A Balancing Act

By John Prohira

“Running provides happiness which is different from pleasure. Happiness has to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” George Sheehan

In herd like fashion the runners moved forward, out and away from the Mohican Wilderness Campgrounds, nine miles south of Loudonville, Ohio. It was 5AM on the Saturday before Father’s Day and we ran through dark predawn past tents containing campers who had been sound asleep, those startled souls who had been pulled from their slumber by the noise we made, mostly the nervous chit-chat of 96 men and woman beginning a journey that would end 100 miles later. Campers who only moments ago had slept didn’t greet us warmly; their disapproval could be heard coming from their tents. Clouds hid the stars; many of those on this journey carried small lights with them gently illuminating the ground ahead of them. Day’s first light began to reveal the rural landscape surrounding us as we ambled along the gravel roads heading north then west away from the start. At 5 miles the aid station manned by Dr. and Mrs. Moore came into view. Art Moore is a running legend having completed many, many hundreds of marathons and ultras. Art wore one of the biggest buckles I’ve ever seen on the belt around his small waist. He was awarded it last year after finishing his 10th Mohican 100 Mile Trail Run; the number 1000 was embossed across its face. This morning he and his spouse were giving something back to that race. They are the type of people I come to these events to be with.

The Mohican course is a combination of road and trail through mid-Ohio’s rolling hills. It includes farmlands and wooded countryside along rivers and across streams. Besides being picturesque the course has a logical configuration to it. Runners are kept close to the state park lands, Clearfork Gorge and the two rivers close by. 34 miles are run on mostly dirt and gravel road with a couple of miles of paved highway thrown in just to make it a little more exciting. That highway is last visited about time the local drinking establishments are closing for the night. 1/3 of the roads are run at the beginning of the race, the rest at the end. In between there it’s mostly trail and dirt laid out in three-leaf clover fashion, a lot of it is run twice. And many of the aid stations are visited more than once; making the planning and placement of runner’s drop bags containing individual supplies easy. I wore shorts, a short-sleeved polypro shirt, a hat, well-broken-in shoes and socks and my two-bottle belt. In drop bags at the aid stations I placed changes of shirts, CLIP powder, salt, GU and headlamp and flashlights where appropriate. In one-drop bag I had a pair of shoes and socks. One boost to my recent ultrarunning performance (a relative term) I credit to using Ensure Plus drink as nourishment during the run. A single 8 oz. can contains 350 calories. I prefer the vanilla flavor, mix it 1:3 with water and carry it in one of my bottles. It’s dilute enough to quench my thirst and it tastes good. Cans of this calorie-laden potion were kept in each of my drop bags and taken on the hour when possible.

I should further set the scene by mentioning that it rained for 7 of the first 8 hours of the race. I left my rain gear and warm night clothing home in Rochester, everything was packed but stayed on my kitchen table. OOPS! The morning was cool and breezy, more so at the crests of hills but not too uncomfortable for it was early in the race and I was moving along at about 5 mph and generating heat. But I was allowing myself to fret over what I now had no control over - the weather and lack of protection from it. I knew better than waste time and energy worrying about what the day and night might bring should water continue to fall from the sky. I recalled advice I’d received about situations like this and tried to remain positive. I thought about something a minister friend had said during one of her recent sermons that dealt with differing points of view and children. The good pastor had shared this observation, “When I see a mud puddle I step around it. I see muddy shoes and dirty carpets. My kids sit in it. They see dams to build, rivers to cross, and worms to play with.” So instead of fixating on how challenging it was running through the muddy mess parts of the course were becoming I kept trying to appreciate the world around me. I tried to revel in the opportunity to run and play in the rain and stomp through the muck like a kid, but this proved easier said than done. I had a plan for the way I wanted this race to end and I was beginning to resent Mother Nature’s disregard for my goal. At last year’s race I’d “blown-up” and finished by walking in the last 20 miles. This year would be different; I would run smart and controlled while chasing a 24-hour finish, a finishing time never achieved by me on a course like this. And everything in life has its price doesn’t it? I remembered an appropriate quotation but not the author responsible for it, “God says to take what you will - but pay for it.” The mission I was on put an unaccustomed spin on running 100 miles.

I enjoyed running on the trails and in the woods, and we were shielded from the rain while there. The aroma from the pine woods was fresh and clean and had a positive effect on me. The needle-laden paths under the trees felt soft and soothing on my feet. Care had to be taken to lift my feet over exposed roots but none of this course is overly technical. One of my favorite aid stations was the Covered Bridge. The Bridge spanned the Clearfork River and we were offered views of it from many different angles. We visited the bridge five times during the looped portions of the course. Here the race’s medicine man milled about and observed runners in an unobtrusive way. He was heard making suggestions to runners that they take more salt or water or plan for the chilly night. I like this “hands-off” policy; as in real life runners should be responsible for their decisions and actions. But help was available should mistakes be made and emergencies arise.

