Paces High (2014 Air Force Marathon)

We walked between floodlights and domed hangars under the night sky, following the crowd to the start line. My wife Steph was running her first (and likely only) half marathon along with her sister, mom and uncle. An hour before they were due to start, I would begin the marathon with my father-in-law Steve as his pacer.  This race was particularly significant for Steve, because not only was he in the Air Force for six years, it would be his first marathon since 2008.  Both of these reasons imbued him with omnipotent Dad Power, which meant he made t-shirts and signed up the entire family for the event.

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me

left to right: Steve, Janine, Jan, Steph, me (with head wings!)

I was a little nervous. It wasn’t the marathon distance that intimidated me, but the task of being Steve’s pacer. Before I had even run two miles in my life, he had already earned several marathon and triathlon finishes. I went to watch him run the 2006 and 2007 Chicago Marathons, years known respectively for being very cold and dangerously hot, and felt completely humbled (and intimidated) by what I had just witnessed. Today, I hoped that I would be able to guide him through the race without feeling impertinent – after all, this was the guy who taught me how to run six years ago.

Mile 0: The Start

Mile 0: The Start

By 7:30 in the morning, as darkness gave way to a pristine morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, it was time to start. The race began with the unexpected, full-bodied boom of a cannon, instantly sending my heart crawling up my throat. We started our watches, shook off the nerves and took off with one helluva roar.

The race website, literature and even satellite maps gave me the impression that we were going to run purely within the base. If you close your eyes and imagine a typical airport, I’m certain that your mental image will not include trees or shade. And for a large part of this race, that’s how we ran, climbing high into the sun. The first 5k had most of the hills, rolling over the Air Force Institute of Technology’s campus and by the Wright Brothers Memorial.  We cruised past the Wright State University Nutter Center, where we had picked up our race materials the day before, and then the course ushered us to the McClerron Memorial Skyway for longer than I would have wanted.  Eventually we reached the Wright-Patterson Golf Course at 10k and happily welcomed the cover of trees.

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

Mile 5: McClerron Memorial Skyway

This was a delightful change of scenery. Though most of the surrounding area for the entire race was green, the actual trees themselves were always too far away to provide any shade. But we felt instantly cooler once the course narrowed on the golf course. Steve and I had started walking a minute for every ten minutes of running, though still keeping an even pace.

For the next 10k we would run through Fairborn, a small town just northeast of the base. We wouldn’t see this many spectators until the finish line, but our attention was focused elsewhere. It seemed like this part of town was looking forward to Halloween like a kid going to sleep at 3 PM on Christmas Eve. Every other store was displaying spooky wares and one family had erected a professional-grade ghost ship on their front yard. There was even a house with a “ghoul train” on its lawn and a two-story tall Grim Reaper fastened to its façade. It was easy to forget that we’re still five weeks away from All Hallows’ Eve, but they all made for excellent distractions as we crossed mile 10.

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

Mile 7: The course narrows a bit by the golf course

As we made our way out of Fairborn, I kept noticing that Steve was steadily pulling away from me. I didn’t want to temper his enthusiasm too much, but we were out here to run a smart pace. “Let’s reel it in a bit,” I would say, keep the wings level and true, and he’d dial it back. Once again, I felt a tiny twinge of impertinence because I felt like I was putting a stopper on the pent-up energy he had stored over the years, waiting to burst out.

Once out of Fairborn, it was time to run around the perimeter of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. As you might imagine, it’s an enormous sprawl of land with few trees to provide any shade. As we wrapped around the base, Steve began talking to a fellow Team Red White & Blue member. He soon learned that his new friend was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, where Steve spent six years as a missile security officer. They talked for about a mile about who did what, what happened when, what is and what isn’t. Making quick friends has always been one of his core competencies and had we not reached an aid station, I don’t know when the conversation would have stopped. Part of me wanted to pull him away and get him to re-focus on the race.  But that would have been cold; he was having so much fun.

