I have run enough marathon+ distance races now to know that aches and pains are simply going to come. There is no shortcut. I know this. I either accept the discomfort and move on or I suffer defeat. I also know that anything can go wrong, at any time — that a successful race is never a given and the best runners are those who are able to adapt on the fly.
Yet I somehow still seem to underestimate just how uncomfortable I will be at times and how I might possibly struggle to keep up the fight. In my mind, it’s always a given. In reality, it is much harder.
In preparation for the Kennekuk Road Runners’ 22nd Annual Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run, a race that typically features hellaciously high temps and unforgiving humidity, I heat trained in winter gear at high noon and suffered through several long road runs outside of Houston, TX, just so I would be ready for whatever mother nature would throw at me. I put myself in painful situations and prepared my mind to reinterpret the norm.
Naturally, August 11, 2012 would bring unseasonably cool temperatures (mid-high 50s for low, low 80s for the high) to the Danville area, I would be bothered by an old nemesis that had been dormant since October 2011 and I would realize that one can train and train and train, but that there really is no substitution for the feelings associated with running 50 miles other than running 50 miles.
The Night Before
Me, my sister Cara and my friend Jerret all arrive together at the Kennekuk Cove County Park where we will camp along the course prior to the race. It turns out that even though I have recently acquired a strong taste for all things outdoors, I am still an idiot when it comes to putting things together, as is evident by my inability to put up our tent. Luckily, ten or so special aides jump in to
make fun of assist me. These helpers are just some of the 30 or so runners from my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups, fellow ultra junkies who know how to have a good time. It turns out we’re all having such a good time that the tent is thwarting our focus. Finally, Tony and Alfredo save the day and I can begin my pre-race routine.
I have ONE beer, eat a salad and some pasta, then try to relax as much as I can as the group gathers around to share race stories and good cheer. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to calm my nerves when there is so much excitement in the air. I’ve been looking forward to this race for a long time now, mostly because of how many familiar faces I will see on the 3.29 mile looped course and how good I feel knowing that, right now, I am in the best shape I have ever been, my whole life.
My sister and I have already had an EPIC week, so I’m taking those positive vibes, channeling them through my mind with deep belly breaths, and being confident in my training. I begin to yawn, so I say good night to everyone and retire to the tent.
The air is cool. Dew all around. The chill peps me out of my zombie-like state. Did I sleep last night? A little, but not much. Cara’s allergies had her coughing most of the night and my rookie camping ass didn’t bring a soft base layer for the tent, so I rolled around on uneven ground most of the evening. Still, it’s rare that I get a lot of sleep the night before a race anyway, so I’m not too bothered. Instead, I go about my normal routine, which includes a liberal application of heavy-duty lubrication (you knew that was coming, right?).
I make sure I proudly display my red short-shorts around the start/finish area so everyone can get their taunting out of their system (I say this in the most endearing of ways, because I know the shorts are insanely short, and are considered a running fashion faux pas by some — that some not including me, obviously).
I check in with my official scorer, Pat, the man who will be recording each of my laps as I pass by throughout the day. I introduce myself and shake Pat’s hand. He seems just as excited as I am, so I know he and I are going to have a connection — whether he knows it or not. “Nice meeting you, Pat. I will see you soon!” I say as I head back towards the tent.
My mom arrives to help my sister crew the race. I give Mom a big hug and marvel at the shirt she has on! Both she and Cara are wearing custom made shirts that read “Jeff’s Crew” on the back. Wow! How awesome is that! I know I am spoiled having a family that is so supportive of my never-ending running adventures. I don’t take that for granted. Having them involved by crewing my races, sharing in my ups and downs, serves as a real mental boost. Makes me feel special.
I go over last minute instructions with them both, but Cara has done this before, so we all feel confident and are ready to go.
7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.
As the race director makes his announcements, I position myself at the front. My goal for this 8 hour run today is to be in the mix. Ultimately, I want to run no less than 50 miles, hoping that is enough to get me another top ten finish; but deep down, I want more. I want to push and see what happens. That doesn’t mean I am dumb enough to kill myself early on, but I do plan to straddle the line between stupid and daring.
We take a moment of silence to remember Scott Hathaway, a remarkable runner who died on the course five years ago.
I dart out, being led by the man who has owned this event since 2004, Scott Colford of Logansport, IN. He has the course record (61.72 miles) and has won it every year he has participated. I figure he is going to set a pretty quick pace to drop as many of us as he can, and, indeed, he does just that as we settle around 6:30 to 7:00 minute pace out of the gate.
As we hit the first turn onto shaded rocky trail, we all take a moment to touch the memorial set up for Scott Hathaway — a salute to a fellow ultra runner. We all touch it for good luck.
About a mile in and already the lead pack is well separated from the rest. Colford takes off at a pace I simply can’t match — not this early anyway. There is a young fellow with him and a slim runner dressed in Marathon Maniac gear chasing close behind, but I settle into my own 7:00-7:30 pace, and focus on memorizing the course.
