Coming into this race I had no real expectations of doing anything more than just running the goal time of a 4:20 I had planned. After talking with several friends and competitors who had run this race before. The past couple of years that it has been put on. I came to the conclusion that it was going to be a very tough albeit beautiful course. I had been feeling pretty tired over the past couple of months. A combination of too much training and racing this summer. So I really wanted to end the year on a positive note. If I could run what I thought I could and manage to have a good time in the process. I would consider that a success going into the off season.
I'd raced down in this part of the Midwest several times over the last few years. Putting many a racing mile under my feet in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas. So this time around I had a real good mental image in my head of what to expect as far as terrain went. Doing the appropriate training required to get myself dialed in for the goal time I needed to hit.
As race day approached. I didn't really talk to too many people. Most of my friends were finishing up their seasons at one race or another and catching up on some overdue family time. Which was totally cool. As it gave me time to be able to focus on what I had ahead of me without distraction. I had a lot to focus on too.
Since my little hiccup in the month of May where in a 50 miler. We had our first really hot day here. So hot so that The HEAT ended up beating me into submission. Forcing me to settle for the Marathon finish. From that day forward until Halloween weekend I hadn't lost a race. A pretty damn good little streak. I'd like to sit here and tell you that I never really gave it much thought. The truth though was that I thought about it constantly. With every race I won. Whether by physical domination or the lack of competition or Lady Luck, Whatever! I ended up placing a little more pressure on my shoulders to try and keep the streak going. To see how long I could milk this ride out. In an attempt to turn the odds in my favor going into each race. I really trained my tail into the ground. Probably a little too much.
Combined with the heat of the sweltering summers we have here. I managed to put up some less than impressive times. Even though I took home the wins. I was fueled by the fact that under normal conditions I could go much faster. I knew that and that drove me crazy. Having to wait out the summer heat. Running for place instead of PR's. I've always said It never mattered what place I got as long as it was a personal best. I'd rather run a PR and finish twentieth than to win with a time I considered a training run effort.
So when it finally came time for me to sign up for the Dogwood 50km. I had a pretty big decision to make. Do I race for time? Or do I race for place? Or do I just race for fun? The conditions were projected to be the best I'd raced in all season but the course would be a real S.O.B. at least for what I was used to anyway. Eventually I decided on taking it easy and enjoying a race for a change. To reflect back on the season I had and enjoy some trails with some great folks.
Racing has always been something that has been truly between the ears with me. More times than I can count. I've psyched myself out of great runs despite being in great shape. Letting the garbage in my head get in the way of a win or two over the years. For years I've asked myself the question. Why do I have such an extreme desire to race? Why do I find it necessary to get out there and mix it up with men 10 now 15 years younger than me. I don't have anything left to prove anymore? To myself or anyone. The answer to that question finally became clear to me the Saturday before the race.
When Adam Chase. Good friend and our Salomon Team Captain. Made a comment in reference to a Facebook post of mine. Saying that," His money was on me. Guts or not, I was a pure racer and that is what gets me across the finish line first! Isn't it?" Bam! Right there just like that it all became clear to me. Years of trying to figure out what made me tick. Why I had such a competitive nature. It wasn't because I was running from something or that I had a chip on my shoulder because or that I felt like I had something to prove. It was simply because it 's ingrained into my DNA.
Like a thoroughbred or a greyhound I just love to run. I'd be doing this whether there was a competitive outlet for it or not. Thank the Lord there is though. Because I LIVE for racing. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning. Back aching, legs a hurtin. It's what motivates me to train all those miles and circle dates on the calendar. God do I love that feeling you get standing on the starting line just seconds before the gun goes off. For me there's nothing else that compares.
After really giving what Adam said some thought. I was super pumped up for Sunday morning. Win, lose or draw. I was going to somehow find a way to make it a race to the very end. With my newly discovered knowledge of self I was ready to take on all comers. It didn't matter who showed up.
Now I'm not saying that I was going to Beat everyone that showed up. I'm just saying that no matter who showed up. I was going to take whatever fight I had in me to them and not be intimidated. To race as a pure racer would race. Giving it all I had from start to finish and not leave anything out there.
That night at packet pickup I ran into last years Champion and friend Tom Brennan who I hadn't seen in a couple of years. We asked each other how each had been? Talked about the course and what to expect the next morning. He had told me he had been having some issues with sciatica and that he wasn't sure how the race was going to go for him. I knew though that even a Tom at 80 percent was still going to put up a pretty solid performance. I told him my plan of a 4:20 and suggested that maybe we could work together for the first half of the race. It was starting to get dark out though and my wife and I still hadn't had dinner yet. So I said goodbye to Tom and Jessica and I headed back to town to grab a bite to eat before heading back to the hotel.
