Two and a half weeks before making the attempt at a 50 miler I chose to simply do intensive walking and set the incline to a moderate level on the treadmill. About 20 minutes in, I feel a little pressure on the forefront of my left foot, but don't think too much about it. Upon inspection I see that I have developed a blister. A blister?! A blister on a walk, on a treadmill? The same day I am feeling pretty low energy and have all the symptoms of the viral syndrome I was diagnosed with earlier in the year. The next day, I wanted to get in at least one more hill training, and after two trips up the hill, my right calf began to tweak. Great! A trinity has formed. A blister, a calf tweak, and viral syndrome and it is mere days from attempting a 50 miler. No pressure, as Chip and Melissa Johnson confirm their arrival after purchasing the tickets to fly in to the D.C. area. They were coming to video document the God story of helping me get through cancer, cancer treatments, bone density issues, compression fractures, and other issues and return to running ultra's. I gently massage my right calf and find that there is extensive pain all up and down the calf. I meet with two trainers who determine that I was doing the squat's improperly and had placed too much stress on my calf. My taper period would begin early. No running, with daily calf massages with aromatic muscle rubs created a large scent circle everywhere I went. The compression socks I had purchased to help with my calf were red, so I got some strange looks. I took Epsom salt baths, and read scriptural affirmations that I am already the saved, forgiven and healed through a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. On Tuesday two and a half days before the run, I had to see if I could run, so I went out on a six mile run, and I felt fine, until the last 100 yards. The calf began to tweak so I walked home, in a heightened state of prayerful concern. Too many things were in motion to quit now. Rooms had been purchased, guests were coming, and by God's grace it will be alright.
Chip and Melissa have the unique blend of being very personable and very professional. They put me at ease and within a few moments of their arrival it was as if we had hung out together for years and we quickly discovered we had similar rhythms to life. We had lunch at my favorite hamburger place, (Foster's), because I knew my stomach was accustomed to their food. Then, we headed west shortly after lunch on Thursday. I know I am prejudiced but the scenery of Western Virginia and Eastern West Virginia is absolutely gorgeous any time of year. We made it into Elkins, W.V. and were very blessed to see the accommodations so nice. Our first choice of hotels had already filled up, so we took a risk at a lodge. Turns out this out of the way location and accommodation were absolutely perfect (Cheat River Lodge). It overlooked the Shaver's branch of the Cheat River, and the rooms were spacious and quiet. I like to find the start of a race prior to the stress of the last minute, so after a nice meal (C.J. Maggie's) we headed off to the 4-H Pavilion in Beverly, WV. Wow, more gorgeous scenery. After finding the pavilion we made an educated guess on the route the race would take and took a drive. Three or four miles in, it was getting dark and the road had less and less places to turn around, so I recommended we headed back before it got too late. After a good night's rest, we began the day of videotaping the story. Moments into my morning bible reading, my vision began to blur and the tell tale signs of an impending migraine were upon me. I couldn't read any more so I just sat there and whispered a prayer of health and healing. What also began was an epic number of poops. It would eventually set a PR. It would be a double trinity poop day to go along with the migraine headache.
Chip had scouted out a nice place just within the Monongahela National Forest and we set up the equipment right next to the road. The national park service personnel had the place immaculate and there wasn't a speck of trash anywhere. Chip coached me on what his role was, and just asked me to tell the story. Even though it had happened and was happening to me, I remain amazed that here I was, about to attempt a 50 miler after having chemotherapy that resulted in multiple compression fractures just three years prior. Chip then wanted Brenda's side of the story, and Melissa and I hung out at the picnic tables out of ear shot. We chatted as if we were old friends, and the time passed quickly. It was after my normal lunch time, and after loading the gear headed into town for another meal. We followed a few recommendations and had another nice meal and fellowship at a nice sandwich and coffee shop (Kissels). The plan was to go back to the room and rest and then meet at 3:00 p.m. for a shot of my running in practice gear. (I hoped my calf wouldn't tweak, and it didn't.) I laid out all my clothes and Chip thought it would be a good shot, so he began taping the preparation process. I put on everything but the socks and shoes and though none of us were hungry from our late lunch, I knew I would need some food to have been digested by the 9p.m. start time. We went back to the restaurant from the night before and I ordered something mild, but Chip and Melissa ordered a plate filled with all kinds of stuff. It was just an appetizer but it was too much for two people to eat. It was named something crazy, like, "Forty Miles of Bad Road" and it was adequately named. They said it was delicious, but for our foursome, way too much food. I just nibbled on the shared plate of chopped beef and rice.
