One wet night last February I was running illegally through a closed metro park with my friend Mike Keller. Mike and I would run together and discuss philosophy, and women, and God, and kids, and sports. And we would discuss Mohican. On this night Mike asked how the training was going. I told him it was going great. My mileage was the highest ever. “That’s good” he said “but what are you doing about the puking?” I was silent. He then said “You know, there really isn’t any part of your body that can’t cover 100 miles in 32 hours. It’s not a matter of fitness. You need to figure this out.” I needed, he suggested, to break the race into pieces and cover the ground at the same pace, at the same time of day or night, using the same nutrition I would use during the race and hope that in these experiences the problem would present itself and the solution would be found.
The start of Mohican is always a beautiful thing. It’s a sea of disorganization, headlamps, last minute hugs, and water bottle searches. Giddy excitement. Everyone is present and no one is suffering. Each individual has a fifty percent chance of success and an equal chance of failure but if pain has no memory then foresight has no perception of risk.
Everyone knew they would make it.
I was, for the first time in 15 years, utterly at peace. I felt like a completely different person. I was not excited. I was not fearful and I had no worry. I was in a position to earn the 1000 mile buckle for ten finishes, but that had been equally true in 2011 when the race ended in a lonely, cold, fetal shudder on the forest floor at 4 a.m. But that, as well as the fact that I had failed to finish so many times in recent years, had been whittled out of my minimalist mind. One-hundred mile runs are point-in-time studies and stringing them together for any purpose wouldn’t move me one inch closer to the finish line. I knew many of those present at the starting line and, in fact, my closest friends were within feet of me but I was alone with my race and that felt just fine. In the weeks before the race I developed the idea that I would wake up on June 16 and go out to Mohican and run four loops. It was going to be brutal; I knew that. But I also knew it could be simple and I knew that 100 miles was not a democracy. My world would be distilled down to my best friend and love, Tami Menssen, who would be crewing for me along with my sister Noelle, and my pacers, Nick Longworth and Chad Heald. My long-time pacers and friends Casey Clark and Scott Wolf were attending another friend’s wedding with their wives and were present in spirit. We were a universe of seven people. I would celebrate and relive the event with my other friends after it was over but for this day we were going to be alone with our course.
If one wished, for some reason, to really understand my relationship with Mohican that individual would have to understand that finishing it is very difficult for me, and always has been. I am aware that others do it with more grace and easy recovery but each time I have finished Mohican it has destroyed me. And that is why I needed seclusion. My experience needed to be my own. I could not be drawn into anyone else’s confidence or fear. Instead of attending the pre-race dinner the evening before the race, an event that I love, I spent the night with Tami in Medina, about 60 miles away, and drove in that morning. I needed to stay away from the opinions and even the hopes of others. I was likely one of the weakest runners in the field and to avoid being intimidated by that fact I needed to pretend on some level that I was alone in the race. I envisioned showing up at the starting line and being the only person there; facing the geographic love of my life. If that happened, I imagined, I would do it anyway.
I was strangely confident despite the fact that I was not nearly as fit as I was in 2011. A solid winter of training had been eroded by the stress of three separate spring-time runs of two loops of the course for the purpose of breaking the race into pieces for analysis as Mike had suggested. In hindsight I can say that none of the three runs went well. Each of these runs measured in the fifty mile range and rather than make me stronger they tore me down as I knew that they would. But I hoped that they would provide an answer. All three ended badly but standing alone in the throng that morning I felt for the first time in eight years like they had provided, if not a solution, then at least a way to manage my problem…
March 7, 2012 Simulation Run #1
“Oh God, please don’t let them give me a drunk test. I’d never pass.”
I was up against the police car, hands on hood, legs spread, being frisked for weapons. I could look across the highway and see the neon lights of the Bellville, Ohio exit on I-71. “You were all over the road back there. Have you been drinking?” “No” I answered “I just did a fifty-four mile training run. I’m really tired, that’s all.” “Do you do this sort of thing often?” the cop asked, incredulous. “I’m training for the Mohican 100 miler” I answered. The cop’s face broke into a smile and he looked down and shook his head. “Oh, so you’re one of THOSE guys?”
“I’m trying to be.”
