John Rodrigue was never 100 percent sure he could run 50 miles. Forty-four miles into his first attempt, he didn’t think it was going to happen.

With six miles left in the Farm to Farm Ultra Run on Oct. 16 in Freeport, Rodrigue bonked. Simply put, when a runner “bonks,” he hits a wall.

Rodrigue, a 47-year-old project manager with the Department of Transportation, thought he was finished. His mind had started to, as he put it, “play tricks on him,” at mile 35. He had started to develop some quad pain and, remembering the injuries he suffered in his first marathon, thought it might be time to stop.

However, the Augusta native was able to turn to two things that helped push him to the finish line. Rodrigue had the experience of running five marathons. He also had Andy Haskell riding along side on a mountain bike.

“Without Andy, I probably wouldn’t have made it,” Rodrigue said.

Haskell, the boys soccer coach at Hall-Dale High School, works in the wellness program at MaineGeneral medical center. He is also a strength and conditioning coach, and has experience in “ultra” events.

Rodrigue was in need of some expertise after running his first marathon, the Mount Desert Island Marathon in 2008. The experience, he said, was a “farce.” He overtrained for the race and ran it with a hairline fracture in his shin. He also developed IT-Band issues. He finished in a painful 4 hours, 50 minutes, 36 seconds.

After taking some time to recover, Rodrigue was determined to continue running and reach his goal of qualifying for, and running in, the Boston Marathon. He approached Jill Haskell, an athletic trainer with MaineGeneral, who works with the Cony High School teams his sons Matt and Tyler played on, for guidance. She pointed Rodrigue to her husband, Andy.

Andy Haskell, who has competed in the New York State Marathon 100K as well as 12-hour mountain bike races, started Rodrigue on a training program. The first step was to back off.

“He was still slightly injured,” Haskell said. “When he started I had him start biking. I didn’t want to stress the muscular system — the body — but we needed to stress the cardiovascular system. Take the stress away from the joints.”

With Haskell’s guidance, Rodrigue built his body back up and, a year after the “farce” that was his first marathon attempt, tried again. In October 2009, Rodrigue ran the Maine Marathon in Portland, finishing in a healthy 3:49.06.

He ran the Maine Marathon again the following year, finishing in 3:32.02 and set his sights on Boston. He then ran the Hyannis Marathon in Hyannis, Mass., in February 2010 and again fell short of his goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, finishing in 3:41.52.

Falling short of his goal pushed Rodrigue harder. Rodrigue said Haskell sensed a bit of frustration from Rodrigue and got him involved more in cycling to push to the next level.

In February 2011, Rodrigue ran through snow and rain at the Hyannis Marathon and finished in 3:40.55. At that point, Haskell encouraged Rodrigue to run the Sugarloaf Marathon in May. Rodrigue was skeptical, but Haskell gave him some simple encouragement.

” ‘You are in great form, you just ran a marathon in February, there is no reason why you can’t run Sugarloaf,’ ” Rodrigue remembers Haskell telling him.

Rodrigue is thankful Haskell pushed him to Sugarloaf, it was there that he reached his goal of qualifying for Boston. Rodrigue crossed the finish line, arms raised, clock reading “3:25.58.”

Since, Rodrigue has been accepted to run in the 2012 Boston Marathon, but that was almost a year away. Rodrigue wanted a new challenge.

Would another marathon cut it?

What about an ultra marathon? 50 miles?

“I told Andy I had signed up for a 50-miler and he was like ‘You are crazy,’ ” Rodrigue said.

Haskell remembers it a bit differently.

“I knew it was a heck of an endeavor,” Haskell said. “It’s almost twice as long as a normal marathon. But I knew he would be able to complete it.”

The pair set up a 14-week training program to get Rodrigue ready. It included a lot of miles on the bike and a lot of running. Sometimes on the same day.

“We’d do a 30-mile bike ride in the morning, then John would put on his running shoes and run 16 to 18 miles,” Haskell said.

When he started tapering (in the period before a race, runners lower their miles as a way to rest, recover and get their body ready) Rodrigue started questioning himself.

Was he ready?

Was he crazy?

Could he do this?

“Starting out and not being able to finish, that is what scares me, to start and not finish,” Rodrigue said.

Haskell’s been there, done that and was able to help Rodrigue get over that fear.

And he was there nearly every minute, every second, every hour of Rodrigue’s conquest. While Rodrigue and fellow ultra-marathon newcomer Dustin Angevine, 26 of Bethel, jogged together, pulling each other along, Haskell rode alongside on his mountain bike.

Haskell, meanwhile, helped Rodrigue stay hydrated and fed (run for more than nine hours, you’ve got to eat). Most importantly, he helped him overcome the mental hurdles that come with such a long race.

“Just like I do when I’m coaching, I try to take pressure off the athlete,” Haskell said. “I try to keep it light. When an athlete gets in that state of mind, you have to do things to refocus.”

When Rodrigue started to hit the wall, he asked Angevine to run at his own pace. He didn’t want to slow anyone up. Rather than quit when he bonked, Rodrigue and Haskell focused on small goals. After walking out some of the stiffness in his quads, Rodrigue would pick a spot to run to, say, a telephone pole. Then pick another. And another.

The miles started to add up and with 1.1 left, Rodrigue passed the finish line for his final loop. The crowd of people cheering helped push him to the finish. 9 hours, 33 minutes, 6 seconds. Rodrigue was done. He was the seventh out of eight runners to finish the race (he said 14 started). He finished nearly three hours behind winner Jack Bailey of North Easton, Mass. (6:45.44.8) and over two hours behind second-place finisher Greg Kwasnik of Farmington (7:18.29.9).

But all those doubts Rodrigue had leading into the race, all those thoughts of quitting with less than 10 miles to go, were gone. Rodrigue had started and he did indeed finish.

For Haskell, watching Rodrigue finish was rewarding.

“It was great. It was awesome to watch him finish,” Haskell said. “I know it is such a huge accomplishment. This type of endeavor revels a lot of character in an athlete, but it also builds a lot of character.”

Now, a little less than two weeks later, Rodrigue is running again. He and Haskell will focus mainly on preparing Rodrigue to be at his best for the Boston Marathon in April. Rodrigue, however, wonders if there is something else.

Like what, a 100-miler?

Scott Martin, the Executive Sports Editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, played baseball for a year with John Rodrigue in a men’s wooden bat league and has been passed more than once by Rodrigue while running the Kennebec River Rail Trail. Reach him at [email protected], @scottamartin on Twitter, or 621-5618

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