We pulled into the 4-H pavilion area and took a bunch of books to the packet pick up personnel. The first of the very friendly bunch that had volunteered to make this race happen. The packet consisted of only one thing. A number. Who needs more junk anyway? I still have stuff from the packets of the Boston Marathon, and others, that I don't use anyway. Now begins the lounging time, my favorite time. So, we just hung out, waiting. The weather was perfect. Clear, crisp, sun setting over the mountains, fields aglow with the last rays of the sun, interspersed with occasional bird calls. The runners and crews slowly converged on Beverly, WV, and ready or not, it was going to happen. We had parked by a young couple who had with them my favorite breed of dog. Their female pit bull looked daunting, and as I approached, I asked permission to pet her. I get along well with pit bulls and made two new friends in the process. I still miss my dog, Ace, and the moment of playing with their dog helped distract me from the impending start.
Adam Caseday is the race director and he called us to order at the chosen time for the pre-race briefing. He admitted to being a little sleep deprived as he was a new father, and apologized if he missed any important details. He went through each section of the race, and showed us the all important trail markers. They were two sided reflective strips, and I would come to enjoy them very much in the hours ahead. I asked him if there were any special awards for finishing last, and he made a point of saying I wouldn't finish last. The meeting ended, and then the final dressing began. Soon it was time, and we meandered over to the start. (At a 5k, 10k, or marathon, you will most likely see everyone doing lots of running around, even sprinting, to loosen up. There is also a lot of jostling to get in the best position. Not here.) We just wandered over and waited. Chip was getting video but it was also getting dark so he positioned himself about 50 yards from the start. Adam led us in a heartfelt, faith filled, mature Christian prayer. His maturity in the Lord showed in his prayer and it settled all of us down. I found a place to kneel and humbled myself to God and gave thanks for raising Jesus from the dead, and giving me the Holy Spirit as a down payment for the resurrection to come. I quickly affirmed my belief in the power of the resurrection and stood. Adam asked if anyone could sing the National Anthem, so I pointed to Brenda and he came and put the microphone to her mouth. Brenda has an anointed voice and without any preparation, she just knocked it out of the park. There is nothing more authentic than the singing of the National Anthem, by a bunch of ultra runners, before a race of this magnitude. I told Brenda that I was positively overwhelmed at what was about to happen, and, then we were off. The first section started on a paved road and soon turned off into gravel and up the mountain we went. The first 5.7 miles till the first aid station I didn't want to stress my calf, so I took it easy to get into some kind of rhythm. I quickly fell into last place and fought hard to maintain my position. I passed one couple who had on some serious yellow reflective jackets on a long uphill climb but they would pass me sooner than later. The test for the new phone application (Runkeeper) had worked and at least it would work for the first and last leg of the trip. I turned off Runkeeper after aid station one after 5.91 miles at 1:18:26. I was comfortable with my pace but my right calf soon began hurting. For the next few minutes I seriously contemplated turning around and heading back down the mountain. I wanted to continue, but my calf was hurting. I wanted to be able to run another day, and I didn't want to injure myself any more. I was literally, steps away from turning around when I began to feel a hot spot on the bottom of my left foot. Great! A blister and a calf issue. I began to remember the prayer time at church and everyone had a positive sense of my run, and most had a spiritual comment to make. No one had sensed anything but my finishing, and so I mustered up my spiritual energy and began to apply all I knew about health and healing, and determined that if I was to finish it would take a divine enabling. I tried to remember if the Lord has whispered something into my heart about the run, and I began to reflect on my recent prayer times. I began to quote Ps. 103:1-3especially the part about being forgiven of all my iniquities and healed of all my diseases. I began confessing the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and asking that God's will be done in earth (my calf) as it is in heaven. I also tried to remember if there was some prayer direction the Lord wanted me to take and though it was just a faint idea I would fan it into a small flame. I pulled into aid station two, attempting to not limp. I was now in 12.9 miles. Adam was present and assured me I was in good shape time wise, but I wasn't so sure. He also said that I would really enjoy the next section as it was all trails. (I think he has a sick sense of enjoyment after a just a few miles on the trail.) After loading up on everything possible I headed on down the mountain I had just climbed. Now, instead of the steady rhythm of the forest service road it was the very uneven terrain of various trails, Yokum, Turkey and Crouch.
