2014 Kodiak 100

“you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

It was dark.  In the light from my headlamp I could see two yellow eyes looking up at me from the trail.  I waived my trekking pole but it just bobbed it’s head and watched me.  Moving closer, I could see the distinct outline of the owl with its gray speckled feathers. I heard two runners approaching from behind.  I held up my hand for them to stop and explained the situation.  One of them advanced around me and reached down toward the bird waving his hand slowly.  The owl quickly moved its head back.   I cautioned the runner to be careful and told him that owls are raptors and have very sharp talons.  But he kept reaching closer.  I kept getting more agitated by his cavalier behavior.  I tensed up as I awaited a flurry of feathers.  But then I heard the runner say, “There’s nothing here.”  I looked again and the trail was empty.  Where did it go?  How did I not see it fly away?  But as a moment of clarity hit me, I knew that it had never been there at all.

I was 32 hours into the race.  The hallucinations started about six hours earlier in the late afternoon.  I was at about the 80th mile climbing out of “Siberia Canyon” when I first noticed the sensation.  I had heard about this phenomenon of long ultra running but I had never run this long before.  My previous longest run of just over 16 hours had not created the combination of sleep deprivation and fatigue that makes the mind incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality.   Branches and rocks began to become people in the distance.  Stumps became animals.   Passing through a large boulder field I saw two beautiful houses complete with front porches and railings.  But as water on a hot road disappears so did these structures turn back into rock as I approached.

As much as running 100 miles in the mountains is a physical challenge it is much more a mental contest.  A struggle against hallucinations.  A battle overcoming aches and pains.  A fight against the loneliness and boredom of  long periods of solitude.  A test of will as sleep deprivation holds one arm behind your back.   From the hand numbing cold as you wait for dawn to the heat of the bright sun when you are a mile and a half closer to it, you question how you can endure.  Having tried to run a 100 miles the year before and having failed, I was engaged in an epic struggle of self-doubt.

The race began at noon the previous day.  When the race director started the run, I was ready.  I had been thinking about this race for eleven months.  Visualizing it.  Planning for it.  Training for it.  More than any other feeling, at the start of this race I felt a sense of relief.  I had made it to the starting line healthy and prepared.  I first heard about the Kodiak 100 while watching the finish of the Chimera 100 the year before.  I dropped from that race at mile 62.  After sleeping in our tent for several hours, Amy and I went down to watch the Chimera finishers arriving.  I had a conversation with one finisher who mentioned that he had run a new race a few weeks earlier.  He said this new race was much harder than the Chimera 100 (which had just eaten my lunch).  The new race was called the Kodiak 100.

I made a mental note of it as I contemplated the idea of anything being harder than what I had just failed to complete.  In the face of failure people react in different ways.  Many give up.  They decide that the task is just bigger than them and always will be.  Some try again.  A few double down.  They don’t just try again, they raise the ante by trying to accomplish something even more difficult.  I chose the latter as a type of penance.  For some reason I felt that I had a debt to pay and it involved not just finishing a 100 miler but reaching a bit further to make up for having quit.  I don’t understand this thought process.

As the date of the race approached I made a promise to myself that I would not quit.  If I stopped, I would have to be forced to stop.  Missing a timed cut-off or displaying some injury or illness that caused the medical staff to make me quit, these were the only reasons for not continuing.  I had run enough long races to know that the pledge of a fresh mind and body can quickly give way to the fully rationalized decision of a fatigued soul to stop.  What I learned from previous DNFs more than anything else is that I couldn’t leave room for compromise.  I had to convince myself before the start that once I started I would under no circumstance make the decision to stop.  So as I finally started the race, I felt relief.  All I had to do was keep going.  There was no thinking to be done.  I had already resolved not to stop. But my resolve would soon be tested.

The one thing I have never had to worry about in an ultra is blisters.  I never get them.  I wear wool socks and my wide toe box Altras protect my toes.  But by the time I reached the aid station at mile 17 I had two large blisters on the balls of my feet and one each on the longest toes of each foot.  I could feel the hot spots forming already by mile seven but there was nothing to be done.   I was kicking myself for making such a foolish mistake.  Instead of my tried and true Lone Peaks, I had chosen to start with my Altra Olympus.  The Olympus shoes have a much greater amount of cushion and my thinking was that I would appreciate having avoided some pounding by the second half of the race.  I had put a couple hundred miles on the Olympus shoes without incident so I thought that it was a safe bet.  Looking back, very few of those miles were on substantial climbs or descents and under those conditions my foot was slipping forward in the shoe and my heal was lifting out.  There is nothing wrong with the Olympus shoes.  They are great shoes that just didn’t fit me.  I had a pair of Lone Peaks in my drop bag but I wouldn’t reach that drop bag until mile 46!  So I reached into the drop bag that I had and pulled out two toe caps (thank you Amy for discovering silicone toe caps), some moist burn pads, and some athletic tape and I did the best I could to treat myself.  I would know very quickly the result of my efforts because I was about to begin the 10 mile out and back section with a 3,100 foot rocky climb up Sugarloaf Mountain and then a return trip descending to the same aid station.

By the time I arrived back at the aid station and mile 27 it was dark.  I could feel that I had a new problem on the top of my right foot.  The athletic tape I used to hold the pads over the blisters on the bottom of my feet had wrinkled and did not have the appropriate flexible stretch so it dug into my skin.  The Ultra Medic crew was now present at this aid station so they took a look.  When they pulled the tape off of my right foot a large section of skin came off with the tape, about the size of three quarters laid next to each other.  In my mind I  can still feel the pain of that skin being pulled off.  They replaced the pads and added a new one and then covered the fore section of my foot with a really strong flex tape.  The toe caps were still in place and by now those toes were numb anyway.  I was ready to hit the trail again but first they told me that I must weigh in.

I remembered the coming weigh in as I was climbing up Sugarloaf  while running out of water.  We had been warned that in addition to bottles we should have a bladder in our packs for the long climb out of Siberia Canyon.  But Siberia Canyon wasn’t for another 50 miles.  So I set out for the 10 mile ascent and descent of Sugarloaf with two full 20 ounce bottles and one completely empty 50 ounce bladder.  Half way up Sugarloaf I knew that I had made my second mistake of the race and I began preparing my story for the weigh in to come at the bottom of the hill.  At the start of the race I had weighed in at 160 pounds without my pack.  After 27 miles I now weighed 150 pounds, a 6.25% drop in body weight.

