Wednesday, February 4, 2009


When time and my kids permit, I love to read other's race reports, adventure run articles, and general ramblings about the "road less traveled". As I have aged, and my family life and athletic career have matured, I have really come to appreciate the time and interaction with fellow humans on the course, be it runners, volunteers, race directors, and strangers on the side of the road/trail. It fits with my personal leadership philosophy that, at its core, is really a philosophy of basic human interaction. Simply put, our relationships with each other are the most important facets of our lives. The foundations of my personal and professional life are my relationships with others. I always strive to set an explicit and implicit example of how I would choose to interact with other human beings, and how I would hope my example would be emulated by those I come in contact with. At the 2005 Quad Dipsea, I got a chance to briefly meet Errol "Rocket" Jones, and heard him wax eloquent to another runner there about who’s got the best stories to tell. Fortunately, the imminent ultrarunning scholar/editor John Medinger reminded of this line in the recent edition of Ultrarunning mag. Sure enough, in that issue Mr. Jones spun a nice little story about his adventure at the Mother Road 100 (incidently, the women's winner was Kathy Youngren, fellow Huntsville-local and married to Rob in this story). I hope this rambling piece of written history might qualify among as being among the better running stories to tell.

So when I moved to Huntsville in early 2006, I got the chance to meet some really veteran ultrarunners. Among them is Rob Youngren, who has pulled off some wild ultra stunts in the past few years (and some mountain unicycling to boot). Among them is a Double Mountain Mist, two loops in one day of the rough 50K course here on Huntsville’s Monte Sano Mountain, performed race day in 2006 on his 9th Mist finish. The first time I heard of this stunt, I absolutely knew that I wanted to try that out some day, and vowed to do it myself on my 10th Mtn Mist (this year was #3). Rob’s Double immediately passed what I call the “Resonance Test” in that if an event sounds really cool right off the bat, that it immediately resonates with me, then it goes on the list of stuff I want to do before my body can’t handle it anymore.

Forward to present day. I’m flipping through the ultra listserv emails on Friday afternoon before this year’s race, and Rob posts up that he’s going to do a Double Mountain Mist. And I know immediately that GAME ON! So I call Rob at work, dance around the subject because I don’t know if he wants to go solo or what, and he finally asks if I want to go as well. Heck yeah, I am f*&^ing on it, I am stoked, because this is gonna go down as one of the loopiest things I’ve ever done.
It’s only at the pre-race party in the evening (there with my oldest boy Matthew), that I discover that we’re going to do the first loop in reverse, in what Rob has named a Reverse Double Mountain Mist. That’s cool: he dreamed it, so he gets to make the rules and has the naming rights. I also discover that fellow Pinhoti finishers Blake Thompson and John Nevels will be joining the Reverse Double party.

Some out there may wonder what the heck my wife thought of this clearly idiot idea to Double the course, doing it entirely on a whim without the “proper training”. I got home from the pre-race party (reinforced by David Horton’s BHAG speech), get all three boys into bed, and then tell her I’ve been invited for a little night run starting at midnight, and that we’re going to do the Double. She just smiles, shakes her head a bit with some incredulity, takes my hands and says, “So help me God, if you make me a widow, I will never forgive you. Have fun, darling.” Bless that woman, 14 years of marriage and three kids later, she is still the bomb.

So we step out from Rob’s back gate at midnight on the dot into relatively warm and humid weather, me not realizing that will change drastically in about four hours. With Rob in the lead, we head out onto the South Plateau, yucking it up, talking smack, beams of light dancing around from our headlamps, and feeling pretty good about the adventure ahead. After a 2mi warm-up and getting the rhythm of running trails at night, we took the hard right down into McKay Hollow and catch our first glimpse of wildlife. Swinging the lights to the left and downhill, we must have had 20+ pairs of eyes shining back at us. It was a bit surreal, and if I had been in the high mountains with bears, I would have thought they were sizing us up for a post-midnight snack. Fifteen minutes later we come up on a skunk in the trail and follow it for a bit; fortunately it darted off into the woods and left us alone.

