Derailing a big race

Posted in Uncategorized on September 28, 2014 by Trail Boy

So there I was, running through Mill Race Park in Columbus, Indiana, with a few thousand other people on Saturday morning, just enjoying the early miles of a half-marathon.

Then, about 1.5 miles into the race, we screeched to a stop.

A frickin’ train was blocking the road.

What the hell??!!!

Now what? Under, over or around? (Photo by Columbus Republic)

Up ahead, I saw runners cutting to the right, going off-road onto the grassy area.

I saw others dodging between the train cars, climbing ladders and jumping over the couplings.

The train engineer (in yellow shirt) is not happy, but there’s no stoping a marathon. (Photo by Columbus Republic)

Some people were even crawling under the train, near the wheels, while the train’s warning bell was clanging furiously.

I watched the flurry of activity and decided this race wasn’t worth risking my life or limbs. I certainly wasn’t going to crawl under a train. Or over a train.

But I was pretty sure I could go around the train. And by this time, that’s what most people were doing.

Through the woods and over the tracks. (Photo by Columbus Republic)

Success! (Photo by Columbus Republic)

It wasn’t an easy detour. This was a road race,  but hundreds of runners were bush-whacking through the woods to get around the train.

I followed a stream of runners walking up to the edge of the tracks. Then we turned right and walked on the gravel for 100 yards or so to get around the train.

I stumbled a few times and stepped on a few heels of runners ahead of me. Sorry, runners. I didn’t put this train here.

This was definitely the strangest, most unpredictable twist in a race I’d ever seen. It probably added 30-60 seconds to most runners’ times.

I wondered if this race was cursed. Last year, the lead runners were directed off the marathon course by bike volunteers.

Now this.

What else could go wrong?

AN EARLY DAY

The day started off bright and early. I got up at 4 a.m., a half-hour before my alarm went off. I was rested and excited.

This would be my Day of Testing.

After nearly five years of suffering from a sore iliotibial band in my right leg, I was finally running a long race again.

I had been training for four months, pushing my injured leg to the limits with long runs, hill repeats and even a little speedwork at the track.

For months, I wondered: Could I still run fast? And far?

Sure, I had plenty of long races in my past: 10 marathons, 16 half-marathons, a brutal 50K trail race, and lots of short races and relays.

But that was in my past.

I was sick of moaning about my bad luck and my injured leg. I had wasted more than four years complaining and feeling sorry for myself. I had gained weight and gotten grumpy.

I missed the workouts, the races, the endorphins — the joy of running.

In the spring, I said I was going to get back into action, injury or no injury. I would train smart and hard, nurse my leg back to relative health, and run a fall half-marathon. No matter what.

I spent two months rebuilding my base. I did intensive stretching. I threw in lots of bike rides and trail hiking.

Then I did long runs of 10, 12, 13 and 15 miles. I ran a 15K trail race in 85 degrees. I ran a 10-mile leg of a 100-mile trail relay in the middle of the night.

Gradually, I built strength. And distance. And confidence.

Now it was race day. I would know if I could cover 13.1 miles at a respectable pace.

My goal was simple: get to the finish line without dying. And do it under two hours.

A work buddy, Stephen, had spent a few Saturday mornings with me this summer, doing long runs. I talked him into running the race with me.

Last week, he finally signed up. I was happy. It’s always fun to run a race with a training partner.

At 5:15 a.m. Saturday, Stephen pulled into my driveway. We would travel the 70 miles together to the race. About the way there, we were gabbing so much we missed a turnoff. Would that be a bad sign?

GETTING TO THE START

Stephen is 15 years younger than me, and plenty fast. I’ve run marathons faster than him. But for some reason, he is a speedy at the half-marathon. He runs them in about 1:30.

My fastest time for a half-marathon is 1:38 (for an average pace of  7:28 a mile), but that was 10 years ago.

Stephen wasn’t planning on running a fall race and hasn’t been training super-hard this summer. So he set a modest goal (for him) of 1:45.

We parked the car, got our packets, checked our gear and made our way to the starting area.

I took a quick photo, but it was still a little dark, and the camera got a fuzzy picture:

photo (52)

Stephen in green. Me in orange.

At the starting line, fast Stephen got into Corral A. Slow Trail Boy got into Corral B.

A TV helicopter buzzed in circles overhead. The countdown began. The horn went off. Corral A runners took off.

My corral then stepped up to the starting line, and about a minute later, the horn went off again. We crossed the mat. I started my watch.

Up ahead, I could see the Corral A runners turning a corner.

I had no desire to catch them. This would be a long morning. I was going to run my own race.

We ran a few blocks and turned a corner, and soon found ourselves entering a quiet, shaded park called Mill Race Park.

We ran along a pretty road, under the trees and through a covered bridge. This looked like it was going to be a quaint, charming day.

“STOP THOSE RUNNERS”

A minute or two later, we approached the first mile marker. I knew that to finish under two hours, I would have to run a 9:09 pace or faster.

I passed the marker and hit my lap button. 8:39. Lots of energy and bounce. The morning was nice and cool.

Then I heard it up ahead: a train horn. And not a friendly little toot, but a long, angry blast. It lasted for at least 30 seconds.

Then I saw it. The train blocking the road.

Why it was there, I had no idea. But I knew I needed to get past it.

The engineer was walking up and down the track, alongside the train, yelling at runners to get away and quit climbing the ladders. As I ran around the train, I heard a cop shouting: “Stop those runners for a minute so we can get this train through!”

Lots of luck, I thought. We’ve been training for months. This is a big race. The train can wait.

Eventually, we all got over, under or around the train, and kept pushing down the road.

So what happened?

Well, it’s a strange story. A few hours later, I would visit the website of the local paper, the Columbus Republic and find out it was a stupid mix-up, apparently not the fault of the race organizers.

According to the story, the city and race officials had been in touch with the railroad for weeks to alert them to the race, and had been been repeatedly assured that trains would avoid the race course all morning.

But of course, that didn’t happen. A young railroad supervisor took it upon himself to send a short train through the intersection. He thought the train could beat the lead runners through the intersection.