As I headed off into the woods I tried to remember that Adam said how much I would enjoy it. He would be wrong. He had also mentioned at the pre-race briefing almost nonchalantly that there would be some places where it would be a muddy bog. I had totally misread the maps and elevation chart. I had thought that once I had ascended the mountain that it would be just running along ridges for the duration. In fact, I remember Adam saying that very thing, or at least I thought that is what he said. As I gingerly made my way through the woods it was all downhill for a very long time. During the daylight, I am sure it would be very pretty woods, but at night, all I saw was the trail and the edge of the woods which seemed to be lined with some species of evergreen. Dark stuff ahead. Ooops, muddy bogs, and off went one shoe. What seemed like forever going downhill I finally saw some odd sign, I think it was some kind of a spoof on survivor show. The depressing thought that now that I had run all this time downhill could only mean one thing. I would eventually have to do the same thing uphill. Bummer. There were some torches, and eventually some light and the aid station. Thankfully, one of the friendliest persons on the planet and RD of the Highlands Sky 40 (Dan Lehman) was heading up this team. They were definitely a pick me upper. I went from very low energy to medium energy just because of their high dose of encouragement. I was now 17.7 miles in. Very soon after leaving, I was approached from behind and a very fast walking young man passed me. By this time I had pretty well immersed myself in prayer and it was fairly easy to pray God's blessings upon him as he passed. He was also a brother in Christ, and asked if I could pray for his friend who was really struggling with her stomach. She had to stop multiple times and didn't know if she could continue. (The good news about running at night is the reality that it is much easier and much more discreet to relieve one's self, unless of course you are wearing a glow stick or reflective gear.) He went on ahead and slowly from behind a light got within ten yards and stayed there for a good while. The next time I looked it was dark, and determined she must have had to stop. I almost stopped to help her through the woods, but I knew the time was cutting it too close to wait. I also thought she may have wanted a little privacy if in fact she had stomach issues. I acted on the sense the Lord had impressed upon me as I walked solo up the ascent. The sense was to bless the forests, and to pray for it to awaken to praise of the soon to return Creator. From the moment of the onset of the blister and cramp, I quickly obeyed this sense from the Lord and was continually praying for the Monongahela National Forest to be protected from terrorists, plagues, infestations, and that no weapon formed against the forests would prosper. I probably prayed some form of that prayer, hundreds of times as I would enter different sections of the woods. I had a sense that some form of evil was intended against the forest, and my role was to pray in resistance to the evil plan. Whether or not it was, this prayer activity kept me in the spirit of prayer for the majority of the race. Combined with the darkness, I found myself saying loud outbursts of prayer of blessing. It may have been just a nervous reaction to the animal sounds just out of the reach of the headlamps or the impulse of the Spirit. One way or another, I had been given a mission, and I knew if I was to continue, I needed to be fully obedient to the mission of God on the run. I was in a place of having to rely on God's strength as I was weak in foot and calf. As I ran and walked solo I looked up ahead to what looked like a dawn to dusk light illuminating the woods. Sweet! I was nearing an aid station. However it kept moving ahead of me, so I began to doubt what I was seeing. Sure enough way in the distance the middle and tops of the trees were illuminated. I couldn't figure it out. I kept moving and eventually caught up to a young man whose head lamp was facing straight up into the canopy. I quickly caught up, put my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him. I asked him if he was okay, and he seemed a bit disoriented. I told him his head lamp was aimed straight up, and asked again if he was okay. He commented that the ascent was greater than what he had expected. I agreed and we walked together for quite awhile. He was a gentle, kind soul and we helped each other get through the woods. His name was Bo and no longer seemed disoriented as he was asking and saying all the right things. We emerged from the woods and followed the arrows up the mountain, only to be greeted by a head lamp coming from the other direction. I quizzed the runner, and asked if I was going the right way and if he was going the right way. He replied, "Yes, you are going in the right direction, and so am I". Bo, now out of the woods seemed to come alive and was making up time on the road and quickly pulled ahead. After what seemed like a very long time I pulled into aid station 4. Aid Station 4 was all serious business. I was dutifully informed that I had made it by ten minutes but it would be doubtful if I could make it back around in time. It was 3:20 a.m., and I had made it 23.2 miles so far. I didn't take the hint and quickly loaded up, and headed