I ran my first 50k last month. I know what you’re thinking: either, “who would ever do that?” or, “who the fuck cares?” Both questions are valid but I only have a good answer for one of them. I wanted a good test- a test of my will and fortitude, and felt like running 31 miles might be that test. Life gets so vanilla sometimes, especially when you work in an office. Work can be hard in it’s own way, but too easy in others. Your mind might get tested a little at times, but your body never does. You never find the limit of your capabilities when you work in an office. You sit in a chair all day watching the clock go by. It makes you soft! I wanted to find something that could take the soft, doughy edges of my mind and body and sharpen them a bit.
The training was exhausting. I ran just about every day (I read that you should take one day off a week, but I just kept running like Forest Gump ). On the weekends I would do my long runs. They started out around 12 miles for the first couple of weeks and I slowly added on a couple of miles every weekend. By the second month I was running 3-4 hours on a Saturday to put in the miles necessary to build up to the 31 miles I had to run in the race. My knees took a beating. I tried running on the balls of my feet like we are meant to run, but late in the long runs I slowly went back to landing on my heels, especially when I was tired and drained. Running heal to toe is less work, or at least it takes less focus for someone that has been brought up with padded heels on their shoes (thanks Nike), but it also puts all the stress on your knees. I read somewhere that every step when you are running is equal to 7 times your body weight landing on your knees, or something of that nature.
The race was in Uxbridge, Massachusetts (basically the least known town in Mass) and the course was based around a hill- Goat Hill, a name that I would come to despise over the 5.5 hours it took for me to finish. The course was made up of a single track mountain biking trail that snaked between pine trees and sliced through split boulders. It was four laps and each lap was just under 8 miles and 1000 feet of elevation gain.
Before the race even started, I had a good idea of who the best runner was. It was this dude that had all the gear and walked the walk. He looked like an ultra runner- long legs, tiny torso; he was built for it. The rest of the group looked like a bunch of misfits who didn’t belong. People milled around in their running shoes and vests waiting for the race to start. No one really interacted with each other. All of us were nervous for what we were about to go through.
The horn blew and we were off; into the green tunnel we went. The top 4 guys, including myself, pulled away from the pack within the first mile or so, and the runner guy that I mentioned before, let’s call him “Legs”, immediately pulled away from the three of us. His stride was much like a horse’, smooth and strong. I found myself in 4th, which I felt was a good spot, because everyone behind me looked like they couldn’t even finish the race. There were a couple of guys that looked like they had too many burgers and beers for a number of years, an old guy, a group of girls that I heard gossiping to each other behind me through the trees for the first mile, and a bunch of other people that just didn’t have the runner look about them. I felt like I could probably stay in 4th and never get passed by anyone. I was right about that, but what is the fun in staying in the same position for 5 hours? I had to pick these guys off ahead of me.
The first hill, and only real hill appeared within the first 10 minutes of the race and hung over us like an impenetrable wall. The four of us slowed down to a hiking pace and took big heaving breathes of cool morning air. I knew we were all in for some shit for the rest of the race when we hit Goat Hill- I was only a little over a mile in and my legs were already starting to burn. Once we summited the hill, the course somehow continued to slowly go up, it never seemed to go down. The course was a lot like a roller coaster running circuitously through the woods, going up and down hills, zig zagging around trees and through ravines. Most of the time I was questioning whether I was still on course because it felt like I was lost in a purgatory where all that existed was a constantly winding path that led no where. Every once in a while there was a volunteer who pointed you in the right direction at a confusing intersection, but other than that, I saw very little human life, or animal life for that matter.
I tried to keep up with the third place guy (let’s call him “White Face”- you will find out why later- it’s not racist, because saying racist things about white people isn’t racist apparently) for a while in the first lap but then decided I wouldn’t force myself to keep up with him because he was starting off way too fast, and I begun to run my own race. That was the best decision I made all day.
