The first time we saw the dreaded Black Rose was at the pre-race meeting for the Massanuten 100 miler on Friday night. The woman holding the rose called herself the Grim Reaper, and said that the rose was still a badge of honor as it meant that the runner did everything they could, gave it their all and did not quit. They simply ran out of time. Sadly, the runner that I was there to support and pace, John Rodrigue, would end up possessing a rose instead of a finisher’s buckle Sunday morning. He fit perfectly the description by the Grim Reaper as there was no quit in John, the clock just moved faster than his feet.
Our journey began Thursday evening after I watched my daughter Maggie’s play. She rocked her part and was fortunate to have grandparents there to watch. I said my goodbyes at the conclusion of the play and hurried home to find John and the other member of our team Sean Case at my house with all their gear packed in my VW Bus.
We made decent time traveling south, needing to fuel up near the Connecticut/New York border just after midnight. We had trouble finding an operating gas station, and by the time we did, I figured it was time to find a place to stop for the night. A rest area was advertised not far away on Route 84. So we found the darkest possible spot and popped the top on the bus and crawled into our sleeping bags. It turned out to be a pretty lousy night of sleep, as traffic was loud and a number of tractor trailer trucks changed gears right near our abode before hitting the on-ramp.
A smooth ride continued in the morning. Our only real delay was waiting for our food to be ready at a deli in Hagerstown, Maryland. We were able to get to the race headquarters sometime around three. I was hoping to arrive earlier to give John plenty of time to rest and stretch out his legs. There was plenty of spots to set up camp and despite having the bus, I still set up a tent to hold our spot and a place for me to sleep giving the others plenty of space.
There weren’t too many familiar faces checking in but I did spot a couple of guys who I ran the TARC 100 with last year. One of them Giles actually asked me where my father was, as he had crewed me last year. That to me was one of the greatest thrills of the entire weekend.
While waiting for the start of the pre-race meeting a couple from Massachusetts greeted John as they had met him the week before at a race. The guy Russ would be attempting his first 100 miler and his wife Nikki would be crewing for him. They were very pleasant, but I was getting a little anxious about getting the show on the road, and really looking forward to the dinner after the meeting as my blood sugar was getting low and I wanted to get to sleep as soon as possible.
The meeting took much too long and then we were told that the caterers were running late so dinner was going to be delayed. We used the delay to get a few things sorted out for the morning. Once dinner was finally served we sat with our tenting neighbors that had traveled from D.C. to support another first timer Erin.
With our bellies full, we were still thinking about food. Well, food for the next morning of which we really didn’t have anything. So we drove back up and over twisty roads hoping to locate a grocery store. The one we found would have been unrecognizable as one if my GPS hadn’t sent us there. Unfortunately it didn’t tell us the hours, and as we arrived just a few minutes after seven, one of the ladies promptly turned on the closed sign upon seeing us parked in one of the few graveled parking spots. Back to the van, but then a guy stuck his head out of the door and asked us if we needed to buy something. We sure did. Besides breakfast food, we, well at least Sean and I, wanted some beer. I wish I could report that the store was this hidden golden cornucopia of goods after the man’s generosity of opening back up for us. Some food was being sold in plastic baggies with ties, there was a good selection of Dickie jeans and gloves but not a decent bagel in the place. At least there was PBR in the cooler, the sad part was that was the finest choice of beer.
After we returned to camp David Bibler and his team of his wife Jess and Amy arrived and set up their camp not too far away. John took a short cold shower while Sean and I enjoyed a couple cold beers while keeping an eye out for ticks. There was little left to do now except to try and get some sleep before the four a.m. start time.
John was in good spirits in the morning, much more awake and alert than me despite having some really real dreams, maybe even nightmares about missing the start of the race. We kept reminding him to be sure to check in before the start and finally did so about fifteen minutes before start time. John was all smiles, even visible in the dark, taking photos and enjoying the moment and opportunity. We pushed John into the starting coral stepping back and began the final countdown. We watched the headlamps move away from us beginning their awesome journey.
