(excerpted from my upcoming memoir Man, I Ran Pretty Far That Day)
Let’s skip right to the Moment of Truth: It’s Mile 36 of the 50-mile Tussey Mountainback race. After sailing through the first 20 miles at 8:16 per mile pace, I’ve struggled through the next 16 miles at 10:30 pace. Even worse, the last uphill mile took over 13 minutes, the slowest of the day so far. (For those who don’t like numbers, here’s the qualitative assessment: I’m slowing down. A lot.)
My early optimistic goal of finishing this race in 7 1/2 hours is off the table. Instead, I’m thinking about when I’ll finish if I just walk the last 14 miles, or if I can walk/jog 4 miles an hour, or what if it’s 5mph? I think about Zeke, Heidi, Jim, Katie, Levi waiting for me at the finish, my expected arrival time passing, and then another hour or two or three passing as well…
And then I realize that sub-8 hours, still an optimistic goal, is still on the table, if I can just cover 14 miles in 147 minutes. Even at the pace I’ve been going, that seems doable. But 14 miles is a long way to hold a pace, so I tell myself to try to cover one mile at ten-minute pace. It helps that I’m going downhill, and I manage mile 37 in 9:43, even with walking breaks built-in. Now I just need to cover 13 miles in 137 minutes. Can I do that? I don’t know, but let’s try to run/walk another ten minute mile. I manage it again, and again for mile 38, and for mile 39, and for mile 40.
This is all reminiscent of 2015, the only other time I ran this race. The hills are in the same places as before, and though I knew that I needed to save energy for the hills in the 33-36 mile and 42-45 mile stretches, I have again arrived there totally spent and left trying to calculate how much I can fall apart and still be satisfied with my finish. On that day I was also trying to break 8-hours, and missed it by about 6 minutes. This time, my foolish fast start has me about a mile ahead of where I was five years ago. A car goes by, and the passenger tells me I’m in the top 20% of the field, a small consolation, as I feel it only sets me up to be passed by everyone and their brother in the next few hours.
In mile 41 comes the penultimate aid station. Things are different this year: normally there are lots of food options at the aid stations, but this year with the pandemic on there is only water, gatorade, and energy gels. I’ve left food in drop bags to be placed at various places along the way: bananas, potatoes, bits of a chocolate bar with espresso beans in it. They ask how I’m feeling. “Pretty rocky,” I say. They say they have to write down my condition, and I tell them to write “OK”. And so I am.
The running is also a lot lonelier this year. Five years ago, I spent the last half of the race being passed by relay teams who had started after me (and their shuttle vehicles, with lots of enthusiastic cheering runners and family members.) The aid stations had more families, and runners waiting their turns. This year, due to the coronavirus, there is almost none of that. In a 50-mile race, runners get spread out, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that we started in waves of 20 to 25, spaced 15 minutes apart. I ran many of the first 20 miles with a nice guy named Sam, but we parted ways around mile 25 when he started tightening up and had to slow down. He recovered and passed me about 7 miles later; going with him wasn’t an option for me.
So, for most of the next four hours, I’m alone, the struggle to keep on and hold this pace happening mostly in my head. The aid stations are like little oases of human contact, where people tell me I am looking good (I am, it turns out, much closer to the front than to the back of the race) and I tell them that I’m sure not feeling that way.
Time ticks on as I walk away from that 10th aid station, eating some of the last of my potatoes. I’ve got 9 miles to go, 97 1/2 minutes to do it in, and still a lot of uphill ahead. I tell myself that 10 minutes per mile, with those extra minutes as a cushion for the hills, will get me there. Miles 42, 43, 44, and 45 all have modest uphill bits. If I ran this stretch fresh, I almost certainly wouldn’t pay them much attention, but now they are cause for walking. The worst is mile 45, with a hill that seems to go on and on and on, and which takes me over 13 minutes. Eventually I get to the top of that hill, and to the 46 mile marker. I have 4 miles to go, and 40 minutes and 52 seconds in which to do it. None of the last six miles have been at the pace I now need to find.
But it’s downhill, and I have a watch that can tell me the pace of the mile I’m on, and it is not excruciating to keep that under ten minutes. OK, it’s a little excruciating, but not terribly excruciating. Even with walking breaks, mile 47 goes by in 9:26, and I start to think that I can do this. In mile 48 a guy comes running past me – it turns out he started 15 minutes ahead of me, though, so I’m not officially losing a place. This mile is even faster – 8:54 – but I’m really out of breath, so I take more breaks in mile 49, coming in just under ten minutes. I hit one mile to go in 7:47:27, and I think that surely I can manage that. The last mile even has a tiny bit of uphill, but I can hear cheering, and I think that I hear familiar voices.
Five years ago, Anna ran out barefoot to keep me company for the last mile, so it feels right that Zeke is here to run the last bit with me. My watch hits 50 miles (8:53 for this one, the fastest mile since mile 30) well before the finish line, and I’m glad I still have that little bit of cushion. I think I hear footsteps, and there’s no way I’m letting someone pass me in the last 100 yards, so I pick it up even more coming into the finish. I pass the clock in 8:27:05, which really means 7:57:05, since I was in a wave that started half an hour later than the first.
Results come out a day or so later. I’m 10th overall out of 58 finishers (five who started didn’t finish). The oldest person ahead of me is 47 (I’m 50), so my generic goal of “don’t get beat by anyone older than me” has been met. (The beauty of this goal is that, theoretically, it gets easier as the years go by.) Another generic goal – “don’t be the guy that gets taken away in an ambulance” – is also checked off, and the last one – sub 8 hours – is icing on the cake. Would it have been cool to run 7 1/2 hours? Sure. Maybe next time.
P.S. One of the sweetest things about this weekend was getting to see Heidi & Jim & Katie & Levi, and even Jill and Uncle Joe and Aunt Lucy. Zeke and I pitched a tent in their front yard, used a downstairs bathroom, ate all our meals outside, and generally kept things masked and distanced. I haven’t seen any family (except my brother, in July) since last Thanksgiving and Christmas, so this was extra nice. These are strange times, and there’s so much we can’t do. Still, I’ll rejoice in the things that we can.