Running Through Bad Patches

LOUDONVILLE – “On your marks,” the announcer barked.

In the chilly pre-dawn of the first day of summer, 85 runners crowded the starting line for the Mohican 100-Mile Trail Run.

Several of the ultra-marathoners came to win, including a young runner who bragged that he was going to set the course record. Most, however, just hoped to muster the courage and stamina to complete the race. To make it to the finish line, all of them would have to run through at least one “bad patch,” runner slang for the really tough times they must endure to make it to the end.

“Set,” the announcer called, just before 5 a.m.

Near the back of the pack, Mark Carroll felt scared. With a hip joint that felt as if it was full of gravel when he tried to run too fast and bursitis in his left knee, the 38-year-old reviewed the three excusable reasons to stop running:

1. He crosses the finish line.

2. He is disqualified for running too slow.

3. He suffers a major, medical emergency.

“Go!”

The boastful marathoner sprinted off the line. Some of the other men and women with wiry legs hustled out of there, too, into the early-morning darkness.

Once enough of them had moved out, Mark had room to take off. His pace looked awfully slow to anyone who didn’t know he planned to go 100 miles.

One hundred miles seemed such a long distance, so Mark focused on the time limit, 30 hours.

Could he run, if it took that long, until 11 a.m. the next day? He hoped so. It would be terrible to have to tell the kids that daddy wasn’t tough enough to finish the race.

It would be especially tough to tell the son who had inspired him not to give up when he ran his first Mohican six years ago.

January 5, 1997

Mark ran track and cross country for Berea High School and then for Ohio University. After injuries stopped him from running marathons and racing bicycles, he turned to ultra running. In these races, which involved distances greater than the 26.2 miles of a marathon, he could run slow enough that his injuries usually wouldn’t bother him. He ran a 30-plus mile race and then a 50.

He felt he understood a lot about determination, challenges, life.

At 32, he was eager for his first 100-mile trail race to test just how far he could go. His physical-therapy practice was making lots of money. He and his wife, Jenny, were happily married. They had a house in Delaware County and two healthy kids.

That was about to change.

In the first week of the new year, 1997, he was in the basement celebrating his daughter Emily’s fifth birthday when someone yelled, “Colin’s choking!”

Mark bolted up the stairs. Down the hall, right outside the bedroom door, his 3-year-old was on the floor. Mark knelt beside his son. Colin was unconscious. But breathing. Soon, an ambulance was rushing Mark, his wife and their son to a nearby hospital.

The Carrolls learned that their son had epilepsy. Medical experts said not to worry. Kids had seizures. Anyway, with modern medicine, a child with epilepsy still could enjoy a relatively normal life, except in rare cases.

Mark forgot all about his goal of running the 100-mile race.

The family visited doctors, again and again.

Colin’s electroencephalogram looked to Mark like a kid had scribbled on the page. The seizures struck more and more of ten, as many as 500 a day. Some made Colin stare into space or his head drop. Some made him lose all muscle control and fall to the ground.

The news got worse. Doctors said Colin had Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome – a kind of epilepsy that is incurable and, in some cases, fatal.

Doctors also said not to call for an ambulance anymore unless a seizure lasted for more than four minutes, although even shorter ones seemed to last an eternity. The young parents felt so alone.

Worrying about his son and keeping up, as best he could, with day-to-day life was about as much as Mark could endure. He quit running, and, for the most part, he stopped sleeping.

After the kids went to bed, he would lie on the couch late into the night watching sports on TV, trying to stop trying to figure out what had gone wrong since that January day when he had thought he knew so much about determination, challenges and life.

The morning after one late night, he sat with Colin at break fast. Like any parent, Mark wanted his children to be healthy and carefree. But here was his son, forced to wear a helmet to protect his head if he fell into a seizure.

Mark watched him stab for a spoonful of toasted oats, but be fore he raised the spoon to his mouth, he suffered a seizure and lost the cereal. Colin then submerged the spoon and withdrew some more Cheerios only to lose them once again.

Mark tried to help. Colin refused. He wanted to do it himself. He tried again and again until he got one bite to his mouth.

Seeing his son’s determination, Mark realized that he was the only one who was unhappy. Colin was patient, determined, strong. That was in the spring. Mark wanted somehow to be more like the 3 year old, more like his son, to have Colin’s determination.

