Thursday, November 8, 2012

Stone Cat 2012: Diesel-san's Psychic Network

In the days leading up to Stone Cat 2012, an online conversation began between Bob “Diesel-san” Crowley, Sam “T.I.M.” Jurek, and myself.  Diesel-san initiated by sending T.I.M. (which stands for The Invisible Man, a moniker, which, after Stone Cat, speaks for itself) and me an inspirational video.  Naturally the electronic “conversation” turned to how we were feeling, strategies for race day, and other such pre-race perseverations.  At the end of the ruminations, in his zen/Yoda-esque wisdom, Diesel-san said:

I've a really good feeling for both of you.  You're relaxed, approaching this as fun - not a task - and I'll think you'll both enjoy each other's company and push each other.  My prediction?  You go 1 and 2 and both break the record.  Who pants who to take the top podium spot?  I'd go with rock, paper, scissors . . .

Diesel-san is currently enjoying a winning streak in Vegas.

For many reasons Stone Cat 2012 was an important race for me, personally and as a runner.  As such, this write-up is going to delve into my own personal running psychosis.  Brevity has never been a strength (heck, I run ultras!), so be warned.

As I’ve written before, at the conclusion of Western States in June, I was in a complete running funk.  My body was lethargic all summer, my running confidence was crushed because of unmet expectations at Western, and my personal spirit/energy were thrown into our new house and time with the family (not a bad thing at all).  10 milers were daunting.  My GPS told me my pace was slow.

September marked a gradual change in the winds and my thoughts turned to tackling Stone Cat once again.  My running was coming around and my body had a spark.  I stopped running with a watch and simply ran by feel, for joy.  After my last big training run on the course, two weeks before, I was legitimately excited for the whole Stone Cat experience and decided to run the race sans-watch, a first for me.  Sam and I made a plan for race day: run much more conservatively than last year by complete the first two loops in the 1:35 range (last year we ran these in 1:28), plug into music for the 3rd and 4th loops, wear the slick new TARC singlets, and he would drive me to the race.  On Saturday morning he was early.  He was clearly ready to go.

The most memorable part about the drive up to Ipswich was how the night before we both had been thinking that we might as well just “go for it” and chuck our conservative game plan out the door.  Why not just run hard from the start?  We laughed at ourselves.

Pre-race at Doyon Elementary is always fun, like a family reunion of sorts.  I got a kick out of handing RD-extraordinaire, Marty, a loaf of bread and some cheese (I had been ribbed for my mind-boggling consumption of grilled cheese at the finish last year and had promised Marty to make amends).  As Sam and I set out our extra bottles and gear for quick ins/outs at the start/finish, we caught up with Sebastien, who, in his first 50, placed 2nd at Stone Cat last year, and had just run some fast marathons and 50s.  Despite the convivial mood, my mind was focused on besting my 6:29 from last year and, hopefully, running under Ben Nephew’s course record (6:24).

As we lined up to go, I noticed my headlamp seemed weak.  I asked Sam if it was on, and he told me it wasn’t.  I was pretty sure I had already turned it on.  I tried again.  As we ran down the field it was not a big deal, but when we hit the woods, I noticed my lamp, again, was not on.  For the third time, I turned it on.  Seconds later it went out.  Curses! I had even thought about switching the batteries the night before.  I asked Sam if I could just follow him.  He graciously said yes, as, on the first hill, Sebastien made an early move and put a bit of a gap on us.  I tried my headlamp again.  Seconds later it was out.  I decided not to try it again.  (Two little asides about this.  First, at one point both Sam and Sebastien got off course.  I must be eating a lot of carrots because I, the one without the headlamp, was able to see the trail.  Second, when I got home, I explained the technical difficulties to my family and took out my headlamp to demonstrate.  Wouldn’t you know, the thing burned brightly, without fail, as I shook and tossed it, for about ten minutes before finally shutting it off.  My mom, who was visiting, told me it was my Uncle Norm (who recently lost a battle with cancer), ever the trickster, just reminding me to not take myself too seriously.  Thanks Uncle Norm.  Your misadventures continue and I appreciate that you didn’t send a buck charging at me.).

