See John Run

Here’s a report of my day at the Tecumseh Trail Marathon near  Bloomington, Indiana, in December 2008. It was my first trail marathon.

Chapter One: See John Run

See John run.
Run, John, run!
John is running a trail marathon.
Uh oh, now John is walking.
Is this a good thing?

This is John’s first trail marathon.
He is excited.
And a little nervous.
Trails are beautiful. And refreshing to the soul.
But they are also hard.

Huge hills. Snow and ice. Creek crossings.
How do you train for 26.2 miles on this kind of course?
John is not sure. But he knows one thing.
He should have trained much harder.

Chapter Two: A Tough Year

This has been a brutal year.
Injuries. Long days at work. Lots of weekends with a paintbrush.
Too much running around.
Not enough running.

Last year was better.
Three marathons. Four half marathons.
PRs in the 5K and 10K.
Lots of accomplishments.
A few disappointments.
Kind of like life.

But this year didn’t go as planned.
Running got squeezed out.
The months went by.
Suddenly it was September. The year was almost over.
That scared John — more than any hard race.

Not succeeding is one thing.
Not even trying is another.
John has run marathons for six years.
He never skipped a year.

Would this year end the streak?
That was a scary thought.
So in the fall, John decided to give it one more try.
Why not a really big challenge?
Something like a trail marathon.

Chapter Three: Up and at ‘em

The training was intense. Now it is over.
Lots of trails. A few short races.
It was hard. It could have been harder.
But that’s how it goes.

Now it is race day.
There goes the alarm.
Five thirty. Time to get up.
It’s cold. Icy cold. Twenty-five degrees.
Brrrr! Maybe they will cancel the marathon.
Ha, ha. John laughs.
A weak, sickly laugh.

It is time for a marathoner’s breakfast.
Hot coffee. Banana. Bagel and peanut butter.
It sticks to the ribs. Good for a long day.
If John only knew how long!

Time for one last look at the gear bag.
Extra socks? Check.
Extra gloves? Check.
Extra everything? Oh for Christ’s sake, get moving!

A goodbye kiss, and then it’s time to go.
Drive, drive, drive to the race.
It’s 83 miles away. A long distance
It seems to last forever.
Almost as long as a trail marathon.

There’s lots of time to think this over.
An hour and 35 minutes in the car.
Watch the snow hit the windshield
Watch the trees bend in the wind.
My, it’s chilly!

Is it too late to turn around?
Ooops, too late. There’s the park entrance!
Lots of other cars are heading in, too.
With lots of running bumper stickers.
Lots of beards in this crowd too.

John’s stomach begins to sink.
It’s the moment of truth.
The truth is a very scary thing.
Sometimes it’s better not to know.

Well, time to get the race packet.
The sweatshirt looks OK. It’s white and brown.
But the race number is funny.
It says: “Tecumseh Trail Marathon.”

It also says: “I think I can.”
That part is written upside down.
That’s so you can look down and see the encouraging words.
“I think I can.” Just like the little engine. Did that story have a happy ending?
Will this one?

Runners are heading for the shuttle buses.
This is it. No turning back now.
Like getting on a roller coaster.
Once you’re in, that’s it. No getting out.
Not until the ride is over.

The bus ride takes nearly an hour.
There’s time to make a friend or two.
Listen to the war stories from previous years.
Share a nervous joke.

One man says: “I’ve done this four times.
I should know better by now.”
What does that mean?
John laughs, but not very hard.

Chapter Four: The start

Here’s the starting area. Hooray!
Look out the bus window.
People are jumping up and down to keep warm.
You can see their breath in the air. Between all the snowflakes.

Some people are standing in a long line.
They are waiting for a Porta-potty.
“Hurry up! Hurry up!” a race official says.
“Just go water a tree!”

People laugh. Then they walk to a tree.
Some just step to the side of the road.
They don’t care about privacy.
This race is different from other marathons.

Now it’s 10 o’clock. Time to start.
But not yet.
Here come more buses.
There are a lot of people.
Six hundred signed up.
They want to run and run!

People gather at the starting line.
“Be careful!” says one runner. “It’s hunting season.”
His friend replies: “I don’t run like anything like a deer. I’m OK.”
People laugh. Ha ha!

