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Last Man Standing: Trail of Fears Race Report (2012)


Last Man Standing

This story actually begins a few weeks before the race.  When the race details for the Trail of Fears were announced on the Run It Fast Facebook page I got really excited…buuut then I saw the date.  NOOO!!!  My wife, Leah Harrison (RIF #64), and I planned to be in the Smoky Mountains to celebrate our 10 year anniversary that weekend, sooo I tried to not pay attention to the details and conversations about the race as they unfolded.  I really did try.  A week later I was texting with RD Joshua Holmes (RIF #1) about why I couldn’t make the race and I jokingly said, “I wonder if Leah would stay with me another 10 years if I cut our trip short?”  We had a good laugh about it and Josh later said, “If you had been able to run this one you would’ve been 1 of only 3 or 4 people to run all the RIF races this year (Jackass 50k, Jackal Trail Marathon, Black Diamond 40 Miler, Trail of Fears).  Talk about a dagger to the heart.

The next morning while getting ready for work I was recounting the conversation to Leah (not trying to change her mind about anything btw) and when I mentioned the part about being 1 of only 3 or 4 people to run all of the RIF races her face changed and said, “Maybe you can call the hotel and move the reservations up.  You have to run this race!”  BEST.  WIFE.  EVER.  It’s great being married to an ultrarunner who understands.

Obviously everything worked out, so fast forward to the race.  Having trained and run races on the Trail of Fears course was a definite advantage going in.  My strategy from the beginning was to complete each loop with 5-10 min. left before the start of the next loop.  I think the fastest I ever ran the loop was 39 min. in a training run, but I wanted to conserve my energy and not leave too much time between loops to get stiff.  I knew this would be important in the later stages of the race.  Another important component of this race was my crew chief/training partner, Nathan Judd (RIF #166).  Nathan drove me to the race, crewed for me every stop and was there to celebrate with me at the end.  We had discussed my fueling plan, strategy, etc.  He helped me stay the course and definitely played a big role in this victory.  Thanks bro!

The first loop was about finding a rhythm for my strategy.  It helped that on that first loop I fell in step with Kevin Leathers (RIF #12), an experienced, knowledgeable ultrarunner, who I had ran several loops with on the course back in February in the Jackass 50k.  Kevin and I had similar strategies and since we enjoy one other’s company we stuck together and went to work.  We found a good rhythm early on and after a few loops we started making mental time checkpoints along the trail.  It was like clockwork.  Leah showed up with our 2 boys after the 3rd loop with definitely lifted my spirits.

I felt a very minor pain on the outside of my left knee for the first 4 loops.  I wasn’t worried about it but I didn’t want it to come back and bite me in the later stages of the race so I changed out of my Brooks Cascadia 7s into my Saucony Peregrines (the original) thinking that landing differently would make it stop.  After Nathan gave my knee a quick massage (we’re very comfortable in our masculinity) while I ate some warm homemade chicken noodle soup (refer to above comment about BEST. WIFE. EVER.) I took off again and immediately the pain started to disappear.  I wore my Peregrines for 2 loops and then switched back into my Cascadias for the extra cushioning.  It had worked.

After 10 strong, consistent loops my running partner for the day, Kevin, came over to say he was done.  He had met his goal.  He could’ve kept going but for him this race was a fun training day.  Stud.  He told me to stay steady and keep doing what I was doing.  I gave him a quick hug and then got ready for the next loop.  I later heard that he told someone I was the one to watch out for.  Thanks man!

Even though the time to complete each loop had been reduced to 55 min. or less by this point I didn’t change my strategy.  My plan was to keep coming in after 52 or 53 min. like I had been all day because I didn’t see the reasoning in speeding up until I had to.  It was making Nathan nervous though.  He told me I should probably speed up a little bit to be safe, but I told him I was feeling good and was confident I could keep coming in at the same time.  Seven of us started the 11th loop and I just kept following my plan.  On this loop I had the pleasure of catching up with an old friend from Freed-Hardeman University, CrossFit phenom Brett Beckham (RIF #85).  We ran together for about 10 min. and had a good conversation.  What a performance outta that guy.  47.3 miles when he hadn’t run more than a half marathon in over 2 years.  Incredible!

When I completed the 12th loop I had met my second to biggest goal of the day, passing the 50 mile mark.  My personal long before this race was 40.5 miles (Black Diamond 40 Miler) back on November 23rd just one month earlier, so it felt great to reach the 50 milestone.

