Little by a Little and a Lot by the End of the Day - Twisted Branch 100K

Many people say that your life changes after finishing an ultra. Fewer, but far more astute people, know that if you wait until then, you've waited too long. Your life changes when you make the decision to run an ultra.

I had never run a 100K before. I had never run a 50 mile. Now a 50K... Well, I hadn't ever run one of those either. 

I had read a lot of books about Ultras. 

Actually, I didn't read any books about Ultras. I listened to them though and that's like the same thing as reading. 

I have been digging into the recesses of my poorly organized memory because I wanted to include the anecdote of how I first learned of Twisted Branch Trail Run. But like a prize winning fart caught by a breeze, or a scientific discovery made on a day when a celebrity did something dumb, that memory is lost to history.

While I don't have the memory of discovering the race, I do have the memory of the encouragement from my amazing wife, "Just sign up. You know you can do it. If you don't sign up, you'll totally be kicking yourself."

I do know that I signed up for Twisted Branch on December 6th, but only because I have confirmation email from Ultrasignup. 

Despite having no memory, I did have some self-awareness. I knew what I had and had not done. And what I had just done was sign up for a race of more than 2.5 times the distance of the longest distance I had ever run on a course tougher than any course I had run.

Another thing I had was serendipity. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I began considering a coach. My struggles for a 3:41 marathon PR lead me to the conclusion that I wanted to run farther and not necessarily faster. I wanted to run an ultra in 2015 and I wanted some accountability on my goals. 

Enter Mike Welden.

I had contacted Mike (via Eric Eagan's sparkly new Trail Methods endeavor) a few days prior. I explained that I had this plan of running back to back trail marathons (Sehgahunda and Ontario Summit) in preparation for a 50 miler and that I would appreciate his help. 

12/4 - He was all, "back to back trail marathons are a fantastic way to gauge an appropriate 50 mile trail goal. [something... something] Let's get a beer and discuss"

2/5 9:39 PM - I'm all, "I was thinking Virgil Crest 50M or Vermont 50M. Then along came that little Twisted Branch 100K... so I need to decide. [something... something] I like beer."

12/5 9:44 PM He's all, "I would be very okay with you taking on twisted branch instead of a 50.Just keep in mind the miles 50-62 often equate to an additional 3:30 on feet. But damn that 3:30 will be worth it for that course."

12/6/2014 5:48 PM - I'm all, "UltraSignup - Order Confirmation. Mike, we should get that beer"

I can't explain his methods. I can't understand how through that brief exchange I became more confident in our relationship or more confident in my abilities. I struggle to find cause for him to trust or believe in my willingness to put in the work. There is no rational reason for me to want to run harder or do more as a result of that collection of words. There is no explanation for the connection that we've formed over the last year. I'm okay with all of that. This dude... is a great coach. And an even better person.  

Recap thus far: I signed up for an epic 100k and I had a coach.

Less than two weeks after signing up for Twisted Branch, I ran in TrailsRoc Winter Trail Fest 10 miler. This girl, Laura, had won the 15 miler and broke the course record. While chatting with her after the race, we both hit on Twisted Branch and we both mentioned Welden. We started talking about how cool it would be to do some training runs together. I had a coach... and a team? Wow. Life moves fast. 

We would ultimately become a team of 4 with Matt Betrand and Josh Stratton joining us. With Mike Welden playing the self-assumed part of Nick Fury we were set for a season of challenges, surprises and PRs.

Once the goal was set, the obsession began. I found every tangential way to thrust Twisted Branch into a conversation. A smores stick; not nearly Twisted enough. Your fingers are pruny from swimming in the lake; I'm running a race that runs along two Finger Lakes. Researching your family tree; Check out this logo for Twisted Branch. Just gave birth to your first child; this race will probably take me 15 hours too. Sorry, not sorry. This thing was going to epic and everyone needed to know.

