The First Step – Charlie Shaffer

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THE FIRST STEP

Every journey begins with the first step; so it was with my initial sojourn into the oft-maligned sport known as ultra running at the Mountain Masochist along the Blue Ridge of Virginia. I have myself considered for some time that ultra runners were a strange lot; the likes of ultra glamour-boy Dean Karnazas doing 300 plus mile runs makes other workout fanatics seem almost sane.

I was sorely trepidated in the weeks leading up to the “race”, which I was more and more considering a matter of survival than speed. Having come off a hard summer of triathlon training, I had my doubts whether I was sufficiently prepared for this type of challenge. Don’t get me wrong: I was confident of finishing, but the question of the extent of the pain involved left me concerned about my own threshold. for “discomfort”. One of my mottos is “Pain is just God’s way of reminding us that we are alive,” (I think I coined that one) and I hoped He would be running with me this day, or at least send an angel to watch over me(isn’t that a song?).

Which leads us to the reverend Doctor Horton, a.k.a. The Weird Sucker, the king of motivation in this happy jaunt in the woods. I thought to myself, “If this ol’ crazy geezer can run over 40 miles a day for 66 days, surely I’ll have little trouble running 50 in one day…” Little did I know. Even among ultrarunners as a breed apart, Dr. Horton stands alone as a testament to the intrepid nature of man.

We of the merry band of trail runners from West by God Virginia agonized over what to carry on the run, I more so than others because this was, after all, my first attempt at an ultra: some had fanny packs, others hand-helds, and I had decided to rely only on a couple of GUs stashed in the pockets of my tri-top and the excellence of the aid stations. The thought of carrying anything for 50 miles made me want to pare down as much as possible. Ieven considered ditching my cap, but in hindsight I was glad to have had the protection for my bald and beautiful pate in the glaring sun-gleam of this gorgeous day.

After a fitful night of minimal sleep(although more than Dave “The Man” Mackey got, as it turns out), we all took turns trying to have that transcendent BM that Dr. Horton had so strongly suggested in his preamble to the race. Those who were unable knew surely that they would have to face Mother Nature on a basic level early on. (‘Nuff said on that subject!) Upon arriving at the James River Visitor’s Center, we soon came to realize just how warm it was going to be; it was already well into the 50s in the darkness of the early morn. I predicted a higher than normal attrition rate. “Drink, drink, drink” was the mantra for the day, and I resolved not to let dehydration be my downfall.

The time to begin approached, and I kept expecting Dr. Horton to announce the singing of our national anthem, but as the time ticked down to 30 seconds, I realized it was not to be; I nearly cried out, for I had volunteered for the honor, only to have my bid rebuffed as untimely. Nobody’s perfect….and it was now time to “Git ‘er done!” as the hillbillies from the Commonwealth of Wahoo(VA) are wont to say.

It was strange at first, running in the darkness, eerie and foreboding; I tried to break up the seriousness of the moment with a bit of levity, the old saw: “Is this the James River 5-miler?” Nobody laughed. I yelled to our fastest hopeful from West Virginia, “Win or die, John!” as he passed by after the turnaround. I took my first pit stop just after the turnaround, confident in my superhydration level. I jogged easily, trying not to be pulled into catching up with my so-called friends from Morgantown who were so ungraciously leaving me in the dust.

Just after the turn into the woods , and after a beautiful view of the spillway and mill from the James River Bridge, I caught my good friend Kimberly Fisher as she strode up the hill; I was still in “jogging” mode, and wondered how long it would be until I too was forced to walk; in hindsight, it would not be long at all.

The aid stations began to tick off, and at every one I drank 2-3 cups of Conquest and ate sparingly of GU and PB&J. I talked to just about everyone whom I passed or who passed me. Most mentioned something about their training: lack of mileage, injury, loss of focus. I myself had done two 20 milers in training, and some shorter trail runs, but I knew there were many out there this day with less training, and I was determined to try to help others with motivational support to the best of my ability.

I was shooting for ten minute miles, and I knew I was close to that, but didn’t know how long I could keep it up. As the trail wore on (and UP!) from the aid station at 14.9, I began to walk more on the hills, copying the technique of those around me. My good friends Dave and Tanya kept my spirits high by driving around and meeting our WV runners at various aid stations, providing food, drink, and encouragement aplenty when most needed. I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated their efforts to keep us going, as I think it made a real difference in the end for me.

