Three to four months after the 2005 NYC Marathon, it was time to make the selection for the next event. Having enjoyed the big city atmosphere as well as the fall training schedule, I decided on the Chicago marathon. Event set, I went about maintaining my base training with approximately 100 miles of running each month. The summer months of June through August also saw 150 to 200 miles of road biking each.
In July, I decided to actually register for Chicago. I was a bit amazed when I found the registration closed as I had heard that it was one of the easier large marathons to get into. Regardless, I was on the outside looking in and forced to go back to the drawing board. Scanning the internet for another fall marathon, I came across a trail marathon that had a limited field of 500 participants. It was also on a great weekend as it followed Thanksgiving and preceded the high school wrestling season which Andrew would be participating in. After confirming the date with my running partner Kevin Krause, I registered and locked onto the next target, the Tecumseh Trail Marathon.
This marathon would be in the woods of rural Indiana 10 miles east of the city of Bloomington. My father had been born in Bloomington in 1937. My grandfather sent Grandma there due to the drought and lack of nutritional food in South Dakota. He felt that the baby would have a better chance of survival if Grandma could live with relatives in Indiana the last 3 to 4 months of her pregnancy. So, nearly 70 years later, I would be getting an up close but brief look at his birthplace.
Kevin and I decided on a ten week plan similar to the one I used for NYC the previous year. However, this time we would not be doing the speed work. Instead, we would substitute hills and more hills as the description of the marathon course mentioned 3500 feet in elevation changes. We started the plan in mid-September.
A few weeks into the plan, we participated in the inaugural Betsie Valley Half Marathon starting at Crystal Mountain near Thompsonville, Michigan. There Kevin ran into a long time friend and former high school cross country teammate, Sarah Root. Upon Kevin’s suggestion, Sarah decided to join us in the marathon and weekly Sunday long runs. Our group was now at three. Long time running partners Dean Bott, Jim Carpenter and Craig Owens all entertained the thought of joining us as well but never were able to make the full commitment. Dean and Jim did join in on many of the training runs.
Running trails is far different from running on the pavement. Running is slower and easier on the joints but much tougher on the leg muscles. I guess this is what makes you faster because when we would train on the pavement, you did feel stronger and much quicker. Weekday trail runs took place on a hilly section of the High Rollways hiking trail near Kingsley, Michigan. Our favorite section was a 2.5 mile piece of trail that we would run out and back for a 5 mile workout. Kevin had previously dubbed it the “OH SHIT” trail as it had a long, long uphill that made you take a deep breath before uttering “oh, shit” and grinding your way to the top.
The Sunday long runs involved an approximately 20 mile drive to the Manistee River trails between Hodenpyl and Tippy Dams south of Mesick, Michigan. Fall was a beautiful time to be in the woods and we enjoyed the scenery as much as possible. Trail running with a weak ankle like mine didn’t warrant the opportunity to gaze around too much. To stay upright, it is necessary to watch your every step and thus taking in the scenery involved only an occasional sideways glance. These trails had all kinds of hills which we ran in sun, rain, wind and cold.
On one of the earlier 14 mile training runs on the trail, I hit the wall harder than I had at any other time in my life. It was just Kevin and I that day. I simply couldn’t keep up and let him go on ahead. I walked, shuffled and cussed my way to the truck. All the while, I was wondering what in the heck I had committed to. Gradually, my legs became accustomed to the trails and I would not hit the wall that hard again.
Three weeks prior to our marathon, we completed our last 19 mile run and I was feeling very good. Previously, to save my legs for the long Sunday runs, I would not run on Friday or Saturday. But two weeks out, I decided to “add” a Saturday 5 mile run with Dean because the Sunday run was “only” going to be 15 miles. We ran the 15 near Sarah’s home in Lake City. With about 5 miles to go, I got an ominous tightness in my lower calf/Achilles area of my right leg.
The next day, I had a swollen Achilles tendon and was walking with a limp. The general consensus after discussing it at work with Jim Carpenter and researching on the internet was Achilles tendonitis. Achilles tendonitis is an overuse injury often caused by excessive hill running. Treatment called for rest, ice and ibuprofen. I now had the dilemma of finishing the marathon taper while recovering from an injury my training had caused.
Afraid of having a doctor tell me to forget the marathon, I set about on a course of alternate training. I rested for two days and on the third, I rode my bike on a trainer in the basement. After resting again on Thanksgiving, I ran 5 miles the following day only to have the tightness and swelling appear in the first mile. I then followed with swimming and biking workouts plus more rest before trying to run again on Tuesday. The symptoms remained and I resolved to avoid all running until the marathon on Saturday. I would walk the uphill portions of the run and simply go as far and fast as the Achilles would take me. I had too much time and effort invested to quit now. Also, my annual goal of completing at least one marathon per year was in jeopardy.