Roy Heger and I had started a full day of running at 5 a.m., intending to simulate the first two laps of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run. We went easily, ate and drank well, stayed warm and dry, and finished in fourteen hours; our intended race pace. I anticipated that the first two laps would go relatively smoothly. I expected that I would be tired and possibly blistered by the end of the run but I believed that I would not be subject to the horrible waves of nausea that overtake me during the latter portions of the race. This unrelenting nausea kept me from finishing five of my last seven attempts at Mohican. I had been training hard all winter and I was in terrific shape. Despite this I became ill immediately after the run. The fact of the matter was that I was so sick and so dizzy and so crushingly discouraged that I wasn’t the least bit fearful of the three officers present. One officer, a screaming Bellville cop, was pointing at me and demanding that I be taken into custody. The other two officers were state highway patrolmen that the local officer had called for backup. They explained to him that I had driven into their jurisdiction and they were going to let me go as long as I agreed to stop for coffee and rest at the next exit. I didn’t care if they kept me or not. They could have thrown me in a cell for the night and I would not have been any more depressed. Mohican was only three months away, which really only left two months for hard training before a gradual taper would begin. Race day would surely be hot and despite going barely half the distance on a delightfully cool day on perfectly dry trails, I had been brought to my knees immediately after the run. It was obvious to me that my old problems persisted. Nothing had changed. I was scared to death to run the race now. And I was scared to death not to.
As the officers decided my immediate fate I felt a deep sense that something beautiful had turned sour. They were absolutely within their rights to stop me. I could have killed someone. And for what? When did I develop a fear of being haunted by missed opportunities in old age? When had love turned into compulsion? When had success been redefined as an absence of failure? Maybe it was time to move on.
I ran my first Mohican in 1997 and it changed my life completely. I will not retell the tale in this posting because I already wrote about it here. But I will say that during that race I came to an understanding of my relationship with God, and of my place in his world, and of my role, or lack of role, in his plans. The event means everything that is running to me and that’s not a frivolous statement. I have been a runner for thirty five years. I ran track and cross country in Junior High School, High School, and College. I was a moderately successful marathon runner after graduation and won occasional road races. I have run nearly five hundred races at nearly every distance and on nearly every surface. But despite all of these experiences Mohican was the race that changed me and for the past 15-plus years it’s been the race that caused me to continue. It was the race that helped me to understand that running is a major part of who I am. I used to see running as an avocation that needed to be explained away as a hobby. I felt a need to justify the time and energy I spent on it. I no longer feel any such obligation; I run because I am a runner. And I owe that to Mohican. For the past fifteen years not a day has gone by that Mohican has not entered my mind. The pleasant thoughts have shielded me from some terribly difficult times and the challenge caused me to go out onto scorching roads or into late night blizzards to train; experiences that created a backdrop for so many of the experiences of my life. Every run and every race pointed toward Mohican; none was ever a goal unto itself. I have only finished one other 100 mile race. And I only ran that race to practice strategies that I wanted to try at Mohican. I never ran another 100 miler because I never wanted to. I never felt the attraction. I don’t love 100 milers; I love Mohican. Sometimes one’s first love endures forever. And, sadly, sometimes it doesn’t.
I think that the thing I feared most was that this beautiful event would end up holding a dark place in my life story. I finished Mohican the first seven times I ran it. I developed a reputation among my closest friends as the guy who always finished the race. Some years I ran faster than others and some years I battled cut-off times but each year I could sit and watch fireworks on the fourth of July knowing that another buckle lay safely in my sock drawer back home. Then in 2004, on my eighth attempt, I failed to finish. I lay curled into a ball in the woods for hours before finally relenting to the waves of nausea that gripped me. The following year I was unable to train properly and expected, and got, another DNF. The year after that year I was again unable to train and decided to miss the event. It was the only time in sixteen Mohicans that I did not start the race. In 2007 I trained very hard, tapered well, and again was racked by hours of nausea and vomiting before stopping the race at 80 miles. In 2008 two wonderful friends, Scott Wolf and Casey Clark, insisted that I try the race again and paced me to an eighth finish. I vomited and took no food or water for 35 miles at one stretch, but knowing I was not alone helped me to finish. I thought that perhaps my problems were solved until the next year when the nausea had me laying on the ground at the covered bridge aid station at 4 a.m. as the race medical personnel examined me for the fourth time in six years. I accepted a ride to the finish. In 2010 Scott and Casey, joined by Nick Longworth, formed a relay to encourage, cajole, and insist that I keep moving, to survive what I consider to be the hottest and nastiest Mohican I have ever run. I finished with 30 minutes to spare on the final cutoff and had to go nearly 40 miles without food or water. I was physically wasted for months after that race but the feeling of satisfaction was enormous. It was my ninth finish! One more finish and I could earn the prestigious ten time finisher- 1000 mile buckle and be able to justify in my own heart that I had succeeded. In the fall of 2010 and winter of 2011 I set out to earn that buckle. I trained harder than I had ever trained as an adult.
