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Rock/Creek Race Team member Josh Hite wins the Ridge Runner Marathon in Cairo, WV

I saw Gary hitting the trail. Actually, I saw the Jeep Cherokee first. Hazard lights gave it away. I had been tracking both for some fourteen miles. The vehicle followed the course; Gary followed the vehicle; I followed Gary. Now, both were 0.42 miles ahead, according to my watch’s calculations. I passed the mile marker at eighteen, right after he passed me going the other way. The elapsed lap time said 3:10 when I passed his mark. Three minutes ten second to catch the leader in the last eight miles. Yep, it was where I wanted to be after thinking about the various possibilities over the past hour and a half.

I dropped off the kids with my parents in Virginia the day before. My wife stayed at home this trip, to enjoy a night without either me or our sons. My cohort, Dallas, and I continued on into West Virginia after unloading the kids. The plan to have a quick trip that included a rough marathon appealed to both of us. At least, it appealed to me, and he was kind enough to accompany me and participate as well.

I knew he had a shot at a top ten finish in this race. Not too shabby for a seventy-year-old, but our last marathon trip together was to Boston where he placed second in his age group. His time would have won six of the last eight Boston’s; it just happened that 2011 was one of the other two.

Eight hours sitting and driving are not usually the best way to spend the day before a marathon, but we had both done it before. Stopping occasionally had left us getting to Parkersburg, WV — and our hotel — at 7:15. The meal at a local Italian joint called Johnny Carino’s was substantial. A Peroni beer, antipasto salad, and the tour of Italy featuring ziti, lasagna, and fettuccini was almost too much. I usually try to stay away from red sauce before a race. Maybe I was sabotaging my own chances. I didn’t care because earlier I had received bittersweet news that a friend was offered a job… a job to which I, too, had applied. I was happy for her, but I didn’t want to hear this before a marathon. The last thing I needed was to be fretting over lost chances prior to running my race. At least my company helped put my mind at ease. Dallas’s wisdom has a knack for that.

I appreciated the little rest I had the night before, but I hate waking to an alarm clock. It was one of those necessary evils of a race. Like port-a-potties.

Not many races allow you to register the day of the marathon. This one does. The previous two times I’d run this race, I registered the day before. Not this time. We pulled in to register for the race that morning, and immediately I saw Gary Krugger getting in his car. Dallas and I both ran with Gary last August for the first time when he drove from Erie, Pennsylvania to race with us and eleven other people in 90+ degree heat.

Since then, I ran Knoxville with Gary (where he helped me up when I fell on the course), and I ran Boston with him (where I tried to get him to a personal best, but I blew up and he ran on to finish strong). Gary is one of the few who runs more marathons than me, some 130+ with seventeen sub-3s this year alone. Gary was there in West Virginia’s North Bend State Park to run a sub-3. West Virginia was one of the few fifty states Gary has not run under three hours.

The turnaround was the first time I saw Gary since around mile eight. I told him that I didn’t know if I could help him with a sub-3 on this course, as we walked to the start line together just two hours earlier. This course was not made to be fast. The first mile is synonymous with the first hill, which Gary and I ran side by side. Downhills occur for a few miles and then the course climbed like my heart rate until runners hit a town (and the exposed sun) around mile twelve. Three miles on a busier road with no shade led to a mile and a half steep climb. The flat, shaded section of the rail trail at eighteen to twenty-four goes through three tunnels. A climb from twenty-four to twenty-five is followed by a scorching downhill to the finish.

After I ran up the first hill, I noticed that Gary was too fast on the downhills for me. I had to save myself if I were to have a good race. His lead started growing at mile four. Because of a few stops when “nature called,” he had about a minute and a half at mile seven. I didn’t see him after the town at the half way mark. His lead had to be four minutes, but I still hit the half way around 1:30 and change. My legs felt use for the first time climbing from fifteen to sixteen.

I wanted to save my legs to seventeen. I changed it to eighteen after I had lost sight of Gary. Now I spotted him again, and it was time for my legs to take over. He spoke from across the path, but I couldn’t understand what he said. The Jeep and the wind drowned my hearing. I wanted to hold back a little longer — just enough to get over the bridge and see if anyone was behind me. There wasn’t. It was between Gary and me.

