I’m going to start this blog post in reverse by writing about Kaz Rybak, the last finisher in today’s 32nd annual Soapstone Mountain Trail Race. I’ve written about Kaz before because he has been a fixture at this race over the past 26 years, half of which, Debbie has been the Race Director.
Kaz finished the 22.5 kilometer race in 6:10:32. Over the years, he has frustrated and worried us many times, but he has also inspired us, and today, he inspired us more than ever. He violates the time cuts, he forces us to wait for hours after the second to last finisher, and he leaves us exhausted…but even still, we would never leave him in the woods alone.
When 3:00 P.M. rolled around today, after the last of the volunteers had left, the official timers had packed up, and we were sitting in our van (it was cold!) waiting for Kaz, Debbie suggested that we go look for him. My legs were shot and I was in no condition to walk/run backwards on the course, but Debbie was willing to do it.
We knew based on previous results that he would be coming soon, so she walked backwards on the course to the Gulf Road parking lot in Shenipsit State Forest. I drove around with the kids and waited for her. She arrived a few minutes later without having intercepted Kaz. She joined us in the van for a few more minutes, and then we saw him coming down the access road after descending the Quarry Trail. She got out and went to check on him. He didn’t stop moving. He couldn’t stop moving. If he did, he might not finish.
This was his 26th year in a row doing the Soapstone Mountain Trail Race. We don’t think he trains much anymore. He is in his early 60’s and Soapstone is a big part of his life. He always purchases two t-shirts. We know that he looks forward to this day every year. He refuses the invitation to start earlier. He ignores our advice. He relentlessly pursues the finish line. As he came down the access road, I watched Debbie walk with him.
Our kids were irritable, but I explained to them that their Mom serves others by directing this race and we would never go home without knowing that Kaz (and every other runner) was safe. We had put together a care package for him and left it on a picnic table at the finish line at Reddington Rock Riding Club. It consisted of two Pepsi’s, two cups of a chili, and a bowl of soup.
Kaz never stopped moving. At this point, he was sort of shuffling down the road. Debbie walked with him, I turned around, and pulled ahead. We got him some Gatorade from the back of the van, which he drank on the fly, and then crossed Gulf Road on to the dirt road headed to the finish. Debbie stuck with him and walked the last kilometer through the woods back up to the horse riding club. He shared enough intimate thoughts with her about his life that it was clear that this race means as much to him as anything.
The kids and I drove back around and waited for him to finish. We cheered for him and took photos. Every year, he stashes his car keys in the cook shed. His car was lonely out in the open field, where hours earlier, several hundred cars were parked. He told us that he leaves his keys behind because he doesn’t want to bring them in the woods. I was thinking, that’s smart. It would really suck to get back to your car after six hours and not have your keys. This year, he left two safety pins stashed with his keys and told Debbie that he didn’t bring them during the race because every ounce matters and they would weigh him down. From a distance, I overheard this, and chuckled loudly.
Then, we packed all of his food and drinks in to a box and he carried it across the field to his car. He was wiped out. It took a while for him to get to the opposite side of the field. As we pulled out, we honked and yelled out to him to get some rest and take care. When you have done as much adventuring and participated in endurance sports as often as we have, you have to draw inspiration from somewhere. For Debbie and me, after 25+ years of pushing ourselves to the limit, it is people like Kaz Rybak that give us that awesome feeling that motivates.
The entire race was a success. We hosted 257 runners (177 for the half marathon and 80 for the Sampler), and fed more than 300 including the spectators and volunteers. After 13 years of directing the race, Debbie still relies on an amazing group of Shenipsit Striders club mates and volunteers from the Northern Connecticut Land Trust and Connecticut Forest & Park Association. Once again, Jerry Turk and Kerry Arsenault, from RAT Race Timing, handled the scoring. Volunteers came from everywhere, including out of state.
The first place man was Drew Best. He was followed by Matt Shamey and Todd Bennett. The first woman was Kehr Davis. She was followed by Emma Perron and Sarah Pandiscio. The weather was perfect for runners and not so great for spectators. It was cooler than usual, with a strong west wind and intermittent clouds. Thankfully, there was no precipitation. There were several muddy spots on the trail, but the course conditions were generally good. The footing is always tricky with lots of rocks, roots, and leaves. The usual mishaps occurred, including wrong turns, and falls, causing bumps, bruises, and cuts. No one was seriously hurt. Safety is our number one goal, but when you trail run, you take risks and the responsibility is yours to bear.
For the second year, our 9-year-old son did the 6 kilometer Sampler and had a great time. Last year, I ran with him, but we have since learned that he does better when he is on his own. So, yesterday, I decided to run the long course. I have done one or the other 13 times.
I had a great race. I broke two hours for the third time, finishing in 1:56:54, my third fastest on the course. I gave it my all and it showed. I fell hard three separate times, the last, only a kilometer from the finish. I had a five-mile battle with Neal Leibowitz. We were never more than 10 seconds apart and traded places half a dozen times. I was stronger on the uphills and he was stronger on the downhills.
I led him up Soapstone Mountain for the last time, but he passed me on the road after the Quarry Trail descent. I trailed him as we crossed Gulf Road, but as we made our way down the dirt road in Shenipsit State Forest, I caught my toe on a rock and went down in a heap. It sucks to fall on the road and I’m full of rash on my left (bad) shoulder, left forearm, and left leg. I’ll pay for that fall with delayed onset muscle soreness for a week or more.
That fall gave him a gap, but I still closed in on him on the final singletrack climb before entering the riding club property. I chased him up the hill and towards the finish, but he held me off by one second. He crossed the finish line and went down on his knees. I crossed the line and listed sideways. My legs instantly felt like jelly; I careened into the rope barriers and bumped a chip timing sensor, knocking it down as I collapsed on to my left side.
I’ve never had that happen before. I didn’t black out, but I was momentarily incoherent. It wasn’t a pretty moment as a large crowd, including my parents witnessed it, but it symbolized that I had given it my all in an effort to catch Neal. In a weird way, I felt satisfied, but it was frightening for a few people, including my Mom. What’s the point of racing if you aren’t going to lay it all out? I got some help over to a bench, where I sat down next to Neal. We were both knackered. The EMT patched us up as we basked in the glow of having finished a tough race with a flourish. It really was a great day. I saw many grimaces, but also many smiles. The kids race was fun to watch. Introducing young ones to the sport of trail running is pure joy. Debbie and I have more work to do, cleaning pots, putting away gear, and washing our van. That work doesn’t have the same intensity as race preparation. Next year will be the 33rd edition. For now, I’ll hold the image of Debbie walking down the road with Kaz Rybak, as he slogged his way to another Soapstone finish line.