Run Across Illinois: Ultrarunners Using Their Special Powers for Good
As my summer of ultras continues, I find myself wearing a bigger and brighter grin. With inspiration being as bountiful as the sun, I shouldn’t be surprised that I found yet another motivating group of inspiring people doing extraordinary things for the betterment of the universe.
The particular corner of the universe I am most interested in is my home: the city of Chicago. And when I found out that, due to budgetary cuts and limited public resources, most of Chicago’s elementary schools do not have recess (YES, you read that sentence correctly), I found myself getting angry at the passiveness of my peers who deem activity to be of little importance to the development of our youth.
NO RECESS?!?! HUH!?!?!
But there is something I can do about it. Enter, Chicago Run and the Chicago area ultrarunning community. Chicago Run’s mission is to work with elementary schools implementing running programs for kids, getting them to embrace activity while preparing for 5Ks, 8Ks and even a virtual marathon where participants accumulate mileage through fitness breaks 3-5 times a week. Considering America’s childhood obesity problem — one that seems to be magnified in low-income urban areas such as inner city Chicago — this program couldn’t be more poignant.
To raise awareness for this program and to better fight the battle against childhood obesity, eight inspiring individuals have decided to run across Illinois. I have signed up to help. In fact, a growing number of runners has stepped up to aid in this thrilling project where on Friday, August 17, 2012, those eight rock stars will depart the Mississippi River at East Dubuque, running along the Illinois/Wisconsin border for ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FIVE MILES, all the way east to Lake Michigan. While my legs are not yet seasoned for the 165-mile journey, I am thrilled to be participating as crew and pacer.
To make it even more special, the running team (lovingly named “TEAM LOL”) has allowed me access to document the entire three-day adventure in written form. However that may develop — be it as multiple blog entries, a magazine article, a full length book — it is my hope and desire that I can put together something of real interest, something that could affect the lives of others in a positive way for years to come.
Check back for more updates, and in the meantime, feel free to participate in the cause by donating to our mission with Chicago Run. Our donations page can be found *HERE* and I guarantee you a small donation will be waaaaay simpler (and cleaner!) than packing up multiple vans to follow eight runners across 165 miles of searing Illinois pavement. Scott, Chuck, Kathy, Brian, Juan, Tony, Kamil and Mike, as well as the multiple crew and pacing teams and Chicago Run, will all be humbled by your generosity.
Making a difference isn’t easy, but it’s damn satisfying.
Pacing Inspiration: My First Up-Close Look at a 100 Miler
One of the myriad benefits of being involved with the ultrarunning community is that one never wants for inspiration. Everywhere I look there are fascinating individuals who run long for a variety of reasons, all of them willing and eager to share their stories, each one as special as they are profound.
So when my friend, Anastasia (from here often referred to by her popular nickname “Supergirl”), asked me if I would pace her at the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Trail Run in Loudonville, OH, I jumped at the opportunity. For the last several months, I have been eagerly awaiting a chance to pace someone in a hundo and this couldn’t have come at a better time.
Fresh off my first 50, well rested and eager to see a 100 miler up close, I cleared my weekend and got mentally prepared to be the best pacer I could possibly be. In preparation for the task, I asked around, picking the brains of my fellow ultrarunners (thanks Jennifer, Tony and Siamak!), trying to get a good idea of what would be expected of me and how I could best handle my duties. After all, Supergirl was going for her SECOND 100 mile finish in just TWO WEEKS, aiming to reach the halfway mark of completing the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a feat, which if accomplished, would solidify what most associated with her already know: that Supergirl is one ultrarunning badass! The pressure was on me to make sure she finished, so I did my homework.
My duties would basically come down to the following: safety, nutrition monitoring, time management and, of course, encouragement.
The Mohican Trail 100 consists of four loops of rugged, technical, monster up-and-down trail (two 26.7 mile loops followed by two 23.4 mile loops). Runners were allowed pacers after completing the first two loops, so while Supergirl tackled the first half of the race I merely served as crew. This required preparing drop bags, trouble shooting any problems she encountered, monitoring her checkpoint status online and being ready for her to arrive at the Start/Finish area upon completing each loop. Supergirl is an extremely calculated runner with a great inner-pacing system already. She said her plan was to complete her first loop in 7 hours and by golly she did just that. She said she would finish her second loop in 7 and a half hours, and whad’ya know, she did that too! After completing both loops I noticed her spirits were extremely high. Her face was lit with bounds of energy and despite having 53 miles in her legs, she was punchy as could be. After all, she was having fun!
