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Golden Hour Dreams (or Nightmares): The 2017 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run Race Report

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A LONG TIME AGO…

Before I had even run a full marathon, I was a bona fide Western States aficionado. It was the summer of 2010, and having drastically changed my life (and appearance) by quitting smoking, exercising and eating right, I was training for my first half-marathon. On a run one day my mind got to thinking…

13.1 miles seems like a lot… but 26.2 miles seems like a lot more. I wonder if anyone has ever run more than a marathon. Nah… that’s crazy. No one could do that. Right?

I didn’t know. So I did what I often do in times of uncertainty: I summoned the Google oracle.

“Does anyone run more than a marathon?” I typed.

“ULTRAMARATHON MAN by DEAN KARNAZES” was the result: a book on running crazy distances just because.

BOOM. I bought it.

A few days later, I read it.

And I fell in love. I fell in love with the idea of running and running and running just to see what I might be made of. Dean went into great detail about an insane-sounding race in the Sierra Nevadas called the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It championed self-discovery through physicality. It was described as a relentless test of the human spirit — an unprecedented ceremony of lunacy were participants run 100 miles up and over mountains and through valleys while suffering temperatures ranging from 20-110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Some day… I am going to do THAT, I thought to myself.

I had no idea. It sounds silly now, mostly because I had very little experience distance running outside of the few months I had dedicated to training for a half marathon. But at the time I was desperately searching for meaning in my life. I didn’t know who I was or who I was becoming, but in reading Dean’s book I came away with the idea that the deep pains in my heart might find release if only I could somehow find a way to push past physical pain and let my feet discover worlds on their own, without limits.

FAST FORWARD TO DECEMBER 2016

Six years later and now a cagey veteran of countless ultra events (from 50ks to 50 milers to 100 milers), all of that time and dedication wandering in the woods with missing toenails finally paid off. After four years of trying with no success, the Western States running gods chose MY name out of the lottery and suddenly I am going to the big dance.

BOO YA!

BUT WHAT IS THE WESTERN STATES 100-MILE ENDURANCE RUN?

For those who aren’t ultra nerds, think of Western States as the Super Bowl of ultrarunning — the Cadillac of 100-mile running events. It’s Christmas morning for distance junkees. Steak and lobster for gluttons for punishment.

It’s also every expensive — not just the entry fee, but also the transportation, the lodging, the rental car, the crew accommodations, the supplies, the gear the food the blah blah blaaaaaaaahhhhhhh… I knew that if I got in I’d have to run it, conquer it and be satisfied that it would most likely be my one and only shot in this life.

Serious shit.

Back in 2013, I was lucky enough to be the pacer for a good friend of mine, Siamak Mostoufi in his mission to complete the Western States 100. I had a front row seat to magic that only kindled the fire of my dreams. Thereafter I patiently qualified, year after year, until I could finally get my opportunity at doing what most ultrarunners dream of doing.

When they called my name in the December 2016 lottery I told my wife, “We’re in!”

And we were in. No turning back.

THE CREW

In 100-mile races, it is quite common to have “crews”. A crew is an individual or group of individuals who help the runner (AHEM — crazy person) during the race by offering specific aid at various checkpoints throughout. Each runner/crew is unique, so their responsibilities may vary, but usually they center around providing food, drink, gear, clothing and moral support. Oftentimes a pacer is designated — someone who runs along with the runner through the second half of the race for safety reasons, pushing the runner to do his/her best when it might otherwise seem impossible.

I had a crew for my first 100-mile race, the Pinhoti 100 back in 2014. It was my dad (Mike); my buddy, Siamak; and my then-girlfriend now-wife, Edna.

For a trip as epic as the 2017 Western States, I had to get the band back together again. So we did!

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BAM. Good lookin’ group.

For this race their duties are:

Siamak – Crew Chief/Navigator
Dad – Driver/Head Cheerleader
Edna – Pacer/Love-of-my-life

Damn, I am in good hands.

JANUARY 1 2017 TO JUNE 23 2017

Life. Oh man, life.

Good things. Bad things. In-the-middle things.

Unpredictability. Yep, that’s about right.

Training? Yes, TRAINING!

I am a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, so I always stay in shape. I run. I box. I run short races. I spar. I run long races. I fight.

I lead aerobics classes. I hold focus mitts. I jump up and down in homage to Richard Simmons and I try to get folks excited about being healthy.

It’s good all-around training.

But it ain’t no mountains, man.

Western States is tough for a number of reasons, but it’s super tough for flatlanders like me because specificity training is impossible outside of traveling to a mountain somewhere — something that definitely isn’t in my budget.

Luckily my brain already knows what it’s like to suffer through 100 miles on foot. Did it at Pinhoti (2014), Hallucination (2015) and Mohican (2016).

In this sport, the brain trumps all.

RACE DAY – JUNE 24, 2017 – 5 A.M.

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Six months of preparation, positivism, nerves, nightmares, doubt, determination and DREAMS now come down to this: me against the Sierra Nevada, me against the canyons, me against the clock.

In our meetings last night and leading up to this I have been adamant to my crew that my only goal is to finish this race under the 30-hour time limit. I don’t care if I’m dead-fucking-last, just let me finish before they stop the clock.

This game plan seems particularly appropriate considering the conditions this year. Record snowfall in Squaw Valley has left a blanket of white on the first 15 miles of the course, something that will be difficult to navigate while either climbing or descending. Then, once we get past the high country, we will be in for heat in the mid to high 90s.

Yay.

3… 2… 1…

WE’RE OFF!

I’m doing this… I’m running Western States… I’M REALLY RUNNING WESTERN STATES!!!!

And now I’m walking Western States.

The race starts out with a few seconds of flat… followed by four miles and 2100 feet of  straight up climbing. I am walking this.

And I’m walking… and walking.

Walking!

I pay little attention to the fact I am at the very back — that there’s only 7 or 8 people behind me… out of 369!

Man, come on, grandpa! You gonna go this slow the whole way? I ask myself.

Taketh what the course giveth, man.

I’m working hard just to keep this steady uphill pace. I can’t concern myself with what everyone else is doing. If I’m slow, I’m slow. It’s going to be a long day no matter what. Better to not burn out before I’ve even gotten started.

So on I labor.

It’s not long before we’re in snow. Going up. Slipping. Sliding. Climbing. Struggling.

At the top of the escarpment I take in the view, then start to navigate down. Slipping. Sliding. Struggling.

I’m mostly going downhill now, but there’s little to no running happening. Every time I try to jog down I end up on my ass. My hands are already scratched and numb from multiple falls on the crunchy snow and now I’m just trying to stay on my feet.

It’s early, but already I can feel the stress and strain in my legs.

Staying upright is tough, man!

Time is not my friend right now. I look down at my watch and know I am in trouble. ALREADY! It’s been three hours and I still haven’t made it to the first aid station.

Don’t panic. Not yet. Just keep your ass moving.

Slipping, sliding, struggling.

3 hours and 8 minutes after the gun went off, I finally arrive at Lyon Ridge, mile 10.3.

Get that? 10.3. It took me 3 hours and 8 minutes to go just 10.3 miles! I’ve run marathons faster than that! What the hell!?!?

And oh look, the cutoff of for this aid station is 10:00 a.m. The average time for a 30-hour runner to reach this station is 7:40 a.m., putting me 30 minutes behind right off the bat. I ain’t got no time to stay here. RUN, FOREST, RUN!

I fill my bottles and go. SCARED.

Running scared, running scared, running scared.

A few ups, a few downs, a few face plants, and now… MUD. Why not?

What the hell… mud… and muck and snow and mud. I keep moving the best I can. There aren’t many people behind me. I’m at the back. Every time I look behind, I see panic on peoples’ faces. Gotta stop doing that. Gotta stop doing that myself.

DON’T PANIC. NOT YET.

Okay, one foot in front of the other and we’ll get through this.

I think.

I reach a mud bog — the sort of thing that ate Artax in The Neverending Story and makes me cry every time I see it. Still.

Left foot goes in. Right foot goes in. Left foot comes out. Right foot comes out… but without a shoe.

FUUUUUUUUUCCCK.

Right foot goes back in, shoeless… and now I’m digging through the mud elbow deep looking for my shoe.

I find it, pull it out and shun the Western States gods because now it is chock full of mud and a bazillion tiny rocks, same as my shoeless foot.

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P-A-N-I-C.

How am I going to go on now?

I slip the shoe back on and feel every single stone. I hobble over to a large rock, sit my already-tired ass down and assess the situation:

Okay, my right foot and shoe are caked in mud/rocks/grit/evil. I have water. I have water in my bottle. Yes…

I rinse my foot and sock off with the water, getting rid of most of the adhered stones. I rinse out my shoe the same way, taking the insole out and squirting it down with everything I have. I get as many of the rocks out as I can, slide the insole back in, shove the shoe on my foot and GET MY ASS BACK ON THE TRAIL.

Now I’m really behind the clock.

Gotta go! Wish I could! This shit is hard!

I get to an aid station but blow through it not knowing where I am. I go a ways and get to another one. Is this the second? Or third? Where am I? The only thing I saw going through was the cut-off time I’m just barely ahead of it so move, move, move!

I’m running scared. Keep moving. I try to eat but can’t. That’s not good. Usually I can eat anything in an ultra. Right now the thought makes me nauseous. I suck down some gels I’m carrying. I can drink, so I do that.

I traipse down a long descent and finally reach the bottom. It feels different here though. I start my way up, up and up… and now… now I know what’s different: IT’S FRIGGIN’ HOT, MAN.

I climb. And climb. And CLIMB. I’m getting tired. I’ve BEEN tired.

Minutes go by. Lots of them. I forget where I am. Am I at mile 20? 25? I’m all alone. No one around me. It’s just me and this heat and this trail and these trees and I’m hot and my heart rate is soaring and I feel like I’m gonna be sick.

I stop.

Throw up, man. You’ll feel better, I tell myself. But I can’t.

Some deep, steady breaths calm me some, but I’m struggling. Gotta keep moving. I do the best I can.

But now my mind wanders…

I’m not gonna make it. It’s almost 2 o’clock and I haven’t even made it to Duncan Canyon yet… right? Wait, where am I? Am I close to Robinson Flat or do I still have a ways to go? I’m confused. And tired. And sore. ALREADY.

This is too much for me. What am I going to say to my crew? To my students back home? To my wife?

And here I am: STILL climbing. Good grief. This is so dumb.

