So, yeah, I was a little scared
One of the most exciting, and frightening, things about wearing your life on your sleeve, is the risk of public failure.
And God knows, man, I’ve failed plenty.
That never feels good.
But, when you do get a success, that one good race where you did what you set out to do, it feels so incredibly good, you just want to scream at the top of your lungs.
You want to hug everyone around you, and maybe even shed a little tear. (Paul Carrington, are ya listenin’?)
For months, it has consumed your mind, your training, what you eat …and what you didn’t eat. It pokes and pesters you as that angel on your shoulder during those torturous track workouts, and those long mountain climbs when your body begs, “dude, no more!”
But you just keep going because it means something to you – you simply want to be a better athlete.
Today, as I start this report at 30,000 feet on Delta flight 2536, back to the hustle and bustle of Atlanta city life, I’m wearing my black, long-sleeved Ghost Town 38.5 race shirt with HUGE pride, and a GIANT smile on my face.
The hard training paid off.
Finally, I did something right.
Albuquerque a’int my kind’a New Mexico
Ok, I’m just gonna say it and be done with it – Albuquerque was not all that cool to me. It’s a vast, flat dry land that is 57 shades of brown. No grass, no vegetation, and a lot of fences.
I met up in the ABQ with ultrarunning friends from Arkansas – Ryan “Holla” Holler, Jeff “G-unit” Genova, Tom “Slow Lane” Lane, and “Sleepy” Shannon McFarland. Ultrarunning legend, Julie Aistars was in town as well with Iliana Dimitrova as they had planned to travel, and run, the race together.
It was great seeing my Arkansas buddies, and five, smack-talking, sarcastic dudes in one hotel room, makes for a very entertaining and comical night.
It was clear that this was gonna be one of those “epic trips.”
…and I couldn’t wait.
Welcome to Hillsboro – Now THAT’s more like it!
The next morning, the five of us headed south, just 120 miles from the border of Mexico, to a small – and I mean small – desert town called Hillsboro. Home of the Ghost Town 38.5 ultramarathon.
As we made our way south, the terrain kept getting more and more awesome. It was still brown, but a cool kind of brown. Large Mesas turned into vast canyons, which turned into bigger and bigger mountain ranges.
Lots of, “Cool! did you see that?” goin’ on in the car.
Being that we were sorta competing against each other, and we both seem to have the gift of gab, Holla’ and I rode down to Hillsboro together in the same ride. In between deep conversation we’d snap photos of the spectacular jagged mountains, rustic windmills, and unique settings all around us.
We cruised through the town of Truth or Consequences, hit the only Wal-Mart in town for groceries, and rolled into Hillsboro to meet Susan Reynolds, the race director, drop off our food contributions for the pre-race feast, and get officially registered for the early morning race.
Susan Reynolds is one interesting woman. Talented artist, proficient wordsmith, fabulous (did I just say fabulous?) cook, and story-teller extraordinaire.
Susan has never really known what to think of me, only knowing me through email exchanges, some heated, some not-so-much, so I was excited to meet her in person and see if I could eventually win over her friendship after all.
We arrived, busted some hugs, told some stories, …and just as were leaving to go find our home for the next two days, in walks Bill.
Check this – Bill Halm is 83 years young. He’s been running longer than I’ve been alive. He has run more races in his life than most people have sneezed. Bill was walking a specific 27 mile section of the Ghost Town course as a double masters entrant.
Let that soak in your brain — 83 years old, and walking a rugged ultramarathon, in the mountainous Gila Wilderness.
Bill is one of the most incredible men I have ever met.
Every one of us dreams to be Bill someday.
The Black Range Lodge
I’m so sorry. I know people would rather I just get to the damn race already, but it just wasn’t one of those experiences. For all the joy I got from the race, it was easily equaled by the overall experience.
The Black Range Lodge is located about 8 miles from the Ghost Town starting line, in a “town” called Kingston. The “town,” as far as I could tell, consisted of maybe 20 houses, a small fire station, that may or may not have been operable, and a Spit and Whittle Club.
Nope. I have no idea what a spit and whittle club is, but it sounds very remote, high desert New Mexico, doesn’t it?
This is where we met Dallas and Renee – a very cool athletic couple from Tuscon Arizona (and recently engaged). This was Renee’s second Ghost Town race, and the two had plans to run the entire race together.
In our “lodge” we also had Erik and Ed, two fast runners from Texas, as well good ol’ double masters Bill Halm.
Both nights in the lodge were filled with lots of laughter, hyper, excited runner-talk, and the sharing of life experiences – we all became great friends as easy as breathing.
