July 23, 2012 12 Comments
I woke up at 1:15 in the morning in Rich and Shari’s guest bedroom, my clothes from the weekend strewn throughout the room, mixed with random electronics and a few granola bars. Rich and Shari were a nice couple that I had met on couchsurfing.org and they were nice enough to host me for my very first half marathon double. The first race of the weekend was the inaugural Idaho Falls Half Marathon, which I had run the day before. As I tiptoed my way out of their house and into my Nissan Sentra rental, I couldn’t ignore my quads, which were definitely aching from the steep downhill of the race’s first five miles. There was nothing I could do about that now, so I set phasers to Google Maps and started the 150-minute drive north to Ennis, Montana for the fifth annual Madison Half Marathon.
As you can imagine, the entire drive was pitch black, especially after leaving the main road and entering Montana. I’ve always had this idea of the Big Sky State in my head as a huge mountainous expanse teeming with wildlife and civilization all but abandoned. Right as I entered the state, I saw two large, sculpted figures on the shoulder of the road, and as they turned and my headlights caught their eyes, I realized they were elk. I slammed the breaks in both surprise and awe, slowing down just enough to see them leap into the darkness. An hour later, I entered the ghost town of Ennis, a town that seemed to encompass just five square blocks. So far, stereotypes confirmed.
The Madison Marathon, called such because it takes place in Madison County, bills itself as the “highest road marathon in the country [possibly the world].” There are definitely higher road half marathons (such as Mt. Evans), but for the full distance, all higher races are trail runs. Given the elevation profile, it’s not the kind of race I normally run. But for some reason, I was overcome by some intense, gung-ho spirit of adventure in the spring and I convinced myself that running this would be a good idea. It was as if my runner’s id had taken over my planning, with my ego and superego choosing which credit card to use for registration. Tacking on an additional half marathon the day before was just a garnish for this unusually ambitious palette. When I planned out the preliminary logistics, I assumed that the race would start and end in Ennis, and that I’d be able to drive to the start and hop in my car shortly after finishing.
Wrong on all three counts.
I learned shortly before leaving Chicago that this race requires a lot of logistical handling. First, runners should arrive in Ennis by 5 AM to board the shuttles. The field of roughly 200 runners is then transported over ninety very shaky minutes to Clover Meadows campground, where both races finish. It’s a circular clearing of land with many tents hugging the tree line (one of which was the official gear check) and Montana’s smooth peaks in the distance. However, this isn’t the race start. After letting runners go to the bathroom, organizers whisk the eager athletes back onto the shuttles for another 40-minute drive even farther into the bowels of the middle of nowhere. Since I had gotten no real sleep (and as of this writing, have yet to experience a good night’s rest since four nights ago), I slept through both rides. I’m sure I missed out on some pristine views, but trust me, I would get plenty of that soon.
After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a large field, surrounded on all sides by rising mounds of grass with yellow and red flowers popping from the underbrush. It was a beautiful place to start a race. Too bad it got soiled by a perverse firing squad of male runners with an urgent need to urinate. As if avoiding an invisible fence, upwards of thirty guys lined up in a perfectly straight line and peed on the grass. Before anyone reflexively shouts out “Ew, boys,” I will let you know that the ladies were doing the exact same thing on the other half of the field, but with more foliage to protect them from wandering eyes. I guess this is normal in small, mountain races.
For me though, it was all a bit unusual. Not only was this completely different from any other race I’ve run (except, perhaps, the XTERRA Trail Run), but everyone around me seemed to carry themselves with a certain insouciance that I did not share. I was very nervous and felt a little out of place. My legs were tired, I had just as much experience with altitude races as I did with semiconductors and there was no apparent way to bail on the race should my body break down. Had I, like George Oscar Bluth, made a huge mistake? Maybe. But I was doing my best to ignore all of that. I made small talk with the people around me and thought I recognized a few faces from the previous day’s race. There was a tall African American runner with a bright orange Syracuse shirt that I swore I had seen on Saturday but with a different Syracuse shirt. I didn’t want to be accused of racial insensitivity by assuming it was him, so I didn’t ask. Fortunately, he brought up the race with a nearby runner, and I jumped into the conversation, feeling quite validated.
