Monday, November 16, 2009

... North Coast 24 Hour Run; Part 2

WARNING: This post is VERY long. I could have broken it into pieces but didn't. Take an aid-station break if you need to. Sorry to test your endurance : )

The sport of ultra marathoning is changing. It is becoming more organized, more popular, more mainstream, and at the same time way way way more laid back. The epicenter for this national change is Cleveland, Ohio. I mean this literally. Cleveland is changing the sport and I think I recall the moment immediately before the big-bang occurred. I was talking to Joe Jurczyk many years ago when he was the race director for the Mohican 100 mile run. Back then the race had a stipulation that any runner must have finished a 50 mile trail run to gain entry. Joe told me that he didn’t care so much about the 50 mile distance as much as he cared that runners knew what they were getting into when they ran on a trail. He told me that he was going to waive this requirement in the case of two brothers who were impressive enough in their own right. “These guys are amazing and they really get trails…so I’m letting them run if they want to”.

Mark and Steve Godale took ultra running by storm. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Godale brothers but I will tell you what I have seen and I will tell you what I believe they have accomplished. Inside of their first couple of years the nation knew the name Godale. They both ended up as Mohican Champions, both have had success in national class and national championship races. The have represented the USA in world championship events. Mark was Ultra runner of the year in 1999. The most amazing thing about the Godales, though, wasn’t their speed. It was their inclusiveness and approachability. The Godales would beat you by several hours in a race, then sit around a campfire with you afterward and talk about YOU. They developed a reputation for running with or racing anyone, anywhere, at any time, and at any distance. They clearly loved the sport and they loved their friends, fast and slow alike. Their approach was refreshing. It was cool. It was emulated. And it became the expected norm for trail running in this part of the country. The training clatches centered in northeast Ohio continued to grow and supportiveness led to participation and participation led to increased numbers of events, which led to COMMUNITY. And the northeastern Ohio ultra running community is like no other. You can talk about San Francisco or New York or the Rocky Mountains all you like and I’ll sit and listen. But Cleveland is where community is happening.

This sense of community allowed Terry Hawk and I to catch up on each other’s lives even though we had never actually met. Terry was the first Ohio runner to win Mohican and he has had a terrific career. Terry is a legend. I am an also-ran. And yet when we met during our crossing-guard shift change we learned that we both knew of each other. In fact we found it to be somewhat amazing that we had never met. We spoke of past races and training for an hour before he left the road crossing and the conversation was not that of two strangers. It was more like two college friends reconnecting after several years apart. That is what I mean by community. I believe that this exists no where like it does in Cleveland, and I believe that is what makes us special.

When Terry left I was joined by Dan Bellinger and Mike George. We had a great time catching up. Mike decided to go get his truck and blast music as the runners passed by. Over the next several hours the three of us, chatted, cheered, occasionally ministered to an ailing runner, and generally had a blast.

At first glance the runners seemed to be machines. They trickled by. This one was walking, that one was running, those three are near each other but don’t seem to ever talk. Here comes one eating a ham sandwich. Some would disappear for a while and return. Others were bent to the task at hand. I wanted to cheer for each one and I did. Some just LOVED the applause. Others seemed to want to be left alone; in these cases I still applauded but otherwise remained silent. Jill Perry ran by several times before I realized she was a competitor. She was pretty, smiling, seemingly carefree and ran with a bounce in her stride that one might expect from a college half-miler, not a mother in the lead in the 16th hour of a 24 hour national championship race. It was clear that Jill was focused but she seemed to be having fun. The regulars were there as well: Roy Heger, Fred Davis, Ron Ross. They represented the tried-and-true ultra runners among us. They were up in the top 25 runners or so and practicing their craft in yet another event, in yet another location, in yet another year of their illustrious careers. They had been in this situation so many times before that it was as comfortable as an old shoe. They socialized, they thought deep thoughts, they relaxed…and they never, ever, ever took their eye off of the ball. They also never showed any signs of fearing the ball. Anna Pekoska, Debra Horn, Kim Martin, and the legendary Connie Gardner tried to keep Jill Perry within striking range while contending amongst each other for a spot on the national team. Similarly, Wyatt Hornsby, John Geesler, and Phillip McCarthy contended with several other runners for both the crown and the plane ticket. Suzanne Pokorny came by each lap with a HUGE smile and usually a funny comment. I once made a conscious effort to not return her infectious smile, just to see if it could be done. I failed. Other runners were more serious, but none were surly or rude.