That night, Jenny stood in front of the TV and asked if he still planned to run the Mohican.

“Who cares?” Mark said. “Running doesn’t matter.”

She asked again.

“I can’t possibly go 100 miles,” he said.

She suggested he start and drop out on the Mohican trail in June rather than dropping out on the couch in February.

He knew she was right. The whole point of Mohican was to see what he could endure, how far determination could take him. It was cold and wet outside that February night, but Mark suited up and ran out into the rain . . . only to be exhausted after 15 minutes.

His chances of completing the Mohican looked bleak, but if he could finish the race, it would prove he had enough of his son’s determination to grapple with life’s challenges.

Besides, the family needed a victory.

Noon, June 21, 2003

Mark ran through the early morning, knocking down each mile, on average, in about 13.5 minutes, until he reached the covered bridge for the second time.

The trail looped back to this site four times in all, making it something of a landmark, especially since it was the location of one of the aid stations.

“Runner,” one of the volunteers shouted, seeing Mark plod up the hill. The man with the clipboard noted that Mark had completed the first 32 miles in 7 hours, 13 minutes. He was in 63rd place.

The volunteers helped all they could. Some runners just needed the extra seconds they could save by not having to fill their own carry-along water bottles. Others needed coaxing and encouragement to keep going. The volunteers seated Mark in a folding chair in no time. He dried his feet and pulled on clean socks and fresh shoes.

A volunteer offered him a slice of pizza. Mark didn’t want any. He glanced at all of the options on the food tables grapes, cookies, turkey sandwiches, candy, nuts, pretzels, fruit. Although it was after noon, nothing looked good. Still, he knew he needed to eat or he would risk losing his strength down the road. He grabbed a few chunks of cantaloupe and poured on some salt.

He and his running buddies had an inside joke about salt.

Last year, an ultra runner had arrived at the Mohican full of bombast and bragging about all the mountainous trail races he had completed out West. The guy had sounded authoritative – if arrogant – telling everyone that runners could never eat enough salt. So before the race, Mark had eaten salt pills like candy.

A few miles in, Mark had puked and had continued puking throughout the first 30 miles.

That’s what runners refer to as a “bad patch,” which means a runner is suffering, but not badly enough to qualify as reason No. 3 to quit: a major, medical emergency.

At one of the aid stations late in that race, Mark saw the runner from out West, under a blanket, curled up in the fetal position, shaking. So Mark knew this year that it would be a mistake to ingest too much salt. Still, he needed to replenish what he was losing through sweat.

Soon, he was running again, and, after another runner dropped out, he had the trail to himself. It stayed this way for the next 30 or more miles, and, although he was hot, had not eaten enough and had run for so many consecutive miles, he felt strong.

Before the race, Mark had told Jenny and the kids not to come to the Mohican. With the runners only really visible coming into and out of the aid stations, ultra running was not exactly a spectator sport, especially for a mother wrangling kids.

But, as the day went on, he started wondering what she and the kids would be doing. By the time Mark completed his 61st mile, he had been running for more than 14 hours and was in 36th place. It was after 7 p.m. Saturday, and the light of the sinking sun was filtering through the canopy of the lonely pine forest when he saw something about 150 yards up.

Jenny! There she was, sitting on a fence post, wearing khaki shorts and a denim top. His pace quickened. This was the best surprise. She couldn’t have picked a better time or place.

Once he was within about 30 yards of her, Mark looked into the woods, expecting to see the kids, maybe hiding – the way kids do – in obvious places. Only, he didn’t see them.

When he looked back, Jenny wasn’t there. It was only a dead tree with a branch sticking up.

A ways down the road, he saw a couple making out in the middle of the trail. It turned out to be a mud puddle.

12:30 a.m., June 22, 1997

After about 80 miles of his first Mohican, Mark followed the trail down the long descent in the dark of night. With each footfall, his battered toes hammered against the inside of his shoes.

He turned right onto the dirt road at the bottom at about midnight, feeling too little strength to run another foot, let alone 105,600 more. And still another hill towered over him, seemingly insurmountable.

Maybe he shouldn’t have entered the race, shouldn’t have driven down, shouldn’t have left his family at home . . . where, in his mind, he almost could stroll down the air-conditioned hallway and peek in at Jenny and the kids, cozy in their beds. It would have been nice to kiss them goodnight on their soft cheeks or to sit on the edge of Colin’s bed and listen to his son breathe.

