Quite unceremoniously the first wave of runners, hundreds in all, were sent off the line for one loop around the course, completing a quarter marathon before jumping in their cars and heading home while the rest of us would still be out there hours later. The sun hung low, casting a light that was familiar to most race starts, but this time on the other side of the sky, and falling instead of rising. The temperatures, already in the mid 20’s were about to follow the same trajectory of the sun. 10 minutes later, another group of hundreds pushed from the line towards an even lower sun to complete two loops for a half-marathon in all. And then it was our turn, about a hundred of us in all, bouncing in place, swinging our arms, huddled close to the outdoor heaters, trying with meager success to keep our bodies relatively warm, though wasting precious energy in the process, before we could finally let loose onto the darkened trails. The sun was now all but obscured and our headlamps dotted the starting area as if the night sky had fallen to the ground. Then 10 minutes after the previous group entered the snaking and rolling trails, we too were sent into the woods with little but a 3 second count down and an unenthusiastic “Go.”
Approximately 500 hundred runners lay ahead of us as we took off into the woods, myself instantly out front with one runner and his headlamp helping light the empty path, though it wouldn’t be too long before we would begin overtaking the back of the packers. Snaking through the frozen and snowy single track I instantly recognized that I felt good…real good. Exceptionally good. The air was cold and a full day of pre-race contemplation had built my adrenaline up to overflowing, enabling me to move through the woods with a strength I hadn’t felt in quite some time. Myself and the other runner seemed to be effortlessly flying, near sprinting, through the woods, bounding up the first inclines, but not once feeling the effort in my lungs. We continued on through the first mile and I kept up the pressure, hoping to drop him early in the race and begin to relax through the next couple of loops, but he stayed right off my back, his lamp throwing my shadow ahead.
The going was fast, but I don’t mean to convey that it was easy. I noticed two things right from the start. 1. It was dark. Very dark. My lamp was bright and lit the path ahead, and there were snaking runners ahead also lighting up the path, but the beams only hit the ground a few feet in front of us, which allowed you to see what was just ahead, but not too far ahead and putting your foot down in the darkness was an act of great faith, assuming you were planting it where you perceived it to be stable…but in the darkness you just didn’t know. This was as harrowing as it was disorienting. 2. It was cold. Colder than I thought it might feel. I had on tights, super thick mittens, a powerful Under Armour layer and a long sleeve tech-T, which all kept me pretty toasty with my body’s core warmth radiating from the effort….but my eyeballs were freezing. I’ve run in incredibly cold temperatures before, so I know just how cold it is depending on how various parts of my body feel, and it’s only been a few times where it’s so cold that my eyeballs “freeze”. No doubt it was due to the air hitting our faces as we sped through the woods, but the distinct sensation of cold eyeballs coupled with the blurring moisture that kept clouding my vision did not make the effort to find stable footing any easier.
A couple miles in and I had yet to drop the runner behind me, just as we started passing all the back of the packers that lay ahead, which we would ultimately do for the rest of the loop. The rhythm of my breathing was broken as I called out, “Runner back!”, “On your left!”, “Left! On your left!”, over and over and over again. Fortunately, the trail was just wide enough that I could find my way around the other runners without too much concern, only having to squeeze by a few times, and getting the crook of my elbow knocked a couple times by the few runners wearing earphones.
I still felt invincible as I crashed through the woods and around the other runners, which at one point all but disappeared and I noticed that I was suddenly alone. I had finally dropped the runner behind me and could now focus on the effort and footing without any other distractions. And so that’s what I did. Still passing runners, finding footing on the frozen ground, pushing on the flats and trying to bound up the hills in the darkness, I knew I was getting out ahead. Past mile three. Past runners. Past mile four. Past more runners. And then….a ghost. Footsteps behind me, audible breathing, and a light bouncing around my shadow. Someone was on me again! I think. I don’t know. I took short glances back every so often, but could never tell if a competitor had moved up or the lights from other runners were playing tricks on me. I was so disoriented I couldn’t figure out if I was alone, being chased, or The Blair Witch had finally come after me. I did know this was only the first loop and the real marathon is run later in the race, so no matter where I was in the field, that meant nothing as far as victory was concerned. Marathons, especially trail marathons, come down to whose stronger in the second half.
