Thursday, May 28, 2015

Grit or Quit: A Recap of the Fantastic Savannah Grit 175k Stage Race

It was an honor to be able to co-direct the Savannah Grit 175k stage race. I had never tackled a multiday trail event, but was ready to jump right into preparing for it. The first thing I had to do was familiarize myself with the courses. 

Day 1 would be held at Whitemarsh Preserve and runners would run a bunch of laps on a beautiful, flat course, spotted with mildly menacing roots and meandering lizards. 

Day 2 was at one of my favorite trails (dreaded by most). Tom Triplett Trail. It was a 6.2 mile, winding, rooty, copperhead-housing, spider-hosting trail weaving around the sea level swamps and trekking through a bright, coastal forest.

Day 2 Part 2 was an old dairy farm trail that entered a marsh, coasted past ancient live oak trees showered with Spanish moss, and traveled through a patch of reedy grass 7 feet tall that threatened to decapitate runners with its green, thick, razorlike blades blocking all horizontal view. 

Day 3 would be a gorgeous straight shot mile under a fairytale canopy of overhanging trees along a historical packed dirt road. 

We explored the dairy farm first in preparation for the event. The reeds had overtaken the trail completely. We were running straight into the mouth of the marsh, its grassy teeth gnashing our arms and legs to bits. It was nearly impossible to run or even to see where you were headed. The cuts began to sting. Small streaks of blood showed themselves in seemingly random locations all over our exposed skin. I realized why they called these things "blades" of grass, although they would be more appropriately deemed "samurai swords" of grass. We arrived at the turn around with about 80 cuts and continued back through the devilish patch once more. The route continued along a canal then a neighborhood road and ended in the open field of the lovely farm. I was thankful not to have to run that 3 more times, and Dan felt compelled to take his machete out a clear the trail for the runners so that they could avoid at least a little bit of pain from the ominous overgrowth.

The next step was to mark the Tom Triplett Trail. I got the honors of this duty since I frequent the nearby trail on runs and somehow manage to get lost back there 87% less often than most other trail runners in town. It was a good thing to have this forested trail near me. I love the coastal feel of many of the trails in Savannah, but for some reason, this one just makes me feel like a kid on an epic adventure; I can run it freely and get a chance to play in the woods and take all of those paths less traveled. 

I marked the trail and came up a bit short. That's never good for an event. They can run over. Extra credit is acceptable. But no shortcuts for the beloved Grit. I used the nerdy directional sector of my brain to retrace my route and compare it to the map, coming across the section I had missed. Clearly, I had missed it because no one ever runs it. Ever. I tasted each spiderweb along this portion of the trail, and came to the turnaround point. It was still short, overgrown with branches everywhere, had potential for poisonous snakes, possessed terrible navigational qualities, and concluded with a dead end. I decided to find another out and back section of trail and avoid this headache of a path. I crossed a few mini trail connectors, but the confusion level would be at an all time high if these intersected the original path. So I headed for the tracks. The train tracks provided a gateway out of the woods and into the open. This should work.

But it would still be an interesting race. Tough. Long. Seemingly unending. I wondered how many people would drop. And how many would earn the buckle. 

It was then time for runners to set up camp. There were tents along the tree line of the farm and even one perched on top of a Jeep with an accompanying ladder. In the down time, we chatted like most people do when they don't really know each other. It wasn't awkward. Just new. Little did we anticipate how well we would become acquainted by mile 70. 

Packets were distributed and the courses were discussed. Everyone was excited but needed to channel that energy into finding a way to get some sleep.

At the start, we organized ourselves and gave a quick reminder about course markings. The runners would have 33 laps to complete-a huge mental challenge. The volunteers prepared to hand out a variety of foods, and the timers made themselves ready to count 1,000 laps for the group and take down splits-also a huge mental challenge. 

We said a quick prayer, thankful for the freedom to run. For having the health to run. And for all of those who had fought and gave their lives for us. 

Then they were off. Everyone was excited to watch the group unravel into distinct paces that would fight for the lead. 

The first lap brought a cluster of runners, and we rushed to get times and aid for them. And they were off again...with fresh legs and excited spirits.

Fast forward to lap 17. Halfway is a good feeling. But despite the freak cool front that started the day with a balmy 61 degrees, it was getting toasty now. Many people were already losing count of their laps, thinking they had run further than they had. Good old running brain. It's hard to break the news to a tired ultrarunner, but it's better if it breaks at lap 17 and not lap 30. The only runner who actually was a lap further ahead than he originally had thought was Dan. He didn't mind the additional good news.

