I had gotten more than halfway through the race when my legs began to realize that I was not going to stop. I had been tricking them for several miles, telling them I was going to give them a break at an aid station. And they believed me. But when I passed the turn-around aid station for the second time, and I didn’t take advantage of an obvious chair, my legs decided it was time to revolt.
The cramping started a mile later. It was in my thighs and hamstrings and adductor muscles and it was the last one that was the most painful, the muscle that runs right up the inside of my thigh and is the one that connects all the others together to make everything work when I lift my legs. It may seem strange, but running requires you to actually lift your legs.
I ran my first marathon in New York City, and at the 21 mile mark, as I was coming down Fifth Avenue for what is by far the toughest hill on that entire course, my legs began to cramp. I’d never experience pain like that before. Fifteen years ago, during that race, I did not think it was possible to keep moving my legs. Every single piece of me was screaming at me to stop, just please stop. Back then I didn’t know enough to understand that this was my body’s way of tricking me, of convincing me to give up. I would learn later I had hit the wall, and I hit it hard.
Seeing so many ultra runners come out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a little 50K race was a sight to behold. When I pulled into the parking lot I saw a runner I met when I ran MMT in 2015. “What brings a mountain man like you down to the flatlands?” I asked. He had come to cheer on a friend. Another mountain ultra runner I know, who lives down the road from the starting line of the race, commented that it was thrilling to see the ultra community come to the Eastern Shore.
Trent, the RD (race dictator) of the inaugural Algonquin 50K, is the master of running organization, and this event proved no different than the other “non-events” I’ve run with he and the other members of the Pemberton Running Club. Almost exactly a year ago the group took to this trail for the first time. Then the Algonquin Cross County trail was partially snow and ice covered, but that didn’t stop the PRC from running the length of the trail in both directions. And getting lost for a couple of miles in the process.
There was a fire raging at the start, along with enough coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts to fuel any number of Donut Marathons. I had brought my two kids with me, and my daughter, all of seven, thought she had gone to racing heaven. “Look at all the donuts, dad!” she yelled. My son, almost 2-1/2, licked the sugar off a pink glazed donut. Someone yelled that they got a couple dozen crullers just for me and I pointed out that Gabe, who dressed for the 50K as “Captain ‘Merica” in cut-off jeans shorts and a tattered white tank top, had eaten just as many crullers as I had at that storied run.
I pinned my number on my shorts while chatting with Cooper and Mac whom I had met nearly four years ago when I came looking for a place to live. We ate at a restaurant in Pocomoke City, perhaps five miles from the spot where we now stood to do something none of us ever thought would happen: run a trail ultra marathon in our own backyard.
Soon enough it was time to get the race started. I don’t remember if there was a horn or a bell or if Trent just said, “Go,” but off we went. We cruised through the parking lot and campground of Milburn Landing before we entered the Algonquin Cross Country Trail proper. Which is where the fun really began.
The First Half
I started, as I often do, in the middle of the pack, with my buddy, Cooper. Then I was scooting along with local legend Eddy who would be the oldest finisher of the day (older than Coop by about two months) and who seemed to know everyone. A couple miles in I found myself settling into a pace that felt horribly slow but in the end was probably still too fast.
The first four miles of the trail are beautiful mostly single track through the Pocomoke State Forest. I fell in line behind a couple of other runners, and to pass some time I chatted with them a bit, asked where they were from, if they’d ever run an ultra before. I only remember that one of them was from the western-eastern shore, and that this was her first ultra marathon. I didn’t want to keep running behind anyone because I knew if I did I’d fall into whatever pace they were running. I needed to slow down, to eat something, and get into my own pace.
The first aid station came just past the four mile mark. The other runners ran on while I stopped to drink. It felt too early to eat, despite my mantra, “Eat early, eat often.” However, cups of Mountain Dew promised a jolt of caffeine to my coffee starved body.
I was prepared for the long slog along unpaved Corner House Road, a detour around an impassable part of the trail. Last year this road was a mud pit, but on race day, despite the rain of the previous week, the road was hard packed and easily runnable. By the time I made the sharp left back onto the trail I was running alone, just me and the woods.
At around six miles the pink and blue markers split and I began to follow the Orange Furnace Loop. I’ve lived on the Eastern Shore for about 3-1/2 years and I’ve run the Algonquin Trail barely a handful of times. Before this race I’d never been to Furnace Town even though I’ve written a book about the iron mining industry on Minnesota’s Mesabi range and Furnace Town is an example of pre-Mesabi iron processing. I hadn’t known there was a way to run through the woods to get here or I might have visited Furnace Town before now. Just beyond the trees were the buildings that had been put up in the 1960s and 1970s to create a living cultural heritage site on the Eastern Shore. The furnace itself—which I couldn’t see from my vantage point on the trail (and I wasn’t going to take a detour on Saturday for sightseeing)—dates from about 1828.
