The snow was still falling and blowing and piling up on the path. The treading wasn’t too bad but footing was not like it would be if we were running on dry unencumbered ground. Trail runs are generally more technical and trickier than road races and this one was providing its own uniqueness. Still as far as I was concerned it was better than running in 90*F heat where your body can’t cool down. The course called for 6 repeat loops approximately 4.4 miles each. The first part of the course was hilly and with the blowing snow I concentrated mostly on getting used to the conditions and staying on the correct trail. There were two ruts in the deep snow packed trail similar to what a tractor would make that we were running through. Soon an etiquette formed where most participants ran in one rut while others passed in the other. With more traffic running on the one side it made for easier running but as you passed you would have to cross through a snow barrier into the less trod side where snow would accumulate. Having started back a little further than I would have liked I was spending considerable time and energy navigating back and forth every time I caught up to slower runners that needed passing. Soon we came to the first aid station where cheerful volunteers handed out water and Gatorade. I took a water slowed to make equipment adjustments and headed off down the hill that preceded the aid station tent. The rest of the first lap was much like the rest. After the initial part of the course was behind us the trail became more forested and thus sheltered. Everywhere the snow had laid a thick white billowing blanket. It felt good to be out in nature moving. After mile 2 I began to heat up and removed my hat, storing it away in my coat pocket. The trail was sidewalk thin and was fuller than I expected as both marathoners and half marathoners shared the course. As the race grew participants were beginning to spread out and establish their own pace. Still I had to do more passing than I would have liked and often times needed to go between runners with an, “excuse me I’m coming right between you,” through the snowy center hump, every time with a “thank you” and a “great pace” to go along with a smile. Mile 3 was mostly flat and eventually just after we climbed a snowy turn up hill mile 4 beckoned. Shortly after that we looped back toward the start/finish stretch.
Things began to become congested again along the straight away. I looked at the course outline on the race website beforehand but really when I’ve never been to an area before course maps are all basically an unlearned language to me. You have to experience the land a few times before you get the hang of it. As it was I wasn’t the only person slightly confused. As I came across earlier starters and some faster paced runners on the straight away I heard some of them comment about the confusion as well. Of course it all made sense if we were running 6 equal and identical laps we would need to cross our tracks going the other way at least once each lap. I congratulated every runner that was already going the other way as they ran by me on their first lap and carried on through the start line where an aid station had been set up behind it. I grabbed a Gatorade cup and stopped to walk as I consumed it and an energy gel. I circled about and headed back in the direction I came, back into the blowing snow. Things started to make sense to me. Maybe I was just waking up.
Like I had just done I smiled and pepped up each person coming the other way as I headed out for lap number two and they came in to finish their first. It was a relief to get the first lap out of the way and I came to a corner where incoming runners headed towards the start/finish area that I had just come from and outgoing runners split off in the opposite direction. This mimicked the route we took on the first lap and the course was starting to make some sense to me. As I headed into the hilly and exposed expanse of the first portion of the trail there was some congestion as I started running into some of the slower mid-pack half marathoners. Blowing and fresh snow made for some trudging conditions especially when passing out of the main ruts.
My body temperature had definitely risen with the morning’s activity and despite conditions my toque had made its way into my coat pocket. My earlier prediction had come true and I knew that I was one thin orange neon sweater over dressed. As I made my way up and down the hills through to the first aid station the arm band with my cellular phone had slid off of my sweater and into my coat’s sleeve. What a pain. I couldn’t quite slide it back in place and had to run with it until I got to the aid station where I could pull over and take off my coat to access it. When I pulled up to the fuel stop I finally did have at it. I snapped it back in place as tight as it would hold onto the slippery yellow material and ran downhill trying to put my coat on. It might have been quicker to just take the time to put my coat on at the top of the hill. Running through the slippery snow downhill while trying to reach back for my coat sleeves was tougher than I expected. A ways up I finally had it all back together and concentrated on the task at hat. A number of folks commented on my hatless head. I suppose they thought me a little off. I thought we all were. I zoned back into the ebb and flow of activity.
As the trail turned into the forest the canopy of branches that acted as a pseudo roof over the trail grew thick with a framework of white fresh snow. As we ran under it branches that became over burdened with cover dropped snow onto the unsuspecting below. It was like I was running in an A.J. Casson painting.
