State 34: Oregon (2013 Portland Marathon)

Most marathons don’t allow their runners to get much sleep the night before.  The typical race starts between 6 and 8 in the morning, which has us eating our ritualistic pre-race meals between 4 and 6.  If we want to give ourselves some time to wake up before eating, then we’re setting our alarm clocks between 3 and 5.  If you’re anything like me, then you can’t go to sleep before 11 PM anyway, which sometimes means just four hours of shuteye before the big day kicks off.

But when you run a marathon the day before, then your body completely shuts down by 9 o’clock.

Because of this, I woke up on Sunday, October 6 feeling blissfully refreshed, as if I had slept for days on a bed made of unicorn hairs.  But the minute I moved, I could feel the rust creaking off my joints in little red tufts.  The five-hour drive from the Leavenworth Marathon to Portland the day before had done my post-race recovery efforts no favors and I felt like a machine that hadn’t been used in decades.  But it was too late to do anything about it, so like clockwork, Otter and I got into race mode, eating the exact same breakfast as the day before.

Portland Marathon Course Map (Google Earth)

Portland Marathon Course Map (Google Earth)

The day began in a sort of haze.  Yesterday we were admiring the beauty of the mountains all around us, taking in each white peak adoringly, excited to run, happy to be alive.  But as we prepared for the 2013 Portland Marathon, we were reticent, focused and very stiff.  We parked in a garage downtown and walked to the start line, barely stopping to take any pictures.  Even in our corral we hadn’t even run in place yet just to see how it would feel.  We were resigned to run but didn’t want to do any more than necessary.  It was all business.

After a very emotionally stirring national anthem sung by the running crowd of thousands without music, Boston Marathon champion and American running legend Bill Rodgers sent us on our way.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch-ouch-ouch …

It felt as if a demented doctor had replaced my right Achilles tendon with a shorter one overnight.  Every time I pushed off my right foot, I felt a strain on it.  I briefly considered changing my stride but opted to just tolerate the ache for the time being.  Otter vocalized his own discomfort by laughing and simply acknowledging the crazy thing we were doing for what it was: lunacy.  We stuck together for the first 5k, which started out flat, ushering us out of the city through Chinatown, but later climbed consistently for a good two miles.

Fortunately, we didn’t focus too much on the hills because that first 5k was flush with entertainment.  In the span of twenty minutes, we saw a female-led rock band suspended on a crane, a children’s handbell ensemble, a bluegrass band, a solo Celtic harpist, a dreadlocked acoustic guitarist, a Peruvian flute band, more than one drumline and a group playing marimbas on a pedestrian overpass.  And those are just the acts I remember.  The sheer variety and number of performers was staggering.

Start and Finish Area (Google Earth)

Start and Finish Area (Google Earth)

“I’m going to kill this downhill,” I told Otter as we reached a turnaround just before 5K.  He gave me his blessing and I sped around it at what felt like a 45-degree angle.  I looked at my watch and saw that I was running at a 6:52 pace, as if releasing the pent-up moderation from yesterday’s 10-mile downhill.  It would have been so easy to kick down that portion unrestrained, but I had kept myself in check.  Today I was hungry and I gave into that primal urge to fly, soon overtaking the large 3:55 pace group.

The course flattened quickly and I returned to a stable pace.  My lungs were fine, my breathing was controlled and relaxed, but my legs were still very acidic.  Ignoring the aches was proving difficult, but I had no choice.  Either I push through it and continue my sub-4 streak or groan my way through an unpleasant race.  About a mile later, every single person around me uttered a loud, collective groan.  I was so focused on my body, dialed into every electric response that I didn’t notice that the path ahead was getting cut off by a train.

It wasn’t a hallucination.  The striped signals were down, red lights were flashing and volunteers had brought in a large, orange mesh fence to stop the torrent of people coming at them.  While many runners looked indignant, scoffing loudly and craning their necks to the sky, I couldn’t help but laugh.  It was just a passenger train, so it only slowed us down by a minute, tops.  Had this been a freight train, I would have joined the outrage.  Once it was past the intersection (and literally not a second later), everyone scrambled under the gate and tried to catch up with their non-train selves.