The pre-race fiesta – a feast fit for kings and queens
Wow. Talk about a pre-race meal, this was an outdoor party complete with a local string band, incredible array of food options, and running gear giveaways that would easily give a North Face event a run for its money.
Tim, injured ultrarunner turned head kitchen master, recruited an awesome crew of volunteers, and we ate five different kinds of pasta, vegetable salads, fruit salads, and various local favorites that runners brought from their home towns. Cheeses from Wisconsin, jambalaya and king cake from New Orleans, sausage-n-potato soup, vegetarian dishes, deserts, …it was all top notch, all the way around.
I want to offer a public shout-out to Tim, who’s a helluva a nice dude, and all the kitchen volunteers who fed us pre-race, at the finish line, and post-race. We never went hungry, and after slamming the course, we were constantly peppered with, “can I get you anything?” and it just made the event feel that much more like a community gathering of like-minded souls.
6:00 a.m., 27 degrees, and 70 cold runners
I woke up at 4:15 roaring and clapping and getting fired up. I’m sure everyone in the lodge wanted to kill me.
I was dressed and ready in a flash.
This is what I came for …what I trained for, and the starting line was calling my name. I couldn’t wait to step under that banner and go to battle with myself, the course, Ryan Holla’, and the other 69 trail runners.
There were some fast young rippers there. Jason Koop, Pete Stevenson, and Nick Pedatella, all from Colorado, and of course all from elevation, were the race favorites; and when they lined up at the front, I made it a point to line right up with ‘em. Sure, I had no business anywhere near these studs, but mentally, it was just what I needed to build that excitement even stronger. Plus, I’m a race groupie and enjoy being around the fast cats.
Just before the start of the race, Susan asked me to let out one of my way-too-loud ultra screams, and thinking she was using it as the starting gun, I busted a nasty redneck howl, and took off…
…and the front group followed…
But it wasn’t yet 6:00 a.m., and her intent was not for that to be the start, so she called us all back under the banner.
A few laughs, and a minute or so later, she officially counted off the final seconds of the 5 a.m. hour, and we were off into the darkness.
Officially, this time.
Hills are easy when your fresh
The first 6.3 miles of the Ghost Town are run on the road from Hillsboro, towards Kingston, and all mellow-grade, gradual uphill.
The Colorado runners took the lead quickly, and about 4-5 of us settled into a small pack quite a ways behind them. Interestingly, these two groups wouldn’t really change much throughout the entire event – its just that the runners within these groups spent the day trading places amongst themselves.
The group I was in started uphill at between 8:20-8:50 pace, and we held this all the way up to the trail head feeling nice and comfy. Not too fast, and not too slow, ‘cuz we still had a long way to go.
It was beautiful as the sun started to rise behind us and cast light on the mountain ranges in front of us. You know how sometimes you’ll be watching a cheesy happy movie, and you’ll catch yourself actually physically smiling because of what you’re watching?
That’s what watching the mountains felt like.
They were so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, and I would catch myself floating off into daydream land just’a staring at the mountains and feeling so lucky to be where I was at that very moment.
It was like how I imagine heaven to be if it exists. Pure happiness. Body moving freely. No worries. No concerns. Just running and absorbing and smiling and happy, listening to the rhythm of my feet and my breathing as the miles clipped off steadily.
The first aid station pops up just as runners turn off the road and make the approach into the Gila Wilderness.
I blew past the aid station, and Ryan and I continued to stay together through what I call “the rollers.” This was a 2-mile series of rolling, gravel hills with exceptional views of the sunrise over our right shoulder.
I started smiling again. So did Ryan.
Like a couple of kids… “damn, man, do you see that?”
“yea, dood, crazeeeee pretty.”
Then, Ryan would say, “no man, look back THERE!”
And sure enough, I’d look between two other mountain peaks and it would be even more dramatic and more colorful.
(I say “dude” a lot.)
Nutin’ like seeing a friend
Right after we finished “the rollers,” we officially entered the Gila, and there’s good ol’ Jeff Genova, aka G-G-G G-unit, with the cameras set up, firing away, and calling out our current placings. We were in 6th and 7th at the time and feeling fantastic.
We tossed our headlamps into his truck without skipping a beat, and continued on down the trail towards the Stone Hut aid station.
This early section of the Gila was similar to “the rollers” and I started getting a little cocky.
Ryan fell behind for a brief second, and I started thinking to myself, “this is easy,” and I wasn’t finished being cocky as I started saying to myself, “man, if it stays like this, I can handle this pace and terrain all day long.”
One thing was certainly for sure, there was not one bit of flat. We were always climbing or descending, even in these early miles; and while nothing was crazy difficult, it was always clearly uphill, or clearly downhill, and mostly rolling.