Between miles 3 and 4 of lap 2 (between 7.5 and 8.5 miles overall) the usual suspects started to act up; my aching left knee and its corresponding hip which compensates for it when it isn’t well. The galoshes that were adding traction to my trail shoes were also starting to pinch my toes together. It was all too early for this type of nonsense so I tried to put any pain(s) out of mind and continued through. Still I rolled through the crowded out and back area into the finish/start turn around in pretty good shape. Covered in snow and despite equipment corrections I had run the 2nd lap at near perfect pace just over a minute less than my first easy paced lap (lap 1 41:23 for 4.4 miles, lap 2 in 40:12). I felt pretty good and took time to down another cup of electrolyte replacement drink and a 2nd energy gel. As I started out again I felt a funny flap, flap under my left foot.
It was the rubber traction devices I had strapped to my shoes. One had slipped off of the toe box. I had to pull over into the deep snow to snap it back into place as runners passed me in both directions. When I got started again I made sure to stay positive and encouraging to others as they passed or I passed in either direction. Encouraging words are a boost to both those receiving and also to those that proffer them.
I tried to bear down and focus on lap three. Laps one and two I wanted to take it easy a bit not really knowing what my conditioning was like. Less than two weeks earlier my training had been interrupted by a nasty spell of bronchitis that had ripped through our household. I hadn’t really been able to test myself in the winter conditions like I would have liked and it definitely had taken some of my upper level oxygen intake away. I tried running the first day I had felt better but that hadn’t gone so well. Have you ever tried running with bronchitis? Think gag reflex. It isn’t very pleasant. My conditioning would just have to be what it was. Still, even though I didn’t get out into the winter to train as much as I would have liked before marathoning I could rely on substantial winter running experience.
I knew that short quick controlled steps would serve me better in the snow than would long seeking ones. I knew that short breaths would easily pull the oxygen in that I needed to help fuel my aerobic activity if I controlled my pace and that long gasping ones would only burn my lungs. I knew to trust myself. I knew that runners that passed me too early would come back on their own. I knew that the cold wouldn’t freeze me or that the snow wouldn’t melt me away. I knew that if you ran long enough into the snow and wind with a knit hat on icicles could form on your ear lobes and also that the moment you were exposed to any heat they would melt off. I knew the value of a good coat and I knew when two pairs of socks were the prudent choice. I knew to have faith and I knew to have fun. I knew that one step in front of the other would get the job done.
I was starting to get the hang of the trail or déjà vu or maybe a little bit of both. This was the Ground Hog Day Marathon after all. This time when we rolled into the flat section between miles 3 and 4 of the trail I looked to my right and realized there was a river there. “When did that happen,” I thought? It was covered in a slushy ice but was still moving rather well. It was the perfect complement to a scene that included that same snowy canopy that I described earlier. My knee was starting to ache substantially more and I knew that the pinching pain of my toes would only get worse. I still had over a half marathon to go so I needed to draw my attention away from such trivialities as my aches. I decided to focus on getting through the start finish area in as close to two hours as I could. I have run half splits in between 92 and 95 minutes in the past so two hours would be a bit slow for me but uh, this time I was running in the snow!
Some of the faster half marathoners worked hard to finish strong. I egged on for them, “That’s the way to finish” I would bellow as they went by me. I pushed through and worked hard to get my half time right around 2 hours and came through in just over, shaving time off the previous lap, splitting lap number three in 39:50 for 4.4 miles. As always when running a marathon it feels good to get the first half over with. After all I still had 13.1 miles to go.
This day the unevenness of the path and the constant struggle to pick my legs out of the snow with each step was taking its toll on me. After gel number 4 and a quick regrouping with some fluids I was off again. My knee pain had worsened and I knew that I would have to ease into it. Lap number four was going to be difficult.
Eventually the knee pain grew worse. My double socks had also scrunched up and my toes were now being pinched into ever worsening shape. Blisters were undoubtedly forming. Also eventually the snow ceased. I just can’t remember when. Time blurred. I began to lap many of the slower half marathon runners who were still on their last lap. As I did the math I realized that even later on lap 5 I would still be passing the back of the pack half marathoners. I guess things couldn’t be that bad? I trudged along. We were all in the same boat facing the same conditions. I was thankful for my experience, my strengths and even wrought joy from my weaknesses. I passed a kind couple who asked me what lap I was on and if I was doing the full. When I replied, “four and full.” They cheered me on even though they were a lap down and in the same event. I smiled and wished them well. I limped on. Some of the joy had passed and I struggled, some of the faster runners passed me as I tried to keep track of them. This time as I came upon the hill that took us up to the flatter stretch where the start/finish promenade combined outgoing and incoming runners I was thankful as much as anything else. I tried to keep track of the outgoing runners as much as I could to judge my place. It was mostly easy to pick out the slower half runners by their pace. Some of the faster full runners looked strong. I didn’t feel strong. I wondered how I looked?
