Whew! It's been a busy month - both for running and for race report writing! I haven't written this many essays in a short time span since school. Especially not of the what-I-did-on-summer-vacation variety. Now I'll get a little break from both. I'm going to be busy at work the next month anyway, so it's a good thing.
Now, without further delay....
DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN
I scaled a short, rocky hill on the edge of an open field to reach a second field and the fire road around its edge. This would bring me around to the now familiar sight of the 2nd aid station. The Problem? It was too familiar. Because I’d just been here. Like, 10 minutes ago. What was going on? I knew that the course had been altered in the last week due to flooding damage. Knew that one loop section had been eliminated and another added to equal out the distance. What I didn’t know was how I’d managed to loop around to the aid station again.
I was near the end of the first of three 11-mile loops that made up the race route. The course was designed to bring the runners past this aid station twice on each loop. It was positioned at the start/finish of a loop within the loop. But I’d already been by twice. Once, on the way into the loop, and again, about 24 minutes later, on my way out again. But now, here it was in front of me a third time, just minutes later. What happened? Was this another mini-loop, added to route to help make up for the section that had to be cut off? But the track away from the aid station was still the same. How would I know what turn to take to go to the start/finish instead of looping around again? I hadn’t seen a sign. Did I miss an announcement before the race?
The aid station volunteer who had greeted me 10 minutes before was still there, and I trotted in asking him if I’d done something wrong. “Oh no, you’re good,” he told me, “you come through this station more than once every time. You’ll be seeing us a lot today.”
“But how am I going to know which way to turn, down the path, to get to the finish line instead of coming back here again? I didn’t see any signs the first time.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” he smiled back, “the finish line is less than 2 miles. You’ll see it.”
For some reason, I never said, “but this is the third time I’ve been here already,” and I couldn’t tell if he remembered me from 10 minutes before or not. But I was already suspecting what must be obvious even to you by now: Somehow, I’d missed a turn and gone the wrong way. I did a class A job of it though, because I really hadn’t seen any signs suggesting I was going the wrong way, and worse, somehow I’d put myself right back onto an earlier part of the course where there were signs telling me I was going the right way. How had I done that?
I took off down the trail again, chasing after the backs of several runners who had been behind me just a few minutes ago. After seven or eight minutes, I caught up to two of them. “How you doing up there?” I asked a guy in a white long-sleeved shirt. “Good,” he answered (though he wasn’t entirely convincing). “I need to ask you a question,” I told him. “How many times have you been through that last aid station?” “Two,” he told me.
And that was just about the moment when we veered a little to the left on the trail and continued off into the woods – on a part of the trail I hadn’t been on before at all. Thirty feet to our right, on the edge of the tree line, was the fire road that we had been on after the long, Mountain Bike Trail section that made up the afore mentioned loop within the loop.
So, there it was. Just before that little veer to the left, the foot trail also ran straight ahead, through the tree line, and back to that fire road. That must have been my wrong turn. And once I was back on the fire road, I followed the white ribbons right back to that aid station for a third time. Ugh. How much time had I lost? Ten minutes? Had I added a full mile to my loop? That seemed about right, unfortunately.
And then I realized: It could have been a LOT worse. I could have run off in some completely random direction that was nowhere near the actual course, not noticed it for a mile or so, and then had to find my way back to the race. Who knows how much time that would have cost me? Heck, I could have done that and then gotten lost. That could have meant the end of my race completely. So, at least it wasn’t that bad.
And really, it was my own fault. Could the trail have been marked a little differently there to help me avoid my mistake? Sure. But I also could have recognized the fire road. I could have looked into the woods, too, and seen the directional plate on a tree thirty feet beyond the little division in the trail. You live, you learn, right?
MORE REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The good news of the morning, so far, was that I felt pretty good. My legs were responding well, even though it was only six days since the Chicago Marathon. I even felt a little springy.
I’d taken an extra day of rest after last Sunday. The plan was to take two days off from running, but a busy schedule turned that into three days off. The third day might have been good for me, though. When I got out to do a gentle 6-miler on Thursday, I was surprised at how much life I had in my legs. I didn’t have a pace goal, that day. I just wanted to shake the rust off, run really easy – and surprised myself by ticking off relatively effortless 8:30s from start to finish. Not speedy, mind you, but definitely faster than my usual, no-stress pace of, say, 9:15s.
