A few weeks ago I ran the Timberline Marathon, one of my focus races for the year. For the first time in a long time I felt well-rested, well-trained and injury-free. The weather was perfect: overcast and cool. The course was a soft, smooth single-track trail, twice looping around beautiful Timothy Lake. At the starting line, I was nervous, but excited, confident, but not cocky. The stars seemed to be aligned and I had the Mountain Man Mojo.
An old climbing buddy first turned me on to this expression. He coined the term to describe the attitude he needed to adopt before taking on a climb that demanded his full commitment. The thing with the Mountain Man Mojo is that it cannot be chosen at will. It has to be earned. You can fool others into thinking you’re unstoppable, but you can’t fool the Mountain Man. I try to channel the Mojo before every important race, but I’ve only been able to fully embrace it a handful of times. And each time I did, I ran well and placed high.
For the first six miles of the Timberline Marathon I was in third place, just a few yards behind the number two guy. I recognized him from a previous race and knew that we were at a similar level. It was nice to mindlessly follow, not worry about pace and conserve mental energy for later.
The course had only three aid stations, each with a single volunteer and several self-serve thermoses. After filling up my handheld water bottle at the first aid station, I cranked up the pace and took over second place. In trail races you want to pass decisively, put some space between you and the next runner. Once you’re out of sight, they have no way of knowing whether you’re two minutes or twenty minutes ahead. After laying down a few sub-seven minute miles, I began to wonder, just how far behind the leader was I?
At around mile 16, the trail passed through a campsite, I asked some sleepy-eyed campers how long ago the lead runner came through. ”Oh, about a minute or so.” I got fired up, knowing I could chip away at that lead over the next 10 miles. Could I actually win this thing?
While shooting hoops in the driveway as a kid, I used to love to play “Three…Two…One…Final Shot…IT’S GOOD…Buzzer Beater wins the NCAA Championship!” Forty two years old and I’m still playing the same kind of games. On the last lap of my track workouts at Grant High School, I imagine being in second place at the Olympics…just a few yards out of first…slowly gaining, gaining…I give it my all…it’s going to be a sprint finish…could go either way…and…YES, Donley wins the gold medal with a lean at the tape…the crowd goes wild…USA! USA! USA!
For the next few miles I really push the pace, thinking that just around the next twist and turn I’ll catch a glimpse of the lead runner. I’m about to give up hope when suddenly, there he is. He’s going slow, must be hurting. I gain on him quickly, but don’t want to pass him too soon. As I get closer, I can see that he’s kind of chubby and out of shape. That’s not the leader. It’s just some camper out on a jog before breakfast. Discouraged, I ask a couple of fishermen if they saw the lead runner come through. ”Yeah, about ten minutes ago.”
There’s no way I’m going to make up that kind of time with less than 5 miles to go, unless he gets lost or something. But if I can’t get first place, I definitely want to hold onto second. Last year after running more than 25 miles in second place I got passed in the last half mile of the Pacific Crest Marathon. My carb-depleted brain didn’t register what was happening until it was too late. Don’t want that to happen again.
The last few miles are a blur. I’m running scared, checking over my shoulder every couple of minutes to see if anyone is gaining on me. Must have looked like a character in one of those Friday the 13th movies, getting chased by Jason through the woods. I red-line it right through the finish and double over after crossing the line, trying to catch my breath. Out of the corner of my eye I see someone sprinting. It’s the third place runner, finishing just 16 seconds behind me. My paranoia was justified.
My running in the last year has followed a predictable and not-so-desirable pattern: a successful race followed up almost immediately with an injury. Instead of resting on my laurels, I wonder, “Well, if I got second place training 50 miles a week, what would happen if I ran 60 or 70 miles?” This attitude has led to a stress fracture, a pulled hamstring and several twisted ankles. My latest injury, a broken wrist from a bicycle accident, is not directly related to running, but I can’t help but think that fate is playing a role in keeping my overly ambitious goals in check.
I guess running injuries are just a part of the game. All the competitive runners I know seem to spend half their time dealing with various injuries. There’s a fine line between training hard enough to improve and training so hard that you hurt yourself. Kind of a goofy way to spend your free time, huh?
But how can I complain. It’s summer in Oregon. Everyday is just about perfect. The accident could have been much worse. It could have been my dominant hand or my leg. I got a cool purple cast to match the one my niece Reagan has on her broken wrist (monkey bars). We are now the founding members of Team Purple Power. Luckily, I’m still able to run even though the cast is a bit hot, heavy and starting to get pretty damn stinky.
This weekend I have a big race in southern Oregon (the Siskiyou Outback 50k). Not sure if Mr. Mountain Man Mojo is going to be making an appearance. It’s hard to say. He doesn’t like to be told what to do or where to be. Plus, he’s not a big fan of purple. I’m starting to worry that the dude may already have other plans.