Shortly after signing up for Twisted Branch, I adopted a training philosophy of "Every Step Twisted" and the corollary uttered during many workouts went something like this, "This is not nearly as difficult as mile XX of Twisted Branch"

I would later discover repeating the above mantra while running a piece of the Twisted Branch course as training, is confusing and terrifying enough to distract for a large number of miles. This serves to relieve the immediate stress of the run at hand and later causes a sort of sub-conscious hemorrhage where extremely lucid dreams of training runs leak out of the ear canal onto a fitfully tossed pillow during the early morning hours. 

This is not nearly as difficult as mile XX of Twisted Branch... wait this is mile XX of Twisted Branch... crap.

We trained through the winter with each of us having late spring goal races as stepping stones to Twisted. Along the way, we had our first race "together as a team." We were all signed up to race Muddy Sneaker.

Running with a group of people that are more experienced and talented could cause one to become very self-critical. But not with this group. Every opportunity was taken to build each other up. Motivation on cold, wet days. Distraction and camaraderie on hot, muggy days. Encouragement during tough workouts and good-natured ribbing on those "off" days. But this isn't a pat-you-on-the-butt-because-you-like-running environment. This group has high standards and high goals. When you need some help, it is given. When you work, it is acknowledged.

We met at Matt's house the night before and had a dinner together to talk about commuting logistics and overall race things. We discussed our goals and how we thought things might go. I threw out maybe 2:15 with a stretch to 2:10 and was unanimously voted down. "2 hours max", everyone said. High standards, remember?

Oddly, coach didn't discuss his goal in much detail. This night was about making sure the team was set. That's because this dude was going to drop a bomb on us. Despite a less than optimal pre-race routine that morning, Mike crossed the finish line first, claiming the overall win and leading by example. High standards.

I crossed nearly 15 minutes later, sneaking in under that 2 hour expectation at 1:57:52. Laura crossed the line just after me. We congratulated each other on a good run and then maybe she muttered something about, "You won't beat me again." High standards.

Strat came in a bit later, beating his previous year's Sneaker time by nearly 18 minutes. And in what would become his signature, Matt Bertrand banged out a gritty effort despite going into the race less than 100%. He had an ankle that was a color purple usually reserved for deep sea creatures instead of humans.

Each of us took turns finding out that Mike had won the race. Each of us happy for him. Each of knowing the standard he had set.

I told you all that, so I could tell you this... None of us had ever run a 100K before. But we were going into this with our eyes open. Each of us knew this challenge was bigger than ourselves. But we also knew we weren't doing it by ourselves. I couldn't have worked as hard, expected as much of myself or enjoyed the journey to the start as much as I did were it not for this group.

We continued to train and grow through the spring. We began to be frequently joined by Jeff Green who brought his own high standards and brand of encouragement. We hit our spring goal races without breaking stride and as we entered June, we saw the topmost limbs of Twisted Branch spreading themselves across the horizon. This was going to be one helluva summer. We ran the second half of Twisted course. We ran the first half of Twisted course. We ran the start at night and chased the sunrise. We worked hard. EveryStepTwisted.

For my last long run, I didn't think 50K would cut it. So I signed up for the TrailsRoc 99 mile Mighty Mosquito with the intention of running 40 miles and dropping. And yeah, the gang was right there to support me. Bright eyed and bushy-tailed, for the 6am start. When you need some help, it is given. When you work, it is acknowledged.

This group was the core, but this race was so much more. As the month's ticked off, the hype surrounding the Twisted Branch grew. It seemed everyone was running or volunteering or pacing. Pacing... That is, to cover almost a full trail marathon with a runner who had already covered 40 miles, was potentially ornery, and was facing a very definite possibility of walking more than they would run. While the runners partake in the race, these latter groups, the pacers and the volunteers, they make the race. Everyone adding to the pie. Making sure everyone has a piece before getting their own and even then giving some of their's to someone else. 

My pacer was Dave Justice. Marathoner, running ambassador and all-around great guy. We had previously run Rochester Marathon together and as soon as I decided on having a pacer for Twisted, I knew it was him or no one. Dave is the "Just Add Water" of running events. His presence instantly makes any situation better. The support and encouragement that Dave provided leading up to and during our run together was a critical piece of my Twisted Branch finish.