As we gathered at the start line this morning before 7:30 a.m., I felt sharp and crisp; eager to run. I think the weather was helping, too. Start time temps were around 40 degrees, and the forecast was for mid-day highs in the low 60s. The sky was clear and the air was calm. The day would be ideal. A campfire was burning hot near the check-in tent, sending a nostalgic aroma around the staging area.
SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTENCE…
I arrived on site a little after 7. The early morning drive down from Chicago was uneventful. (It was nice to get away from Chicago gas prices.) I picked up my bib and race shirt and then we all had time for the 20 Grand Slammers to gather and pose for a pre-race group photo. I think that Chris Migotsky, the Clinton Lake race director who was overseeing the Slam, was pleasantly surprised that so many of us were still around, trying to finish the fourth race. This being the first year for the Slam, no one had been sure what to expect. Barring a real bad luck day for anybody, we all expected to finish at some point this afternoon and claim our trophy t-shirts.
There were a couple of guys running Farmdale who I’d first met last year at this same event: Adam, who was running the Slam this year, and who I blogged about at the Hobo Run a few weeks ago, and Mike, a running buddy of Adam’s. I ran almost the entire second loop at Farmdale with the two of them last year, until I faded at the beginning of the third loop. Mike was really great at the finish line last year when I finally came in, making sure everyone there knew that I’d just run the marathon the weekend before (just like this year).
I wound up parked next to Mike in the lot, and we were able to reacquaint. He and Adam had been out, in the days before the race, helping Dave, the RD, mark the course. Mike told me that even though Dave had announced, on the website, that the course had to be cut due to flooding and would be a little shorter than 33-miles, that instead, they had added a new loop to route to bring the distance back up to the full 33.
OFF WE GO
Farmdale also hosts an 8-mile race division. The 8-milers and the Ultra runners all start together at 7:30. I’m not sure how many of us there were in each group, but the cap of 150 runners for the whole event had been met, so there must have been roughly that many us on the course together at the beginning. Each group runs a similar route, but the 8-milers get to skip several sections that the Ultras have to cover. The 8-milers don’t break off until right around the 4-mile mark on the loop. So, those early miles are a little crowded and everyone falls into line along a winding single track that snakes its way through the tree line around the base of some of the foot hills in the park. The restricted pace might be a little frustrating for some of the 8-milers who’d like to open it up, but I think it’s a great way to control my pace in those early miles. No need to go out too fast anyway.
It’s also kind of fun to run early with some of those 8-milers who are a bit less experienced with trail races. Case in point: The first water crossing on the course is about 2.5 miles into the loop. Once upon a time, I worried about water crossings and keeping my feet dry. (Didn’t wet feet cause blisters? My Boy Scout handbook had said so.) I’ve since learned that not only are they no big deal, but the cool water – even 40-degree-Fall-morning cool water – feels really nice. And, so long as you change your socks once or twice during the race, no blisters.
So, when I got to the water crossing, I slowed down and enjoyed it. By the time I’d crossed over and made my way up to the ridge above, several of the younger women trying the 8-miler had reached the water. I could hear them squealing to each other in shock when their feet sunk into the rushing stream. Maybe in a drier year, it’d be possible to cross carefully with dry feet, but this was not a dry year. I couldn’t help laughing at them. They weren’t terribly excited about it, but they were having fun. There were half a dozen more water crossings on the loop, some jumpable, some not, so I’m sure their fun continued.
Apparently the park and the trail get a lot of use from local mountain bikers. There are several long loops of the course that are covered in ramps, wood pilings, dips and rises, all of which are set up or utilized by the bikers. The extra sections on the course that the Ultra runners cover and the 8-milers don’t, includes these sections. The first comes after the course split at the 4-mile mark. Most of the runners took a right turn at this point, and the Ultras took a left. It got quiet quickly after that. There were still a couple of guys in shouting distance of me, one in front and one behind, but I spent most of this Hilltop Loop on my own.
