Running Stories

Comeback on the Cracker Line

I lied…….to myself. After slogging through Seattle, I had told myself that was good enough. Weak! One week later, it is July 2009 and I was really not happy with my effort in that last marathon. Yes, I had a bad hamstring but I know I could have prepared better. There was little to be happy about because the preparation was all on me. Then, I had convinced myself I could eat what I want because I was a runner. Even weaker! I needed to get a little leaner. It would take effort and focus as I had left my quick burning metabolism somewhere back in my late thirties more than a decade ago.

My natural athletic ability is limited. It is simply who I am and where I come from. I am fine with that. What is unacceptable is not pushing what I do have to a higher level. I settled for something less in Seattle and lied to myself why that was okay. After shutting off the Rocky music in my head, I thought, “Hey, I could worker harder and still crash and burn, then what?” I turned the music back up, thinking, “Well, at least you won’t be a liar!” Life goes on. Time to try a little harder and eat a little less, it better be worth it. Sweat I can handle. Turning down a peanut butter malt would not be so easy. I was getting nervous.

On July 3rd, I went for a bike ride with friends Jim Carpenter and Dean Bott. There was a light rain but nothing that made us consider canceling the ride. Dean’s son was getting married later in the day so it was a good morning for him to get out for a ride with “the boys”. Good intentions turned to near disaster when we crossed a set of railroad tracks north of Kingsley.

Jim crossed just fine. Dean was second and he went down hard. I had a split second to react. I managed to swerve to avoid hitting him but in doing so I too went down. Luckily for us both, our feet were clipped into the pedals. This helped us avoid sticking a leg out and really breaking something. The main thing I remember is my head slamming into the pavement. I laid there for a little bit trying to assess what had happened.

When I got up, my helmet was broken but otherwise no harm was done. Dean had some good road rash and the start of a few good bruises up and down one side. We turned around and headed home at that point. Bruised and battered but thankfully we had not broken anything. I had a huge headache the rest of the day. Dean would later bleed through his dress shirt at the wedding much to the pleasure of his wife.

After that “great” start, July evolved into a good recovery month, time to heal the hamstring and maintain a running base. I ran 18 separate days and only went into double digits one time for a total of 85 miles. I got into the weight room in my basement at home or the workout room at the office 7 times. This was as many times as in the previous 3 months. I also found time for a couple more (slow and cautious) bike rides totaling 71 miles. I continued a daily stretching routine started months earlier and the hamstring began to respond.

Toward the end of July, the third member of the neighborhood running group, Kevin Krause, and I decided that the 30th running of the Battle of Chickamauga marathon in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia would be the next race in our 50 state quest. After finding a gem of a small marathon in West Virginia, we both wanted to “go small” again. Chickamauga had a limited field of 600 marathoners and 900 half marathon entrants. I was registered ($54.95) and committed on July 26th.

The 5500 acre Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia was the scene of the last major confederate victory in the civil war in the fall of 1863. The prize was Chattanooga, Tennessee, a key rail center and the gateway to the heart of the confederacy.

The next piece came together while reading an issue of RunnersWorld magazine. It contained a plan called the “marathon challenge”. They claimed it would help runners of all abilities get to the finish line quicker. It involved running 5 days a week. The goal for the Sunday long run was to run 1 or 1 ½ minutes slower than your marathon goal pace. The purpose was to leave the runner in better shape for the hill, tempo and speed sessions during the week. Words like “tempo” and “speed” are not often associated with my running but I now had the plan I was looking for. I was nervous again.

In August, I began a Wednesday trail run around the Brown Bridge dam near Traverse City. It was a good hill workout that about killed me the first time. I ran with Jim and Dean plus a couple relative newcomers. We had run with Dave Ford a couple times a winter or two ago. Dave introduced us to his regular running partner Rob Britton and off we went. All 4 of the other guys had qualified for the Boston Marathon in the past. My best ever marathon was more than 30 minutes slower than a Boston qualifying time. There I stood talking bravely while holding the proverbial knife at a gun fight. This trail run was 9 miles of lung busting trying to catch up for me. I never did that first day but as the weeks went by it did get easier.

