I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Lookout Mountain 100K Results

I'm still working on my Race Report, but for those of you who may be wondering...

I finished! I was 28th out of 37 finishers. There were 65 runners registered and 59 or 60 people who started the race. So that means there were, maybe, 22 or 23 DNFs from the field (38%!). Temperatures were in the upper 50s all day, but the rain came and went, and was often heavy. My official time was 16 hours, 3 minutes and 31 seconds, and I finished just a few minutes before midnight.

I thoroughly enjoyed (almost) every single minute of it, and I'll have the whole story up in another day or two!

Have a happy holiday, everyone! I hope you're all able to enjoy the time with friends and family or anyone else who loves you as much as you love them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Unexpected Loss

I woke up last Sunday morning needing to head out to run an errand. When I went to retrieve my running watch from the bedstand, I discovered the band ripped in half across it’s width, hanging by just a few resin threads. Destroyed. Worthless. I haven’t a clue why I didn’t notice the carnage when I took it off the night before, but that is when it must have happened.

Of all the running clothes and gear I own, my watch is the one thing that I ALWAYS wear. I have a less equipped back-up watch for emergencies (or unexpected runs), but otherwise, that watch is always with me when I run. As a result, I tend to develop a small attachment to each one I’ve owned – not terribly unlike the affection many people feel for their cars. I don’t personify them, or name them (I don’t do that to my cars, either), but I guess I develop a kind of professional respect for them, as for a co-worker who is constantly tackling projects with me, always quietly holding up their end of the task, and never expecting any of the credit for themselves.

This is the second time that I’ve lost a watch to an inferior resin band. The way the watch is designed, the band is not replaceable; it’s built into the time piece. And the time piece itself, of course, is completely fine and totally operational. In fact, I just had the battery replaced a few months ago, and as far as I know, it would continue to operate reliably for another 10 years, or even longer. I suppose at some point down the road, the buttons would wear out and cease responding to a finger touch, or perhaps I’d take a fall and the crystal face would get cracked – but to have to cast it aside because of the cheap resin band? It feels like having to put down a champion race horse because he fractured a leg as he crossed the finish line.

I’ve only had this watch for two and a half years. It’s a Timex Ironman Triathalon watch (Timex is strangely reluctant to label their watches with specific model numbers.) It was advertised as the “flagship” running watch for the company when I bought it. Ninety-five dollars, 150 lap recall memory, water resistant to 100 meters, memory storage of each workout by date, large easy-to-read display face, etc., etc. Hey, the time piece is a damn fine example of design and technology – but the resin band? (Sheesh.)

I admit, for the first 2 years, I wore the watch every day and all the time, not just on my runs. (Did I mention I get a little attached to my running watches?) Earlier this year, the little loop designed to hold down the tail of the band’s strap cracked and broke off. I took this as a warning flag, bought a secondary watch for everyday use and took to saving my running watch just for runs. So, I guess that earned me another six months.

When this happened before to my previous watch, I was stubborn and kept using the watch in races, carrying it in my hand like a little stopwatch. I have a series of race photos from that stretch where you can see the thing in my left hand as I squeezed the stop button between my finger and thumb. But those were all 5 and 10K road races. It’s not really an option, say, this weekend, when I’ll be running a 62-mile trail race. I’m going to need my hands as free as possible. So, it’ll have to be the bare bones back-up watch for the weekend.

A few years ago, when my previous resin band watch fell apart, I went so far as to call the Timex customer service department. They told me if I mailed it into them, they would repair the band for a $10 fee. What they really did was send back a totally different watch, with similar abilites. At the time, I felt a little betrayed, because they hadn’t warned me that I’d never see my watch again, but the new watch had a Velcro band, and after a few weeks, I realized its vast superiority. Not only would it be more durable over time, it was also far more comfortable on my wrist.

I’ve already made that call to Timex again and they still offer the same service. It’ll be a $10 “repair”, and I can also request that they, once again, sent back a similar watch but with a Velcro band. They told me the turnaround time should be 3 to 5 weeks. I’ll try it again and see what I get back, but I fear the result will depend on the charitable decision of whichever repair tech opens up my shipment – and whatever product they have available to send me. I guess it’s worth $10 and a month’s wait to find out.

But if they send me something inferior and I’m forced to buy another, brand new watch, there’s absolutely no way I’ll be buying another resin band. My faith there is broken. Broken like a cheap resin watch band.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Race Report: Tecumseh Trail Marathon 2008

I am a little late with this, and I know at least a few of you have been waiting. Well, it is Tuesday, and the race was last Saturday. If we just forget the week in between (when I was swamped at work), then I'm actually pretty much on my regular schedule with this post....
OK. It’s been a long and arduous week. I’ve had worse work weeks – believe me, I have – but the hours were very long and the problem solving was an hour to hour exercise. It just didn’t leave me any time to craft my Race Report for the Tecumseh Trail Marathon.