And then there are people who while not running, volunteering or pacing are there to show their support and add to the scene. And in some extreme cases, there are cows. 

The start line of Twisted Branch featured some shivering runners, a mess of headlamps and two cows holding signs. And let's be clear at 5am we expect the shivering runners and headlamps. No one is expecting cows...with signs. I was standing next to someone waiting to start and I remarked, "There is genuine farm life up there. Cows, man. COWS!" Then I noticed, many people were muttering about cows. As Scott yelled out "Ready, Set, Go" and the stream of headlight flooded past the cows, I noticed one sign read "The end is Far" (with "near" crossed out) and the other read, "[something] #52 [something]"... but I was now caught in the wave of runners and couldn't read it. Oh well... a quick High-Five to the cows and I was on my way.

When running for these long periods, I often alternate between some song in my head, counting breaths and steps or chatting with folks on the trail. I don't often have those moments of solace and/or clarity that seem to be so pervasive in the movies or books about running. A lot of times it's "in, 2, 3, out, 2" ad nauseum or "Come on Feel the Noise..." (or some other unforgiving song) rattling around in my brain. And when I can consciously think about it, I can replace the accidental song with a more purposeful song. I got really lucky during Twisted Branch and was mostly able to set the theme in my head with lyrics or catchy turns of phrase from some of my favorite bands. The rest is fragments in time. And so since that is what I remember, here goes... 

Miles 1-6: Smilin' to myself. Wavin' with my freehand. Coasting down the slope, at forty-five degrees.

During the first dark portion of the run, I think I ran mostly comfortably. I hadn't had caffeine in two weeks in the hopes of not artificially spiking my heart rate. But hey, running a craggy pre-dawn downhill with a headlamp containing old batteries, that'll do the job of caffeine on most days. 

Here I was pleasantly surprised to find that while our group didn't start together at the line, didn't make any plans to run together, nor consciously stick to each other, we still found ourselves together at the bottom of the 3 mile descent and at the First Aid station.

Miles 7-12: 1,000 reasons we all come in the first place...

Wheee... Finally settling in. Spending some unplanned time with Matt and taking in the sunrise. And my first sighting of Mr. and Mrs. Green! Today is going to be a good day. This is actually fun as I run into the aid station. Wait... those cows are holding a sign with my number, "#52 Chris O'Brien. Guess Who"... Bbzzzzbbzbbit... This Does not compute.

Miles 13-18: Who the hell were those cows?

"Okay... no idea who those cows could be. I don't know any cows. I don't know anyone who isn't already here that would wear a cow suit. Oh, I'm already at the next aid station. That was fast. Those friggin cows tho... Maybe... Oh Hey, there's someone and she's running towards me. That's weird. Let's think about that instead of cows."

The cows. Tj (right) and Marc (Left) ... Marc was crafty enough to wear a bandana over his face each time I showed up (Photo: Dave Justice)

Miles 18-22.6: "Those cows tho... oh Hi."

So here I met up with Ambyr. At this point everyone is still feeling pretty good as evidenced by Ambyr being okay with taking a slight detour, "We just all ran past a perfectly marked turn" and sharing her post-race plans of tequila, vodka and champagne on the beach. Ambyr and I chatted a bit, during which time she was asking if I was part "of that Rochester crew." Apparently she had been running into and with a lot of us, including missing the turn with Laura and Jeff. And suddenly up from behind me came the disembodied voice of Rob Feissner. Hooray! I sure hope his body is with him, but this part of the course is a bit too rugged for me to turn around and check.

The disembodied voice of Rob shared some of his experiences adventure racing and organizing mind-bending trail races. Together we regaled Ambyr with tales of creativity and spirit within our bustling Rochester Running EcoSystem. Then we came into the Italy Valley station. Rob's body (Pfew... too early for such hallucinating. Though if you are having hallucinations, there can be none more welcomed than Feissner's sweet voice in your ear.) and Ambyr were in and out in a flash while I sat in a chair to roll out my slowly aching right quad.