I wasn’t exactly sure what my pace was – no mile markers on this trail race – but I felt speedy and knew I was making decent time. It took me about 15 minutes to make my way around this section, jumping trees and bike ramps, until finally returning to a steep, steep downhill that brings you right back to where the 8-milers had split off to the right. We then ran that piece ourselves, up another half mile or so to the first aid station on the loop.
I wasn’t even a little bit hungry (I’d stopped for a big McDonald’s breakfast on the drive down) and my bottle still had plenty of Gatorade, so I didn’t even pause as I ran through. I just greeted all the volunteers with a big smile and plenty of thanks. I did hit the split on my stopwatch, though. Rumor has it – this year and last – that the first aid station is very close to halfway around the loop, at the 5.5 mile mark. I’d gotten there in a little over 55 minutes. That would be about 10 minutes a mile. If that was true, I’d be very happy with that pace.
BACK HALF OF THE LOOP: NEW COHORTS
There were several runners at the aid station taking a quick break when I went through and they were all on the trail behind me right away. One fellow, who had taken off his shirt and was running bare-chested, passed me right away and powered on beyond me. A woman in a long sleeved blue shirt (who I later learned was up from St. Louis) and a man in a long-sleeved red shirt with a white cap were both behind me.
As we descended from the hilltop aid station, the woman started singing. I couldn’t quite place the lyrics at first, then they seemed familiar to me, but now, as I write this, I’ve forgotten what they were. (But for some reason, the sound of Stevie Nicks singing “Landslide” is serving as a fill-in memory. Go figure.) Then she stopped singing and apologized for not knowing more of the words. I thought she’d just been singing along to an I-pod, or something, but she’d just been singing to us! How funny! The man in the red shirt playfully complained that he’d have to get a better juke box for the next trip. Then she motored off ahead of me to catch up to the shirtless guy in front of us. I heard her expressing how brave he was to be running topless in the cold before they were out of earshot.
The red shirt guy stayed just behind me, though, as we finished our descent and emerged from the trees to loop around a large grassy field on a grassy access road. There was still some evidence of the recent floods on the track and after one bad patch, I heard him say behind me, “That was pretty sticky.” I couldn’t remember clearly, but it seemed like we must have been pretty close to the section of the route that had to be cut off because of the flooding damage. Now that we’d come down off the foothills, we were in a lower section of the park, so that made sense. We covered a long loop around that open, grassy field, following the access road for a mile or so until it took us back into the trees along another section of hills.
It wasn’t long after when we finally made it to our first climb up “Horse Hill.” It’s an eighth-mile climb up a rocky, dirt access road with a 4 or 5% grade. It’s just one of those hills that you walk. It’s rocky enough and steep enough that you aren’t going to get to the top much faster at a jog anyway, so you might as well save your energy. The top of the hill has a reward, though: You get to see the second aid station for the first time. I’d eaten one of my gels on the Open Field Loop and I still had plenty of fluid, so again, I just kept moving.
MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAIL LOOP
The 2 to 2.5 mile loop that follows is the most difficult on the course. It’s the second major section that the mountain bikers like to use. The trail is littered with naturally formed half-pipes, dips and cliffs. You’ll be running along and then, in front of you, the path will drop down sharply to six feet below you, and then scoop right back up again six feet on the other side. On a bike, they’d be great. Gravity would snatch you downward for one second and then the curved bottom of the “pipe” would direct you right back up the other side again with just enough inertia to send you up over the far side with, maybe, a rotation of the pedals.
On your feet, however, the constant punishment of trying to control your “fall” down one side and then having to muscle your way back up the other side is exhausting. The force exerted on your legs takes a toll. On the first loop, it’s kind of fun (you can still imagine that you’re really on a bike), but the 2nd loop is tough, and I found myself really dreading the 3rd time around as I approached on the final lap. (The 8-milers don’t have to cover this part. They do run the loop, but they stay the whole time around the tree line, running the flat, easy fire road around the edge of the field. They never dip back into the forest to experience the rollercoaster.)
