The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.*
Yesterday, I finished third in the Uwharrie Mountain Run 20 miler. My time was 2 hours and 51 minutes. I ran without a watch which turned out to be a great stress reliever. When we went through the eight mile aid station there was lots of jostling for position, because prior to that time we had been in a row of runners—just like a Wednesday morning run in the forest. I thought to myself, it is great that I don't know my split because I have enough to worry about right now. This line of runners included just about everyone in the top ten excluding the guy who took off before the top of the first hill. We never saw him again.
I was very nervous going into this race, thinking I would blow up as I had at Shut-in on November 1, 2008 and that generally I am just incapable of racing more than about two hours. The week before had been a little bit of an over-taper. I did not run Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. It was just one of those weeks with work and family where running was not happening. I went out Friday at about noon to Little River and ran the back half of the course with Sallie the wonder dog. I wondered, “Have I ever run before? Did I just wake up from a six-month hibernation? I think, no, I’m sure, the lower half of my body is in constant throbbing pain.” But a little hopefulness crept in, as I remembered sometimes this sort of terrible run filled with fear and self-loathing in the 24 hours before a race is the body’s way of conserving both physical and mental energy.
But I really should attend to the race. Oh what fun to go up and down the first hill without being in total kamikaze oxygen debt mode! The eight mile race, my only racing experience in these woods, is really a blur of dodging trees and trying not to land face first in a mud-bog pit. Instead, I was enjoying the morning, even taking in some views as we danced across the ridge. I was glad I had started miserably cold with no gloves and no warm hat for by the time we crested the first climb, the sun was doing its thing and it must have been nearly 50 degrees. By late morning it was pushing high 60s. I casually counted back places as we billy-goated our way up the first hill. I was in eighth. That will do for now as I have many miles to go. Over the next few miles, as we approached the first aid station, which though it seems a marathon away is probably not even five miles from the start, we stacked up single file and the banter began. I was almost at the back of the pack and I kept silent. I could see up ahead a few runners I recognized. I could hear the steady breathing of a few potential contenders on my heels. Up ahead, there was tall Tim who I had spoken to after Run at the Rock. Cid from Inside-Out was right in front of me. Keith, who I knew the best as we had raced last spring together at Owl’s Roost and Anne Springs Greenway and at the latter we had a nice time to get to know one another. Just these last two runners represented two of the top three finishers from last year’s 20 mile race, so I knew they meant business or else they would not have been back in Montgomery County on the first Saturday in February.
My race plan was pretty loose. In a perfect world I might have waited to break from this crowd of 8-10 runners until mile 14 or even later, trying to conserve and avoid a blow up. But things got to moving pretty snail like around mile six and I moved into second place in line (third place in the race) and hoped we might move things along a bit. I did not have a really great plan for what I was about to do, but it was probably motivated by one runner in the crowd who mentioned that he had run the 40 last year and gotten third. I thought to myself, I don’t want to wait around and play the stamina game with this crowd. Most of these folks are much better at long distances than I am, but maybe if I make a move they will forget about trying to race hard. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was probably just being my usual impatient self.
I also wanted to see who in this group really meant to start racing. I thought Cid would follow for sure, I didn’t know who else.
So I went through the eight mile aid station rather quickly and started to pull away. I wouldn’t call it a true surge, but a little pulse. I wanted to see who would shadow this move. I knew that whoever was still in sight as I glanced back in the next couple of miles had intentions as I did of getting on the so called podium. “We” like to call it that because it makes us feel like “we” are Olympians. I know it’s stupid, but I think it helps me run faster. Really what it means is slightly cooler pottery than the other pottery, which is also amazing and should be because just to finish this race is an outstanding accomplishment. I hope the new race directors read this and keep hiring Michael Mahan to provide the earthenware.
When a few folks caught up to me about 10 miles into the race, I didn’t freak out. I hoped they had used up a little too much energy in catching me, but by no means did I feel like I had to drop everyone then. In fact, if I got the right company maybe we could run under the delusional hope that we could reel in the leader. It seemed that somewhat seamlessly, there were only two of us after a bit. I don’t the distance of a “bit.” It is well, a “bit.”
Enter Wayne. He was on my heels and I suspected he was a little stronger than I was, but again no stress; we were still some 7-9 miles from finishing this little jaunt. Lots could happen. I think it was with Wayne that I secured third place. We shared some info, mutual friend in Haggis, and that Wayne was glad to be with a Trailhead and someone who knew the course. We zipped along and I think it was here, down along the river with its many crossings, that we separated considerably from 4th place on back.
We must have separated considerably, because at the big hill at mile 16 a pregnant full grown Kodiak hopped on for a ride. I asked if she would dismount and she would not oblige. Wayne went off on wings into the distance over the double horizon. If you ran the race, you know this hill and its double horizon. I thought to myself, oh something, I’ll be lucky to finish in the top ten. Oh great, here comes Shut-in where the next 30 finishers pass me with their pity—oh its love and concern, but its sounds like downright pitiful pity to the one who is bonking as you can hear in their voices, “I’m glad I’m not that guy.”
But I persevered and managed to finish third. I knew if I could just make it over the big hill that I could get my legs moving again on the down-hills and the flats. I know, you don’t remember any flats either. The term “flat” or “smooth terrain” has no place on this course. Instead, one assumes the role of Heidi or an extra in a Ricola commercial as he or she stumbles over boulders and roots before a descent which by now had even become depressing because the mind knows two things. We are about to cross that stupid stream again. And then, the real fun, where we get to go back up hill again. Yeah! More, More, Please!
It was a punishing quick-step to the finish. My left hip flexor pain had been present from near the start and it was spreading into my left hamstring and the bottom of my left quad. But it was just pain, no serious cramps. I kept moving--never really in the motion of walking because I knew I might not start to run again. As I slowly passed 40 mile racers they kept up words of encouragement. I wish I could have done the same, but I could not make any words. I dreamt of seeing the clearing that marks the power lines and 500 meters to go. From there I could make it, over the wooden bridge and then the wonderful sound of the cars buzzing on Highway 24. I trudged up the final incline, looking back over my shoulder and to my amazement there was no one in sight. I crossed the finish line and I felt as triumphant as if I had been the winner. Uwharrie Kim held me upright with a huge hug. Isn’t she just great?
From then on, it was all bliss. Watching my friends finish, basking in the sunlight and warmth of our best winter day yet, and nibbling and drinking as much as my stomach would allow.
Best part of the race: tiptoeing over that one log around mile 13 that most people went underneath. It was about five feet off the ground. I felt quite nimble, I must say. More importantly, it was just flat out fun. Probably not more than a thousand people on earth have a concept of what it means to break three hours at Uwharrie, yet probably more than a million, maybe five million, I don’t know, have a concept of what it means to do the same at New York, or Chicago, or Rotterdam. But none of those marathons allow the opportunity of seeing the banks of a river and a tree that has fallen across them as a balance beam.
*From Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening