“[I felt]…glad as anyone can who feels afraid, and as afraid as anyone can who feels glad.”
– C.S. Lewis
Into the red zone
The grey light of early morning arrived at Northfield Mountain just in time for the start of my second leg. Bundled with extra layers to keep me warm until it was time to run, I walked slowly up the hill, taking in the foggy tableau of rows and rows of tents sheltering sleepy runners who were either, like me, stirring to their morning task, or turning in after nighttime runs.
Although it was only a few minutes past 5:00 a.m., I was surprised at how awake I felt after only a couple of hours of fitful sleep. Could the small amount of caffeine in the gel I had taken be responsible, or was it rather the excitement and apprehension of finally facing the dreaded “red” loop? In either case, I was glad to be up, and especially glad that it was light enough that I would have no need for a headlamp on my run. I did a little jogging, a few token drills, and tried to keep warm while waiting for Eric to arrive so I could get started. After an anxious wait, I saw his name appear on the video screen, and two minutes later he trotted into the transition zone, handed me the GPS belt, and wished me well. And with that, I was off.
5:30 a.m. – starting the Red loop
I had done my best to memorize the elevation profile of the red loop, and was grateful that it allowed me to warm up before facing the toughest hills. The first half mile or so was identical to the green and yellow loops, but of course seemed much less forbidding than the night before when I had been straining to see the trail in the dark and dodge snakes. Once the red loop branched off, I found myself running mostly single-track trails, more up than down, but nothing too severe. It wasn’t until about a mile and a half that I hit the first major climb, a three-quarter mile stretch with an elevation gain of over 500 feet.
Shifting to my lowest running gear, I began the slow ascent, and even though I was making very slow progress, I began overtaking runners from other teams who had made the quite sensible decision to hike rather than run the steeper grades of the mountain. It was a little odd to see someone only a few dozen meters ahead, and then take several minutes’ worth of micro-steps to close the distance before making a polite pass, while offering what encouragement I could. On one of these passes, a thought occurred to me that had, perhaps, been germinating during the past few weeks of preparation: I wanted to run the whole leg without walking at all.
Much later, after our team had finished, I would compare notes with Neil, who was by far our fastest runner and quite possibly the fastest runner at the entire event, and he said that, sure, he walked the steepest pitches. If that was his strategy, then what business had I to insist maintaining the semblance of running, while reducing my stride to mere inches? But that was later. In the moment, halfway up the mountain, the idea had taken firm hold in me and became my singular goal for the rest of the leg.
After reaching the first peak, the red loop perversely steered us right back down to where we had begun the climb, giving back all the hard-won altitude for no reason. Not only that, the trails down were quite technical, so my pace was barely faster than on the uphill, and fear of falling from a mis-step replaced the fear of running myself to a standstill. Back at the bottom, with three miles of the loop done, the course turned uphill again for the second major climb, a 1.25 mile stretch with an elevation gain of almost 600 feet. Although the average grade wasn’t as steep as the first climb, there were short sections that were extremely hard, similar to the 16-18% grade of my old friend, Pine Hill in Concord. It took a lot of focus to keep running on these sections, as well as a willful forgetting that in a few hours I would have to do this all again on the yellow loop. My Garmin told me afterwards that I averaged about 14:00 per mile during this section.
At 4.25 miles or so, the red loop topped out, and I began a long, technical descent. You might think this was fun, but I found it very awkward and challenging. I couldn’t seem to find any rhythm, and with quads tired from the long climb, I hardly trusted them to stabilize my weight. As a result, I picked my way jerkily down the mountain, fighting gravity the whole way. It was a huge relief to reach the final mile, and the trails where all three loops came together, and I recognized familiar landmarks from the night before. By the time I entered the transition zone and handed off the GPS belt to Neil, I had been out on the red loop for just under 70 minutes, an average pace of ~10:50 per mile… and I had not walked.
Breakfast and, more importantly, coffee
I wasn’t sure how I’d recover from what had been a pretty hard run, but I knew any recovery would begin with breakfast and include coffee. After a little walking around and light stretching, I headed back to our campsite to change out of my wet clothes, towel off, and eat something. It was great to have Mike and Bob there manning the camp stove and ready to supply pancakes, which I washed down with diluted Gatorade. It was a great pleasure to sit there with them, and with the others as they rose from their slumbers, and relate my adventures on the red loop.