The first loop continued as such, Sebastien a minute up on Sam and I, and Jack Bailey (who I had the pleasure of running with a bit with at the VT 100 this summer) running with us.  We came in to the start/finish, got a read on Sebastien’s lead (almost exactly a minute), and were back out without breaking stride.  The clock read 1:30.  As we started the 2nd loop Sam and I put a bit of a gap on Jack and were running together, strong.  We started joking that we were just as foolish as last year, but neither of us suggested we slow.  On the 2nd loop Sebastien maintained his lead.  Sam and I plugged away, and after the 2nd aid station I started to feel the pace a little.  I settled behind Sam and he did the work.  With about 1.5 miles before the start/finish I broke what had been a very quiet time and said, “Sam this is the least we’ve ever talked on a run.” He laughed and said, “We’re just conserving energy.” That was the extent of our conversation for the majority of those 12.5 miles.  We finished the loop in 1:29, 2:59 elapsed.  Sebastien had the exact same lead on us.  And then my wheels nearly came off.

As we grabbed our fresh bottles at the start/finish for some reason (that I am yet to figure out) I became a deflated balloon.  Sam quickly gapped me by maintaining our previous pace.  I knew the pace had been solid, and I desperately wanted to keep stride with T.I.M. (Sam = The Invisible Man, or T.I.M.  because of his speed), to help him close the minute lead Sebastien had.  By the top of the first hill T.I.M.. was, well, invisible to me.  The next 6 or 7 miles were what I will remember as my self-pity party.  I wasn’t bonking, my energy was good, but my legs just couldn’t keep up.  An emotional highlight came 2 miles into this loop when someone yelled at me, “Your brother is just a minute ahead.”  I know it was to do with our TARC shirts, but Sam and I have shared a lot of miles and everything that comes with that (he was the reason I finished Western States), and whoever said this does not know how meaningful his comment was to me.  Just coasting it in the last two loops sounded really appealing, but I couldn’t let my “brother” down.  Yet my legs just weren’t responding.  And then music saved my day.

After never using it before, in August I started listening to music while running (Liz gave me the gift of a new iPod Shuffle - it weighs less than half an ounce!).  I have to admit, it is great.  And, as I plodded along, pitying myself and my slowing legs, all of a sudden a remixed version of John Denver’s classic Country Roads pumped through my tiny iPod.  It wasn’t the song itself, but the image of my younger son, Jacoby, singing along to one particularly upbeat section.  This thought put a smile on my face and I remembered that my family was going to be at the finish line.  The idea of finishing with my two boys made me, in a word, happy.  My legs seemed to respond.  I dropped the negative thoughts, which had been a near-constant companion for the first 8 or so miles of the loop, and told myself, “It is going to hurt, but simply enjoy it.  Sam is up there.  Sebastien is up there.  Go.”  The last 4 miles or so went a lot better.  I also knew that my friend (and winner of many TARC races), Eric Ahern, was going to be running the 4th loop with me.  I saw Sam and Sebastien on the out-and-back section at the start of the course.  Sebastien was about 6 or 7 minutes up on me and Sam was about 40 seconds behind him. I shouted my encouragement to both (although tempted to tell Sam to wait for me, I saw he was ready to crush it).  Seeing him moving so well buoyed my spirit further, and, when I met Eric at the edge of field, things picked up.  The loop was slower than I wanted, but not as bad as it had felt: 1:39.  

