Monday, November 1, 2010

Us and Them

To be very clear: I am receiving e-mails from early readers who are offering sympathy re: Mac's death. This is very sweet but Mac is a bit of a composite character. There is some artistic (I'm using the word loosely) license taken. Mac is absolutely based on a real guy. But that guy is still alive and running well and as cranky as ever....and he does love Shaun Pope. Who doesn't? Peace. --Mark
Oh, and while I'm at it...the Frank Shorter stuff in this article came from plenty of other authors, mostly Kenny Moore. I remember watching the race, but not in that kind of detail : )

Mac Tar died at 11:32 a.m. on Tuesday, September 26.

Well, his “clock time” was 11:32, but his “chip time” was 11:26. Mac had been a runner forever and ever and ever. He was kind of old but runners live to ripe old age unless they fall over cliffs or are killed by angry spouses. And so the funeral was crowded. In fact it was so crowded they had to use a wave start to accommodate all of those who wished to pay their respects. I arrived late and so I was placed in one of the later waves but, despite this, I was there when the honor guard came through and placed the thin silver mylar blanket across his coffin; an honor reserved exclusively for veterans…of many races. When the blanket was in place the most senior officer gave Mac’s widow a 3-inch piece of rounded metal that stated that Mac had completed a course that began on August 18, 1946 and concluded on September 26, 2010. It was his final finisher’s medal. Some of the mourners told stories of Mac’s many adventures. Some even risked telling a joke or two. Some of them simply stretched their gastoc/soleus muscle groups and sobbed. They each, in turn, passed the refreshment table, quickly downed a cup of punch, and threw the cup on the floor. They were who they were and so they did things in this way.

Mac Tar was a roadie.

Mac was always a roadie I suppose. But back then, back in my childhood when I met Mac, back when I had never met anyone like him before, back before Frank, and Bill, and Fred Lebow, and back before the Galloway-zation of his beloved sport, there really wasn’t any such term. Actually all runners were roadies…well almost. There were the track guys, but they mostly kept to themselves, wouldn’t condescend to speak to a road racer, and ran for medals, awards, and records. They ran for schools and when they graduated they were usually done. The track guys became cross country guys in the off-season…but they were trackies nonetheless. Other than this small sect nearly everyone ran road races.

Being a roadrunner wasn’t what made Mac stand out. The thing that made Mac stand out, the thing that made him unusual, the thing that made him fascinating and, well, odd, was the fact that he was a marathoner.

I remember as a kid my Dad would, twice a year, load me into our family car and we would drive to Medina to hoard up on meat at a packing plant there. Back then there wasn’t really anything in Medina and so we would drive into the country; Dad throwing Pall Mall butts out the window every now and again. It was a 25 mile round trip and Dad would always tell me that Mac could run to the meat packing plant and back if he wanted to. It was almost too much for my 8 year old mind to grasp. Mac lived just down the street from us and I would sit on his lawn mower in his garage and visit with him occasionally. He wore a very tiny bicycling hat and he had a lengthy beard. He also wore John-Lennon-Granny-Glasses. Unlike every other adult I knew, he was extremely thin. He would do bizarre stretching exercises involving very rapid movements and he would talk about how, out on the road, in that space between the physically possible and the physically impossible, during the miles that the body traveled mysteriously without fuel, he would have (and I’m using his exact language) a “mind blowing, freak-out journey” where he would connect with the universe through his acts of unexplainable endurance. My Dad liked him well enough and used to say “He’s OK … I wouldn’t loan him any money or introduce him to my sister…but he’s harmless enough.” My Mom, on the other hand, was scared shitless of the guy.

Mac had a handful of friends who ran marathons as well. They didn’t live near each other but they would meet at Eddie’s boat dock in Lakewood on Saturday mornings and race each other for 10 miles, after which they would do a ten-mile warm-down run. Mac once finished in third place at the Heartwatcher’s marathon in Bowling Green in a time of 2:38. Heartwatcher’s was considered to be one of the most competitive marathons in the Midwest, but it was nothing compared to Boston. Every spring Mac and his buddies would travel to the Boston Marathon where HUNDREDS of runners would practice his craft. I imagined it exactly as Mac described it; a gathering of practitioners of the art of super-endurance. Mac was known for having these abilities and for living on the line between the physical and the spiritual, and he wore the reputation well.

He was our town’s hippie-monastic-marathoner.

Then one day in September of 1972 Mac’s world changed a bit. Mom was out of town and so Mac was over at our house drinking cans of POC with Dad and watching the Olympic Marathon on TV. The field of Olympic marathoners, Mac explained, was loaded. The defending champion, a mysterious runner from Ethiopia, was back, and there was a guy from Australia who held the world record for the marathon and bragged of running so hard that he “pissed blood” after workouts. One guy from Great Britain had once won the BOSTON MARATHON (!) and came to the line dressed, head-to-toe, in a special metallic-looking outfit designed to deflect heat. There was also an American runner, Frank Shorter, who was running so well that the TV network decided to televise the entire race live. Mac explained that Shorter was terrific but he was really a track guy and shouldn’t be expected to compete with the marathon superstars running through the warm streets of Munich. To add to the drama, the network brought in Eric Segal, one of Frank’s classics professors from Yale, to describe the poetry of the marathon to the American viewers. Segal was a marathoner himself and explained the concept of “The Wall”. He told the story of the ancient battle on the plains of Marathon and explained, in a more poetic way than Mac could, that the marathon was a race of attrition. Runners would place the dial exactly on the line between cruising and overheating, and the last one to run out of fuel was the winner.

Segal was most famously known as the author of ”Love story”, a book-turned-movie-turned-box-office-runaway-hit. The most famous line from the movie was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”.

At the 15 kilometer mark in Munich Shorter demonstrated that he must have been paying attention in Segal’s class as he unapologetically threw down a 67 second quarter mile, followed immediately by a 68, then another 67, then another 68. At which point he was 150 yards clear of the field. Mac was shaking his head at the tragedy. “You can’t do that man!” cried Mac. “He is blowing his glycogen out. He’s gonna run out of fuel and the big boys are gonna eat him up when he crashes into the wall at 20 miles”.

Surges like this, Segal explained, were common in the late stages of a marathon, but what Frank was doing was risky, may be too risky. This was the stuff you would see in track races. Frank was a track man and this was a mistake. Shorter seemed unconcerned as he ran the same pace as his chasers (steady five minute miles) and held his lead.

Three miles later he repeated his surge and doubled his lead.

And three miles after that he did it again and put the race completely out of reach.

Segal spoke poetically of the mysticism of the marathon but his words were in stark contrast to the ass-kicking that America was watching on the screen. Sure, Shorter was delightful to watch. His stride was perfectly balanced and smooth as silk …but then again so was one of Mohammed Ali’s knockout punches. Frank didn’t look monastic at all; he looked athletic. And with the race a foregone conclusion, and many miles to cover, the USA and the world were allowed to witness the flow of power that represented what marathon running could be. It looked natural. It looked attainable. It looked…beautiful. It looked like what humans, normal people, were meant to do.

Later that night my Dad put on his loosest pair of pants, and a green softball windbreaker, and went for a jog. So did millions of other Americans. Soon there were marathons and marathoners everywhere. A few years after Shorter’s win we had several marathon runners on my block alone. Heck, my old man could now run to the meat packing plant and back if he felt like it.

And at the same time America’s track guys, the only people watching the Munich race that comprehended why Shorter was surging, began to put in long Saturday morning runs themselves.

The marathon went haywire. It seemed like everyone in the world had an aunt or an uncle or a sibling who could run a marathon…and not all of them were slow. The track guys came in and turned the race into a stiff 20 miler followed by a 10,000 meter race.

Mac ran hundreds of marathons after that and he had many adventures. But he never really seemed the same. Something was now different and you could see it in Mac’s eyes. He was still a leader in his community but his community was now huge. He never turned bitter and he never stopped running, or being loved. But I believe that for the rest of his life he felt an emptiness that he couldn’t ever completely identify.

The last time I saw Mac we had a good chance to visit. And we had a lot to talk about. I had completed the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic (YUT-C) 50 Kilometer run the day before and then drove to Cleveland to volunteer at the North Coast 24 Hour Run, which was serving as this year’s USATF National Championship. After having run the Youngstown race, failing to shower, and staying up all night I wasn’t looking or feeling well. Mac joked with the hospice nurse that I should “pull up a bed and get hooked up to the laughing gas”.

I told Mac about the 24 hour race but he was in some pain, or maybe just disinterested. I was unsure whether he wanted to talk at all and I was considering whether or not I should simply leave and allow him to rest. Then he asked about Shaun. Mac never actually met Shaun Pope but he did attend the Run for Regis 50 Kilometer Trail run last winter. He came to the race to see me run. Mac always said that I was “reformed” because I left my “Trackie” ways behind for the marathon. He didn’t quite get this trail running business, though, and wanted to witness the weirdness first hand. Mac caught one look at Shaun running far ahead of the rest of the field at Regis, protected from the ice and snow by only shorts and a T-shirt and an ear-to-ear smile, and became an instant fan. “That kid doesn’t see the need for those water bottles you seem to have developed an addiction to” he said, peering accusingly at my fanny pack. “Yeah, Shaun is amazing but if he crashes with no warm clothes or water he will be in trouble” I said. “Guarantees!” grunted Mac. “Everyone wants a guarantee. That kid guaranteed his success while he was training, so he knows he WON’T crash.” Mac saw Shaun as the real deal and he smiled when I told him that I was barely past the finish line, with most of an EIGHT MILE lap still ahead of me at YUT-C when I heard the siren go off and the crowd cheering for Shaun as he won the race. “See?” he said, “I told you that kid was the gen-u-ine article!”

