I am convinced that this trail was designed for a three day back pack adventure hiking 10 or 11 miles per day. Many times yesterday, I was dreaming about the steaks cooking on the open fire the first night and the pasta primavera we would be eating on the second night. I thought about the warm oatmeal and bananas we should have been enjoying for breakfast and the smoked turkey sandwich on a bagel with multigrain TOSTITOS and humus for lunch. I even thought about the trail mix and fresh oranges we might have had during our morning and afternoon breaks. But those thoughts were only hallucinations or temporary mental escapes from reality. Because instead of this being a sensible three day hike, I was on a 50K trail run…officially labeled an Ultra Marathon.
I have always wondered what kind of nut would run an Ultra Marathon and yesterday was my first opportunity to find out. What kind of person would wake up at 5 AM, drive at least 30 minutes to the top of the mountain to catch a school bus for a 50 minute drive to the start and run 31 miles back to highest point in Alabama? Clearly, the 250 people now packed into five school buses all had one thing in common. While the men and women came from all over the Southeast, from different economic and educational backgrounds, they all were committed to doing the same thing – celebrating life by staying in incredible shape, hanging around positive “can do” people, enthusiastically tackling challenges, and having a lot of fun in the process. What a great group of people.
I had the pleasure of traveling with 12 of my running or triathlon buddies from Atlanta (or a friend of a friend) and two Ironmen from Baltimore. The race started at 7:30 AM in sunny 40 degree weather and immediately converged into a single track trail that made passing impossible. That was a good thing because the early pace was controlled and sensible.
I ran, walked, rock hopped, and climbed the first 12 miles with Scott Boylan and Rick Armiger from Baltimore, and George Shaak and Jack Spartz from Atlanta. My biggest challenge was to avoid having my nose hit the ground. The trail was full of hidden rocks, roots, holes, and branches that were natural foot grabbers. Unfortunately, George tripped and used the right side of his face to cushion the fall on a rock at about the 10th mile and had to call it a day at mile 18. Scott came down with a bad cold on Friday and by mile 15, could not get control of his coughing or breathing and joined George for the ride to the finish. Rick, Jack and I continued on sharing life experiences and enjoying the great scenery as the miles started to fly by. We crossed a creek at mile 22 and Jack could only see the creek as a solution for his cramping legs and jump in, shoes and all for a February ice bath. I would not see Jack again until our emotional reunion at the finish line.
Rick and I continued to share stories and until mile 26 when my lighter frame (Rick is a Clydesdale – a triathlete over 200 pounds) was too much of an advantage and for the first time in the race, I was alone. I passed Calvin Gray, our expert ultra marathoner as he was walking mile 27. It was amazing to me how happy and cheerful that guy could be as he dealt with some cramping and was anticipating the wall ahead. Calvin was clearly living life to its fullest.
With only 3 miles to go, someone with a very bad sense of humor put a 900 foot hill, cliff, pitch or rock climb in the course. I was glad I was still wearing my gloves, because this was a two hand and two legs kind of climb. I think it would have been a lot more enjoyable as the second mile of a three mile hike, but on this day, it was the final test, the final obstacle, the final assent to the finish line. I caught up with three guys and started up a new conversation as we climbed up the mountain. No one on the course was a stranger today. The last two miles were relatively flat and very anticlimactic. This was clearly a day to celebrate the adventure of the journey and not about the destination. As Jack so appropriately said earlier in the run, this was a journey that no one was in a hurry to end.
My time of 7:29 was about 1 ½ hours slower than my original naive expectation, and I could not have been happier. Fred Soller, Jeff Tomey and Dave Curry, the young studs of our group were so far out in front that they had changed and had lunch before I got to the top. The same can be said for our two ladies – Carey Kilton and Corinne Odermatt. Dick Jones and Bishop Leatherbury slugged it out together and came in shortly after Jack. Gary Kessler stepped in a hole at the 3rd mile and was pulled off the course. He wrote me last night and said he would be looking for another 50 K to try it again as soon as he comes off injured reserves.
As for the food, well the steaks, oatmeal and pasta were only a Fig Newton of my imagination. I ate all day to try to keep up with the calories I was burning. Meals consisted of handfuls of M&Ms with peanuts, peanut butter filled pretzels, bananas and a couple peanut and butter sandwiches. As for beverages, water and an athletic drink called Heat. I think it is made from chalk dust out of a primary school class room. At least that is what it looked and tasted like.
I came away with three lessons from yesterday’s event.
1. Appreciate whatever you have. I was fortunate to be able to complete the course today, injury free. Three of my friends were not so lucky. Two of the Atlanta Team reminded us all to appreciate just being healthy as Jack ran in honor of his brother Jimmy who is recovering from his second stroke and Calvin ran in honor of his friend Brian who is having his sixth and final Chemo treatment this week.
2. Never underestimate the importance and true value of camaraderie. Having shared experiences with friends always trumps “material things.”
3. Actively participate in events that attract people who are living life as an adventure. Their positive mental attitude and “can do” spirit is infectious.
Special thanks to the Todd Henderson (Cheaha 50K Race Director,) all my friends who I mentioned above who were part of this experience, and all the volunteers who hung out in the middle of the woods all day to staff the six aid stations.