One runner nearly intimidated me in his alone-ness. I came to think of him as “self-contained-man”. He seemed to be at peace. He was most certainly polite. He would easily and willingly make way for a faster runner. But it could not have been clearer that he wished to be left alone. Each lap he drifted by, cut the road’s tangent perfectly, and disappeared into the night. Other runners made musical requests of Mike or me, but self-contained-man wore an ipod. Self-contained-man looked neither left nor right. He did not look up or down. He never changed his shirt. He never added a jacket or a pair of gloves despite the night’s chill. His stride never changed. He did not move fast but I never saw him walk either. It was impossible to tell if he was running well or not. He was tall and he was thin and he was… alone. He had a crew cut. Perhaps fuller hair was too much to bother with. And the strangest thing of all was that he wore a hydration pack. In a race where the runners passed an aid station every 0.9 miles I saw no other runner carrying so much as a spare square of toilet tissue. And yet self-contained-man seemed to need only himself and 24 hours. I cheered for him but in a way that didn’t interfere with what he was doing…whatever that might have been.

At first a few runners seemed taken-aback that we were enthusiastic about their efforts. One of them asked me “You aren’t going to clap all night are you?” I responded “If you can run all night then I can clap all night”. And that was when I realized that I had given my ethics talk 16 hours too soon. Because I tell you from that instant-on the ethic of care (There is such a thing: look it up) arose from the light mist and came to envelope our outpost. I could look over my shoulder and see the buzz of race headquarters several hundred yards away. But the race was happening right here. The ghosts weren’t dead and in fact they weren’t dying. They were becoming more human each time they passed and I began to have affection for each of them. The runners thanked us for the music so many times that it tugged at my heartstrings. One runner wanted to hear some Willy Nelson and so we dug and dug into Mike’s collection until we found some. Most runners wanted upbeat goofy music. Little Richard was an unexpectedly HUGE hit, as was Johnny Cash, and the Bee Gees. I have volunteered at races before but there was something about seeing the runners again and again that was simply beautiful. We witnessed 100 deaths and 100 resurrections. At one point a runner to whom I had not ever spoken walked up to me and told me that he didn’t think he could go on. I told him to enjoy the night and that I would see him in 15 short minutes. Soon thereafter he came by and gave me a grin and called out 14:53!! Every lap thereafter he sailed past and we celebrated every sub-fifteen minute mile.

Another runner approached me and told me that he was going to take a short nap but wanted to know if I would still be there when he came back. I told him that wild horses could not pull me from this post and, in fact, when Race Director Dan Horvath came by to make sure I was OK I told him that I wasn’t leaving until the race was over and so he didn’t need to send anyone. He warned me that that would mean a 9-hour shift. I didn’t care. By 3:00 am the ghosts had turned fully human and needed affection. Well, self-contained-man didn’t seem to need any but most did. Runners began to share bits of themselves with me. I have been in races before where just a bit of care could carry me forever and it was wonderful to be a source of positive energy for some runners. Many included me in their count-downs. “Mark, I have only 9 more laps until 100 miles” was a typical newsflash from a new friend. From that point we would count together until they hit their mark. Others would announce that they would not hit a mileage goal and needed to chat for a few minutes about why this was OK.

