David: I would like to welcome Matthew Crownover, our newest contributor on Endurance Buzz! Matt can be seen pushing the pace at the front of the race or enjoying a good conversation with the tribe towards the back. Matt has a wide range of trail/ultra running and general life experiences that will translate to writings of insight, entertainment, and even opportunities to reflect.
Matt recently ran a spicy 3:16 at the Grasslands trail marathon and was kind in sharing his adventure with us.
I also want to offer a special thanks to Matt’s eight year old son (and trail runner), Micah, who took the video footage at the finish while I was scrambling to park the car.
I entered the race with that excitement born of poor planning and lack of impulse control— so when I heard about a couple of young fast guys who’d be pushing the pace, I decided to throw caution to the wind, and try to hang with them. I essentially showed up at Grasslands with simply a willingness to push hard, to let these young guys set the pace, but honestly having no hard evidence as to what on earth will happen. I knew they were stronger and faster than me, but I figured I was experienced enough to pull out of a nosedive before the crash was too fatal. And besides, if I was wrong, and did crash, well I figured I was mature and grounded to handle going down in a big blaze of incompetence and unrealistic expectations. The stage was set!
Getting to the start line with a family is a race unto itself. I will spare you those details, but what I loose in sleep and preparation, I more than gain in joy and laughter—and also God’s providential way of inviting me to deepen my practice of patience.
After 24 years of racing, you’d think I’d seen it all. But then again, the sense that there is always something new to learn is part of what keeps me in love with the sport. This year’s race was one of the most dramatic “races” I’ve been a part of in years. Part of that is what was happening outside: with the trail and between us runners. Part of it was happening in my head and heart. For me, it’s often a tossup which is more consequential.
We arrived at the race with just a few minutes to spare, which I used to shock my young sons with a public didactic on nipple protection, some furtive crotch lubing, then counted out a few gels, only barely remembering I’d need to eat something in this race. Hastily, I completed my humiliation in front of my boys as I tried to manage a couple of downward and upward dogs to get the body awake…and barely made it to the start in time.
It was only when the gun went off that I really thought about how to run. I fell in with the front guys, never dreaming that we top 4 (Allen, Daniel, Glen, and I) would essentially trade places for the next 15 miles, never really engaging the rest of the field.
Allen was off like a rocket, and quickly took a wrong turn (along with another guy—but ,I’d never see this second guy again) following red markers instead of white at only three minutes in. Daniel, Glenn, and I had a sort of truce underway, in which we were working together to confirm the markers’ color (white) in the early morning darkness. This was a fun time. We knew the battle would come later I suppose, but for now we were helping each other and enjoying the camaraderie. The course is not poorly marked at all. But it does require vigilance, given that multiple trails are in use. Also, there are some white gas line things that look kind of like trail markers, so we were working as a team to sort all of this out during loop one.
Allen was clearly fit to crush the race, but was not part of our alliance, and kept missing turns. I felt both compassion and amazement as he essentially ran a series of out-and-back fartleks during the marathon. He’d disappear from sight, and then I’d see him coming back to us and he’d resume the course. There was a few occasions that this created what was in effect another starting line. I think that as late as 15 miles there were still moments that the four of us were all together again, by one means or another. I joked that we could have just met up for a 10 miler, and saved ourselves some trouble. I have to hand it to Allen, he never seemed to get cranky or upset, and he didn’t try to cut the course when he realized he was off. He just ran back and picked up the trail again. The fact that he was kicking my butt–but still with me–cracked me up. This guy could run circles around me.
Meanwhile I am getting to know this young Daniel guy. I like him. He’s kind, and strong as an ox. He also saved us all many times from wrong turns. He tells stories of 85 mile weeks during cross country season in college—that’s recent history, I noted. Finally, somewhere after mile 15, I level with him: “Dude, quit farting around with me—get up there and win this race.” He takes off and really it is a lovely thing for me to watch. I don’t think I’ve ever been lucky enough to watch a race from this vantage point: I’m getting to observe the race for 1st place between Daniel and Allen. I knew poor Allen had some extra stress from the early wrong turns, but I also knew it was possible that was of no consequence, a guy of his ability might not notice. Both of these guys are way outta my league, so it was fun to watch as long as I could—before their speed carried them out of my view.