I also told Mac some of the things that were bothering me about the weekend, and about the sport in general. For one thing there were now so many races that the competition was getting spread thin. Worse yet most of my friends were attending different races and we never seemed to see each other anymore. I told him that I was afraid that it was killing our community. Mac told me that he knew just what I meant. “It used to be” he recollected “that in a nothing race like the Rocky River 5 Mile you’d have to break 25:30 to get into the top twenty. What was your time that year when you came home from college and got third?” he asked. ”I ran a 25:45” I admitted “And I see your point. There must have been five other races in Northeastern Ohio that weekend”. Mac nodded “Well its even worse now. These days there must be 10 races each weekend in Cleveland alone, all of them 5K’s it seems, and you can win plenty of them if you can string three sixes together. It seems like having more races would provide more opportunities and lead to faster times, but when the fast guys never race each other they stop needing to be fast. Know what I mean?” I nodded “Yeah, I got 7th at YUT-C but if you threw all of the ultra-folks racing in Ohio that day into one race, like it would have been several years ago, I wouldn’t have likely cracked the top forty. Shawn won the race by close to an hour. Imagine what he would have run if he was pushed!”

I told Mac that during the Youngstown race I took an epic fall. I fall down occasionally when I race, I suppose everyone does, and Mac knew this. But this fall was a bad one. I tore up my elbow, scraped most of the skin from my shin, and for several minutes thought that I might have fractured my kneecap. As I was standing up I noticed that my very good friend Terri Lemke had chosen the exact same moment to take a similarly serious spill just ahead of me on the trail. The runner who was running between Terri and I simply sidestepped her and continued on down the trail. I had never seen this type of behavior in a trail race before and it made me furious. We have a tradition in trail running of looking out for one another. If a runner gets hurt you help. If a runner has no water you share. If it means that your race is slightly slower that’s OK.

We are who we are and so we do things in this way.

But this guy just ran right on past. “Its all of these roadies invading the sport Mac, they just don’t get it! There’s litter all over the trails as well. I volunteered at the Towpath marathon last year and you wouldn’t have believed it, thousands of paper cups everywhere. People just throw them on the course. And they all seem to complain if there aren’t trophies and expensive T-shirts. Heck, its 65 dollars to enter a race anymore because of the swag that the roadies expect. And there are so many of them that if you don’t register for a race several months in advance it sells out.” Then I realized that there are bigger problems in life and added “Sorry to whine.” Mac responded “Hey friend, no sense in breaking an old habit now; Not on my account anyway.” Then he smiled and said “ But I know what you mean. Back the first year your old man ran Cleveland they shut the course down after four hours. Now you got folks walking the thing in 7 hours and stopping to shop for dress shoes along the course. Do you suppose that they would have let our boy Shaun run at Regis if he didn’t have his money in quick enough?” Now it was my turn to smile “I don’t know Mac. Everybody loves Shaun so maybe, but a slower or less charming guy might get shut out in favor of a window shopper with a fast internet connection.” The nurse came back into the room to turn Mac and heard this part of the conversation. Mac winked at her and said “Well then this guy better stay near the mailbox because he hasn’t won a race or a congeniality contest in years.”

We talked for a while longer about running, then about friends, and family. After awhile I noticed the nurse giving me the skunk-eye and figured that was my sign to leave. “Hey, tell your Dad hi”. He said. I promised that I would. Then he said “About the roadies Mark. Forget it man. If they start to bother you spend that energy running. The track guys?… shit. And housewife marathoners attending aerobics classes at the starting lines of marathons used to drive me nuts. But after awhile I figured that as crazy as the world is, they might just as well be out running somewhere instead of sitting in a bar, or a crack house, or a prison. Everybody is a little bit fucked up you know. It just depends which flavor of weird you prefer.” I nodded “Its OK Mac I’m not all that bothered. I figure if I went from a trackie, to a roadie, to a trail guy I can become something else if I need to. I hear there’s a trail around Mt. Ranier that is like 95 miles. They don’t give T-shirts but the entry fee is free if I decide to attend.”

“I should have hit some of your trails Mark. If you go to Ranier you better bring that fanny pack along. But seriously dude, no aerobics at the start. A man does need to draw the line.”

I bought a house last spring that sits on my estate, which measures 1/10th of an acre. Sometimes I like to feel like I’m in the country so I burn sticks in my fire pit and look up at the stars, and think about life. When stars aren’t available I look up into the streetlights, and think about life. A few days after Mac died I was sitting by the fire burning pieces of a box spring mattress that wouldn’t fit up the stairs when I moved in. There were no stars out and some kids shook the streetlight so it wasn’t on. And so I looked into the fire and thought about life. I felt kind of bad about burning the wood pieces of the box spring. That was some lucky wood. I figured it could have survived maybe 50 years if I had left it alone. On the other hand if it had remained a tree it could have been toppled, of it could have lived hundreds of years. Who knew? I wondered if it would be better to be dead with a guaranteed future or alive with a chance of catastrophe at any time. There are some large trees in my neighborhood and I started thinking that the best thing might be to be alive but part of a very well established tree. Most of a larger, older tree would be made of inner wood…lots of rings. The wood on the inside of a tree did its growing years ago and now seems to be safe from the harm that a small fire, or a mild drought, or a kid with a crush and a pocket knife might cause. The wood on the inside would be safe. It would be alive but it would no longer be growing. It occurred to me that the world is full of people like this. And the running world is filled with runners like this as well.

Mac used to say that when it comes to success in running that “Maintaining is easier than attaining”. His point was that it could take years to get your training right, your aerobic level built up, and your racing skills honed. He said that after a runner hit this level they could actually do much less work, and virtually no experimenting, and maintain this level. Mac didn’t believe the old adage that we are either improving or growing worse, but never static. He told me that he knew plenty of folks who were, and are, static. As I looked into the fire I figured that these people would be the inner rings on a tree; alive but not growing.

The older I get and the more years that I run the more I believe that Mac might have been correct. I have noticed that all of my friends who are new runners, or at least runners who are new to trail running, are those who are doing the most extreme work. My newish running friends always seem to be those who are doing the crazy shit like running back-to-back 50K’s, or running with no shoes, or staying out for six hours in a freezing weather…maybe with only a T-shirt and a smile. These new runners, many of them new to the trails or, if you prefer “reformed roadies”, seem to be the hungriest. These individuals, like the outer ring of a tree, are exposed to the harshness and uncertainty of their environment, but they also seem to be the runners, the people, who are improving. I know far too many seasoned and accomplished champions of industry, or champions of the academy, or champions of immigration reform, or champions of the trail who would be inside by a fire talking about the old days and defending their ever encroached-upon turf while the newbies are out producing growth and sending up new branches. Even though Mac preached of the growth that comes from newness I think that he only really recognized its truth near the end. And I think he saw it in Shaun.

I don’t know why people always seem to divide into tribes. Why do we always defend the status quo? If we are actually improving then why would we ever miss the past? Maybe we are lazy and wish to exclude newcomers. Maybe we are hoarders of glory.

Then again maybe we aren’t so very evil. Maybe we miss the old days because we miss the exclusivity of it all. Maybe we just miss our youth.

October is prime marathon season and so it was recently time for the Towpath Marathon again. I was running it this time and I was running along pretty well, all things considered. It was, as expected, chaotic and crazy and you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a cross trainer. Near the end the temperature started to climb and I started to lose it a bit. The clock was ticking and time is a worthy opponent, especially when a course lacks the accustomed adversaries: roots, rocks, mud, and hills.

And so I took a quick swig of punch from the table and threw the cup onto the trail. This was where I found myself and so I did things in this way.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Calling it Quits

Munson Fisher didn’t let out a victory howl. He didn’t throw his hands into the air and he didn’t perform an end-zone dance. But he did smile. The smile took a while to spread across his face but after it was in place it remained for another while. Then he reached into his mailbox and withdrew the contents.

Munson’s mail isn’t like my mail and maybe it doesn’t resemble your mail either. For starters there was lots of it. The box was about ½ full. And it was comprised of letters, and cards, and two small packages. My mail typically consists of coupons and a few bills from companies who cannot or will not send them to me electronically. My mail is so dull that sometimes I forget to check for it. But Munson is 82 years old and he doesn’t like the idea of Facebook or e-mail. He told me that when he receives a message he likes to see the handwriting; he likes to know that his loved-one held the paper in his or her hand. His mail is his link to all those that he loves. And by the look of the pile there seemed to be a lot of them. With mail in hand Munson took a long pull on his oxygen canula and began the 45 yard return trek up the driveway.