We hit the Stone Hut aid station still feeling great, and since I didn’t have any drop bags in this race, I pounded a cup of Gatorade, grabbed some cantaloupe and left the station just a little before Ryan.
Would it last?
Nope. He was right on my heels within 5 minutes.
The dirty, nasty spur
Everyone liked the spur but me.
Talk to anyone who’s run the race and they’ll say, “I thought the spur was cool.”
For me it was just aggravating.
See, on the way out, the race takes a sharp left onto a very rugged spur trail, which this year had a lot of snow. 90% of the 2 mile spur trail was covered in snow, and since we were some of the first of the runners to hit it, it was still kinda deep (ankle-ish) and incredibly slippery.
And of course, being the clueless idiot runner that I’m known to be, I was wearing racing flats, trying to negotiate snowy trail.
Why was I wearing racing flats in a mountain ultra known for lots of dirt, snow and rocks?
I have no idea why I thought that was a sound idea.
I can picture plenty of people who know me well right now …Vic’tah, Rockdaddy, Crazy Asian, Geraldo, Zombie Runner, Transcon Priceless, even Weezy …and on and on, just a’shakin’ there heads and saying to themselves, “what a complete dumb@ss.”
But yea, there I am, slipping around like a wet fish, complaining like crazy, while Ryan crushed through it in trail shoes, happy as a clam, and moving as efficiently as if he was running on snow tires.
I felt stupid.
And while I did have a rough time on the spur, expending waaaay too much energy for very little gain, it was still an out-n-back kinda thing, so we got to see lots of the other runners heading out as we were finishing it up.
That’s always a big pick-me-up, and I enjoyed cheering on the other runners, seeing friends, and high-fiving peeps along the way – but I was glad when it was over.
No more snow.
…for awhile anyway.
Hilltop Aid Station or “bye bye easy”
Once leaving the spur, I caught back up to Ryan, and we powered up the short climb to the Hilltop aid station where an awesome and energetic aid station crew was ringing cow bells, yelling, and eagerly attending to any need we might we have.
Ryan had a drop bag here, so I just pretty much grabbed a scoop of cantaloupe again and took off down the long downhill, thinking I could put a little distance between he and me.
Cocky again, and it does nothing for me.
He came flying down the hill, with a dude named Jeff, and they passed me like I was standing still. For one, my racing flats made the loooong rocky descent torturous, and two, both of them are simply faster than me.
This was a very long descent and I looked at my watch and noticed we were running 6:55 pace into the canyon.
“This can’t be good,” I thought to myself.
Hoping they’d slow down, I muttered a pitiful little, “wow, we’re going to to have to come back UP this later.”
But it did no good. They kept it up.
And not knowing the course, I had no idea what was ahead, but sure enough, after we bottomed out of that descent, and rolled through some bizarre house(s), ranches, or some kind of living quarters made out of sticks and logs, we crossed what I now refer to as “the creek of doom”
It’s not that the creek was deep, or tough to cross, ‘cuz it wasn’t …it’s just that after that creek, things, at least to me, began to change dramatically.
All of sudden it was very rocky …scree-like rocky, and once again, my racing flats made me feel like a complete dork.
The climbs were starting to get longer, steeper and more challenging…
False summits a’plenty
Oh I hate false summits.
Well, not really, I love everything about trail running; but, at that moment, when the sweat-salt is stinging my eyes because I inadvertently rubbed my forehead with my water bottle, and my calves are burning like crazy, and the thin air coupled with particles of dirt is coating my exercise-induced asthmatic lungs, I get frustrated when I think I see the top, turn a corner… and it’s not the top.
That’s when you force yourself to smile and remember that you chose to to do this, and trudge on.
The climb to the Vista aid station is where I really started to feel it from going out so fast. I did not save enough for the tough stuff, and now, I was in the thick of the tough stuff.
Ryan (and Jeff) dropped me just before the Vista aid station. I wasn’t sure how far ahead Ryan was, but I knew I’d have to work really hard to catch him, and that just wasn’t appealing at the moment. I had dropped to 9th place now and I started sweating my dream goal of a top 10 finish.
A quintessential “bad patch” was looming, but I was trying to fight it off.
I hit the Vista aid station and it was cool to see Susan’s husband, Matt. He’s a very efficient and accommodating aid station dude, and along with his gang of helpful volunteers, I dropped off my gloves and hat, watered up, grabbed some pretzel sticks, and dipped out very quickly, headed down into “the bowl” to try to catch Ryan Holler before the 22 mile mark at the turn-around.