Now I know that unless Allen runs off course again, and Daniel gets abducted by aliens—a fate I wish on neither–that this is a race for 3rd, which just tickles me pink, if you’ll pardon the emasculating idiom.
But there is dear Glenn Pratt to deal with—plus whatever marauding hordes of runners I know are behind us, despite having yet to see them. I’ve concluded that Glenn is stronger than I am, and faster too. He and I keep cracking each other up as we keep getting together on the trail. The latter stages of a fast marathon afford for less pleasant conversation than the early miles, suffice to say. Less noble runners could have been annoyed, thinking we were aping each other, but honestly it was one of those weird cases where our paces and breaks just added up that way and we kept swapping spots late in the race. Most alarming to me, was that he would catch up to me after a brief stop, signaling his strong ability to surge. By this point we’d passed my kids, and my wife was on the course. I told Glenn that if he was going to crush me, please do it in the woods where they would not see. Please, Glenn, don’t humiliate me in front of them….I kept thinking: “this guy is stronger than I am, he’s faster too, so how can I crack this thing open?” I searched my experience for something to leverage, and really could only cook up some vague valuation of adversity. You run enough ultras, and you almost kind of want something to go wrong, it is hard to explain…. I was not sure what to do with it, did not know even what that notion really meant. Then it started to hail, then the lightening, then the cold rain, then an uphill…. Adversity, right on schedule!
One of my greatest joys was that my friend Dave had helped my wife get on the course—and I got to see them both a few times. Thanks, Dave! This is a rare treat. Juliana and I have a terrible history of actually connecting, and often miss each other to our mutual confusion and frustration. So when I saw her pop out near the finish and acknowledge that “some guy who looked a lot like her husband was sure running fast”, I was very pleased.
I was thrilled to be anywhere under 3:30. When I heard my actual time, 3:16, I understood immediately why I felt like I’d been stricken with polio. I’d run way beyond my ability that day. The conditions really were a big challenge for me, as the dry powder sand—especially on loop one/white—really did jack up my biomechanics and throw my tachometer way up as I tried to move on it. I knew I’d overdone it, and would pay for it, but was so grateful for the gift of the day.
So that is the part of the gift outside. Part of that gift is what was happening inside my head, and across the cosmos, during the race. On the eve of Palm Sunday, my mind and heart were drawn deeply to the mystery of this Holy Week. It begins with shouts of blessing and greeting, yippee, hooray, Hosanna! –as Jesus rides into Jerusalem—smack dab into a hornets’ nest he could have avoided by hanging out in the desert some more. He enters, not on a horse—the animal of a proud warrior or king, but a silly little donkey. Happy shouts fade and the story darkens, as his journey continues on. Along this path we meet enemies that plot to destroy, and even friends abandon, misunderstand, deny. And yet these are the ones Jesus claims to love, and he meets these conditions with acceptance. How to confront a friend you know will betray you? Invite him to Passover, share the meal, and love him anyway — even accepting that treacherous kiss. And if it really hits the fan? Put away your sword, Peter, that’s not what we are here to do…. Despair, hate, cynicism, running away, these are options he does not exercise.
I hesitate to apply Holy Week in some sort of way that might suggest a formulaic “cast a spell” notion, that this story is somehow a talisman. It is not about magic at all. It’s about questions. What does it mean? What would it mean to accept hardship, not as thwarting of my own plans, but as a pathway to peace? What would it mean, to be so open, so free, that I want nothing more than to be source of life and freedom to those around me, despite any circumstance? What would it look like to accept those around me, to love them, even as they disappoint me? The cup appears big enough, to hold both blessing and sorrow…could it be?
So if it really is all mixed up: suffering and redemption fear and love, then the trail between them seems to be one of openness, acceptance, and willingness. If anything was working, it was that.
Huge thanks to Paul Smith—a fantastic RD and true runner himself– and to the many who gave up free time to volunteer so that we could share in this special time.
– Matthew Crownover
Posted on 03 Apr 2013
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