Now that my quad is tended and my face has been stuffed (pickles and potato chips) time for brass tacks. I ask Welden about these cows standing down the road... He doesn't really answer me. He mumbles, "Maybe Summer's friends or something." and points me down the road like I have something more important to do. On my way out, I notice the friendly cows providing directions for the turn onto the trail. I let them know that I've been thinking about them for the last 6 miles. The little one records me on his phone and the chubby one hands me a bracelet. 

These clues do nothing for me. I continue to run bewildered.

Me running in with Ambyr and All of Rob Feissner (Photo: Dave Justice)

Me running in with Ambyr and All of Rob Feissner (Photo: Dave Justice)

Me (and the Gang) leaving the aid station... confused. (Photo: Jason Vidmar) 

Me (and the Gang) leaving the aid station... confused. (Photo: Jason Vidmar) 

Miles 22.6 - 29.3: Some leave off where I begin.

I crossed over a marathon with nary a blink. I didn't really acknowledge it except to think that I have about 40 more miles to go. I quickly put that thought out of my head with one of my ready made mantras, "Some leave off where I begin." It's a line from a song by Assembly of Dust, titled "45 Degrees." (Also, miles 1-6 brought to you by the same song, BTW) 

The miles kind of rolled by here. The knee was just a bit cranky as I ran into a completely full Italy Turnpike aid station. TrailsRoc'ers, including Allison Carletta, who was like my own personal assistant, were scurrying all over the place helping me with everything I needed. So much good, gracious and giving work happening at this aid station. Our community is simply amazing. 

Miles 29.3 - 35.8: Circles Break and Lines They Bend

"This is a song about lifestyles, decisions that we make, roads that we abandon and others that we take."
"Roads" ~Strangefolk

This may have been my most contemplative piece of the run. My right knee was really starting to hurt on descents. I began to question why. Did I twist it? Did I bang it? Was it just "30 mile pain"? Will I be able to go 30 more miles on it? Am I going to have to stop because of one stupid body part?

I know I'm supposed to focus on things that don't hurt. But that is a hard thing to do. So I try to focus on what's coming up... 35.8, just a little aid station then 4 miles until I get to see Summer, who has said she is bringing me a burrito for Bud Valley. And the kids, this is their first time at a big time race, I can't wait to see how excited they are.

But first had to get to Patch Road Aid Station. I wasn't even sure there was anything great at Patch Rd. I had no idea why I wanted to be there so badly.

Turns out, when I got there I basically ran through it... on to Bud Valley, I guess.

MILES 36 - 39.8: And We Live in and of Each Other We Shall Remain

A measure of your worth and not your wealth. 
The people that see, that's how you know yourself.
Strangefolk, So Well

I don't really remember these miles... I think I just kept counting breathing along with my steps while slowly realizing that my knee pain was not just a passing niggle. 

Getting into Bud Valley however, I remember SO much of that. Riley came running up to me super fast and crashed into a hug around my legs. Liam was ringing a cowbell. Summer was chillin in a chair, holding a silver bullet... THE BURRITO. AND LO... I wanted nothing to do with it. Oh the humanity! What kind of worthless POS am I? How terrible I felt that I could not accept the gift she brought me. But in typical Summer fashion, she just accepted what I said and asked if she should bring it to the next aid station just in case. What a woman. 

"Hey wait... TJ and Marc are here! ... and there are cow costumes next to them. Are you Effing kidding me?!"

In yet another shocking display of friendship and support the likes of which I still struggle to find myself deserving of, TJ and Marc secretly hatched a plan with Summer to "Crash The Ultra." They had been covertly gathering intel from Summer regarding campgrounds and race day logistics. Now I understood why Summer had so suddenly got interested in the minutiae of my race day planning. So yeah, TJ left Underhill, VT after work to pick up Marc in Jay, NY and they drove down to Bud Valley, arriving late in the evening. Then got up early to make it to starting line with signs and cow suits and followed through to each full Aid Station.
Again, I will fail with the usage of words in describing the overwhelming feeling of friendship, gratitude and thankfulness that this gesture brings to my heart.