I foresee a future tagline: Train to Beat the Train

I foresee a future tagline: Train to Beat the Train (Google Earth)

The next part of the race was the worst.  We were on a paved road that ran between an industrial park and a train yard.  Soon the four lanes bottlenecked into what felt like two.  Aid stations became somewhat claustrophobic, there were few bands to speak of, and we had nothing pretty to look at except for distant hills experiencing the advent of fall.  My legs weren’t doing any better and by this point the race was starting to feel like a controlled bonk.  But there was a bizarre silver lining to this: had this been any other race, I’d feel nervous or downright awful at how much I was struggling so early.  But this time, I knew why I was tired.  I could point to the reason so really, my expectations were lining up.

Exactly how I derived some sense of optimism from that, I still don’t know.

At some point between seeing the 3:25 and 3:30 pace groups on their way back, I saw Mike.  I found his blog almost exactly a year ago, drawn to his keen eye for detail, elevated diction, and the reverent way in which he described his Chicago Marathon experience.  Since then, we’ve been regular readers of each other’s racing exploits.  We exchanged a quick hello before continuing on our ways.  I reached the end of this awful gray out-and-back and turned straight into the sun.  I took my sunglasses, which had fogged up by the first mile, and wiped them with my shirt.  I put them on to find that I had just distributed sweat in thick, opaque streaks.  While it was better than my other option, blindness, my sight was limited to just bobbing silhouettes ahead of me.

I somehow saw Otter to my left, running towards the turnaround.  He told me he was thinking it would be a 4:30 – 4:45 race for him.  I joked that we had just passed mile 35 and he chuckled, but later admitted to me that it took him a few seconds to understand what I meant.  I guess I wasn’t the only one slightly out of sorts.

The marathon split from the half around mile 11.  In almost every single case where there’s a half marathon option, the vast majority of spots are dedicated to it, leaving the marathoners to run a lonely second half.  In Portland, the exact opposite happened.  In fact, when the half marathoners abandoned us, I barely noticed a difference.

It looks boring on Google Earth, it's even worse in reality.

It looks boring on Google Earth, it’s even worse in reality. (Google Earth)

I couldn’t wait to leave the trainyard, so I was willing to forgive the gently rolling hills we ran from miles 11 through 14.  We eventually returned to the Willamette River, where the course flattened out.  I saw a large green suspension bridge on the horizon as I passed 25k.  In the last eight miles, I had somehow gotten stronger; as if I needed the last 15 miles to truly warm up.  Running wasn’t getting any easier, but I was no longer feeling tiny sears of pain with every step.  We had been told that the first miles would be the worst, but I never thought it would take this many.  I actually managed to smile during this section, wondering if this race would pan out like Bruce Willis’ character in Unbreakable or the incredibly convenient material “unobtainium” from The Core (not Avatar), both of which got stronger with additional pressure.  With this newfound vigor, I picked up the pace just a little.

Mile 11, picture courtesy of Katie

Mile 11, picture courtesy of Katie

But my hopes of invincibility were dashed when I realized that we would be crossing the river on that giant suspension bridge.  The road dodged left and immediately sloped upward, a group of marines stationed at the bottom to provide the necessary motivation.  During that long climb, I could have taken a walk break to enjoy a wall of trees in varying shades of fiery reds and burnt oranges.  But instead, I kept my head down and heaved upward.

Don’t bonk until 30k, I was telling myself.  You can bonk at 30k if you want, but get there first.

I had to change gears midway up the hill, breathing more per turnover to keep from exhausting myself.  It was tempting to walk, especially as I saw every other runner around me stop to recover.  It might have been smart to stop and walk, but I refused.  I kept running until I reached the top of the hill and made a sharp right onto the St. Johns Bridge.  I was breathing through my teeth as I reached the top of its barely perceptible arch, letting the downhill carry me past many runners.  Somewhere on the bridge, I realized that my Achilles was no longer hurting.  I really was getting stronger.

The St. Johns Bridge (Google Earth)

The St. Johns Bridge (Google Earth)

But over the next four miles that strength would once again be tested.  We were running through neighborhoods overlooking the Willamette River, the city of Portland far away on the opposite shore.  Had I taken the time to examine the race’s altitude chart, I would have known that a gradual uphill would throttle my legs over the next four miles.  I passed 30k feeling relatively fine, but every time I looked ahead, after every turn, I wasn’t rewarded with the end of this climb.  Like the St. John’s Bridge, the slope was barely there – just enough to make you feel a little weaker with every mile, as if with each step the race was slowly leeching its runners.

