The climb up to the mountain top – almost literally straight up the mountain at times – really, really kicked my ass. (Once on the way up, I turned around and just sat down on the trail. It was that steep, that I could just turn around, lean back, perch on a tree root and sit. Seriously.) Then after puzzling my way through the route around the small boulders on the crest, and the feeling that we’d just never, ever get to the next aid station, I was simply cooked. My legs felt okay, my feet were okay, I wasn’t too chilly, emotionally I was still going, but my energy was spent. I was just bone tired.
I gave myself a leisurely break at the High Point aid station. But the next station at Lula Lake Road was less than 3 miles away. I was lucky to still have a trot left in my legs. That trot got me to Lula Lake Road and I took another long break. They were cooking baked potato chunks there. I salted and ate a whole half plate of them.
The Lula Lake Road station was just a smidge under the 50-mile mark on the course. There were two important things about that. First, I’d gotten there in 12.5 hours. I’ve run two 50-mile races on comparably difficult courses. The first I finished in 11.5 and the second I finished in 13.5. So, to get to 50 in this longer race right between those two times, I took as a really strong accomplishment. Second, I’d never run more than 50 miles before, so every step after this aid station was virgin territory.
Leaving Lula Lake Road, I decided I was going to walk just the first couple of miles. I needed to ease off a little while. Then I’d try to get back into my trot. I had a feeling there was going to be a lot of walking in the last 12 miles. But I was ok with that.
I left with another runner. A slightly built woman in a blue jacket with short cropped, dark hair. I'd been, more or less, in shouting distance of her for the previous 12 miles. But it wasn’t until we’d both been trying to find our way across the top of the mountain that we’d kind of started running together. She had been having even more trouble than I was at following the course as designed. She’d thrown up a white flag and admitted she needed help. I completely agreed. We both might have an easier time if we worked on it together.
She hadn’t gotten that far ahead of me in the 3 miles to Lula Lake Road, and when I left that station, she made the decision to stick with me. She soon explained. She’d done a lot of Ultras and had always tried to run alone on purpose (to quell her overly competitive nature, she said), but she’d recently begun to believe that having a pacer or finding a partner to run with after dark was a good idea. Since we’d been moving along at a similar pace together, she was going to stick with me.
I warned her right from the start that I didn’t expect to be moving very fast, and if she found the pace too slow, I wouldn’t be offended if she moved on, but apparently, she was determined to stick with a buddy regardless.
She had a good reason to slow down, too. She was running on a broken foot! Not only that, it was her third Ultra in four weeks. And she had several more Ultras scheduled in the next month. She said her foot had started to nag at her in these late miles, and she was happy to give it a break anyway.
Her name was Abigail, “But lots of people call me Abby, so I answer to that, too, doesn’t matter.”
Abigail – and I write this with a great deal of affection – Abigail could talk. She was a constantly flowing, never deterred, always upbeat monologue of speech. And it continued, unabated for the next 3+ hours and 11 miles of the course. But I’ll reiterate: I write that with a great deal of affection. Because even though I already knew I was going to finish by that point in the night, I don’t know exactly what state I would have been in without Abigail.
She was way more experienced than me, for one thing. My friends think that I’m a crazy running man? I ran 8 Ultras or Marathons in 2008. Abigail had that many planned just for December and January! So, I was with someone who’d been there and done that. More than once.
Also, I wasn’t kidding about her being upbeat the whole time. She would tell stories and chuckle and tell more stories and ponder and tell stories again. And then I’d apologize for going so slowly and she’d say she didn’t mind because her broken foot was kind of killing her. What? I honestly had to ask myself if that was really true or if she was just saying so to help reassure me.
I honestly was embarrassed that I was moving as slow as I was, and that I was too out of breath, even at the gentle pace, to be able to talk back to her very much. Every now and then I reiterated that, and told her to keep talking; I was enjoying listening to her stories. I’d also tell her again to speed up and move on anytime she wanted, that I wouldn’t be upset if she needed to go.
