When Michelle drove the truck into the packet pick up parking lot, which was also the finish line for the race, the temperature gauge on her truck read 15 degrees. FIFTEEN! The meteorologist said the low would be 24, not a billion below! For any other day, such discrepancies can be forgiven, but when you’re about to put your body through 26.2 grueling miles of forest, mud, and water, I’d like a more accurate read on the air temperature. For leading up to the race I was fretting enough about what exactly I should wear for the race, ultimately settling on my short shorts, arm warmers, RATT t-shirt and 2 layers of thin gloves, but all it took was a few minutes in that temperature of air and I added leg tights, thick gloves and a long sleeve tech t-shirt under it all. I’m very VERY glad I did.
I boarded one of like 8 buses that drove us almost a complete hour to the start line where we would begin the push back to where we just came. After getting off the bus the lines for the port-a-potty’s quickly formed and everyone’s pre-race rituals commenced. There was stretching, warm up jogs, taking off of clothes, putting on of clothes, nervous laughter, internal freaking out and all other manners of weird runner behavior. After getting ready myself I took my first precarious steps in a grassy area near the start line to start some warmups when within 5 feet I manage to roll my left ankle on an uneven piece of ground. I couldn’t believe it, but fortunately with a little more jogging I ran through the concerning twist. I still felt it about 10 minutes later, but just figured it wouldn’t become a problem. Foreshadowing? Let’s see.
I stood on the start line about 15 runners across, with 600 plus people gathered behind us. I hear someone behind me say to a friend, “Let’s step back away from these….crazy people up front!” I guess yeah, maybe a bit crazy, but still sane, so we’ll call it even.
The race director starts a brief countdown and hits the siren button on his megaphone, sending the front line forward down a stretch of pavement that brought us to a fire road that essentially marked the gates of hell for most of us. Not daring to look back I listened for the numbers of feet hitting around me and was surprised to only hear a couple runners hanging out, breathing strong in the cold air. We turned off the pavement and into the fire road, which would pull us a good mile or so before actually entering into the singletrack that was the Tecumseh trail itself. We beat along the path and that’s when I realized there were only 3 of us together, not another runner even close. One of us I knew of and expected to win this race, the other guy I had no clue who he was.
We pushed along the fire road, bouncing along on leaf covered ground and patches of icy ruts dug into the ground by trucks and foresting machinery. Then after a few quick inclines and drawn out hills I noticed it was only two of us. I felt pretty good considering and it seemed my breathing was in much better control than my competitor as we ran side by side down the wide open fire road. Then all of a sudden we hit a volunteer directing us into the single track that immediately descended on a back and forth snaking downhill. My competitor (Kyle) got out in front of me before we hit the course and started along the trail….precariously. His pace was not what I was expecting and I found myself right at his back, not only far too close for comfort, but also unable to get a good sight on my footing, which concerned me since I didn’t want to risk rolling on my ankle again, or going down as I had during training. I knew what this terrain was like and not having a good sight line is a terrible way to run the course.
Kyle and I picked our way down the back and forth descent when all of a sudden the third place runner who had dropped off came barreling into my peripheral vision. He was absolutely charging down the hill and I was annoyed that we were not going to get away from him. With a kindness that even surprised myself considering the context I said to kyle, “Mind if I take the lead?” of which he obliged. Instantly I surged ahead and started tearing down the hill trying to put more distance between us and 3rd place. Soon enough we bottomed out and started a snaking trail that turned upward and started pulling the breath right out of our lungs. We burned up the hill and spit out onto another fire road when I tried to make my case to Kyle. “Looks like he’s going to…..try and move on us…..on the downhills.” With a response that sounded too cocky for my tastes, he says, “Yeah…he thinks that’s his thing.” Maybe it was his thing, but I’d rather not give him the opportunity to use it against us.
Now, this course didn’t have mile markers, but there were supposed to be aid stations every 2 to 3 miles, which still isn’t very good for gauging where we were in the race, but this time around I preferred that. I didn’t want to know how many more miles of grueling hills we were going to have to endure. So, for quite sometime Kyle and I ran along by ourselves, myself still holding the lead and pulling us through all sorts of craziness, whether it was snaking uphills that killed our lungs and legs, speeding downhills that trashed our quads, or precarious cold water stream crossings that filled our shoes with icy water. We just kept running at a pace that trail running usually dictates for me, but honestly was probably a little too fast for the full marathon distance. I was just expecting one of us to break sooner or later. Guess who I was rooting for?
We continued on alone through the woods, not exchanging a single word between us, when suddenly something broke the eery silence. Was that banjos? I couldn’t help think to myself, “Is this a joke? Is someone pulling a ‘Deliverance’ prank on us? But as we drew closer to the music a familiar tune came from the woods….”Run Run Rudolph”. Suddenly we ran by a number of yard signs that had the lyrics posted every 20 feet or so. We pounded out of the woods to a road crossing that had a fluids table manned by jolly volunteers fighting off the cold air with xmas music blaring from loud speakers. Maybe I became distracted by the change in environment, but when I went to grab for a cup of fluid all of a sudden I heard people yelling at me. I turned to find that Kyle had darted into the woods and I had completely missed the trail re-entrance, which was forgiveable seeing as how the fluids table was placed AFTER the turn. Taken a back I quickly bushwacked through some saplings and made my way back onto the course, trying to make up the ground I had lost without sacrificing too much strength.
