Nov 062012

by Tom Whitaker

Being a parent and a long distance runner isn’t necessarily a mix that leads to great success, as a runner, but what I’ve learned from being a father made the 50 mile Bradbury Ultra Punisher the greatest day I’ve ever had as a runner.

I’d kept an eye on the weather forecast all week, which never changed forecasting rain on Saturday but temps in the sixties. As disappointing as this sounded, it was far better than the heat and humidity I usually find when I’ve done ultras at Pineland. I wasn’t looking forward to going to Pownal Saturday monring when I woke at four a.m. while it was still raining, but like my kids, Maggie six and Quinn four, don’t really like to get ready to go anywhere, I knew that also like them once I actually got there I’d have fun. Yah, fun, fifty miles of fun.

I was so pleased to be inside the Pownal School gym to get ready for the race. I knew it was going to be a small field and in the back of my mind I was hoping for a top ten finish, but after sizing up the field and the serious looks on other runners, I began telling myself just to focus on enjoying the moment and to really focus on finishing. It was refreshing to have a couple other Trail Monsters in the field as Emma and Zak were also putting on numbered bibs and orange bandanas to field off hunters sights.

With my head lamp on I lined up in the dark, eyeing the tiki torches marking the way to the woods and up the hill leading to the Bradbury summit which we would have to climb four times. I started a little faster than expected as I didn’t want to lose the pack which one of our race directors, Ian Parlin, was leading around the 3.5 mile first loop. I wasn’t even to sure where we were after going down the Terrace Trail and up somewhere around the Tote Trail. Still, I kept with the pack, afraid of getting lost in a place that I knew so well. Once near the summit, I pulled back a little knowing where I was. Heading down the hill and towards the starting area, I was surprised to see the hard charging pace of the leader coming back up the hill as the sunlight was making it easier to see through the light rain and heavy fog.

Back at the starting line, I handed over my headlamp to a volunteer in case I needed it coming out of the last aid station at mile 47, many, many hours away. I also peeled off my long sleeve undershirt as it was really a quite comfortable temperature, then checked my time which was slower than I expected given the effort but the tough visibility certainly slowed me down more than I thought.

Up and over the summit again, I looked forward to getting on the relatively flat east side. I blew past Boucher’s Buffet aid station near the park entrance quite content on my own treats and drinks. By now the lead pack had pulled far ahead, or at least well out of sight. Then I heard feet behind me slogging through the mud and was pleased to have Zak soon catch up to me. It was good to talk with Zak around all the curves. I could tell where Ian and other volunteers had managed to blow some leaves off the trail, which was still slippery and would get worse throughout the day.

I ran, trotted, past Boucher’s again while Zak stopped. I caught another runner just before the turn on the boundary trail. I could hear him slipping a little coming down the hill, and I began to appreciate my home field advantage knowing how to navigate the rocks and roots. Somewhere near Tyron Zak caught up and we came into Ryan ‘Snowman” Triffit’s aid station. I trotted past again and Zak stopped again. Of course he caught up to me on the road which we both cursed about as the hill leading to the powerlines seemed to never end. A couple of CMP employees were stationed at the road, I guess to make sure the runners didn’t do anything crazy that day, like trying to run 50 miles.

Zak told me how he and his wife were expecting their first child in February. I was thrilled to hear the good news and shared some expecting fatherly advice. We also discussed strategy for the day and potential finishing times. I wanted to do about ten hours, Zak maybe a little faster, but the bigger goal was to finish. I told him my real secret that I learned by watching my daughter Maggie participate in her first cross country season this fall. She certainly wasn’t the fastest six year old girl but made progress in every race by making herself run just a little bit more than walk along the half mile courses. Even if she ran slow, as long as she ran versus walk then she would do better. I did this until we came to the field hill, which is very deceptive, and forced Zak and I to walk it wishing this part of the course went in the opposite direction.

Ryan tempted us with his bacon before we crossed the road and headed back up Tyron. I was a little delirious heading up the steep climb on the Boundary Trail but soon found my senses and paced myself comfortably to stay with Zak on the Tote Trail. He pulled ahead near the summit and I let him go. On the descent I began to feel some sharp pains in my right knee.I recognized the pain from some of my long distance hiking days that meant my quads were getting weak and the knee cap wasn’t tracking properly. I cursed myself for not doing more squats or other weight training, but too late now. Emma looked strong coming up the hill and I actually looked forward more to climbing which would be much less painful on my knee.

For the first time in a race, I grabbed some potatoes and slowly chomped them down while power walking back up the hill for the third time. I used to scoff at Bradbury, but now the 0.8 seemed like a Herculean feat. Part of me wished I had refilled my bladder bag but I knew I was going to take more advantage of the aid stations for my second lap. My knee hurt even more coming down the Terrace Trail and I began to think about opting out for the 50K finish. But I also began to break down the race into segments. Aid station to aid station. Just get through each segment.