Ready to tackle loop three, I geared up and joined her at 7:35 p.m., 14 hours and 35 minutes since she first began.
Heading out, my only concern was that she wasn’t really eating much. Sure she was getting down plenty of carbohydrates through liquids (Perpetuem, Gatorade, Mt. Dew, etc) but she was still having difficulty taking in solid foods. I took note of such and would encourage her to eat something (ANYTHING!) at each aid station along the way. This would prove to be a challenge as the aid station spread deteriorated throughout the evening and into the next day, but she did tell me, long before the race even started, that this was an ongoing issue she’d been dealing with in other 100 mile races and that as long as she was still feeling okay and able to drink, we would successfully fuel her run.
As we began I was happy to see she was the same Supergirl I’d come to recognize from our club events: full of life, full of energy! As is her tradition when tackling hundos, she wore her “Supergirl” outfit, which consisted of a red and blue ensemble accented by her trademark red tutu. I ran behind her at her pace and watched as the trail lit up every time we came in contact with other runners. “Party girl!” one woman yelled in jubilation. “Awww yeah! Here comes Supergirl” said another. Our encounters only solidified what I already knew: I like being around Supergirl and people like her because she LIVES LIFE. She doesn’t hold back. She celebrates the beauty of being alive by pushing herself to see what she’s capable of and her electric personality is contagious. Her mere presence was enough to lift the spirits of many along our way.
Close to 9 o’clock, the sun went down and the dark canopy of the Mohican forest faded to black. With our headlamps lit, I took over lead position, scouting the way to the cleanest line of trail (a trail that was nastily decorated with unforgiving rocks and roots throughout). At this point we transitioned to a fast hike. It was just too dangerous for us to run with limited visibility; plus it was her game plan from the beginning to fast-walk the night. The last thing she wanted to do was injure herself in the dark by being stupid when she had plenty of time to work with. The 100 mile cut-off was 32 hours and by her calculations a 31 hour finish was the goal. “The most important thing,” she reminded me, “is FINISHING.” So that’s what we focused on.
The main reason for having a pacer in the first place is to insure a runner’s safety. Fatigue is a nasty constant in any endurance event, and when a runner tackles the trail after nightfall, the danger zone increases tenfold. The Mohican Trail, unforgiving in its constant climbs, twisting switchbacks and rugged downs, was a serious injury just waiting to happen in the dark. Having some experience with night running already, I made sure to bring a second light, one that I would hold in my free hand to create shadows so that our depth perception would not suffer (with only a single head lamp, rocks and roots become 2D objects that become tripping machines and trail tattoo guns). Leading the way, I scoped out any would-be hazards and alerted her of their existence with a wiggle of a light. We had only a couple of close-calls, but no actual falls.
All through the night we soldiered up and down and through rough terrain. We met up with several other pairs along the way and engaged in one interesting conversation after another. We laughed, we told stories, we sang songs. We made fun of the shitty aid station food, drew inspiration from our fellow club-members and their memorable catchphrases (LET’S GO MACHINE, BABY!), and reveled in past running adventures.
At one point it became clear that Supergirl had developed some nasty blisters, on both feet, and we faced the decision of whether we were going to stop and fix them or not. I can fix blisters. I’ve been doing it to myself for a long time now, but I didn’t have all the necessary tools I would need to do a good job. From asking other runners, we found out that the aid stations weren’t exactly well equipped to fix them either, so she decided to just keep going rather than risk a bad tape job that could possibly cause more problems. This was against my better judgement but I could tell that with Supergirl, she needed to be in control, especially when it concerned her own body and capabilities. She knew better than anyone what she could tough out and what needed immediate attention. What she needed from me was positive reinforcement and calculated guidance. Using this strategy, and making a point to approach every suggestion with a jolt of positivity, I was able to get her to start eating (chips, noodles, licorice and even the occasional gel). Sure her feet hurt. She was running 100 miles. OF COURSE HER FEET HURT. This wasn’t her first hundo. A few aggravating blisters weren’t going to hold her back.
But would they hold me back? Little did she know, all the walking (something I was simply not accustomed to) combined with the gnarly trail surface caused my feet to swell and throb and ache and burn. The last thing she needed was a whiny, wimpy pacer holding her back, so I picked my spots, telling her to go on ahead so I could fix my own issues (ball chafing, ass chafing, blistery feet among them) without her having to see or hear any of it. I likened this process to my old tripping/partying days from way back, when only positive thoughts were allowed. NO NEGATIVITY. I ate and drank appropriately, making sure I was hydrated and fueled enough to make smart decisions.