This wasn’t going to happen…
Hey – whaddya know, more snow!
About a 1/4 mile from the turn-around I see Ryan coming at me.
“Grrrrr, he’s 1/2 mile ahead I say to myself, “ but to him, I say, “great job, Holla…”
‘cuz I’m friendly and supportive like that …at least I pretend to be.
But I’m really bummed because I’m starting to have a little bit of a bad patch because we are now back in the snow, and I’m bummed that he dropped me so easily and still looks so &^%$! fresh.
I’m sweatin’ the snow I just cruised through on the downhill because I know it’s now going to be an uphill snow challenge, in racing flats, which did not work out so well back on the spur trail.
To make matters worse, as I’m making my way back up the mountain from the turn-around, I see the 10th place guy making his descent, and he’s not that far behind me. …and the 11th place guy is not too far behind him.
So I slip and I slide and I climb and I crawl, and eventually, top back out at the Vista aid station, now somewhere in the area of 23 miles.
It gets easy from here, right?
Seeing people makes it all better
Since Ryan dropped my sorry butt around mile 21, I had been running alone and dejected (Thanks a lot Holla’); but, once I left Vista and started heading back, I started seeing a lot more of the field of runners making their way out to the turn-around.
In a way, I felt bad ‘cuz I knew what they were headed for, but I also really enjoyed the camaraderie and the encouragement, and did my very best to encourage all the other runners right back.
This really lifted my spirits and brought me right out of the funk.
I’m such a sucker for attention. It’s like my fuel sometimes. Maybe it’s sad, or maybe its just human nature, but when people say my name and let me know what place I’m in, or remember me from this blog, or the ultra list, or other races and all the other cool things that make people feel special, it just feels really, really good and makes me smile. …which in turn gives me a hella’ energy that feeds me and encourages me to wake the F%*@ up and do something!
Some people have that internally. I’m jealous of that. But I’ll take it it however it comes.
It’s only 13 to home
I rode this wave of excitement from seeing everyone else for quite awhile. Jen D., Paul C., Julie, Iliana, Dallas and Renee, Ed, Erik, first-time ultrarunner Greg, and California Ryan. The pep’y Colorado pig-tail girls, Slow Lane, “sleepy”, and of course, Bill Halm himself; and by the time I hit the Hilltop aid station for the second time, I knew it was only 13 miles – a measly half-marathon – back to the finish.
Time to put the hammer down, the headphones on, and let A7X help get me there.
Finding some mojo in the music
I pounded the downhills from Hilltop, through Stone Hut, and back to “the rollers” with everything I had left. I ran that 6+ miles with aggressive heavy metal pounding into my skull and it felt freakin’ great!
I had found some brand new energy and I beat my quads into submission before mellowing out at the gate to “the rollers”.
Unfortunately, and as usual, that was great an’ all …but it was waaaay too early.
The rocks in my shoes that weren’t
Remember my idiotic move of wearing racing flats for this race? Well, I really got to feel extra stupid on the rollers – check it:
So I’m running nice and easy through the rollers, holding an 8:46 pace which I felt pretty good about seeing as how I had just run 30 miles through some gnarly terrain, when I started to feel rocks in my shoes.
Now, understand, I hate to stop for anything, and especially when I can kinda, sorta smell the barn; but the pain was killing me!
I couldn’t take it and finally stopped, took off my shoes, shook’em out, and…
“hmmm, not much came out. That’s weird.”
So I slip ‘em back on and keep running… and again, I feel rocks stabbing me in the heel and midfoot.
So, again, I stop, knock out the shoes, struggle to bend over and slip ‘em back on, and again start running.
This goes on for 4 or 5 times before I finally give up and decide I’m crazy.
“Grrrrr. Screw it. I’ll just deal with it and figure it out at the finish…”
So I just ran with pretend rocks stabbing me in the feet.
Just’a 10K to go. How hard could it be?
I hit the last aid station somewhere in the area of 5:40-ish.
“Cool, 32 miles in 5:40 – I have 50 minutes to run 6.3 miles, and it’s all downhill – how hard can it be?”
Like, black top hard, …’cuz it was road.
For whatever reason, my body had become accustomed to the dirt roads and rugged trails, and when I hit the road weird things started happening to my body. My legs tightened up instantly, and my hips started to scream out in pain.
“Why? Why now?”
And looking back, I’m pretty sure it was mostly due to the fact that I was probably right at “50K-fit”; and running in the high-8s in the previous “rollers” section, hammering to get to the aid station, probably blew me out waaaay too early.
Whatever it was, all that new mojo was gone. I was now forced to run/walk intervals, but even then I figured I had plenty of time as long as when I walked, I did so briskly.