He was wrong.

Later, I found a couple of videos later that captured the scene.

First, check out this one, of the train pulling across the road. Runners are racing to beat it at the crossing:

Then watch this video, which shows the stopped train blocking the crossing, and runners scrambled over, under and around:

https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152359703652045

You can see Stephen at 0:07, scampering over a coupling.

SUN IN THE FACE

The next few miles were a blur. Part of it was because I was still thinking about the train. Part of it was because I had never run this race before, and had only been to this town a few times, and didn’t really know where we were going.

This was definitely not a home-court advantage. I followed the runners ahead of me, stopping at the water tables, turning corners when they turned. We crossed a few bridges, circled back into downtown and trotted down a few scenic side streets. My mile splits were all roughly between 8:30 and 8:45.

In the old days, that would be as slow as molasses. But I was happy with it today. Even the second mile, with the trail delay, had taken me only 8:42.

Soon, the course got a little less scenic. We ran past warehouses, factories and closed shops. It was a dead zone with long sight lines and not much scenery.

Then we ran two miles down a four-lane highway, with no shade, the sun in our faces. It started getting hot.

The weather forecast was calling for a high of 80 degrees today. My goal was to get to the finish line before the sun rose very high.

I passed the seven-mile mark (which I counted as my unofficial halfway point) at almost exactly an hour. It was time to push a little harder.

We ran on, with some slight hills and lots of twists and turns. We ran past a cemetery, houses in various states of repair, some busy streets, some quiet back roads.

My splits remained steady at about 8:40 per mile.

At 9.5 miles, the full-marathon course turned right for a wide, sweeping loop to the east and north. I felt glad I would not be doing that today. I was starting to feel the miles in my legs. I was also running out of gas. The banana and cup of coffee I had eaten four hours ago had worn off long ago.

I was glad I was going just 13.1 miles today. At the split-off, I ran straight ahead, with other other half-marathoners, then turned left a few blocks later.

“YOU CAN DO THIS”

We ran west, then north. For about a half-mile, I ran alongside two women. One was encouraging the other to stay strong. “Keep your head up. Just two more miles Tell yourself you can do this.”

I was telling myself the same thing. Every few minutes, I looked at my watch and doing frantic calculations. At mile 11, my watch said I had been running an hour and thirty-five minutes.

I thought to myself, if I can ramp up the pace just a little bit, and take the next two miles at an 8-minute pace or better, I might be able to beat 1:50 (my stretch goal).

Unfortunately, my legs didn’t respond to the challenge. I pushed as hard as I could, but still ran at an 8:40 to 8:50 pace. If anything, I was slowing down.

I didn’t beat myself up too hard. This is what I get when I don’t do a lot of tempo runs or 800-meter repeats, I thought to myself. Next time, I will push harder on my training. Next time, I will have the right stuff — maybe the old stuff I used to have.

But it was still pretty good. If I could just hold a sub-9 minute pace, I would easily beat a two-hour finish.

I turned the final corner. About a quarter-mile away, I could see the finish line and hear the loudspeakers.

I dug it out and pushed as hard as my old, crippled legs could carry me.

I crossed the finish line and looked at my watch. 1:53:18, for an average pace of 8:39.

I did it. I beat my goal by more than six minutes. I was a distance runner again.

DIESEL ENGINES, BIG AND SMALL

A volunteer gave me a medal. Another snipped the timing chip from my shoe. Someone else gave me a bottle of water.

I walked through the finish area and spotted Stephen. He said he had finished in 1:45. “We both hit our goals,” he said. We toasted each other with bottles of water.

Then we took a quick photo.

The medals were cool. They had an engraving of a Cummins diesel engine. Cummins, based in Columbus, was the major sponsor of the race.

We cooled down for a bit, then went back to retrieve our gear and change out of sweaty clothes. Then we said our goodbyes.

Mrs. Trail Boy was coming down shortly to meet me. When she arrived, we walked around the sidewalk parties and took in the sights.

Then we walked down the road to the Cummins headquarters to see real diesel engines on display. It was impressive.

Then we swung over to Bloomington, about 45 minutes away, to see our son, a freshman at Indiana University. It was great to catch up.

Finally, back home, after a long, joyful day.

It was the end of a long season of planning, training, and racing. And then a few adventures involving a train, the sun and tired legs.

Now it was time to rest.

I had an adventure with 13.1 miles. And a train. But my race hadn’t been derailed after all.

At last, time to run another half marathon

Posted in Uncategorized on September 22, 2014 by Trail Boy
photo (48)

These medals from my half marathons bring back memories — some good, some bad.

Like most distance runners, I like looking at my race medals every once in a while. They bring back memories of fun, pain, anguish, triumph and a hundred other memories.

Lately, I’ve been taking a gander at the medals for my half marathons. It’s a race distance I’ve been thinking about lately.  I’ve run 16 half marathons. At seven of the races, they handed out medals to finishers.

But it’s been a while since I’ve run a half marathon or added to this collection.

That’s about to change.

On Saturday, I will line up at the start of a half marathon for the first time in five years.

I will take a deep breath, and when the gun fires, I will start running with a big question on my mind: Can an old guy with a leg injury still cover the distance? If so, how fast?

Since I blew out my IT band in the summer of 2010, I haven’t raced much at all: a 5K here, a 5M there. All my races were as slow as molasses.

But for the past four months, I have been training faithfully, with the goal of running a half marathon again this fall. I’m all signed up for the Mill Race Marathon in Columbus, Ind., which looks like a fun, scenic, small-town event, now in its second year.

In the past few months, I’ve done long runs of 8, 10, 12, 13 and 15 miles. I’m confident I can cover the distance.

But how long will it take? I haven’t done much speedwork; I’ve been to the track a few times, and have only done a couple of tempo runs. So I’m not expecting to set any speed records.

I’ve been wondering what goals I should set for the Mill Race Half Marathon on Saturday. And here’s what I came up with:

C goal: Finish (without hurting myself).

B goal: Finish under two hours.

A goal: Finish under 1:50.