Away from the Bridge we entered the Mohican State Park campgrounds on what was called our orange loop, along the river on trails at times close enough to the water that a misstep earned wet feet. I liked watching fisherman here and there knee-deep and casting lines into the muddy waters. It was fun seeing kids playing along the riverbanks. I’d start to daydream about carefree youth-filled days then have to pull away from those idle thoughts and refocus on the task at hand - the 24-hour finish. There were lots of ups and downs, literally and emotionally along the way. I’d come to this race last year looking for a relatively easy 100 miler after participating in the insanity the previous month that is called the Massanutten Mountain Trail Run. Surprise, surprise when I discovered that all of Ohio does not look like the area around Columbus. This region was formed during the last ice age. Slow moving mountains of ice stopped here 12,000 years ago forming a glacial boundary and the forces of erosion carved Clearfork Gorge. My race literature told me that the runners would climb 11,230 feet up then down over the length of the race. Every long race offers it’s own unique gifts and challenges. And even the same course can feel so different from one year to the next; it’s like life, never tasting the same twice. IMHO this is an honest to goodness 100 miler worthy of respect and attention. In the orange loop the single-track trail seemed to be losing a battle with the woods. I had to push brush and small tree limbs away from my face as I moved along. Leaving a stand of red pines paved road led us towards Pleasant Hill Dam where runners jumped a guardrail and descended the steep, down-stream and grass-covered face of the dam. After a bit of dirt trail along the Clearfork River the bottom of the Covered Bridge came into view. In order to reach aid on the other side of the river we went into the water knee to mid-thigh deep walking under the bridge. A waste of a perfectly good bridge but there was cool reprieve in the water. I rewarded my crossing and reaching mile 32 by sitting down and doing something I usually don’t. I changed into dry shoes, socks, hat and shirt. Very nice.

Now into the magical blue loop. This was run in an out and back fashion. The most ruggedly beautiful part of this loop was denied us this year. The park service had closed down the trail that led to Little Falls. I guess the signs posted last year with DANGER! were not enough to soothe the conscious of those making safety decisions. What I missed most was the climb up and out of from the Little Falls. This was accomplished last year by a 15-foot hand over hand climb up the exposed root system of an enormous and ancient hemlock tree. What was offered instead were views of my fellow runners as they bounded down the trail back towards the bridge while I moved in the other direction. While in this little valley the rain stopped and the clouds moved away unveiling the sun and clear sky. The rest of the day was spent under cobalt blue skies. My concern that weather would interfere with my goal proved unwarranted, as worry over things out of my control often is.

Back at the Covered Bridge I refueled as I had done at every station before. With a somewhat changed disposition, a function of the drying and brightening world around me I entered the infamous red loop. The first 2-3 miles are on single track uphill to the bridle staging area. The bridle path was shared with horses, hence its name. Evidence of equine was seen and smelled for the next 7+ miles. The first time through the red loop I got what was expected, a lot of downhill dirt trail that should have been very runable. But the dirt was in an altered state, no longer completely solid; instead it was more of a thick pasty combination of mud and horseshit with large puddles containing horse urine and rainwater. This concoction was emulsified by the churning actions of horse and runner’s feet. I had two concerns here. The first involved keeping my shoes on my feet, I did not want to retrieve a shoe sucked off my body by that horsy mess. The other entailed remaining vertical, something told me it would be harder to extract an entire body from the bridle mud than a single shoe. I was successful in keeping shoes and body where they belonged.

The end of the bridle path brought us for a second time to The Rock aid station at 46 miles and the beginning of the second running of the trail loops. I reached the 50-mile mark at 4 PM, 11 hours after the start. Those working the aid stations now were like old friends and it was definitely nice to see them again. Leaving the Covered Bridge at 57 miles I returned to the Mohican State Campgrounds where campers I had watched cook and eat breakfast 8 hours earlier were now sitting down to early dinner. Their behavior appeared so normal and civilized. Running was quite comfortable for I’d taken care of myself for most of the day. Now with the sun nearing the western horizon it grew cooler and that seemed to put a bit of a spring into my step. But one thing about ultrarunning that never eases to amaze me is how quickly things change.