Many races begin considering stopping people from continuing at about a 5% drop.  From what I have read, whether forced to stop or not, most people fail to finish if they have a 7% or greater drop in body weight during the event.  This race had no firm number.  They used the number in conjunction with an evaluation of your condition to make a decision.  I proceed to tell the race officials in dramatic detail all the stupid decisions I had already made and how I would fill my bladder pack now so that over the next four hours I had calculated that I could be completely re-hydrated given the coolness of the night.  Thankfully I am good at math and even in my dehydrated state I was able to cipher for them in a way that led to their agreement that I was OK to continue.  Surely someone in dire straits wouldn’t be able to do long division in their head.  So they let me go on with a stiff warning.  (In subsequent weigh-ins I was never less than 155 pounds so I had learned my lesson.)

This would be my first time running through the night.  I have never trained at night.  My longest run in the dark up to this point had been at the end of my first ultra in January 2013, the Bandera 100K.  I had to run about 4 hours in the dark that night.  But this would be ALL night and to be honest I was more than a little bit intimidated by the prospect.  I left the aid station running next to a guy going my pace.  We decided to stick together and we stayed together until the 46.5 mile aid station when he dropped.

This is probably a good time to talk about the course and markings.  We figured out during the run that a lot of things were different after mile 27 than what we had studied on the maps provided before the race.  We found out at around mile 35 from an aid station worker (actually the only aid station worker at that station if you don’t count his dog) that the race had not been successful in securing a permit to use the Pacific Coast Trail this year.  This was significant because the prior year it had represented a large part of the total course.  So we were running on an entirely different track.  The consensus was that the new track was a lot harder. It was definitely longer. In fact when the leader came to the last section we heard that he was on track to end up running 109 miles so the last section was shortened such that we all ended up running a bit less than 104 miles.  Needless to say, this last minute change in plans resulted in a few areas where at night the course markings could have been better… at least for a guy with poor vision like myself.  The guy I ran with for much of the night and I ended up getting lost three or four times and wasted about 30 minutes looking for the correct path and probably ran an extra mile and a half to two miles in the process.  The other part of the problem at night was that the flags which were supposed to glow or reflect (I’m still not sure which) did neither.   They had to be spotted directly with the light by a process of constant scanning.  This made it very difficult to go very fast due to the very real risk of missing a turn.  (To be fair some glow sticks and streamers had been added here and there to make up for the flag issue and where they were located they made a big difference.)

It was about two in the morning when my new buddy dropped and I left the mile 46.5 aid station.  But before I left I changed into my Lone Peaks and felt much more comfortable with the exception that I had now developed blisters on both heals.  But these new blisters weren’t slowing me down… yet.  The next four hours were very difficult.  It was getting very cold (I would guess somewhere around 40 degrees) and by 4am my gloved fingers were completely numb.  I was all alone for this entire time and I really wanted some company.

But right before dawn my path merged with the 50 mile racers who had just started at 5am.  They were about 5 miles into their race.  There were shiny, happy people everywhere!  They weren’t holding hands but they were laughing.  And more importantly, they were moving at a faster pace.  In addition to my spirits, the sun was also rising.  Its funny how the mind works when left to its own devices:  sun rising… The Sun Also Rises… Ernest Hemingway… quotes from said book… “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another”“It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing”… french fries.

I latched onto a couple 50 mile guys and ran with them at a relatively fast pace for the next 10 miles until I let them go.  I needed to slow down a bit.  By now I was at mile 60 and I knew that I needed to be a bit more conservative to ensure that I could complete the remaining 40 miles.

The next twelve miles were serene.  It was getting hot but after the long night I didn’t mind.  The course wound through some beautiful pine forests and a large logging operation that was removing trees that had been damaged by fire.  There were beautiful giant cedars and Ponderosa pines.  I let myself be absorbed by my surroundings.  Of course approaching 24 hours into the race it wasn’t hard to allow myself to zone out.  I wasn’t asleep and I wasn’t stopped but I was somehow resting.  And it is a good thing that I was resting because I was about to reach the toughest part of the course.

I came into the Nordic Rim aid station aware that my heals were really hurting now when going up or down hill.  Luckily the Ultra Medic team was there again.  They were awesome!  We removed my shoes and socks to take a look.  The two quarter size blisters, one on each heal, were puffed out full of a large amount of fluid.  The medic carefully drained the blisters.  But then he told me that I had another set of blisters under the original blisters such that he had to stick the pin in quite far and in multiple places to get all of the fluid drained from those deeper blisters.  He then treated the surface of the skin and carefully applied KT tape over my heals to protect the area.  I lost over 30 minutes getting treatment but it was well worth it as I would have really struggled through the next section of the course.

Now you have to wonder about what motivates a race director at somewhere around mile 75 of a 100 mile course to put in a section that consists of a two and a half mile, 2,000 foot descent on loose rocky switchback, a stream crossing, and then a seven mile 3,000 foot steep ascent on largely unshaded trail.  On the course map from last year they described this section as “The Canyon – The Crux of the course.  Descend 2k’ to Bear Creek, aka Hades, and then make your way 3k’ back up to the South Ridge.  Remember early in the race to save something for this… it’s a BIG climb!”  I would say that this was the most accurate thing on the map.

At the stream crossing there were two volunteers manning a water filling station.  They were pulling water from the stream and running it through a filtering system they had hanging in a tree.  This is where we had been warned many times to make sure we had plenty of fluids for the long, hot climb out.  I filled my two bottles full.  I filled my 50 ounce bladder full.  And I drank about 15 ounces right there.  By the time I emerged from the canyon I had consumed all 90 ounces!

This brings me back to where I started this story.  After the owl incident, I finished the race in 33 hours and 33 minutes.  When I crossed the finish line I was treated as if I had won the race… podium photo and all.  I was happy to finish but I was proud of keeping my promise to myself.

