Will Harlan (l) and Mark Lundblad (r) congratulate each other following the Table Rock 50 Mile.
I set up an ambitious ultra running schedule this Fall. I wanted to meet some personal challenges and once again I tried something new. In the past 6 weeks I’ve put forth 170 miles of ultra distance race effort and I’m looking forward to hibernating for a bit this Winter.
The culmination of my somewhat overzealous schedule was this past weekend at the Table Rock 50 Mile race here in WNC. The main reason I stuck with doing this race was because it promised to be a scenic, mountainous (8k of climb) and close to home. This race was also brand new and I knew the terrain and much of the course topography. Leading up to race day I internally went back and forth over whether to still do the race or maybe drop to the 50k distance that was offered. However in the end, the lure of running to the top of Table Rock Mountain got the best of me and I was fit so I stuck to my original intention of the full advertised 54 miles.
I checked out the entrants list leading up to race day and felt fairly confident about my chances but one never knows what race day will bring. Usually it comes in the form of someone much younger than me who is really fast and they are stepping up to race ultras for the first time. I was secretly hoping that I would not have to dig too deep on this day as I knew I was racing on somewhat tired legs.
Race morning brought chilly but nice running weather. It looked like it would be an enjoyable and peaceful run around the Linville Gorge Wilderness area. However, I still had this feeling like something was not right and I was definitely not wishing for anything remotely epic to occur for this race. From the start I got out front and slowly got a decent lead as we ascended up one of the many big climbs on the course. At mile 14 there is a spur out and back to Wiseman’s View and I hit my watch at the turn to see what kind of lead I had on my competitors. Sure enough that weird feeling I had at the start came to fruition as I rounded a turn, there was my good friend and beast of a runner Will Harlan. So my three minute lead seemed like three seconds and I knew it was game on.
How I missed him at the start I’ll never know. Will does not race very often but when he does he is always ready to wreak havoc on the field. He also rarely talks about his racing plans and tends to show up at races at the last minute throwing a big monkey wrench into anyone’s hopes and dreams.
After coming to grips with reality I kept pushing as best as I could. Somewhere around 2.5 hours of running (mile 19) the course comes off the mountainous gravel road and onto some mountainous roads. I felt awful and was hoping this was just one of those low points. I kept waiting for Will to pass me. I was actually hoping he would soon just so it could be over with. It is funny how your mind thinks when you are dog tired and being tracked down. I kept pushing forward never quite getting that second wind and just wondering when he would make his presence known. Somehow I managed to stay out front to the top of Table Rock Mountain (mile 34). A most scenic place but unfortunately I had no time or desire to take in the vistas. This would be my second chance to see if I had any lead left. Sure enough not too long after I headed back down the mountain Will was right there again about three minutes back. As I passed him I said “please take me out of my misery and take over the lead”. It truly felt inevitable but still I stayed in the lead for the long seven mile section down the mountain. At mile 42 you hit the last long stretch of twelve miles on hilly paved roads. As I approached the aid station finally Will showed up as if out of nowhere in stealth mode and we both refilled bottles and took off. I managed to get out in front of him and again started building a lead. I never felt sure of anything even with just a few miles to go and a 3 or so minute lead. I was hurting so bad and digging so deep that I was just hoping a car would run me over. That would be the easy way out. My legs were tying up, I was eating gels, popping S-caps, drinking coke, doing anything and everything possible to get to the finish line. Actually winning was never a solid thought as I knew from past races with Will that it was not over.
I ran transfixed on the pavement in front of me as for looking around or any extra motion felt like too much. My heart was still in this race but my legs were not cooperating. Every big hill took one more notch out of my dwindling energy. On the last big hill before the somewhat flat 2.5 mile finish I was down to intermittent power walking and something that might have resembled running. I looked back in fear and sure enough I was being reeled in. The hook was solidly set in my gills and I was being yanked into Will’s boat.
I soon could hear footsteps around mile fifty-two. I stuck my hand out to my side without looking to give Will his congratulatory five and he motored on past me. Normally I’m game for a fast finish and giving chase. The problem here was I had already done that, I had nothing left to give. I wanted to try and make a race out of it and not have it come to such a goofy looking shuffle the last mile. However that is what happens sometimes, I had to accept it. Overall I was pleased with the race as I gave 100% and never gave up which is all we can ever expect of ourselves. Having to take second place to my good friend is really not a bad thing. In hindsight tough competition makes the outcome win or lose that much more fulfilling. However I think Will should look into a second career as an undercover spy to go along with being a great ultrarunner and writer.