Mr. Red Shirt stayed with me through almost all of this loop, and by the last bit of it, we had caught up again to the signing woman in blue. Once we’d finished the last bit of the bike trail, I had to ease off a bit to let my legs bounce back and Red Shirt left me behind to run ahead with the Woman in Blue. By the time we had returned for the second stop at the second aid station and departed again, they had both run off far enough that I couldn’t see them anymore and I was alone again.
This is when I made my wrong turn and wound up back at the aid station a third time.
FINDING THE BRIGHT SIDE
I guess it was good that it happened to me on the first loop, when I still felt fresh and my spirits were up. If I’d somehow blown it late in the race, the frustration might have overpowered me too much. I can be prone to that. I think I’ve learned to overcome those lapses as I’ve aged, but they still have an affect and it would have left me feeling much differently about the day if it had happened later in the race.
But it was early, I did feel fresh still, and I was able to laugh at myself a bit. Not only that, but after I’d made it down the course a second time and actually turned the right way, I found I had a little burst of adrenaline. I was making even better time than before. And I was passing runners. Those people who I’d been in front of and now was behind? I was moving in front of them again. A few of them anyway. And anytime in a race when you feel yourself moving up, it does wonders for your energy.
I motored on down the trail and after another few minutes came out of the woods entirely and ran to the edge of the dam across the reservoir. By the looks of it, Farmdale isn’t a natural reservoir, it’s man-made. But the dam, or most of it, is not an industrial construct. It’s and landfill dam. Across the top, as with many dams, is a drivable road, this one made of dirt and gravel. It’s more than a quarter mile, less than a half, and it’s a sweet, sweet sight, because once you’ve crossed it, you’re just a few minutes from the start/finish line.
Once I’d covered the short switchback trail on the other side of the dam and popped out of the woods into the staging area, I trotted over to the aid table to refill my bottle, and grab a banana. I hit the split on my watch and it showed 2:04 for the first loop. Not bad, considering that I seemed to have missed a turn. I looked around for someone working the race who might be able to clear that up for me. Dave, the race director, was nearby. “I just need to double check,” I told him, “I shouldn’t have come by the second aid station three times, should I?” “No, just twice,” he answered and furrowed his brow with concern. “Ok, I was sure I missed a turn somewhere, but I needed to check.” I still thought it was just my fault, but if it turned out that other people were making the same mistake, it wasn’t too late for someone to try and ride out there to re-mark the trail to help the runners on later loops. (But I was sure it was just my own loopy mistake.)
MY MASSIVE PIT STOP
I ran over to my car to change my shirts. I’d started the race wearing my thermal, long-sleeve, mock turtleneck Under Armor shirt. I’d pulled a short-sleeve tech shirt over that. Now, I removed both shirts, put the short-sleeve back on and then, from my bag, I pulled on another long-sleeved running shirt. It’s a regular shirt with a long-zipper at the neck, so it offers a variety of climate control. I decided to keep my tights, but forgot (how?) to change into fresh socks.
I still couldn’t leave the staging area yet to start my second loop, though. I had one more problem to deal with. I warn you, I’m going to be blunt, so if you don’t want to know, skip a paragraph. (Yeah, I didn’t think you would.) I didn’t get to the race site early enough to be able to take a turn in the port-a-johns before race time. This has never really been a problem before, but apparently, my big McDonald’s breakfast and the cup of coffee, which I rarely drink, were having an effect on me. (Coffee is a diuretic.) I’d been feeling it for most of the back half of the first loop, but it’s not like ducking into the woods for a quick pee; I needed to wipe. The only facilities on the course were at the staging area, so I had to wait. Now, finally, I was there. But my first constitutional of the day never goes quickly. It just doesn’t. So, it took me a few minutes in the booth, but it was worth the wait. It was relief I needed badly.
By the time I was ready to hit the trail again, I’d spent a little over eight minutes in the staging area. An eternity. Eight minutes was nearly a mile down the trail that I’d lost. I’m used to 3 or 4 minutes in the staging area, and that chance to change socks and clothes is well worth a few minutes, but to be, basically, stationary for eight minutes. Ugh. Oh, well. Another lesson reinforced today, I guess.