I have no misconceptions about this “accomplishment”.   It was special to me because it was my very first 100 mile finish.  But thousands of people have completed 100 mile races… probably more.  My performance was in the bottom half of those finishes.  I’m a runner of average ability who happens to work at it.  Frankly I’m convinced more than ever that any healthy person who wants to run a 100 mile race and is willing to do the work can do it.  I like ultra running because it puts adventure in my life.  I like the anticipation of upcoming events.  I like sharing a common interest with my wife.  I like the structure it helps me maintain in my day to day activities.  I like meeting the interesting people who participate in the sport. That outcomes are not certain.  I like that it is unpredictable.  I like that for that day, in my mind, I am on a grand adventure.  I can’t wait for my next.

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2013 Course Map

2013 Course Map

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2014 Bandera 50 & 100K

My running of the 2014 Bandera 100K was taking care of some unfinished business.  But to tell that story I must go back to the very beginning, the beginning of my ultra running.  As often happens in life, some of our best experiences happen by accident, or perhaps by fate depending upon your philosophical bent.   But this is how I started running ultras.  I started running them by accident.

Coming off my best road marathon performance at the Chicago Marathon in October of 2012, I decided that I would run the California International Marathon (CIM) in December of that year.  CIM is probably the fastest road marathon course that exists.  It is very flat with a slight descent over the course of the race.  My goal was to set a new PR (Personal Record) beating the time that I had run in Chicago a couple of months earlier.

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The week before CIM it became apparent that the weather was not going to be good for a PR attempt.  Runningweatherman.com gave the forecast a “D” rating, calling for several inches of rain and strong winds.  Since my only purpose for running CIM was to attempt a PR I decided that a trip to the west coast would be a waste of time and I started to look for a local race to run.

There aren’t very many marathons in December in the midwest and for obvious reason.  But I found one, a trail marathon in southern Indiana.   I wasn’t really sure what a “trail” marathon would be like but from the race description it sounded beautiful.  I had done zero hill training but I figured I would just slow down for the hills to keep my heart rate in check.  How bad could it be?  So I signed up for the Tecumseh Trail Marathon.

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As it turns out, it can be very bad.  It took me an hour longer to complete than the Chicago Marathon just two months earlier.  The exact same distance just placed on a wooded trail with rolling hills.  I was happily walking around after the Chicago Marathon but after Tecumseh Trail I could literally not move.  I laid shaking on the ground.  The combination of technical trail, steep ascents, and fast descents had turned what I thought were well trained legs to mush.  I was hooked.

The challenge of the brutal trail being partially masked by the anesthetic of its rugged beauty made me feel completely alive and at the same time fully aware of what an infinitesimal speck I was in place and time.  I wanted more of this adventure and as soon as possible.  So I talked Amy into traveling to Texas in January 2013 to run a 50K trail race… an ultra!   However while researching the event I found out that there was also a 100K race and that if you finished it you would receive a belt buckle instead of a medal.  The scene from Urban Cowboy of John Travolta standing with his back to the bar, large belt buckle in the center of his lithe body flashed in my mind.  I wanted a belt buckle.  So we signed up for our first ultras, the Bandera 50K for Amy and the Bandera 100K for me.

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Tecumseh Trail had about 3,500 feet of ascent and another 3,500 feet of descent.  The Bandera 100K had around 8,000 feet of each and on a much more technical, rocky trail.  We had about a month to get ready.  We both finished our races but we were very unprepared for the difficulty of the terrain and we vowed to come back in 2014 to improve upon our times.

So this was the unfinished business.  What kind of difference would a year of proper training make?  How would the experience of running two more 100Ks (one in the course of my 2013 Chimera 100 Mile DNF), a 56 mile effort, and a 40 mile effort along with several marathon to 50K efforts impact my performance one year later?

One of the lessons we learned from the year before was that a narrow road, which is the only way to the start line of a large ultra, can get really backed up with traffic before the start of a race.  The previous year we were in the car conga line when most of the runners began the race.  So this year we camped at the start.  Bandera has a great setup for camping at the start with a large field of grass.

On race morning we reluctantly climbed out of our down sleeping bags and climbed into the rental car which we started and then quickly turned the heat all the way up.  Sitting in the front seats pushed all the way back, we changed into our running clothes.  If you have ever undressed and then dressed again in a car (no need to raise your hand), you will know that this activity also checked the box on any pre-race stretching, yoga, or other contortions that might have otherwise been required.  My headlamp has a low red light setting and I enjoyed using this setting while glancing over at Amy periodically during this process.  I did have the good sense to avoid the strobe setting lest I draw too much attention from the van full of male runners camping to our right.

We kissed each other good luck and went to our respective starting line on time.  Although it was quite cool in the morning the forecast called for low 70s by early afternoon so my strategy was to run the first 50k lap hard, suffer through the heat on the first half of the second loop, and then survive darkness and the difficult technical descent the last 10 miles of the second loop.

For those not familiar with the Bandera 50k and 100k course, it is a technical, rocky nightmare in Texas hill country.  Although each loop only has about 3,500 to 4,000 feet of gain, the gains and descents occur on “barely runnable” to “only runnable by non humans” (think cougars, deer, coyotes, goats, and elites) sections of the trail.  No single climb or descent is over 300 feet so it is a nearly constant up and down assault on the body.

After a year of trying to run ultras I have learned that my best hope at running fast is is to hitch my wagon to some top 10 female (race position) or uber-young (under 35) non elite male and try to hold on for dear life.  So after getting dropped by three ladies in the first 10 miles I glommed onto a 28 year old red head guy.  So while telling him about my entire running history and just as I was getting to the good part, I tripped and fell hard on my knee.  I barely avoided a face plant by catching myself with my hands.  I jumped up as fast as I could and continued mid sentence with my story to try and looked un-phased.

But I was phased.  Barely over halfway through the first loop my knee and hands were gushing blood and my knee felt like it was on the verge of seizing.  I felt excruciating pain shooting up my leg and my instinct was to stop and walk.  I took a quick inventory and concluded that nothing was broken.  I knew that stopping or walking would allow my leg to tighten up so I decided to do the only logical thing.  I sped up.  And as luck would have it, I was entering one of the few flat sections of the course.  After two miles of fast, flat running I had forgotten all about my fall.

I finished the first loop strong but I was definitely starting to feel the heat.  I had forgotten to bring a hat so the sun was starting to do a number on my fair complexion.  I pulled a fresh pair of socks, my light, and some sunscreen from my drop-bag and started out on loop two.  The first half of the second loop was the hottest part of the day.  I ran from aid station to aid station completely refilling my two bottles with water and electrolyte drink at each stop.  I also guzzled two to three cups of Coke or Mountain Dew for “nutrition”.