The weather in November had been beautiful. We were now scheduled to leave the morning of December 1st and the forecast called for snow. The night before our departure, it looked like we may be able to “escape” Michigan while the storm blew through behind us. That proved to be only wishful thinking as it began to snow at 8 am near Lake City where Kevin and I picked up Sarah. We left Lake City on snow packed roads driving south towards the Michigan/Indiana border. I thought about turning around but kept it to myself, deciding to wait another hour or so. The farther south we went, the better the driving conditions got with snow turning to rain and the rain giving way to a 50 mph wind as we drove across Indiana. Our route covered almost 500 miles and passed by the cities of Mount Pleasant and Lansing in Michigan and Fort Wayne and Indianapolis in Indiana before arriving at our hotel in Bloomington some 10 hours after the snowy start.
While we escaped the storm, Mary was left at home to deal with 15 inches of heavy, wet snow. I got the first indication that I maybe should have stayed behind with her when she called looking for the shear pins to the snow blower. With kids coming and going, she was trying to keep our challenging driveway open and it was a struggle. I gave her the location of the pins and hung up knowing I was spending some serious “brownie” points by not being there. However, she did have two strapping young sons available but I also knew that getting them out to help would be a whole other struggle in itself.
Upon checking into our hotel, we wanted to go to the race registration and get our race numbers. We quickly found out that roads to the registration site which was also the finish line of the race were washed out due to heavy rains the previous day.
While an alternate route was worked out, we went out for the traditional runners’ pre-race pasta meal. Later, with the new route in hand, we would drive through flooded out sections of road to get to the registration site. The roads were hard packed gravel and the water was shallow so while one crossing was quite wide, it was not as treacherous as a flooded creek crossing may sound. We made it there and back without event other than me walking into a gate in the dark while walking back to the car. It hurt my pride more than anything.
Early to bed and early to rise saw us again forging the water crossings and at the finish line more than an hour before the school buses would take us to the start of the point-to-point race. What had been advertised as a 50 minute bus ride somehow ended up being well over an hour for some reason. It doesn’t seem like much until you think about the fact that a school bus is designed for kids and not a 44 year old middle aged body. Finally we did step off the bus to sunshine and temperatures near 25 degrees. Yesterday’s vicious winds were nowhere to be felt as the air was calm and quiet.
The sold out crowd of 500 anxiously awaited a delayed start due to late arriving buses. Kevin met a young gal who was running her first marathon on her birthday which was also the same as his. We talked to a couple from Iowa who were not sure they would make the cut off time but were up for a good day of running and walking nevertheless. A man named Joe had Staten Island written on his shirt and he had the authentic accent to go with it. At approximately 10:30 am, the starter sent us off.
I stayed with Kevin and Sarah for maybe a half mile. With my Achilles telling me that I had a long day ahead, I let them go and set about on my own pace with the occasional prayer that my body would hold together to the finish.
The terrain quickly lived up to the hype as the hills, mud, roots, water, logs and woods of Indiana were featured throughout the day. The hills varied in size but many were long and hard which led to most of the runners at my pace walking on the up and trying to make time on the down. We must have crossed small creeks and streams 20 to 30 times during the 26.2 miles. Early on, I would try to keep my feet dry but as the miles wore on, I found myself simply taking the easiest most direct route often resulting in wet feet. If my feet were not wet, they were muddy. The previous rain combined with the heavy traffic led to some extremely slippery portions of trail.
One of my biggest concerns had been getting lost if I let the leaders out of my sight. This turned out to be a non-factor. The course was very well marked with pink ribbons and/or white paint markings on the trees almost every 200 yards. If you went much farther than that without seeing a ribbon or marker, it was time to turn around. I kept a close eye on them and the mud made for easy tracking of the runners in front.
High up on one ridge, I was feeling pretty good and making decent time with my tender Achilles when I came up on two men one of which was in serious pain. The one in pain was barely moving and looked to have maybe pulled a hamstring or groin. Smugly, I smiled and passed them by while thinking to myself that I was not going to be that guy today and at least there were two athletic looking guys I could beat. Well, about an hour later, they blew my doors off much to my surprise.
Apparently, it had been only a cramp that had passed. “Son-of-a-bitch, how lucky can a guy get”, I thought feeling sorry for myself that my problem wouldn’t vanish so quickly. Lesson learned: The race isn’t over until the finish line is at your back.