I snaked my way through mile 6 and popped out of the woods to quickly pass the timing strip and enter the second loop, still feeling just as powerful as before and..well…REALLY enjoying the whole experience. I felt fast. I didn’t feel fatigued. And the excitement of running trails in the cold and dark was both invigorating and downright exciting!
My spirits were high as I started running the course again, still passing so many runners now entering their second lap of the half marathon, and that much more aware of the tricky parts of the course. I was able to continue moving at about the same pace as I did the first lap and still bounding up the inclines without fatigue. I was also still constantly calling out, “On your left! Left!”, then hearing the runners debating whether I was doing the half or the full.
At the longest flat stretch of the course I pulled out my second gel and squeezed the sugary goodness into my system to keep me pressing on further in the race, noticing I was still able to concentrate on using my quads to propel me forward instead of reverting to the auto-pilot in my hips and core. I had one gel for each loop of the course and made sure to take in one half-cup of electrolyte drink at one aid station as well. I learned my lesson from the last cold weather trail marathon I ran where I didn’t fuel and crashed HARD the last 5 miles. This time I made sure, no matter how uncomfortable it would be, that I would take in energy during the run.
Continuing on the effort still felt strong and fast and after a couple switchbacks I realized the blair witch was definitely not with me. Any lamps that shone behind me were runners I had just passed or the light of the moon messing with my senses. I pushed past mile four and continued to pass other runners into mile 5, where I realized the footing was TERRIBLE. Worn from both pre-freeze footprints and bike tires, my ankles dipped, wobbled and twisted all the way to mile 6, forcing me to concentrate on planting my feet solid and making sure I was using my lower body to stabilize and not my core. I knew the next 2 laps would be even more difficult and I made a mental note to concentrate hard through that section, because all it takes is one severe ankle twist and the race is over. With the frozen ground and darkened night, the chances of this happening had skyrocketed. Making it out unscathed, I picked my way through mile 6, chasing down the stretched out lights in front of me and pulling up on a runner in the last 400 meters, calling out, “On your left!”. I passed him as we made one last turn, popped out of the woods again and started towards the timing strip, at which point he accelerated hard to get me at the line, the announcer calling out, “Oh, I think he got you there by 1/2 a second,” at which point I turned down the “loop” trail and called out, “Nope! I’m still going!”. The announcer called back out, “Oh, ignore that…Spitz is on the full marathon course right now.”
Third verse, same as the first. I wish.
The course got lonelier the third time around, with the quarter runners all completed and a portion of the half-marathoners done as well, it was only the back of the pack half-ers and marathoners out there, giving me plenty of room to run, but long gaps in between headlamps to chase down. And that’s what I was doing, chasing down headlamps as motivation. And I was going to need that motivation, because I knew the third lap was likely to hurt the most. The pounding of the course was going to take it’s toll physically and the knowledge that there was yet another lap to complete would take it’s toll mentally.
That’s exactly what happened. Very subtle physical sensations started to make themselves known. The part in my elbow that knocked into those two runners suddenly tightened and hurt a little. The warmth in my race apparel was replaced by a stable neutral temperature as my pace slowed ever so slightly. And most tellingly, the issues I’ve been having with my leg/groin began to grow, climbing up my inner leg and pulling on a muscle at the bottom of my slightly weakening core. I expected all these sensations only to grow as the miles wore on, hoping to be able to push whenever the opportunities presented themselves and keep back any potentially stronger runners behind. I decided if they were going to come after me, they were going to have to work hard.
I hit the long flat section and noticed the effort significantly greater than the previous two laps, struggling to force the gel into my system and keep my footing stable with my quads instead of my core that was bearing the stress now. I picked my way up the gentle, but long incline that ended the flat section and pulled in headlamp after headlamp through periods of long darkness. The effort up the inclines were felt and changing gears on the flats took longer than I had hoped. The miles were getting rough as I bounded down a short decline to an aid station where I grabbed a cup of energy drink, threw it back and took off again up a short climb towards mile 4.
