by Ian Parlin
I was feeling a little nervous going into the Stone Cat Marathon this past weekend. This year there were four races that I planned to take seriously (BRR 50, VT100, VT50 and Stone Cat), and a whole bunch that I was doing just for the fun of racing or as training for one of the big ones. But none of the previous big ones really went the way I had hoped. The thing about ultras is that it’s cool just to finish, and it doesn’t matter what your time is. The problem is that I had goals, beyond just finishing, for each of my first 3 big races and I didn’t get what I wanted. I always go into a race with 3 goals, one that’s very ambitious, one that’s realistic, and one to cover my ass in case things go really bad.
After getting two 50’s and a 100 under my belt this year I felt like I had learned a lot and that I had every right to expect to do well at the Stone Cat Marathon. All I had to do was rest up after Vermont, do a few shorter fast runs, a couple of long runs and I’d be fine. The problem was that I had fairly consistent knee pain throughout the 6 week period between the VT50 and Stone Cat. The pain wasn’t really that bad, I tried not to complain about it too much, but the mere fact that it was there at all had me worried about missing another goal at a big race.
In the week leading up to the race I began to prepare myself mentally for that moment in the race when I may have to decide: Do I DNF and save the knee, or fight the pain and try to make my goal? I hoped it wouldn’t come to this but I felt that I needed to be prepared in case I had to make that tough decision. After the VT100 I know that I can push myself through just about anything no matter how much it hurts, but what’s the point? Is a slightly above average race finish worth risking an injury that could keep me from running for weeks? I know what the answer is but I’ve never DNF’d before.
Friday evening I left work a little early and headed down to Danvers, MA to the official hotel of the Stone Cat Trail Races. I ate dinner on my own since there was no official pasta dinner this year, and later in the evening Erik joined me at the hotel. Sadly, Emma wasn’t able to run in the 50 miler this weekend due to knee pain far more serious than my own that has kept from doing much running at all since her third place finish at the VT50 six weeks earlier.
Erik and I woke up at 4:20, joined a big group of runners in the hotel for breakfast and headed off in the early morning darkness following a long line of cars for the short drive to the race start in Ipswich. 50 mile runners got preferential parking right at the start, but marathon runners had to park half a mile away and get a shuttle (some guys minivan) to the start. I got my things together and decided to jog to the start, this would be my warm-up. When I arrived at the school gym to check in the atmosphere was like a family reunion, one or two annoying uncles but great to see so many familiar faces and to catch up on the races that everyone else has been running. Unfortunately I spent most of the time before the start waiting in line to use the bathroom.
Gilly (namesake of the GAC) made a few announcements about course changes this year and confirmed that the distance was accurate. It turns out that the 50 miler I ran here last year was actually closer to 53 miles! He also reminded us that if you have to go to the bathroom during the race to “bury your shit!” Gilly has a great way of lightening the mood before the race start. We all filed out of the gym just after the sun had come up and the race got under way at about 6:25 am. The sky was overcast but the temperature was surprisingly warm for this time of year, great conditions for running.
All runners start together but after a few hundred yards the marathoners branch off to complete what is supposed to be a 1.2 mile loop before rejoining the regular 12.5 mile course for two laps. This first short loop took me exactly 7 minutes to run, I often set out too fast but there was no way that I was going that fast. I was immediately disappointed that this race might end up being a little short but there was nothing I could do about it. Shortly after getting back onto the 12.5 mile loop portion of the course there was a major moment of confusion at an unmarked intersection. I followed several people straight along the trail but immediately had a flashback to last years race when I thought we turned right. I knew there were going to be course changes this year but I would expect them to be marked. I immediately announced my intentions and turned around to go double-check the intersection for markings, a few people followed but others kept going. When I got back to the intersection it was a clusterfuck of stressed looking runners, but I was sure that we were supposed to turn right. Andy Hall was right behind me at this point and he agreed so we headed off together leading a group of skeptical runners. After about 1/2 mile we finally came to a course marker indicating a sharp left hand turn, uphill and onto single track. I knew we were on course now so I took off quickly up the hill. This was not a good way to start a race that I was trying to take seriously, but I figured that this was a good opportunity to separate myself from the rest of the marathoners, or at least the ones who weren’t already way out in front of me.
From here on out the course was well marked and most of it looked familiar so I settled into a comfortable pace and set my sights on catching up to the 50 milers ahead. One unique, and not so favorable aspect of this race is that even though we all start together the marathoners (most of whom are running a faster pace than the 50 milers) have to work their way through the slowest runners on single track trails. Maybe that’s the GAC’s way of punishing us for choosing the wussy race option.
By the time I reached the back of the pack 50 milers they were strung out enough that I didn’t get held up too much and could pick them off 2 or 3 at a time. When I reached the first aid station, Al Cat’s at about 4.25 miles into the big loop (5.5 total), a lot of people went to the table and stopped for fuel, I had plenty of Gatorade in my handheld bottle so I ran right through picking off one or two marathoners in the process. Although I was trying not to go out too fast I was looking for any opportunity to get ahead by running smarter, but not necessarily harder.