I was Munson’s physical therapist and a couple of times a week, for a couple of months this summer, I would go to his house to work on his balance, strength, and endurance. Munson was patient with my advice but he really only wanted to do one thing; he wanted to walk. And so on most days he would reject my suggestions for core strengthening exercises and instead we would head straight for the mailbox. I always asked him to use his walker. I told him that he could lean on it and take rest breaks. But he never brought it along because he figured he would need a free hand to carry the mail on the return trip. And so twice a week for most of the summer we would get part way to the box before running out of steam and returning to the house to report the disappointing news to Dear.

Mrs. Fisher probably had a first name but I never learned it. Munson simply referred to her as Dear and she referred to him by the same name. They had the kind of love that every single person on this earth seeks. And they had had it for better than 60 years. They always called each other Dear even when speaking in a third person narrative. “Dear thinks I should be able to make this trip any time I want to, but I know my limits” he would say. “No amount of nagging is going to get me there.” And then we would smile because the man hadn’t been nagged twice in 60 years and we both knew it.

It wasn’t that the Fishers hadn’t had some rough times. Sixty years can serve up its share of troubles and the Dears hadn’t been spared. Munson told me tales of health problems involving family members, periods of unemployment, work stressors, meddling in-laws, and crises of faith that could ruin a family. I asked him how, then, did their marriage survive? His response was “Divorces happen at the courthouse and we swore that we’d never go through the front doors of that place”.

When Munson arrived home Dear peered from out the kitchen and spoke in a whisper “Well the prodigal son returns!” Munson responded by holding up the fistful of mail for her to admire. Her response came in the form of a wink after which she added “Well its about time”.

My habit for most of the summer had been to stop at the Fisher’s mailbox after our appointment and jog the mail back up the driveway. This time, though, I drove past the mailbox and smiled at the good Karma I had just been exposed to. I was on my way to the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run and I figured Munson’s success bode well for my own chances. “Yepper” I thought, “It seems like a good weekend for going the distance”.

Burning River was perfect. A world class field was on hand to compete for the USATF National Championship, the trails were well-marked and dry, and the temperature was even reasonably low after a month of scorching heat. The aid stations were well-stocked and humming with enthusiastic volunteers. A very astute person could look far and wide for a reason to fail and not be able to find one. I even had great company. Suzanne Pokorny and I ran together for hours and hours. Everyone knows Suzanne and everyone loves her. It was like running with a celebrity. Suzanne had the dual role of runner and volunteer coordinator to fill on this day and so we tended to linger just a bit at aid stations…but the love we absorbed from the volunteers made it time well spent.

Despite all of this goodness I was suffering. As early as 25 miles something was wrong and I knew it. I was tired. Lightning Strike tired, and by 55 miles I was into a familiar but dreaded pattern:

It always starts with a spray of sweat. I sweat all day long during an ultra marathon but my sickness-sweat feels different; it is copious and not in line with the normal cooling-function that sweat serves. In fact the sickness-sweat is accompanied by chills that, if not addressed, very rapidly develop into full-on hypothermia. Terrible nausea is a consistent companion. The only solution that I have found is to bundle up in winter hat, light jacket, and light gloves, walk very slowly, and not eat or drink anything. Sometimes I can walk it off in about 10 hours or so. At Boston Store Suzanne was taking time to visit with friends and change clothes. We were hours ahead of the cutoff times but I knew that my night would be reduced to walking 20-25 minute miles and so, despite our comfortable time cushion I felt a need to save every possible minute. I pressed on alone.

Shortly after leaving Suzanne I heard the horrible little internal voice that told me it would be OK to stop. I swatted it like a fly. I knew how to get to the finish and I intended to make it. The cold grew around me as the sun went down. I shuddered when I saw shirtless runners cruise past me. One moment I was burning hot so I would take my hat off. The next moment the chills would be upon me and so the hat went back on. The walk became especially hard heading into Happy Days Aid Station. The love and good will I was able to absorb going through the Pine Lane Aid Station was present at Happy Days but by that time I was so sick that I couldn’t participate and allow it to refuel me. The walk through the ledges was beautiful but endless. I stopped at one point to vomit for perhaps the 12th time and couldn’t recognize the material that I produced.

It looked like salt.

My high school cross country coach always told us that there was a moment in any race when a runner would, consciously or subconsciously, decide to accept the challenge, accept the pain and discomfort involved, and actively engage in the race. The sad alternative was that when the decisive moment came a runner could withdraw from the challenge; allow the pressure and discomfort to convince them to back off. The idea that this moment exists has always intrigued me. I have tried in races, over the years, to identify the moment when it came. I have always wondered what series of thoughts, or bits of happenstance, would cause us to commit to the race. I have equally wondered why we would ever choose, after training for hundreds of hours and thousands of miles, to call off the challenge on a moment’s notice.

At Kendall Lake I stopped to look at the heavens. As I raised my head skyward sweat that had been collecting in my toboggan hat broke loose and trickled down my spine in an icy rivulet. There were a million stars out and somewhere lovers marveled at them, but all I could see was coldness. Space is a cold and vast place and as I peered up I saw steam rising from my face into the light of my headlamp; my sacrifice to the void. It wouldn’t matter though. All of my body heat could never raise the temperature of space by one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a degree. By this point the doubts were surrounding me and I was doing my best to fend them off. The lone plaintiff voice seeking a DNF ten miles before had turned into a jury of demons that chose to convict me of the sin of pride:

“Who do you think you are?”

“You asked God for a buckle at Mohican and you got one. Now you are here seeking another?”

“Why should you deserve it?”

“Couldn’t your energy over the past six weeks have put to less selfish use?”

“You have jettisoned friends on this very trail on this very day, and you have jettisoned loved ones in your life for this. Those aren’t the actions of a strong man.”

I have come to expect these voices. They seem to have become more pointed and accurate in their assertions in recent years but I am aware that they only get a vote on the outcome if I give them one.

Instead of listening I formed my own counter debate:

“I am a good man.”

“I was one of Elmore Banton’s Bobcats.”

“I have run 80,000 miles in preparation for this and I have succeeded in a similar endeavor 10 times.”

I had been speaking to myself like this for miles and miles and miles. Sometimes I spoke silently and sometimes I spoke aloud. But as I headed back into the woods from Kendall Lake I began to realize that none of it mattered. Not my PR’s, not my 34 years in the sport, not the buckles, ribbons, or trophies; I was alone and I was sick. Each piece of trail now required a decision.

I have often wondered what will eventually end my running career, and I suppose each person wonders on occasion what will end their life. I always figured that my connective tissue would go first. I have many aging friends who are now hikers and cyclists. They carry with them a torn ligament or permanently scarred tendon from their years in the world’s simplest sport. It seems in my case that my end might come as a result of my stomach. It takes 60-70 miles for my stomach to go out on me. And so for the moment my stomach only effects my performances in 100 mile runs. But it effects me a bit earlier every year and soon it might invade my 50 milers and then my marathons. The thing that I love about 100 mile races is the fact that they represent the absolute limits of my physical ability. I don’t know if anyone really knows how difficult it is for me to finish one. The distance exposes every physical and mental weakness that I have. Most runners don’t run this far and so most runners don’t truly know what their weakest link is. They are simply surprised one day when the final injury occurs. I think now that I know how my ultras will end. And as I walked along through the freezing 68 degree night it occurred to me that all of us, even the superstars that were already past the finish line, warm and rewarded at that very moment, will ultimately become persons trying to function well enough to stay in contact with their world despite its geographical boundaries… be they mountains, rivers, or 45 yard long driveways.

When I was younger I kind of half believed the platitude that “Pain is just weakness leaving the body”. That was before I really knew anyone who was in pain. I no longer believe that such a one-to-one correlation exists. My brother Steve died of cancer last spring and Steve wasn’t a weak man. The pain he went through was such a maelstrom that there couldn’t possibly have been enough weakness to fuel it. I also think that Nietzsche waswrong when he stated that “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”. I think that there are plenty of things that will not kill you and yet will leave you weaker. If you don’t believe me spend a few nights on the neurology ward at Children’s Hospital.

That’s the type of experience that will calibrate your shit.

There is a place for optimism in 100 mile runs though. In fact I don’t think I could ever finish one without it. One hundred mile runs are metaphors at best. When we speak of dying during a race it is not meant to be disrespectful to the natural and very serious act of actually dying. The pain we feel in a race isn’t remotely comparable to the pain of a cancer patient or the tortured hearts of broken persons or families. Only through analogy do 100 mile race reports have any business on the same page as writings about death or divorce. Platitudes and mental models have their place as well. But 70 miles into Burning River I couldn’t get my sick chilled being to absorb their nutrients. I wondered if it is all so simple. I wondered if Munson was right. Is keeping a marriage alive really as simple as refusing to quit? Is not quitting really as simple as refusing to make the trip to the courthouse?

I have absolutely no idea.

