I'm taking Red Emma's comment bait and extending Saturday's topic to remember my actual running (and walking) of 50 miles last September. Reader beware: In a fitting homage to the run itself, this might be the longest slice I've ever written.
The five of us are standing in predawn darkness at the base of a ski area in southern Vermont: me, my brother, two friends from his neighborhood, and my friend from college. Another 150 or so like-minded crazies huddle around us. The weather is cool, but not cold, about as ideal as we might've hoped. As I recall it's about six in the morning. We're shuffling forward to the starting line one moment; and the next, after months of preparation and anticipation, we're beginning an ultra-marathon.
We start on pavement, cruising down the ski area's driveway and along a rural road. There's just enough light to see, plus ambient glow from those in the pack wearing headlamps. I feel palpable excitement and remind myself to keep an easy pace because if ever the "It's a marathon-not-a-sprint" saying were true, that time is now.
Soon, we leave asphalt for dirt. Softer surfaces will remain underfoot for most of the journey, one-third graded gravel roads and two-thirds double- and single-track trails. Sometimes, we pass through forested tunnels. The member of our group who has finished this event once before institutes a game where anyone who catches a falling leaf before it hits the ground earns a point. (Spoiler alert: He will eventually win with 11 points. I will get shut out.)
The day now fully illuminated, except where pockets of fog remain to burn off, we navigate the first aid stop. A strategy for our group is to move purposefully through these breaks; don't dawdle. With 10 total aid tents, even 2-3 minutes at each would add up significantly, and we faced a 12-hour cutoff to finish the course. I'm carrying water in a slim backpack, so I try alternate beverages at aid stops -- sometimes sports drinks (including a local brew sweetened with maple syrup) and, during later miles, my first soda in years. Snacks are salty (pickle chunks, quartered grilled-cheese sandwiches, handfuls of potato chips) or sweet (brownie squares, cups of M&Ms, banana slices, orange wedges) or a combination (PBJ).
We continue through the rolling countryside, passing barn after archetypal barn. We're running most of the time, downshifting to a hustling walk when the going goes noticeably uphill. Our fivesome sticks together for most of the first 18 miles, with a gap starting to form during the first substantial climb. My brother, college friend, and I arrive together at the aid stop atop that hill. (In Vermont-speak, this might qualify as a mountain but, because I'm visiting from my home in Colorado, I have topographical and pulmonary advantages.) Our two other teammates jog in a couple of minutes later and need refreshments. We confirm with them the plan we had all hashed out in advance, that each of us proceeding at our own pace is still agreeable for all. With that, my brother, college friend, and I get back on the course.
Our trio covers another dozen miles uneventfully, with the bonus treat of a high-school acquaintance who lives in the area and has remained tenuously connected to my brother and me via Facebook showing up on the course by bicycle to encourage us. We pass the marathon mark, where my brother signals he's going to ease his pace for a bit. At about mile 32, the aid stop features drop bags that we staged the previous day. For me, that means fresh socks and shorts. For my college friend, he gets the slice of cold pepperoni pizza he had stashed for just this occasion. We finish our costume change and pizza scarfing, respectively, by the time my brother arrives. We're here in roughly six hours, which means we feel safe from the threat of that cutoff. The three of us head off together, once more communicating that each of us is entitled and encouraged to go at his own pace. That ends up meaning my college friend and I get to the next rest stop without my brother in tow. After a quick fuel-up, my friend says he's feeling good enough to take a shot at finishing in under 10 hours. As my brother's keeper, I say I'm going to wait to check in with him. My friend darts off while I cool my figurative jets under a shade tent, hopping lightly from foot to foot to avoid the peril of inertia. My brother appears in about 15 minutes. In his judgment, he's good enough, but not great. He has no doubt he'll keep going, but reassures me to -- as the cliché goes -- "run my race."
I scamper on. I feel two competing feelings at the same time: encouragement about how the event is going so far (the fact that I can still scamper mildly amazes me) and dread that the distance of a half marathon remains between me and the finish. Both sentiments are intensified by stretches of switchbacks through the woods that reveal other runners zigzagging ahead of me. I resist any temptation to beeline. My first experience with a run of this distance is there's far more camaraderie than competition. I encourage runners I pass, and runners who pass me do the same. As racers settle into comparable paces, aid stations become mini-reunions.
I cross a paved road that has landmarks I recognize from driving in the day before. Soon after, I'm at the last aid station. In a sign of desperation for me, I drink some Mountain Dew. Like a horse close to home, I am "smelling the barn," and a hit of caffeine and sugar is going to get me there faster. Except, as it turns out, for one last punishing climb to wrap around the flank of the ski area where we started this odyssey. I trudge up an interminable meadow, sometimes jogging, other times walking, knowing that any forward motion is to my advantage. The sun glares down, and there's a light headwind pressing my chest more like a gale. When the trail ducks back into the woods, it's a relief of both shade and blind corners. Mind games are in full effect: I just need to make it to that bend, then see what happens. When the next clearing turns out to be a ski run, I know the finish is just ahead and -- delightfully --below.
I discover I've got a little left, a 22nd wind maybe, so I fly through the roped section of the course that crisscrosses not too steeply down the ski run. "Looking strong!" someone shouts encouragingly. That's how I feel: strong. I cross the finish line a few minutes past 10 hours from when I started. My friend reached his goal, about 15 minutes ahead of me. My brother breaks the 11-hour mark, and his friends arrive well before the cutoff time.
Much to celebrate all around, including the next day when all of us prove we can still walk around.