The results of the training for Mohican 2011 were gratifying. I qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time in 19 years. In one race I lopped 37 minutes from my 50 kilometer personal best. I placed in the top five overall in a Western Reserve Series race and I placed in the top ten overall in two others. I was strong. I was thin and relatively fast. I was injury free despite completing runs of marathon length or greater 17 times in the 5 months preceding the 2011 Mohican. I had the best crew imaginable. At times as many as a dozen close friends followed my progress along the course. They had t-shirts printed to commemorate what would surely be my tenth finish. I went out slowly and conservatively. I ate well, drank well, stayed cool, and ended up lying on the trail at the 62 mile mark sicker than I have ever been in my life, absolutely crushed and humiliated. I could not bear to return to Mohican for six months and considered stopping altogether. I was afraid of running the race again but I was even more fearful of becoming an object of pity; the one time sure-shot finisher who ended it all with nine finishes. Maybe someday ghost stories would be told about me. Night-hikers might report sighting a pale figure vomiting in the mist near a river a 4 a.m. in eternal search of peace, or a buckle, or a Bromo Seltzer. This was, of course, all nonsense. Other than my closest personal friends and family the world would be unaffected by my success or failure. Still though, I wondered at dark times if I would really be OK with nine finishes.
The heartbreak of 2011 hung with me for a good long while. I didn’t talk about it much because in my sport we don’t whine. But now that it’s over and done I can tell you that I lost the race and I lost the buckle, I lost the girl and I lost some self-respect. It was not qualifying for the 1987 U.S. Olympic Festival and not qualifying for the State Meet and not lettering in College all rolled into one. It was worse than all other failures combined and amplified by ten because during all of those other times I was young and, true or not, it felt like my next chance for success was just around the corner. There were also reasons for the past failures. I could blame health or coaching or circumstance for my failure. This time everything had been perfect and I simply could not do it. It was as though it had taken me three decades to accept that it was OK to have an identity as a runner only to find out that I was not very good at what I was.
I had put better than 15 years into Mohican. It took me less time to go from kindergarten to High school graduation. Two of my three children have absolutely no recollection of me ever NOT training for Mohican. Father’s day meant that I would come home in the early afternoon and hand them a buckle or not. They would hand me a card or a present. During that span I lost my mother and my brother. In 1997 my five year old daughter, Emily, cut a square of fabric from her precious blanket that she carried everywhere and handed it to me so that if I got afraid at night I would have it to keep me safe. I pinned it to my number. By 2011 Emily was approaching her sophomore year at Bowling Green State University.
Failure is tough. And the toughest and scariest failure is when one fails after doing everything right. Looking back on the race after the 2011 DNF I could not for the life of me imagine ANYTHING that I did not prepare for. I could not imagine anything that I could do differently and so I could not imagine what sort of plan could be used to get me to another finish. It was a helpless feeling. Mohican 2012 would take place a couple of months prior to my 48th birthday. I was aware that many older runners had finished the race but not many of them had, like me, been running since they were twelve years old. In the mornings I hobble to the bathroom on sore feet. A hard run the day before is no longer necessary to make me ache; it’s part of a normal morning. After each hard run I watch for signs of injury and constantly need to treat whatever minor ailment might be there. Recovery is slower than in years past, fitness comes more slowly still, and atrophy is noticed with just a few days off. Whereas once everything could go wrong and I could finish Mohican, now everything has to go well. My friends have nicknamed me possum because I am constantly complaining of falling apart and yet still manage to run well on occasion. I think they feel that I am sandbagging about my physical condition. I love my friends and I am flattered by the nickname but the truth is that I know in my heart that my final injury will happen before too many more years and as Mohican 2012 drew near I had a feeling that my window of opportunity to become a ten-time finisher was closing.