After leaving Kendall Lake I took more steps into a patch of woods, then into more open field. The bad patches and good patches were coming more rapidly now, sometimes each would only last a moment or so and I began to see each step as a choice. I thought about Steve. I was with him when he took his final breath and I recall feeling certain that he took that breath by choice as well. In the hours leading to the end Steve would occasionally falter, and then begin to breathe again. I found myself wondering why he didn’t let go. I will always believe that even though he was unconscious he must have held some hope. He and I were team mates for one year in high school and he knew about the moment of decision; well, at least he was familiar with its lesser version. Now he was experiencing it. I wanted to go on for Steve. But I suspect that when the true moment comes there is nothing in the world that can prevent it.

I brushed past a singular piece of wheat grass that had, under the weight of its dew, bent out into my pathway. The coldness of the wet dew on my leg caused me to shudder uncontrollably. It was, quite literally, the straw that broke my back.

And just like that it was done.

I will tell you this: The moment that I decided to quit, the VERY INSTANT that I knew I would stop at the aid station my journey went from very difficult to nearly impossible. Up until the moment of decision I had been sick and weak and slow but I moved forward with purpose nonetheless. The instant after the decision I turned into a stumbling wreck. I was nearly incapable of covering the ½ mile to the aid station. The experience makes me believe that on the longest and most arduous journeys we are held aloft by even the thinnest filigree of hope. Once hope left me I was left to absorb each tiny spot of uneven trail, every cold patch in the night air, every inner voice that tells me that the world is a poor environment for the development of my soul. There was no shield between myself and the hardness of my path. Physiological changes don’t produce such dramatic drop-offs. This crash came from a deeper place. Perhaps the Dears never divorced because they never lost hope. Perhaps the world is failing because so many have.

My pacer, Nick Longworth, met me before I got to the aid station. He was sitting under a tree in the darkness but out of all of the hundreds of runners and pacers I knew it was him because I knew that he would be looking for me. I know Nick well and so I knew that it was the only place he could have been. If you know Nick then you know what I mean. Nick had gotten me through Mohican and he would have ruined his own health to get me to this finish as well. We are very good friends though and I believe he knew that there weren’t any words or actions that would provide an answer. He knew that no convincing, no rational talk regarding cutoff times, no amount of nagging was going to get me there. He knew that I knew my limits.

Instead he provided care. He and the aid station workers tried to feed me. They provided blankets, soft reassurance, and finally support for my decision.

The day after the race, and even now- months later, I wonder; was there ANY POSSIBLE WAY that I could have continued? I don’t know and I guess I never will.

Last fall I hit a deer while on my way to Mohican to meet friends for a run. The entire front end of my car was bashed in. It all happened so quickly that I didn’t even tap the brakes. One moment I was looking through my windshield at a predawn sky and the next moment the journey was ruined for all parties. I never knew what was in my path until I hit it. It has occurred to me since that time that quitting is a lot like hitting a deer. The morning after I hit the deer I realized that there would never be a time when I would know if it could have been prevented. Could I have been more vigilant? Could I have slowed down? Was I tired from life, consumed by goals, or too eager to get to my destination? Did I take my eyes off the road? And if I had kept my eyes open could the crisis have been averted?

Life is a case study. Ultra marathons are as well. So are marriages. So are car rides. A sample size of one will never yield a statistically significant finding. I can project and hypothesize but I will never know if I could have changed in a way that would have allowed me to make it to the journey’s end. Similarly, I will never know how much of the crash was caused by me and how much was caused by the dear.

Then again…

Munson had the advantage of a lifetime worth of successes and failures on which to draw. And the plan he developed in response to these experiences was to wake up the morning after a failure and embark on another hope-filled attempt.

Who am I to question such a strategy?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Quick Burning River Result

I was able to make it to the 70.8 mile point of this year's race. I had an amazing time and spent a terrific day with many friends. I'm a little bit disappointed in not finishing but I think that I know what went wrong and I think I can fix a few things and succeed in the future. The sun doesn't shine on the same dog every day and I've had many many many ultra-blessings this year. It was an amazing race!!! I will post a report very soon. In the meantime, if you were one of those lovely people that kept me moving down the trail, or cared for me when I could no longer do so, THANK YOU!

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Burning River is in 2 days!!!! Every year is a separate race, a different story, and a new adventure. I will write about this year's race next week, but for now I want to share with my friends what this race means to me. The following is a cut-and-pasted re-issue from part of my lengthy race report last year. Forgive the apparent laziness of not writing new material. I forgive myself because I think its important that I remember why this race is important and why we should all learn from its lesson. Wish me luck, and pray that I don't lose sight of how blessed I am to be able to try this adventure once again. Peace. --Mark

One day in the winter of 1953 my Dad decided that he had had enough of being poor. He had grown up in Dublin Ireland in the 1940’s and during that era, in that country, you grew up to do whatever it was that your father did. When my dad was 15 years old his father was killed when a ditch that he was digging with a hand shovel collapsed, burying him and leaving his wife and ten kids penniless. My father, being the oldest child, dropped out of school, hopped a boat to London, and worked piecemeal as a longshoreman, sending whatever money he could back home to his mother. This kept everyone fed, more or less, but there was no reason for hope. There would never be a connection to employment in Ireland and in London he was treated as a second class citizen. It seemed he would indeed follow in his father’s footsteps and scramble to scrape together survival wages until his own death occurred. There really wasn’t a way out in sight…until he heard about Cleveland.

Dad had an uncle who had come to Cleveland a few years before and he sent my dad a loan to buy a plane ticket. He was promised that there was so much work in Cleveland, in fact in all of northeastern Ohio, that no more advanced planning than this was necessary. He turned out to be correct. Dad got a job at the Ford Motor Company plant in Brookpark and, six months later, sent a ticket to his girlfriend, who joined him and they married later that year. Dad went on to work for other companies, finished school, became a tooling engineer, and eventually moved half of his Irish family to Cleveland where they similarly prospered.

We love to tell this story at family reunions but the truth is that the story is not even remotely unique or even particularly interesting to those outside our immediate family. By the 1950’s Cleveland had been a city of dreams for over 150 years. Untold thousands of immigrants came to Cleveland and flourished. Oil, steel, tooling, shipping, salt, and dozens of other industries flourished. Wealth was created and shared. Generations lived and died in this place of ample opportunity.

By the 1960’s things began to change. Unemployment was rampant, industry was dying out and a sort of hopelessness had enveloped the city. I was five years old in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I remember almost nothing from that year but I do remember starting kindergarten and I remember the moon walk and I remember the fire… or maybe I don’t. Do I actually recall it or do I think I remember because as a Cleveland native I was never allowed to forget?

Growing up in Cleveland in the 1970’s I learned to love the city the way one loves an abusive relative. I was always cheering for it. I was always hoping that Cleveland would win but I was always also being told that it was no good. I hated it for the bad things but I also saw the good parts and wondered why no one else could. The stand-up comics on television had only just begun to get warmed up on the river fire when Mayor Ralph Perk set his hair on fire while giving a fire-safety demonstration downtown. The critics never stopped for a breath. “Of course Cleveland’s football team is called the Browns; the sky is brown, the water is brown, the buildings are brown, so why not the football team?” they said. The city appeared to be dying. Even Cleveland’s tallest building, they pointed out, was “Terminal”. The basement of Terminal Tower had homeless individuals living in it and outside on Public Square storefronts were boarded up. Mayor Dennis Kucinich (yes, he was Mayor of Cleveland after Perk) battled to keep the city from bankruptcy. Shipping slowed and the once busy docks in the flats were now places where the Mafia dumped bodies. Crime was rampant; domestic violence and drug use were up. The Browns lost the AFC Championship in heartbreaking fashion three years in a row, Cleveland State was denied a trip to the NCAA final four when David Robinson tipped in a last second shot for Navy, the Cavs were chronically in last place, and the even the free tickets that the Indians gave to schoolchildren went unused for lack of interest.

This was when I discovered running. We used to run through the metroparks for miles and miles and wonder why no one else could see the beauty. I won’t speak for Joe Jurczyk but I remember Joe from high school cross country meets. He went to school in Parma, just a few miles away from me. He must have seen all of this as well.

In hindsight the tower wasn’t really terminal and neither was the city. You don’t take the hardest working and most diversely talented gene pool ever assembled on this planet and hold them down for long. These folks were of good stock. Their work ethic and ingenuity created a rubber industry in nearby Akron, a collection of Universities and museums unrivaled outside of New York City, and a faith in their ability to succeed fueled by the stories told at their own family reunions. If they could dig the canals they could dig out of this mess as well.

And they have.

The basement of the Terminal Tower now boasts ‘The Galleria’ one of the most beautiful shopping malls in the country and the only people sleeping in the Tower these days are paying top dollars to The Ritz hotel to do so. The flats are now the place to experience the city’s night life. The Lakefront boasts parks and athletic facilities that are the envy of nearly any city and just try getting a ticket to a Cavs game these days to see LeBron! (remember, I wrote this last year : ))

The jokes still remain though and they have become annoying in their inaccuracy. When the time came for Joe Jurczyk and friends to put together the first one-hundred mile trail race in the region they decided to call it “The Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run” and gave it the motto “eracing the past. Moving forward.”