I’ll be honest, though, I also wasn’t overly enthused to write about it, because I wasn’t overly enthused about how it went. It was a frustrating, weary afternoon, and regardless of all the factors involved, I just didn’t feel like I did as well as I might could have. (“might could”: that might sound poorly written to some of you, but trust me, it’s a legit and vital southern phrasing.)

First of all, the weather was not kind. The forecast all week had called for the temperature to start in the upper 20s and hover around 30 for the afternoon, with, roughly, a 30% chance of show flurries. Well, that weren’t what we got. When I woke up in my hotel room on race morning, I discovered that the damp precipitation from the day before was frozen over, and a half-inch of snow was already on the ground. Temps were still in the teens and wouldn’t rise above 25. There was a steady wind coming in from the Northwest. This was just the beginning of a mild -- but legit -- snow storm that would last the entire day.

Laura had come along for the trip to try and see me a few times on the course and to cheer me on. We had to, first, drive to the Finish Line area to pick up my bib and race packet, and then make the 25 mile drive north to the starting line so she could see us all head off. Just negotiating the roads in the car was a bit precarious. We had to use too many back roads and gravel roads in the middle of rural, west-central Indiana. We didn’t see any salt or plow trucks making the rounds and had no idea if we could expect them. Laura had scoped out both the course map and an area road map and picked out several places where she thought she might be able to see me come by, but I repeatedly encouraged her to choose safety over cheerleading. I was very worried that my little Toyota Celica would hit some snowy, icy patch and she’d wind up stuck in a ditch, far from help.

Honestly, if I’d known what the conditions were really going to be like, I think I might’nt had gone. (Weird words, again, I know, but just trust to my southern stylings…) A year ago, I entered a trail race series at the Rock Cut State Park near Rockford, Illinois. Once every month, through the winter, a race was staged, starting with a 5K, then a 10, a 15, and a 20K finale. The whole thing was well staged and directed, but there was both fresh and old snow on the ground for the race every month. The 15K, in February, was the worst: there were 7 or 8 inches of snow to negotiate. It took me just under 2 hours to cover the slippery, sloggy, hilly 9.3 mile course. I have never, ever been more miserable on a run. Walking on the snow and ice was actually harder than running, so even though I was completely exhausted, a walking pace offered no relief. After that, I swore that I’d never race on snow again. And it wasn’t a post-race protestation, it was a solemn, life-long resolution that I still intend to keep.

Yet, here I was, deceived, along with the meteorologists, by the weather, bracing for another snowy trail race.


When Laura and I arrived at the start line area, I was doing a decent job of staying positive. There was much rueful laughing about what awaited me, but I was holding onto my optimism. At that point I was much more worried about Laura driving around the area than I was about me running it.

The Start Line was near the Main Office Building in the Morgan-Monroe Indiana State Forest near Cherry Lake, Indiana. The course winds its way east and south from there to the Yellowwood State Forest near Nashville, Indiana. The majority of the runners park at Yellowwood and are bused up, en masse, to Morgan-Monroe so they can run back.

We pulled in more than 30 minutes before the buses. This gave me a chance to duck into a porta-potty without having to wait in a line. (No meager gift!) I wanted to ward off the need for any mid-race pit-stops like I had at Farmdale this year. One big unanticipated problem, though: It was, like, 20 degrees outside. I’m not an astrophysicist, but I believe that means it was near 20 degrees inside the porta-potty, too. I’m also not sure if the hard resin plastic used to mold most toilet seats is an above or below average conductor of heat, but either way, I’m pretty sure that the toilet seat was, also, going to be 20 degrees – and on my sensitive tushieflesh. I imagine all the ladies in the house are now nodding their heads with a kind of emphatic “see we told you so” kind of indignation, but being a dude, this was the first time I had to confront a problem so extreme in a public toilet. Luckily my lady gave me a tip: “If there’s enough toilet paper,” (being a pro at this, she wisely acknowledged that there might not be), “line the seat with it. It helps to insulate.” I’ll be darned if she wasn’t 100% correct. So there you have it, guys: an expert, insider tip from the other half of us who always have to sit to go.

After that, we found an out-of-the-way place to tuck the car and hang out until all the buses showed up. They started trickling in about 20 minutes to 10, and we made our way back up to the starting line. The Race Director was wandering around with a bullhorn making the occasional announcement, and it was about 9:55 when we heard him telling us all that because some of the buses still hadn’t been able to make it up through all the snow, that the start of the race would be delayed for, maybe, 10 or 15 minutes.