After all, we had just run a half marathon just shy of his all-time PR and had plenty of energy to keep up an animated conversation. This wasn’t always the case.

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Mile 10: Fairborn decked out in Halloween decorations

Sometime in late 2008, Steve’s body rebelled against him. The well of energy that had always provided him with enough kick to participate in long-distance races, work a difficult and challenging job and be the best family man this side of Hobbiton had suddenly and inexplicably run dry. By 2009, he was walking half marathons because he couldn’t quite pick up the pace. In 2010, when my own running exploits were gaining traction, he had to drop out just shy of the second mile of the Indy 500 Festival Mini-Marathon because he didn’t have it in him.

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

Mile 12: Alien-themed aid station provides Steve a Close Encounter of the Thirst Kind

He got blood work done, changed his diet, got tested for allergies and saw doctors of every ilk, but the mystery went unsolved. He gained weight and felt increasingly imprisoned by this inescapable lassitude, sometimes spending dark days in the basement alone with his thoughts. Oddly, this decline coincided with a surge in running by those around him. By then I was literally running wild with the sport and not long after, his brother men, Greg and Jim learned to fly, becoming marathoners themselves. His brothers-in-law Scott and Dan soon followed while Steve could only watch from the sidelines.

I remember asking him once if he would prefer that I keep my running stories to myself, because I began feeling a little obnoxious talking about my most recent PRs.  It felt like happily feasting in front of someone who hadn’t eaten in days. He said no.  Not only did he take pride in knowing he had set me on the running path, but these stories were exactly the kind of motivation he needed.

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent

Mile 17: Wide open, sunny stretches were frequent.  Under warmer conditions, this race could have been much tougher.

During this time, he became an avid scuba diver, dedicating himself to the activity and joining several charities aimed at helping veterans assimilate back into civilian life through scuba missions. His passion for the underwater world mirrored his diehard pursuit of endurance sports, but part of him was always itching to get fully back into the running game. You could hear it in his voice when he’d give tips or lend gear, that telltale enthusiasm that lets you know he hadn’t forgotten anything.

But he managed to turn things around. With help from his family (most notably his wife Jan), he changed his diet, refused to stay down and began to slowly climb out of the basement. Whatever was ailing him was never truly discovered or even named, but that didn’t stop him from putting in the time and sweat.

His training went into overdrive during an emotional trip to New Jersey in the summer of 2013.

It was a warm, muggy day on the eastern coast. I wore shorts and a salmon colored Polo, hoping it would unite the conflicting goals of staying cool and looking somewhat respectable. But the heat of Leonardo was oppressive and after walking for a minute dragging scuba gear through the sand, I could feel the sweat dripping down my arms. My in-laws were gathered along the beach, unsure if the occasion warranted a dose of their natural charisma or a helping of sober reflection. Because all of them, uncles, cousins and those who cleverly used marriage to sneak in, were there to remember and pay tribute to the family matriarch, who had passed away the previous summer.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

Mile 19: A shaded service road comes to the rescue.

While most of the family stayed on the sand, Steve and his brothers walked into the frigid waters of Sandy Hook Bay to bring Gram back to the shores of her childhood home. They released her ashes into the icy waters and left a stone with her name engraved on it, a memento for the remarkable woman who raised the wonderful, supportive family that so eagerly embraced me. Speeches were given and more than one fond memory recalled before a ponderous, and rare, moment of silence. Not long after, there was a lunch at a nearby restaurant, where it seemed like all sorrow and solemnity had been washed away by the zany extended family that we seldom get to see. It was easy to think at the time that Gram would have wanted it this way.

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

Mile 25.6: Beast mode

“I told myself while I was in the water,” Steve said, around mile 23, “I gotta turn this around.”

