Wednesday, June 24, 2015

2015 Mohican Trail 100, and the Things I Left Behind

On Friday afternoon, I was confident.

I'd sneaked quietly, or not so quietly perhaps, into the 100 mile race at the last minute, completely unable to shake the desire to do what I've been wanting to do at Mohican for years. Spending a day and a night in the woods, constantly moving-- and particularly doing it as self reliant as possible, has become my elixir for all of life's problems, and my getaway from the noise of daily life; it's my religion and therapy, and a place to hop into the rabbit hole and learn things about myself. It's an adventure and a desire. Sometimes, when I stop long enough to think about why I do this to myself, it feels as though there's something within me that craves this sort of attack on the senses and the elements, a deep seeded desire to take on tasks that are brutal and overwhelming-- just to know how much my mind and body can withstand. The breaking point is where I cave in, where I quit. I threw in the towel too soon at the Barkley Marathons this past March, and it's been consuming me since then. Mohican was to be the second 100 mile trail race I've taken on since then, and the second of five attempts this year. Five in one year. Taking that in is like taking in a tornado.

Lately I've taken on a very literal "keep it real; keep with the roots" sort of approach to running, which meant I was ok heading to Mohican State Park without crew, pacers, tons of expensive gear, without hotel accommodations, without the overpriced nutrition products marketed at long distance runners. I'd done the same at Indiana 100 six weeks before, and aside from a brief dance with the cold that required some time wrapped in a space blanket, things didn't suddenly spiral out of control simply because I was wearing cheap pants and fueling with grilled cheese instead of Vespa. I finished in 28:01 despite the mud, rain and cold that forced half the field to drop; and, I recovered very quickly, and was back to hitting 20-25+ mile long runs within 10 days. People were disturbed to see I'd brought cotton t-shirts to Mohican, and I spent the whole race wearing Ye Old Faithfuls-- my ancient retro style black marathon shorts that are in such bad condition they require safety pins to stay up. But, to each his or her own. I wanted to be comfortable, and running in whatever I had available to me, growing up poor in the city, is what makes me feel comfortable. Sleeping in my car also brought a sense of solitude and simplicity that made me feel very much at one with my surroundings.

Race morning unfortunately came long before I was ready, however, as the parking lot across the street from the starting line was also directly next to the area where police and search & rescue were trolling the water for the bodies of two teenagers who'd drowned earlier that evening in the water near the dam. While the information hadn't yet hit the news, I had enough intuition to know what was happening, and it kept me up very late, unable to turn off my brain long enough to sleep for more than a couple hours. I got dressed, ate some peanut butter and pureed bananas and mangos, and headed out toward the start.

The race started without me even realizing it had started. A first, even in my world of the racing bizarre.

I guess at some point a horn sounded, or maybe a gun, blow horn, whistle-- your guess is as good as mine; but, I wasn't paying attention and before I knew it, I was thrown into the action like a tumbleweed in the wind. A gentle rain had bumped the humidity up to Level Hell, and within two miles I was sandwiched into a stretch of single track trail between a man who was already farting, and another one that kept making breathing noises that sounded like a horse. As I tell anyone who asks, the first 20 miles are the worst for me in 100 mile races. There are too many people, and they're too happy. Somebody always smells like watermelon and body odor. There's always someone whose breathing resembles a freight train, and women who talk a thousand miles a minute. And, there's always people who insist on asking "how do you feel?" three miles into the race, to which I feel obligated to flash a cheesy grin and two thumbs up. Does anyone really feel wrecked a half hour into a 100 mile race? "Boy, am I gassed", I want to say, panting and grabbing at my sides, falling into an exaggerated heap next to the aid table. All, in good humor, of course. But, it never occurs to me while I'm racing. The first twenty miles suck. The pieces just aren't in sync yet. Or, I haven't yet managed to step outside myself and step back in. Things never come together until about mile 40.

The field thinned out earlier than expected, and by the time I descended the hill beyond the 'private property' signs into the Enchanted Valley, I'd lost both the Gas Man and Cabello Loco and was almost entirely alone-- a pleasant surprise. The rain had picked up intensity, and was falling steadily. My pace was steady, too, splashing through muddy puddles, comfortably fast enough that I felt confident in my training and taper, but still slow enough that I didn't feel out of control. In fact, the elements had kept my pace in check so well that I falsely assumed I was pacing much faster than I was actually running, and I finished the first of two 26.8 mile long loops in 6:11-- much slower than I'd ever covered it in the past. Early foot care and a shirt change held me up longer than I'd have liked at the main aid station, but I was back out and into the rain without too much delay.

