Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ragnar Tennessee 2012

The only word I can come up with to describe this experience is "WOW!" Ragnar Tennessee 2012 was absolutely one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I wasn't as excited about this one beforehand because I have done them before. My expectations were not too high. But, oh man, the experience was INSANE!

Opening Credits
Let me start by thanking our sponsors for this. This team gets very generous support from ADTRAN. Without their support, this simply would not happen. I do hope that our sporting our ADTRAN gear during the race raises our brand awareness. Also, I can definitely say that our experience has drawn each of us closer and will strengthen our loyalty to one another and to the company. Our doing business with one another is definitely improved in an immeasurable way by the camaraderie and closeness developed during this event.

A special thanks to teammate Shawn Barber for putting this together. He takes care of getting the support from ADTRAN and organizing the event. Sometimes we give Shawn a hard time because, well, he's Shawn. But this dude is a getstuffdoner. He's an invaluable asset to the team. Also, Shawn raised hundreds of dollars for charity by recruiting and organizing volunteers for this race. He also raised a good bit of money to help one of his close friends who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and lacks health insurance. If ever I'm in a bind, I hope Shawn notices. He's the kind of guy that makes sacrifices and doesn't mind asking other people to be uncomfortable in order to do good to others. I'm honored to be his co-worker and friend.

Also, big thanks to Marty McCleary and his wife. We needed volunteers to avoid paying a volunteer fee for the race. They stepped up, and have three years in a row now. When I look at the McCleary family and see the relationship between Jake and his dad, I'm filled with admiration. Man, that's what family love is supposed to be like.

Finally, thanks to McKee Foods for their allowing (and encouraging) us to use our team name "Down with OCPs" and for donating lots of Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies to the cause. We had folks asking for OCPs all during the race. Word spread that there were a bunch of crazy guys handing out Oatmeal Cream Pies, and lots of tired hungry runners wanted a piece of the, well, (oatmeal cream) pie.

The Start
We started at 2:00 PM EST in Chattanooga. These relays have a staggered start to manage the logistics of the varied paces. So, the 2:00 and 3:00 afternoon start times are for the serious teams, the ones who plan to run around or less than 24 hours. I was leading off and I wanted to get our team out front early. In years past, we had won this event by over 3 hours, so I wanted that to happen again. I had no idea if we'd have competition this year.

I started quick. I had a 14.5 (really 14.8) mile double leg to start us off. I ran a 6:40 pace that felt amazingly comfortable during the first 10 miles. For the first 6 miles, I was running with a competitor. He told me that he was about the 3rd or 4th best runner on their team and that they were all strong runners. I figured I was our second or third best runner, so I knew we were in for some competition this year. There was a small hill about 6 miles in. He tried to make a move up the hill. I covered his move and stayed on his shoulder and on the down, I obliterated him. I put a good two minutes on him in the last two miles of this first leg of my opening leg.

Their strategy was to swap runners at every exchange. Ours was to swap at every other exchange. So, their strongest runner took the bracelet for the second and most grueling leg of the entire race. This leg is roughly a 7 mile leg that has over 1400 feet of climb in the last 4 miles. Brutal. Their runner caught me about two miles into the climb and put about a minute lead on me. I was completely done at the top of Signal Mountain and probably pushed too hard during this leg and cost my team some valuable time in my later legs. Oh well, we're a minute behind and handing off to our 5th and 6th runners.

Through the Afternoon and into the Night
Seeing their strategy of using a fresh runner for each leg and strategically selecting the runners, we gave that a try for some of our legs. However, through the afternoon and night, they were opening up a 15 to 20 minute lead on us. To try to help close that distance, we worked it out so that I could take a longer leg. When I agreed to do this, I had totally underestimated how much the Suck Creek Road climb had taken out of me. I've never been beaten that badly by any 4 miles ever before. I agreed and swapped from a 9.2 mile double leg to a 13.5 mile double leg. I barely finished it. I was dying at the end of it. A lot of effort for not a lot of speed! But the gap was shrinking again. Maybe more like 8-9 minutes now.

During the night, we all learned a valuable lesson...

After I finished my second double-leg, I changed shorts and took off my warm-up pants. My phone happened to be in my pants. I stuffed the pants in the back of the van and I drove away. A couple of miles down the road, my phone started blowing up with text messages and ringing! It just kept on and on ringing! We were all saying, man, that must be important! And nobody could get to my phone, so it just rang and rang. I said, "As soon as we get to the next exchange, I'm going to check to see who that is and what is wrong. I mean, it's 10 minutes to midnight. It must be an emergency." When we got there... the text was from Andy Durr, and it said, "Hey. U guys a man down?"

Doh!!! We left him behind! It turns out that in the hustle and bustle of the exchange that Andy hopped out to use the port-a-john. We all thought he was asleep on one of the van benches. So, I drove off. Lesson... if you need to use the port-a-john, tell someone!

There's caveat to this lesson, though. Don't tell which port-a-john you use.
Why can't you get out, Mark?
The Early Morning Hours
I have so many stories to tell. I could go into a lot of details about each double-leg I did and blah blah blah. But none of that matters. Through the night, Team Memphomaniacs had a 20 minute lead. We had given up hope of winning this thing. I texted a friend of mine at about 1:00 AM. "We're in second place now and we won't make up the difference." The next thing I knew, they had a 15 minute lead. Then a 10 minute lead. Then, as I was was waiting to begin my third and final double-leg, Andy comes in yelling, "I caught them! I caught them! Eric, you have about 50 or 100 meters! Go! Go! Go!" So, I took off.