Ron Ross hit 100 miles and took a break before continuing. So did Fred and Roy. Jill continued to expand her lead and Connie and Kim, the lionesses of Ohio Ultramarathoning for so many years ran well but dropped back. Neither of them gave up. Similarly something was wrong with Wyatt. He ran with a pained expression and ever stiffening gait. For hour after hour he churned out steady miles and moved up through the field but something was wrong. Wyatt won Mohican this year and he will most certainly win many races and make a national team in the future. But today was not to be the day. Despite his discomfort Wyatt never stopped, never complained, and competed until the gun fired to stop the race. Despite his struggle he finished very well, in 7th place, and I will recall him making something of nothing in the final hours of this race for as long as I live. Its going to be fun to watch this man’s career unfold. Up front a relaxed Philip McCarthy took over the lead and kept his cool despite the aggressive running of John Geesler among others. Of all the runners in the race the veteran Geesler was the only runner who struck me as a racer. I believe I saw surges thrown, displays of strength, and strategies unfolding in the early hours of the morning. Geesler was implementing a plan as others slept. Meanwhile self-contained-man drifted by. He was so slow and silent and steady he might have been a wave lapping the Lake Erie shore.

As the late night hours approached some runners began to drift off for a few hours of sleep. In some cases these rest breaks were part of a careful strategy and in other cases they were an unavoidable consequence of a long day and many miles. As night wore on Leo Lightner was slowly but surely evolving into the big story of the race. Eighty-one year old Leo was rolling steadily around the course and zeroing in on a national age-group record. No runner in Cleveland is more loved, or more deserving of love, than Leo. Leo has been a servant on the Cleveland running scene since the days when the “Cleveland” marathon started in Hudson. Leo was never a star. He was never famous. He just showed up and gave…and gave…and gave. And now Leo, in his 9th decade was on the road to fame. And EVERYONE (EVERYONE) was holding their breath and hoping beyond all hope that he could hold on and pull this off. Leo reports and sightings were everywhere:

Leo had to sit down!
No, Leo Planned to sit down.
Leo is struggling!
Leo is rallying!
Leo should be eating more.
Do you think we should encourage Leo to put on warmer clothes so that he doesn’t get chilled and crash?
And so on…

Every runner on or near the course was praying and wishing that they could run the race for Leo.

Meanwhile, Leo listened to advice. Leo chatted with friends. Leo ran and walked and did precisely as he pleased. He never appeared to worry about the record that he eventually shattered by running 82 miles. Word spread around the course, from croaky throat to happy ear, the moment Leo got the record. It was my happiest memory of being a runner from Cleveland.

Meanwhile the relationships between runners continued to strengthen. The strong and the struggling shared a bond and it was my selfish pleasure to be a peripheral part of such love. Liz Bauer traveled from Georgia to Ohio to run in this championship and every lap seemed to be a celebration for Liz. Her race was what every single race should be. Liz seemed to be pushing hard. Liz seemed to be enjoying the challenge. And Liz and I were getting to know each other. Each lap she would give me a bit of news about her progress. Liz was not bragging. She knew I was interested and she knew I wanted to be included. She shared her race with me and by morning I felt that I had gotten to know someone a bit. Meanwhile self-contained-man ran by and gave me a ‘thumbs-up’….at least I thought that’s what I saw.

Dawn on Lake Erie is murky. This one was as well. A million seagulls appeared with the first rays of light and someone not related to the race began to feed them, creating chaos. Sleeping runners ambled back onto the course. Mike Keller continued to pound out mile after mile while keeping an eye peeled on his young daughter, Autumn, who decided to forego tent and sleeping bag and, instead, aid and charm runners all night. There is surely a service gene in the Keller mix and Autumn adopted it. Cars began to arrive to watch the end of the race and for the first time all night my traffic patrol duties became real. Most drivers were friendly but one man, who seemed to have cornered the world’s hair-gel market, rolled into the park at 60 mph and howled at me for keeping him waiting. By this point in time I could have killed him for putting “my” runners at risk. I let him sit a couple of minutes beyond what was absolutely necessary…because…you know…this story can’t ALL be about good Karma : ).