That was all fine, except that it was really freakin’ cold! I was not dressed for standing around in the sub-freezing weather. I was dressed for running around in the sub-freezing weather, and I was really ready to get to it! I had developed one of those deep bone shivers that erupt from far behind your sternum and your gut and quake out from there across the rest of your insides. Laura was bundled up far better than I was, but even she was starting to feel the freeze.

It was quite a crowd assembled at the start. The race results show that 516 people started the race. This was, by far, the largest field I’d ever been a part of at a trail race. I think the 50, 100 & 150-milers combined at McNaughton Park only total around 250 runners, at most, and we lesser mortals never see the 150-milers all in one place because they start the day before we do. So, there were lots more people standing around in the snow than I was used to seeing at a race. It makes you feel a little less nuts when you can see just how many other nuts there are in the can with you!

I wasn’t paying attention to what time it was, but finally the RD walked down to the front of the crowd at the actual start line (marked with a line of orange spray paint on the snowy gravel road), and made a few announcements. There were so many people and so much general chatter that, even with the bullhorn, I really couldn’t hear most of what he had to say. Everyone finally piped down long enough for me to hear him remind us all that the trail conditions might be rough out there and to really watch out for each other. Aid stations were all just 2.5 to 3 miles apart at most and to please notify a volunteer if we or anyone we saw was having any trouble.

Then he pulled the squawk trigger on his bullhorn and we were off.


The first mile and a half was all along a gravel road wide enough for a couple of cars to pass closely by one another. So, there was plenty of room for all of us to find our place in the pack without getting too pinned in behind slower runners and groups.

I tried to hold myself back. Due to my very hectic schedule at my freelance job, I hadn’t been able to go out for a run since Monday. That was four whole days with NO running, and even that Monday was just a gentle 5 miles on a treadmill. Granted, the week before had been a good one: a “taper” week with just 31 miles that also included my brand spankin’ new 5K PR on Thanksgiving Day. But now, through little fault of my own, I had temporarily fallen off the horse. I wasn’t overly worried about this affecting my fitness too much, but I was worried that all the extra rest would leave me feeling so fresh that I’d go out too fast in those early miles.

I’d have to try and hold myself in check without any distance landmarks to follow. I’ve done plenty of trail races without any mile markers on the course, but usually there is something on the course I can measure to; the aid station at the far end of the loop is just before the 5 mile mark, or the 2nd bridge is halfway around the course, or whatever. This way, every 4 or 5 miles, at least, I can check myself.

Tecumseh, though, is a point to point course (as opposed to any kind of Loop course – only the 3rd time I’d ever run a PTP). I hadn’t memorized the distances to each of the aid stations, but even if I had, I didn’t know for sure that they’d be set up where they said they would. It is also my experience that the aid station volunteers don’t generally know where they are on the course, either. (At Farmdale this year, for example, I heard a different answer all 6 times I passed the 2nd aid station.)

All of this, combined with my own inherent folly as a human, and I wound up doing exactly what I told myself I shouldn’t: I went out too fast. Worse: I pushed that too-fast pace pretty much all the way through the first 12 or 13 miles. I passed through an aid station that claimed to be at the 12.4 mile mark in right at 2 hours. That’s a little over 9:30 pace per mile – and that was with a healthy dose of uphill walking (though I was stubborn and didn’t start to take those walks until they started to get really rough around 7 miles in).

A lot of those early miles were on some kind of up or down hill slope. The ups seemed to come in half mile sections and the downs were just as long and loping.


I think it was about 4 miles in when Tim appeared behind me. I was wearing my 2007 Chicago Marathon jacket for the race. It was the “official” jacket that year, and I consider it to be on the gaudy side – there’s a big race logo on the back with the date below it – and, I don’t know, it just makes me a tad self-conscious to be a billboard like that. BUT, it’s a really, really nice jacket made by New Balance with a fancy fabric they call “BioShield” which has been wonderful for running in the super cold and snow. I bought it last January a few months after the race -- and after New Balance had lost its sponsorship deal to Nike. They put all their dated Chicago stuff on super-sale and I got a $140 jacket for $37. I had to settle for a caramel/gold colored one, but it was still too good to pass up.

Anyway, Tim comes up behind me and compliments me on the jacket. Then he says, “That was the HOT year, wasn’t it?” (Actually I heard that a lot during the day. Half a dozen different people saw my jacket and wanted to talk about Chicago ’07 for a minute.) Tim was really friendly and funny, in a wry sort of way. Mostly, he talked about how under-prepared he was, how he was going to be dropping at 18 miles when he passed where his car was parked, how he was trying out a new training plan: run 10 miles one weekend, slough off the next two weeks, then repeat. He was funny. Dry, wry funny.

