“We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have you found? The same old fears.”
“If I hadn’t been cut from the pole vaulting squad in the seventh grade I wouldn’t be here. Screw you, Coach S., wherever you are!”
--Me, while climbing the North Rim Trail, 1:45am
Race Day: Three A.M. The alarm clock goes off but I’m way ahead of it. Shower, shave, brush, spit, rinse, tape, more tape, just a little more tape, sunscreen, lube, cold coffee, Little Debbie, car keys, lie on bed for one more minute because its my last time to do so for a long long time. There are drunks in the parking lot wearing ball caps with numbers on them. They are getting ready to go to an all day race. So am I. They haven’t slept yet. Neither have I.
Forty five minutes before the 5:00am start the sky opens with a roaring downpour that threatens to force my car to the roadside. I prepare myself mentally for a 30 hour slog through hopeless rain. Then, miraculously, impossibly, as race time draws nearer the rain vanishes and I see a star in the sky. The rain is gone forever, replaced with clouds that sulk into the distance, repeatedly drawing nearer and yelling threats before finally shrugging and surrendering to perfect skies and light breezes as dawn greets us for the first of two times on this unusual day.
I decide to jog at the start. This simple act puts me into the top 30 runners and I let it happen because, by being up front, I can avoid the clog at the trail leaving the campground at the half mile point. In doing so I find myself behind Michelle Bichsel. Floating. Always floating. Does Michelle never land? Does she ever struggle? I’ve never seen it. I’m certain that if the race has an elite runner in the field this year it is Michelle. I’m equally certain that she’ll float to the finish. It’s the nature of things. After the clog I immediately slow way way way down. I gently walk the first long hill and, in so doing, get to greet many friends as they pass me. There’s Dick Canterbury, going by for his tenth finish. Scott and Casey, my pacers from last year, jog past. They seem to be having fun. Here is Terry Lemke. Terry doesn’t know it but I copied a picture taken of her on a training run by Michelle Bichsel a few weeks ago. In the picture 40-something Terry is leading a group of the young-guns down a rocky cliff wall as they struggle to hang on. That picture has been my computer screen saver since I got it. Way inspirational. I get to run with Don Baun for several minutes. Don was one of the founders of this race and he’s a constant source of energy. Don offers to slow down and run with me but no matter how slow he goes I am slower. Don moves past, along with most of the field. I am totally at peace.
At Rock Point the road turns to trail and we experience mud. Some of it kinda bad and deep. For some reason it doesn’t bother me. I have my trail legs on and I negotiate it well. Early morning in the deep woods is a quiet time and other than whispered well wishes the runners do nothing to disturb it. By this point the groove of the early day is upon us. Lightly fuel. Sip. Gently step. Breathe. Adjust a sock. A pebble in the shoe now could be a wound tonight. Get rid of it. Chat. Pray. South Park passes and then the firetower. These are the good times. All is well. All starters are still among us. I get my traditional fire tower kiss from Colleen Theusch and plunge into the lovely, gentle downhill to the covered bridge and into the purple loop at 21 miles.
The purple loop; exhausting, but dangerous. Everyone loves the purple loop. I love it too but make no mistake, this innocent family hiking trail can break you like a twig. The many jumps over and around scenic logs and boulders can trash-compact the finest pair of quadriceps over the course of just four miles. Because of this I walk nearly all of it. God has blessed us, once again, on the sunny and hot climb up Goon Rd. with Avery’s presence. Avery, a local resident, ancient and attentive, sits on the porch of his house softly calling out encouragement to runners on this murderous climb as he has for longer than anyone can remember. For the first time ever I call back to him telling him that I notice him every year and that I appreciate it. Avery beams at this, takes a pull from his oxygen cannula, and calls out “See you next year”. I hope that God blesses us both enough to make that prediction come true. The purple loop is poorly marked. Possibly the rain has washed away the chalk arrows, although this doesn’t seem to have happened on any other part of the course. I know the course well and guide some runners through it, past Lyons Falls and back to the 25.1 mile mark. Here I see Scott and Casey, looking tired. They both have an alert look, like someone ‘playing chicken’ with a freight train. Scott sits in a chair content to want nothing until the time comes where he must rise and, once again, want everything. Casey is nearby, shopping at the food table, looking for the right fuel to make it to Hickory Ridge. Scott will rally; he always does. And when he does Casey will be with him; he always is. I would bet my house on them finishing their first ultra. And they do, with stories enough to last the summer and miles enough to feed the addiction they do not yet know that they have.