I looked for a solution to the problem of nausea for years. I convinced myself that the problem was too much sodium. When that solution did not work I tried taking MORE sodium. That was a disaster. Antacids did not work. Nor did ginger. Or avoiding all sugar. I tried to steer clear of fruit to no avail. I tried an all liquid diet with catastrophic results. Finally, I convinced myself that all of the fancy supplements were not the answer and so I ate only items that I believed my mother would pack in my lunch box if I were still a kid. I ended up heaving animal crackers and PB&J all over Mohican’s lovely trails. Ultra marathoners should never brag. But despite this I felt that I was basically a tough character, or at least no wimpier during my DNFs than I was during my finishes. The problem was that I was not experiencing a typical upset stomach. Rather, this sickness consisted of freezing cold sweat and unrelenting waves of the worst nausea I had ever experienced. It was so severe that it took all other thoughts from my mind. It would make me lose all resolve and no emotion other than fear of the illness could be present.
Well-meaning friends offered advice and developed theories about what was wrong. Those who handled this best did so with humor. My friend Scott Wolf, who was with me when I called it quits in 2011, went to a yard sale and picked me up a buckle for five dollars. The inscription on the buckle simply read “Mark”. The idea was that I already had my buckle so no worries right? The most hurtful were those individuals who asked if maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself. Maybe, they suggested, my problem could be solved if I just relaxed a bit or used visualization exercises… But to my ears those suggestions were akin to saying that the problem was all in my head. I knew in my heart that this was not an emotional or psychological problem. But if it was not nutrition related then what else could it be?
April 7, 2012 Simulation Run #2
Last year, before the race, my friend Lisa Fine suggested to me that my problem might be motion sickness. She recommended Dramamine, a motion sickness medicine used for travel related nausea. I was certain she was wrong. I was unable to imagine how a runner could have motion sickness, and besides the 2011 race was practically upon me when she made the suggestion and so I was unwilling to even attempt anything as radical as a new medication without trying it first in practice. I put it completely out of my mind for ten months. Her advice only reentered my consciousness after the police released me in Bellville. My friend and Mohican “Forget the PR” 50K race director Rob Powell had come out to run the final miles of the 54 miler with Roy and me. He witnessed my relatively good form unravel immediately upon climbing into my car to drive. He echoed Lisa’s words about motion sickness but I ignored him. He persisted, however, and while leaning against the cop’s car it occurred to me that I was not just sick but dizzy. I resolved to open my mind to the possibility.
So I rested and simulated loops two and three at Mohican one month later. This run began at noon and ended at 2 A.M. to simulate the time of day that I would be running the race. Roy was not present because I needed to do this alone. The final two runs would be solo efforts despite the cold and loneliness of a forest in the middle of the night in early spring. The run began well but immediately after dark, after only 23 miles, I was vomiting. I took Dramamine and was shocked that it helped a bit. I was still sick and almost bagged the run at midnight at 40 miles due to hypothermia and worry about having a crisis in the woods in the middle of the night alone. Instead I gave up my slow running/walking race pace and broke into a run. That helped too. Lesson learned: Dramamine took the edge off of the illness, and not stopping was the correct response to the nausea. Things were a tiny bit better.
I ran the first miles of this year’s race with Dick Canterbury. I have known Dick for years and we have become good friends. There is an old adage that ultra runners are “cut from a tougher kind of leather” than others and I contend that Dick is the bull they cut that leather from. The guy knows how to suffer. Dick was going for his twelfth Mohican finish and was lovingly but clearly NOT OK with me not finishing in 2011. He phoned me the morning after Mohican 2011 as he was driving home to Indiana. He didn’t call to give me a pep talk or a shoulder to cry on but to tell me he was disappointed. In fact he told me that I ruined his father’s day. You would have to be an ultra runner to recognize the amount of love that was contained in that statement. I received a similar response from several other ten-time finishers. Most exclusive clubs seek to stay that way. After all, if a large number of people become elite enough to meet the standard of an honorary society then isn’t the prestige of being a member eroded? The Mohican 1000 milers, I learned, do not operate according to that weakened value system. While my family and friends rushed to me in the days after 2011 to tell me how OK I was, what a good father and complete human being I was, the ten timers took a different approach. To synthesize and paraphrase the group’s response, they wanted me to ‘figure out whatever the hell it was that I needed to figure out and put this damn thing to bed.’