August totaled 22 running days and 134 miles. I left the bike on the rack as that was not in the plan. It was all about getting the mileage in 5 days every week. The plan did not call for any time in the weight room but this is where I put in my own variation. I figured the 2 rest days were for my legs. I decided to continue the weight sessions I started in July on these 2 days to strengthen my core and upper body. I got in 9 weight room sessions totaling somewhere over 12 hours. The hamstring continued to improve while the weight dipped below 190 pounds at the end of the month.

Union General Willam S. Rosecrans’ army of the Cumberland numbered almost 60,000 strong. They were pitted against General Braxton Bragg’s 43,000 confederates dug in 20 miles southwest of Chattanooga. Reinforcements from east Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi swelled Bragg’s ranks to 66,000 men.

September was more of the same as the longest run stretched to 17 miles. Kevin was now well into coaching his daughter and the other kids on the Kingsley cross country team so I only ran with him on Sundays. The Brown Bridge trail runs continued to get gradually faster. I ran at a meeting in Burlington, Vermont and Marquette, Michigan with Brian Burns, General Manager for Presque Isle Electric and Gas. There were also a few runs and a bike outing with friend and local banker Jeremy Hawke. By the end of the month, I had 21 runs in for a total of 152 miles. Weight room sessions dropped to 7 and my body weight didn’t drop much more than a pound or two.

October saw more mileage than I had ever done in 1 month. We ran 20 miles twice plus 22 miles once on the Sunday long, slow runs. I ran the Brown Bridge trail for the last time on October 14th and posted my fastest time of the year by almost a minute per mile faster than that first lung buster in August. Not wanting to risk rolling an ankle and needing to build up my legs on the pavement, I told the guys thanks for the memories and ended the weekly trail run. Weight room sessions were back up to 9. I was slightly surprised when I totaled the 21 running sessions and the number came out at 198 miles. I felt good. The hamstring was at 95% or better. I also made a breakthrough on my weight which had dropped 7 more pounds. I had now lost almost 18 pounds as I weighed in at 182 on October 31.

October was the month I began to wear on my wife, best friend and last ever prom date, Mary. With this almost fanatical focus on “sticking to the plan”, she was at the washing machine as much as I was working out. (Yes, I can run the wash machine. No, I don’t. Let’s leave it at that for lack of space and time!) She has always been my first call after each marathon. Because of this, one day with another handful of sweaty clothes in hand, she asked, “Why are you trying so hard? You always call and are disappointed in your time.”

Ouch. I have always left on each marathon trip with a goal in mind which I often share only with her. Marathons are all different. I had run 11 marathons thus far and my best time was 4:09 at Green Bay, Wisconsin in 2004. Weather, food, body, hills and preparation had all been factors at some point in each race since which prevented me from beating that time. So, for the next 9 marathons, I had called Mary and had to explain why I was slower than 4:09. The last one, Seattle, was particularly bad as I was 48 minutes beyond the mark.

In response to her question, I could only mutter something along the lines of living longer, feeling better and letting the time take care of itself. It was a hollow answer at best to someone like her who had competed in track at a high level in high school and college. Why some want to run and run without winning anything is hard for others to understand. With a supportive roll of the eyes, she washed the clothes, again, that day. I got more nervous.

Bragg’s army was posted on the west bank of the Chickamauga Creek when fighting started on September 19th. The battle started at Jay’s Mill and spread south for 4 miles. The struggle was close in, hand-to-hand combat much of the time.

In November, the hard work was done. It was time to taper, avoid the swine flu (actually I was in a local grade school mentoring a little boy the day before it was closed due to a flu outbreak!) and focus on the 14th. After reading about adding salt to Gatorade to help retain more fluid on long runs, I tried it on a 15 mile run on November 1. It seemed to work as I had to pee at the end which never happens. I also had discovered that a number of my better runs during this entire training plan had come after eating a baked potato the day before the run. What to eat and drink has always been an ongoing experiment for me. It now felt like I had found a couple answers to my personal equation. The last bit of preparation was buying a new pair of shoes and breaking them in with a few runs. I spent a couple days in early November doing absolutely nothing. I felt as ready as ever.