up the hill before I could be talked out of continuing. Bo had put some distance between me and him on the road but was now stopped up ahead and was off the trail. As we met, he said this was the section that he thought he missed the turn last year and went all the way back down trying to find the place we were to turn off. I had just been looking at my phone and wasn't paying attention so I doubted myself for a moment or two. He was off the road shining his light through the edge of the woods at a turn out on the road. We agreed to just keep walking, and we walked, and walked and walked and for the first time all night we weren't seeing the reflective strips that had been so well placed throughout the race. There is nothing worse than to think you have missed the turn off, and you are walking uphill in the wrong direction. We had run and walked a marathon distance at this point, and both our minds were playing with us. I just kept walking by faith, for what seemed like miles and miles. Way up in the distance I saw what would bring such relief. The reflective trail marker. We headed into the woods and I knew I had to try running on the calf and blister or be pulled for sure. At this time my headlamp seemed to dim, so I pulled out my hand held light, and began slowly running down through the forest. I really didn't want to fall, and it was an ever present issue. Miles seemed to pass and I eventually caught up with some runners, but Bo was no longer behind me. I passed them and made my way through more muddy bogs, and tight places edged by the evergreens. There were multiple places where I needed to use my calf muscles and each time was not certain if they would totally pull or cramp, but by Grace they kept working. I then saw what I thought was some glow sticks and a sense of relief that I was nearing an aid station came upon me. I think aid station five had a Christmas theme. It was well staffed and I think most everyone had Santa Clause hats, but at this time of the race my mind was playing tricks on me. The fellow guiding me in and out was overly kind and gave me excellent advice on how the next section would be. He strongly encouraged me to use the portion of this section that was a gravel road to keep running as I was very close to not making the cutoff. There was Christmas music in the aid station, which replaced the Jesus Culture, "Rooftops" theme that had filled my head. Instead of, "I am yours, Lord", now I was singing, "what a jolly holly Christmas, this year." I was now in 27.8 miles and felt a little burst of energy. I ran past campers and wondered what they were thinking of having runners go by them all night long. I imagined them thinking they were going to be having some peace and quiet in this remote section of the National Forrest, but all night long would have head lamped runners crunch, crunch, crunching down the gravel road. I made it to the duration of the road without walking and into the woods I went. It seemed like twenty miles of woods, but it couldn't have. About this time the runners I had passed caught back up and we all worked together to weave our way through the woods on what seemed a difficult to follow trail. We had to stop often to ensure we were on the right path. Because I had misread and misunderstood the trail maps and elevation map, I was unprepared for what was soon to come. I kept thinking we were going to break out of the woods and onto the aid station six at any moment. I was wrong. We pulled out of the woods, finally, and hit a gravel road. An ascending gravel road that was non ending. I hate ascending non ending gravel roads. I checked the time and didn't think it would be remotely possible to get to where I needed to be on time. In addition, I just couldn't run up the ascents with a blister on my left foot and a calf tweak on the right calf. Now, after the last section through the forest I felt my little toe next to my big toe really hurt. I have never lost a toenail on a run, but it felt like this was happening. My feet were swelling and what little extra toe space I had at the beginning was shrinking. I have a size and half larger shoe for these extra long runs, but even that wasn't enough. I met a fellow named John and we both were done. WE both agreed we wouldn't make it in time, and so we just trudged up the mountain feeling pretty defeated. I had already began rehearsing my speech to Brenda, Chip and Melissa who had pre arranged to meet me at aid station six to capture some more video. I already began to prepare myself for the discouragement to come by envisioning myself in the car driving to eat a nice warm, full breakfast. I felt the relief of stopping, and putting on clean clothes, especially clean dry socks. I could taste the coffee, and was basking in the feeling of eating a huge breakfast, and so I again rehearsed my concession speech. The mountain kept growing, but John and I silently kept trudging. I could see head lamps way up ahead and could see the mountain climb would not end for awhile. I checked the time and it was time, so it was official, that I wouldn't make it. Oh well. I kept walking and up in the distance I saw a head lamp, and what I thought was my wife. It is like she has this aura, and even in the dark, I can tell it is her. I ask, "Brenda?" I then, hear, in a firm voice, "yes, now come on, you don't have much further. It is time to