By that point, he had already started the comeback.   He had been training regularly and had run the Hoover Dam Half Marathon with us, preparing for Moab and later Miami. It was then that he dropped the megaton hammer on us by revealing that he had signed up for Ironman Cozumel. There it was, the massive 140.6-mile carrot that would dangle before him, the bright beacon on the horizon pushing him to train harder than ever.

The Air Force Marathon was part of that plan, and there we were, cruising past 40k.

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

Mile 26: Cleared for landing

“I look to you guys, to my brothers and you, and it inspires me.” In the moment, I could do little else but keep running, though I felt moved by what he said. The guy who was stationed at an Air Force base near Great Falls, Montana during most of his 20s, raised a five-star family and was staring down an Ironman with determination and grit, was somehow inspired by me. I thought his cables might have gotten crossed in the last 10k, but then I remembered what he told me five years ago. Every time he heard about race stories, from me or anyone else close to him, he got a little closer to his homecoming.  “Without you guys running together,” he said, pausing.  “I don’t know.”

“Alright, there’s mile 25,” I said as we approached the entrance to the base. “Time to give it all you got.”
“This is all I got.”

0920_airforcemarathon 40The final U-shaped stretch was lined with American flags followed by a fleet of intimidating military planes, all facing us as if ready to fly into the wild blue yonder. As we made that final turn, the chutes closed in on us, the finish line a bull’s eye just ahead. Enormous black and green wings passed above us like the arms of a slow-moving fan, with crowds cheering underneath. We passed a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, then an AC-130, and finally a giant Boeing C-17 Globemaster before reaching the blue finish banner. There were 26 miles of running behind me, but so many more behind Steve. The last six years had been a frustrating series of races that ended too soon or stretched on for too long. But here he was, running what was quite possibly his fastest ever marathon.

“Hey,” I said, nudging him on the shoulder, “welcome back!”

Finishers!

Finishers!

We passed every plane and crossed the finish line, making our way through a large, white tent to meet up with the rest of the family. Everyone was smiling, if not a little achy, and ready to head back to the hotel for a shower. The rest of the weekend was spent eating, napping, watching movies and visiting the Museum of the US Air Force. Even if nobody had finished the race, or if we had all been carted off the course in a medical van, what mattered most was that we spent a fun weekend with family, learning about Steve’s time in Montana with the US Air Force.

But if I too live to be a grey-haired wonder, I hope to still be knocking out races like this.

Marathon_Map 051 (OH)

State 40: Wyoming (2014 Bighorn Trail 50k)

Otter, Jay and I waited for the start of the race under a cloudless sky. The mountains of Wyoming stretched out infinitely ahead of us, with little indication as to where exactly the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k would take us. Marla would be here an hour later to tackle the race’s 30k. A steep ascent over a red dirt trail loomed ominously ahead of us. After asking a few friendly strangers, we learned that we’d be tackling that wall before anything else.  As I looked past the giant hill and the unknown challenges to come, I had still not shaken the insouciant confidence that would eventually doom me during this race.

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

(left to right): Otter, Marla, Jay, me

“I don’t think I’m properly nervous for this,” I had told Otter two weeks prior. “Yeah, it’s a trail race; I’ll just take it easy. I’ll be fine. Very little trepidation, which is worrying me.”

“I reckon you’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly, but the enigmatic “haha” he issued beforehand wasn’t so comforting. I would later learn that he was appropriately aware of the punishment to come and had prepared with much more diligence. He had run the Kettle Moraine 50k two weeks prior to haze himself into trail shape and had fastidiously studied the Bighorn course maps like a sailor attempting to navigate the Straits of Magellan. As race day approached, he asked me more than once if I was ready to run the hardest race of my life.

I should have listened to him much earlier.

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

For though the first four miles were beautiful testaments to the natural high of trail running, I very quickly found myself in the depths of perdition. I could write pages about the distant snow-capped mountains holding onto the last patches of a brutal winter, or the white and purple wildflowers seasoned throughout sylvan clearings. But those moments of beauty and transcendence were like the sweet cherry on top of a cake made of lead and dirt.