After picking up Kevin shortly after 5 am on Thursday, November 12, we were in the car headed south to Georgia. Listening to Kevin’s Garmin affectionately named “Phyllis”, the route was relatively easy, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga and finally 840 some miles later Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Forth Oglethorpe is about 10 miles across the river from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

We switched drivers every 2 hours and took a couple longer stops to eat. Even so, most of the 15 hour ride was spent in the daylight. We had some traffic congestion in Louisville but other than that the drive was uneventful. It was dark when we got in the Chattanooga area so our introduction to the neighborhood was just the long, long downhill on the interstate into Chattanooga. By the time we arrived at the Super 8 in Georgia the winding road had taken us into Georgia, back to Tennessee then back into Georgia.

Primed for one day of relaxation in Georgia, we woke early the next day and treated ourselves to the hotel’s continental breakfast of juice, biscuits and gravy. Then we headed over to the battle field for an easy 3 mile run on part of the course. It was a cool morning with fog lifting from the low areas. Fog shrouded cannons on an open field made one wonder what mornings were like during the actual battle.

After that, we went over to check out the 6th Calvary Museum which would be the location for the packet pick up that evening. We were greeted by the curator, Chris McKeever, who recognized my name and presented me with a local newspaper clipping. Because I was one of the entrants traveling the farthest to compete in the marathon, I had received a phone call from a local reporter and answered a few questions. I thought nothing of it but this lady who was originally from Kalamazoo had the foresight to clip it out in case I stopped. It was a great welcome to Georgia and an indication of the southern hospitality that was unique to this trip.

We checked out the displays, learning that General Patton had played polo on the field outside. After that, I drove and Kevin navigated a map of the course as we went over much of the route we would run the next day. The course was far from flat but nothing worse than what we had trained on back home. I had hoped that scoping out the course might help me relax a bit as I had spent quite a bit of time checking the elevation changes on a Google maps site on my computer back home. Actually driving up and down the hills I had traced over and over with my mouse was helpful but not relaxing. I was still nervous.

Gradually, the union line was broken. Union General George Thomas and some remaining Federals made a stand on Snodgrass Hill. They held on valiantly against repeated attacks earning Thomas the nickname, “Rock of Chickamauga”. Finally, under the cover of darkness, they escaped in a hasty retreat to Chattanooga.

We followed that up with a brief drive around the rural area outside Fort Oglethorpe. Lunch consisted of chili and a baked potato at Wendy’s. After a short nap (yes, we enjoyed the day off!), we went to the top of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. The view of the Chattanooga river valley below was quite impressive. The sky was clear and the weather was a perfect 70+ degrees. I found myself thinking about how nice a Georgia winter must be.

Packet pickup was the typical hordes of people for a brief time. The race entrance fee included a nice long sleeve technical shirt but a computer hiccup of some type had changed the shirt sizes for many of the entrants. They were not allowing people to trade until the next day and it was a disappointment to learn that I had been given a shirt that might be too small for my 15 year old daughter. (Fortunately, I was able to turn it in the next day and sign a list for a future mailing of the correct size.)

We decided against the usually watered down group spaghetti supper for a local restaurant recommended to us at the museum. “Tony’s” was the name of the mom and pop establishment and it did not disappoint. The bread was heavenly and the fettucini alfredo the best I have ever had. It was Italian food laced with a heavy dose of southern hospitality as the waitress addressed us as either “honey” or “baby”. It was a fitting end to a very relaxing day.

We parked on Patton’s polo field prior to the 7:30 a.m. start on the morning of the race. A Civil War cannon was manned by a crew of re-enactors who were preparing to fire the starting shot. The temperature was 48 degrees. I was glad to have the sweatshirt I had purchased at Goodwill. It would keep me warm until discarded at mile 2. While I hoped for an average of 9 minutes per mile, Kevin was aiming for 10 minutes. So, we parted company shortly before the start. I had never finished ahead of Kevin and now I would have the pressure of him being on my tail all day long. Yup, I had butterflies.

Donned in my favorite Captain America jersey, I enjoyed a nice national anthem buoyed by the excitement of everyone around me. Then the cannon sounded and I just about jumped out of my shorts. Holy crap it was loud and scary. I can’t imagine standing in a line next to my brother and neighbors in the Civil War, hearing that sound AND then running towards it. I likely would have packed up my powder and ran 9 minute miles in the opposite direction!