Marc (Left) and TJ (RIght) no longer bovine. (Photo: Summer O'Brien)

Without knowing, or being ultrarunners themselves, they absolutely captured so much of what it is I love about the ultra community. Amazing people doing absurd things to support those they love. 

I had a brief moment with Strat where he impressed upon me the need for me to finish because he couldn't. Strat gives great hugs. 

Oh crap... yeah... the race... Alright Dave is jumpy. He's been wanting to run all morning. Look, he's already heading towards the trail. Let's get going. 

Miles 40-46:  My Roof Has Got a Leak But Only When It's Raining

So this is the part where my pacer gives me a huge lift of confidence, I find some adrenaline, we race off into the woods to start making up time on some of my pre-race splits and my knee pain just melts into the miles that my Altras are leaving behind us. 

Or... it's the part where Dave starts giving me an assessment and I lay out the bare truth. I'm tired of eating, I've been drinking non-stop but haven't peed. I think I may have crapped about 4 times up to this point. My knee is absolutely throbbing... I didn't eat Summer's burrito... blah, blah, blah. 

I just unleashed a torrent of unsolicited complain-vomit all over Dave's uber-shiny trail attitude. He didn't deserve a single word of it and yet he took it. He accepted it all without judgement. His response, "I don't know, you're going up this hill pretty well. Keep doing that."

Okay and now the wave of shame washed over me... time to unleash the torrent of apologies on him... no... time to get a hold of myself. Dave just gave me that piece of perspective that I was unable to give myself for the last 10 miles. Take it and use it. 

Let's go.

Somewhere along here I catch up with Laura and Mike. We're at some water drop. There is a cooler, jugs of water and two folding chairs. Laura plops into a chair, then immediately sits up and arranges a chair for me to plop in. We just look at each other. I try to imagine what Dave and Mike see as they are looking at us. We are tiredly gulping the cold water like it's about to be stolen from us. 

The chairs are good, and the huge climb up to Glenbrooke is standing before us which makes the chairs even more comfortable, but it's time for Mike and Laura to go. As they leave, Mike turns back and says, "Just pull your visor down and don't look up." But I'm not afraid of the climb. Climb is the thing I can do today. And if you only got one move, you had better embrace it. So I climb. Dave and I pass Laura and Mike, but I know that my position is only temporary. Laura will pass me on the downhill. She always does. But right now Laura isn't climbing so well. And she doesn't look all that excited. But umm... we're 40 something miles and nearly 12 hours in, show me someone who does look excited. This will pass and then she'll be blazing down the trail again. 

As I pass Mike who is a little further up ahead, his face mimics the concern that is on my mind. Which makes me a little more concerned. Mike and I chat a minute. I stop to make sure things are okay. But it feels like I should be going, after all Laura is going to shake out of this and then I'll be chasing her again. 

It doesn't feel quite right and all up the climb, I'm wondering if I should've hung back. But my confidence in Laura... and Mike being back there with her tells me that I did the right thing.

Descending is getting worse, but luckily this leg is all climbing. I'm still climbing strong and running all the flats, even the technical stuff. Dave is still behind me keeping me distracted with conversation when needed or just being there. Flawless execution of pacer duties, like for real. And before this race, I didn't even know what flawless pacer execution would look like! 

Getting one last consult before heading back on to the trail. (Photo: Summer O'Brien)

Miles 46-54: Whatever

I try to tell you what I'm thinking
But it flies back in my face.
Words come out different,
Meanings are shifted.
And my intentions take new shapes.
- Strangefolk, "Whatever"

Dave pointed out that we were getting towards a cause for celebration. I asked, "What's that?" and he said, "Your first 50 miler!" 

What I meant to communicate to Dave, my running partner, the person who set aside his entire weekend to help me achieve my goals, the man doing everything right by everyone he met on this day was, "I'm greatly appreciative of your comment my friend. And thank you for pointing out such a milestone. However, I have a great weight upon my brow and we've set forth on a mission that requires much more of us before we are to celebrate. But rest-assured, celebrate we shall. Together. As much for your contributions as mine."