I had now finished four laps, 17 miles. I took my time consuming one more gel and some fluids, sucked in some wind, visualized success and took off. Yes, four laps were done (or YES! four laps were done!!). Some others ran by me as I took my time consuming calories. I kept track of them to the best of my abilities. Four hours was still in my grasp but only barely now. I had lost nearly 8 minutes running lap four in 47:22. My goal now was to finish lap 5. If I could get this lap in… then if I had to pull myself hands and knees to the finish line I could get another 4.4 more miles in to finish. A young fellow wearing ski goggles and a heavy coat passed me as we climbed the hill to my favorite aid station. He chuckled thinking I was funny being out without a hat. Truth be told I thought he was a bit funny in his heavy hat, coat and goggles. We laughed together. I began to enjoy myself again. I reviewed my goals. Finish. This was after all the first of four marathons I would be running in four months. I wanted to run myself into shape. I was doing that. Maybe if conditions are perfect I would be able to take one more crack at sub 3:15 when I run the Barcelona marathon, the third in my spring series and the only “non-tough” one of the bunch. I wanted to stay healthy so that I could enjoy “keeping” up with our son as he grows up. I was doing this in part for charity to make a better world. To do all of those things I needed to finish this race in healthy condition so as I could go on to the next step of my journey.
I eased back on the throttle and even though some portions were difficult I enjoyed the beauty of the scenery. I chatted up my fellow competitors and cheered them on. I began to enjoy the riverside run. It was breathtaking. Soon I came to where this had all begun. Lap number 5 was in the books.
Lap 5 was much like lap 4. I had finished it 9 seconds faster in 47:13. My streak of 9 straight 4 hour marathons was cooked. This time I was a bit quicker making the turn but I still took my time to fuel up. I filed away every single person who went by me. Just before I began to run again a lady passed me in a purple jacket. I know how these things work. I know four miles. It is one lap around my subdivision at home that I run 3-5 times most every week. I know that mile 21 and change is way too early to make a break in a marathon. I know that mile 24 is too early to make such a break. I buoyed. I steadied. I set my determination. I might not catch everyone within my reach but I would try. I knew that naturally some would just come back to me. Adrenaline and competition are funny things. I was determined to get this finished.
I cruised out. I had already decided that there would be no difference to me if I ran 4:10 or more. I just wanted to finish strong. I took it easy during the first hilly portion of the track and made a special point to flash my biggest grin and thank every single spectator that had braved the conditions to cheer us on and every one at the aid stations who had helped us all day. I felt good, rejuvenated even. I ran strong down the big winding hill and was careful of my footing. My focus seemed to have returned. Slowly I started to reel in some of my competitors and again lap some of the more evenly paced full runners. I made sure to wish each well and encouraged everyone to push strongly on. Off in the distance I glimpsed ski goggles. Where was purple jacket? I continued to run strong into the woods. I held a little back knowing that it was still too soon to let go. I had faith that there would still be runners coming back to me. I needn’t go to them. I began catching up to familiar faces and worked steadily as I went by each one. The leaders would be finishing now a few even having lapped me. That made me feel good. My strength was calm, strong and determined. I was self motivated to finish with my best effort. As we wound through turns I glimpsed purple jacket still running strong a few winds of the road in front of me. Was I gaining on her or was she distancing herself from me. What was the gap between us 30 seconds, a minute, more? I passed long blond hair who had blown by me as we turned lap 4. She was fading fast. I came upon others pulled over and then carried forward.
When we turned along the river where mile 3 through 4 stretched ski goggles was waiting for me. He was fading. I was surging. Instead of sprinting I stayed the course and took my time catching up to him. With steady pace I pulled along the side of him and encouraged him to run in with me. There is nothing but good feelings when you pull someone home with you in a race of this difficulty, even if they in turn pull away from you. Alas I ran forward myself. Not too far off was purple jacket. I could see her surge and then fall back then surge again. “Stay strong,” I said. I concentrated on a quick leg turnover and keeping my stride rate up. Most to all of these competitors I was coming up upon were younger and fitter. Were they stronger though?