“Mi amor!!” I hear.

“Mi amor?!?” I yell back, delirious. “Mi amor, is that you?”

“Sí, Papi! Good job! Te amo, mi amor!”

It’s Edna! My wife! My beautiful Mexican wife!

If she is here then… that means I must be at… Robinson Flat! Mile 30! And it’s 1:35 p.m. so I’m not out of the race yet! I’m alive!

Good grief, I’m aliiiiiiiiiiiiiive!!

“Mi amor,” I say cresting the climb, falling into her arms… “Estoy jodido… I’m suffering. I don’t know… I’m just…”

She stops me: “What do you need? You want food? Ice?”

“Ice, yes. Food… I can’t eat. I need gels. Please. And Coke. I can drink Coke.”

She kisses me then runs off ahead to where Dad and Siamak are waiting with supplies. I can’t help but smile thinking I really won the wife lottery by getting her. I love her, man. I really do.

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I stumble into the aid station and get can of Coke. They top off my bottles with ice water and as I move forward I see Dad and Siamak with my buff full of ice, ready to go.

“I’m messed up, man,” I tell Siamak delirious. “The climbing. It’s a lot. I’m shot. My feet. I can’t eat. Just fruit and water and soda really.”

19437262_10155312003217778_5405249679290971051_n“You just got out of a tough climb to get here,” he replies.

“If somehow I survive this, I mean, looking at the time, if I can keep in the race, I don’t think I’ll make it to Michigan Bluff before 8:30 p.m. See if Edna can be ready to pace by then. I will need her.”

“I got you, man. Don’t worry.” he says.

“The next part is going to be easier, mi amor,” says my wife running back towards me.

“Really?” I perk up, chugging Coke. *BELCH*

“Yeah, a little climb then some downhill to the next station,” says Siamak. “It’s going to get hotter and hotter so stay wet. Keep this buff full of ice from here on out.”

I say goodbye. It’s 1:40 p.m. and I don’t have much time. Twenty minutes before they close this station. FUUUUUCK.

Gotta move. Gotta move.

“You can do it, mi amor. You are strong. I know you can.” She stays with me for a bit, shoves gels in my pack and kisses me goodbye.

If she thinks I can do it, damnit, maybe I CAN do it. Let’s go!

*BELCH*

What happens next is pretty wild:

I… AM… RUNNING!!!

Iced down… re-fueled… having seen my wife… I am a new man. And I start to pick up the pace, running hard on the downs, power-hiking like a champ on the ups and pumping my arms hard so my legs will follow on the rare flat.

Miller’s Defeat (mile 34.4), Dusty Corners (mile 38), Last Chance (mile 43.3). I’m rocking it now. How? Ice, maybe. Drinking Coke and eating *BELCH* watermelon? I don’t know. My wife said I could do it so I better prove her right.

I leave Last Chance and cascade down to the bottom of the hot canyon knowing that the hardest climb of the day is coming up. There’s a creek at the bottom of the descent, and when I get there it looks like Hot Tub Time Machine because there’s four people sitting in it, including me. Unlike a hot tub, this water is COLD and REFRESHING and JUST WHAT I NEED before attempting the long, arduous climb up Devil’s Thumb.

The water brings my core temperature down and numbs my beaten feet. I take off up the climb, keeping my head down, trying not to count any of the 36 switchbacks that make up Devil’s Thumb.

It’s slow. But steady. I just power through. Every once in a while I feel sick so I stop and breathe. And then get going again. It’s a bitch. But at least I’m getting through it.

Forever and a day later, I finally reach the top… and what do I find? CARNAGE.

Lots of folks here in chairs, beaten, puking, demoralized.

Not me. Can’t stay here. Gotta go. I got a date with my wife at Michigan Bluff and I gotta get there NOW.

I slam some Coke, eat some fruit and get on my way.

Down, down, down to El Dorado Creek (mile 52.9) only to go back up, up, up towards Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7).

As I get close, I hear people talking on the ridge above me and I know I’m almost to Edna so I just pump my arms like a champ to make myself move that much quicker. I take a quick assessment and know that if I have time I should try to change my socks here. Both my feet are on fire with blister hot spots and I fear the worst.

And then…

“MI AMOR!”

It’s Edna! And she’s ready to run! Yes!

“Mi amor! I’m so happy to see you!” I say.

“You did good, mi amor, going faster. You made good time. What do you need?”

“I need to change my socks and I need Ensure. I can’t eat anything but fruit and soda without feeling sick.”

“Okay, I will get it ready, then we will run together! Te amo, mi amor!”

Edna runs ahead and I see it’s 8:35 p.m. I’m 15 minutes ahead of 30-hour pace and an hour and ten minutes ahead of the cutoff.

Hallelujah. I might just fucking do this.

Rolling in to Michigan Bluff, I follow Edna’s voice as she leads me to Dad and Siamak where they have a camp chair ready along with a sock change and Ensure. For the first time all day long, I sit down. It feels good.

Don’t get comfortable though. Gotta keep moving.

Removing my socks I can now see that my feet are macerated and I know there’s no stopping the blisters now. We can only hope to contain them.

Gonna be a bit painful over the next 45 miles but if I finish it’ll be worth it so don’t cry over that now.

My crew has me in and out and on my way with my pacer, my love, my wife and for the first time in almost 16 hours I actually feel like I can do this.

Hell yeah.

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I spend the next two hours being Chatty Cathy, telling Edna every little detail leading up to where we are now. The high country. The snow. The mud suck. The climbs. The panic. The pain. The defeat. The descents. The joy. The return. The triumph. The love.

Being here. Right now.

Now is easy. I’m with my girl. I let her set the pace and all I have to do is follow.

It’s dark. We turn on our headlamps and slow ever so much as our vision narrows. Still, before I know it, we’re at Foresthill (mile 62) and Dad and Siamak are again there waiting for us.

We say hi and grab a Red Bull (I think) but we don’t stay long. Keenly aware of the clock, Edna has me in and out the station, making me run hard down to Cal-1 (mile 65.7), Cal-2 (mile 70.7) and Cal-3 (mile 73).

I’m doing relatively well (awake, alert, semi-stable), but on the steep drops the loose rock footing of the trail starts to have a negative effect on my knees (both stiff and achy) and feet (severely blistered, everywhere).

I start to let out little screams on the descents.

OUCH!

SHIT!

FUUUUUUUCK!!!

“I know, mi amor. Me too. Me too. Está bien, vámanos!”

Around 3 a.m. I start to get sleepy. Yawning. Belching still occasionally and then yawning and stumbling some more. Edna splits a 5-Hour Energy with me.

YEEEEEEE HAAAAAAAAA!

Back to life, right on down to the river.

We get to Rucky Chucky (mile 78) and Dad and Siamak, once again, are waiting for us handing out Ensures, ice and lots of encouragement.

We don’t stay long. Edna is adamant about getting in and out of aid stations. She did her homework and knows all the cut-off times. She is working hard to buy time so I can stay well ahead of that 30-hour mark. She is awesome.

We say goodbye to Dad and Siamak and, like we’d just went down the ultra rabbit hole, some volunteers put glow-in-the-dark necklaces around our necks and push us towards raft boats while saying “Welcome to the River Crossing!”

This is like Disneyland, I thought to myself. Ultra Disneyland. Why not.

We begin to cross the river in a raft with an Irishman (I remember because of the accent) and a few other crazy folks who thought running 100 miles in the Sierra Nevadas might be “fun”.

Hmmm. I like ultras. Mostly when I’m done running them. And I usually enjoy the first 10-20 miles before my legs go to shit… but to be honest, I haven’t “enjoyed” much of this race. It has been mostly suffering. Then again, suffering makes non-suffering WAY better than suffering…

“We’re here!” the boat captain says.

“Vamos, mi amor!”

“Ándale!”

We go. Sorta. We climb. Up to Green Gate. It’s a long climb and my sluggish legs and labored heart are starting to revolt.

I feel sick again. My heart rate soars. I have to stop and catch my breath several times.

“You can do it, mi amor!”

Okay, okay, okay… if you say so. I try. I do the best I can. We reach the top of Green Gate (mile 79.8) well ahead of the cut-off and even though my body is throbbing with question marks in the way of blisters, knee pain, busted toenails and aches, I start to feel like this is probably going to happen for me.

NOT YET! Don’t let your mind wander. Not yet. Stay focused. Anything can happen.

Indeed. Head down. Plug away.

“The sun will bring us back to life, mi amor,” says my wife, noting the chirping birds and squeaky rays of sun bursting through the trees. I know those same rays are going to scorch me as I try to get to the finish line but I welcome them anyway. I could use some pep in my step.

We get to Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2) and dig some Ensure and Red Bull out of our drop bag while a man dressed as a hot, mini-skirt clad nun fills my water bottles with ice water. I’m not sure if it’s really a man or really a nun or a woman or what but I’m laughing because it’s six in the morning and I’ve been running all night through the wilderness with my hot wife and some busted blistered feet so I don’t know I just ahhhhhhh what the hell go with it.

The Ensures are keeping me alive! Yay for dietary supplements for the elderly! My wife was SUPER SMART TO BRING THEM!

ALSO…. I like fruit!

And ice is cool, man!

Are we having fun yet?

It’s getting hot. Sun is coming out. Just following my wife now. Not saying much. Thinking less. My feet hurt. Fuck. Every step is a bomb in my shoe. Ugh.

We’re at Pointed Rocks (mile 94.3) and Dad and Siamak are there feeding me Ensure again, stuffing ice in my face and neck and BUUUUUUUUUUURN.

The ice is good but since I’ve been wet basically all day long; I am chafed all over, especially down there, so now I’m aware of that as well and oh yay isn’t this some kind of awesome party with genital chafing, blisters and rocks in your shoes? I must be a VIP.

But hey, I’m okay! I’m going to finish. I think! We’re 15 minutes ahead of 30-hour time and 45 minutes ahead of the cut-off so no matter what we gotta get going!!!

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“See you in Auburn!” I tell the crew as they we fly jog plod off.

Just six miles to go!!!

It hurts but we move anyway… racing that damn clock!

I LOVE MY WIFE! SHE IS AWESOME! I LOVE NATURE! IT IS AWESOME! I LOVE ENSURES! THEY ARE AWESOME!

We reach No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8) and stop only to be doused in ice water before we get right back to running. AND WE ARE RUNNING! High turnover! Get those legs moving. I gotta finish this shit!