But, here he was, alone, miles from home, on this dark trail, running . . . away? Since that day in January when he had thought he understood so much about determination, challenges and life, so many problems seemed to have heaped such weight on him.

Why had it had to change? Why had Colin gotten sick? What did God think He was doing?

It wasn’t right for a 3-year-old to suffer hundreds of seizures a day. Parents shouldn’t have to face the likelihood of having to bury a child. There was nothing fair about that.

Then it hit him: Running 100 miles wasn’t going to right any wrong. Wasn’t going to stop his son’s seizures. Wasn’t going to allow Colin to remove the helmet. Up ahead, at the finish line, there was no magic, no answer, nothing.

Mark’s sweat had mixed with the Vaseline long-distance runners wear to reduce chaffing. The grimy film had trapped against his skin all manner of filth – horse dung, mud, dead insects. Despite the lubrication, the friction of clothes and skin against skin was chafing him in unmentionable places. His sunburned arms and shoulders felt tight enough to rip.

The blisters on the bottom of his feet had popped. The flaps of skin had torn off. His raw left foot slapped the steep trail, then his equally raw right . . . slap . . . after slap . . . after slap.

Then he reached the top of the hill and a cool breeze blew over him.

Oooooooooooooooooooh!

He remembered how refreshing a cool breeze could be. And he knew there were other things, simple things, that somewhere along the way he had stopped noticing.

He smelled the river and the dew-damp earth.

He looked at the stars and the moon and the valley they illuminated. There seemed to be a million fireflies blinking like Christmas lights. And, in the distance, he could see the glow of farm house windows, where most people were snug in their beds.

He envied them that. But they were missing this unforgettable moment – out here, on the edge.

“Maybe it’s all pretty simple. Maybe God’s plan for us is none of our business. Maybe the meaning why Colin’s having seizures is none of my business,” said the voice inside his head as he slapped one foot in front of the other. “OK. You just . . . kind of keep moving . . . and . . . that’s life.”

He was still exhausted. He knew that the slap of each step would continue to sting, and, that after the race, his problems would be no lighter. But he also knew that he could bear the weight and push through the bad patches, taking one step at a time.

Mark fixed his eyes on the next telephone pole – the next reasonable goal – and watched it get closer, closer, closer. Then, farther down the road, he chose another . . . and another . . . and another.

Before long, he saw a tree-lined river, just like the one at the finish line. Then he saw a hedgerow that looked like the one at the end of the trail. Finally, he saw a lamppost and knew that he was, in fact, within 150 yards of his goal. His legs were worn out, but they were cycling, one after another, closer, closer until – after running 24 hours and 27 minutes of running – Mark not only crossed the finish line, but he did so in eighth place.

A few hours later, he was home. Jenny and the kids greeted him like it had been just another day. But he was ecstatic about seeing them. Life’s challenges no longer kept him from seeing how lucky he was to have such a loving family.

The Mohican had not solved any of Mark’s problems. But it had changed the way he saw them. They were manageable, maybe even beatable.

In 2000, Colin stopped having seizures. His EEG returned to normal. Doctors said they couldn’t explain it. Now he has a kind of high-functioning autism, which is not life-threatening, and he no longer has to wear protective headgear. He, Emily and their brother Caleb, now 3, pretend it is a space helmet.

 

5:40 a.m., June 22, 2003

This year, 30 runners dropped out along the trail, including the boastful marathoner who had shot off the starting line. The fastest runner finished the 100 miles in under 17 hours. Nearly eight hours passed before Mark crossed the finish line in 28th place. It was his seventh consecutive Mohican. He has finished every one.

The sense of lightness and awe that he experienced out there after 80 miles in his first Mohican draws him back year after year. Near the end of each race, when he knows he will complete the 100-mile test, he soars with something of that same sensation. It has never been as intense as that first year, but he also has never again felt so overwhelmed by life’s problems. For that, he is thankful.

The runner’s high diminishes over time. But he tries to keep it in mind, and, every so often, he catches a whiff of a river or sees a lightning bug or sees a lamppost in the distance, and it takes him back to that moment. When that happens, he says, “There are going to be good patches and there are going to be bad patches.”

The trick is to keep moving.