Nothing Up My Sleeve
Remember the magician we'd watch as children? He'd perform the most amazing things, pulling rabbits out of hats and flowers from behind the ears of kids in the audience. And often he'd begin his trick with the words "Observe, nothing up my sleeve and then da dah! Magic! The most amazing stuff would happen. I loved it! During a recent trip into the woods I thought about this. "Nothing up my sleeve" and maybe better described as "Nothing between my ears".
I drove to Loudonville, Ohio on Friday June 15th to partake of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run the next day. This foot race begins and ends at the Mohican Wilderness Campgrounds along the banks of the Mohican River and that Native American reservation. Folk come to play in and camp near the river, some come to run in the woods every Father's Day for 12 years now. I’ll say this at the beginning of my tale and get it out of the way. The race direction and personnel excelled here. I found every aid station well stocked with the required staples and often-unexpected treats. Smiling, encouraging faces greeted the runners at every one of these refueling stops. This is the only ultramarathon that Ohio can lay claim to and is run through the Mohican-Memorial State Forest and Park. Loudonville is halfway between Cleveland and Columbus off of Rt 71. Having run the very flat Columbus marathon years ago I naively assumed that there just weren't any hills in Ohio (refer to above quote about what's between my ears).
The fun began for 82 men and woman at 5AM in the dark and under cloud cover. It had rained all night and had just stopped before the start. During the day on Saturday the temperature would reach into the 80's but without the overbearing humidity that surrounded us the day before. The rain had taken the water out of the summer-like air and dumped it upon the dirt trails. The Mohican 100 course is broken up into color coded sections or loops. 69 of those miles are on trail and bridle path, most of the rest on gravel and dirt road, although there were short highway sections. One in particular I visited just about the time the local drinking establishments closed for the night. Much of the traffic there and then was exciting to say the least. Undulating was the word used to describe the first 11 miles of road on this course. Interesting word that, undulating. I would have said rolling hills or up and down and up and down.
Twice we were directed onto the soft needle laden trails of a pine forest. This trail felt like plush carpeting and was very nice on the feet. The fresh aroma of pine filled the morning air as the moisture of the previous night began to burn off as day began. On these courses I've always found that one feature or section stands out as memorable in some way. Seems as if there were many on this weekend. But the Covered Bridge aid station was one. I've run through and over bridges of this type in Vermont and I marvel at the why's of constructing something like this. There were lots of well wishing people there and the runners would stop here a total of five times during 100 miles. This was where the race's physician hung out. An ultrarunner himself he kept a low profile yet watched and observed each runner as they passed through. Very unobtrusive, I liked that. From the Covered Bridge station we moved into three different loops, two of them twice, each with it's own charm (a word used loosely here).
The orange loop at 22 and 57 miles took us through the State Park Campgrounds onto the rock and root laden trails along the Clearfork River. During my run there Saturday morning I chatted with campers as they began their day, reviving the previous night’s campfires and cooking breakfast. Fisherman could be seen on the river's bank. Later that evening it was supper being prepared as I revisited the camping areas, then I watched children swimming in the lazy waters. That helped remind and connect me to the real world. One section of this trail seemed to be losing a battle with the infringing forest and it's associated underbrush. A four foot tall runner would have no problem navigating through this brush but I had to keep my hands and arms out in front of me, pushing this growth aside or risk scratching face and eyes. The course would change seemingly so fast, from road to dirt and muddy trail to thick brushy trail, back and forth. I soon found myself on a stretch of highway attempting to follow a young man off course as he ran across the Pleasant Hill Dam. A kindly race worker stopped my folly and pointed to the correct route. Oh, How obvious! It made more sense in an ultrarunning sort of way to hop the guardrail and run down the grassy embankment than travel the road. This was an interestingly marked course. All markings were in the form of painted arrows on dirt, no hanging ribbons, and no chemical glow sticks in the trees after dark. But I must say that for the most part it worked, I came close to getting lost only that one time. It helped seeing the entire course once, if only in pieces, while it was still daylight. Before returning to the Covered Bridge we moved through this neat stand of red pines. They must have been 20-30 years old, they were more than 70 feet tall. It was obvious that man had planted them. They stretched as far as my eyes could see in orderly rows 6 to 8 foot between trees. As beautiful and interesting as this sight was I found it very disorientating for the course markers had us running not in the rows between the pines but diagonally through the stand. Out of this manmade woods the Clearfork River stood between the runners and the Covered Bridge. My first ultrarunning river crossing lay before us. Into the water thigh deep we went, 50 foot across to the other side and surprise, surprise, I remained vertical, although at that point a dip in the drink would have felt nice, maybe next year. We only crossed that river once, the next time off the loop and through this station the covered wooden bridge was used.