Sean and I agreed we could sleep for about an hour before we needed to begin our crewing responsibilities. The first time we could see John was at the twelve mile mark and figured he should be there in about three hours. After an hours nap, we made ourselves some coffee and our way to Edinburg Gap. We got a great parking place and were soon met by Nikki. Runners were already coming in at the two hour mark. David came in around 2:30, and had directed his crew not to meet him there. He looked strong, and I stepped up in case he needed anything at all. This got me more into a crew mood, and soon I was on the lookout for runners still wearing headlamps to give them to crew members versus wearing them for another twenty plus miles.
Most runners looked good, only one skinned up knee and one woman saying she had already thrown up. Russ came in before John and Nikki attended to him while we kept an eye out for John. He wasn’t too far behind coming in around the three hour mark and looking good. Of course his spirits were good but he did say he wasn’t eating much. He had planned to eat a couple Kind bars every hour, and looking at those bars I didn’t think he would have enough time to finish one before he really needed to start in on another. I’m not sure how many he had eaten in the three hours since we saw him last but he was promising to take in more calories, so I did not berate him too badly for not laying down a good foundation for the day.
John took his hiking poles with him as he crossed the road and back into the woods of Virginia with twenty three miles ahead of him before we could see him again. Time for us to get a real breakfast and more coffee in a nearby town. Well it wasn’t really a town, just really a bunch of corporate America restaurants found near most highway exits. The one real down home looking restaurant only opened after we drove back past it with our bellies already full.
Of course we had to stop at another grocery store again, as we didn’t get too many supplies the night before. The Food Lion had plenty and according to the guy checking out in front of us it had the best $23 bottle of champagne one could find anywhere. Even better than most of the expensive stuff but he may have only felt that way because of the 12 pack of Miller Lite he was buying at eight in the morning.
John did have a couple aid stations before we would see him and I hoped that he was finding something good to eat. Meanwhile Sean was doing an excellent job navigating us in the back country of Virginia. The directions given us were spot on but you really needed to be aware of where you were, especially when there was almost twenty miles of driving between the aid stations. Still, we got to the Elizabeth Furnace station just fine and had plenty of parking, nice restrooms and a few shaded spots to set up our chairs and wait. We set up near the team crewing Erin, the most friendly of the group Keith was foam rolling his body getting ready for pacing duties sometime in the next twenty some odd hours. We had estimates on John’s arrival but those were only estimates, and although we knew we would have plenty of time waiting it was unnerving waiting when you just don’t know how he was really doing.
Nikki, Jess and Amy also joined us in the small shaded spot which was about fifty yards from the picnic shelter aid station. Although I was already exhausted and tried to get some sleep, I just had to check on the aid station to know what to offer John when he came in. I spotted a cooler, and was so thrilled when I opened it and found dozens of frozen ice pops. I was soon offering them to any runner coming in. I had used frozen pedia-pops on my 100 miler and they were a delight on a hot day. I overcame my tired feeling by playing crew member to anyone coming in. The volunteers were all nice, even when they came around asking people for extra water as they were running low, we gave them one of our two gallons, but they weren’t really coming out to lead runners into the station. The ice pops were especially hidden and I don’t think anyone refused one when I offered one up.
I was more or less in full crew mode by the time David came in. Jess and Amy got him all set up even before he hit the actual station. I walked him through to make sure he didn’t miss out on the opportunity to pig out on any treats, including ice pops. I continued crew duties for other runners; lending a shoulder for a woman to lean on while her boyfriend tended to her blisters, feeding one guy while his wife was carrying around their eight month old. Then Russ came in and sat in the shade with us. I ran off to get him ice pops and then sponged him down with some ice cold water. We checked his feet as he was worried about blisters but they looked fine even for running thirty plus miles. He left in good spirits and then I began to really wonder about the one runner that I was really responsible about that day.
We didn’t really have any expected times on when we would see John. He was given some pace tables and although they could be really helpful, he wasn’t trying hard to follow any set pace schedule. I just really wanted to see him come into this station healthy and ready to grind out some more miles. A lot could happen over twenty miles and as I saw more runners coming through I stopped helping and spent more time watching for him. I gave him big cheers when I spotted him on the road and Sean and I were ready.