There were sections of trail where the runners in front and back of me could be seen even if they were a mile or more ahead or behind. It was like that just before entering the bridle staging area again when I saw two runners ahead, a woman in the lead on the single-track followed by a man. The woman looked fresh and strong in contrast to her companion. As I got closer I saw that she wore no race number and was pacing him. This offended me big time. Why? I’m not sure. I’ve come to believe that a pacer is supposed to be no more than a companion, someone running along or behind the racer, they are not to act as a pack animal carrying supplies or be the one determining the runner’s speed. This woman was only running out front. As I caught up with them the women returned to a position behind her runner. For some inane reason I just had to throw a barb their way about the proper use of pacers. Why? I don’t know. No one had designated me the enforcer of pacing rules. Maybe it was because I was getting tired as the 69-mile mark approached. Truth be known the only time I ever used a pacer I did so exactly as this man was using his. Maybe I’d been out in the sun too long. Whatever, there might be many reasons but no excuses for that unkind behavior on my part. Maybe it was because I feared returning to the horse-mud on the red loop and knew that it would get dark while I was in the middle of it. I know for a fact that I was jealous of the man and wished I had a pretty lady running in front of me. It was out of character for me, especially in the midst of an ultra. Long distance trail running usually brings out the best in me. As I continued past them I felt ashamed of myself and full of regret for what was said. I left the aid station before them and was soon shown that my Higher Power is generous and has a sense of humor. A mile down the bridle path I noticed the man minus his lovely companion approaching just as night was settling in. Embarrassed, I grabbed onto the opportunity to make amends with all the gusto a drowning man might clutch a lifeline. I apologized for my unkind remark. This guy was a true gentleman. His response to me was that no offense had been taken and not to worry about it. His gift of accepting my apology seemed to lift pounds off my shoulders and from mind and I found the second trip through the mud much easier than the first. I had been shown the power of second chances.

11 PM came and I stopped for the last time at The Rock. There were 23 miles to go. Sunday morning came and the only sounds I heard were the flop-flop and shuffle of feet on dirt and gravel and the sparse conversation Dan from Columbus and I had. This 100-mile virgin ran with me for 12-15 miles and kept me moving at a decent clip when I’d prefer a more pedestrian pace. Not getting lapped by the sun was on both of our minds.

But at the 88-mile aid station atop Turkey Ridge I realized that a 24-hour finishing time was not mine to have. Almost 2 AM and I was beginning to get cold enough to I pull my emergency black plastic garbage bag from my belt pouch and cover my upper body with it. My thighs were being rubbed raw from the friction of wet and salt-soaked shorts against skin. I was discouraged. It was time to accept reality. Acceptance is not necessarily a bad thing. I just let go and relaxed and it was more than just OK. It was sweet having the “time monkey” off my back. Now I had 12 miles and however long it would take to reach the Mohican Wilderness to think, plenty of time to reflect and examine the previous day. Instead of the smell and sounds of defeat it was the aroma of honeysuckle that tickled my nose, no lamenting or whining just the calls of whippoorwills and other night birds. I knew that these sensations had been present all night, I just wasn’t paying attention. I had had other things on my mind. I let go and the entirety of the night came to me.

Lessons had been presented, as were opportunities for growth. Early in the race I realized that I might have to forgo some aspects of the long run I’ve grown to love in order to finish when I wanted to. Maybe I’d only miss little things racing towards the destination. Later in the day I feared that the price demanded for this prize had become too costly. I have felt physically worse off in other races than I did during this one. It was the emotional and psychological trauma I was unprepared for. I didn’t like worrying about weather and mistakes made while packing for the run. I certainly didn’t like seeing my baser side surface before nightfall. In the early morning hours of Sunday before I let go I feared that I’d have neither a good finish nor any form of spiritual rewards for my efforts. I did learn a few things about myself, about associated costs of ambition and my value system. Thinking like that, philosophy comes hard to me. I have a tough time absorbing sophisticated ideas. I need to feel things in my muscles, bones and heart. The 24-hour mark came and went while I was on the downside of the last hill 2 miles away from the finish. I stopped for a moment standing in a rich thicket of reality and greeted the dawn and new day. I didn’t think all was well . . . I knew all was well.

My race was over 24 hours and 35 minutes after it started. A warm shower and change of clothes and an hour’s nap put a refreshed spin on the morning. I went to barn near the finish line wanting to be near those I so admire, long distance runners practicing a religion of healthy-mindedness. Later in the morning our efforts over the last day and night were acknowledged during an awards ceremony. Pewter belt buckles were given to all finishers commemorating their run. There was special recognition given to the “Last of the Mohicans”, our final finisher. The overall male and female winners were awarded wooden statues of running Native Americans. The women’s winner Karen Shiley’s trophy stood half as tall as she, a very cool image I’ll keep in my mind’s eye. Those responsible for planning and staging this event do an excellent job. Every aspect of the race flowed seamlessly, transparent to those of us participating. A class act all around!

The American physiologist William James wrote in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” that “the strenuous life and striving for more is better.” That about says it all as far as I am concerned. It’s healthy-mindedness I seek and I recognize it most during and after and in anticipation vigorous physical effort.

Balance is a good thing and grasping that concept could really benefit me in real life. Balance is something I will endeavor to understand and practice if I am to move over long distances at faster paces. Striving to improve in this running arena is only natural but I refuse to sacrifice the spiritual food I find on the trails and have come to depend on. I must learn not to become so intoxicated by the journey that I lose sight of the finish and vice-versa, not forgo the beneficial aspects of the trail on the way to the destination. I’m sure that there is room for the combination of the two. I hope I can continue to be taught.

As is my habit I’ll close with a couple of appropriate quotations.

Happy Trails,

"A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame and money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well." - G. K. Chesterton
"Speed is sex ... distance is love." - David Blaikie
"Stick a fork in me, I'm done." - Unknown

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