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The case of the missing drop bag

December 22, 2008 - Erik Brown
October 11th, 2008 was a perfect day for running. In fact, it was an absolutely glorious day. There were no clouds in the sky and no wind that I can recall. The air was cool and fresh and the sunshine slowly warmed it from an overnight low in the upper forties to a daytime high in the low seventies. Best of all, the fall foliage was at its peak of coloration. It really was a perfect day for running, and the Rothrock State Forest was a magnificent place to be. And, thanks to the Nittany Valley Running Club and Race Director Mike Casper, I was there – to run the Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile Ultramarathon.
Leg 1 – We started at 7:00 A.M. The sun was just coming up as we headed into the Rothrock State Forest, so it was still pretty dark once we got into the trees. The field of 76 runners included 65 men and 11 women. The first leg was (is) 3.2 miles and is classified as “difficult” by the Mountainback organizers because most of it is uphill.
I wanted to stay relaxed and keep the pace easy through the first 11 miles of the race so I wouldn’t expend too much energy. I succeeded on the pace part of that plan, but a few unexpected things during leg one made it hard to relax.
Excuse Us – Some folks just will not follow directions. Mike Casper had a good plan for the ultra support vehicles. They were to line up on Bear Meadow Road near the starting line and, ten minutes before the start, they were to drive on up to T.Z. 1, ahead of the runners. Mike had communicated this plan several times via e-mail, so it was a bit annoying when, shortly after the race began, we had to contend with a dozen or so vehicles trying to work their way through, and around, and past the pack on a dark, narrow road in the woods. When the last vehicle finally got well enough ahead of me that it was no longer an issue, I tried to focus solely on my own effort as I continued the climb toward T.Z. 1. That’s when I met an old acquaintance.
Walk-Boy – Years ago, at a point in my life when I hadn’t been running much, I was entered in a 5K race. As I struggled my way through the final mile, I overtook a youngster who was learning a hard lesson about pace. He was reduced to walking, but as I passed him, he took off in a sprint. He ran all out for maybe 60 – 70 yards then resumed walking. Of course it wasn’t long before I caught up, but he was determined to not let me pass, and sprinted ahead again. This went on for maybe a half mile. I know it shouldn’t have bothered me. After all, he was just a kid. But I swear his antics made that last mile drag on forever. Finally he let me go by. In my mind, I dubbed him “walk-boy”. Fast forward now to leg one of the Tussey Mountainback. We’re maybe halfway up the mountain to T.Z. 1 and the field is starting to get strung out. Two men who had been running ahead of me began taking a series of walk breaks. No surprise there, in fact it’s a sensible tactic to employ during an ultra to conserve energy in the hills. But, an insidious pattern to their walk breaks quickly became apparent to me. Just after I would pass them, they would resume running – faster than me. They would pass me back and continue up the hill for maybe a hundred yards or so, then resume walking – until I caught up. Coincidence? I think not! I thought to myself: “Oh my God, its walk-boy! He’s all grown up, and he’s got a friend with him!” If you’re starting to get the idea that I am easily annoyed, read on.
The Missing Drop Bag – I did my best to ignore those two and concentrated on maintaining my easy, steady pace. Before long we were headed into T.Z. 1. The scene there was well organized chaos; if there can be such a thing. Priority number one for every runner was making sure their bib number was recorded by a race volunteer to verify they had passed that checkpoint. As we moved through the T.Z., dozens of runners were shouting out bib numbers and plenty of volunteers were repeating each number to make sure no one was missed. As I made my way, I looked for a table where I expected to receive my first drop bag. It took a moment, but I spotted it just a little further ahead. I wasted no time putting in my request for my bag: “Can I have the drop bag for Erik Brown?” The guy behind the table reached down and picked up a gallon sized ziplock bag that I immediately knew wasn’t mine because the water bottle inside wasn’t a clear Dansini bottle, but rather a white plastic bottle with a black lid. Naturally I said, “That’s not it.” To which he replied, “Sorry, this is the only one I’ve got.” In an instant, I was quite rattled. I knew that I needed to do a much better job of re-fueling myself during this race than I had in the other, regular marathons I had run. In fact, my race plan could be summed up in seven words: take it easy, stay positive and refuel. Yet there I was, only 3 miles into the race, and two thirds of my plan had just flown out the window.
Leg 2 – The second leg of the Mountainback is 4.0 miles and as you might guess, it’s mostly downhill. “Standby” Shuta had cautioned me several times to take it easy on this section of the course. He predicted, quite accurately, that many runners would be tempted to use the downhill to make up time. I wasn’t counting, but there were probably 10 or more folks who passed me on this long descent. I was disciplined and heeded his advice, but my mind was racing ahead. I was trying to solve the case of the missing drop bag. Since I had given my name to the volunteer at T.Z. 1, and he had seemed willing to hand me the wrong bag, I figured that bag must have had the name Erik Brown on it as well. I quickly put 2 and 2 together, and got 7 - some creative accounting that would make even Bernard Madeoff envious. My (wild) conclusion: there was another Erik Brown in the race, who was running ahead of me. He obviously had no scruples, because he had accepted my drop bag instead of his own. Furthermore, if he was willing to take my drop bag once, he might do it again. In fact, this guy might take all of my bags! I pictured him chowing down on my PB&J's, eating my Gummy Bears, and for a couple of minutes I was practically a basket case. Then, almost as quickly, I decided to calm down and wait until I got to T.Z. 3 at Whipple Dam to find out what was really going on.

That missing drop bag and the anxiety I had over it were the low points of my day. Fortunately, I was able to put all of that behind me just 50 minutes into the race. I spent the next 9 hours enjoying blue skies, sunshine, and the beautiful Rothrock State Forest. When I arrived at T.Z. 2, I was very relieved and happy to see a table with PB&J sandwiches, water and other goodies. I grabbed two PB& J’s and a couple cups of water and walked the next hundred yards while I gulped it all down. That little snack did wonders for my confidence, and I began Leg 3, which would take me to Whipple Dam, with a renewed spirit.

Thanks for reading Against The Wind! 

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