SLAM! BAM! RAMA LAMA DING DONG!

I stub my right toe into a rock and the toenail gets flipped up, perpendicular to my toe! What the FRANKENSTEIN?!?!

AHHHHHHH! I scream. I stop and bend down and try to fix it but Edna’s says, “No, we have to keep moving, mi amor!”

“But it hurts! It hurts bad!”

“Ya sé, pero vámanos. It’s our last chance. We have to push. We can’t stop. Vámanos!”

Damn it, she’s right. Don’t cry. Suck it up, buttercup. Just another lost toenail.

imrs.phpWe keep running downhill and as we finally start our final big ascent up towards Robie Point I notice I have the Curt Schilling bloody sock thing going as blood soaks through to the top of my shoe. GNARLY!

Never mind, we gotta keep busting ass. Less than an hour before the finish line shuts down let’s get going!!!!

We climb up, up, up… “Welcome to Robie Point!” they say to cheers and claps and drums? And bells? And whistles?

Or is that just happening in my head?

Doesn’t matter. We’re almost done. We’re on blacktop now. Mile 98.9. People from the town of Auburn are out and cheering. They’re smiling. They’re making me feel like a million bucks.

The next several minutes are a blur until I see Siamak… he’s elated, jumping out of his skin.

“Man you kicked ass!” he says whipping out his phone, recording Edna and I as we enter the Placer High School track for the last 300 meters of this monster race.

We’re running. Floating. SOARing.

This is really happening. Now.

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From a depressed, overweight smoker who decided enough is enough… to a curious newly fit young adult who wondered if people could really run more than a marathon… to a seasoned ultra vet with one last wish to run the coveted Western States 100… alongside his hot wife for that matter… and now look… dreams are coming true.

Good grief I am in heaven.

Edna and I hold hands as we cross the finish line in 29 hours, 38 minutes, 45 seconds.

I kiss her and thank her and look for a Coke.

EPILOGUE

The 2017 Western States was a doozy, no doubt. The numbers prove that. Regardless of the conditions, I pictured myself as a Golden Hour finisher, and that’s exactly what we did. The Golden Hour refers to the last hour that participants have to finish the race; and this year there were two who just skated in, one with only 8 seconds to go.

Fucking magic, man.

But wait, there’s more:

I have a great Dad who went out of his way to help me and the crew. Not being able to get around real well himself, he sacrificed his body to make sure I got what I needed when I needed it. He was also the one driving everywhere, not easy in these remote areas. He’s been there for all the big events and for that I am truly grateful. Thanks, Baba!

Also, I want you to know that my buddy, Siamak is a champ! He is so smart and quick-thinking and calming. He was a great crew leader. He also took some great photos and videos — images I will cherish forever.

And did you know? My wife is the BEST! I love you, mi amor! Edna was such a great pacer. She ran 45 miles herself and never once complained about anything. She was on her game, quick with splits, cut-offs, milestones. She was on it, shoving gels in my face and making me suck it up when everything got blurry. I wouldn’t have made it without her.

The race itself… man, what can one say? The volunteers, the management, the everything… TOP NOTCH. The aid stations were superb. Everyone there was there to help. It was a family.

I felt loved.

I also felt the pain… of the terrain, of course. My feet were hamburger. My chafing was major league. The struggle was real. It’s been a few days and I’m still limping.

People often ask me why I would subject myself to such torture and the only thing I can really think of is that I like to see what I can do on my own two feet. When I know I can run 100 miles through hell and back, suddenly life gets easier. I’m able to do much more than I ever thought I could. I try a little harder. I go a little further. I stick with things a little longer.

It makes me a better friend, husband, person.

Through it all, I find out who I am.

And for someone who spent most of his life not having a clue who he was, that’s pretty damn powerful.

 


Three Seasons In One Day: The 2014 Evergreen Lake Ultra and a Half (51 Mile) Race Report

Evergreen Lake Ultra and a Half 2014 B Maja Vito

(Image courtesy of Maja Vito)

Last June, I went on a weekend adventure with Jim Street and Kirsten Pieper. Along the way, they got me excited about a race they co-direct: the Evergreen Lake Ultra Series. When planning out my 100 mile race training, I made sure to put their event on the schedule.

It would not disappoint.

Pre-Race, Sunday, September 14, 2014
2:15 a.m.

Of course it’s 2:15 in the morning and of course I’m awake.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Only crazy people get excited about losing sleep and comfort to the task of running 50+ miles in the woods.

I am certified crazy, man.

Edna is crazy too, which is probably why we get along so well. Either way, we’re both up and getting ourselves ready for what will surely be a long day. It’s 38 degrees outside, with an expected high in the upper 60s, so we both pack layers along with our Red Bulls and Starbucks Double Shots.

3:30 a.m.

After a 20-minute drive from our hotel in Minonk, we arrive at Evergreen Lake (about 14 miles from Bloomington) and the groggy bustle of the start/finish line. We check in, get our bibs and say hello to Kirsten, who is busy greeting chilly runners and directing us towards the food.

FOOD!

“I’m only here for the food anyway,” I remind Kirsten.

She laughs as Edna and I dig in to the smorgasbord of breakfast items — several different quiches, potato wedges, and of course: BACON.

Nom nom nom nom…

As Edna already knows, the fastest way to my heart is through bacon, and there is so much bacon here I think I will love this race forever, and it hasn’t even started yet.

We finish eating and then go through our regular pre-race routines, which unglamorously include bathroom breaks and lots of lubricants.

4:30 a.m.

Jeff and Edna Evergreen Lake 2014

(Image courtesy of Paul Bliss)

Ready to go, we runners gather around for Jim’s pre-race speech. It’s cold. I can see my own breath and this pre-autumn chill only reminds me of the awful winter we had and what more awfulness might be on the way in 2015.

Brrrr! I have on a skull cap, long sleeve pull-over and gloves. All wrapped up, Edna looks like she’s about to embark on an Aleutian whaling expedition.

“Good luck, babe!” I tell her with a quick kiss.

There is a countdown… and then…

WE’RE OFF!

LOOP ONE — WINTER
Miles 1 – 17

There is a surge of eager runners that tightly pack in front of me. I let them go. I will be going slow today — locking in that 100-mile pace.

I laugh out loud at the idea of my “100-mile pace”.

You say it as if it’s sooo fast, I tell myself.

Nah, it ain’t, I reply. But eventually, it will hurt just the same.

I know that. Anyone who runs ultras knows that. Pain is part of the game. It’s part of what draws me in, keeps me engaged. By feeling my body’s reaction to the stress I put on it, I remain present and in a constant conversation with myself.

I’m not a masochist. I don’t like to hurt. But I do like to feel alive, and nothing makes me feel more alive than putting my body to the ultimate test and relaxing in the happy wasted comfort of accomplishment that comes after.

It’s a magical, transcending experience.

Can’t wait to get there today!

One thing is for sure: that end will be a long time coming. We have 13 hours to finish, and I plan to take as much time as I need. This race is 51 miles and consists of three loops of 17 miles each. I hope to keep an even pace — something on par with what I’ll experience at Pinhoti in November — and log each loop somewhere in between 3.5 to 4 hours.

Just a few miles in, and I am all by myself. The forest is quiet and dark. My new Black Diamond headlamp (thanks, Edna!) shines a brilliant beam, lighting my path ahead. Occasionally I look at the vast blackness above, in complete awe of the billions and billions of stars that exist, up there, way beyond my comprehension.

We don’t get this kind of view in the city. What a beautiful sight.

My awe and tranquility is interrupted every 10 minutes with the sudden urge to pee — another unglamorous staple of my ultrarunning career. There is something about running in the woods for hours and hours that causes me to urinate often, exemplifying my oft said japish quip of “The world is my toilet.”

I say that out of respect, Mother Nature. Please do not strike me down with a bolt of lightning.

She does not. Instead, she gives me an aid station.

I quickly take some peanut butter and jelly, and before I can say “my hands are clean, no really” I’m off on my merry, dark way.

Not long after, I find myself at a creek crossing. I stop, take a quick look around for any object that might make crossing this body of water a bit easier (and drier).

Nope. No help for you, Mother Nature surely chides.

Meh. Just as well. My feet are already wet from the dewy grass. Might as well get dirty too.

I plunge through the cold creek, water up to my knees, with a loud and boisterous “YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!”

The chill of the water complements the chill in the air.

How is it so cold? We never even got a summer! Thanks, Obama!

I pick up the pace to generate more warmth, and immediately my mind goes to a warmer place… like… um… here, later today, where it will be in the upper 60s. Soon.

I can make it that long, I think as I zip through the halfway mark of the loop, met by enthusiastic volunteers and a rising sun. I put away my head lamp and find comfort in being able to see everything around me. I was running cautious in the dark, trying hard not to trip. Naturally, an hour or so into sunlight I take my first head dive off an ornery root. I can’t help but laugh at myself.

That’s another reason why I keep coming back to these races, I think to myself. I always end up laughing at myself.

It’s hard to take things too seriously when my biggest concerns often revolve around something as simple as picking up my own two feet, one after the other; or whether or not I used enough Vaseline on my butt crack to keep from chafing halfway through the race. Such are the silly demands of an all-day runner.

I plop through another knee-high creek — this one just as cold — and shriek just the same as before. Not long after passing through though, and I start to feel the warmth of the sun penetrate my winter layers, telling me it’s time for a costume change.

Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat. This is my mantra before I reach the start/finish line aid station. I often repeat such phrases so that I don’t show up to the aid station and waste time not knowing what the hell to do (as is often the case if I don’t have a plan).

Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat, I repeat again as I FINALLY come up on other people on the trail. I’ve run almost the entirety of this 17-mile loop without seeing any other people.

“Hey, you’re moving too fast,” one of the female runners I pass hollers, “this is the no passing zone!”

We all have a good chuckle as I continue on.

I’m still chuckling as I approach what looks just like any other bridge, except that when I step on this particular bridge, I almost fall off as it bounces awkwardly, daring to toss me in the water it spans below. Once I recover my wits and realize I didn’t actually break any bones trying to get across, I think back to my youth and the bouncy bridges that used to be popular at the playgrounds in my hometown. I used to get such a kick out of scaring my sisters on those things.

Payback?

Before I can answer, I start to see signs of civilization: generators, tents, camp fire smoke. At this point I pick up the pace and notice I’m sweating. Uncomfortable.

Change hats, ditch gloves, change shirts, eat.

