A group of runners make their way to the front immediately after race director D announces, “on your mark, get set, go!”. After two miles of introductions and discussions, E, dressed in dark gray clothing starts a very quick pace out front leaving us all behind. I was hoping to run an easy pace and save some energy for the second half. However, if I lose sight of E I might never see him again, in which case I would never know, is he ahead of me? Did he take a wrong turn and is now behind me? Rather than face that potential uncertainty I pick up my pace enough to keep him barely in view up ahead. We stayed like this for several miles until E pulls over for a quick restroom break which puts me in the lead. He quickly catches back up and follows along. I decide to try to lose him by keeping the pressure high and running extra hard. At mile ten he is still right there and it’s clear I’m not going to shake him this way. It’s time to rethink my strategy. I slow down to a pace I think I can sustain for the entirety of this thirty-two-mile trail run.
I’m running in sandals which is great for most of the race, but there are some muddy sections of trail that smear slimy mud between my feet and the sandal after which I feel like I’m ice skating inside the sandal until I can find a stream or a puddle to wash off in. I’m sure this means that my pace was very inconsistent, and yet E was always right there behind me. At one point I got a horrible case of mudfoot and was slowly slipping my way down a hill that would otherwise have been a good place to let loose and run fast. I offered to move aside, but E declined.
I ate a lightly caffeinated gel at mile seventeen. By mile twenty-two, the caffeine had long since kicked in, the course was smooth and dry and great for cruising. I finally got a bit of a lead and was running by myself. My mood lifted and I felt like I could run like this until the end. After a few short miles of this, at mile twenty-four, I hear E coming up behind me fast. He blazes past at an alarming speed.
I know the old trick. Pass somebody at a spirit crushing pace so fast that they don’t bother trying to keep up. I’d like to know if he is running a short sprint or if he seriously has excess energy this late in the race so I make chase. I run really hard for a minute or two and he doesn’t slow down. I think to myself, “if you’ve got that much gas at this stage in the race, it’s all yours”. I immediately let go of the possibility of coming in first place, and for the remaining miles my head is a constant stream of thoughts of trying to accept my pending defeat and calculating just how bad it’s going to be.
I slow to a comfortable pace and walk up the remaining hills. I even stop to pee. I may have given up hope of a first place finish, but I realize that if I give up entirely I’ll get passed by more than just E. So now I’m focusing on the people chasing after me which helps me to keep some remaining pressure on myself to forge ahead.
I make the final left turn from the trail toward Piseco Airport, transitioning from nice trail to sketchy trail to grassy marsh. As I kick my way over logs through the tall grass I find myself approaching a dark-gray apparition up ahead. I am so deeply entrenched in the idea that E finished a long time ago that I never fully comprehend what is happening. I come up behind him and ask, “are you alright?”. “My leg is cramping”. I say, “it’s just a little further” and keep going.
Reaching the finish requires a half-mile run along an awkward lumpy grass field. The flagged route makes a big U-shaped turn around the airport runway to the final uphill stretch to the finish line. As a rule I try to never (ever) look back during a race. Looking back during a race only means one thing: I want to slow down. The only reason to look back is to find out if I can safely give up a little. But the only thing that will prevent my fear of getting passed from becoming reality is to run as fast as I can. But today I can’t help myself. For the entire half-mile I keep frantically turning around to see E is just far away enough that I can run to the finish without sprinting but close enough that I need to keep turning around to re-confirm just in case. The finish line embraces me with open arms and after I cross my body finally disintegrates, unable to run another step. It’s a huge relief to be done.
It is exciting to watch other runners come in including E, F, TO, M, V, B, and R. R’s finish was the best. It was his first time running an ultra-marathon, and a carload of friends from the Clifton Park Beer Runners club arrived just in time to contribute to the roaring cheers.