Behind me Luc has taken a wrong turn. He completes several miles of the purple loop but knows when he returns again to the covered bridge that he must not have completed the whole loop. This has put Luc into a bit of distress with the time cut-offs but rather than compromise the race in any way he peacefully and uncomplainingly decides to do the ENTIRE brutal Purple loop again, from start to finish. Now Luc needs to make up some time but rather than rushing ahead he chooses to walk the loop with a woman who is attempting to walk the entire 100 miles. Luc safely guides her through the course but has only minutes to spare on the time cut-off when he returns to the bridge. Furthermore he needs to push on because the exhausting climb to Hickory Ridge lies ahead. Many other runners take a wrong turn on the blue loop but none that I know of handle it in the gentlemanly and sportsmanlike way that Luc has. I could go on for thousands of words about who Luc is and how he lives. But I don’t have to. By reading this, and taking my word that this is typical behavior, you already know.
At the bridge I salt some watermelon, grab a fist full of cookies and head toward the long climb to Hickory Ridge. Summer is in full bloom. Life is everywhere it can possibly be. The trails crawl with tiny insects and the sky is filled with birds. Weeds sprout improbably from the tops of chunks of granite. This feels good, all of it. I run through the Hickory Ridge Aid station, pausing just long enough to grab a sandwich, and run more comfortably than I ever have to the 36 mile point and the exit of the mountain bike trail.
The truth is that I have never enjoyed the run into and through the “Old Mill” (circa 2003). The run along Route 3 is hot and noisy and somewhat dangerous. I have always accepted that this part of the route was a tradeoff to promote tourism into a region that welcomes the race with open arms and needs a favor in return. The race brings business and exposure to the Mill and the community and so it’s a mutually supportive arrangement. The high point of the run to the Mill is seeing Dave Essinger. Dave is a co-worker and new friend of mine from the University of Findlay. Although it is his first 100 miler he runs like a veteran...all the way to the finish! Go Oilers!
From the Mill I made my way up back to the Covered bridge and the 42 mile mark along a lovely, if root and rock covered, trail along the river. The river crossing at the Bridge was delightful. I happened to wade across the river precisely as a group of tough-looking teenagers were floating by on inner tubes. One of them looked at me and said “How far are you running?” I told him “100 miles” and the entire group clapped and wished me well. Way way way too cool.
At about this time my friend Luc, who had managed to stay moments ahead of the time cut-offs that his good nature had placed upon him, sat at the Mill Aid station desperately trying to lower his body temperature and refuel in time to get back onto the course. Surely if he had the time (nearly 2 hours) that he lost on the purple loop, first through poor course marking s and then through an act of kindness to a stranger, he could have regrouped and gone the distance. Instead Luc’s day ended sitting in the sun with a throbbing head and a core temperature that made eating or drinking unappealing although those were exactly the things he needed. He never complained once. In fact Luc believes he had a good time out there. Luc, if you are reading this lets do many runs this year. I could learn a lot from you.
From the Covered Bridge it was straight up hill to the Bridle Staging area. It was hot by this point but I wasn’t feeling the heat. I had picked up distant acquaintance turned fast-friend Mike McCune. It has taken me years to realize that Mike is one tough sumbitch. He appears, at all points in any race, to be badly sunburned, sweaty, exhausted, and…happy. In my minds eye I see Mike walking along the trail every year perhaps holding a small empty hand-held water bottle in one hand and perhaps a thick black cotton T-shirt in the other. Mike would appear to be in the final throws of desperation were it not for the smile on his face and willingness to share his adventures with any new or old friends he might find along the way. Mike has smiled and toughed his way through some of the toughest ultamarathon’s in the Midwest in just such a manner. Mike and I run together for several more hours. We pick up runners, get passed by runners, pass runners, and yet never lose each other. I run past the half way point in about 12 hours still feeling ridiculously good. Entering the Rock Point aid station at 52 miles I am once again reminded that the volunteers make Mohican, and the volunteers at the Rock are consistently the best. This is a rugged outpost on the course. Tough to get to, even by car, difficult to re-supply and open longer than any other aid station on the course. And they still manage, somehow, to offer the best food on the course and the most comfort, the most love, and the most Goodwill-Karma-Mojo on the planet.
From here it is a run into the early and endless dusk that only the deep woods on the longest day of the year can provide. I pass the South Park Aid station again and Mike and I and a few intermittent friends move toward the hospitality of the firetower and my pacer, Kevin. The good part is about to start.
Note: If you are still reading please understand that this blog is, more than anything else, a diary and is written for myself. If I have offended anyone or have facts wrong about course markings or the Mill aid station please feel free to defend them by making comments below. I’d welcome a more positive outlook. For now its late and I have the joy of attending the State Special Olympics Summer games the next three days. I’ll be staying in a dorm with some boys the entire time and it’ll be a blast. I’ll write more for myself…and for you if you care to read, when I return. Peace. --Mark