Why under 1:50? Because of the 12 half marathons I’ve run on roads, I finished all but one under 1:50. My first one took me just a few seconds over two hours. All the rest were 1:49 or below. My PR was 1:38:25. And of course, there was my one and only DNF, but the less said about that, the better.

Here are my finish times over the years:

1) River Run. Berea to Rocky River, Ohio, 2002. Time: 2:00:10

2) Fall Classic. Strongsville, Ohio, 2002. Time: 1:49:05.

3) Spring Classic. Strongsville, Ohio, 2003. Time: 1:42:03

4) River Run. Berea to Rocky River, Ohio, 2003. Time: 1:39:08

5) Fall Classic. Strongsville, Ohio, 2003. Time: 1:45:34.

6) River Run. Berea to Rocky River, Ohio, 2004. Time: 1:38:36.

7) Spring Classic. Strongsville, Ohio. 2005. Time: 1:38:25. (PR)

8) Erie at Presque Isle. Erie, Pa, 2005. Time: DNF.

9) Indy Mini. Indianapolis, 2006. Time: 1:45:10.

10) Lawrence Mini. Indianapolis, 2006. Time: 1:46:29.

11) Indiana University Mini. Indianapolis, 2007. Time: 1:44:26.

12) Lawrence Mini. Indianapolis, 2008. Time: 1:45:10.

Of the 11 races above that I finished, my average time was 1:44:56.

Like I said, only one half marathon took me more than two hours. I really don’t want this to be my second one. So that’s my real goal. Finish 1:59 or better. Even if I have to drag my bum leg behind me for the last five miles.

Stay tuned!

 

Loving that 100-mile relay, long wait and all

Posted in Uncategorized on August 10, 2014 by Trail Boy

I knew I was in for a long, long day. That’s the nature of relay racing. And the longer the race, the longer the wait.

This was the longest relay race I’d ever taken part in: a 100-mile trail race through three park systems in Northeast Ohio. I was running the last leg of the Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Race and Relay on an eight-person team.

My leg would be about 10 miles, and most likely in the dark, through deep woods, on towpath, roads and hiking trails.

I woke up 7 a.m. Saturday and went to a coffee shop for breakfast. I texted the other team members: “Kind of strange to be sitting at Brueggers in the Merriman Valley, sipping coffee, reading the paper, trying not to get too antsy. I’m not on deck for 12+ hours.”

Tracy, our team captain who would run the seventh leg (and hand off to me) responded: “I feel the same way!”

Little did I know it would have to wait another fifteen hours before I would actually hit the trails.

But I was not complaining. This was going to be a wonderful day. For the first time ever, I would watch the crazy, extreme, wild and wooly world of 100-mile trail running.

Nearly 300 brave souls would be running the entire distance as a solo endurance event, starting at 5 a.m. on Saturday and running through sundown and another sunrise before the finish line closed at 11 a.m Sunday.

The solo runners were there for guts and glory and survival. The relay runners (some 30 teams of two, four or eight runners) were there for fun and a chance to cheer on the full-distance runners. We would run along the same trails at the same time.

The icing on the cake: the race was taking place on my beloved trails in the Northeast Ohio, which was my playground a decade ago, before I moved to Indianapolis. During my eight years in Akron, I logged thousands of miles on these trails and made wonderful running friends.

cv-sign

One of my favorite sights, anywhere.

map

An overview of the 100-mile race course. My job was run the last 10 miles on the southernmost section.

After breakfast, I decided to head up to my old neighborhood near Forest Lodge Park. I parked the car and spent an hour hiking the streets. Most of the houses were still very well kept up and the streets were still very pretty and inviting, although I was surprised how many had For Sale signs in the yard.

During this time, I thought about our first runners, who were out on the course. I looked forward to my run, and tried not to worry about letting the team down. A dozen bad things could happen. My IT band could flare up at the worst possible time. My car could break down. I could trip over something in the dark during my run and hit my head on a rock. I could take four hours to run 10 miles.

Plus, I had never run with anyone else on my team, and they had never run with me. I met the team captain on the message board a couple months ago and more or less begged to join. She took me on and I was grateful.

For the weekend, we would all be depending on each other, yet some of us hardly knew each other. Some of us were friends. Some of us were strangers. And that is what we decided to name the team: Burning River Friends and Strangers.

Now, finally, it was race weekend. We were all together for a long, wacky day. But I was pretty sure we would have a good outcome, with lots of fun along the way.

And in addition to our own relay, a big part of the fun would be watch the full-distance runners.

I’ve never run 100 miles and probably never will. I’m 55, a midpacker, and am trying to come back from a leg injury. I am way past my running peak, if I ever had one. My longest race was a 50K, and that was five years ago. I’ve run 10 marathons, but the thought of running 100 miles — basically four marathons in a row — is breathtaking, to say the least.

Still, I’ve been fascinated by these extreme distances for years and years. And finally, this weekend, I could watch from the sidelines for a bit.

I wrapped up my neighborhood hike and drove around a few old favorite places: Highland Square, downtown Akron, a few west side parks.

Then, fearful I was overdoing it on my legs, I returned to the house where I was staying. (I was a guest of old friends who were on vacation and kindly opened their doors to me. Their house was located near Merriman Road and Memorial Parkway, just a few minutes from the race course.)

I passed a few hours by playing the piano. My hosts had had lots of fun sheet music. I played it all very badly and had a great time.

I also did push-ups and knee-bends and lots of leg stretches. And every 10 minutes or so, I would check Facebook or my phone for updates.

By this time, we got confirmation that our first three runners were done and our fourth had started out. I didn’t know the northern part of the course at all, and couldn’t picture where Bryan, Jason and Cory were running.

At about 2 p.m., I saw through the windows that the sky was beginning to darken and winds were picking up. Then it began to rain heavily for about an hour. I checked our schedule and saw that Carrie, our fourth runner, was probably in the middle of her 15-mile leg, a winding series of loops and connectors from Oak Grove to Boston Store. I hoped she wasn’t getting soaked.

At about 3 p.m., I stretched out on the couch, put down my phone and closed my eyes, and tried to get a little rest. I knew I would be up late, and didn’t want to be wiped out.