Another fine meal at the Northfield Hilton.
As for coffee, I timed my dosage carefully. Having abstained for a week, I knew that a full cup would be my secret weapon for the final leg. I also knew that it would be best to have it ~2 hours before I began my final leg. In the meantime, I would rest as much as possible, and wait until 9:30 or 10:00 to dose up.
“You look so serious!”
Years from now, when the memories of races run have mostly faded like forgettable t-shirts with the sponsors’ names on the back, and the details of courses and places and times have all become muddled in my brain, there will be a few moments, I believe, that will remain fresh and vivid. One moment I think I’ll remember from this year’s Ragnar Relay wasn’t particularly dramatic, but it probably says more about me than the rest of this narrative.
I was hanging out near the transition zone, waiting for the arrival of Eric, our sixth runner, who was, we guessed, about five minutes away. Around me, other runners seemed to be having fun, and it was hard to tell the difference between those who had already finished and those who had yet to set out on their final legs. Many of them were sitting around the fire pit, which had been burning steadily since the previous morning, or were listening to the DJ, or were checking out merchandise at one of the vendor booths that ringed the Ragnar village. Not me. I was in my own world, so focused on visualizing the loop ahead and the next 45 minutes of running that nothing else registered on my consciousness – not the goofiness of other runners, not the hipness of the DJ who was gamely continuing to entertain the crowd, not the weather (I honestly don’t remember whether it was rainy or sunny), not whether I was having fun or not… There was only one thing left in the world for me to be concerned about, and that was the task ahead.
And then I heard Sue talking to me, a friendly voice breaking through into my private thoughts: “You look so serious!” she said, with infinite sympathy.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “This is just the way I am.”
A truce between mountain and man
Both Sues has sworn to me that I would have fun running the yellow loop. I was skeptical. I just didn’t see how it would be fun to force tired legs up one more ridiculously long climb, and however pleasant the final two miles, I had a hard time imagining that it would make up for the preliminaries.
Most of the team was at the transition area when I took the GPS belt from Eric and set out once more. I ran the first few hundred meters wondering whether there would be anything left in the legs. Almost immediately, I knew that it wouldn’t be too bad. I was definitely tired, but nothing was broken or strained, and the coffee had done the trick and made me feel almost energetic.
Beginning the final leg (and fastening the GPS belt in the back).
I started up the long hill having decided that walking would be perfectly OK, if the terrain warranted it. Nevertheless, I once again tried to adopt a low gear that would enable me to keep running for as long as possible. If I recall, I walked twice at particularly steep sections, perhaps a minute each time, and then resumed my baby running steps as the slope eased.
As with the red loop, I found myself overtaking a handful of other runners/walkers. At one point, I came upon a woman who had stopped completely on an especially nasty stretch, and I asked if she was OK. She was fine, she said, and just needed a little break. I knew how she felt, I said, and told her I’d probably need a break soon, too, if the hill went on much longer. Actually, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were on the hill anymore. My GPS watch had been somewhat unreliable on the red loop, reading less mileage than the course map suggested. In fact, after my brief encounter, I turned a corner, ascended one more short, steep slope, and then with growing excitement perceived that the trail was leveling out, and soon after, began to drop again. I could hardly believe that the worst was now behind me.
And sure enough, Sue and Sue’s prediction came true. I began to have fun. Almost immediately after reaching the top of the hill, the course turned onto a single-track path through the woods, but unlike most of the single-track I had run over the past twelve hours, it was neither significantly up or down. I found myself weaving through the trees with some degree of confidence, quite a change from the red loop a few hours earlier.
With a little less than two miles to go, I hit one last section of single-track that dropped steeply through the woods. The thought flashed in my mind that it would be stupid to come this far only to take a fall or sprain an ankle. I wanted a truce, now, between man and mountain: I had consented to walking on the steep uphills, and wanted safe passage on the downhills; I no longer harbored any animus towards the red loop, or the yellow loop, or any loop. I just wanted to run without having to think too much. I worried that I had been fighting the mountain and the trail, rather than letting it lead me on. I was ready to stop fighting and enjoy the next twenty minutes for whatever it had to bring.