He was running with a buddy: Mike. It was easy to keep their names straight in my head because Tim was Talkative and Mike was Mute. Seriously, Mike barely uttered a word for four miles. He was not having quite so easy a time of it as Tim was. Tim, in spite of his protestations, was zipping along at a healthy clip. Pretty much the whole time we were all together, it was like this: me in front, Tim in the middle bantering away, and Mike in the back, quiet as a mouse. All the while, Tim was the engine that was keeping us moving, even though it was me in front.

So, maybe Mike just didn’t have the extra air to spare for speech. But I should have been wiser, because that was definitely one of my problems: I, too, was breathing just a little too hard to carry on an easy conversation. This should have set off a few more alarms in my head, in spite of the fact that there weren’t any landmarks for pace checking, but I just kept trotting and huffing and puffing up and over all those little hills with Tim in the middle, rolling us along.

I did get off one good retort that made Tim laugh out loud (LOL!) hard. He was encouraging Mike, and we were all gabbing (once again) about how tricky the course was today, and I called back over my shoulder, fully in Tim’s wry humor mode, “Hey, the harder it is, the gooder it feels to stop!” Tim laughed so hard I thought he might pull up for just a second to catch his breath. “I think I might have to write that on the T-Shirt I wear at my next marathon,” he told me. “You don’t mind if I use it, do you?” Not at all, my friend, not at all. After all, I now have proof right here on the old Journey Blog that I thought of it myself. (Because no one in the history of time could ever have possibly uttered an obscure phrase like that one before, right? Right? I said, am I right?)

Somewhere, not long after that, during an especially tricky, technical, and icy section of the trail, Tim and Mike actually wound up switching positions, and Mike ended up in the middle of our three-person conga line. He was still quiet though, and Tim must have kidded him about it, because I heard Mike say, “I’m just keepin’ an eye on Greg’s feet so I know where to put my own.” And I swear, not 30 seconds later, just after I scampered across a little downward dip, Mike slipped and went down on his side. I turned around in time to see him pop back up pretty quickly, a little embarrassed but not hurt. The irony was too thick and I couldn’t help it. “Well, Mike are you watchin’ my feet or not?” All three of us had a good chuckle as we continued on.


At this point, as I recall, we were 9 or 10 miles into the course. We passed though an aid station and then came to another, mostly uphill, section where we got behind some other runners who had started to slow down. Tim and Mike were ready to get a move on, but I was already starting to lag and they ran ahead without me. I knew even then that it was the last time I’d see them.

(Oddly, though, I had a tough time finding their names in the race results. They were both from the Louisville, KY area, but I couldn’t find names on the list that seemed match. I hope they didn’t have trouble. Or maybe Tim really did decide to drop at 18 miles when he saw his warm car.)

For the next twenty minutes, I focused on seeing Laura between miles 12 and 13. The course was supposed to cross over State Route 45 just before the half way point and, on the maps, it looked like it would be relatively easy for Laura to drive in to that spot. But as I neared what looked like it must be the SR45 crossing, I saw a handful of other folks who had driven in to see loved ones, but no little black Celica, and no purple-coated, grinny-faced Laura. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this wasn’t SR45. But no, I could tell by the time elapsed on my watch since the last aid station (which was mile marked) that I was past 13 miles now, and we were headed back off for a long turn through the woods.

So: No Laura. Aannnnd, I was officially worried. Was she okay? Surely, she’d simply encountered one too many closed and impassable roads and decided to take my advice, played it safe, and headed back to the finish line. But there were a dozen other people back at SR45 who HAD made it through. Hmm. What would I do if I got back to the finish line and Laura wasn’t there, either? I had suggested I carry my phone with me on the course in case either of us had a problem, even though I probably wouldn’t get a good signal, but we had opted not to do that. Why hadn’t I just brought it along anyway? It wouldn’t have been such a big deal.

And then I turned a corner on the course and I lost all thought of Laura. We were back on another gravel road and a quarter mile away, straight in front of me, the road turned into a wall that I, literally, could not see the top of because it climbed so sharply upwards into the trees ahead. I can’t remember, but I think I might have started walking just at the sight of that monster. We gained 200 feet of elevation in only 1/3rd of a mile. This is no BS of any kind: I think there were pieces of that hill at a 45 degree angle to the horizon off to our left. I was on it and thinking that exact thing to myself: “Is it? I think it is. No, it couldn’t be. That’s, like, impossible, isn’t it? What car could scale a 45 degree angled incline? It couldn’t be 45. No way. But, like, I think, it IS.” I even held my hand out in front of me at a 45 degree angle to try and compare it to the slope under my feet. “I really think it might be.”