I pushed. I worked with my hips and big gluteus muscles. I passed a few others. Purple jacket surged again. She was gaining ground but we still had more than a mile to go. Then she slowed and walked. I pushed forward. This was my goal. I kept going and when she started to run again I was still gaining on her. I was determined now to catch up before the hill that would take us through the last mile. Soon the gap became steps, then less and then I was edging in front. I encouraged my foil to run in with me. I told her how strong her running had looked when she blew by me at the start of the lap. She picked up and was determined to try. That’s the way to fight! That’s the way to give it your all. That’s the way to finish strong. Give it your best shot. Give it your all. Never give up. Never give in.
I pushed myself now. I came to the big swinging hill and noted the ice that had now formed on it. I drove up it and toward the 4 mile marker. When I arrived there I was alone. In the distance were three young fellows who I had ran with for a bit earlier. I had let them go on ahead wisely to save my knee but now they gave me one more goal to go after. My gait grew and I did my best to stride into a sprint. The finish line was now in view, maybe 200 meters ahead. I looked left. I looked right. I looked behind. I wasn’t going to win. I wasn’t going to win my age group or even garner a top ten finish but I was going to surge home and I was going to do it alone.
And then…and then it was how it had always been. I was back where I had started. I had finished marathon number 10, the Inaugural Ground Hog Day Marathon on February 2nd 2013 in Grand Rapids, Michigan under very special, very unique, very difficult conditions. At the finish line greeting the runners stood Don Kern the race director. I made a special point of thanking him. He had organized my bookend 1st and 10th marathons. Without people like him who go the extra mile to organize events in the community the adventures to be had would be far fewer and communities would be far less enjoyable. I waited for ski goggles and purple jacket to give them high fives and to congratulate them. I cheered some others through. I collected my medal and stiffly had some pictures taken. That darned “smart” phone turned out useful after all. I never caught the three young musketeers but there will be other races. In fact there will be one more in less than a month now, the promised to be tough Umstead Trail Marathon in the William B. Umstead State park in North Carolina.
My calculations had my final lap in at 43:33, close to 4 minutes faster than my fifth lap and faster than the final 4.4 miles of my 3:14:33 personal record run under near perfect conditions on a fast course in Toronto a few years prior. That’s the way to finish!
Alas I still had one more marathon to run that day. Stiff, wet and chilled, medal draped around my neck, hat now on to keep me warm I had to make the mile or so trek back to my car! Off I went one step at a time. This would take…
Alongside pulled a fellow competitor who had run the half marathon. Someone had given her a ride to her car and now she was paying forward. I thanked her graciously but declined, offering up that there would be others in much more need of a ride than I. I continued, dazed. A little ways up the same car pulled alongside me again this time with a couple of passengers riding in the back. When I was offered a second chance I took it. How many people do you know that would offer smelly, cold, wet and dirty marathoners a mile ride? When we got to our cars I asked our savior her name specifically so I could thank her when I wrote this. Lisa thank you! We could use a few more in this world of your ilk.
When I arrived back at the hotel room it all sunk in when I got the biggest smile from my little guy. I put my medal around his neck and told him that I had won that for him. He smiled further, grinning from ear to ear as he wore it proudly. He gave me a great big hug and I picked him up. After I put him down to change. I took off my coat and sweaters. He gasped and said, “Daddy you hurt!” Then he pointed at my chest. I was going to reply that yes I was hurting a little bit but it was okay, thinking of the stiffness in my legs but when I looked down I could only chuckle. My shirt was stuck to my chest and about two thirds of the way up there were two big blood stains. Ah, the dreaded runner’s red nipples. That would hurt in the shower!
I ended up tied for 38th overall, 39th officially either losing the tie breaker alphabetically or for some other reason (out of 143 brave participants), 4th in my 35-39 year old age group and 37th amongst males. I talked to the winner after and he thought conditions were tough. He was a 2:30 runner and finished in 2:58:33. For someone of his quality to be 30 minutes off his time speaks volumes. Slightly brain dead and low on glycogen I only smiled. In retrospect I found them challenging but not impossible. Collaterally I had developed some blisters on the underside and side to side of some toes and I’ll be lucky to keep all of my toe nails. Other than that. I’m back to training lightly getting ready for continued adventures.
When my wife called later in the day to check on us she asked me if I had fun. I thought for a minute before replying easily, “YES!”
Now that’s the way to finish.
Never give up or give in.
Peace and love all.
End of part 2
Next up; the writer’s cut.
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