At the aid station at the end of the sand parking lot, run by Athletes Serving Athletes, volunteers greeted me with a smile. “Anything we can get for you?” they asked. I glanced at the table littered with an ultrarunner’s smorgasborg: chips, pretzels, Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, ginger ale, M&Ms (peanut and plain), peanut butter sandwiches on white and wheat bread. My eyes fell on a big bowl filled with just what I was looking for: cooked potatoes. A woman peeled off the plastic wrap and I grabbed two quarters and dunked them in the bowl of salt. Just what the body ordered. I ate one while I was standing there, took two more for the road, and then I was off.
Despite the (relatively) short distance of this race, I took a page from my hundred mile playbook and walked out of the aid station so the food I just ate could digest. I needed to slow down a bit anyway. No need to rush, I told myself. Just keep moving. Soon I was passed by one runner and then another, and then we were on the beach. Not really a beach, but this part of the trail was all thick, beach-like sand. I felt bits of it fly up off my soles, sting the backs of my legs, and fall into my shoes.
Soon I started running again, for better or worse, and before I knew it the sand was not as deep. I ran my lines from my upcoming play Murder on the Nile (performances in April), shouting in my best British accent. “I must admit, I was absolutely incensed!” Then I was back on the combined pink-blue marked path, the Algonquin Trail, and it was here where lay the worst of the water.
There are no mountains on the Eastern Shore, and very few trails through the woods to provide much in the way of challenging terrain for seasoned ultra runners. What trails out here do provide is plenty of deep, rutted sections that fill with water at the lightest rain and then never drain dry. Running through these sections is running through mud. And no matter how much one tries to avoid the mud or the water, there comes a time when there simply is no other choice.
The northern half of the Algonquin Trail is rife with such stretches of mud. Some of them can be partially avoided by attempting a run along the edge of the trail, or even by detouring through the woods. But then the runner is confronted with the eastern shore’s other trail hazard: the barb. The underbrush is full of thorn bushes and barbs that snag on clothes and hydration packs and, yes, skin.
For the first few water hazards I chose to attempt to skirt the mud by running the edges. This only caused me to brush up against the thorny barbs and resulted in superficial but long cuts on my legs. And my feet were still wet. By the time I came to this section, which included a long water hazard that has become known as Lake Algonquin, there was no getting around it. So I ran straight through. Squish, slosh, squish, slosh. On the other side, I used my cold, wet feet as motivation to keep moving.
I hadn’t seen another runner in a while, not behind me nor in front. But with half a mile to go before the third aid station I came upon a volunteer on a four-wheeler who gave me a cheer and I have him a smile. It was all I could muster. At this point I was starting to feel my lack of training. Give me another five miles, I thought, maybe ten tops, and then my legs will be done.
I came to the aid station and stopped for more potatoes and some M&Ms. Yummy. I found Chris, one of the race organizers, and made a joke about Trent telling me this would be an easy 5K. “Come out to the woods, you’ll have a good time.” I filled my water bottles and headed back out to the dreaded turn around. As I left I thought I must have crossed the halfway, so I began to sing, finally, my favorite halfway song.
Whoa, we’re half way there
Whoa, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand and we’ll make it – I swear
Whoa, livin’ on a prayer
The Dreaded Turnaround
The Pine to Palm course in Oregon has two out and back sections that require runners to retrieve flags to prove they have actually run that section of the course. The arduous nature of both treks is made more difficult by the fact that the flags are located at the peak of mountains. One is the second highest point on the course, and the other one must climb a pile of rocks to get to the flags.
In order to create a full 50K course, Brian, the course designer, had to add four miles to the Algonquin and Furnace loop trails. At some point in the last months he came upon a side trail that led to the Pusey Branch and an old bridge across the water. There was a contest, I believe, to name the bridge, but what it was eventually named I know not. While I find it mentally difficult to traverse the same section of course twice, seeing other runners gave me a a mental boost when I needed it.
The leader sped past me like he was walking in the park, no worry on his face. Soon other men zoomed past, and then I saw my friend Mac cruising. He, too, looked like he was moseying on down the trail. We gave high fives as we passed each other. Melissa, the eventual women’s winner, looked great, moving like this was just another short training run. “Keep going,” she encouraged me. And I did.