As the night dragged on, we began to tire. Eventually I had to slow my leading pace. And the 2 o’clock hour brought a sudden lag in mood and energy. I looked behind me to see once happy-go-lucky Supergirl had her head down, stumbling along the trail, sighing deeply every now and then.
“You feeling okay?” I would ask.
“Eh.” She would whimper.
I knew that was going to happen eventually, that at some point the long effort would team up with the darkness of night, bringing her spirits down. Hell, she’d been awake for nearly 24 hours already, of course she was going to experience some down time. We finished loop three in about 8 hours — the absolute longest, most ache-inducing 23.7 miles I’ve ever traversed.
But she didn’t dally at the aid station. She got in. Ate. Refilled her bottle and got out. I told her to go ahead, that I’d catch up. I had to really examine my feet and see if I could fix them. Quickly. Both forefeet were throbbing with firey pain, but I didn’t find any actual bubbly blisters. I changed my socks, massaged my feet rigorously, then ran to catch up.
When I finally found her on the trail, about a mile away, she was a zombie.
“Anastasia, you feel okay?”
Head down, shoulders sunk, she sniffled. “No” she cried. She took a deep, deep breath and said something that nearly broke my heart: “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
These were not the words I was expecting to hear, but here they were. Thumping me in the face. I felt my stomach drop.
“Everything hurts,” she said, “my feet…”
“I know, I know. You’ve been out here for over 75 miles already, of course everything hurts. You know this. And you’ve conquered worse before. But you’re Supergirl.” (She had conquered worse, just 12 days earlier at the Kettle Moraine 100 Miler, but that’s another story.)
“Anastasia, you told me I can’t let you quit unless you are seriously injured. Now, are your feet problems a serious injury? Is this something you really want to q–”
Before I could get out that awfully dreaded word, she cut me off, “Just, just, let me… sit down for a second.”
“Do you think that’s really a good idea?” Earlier we had discussed that common ultra running mantra “beware the chair”, because once you sit your tired ass down it’s gonna be REALLY hard to get your tired ass back up.
“It’s okay, this isn’t a chair… it’s just a rock.” She sat down on a big boulder. I took the opportunity to squat-stretch my hams and quads. She closed her eyes for 30 seconds, then stood up.
“Okay, I’m better now.” Except, now she was leaning against me, eyes open, but glassy, far off somewhere.
“You know, it’s 3:40 in the morning now. In just a little while, the sun is going to come up and everything is going to be beautiful again. The birds will start to talk to us, the forest will come to life. Everything will be okay.” (Long pause)
“Anastasia, are you awake?”
She snapped to. “I am now. I was just sleeping with my eyes open for a second. (sigh) Let’s go. I’m better now.”
And that was it. We took off back down the trail. She was all better. She had her deep, dark moment of despair, and now she was party rockin’ again. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
What a tough, strong, inspiring woman. Wow. Just… wow.
We moved down trail and as the 4 o’clock hour approached we switched positions, with her in the lead. I followed and within a half hour or so I started to get noddy. I took some caffeine and desperately waited for it to kick in because I was having a very difficult time keeping my eyes open.
We reached an aid station, I slammed some Coke, got Supergirl to drink some chicken broth (against her wishes) and we were back on our way. A quarter mile outside the aid station I let out a belch so loud I’m sure it was heard back home, which got Supergirl to do something she hadn’t done for a couple hours: LAUGH!
And with that laugh, the first inklings of sunlight poked through the thick canopy. “Do you see that?” she asked. “It’s… the sun!!!”
“I know! I know!” I replied. No wonder so many cultures are based on worshiping the sun. “I love the sun!”
Soon, the birds were chirping like mad, rays of light shone through the tree tops, and suddenly, out of nowhere, Supergirl just took off.
She… was… RUNNING!!!
I followed, happy to be moving quickly again, and watched with delight as we were greeted with enthusiastic and encouraging smiles from runners along the way. “Looks like someone got her second wind!” someone said. “Party rockers are rockin’ again!” said another. It was no secret. Supergirl was back.
It started to rain, but it was a slight, cool, refreshing rain. We scooted along, taking walk breaks on the tough inclines, traversing the rocky downs gingerly yet efficiently. My feet were killing me, so I knew hers had to be even worse, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She just powered away. Strong and deliberate. It was when we overtook a brawny pair of dudes on a steep incline when I realized just how badass Supergirl was.
