. Was this my talent, that somewhere late in the game I had a burst left? Did i just not run the rest of the run hard enough and I was left with more energy than it took to get to the finish line? Whatever the reason, my gait felt good and the road disappeared behind me and so did the group of companions and competitors. I felt like the Highlander, having taken some spirit from a peer and used that to propel myself forward, faster.
The terrain grew more and more familiar, remembering the first really steep hill of the run and the houses with baying hounds and barking dogs that lined the second mile of the race. I was comforted by the newfound strength and ability to end this first true ultra experience on a high note. As I came around corner when were were nearing the return to pavement I saw a runner with a slight upper body and a blue top. It was the Italian hoagie laid who I had not seen since station #6. We met in the beginning, in the stratification of the groups of runners and enjoyed a couple of rest stops together. I left #4 with her, swiftly walking up a hill to find the next entrance onto a trail. She proceeded to eat an eight inch Italian hoagie and say that she doesn’t normally eat meat, but finds that she can stomach an Italian hoagie really well out running. The world is just a funny place sometime. Now this strong veteran runner was slowly getting closer as my pace stayed solid up and down the rolls that the road delivered.
As I inched up to her and started to pass by, she offered nothing but kind support, a tribute to many of the type of people you find out there running these types of events. Strong, tempered individuals, yet just happy to be there and happy for you when you are doing well. These races are often not person against person, but a runner against themselves, stacked against the engagement that is so many miles of running. She must have also felt pretty good as she was going to be the fifth woman’s finisher overall, a great feat. But the smell of pavement had me and I knew I wasn’t far as I loped on. Eventually the last intersection arrived at my feed and there was a chalk arrow painted on the road pointing right. There was a “1M” scrawled in a dingy white.
This war of attrition over 50 miles was within one fiftieth of its conclusion and the only thing that kept me from it was some uphill, rolling road. I ran up the hill and then decided walked a bit in case that last mile was longer than I thought it would be. After a minute of walking I asked myself what the heck I was doing. I had run the last 3 miles, gaining mental and physical momentum and now I’m walking when I can smell the finish line. This is it, this is the end; the time to purge the system. The time when you give it your all and make up a few of those minutes lost to the mindless padding on mountain roads that occurred for so long. Or the greed of wanting to spend just another minute at the aid station resting in the warm glow of the fire and taking in tasty snacks. My walk returned to an uphill trot and the road started to level out and two school bus stop signs came into view, an indication of nearing the finish. Topping out over the last rise there was a sheet of plywood visible in the fog, painted white with red letters that read, “Finish” with an arrow heading left.
The trail led to a break in a fence that allowed you onto the 4-H camp property and there was a line of reflective stakes that led up through a dewy field towards the parking lot where the finish chute stood waiting. My pace picked up through the meadow and increased as I neared the parking lot and vaulted over the rail road tie that served as a parking space bumper. When my sneaker hit the gravel of the parking lot it was a full out sprint towards the finish gate.
There were volunteers and onlookers by the finish line, curled up in camping chairs, covered by blankets. Some were asleep, some were nursing some coffee and waiting to hear someone yell, “runner coming”. What they got with me was a wild-eyed guy coming in hot, finishing his first 50 miler with the biggest smile of his life. It was fantastic to be congratulated on my strong finish, but my first job was to find the restroom to take the leak that I wanted to take an hour before but opted against in hopes of not being gained on by anyone behind me.
The joy is that the accomplishment was successful and rewarding. I finished in a time that would qualify me for the Western States Ultra, whatever that really meant. Really I was just glad that I had finished, let alone that I felt like a primal hunter at the end, reeling in the miles like prey in the forest. The sad part is that the journey is now over. There is a shower and breakfast to look forward to, along with a body full of aches that would hang out for a couple of days.
There was a six and a half our drive that awaited my lady, my pup and myself. No one had really slept at all, it was a foggy morning, and I felt like someone had beaten me with a frozen hose. The unfortunate thing about finishing early is that they weren’t going to serve breakfast until 10am. My body couldn’t wait that long for calories and after what could have been the best shower of my life, we opted to start our journey home and crash an IHOP off of Highway 79. The excitement and battle that endured the evening fizzled out like a summer storm and life turns back to normal.
For the last 24 hours I have been turning it over in my mind, relishing every sore stride, every soggy mud puddle and every minute of shared experience with those other warriors. It’s behind me now and I must move forward, though I would probably pay to go back to topping the rise in the road and see that finish sign again and feel that surge of power that pushed me to high tail it towards the finish like there was a dog on fire and I had the only bucket of water. Through whatever recovery my body needs I will get hungry for that feeling and hopefully find another run for later in the fall. The soreness are the physical memories that will fade until these words will be the only accompaniment to the reel of highlights from that long dark night that is stored away in my brain.