Finding joy in a time of uncertainty thanks to ultra runners
“Is your race still on?”
It was a question I was asked with increased frequency last week as the coronavirus shut down much of our way of life, including virtually the entire sports world.
Major sports leagues and races cancelled or postponed events to adhere to the new buzzwords of 2020: “social distancing” and “flatten the curve.”
My race, the Bel Monte 50K by Bad to the Bone Endurance, was indeed still on.
Still, the race took precautions to limit the chance of spreading coronavirus to runners, volunteers and others.
Race director Francesca Conte advised anyone with symptoms or who was feeling ill to stay home.
The race went cupless.
Aid stations only had single-serve items such as unpeeled fruit, wrapped candy and other items still in single-serving packages.
Conte also recommended runners carry more of their own food and also allowed for drop bags at every aid station in the race that takes place in the mountains of northern Virginia. I packed my pockets and pack with Honey Stinger gluten-free waffles, gels and chews since I am a Celiac and knew that there would be few options for me at aid stations. Previously, the race had planned to have corn tortillas available.
Improving upon 2017 race
I was grateful for the opportunity to race as well as the wise precautions taken at the race, which I also did three years ago.
That, of course, was a much different time in our world, my personal life and my running journey.
In 2017, Bel Monte was my third ultra and I was thrilled to finish the 50K in exactly 7:03 and 10th overall out of just short of 100 runners.
The race also has options for 50 miles and a 25K. Each distance follows the same trails (with a short stint on the Blue Ridge Parkway) with different turnarounds for their respective out-and-backs. The course is challenging, featuring 5,000 feet of elevation change in the 50K and a series of switchbacks late in the race.
I went into the race with a goal of finishing in the top 10 again, even though I would be three years older and the race has grown during that time.
The race began at 6 a.m. for the 50K and 25K, a half-hour after the 50-milers headed out into the dark. Headlamps were mandatory for the early going and views of an amazing sunrise were our reward for the first couple of hours of work.
The course become runnable for a long stretch after the 25K turnaround point. It was at this point when I started running with Jake, a law school student who is into climbing. That was clear as he bombed past me earlier on an uphill.
Jake and I chatted as we churned out the miles. It was a much needed reprieve from the zaniness, stress and uncertainty of the past week.
The trails and trail runners once again showed why this sport is invaluable for one’s own mental wellness. (And that’s a primary reason why I proudly serve as an ambassador for Bigger Than The Trail.)
Jake eventually went on ahead, probably on an ascent. I saw him again after he turned around at the midway point and I figured he was in sixth place. Soon I stopped briefly at the halfway point aid station, grabbed a banana and realized I was right behind Jake in seventh place.
After thanking the volunteers. I set out to maintain my position. I dreaded the long climb that waited for me in a couple of hours. But that could wait.
Now that I had turned around I would have the opportunity to support my fellow runners as they headed toward me. Greetings of “awesome job,” “you’re doing amazing,” and “keep the great work” were exchanged with smiles, but no high-fives or even fist bumps. These are different times.
Conquering the switchbacks
I continued to keep my hold on seventh as the miles ticked away. Around Mile 22, I caught up with Jake who had slowed. He graciously let me by and I also passed another runner.
Fifth place and fourth overall male with roughly 10 miles to go. The pre-race instructions showed the race to be 34 miles but my watch measured about 32.
In any case, I was about to enter the most challenging part of the race. The switchbacks would lead to a rocky section, then the final aid station, and then just under 5 miles of rolling hills about evenly split between trails and the parkway until the finish.
In 2017, the switchbacks were relentless. They would seemingly never end.
This year, they were tough but manageable. Thankful to my coach, David Roche, for creating a training plan that would enable someone who lives in flat Indiana to swallow the hills.
Upon reaching the final aid station, I asked how far ahead the third-place male was. My slim hopes of catching him were confirmed. “He’s several minutes ahead,” a volunteer told me after a brief pause that I took to mean, “no chance, Buddy.”
As I set out, I kept focusing on maintaining my position, enjoying the outdoors and smiling to quell the pain that was infiltrating my quads and elsewhere. That’s another tip I learned from Coach Roche. Smile every mile.
I hit the parkway and kept pushing. Even though I didn’t see any runners behind me, I thought maybe Jake or someone else would feel fresher than I did.
I passed one of the 25Kers and exchanged “good job” greetings and then continued on to the finish.
Finding the finish and gratitude
My thoughts and feelings were on overdrive. I was so grateful for this day to spend with the running community. Based on my interactions with fellow runners, volunteers and others at Bel Monte, I would say the trail running community is well positioned to help each other in the worst-case scenario for coronavirus or whatever challenges are yet to come.
At the same time, coronavirus is still a grave concern.
The last week had been extraordinary, of course. Unprecedented safety announcements, cancellations of public gatherings and a dramatic increase in personal protection. Air passengers, myself included, wiped down their seats, armrests and tray tables. Uber drivers wore masks and gloves. And grocery stores ran out of items from toilet paper to canned goods to sanitizer.
But as I stood at the finish line, none of that mattered. My 6:17:11 official time was more than 45 minutes faster than 2017, and would have been a tad better had I not briefly taken a wrong turn at a driveway about a mile from the finish. After one of the leaders was DQ'd for going off course, I placed fourth overall, third male and first in the 50-59 age group.
But even if I had finished DFL it would have been a successful day. We run because of the joy it gives us. We run because the running community is inspiring. We run for health and mental wellbeing.
And sometimes we run because the world is jacked up and we need an escape form the realities of modern society. Perhaps there has been no time since 9/11 when that has been real and poignant.