Running up, over and through the cogs

Posts tagged “Training

Trail Running Is Messy and So Is Life: The 2013 Paleozoic Trail Runs 25K Race Report

paleozoicTrail_150There was a time in my life when I would have done all I could to avoid any type of mess — either real-world or proverbial.

Then I became a runner.

Nowadays, mud spattered tights and mucus crusted gloves are as common for me as bloody nipples and permastink-laden technical tees.

Meh, so what. As long as I’m having fun, right?

And boy did I have some fun on Saturday, March 16, 2013 whilst gliding, sliding, hurdling and traversing the ever treacherous and never clean Paleozoic Trail Runs 25K race course at the nearby forest preserve of Palos Heights.  For me, the fun began before the race even started because I was at an event where I knew A TON OF PEOPLE!  Having been a part of the trail and ultrarunning community for a couple of years now, I really feel like a part of the family.  And that’s what the local New Leaf Ultra Runs group is to me: family.  We run together, we get dirty together, we laugh together.  That many smiling faces, firm handshakes and strong fist bumps is enough to make one’s day.  Running the race was just extra.

And, to be honest, it was a bit confusing as well, but there were many reasons for this.  As an inaugural event, I expected some obstacles outside of those offered by the freeze-to-thaw-to-freeze-back-to-thaw terrain.  There was some uncertainty about course markings (weather washed a lot of them away).  One of the aid stations wasn’t there when I got to it.  I had a guy running a few inches off my heels for three quarters of the race.  And I was trying to take it easy because a few days prior I aggravated my right ITB running intervals.

But I had a fantastic time in the cold, soupy weather, surrounded by good friends and warm community.  I’m going to skip my regular play-by-play reporting of this race because all of the confusion caused by my missing a turn, adding mileage where it shouldn’t have been and then stopping to scratch my head a few times sort of took me out of my normal thinking patterns and now when I think back to the race all I can remember is putting one foot forward through muddy muck with a great big I-don’t-know-where-the-heck-I-am-going smile on my face.

When I finished, my Garmin read 1:55:47, but only 14.29 miles, a bit short of the stated 25K (15.5 miles).  Upon further review, I missed a section near Bull Frog Lake but added some mileage on the east loop.  All in all, I was still tired when I finished and I crossed the line with a healthy ITB/knee.

And oh yeah, this time I beat Peter Sagal (maybe? I dunno, after my misguided route maybe I didn’t).  Still, I enjoyed chatting with him this go around, as he was quite lost too.  In fact, I think everyone was lost at one point or another.

But I will be back next year.  No doubt about it.

Meanwhile, Boston is just four weeks away…

***

For an excellent recap on this race, check out Dan Solera’s entry, where I make a special cameo alongside everyone’s favorite beer racer, Otter.


Six Weeks to Beantown and Finally Baaaaack!

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Patriot’s Day is only six weeks away, which means my long awaited dance with the World Series of marathons will soon be a dream come true.  The natural excitement and nervous energy that come along with it will only escalate.

But I’m down with that.

Yesterday I nailed a 16 mile long run with 11 miles at 7:15 pace, with no aches or pains — yet another promising sign that my ITB issues are finally far off in the background.  I wasn’t going to celebrate my lack of ITBS symptoms until I was able to sustain a good month of dedicated speed and hill training alongside the general aerobic long runs that are the staple of any solid marathon training plan.

Five weeks and counting, no residual aches, pains or soreness.  I’m feeling damn good.

My buildup for this race, albeit unorthodox due to the limited training and mileage prescribed by coming off of a serious injury, has been about as much as I could ask for.  I’m not overdoing it.  I’m resting when my body directs me.  But most of all, I’ve adjusted my mind to allow for a fun, possibly once-in-a-lifetime race experience.  Rather than being hellbent on time goals, I’m focusing on toeing the line healthy,  ready to deliver on whatever my body seems capable of on April 15, 2013.

This is in large contrast to my normal marathon training as I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  I instinctively marry myself to routine, to nailing splits, to chasing down the guy ahead of me.  And while I know quite well that outside of myself, not one single person on the planet really cares what time I get when crossing the finish line, I still feel like if I don’t throw down a personal best in every race then I’m not doing it right.

WRONG.

I’ve set some modest goals for Boston 2013.  I haven’t regained my Chicago 2012 fast legs yet, but I’d like to finish somewhere between a 3:15 and 3:30, mindful of the fact that finishing and living in the moments presented by the most storied marathon in the world are, above all else, the most important things.  If, on race day, my abilities push me beyond the 3:30 mark, then so be it.  I vow to cross the line with a smile and a triumphant fist.

The cliche “it’s not the destination that matters but the journey” comes to mind.  In my case, the journey has been profound in what it has revealed about me, about how I handle adversity both instinctively and through contemplation.

For someone like me, opportunities like running the Boston Marathon are certainly the exception, not the norm.  I will treat the experience as exceptional, from Hopkinton to Boylston Street, and everywhere in between.


Running with a Mind Full of Bach

bach with shadesI still belong to one of those good old fashioned email listservs.  It’s one that I have been a part of for a long time now — one I look forward to every afternoon; but at the same time it sort of stresses me out.  It stresses me out on a very superficial level, I admit, but still, stress is stress.

To be more accurate, this daily email often overwhelms me more than anything, as it generally features 20-40 individual links to the hottest news stories of the day.  These often include fascinating scientific breakthroughs, underground and outside mainstream opinion pieces and lots and lots of pictures of cats.  Rarely am I able to read/view every single one of them.  There just isn’t enough time!

Take the above alongside my afternoon dose of front-to-back Chicago Tribune reading, a neverending stream of Google Reader aggregated posts from my 100+ favorite blogs and the bevy of Facebook/Twitter feed links and articles being thrown my way every two seconds and I find myself actively vetting my reading material based on how sexy a URL may read.

There is just too much information out there — information I think I want! — attacking me via my laptop, my desktop, my phone, my other laptop and my BRAIN!  If I’m not careful, I become Fred Armisen, trapped in a technology loop:


Sometimes I get trapped in there, for very long, uncomfortable periods of time.

Running is the antidote.

Of course, I can’t always be running, or exercising for that matter.

Enter Johann Sebastian Bach.


I have long been acquainted with the works of Bach.  In high school and college I often cursed his named, wondering if he had ever even bothered to try singing one of his own tenor fugue creations.  People have to breathe, y’know.  Singers really need to breathe.

But sadly, my appreciation for his music never matured beyond the basic acknowledgement of his reinterpretation of what music could and should be.  I knew all the greats (Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, etc) looked to him as the godfather of melody — that the foundation for the classical explosion was rooted in the Bach catalogue, but that was about it, and I never bothered to appreciate any of it.

More than a decade later, while circumventing the technology loop with a playlist full of Lady Gaga, Die Antwoord and Modeselektor, body and mind ready to explode from information overload, I stumbled across this:


Instantly, I was at peace.

And I was just getting started.

The last few months have been a joyous trip through the ever uplifting works of J.S. Bach.  From violin concertos to piano sonatas, to choral masses, organ fugues and everything in between, I have become a bonafide believer in the beautiful bounty of Bach.

And the very best part?

Now I am running to Bach.

Not with headphones.  I don’t run with music.  I don’t have to, because Bach is in my head.  It is always there and I am always elated!  No more I’m Henry the Eighth I Am poisoning my psyche.  No more Cotton Eyed Joe, no more Hey Mickey, no more Blue da ba de da ba die stuck on autoloop for miles and miles and miles.

No, sir.

Thanks to the musical genius of J.S. Bach, I am free.  Free at last!

FREE AT LAST!!!


The Accidental Anatomist

human-anatomyLatissimus dorsi, vastus lateralis and brachioradialis, OH MY!

Before I became a serious runner, all of the above would have been Greek to me.  Or Latin.  Yeah, probably would have been Latin.*  But after several years of dedicated pavement pounding I am proud to report my working mastery of human anatomy — just one of the myriad benefits of identifying myself as a full-fledged running freak.

In fact, ever since making that dramatic transformation, I have notched one success after another.  I quit smoking.  I reached and now easily maintain optimal body weight.  I got cut up into a lean (still not so mean) fitness machine.

No longer do I suffer from long bouts of depression.  No more do I wake up feeling empty, without purpose, without drive.  I don’t stress nearly as much about mundane, trivial situations that are out of my control; and overcoming hardships — major bumps in the proverbial road of life — hardly seem as impossible as they once did.

Running has taught me how to live — how to really, truly live, in the present, now and forever.

But perhaps one of the most beneficial real world applications born from my active lifestyle is that I learned about my own body.  It started out simply, a long time ago by wondering what might be causing my heels to ache.  That led me to study the soleus… then the anterior and posterior tibialis… then the gastrucnemus, gracilis and sartorius.   Before I knew it I was knee leg deep in anatomical terms, Wikipedia entries and real world exercise science.

The real irony here — and my parents can attest to this — is that as a student, I nearly went out of my way to avoid the sciences.  I wanted nothing to do with understanding the mysteries of the body and in college, the only science classes I ever took were Rocks for Jocks and a bullshit applied chemistry class that I barely attended.

Fast forward to my 30s, after a couple years of really trying to understand my own body, I realized that all of the information I had retained could be applied to my workouts in the gym.  Suddenly, things began to click.  I was not only beginning to understand how my body worked, but also how I could manipulate it into doing what I wanted it to do faster, better and stronger.

And now I use that knowledge every day with my own clients.

Running isn’t just a recreational activity — it’s a potential life changer.  One need look no further than this blog, this LIFE, to see clear evidence of that.

*After much research, it was (and still is) Latin.

Injury Rehab Update

Since my recent less-than-ideal half-marathon experience, things have been going quite well.  I continue to strengthen my gluteus medius, hip flexors and hamstrings in an effort to eradicate the nagging symptoms of ITBS that have held me back since late October.  In recent weeks, I have been able to work in minimal low mileage speedwork as well as some long, slow distance runs — all without any knee pain.  This, to me, is further evidence that the Houston experience was just a simple case of too much, too soon.  I continue to build upon my workouts each week with the hope that I can put in a good effort at Boston.  I don’t expect I’ll be ready to run a fast time by April 15, but I do plan to enjoy the experience and cover the distance pain free.

Besides, I gotta give the gals at Wellesley College a good show of my gluteus maximus in my shortus shortius.


Two Steps Forward, One Bum IT Band Back: The 2013 Houston Half Marathon Race Report

midtown-houstonThe two weeks of progressive running leading up to the Houston Half Marathon gave me plenty of confidence that my IT band syndrome issues had finally subsided.  I knew that I probably wasn’t ready to push myself to the point of all out racing, but I knew that I had a good shot at finishing 13.1 miles pain free.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.
The alarm clock goes off and I’m ready to go through my now conditioned routine: half a cup of coffee, one banana and a bagel.  I peek out the window to see the trees outside my dad’s house blowing violently in the wind.  I open the door to see just what type of weather I will be dealing with today and I quickly shut it, less I freeze to death.  Low 40s.  Lots of rain.  20+ mph winds.

Oh, yay.

5:15 a.m.
Dad throws his bike in the back of the truck and we begin the 45 minute drive to downtown Houston.  I didn’t sleep much last night so I take this time to catnap.  I visualize a succesful race, one without knee pain, without giving in to the elements.  Training in Chicago the last several years has made me pretty tough.  I don’t like running in the cold, windy rain (does anyone really?) but I know I have the ability to shut it out, toughen up and just get the work done regardless.

6:40 a.m.
In my corral now, I’m huddled among a mass of anxiously freezing runners.  I have decided to wear my lightweight running jacket over my singlet.  The high powered winds are just too chilling for me to go without it.  A quick look around shows that I’m not the only one dressed for warmth, and as the announcer begins his introductions, the rain starts to come down steady and strong.  A gust of wind hits me below the belt.  Dressed in my trademark short shorts, I start to worry about the safety of “my boys”.  But it’s too late now.  All I can do is focus on running.

*BANG!*

And we’re off…

Miles 1-3
Brrrrrr!  Well, it’s a good thing I’m not trying to break any records today, I remind myself.  The first few miles are a mental showdown between me and the elements.  The winds are strong and mostly in my face, pushing me backwards with violent force, but I just keep my head down and barrel through.  I stop trying to avoid puddles — there are just too many of them, and my feet are already soaked anyway.

Since I lined up at the very front of the corral, I’m not suffocated by a bunch of people tripping and skipping their way across my path.  I’m surrounded by runners who match my fitness level and at the two mile mark I’m drafting inside a tightly formed pack.  My plan is to just go out at a comfortable 7-minute pace and hold it throughout the race.  I cross the three mile marker in 21 minutes.  Right on schedule.

Miles 3-6
My body feels good, but I’m not really enjoying myself.  All I can think to myself is I can’t wait until this is over, I can’t wait until this is over.  This is a rare thought for me, especially during a race, but the elements are wearing on my mind.  The gusts of wind keep coming at me, from all directions, and I’m pretty sure my balls are frozen now.

At least my leg/ITB/knee feels good.

Until, *BAM*, it doesn’t.

Miles 6-9
Oh shit.  Here we go.  I pass the six mile marker and almost immediately, I start to feel that familiar ache developing at the ITB insertion point of my right knee.  No, no, no… this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening.