Then maybe it was the combination of sugary goodness or just a standard “second wind”, but suddenly I was moving again. The trail leveled out and only rose and fell slightly, turning through pine tree sections, sending me over fallen trees and partially cut logs, all mildly lit by an incredibly bright moonlight cutting through the leafless trees. I used the sudden energy to press hard, continuing to keep in mind that if I was moving this hard, anyone behind me would have to be moving significantly harder to make up ground. If I was going to hurt, they were going to have to nearly die.
I hit the stretch of terrible footing at mile 5 and used all the concentration I had to keep my ankles from rolling into race stopping territory, and having only mild success. The rooted ground pulled at my feet and stressed my groin and core, my legs now almost completely drained of strength. I made it through the bulk of the section, down a precarious decline and towards a slanting bridge now bordered by a group of runners attempting to cross it with great concern. I jumped onto it and instantly heard someone on the other side call out, “It’s slippery!”. Then before I knew it I was looking at the ground from an inch away, my headlamp blindingly reflecting off the frozen dirt, and myself quickly reassuring everyone around, “It’s ok. I’m fine.” I jumped up, realizing I hadn’t hit anything very hard and was able to continue on unabated, taking yet another mental note for the final time around.
With no fanfare I crossed the timing strip and turned back into the woods for one last loop, wondering how far I could get before all strength was gone.
If the other laps were lonely, this one was solitary confinement.
Now severely weakened from the continuous pounding, the inclines were a little less powerful, without any surge at the top, instead just waiting for the downhill to give me speed without my having to put in the effort. The headlamps to chase were so sporadic that at times I wondered if I would see anymore to the finish. The downhills weren’t much relief either, as my ability to break and ensure good footing were rendered useless from empty quads and calves, my core almost depleted too.
On one of the first portions of the loop I suddenly felt a very uncomfortable tightening in my abdomen, whether it was gas or vomit or whatever, I suddenly had to ease up and let the feeling dissipate, which is when I realized that, yes, my core was gone. See, what happens throughout the race is your effort and stability is held aloft by your lower body, the calves and quads and hamstrings, but at some point they take so much force that they can’t take anymore. As this gradually happens, the stresses begin to switch to other parts of your body, such as the hip, pelvis, and groin, then finally up into your core. The core is your last refuge of strength, which is why it is so important to keep it as strong as possible, because in distance running, this is what you are going to need the most towards the end of the race. If you have a weak core and the rest of your muscles are overstressed, you’re going to crash HARD. You’ll have no strength, no stability, and no ability to keep pace to the finish.
So when my stomach sort of dropped and gave me that terrible feeling in my abdomen, I knew what had happened. My core was giving out. It was tightened and holding everything together (in?) for the first three laps, but as it continued to take on more and more stress, it just couldn’t keep it together, so when I hit one of the flat sections of the course where I could relax, instead of staying tensed and powerful, it too relaxed, letting everything within me shift around. I could only hope I was dealing with gas or a minor discomfort from all the concentrated sugar I had taken in up to that point and wasn’t fighting off a vomit session.
On the long flat it was a losing fight to keep stable and try to push, so I focused on getting in the last gel and hoping it might spur on another “third wind” like I experienced the previous lap. I knew if I just got past mile 4 I would have a solid cruise to the finish and so that’s what I focused on from that point. I looked for headlamps up ahead, but saw none. I looked behind and also saw none. It was just going to be a solitary push from here on out.
