"Get off me!" I yelled. I was alone on the Dark Side just picking up steam through Colon Hollow. I had to slow and turn abruptly, picking my steps through one of many small gully crossings littered with loose wet rocks. My toes cramped, curling involuntarily inside my shoes. I was yelling at the cramps. I accelerated back to my pace on the incline, pushing off across all my toes. Do it anyway I thought to myself. The cramps, the fatigue, the fitful night before, the fast guy off the front -- they just are. I could choose to use them as reasons to back off, but I redirected all my thoughts toward my purpose: to run my best for the Promise Land.
The fast guy off the front was Kalib Wilkinson: 27 year-old 2:19 marathoner and winner of the 2012 Holiday Lake and Terrapin Mountain 50Ks. Promise Land was the 3rd leg of the Lynchburg Ultra Series, and Kalib had teed it up cleanly to drive another one home. He and Jake Reed blazed ahead of me from the start to climb the 1700 feet to aid station 1 in about 22 minutes. This is how my mantra got started. I had wanted to stay relatively close to Kalib, knowing that running with someone fast is a good way to run fast yourself. But the pace was too hard. There was none of the usual early-mile banter. Jake and Kalib were out front, I was behind them, and the rest of the field quickly dropped back. My early plans foiled, I set my sites directly in front of me and determined to do it anyway. Run alone if I had to -- and it turned out I did. When Jake pulled back he walked the last pitch of the climb and let me run past. Kalib was out in front by himself -- and it would be a long time before he slowed down.
Snaking through the single track after aid station 1 I glanced up occasionally to catch sight of Kalib's bright green singlet. I was able to match his pace all the way through aid station 2. We crossed paths on the spur and exchanged greetings. I stopped to re-fill my bottle as Kalib accelerated toward the Blue Ridge at Apple Orchard Mountain. I had carried caffeinated Clif Bloks from the start so that I would have the option to give myself a fix up this difficult final pitch. My preferred plan, and the one I chose, was to wait until the second half of the race before eating any bloks. I had eaten a bowl of oatmeal at 4:30am, and had been sipping on a bottle of perpetuem. I knew the boost from the bloks would be that much better if I deferred until the course bottomed out on the dark side.
By the time I crossed the Parkway Kalib had put 1 minute on me. I matched his pace to Sunset Fields, where I picked up another bottle of perpetuem. I worked the technical downhill as hard as I could safely muster, and tried to carry my speed along the grassy double track toward Cornelius Creek. In years past I have felt like I was flying through this section, culminating in a triumphant run down the gravel and then paved forest service road. This year I felt tapped out, even as I was descending toward the lowest point of the course. I started to feel the sleeplessness of the night before.
I had camped with everyone else, like I always do, but this was the first trip that included Loren -- at 2 years old -- my youngest daughter. She is an angel. When we put her in her crib for the night she smiles and goes to sleep. She is 2, though, and this was new for her. Just when I wanted to go to sleep she tapped her dramatic side and cried fitfully. Robin did convince her to quiet down eventually. By the time I settled down after that and finally sank into a real sleep she woke up and cried again. I was awake for a considerable time after that. By the time I went back to sleep a car alarm went off in the camp. And so it went. I had determined not to compound the problem by worrying over it.
At Cornelius Creek Kalib had a 4 minute lead on me. He was no longer a factor in my race plan. I would simply be running the last half of the course as fast as I could. As I headed out on the forest road I entertained the thought that as younger and faster runners decide to do ultras they will push the old guard from the podium. Maybe my success at ultras, even as a younger person, was because those fast enough to rise to the top of road racing avoid trail ultras. I don't know Kalib's motivations, but he plainly could place well at road races that offer a measure of prestige -- and even money -- that ultras don't. Although he is still unusual, our sport has seen more young and talented runners drawn toward the dark sides of mountain trails. My friend Michael Owen, who handed me my bottle at Sunset Field, was asking for advice on running ultras even as he competed on his college cross country team. He has already emerged as a top national competitor.
I shake my head to regain focus: do it anyway, I repeat to myself. You may be old and tired and they may be young and fresh, but so what? This is my course. I know the only place left to make up time from past years, and it is about to cue up. At 2:20 I start on the bloks. I turn off the pavement toward Colon Hollow. The track is narrow and winding, but I start pushing the pace.