Get to 35k, I thought.  Once you get to 35k, you can bonk.

The lead-up to the St. Johns Bridge (Google Streetview)

The lead-up to the St. Johns Bridge (Google Streetview)

I had started to sweat a lot more.  All morning it had been foggy and cool, with a frosty breeze sliding under my shoulders.  The chill kept me from abandoning my long-sleeved shirt.  But the sun had been lording over us for almost two hours now and the uphill had started to sponge all the energy out of me (and I thought the Pacific Northwest was supposed to be perennially cloudy).  I would have tossed the shirt, but it was from a race I ran in 2009 and sentimental attachment kept me from shedding it.

The crowds were out now, with signs bobbing on sidewalks and strangers supporting indiscriminately.

“You guys look great!” a woman said to my left.  “You look like you’ve done this before!”
“I have.  Yesterday.”

She and several people around her laughed at me, but I don’t know if they quite understood what I meant.  They most likely disregarded my comment as the raving madness that consumes you in the throes of a long-distance race.  Onwards and upwards I continued until I reached the top of the climb right at 35k.  The Willamette River beckoned me at the end of a delightfully long downhill, the weight of the earth and the 48 miles in my legs all but shoving me downward.  Aided by this pull, I reached the 3:45 pace group.  I tried to lock myself in with their pace only to watch them slowly pull away.

Get to 40k.  You can bonk at 40k.  You can bonk at … bonk at … bonk …

Runners approaching the finish line

Runners approaching the finish line

And then it happened.  The sack of bricks that hovers over every runner, held in place by a thread that thins with every mile until it is just a tiny filament, finally became too heavy.  I reached mile 23 and stopped running.  My head slumped and my hands slid to my waist as I reached complete exhaustion.  The time bomb had gone off, my legs were flooded with cement and the long march began.  For the next two miles, I would run to the nearest mile marker, and then take a walking break.  I kept up a sluggish pace until mile 24, where a circular onramp guided us across the Broadway Bridge and back into the heart of the city.  While I felt like I was running uphill, I’m sure that I could have walked faster.  I was a sad sight.

Once back in the city, there was little to do but just keep moving forward.  Unless a sinkhole were to eat me up, I was all but guaranteed to finish under four hours.  I had no other time goals, so there was no real point in speeding up.  But I didn’t want this weekend to end with a crawl.  I took one last sip of Ultima sports drink at an aid station that couldn’t have been more than four blocks away from the finish – placed to help runners around mile 1 – and took off.  Before the final turn, I heard someone call out my name and turned to see Mike and his wife Katie beyond the barricades with a camera.

I look delirious.

I look delirious.  Picture courtesy of Katie.

After one last turn onto 3rd Avenue, I made it to the finish line in 3:48 and change.  There was no glorious moment of triumph, no tears of relief or even a primal scream to the heavens.  I simply turned off my watch and basked in the satisfaction of a challenge completed.  My sense of accomplishment, and to a significant degree, my pride had both been hurt by my withdrawal from the North Country Run last month.  As often as I told myself that I had done the right thing, it still stung to put so much effort into something and not see it through to the end.  Reaching the finish line in Portland and running 52.4 miles in two days was not only a return to form, but a vindication of my decision to call it quits in Michigan’s forests.  It wasn’t until I held that medal, which wouldn’t look out of place on a decorated soldier’s uniform, that everything was finally okay.

The finishers chute looked more like a smuggler’s bazaar than the usual smorgasbord of carb-heavy foods.  Friendly volunteers were handing out the expected bananas and oranges, but past them I was given two velvet pouches, one with a coin and the other with a pendant-sized replica of the medal.  I kept walking and was offered a rose by another cheerful volunteer, symbolizing Portland’s nickname, the City of Roses.  Finally, just when I thought I had seen everything, another volunteer offered me a potted tree.  I was half expecting someone to offer me a live chicken at the next table.

This is so Portland, the recurring sentiment played out in my head.