To me the name issues a challenge: “Hey funny guy, haven’t been paying attention? should see us now! The Cuyahoga River Valley is now a NATIONAL PARK, and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Care to join us for a little jog? We’ll arrange to have some of our local runners show you around…they are, after all, one of the most talented and decorated communities of ultra runners in the United States and you can just entertain them with your little jokes for as long as you can keep them in earshot. OK?” And one more thing, “In case you have heard that Clevelander’s are rude, we are going to blow you away with our goodwill and hospitality”.

A few days after my DNF at Mohican in 2009 I knew it was time to return home. I may or may not have another ultra in me, I figured, but if I had one left I wanted it to be Joe’s race. Besides, if Dad got a second chance, and Northeastern Ohio got a second chance, and the Cuyahoga River Valley got a second chance, well then why not me?

And this year the national 100 mile TRAIL RUNNING championship lies on a course, through the wilderness, between Cleveland and Akron...the thought never ceases to amaze me. Thank you God!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mohican Report: Part 3

WARNING: This post is really really long. I suspect that there will be a high dropout rate so be sure to pace yourself. In fact this posting isn’t even the whole story. This is part 3. If you want to start at the beginning g’head and scroll wayyyyyy down to part one. Be sure to drink plenty and stay in the shade so’s you don’t get the heaves. Also, I want you to know that this part of the story was compiled based upon 5 different race reports, my personal observations, and several interviews (some with beer, some without). I feel certain that the facts are correct. Its an amazing story and I have endeavored to tell it accurately. You might be relieved to know that even though I paint myself into the tapestry (like a very unskilled Hitchcock) the story is not just about me for once. Please enjoy. And remember to shut off your cell phones and keep you children under control. And while you are at it, diversify your investment portfolio a bit as well. Peace. --Mark

If one were required, for some odd reason, to go to Port Columbus International Airport and identify a person whom they had never seen before, but who was described as having finished Grandma’s Marathon that morning, and had followed it up with a long, delayed plane ride, they could be excused for not correctly identifying Starshine Blackford as being that person.

Star looks like a runner. She is five-foot-nothing as my neighbor Bob used to say, and she is fit looking. But a marathoner should be hobbling around wearing a proud, painful, wincing smile, possibly a finisher’s medal draped around their neck. Star, on the other hand, was bobbing up and down in front of the baggage terminal belt wondering why it wouldn’t just speed up already. In her mind she was probably working out a sixth grade proficiency question that went something like:

“Your airplane leaves Minneapolis at 8:00 P.M. traveling at 500mph. The plane lands and then you dispatch a car and drive 60mph for 70 miles. Meanwhile your runner leaves the 65 mile point of a race at 8:00pm traveling at 3 mph. At what mile mark on the trail will you meet the runner (please allow for slow luggage belts and pee breaks)?”

The answer might surprise you. Then again, if you have ever run 100 miles, it might not.

Star and her husband Darris came rolling in to the Bridle Staging area aid station, gravel flying, at precisely midnight, to find that David Huss was sitting in a chair looking like death, and being ministered to by his wife Katie and Steve Zeidner’s wife Leigh. He had gone 7 miles in four hours. He was moving but unable to eat and the iliotibial band in his right knee was irretrievably inflamed. He had 30 miles to go and a cutoff clock that was ticking loudly.

They might have made it a few minutes earlier if Star had driven. Darris insisted on accompanying her even though he was due at work in Columbus by noon the next day. On the way up from Columbus Star wanted to drive. But Darris has been in ultra-land before and so he knew that there was no way his wife, scheduled to pace David Huss after a morning marathon, was going to be safe in a post-marathon/sleep deprived state circumnavigating drunks and deer. Both of whom would most certainly be sharing the twisting roads around Mohican on a Saturday night in June.

Michael Patton sat in a chair nearby. He was doing just a bit better than Dave but still lacked the energy to walk the 30 feet over to Dave’s chair so he sent his pacer, Kevin, with the following message: “Mikey wants you to walk out of here with him”. Dave accepted, and all four hiked out into the most feared section of the Mohican course. Seven-point-three miles to Rock Point. Three river crossings and a sea of mud and horse shit lay in front of them. It was a heck of a place to try to limber up a knee.

Meanwhile Ted Nieman stood near the CB radio located at Rock Point and suddenly found himself with a free Saturday night on his hands. Ted didn’t know Steve Zeidner prior to this race but had been connected to him through Michael. Ted had agreed to pace Steve from Rock Point to the finish but when the message that “Number 160 is out” crackled across the airwaves Ted realized that this was Steve’s number and that it was officially over. He then did a noble thing. He picked up another needy runner and headed down the trail with a new and unexpectedly grateful friend.

Steve actually had made a valiant effort to reach the Bridle Staging area. He left the Covered Bridge at mile 70 with Dave, walked halfway up the monstrous hill and turned around to walk back down to the bridge. On the way down the hill he ran into Michael who begged him to turn around. Mike told me later that Steve gave a firm “No” and continued downhill without stopping.

By the time I got to the Covered Bridge Steve was sitting in a chair, covered by someone else’s towel, shivering, and miserable. I asked Steve to walk out with us. He looked at me and said softly “I just can’t do it. Its my stomach”. I looked into his eyes and could see straight through to his spinal cord. There was nothing there. I had been in the place he was now and had never been able to come back from it. In 100 mile races there are down periods, there are near-death experiences, and there are Jesus-as-my-witness “Cannot’s”. Cannot go on. Cannot think straight. Cannot regain homeostasis. Steve meant it. He was done. “God bless his poor heart but there is nothing he can do”, I thought. My pacer Scott, told me later that he saw Steve’s eyes and knew the look as well. I muttered some advice anyway and headed up the trail. Steve deserved better than this but I had seen this scene so many times today I was sadly numb to it.

And that’s when Mohican’s magic presented itself.

The magic makes a visit every year and this time it took the form of two attractive, committed, and loving young women who were prepared to offer some gentle persuasion, or kick some ass; whichever it took.

Katie Huss and Leigh Zeidner had been dispatched to the bridge, on Dave’s request, to give poor old Steve a ride back to the hotel. Instead they walked up to Steve, told him they were there for him. They also told him to rise and walk. Steve told them that it was too late. He had already officially dropped from the race. The women responded to this by walking up to the dumbfounded radio jockey and telling him firmly that Steve was “un-dropping” from the race. After a few radio communications with race headquarters it was decided that the rules said…well, they didn’t really say anything…actually. This had never happened before.

Well then, that settled it!

And so for the first time in the 21 year history of the event, a death certificate was revoked and an officially DNF’ed runner “dropped back in” to the race, with just a few minutes to go on the cutoff.

Immediately after leaving the covered bridge I heaved. Actually I expected it and was surprised that it had taken me this long to puke. I was ready for it. Way way way back hours and hours ago when I was approaching Hickory Ridge at mile 60 I had a hint that the stomach would be closing down for the night and I was delighted that I was able to pop and hold down three no-doze. The problem with not being able to eat or drink all night (as has been my pattern in recent years) is that not only don’t you get fluid or calories, but you also can’t have anti-inflammatories or caffeine. I’m becoming a reluctant expert on calorie-free running. I find that no matter how weak or thirsty I get I can still move slowly. But only slowly. No running, no fast walking, and rest breaks are required on uphills. It’s a crappy way to spend an evening but I really wanted this buckle and so I bent myself to the task. I have found that I can walk the nausea off in about 10 hours. A guy does get thirsty in that time though and so I rinse my mouth out and sometimes manage a small swallow.

Dave and Star were approaching Rock Point when Star found what she described as an “awesome” walking stick for Dave. His knee was ready to collapse on every downhill step and so the walking stick was used to cushion the blow. The uphills were going a bit better. Star entertained Dave with stories of old races, how she met her husband Darris, etc. and tried to keep the conversation light and upbeat. This is important for a runner.

On my way to Rock Point my own pacer, Casey, was employing a similar strategy. Casey never nagged me. He thought of hopeful things to tell me. He pointed out when I was walking well and reminded me that the bad patches wouldn’t last when they presented themselves. I didn’t speak much and he was fine with that. At one point we started to talk about some family troubles that I experienced this year. Then we decided not to speak of anything negative. The stars were out, a gentle breeze was blowing and we were moving. That was a wonderful thing, moving. Casey and I decided that we would concentrate on the beauty. We would produce good Karma. Meanwhile my other pacers, Scott and Nick, were seated in lawn chairs at the Sand Ridge cemetery sharing recipes for homebrew and holding a contest to determine who could produce the most pornographic shadow puppet on the wall of the abandoned church by the light of their headlamps.

Pacers are, after all, only on duty when they are on duty.

Steve arrived at The Bridle Staging area hours later than he originally planned. In fact he should have already been at Rock Point according to his original schedule. His current pacer, a friend named Ashley, agreed to stay with him through the rugged path to Rock Point. This was going to be a longer night than she banked on.

Meanwhile Katie and Leigh raced to Rock Point to try to notify Ted Nieman that Steve was back into the race. Katie, sprinted up the hill into Rock Point, breathless and searching for Ted, only to receive the devastating news that he was gone. The ladies knew that Ted had done the right thing but they also knew that this would leave Steve alone from Rock Point until the finish line. They immediately began to search for other pacers. They also began to rummage for running clothes…just in case no one could be found.