Except, it is happening.  And there’s not much I can do about it.

Maybe it’ll go away, I think to myself.  I grit my teeth, trying to ignore it.  But having been dealing with this issue for so long now, I know better.

Around the seven mile marker, I see Dad, a bright spot.  Goooo Jeff! he encourages me.

Not feeling good. My knee is starting to hurt, I tell him.

Uh oh, he responds.  The look on his face is the same look I’ve been carrying for the last mile or so — the same one I was hoping to avoid indefinitely.  Sometimes we do all the right things and we still don’t get what we want.  This is a lesson I’m trying to understand.

I keep going, pushing along as my pack starts to move ahead of me.  The ache is becoming a throb, so I stop and do some ITB stretches, hoping this will make it go away.  The stretching feels good, but once I get moving again, the pain persists.  I push and push and push, but another, more sane voice finds its way inside my head and says, Dude, it’s not worth it. Stop now. Live to fight another fight.

I hate that this voice is right.  But, for once, I listen.

I stop running.  I look down at my watch.  8.62 miles in one hour exactly.

Miles 9-13.1
Well, now what? I ask myself.  All I really want to do is punch something, to scream, to break things.

I resort to a hobble-walk.  I can’t walk too fast.  The ITB pain gets worse the faster I move.

Just as I feel myself succumbing to the dark cavern of negative thoughts, I see Dad up ahead.  I’m happy to see him, but beyond disappointed in my condition.  I tell him how I’m feeling and, knowing how pissy I am right now, he doesn’t say much.  Instead he peddles alongside me on the race course while I try to stay out of the path of the hordes of runners passing me.

I can’t help but feel embarrassed, defeated.  I’m sorry, I tell him.

Don’t be sorry. You have no reason to be sorry with me.

I’m really trying hard not to be a baby right now.

If it wasn’t so damn cold, windy and rainy, maybe I’d have the strength to have a good cry.  But I’m shivering, struggling to stay warm.

Do you want your warm-up pants? he asks.  I try to run again, hoping maybe everything was just in my head.  It wasn’t.  I still have ITBS and running is not an option right now.  We stop so I can put my pants on.  I pin my bib to my front leg.  He gives me his raincoat too, which helps immensely.

We discuss me dropping.  I really want to.  I hate hobble-walking while the crowds continue to cheer for all of those running past me.  I know they mean well, but if I hear one more person tell me I’m doing a good job, when I CLEARLY am not, I might do something stupid.

We get to about the ten mile mark and I decide that not finishing is NOT an option.  DNF’ing was not a part of the plan today, so I’m going to gut this one out and hobble across the finish line no matter what.  Dad labors alongside me on his bike, offering consoling conversation when I need it, but mostly just staying quiet, like me.

I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have a dad who would bike alongside me like this in such shitty conditions, offering up his own coat so that I don’t freeze.  Despite my bum leg, I’m a pretty lucky dude.

With a half mile to go, the course narrows and the crowd grows.  There isn’t enough room for Dad to bike alongside me anymore so he splits off and we agree to meet back at the George R. Brown Center.

I cross the finish line just as the lead American marathoner finishes his 26.2.  The deafening roar drowns out my depression and I take a second to cheer the guy on myself.  I’ll have days like that again someday, I tell myself.  This ain’t my last rodeo.

Post-Race
I’ve had enough time now to find a little bit of healthy perspective on the whole ordeal.  Despite my positive training runs leading up to this event, I’m thinking that my body just wasn’t ready to handle that sort of continuous speed quite yet.  Or maybe it was pounding on the few rolling downhills the course had to offer.  Or maybe it was the conditions.  I don’t know.

I will see my sports doctor on Tuesday to get his perspective and advice.

In the meantime, I’m finding comfort in the fact that I didn’t continue to push my body through the pain — that I didn’t act with recklessness as I probably would have once done.  I let reason dictate my actions.  And I’m hoping such discretion will allow me to have enough time to adequately train for Boston.

Perspective is a bitch sometimes, no doubt, but I’m glad I finally have it.


New Year Proverbial Wave Riding (and Race Schedule)

silhouette-of-runner_21136557The New Year generally brings with it a storied whim of clarity, a daring dash of DO IT.  I’d been feeling this wave of confidence in the weeks that led up to January 1st, 2013; and now that the arbitrary date has come and gone, I feel even more pumped riding on the very top of that proverbial wave.

One product of said wave riding is that I am officially training people now.  My personal training and fitness website, Iron Lung Fitness, has all the details.  This is a career move I have been planning for a year and a half, so to actually be doing it, to actually make it happen, is quite a joyous relief.

Another wave that came upon my shore is that of increased strength, power and flexibility.  The six weeks I took off of running were not spent in front of the television with my feet kicked up, rather, they were spent in the gym, gutting it out, punching holes into heavy bags and doing pistol squats until I puked (well, okay, I didn’t actually puke, but I might have felt better had I done so).  Those six weeks were also spent in a yoga studio, where I learned to love bending stuff, including my preconceived notions of what yoga could (or could not) do for me.  Instead of kicking rocks and cursing my injured IT band for not letting me run, I focused on the only thing I could: getting better.

Boy am I better.

On my runs this week I have noticed my easy jogging pace is a whole minute faster than it was at the end of the 2012 season.  Slowly burning into tempo speed also seems easier.  My core feels more firm, my gait more balanced.  And while I suspect some of this perception could be attributed to the extended period of rest, I am quite confident that most of it is due to hard work: getting it done, riding a wave.

My focus for this year, as previously mentioned, is breaking the 3-hour mark in the marathon.  At this point I am going to look towards the Chicago Marathon in October to make the attempt, fully aware that weather could be a deciding factor.  If it happens to be a fluke year weather wise, I’ll adapt and try again late in the season.

The build-up to that will be full of fun too.  I have the Houston Half Marathon coming this Sunday, which will give me a good idea of where my current speed threshold lies, followed by an exciting new local 25K race trail race.  Then April will bring with it my first Boston Marathon, something I’m itching to experience firsthand.  I’m signed up for the Ice Age Trail 50K in May, another new and local middle distance trail race called the Wholly Hell 15K in June and as of now, I’m still trying to find a suitable 50 mile or timed event to tackle in July/August.  Mohican seems to be calling me, but so too does a repeat at Howl at the Moon.

The decision making wave will come to me, eventually.

To stretch my legs out and relax before the big October surge, I’m looking forward to a wild weekend in Hell, Michigan, where I aim to take part in the Run Woodstock weekend.  Tentatively, I’m thinking I’ll do the 50K option, but I may drop down to something shorter so I have time to run the “natural” 5Ks they feature each evening.  Yes, natural.  That means I have to invent a non-invasive adhesive for certain body parts that may be prone to floppage.

After the Chicago Marathon, I’m not quite sure what I will do next.  Hopefully, I’ll be organizing a big party to celebrate an epic finish.  But after my experiences in 2012, I think a good amount of rest will also be in the plan.

Or maybe I’ll just run along and see what wave decides to take me next.


Dreams Realized, Lessons Learned, Bars Raised

Goodbye, dear 2012, and thanks for the memories.  From a running standpoint, 2012 will go down as the year I upped my game beyond what I ever thought was possible.  And I have the jawbreaking ear-to-ear smile to prove it.

I raced two major marathons and PR’d them both (Houston in January and Chicago in October).  The Chicago race served as my very first Boston Qualifier — a feat that leaves me eternally proud and acutely focused.

In May, I finished my very first 50 mile race at the Ice Age 50 and followed that up in August by logging 50.85 miles during the Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Run.  In the latter race, I also tasted another top ten finish (8th Overall), to go along with those achieved at Clinton Lake (8th Overall) and the Earth Day 50K (1st in Age Division, 4th Overall).

I also ran a few short races, completing my third Chinatown 5K (the race that started it all), while also logging a then PR in the half marathon at Batavia and a respectable time in my first short-distance trail event.

Plus, I got to spend a lot of time with my dear friends from the New Leaf Ultra Runs club, including two unforgettable 100 mile Supergirl pacing experiences (Mohican 100 and Hallucination 100), an inspiring Run Across Illinois and the most liberating impromptu adventure run I have yet to have.

No doubt, 2012 was something to remember.

It was also something to learn from, as the continuous pushing of my body without adequate rest eventually led to an IT band injury and a sincere reevaluation of my training techniques.  But I am happy to report that after 6 weeks off and a highly focused physical therapy regimen, I have begun to run again pain-free and feel confident that I will be able to put forth 100% effort in training for my next major event, the Boston Marathon.

Indeed, a sub-3 hour attempt at Houston in two weeks will not be possible.  However, I was able to transfer my registration down to the half marathon, which I will use as a barometer for my current fitness, the base from which I will begin Boston training in earnest.

And while I do have a couple of 50Ks and perhaps one 50 miler on the schedule for 2013, my main focus will be on the marathon distance and breaking that 3 hour mark.  I am obsessed (in the very best way possible) with seeing my name followed by a 2-something marathon time.  I will do it, by golly.

I will run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours.

And when I do, I’m having a big party.  You’re all invited.

Peace, love and all the running happiness in the world!


Four Tenths of a Second Behind Peter Sagal: The Universal Sole Trail Challenge Race Report

Hanging out with friends from the New Leaf Ultra Runs group after the race.

For a temporarily pruned long distance junkie still unable to run much past 6 miles without any run-stopping lateral knee pain, a short, fast trail race in the city seemed to be a perfect match.  Of course, when I originally signed up for the Universal Sole Trail Challenge 5.25 mile race, I did so thinking of it more as a social event.  Several of my fellow New Leaf Ultra Runs club members signed up at the same time (as evident by our ascending numerical bib numbers) and I wanted to be a part of the action.  Homemade chili and a bountiful supply of Goose Island’s 312 beer were also calling.

Besides, who knew there were actual trail races in the city?!?

Schiller Woods on Chicago’s northwest side was the venue and the sparse city field of runners was a welcome change from the typically annoying and inappropriately overpriced short distance races that seem to get all the attention.  Hanging out at the start/finish area prior, the atmosphere was very similar to that of a small high school cross country meet, which caused me to lament not opting for my short shorts.

The race started and 148 of us took off into the woods at a blazing pace.  I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing something wrong running that fast.  The trail race setting and my association of it with ultras has always dictated a long and slow strategy, so throwing down right at the start felt like sneaking out of my house late at night when I was a teen, hoping I didn’t get caught.

Unfortunately, in the race, I was getting caught.  There seemed to be a good mix of fast, tall and lean guys at the front and I was happy to let them by me.  While my only real goal was to put in a hard effort for the entire distance, my watch told me I was maintaining between a 6:40 and 6:45 pace and I was completely at peace with that.  Knowing the race would be over very soon, I reserved to admiring the barren trees, to jumping over logs with a spartan step, to ebb and flow with the trail as best I could, like I was the trail.

About halfway through, as I was contemplating the supreme simplicity in the wide open Schiller Woods trail, a short, stocky dude crept up and passed me who, in my in-the-moment cocky opinion, did not look like a fast runner.  What the…

Oh well.  Let him go, I thought.  I’m still gonna get beer and chili at the finish.  That’s all I care about right now.

Except, I kept the dude in my sights.  I couldn’t help it.  That inherent competitive spirit I have kicked me in the ass and I was moving at its mercy.  The guy was in my sights as I twisted and turned, as I slipped (but saved a fall), as I scrambled up one of two tiny little bumps reluctantly called a “hill”.

He was in my sights and getting reeled in as I passed the little aid station not far from the finish.  And as we dumped out of the woods and back out onto open grass, I slammed on the gas, intent on catching him.  I came up short.  By four tenths of a second.

My time was 34:58, 6:40 pace, 16th place overall.  I was happy with that.

But when I found out the guy I was gunning for was Peter Sagal, I felt like I could have — should have — would have done better.  Had I known.  Or not.

Who is Peter Sagal, you ask?

Wait, wait, don’t tell me! <—- Lame but obligatory throwaway line that you will forgive me for using.  I hope.

All NPR jargon aside, I am reminded by Universal Sole’s Trail Challenge that short, fast races are fun too.  And the hangout session after with my friends was great.  As was the chili and beer.  Hopefully, someday chili and beer will be as much a staple of the post-race vibe as salt-crusted foreheads and quartered bananas.


See Me at See Glenn Run

Glenn Goodman at See Glenn Run was kind enough to interview me for his Profiles in Running series.  Stop by his blog to check it out, especially if you want to see an even better photoshop than the mustachioed bulls.

Happy Movember!


DNF’d and Dealing With It

The running gods giveth, and the running gods taketh away.

One thing I easily forget as I tally up personal bests and races of a lifetime is that no one is immune to the possibility of failure.  And that definitely includes me.

Unfortunately, accepting that reality doesn’t make the process any easier on my mind (or body).

I signed up for the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Mile race just a few days prior to the Chicago Marathon.  I did it for several reasons, all of which now, in retrospect, seem foolish.  In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by admitting as much and I’ve seriously contemplated just skipping over the reporting aspect of this race experience all together, thinking that if I don’t acknowledge my failure then it will just quietly go away.

WRONG.

Life ain’t always champagne and chocolate.  Sometimes it’s Old Style and pork rinds.  And it’s best to just accept as much, learn from it, then move on to the next thing before you’re uncontrollably drunk and smell like pig.