A cup of Coke and some peanut M&M’s at Boucher’s where I ran into my first 50k racer. She had missed some of the course on the east side and was being forced to go back and do it over again. UGH! So glad that wasn’t me. My knee felt worse even on the flats but I followed Maggie’s strategy and kept on running even if it was slow. Somehow I had gotten ahead of Zak, but he was right on me as we caught up with another 50 miler who had stopped to tie his shoes. I was also employing another of Maggie’s strategies as she preferred to run with a friend of hers and so it was good to have Zak close by slogging through the mud.

The miles between Boucher’s and Snowman’s was much more enjoyable than the east side and when Zak and I got there I was pleased to find an old co-worker, Sean, there to give me some real positive energy, as he was there to cheer on a friend of his doing to 50K. It was good to see Jim Dunn there also, so I took a little time at the station chatting briefly all while grabbing more potatoes and Coke. Zak took off despite having family there for him. I kept him in sight as he ran the hills on the road. It was here I did catch a couple other runners. One was beginning to question whether he would see this road again. My knee started to feel better on the long climb, and I think it went pretty numb by the time I hit the powerlines.

I caught one last sight of Zak turning into the woods, and I only hoped to see him again climbing the starting hill. I kept my Maggie pace through the woods and hit the fields to a familiar sound. That being Jim Dunn yelling, this time at Zak to run the field hill and not walk. I was glad Jim didn’t see me walking the same hill, but once I caught up to him, as he was trying to be on his best behavior walking with Zak’s mother, he tried to motivate me to catch Zak, of which I had no intention trying to beat someone, anyone.

Now at the aid station I had done my 50K but was not going to stop. It was too hard to so facing those who were supporting me. Besides, I felt okay, and I didn’t want to be sitting on the couch later that night realizing I could have done all the miles. Ryan asked me what he could get for me, and I quoted Sam Shepard in The Big Lebowski by asking, “Do you have any good sasparilla?” I settled happily for more Coke and potatoes and headed up Tyron again. A runner I expected to beat me was on his way down, putting me about three miles ahead, and I began feeling even better about my run, but still not trying to beat anyone.

As I hit the Tote Trail intersection there were five runners ahead of me asking which way to the school. I pointed to the arrow pointing right and said they were heading the right way. They were 50K runners who had gotten lost somehow. Another runner was a fifty miler who started heading the opposite direction. I called to him, but he started telling me he had gotten all mixed up and was fine heading the wrong way, apparently calling it a day.

I kept the 50Kers insight at Maggie pace and questioning what I really had left for one last lap. I also thought about what elite’s think about during races, and if it was anything like I was thinking which was to keep moving as best I could. To run like a six year old girl.

Just off the summit I ran into Blaine Moore with his daughter Lily attached to his front side. He told me I looked good, I asked if it was the lipstick or the eyeliner. Once again Emma crossed my path on her way up the hill followed by her pacer and husband and race director Ian. I had asked a couple people to pace me but didn’t fret too much when they weren’t able to commit. I really made the final decision to push on for the last lap when I saw Zak charging up the hill for the last time, and I knew I had to do the same.

There was great support to me as I came in the starting area. Sean was there again to cheer and quickly asked what he could do to help. He helped fill my bladder bag and another friend quickly jumped in to also help. I asked them to grab my marshmallows, yes marshmallows, which got quite a chuckle, and also to grab some more beef jerky. My kids made me realize just how great a marshmallow could be. They pack light, go down easy, don’t stick to teeth and well, taste great! Pure sugar baby. I don’t dare to check the nutrition label but will now forever to be a big, big, fan. Mountain Dew took the place of Coke and I thanked Linda Douglass for the potatoes which I ate on my way back up the hill for the last time.

The last time I ever have to, began to cross my mind as I made my way along the trail. This was it, the last lap. I was on pace for a sub ten hour finish, and all I had to do was to keep on running like Maggie. If I walked too much it would hurt just as much and I might not get out of that pace. My knee felt better down The Terrace Trail as I learned to place my foot slightly out instead of straight ahead, and I felt really good coming into Boucher’s Buffet.

More of the same food, and I figured one hour until I got back. I caught up with the lost group and some others who kindly gave way to me, and forced me to continue my pace to stay ahead of them. I had taken one slip climbing a rock that gave me a moment to pause and tell myself to keep at it. I also passed George Alexion and Rick Abradi, which motivated me more. As I hit mile forty, and owl flew past me and landed in a tree to get a look at me. I had seen one in this area before, but usually only on morning runs, not around 1:30 in the afternoon.

Sean and his friends had not only moved from aid station to aid station but were also cheering on runners in the woods. Even though I had passed them sometime before, I could still hear them cheering on runners. Kind of sadly, it was the last I heard them, as I suppose I must have gotten that far ahead of their friend.