THE SECOND LOOP: A TAG-A-LONG
Once again, the good news was, I still felt really good, really strong – even though I’d lost at least 15 minutes to extraneous delays. As I started out on the second loop there was a large group, maybe six or seven people, men and women, also prepping to head out again. They were all wearing matching red singlets, so I assumed they were members of a running club. I could tell by their conversation that at least a few of them were new to ultras. I scooted off ahead of them because I didn’t want to get stuck behind them all on the single track that was just ahead.
I got stuck anyway, behind three guys who were moving gingerly as a group through the woods. When I came up behind them, the guy in the middle was talking on his cell phone; to his wife I guessed. When they realized I was behind them, they all picked it up, and I was actually able to push them along at close to my preferred pace. After a little more than a mile of this, we emerged from the woods onto a short fire road and all three of the guys peeled off to the side to let me by so they could walk. “I need a little break. I think that was a little faster than usual,” one of them explained. I chuckled politely and wished them luck. I didn’t expect I’d see them again the rest of the day.
Before we’d come to that clearing, one of the men from the running group had come up behind me. He must have sprinted ahead of his group to join us. As I ran off ahead of the three guys, and assumed a brisk pace that felt good, Mr. Red Singlet tagged along with me. He was friendly, though not overly talkative, but I didn’t really feel all that talkative myself at that point, so it was fine with me.
At the start of the Hilltop Loop, (it seems like that were it was), the two of us passed someone else, and as we forked left, he said behind me, “you’re doing awesome, up there.” So, he liked my pace and even though it was a tad fast for him, he wanted to stay with me. I was all for it, and was happy to have the responsibility of pacesetter. It helps me take my mind off myself, knowing that someone else is depending on me for that little bit of leadership. Were it just myself, I might be tempted to take it easy, but I can’t do that to someone else.
The two of us did chat a little now and then, but only about the race and the course. We were both focused on the task. When we got to the first aid station, we both stopped to refill bottles and grab a little food. The volunteers there were complimentary and my new friend redirected to me: “I’m just doing well to be able to keep up with him,” he said with a smile. I grinned back, patted him on the shoulder and told him how great he was doing. It was the first time I’d gotten a look at him. He was, at least, ten years older than me, and wearing a white cap, along with the singlet over his warmer clothes. I waited for him to get his bottle back and we left the station together to start the descent to the open field loop. “I hope you don’t mind me staying with you,” he said, “I don’t want to go past you, I’m happy back here. It really helps me to tuck in behind somebody and tag along.” “I don’t mind in the least,” I answered, and I didn’t. I was gonna pull, and he was gonna push, and we were gonna blaze together.
We did that for the entire second loop. He stayed with me step for step. I stayed on top of the pace for both of us. I decided which hills we should walk. I decided how long we’d stay at the aid stations. He stayed on my heels and kept me honest the whole way. And honest we were. When we’d made it to the first aid station, it had been 55 minutes since I’d started running the second loop. I covered the distance in the same time it took me on the first loop. We got to the second aid station in less time that it had taken me on loop one. Then, on the mountain bike trail loop, we again covered it in slightly less time than it took me the first time – though this second time, I could feel more of the abuse on my legs from all those sharp dips and rises. (That’s when I started dreading the third time through this piece.)
As we completed the MBT loop and charged the second aid station for the second time, we found two other runners there both catching their breath and trying to refuel. They looked to be in their 20s. Both had mostly shaved headed and what I would describe as a runner’s build. My friend and I were both, still, in really good shape and running pretty hard into the station. It must have looked pretty impressive to these two other guys, because they both turned to see us coming in with their eyes a little wide. “Where did you two come from,” they asked us with some amazement. “Did you guys just turn on the jets, or are you both on your third loop and about to finish the race?” They were serious! They took one look at us and how we were running and genuinely wondered if we were about to finish our third loop while they were on their second. They thought they were getting lapped!
No, we told them, just on loop two, like them, but feeling good. I did offer to pay them both $20 if they could convince the RD that we were finishing 33 miles when we got back to the staging area. They both laughed and one of them said he knew the RD and might could arrange it, but they the other guy gave a mock scoff, and said he knew the RD, too, and said he would pay the $20 to make sure everyone knew we weren’t. I thought my friend and I would see these two guys again, but we never did. In fact, we left them behind pretty easily before we even got back to the dam crossing.
