I bury the carbide tips of both trekking poles into the soft, worn concrete. I take two tiny steps upward. I tighten my triceps to pull my tired body forward. My poles lose traction and scrape the asphalt. If I fall, I’ll roll all the way down this God-forsaken mountain.
I look up; I wish I hadn’t. The road above me is marked with sparkling blue Christmas lights. Near what I assume is the top, a neon-lit speaker showers us with music; we runners chose the songs for the playlist; and at the moment, it’s performing a mellow 50’s slow-dance tune.
My poles slide again under my body. This mountain’s pitch has all but rendered them useless. I want to chunk them in the woods. They’ve carried me for 37 miles though; unless the weeds grabbed their mud flaps and twisted my body, almost pulling my arms out of socket.
Back at mile 27, I encountered a runner coming my direction, a lady I recognized from the start of the race, back before I took up residence in last place.
“Hey, you’re going the wrong way.” I said.
Tears streamed down her face.
“I broke two of my toes!” She said in anguish, still limping my way.
I gave her some ibuprofen from my bag.
“How far is it to the aid station?” She was referring to a stop that we’d already gone through.
I checked my watch, “Two miles.”
She groaned and stood back up. She hobbled away from me.
I yelled to get her attention. “Do you need a pole?” I asked as I held up one of my Foxelli hiking sticks.
She scrunched her brow, “Don’t you need it?”
A few months ago, I had listened to the harrowing account of a runner who ran the Georgia Jewel. But during the race, he ran out of water and his friend ran ahead to an aid station, and brought back drinks for him to continue.
I wanted to be a hero like that. But I also thought about how much I needed those poles to get out of the woods myself.
“I guess I do.” I answered.
And before I could locate an alternative hiking stick in the woods, she turned and continued her two-mile journey for help.
I threw my Man-Card into the forest and shuffled on.
As the sun crawled closer to the edge of the mountains, I caught up to other runners. Most of them were competing in the 50 miler. One particular couple began repeating a cycle with me, I would pass them on the downhills, and they would overtake me on the climbs. This cycle repeated for the last eight miles of the race, with our last trade-off occurring on Baker Hill, the monster at the end of the race.
Around mile 32, I encountered my first 37.5 milers, a man and woman. They were running together. It was getting dark, they admitted they didn’t bring headlamps. I suggested they use their phones. I never found out if they made it.
Thankfully, I had packed a headlamp.
With only five miles to go, my excitement grew; but the Pinhoti trail’s rocky terrain didn’t share my enthusiasm of being so close to the finish. It seemed as if my toes contacted roots and jagged stones with every step.
I had travelled this direction on the trail before in training and remembered a cell phone tower standing at the end of this section. My search for this landmark turned neurotic. Every turn, I sighted the tower. But as I got closer, the tower’s steel support beams transformed into tree limbs. With each mirage, my spirits fell like a kid waiting on their mom at a JC Penney.
Eventually, the forest gave way and a real cell tower, blinking red lights and all, rose above me. The trees opened up to reveal a jeep service road.
As I trotted down the gravel path, I ran into more racers from the 50 and 100 milers. I encountered one runner, a man probably in his 30’s, his face was drawn, and he had two bad limps. I asked him if he needed food or anything.
“I need toenails.” He replied.
A quarter mile later, we saw an aid station worker waving us onto a small wooded trail that lead us to the last aid station. We now only had three miles to go.
As I entered the runner’s chute of the aid station, I recognized a handful of 35 milers sitting in some chairs and chatting with the volunteers. I couldn’t believe it. Many of them were in the group that passed me back at mile 14. And with every excuse to join them in one of the lawn chairs, my competitiveness kicked in. I grabbed some plant-based food (Oreos, oranges, and a coke) and jogged away, towards the finish line, and away from my rivals.
As I exited the runner’s chute, while loading my food baggies into my pants pockets, I overheard one of the 35 milers say, “We gotta go ladies.” This fueled my drive even more. As the trail entered another wooded section, I looked back and saw five or six headlamps descending on me. In a panic, I took off.
The next mile was all downhill. But this section also contained the most technical portion of the race. A steep, rocky segment with ridge exposure on the right hand with ropes tied along the trees to provide a handhold. Thankfully, as a child, I gravitated towards climbing obstacles like this. Before maneuvering through the ropes section, I glanced behind me. The runners were closing ground on me. I leaned in, grabbed the ropes and slid down the trail.
The course once again opened up to a service road. Adrenaline carried me further along the downhill section. After a half a mile, I checked my six. No more headlamps.
I exited the trees a half mile later and entered a suburban neighborhood. As the ground transferred from dirt to asphalt, I spotted a headlamp ahead of me. I picked up my pace, curious to who this could be and if they were also running the 37.5.
I eventually caught up with them. It turned out to be a man named Keith, who started in the wave before me (because of Covid-19, the racers were separated into different starting groups to separate us out a bit). At the beginning of the race, the race director had playfully mentioned that the other runners in the race were responsible for encouraging Keith to finish. I would later find out that this was Keith’s third attempt. I would also learn that Keith was the man from the podcast, the guy who ran out of water. We spoke for a moment; I congratulated him on making it to mile 36, and I moved on.
As the earth elevated beneath me, I reached into my bag and stuffed my face with all of my remaining fuel. I was less than a mile from Baker Hill, and I wanted as many fast burning sugars as possible igniting in my bloodstream during the climb.
The Oreos work their magic in my bloodstream as the 50s slow-dance music rambles on above me. In what seemed like a lonely, spaced-out race, I’m now surrounded by lots of runners, all trying to climb this awful hill. We groan like zombies as our legs face their final tormentor. A few supporters have set up along the climb to push us forward. I keel over my poles in front of one of them.
“You can do it! You’re doing great!”
I smell vomit.
I also smell beer, which reminds me that we’re almost to the finish line, where my family patiently waits. I press on. Tiny steps forward. I stab my poles into the road before me, grunting, sweating, and huffing with everything I have left. I reach the loudspeakers and realize they don’t mark the top of the hill.
I tighten up and keep climbing. 100 feet to go. I’m blinded by a photographer’s flash. And seconds later, I reach the top. It’s only a short downhill through the Convention Center’s parking lot to the finish. I want to run, but a walk is all I’ve got left.
As I turn the bend leading into the homestretch, I hear a familiar voice, “Looking good runner!” It’s my 15-year-old son. I pick up my pace as he jogs with me towards the finish line. I now see my family. My wife and kids, my parents, and even the in-laws. They’ve all driven over at 9pm on a Saturday night to watch me stumble into my new life. One where I’ve actually accomplished a grandiose goal.
People are cheering all around me as I cross the finish line. The race director, Jenny Baker, says, “Congratulations, you’re an ultra-marathoner.”
In my excitement, I knock my glasses off and they crash to the ground in front of me. Embarrassed, I walk away from the finish line. A lady comes up and says, “You forgot your hat.”
In her outstretched hand, my treasure awaits. A Georgia Jewel hat. It’s only for finishers. That’s when it hit me. I did it.
My family greets me with love. My wife sneaks a kiss, my older boys give me a hug, my six-year-old hits me up for gum. All is right again, we can go home now. Daddy doesn’t have to run anymore.