Once I got through the bulk of the 50 milers it was pretty quiet on the trails. There had been a lot of rain in the week prior to the race but the trails were in pretty good condition. The ground was completely covered with wet leaves, but my Inov-8 Roclite 295‘s provided great grip and I didn’t find myself slipping at all. Generally the trails weren’t too wet, but there were a few puddles on the course that couldn’t be avoided. Well, they could be avoided, and I saw a lot of people tiptoeing around the sides but is was easier and way more fun just to run down the middle and splash through the mud. Dry feet are overrated.
With the “alone time” on the trails I began to notice some discomfort in my right knee about an hour into the run, pretty much when I had been starting to notice the pain throughout my training. It wasn’t bad to start off with but I knew I had close to 3 more hours of running ahead of me and it wasn’t likely to get any less painful as time wore on. For the time being I pushed on at a steady pace knocking off the miles at about an 8:30 pace – although I wasn’t actually looking at my pace at the time, just trying to run what felt right.
I don’t even remember if I stopped at the second aid station, Fast Fred’s at 7.5 miles (8.7 total). I probably did slow down long enough to refill with Gatorade. The 5 mile stretch from here to the start/finish area and the end of this first 12.5 mile loop went by uneventfully, enjoyable but not much to talk about. As I finished the first lap it was great to see Jamie helping out at the aid station. We said a quick hello, he refilled my bottle and I was on my way. It was hard to believe that I was more than halfway done with the race. Just like when I started my 4th lap of the 50 miler last year I set off on my second and final lap this day with a renewed sense of energy. I knew that there was a good chance I was going to slow down during this lap, but I had enough of a cushion that I knew breaking 4 hours was guaranteed as long as my knee pain didn’t get too much worse.
The biggest hills of this course, which really aren’t big compared to the ones you get in VT, come early in the 12.5 mile loop which meant I put my knees under a lot of strain in the first few miles of the second lap. I was trying to run hard and the result is that I really started aggravating the knee situation.
I channeled the music I had been listening to on the drive to the race and focused on the trails, the trees, the weather, the wet leaves. Anything but my knee, this had been my downfall last year in the 50 when I couldn’t stop thinking about the pain and I let it get the better of me. Not this time. What’s the point of doing this if it’s not fun? It’s not worth taking things too seriously. I may come away from this with a limp but damn it, I want to be able to say I had fun in the process!
One of the great things about the people of the GAC is that they’re great at lifting your spirits if you’re feeling down in a race, if you’re feeling good when you pull into one of their aid stations then be prepared for a lot of fun. I knew when Al Cat’s aid station was coming up (17.5 miles) and I was so looking forward to it. The trail was quiet now and even though I was having fun on my own a little extra kick never hurts. Since the runners were now spread out all over the course I think the volunteers at the aid station were more happy to see me than I was to see them. It helped that I knew most of them, and also that they’d probably been drinking adult beverages for a few hours. I almost wished that I needed more than a Gatorade refill, but I did stop to chat for a few seconds. I got my bottle and was about to head out, I turned to thank them all for their help and caught Al’s eye from behind the makeshift bar that was set up on a card table next to the aid station. “Can I get you anything else?” he offered.
“My knee is aching,” I said, “can you give me anything for the pain?”
Al poured me a big shot of Goldschlager in a platic cup. Out of nowhere one of the volunteers asked me “Are you going to run for President?”
I tossed back the shot and declared “Parlin – Palin 2012!”
I ran off into the woods with a warm feeling in my belly and a smile on my face. This is how a marathon should be.
A few non-runner-types that I know seem to think that just because I have run a few 50’s and a 100 mile race that a marathon should be easy. What they don’t understand is that with any race it’s all about how you pace yourself. The point is to finish with nothing left because you poured it all out on the course. If I finish the marathon feeling good enough to go run another lap then I know that I didn’t truly race the marathon. For the next 8.5 miles I made sure that I was going to have nothing left in the tank when I finished. I’d like to say that I picked up the pace in these final miles, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, I logged some of my slowest miles of the day in these late stages of the race, but I was going as hard as I could. Even when my knee started to scream and my calves threatened to cramp I kept pushing it. I knew there was very little chance of actually injuring myself, I just had to suck it up and keep pushing.
I started to wish that there were a few more people on the course to give me something to chase. I occasionally came across another runner, a few pretty fast 50 milers who were hard work to get past. I thought to myself, and even said out loud to one of them “You’re running twice as far as me I should be faster than you!”
Finally, with about a mile left to go in the race the lead woman in the marathon sidled up next to me. I had met Laurie at breakfast and talked to her briefly before the race. She was moving well and got a few steps ahead of me. This was just the motivation I needed to work a little harder. Being married to a woman who is faster than me at pretty much any distance I have no problem being girled in a race, but I hate losing a place in the last mile of a long race. We battled it out for a few hundred yards but with a half mile to go I kicked in the afterburners and took off. I was a little afraid that she was going to catch me and that I wouldn’t have any more to give. I didn’t dare look back, just pushed as hard as I could. It turned out that last half mile was done at a 7:20 pace, just fast enough to get me across the line ahead of Laurie. Thanks for the motivation!
As I slowed to a walk after crossing the finish all the pain I had been denying during the last few miles began to wreak its revenge on my knee. I limped to the sidelines and sat down to catch my breath. Finally a race where I met my goals. I had fun and I ran well.