John knows this is funny.
He runs nothing like a deer, either.
More like an elephant.
Thump, thump, thump!

Finally, it starts! People cheer.
Go, runners, go!
Down a paved road they go.
Then to a gravel road.
Then down a hill.
When will the trail start?
Will there be enough trail in this race?
This time, John smiles at the joke.

Then the course goes into the woods.
Lots of runners. Skinny trail.
No passing lane.
That’s OK. John is in no hurry.

He has small goals today.
Beat the 4:30 p.m. cutoff at mile 23.
Get to the finish line.
Don’t break an ankle.
Get some soup at the end.
That will be good enough.

Chapter Five: The hills

Here comes the first downhill.
Watch the greyhounds sprint to the bottom.
Go, greyhounds, go!
Oops. There is a problem.
Two runners are down.
“Ice!” someone shouts.
“Ice!” others repeat.

The ground is slippery.
The trails are steep.
The runners slow down.
Some fall down.
Some bump into other.
Wham! Wham!

Everyone has one thought:
Is this just one bad hill?
Or is it the first of many?
The greyhounds hit the bottom and start up the other side.
“Ice!” someone shouts from far ahead.
It is going to be a long day.

The hills keep coming.
Big hills. Lots of hills.
Some as big as skyscrapers. Some bigger.
Up and down.

This is the hilliest marathon John has ever run.
And the iciest.
It is hard to run.
It is hard to walk.

People fall and say bad words.
Someone slides down a hill with a scream.
Someone sits by the side of the trail.
He is covered with snow.
He is rubbing his leg.
“Are you OK?” someone asks.
“I think so,” he says.

Soon the aid stations appear.
Runners begin to drop out.
DNF. Did Not Finish. A scary phrase.
Some days, DNF is a bad, bad thing.
Some days, it is a good thing.
Which is it today? No one is sure.

“My ankle is shot,” someone says.
“Can I get a ride back?” another says.
Race officials get on the phone to drivers.
The ambulance stands by.

Others runners keep going.
Go runners, go!
The greyhounds are far ahead.
How do they do it?

Chapter Six: Indian Hill

Soon the hills go away.
For a little while, anyway.
Finally, we get some clear, flat ground for running.
No hills. No ice.
It’s almost too good to be true.
How long will it last?

Pretty soon, the race passes the halfway point.
The first-timers are happy.
They know this means they are closer to the end than the beginning.
The veterans are nervous.
They know this means Indian Hill is next.

Indian Hill is a steep gravel road.
Very steep. Very long. Very high.
It looks 1,000 feet high.
Higher than the Sears Tower.
Higher than the clouds.

Everyone begins walking.
No one even thinks of running.
Except maybe the greyhounds.
They passed this point long ago.
Maybe they are already eating soup.
And laughing around the fire.
Maybe they are driving home.

But the others are still climbing Indian Hill.
They take baby steps.
They breathe deeply.
They stop to stretch their legs.

It takes a long time to climb this hill.
Ten minutes.
Fifteen minutes.
Feel the burn.

Are we at the top yet?
The road disappears around a corner.
Slowly the runners reach the turn and look around.
They say bad words.
The top is still far away.

Some runners think this would have been a good place to end the race.
A half-marathon is plenty today.
A marathon is going to be tough.
Tougher than some of the runners.

Chapter Seven: More punishment

Finally, the runners crest the hill.
They do not look like runners.
They are huffing. And puffing. And standing around.
They pant. They rub their legs.
They wonder how many hills remain.

John is optimistic.
Climbing a long, long hill can only mean one thing.
It is time for the course to flatten out.
Or maybe even descend.

Poor, sad John.
He is suffering from lack of oxygen
In a few minutes, he will learn something.
Trails sometimes go down.
But sometimes they keep going up.

Soon, it begins to snow.
The woods are pretty.
But the trail is a bitch.
Who ever heard of mountains in Indiana?

Up and down.
Up and down.
Hills. Creeks. More hills.
Whose idea was this?

Soon, the trail levels out. More or less.
Here is a chance to run again.
And to talk to other runners.
And to walkers.
My, there are a lot of walkers.

There is a runner from Kentucky.
And one from Louisiana.
And one from New York.
They are nice.
They like to walk.
It is fun to walk.