Soon enough the river came into view, and then it was down to the bridge and back. Brian’s brother, Mark, was there taking pictures and marking split times. Chris with him let it slip that he had beer. I harrassed a swallow from his growler which lifted my spirits a bit. I was all smiles as I started back down the trail.
Now I was passing runners behind me, and I got to see those runners quickly gaining ground on me. They were better trained, probably, and had gone out much slower than I, following the old adage of negative splits: run the first half slower than the second. I was running the Dean Karnazes mantra: start slow and finish slower. I felt a little like Karno, actually, who, on his 30th birthday, having not run since high school, simply started running at midnight and didn’t stop until he literally couldn’t move anymore—thirty miles later. His wife came to get him, and he couldn’t move for two days. But he’d found his calling. That was me today: foolishly going for a thirty-mile run without proper training.
I saw a familiar stride coming towards me and I gave a shout to the grand-daddy of Eastern Shore ultra running, Coop. We stopped on the trail and chatted for a bit about how we both felt like shit. “It’s just about getting to the end,” I told him. “Going home with an intact mug.”
When I got back to the aid station I found Chris. “Hey, remember last year when we ran this course the first time, and I gave you a ride to the start?”
He nodded. “Looking for a return favor?” he asked.
“Yeah, but not from here. Meet me down the trail a bit. Don’t let anyone see us.”
He smiled. He would have done it without a second thought.
“Where’s my daughter?” I asked.
“I thought she was with you?” I said, mock panicked.
“I thought you had someone looking after them,” he said.
“I’m a terrible father,” I joked. “I left my kids with a total stranger so I could run 30 miles through the woods.”
He laughed. Even if the joke was awful I’m thankful for the laugh. It lifted my spirits better than the beer.
I grabbed another handful of M&Ms and more potatoes to go, refilled my water, and then I was off. The longer I stood around at the aid stations the longer it would take me to finish.
Now it was back through the mud and water and by now I didn’t even notice the cold or the wet anymore. From the waist down I was simply numb and my legs were moving because it was all they knew to do, the only choice I would give them. Other runners came towards me on their way to the turn around. One guy, as we approached one another, said, “You running Massanutten this year?”
“No, not this year,” I told him. I didn’t recognize him and wondered how he knew I’d run it at all.
“I study your video,” he said. “Watch it all the time.”
I laughed. “For the running or the music?” I asked.
“For the singing, of course,” he said.
I came upon John who was also walking and we enjoyed the trail together for a time. He talked about other trail ultras in Delaware which sounded terrible: short looped trails you run multiple times. It’s the reason I’ve never wanted to complete a timed race (12- or 24-hours) because they are often run on very short looped courses. Running for long distances is hard enough without having to pass the same scenery dozens of times.
I was cramping badly by now, my legs beginning to seize up on me. In past races this would have seemed debilitating. I might have stopped and tried to stretch out my legs, might have screamed in agony at the pain of having a muscle suddenly contract and tighten my entire leg. But I have lots of ultra running experience under my belt buckles and while I may not have been physically trained for this race, mentally I never doubted myself.
Three things kept popping into my head. First, my father’s sage advice to me before my first marathon in New York. “A finish is a win,” he told me, and it is advice I have heeded through every race I have ever run. Every finisher wins. The second thought that came to my mind was Haruki Murakami’s mantra to himself during ultraruns. “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The third thing that came to my mind is a quote I cannot attribute to anyone, but it’s one I read on my first 50K in Grants, NM. “If you feel great during an ultra, don’t worry. It’ll pass.” The same can be said in reverse. If you feel bad during an ultra, don’t worry: it’ll pass.
I ran some and walked some for the better part of a mile, until I realized that walking was easier than running. Speed walking was one thing that saved me at Pine to Palm, so I took advantage of my long legs to walk through the painful cramping. Soon enough I was lifting my arms again, following my own adage: the only difference sometimes between running and walking is the way you carry your arms. It was a slow, shuffling run, but to my weary mind it was still a run.
Past the 40K mark I found myself at another aid station tucked away in the woods. I grabbed a couple of PB&J sandwiches and chatted briefly with the volunteers who were more than eager to help in any way they could. I got my water bottles filled while I filled a pocket of my hydration pack with peanut M&Ms, and then I was off again into the woods this time along a short bit of single track. I was passed by Jay, a local member of the PRC and one of the runners who’d also marked the course. He told me he had taken a wrong turn on the course and had to backtrack. As he moved past me I said, “You’re miles ahead!”
“Only about a quarter mile,” he replied. But he was already gone and I was, again, alone in the woods.