I have always cruised this section, backing off the pace and collecting myself for the final push up Apple Orchard.
It had become a kind of bragging right that I would make that climb in under 40 minutes. In 2011 I didn't have enough training under my belt and I had run the first half of the course too hard so I had to settle for a 42 minute climb. I went on to finish in 4:36. That's what made me think I could possibly break Clark Zealand's long standing 4:30 course record.
When I first won Promise Land in 2006 in a time of 4:52 I felt I was at the apex of my ultra running and that I had absolutely flown through most of the course. Clark's 2002 record seemed completely out of reach. As Horton explained, conditions had been ideal. A stellar field had assembled to compete in the Montrail Cup event. Clark was in his prime and benefited from perfect weather and the strong early pace set by Hal Koerner. Scott Jurek, Will Harlan, William Emerson, Dink Taylor, and DeWayne Satterfield provided a perfect (if unwilling) supporting cast. Until I looked to 2012, I never even considered the record attainable.
I had always looked to Promise Land, though. There is nowhere I would rather run. David Horton may be best known for the Mountain Masochist 50 mile run, but the 50K across Apple Orchard in the Blue Ridge Mountains is the real gem created by the father of ultra running in the east. The race is getting its due. Close to 400 of us assembled for the 2012 version, and for the first time since that stellar field competed in 2002, 7 of us went under 5 hours. And I had prepared.
For the first time since 2006 I had several months of good injury-free training. Since running Terrapin in March I had cut out my coffee consumption, kept my alcohol intake to a trickle, and reduced added sugar to fewer than 30 grams per day. I ran long hill climbs, track intervals, and a couple of bonk runs. I had decided to take all reasonable measures to get the most out of myself and then hope it would be enough to subtract 6 minutes from my best time.
I couldn't help that the last week of my semester coincided with the week before Promise Land, or that other stresses at work were bearing down on me, or that Loren would have trouble sleeping the one night I really would like quiet. I would have to do it anyway.
And so I began to feel my race was rolling out in front of me as left the aid station at Colon Hollow. Kalib's position didn't matter. The cramps in my toes didn't matter. I charged into the Cornelius Creek aid station to refill my bottle and Horton said I was 7 minutes under my time from 2011. Those were the sweetest words I could have hoped to hear. I had earned the time I needed, and I knew I could better my pace from 2011 up Apple Orchard. That Kalib was 7 minutes ahead was immaterial -- I was running to go under 4:30, and now I knew I could do it.
Even with the strong and steady exertion, I didn't feel especially fast on the technical climb. I was genuinely surprised to suddenly come upon Kalib, shortly before the falls, walking awkwardly. I confirmed that he was cramping but otherwise OK and then passed him with a pat on the back. I did not rejoice in the suffering of a fellow competitor. I remained focused on my mission to gain the climb as best I could. As I gradually processed what it meant that Kalib had been forced to walk and had lost his hard-earned lead, I felt vindicated. I have lost speed with age, but I have gained some capacity to make the most of what's left. Younger and faster runners have entered the world of ultra running, but experience and wisdom can still prevail.
I made the climb in about 38 minutes. I barely paused to reach for my bottle at Sunset Field before I bolted into the woods for the return to our camp at Promise Land. Several times on the descent my concentration would break long enough that a brief sob would come over me. So much of my life feels constrained by forces outside of my control. I chose to race my best across Apple Orchard Mountain into Promise Land. I felt all the pieces of my life -- so often scattered and incoherent -- fit together and become whole. The silly looking core and agility exercises I do on my driveway, the long discussions I had with my coach when I was in high school, a stormy night alone in an AT shelter, limping up to receive an award from David Horton after my first Mountain Masochist. Life only makes sense when hurtling toward the fulfillment of a lofty ambition after significant effort.
When I run Promise Land again I will be at least 44 years old. Younger runners, some likely bent on their own kind of vindication, will be there. I'll still have work and family conflicts, and maybe a looming injury. There will be no guarantee of winning, and slim chance of besting the new course record. I'll do it anyway.