By Tom Hooper, RD
The worst part of being a Race Director (besides the paperwork) is setting and enforcing cutoff times. Telling someone that they cannot advance to the next stage, or, even worse, pulling them off course, is never an easy job. When your event totals 50 stage racers who spend every waking moment together for three days straight, the job of “cutoff man” is all the more gut wrenching. Such was my unfortunate undertaking at this year’s Ragged 75 Stage Race and 50K in Western New Hampshire.
We gather on a Thursday evening in the small town of New London. The venue, Whipple Memorial Town Hall, is a meetinghouse that’s been here since 1916. The rich history of community that defines this place makes it a rather fitting point of origin for our makeshift family.
Watching the athletes enter Whipple Hall for the gear check and pre-race meeting, one can sense their nervousness in the otherwise quaint New England air. They arrive slowly and quietly, one-by-one, crossing the threshold as if walking into a courtroom to learn their sentence. I have run this race in previous years, so the mixed emotions of excitement and dread for the challenge ahead are all too familiar.
Among the gathering crowd, two particularly eager participants catch my attention. Standing over six feet tall, Tim’s hulking, muscular frame stands out in the room. The other, Jay, has the bravado of a former marine. Their enthusiasm grabs me. Upon entering Whipple Hall, Tim and Jay walk right up to the registration table and proclaim, “This is going to be GREAT! We love to suffer!”
So many reactions immediately rush to my head. As a runner, I’m thinking, “Okay, these guys are nervous. They’re in front of a group, so they’re just being a little cocky to help break the tension.” As an RD, I worry that this course will eat them alive. I quickly quell these thoughts because, for some reason, I think I like these two. We’ll just have to wait and see what tomorrow brings. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll be singing the same tune by day’s end.
Stage One of the Ragged 75 is 22 hard miles up and over Ragged Mountain and Kearsarge Mountain that includes 4,900 ft of vertical gain. Though neither Tim nor Jay is in danger of missing the 12-hour cutoff this early in the race, both men wrap up day one looking like they might have bitten off more than they can chew. Tim strolls over the line in 8:32:07 with a forced smile plastered on his face. Jay is nowhere in sight. A half hour later, he appears out of the woods looking significantly less jovial than the night before. He shuffles over the line and manages to muster up a half-hearted, “This is great!” At this moment, my RD brain kicks in: “Love the suffering now, boys?”
Later that night, Tim and Jay do something that surprises me. Unlike the other 48 athletes, these two have not brought tents. Dark clouds begin to loom overhead during our daily recap meeting. It appears that the predicted forecast for heavy rain was, in fact, correct. Tim and Jay must have known this; nevertheless, they choose to spend the night under the open sky in the pouring rain.
With 25 miles and 4,375 ft of vertical gain up Mt. Sunapee, Stage Two of the Ragged 75 is no easy task. Tired and a bit waterlogged, Tim and Jay do not disappoint as both stand tall and ready at the starting line.
Tim hustles in at 8:30:54, once again well ahead of Jay. This time, it takes about an hour before Jay comes limping over the line. The look on both of their faces has changed quite a bit. When I was in their shoes in previous years, I wondered, “How am I supposed to wake up and do this again?” I feel for these guys. They have given everything for two days straight. They’ve made us laugh, they’ve slept in the rain, and still they have the longest, hardest day ahead of them—50k with 6,300 ft of vert.
After the pre-race meeting, Tim and Jay hunker down in a dark corner of the Sunapee Middle High School gymnasium. You can hear a pin drop as everyone licks their wounds from the past two days and prepares for bed. The temporary relief provided by the ice cream we served has long subsided. I sit down on the floor with them. “You guys are going to have to dig deeper than you probably ever have tomorrow. You are going to be real close to the cutoff times. The first 11 miles are very runnable, so try to bank some time.” I even give Jay a pair of my personal socks to help with his blisters. As the lights go out in the gym, the runner in me knows that I’ll be pulling hard for these two tomorrow.
Day three of the Ragged 75 is when all the 50K racers arrive for the USATF-NE Ultra Championship. They bounce to the line, fresh-legged, chipper, and raring to go. Meanwhile, the stage racers look like they have gone a few rounds with Tyson and are dreading getting back into the ring. I don’t see Tim or Jay, but I know they are somewhere in the crowd and ready to start Stage Three. These two have 33 miles and 6,300 ft of vertical to go before the day is over.
The gun goes off and the day begins.
Around 6 p.m., I check with the last aid station to see who has gone through. Tim is just a few minutes ahead of Jay, and both men are in serious danger of falling victim to the 12-hour cutoff. At this point, I grab my bag and some water and head up the mountain. I want these guys to finish so badly.
I find Tim about two miles from the finish on the backside of Ragged Mountain. He is still ahead of Jay and appears to have caught the scent of the finish line in the air. In passing, I give him the old, “Rah! Rah! Rah! Almost there!” I tell him that it’s maybe a quarter of a mile to the top and then one mile downhill. This isn’t entirely accurate, but exaggeration goes a long way in situations such as these.
I press on, flying down some scree and through thickly settled singletrack until I find Jay. He’s moving, but barely. Everything hurts and he is in a dark spot.
Having been in these very same shoes, I know that the first thing to do is to get him to laugh. If he can laugh, he can run. I don’t recall what I said, but I’m sure it’s something that can’t be repeated here. Nothing doing. In the next half-mile, things go from dark to darker. Jay starts to explain why he is doing this race. He tells me about war, being a soldier, and what it’s like to lose your friends on the battlefield. Hearing his story, I know that I can’t possibly give up on him.
My attempt at being inappropriate having failed miserably, I go the route of good old-fashioned tough love. Again, I don’t quite remember what I said, but I know it gets his attention. Together we reach the summit, but Jay’s chances of making the cutoff are looking slimmer by the second. We stand atop Ragged for a few precious minutes to take in the view and the last drops of our water. “Tom,” he says, “it’s ok. This has been a hell of a three days and a fantastic experience. I don’t really care if I finish.” Now, I’ve never been in the military, but I’ve seen a movie or two. I give my best Full Metal Jacket “RRRRRRUUUUNNN!” and take off down the mountain.
The finish line is agonizingly visible for much of our descent and, no matter how long we lumber down the mountainside, it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. After my third or fourth time saying, “Almost there,” I’m feeling a bit like that annoying spectator at a half marathon. At this point, I’ve given up looking at my watch. My thoughts shift from planning a congratulatory speech to figuring out how I am going to console Jay on a tough race.
With about five hundred yards of field remaining, we bump fists and I peel off to let Jay hobble to his finish, whatever the time may be. I’m not sure he’s going to make it, but I sure am proud of the fight he’s put up this weekend.
I start to undo my pack and walk toward the timing tent. I don’t want to even ask, but I do. “How close is it?” They look up and smile. “He crossed the line with 3 minutes and 21 seconds to spare.” I’m not sure if a freak dust storm kicks up at this very same moment, but it seems like everyone has something in their eyes.
Being a Race Director is a lot like being a teacher. You aren’t supposed to have favorites, but every once in awhile you have a couple you won’t forget.