Yesterday I ran my 11th marathon, a punishing affair called “The Dam Full” set in the pristine and mountainous Bald Eagle State Park, about an hour east of State College, Pa. To understand the ordeal, you first need to erase much of what you know (or have heard) about marathons. Yes, it was long foot-race, although it officially measured a quarter mile over the 26.2 miles that some long dead Greek soldier is said to have run from Marathon to Athens. And yes, the participants finished sore, exhausted, dehydrated, dizzy, chafed, blistered and missing the odd toenail or two. But there end the similarities.
The archetypical marathon is a festive, big city road race with tens of thousands of runners. The race is held entirely on paved surfaces, through downtowns and neighborhoods. Smaller market marathons field several hundred to a few thousand entrants on courses that range from roads, towpaths or rails-to-trails or some combination thereof. Either can be hilly, and both tend to be well-supported with frequent aid stations offering water and Gatorade.
The Dam Full, and its simultaneously-held sister race, The Dam Half, are trail runs. There are two types of trail running. One involves running on flattish crushed cinder or dirt paths, along canals or on former railroad beds. The other, of which variety the Dam races belong, are treks through forests and over streams, rocks, roots, boulders and the occasional mountain.
Now, I’ve run a number of shorter trail races, 5Ks to 30Ks. The more challenging include ankle-busting rock fields, slippery creek crossings and quadriceps-burning climbs. The only difference with those is they mercifully conclude before you hit that scourge of marathon running, The Wall.
The Dam Full was a full-on trail race. The rocky climbs were like big-city voters, they came early and often. The experienced marathon runner employs the law of conservation of running by taking uphills steady and downhills fast. No such luck yesterday. After leg burning rocky ascents I was rewarded with steep downhills with more rocks than dirt. Somewhere around mile 5 I was scrambling on all fours over a steep pile of boulders to another summit.
At mile 6.2 the course split at a T junction and the first water station, with the half marathoners hanging a right and the Dam Full runners going left. The former outnumbered the latter 354 to 58. Before starting I was told 75 were running the full marathon. Whether the 17 cut out early or were eaten by bears, I do not know. But I can report that I ran entirely by myself for the last 19 miles.
I learned last week that the aid stations would be infrequent, so I wore my water belt. Fortunately it was the coolest morning since March – a mere 46F at race start, so I moderated by hydration accordingly. The aid stations they did have were well-provisioned and well-staffed (they offered to fill my bottles with water or Gatorade while I stuffed pretzels, Lance crackers or bananas in my mouth). A note on that: I never eat during marathons (save for the occasional Gu) but veterans of the JFK 50 recommend that I learn to eat on the run, or I will never survive running for the 8 to 9 hours required to finish my first 50 miler (which is exactly two months away).
About mile 7 I conversed briefly with a fellow runner about the course. I joked about seeing bears; he earnestly warned that a section of the mountain was full of snakes. Then he asked if I knew about the Stairway to Heaven.
I did not. But after he told me, I could not get it out of my mind.
At mile 24 there is a mile stretch (you can see on the chart below) that is steep mile climb up Naked Mountain. What the chart does not show you is the terrain. The bottom bit is a dirt fire road leading to an entrance in the dense forest. Hung between two trees is a banner: Stairway to Heaven. The climb is brutal. It starts as a dirt single track aimed at a cruel grade skyward. Then it gets rocky. Then it is all rocks, no dirt. And then the last hundred yards are white Tuscarora boulders, big and small, loose and stationary. And the loose boulders look just like the immovable ones.
I hit the Stairway at four hours with just over two miles to go. My better marathon times are right around three hours. I had never been engaged in a sustained endurance event that long.
So up I went. I did not wax philosophical about this being the culmination of my training and my supportive family and friends and about the sense of accomplishment I would have when I finished. No, I cursed and talked to myself, in a gravelly, disconnected voice, sort of like an uncensored Fred Sanford.
Thirty-one minutes later I crossed the finish line, eighth overall, third in my age group. My ankles and quads are still throbbing as I write this. I’ve got one normal marathon (Marine Corps) and the JFK 50 miler left on the fall agenda. I’m not much looking forward to the 50 miler, but after yesterday, a road marathon will look like easy street.