Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tallahassee Ultra-Distance Classic 2009

Tallahassee Ultra-Distance Classic 2009

It doesn't take long for a runner to discover that expectations often need adjustments even after a run is underway.

My wife and I were revisiting the site of our introduction to ultra-running.  It would be my 4th attempt at going beyond 26.2 miles and my wife's second.  For Kathy, this was her once per year toe dip into the 50k distance.  I was signed up for my second 50 miler.

The race had generated the most interest it had seen in some time.  52 people had signed up for the 50k and another 27 were to join me for the longer run.  Among the entrants were the previous year's winner, Dann Fisher, and the course record holder, Frank Bozanich.  There were enough other young runners in the race from far enough away to make me believe that the competition would be stiff.

I was in much better shape this year but hadn't run more than 20 miles since attempting Leadville in August.  I had decided to increase my distance slowly and work more on speed with the hope that I'd get enough of a start to power through to a strong finish after I ran out of steam.  I have moved a little beyond novice and have now entered a quixotic phase that I hope not to end.

I believe that I'm getting stronger.  Visits to doctors and special footwear had vanished.  My recovery from Leadville had been much quicker than recovering from Tallahassee the year before as well as the Sweetwater H2O 50k the previous spring.  I was also going to roll back to complete my first marathon in January and decided the training window was much better suited to do well then.

Answering for why one chooses to run or why one sets the goals one sets seems like the wrong question to answer with regard to running.  It is not so much the quixotic nature of running that causes me to believe this.  It is more that it is no more quixotic than anything else one does.  Why do people work in jobs that produce results that will eventually be torn down or thrown away?  Why do we raise families that will have forgotten our names within two or three generations?  Reasons for assaulting any of our personal windmills are hard to come by and reason has it's limits.  Ultimately we do all of these things because we accept on faith that they are the things to do.

I can think of no reason that justifies my goals.  I can think of no compelling reason to run at all but I believe it is the right thing for me to do.

On their website,, it claims that it seldom rains in December in Tallahassee.  If it never rained I suppose they would say so.  The forecast called for a 70% chance.  70% meant we were probably going to get wet but how bad could it be at a time of year it doesn't typically rain.

Kathy woke up before her 4:30 alarm and since I was awake I got up before my 5 AM wake up time.  We were loaded into the car with caffeine loaded into us by 5:30.  This year we knew where to go and what to do and had our numbers on, counters identified and had time to grouse about how cold it was.  The air was damp but it would be hard to call the moist air, rain.

Gary Griffin, who directs the race with his wife, Peg, spoke to the runners in much the same manner as he had the year before.  He acknowledged loyal participants, dedicated the race to a participant who had overcome tragedy to toe the line and mentioned the same Bible verse in Isaiah he had referenced the year before.  He gave instructions about littering and such, mentioned that 50 milers would be given a 50k time and plaque if they completed enough laps but did not complete the 50 mile distance and, after a brief pause lead the 50 milers out to their alternative start line.

Kathy and I had given each other a good luck kiss and were ready as we would ever be given our limited experience.

The course consisted of a 2 and 1/15th mile loop; 15 laps for the 50k; 24 laps plus 4/10ths of a mile for the 50 miler.  The 4/10ths were tacked onto the start of the race and resulted in the different start lines.

It was hard, in the early morning darkness, to identify individual runners but one runner stood out.  No one would need to have identified Frank Bozanich.  His face and hair somehow identified him as older but his body was a solid mass of muscle.  He looked more like a caricature of Paul Bunyon straight from an illustrated children's book than a previous 50 mile world record holder or an AARP member.  When I saw that he was registered I had mused that I would consider my race a success if I could beat this 65 year old.  Looking at him made me painfully aware of how much of a challenge that would really be.

Gary waited while a few stragglers came jogging up.

I found myself standing next to Frank and attempted to joke with him.

"So, Frank, did it really take you 27 years to recover from your last run here?"

"Oh, I've run other races since then."

I laughed at my failed attempt at pre-race mirth.

"I figured you had.  It's a pleasure to be running with you."

"Thank, you."

After all runners were accounted for and without any pomp we started with a simple "Go" from Gary.

I was equal amounts perturbed and satisfied to take an early lead.  My concern came from knowing the caliber of the people in the race.  I was not running as hard as I had visualized but knew that the pace was brisk.  I could hear breath and gentle footsteps behind me and knew that others were pacing close behind me.

We came across the 50k start line and I yelled out, "Eight!"  It was my number for the race.