Toward the halfway point, we topped (or so I thought) the ridge and the road flattened out. Unfortunately, my hip flexors were tight as a drum at this point, and I could barely lift my knees. Naturally I tripped on a teeny rock in the road, which sent me careening, windmilling my arms wildly to maintain my balance. I managed to stay up, but only after my hamstrings felt as if both had been stabbed. The aid station at the halfway was a welcome sight in the bright sunlight, and I gimped my way across the road to the shouts of my crewmates.

Having run the first half in my Asics 2100s, I was more than ready to switch, as my dogs were definitely barkin’. I had told my crewmates early on in the race that I would need the Hardrocks for sure at the halfway, and never was I so pleased at a decision I had made. I had only had them for 2 weeks at the recommendation of my buddy Dan “Way Out There” Lehmann (King of WV Trail Runners at past.wvmtr.org), and I was concerned that the shoes might not be broken in enough. True, they would get a hard workout, but my feet would survive unscathed, unblistered, and unbarkin’. Hallelujah!

The theme from “Rocky” blasted away in the distance as I meandered up Buck Mountain. This was a very purty part, and I was glad for the solitude in the serenity of the hills. It was here that I met one of my pals from WV who was expected to be a frontrunner; he was limping back toward the halfway point, complaining of a groin injury: the mountain was beginning to take her toll. As for me, I just hoped to be able to loosen up a bit as I ascended. This portion seemed especially tough, as I slipped repeatedly on the loose large stones camouflaged by leaves. Approaching the “Rocky-top”aid station, I again espied a number of signs with Bible verses leading up to the station, and here I experienced my deepest pangs of emotion, and as I read one verse aloud to no one in particular, “I lift up mine eyes to the hills…”, I chocked back the tears. I could feel the power of Jesus lifting me to the summit, and I was confident that I would make it to the end. While the aid workers were very nice, the Conquest drink they provided was laden with ice, and my hand wrapped around the hand-held began to freeze in the wind. I was grateful for the warmth of the day and the stiff breeze hailing from my own great state of West Virginia.

Climbing toward The Loop, I encountered a large group of folks on horseback. I was not in a happy-camper mood at this time, and I called out several times, “Runner on the left”, even as they walked their mounts three-abreast. These were big suckers too, reminding me of the little trail run I had taken last year out at the Big Ditch in Arizona, when I had to pass several trains of horses and pack mules. I shall always remember the sullen words of the lead cowpoke that day as he muttered under his breath, “That’s a good way to get yer head kicked in”, to which I replied, “Thanks for sharin’ the trail, buckaroo!”

At the trail head of The Loop, I again encountered my friends Tanya and Dave who gave sustenance and attaboys. The Loop itself was a serious challenge for me, because I am unfortunately not a very good technical runner. My eyesight and depth perception are poor, and I tend to trip frequently on rocky trails. I was slowed almost to a walk, and halfway through a passel of runners began to pass me, and my positivity began to wane. As I fell further behind this scampering group, I began to stumble more and more frequently as I struggled to keep up, and I must admit than an expletive or five may have escaped my usually holy and pristine lips.

Upon finally escaping the torture of The Loop, I was chagrined to learn from my crew that my arch-nemesis and future bride Kim Fisher was hot on my tail and closing fast…would I see her before the end? As enchanting as her beauty might be, I did not want to face the ignominity of eating her dust this day.

A remark about the aid station workers in general: most were very nice and obliging, offering great help and encouragement and food, and the potatoes and salt effectively neutralized the effects of the sweet Conquest, which I continued to guzzle at the rate of three cups per station. Some of the fellows (and it always seemed to be men in charge of this) tallying the race numbers were a bit persnickety, calling out in loud voices, “YOUR RACE NUMBER, SIR!” To which I would shout my number thrice, with a boisterous “OO-RAH!” at the end. While I understand their adamance and the importance of checking each runner in at every station, I could not help but wonder whether they could have positioned spotters on both sides of the trail so I didn’t have to do the Hokey-Pokey at every aid station…but then again, whining is in my nature, and this enabled me to blow off some steam, but I tried very hard, according to Dr. H’s instructions, to be as nice as possible under the trying circumstances.

