Guest Author: Mike Fitzgerald
As the plane circles Tucson, I begin wondering how I got myself into this. It’s my first ultra-marathon, and the only thing I can see from my window are huge mountains that surround the entire city. Before the plane lands, I feel the anxiousness start at the pit of my stomach and work its way through my extremities: is my foot going to be alright? What about the elevation change? I’ve never hit the 30 mile mark before. My Achilles have been brutal the last few months. Did I train enough? The list continues.
All these things sink in for roughly 30 seconds before I snap out of it; I didn’t come all this way for a participation trophy. I came to finish a 34 mile race. An obnoxious voice in the back of my head repeats, “If you ain’t first you’re last. C’mon Ricky Bobby!” I think about that beautiful thing back home who patiently watched me train, and all my family and friends who have wished me luck going into this. The plane hasn’t even landed yet, so I tell myself to quit all that self-deprecating nonsense, and trust the training won’t wind up with a DNF.
I get scooped up from the airport by my buds and we have a few pre-race beers. The following morning, the 4 am alarm sounds, we inhale some of my buddy’s wife’s amazing oatmeal, and drive 45 minutes outside of town. We get out of the car and I am overcome by the black shadow line of the mountains against the horizon. It’s like a large creature is lifting itself up against the stars waiting for us to traipse across its belly and race into the desert. I begin to clam up as I start to outline a plan in my head. Like most large endeavors, I refer back to one of my favorite riddles of all time: “How do you eat a horse?” In other words, how do you tackle such an immense undertaking without getting overwhelmed? The answer is, “One bite at a time.” There are 6 segments with 5 aid stations so have a game plan for each one, breaking the course up into little pieces and developing a strategy for each. I remember my sister-in-law’s text from the night before, “stay ahead of hydration” which I repeat 100 times over the next 7 hours. Before I know it, I hear the National Anthem and we get going.
Out of the gate I want to take it slow and find a group with a comfortable pace while I get used to the climb. As a pack, we come over the hill and down into a dried up river bed. Ahead I see slow movers and wobbling knees. We begin running through sand. I am shocked. Sand. Really? For some reason this was completely unexpected. I hear that voice in the back of my head, this time nagging, “Hey fella. You’re in the desert. What did you expect?” I follow the group into aid station 1 and begin to feel more comfortable.
The second leg starts the climb from 3100′ up to 4200′. I keep it steady and pass a few folks. Most of my technique revolves around good old gravity: climb slow and let my body weight carry me down the slopes. After the second aid station I feel the turnaround approaching, but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I remember to walk the rough climbs, shuffle up the hills, and focus on getting to the next station. I pass a few friends and we holler at each other going by. I cruise into the mile 17 aid station feeling confident.
At the turnaround, I refuel with some hardened peanut butter sandwiches, Oreos, and an over salted boiled potato. The legs and feet feel good following the climb, and now I just need to make it back down to the start. As I leave the gate, I run down the hills and pass a few more runners. Everything seems to be going well and I stay conservative, knowing there are roughly 12 more miles after the next aid station.
The second to last stage takes its toll on me. The course is wide open and I’ve been out there for more than 5 hours at this point. Someone creeps up from behind and passes me as I head into what I call the Abyss. This is my overly dramatic term for when I approach distances I have never reached before. For me, anything after 26.2 is the Abyss, the Unknown. Everything seems to be holding together until I fall somewhere around mile 28. I get up, dust off my hands, legs, ego, and focus on enjoying the scenery as I pull into the last aid station. Here I refuel and fill up my pack for the last time. The impeccable outhouses are a sight for sore eyes and the supportive volunteers are cheering everyone on. I leave the last aid station feeling like this. (The reality is I probably looked something more like this. ) The final stage feels similar to the last: slow, hot, and the soreness starting to set in. I climb up and down, pass through my beloved sand, and hear someone coming up behind me; there’s no way this person behind me is going to pass. I make it to the top of a ridge and circle around to the north side of the hill somewhere around mile 32. Something clicks and I pick up the pace. The shade and downward slope push me along, until I reach the dried up river bed right before the start line. I climb up the hill, pass through the starting arch, and see everyone cheering and hollering. I run through the finish line and jump up onto the “gallows”, raising my arms and feeling like the Bills just won the Super Bowl.
I high-five one of my buds and the race director approaches. “Congratulations, etc., etc. Here is your finishing rock!” In the back of my head I say, “I spent the last 7 hours avoiding these you son-of-a-b*%$!. My feet are killing me and you want to hand me a rock?” I subdue my sarcasm, take a breath and begin to feel a great sense of gratitude to all these crazy folks who come out and host ultras like the CV 50/50. They’re all over the course giving us water, food, fuel, and the occasional, “Smile, you paid to do this!”
If you’re wondering what it feels like to cross the finish line at an ultra-marathon, imagine this: you ascend into heaven and someone hands you a beer, chocolate milk, and a plate of Greek food. At the finish, there’s no cell reception, no huge medical team, not even a proper bathroom- just a row of outhouses. I see my buds sitting in the shade cheering on the runners and enjoying the 100 person post-race. The atmosphere is more camaraderie than celebration, and I start to see why other people do this.
On the way home we stop for some beers and talk about the race. I did this race with guys I’ve known since elementary school, and the three of us are all at various stages of running. Charlie has been doing hundred milers and winning races (when not writing/hosting blog posts) which is pretty incredible. Jon has always been a hell of an athlete wherever he put his talents. We have kept in touch via weddings, social media, texts, but nothing too consistent. When we found out we could make this happen, it was a no brainer.
All weekend we talk over beers, food, and a deep soreness in our legs. The conversation spanned everything from politics and the election to a not-so-border line McConaughey man crush. I don’t think we actually agreed on anything, but sitting and listening was pretty gratifying to hear the perspectives. Between the two of them, they have lived a thousand lives and worked every job imaginable, from a blogging cage fighter to a roaming farm hand in Europe. After knowing these guys for so long, I recognize the difference between the resume and the man. It usually follows drinking a few diet pops, absorbing what they have to say, and ignoring conventional wisdom.
My first glimpse into ultra-running exposed what type of folks do this and who they are. I’ll close with why I wanted to take this on. When people ask about running an ultra, the underlying tone is usually, “Oh so you’re a sociopath? You want to run for 7 hours straight?” After considering the question myself, I’ve come to two conclusions. The first: running is a you versus yourself, versus yourself, versus yourself activity. Your ambitions can be as brutal or as gentle as you’d like. There is always room for improvement and there are always new trails and landscapes to explore. The second is a little more of that “find yourself” stuff you hear all the time. Whenever I go out for a run, I can excavate all the stress, expectations, and obligations sitting inside of my stomach, and let them dissolve into the ground. It usually takes several miles to get the brain and body churning together for that excavation process, but eventually it’ll happen (or maybe that just sweat and 5,000 calories leaving your body). Whatever it is, it’ll keep you coming back.
The CV 50/50 allowed me to exercise those ideas, reconnect with some buds and experience some incredible scenery. If I can wrap all these things up in a 3 day weekend, I’ll keep signing up for these damn things. See you folks on the trails…
Big shout out to my bud Charlie for hosting us and having me give a write up. Great fun.
Buddies from way back in the day – Jon Pritchard, Mike Fitzgerald (author), me.