I wished that I had worn my Montrail Rogue Racers. This was just the type of trail they would crush. Too much road for the shoe, I’d decided. I want to save those for the trails. I picked up my pace from running a 6:50ish on the flats to a 6:35 pace. The heat was getting to me. I pushed forward and passed early starters. Then I spotted the blinking lights of the Jeep far ahead. The tunnels lay just beyond.

As I went into the first tunnel, I remembered how little sunlight penetrated. I had remembered the hills, the sun, and the turnaround. Somehow I forgot the darkness in the tunnels. Run like on the trails. Set the foot down lightly and lock the ankle into place. It worked. I powered through the first tunnel and was met with a surprise. Gary’s ponytail caught my attention. It waved just thirty seconds ahead of me. I was running a 6:30 pace. He must have slowed to a 7:30.

If the reader wants solid advice or some kind of secret to racing a marathon, then pay attention: if there is a downhill anywhere from 16-20 followed by a sustained flat, then that is where people will break. It delays “the wall” because of the downhill. The runner hits the flat and starts working harder. Everyone knows about “the wall” and expects it to occur. When going downhill, you feel good. Most of the time when running on a flat section you feel good, but after running downhill, “the wall” is condensed and magnified. Gary and I used the same strategy in Knoxville to dust two guys sticking with us. Today, it bit Gary.

I approached quickly, and he looked back muttering, “I have been waiting on you.” I couldn’t help him. His race was over, and if I talked or slowed, my race would be over too. He knew that he was going to have to come back to West Virginia to get his sub-three. I sped ahead to mile twenty-two, two miles until the last hill.

6:30 pace held true, until I hit the hill. I craved water, but only Gatorade was at the stations. It could have been Crisco; I wasn’t having any. My stomach may not have handled it. This was on my mind, but not as much as the upcoming hill was. I was greeted by a grandmother and a young girl taking pictures when I hit mile marker twenty-four. Their encouragement was appreciated, but the appreciation did not relieve the pain expressed on my face. I noticed my watch display 2:44:?? What? That is a 6:52 pace, but the hill was ahead. I started my mantra, “feet on the ground.” The more my feet hit the ground, the faster I covered the ground.

I thought I was in Jackson County running up the hills with Dallas. If there were anyone who had trained to run up these hills, it was us. Breaking three hours would be tough though.

I could see the top. The last water station awaited me. I took two waters: one spilling on my head and the other splashing in my face and mouth. Mile twenty-five was only twenty feet later. 8:10 for the hill, but more importantly my watch showed 2:52:28. I knew 6:40 pace is 1:20 for the last two tenths of a mile. That was eight minutes, too much time. 6:00 flat is 7:12 for the final 1.2 miles. I had a downhill, but I knew it needed to be around 6:00 flat. The feet hit the ground nonstop.

Leaning forward and using the tangents helped me push out a 6:13 mile. 1:19 across the bridge and around two turns to break three hours: difficult for sure. The bridge had a van coming out. Did it see me? I had to be a blur. It moved right and let me continue my path. The finish clock ticked 2:59:3x through the leaves. My arms pumped, and I leaned forward to see 59:40. I ran harder and the clocked seemed to tick faster. It seems that time would have slowed, but it sped ahead. 59:52. I stopped looking and put my eyes on the finish chute. 59:56. How could the seconds pass so quickly? I crossed the line and hit my watch – 2:59:58. This took the cake for the hardest I worked for a sub three.

Gary came through about eight minutes later. I handed him the ice bag someone gave me and apologized for not chatting when I saw him last. He gathered his facilities, and we walked back to the top of the hill towards the car. Cheering people (ten milers mainly) to the finish as we went against the flow, we noticed third place. He was some thirty minutes back. We continued up the hill hoping to see Dallas, and there he was. Fourth! Seventy and fourth! It doesn’t matter your age when you are fourth. You will win whatever age group. He just happened to be in the last age group. Not too bad for not training for a marathon, but we have been running those hills in Jackson County…