First I’ll apologize for the random order of most of these shots. All except the first two shots that is. WOW what an experience. The whole day was surreal. In the pre-start photo where everything is still dark it still hasn’t fully hit me yet what I am about to do. Unlike any other race I have run I was so disconnected at the start. Maybe it was the abstract becoming real, maybe it was getting up at 3:45 to make it to Black Mountain, maybe it was the start of the flu that has completely layed me low and left me even today less than myself, or maybe it was the fact that for the first time in a long time I was entering into something I had very little first hand experience with (make that zero experience). Whatever it was I found myself looking at a very supportive Amy in the pre-dawn and actually admitting that it was just then occurring to me what I was about to attempt. She stayed positive told me she was already proud of me and before I knew it, I was running up Cherry Street past the Town Pump and My Father’s Pizza and into what? I wasn’t exactly sure of. The first few miles I settled into a leisurely pace and listened to the conversations around me of marathoners and challengers reconnecting, sharing course info, and general early race chatter.
Through the stone arched entrance to Montreat we streamed and then soon uphill to the beginning of the single track. It was gorgeous trail conditions temps already above forty and the sun soon began peaking at us over the ridges as we climbed gradually on a humanely mild ascent on single track. I tried to stop a few times in the first hour or so to snap a pick or two but the camera just wasn’t going to do any of the sunrise scenes I witnessed any justice. I was chugging along pretty good dropping to a walk occasionally but for very short stretches and hanging with various groups. I had not studied the course map as laboriously as I had for Shut-In and so was pretty clueless most of the race except at the turn-around where I was. It was a little frustrating not being able to mentally tick off distances. Whenever I’d ask someone around me, I’d get a prediction that was always well below what I had hoped (not necessarily inaccurate just disparaging). Needless to say I stopped asking. After the first aid station we gained the Toll road. The grade was still mostly tolerable but nevertheless almost entirely uphill. It was not far into this stretch that I began to feel a familiar tightness in my calves. I shortened strides and accommodated the legs resistance but not long after felt the twinge of potential cramps yet again. I immediately dropped to a walk to feel things out, kept my stride even shorter and weight as centered over my feet as possible. I was roughly an hour and a half into this race and now began wondering when my calves would just out and out begin cramping as they had on Shut-In. Somehow they never did. Perhaps it was my friend Annette’s NUUN Tablets that kept the electrolytes flowing all day and staved it off. I’m still not exactly sure how I avoided it considering how long the race would eventually take. The other interesting thing was there were people around me taking a similar pace and attack of the course. I’m sure for most of the marathoners, they would translate that into a much more aggressive downhill run, and for challenge runners they had even more uphill to go. But for the most part I found myself with a fairly consistent group of people on the climb. At about two and a half hours in the first marathoners began passing us on their way down. I saw Annette with beaming smiles and was met by all who passed with words of encouragement. As I neared the last couple of miles before the parkway I was able to get back into my short strided shuffle run for more consistent stretches. In the hour leading up to the turn-around I had struck up a conversation with a challenge runner. He asked me where I was from and I mentioned Boone. Turns out he was the husband of the secretary at Amy’s school. Charlie Brady was his name. What a small world. We ended up at the turn-around checkpoint at the same time and I got our picture snapped together by one of the very gracious aid volunteers. He continued on to the challenge while I mercifully was able to turn around and head down already more than half-way done.
The turn-around was colder as the sun ducked behind some clouds. I refilled my camel-back with Nuun and water, grabbed few goodies and gave myself a good 10 minutes of walking recovery back towards the trail. I had made it there in 2 hours and 55 minutes and overheard a few runners commenting on how a sub 5 hour run was still in the cards. I though maybe it was still a possibility for me too and began making all sorts of mental calculations on what it would take to make that happen. I started with a strong 20 minute stretch of running followed by a short 3 minute walk, then probably my strongest 25 minute stretch of running short strided shuffle over the rocky upper toll road. As I eyed my watch and felt the tightness in my legs refusing to go away I felt everything begin to slowly slip away. Or maybe it was just the acceptance of reality, that this was not like an 11 mile run all by itself, the first fifteen were an uncomfortable and unavoidable influence on my current condition. I pin-balled between groups for a while before the walking stretches began getting pretty long. About an hour or so into the descent the mental wheels began to come off. Even though I could rationalize to myself that the more I ran the sooner the overall discomfort that was beginning to saturate every sense would be over. I tried the internal i-pod. What Kind of Cat Are You? Got me through about a mile. On the drive down that morning a random radio station had played Copa Cabana by Barry Manilow and I had joked with Amy that this would more than likely be one of my trail songs and it was. Barry got me through about another mile of rocky wet toll road. But soon even that strategy went by the wayside and I was left with my own thoughts about what in the heck I was doing.
The trail seemed to keep stretching farther and farther in front of me. Finally I made it into the next to last aid station and got the first exact mileage beta of the day besides the turn-around. I knew the heinous downhill was just beyond these tables and then an almost more scary flat 3 miles to the finish. This was the most entertaining aid station. They actually had one of those mini-kegs of what I believe was Heineken tapped out into little Dixie cups. Oh that I had been brave enough but I politely declined their offer grabbed a handful of chex-mix and headed into the downhill. I was still under five hours at this point but was painfully aware that the ship had sailed. The downhill was something I had read about in other runners accounts and had been dreading but I was actually able to let myself go a little on this section and actually run most of it I guess because it required very little effort on my part to put one foot in front of the other. A little over a mile later I hit the final aid station grabbed some potato chips and an orange slice and did my best shuffle run attempt. It didn’t last long of course. I found myself in a group that seemed to be in about the same shape as I was but that didn’t last for long as I soon found myself left to my walking/ occasional shuffle run pace. Soon we were on a nice little trail beside a stream and then it climbed up a small hill-side. I thought that they had to have been joking at this point. Soon enough I was on the road side doing my best to maintain a decent walking pace with an occasional ten step shuffle thrown in every few minutes. I pretty soon just decided to save any running I had left in me for the final lake lap. People were passing me by in a continuous trickle but I really didn’t care. I just wanted to be done. I had found my personal limits a ways back on the course. Coming into that final portion of the run I was actually able to hobble my way around the lake and through the finishing line. The smile on my face in the finishing photo is one of complete relief and is genuine. That shot and the one of Amy and I together were taken by our friend Carrie Kahn who was gracious enough to come all the way from Hickory just to cheer me on. Thanks again Carrie.
But my favorite shot from the bunch is the one with my biggest fan and supporter through this whole adventure, Amy. I know she doesn’t have even a remote desire to do something as silly as this, but that didn’t stop her from supporting me the whole way through to this finish. I lerve you babe. Russ...
P.S. Congrats to Annette Bednosky for winning the women's marathon with a time of 3 hr 54 minutes and my new trail friend Charlie Brady finishing the Mount Mitchell Challenge with a time of 8 hrs and 37 minutes.