The 2013 Portland Marathon Medal, front and back

I left the race and hobbled to the 26.3-mile post-race party, where I sipped on a local IPA and met the man behind Blisters, Cramps & Heaves and his wife / race crew / photographer Katie, who impressively managed to get some excellent pictures of me despite having never met me before.  That night Otter and I dined with them at the Deschutes Brewery Public House, where we exchanged war stories, talked about future running plans and waxed glycogenic on the things that only diehard runners care about.  I realized then that I have two pretty solid streaks going: running marathons in under four hours and meeting amazingly friendly and down-to-earth people afterward.  You know who you are.

Left to right: Otter, me, Mike

Left to right: Otter, me, Mike.  Picture courtesy of Katie.

Once sufficiently full of food and local brews, Otter and I walked what felt like twenty blocks uphill to meet up with Will, a friend of mine from middle school, at Pope House Bourbon Lounge.  It was a dimly lit bar in what looked like an old Victorian house (again, so Portland) but we enjoyed ourselves because their craft beers were $3.75 each and Will is good people.

And so ended our double-marathon experience.  If we’re being completely honest, I don’t think I will do something like this again.  Sure, you have to take anything I say with a grain of salt, because “never again” is a popular saying in the sport that usually precedes “maybe someday” which is just shy of “where’s my credit card?”  But I truly didn’t enjoy the Portland Marathon as much as I would have had it been the only race of the weekend.  I was too focused on pain maintenance, on keeping a reliable stride to minimize discomfort, on second-guessing every tiny pain as a harbinger of bonk-provoking doom to look around and absorb the city’s autumnal glow or the beautiful music being played by its urban minstrels.

Will is moving to Denver soon, after 3 years of being a Portlander.  Portlandan?  Portlangolier?

Will is moving to Denver soon, after 3 years of being a Portlander. Portlandan? Portlangolier?

But what an experience it was nevertheless.  These two races were so different in every measurable way that it was easy to forget they happened just a day apart.  The first was remote, wooded and lost in an ice-carved canyon, the second in the middle of a raucous city.  One started silently in between mountains, the other with a former marathon legend under steel skyscrapers.  Leavenworth allowed me to run smoothly, evenly and enjoy the sinewy elegance of conversation on the run; Portland skewered and shamed me by pushing my body to the brink of collapse.  Washington showed me of how far I’ve come as an athlete as I ran comfortably at a pace I could only dream about four years ago and reminded me that running long distances can be fun and not a lonely, isolated experience.  But Oregon reintroduced me to the gut-busting wall and over the same distance proved to me once again that running is hard, that not all pain is significant, and that suffering is optional when you’re inching ever closer to your goal.

Marathon_Map 043 (OR)

State 33: Washington (2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon)

My desire to run the 2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon, a relatively small race in central Washington, was borne out of escalation and frugality.  Last summer, I ran two half marathons in two states over one weekend, which meant that it was only a matter of time before I attempted the same feat with two full marathons.  Having already committed to the 2013 Portland Marathon on October 6, I then decided to save money on my 50-states quest by only flying to the Pacific Northwest once.  Within minutes of finding the Leavenworth Marathon, an event that takes place the day before about 5 hours away, I asked Otter if he’d be interested in a double.  As we’ve all learned, his impulsive thirst for adventure easily outmatches his restraint and reason, so by January, we had our two huge challenges for 2013 clearly mapped out: run a 50-miler and then double-up on marathons.

The 50-miler was a success … for Otter.  He crossed the finish line of the North Country Run with a kick in his step, literally dancing across the finish line, while I chose to drop out just before mile 40 due to a knee injury.  My biggest justification (or reason or excuse) for doing so was to minimize the chances of canceling the marathon double, just six weeks away.  It wasn’t the easiest decision to make, but I kept reminding myself, often loudly, of the main goal: run all fifty states.  After coming to terms with it, I rested, cross-trained, and built up my mileage back to the usual load.  My knee was responding positively, not a single twinge or stab to report.

The marathon start was remote and beautiful

The marathon start was remote and beautiful (Google Earth)

After a painfully long Friday, I arrived at the Coast Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington, into which Otter had already checked us.  I brought with me our bibs for Portland and a pair of objects that would put a completely new twist on our marathon experiences.  But before I say what they were, I must take step back.

