Every one of the 400 plus runners came to toe the line with lots of reasons to not be there and even more reasons to quit once it began. This is mine, and only one of the many incredible stories of the complicated lives of ultra marathoners. (It's long so scroll down to an earlier post if you want the short version)
Nine years ago (to the week) a biopsy revealed I had stage four Indolent Lymphoma, (at the time an incurable class of cancer, but thanks be to God that has changed). Three years earlier I had 18 weeks of R-CHOP chemotherapy that wiped out all my fast growing cells. At last years race I was still in a maintenance regimen of chemotherapy. The immediate concern to running this race was the flu like symptoms I came home from a Caribbean cruise with that had left me dehydrated that cleansed my colon all week and left me lethargic. But I was there and after the rough rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, a heartfelt prayer, Dr. Horton did the countdown and away we went into the dark and up the hill into the woods.
I had been pulled from the Mountain Masochist a few months earlier after 22 miles because I was too slow, and so my race strategy had moved from merely finishing to finishing faster so I started mid-pack instead of back of the pack. About 100 yards into the woods a voice from behind asked, "Pastor Craig is that you?" I responded affirmatively and for the next 30 minutes I had fabulous fellowship with another Christ follower ( James @ morethanpaceandstride) as we ran through the forest trails. I fumbled in my pack for something and he moved on ahead with four or five runners between us and I couldn't catch back up. I was feeling good enough to continue and made it to the first aid station where my crew chief Brenda (my wife) was there with fluids and encouragement. I wouldn't see her until aid station 3. I settled into a nice pace behind four very, very talkative, laughing girls. They carried me along in their laughing vortex for a very long time. Another secret goal was to run fast enough to get my picture taken. Seriously, the 2011 HL 50K, Terrapin Mountain 50K, Promise Land 50 and Mountain Masochist 50 miler, the photographer had picked up all his stuff and left before I made it to where they were positioned. At a familiar creek crossing the pack of talkative, laughing girls had slowed to try to cross without getting their feet wet. From experience, I knew it was impossible, so I just sloshed through, and wowsa, the photographer was still there. Flash, flash, flash. Nice. I am seeing people I never see while running, and there is actually food left at the aid stations. I am thinking that I like this pace and the rewards of running faster. There was actually some look of concern on the young woman's face who was the leader at aid station #2 because there was more than just one person coming into the station. (I had met her at The Aid Station on Thursday night. Thank you again). I am still thinking, wow, so this is what it is like. The laughing talking vortex of the pack of girls catches up and I get caught up in their vortex again and go with their flow. They carry me through some gorgeous country and soon aid station 3 comes into view as we descend a fairly steep hill. I reload at the very full table and get fluid from Brenda and away we go. Shortly afterwards a woman about my own age is running near me and asks, "I wonder when the frontrunners will be showing up?", and almost immediately there they were. They were running up the hills faster than I run down them. Now it becomes a bit of a hassle to give way to them, but it was worth it and I eventually see my good friend Adam Bennett who is looking very strong and is making his way back. I also see lots of people I want to be like, and secretly wish and pray for the day to run at their pace. Somewhere along this stretch a very fast female runner passed and said, "Hey is that Burns?" I turned, and though I didn't recognize her I said yes. She was soon gone in the distance and I am wondering if someone had asked her to keep her eye out for me because of my past health issues. This gives me something to ponder for awhile. I also see James, who had given me the God moment and fellowship at the beginning and he is running strong. Eventually I see the lake and a few turns around the lake a young Asian man passes me and then quickly veers off the trail to relieve himself. Immediately as I pass him I stumble on a root and my entire right side cramps up. I literally could not move from the ginked up position. Any movement brought another hidden muscle into the community of cramps. So, there I was frozen in a cramp from head to toe afraid to move. I straight leggedly rocked back and forth to the edge of the trail as runners approach from ahead and behind. Everyone knew what was going on and offered their condolences and graciously offered electrolytes. I thanked them, but I had been meticulously taking replacements and was thoroughly monitoring my fluid and calorie intake. I conclude that the flu had dehydrated me and my electrolytes were lowered with the sickness of the week prior. I also remember the article of myth's by a running magazine that said it was a myth that low electrolytes caused cramps, rather an unbalanced gait. (I am not convinced at this point.) I am standing there afraid to move while standing as straight as possible as runners pass from behind and from in front. (In a Sunday school class of young children this Sunday morning the day after, when I told this story, my granddaughter asked if I could wink). (Only a child would ask such a question.) (I could talk and wink, but that is about it). I was about a mile from the turn around, and wondered how I could get there. Eventually the cramp let go, and I could shuffle sideways, and eventually could walk, and eventually could slow jog. I really loaded up on more of everything possible to feed my muscles and was very careful not to stumble. Problem is that on this section, it is filled with roots and rocks, and a particular stumble was catastrophic for it created the paralyzing effect on my entire right side again. It subsided quicker and was moved from shuffling sideways to walking to jogging a little sooner this time. (More condolences, more offers of stuff, etc.) At the turn around, I asked Brenda to walk with me a bit as I tried to decide what to do. She talks and prays with me, and I decide to continue. 16 plus in at 3:15 and now I have 16 plus to complete. (In fifteen minutes the winner will finish, and I have to go all the way back around.) I still have to get through the upraised roots and rocks without stumbling, and I am serving as a great encouragement to runner after runner who reels me in and passes me by. (I begrudgingly appreciate the opportunity to be an encouragement.) I still had to mount the long, high series of steps that were approaching, and I had to press down my fears. The steps came and passed without incident, and so I settled into the routine of jogging the flats and descents and walking the hills. This worked to aid station 3 where my wife loaded me up with double the electrolyte replacement drinks, but soon afterwards I could only walk without cramping. Now, the wind was picking up, and my body heat was dissipating. I wasn't moving fast enough to compensate so hypothermia would soon have to be dealt with if I couldn't start moving faster. I moved from a walk to a shuffle and this worked until right before aid station 2 when I seized up again. I had made it five minutes before being pulled and so I loaded up on stuff. I walked, shuffled, cramped up, stopped, walked and walked. I eventually got into a walk 50 ft., shuffle 50 ft., walk 50 ft., etc. routine. Meanwhile the wind is really picking up and though I was afraid to look up from the ground as I didn't want to stumble, I glanced up into dark, very dark clouds. Howling winds, plummeting temperatures, snow, ice, dark clouds, cramps, hypothermia, and aid station 1 with my wife and her warm car was soon to be met. Later, than sooner it came into view and at first sight and sound, Brenda reminded me of a vision a prayer partner had of me running this race. Her first words were a reminder of the Wednesday prior in our prayer group, Gladys Melgar after praying said, with closed eyes, "Pastor, I see you running, and I see you running with wings." I had forgotten about it, but Brenda looked at me and said, "Remember, you are running with wings".