These guys were strong, sculpted muscle machines. And here comes 5-foot nothing, 100-pound Supergirl leaving them in her dust. I looked back and caught their exasperated looks. I had to stop and marvel at her badassery myself. Indeed, this is one tough chick.
The rain stopped and before I knew it, we were in single digit mileage. There’s really no way to describe the feeling associated with asking an aid-station captain “What mile marker is this?” and hearing him say “94.4.” How does one react to that? He or she just smiles and picks up the pace. And that’s exactly what we did.
A mile or so out and we were off the trail, on a long dirt road climb. I made sure to look at her face, to study the emotions coming through her expressions. There was only one: DETERMINATION.
No smiles at this point. Just concentration, will and desire. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a person so focused. She was in the proverbial zone. And why wouldn’t she be? The girl had just run 99 miles, with only one more to go, on her way to completing her second 100 mile race in two weeks and her third in six months. I was witnessing a true ultrarunning rock star work!
So when we came down the big hill that dumps on to the home stretch, I fell back and off to the side, making sure to give her the spotlight. And boy did she shine. A race favorite of volunteers and fellow runners alike, Supergirl did not disappoint. Her face lit up with a victorious sheen, arms raised high above her head symbolizing her warrior like conquering of one of the toughest race courses I’ve seen.
As she crossed the finish line in 30 hours, 13 minutes, the crowd roared in her accomplishment. And I couldn’t have been more proud.
Pain Channelling Meditation: A Test of Limits for the Warrior Runner
“Okay, that’s it,” said Alex, a young female tattoo artist in my neighborhood, “we’re all done.”
Wearily, I lifted my head from its face down position on the table, looked at her with disconcerting eyes and said, “What? Really?”
“Yeah. All done.”
I wanted to cry.
But I didn’t, because there were people around: Fong, the tattoo shop owner; his wife at the front desk; Eddy, the tattooist from Pamplona; and a bevy of cute Chinese girls giggling nervously about getting inked in uncomfortable places.
When I stood up from the table and saw my new arm for the first time — an arm that took 5 continuous hours of hardcore tattooing, after several weeks of artistic brainstorming and dedicated organic design, I had the same feeling I get after finishing a hard marathon or ultra distance race: complete ecstasy. And exhaustion.
(click to enlarge)
That actually happened? It did happen. And it hurt. A lot!
So how did I do it? How did I endure such consistent agony, minute by minute, for five hours? I conceited to the pain. I knew it was going to hurt. I welcomed the hurt. Physically, yes, I squeezed the shit out of a now bounceless tennis ball and I grit my teeth, taking deep, controlled breaths over and over again. But in my mind — where the real pain was festering — I acknowledged the discomfort, accepted it for what it was and invested in the idea that it wouldn’t last forever — that the fruits of such endurance would be so sweet for so long that it was absolutely worth it, an ideology in which I am well versed.
My exploration into the world of meditation has been aided by my passion for long distance running. I have been very open here about how the rhythm of the run puts my anxieties to rest, how it puts me in touch with my emotions, with my core self. Through it I have learned compassion. I have learned patience. And I have learned to be at peace.
By acknowledging the pain and suffering of my physical self, allowing it to draw my focus, I consciously decided to let it be. The 5-hour tattoo session with Alex was a monumental back and forth test of my ability to endure. There were times when my mind championed the physical discomfort — where a conversation with someone or the blasting musical force coming from my Audio Technicas was able to distract me from the agony. I closed my eyes and went somewhere else — somewhere far, far away: the volcanic mounds of Las Canarias, the shambled rocks of the Wild Wall, Santa Monica Beach at sunset.
To my surprise, those places appeared in my mind as real as I wanted them to be.
I found them through suffering.
It may sound silly, but I don’t care: when I toe up to the line of a race, I cease to be Jeff Lung, writer, hobby jogger, baseball fanatic.
Instead, I become A WARRIOR. A real, live warrior.
I push myself to the limits, to see what I am capable of, and I never take for granted the circumstances that led to my own self discovery.
Every race is a new challenge, a new journey, a new exploration of the guts and sinew and brains that make me who I am.
Sometimes it hurts, no doubt about that. But it will always feel good for so long after, forever and ever.
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If you’re in the Chi and looking for a good place to get a tattoo, check out Tattoo Union on Halsted. You won’t be disappointed!