The blue loop from 32 to 36 miles had to be my favorite! This was done only once and the first part was made of trail filled with roots and rocks. Signs warning "Caution! Unsafe footing", were seen. The trail led to an charming stream valley, so secluded, so enchanting that I expected to stumble across leprechauns or fairies playing on the slippery banks next to Little Lyons Falls. The trail twisted and turned upon itself over and along streams until we hit The Wall. The Wall is made of wet sandstone and interwoven or brocaded with the roots of an ancient hemlock tree. The soil surrounding the root system of this old tree had been washed and eroded away leaving 15 foot of exposed roots that we used as a ladder while climbing out of this magical little valley. Onto road again and then forest and a steep descent at Big Lyons Falls in Clear Fork Gorge. This gorge had been carved 300 foot deep by the melting waters of the region’s last retreating glacier. It's a National Natural Landmark remembered also for its towering hemlocks and stands of virgin white pine. Here I came upon a half dozen teenagers playing around in the water who asked me to stop and take a group photograph of them. Didn’t they realize I was engaged in a race? No they didn’t. And so what? It mattered more to accommodate these young folks.
Back at Covered Bridge again and into the red loop at 36 and 67 miles. The second pass through these 10-mile loops proved to be my undoing. All day I had run hard, feeling capable and confident, hoping to finish the 100-mile distance is well under 24 hours. I was drinking and eating well and was on pace and in good spirits. The red loop is mostly on horse trail. I saw many of these beautiful beasts and their riders on Saturday. The trail consisted of dirt and rock and horse droppings. As the result of the rains it was an absolute mess. This trail reminded me of sections of the Bull Run Run course I'd been on months ago. This was a wet, sloppy, impossible to avoid shoe-sucking muck. It was impossible for me to establish a running rhythm here. I found it best to just move as best I could through the sloppy bog and continue forward. We were given many opportunities to wash our mud-laden shoes off in streams before plastering more of that “horsey” mud back onto our feet again (those shoes and socks came off my feet after 100 miles and went directly into the trash bid). I came out of this loop in good spirits the first time.The second time out was a different story, I was very much spent. I had run the last 4 miles in the dark, crossing streams and mud aided only by my headlamp’s glow. And to add insult to injury I began to vomit. Well now I’ve referred in past writings that in order for me to finish these long races I must empty myself, but this was not what I meant. Nothing up my sleeve. Nothing between my ears and now nothing in my belly. I felt better after emptying my stomach but it's so very important to continually refuel during an ultra of this type. For it's said that the ultrarunner will be wistful for the wall of the marathon should the death grip of the ultra take a hold of him. It had me and there was no avoiding it. I seemed to have lost the ability for communication between my head and legs. I just couldn't run. I couldn't put that coordination together. It was like trying to force a river upstream, can't be done. Acceptance seemed the best recourse, for me it often is. But ouch! But I remembered having been told to accept my limitations whatever they are and realize that they could become strengths and virtues. Since the beginning of this year I have been running on average 40 miles per week, climbing stairs and walking, usually with my wife Lisa for up to 20 miles. Late Saturday night and early Sunday morning I found that I could still walk and move at a brisk 3 miles per hour. I was moving forward towards the finish, which in reality was the purpose. Cool. I visualized walking in Leroy next to Lisa, around the block, through the village, into the country on our 5-mile loop and it worked and I was able to continue. I essentially walked it in from 80 miles.
