A Little Background
Up until a couple of months or so ago I would have never classified myself as a 'runner'. In fact, I have always been more of a 'If you want to run, I'll bring you Gu and Gatorade at your marathon stops' kind of guy. To be forthcoming and honest with you - I would have rather opted for a colonoscopy than pick up running. I really saw no point in lacing up my shoes, running long distances (which until recently I qualified 'long distance' as anything greater than 1 mile), and coming home smelly, exhausted, and sore. It kind of reminded me of NASCAR where they drive around in circles for hours...what's the point?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure I had run a few races in the past couple of years at the poking and prodding of my wonderful wife Rachel, an avid runner and resident promoter in our household of healthy choices. In the past races, all four of which were 5k runs, I earned nowhere near what I would classify as a quick time. This was evidenced by having paced with, and later handily beaten by, a 7-year old in the local Ready?VanGogh Race for the Arts a few months ago in June.
One important thing you need to know about me before we move any further into this post - there are three personality characteristics I struggle with. First, I despise anything I'm not good at. Second, if I'm told there is something I can't do...be prepared for me to do it...and chances are achieve it. Finally, I have to try doing something at least once. It doesn't matter if it's eating peculiar food or bungee jumping off the Navajo Bridge (470 feet drop...and yes...it's on my bucket list). It's kind of a nasty little joke I believe God played on me while I was being stitched together in the womb. It has driven me into more trying situations than I care to admit - the latest of which is more commonly known as the Flatrock 25k - a remarkably challenging run through captivating hills surrounding Elk City Lake that you would swear were right out of a movie scene.
So my wife and I have another couple from church we've gotten to know really well - Heather and Jeremy. Rachel and Heather stack up well when it comes to running and they train together often with other women in our church. Jeremy and I stack up well because frankly before 2 months ago, we didn't train at all. Well it happens that Heather ran the Flatrock 25k last year in 4hrs and 40 minutes and I remember thinking at the time that she just might be a little off balance. Seriously - who runs for almost 5 straight hours?? What could a person possibly do to occupy their mind for that long??
Looking back, I'm still not sure how Jeremy and I were talked into running Flatrock, but I can distinctly recall the moment I clicked the "register" button online after paying the entry fee. There was a queezy drop in my stomach upon realizing with one click I had just invested money into running this race. When money is spent, there is no going back.
So let me lay this out in plain view - the entry money is paid, Jeremy and I are nowhere in the shape to run this far or this complicated of a course, and we have a few months to go from zero to hero. I'll save you the training details, but will say that we worked harder than I've worked in my life to get ready for this race. We managed to set new personal distance records nearly every time we ran, lifted weights every weekday, and both of us began to feel and look better than we had in years.
The night before the race, after cruising along the lake roads and jumping out of our car to chase a rogue armadillo, we reached the main camping zone where the staging area for the race has been set. It was evident within seconds of walking into the pavilion to check-in that we had entered another dimension - one in which people were remarkably gracious and treated us like old friends. After Jeremy and I and our wives sat down to carb-up on some amazing spaghetti and meatballs (and a side-salad covered with a delectable onion dressing one of the volunteers suggested I try), we headed back to catch some shut-eye before the big race the next morning.
Flash forward a few hours. It's race morning. We arrive and go through the traditional pre-race routine by stretching out, loading our Osprey hydration backpacks, taking our energy drinks, and walking down to the starting line. Usually I'm a pretty nervous wreck at the start of any kind of race, but the ONLY thing going through my head at the time was "What the heck am I doing? I've never ran 15 miles! I'm not sure I can make my body do this!". The countdown however had already begun and there was no turning back now. 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1...GO!
Up the blacktop we ran for the first quarter mile or so until we reached the edge of where the trail merged with the wooded area. It was there I quickly realized the training we had done running trails at a local church camp didn't make the cut when it came to prepping for this course. For those who may not have encountered this race before, it's basically 7.5 miles out to an aid station at which point you turn around and run the trail back to the finish line. There is one additional aid station somewhere around 3 miles into the course that you encounter on your way out and back. Jeremy and I stuck together for the first 3 miles, but it was apparent he had the endurance to run a little faster and was better equipped to handle the uphill running that we encountered, so when we hit the first station I told him to run as fast as he needed to as it was obvious my pace wasn't going to be able to match his.
Most of the run I spent alone, lost in my thoughts and observing the reactions my body had to the course. I've learned through the training, and subsequent run on this course, how important it is to have a measure of focus during the race in order to listen to the signals your body is sending you. Humans are truly wonderfully and fearfully made with a body that sends messages to the conscious mind letting us know when to speed up, slow down, take bigger breaths, take smaller steps, and a host of other messages to keep our body moving safely. The trick is taking the time and effort to listen.
At about 300 meters from the first aid station I began to hear the sweet sound of bagpipes filtering through the trails. Naturally, my first thought was there might just be someone crazy (or awesome) enough to be playing the bagpipes at the first rest stop. Upon reaching the aid station, I discovered a couple of great volunteers who had a car pulled into the area and had highlands music streaming from open doors. I grabbed a cut banana off the table, which I will take a moment to note was the sweetest banana I truly have ever eaten, downed a cup of Heed and headed back onto the trail.
What impacted me the most during this run was the quality and character of the people. Prior to this day, I had never encountered a sport where people passing you (on their way out or coming back) take a second to say "Great job!" or "Keep it up!" or "You're doing great!" as they move past you. At first it caught me off guard, until after several times of this happening, it dawned on me this was the new culture in which I had immersed myself. Not only was it common place, but by the time I finished the race there had even been a few enthusiastic high-fives given out along the way!
After hitting the half-way point, I was heading back when my legs decided they were ready to cramp up. I had been slowing to a walk periodically and deep massaging the backs of my legs to keep the cramps at bay, but it was a band-aide at best. During one intense cramp which shot down my leg to my toes, causing my right calf to invert and my toes to curl under, one of the other runners happened to catch up and see me rubbing down my leg. My neon green shirted, steel haired, savior had arrived! Without hesitation she stopped running and pulled out a little red coin purse full of electrolyte capsules, encouraged me to take a couple, and take smaller steps until the cramping ceased. Sure enough...it worked beautifully for several more miles.
Long story short(er)...and a few miles later, I finished the course.
What a magnificent trail to run on. The motto for the race is "If you look up, you're going down." and given the number of loose rocks, boulders, and assorted sizes of stones we encountered, it's a decidedly fitting motto. Given the perils of inattention, if you take the time to stop and look through the breaks in the trees, you will be presented with a glorious view from stony vistas high above the water. It may cost you a few seconds in the race, but it's well worth the stop, and if you're like me I wasn't racing to compete...but rather to complete.
By the end of the day, our group achieved new heights with each of us pushing our body and spirit to new physical and emotional limits. We are all hooked. Rachel and Heather plan to run the 25k again next year. Jeremy and I are going to take it to the next level - we just signed up for the Flatrock 50k next fall. Now we just need to ensure our legs are ready to see us to the end.
Many thanks to Eric Steele and the volunteers who put on this remarkable event. Can't wait to see you guys next year!
P.S. The most important take-away from the day: I now see the humor in naming the race...Flatrock.