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PITTSFIELD — I was never a guy who took life too seriously. Back during my days of high school cross-country, coach Pat Kiley at Marlborough High once nearly popped a blood vessel hollering at me during a day of hill repeats.

"Michael, if you've got the energy to smile and chat with Andrew, you're not running hard enough."

Whatever fantasy football conversation my buddy and I were having came to an abrupt end as we continued our silent ascent of Lodi Road.

Coach Kiley had a tremendous impact on me as a kid, and I'm happy to say he would've been damn proud last Saturday, as grins were in short supply during my first stab at the Josh Billings RunAground iron man.

I had chilling goosebumps while making my way toward Tyler Street from Pontoosuc Lake, feeling as sick as I did during the infamous MHS Bolton Relays, where, as a sophomore, I staggered across the finish line and promptly lost my cafeteria food lunch alongside Kiley's pickup truck.

Smiling was the farthest thing from my mind, at least until after I crossed my virtual finish line — cleverly mapped out to coincide with Dairy Cone on Tyler Street — and had a peanut butter cup Wizzzard in hand.

The Josh going virtual this year, while a huge bummer as there's no better way to bid farewell to summer than with the afterparty on the lawn at Tanglewood each September, did provide a unique opportunity for many such as myself to test out the iron waters in a pressure-free environment.

Personally, that also meant the slightly terrifying chance to ride a road bike for the first time. I haven't ridden any sort of bicycle in more years than I can remember, and while the saying is true: Riding a bike is like riding a bike, there is a lot of room for nuance when you get into the nitty gritty of shifting gears and aerodynamic hand positions.

Credit Berkshire Bike and Board for the rental and brief overview. I took one test ride to The Eagle offices on Friday night and didn't wipe out, so that gave me some modicum of confidence heading into Saturday morning's 27-miler.

Despite a popped chain around mile six, one missed turn — wound up doing 28.92 miles in 2 hours, 6 minutes and 15 seconds — and hand pain that would have Quint saying this city boy had been counting money all his life, the bike portion was surprisingly not too bad. I took a long loop up Route 8, through Lake Ashmere and down East Street toward Pittsfield State Forest, before hooking around Onota and back to the Pontoosuc boat ramp, where my car sat with a paddleboard strapped to the roof and an empty trunk awaiting my bike.

The wife and dog were there as well, delivering the extra water bottles I'd forgotten to pack, because this was not a superbly well-thought-out mission.

I've been at the Josh paddle entrance/exit both as a runner and reporter, and I must say this is where I most missed the in-person experience. There is truly nothing like the Stockbridge Bowl boat ramp on Billings day, where organized chaos is an art form. With that Black Friday-esque sense of urgency gone, I was way too vain to paddleboard in bike shorts, so a quick wardrobe change sapped a bit of my pit-crew time.

Still, I got my SIC Sonic on the water before long and started cranking away.

An additional challenge to the virtual Josh was the spectators. Don't get me wrong, they were still there, but instead of cheering fans I had a bunch of folks on pontoon boats tempting me with cold beer or looking quizzically at the dude huffing, puffing and hauling ass on a SUP.

I've grown to love paddleboarding this summer, and am grateful I had the foresight and luck to nab mine at the Arcadian Shop back in April before the proverbial hot cakes of 2020's social distancing summer sold out near and far. However, after biking 27 miles, I can't say ripping off sub-16-minute miles on the SUP is as much fun as leisurely floating with a Downeast Cider working on my tan. Still, I circled Pontoosuc clockwise, and jutted out to hook the small island and got to five miles in 1:19:36.

Shedding the board shorts and bare feet for my running attire and Brooks Ghosts, I devoured my third GU of the day and tried to judge how much water was needed while not sending my body into writhing cramps during the impending six-mile foot slog.

Unlike biking and paddling, running is actually something I can say I have more than a cup-of-coffee experience with. However, stacked on top of near 35 miles of exercise, my first mile headed back up Hancock toward the Lakecrest Condos was less Kent Lemme and more Bambi on ice.

I'd like to think I settled into a bit of muscle memory rhythm — with the aromatic help of someone baking cookies on Narragansett Ave — from there, but in reality that Bolton Relays gut feeling started creeping back by the time I hit Route 7.

I carded a north-of-10-minute mile with my gauge on E making my way past Reid Middle School, and only the thought of that Wizzzard got me to the finish line in 57:22 (6.31 miles).

Fun is a strong word, but in this midst of this miserable year, I believe in testing our bodies and minds, and taking victories wherever and however they're found. The Josh going virtual was a blow, but with that, it allowed all who participated to tally one in the 'W' column.

And whether you spent half a day pushing your body to its limits, or you're simply grinding to get through 2020's finish line, this is a year where Josh's quote is bigger than a race.

"To finish is to win."

Now, let's finish this pandemic and get some ice cream.

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @WalshWrites89 on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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