It’s a feeling I’m used to, and one I like. I was moving slow, sure, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was still moving.
I stopped to get a picture at the sign conveniently posted to let me know I’d just completed a marathon and it was painful to stop. My legs, used to moving by now, did not want to stop, much less allow me to squat down to put my head in frame with the sign at knee level. So I just bent over, snapped the pic, and moved on. The formerly muddy dirt road came up shortly thereafter, and then the final aid station around mile 27.
The End is Nigh
They cheered me when I came in, though I’m not sure why. I was reminded of a mantra that saw me through several marathons: what’s inside is just a lie. I felt like shit on the inside. I was moving slowly, my shuffle barely a run. And yet on the outside I probably looked fine. Like a guy out for a long run in the woods. “Can we get you anything?” the volunteers asked.
“Let’s see. A new set of legs, perhaps?”
“Oh, you know what?” one of the volunteers replied. “We just gave away our last pair.”
I guess I would have to finish on the ones I had.
I ate some food while other runners came in behind me. They were following the negative split adage and were speeding up at the end. I wasn’t going to speed up. I was going to crawl across the finish if I had to. “Run when you can, walk if you must, crawl if you have to, just keep moving,” Karno’s father told him at his first hundred miler, and so that’s what I would do. Just keep moving.
Back in the woods I started to sing now, motivating myself from the inside. I found the song that had eluded me the entire race, my version of the Gambler by Kenny Rodgers that I call The Runner.
You got to know when to run
Know when to walk.
Know when to eat some food
Know when to drink.
You never count your buckles
When you’re still out on the trail.
There’ll be time enough for counting
when the race is done.
I turned back toward the trail, my head down but my eyes forward. I was running now and not going to stop until I crossed that storied finish. It came slowly, so very slowly. Soon more runners passed me, and I didn’t care. Let them come. Let them all come. I would not allow my mug to be smashed, even though at this point I knew, barring a broken bone, I would cross the finish. That was something that never crossed my mind, no matter the pain I was in, no matter the cramping, no matter how slow I ran or how fast I walked: I would finish this race, and never, not once, did I question my motives for being out there. I was untrained, sure, and physically not nearly as prepared as I would have liked to have been. But completing any race, no matter the distance, is more about mental strength than physical. Yes, you have to prepare your body for the endurance of it. Yes, there are physical elements. But no matter how well trained you are there comes a time when your body wants to stop, when your mind starts playing tricks, when you get a cramp or a sore spot on the bottom of your foot, or a twinge in your back, and a voice creeps in the back of your mind and starts planting doubts, questions. That’s where ultra running is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. As I’ve told countless people, if you can run a half marathon you can run a full, and if you can run a full marathon you can run a 100 miles. Because beyond 26 miles it’s all a mental game, it’s all a matter of mind over body, of willing yourself forward when your entire body says, no, we’re done. You dig deep, you find that one little place inside where a small fire burns and you feed that fire and you let it get bigger until it burns out the voice, until the darkness disappears, and you know you can keep going, even if it’s just to the next aid station, and then you keep going to the one beyond that, and then the one beyond that. You just keep moving. Relentless forward progress. It’s what ultrarunning is all about, what life is all about. As Dory says, “Just keep swimming.”
With a mile to go I tried to speed up. I don’t know if I did or not. I know I started singing then, louder and bolder and whatever I could. Huey Lewis, Disney musicals, songs from Hamilton, They Might Be Giants. Anything that sparked the memory of another lyric came out in song while I tried to think of the one I would sing while I crossed the finish. I hoped my daughter would be there when I came across and so I decided I would sing the song I sing to her when I put her in bed. “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz,” I began as I found myself coming out of the woods and back into Milburn Landing State Park. I found an empty paper coffee cup in a mud puddle on the trail and picked it up, figured I’d use that as my reason for how slow I ran. “I would have been here sooner but I stopped to get some coffee,” I joked to the park ranger at the trail head. She took the empty paper cup so I wouldn’t have to carry it to the finish mooting my finisher’s joke. No matter. Another runner passed me just before we came out of the woods. I sang loud, my voice cracking, because I wanted everyone to hear me coming. The singing runner was going to finish this race.
I sang “Buzz Buzz” twice before I got to the finish, and my daughter wasn’t even there to greet me. “We’re waiting in the car,” my friend who was watching the kids told me. Trent was there, though, the race dictator. He handed me an unbroken mug and gave me a hug. “You got black, the PRC color,” he said. Color didn’t matter at that moment. What mattered was that I was done, across the finish line with a smile on my face.