There were two problems, though. First, I was DEAD TIRED. I had nothing in my legs. My legs simply would not go. They were completely dead. Toast. Second, the guy I was competing against in this leg is a 16:30 5k runner. He's out of my league. I led for about a half a mile. He passed and I was powerless to do anything about it. I was running about 6:40 when he passed. Nope, I could do nothing. I hung on as best as I could. I let him get a bit of a lead because his move was very strong. Then, I thought, "I'll just keep him in sight. He'll probably slow down when he thinks he's broken me." Nope. He kept hammering. I dropped back to about a 7:00 pace and that was all I had. Next thing I knew, I was running 7:40 and it felt impossible. During this 10.4 mile double leg, they put about two minutes back in front of us.

I felt horrible. I had let the team down. There was nothing I could do about it. Sigh. Then their lead grew back up to about 8 minutes.

It was about 7:45 in the morning. Jake was out on his last leg, getting ready to hand off to Shawn for his last leg. Shawn had asked me to take his last leg, 4.5 miles. I told him "NO WAY." I'm done. I can barely hold a 7:40 pace. I'd rather not run if that's the fastest I can go. Then, Shawn got out of the van and walked to get into the port-a-potty line. He could barely walk he was limping so badly. He had given it all he had after the prior weekend's Marine Corps Marathon. While he waited in line, I changed my clothes and pinned on a number. When he got out, I told him... "I got this." The lead was still 8 minutes. I had no idea how I was going to pull this off, but I was going to. This was a very hilly 4.5 miles, and I gave all I had. I managed somehow to run a 6:30 final mile, but I didn't make much of a dent in their lead. Maybe 40 seconds. But... We still have George!

Catching Up
Mark was not ready at the exchange, and I had to look for him and it took about 60-90 seconds. Even though I screamed for him and made a complete jerk of myself at the exchange, I totally forgive him. You'll see why later. He made up some ground also, but then he handed off to George DeWitt. George DeWitt is no doubt one of the best runners I know.

We gave George a double-leg. The first section had a nasty hill. The second section was long and not flat, either. During the first section, he chased down their 16:30 5k guy and got him in sight. He was not able to catch him, but he was looking over his shoulder at George. He was hurting and George never let up on him. When he handed off to his teammate, George just kept chugging.

George caught the other runner very early in the second part of his double-leg. I thought George would put a good 5 minutes on this second guy, but I have to take my hat off to him. This guy gritted and suffered. You could see it on his face. He was HURTING. He managed to keep George in his sight. I totally admire the effort that guy gave to keep George close.

When George came to the finish of his double leg, he handed off to Mark with less than a 200m lead. I really believed that we were toast at that point. Their guy shot out of the exchange and caught and passed Mark very early. Mark told me that he just wanted to keep him in his sight. This leg was another hilly 6.4 mile stretch. Mark kept him close. Then, on one of the hills, their dude started walking up the hill! That gave Mark insane energy and hope! He closed the gap, and then on the next hill, Mark hammered the up and blew past him. Then, when Mark got past him, he didn't look back! He just ran as hard as he could, hammering the hills because he knew it was that guy's weakness, not knowing how much distance he was putting between him and their guy. When Mark got to the exchange, he had opened up more than a two minute lead in about 10k! And Mark completely collapsed at the exchange from exhaustion. That was the gutsiest run I've ever witnessed in person. MARK FREEMAN IS A BEAST!

Then, Mark handed off to Andy Durr, the closer. We knew that their second strongest runner was going to anchor and finish. Could Andy build enough of a cushion during the first part of his double-leg? We were on pins and needles and have been since about 8:00 AM! Andy added to Mark's lead during the first part of his double-leg. Then, their fast guy took over but Andy had over two minutes and less than 6 miles. Durr ran very hard and kept the lead. What an effort! The lead was shrinking, but safe. We saw the "One Mile to Go" sign, and Andy's lead was a good 200 meters, and he kicked it in! The lead was NOT shrinking by much at all! Andy was moving! With less than half a mile to go, the lead was still nearly 200 meters. Then, there were some turns through downtown Nashville, and we lost Andy and his competitor.

I hopped out of the van and ran to the finish to see Andy win, to see if there would be a sprint. I ran past several of the other Memphomaniacs, and Andy had passed but they hadn't seen their guy. I ran to the finish to congratulate Andy. It turns out that their guy had taken a wrong turn and finished ahead of Andy. But he never passed Andy, and Andy ran the correct course. What!?!?

So, the Race Director, not wanting to DQ the other team, claimed that the city blocks should be equal distance and that both teams would be considered first place in the Ultra Division. Now, there is no way they ran the same distance at the end. No. Way. The lead that Andy had was not going to be made up in the distance left. And, there is no route they could have taken which would have been equivalent. They cut the course short. The Race Director made the wrong call. Period.

But, we're okay with it. No money on the line. We wanted to break 24 hours. We ran 23:55, and there is no way we would have without those guys pushing us.

That was far and away the best race experience I've ever had!

I cannot say how much I appreciate all of the guys on this team. Those two days were great. Every one of those guys is a quality human being. Every. One. We talked about everything from work (yeah, we did talk some shop) to family to bathroom habits to port-a-john disgustingness to racing strategy to length of hair (Andy, really, you're OK!). We talked about Jesus, creation, the kings of Israel and Judah, the prophets, and Samson. Great times running and not running!