Some days are a bit more welcoming than others. The sunlight niggles at your eyelids, waking you well before your alarm. The body feels fresh and limber, rested and strong, humming with energy eager to be spilled. Vigor brims and physical limits can be pushed. Some days have strong shoulders and really don’t mind if you hitch a ride.
And then some days are built for suffering.
As a bit of a backstory, the MCTU is a thought-child between John Hardin and myself. We spent around 8 months starting in late 2012 gaining permission, conceptualizing the course layout, clearing around 11 miles of trails, and stringing together disparate horse trails, overgrown logging roads, and faint single track. The result was a behemoth of a course that provides some of the area’s most rugged beauty and challenging terrain. In 2013, I helped direct the race. This year, I was given the opportunity to venture into the bowels of Cheatham to experience first-hand the result of our toils.
Some days you wake after three snoozes. Your body feels rigid, a rusted strip of metal, stiff but weak and brittle, on the verge of functional loss. You know you must eat, so you do, but it’s all wrong. The food sits like a brick, not serving to fuel anything but a great discomfort. You dress, because that can’t possibly go wrong…but it does. And you always find that out later.
You go through the motions, get in gear, set a destination, and struggle on.
I arrived at the MCTU after some wonderful conversation with a new friend and a cup of coffee I drank in vain.
The property buzzed with energy, with runners and volunteers anxious to get underway. The swell carried through to the pre-race announcement, which I bumbled through as my mind sought to grasp the inevitable crash of my body into the staggering breast of Cheatham. The further riling of the troops ensued, with an interim 10 minute time period to contemplate our fates. It sounds silly, to aggrandize these things. A voluntary act that we inflate to bolster our self-value. In the end, I began to foolishly run the humbling distance grossly undertrained and feeling like a half-smoked cigarette.
The psyche always gets to me, pushing the pace, through the open field with ephemeral dew, into the woods and up the steep single-track which spills onto a ridge line with a view of the upcoming descent and subsequent climb to regain elevation. If I’ve found one thing during these runs, it’s that you have to listen to your body and play to your strengths. So, I recklessly bombed down the hill with complete abandon. You have to be realistic about these things. I felt my pace was strong, but maybe a bit too lofty, I did have 29 miles left to go, you see. We stayed to some very nice jeep road for a while before diving back into a bottom with technical footing, a creek crossing, and a steep ascent. At this point, things begin to blur. The mind seems to have a remarkable way of shrouding negative memories. Memories become a rock skipping on a deep pool of experiences.
I continued, running too fast, eating, passing through aid stations and putting on a brave face, pushing myself to keep with the front runners. As I reached the second aid station, the fellows in front turned around to retrace the 25k course, and I turned my head down, knowing that they were headed home, but I hadn’t even begun. I flippantly asked the aid station workers what mile it was.
“Seven and a half”.
I continued my cascading through the woods in a panicked, gaitless manner. Jeep roads stretched on as I became keenly aware of each footfall. The legs felt remarkably strong, but the balls of my feet were inflating with each step, a reminder of each steep descent that I so pride myself upon. You see, some days you can’t even dress properly. Shoes laced to tight, binding worn socks with just enough wiggle room to thoroughly abrade the supple skin beneath. Yes, some days were built with the sole purpose of suffering.
The third aid station came and went, with the promise of a rugged loop which descends to a creek bottom that John and I cut the previous year. The countless creek traverses seemed like a fabulous idea at the time, though for the life of me I couldn’t recall why. Some fleeting sadist fancy, I suppose.
The redlined running continued, as the serene scenery stripped the consciousness of my current frailty. The harsh reality was reestablished abruptly, however, when I came out again to a jeep road, which allows plenty of time for reflection in the distraction-free expanses. The next four or so miles were a jumble of steep descents and ascents, scrambling across technical footing and nearly two score river crossing. This section held deer, turkeys, and a vibrant pad of yellow wildflowers, highlighted on the muted background. At one point I spotted a runner where the trail glances back upon itself. This always serves to jumpstart the mind to perform distance and time calculations for the remainder of the venture. The emergence from the last creek crossing of the upper loop brought me back through the water stop, and onto the return.
I had consumed no less than nine packets of Gu at this point.
I have a thought when it comes to racing, and I believe it borders on excess when it comes to energy gel consumption. If I start to wane in energy, or certainly see stars, it’s time for a Gu. If I haven’t eaten a Gu in the past 30 minutes, then it definitely is time for a Gu. If I am coming through an aid station, well, I damn well better eat a Gu. When you have this many variables pointing to Gu-time, you tend to overdo it.
The next few miles were some of the worst. I blew through a turn and ended up near a tree blind in the woods, which I obviously hadn’t passed on the way out. I quickly learned that the desired route took me up a steep spur, which was my subconscious taking control of the situation. The minutes ticked away almost as slowly as the miles. The looming shadow of the next runner crept into my mind. I assured myself that finishing is currently the top priority. I began again the classical physics calculations, assuming that if I pinpoint the exact time of arrival, it would instantaneously occur, relieving me of the inevitable. My quads were on the verge of seizing, and the open road called for me to pick up the pace, but my clutch was burned out, and shifting gears really wasn’t an option. When I run alone at the verge of my limits for roughly 3 hours straight, I find that I crave company. My own company is terrible, since I’m an over-analyzing, worrisome lot. Luckily, as I came through the final aid station, the sight of old friends was just enough to keep me from hanging it all up. The encouragement and promise of a close finish sat ripe like a plump persimmon. That’s the thing about persimmons though, you have to pick them right; they can either be a sweet, creamy fruit, or a mouth-puckering bitter taste of preemptive hope. This was the latter.
I’m not sure what mileage was stated between the final aid station and the finish, but it was a lie. I either entered a time warp at this point, or unwittingly stepped onto a treadmill. I climbed up from Five-Points to a gravel road which took random spurs with the sole purpose of providing more climbs. This section served to be a mentally debilitating reminder that miles are still miles, and just because you’ve finished 27, you still have 4 to go. The jeep road would be flat, runnable path, but the course would betray and lead to an inevitable pipeline climb, only to meet up with the identical jeep road, which was wondering where you’d been while it stretched lazily onward. I finally gained some company during this section, which was near-life saving. I never think cursing should fall on deaf ears.
When we finally came to the last section, after continuously promising that this was the last climb, a wave of relief passed over me. I had not cramped. I had not stopped. I had not been overtaken in the last mile of the race (which is always a fear). I bombed one final downhill before scrambling through a dried creek bed, back into the starting field, and home to Mary’s salvation of a homestead.
I came through the finish around 4:36, and I believe I wanted to stop around the first hour.
The beauty is that I had been able to experience fully the course that we had developed, and share that with others. These victims that lie strewn about, life-sized broken toys hoping burgers and beer will mend them. Toys that Cheatham had spent the day dragging about, tossing here and there, only to be bored with in the end, discarding each in search for something new.
The after-race vibe is unlike any other. The experience seems to create new friendships and galvanize old. I have never left one of John’s events without a new set of friends, and this was no different, everyone eager to share their stories and hear those from others. To listen to some great music and gorge in an attempt to refuel.
These days always seem to hurt. I distinctly remember resolving to not run this or any other long distance again (though it is oft said that 50 milers are the true threshold for ultra-marathons), but time makes the pain fade, and after the body recovers, the desire just grows.