The Devil Made Me Do It
The three of you who read this blog have probably noticed that I often mention the devil on my left, and dominant shoulder, and the angel on my right. The angel takes on several different forms depending on the temptation, but the devil, well he always looks like my friend Bill. Bill’s a big guy, but on my shoulder he’s just a little fella, maybe four inches tall, and he’s usually wearing red hooded speedsuit, kind of like a Canadian speedskater, complete with horns and a pitchfork, but no tail. I call him Billezebub, and his usual refrain is “come on, don’t be a wussy Mike.”
Now, believe it or not, running and riding offer a lot of temptation, the lure of going too fast, too far, too soon is ever-present; if you’re going to go for endurance sports you have to keep your head about you. During long training sessions and races the angel on my shoulder looks like my friend Stephanie, complete with halo, wings and a long white gown. She looks to the sky and says, “be smart Mike, be smart.”
Yesterday at the Lake Youngs Ultra run Bill and Stephanie were engaged in a battle royal, a real Texas cage match.
I have to say in my defense that the plan was rock solid: my training schedule called out a two and a half hour trail run on Saturday and it just so happened earlier in the week I had stumbled onto a website for a thirty mile ultra run not more than a half hour from my house. What made this run so perfect was that it was three ten mile laps on trail around a lake. So I’ll do two laps, I said to myself, perfect.
This was my first foray into the world of ultra running, (FYI an ultra is anything longer than a marathon) and I can tell you from my now vast experience that there is no such thing as a “typical” ultra runner. The only generalization that I could make was that there probably wasn’t anyone under thirty, but other than that the one hundred and fifty starters came in all shapes and sizes. Other than a proliferation of clunky trail running shoes and Dirty Girl gators the crowd looked like any other group of marathon starters.
We were off at seven, there was no big fancy starting gun or canon it was just the race director, in a rather soft voice, saying “okay go.” I started out at a moderate, what I thought would be sustainable pace; just cruising along keeping my eyes on the trail. I was surprised by how fast most of the pack covered the early miles. I had imagined a more, shall we say, controlled pace. Thinking back, however, this race wasn’t much further than a marathon and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these guys, and gals, were enjoying the post-race bar-b-que three hours after taking their first step.
Three miles in I passed the one and only aid station – a folding table with two jugs of water – my traditional marathon strategy of running from aid station to aid station wasn’t going to work. Good thing I was only going to do two laps. I hadn’t put much thought into my race plan; actually I had put no thought into it other than deciding to bring a single flask of energy drink clipped to a waist belt. I figured I’d take a drink every twenty minutes and four drinks later I’d be back at the start where I could refill before heading back out for the second lap.
I have yet to find a good way to carry liquid while running, everything that I’ve tried bounces around so much that I end up drinking it quickly just to empty it out and preserve my sanity. A number of the runners were carrying water bottles strapped to their hands, this seemed as undesirable as the hydration packs some of the other runners had strapped to their backs. I think that the waist belt with detachable flasks is the way to go; I just have to find a system that doesn’t bounce around so much.
The first lap went easy. I was mindful of my pace and was running lightly as I didn’t want to bruise my feet on some of the more rocky portions of the trail. The Lake Stevens Half Ironman is coming up in three weeks and a bruised foot could really hamper my training. Back at the Start/Finish pit stop I exchanged my empty flask for a full one and took off. A lot of other runners were milling around, snacking on fruit, potato chips and Oreos, but I guess my triathlon mentality got the best of me as I dropped one flask, grabbed the other and took off hoping to gain a few precious seconds on my competition.
Three miles into the second lap I struck up a conversation with another runner, he was a lean strong runner in his early to mid sixties, and I had to up my pace to keep side by side with him. When we got on the subject of my two amazing children the miles melted away and before I knew it we were climbing the steep hill towards the pit stop. All done.
Or so I thought.
I had covered the nearly twenty miles in three hours and was feeling fine, there was a little tightness in my left quad, but all things considered I was in good shape. I could have easily handed the lady manning the clock my race number and said “I’m out.” Unfortunately saying “I out” isn’t all that easy. I’ve never DNF’d a race and I was feeling too good to start now. I re-filled my flask, grabbed an Oreo and started out on lap three.
I was less than a mile into the third lap when Stephanie appeared on my shoulder, “be smart Mike be smart.” Now I admit if I were born a completely logical person I would have turned around and played it safe. This third lap could totally destroy months of meticulous training, and for what, heck I’m not even getting a shirt out of this deal. With every Stephanie there must be a Bill and sure enough he popped up on my other shoulder, “don’t be a wuss Mike, don’t be a wuss. You can’t quit now, if you don’t quit you’ll never be a quitter. Today’s the day man, go further than you ever have.” Hey it sounded good to me.
I’ve read about how ultra runners oftentimes experience a mental roller coaster, going from periods where the miles slip away underfoot to dark times of self-doubt, pain and even fear. At mile twenty three I slipped into the darkness. I was nearly halfway around the third lap: too far to turn around too far to keep going. My legs were starting to go and I began walking the hills, a strategy practiced by most of the runners out on the course. Thigh and calf cramps were lurking on the margins and I began to worry that if my legs gave out how would I even get back. Would anyone even know if I were still out on the course? My wife Melony had no idea where this race even was. I had to really fight the urge to start walking, because I knew that if I did my legs would tighten up and no way would I get them running again.
By mile twenty five things started looking up, I knew I’d finish this thing, just slow down and keep those legs moving. I got through the final mile by replaying April Skies by The Jesus and Mary Chain on my Zune. I was just going for the third repeat when I saw cars in the parking lot.
The bar-b-que was fired up and many of the runners were already eating pork and chicken off of paper plates. A couple of other guys were sipping Pepsi while sitting in a kiddie pool filled with cold water. As for me, I just wanted to get home so I grabbed two sodas out of the ice bucket, loaded up the car and with a little arm assist was able to get the clutch pedal fully depressed.