Mile 0

Mile 0

By the fifth mile we had stopped climbing and there were no more easy rolling hills. Instead, the path all but disappeared into a precipitous drop, the steepest I had ever run. It was like shimmying down a black diamond ski slope but with loose dirt and rocks to slow you down. I watched as experienced trail runners marched downward confidently while I took each step carefully, knowing very well that lost balance would lead to a treacherous fall. I hammered my legs on the slope like a typewriter, stomping down with little ease, speed or grace. It wasn’t long before my quads began to ache.

Five miles in, I thought, and already my quads are shot. This race is going to suck.

That last sentence I may have said out loud. The woods responded quietly, indifferently.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite ramping up my mileage considerably in April and May, which included running almost 40 race miles in one weekend, I had done absolutely no hill workouts beyond whatever hills happened to crop up during races. I had done no strength training, hadn’t done any stairs or even completed a mile on a bike. It was a case of pure hubris, of a haughty runner who prematurely thought he had perfected endurance and become master of his body.

What an idiot.

Mile 3 - Delightful, flat terrain

Mile 3 – Delightful, flat terrain

The first real aid station welcomed me at mile 8 with the smell of crackling bacon. Though appetizing, I took the time to stop running and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a few ruffled potato chips instead. Runners that had passed me long ago were still there, mingling and enjoying the camaraderie and breathtaking scenery all around us. I capitalized on my quads no longer hurting by quickly refilling my pack with water and continuing the race.

The next six miles were a gradual uphill. I looked up at the road ahead and very high above, I saw the reflective glints of several vans and cars. It was the next aid station, the start of the race, and the end of our 20k loop. I wished I hadn’t seen it because it looked so impossibly far away. Have you ever walked toward a distant beacon, and been completely aware as you walk that it is not getting perceptibly closer? I liken it to walking in a city toward a skyscraper. If you look at it for even five minutes, it doesn’t seem to get any nearer.

That’s how I felt for about an hour.

Mile 11 - If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

Mile 11 – If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

I kept climbing, alternating an efficient shuffle with power hiking, pushing dirt behind me to the tune of labored breathing, but every time I’d look up, the camp was still a day’s hike away. Six miles is an eternity when the end is always in sight. There was a silver lining in all of this though. By this point I had noticed that running slightly uphill was not painful at all but surprisingly easy because it didn’t require that I slam my quads down. Perhaps I’d be able to put that downhill battering behind me.

Mile 16-17 - The climb continues

Mile 16-17 – The climb continues

Finally at the aid station, after a lot of hiking, I took a little break. I downed some grapes, a cup of chicken broth and another handful of chips. The climb wasn’t over, there would be another mile of it, but at least I had reached somewhere. The rest of the race would be a point-to-point winding path ending in Dayton, Wyoming, where we had parked our car about five hours prior. The next six miles were beautiful and easy. I locked in step with a female runner ahead of me and scampered over dirt, flowers and the occasional stream. I was tired but the downhill pains weren’t too bad, allowing me to cover much distance with few grimaces.

And then it all went to hell at Horse Creek Ridge.

Perhaps I should have learned that those early aid stations were there not intended to just replenish your energy stores, but also to prepare you for an incoming gauntlet of pain. Just past that third aid station, where I filled up on fruits, I reached a creek. I walked shakily over the makeshift log bridge, steadying myself with a thin rope. A thin dirt trail snaked over the thick grass ahead. I could see several runners ahead hiking the path, which cut to the right, behind a group of trees and out of sight.

Mile 19 - This was right before the Haul.  I couldn't take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Mile 19 – This was right before the Haul. I couldn’t take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Those trees, I would soon discover, were hiding a mountain. A short, but almost vertical mountain that the organizers call “the Haul.” No one ahead of me was running or even power-hiking this section. Everyone was pulling themselves upward, with their arms either resting on their hips or pushing off their legs. I don’t think my heels ever touched the dirt during this climb. A desire to rest taught me a harsh lesson: don’t stop. A break in the rhythm sent a flood of pain into my legs. I would have stiffened up completely and possibly fallen backward had I not snapped myself back into upward motion.