Instead, I quickly replied, "There's no finish line at 50 miles today." 

Did I ever mention that I often say mean things when I run? They aren't meant to be mean. In my head they often sound witty and sometimes even funny. Then when they come out, they're like bitter sarcasm at their best and downright mean at their worst. It's not intentional and I'm working on it... I promise. 

Shortly thereafter, somewhere around mile 52, things got dark... I had a moment of tunnel vision, a little confusion. I was going slow. Or maybe I wasn't even moving. And yet Laura hadn't passed me. What was going on? 

Dave interrupted my internal repeating of "...Off and On, Off and On. The Wheels on the bus go off and on. All through the woods." to ask me if all the aid stations were country themed. I didn't know what he meant. He said he saw a sign for Ireland. This non-sequitur did not help my condition. Then he mentioned Italy. And now, I wasn't sure where I was. Italy, fine. Ireland, why not?

As my confusion mounted, we hit the aid station. These fabulous people. "Pub 54", Fully decked out. A marvel of trail magic. 

And all I could see was a chair. I sat in it. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes. After some amount of time that wasn't nearly long enough, I sat up. I noticed Mike Bray across from me. Did he just get there? Was he across from me when I sat down? Whoa. His shirt was bright.

Someone offered me a Guiness. I said, "No. I'm a monster"
Again... Things sound good in my head, but then they come out... 

I'm sure they had no idea of the context here and were probably like, "Cool dude. You can be whatever you want to be. We're just going to radio Mr. Magee and get you a nice white coat to put on." But in my head, I said, "I turned down a warm burrito from the hands of the woman I love and now I am turning down Guiness from an Angel at the world's coolest Aid Station. I'm a monster."

Dave offered me a PB&J. "Sure" I said. He handed it to me. I put it to my lips and was absolutely repulsed... "Whoa. That escalated quickly.", I said. Or I meant to say. I'm not sure. My head went back into my hands. 

Then a huge shiver ran through me. It started up my legs, shook my stomach and rattled my ribs against my hydration vest.

I knew I had to get moving that moment or it was all over. 

I quickly stood up, thanked the volunteers for lugging everything into woods and apologized for not enjoying any of it.

Then the kindly angel at the aid station asked if we needed a headlamp. And the dumb, not thinking person that was just sitting in that chair said "No. Thank You" ... and just as quickly, the smart person that hopped up out of the chair before his race ended right there said "Yes. Please. Dave can you wear that headlamp? Let's run a little.""

Well... not quite... let's stop here and have a poop. 

OH GLORIOUS. 

That is what I have been trying to accomplish with all the previous poops of the day. 

Let's get moving!

Miles 54-59.8: The Honest Hour

In the hour before the devil finds I've died
I'll move slow as my ending descends from the pines
Because I couldn't stop for death
She kindly stopped for me and she stole my breath
- Emily Dickinson
 via "Honest Hour" by Assembly of Dust

Laura and Mike passed me sometime in here. Which made me quite happy. I knew she'd rally. Didn't I? Wonder how Matt and Jeff were doing. They should be right around here too, I'd think.

This was the piece of trail I had been waiting for the entire day. Back when Mike and I first got together in the winter, we ran this piece of the course. And it was the most beautiful trail I had ever run. We reveled in the winter beauty and imagined what it would bring in the late summer. I dreamt of what this part of the race would feel like all throughout training. The feeling of just cruising freely on the soft, runnable downhill that wound between the woods along a gorge and descended into fields of grapes in Urbana. 

Now however, the feeling was more of pain and desperation. But only physically. Mentally, I was back in the saddle. I wanted so badly for my knee to cooperate. I had energy, I had will, I had beautiful trail... and I couldn't run it. By this point I had been reduced to power hiking the uphills, "running" the flats and either crutching (using broken branches) or walking sideways/backwards on downhills. 

Dave was acknowedging every positive thing he could find and I was doing my best to get to Urbana. 