I went into grind mode and just kept my body moving on auto-pilot, letting the course take me when it could, but unable to push hard uphill or on the flats. Seemingly miraculously I kept myself upright on the downhills, that had now turned to patches of ice that slid my feet out from under me a couple times, stressing my groin extensively, and sending me down at incredibly unsafe speeds. I kept stable when I had the opportunity and moved towards the aid station just before mile 4, signaling the last of my effort. I took in one last cup of cold fluid, still had enough motivation to climb an incline and picked my way over the fallen trees with a little less vigor and success than each previous lap. I hit the flat that led me to the unstable footing at mile five and was a little disheartened to find that I had no third wind at all, just the mental relief that it would all be over soon.
I steeled myself again for the poor footing through mile 5 and somehow made it through without rolling (or breaking!) my ankle, though feeling a deep stress in my core with every footfall. Then as a last relief I caught sight of a few headlamps up ahead and I went after them unreservedly, not caring that some were walking while others were merely shuffling. I just needed something to get me to the final stretch. I nearly walked the last bridge with the icy finish and deemed it a success when I made it to the other side without falling, though slipped again on the ice.
Fully weakened throughout and now feeling a chilled body temperature instead of neutral, I pushed myself through the last stretch of woods that had no more rise or fall, but just a wide, snaking path to the finish. Of course, I had one more almost race halting feeling in my abdomen in the last 200 meters that I was able to just barely suppress before popping out of the woods for the last time. I picked my way through a couple roots, felt the needed footing of asphalt and put in a half-hearted effort to cross the line with speed, into, well….nothing. No one. It was late, and where the finish area was once crowded with runners and their families, it was now all but empty except for the race employees and a handful of hangers-on warming themselves by the heaters.
The announcer called out over the PA. “Wow, it would have been an impressive time even before subtracting the 20 minutes from the start. The marathon winner finished in 3:10:43.”
I slowly shuffled to the tent to get some liquids and bananas in me, sat on the ground under the heaters, and then felt a deep chill consume me fully, compelling me to get right back up and start walking to my car for clothes and warmth. And things got ugly. The car was probably 800 meters away in another parking lot, but just the thought of getting back there filled me with great concern. I couldn’t jog there, let alone run, due to the post-marathon pain in my legs, but I had to get there quickly because I was concerned about how cold I was feeling. I almost flagged down a couple cars leaving the parking lot, but decided not to inconvenience them. Walking to the car, I started to notice my chin quivering, my body going into violent shivers and my breathing escalating rapidly. I had never had anything happen like this before and the survival instinct in me was telling me that this was NOT OK. I was getting worried and noticed some race volunteers that I passed look at me with a little more than concern when I walked by. I couldn’t stop for a second and ask for help though, despite imagining falling over just a little further up the road. Weird thoughts come into your head in moments like this. It hit me that freezing to death is probably the worst way to die ever. I’d rather drown, or catch fire, or fall from a building than freeze to death. The pain and pace must be the scariest thing ever. Yeah, those thoughts weren’t helping.
I did, however, manage to make it to the car, pull on a sweater and fleece, then crank up the heat and hope it warmed up quicker than usual. I was now in a safe zone, though this was little solace to how I was feeling. I KNOW I was dehydrated, but I was also pretty sure I was experience mild hypothermia. I didn’t know if I should go to the ambulance for fluids or not, not that I would have had the energy, so decided to wait it out and see how I felt. Once stable enough I drove down to the start area to grab another cup of hot coffee, which I spilled half of walking back to my car because I was shaking so uncontrollably. Things weren’t getting much better and I still had to get out for the awards ceremony.
A little more time in the heated car and some more coffee down the hatch (it fixes everything!) and I was finally stable ENOUGH to pick up my award, though my legs weren’t enough to have me actually stand on the platform. Instead, the three of us just put one leg up for what will probably be an amusing podium photo. Afterwards I immediately got back in my car, drove home and prepared the most absurd concoction of TVP with a ketchup, braggs, mustard, ginger, turmeric, nutritional yeast, salt mixture to replace the sodium I so desperately needed. I then managed to have the worst night of sleep I’ve had in a long time, the feeling of the flu x2 consuming me as I tried to turn my systems off after such an absurd effort.
It was the absurdity I said I wanted and it was the absurdity I got. No complaints.
26.2 nighttime trail miles