Saturday, January 16, 2016

Today I ran my first official half marathon, the seventh annual Sandman Extreme Half Marathon in Wytheville, Virginia (pronounced With-ville). Promoters promised a thousand feet of elevation gain in the first five miles of this half marathon, as it climbs Sand Mountain. Over the course of the race there's about 1,700 feet of gain (according to the final numbers on MapMyFitness). So this is a half marathon, and a hike, and a little bit of a winter-tolerance test all rolled into one.

The field for the Sandman Extreme is limited, only 100 runners are allowed to sign up each year, and I don't think the race has yet hit that cap in any of the seven runnings. I'm not surprised by that. The conditions of the race are daunting. Not only that, but Wytheville is a tiny country town without a reputation as a "destination location." I spent a couple of days in Wytheville during the weekend of the race, and I liked the town. I had a tasty dinner at a nice little hotel restaurant, and felt at home strolling around and shopping. I'd have no reservations about going back. Still, I understand that very tough races in remote locations aren't attractive to everyone. Not everyone wants a combination of tranquility and physical pain, in a pastoral setting, mixed thoroughly and applied liberally.

I went to Wytheville the day before the race and drove the course of the Sandman Extreme. It was beautiful. It was also imposing. The road up Sand Mountain isn't insanely steep, but it is a steady, constant upward grade. And a long one. Those five miles to the top of the mountain are steady and consistent, but not ridiculous. At least, that's how it seemed in the car. I began to wonder as I drove if the comfort of car travel was lulling me into a false sense of security. I wondered if I would perceive this winding mountain road very differently on foot. Maybe, on foot, I'd think of this road as relentless rather than constant.

The race begins and ends inside the town limits of Wytheville, at the town's old recreation center on fourth street. On the morning of the race the temperature was in the mid-thirties, and the previous day's rain had stopped. I got to the rec center early to talk to local folks about the course. After all, nothing is ever quite what it seems to an out-of-towner. An older gentleman told me with a grin that the course is tough. Steep. Lots of climbing. But the long section after the mountain is flat, winding country road. Piece of cake. Just be prepared for the demanding last mile back up into town. That last mile is "somewhat difficult," he said. During my previous day's drive, the last bit coming back into town hadn't seemed noteworthy to me, but I thanked him for the information. 

I talked to a couple of other runners who, like me, had not run the Sandman before. One was a friendly, happy runner named Rob, a guy I'd guess was in his early 50's. He told me that he had only done a couple of half marathons, and he hoped those runs had at least somewhat prepared him for what was ahead today. He had friends who'd finished the Sandman in previous years, and they'd boasted of its rigors. Rob asked me if I had run the Sandman before.

"No," I said. "In fact, this is my first half marathon."

"You picked this race for your first half?" he asked, with good natured incredulity.

"Yeah," I said, looking for words that wouldn't make me seem crazy or stupid, or both. "Uh, I run hills a lot. I live in a hilly town and run on the hills. And, I, um... I like a challenge."

"Oh, you're gonna get a 'challenge,'" Rob said. And we both laughed, and I held back the urge to curse a little bit. Instead of cursing, I just told Rob that I wanted to complete the race in less than two hours. We laughed again, but this time his laugh seemed more genuine than mine.

The next thing I knew, the horn sounded and the race started, and we were on our way. About 50 able-bodied racers jogged into a slight fog, toward Sand Mountain, which stood indifferent in the distance.

That's something about mountains that has always struck me, whether I'm running or hiking, or simply driving past them. I'm always impressed by their indifference. We are moved by them, of course. By their beauty, by their size. We feel like we've done something when we climb a mountain, we congratulate ourselves and we make a lot of noise and take pictures. But ... and I hate to break this to my hippy friends ... this is not an act of communion with the mountain. The mountain just stands there, unmoved. It tells us nothing. A group of humans, traveling on foot, isn't even capable of annoying a mountain. You can't even say that a mountain ignores us. To ignore something, you have to choose not to acknowledge it. The mountain's indifference is absolute. It stands, silent, oblivious, just as it did hundreds of years before we were born. Just as it will hundreds of years from now. Mountains aren't interested in our fleeting victories. They are unsympathetic to our petty pains and our losses. Mountains traffic in the eternal. They simply have bigger fish to fry. (This, by the way, is not the most encouraging thought to have at the foot of a mountain you intend to try to climb.)

Early on in the Sandman Extreme, I found myself running solidly in the middle of the pack, and trying to remember to hold something back for the tough stuff coming up. And, an hour and fifty seven minutes after the start, I crossed the finish line exhausted and elated. I'd crossed Sand Mountain, I'd done it in just under two hours, and for a moment I had transcended the eternal. If Sand Mountain was indifferent to what I felt at the end of this race, that was Sand Mountain's loss.

In short, yes, the Sandman is a hard race. But it's also a great one, and I would say unequivocally that it is the most fun I have had in this first year as a runner. The first five miles to the top of Sand mountain are tough, indeed. During each of the last three of those miles I allowed myself to slow to a "power hike" pace for what felt like 100 yards at a time. That strategy worked; I found that I had plenty of energy left for the trip back down the mountain. Running downhill can be as exhausting as running uphill. It requires a certain amount of effort to not build up too much steam and end up going end over end. But the winding road that had been a tough jog up seemed to be just the perfect grade for an easy run down. My middle miles were my fastest of the race, and the cruise through the flat country roads back toward Wytheville was blissful.

I do have to say that calling the last mile of the Sandman Extreme "somewhat difficult" is the understatement of the year. The last mile of that race is the hardest mile I have run in my life. After climbing the mountain it is easy to forget that there is still some uphill to come at the end of the race. I know I wasn't the only runner who dropped the hammer during the race's long middle section. I couldn't have been the only runner in agony as we worked our way back into town, up what seemed like the steepest and meanest mile of the day. I have very rarely felt the kind of relief that I felt as I crossed the finish line of the Sandman Extreme. And most of that sense of relief was because of that brutal, final mile.

Again, my thoughts toward the end of the Sandman Extreme veered toward the eternal. The transcendent lyrics of the bluegrass classic, "Angel Band", came into my head. "My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run. My strongest trials now are past, my triumph has begun." If our most honest prayers are offered in fear, surely they are rivaled by the prayers we offer in gratitude.

I finished the race and ran straight to my car before I even checked my official time. In the glove-box there was a shiny new car magnet that reads 13.1.  I'd been waiting to apply that magnet to my car's trunk since I got it a month ago. Now, absent of the pride with which I'd first purchased the magnet, I stuck it on the car as a simple expression of gratitude. Gratitude for the moment, for the race, and for the mountain. 

The magnet, of course, is a transitory and meaningless token of the experience itself. And the experience itself is less than a micro-blip in the history of Sand Mountain (a mountain that was ancient before some European decided to call it Sand Mountain in the first place). But there is something to be said for the transitory. Our victories aren't diminished by the provisional nature of our lives. It's their brilliant, short spark that gives these moments their beauty. It was a bone-deep joy that I felt when I crossed that finish line, aware that I can now do more than I'd have thought a year ago, and wondering what I might be able to do a year from now, and realizing that I know as little about myself as I do about Sand Mountain.

(But wait, there's more! I ran the Sandman Extreme again one year later, and this time I kept my summary mercifully brief. In comparison to this one. You can read that summary of the following year's race at this link.)