Coming into Boucher’s, the rain started to come down hard and I took temporary shelter while fueling back up and speaking with Randy and his kids. I asked Eric for some Ben Gay or like product, as I didn’t reapply ointment back at the school. None available, but oh well, my legs were better than expected and I really needed to hit it if I was going sub ten.

No longer was I thinking about just finishing, now it was about the time. Still, run like Maggie and I could do it. I had about an hour and a half for the final nine miles.

In the morning I had written four people’s initials on my forearm who had passed away this year. As I thought back to each one, I realized how their lives had so positively impacted my own and that this opportunity given to me this day should not be taken for granted. My family had to sacrifice much to allow me to start the race, and I wouldn’t do them justice or those who I lost, just being content with participating. I had gotten a cool t-shirt, and a hunter orange bandana for signing up, but now there was not only a hoodie less than ten miles away, there was a lot of pride and appreciation of others waiting for me at the finish.

A couple more 50Kers I managed to pass on my way over Tyron and in to see Ryan. I asked about my headlamp and he said I wouldn’t need it. I knew that but wanted to pick it up next time through rather than track it down after the race.

One more 50K runner I caught on top of the road hill, and then another just before the powerlines. Ryan had said Emma wasn’t too far ahead of me but I didn’t want to burn myself out trying to catch another runner, especially one as strong as Emma being led by Ian’s relatively fresh, race directing legs. I was thrilled catching 50kers, quite unexpectedly and it was tempting to burn through the woods as it was the faster part of the course. I came out to the field and could see Emma and Ian making their way up the hill. I called out, “Wait for me” waving my arms. They yelled back something I couldn’t hear and were soon out of sight.

“It’s kind of sad it soon will all be over, “ I told Ryan as I came into the final aid station. He asked if I was serious, and I said, “Not the race, but everything according to the Mayan calendar.” He packed my head lamp into my pack, helped me refuel and sent my on my way.

As much as I hated most climbs throughout the day, I really no longer dreaded them. This was it. Just get up Tyron, go down, go back up and down again. That was what Ryan told me that I needed to do. That was it. It was glorious. It stopped being really hard. I’d suffered through a couple Pineland finishes, not all fifty miles but really, really suffered and sure my body was beat up but I could still go. Still go as fast as a six year old girl.

There were people on the summit who kind of looked at me funny for not stopping to take in the fog covered view, but I had already been there more than half a dozen times that day, and multiply that by about seven or eight in training sessions. I had gotten mixed responses from hikers/walkers all day. I always tried to be more friendly than them, which was easy as a couple times as some people totally shunned me.

Ahhhh, mostly down now. A couple more puddles to charge through, some mud slicks to slide through and then I could hear it. I could hear the sounds of the finish line. Just past the stonewall and into the field I saw my wife waiting for me along with my son and new husky puppy. Unfortunately my daughter was spending the night with my parents but she was with me the whole race.

Quinn ran to me and held my hand as we came into the finish area. He stopped a little short and I had to encourage him to cross the official finish line. I didn’t dare to bend down to hug him, for fear my legs would seize up, but leaned down instead. Fortunately, I soon received standing hugs from my wife and also Zak and Emma and I was immediately given my prized hoodie. Word began spreading among us three monsters as to our finishing placements which made our joy even greater.

My body felt great considering I’d just run fifty miles, and I was glad I was able to stand back up after I sat down to lather my legs in Icy Hot and remove soaked socks and shoes. Amazingly no blisters, thank you Superfeet and Smartwool.

I wish I had more of an appetite as there was some great looking dishes post race, but I was happy with hot coffee. A hose with warm water was available outside to wash off, and it felt so good I had to ask another runner to look away. I, along with Zak and Emma, were presented our trophies made by the students at Pownal before I departed to spend the evening resting on the couch.

I can’t believe I was able to find such joy out of such a hardship. I’m lucky enough that my hardship is one that I have chosen. Other hardships I’ve faced, I never faced alone. I didn’t face this one alone either. I thank those who made it all possible; volunteers, race directors, my friends and family and lovely wife Mo. As much success I attribute to my daughter, I am a little curious to see what it might be like at my next race to run like a four year old boy?

  6 Responses to “Big Brad Ultras Punisher – Tom Whitaker”

  1. “To run like a six year old girl’ I loved your strategy/mantra. Great job on a tough course 😀

  2. Ditto Val! Way cool report & inspiration. Congrats, Tom.

  3. Tom, after reading this I have a whole new idea of what it was like to do it !, what an an amazing accomplishment ! I love your perspective about Maggie, how she will love reading this someday !! Congratulation !!!! MK

  4. Tom, after reading this I have a whole new idea of what it was like to do it !, what an an amazing accomplishment ! I love your perspective about Maggie, how she will love reading this someday !! Congratulation !!!! MK


  6. Tom, Well written and well run. Good job on both fronts. What’s next ? Uncle Al

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