Race morning came and after getting a pretty good nights sleep I was up before the alarm went off. I went through my race morning ritual where I talk to my shoes and tell them what I expect from them for the day. Though having a long season under their soles the reluctantly agreed to give me everything they had left in them. With that out of the way I loaded up the best minivan money can buy and we started heading south to the start of the race.
We arrived to the start of the race to an amazing set up. It really was quite a production for such a relatively young event. I guess when you got that corporate money in your corner though anything is possible. I thought we had got there pretty early. Instead though the parking lot attendants ended up guiding us to a parking spot somewhere out on the back forty. After doing some last minute gear checks and throwing together a small bag of stuff I might need at the crew stop. We walked over to the pavilion at the starting line.
By the time we walked the quarter mile to the pavilion there were already hundreds of runners milling around the start. Doing last minute checks, number pinning and last minute bathroom stops. I followed suit and made one last pit stop. Then proceeded to pin my number.
I caught up again with Tom Brennan just before the start and both he and I started doing the 'ol checking out the competition routine. Since there wasn't an entrants list this was the only chance I had to get it in. Scoping out the crowd. Looking to see if there was anybody that we should be worried about. It didn't take long to figure out we were going to have a dogfight on our hands. About that time. Two long legged Kenyans made there way up to the front of the pack alongside Tom and I. Also up front with us was about a half dozen strapping young bucks who all looked as if they were All-American collegiate runners that could rip off a 2:20 marathon without a moments hesitation.
I looked at Tom and said. Well, that's a relief. He laughed and said yeah! He didn't really want to run that hard anyway. I may have been born with pure racing DNA but I was pretty sure that I wasn't born with pure Kenyan DNA. At that point I came to the realization that there was around a 99 percent chance that my streak would end today. I reassured myself that running today wasn't about winning for me. It was about hitting a goal and having a good time. Enjoying a beautiful day on the trails. If I hit my time and it was good enough to keep me in the hunt then great. AWESOME! It would just be an added bonus.
As the Kenyans were getting themselves into their zone. By starring down the road with that empty glassy eyed focus. The All-Americans were slapping each other five and cracking jokes. Like it was just another day at practice. I found myself somewhere in the middle. Focused on what lied ahead but still loose enough to be able to joke about the fact that I was extremely relieved to not have to try and stay with the big dogs up front.
All of a sudden I snapped out of it to find that the Race Director was nearly halfway through his countdown. Then the air horn was sounded. We were off. It was mass chaos from the start. I nearly got tripped up right at the gun because the guy behind me was too wrapped up with excitement and stepped on the back of my left heel. Some 300 hundred runners both 25km and 50km combined scrambling down the road to secure a position in the pack they thought they could maintain.
It was hard for me to resist the urge to shoot up to the front from the start but somehow I managed. Instead slotting myself a lot further back than I normally do somewhere in the top 20 or so. Knowing that a few of these runners were in the 25km and a few more wouldn't be able to maintain this pace for more then a mile or two at best. I was confident that things would be pretty much sorted out after the first hill. Then it would become a matter of picking off as many runners ahead of me as I could over the course of the next 29 miles.
Like I figured. I didn't have to wait long. The pack hit that first hill and it was like watching a car run into a brick wall. With the exception of the top five runners. The entire field came to a virtual stand still. Immediately breaking down into a power hike. Right then I jumped up to around the top 10 passing quite a few people that were shocked at how steep the hill was. It was steep but not that long. So as it started to level off at the top I picked it up a little and passed a couple more before we made it over the other side.
On the descent now. There were a few runners with me. With the top five already being out of sight I decided I was going to hang back with these folks until the first aide station. I started to get a little concerned though. I felt like they were a little out of their comfort zone and that each step they took was forced into place by will. Instead of them trying to find the clean line and go with the flow. I gave them plenty of room to make a mistake but decided it was in my best interest to try and separate from them a little and run by myself. So by the time I reached the bottom of the hill. I found myself with a clear trail ahead of me and a good cushion behind me.
It didn't take long to make it to the first aide station around mile five-ish. Where they told me I was in 6Th place. Cool I thought and asked how far up the leaders were? Totally expecting them to say something like 10 minutes. I was shocked when they told me I was only three minutes behind the lead with the 5Th place guy only a minute ahead of me.I topped off my bottle and gave my thanks then got out of there.
