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Georgia Race, Day 5

Matt Cavanaugh

The Long March was the toughest day I’ve had so far this year, but I held out and will finish 3rd overall.

The night before, the organizers found us an unused community center in a local village to sleep in. While it was chock full of asbestos, it was also dry, which was a welcome relief to the week’s rain.

Being dry didn’t help the IT band though. I worked on it as I could, with a foam roller and some simple stretches, and, before closing my eyes, said a little prayer for the Long March.

It felt like that prayer was answered. The morning of, the organizers cut the course down to 40 miles due to a high likelihood of lightning (and a 100 percent certainty of encountering several dozen wild dogs at a fortress ruin). So the day promised to be shorter, and my 95-minute cushion on my nearest competitor meant I had plenty of breathing room.

I started fast and fine. I came into the halfway mark in 3 hours, 46 minutes, sitting in my usual 3rd place, back from 1st and 2nd by about 10 minutes. That’s when I felt it—the IT band tightened up even worse than Stage 4, at precisely the same mileage (20 miles in) as the day before.

I tried everything. I stopped and pushed on it. I walked. I stretched a bit. I did everything you can do. So I thought a minute about what I could do next.

I did the mental math based on how I expected the guys behind me to perform, and my own estimate of what I could do if I pushed a hard walk/march. I figured that from the time the guy in 4th place (a great runner from Mexico, who lives in Barcelona) caught me, I’d lose 3 minutes per mile to the finish. So to preserve the leg, I power-walked it from mile 20 on.

Somehow, miraculously, I had built up enough of a lead that my closest competitor didn’t catch me until mile 29. And when I eventually crossed the finish line, my rough estimate worked out—I only lost 36 minutes to him on the Long March, and with a 95-minute cushion to start the day I’ve held onto 3rd overall. (And tomorrow’s last-stage-10K distance means it would be a physical impossibility for me to lose that spot.)

But the cost was my personal pride. I’ve never walked in a race like this. And to do it for 20 miles, at 4 miles per hour, meant I had to live in it for 5 hours. I walked through a village, Okomi, where the kids came out and a little gang of 3-,4-, and 5-year-olds made a game of running past me (as if we were racing). Nothing makes you feel smaller than a being outrun by a pack of preschoolers. The men I passed had some fun with me too, but they limited their jabs to a little light laughter.

But at the end of the day I was still in 3rd, and while I’m bent up a bit, I’m not broken. I’m going to finish this thing tomorrow, lick my wounds, and be on the starting line in the Atacama in 11 weeks, ready for the world’s highest and driest desert.