With his bullhorn, the race director implored us to hurry to the start line. I guess he thought the sooner we were under the wooded cover of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, we'd all feel a bit more untouchable, whether the bully was real or not. So we lined up. At 6:30 AM the director sent us on our way. And after a two mile run to the trailhead, we entered the woods for the first of three 11-mile loops.
Once on the trail, we quickly realized the bully had already gone before us. The trails were muddy. Every step was a fight for footing. Between breaks in the thunder, you could hear the taunting and ghostly laugh of the bully echoing through the woods.
This was not the start I'd anticipated for my attempt at my longest run ever. There was no way to train for these conditions outside of daily runs through a swamp in the middle of a hurricane - neither of which I'd had access to.
It was clear this day was about me and my heart. No coach was going to drag me through. No inspirational meme was going to coax me on. This day was about the miles I'd put on my feet and legs leading up to this moment, and whatever strength I'd stowed away in my mind.
And if I was lucky, this day would be about discovering some new strength along the way.
day. These peeks made me feel as wet as the air looked. They restrained me with the notion that with each step, a tumble into the muddy trail waters was imminent.
Right on cue I slipped. I grabbed a tree branch out in front of me. My right leg spawled out wildly to the right. My left leg planted in an awkardly downsloaped rock crevice. I froze there for a moment, wondering if the fall was complete, or still in progress.
I managed to save myself. But that early slip portended what this day of running would look like. A constant battle between keep going and keep standing. Could a running bully have a better strategy? Make the runner live in so much doubt about each step that a months long dream of a finish line 37 miles away becomes an unquietable nightmare.
was. Running in the middle of a woods 600 miles from home, around the edge of lakes I'd never before had the chance to see, chasing a dream that had once been just that - a dream, it dawned on me - I'm blessed. In a woods that had clearly been invaded by a running bully, angels still ran. And one of them was smiling right behind me - her dream completely unaffected by the elements.
About 3 1/2 hours after we started the race, we emerged from the woods, completing our first loop. I thought to myself, that's the toughest half marathon I've ever completed. And I also thought, I only have to do it two more times....
We hung around the aid station there for a bit drinking soda and eating pringles chips. These aid stations would become saviors. Not just because of the chips and drinks, but they were another source of smiles. In the rugged conditions, when they could have been home curled up with a blanket and a book, these beautiful people were volunteering their time to protect us from the conditions, and to remind us - bullies don't always win.
As we started the second loop, many of the runners who'd entered for shorter distances were gone. For much of the remainder of the race Nicole and I would run in isolation. On one hand, that delivered me the peace I've come to appreciate about trail running. On the other hand, I periodically wondered if everyone else might have been swept away by the waters that seemed to keep rising, or by the wind that blew stronger by the mile.
and then told her, "I'd save worrying for something we can actually do something about. We're out here in the middle of nowhere. Do you have some particular shelter in mind?"
I don't think she found comfort in my answer, but we pressed on.
Two things were beginning to weigh on me at this point. Two things besides survival that is. I knew we were in danger of missing the cutoff time. The race had a 12-hour time limit; it was clear we were coming up short of that. Everything I'd read said this was a strict cutoff. I began processing the defeating idea of coming all this way, running all day in these conditions, and yet, not getting to cross the finish line.
I also started worrying about darkness. Neither Nicole or I had lights. The only thing I could imagine being harder than keeping my footing in the mud would be keeping my footing in mud I could no longer see.
As we left the final aid station, still nearly 4 miles from the finish line, a volunteer told us, "if you keep moving you can make it." I was in a lot of pain at this point. Each step was excruciating to take. Given I had 10,000 steps or so left, I wasn't sure if by "make it" he meant survive, or if he was crazy enough to believe that with less than an hour to go, we could really make it to the finish line.
Nicole looked at me after he said that and assured me, "I don't care if they close the course or not, we're finishing."
To be honest, in that moment, her words dejected me. I was leaning more toward not surviving. Right then and there, I was more than willing to feel life and pain evaporate right out of me as I plopped face down in the mud. I was tired of the bully, and I just wanted to be finally out of his reach.
But Nicole marched on, and she didn't say it, but she had a vibe about her that said "you'd better keep up."
We emerged from the final loop through the woods at a couple of minutes over the 12-hour cutoff. I fully expected the aid workers would tell us our night was done. It was dark, and I had no idea how we'd find our way to the finish line 1.7 miles up the road. I was also wondering, if they try to stop us, will Nicole ultimately end up being the biggest bully of the day?