I wish I would have known Ryan was only six minutes ahead of me and was also run/walking. It might have given me some fire, …but I doubt it.
My legs were dead.
This boy was ready to be done.
“But, hey, I’m in 8th place, and I have time, …I just need to get there.”
It a’int over ’til the fat lady sings
I love that song, Fat Lady Sings by the GZA…
But, cocky gets served y’all.
With just about 2 miles to the finish, I looked behind me and saw a blue shirt…
It was 2:59 marathoner John McKenna from Connecticut.
I had nothing left and I knew I wouldn’t be able to fight him off ‘cuz he was coming pretty fast. I did some quick math in my head, and was pretty sure I was gonna get caught.
I decided not to get too stressed out…
“Come and get me if ya can, big boy.”
And he did.
Rather easily, really.
I was sad.
Dropped to 9th place with only a mile to go.
Get by with a little help from my friends
“Are those all the runner’s cars?”
“Am I finally there?”
Sure enough, I hear “Bring it on in Gunshow!!!”
And there’s good ol’ G-Unit taking photos, and Ryan Holla’ clapping me in, so I had to pick it up for the final sprint to the Montrail banner and the finish line.
Close to my dream goal of 6:30 for 38.5 miles; but best of all was that sweet top 10 finish.
I wanted it so bad, and I did it.
I said I was going to do it, and I did.
I trained harder than I ever have in my life.
I lost 31 pounds for this race, I busted my @ss with some really fast runners far better than myself, and I stayed focus – not only during training, but mentally throughout this entire race. I constantly kept my eyes and my mind on the goal, and I’m VERY VERY VERY proud.
Kicked that sucka’ …straight in the teeth as instructed.
So, dude – did you ever figure out the rock situation?
We hung around and clapped and cheered for every single runner left out on the course and didn’t leave until the last runner came through in 11:33, so I had plenty of time to take a physical inventory.
Because I was such an idiot and wore racing flats, the rocks had literally torn through the bottoms of my shoes and were half-stuck in the super thin bottom soles of my shoes, so that when they were off my feet, I couldn’t tell, but when they were on and I stepped down, they’d protrude through and stab my feet.
I ran about 10 miles getting stabbed in the feet with every step. Crazy, huh?
Yup, I feel even more stupid.
So, numbskull runner fool, what did you learn this time?
As usual, I end the report with tidbits about what I learned in the race. Here ya go:
- Racing flats in rugged rocks and ice cold snow is not a good idea (duh)
- Hard training pays off
- Being lighter pays off
- Running harder, longer may hurt a little more, but it feels so wonderfully free
- 7100 feet for low-landers is still “thin air”
- Ryan Holla’ is faster than me (for now. I got his @zz next time)
- I don’t need nearly as much food during a race as I once thought
- …water, neither.
- Perpetuem chews are A-ok
- Never underestimate a race’s difficulty until its over
Lastly, I just want to take a second to express how good it felt to sit there and cheer in all 61 of the remaining runners as they finished. Some first-time ultrarunners, some older veterans, some in complete pain, some smiling from ear-to-ear, some sprinting to the finish, …while some walked it on in just glad to call it a day.
I loved it and slapped hands with as many as would slap me back.
I know how good it felt to be right there, 30 seconds from ending the pain, and each time I saw someone right there, I knew exactly what they were feeling – like I was feeling it all over again myself.
I love ultrarunning.
So very much I love it.
Now, let’s hit Mountain Mist next weekend and break off a sub-5:45!!!!!! Get some!
Thank you Susan Reynolds for allowing me to be part of the last year of a great event. Your hospitality and uniqueness are very special and I will remember this experience with the utmost of fondness. Thank you Tim, and G-unit, and all the kitchen, food and aid station volunteers for taking such good care of us runners. Thank you runners for making this punk ass, wanna-be athlete feel special. Thank you for the blog comments and the recognition, and the conversations and most of all, for not getting sick of the long-haired dude bouncing around like a teenager, talking too loud, hollerin’ too much, and kickin’ up dirt.
This race …no, this entire experience was so awesome and I just love when experiences like this come along. This is what I want in my life. I don’t care about stuff, I care about experiences. Friendships, races, loving, laughing, crying, screaming, hammering courses, training, getting faster, encouraging others, and passing the positive vibe. Some people think I might be too emotional, too wound up, too crazy – but if you do, too bad, ‘cuz feeling like this is what I live for.
I’m crazy, but I’m alive.
Experiences are what life is made of, and the Ghost Town 38.5 drove that home for me.
Rock on everyone associated.
I loved it, and I love you all.