I didn’t actually fall asleep, but I spent a nice 30 minutes or so getting calm. The breeze through the back windows felt good.

Then I heard my phone ding again, and sat up and checked it. Carrie said she had finished her leg and handed off to Jeanine at Boston Store. She would later tell me she had not gotten wet after all, as she was deep in the woods.

About this time, it dawned on me that if I wanted to see the 100-milers in all their glory and cheer them on, I should head out to an aid station somewhere in the middle of the course.

I drove to Pine Hollow and spent about an hour watching the runners come through. Most seemed to be holding up strong, at least the ones I saw. They stopped for only a couple of minutes, sometimes to change socks and grab something to eat. I waved as they came by and wished them the best.

Over the next few hours, I kept tabs on the chatter, and noticed that Jeanine had handed off to Marta, our sixth runner, at the Ledges.

Finally, at about 7 p.m., I changed into my running stuff and pinned my number to my shirt. Then I drove out to Freshway market in the valley to buy a few sandwiches and soft drinks for dinner. From there, I headed out to Botzum Trailhead aid station, where I was due to report as a volunteer for the 8 p.m. to midnight shift.

When I arrived, I met the aid station captain, a woman named Anastasia. She had no frills or airs about her, a real workhorse with a big heart. She and a few others had already set up two tents, chairs, drop-bag area, lights and food.

I really didn’t have a whole lot to do. It was still very early in the race. I chatted with Anastasia and learned she had volunteered at this race since it was established eight years ago. She had staffed aid stations at the Covered Bridge and Pine Hollow. One year, she even led the runners out from the starting line or her bicycle.

This was Anastasia’s first year as an aid-station captain. In the ultra world, I guess that’s something of an honor, overseeing all the planning and logistics and supervising a dozen or so volunteers. Aid stations also have friendly competitions as to which will be the most creatively decorated. Ours didn’t appear to have a theme, but everything was set up and brightly illuminated and open for business.

During this time, the early relay runners came through. The runners stopped quickly for a drink, and dashed out again. I actually missed the first eight-man relay team that went through, the Master Blasters, led by Jim Chaney, who ran the first leg and spent the rest of the day chauffeuring his team around.

After about an hour or so, the first solo runner came through. We all gave him a big cheer. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and very nice to all the volunteers, asking politely for food and water, and not looking the least bit tired after 91 miles.

His pacer, a young, fit girl with extremely hard abs, stocked up his fanny pack with gels and other supplies. His crew helper, who had been waiting for him in a lawn chair, gave him a drink and salt tablets. Then in two minutes, he was gone. He would go on to win the race by a wide margin, with a time of 17 hours and something.

There were about six volunteers at the aid station at this time, with all kinds of duties, from checking in runners to serving food to pulling drop bags to tending sore feet. But this early in the race, we had very little to do. Everything was set up and ready. We were just waiting for the runners to show up.

Anastasia said most of them would probably arrive hours from now, some even after sunrise. The cutoff time at this aid station was about 8 a.m. for solos and relay runners alike. Then they had three hours to get to the finish line, 10 miles away.

But now, most of them were still miles north of us, navigating God-knows-what trails deep in the valley.

“They’re out there,” Anastasia said. “They’re heading our way, like a freight train.”

We hung glow sticks in the trees for a few hundred feet leading up to our aid station, so runners could see the approach in the dark.

Every 15 minutes or so, we would see the beam of a headlamp bouncing up the trail, heading our way. We would all stand up and applaud and cheer like crazy. When they got into clearing, we would write down their number, get them refreshments, wish them well, and send them off again.

Then we all sat back down and waited for the next runner. Sometimes we had 15-20 minutes of dead time. In the meantime, someone started a generator so Anastasia could cook noodles for anyone needing a warm pick-me-up. Up at the Covered Bridge aid station, a few miles upstream, I heard they were handing out grilled cheese sandwiches.

At 9:15 p.m., Marta (our sixth runner), texted me to say she had finished up and Tracy had taken the handoff, and I should plan accordingly. Tracy had predicted about three hours to cover her 15 miles, so I knew I was in for a wait – probably until midnight or so.

At about 10 p.m., Jeanine (our fifth runner) showed up to say hi. She was cleaned up and changed into comfortable clothes. She said she had enjoyed her 12-mile run from Boston Store to the Ledges and wanted to greet Tracy when she came in.

At midnight, some of the aid-station volunteers were done with their four-hour shift and said goodbye. A few new ones trickled in. Anastasia was staying for the duration, from set-up to break-down, probably about 16 hours. “You do what you have to do,” she said with a laugh. I guessed that the race organizers loved volunteers like Anastasia, who got paid nothing, but loved spending a whole weekend in the woods helping out.

I looked at my watch and waited for Tracy, and hoped the rain hadn’t made the hills too muddy on her leg. In meantime, I stayed fueled with a banana, a ClifBar and some Heed energy drink.

At 12:30, I started yawning. “Oh no, you can’t do that,” Anastasia said. “You’d better get some caffeine.” I chuckled but declined.

About this time, I saw a familiar face. It was Darris Blackford, an old journalism friend from Ohio, now an ultrarunner and race director of the Columbus Marathon. He was sitting by the side of the trail, tending to his wife, Star, a runner who had arrived a few minutes before. Darris and Star were running as a two-person relay team. Darris had run the first half and Star was running the second half.

“Hi Darris. Are you guys hanging in there? Do you need anything?” I asked. But they had everything under control, and Darris was being extremely attentive to Star, trying to see how she felt. (Both are extremely strong ultrarunners, and have done multiple 100-mile solos.)

I went back to my chair and said to another volunteer: “Do you know who that is? It’s Darris Blackford. He’s an ultrarunner.”

As soon as I said it, I knew how stupid it sounded. At that moment, the woods  were crawling with ultrarunners. This was a Woodstock of ultrarunning. What was the big deal about one more ultrarunner?

I chuckled to myself and thought it would make a funny story later, when I told Mrs. Trail Boy. (She thinks all ultrarunners are as nutty as fruitcakes, but she loves to take hikes, and tolerates my trail running with good humor.)

dscf0279

Mrs. Trail Boy and me, somewhere in the woods a few years ago.