Late in 2011 I ran my fastest marathon in 19 years. At the finish I was euphoric. I had not run so well since I was a kid. Moments after the finish I was approached by former Mohican champion and ten-time finisher Steve Godale. He grinned and handed me the medal that I earned by completing more than 50 miles at Mohican in 2011. I left the race before the awards ceremony and Steve collected the medal and carried it in his car for months. His message was that the job was not done. I laughed and asked if I could possibly have five minutes to enjoy my moment. He said “Sure. But then get back at it.” I saw Terry Hawk, the first Ohioan ever to win Mohican and ten-time finisher, at the North Coast 24 hour run last fall. We were volunteering together at the road crossing. We had not seen each other in forever and after exchanging greetings and inquiring about kids, work, etc. he said “OK, now that the pleasantries are out of the way what the hell happened at Mo?” Roy Heger, thirteen time finisher, nationally famous for being a tough bastard, and locally known for giving a darn about the right things, approached me last. He told me I needed to become a 100 mile guy again. He told me I needed to resume thinking like a 100 miler, acting like a 100 miler, and training like a 100 miler. He offered advice, took me on training runs, critiqued my actions and kinda hurt my feelings a few times. He told me to slow everything down. Not just the pace but everything.
By the forty one mile mark of this year’s race I was feeling rough. Roy passed me while I was walking and gave me the skunk eye. “How’s the stomach?” he asked. I told him I was fine… just having a spell. He responded the way we respond to each other in my sport, with humorous abuse. “Well they advertised this as a running race and so some of us like to run” Then he gave a grin and ran off. Tami and Noelle responded with just a bit more alarm when I saw them at the next handler station. I was dehydrated, reddened and not capable of providing enlightened conversation. It was true that I was in trouble and we knew it.
But it was OK.
I knew what to do. I had been here before. This was A problem but it wasn’t THE problem. Sometimes experience is valuable and sometimes it’s just your soul nagging at you. For my first five years in the sport every race provided instruction and increased my wisdom. But after thirty five years I have become convinced that what old-timers confidently refer to as experience is really just ghosts; old haunting memories of deaths, near misses, and folk remedies used to counter them.
I needed to walk. I knew this but I was upset about it anyway. Part of my solution to the night-sickness was to employ methods that would more-or-less require me to walk all night long and so the idea of walking all afternoon as well was unpalatable. And depressing. And deflating. But I did it anyway because I was reminded by my ghosts that failing to do so would yield another year of knowing who I am not. And since there is no way to speed up a year and earn another chance, I played the hand I was dealt. I loaded up my hat with ice, drank down my bottles, and started a walk that was likely to last for 20 hours. It’s the type of stuff that will not ever end up on a sports highlight film. But in my sport this is what I sometimes need to do. And so I did.
May 8, 2012 Simulation Run #3
The third simulation run covered the final two loops of the course (47 miles) and started at 7 p.m. to, once again, simulate the time of day that I would be on the course during the race. A few weeks earlier a group of physical therapy students at the University of Findlay had rather randomly included me in a study they were completing as a graduation requirement. They simply needed a live body to act as a subject and selected me because I had a pulse and time on my hands. By pure chance the study measured balance, and the students found that my balance was pretty good until I closed my eyes, at which point I lost all sense of vertical. In fact my balance was so bad when my eyes were closed that I could not perform the simple tasks that they needed to gather motion analysis data. They explained to me that nearly all of my balance cues were gained through my vision and apparently my inner ear and cranio-vertebral joint (other balance centers) were not doing their job at all. This seemed to make perfect sense to me as it was becoming apparent that my nausea was not related to the stomach, or to distance covered, but to nightfall. It made sense to me that a lack of light meant reduced vision, which meant dizziness, which caused vomiting and wretchedness and forest-floor-lying-down-edness, to use technical terms. So I lowered my light from my forehead to my waist to allow as much peripheral vision as possible. I also borrowed Lisa Fine’s walking sticks so that I could poke at the ground and gain a tactile sense of horizontal. For the race itself I would keep my pacer in front of me so that I could use them to keep an accurate sense of vertical. I also took the Dramamine BEFORE I got sick. The results were encouraging. I was able to eat and drink for seven hours before nausea and vomiting took over. Race day was nearly the longest day of the year and we would have only eight hours of darkness to contend with. This run was brutal but for the first time in years I gained real hope. It also brought the renewed realization that 100 miles is a crazy long distance.
