Sunday, November 22, 2009

Volunteering at the Flying Monkey Marathon - 11/22/09

Since 2004 on the 3rd Saturday in November, I have been running the JFK 50 Miler in Boonsboro, MD. When the Flying Monkey Marathon began in 2006 in Nashville, TN, my heart took a dive. Both races were on the same weekend. Being a Marathon Maniac, the first thought was to run JFK on Saturday and make it back in time to run the Flying Monkey on Sunday. This never happened. Because it always took me 12:30-13:30 to finish JFK, I could never get a late flight out of Baltimore to make it back by Sunday. Every time I saw Trent (the race director for the Monkey) at a race, I would threaten to run or volunteer at his event, but my luck was not that good.

Last year, the JFK increased the entry fee to an amount that I did not want to pay. I run a lot of races during the year, and it takes some serious budgeting to get to all of these races. With the flight, rental car, and 2 nights stay in a hotel the night before the race and the night right after the race, the increase pushed me over the limit for one race out of many. Besides, as much as I love that race, I was not willing to cut out another race or two from my schedule to make ends meet. Therefore, I made a promise to myself. I would run the JFK one more year to give me 5 finishes there, and if the entry fee increased for 2009, I would not run it. For 2009, the entry fee increased again to $145, leaving the 3rd weekend in November free for me to run another race.

For years now, I had been looking at the Dizzy Fifties (50K, 40 Mile, and 50 Mile) Trail Runs in Huntsville, AL. This race is on the same day as JFK. It was cheap to enter ($24), and it was only a 2-hour drive for me, which meant that I could sleep in my own bed. I signed up before it became full. Here was my chance to run Dizzy and then run the Monkey. With a 10 hour cut-off, the only distance I could pull off would be the 50K at Dizzy, so a double looked doable. The only problem was that the Monkey had already reached its 200 runner limit.

I have run a lot of races, but I'm ashamed to say that I have never volunteered. This sport has given me so much, and it was time for me to start giving back to it. I hear from race directors all of the time about how hard it is to find enough volunteers for their events. Here was my chance to be a part of the solution. I sent Trent an e-mail, asking him if I could volunteer. Trent, being the super nice guy that he is, asked me if I wanted to run it instead. I told him that I couldn't run it because it was already full. Again, he gave me the opportunity to run it by jokingly saying that he knew the race director and he could get me in. I loved the fact that he would let me in, but I really wanted to volunteer. I wanted to be on the other side of that start/finish line.

Early Sunday morning, I drove over to Percy Warner Park to check in for my 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. shift. I had been assigned to packet pick-up. I would be working with Sharon, who would check off each runner's name on the entry list. In turn, I would pull the runner's packet. Diana, the volunteer coordinator, and Trent, were buzzing around getting everything set up and putting the volunteers to work. All of the volunteers had been asked to bring a food item to share for the party afterwards. I had never seen so much food set up for a post-race party. There were three tables full of all kinds of desserts, sandwiches, fruits, vegetables, side dishes, and coffee. My stomach growled as I watched more and more food being dropped off at the tables by the volunteers as they checked in for their shifts.

Several of my running buddies were in town to run the Monkey: Andy (FL), Phil (AL), Graham (AL), Dave (CO), Larry (TX), and Mike (ME). Locals like Diane (TN) and Lisa (TN) were also running today. As they checked in or just came by our table to say hello, I wished them all well and told them to have fun. I promised to come out onto the course to see them after my shift was over.

Check-in started slowly, with 1 or 2 runners every few minutes, and then we got a steady stream for a while before it eased back to 1 or 2 runners every few minutes. Sharon and I worked well together. We only had one problem. A couple checked in. Her packet was available, but there wasn't a packet for her husband. Sharon and I desperately checked and rechecked the boxes, but we never found the runner's packet. We called Trent over. The runner's packet had to have been given out to someone else. We thought we had been thoroughly checking the numbers against the names. Could I have handed out the wrong packet? I didn't want to think that it was possible.

