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Run with Scissors – October 2011

So, I wanted to finish out the year – it has been a good year for running – with one final ultra. I knew I couldn’t handle a 100 miler with all the time pressures and stress of this semester, so I opted for a double marathon that I had heard good things about. Great course. Good support. Great group of runners. Somewhat kooky. The Run with Scissors sounded like the perfect way to end my 2011 racing season. The race course wound through parts of the Cuyahoga National Park, including some trails I had run on in July when I had paced Kevin Motsch through the final 38 miles of his excellent run at the Burning River 100.

I think my preparation for the race was solid – after running the Hocking Hills 60k, I had followed a couple weeks of lighter running with a few weeks of good, solid mileage. I had gotten in some quicker paced mid-length runs and several quality long runs. I had gotten in a couple skinny doubles – back-to-back days of 20+ miles each. I had completed the first (and probably last) Columbus marathon ultramarathon – 30+ miles of running around Columbus while I cheered on folks that were actually running in the marathon. The legs were feeling solid, and I thought my first double marathon might be something special… of course, I ended up with a wicked sinus infection the week before the run. It completely wiped me out, but it did force me to rest that entire week as I let the antibiotics run their course. I hoped they would work their magic before the weekend, but I did readjust my goals accordingly.

I had not found it too difficult to convince Kevin to return to the Cuyahoga Valley to run again. He had raced the Columbus marathon only two weeks prior, so he was willing to join me for the double marathon, but he was going to take the day as it came. We headed up to northern Ohio on Saturday, Oct. 29. It was a gorgeous fall day, and another was promised for the run on Sunday. In fact, it looked to be perfect conditions – chilly in the morning, sunshine, and warming up to only 60* by the afternoon. Despite still feeling the effects of the sinus infection, I was quite excited about the possibilities for the run. However, a couple of not-so-positive omens appeared as we neared Cleveland. First, Kevin happened to be driving a bit too fast according to a state trooper we passed. Then, when we got to the race registration, one of the race directors was going on and on about how muddy sections of the course were – worst he’d ever seen. We headed to Kevin’s parents’ house for the evening a bit less excited than we had begun the trip. We had excellent accommodations though, so when 3:30a arrived, I was up, well rested, and ready to go…

We arrived at the race around 4:30a. The start was scheduled for 5a, so we knew we had to hustle a bit. As the race took place the day before Halloween, I had come prepared. Lucy had helped me (as in she did all the actual work) make a high-tech luchador mask for the race. It was a styling accessory for the race – grey mask with sparkly blue accents. I knew all the other kids were going to be jealous. I threw together my drop bag and changed out of my warm-up clothes and into my race outfit. I readied my vest with all the necessary supplies – perpetuum, extra pieces of gum, ipod, ginger, extra batteries – and put on my mask… However, I was in a rush and it was dark out, so when I put on my mask, I put it on inside-out. I would not realize it until days later when I saw pictures of myself from the race… At the time, I was convinced I looked like a fearsome wrestler, strong, confident, full of machismo. That was the attitude I took to the start. So, even if I looked like a bank robber with a poor fashion sense, I was running with the heart of a luchador.

el corredor mysterioso

el corredor not-so-mysterioso, just kind of freaky looking guy – a johnnydajogger photo

The start of an ultra is not like any other race. It is dark, so you can only see within the beam of your headlamp. It is quiet – throngs of crowds don’t tend to gather for races winding through the woods at 5:00 in the morning. Instead of pushing yourself to a faster pace and trying to pass other runners, you have to hold back and find a pace that you know you can easily hold for 20 or more miles before you even think about “racing”.

Kevin at Sound of Music Hill during Burning River

The course headed out onto some trails I had not run on, but I knew we were making our ways towards several areas I had passed through pacing Kevin during Burning River. As it was dark, there was not much to distract me from the running – the legs felt ok, nothing was chafing, even the mud was not too bad – but I had heard it would change once we passed through the first aid station… That aid station was located about 6 miles away at the top of “Sound of Music Hill” – a wonderfully picturesque spot I remembered well from Burning River. However, this time the sunrise was still over an hour away, so it was dark and cold and not quite so picturesque. But I did get to see Hugh and Tom Patton at the station and I enjoyed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Even with the holding back, we left the aid station on track for a faster race than planned. But that would soon change…

The mud was as bad as advertised. It was really bad. Wet, shoe-sucking, slippery mud that made every stride a struggle as there was no solid landing and definitely no way to efficiently push off. There was no way to step around the mud. The trail was just mud. Lots of it. Every now and then there was a patch of firmer ground, but it was only teasing you. Covered Bridge, an iconic aid station during Burning River, and the next official stop on this race, was nearly seven miles away – and in the dark, cold, muddy world that I stepped into, that was a long way indeed. We ran through the woods. We ran along meadows. We ran up hills and through streams. We even ran along a corn field next to a road. Through it all, there was always mud. I stayed close to Kevin most of the time – checking in and sharing words of encouragement and swearing at the mud.

