"I want to thank everyone for coming out today, this is one of the biggest fields we have ever had at this race," said the tattooed race director Saturday morning atop a cooler in a grassy field at Afton State Park. It was around 6:30am, light dew was on the grass and clouds to the east were obscuring the early sun's rays.
"Just remember," He continued "Be safe, drink a lot of water because its gonna be hot. Run as hard as you can, as long as you can....and GO!"
And with that we were off, the first steps into a 31 mile journey through the hills and heat of Afton State Park.
The crowd of 150 people all seemed startled by the start of the race, many (myself included) were expecting a horn or starting gun, not a shout from atop a cooler.
But we began down the hill and for me into the unknown.
50K or 31 miles would mark the longest I had ever run; the previous high was 26.2 a feat I had accomplished 5 times prior to this. All of those had been on pavement and relatively flat, almost the polar opposite of what I was starting here.
I followed the crowd down the dirt path letting many people pass me, reminding myself to take it easy, this was going to be a long day and there is no point in crushing myself early on.
About a mile into the race I found a group to run with. They looked like they knew what they were doing; one was an older guy with crazy hair, no shirt and a flowing gray beard. I called him 'Father Time' he was lean and looked like a piece of twisted beef jerky. His loping pace was fluid and he seemed to float above the ground and he moved effortlessly over the rocks and roots.
Alongside him was 'Marathon Manic Guy' a younger kid in a shirt that said 'Marathon Manic' which I heard him say he earned by running 3 marathons in 15 days. Running behind these guys I copied their strategies, waking up hills, taking it easy on the downhill's.
The three of us never said a word, just moved in silence through the course, the canopy of trees coming together above us forming a shaded route which helped keep the temperature somewhat manageable.
After a few miles we emerged from the trees and into the prairie part of the race. Here the wind was whipping through the tall grass which was nice but there was no shade at all and the sun had cleared the early clouds and was now just pounding us as we followed the grassy trail, sidestepping leftovers from the horses that had passed the day before.
Around mile 10 I felt good enough to move ahead of Father Time and Marathon Manic, neither was carrying water and the heat seemed to be getting to them as their pace had slowed considerably by that point.
Ahead was another group of runners, and they looked like serious runners. There were 5 of them, 3 women and two guys. The guys were tall, skinny and shirtless in tiny running shorts; the women were in pretty much the same attire only with sports bras on.
Try as I might I could not catch this group. I could see them ahead of me on the straight aways, and would catch up to them as we walked up the giant hills but as soon as we got to the top they took off again and I was left in the dust.
It cracked me up, I felt like a fat, loser kid trying to hang with the cool kids at school. I would huff and puff my way up to them, try latch on but then it was like they would notice this bowling ball of a man in their midst and take off again. So I just kept plodding along, one foot in front of the other reminding myself, this shouldn't feel like work. At least not yet.
Watching this pack of 'Cool Kids' as I called them was fascinating. They ran like a pack of deer, everyone had the same type of stride, very fluid, they moved in unison and when the leader got tired they would switch places without a word. It was like they had practiced this before, the whole group moving as one.
And then there was Foke...nothing fluid about his movements, one foot in front of the other, taking in water as often as I could, stopping at the aid stations and pounding down a PB&J sandwich, walking out of the aid station to make sure all the fluids made it into my body and not on my shirt.
At some point the pack ahead of me broke up a bit and I found myself next to one of the guys, he was wearing these 'barefoot running shoes' called Vibrams 5-Fingers. I had read about them and even had a friend who ran in them so we chatted about that and he said this was his 4th 50K race so I picked his brain about what to expect.
Finally after 2 hours and 33 minutes we reached the mid-point of the race. I was in the midst of the 'cool kids' at this point and heard someone say 'Yay half-way there' to which I replied 'What I thought that was the end!' everyone turned (thinking I was serious) and started trying to explain a 50K to me. I told them I was just joking...they didn't think it was funny (but I did! Ha)
At the mid-point I took down a few orange slices, some water melon, grabbed more water for my handheld bottle and took stock of my body.
Actually felt pretty good, I had figured this would take me around 6 hours so according to my prediction I was ahead of schedule.
As I left the aid station and headed down the starting hill to begin loop number 2 I let myself dream for a second about finishing this thing in 5 hours...could it happen? Could I make the second loop faster than the first?
Somehow I managed to leave the aid station ahead of the 'Cool Kids' and now found myself all alone on the trail. I had pretty much been alone most of the time anyway but now there was no one in front of me to remind me to reign it in, or to look to for when to start walking the hills. I did my best not to push it too hard those first few miles into the 2nd loop and after a tough climb followed by a descent, pulled off into the woods to answer natures call.
(That was the best sign I had all day, strange I know, but the fact that I could pee 17-18 miles into a race as hot as it was and as sweaty as I was meant that I was not yet dehydrated, I almost jumped for joy when that happened...the little things I know!)
By the time I emerged, the 'Cool Kids' were surrounding me. At this point my shorts were quite sweaty (and I should mention I don't wear short runner's shorts. I wear shorts that come down past my knees, when they get sweaty and swish around they tend to make a lot of noise, and honestly at one aid station I stopped and was able to wring the sweat out of the bottoms of them)
The 'Cool Kid' with the Vibrams on said in a condescending tone 'Boy you have some loud shorts, why do you wear those?' my reply was 'It's all about looking cool buddy' which got a chuckle out of the group.
Shortly after that we hit the stairs for the second time and the group began to thin out quite a bit.