Now to be completely honest I really hadn’t thought much about winning during the race.  I wasn’t even really paying attention to who was left.  However, the beginning of loop 13 was different.  Immediately after the 13th loop started, Jeff Fugate (RIF #17), who had passed his goal of 50 miles, took a few steps and said, “Good luck man.  I’m done.”  Now it was down to 3.  “Wow!” I thought to myself.  “I might actually win this thing.”  I still felt pretty strong.  I took note of who was left, Travis Redden and Rob Philip (RIF #212).  Both guys had run strong all day and were experienced ultrarunners.  If I’m not mistaken, I believe both had finished ahead of me every single previous loop at that point.  Nathan told me they had consistently come in near the front of the pack all day, finishing between 44 and 48 min., so I knew I had to stay focused.  Rob admitted to me that he was tired so I thought it was probably his last loop, but he still finished the loop a little ahead of me.  What a warrior!  Travis, on the other hand, was out of view ½ mile into the loop and continued pulling away the entire loop.  Nevertheless, I pushed that out of my mind and kept doing what I had been doing the all day.

The 3 of us started the 14th loop, with 52 minutes on the clock so it was finally time to speed up.  I was a little tired and a little sore (obviously) but I didn’t doubt for a second that I could make it.  I passed Rob a little over a mile and a half in and keep moving.  I think I finished with a minute something left, but Rob didn’t make it back in time.  The Trail of Fears had claimed another victim, but not without a fight.  Travis had finished several minutes ahead of me, which surprised me a little since we were that deep into the race.  So now it was down to me and Travis, Method vs. Madness, as it had been coined.  51 minutes on the clock.  Before taking off Nathan and Leah asked me what my plan was so they would know what to expect and not get too nervous.  I told them, “I’m gonna be honest.  I’m only going to speed up just a little.  Expect me to come in with 30 to 60 seconds left on the clock.”  Nathan nervously said, “Ok man.  You know what you’re doing.”  Travis took off and left me again but I tried not to think about it.  Anytime the trail folded back on itself I noticed his headlamp swiveling towards me to see where I was.  I just kept running.  Once again I hit my checkpoints like clockwork.  I completed loop 15 with 40 seconds left…just like I had planned.  Nathan was just laughing.  Travis had finished with 3:46 left I believe.  BEAST!

Loop 16: Josh rolled the clock back to 50 min., I was back at the starting line, still confident, and then I heard Travis tell Josh he was finished.  He had some old injuries starting to flare up and he was afraid if he ran another loop he would tear something.  Per the rules, since Travis finished loop 15 ahead of me I had to complete this loop alone for the win.  I had a rush of adrenaline that started the second I heard Travis say he was done.  “This is it!” I thought, “Either way this is the last time I have to run this loop.” So when Josh said “Go!” I took off faster than any previously loop.  I heard Nathan and Leah yelling, cheering me on as I left.  I honestly at that point wasn’t sure which loop it was and I didn’t know how many miles I was at.  I knew I was at 60-something but I forced that out of my mind and kept moving.  I ran moderate inclines and hills that I had walked all day.  I had been praying on and off for the past 6 or 7 loops, but I prayed almost constantly the entire last loop.  I was asking God to guide my steps and to keep me safe and strong.  I wasn’t pushing as hard as I could, but I was pushing enough to finish with some cushion this time.  Near the end I started calculating the loops and miles and realized that I was about to finish my 16th loop, 68.8 miles!  I finally saw Nathan standing on the path that was about 2 min. from the finish and I knew I had it.  I crossed the finish line with 1:05 making it my fastest loop of the day!  I couldn’t believe it!  It was finally over.  Nearly 11:00 p.m., 16 hours after the race started, I was the last man standing on the Trail of Fears.

With God’s help and an amazing crew I was able to accomplish my ultimate goal: Winning the Trail of Fears.  And to think I had only run my first marathon just over a year ago.  What made it even more special was that it was a race filled with so many great running friends I had made this year, fellow RIFers, just having fun in the coolest RIF race of the year.  The cherry on top was that Leah and Nathan were there to celebrate with me.

Jonathan Harrison RIF #65 (December 22, 2012)

Jonathan Harrison Wins Inaugural Trail of Fears Elimination Race (Results)

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