Running two marathons in two days is, by many accounts, a little nuts.  To the average person, running just one marathon is excessive and even for serial runners, they’re simply difficult.  So to do two consecutively requires a little more training, an affinity for fatigue, and the stamina to continue pushing yourself when every muscle is ushering you towards collapse.  However, even with all of these discouraging factors, there are many people who double-up anyway.  In fact, many nutcases go beyond two.  There was even last year’s infamous Quadzilla in Seattle, which hosted four marathons over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend.  The Mainly Marathons series one-ups them by routinely hosting up to five consecutive marathons in five different states all around the country.

So it’s not at all uncommon.  But what I have noticed is that, for the most part, whenever intrepid runners double-up, they tend to run each race at a very conservative pace.  In other words, really slowly.  I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s accomplishments because it still takes a lot of dedication, endurance and mental willpower to cover 26.2 miles twice in one weekend.  But for me, the marathon has always been there to push me to my limits, forcing me to cross every finish line with nothing left, each drop of sweat and spit forever grafting itself on the experience.

Pacers ready to go, picture courtesy of Otter

Pacers ready to go, picture courtesy of Otter

But I’m also not stupid.  There’s no way I could gut it out as fast as possible two days in a row.

I therefore decided the best way to challenge myself over the weekend without dying was to run both marathons in under four hours.  The four-hour mark was my target at my first ever marathon (which I missed by 3 minutes and 21 seconds), so it felt appropriately difficult.  So after a five-hour drive from Portland, I met up with Otter with a pair of homemade pacer signs, one with a Triforce inspired by the Legend of Zelda emblazoned with “3:59” and the other boasting a Michigan State Spartan head showing “3:58.”  Why the minute difference?

Because that way one of us could sprint the last 0.2?  Because it’s a conversation starter?  Because Otter is obnoxious?

And yet, the pacing signs weren’t simply the product of an urge to do something new.  We both knew ourselves very well – we never stick to our race plans.  If we ever say we’re going to take it easy during a race, adrenaline inevitably takes over and we push ourselves to run fast.  If there’s ever a reason to take it easy, we kick it to the curb and step on the gas.  But with an additional race on Sunday, we knew we had to find a way to anchor ourselves to a 9-minute pace.  We achieved that by becoming the race’s only unofficial pace leaders.

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon Google-Earth Rendering

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon Google-Earth Rendering

For the full Google-Earth map, please click here.

The next morning we boarded a bus around 6:15, which left the tiny town of Leavenworth and climbed Icicle Road to the marathon start.  We would be running about ten miles downhill from the start to the city, with the half marathoners (all 1500 of them) not starting until two hours later.  It was dark and chilly as we wandered around the start, drawing attention with our pace signs from the 300 other marathoners.  Several of them asked why we were the only pacers, whether we would run even splits, and why Otter’s was a minute faster.  But mostly we smiled and reciprocated everyone’s enthusiasm to run down a rugged canyon carved by Icicle Creek.

The race started on time with very little pomp or circumstance.  There was a slight uphill to contend with before the long downhill.  Otter and I spent those first five minutes gauging our pace, spending equal amounts of time enjoying the view and checking our watches.  It didn’t take long to settle into a comfortable stride between 8:55 and 9:05 minutes per mile.  With the vast majority of the field waiting for the half marathon to start down in the city, I was unsure if we would gather enough runners to warrant being pacers.  I even mentioned it about a mile into the race.

“Dude, look behind us,” Otter said with a proud smirk.

leavenworth-marathon-01As if trying to furtively evaluate the attractiveness of someone sitting behind me at a restaurant, I turned somewhat awkwardly to see that there were about seven or eight people all bunched up immediately behind us.  Sure, it was still very early in the race, but it looked like our signs’ gravity was working.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Down and down we went, hovering steadily at 9 minutes per mile, doing everything possible to avoid a screaming pace.  We were soon talking to the runners around us, getting to know our 4-hour harem.  There was Jeff in the yellow singlet, who quit smoking two years ago and took up running as a substitute, choosing Leavenworth as his first marathon.  I met Mary and Nora, two childhood friends from Juneau, Alaska, running their third and second marathons respectively.  They also pitched the Frank Maier Marathon to me as a potential race.  We also met Bean (whose real name is Mark Bieber and has a brother named Justin), whose 3:19 PR makes him a speed demon and an unlikely runner in our group.  It was a great group of newcomers and veterans, all more than willing to share their life experiences, none moreso than my co-pacer Otter.