EAT! It’s time. I’ve been munching on whatever looks good at the aid stations thus far — mostly peanut butter and jelly and some fruit — but I’m ready for some real food. The start/finish line aid station has it.

Potato wedges, more fruit and… rice balls? Yes! Rice balls! With some sort of tomato-something… shit, I don’t know, but they are delicious. So I grab a cup and stuff a bunch of them in there for the road.

I change my shirt (short sleeves now), ditch my gloves (too hot for them) and change hats (ball cap rather than skully). Feeling fresh and refreshed, I fill up my Salomon hydration vest with another 50 ounces of water and strap it on.

Before I head out, I see Jim and say hello. “I guess you know how much I loved creek crossings,” I tell him.

“You mean you couldn’t jump those creeks?” he laughs back.

“Well, I’m still smiling, so all is well,” I respond, heading back out onto the trail.

(Loop One Time: 3 hours, 42 minutes)

(Image courtesy of Maja Vito)

(Image courtesy of Maja Vito)

LOOP TWO — SPRING
Miles 17 – 34

I am still smiling. 17 miles in and yeah, my legs are starting to ache, but keeping a smile on my face keeps me from dwelling on any discomforts I have. For now.

The peacefulness of this trail — this outdoor wonderland — is also distracting me from any creeping aches and pains. In fact, this time around the loop seems like the first time, at least for the first half, since when I came around earlier it was pitch black.

My breath keeps getting taken away, not by the labors of my body, but by the beauty of the trail. The views are dramatic and pristine. Nature at its finest. My eyes wander on scenes reminiscent of a Bob Ross painting.

There’s a happy little tree next to a happy little lake. And, oh look, there’s his friend, Mr. Rock, all nestled into the happy little grass.

Fucking beautiful, man. I could stay out here all day.

Ha! Guess what, YOU ARE!

Oh yeah. I am. I AM!

Damn it, I’m just overwhelmed with happiness right now.

Don’t start crying, silly. You’re not even halfway through the race yet. Can’t get so emotional so early.

Yet sometimes the trail calls for it. For me, running is communing with nature. Running is meditation. Running is pure joy. When it is all those things together at the same time, sometimes I can’t help but get pretty emotional about it.

Ah fuck it, no one cares. If anyone asks, just tell them you got some dirt in your eye.

No one is around anyway. I’m all by myself. Just me, the happy little trees and… GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE.

Turkeys.

Yeah, as much as I would like to think I’m all alone out here in this forest, the constant turkey gobbling coming from deep within the woods reminds me I’m not. This is the first time I’ve knowingly shared the wilderness with turkeys, so that’ s kinda cool.

Just us turkeys out here!

I wonder what the turkeys think of this weather. It’s spring now. In the shade I’m too cold, in the sun I’m too hot. I guess the turkeys probably don’t think about that too much. They will just be happy to be alive come November.

Me too!

Past the halfway mark of the loop now, my legs are really starting to slow down, so I welcome the clockwork necessity to stop and pee every 20 minutes. It feels good knowing I’m more than halfway through the course, right on my targeted goal per loop, but it would also feel really good to be sitting on a couch watching football right now.

My mind wanders from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall to Alshon Jeffery.

I bet they couldn’t do what I’m doing right now, I think. Then again, I don’t think I could do what they do either, so I guess it’s a wash.

While debating what possibly hurts more: being tackled by 300 lb defensive linemen or running ultramarathons through he woods, I trudge through the creek crossing again.

WOOOOOO HOOOOOOOO! BRRRRRRR!!!

I wonder if anyone can hear me? Other than the aid station volunteers — whom are ALL AWESOME BEYOND AWESOME by the way — I haven’t seen a single soul on this loop yet. I’m all alone… with my thoughts…

And now my mantra is water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull.

That early morning wake-up is catching up with me now as I slumber my way through the back half of the course. The cold creek crossings do well to snap me out of my zombie-like state; and I keep running as much as I can despite the slow pace. But for the last 17 miles I’m going to want a pick-me-up.

And it’s getting hot.

Water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull… water, Ibuprofen, Red Bull…

I hear footsteps. About a mile from the end of the loop now and I hear hard, fast footsteps. What the —

I turn around and see a young man blazing toward me. It’s Zach Pligge, a talented runner I met at Potawatomi earlier this year. I recall he had a fast finishing time in the hundred miler at that race, so he must be on his last loop of this one.

“Finishing up?” I ask.

“Yep! You think we’re going to hit that bridge soon?” he replies.

The bouncy bridge. The scary bridge. The bridge that almost sent me home in pieces.

“I hope so,” I reply. I want to stick on Zach’s heels so I can see how a super fast runner with 50 miles in his legs handles that bridge monstrosity, but he’s too fast and I’m too hot (and slow) to chase. He takes off as I congratulate him on a great race.

Wow. So the only person I see on this whole 17-mile loop is the guy who laps me on his way to an overall win. Now that’s not something that happens every day.

Civilization creeps back into view, and I know I’ve only got one more loop to go. With a little help from my friends (Ibuprofen and Red Bull to be exact), I’m looking forward to getting done.

Back at the start/finish line aid station, Kirsten greets me asking, “Are you done?!”

“Um…. no. No way. I have one more loop to go.”

“Oh, okay, well be careful at the aid station. We are having a little bit of a bee problem.”

When I get to the food table, I see what she means: there are bees EVERYWHERE! Yikes! And they really seem to dig watermelon as they are all over that. Luckily, they’re not into those rice balls, so I take as many as I can, fill up my hydration vest, chug a Red Bull and swallow 400 mg of Ibuprofen. In about 15 minutes I expect I’ll feel like a new man!

(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 49 minutes)

LOOP THREE — SUMMER
Miles 34 – 51

The sun is hot.

Duh. It’s only about 10 billion degrees Fahrenheit. And even at 92.9 million miles away from the earth, it’s pretty impressive that I’m not fried up and dead right now, because 10 billion degrees is really hot.

In moments of extreme fatigue, my mind spends a lot of time on the obvious.

Oh, look over there is a tree. And there’s another. And another…

Having chowed down on rice balls and Red Bull… I shuffle-cruise my way through the first couple of miles of this last loop. Still all alone. Still stopping to pee every 20 minutes.

I bet I could shave a good half hour of my finish time today if I didn’t have to pee so damn much, I tell myself.

Yeah, but you have to keep drinking. You have the bladder of a pregnant woman. Nothing you can do about that. Better to drink and pee than to dehydrate and suffer.

Good point, self. Good point.

I shuffle along wondering when the Ibuprofen will kick in when, all of the sudden. It kicks in.

BAM! Off to the races!

At this point, pace is relative. I know I’m probably moving along around an 11 or 12 minute mile pace (at best), but I feel like friggin’ Killian Jornet out here. Zooming down this hill, bending around that corner, power hiking up that climb.

How much of it is caffeine versus NSAIDS versus mental toughness, I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t care either. I’m feeling good and I’m lettin’ ‘er rip!

Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?

I don’t know what I’m humming to myself exactly, but it’s a catchy hook to a song from Stromae, an artist a friend of mine introduced me to on my recent trip to Mexico, and I can’t get it out of my head.

Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?

Now I’m singing it out loud. Why not!? Other than me and the turkeys, this forest is as still as can be.

Which begs the question: if an ultrarunner flies through the woods and no one is there to see him, does he really ever fly through the woods?

Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai? Où t’es, papaoutai?

I get to the halfway point aid station and chug another Red Bull from my drop bag. I notice in the bag that there’s another half consumed can, which means Edna is on the jolt now too. YAAAAAY EDNA! I hope she’s doing well. I love that girl.

“Thank you, volunteers! I love you all!” I shout as I head back on down the trail.

I’m getting finish-line syndrome — the phenomenon of central governor override that seems to happen the closer one gets to the finish line. Some people just call it “wanting to be done”.

I want to be done, no doubt. My feet and heels are aching, my butt is sore and all this running is making me a little too hot for comfort; but at the same time I don’t ever want to stop, don’t ever want to leave. I just want to be in the forest with my thoughts, surrounded by nature, consumed by beauty — perpetually in the moment.

This is the life! YES!!!

Oh my goodness! People!

I must be slowing down as there are people behind me. Two ladies. I look behind and they greet me: “Hi, are you in the 51 miler?” one asks.

“Yes. You?”

“No, we’re in the 34 miler. You’re my hero though!”

Wow, that’s kinda cool. Who knew you only had to be stupid enough to want to run in the woods all day to be someone’s hero. I’ll take it!

“You’re too kind,” I holler back as I pick up the speed. “Enjoy your finish! Congrats!”

I rev up the engine. ZOOM!

YEEEEE HAAAAAW! through the creek crossings again, focused on reaching civilization, my mind wanders to the task of running 100 miles come November.

What an adventure that’s going to be, I remind myself. And what pain is in store!

“Running is a vehicle for self discovery.” Scott Jurek said that. It’s a quote I think about often, one that I live by.

Look at the person you have become, the self you have discovered, all because you decided to go run in the woods!

Indeed, this is the life.

I reach the wonky bridge, tip-toe over it, saving myself from any potential embarrassment while charging on towards the finish line. As I approach civilization again and am greeted by the friendly cheers of volunteers, spectators and fellow runners, I long to stay out here — to find out more about myself and what I’m made of.

There will be plenty of time for that, I remind myself.

The finish line is in sight, I charge forward to applause, throw my hands in the air and think that crazy thought I never thought I’d think: 5o miles doesn’t seem that long.

(Loop Two Time: 3 hours, 52 minutes)

TOTAL RACE TIME: 11 hours, 23 minutes

Evergreen Lake Ultra and a Half 2014 Jeff Lung A

Post-Race

Not only is there a killer post-race spread of delicious recovery foods (roast beef, potatoes, drunken berries and sweets galore) but lots of folks stick around to cheer on finishers. I hang out, patiently waiting for Edna to come through, and enjoy some conversation with Jim. I also talk to several other runners, eager to hear their stories from the day. Many of them centered around the cold creek crossings and the wonky bridge. While I only had one face plant, some had several.

We are alike in that we all find humor in ourselves.

It still boggles my mind that I spent nearly all of those 11+ hours alone, by myself, on the trail.

Still, having done so gives me the confidence I need going into the hundred miler, especially knowing I will have a pacer to keep me company on the last half.