From my training I learned that one way to beat the monotony of a looped course is to know its every nook and cranny, to know where to accelerate, where to slow down, what tangents to run to shorten it up, to isolate any spots that may offer trouble along the way. This course is mostly grass and dirt trail, with some occasional pavement. There’s one tricky spot in the middle that throws a gauntlet of uneven footing highlighted by a couple of ankle traps. There is one relative downhill section, just after the first aid station at the halfway point, where one can genuinely take advantage of free speed. And there is one significant uphill section that I decide to run the first few times, but know I will have to walk at some point.
I finish the first loop in a quick 23 minutes. I run by the tent where my mom and sister are waiting for me (something they will do a lot of all day long!). I assure them I’m good to go and I zoom on by.
I make eye contact with my scorer, Pat, we establish the first of many connections we’ll have throughout the day and now I start to think about what I’m really in for: 7 hours and 37 more minutes of RUNNING!!!
After a couple of steady 25-minute loops, and no change in the three leaders up front, I settle into the chase pack that offers another familiar face, John Kiser from Grayslake.
“I remember you,” I offer to John. “You blazed by me at the Earth Day 50K with just three miles left.”
“Yeah, I was feeling good that day,” he says with a good-hearted smile.
We carry on, running and chatting here and there with another runner, Gary, who hails from Mokena, IL. For the next several loops, we ebb and flow, picking up, slowing down, chatting every so often and trying to catch up to one another just as much. I feel especially confident on the down and uphill sections, so I tend to drop them there only to have them catch up to me soon after. In fact, I crown Gary as “The Accelerator”, because no matter how big a gap I put between us on the hills, he seems to have no problem closing it with his speed.
Back and forth we go… back and forth for one loop, two loops, three loops. Back and forth. Back and forth. UGH! The more we exchange positions, the more irritated I become. I can’t seem to drop him. My mind is losing focus! But before I can battle any of my thoughts, another obstacle is kicking me in the butt. Literally.
And I’ve nowhere to hide.
Piriformis syndrome. A real pain in the ass. Deep down inside the gluteus maximus. A condition I have been dealing with off and on for a few years now, it is most positively rooted in the fact that my day job has me sitting for eight hours a day. It probably doesn’t help that, when I’m not running or working, I am usually writing, from a sitting position. The only way to beat it is to apply great pressure to the piriformis itself — a muscle that excels at being elusive to even the deepest of deep tissue massages, or settle for a series of elaborate stretches that help elongate it.
Unfortunately, none of those remedies are very applicable during a race. It flared up on me during the 2011 Chicago Marathon, but I was able to run it off after 20 minutes or so. That isn’t happening today. I’ve been redirecting my attention from the aches for almost an hour now but as I finish up my 7th loop, this time in 27 minutes, I slow down considerably as I approach my crew. I bark orders at my sister, then immediately feel guilty for letting my frustrations dictate my voice.
“Sorry,” I offer. “I’m just not feeling so great right now.” I try to explain.
Supergirl (yes, THAT Supergirl) is there with my mom and sister now, and she offers to help, but I know there is nothing that can be done for this royal pain in the butt, so I just grab some grapes and a new bottle and head off knowing I’m going to have to slow it down.
I think I was sorta short with Supergirl just now, too. What is wrong with me?
In fact, my mom’s notes from the race at this point read “Shitty”, and well, yeah. That’s about how I feel right now.
10:00 a.m. to 1 p.m.
I want to scream. But I can’t. I can’t be a baby now. I just gotta suck it up. Or… drop.
That’s right. I could drop. I could just stop now and say I gave it my all.
But… am I giving it my all?
No. Yes, my butt hurts. Can I still move forward without causing any further damage? Yes. It’s just a butt-ache! It will go away!
There goes Gary, flying by me. For the last time. I can’t keep up.
Damn it! I should just DNF. Who cares?!? It’s stupid if I’m not having fun!
Why aren’t you having fun? That’s no one’s fault but yours… mine. Suck it up, Jeff! This shit isn’t easy. It’s supposed to be tough!
Of course, it is. Just keep moving.
John flies by me. A few minutes later two guys I passed earlier in the race whiz by me. A few minutes later, another. I’m fading.
So what? Be glad you’re moving, dummy. Be glad you’re alive, running around this park with your mom and sister waiting on your every need, a friendly face around every bend. Wake up!!!
There’s Alfredo up ahead. Let’s go catch him and see how he’s doing.
“Jeff!” he says, excited to see me. “How are you doing?”
I want to tell him about my issues, about how I was in 4th and now I’m in… I have no idea where I am now and that my butt hurts and that it’s hot now and I want to be sitting down with something cold in my hand and I am feeling sorry for myself and I am thinking about dropping and THEN…
“I’m doing okay,” I say.
We run along together for a short bit and he spontaneously tells me that I inspire him. He tells me that he uses me to push himself to be better — this coming from a man who went from being a 250+ pound alcoholic to a sober, slim running beam of light! Wow.
I really am being stupid.
“Thanks, Alfredo. You inspire me too.”
In fact, he’s inspiring me RIGHT NOW.
I dart off, fully aware of the lingering pain in my butt, but accepting (finally) the fact that mulling about it in my own head isn’t going to help me run any faster. I’m going to run this next little bit for Alfredo.