I found myself behind 'Red Shorts' (a tall, thin, younger, shirtless guy) and 'Girl in Blue' (big surprise here, a girl in a blue shirt and blue visor)
As we made our way up the steps I started laughing as I remembered that both elevators in my apt building were broken, not only was I crushing myself on the hills and steps of Afton but when I got home was going to have to hoof it up 10 flights of stairs to my un-air-conditioned apartment.
Red Shorts asked what was funny, so I told the two of them about my predicament and 'Girl in Blue' said 'Just put a tent up out front!'
These two had been running together for most of the race so I figured they were friends, but on the steps Red Shorts said to me 'Go ahead my legs don't have it' and I moved ahead of him and saw 'Girl in Blue' take off leaving him (and me) in the dust.
At the aid station at mile 20 I caught up to 'Girl in Blue' grabbed a sandwich and some water and began to head out. She had a Popsicle and left at the same time. We started chatting as we encountered a massive hill right away.
This was the longest stretch without an aid station. Roughly 4 miles, you go up one massive hill, down to the river then up another (very steep hill) level off for half a mile then back down to the river.
We talked the entire time and I felt great during that stretch, much better than I thought I would. Since it was the second go round I knew the terrain and knew when I could push and when to slow down, I knew what was ahead and just felt mentally dialed in.
Then I hit that second very steep hill. We made it to the top but once there I started feeling like this might not be the day for me.
My hamstring started to cramp a bit, so I took in more water, my stomach started to slosh around and I felt slightly sick...but 'Girl in Blue' reminded me that we were only a little ways from an aid station and that we would be there shortly to refuel.
Our pace slowed a bit while I worked to get myself back to normal and by the time we got to the aid station I felt good again.
Filled up my bottle with water, took down a gel, and eat some more peanut butter. Here we were at mile 26, about to run past my previous long distance.
As we got to the aid station there were two guys (tough, tatted, shirtless guys) sitting on the bench looking miserable. They both looked ready to drop out of the race, vacant stares in their eyes, elbows on knees, cups of water in their hands just sitting staring at nothing.
Well I thought, I think I look better than those guys!
So we took off, a long stretch of flat gravel along the river. The sun was high up now and there was not as much shade as there had been the first time through.
Girl in Blue and I set a pace of 9 minutes a mile and continued our conversation as the ground moved slowly under us. Then it hit me and my legs started to weaken, mentally I felt like I might be losing it. It was really hot and flat and just nothing. I said I needed to walk for a bit and she could go on ahead since she seemed in better shape than me.
But she said no, and hung back as we walked for a few yards then picked up running again and made it all the way to the 'Meat Grinder' hill.
Finally we could walk...but it was straight up a nasty hill! This was one of the harder things I have ever done, the hill didn't seem to end and every time it looked like there was a slight downhill, it went right into a sharp incline. It literally was a 'meat grinder' and when we made it to the top I felt like I had been chewed up and spit out.
At the top was more prairie, no shade, light wind, and the mid-morning sun pounding us. We wound our way through the prairie and finally could see the last aid station on the course. As we made our way there my hamstring started to tighten again, and so did my right calf (two things that have derailed a couple of marathons I ran) my pace slowed and stride shortened and I got nervous.
Almost at the same time I was tightening up, Girl in Blue slowed her pace and then started to walk up the final hill to the aid station. I couldn't have been happier not to try to push it at the moment.
This aid station was the last one on the course so I had to be smart. I took down two potatoes with salt, a couple of glasses of sports drink, and some water, stretched lightly, filled up my bottle and tried to wrap my mind around what I had left. Just over 3 miles, it was single track in the woods, shaded from the sun's rays; no more massive hills just a few little ones.
Girl in Blue and I took off knowing we had a chance to beat my goal time of 6 hours (she originally wanted to finish in 430 but after a calf injury a few months prior said her readjusted goal was 6 hours) We made it into the woods and I was starting to feel better (at the aid station I was somewhat of a mental mess I dropped two little potatoes on the ground and was bumbling around like Fred Sanford) Our conversation picked up again and the single track running was fun.
After a while she suggested a walk break (first time she suggested one until then it was all me...hahaha) and I accepted gratefully but at the same time I was saying 'sure' I kicked a root and went down in a heap! There was nothing I could do to break my fall and was laughing the entire way.
She stopped to see if I was okay and I just sat there in the dirt laughing at my misfortune! I suffered not a scratch just got dirty and soon we were up and running again.
We made it through the single track stuff and came out in the prairie again and had less than a mile to go. I was nearly out of water but didn't care, it was almost over. Then we came around a bend and saw the finish line, but standing between us and it was a small dirt hill. When I saw it involuntarily I said 'Oh you got to be f-ing kidding me!'
My hamstring was starting to tighten again, my right leg was cramping I was almost there and didn't want to crash before the end and there was this damn hill. (Not really a hill but a mound of dirt, at the time though it looked and felt like a massive hill)
Girl in Blue looked at me and said 'No walking get up it and let's get this over with!' She attacked the hill, I shuffled up it into the straight away to the end, she had gas in the tank and took off. I didn't have much left and let her go, opting to finish on my feet rather than hopping and howling in pain across the line.
But then it was over.
There was a small gathering of people who had finished and volunteers cooking burgers and dogs, a few tents set up with picnic tables. Someone put a medal around my neck, I high-fived Girl in Blue and thanked her for getting me to the end, then found some shade and dropped to the ground 5:33:12 after I started.
My parents showed up a few minutes later, they had missed me crossing the finish line, but to see them (and drink their cold Gatorade) was fantastic! There is something to be said about sharing an accomplishment with those closest to you and this was one of the moments I will never forget....