I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for sleep to come. But it would not. My mind began making compounding lists of what needed to get done in the next two weeks. No matter how hard I tried to suppress those dart-like attacks into the synapses of my brain, the assault was relentless and overwhelming. In an odd way, I was sometimes amused at the randomness of what popped into my brain. But generally and not precluding what God can do despite my inadequacies, my brain registered only the potential demise of my newly-established (and beloved) ministry path should the events in the coming weeks fail.
I heard Horton get up at 3:15 a.m. and knew I had about an hour until my appointed time to face the day. When a whoozy-headed feeling finally came on shortly thereafter, my body fell into a light and short-lived sleep. "At least I've been horizontal for hours and nabbed 20 minutes of zzzz's. I can do this."
53ish miles is always a long way. But what can make it seem longer is starting the day in a cold rain. Though miserable weather was predicted, the 6:30 a.m. start was simply 30's and periodic drizzle. If you don't count the two calf-deep stream crossings in the early miles, I never felt wet.
I felt embraced by the dark as I became just one in a crowd of many. "No need to rush," I whispered to myself. Eavesdropping and amused by words of advice offered between runners (some of which was loony), I was content to slip through the forest in my own little world. Only briefly did I enjoy conversation with Sarah Quigg, one of the first runners I ever coached in my high school career. As the trail rose ahead, my young protege' pulled ahead as I yelled out to her, "Have a great day!"
I fell into a rhythm counting steps. 25 walk, 25 granny shuffle run. Repeat on all uphills. Run everything else. I felt it might be a safe approach. Training had been nearly non-existent since August. A tough coaching/work schedule with nearly every weekend occupied by cross country meets, I had managed but one mountain run of 17 miles, and two road runs of 18 and 15 miles. I hoped that the daily workouts I ran with my team added a little something to fitness.
The signs at each aid station told me I was gaining time on the 12-hour time limit. Continually catching people suggested my approach might actually be working. It was fun. Never before had I looked forward to "running" uphill. So with dark and drizzly turning to bright and sunny, the day held surprising promise.
Approaching the "halfway" point (26.9 miles, or so they say), the mountain we would climb was cloaked in dark clouds, sharp, stinging winds poised to pummel. Adjusting my 25 on/25 off approach due to uneven footing and the steep, 3-mile climb, I turned my focus to simply keep pace with fellow runners. My quads felt tired but forward motion was maintained. Hot broth at the aid station halfway up the mountain offered both warmth and needed salt.
About four miles later the infamous "Loop" needed to be conquered. The flat early miles flew by, but the rocky and steep incline slowed my pace. For the first time in a while I was the one being passed. Still, my spirit held strong and my legs allowed me to gain back precious ground on the downhills. Out of the loop and down the gravel road, I drew closer to my goal with every step.
Then I saw her. Sarah. I was surprised after watching her slip away in the darkness of the first hour. My emotions flipped between joy in catching her and the college runner's disappointment that I did. As the orange-painted "1 mile to go" mark passed beneath our feet, we were side by side. "Hi, Sarah."
"Oh, Coach T," she uttered with a wistful quiver in her voice.
"Come on, Sarah. Let's finish this together."
But it didn't happen. I glanced at my watch. I had time to sneak in under 11 hours if I continued the assault. I pulled away, feeling strong and cajoling her to catch up. It wasn't in the cards. We would not cross the line together. Her dad was standing along side the road. I glanced back to see the pair amble along. The only thing left for me was to make the mental decision to persist all the way to the line. 10:57. Sarah crossed a minute later. The coach and athlete. Together again but never really apart.