What the Hell was going on up there? How in the Hell could I be that close? I didn't feel like I was running all that hard of a pace. I didn't even feel like I was working that hard. Then I started to wonder if all that speed work I did was paying off. Well no need to get too carried away I guess. I'll just keep running like this. Checking the gap at every aide station. When it got out to around 10 minutes then I would start to panic a bit but not right now.
This was such a beautiful course. It really was. It's been awhile since I've gotten to enjoy the scenery in one of these things. I never cursed a single hill the entire race. I was actually looking forward to each one. Eager to get to the top of the climb. Knowing that the view from the top would reveal a spectacular view of the surrounding Ozarks. It seemed as if every hill had a clearing or meadow at the top strategically placed there for that reason alone.
I was pretty much in Candyland at this point. Here I was having a great time. At the same time churning out a really solid run. A very rare thing for me. Coming off a pretty steep hill I hit the aide station at mile 10. From here we had to run on a two mile section of asphalt road they had through the center of the park. That they used for their guided trolley tours. At the aide station I decided I'd check the gap. Fully expecting to hear that at this point the gap would be around 10 minutes for sure. Again I was dumbfounded to find it had only stretched out to four minutes up to the lead. Not only was it just four minutes. The pack was starting to split up and lose it's steam. That was cool but I had a feeling that with this section of asphalt the true roadies would stretch their legs and do some damage to the rest of the field. If I wanted to keep from being embarrassed at the finish line. Then I'd have to stretch mine out as well.
I'm not sure what extra-terrestrial life forms stole my body and replaced it with a newer faster one the night before. For some reason though I had no trouble with asking my legs to give me more. I didn't even notice the extra effort I was putting out. Largely in part to the fact that on this section of road. Every hundred yards there was one amazing waterfall after another. I guess that's why they decided to pave this section of the park. Unfortunately it all ended too quickly. It was time to once again scramble up another steep hill. At the top was a short out and back that everyone had to do. Then there was also a big loop that the 50km runners had to do before retracing their steps back to the finish line.
At the top of this hill is where the race all went to crap for the front runners. I'm not really quite sure what happened? All day long to this point I had no trouble following the course markings and all the corner marshall's they had out there seemed to know what they were doing. I mean I got to every aide station O.K. without getting lost so they had to know what they were doing right? My suspicion is that those guys up front were just running way too hard with their heads down. After running a 1:47 through the first 25km. The Kenyan claimed he was having some back pain and dropped from the race. I found out that the other Kenyan was running the 25km only and after running his short out and back he was well on his way to finishing his race. Which now left me in Fourth place. With the guy in Third less than a minute ahead and fading.
After my short out and back the volunteers got me headed out on my big loop before retracing my steps back to the finish. Which is why during the big loop. I found it weird that two of the guys that were out front. Were coming back towards me? It was supposed to be a loop right? Something didn't feel right to me. Not so much for myself but for those guys. I was 100 percent sure I had run the course the exact same way it was layed out. Those guys on the other hand. Well, I had no idea where they had been running. Oh well. I was going the right way and I wasn't going to worry about it too much. I just kept running.
I finished up my big loop a grabbed a cup of coke and topped off my bottle before heading back down the hill to the asphalt road section. 18 miles behind me at this point and I still felt pretty damn awesome. I flew down the hill. Just letting gravity do it's job. I hit the road section and still didn't see the guy that was only a minute or so ahead of me. He must have been just getting around each corner before I could catch site of him. The pace up the road this time wasn't as fast as the pace down before. Definitely a bit more labored. I ran pretty much the whole damn way back to the aide station. Except for a brief stop to pick my baggie of S-Caps off the ground that I had dropped. Just as I was coming into the aide station at mile 20. I finally saw the kid that had been ducking me for the last 18 miles. He was walking out as I was just getting there. Another quick top off for me and I scurried up the hill to catch up to the kid. He wasn't getting out of my sight again. If he was going to walk then so would I. If he would run then I'd stay right on his heels.
I asked if he wanted to work together to try and reel in the guys up front. I told him the last 11 miles would go by a lot quicker if we worked together and paced each other. He said that would be cool but that he was having some blood sugar issues. He had told me that this was his first Ultra and that he didn't expect to be crashing like this until mile 25 or so. I asked him what he had been eating? One gel he said. I tried my best not to read him the Riot Act. Being that this was his first one. I remembered all the damn mistakes I made on my first one. I just told him that he just needed to do a better job of taking in calories on the next one. He was in a bad spot and didn't look like he was going to be running anytime soon. Me though I was ready to take off. So I told the kid I'd see him at the finish and I shot up the trail and out of sight.