He told us that he wasn’t urinating as we led him straight into the picnic area. Someone overheard him telling us about it while we were sponging him down and feeding him watermelon. I was concerned but tried not to let it show on my face. We were told there was a doctor that could see him and so I focused on feeding him and hydrating him. John also told us that he had seen a bear on the trail not so long ago. Sean took care of his bag for the next phase and a doctor began to question John about his urination. John’s facilities were fine. He had no trouble talking to us, was moving around fine but just hadn’t been able to pee. The doctor saw no reason why John shouldn’t continue on, if the problem persisted then he should withdraw but since it was so hot John was probably just sweating it out instead of peeing it out. It was a little more time at the station than I may have wanted but it was good to know John was going to be alright and we insisted that he should have his bladder bag finished by the next time we would see him in less than five miles.
John may have had to run only five miles but we had to cover much more than that in the VW. We missed a couple turns but realized our errors quickly as we now made it a habit to reset the trip odometer after every turn. We had our longest walk with gear from parking spot to aid station which didn’t have much room for all the teams there to support their runners. The air was feeling much thicker and so I put on my Joe Dirt wig in case we got hit by thunderstorms. David was already gone by the time we got there but Jess and Amy decided to hang out to support John. We continued to support Russ when he came in, and he got treated to some of my finest Joe Dirt impressions.
Amy talked to us more about race strategy suggesting that I begin to pace him at Habron Gap the 54 mile mark. I was planning on running with him later as runners could pick up pacers at the 64 mile spot, or back at 54 if it was after six in the afternoon. And we all figured he would probably be there after six unless he was able to crush some big miles fast.
John came into the station still in great spirits but still unable to piss. Sean showed me his bladder bag which seemed practically untouched and I almost wanted to slap him, but that’s not Joe Dirt’s style. Actually I didn’t have on the wig as John was sitting on it, and I reluctantly put it back on for John at people’s request. I dunno, maybe Joe Dirt does smell like ass sweat. Still, I was getting a little pissed. Sean and I continued to feed him and make him drink and I didn’t know what to do to make him drink more. So out of nowhere I said to him, “When you drink count to ten. Don’t just take a sip. Count to ten.” We told him I would run with him at the next aid station, I just wanted to make sure that he not only would make it into that aid station but that he would be able to leave.
To get to the next aid station we actually left some of the back roads and as I was looking around some things seemed kind of familiar. Then I saw a sign for Gooney Creek Campground. I had been on vacation about three weeks earlier in this area with my family in the bus and had almost stayed at the campground but didn’t out of fear that we might get butchered in the middle of the night. We eventually found a less daunting spot for the night and were more worried about flash floods than axe murders. Now as I was excited to be in a place I actually knew, the threat of flash floods were once again real as there were some pretty big rollers up in the sky.
Sean and I found the turnoff from the main road without problem but decided to head into the town of Loray for dinner and then get to the aid station. I really wished I could have ordered some bigger down home plates at Uncle Buck’s but I settled on Virginia Ham with some fixin’s while Sean got the prime rib, and was even given a bigger slice than he ordered as the cook was celebrating her 40th birthday. Of course we got some decent local beer to wash everything down. Speaking of washing down, the skies totally opened up while we dined, knocking out the cable t.v. and making it impossible to see what movie was playing at the theater across the street. If John had more miles to go between stations we might have been able to catch a flick, but that’s not why we were there was it.
I really wanted to run with John but at dinner I was getting worried that I would not get the chance to pace him. He had been more than an hour ahead of cutoff times but the urination problem and lack of fueling had me questioning when he would come in. We decided to hit another grocery store to give him more food choices. We went to the same grocery store I had been to with my family, and found the service much more friendly this time around. I picked out a bunch of junk food, basically hiker food, not all that nutritious but fun to eat. I did eye some packs of portable applesauce but decided against that purchase, later on wishing I had bought them.
As we got to the Habron Gap aid station Jess and Amy were just pulling out and gave us their parking spot as David was already in and out. We figured we still had some time, maybe an hour or more before we should see John, so after I got my running gear together, I popped the top and grabbed a little rest. I was never completely out, as details were running through my head and I couldn’t wait to get on the trail with John.
