The Beat the Blerch is a race born of the brain droppings of Matt Inman, the man behind The Oatmeal website and comics. He wrote a many-paged comic about his “why of running”, which then turned into a book of comics about running… and then it turned into a marathon. If you wonder what the blerch is, click this link.
At the packet pickup, Matt Inman signed books and encouraged people to “shoot for a personal worst” on the race. After all, it was more about the experience and having a good time and enjoying yourself than about getting a PR or coming in first. In fact. There were no awards for coming in first, or top three, or anything like that. So if you ran for a win, you did so purely for your own rewards and not for something to put on a wall or mantle.
The Start Line
Let there be Agony
The world was gray, and mist filled the valleys. There were real mountains here, so real valleys too. Clouds, heavy with the rain they were dumping on us, held low among the mountains and trees. There were streams and fields and fir trees; The play of deep greens against the shifting grays was…beautiful.
“I feel like this area needs to be seen in the rain…I feel like this is right.” I said to my husband. He hummed agreement.
“You’re still running in the rain though. Have fun with that.” He murmured at me.
“I am the storm.” I responded.
Minh met up with us as we wandered the area behind the start line. There was a doughnut bar, cake set out on long tables in a barn, and a guy in a Blerch costume handing out maple syrup shots.
I went there.
It will get worse.
Runners were called to the start – and there were about 200 slots sold for the marathon…due to the rain, maybe about 135 showed up. We gathered to hear the usual pre-race information: “Remember to hydrate” for example. But then the mic was handed off to another announcer, and the pre race instructions took a new turn:
“Good morning.” He began. The crowd cheered it back.
“Good morning.” He continued, then: “In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world, and you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind…”
I glanced across the rope toward the spectators, toward my husband, who caught my eye and grinned big.
They were sending us off with the battle speech from Independence Day.
The countdown was made, and then we were off.
Rain drizzled, and poured, and drizzled… and when it wasn’t actively falling from the sky, the wind would shake it down in huge drops from the trees overhead. The course, billed as “flat” was pretty much that. A couple of “bumps” but nothing too harsh, and once or twice I figured I was running a slight incline, because I was pulling away from Minh.
The first 6-7miles were marked by Minh complaining to the people we ran along with or passed that I was “supposed” to be holding him at a 10:10 minute /mile pace. We were easily pulling down 9:10s-9:30s. Perfect. I know a lot of people put down the idea of even splits or positive splits, but something about how Minh’s mindset worked had me thinking that banking time in the beginning would pay off for him in the end. Besides. I’m proof that even splits and positive splits can still snag PRs. I have yet to run a negative split race (Uh. Which, for you readers who don’t use ‘runner lingo’, means going faster per mile in the second half of a race).
We made friends with a few people around us and chatted as people either moved ahead or fell back. Quite a few people out there were out for their first marathon…or first half.
By mile 7, the rain had us drenched and sloshing in our shoes. The gray mists kept any distant views hidden, which kept me feeling like I was more in the moment. The path was mostly solid gravel road, and ahead…there was a …. yeti?
“That’s an albino Sasquatch.” Minh corrected me.
“So? A yeti? Yeah?”
The aid station, which somewhere in my many re-tellings of the race morphed into being called a ‘rest stop’, had couches and people in Blerch costumes waving spoonfuls of Nutella and chanting for us to “Sit! Relax! You’ve worked so hard! You’re champs! Come have a rest.” And damn, if I didn’t flop onto a couch and snuggle into the armpit of a Blerch while I downed a cliff shot and a volunteer refilled my water bottle. Minh downed some Nutella and called for me to come on already. Sooner than I liked, I was up, and a Blerch was spilling Nutella down me as I tried to squeeze past her to run on. I remember thinking, repeatedly, as I looked down at my feet throughout the race, that the splatter of Nutella on this race bib was poetic. Perfect. Right.
From mile 7 until about 17, Minh and I were largely on our own.
Had I gone out there to run this by myself, I would have been miserable. It was practically 2 and a half to 3 hours where Minh and I were the only two around. Sure, there were runners ahead of us, but until we neared the full marathon turn around at mile 16, we didn’t see them. And there were certainly runners behind, but again, we didn’t see them until after the turn around. No one passed us. No one fell back to us. We. Were. Alone. And had Minh not been there, had I run this on my own like I thought I was going to, I would have been alone. In the rain. In the middle of the woods. No where. I would have hated it. I can’t think of a deeper hell for me in a race. BUT! I had Minh. So we used a trick I learned from my friend Jim: Sing loudly and badly.
You know. If you sing loudly and badly at any random time, the world shuns you and you become an unwilling and horrifying YouTube sensation. Sing loudly and badly during a marathon, on a lonely and quiet course, and the World sings with you.
At one point, Minh and I, under the full influence of what I call “Runner Brain”, struggled embarrassingly through the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody. You know this song. You’ve experienced karaoke of it. Our rendition was terrible. And as we whipped into an aid station, we quieted, trying not to make fools of ourselves, or annoy anyone. But one of the volunteers, who heard the singing, took up the song at “I’m just a poor boy”… and the song was back on. As we pulled through, grabbing cliff shots and water, the whole group of volunteers were singing with us – at full volume – and laughing. And it was Magical.
The magic of that aid station held us over for a short while. And then the silence and heaviness that only an old-growth forest in rain can hold crept back into our heads.
At one point, as the hills rose a little on both side of the path, a little ball of fuzz dropped out of the tree line and smacked into my leg before scurrying back into the woods.
“Holy shit what was that?” I exclaimed. It was like a black, fuzzy ball the size of a soft ball, with a short stubby tail. I had never seen anything like it. I wanted to call it a squirrel, but it wasn’t.
