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.