On the back of a pickup truck, race organizer Sam Korsmoe belted out last-minute details in a carefree, almost sardonic tone. It was a fitting start to this unusual race. A few minutes later, the race had officially started and a few hundred athletes of dubious sanity were on the first climb of the day.
The first, and most demoralizing climb of the day.
Son of a bitch, I thought as I slowed to what nobody can reasonably call a running pace. My feet were scrambling over each other like a clumsy duck, and within 0.1 miles, I was reduced to a walk. I wasn’t comforted by the fact that everyone around me was also walking on the steep, dirt path. I could only focus on feeling “broken” so pathetically early in a race. I looked at my Garmin and saw that my pace was in the 14-minute range. Fantastic, I thought. Of all the paces I thought I’d register today, 14 was not one I wanted so soon. This is going to suck. Really, really badly.
Projected finishing time: 3 hours and change plus some time in the emergency room.
Many frustrated strides later, I began to suspect that the day wouldn’t be all pain and torment. In fact, I learned that the first mile is notoriously difficult while the second is much friendlier. Since it’s all downhill, I was cruising down it and despite my aching quads, managed to log a 7:36 split. So maybe I was too quick to judge this race. Plus, I had started to note how much everyone else was walking, despite looking like total badasses.
Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
But as you might have already guessed, these optimistic thoughts were short-lived. The next three miles were easily the most difficult of the entire day. With very little downhill reprieve, we climbed and climbed, winding our way from one outcropping to the next. From the base of the climb, you could see the laughably long and serpentine path to the top. I had compiled a batch of murmurs from eavesdropping and I concluded that the top of the climb at mile 5 was the highest point in the race, so that the remaining eight miles would be “downhill.” It was an optimistic thought, for sure, but it didn’t make my legs any lighter. I would look ahead to see several people walking, so I would run to pass them, only to have them rubber-band past me when my legs would start to fail me. At several points during that climb, I couldn’t help but think, if I’m this tired and winded now at just three miles, how am I going to feel at mile 11?
Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
But all things, even painful, exhausting ones, come to an end. I soon found myself standing next to Monument Ridge, where I happily took out my camera to immortalize the moment. The longest continuous climb of the day was over. After punishing my legs for so long on the uphill, the next stretch was refreshingly easy. Even slight uphills weren’t a big deal and I found myself rising over them confidently. Since my prime directive was no longer avoiding death, I decided to take in the breathtaking scenery. Atop Monument Ridge, no cardinal direction was bereft of inspiration. I wanted to take pictures of every single angle. In retrospect, I wish I could have immersed myself more deeply in my surroundings. But since we were running on dirt and loose gravel, I kept my sight mostly focused on the ground three feet ahead of me so as to avoid slipping on a rock or rolling an ankle.
By mile 6, I was in a groove and loving it. I would stomp out the flat sections to the tune of 8:40 per mile, scorch the downhills under 7:30 and run/walk my way up the climbs at considerably slower speeds. All of these strategies together averaged at about 9:40 overall. I definitely felt like I could keep this up for the rest of the race. Check this out, I thought. I’m actually doing this and with a good amount of grace and strength. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of my self-confidence, but this scenario did not play in my head that morning.
Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
There was a standalone cooler just past mile 6 with a cup tied to it. The race organizers had urged runners to bring their own water because the course would have very limited support. They also pointed out that these lone coolers could only have water because Gatorade would attract bears. Bears. I’d be lying if I said that this passing comment didn’t unnerve me a bit. But once on the course and hammering out the miles, Pooh, Smokey and the Berenstains weren’t on my mind at all. I also assumed, probably foolishly, that since you could see so much of the landscape ahead of you, a sneak attack just seemed unlikely.