“When we decided to do this,” I told Nora as we continued downhill about six miles in, “I told my buddy back there that I wouldn’t be much of a cheerleader.  I just can’t bring myself to be that pacer who yells inspirational things and rallies everyone into battle.  Which is why he’s here.”  It was common for me to eavesdrop on him talking about a race or an unrelated yet colorful story, receiving hoots from whomever was next to him at the moment.

“… that was my first marathon, and it sucked …”
“… and then my friend just hits the ground …”
“… but of course I decided, f*ck that, so I …”

leavenworth-marathon-02While we had started chatting with our group, the mountainous scenery and breathtaking views were not lost on us.  We would frequently pair a loud “whoa!” with a quick fling of our pace signs to our sides, pointing out a snowcapped mountain or a dew-drenched rock.  Hours earlier at the start, we were thrilled just to see stars.  On more than one occasion, someone from our pace group would chuckle and we’d have to remind them that we flatland city boys didn’t have such monumental vistas in Chicago.

I was having such a fun time with this group.  In both training and races, I’m a solo runner.  Even on the rare occasion that I join a pace group, I don’t really do much talking and inevitably bail on the group within a few miles.  But the banter and fun demeanor of our little pod was making for a singularly unique running experience.  It’s one thing to run in a group where you’re the follower or no one’s the leader.  But in this case, we were leading the group, setting the pace and everyone was having a good time.  Since we could have counted the number of spectators up until this point with one hand, it was fun to have people to talk to.

I was legitimately saddened that it didn’t last.

Somewhere between miles 21 and 23.

Somewhere between miles 21 and 23.

Once we hit mile 10, the downhill stopped.  No longer aided by gravity and wanting to keep even splits for the entire race, running the same pace quickly became taxing.  After a short out-and-back over a paved road and around a cemetery, we passed a few spectators in costume.  We saw Tigger, a few Sumo wrestlers and Gumby, whose normally pinched helium voice had been replaced by a hungover drawl.  A mile later, we were in a forest, running on pine straw and sand, climbing up gently rolling hills and zigzagging through sharp turns.  Our pace was no longer a cakewalk and we dropped everyone but Bean.

“What made you want to pace this race?” he asked us.
“We’re running Portland tomorrow, so we wanted to keep our speed in check.”
“You guys are running Portland tomorrow?” he judged incredulously.  “That’s insane.  I’m getting wasted after this.”

Chugging through mile 24

Chugging through mile 24

After several winding turns through forest trails, we entered the Fish Hatchery where our packet pickup had been three hours earlier to behold a huge crowd of runners under a large yellow “Start” banner.  I scarcely had a chance to enjoy the flood of half marathoners before a bullhorn went off.  We had reached the half start in just under two hours and our races officially converged.  It felt like we had invaded a completely different event.  Just two minutes ago we were three people plodding through the woods, now surrounded by hundreds of fresh faces.

I thought the infusion of so many half marathoners would make our pace group grow again to what it once was.  Surely among so many runners we would be able to attract a group with two hours as their half marathon goal.  But over the course of the next 13.1 miles, we didn’t manage to pick anyone up.  Keeping a solid 9-minute pace, we weaved in and out of neighborhoods, through the tiny town of Leavenworth, on dirt trails alongside Icicle Creek and back onto paved roads where I had my first mid-race beer sip.  Otter and I would remark on how incredibly varied the race was.  It wasn’t until miles 20-24 that we got just a little bored.  This section consisted of two eerily identical out-and-back segments, to the point where I commented that it felt like a Twilight Zone episode.

