Marathon No. 7: No sleep, but a great story

After another solid summer of running, I decided to try the Mesa Falls Marathon in Ashton, Idaho, in August of ’05. On the advice of my friend John, whom I traveled to Vegas with, this race came highly recommended.

Ashton is a small town (Pop. 1,100) about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Bozeman and an hour from Idaho Falls. I had heard, from John, that it was a well-run race.

It was indeed.

But before taking the starting line, I made another stupid mistake. I decided that instead of getting a hotel room and spending $80 for a roughly 7-hour stay, I would sleep in my car near the start.

I brought an air mattress, a sleeping bag and alarm clock. I only used one of those items.

I drove down on a Friday, the night before the race, and looked for a quiet spot. A high school football game had just ended, so the lights from the field did not provide a good spot to park for the night.

I drove outside of the town to find peace and darkness, but I could never find a place where I could be discreet. The last thing I wanted was a cop banging on the window or a freaked-out neighbor wondering why a strange car was in the area.

I finally settled on a spot in town next to a grain silo and some abandoned railroad tracks. There were houses nearby, but I was in a secluded area.

Well, the air mattress was too big to fit in my Nissan Ultima, so I settled into the back seat in the sleeping bag. I kept the radio on to held lull me to sleep, but I could never get comfortable. It wasn’t just the awkwardness of stretching out along the bumpy back seat; I never felt at ease.

At one point, someone hopped into a nearby truck and put the lights on and started the engine all at once. That startled me.

The uneasy feeling kept me up past 2 a.m., and the race began at 6:30, meaning that I needed to catch a bus to the start at 5:30. Not good.

I finally fell asleep around 2:30, but was up around 4:45, well before the time the alarm was set. The wind had picked up and it had gotten colder. And I was in a gloomy mood.

I was so tired that I considered just driving home. I wondered if I’d be able to finish. Breaking three hours? Yeah, right.

(Luckily, I did sleep well the previous night. That is always a key component since no one sleeps well the night before the race).

One of the perks of this race is the “tour” buses that take runners to the start. Nice, comfortable seats with a bathroom at the rear. No school buses here.

I got on and found a seat well out of range from other runners. I was not in a social mood.

When we arrived at the start at 5:50 in the Targhee National Forest, it was literally freezing. The windows on the buses (there were four of them) were covered in condensation. The sun wasn’t even up.

The start is on a skinny dirt road with cattle grates. There wasn’t any civilization in sight, unless you count the cows. Many people left the bus in order to pee or just get their blood going. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was still pouting over my poor decision on accommodations.

At about 6:10, the race director, a nice guy named Dave, got on our bus and made an announcement: “We’re going to turn the buses around” in order to get them facing in the right direction for the ride back to the finish.

It was just 20 minutes from the start of the race. Why now, I thought. Why not 20 minutes ago?

The road was quite narrow, so the line of buses were required to drive at least a mile and a half in order to find a wide enough area for a ‘K’ turn. No way to make a U-turn here.

My bus was No. 2 in line. The one in front of us attempted to turn around while we waited. Ten minutes before the race – and most of the field was nowhere near the start.

What the…?

This is where my mood turned, even if the bus in front of us could not.

As the bus backed up onto the grass that sloped away from the road, it got high-centered on the shoulder. It was stuck.

Now what?

As we watched in disbelief, the runners on the idled bus began spilling out and boarded our bus. It was standing-room only.

Now all we had to do was turn around to get to the start. And it was already 6:30.

Our bus driver methodically, gingerly, ever so carefully performed his turnaround – and received an ovation for his efforts.

The whole ordeal cracked me up. Who cares if we were late for the start of a marathon? What a story.

When we reached the starting area, it was still quite dark (sunrise was at 6:40). I saw a friend of mine from Bozeman who was on another bus (and out of view from the turnaround ordeal) and told him the tale of our adventure down the road.

We both laughed as we took our final pre-race pees.

At that point, I just wanted to get started. I started out in the back of the field, which barely topped 100 runners. I had no idea how cold it would be, so I ran the first miles with my hands tucked into my long-sleeve T-shirt.

After a few miles, I started passing people with ease. Before long, there seemed to be few runners in front of me. The course was quite nice, with the Grand Tetons and the sunrise off in the distance.

A peaceful feeling came over me. The lack of sleep hardly mattered anymore.

I got into a nice rhythm and ended up placing third. When I finished, a gentleman put a hand-stitched wooden medal (another of the nice perks of this event) over my head and congratulated me. A woman who was a spotter for the race announcer then came rushing over. She said I ran the same time as my bib number: 307. Cool. Just how I’d planned it. (Not!)

I ran the race with brand new foot inserts that gave me blisters near the ball of each foot. Another rookie mistake.

Intelligence is not a strong point for me sometimes. Certainly not on this day.

The age-group awards were hand-carved and made of wood. Another nice touch.

The best part lay ahead. All finishers receive a coupon for a free huckleberry shake. All you have to do is present it at the drug store down the street.

The folks there we well prepared. The shakes were pre-made and put into a freezer. You walk in, hand in the coupon, and walk out with a shake.

They give you a straw, but the shakes are so thick and frozen that a spoon is required. I ate mine on the way out of town, one refreshing scoop at a time. My sleep-deprived night began to catch up to me after about an hour, so I pulled over near West Yellowstone, Mont., and attempted to sleep. I never did, but just having a break from concentrating on the road was enough.

When I got home, my blistered feet were quite sore. But as I lay on the couch, I did so with a very satisfying feeling. I was glad I didn’t bag the race. I was glad to have finished without getting cramps or having to walk.

I got a great shake out of the race – and a great story.


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