After that hill, after pushing a little too hard for the first 10 miles, after plowing my way through an inch of snow (and still falling), after far too many icy slopes – I was just cooked. The next five miles were not so much fun. I could feel the weight of my legs. I could feel the effort in my lungs. I could feel the cold in my cheeks. (No, not those cheeks.) The hills started to become a welcome sight because they offered a respectable excuse to just walk.

Worst of all – and I’m taking the blame for this – my mood started to go sour. I suppose there are a host of physiological reasons that contributed to this – lack of sleep and stress during the week, inadequate sugar intake during the race – but really, I just got in a pouty mood about how unpleasant everything was on race day, and I had a hard time shaking my way out of it. I was fully aware, before this race, that I wasn’t really in condition to RACE it. I hadn’t been able to properly prepare for the terrain. This was only supposed to be a healthy, well-supported training run. But I got mad at myself because I just didn’t feel like I was performing well. Even with a gentler pace. Even with lower expectations. Even with a stated goal of just enjoying the experience and trying to stay steady, no matter what the pace. Even with all that, I just felt like the course and the weather and the day had defeated me. Once that thought and that feeling began to sink in, that’s when my mood took a nose-dive.

When I was a kid, I was a swimmer. I was never spectacular at it. I think, just like now with my running, that I was just comfortably a notch above average, but I really loved doing it. There was, though, one winter when, with a handful of my teammates, I joined a winter training league. It was hosted by one of the other teams in the league at an indoor pool on a little college campus 25 miles away. (The Bluefins, I think they were. We were the Stingrays.) A couple times a week, 5 or 6 of us would load up in our coach’s van and we’d bus over to the college to join the workouts. The problem was, the training level was above my skill. I still have crystal clear memories of interval workouts that I was too slow to swim. I’m making up numbers here, but we were supposed to do, say, a 50 second lap, with a 10 second rest at the other end, then dive back in to repeat. Except I couldn’t do a 50 second lap, I could only do a 55 second lap, and by the time I’d lifted myself out of the water, it was time to dive right back in for another round. After a few turns at this, I couldn’t even do a 55 second lap anymore, it’d be a 62 second lap and I didn’t get any rest at all because I was already horribly behind everyone else in the water. It would become maddening and embarrassing, and the frustration was self-defeating. By the end of some of those workouts, I’d be raging and crying all at the same time – a fact I found surreal and unique even as it was happening because I was crying underwater. Even that seemed pointless and redundant.

That whole sensation is still accessible, and I regret to admit I felt a touch of it – just a touch – at Tecumseh.

Somewhere around the 17h mile, a talkative guy turned up behind me. I’d actually leap-frogged him a couple of times in the past 7 miles, and he was always chatting with someone. He finally opened communication with me by mentioning my jacket. I wasn’t really in the most talkative mood but I wasn’t feeling rude enough to blow him off and I wasn’t feeling fast enough to run away from him. He talked about how it was his wife who was really the runner between them and he was more about the cycling. He’d done a bunch of mountain bike races. Running wasn’t really his preference, but he’d done Tecumseh in ’07 with his wife and even though she was nursing an injury this year, he’d wanted to take another shot at it. I know he meant well, but it’s not always the most pleasant thing in the world to be struggling through a race and have someone else come from behind, offer you a story about how little running training they bother to do, and then have to watch them motor off away from you like it’s no real trouble.

The last thing he offered me before disappearing up the road ahead was, “Hey, are your feet wet? Mine are soaked!” At which, I realized for the first time that my feet were soaked and cold. Two things I hadn’t been paying any attention to at all until he kindly pointed it out to me. Now there was nothing I could do about it, except add that to the list of other unpleasantries.


At the top of the next hill, though, I got a welcome surprise. Laura was parked on a fork in the road atop the next hill in front of me. I stuck my hand in the air to wave at her and she instantly responded. She had the camera out taking pictures and I wanted to run and make a good showing, but the hill she was at the top of was another sharp one and I just couldn’t do it. I got my hug and kiss and she asked if I needed anything from my stuff. “Yeah,” I said, “a fresh pair of socks.”

The bad thing about walking on the course this day – and now, about stopping altogether – was when I slowed my activity, the cold really took over and made me shiver. Sweaty, wet clothes in windy, 25 degree weather is not a good combination. Because of this, I had a lot of trouble getting my socks changed quickly. In addition, all the downhill and elevation changes had been taking a heavy toll on my quads, and even with all the walking breaks, they had begun to develop nagging cramps, especially my right one. Now, just the act of lifting my foot up to where I could reach it caused a charlie-horse so sharp I nearly fell over. Laura had to help me get my own shoes and socks back on. I had to pull my gloves off for this operation as well, and my damp fingers were, somehow, numb and burning in the cold air by the time I was done. Then for the same reason, it was nearly impossible to get my gloves back on again.