No more time to be nervous, it was time to run. We circled Patton’s polo grounds and headed out onto the battlefield. At the start of any marathon, it is important to not run too fast. This is often not a problem for someone of my limited abilities. Mile 1 was just under 9 minutes but mile 2 was almost a minute slower. Slow is relaxing but today I didn’t want to “relax” quite that much. I dumped my disposable outer layer and let my red, white and blue colors show as I picked up the pace.

The Confederates countered by following the Thomas retreat. Chattanooga was soon sealed off, preventing supplies from entering the city. This stranglehold had to be broken or Rosecrans’ army would starve or be forced to surrender.

Because the course drink was provided by Powerade, I left a bottle of my salty Gatorade mix below the mile 2 aid station table in hopes that it would be there when I completed the second loop of the double loop course. I took my first sip from the bottle I carried and hoped it would last the first 13 miles.

8:45 on mile 3, 8:40 on mile 4, 8:37 on mile 5, 8:52 on mile 6, 8:38 on mile 7 and 8:51 on mile 8, it was going well early on. The course was running up and down hills all day long but other than a couple they were not long, just constantly annoying. The sun was out. It was a great day for a run.

I kept passing a couple ladies who would sprint then walk. This continued back and forth a number of times like a game of leap frog. Each time they would chirp, “See you in a bit Captain America!” I think it helped me keep pace a bit as I tried to increase the distance between our meetings.

Mile 9 (9:00) was followed by a half mile out and back portion to mile 10 (9:03). This gave everyone an opportunity to see the runners a mile ahead and a mile behind. Kevin and I traded high fives as we passed in opposite directions. I mentally thought that I needed to be far enough ahead of him on the second loop that our paths wouldn’t cross if I was going to have a good day. This section was also where I parted company with the leap frog ladies for the last time.

Slowing to a 9:13 pace in mile 11 and beginning to feel the burn of a blister on my foot, I came upon a man and women running together. Listening, I quickly learned that they were hoping for a 4 hour finish. I introduced myself and asked if I could join them. Andrew from Georgia had run more than 20 marathons, losing some 50 pounds in the process. He sported a Marathon Maniacs shirt that he had earned for doing 2 marathons in a week. Kim from Tennessee was working on her 2nd marathon and frequently trained on the battlefield course. All in the age 40 something neighborhood, none of us had ever gone under 4 hours in a marathon. Together, we lamented the fact that the 4 hour pace group had quickly disbanded when the leaders went off at a blistering sub 3 hours and 40 minute pace leaving more than one newbie distressed from early “burn out”. Ours would be an unofficial and more manageable 4 hour group.

In October, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived with 36,000 Union reinforcements and assumed overall command from Rosecrans. On October 28th, the Federals opened a short supply route from Bridgeport, Alabama. Hungry troops soon dubbed it the “cracker line”. It was a small but important turning point in the conflict.

Andrew had the better GPS watch as mine began to get a weak signal from time to time so he set the pace as the three of us ran side by side for the next 90 some minutes. Andrew would comment about slowing down and I would respond, “Not today Andrew.” Someone would worry about their hips hurting and I would respond, “Not today.” We were in that rare space and time continuum often referred to as “the zone”. It was the best 10 mile stretch I had ever experienced in a race. The only downer was not finding my extra bottle of salted Gatorade on the second loop.

8:51 on mile 12, 9:26 on mile 13, 8:02 on mile 14, 8:55 on mile 15, 9:03 on mile 16, 9:08 on mile 17, 9:02 on mile 18, 8:55 on mile 19, 10:18 on mile 20 and 8:56 on mile 21 kept me distracted from worrying about hitting the wall which had happened at about mile 17 during the last 3 marathons.

I remember looking at my watch after the 20 mile mark. I had an average of 8:58 per mile and needed to run 6.2 miles in the next hour to break the 4 hour barrier. Mile 21 saw Andrew pull ahead and Kim drop back. The hills and pace had finally busted up the trio and the wall was upon me albeit lightly. I didn’t see Kevin as I did the out and back portion for the second time.

On November 23rd, Federals made a push and took Orchard Knob and Lookout Mountain. Bragg’s confederate army was now concentrated on Missionary Ridge. On November 25th, the Union attacked on the right and left while holding reserves in the center. Union soldiers acting without orders scaled the heights of Missionary Ridge and collapsed the confederate line. Bragg’s troops fled to the rear and retreated into Georgia.