The first lap went by, and I remember saying to my fiance as I passed her at the starting line- “this is a lot harder than I thought.” The second lap came in like a punch to the gut from the heavens. It was just as hard and took a little bit of my soul. But there was hope, it just came after I had to deal with Legs. Just a note: for most of the race I was running by myself and I had no idea whether the guy in front of me was close or not. Midway through the second lap I heard someone coming in hot from behind me. I thought “oh, this has got to be someone from the second race”- as there were multiple races that day, all of them staggered and shorter than 50k. I looked back and Legs was coming up behind me, strides smooth and strong as ever. I was confused, I thought I saw him pull away from everyone in the beginning and I didn’t remember ever passing him. He slowly caught up to me and said “I got lost, went down the wrong path.” All I could think was this guy was impressive. If I ran down the wrong path for any amount of time I would seriously think of throwing in the towel. Legs continued ahead of me, slowly pulling away on the downhills, his long legs made for flying down declines. For some reason, Legs passing me didn’t take that much out of me. I never thought I would win this race anyway. I made up my mind that I would continue to run my own race and see where it would take me.
By the end of the second lap, White Face was leaving the fuel station while I was pulling in. I gave him a look that said “Imma catch you.” He took off after what must have been a long fuel break. I took a big swig of Gatorade, downed an orange peel, and was back on his heels. I knew he was only maybe a minute or so ahead of me at the start of the third lap and was very confident this was the lap I would catch him.
I caught him about 2 miles into the woods. My strength is going up hills, most people are fast going down hill, especially Legs. When you have long legs, you can glide down hills and let those stilts guide you, allowing you to speed up. I have short legs that are good for pumping up hills. White Face was long and skinny like Legs and in the first lap he kept pulling away from me on downhills, but because I think he felt my presence during the whole first and second lap, he wore himself out. By the time I reached him in the third lap, he had nothing left. He pulled over to the side of the trail and let me go by, I looked at his face as I passed and saw a gaunt skeleton, as white as a ghost. I said “thank you” and continued on my way, my confidence building as the trail zipped underneath my feet.
I passed the second-place guy later in the lap. He was an older fellow, maybe in his late 40s, early 50s. It was no big deal, he just slowed down after 2.5 laps, and I kept the same pace. Passing people in ultra-marathons is probably the least intense thing in the world. If you are an asshole, you will block the guy behind you from passing but that’s not really how it works. He let me go and I was off to catch Legs.
The 4th lap was a blur. My legs broke down and pure pain overcame me throughout basically the whole lap. The hill at the beginning of the lap became more like a mountain for me. Each step was labored, and at times I used my hands to grab onto rocks and pull myself up. I was well-hydrated, had plenty of salt in my system and electrolytes from all the Gu, but still my legs were screaming “stop now, you asshole.” I had to slow to a walk at times just from the pain in my knees, feet, and legs in general. My running shoes decided to give up and I began building two huge blisters on the arches of my feet that stung with every step. The pain was barely noticeable though, from the blisters, as both of my legs were screaming. Legs, the man, was somewhere in front of me but I hadn’t seen him at all the whole lap. I was just trying to finish at that point and was just hoping that no one would pass me because that probably would have broken me. The last couple miles were something out of a horror movie. Every step shot pain up my legs, I could feel my feet becoming raw and my knees beginning to deteriorate. I knew the finish line was close but I was in a constant battle with myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I crossed the finish line in second place after five and a half hours of struggle. Legs finished 15 minutes ahead of me and the third place guy didn’t come in for another 45 minutes. The race was brutal, I fell down on my ass and couldn’t get up for an hour. I congratulated Legs and gave him props for coming back after getting lost in the woods. I downed a 20 ounce beer and reveled in the experience.
That race is the hardest single thing I have ever done in my life. Countless times I contemplated quitting and going home. Countless times I had to make myself keep going. I thought of my fiance and family who came that day being disappointed if I did quit and that kept me going. This might sound cliché, but the race changed me. It made me grateful just to sit down – something I took for granted every day of my life. It made me grateful for the life I live, a life that throughout human history would have only been lived by the top of the hierarchy- the people with all the power. It opened up a door in my mind that I never knew I had. I feel like I can do just about anything now because I can suffer and overcome that hardest of tasks. I know now that there really isn’t a limit to what a human can do.