Highlands Sky 2008: The race up front

The first half of Highland Sky was uneventful. Just nice smooth running in good weather. I traded positions with Yassine Diboun and Zach Irelan over the first six or seven miles. When we hit the flat and fast trails of the Roaring Plains, I felt good and eased ahead.
The race wasn’t much of one until Aid Station 6. By the end of the Road Across the Sky, I was nursing a little bonk. I rolled into the aid station needing something. Adam was coo-ing around like a protective hen, clucking encouragement and touting my prowess. I drank some coke and filled my water bottle. Poured numerous cups of water over my head. To Zach’s credit he hammered away to close the gap over almost 20 miles. So when I was leaving Aid 6 he was just arriving. About a minute down the trail onto the North Sods I realized I hadn’t taken any gels or food. So it was just me, a bottle of water, and salt with 7 miles to the next food. Already starting to bonk, this was a mistake.

A couple miles into the trails Zach caught and passed me. It flashed through my hazy mind that I might not be able to keep up. But I’ve learned not to let my mind decide those things. That is for the legs to decide and when they fail, the heart. Across the Sods I tripped on every rock as I clung stubbornly to the shadow of Irelan. I tried to conserve energy, run as easily as possible, hang onto Zach, and make it to Willie’s Aid Station.

Which I did. Stumbling along. A couple times Zach asked if I wanted to lead… this question was usually prefaced by the grunt, ‘I hate these ——’ rocks’. I politely declined until I accidentally passed him on the Boulders. To my advantage, I put on the brakes and gently picked my way across them, running at a very easy pace. Later, Zach would ask how I was able to run so quickly over those boulders! But I was stalling, hoping that some restful pace would work to my advantage. Mentally, I started picking off landmarks to get me to Willie’s aid station. Zach took the lead on the final climb to the bastion of hope and calories. I had nothing and did what I could to shuffle up the hill. He put 17 seconds on me in those few hundred meters and tried to bury me by not stopping at the aid station. I stopped. I had no choice.

Got two hammer gels, a cup of Gatorade, and filled my bottle with Gatorade. I was so out of it mentally that I didn’t even recognize RexRode. He might have even been the one who filled my bottle. I cannot recall. The only thing I knew was that I had to eat and I had to surge down the hill to catch Zach. As I was leaving the aid station, Juli Hooks said to me, “You can catch him, he’s not that far ahead.”

Looking back on it, those two nasty banana Hammer Gels could not possibly have taken effect so quickly. It is more likely a mental-chemical change (read: placebo effect) that reflects the supreme confidence that I have in the power of food. I headed down the trail and sprinted down the single-track. I flailed my way down the wall of tears at a dangerous rate. For once I didn’t think about where I would place my feet or which rocks to avoid, but only faster…faster…faster.

Coming into the clearing and trail that leads onto the ski slope I heard a mysterious whistling. Sharp, short, and piercing. Huh? I broke through the trees onto the ski slope to see a sight as sharp as any in my memory. Zach, only a short way up the hill, was walking and looking over his shoulder directly at me. The source of the whistle was a couple walking with an unleashed black lab. I walked for about twenty seconds to catch my breath. The lab trotted through the haze and nuzzled my right knee. In the fog, I saw snapshots of Zach up ahead and looking back at me. So tired from the long bonk and the sprint downhill, but frustrated at the walking, I sucked it up and started running. Everytime I blinked, sleepily, languidly, Zach was walking up ahead but always looking at me. It was surreal.

Towards the top, the trail levels out. The stress got to be too much for him, watching this zombie eat up his lead. He started running. He ducked left onto the single-track trail and was gone from sight in the conifers. I kept pumping my arms and inching up the little rolling hills. I decided then that I’d catch him on the buttslide … and I did. After that long surge I was back in his shadow, stumbling and bouncing off trees down the steep hillside.

Then I stepped awkwardly on a rock or a root and my left calf seized. Like someone stuffed a grapefruit between the muscle and my shin. SALT! I had a couple e-caps in my water bottle pouch. They had exploded in my ziplock baggy. I popped one in my mouth–nastiness– and slugged it down with Gatorade. The cramp loosened for a minute or so before it spasmed again. Emotionless and still running, I got the other salt pill, swigged it, and kept on his heels. Sometime in there he muttered that he was ready to be done with these trails. I said nothing. We hit the motocross trails and on a big sweeping left-hand rutted turn I squeaked by him on the inside.

Until this point I had been trying to plan the end. Thoughts flickered about outkicking him down the finish hill, but I had made my move without thinking. So I went for it. Just tried to keep the legs moving. At one point I tripped. There was no saving this one so I pulled my arms in, barrel-rolled down the dirt and came up running. In the midst of the roll, I looked straight back up the hill. No Zach. I just kept pumping my arms, hoping my legs would follow. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.

Out onto the roads I tried to find another gear. Cruising past the last aid station I recognized Chip Chase. I yelped at him. He turned to look at me. “You WILD MAN!” he shouted as he flashed the black pride fist. Then I was on down Freeland Road, running hard, running slow. I kept looking over my shoulder expecting Zach, but I couldn’t see him. Run hard, run smooth. Feel the rhythm, feel the ride … Off and on my left calf would lock up and I’d be on my toes, running like a ballerina. Far from pain, I felt only a mild disembodied frustration that I was falling apart. I’d reach down, manually flex my foot, and start running again. Though I kept looking back, I still tried to stay out of sight of him … thinking that this might break him. But as my legs were failing, I didn’t particularly trust my eyes, so I kept looking and looking.

Onto the grassy path along Route 32 I slogged. And onto the driveway of Canaan I tiptoed and shuffled. I counted down the turns to the finish. I pumped my arms. I saw, off in the distance, a shirtless runner ahead. Who’s that I thought? He’s moving fast? Why’s he running on the wrong side of the road? [turns out it was Adam] And there was a woman in blue running towards and then away from me. I was ready to collapse. Just before the grassy trail leading to the finish, I caught up to her. “Good job”, she said. “How do you feel?” As I recall, I grimaced and shrugged my shoulders.

Then onto the grass trail, through the woods, and down to the finish.

I recall Dan cheering and exclaiming about a course record, but I didn’t see anything. Not in focus at least. I knew I was through the finish and then I crashed on the grass, head downhill, calves locked in spasm. Dan and Jody sponged ice water on them and each wrestled with a calf trying to get it back to a more realistic shape. Good race.