Without going into any detail I will say that the Mohican Trail isn’t the first or the hardest trial that Chad Heald has helped me through. At 54 miles all of my solitary-man-alone-on-personal-journey-of-discovery sentiments, present before the start, were gone and it was so good to see him! Chad started his day in South Carolina at 4 a.m. and flew through a twelve-plus hour drive followed by a rapid packing session and another 90 minute drive to Mohican to be there to crew and pace me all night. It’s who he is. Things were fine for me in a relative sort of “I have just run 54 miles over 7000 feet of elevation on a hot day” sort of way. In other words I was wasted but happy to still be moving forward. Tami and Noelle were also present and lovingly hen-pecked me to get ready for nightfall. We had about 90 minutes until sunset and about three hours until they would see us again at the fire tower. By that time we would likely know whether or not the plan was going to succeed. I decided that things were going well enough that I was going to make this my last-best attempt at number ten. There would be no more running, only walking, no matter how good things might feel, and there would be no talk of quitting or any tentative plans to get to 1000 miles at a future date. It was time to lock in the finish. Chad was up for the plan and he and Nick were going to form a relay to pace me to the finish. I was happy to know that I am no longer a runner who can finish 100 miles alone, and I’m grateful to have the level of care in my life that I do. I changed clothes, popped a double dose of Dramamine, grabbed the poles, put on my home-made belt light, and followed Chad into the dusk.
In 2011 the fire tower at night was the point where the wheels fell off the wagon. I arrived several hours late and insisted upon lying on the ground for 30 minutes with a blanket over my head, a move that seems precisely wrong in light of what I now know. When I arose I spent three hours going an additional 2.5 miles. At one point I actually fell over a three foot embankment and into a creek because I could not walk a straight line. It was a big, ugly, dangerous fight. That is why this year it was delightfully refreshing to simply be sore, sunburned, chaffed and exhausted. I was queasy but not at death’s door. We were doing a countdown each hour and were celebrating the fact that there was only a bit more than six hours until dawn…and Casey was there!!!! Casey Clark drove in from the wedding, guaranteeing himself a sleepless night, just to wish me well. Seeing him put 20 fresh miles on my legs. He told me as I walked through the tower parking lot that he knew I would finish, and I told him I loved him for being there. And we both meant it.
The rest of the night was marked by slow, steady, unremarkable progress. There wasn’t a moment of athletic excellence, nor were there any real moments of fear. I vomited twice but they were isolated events. Chad decided that he was having fun (!) and decided to hang with Nick and I rather than taking his scheduled break. Unlike some races Mohican has no rule against using two pacers and I had no question about the matter. This was my tenth Mohican and I wasn’t going to break any rules, but I wasn’t going to commit the sin of pride either. If my friends wanted to be with me then I wanted them with me and I felt no need to defend it. The nice thing about having two pacers is that they kept each other company while I lagged 30 yards behind, staring at someone’s back and reminding myself not to stare at the bobbing beam of light, but instead to look up at stars, branches, airplanes, or anything else that could remind me that the world of darkness also has an up-side and a down-side. Every so often they reminded me to eat a Jolly Rancher. I have gone forty miles at a stretch in the past with no food or water and, comparatively, a few hard candies and sips of tap water is living large.
At dawn we celebrated briefly and then I turned into a pansy. I started to whine that Chad was walking too fast (he wasn’t) and that we had drastically picked up the pace (we hadn’t). Despite being awake himself for 26 hours and having driven 14 hours and walked 30 miles at that point, Chad patiently and lovingly adjusted his pace until I came to my senses and asked him to forgive me (he did) and told him that I would walk his pace (I did).
Compare and contrast this brand of support with Nick Longworth, who knows me better than possibly any other human being. With fourteen miles to go I told Nick that I wanted to stop. He simply turned around, looked through me, and said “What did you just say?” I dropped my eyes from his in shame and said “Nothing”. He turned around and proceeded to walk. A minute later I heard him say to himself and also to the trees “Damn right nothing.” As part of his pre-race pep talk Nick told me that if I sat down after the halfway point he would beat me with both fists. Nick nearly lost his leg when he fell over a waterfall while training to pace me last year. To say that he was invested in this is to show no respect for understatement. When I die I am going to ask Jesus why I ever deserved so much love.