Laura had her own tale to tell, of course. She’d missed me at the halfway point because it had taken her almost two and a half hours to get there. I’d run 12 miles faster than she was able to drive it! This had happened because of all the snow on the roads that continued to fall in the area. At one point, she’d made her way, slowly, around to within shouting distance of the SR45 crossover point, only to see a 4x4 truck in front of her hit an icy patch and skid dangerously off the road. She wisely felt that if that guy couldn’t make it, there was no way she should try it in my car. But this roadblock meant backtracking for 45 minutes, almost to where she’d started, to try a completely different route.

By the time she’s gotten anywhere at all, she guessed that she’d already missed me anyway, and decided to take a shot at finding me further along the course. She’d only been at the 18-mile point for about 15 minutes before I got there, and was nervous the whole time that she might have missed me again. There were a good handful of local folks who offered her directions, gave her good advice or even said “just follow me, I going that way, anyway.” To all of those people, Laura and I both want you to know that we can’t thank you enough for your kindness.


There was another aid station less than a half mile past where Laura had been. I stopped to refill my bottle and grab some cookies. But then I found I couldn’t get my fleece-lined gloves to go back onto my wet hands. I’d already spent nearly 10 minutes at the car with Laura trying to get my shoes and socks changed and now I wasted another 4 or 5 at this aid station wrestling with my darn gloves. Finally, I just gave up and went back to my other, thinner pair. My hands were so bitterly cold at this point that even the thinner ones were hard to put on, but at least it was something.

I made it through the last seven and a half miles on little more than sheer, bull-headed stubbornness. I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. After all, I think Napoleon may have experienced a similar conviction on his long, failed push into Russia and their unforgiving winter landscape. (Laura! Josephine!) Nevertheless, I did it. Counting down the miles after 20 was comforting, at least. No matter what it’s been like, when I hit the 20-mile mark at a marathon, I always know I will finish.

Around 21 miles, I came across an older guy who, I could tell, was in a similar mental place as I. The volunteers at the 21.5-mile aid station knew him and told him they’d been looking for him. He answered quietly and accepted their good-natured ribbing. I asked him how many times he’d run the race before. “I haven’t missed one, yet,” he answered with a note of pride that was present in spite of the rough day that he (and I) was having. (This ’08 version was the 6th consecutive year the event was staged.) We were on another uphill section, so I walked with him a while as I nibbled my cookies. Just like me, he was dealing with some disappointment that the race wasn’t going too well for him. He wasn’t really happy about it, but he was resigned to it and he wasn’t going to quit. I think he was the one person I talked to all day who seemed to be going through the exact same thing that I was. I liked him. I said to him something that kind of became my internal motto for the rest of the afternoon: “Sometimes,” I told him, “you hit a grand slam deep to the outfield seats and win the game for your team in the bottom of the ninth. And other times, you quietly hit a deep sacrifice fly to the left fielder and drive in the runner from 3rd base in the 7th – but you still win the game. This is just one of those sacrifice fly kind of days.”

I would have stayed with this guy longer, but the walking had cooled me down and I’d caught a case of the shivers again. I explained this to him and he agreed that it might be the best reason left to keep pushing forward as quickly as possible. I told him I figured I’d see him again before the race was over, and I really did think he might catch back up to me, but he didn’t.


The last 2.5 to 3 miles of the course were run around Yellowwood Lake, and the finish line was on the far side. With a little less than 2 miles to go, while I was making my way over the switch-backs that weaved up and down along the banks of the water, I looked up the trail and saw a bigger, older man wearing blue jeans and a nice leather jacket and a pair of leather shoes. He was with a dark-haired young man who was in his running gear and leaning against a tree. The older man wasn’t wearing a bib either. How did he get here? We weren’t all that close to the finish line. In fact, we were at least a 40-minute hike from there. Where’d this guy come from? As I got closer, I could hear him saying to the younger guy, “Come on, you gotta keep moving. Just keep going forward, it’s not too much farther to the finish.” So, the older guy was talking to his partner like a pacer would, but he wasn’t dressed for running or pacing at all. Everything about this scene struck me as unusual.

It wasn’t until I met Laura at the finish line that I got the whole story. The older guy was the runner’s father. The kid was still in high school, and though he was a cross-country runner, this was his first marathon. While Laura had been waiting for me at 18 miles, the kid’s mother had also been there, looking for her son to come through. She was so worried at the time that she told Laura just about the whole story.