In our defense, a number of packets were picked up on Saturday evening. Another runner came up and told us that she had been given an incorrect packet on Saturday and had to go back and exchange it. Each packet had a bib number, goodie bag, and a race t-shirt with the runner's name on it. Surely, if someone had this particular runner's packet, he would have noticed that his t-shirt had the wrong name on it. The runner and his wife looked concerned. Trent was calm and told the runner that he would still be able to participate. If I was the race director, I would have been a nervous wreck. Our line of runners waiting to check in was growing. Sharon and I had to continue our job. Before the race started, Trent made an announcement to try and recover the missing packet. I didn't hear anyone owning up to having the wrong packet. Bummer!

At 8:00 a.m., we watched as the runners took off and the large digital clock began keeping time. As all of the runners climbed the hill on the cross-country portion of the course, they quickly began to spread out in a neat line. I felt like I had just pushed my kids out into the big world. Will they all make it back home safe and sound?

I love running in Percy Warner Park. There's a 5.8 mile loop and an 11.2 mile loop on the roads. Both were rolling hills the entire loop. I'm in relatively good shape when I can run the 5.8 in less than an hour and the 11.2 in less than 2 hours. It has been years since I was able to do that, but I still come out here every now and then to test myself. The race course pretty much followed the 11.2 mile loop twice with some additional routes to get the full 26.2 miles.

There are also some wonderful trails in the park that I love to run. Like the road loops, the trails are rolling hills with just enough roots and rocks to make it interesting. There are also plenty of deer to keep you company on the trails.

With all of the runners out for their adventure, the volunteers were left to fend for ourselves. A few of us grabbed something from the food table, drank coffee, and stood around talking. I talked with 2 volunteers for the next couple of hours. Andrew (AL) is a young ultramarathoner studying to become a physical therapist. Forrest (TN) had walked 65 miles in August to celebrate his birthday. Andrew and I were so impressed with his story. He had started out at 300 pounds several years ago and began walking and running to lose weight. He had lost his son to diabetes. While reading Pam Reed's book, he became inspired to run his age in miles for his birthday on a 10K loop that he created in Hendersonville, TN. The local news media did a story on him, and a helicopter hovered above him as he walked. Several people came out to walk with him. It took him 18 hours to finish. Wow! I wonder if Forrest knows that he has a 100 miler in him. And yes, we did joke about people saying "run, Forrest, run".

Two and a half hours after the runners started, Peter (the president of the Nashville Striders Running Club) announced that our first place winner would be coming across the cross-country field. Like moths to a flame, we all migrated to the finish line. Family, friends, and volunteers watched and waited. Volunteers lined up at the finish line to give out the Monkey finisher's medal and to tear off the runner's tag from their bibs. Several false alarms came when locals enjoying the park on the cloudy and cool Sunday morning came across the hill. And then we saw him, and he was flying. Was it Josh (TN)? Was it Chuck (OH)? My bet was on either one of them.

The winner looked good when he came through. You would not have thought that he had just run 26.2 miles on a tough course. We were all in amazement. We clapped, shouted, and congratulated him. And then we looked over the hill. No one was chasing him. I instantly felt sorry for him. Wasn't he lonely running all of those miles by himself?

And then we saw another. It had to be Josh or Chuck. They were so fast and had won so many races between the two of them. But it was not. It was another runner that I did not know. The crowd burst into claps, shouts, and hardy congratulations to him. And then we watched the hill. Waiting. Anticipating. I loved this!

I saw him. There were rumblings up ahead amongst the anxious crowd. Someone noticed his stride. His strong legs were pushing forward. He would finish 3rd. It was Josh. I yelled, and I was probably louder than I should have been, because he saw me waiting near the end of the finish chute. He had worked hard on those hills, chasing those two runners in front of him. He had to be tired. He had to be happy to finish and to finish so well. But he stopped, and he gave me a hug. I was surprised. I could feel the crowd watching our exchange. I wanted to jump up and down and tell everybody, "that's MY running buddy". I can't even run half of a marathon these days in the time that it took him to run the entire marathon, but we share the same love for this sport. That's what makes this so special to me.

