Regular readers may start to wonder why I write so much about Jarmans Gap Road, my favorite mountain road in our little mountain town. My simple answer is that getting your body up Jarmans is hard, and we learn the most from things that are hard.
Last month, on Saturday August 3, starting at 12:01 pm, we hosted the 5th annual Jarmans Invitational Marathon, aka “The JIM.” The “Jarmans” we refer to is not the nice paved Jarmans Gap Road that takes you from downtown Crozet out to Chiles, rather the gravel transformation of Jarmans Gap Road that continues 3 miles in distance and 1,700 feet up Bucks Elbow Mountain where it stops at the border of Shenandoah National Park. The JIM is 5 laps up and down this tough gravel road, totaling 29 miles with 8,500 feet of elevation gain, and worse, 8,500 feet of descending.
“OK, John, you’ve lost me, you’re talking about crazy people and nonsense here!”
Yes, I will grant that the JIM is not your typical “marathon” by any stretch of the imagination. It is tough. Usually only about 50-60% of the runners finish all 5 laps. It’s in August and starts at 12:01 p.m. to maximize the heat and humidity. We provide only water; it’s up to the runners to bring food and sports drink that they need. There are no frills and there is definitely no coddling of the runners.
And yes, I will grant you that it’s not your average recreational runner who says, “that sounds like a great idea!” Virginia is rich with an amazing community of mountain runners, those who prefer the trails and roads of the mountains over the flatter terrain of the Piedmont and Tidewater. This group tends to be drawn towards these types of tougher events and the JIM has no problem filling up to capacity quickly every year.
However, our participants are as normal and varied as anyone. You might think they would all be slim, running-obsessed people, but that is not the case. There are all sorts of body types, ages, and personalities. We are all bonded, though, by a love for mountains, the desire for a challenge, and the fellowship we gain with our community. We have mothers, fathers, singles in their 20s, and even a few grandparents each year. This year our oldest finisher was 68.
“OK, John, maybe they are nice crazy people. But how is this relevant to me? I will never do this. It sounds like a terrible idea!”
Here’s what I wanted to bring home for this month’s column. As one of the race directors of the JIM, I am at the bottom of the mountain and I get to see every single runner as they come in for each of their laps. The start of the race is so fun – everyone is so full of energy and optimism and genuinely having a good time as they head out. About an hour or more later when they finish lap one, they come back to the nice comfy aid station (we have tents and chairs and nice people) where they have to turn around and head back out—back out into the heat and back up the mountain knowing it’s going to be a bit harder this time.
Almost everyone is still in a good mood after lap one. They know it’s going to be a hard day, so not too many people crush themselves in just the first 6 miles. They fuel up, take a quick break, and then make the decision to head back out.
The end of lap 2 is a different story. It’s getting hotter and after now climbing and descending 3,400 vertical feet, their bodies are starting to protest a bit. This year, 8% of the runners quit after two laps.
Lap 3 is the hardest lap. The heat hasn’t stopped, nor has the relentless climbing and then descending. But mostly, the thought of completing two more laps seems impossible. This year we lost 12% of our runners after lap 3.
Lap 4 is when runners really dig deep and consciously decide to go on even though their bodies and minds are protesting. Lap 4 is tough and noticeably slower than the other laps. Another 12% of the participants called it quits after 4.
And then there is lap 5. The runners who have made it this far are all hurting. Lap 5 is easy for nobody. And there at the bottom, we are seeing everyone’s face and body change each time we see them complete another lap. Each person who comes down has to make a decision: quit or start another lap. It’s a hard decision. It’s really easy to quit when you’re back down at the bottom. We have chairs! Their prior 6 miles has been filled with this decision—I could just quit.
Here’s where this is relevant to you. The people who did finish were committed to finishing. They knew it was going to be hard and they knew it was going to hurt, but all day long, their thoughts were on the finish. Sure, many people went out faster and were in better shape, but when the going got tough, a lot of really talented runners quit.
There at the bottom, we can see how badly everyone wants to quit. I can’t tell you how impressed and inspired we are when we see someone who is really struggling finally get up out of their chair and head back out for one more lap.
To me this is so relevant to everything in our own personal journey back to fitness. Way back when, I used to smoke cigarettes and it was really hard to stop. The same can be said of trying to lose weight. Making the tough diet and lifestyle changes needed is hard. And it’s so easy to just revert back to what you were doing, essentially sitting down after your lap 3 and quitting. Why go back out for Lap 4?
I can tell you that every single finisher of the JIM felt accomplished. Much of that accomplishment was what they did, but I think that those of us who have finished it know that most of the sense of accomplishment comes from just not having quit.
As you seek new goals in your personal health and fitness that may seem hard or impossible, don’t quit. It’s going to be hard, but you know that! Be a finisher. You will be glad you did.