More that 12 hours later, after I had mustered the energy to make a show of vanity and jog the last 100 yards into the Happy Days aid station, I was actually afraid to take off my shoes and socks. If their actual state came anything close to matching the pain they were giving me, then those blisters might be comically large already.
The aid station was a little deserted. All day I passed through aid stations filled with people; volunteers, crews, race officials, family, and always a handful of runners. The exhaustion may have been affecting my observation skills, but I don’t think there were any other racers at Happy Days when I came in. And I didn’t notice any other runners come through while I was there. I arrived a little more than 20 minutes before the 1:49am cutoff. I think that means when I got to Happy Days, of all the runners still on the course, I was in dead last place. It’s weird to think about that. I didn’t get passed all that many times in the last 20 miles. (Placings must have changed a lot at the aid stations.) It’s weird to think about all the people I’d run with during the day who were now way out ahead of me.
I’d spent the bulk of my day running with one guy in particular. He first caught up to me way back around mile 10, when we were about 20 minutes out of the Polo Field AS. We had settled into a rhythm with 2 other men, and the four of us jogged along as a box-shaped quartet, chatting about the quick early pace we were on.
The oldest guy, who was next to me in front, told us that last year he’d sped through the first 50 miles in less than 10 hours, then bonked completely and had to walk the final 50 – but he did finish. I should add he was NOT advocating a repeat of that strategy.
One of the guys behind me was busy telling us that his girlfriend, who was out as his crew for the weekend, was going to be upset with him for going so fast in the early miles. That was when his phone rang. It was his girlfriend calling to scold him for exactly that. When he hung up, the three of us all gave him a hard time about it, but I promise you that’s only because we were all still nervous that she might be right.
The four of us all scattered when we got to Polo Field, but after I’d been back out on the course for a mile or so, one of the guys caught back up to me. It turned out to be the guy whose girlfriend had called to scold him on the phone. By way of starting up conversation, he politely complained that this whole section just felt like a long slow uphill. Now that we were finally off-road and covering some single track, we were definitely gaining elevation very, very slowly. We chuckled about how different things were now that we were running a real “trail” race.
He told me that he, also, was attempting his very first 100-miler, and not only that, the only other ultra he’d done was the 50K he’d run in his training build-up for this event. If I remember correctly, he’d never even run a regular marathon before. He said his goal, like mine, was just to finish and he figured it would take him between 29 and 30 hours to get there. We chatted our way to the Harper Ridge Picnic AS (Mile 18.7). There, I grabbed some more watermelon, had my bottle refilled and was ready to head out again before my new friend was.
My general policy is that I pretty much always enjoy company in a race when I get it, but I know that it’s a dangerous trap to get caught up trying to run someone else’s pace, or to have someone else get caught up in your own, so I never expect people to stay with me. If they need to move on ahead, or I do, I’m okay letting them go. So, I looked over my shoulder a few times to see how he was doing (and because I didn’t want him to think that I was just trying to get away from him), then I went ahead and set off. He wasn’t very far back, though, and within a mile or two, we were running together again.
As it turned out, we kept up this routine for most of the next 40 miles, a little over 10 hours. We’d run together for a while, and maybe I’d get ahead a little, or he would, but then we’d tag up at the next aid station and hook up again or leap frog one another. We were each running our own race, but our paces (and aid station breaks) kept bringing us back together again.
He told me he lived in the area. He’d been a casual runner, mostly for fitness, and then he read a book called “Born to Run” that had completely changed his idea about what running could be. It was his girlfriend who’d originally gotten the idea to train for and run Burning River. They intended to tackle the distance together on race day, but she’d picked up an injury and had been forced to stay on the sidelines and crew for him over the weekend.
The longer we ran together, the farther we got past the idle chatter, and the more we started to tell real stories about ourselves. I told him about Chicago and my theatre work, about my girlfriend and family and my sister. He told me about the various jobs he’d been through in recent years, about his girlfriend’s work. He told me about the serious running revelations he’d had, the “injury free” techniques he’d been studying, and his new plans to become certified as a running and fitness instructor. (That “Born to Run” book really had changed his life!)
Somewhere along the way – it must have been after the Shadow Lake AS, maybe 24 miles into the day – he told me the thing that was really on his mind: He was carrying a ring in his little gear pack. A diamond ring. A diamond engagement ring. He’d been with his girlfriend for several years and things had been great, but her injury during training for this event had been a crucial moment. He fretted about the situation a lot, and then finally told her that even though she couldn’t, he still wanted to run it. This was delicate, because the impetus had been hers in the first place. Her passion to do it was strong and he knew it would be tough for her to watch him make a go of it, and possibly finish his first 100, while she could only watch.
He said he told her he still wanted to run; she had a quiet moment, then took a breath, shook it off and said something on the order of, “Ok, so let’s get you to the finish line.” From that point forward, she never made one mention her own inability to run, or of her injury or how depressed she might be about it. She was all about helping him get trained, prepared, and through to the finish line. He’d decided that was the last thing he needed to know about her and their relationship.
He’d had a little trouble securing a ring. She wasn’t a jewelry wearer at all, and even her sisters didn’t even know what her ring size was. She’d actually been married once, long before, but it seems she’d given that ring back to her ex-husband. (He decided it really wouldn’t be kosher to call the guy who’d come before him to get her finger measurements.) In the end, he’d settled on taking a loaner from a friend of his who’d intended to make a proposal before his relationship fell apart. That ring would serve as a stand in until a proper ring could be picked and fitted.
He still hadn’t decided exactly when he’d pop the question. He had hope that, the next morning, he’d be hitting one of the crew accessible aid stations near dawn. He thought that might be a nice setting for a proposal, but he wasn’t sure. Maybe he’d wait ‘til the finish line. Or maybe after the awards ceremony. Or maybe a perfect moment would spring up somewhere else on the course late in the race. In any event, it would happen this weekend, and he was ringed and ready.
I got him to tell me that his girlfriend’s name was Amy. Foolishly, I didn’t get his name until a little later when I found myself running next to someone else that he knew out on the course. This girl and I made a little conversation and she told me that his name was Sean.
To Be Continued, Again...