The field of 16-mi starters seems very thin in the wide chute. Only 35 people, I learn later after I get home and check the results. The 54-mi and marathon runners had all started hours earlier at 5:30am. They also sent the 2-person team runners off at sunrise (7:30am). With 14 starters in the 54-mi and another 42 in the Marathon, wasn’t all that many runners on the course as it is. The 8-mi will start an hour after us. The timing of each is such that I’ll only see a few of the 94 odd 8-mi runners just before I finish. All of us began east, heading to the 4mi Jim Hogg aid station first and then the 8mi Spillway aid, before reversing back the way we come back to the finish: but thats just logistics.
Quite a good bit of the course is rugged and rocky, with not much for changes in topography. It does roll a little, but mostly the trouble is high humidity wet rocks. All but the last bit near the spillway is single-track trail. I wasn’t at all surprised to see the lead group take out from the start rather quickly with Josh Beckham running. Was only curious to see who'd go with him. I wait just a moment to make certain I don’t get drawn into the start-line energy-suck, and sort myself out behind a guy with a fishing hat and two ladies who seem to be talking to each other. Of course, my energy or patience is such that when the fishing-hat guy goes past the ladies at a point early on where they seem to slow, I simply stick to him and go along in tow. I stay behind for another few minutes as we twist about on the windy trail under tree cover with lots of rock obstacles. I suppose he might want me off his stride, because he steps off trail and stops so I can pass, not that I want to or need to, but now I am in front of him. And so our band of runners quickly spreads out in so many different means and ways.
I'm never certain which direction I will turn at any given moment. The trail is not always easy to see, it is rarely strait, and it changes direction so quickly and surprisingly that I must stay constantly tuned to all of it. Scanning constantly for rocks, low-hanging branches, and the constant turns, I tune in while I tune out. I hardly notice anything other than my little rock dance when I realize I’m again behind another runner. He steps off to let me pass, but I tell him I don’t need to, but in saying no, I pass him and he tucks in behind me. We talk for a moment, a few statements, nothing worth note, and then another and another join in. Now we are five, each add-on coming in singly, and I ask if they wish to pass, but they do not. It’s a quietly comfortable group who run without talk, breathing comfortably, each of us navigating the obstacles in our own way.
After another 15 to 20 minutes, I feel I'm being pushed along and decide to exit the pack. I need to re-establish my own comfort level, so I step off and let them go, walk for a few moments before resuming my run. I get back into my rhythm and after a few more twists and turns, watch the boys in front slowly pull away and separate into singles again. By the 4mi aid, I now have two new add-ons who have tucked into my flow. One of them (Shayna) starts talking to me, asking questions about trail running and she remains with me as the other falls off. I switch to a walk now and again, for slight rises and slippery slopes of wet rock, but she remains locked into what I do, at least for a while. On a flat and fast section, she goes ahead while I remain at the effort I've been. Even though the course is decidedly easier and faster here, I just don’t care to push the pace.
Two miles from the 8-mi turn-around, the race leader (Josh) buzzes by, heading home. In the next 2 miles, between here and the Spillway, another 20 runners file past, including the two ladies I passed soon after the start, still talking. The rain begins and comes down a fair amount for the next 30 minutes as I roll into the 8mi aid and turn to head home. Maybe because this being the most open area of the course, or maybe its just everywhere on the course, but the trail becomes a mess of mud, with my shoes picking it up and clumping on. Besides making the landings more uneven, and the rocks more slick, my hamstrings start complaining about the extra workload just lifting my heavier unbalanced feet. By the time I get back into the trees, the rain stops while the humidity maintains its already elevated funk.
Alone since mile 5 or 6, I feel even more isolated now, not seeing anyone except the occasional glimpse of a colored shirt well off in the distance. My energy on the wane, I'm working much harder now just trying to keep moving. I take more walk breaks, some for no good reason at all. At some point, I study my watch, the distance and time, and realize I can break 3:30 if I just quite screwing around. I love the mental games and dial one in. The humidity and the mud is messing with me and I feel I'm done, but I attempt to talk myself into staying on task if only to be done sooner. And so I manage a decent effort that lasts for 10 minutes, then a short hill to walk, then another 7 minutes to the next rise, and so on and so on. I think I may just pull it off, but my reasoning dies when my GPS shows 16 miles and I still have more to go. Not that I can absolutely count on my GPS being dead on, as I know it rarely ever is, but now I don’t know how much further it is and the timer is still flying. So, now, I am uncertain. More uncertain than I was a while ago, which is really odd, because I never really had any reason to be certain of anything.
I start running, pushing myself more than I have done at any point today, and refuse to stop. I can’t know, I don’t know, and can only know when I see the finish and the clock. I am returning the same way I ran out, so I must eventually get there. I pass two women who are the last of the 8mi runners, and just after passing, I hear a crack and then one of them yells, or maybe both of them yell. I turn around and go back to see that one of them has her hands over her face. She has run her head into a low branch and it has split the skin on her forehead. She has a bandana or some such in her hands and applies it to her head. She has a nice cut, but I’ve seen worse. I tell her to keep the cloth on her head and keep going. We must be near the finish. So I turn and start running again. It's not far now. I hear it first, and then i see it, and cross the last paved road, and soon after, enter the chute, and see the time, and I'm amazed. 3:27:26