With about an hour to go self-contained-man shocked me out of my socks by stopping right in front of me and saying “Mark, I have three laps to go to get 135 miles and I’m in the top three! I think I can make the team!” I was stunned. I had watched the entire last 1/3 of the race and had no idea that he was moving up through the field in this way. I was also surprised that he knew my name. I had been cheering for him and fascinated by him all night long, and now I felt absolute anxiety that he should keep moving NOW (!) so as not to lose any ground. Self-contained-man’s real name was Dan Rose and he had driven in quietly from Washington D.C. and entered the field of all-stars. He had hoped to pull off a huge upset and now here he stood, on a bike path in Cleveland, Ohio about to earn a USA jersey as a result of doing what Leo had done, and Wyatt had done, and Mike had done. But today he had been perfect. And he needed someone to know. And he chose me. And I realized that Dan was why I had come to Cleveland. I needed to see the improbable happen. I needed a dose of hope. I needed to see a wonderful upset. And here it was. Dan wasn’t self contained and I wasn’t sent to help Dan, I was sent to see someone crash through adversity and come away shining. Dan and I began the three lap countdown after which he learned that another runner was within a lap of him and closing hard. Despite the pressure Dan made some small celebratory gesture each lap as he held on, held on, held on.

As fate would have it Dan happened to be within sight of me as the gun fired to stop the race. He football-spiked his wooden marking-chip to the ground as he slowed to a stop and for the first time slumped, then knelt, then smiled, then teared up.

I likely won’t ever see Dan again, and that’s OK. He was going somewhere exotic to run against the world. I was going back to Delaware, Ohio to get ready for the Run With Scissors Double Marathon. My palate felt like it might stay cleansed for a while this time.

I like this sport.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Give and Take: Holding Up Traffic at the North Coast 24 Hour Run; Part 1

Isn’t it funny where you find yourself sometimes?

At 7:00 p.m. on October 3 of this year I found myself standing by my car, completely naked despite the 50 degree weather, pouring water over my head from a plastic bottle, and scrubbing mud from my shins with my sweatshirt. I was in Cook Forest, Pennsylvania and the truth is that I never really planned to be there. I surely hadn’t planned to put in the 20 mile run that I had just completed. The day started in State College, Pennsylvania where I presented a paper at an ethics conference. The conference was nice. Sometimes I write very good ethics papers but the one I presented that morning was average at best. I didn’t find the subject matter particularly interesting and the room gave me the praise I deserved. Then we went to the basement and ate prime rib at 11:30 a.m. After the prime rib they brought out some sort of pudding, or yogurt or some such thing and I had to use a different fork than we had used on the prime rib for some unspoken reason. I didn’t want to use a fork at all. I wanted to use a spoon but that would have been wrong for the same reason I suppose. Everyone seemed to know about using the different fork, including me. I also knew to wear a necktie and I knew that I should open with an ethics joke, but not one about priests, or rabbi’s, or nuns, or popes. Really though, when you exclude that group the ethics joke universe shrinks a bit. I told one about a bear and a rabbit. It was a poor joke but everyone laughed a little bit and then those with glasses draped on chains took the glasses off and settled in to my talk, where they learned that the joke was kinda gonna be the highlight. Everyone was so darn nice. The ethics world is kind of like the ultra world because there aren’t many of us and so we all kinda know each other. It was nice seeing everyone. I’ll go back to the conference next year if they let me because I’ll want to see my friends again. After I was done with my pudding they handed me a mint. It was given to me to cleanse my palate. It worked I guess but I’ve found that cleansing your palate is a lot like making your bed. It doesn’t last long.

