The Night is a Lonely Goat
During the day I had been wearing a blue shirt that read on the front, “Run Like an Animal.” After I passed one of the aid stations, someone called out to me, “Which animal are you?” My initial replay was garbled. “Gazelle,” I said, but then thought better of my answer. I recalled the story of Rick Trujillo, the Colorado Mountain runner who started the great Imogene Pass Run, and who has been referred to as ‘the goat’ for his penchant for running high into the mountains until he litterally cannot run anymore. Only then will he turn around and return home. For the rest of the night, and into the next day, I thought of myself as a goat, scrambling up and down the sides of these mountains, eating anything I could, pushing through until I could literally no longer move. Only then, at Caroline Furnace, the start and finish lines, would I allow myself to stop.
Or so was my plan. Stephane and I trudged for miles and miles along a river bed. Literally, the trail was a river. Cool water flowed down over the rocks at places pooling in clear eddys and at others creating muddy soups we had no choice but to slosh through. This was the dreaded Duncan Hollow, a boggy mess in a dry year. This year the rivers were knee deep and numbed my aching feet. Again we climbed, and I still had my climbing legs on because I powered up that ascent and almost as quickly scrambled down the other side. Run when you can, Karno’s father said, so that’s what I was doing.
At Gap Creek I got my second and final change of socks. Elizabeth, an angelic volunteer, pointed me to a chair and helped me get my shoes off so she could check my feet. “Would you like us to wash out your shoes?” she said. “A lot of runners are finding sand in their shoes.” Elizabeth brought a cool bucket of water in which I dipped my wrinkled, water logged feet, and then she carefully dried them. “Do you have any hot spots?” she said. I thought of my wife, who, for a thousand dollars, would not dry my feet. Amazingly, I had no blisters, no hot spots. Despite running for the past 65 miles through mud and water, my feet were relatively unscathed. Even the pinkie toe on my left foot, which I may have broken a few weeks before the race during a tumble in the ocean, was not bothering me. I had a slight pin-point prick on my right shin just above the ankle, but not enough to slow me down. Another volunteer brought back my shoes, which were now clean of sand and grit. I used the towel to dry the insides as best I could and then stuffed my new, clean, dry socks into clean wet shoes.
It was while I was having my feet dried that someone said, “Karl’s coming through.” I looked up to see a white headlamp blast into and then out of the aid station. Karl Meltzer, the lead runner, on his way to yet another MMT victory, was not even stopping here. He had only 7 more miles to run. For him, the race was almost over.
I thanked Elizabeth and moved to my own chair where my crew fed me. My right shin was starting to bother me, but I figured I could make it through the next 35 miles without much trouble. After food and warm drink, I stood up, not nearly as stiff as I expected to be, and Reiko–taking over pacing duties now–and I set out on the trail.
We made a climb along a wide jeep road and up into the mountains where, soon, we met the single-track trail. At the top of a rise two yellow plates were taped to a tree. One read, “1st time,” with an arrow pointing left. The second read, “2nd time” with an arrow pointing right. I suggested we could follow the second direction and try to beat Karl back to Caroline Furnace. “Think anyone would notice?” I joked with Reiko. She suggested they might, and we took the left side path. The trail climbed further, and though I was tired I still had my climbing legs and took advantage of them by powering up the hill. Reiko, behind me, had a hard time catching up. This would be the only time for the next 15 hours that she would be hard pressed to stay with me. After we arrived at the top, I jogged for a little, and then began to walk. When we hit the next downhill, I began to feel the pain in my shin even more amazingly.
The last time I had shin splints was in training for my first marathon back in 2001. I was running along the Queens streets early one morning in a new pair of racing flats when I felt sharp, shooting pains in my lower legs. I slowed to a walk and tried to stretch and then I continued, but the pain came back just as quickly. With each step I felt someone had cut off my feet and I was pounding each shin bone directly into the macadam. I struggled through another mile but ultimately could not continue. I decided that my shoes were too thin, that my legs could not handle the bruising that shoes like that were giving them. This was long before I had learned a better running form, before injury and practice led me to a mid- to fore-foot strike which has helped me improve both speed and endurance over the years.
The downhills on the Massanutten course began to feel like that day on the pavement in Queens. Each step down sent sharp pain shooting up into my right shin. Darkness had settled and I was beginning to get tired. This was the beginning of the dark night of the MMT. I had felt so good for much of the race, and now, with the sun gone and the long night looming, I began to feel every ache, every pain. Each footstep pushed my brain further into itself and the voices began to shout. Reiko talked, told me stories of politics and money, of the food industry and the vegetables she was growing in her New York City apartment. I told her about my book, Mesabi Pioneers, and how it came about. I talked about promotion and our Kickstarter campaign. By the time we made it to Visitor Center I was worn out, hungry, thirsty, and tired.