Heave, gasp, heave, gasp.

Once at the top of Horse Creek Ridge, something changed. The climb had sapped every last bit of strength I had, conspiring with the thin air at 8,000 feet to rob me of all remaining vitality. Every step from that point was painful, every single one. To make matters worse, the Tongue River Canyon opened up below me, interminably downhill. And there were 12 miles left to run. All downhill.

It wasn’t the race that changed – it was still the same brutal, unfeeling and uncaring event that I had found and decided to run. It continued to deny me any respite from the ever-growing acid in my quads or burning in my lungs. The mountains wouldn’t rearrange themselves and the path had no intention to suddenly pave itself to make way for someone who didn’t treat the distance with the proper respect. But even with this harsh lesson learned, and with every positive mantra I could muster at the time, I couldn’t help but slump.

Mile 20 - It would be all downhill from here.  Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

Mile 20 – It would be all downhill from here. Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

A runner’s quiver is full of motivational tools and positive thoughts. You have to overcome the bodily pain and ignore the struggle to get to the finish. I’d like to say that I overcame the challenges and stomped through the brick walls separating me from the finish. But that’d be a lie. In the moment, as it happened, I was not enjoying myself and really, desperately, wanted this race to end. Had there been a drop station, I am afraid to say that I would have seriously considered it.

The Tongue River Canyon was a gorgeous expanse of greens, lavenders, and yellows. Wild grass exploded out of the ground in enormous tufts, trees covered the exposed layers of rock in distant mountains like ancient mildew. It was truly a magnificent part of the country, the perfect place to embody the very reason why trail running is fun and in some cases, spiritual. But in the moment, as it happened, no part of me was enjoying it.

I winced with every step I took. If my quads weren’t searing in pain, then my toes were being bludgeoned against the front of my shoe. I did this for about four miles, stopping only to let faster runners zip by me. This was eternity, captured in an agonizing, yet beautiful stretch of slowed time. Each individual step did nothing to bring the mountains closer, but somehow, because each one had to lead me somewhere, I made progress. I was eventually thrilled to hear the heavenly sound of the Tongue River roaring through the canyon. I had reached the bottom.

Mile 23-24 -- In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Mile 23-24 — In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Replying to the young volunteer who offered to refill my water bottle and pack was a struggle. Whenever I spoke, I could hear my voice echoed in my head, as if a fishbowl were surrounding it, which threw off my balance and concentration. I tried to equalize my ears by cracking my jaw around but that didn’t help. Instead, I ate a handful of grapes, clipped my pack around my chest, strapped the bottle to my hand, and kept shuffling onwards with the worst of the race behind me. What lay ahead was a slow, defeated march.

Now almost completely flat, the course had spilled out of its single-track, rocky confines and onto a wide, two-lane dirt road. Cars and locals on bikes would show up on occasion, but I had no leftover energy to say hi or even look at them. The sun, a fixture of the day, had hidden behind large storm clouds, allowing for longer bursts of running (though my definition of “running” during these last five miles left a lot to be desired). Normally in a long race, I laugh at the idea of being just four miles away from the finish line. On that soon-to-be-rainy Saturday, though, that felt like another exercise in forever.

Mile 25 - Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

Mile 25 – Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

The race was no longer divided into sections of ups and downs, but instead a single stretch of road that went on and on. Aside from one aid station and the advent of storm clouds, there was little I noticed. On occasion, runners would pass me, some of them on their way to a fifty-mile finish. One runner strode by me with a pacer, and another pulled ahead with trekking poles. I felt pathetic by comparison. These guys were most likely finishing Bighorn’s 100-mile race, which had started the day before, and here I was, sputtering like a lemon after running under a third of that distance.

