09/23/2017 UPDATE: For clarity purposes there needs to be an adjustment to this story. I believe that I have not been faithful with the full essence of this race. Locally there have been a few questions that have floated around in terms of my final six miles of the race, and for the sake of a weighing conscience, and for the transparency being known in the community the adjustment is near the bottom of the story in bold. I apologize to the trail running community for delaying in the transparency during the The Hawk…
God allowed others to compete in a relay race with my life…
Somehow, I came out the winner…
It has taken me days to find ways to unhinge my metaphorical jaws in ways to make sense, make light, make fun of the events that transpired over the past weekend. Against all things that should exist in life, I managed to finish my first 50 mile trail race. I went back to where so many of my adventures started a year ago; The Hawk at Clinton Lake, Kansas.
Reflecting back on the adventure that started Saturday I almost chuckle and laugh out loud at the vicious, voracious cycle my life has taken since I started to ‘play in the dirt’. A year ago I wound up volunteering in an event in which I knew one person. I did not know who I was volunteering with, I did not know who was running around in the middle of the night, I just knew that I was supposed to serve and watch as my one friend completed her first 100 mile race.
I know jokingly I had talked about one day being on the same course also doing something similarly stupid.
I had absolutely no idea it would come so soon, and emotionally it would wind up meaning so much to me.
I apologize in advance if this lacks humor. Just go warm up some leftover spaghetti, and let my brain attempt to crank away at this race recap, in the format of one of the craziest, symbolic relay races you’ll ever read about.
The week leading up to The Hawk started in possibly one of the worst ways. It started with a sneeze, a student who refused to use a tissue, and by Wednesday I was shaking with a throbbing headache. The week leading into the biggest race of my life, and somehow I managed to pull the straw of becoming sick with a seasonal cold. Naturally, I contacted Kristen, who has kept me from dying on multiple occasions over the past year, and her response was exactly what I feared…
Running will help clear up your head a bit.
I was not getting out of this race. Realizing that my attempt was futile I settled for second best; I called into school that night and took my first ever sick day the Thursday before The Hawk. Between old school anime seasons and wadded up tissues in the corner, I laid in my bed, heaped in blankets and sweat; cursing in my mind that this was going to be hard. The first hurdle had been set, and I had managed to do my best in trying to clear it…I smashed right through the thing, fell face first, licked the rubber with my tongue, cried in my heart, and knew my life was soon going to be over.
When Friday rolled around I left school immediately, snagged my wife and camper, and took off for our campsite. It had been decided that with a 6:00 AM start an hour away from our house, camping may be a solid option. We pulled in, swallowed approximately 500 gnats, and made our way to packet pickup.
Packet pickup looked like a mix between Woodstock and a Sunday morning Garfield cartoon strip. People with long hair, no hair, pants, short shorts, tank tops, throwback shirts to a 100 they ran 5 years ago, and lasagna permeated the air. The race directors gave us a quick preview of the exciting race that was coming in less than twelve hours and stepped away for us
prisoners runners to enjoy our last meal. The veterans were laughing, the rookies were shaking, and overall the atmosphere had the makings of a Normandy invasion.
Deep down everyone was secretly scared to death.
After talking and crying to “The Legend”, I slumped into my camper, listened to my wife’s fear, swallowed nearly another gallon of water, two NyQuil, and set my alarm for 4:30 AM.
At 2:00 AM I awoke in a NyQuil fog to silence, minus my wife’s calming, soothing, methodical snoring. The world was still, I world had paused, the world knew that the end was coming for me and it was offering up all of what little time it had left.
I STAYED AWAKE FOR ANOTHER TWO HOURS IN MY BED SNIVELING WITH THE REALIZATION THAT I COULD NOT ESCAPE MY OWN DESTINY.
By 4:30 AM I stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth one last time, and prayed that last night’s lasagna would shift through my bowels. In almost comedic fashion, while brushing my teeth, the door kicked open and a man who I can only assume eats pre-workout for breakfast busted in the restroom.
WOO! It’s go time! You ready man! Let’s do this!
He didn’t even brush his teeth, he just yelled and stepped back out of the restroom into the starry night.
Shaking from fear of such neighbors I swallowed some toothpaste, rinsed my face, tried to punch the mirror, and started to get my running gear on.
Execution day was here.
First moment of excitement; wearing a speedo with actual pant legs. Being as how I
refuse to go into a single race without breaking at least one unspoken rule; I chose trail running rule #32 to ignore; do not try new gear on race day. I had just received a pair of experimental compression shorts that swore by their ability to not chafe*, and also had no seams. Sucking in my gut, praying to God, I hoisted these leggings onto my torso. Adjusting into my best impression of Michael Phelps I threw my singlet on, grabbed my pre-packed…pack, and headed to the start/finish line.
The moment I stepped near the start/finish line was the minute God handed off the baton to the first competitor; Rick. Rick, photographer with Mile 90, who has seen me way too much this year, pulled me aside to grab a quick photo. It has almost become tradition to somehow get a photo with him no matter what race or state I am currently in. Rick looks
like an American assassin whose glare would make a bullet to the brain seem more desirable. He is terrifying…and then he talks. You listen to him, see him smile, listen to him laugh, and even though he’s a photographer there is something about him that just puts your mind at ease.