start running. Chip and Melissa are waiting and the race personnel are going to let you keep running if you will start running. I tried, and was pleasantly surprised that I could, so I kept going. I decided not to tell anyone about my foot and calf. The lady at aid station six was nice, friendly and encouraging, and gave me permission to keep running if I wanted to. I was ten minutes late. It was 6:10 a.m. and I still had 17 more miles to go. The problem was that I had already mentally stopped, so it took me awhile to get going again. Meanwhile Chip was taping, and the time kept going. My shoes were full of debris so I asked permission to use the chair to clean them out, and after refilling my food and fluids decided to keep going. In addition, Brenda said, "it's all downhill from here anyway, you can do this". So, I kept moving. I felt like I needed some music so I tried to make my phone work (I had misplaced my music device), but somehow it chose to not work. I fiddled with it for a good while, and it only left me lagging further behind. I finally turned it off, packed it away, packed up my headlamp, and kept looking for the all downhill from here section. It would not come. It had to be at least a four mile ascent that followed aid station six. I also saw very huge downed limb on the road that I didn't remember seeing on my way in. John was way ahead, and I attempted to re-engage in the prayer of blessings, and to re-engage the Jesus Culture songs. Soon I was back in the groove and was overjoyed to see aid station seven after 37.1 miles. I apologized profusely for keeping them waiting, but they were all about taking care of me and were some of the kindest aid station personnel. Very helpful, gentle and kind is what I remember. I shuffled off and reminded myself that the final aid station was the next one, so I just kept moving. Unfortunately, there were more ascents than descents, and I wasn't making very good time. I started running a little more and caught up to John, and another runner. Later it seemed there were descents and so John and I started making an attempt at finishing. I remember trying to encourage both us, by asking God for a miracle. I think it was when John said, that there was no way we would make it, and that they were very strict on the finishing times. One second over and you aren't an official finisher. When I asked God for a miracle I was selfishly hoping it would come on me and John, or at least me. Soon afterwards I see that Brenda, Chip and Melissa have come all the way around to get some video footage, and it was nice fellowship. Eventually we passed the final aid station which marked 44.3 miles. I only had almost a 10K to be done. It was 9:00 a.m. and I didn't have a ten minute pace for a 10k when I started. I had resolved I wouldn't/couldn't make it under the time limit, but it was worth a try. It was also beginning to be a descent so John and I both picked up the pace. We both got into a pretty good rhythm, and maybe we could make it. After a very long descent, the crew had set up on a curve for a good shot. A fatal thought went through my head. "Oh, I will leave my belt and jacket with them. I will drop it off as I pass by." The problem was that they were downhill to the left on a curve, and I didn't see that the path went to the right around the curve, so I ran the wrong way, at full speed down by the girls. Big mistake. I never recaptured the energy and all I could muster was a slog from that moment on. John kept going and I never saw him again. The routine was now Chip would take a few shots and then drive ahead. One section, Melissa asked to run with me, but now it was just walking. To make matters more humiliating, the sweeper came up behind me, but he was kind. The runners I had passed had been picked up, and I was now the last one. He was kind, and gentle, but I couldn't move much faster. I mainly walked and kind of ran the last section. He informed me that a runner was lost. I asked who it was and it was Bo, the runner that had his head lamp facing up into the sky. He never came out of the woods into aid station five. I felt awful. Maybe I should have stayed with him. The sweeper said we were close to the end, but after a night of disappointments of hearing that kind of news, I just told him, "I don't believe you." I was right. It was heating up, and the thirteen hour limit had passed, and I knew I wouldn't be an official finisher, but I would finish. Eventually the last section indeed had come, and I veered off the road to cross the field, and I ever so slowly, crossed the field and onto the gravel parking lot, and under the finish sign to the hug of Adam. He handed me a finisher pair of shorts which I tried to refuse, but he insisted. I apologized for being so late, but he was all encouragement. I wasn't overly emotional, but I was overly glad to just be done. I think the six poops during the day on Friday, the viral syndrome the two weeks before the run, combined with the calf issue, blister issue and loss of toe nail issue slowed me down a bit. I told a happy Brenda, that this was the hardest thing I have ever done, and I meant it. To me it was much harder than the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Trail Run, but it may be just me. Adam did a great job a RD and the volunteers are to be congratulated on a very well done job at all the aid stations.