The second long loop felt endless, mainly because the rain seemed endless. As I left the first aid station, 31 miles into the race, it occurred to me that I'd been on the course for over 7 hours, and it had been pouring rain for over 7 hours. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, and told one of the ladies doling out aid, truthfully, that I was beyond the point of caring about the rain. I'd accepted that I had become Sisyphous and this rain was going to be my eternal boulder, at least until I slid down one of the many muddy hills I'd been encountering and just threw my hands in the air and said, "fuck it all". I didn't have to wait long.

My second tryst with the Enchanted Valley was significantly more traumatic than the first. The rain had softened, but the creeks were alive and the rocks were muddy. It seemed like everything was either brown or vibrantly green, and the air was thick. I'd been closely trailing a really pretty young lady who was wearing more white than I could ever remember seeing on a trail runner, for at least a mile, slowly gaining ground until we approached the stretch of mud that ran closely parallel to the creek. Here, she halted and hesitated, telling me I was much more fearless than she was. "I'm afraid I'm going to fall", she said.

"I'm not!" I called, sashaying past her and down a series of rocks, back up onto the muddy trail, and onward toward the hand over hand root climb.


And, I was down. I'd smacked my head hard on a heavy tree limb that had laid itself out over the path in front of me and somehow, like the start, I'd managed to miss it. I tripped and slid and skidded forward, cursing loudly as my knee tore against roots and rocks. I was drenched from head to toe, and now I was covered in mud, too. Somehow, the first thing that came to mind after I was vertical again wasn't how wickedly shitty the day was becoming, but what a great meme this would be.

'Oh, you did a tough mudder? That's cute. I did, too. 100 miles.'

The root climb was just fucking disgusting. It had already seen over 600 pairs of hands and shoes, and the roots were coated with slimy, slick mud. But, considering my appearance post-fall, we'd begun to look like family. I ascended it like a monkey, and sailed ahead toward the aid station much faster than I should have, given the ground conditions.

I was down again. This time, it was on my rear end, and I slid at least 10 feet before coming to a complete stop. There was no point in being pissed, or even questioning the comedy of missteps; and, I also realized that the pain from these falls was actually the first pain I'd felt in 40 miles of running. I kept trying to remind myself of the Tortoise and the Hare, but my mind kept returning to the mud, and then worms and bugs, and then my son singing "you got centipedes in your pants; you got centipedes in your pants!" I was laughing by the time I got to the dam where two of my friends, Katrina and Dave, were waiting. My hand and my butt got high and low fives, and I was happy to report I was in good spirit despite looking like I'd been dragged behind a mule cart for 15 miles in the mud.

The rest of the loop went without event, aside from the realization that my feet were in dire need of a wizard's touch. I was shooting for 13:30 for the 54 mile split, but it became apparent after leaving the Hickory aid station at 47.5 miles that I was probably going to be closer to 14 hours. I knew that I'd slow down at night, and that this was really the magic number for me if I had any hope of making the 1pm cutoff on Sunday. I passed the Mohican adventures finish on the opposite side of the road in 13:52, and rolled into the aid station in 13:59. It was going to be close.

This was a major pit stop for me. Not only did I have to do the typical fuel and hydration business, but I had a shoe and sock change, shirt change, and retrieval of my headlamp and flashlight scheduled here. And, while it wasn't imperative, I'd also promised to report progress here to a couple people, and my phone appeared to be getting a signal from satellites orbiting Mars. I headed out for my third loop around 7:20pm, anticipating a slow but steady walk-run, and an 8 hour split for the first short loop, heading back into Mohican Adventures around 3:15-3:30am. I have poor eye control at night after 15+ hours of running, and generally lose my ability to focus on my surroundings well enough to run on the trickier trail sections after an hour or two of complete darkness, so I wasn't expecting a split worthy of fireworks or fanfare. Things started out well enough-- I actually ran most of the first section, including into and out of the first aid station at 58 miles. I think that was probably the last time I had the strength to do anything like that, and one of the last times I really felt confident that the race was going to teeter into my favor. Darkness set in shortly thereafter, and my race began to unravel...first slowly, and then, around 65 miles, like a roller coaster that has reached its pinnacle before sailing, full throttle, down the track, it deteriorated so fast that I didn't know what had hit me as I rolled into the Hickory aid station at 71 miles. All I knew was I had almost 30 miles to go and there was no telling how I was going to get them done.

