Trail Mix: The run for the asterisk
There was sky above, mud below and trees on either side. Other than that, I had no idea where I was except at the start of each of the four laps. Half a mile from the finish, having been by there three times already, I thought there were 3-4 miles to go. Courses need landmarks and I'm probably the only person who needed the ski hill (taken off the course due to thick ice from the winter without end and shortening the distance to 29.1 miles).
Cast of characters
I scouted the competition before the race, spying Eve and Duke Rembleski and no one else at registration. Jim Ramacier, being alphabetically next to me, I knew hadn't signed up, but who else was there? At the start line, I got to meet Diane Farmer, who was wearing her Psycho Wyco shirt - she can tell you what a muddy course that was in comparison to this one. Justin Youngblom showed up at the last moment; I hadn't had a chance to meet him at Chippewa the week before, but I knew he'd be in the hunt.
When the gun went off, I kept looking back for the first half a mile, trying to see if someone was sandbagging the competition. Justin took the early lead and I knew he'd go out too fast and fade (he's 23, after all, and he ran an ultra last week), but I didn't want to lose contact, as I wanted to see what his strengths and weaknesses were [Justin, you need to learn to run the tangents! You ran a lot further than necessary that first lap.] There's a hairpin turn early on, so I could see Justin was a minute ahead at that point and Eve and another woman (only after finishing did I see it was Kim Holak) were a minute back. There was no one else that I could see. I had to wonder, is this the race to go for a win, or is there someone smart, running easily and even-paced, that I'm not seeing?
The race itself
The first lap, I felt good, though my back was stiff and giving me occasional twinges. Unlike at Chippewa, I didn't set up residence at the aid stations, but grabbed a cup and flew. One could avoid a lot of the mud, if you were up front.
The second lap, I felt strong as an ox and kept the same pace as the first lap. The mud, trampeled by everyone, was impossible to avoid, but not too bad.
The third lap, I could feel that I'd run an ultra the week before. I was slowing, but not too badly, and I was passing people running the 25K and lapping some of the 50K'ers. I kept looking for Eve's red hat when the distance allowed (I was wearing bright yellow, which made me stick out, darn it) and she was tailing me, biding her time. At the start of the lap, I was cheering on the other runners, then later thanking those who cheered for me, then only managing a nod, thumbs up, or grunt of acknowledgment. The mud was inescapable by this point and I tried to keep an eye on which footprints were full of water and which were still shallow. Toward the end of this lap, I was thinking more about not losing than about winning; I had to decide how much risk was acceptable.
My favorite quote of the race came in here. "I don't think he's running the same race we are. Look at all that dirt. He's a runner. Well, of course, you're a runner too, but he looks like a runner. Not that you don't..."
My Left Foot
Another factor came into play. In the first lap, my left sock ripped open. I'd been feeling sand slowly scour away flesh for a couple of hours, but now the blister (about silver dollar size) was, I was sure, filling with blood. My poor big toe, still blistered from frostbite in last week's race and with an ingrowing toenail (fall off, why won't you? You're dead weight!), was hurting with every step. I wondered if it was affecting my stride and if Eve would spot that weakness as she approached.
Eve caught me at the start of the fourth lap. She was unquestionably going to break her own course record, but with the shortened course, the record would have to carry an asterisk, like Maris' 61 homers did for two generations. I told her that Justin was reportedly slowing (someone had told me I was in first and, when I said I knew I was second, she said the first guy must've been walking) and she'd probably win overall - for the record, I told at least two people that before the race started - but the info didn't seem to register with her at that point and she told me I might win. [Yeah, right.]
It raised my own asterisk chase. Whether I let her go or not, I was still going to be the first man (at this point, I was sure Justin was only yards ahead). Should I let her go? Should I at least make her work a little? I was sure she was running a smarter race than I was, so I let her go. I'd win, but would forever have to add, "but second overall." It's a double standard: do you think Eve told people last year that she won, or that she was fifth overall?
Don't Try This At Home
I haven't posted my training for a while, because there's only been racing and rest. Between the six hour debacle called Chippewa and this race I'd run 12 miles total. I was going through a grieving process and didn't eat or sleep for three days, then did nothing but eat and sleep for three days. This would become all too evident on that fourth lap, as I went from 7 minute miles the first two laps to 8 at the start of the fourth and 9 toward the end.
On the fourth lap, I kept checking my watch. I had expected to run 4:10-4:15, but the shortened course had me thinking 4:00. I expected to catch Justin somewhere between 2:30 and 3:30, but where was he? Did he drop and I could relax even more? I decided to run as comfortably as possible, then push after 3:45.
I wasn't trying to avoid the mud any more. Straight down the middle, no extra distance.
I finally caught Justin, but if he hadn't said anything, I'd've never noticed. He said he'd hit the wall and I told him I was close to it. We parted with a handclasp and I knew, if I didn't walk the uphills, I had him. I had started to ease up on the downhills instead of letting gravity do its bit.
I'd run strategically and tactically, now I'd run positionally. No one could pass me if I saved up strength for the last few miles. Unfortunately, I didn't realize how close to the end I was. I suddenly recognised that I was only a quarter mile from the end and I could hear cheering behind me. It was that second woman. Or maybe someone in the 25K. But what if it wasn't? I picked up the pace again, to that which I'd managed the first lap and saved energy for a final sprint, if needed.
I crossed the finish line without having to push the pace. Kim was a minute behind me. Paul Holovnia was three minutes back; I've raced him dozens of times and have yet to meet him. I still wouldn't recognize him if I raced him again. Justin had been passed by a handful of runners.
The Wisdom of John King
Mr. King was my high school coach (Andrew will remember him, though not fondly). One thing he taught me was that, after winning a race, go back along the course and cheer on the other runners. First, one needs a cool-down anyway. Second, it's easy to hate a guy who beats you, but hard to hate one that cheers for you.
A second lesson came after my first age-class road race trophy (1978). I felt bad about winning a trophy for being younger than everyone who beat me. He told me to be grateful, that there'd be a time when I wasn't winning awards and would kill for one. He was right; that drought lasted 15 years.
Meet and Greet
I got to meet a lot of people after the race. Londell Pease, Steve Grabowski, Chris Hanson (who preferred the day's crowd to running alone for 18 hours at last year's Superior 100; he remembered me from my volunteering at an aid station) and a slew of others. The last person I met was Angie Puent, who I'd wanted to meet for two years - you'd think there'd've been an opportunity at FANS - and I was charming right up until the moment I made a poor joke and became a loser holding a winner's trophy.
You can't win 'em all.