Visitor Center was lit up like a store window at Macy’s in December. Lights decorated the paths and inflatable sculptures loomed around a roaring fire and a well stocked pantry of food and drinks. I sat down and Reiko brought me food. “You need to eat,” she told me. “Get some calories in you and you’ll be good to go.” I nodded agreement and she brought me soup and coffee and water. Volunteers wrapped me in blankets so I would not get cold, and I sat near, but not close to, a fire. I ate, but within a few moments I found myself nodding off. Like a heroin addict on the G train I doubled over inch by inch, snapping awake only when I dropped my cup of noodles. I was too tired to even care. I heard a woman tell Reiko she worried I might fall into the fire, and I leaned back in the chair. I asked Reiko if I could just sleep for a few minutes, and she allowed it. “Give the calories time to get into your system,” she said. I closed my eyes and was gone.
I heard sounds, runners coming and runners going, volunteers talking and wandering, Reiko chatting with other crew members and pacers. And then I heard a man’s voice. “We haven’t had anyone drop at this aid station yet, and we’re not going to start now. Somebody wake that guy up!” I snapped my eyes open. “I’m ready,” I mumbled and looked around. Where was I? The same people seemed to be sitting around the fire. New runner’s had arrived and were sitting in chairs around the fire. Reiko gently nudged my shoulder. “Time to go.”
I ate a little more and then, with help, stood up. I spouted a thank you to the volunteers and then we were gone, back into the night. I moved stiffly at first, but within a few minutes I began to feel better. The food had entered my system and was fueling me. We had a climb to get to the ridge where, a volunteer had said, there might be some wind. But we would not be on the ridge long, and then we’d descent down to Bird Knob. That same volunteer had given me a trash bag to wear for when I got cold. Because when I slowed down, and I would slow down, I would get cold. I wore the trash bag until I regained my energy and, on the climb, stuffed it into the pocket of my jacket, which I then took off and stuffed into the storage strap on the back of my hydration belt. The downhill into Bird Knob was excruciating and I grit my teeth against the pain in my shin. At Bird Knob I saw, for the third time, Tom, a volunteer I had met the day before and who had run Hard Rock last year. Tom made fun of my bean burrito fuel and when I saw him at Bird Knob he said, “We have bean burritos.” I chose, instead, tator tots, which is the greatest aid station fuel at five in the morning.
We left Bird Knob with me not having eaten enough. While Reiko changed the batteries in her head lamp I stood at the fire and warmed up, rather than eat more food. This would prove a mistake over the next six miles. In the grand scheme of 103.7 miles 6 miles seems nothing, seems so insignificant. But those six miles were perhaps the hardest I had done. I had not eaten enough at Bird Knob, and as out of it as I was I also did not take any food to go. Reiko, my blessed savior, remembered to grab a bean burrito and some cookies, and she passed them to me as we trudged along the steep downhill to the Picnic Area aid station. My shins seemed to be taking the brunt of every downhill step, and the trail to Picnic was one long downhill trek. We walked on in silence. I don’t remember much of the trail, but I do recall seeing a blood red moon rise over the trees, and at some point we came upon a road that led to the aid station. We stopped and looked out over the valley, the amber lights of Luray, Virginia glowing in the valley. Despite my exhaustion and the pain and the darkness, the view of the course still stopped my breath. I’ve run in the Colorado mountains, taken the Imogene pass at thirteen thousand feet between Ouray and Telluride; I’ve run to the top of Mount Taylor in New Mexico, and seen the view from the top of Sandia Peak in Albuquerque. I have run in the desert of Arizona and in the mountains outside of Ashland, Oregon. Seeing those lights twinkling below me, knowing how far I had come on my own two feet, and how little distance I still had to travel, swelled me with emotion. It was the caloric deficiency more than anything, I know, but I felt the tears well up inside. I thought of m waiting for me in a few hours at the finish line, and my wife who would be there, too, smiling and proud. For a moment I felt good, proud of where I was and where I was going, and then we continued. The feeling passed, and the darkness once again settled.
At Picnic I ate more, and napped again, and then we were off. I wish I could say that I was putting the hammer down, that I was power hiking the ascents and charging down the descents. I wish I could say I pulled myself out of my slump and that I was not trudging silently through the darkness. Reiko helped keep my spirits high, but at four in the morning even she was tired. Reiko was ahead of me on the trail, and behind us I heard two runners approach, their headlamps casting a log shadow of my slumped figure on the trail. “You must be a pacer,” the guy behind me said. “You smell too nice. Is that Pantene?” I moved out of the way to let he and his runner pass.
We leap frogged a few runners, as they passed us and we passed them throughout the next several miles. At one point, after a runner and his pacer had passed us, we came upon them as they crossed a stream bed. The pacer followed the trail through the stream bed, but the racer seemed to have decided to cross at some rocks just off the trail, but in the darkness he missed a step and tumbled onto the rocks. “You almost saved it,” the pacer said. I wondered what he had almost saved, and I stopped on the trail and in the rushing water I thought I saw a hydration pack. I started to call out to the racer. He had lost his pack in the water! I told Reiko to look, and she said she saw nothing, so I reached out and grabbed her headlamp and shone it at the spot where I had seen the pack. “There’s nothing there,” she said. She turned away and I looked again, harder, and saw the pack again, pushed down stream by the water. I turned and grabbed Reiko’s headlamp again and again shone it and mine on the spot. “There!” I said. She shook her head. “You’re seeing things.” I looked again and it was a rock.