Chad finally gave in after 28 hours of wakefulness and 35 miles on foot at the covered bridge at the 89 mile mark. There’s no way to ever repay something like that. The bridge was staffed by several of my friends including Julie Bowen-Miller, Seth Chin-Parker, Jay Smithberger and others. Despite the fact that he was due to begin the Grand Slam of Ultra Running the next weekend at the Western States 100 Mile Run, Jay stayed up all night to greet me and send me, for the final time, up and over Hickory Ridge.
With eight miles to go we broke into a jog and with 5 miles to go I tripped and dislocated my left middle finger at the middle knuckle. I sat on the trail and looked at the finger which was extended at a ninety degree angle in the wrong direction and noted that I had absolutely no pain associated with something that would have had me screaming and heading for the emergency room in the real world. I’m a physical therapist so I simply grabbed the middle phalanx, applied traction, put it back into place, and proceeded down the trail. It was black and blue and hurt mightily the next day. I guess my pain receptors were completely full and not accepting new complaints.
With one mile to go Nick spun around and said “999 miles buddy! What are you thinking about?”
I had been thinking finisher’s thoughts for the last five miles. There comes a point in a 1000 mile run where it becomes apparent that a runner will finish. But that happy thought does not dismiss him or her from covering this painful distance anyway. My brain was crowded with memories. I thought of birth and death. I recalled finishing my first Mohican with my friend Steve Bush. We entered the race on a wing and a prayer and could not believe our good fortune when we actually finished. I recalled my conversation with God during that event and I recalled running repeats of the staircases at Children’s hospital while my son Caleb slept during a two week stay in the spring of 2000. I recalled a five mile run taken around and around a casino parking lot immediately after watching my 43 year old brother die in a hospice in Arizona in 2010. I thought about my dear friends Regis Shivers and Mike McCune; each gone now but both had been with me through this long night along with Avery Ball. I imagined each of them believing and cheering me on. I remembered how my legs buckled, unable to support the weight of my heart, as I walked to a courthouse in 2009 to have a life promise taken from me. As I lost balance my legs instinctively broke into a trot, carrying me through the crisis by reminding me of who I am and what I do. I thought about Lori, a woman who dropped out of school at age 13 to have a baby only to return to Marion Technical College at age 34 to earn her College degree; her 21 year old son present and beaming with pride. I thought about all of the groups I have run with: The Bucks, the Braves, the Bobcats, The Low Budget Athletic Club, the Posse and the Passel. Most of those runners are gone from my life now. The cotton jerseys turned to nylon and then to higher tech fabrics, but the act of placing one foot in front of the other has gone unchanged. I thought of houses owned and sold, apartments rented, lawns mowed, money earned borrowed and spent. I thought of faith growing and waning and rebuilding in differing forms. I thought about reading the same poem to children on so many Christmas eves. I thought about my Mom standing bundled in a scarf to ward off the chill as she watched me take a rare win in a race on a cold March afternoon in 1982. As a child I thought everyone’s mother coughed and I can still recall hers at will. I thought about ice cream cones purchased, basketball games and swim meets watched, and promises broken and kept. I thought of driving around the ghettos of Detroit in 1978 with Dad, looking for a Catholic Church on the Saturday night before the Free Press International Marathon, so that we wouldn’t have the sin of missing mass on our souls at the starting line the next day. And I thought about the cardboard.
Mainly though I thought of Joe Ferlin. On the first day of cross country practice in eighth grade Coach Ferlin instructed us to run one mile to a local park and meet him there. I assumed that when he arrived we would be put through a series of painful sprints or that we would be yelled at and told that we were not tough enough. I had failed in every sport I ever tried, and no amount of yelling ever seemed to build my character to a level that could satisfy the yeller. But instead of scolding or demanding, Coach Ferlin took a bundle of crumpled Bazooka Gum wrappers from his shirt pocket and read us the jokes that were printed on them. Then he smiled and told us that running should always be fun and that if it wasn’t fun we were doing it wrong. Then he told us to run back to the school; practice adjourned. Joe Ferlin was cross country coach of Frederick Rhoem Jr. High School for six years and none of his teams ever lost a meet. And thirty five years later it’s still fun.
