Thursday, August 6, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 4)

At fifty miles I knew that everything about this race was perfect except me. The last few hours brought the slow realization that I was tired. Lightning-strike tired. Maybe it was from Mohican, maybe from Rattlesnake, maybe from life. Despite this I couldn’t get over the course and the race volunteers. Every aid station felt like an Indians game tailgate without the baseball. I had the feeling that the entire world was cheering for me.

The whole world might have been cheering for me but only one man was fully committed to making sure that my sad butt ran its way to Cuyahoga Falls. Since 50 miles Nick Longworth cheered, advised, and cajoled. Then he drove God-knows-where to get me a burger that I first asked for, then refused, then unceremoniously ate and, finally, threw up. Nick was pacing another runner but managed, from mile 50-70 to somehow handle both of us although a fair bit of distance separated us. At one point I asked Nick for something…God-knows-what…perhaps a spare kidney or maybe a seat on the space shuttle…and he went SPRINTING to his car to seek out the backscratcher, or perhaps it was a helper-monkey, or an application to Boston University or whatever else it was I thought I needed at that moment. What Nick needs to know, and what ALL handlers need to know, is that the decency and love at moments like this are truly more helpful than any sort of ginseng extract, or hydraulic Gu-pack opener, or any other physical thing ever could be.

Sometimes not knowing a course in advance can be a great blessing. For example, I had heard of the “piano keys” but didn’t really know what they were other than some sort of steep hill. I crested the 88 steps on the way to the Boston store thinking that I was merely going up yet another of the endless hills we had been on for the last 13 miles. My ignorance also allowed me to literally stumble onto Brandywine Falls without any prior knowledge that it would be there. I have always heard ultra runners talk about the climb being worth the view from the top. This talk is usually nonsense but I tell you here that Brandywine Falls was the prettiest sight I have ever seen in an ultra and a climb five times longer than the one we just took would have been a bargain. I stopped for a minute to simply soak it in, and then I took a few steps and felt a wave of humidity hit me. I began to sweat. Gosh when did it get so hot? Then it occurred to me. “Oh God no!” I said and began to wretch violently.

Nausea had forced me out of Mohican and I spent the last 6 weeks carefully devising a plan to count my milligrams of sodium, avoid solid food during the heat of the day, eat ginger candy, and otherwise avoid stomach troubles at all costs. Now, despite everything, I was sicker than I had been at Mohican and it was occurring 10 miles EARLIER than it had at Mohican. The walk back to the store and the 60 mile mark was a slow realization, emphasized by repeated puking, that it was all just like it had been before. I sat on a log and started to cry. Before the race I had promised myself that if the nausea started I would simply drop out immediately. But that was then, years ago and this morning. That was before I had fallen in love with this race and with my past and before I had grown old. I have known for several years that some day these ultras will all stop. I could accept that this morning but I didn’t want to accept it now. The toughness had skipped a generation. My Dad was tough and my kids are tough but I sat weak and shaking and vomiting as lovers walked by. God, I did not want to quit here, especially not here, in Mike’s old neighborhood.

Mike Bunsey was my room mate and team mate at Ohio University. He grew up right around here and graduated from Walsh Jesuit High School. Mike had two lives; both of them too short. After Ohio University he earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Cornell and within a few years had established a reputation as a world class researcher. He sifted through offers from several elite Universities and chose to become a professor at Kent State because of his love for this area. Most of Mike’s academic friends had no idea that he was a runner and most of Mike’s running friends had no idea how famous he was in his field. An individual of strikingly average talent he worked and willed his way into elite-runner status, finishing fifth at the Cleveland Marathon one year and winning the presigious ‘Elmirathon’ 10K in Elmira, New York five years in a row. Mike had been a friend during the formative years of my life. The late night talks, long runs, struggles with injury, lost loves, and hangovers that make people who they are happened to Mike and me concurrently. In his mid twenties Mike won a 5K road race on a Sunday morning and died of a heart attack while on a training run a few days later. These were his trails. I wasn’t going to quit here.

I walked into the Boston store again and tried to acknowledge all of the claims being made that I looked good. “I love these people” I thought. I figured I’d drop in some quieter place so I wouldn’t let them down. I knew the temperature swings between boiling and freezing would start soon so I left Boston store ridiculously clad in a toboggan hat, a coat tied around my waist, and bare-chested. “Good Lord” I smiled through my nausea, “All I need is a keg of beer and some body paint and I’m dressed for a Brown’s game in the 'Dawg Pound'”.