We spent several miles talking about how our minds see what they want, that what we visualize with our eyes is an interpretation by our brains, nothing more, and in the exhausted state I was in my brain was seeing what it thought I needed to see to get me to stop. When I wanted an aid station I saw a tent in the canopy of a tree, or a truck in the woods. I saw boats in the rocks, and bears in the tree trunks. Slowly the light turned purple and a thin strip of orange spread across the western horizon. “Here comes the sun,” I said, too tired to sing.
At around 6am my biological circadian rhythm began to kick in and my bowels longed to move. I clambered off the trail and somehow managed to squat, using two saplings for support, and leave a special present in the forest. A runner passed Reiko on the trail and told her, “And then you appeared, like a goddess.” This was Susan Donnelly, who has completed this course more times than any other woman. I felt lighter and ready to move.
The Final Push
We came into Gap Creek with the sun providing morning warmth. Stephane was there with a chair, worried because it had taken us the better part of 11 hours to cover almost 28 miles. Yesterday I had covered 50 miles in almost the same time. I sat down and began to eat, because what I needed was food. Lots of it. Stephane brought me pancakes and eggs and sausages. I scarfed them and asked for more. I found myself falling asleep with a mouthful of sausage. The same woman who, at Visitor Center, was worried that I might fall in the fire now told Reiko she worried I was having a stroke. “He’s fine,” she said. “He’s just tired.”
I was allowed by Reiko and Stephane to sleep for a few more minutes after downing some calories. My shins, especially the right one, throbbed and ached. We had a little under 7 miles to go. There was no way I was not going to continue. Eventually, after eating and napping, it was time to go. I stood unsteadily and took one gentle step. My legs were cramped, mostly my shins, making it hard to lift my toes. We moved on a short ways and then stopped at the edge of the aid station. I took a moment to wrap my shin, which I thought would help at least a little, and while I did two of the volunteers appeared and said, “Wait here. We’re going to make you a walking stick.” They scrambled into the trees with an axe and a saw until they found a stick which they brought out to me. They cut it to length and trimmed off excess branches. “Do you want two?” they asked. I shook my head. One was enough. I thanked them for their valiant efforts. “You’re going to make it,” they said. If I hadn’t been so tired I might have cried. Then, just before I finally walked away, Stephane popped 600mg of ibuprofen into my mouth and I drank some water.
We climbed up the same trail we had climbed last night when we left Gap Creek the first time. At the top of the rise the plate that told us to go left for our first loop was gone, and we turned right. The downhill was steep and painful, and I found myself stopping a lot to bite back the pain. Soon, though, we came out of the trail and hit the road. I would have liked to run, but I worried that running now would mean I would not be able to run later. The pain in my shin was definitely less, but at this point I was so close I didn’t want to risk anything for the sake of a finish. So we walked. The dirt road turned to pavement and we crossed two overflowing culverts, the same ones I had crossed yesterday morning. Every half an hour or so I stopped to pee, which seemed odd to me, but the urine looked clear (if a little foamy) and so I pegged it up to being well hydrated. The walking stick was helping, as were, perhaps, the ibuprofen because I was moving. Even my head was clear as I talked animatedly with Reiko, thanked her for the long hours she spent with me on the trail, cried as we discussed Meb’s win in Boston. She joked with me, not for the first time that day, that I was a cry baby. I agreed, yes, I am a sentimental guy who cries easily. She allowed that she, too, cried easily.
Soon we came to the end. Caroline Furnace, where this race had begun 32 hours before, stood just ahead. I turned a corner and meandered down a rutted dirt road and then saw the field of grass I was to cross. I began to run then, because I had to run across the finish line. I had been saving it for this moment. I heard my wife say, “There’s daddy!” Little m was running along the edge of the finisher’s chute towards me.
“I could not have done this without you, Reiko,” I said. “Thank you.”
Reiko turned off and I was alone with my walking stick and my daughter was in front of me. She caught me less than fifty yards from the finish and then she turned and ran back towards the finish line. I heard someone announce my name and then a spattering of applause. I ran holding my stick and my daughter crossed the finish line before me and then I was across and Kevin, the RD, was there shaking my hand. “Congratulations,” he said.
“This is an amazing course,” I told him. “And your volunteers are stunning out there. One of the greatest races of my life,” I told him.
I hugged my wife who didn’t even turn her nose at how badly I must have smelled. “I love you,” I said. Little m was there, too, and though I couldn’t squat down to hug her I picked her up and held her in my arms and she wrapped herself around me and squeezed me tight.
“Thank you for running across the finish with me,” I told her.
She said, “Did you fall, daddy?”
I smiled. “Once, yes.”
She said, “But you got back up. Congratulations, daddy.”
(Read Part 3 of my race report, Closing Remarks, in which I discuss the reasons I might have gotten rhabdomyolysis.)