Finally, at 1:15 a.m., Tracy came trotting in, covered with sweat and muddy legs. Now, it was my time to go!

I pulled off my volunteer shirt, revealing my tech tee and bib underneath. I asked Jeanine to take my gym bag, with dry clothes and sandals, to the finish line.

Then I snapped on my headlamp and trotted down the trailhead by the edge of the parking lot. I crossed Riverview Road, and began my 10-mile leg. Hopefully, I would survive the dark woods and make it in one piece to the finish line.

The weather was beautiful, mid-60s, clear sky with a big moon. The trail was mostly dark, and I knew I was in for an adventure.

I remembered what an old running friend had often told me: Just enjoy the experience and run your own race. I smiled and promised myself I would.

I pushed along at a 9-minute pace, careful not to go too fast. There was no rush. Our time all agreed this was just for fun, and no one was going to be clock-watching. Well, not much, anyway.

My unofficial goal was to finish under two hours, which sounded reasonable for 10 miles of trail. But wild card would be the darkness and the weather. I would have to stay flexible.

Still, a goal of two hours meant I should arrive at the Memorial Parkway aid station (about five miles away) in under an hour and then to the finish line 50-60 minutes after that.

The trail was surprisingly empty. I passed one or two relay runners and a couple of solo runners in the first half-hour. But for the most part, I was completely alone in the night woods. I could see little else than my light beam on the trail ahead of me, and black shadows all around me.

I was surprised how fun it was to run alone in the dark. Every once in a while I would see a familiar outline of a fence or a stone wall, or the moon sparkling off the river. I splashed through rain puddles and enjoyed the night air.

I heard lots of nocturnal wildlife noises: crickets and frogs and maybe even an owl. I’m not an expert in animal sounds or the woods. But it was very fun and pleasing and made me feel happy all the way down to my damp Mizuno running shoes.

After 20 minutes or so, I trotted up a mild slope behind Brueggers and came out to a short stretch of asphalt through the retail district along Merriman Road. This part felt weird, running with a headlamp down an asphalt trail near the road in the wee hours of the night, as cars and a few pedestrians went by.

As I swung down behind the Parkwood Plaza on Portage Path, I saw some teenagers on skateboards in the bank parking lot. One looked at me: “What is this guy doing, running here,” he asked in a loud voice. “I know! It’s crazy!” his friend said.

I waved and kept going. Near the back of the Merriman car wash, I came upon a vagrant (I think) sitting on a fence, with a pack of stuff at his feet. I slowed down to see if he was OK. “Keep running!” he ordered. I did so and tried to hide a smile.

I swung under the bridge, up the other side of Portage Path and then took a left back into the woods on the towpath near the Big Indian statue.

Within a minute or two, civilization was behind me again. It got very dark and quiet. I embraced the solitude, trotting along. This used to one of my favorite stretches of the towpath, especially in the late spring, with lots of flowering trees, with a slightly European countryside look.

But now it was too dark to see anything except for the reflective course markings (little flags) every hundred feet or so, and the bouncing beam of my headlamp on the trail, and a few rain puddles.

I ran past the Big Bend driveway, over the boardwalk and over to the lookout. During this stretch, I heard the chirping of thousands of frogs in the marshes. It was amazing.

I was feeling strong, and keep a steady trot, making the turn up along stretch to Memorial Parkway. I recognized a few more landmarks, including the hot, open field I used to call “Death Valley” (now nice and cool in the dark).

Soon, I saw a set of lights set low alongside the trail. I could hear voices a few hundred feet up the trail, shouting “runner!” and clapping, just as our volunteer team had done at Botzum.

As I approached the Memorial Parkway aid station, the volunteers were going nuts, screaming and cheering and clapping.

“I’m just a relay runner,” I tried to explain. “I’ve only run five miles! Save your cheers for the real heroes.”

But they didn’t seem to care. Apparently, I was as awesome as someone who had started at 5 a.m. with the full-distance crowd and had covered 95 miles. “Way to go!!” one volunteer said.

I grabbed a cup of Coke from the aid table and gulped it down. Then I sent a text message to my team, telling them I had hit the halfway mark. I got a response from Marta: “Awesome, John! We are here [at the finish line] waiting for you.”

I glanced at my watch and saw I had run for 51 minutes. So I had met my first goal: to get to Memorial in under an hour.

I left the food table and trotted over to the outhouse to tend to nature; in 60 seconds I was back outside, where I nearly ran into Darris Blackford, who somehow had managed to get over to this aid station from Botzum (in a car, doubtlessly) and was again waiting for Star.

“I didn’t know you were running too!” Darris exclaimed.

“Just 10 miles. But I’m having a blast,” I said, and hurried off, up the side of the hill to the road. Then I began a one-mile paved section, including a steep climb up Ulher Drive, a brick road.

No one was in sight behind me. But at the top, ahead of me, I saw two people walking slowly. I continued trotting toward them. I noticed they were runners, with Burning River bibs and headlamps. Apparently these two were a solo 100-miler and his pacer. They didn’t look all that tired, chattering back and forth, but they didn’t seem interested in running either. I said hi and kept going. I never saw them again.

I ran downhill for a few blocks and made the right turn into the Chuckery area of the Cascade Valley Park. The course was all very well marked. I had no trouble figuring out where to go.

But from here, I knew I would be facing the unfamiliar. I had never run this section of the Chuckery Trail, which the race director just added/changed in a few days ago.

I slowed down a bit and made myself think of one goal: Stay upright, get through the woods and make it to Front Street, about three miles away, in one piece.

I turned right onto the trail immediately saw a monster hill towering above me. At least, that’s what it looked like in the dark. I pointed my headlamp as high as I could, but I couldn’t see the top, just a line of reflective flags that went up, up, up and out of view.

I took a deep breath and began a slow trot upward. About 30 seconds later, I still couldn’t see the top through the gloom, and I could feel my heart speeding up. I decided to play it safe (or wimp out, not sure which is more accurate) and downgrade to a brisk hike.