Fear of missing out (FOMO as I’ve heard it called) played a primary role in my signing up for this race.  Focusing on road marathons is sometimes a lonely place for me because most of my friends in the running community are focusing on the longer distances (50 miles, 100 miles, etc).  We go on weekend camping trips to run/pace the big distances.  No one packs the car up and makes an epic trip out of running a road marathon.  And running a 3:03 in a road marathon is great and all, but it’s still only enough for 1,049th place in a mega race, whereas a fast time in an ultra will likely bring a top-10 finish and accolades galore from my peers.

(Of course, as I write this, I realize just how bogus such a mentality is.  WHY ARE YOU RUNNING, JEFF?  Get the hell outta here, dude…)

Having spent the summer witnessing a collection of great performances from my friends (Supergirl’s Hallucination 100 win, my friends’ epic Run Across Illinois, Siamak’s Woodstock 50, Whitney’s Howl at the Moon victory, among many others), I could not help but get wrapped up in what everybody else is doing while easily forgetting my own personal strengths and weaknesses.  One of those weaknesses — recovery time from a road marathon — would end up killing my race.

I don’t know the exact reason, but it takes me a good three weeks to fully recover from a road marathon.  I tend to run road marathons as hard as I can, and even though the residual soreness goes away in a day or two, the lingering effects of fatigue and lowered performance remain.  In the two weeks after the Chicago Marathon, I had a hard time maintaining an 8:30 pace.  Each run labored into a jog — some even a slog — and a dull ache in my lateral right knee developed, most likely from a tight IT band, something I’ve been aware of and trying to fix for some time.

Even with all of this knowledge, I still thought all I needed was a few days of rest to clear everything up, so I took the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before DPRT off completely.  No running.

But perhaps the worst part of my lead-up to a DNF was the cocky mentality I had going in.  Despite the aforementioned fatigue, the aforementioned achy knee and the aforementioned FOMO, I still had it in my head that I could run a very fast 50 miles.  The Des Plaines River Trail course is flat.  It is fast.  And based on my recent marathon time and a few delusional minutes plugging numbers into the McMillan Pace Calculator, I figured a 7-hour 50 miler was definitely doable.

And sure enough, as I started out on Saturday morning, all systems were go.  The rest had left me feeling fresh.  Holding an 8 minute pace seemed easy.  The trail was perfect and the day was beautiful.  Who knows, I thought, could be something special.

But by mile 5 my right knee was aching.  By mile 10 it was throbbing.  By mile 15 it was hobbling.

Yet, I kept pushing on.  WHY!?!?

I had never DNF’d before.  And I always told myself the only reason I would ever DNF is if I was injured.  Well, there I was, obviously injured, and yet I still couldn’t convince my stupid self to hang it up.  The thought kept coming, but I kept shooing it out, thinking that if I just ignored it (and the knee pain) that it would eventually go away.

It did not.  In fact, by the 20 mile mark, my stride had shortened considerably to compensate, and people started passing me.

At the 24 mile mark, I could barely walk.  My knee wouldn’t bend.  It was stiff as a board, and throbbing.

I walked/hobbled the 2.5 miles to Aid Station number 9, and as I approached, I knew that I was going to have to do the one thing I never wanted to do.  I dropped from the race.

I haven’t had much of a love life in the last five years, but I still couldn’t help but notice the irony that exists in relationships as well as my favorite activity.  Sometimes the thing (or person) you love the most, is the very thing (or person) that will hurt you the most.  Not being able to run is my biggest fear.  But I also know that sometimes, in order to avoid long-lasting, devastating damage that would keep me from running, that taking some time off is the only remedy.

The time spent in the back of the sweeper van allowed me to reflect on this.  And I made it a point to suck it up and not make it an issue as I waited out the rest of the day, cheering on my friends to some fantastic finishes.

In fact, my friends were my saviors on Saturday.  Siamak ran a 7:28 — A SEVEN HOUR TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTE FIFTY MILER!!!! — and Alfredo finished under 10 hours after having fought through his own troubles, both physical and mental.  My friend Tracy WON THE WOMEN’S RACE!  My friends Jen and Patrice both finished their very first 50 milers and a whole host of others had great days in the marathon and half-marathon as well.

Watching the joy and triumph from others was a good reminder of why I do what I do.  And it was also a reminder to not get too wrapped up in the feats of others and feel obligated to replicate them.  Right now my focus is on road marathons and that’s where it should stay until I finally reach all of my goals.  Trying to push my body to do things it’s not exactly trained for, just because everyone else is doing it, is not beneficial to me.

So I am going to take a couple weeks off from running.  I need to let my knee/IT band heal.  I will get body work done.  I will rest and regroup before starting my next training cycle.  It will be pretty hard for me to do, mentally, but I will get through it by supporting my friends’ efforts (I’ll be manning an aid station at the Lakefront 50 all day this coming Saturday) and by acknowledging that everybody needs a break sometime, whether it be to heal an injury or to reboot from a long, long season.

Onwards and upwards!


Beaming for Boston: The 2012 Chicago Marathon Race Report

“A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.”

– Steve Prefontaine

Pre definitely knew what he was talking about.  In fact, I have been running marathons and ultramarathons for a couple years now, and I still haven’t found an everlasting joy quite as sweet as thrashing myself through hours of self-inflicted punishment.

But why do I do it?

Do I do it to prove just how tough I am?  Do I do it to see how much I can improve on past performance?  Do I do it to impress my friends and family?

No.  I do it because in all instances — whether good or bad or somewhere in between — nothing else makes me feel more alive.

Sunday, October 7, 2012 offered me yet another golden opportunity to truly LIVE while zooming through my beloved city, in all its glory, with a million+ spectators cheering me on from start to finish.  I would make it count.

– – –

Race Morning, 4:30 a.m.

Rise and shine!  The alarm goes off but it isn’t really necessary because I’ve been up every hour on the hour since midnight.  Who can sleep the night before a big race anyway?  I’ve learned to overload on sleep all throughout race week, so despite this bit of restlessness, I’m feeling great.

I go through my regular pre-race routine of having a bagel, banana and a half cup of coffee while I check the weather and start going over the race in my mind.  Because of the perfect weather lining up, I know some lofty goals are going to be possible, but mental focus is going to be the key.  In the last six months I have brought meditation and breath control into my training, so I spend some time focusing on the breath, acknowledging the anxiety, then quietly forcing all negativity to get the hell out.

How liberating!

But what exactly is going to be possible today is still somewhat of a mystery.  Originally, I lined up the Chicago Marathon to be a fitness test en route to my sub-3 hour attempt coming in January 2013 at the Houston Marathon; but after a long summer of ultras, I have started to surprise even myself.

After Howl at the Moon, I took a couple weeks off to recover before jumping into four hard weeks of dedicated speed training, and what I discovered was that my summer of ultras had tuned my big endurance engine so well that I was now able to hold faster paces longer, purely out of being more fit.  In fact, I ran my 20 miler three weeks out from race day at a very comfortable 7:00 pace.

With all of this in mind, I know that today’s success is likely going to depend on my ability to pace myself, and, of course, how much I can dig deep in the last 10K.  So I have a game plan:

1) Catch the 3:05 pace group

2) Stay with them through at least the halfway mark, then, based on how I feel, decide to speed up, slow down or stay put

3) No rest til Boston

That’s right.  I want to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, and the qualifying time for my age group is 3:05 or better.  I need a hard yet achievable goal for this race and with today’s temps lining up so perfectly, this is the one.  Beating my 3:15 PR is almost a given, barring any sort of catastrophe.  But beating it by more than 10 minutes is going to take some guts.

I crank WHAT TIME IS IT?, put on my game face, and head to Grant Park.

7:20 a.m.

While huddled among the masses in my start corral, I am surprisingly calm.  My pulse is at resting rate.  I feel no anxiety.  I’m all smiles and ready to run to the raucous roars of the crowd.

Indeed, of all the races I have run to date, nothing quite compares to the enormous “epicness” of the Chicago Marathon.  Here, crowd support is as plentiful as it is deafening.  I also know that this can sabotage one’s race if he isn’t careful.  It is way too easy to bolt out at an unsustainable pace while being cheered on by the masses.  And after a proper taper and plenty of rest, that bolting pace is going to feel easier than it should.  I make note of this and remind myself to run as evenly as possible.

We pause for the National Anthem.

Then there’s the introduction of the elites (Go Ritz!)…

And then…

WE’RE OFF!

Miles 1-4

Oh, chaos, sweet chaos.

It helps if you know it’s coming, but it still never makes sifting through the first few miles of a mega-race insanity much fun.  For some unknown reason, the running gods still allow swarms of people who should not be up front to plug up the streets, making swift passage nearly impossible.  In some ways, this is good, as it allows me to not go out too fast.  But all the dodging and jumping and clipping necessary to get into a good groove is not my favorite part of racing.

One defense mechanism I use for getting through this difficult beginning is to stay as far to the left as possible.  The Chicago Marathon starts out with two left turns followed by two right turns; and by the time I’m cruising up State Street, I have finally escaped the insanity and find myself surrounded by folks in my speed zone.

The crowds are immense.  And they are loud.  I look around, taking it in, finding an unbound love for all these strangers who have sacrificed their morning to cheer us on.  Today is going to be a good day.

Now, down to business.

I come across the first 5K in 21:31, right on target.  And I feel fine.  But I still haven’t spotted the 3:05 pace team.  In a perfect world, I would have started with them; however, they began in Corral A and my previous time of 3:15 wouldn’t get me in there, so instead I had to start back in Corral B, a whole minute and 13 seconds behind at the start.  They are running even splits, so I know that in order to catch them, I’m going to have to exert some more effort in the early goings.

Do you really need the pace team though? I ask myself.

I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t.  But I want to join them anyway.  When I ran my last fast 20-mile trainer, part of what made it so comfortable was that I ran it with a pack.  Running in a pack is a great way to relax the mind.  It also helps conserve energy.  No longer is the focus on splits and tempo and mile markers, but rather it boils one’s effort down to one, singular task: sticking with the group.  Stay on the heels of the guy in front of you.  That’s it.  And the benefits of drafting and being part of a social dynamic also make the pain of running so hard disappear.

I need that group.  I will get there.

Miles 5-14

And there, just as I hit the aid station in Lincoln Park near the 5 mile marker, I see a beautiful band of runners in step, bouncing among them three small “3:05” signs.  That’s my team.  Let’s catch up.

Vrooooom!

One little burst of speed and now I’m tucked in behind, at the back of the group.  Everyone is focused.  There are probably close to fifty of us.  I don’t know.  It’s hard to count when everyone is moving so quickly.  The guy to the left of me smiles and says, “Well, hello. Nice of you to join us. What took you so long?”

We both laugh as I comfortably turn off my mind and go into zen mode.  There are two blue-shirted pacers up front, Mike and Tony.  Twenty feet or so back is the pace leader, Chris, who is shouting out words of encouragement and detailed instructions on course maneuverings.  He is the pace maker.  If Mike or Tony get too fast up front he directs them to slow down.  Everyone is on point, focused on nabbing that Boston qualifier; and after a couple of easy miles inside the peloton I’m grinning ear to ear because it feels so effortless.

And we are in good hands.

I overhear Chris mention he’s run over 20 marathons under three hours, with a personal best of 2:37 and paces an average of 12 marathons a year.  Our current 7-minute pace is so easy for him that he has no problem conversing with those fit enough to do the same and I love the fact that he like totally has a surfer-dude accent, man.  I’m feeling good, but this is not conversational pace for me, so I just dig in and focus on being one with the pack.

I am one with the pack.

Wow.  This is so fucking cool.

We’re hitting mile markers evenly, on the dot.  It’s scary how evenly this team is clicking.  And that’s exactly what it is: a team.  As we zoom through Lakeview and into Wrigleyville, the spectator cheering reaches insane, deafening levels.

“Use the crowds to keep the same level of intensity”, says team leader Chris, “but don’t let them push you beyond. We have a lot of race yet.”

In contrast to last year’s race where I seemed to live and die by the level of crowd support and the visuals of the course itself, this time I’m just running smooth and easy, controlled and strong, completely oblivious to the chaos around me.  It’s almost like I’m on a treadmill because I’m surrounded by the same people throughout — a stationary unit, an even paced machine — and we’re all on the same team, working for each other.

Mile 9, Mile 10, Mile 11.  Mile 12.  Nailing splits.  All of them.

And the best part about it, for me, is that because I started a minute and 13 seconds behind the group, each time we hit our 3:05 splits I know I have a minute and 13 second cushion.  Time in the bank, as small as it may be, is always comforting.

“20K, bam, doing great, Team!” says Chris, “We’re doing great work, guys. Tony, just a touch slower up front. Boom. That’s perfect. Keep it right there. Okay, guys, aid station coming up. Keep drinking. Don’t skip it. Get your carbs. Meet back in the middle.”

We hit the aid station heading south on Franklin, and just as we have at all the others previous, we all come back center into this beautiful, swift peloton of awesomeness.  I look around and it looks like everyone who was here at mile five is still here as we creep up on mile 13.

Heading west on Adams, we come through the half marathon mark and I look at my watch to see I just PR’d for the distance: 1:31:20.  Bam!  I did that!