Kept us a good pace climbing up the Natural Well trail, Rob still in the lead on trails he knows as well as anyone on the planet. We are jawboning about VMI (his alma mater) and life there before getting to the Natural Well and a chance to shine flashlights into a very deep hole-in-the-ground (as well as take a pee break).

We cruise up to Monte Sano Blvd and get a breeze of cool, refreshing air in the open, what we later came to know as the approaching storm. Now comes the descent down the Waterline Trail. Any veteran of Mtn Mist or just hiking this side of the course is familiar with it, a combination of trail and rock climbing route. I’ve been up the trails dozens of times in the past few years. But this was the first time down, and in the dark to boot! Of course, half-man, half-mountain goat Rob takes the lead and just rolls down that sucker, while the rest of us three and looking over the first of the waterfalls saying, “well, this is a new perspective.” It was quite cool, and we got down that thing and laughed it up down to Three Caves and the turn to the Alms House Trail.

It was the next part of the course, probably around 2am, that I was separated from Rob, Blake, and John. I had to make a pit-stop and encourage the guys to keep going, I would catch up in a bit. About a ½ mile after I get going, I tripped over something had just simply had my bell rung. I mean, my head was in the fog for a few minutes. One minute you are moving along nicely, got a solid rhythm on the trail, making up some time, and the next you are laying the trail wondering “What the heck just happened?” My headlamp came flying off, one of the batteries knocked loose in the housing, so it went dark. I slowly got up, dazed and confused for several minutes, just standing in the trail before I realized that I had still a working flashlight in the right hand, and that I should use it to find my headlamp! So after about 10min, I get the headlamp working and start running some trail again. From this point on, I would be alone for the remainder of the night.

I pressed on through the Land Trust section of the course, increasingly coming to realize that I would likely be on my own for the night. After all, I am a big boy, and this ain’t first my dance at night. I knew Rob had a timeline of about 6.5-7 hours and would want to stick to it to give himself and the others enough time to reload at home before the real race. It turned out to be OK, because I get the feeling that if I kept up with his pace (and trail knowledge), I would have paid the price for it later in the day.

I got to Fearn Drive around 3am, refilled by Nathan hydration vest with the water I had left out, and headed out again. Just 50m later I discovered their leftover energy bar wrappers and water in some Target bags next to the trail, thinking “at least they left me some” with a smirk. Only later did I find out this is where Blake bailed out and headed to the house for a nap, likely exhibiting the only higher order brain function of the night.

The next hour was uneventful, moving through Cold Springs, a portion of the Mountain Mist Trail, the Sinks, and into the Stone Cuts. Now that was pretty cool to run with a headlamp in the dark. From there I steadily ground through the east side of the course in reverse from the Keith Trail and on. Shining from what sure to be Rob and John, I actually saw a pair of headlamps across a big gulley from the Goat Trail, probably 10-15 minutes ahead of me. It was the only time I saw anything or anybody. Passing the aid station gear at Three Benches was eerie, all that stuff sitting there but no dang food for me to eat!

Somewhere on the Goat Trail the freezing rain and wind kicked up, and now this little adventure started to suck. Mentally, I was getting into a low ebb and I knew it, exacerbated by my circadian rhythms fighting against me, making me groggy and demanding sleep. I hit the caffeinated gel in my pocket, knowing it would cause more pitstops in the hours to come, but needing to get alert again. When I got out into the open on the Flat Rock trail under the powerlines, the wind and freezing rain just plain sucked. Having gone from warm, humid, and sweating between midnight and 2am, now I stopped and pulled out the gloves and headband ear warmer stuffed in my Nathan vest. It was in this section, looking down into the Big Cove area and my house a mere 5 miles away, that I started wondering just what in the f*** I was doing out there. Damn it, I’ve got three boys and a lovely wife sleeping peacefully at home, and I’m here knocking out trail miles in the dark with freezing rain driving sideways into me. It was here I started to wonder about running the real race in a few hours.