Rick had an effortless handoff to Misty at the sound of the horn. For the first 13 miles Misty, one of the first people to hang out with me in the dirt last year…EVER!…stayed with me through the woods. We nailed our aid station, stayed for 30 seconds, grabbed our food, and were out. Misty and others who I had spent countless Saturday mornings with, kept me moving at a perfect clip in the early morning hours. I managed to achieve a personal record in time on the first 13 miles.
At the second aid station, West Park Road, Misty flipped the baton to Ben. Ben came through Psycho Psummer earlier this year, and exclaimed to me (volunteering at the time)…
Stop doing that crazy mountain s*#!
He pulled up next to me along the highest climb of the race, and we just moved in the
same motion. Make no mistake, Ben is 500% faster than I am. He is an ultra runner, but he chose to stay with me for a few miles. We talked about our love for the mountains, love for running, and how great the trail running community really is. I was feeling on top of the world; I was keeping a comfortable pace with a real runner! I was finally doing it. We were running and talking together, coming back up on another group of runners, when Ben said something that caught my ear.
Oh yeah. It was just a small heart procedure.
Why was I running so well with Ben? Because he had just had a ‘minor’ heart operation! Here I am trying to keep pace with this guy, and he’s just grateful his ticker is still ticking. Humble pie truly tastes so, so bitter at times.
After Ben and company moved forward I was able to hang out in the woods with myself while keeping my eyes on three ladies in front of me, as strange as that sounds. Ben, unknowingly, handed off to a trio from the local Trail Hawk organization that I had spent time running with, time volunteering with, and just time listening to them share their stories. They are the definition of ‘love for running’. They run and do crazy things because they just love to move in the woods. They are not extremist, they do not hang out in the mountains, they just run for the beauty of it. They kept my soul calm and occupied for a solid six miles heading into Land’s End aid station. They may never know it, but just knowing they were in front of me and laughing, that kept me moving one step at a time.
At Land’s End I sat down for the first time; 20 miles into the race. The aid station crew, including a crazy man I had once watched run into an aid station like an airplane on his 100 mile race, grabbed my pack and like a pit crew worked on my bladder because it had managed to get stuck shut. I enjoyed the ability to catch my breath, refocus, and just take in the moment. It is a strange sensation when you’re the runner and you’ve been so used to being the volunteer. You almost feel guilty, until you try to open your pack and realize your fingers are covered in so much sweat that you can’t get anything open. Volunteers are the angels runners don’t always deserve, but definitely need in order to survive.
From the trio of ladies, to Gary at Land’s End, the handoff found its way into one of the stranger hands of the day; Dan. Dan was a man from St. Louis that I found in the final two miles of the first loop. We both hiked it back into the start area. What was strange about Dan was the fact that Dan knew of me. He had volunteered at Shawnee Hills 100 a few weeks prior at an aid station along the course. While pacing a random runner, I went through his aid station twice. Somehow, through poor choice, we both wound up on the same trail together in the middle of Kansas. We were both grateful for the opportunity, and also understanding that what we were trying to accomplish was not an easy task, and potentially very stupid.
From Dan at the start line, the baton finally found its way into the hands of one of the most prolific, monumental people in my life; Leia. I found her at start/finish manning the aid station. I could have cried. The temperature was getting a lot warmer than many of us had predicted, runners were struggling, and I was extremely nauseous; something I had never experienced in a race. The only food I could have kept down at that point was gels from Honey Stinger…even the mandarin flavored ones. Even Tailwind was making me sick; resulting in just Ginger Ale in my UltrAspire flask like a hungover frat member. I looked at her, and I am sure I looked absolutely pathetic, and…trying not to sob…said…
My stomach hurts. I can’t cool down. I’m really struggling and I don’t know what to do.
Part of me was so relieved to tell her, because Leia would know exactly what to do in this situation. Part of me was devastated to tell her because I was struggling, and I was failing my mission to run 50 miles. Leia, if I am being brutally honest, is on a very short list of people that I so desperately want to impress. She is the runner I want to be like, the human I want to mimic, the goal that I want to strive for. Partly because I saw her run her first 100 the year prior (to the date), and partly because she has been a huge part of my running success. The baton of this relay race was in good hands. After a cheese and bread sandwich, some ‘junk ice’, and my pack refilled with water and food; Leia was sure to kick me out and send me back for my second loop.
The world needs more Leia’s.
From the start line back to Land’s End the heat finally got me. The rocks around me were spinning, I could not get my eyes to focus like a busted iPhone camera, and I was severely hurting. On top of that there were these footsteps that I kept hearing right behind me that were driving me absolutely insane. The heat does that. In the first opening I stepped to the side to allow the crazed runner to pass, and what do I find?
I found Michelle.
Michelle had been hiking behind me since the start line on our second lap. I knew Michelle from another hellacious run; the GOATz Gravel Classic. Michelle was a GOATz runner, and had come down to hang around in the woods for a few fun filled hours. Michelle talking about her life, children, job with AAA, and moving to Omaha years ago kept me sober enough to make it back to Land’s End. Upon reaching our destination Michelle continued her trek of greatness.