I have run a bunch with Eric.  I’ve noticed something each time: he literally floats.  The plan was for him to just be a few feet in front of me and basically drag me through the 4th loop.  At first his graceful stride annoyed me as my feet clopped along.  But it quickly inspired.  He was a machine, and my mind was on autopilot.  It was just what I needed.  The negative thoughts were gone.  It was just a matter of how fast we could get it done.  I said all of 5 words the whole loop, but grunted a lot.  We were moving well enough by the first aid station that I started thinking we would be closing on Sam and Sebastien.  When we would see runners up ahead I immediately thought it was one of them.  We pulled into the 2nd aid station and Bill Howard (who, if you don’t know him, is currently in the running for one of the top-ten greatest people in the world) told me they were just minutes up (the simple fact that he understood my incoherent inquiry speaks to his greatness).  It was on.

Eric pushed me through those last 5+ miles.  And just when I thought third was my spot that day, we hit a long straightaway, just before you make a left on a little U singletrack, about 3 miles from the finish, and I saw someone 100 yards up.  “Eric, I think that’s Sebastien.” (My five words for the loop).  “You’re right.  Let’s go!”  We shouted encouragement to Sebastien, who had clearly hit a very rough spot, but I ran as hard as I could.  I didn’t look back.  I saw Eric check and asked how far back he was.  “He’s out of sight.”  We ran harder.  Visions of catching Sam and finishing together, in our slick new TARC singlets (seriously the most comfortable running shirt I’ve ever worn) now danced in my head.  As Eric and I turned onto the new singletrack leading to the car, Jeff Lane (who was a champion volunteer at that intersection all day) told us that Sam had just come through the other side.  I knew we wouldn’t catch him, but we still ran hard.  

We hit the field, the last 200 yards to the finish, and I let out a yell, a sort of cathartic release, my spirit telling my body that I had recovered from unmet expectations.  That I had found joy in my running, had run hard, and run well.  And, just as they had said, my family was there at the finish, my mom, my sister, my nephews, my wife, and my boys.  Running the last few steps with them was amazing.  I felt no pain.  It was pure joy.  Sam had waited at the finish (even though he came in 5 minutes ahead of me).  We had fulfilled Diesel-san’s prophecy, coming in 1 - 2, both under the old course record.  I may have lost the rock/paper/scissors for the win (at one point I tried to throw a real rock at Sam so I could catch up.  He was too fast), but I’ve never had a more fulfilling race.  

A father's greatest joy: finishing with my two boys, Cooper
(in red, with the Mohawk) and Jacoby (in stripes). 

The "TARC Brothers," all smiles (I might be grimacing -
hard to tell) at the finish.  Sweet new shirts!
Post-race, the joy continued, watching friends finish (many their first 50), joking around with all the incredible GACers, eating a slightly more reasonable number of delicious grilled cheese (thanks Chris - the one you made was extra special!), and enjoying everyone’s company.  Sebastien, who had traveled from Quebec without his family, came over for dinner (pizza and ice cream) and, just so he wouldn’t miss his kids too much, plenty of energy from my two boys and two nephews.  It is amazing the bond that is formed from such a shared experience.  I have only met Sebastien briefly before (twice at Stone Cat and once this summer as we were all leaving Storyland up in New Hampshire), but we hung out for several hours, talking about our lives, laughing about our toenails and the state of an ultra-runner's feet (for the first time ever in an ultra, I had no blisters, and, unlike years past at Stone Cat where I have lost 7 toenails, I am happy to report, not a one will be coming off after this year’s race!), and looking at pictures of his kids (and watching my kids tear around the house).  

Stone Cat 2012 will be remembered as being an as close to perfect ending to the 2012 competitive season as I could have wished for.  If Marty will have me, I’ll be back for sure (bread and cheese in hand!).  

Gear note: For those interested, I wore inov-8’s new Trailroc 245s.  Best shoes the company makes.  And, as I said, no blisters or lost toenails.  That speaks for itself!


  1. Sweet report Josh! And congrats on your 1-2 finish with Sam. That must have been fun out there on them trails!!

  2. Nice report, Josh, and great run last week! Congrats to you and Sam both. Well deserved.

  3. Congrats Josh!!! A wonderful report about an always amazing race!!!