The kid had started the race with the leaders and burned along with them for most of the 1st half of the race. His parents had seen him at somewhere around 8 or 9 miles and at that point he was in 4th or 5th place overall! And then – oh, yeah, you guessed it – he completely crashed. He must have run the first 10 miles in just a little over an hour! (I’m guesstimating, here.) When I saw Laura at 18 miles, the race was a little more than 3 hours old, and at that point, the kid wasn’t too far in front of me. So, he clocked ,maybe, 70 minutes for the first 10 miles, and then just under 2 hours for the next 8. Poor kid. Apparently, his mother was in a bit of a panic over it all, worried that something drastic had happened to her son after they’d seen him doing so well early on.

To his immense credit, though, the kid wasn’t giving up. Not completely, anyway. But he was having enough trouble – and going slowly enough – that somewhere in those last 8 miles, his dad had decided that he wasn’t going to let his son endure the end of the race by himself. And so, even though he wasn’t dressed for it, and even though he didn’t really seem to be in shape for it, he joined his son on the course to keep him moving and get him to the finish.

That’s a damn good dad.

I saw them at the finish line, along with the mother who I recognized from mile 18. The kid did finish. He learned a really difficult lesson, but he finished. He’ll grow up and spend the rest of his life thanking his dad for that.

We don’t run these things alone. We never do. Even when we think we’re alone, we never are. There’s always someone out there who loves us, and every now and then, that’s the one thing that gets us through.


The end was a bit anticlimactic for me. We left the single track for the last time near one last, lonely aid station with one small table of fluids and a single volunteer who assured us that we had just one mile left to run. We did that mile on the gravel road that Laura and I had driven in on hours before, but naturally, it seemed longer now. There was a couple not far in front of me, and as I came up behind them, we all ran past a hunter in his pickup prepping and loading his hunting rifle. It was an unexpected sight, especially so close to the racecourse and the finish line. I could see the couple in front of me having the same silent reaction to it that I was. When we were out of earshot of the hunter, I called up to the guy in front of me, “I guess that’s how they handle any runners who turn up lame during the race.” He laughed really hard, but his wife/girlfriend had to ask him to repeat what I’d said.

I did my best, at least, to jog in the last ¾ mile, and mostly succeeded. Once I reached the top of the parking lot where the finish was, I started seeing a handful of the runners who’d passed me in the last 6 or 7 miles. Everyone mostly just looked relieved.

Right at the top of the finish chute, maybe 40 yards before the line itself, there was a violent dog fight happening. Just some people with their pets on site whose dogs had decided to completely go at each other. There were actually three dogs involved, but just two directly in the brawl and the bigger one was viciously chasing the smaller one. It was not a rough, friendly tussle, but a very serious one, and there might already have been blood. I’ve only seen animals fight like that in person a couple of times before.

There were, at least, half a dozen people swirling around the edges of it trying desperately to keep the dogs apart without being attacked themselves, and generally failing on both counts. To top the whole scene off, there was a woman, dark-haired, maybe my age, who was standing just off to the side of it all, bent over slightly at the knees, but otherwise frozen in place, who was screaming absolute, bloody murder at the top of her lungs. I’m not kidding, you’d think some horror movie villain had emerged from the ground right in front of her and chain sawed her boyfriend in half right before her eyes.

This was all happening just 20 feet to my right as I passed by and crossed the finish line where someone on a PA read my bib and announced my name to the small crowd huddled around the end of the chute.

Did that really happen?

My official time: 5:14:36. Not pretty.

Laura was at the finish line, among that small crowd. I was happy to see her, but all I really wanted to do was just get the heck out of there. The hot soup and sandwiches offered by the race were great, but I just wanted to grab a little of it, get back to the car, change into some warm clothes and hit the road for the long drive back to Chicago. That’s pretty much exactly what we did.

There was one last fun thing about the day: The little back roads we had to follow as we worked our way northward toward Indianapolis took us through a little town called Morganton. We’d wanted to find somewhere to stop and sit down for a hot dinner, but we figured we’d see a Denny’s or an Applebee’s somewhere once we’d gotten back out to US37. Then we made a turn in Morganton and drove past a little place near the modest town center that said “Kathy’s Café.” I said, “Hey, you wanna stop there and see if it looks any good?” Laura and I had good luck on a similar stop, over the summer in middle Illinois, on our way back from Staved Rock State Park. Well, Kathy’s Café was amazing. Just a little family owned place with homemade fried chicken, and barbecue, real mashed potatoes and green beans (unlike the freeze-dried, reheated stuff we’d been served at a Denny’s the night before) and a slice of hand-made peanut butter cream pie that might have made Laura’s whole weekend. Jackpot! If I ever find myself within 30 miles of Morganton again, I might just have to find my way back to Kathy’s Café for a meal.