Up I went. The trail turned a corner, and I could finally see the top, in the distance. I keep climbing.

Finally, at the top, I took a 30-second breather and checked my watch. I was still doing fine. Then I began running again. The next 15-20 minutes would be the most fun and exhilarating of the whole run. The trail surface was unremarkable (a weedy, overgrown Jeep road), but it was a very cool experience to run in the dark on an unfamiliar path.

The trail turned here and there in the dark, in and out of the woods, up a few stairs, down a slight hill and around a corner. I could only follow it with blind faith.

A few minutes later, I began to hear the faint sounds of a waterfall. I remembered that I was running toward the hydraulic dam on the Cuyahoga River below, and sure enough, with every passing minute, the sound got louder.

I tried to peer over the left side of the trail to see the waterfall somewhere below, but it way too dark to see farther than a foot or two into the woods. But what I did see gave me a small shiver: a steep hillside, with no fence or rail.

I had no idea how steep the embankment was, or how far down it was to the bottom. But I vowed to stay on the far right side of the trail, away from the hillside, even if it meant running through puddles and tall grass.

Eventually, I came to a long, wooden staircase. I knew what was ahead. I was back on familiar ground. This staircase, I knew, had 155 steps. I had counted them last month, when I ran part of this trail during a familiarization run.

Halfway up the stairs, I stopped for a moment to text my team, letting them know where I was, and that I was about three-quarters of the way done.

“You got it, John,” Jason texted back. “Bring it home!!!”

The stairs were not that bad. But I felt terrible for the full-distance 100-milers. I was sure that many of them would be dead on their feet by the time they hit these steps (roughly at mile 98) and would have to limp up, slowly and painfully.

A few moments later, I got to the top. I turned left, and immediately saw one of the biggest landmarks of this stretch of trail, the massive Main Street bridge over the trail. I looked up at this impressive piece of engineering, shining by the light of the moon. Yet it was too dark to take a picture, or I might have been tempted to do so.

It was strange to be alone in the middle of the dark woods, not another soul anywhere in sight. Crickets were chirping and the stars twinkled above. It was a solitary, nearly religious experience. Yet, at the finish line, people were waiting for me, and a clock was ticking. I almost had to remind myself I was in a race.

A few hundred feet down the trail, to the left, I saw two rangers (or officers of some kind). “You’re almost there,” one said. I mumbled my thanks, and stopped myself from saying that I knew I had at least two more miles, including a long road climb, and that I wasn’t really close at all.

I trotted down the trail, following a row of high-powered electricity towers that seemed to be every few hundred feet. This section of trail was a little longer than I expected. Several times, I thought I was almost to the road, but it seemed to never appear.

In the meantime, the sound of the waterfall was nearly deafening, compared to the silence of the night I was used to hearing.

Finally, I hit the road and turned left. I was now on the home stretch.

I ran along a sidewalk up a half-mile hill. I could still see no one ahead or behind me; I hadn’t seen another runner in about 20 or 30 minutes, since the brick road before this trail started.

I passed lots of nondescript buildings and parking lots. I kept going, kept going, and finally, in the distance, saw the glowing red sign of the Sheraton Suites hotel, which I knew was just a block from the finish line.

“Time to up the pace and finish strong,” I thought to myself. I shifted into third gear and tore for the finish line.

In the distance, I could hear cheering. “Runner!” people were shouting, just like at Memorial Parkway, as they got a glimpse of my headlamp beam bouncing nearer and nearer.

When I got to within a block or so, I saw a volunteer walk out into the road and prepare to block traffic and let me through. I wasn’t sure that was necessary. There was only one car coming and I could definitely wait five seconds for it to pass. But the volunteer stood in the middle of the road and held both hands up. The driver didn’t like it and laid down a mean blast from his horn. I stopped for a minute, let the car by, and then ran another 50 feet to the finish line.

My team was there waiting for me – all of them except for Cory, who had run the third leg.

I was greeted by the other six runners. Jason gave me a warm handshake. Bryan, who had started the race as the first leg of the relay 20 hours earlier, clapped me on the back.

“Wow, Bryan, you’ve had a long day,” was all I could think to say.

“That’s OK,” he answered. “I went home and had some rest.”

Marta came over to me with a paper cup filled with beer. I asked her what kind it was. “Great Lakes Burning River, of course!” she said with a smile. And it was delicious.

We stood around, got our relay medals, and posed while someone took a few group photo. Then I changed out of my sweaty shirt and muddy shoes. (Jeanine had made good on her promise to get my gym bag to the finish line.)

It was a few minutes after 3 a.m., and we were all smiles. I looked at my watch. I had run my 10-mile leg in an hour and 49 minutes, beating my goal by 11 minutes. I hadn’t let anyone down.

We were all a bit tired, but happy, and in the case of the later runners, endorphined to one degree or another.

We spent a half-hour trading war stories.

Jason and I had a nice talk. He had grown up in Cuyahoga Falls, not that far from the Chuckery area. Back then, it wasn’t a park at all. It was private property, apparently owned by the electric company near the dam. But Jason and his friends used to hike and play on the trails and hillsides all the time. He said he still ran those trails every few weeks.

As we talked, other runners were coming in – a few solo runners, but mostly relay runners. I saw Star Blackford crossing the finish line, with Darris running alongside her. We clapped for them.

I also wandered over to say hi to Vince Rucci, a partner at Vertical Runner, who was manning the finish line. He looked tired, having been up before dawn, and presumably had many hours ahead of him yet. But he was friendly, as always, and it was good to catch up. I asked him why my leg of the course had been changed at the last minute, and he said it was to steer runners away from a long climb on slippery stone steps.

After another 15 or 20 minutes, the team and I agreed it was time to call it a day. Marta kindly offered me a ride back to Botzum to get my car and my lawn chair.

I thanked her and made the 15-minute drive back to the valley. Once there, I walked over to the aid station to get my volunteer stuff. “Looks who’s back,” said a couple of other volunteers. I grinned and flashed my medal.