“I think that was Alvin.” Minh chuckled, holding for a long argument with me that the thing was a chipmonk. But I knew that wasn’t right.
Matt Inman told me before the race start that he believed all the half marathoners and 10k runners were missing out, because it was the marathon that got all the beautiful sights on this run. And he was right. We crossed a bridge over a beautiful waterfall and stream, running hard because of the rain. We also crossed a bridge that opened up to a view that was lovely as the sun managed to get some light to break through the cloud cover. And the old-growth forest we ran into…. Man, that was pretty.
Runner Brain and The Hurt
Around mile 16 I started to feel pain in my hip flexor. Nothing major, but it was uncomfortable. It actually got me to worry about being able to keep up the pace for Minh.
A short trip through a tunnel, with an aid station holed up in the darkness, and a few feet beyond marked the turn around for the full. I cheered, and I tried to cheer Minh on, reminding him that it was all just a run home from here. As we left the tunnel behind and started back toward the finish, Minh started worrying.
“I’m not going to make it, Em.” He said to me. I paused and shot him a worried look. Was he hurting? Did I push him too hard? I knew if he just told me what was bothering him I could pretty much fix anything, we were almost to single-digits to the finish. But if he had a real injury starting… there was nothing I could do for that.
“What do you mean?” I asked, watching his run. It wasn’t any different from how he looked at the start.
“I’m not going to finish in four and a half. We’ve only got an hour to go 10 miles. I can’t do that!”
I glanced at my watch. We had hit the half marathon mark at 2 hours even. We were still on pace for a 4 hour marathon.
“You have two hours, Minh.” I said over my shoulder. He just stared at me, as though he didn’t believe me.
“Minh, we have two hours to run 10 miles and we’ll still get in before the 4 and a half hour mark. You’re fine. Just hold out.”
He stared a moment more and then shook himself, as my words started to make sense.
“Oh! You’re right! I’ll be fine! I can do two hours.”
“You’re suffering runner brain, man. Get out of your head. Stop trying to do the math. I’ve got you. Once you hit 18, you can do anything you want… you can slow down… you’ll have so much time banked that it won’t hurt you unless you stop too long.”
“I got this.” Minh confirmed, and he settled in to his run again.
I sang some more bad songs, and caught up with a girl who was on pace to land a PR. She sang some with me, and a glance at my watch showed that she and I were kicking through a 8:30 minute mile coming up on mile 19 like it was nothing. I grimmaced at the pace and glanced over my shoulder to check on Minh. He was gone. He had already said many times before the race that I should drop him if he starts to struggle, but I didn’t like that. When we came up to the next aid station, this one manned by the yetisquash. I took my time going through and Minh caught up. Another water refill, a quick stop into the porta potty for me, and I was running beside Minh.
“This is my pace. I’m comfortable in this.” Minh commented.
“Good. Lets do this.” I said, checking my watch. He was holding a 9:45. Perfect. He’d be well ahead of his goal like this.
By mile 20, I had dropped him again. Also by mile 20, I realized that I was really hurting. My quads and hips were so tight. Like there were bands around them, pulling them and keeping them from their full reach. Cramps started to shoot along one of my IT bands, and around one ankle. I was glad that Minh wasn’t up with me, because I actually caught myself whimpering…out loud… Tears wanted to well into my eyes and I was having to talk myself down to keep from crying out loud over the pain. Then I realized. This was probably a calorie deficit. I was so low that I was loosing control over pain management. I checked my gear, and sure enough, of the 5 cliff shots I should have gone through by now, I had only eaten 2. I popped open a caffeinated one, and forced myself to eat it. It took three miles, but I got it in, and the need to whimper and cry went away.
By now, I caught up with the walkers from the half marathon and 10k, so there were tons of people around. Just no one to talk to and no one to run with. Mostly. They were problems. Especially as I made the turn in the last couple of miles…where the path was loose, large gravel. The walkers took up a lot of the path, in both directions, and had their ear buds in – so they couldn’t hear as I called to pass.
I solemnly swear that I only kicked one person on this run….and they deserved it.
Let There Be Cake
I dodged people and struggled with the cramps and pain while running the last mile and a half. There wasn’t a large crowd of spectators at the finish. But my husband was there, and he was able to call at me so I saw him as I came up to the finish line. The rain? It stopped about a half hour earlier.
4 hours 12 minutes.
Almost exactly what I expected to get. Now I just had to wait for Minh.
Mihn came into the finish like a champ! And he was! At 4 hours 25 minutes, he landed a PR by 45 minutes!
I limped around, trying to work out my hip, but it was pretty wrecked. It would take some pointed stretching and a hot shower to loosen it up, and standing around at the finish line wasn’t helping. I wanted to get a doughnut. I wanted to get another maple syrup shot. I wanted to eat the cake and stick around and have fun. But I was so tired and sore…I just wanted to be dry and clean more than all of that. A poke around inside the barn showed that, yes, there was plenty of cake…but not much else to eat. No fruit. No salty things…nothing “real”. The idea of sugar made my stomach turn. Minh and I took a victory picture and then we all left to clean up and meet up somewhere in the city for post-race foods.
Not Today, Blerch. Not Today.
In the end, I took 5th among the women and 3rd in my age group. I had so much fun running this with Minh, and am still so glad that he was there. Having that friend to talk and sing with really made the difference for me. This race could easily have been miserable for someone like me, who loves the crowds and the cheering and deep race fields – full of people to chat with and stories to share.
That fuzz-ball creature that tumbled out of the woods and hit my leg? Yeah. I’m told that’s a mountain beaver.
It’s a real thing. Here:
They don’t get tail
They don’t get wet
They burrow deep (into holes along the banks)
And they only eat the tip (of branches)
I warned you it got worse. The knowledge of this creature’s existence made for hours of entertainment for us.