“Okay, guys, we’re doing awesome,” says Chris. “Remember to run strong. From your core. Focus on getting in that oxygen. We’re going to be coming up on Mile 14 soon and we’re right on pace with about 30 seconds in the bank. Stay strong. Use each other. Stay together.”

I love this guy.  I love this group!

So… do I leave them?  Do think I can negative split now and run off on my own? 

I take a few minutes, mulling over the possibilities in my mind.  Fatigue-wise, I’m pretty tired right now.  My heart rate is fine, breathing is normal.  Legs are on automatic.  Nothing is aching too terribly, but I feel like it’s easier because I’m focusing on sticking with the group and that is all.  I’m on Boston qualifying pace, with time in the bank, and in order to break 3 hours I would have to run 15 seconds per mile faster than I am going right now, for another entire 13.1 miles.

Too risky.  Let’s not sabotage one goal for the sake of another right now.  Just keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll see where we are at 20 miles.

I’m happy with this decision.  I’m happy with everything right now.  I’M ALIVE!  I’M ALIVE!  I’M A-LIIIIIIVE!

Miles 14-20

Mile marker 14 comes and goes at 1:37:20 by my watch and I’m ecstatic.  I can’t wait until we hit the turn onto Damen and start heading back towards the lake because that means we’re creeping up on my regular stomping grounds: Greektown, Little Italy, University Village, Pilsen, Chinatown, Bridgeport…

I get ahead of myself.

“Run with your core. Stay focused within the group,” says Chris, “Take in that oxygen. Everyone looks great. Doing great work here, 3:05!”

Miles 15, 16, 17, 18… all on point.  7 minute splits, boom.  Bam. Done.

Except… now, as we turn south down Ashland and Gangnam Style blasts repeatedly from all directions, I feel like this effort is becoming more and more difficult.  At the 30K mark, I even start to fade a bit before pulling myself back in with a much-needed gel and mental kick in the ass.

You have to stay with these guys, Jeff. You’ve worked too hard to dog out now. Focus. Just focus! This is BOSTON we’re talking about. No one gets into Boston without feeling like shit at some point. Stay on Chris’ heels.

Stay on Chris’ heels, stay on Chris’ heels, stay on Chris’ heels…

Mile 19… BAM.  Right on target.  And now, we’re on a part of the course I run weekly.  The stretch from 18th Street to Halsted, south until you reach Archer, and east on into Chinatown, is part of my regular training route so I am encouraged by the idea that from here on out it’s all familiar territory.

Not only that, but I also know my buddy Omar is waiting for me at Cermak and Halsted and that once I get to Chinatown, my friends from my New Leaf running club are waiting with free high-fives.  Time to boil the race down into “just get theres”.

Just get to Omar.

Just get to Chinatown.

Just get to Sox Park.

We get to Mile 20, there is Omar and he is cheering my name loudly.  Next to him is a woman I’ve never seen before who says, “You are one sexy runner!”

And now, with that extra boost of confidence, I’m running on somebody else’s legs.

“Okay, Team, great job staying strong through 20 miles,” says Chris, “We’re right on target with time to spare.”

He’s not kidding.  We hit 20 miles at 2:19:40 by my watch — my fastest 20 miles to date.  We make the turn left onto Archer and for a brief second I think about how I could just bail and go home from here (it’s only a couple blocks away) but then I realize how ridiculous that sounds and I let Chris’ instruction bring me back present.

“20 miles in now, Team, so let’s talk about some things. This is where the crowd support is gonna die down. We’ll get a boost through Chinatown but after that it’s gonna be quiet until we hit about the 24 or 25 mile mark. Now, if you feel good and you think you have a lot left to burn, think about going off with Mike and Tony ‘cuz they’re gonna go up ahead a bit.”

They do.  I try to match the burst but I can’t. Instead, I feel my legs start to burn (prior to now I couldn’t feel them period) and… ohhhh shit! I start to panic!  This all happens in a matter of seconds.  Then, Chris continues:

“If you feel like this is max effort right now and you don’t want to risk it, man, just stick with me, right here. We’re gonna take it in. Nice and steady. Nice and strong.”

Let’s do that, Jeff. Let’s stick with Chris.

I ease off a hair and watch as most of the peloton blows forward with Mike and Tony.  There is a scattered group of about 10 of us who stay back with Chris; but after that quick burst of mine, I’m starting to hurt.  I trail off a bit.  I keep them about 20 feet ahead of me and just hang on.  I know Chinatown is coming, so I’ll try to recover through this quiet spot until we get there.

Miles 21-25

I can hear the beating drums and roaring crowd build in volume as we make our approach.  Surprisingly, the anticipation of seeing more familiar faces is enough to bring me back from that low patch and now I’m right back on the heels of Chris and the gang.  The faster portion of our team is in front of us by about 40 or 50 feet.

We make the turn right onto Wentworth and I break off from the pack to gather energy from the crowds.

“Go, Jeff! Nice work, Jeff! Stay strong, Jeff!” I hear a familiar voice scream.  It’s Brandi, from my running club.  I can’t see her but I hear her and I get a nice burst of energy from the encouragement.

Further down the street, near the old Chinatown post office, I see my friends Tara and Jennifer and Craig on the east side of Wentworth.  Yes!  So happy to see them!

I speed up and get high-fives from each of them, along with some encouraging, raucous cheers and before I know it I’ve tucked back into the Chris-led mini-peloton and I realize: Holy shit, I’m almost done.

It’s only going to hurt for a few more miles.

Just… stay… focused.

This is that part of the marathon I dream about most — that part where you really have to dig deep inside your brain to find out what you’re made of.

Are you tough? Can you stick with it til the end, gaining strength through adversity? Or are you going to give in to the pain and let all that you’ve worked so hard for disappear into the dark abyss of complacency? How… much… do you care?

I stick to Chris’ heels, drafting off of his tall build, sucking it up and convincing myself the pain and mental anguish won’t last long.

You’re almost done, Jeff. You’ve killed this course today. And you’re going to get your wish ‘cuz you’re gonna qualify for Boston.

We hit the 25 mile marker and for the first time in my marathoning life the clock has yet to strike three hours at this spot.  I come in at 2:55:40 and I think to myself:

Holy. Shit.

The last 1.2

“Okay, Team. This is it,” says Chris. “One and a quarter mile to go and you’ve earned it. We’re coming in hot! Ahead of schedule. If you wanna go take it in, go for it.”

I’m going for it.  In fact, I could run this stretch (from 16th and Michigan to Roosevelt) in my sleep, I’ve done it so often.

I take off.  Can’t even feel my legs. Pumping with my arms.  Pushing with my core.

For the first time all race I’m breathing hard.  And it feels great.

I hit the turn to Mt. Roosevelt and lean in hard on the left side, soaking all the energy from the crowd as I let them carry me up the one and only “hill” the course has to offer.  Before I know it I’m turning left on to Columbus — the last furlong — and up ahead is that glorious, GLORIOUS finish line.

I kick it into high gear, throw my arms up in the air and come across the finish line in 3 hours, 3 minutes, 27 seconds.

Pain never felt so good.

Post-Race

Here’s a marathon first: I didn’t cry this time!  Not even one tear.  Instead, I sought out my 3:05 pace teammates and embraced them with sweaty hugs, high-fives and a barrage of hoots and hollers.

We did it!  We really did it!  Boston, baby!

I get my space blanket, don my medal, then I approach Chris, Mike and Tony, individually.  I hug them all, look them each straight in the eye tell them “thank you”, from the bottom of my heart.

I had the race of my life today and I know I couldn’t have done it with such ease had it not been for their impeccable pacing (and people) skills.

I refuel with a well deserved 312 brew and do the Frankenstein walk back to gear check. I change into my warm clothes and make the trek back to the Orange Line train at Roosevelt, receiving high-fives and congratulations from passersby along the way.

My smile must be contagious.  Everyone’s wearing one.

And as I slip onto the crowded train and head back home to ice my battered posts, I look back out onto my beautiful city from the elevated tracks, comforted by the knowledge that 40,000 other folks are truly living life today in the most exhilarating way possible.

*Footnote*

The 2013 Boston Marathon still had spots open…so, of course, I’M REGISTERED!  See ya in Beantown, April 2013!


Nothin’ Like a Good Stick in the Mud

Automysophobia.  The fear of getting dirty.  For most of my adult life I have suffered from this irrational phobia and though I cannot pinpoint the exact reason, I am quite sure that it stemmed from my struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder that strangled me during my college years.

But then I became a runner.

Running has taught me so much.  It has taught me how to set goals, then work hard to achieve them.  It has taught me to be mindful, to be present and in the moment.  It has taught me to be compassionate, to be receptive, to be the best version of me I can possibly be.

And it has also taught me to just go with it sometimes.

So when my second leg of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme Relay in Hell, Michigan had me face a nasty series of mud bogs the consistency of blackstrap molasses, I tightened the string on my shorts and just jumped right in.

Waist high muck intent on sucking the shoes right off my feet was no match for my running induced love affair with nature.  Getting dirty has never been so fun!  In fact, the whole time I was wading through the mud, I couldn’t help but think about how alive I felt, about how much I enjoy being out in nature, truly experiencing everything she has to offer.

Surely, the smile on my face while trudging through swamp was disconcerting to those fellow runners around me who looked… um… uncomfortable.  And awkward.  And pissy.

Such feelings are not for me.  As long as I’m able to run, I’m going to embrace it.  And though my adventures might sometimes lead me down dirty, difficult, uncomfortable paths, I will always take the feeling of being alive over being reserved and unaware of my ultimate potential.

Team Freudian Slip and Falls, 2012. From left to right: Eric, Jeff, Keith, Megan (with Sigmund Freud’s zombie head on a stick in back).

– – –

If you’re looking for a fantastic way to spend a whole day with your running buddies on awesome trails, consider participating in one of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme relays.  It’s such a fun day.  The teams really go all out with their costumes and totems and team names.  And the organizers do a great job of making it a fun-first event.


Behind the Abs: Some Detail and Instruction on How I Got Them and How You Can Too

When I first saw the above picture, taken at the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon a few weeks ago, I had to do a double-take.  Who the hell is that guy?!?!  Is that really me?  Holy shit!  When did I become… that?!?

I posted the picture on my Facebook, and before I knew it I was receiving an abundance of messages, comments and texts, all asking the same thing:

HOW DID YOU DO THAT?

It’s a great question.  And the answer is layered, with several components.  But it’s an important one to address because by examining exactly how I did transform from a tired, overweight, boozing nicotine addict into the uber-fit, lean ultrarunner I am today, I think others will discover that it really is possible — that if one is determined enough, he or she can have the type of body people dream about.

Me, summer of 2009. Pudgy and buzzed with questionable tastes in fashion.

The problem with acquiring that perfect dream body is the simple fact that it is definitely not easy.  In fact, it’s really damn hard.  The only way it can be achieved is through determination, practice and discipline.  That’s good news if you’re a runner, because running requires all of the above.  In fact, that’s how it all started for me.  Once I became a runner and began setting and accomplishing my goals, then I realized that I could accomplish any reasonable goal I put out there, as long as I made use of the same principles.

Determination, practice, discipline.

Determination:
Tired of always thinking what if, I decided I was just going to do it.  No matter what.  I was going to get a six-pack.  Whatever it took.  Once I became determined and really prepared myself mentally for the kind of struggle that would be necessary, I went on to the practice phase.

Practice:
Knowing it wasn’t going to happen overnight, I started at zero and worked my way up.  I learned some basic physiology tenets and found exercises that would get me where I wanted to go.  I did the work.  Lots and lots of work.  And while this may not be what most people want to hear, it is the truth that it took about two years of hard work to get my body to look like it does today.  Two years.  Anything that takes that long requires…

Discipline:
To quote Scott Jurek, “Sometimes you just do things.”  I’m tired today.  So what.  There’s work to do.  I’m really craving that Ben & Jerry’s.  Too bad.  There’s work to do.  Can’t I just skip this workout?  Sure, but you can kiss that six-pack goodbye.

With those principles in mind, let’s next look at the three major components of my total body transformation — the actual practices that made it possible:

1)  INTENSE CARDIO
This may be obvious, considering this is a running blog and I am a runner, but that doesn’t diminish its importance.  I lost all the “fat” I had by running a bunch.  And it’s not like I have been running crazy mileage forever either.  In 2010 I averaged 25 miles a week.  In 2011 it went up to about 40 miles a week.  This year I’m averaging 70 miles a week, but such mileage is not necessary to lose the fat.

What is necessary is getting that heart rate up.  One can do this by swimming, biking, boxing, jazzercising… it doesn’t matter.  Just devote some time (20 minutes a day would be a good start) to an activity that requires a sustained, elevated heart rate.

The effects of my intense cardio sessions (running mostly) were that, after about 12 months, I eventually reached my ideal base weight — a number backed up by simple body mass index formulas.

2)  DIET
This is probably the hardest aspect of body sculpting, but I assure you it is the most important.  And it is possible.  Again, it just takes determination, practice and discipline.  The truth is: what you put into your body is paramount to how it will look and operate.  For me, adhering to a good diet required a complete overhaul of my understanding of food — where it comes from, how it is prepared, how it affects my body.  Realizing I knew very little about general nutrition and the science around it, I bought some books and read up on it.  What I discovered was as exciting as it was alarming.