The next miles were lonely ones. There really wasn’t any reason for hope. I was strangely alone. I hadn’t seen another runner forever, the sun was setting and I knew from past experience that food and water wouldn’t be possible for …maybe the rest of the race. There was no way I could go 40 miles heaving every 20 minutes. But I kept asking myself “Can you just not drop here? Can you just do a bit more?” Each time the answer was yes. And that made me feel good and tough and somehow worthy of what this race represents. “Go down fighting” was my new motto.

I walked until nightfall and as I walked I noticed that there was some sort of weird static coming out of my ipod, which was turned up to its maximum volume in an attempt to drown out my own inner voice. “Great” I thought “first my stomach goes and now my ipod”. I took an earpiece out to see if it was sweat that was making it sound fuzzy, but when I took it out of my ear the sound strangely got louder. Much Louder. This sound wasn’t coming from my ipod at all. It was coming from the woods. Someone was screaming. No wait, lots of people were screaming…no…they were cheering. And since I was the only person in this neck of the woods they could only have been cheering for me…and ringing cowbells. I have no idea how they even knew I was coming but they must have because they were actually calling my race number. This could only mean that I was arriving at the Pine Lane Aid Station run by “Red” …and the Summit folks…

The Summit A.C.!

Thirty years later the name still causes a chill to run up my spine. In the 1970’s eastern road racing was monopolized by a few groups of diehard fastmen. There were Bill Rogers and company from the Greater Boston Track Club, Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway and friends from the Florida Track Club, and unlikely as it may seem, a group of hard nosed kids from Akron known as the Summit Athletic Club. I recall an issue of Runners World arriving in the mail that had a picture of the lead pack of the AAU cross country championships. In the picture were Frank Shorter, Gary Bjorklund, Jeff Galloway, and FOUR members of the Summit A.C. They were on the upper slopes of the distance running world. Jeff Hlinka had recently set the national record for the one-hour run and had beaten Frank Shorter for a top ten finish in the Gasparilla Classic on Frank’s home turf. In 1981 my hero, Olympian Craig Virgin, came to Berea to run a 12 kilometer race just three weeks after winning the world cross country championship for the second time. After beating the world, this race in Cleveland’s west suburbs should have been nothing more than a chance to stretch his legs. But I recall standing on the course with one mile to go watching Virgin, eyes wide with surprise, gasping for breath and desperately trying to hold off a fast-closing Ric Sayer from the Summit A.C. The other invited runner, 1976 Boston Marathon winner Jack Fultz, had been dropped miles before. I can still recall the look of horror on Virgin’s face and the wild animal look in Sayre’s eyes, the frothy spittle spreading across his bearded face and his shoulder length hair flowing crazily in the wind he created with his ferocious stride. I stood in awe. Numbly my allegiance shifted and I heard my own voice call out “Kiss his ass Ric!”

Ric Sayre went on to win the inaugural Los Angeles marathon in a time of 2:11and the club’s accomplishments would fill too many pages to include here. These days the club, now known as the Summit Athletic Running Club, is a large, family friendly organization open to all ages and abilities. They are fun, friendly, and well organized. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t still open a can of “whup-ass” if the occasion calls for it. For example, at this moment one of their own was winning this very race. Mark Godale, 1999 Ultrarunner of the year and current national record holder for the 24 hour run, had taken a commanding lead over a national class (and almost entirely local) group of frontrunners. Many states were represented but those runners were strung out behind the Ohio contingent. Similarly, Connie Gardner from Medina, one of the most decorated woman ultra runners over the past ten years had taken the lead over an equally talented group of women. In fact, she found herself in fourth place overall with only three men ahead of her; all from Ohio.

Yep, Northeastern Ohio runners; world-class and home-grown.

I walked slowly into the aid station to sincere applause. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this helped. I had never met Red but I have been a fan of her Blog (see link under “My Blog List” on this page) and I was excited to meet her in person. She was delightful. It hurt me to no end that I couldn’t try one of her pierogis, or even any of her water for that matter. Although this aid station was open for business my stomach was not. Instead I filled up on affection, turned on my headlamp and headed into the night, feeling better for reasons that must have come from someplace outside of my wrecked being.

Still reading? Gosh, I should send you a belt buckle :). Thanks , I'll post one more entry soon and that'll be it. This is cathartic for me!

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