Those last twenty miles are all on roads of one sort or another and as I moved through the night I was still able to enjoy the scenery. The sky was very big and full of stars. I saw Mars and all the familiar constellations. At one aid station I was asked if I had seen the space station in the sky as it moved across the Big Dipper. No I hadn't but the teenagers working this station with their parents had. What a wonderful shared experience for them. At another station I sat down, something I usually do not do and enjoyed a cup of chicken noodle soup while visiting with the crew there. Another runner came in, a virgin (another beautiful thing to see, a 100 mile runner in the making) asking if a pacer could be provided. One young girl working there, 14 years of age or so insisted that she be allowed to perform this task. Her mother was adamant. NO! She was not going to allow that. “But why not?” The teenager begged. “No fair!” The girl just didn't get it. Didn't understand that Mom as not about to let her go off into the woods at 3AM, alone with an unknown man. Kind of reminded me of some of the arguments I get from my preteen age daughters and I smiled. Rooster’s crow told me dawn was near and that the race would soon be over. It was time to greet the dawn.
My Mohican race was over at 7:30 on Sunday morning. I did not get it done in under 24 hours as planned, as presumed. Our old friend the sun again lapped me. 52 of those beginning this adventure 100 miles ago finished it in less than the 30 hours time allotted. Sweaty, now hungry and tired I headed off to the campgrounds showers wondering just why I do this. Why? Maybe just because there really is nothing up my sleeve. Maybe because there is no magic in what is done by putting one foot in front of the other, in doing this oh so simple task. No magic in the task only in what is received as the result of that effort. There’s the magic! I liken it to the irritation that begins an oyster's formation of its pearl. That's how I viewed my fellow runner on Sunday morning over brunch. 81 treasures, 81 jewels. To quote George Sheehan we were 82 good animals in all. 52 completely formed pearls, 30 not yet finished, gems that would in some small way help adore larger life. That's the thought I took away from the middle of Ohio that weekend. Before I allow the kind reader to take that pearl analogy away with them as it applies to me allow me to also share this. Upon my return home after the race my eldest daughter remarked not about the jewel-like nature of my appearance and spirit but instead she told me that I smelled like ham. What that says about the chemistry going on inside and on my body a day after 100 miles in the woods I’m not sure. Kids, you have to love ‘em.
Maybe this long distance running is what I’m meant to do during my playtime. When I joke about there being nothing between my ears regarding long distance running maybe what I mean is that I do it without thinking, its automatic, its natural. I like this quote by Bernd Heinrich from his book “Racing the Antelope”. Heinrich a lifelong runner and biologist teaches at the University of Vermont and spends much of his time in the forests of western Maine performing his research and ultrarunning. His book explores the human desire or need to run and reveals what endurance athletes can learn about the body and the spirit from other athletes in the animal kingdom. He writes:
"The human experience is populated by dreams and aspirations. For me, the animal totem of these dreams is the antelope, swift, strong and elusive. We chase after antelope and sometimes we catch them. Often we don’t. But why do we bother? I think it is because without dream antelopes to chase we become what a lapdog is to a wolf. And we are inherently more like wolves than lapdogs, because the communal chase is part of our biological makeup".
Are we "hard-wired" to run? What do you think?
As is habit for me a couple of closing quotes.
"Things in motion sooner catch the eye than what not stirs" - Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
I love running cross-country. . . . . You come up a hill and see two deer going, "What the hell is he doing?" On a track I feel like a hamster. - Robin Williams, film star
“Look honey, here comes one that is still running!” - Unknown