OK. So I'm cruising along and I'm passing by 25km and 50km runners that were still outbound and hadn't made it to the road section yet. They all seemed really enthusiastic towards me. Too enthusiastic for someone who was in Third place. Making it to the bottom of another hill and back onto the road for just a brief moment where they had a crew access point. I met my wife there. She asked if I needed anything. I grabbed a gel and gave her my arm warmers. As I started to leave I noticed the RD was there also. He came up to me as I was trying to leave and asked me a few questions. If I had passed anybody? If I was sure I ran the entire course? Which was kind of weird I thought. He then told me that he was asking because I was in First place! What? How the Hell could that be. After verifying with him that I indeed ran everything the way it was supposed to be. I told them I'd better get going then.
Holy Shit! I guess I was now the man to beat with eight miles to go to the finish. I wasn't sure how lost the two leaders got and I wasn't about to waste anymore time trying to figure it out either. Or whether they would be disqualified or not. All I knew was if they did get straightened out. Then they would be hot on my heels breathing down my neck for the rest of the race.
Well I guess they didn't get too lost. Just enough to make a race out of it. With seven miles to go. I heard the infamous twig snap of death. I knew instantly that it wasn't a damn squirrel. I didn't even look back. I just asked out loud where the Hell did you guys go? He said that for some reason they made them run an extra short out and back section. Which was about a half a mile in length. That made sense. Seeing as at the last check they were about four to five minutes ahead of me. We chatted for a minute or two but then he eventually pulled away from me but not out of sight?
A couple more minutes went by when I heard the second branch snap behind me. This kids name was Kyle. Unlike the first guy that caught back up. Kyle didn't seem as determined to getting back up to the front. Which was actually good for me. He was still running good. I knew I could work with this guy to help keep me close. We ran together for about 10km. We came into the last aide station together and they told us that the leader was only 30 seconds ahead of us!
Alright I thought. This has got to be some kind of joke. There is no way in Gods green earth after 4,600 ft. of vertical gain and 27 miles of running that I'm still on pace for a 4:10 50km. I told Kyle to catch up to that guy and then put it on him at the finish line. He said he was going to try and do just that.
As we both came to the first of a dozen water crossings we had to run through before the finish. Kyle's adrenaline must have been flowing pretty good. When he hit that water crossing he barely got his feet wet. For me it was the exact opposite. I hit the water crossing and went right to the bottom. I came out on the other side and tried to go with Kyle but my shoes were full of water and weighed about 3lbs a piece. That was all it took to make my legs hit the wall. The extra weight of the shoes and the amount of energy I had to burn to keep my legs turning over was too much. Each water crossing I hit It was harder and harder to keep from not falling over. My legs had officially been turned to gelatin. I was still less than a minute behind and I hadn't thrown in the towel just yet. I wanted to just get to the road with 3/4 of a mile to go. Where I'd put in one last effort to pull even with them. Once I hit the road I was able to see that they were only 200 yards or so ahead. I gave it everything I had left in the tank. In the end though it wasn't enough. With around 400 yards to go. I raised the white flag in surrender. With 200 yards to go I could hear and see the crowd at the finish plain as day. Cheering for the two champions as they crossed the line hands raised together in victory. With a winning time of 4:18:58. Followed by myself 31.7 seconds later for Third Overall in a time of 4:19:30.
It was a bitter sweet finish for me. It sucks to be in a tough race like that and to have it all come down to a matter of seconds in the end. Still though I didn't expect to win the day anyway. So I was super happy to have been able to nail my goal time that I had figured up a month prior, right on the head. What was even more neat about hitting my goal right on. Was that I didn't even where a watch for the race. Leaving it in my bag that morning. Because I thought it would just add an extra element of stress to the day I really didn't want. I ran how I felt and was able to accomplish everything I wanted to do for the day. I hit my goal. Enjoyed my run and ending the season with a race through some beautiful country amidst a great bunch of people.
It was a very well supported and run event. Thanks to everyone who made this year one of the most memorable ever. I'm very satisfied going into the off season. Knowing I was able to meet such a great bunch of people this past year. I got to run in some incredibly epic places and relit a fire that will be sure to burn for a few more years at the very least. Already I'm looking forward to the adventures I have planned for next year. First though, it's time to grab an ice cold beer eat like a pig for a week then familiarize myself with my family again. See everyone when the snow melts...