The last ten miles of each loop are the most technical and difficult for me.  I had managed to conserve enough light with my pace to only have to run the last seven miles in the dark.  This was a significant improvement over the prior year when I had to run the last 20 miles in the dark; the first five with no light as I had too optimistically placed my light in a forward drop-bag.  I knew I would be walking large sections of the last miles due to the dark and the technical descents but I managed to run more than I thought I would.

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I finished three hours faster than the previous year.  I ran the race in 13 hours and 18 minutes completing the first 50K loop in 5:28.  The heat, darkness, and fatigue led to about 2 hours longer for the second loop.  I think running the first loop in closer to 5:50 would have been optimal.

The combination of better training, better course conditions, and starting at first light had led to quite an improvement.  I was very happy with my flat and uphill performance but I am still not happy with my ability to descend technical trail.  If I can improve my descending it will allow a significant overall reduction in my finishing times.  Amy took 90 minutes off of her 50K time from the previous year so we both had a similar improvement versus race distance.

I wasn’t walking too well after finishing.  Amy babied me.  She helped me to a nice seat by the heater and went back to the tent and brought me a beer.  She drove the car closer so I didn’t have to walk to the tent and then helped me into my sleeping bag.  We woke up early, packed our camp and drove to Jim’s Restaurant in San Antonio for a giant breakfast.  We then went to the airport and flew home.  I didn’t forget to mention showering and changing clothes.  We didn’t.  We pulled our wool hats low on our heads. Keeping our down jackets zipped up tight to contain any offensive odors, we tried not to make eye contact with the normal people.

We can’t wait to do it again.

 

2013 Chimera 100 Ultra

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We had just zipped up our sleeping bags when we heard it.  The sound of a cowbell ringing and the swelling chorus of people cheering which marked the finish of the first runner.  In around 19 hours this man had managed to cover 100 miles of mountainous landscape.  He had climbed 23,000 vertical feet and had been able to descend a similar amount.  And right now, at his moment of triumph, I lay defeated in my sack.

We awoke that morning at 4am.  Rain was falling on our tent and in the light of my headlamp I could see my breath.  I gathered my things and ran to the car.  As the heater began to breathe warm air, I changed into my running clothes.  They were cold and felt damp in my hands.  Amy climbed into the front seat and helped me to get organized.  I ate some rice pudding and a banana while completing a final survey of my drop bags and waist pack.  Then Amy drove me the half mile down the road to the starting area.

Other runners were huddled under tents and awnings.  There was a large aluminum pot of hot water simmering over a propane burner.  Using a long ladle, people were filling their cups; mixing in instant coffee or hot chocolate powder.  The glare of headlamps illuminated the falling rain.  We all waited for the race director to start the race.  He waited for first light.

The course was changed this year to eliminate some of the truck trail in favor of single track.  The previous course was too easy.  It just wouldn’t do.  The race motto had to be maintained, “Moderation has its place.  It ain’t here!”  Essentially the course consisted of three loops.  The first loop was 11 miles bringing us back to the start and our first aid station.  The second loop was 22 miles again bringing us back to the start.  The last loop made up the remaining 67 miles.

I was trying to be conservative in my pace and I believe that I was.  I came through the 33 mile mark in seven and a half hours.  I had power walked 75% of the climbs and was holding back on the descents.  At 4.5 miles per hour I felt like I was right on track.  The third loop began with a 2.5 mile climb followed by about a 5 mile descent on very rocky technical trail.  This in turn was followed by a nearly 10 mile long ascent at an average grade of 8.5%.  I came through the big climb and was still on the 4.5 miles per hour pace.

Although I was sweating during the climb, I was also getting chilled.  At about 5,000 feet of elevation we passed through a low cloud bank and it was quite a bit colder at this height.  By the final summit at 5,800 feet you could see the cloud layer down below and the nearly full moon was visible through a partly cloudy sky.  With 55 miles completed I was looking forward to a 7 mile descent to the next aid station.

Be careful what you ask for.  Instead of being the opportunity to bank some time with a conservative, but still faster down hill section, this descent became my undoing.  When I tried to run, even at the slowest speeds, my legs would just not function.  My quads were shredded from the previous 10,000 feet or so of descent and 15,000 feet of climbing.  I was reduced to walking.  It took me nearly two and a half hours to get to the aid station and by the time I arrived I was shivering uncontrollably and showing signs of hypothermia.  Not being able to generate heat from running and a wet base layer left me exposed.

At the aid station I ate some warm soup and stood next to the propane heater.  I took stock of my situation.  I was about 61 miles into the race.  I had to walk the uphill sections which I had planned on doing.  I now had to walk the downhill sections.  I could still run on flat ground, but there wasn’t any more to be had.  I did the math.  I had plenty of time.  I could change my shirt, warm up, and walk to the finish before the 34 hour cut off.

So I made my decision.

Let me just say that something not being “worth it” to me does not mean that I think it isn’t “worth it” to someone else.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t respect someone else for their accomplishment.  I have huge respect for people that climb Mount Everest.  I have no interest in doing it.  I have huge respect for people that cycle across the country.  I have no interest in doing this.  I have huge respect for people that finish 100 milers even if they walk the last forty miles.  I have no interest in doing this either.

I chose not to continue because even if I finished it wouldn’t measure up to my expectations for myself.  For me running has to involve running.  I can accept that in ultra distance races, with extreme amounts of vertical, mere mortals have to power walk up hills.  It makes sense.  Your heart rate is still elevated, it gives your running muscles a break, and it is just plain more efficient.  But I can’t accept having to walk down hills or on flat ground.  It is after-all a race.  It is an ultra “running” event.  Am I weaker or stronger than other ultra runners for having this view?  I don’t know.  I do know that they will each have their own opinion on that question.  I know that some of them that will disagree with me have a 100 mile finisher’s buckle to their credit and I don’t.

So where do I go from here?  I know I can “run” 100K events and I have another one in January where I want to improve my time.  How about choosing an easier course for another 100 mile attempt?  I wish I found this interesting because I am much more confident in my ability to complete it.  But if it isn’t hard, mountainous, technical terrain it doesn’t grab my attention.  It doesn’t stir my emotions or ignite my passion.  For me the pain isn’t worth the gain.  It has to be “EPIC!” and “EPIC!” is in the eye of the beholder.