The truth is, I didn’t really want her to run off – Abigail had a rather profound impact on me. And the reason is the nature of the stuff she talked about while we ran. Of course we covered a number of the usual Ultra chit-chat stuff, the races we’d run, the races we still wanted to run, things like that. But she also veered freely into a great deal of very personal stories about her life, her loves, her husband(s), her career(s), her children, her friendships, and on.
Some of them were good repeatable stories, like the time she asked for and received a chainsaw for her Mother’s Day present.
Or the time, while on he job as an EMT, that she dislocated her own shoulder while pulling a man twice her size from a wrecked car – even though she knew she would dislocate her shoulder in the process and told her fellow EMT so before she did it.
Or how she requires her kids (5 of them, if I remember correctly) to run every weekend except when she goes to run an Ultra, and so they often look forward to her races.
She told me all those things.
But she also volunteered a list of personal and intimate confessions which I would never dare betray by even hinting at their contents here. None of it was criminal or reprehensive, but it was all offered with such honesty – and with such a clear, reflective eye directed at herself – that it all qualified as privileged, personal information.
I asked myself, even as we ran, why she would tell me these things. We ran together for over three hours. The night was black around us. Both our lamps were always focused on the trail in front of us and we never looked at each other. I was generally too tired to speak and was content to simply listen anyway, and she had too much energy not to talk. I suppose in such rare circumstances, confessions are bound to slip out.
But still, she offered me, a complete stranger, a great deal of trust. The only things we knew we had in common were being runners and this race. I suppose that was more than enough. Abigail, if you should ever find yourself reading this, I want you to know, there was never a single ounce of judgment in my mind. Not even for a second. On the contrary, I enjoyed every tale, and admired your honesty, both with me, and with yourself.
I did a lot more walking those last 12 miles than I’d planned after I left the Lula Lake Road station at the 50-mile point. I thought I’d be able to do a lot more trotting, and found, instead, that a brisk walk took most of what I had left. Abigail was kind and told me she’d seen a lot of people 55 miles into a race that would have been thrilled to move at such a quick walking speed. She’d been around enough that I believed her and was buoyed by the compliment. But finally, with a little over a mile left before the finish line, she ran off ahead and disappeared down the trail. She didn’t say anything. We both knew the end wasn’t far below us, and she was eager to be done. It’s hard to hold back when you can smell the barn ahead of you. I’d been telling her for three hours that she should go when she was ready. I understood, but I was sad to see her go.
In the end, I cruised into the finish 72 official seconds behind her. When she crossed the last bridge into the finish line meadow, I could hear the hoops and hollers of the friends and volunteers wafting up the hillside through the trees, and I knew the end was near for me, too.
I collected my finisher’s prize (a handsomely understated Pilsner glass) collected hugs and love from my girlfriend, Laura (who didn’t miss me at a single accessible aid station the whole day), and gave my parents a quick phone call to let them know I wasn’t dead.
It was nice to sit and get some food and enjoy a drink of victory Coca-cola from my new glass (the sweet soda sounded better than a bitter beer), but I was eager to get to the car, change out of the wet clothes and head back to some place warm.
Funny: the last thing Laura had said to me when I left the final aid station was, “don’t make me turn into a pumpkin!” Meaning: Finish before Midnight! It was a friendly, teasing encouragement. But I’m proud to say, I finished about ten minutes before the Pumpkin Hour, so she owes me one. (Har-Har!) My official time was 16:03:31. My pace dropped off pretty dramatically after the 50-mile point, but I couldn’t help feeeling that 16 hours was a pretty respectable finish for a race where I had no time goals. And I beat all the cutoffs, finishing two hours before the course was closed.
All in all, it wasn’t so bad a day. The time passed quickly out there. The sloggy 50-miler I ran back in April was a far more difficult event. 62-miles didn’t seem like such a big, fat, hairy deal. I am still, a month into the New Year, evaluating my race experiences in 2008. I feel that I might need a down year with a few less distance races to help me recharge a little. It may be another year before I take a shot at my first 100-miler. So, I’m all the more pleased to chalk up my first 100(K) successfully.