My old happy thoughts were replaced by new happy thoughts when Scott Wolf’s kids, Bobby (age 10) and Meg (age 7), found me on the trail with a half mile to go. Scott woke at dawn and grabbed his kids on this father’s day to demonstrate to them that we are supposed to live in a place of care. They provided a blast of goodness and proof that we were within little-kid walking distance of the finish line. Meg told me that I should run if I could but that I could keep walking if my legs hurt.
But then I broke into a run and Meg broke into a grin. I shuffled and she skipped. Immediately before the finish I kissed Noelle and Tami and ran with Nick across the finish line and into the arms of my dear friend Colleen Theusch. Colleen is 79 years old and has been present at every Mohican. She has been at the finish every year waiting for everyone, including me; even on the years when I did not arrive. My friends, many of whom ran the race themselves and finished hours earlier, were present and went absolutely ape-shit over the event. Someone, somewhere, at some time might have felt more loved than this, but if so it wasn’t me. I really don’t have words for how they made me feel.
I reckon love is God’s trump card to all of the claims made against him.
A while later Roy and I slipped into the pavilion to write my name on the piece of poster board that lists the ten-time finishers. But when we got there we found that someone had already done so. We looked at the names: Robin Fry, Arthur Moore, Regis Shivers, Mike Cargill, Richard Szekeresh, Ron Ross, TJ Hawk, Roy Heger, Mike Jacolene, Frederick Davis III, Dick Canterbury, Stephen Godale, Mike Heider, and now me. “I think I might be the slowest guy on that list. I’m going to lower the property value” I said. Roy Smiled and said “I think out of all of us you might have suffered the most for this.”
You would have to be an ultra runner to recognize the compliment.
Why did I have to suffer so much? Why fifteen years and five failures in my last eight attempts? Maybe I am just more suited to other things. Or maybe, like Jacob’s angel, Mohican needed to beat the living hell out of me before I received its blessing. Maybe, like Jacob, I needed to be humbled. Maybe I needed to understand that finishing Mohican 10 times is not an accomplishment but a grace; an unearned reward. Maybe I needed to understand that I cannot run 100 miles alone; maybe I needed to arrive at a place where I didn’t want to. I required walking sticks and crew and pacers and motion sickness medicine. I needed a complete absence of illness or injury and I needed six months of hard training. And with all of this I made the final cutoff by only 78 minutes.
But I’m fine with all of that.
My name is now on the piece of cardboard with my friends. The men on that board built this event and built this running community that we now live in just as surely as the young men from the civilian conservation corps built Mohican State Park so many years ago. My name appearing beneath theirs is just more grace. There could not be a greater honor as far as I am concerned. I don’t feel that I am deserving, but it is the height of arrogance to question an unearned blessing.
And so I won’t.
Over the past several years I have often thought about the ten finishes while out on long lonely runs. At those times I would think about the buckle but mainly I would try to imagine my name on that piece of weathered cardboard. And now that it is there I hope that they never replace the piece of board with anything nicer or more permanent.
I hope that runners finish Mohican 100 years from now and feel that it is THEIR race. I hope that they feel that the present is more important than the past. I hope that they feel that Mohican is special without quite knowing why. I hope that lives continue to change. And I hope that no finish is ever an easy one.
In my early days I believed that running Mohican each year would be a homecoming. It would stand in my life as an unchanging milepost that I could compare myself against. But the truth is that the race and my life have both changed immensely. In 1997 there were only eight 100 mile trail races in the world; now there are many. Despite this, the field at Mohican has tripled in size. The race has had five race directors and multiple variations in the course in that time. Michael Patton and Tracey Ross hung out together and watched their fathers run the race when they were small children. Michael is now in charge of course design and both he and Tracey now finish at the top of the standings in ultra marathons themselves. The lesson received in running one race each and every year isn’t one of tradition, it’s a lesson that everything changes, everything is temporary, and nothing stays the same. I am perfectly aware that my Mohican days are limited. I saw old-time Mohican finishers working at the aid stations and I know that my day will come.
I’m fine with that as well.
Someday years from now my buckle might sell for five dollars at a flea market. A relative will not understand its meaning and will discard it. The thought does not trouble me one bit. The cardboard might not even last that long. I happen to know that the piece of poster board is stored for 363 days a year in someone’s kitchen, tucked in behind a table with other items. I saw it once during a Holiday party. Like most of the things in this world that we cherish it may eventually be lost. And when it is my name will be among the names of my friends.
And now I can be fine with that too.