HMMM. I guess I can't quit and ride to the finish in a warm car with my beautiful wife after all. I again load up double and now I am peeing way too much because I am drinking more than I need. I settle into a walk 50 ft., run 50 ft., pee, walk 50 ft., run 50 ft. pee, routine. Before leaving Brenda she asked if I wanted to know how much further I needed to go? Yes. "A little over four more miles, you are close, you have come this far, you can make it".
I shuffled off. Another prayer I had was, "Lord, I really don't want to finish last". A feat I have come close to accomplishing often. As more back of the packers shuffled past me, I was seriously re-praying that prayer, and really trying to get the vision of running with wings. Someone in the race had been running topless with a sash holding two very large white wings. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw him running through the woods, but two other ladies were near me and confirmed that they saw it too. I am serious; there really was a young male running topless except for a sash holding two very large white wings. At least I think we weren't hallucinating.
I checked my watch and I was still faster than last year's race when the Lord called me back to ultra marathons after two and half years of chemotherapy, two back surgeries, compressed vertebrae, depleted bone densities, etc. This little thought encouraged me, and at the same time an encouraging song came on my playlist, and I was reduced to crying and worshipping, while walking, shuffling, and you know what. I was a mess. With my long hair, that is close to being long enough to donate (eight inches), I was a sight. The sun came out, so I pulled my pony tail out, let the hair flow after shaking it out, and emotionally worshipped the Lord for where I had come from and where I was going. One of the better sights to a back of the packer is the one mile to go marker. As I paralleled the road, I was emotional and remembered how far the Lord had carried me (with his wings) throughout the cancer and cancer treatment season. Somehow I had passed the two other back of the packers but as we hit the pavement they reeled me in and I had nothing left to compete with. All I wanted to do was finish. I managed to wave to the many runners who were driving home. Many of whom had stopped to console me and encourage me, and a few rolled down their windows to give me a shout out or give me a thumbs up. As I walked and shuffled to the finish line my main crew chief Brenda was there and as I crossed at 7:36 I was blessed to give and receive a Horton hug and thank him for a race well done, and to give God glory for his grace. I was afraid to kneel and offer thanks since I really thought I would cramp up in that position. I got a picture with Dr. Horton, and the woman (Sheryl Mawn 6:10:21) who had asked if I was Burns during the race approached me with a huge smile and began to encourage me. Sheryl related to Brenda and I that she had been encouraged from reading my blogs and just wanted to encourage me. I was very moved, and asked if she could hold that thought, as I introduced her to my wife who was video recording the event. We then posed for the camera and she related (to the camera and me) how overcoming my struggles had very much encouraged her and others. This was such a blessing to me. (I was positively overwhelmed, and I really had a thought that if I hugged her any more, I might cramp up in that position, and it would really get awkward with my wife video recording the cramped hug). At least for me, the near overwhelming flood of emotions as an ultra is completed is difficult to describe. It is a combination simultaneous cry uncontrollably/laugh out loud moment. It's not quite as good as being a grandparent, but like being a grandparent it is difficult to explain unless you experience it.
The wind has increased but the clouds have dissipated, and I painfully and carefully change into dry and warm clothes and commiserate with the others in the bathroom. One of the gentlemen was telling the story of how someone in his crew really encouraged him to stop and quit. I quietly thanked the Lord for my wife who pressed through her own concerns and was able to encourage me to not quit. We shuffle to the car and as we are heading out, we see a few more finishers. With no cell phone coverage we pause and check the hard copy map and change our minds on which route to take home. (This would prove to be divinely inspired). We head back to Lynchburg and then on to 29 n., and call my friend Adam to see how he did. When he answered, he said he was on 95 north of Richmond driving 35 miles an hour in a snow storm. Later I call my brother, who is on 64 East outside of Williamsburg driving even slower in the same snow storm. Though the wind is very strong, we have nothing but clear skies all the way home. As we pull into Vienna, half the town's lights go out simultaneously as the wind has knocked out the power. We pull off Rt. 123 into side streets as it gets chaotic. Fortunately, the church and parsonage has power, but the police have blocked off our street as a power pole has fallen, and many of the town residences are without power on a very cold night. It was good to be home, warm, completed, and to have said no to quit for 7:36. I opened up my computer checked email, and began reviewing the sermon I would give the next day.