I donned my kilt over my running shorts and kept a lookout with Sean for John. We once again stepped up and helped Nikki tend to Russ who was holding up well and making some gear changes to dry off now that the rain had stopped. Then came the hardest part: the waiting. I kept one eye on the aid table which was getting really depleted and another on the road leading into the station. Finally in came John with a big smile on his face, raising his arms and shouting, “I can piss again!”
We sat him down once again, Sean tending to his pack while I grabbed food. We changed his shirt, now he and I would match in our Trail Monster shirts, and we also changed his shoes. He had about six pairs to choose from and put on a pair along with new socks. He still hadn’t been eating enough and we tore out a bunch of Kind bars, leaving a few and replacing with junk food; gummi bears, peanut butter cups and a couple other candy bars in mini sizes. I wasn’t really sure what John liked for junk food but I didn’t give a crap really, he was now going to eat whatever we gave him.
Runners needed to be out of this aid station before 9 pm and we left just around eight with John just ahead of me. Race rules stated that a pacer was supposed to be behind the racer and I followed that rule for about two minutes. We had a pretty big climb coming out of the station and with John feeling good, I wanted to take advantage of this and push him up the hill/mountain. I also wanted to be ahead of him so he wouldn’t have to think about navigating the trail. We were back in forth with a couple other teams as John proved to me that he really could urinate again.
The sun was beginning to set and John donned his headlamp before I did and we began to listen for whippoorwills. I began to dominate the conversation, not an easy thing to do with John but I wanted to take his mind of the trail. I spoke about my time hiking on the trail with my wife and other experiences like when I did a night hike to get away from an annoying hiker named Wyoming Skateboarder who complained endlessly about rocks and roots on the trail.
John was in good spirits and climbing really well but had concerns about some chaffing in the nether regions. So when he stopped to do what a bear does in the woods, I made him remove, not force ably, some underwear to give the boys a little more room.
One piece of equipment that I did not have was my GPS watch. I had brought it with me, but I just couldn’t find it in the bus. So I was relying on dead reckoning to know how far we might have gotten. We had roughly nine miles to the next aid station and if we kept up a decent hiking pace around three miles an hour we would keep an hour ahead of the next cutoff. John stayed strong on the ascent, and I figured we were moving around two miles per hour and now would need to make up some time on the descent, which in theory should be pretty easy to do even if John was starting to fatigue a little. His body was in fine shape for the descent the problem became his shoes. Of the six pairs he had to choose from, he unfortunately chose ones that were a little too small. Our pace should have been about five miles per hour but it felt like we were moving even slower than our climb and for the first time I heard frustration from John. It felt like I was doing math homework with my daughter who gets frustrated and vocal and I try to keep my cool and keep focus on moving forward instead of the obstacles. There were a couple times he needed to pound his poles to release the anger at his feet getting beat upon and once he was done there was nothing else to do but move forward as quick as possible so he could change his shoes.
As we got near the aid station I congratulated John on toughing out a challenging course and assuring him that we could make better time on the next section with better shoes. We had managed to keep our hour buffer and Sean tended to John’s equipment needs while I worked on hydration and nutrition. He still hadn’t been eating too well so after he downed a couple applesauce packets, I had him grab an extra one for the trail. I also took in a few calories, being careful not to reduce the food selection for other runners still behind us.
With John ready to go, I put my pack on and immediately felt a cold stream running down my back. I guess I didn’t close my bladder bag too well and I don’t know how much water I lost but with only six miles before the next aid station I figured I would still have enough water along with some ice tea in a bottle to get us there.
Of course we had a climb out of the station and I pushed the pace once again. We faced more mud than before and I had to remind John that new muddy shoes were better than dry, short ones. The mud wasn’t the big obstacle, it was the rocks. John bitched a little about them and I reminded him about Wyoming Skateboarder and so his complaints stopped maybe fearing that I would leave him behind in the woods of Virginia.
