I’ve visited my buddy, Dustin, and his family at their mountain home many times over the past few years. This time though, we were there specifically for the annual post-Thanksgiving run held at Blue Toad Cidery in Roseland, VA, the Toader—a 1.51 km race that begins with drinking a hard cider, continues on to a donut stop, before hitting the final stretch with a strip of bacon. It is, by all rights, not a serious competition.
I’ve mentioned before that I am a runner—or at least I was before hitting the road. As it turns out, life on the road is not conducive to regular exercise. Finding a place to both camp and run without packing up the van is harder than you might expect, especially when you’re stealth camping. Add in regular stops at cideries and wineries and I’m now probably in the worst shape I’ve been in years.
Which is why I selected the Toader as my comeback race. Like many post-thanksgiving races, the Toader is populated mostly by folks who want to have a good time. They dress up, socialize and then mosey the course while munching on their donuts and sipping their ciders. My heart knows no such pleasures on a race course. I’m really not that much faster than anyone; I never really had the hardened, sharp features of a runner, even when I was at my peak. More than once I would line up at the start of a marathon, shoulder to shoulder with guys who looked like they were carved from wood. They would chuff that me—a pasty waif of a runner with shabby running gear. Then the gun would pop and I became someone else. I would eat the competition for lunch. I began to run and I knew no bounds to my desire—not the desire to win, mind you, but n fiery passion to simply beat everyone else. In several trail races I took hard tumbles that left me bleeding and I would grit my teeth and continue on. The second time I ran Pikes Peak, I had second degree sunburn over a large portion of my body. That was 2019—my last race where I swore revenge on an entire mountain. Because I am a complete lunatic on the race course, a danger to myself I am sure. An absolute menace.
So on November 27th, I lined up for the Toader, next to a gentleman wearing a turkey costume and several 10 year olds who had big dreams of winning the race. As a late entrant I donned an oversize red t-shirt from yesteryear’s race while most of the runners wore this year’s super cool green shirt in a correct size. The race official / bartender didn’t have a start gun, he just yelled go. I had strategized early on that I needed to be up front of the pack from the beginning. Unlike a 26.2 mile race where time sorts out the wheat from the chaff, I needed to jockey into position quickly—especially since things could get jammed up at the donut stand.
As I rounded the first turn, cutting on the inside of some preadolescent with poor running form, I had a realization: I am a grown ass man in a fun run and I am obsessed with winning it all. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I let one of these kids win—you know, let them know what it’s like to cross the finish line first.
Some years ago I was in quite possibly the most public race of my life—a one-on-one foot race in front of an entire baseball park. It was one of those between-the-innings goofy things where they pluck two fools from the audience and have them compete in silly competitions for an oversize t-shirt. I was eighteen—a hairy young guy wearing bright Hawaiian print board shorts as were the fashion at the time. The rules as they were explained to us by the emcee—a former pro football player—were simple: we would run opposite directions around the baseball diamond. I would go counterclockwise while my opponent, a 13 year old girl named Liz, would run clockwise.
Perhaps I delude myself when I say that when we hit our marks in those few seconds before the gun popped, I considered letting Liz win. The age and gender dynamics would make me a loser no matter what. “On your mark,” the football player emceee bellowed, “get set.” I felt that course of adrenaline. “Wait, wait, wait.” Two assistants to the emcee came bounding from the dugout with scuba equipment—goggles, snorkel, and, most crucially, flippers. “You guys need to wear this.” The crowd laughed and we suited up. My goggles fogged over with my nostril breath. The flippers were tight and they would flap up, the toe being the last part to leave the ground. “High steps,” I thought. “Breath through your mouth.” They popped the gun and I ran like my ass was on fire, knees kicking nearly up to my chin, my mouth wide open, the roar of the entire stadium ringing in my ears. The race wasn’t even close. By the time I was rounding third, Liz was still floundering her way to second base. I was completely smoking her. “You forgot to touch third base,” the emcee said.
I had touched third base. This was for the crowd. Their cheers and jeers redoubled as I pivoted on one flippered foot to go back and stomp on the base. I tagged it and then I sprinted with a fury I have rarely ever run with before or since. I crossed home plate a good ten feet in front of Liz. The crowd booed. The distain for my beating a thirteen year old girl was palpable, like electric in the air. The emcee handed me the oversize t-shirt as my trophy, which I put on immediately and spread my hands like Maximus Meridius Decimus asking if they were not entertained. The emcee said, “There’s a winner for ya.” Then he shut off his mic and called me an asshole. We exited the field through the home team’s dugout and one of the ball players shook his head at me, lips pursed. Later that night, as I exited the ballpark, some guy rode by on a bicycle too small for his body and called me an asshole.
So I resolved to not be an asshole during the Toader. Whatever the prize for finishing first was, I didn’t need it that bad.
Then I saw the other runner. This dude was in his forties and wearing running gear. He had the right type of shoes and he donned the short running shorts. And he didn’t finish his donut before exiting the donut station. And now he led the race. Whatever flashback I had where I decided I didn’t need to beat others was immediately washed away. This is a man who needed to be destroyed. I scarfed down the last of my donut and booked it toward the bacon station. I also passed a couple of ten year olds who were close on his heels. I folded the bacon in half, stuffed it into my cheek and then headed down the final stretch, back to the cider house where the sweet taste of victory awaited.
As I drew close to the cidery, I tried to discern where the finish line was. I slowed and asked the bartender / race official if I needed to pass through the barrels at the end of the drive. He shrugged and said, “Sure, yeah.” Miracle clapped. One dude laughed and toasted me with his cider. I asked if there was a prize for first, but all I got in return was “this is a fun run, man.” I asked if I could at least switch out my oversize shirt for one of the green ones. They were out. A group of kids tramped across the finish line to whoops from their adoring parents and the staff of the cidery.
I turned and set my sights on some distant peak, thinking of the time I swore revenge on an entire mountain. I resolved to get back in shape. Then I ordered a cider.