We passed the spot where I’d missed my turn and I could see it very clearly this time. I wouldn’t say it was an easy mistake to avoid, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have realized I was going the wrong way. It really was just my own dang fault. Of course, now that I knew, the proper trail was completely obvious.
Near the end of the loop, I let my co-pilot know that I was going to have to take a break at the staging area to head over to my car to change my socks. (I couldn’t forget to do that a second time. My feet were pretty damp.) I let him know that if he didn’t want to wait for me, he was welcome to head on out, I wouldn’t be offended. But he told me that he wasn’t going to be able to. He said that he’d really enjoyed taking the loop with me, but he’d been running a little over his head and he was going to need a little time at the staging area to catch his breath and recover. So, we when came in, I made a point to turn around and shake his hand. “Tony,” he answered when I asked his name. Then I gave him mine and said that if I didn’t see him again, to have a great last loop. He made it sound like he was going to maybe wait for his running group to come back around to run the final lap with them.
When I hit the split on my watch it said 2:03, and that included the 8 minutes I spent in the staging area before I started out on loop two. Not bad! Subtracting my station break and adding in the extra mile I’d run, I had covered the first 23 miles at a constant 10-minute-per-mile pace! And I was pretty sure I still had some good fuel left in the tank.
ELEVEN MILES TO GO
My sock change only took me 3 minutes and I was out again for the start of the third loop. Tony and I had passed a good handful of people on our loop, and I wanted to keep finding people to move past. I felt that locking in on a person, concentrating on catching them and then moving on to the next would help me stay motivated through the finish.
It wasn’t too far before I caught up to a guy who I became acquainted with when I ran Clinton Lake last year, my very first ultra. His name is Dan, and if I remember correctly, he was just running a couple of loops at Clinton that year as a training run, but he ran and finished the 50-miler at McNaughton Park two weeks later. He’s the one guy, other than Chris Migotsky, who I’ve seen and talked to at every ultra I’ve run. He was even at a training run I drove down to run at Lake Mingo in early March this year. He’s on the quiet side, but a really nice guy. This morning, before the race, he’d also introduced me to another Greg, a friend of his from Decatur who was also trying to finish the Slam. I’d run the first loop ahead of Dan, but somewhere, either during my missed turn or my prolonged pit stop, he’d gotten in front of me. Now, after another full loop, I’d caught back up again.
I didn’t recognize him until I was almost on top of him. He’d taken his shirt off to run and as I approached I thought it was going to be the shirtless guy who I’d run near back on my first loop around. Even as I was moving to pass him, I still thought it was the other guy. “How you doing up there – Oh! Hey, Dan! How’re you feelin’?” I could tell he was starting to fade a bit. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to catch up to him. I eased up a hair to stay with him for a minute.
“I’ve got good news for you, Dan,” I told him. “Tana – isn’t that her name? – is, as far as I know, still a good ways behind you.”
“Oh I already figured that,” he told me. Tana is one of the women who was trying to finish the Slam. Dan had admitted earlier in the year, and said it again before the race that morning, that he always picked out Tana and tried to beat her. He regarded her as a very strong runner and felt like if he beat her or at least stayed close, that he’d probably had a good day. Sometimes he did it, and sometimes she dropped him like he was nothing. I have no idea if she was aware that she was being used as a watermark. He did, of course, intend it as a compliment. (As it turned out, Tana must have had a rare off day, because she wound up finishing an hour after Dan at Farmdale this year.)
He asked me how much I thought I had left, and I told him honestly that I felt like I might could go either way. I was slowing down a little bit, and though I still felt awfully good, it also wouldn’t have been surprised me if I hit a real wall at some point in the next 4 or 5 miles. At that point, though, I was moving better than Dan was, so I wished him well and moved up on my own again.
On the Hilltop Loop, I caught the woman in the long-sleeved blue shirt. I hadn’t seen her since our first time around. “I see you recovered!” she told me. “Yeah, I’m still trying to make up time,” I told her, “but I’m feeling pretty good.” I moved past her, too, and made my way towards the first aid station.