The climb was really brutal but John was steady and when I got excited about a switchback, John found it hard to share in my enthusiasm. Of course, I still did not know how far we had gone but when it felt that we had completed the climb, I gave him back props for such a great effort. Unfortunately the climb was not completely over but we got through the rest of it in good spirits. John had already eaten the applesauce but was still not taking in enough calories and I was having a hard time getting him to take in more and did not let up on him to drink as well. He was definitely starting to tire but was keeping up his pace. It wasn’t fast but it was getting him forward and I felt it would keep us ahead of cutoff.
There were plenty of lights when we came into the next aid station at mile 70 and Sean had seats set up near a good campfire. While John sat down, Sean tended to the pack and I made my way to the food table. At that time a volunteer called for someone to tend to the generator, to which no one responded and the lights quickly went out. I managed to find what was left of Coke wanting to give John some caffeine to wake him up. Another runner came in and sat down next to John stating that he was done, quitting. A sense of fear came across me that his spirits would enter John’s body, who now closed his eyes. We let him have a little shuteye as we were still getting his gear in order and I searched for my clothes to change my shirt as it was getting a little cold at 2:30 in the morning. We still had our hour buffer but it felt like we were only minutes ahead of John being the recipient of a black rose.
Still without a GPS watch, I told John as we were leaving the aid station that we needed to be better than a three mile per hour pace to stay well ahead of the next cutoff about eight miles away. We had five hours to beat the cutoff but with the profile still featuring ups and downs, and I was sure more rocks that we couldn’t afford to let up.
Yes, another climb out of the aid station and John was once again very strong, even after his 90 second nap near the campfire, of which he woke himself up and got right to his feet. The climb was not quite as long as the previous ones but I felt his pace slowing up. Our conversations also began to slow down. I had quizzed John about baseball hitting techniques to share with my son. We also played a few games to keep conversation and laughing, now John just mostly said that he was getting really tired. I was hoping his pace would pick up once we were on the ridge, but his tiredness was hard to overcome and so I began to force feed him. I gave him some chocolate covered espresso beans which he hated but I gave him more and more trying to send a caffeine rush through his body. I don’t think it had the effect I was hoping for but at least he wasn’t face planting in the middle of the trail.
I kept a close eye on my watch, figuring the sun was going to come up in an hour or so and wanted him to feel ready to really move in the daylight. I told him all that we were doing now was moving a few logs at a time in order to move the woodpile. We didn’t really need to move a big stack and tire ourselves out. Just a little constant effort and we would get that woodpile moved and be rewarded with a buckle for John. Unfortunately, it was more like moving a single piece of wood at a time but we were moving and most importantly I never heard John talk about quitting. There was no quit in him. He was exhausted, there was little energy left in him. I began to question if I was failing him. I was wondering if my trail friends back at home would question if I had done enough for him. I didn’t want John to fail because I failed him. I wanted him to get that buckle.
We continued to stack wood, as now I was feeding him more than ever, just waiting for the sun to appear. I would hand him some food and tell him to take a bite. Then a minute later to take another bite, and so on and so on. I even gave him countdowns to finish whatever was left in his hand. I was being a little bit of a bitch, but really he was my bitch now and I was going to do whatever I could to bring him back to life.
The sky began to lighten up a little, enough so I could turn off my headlamp and I prepared for big speech time. Having done a little coaching in my day, and being a fan of sports I know that you can give a big speech too early and have it’s effects wear off too quickly. Now with the sun lighting our path instead of our headlamps it was time for that speech. It was just before six when I spotted a large downed tree and had John sit down. I still didn’t know how far we had to go but that we only had an hour and a half to get him in and out of the next aid station before cutoff, and I really didn’t think we were going to make it based upon our pace.
I was real honest with John about our situation and that if we weren’t going to make it, I didn’t want us to do it through lack of effort. I had him suck down a GU packet while I spoke to him that he didn’t come all the way to Virginia to quit, and at the pace we were moving was essentially a quitters pace.
Back on our feet less than two minutes later a team caught up with us. The pacer was actually the doctor who looked in on John thirty miles earlier. I asked them if they knew the mileage. The pacer figured we had around three miles. I don’t know if John got the charge I did but now I felt energized that we had a really real chance of beating that cutoff that I was so sure that was going to end John’s day.
