Iowa native and current Lee County resident Josh Fix runs through heavy brush during last month’s national North Face Endurance Challenge Ultra Marathon in Atlanta — a 50-mile race which he completed in 7 hours, 57 minutes and 36 seconds, finishing second. Fix, who runs purely for his love of the sport and the competitive challenge of racing, is presented a check for $600 for taking second — the most he’s ever won in any race by more than $500. (Amy Fix/Special to The Herald).
LEESBURG --- At Mile 25 of a 26.2-mile marathon, you will commonly hear a runner tell you that their arms, legs and soles of their feet feel like they’re about to explode.
And that their mind isn’t far behind it.
Just a little more than a mile left, they tell themselves. Come on ... you can do it. You didn’t run this far to turn back now. You can see the finish line. It’s just over that hill. Boost it. Push it. Find that ninth, 10th or 45th wind — whatever it takes. Just so long as you make it.
Now imagine that Mile 25 is nothing more than the halfway point. That you still have 25 more to go. That this grueling trek — the likes of which so few of even the most accomplished runners can undertake, much less complete — is only beginning.
Sounds a little crazy, right?
Well, that’s because it kind of is.
Welcome to the wonderful, painful world of the 50-mile ultra-marathon — a world Lee County’s Josh Fix is getting to know quite well these days.
Just call him Southwest Georgia’s Superman.
“He’s insane. He’s definitely insane,” laughed Amy Fix, Josh’s wife and an avid runner in her own right — of normal, mortal distances, that is. “But he’s just one of those natural athletes who can go out and do something like that and not think twice. Normal people would need to train months, maybe a year, for a marathon or half-marathon. Not Josh. He can just wake up and do it.”
Fix, a 36-year-old math teacher at Lee County High School, took on his first 50-mile race Oct. 15 in Atlanta — the annual North Face Endurance Challenge Ultra Marathon, which attracts some of the top runners from across the country.
Fix, however, had never run a longer distance than a marathon before undertaking the challenge — and low and behold, he finished in second place, and even led for almost half of the race.
“I heard about the race sometime last year, and I immediately made it a goal of mine,” he said during an interview with The Herald a week after his second-place finish with a time of 7 hours, 57 minutes and 36 seconds — that’s a pace of just under 10 minutes a mile on hilly, rocky and brutally rough terrain at Pine Mountain State Park. “I had never run a distance like that in my life— and even when I was training for the race, I only ran about 20 miles a couple of times at the most — so I wasn’t sure how I’d do. But I was sure about one thing: I knew I had the fitness to finish.”
Not only did Fix finish, he turned more than a few heads in the process.
“There was this collective reaction, I think, from the race organizers (and those who are around that endurance racing scene), of, ‘Who in the world is this guy?’ ” Fix said.
When the race was over, Fix returned the next day to the race site with Amy — who was running in the North Face 5K event with a friend — and he happened to make his way back to the racing tent after finding a stray kitten that he hoped he could find a home for by having the race organizers make an announcement over the loudspeaker.
“When I came up and explained I had found this kitten and I wanted to see if anyone there was interested in taking it home, the guy from North Face (outdoor apparel company) turns to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re that guy who took second place yesterday in the 50-mile race, aren’t you?’ ” Fix recalled. “He said, ‘That was really impressive what you did, and the guy who beat you is one of the top pros in the country. You should really consider coming out to our big end-of-the-year race in San Francisco.’
“I was pretty floored. I felt like kind of a small fish in a little pond just going to that race, and now here was this guy telling me he thought I had a chance to compete with (some of the nation’s best).”
Hours before Fix sat down with The Herald to tell his story in October — a story that begins in Muscatine, Iowa, takes a cross-country detour to Durango. Colorado, before eventually winding up in Southwest Georgia — he received confirmation from North Face that he’d been successfully entered into the Dec. 3 The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in San Francisco.