"Eight!" yelled a volunteer.

"Eight!  Gotcha' Kevin!  Way to go!"

"Thank you, Jay."

Jay was my counter for the day.  Before the race he was still focused on finding his runners and it concerned me that he might be a bit quiet.  My fear, as with many of the fears I choose in life, turned out to be unfounded.  He was going to be great.

Two other runners had shouted their numbers right after me and one of them pulled up beside me after we went through the start/finish line.

"I'm Kevin."  It would be a long race and I figured I should find out who I was running with.

"I'm Ryan."

We had a brief conversation in which I learned that this was his first 50 miler, he was a cross country coach at a university in Charlotte (the name of which escapes me), his marathon runs had gotten flat and he was hoping going longer would rectify the problem.  I also learned that he had been at the Georgia State Cross Country Championships a few weeks before.  After the race I had a chance to clarify that he was referring to the high school championships as opposed to the USATF Championships.  I told him who Frank was and that the winner from the previous year was behind us as well.

In turn, he learned that my daughter had won her division at the USATF Georgia championships and that I was running way to fast for my ability and headed off to take the lead.

The loop includes a dogleg out-and-back that allowed me to see who's behind me.  I was able to ascertain that it was Frank who had gone out with us.  Oh, boy, this was going to be tough.

We had mingled in with the 50k runners at this point and it was difficult to identify the other 50 milers in the mix.  

I made a mental note that Ryan was running his first 50 miler and reminded myself that anything could happen as I watched him glide away.  No thought entered my mind that similar thoughts must have been issued from behind about me.  Anything could happen to any of us.

I came around to the start/finish and once again shouted my number.  After passing through I hit the split button on my watch.  I knew that if I could come around each lap in under 16 minutes I'd be close to finishing under 7 hours.  The first lap included the additional 4/10ths of a mile.  17:04.  Fast.

The running still felt fine and unstrained.  I actually wondered if I couldn't push the pace a little but refrained.

At the dogleg I was able to see that Ryan was also running effortlessly as he continued to increase his lead and that I had added a little more distance between myself and Frank.  I was also able to identify Dann and also picked out another runner who looked familiar.  I would later talk with him and identify him as Vince.  Vince had come in third the year before.  I had come in 7th a long time after Dann and Vince had finished and gone on their way.

On lap 2 it started to rain.  Not hard.  Not yet.  But it would not let up for the rest of the time I was on the course.

I fell into a rhythm of smiling at runners who returned my smiles and occasionally speaking to those who had demonstrated a desire to make verbal exchanges.

When Kathy and I crossed paths we would give each other a thumbs up, smile or shrug our shoulders at the deteriorating weather.  It was a pleasure to have her on the course.

The laps began to trudge by and the rain strengthened.

Lap 2 - 14:44

Lap 3 - 15:19

I was increasing my hold on second place.  Ryan was increasing his lead.

I was catching up with Kathy as we approached the place on the course we had parked our car.  I thought she was going to stop but she paused just long enough to grab a Diet Pepsi off the trunk and then went on.

I shed my soaked jacket and continued in a long sleeve compression shirt covered by a thin technical shirt.  I was going to be wet and the jacket was just added weight.

I changed out my drinking bottle and ran on confident that I would catch Kathy briefly.  After crossing the start/finish again it became clear that she had made a pit stop and we would not run side by side for a while.

Lap 4 - 15:15

It seemed that I was falling into a bit of a rhythm.  Ryan continued to increase his lead.  I had moved further ahead of Frank but had not increased my margin with Dann and Vince.

Lap 5 - 16:08

Lap 6 - 15:34

Lap 7 - 15:19

Somewhere in one of these laps, I came up on Gary who had joined the 50 mile fun he had started.

"I really need to talk to th race director about this weather!"

"I know.  The forecast was for a half inch.  I think it can stop now, don't you?"

"Yes, I do.  Oh, well.  This is what it's all about."

"Yep.  I can't control the weather."

Lap 8 - 16:14

On lap 9 things started to go downhill fast.  Downhill is not a good thing on a flat course.  What had seemed like rain, became a memory of what it had been like when it had still been pleasant to run.  Later Frank would say that the only difference from what happened here was that in 'Nam there wasn't any pavement.

What happened was that the clouds opened up and showed what it could really dump on us.

Another issue was causing me concern.  It seemed to me that Dann was starting to close the gap.  Vince was not giving any ground and appeared to be edging toward me as well.

As I passed Dann, I again attempted humor.