I was treated to my first view of the valley below us at a clearing marked Q’s View, which I wish I had a camera for as my son’s name is Quinn. The other team took in the view with us and of course I just had to moon all the houses below us. The other team pulled ahead of us but I wasn’t too concerned about that. I was mostly glad that John was showing real signs of life again. I continued to force feed him, mostly GU, trying to regain his full strength. The trail had actually become more runnable and although we weren’t on Boston Marathon pace, it was the best pace in hours.
We stepped out onto a dirt road only to see Jess driving by in the opposite direction. It was good to see her all alone, as this meant that now Amy was somewhere in the woods pacing David. Then a car pulled up next to us and slowed down. It was the Grim Reaper. Apparently John had done a little flirting with her at some other aid stations so she full well knew who he was. She told us we still had a couple miles on the road. John did his best to run and I pushed him to do so and I set up landmarks to run to before we could walk again. While walking we saw pavement up ahead, to which John said he couldn’t run on that hard surface so I pushed us to the edge of the pavement.
Farther up ahead of us was another team. John did manage to run a little on the pavement and so when we caught up to this team, the pacer thought John was the pacer. We slowed to walk with them and the runner was literally falling asleep next to us. We chatted until the other pacer looked back and saw that a big gap had developed between us and his runner. The road seemed to last forever and I kept an eye on my watch was indicating it was around seven in the morning. We had to have John out of the aid station by 7:30 and I was getting real nervous.
After we dropped the other team, someone came running up the road towards us. I saw that it was Keith and asked about distance. We were close. I still couldn’t get John there fast enough. Finally the road stopped twisting and we came out to a main road. I checked for traffic and crossed only to have a local sheriff have to stop to let us cross. Then I looked up the hill to see Sean looking down at us. “GU. GU, get as much GU’s as you can, ” I shouted to him. He took right off and I got real energized about getting John to this point and shared my enthusiasm with him and how proud of him that he had done it.
At the aid station, we didn’t even let John sit down as it was quarter past seven. Sean was taking over pacing duties now. It was hard to turn John over to him. In no way was I questioning that Sean was going to do a great job, it just felt like I had invested so much in John’s run that I didn’t want to lose that control. Besides, I’m sure John must have been sick of my force feeding and drinking, and general nuisance to keep him going. My job was now crew duty, and I was glad to do it.
They took off and I dropped my hiking poles and celebrated the fact that John was still in the race. The other runner came in and sat down, still with a few minutes to get out of the station but really calling it quits. I tried to motivate him a little, but I myself was spent. I had to hold back some tears thinking that John was going to get his buckle and that I had a part of that accomplishment.
I did treat myself to some food while the crew began to dissemble the station. Erin’s crew was anxiously waiting for her to come while the other runner was asleep in his chair. I packed up our gear and drove to the next aid station, less than a mile away but ten miles away for John and Sean.
Upon getting to the Picnic Aid Station, I organized the contents of the bus a little and made a phone call back home to Maine before I laid down for a little nap. John had three and a half hours to cover the twelve miles and stay in the race. Despite getting less than an hours sleep over the past twenty eight hours I still found it hard to rest and was soon up and around. Runners were coming and going. I wasn’t expecting John and Sean anytime soon based upon the runners that I recognized.
The aid station was doing better on food than some of the others, I guess because more and more runners were dropping or not meeting cutoffs, so I didn’t feel too guilty about getting just a cup of coffee. Runners coming in were in all different states; some tired, some happy, some pretty broken, but not a single one of them quit. Everyone I saw still pressed on. They were at the eighty nine mile mark and the course actually covered one hundred and four miles, and no one was stopping.
I didn’t step in to help out other crews like the day before. I stood at the ready but all crews were spot on the job. I was amazed that a couple of the crews were wives with young children. I thought my job was tough, but I can’t imagine carting kids through the woods of Virginia at night.
I had no expectation to see John and Sean for quite sometime but after ten thirty I began to be on the lookout. We had to have him out of here before eleven and if he had been able to pick back up his pace he should have be arriving pretty soon I figured. Again, the waiting was the hardest part. Damn you Tom Petty.