So I steadily moved along, taking extra time not to blow past the turns off Flat Rock and up to Warpath Ridge; easy to find during the day going the other direction, slightly tough in the night going the WRONG WAY! The climb back up the Monte Sano plateau wasn’t bad, as I concentrated on working some more Perpetuem into my stomach and fighting off the negative thoughts in my head. Just keep moving and wait for the sun to come up!

The remaining miles went by without incident, grinding out the Family Bike Trail, the namesake Mountain Mist Trail (still some hanging icicles left), and the climb back up to starting area. I’m still harboring off-and-on thoughts of bailing from the real race, dreaming up bulls**t excuses to throw out. Of course, most ultrarunners will admit to this kind of thinking at some point in some races, it’s inevitable. But it’s the folks who can retain the mental toughness necessary to harbor those thoughts now and again, yet shake them off and still keep running! Remember the words of President Coolidge: “Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent”. Or refer to Thomas Edison: “You got to make the damn thing work.”

Finally, 7 hours after we set out, I pulled into the Monte Sano Lodge parking lot and slow to a walk heading for the lodge. From behind comes DeWayne Satterfield’s voice with the question, “Holy Cow, did you really run the course all night?” Well, I’m feeling pretty surly right about then, and I’m wearing a headlamp and Nathan hydration vest, carrying another flashlight in my hand, my lower legs coated in telltale trail mud. The first thought in my head is, “Look at me, dumbshit. What the f^&% do you think? I’m just out for a g****amn warmup?!” Fortunately, higher brain functions kicked in and I managed a smile and “Heck ya!” instead. He comments on my sanity, gives me a fist bump and we head into the lodge. Dink and Suzanne catch site of my dragging ass and herd me toward a bagel and a little coffee. I’m still thinking that there is no way I’m going out on the real race, I’ve had me enough running for one day.

But all that changes when I get over to the Youngren’s house, see all the shining faces there, and get the inevitable question, “Are you going back out?” To which the only feasible answer is, “Of course I am!” with a big smile born of newly found confidence that only good friends can help renew. I proceed to make a minor mess in their bathroom changing into fresh gear. The anti-friction lube in the just the right places damn near made me scream out loud. I left just enough time to get reload, pick up some more flasks of Perpetuem, and get back over to the starting area with Rob and John, a whopping 10 minutes to spare.

At 8am the real Mountain Mist 50K gets underway, and I soon find myself at the back of the pack, hanging out with John and laughing it up once again. The sun was now fully open and shining, the storm having passed through and given way to emerging blue skies. You’d think I’d already forgotten the lows of the night, but most ultrarunners come to know the promise of dawn and the sense of renewal we often feel at looking our second (or sometimes even third) sunrise of the day.

John and I stayed together for most of the day, trading the lead back and forth as I made a few more pitstops during the day. We were not in a hurry, but definitely mindful of the cut-off time at Fearn Drive, which I had ask Rob about since I had never worried about it before. The sun was shining bright, but it was still pretty cold and I had my Gore-Tex running jacket on until Mile 21 of the race.

We rolled into Fearn Drive (17miles) with about 15min to spare on the cut-off, and I urged John not to dally as we headed back into the Land Trust. From here I started to push the pace a little harder. I spend nearly all of my Mtn Mist training time on this side of the mountain, and know the trails well. It was a chance to gain a little more buffer on the cut-off back at Monte Sano Blvd. While under normal circumstances I can pop up the Waterline Trail better than most, I wanted to hedge my bets this time. I didn’t expect a problem, but I did grasp the possibility I could just blow out going up the thing after being awake and on the move for so many hours. There was no way I was going to go this far and not make the final cutoff! By now the folks running the aid stations had heard of our little double stunt (from Rob?) and were quick to fill our bottle and move us out while at the same time exclaiming that we should have our heads examined. I wasn’t necessarily disagreeing with them.