But as we approached the volunteers, our cell phones weakly lighting the way, an enthusiastic voice yelled - you're almost there. Keep going. These were not encouraging words. Most of me was hoping to be tossed in the back of the pickup trucks with the other course markings and signs that all said the day was over. Most of me wanted put out of my misery - I'd run my longest run ever at this point - why on earth do I need a finish line?
But up ahead, the light from Nicole's cell phone danced forward into the night. And no matter what most of me wanted, it was clear where that light was headed. So I followed.
We were about a half mile from the finish line when a vehicle stopped alongside us. I was hoping we were about to be kidnapped - so long as the kidnappers wouldn't make me run ever again. But turns out it was Nicole's friend Sara, who I'd met earlier in the day. She'd already completed her 50 mile race and was now going to run the rest of the way with us. She told us she'd talked to the race director and told him we were still on the course and asked him to keep the finish line up.
That's when it hit me. The finish line was still possible. I no longer wanted to be face down in mud or kidnapped, I wanted to cross the finish line of the most physically challenging endeavor I'd ever tackled.
And that's what we did. A few minutes later we crossed the finish line and the race director handed us our buckles. We did it. Ironic, really, that the man who ushered us into the presence of the bully 12 1/2 hours earlier with a bullhorn, would now save us from him with one of the most angelic congratulatory handshakes I've ever received.
I'll always be grateful for angel Sara for leading us into his presence, and to angel Nicole for never ever doubting we'd find him there.
Once again the sport of running has stepped up to remind me that life is full of bullies. But it's also full of angels. Which of those we focus on makes a lot of difference.
This race was so well run. I'm not easily impressed by people who pull of good things in good conditions. But people who can make great things happen in bad conditions - that's when you know you're dealing with professionals, and people who really care about your experience.
I can't wait to go back to the Land Between the Lakes - maybe next year - with hopes of seeing what those lakes look like with the angel of sunshine shining down on them.
It was an unusual place to be the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. But there I was, standing beside a tiny lake, in a town of about 1000 people, sharing the starting line of an ultra marathon with less than 20 other runners. I'd participated in some small races before, but this one redefined small. And as the camera snapped a picture of all of us at the starting line, I couldn't help but wonder how on earth I'd ended up there.
Who was I kidding? I knew how I got there. I attempted to run the 35-mile Georgia Jewel back in September. And the distance, heat and mountains got the best of me. My pursuit of that Jewel finish line came to an abrupt end at mile 18. I'd driven to Georgia from Virginia writing the story of my first ultra marathon. I drove home thinking of new words to write my latest story about failure.
I never imagined those words would include St. Paul, Virginia. But if running has taught me nothing else, it's taught me our stories are never over. Our race finish lines mean everything but the race is finished.
That failure in Georgia ate at me. It had been a good year of running, but I kept dwelling on the Georgia Jewel. It's our human nature, I suppose, to let our minds wander to where we came up short when there are plenty of spaces available for them to mingle with victory.
So I turned to Google. Did a search of November Ultra races and found myself in the far southwest part of Virginia. About as far southwest as you can get without being in Tennessee or West Virginia. The name of the race was the Oxbow Ultra. It had options for 6, 12 and 24 hour races. I did a little math and decided I could run 35 miles in 12 hours. That's all I wanted - 35 miles.
When I discovered my running partner and friend Nicole would be visiting family in that part of the state that weekend, that's all I needed. It was off to the Oxbow.
lake. On one hand, it was nice. It let you settle into a nice pace. On the other hand, it did little to prepare you for what was ahead.
As that first mile ended, the course abruptly turned and switched back and started a climb up the mountain that had been staring down at us as we made our first trip around the lake. That first easy mile now seemed like a cruel joke. I swear I heard that mountain laughing at us.
If the uphill climb wasn't challenging enough, the trail was covered with wet and mounded leaves that mixed in with and at other times hid the frequent pools of soupy mud. I spent a lot of time not just wondering how to take that next step up, legs burning from exhaustion, but how do I keep the next step from slipping me over the edge of the mountain and down into the ravine below.
I didn't think about it climbing up that first time, but the leaves would only get slipperier and the mud soupier as runners continued to traipse over and through them collecting their laps.
After a mile of climbing nearly 600 feet up, we emerged from the covered trail into an open highland. Not only was it flat and dry and empty of leaves and puddles, it was beautiful. It was the prize at the end of a fight. Rest for weary legs. It was the reassurance I needed that I hadn't signed up for 12 hours of death defying slip and slide experiences.
new venture, a relationship, a project, a hobby or a dream. We get a vision, it looks and sounds flat and doable and worth it and fills us with a spirit of "I can do this!!"And then we run around the lake and come to the end of the flat part of that vision and hit the mountain.