The award ceremony and breakfast was awesome. However, I was nauseous and couldn't eat. I just sat and soaked it all in. I was awed and thrilled to know the winner ran almost twice as fast I did. I was thrilled to see the humility among all the finishers, who were just glad to done. I was kind of afraid to take my shoes and socks off as I really didn't want to see the condition of my feet but it was time. Chip thought it would be a good shot, and it was if you like that kind of thing. Indeed my toenail was dark blue and would eventually come off. The blister was kind of different looking, almost like an oblong bruise. It was dark purple on one section and the typical blister was higher on the forefront, and deeper. I had given some books to Adam and he gave them out and I was privileged to sign them and to encourage the much faster runners in the room. As I went to the restroom, John showed up, and looked me in the eye and said. "I received the miracle. I finished five minutes before the cutoff." He was genuinely moved to praise and so was I.
We made the trip back to the hotel just in time for a quick shower and then it was time to head home and find some food. The Cheat River Lodge staff was kind and generous to give us a late checkout. However I was so nauseous I couldn't eat. It felt just like the latter doses of chemotherapy. I began to wonder if all the sweating had not stirred up and out into my system any residual drugs. I thought to myself to ask my oncologist about this possibility. The nauseas would stay with me for days. We stopped at Seneca Rocks and had a delightful meal with an even more delightful view. Melissa commented on how nice all the runners were. She made a point of saying as each runner made it into the aid station they would say something like, "please, may I have some water", or "may I sit in the chair to take my shoes off?", or "is it okay if I have some of this food?", and "do you mind if you could fill this for me?", and lots of "thank-you's". We made back to Virginia in time for dinner and rendezvous with my daughter's family. The nauseas didn't leave and I went outside to play with the grandkids after they were done eating. I was a bad grand dad, as I fell sound asleep on the bench instead of watching the girls. Eventually the check came (I won't mention the restaurant, since I can't say anything nice about it), and we headed home.
Sunday morning's at Vienna Assembly of God whose pastor runs ultra's the day before can be interesting at many levels. Our congregation has a calling. To do large things, with a small group. We are a mustard seed size congregation with a mountain size vision for our local and global community. Some Sunday's in the summer we have less people in the pews than the number of missionaries we support. It still amazes me how much our mustard seed size congregation accomplishes for God's glory. However, we don't have another staff member, and it was late August, and though I pleaded, on my knees kind of pleading for everyone to show up because we would be videotaped, there was still all the set up stuff that normally has to happen. I was glad to be able to walk, and do what needed to be done. I really do think it is better for me to be moving and have something very important to be doing the day after an ultra. I think it helps me keep moving forward in life, without too much sitting around looking back at what has happened either good or not so good. Chip had asked me to just ignore him, as he wanted to be invisible, and so I tried, unsuccessfully. I had already learned this lesson while in chemotherapy. Life goes on, with or without us, and whether you are diagnosed with cancer, are being treated for cancer, have multiple compression fractures or it is the day after running 50 miles, life doesn't stop so you might as well keep moving forward and embrace the life you have with a theme of "What Next?!" The passage of scripture that I preached from was very appropriate for the day. It was Ephesians 6:10. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and the power of his might." All the pre planned object lessons, combined with the experiences from the Cheat Mountain Moonshine Madness 50 mile trail run made for a day in which the passage could be understood and applied. Chip and Melissa had pre-planned to leave right after church so there were only a few short good byes to some friends that we had grown very close to in just a few short days.