As I approached, I could see a guy in a long-sleeved red shirt heading out of the station. It was the same kind of red shirt the guy from my first loop was wearing. But this confused me, because I had caught up to that guy and passed him near the end of my second loop. How did get in front of me again. Then I realized: This other guy was wearing his white cap backwards. The first guy had worn his frontwards. So, it must be someone different, but wearing the same shirt. He took off before I pulled in.
I treated myself to a brief sit-down while the wonderful volunteers filled up my bottle for me. Before I left, I got a surprise. The original long-sleeved red shirt guy and Tony, my second loop co-pilot, cruised into the aid station behind me. “Hey, Tony! Look at you! I guess that second loop pace wasn’t too much too fast for you after all. You’re doing great!” He was using the same strategy that he’d used with me on the second loop, but he’d found a new friend to hook onto: Mr. Red Shirt. I looked up Mr. RS’s name after the race and found that it was Carey. I left the station before Tony and Carey did, but I figured there was a good chance I’d be seeing them again before we were done.
FIVE MILES TO GO AND HANGING ON
As I descended down the hills to the open field loop, I caught sight of the guy who had left the aid station just before I’d arrived. He was down below me, starting his way around the field. It was Chris Migotsky. I could tell that he was flagging. He’d started the race in front of me and I hadn’t seen him since. I felt like I might be able to catch up to him before we’d finished the field loop, and I did.
Chris is the RD for Clinton Lake and he also initiated and oversaw the Grand Slam concept this year. He’s also kind of the reason why I started running ultras in Illinois. I was looking for a trail race to run as a follow up to the Georgia Marathon in the Spring of ’07, found his Clinton Lake race in an online race calendar, cruised his website and signed up. Then I got hooked into the other three events in the Slam, because Chris was already talking about it on his race site even before he’d staged the first Clinton Lake event. This year, Chris started a blog centered around his race and Illinois trail running in general. I’d be lying if I said that his blog didn’t have a certain influence on my own.
Naturally, I look up to him.
He knows me, too, by now, and once I caught up to him I eased off so we could talk and say “Hi.”
“Hey-hey, didn’t you run the marathon last weekend?” he greeted me. He told me he was a little frustrated with his race because his legs were really feeling kind of dead. In ’07, he’d had a really good race here, clocking a tidy, speedy 5:45 (if memory serves). This year, he found he was struggling on the last lap.
He also told me that the course was actually a little long this year, not short. The open field loop we’d just completed was the one that Mike told me about before the race, the one that was added to bring the race back up to 33 miles. Well, Chris told me that the Dave, the RD had told him that the field loop was actually a little long, maybe as much as .2 miles. So the full course might actually be 33.5 miles, or something like that.
We talked about the race, about the Grand Slam (He joked about not finishing, and I told him he HAD to finish because all the Grand Slam t-shirts were locked up in his car!), about our running schedules for the winter. By the time we’d climbed Horse Hill for the last time and pulled in for our next-to-last stop at the second aid station, Tony and Carey had nearly caught up to us. They reached the aid station before we left it. Chris had a good time pointing out that he and Carey were wearing the same shirt.
The entire way around the Mountain Bike Trail loop, was a slow game of catch that they played with us. Chris and I could see and hear them the whole time. They inched closer and closer to us. Finally, about 2/3rds of the way around they reached us. We teased them mightily for being rude enough to catch up to us slow-pokes in front. But we were still on the single track and still on that awful, looping bike trail, so they hung out in a row behind us, with me in the front until we came out of the trees and onto the fire road for the last time.
On the way into the aid station, that next-to-last time, Chris and I debated how far around the 11-mile loop its position was. He said every time he’d asked the volunteers there today, he’d gotten a different answer. We never did figure it out, but I told him, however long the Mountain Bike Trail loop was, when we got back to that aid station for the last time, I knew for sure we’d have less than 2 miles to go. So, when we did finish the MBT loop and refueled one last time under the little tent, Chris seemed to set off for home with renewed vigor. We already knew we weren’t going to break 6 hours. Chris was a little disappointed about this, but I was still going to be really happy if I could just finish under 6:22, my ’07 finish time. I was pretty sure I could do it.