The runners reach another aid station.
There is a nice man serving hot chocolate.
A woman is handing out Gatorade slushies.
There are bowls of cookies. Cheese doodles. Pretzels. Candy.

Runners stop to talk.
This is the fun part.
It is almost like a party.
Please pass the cookies!

People are smiling.
Lots of smiles.
Lots of wet feet.
Lots of steamy hats.
The day is fun again.

Chapter Eight: Another killer hill

Then it is time to hit the trails.
Four hours have passed.
Eighteen miles down.
Eight to go!

The field has spread out.
Small groups of runners play leapfrog.
I pass you on the downhill.
You pass me on the uphill.

Then the sugar kicks in.
First it is a light shuffle.
Then a trot.
Go, John, go!
He is passing trees and rocks as if they are standing still!
Sometimes even another runner.

Oh no. Here’s another hill.
Everyone starts walking again.
This hill is a whopper.
The toughest since Indian Hill.

It looks like something out of a disaster movie.
Up, up, up.
It resembles a tsunami wave.
High overhead, people are walking switchbacks in row after row.
Six, seven, eight rows of people.
They are climbing Jacob’s Ladder, straight to heaven.
Does this mean we have died?

John’s head hurts. He pulls off the trail and counts to 20.
It’s an effort just to think about walking this hill.
He sees the bitter truth.
He should have trained harder.
This is the toughest race of his life.

Chapter Nine: A new goal

Finally, after another hour or so, John does it.
No, not the finish line.
It’s the aid station at mile 23.
This is where volunteers start pulling slowpokes off the course.

The ax begins falling here at 4:30. What time is it?
OK, good, it’s only 3:25. Plenty of time.
John is feeling giddy.
He says to the volunteers: “Has anyone passed by here yet?”
Everyone laughs.

Yes, the leaders came through here hours ago.
They are running gods.
John is not a god. He is a mortal.
A mortal with heavy legs.

But he beat the cut-off.
Now the finish line is within reach!
It’s time to set another goal.
Just finishing is no longer good enough.

It’s time to start passing people.
And to finish under six hours.
That is still a long time.
But now it is the goal.

It looks like other runners are thinking the same thing.
People begin to step a little livelier.
No more long walks.
No more laughing around the aid stations.
It’s time to hammer. So to speak.

Chapter Ten: Take it home

The hills have flattened out.
They no longer tower.
Now they gently roll.
Thank God for small favors.

Far across the lake, a loudspeaker echoes.
In the distance, runners are crossing the finish line.
Home, sweet home.
Take it home, baby.

Ahead, some runners look familiar.
There’s the woman with icicles in her hair.
She disappeared at mile 12.
Now she’s back. It’s time to pass her.

Who’s next? Backpack boy. He has four water bottles.
Doesn’t he know this is a supported race?
Goodbye, Backpack Boy. Who’s next?

It’s time to reel them in, one by one.
It feels good.
There’s Yellow Coat. There’s Hard Breather. There’s Santa Claus Hat.
Pull ‘em in. Keep going.

Finally, down a hillside, and out of the woods.
There’s another aid station.
“About one more mile,” the volunteer says.
Goodbye trails. Hello, gravel road.

Chapter Eleven: Big finish

The woods are done. The end is near.
Now it is just the runners and the road.
And another hill.
Who can get traction on an icy, gravel hill?

Everyone walks the hill.
Is there enough time? Ten minutes to go.
Heads up. Here comes a car.
And another. Lots of runners are going home.

Up the last hill. Turn a corner.
More ice. Be careful.
Another 200 yards to the finish line.
Plenty of time. Go, John, go!

Cross the line. It’s over.
Wow, that was hard. And long.
Two hours longer than a marathon PR.
Two hours and 17 minutes, to be precise.

What changed? Why so hard?
Who cares.
Get some soup.
Think about it tomorrow.
The race is over.
Thank God, it’s over.


The results are posted.
The winner finished in 3:12.
Holy smokes! That’s a 7:19 pace.
Didn’t he see the ice? And the hills?

John finished 349th out of 490 finishers.
No complaints. Finishing was fine.
Dozens of runners didn’t finish.
Then there’s this: Tough races make good stories.
See you next time, Tecumseh Trail.


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