September 12, 2012

Hawk Marathon Race Report, and Satisfaction in Service

It was 2 am, or something like that. Truthfully, time gets lost, even during races, when it's that late/early, and you've been up since 5 am the previous day, and ran a marathon sometime in that period.

About that marathon.

I ran in fourth until just past the halfway point, showing surprising patience, not knowing where anyone else was. This was a windy, technical trail, after all, so for all I knew, there was no hope of grabbing a podium spot. (If, you know, local trail races had podiums. They don't.) But I knew I was chasing a shirtless guy wearing yellow Kinvaras, and another guy wearing Newtons, and so I kept my eyes out for them, trying to keep my pace decent despite the total lack of perspective.

And then they were ahead of me, only just, and then, as quickly, I was with them. They glanced back, and I imagined them thinking something like "Oh shit.". But there were still 8 miles to go, so I would sit and wait, let them work to try and drop me, and then kick up the final hills.

Or not. The guy in the Newtons tripped, and appeared to twist his ankle. He told me and the Kinvara guy to keep going without him, and we didn't need much convincing. In third now, I was full of adrenaline, running a trail I was familiar with, following a runner who seemed to be slowing drastically.

And so I moved, just before the final aid station, thinking that I could lengthen my gap while he refueled. Of course, doing that would require that I not stop myself, a decision that I decided was unwise with 6.5 miles still to go. So I split the difference, drank 4 ounces of Coke (crucially, I didn't fill my bottle or grab any gels), and gunned it.

For a mile, this seemed brilliant. My chaser was nowhere to be seen, and I felt great, right up until I felt like shit. The transition was immediate, the proverbial wall smashing right up against me. Thoroughly bonked and without any calories to consume, I shuffled onward, tripped, and saw that my pursuit had not just reappeared, but caught me.

But there was so little race left, depleted or not, I would give chase. And so I did, not gaining, but not losing either. I kept the yellow Kinvaras in my sight, right up until a turn - I know it well - with about 1.2 miles to go. I took the turn, I think. I must have. Although that's not what the course for the race dictated, it's the only way to explain how I ended up on the wrong trail, forced to retrace my steps, and resume passing people I hadn't seen for quite some time.

I crossed the line in sixth, missing the imaginary podium, eleven minutes behind the yellow Kinvaras. I drank a Mountain Dew, felt pretty dumb, but mostly, was still pretty stoked. It had been, probably, the most fun race I've ever run, the closest I'd ever come to the sort of Beardsley/Salazar dueling you see on the elite level.

I went home, ate about 4 cups of rice and beans, a pint of cocunut milk ice cream, and foam rolled. I sat around for a few more hours, killing time until the evening, which would turn in to the night, which gets us back to it being 2 am.

Anyway, it was dark, and sort of cool, the stars almost urgently clear. I was working an aid station at the for the 100 milers, filling the bottles of a runner with ice, and then water and HEED, respectively. I zipped around, not wanting to delay someone who was, in theory, racing, declaring that I was a food service professional, with the irony and the punch drunkenness that comes from being - and this is the medical term - wiped the fuck out.

We sent him on his way and I ate some vegetarian chile, which included mashed potatoes and Chinese takeout levels of salt - all the better to fuel endurance - and then drank some Folger's Black Silk - which tasted like Broadway's Yirgacheffe at the time - not wanting to drink another Mountain Dew.

Other runners came in, looking pretty much like you'd expect at that point, and we did what we could for them. I drank more coffee and took some allergy meds, and then drank more coffee because I took the allergy meds. I wandered towards the trees so I wouldn't sneeze on the runner taking a nap in one of the chairs, wandered back, and was asked if I could pace him the 6.5 miles to the start/finish.

I said yes, presuming that he would either drop out there, or the RDs would pull him. I wanted to be nice, but you have to be realistic about these things. We set off, walking fast, making small talk. His name was Terry, 57, from Wichita (I think). He liked yoga and steam engines.