As hard a time as Chris claimed to have keeping up with me for the previous 4 miles, now I was having trouble keeping up with him. I have no idea if he sped up, or I slowed down, so I’ll blame him for getting a second wind. It was good to be pulled, though. I’d done a lot of pulling myself during the day. I think I’d earned a return of the favor.
We were across the dam (“Ha! This is me sprinting,” he joked. “You’re looking pretty fast from back here!” I called back), and into the last little switchback section when I finally let him off the hook and allowed him to run off ahead of me. “Come on!” he yelled back as encouragement. “I can smell the barn!” I hollered back up to him. I could see that I was easily going to beat 6:22 and I was content to let him run it in, on his own, but when I popped out of the tree line that last time, I saw that he’d stopped and turned to wait for me. “Come on, slowpoke!” He beckoned to me with both arms, pretending to be exasperated. Then he grinned and turned to cover the last 80 yards just in front of me.
My official time was 6:19:07 (four seconds behind Chris). So, I did it! I beat my last year’s time. That, in spite of the fact that I’d inadvertently taken a mile-long detour on the course and had taken the longest pit stop in history after my first loop. I still improved my official time by almost three minutes. If you count in the extra distance that I covered (and I do, of course) I also cut my overall average pace by more than thirty seconds a mile! I was really, really satisfied with my performance. I’ve never felt that good in the last miles of an ultra before. I still wasn’t as good as I’d been the first two laps, but I also didn’t fade nearly as badly as I often do – and this only six days after my hard effort at Chicago.
ARRGH! YE BOOTY!
Mike was one of the first people I saw at the finish line and he gave me a big handshake. I asked how he’d done and he told me that he’d finished in just over six hours. I could tell he’d wanted to come in under six, as he did last year.
I knew there was a box of rocks somewhere engraved as finisher awards, but I couldn’t see it and finally had to ask where it was. Of course I was practically standing right next to it. I picked out a small, flat one. I wandered into the little food tent to see if I might have won a raffle prize, but nothing was there with my name on it. When I came back out, though, Chris had returned from his car with the large box of Grand Slam Finisher shirts! They’re construction yellow with a big graphic on the front, a silhouette of a runner leaping a ditch on the trail. It says Grand Slam Finisher and lists the four races that were involved. Kinda cool!
I was ready to get out of my racing clothes, but I couldn’t quite yet. There hadn’t been any photographers out on the trail at all today, so I wanted to stage a couple of pictures of me running in toward the finish line for my scrapbook. Nothing fancy, just a couple of “action” shots to go with my post-race self-portraits. I asked Mike if he minded clicking the camera and we had fun setting up a couple of scenes. A lot of the people sitting around the finish area munching on food joined in, too, calling out suggestions for my performance. “No smiling!” “Show a little more effort on your face!” “Ok, do this one with a look of confusion!” We all had a good laugh and I got a couple of good pictures. (Thanks, Mike.)
I changed, came back over for some food and wound up at a picnic table chatting with Dan and Greg (who had come in behind me), Chris, and Larry Swanson, who RDs all the Rock Cut races and had come down to run the 8-mile race and to be on hand for the distribution of the Grand Slam awards.
Time passed quickly and soon I needed to start making my way back up to Chicago. Then Adam walked over to see how I was doing and he invited me over to his truck to indulge in a celebratory can of beer. I hung out a little longer so I could sip on a can and shoot the breeze with Adam, something I hadn’t been able to do after the Hobo Run a few weeks back. His friend Jason, who’d placed 5th in the 8-mile race that morning and waited around to run the last 11-mile lap with Adam and Mike, joined us, along with one of the ladies who’d run the ultra.
As I drove home later, I started thinking about something Chris wrote in his blog this month, that one of the coolest thing about the Grand Slam this year, was all the great new runners and people he’d been able to get to know during the year. I hadn’t really thought about it before the race, but you know, it had happened to me, too. So, Dan and Chris and Mike and Richard and Adam and Greg and Tony and Kate and Betty and Lawrence and anybody else that I ran with for 1 mile or for 10: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I enjoyed every single minute. I hope you all have a great winter, and I’ll see you out there in 2009!