A Glimpse at the Promise Land
By Eric Grossman
Mid-week I told my wife that I was finally looking forward
to an ultra.
Don't get me wrong; my runs so far this year have been great. Each one,
however, has involved some looming injury, illness, or shortcoming that
dangled a sense of dread in the way of excited anticipation. Oddly, each one
left me immediately stronger than I had been before it.
Take Mountain Mist in January. Ever since I inadvisably ran HUFF, my knee
had not been right. I had been forced to curtail every run of over 30
minutes. But I really wanted to run Dink's race. I e-mailed to him that I
just couldn't do it. Not only had I been unable to train adequately, but my
knee hurt too much! Well I called Dink on Wednesday before the race and told
him to hold my spot. I had just finished a 60 minute run without knee pain.
The least I could do was run until the pain hobbled me. I ran. The knee
didn't bother me, and hasn't hurt since. That jump started my running for
Three races since Mist formed the backbone of my training: Carl Touchstone
50 mile in Mississippi, Land between the Lakes 60K in Kentucky, and McNaughton
Park 50 mile in Illinois. The short timespan across these runs meant that
they were nestled in my training. I did not have time to taper. I felt
somewhat leg weary throughout each run. I finished each of them grateful to
have it over with. My recovery time, however, decreased each time. After
McNaughton, I was able to continue training without pause. I added interval
workouts to my training mix for the first time since I started running
ultras last year. And they were actually (relatively) fast!
So I felt excited and ready to run a zippy little 50K. I say zippy because
my Spring training has been with the intent to run the Mohican 100 mile in
June. Promise Land was my last chance to show some speed before I hammer out
any fast twitch impulses I might have left. Of course I knew that the
Virginia course would have a lot of climb, but hey, it's 50K, no need to
hold back! Besides, a lot of uphill means a lot of downhill, right? Fast
Even as late as Thursday I felt that all the pieces were in place for a fast
fun race. I didn't let the odd pains enter into my thinking much. The
persistent feeling that a tendon had partially torn from a small bone in my
left foot, for example. Or the occasional, but sharp, stab of pain that
makes me think some cartilage has peeled from the medial portion of my left
knee. Even the short episodes of dizziness that had just started Wednesday
afternoon seemed insignificant. I drove with my wife and 2 (lovely) children
to their grandparents house in Ashland, and then continued with my wife to a
campground in West Virginia. We parked by the lake and inhaled the
overpowering musk of Spring.
My head was spinning somewhat that night. When I got up the next morning it
was somewhat difficult for me to stand upright. The left side of my world
seemed to fall away in front of me. It was quite sickening. The nausea made
me swallow hard. I had to walk, and only look at trees in the distance. I
didn't feel like eating. The fragrances floating from the flowering trees
that the night before had added to the sense of fertility around us now just
smeared my already blurred sense of the world. I told Robin that we needed
I drove with my head pinned to the headrest and my eyes straight ahead. The
dizziness subsided, but the nausea persisted throughout the day. Fortunately
I was able to start eating. Once at Promise Land, I ran up the first part of
the course. I said up, right? That helped clear my head. Then I dug into the
pizza that Horton had ordered for the runners. Never tried that for a
pre-race meal before.
When I stood up from eating the pain pierced my left knee. Hey, that was the
odd pain from earlier in the week. Its worse now! I could barely walk
straight. I limped over to the van. Surely if I just move a little
differently it would settle down. Nope. Could that one uphill/downhill jog
have inflamed my knee? Surely not! I gimped around a bit. Nothing I could
really do. Get some rest and hope that something would relax and move
differently in the morning. I knew I should stay at the van and avoid
Horton's "briefing." Somehow I couldn't resist.
I don't remember if there was any useful information proffered or not.