race official

We arrived at the covered bridge aid station as the sun was just beginning to light the sky – it was going to be a gorgeous morning, no doubt about that. However, wet and mud-covered and having run only 13 miles of a 53+ mile race, I was not feeling so buoyed by the prospect of the impending sunrise. In fact, I was worried I wouldn’t make it back to the start to complete the first marathon. We had taken almost 2:30 minutes for the first half marathon, and I didn’t think my legs were going to moving anymore quickly given how punishing the conditions were. The lack of decent footing meant that my hips and knees were being constantly flexed in new and uncomfortable ways. However, once we had grabbed some food and headed out onto the Perkins trail, I started to feel much better. I could navigate without the headlamp, the trails were far less muddy, and the day seemed to be a bit more positive. We found the “race official” and checked in – every runner was given a pair of scissors, safety scissors of course, that we had to carry throughout the race and use to cut out a photo from the “race official’s” manual once each loop… I was feeling much better at this point, and I think my pace showed it. Plus, I was helping myself to the trick-or-treat stations (buckets of candy bars at various points along the course) as we passed by. By the time I had returned to the mud that lay between the covered bridge and the sound of music hill, I was on my own. I was catching folks occasionally, but mostly I just felt steady and in oddly good spirits despite the conditions. The course had a slightly different route on the return to the start/finish area, so I passed by the Pattons again and then took a shorter path back to where I knew dry socks and a Red Bull were waiting for me.

changing my socks in a futile attempt to stave off the mud – a johnnydajogger photo

I finished the first marathon right at 5 hours. I was an hour off my “ideal race” and a 1/2 hour slower than my “back-up plan”. I was tired, sore, and just glad to be back among other folks. However, at this point, I was beginning to feel those racing urges – I had been consistently catching up to passing other runners during the second half of the first loop, and no one had done the same to me. So, even if I was hurting, I guessed everyone was feeling the same, and I might as well see if I had the strength and fortitude to push through.

With freshly vaselined feet, clean socks, and some Red Bull coursing through my veins, I headed back out onto the trails. Now that it was mid-morning, I got to appreciate the gorgeous trails we had passed along in the pre-dawn hours. I was feeling really good – that sort of out-of-body, cruising, sunshine, and I’m in the woods kind of feeling that is just magical. Those miles heading back to the Sound of Music Hill were uplifting and special. Then there was the mud. Running the section towards the covered bridge the second time just drained me. I went from soaring along the trails to trudging through the mud. My legs, which had felt so strong and full of pop, began aching and twinging in ways that warned of impending cramps. Oddly, my spirits remained high – even through the worst of it, that soaring feeling lingered. Despite the physical challenges, I was mentally still very much in the race. I had also continued to pass other runners occasionally, and I bagged several in the final mile before the covered bridge. However, as I approached the covered bridge, I started to mentally flag – arriving there would mean I had covered about 40 miles, a good day’s outing, but it also meant I would have just over 13 miles remaining, and that was really looking like a difficult task…

arriving at covered bridge the second time – Leigh Hranilovich Zeidner photo

Fortunately, Kevin was at the aid station with another Red Bull in hand – he had decided (smartly) that one marathon was enough given the conditions and he had decided to check in to see how I was doing. I don’t normally imbibe these caffeine drinks with such regularity during a run, but on this particular day it seemed like the right thing to do. Even if it wasn’t going to do anything for the condition of my legs, I was hoping for some placebo effect. I was also buoyed by seeing Stephen Zeidner heading out of covered bridge towards the finish in first place – he looked like he was hurting a bit, but he deserved to be leading the rest of us towards that goal. I left covered bridge a bit nervous about what the next couple of hours would bring, but ready for it. The pre-cramping twinges increased, and I upped my intake of electrolytes in response. Overall, I was still moving fairly comfortably, although running up hills was not an option. The loop through the woods went well overall, although I was becoming increasingly unable to focus and my thoughts were simply drifting about. After I was heading back into the muddy section, I found it harder and harder to maintain a consistent pace because I would simply forget to keep running. I felt ok (although fully drained by this point) when I was running, but I would just stop and wander a bit. I was all alone and just had no way to maintain my focus on the race. That all changed with about five miles to go. I was running through a wooded section; having just slid down a muddy hill and crossed a creek, I was looking at a long uphill section when the lead woman bounded past me. She just ran right by me and up the hill. I was in awe that anyone could run that way up hill 48 miles into a race, but it made me realize that I was not alone on the trails. Sure enough, about a 1/2 mile later, I looked back and saw another runner back on the trail, probably only a 1/4 mile behind me. Suddenly, I had a reason to not just run, but to really push myself to move as quickly as possible through the last 5 miles of the race. It was nothing like the soaring feeling I had felt before – this time it was more like I was entirely empty, empty of energy, thought, awareness… I was just a shell with a couple of sore and cramping legs that kept striding one in front of the other, moving me along towards the finish.

I passed by the final aid station one last time – said thanks to the Pattons – and pushed myself to keep moving. I had no idea where I was in the race, but whatever place I was in, I wanted to hold onto it. This is one of the more interesting times in an ultra – everything that normally carries you through a run is gone, stripped way, and all you have is this intense focus on the finish. There seems to be no way to keep going, but there is no option but to do just that. Despite all the mud, and the cramps, and the exhaustion, I knew I was going to make it, and that felt good.

I finished the 53.4 miles in 10:28. The first “marathon” (actually a 1/2 mile longer than an official marathon) was 5:00, and the second was 5:18 (and 10 minutes of sock change time in between). I ended up in 8th place overall, which I was quite pleased with. Stephen Z. had held on for the win, and Mark Carroll, who had run away from me early in the race, ran a great race to a fourth place finish. I was completely wasted and sore, but it was a beautiful fall day and I had had the chance to enjoy some wonderful trails and good company. After a delicious vegetable fajita and some soup (and some more candy), Kevin and I headed back to Granville. Mission accomplished.

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