Then I catch up to another friend, Art. I’m going to run this little bit for Art.
And there’s Jeremy. I’m gonna run this little bit for Jeremy.
And Eric. And Kelly. And Tony. AND MY LORD I COULD RUN THE WHOLE REST OF THIS RACE ON THE ENERGY OF ALL MY FRIENDS!!!
I may be slowing down considerably as I roll past my crew and check in with Pat for my 10th, 11th and 12th loops, but I see I’ve logged 39.48 miles with two hours to go and suddenly I am ready to MOVE AGAIN!
1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Pain in the ass? WHAT pain in the ass? Move along, son!
Okay, so it’s not the most conventional of running mantras, but it’ll work. Especially now, since this is a race against the clock! I have two hours to run 10 miles, something that I could normally do with my eyes closed and feet shackled. Of course, it’s a bit harder with 40 miles already in the legs, but I get another boost of inspiration from my friend, Whitney Richman, who sneaks up on me as I start running out of the start/finish area aid station.
I am officially getting “chicked”.
So what? It’s Whitney! Whitney is a badass.
She is currently running in the first female position. I respect her speed as much as her toughness.
“You started running again just as I pass you,” she says jokingly.
“It’s all good, Whitney. You’re going to pass me. And you’re going to win! Great job!”
Getting “chicked” (passed by a female competitor) can be a big stain on the psyche of many males. I used to think it was just out of jest, but apparently some dudes do take it very seriously. I am not one of those dudes. I started off in road running, where I was getting beat by fit, fast and elite women quite regularly. What the hell do I care if a girl passes me? She must be fast if she’s blowing by me so more power to her!
All I care about now is getting my 5o miles in.
And I’m gettin’ it now. In fact, I even have a little bounce in my step. I keep a decent 9:00-9:30 pace at this point and just concentrate on moving forward. For a little while I run with another Kennekuk regular named Scott who tells me this is his 20th year running Howl. 20 YEARS! WOW! Eventually he runs on past me but I definitely appreciate the conversation while it lasted.
My pal Siamak catches up to me and we run together for a while. Hmm, been in this situation before, I thought. I could get used to this! It really is comforting to have a familiar face join you in your most primordial pits of pain, if only to distract the mind and body from feeling so crappy.
We eventually separate, and once again, I concentrate on catching up to the next friend, and then the next.
I finish my 13th loop in 33 minutes, a whole five minutes faster than the 12th loop as my mother quickly points out.
“Why do I do this stuff again, Mom?”
“Because you’re going to feel really good once you’re done.”
“Exactly.” I knew the answer. Deep down I know that. But sometimes, in the middle of it all, it’s easy to forget. It’s nice to be reminded by someone who has your best interests at heart.
“I’m getting my 50 miles.” I declare.
The 14th loop is a blur. Really. To keep my mind from doing annoyingly instantaneous calculations that never seem to accumulate fast enough, I force myself to look down at the ground in front of me, so when I eventually do look up and see that I’m done with the loop, it doesn’t seem like it took that long.
“I got you down for 14 loops, headed out for your 15th, Jeff.” says Pat.
“Thank you, Pat!”
I like Pat. I really like that guy. Something about the way he says my name every time and looks me straight in the eye and raises his hand so I know he is talking to me… I don’t know him, but I think I know that he’s an awesome dude and he probably has a whole circle of friends and family who would back that up.
This last loop is for Pat.
I get to the bottom of the great big hill. I power hike my way up and thank the aid station volunteers at the top. Nearly ever time I crested that big old thing I immediately craved ice cold water. And there, every time at my service, were the kind souls at the top of that hill with just that very thing to ease my pain. This last swig of water is for you, awesome aid station workers!
Up ahead of me is Jerret. We’re runnin’ this in together.
I finish the 15th loop alongside Jerret. We have 20 minutes left, but since we don’t have enough time to make another full 3.29 mile loop, we now have to hit the quarter mile out-and-backs as many times as we can before the eight hours are finally up. I need just two out-and-backs to make 50 miles.
I run three and finish with 50.85 miles.
My mom and Cara are there to hold me up, because now that the race is over, I don’t feel like using my legs much at all. I lean on them both as we make our way back to the tent so I can begin the healing process.
As usual, tears start to fall out of my face like a big old softy.
“Why does this always happen to me, Mom?” I ask.
She says something about serotonin overdrive or something like that and I realize it doesn’t much matter. These are tears of joy. I fought the fight today and I won, because I’m still standing.
I didn’t give up. And in the end I won my age group, finishing 8th overall.
– – –
Everything else was just gravy. The folks who put on this race are awesome people! As the RD repeatedly said, they love to party. We ate, we drank, we hung around for a kick-ass awards ceremony where our New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups took home some major bling. We hung out and just relaxed knowing that we all did something special out there while most of America was probably busy sitting down, watching awful reality TV, eating something engineered in a chemistry lab.
Congratulations to Whitney Richman who won the women’s race, coming in 6th overall! And, of course, a tip of the cap to Scott Colford, the winner and STILL champion of Howl.
I’ll be baaaaaaack…
Also, thanks, Brian for all these fantastic pictures!