So I will put another hard 100 miler on my schedule for later next year.  I will search for ways to build my downhill endurance as I have been able to improve my climbing endurance.  I will think about, and strategize, and contemplate, and theorize obsessively until I figure it out.  I won’t stop trying to run a hard 100 miler until the flame of desire flickers out.  But for now it has just been fanned by the elusiveness of the goal.

My wife Amy who puts up with my shenanigans.

My wife Amy who puts up with my shenanigans.

Painfully descending stairs at the beach the night after.

Painfully descending stairs at the beach the night after.

View from the campground.

View from the campground.

Pre race packet pick-up at Hell's Kitchen biker bar.

Pre race packet pick-up at Hell’s Kitchen biker bar.

2013 Comrades Marathon

“…Irresistible impulses seized him. he would be lying in camp, dozing lazily in the heat of the day, when suddenly his head would lift and his ears cock up, intent and listening, and he would spring on his feet and dash away, and on and on, for hours, though the forest aisles.”  – from Call of the Wild by Jack London, 1903

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For me, running has always held a certain primordial appeal.  Man is made for distance running.  We have  an incredible capability to cool our bodies and we have within ourselves the aerobic potential to go on for hours.  This is quite different from other animals.  Do a quick search on “persistence hunting” and you will see that this unique ability allowed our ancestors to thrive on the plains of Africa.  So it seems fitting that the oldest ultra marathon in the world takes place so close to the birthplace of civilization.

When I first heard about the Comrades Marathon I knew immediately that someday I wanted to participate.  Not just because it is the oldest ultra, or because it is by far the largest (with over 15,000 participants), but because of the spirit of the event.  It was started as a memorial to soldiers lost in World War I and it is known for the great camaraderie that exists between its participants.  Unlike a typical road marathon which focuses on speed, the 55 mile Comrades course with its 5 major hills and countless minor is about finishing.  The participants struggle together.  They urge each other on and they seek to give more than they take away.  They encourage each other to arrive at the finish before the dreaded 12 hour gun which ends the race.

The whole event is televised.  Comrades is a South African jewel worth more than the largest diamond dug out of one of its historic mines.  It is cherished by the people and this is made evident by the entire course being lined with cheering, singing spectators.  The country gathers round to watch as the race ends exactly 12 hours from the cannon firing the start of the run.  At this point the race director walks to the finish line, turns his back on the approaching runners, and fires his gun.  The finish line is blocked.  People still on the course are finished but they don’t get to be finishers… even if they were just one step short.  Comrades is a race unlike any other.

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Blessing of Comrades runners by Cardinal Napier at Saturday evening mass.

Amy and I walked out of the hotel at 4:30am and headed for the starting corrals.  As we opened the lobby door we braced ourselves for the normal mid forties temperature of the pre-dawn race morning.  Instead,  it was balmy.  No throw-away jacket would be necessary this morning as it was already around 70 degrees.  A warm breeze was blowing and would later present itself as a headwind gusting to around 15 miles per hour.  I tried to put the temperature out of my mind as I made my way to the starting corral.  My marathon qualifying time allowed me entry into the A corral right at the front of the race.  This positioning is especially important for Comrades as only gun times are considered (not chip times based on when you actually cross the starting line like most large races).  I pushed through a mass of sweaty bodies trying to get into the corral before the 5:15am deadline.  I made it.  The corral was full of lean, muscular runners.  Most were obviously local South Africans but a few had the tell tale blue bib number of an international runner.  I also saw several wearing the coveted green number which signified that they have suffered through this experience as least 10 times.  Once a person owns a green number it is theirs for life.

Of course someone saw that I was a first time international runner and immediately asked me about my goal time.  I have never been shy about setting lofty goals and sharing them with people. I don’t think that falling short of a goal is anything about which to be embarrassed, provided that you are properly prepared and that you have given it your best effort.  So I told him that I wanted a Silver Medal.  I explained that I had a sub 3 hour marathon time and that I had logged over 1200 miles of training since the first of the year and that everything I read said that I was capable of running the necessary sub 7 hour and 30 minute finish time to be awarded the coveted Silver.  I knew it was a stretch and that it would be very dependent on the weather conditions and which of my  “bodies” chose to  show up on race morning.  But even with temperatures already high an hour before sunrise, I wasn’t yet ready to abandon that goal.

As the start of the race approached we listened to the historic playing of Shosholoza (click the link to hear this magnificent song).   It is chillingly beautiful as its lyrics call out in a mix of Ndebele and Zulu words,

“Go forward

Go forward

You are running away

You are running away

on those mountains…”

Shosholoza is so popular that it is considered an alternative national anthem for South Africa.  Most of the crowd of over 15,000 runners was singing along.  I was mesmerized by the beautiful tune.  It served to give me a feeling of euphoria and a sense of being invincible.  Its siren call urged me to pursue me goal at any cost.  I was lost in the beauty of the moment.  After a brief period of silence, we heard the theme song from Chariots of Fire begin to play.  And then the cannon fired.

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A view from the course of the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

I progressed out of Durban and uphill through the “45th cutting”,  a distance of about 15k, while it was still dark.  In the mid 1800’s the 45th Regiment of Foot of the British army used picks and shovels to cut through the hill and it is known as the 45th cutting to this day.  As the sun rose, we pushed on toward Cowies Hill the first of the five named major hills on the course.  What does it take to be a hill that earns a name in Comrades? Largeness.   The infamous Heartbreak Hill of the Boston Marathon wouldn’t qualify.  It wouldn’t even be an honorable mention.   By the top of Cowies the sun was shining.  I checked my Garmin and saw that I was about 5 minutes ahead of pace.  The up run of Comrades basically begins with a full uphill marathon.  The 45th cutting blends into Cowies which blends into Fields Hill which blurs into Botha’s Hill.  On this ascent you pass through several towns: Pinetown, Winston Park, and Hillcrest.  The residents of which are all lined up along the course cooking outdoor breakfasts of various meats and eggs.  The scent of smoke and sausages might be enough to push the slightly nauseous runner over the edge.

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Amy next to a “Save the Rhino” costume at the expo. A guy actually wore this outfit for the whole race!