Less and less runners were now coming in and there weren’t many crews left. The air was cool and it felt like it could rain any moment but I was still more concerned as to John’s location than getting caught in a rain storm. I can’t sit still. I look at my watch every thirty seconds. I congratulate another runner who heads back onto the course. Now there are only two other teams left and time is moving faster than the runners still out there.
One runner leaves and I start to overhear volunteers discussing how many runners are still out on the course. It is a surprising number, one. That can’t be right, there are two teams still here. I don’t want to be pushy so I wait for a break in their conversation before I step in and ask them if there are really two and give them John’s bib number. Someone radios another aid station to which crews were not allowed to get to, and we find out that yes indeed John and another runner are still out there. That other runner finally comes in a short time later. She doesn’t have much time to get in and out but does beat the cutoff. One volunteer quietly says to me that she won’t beat the next cutoff, I am glad to report that she proves him wrong and does buckle.
Now it’s only a few minutes before eleven and there is no sign of John. Volunteers are taking down the aid station and I can’t bear to look only focusing on where I should be seeing John coming in from. The Grim Reaper arrives upon the scene and I decide to walk down the trail just hoping to see them. At the pre-race meeting, the Grim Reaper alluded that she may let runners continue on past cut-off if they are looking good and don’t have any visible trouble. As it is now a minute before eleven I’m hoping for that kind of leniency.
As the minutes tick past eleven and the volunteers pack up, I know our race is over. I want to negotiate with the Reaper but I have no idea what state John is going to be in or when he is actually going to be there. The race director said cut-off times were firm and I didn’t want conflict between him and her.
Ten minutes past, no sign. Eleven. Twelve, Damn it. Fourteen, Sixteen. Shit. Seventeen. Mother Trucker. Eighteen. Fudge. Nineteen. Wait there they are. Time for the end of the movie slow clap. John knows it’s over. But he’s smiling. A small grimace surfaces for a moment, but overall he’s smiling. I try my best to, and can’t remember what I say, other than how proud I really am.
The Reaper comes over to check on him, and John gives her is numbers, race number not phone number. But this all brings out a greater smile on his face while we get shoes off and a fresh shirt on. I don’t question Sean. I help him get some food and liquids. John says he has no interest in taking another shot at a buckle in a race he’s already registered for in August. I don’t respond back, I just want him to free his mind of racing for a little while. He’s been on his feet and racing for over thirty four hours now. He deserves to think of nothing. His only thoughts should be of laying down and getting some rest. Ironically, I find out later that David finishes his race just about the same time as John, but he does it by getting across the finish line.
John is laughing a smiling as he is given his well earned Black Rose. A few photos are taken and we are allowed to take any leftover food we’d like. The reward for being the last team on the course I guess. Sadly we pull out of the area, with a volunteer asking us at the gate if there is anyone behind us.
We do have to go back to the starting/finish area as I’ve left my tent there and we do get to see a few runners on the road close to the finish. We come across Nikki who says that Russ is past the last aid station and has a few miles to the finish. John is kind of in and out of sleep as we breakdown our tent and make our way out, asking him if he wants to hang around or not. We say that we will go find a motel room for the night in order to get properly cleaned up and a good night’s sleep before we try to get back to Maine the next day. Understandably, John doesn’t really want to hang out and I’m kind of glad as I just want to get on the road and back towards home.
Still, despite the lack of sleep, I’m pretty wired as we hit the highway northbound. John is now out. Sean once again navigating and we learn there are some pretty nasty storms due to hit the race area so we are especially glad to have gotten out of there. I figure I can drive for about three hours and that will put us somewhere into Pennslyvannia. Sometime after we do cross into that state John suddenly rises up real quick and asks where we are. He can’t believe we’ve gone that far. He must have been in a dead sleep with zero brain waves. He only stays up for a minute before he is back down.
We set our sights on Harrisburg and John is back up before we see signs for motel/hotels. A Holiday Inn has a room with two beds and a pullout sofa at a decent price and we are set for the night. We are all laughing and joking recapping the day’s events and thankful for the experience. I am amazed at John’s spirit and attitude, knowing that I probably would have been acting much differently under the same circumstances.