Volunteers pulled his tag from his bid and gave him a Monkey medal. He went over to congratulate the two runners who finished before him, just as champions do. And the crowd watched the hill. They came one by one.

One runner had run so hard that he laid in the grass at the end of the finish chute. The medics came over to give him oxygen. I have never pushed my body that hard. I don't know what that feels like, but I wanted him to be okay. I wanted him to be able to run another day.

I stayed until the first female came through the finish chute. Friends ran with her, encouraging her, and then pulled off at the last few seconds so that she could have her well-deserved moment in the spotlight. She looked young and strong. I can't even imagine what went through her head, leading all of the women, and gaining on the men in front of her. It must have been a wonderful feeling. It must have been worth it all.

I said good-bye to Forrest and his wife, Judy. Judy had also volunteered this morning and helped organize all of the food that kept coming in for the party afterwards. I was ready to go out onto the course and back track. I wanted to run some of those familiar hills. I wanted to see my other running buddies.

As I ran and walked the course in the opposite direction, I tried to give encouragement to the runners heading to the finish line. I don't know how many times I said, "good job", "nice work", "stay strong", and "keep it going". I received a variety of responses in return: blank stares, grunts, silently hung heads, smiles, and thank you's.

Josh was out on the hills. Was this his cool down? We talked for a minute and then I continued on, greeting runners and looking for familiar faces. I saw Lisa. She wanted to know, "how far"? I had not been paying attention. I did not know. "Less than 2 miles, Lisa. You're doing great." It was a wild guess at best.

I saw Trent next. It is a remarkable feat for any race director to have things so organized that he can relax and run his own race. I admired him for that. As he flew past me on a down hill, giving me a high five, I told him that he had put on a great race. "You need to run this next year," was the last thing that I heard him say before he sped around a bend in the road and out of sight. He is right, of course.

Runner after runner passed. I knew that the next buddy I would see would be either Dave or Phil. They both are fast. It turned out to be Dave. He was walking up a hill. I asked if he wanted me to walk with him, but he said he would be running the next down hill and was on pace to finish in 4:35. I couldn't keep up that kind of pace. I wished him well and continued on. Maybe this was a bad idea.

I saw Phil next. I asked if he would like some company. He said yes. I felt better, and I hoped that he did, too. We talked and ran/walked the rolling hills, but it was short-lived. He was having to slow down to wait on me. I didn't want that to happen. I wanted him to have a good race. I sent him on his way. Going along with Phil, I had become winded. I walked some more, continuing to encourage runners that I came upon and looking for my buddies.

Graham was next. He had finished the Dizzy 50K the day before 2 hours ahead of me, and here he was looking very strong. I asked him the same question that I had asked Phil, and he accepted my offer. We talked and ran/walked the rolling hills. I had not recovered from my time with Phil, so I wasn't much help to Graham. I didn't want to slow him down either. When we got to the aid station, I let him go. He would continue to run strong and to finish well. Some how I thought I would be able to keep up with them at the end of their race, but I was doing a poor pacing job. Would I have to run all of the way back to the start/finish area alone?

There were still buddies on the course. I was now a little over 3 miles from the finish. Mike, Larry, or Andy would be next, but which one would I encounter first. Well . . . I was lucky enough to get all three of them at once. They made me work to keep up with them, but I wanted to stay. It had been a while since I had run with any of them. Larry had also run a marathon the day before, but that's his norm. Every weekend, he runs doubles or triples. He's an incredible man and as humble as he could be. Mike and Andy have run hundreds of marathons and ultramarathons. They all give me so much inspiration, and when I'm with them, I want to soak up their essence, hoping that whatever they have is contagious and that I will get it, too.