Back at the main aid station, a quick time check indicated I'd once again reached that magic number threshold-- 3:30am. I didn't want to get up. Period. The Cookie Monster googly eye business that had plagued me at Indiana was upon me again like a curse, and I was crying like an insolent toddler at a picnic table. My sister was here. At the finish line. As if I were actually contemplating quitting at this point, I hit rock bottom, realizing it was entirely out of the question now. It was one thing for her to drive 45 minutes to see me at Burning River 100. It was quite another to make a 4 hour round trip just for me to drop without her ever having actually seen me. I ate. I took Advil. I caffeinated. And, I ate some more. Finally, it became apparent that I was going to have to get up and go if I was ever going to get out of this rodeo. My feet felt like I was walking on glass and push pins, and it occurred to me, entering the trail after a haul down the road, that I hadn't touched me feet, hadn't checked the batteries in my light, and had thrown my phone into my pack without turning off the data.

My bowels had worked themselves into a tizzy as I headed up, up, and then up some more, until I reached that critical point where teeth and butt are clenched to the max, and it just isn't enough. In a moment of panic, I stepped behind a tree and squatted...and shit all over my favorite shoes. Worse, there was nothing to use for cleaning them, and nothing to use for wiping, either. I remained there squatting, feeling like a deer in headlights, trying to figure out what the devil had gone wrong, and how the physics had worked to my disadvantage so badly in putting my shoes in the trajectory of my ass. It took an hour and a half to get to the aid station. An hour and a half. It had taken just over an hour during the last loop.

I was in trouble.

I tried to convince myself it was the bowel debacle that had set me back, and I was going to get back on track once daylight came out to play. But, it took even longer to get to the next aid station, and with 15 miles remaining, I was down to just an hour ahead of the cutoff. And then there were my feet. The pain was beyond the scope of anything I've experienced in my life, barring none. The blisters were under the toes, forming a fiery perimeter around my heels, on the sides of my ankles, on the achilles, even in between toes. There were so many, and so many more in the works. Toenails were lifting out of their beds. I was bleeding. With every step, something squished like a bag of liquid and nerves threatening to explode. And worse, I was hallucinating so severely that monstrous looking figures were wriggling and creeping out of trees and rock formations all around me. Several times, I woke up and realized I'd been sleeping-- for how long, I don't know. It couldn't have been more than a few seconds, but it was unnerving nonetheless. As I wandered into the Covered Bridge aid station around mile 88, I knew I was in serious trouble. Running was out of the question, and the next section was largely uphill which made walking fast a challenge, too. Two of the ladies at the aid station helped me change my socks, which, in retrospect, was a mistake that cost me a lot of very valuable time. I left knowing I had over 12 miles to cover, and less than 40 minutes on the cutoff. That meant I had to keep moving, and faster than a casual walking pace.

It didn't happen. With the sun came heat, and with the heat and moisture came humidity. I couldn't catch my breath. Teemed with the searing pain in my feet, I hadn't a dribble of speed left in my body. I'd hoped to have at least 20 minutes on the cutoff when I reached the final aid station at 94 miles, but that didn't happen either. In reality, I had closer to 8. It was a moment of acceptance, a really cold, hard truth: I wasn't going to make the cutoff without divine intervention.

On the way to the finish line, I tried over and over again to run, but I could not. People passed me-- very determined people. Some of them I knew, like Tara Schweitzer and 20-time finisher Ron Ross, and others I did not. All tried to convince me I could keep up with them. But, I could not. All finished under 32 hours. Except me. I couldn't even cry. With a mile to the finish line, I found my sister. It was 12:57pm. We walked.

I've had emotional finishes. I've had moments that were so overwhelming they'd transcended the uber emotional realm and circled back into dulled senses. Nothing was quite like this one. I'd run 100 miles. And, it didn't count. In the results, my 32:14 effort is simply listed as DNF, the same as those who'd opted out at 15 miles, or 40, or 65. It's strangely ironic, that: I "did not finish", despite finishing. It makes me think that part of me is still stuck out there on the Mohican course, stuck in limbo until next year.

I was given a 100-mile buckle, despite not making the official cutoff, a decision that a few people did not like-- which has prompted me to consider returning it. Or, maybe I'll keep it put away until next year, when I finally escape from limbo. Maybe I'll carry it with me during the race. Maybe. Until then, I have a year to wander in limbo, stewing and biding my time yet again, until I have that chance to seek revenge.

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