“It’s been kind of a surreal ride,” Fix said as he looked over the confirmation email on his cell phone. “I’m not a real natural athlete or a gifted runner. I’m just a guy who likes to run, and I work really hard at my fitness. You hear about these guys who win marathons who run four-minute miles — well, that’s never going to happen for me. I have a good cardiovascular system, and I can maintain a steady pace for a long, long time. And I love an adventure. Those are my strengths.”
Fix’s love for pounding the pavement was born as a youngster in his hometown of Muscatine through his adoration of his uncle, Kevin Cooney, an accomplished marathoner and mountain climber who successfully scaled Mount Everest in his heyday.
“He was my mentor, and I really looked up to him and all his friends who did endurance racing,” Fix said. “I’ve always loved the outdoors, and he was an outdoorsman and a hiker, and we’ve always shared this bond over stuff like that.”
Fix — believe it or not — didn’t run track or cross country in high school; he was a soccer and football player, and both of those seasons competed with the others. Instead, he remembers going to 5Ks (3.1 miles) and 10Ks (6.2 miles) with his uncle as a young boy — even as early as elementary school — and that “I would always finish real well in my age group,” he said.
When Fix graduated from high school, he moved West to live with his uncle and attend college at Colorado University, although because his SAT and ACT test scores weren’t as good as he — or Colorado University — would’ve liked, he floundered in Boulder for several years after arriving, going to night school and working odd jobs to maintain.
One of those odd jobs? He was a semi-pro mountain biker who competed in local races.
“You didn’t make very much money. In fact, I think the most I ever won was, like, $75,” Fix said with a laugh before adding that his second-place finish in Atlanta last month paid $600. “That was the most money — by far — I’d ever won in a race of any kid. I was, like, ‘Wow! This is great.’ ”
Fix eventually enrolled in CU, but left after two years for Fort Lewis College just south in Durango, Colo., after learning that one of his friends was involved with the cross country program there. He wasn’t offered a scholarship to join the team — after all, he had no accolades to his credit at any competitive level of running — but soon began turning heads at Fort Lewis the same way he did in Atlanta.
“I was a walk-on my junior year, but by the end of the season, I was the team’s top runner,” Fix said modestly after some prying and assurance it was OK to brag on himself. “It was all starting to fall into place for me. Running was what I was good at, and it just took a while to realize that.”
But Fix’s life took an unexpected detour around the time he graduated when he became involved with a girl, who is now his ex-wife and mother of his son, Lane, a student at Deerfield-Windsor. Fix’s ex-wife was an Albany native whom he met while attending Fort Lewis, and in 2000, the couple moved back to Georgia to be closer to her family. It was around this time, Fix says, that he “took a complete sabbatical” from running.
“Looking back, it was probably the demise of our marriage because I don’t think either of us realized at the time we didn’t have enough in common to (make it work in the long haul),” he said. “She wasn’t into running, and once we got divorced in 2006 and I started running again, I realized how much happier a person I am when I’m out there running, exercising and just doing something that I love.”
Fix, who earned his degree in mathematics at Fort Lewis, worked both as a teacher in the Dougherty County School System and the Georgia Department of Education, and said building his career and raising his son took up most of his time when he first arrived in Southwest Georgia.
But after his divorce, he made time to rekindle his romance with running.
“I’d made some friends in an athletic group and we’d go out on long rides, or runs. And when I first started back in 2007, I was about 20 pounds heavier than I’d ever been, and I was the fat kid who was always trailing at the back and they were dropping me,” said Fix, who added that none of his new friends knew about his previous athletic background. “But after about four or five months, I got back into shape, lost the 20 pounds and they’re suddenly like, ‘Who is this dude? He’s killing it all of the sudden.’ ”
Soon, Fix was the one leading the pack.
On the weekends Lane was at his mothers, Fix would take long drives to the picturesque North Georgia mountains and “just get lost — disappear completely,” he said, on long peaceful, six-, seven-, sometimes 8-hour bike rides along trails that he didn’t care where — or if — they ended. He’d find himself falling into deep thought about life and where exactly his was headed.