Horton did mention Clark Zealand's course record time of 4:30. He said none
of us was tough enough to beat it. But he was really just trying to explain
that the course doesn't run like your average 50K (or could it be that the
course is somewhat longer than 50K??). You see Clark, running amongst a
highly competitive field, had clocked a particular 2.7 mile section between
aid stations in 43 minutes. Scott Jurek blazed through the same section in
41 minutes. Horton assured us we would take longer. He must have provoked me
more than I wanted to believe at that moment. I was feeling like the 4:30
wake-up call he warned us about was going to come around too soon. Some
restful sleep seemed like just the ticket to smooth out the jagged little
I convinced Robin to retire to the van a little after nine. We just laid
there. We were parked in a grassy field turned parking lot turned campground
surrounded by vehicles and tents. But it was quiet. I began to feel like I
had to move my legs. I thought about how bad the pain would have to be in my
foot for me to stop running. When I turned over I felt dizzy. Then I
wondered what would happen if I got dizzy on a narrow trail running down the
steep side of a mountain. I laid there. Sometime after ten I leaned up on my
elbow and asked Robin if she was awake. She said yes. I asked her if she
could do anything that would help me sleep. She said to picture myself on a
beach. Then she was quiet. I asked if that was the only thing. She sighed.
Eventually I did go to sleep. I woke up a few hours later. I laid there
until I heard Horton at 4:30. I sat up slowly. Pleased that I didn't lose my
balance or feel whoozy, I made my preparations. Robin was worried. I told
her that I didn't know why I had been so restless. Either I would be able to
complete the run or I wouldn't. We didn't fret again. I did take two
Tylenols and stretch my ileo-tibial band on the off chance that either would
help. I was passing aware of a faint pain in my knee as I walked around
taking care of business.
As the 5:30 start time approached, I noticed how dark the world outside our
little camp area looked. I grabbed an old headlamp that Robin had brought to
read with. I hadn't expected to need a flashlight.
Horton sent us off in the dark without the promised lead car. Five of us
relied on my dinky headlamp for the long ascent up a gravel road. We didn't
hurry. I began to gauge the slope by the profusion of sweat on my forehead.
The four around me had to choose between running my pace or running in the
dark. They chose my pace. I stopped at the first aid station to fill up my
bottles (I had left them mostly empty for the climb). From there we dashed
into the woods. More climbing. I turned off my light. As the terrain finally
leveled off I sped up to a pace that while faster, felt considerably more
comfortable. The more varied terrain immediately brought life back to my
legs. We wound through the woods for a time and then I was alone. When I
emerged onto a grassy graded slope winding back down the mountain my eyes
and mouth opened wide for the first time. I flew into the valley below.
The spectacular surroundings infused energy into my run that never subsided.
Crawling out of that warm wet valley as the sun slowly burned off the fog
then emerging across the top of the mountain into the crisp wind spoke life
into my ears. I ripped away winter's clunky layers as I descended back down
the mountain. The see-saw across that great fulcrum was filled with childish
glee but it was an adult rhythm. A stag charged gracefully away up the steep
At some point I did the math to know that I could not make 4:30 for the full
distance. My spirit was soaring, but my abdomen tightened with the unusually
long and brutal toll of running fast downhill. I could not leave all of
myself on the course. I did want to see how fast I could do the notorious
climb from mile 24 to mile 27. It started gently enough, along a roiling
creek. The footing was only moderately technical. The second mile, however,
climbed dramatically to a truly spectacular falls and overlook. If this run
was like a lifespan, and it was, then pausing at the overlook after passing
the falls toward the end of a tough tough climb was like pausing to watch
your children after they have grown. For that moment I had a sense of life's
grandeur. Brief was the pause, however, as I had yet to complete my long
climb. When I mounted the summit my wife was waiting for me. Forty minutes.
I was so excited that I declined the refreshment. I wanted the last section
of the race to be as light and fast as possible. Every minute seemed
The final four miles took me back down the mountain. Toward the end my feet
just slapped awkwardly on the gravel. My legs had taken a beating. My
breathing was labored as I tried to stretch my tightened gut. But I felt
happy. The sun shone. My run was done.
Thanks so much to David Horton, and other folks involved in ultra events who
make experiences like this possible!