So there you have it. Not one of my best days. And, unfortunately, it didn’t make me feel too great about my upcoming 100K over and around Lookout Mountain, now just days away. But I survived. Every snowy, icy, surreal, arduous moment, I survived.

Friday, December 5, 2008

On the Trail Again...

I'm headed south a little later today to Bloomington, Indiana for the Tecumseh Trail Marathon tomorrow. My expectations are modest (for myself, I mean).

It's only been a month and a half since my Fall marathon season ended, but I did keep up with my training and built back up to an 18 mile long run a couple of weeks ago. However, the last two weeks I've been swamped with work. Mostly, this has just been affecting my mental preparations. This week has been especially rough. Not only have I barely been able to think about the marathon, I've also been unable to find time to make it out for a couple of shorter tune-up runs during the week. (If I'm missing runs, you know I've been busy!)

But really, it's not a race for me tomorrow. The goal, all along, was to use Tecumseh as a final training run for my first attempt at 100K on the 20th in Chattanooga. I'm not trying to set any land speed records. I just want to stay steady and strong to the finish line, for both of these next two races. Both courses will be new to me, both offer plenty of elevation changes, and both should be good experiences all around.

I'll be content just to finish in less than 5 hours tomorrow, but I'll aim for 4 1/2. If that works out, then I'll consider it all a complete success.

Hopefully the forecast for snow will just hold off a day!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me...

Well, it’s like clockwork – the temperatures take a nosedive and my body instantly begins adding in a couple of extra pounds to keep itself from freezing to death. It’s kind of fascinating, really. Like cats shedding and thinning out their fur in the summer. Or trees dropping their leaves in the fall. It’s marvelous how the body just knows. Well, marvelous except for the fact that it means I’ll be carrying a couple of extra pounds until the adjustment period ends.

At some point, in a month or so, the body will figure out that, oh wait, it’s not going to die of cold, that things will continue more or less as normal, and it’s okay to drop off that extra layer of insulation. Then all the miles will begin to have their affect again.

I’ve always heard that every body has a weight that it just kind of likes to be at. It never seems to mind so much when you increase your weight, but if you ever try to drop below that weight, alarm bells begin to go off for your metabolism. My body’s idea of baseline weight seems to be roughly 170 pounds, and that includes an extra layer around my stomach that I’ve never totally been able to eliminate.

The reason I originally started running was just for general heath and, well, not so much weight loss as just weight control. Therefore, I’ve always kept track of my status with a little scale in my bathroom. At least once every week or two I hop on after a run to see what it tells me.

Back in 2005, when I started keeping serious records, I was running steadily, but averaging just 5 or 6 miles a week. Then, for no good reason, I didn’t really run at all for 6 weeks around the holidays. I put on a pair of jeans over Christmas that I hadn’t worn in a couple of months, only to discover that they were tight and uncomfortable. I couldn’t believe I had put on the pounds so quickly. It scared me enough that I finally committed myself to a more regular, regimented running schedule.

In both of the next two years I upped my weekly mileage. In ’06 I averaged 20 mile weeks and 88 mile months. In ’07 that went up again to 33 mile weeks and 142 mile months. I saw the results on the scale: For both years, my weight hovered around 166-167. Over the summer of ’07, I was down to 163-164 – the result of those 35 to 40 mile weeks and the summer heat. Burning an extra 4,000+ calories will go a long way toward winning the battle of the bulge.

This last year was a little different, though. I have been doing a few more miles – my months have basically averaged 166 and the weeks 38 – but, somehow, I have not been able to keep the weight off. Early in the year (partly aided by the winter weight gain), the scale moved back up to 170 and has stayed there ever since.

At first I thought maybe the extra miles and harder workouts were simply building my muscle mass. I’m still not sure that isn’t true, but there’s also no doubt that the waist line of all my “skinny” pants got just a weeee bit snugger, too. So, I guess that my body caught up and figured out how to process all the mileage. So, it was finally able to push itself back up to that 170 lbs mark.

Allow me to emphatically state that I am not obsessed with my weight. Really, I’m not. I mean, I’d like to see it steady and under control – that is why the running thing got started – but mostly I’ve been thinking about it lately (and blogging about it) because it’s just so interesting to see it fluctuate over time and to pick out the variables that affect it. (But I know this must still resemble the transcript of a post-lunch chat between the Olsen Twins. Oh, well. See, Girls? Guys think about things like this, too.)

I’m not sure I can continue to up my mileage every year to stay in front of the increase and keep myself below that 170 threshold. Perhaps it’s a matter of doing more cross training so that the muscles have to exert their energy in different ways. Maybe that would confuse my fat cells again to where they won’t be able to multiply at will so much. Maybe it’s time to buy some clip pedals for my bike. Or maybe it’s just finally time to choose a slightly more responsible diet!