And we stop. And we stare. And we turn around.......
What would happen if we just took a chance and climbed the challenges in our life. Maybe, just maybe, we'd discover there is something beautiful on the other side. And maybe - maybe that beauty would motivate us to take just one more lap.
And then another.
Until we're accomplishing things and bringing beauty into the world we never imagined we could.
As we ran down off that plateau things got trickier. It's actually easier to navigate wet leaves and mud going up than it is down. I've never spent as much time in a race trying to keep my balance as I did through the downhill sections of this course. In fact, I consider it one of my greatest running accomplishments that I didn't fall this day. My arms and legs flailed in all directions at times to make sure of it, which led to soreness in muscles usually not involved in my running motions, but my body remained in one piece throughout.
The final 2 miles of each lap were along the Clinch River. After the heavy rains the river was high and rolling. Just like I was reminded at the top of the mountain we sometimes need to go exploring to discover beauty in this world and within ourselves, the river reminded me just how many sounds we don't hear each day. We get used to the sounds of traffic and keyboards and YouTube videos, but out there somewhere and always are rivers rolling. Each with their own sound. All of them calling us to hear them.
At the end of that river was the finish line. Once every 5 miles we got to cross a finish line. Each time we did another 5 miles were added to our collection and we were one lap closer to 35 miles. Just beyond that finish line we could step into an aid station and eat pasta and drink coca cola. And discover new treats like Lay's Poppables. (A treat my entire family is now addicted to).
my recipe for ultra success. (And Poppables - forevermore running success includes Poppables).
I want to add another component of this race that helped me. It was the 5 mile laps. Mentally, knowing every 5 miles I could hit a bit of a reset button was powerful. When it comes to tackling longer distances, I need the capacity to break the race down into bite sized nuggets. Well, this race was staged in those nuggets. Never once did my mind drift ahead to the 35 mile finish line - it was always focused on the end of that current 5-mile lap.
I told Nicole it was likely we were only going to get 30 miles today. I think she'd already done the math herself. She reminded me it would be my longest distance ever. My longest timed run ever. That there was still a lot left to run for. So we kept going. Another lap. And then another.
I experienced something in those next laps I'd never experienced before. The transition from day to night in the middle of a run. And on this day, that also meant going from whatever warmth the elusive sunshine had offered to the cold blanket of darkness.
Those slippery leaves, the ever widening and sloppy puddles, they now became trail landmines waiting to trip us up with each stride. The only protection we had was our headlamps. More often than not, though, we had those lights pointed in the distance to spot oncoming coyotes.
It's odd, really. It was probably the longest 5 miles of my life. Each step hurt. Whether going up or down. My legs were cold and stiff and at times I felt like I needed to reach down and manually lift each step into place. But out there in the stillness of the night, in a world far removed from the chatter and soul conflicting tugs of the real world, there was uncommon peace. Peace a part of me dreaded seeing fade back into reality.
In the end, the longing for warmth overcame the desire for peace, and we marched ahead with every ounce of speed we had left in the tank. At this point, it was a very small tank.
you conquer it, and sometimes maybe you come up a little short. Standing there holding that medal, I felt like we experienced a little of both that day. A little conquer. A little coming up short. But I think all of our lives should be in the business of taking on the job of fear and discomfort. It's in the taking the job on at all that is great. So I couldn't help but agree, we did do a great job.
We were making our way up the steps. Headed to the car and then back to our rooms where we could finally escape the chill that had fully invaded both of us now. We heard a voice shouting "Nicole, Nicole," as we struggled up the steps. We stopped. A young man was holding a large growler from a local brewery. He presented it to Nicole along with a certificate and let her know she'd won the women's division of the 12-hour group.
Nicole will tell you the number of runners in that division was quite small. (We won't say how small). But I will say no matter how many runners were in that group, she earned her award. And it was the exact perfect way to put a cap on our day. Standing at the top of those steps, in the dark and chill of a tiny town park, no one else around, it was the most ceremoniously beautiful way to say - great job - great day!
Last week I interviewed two long distance runners for my TwoTim47.com podcast series - Solomon Whitfield and Harvey Lewis. Whitfield has been running for years but has recently started adding on miles with no end in sight to how far he wants to go. Lewis is a world renowned ultra runner; he won the famous Badwater race back in 2014. I spent about 45 minutes with each of them talking about their running journeys. Although they both filled that time with great wisdom and inspiration, I was left with one overwhelming thought:
Life is like running.