About four months ago I set out to train for an ultra marathon. Ultra marathons are considered races over the 26.2 mile mark. Most common are 31 miles, 50, or even 100 mile races! Never mind I’ve never run a plain-ole ‘marathon’. I am prone to setting my aspirations high while traditionally ignoring common, rational logic. Oh well…life is short and navigating myself firmly into my 40’s required some desperate goal setting measures.
So off I trotted early in the mornings at around 5 am or late at night after I got the kids tucked into bed and a round of story time for Lou Lou. With headlamp strapped to my egg, New Balance on my feet, I would meander out of my neighborhood though a neighboring, neighborhood to the trails I came to regard as my home away from home. Along the limestone banks of Barton Creek, I would ramble through cedar and pecan, among early morning stars and beside a stream whose rapids sounded just about as perfect as a steam can be. Usually getting in four runs during the week and a long run on the weekend, I made good progress. I ran, and ran some more.
Last Friday my wife and I and the kids drove southwest from Austin to Bandera, Texas. (Cowboy capital of the world in case you didn’t know). There I would race the next morning in the Bandera 50k in Texas Hill Country that took no prisoners. I must admit, the days leading up to the race were filled with a bit of nervousness, anxiety and self doubt. Would I be able to make it to the finish line? Would my body hold up to the rigors and would I be able to meet the goal I had worked so hard for? After all, my longest run was only 20 or so miles. I was freaking out a little bit.
The morning of the race found the whole family up before the sun. My wife’s sister and even her dad made the drive in from Houston to support me or talk me out of it. I’m still not sure. Racers from all over the country gathered there that morning, having checked in and preparing for the start. As the sun rose through the hills, we huddled together. I tied my shoes a final time, kissed each of my kids and hugged a wife who was working hard at looking confident. “You can do it Mike,” she whispered in my ear and off I ran.
Along the course of a 50k race like the Bandera one encounters many trials and tribulations. For one, the term ‘trail’ takes on an all-together new and insidious meaning. In most sections it is a long, deep rut, carved by the hooves of horses. These ruts, some 8 to 10 inches deep, are littered with rocks and boulders with no purpose at all but causing runners angst and displeasure. Throw in an abundance of Sotol Cactus (think saw meets plant), and you’ve got yourself a rodeo cowboy. Did I mention the hills?
Thankfully also along the course are 5 Aid Stations. These are places of temporary refuge complete with necessary items such as water, Gatorade, Goo, Heed, chocolate and my favorite, Ibuprofen. All of which are intended to overcome your bodies propensity to cramp up, throw up and basically quit on you. Staying ahead of that by eating and drinking proved to be one of my biggest challenges.
Aid Station 1: Mile 4.79
I ran through this station feeling pretty healthy. My family was there cheering me on. I grabbed a couple waters, and off I went. I had planned to think of the race in terms of sections, hoping I could chew off a bit at a time physically and psychologically.
Aid Station 2: Mile 10.06
I rolled in feeling the wear of the trail and the many hills encountered the first third of the race. I paused for a couple of minutes. No family cheering me on since this station allowed no access for spectators. I ate a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, refilled my water bottles and wearily moved on.
Aid Station 3: Mile 15.5
There comes a point in a race like this when what you want to do with your legs just doesn’t happen. This was the case in the miles proceeding this station. By this time I was beginning to wear down. The right knee was not cooperating and I could feel cramps making their presence known in my left thigh. As I approached the station my father in law stood staring at me with a concerned and beleaguered expression. “You don’t look so good”, he said. “Really,” I thought to myself. My wife started handing me food of all sorts, telling me to drink up and to stay positive. I needed that. I was off again.
Aid Station 4: Mile 21.35
When I set out to run an ultra marathon, I was seeking a challenge. Something that would push me to my physical and mental limits and through that experience I would learn a little more about who I was. So when I arrived at this station, I realized I was an idiot and in some serious pain. By this point, I was doing all I could to lift my right knee and put any air between the sole of my shoe and the trail. It was at this station that I questioned my ability to finish. Thank god for Peggy. My wife, who worried consistently about me running this race from the onset, became my most fiery supporter and stalwart coach. “You get your but in that tent and eat,” she blasted me. “You can do this Mike. You can finish this race,” she continued. Not wanting to argue with my highly charged spouse in the compromised shape I was in, I relented and fueled up as best I could. She found me 300 mg. of Ibuprofen, filled up my water bottles and ordered me on into the hills. It must have been so hard for her to push me on. I didn’t turn to look back at her. Yet I was never more thankful for her in my life than at that moment.
Aid Station 5: Mile 26.31
Something happened about two miles after I left that last station. I don’t know if it was my wife’s scorn, my fueling or a second wind, but I began to feel much better. My knee began to cooperate and I settled into a pace that agreed with the rest of my body parts. Moving quicker and feeling much better, I rounded the corner towards the station. “It’s Daddy, It’s Daddy,” as my kids yelled out. It was like a huge shot in the arm. I was proud and felt like I was running fast into the area. Later Peggy would tell me I was hallucinating and that I was actually running slower than an old lady. Oh well, I felt better. I secured some fuel and hydration and took off. It was at this point I realized I was going to really make it.
Final Aid Station: Mile 30.56
Basically on some crazy runner’s high, I churned along. Running near the park road I could see my family waving and honking the horn at me as they too raced to finish line to greet me. My sights now were not only to finish the race but to possibly realize my other goal of finishing under 7 hrs. I arrived at the final aid station. Too jacked up to stop, I hollered out, “How much further”? “A half a mile,” someone replied. That did if for me! You could try to tie me down with ropes and I would have found a way to cross the finish line a that point. As I neared the end of the race I started humming Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir in my head. I thought of how fortunate I was to be alive and to have this opportunity. I found great peace at that moment. As I made my way across the line my kids grabbed hold of me and gave me hugs. I had accomplished what I had set out to do, but in doing so realized that I had not done so alone. Without their support and patience of my wife and kids, without my wife picking me up off the ground, none of it would be possible.
Peggy asked me if I planned on running an ultra marathon again. I paused to ponder that thought for a short moment and replied, “Sure, but not without you”. Cheers!