Then I packed up the car and drove 15 minutes back to the house, pulled off my shoes and lay back on the couch. I could feel myself drifting to sleep, so I dragged myself upstairs, cleaned and fell into bed.

I sent Mrs. Trail Boy a short message about the race, letting her know it was over and successful. It was now about 4:30 a.m., and I fell asleep within minutes.

When I woke up at 9 a.m., most of the solo runners would still be pushing and stumbling their way to the finish. The lucky ones, that is. About half of the field would eventually drop out. The others would go through the worst agony imaginable: severe blisters, chafing, gastrointestinal distress, pulled muscles, vomiting, etc.

I know that because I would spend the rest of the next day and a half reading messages on Facebook and the race message board from runners and crew members, posting all the gory details.

I read it all with a strange fascination. I wondered if all the agony was worth the medal and the war stories. To a few hundred people, I guessed it was.

I didn’t run a 100-mile race. But I got a little taste of it and loved it.

And our team was no longer Friends and Strangers. I hoped we were now all friends.

Our team (from left to right): Bryan, me, Marta, Jason, Tracy, Jeanine, Carrie. (Cory didn't show up at the finish line.)

Our team (from left to right): Bryan, me, Marta, Jason, Tracy, Jeanine, Carrie. (Cory missed the group photo.)

2014: half-year review.

Posted in Uncategorized on July 3, 2014 by Trail Boy

So….happy July. The year is half over. It’s time to take a quick assessment and make adjustments as needed. What’s good, not so good, lousy. Let’s go!

The good:

* I’m running regularly again, typically five days a week. I’m focusing on my goals (fall races, staying healthy, having fun) with a good mix of easy runs, hill work, tempo runs and long runs.

* I joined a weekend running group (Indiana Trail Running) and have run with them a half-dozen times, usually at Fort Ben. They have helped me enjoy the miles and get a little faster.

* I push myself on days I don’t feel like running.  Having challenging fall races on the calendar helps a lot.

* I’m losing weight (but not as quickly as a decade or two ago).

* I resumed strength training with push-ups and free weights. It’s a good start, and I need to expand it with core training.

* I had fun re-reading old running journals and starting a new one. All in all, I’m happy with how things are progressing.

* Running gives me joy. It’s as simple as that.

* In non-running news, I remodeled my kitchen, did some good things at work, won some awards, and choked back a tear as my older son graduated from high school. Our family also rescued two cats from the shelter.

The bad:

* The Winter That Would Never End threw a wrench into everything. The first three months of 2014 were a disaster.
* I scrapped plans to run two spring races I had registered for: the Fools 25K and the Glass City Half Marathon. That was the worst feeling.
* I had another birthday in May. I’m a year older. And I’m no closer to qualifying for Boston than I was 10 years ago.
The Ugly:
* Now that I’m in my mid-50s, it takes me longer to wake up and get going in the morning. I used to jump out of bed at 6 a.m. and go running. Now I get out of bed at 7 and drink coffee for an hour. Is that normal?
* I still need to lose 15 pounds. Why is it so hard at my age?
* My IT band occasionally grumbles. But so far, it hasn’t done anything worse, likeseize up or go lame.
Looking ahead:
* Keep doing the good stuff: daily running, stretching, journaling. Stay on course.
* After my trail relay in August, shift gears for the fall half-marathons. That means speed work at the track and more tempo runs.
* Have fun, stay healthy, keep feeling the joy. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Three fun races on the horizon

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28, 2014 by Trail Boy

I’ve got three races on my calendar in the next few months that I’m excited about.

1. Burning River 100M Endurance Run and Relay

emblemThis is a 100-mile race through the trails and back roads of Northeast Ohio from Willoughby Hills to Cuyahoga Falls. It runs Aug. 2-3, with a 30-hour time limit.

No, I’m not running 100 miles. As much as I’ve daydreamed of running long ultras, it’s not in the cards for an old guy like me.

I’m running the relay on an eight-person team.

I’ll run the last leg, 10.5 miles from Botzum Trailhead to the finish line, probably in the dark. To see all the legs, including maps and elevation relays, check out the Information Guide and scroll to page 12.

The name of our team is Friends and Strangers. Because that sums up the eight of us.

2. River Run Half Marathon.

riverrun

I’ve run 16 half marathons over the years. But this was my first ever, way back in 2002.

This is a beautiful course, slightly downhill, along the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio, from Berea to Rocky River.

The first year I ran it, I made every stupid, rookie mistake. I started out too fast. I gulped down Gatorade by the cupful and got terrible stomach cramps. I had to stop and walk three times.

I missed my goal of two hours by 10 lousy seconds. (See summary here.)

But I learned my lesson. I kept training and racing. I came back to this race twice more in the following years, and got my time down to 1:38.

So now that I’m making my comeback, this is the half-marathon I want to face again. It’s on Sunday, Sept. 7.

I need to know: Am I a rookie again? Will I make the same dumb mistakes? Or maybe different dumb mistakes? Will I shuffle or will I race? Will I beat two hours? (Answer: I damn well better.)

3. Towpath Half Marathon

towpathsneaker

I love the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, which stretches for more than 80 miles through some of the prettiest parks and woods in Ohio.

I’ve logged thousands of miles on this dirt and crushed-limestone trail. It’s an old friend. It has shaded me in the summer and dazzled me with unbelievable colors in the spring and fall.

I have run it for fun and for serious training.

But I’ve never raced the towpath marathon or half marathon.

I need to fix that. So on October 12, I will run the half marathon. Just for fun. And for a challenge.

***

If these races go well, I will think about going up a level in distance and intensity. If they don’t, I will re-evaluate, and modify my training, and maybe try something new to heal my iliotibial band.

For the past three months, my leg has done well. I’ve stretched it, iced it, babied it and prayed over it. Now I just hope it’s up the job of taking me back to racing heaven.

2013 in review, and the year ahead

Posted in Uncategorized on January 1, 2014 by Trail Boy

2013-in-ReviewIt’s been four years since I’ve written a year-in-review post. I need to get back in the habit, especially since I’m back on the trails and training for a couple of big races in the spring.

So here goes.

Gotta say, 2013 was a mixed bag. I had progress and setbacks, joys and frustrations.