Spirits stayed high among volunteers and runners. The positive energy was contagious. Some running warriors were fueled by hope, some by sarcasm, and others by salted watermelon. Dread wasn't an issue. Even the runners who dropped made the call out of a sound mind. Their strength was not to be doubted. They tried and certainly did not fail. 

Still some pressed forward. The day was hot and many trips were made for more water and ice. With them came the miracle of pizza, the glory of subs, and the realized fantasy of precooked bacon. New foods became an interestingly effective fuel for success and endurance. 

The day's results were amazing: fast-as-lightning runners flew to the win, cheerful midpackers shared their enthusiasm for the race, and inspirational runners brought in the rear despite a common theme of suffering. Faithful volunteers stayed well past the aid cutoffs to ensure the success and safety of every last runner. 

Nighttime experiences varied among the crews and runners. Some enjoyed a restful slumber, others only grabbed a taste of sleep. Morning came, and we were all back at it again. Tired eyes. Tired legs. But living hearts. Today would be a challenge. But challenges lead to victory. 

The trail was technical. The few roots of Saturday were forgotten, and in their place rose numerous monuments of distress. This dynasty of roots posed threats of disheartening injuries and infuriating frustrations. Snakes lurked, plotting their trail-front appearances like disfigured monsters in a horror film. Soreness made distorted shadows in the hard-pressed spirits of the exhausted runners. The sun rose with a burning heat that replaced the air's energy with humidity. The only option was to overcome. To overcome all of this. 

The markings had remained in place, but the switchbacks were nothing but mentally troublesome. The forest ate people's fast, upbeat times and regurgitated a sluggish pace that resembled an out-of-tune chorus blasted eerily from a dusty organ. 

Day 2 was taking a lot out of people. The longer laps required more planning, hydration, and nutrition. A few more runners dropped. 

The lap timing process proved to be easier than the day before. And as the heat rested its weight in the day, the runners became more and more spread out. The smiles were fading. Negativity attempted to take the fire road in, stick out its bony foot, and trip the spirits of the runners. Only grit would allow them to overcome the journey that today had for them. 

Trail runners began to trickle in to the finish, and another stage of the day awaited them. 

As quickly as they could, they would drive to the dairy farm and wind down from one stage while mentally preparing for the next. And then they were off. Again. 

The vertical forgiveness of the packed sandy trail was a curse to the calves. The reeds sliced through their flesh providing an external sting to legs that already possessed great internal pain a soreness. Extremely creepy masks served as signs for the turnaround points in the night. 

And as they continued the loops, their tents beckoned them to enter and rest. But they had to persist. Quick times were barely a thought in these tired minds. Finishing was the new essence of the goal. 

The night grew dark. Headlamps lit the fields, mirroring the stars that were waking in the nocturnal sky. The moon whispered its amends to eyes that no longer wanted to be open. 

And the runners didn't falter. They chose the former of "grit or quit."

Helping hands were becoming tired. But the aid knew that there were still needs and so it fulfilled them. Timers sat on the edge of their seats to see who might have the next burst of strength. And who was hiding behind the beam of the next headlamp. And there were many champions. There was great victory. 

One stage left. 

The third morning led to more excitement as the race was coming to a close. Runners would sprint a mile. The distance seemed laughable compared to the more than 100 miles they had already covered in two days. But it would be a display of joy and of a realization of the strength they had had on their adventure. 

Some flew. Some trotted. Some walked. Some limped. But they had done it. 

Pictures were taken under the ancient arch. Smiles had returned. Everyone applauded. It would soon be time to return home. What did this mean? The end of a triumph? Or the start of a new one? 

Certainly running is not the meaning of life for everyone. But the unseen character and love and personality that is molded into true life can be displayed in the endurance of a runner. 

The grit can shout louder than the grime, making the visible wounds, sweat, and dirt pale in comparison to the abstract, invisible quality that brings humans through a physical trial. The smiling disposition yells above the noise of each painful footstep. And the completion of the journey overpowers the sound of the voice that told you that you would never make it. You are marked as a finisher. You have beaten the odds. You have won before yourself and onlookers and creation. You became an example to nature by passing through it. And you conquered.

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