Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unexpected Extraordinary

Being part of an ultra event is paradoxical. On the one hand, it's a very simple concept... you run through the woods for a long time. That's it... just move forward.  On the other hand, something big happens within people and between people that is very, very deep and moving. I don't even know what that "something" is... I've tried to put my finger on it, but it's not tangible.  All I know is that you go into the woods, and at some point you come out of the woods... but there's an entire universe in between.

It's Traveller time. I chickened out, but had some friends from Memphis who were hitting the starting line. John and I went down to be part of their crew/pace team. We met the group at Copperhead aid station, at mile 48, which is the first place to pick up pacers. The foursome of runners was still together at that point, and when they came in, I headed out as a pacer. I was running with Lauren, who I knew the least well out of the group. That changed. 

A few miles out of Copperhead.
If you look hard, you can see the "50" sign.
The easiest part of the course is between the Copperhead and Turnaround aid stations, and as we ran, we talked. As we talked, we somehow started pulling away from the others.  Now, the pacer's job seems simple enough: keep company and make sure that they are eating/drinking and staying on course.  And that's what is going on most of the time. But a great burden on a pacer, and the most important thing, is to make sure that they are not sucking their runner out too fast, or on the other hand, not holding them back from their best.  Where is the balance between a finish that is more comfortable but less satisfying, or a "go for it" finish that turns into a dnf?  Lauren looked smooth, confident, and brave, like she was ready for this. But was it too much?  Too soon? I really couldn't tell, coupled with the fact that I didn't know Lauren all that well and didn't know her running style and personality. What kind of shape was she in? How did she act when things got hard? Did she want tough love or more sensitive encouragement? So we ran on, all of this to be seen.

Thomas laying out drop bags at Copperhead

Back at Copperhead we switched pacers, and I drove one of the crew vehicles to Winona. By this time it was 1:00am and I got a chance to listen to the Cardinals in extra innings at Los Angeles.  They lost, but ended up winning the NLDS. It really doesn't take long to get used to the simplicity of things in the woods, so that when you drive the truck into Perryville at 1:00am and get an AM radio signal, it just feels so modern and metropolitan.  At Winona I took a brief nap in the truck, and got ready to jump back on course. I had barely turned off my alarm, got out of the truck, and set up the drop bags for everybody when Lauren came in, looking very intent.  She looked at me and said, "ready?"  Absolutely. Let's do this. 

There is a tough section of the course after the Rocky Gap aid station, which is billed as "jeep road", but it's more technical than that, especially at 3:00am.  This is the section where I get such a sense of situational absurdity. Everyone else is in their bed... and I'm listening to distant coyotes as I scramble up this hill trying to keep this runner from falling off the side of the cliff. Lauren was brave. She had the courage to sense a good day and go for it. And she grumbled a little through the last semi-technical section at miles 93-98.  But she never once expressed the desire to make the hurt go away by going slower or quitting. So we kept pushing, hard. It felt downright triumphal to hit the last mile where the dirt road turns to pavement. She finished a solid 3 hours ahead of where I think she had intended, and it was inspiring. I think I cried, or at least felt it welling up inside. Something as simple as running through the woods, and yet I experienced such a range of human emotion that takes weeks and months to accumulate in everyday life. 

And best of all, I made a new friend.  :-)