Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mohican Race Report: Part 1

One hundred mile trail races have defined starting places. They usually start in campgrounds on the edge of a beautiful wilderness. But STORIES of 100 mile trail races can begin anywhere. They can choose to start at the beginning of the run, sharing the physical starting point of the race. They can begin at the moment that a runner stops marveling at the work of others and finds him or herself thinking “What about me? I wonder…what would happen if …? ” The story can start at birth, or rebirth. The story can be one of personal redemption or spiritual seeking. I know of one very accomplished ultra runner whose career started as the result of a bet made in a tavern.

We’ll find a starting place for this story eventually. Sometimes a beginning comes when we are least looking for one.

The Mohican Trail 100 Mile run started in 1990. A small group of runners from the Cleveland area decided to emulate the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run and created their own event, consisting of two 50 mile loops. About one-half of the distance of each loop was comprised of roads. At the time there were only eight 100 mile trail races in the country, and there were only three ultra marathons of any distance in Ohio. The race was an immediate success. The race developed and grew; adding more trail sections and more aid stations and more volunteers…many more. By the time I first ran the race in 1997 the ratio of volunteers to runners was nearly three to one. In the days before Facebook and Blogging Mohican was like a sorely needed family reunion. It was the only time all year that endurance-freak-outliers could reconnect. At least it felt that way.

I was speaking with a runner a few weeks ago who described Mohican as “Everybody’s first ultra”. I agree that more runners in the Midwest in the 1990’s first dipped their toe into the extreme distance waters at Mohican than at any other race. The trails at Mohican seemed to produce miracles. Lifelong love affairs began, dead legs revived for no knowable reason, fantastic back-from-the-dead finishes seemed commonplace. This pattern of unearned blessings, this presence of grace, took on a name of its own. It was called “Mohican Magic” and many a runner depended on it to pull them through when it seemed that training, or toughness, or gummie bears would not be enough.

In 1997 I was struggling with a very sick child. A chat that I had with God on the Mohican Trail during the race provided no answers but it did provide understanding and faith that God has a plan. It also instilled in me a belief that sometimes God’s plan is none of our business. The chat that I had with God that night wasn’t in the form of a still, quiet voice that one reads about in Hollywood scripts. It was a sit-down meeting about how things were and about my role in this world. It changed me. So many runners have so many reasons to love Mohican, and I have mine.

More magic.

Trail running is currently the fastest growing participant sport in the country. Run100s.com, the “Go-to” site for 100 mile race information currently lists 79 different 100 mile runs. There is a flourishing community of ultra marathoners in Ohio. The state’s Ultra-epicenter, Cleveland, hosts the wildly successful Western Reserve Trail Running Grand Prix, a series of ten well organized and prestigious races. If you’d like to run one you had better register early. Nearly all of them fill to capacity several months in advance. And the region isn’t limited by this series. You can now find an ultra marathon within 100 miles of Columbus, Ohio nearly any weekend of the year. These are sophisticated races. Sponsorship money is available and often times a runner will collect enough “swag” to make the entry fee seem like a bargain.

Ohio runners aren’t even limited in terms of 100 mile trail races. The “Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run” is held six weeks after Mohican. It has been named the USATF National 100 Mile Trail Championship for 2010. This race has sponsorship, hundreds of volunteers, a sophisticated website including live race updates on EVERY runner that operates until the final runner finishes.

Hopefully if you read this blog at all you have come to realize that Mohican is the central event of my year. I love the race like no other. But Mohican has, in many ways, failed to keep up with the times. Burning River is a magnificent race. I ran it last year. I was treated like a king. My father followed the web cast from Colorado and knew the moment I finished. Mohican continues to use walkie-talkies to communicate. The race has no website of its own and one has to search on a website dedicated to mountain bike racing to find the link to the race. Often this link has not been updated to contain current race information. Race results often aren’t posted on this site until long after the race has been completed, and this year the race start/finish and headquarters was moved from its traditional starting place into a different, more crowded, campground.

These words are not meant to be read as a criticism. I can only imagine what a logistical nightmare it must be to keep track of 250 runners, over the course of 50 or 100 miles of trail, utilizing seven separate aid stations, for a duration of thirty hours. Those who host the race, and most especially the volunteers, have a passion for the race and an ethic of care that smooth the rough patches.

The sense of community is there. Mohican is as cool as ever. But…

I heard someone ask a few years ago if Mohican was still as necessary as it was two decades ago. Then last year I heard a few people ask similar questions. The racing schedule is so crowded now. There are so many races in so many places seeking to overwhelm their racers with glitz it might be easy to wonder if Mohican still has it. I even wondered it myself once. Then I put it out of my mind because the thought made me sad. But it has crept back into my head once or twice since.

This year I found my answer. And I wasn’t even looking for the answer when I found it. The answer was sitting in a chair at the covered bridge at midnight, shivering under a discarded towel.

To any of you who might ask if Mohican is still unique, to those of you who wonder if it still connects us, to those of you who wonder if Mohican is still a source of adventure and self-discovery, to those that wonder if Mohican still has its magic…I present to you Mr. Stephen Zeidner.

I don’t want to discuss Steve just yet. For the moment lets leave him as we found him; a twenty-something Mohican rookie who succumbed to the heat and distance and dropped out at the 70 mile mark. Let’s also not discuss his best friend, David Huff, who was concurrently throwing in the towel a few miles further along the trail due to a bum knee.

I think that we have found our starting place for this story. We will start our story with Steve and Dave. But since this blog is a loop course, and since Dave and Steve aren’t going anywhere anyway, let’s get back to them in several pages.

The hour is late and I’ve been tired lately. I’ll write more tomorrow. In the meantime please know that I love Mohican and can’t wait to tell you about it. About us. I hope you come back to read it.

9 comments:

  1. Love the historical account and look forward to the next installation.

    Yup, Mohican was my first taste of ultra; even before my first 50k. Volunteered with the Cleveland West Road Runners at South Park aid station for three years, as well as pacing through the night, before finally taking my first 100 mile plunge.

    No matter the organizational matters, Mohican is about the trails. It is what makes it special. No place like it.

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  2. An excellent beginning! Can't wait for chapter 2.

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  3. I really enjoyed learning about the history of Mohican and some of your background as well, Mark. I was surprised to see my name mentioned as well - I can't wait to read part two! One of these days I'll get around to writing about my experience last weekend.

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  4. Ah but you tempt us.... Can't wait to hear more (and heck, I was there!). You recount your experiences with such thoughtful detail -- thank you, Mark, for the effort and for sharing.

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  5. I'm with the cupcake person--more, more, more!

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  6. You've got me hooked! Let's hear this story :)

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  7. Mark, I love your writing and I can't wait to hear the rest of your story . . . I grew up in Loudonville (since the age of 3 - and my parents still live there) and so as Mohican holds a special place in my heart with many special childhood memories, it was only natural to select it as my first 50 miler . . . I made the 15 hour cut-off by a mere 14 minutes and am certain some "Mohican Magic" was a part of it.

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