In past races, I have taken power gels and always ended up with an upset stomach whether I drank water or Gatorade with them. For this race, I had decided to forgo the gels, sticking with just the salty Gatorade and a few electrolyte/salt tablets. However, packing for the trip I had come across on old Carbboom double caffeine mocha gel and stashed it in my running belt. Like Popeye and a can of spinach, I ripped the top on that gel and choked it down. It was like coffee syrup but I had nothing to lose. Unlike spinach, the desired effect was not immediate.

I finished mile 22 in 10:15. Kim caught me briefly in the next mile. We exchanged labored words of encouragement and I went ahead but mile 23 was a disaster at 12:32. Three miles out, I gave up on pacing myself with my watch as the tree cover was causing it to go in and out (Dear Santa – I want a watch like Andrew’s!). The stop watch was still running. Through the fog in my brain and sweat in my eyes, I could calculate good enough to know the 4 hour mark was ever so slightly slipping away.
In mile 24, I think the gel started to kick in as I felt like I had made it through the wall. Every little hill was still miserable but the pace felt respectable. There were no spectators to speak of so the only energy to draw from was either my own or other racers striving to find a surge of their own.

Finally, with my watch ticking off 3:57, I could hear the band playing on the polo grounds. I didn’t know how far it really was but energized by the finish I ran as fast as I could go. A runner must have designed the course because there was a gradual decline in the last mile that helped immensely. Coming down the stretch, I knew the 4 hour mark would not be reached. I finished hard, high fiving Andrew who was smiling on the sidelines 20 yards from the end. I pointed at him and said, “I PR’d today because of you!” as I went by. The timing chip on my shoe gave me a 4:01:08. A personal record by more than 8 minutes!

The siege and battle for Chattanooga were over. Union armies now controlled the city and nearly all of Tennessee. The next spring, General Sherman used Chattanooga for his base as he started his march to Atlanta and ultimately the sea.

On a beautiful 73 degree day, my personal comeback on the Georgia cracker line was complete. This time I was honestly happy. It felt great as I walked back to the car wearing a very cool medal of a Civil War soldier manning a cannon. Emotions are always a part of finishing a marathon for me. Physically spent, I always need a few minutes to compose myself as I think back to what it has taken to get to the end. Teary eyed and with a shaky voice, I made the traditional call to Mary and proudly exclaimed, “My fastest EVER!” Life is unpredictable. That call may never happen again but on this one day, I was ecstatic to have turned back the clock.

After the call, I sat soaking in the day for a bit before spotting Andrew and Kim. We exchanged handshakes and congratulations. Andrew had finished in 3:53 which was a personal record for him by 30 minutes. Kim was 5 minutes or so behind me.

Kevin came across the line at 4:21. This is remarkable to me for a couple reasons. First, he had limited time to run during the week due to his coaching responsibilities. In the last few weeks, his daughter had been sick and his son had contracted mono. Between these two, he had gotten quite sick himself in the last 10 days (He would be diagnosed with bronchitis after we returned home!). Perfectly healthy, he would have surely passed me. Instead, he made me hear his footsteps all day and definitely contributed to my time as well.

We shook hands and headed for the car. Taking further advantage of the southern hospitality, we had paid $10 for a rare marathon treat, a late check out at the hotel. I popped a dime-sized bloody blister on my right index toe and gingerly stepped into the shower. We loaded the cooler with ice and were headed north by 1 p.m.

The drive back was comfortably quiet. The excitement of what was before us just 2 days earlier was replaced by the contemplation of what we had just gone through. A head-slamming bike crash had marked the start of the training cycle. Good friends and running partners had helped me get stronger and faster. My wife and best friend had laid down an inner personal challenge. Almost 600 miles of running later, a cannon shot started the final day. Two “friends for a day” lifted me over an old wall. Then, it ended with a simple hand shake with yet another good friend, a slow walk to the car and a country song on the radio as Georgia disappeared in the review mirror. I slipped under the covers at 2:30 am on November 15, thankful for what I had done and grateful to all those who helped make it happen.

Sherman’s march to the sea would ultimately lead to freedom for union prisoners in the infamous Andersonville prison. One union soldier would survive that hell hole and make his way back to homestead near Spring Green, Wisconsin. He was so happy with General Grant, a son was named in his honor. This survivor was John Anderson, my great, great grandfather.