Edna comes through about an hour after me, all smiles as usual. She too has some stories to tell, and I can’t wait to hear them. We share an embrace — the kind that only comes from an entire day’s worth of exhaustive exercise — and collect our walking sticks (a unique, kick-ass finisher’s prize that has immediate worth I might add) before heading back to the hotel.

Evergreen Lake Ultra and a Half 2014 Jeff and Edna

– – –

Epilogue

If you’re looking for a beautiful run in the woods next September, go run Evergreen Lake! They have three distances to choose from (17 miles, 34 miles, 51 miles) and the support is top-notch. The food was great, the volunteers spectacular and the views serene! Also, the trail was impeccably marked, a detail that can never be overstated.

More importantly, with running being that vehicle to self discovery, you’re bound to discover something new about yourself. And having the Shady Hollow Trail Runners’ love and warmth as the background for such introspection is a certain recipe for success.


Running Through the Center of the World: The 2014 Boston Marathon Race Report

Boston marathon 2014For over a year I dreamed about what it would feel like to run in the 118th edition of the Boston Marathon. Like many others, I felt compelled to be there no matter what it took. I was inspired to stand up as part of the running community, to help New England heal, to show my compassion and my support by doing what I love to do most: run long.

The whole world would be watching.

This is my story:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sitting in the airport terminal, donned in a bright orange and blue Boston Marathon jacket, I see I am not alone. The head nods and thumbs ups from complete strangers come from runners and non-runners alike, but the runners are easily identified by their Boston Athletic Association gear. Hats, tech tees and of course, the iconic marathon jacket, like the one I am wearing, bring a sense of togetherness for what would otherwise be just another boring plane ride.

Once on the plane, the captain makes his welcome speech. He ends it with the following:

“And for all of our marathoners onboard today, we wish you the best of luck and hope you have a fantastic run.”

The cabin erupts with applause.

*Chills up and down my body*

Wow. This ain’t just your everyday marathon, I think to myself.

– – –

Boston skyline

In Boston, having checked in to my hotel, I enjoy a pleasant walk along Charles Street, scoping out the perfect spot for a bowl of clam chowder. Along the way I am greeted by many a passerby and random shouts of “Good luck on Monday!”, “Hope ya have a great run!”, “Thanks for being hee-ya!”.

The street is dotted with other marathoners, coming and going along Boston’s iconic Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the sentiment throughout remains equally enthusiastic for all.

It’s not every day that strangers go out of their way to make you feel welcome. I experienced it here last year, so I’m not surprised at all. I’m relishing the moment. Bostonians love their marathon and what it does for the city. I love them for it.

Full of clam chowder and ready for more walking, I make my way to the Hynes Center for the marathon expo. The closer I get to Boylston Street, the more powerful the city’s buzz and when I finally find myself standing at the finish line I notice its reverence is like that of a Greek temple. I too pay my respects.

Boston Marathon finish lineFinish line tributeThe expo, full of the typical marathon expo fare, is a bit too crowded for my liking, so I quickly grab my bib and enjoy the walk back to my hotel.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I arrived in Boston on Saturday specifically so I could have all day Sunday to sit around and do nothing. For the last year or so, I have been working a lot of 13 hour days, so this break is exactly what I need. I start the day off with a nice 2-mile shake out jog along the Charles River and then spend the rest of the morning and afternoon with my feet up, napping, reading and munching on overpriced hotel fare.

In the evening, I head over to the Government Center to meet my friends Mike and Rita for the official pasta dinner. They are also from Chicagoland. In fact, Rita finished the 2013 marathon just minutes before the bombs went off, giving all of us Chicago folk quite a scare until we knew she was okay.

Now it’s a year later, and I don’t think any of us can wait much longer to toe the line for this 2014 Boston Marathon. There is a deep sense of urgency felt throughout the running community to get this race off and going, to make it the best marathon ever run. The chorus of smile accompanied chatter here at the pasta dinner serves as a grand prologue.

But to make sure this prologue is just grand enough, Mike, Rita and I find ourselves randomly sitting at a table with Lisa and Jeff, a couple from Winona, MN. This choice meeting is grand because Rita met Lisa at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota several months ago while on a college tour with her daughter. To make things even more coincidental, after some conversation we discovered that Jeff knows Rita’s brother from the mountain biking community.

In a sea of 36,000 runners, from all around the globe, we randomly sit down next to familiar ones. In gleeful unison, we stuff ourselves with pasta.

Mike, Rita and I at the City Hall Plaza pasta dinner. (Image courtesy of Rita Thiel)

Mike, Rita and I at the City Hall Plaza pasta dinner. (Image courtesy of Rita Thiel)

After dinner I head back to the hotel and count down the minutes before Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 3. For a solid hour I abandon all thoughts of marathoning for the dramatic tribulations of Westeros. Fiercely satisfied, with an acute obsession for the mother of dragons, I close my eyes and find myself fast asleep.

Monday, April 21, 2014

5:00 a.m.

**BEEP BEEP BEEP**

Here we go!

I shoot out of bed, hit the power button on the coffee machine and eagerly flip on the news to check the weather. Reporting live from Hopkinton, the weather man confirms what I already know from countless weather app checks over the last 24 hours: low 40 degree temps at the start with highs reaching the mid to upper 60s by the time I hit the half marathon mark.

Could I be any more excited for this race? For this day? For this moment?!?

I eat my regular breakfast (bagel, banana, Clif Bar) and go through my regular pre-race preparations, which this time includes as much sunscreen as it does Bodyglide. A quick mental and physical check-in combined with some gentle foam rolling reveals an all-systems-go status.

But when it comes to another familiar routine, that of strapping on my watch, I hesitate.

Can I really do this? I ask myself. Can I really run without a watch?

You’re going to, I answer myself. You’re going to today. And you’re going to love it.

Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe myself. Today I choose to believe.

It’s been no secret that this training cycle has been one of my worst. I know that I don’t have the legs right now to run my best race. I have long made peace with this. But as much as I declare myself acceptant of my current condition, I know that if I run with my watch I will be checking it obsessively. And if I do that, I’m quite sure my competitive self, the one who often shows up to these sorts of events regardless of physical condition, won’t like what he sees.

Leave the watch at home, I tell myself. Run by feel. Give whatever you got today, but most importantly, enjoy the moment. Be present in it. Today doesn’t have to be about you or your performance. Let it be about people, about compassion, peace.

I leave my hotel room before I can change my mind.

6:00 a.m.

In the elevator, I run into another, equally giddy runner.

His name is Steve and he’s from Pennsylvania. This is his first Boston Marathon and he plans to break three hours today. We split a cab to the Boston Commons and I give him the lowdown on the course: be conservative early on; don’t let the first 10k of downhill seduce you into blowing out your quads; kiss the girls at Wellesley; be ready to suck it up in Newton; when you hit the 21 mile mark let ‘er loose; when you see the Citgo sign you’re almost there.

He’s probably heard all of this already but I still lay it out there like it’s the most important speech he’ll ever hear. He thanks me for the advice and the conversation and before we know it we’re packed into a bus on the way to Hopkinton.

I close my eyes. I sleep a little. I turn off my mind.

When it comes back on we’re at the Athlete’s Village, deboarding the bus. The sweet chill in the air is invigoratin, the adrenaline in my blood plenty. This will be my 8th marathon. I have had butterflies before. I have been nervous. But today I feel none of that. Only adrenaline.

I feel pure adrenaline.

I look down where my watch should be to see how many hours I have to wait until the start.

Oh yeah, I forgot. No watch. No time.

No worry, no obsessing.

The Athlete’s Village is at Hopkinton High School. I head towards the baseball diamond, camp out next to the backstop and, now lying prostrate with a poncho as my mattress, I calm myself back into a deep, meditative state. The noise all around slowly fades and soon all I hear is the metronome of my breath.

– – –

I wake and find that I am now surrounded by a field of runners. The one almost uncomfortably close to me says, “Hey, mate. You were sleeping mighty well right then.”

His name is Robert. He’s a ginger. And he’s from London. This is his first Boston Marathon, and he too plans to run sub-3 hours.

If only I were in shape for a sub-3 hour race… struth gov’nr, cor blimey!

Robert and I chat, helping tick away the time that I can’t keep.

After a thorough comparison of races past and bucket lists to come, he finally notices, “You forget your watch?”

“Yeah, on purpose.”

“Wow, that would be hard for me.”

“Might be hard for me too.”

9:10 a.m.

Nature calls Robert away while the PA announcer calls me and the rest of Wave 1 to our corrals.

Here we go…

With 15,000 more participants this year, I feel like a tuna fish tightly packed inside his school. During this long march from the Athelete’s Village out to the corrals I am hit by a cacophony of smells — from Icy Hot to Starbucks to b.o. — it’s a mixture specifically attune to running culture.

Once in line for my corral, I follow the leader even further down a long road towards Main Street (Route 135) in Hopkinton. It is here that I shed my warm-up clothing and feel that first skipping heart beat — nothing a short series of concentrated deep breaths can’t fix.

Here the crowds are already deep in support. On one lawn in particular stands a man with a sign yelling “Free Donuts, Cigarettes and Beer!” Like everyone else, I enjoy a laugh, but immediately after, the mood grows somber, reflective.

As we draw closer and closer to Main Street, the crowd of runners grows eerily quiet. This is the direct opposite of what I experienced last year. This is the group mind understanding the implications of this moment, the group mind preparing itself for an epic day.

– – –

9:50 a.m.

Packed deep inside my corral now, squeezing elbow to elbow with my fellow tuna runners, I bump into Robert again.

“Hey, mate. Have a good run.”

“You too,” I say as the National Anthem begins.

Hat in my hand, hand on my heart, every hair on my body stands on end.

A massive cheer is followed by a Blackhawk helicopter flyover and finally…

WE’RE OFF!!!

Miles 1 – 6

I cross the first timing mat and instinctively try to start the timer on the watch that isn’t there. Whoops. Laughing at myself and feeling somewhat liberated as I go watchless, I begin the long descent out of Hopkinton. Already the crowd is loud, boisterous and Boston strong.

The adrenaline runs thick so I remind myself to not let my emotions dictate a fast pace. From experience, I already know that it is here, in these first 10 kilometers, where most people ruin their Boston Marathon. For we go down, down, down, banging our quadriceps in the opposite way mother nature designed them. If one goes too hard early on and blows out his quads, when he reaches Newton and really needs them to get up the longer climbs, he is going to feel a lot of pain and suffering.