We laughed and talked our way along the last 3 miles of the course. Andy took this opportunity to inch his way ahead of us. And when we came over the hill, the crowd was still lively. They clapped and shouted just as vigorously as they had for the lead runners 3 hours ago. I pulled off from the course, and I watched my buddies run through the finish line. They all had wonderful finishes, and I was so happy for them.

Did I miss racing today? No, of course not. Am I glad that I volunteered? Most definitely. It was a great experience.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Surf the Murph 25K - 10/31/09

Hi. My name is Tiger, but you can call me Stupid. It was stupid of me to even try to run a marathon on trails with a 2 week old sprained ankle. Not only am I stupid, but I'm also stubborn and impatient - not a good combination to have.

The week following the spraining of my ankle, I walked with the air cast for a couple of days, followed by wrapping the ankle with the Ace bandage for the next couple of days. Every day after I arrived home from work, the ankle was elevated and iced. I never used the crutches. The swelling went down after about a week, and with the swelling gone, the pain decreased.

I was having cabin fever, trying to sit most of the day and limiting the amount of time on the ankle. So on Friday night, I went out dancing with some friends. Apparently twisting and turning on the dance floor aggravates a sprained ankle. Who'd've thunk it, lol? So on Saturday morning, of course, the swelling and pain were back. On Saturday afternoon, I did some shopping, and on Sunday, I just sat, switching from the computer to watching football on television. The ankle was elevated and iced most of the day.

With the ankle feeling much better and based on the fact that I could now see the veins in my foot again, I decided to try a little bit of walking. On Tuesday of this week, I walked to work, a mere 4.91 miles, according to Mapquest. The last mile was the most difficult. The ankle screamed in protest. I now had my limit, but I was going to push it any way. At work, I kicked off the shoes and elevated the ankle, while I diligently went about job. It's a good thing that I work in an office (for the most part) in which I'm forced to sit all day in front of my computer.

On Tuesday night, I walked the same 4.91 miles back home, elevating and icing the ankle afterwards. Wednesday and Thursday went similarly. On Friday morning, I decided that I would keep my plane reservation and go to the Surf the Murph Marathon in Savage, MN. My flight wasn't until 7:00 p.m., so I put in a full day of work. Since I needed the car to get to the airport, I drove and only walked the mile to the office from our employee parking lot and then back again after work.

I arrived in Minneapolis about midnight, picked up my rental car, and drove the short 20 minutes to Savage. It was cold and raining, which later turned into a few snowflakes as I drove. The trails would be nasty. How would the ankle handle slipping and sliding in the mud?

Early Saturday morning, I drove to the race site to pick up my packet. The race offered four distances - 25K, marathon, 50K, and 50 Miles. The 50 milers took off an hour early. On one hand, I envied them. I would have loved to do the 50 mile (or 50K), but I could not make the cut-off for either race. The marathon (and 50K) had a 9 hour cut-off. I felt that I had a better chance of finishing the marathon than the 50K in that amount of time, so that's what I registered for. On the other hand, I was glad that I didn't have to put that many miles on the ankle. It was a blessing in disguise.

Other than the walking, I had not run since the Race for the Komen 5K 2 weeks ago. But with a 9 hour cut-off, I was sure that I could walk the entire marathon. I put the air cast on, but it did not fit comfortably in my trail shoe. I then tried wrapping it with the ace bandage, but the shoe then felt too tight. Bump it! I would just let it go as it is. I wasn't planning on running any way.

While waiting inside the little building designated for packet pick-up, Jeff (CA) found me. We had been corresponding by e-mail for about a month, having been introduced by a mutual running buddy, Diane (TN). This is the first time we've seen each other in person. Jeff is trying to run an ultramarathon in each state, so he was running the 50K today. I had an ultramarathon (Trail Mix 50K) already for MN, but I needed another MN marathon (along with VT, ND, NM, and MT) to finish my 2nd time around the states with marathons. I have 18 states to grab for a completion of the states with ultramarathons, and I think Jeff told me that he is about half-way through the states with his quest. He even has someone organizing an ultra in ND, which presently has no ultras. I asked him to keep me informed, because I need that state as well.

