It took me a week to stop thinking about a wrong turn at the end of a race. It took until last Saturday, when Ronika took me out to shake-a-leg to an old-school funk and blues band at a local watering hole (Monterey Court) in Tucson. I was primed to celebrate my overseas adventure, and the end of a hard training block that included a no-booze January. I didn’t waste any time and gobbled up the perfect dose of Dragoon IPA and bourbon. I was feeling on point and built up the liquid courage I needed to hit the dance floor and celebrate. With my gangly arms flopping through the outdoor breeze and my inebriated shoulders bouncing back and forth and up and down to my own awkward, spasmodic interpretation of the beat, I stopped thinking about that missed turn.
It was an older crowd. In fact, I think we were the only ones on the packed dance floor that wasn’t alive for the moon landing. This is our M.O. The older folks know how to eat, drink, dance and laugh… and then be home and in bed by 11! That’s what I’m talking about. Ronnie and I cuddled up to sway to a slow song. I gazed my glossy eyes around the cozy scene splashed with wispy grey-hairs being spun about and wrinkled smiles in every direction and I couldn’t help but take it as a smack upside the head. “Who gives a shit about your wrong turn!” They slapped me again. How insignificant my 4th place or 2nd place or 3rd place or any place is in the scheme of things. I couldn’t believe I let such a silly thing take up so much real estate inside my head for the last week. When I’m one of these groovy grey hairs, I won’t be thinking back on that wrong turn. I’ll be thinking about that pair or brown eyes in front me and about that time we had a blast getting down with the geriatric crowd at Monterey Court. Bring on the funk.
Mile 7 and I’m right where I want to be. I studied the splits. Studied the course. I know whose here and how fast each of them can run. I’ll let the lead pack go out ahead, just as I predicted they would, just like last years race. They’ll go out and run low 6 minute pace, and they will slow down dramatically in the second half. Maybe one of them will have a breakthrough race and keep that pace up. If so, well I don’t stand a chance against him anyway. I’ll stick to high 6 minute pace and try to slow down less.
I usually find a good rhythm and kick it in cruise control gear around mile 20 in races. Mile 22 hits and all systems are operating smoothly. I’m doing 2 water bottles/hr (I drink a lot), a GU gel every 20-25 minutes and I’m peeing clear pee regularly. All good. I get amped to start picking fellas off – I think I’m in 7th. I see the first guy. Now I’m in hunting mode. I pass and get more fired up to push the pace. The beginning of the course is mostly dirt road but now we are entering the more technical section of the course – the jungle. It’s a nice trail but there are lots of roots so foot placement is crucial. I find the rhythm of the trail – hopping over roots, ducking under trees – keeping it all in a fluid, forward motion. I pass through an aid station and they tell me the next guy is just up ahead and not looking good. I speed up. I smile because I’m nearing the halfway point and my body is right where I want it to be. And then… WHAM!
I’m dizzy. I’m on the ground looking up and I see tree branches swirling above me. Did I just get a concussion? I think so. I don’t know. Probably not. Who cares. I gather myself, stand up and offer a nod to the large branch that jumped out of nowhere and clothes-lined my face. Well-played sir. My nose is gushing blood. I pinch the nose, tilt my head back and start running. I need to get the bleeding to stop before the next aid station or they wont let me continue until it has. No time for that… I’m on the hunt! I run the next few miles with a hand pinching my nose and head back. Just before the next aid, it stops bleeding. Phew. My face and shirt are covered in blood and I’m running bug-eyed with all the energy in the world through the thick forest. I pass another couple fellas who must think I’ve either gone completely bonkers or blown a mountain of coke while no one was looking. I got a bit of an adrenaline kick from that knock-out.
Around mile 45-50 it starts getting hot. Perhaps it’s the humidity that I’m not used to. It’s much different when you can see all your sweat and it doesn’t immediately evaporate off. I’m prepared though; I hit the steam room sessions hard coming into this. I’m fighting off some muscle cramps here and there, but I’m used to this. I take 10-20 seconds to stretch whichever muscle is locking up and then carry on. I haven’t gotten rid of the muscle cramp issue that’s always plagued me, I’ve just learned to deal with it.
I’m in 3rd. At the second to last aid station they tell me that 2nd is just up ahead and looking rough. There are still some steep climbs and descents, but I know the last 3-4 miles of the course is wide open and flat and, if you still have gas in the tank, you can finish real hard. That’s my plan – keep the reserve tank cued up and go balls-to-the-wall in the last 5k. The fella in front of me passed me at mile 98 of the Western States 100. What can I say, I’m keen on returning the favor.
As I bomb down the final hill in the middle of a giant redwood forest, just before the final aid with 5k to go, I miss the turn. I run right past it. I stay on the main trail that is filled with tourists and hikers and don’t notice the clearly marked offshoot to the right. When I come to a road with no markers, I realize what I have done and book it back. It was a half-mile to the road, half mile back. I lose 8 minutes. I arrive to the aid station and ask if I’m still in 3rd. They say no. I curse. A new Australian buddy decides to pace me in the last 5k and tries to cool me down from my fit. “We can still catch him mate, we still got this.” He tells me. I switch on that reserve tank and run those 6:40s that I had saved up for the end, but it’s not enough to catch up.
I gain back some ground but settle for 4th – 3.5 minutes behind 3rd, and 4.5 from 2nd. Those gents ran a great race and by no means do I think I had them beat. Part of ultras is staying focused, smart and closing the deal – of which I did not do, and they did. It’s a bittersweet finish, but a finish nonetheless, and any ultra finish is incredible because you’re done!
I thought about that damn turn for a week. Thought about it hard, and I’m glad I’m done thinking about it. The “What ifs” and “What could have happened” is a terrible game to play. What if I beat um? What if I pushed hard at the end and my leg seized up and I had to crawl it in? What if I caught up to 2nd and we had an epic sprint to the finish. What if… what if… Eh, who gives a shit!
I’m happy with how I threw down. I’m prepared to throw down even harder, and smarter, next time.
How was the rest of the adventure to New Zealand? I tell you what, that place is a gem of this world, and I only scratched the surface of it. I hope to go back and experience it with Ronika. The big takeaway: The place has an abundance of good people and they move at a slower, healthier pace. I noticed an emphasis on quality of life over quantity of life. It was refreshing. I found the best small corner bakery in the world and went there every day. I made friends with the baker, who was from Switzerland, and he moved there because, “The people are incredible here.”
Well done New Zealand, good on ya. (They say that a lot) (They also say heaps a lot. Heaps of heaps.)
Thanks to Tarawera Ultras for the great photos and the amazing race experience!
Also, special thanks to Aravaipa Running for their support of this adventure!
Shoes: Topo Athletic Fli-lyte 2s