After the Land Trust aid station (Mile 21), I stuffed my jacket into my racing vest and had to leave John behind. I encouraged him to stay on my tail and I’d keep the pace up, to keep pushing, but he was not in a happy place. I was lucky to recognize the look on his face that pretty much said, “Go f*** yourself, Josh” and let him be, pushing down the God-forsaken rocks of Railroad Bed and Alms House, finally heading up the Waterline. Turned out my concern was unfounded, as I got up it only about 4-5min slower than usual thanks to plenty of practice, a fresh surge of adrenaline, and some raw determination. I made it to Monte Sano Blvd with about 15min to spare, and knew I would make the finish line under 8 hours. Fortunately, turns out John made with about two minutes to spare, and that Rob was with Kathy and Blake just getting out of McKay Hollow and heading to the finish line for a 6 ½ hour time.
The descent down Natural Well and into McKay Hollow was challenging on tired legs, but the pounding was lessened by all the time in the squat rack at the gym. Passing trees and rocks like they were standing still, I power-walked out of McKay Hollow myself, spent a few minutes getting my breathing under control, and moseyed my way to the finish line for a time of 7 hours, 49 minutes and change. John rolled in about 7:57. We linked up with Rob in the Lodge, and is the way of ultras, we were all smiles again and slapping each on the back again! The bastard was already showered and in fresh clothes; at least he, Kathy, and Blake brought my XTerra over so I wouldn’t have to walk to their house. John’s dad rolls in to make sure his supposedly well-educated son (an Auburn grad student in Civil/Structural Engineering) is still alive. We ate some pizza, took pictures with Dink, proudly received our Fleet Feet “No Cupcakes” shirts, and let what we just pulled off sink in. At this point we had all been awake since 6am the previous day, going on 34 hours without sleep and a 100k of tough trail running completed.

Funny story on the side: I had left my cell phone on the kitchen counter at the Youngren’s place, and Kirsten called about 3:30pm on the off-chance I might be done. Well, I ain’t there and Blake answers instead. Right away readers should recognize this is an opportunity for shenanigans. Kirsten asks if they have seen me, and Blake invents some cockamamie story on the fly about how they saw me being taken away in the ambulance, needing 12 stitches in my knee and blood everywhere. A credit to her education, military experience, and parenting experience, she starts immediate mental planning about how to get a babysitter for the boys, where to find me at the hospital, where to find the insurance cards, etc. After a few moments Blake let her off the hook and said they had a report of me crossing Monte Sano Blvd a while ago. I understand she commented on his comedy skills and threatened bodily harm later in the evening.

So after everyone gets cleaned up, what do we do? Why, hit the post-race party at Duffy’s of course! Kirsten arranged us a babysitter and we were going out! [She was driving]. Good food and good company were the order of the evening, with more than a few more people questioning our sanity and the fact that we were still awake (38 hours now). Somehow, we were mostly smiles as we swapped tales of our boldness and derring-do. [Well, Nevs was starting to crater after a week full of classes]. Rob will undoubtedly get a burr in his saddle to do it again, or some other adventure (for which I might join him). In the days after, he’s even talked about a Triple.

After eating some greasy onion rings and drinking a few well-earned beers, Kirsten drove me out of there about 8:30pm. We stopped at Cold Stone Creamery for an even more well-earned monster serving of ice cream, which I don’t eat enough of considering all the running miles. We got home, I sat down in a living room chair, and within 5 minutes had my head laid back falling asleep. Kirsten sent me to bed where I stayed for the next 11 hours. It would have been even longer except that three boys make a lot of noise around the house in the morning!

When I heard about the idea for a Double Mountain Mist, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. I had planned on going for it as part of my 10th finish, but I can now firmly say that I’ve checked that block. Throughout the party, friends there asked me how I was doing, to which I could only smile and reply, “I’M GLAD I GOT THAT OUT OF MY SYSTEM!”

So as a warning to all you intrepid readers: Don’t try this yourself…UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE AWESOME!!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

First Foray

Setting up my own blog site, something I should have done a long time ago. But heck, I just signed up for FB on mid-November! Hope to post a few race reports and other missives about my life as a husband, father of three boys, dedicated public servant, athlete, and human being.