As much of my writing these days tends to either originate from mid-run ruminations or grapple with running directly, I figured it would be kosher to include a race report on our writing blog (and Nickole was kind enough to agree). But let’s be honest that this will be less a race report (sorry hardcore runners who stumble onto this post) and more a report of my race, of what wandered in and out of my mind during all of those hours on the trails.
So let’s begin with the basics. The Yamacraw began at 7:30 am on Saturday, April 8, with the temperature at a pleasantly chilly 35 degrees. Instead of the standard mileage of a 50K, the folks behind the race were kind enough to include two free “bonus” miles, which left the course weighing in at a total of 33.1 miles. As for the course:
Aid Stations: 5
90% trail (the majority of this, narrow singletrack with technical footing)
8% gravel access road
2% paved roadway
Elevation Gain: 3,809 ft
Elevation Loss: 4,347 ft
Those are stats, but as Nickole’s questions around every such event remind me, the bigger, eternal fact of this race, of every race, is Why? Why train for months, logging nearly 700 miles in service of a single race? Why run that far? Why run at all?
The Yamacraw began with a flat, friendly, grassy stretch, designed to let the pack thin out and negate excessive passing on the more treacherous singletrack that was soon to come.
Then came the creek crossings. After five in the first four miles, I lost track of the number of times we plunged in and out of that wide-awake, bracing water, each new crossing at precisely the moment my feet had just begun to dry from the last one, long muddy stretches on either side of most banks.
On the first sustained early climb, I was grateful for my Asheville training, comprised of section after section of extended, sustained elevation; when the people ahead of me opted to hike instead of run, I was able to slip past them, pressing on up the path.
But how could I write about this race without focusing on its beauty? The Yamacraw runs through the Daniel Boone National Forest in Eastern Kentucky, a formally designated wilderness area packed with natural arches, wetlands, waterfalls, and much more. And what makes something “wilderness”? According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, it’s “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and, my favorite, an area that “has outstanding opportunities for solitude.” So here are at least two answers to the why of trail running: the opportunity to flee the stripmalls and highways, to go to a place where I am a visitor, a guest, a witness to a place not molded to human convenience and consumption and, yes, to be in solitude, away from the electric hum and crash of our cities.
As this was a cup-free event (meaning you need to bring either a hydration bladder, water bottles, or the like to refill with either water or an electrolyte-spiked drink), this was also a race where each aid station gave me insight into what it might feel like to be a Nascar driver pulling into a pit stop. The moment I cruised up to a table, the kindly volunteers recorded my bib number and raced around filling my bottles per my request, directing me to plunder the smorgasbord of bananas, pb&j quesadillas, m&ms, and more, As I jogged away, I amused myself with the mantra, “Seven miles down, only a marathon left to go.”
And in some of the most gorgeous miles of the race, we continued on, wending between lichen speckled cliff faces and beneath sharp rocky overhangs, waterfalls cascading past.
At the second aid station, there were Nickole and our puppy Solace–two more why answers. Seeing them after all that time alone a sharp jolt of pleasure, a moment of deep gratitude to be loved enough by my wife that she agrees to spend a day driving the KY backroads without the benefit of GPS (contending with a dog who has not yet grown out of her carsick stage), then standing at spot after spot, waiting for me to emerge from the woods and pause only long enough for a quick kiss and much thanks for her encouragement. Additional thanks to this video proof that my legs were still functioning happily at the third aid station (mile 16.8), where this was shot:
Around mile 19 there was the biggest water crossing of the day, broad enough that they’d secured a safety line to help people through the fifty feet or so of knee-deep water and slippery rocks. Feet thoroughly drenched, the first real, sustained climbing began. I was grateful for my Asheville training (thanks Cullen, Uta, Terry, and Chris!), comprised of long loops linkng together section after section of extended, sustained elevation; when the people ahead of me opted to hike instead of run, I was able to slip past them, pressing on up the path.
It’s hard for me to walk in races–not because I don’t want to (with every fiber of my being, I would have happily laid down beside the path for a long nap), but because I find that the longer I walk in a race, even if the trail is steep enough that walking might be more efficient than running, the harder it is for me to begin running again when I hit level ground and the easier it is for me to stop and walk later, when I don’t really need to. So I chugged upward, buoyed by the Sheltowee Trace emblem secured to tree after tree: a giant turtle, the perfect spirit animal for an ultra, or at least for my ultras.
And the gift for making it to the top was five miles along a beautiful ridgeline, looking out over the grassy hills below. For most races, I memorize a poem to keep me company as I run. For the Yamacraw, I chose Jorie Graham’s “Tenneesee June”–a poem I find achingly beautiful, for it’s language, it’s deft handling of complex ideas, and it’s delving into both the body and the spirit. On that ridge and so many times when the beauty of that day threatened to overwhelm me, the lines that kept repeating were the quietest, most risky part of that poem: “Oh//let it touch you…” That exhortation toward vulnerability, toward lowering your defenses and letting the world in.
Then it was a steep plunge down switchbacks, where all those people I passed on the way up raced past me on the way down. After far too many rolled ankles, I’ve grown excessively cautious, the fear of wrecking an ankle and not being able to run nearly paralyzing at times, which makes steep, technical downhills my trail kryptonite. But it was clear after this race that this is what I’ll need to work on in the years to come–as much to learn how to enjoy them as to get faster.
The downhill, though, would not last long enough for most people and, right as we hit the marathon distance, the trail banked upward for what was by far the steepest part of the race: a long gravel fire road steep enough that a friend saw a truck stall out as it tried to make the climb. But suddenly, just as the people ahead and around me began to flag, settling in for the long, painful hike to the top, I was hit by a burst of energy that had me charging up all but the steepest bend of that road, delighted to have clear, unobstructed footing. Yet another why answer: there are few things I’ve found more astounding in a race than when–generally during the darkest doldrums of a race, salt crusted, leaden-legged, and feeling like I have nothing left–I find this reserve, this aquifer, of pure, joyful energy just waiting for me to tap into it.
Then the final aid station, where I let my body guide me to what it needed. I downed half a banana (anti-cramping potassium; good idea, body) and a handful of salty boiled potatoes–bland, perhaps, but in that moment one of the most delicious things possible; I was sick of sugar after the packaged bars, and the combination of pure carbohydrates and sodium was exactly what I needed.
The final miles were a blur of more dizzying switchbacks, these made especially treacherous by their composition of roots and rocks masked by a thick layer of leaves, and a set of wooden stairs so steep it was easier for me to climb down them backward, my quads so thrashed from the many descents that I’m not sure it would have even been an option to go down them normally. The temperature had risen nearly thirty degrees by that point and my water had run out with a long mile left to go.
And then the delightful breaking from the trees onto the Blue Heron bridge built to carry coal from mining company there, a cantilevered truss bridge nearly a quarter of a mile long and more than a hundred feet in the air, which gave the final stretch a surreal, floating feel. And I ran that length of planks as fast as I could, eager to see Nickole, eager to stop running.
I crossed the finish line seven hours and seventeen minutes after I’d begun running. It was the most beautiful and most challenging race I’ve run to date. But it makes sense to me that beauty like that must be earned and I’m already planning to return to next year’s race, where I’ll happily pay that price again.
Seven hours, seventeen minutes. Enough time to drive across a few states. Enough time to go in and out of surgery, to fly across this continent even. And there you are, my love, one foot in front of the other, crossing under dogwood and pine, so steady and measured, so strong. Even though I ask why, I couldn’t be more proud.