Most people, I have found out, don’t even like to drive 50 miles. They certainly have never even entertained the idea of running that far. In fact only about .03% of the American adult population ran an ultramarathon distance last year. But, as my brothers would have told you all along, I am not most people. And, like my brothers often have, you may feel the need to question my sanity.
I am currently in training for the Mark Twain Endurance Run 50 miler. I chose the race based on fitting it into my schedule, being able to easily drive to the event, and knowing guys who have run the course and could attest to the quality of the trails and the organization of the race support. The race organizers posted on facebook that there would be a trail preview about a month out from the race. I jumped at the opportunity and we mixed it with a vacation trip to St. Louis.
Fortunately the weekend of the preview run the summer heat wave broke but the cool temps were accompanied by the chance of rain. Friday afternoon, with the family and the camping gear loaded in the van, we made the 3 hour drive to the middle of nowhere. As we left the interstate I got the sense that the landscape had a different feel than back home. It’s hard to describe how it was different. Both areas are rolling, with plenty of creeks, hills, trees, and hollows. But it felt different. It smelled different.
We rolled into the campground with the rain on our heels. I waved to everyone who had already arrived and hurriedly went to set up our tent. As we began tossing bags from the van into the tent lightning flashed and big drops began to fall from the sky.
The campground was equipped with a pavilion, an outhouse, and a paved road leading to 10 or so fire pits each with a leveled, clear spot for a tent. None of that silly electrical or running water stuff so many fancy campgrounds have these days. I learned during the course of the evening that the number of times a child has to use the restroom while camping directly corresponds with how dark it is and how hard it is raining. Despite all the difficulties in the way the air mattress was inflated, food was distributed, we got settled, and I even got a few minutes to hang out with the other campers at the pavilion, drinking and swapping running stories.
These were ultrarunners. Not Titans, at least not all of them, but real people who love the trail and adventure and seeing how far they could push their bodies. Some could push pretty damn far. But here, knocking back Buds and Tennessee Honey, we were all just runners telling stories.
In a stroke of cosmic justice the run was on the second anniversary of my ACL reconstruction. I couldn’t wait to celebrate recovery on the single track.
My hope had been that the kids would sleep in, like a normal Saturday morning, so that Natalie wouldn’t have to entertain them the entire time I was running on the trail. They were basically dancing around my mattress performing some sort of ritual dances when I woke up. Sometimes I’m groggy when I first wake up, so that memory may a little exaggerated. But only a little.
I thought the time to go run would never come. The attitude around camp was pretty relaxed as some runners drove in and everyone readied their packs. I hoped no one would notice how new an shiny mine was as I prepared it for it’s inaugural run. Looking around I made mental checkmarks for missed items in my ultrarunning uniform. This was a rare moment where I did not feel over-prepared. No one was going to accuse me of being a camel. Or ask what I was packing for lunch. I had found my home. Runners who carry all the things.
I was lacking one thing. But just as I was trying to decide if I should sacrifice my favorite hat so I’d fit in, everyone squeezed in for a quick pic before the run. I’m pretty sure they just wanted photographic evidence of who was there in case any bodies turned up on the trail later. And we were off.
The first few miles went smoothly. I settled in between some other runners in at a pace that felt right. The summer storms had left quite a few trees strewn across the trails. We climbed around and through branches. The views were breathtaking, from hollows to hills and in-between.
The whole run was an adventure. It ended up being my 2nd longest run to date, by duration, even though it fell a bit short of a marathon distance. Many parts of the trail were pretty technical, but there were some nice runnable sections. There were hills. So many hills. At mile 19 there was a spring that had been capped and was flowing out of a pipe. The water was clear, cold, and glorious. Dasani has nothing on a fresh spring in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a long run. I filled my reservoir. The cool pack on my back was an unexpected bonus. Now I’m planning to take advantage of it during the race.
It was a rewarding, tough run. It left me with a respect closely resembling terror for the trail. One-hundred feet of climb per mile average doesn’t sound that bad unless you’re running 50 of them. And 50 miles of rocks and roots is something different entirely from 10-12.
When I got back I wrung the sweat out of my shorts and writhed around on the air mattress for a bit. I was cursing myself for not applying the Glide more liberally. Cursing the big rocks that left bruises on the tips of my big toes. But I was not regretting one second of the run.
This was a day I had dreamed about. Running long on trails. Letting them mold me into an real ultra runner. You don’t conquer trails. If you try you will hobble away broken and bleeding. You learn to flow with them. Along the way you get to see beautiful sites, breathtaking vistas, and the glory of God’s creation.