It was still dark when the 25Kers, 50Kers, and marathoners lined up at the start. The rental car's thermometer read 35 degrees, but at least the rain/snow had stopped. The wind was howling and with the excitement of the field, I could not hear the instructions from the race director. For the marathon, there was a 1.2 mile out-n-back, a 15.5 mile loop, and a 9.5 mile loop. Hopefully, the ankle would hold up, and I would be able to keep up with at least one other marathoner to finish the course. I had missed the Columbus Marathon and the White Tail Trail Marathon in Ohio over the last two weekends because of the ankle, so I was very ready to get back out there and do what I love to do.

Even in the dark, I could see the orange flags on the wires stuck into the ground on the left side of the trail every few feet. This course was marked extremely well. Even when the course merged with other trails, the flags reinforced which way to go. You did not have to stop and think about it. I was impressed.

After a while, I noticed that runners were coming back towards me. Not knowing what the course was like for the 50 milers, I assumed that those runners were in the 50 mile race. Pay attention. I will come back to this point later.

It did not take long before I was all alone. The trail was beautiful. It was on wide ski trails that went straight up and then straight back down - over and over again. The surface had very few rocks and roots with lots of grass. On such a smooth surface, I decided to run a little. I found out that it didn't hurt any worse than walking so I continued to run the relatively few flat sections and to walk up and down the hills. Going up was faster and felt much better than going down the hills. I had to put too much weight on the ankle to navigate down hill, and it would later take it's toll.

At some point, the trail became less grassy and a little muddy. Fallen leaves from the trees hid rocks and roots, and I stepped on one of them and twisted the injured ankle. Darn it! Another runner saw me stumble and asked if I needed to go back. I assured him that I would be okay and continued on. He was out of sight in no time. I thought that I was the last one, but several more runners came by me. For the second time, reader, pay attention. I will also come back to this point later.

After the ski trail, we entered into open meadows. The sun was peeking through the clouds but never made a full appearance. Without the trees blocking the wind, the open meadows were cold. I was glad that I had worn my knit cap and gloves. Although the faster runners had on shorts and technical short- or long-sleeved shirts, I had on tights and a jacket, in addition to my long-sleeved technical shirt. The open meadows had a little more mud, but it was still not too bad. We continued to go up and down, up and down, and up and down, lol. We seemed to be circling what I assumed to be Murphy Lake. I love courses that have a view of a body of water. I knew it was there, even when I had to look down at the trail for possible tripping obstacles. I was enjoying this course!

After the open meadows section, we ran on a short, single track trail to a horse trail, where you could not distinguish the mud from the horse poop. This section was flatter than the ski trail and meadow section, so I ran a little more. However, it had a lot more roots, rocks, and thick, long sections of mud, so what I was doing would probably not be classified as running. At this point, those runners in the longer distances were beginning to lap me. And I was beginning to hobble without really realizing it. Several runners stopped and asked if I was okay, even though they could visually tell that I wasn't.

After the horse trail, we were back to open meadows, another short, overgrown single track section, and then more ski trails. I really loved the width of the ski trail, and all of the grass made the trail very soft. I wished that I could have taken advantage of the smooth trails. The marathoners were flying by me on their way to finishing. They assumed that I was finishing too, but I had not even finished the 15.5 mile loop. I started watching my watch. I wanted to do the first half in 4.5 hours, but I was not going to make it.