As I headed into Rock Point I was worried about cutoff times. It was 3 am and we were holding an hour cushion on the cutoff but we were really moving slowly. My experience at Rock Point was an odd one. Michael’s dad, Tom Patton, warmly greeted me and I was nearly non-responsive. It was almost coma-like. It was as though I didn’t realize that I could have chatted with him, or thanked him. I saw David sitting in a chair having a bandage applied to his foot and I was delighted to see him…internally. But I was unable to reach over to the other side and speak with anyone. It was like I was watching the scene on TV. I left the aid station a few minutes after Michael and a few minutes ahead of Dave. I also learned that Steve had rejoined the race. My heart leapt for joy at this almost unbelievable news. But I spoke with no one of it.

I don’t ever want to relive that experience.

When Steve arrived at Rock Point he was very nearly in last place. There were simply no pacers to be had and he couldn’t be left to wander the woods on his own…he was starting to fall asleep. So Ashley refilled her water bottle and decided that this was a night she would remember as her personal record for mileage.

Leaving the South Park Aid Station at mile 84 I decided it was time for another mouth rinsing. I grabbed what I thought was a bottle of ice water, took a huge swig, and vomited so loudly that it stirred sleeping birds from the trees. “ITSSSHHEEED”. I yelled to Nick between heaves. “What”? Nick Asked. “Itshheed” I replied. “What are you saying?” asked Nick again. “Its Heed. Oh God, its Heed”. Someone had put Heed in my bottle, and at that moment nothing could have made me more violently ill. I was actually using filthy language DURING my heaves. A couple of runners went by and I apologized “Hey man, its part of the sport” was their response. For some reason that made me happy. Very very happy. Nick and I joked that any chance we had for a Heed endorsement deal was irrevocably gone but that’s OK. As the mystery runner pointed out this was normal. And normal felt good.

Meanwhile, Steve was actually starting to do better. He could now break into an occasional shuffle…when he wasn’t sleeping. Ashley had finally run out of steam at the South Park aid station and so Leigh, a woman who must have been paying attention during the “Better or worse/ Sickness or health” part of the wedding vows, pulled on a spare set of Steve’s overly large running togs and decided that it was time to join her husband on this journey. She had never run 18 miles before and really had no plan regarding how she would achieve it now. But that plan could be formulated later. Now it was time to move forward with faith. She shuffled with Steve when he shuffled, woke him when he fell asleep on his feet, and gave him gentle shoves back onto the path when needed.

Up ahead Star and Dave were both falling asleep. They were motivated back to wakefulness when Ron Ross and his daughter Tracey passed by. I was wide awake but really needed sugar. There were three massive climbs to get to the fire tower and I didn’t have any fast burning power to climb them. Nick had procured an enormous bag of orange slices at South Park and I put one in my mouth at the start of each climb, tried to suck in sugar through my gums, and spit it back out at the top. It worked! The third climb was a hill that Nick and I ran powerfully in a workout last fall. Since that time we have determined that it is “our” hill. We crested it, gave a manly fist-bump and headed for the fire tower.

The sun came up just as we hit the fire tower at mile 88. Suzanne Pokorny walked out the trail to greet us and when I saw her my heart leapt, and then exploded. It was like fireworks. I was so happy to see my friend, until the sudden realization that her presence here meant that she was no longer in the race. I assumed all night long that she would pass me. Instead she fought terrible heat exhaustion all the way to Hickory Ridge where she simply was too ill to go on. Instead of sleeping she came to find us. This sort of caring is why I love Mohican. This is why the world needs to learn from us.

The walk down to the bridge should have been easy, with the daylight and net downhill path, but I almost collapsed with exhaustion. I don’t know why, but this simple little downhill leg was almost my undoing. I was so confused when we got to the bridge that I had to beg Nick to stay with me, even though the bridge was supposed to signal the end of his duties. He jumped at the chance. Nick is such a wonderful person. He has been having health issues and hasn’t been running much. A 23 mile run through the night was too much to ask. But I asked anyway because I needed it. Nick was able to provide. More Mohican Magic.

At the fire tower Katie Huss, dressed in street clothes, jumped in to pace Steve. Leigh would need a break, they reasoned, if she was going to hang with Steve until the finish. Meanwhile Ted Nieman, Steve’s originally scheduled pacer, finished pacing his runner to the finish, and learned from Michael’s wife that Steve was back in the race. Despite the fact that he had not slept and despite the fact that he had 23 miles on his legs, Ted Immediately headed to the covered bridge and found Steve. He agreed to pace him to the finish line. He arrived in the nick of time because Steve was only ten minutes up on the cutoff time was facing a steep six mile climb up Hickory Ridge. He needed to start running…and Ted was the man who could make that happen.

”Twenty minute miles. They have to be 20’s”. Star was carefully monitoring the clock, which was now ticking loudly in their ears. She was terrified they would “time-out” at the Hickory Ridge aid station. Dave was staying cool though. He was willing to risk a photo-finish at Hickory Ridge if it meant he could then risk jogging on the knee during the last 5 miles. He reasoned that a jog now, if it failed, might take him out of the race…and so they walked…and lost time. And Star worried. And Dave never blinked.

Nick and I ran more than we walked on our way to Hickory Ridge. I was able to eat and drink again and was feeling…OK…for the first time in forever. Despite our well-being we learned that we were only 21 minutes ahead of the cutoff and so we ran nearly the entire rest of the race.

Just out of Hickory Ridge Dave had an episode that I will quote directly from Star’s account of the race:

“…His IT band had locked back up and his leg was straight and he could not walk. I asked him if it was like before and he said it was worse. We stood there, stuck in the moment. He tried to put weight on it and he simply couldn't. And my heart broke for him, for the miles and the hours and the fight and the ugliness of it all. Because it was over, five miles from the finish. I think he told me he couldn't get there. I honestly had no idea what to do. What to say. Even what to think. I just stood there, lost and hurting for him.

And then he lurched forward. And lurched again. And the lurch became a walk, and the walk became the fastest it had been in hours. And I stood up and I walked behind him and I prayed without words.

And then he ran.

And he kept running.

And suddenly, I had to get up there.”

Steve was hitting full stride as well. After arriving at Hickory Ridge in last place and with only 2 minutes to spare he peeled off a 12 minute mile on his way to a scene that I did not witness but would have given anything to see. Steve caught up to his friend Dave with 2 miles to go and the two runners became so jubilant at the unlikely sight of each other that Star and Ted found it necessary to eventually break up the party and goad them into running again.

Closing in on the finish the heat of the day was on us again. I heard “Wooooooo Hoooooo, one mile to go”. It was Tracey Ross, leading a smiling Ron to another finish. This race has been a part of Ross family lore forever and I was delighted to be included in this Father’s day celebration.

It seemed like everyone I knew was at the finish line and the cheering was as loud as I have ever experienced. Finishing very late in a race is a lot like dying young. The funeral of a young person is crowded because everyone they know is alive, and thus available to attend. The earliest finishers are running ahead of all of their well-wishers and actually have a lonelier finish. In fact, one of the people cheering for me was Jay Smithberger. Jay won the 50 mile race in a course record time of 7:55 and was greeted at the finish line by precisely…no one. In fact he had to go find a race official to let them know that he was finished. He was the first finisher on the day and all other runners were still out on the course. There is a U-tube video of Jay’s finish floating around that is both hilarious and sad all at once. I guess it really is lonely at the top. It seems unfair but I was moved by the support nonetheless. I crossed the line and powerfully hugged Nick. There was no way I could have made it without him, and Scott, and Casey.

I received a long awaited kiss from my dear friend and the woman who represents the true spirit of the race. Colleen Theusch, a.k.a. “The Lady in Purple” is perhaps the only person who has attended all of the Mohicans since the beginning. She lends a life force to the race that simply needs to be experienced to be believed. She is loved beyond measure and loves without limits. I knew she would greet me at the finish no mater how slow I was and the reunion was as rewarding as the buckle she pressed into my hand.

This was my ninth finish and so now I can dream of the big buckle, God willing. I stood at the finish for a few minutes.

Then it happened.

David and Stephen crossed the line together in 56th and 57th place. It was the happiest scene I have ever witnessed at this race.

The 2010 version of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run had 133 starters and 58 finishers. Half of the finishers came in during the final 2 hours of the race. Among the final runners to finish were Michael, myself, Stephen, David, The legendary Ron Ross, who tied the all-time Mohican record with 15 finishes, and Fred Davis who has 12 Mohican Finishes.

This group was capped off by Mike Heider, who earned his 1000 mile buckle with this, his tenth finish. He also earned the “Last of the Mohican’s” award for being the final finisher. The “Last of the Mohican’s” award is an honor possibly more valued than the Champion’s Trophy in this race, where perseverance is prized and rewarded like no where else.

About ninety minutes after my finish I was sitting in the shade with my friend, Shannon Fisher, when Karen Ray (K-Ray), the woman who shared her light with me on the way into Mohican Adventures the night before, appeared. Karen was smiling ear-to-ear and accompanied by her husband as she crossed the finish line in 31 hours. Karen had “timed out” at the Hickory Ridge aid station but chose to complete the final miles with the love of her life. I had believed that Stephen’s and David’s actions were the bravest story of the year, but I believe K-Ray shares this podium with them. She promises to return next year.