On October 3rd my car drove itself more than I drove it. In fact it took two unplanned turns. The first unplanned turn was the sudden right I took to get to Cook Forest. When I was a kid we passed through Cook Forest and I remember almost nothing about it except that my Dad bought me some Mexican jumping beans. We weren’t really poor but there really wasn’t a lot of money either so I learned not to ask for things. But Dad bought me the jumping beans and the forest was dark and the leaves were green and life was mysterious and it was perfect and I never forgot it.

Standing naked by my car didn’t cause me the least bit of concern or fear of arrest. For one thing I couldn’t be arrested for public indecency since I hadn’t seen the public in well over three hours. For another thing I was a man with not much to lose. This blog is about running and it will remain about running. But I have a non-running life and part of it has been troubling and hurtful and as a result I had no place to go where I was particularly needed. Thus the planned 45 minute run turned into an hour and then two hours, then three. The air was pine filled and the forest trails were endless and soft. Everything was calm and still and perfect. It was self centered. But self-centeredness in less evil when said self is not requested by others and so Cook Forest worked its magic on me again.

The second turn that my car took was, plainly and simply, a brain-stem response. The impulse to turn never made it to my mind. The sign said that I could go I-76 toward Akron and then on toward home, OR that I could stay on I-80 by veering right and go to Cleveland. The car veered right and, after it did, I figured I’d go say hi to Mike.

My buddy Mike Keller was running in the North Coast 24 hour Endurance Run and I knew that it was in progress at that moment. I hadn’t thought about it all day and here it was, 10:30 P.M. and I was headed to the race where I would, I imagined, give Mike an attaboy and go home. The North Coast 24 was serving as the National Championship this year and there was a lot on the line. The first three runners would make the national team that would go to the world championships, provided they also ran a minimum of 135 miles. The idea of three runners covering the distance seemed virtually assured given the entry of U.S. National Record holder Mark Godale, seven-time Western States 100 mile winner Scott Jurek, and a virtual who’s-who of the nations best vying for the title and a spot on the team. By the time I got there, shortly before midnight, Jurek and Godale had decided to leave their best efforts for another day, which just goes to show that even the greatest runners on earth can have an off day. None of the ghosts that drifted by me as I slowly walked a loop of the 0.9 mile course seemed troubled by the absence of these stars.

It was actually a bit macabre walking in the silent darkness as faceless runners whispered past me on their way to the once-per-loop aid station. The gentle breeze off the cool lake seemed to make the loop a lonely place, until the runners hit the bright lights, companionship, buffet of food and drinks, and overall sophistication and well-being of the race headquarters. A moment later, however, they were out on the furthest reaches of the loop, 0.45 miles removed from love and comfort. The race energy seemed to me to be a quasar; when the energy pulsed on it was all-powerful and when the energy pulsed off it was the loneliest object in the Universe. I ran into Mike, walked another lap with him and, purely on a whim, asked Joe Jurczyk if I could help in any way. Joe didn’t get to be the best race promoter in Ohio by turning down help and so, moments later I was introduced to Shannon Fisher, the volunteer coordinator. Shannon is really one of the loveliest people one could ever hope to meet and, I imagine, it must be hard to say no to her. It might have been Shannon or it might have been the “use whatever fork you want” nature of the event, or it might have been my need to be around other lonely people but I simply jumped at the chance to relieve T.J. Hawk at the course’s only road crossing, which marked, almost precisely, the halfway point of the loop.

I will write more soon. There were so many people, so many stories, so much good Karma in this event that even writing up the 1/3 of it that I saw will take another installment. I need to tell you about Connie and Kim
and Philip and a couple of Dans and John and Jill and Anna and Debra and Suzanne, and Ron, and Liz. I’m gong to love telling you about Liz. Also I think you should know about Wyatt and Mike and so many others that visited me, time after time, throughout the night. I’ll get to it soon. I hope you come back and read it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dr. Pepper: My RWS Race Report

Consider the peak of a very high mountain. It is usually very beautiful and it is usually very hard to reach. It can be the most beautiful part of the mountain. From the peak you can attain a perspective that is impossible to gain from a lower place. The peak can be, and often is, a risky place; windblown and crumbly. The path to the peak can prevent you from reaching it and if you do manage to get there the inclement weather or wear and tear of the journey can do you in. You cannot hang out at a peak for long without risk overtaking reward.