The most important step I took was eliminating virtually all processed foods from my diet.  I got rid of anything full of high fructose corn syrup and eschewed all other engineered food products.  I stopped drinking calories.  No more soda.  No more concentrated “juices”.  No more crap.  I stopped boozing.

I quit eating fast food (the WORST!!!).  When eating out, I opted for the healthier options whenever possible.  And most importantly, I began to focus my diet on a variety of whole foods, paying special attention to those categorized as “super foods” (whole grains, leafy greens, berries, quinoa, legumes, eggs, Greek yogurt, sweet potatoes, broccoli, almonds, salmon, etc.).

Dessert became a four-letter word.  That is not to say I wouldn’t, on occasion, partake in a small bit of ice cream or a cookie now and then, but those occasions became extremely rare.  Even now, I have little room for junk food (pizza, sweets, chips, etc) in my diet.  Every great once in a while I will indulge, but I often don’t feel too well afterward — my body’s way of reminding me that that shit is not good for me — so such happenings are rare.

In fact, I would assume very few people get the beach body by eating like shit.  It’s just not conducive to how our bodies work, naturally.  Our bodies respond to good, wholesome, nutrient rich foods, not engineered foodstuffs full of ingredients that no one can pronounce.

3)  SUPPLEMENTAL BODY & CORE SPECIFIC TRAINING
If you have the intense cardio down and you’re eating right, you should already be looking pretty damn good!  What is left is only a matter of specificity.  Decide what it is you want, then do the work it takes to get it.  I wanted a six-pack.  So I started doing workouts that focus on the core.  Outside of running, I like to box, so I trained with some boxers in my neighborhood and picked their brains for advice.  I bought books on core training.  I started to see results (albeit slowly, remember, these things take time) within six months or so and I just kept at it until the definition finally arrived.  And when my training needed a bit of variety — a boost to get into that pop-out territory, I eventually hired a trainer to teach me more advanced workouts.  I learned them well and I teach them now .

Me in 2010 (left). Me in 2012 (right).

I should also add that, in my supplemental body and core specific training, I do not lift a lot of traditional weights.  I do from time to time, but I’m a runner.  I need to be as lean as possible, while still maintaining a high level of strength and support.  Instead of lifting weights, I utilize full body weight training.  Resistance training.  I do some band work and a few kettle bell workouts, but otherwise, all of the exercises I do require little else than my own body (think push-ups, pull-ups, dips, planks, etc).

The key to this sort of training, in my opinion, is to vary the exercises.  Just like with food, the more varied, the better.  If I am doing my workouts correctly, I should experience soreness in the day or two after.  Of course, like any other exercise, intensity should be based on whatever the body has that day, but in general, I like to push myself to get just one more sit-up… just one more push-up… just… one… MORE!!!

BUT WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY DO, JEFF???

When I put it all together, it goes something like this:

I run.  Six days a week.  The distance varies, and I run at different intensities, but the heart rate is always elevated.

I do two or three 40-60 minute supplemental body and core specific workouts, depending on how my body feels that week.

Here is an example workout. Keep in mind that I prefer the active recovery model, so I’m never fully resting. I generally do two sets of each exercise, and in between sets I jump rope as “rest”:

Jump rope
Up-down push ups into high bar pull-ups
Jump rope
One legged squats
Jump rope
Hanging leg raises
Jump rope
Dips into knee raises
Jump rope
Stairs
Jump rope
Scorpion push-ups
Jump rope
Hindu push-ups
Jump rope
Traditional planks
Jump rope
Side planks
Jump rope
Bear push-ups

I eat well.  I eat a variety of whole foods, focusing on the “super” foods.

I also sleep 7-9 hours every night.

I don’t drink much alcohol.  And when I do drink, I only have a few.

I take one day off a week — from everything — and I force myself to kick my feet up and enjoy a good game or movie or book.

But, MORE than anything:

I believe in myself and I believe in what I am able to do, physically and mentally.  I feel like every day is an opportunity to get better, to do the work it takes to be who I want to be.  It’s something we are all capable of, every single one of us.

So what are you waiting for?

– – –

PS.  I am not a doctor.  The above is not intended to be medical advice.  Always consult with your doctor if there are doubts.  If you are interested in getting started yourself and want a learned trainer to get you there, please let me know.


Simply Super

Anastasia Andrychowski “Supergirl” Rolek winning the Hallucination 100.

My running resume got a big boost of BOOYAH this weekend as I had the pleasure of pacing Anastasia Andrychowski “Supergirl” Rolek to her EPIC overall female VICTORY at Run Woodstock’s Hallucination 100 Mile Race in Hell, Michigan.  Already known as 100 pounds of pure inspiration, Supergirl not only completed the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, but she did it with a new personal best of 21:46 while taking home the female victory, finishing sixth overall!

My part in getting her to the finish line started on Friday night at 10:23 p.m. and lasted for 7 hours 26 minutes and 32 miles, ending at 5:49 a.m. on Saturday.  Those 32 miles were some of the toughest 32 miles I’ve ever faced, and unlike most of my race reports, I’m finding it very difficult to describe the specific action, thoughts and struggles that took place in that particular block of time.

The main obstacle?  RAIN.  Like, a LOT of rain.  A constant, unforgiving downpour of cold, pounding rain.  From the time I picked her up for her third 16.4 mile loop on Friday night, all the way until I let her go Saturday morning: RAIN RAIN RAIN.  This continuous onslaught from mother nature not only made the trail a dangerous slip-n-slide-shoe-sucking-mudfest, but it also had the potential to drain all positive energy that lay in its path.

But not Supergirl.  Hell no.  Supergirl was upbeat, fast and full of life!  All I had to do was put my head down and keep up.

Quick pic between loops 3 and 4

We fought right through the muck.  We put the hammer down on the paved straightaways.  And while the majority of runners moved slowly through the night, shoulders slouched and spirits broken from the relentless water torture thrown down from above, Supergirl and I found a high, sustainable gear that suited her indomitable will and unbreakable spirit.

SMACK!  BAM!  ZOOM!

I wish that I could provide a detailed, minute-by-minute race description of this experience; but honestly, because of the treacherous footing and the dark blanket of night, I never even saw the actual course.  All I could see was the ground directly in front of me and an aid station every four miles that clued me in to where I might be at any given time.

It was such a running anomaly for me that I lost all sense of place, of movement.  It was like running on a muddy, slippery treadmill in the dark while someone sprayed me with a never ending stream from a fire hose.  I lost all track of time.  Because of the slow numbing from the chilly rain, I couldn’t even tell if I was really tired or not.  I just… was.  In fact, that was the crux of this running experience: I felt so awake, so alive.

You know that feeling you get when you jump into a cold swimming pool?  You know that bit of hesitation you feel right before barreling in?  Then there’s that moment where you just do it and suddenly your body is saying “WOOOOOOAHHHH!”  You’re extremely uncomfortable, but if you take the time to get passed the discomfort, you eventually find yourself really living life.  You feel every single hair raise, feel every breath with an unprecedented alertness and purpose.

That’s what pacing Supergirl at Hallucination was like.  I felt alive and well and motivated and present.

My entire world boiled down to one, single task: RUUUUUUUUUUUUN!!!

And I know that I was the “pacer”, that I was there to keep Supergirl on track.  But let me tell you something: Supergirl doesn’t need anyone to keep her moving.  She has all the determination in the world right there inside of her jubilant little self.  If she wants something, she works hard to get it, and this weekend was no exception.  She got it done.  With style.  And speed.

She could have moped through that awful, stormy mess.  She could have taken her time at the aid stations, to warm up, to be comfortable.  She could have complained about the conditions and decided today wasn’t the day for a personal best, that this race wasn’t the race to win.  She could have done all of that and NO ONE would have had a bad word to say about it.

But no.  She isn’t about that.  She is about overcoming the odds.  She is about ignoring the elements and pushing through the hard times knowing that something better waits on the other side.

Supergirl is simply super.

And now she is a CHAMPION as well.

Post-race with Supergirl and Siamak

*Also of note is the fact that my friend pictured above, Siamak Mostoufi, who has appeared on this blog several times already, ALSO kicked some major trail butt at Run Woodstock as he set a new personal best, won his age group and took home 4th place overall in the 50 mile race.  What a great performance!  Can someone say SUPERFRIENDS!?!?


Choose Your Own Adventure!

When I close my eyes and venture back to the happy place of my youth, I am always outside.  I’m exploring.  I’m looking under rocks and following creeks and rallying my sisters to follow my lead.

Back then I knew, just as I know now, that there is something inherently special about doing something I’ve never done before.  There’s something intoxicating about going someplace I’ve never been, about stepping out on that ledge to see the world from an entirely different point of view.

Running fits that natural call for adventure like no other activity, and the ultra distances set the stage for bigger, better and bolder treks.  I’ve run miles and miles through enchanted forests.  I’ve explored old farm roads, scaled mountainous switchbacks, cruised barren beaches and plucked through quiescent cityscapes.  I’m a runner.  I know no other purer form of joy.

And I like to cover distances on foot.

So on Friday, August 31st, at 1o p.m., I left my home on the south side of Chicago and ran.  I ran with no other purpose but to explore, to have fun, to revel in the level of fitness I have that allows me to keep going and going and going.  I ran north on Halsted, then east on Roosevelt.  I shot up Michigan Avenue, taking in the lights, the sounds, the plumes of cigarette smoke from jetlagged tourists.

I turned left on Chicago Avenue, then right on Clark.  I zoomed by Old Town, passed through Lincoln Park.  I ran further north through Wrigleyville, marveling at the level of insecurity of the drunken hooligans giving me a hard time for my choice of activity for a Friday night.  “It’s Friday night, dude, running is not necessary.”… “Run Forest Run!”… “What are you doing, dude? You’re crazy!”…

I just kept… running.

I ran by Wrigley Field, touched the Ernie Banks statue for good luck.  I ran by my old house in Buena Park.  The lights were off.  Nobody home.

I passed the old Jewel I used to frequent, the liquor store where I used to buy my booze — both distant reminders that I didn’t always have super powers.

Heading west on Montrose I ran by the Brown Line station and the Starbucks and the Mexican restaurant where I tasted the best chorizo burrito I’ve ever had.

When I got to Lincoln I went back south.  I looked at my watch.  I picked up the pace.

At 1 a.m. I was to meet my friend, Siamak, just outside The Second City at North and Wells, so I sped up so I wouldn’t miss him.  As I navigated my way through the pockets of drunken crowds along the way I noticed the stillness in the air, that it hadn’t rained as previously forecasted, that the blue moon hanging high above was blanketed by a beautifully savage cloud system.

“Jeff!” yelled Siamak.

We were both right on time.  Early, actually.

Giddy as only adults who aren’t afraid to unleash their inner exploratory children can be, we caught each other up.  We explained to one another how we got where we were, what sights we’d seen, what cat-calls we’d received.  And then we kept running.

With CVS, Starbucks and multiple Walgreens as our “aid stations”, we were never without fuel.  We ran south down LaSalle, through the Gold Coast and by the Viagra Triangle.  We stopped and salivated at the Rolls Royce dealership, imagining what we’d look like tooling around town in a chrome colored $400k power machine.  I got a tour of Siamak’s personal architectural projects further dotting the downtown area and soon we found ourselves running through the Loop — a Chitown staple — at its quietest and spookiest of hours.

By the time the bars were letting out we were all the way back south, heading west on Roosevelt, then south on Halsted.  We ran through UIC, glided through Pilsen, then took a left on Archer, following the Chicago Marathon course all the way into Chinatown.  Even with all the lights off and no patrons to speak of, Chinatown’s smells (the good, the bad and the rancid) still permeated the summer air.

Making our way through old Chinatown, we followed Wentworth all the way to 35th, tagging our second baseball stadium of the journey.  “Do you realize how much of the city we’ve covered tonight?” I asked Siamak, still unable to fully conceive the relative distance compiled in my now very tired, achy feet.

“Yeah, this is really the existential run,” he replied. “I love it. The run is whatever we want it to be.”

When we hit Halsted from 35th, we headed back north, passing my house.  And even though it was right there, calling my name with a warm shower and soft bed, we kept going.

And going, and going, and going.

We crossed the Chicago River (for the fifth time) and soon found ourselves at Randolph, where we turned west to explore the stillness of endless restaurant supply chains.  At Ogden, having just run by a brewery whose massive casks seemed to beg me to drink from them, Siamak showed me another architectural project of his and then somehow I was ranting about Michael Jordan.

At Grand we headed back east, moving slowly with short walk breaks interspersed to mix up the otherwise steady 10-minute-miling.  By 4:30 a.m., we reached Grand and Wells, where we would separate for the last hour and a half — giving us each time to decompress, to go back and find ourselves through the grandness of our night.  With 34 miles in the bank, we fist-bumped and went our separate ways.

I headed further east until I got to State Street, then went south.  I played with my speed.  Slowing down.  Speeding up.  Quicker turnover.  Elongated strides.

“I’m playing!!!”

I knew that if I could get to Roosevelt by 5 a.m., then I could hit the Lakefront Path at Museum Campus and end my night with a familiar 5-mile stretch that I could probably do in my sleep.  I almost did do it in my sleep!

