Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Stone Mill 50 Mile Race Report - Part 2

Muscle cramping had started early at mile 16 but I kept saying just push on ahead, don’t stop. Then I thought I should start to pray to keep my mind off the cramping, the sweat, and the discouragement. I began praying for pastor Moses in Uganda where I will be traveling this winter, and for two others. You see I told Mary I didn't want to focus on the entire county in central Africa, I just want to pray for two people I hadn't met yet. So I prayed for them and anyone else I could think of. It worked.

When I got to mile 25 I was never so happy to see Mary again. She was calling out to me, what did I need? The aid workers were busy filling my water bottle, as Mary was getting another change of shoes, socks and shorts. Clean clothes what a luxury! The aid station had pizza, PB&J, and some other goodies to keep me going. The small things make the biggest difference in these endurance races.

You see I had a strategy to running this race. I couldn't put my brain around the fact that this body could really run 50 miles in one day but I knew I could run 16 miles. After all I do 16-mile runs all the time during marathon training. So then, the strategy was to run three 16-mile races (three phases) with a little 5k at the end. Sounds easy right?

Because this is an out & back course all I needed to do was retrace my steps for another 25 miles back to Damascus Park. The sweat was pouring down into my eyes by now, which started to burn because of the high salt content. I was beginning to get sunburned (in November, really?) because I tossed my shirt at mile twenty-three. I completed the first half in 5 1/2 hours but I knew the second leg back to Damascus would be the more challenging.

Mary & my daughter Brie met me at the old Stone Mill (Black Rock) at mile thirty-three. Again a very welcome site for weak legs. After a brief meeting more water off I went back into the woods. I didn't  know it then but this next leg (or phase two) of the run would be my most difficult. I had gone out for several practice runs along these trails in the weeks leading up to this race, and was familiar with most of the course, but this middle section, was the section of uncharted territory for me, and the cramping was setting into my quads like hound dogs chasing prey.    

I was not completely prepared for what was just ahead. I was walking the steep up hills, and running the downhill parts of the trail at this point. But the fatigue was getting to me. Time blurred. I stared to stumble on the small rocks and roots that lay on the trail, slipping on the leaves.  I had tripped about seven or eight times throughout the day but managed to stay on my feet and not fall to the ground.

Looking at my watch I knew I needed to maintain my pace or I would never finish the race. At about mile 37, after ascending a steep hill and around a sharp bend at the top, I tripped on something in the trail and went down hard. I landed on my chest, trying to break the fall with my arms l knock the wind out of myself, got scrapped up pretty badly and just lay there face down on the ground. As I collected my thoughts lying on the ground I thought, “did anyone see that”? Yes, pride can rear its ugly head even in the middle of the woods.

No one was around, to witness this strange slow-mo fall, so I just lay there a while longer. After a brief body check (nothing broken?), I walked over to a fallen tree, sat down, took some deep breaths and prayed, “Lord, I don’t know if I can finish. I don’t know if this was even your plan? Was I supposed to do this, was I supposed to be here at all? I don’t think I can do this!”

The realization settled in that I was in “no mans land”, too far from help, no aid workers or other runners in sight. I was all alone. So I prayed again for God to give me strength, if not to finish, at least get to safety. I picked myself up, wiped the blood from my chest, checked my molars (which were jarred when I hit the ground), & brushed myself off and got ready to move.

At this point another runner came around the bend, kind of looked at me as he went by and said, “feeling old yet?” Little did he know just how old I was feeling!

Something clicked inside me at that point. I knew I was in the last third (phase three) of the race but that still meant I had another half marathon to go to get back to Damascus Park…13.1 miles, oh boy!

As I picked up my speed a bit, I started to feel a little better and I thought I was getting the old Mo Jo back. Now I was looking for the guy who asked if I was feeling old.

I could see the road up ahead where the next aid station was when I went down a second time. This time, as I went down I tucked my right shoulder and rolled on the ground. My hydration pack on my back cushioned my fall nicely. Sitting there on the ground for a second time I prayed again, asking for the strength to finish. So again after lying there for a long minute I heard myself say, “What are you going to do Foster? Get up and finish!” I knew if I had the presence of mind to focus on the fundamentals, keep hydrating, lifting my legs, and running efficiently, I could do this.

When I arrived at the aid station there were several friends, some food, fluids, and wet paper towels for the dried blood. One of the workers commented on how good I looked. I accepted the complement but didn’t bother to share with her my recent ordeal. I had to get going, I had a race to finish.

The crew at the aid station told me I only had ten miles to go. Good! Forty miles down, ten to go! It was 3:30 in the afternoon, the sun was beginning to set, and it was getting colder. Still running topless and in my running shorts, I was trying to do the math, when would I need to make a wardrobe change for warmth? I dismissed these thoughts. I can’t do calculations when on a long run, I’ll be okay.

I soon passed the guy who had commented after my fall. Then I started to overtake other runners as they were walking the hills and I found new strength. All day I had been the one to be passed and I never over took a single runner; now here with just ten miles to go I seemingly had the advantage. 8 ½ miles from the finish my buddy Don joined me again on the trail. His calm and confident presence was a huge help. Half a mile later Mary joined Don and I! Again a huge help. Mary in front, stumbling Paul in the middle, and Don taking up the rear. Back in the day the three of us used to run these hills together. I called out “it’s the return of the three musketeers”!

When the three of us got to mile 44, two daughters, one son-in-law and two grandsons were all there at the aid station. It is impossible to express how much it means to have family and friends on the course for support and encouragement. They buoyed my spirits to press into the last 7 miles of the day.

There would be one more opportunity to see family before the finish. On this part of the trail everything was familiar to me, from the many years of past runs up and down these hills. I was feeling more refreshed, my strength had returned and I was more confident. Mary told me she would see me again in about forty minutes.

3 ½ miles she offered me water, GU, and clothes. I declined all three and said I just needed to finish the race. I told you I couldn't do calculations when on a long runs. Off into the woods I went to as daylight was waning. The two things I did take from Mary were my flashlight and my headlamp, which attached to my hat. Little did I know at the time how much I would need this trail illumination. 

The dark settled in like a curtain within a very short time after this. I was feeling good physically and mentally but started to trip and stumble again, because I couldn't see the rocks and roots on the dark ground. It was almost completely black now.

I had to slow to a walk, just so I wouldn't get lost in the woods or fall a third time. At one point some volunteers saw my light and started to call out to me so I could follow their voices through the woods. I was also getting pretty cold as the temperatures dipped lower.

Eventually I found my way to the paved surface of the Park road and I knew I just needed to follow it a mile to the finish. AS I came further up that road I heard Mary call out “Foster” as she came to run me across the finish line. Almost in tears I was thankful to find my way through he darkness, the obstacles, and hazards of this ultra.

If you have ever been in an extreme circumstance, it will bring out in you strength and fortitude that you never realized you possessed. My pastor has been preaching a series called “Desperate”. Being alone in the woods, at the end of my own strength gave me a tangible connection to this desperation. It became a very good metaphor of my own need for God. Again, to quote Charles Dickens, “I have been bent and broken, but-I hope-into a better shape”.

Now for those of you who like statistics, I burned 5,681 calories, ran for eleven hours and fifty-eight minutes, and covered 51 miles still upright and moving forward.


  1. Paul, that is one amazing and inspiring story! Congratulations! - mitch

  2. Thanks for posting this. I finally read it :) All in God's good timing too. Love you Paul.