If these things are true of a literal peak then the peaking that occurs in our sport is a near-perfect metaphor. Most seasons end without a peak due to injury, exhaustion, poor planning, or bad luck. The peak is a beautiful place but when you attain it, by definition, descent follows almost immediately.

Standing at the starting line of the Run With Scissors Double Marathon-plus I definitely felt like a man who had reached a peak. This year has easily been my best year as an ultra marathon runner. The Fools Run, held in early April along parts of this same course, seemed like years ago, as did the Forget the PR 50K. I failed to finish Mohican in June but, in so doing, I decided that despite my 14 years in this sport, it was time to become a student of long distances. I spent the rest of the year experimenting with running form, diet, and mental attitude. I read of the resilience and looseness of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico; I decide they had the correct approach and tried to copy it. More than any other change, though, I made ultra running friends this year. They encouraged me and I grew to truly love them and this sport. Standing on the starting line looking at 53.4 miles I felt fit, fragile, peaked, and hopeful that I could squeeze one more race out of my body. I felt like the day could end in success or in injury…and it did.

In one of my first blog posts of the year I mentioned that if you don’t know Roy Heger you need to get to know him. If you haven’t gotten to know Roy yet, make it a goal in the coming year. Roy is a beatnik. Roy is a genius. Roy is hilarious. Roy is soft spoken. Roy is wise. Roy is kind. Roy will throw your ass out of his race for littering (he really will). Roy has ten buckles from the Massanutten 100 mile run, eleven buckles from Mohican, has well over thirty 100 mile finishes overall, has finished in the top ten in a national championship race, and yet does not feel that competition is reason enough to run ultras. Roy can command the attention of a large crowd but just as often gets lost in a crowd of three. Roy can finish an hour behind you in one race and an hour ahead of you in the next. Roy drives a beautiful but somewhat unreliable vintage pickup truck. Roy suffers no fools. And Roy is the race director of the Run With Scissors. He doesn’t talk much but when he does you should listen. Sometimes he speaks with his actions and examples, and when he does you should pay attention.

Did I mention that Roy believes in safety? He does. But Roy doesn’t particularly feel that discomfort is dangerous. For this reason the Run With Scissors started at 5:00am on October 25 (2.5 hours BEFORE sunrise). It also traversed a course that had it all: freezing cold at the start, shirtless running by the finish, it was hilly, it was flat, it had fields, mud, and sections where ankle deep fallen leaves covered human-head sized rocks, it had river crossings. It also had wonderful aid stations and terrific volunteers. The course was spectacularly beautiful…one aid station was a covered bridge…and it had peak fall foliage. In trail ultra-running, unlike road marathons, evenly distributed energy expenditure is not always the best way to run, and on a course like the one we were running, such an ‘Even-Stephen’ strategy might do you in. On this course its best to “make hay” on level, safe sections and ease-off on highly technical terrain…saving the legs for the next run-able portion.

This was my last race of the year and, just this once, I wanted to run with the leader for a little bit to see what it was like. I kept pace with Dave Peterman for about 200 meters at what I felt would have been a good 10k pace for me before immediately backing off. I ended up running in about 15th place with Terri Lemke and three men for the opening miles. They were moving too quickly for me but the group’s five lights combined to make the forest floor well lighted and safer so I figured that staying with them for the first 13-14 miles was energy well spent. At daylight I dropped back a bit and the first 26.7 mile loop went pretty uneventfully. I felt sluggish but was moving well nonetheless.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that although a few others read this blog, the main reason that I write it is so that I can remember what ultra marathons were like some day when I cannot run them. I will say here that I want to remember the second half of this race for as long as I live, because it was all so strange…