At 5 a.m. on the dot I was standing outside the Shedd Aquarium, trying not to yawn.  I took some caffeinated GU and stopped to stretch.  I said “hello” and “good morning” to the handful of runners and bikers out early to train, then I put my head down and trucked.

Of course, I made sure to stop outside Soldier Field, to pay homage to DA BEARS and revel in the reality that in one evening alone I visited Wrigley Field, Sox Park AND Soldier Field!  Not only that, but as I continued south on the Lakefront Path, a hint of sun peeking up over the black horizon, I realized that in this one run alone I pieced together most of my favorite landmarks Chicago has to offer.

In one epic, adventurous evening, I experienced my city like I’ve never experienced it before.

I hit the homestretch of 31st street — head down, speeding west.

When I got a block from my house the clocked turned to 6 a.m.  The Chinese ladies were in McGuane Park waving their flags in rhythm.  The sky was a gentle blue.

42 miles were in my feet.

I did it.  I lived the adventure.

And it was simply awesome.


Mindful Perspective, Reinterpreting Pain

During U.S. Olympian Aly Raisman’s gold medal floor routine, NBC commentator Tim Daggett mentioned her unique ability to view the nervous energy associated with such daring gymnastics (something most of us call “pressure” or “anxiety”) into something much more performance enhancing.  He called it “excitement”.

What a novel yet extraordinarily simple idea!

Embrace the nervousness, the anxiety, the pressure and transform it into something positive.  Use it as a springboard for optimal performance.  Face it.  Take it.  And run with it.

Digging deeper, I know that, for me, most of that pre-race energy comes from knowing the type of pain that will be involved.  If you have ever raced a race, I mean, really put yourself out there, leaving nothing behind, then you know the type of pain I am talking about.  It’s the type of pain dictated by the central governor, that annoyingly present theoretic portion of the brain that says, “Stop! Are you crazy? This is unnecessary!”

It’s also the type of pain that, when challenged and overridden, leads to bouts of ecstasy.  That’s one of the reasons why I love racing.  I love pushing myself beyond what I think I can do.  Even in failure, I am guaranteed to experience something most people never will, a satisfying feat all by itself.

Overriding the central governor, attempting to accomplish extraordinary goals, I remind myself of Dave Terry’s wisdom as told by Scott Jurek: “Not all pain is significant.”

And just in case you don’t believe that, consider the fact that Jurek won the 2007 Hardrock 100 on a severely sprained ankle, or that Thomas Voeckler’s captivating Stage 10 victory at the 2012 Tour de France — the one that had him making all sorts of uncomfortable faces towards the end — was done despite a bum knee.

I know a thing or two about pain myself.  Just look at my face as I crossed the finish line during my current marathon PR.  That was a painful race, no doubt.  But the pain has long subsided and all that is left is the purest joy I have ever come to know.


Chicago Run: Empowering Our Youth, One Mile at a Time

On Saturday, I ran 32 miles around the 400 meter track at Dunbar Park.  That’s 128 dizzying laps, 512 left turns and a lot of people asking me: Are you okay? 

The smile on my face reassured them that indeed, I was just fine.  Ecstatic, actually.  Hours and hours of running tends to leave me with a permanent grin, even if the body aches.

After my first couple of hours circling the track, one of the dads from a nearby little league game approached me with his young son.  “Man, you’re a beast,” he said.  “I’ve been here for two baseball games and you’ve been running the whole time.”

I smiled in response, a bit shy.  “Just doing what I love,” I said, “it’s a nice day for it.”

The dad looked down at his son holding his hand.  “Do you mind if my son runs a lap with you?” he asked.

“Not at all.  Let’s go.”

The boy let go of his father’s hand and hitched on to my heels.  I slowed my pace and asked him his name.  He responded by giggling and sprinting off ahead of me.  I ran to catch him.

Laughing and running.  I got a little chill up my spine.  This kid was having a blast.  And before I knew it, as we circled the track (a bit slower now that he reached his lactate threshold level, I assume) we gradually picked up other little leaguers from his team.  I counted six happy little runners following me in circles.  No talking, just giggling.  And several pick-ups in pace among them.

I didn’t say anything either.  Just smiled and kept on.  Our actions were more than enough.  I felt like the pied piper of fitness.  The kids were having fun just moving.

Because kids love to run!  It’s part of their nature!  It’s who they are!

Unfortunately, many Chicago kids are forced to curb that natural instinct.  They live in unsafe environments.  Their homes are in food deserts that leave them with poor nutrition.  They go to schools with budgets that fail them.

But Chicago Run, the non-profit organization Team LOL is running across Illinois for in a few weeks, is restoring that natural freedom back to the children who so desperately need it.  They are working with Chicago Public Schools to get kids active again.  They are building the foundation for a future of educated, empowered, physically fit young people — a foundation that is paramount to the wellness of our city.

They are doing amazing things.  They are putting smiles on kids’ faces.  They are making a difference.

And they need our help.  You can help by visiting *HERE*.

In the meantime, consider the case of Alex, a student from Walsh Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood.  A participant in Chicago Run’s “Running Mates” program, affected by the program’s nutrition lessons and running challenges, Alex soon started to notice that his belt was in need of extra holes, that his pants were getting bigger and no longer fit properly.  He took the lessons he was learning and shared them with his family, igniting a healthier lifestyle at home.  Months later, Alex found himself on the steps of the White House, giving a speech on how Chicago Run empowered him to be healthy before introducing first lady, Michelle Obama.

Chicago Run is bringing health and longevity back to our kids.  Consider being a part of this important mission.  You won’t be sorry.


The 2012 New Leaf Ultra Runs Sunburn 8-Hour Run

All smiles on the loopty-loop (Image courtesy of Brian Gaines)

As soon as I finished the Chinatown 5K, I hopped in the car and headed out to the suburbs to meet all my ultrarunning buddies for the New Leaf Ultra Runs Sunburn 8-Hour Run.  Like our other club timed events, this fun run took place on a short 2.2 mile looped trail of crushed limestone through exposed prairie grass and big open sky.

The perfect recipe for… a sunburn.

And I got one.  But I ain’t sweatin’ it because the smiles and high-fives and good times were well worth it.  And though I showed up two hours late, I was happy to get in a nice and easy 50 km run while sharing the communal good cheer with all my pals.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • My short shorts make for a great conversation piece, or, at least they make for a good show.  I’m used to getting cat calls when I hit the city streets dressed in my open split racers, so being serenaded by my peers with songs like “I’m Too Sexy”, “We Wear Short Shorts” and “She’s Got Legs” just make me want to wear them all the time, not just when I’m running.
  • If you’re going to wear your hat backwards in the hot sun, be ready for an awkwardly placed tan square on your forehead.  Yes, yes, yes, I know it’s there, but thanks for pointing it out.
  • Running a hard 5K, followed by an hour long car ride is a good recipe for stiff legs.  Though I had a blast running around in circles with all my friends, I never could get my legs to loosen up, which resulted in tight IT bans, tight piriformis, tight everything and a slower pace.
  • Coca-Cola can save the day.  I don’t drink soda, but for some reason, during ultra events, I crave it.  And I have never craved it like I did on Saturday.  Thankfully, my friend Juan saved the day by giving me one of his.  It was like sweet, sweet nectar from the running gods.  Ahhhhhh…
  • Good company makes the time FLY!!!  Seriously, getting to run alongside so many cool and interesting people does make the miles tick by quicker than if I were running alone.  Each time I glanced at my watch I was surprised at how much time had gone by.
  • Which leads me to the realization that I need to focus better on nutrition, even during club runs.  Because I was spending so much time socializing, I wasn’t paying much attention to what I had eaten or how much I’d been drinking.  There were several points where I felt a little woozy, mostly because I wasn’t eating and drinking properly, so I will know better for the future.

But maybe the biggest thing I took home from Sunburn is the fact that a kiddie pool full of ice water needs to be a staple of every single summertime running event.  YES?!?!?  Having reached the 50 km mark in my run with a little over a half an hour left on the clock, I headed out for another loop when, from the corner of my eye, I caught a friend of mine soaking in the kiddie pool.  She looked so happy and so at peace.

I want to be there, I said to myself.

So I hung ’em up, soaked my legs, and enjoyed the last bit of running from the sidelines, which also gave me a head start on the delicious smorgasbord BBQ potluck.  Nothing goes together like running and eating, which means I’ll be looking forward to this event again next year!

My friends can’t hold back their excitement! (Image courtesy of Brian Gaines)


All Hot, Barely Bothered

The training wheels are off my ultrarunning regimen.  Back-to-back long runs?  Yes, please.  Double run days?  Gladly!  Pushing the pace midday in 100 degree temps?  My pleasure…  sorta.

The heat training I’ve been experiencing has been a great indicator of my body’s ability to adapt.  Six weeks ago I began layering in my winter gear for an hour or two around the track each week — part of my build-up for the Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Ultra in August — and by the time the real heat wave came last week, I was pleasantly surprised at my body’s ability to withstand the suffocating elements.

That doesn’t mean I particularly enjoyed suffering for three long hours on the 4th of July, soaked with my own sweat-Gatorade-Gu filth and tattooed with Jeff-addicted horse flies; but it does mean that I was able to keep pushing through, moving one foot in front of the other, even when my body was uncooperative.

Curiously, the mild torture sessions have increased my brain power.  My mind is overriding my body.  Hot damn!  That’s an accomplishment all on its own!

When everything becomes immensely hard, when I’m breaking down, when I’m ready to call it quits… I just keep going anyway.  I think to myself, it could always be worse.

And believe me, it can always be worse.

No matter how hard I think I’m pushing, nor how difficult the task, I find motivation in knowing that someone else is out there pushing harder, suffering more.  Some folks might find that sick and twisted, but sick and twisted gets results.

Bring the pain, Mother Earth.  Bring it all!  Your harsh servings of spirit-breaking elements might be hard to withstand at first, but I’m gonna figure you out, or at least drown myself in electrolytes trying.


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.

Go run!


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.

Me with Anastasia (aka Supergirl) after her epic 100 mile finish at the Mohican Trail 100.


Primal Plunge: The 2012 Ice Age Trail 50 Mile Ultramarathon Race Report

Photograph by Ali Engin, 2012

“Running is a vehicle for self-discovery.”
–Scott Jurek

In May of 2009, I was a pack-and-a-half a day smoker who drank too much, ate like shit and never exercised.  In May of 2010, I was logging 3-mile runs two or three times a week.  In May of 2011, I was recovering from my first marathon.

And in May of 2012, I unleashed an ultrarunning, trail-diggin’, dirt lovin’ dragon.

Here is my story:

Race Morning, 3:30 a.m.

I’m up!  Banana, granola bar, a big gooey blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee.  Did I sleep last night?  A little.  Am I nervous?  No!  But I should be… right?

In a couple of hours I will begin the journey of completing my very first 50 mile race.  With four road marathons and five trail 50Ks in my legs already, this is the trip that will really stretch my psyche.  This is the one that I’ve been daydreaming about for well over a year.

I’m craving it.  I’m expecting it.  I can’t wait to test the body I’ve been steadily building for this exact day, May 12, 2012.

Dad doesn’t seem to hear the blaring alarm clock deafening my ears so I nudge him awake and then we both busy ourselves with prepping for a very long day.  I’m really glad he’s here with me.  He’s one of the main reasons I fell in love with running in the first place and he’s been with me at every step of my transformation.  Despite the fact that he lives outside of Houston (which is pretty far from Chicago and the midwest) he was at my first 5K, my first half marathon, first marathon and first 50K!

Now he’s here for my first 50 miler, only instead of participating as runner or spectator, this time I’m puttin’ him to work as my crew.  Last night we went over his duties and I’m pretty confident that he’ll be a big help to me throughout the day.  This might be almost as epic for him as it will be for me.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Start Line, 5:30 a.m.

With so many of my New Leaf and M.U.D.D. friends also running in this race, I know the start and finish lines are gonna be buzzin’ with awesome-sauce.  Every time I look around I see someone I know, which is just fantastic!  With this kind of good company, it’s hard for me to give in to the normal anxieties and fears I usually have before a big race.  My stomach’s not churning at all.  I’m not shaking.  Instead, I’m crackin’ jokes and shakin’ hands.

If I were all alone right now, surely I’d be worrying about the unknown, about the fact that I’ve never run more than 32 miles at any one time, or longer than 6 and a half hours — both tasks I’m going to have to deal with. But I’m not alone.  I’m surrounded by a loving, joyous community.

And some kick-ass trail.

The temp is in the mid 50s.  It will get up into the high 60s, but we’ll have cloud cover for most of the day and virtually no rain (some spits here and there).

The race director addresses all 360+ of us, then comes the National Anthem.  I hug my dad goodbye and take my place at the start line.  This is really happening now.

This is really, actually happening.

Miles 1-9

The first section of the race takes place on the Nordic Loop, which is a relatively wide and flat grassy section, ideal for speed.  But this ain’t no speed contest.  This is a long haul.  And pacing will either save me, or destroy me.

My goal for today is to just finish the race, to enjoy the virginal voyage.  After the last few trail races, where I’ve placed in the top 10, it is paramount that I stay humble and don’t get cocky.  There are world class athletes here today with lots of experience and I need to just watch them blow by.