Knowing this and having the good sense to reel myself in, last year I managed to run my one and only negative split marathon. Maybe today will yield similar results.

Still, it’s pretty demoralizing to have so many people pass by me — correction: FLY BY ME — so early on in the race. To avoid getting stomped to death, I straddle the center line of the narrow roadway and let everyone fight to go around me.

I step over the first 5k timing mat and think about all my friends and loved ones who are receiving a text message as a result. Technology is pretty sweet. I look down at my wrist to check my split but oh wait, yeah, never mind.

Look around you, I remind myself. You will never live this moment again. Soak it in!

Oh, man. I apologize for my rough language here, but How fucking cool is this?!?! I repeat to myself. This is just so fucking cool: the deep, cheering crowds; the speedsters; the gentle downhill making me feel like I’m floating on air.

And BAM, just like that, I’m over the 10k timing mat, texting my mom and dad again.

I finally break my habit of looking at my invisible watch.

Miles 6 – 12

After the initial 10k of quad thrashing, I do a full mind-body scan to take inventory. I feel great. My breathing is consistent and calculated. I’m running on feel, adjusting pace and cadence based on the course. My smile is about as big as it can get. If anything, my cheeks are beginning to hurt.

But most importantly, my quadriceps are perfectly fine. And they should be. I spent a lot of time over the last 18 weeks working and building my quads, just for this moment. Since I was confined to a treadmill for 90% of my training runs this winter, one of my favorite workouts was warming up for 10 minutes followed by 5 minutes at 6:30/mile pace, followed by 1 minute of air squats, 1 minute of lunges and a 1 minute wall-sit before going back to 5 minutes at 6:30/pace. I would repeat the 8 minute segment 3-8 times, depending on where I was in my training cycle. I typically like to think of myself as a pretty humble guy, but I can’t stop myself from saying I have big ass horse legs right now as a result of all the hard work.

They are coming in handy now.

As my mind drifts from those treadmill workouts to right this second to what kind of beer I’m going to drink after this, I try to always come back to right now. This moment. This little bit of history. This awesomeness.

I pass Team Hoyt and I give them a “WAY TO GO, TEAM HOYT!” while marveling at all those two have accomplished. Just thinking about how many people they’ve inspired the last 30 years makes me feel extremely appreciative to share the road with them. The crowd reacts to their presence appropriately and I am happy to be along for the ride.

Despite the roaring support, there are a couple of quiet spots in between Framingham and Natick. Just before mile 11 now, we hit another brief quiet spot before Wellesley when I feel a man approaching fast on my left side. As he sails by me I take one look at him from behind and immediately yell: “DEAN!”

It’s Dean Karnazes. No one has a body composition like that besides Dean. He’s also ridiculously tan, wearing his famous North Face singlet and visor.

“Hey, bro,” he replies looking back but not slowing down one bit, “how’s it going?”

“Wow! Going great!” I say, suddenly finding the energy and the turnover to keep up with him. I park myself on his right and match him stride for stride. “This is awesome, Dean,” I gush. “I gotta tell you, my name is Jeff and you’re the reason I run ultras! ”

“Cool, that means a lot to me to hear that. I’m glad to see you’re still running marathons too.”

“Yes, sir. In fact, I was training for my first marathon a few years ago when I wondered if people were crazy enough to ever run more than 26.2.”

Dean chuckles.

“So I Googled it and up came your book, Ultramarathon Man. I bought it, read it in one day and about halfway through the book I said to myself ‘I’m doin’ that.'”

“That’s a great story,” he says, smiling almost as big as me. “Thanks for sharing that with me.”

We chat on about upcoming ultras and about how awesome this Boston Marathon is. But just as I start to hear the screaming women of Wellesley off in the distance, I realize there’s no way I can keep up this pace much longer without crashing hard. So I tell Dean as much and wish him an awesome second half of the race.

“Thanks, Jeff. You too, man. Take it all in. Today is special.”

Indeed, today is special. I just ran with one of my running idols in one of the biggest races of my life!

And now I’m in Wellesley, where hoards of women are screaming, asking me to kiss them! Woo hoo!

Admittedly, I don’t spend as much time with the Wellesley women as I did last year. It’s tradition here to kiss the girls, but I am in a happy relationship now and don’t need the attention nor the flattery. What I do need is the boost of energy their voracious cheering provides, so I tuck in close to the guard rail and sail on the power of their collective voices.

Miles 12 – 17

In the town of Wellesley I am greeted by “Sweeeeeeeeet Caroline…. BAH BAH BAHHHH!”

Oh boy the chill I get when that song comes on is a great boost to my psyche. And now that I cross the halfway mark (thus texting my friends and family again) I know I am going to need it. It’s getting warm, the sun is bright and high in the sky and yes, I’m starting to get a little tired.

I know the infamous Newton Hills are coming. Thinking about them, my mind begins to drift towards thoughts of suffering.

Now, Jeff! Stay in the now! Stay in the now!

That’s right. Stay in the now. After all, my love affair with running long is deeply rooted in being able to stay in the now for as long as I’m in motion.

Don’t think about mile 18 or 25 or the finish, just think about RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW… then RIGHT NOW.

I do. I stay right here, right in this magical moment at the center of the world. I hug the left side of the road and high five as many hands as I can, riding on the cheers of countless strangers intent on making right now as special as it can be.

The more I begin to suffer, the more I hear my name. “Go Lung!” “You can do it, Lung!” “Pump those arms, Lung!”

My last name is prominently displayed across my chest specifically for tough times like these as I enter the town of Newton. Each time I hear my name I’m able to focus on the now, eschewing thoughts of discomfort.

boston marathon 2014 jeff lung

Miles 17 – 21

As I embark on arguably the toughest part of the race, I fight back a brief bout of nausea. For some reason, I feel like I am going to throw up a the top of the first big Newton climb, but I remind myself that it’s just a phase and I’ll feel better soon.

I take water and Gatorade at every aid station, just as I have been doing all throughout the race, and after a half mile or so I feel much better. Dumping cold water on my head every chance I get helps. The sun is really shining on me now. I’m getting burned but there’s not much else I can do about it.

My heels are stiff and sore too, but running by some blade runners reminds me how lucky I am to be able-bodied, so I tell myself to suck it up and focus on the glory all around me.

“Go Lung! Get up that hill, Lung! You can do it!”

Good god these people are awesome!

While all day long the crowd has featured an array of wicked smaht signs, one seemingly boring one grabs my attention now. It reads: HAVE FUN. MEB WON.

WHAAAAAT???? MEB WON????

“Did Meb really win?” I yell back, corkscrewing my body into an awkward position not meant for marathoning.

“Yes!” the gentleman holding the sign says. “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

Wow, that is really cool. Meb Keflezighi won the marathon. This declaration provides me with even more untapped energy — enough to take me all the way up to Heartbreak Hill.

This spot, famous for its place in Boston Marathon lore, is also one where the crowds really provide a boost. Though my body is aching, I am happy knowing it’s simply fatigue and nothing else. My pace has slowed considerably, but I have not stopped running. I will NOT stop running, especially now. I will conquer this hill on the shoulders of this animated and positive crowd. While I shorten my stride to get to the top, I high-five little kids and blow kisses to those cheering me on.

At the top, finally, I think to myself, now that wasn’t so bad.

Miles 21 – 25.6

My reward for cresting the last of the Newton Hills is a nice, long downhill. Recovered and feeling the excitement of almost being done, I decide to let ‘er rip down this one.

WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!

In Brookline now and I am simply amazed at how the crowd just grows more and more intense the closer I get to the finish. My ears are ringing!

Do these people lover their marathon or what?!?!

My constant mind-body feedback loop yields the familiar aches and pains associated with three hours of continuous running but it’s all masked by the enormous amount of love I feel radiating through my every cell. My emotions are starting to come out. It’s a good thing I’m wearing sunglasses.

I have run in a lot of marathons, including three Chicago Marathons where I thought the crowds simply couldn’t be beat. I am being proved wrong. This moment, right here, in Hopkinton-Ashland-Framingham-Natick-Wellesley-Newton-Brookline and now BOSTON, MASSACHUSSETS is the most alive I’ve ever felt. This is history! Like 36,000 of my brothers and sisters, I am an integral part of this celebration of life, this festival of compassion, this party of love.

The Citgo sign greets me and I know I’m almost done.

My god, what am I going to do when I get to the finish line, I ask myself. Am I going to cry like a baby? Am I going to pass out?

STAY IN THE NOW, JEFF, IN THE NOW.

In the now. High-fiving this kid. In the now. Blowing kisses to that crowd. In the now. Being uplifted by the sound of my own name “GO LUNG GO!”

Miles 25.6 – 26.2

I turn right on Hereford, left on Boylston and there it is: the finish line. In all its glory, in all its majesty, there stands the finish line, drawing me near. It’s only 600 meters from here to the finish — one and a half times around the track.

This is where I usually sprint my heart out, pumping my arms and my legs to the beat of the fastest drummer I can summon.

But not today. Today I’m taking my sweet ass time. I’m soaking this in — this love, this peace. I’m right in the middle of it all and I’m not going to miss a second of it.

I let the wave of warmth and emotion flow over and through me. I know that this is one of the most special moments of my life.

boston marathon 2014 finish photo on Boylston jeffery lung

I am in the now. I did it. I am right here, right here in Boston where I’m supposed to be.

I cross the finish line in 3 hours 38 minutes on the dot and can’t hold back the tears of joy any longer.

Post-Race

1968 Boston Marathon champion and longtime Runner’s World fixture Amby Burfoot described the 118th Boston Marathon as “the best day in running history”. I really can’t argue with that.

For me, it goes even further. The 2014 Boston Marathon was a celebration in motion, an honest tour of compassion and a testament to the love deep down inside us all. Whether we ran, we cheered or we watched via text messages at home, we were all together as one, running through the center of the world.

boston marathon 2014 post finish photo jeffery lung

 


Halted by Humidity (and Reality?): The 2014 Armadillo Dash Half Marathon Race Report

armadillo running

Despite months of training through the polar vortex, mounds of snow and an insufferable treadmill, I went into The Armadillo Dash Half Marathon in College Station, Texas with pretty high hopes. I knew that the peculiar training patterns weren’t ideal, but I figured my mental toughness edge and increased strength training would power me closer to a new personal best.

I was totally wrong.

And I knew it before we even started.