I hit the midway aid station feeling OK. I was tired and beat up and dehydrated. I had another marathon ahead of me but I was PERFECTLY relaxed and confident that the energy would come from…somewhere. I had cramps and fatigue but no worries at all. In fact, what I had was euphoria. I had danced through leaves and around invisible rocks all morning and had not fallen or stumbled. My trail legs were tired but my trail legs were somehow just fine as well. There is an old adage in ultrarunning that says “It never always gets worse”. That’s what the second half of this race was like. I pushed along at a fairly decent pace and awaited the oncoming crisis. It never came. I recently read an article on an elite marathoner who described a perfect race when the miles flew by as being like “catching lighting in a bottle". Today my lightning in a bottle was more like the miracle of a car running on empty for mile after mile after mile without ever stalling. No fuel, just power. My form never dropped off. I suffered for hour after hour and the crash never came. I realized, as the hours rolled by, that I wasn’t feeling better, I wasn’t slowing down, I wasn’t going to slow down and, in fact, I didn’t slow down. During the worst of the pain and feelings of dessication I would look down at my legs and there they were, churning away and seamlessly shifting gears as terrain moved from uphill, to downhill, to rutted, to smooth. It felt like a trance.

At one point I knocked the head off the skeleton that was placed in the middle of a creek holding a book that we were required to cut a page out of with scissors. I stood for a moment and watched the head begin to float downstream and wondered, if littering would earn me a DQ, what the punishment would be for committing a skull-ectomy? Another time I ran off-course for about 18 minutes. And do you know what? I didn’t care at all. I didn’t mutter any cuss words, I didn’t roar into a new gear to catch up, I didn’t whine. And when I regained the course and realized that the turn I missed was marked by almost ridiculous amounts of ribbon and multiple pie plates (seriously, you could have spotted the turn from the space shuttle) I didn’t get mad at myself for missing it. It was as though the act was more important than the result. I was concerned with completely emptying my tank before the finish line and beyond that simple goal any other outcome did not matter. After the finish I realized that this must be what the Tarahumara feel a trace of when they talk of "racing not to beat each other but to be with each other". I think I might have become a real ultramarathoner in Roy’s race.

A few miles from the finish line I jettisoned the last of my water and gave my waist pack belt a tightening tug. I had lost a good bit of weight and was running shirtless, an absurd act in 60 degree weather but on October 25th, I figured, there was no sense using sense. I was hot for some reason involving a poor thermoregulatory system but with 30 minutes to go in the season I simply didn’t care. I stopped briefly to toss a gu packet into the trash. In the trash bin there was a nearly empty can of Dr. Pepper and in the can were a few bees clambering for the low quality sugar along the rim of the can. If fireflies signal the arrival of the main part of the ultra marathoner’s year then perhaps bees signal the end. These bees had no access to pollen. They had somehow survived a few frosts. They were past their peak and running on empty. The were seeking energy in the lowest places they could look. They could surely not survive much longer. I should have seen this as a sign.

I felt a thrill at this particular finish line that I have not felt before. I believe I have run better in races but I don’t believe I have ever pushed through nothingness for so long and so utterly without panic. And all of this happened in the final race of the Western Reserve Trail Running Series. It was perfection. I’ll ask other readers to please forgive my indulgence or any appearance of arrogance. My performance was only impressive to me but I want to remember it when I am 70 and so I am writing of it here. I felt that for the first time in my life I used every part of myself utterly and completely up. 2009 was a terrific success.

Two days after the race I awoke with a lump in my right groin. Two days later I was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia, and yesterday I had surgery to repair it. The doctor asked me how I strained it. I told him of the race and he told me that rather than injuring it with one single tearing motion I most likely fatigued the inguinal ligament by repeated stressing it. He used the analogy of bending an aluminum pop can back and forth until it finally fatigues and breaks.

I wondered how the bees were holding up.