Racing a 50K is much different than racing a 50 miler.  I think.  Hell, I don’t even know how to race a 50 miler yet, because I’ve never done it!  And my track record on first races at all the different distances is not very good.

Sure, I’ve finished them all, but in each case (my first half marathon, first marathon, first 50K) I went out WAAAY too fast and had to suffer through some gut-busting, painful miles at the end.  I don’t want that to happen today.

So the plan is to run this first loop at a controlled 10-11 minute pace with my new friend, Geoff, whom I met at the Earth Day 50K.  He and I finished a close 4th and 5th there and since our paces are about the same, we decided to run this first bit together.

I’m very glad we did, because the conversation with Geoff is making this early portion quite fun.  As if the infinitely luscious green forest isn’t enough to make me smile, the chatter we have going makes it all the sweeter.  We share our running backgrounds and talk race schedules.  We wax on nutrition, training, and of course, beer (this will be an all-day theme actually).  We also share the strategy of running the flats, walking the uphills, and running the downs.  The Ice Age Trail is notorious for its incessant batch of rolling hills and having an attack plan could be key.

I’m carrying a 20 oz. handheld bottle and lots of GU stuffed in my short pockets.  All is going well so we blow by the first aid station.  In fact, the first 8 miles breeze by, but nature calls and I tell Geoff to head on while I make a quick stop to water the trees.

A few minutes later, I’m back on the trail, but the lot of racers has already spread out so much that I have little company.  That’s to be expected in a trail race, so I embrace the alone time while I have it.  As I come into the second aid station at mile 9, I see Dad waving his arms, yelling my name.

The temperature is rising, so I rip off my singlet, get a quick bottle refill and get back to work.

Miles 10-17

Cruising.  Damn.  I just feel… good.  I’m not going too fast.  Am I?  No.  I think.  I don’t know.

Because it is so early still, I try not to think about what I’m doing too much.  I mean, I don’t wanna stress myself out with math and splits and whatever else problem could come up. I’m pretty much just zooming along by myself here, enjoying the magnificent surroundings, eating a GU every half hour and taking a sip of my half-water-half-Gatorade mix every few minutes.  It’s not really too warm, but it is a bit humid and when the sun does break out of the clouds it jumps up and smacks me in the face.

Of course, the actual trail does a good job of smacking me in the face as well.  Literally.  While it’s not uncommon for me to trip and do a face-plant during the latter stages of a race, this early section sees me fall *BOOM* not once but *BOOM* twice.  Luckily, I’m alone and my embarrassment is limited to just me and Mother Nature, who graciously covers me with mud and dirt upon each trip.

After collecting myself, I reach one of the rare exposed sections of the course, close to a lake, and suddenly I’m choking on a swarm of bugs.

What the — … are these gnats or… midges or…. what the hell are these things?!?

Whatever they are, they swarm in bunches and attack from out of nowhere.  While some of them kamikaze into my sweaty torso, the majority decide to invade my eyes, ears and mouth.

AGGHH!  *Coughing*

I look behind me and see another runner falling victim to the same insect army.

Nasty, eh?

Disgusting, he says.  He has a very pleasant sounding British accent, and he’s running faster than I am, so I move out of the way and let him lead.

His name is Mark.  He’s from Evanston via Cambridge, England.  I recognize him from some earlier banter, back when I was running with Geoff.  We were talking about beer.

Though it’s quite early, we pick up our beer conversation in anticipation of the finish line refreshment and share some stories of races past.  Along the way, we pick up another runner, one donning a Marathon Maniacs singlet, whom I sheepishly anoint as “Maniac”.  Turns out his real name is Steve.

For the next 10-20 miles, I will spend a lot of time with Mark and Steve, ebbing and flowing according to the terrain.

That’s Mark there in front, leading me out of the forest, towards Highway 12.

Miles 17-30

Shortly after we depart the Highway 12 aid station at approximately 17.3 miles, I trip and fall AGAIN, this time breaking the strap on my water bottle.

Well, shit.

I don’t have a backup strap either.  Damn it!  But… wait… I do have… duct tape!  It’s in my gear bag that Dad is hauling around, and if anyone can create something functional out of duct tape, it’s my father.  He’s been doing it my whole life.

I will see him in 5 miles or so.  I can hold on to this thing the old fashioned way until then.  I hope.

BOOM.  I trip again.  What the FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!

Pick up yer damn feet, Forest! I tell myself.  I can’t go a week of running in my neighborhood without some jackass yelling Run, Forest, Run! at me through his car window, so when I do something stupid I like to call myself Forest.  And today, Forest is falling all over his face.

BUT I’M STILL HAVING FUUUUUN! says Forest, er… I mean, me.

Here is where time sorta stops and I don’t know what’s happening where.  I know that my right IT band is aching.  And that has NEVER happened before.  On the uphill power hikes, when I have a chance, I stop and knead my knuckles into the band as hard as I can.  This relieves whatever pressure is building up, but my hand can’t keep up with the tightness and the lateral portion of my right knee begins to ache.  I know this is not good but I ain’t stoppin’ so I’ll just deal with it later.

Luckily, there are a lot of out-and-back sections in this race so there is a constant flow of traffic coming from the other direction.  At first it’s the leaders — whom I can’t help but stop and watch with complete awe.  Such form!  Such ease!  And then I’m on the other side, high-fiving those who are behind me.

Perhaps this is why everyone says the Ice Age Trail 50 is so special.  Hell, I know at least 50 people who are running this thing, and each time I see their smiling, suffering faces, I get a HUGE energy boost.  Pushing my limits is fun enough on its own I guess, but when it involves the type of camaraderie and support inherent in the ultrarunning community, it’s just like a big old party.  Instead of boozing, we’re running.  That’s all.

I try to use that energy in hammering the downhills, but eventually, all that force causes my right knee to ache, so I begin to take it easy on the downs.  This is probably a good thing, because now I’m starting to feel pretty tired.  Not wasted, just tired, as expected.  I look down at my watch to see 4 hours and 10 minutes have gone by and I’m only at 24.2 miles.

Can I sustain this pace for another marathon?  Will my knee hold up?  How many more times am I going to trip and fall?  Can I even feel my right toe anymore?

Before I can answer these questions I’m at another aid station, instructing Dad to rig me a duct tape bottle handle — a task he gleefully accepts.  I reload on GUs (even though I’m getting sick of them now), suck on some orange slices and I’m back on the trail.

Sticking with Mark and Steve, back and forth, all this time and finally I fall back.  I’m starting to feel more and more gassed.  The sun is busting out.  Mark takes off, Steve is right behind him, but I gotta slow down for a minute.

Zone out.  Just keep moving.  Don’t think too much.

I get to the shoulder of Duffin Road, 30.2 miles in the bag, and I see Dad.

VAS! I yell.

What? he says.

VAS!  I need VAS.

What!?!?

VASELINE, yells the crowd of other crew members, spectators and volunteers.  In unison.

I didn’t realize it until just now but I need some lubrication down in the nether regions and this aid station couldn’t have come at a better time.  In true trail runner form, I dip my hand in the jar, pull out of big glob and then immediately stick my hand down my shorts.  Apparently, I don’t mind an audience.

I’m starting to get hot, I tell Dad.  I don’t feel too good.  He douses me with ice water, dumps ice cubes in my bottle — a bottle that NOW has a nice, new and STRONG duct tape strap, (good work, Dad!) — and asks if I need anything else.

Salt.  I need salt.

He hurries to grab some salt tablets out of my bag and he kindly puts them in a plastic baggie for me to take.  My old man has always been there for me, and I know he always has my back, but in this instance, watching him run around all over this forest preserve, jumping into quick action at my slightest command, to help me, is quite a comforting feeling.  I know he’d like to be out there adventuring himself, and that crewing can be a drag sometimes, but more than anything, he is here for me.  I am not alone.

He believes in me.

You’re doing great, Jeff.  Keep going.  Just keep going, he says.

Miles 30-40

Still plodding away.

I catch up to Steve again.

Mark took off, he says.  Just flew.  Had a lot of energy left.

Not me, man.  I’m starting to feel tired, I admitted.

Me too.

Steve and I share the trail.  We talk about races we’ve run, races we want to run.  We keep each other going.

I see a bunch of folks coming on from the opposite direction again and the salutations, while maybe a bit quieter than they were during the first half, still serve as pleasant boosts of mental energy.  I say “mental”, because that’s what is taking over now.  My mind has to control everything from here on out because my body is starting to revolt.

Eventually Steve starts to fade, but I keep trucking.

BOOM.  I trip and fall.  Again.

Fuck you, earth.  Fuck you.  Then I look and see that the duct tape water bottle strap did not break.  Alas, duct tape is better than anything I could buy in a running store!  I’m sorry, earth.  I didn’t mean to say ‘fuck you’.  I love you.  Seriously. I really do.

I get back up.  Keep on moving.

Miles 40-48

I’m still surrounded by lush, green canopy, but I hear traffic.  And voices.  And…  a cowbell!

I come out of the forest and realize I am at Emma Carlin, aid station 10, and I’ve run 40.2 miles so far.  Holy shit.  40.2 miles.

Dad is waving his arms, yelling my name, and with all these people watching me run in I suddenly feel the urge to pick up the pace and at least LOOK strong, even if I don’t feel it.

40 miles already, Jeff!  Dang.  Just think how much you’ve done. You’ve never gone that far before, says Dad.

I think I wanna be done now.

Nooo, you’re doing good.  Just keep going.

Just keep going.  Just keep moving.  Just put one foot in front of the other.

What time is it? I ask.

One thirty, someone says.

I want it to be beer thirty, I say.  Everyone within ear shot chuckles.  I smile too.  Dad tries to hand me GUs but I’ll puke if I eat another so I go for the orange slices instead.  Also, some Coke, some water, some whatever… I don’t know, I’m tired and I’m pretty sure I smell worse than I ever have before and I’m globbing Vaseline all over my balls and I had some bugs for lunch and… wha… huh…

This is the last time I’ll see Dad before I make it to the finish line, so I give him a big hug and thank him for his help.

I honestly feel like shit right now.  Just completely zapped of energy.  I went too fast in the middle sections and now my unseasoned body is paying for it.  But there’s a huge crowd here at Emma Carlin and I won’t be out of their sight as I run away for a good quarter mile so I’m gonna bust it outta here and will myself to finish strong.

Zoom.

Off I go… 10 minute pace, 9 minute pace, 8 minute pace!  I look at my watch and see I can finish under 9 hours if I just stay strong and steady.

But where will the energy come from? I ask myself.  Don’t worry, I answer myself.  Just keep moving.

And then, SNAP, THWACK, BOOM.

I’m on the ground.  Again.  Face down.

I hear the Inception soundtrack as I look at the deceivingly beautiful rocks and roots responsible for slamming me to the ground.  I roll over, slowly, and gaze up at the light peaking through the gargantuan canopy.  I’m tired.  I’m so, so tired.

SO WHAT. GET UP.

I’m achy.  So, so achy.

SO WHAT. GET. UP.

I want to be in bed, under the covers, with the lights off.

GET.

UP.

NOW.

I get up.  I put one foot in front of the other.  I tell myself I can walk all the hills, but I have to run — or at least try to run — the remaining flats and downs.

I reach an oasis at Horseriders, the 43.3 mile mark and I see some friendly faces (Brian, Kelly, Geoff and Paige).  Their encouragement gives me an extra boost.  But I got 6.7 miles to go and I think I wanna die so I’m not sure how much the boost will last.

As quickly as I was surrounded by a swarm of people, I’m just as quickly all by myself.  I come to a series of big hills — DO THESE HILLS EVER FRIGGIN’ STOP??? — and before I can power hike (can we even call it that at this point? more like anti-power crawl) up the dang thing I actually have to come to a complete stop, take a few deep breaths, then psyche myself into moving further along.

People start to pass me.  I’m wavin’ ’em through.  They’re saying “good work” and “dig deep” and “stay strong” but they’re all full of shit.  I look terrible.  I feel terrible.  I’m slow and I’m basically crippled.  I can’t feel my right big toe.  My IT band and knee still ache but I can hardly tell because I’ve fallen so many times that all the scrapes and bruises are beginning to take precedent.

BUT I SIGNED UP FOR THIS.

A guy passes me, moving pretty swiftly.  As he darts by I throw out an invisible lasso, hook him around the waist and let him pull me.  My feet are moving along quite nicely (considering) for a good bit so the invisible lasso works.  Eventually another dude flies by.  I lasso him too and let him carry me for a few hundred yards until the invisible rope breaks, just as I break myself.

I hear Jimmy Buffett off in the distance.  I lasso that motherfucker and let him bring me in.  Maybe he has margaritas.

If he does, I don’t see them.  I don’t ask either, for fear they might actually have them.  The thought of putting anything in my mouth (liquid or otherwise) absolutely disgusts me at this point.  I feel kind of sick.  Dizzy.  Am I gonna throw up?  I try, but I can’t.

My only option is to just go finish this thing.  At least I’m only 1.5 miles from the finish, right?   Nope.  Someone tells me I’m still 2.5 miles from the finish.  Oh well.  I don’t know what to believe anymore.  All I believe is I’m broken.

I leave the aid station and find myself alone again.  I’m shuffling now.

And then, I start to cry.  Like a big baby.

WHY!?!