Every turn revealed miles of new terrain, the curtain drawn to show the distant course draped over the green Gravelly Mountains like a dusty rope. Miles 7 through 10 were, believe it or not, a blur. They weren’t easy and had their fair share of climbs. But I had gotten into a pace that I could hold for what felt like forever. I was also approaching a mindset where all of my actions felt automatic. There was something different about this race and it wasn’t just that large mountains had replaced buildings. There was less emphasis on the act of racing and more on the simple and joyful exercise of running. You could probably say the same thing about the dreadful XTERRA run from last July, but I was so miserably hot in that event that I would have spit at anyone who tried to moralize the experience or draw out something positive from it. But here, I was very much in tune with my body and the world around me. I was almost waiting for my brain to finally leak out that mysterious fluid that turns regular runners into the truly barbaric and humbling breed known as “ultra runners.” I kept running, but that euphoric moment didn’t happen.
But I got one step closer to it.
My confidence was stoked by every person I passed, many of them looking like they could smoke me on any course. But here I was, a city boy with negligible experience at altitude, keeping up and actually enjoying it. I kept on looking at my pace and wondering, am I really going to finish this race faster than the XTERRA Trail Run? I ran the numbers a few times and confirmed that yes, I was on pace to finish considerably faster. I’m not sure why I used the South Carolina race as a benchmark, but it probably had to do with degree of difficulty and that I signed up for it knowing it would be a kick in the jaw.
Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
The last five miles of the race I spent passing and being passed by the same four runners. I didn’t chat with any of them because I try to keep my running conversation to simple phrases like “I could get used to this!” or “Beautiful day!” and the oft used “Your girlfriend called and said you need to run faster.” Speaking of, it really was a beautiful day. At the start line, I overheard one runner complain that it was going to be hot. I’ll concede that those running the full marathon were probably treated to warmer temperatures. But I could write loving sonnets about the humidity or the complete lack thereof. I could feel the sun beating down on me, but between breezes and sweating properly, I felt invincible.
Revised finishing time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
By mile 11, the course had much more tree cover. By now I was shooting nervous glances into the woods, remembering the “BE BEAR AWARE” signs plunked throughout the course (though I wonder if there was ever a meeting where someone suggested changing them to “BE BEAR-Y AWARE”). Fortunately, my race experience was not tainted (or improved?) by any ursine encounters. Instead, I kept my head down and continued on my way towards the finish. There would be one more pesky uphill to conquer before reaching Clover Meadows, but I had become an expert at tackling them by then. By no means was I springing up the slope, but the attack had become a calculated series of moves. I’d divide the climb into segments: short, walking sections followed by long, running stretches and then a brief moment of anticipation where you hope there’s a downhill on the other side.
Not long after this last climb, I saw a gathering of people in a circular field, which I later recognized as Clover Meadows. I should have kept running uninterrupted to the finish, but it was a slight uphill to the banner, so I decided to walk for about six seconds before mobilizing all my efforts upward.
Actual finishing time: 2 hours, 8 minutes, 30 seconds.
Though I had spent months hyping up this race in my head, the finish was very quiet and serene. Korsmoe was standing next to the banner, writing down bib numbers and corresponding finishing times. A few runners who had already finished the half were applauding for incoming runners and on occasion, a dog would bark. It was a race being run by and for people who like the physical act of covering distance and not so much for those who want a big, elaborate circus with streamers and celebrity appearances. Don’t get me wrong, I love big races. But I could just as easily get used to this style of racing. I just wish I didn’t have to sit in what feels like a big, orange maraca for over two hours just to reach the starting line.
As a residual benefit of this race, my confidence looking ahead to the Leadville Trail 100 as a pacer for my friend Jay has burgeoned. This race definitely served as proving grounds for whether I could handle running at altitude and I think I passed the test comfortably. If I could finish a half marathon at 9,000 feet on tired legs, then I could probably run a segment of Leadville on fresh legs … right?