Last Friday night will go down in the history of my bad nights of sleep as one of the worst. My best friend/training partner and I were camping at Grayson Highlands State Park the night before running a 50-mile trail race in the stunning but rocky trails in the park. Unfortunately, there was a high wind advisory and we were pummeled with 50mph howling winds all night long.
The thing about adversity is it’s really all about how you let it affect you. Neither I in my tent, nor Dan in his car was getting any sleep the night before a race, and yet neither of us let that frustrate us. What could we do about it?
After rising to a 4 a.m. alarm clock and getting ready in the dark, cold campsite, we arrived at the 6 a.m. race start surprisingly relaxed and ready for a day on the trails. The irony of the terrible wind was that it blew in the most spectacular morning with a cloudless day of cool temps and low humidity through which to run and see the scenery of Virginias highest state park. (Grayson Highlands is home to Mt. Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia at 5,729 feet, as well as an amazing herd of wild ponies.)
The thing I really love about trail running is that you can race as hard and as competitively as you want, but then do so in such a unique setting. Instead of hammering on some city street, have you ever chased someone across a mountain bald with hundred-mile views?
About five miles in, I found myself in fourth place, just behind the lead pack. Now that I was properly warmed up, it was time to reach into my ultra-running bag of tools. These are the tools that I have learned over the past eight years of long trail races, but also tools translate into the rest of my life. At 45, I need to pull out a few of these tools to give myself any chance of hanging with the younger, faster kids.
My first tool is to set the tone. I usually do this with music. Typically, something somewhat random will come into play and may stay in my head for the next 12 hours (I rarely use headphones). As I crested the highest point on the course with both the moon up as well as a beautiful sunrise (have I said how beautiful Grayson Highlands is? Did I say there were wild ponies?), the song “Rooster” by Alice in Chains came into my head.
Recently, I’ve been grappling a bit to better understand my younger days. Probably brought about by having a 15-year-old son, and considering where I was at his age. Raised in a divorced but loving home, music was my form of teenage escape and I was fortunate to hit it right at the time the Grunge genre was born. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains. Yeah. Lately I’ve been listening to all those old albums and both reliving them and seeing them in new light.
Rooster is an awesome song. Give it a listen. LOUD! Jerry Cantrell wrote it about his dad’s experience in Vietnam. His Dad’s nickname was “Rooster,” and the song’s chorus echoes “Here they come to snuff the Rooster … you know he ain’t gonna die!”
As I passed the third place runner—a younger guy—again in the most beautiful scenery, literally on the top of a boulder-strewn mountain bald, Rooster came on in stereo in my head and set the tone for the day. I was the Rooster, the guy facing middle age. The guy whose legs take a little longer to recover. The guy whose job is pretty stressful. The guy who lay awake all night in a flappy tent with 50mph winds. They were the young guys. They were aging, work stress, family stress, and responsibility stress. Yep, here was the tone for the day: “Here, they come to snuff the Rooster…you know he ain’t gonna die!”
I am guessing that everyone reading this can relate to some degree to the pressure of people and things wanting to “snuff you out.” To stand tall and not allow that to happen is an empowering feeling. And like getting frustrated because of the wind—or not—it’s a reaction to the circumstances around you. Don’t let them snuff you out!
My second tool was to be patient. Around mile nine, I ran into the second-place runner. I could tell when I caught up to him that he seemed in better shape than I was. By mile 14 he dropped me on a gravel mountain road climb. “It’s only mile 14, you’ve got 35 miles to go, it’s not time to race yet.” I kept repeating this to myself. Yet, it’s hard not to get anxious when you see your competition pull away from you. And I knew first place was only a few minutes ahead of him. But I was breathing a bit too hard and I let him go. Plenty of time. Instead, I kept Rooster on repeat in my head and ran my own race. Thirteen miles later, I caught back up to him and passed him for good on another big climb. I had conserved energy and now it was paying off. Patience always pays off.
I ran the rest of the race alone, but I knew first place was somewhere up ahead. First place was 27 years old, almost 20 years younger than me. And he just looked faster. But still, this was a race and it ain’t over until it’s over. So, I pulled out my last tool—be tough. All race long, we all have problems. Stomach issues, falling, painful stubbed toes, tired cramping legs, but one of the unique things about ultras is that it’s really about who can outlast the others in this suffering. Can you do this for 7 hours? Longer?
As I ran through more beautiful mountain top balds and rhododendron tunnels, I came upon the mile 37 aid station and they told me I was eight minutes behind the leader. Probably an insurmountable lead, but…maybe not! At the end of the day all you can do is do your best. “You know he aint gonna die!”
Six miles later at the last aid station I was told that I was now only four minutes behind the leader. Maybe this could happen? I left that aid station re-energized, but also knowing that the rest of the race was all uphill. This is where you learn to just be tough. I have had plenty of races where I wasn’t very tough at the end. I still think about those. They bother me. Times I let them snuff the Rooster. Learning to be tough mostly comes from learning what it’s like to live with those moments when you weren’t tough. This sport really does translate to real life.
And so I did my best up that climb. Breathing so hard I was getting dizzy. Pouring water on my head to keep cool. Not giving up. I didn’t know that the lead runner was out of reach until I was in view of the finish line. He had finished 7 minutes ahead of me.
Was I upset? Nope. They did not snuff the Rooster that day.
The choice to be snuffed or not is yours. Don’t let “them” snuff you!
Now, will I camp again before a race? Not any time soon.