Sunday, March 23, 2014

With nothing left to draw upon but his will

Two years ago I was so sick in the days leading up to McKay Hollow Madness that I was sleeping under my desk as work in between meetings.  I was so weak that it was a struggle to get dressed in the morning.  Somehow I managed to find the strength to not only start the race, but have one of my greatest races ever, finishing 2nd overall.

Afterward, I made reference to Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals.  Michael Jordan was so sick with a stomach virus which left him so dehydrated and fatigued that he thought he was going to pass out any second.  He didn't have the energy to stand up.  Jordan ended up playing 44 minutes that night, scoring 38 points with 11 assists before being carried into the locker room at the end of the game.  This epic picture of he and Scottie Pippen shows his utter exhaustion.  Later, Jordan would tell reporters,  "It was all about desire.  Somehow I found the energy to stay strong."  That is the will to win.

Eight weeks ago, I again ran one of the greatest races of my life.  Atop Monte Sano State Park, I ran a monster negative split (2:17:01/2:06:51) at Mountain Mist 50k and my 4:23:52 was good enough to finish 4th overall.  Unfortunately, with 10 miles to go I took several very hard falls, in which I would later discover resulted in a tear of the posterior horn of my medial meniscus.

13 days after the race I would have surgery.

18 days after the surgery I would run my first steps.

42 days after the surgery I laced up my shoes and stood at the starting line of McKay Hollow Madness, as the defending champion.

Once again I had thoughts of Michael Jordan in the '97 finals game.  This time it was not finding the energy to stay strong.  I was still struggling to get around without limping and had pain in every step I took.  I still had atrophy in my left quad and my fitness was no where close to where it would have to be in order to win this race.  My longest run in 8 weeks had been 7 miles, on the road.  Now I was about to run 25km on one of the hardest trail courses around, featuring nearly 2,500' of climb.  My mantra was not the will to win; it was another phrase used to describe Jordan in that game.  I would run the race with these words written on my left forearm.

"With nothing left to draw upon but his will."

I started out the race by running comfortably hard on the road section, taking an early lead.  Rob Youngren was looming close behind.  Rob had recently posted a low 17 5k time and followed that up with 72 miles in a 12-hour race a week later.  He had both short distance fitness and strength and although I was wearing the #1 bib, most people assumed that he was the clear favorite to win.  Early in the race, I just assumed that it would not be a question of if he would pass me, but a question of when.

I lead the way down into the Sinks and by the time we made the turn toward the first climb on Panther Knob, Rob was right on my heels.  I was breathing pretty hard on the climb but relaxed a bit on the bluff and caught my breath heading down toward 3 benches.  Rob and I stayed together, stride for stride with maybe a hundred feet separating us along Mountain Mist trail.  I ran all of the climb up to the first aid station on War Path Ridge and Rob pulled tight.  Neither of us stopped for aid, as we were both carrying hand bottles.  I lead the way down Rest Shelter, which proved to be very painful on my surgically repaired knee, as the jarring made me very tentative on each step.  I slowed down just past Kathy's bench and as we made the hard right, I stepped aside so Rob could lead. I felt like I was holding him back.  My first 6 miles of splits were 6:49 (road), 8:38 (Panther Knob), 7:59 (3 benches climb), 7:58 (Mountain Mist), 8:33 (War Path Climb), 8:04 (down Rest Shelter).

We chatted a bit and he encouraged me to stay with him, mentioning that he thought it was very brave to be running this race so quickly after the surgery.  Then he put some distance on me through Slush Mile and I thought the race was over. The temperature was warming up so I tossed my shirt at the base of Death Trail, knowing that I would be back for it soon.  Somehow in the next mile, Rob came back to me before the turn onto Natural Well.  I slipped a little on the turn, but that got my adrenaline and I quickly closed the gap.  Together we climbed up past the well, up the washed out road section and toward Panorama Bluff.  We marked our bibs with the Sharpie markers at the same time, and headed back down the bulldozer cut.

I just tried to stay with him no matter what, so as his pace varied, mine varied too.  I tried not to look at the actual pace we were running because at times it felt slow and other times I struggled to hang on.