In last year’s blog post I stated my belief that Mohican-world sadly returns to torpor when the Last of the Mohicans crosses the finish line. Karen’s presence at the finish line as morning turned to afternoon proves that I was wrong. Mohican isn’t about race administrators and it isn’t about aid stations. In fact I’m not even sure that its about the trail. Mohican doesn’t go away when the clock strikes 30:00:00. Its still here. Mohican is about magic and Mohican is about us.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mohican Report: Part 2

If you want advice on how to finish a 100 mile run you could very easily find several thousand sources more reliable than me. I do know a few things about getting a middle age body to a finish line though and I believe that the most important thing that a runner can do…more important than nutrition, more important than shoe selection, even more important than training or fitness…is to maintain an optimistic mind; an even-keel mentality. A 100 mile participant should prepare for tough times but hope for the best. They should have an easy, light feeling of confidence augmented by a bottomless cup of hope. A 100 mile buckle-seeker will be alone on the trail with their own thoughts for a long, long, long (LONG) time. And so it is necessary that their mind, their companion, be a good traveling mate. No one wants to drive across the country with an individual who does nothing but bitch about the heat, or about the traffic. Or about the government. No one wants to be reminded over and over again that the gas tank is running low, or that the “check engine” light is on (Its probably just an oxygen sensor thingy, so try not to get too upset right?). And no one wants to ride along in a body for one hundred miles with a mind that is being an annoying jerk.

I know all of this. But as I headed into the Buckhaven aid station I couldn’t shut my brain up. I was worried and, in all honesty, probably a bit irritated.

So far everything was going OK. I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep the night before. Terri and Mark Lemke hosted several of us at their house. The hospitality and friendship calmed me and the headlamp-lit excitement of the starting line made me smile.

I wonder do lemmings have a feeling of camaraderie in the moments before they plunge over the cliff? I ask this because I know of no other species that seems as peaceful, happy, and excited than a group of runners heading out into a day that will bring a 50% chance of failure and a 100% chance of pain. The tension is wonderful. Any joke brings laughter and all exchanges bring sincere, heartfelt wishes of wellness. I feel certain that the mechanics of our day-to-day culture are faulty. I feel equally certain that the culture that exists on the starting line of a 100 mile run is some kind of solution. In fact, I believe there is a thread to all of this; the running, the growth, the friendships, the care. It might be that if we think about who we are long enough, and appreciate it, and analyze it, we might have some sort of large-scale answer to our world’s troubles. Could the answer to the world’s problems be born in the light of headlamps on the trails of North Central Ohio? Something is afoot. I have suspected this for a while now.

But heading into Buckhaven I was starting to get irritated. Physically I was doing fine. I was in the best shape of my life. I was an experienced Mohicanite (Mohicaner?). I had all of the correct types of tape, shoes, and lubricants. I had a medicine bag that would have put a shaman to shame. I had a special hat that was designed to suck the heat out of my head (that’s what the advertisement said), and just in case it didn’t, I had it loaded with ice. I was doing everything right…but my chances of getting to the finish line were being reduced nonetheless, and for no noble reason.

This year’s course included a section of largely open road from miles 19-42. You will never hear me complain in any meaningful way about heat, or hills, or mud, or bugs, or river crossings. But I’m going to say it here and I’m only going to say it once: putting a group of individuals out onto largely open roads in the middle of a day that would reach 92 degrees, for 23 miles, is the wrong decision and, on the surface, seems to lack an element of care. I will complain about it because I can. I finished this year’s race and so my concerns should not be misconstrued as sour grapes. Call me a wussy if you want to but I’m a wussy who finished. I finished due to the grace of God. So many others did everything right and did not finish. Their complaints could be misconstrued as defensive.

I was fortunate.

I heard no one complain about the heat and pounding sun during the race. Ultra marathoners are a notoriously tough breed. Complaining brings along its own heavy karmic baggage and so it should, and generally is, and was, avoided. In fact one would have been hard pressed to find an individual to complain ABOUT. Don Baun designs the race course and he has designed it every year since the inception of the race. This year Don faced a problem. The race could no longer start at the Mohican Wilderness Campground and the road sections had to go SOMEWHERE right? Don should be applauded and credited for his efforts regarding the race over the years. I hope that some day a statue of Don will be placed at the base of the North Rim trail. He deserves the recognition. This year he saved things by hastily redesigning the course. The problem is that last minute changes that occur when relationships erode rarely allow for creativity. There were other ways in which the course could have been routed that would have helped to prevent the mass implosion that occurred at this year’s race. But such planning takes time, and communication, and I believe that Don worked through his solution without adequate access to either.

It was hot this year. That’s a fact and heat is never anyone’s fault. But it has been 92 degrees and sunny at Mohican before. In fact it has been this hot several times. And the race never faced the crisis (I know it’s a harsh word but I’m using it anyway) that we faced this year, because in a woods one has an ability to slow down, regroup, get the core temperature under control, and move on. No such ability exists under an open sun. And for those who might sniff and point out that “This is nothing compared to Badwater” I will point out that Badwater, a race through Death Valley in July, requires its runners to have unlimited personal aid in the form of a vehicle that must stay with them at all times. The vehicle can be air conditioned and provide shelter and respite and easy access to ice. At one point on the road section of this year’s course runners were required to go more than 14 miles with only one aid station (and no other access to water). Furthermore they were banned from accepting aid from crews or vehicles during that section. Badwater also ADVERTISES itself as just exactly what it is…a race of survival. Does Mohican need to be a race of survival? Is that the race’s mission? And, if so, is it advertised as such? It is generally described as a very tough but wonderful choice for a first-time 100 mile experience. And as I ran down the hot roads, equipped with a hat filled with ice, 55 ounces of fluid, and a head full of the type of experience that 14 one-hundred miles starts (and several failures) can bring, I wondered how our first-time friends were doing?

Stephen Zeidner was a first timer. He was doing…OK. He should have been doing OK. After all, he was young, strong, fast, well trained, and had a personality ideally suited to this sort of adventure. He finished in the top ten in a prestigious 50K race a few months ago. Furthermore he had respect for the distance. He was running well but not doing anything stupid. The same could be said for his friend, David Huss. Dave finished Mohican last year as did their buddy, Michael Patton. All three were, in a word, ready. I did a training run with all three of them a few months ago on the Mohican course and severely strained my right quadriceps. I didn’t jar it, I didn’t trip, in fact I didn’t do anything to it…other than try to keep up. My connective tissue could not hang with these guys on a short training run. If they are the future of our sport then our sport has a fun, fast, strong future ahead of it. Despite this, by the beginning of the road section Michael was suffering from nausea, and by the end of this section Steve was feeling hints of the same. David had knee surgery in January and the knee was holding up fine. But his OTHER knee was aching a bit. Strange stuff. Rob Powell had more experience but only a bit more success. He could be found along the road, naked except for running shorts, sitting submerged in a drainage culvert trying to cool down.

Others suffered quietly.

According to a volunteer at the Rock Point aid station, the end point of the road section--the 42 mile check in, saw dead-eyed runners slumped in chairs, ill, considering dropping out. The volunteer told me “This was the type of stuff you would expect to see at 3 O’clock AM, not three in the afternoon”.

As for me? I was saved from my own mind by the sudden appearance of a friend who has developed a recent habit of saving me from my own mind. Suzanne Pokorny and I trained together for this race. We were in similar shape and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we would run a similar pace on race day. But 100 mile races seldom turn out that way. Runners leap-frog each other. Suzanne and I SPECIFICALLY decided, before the start of the race to NOT run together. Our reasoning was that any agreement to stick together would be a detriment to both of us. If Suzanne stuck with me during my inevitable bad patches, and I did the same for her, then simple math would dictate that we would be slowed by TWICE the number of bad patches. So the deal we made was “no deals”. Harsh but caring; that was our agreement.

Fate stepped in and made our agreement moot for a while. We happened to be moving at the same pace. We each had mini-bad patches and mini-good patches but were within hailing distance of each other for many miles. We tried to ignore the elements and instead challenged each other to name the worst song ever written. There were many candidates but the winner was “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” by Starship. The decision was based more upon the shameless sell out of the artist rather than the quality of the song (Shame on you, Grace Slick! I hope you spent the money on something that produced some good : )). We also talked about life, and past Mohicans. We visited with Roy Heger as he passed by and connected briefly with Ron Ross at an aid station. We learned that Fred Davis was somewhere behind us. We had a wonderfully long visit with Joe Jurczyk. Joe is a past race director of Mohican and the current race director of Burning River. I have known Joe forever and it was uplifting to see him back at his sport, in the event that he helped to make great. I wondered aloud about these legends being way back here in our part of the pack but chalked it up to some sort of wisdom on their part. We wondered how our other friends were faring. Neither of us spoke aloud of our fears that the race was eating its young. We didn’t know for sure and we didn’t want any confirmation if it was true.