We instantly hit a winding hill trail and I estimated I was now 5 seconds back. This seemed to be a window for Kyle as he made a move to lose me on my screw up. And it worked. At the top of the hill we hit another fire road and suddenly I was 8 seconds back and continuing on I was then 10 seconds then 15, then all of a sudden, like magic, he was gone. I hadn’t slowed down our pace really, so it was obvious that he made a move to leave me behind and really laid it on. I could only hope it was too much. Now I was all alone, trying to move solidly down the hills and quickly back up, just hoping that I was slowly closing the gap on him again, but every time I looked up the trail I saw…..nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was like he vanished into thin air. My only consolation was that no one was in sight behind me either. I was simply all alone.
And so I ran all alone, through all the ankle rolling roots peeking from the leaves, through the icy stream crossings, up all the snaking hills and down the other side, just like I had done every weekend leading up to this race. I don’t know how many miles I covered like this, but it went on for quite some time. And it wasn’t even half-way yet.
Then I heard something, someone yelling encouragement, then silence. And soon enough I popped out of the trail to another group of volunteers manning a fluid station, which meant Kyle couldn’t have been too far ahead as I heard others yelling for him, and as I ran up a short stretch of paved road I looked up to see Kyle accelerating over the top of the hill. Turns out he hadn’t disappeared, or gotten lost, or even ran away from me. He was still in relative reach. I started moving up the hill trying to make up more ground and was hitting the top when I heard more yelling from the volunteers below. “Crap, someone’s not far behind.” I dared not look back.
I moved my ever tiring legs along the road before it turned onto a packed dirt road that ran by a handful of rural houses and down a hill to a major road. I came to the busy back pavement and just as I was about to cross on auto-pilot a 4×4 comes barreling down the street and I have to hit the brakes lest I end up like so many deer that line those hidden roads. The truck flies by without slowing for a second and I make it across before turning back onto another dirt road that would bring me to the half-way point. I move down the road when all of a sudden a volunteer coming the other way vehemently warns me about the ice on the coming bridge. “Be VERY CAREFUL, the bridge is VERY ICY. Be VERY CAREFUL!” You got it. I come to the bridge crossing, about 15 – 20 feet across and notice it’s surface completely covered in ice. I find about 3 feet before ice stretched the whole way. Somehow I stutter step and pick my way across without even so much as a slip before making a sharp right hand turn……right into a wall.
Well, so it seemed. I had heard about the infamous hill at half-way, but had yet to really encounter its magnitude. I turned right and was faced with a dirt road that seemingly shot up 90 degrees and just looked like it wasn’t going to ever end. I really can’t convey the severity of this hill, in both grade and length, without you actually seeing and experiencing it. Oddly enough, my only reaction was like, “Oh well, here we go” and I dropped my head to start the rise upwards. And as soon as I start the incline I see Kyle not too far up ahead, still working his way up the hill….walking. Someone was right next to him giving intense encouragement as he struggled up the hill, sometimes jogging sometimes walking. A woman next to me yells, “I don’t think I have to tell you who your competitor is now! You’ve got him in your sights!” I had no breathing room to switch focus from the task at hand so I simply continued moving up the hill, at which point I just told myself, “Don’t walk. Whatever you do, no matter how slow you move, just don’t walk.” I figured that was my best bet at making up more ground on Kyle. He continued to jog and walk, jog and walk as I pressed on.
Then as I made it to the top of the hill I realized that, actually, this wasn’t the top of the hill at all, for when I reached the summit, it abruptly turned and shot uphill again, so I went back to work and continued onward, and when I reached the top again, I realized yet again, this was not. the. top. Adding insult to injury the hill turned YET AGAIN upward. I now fully realized the intensity of the descriptors people used when retelling this part of the course. It was pretty unbelievable. But finally, I reached the ACTUAL top of the hill before it made a turn downhill and veered back into a fire road. I was ecstatic to have that behind me and moved quickly down the hill, Kyle now just seconds ahead of me. We bottomed out and started pulling ourselves up the fire road when without pause I was just a couple strides behind him. Something definitely seemed off with him and I wondered if he had twisted his ankle or something, because I know he was strong enough not to have already blown up halfway through the run. I moved up aside him and questioned, “Are you ok?” He said nothing for a second or two and then replied, “Not really.” And I passed him, never to see him again. I don’t know at which point it happened, but he soon dropped out.
As it turns out, whether this was the defining moment or not, Kyle came across that icy bridge and bit it, apparently pretty hard. I don’t know if it knocked the fight out of him, or injured him, but soon enough he was done. And now it was just me, hoping the next competitor was far enough back that I’d make it to the finish line first.