I have no idea why.  Maybe it’s because it has taken me about an hour to go these last 4 miles.  Maybe it’s because my body aches and wants to sit in a pool.  Maybe it’s because I’m just not as tough as I think I am.

NO, YOU DUMMY. IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE PUSHING YOURSELF. YOU’RE BREAKING THROUGH. YOU’RE REALLY DOING THIS.

Really?  I’m really doing this?

I’m really doing this!

I wipe the tears away, dust myself off and put one foot in front of the other as fast as I can.

– – –

Miles 48-50

Jeff!!! someone shouts from behind.

*CUE THE HALLELUJAH ANGEL CHOIR, BITCHES, CUZ I’M ABOUT TO GET ALL VERKLEMPT*

Behind me is my buddy, Siamak.  He’s in my running club and we’ve spent most Wednesday nights since January running together.  He looks strong.  He looks fresh.  And most importantly, he’s wearing a big old smile on his face.

Siamak, man… oh, god, I… I’m not doin’ so good… I…

Come on, bro, run it in with me.  You got this.  Let’s go in together.

I pick up the pace to match his, which is much faster than what I was going.  I search my brain for something to say.  I’m searching hard, but I have that Microsoft hourglass of death spinning relentlessly and I don’t know what to say.  I felt so small just now, like a burned up piece of space junk ready to disintegrate into the atmosphere, and then Siamak came along and now… now everything is okay and I’m gonna finish this race and my dad’s gonna be there and all my friends and I’ve worked so hard and…

I’m crying again.

I’m sorry, man… I don’ know why… I don’t know why I’m so emotional right now.

Hey, it happens.  To a lot of people. 

I look at him and he’s all there.  Has his wits.  His legs.  Dude, if you want to go ahead of me, don’t let me hold you back —

Nah, let’s do this together.

Time.  There is no time.  This moment, right now, even with these last few hills to climb and these last few meters to run, this moment, it will always live.  It will always be.

Here on Saturday, May 12, 2012, I woke up with the goal of running 50 miles — FIFTY FRIGGIN’ MILES — and I sure as hell am about to reach that goal.

I made some mistakes.  Yes.  I fell flat on my face.  I also marveled at nature’s endless beauty while getting to play in the most gorgeous of forests for hours on end.  I had a ton of  laughs, a bunch of real conversations with real, fascinating, INTERESTING people.  And I had an endless amount of support, from my family, from my friends.

But right now, it’s just Siamak and I.  And the finish line.

Smile, he says, you’ll feel better.

I do.  He is right.

We end our journeys together.  9 hours, 38 minutes.  I collapse into my Dad’s arms.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt happier.

Post Race

Man, we had a blast.  I had at least six beers, got to catch up with Steve and Mark.  I talked to everyone who would talk to me.  I cheered on all my other buddies coming through the finish line in style.  It was such a fantastic day — a day that I will never forget, ever.

And, despite all the pain and suffering I experienced in the last 10 miles, my body is recovering nicely.  I promised myself I would take a week off.  But, once an ultrarunner, always an ultrarunner.

The next target race?  The Howl at the Moon 8 Hour Ultra in August.  It’s gonna be hot, humid and downright nasty as I try to run as many miles as I can in an 8-hour period on a 3.2 mile loop course.

The more I run, the harder I push and the further I go, I learn just what kind of man I really am.  And I’ll tell ya what: I’m a damn happy one.


A Big Giddy Bag of Playful Nerves

Since my last long training run nine days ago, I’ve really been taking it easy, which has made tapering for the Ice Age Trail 50… well, EASY!

Having made overtraining mistakes in the past that left me feeling as stupid as I was hobbled, I made it a point to stay focused this time.

The most important thing about last week was preventing a nagging/weakened plantaris from getting worse by… just chilling out.  As hard as it was on my psyche, I only ran three times last week: 10 miles on Wednesday, 12 on Saturday and 4 on Sunday.

And today, as I try to juggle the constant, vivid daydreams about Saturday’s upcoming 50 mile adventure with the actual preparation (gear, nutrition, instructions for crew), my body is thanking me for all the rest.  For the first time since Earth Day, my right leg feels pretty strong.  The plantaris strain has healed enough so that it isn’t painful.  There are still some occasional signs that it is weaker than my right, but such orthopedic mysteries seem to always pop up for me during race week.

What matters the most is I’m gonna be good to run on Saturday.

For a long ass time too.

Since this will be my first dance with the 50 mile distance, I’m going to be conservative.  I don’t want to screw anything up.  My goal is to finish.  That’s it.  I won’t be racing or killing myself to stay with the lead pack.  Having never run more than 32 miles at one time, I will be entering the unknown for at least 2-3 hours at the end of the day, and I can’t tell you how excited I am about that.

Hell, I’m just excited about everything associated with this event!  I’m ecstatic that this is all finally happening!  Finally!  The day I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year now is finally going to be here.  And while the race week nerves try to flip my stomach, an actual flip through my training log reassures me that I already DID all the hard work necessary to finish this thing strong, to accomplish what I set out to do.

And isn’t that what all this crazy running is about?  Isn’t it about accomplishment?  Isn’t it about surprising yourself?  Isn’t it about nature and about community and about love?

Hell yes it is.

I can’t wait to share my experience!


26.2 Miles of People Watching: The 2012 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon Race Report

When I planned my 2012 race schedule, I made it a point to give myself a cookie — a nice, long, running cookie.  On pavement!

Hello, Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon!

With two weeks to go until my spring target race, the Ice Age Trail 50 Miler, the Derby Marathon would be my first crack at running a road marathon as a training run: a super-exciting, fully supported, training run!  Having run the Derby Mini the year before with my brother-in-law, Patrick, I was quite familiar with the first 8 miles of the course, and I knew that the easy terrain and jubilant crowd support would make for a fantastic final long run before beginning my taper.

It did not disappoint.

I took off work Friday.  Early in the morning, I drove down to my sister’s place in Jeffersonville, IN, just across the bridge from Louisville.  That afternoon, Patrick and I picked up our race packets (he ran the mini), had a pasta dinner and were in bed by 9:30 p.m.  I slept fairly well, but I couldn’t shake all of my nervousness left over from the proceeding week.

After my hard effort last Sunday at the Earth Day 50K, I felt some ominous muscular oddities in my plantaris, behind my right knee.  Thinking it was something I could run off, I ended up aggravating it on Tuesday during a short recovery jog and decided that the best thing to do was to rest it completely.  This was not easy for me to do.  I’ve been averaging 60-70 miles a week, so to take it down so dramatically so quickly left me stewing.  BUT, part of being a running fiend is listening to your body — backing off when necessary, keeping things in perspective.  By Friday night, my plantaris felt about 85%.  I went to bed thinking I would at least start the race, but I had to make peace with the idea that if it became painful, I might have to drop.  Nothing could be worse than losing out to Ice Age because of an injury I could have prevented, I repeated to myself, as if counting sheep.

When I awoke at 5 a.m., my feet hit the ground and… VOILA!  No plantaris pain.  Some light, eccentric stretching confirmed such a miracle.  I ate some breakfast, lubed and laced up, and by 6:15 Patrick and I were out the door.

We parked at his office building across from the Yum Center, gave each other some encouraging words and then I left him to meet fellow Chicago running blogger, Dan Solera.  Dan is not only a good writer, but a great runner as well!  He is currently tackling the task of running a half-marathon in all 50 states and boy did he do something special in Louisville!  Check out his blog for the details.

I entered my corral and reminded myself of the following:

  • You’re not racing. Period. Don’t even try it.
  • Respect the distance. You may consider yourself an ultrarunner, but 26.2 is 26.2 and that shit ain’t easy. Ever. So don’t treat it as such.
  • Stop if you feel like it. Talk to people if you feel like it. This is your chance to do the things you always wished you could do during a marathon.
  • Smile at everyone you meet along the way.
  • If you feel any pain (not to be confused with discomfort, ‘cuz ain’t no marathon run without discomfort), drop. Immediately.
  • HAVE FUN, YA DINGUS!

And we’re off!

The first few miles were pretty fun, I gotta admit.  Usually, this is not the case in a mega-race, but since I wasn’t watching my splits, I found it quite pleasant to just look around and soak up all the excitement of plodding away with 17,999 other people.  To an implanted, intentional observer, the start of a race is a fascinating mural of motion.  And since the half-marathoners and marathoners run the first 8.5 miles together, this was even more the case.  Runners of all abilities were jammed together, bumping elbows, lining up the tangents, gesturing and surging for position.

The Derby Marathon course if pretty flat.  The Mini is completely flat.  So I wasn’t even thinking about hills until mile 14 or so.  Instead, I marveled at the perfect weather (mid 50s with sunshine) and waited for the Churchill Downs section at mile 8, my favorite part of the course.

I already knew it was my favorite part from running the Mini last year.  So when I entered those hallowed grounds again I slowed a bit and took in the sights.  I even stopped and jogged backwards on the way out so I could have as much of it in my memory as possible.  My only disappointment was that this year they didn’t have the loudspeakers playing archived Derby broadcasts like they did before.  Hearing those speedy calls of the fastest two minutes in sports really gave me a mental boost last year, but in 2012 I’d have to do without.

When we exited the track, it wasn’t long before the marathoners split off from the half-marathoners.  And then…

SILENCE.

Is anyone else running the full marathon? I asked myself as I turned right on to an empty street, seemingly by myself.  Up ahead were a few runners.  I looked behind and a woman said to me: Wow, that’s depressing, isn’t it?

Yeah.  I guess we’re on our own until the very end now, I replied.

I actually meant that I’d rather be running with them.

Not me, I said. I live for the long stuff.

She was right though.  It was a bit depressing.  For the rest of the race the crowd support would be sparse.  The silence continuous.  And just because I was taking my sweet-ass time, soaking in the experience, didn’t mean that my fellow runners were.  On the contrary, they were working hard.  Instead of engaging in conversation, I embraced the role of quiet observer.  I stared at a lot of calves and read the backs of many a tech-tee.

Meanwhile, as we entered Iroquois Park for the first of several gentle climbs, I noticed that my right calf was suffering from a deliberate forefoot strike, presumably from the weakened plantaris and extra days off.  I stopped several times to stretch it, checking in with the plantaris itself, but none of that really helped.  I was forced to alter into a midfoot strike, which meant as I tired, I would probably begin to land on my heels, which meant I’d most likely be doing the Frankenstein walk on Sunday, but that’s how it goes.  At least I was still running.  Pain free!

My recent ultratraining made the hills seem easy.  I encouraged others up the climbs, even leading a peloton of sorts for most of it.  Despite the camaraderie, part of me wanted to break off from the road and go discover whatever trails existed behind the beautiful green forest.  But just as soon as I my mind wondered about what was in there, we were descending out of the park and back onto the flats.

When I hit the 16 mile mark, I felt quite good.  Other than my right calf, nothing ached.  Nothing was debilitating.  There was no pain.  I thought to myself, just an easy 10 miler with my Wednesday night running buddies now.  I started to think about those guys and what they might be doing.  The Illinois Marathon.  Horseriders 27 Mile Club Run.  The Kettle Moraine Trainer.  I’ll see y’all on Wednesday, I thought.  Can’t wait!

By the 20 mile mark I reflected on how awesome it was to not be a part of the marathon carnage for once.  All around me people looked rough.  Cramping.  Spasms.  Dehydration.  That’s what happens when you give it your all in the mother of all race distances.  Hell, it KILLED Pheidippides!

I wanted to help.  I wanted to say Dig Deep and Lookin’ Good and Almost There to those who looked liked they needed it, but then I remembered how much I hated hearing that shit myself when feeling bad, so I just kept my mouth shut and respected the process.

When I got just past the 22 mile mark, the terrain shifted from flat and fast to mountainous and slow.  Of course, describing the elevation spikes as “mountainous” is more hyperbolic than truthful, but believe me: after running on road for that long, any climb is gonna look like Everest.  I ran the hills, but I ran them slowly.  And I didn’t fly down them like I normally do.  I kept myself in check, as I had been doing the entire race, and all I could think about with a mile to go was….. BEER.

So, I thought, let’s go get that beer sooner rather than later.  And I took off.

With a half mile left I looked down to see I was running 6:30 pace and decided to keep it right there.  The few spectators strewn about cheered me on and I gave ’em a show. 

Where is everybody? I thought as I passed the 26 mile marker sign.  There should be crowds galore at the finish.

Then I made the right turn onto Preston Street, reuniting with the mini-runners, and realized that’s where they all were.  With a boosting roar of the crowd I turned on the afterburners and shot through the finish with a time of 3:43:25, almost an entire half hour slower than my current PR.

I did it right.  And had blast.

I got my medal, grabbed a banana and headed straight for the beer tent.

***

My only complaint (other than the absence of the Derby broadcast at Churchill Downs) is that for the first half of the marathon, not all of the aid stations were stocked with sports drink.  In my opinion, that is ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE.  It may be okay for a half-marathon, but in a full marathon, it is WISE to be drinking sports drink from the very beginning, to help defend against hyponatremia.  Had the temperature been warmer, this could have made for a very dangerous situation and race officials would be wise to address this danger for future events.

Also, it would’ve been nice to have crowd support for the full marathon like they do the half, but in my experience, this is commonplace in races that combine the two.