But it was mostly good, I am happy to say.

Biggest joy: No doubt, it felt great to get back into the groove. I finally learned how to manage my injured leg, a challenge that has bedeviled me for three years. Once I did that, I got busy and put together a sensible training schedule, with short daily runs and very slow mileage increases. I stuck to it and ran faithfully for months. I pushed my distance gently and gradually to 10 miles. I ran with a few old friends, and enjoyed some group runs. For a trail runner, this was absolute bliss, after  years of fits and starts.

Biggest thrill: After months of building of my base, I was able to say in November I was back in the hunt. I signed up for the Glass City Half Marathon in Toledo in April 2014. I went running with the Indiana Trail Runners on a 10-miler on the Tecumseh Trail. I met old friends and made some new ones. I felt like a runner again.

Best of old times: Spending five days in Northeast Ohio in October, running and hiking old trails, including a morning on the towpath with Denny. Old trails and old friends are the greatest pleasures of a trail runner’s life.

Best race: I ran only two races this year. That’s low for me in the big picture, but two more than I ran last year. So I count that as progress. My races were the Butler Bulldog Jog in March (3.5 miles on trails and roads) and the Pleasant Run Run (5 miles on roads). Both were fun, and I’m not going to choose one over the other. Next year, more races!

Biggest setback: December crept up on me and clobbered my running. The cold weather, the holidays, the traveling, the stress of work and lots of other distractions threw me for a loop for the last two weeks of 2013.

Well that’s the beauty of a new year. It’s a fresh start. To 2014!

In that spirit, I did two fun things today:

1) I signed up for the Fools 25K trail race at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio for March 30. It gives me a fun, ambitious trail goal for the next three months.

2)  I ran five miles at Fort Ben with the gang from Indiana Trail Running. It was just what the doctor ordered. These are my people, and this is my scene.

Happy 2014!

Trail runners about to stampede off in search of trails. I’m in front row, far left, crouching like a baseball catcher. (Photo by Terry Fletcher)

Perfect way to start the weekend

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2013 by Trail Boy

How about a little neon to brighten up the woods? Here’s our group at Yellowwood State Forest before the run. (Photo by Terry Fletcher)

What a great way to start the weekend: running for a few hours in the woods, making a few new friends and catching up with old friends.

It’s been too long since I’ve done this — at least two years, maybe more. But now that I’ve gotten over my leg injury and rebuilt my base, it feels so good to be back for outings like this.

This was a familiarization run on southern half of the Tecumseh Towpath Marathon course. About 50 people showed up, ready to rock the hills. Most are planning to run the marathon on Dec. 7. I’m nowhere near trained enough to run 26.2 miles, let alone a tough, hilly course through the woods of southern Indiana.

I showed up for run just to have fun, run about 10 miles and get back with trail people.

(I last ran this marathon in 2008, and wrote this race report.)

I love running in November. True, it’s not as pretty as October, when the trees are bursting with fall colors. But November has its own beauty. The trees are thinned out, and you can see for miles across gorges and ravines. Luckily we had a bright blue sky today and great visibility.

View from the top of Indian Hill Road

The run was organized by Terry Fletcher and his gang from Indiana Trail Running.They did a great job of marking the course with pink ribbons, setting up three aid stations, handling the carpooling and a thousand other things.

Terry Fletcher, the run organizer and all-around great guy. (Photo by Christy Snider Odeen)

tecumsehsign

The goal was to run from the top of Indian Hill Road (about mile 13 of the course) to the end at Yellowwood Lake. You could run a little shorter, about 10 miles, by clipping off a loop near the end. Or you could run farther by tacking on an extra loop or two here or there.

map

I ran a nice, easy pace, near the back. My goal was just to run for fun and get about 10 miles under my belt.

The air was pretty chilly, with temps in the mid-20s. But I wasn’t complaining. I dressed in three layers and kept warm.

Like my green jacket? I was hoping it would keep me visible to hunters. (Photo by Terry Fletcher)

Even though it rained Thursday and Friday, the trail was pretty firm and the creeks were low. Of course, the hills were tough, as always, but they were spread out, with lots of creekside running, moderate rollers and fun downhills.

I ran for about an hour with Toni, Mark, Marci and Momi. I didn’t know them a day ago, but that’s the beauty of trail running. Most people love to share the miles and trade stories. Lots of long friendships begin this way.

My running buds on Saturday (from left to right): Marci, Mark and Toni.

I also had fun catching up with Jim Halsey for a while. We’ve put in a few miles together at DINO races and fun runs here and there. He’s run oodles of trail marathons and ultras and is always encouraging. 

Jim seems to be having a good recovery after surgery last fall. He told me he has signed up for the 50-mile portion of the Indiana Trail 100 in April, so he’s not letting a little surgery stop him.

Jim Halsey (in the yellow shirt) gets ready to climb a hill.

The course was mostly singletrack, with some paved roads, gravel roads, jeep roads and grassy clearings.

onroad

One thing about trail running in November: you see lots of hunters. Terry warned us not to strike up long conversations with the hunters, as they want the woods nice and quiet, and wish we weren’t even there. And for the most part, that’s what I did.

But at one point, we saw four young hunters in a parking area of a gravel road. We waved to them. They waved back and asked us to take their pictures. They were in a chatty mood.

We took their picture.

Then we asked them to take pictures of us with them. Here’s mine.

gun

Then we waved goodbye and clomped on down the road. Soon, we got to the turnoff point, where you could either finish up in a half-mile or keep going for another four miles.

I knew I was pushing my luck running this far. So I decided to wrap it up with 10 miles. The others in my little group went the other way and kept going.

Then I headed over to the finish area and gladly helped myself to some pretzels and brownies.

The temperature continued to drop, so a few of us gathered some sticks and wood and Terry built a fire in a fire ring. We traded war stories about the woods and warmed up.

Soon, it was time to go. I caught a ride back to my car at Indian Hill, and started the 90-minute drive home.

The run was a blast. Like I said at the top, it was a long time coming. Can’t wait for the next one.

(To return to the home page, click here.)

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