The race course dripped with the full potency of spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Rain fell all night and into the 5:30 am start. The humble camp at the foot of Onion Mountain teemed with multi-colored tents, a couple campers, and many folks just sleeping in their cars. The runners, like the mountain creeks, were fully charged.
After hanging under TheAidStation tent with Jeremy Ramsey, Clark Zealand, and Jake Reed Friday afternoon, I took a run-out up the mountain a bit. If I could have convinced everyone else, I would have started the race right then. The cool temperature and steady drizzle were much better suited to racing than standing around. Jake had piqued my playful, if well honed, racing instinct by handily outpacing me up the substantial climbs of Terrapin Mountain four weeks before. I relished employing all of my hard-earned race savvy to test the value of experience over horsepower. It started with the pre-race banter under the tent. Jake brought up Clark’s course record. He was like a young Springer Spaniel, ready to jump at anything. “Oh I don’t know,” I said, “That’s a pretty high bar.”
And so it was. In 2002 Promise Land was new and part of the lucrative Montrail Cup. Zealand thumped a stacked field -- all of whom were on a mission. Scott Jurek finished six minutes back, Hal Koerner another minute behind him. As a side-note, all three ranged in age from twenty-six to twenty-eight years old. Jake is twenty-three.
When the run started the air was saturated with moisture and darkness. I was fiddling with my headlamp and cap for about a quarter mile. Considering it had worked flawlessly for years, I was mildly perturbed when my light simply turned off, and then flickered erratically as I tinkered with the switch. I had to take it off to manipulate it, and then, when it seemed to be working, get it back over my cap so that the beam wasn’t blocked by the bill. That occupied my attention while Jake sprung out in front with another Liberty runner.
Jonathan Basham said hello from beside me. This is a guy who knows how to race, especially here – on the Promise Land course. At age 24 he ran the 2002 race, finishing 21st. In 2006 he placed 2nd. In 2007, Basham was up against northern Virginian – and road racing speedster -- Pete Breckinridge. Pete was looking to go 3 for 3 in his first 3 ultras, having won the uber-popular JFK 50 miler. I was fortunate to have a ringside view from inside the race. I was sworn to jog all the down-hills so as not to aggravate a recent hamstring injury. Pete left us early, but I was with Basham at the highest point on the course, just before the descent to Sunset Fields. That’s where he started to roll, and he didn’t let up until he caught Breckinridge after the final ascent up Apple Orchard Falls. Basham won by about 30 seconds.
Ultra competitors spend most of these protracted events alone. When one finishes within minutes of another, it’s a close race. While ultra runners may seem more individualistic than other athletes, the ultra scene is as social as any sporting event. The Sunset Field aid station at Promise Land is a case in point. Volunteers and crews converge to help each other to help the runners manage food, fluids, and the motivation to complete a multi-hour event. My friend Adam Bolt had volunteered to meet me there, though he had never even seen an ultra. As he waited for my return trip through the aid station, Adam got sucked into the action. As he noted to me after the race, many of the runners in the middle of the pack cluster together, and so overwhelm the aid station when they pass through. He witnessed the twin tendencies of humans: to separate themselves, as with those who flew through the aid station toward the front, and to stick together, as with those who all came into the aid station at once. Both are social compulsions, though, as we all work to establish our place within a niche community.
Lucky for us, the desire to race and place well is a thrilling and welcome compulsion! When I finally got my light on straight, I looked up and started to move to the front. As the pitch steepened, so did my intensity. When I moved alongside Jake, he responded and quickly left his Liberty counterpart. The first few miles of Promise Land climb about 1400 feet. No sensible individual pacing strategy would involve blasting wide open up that climb. Of course I knew this. “We might as well go for the record,” Jake said to me. “What have we got to lose?” Ah, the joys of youth, I thought to myself. So blissfully unburdened by the full knowledge of the suffering we heap upon ourselves by proceeding like this. The only significant variable to me was when, and how badly, each of us would blow up. Jake had shown only four weeks before that he had a bigger engine. My best shot at him was to turn the race into a battle of attrition by making the initial intensity entirely unsustainable for both of us.
I hope someone kept the stats at the first and second aid stations. I’m going to be very surprised if anyone has ever been through those stations faster. I had suspected it would take longer, but by Sunset Field Jake had already dropped at least three minutes back. Now I just had to manage my own imminent implosion so that it was spread out across the middle third of the race. Basham was fit; Horton had assured me that on Friday night. He would no doubt be able to make up ground in the second half of the race. My work was to steadily take in fluids and a few calories, and keep a pace that would let me recover without giving up too much time. That’s the way I chalked up all those miles, particularly between the two visits to the Cornelius Creek aid station. Everything was carefully metered.
A two minute out-and-back is required to get to the aid station just before the final climb up Apple Orchard Falls. I was just leaving that section to start my climb as Basham turned to go into the aid station. In other races I have felt a familiar surge of energy when I first notice I am being chased down from behind – like you are in a nightmare trying to stay ahead of the bad guy. When I saw Basham, though, I just got excited, like I had felt in 2007 when he was chasing down Breckinridge. “It’s on!” I yelled to him, “You are ROLLIN’!” Instead of trying to drop the hammer (which more than likely would have only hurt me), I kept my effort steady, biding my time for what I figured would be a mad dash down the other side of the mountain. In 2007, when I couldn’t run the downhills hard, I made a point to work the climb up Apple Orchard Falls for all I was worth. From aid station to aid station I recall going under 40 minutes. My careful effort this time yielded a time of about 43 minutes for the same section. Still, no sign of Basham. He had to have lost his momentum somewhere early on that climb.
All that was left for me was to run down the mountain. The only dissension was in my lower extremities; my toes, feet, and lower calves took turns cramping – causing my feet to splay out oddly when airborne. I knew Basham would hold back nothing here. Likewise I just had to beat my feet into submission – jamming them into the ground with every stride. With a mile to go I was hammering at well under six min/mile pace. After I finished I only had about three minutes to try and keep my quad from cramping before Basham burst into camp. Jake had caught him at the top of the climb – so the race was on – it was a battle for second place. A minute and a half later Jake crossed the line for third. I told him I was impressed that he held it together and finished well. And I was. I know that is exactly the kind of effort required to emblaze into the neurons the deep knowledge of what is possible.