Running 20 miles had never been a problem but a marathon is 26.2 miles for a reason and for me the proverbial “wall” comes beyond the 20 miles mark. Worried about hitting the wall as I had during previous marathons and that horrible training run less than two months ago, I had devised a plan that I hoped would prevent a melt down in the last 6 miles. This plan involved my favorite reason for running – eating. I started loading up on carbohydrates on Monday in the form of baked potatoes and pasta for at least one meal every day. I even took along some of my favorite pasta for the ride down taking it into a roadside restaurant while Kevin and Sarah ate off the menu. I added a little fruit to my race morning tradition of mountain dew, banana and bagel with peanut butter. What I had never done before was eat immediately before the start and during the race. Once off the bus, I ate an apple and an orange before the starting gun. On the run, I had another orange, 2 Snickers marathon bars and 2 or 3 cookies at an aid station. Interspersed into this would be 4 carbboom energy gel packs. I washed it all down with the Gatorade I carried in a bottle on my waist belt that I filled a couple times during the day. It was a veritable runner’s banquet and I have to believe it did the trick that day. I never hit the wall and felt great afterwards with minimal leg cramps on the 8 hour drive home. The trade off was that I really didn’t lose any weight during the ordeal but it was well worth it.
Meeting people from all over the country is always a part of a marathon. There was the Iowa couple mentioned previously as well as Kevin’s birthday compatriot. I sat on the bus with a lady from Indiana who was running her first trail marathon. She had come with her sister who was waiting at the end, enjoying a day away from her kids! I ran for a good part of the day with a man from Cincinnati and another from Memphis. We discussed previous runs and Elvis sightings. Last was a lady from Lacrosse, Wisconsin who was with a team of runners that had traveled more than 500 miles through the previous day’s snowstorm. All kinds of shapes, sizes and backgrounds with a common goal – cover the distance.
During a traditional marathon on pavement, you can let your mind wander with thoughts of all kinds. The first date with my wife, ups and downs with kids, problems at work, high school football and life in general all have ran across my mind as I pounded the pavement in past marathons. Off road on the trail, it is very different. Your mind can’t wander far as you are concentrating on the very next step. There are roots, mud, rocks, water and surprises hidden under the fallen leaves that require attention. The thought process becomes simply – step, watch for a trail marker, step, praise the lord you are still upright, step, visit with those around you, step, cuss occasionally, step, and repeat.
Gradually, thousands of steps later, you can hear the finish line crowd and the adrenaline rush you get at that time makes the whole ordeal worth it. Sprinting to the applause of strangers and to fend off anyone who may be behind me, I made it to the finish line after 5 hours and 22 minutes of running, slogging, walking and praying. Some say to take at least an hour off your trail time to determine what you could have done on the pavement. With the hills and conditions of this day, one could easily say it took an extra 90 minutes. I didn’t really care as I had survived once again. I felt sore and stiff but good. My Achilles was still attached and life was great.
I found some water and a snack at the end while meeting up with Kevin who finished 20 minutes ahead of me. Sarah had finished 2nd in her age group and caught a ride back to the hotel an hour before. So, after stripping down to my spandex shorts, I took a cold shower with a bottle of water, toweled off, dressed and jumped in the car for the return trip home.
Slowly as the car ride progressed north, the post race adrenaline and stories of our separate days subsided. Talk drifted to the kids and families waiting for us so many miles to the north. Finally, worn down from the run, we simply shared the driving duties in silence anxious to get home once again. The roads were fine all the way back as the storm had blown through to the eastern part of the country. I arrived home after midnight some 42 hours after I had left. Registration fees aside, I had spent a grand total of $80 plus. Sharing the trip with two others clearly made a financial difference that would help to pay for those shear pins Mary had to use up! This would be a marathon miser’s record to this point in my quest for 50 marathons in 50 states.
After a real shower and a few hours sleep in my own bed, I found my pre-race description of the course while cleaning out my gear bag. I had taken it from a blog written by ultra marathoner Dean Karnazes. He had done the Tecumseh Marathon with a group of 55 runners during his effort to run 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states. Karnaze’s wrote, “Hardcore. That’s the best way to describe today’s marathon. Along with the 3,500 feet of climbing, most of the course was on technical single-track trail, with numerous stream crossings, hordes of logs and branches to climb over and navigate around, deep pockets of mud, slippery rocks, and gnarled tree roots hiding silently under thick canopies of fallen leaves.”
Not able to say anything as Mary would be reminded that I left her waist deep in snow, I simply put my things in the trash and hobbled over to my chair with a smile. “War stories” would have to wait until the next run with the guys even if that was a few weeks off. Marathon #4, a tale of hills, mud and what future re-telling of the tale will relate as a 26.2 mile run with an Achilles tendon “half torn off” was now history. I can see my kids rolling their eyes as I tell the grandkids the story “just one more time”.