I needed to go long. Since all of my running buddies seem to be out of commission (Bex and A moved away, D broke his knee trail running), I was finding it hard to motivate myself to do a 20-miler as I get ready for Chicago in a month. So I signed up for a race, the Charm City 20-Miler on September 2d, intending to use it as a supported training run.
It’s a point-to-point race over the hard-packed dirt of the Northern Central Trail, an old railroad bed that runs through heavy woodlands in Hunt Valley, Maryland, 75 miles away from DC, north of Baltimore. It costs $28 (no t-shirt), including $8 for the 35-minute bus ride to the start from the staging area/finish line. You have to be there by 7 am when the last bus leaves for the start line up by the Pennsylvania border. They really mean it, too. The race itself kicks off at 8 am.
I have run on this trail before. I ran the Northern Central Trail Marathon, my seventh marathon, in 4:44:13 on a bitterly cold November day the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2003. It’s my worst marathon if you don’t count my first four, which I didn’t train for. Back then I was merely punching my ticket to get to ten marathons. It was a numbers thing. Most runners are compulsive about numbers. (Above: Nothing like a marathon two days after Thanksgiving. The Northern Central Trail Marathon.)
I ran it 41 days after I ran Columbus, which at 4:16 was my best marathon until last year. I remember cramping up terribly in the last half of the trail marathon and walking a lot. (Below: Still smiling after all those miles. MP 20 in Columbus.)
I also ran the Charm City 20-Miler in 2005. Twenty-milers are odd races. They’re so long. It’s like, you almost did a marathon but you don’t get the outpouring of kudos the same as you do when you run a marathon. Ho-hum. But 20-milers really beat you up. They’re hard.
Weird science. The 2005 race was the scene of my most spectacular failed experiment in racing.
I’m a bachelor. I am so lazy around the house that I can hardly bestir myself to cook spaghetti, even the night before a race. How hard is it? You boil water and then throw in spaghetti for 20 minutes. It’s done when you toss a strand on the wall and it sticks. Meanwhile you set up a double-boiler system of two saucepans, pour in a can of spaghetti sauce and crank the heat up. That’s it! The Parmesan cheese that expired four years ago? It’s still good, throw it over the top. And red wine is a valuable training table staple. Something about anti-oxidants.
But that all is effort, so two years ago I was conducting my Taco Bell experiment. As in, isn’t rice loaded with carbohydrates? Don’t I eat chicken pretty exclusively? Aren’t the Grilled Stuft Burritos, upgraded to marinated and grilled all-white-meat chicken, at Taco Bell filled with those two ingredients, plus tomatoes, which is in spaghetti sauce, and lettuce? I thought I had stumbled onto the perfect lazy man’s carb-load pre-race dinner. Three of those hummers. (Below: Think outside the bun. A Chicken Stuft Burrito.)
So two years ago I was eight miles along on the Northern Central Trail in this twenty mile race, keeping hydrated and making pretty good time, thinking that I might break three hours (a 9 minute pace) when my stomach started sloshing. I could hear it as well as feel it. It sounded like I was running right behind a runner with a half empty camelback. I started thinking that eating a pound of rice and chicken in soft tortilla shells the night before a race hadn’t been such a great idea after all.
By the ninth mile I had determined that I was stopping at the next porta-potty I passed. The Northern Central Trail being a well used bicycle trail, there are porta-potties along the way. By the tenth mile I couldn't wait, and for the first time ever, I thought about going off into the forest and finding a broad tree to hunker down behind. No TP though. Leaves. But what did poison ivy look like?
In my life I have suffered greatly sometimes. After all, I did get married once. But always, in the end, I have gotten what I absolutely needed. After all, I did receive a divorce during the five years of domestic-law litigation hell I was put through.
I was suffering greatly but just before I decided to veer off into the woods, salvation came. At milepost eleven I ran by a ranger station with a comfort station.
I visited for a quarter hour. The stall was free. It had TP. And running water. And no poison ivy.
But I will never forget how I felt just before I ran by the ranger station. I haven’t been back to a Taco Bell since.
I finished the 2005 Charm City 20-Miler in 3:15:46 (9:47). I was 159th out of 209 finishers (76%). It was a PR. Since it was my first 20-miler, that was a lock.
I remember being really tired at the end, despite my 15 minute break. I walked through all the water stops after 15 miles. At 19 miles I walked about a quarter mile. The twentieth mile left the net-downhill trail and ran us up a country highway to the shopping center on the main highway where the finish line was and our cars were parked. It was a pretty steep climb and I walked much of it. By then I had shot my bolt.
I also contracted a bronchial infection from the race, due to heavily breathing in such an exotic profusion of flora and fauna in such close proximity for three hours. I was really dragged down for three weeks afterwards. I remember having respiratory problems after the marathon on the trail, too.
Next: My twenty miler. When I ran this race in 2005 I placed 13/15 in my age group. This year I placed 2/4 in my age group. I still only beat two persons my age.