I crossed a bridge and made it to the tiny city of Dayton. Under normal circumstances, Dayton is a city that you’ll miss if you blink and barely registers on a map unless you’re viewing it with a microscope. But as my feet hit pavement, it became a bastion of civilization, the Emerald City, Roland’s Dark Tower and Mount Doom all in one. I had never been so happy for a race to be over, and I could practically smell the finish line over the scent of my own disgusting state.

I entered Scott Bicentennial Park, a recreational area next to the river with a baseball diamond, playgrounds and picnic tables. There were crowds gathered, cheering for each new haggard face. I heard Marla yelling my name but from both exhaustion and perhaps shame, I couldn’t turn my head to look for her. I simply threw a brittle index finger in the air and kept running, possibly signaling the number of minutes I could tolerate before collapsing. I saw Jay directly ahead of me in his green rain jacket, having finished almost two hours prior. He made an arching motion with his thumb, pointing to the finish line.

Mile 27 - No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

Mile 27 – No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

I could have finished this race happy. I could tell you that I found a deep well of wisdom in that last mile and siphoned out a reason to smile. But I did neither of those things. I dragged myself under the finishing banner and had just enough self-awareness left to turn off my Garmin, which read just under seven and a half hours. I could have forced a smile then, but my ego was too bruised. Over the years I’ve tried to cultivate an image of a runner with perseverance and strength, an image of someone constantly facing huge challenges with a cool confidence. Every time someone calls me crazy for the amount I run, I soak it in as a deserved compliment.

But fifty kilometers over the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming had taken that sturdy effigy and dragged it through the dirt. All the years I had spent becoming a competitive runner seemed to mean absolutely nothing anymore. I didn’t feel good having completed this run in what I considered a disgraceful way. It wasn’t the result itself that stung me, but the fact that I came face to face with a lesson I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn:

Train.

It’s such a stupid thing to have to tell someone, let alone someone like me who has done these things before. The mountains don’t care about your road half marathon PR, or what your most recent 5K time was. The thin air beyond 8,000 feet won’t cut you any slack if you don’t change your training routine to face it. Rocky soil and uneven dirt paths won’t catch you if every mile you log is on a perfectly groomed city path.

Mile 29 -- Why won't this end?

Mile 29 — Why won’t this end?

And I knew these things. I knew all of them. But I had the arrogance to think that I had reached an echelon of fitness where I was somehow exempt from all of them. Though I was lucky to leave this race without injury, I paid dearly for that attitude and couldn’t quite feel proud. Looking later at a map, the distance we had covered looked absolutely dizzying from above. How could I have taken such a blasé approach to it? Was it symptomatic of runners’ general overconfidence towards health? Was I not cut out for ultra distances?

I struggled with these questions as I lay on the cool grass, trying to fix the hollowness I felt in my head. Experience and training were everything.  Jay had run a 50k PR and didn’t seem the least bit shattered by the experience, while Marla, who had moved to Colorado just three months ago, had run the 30k distance, saying it was the toughest race of her life. Otter crossed the finish line not long after me, looking like a kid busting through the gates at a theme park. He was talking like an auctioneer, rattling off his race experience to all of us at an electrifying pace. Though his body was certainly pretty beat, his attitude could have probably turned around and done the whole thing again.

Finishers!  And I look like a madman!

Finishers! And I look like a madman!

Now that I’ve had time to recover from the experience, a deranged part of me is looking forward to the next intense, body-mangling experience. As I writhed in pain on the damp Dayton grass, I swore I would never run another ultra, ever again. But that promise was tainted by a poor performance, begot by being a pompous idiot. It didn’t have to be this way. It will be different next time.  Next time, I won’t be an idiot.  Next time, my plan will be smart and simple, summarized by one word that means both the steady improvement of the body through stress, and a sturdy, robust machine seemingly impossible to stop.

Train.

Forty states down – the final stretch has begun!

Marathon_Map 050 (WY)