Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Back From the Dead

Another year and another Athens-Big Fork Trail Marathon.  2013 would mark my eleventh race and I would be going for my eighth win.  This race has always been one of my favorites since my first run amid downed trees in the aftermath of the 2000 ice storm.  It is a great trail run because it is low-key but also because of its reputation for difficulty.  Reportedly there is 9000 feet of elevation gain in 26.2 miles.  The course climbs 16 "mountains" though they are really just big, steep hills but saying you climbed 16 mountains sounds much cooler. 

These climbs really break the run up mentally and make it much more manageable with the right frame of mind.  I always view it has hill repeats and just count eight on the way out and eight on the way back and the race becomes the fastest 4 1/2 or 5 hours I will spend all year.

I certainly had my concerns about this race going into it.  My sciatic/piriformis has only gotten worse over the last couple of years.  It is sporadic but it seems to come around more often these days.  I also lacked some of the motivation.  I knew it was going to be a hard effort again.  While I hoped that maybe no one out there would try to run it too hard, I suspected there would be a few younger guys that might really push the pace and there were.

As it turns out, there were four of us running hard.  In addition to myself and fellow Potonian Josh Snyder there was Cole Starkey.  Cole I found out is originally from the Philadelphia area and now lives in Tulsa.  He was a presitigious Teach for America teacher at Tulsa Public Schools the past two years after graduating from college at a private school in Pennsylvania.  I know Teach for America is a great program and only recruits the best and brightest so I was impressed with Cole's commitment to teaching in an urban school district.  I know also that Cole is fast so if he was going to race hard, he could definitely keep up.

There was also a mystery man from Denver.  He came all the way for this race having heard of it's notoriety for being one of the toughest and most challenging marathons in the country.  I thought that was pretty neat and I would not be surprised if more like him do not make there way to Athens-Big Fork in future years as it's reputation grows.  We found out that the man from Denver was Christopher Payton and he was a really nice guy to talk to.

Josh let it be known on the first climb that he was going to run hard.  Sometimes in the past we have walked part of this first climb and ease into this run but not today.   My hopes of an easy and relaxing day vanished as I realized that these guys meant business.  As I get older, I really feel less and less inclined to race and more and more inclined to just run and enjoy the scenery.  I struggled to find the motivation as Christopher took over lead duties and he was really setting a strong pace.

At the turnaround, all of four of us were still together.  We hit the turn in about 2:15.  My course record is 4:22 so I felt pretty good it would survive this day because one of us would need to hit a 2:07 on the return trip.  The question then is whether I could survive the day and keep up this pace.

As the four of us hit the trail again, I took over lead duties and per my usual strategy at A-BF, I try to really push the pace hard up that first of eight "mountains" on the return trip.  I always like to nearly max out my heart rate and then just continue to redline it all the way home.  I did begin to pull away from Josh and Christopher but Cole acted like he had just started his engine as I began to enter the red zone.  He is definitely a tough runner and has more potential than I ever did.  Definitely has a high VO2 max.  I suspected then that Cole might run off and leave all of us and I think with more training and experience, he could do just that.

Having been discouraged after that first attempted shake-off, I also began to tighten up.  The sciatic and piriformis began to flare up and my check engine lights were beginning to come on.  I tried to keep things in check as we hit the second and third "mountains" and then into the Blaylock Creek Aid Station.  We had eight and half miles remaining and five big climbs left.  I was really hurting and as I quickly left out of the aid station and began another climb, I new my day was over.

The sciatic was unbearable and I was crashing.  Though Cole kindly said he was just going to run in with me, I insisted that he and Josh go on ahead because I knew my pace had slowed.  So they went on ahead and I just died. 

I watched helplessly as they ran off and left me.  I tried to stay with them for a few minutes but each time I tried to pick the pace up, my legs stiffened, my hamstrings burned and my butt ached.  Let the pity party commence.  "I'm too old for this SH*&!  I don't even care anymore!  I'm hurt!" 

I did begin to let it settle in that for the first time in my last eight races, I was going to lose at Athens-Big Fork.  After all, it had been a great stretch.  Seven victories was awesome and I loved every one of them.  As JFK said, it's time for the torch to pass to a new generation.  I told myself that it's okay that I lost.

NO IT WAS NOT!  I don't know how but somewhere a desire finally burned to not let this happen.  I have to make one final push at them.  And just like that I began to run on my toes trying to alleviate the pain to the sciatic.  I could tell that this was more like my usual pace.  It hurt but it felt strong.  I began to think that if I could keep this pace, then maybe I could reel them in.  As I got to one of my favorite spots, a beautiful pasture with winter green grass that is next to a picturesque creek in one of the many valleys, I spotted the two front runners in the distance.  Cole was some distance behind Josh and so I focused first on him.

Half way up the third to last climb, I caught Cole.  And to think that he has not even been training much!  I said to Cole, "Let's go get him!"  But he was done.  He had not even carried a water bottle and would later tell me that he doesn't run well after 16 plus miles.  I think he could set the CR with more experience.

On I went after Josh but he remained elusive for the remainder of that mountain.  Only two mountains to go.  I needed to catch him soon.  Over half way up the second to last mountain I could really tell he was getting closer to me.  He passed some ladies that were doing the fun run and they encouraged him and then having heard them encourage me a few seconds later I think that's when Josh must have realized that somehow I was that close to him again.

A little further up the "mountain" I over took Josh and then tried to run through the pain and keep a steady pace up the last mountain and all the way back to the Big Fork Community Center.  I had held off the young 'ens for one more year. 

These days, I rarely give such play by play of my races and I hope that you will forgive me for being pretty darn proud of this effort.  It's not often in a trail race that you can be dropped and then come back from the dead.  In fact, I have never done that before and likely will not do it again.

Thanks for Steve Appleton, the Peytons, Brian Hoover and TATUR, and Texarkanna runners, all the HAM Radio operators and so many that make this race so special and unique.  I hope it never loses its quaint charm.


  1. Congratulations! Sounds like a very tough race. Loved reading your race report and the write-up on Endurance Buzz. Way to go!