I saw Gary at Land’s End and I sat down.
I still do not know how he knew it. But Gary Henry knew immediately that I did not have enough calories in my system. My bottles got filled, and then the next thing I knew there was a bowl of boiled potatoes in my lap. I started to slowly eat them, thinking of how many of my students would be laughing at the Irish guy eating potatoes**, and I started to feel better. I must have crashed on my calorie plan because food, while sounding terrible, continued to wake me up, wake me up, and wake me up with each aid station. Upon sitting at the station and watching runners come in, I saw the next person to step up to God’s relay with my life.
The same soul that got me to Texas, fixed my feet, and filmed me finishing my first ever ultramarathon in February of this year at Rocky Raccoon 50K, wound up next to me at the same aid station along the shoreline of Clinton Lake. I had this sudden realization that Megan is strong and kind enough that she’d keep me moving if I got out of the chair. I asked her if I could go with her, and she said that I should go ahead and start and she’d catch up.
I ran my fastest two miles of my second lap after that aid station. However, miles into the stretch Megan was nowhere to be found. I blame long legs. I turned on the music on my phone, and just enjoyed running God’s relay by myself for a while. My stomach was calm, my legs were fresh, and the breeze was blowing. I wasn’t fast, but I was moving. Megan caught up with 13 miles left in the race.
With 5.5 miles left before our final aid station; Megan and I trekked through the dark woods, hoping that it would start to cool off. It never did. My black shorts were now two tones of white from the amount of salt that I had lost. In five miles I had managed to eat two cheese quesadillas, learn about the band M83, and listen to a runner belch in a way that middle school boys would clap…yell..and blush in awkwardness. Megan brought joy to my life, and got me six miles from the finish line.
Then, in the stillness of the night, sitting at Land’s End, the anchor of this mindless, eternal, 50 mile relay showed their face.
The lady I saw crush a 50 mile race three weeks prior, the lady that I nearly died on gravel with in the early summer, the same runner that I almost drowned with as her pacer…as a complete stranger…in April, was there for me. God could not have picked a better anchor out of the entire bunch.
I didn’t have the energy to hug her, but I wanted to. Brandy, who had already completed
her 50 miles, found me at Land’s End with ginger cola (thank you Pepsi). She looked exhausted, but she smiled, was so kind, and gave me what I needed to journey through the hardest six miles of my life. Additionally, Brandy laced up and in one way or another ‘carried me’ for the final six miles of the course. I am thankful that my wife had trumped my level of intelligence and had checked with the race director on allowing this to take place, as this would be something outside the guidelines of the race rules, and I had failed to take the appropriate steps prior to the race to ensure that this would be allowed. If it had not been for my wife thinking clearly (after running her first marathon previously in the day) myself and Brandy could have been facing disqualification because I had not followed the race rules. Graciously the race directed permitted “The Legend” to join me for the final miles of the race. At mile 46 I started dry-heaving; another first, Brandy reminded me that we were not starting the ‘vomiting game’ this close to the finish line. At mile 48 I was doubled over, trying to catch my breath, and hearing my heart nearly explode in my right ear. “The Legend”, although being completely exhausted, never walked away. She found ways to find laughter, find dancing, and find ways to compare which of us were more stubborn in the September evening heat.
At mile 49.9 “The Legend” broke away from me at this point
of this of the relay and yelled, “Runner coming!”, as I started to painfully jog my way into the finish line. At mile 50 Rick yelled, “SMILE!”, as he snapped a final shot of me ending this race. The night was old, the day was gone, and my first 50 mile race was in the books.
Upon reflection; there is no way I could have ran this race by myself. Ironically, this is the first race that I have spent the majority of the mileage with at least one other person. That has never happened before. Realistically, I don’t deserve the community that I’ve been given. I don’t deserve the legs that I have, and I definitely don’t deserve to be able to have these kind of adventures to share with other people.
I thought, going into The Hawk 50, that this race would destroy me in a way that would cause me to want to stop for a prolonged period of time. In a way, that was the plan. Moving from a 10 mile race in July of 2016 to a 50 mile race in September of 2017 is reckless. How I managed to walk away (barely) from The Hawk with zero blisters, very little chafing, and no serious injuries is completely beyond my understanding. Furthermore, what is even more baffling, is the fact that I still want to go further and I want to go faster. It isn’t necessarily because I have something to prove, it truly is because I have found a niche within my own culture that is so much to fun to be a part of.
It would also be noted that towards the final months leading up to The Hawk I changed my training pretty significantly. I tried to focus more on strength development then necessarily getting mile after mile after mile. I am convinced that if I had not had the guidance of strength training I likely would not have finished The Hawk this year.
This race truly showed me how we are all connected, and for some of us, we really cannot be successful unless we allow ourselves to rely on others to give us strength.
*Chafing began at mile 40, only after being soaked with junk ice
**Currently my students are learning about immigration, stereotypes, and the Irish potato famine