Over 21 miles you rise from sea level to around 2200 feet of elevation.  By the time I crested Botha’s Hill I knew that I was in trouble.  The Kearsney College boys school boys were out and cheering.  They were all properly dressed in their blue blazers, white oxford shirts, and striped ties.  They were giving such words of encouragement as “Well done” or “Good show chap”.  In the bright sunshine I could see sweat glistening on their foreheads just below their finely parted hair.  It wasn’t supposed to be this hot.  I looked at my Garmin and pushed the button to display the temperature.   It read 82 degrees.  But body temperature affects the reading so I figured the actual air temperature at this point, about 8:30 am, was closer to 76.  The hottest part of the day was still to come.

sachets

I was consuming two to three sachets of water or Energade at each aid station.  The aid stations arrived about every 1.5-2 kilometers which is actually quite frequently.  Sachets are  small bags of liquid holding about 6 ounces.  You bite into a corner, tear it, and then squeeze the refreshment into your mouth.  Or sometimes, over your head and body.  Over 2 million sachets of water and over 700,000 sachets of Energade would be distributed over the duration of the race.  Let’s just say that I took my fair share.

In addition to the calories gleaned from the Energade, I was consuming chocolate gel from packets that I had carried across the ocean and was now carrying in my Salomon race belt.  I was also eating small pieces of bananas whenever I could get them.  With the occasional orange slice thrown in for good measure.  That is until I was handed a slice that after biting into I discovered had some type of spicy hot salt brine encrusted on its surface.  I quickly spat it out lest it should decide to leave my body of its own volition somewhere down the road.

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After Botha’s it was about 8k of rolling hills but mostly descent through the town of Drummond  to the halfway point. Just before reaching Drummond I passed the people handing out pink roses.  Amy and I had learned the previous day during the course tour about Arthur Newton.  Arthur was a five time winner of Comrades who was reputed to stop and rest at a small cut in the rock on the side of the road that is now known as Arthur’s Seat.  Tradition holds that runners are supposed to throw a flower onto Arthur’s Seat and call out, “Good morning Arthur” for good luck in the second half of the race.  But I was just barely on pace and I wasn’t going to slow myself down by moving over to grab a rose and then slowing down at Arthur’s Seat to throw it in the correct location.  But a comrade that I didn’t know, knew better. He ran up from behind me with two roses and offered me one.  I declined.  He explained the tradition.  He told me how his wife was running for her 10th finish today.  He himself had over 25 finishes.  He talked about the spirit of Comrades and the long held traditions.  I was moved.  His pride in the race and in his country was evident and inspiring.  I told him that I had changed my mind and asked for the rose.  To be honest I may forget many things about running Comrades but I will never forget throwing my rose on the pile and calling out to that ghost, “Good morning Arthur.”

Crossing the halfway point I was just barely on pace but it was even warmer now and doubts were creeping in about being able to maintain the pace.  Logically I knew that it wasn’t going to be possible but I was still stubbornly holding on.  It took the fourth named hill, Inchanga, to break the hold.  Inchanga hill is named after the local town.  Inchanga is both one of the poorest towns in South Africa and one of the most beautiful, being situated in the Valley of a Thousand Hills.  By the time I reached the top of Inchanga I had moved from running up the hill to power walking.  I didn’t need to look at my Garmin to know that it was hot but I did anyway.

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Children at the Ethembeni School.
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Special dance performed by children from the Ethembeni School.

Just down the road from the top of Inchanga I passed Ethembeni School in the appropriately named village of Hillcrest.  Ethembeni is home to over 300 physically challenged and visually impaired children from across the Kindom of the Zulu.  The name Ethembeni means “place of hope”.  During our course tour the day before we were treated to special music and dance by the children including a rendition of the official national anthem of South Africa, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God bless Africa”in the Xhosa language).  A collection was taken up from all of the international runners who participated in the tour and over $100,000 USD was raised in two short days!  Now, running past these same children, I was a little embarrassed of feeling disappointed in not being able to maintain the Silver Medal pace.  I remembered how blessed I was to be here and to be running and I decided to fully embraced a new goal.  After the Silver Medal, the next level is the Bill Rowan Medal and it is awarded for running under 9 hours. After Bill Rowan comes the Bronze Medal for sub 11 hours and finally the Vic Clapham Medal for completion before the 12 hour cutoff.  I did some quick math in my head and figured that I could power walk the remaining hills and run the rest and still come in under the 9 hour threshold.  But the heat was still rising.   And I was now more exposed to the sun and wind since I was at higher elevation on a long stretch of more level land.  I couldn’t be certain of anything and nothing was to be taken for granted.

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Course elevation profile.

I was now about 31 miles into the run.  The next 12 miles were relatively flat meaning that there was only around 1,000 feet of ascent and 500 feet of descent.  These were hard miles for me mentally as I was forcing myself to maintain what had become an uncomfortable pace.  There were also stretches of barren land and the wind was blowing up dust clouds and whipping them into our faces.  Running through these clouds I would look down at the ground and use the brim of my hat to shield my eyes.  It was impossible to see through the dust so watching the road was the best guide.  During this stretch no matter how much I drank my mouth felt dry and parched from the dust and wind.  I passed through the villages of Harrison Flats, Cato Ridge, and Camperdown before finally reaching the highest point on the course at Umlass Road (2657 feet).  However just because I had reached the highest point didn’t mean that it was all downhill from there.  I still had the mightiest of the five named hills remaining, Polly Shortts.

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I had another 10k to go before I would reach Polly Shortts and it started with a 4 mile descent.  I had gotten a bit of a second (or was it 6th or 7th) wind and I decided to push down this descent.  I managed to run a low 8 minute pace with one mile in the mid 7s.  I was passing a large number of people in the process and I gained some mental strength from the effort.   At the end of the descent I began to climb Little Polly Shortts thinking that it was the real McCoy.  I asked a veteran green number runner if this was the Polly Shortts.  He just smiled… even though I am pretty sure that he spoke English.   I soon arrived at the actual Polly and wondered how I could have been so foolish.  The authentic Polly is named after a former local farmer who helped people up the hill after heavy rains when the road became very muddy.  It was now paved so this service was no longer needed.  The authentic Polly is a nearly 3 kilometer, steep climb that never seems to end.  Once you have met the real Polly, you will never again be fooled by an impostor.  As I power walked up I watched my Garmin and forced myself to maintain a sub 15 minute mile pace all the way to the top.  Back before I started running ultras (only about six months ago), I would never have guessed that maintaining 15 minute pace could be a difficult task.