We ran together on the new Arrowhead section and quickly through the Burritt parking lot aid station without stopping.  We made the turn and headed back for the bushwhack around the ditch.  I wasn't sure how I would feel about it, but the break in pace was welcomed as we slowed down over the rock garden.  Popping back out onto the old bypass trail and then climbed back up the slight hill toward the fast drop back down Arrowhead.  The pace picked up as we flew down Arrowhead; a section where both of us typically thrive with the lighting fast drop and technical footing.  I still stayed with him and the further we went, the more I could feel my confidence growing. We ran past the cistern and then down Big Cat. I could tell that Rob was not attacking the downhills like he usually would. Later he would mention that he still felt fatigue of the miles at Delano in his legs.  Of course at the time, I didn't know this!  I just wondered if we was slow playing his hand, knowing that my fitness was low and just waiting to make a final push and pull away.

We sharpied our bibs for the 3rd and final time before climbing back out onto Natural Well.  Splits for miles 6 to 12 were 8:24 (Slush mile), 11:35 (Natural Well Climb) 9:21 (Natural Well atop), 8:30 (Through Burritt and the turn), 9:14 (Natural Well), 8:14 (down to the cistern).

I said that I would set the pace for awhile and figured that we would just take turns; I lead the first 6, he lead the next 6 and then we would figure it out at the end. I didn't feel like I picked it up that much, but I guess I was preserving energy while pacing with Rob and I just took off, refusing to look back.  I dropped down into the bottom of McKay, crossed the stream and then ran every step of Cry Baby hill.

Splits after I took the lead were 8:19 (flats), 8:50 (across the creek, up Cry Baby).  I was feeling good, but Death Trail loomed ahead.  In 2012 when I was trying to stay ahead of George (Heeschen) and Brad (Schroeder) I posted a 9:36 for the 600' climb in less than 3/4 of a mile.  In 2013 when leading the race I managed a slightly faster 9:21.  Of course my fastest is still on a training run (8:46!) back in 2011 but any time you can run under 10 minutes on Death Trail to end MHM, it is a good day.  This time I didn't crush Death Trail by any means; I ran where I could and power walked the rest. Just a nice steady climb to the finish. My split ended up at 9:53.

Approaching the top, I could hear people shouting and was able to pick out Rachel's voice, though I did not look up.  I focused on the climb and slippery water falls, making sure not to fall.  I did finally crack a smile as I realized that I was about to win... I stopped and kissed Rachel at the summit for a few moments before running back up to the finish.

My finishing time was 2:13:54, which was about 9 minutes slower than last year.  I think that the course changes this year added 3-4 minutes but the course was much more runnable than the deluge that was 2013.  Afterward, Rob and I sat on the stone steps of the pavilion and chatted a bit.  We both were very exhausted as the course had taken its toll on us.  I think we both gave it our best and we congratulated each other.

I feel very fortunate to have won this race twice now. I have not gone back to look at each year, but I think that there are only a handful of people who have finished the race all 7 times it has been run (rain out in 2010).  My career finishes have been 5th, 4th, 2nd (Riddle), 3rd, 2nd (Mader), 1st and 1st.  There is something about the hellish nature of this race that brings out the best in me.  The distance hits my sweet spot, and there are plenty of technical climbing, which I love.

Just 24 hours removed from the race, I am in much more pain than the days leading up to Saturday.  Though both my Physical Therapist and Surgeon said that I was not further damaging my knee by running, I would be prolonging the recovery if I put it through an intense effort like McKay Hollow.  This race means quite a bit to me and I was willing to hurt in order to prepare for it; willing to hurt during it and willing to hurt even worse in recovering from it.  The pain eventually will subside and I hope to be back to my regular training.  Until then, I won't soon forget the feeling of rising from the hollow and seeing the bewildered look of those at the top of Death Trail, all of whom were fairly stunned to see me in first.

"With nothing left to draw upon but his will."

Thanks to Blake Thompson for carrying on the tradition of this race set in motion back in 2007 by Tom Possert.  Thanks to Rob, Alex Clark, Dink Taylor and others on a running a good race.  Thanks to the many good friends who celebrated in this success with me in the hours since.  Thanks to Gregg Gelmis for capturing the moments of the race in pictures.

Top 10 Fastest times from the "modern" course (2012 to present).

1 Brandon York 1:57:05 (2012)
2 Eric Charette 2:03:32 (2013)
3 Eric Charette 2:06:08 (2012)
4 George Heeschen 2:06:43 (2012)
5 Rob Youngren 2:11:38 (2013)
6 Brad Schroeder 2:11:58 (2012)
7 Eric Charette 2:13:48 (2014)
8 Dink Taylor 2:16:41 (2013)
9 Nathan Huff 2:18:24 (2013)
10 Rob Youngren 2:19:09 (2014)