Suzanne and I stuck together through the road section and into the green loop, past Rock Point at mile 42, and into South Park at mile 46. The trail into South Park was difficult for me. Suzanne moved out a bit ahead of me. I caught her and then she slowed a bit. Our bad patches were no longer in sync and my heart began to hurt. We would soon spend less time together. We would likely continue to leap frog each other but it would be at increasingly longer intervals. We had both danced this dance before and we knew that we were going to soon be disconnected. Neither of us spoke but, instead, as she passed me on a long downhill after South Park we decided to take five minutes and pretend that we were not in a race of any kind. We decided to be simply two friends walking through the woods on a beautiful summer day. And it was peaceful. And for a few minutes there was no worry. And we allowed ourselves to believe that this is how it would be. But soon the running started again, and then the leap frogging. We were separating and it was lonely. Like George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ the partnership was the only thing separating us from the other desperate, solitary, individuals around us. And it would end soon. To my absolute amazement it was Suzanne who dropped back first.

I arrived at the Fire Tower and walked into the heart of the Lemke family. They were gathered around Terri. Terri Lemke is the strongest runner I know; mentally the toughest runner I have ever known. And she was cramped and heaving and desperate. She had done nothing at all wrong. Its just how things were. I spoke with her. I wanted to do some good. I failed. I knew that she would recover so I felt empathy, not sympathy. But I also felt fear. If Terri could hurt like this what hope was there for me, really? When would it hit? I also saw the Pokorny family. They were ready to revive Suzanne. That was good. And Suzanne was a much better night-runner than I am. I told myself that she would pass me in the night and that it would be nice. I told myself these and other things. But mainly I just missed my friend.

The Fire Tower and the Covered bridge aid stations brought the first real news in a while and none of it was good. Horror stories were everywhere. So many of my friends were out of the race, others were alive but dying.

The sun was starting to fade and I was alone. It seems I’m always alone when the sun starts to fade. My own brand of nausea began at the 60 mile mark. I was alive but only because I had gone so slowly. And that meant that I had far less cushion than usual on the time cutoffs. The race basically had three types of runner left; the elite runners, the runners who had imploded and were marking time until their DNF, and runners whose conservancy led to time cut-off pressures. I was firmly ensconced somewhere between the latter two types.

And then I began to see ghosts.

And then I wasn’t alone any more.

And then it turned beautiful.

I began to see unexpected appearances of runners who had dropped from the race; individuals who had eschewed a shower and a meal for a bag of ice and a pair of sandals. They began to appear on the course. They cheered. They advised. They walked with the alive but wounded for a while. If the esprit-de-corps at the starting line signaled a solution for all that is wrong with the world then this behavior must be a symptom of everything that is already right in the world.

Runners on the course were caring for each other as well. No one seemed to ever pass anyone else without a solid conversation and a clear commitment from the runner being passed that everything was OK. I saw one runner give ALL of her water to another who was struggling. I saw food change hands. I overheard soothing talks, and uplifting messages from runners who were, themselves, in the depths of despair. Someone produced a piece of lamb’s wool and another produced a pair of scissors to cut it with. Together they fashioned a cushion for a third runner’s blistered foot. I saw Michelle Bischell at the Hickory Ridge Aid Station. She was getting her 2nd wind…or possibly 3rd or 4th wind…of the day. We exchanged encouraging words. Everything that might have been wrong with the race was being corrected by everything that was right about the race.

Running the last couple of miles into the Mohican Adventures aid station at 65 miles I was in dire straits. I was hours behind schedule, night was falling, and I had lost my light. A runner by the name of Karen Ray appeared. She invited me to call her K-Ray, and so I did. She was running powerfully but slowed to my pace and shared good advice, companionship, and a light with me.

My crew was there. I knew they would be. Before the race I told them to meet me at the Bridle Staging Area, another ten miles up the path. They correctly ignored me and made a plan to form a relay to pace me from this point on. Scott Wolf. Casey Clark. Nick Longworth. Holy Cow do I have good friends or what? We stood in the dark for a few minutes and for the first time ever I realized that I can no longer run 100 miles….by myself. I need help. Lots of help. And there’s something very beautiful about that.

We had no time to spare and so we quickly set out. I was too nauseous to eat or drink anything but seven-up and the aid station had run out of that. Nick was dispatched to buy some and meet us at the Bridle Staging area. I saw Mike Patton leaving the aid station as I walked in. He had a look that suggested that thoughts of stopping had invaded his mind. He was, however, accompanied his pacer, Kevin Martin, a recent MMT finisher (!) who wore an equally intense look that seemed to say “No way in hell!” My money was on Mikey buckling. What a tough tough dude. I tried not to listen to news but what I did hear was horrendous. I was informed that Steve was dropping out at the bridge. I also heard that Dave’s knee had locked up. There were conflicting reports about Dave. Some said he had left the aid station and was on his way to the bridge. Some said he was done. But no one seemed to believe that it made any difference. Dave was as tough as they come but he was a dead man walking. And his only real hope, the only person who could possibly motivate him to the finish line was stranded at an airport in Minneapolis.

I’ll post part three in a few days. This is very long but I will like reading it when I’m 70. If anyone is still reading you are welcome to come back. Some of the endings in this story are happy ones. I promise

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., 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.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Quick Mohican Result

I ran the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run on Saturday and finished in 29:26:27. I am very happy about it! This race was one for the ages. I have started Mohican 13 times and I have seen some bad conditions but I have never, ever seen it like this.  Not even close. The heat, coupled with a new course configuration that seemed to hit runners with the toughest parts of the course at the toughest times of day yielded a finishing percentage of only 38%. Because of this I had many friends...fine, experienced runners in wonderful condition, who were taken out by the heat. It made the day a sad one in many ways.

I have also never seen such cooperation, teamwork, and comaraderie among the runners. No one seemed to finish on their own. I saw many runners slowing down to help ailing friends and strangers. I saw people with only a few swigs of water left in a bottle offer it freely to someone who needed it worse than they did. It seemed that no one actually had any property or crew of their own. Rather, any resource, renewable or not was freely offered. Many of the runners who succumbed to heat exhaustion remained on the course to assist those still in the race.

It was our community at its best.

As for me: Wonderful friends like Suzanne Pokorny and Joe Jurczyk kept me company during the early miles and Scott Wolf, Casey Clark, and Nick Longworth poked, prodded, encouraged, cajoled, and cared for me in the late night hours. Nick was supposed to run eight miles with me. He ended up running 21 miles with me...and do you know why?

He did it because I needed him to.

It was grace. I mean that literally. It was an unearned blessing, an act of korima. I accepted it because I simply could not have succeeded without it.

Thats the kind of day it was. I will write several thousand words about the race over the next week or two. I'll do it in several installments. As usual I will write it so that I will remember it when I'm 70 years old. But you are welcome to read it if you like. Peace. --Mark

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Brother Donkey

"I regard my body as I regard brother donkey. I feed him, and I care for him, but I ride on him and he does not ever ride on me". --St. Francis of Assissi

That is my favorite ultra running quote.

Tomorrow I go to my favorite place on earth, to be with some of my favorite people on earth, to do one of my favorite things in life. Why then the stress and fear? I need to remember that this is all a gift. The fact that I'm standing on the starting line of a 100 mile run necessarily means that I have the health, security in life, spare time for growth, and financial means to do so. I need to remember that this is a blessing and I need to be grateful. I also need to remember that a person can go a long long way on a pair of blown legs but will crumble without joy.

Thank you.

Believe, believe, believe.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I know that I said that I would never include traning advice in this blog but I am going to cut-and-paste a note that I wrote recently to a friend re: tapering for the upcoming Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run. I should be forgiven for not keeping my word on this because: 1. noone wants my opinion anyway and so this one will go unused, and; 2. Sometimes I don't keep my word; this is one of those times.

Here is the note. I may or may not have changed the identity of my friend to protect her privacy.

Dear Terri Lemke of Loudonville, Ohio,

Thank you for writing to me and specifically asking my opinion regarding tapering. Thank you, also, for insisting that I go on at great length about this important subject!

Tired legs are one thing, but...

Really truly what we are doing in a 100 mile run is processing a slow trickle of poison for hours and hours. This is a tremendous stressor on our endocrine system (kidneys, liver, adrenal glands, spleen). The endocrine system adjusts chemicals so that we can digest food, maintain blood pressure, have an even level of electrolytes. Running 100 miles is really all about the endocrine system. When is the last time your heard of a runner dropping out due to being "tired" or having "sore legs"....almost never!!! Instead you hear of people becoming nauseous, hypothermic, overheating, becoming confused or disoriented.....these things are signs that the ENDOCRINE SYSTEM isn't operating well...signs that it has gone haywire.

You have got to go into 100 miles with a few weeks of having not been exhausted, or dehydrated, or suffering electrolyte imbalances etc. In other words your endocrine sytem needs 3 weeks of near total peace and even if your legs feel good you have to taper.

If you are doing Mohican you need to REST NOW!!! And I mean 50 miles this week, 40 next week, and 10-15 in the week before the race. No more runs over 20 miles and only 2-3 more runs of 10 miles or more. I know you will be climbing out of your skin and you might gain a pound or two but this is what you should do.

I will write more later regarding my opinion on that investment you made recently in the factory that makes solar powered flashlights.

All my best, --Mark