It feels good to be clean after a few days of travel and racing and Sean and I go to a grocery store once again. This time for beer and not race food. For dinner we find a brew pub, The Appalachian Brewery and John is so excited they have poutine on the the menu. Sure we question what might have been, or how we could have done things differently but none one us feels like there was never any quit on the course. We discover that someone back home has posted on-line that John dropped from the race, and we, really especially Sean and I go in a uproar that he didn’t drop. We were there to witness him doing all that he could do to stay in that race. His feet just couldn’t stay ahead of the minute hand. He could have kept going. He could have squeezed out the last fifteen miles. Father time just didn’t let him.
After I buy a growler and some pint glasses for my wife’s birthday the next day, I already had some other presents ready, we leave the restaurant and get a little off course getting back to the hotel. We are treated to a double rainbow on the edge of the field and it feels a little like hitting an aid station, as nearly all cars on the road are stopping and occupants rushing out.
With a few beers left in the fridge, we share some more laughs before one by one falling asleep. Up and out in the morning and the bus smells like a locker room. The front end is covered in dead bugs and John insists that he is going to come to my house to help clean up. I tell the guys this trip was kind of like going on fishing trip, except we didn’t catch anything, but the adventure is going to be an excellent memory.
It is Monday and my wife’s birthday and I am looking forward to getting home. I hope to be home in time for my son’s little league game and to crack open that growler with my wife. We make decent time until we get stuck in traffic for about half an hour in Connecticut. We make a stop lunch and I decide that I am finally going to turn the keys over to Sean. As he turns over the engine he says the battery light is on. I tell him to back out and let’s just see what happens when we move. He struggles to turn the wheel. He immediately says he is worried about the alternator belt as it is all connected to the power steering, something I did not know.
To make a short story of all this, the belt broke, my so-called service provider was awful and we did manage to finally get someone to tow us to their garage. Sean and John were extremely patient considering the situation, much more than me. The tow driver could only take two in his vehicle, which quickly became me and John, and Sean began the three mile walk to the garage. Upon hearing out story, the driver went back to pick up Sean after dropping us off.
After a little inspection of the bus, I’m told the a/c compressor is blown and there is no way that is getting fixed at four in the afternoon, especially since the part is certainly not stocked. Good news is they can get a belt on and get us home safe and sound. Back on the road, I’m driving with urgency to get home after apologizing and wishing my wife a happy birthday in the same breath.
We can pick up John’s dog on the way home as she is staying with fellow Trail Monsters, Pete and Mindy Slovinsky. John says that he’ll drive back from my place in Freeport, wanting me to get home, but I insist on stopping knowing my family will be asleep anyway. Sean and John can’t wait to urinate and I have to pull into a church lot not far from the Slovinsky’s house. Just another part of the adventure.
We drop off Sean in Portland and I finally get home and help John pack up his car left at my place. There’s not much left to say at this point. John’s happy, I know disappointed but thankful for the experience. And I’m glad as much, after missing a few days with my family that we have all become better friends and not bitter or upset with one another despite all we’ve been through.
Months ago when John first asked me to pace I had to check my calendar. Even though it was her birthday weekend my wife insisted that I go help John. I owed John so much for helping me to earn my own buckle the year before. Mo also knew I always wanted to pace and this was a great chance for an awesome adventure. Even though more things filled our calendar for that weekend, she still insisted that I go to Virginia. I am very thankful to her and I know the rest of the crew is as well. I think they got to know and admire her as I talked about her throughout the trip.
Looking back at the whole adventure, that’s exactly what is was, an adventure. It was much more than your Sunday morning 5K at the local high school or even any other race where you get a participants medal for finishing. It took courage, extraordinary effort, mental toughness, some bitch-slapping, even some compassion, along with laughs and smiles for John to earn his rose. Less than a week later when John and I were helping set up for the Pineland Trail Festival, John said to me he should have finished the race. I don’t know if I told him out loud or not, so listen to me now John. You could have finished that race, they just didn’t let you. How could they have let you cross that finish line after thirty six hours with that big smile on your face? People would see your photo and think this race was lots of fun and possibly easy and that anyone could finish. Truth is, it was one hellish race and I am amazed at the attitude and spirit John was able to possess throughout. A job well done John, now you’ve got five seconds to finish eating whatever is your hand.