It’s the bad races that teach you the most about yourself.
What I learned from the Bull Run Run 50-miler? That I don’t bounce back well from bad races.
For about a month afterward, I didn’t want to write about running, didn’t want to read about running, didn’t want to run, period.
I had a choice in the matter on the first two, but not running wasn’t an option. It’s what I do. It’s who I am.
Besides, I had the Country Music Marathon coming up just a couple weeks after BRR50, a pacing gig at the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-miler two weeks after that, and the Capon Valley 50K the week following.
And my goal race of the season — the Comrades Marathon 89K in South Africa — was looming large in early June.
So I leaned hard on one of my favorite Robert Frost quotes, one that got me through some of the toughest times of the past few years:
“The best way out is always through.”
Did ol’ Hank really do it this way?
My frustrating BRR50 finish was still stinging when the girl and I flew out to Nashville for my second road marathon of the year, the Country Music Marathon. There, we met up with a huge group of my coworkers who had all signed up to run the half-marathon and spend a long weekend checking out Nashvegas.
I was relieved at the thought that this was merely meant to be a long training run on the road in preparation for the Comrades Marathon and an excuse to eat and drink my way through one of the South’s great cities. My goal was simply to run easy, log a sub-4:00 finish and leave enough in the tank to enjoy the rest of the weekend.
The weekend turned out to be awesome.
We had enough people on board to make renting a couple of houses for the weekend a cheap and easy option, so we spent the night before the race wrapped in running-nerd conversation over a home-cooked meal of pasta and salad, along with a couple of beers.
But the marathon itself? It kinda sucked.
The first half of the course wasn’t too bad. The hills were small, the bands along the course route weren’t bad, and the small group of 2,000 or so marathoners had around 18,000 half-marathoners and associated spectators to keep the on-course energy high. But when the half-marathoners peeled off to head to the finish line at mile 13 and we turned left to begin the second half of our race, it got, well, ugh.
The bands were fewer and more lackluster. The hills increased. The spectators all but disappeared. The heat of the day kicked in. The one saving grace to the back half of the course was that the girl rushed across the city center a handful of times to be at as many of the late-course aid stations as possible. And I realized that while I wasn’t struggling in any way, by mile 16 I was bored to death and ready to be done.
I ran a 3:56:32 — right under 4:00 as planned. When the girl found me in the finish area, she asked how it was. Despite having finished exactly as I’d planned, I was nonplussed.
“Eh, it was ok.”
In the back of my mind, I was still wrestling with that poor showing at Bull Run.
The magic of MMT
Between being over-scheduled in other parts of my life and suffering from a bad case of feeling sorry for myself, I’d only run three times between BRR50 and the Country Music Marathon. And between the marathon and my pacing stint at MMT100, I logged only another three runs.
I just wasn’t feeling it. At all.
But when we loaded up the cars for a massive caravan out to Virginia’s Fort Valley for a weekend of crewing, pacing and volunteering at MMT, I could already feel the dark clouds of the previous month beginning to break apart.
Arriving at the Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp that plays host to the start and finish of the 100-miler, we were greeted by dozens of VHTRC friends and upon seeing the finish line I was reminded of all of how amazing it felt when I arrived there last May after completing a journey of 100-plus miles through the Massanutten mountains.
Over the next 40-plus of non-stop, nearly sleepless action in support of running friends and strangers alike, I rediscovered the joy that had been missing from my running over the past four weeks.
Our weekend running crew pulled split duty over the weekend, providing pacing and crew support for Tom and Jimm, while at the same time running the kitchen that served the small pop-up city of 400-plus runners, volunteers and spectators. It was a logistical operation of impressive proportions and we pulled it off in style.
By the time I left the camp to head up to the Picnic Area aid station (mile 86) to meet Tom for my pacing leg, we’d already welcomed and fed a large group of finishing runners and had a great time hanging out watching the fast kids come in. But I was most excited about pacing, as I had the honor of running with Tom over the last 15-plus miles to the finish line, to bring him home to his first MMT100 buckle.
I met up with Tom at just before 10 a.m. on Sunday morning and for the next five hours we trekked through the mountains. I led him through the last two climbs of the course, Dry Run and Jawbone. He was in a black place for much of that last section and wasn’t doing much talking, but I knew that we’d get him across the finish line ahead of the 36-hour cutoff.
Still, it took some doing. At one point during a stop on the Jawbone ascent, he asked: “How hard is the back side of Jawbone?”
When I responded, I lied straight to his face.
“Dude, it’s hardly rocky at all. Totally runnable.”
I think he may still be mad at me for that. But it did get him up and moving again.
Once we cleared the Jawbone descent and got back onto the fire road for the final four miles to the finish, Tom found a reserve of energy that was truly impressive to see. I told him we had a strong chance of finishing well under 35 hours if he could find some speed for the last few miles and, sure enough, he dug deep and found an extra gear. At one point he was running at 9:30/mile pace and I had to back him off a bit.
“Dude, how fast do you want to be running right now?”
“Well, we’re running 9:30s.”
“Oh. Okay. I’ll run this for a little while longer.”
As I peeled off and Tom entered the finish line chute, I thought back to what my first 100-mile finish felt like, in that same place a year prior. There’s a photo of me from the finish line where I’ve got this huge, huge smile on my face.
That’s what running is supposed to feel like, and by the time Tom finished, I was feeling that way again.
Proving it to myself
So I felt like I had my mojo back. So what. I needed proof. Enter the Capon Valley 50K.
I’d run Capon Valley two years ago, but hadn’t been back since. It was a late addition to my race schedule this year, an afterthought that only came up because it happened to coincide with Beth’s birthday and we’ve gotten into the routine of celebrating running-group birthdays at races.
In hindsight, I’m so glad I entered.
Capon Valley was my first mountain race back in 2010. I had a great time, but mountains had their way with me and I finished in a respectable but by no means speedy 6:32:13.
This time around, I went into the race with no particular goal in mind. No more fixating on setting new personal records on non-goal races. This was a training run, a day to play in the mountains with friends. The one goal I did allow myself was to see how much time I could shave off my previous finish — just enough incentive to go fast.
The day couldn’t have gone better.
I ran with a heart full of joy from start to finish. I dodged a few wrong turns early on that would’ve added miles and frustration to the day. The tough 3.5-mile uphill section that got the best of me back in 2010 was like nothing this time around. I put it in low gear and did the climb, done and done. And then bombed the downhills on the back side of the course and enjoyed the feeling of flying.
I crossed the finish line at 5:38:20, putting me 41st overall of 196 finishers, cutting nearly an hour off my previous course best, and giving me a new personal best at the 50K distance. Translated: A huge confidence boost.
Over the few hours that followed, I took a quick shower, devoured an amazing plate of barbecued chicken courtesy of the local Ruritan club that organized the race, and had a few beers with VHTRC friends I’d seen the previous week while volunteering at MMT. It was as close to a perfect day of running as I’ve had in ages.
Off and on throughout the afternoon, my thoughts would occasionally drift to the big race coming up, to Comrades, and I knew that the 16,000-mile round trip from northern Virginia to South Africa would be worth it, that I’d not only finish, but finish strong. And happy.