Having a plan is always nice. And smart. Dutiful, and all that. Which might explain why trail running so quickly disassembles all of those things. The Georgia Jewel 50 miler became three separate races, each asking more than the last. My friend/running guru Chad and I ran a solid half marathon from the start, but had to part ways at mile 14ish. Running solo, I ran without much thought to the miles ahead, but enjoyed running strong. By mile 23, my legs felt like I’d shoved them into a pool of frozen dirty hypodermic needles swimming with bloodthirsty bat-wielding crack sharks. I hoped marching to the next aid station at just under mile 30 would be enough time to revive me. Alas, my legs had developed a festering case of “Mountainous Trashfire-itis”.
As I lay in shade at the aid station, making brave attempts to DNF and shuttle back to the finish where there waited friends and beer aplenty, I met the Jones’s. Lauren, dressed as a hill-stomping Yeti Unicorn, waited to pace her brother Colin. She pranced with bees and sunshine while we waited, and offered me a beer. When her brother arrived, they trotted away into the hills. I thought about the trails, what I was missing.
Not long after, while dozing with my hat over my face, I spied Lauren’s mom Lynn following another runner, who I guessed was her other daughter by the rainbow ribbons on her vest. She didn’t pause at the aid station, but blazed up the trail. I decided I’d laid around long enough.
I asked Lynn what her daughter’s name was, made sure with the volunteers that everything was cool with me getting back on trail, and went out to pace Brooke. I caught up about half a mile along. She said she didn’t mind a pacer, and we fell in step. We had about 20 miles to go, and plenty of that would be walking. In for a penny, in for a pound.
If Brooke had not wanted a pacer, then I was back to solo miles. But it worked out, we talked, and sometimes didn’t, met other trail runners on the course. But mostly, we got to busting up those hills. Uphills and flats we walked. Downhills we ran. The sun disappeared behind grey sheet of clouds and thunder rumbled, heralding the oncoming rain. A gentle pour clattered the leaves and cooled the air. Within minutes the rain stopped, leaving us with the intermittent growls of tired old men tossing and turning in the clouds.
Night set in. Brooke’s headlamp put mine to shame by several hundred lumens (Hellooo lamp envy). We saw less and less of other racers. We were ahead of the cutoff, and feeling fine. And if I’m not mistaken, we stayed pretty dang positive! Sure, sometimes we wished for a hang glider, or a jet-pack, or TARDIS, Chaos Emeralds, chariot of heavenly fire, Aperture Science portal gun, a pair of coconuts, Moon Boots, Jamaican bobsled team, Shadowfax, Sasha Potato Girl’s insatiable hunger for potatoes and a trail of potatoes leading to the finish, dash button, level select, yellow eyes……any form of deus ex machina, really.
And then, quite suddenly, we were only three miles away.
Brooke starts running, so I start running. We’re cruising, turning onto residential streets until we hit a gravel uphill. “Hills!” we shout into the night, shaking our fists. Passing under a street lamp, we’re running beside a fence lined by Georgia Jewel flags. Ahead we swing left and the earth veers up, up, and away. What lay before us may qualify more as a “wall” than “hill”. We start up, and a headlamp wiggles ahead up the hill, and someone hoots a hearty hoot! “Hey, what music do ya’ll want?” Brooke whispers, “Red Hot Chili Peppers.” Another headlamp joggles down toward us. It’s Lauren, and she’s come to motivate the hell out of her sister to the finish. We’re crushing the hill now, hands driving our knees down, small breaks for breath, then shaking off that stupid fatigue with wild resolve. Red Hot Chili Peppers kicks up, “Can’t Stop” beats against our brains and our hearts. Brooke looks up, and I can only guess, but, I’d say the thought that washes over her face is, “Fuck this hill, I am finishing the race!” We’re practically charging up the hill now, the music blaring louder, and people are hollering encouragements from above and below. Franklin, one of the race directors along with Jenny, greets us halfway with pumped-up hugs and back-slaps. He sees me and his face lights up, “Dude! Yes! I knew you’d get back on the trail!” He’s running up the hill with us, the whole time telling me how he wanted me to do this hill, he says he knew I was gonna love it. He’s a great race director, and an even better person.
And we’ve cleared it.
Franklin yells that the finish is a left turn away as he heads back to encourage more runners. Lauren, Brooke and myself pick up the speed, running a line, three across. Our relief spills out in sputtering mania, knowing we’re so close. Through a tree line on our left, soft orange light from the single lamppost peeks through, offering glimpses of the finish. A grinning volunteer ahead of us waves his flashlight, directing us downhill. It signals to the contingent of badasses hanging by the finish that we are coming in. We’re barreling down, rocks crunching under our feet, when the cheers begin to rise. The voices get louder, and we run more wild. We’re just a few frame rates short for Chariots of Fire to play us in. No, screw it, this whole thing is totally Chariots of Fire. And we looked awesome. The three of us side-by-side-by-side kicking the dirt up behind us, arms thrusting forward, chests heaving with the fire of victory.
Not a second passes after we cross the finish line before we are swept into bear hugs from our friends and family. And I mean Big, Lovey, Enter the Dragon, “Power Levels over 9000!!!” kinds of hugs. Sure, it hurt, but that’s love, baby.
Jenny Baker was a big fan of our adventure. She had watched us finish, and wasted no time in telling us we were a pair of bees knees. Jenny even so boldly proclaimed that, after running the last half of 50 miles together, Brooke and I should consider being friends. Solemn nods of agreement drifted among our circle. Heck, while we’re at it, why not befriend the whole family?
Before everyone parted ways, we shared a few beers, regaled one another with tales from the trail, and giggled into a post-ultra stupor. We said goodbyes and wished each other well in our trail adventures until we met again. As we drove away, Franklin and Jenny stood by the finish line, illuminated by a campfire where they waited for racers coming in through the night.