As we talked, I couldn't help but notice his tone was optimistic. He sounded awake, energetic, and hopeful. When we talked about his race circumstances, he kept saying he'd feel even better when the sun came up, and that he still though he could finish. The math said otherwise - he would have to run his 4th loop faster than his 2nd or 3rd - but I began to believe him.

We arrived at the start/finish as the sun came up. Terry ate, and I sat on a picnic bench, watching the 100-mile winner get interviewed by a local paper; he had finished over four hours earlier. Terry told the RDs he'd like to do the final loop, whether he got it in under the 32-hour time limit or not. As someone kindly bandaged my bleeding pinky toe, I told the RDs that he could make it. We only needed to cover 25 miles in 7 hours, and he was fine, really, and I was too.

And then Terry was running, disappearing down the trail. I chased, yelling back at someone that I was fine, it was only blood, and that we'd be back in time. I imagined I'd catch up with him easily. But, whether it was the sun or not, that took two miles. Terry, who hadn't run for something like 10 hours, was now running my marathon pace, and I wondered if I was going to be any help at all.

I did catch him, of course, when he resumed walking an uphill section, saying to me that he'd better save some for later. I agreed, and pointed out that if we only ran the easiest portions of the trail at that pace, he'd finish comfortably. Math was now on our side, so far as I was concerned.

My stomach was not, however. As we reached the first aid station, I stripped off my night gear, and headed towards the nearest restroom. Terry was moving well, and I told him I'd pick him back up at the next aid station, hopefully ready to lead a charge to the finish, if need be. He said that would be nice, and that he appreciated whatever impromptu pacing he could get.

Stomach settled, I drove to the next aid station, and tried not to fall asleep in my car. I drank another Mountain Dew, felt marginally better, and then saw Terry popping out of the woods, heading up the route's biggest hill. I shuffled over to the aid station, made plans for what we'd need, what sort of pace would be required, and then ran ahead to hook back up with Terry.

We ran in to the mostly disassembled aid station, grabbed several gels, and filled our bottles. Quickly, we plunged back in to the trees, Terry still running the flat sections, and walking the hills. I was doing the math constantly, telling him how fast we were clocking our miles, and how his pace was consistently exceeding what was needed. There was no longer any doubt in my mind that he'd finish, and I told him that. Just keep doing what you're doing.

We arrived at the next - and final - aid station, and were greeted by an enthusiastic host. There was Gary - the club's Godfather, basically - who had manned that aid station for over 24 hours and made the addictive chile; Terry's wife, who thanked me, and who ushered him off with a kiss; Alan, who I had seen the previous morning during my race, and who volunteered to pace if I could go no further; Adam,  who had won the 50-miler (by 50 minutes); and others, of course, who I would recall if I hadn't been so damn tired.

The finish assured if no mistakes were made, Terry took the technical portions carefully, but still ran when prudent. We were making good time, good conversation, and came up on another two runners. One was Donnie, on his way to finishing his first 100-mile race. He was paced by Bryan, who had worked the aid station with my prior to assuming his pacing duties. Together, we decided to form a proud 4-man caboose, hiking and jogging the remaining 3 miles. Bryan and I congratulated the two soon-to-be finishers, and they continued on, spirits suitably high.

When we emerged form the woods, Bryan and I peeled off to the side, leaving the finish to Terry and Donnie. There's had been the race, and this was rightly their moment. I watched them get their buckles, take pictures, and smile. I sat on the picnic bench, happier at that moment than at any race I'd ever finished myself.

And while that sounds both overly sentimental and self aggrandizing, I promise neither are my motivation. These are simply the sorts of things that happen at trail races, and are a large reason I'm drawn to the sport of running way too fucking far on dirt and rocks.

Furthermore, I am - and at this point, it really is basically my entire identity - a barista. Anyone who sticks in the service industry for long does it because of moments like this - if a little less dramatic. We like being told that we made someone's day, if only by making their drink, or simply being nice.

So yeah, it only took me a few thousand words to bring this around to this blog's primary subject matter. Service: Do it right, and you feel awesome.

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