“This is more true with running now, but on these rides, it’s where I would go to sort things out in my head, think about life, my goals, things like that,” Fix said. “I found I was far more content than ever before in my life, and it was all due to the fact I was healthy and exercising again.”
It was around this time he met Amy, who was part of his newfound athletic group. And it was in Amy he found all that he was missing.
“We were going to a mountain bike race one weekend and a part on my bike had broken and the guys in my group were like, ‘Hey, Amy has the same bike, let’s ask her if she will lend you the part you need,’ ” Fix recalled. “So that gave way to me having to return it, and eventually I asked her out. I wasn’t really looking for anyone or another relationship at the time — I was just worried about Lane and taking care of us — but I soon realized that not only do we have similar interests and beliefs, but she understands what makes me happy. And if I said to her, ‘Hey, I want to go off on a 100-mile bike ride,’ she’d either say, ‘Can I join you?’ or ‘OK, have fun!’ ”
Amy and Josh got married and moved to Leesburg not long after their courtship began, and the exercising together hit a feverish pitch along the way.
“We rode centuries together the first year we were together,” Josh said. “And then I started back running, as well. I won the (local) Chili run three years in a row, and I would take my son Lane in a jogger stroller with me when I’d race. He loved it.”
So with a new lease on life — and new job working as a math teacher at Lee County, which he started last year — Fix felt on top of the world, which is one of the reasons he decided to tackle his first ultra-marathon this year.
And Amy was ready to watch, cheering on her man every step of the way.
“I never doubted for a minute he could finish the race, and I was overjoyed at how well he did considering he even led it for about 23 miles,” she said. “Still, second place — for your first 50-mile race — is just amazing. He had the mindset he was going to do it, and that’s just the kind of guy he is once he puts his mind to it. I remember seeing him at different points in the race, and he looked great. I, or any normal person, would’ve been dead. But he didn’t look tired. He didn’t look defeated at any point. He looked strong the whole way.”
Amy then paused before adding with a laugh: “I mean, it’s 50 miles. It’s not normal to run that long, and he did it. He’s just a freak.”
The only runner to beat Fix was a guy named Hal Koerner from Ashland, Texas, and by all accounts of Koerner’s past finishes in these types of races, he’s one of the best distance runners in the country. Fix said Koerner passed him around the halfway point, but that he never lost focus of his ultimate — and solitary — goal: just finish.
“I stayed hydrated, ate M&Ms, and bananas and chocolate expresso beans — whatever I had to do to keep my energy up,” said Fix, who was then asked if there was ever a point when he thought he may not make it. “Well, I knew my body. I knew that I could run for six hours at a time and be OK. Toward the end — maybe around the 45th or 46th mile — my legs started to really hurt, but believe it or not, you still get that runner’s high. And just knowing I was that close to accomplishing something .... you don’t quit when you’re that close.”
Amy said when Josh crossed the finish line and they realized he’d finished second, the first thought that came to her mind was, “Holy crap!” she said with a laugh. “His goal going into it was just to finish, and here he was in second place. I can’t tell you how proud of him I was.”
Even more amazing? Josh and Amy, who also share a love for roughing it and going camping whenever they have a chance, didn’t stay at a posh hotel or even one with a bed during their trip to Atlanta. Instead, they arrived the night before, camped out in tents and each of them got about 4-5 hours of sleep.
“Our friends were like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to stay in a hotel before such a big race?’ ” Amy recalled. “And we were like, ‘No, (being outdoors) is better than any hotel. It’s what we love to do.”
Josh is now two weeks away from tackling a field of the best endurance runners the United States has to offer, but this math teacher from Lee County isn’t scared one bit.
Because after a trying last decade, he’s finally found peace in his own mind on the running trail — and the trail of life.
And after Atlanta, he now knows what he’s capable of.
“In Atlanta, there was one fast guy. I was the best in Georgia, and he was the best in the nation,” Josh said. “But in San Francisco, there will be five of him I’ll be running against. And that’s OK. I’m ready.”