I kept thinking about how people were waiting for me and how I couldn't let them down. I wanted to be finished early enough to hang out with everyone who set aside their weekend to support me. I wanted the kids to be awake and not cranky because they were up hours past their bedtime. 

But really I wanted to run and I couldn't. And I think I let that get to me a bit too much. 

But then we popped out to the field. And we both thought that we had caught the sunset. Which was really weird given how dark it was. After a few seconds, Dave said "Uhh... that's the moon." My God... that thing was huge. I had a quick flashback to what seemed like a previous life, recalling that I wanted to finish before seeing the moon was even a consideration. But there it was. A spectacular full moon rising right over the final ridge on the course. This was it. We were going to run right up to that glorious damn thing on our way to the finish line. 

Miles 59.8-?? : Little by a little

"Little by a little and a lot by the end of the day. 
My brain is a pain and the damn thing gets in my."
- Reid Genauer

When we got into Urbana Aid Station, it was full dark. But the aid station was still bustling. I thought they might not be able to see me, so I shouted "Number #52 coming in!" People cheered for me. Bray was there too. He exclaimed "Good for him. Wow. Good for him" It took me a minute to realize he meant me. That made me smile. Shana Feissner was at every aid station... how was she doing that?

The kids were still awake. I asked Summer how they were doing and apologized for keeping them up so late. Summer, TJ and Marc were super supportive. They reassured me the kids had plenty of entertainment and that I should focus on the race.

Matt "strolled" in with Jason Vidmar as I was just finishing up my stop. We might actually finish this thing together. Nope. I gotta poop again. Might as well... one more to cap this thing off. Glad to see Matt and Jason on their way though. Matt's so strong.  

"4.5 miles to go"
It didn't quite hit me that I was chasing the cutoff. But I said to Dave and Summer, "This will take at least 90 to 120 minutes" And we were at around 15:30 or something like that. 

"Okay... The final climb. I can climb. I've climbed all day. Dave said I've been climbing awesome. Let's show him some more of that"
"Okay... The ridge, I can go along the ridge. Why the hell are the so many downhills on this ridge? Just shut up and move forward."
"Is that a dog? Really?!"
"Finally, Winding Stair Road... let's find this Triad Trail"
"Really? This is the *new* trail?"

As Dave and I navigated countless switchbacks with me alternating my short and long tree branches between hands to make sure the long one was always on the downhill, Dave commented on the number of headlamps all around us by saying, "It's going to be a hot finish!" ... This dude... I'm tellin ya. 

No sooner did he say that than did I feel an extreme sense of urgency. The clock was ticking, the people were waiting, the party was happening, I needed to get there.

I had a brief moment where I imagined all of us scurrying down the trail and how cool it might've looked from the finish line. Friends, family, fellow-racers and volunteers all peering into the darkness on the ridge. Watching headlamps swerving down the mountainside. The anticipation of whose name will be shouted next. 
And then I heard my name. Matt yelled up from a switchback down below, "Is that O'Brien?", I replied "Yeah Buddy! Woooooo! Eff this trail." (toldja, I say dumb things) "You're gonna do it, Chris!" yelled Dave.

We hit the bottom and I hear... Of course... I hear Eric Eagan working the finish line! He shouts out Matt's name and I see Matt cross as I reach the edge of the street. Dave claps me on the back and says "Go Get it" and I start sprinting towards Eric, leaving a blazing 15 minute mile in my wake.  I hear, "Runner coming in",  I yell "Number #52" (It had gotten to be a thing I guess) and Eric responds with "What's your name?" ... Well, that was unexpected. I realize I still have my trail sticks and I chuck them off to the side like I've been touched by a healer. I shout "Chris O'Brien", he repeats my name and I'm done. Just like that. I can stop.