To make matters worse, I was not having fun any more. I've always said that I would stop running when it was no longer fun. The ankle (among other things) was hurting, and all I could think of was the pain. I took two Advils, but they did nothing. I continued to walk and think about what to do. I had to be getting close to the finish of the loop. I would not make the 9 hour cut-off to finish the marathon, but a little piece of me wanted to ask the race director if I could continue on, since some of the 50 milers would still be on the course for several more hours. Maybe I could finish in 10 or 11 hours. I had slowed down that much. Granted, if I stayed to finish the course, I would miss my plane. An 8 hour finish would have gotten me to the airport in plenty of time. A 9 hour finish would have been pushing it, but it was still doable. A 10 hour finish would find me begging the ticket agent to find me another flight without charging me the $100 change fee. I had already DNF'd a MN marathon (Lake Wobegon) earlier this year, and I was on the verge of DNFing this MN marathon. What do I do?

Almost 6 hours after I started the race, I finished the 15.5 mile loop. A race volunteer told me to keep going because there really wasn't a cut-off, except for the 50 milers, which was 14 hours. He told me that I had until 8:00 p.m. and that I could walk the 9.5 mile loop in that amount of time. I was in pain and completely out of it, but I knew that I had only done one of the 3 loops that was required for the marathon. Another volunteer that was listening to our conversation chimed in and asked if I did the 1.2 mile out-n-back at the start of the race. No, I had not. He insisted that there was a turn-around sign when we first started, but I never saw it. The first volunteer asked if I had listened to the race director "yelling" at the beginning of the race for the marathoners to do the 1.2 mile out-n-back first. He looked angry, but I was too dejected to care. No, I told him. With the wind, the other runners talking around me, and being in the back of the pack, I could not hear anything the race director was saying. In the dark, even with my headlamp and 2 handheld flashlights, I had missed the marathon turn-around. The volunteer walked off to talk with the volunteer at the timing table.

I went to the porta potty to think about what to do next. As I sat, I now knew why runners were coming back towards me early in the race and why I was being passed when I thought I was last. The runners were other marathoners that had done the 1.2 mile out-n-back section on the 15.5 mile loop. But for the life of me, I didn't remember a sign or marking for the turn-around point. I could go back out and do the 1.2 mile section. Surely, I would not miss the same marking in the daylight. That was the least of my problems. But how was I going to finish the 9.5 mile loop (a modified version of the 15.5 mile loop) with the ankle hurting like it was? My heart wanted to keep going, but my body and mind were long out of the race. Two against one is horrible odds.

I went back to the start/finish area and sipped coke and ate a few potato chips. A familiar face came up to me. "Do you remember me?"

Of course I remembered Bonnie (MN). I had met her and Don (MN) during the Mother Road 100 Mile last November. They were a nice couple and had run lots and lots of tough ultras. She told me how she and Don volunteered to mark several of the MN ultras, and Surf the Murph was one of them. They even had to be here at 5:00 a.m. to mark the two sections of single track trail that we ran through today. She stated that they had about 800 flags to mark courses. That's why the course was marked so well and so abundantly. She seemed really disappointed that I missed the turn-around. But it wasn't her fault; I didn't blame her and Don at all. Although I loved the course, the loop is tough with all of the ups and downs, and the muddy sections were hard to navigate even on two good ankles. That's what worried me. The ankle was not happy, and therefore, I was not happy. I could handle being hurt and unhappy for a little while, but to do that for several more hours would push me over the edge. Bonnie listened to me agonize over the decision, but she ultimately told me what I already knew. She couldn't tell me what to do. I had to decide for myself.

A third volunteer came over from the timing table. "Are you continuing on with the marathon?" I told her that I was not. She smiled and said, "You still get a medal for finishing the 25K." Nothing against her or the race, but my goal was loftier than that when I arrived this morning. When she came back with my medal, I thanked her.

Bonnie and I talked a little more, and then the standing around in the cold finally got to me. We said our good-byes, and I headed back to Minneapolis. At least I would make my flight. For the third time, I would have to find another MN marathon to run. Maybe by then, the ankle will have healed, and I'll be faster.