After cresting Polly Shortts you are in the home stretch, a 7 kilometer, mostly downhill home stretch.  People will tell you that it is all downhill after Polly but be assured, these people are relativists.  Two more sizable hills occur with 5k to go and with 3k remaining.  Although nameless by Comrades standards,  these hills would both merit acknowledgment on the course of any major world marathon.  In addition to these final obstacles in my path, the wind decided to make one last effort to subdue us, and with a little help from fire.  I could see a large cloud of smoke on the horizon and as I approached the smell of smoke became very strong.  Soon the entire road was covered in a thick, billowing cloud.  It burned our eyes.  I was attempting to hold my breath and run at the same time.  After several minutes the wind shifted and the cloud moved off the road to the left.  I picked up my pace to get clear of the fire before the wind decided to assault me again.  I found out later that one of the spectator’s cooking grills had thrown off an ember, the wind fanning it into an extensive grass fire along the route.

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Entering the cricket stadium near the finish.

Finally I entered the City Oval, a cricket stadium which seats 12,000 people.  It is notable for being one of only two first class cricket fields in the world that have a tree within the boundaries.  The other is in Canterbury, but that is another tale.  I completed my lap of the infield and crossed the finish line to great applause.  It had been 8 hours and 53 minutes since the cannon had fired.  I was handed a Bill Rowan medal, a finishers patch, and a yellow rose.  Making my way to the international runners tent, I grabbed an Energade and laid down in the grass.

You would think that laying down after running 55 miles is a smart thing to do.  Well, it is not.  Within a few minutes my legs completely cramped and I had spasms in my lower back.  I literally could not get up.  I had this happen once before and I knew that if I could get some ibuprofen it would help me to get past the cramping faster.  I asked someone to send the medical staff over.  They came and I asked for some ibuprofen but they explained that they don’t distribute medicine.  Instead they loaded me on a stretcher and carried me to the medical tent.  I was laid down on a nice soft bed in the shade

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Amy at the finish. Her first race longer than 50K and she nailed it!

and two assistants proceeded to message my legs with oil and give me cool drinks.  Amazingly, this made me feel much better.

I know a good thing when I see it so I asked if I could stay there and rest for a while until they needed the bed.  They agreed and I enjoyed a half hour nap before  returning to the international runner’s tent where I would wait to watch Amy finish the race.  While waiting I ate most of a sandwich and drank a cold Castle, a fine South African beer.  It makes me thirsty just thinking about it now.

2013 Comrades Marathon

Entrants: 19,903

Starters: 13,895

Finishers: 10,183

My time: 8:53:02

My overall place: 1,479

My gender place: 1,405

My category place: 441 (Males Age 40-49)

Total number in my category: 5,504

 

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The Bill Rowan Medal.
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Some Castle beers that Amy and I enjoyed on our first night in South Africa. Can you get them in a sachet?
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Amy running strong!

2013 Boston Marathon

Looking back at the day of the Boston Marathon 2013

April 16, 2013 at 9:05am

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It’s Tuesday morning and I am sitting in my hotel room next to my wife.  Just a few hours ago I was afraid I might never see her again.  My memory of the day is a strange contrast of joy and sorrow.  But most of all it was a day in which I felt the hand of God in a very real way.

Amy and I woke at five in the morning to get dressed and have our breakfast.  At six we made our way to the subway station next to our hotel for the short trip down to Boston Commons where the buses would be collecting us for our drive to the starting line.  Amy and I shared a kiss as she headed to get on the bus.  I went to the predetermined corner where I would meet up with Slawek the visually impaired runner that I would be guiding during the race.  Unfortunately, he never arrived so I made my way onto the bus and went to the starting area to search for him.

Once I saw the chaos of the starting area, imagine 27,000 people in an encampment, I headed down to the start corrals hoping that he would find a way to make it to our corral.  I explained the situation to the corral officials.  They let me stand at the entrance with them while we all looked for Slawek to appear.  I stood there as the announcements were made; “45 minutes until the start of wave 1″, “30 minutes until the start of wave 1″, “15 minutes until the start of wave 1″.  I was feeling awful.  I thought about what I must look like standing there.  I was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt provided by the Achilles Foundation the group that brought Slawek and I together in the first place.  It said “GUIDE” in big letters on both the front and back.  My bib was pinned to the shirt and it read “GUIDE BLIND RUNNER”.  However I was standing there alone without my runner.  I went over my apology in my mind.  If he didn’t show up would I run anyway?  I had qualified for the race and I had my own number.  Would I run the race with the “GUIDE” shirt on going full speed like I had successfully dropped my runner somewhere earlier in the race?

The announcement came for ten minutes remaining.  I said a short prayer.  “God please let Slawek find me here.  He has had enough disappointment in his life.”  And then, there he was.  Wearing his sunglasses and white and red racing singlet in the colors of his country Poland.  I called out to him and he said “Kevin?” as a smile started to cross his face.  He gave my a giant hug and I silently thanked God for this gift.

I met Slawek the night before.  Amy and I went to a dinner hosted for all the Achilles Foundation runners and their guides.  While we were sitting in the meeting room waiting for dinner, a young man walked in on artificial limbs.  He was strong and handsome.  A reporter and camera man walked up to him and addressed him as “Captain”.  We learned later that many of the mobility impaired runners were part of the “Wounded Warrior Project”.  They were soldiers who had lost limbs from explosions in foreign lands.  These individuals were not giving up on life.  They were choosing to pursue their dreams.  I never dreamed that in a few short hours the same type of tragedy would occur on home soil.

Over the course of the evening we found Slawek to be a very happy person.  Telling jokes which were translated for us in broken english by his friend.  But you could also tell that he was a very tough person and proud.  His face had scars and dark gray areas where he had forever been marked by an industrial explosion when he was a young man.  He had been born with very limited sight in one eye and the explosion took out the vision in his other.  I asked the translator to find out if he still wanted to run a 3:10 marathon.  The 52 year old man responded emphatically yes.  I then asked how his training had been going.  He shook his head and the reply came back that it hadn’t been good due to all the snow in Poland.  That told me a lot about Slawek.  I knew that he had a strong will and was willing to hurt to achieve his goal.