And then a second thought flashed in response: stop worrying; just run.
And that’s what I did.
The end of the tour
After negotiating the single-track without breaking my neck, I emerged out onto a long gradual downhill on a wide grassy road that allowed free running, and for the first time, I began to open my stride. I felt like a completely different animal, and reveled in the feeling. Every so often, the descent would be interrupted by a short uphill, and I would realize how very tired I was of climbing. These bunny slopes were almost harder mentally than the mountain I had scaled earlier because now they seemed gratuitous and unnecessary. Having tasted the downhill, I had no appetite for anything else.
Sue L had warned me that with a mile to go, I would have to run uphill to the final common trail, about 0.8 miles from the finish. I gutted this out, and then turned onto the now familiar final section. Ahead of me, I could see one runner – he had made the turn from the red loop, while I had made the turn from yellow – and it happened that I caught him right at the time mats with 400m to go. I had the presence of mind to ask him if he was the final runner for this team (each team finished with a leg on the red loop), and he said yes, and asked me the same question. I told him we had one more runner to go, and then I realized I had a decision to make. It was tradition for a final runner to be joined by his or her teammates for the finish, where pictures would be snapped and cheers would be given. If I was with him, it would be a bit of a mess, and would greatly complicate my hand-off to Neil.
For about two seconds I considered letting him go ahead, and then I realized I was full of running. I took off and ran as hard as I could for those last 400 meters, gaining about 20 seconds, plenty of time to execute my hand-off to Neil and get the Hell out of the way of the other team’s celebration.
I ran my final leg in just under 45 minutes, or about 9:50 per mile, which — considering the course and my state of fatigue — pleased me greatly, even though it seemed entirely beside the point to pay be concerned about times.
It now seemed certain that our team would complete all 24 legs in under 20 hours, which would be almost three hours faster than the previous year. Sure enough, Neil ended up running his final leg in an incredible 57 minutes, giving the team an aggregate time of 19:41:33, which would place us 8th overall. As Neil finished, we all joined him for the final 50 meters. By that time, I was so out of it, I almost collapsed in the finish chute.
Though exhausted, we were all very proud of ourselves, as we snapped photos, and then headed back down to the campsite.
Team “They Went That-a-Way” poses for a victory photo (missing: Sue M)
Although I knew I should eat something, I didn’t feel that hungry, and mostly wanted to rest. After a brief semi-nap (see below) I did manage to force down some food and drink, before it was time to take down the tents, load the gear, and talk excitedly about doing it all again the next year.
On the ride back with Eric and Neil, I could barely keep my eyes open, and drifted in and out of the conversation. That night I went to bed early and slept late the next morning. My legs, which I feared would be trashed, were OK, only a little sore, and only when I walked down stairs. A day or two to recover, and then it would be time to begin real summer training.
After I write a story like this, my running friends sometime ask me how I remember all the details of the race. I think one tends to remember more details when there’s a strong emotional component of the experience. And running seems to be a reservoir for some of my strongest emotions.
As I was waiting to run my final leg, Sue had said, “You look so serious!” In that moment, I couldn’t have been more serious about anything. I was, indeed, so intent on acquitting myself well on the hills, that nothing else held my interest or attention. Once I had gotten over the last of those hills, my focus remained but my worries melted away and I felt in my element, loping along without a care in the world. It’s hard to describe that state of being weary to the bones, but still so full of running.
I’m not sure why I, or any of us who choose this form of recreation are wired this way – why we need to make things so hard; why we seek out mountains or marathons, or some other absurdly difficult quest. Speaking only for myself, I seem to need races to focus my efforts and save me from the mental distraction and obliviousness of normal life. I suppose that’s why I still need to run — to train for the next big thing — even though it becomes harder and harder to ignore the complaints of my aging body.
Why run up mountains? Why keep running, when walking or resting seems so tempting and so much more reasonable? I can only answer for myself that I run up mountains because it forces me to be awake instead of asleep, in fact – in C.S. Lewis’ phrase — to be wider awake than I’ve ever been before.
At least until the next mountain.