Pre-Race
Saturday, March 1, 2014

A thousand miles away from Hoth, Edna and I are in Conroe, TX. We’ve ditched our layers of neoprene and collection of balaclavas for a simple pair of shorts and singlet. We are out for a shake-out jog around my dad’s neighborhood and despite a few wild dogs barking at my pasty white legs, all is well.

It’s mild. It’s bright. It’s awesome.

Glowing in the natural warmth of the sun — something I haven’t done in six long months — I can’t help but smile. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is what we miss. This is medicine for the sun-deprived sickness that is a bonafide Chicago winter!

And it’s humid.

I’m sweating. A lot. I’m running slow. But I’m sweating profusely. The air is fresh, but it is thick.

I’m not trained for this, I think to myself. The mood is so good that I really don’t want to crash it with a Debbie Downer quip, so I just let it go.

Go by heart rate, I tell myself. Go out at a race pace heart rate and just stick with that. And for god’s sake please stop taking the fun out of these races. Enjoy yourself damn it!

I give myself good advice sometimes.

Edna and I finish our run and I am completely at peace with my proposed protocol, which makes the rest of the day and evening that much more enjoyable. We go to packet pick-up, spend quality time with family under the sun and eat a hearty Mexican meal before getting to bed early.

Pre-Race
Sunday, March 2, 2014
4:30 a.m.

We have a 7 a.m. start today, so we’re up and moving early. I repeat the same pre-race ritual I always perform: coffee, banana, bagel.

Grease, nipple-tape, kit.

We’re out the door by 5:15 a.m.

The drive is dark and quiet. Dad is driving and it’s about an hour from his place to College Station. I fight sleep while occasionally attempting conversation.

Pre-Race
6:20 a.m.

We arrive at Veteran’s Park and step out of the car to an air temperature of about 65 degrees. The air is thick. It’s humid with a chance of rain.

Edna and I still can’t believe we’re in shorts and singlets.

But we are.

We go through the rest of our pre-race routines, give each other and my dad a hug and then break off towards the start line.

I line up near the front.

There’s not much of a crowd. The highest bib number I’ve seen is 900-something and just from looking around I can tell this is a pretty small race. Near the start line lurks a handful of sinewy young bucks donning short-shorts that make mine look like Hammer pants. I make sure to give them plenty of distance, finding a spot a few rows back.

National anthem. A speech.

And we’re off!

Miles 1-7

Bang! I’m right out of the gate and a voracious mob flies by me. The newbie rush is in full effect.

I try not to be a judgmental asshole, but when you’re huffing and puffing and dying for breath 20 strides into a half marathon, maybe you should slow down.

I start out at a comfortable pace, passing the huffers and puffers falling off along the way. I take notice of my surroundings — flat and gray — and try to settle into a comfortably quick cadence. I look down at my watch.

160 BPM! What the–???

I’m barely doing anything and already… what the… how can my heart rate be this high? Surely this is a faulty heart rate monitor.

BAM. I step on the gas, wait a few seconds, check my watch:

170. Yikes. Now I’M huffing and puffing.

I slow back down to 165 BPM and vow to keep it there the rest of the day. This translates to a 7:40-ish pace, a very far cry from 6:50 pace just six months ago.

Oh well. Dems da breaks.

I remind myself that I run because it’s fun and a good way to stay in shape, not to impress people who don’t even care with split times and PRs.

My focus turns to the course, but honestly, there’s not much to see. We follow a highway shoulder dotted with the occasional group of supporters. To their credit, the folks who are out on the course cheering us on are a boisterous lot.

The only thing missing is a cowbell, which seems ironic considering that much of this course follows roads lined by cow pastures. There seems to be a lot of them in this part of Texas. This probably explains why every time I come here I have the sudden urge to don a 10 gallon hat, dinner plate belt buckle and good old fashioned shit-kickers.

Maybe next time.

At mile 4 I am running shoulder-to-shoulder with a girl I’ve been yo-yo-ing with thus far. It appears she has had enough of the back and forth. She sits right on my wheel and we are moving together, stride for stride.

Not a word is said.

I start to play the mind game How long will this last?

Mile 5… I check my watch. 165 BPM.

Mile 6… Holding steady. Still at 165. Feeling good.

Mile 7. BAM! She breaks stride and heads straight for a porta-john.

I’ve been there, totally know the feeling.

Without the stereo of her feet pounding pavement beside me, I come out of the zone and notice how much I’m sweating.

Wow! This ain’t no polar vortex! Yee ha!

Miles 7-12

The first half of this race has gone by quickly. I’m running totally on automatic. I look down at my watch — a lot, too much probably — and every time I do it’s reading a 165 BPM.

Everything is smooth. Everything is the same.

Including my surroundings. Still on a highway. Still in the middle of vast cattle country. Still gray skies.

Rain spits down in unpredictable increments. Sometimes with gusto, sometime barely at all.

The aid stations are really the only respite from the stretched (and dare I say boring) silence. I welcome the high-fives and fluids each time I pass through before immediately finding myself back on quiet, open road. Often times races are a great way to tour an area, a great way to see and experience a city. Here, unless cow pastures for miles is your thing, there isn’t much to see or experience.

That doesn’t mean this is a bad race. It’s not. It’s perfectly fine. All the essentials are here. I have no complaints. The people are friendly and encouraging. The course is easy. The temperature isn’t freezing and I’m not traversing through mounds of snow or ankle breaking post holes.

There just aren’t any bells and whistles. And in a world where races fight each other for entrants by dangling bells and whistles ad nauseum, the absence of such is noticed.

But my mileage barely is. The 12-mile mark appears out of nowhere and I take comfort in knowing I’m almost done. A quick glance at my watch shows I’m still at 165 BPM.

Time to turn it up a notch.

Miles 12-13.1

BOOM. As if Mother Nature were timing her rainy surprise to coincide with my hard push to the finish, the gray skies open up and pour down some refreshing rain.

When was the last time I got to play in the rain? I ask myself. Man, this is fun!

As I make my way down the last stretch of highway that will loop us back into the park, I look down to see I’m pushing 180 now. My cadence picks up even more when I hear the PA announcer muffle something accompanied by cheers from the small yet audible crowd.

I turn left towards the finish line, kick hard, and about 100 yards from the finish I hear my dad, my sister Emily and her boyfriend Sam call out my name.

I try to look good for their sake as I finish with a time of 1:41:47.

Post-Race

Dad, Emily, Sam and I all stick around for Edna to finish. It’s not long before I notice her from far away. Her spry gait in silhouette quickly draws near. We watch intently as her trademark smile glows its familiar glow while she runs past us into the shoot.

A few quick hugs and congratulations later and Sam snaps this picture:the lungs at the armadillo dash

Shortly after that and the skies REALLY open up.

IT POURS.

We get out of there before I even know I won my age group.

– – –

An obsessive’s brain, if left unchecked, will obsess. That’s what it does. That’s what it knows.

Was I slower than I wanted to be because of the humidity? The lower mileage in training? The polar vortex?

Am I getting enough sleep? Am I past my prime? Am I a slave to the technology?

I don’t know. And the more I check the obsession, the less I care. It’s okay, Jeff, I tell myself. Everything’s okay. You run because you love it and because you can.

Now go get yourself a beer.

– – –

The Boston Marathon is less that six weeks away, and while I know a sub-3 hour finish is not a realistic goal right now, I’m still hoping a re-qualifying time (3:10) or a Chicago Marathon qualifer (3:15) is.

If not, well, I won’t have much time to feel sorry for myself. There’s a 24 hour race and 100 miler in my near future.


Rev That Racing Engine and Hope for the Best

2013 peapod half marathon jeff lungThe last time I raced to my maximum potential, I set a personal best in the half marathon. In the aftermath of that hard effort though, I also found myself crippled by the apex of bilateral Achilles tendonosis, an injury that would bury the rest of my lofty 2013 race plans and humble me to reevaluate my training.

That was six months ago.

Now I’m ready to give it another go when I toe the line this weekend at the Armadillo Dash Half Marathon in College Station, TX. I have been Boston Marathon training for ten and a half weeks now, slowly building back up to quality speed work and long, slow distance runs. I still don’t feel like I am in optimum speed running shape, but I do feel good. I feel strong. I feel focused.

And I feel like it’s time to see what I can do right now. But I also know that this feeling comes with a conscious finger hovering just above the abort button.

After my experience the last six months, my ultimate conclusion is that I would rather run slow than not run at all. To me, running is a gift. It’s a privilege. I am not guaranteed the ability to run, to have full use of my legs, to live this spry wonderlife each and every day. So each day that I get deserves my respect. If something goes wrong, I need to address it, immediately, and not just keep running anyway, just because. Like Stan Lee reminds us: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I don’t expect to be swinging from building to building this weekend, using wrist-projected webbing and spidey sense, but I do expect to give my best race effort, using every bit of what is in the tank on that day.

Here’s to hoping I don’t run into any Green Goblins.

Or achy Achilles.

spider-man-reboot-running


Training Curveballs and Race Change-Ups

kirk gibson homerunIt’s late February. Pitchers and catchers have reported for Major League Baseball.

I owe the world a baseball metaphor.

First, the curveballs. Oh, how plentiful and how knee-buckling the curveballs have been this training cycle. Having trained through the winter for a spring marathon in the past, I was well aware that I would have to take some of my workouts indoors. I knew that I would have to fight treadmill boredom in order to get quality work. I did not know I would have to do it nearly every day.

Since I began training back in December for the Boston Marathon, 90% of my runs have taken place indoors. I have tried to get out at least once a week for a recovery or long run, but most of those workouts have been run at super slow snow picking pace. With the onslaught of sub-zero temps, knee-high snow and treacherously icy streets, I have been forced to go by heart rate, hoping that it ultimately translates to plus-fitness adaptations.

Creativity has been key on the treadmill. Trying to simulate the Boston Marathon course, while not actually going anywhere, has proved to be a difficult task, both mentally and physically. But pounding my quads with long, sustained downhills and interrupting tempo runs with three minute increments of squats, lunges and wall-sits has gotten me through much of that. So too have seven seasons of 30 Rock.

With eight and a half weeks left until race day, I feel like I still have enough time to log quality outdoor runs, but mother nature’s curveballs have definitely forced me to adapt my training plan. From a mental toughness point of view, these adaptations can only help. Besides, much of long distance racing is dealing with surprises on the fly.

As for the change-ups, I must shamefully admit my international race naivete. I knew the Mexico City Marathon registration opened in late January, but I (stupidly) didn’t think it would sell out — at least, not very quickly. Well, it did sell out. Very quickly. So in early February, when I went to sign up, I found out as much, and therefore had to opt for the half marathon version.