Standing in the start corral I learned just how strong willed he could be.  He was gesturing toward the front of the race to the corrals closer to the start line.  He wanted to move up to the front.  I knew that not only was this against the rules, race officials actually check for this by comparing your chip start time to the rest of your assigned corral.  People had been disqualified for this very thing.  I shook my head no and tried to explain.  He understood nothing that I said.  He more emphatically gestured to the front and again I shook my head and tried to explain.  He started to move and I was about to physically stop him.

A man next to us said, “Maybe I can help?”  I replied, “Not unless you speak Polish.”  “I do.” he said.  The youth leader at our local parish calls these type of moments a “God Sighting”.   27,000 runners broken into three waves with each wave containing at least 10 corrals with each corral holding a couple hundred runners and standing right next to me is a man who spoke both Polish and English.  His name was Toyvek and he was originally from Poland but had been living in the US for the last 20 years.  Toyvek explained the situation to Slawek and he finally understood.  Toyvek asked me if there was anything else that I would like to communicate to Slawek.  I explained the difficulty in finding Slawek.  I explained how I couldn’t explain to Slawek my concern that he would be disqualified.  I said please tell Slawek that God wants us to run together today and that he wants us to know it.  Toyvek spoke for a long time and then a smile crossed Slawek’s face and he hugged me.

The race began.  It was bright and sunny and everyone was happy.  We ran on pace for about the first five miles but I could hear Slawek’s labored breath.  He pointed at the pace band that I had printed for us and that I was wearing on my wrist.  He made a “no” sign with his hand and I knew he needed to slow down.  We slowed our pace by about 15 seconds a mile and settled into the run.  I could tell by his breathing that Slawek was working.  I was afraid that when we hit the hills of Newton they would do him in and he would bonk.  I grabbed him drinks of Powerade and water whenever he would accept them.

We hit the hills and slowed a little but he was holding on.  I knew he was hurting as I had been there two years before.  I had started too fast for my ability then and by the time I hit those hills I was done.  I walked most of the second half of the course.  But Slawek ran on.  He never walked.  We crossed the crest of Heartbreak Hill and I looked back and smiled at him.  He began to push harder.  Slawek finished strong with a time of 3:25:20.  This was about 15 minutes slower than his goal but still good enough for third place overall in the visually impaired category of the race.  We crossed the finish line holding hands raised in the air.  We hugged and I knew that Slawek was very happy with his performance.  He made a gesture like a roller coaster and I knew that he was paying homage to the difficulty of the legendary Boston course.

The representative of Achilles met us and handed me instructions on how to get Slawek back to his family.  We slowly made our way through the crowd, gathered our medals and Slawek’s drop bag, and made our way to the subway station.  We pushed onto the crowded train with standing room only.  We arrived at the North Station on the green line and found his family.   Pictures were taken and I told them that we would celebrate that night at the planned dinner party being sponsored by Achilles.  I got back on the train to head back to my hotel.

Right outside of Arlington station next to the finish area the train stopped.  We sat for a long time.  At first there were announcements that we were waiting due to “heavy traffic caused by the marathon”.  As people began to think about this they started to realize that it didn’t make sense.  I heard a little boy ask his father, “Why would the marathon slow down the subway?”  The look on his father’s face said that this was a good question.  After we heard this message several times a new message came over the loudspeaker. “This train is being taken out of service at the next station due to a police action in the city of Boston.”  There was absolute silence.  What did this mean?  We pulled into Arlington and were told to exit the train and station as fast as possible.  Police officers urged us out of the station at every turn.  There was panic on the faces of the train employees.

We came out of the underground station in bright sunlight and I waited for my eyes to adjust.  Police vehicles were everywhere.  Sirens were blazing and emergency vehicles were racing by.  There were plenty of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances but there were other vehicles.  Sinister looking machines that looked like military vehicles except that they were painted black.  They were filled with men in full military gear.  I had entered that tunnel a few minutes earlier that day from a scene of joy and when I had come back out of that tunnel I was in a war zone.

I like to run light and I sweat a lot so I never carry my cell phone in a race.  I don’t like to deal with drop bags either so I was just standing there in my race clothes and shivered.  I asked the closest person what was going on.  He was a teenager around 16 years old.  He had that tight curly red hair that almost doesn’t seem real.  He also had those perpetually rosy red cheeks and he wore wire rim glasses.  He told me that two bombs had gone off at the finish line.  That the subway had been shut down and that the police were blocking off the area.  I asked him how long ago the bombs had gone off.  He said, “Twenty minutes.”  I quickly did the math.  If Amy had run on pace she would have been clear of the finish before the bombs exploded but if she was struggling…  I didn’t want to think about it but I knew that either way I needed to get back to the hotel as fast as possible.  She would either be back there and worried about me or I needed to get my phone to try and find her.

I got my bearings and began to run toward our hotel out by Fenway.  I knew it was about two miles west.  I found that bright shining sun in the sky and knew which direction to head.  As I ran west, the police were pushing the blockade further north.  I picked up my pace to stay just ahead of the roads I was running on being blocked off by the police.  I crossed the point on Commonwealth where the race had been stopped.  It was chaos.  Runners didn’t know where to go.  Families were rushing into the area to try and find their loved one to make sure they were safe.  You could hear people screaming “There she is!” or “I think I see him.”  Others were lifting up there loved one in embrace and crying together.  Still others were just crying.

I arrived at my hotel out of breath.  The elevator was so slow.  I ran down the long corridor on our floor and put the key in the door.  I rounded the corner for the moment of truth and I saw her.  Amy was sitting in the window looking down at the scene below.  We hugged and cried together for the longest time.  Moments like this make everything in your life crystal clear.  There is no doubt about what is truly important.  We began to respond to family and friends that were already looking for us.

I don’t understand many things about what happened yesterday.  I don’t know why God allows evil to happen and certain people to be hurt while others are safe.  I know the intellectual arguments for these things but I don’t really understand it.  I don’t know why God would be interested in a blind man running a marathon or what lesson he wanted me to learn from the experience.  But I do know that God was actively involved in my life yesterday.  I know that He wanted me to know it.  And I know that things will never be quite the same.