As I cross the finish line, there is a sweet relief. I don't remember the order of hugs that I gave out. I turned and grabbed Dave. Not sure what I said, but I sincerely hope it included the words "Thank You." Riley was there for a hug, Liam was asleep on a cot. Summer gave me a hug. Then I saw Matt and Laura... there aren't arms big enough or words with the proper eloquence to describe the feeling of those two hugs. Marc and TJ were there... these guys were still kickin... they had an 18 hour day, half of it in cow suits! with less sleep than I had. I saw Scott Magee and managed to get a handshake and a quick hug in there. Here too, I hope I said nice things, at least one of which was "Thank You." For that was my intention. I was sad that Jeff and Strat didn't finish. But they were there too and they offered heart-felt congratulations. 

Liam knew I would finish all along (Photo: SUmmer O'Brien)

Liam knew I would finish all along (Photo: SUmmer O'Brien)

The fire at the finish line was premium. So warm. I could've stayed there all night. But after the affairs wound down I got a bit of the chill and decided a hot shower and soft surroundings were the best place for me. I kissed the kids and wife goodbye. We shuttled some cars and then it was off to the raging afterparty at Coach Welden's house. And by raging I mean the beleaguered shambling of half-conscious corpses in various states of hunger, carrying permanent smiles, while haphazardly gripping beers and piecing together fragmented sentences until one by one they lost the remainder of the consciousness and gave into sleep. 

In the end, Scott Magee did much more than put on a race. He did more than give me the opportunity to train more than 1200 miles, more than 200 hours across 266 days for what amounted to an 18 hour day across more than 64 miles of ruggedly beautiful trails. He gave more than was asked from start to finish.

He gave me a reason to get serious. He gave Team Welden a common goal which we used to forge friendships that now define us. He gave our community a showcase event where runners and volunteers alike can demonstrate what makes our running community the best in the country. 

Thank You, Scott. 

Fountain

I am not like those before me
Standing in a suit
Now I face what stands before me
And I'm singing and I'm searching
Singing and I'm searching for myself

Once a man had two things that he cherished
Certain about his job and about his wife
Seems to me he must be doing drugs
Cause nothing's ever certain
Nothings ever certain in this life

Once I came across a fountain
Made three wishes -- touched a dream
Like a thought turning me over
Inspiration's spinnning me around and around
And I wonder if I'm tripping on my words
And if I'm stumbling on my goals
Around and around and around I go

So many things I stand to gain
So many things that I have known I stand to lose

Maybe it's for me to determine
Maybe I am like a book on a shelf
Read me once and tell me how I am
Because I am singing and I'm searching for myself

You can ask me "What is it you're saying?
Who are you and what you trying to be?"
I'd like to be a cowboy in the movies
Smiling at the people
Smiling at the people that I see

Singing for myself
I'm singing and I'm searching for myself...

So many things I stand to gain
So many things that I have known I stand to lose
So many things...

 


But Wait! There's More!

People who liked this story also might like:

Laura Rekkerth's thoughts are full of perseverance and power. Laura fought through a tough day. It won't make you cry at all.

Jeff Green's scribbles capture the raw emotion of his race. It didn't go the way he planned, but they never do... seems nothing goes the way Jeff plans. Then again, it would be weird if Jeff had plans. Just read this.

Matt Bertrand’s story of pure toughness.  Dude started with two busted knees and just got it done. He does a great job making you feel some of the pain. I know I won't whine about my little ouchies anymore.

Mike Mertsock’s report is a collection of a lot of words. While you won't hear Mike shouting over the din of a crowd and possibly not controlling the circle at a bar, this write up speaks volumes. A detailed and engaging account of the day.

Rob Feissner’s clinical dissection of the Twisted Branch course. Rob provides a great commentary on the people he saw and the places he went as he was taking the course apart piece by tiny piece. 

Dan Lopata calls himself old. And he probably is. But he still has his memory and he used his memory to write a good story about the authenticity of the challenge and the participants as well as what the day brought him. 

Amy Lopata volunteered, swept the course and crewed for her husband. This kind of participation is infectious and she shares her view from "outside" the race.

The Ascend Collective captured the race in spectacular, stunning photos. They make us sweaty runners look so good. They absolutely have a way of telling the story of the day, and they don't need almost 6,000 words to do it.