Where was I ? Ah yes, droning on and on about my “run”, which was becoming less of a run with every passing mile: I was alone by this time, entering the second wooded section and beginning to despair a bit; the trail becoming a little harder to follow…or was it that I myself was becoming disoriented? Many trees were down on the trail, and five or six times I had to stop to look for the next white ribbon against the glare of the sun. Stumbling forward, I again felt the pang of self-doubt as more runners approached, chatting away at my tail. I soon realized that it was she herself(!), the darling and intrepid Ms. Fisher, trotting along with a male runner whom she had gathered along the way. As they bounced past, I was determined to keep pace, even at the very real threat of tripping on my achy-breaky legs.

Sooner than I had expected, we were upon the last aid station, and Kim asked the young perky fellow, “How much longer?” Somehow I had it in my head that we had six or seven more miles to go, and I hung my head in resignation. Much to my surprise, the young volunteer said, “Only two point nine miles or so, maybe a little more…and it’s all downhill!” With that, it was as if the weight of the day had been totally lifted from off my shoulders…I thought: “A measly five kilometers….it’s a RACE now!” Taking off like the proverbial bat from hell, I knew I would not be passed again. My face widened into a grin as I churned through those last few miles, caring little about the water hazards, bounding through the spilling creeks with reckless abandon. Here I began to reel ‘em in again, some of those who had so mercilessly passed me in The Loop…as I galloped past, I remarked, “Bet you thought you’d never see me again!” It was the best I had felt all day, and I could smell the goal line. On that last downhill on the gravel road, a beautiful blonde runner was climbing the hill and gave me a big smile and an “Almost home!” I smiled back, wishing we were headed in the same direction, and pounded on down to the hard road. Rounding the last left turn on to the main road, I felt a real sense of exhilaration as I hogged the lane. The finish loomed, and I was happy to espy The Weird Sucker’s lovely assistant from Nigeria pointing the way. Crossing the line (Was there ever any doubt???), I barely acknowledged The Weird Sucker, but then I turned back and gave Dr. Horton a big ol’ hug, demanding, “How come you wouldn’t let me sing the National Anthem, you Scalawag?!” To which he speedily replied, “‘Cause you gotta come back next year to sing it!” Hmmm, I thought.

My goals had been to finish, to break ten hours, and to gain weight, all of which I accomplished. The rhetorical question is whether I will ever do another: does the excitement and sense of accomplishment trump the pain? As far as competitions go, I was happy to finish in the top 25 percent, but I have always considered my race to have been a relative failure if I have not cracked the top ten percent. I used to consider an abomination to be beaten by a “mere” woman; as the years have passed, however, I have considered it a relative success if I have finished among the top five women. This day no less than eight women bested me, and there was nothing “mere” about any of them…several thrashed me rather soundly by well over an hour and a half.

Nobody who started this race was a loser or a failure: anyone who has ever attempted such a feat is far and away both physically and mentally stronger than most of his or her peers. With respect to Ms. Trittipoe, I must say you are a success for having made the attempt, regardless of the outcome. Every runner or racer has had to face the specter of DNF at one time or another; I myself had my first one earlier this year when a wheel blowout on a triathlon caused my mountain bike to be unridable. As unpleasant as DNFs are, each makes us stronger and more resolute in the long run.

Why do we, the average Joes and Josephines, take up the challenge of such events as the Masochist? Certainly not for the glory….there is none, except perhaps for the Mackeys and Hortons of this world. Perhaps it’s the comradery, the feeling that we’re all in it together, and that we’ll make it together…or maybe it’s the fact that each of us is on the edge of his or her limits, pushing forward into the unknown….whatever the reasons, the sense of accomplishment is indeed huge, as Dr. Horton pointed out in his own poignant description of his first successful ultra bid.

Could I have done better at the Mt. Masochist? Yes, I suppose, with more training, more perseverance, more steely resolve, but the bottom line is, I’m not a particularly good trail runner…maybe I should go back to 5 Ks where I belong…or maybe I’ll just bait The Weird Sucker into railing at me in his inimitable preacher style, “YOU CAN’T DO A HUNDRED MILES!”

Charlie Shaffer
October 2005

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