Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is youth wasted on the young, or is wisdom wasted on the old?

My small duffel bag was packed with just the items I would need on race morning. The black tights I have had for years, wind-briefs I have had for almost as long, a long sleeve thermal shirt, my orange team jersey, the Smartwool socks Rob Shoaf sent me, my Nathan waste pack, 4 Clif Blok packs (2 orange flavor with caffeine), bodyglide, and of course my favorite pair of shoes, the Montrail Mountain Masochist. As we chatted over a light breakfast of plain yogurt, my lifelong buddy Dave Lawhorn asked about my preparation. I told him it was down to a science. I’ve gotten myself ready to run an ultra more than 50 times. I’ve awakened to about 500 race mornings through my lifetime.

I know that I can eat breakfast at 5am for an 8am race if I avoid simple sugars. I know that I can load my bottle with 300 calories from the start because the ratio of water to calories needed for the first 90 minutes will be low. I don’t have to think about it – because I’ve thought about it, and sorted it all out, before. I don’t have to think about the 50 kilometer course that loops through the Jefferson Memorial Forest just south of Louisville, KY. I plotted it out myself after logging many miles of training when I lived a short drive from there. I created the race. I don’t have to think about who else could show up looking to win. I don’t assume that I’ll be 1st, but I do know that I’m already tuned to respond as the situation demands. My playbook has been written.

Admittedly, I was surprised at mile 14 when I asked Joan Wood how far ahead the 1st runner was. Only a mile before I had been mildly surprised to find that I wasn’t myself in 1st place. The 15 mile course had finally diverged from the 50K course, and lo and behold, I was still following tracks in the fresh snow. When I saw Joan, who has helped with the race since its inception, she told me he was a long way ahead. I later adduced that Keegan Rathcamp had an 8 minute lead at that point. I had run the first 14 miles about right, though. The course is difficult in good conditions. There is very little level ground, and more insidiously, the trail meanders as it climbs and descends. Runners are constantly accelerating just to keep the same pace. Compounding that challenge was the unique set of conditions on February 6. The soil was completely saturated from rains the previous week. Then three inches of wet heavy snow fell through the night and early morning. No shoes or shoe device, save long spikes, could have provided a purchase in that slick and soggy mess.

As I began my climb to the ridgeline across which the Siltstone Trail runs, I found myself unusually stirred by the distant scent of a lone front runner. A lifetime of pounding can’t purge the primal instinct to give chase. My attention became riveted by that single purpose – to catch my quarry. All my perceptual apparatus became dedicated to fluid speed. I didn’t “think” about where to put my feet, but they landed in the best possible spots. My body bent, ducked, and swerved along the undulating trail. For about 7 precious miles I dissolved into my body and its purpose. Keegan was coming back to me. I knew it because of where my feet fell compared to his footprints. I was making up 8 inches with every stride. I could feel him on the trail in front of me. Tiring. Slowing.

At the beginning of the 3-mile Scott’s Gap loop, about 21 miles into the race, he was 3 minutes ahead. That loop is a soul killer. I have only done it once before. It winds up a mountain, and descends into a swamp. It was part of the original Love’n the Hills course, but the loop was closed for years, and the course re-routed, because of blowdown from a tornado. Cynthia Heady, who has taken the mantel of directing the race, aptly put the loop back into the course. I ran into it carefully, methodically, with less abandon than my ridge run. The bottomlands toward the end of the loop had the worst footing of the race, and this is where Keegan had become ensnared. As I approached he looked back toward me and said, “this is no joke.” I agreed, and as I passed him I said, “this loop will kill ya’.”

Keegan and I met properly at the finish. I was glad to see him. He had found his survival pace and run it all the way in to finish 2nd. He is buddies with another young runner I have just gotten to know – Michael Owen. They are both part of the running program at Shawnee State University in southern Ohio, although Keegan recently graduated. These guys beam with raw enthusiasm for running and racing. As Keegan explained to me at the finish, and later on his blog, he just went for it. He knew the course would be tough, and he knew that I could be lying in wait behind him. He just wasn’t intimidated. Michael likewise tackled the 15 mile version of “lovin’ the hills.” I think he easily outdid his similar performance at Frozen Sasquatch on January 2. The passion these guys have goes all the way down. You should check out their blogs. The commentary they offer is incisive and inspiring and I think we’ll be hearing more from them in the future.

Competing with Keegan I felt like the wily veteran. Armstrong got 40 seconds on Contador in the 3rd stage of the ’09 Tour by virtue of his experience. Contador had his youth, though. He was so passionate, and so strong on the climbs. Is it a shame that youthful energy cannot be applied more strategically, by someone who could really handle it? Or is it the bigger shame that those with youthful passion don’t manage it as well as they might? Or, and more likely the case, is this a classic dilemma, where movement toward one is necessarily movement away from the other?