Damn.

I was really looking forward to 26.2 in Mexico City to cap off a week’s vacation, but the half will have to suffice, which means I will be seeking out plenty of Mexican trail running in the days leading up to the event.

(Image courtesy of Jim Street)

(Image courtesy of Jim Street)

And just like the old adage proclaims, when one door closes, another opens. So I signed up for the Evergreen Lake Ultra and a Half (51 Miles) race being held on September 14, 2014, just a few hours’ drive from Chicago. I am friends with the race directors, Kirsten Pieper and Jim Street, both of whom have already been featured here in my Minnesota Voyageur report. Not only do they represent one of the best trail running acronyms of all time with the Shady Hollow Trail Runners (SHTRs), but they are also really cool people who sold me on this race by talking about the food they serve. If home cooked grub highlighted by scores of bacon is your thing, then you won’t want to miss this awesome race. Three different distances are offered, so make sure to check them out.

Hopefully by then we will all be out of our snow boots.


Every Step a Surprise: The 2014 Groundhog Day Half Marathon Race Report

groundhog-day-bill-murray-auto-accident
You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.

-Phil, Groundhog Day

– – –

Pre-Race
Saturday, February 1, 2014

You’re running a half marathon… in Grand Rapids, Michigan… in FEBRUARY!? Um… why?!?

This is myself scolding myself during the treacherous drive along I-94 East from Chicago to my sister’s place in St. Joseph. Visibility is poor. The roads are slick. The driving is uber slow. By the end of the day, 8+ inches of snow will have dumped on western Michigan.

I want to go run in it.

Because I want a challenge, I reassure myself. Mountains of snow, polar vortexes… if you can’t beat the weather, might as well get out and live it. Right? Maybe? Hope so?

My girlfriend, Edna, is gaming for the adventure too, so I don’t feel too crazy. As someone with several hundred milers under her belt, her continued desire to explore herself through physical challenges cements the sanity of my own decision.

After a nerve wracking drive, a nice home cooked meal by my sister and an evening of playing with toddlers, Edna and I are psyched to get out in the snow and have fun ourselves. When I receive an email from a friend telling me the course conditions — that the trail is brutally tough with snow up to one’s knees in spots — we look at each other and know that we’re going to give it a go anyway. Last week we ran in circles for 6 hours in the face of 40 mph wind gusts and barbarously cold temperatures. If we could survive that (and have fun!) then running in knee deep snow shouldn’t be much worse.

We hope.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

At 5 a.m. our alarm clocks go off in smart-technology unison and we are up. I sip some coffee, eat a banana and then Edna and I eat some pie (why not?) to finish off our breakfast.

It’s 5:45 a.m. and we are on the road — one that is in much better condition than it was yesterday.

The temperature is going to stay in the low 20s with plenty of clouds overhead and *GASP*, no real accumulative snowfall is predicted. Still, knowing what we already know about the trail, we both expect to take it easy today.

An hour and twenty minutes later and we are in the John Ball parking lot, huddled among other frigid crazies waiting to catch the shuttle to the start/finish line. It arrives, we squeeze ourselves in, and by the time we make it to our destination we only have ten minutes left.

The two of us push ourselves through the crowd gathered inside the warm hospitality tent until we finally get to the check-in table and grab our bib numbers. Hurriedly, we pin one another, and venture outside just in time to hear “And they’re off!”

Loop 1
Miles 1 – 4.4

Hurry up and wait. That’s what we do. This is, after all, a race run on a paved bike trail (though you wouldn’t know it from the snow cover) and the trail isn’t exactly wide.

We are way at the back of a decadently fluorescent conga line and by the time we get to the timing mat, two minutes have gone by. I think about darting up ahead, but from the endless stream of slow moving head bobs, I know there’s no point. Might as well just take it slow until the crowd thins out.

I stick by Edna and after a quarter mile of struggling through shin and knee high snow, I accept what I already know: today is going to hurt and today is going to be slow.

YIPPEE!!!

“I think the key here is to take smaller steps,” I say to Edna. “If I take too large a stride the potential for injury is too large. I’m going to try to keep my feet under me.”

Even heeding my own advice, the potential for disaster is still there. The snow is powdery. Slippery. But it won’t pack down, not even with hundreds of runners trampling over it. It’s a snowy, ill-footed mine field.

Every step is a surprise.

We hit the first mile mark in just over 17 minutes. Holy shit.

Ned-Ryerson heckfireWith a hat-tip to the Bill Murray film, the Groundhog Day Half Marathon is a 4.4 mile loop run three times. It features mostly flat landscape with some pleasant views of the Grand River and surrounding wilderness, all of which is covered in snow and ice. Every once in a while I remind myself to look up — to actually enjoy the scenery — but most of my focus is on staying upright, requiring me to look down.

A couple of miles in and already my hips are starting to scream while my heart rate soars. It’s not every day I “run” a 17 minute mile and maintain a 160 beats per minute heart rate. As we reach the first aid station, where I fuel up on Gatorade and those delectable peanut butter pretzel bites, I feel like a rebel soldier fleeing the Empire’s invasion of Hoth.

You could use a good kiss! I think to myself. Whew, I could also use a good recliner. This is hard work!

A little more slogging later, and the crowd opens up a little. I turn to Edna, get my kiss and kick on down the snowy trail.

Down to a 15 minute mile now (HUZZAH!), I find that the footing on the back half of the course is even worse than the first half. Slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT… save myself… slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT…

A lot of things are on repeat here.

After much struggle, I find myself back at the start/finish line, only 4.4 miles into the race, in a whopping one hour, nine minutes. Yikes! Before I give in to the idea of quitting — as many ahead of me appear to be doing — I immediately turn around and get myself back out there.

Loop 2
Miles 4.4 – 8.8

Back out on the trail now, I know what to expect the rest of the way: powder, pain and suffering. At least it’s not very cold, I remind myself. And there’s no wind.

It could be worse. It could always be worse.

I will myself to remember this bit of truth. Just think about all those crazies running the full marathon!

Indeed, it could always be worse.

Right now, despite my achy hips and slow pace, life is pretty darn good. The crowd has subsided. I’m running pretty much all by myself now, passing people who’ve been slowed to a walk on occasion.

Shortly after refueling at the aid station and kicking back down the trail, my watch gleefully beeps to inform me that I am in the 13 minute mile range now.

Oh boy we’re blazin’ now!

Relatively speaking, I am moving pretty fast. Though I may look like I’m moving in slow motion, I maintain running jogging slogging pace. I only come to a walk at the aid stations.

And because I’m paying so much attention to the ground beneath me, the time seems to pass quickly. Another hour and seven minutes has passed and I find myself at the start/finish line again.

I dart out for my third and final loop with the kind of enthusiasm born from an impending completion of epic snow schlepping. And oh look, my face hurts… from smiling! Again!

She's tough, indeed, but boy is she pretty.

She’s tough, indeed, but boy is she pretty.

Loop 3
Miles 8.8 – 13.1

Beer, beer, beer… chili, chili, chili…

I’m going to hang on to whatever it takes to get through this fluffy mess, and right now, I know that concentrating on the finish line fare (and warmth!) will get me where I need to be.

I should also note that this fluffy mess seems to get worse as the day goes on, not better. If the snow were just a little more damp, perhaps it would pack down and stay down. Instead, what we get is surprise after surprise after surprise.

Just before hitting the first aid station on this last loop I notice someone close on my heels.

“Keep setting the pace, man,” says the guy behind me. I find out his name is Steve. We will share much of this last loop together. After the mental struggle of the first loop and the isolation of the second, I welcome the company and conversation.

We share our race resumes and talk about annoying injuries past. We discuss the difficulty of running a half marathon in February. In Michigan. In knee deep snow. And we both come to the conclusion that we need a beer.

“Just keep pumping your arms,” I say. Someone gave me this advice for the last 10k of my first marathon and it has stuck with me. “If you move your arms your legs will follow.”

After the last aid station, I thank all the aid station volunteers. I’m sure this has been a tough day for them too. Keeping water from freezing in sub-freezing temps and listening to cranky runners whine about the conditions probably doesn’t make for the best way to spend a Sunday, but they’re all troopers and it’s nice to hear their cheers each time we come through.

“These peanut butter pretzel balls are amazing,” I tell Steve, as I take off down the last leg of the loop. “I’ve been eating them all day. I’m ravenous. I’m starving!”

Chili, chili, chili… beer, beer, beer…

I’m coming for you!

As we reach the last turn back towards the finish line I pick up the pace and notice Steve fall back a bit. I keep going. I want to be done. I want to be warm. I want to eat and drink and–

“Hola, mi cielo!”

It’s Edna! “Hola, mi amorsita!” I yell back. She is heading out for her last loop while I finish up mine. We stop for a short embrace and she assures me she’s feeling fine. Her smile lights up the trail like always and I can’t wait for her to get back so we can both be warm, rested and DONE. “I will drink some beer and eat some chili for you,” I tell her.

“Very good,” she says ironically (Edna doesn’t drink) before taking off through the snow.

Stuck in cheesy smile mode, I run the last 200 meters to the finish, coming across the line in a whopping 3 hours, 18 minutes, 51 seconds, a time more reflective of my recent 26.2 mile races. Exhilarated and gassed, I head straight for the hospitality tent.

Post-Race

I can’t see!

Seriously, I can’t. I’m snow blind. Some kind soul directs me through the crowd of exhausted runners to collect my finisher’s medal. Once my eyes adjust I am able to see just how bad ass this piece of hardware is. Heavy and profound, the medal features a dancing groundhog in relief and I put it around my neck, where it will stay until I get home.

For the next hour and a half I camp out next to the New Holland kegs and sip The Poet until my equilibrium requires me to eat some chili to rebound. I talk to a bunch of strangers. I share war stories with other finishers. I’m about as happy as can be.

Edna finally comes through and we hug each other, celebrating our mental toughness victories.

“Wow, that was hard!” she says.

“Yep. Yep it was. That was crazy hard.”

But we did it. We stuck it out.

We chose to be here and we knew what we were getting into. We knew we’d escape with a story worth telling — one that would leave us starving and snow blind and smiling.

You can’t get this sort of experience on the couch. You gotta take a leap and learn to adapt. That’s life right there. That’s what keeps it interesting.

And interesting never gets old.