"Dann, are you sure you're feeling well?"  Before I could complete my thought, Dann interjected.

"Ooh, I'm not doing that well."

"You don't look so good."  I finished my statement and regretted it right away.  I had intended levity and felt like I had spewed mean spiritedness.  I would not get to explain myself or be certain whether he cared.

It didn't stop me from trying it again later.

"Are you sure you don't need to go to the bathroom or something?"  I secretly hoped that the joking would lead to the actual desire on his part.  If it did, it didn't matter.

Lap 9 - 16:28

Lap 10 - 16:43

14 laps to go and things were not good.  On lap 11 Ryan came by.

"I was hoping to get half way before you lapped me.  Nice job, Ryan."

He was still on pace to go under 6 hours.  It was actually a boost to see him doing so well.  He would soon be entering the unknown, though, as he passed beyond 26.2.  Anything could happen.

Lap 11 - 17:22

I had reached the end of my training and my quads were screaming.  To a non-runner "screaming" might seem like an over used metaphor.  To the distance runner there are few better descriptions.  The rest would have to be sheer will.

Just when it didn't seem like it could rain any harder... really started to rain.  Before it would occasionally ease.  No more of that for the next 5 laps it poured steadily.  No one was having fun now. 

Lap 12 - 19:40

I made my first bathroom stop.  Dann caught up to me after I started again.  He said he wasn't doing that well and then demonstrated conclusively that he was doing better than I was.  I told him he would at least get the Masters and that he was 2nd overall.  He groaned and ran on ahead.

Not much later Vince caught up to me.  I told him Dann wasn't far ahead and was complaining about his condition.  He responded that the race was far from over.  The way he said it made me understand that he didn't feel confident that if he was doing any better.  He, too, proceeded to run ahead.

I had now slipped to 4th and was only half way.  It was time to reset expectations.  People would pass.  I had lapped Amy Costa, the female front runner and accomplished ultra-runner.  She would later "unlap" me and beating her did not seem realistic.  Beating anyone needed to be set aside.  I would finish ahead of my 9 hour finish from the year before.  That would be doable... ...maybe.

Lap 13 - 19:25

No bathroom break but I had made the 27 1/4 mile mark at 3:35:15.  This was encouraging regarding the upcoming marathon regardless of what my speedy run meant for the 50 miler.

Lap 14 - 23:31

This trip included another bathroom break but Rosinante had collapsed.  The legs would go no more.  I remembered that after 15 laps I could get credit for the 50k.

Frank passed me.  I was going to be beat by a... ...I was going to be beat by a legend.

"Nice work, Frank."

"Yes, but I'm calling it quits after one more lap."

One more lap!  At some point Frank had stopped and I had lapped him!

Another thing: if he's stopping with his exceptional ability what the heck am I thinking?

My inconsistent conclusions regarding Frank were an exhaustion confused attempt at respect.  I had little excuse to make any comparisons with such a fine runner either in the present race or considering the complete body of his work.

I was also "unlapped" by Gary.

I don't remember which of us volunteered it first but he, too, was calling it quits at 50k.

I came around for my last and 15th lap at 4:23.  I failed to shut off my watch so the exact time will have to wait.

Vince would go 34 miles before settling for a 50k time.  Amy Costa would also drop.

Only a few 50 milers would continue.  Many 50k runners dropped without finishing.  Some would drop without bothering to check in.  I suppose that they would climb into their cars for relief and never bring themselves to get out again.  With so many novices, it would be likely they wouldn't know that many races would disqualify them from ever running again for such a deed.

It was a day for changing expectations for some such as myself.  For others, the change was more nuanced.  Kathy finished with an almost identical time from the year before in spite of the weather.

After Kathy successfully completed her 50k we headed to the car.

As we put our gear away we congratulated those coming by us toward their own finish.  Runners whom, though we had had minimal exchanges with all day, we had developed a rich bond.

Just before I climbed into the car, I saw Dann running up the road.

"How much further?"

"This is it."



I looked at my watch.  He was finishing only about eight minutes slower than he had the year before.  Amazing.

But that wasn't all.  As we pulled away we saw Ryan's wife on the course.

"I wonder why she's out here.  He must be done.  Maybe they have another friend on the course."

Not much further up the road we came upon Ryan still running.  Dann had passed him.

Ryan would finish his first 50 miler in fine form.  He will be unlikely to ever finish one where the weather would present such a challenge.

In the midst of telling each other our stories, it became apparent that we had already made a decision after surviving what had turned out to be a miserable day.  We would be back.