Finishing a pinch too fast

Finishing a pinch too fast

On the way back from each section, we made sure to keep our eyes open for our marathon friends.  We saw Jeff, chugging along confidently and not too far back and Nora gave us a shout-out before zipping by us.  Bean’s wife was running the half marathon and she passed us during one of these sections.  She didn’t feel at all ashamed about leaving her husband in the dust and he chided her for running only half the distance.  In retrospect, it was really nice of him to stick with us, especially since he was capable of running so much faster.  Had he not stuck around with us for the entire race, we would have just been a couple of weirdos waving sticks at pretty things.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said to Bean as we scuffled over the soft pine straw we had visited 14 miles earlier and waking the underused muscles that let you run sideways. “But why are you running with us?  You can run so much faster.”
“Yeah, but it sucks.”
I laughed.
“No, I’m serious,” Bean said as we approached one of the final miles.  “It’s much more fun this way.  Running fast is painful.”

He definitely had a point.  The last miles of any marathon are awful no matter how good you feel.  But today we had found a happy medium.  We weren’t exactly phoning it in by finishing under four hours, the aches and pains in our legs certainly bearing witness to the struggle.  But we weren’t killing ourselves doing it either.  It was, dare I say it, fun.  It certainly helped that we were running a beautiful race surrounded by mountains and forest, put together by volunteers and local supporters who were cheery and happy to be out there.

Left to right: Otter, Bean, me

Left to right: Otter, Bean, me

We emerged from the trees and back toward the fish hatchery, where the bright yellow banner awaited us.  A crowd had formed on both sides of the chute, multiplying the total amount of spectators we had seen all day by fifty.  Though we had only brought one person to the finish line (and he could have easily done it without us), I was proud of our pacing duties.  Sure, we were a little fast at 3:56 and 3:57 respectively, but we ran evenly the entire way.  If I ever pace in an unofficial capacity again, I’ll make sure to add an “ish” next to the time.

leavenworth-marathon-07Although we really wanted to stick around and cheer for our marathon friends, our hotel checkout was within the hour, so we couldn’t stay for long.  With our shiny bottle-opener medals and finisher t-shirts draped on our shoulders, we found our car and drove back to the hotel.  We didn’t have the post-marathon luxury of doing and eating whatever we wanted.  In order to not melt down at tomorrow’s race, the next 12 hours would be crucial.  We had to force food into our systems, stay hydrated, drive five hours to Portland without too much muscle atrophy, hydrate again and eat some more.  With so much to think about, coupled with nervous uncertainty, I didn’t get a chance to realize that my knee never once complained.

Marathon_Map 042 (WA)

The Catharsis of Ultra

1. How Far Are You Willing To Go?

0824_northcountryrun 33

It was on the 17th of July last year that Otter and I had the following chat conversation, which has been abridged for clarity and fluidity:

me: i got Marla super hooked on doing the north country run next August
……so … yeah, keep that on your radar
Otter: north country run?
me: yeah, it’s a trail run out in Manistee, MI
Otter: oh is that the one with the MASSIVE medals?
        and by the way
        how fucking dare you get someone else hooked on a race before me
        which….which distance would you run?
me: 1/2
Otter: when are you going to bite the bullet and do an ultra?
         god damn this race looks awesome
me: i’m not yet ready to tackle an ultra
……flat marathons kill me already as it is
Otter: it’s weirdly intriguing to me
        would give me a full year to train
        but I have no idea how I would crew it
me: oh shit, it’s a 50 miler
Otter: not a 50K
me: haha, are we talking about our first 50-miler now?
……is this the beginning of the planning stages for a 50-mile run?

Thirteen months later, we are those people, lined up under the cover of trees in Michigan’s Manistee State Forest.  A small group of about 200 of us are about to start the 2013 North Country Run 50-Miler, the marathoners having started thirty minutes earlier and the half-marathoners waiting on the sidelines.  We all exchange nervous looks, wondering if this is actually happening.  No doubt some of us have dreamt of this day, but here we are, at another potential milestone, nervously shuffling our legs in anticipation of the trials ahead.

(left to right): Marla, me, Otter, Chris, Jay

(left to right): Marla, me, Otter, Chris, Jay

I hadn’t slept the night before.  I tossed and turned, my stomach crackling with electricity.  Despite that, I was eager to start and see how I would fare over the next eleven hours.

The previous year’s racers roasted in mid-90s temperatures.  But high mercury levels didn’t deter us from signing up almost a year ago.  Suddenly the twelve months that followed seemed to revolve around completing this one singular race.  I had to factor it into every single other race I contemplated and it was what led us to run our first 50k in May.  It felt like preparing for my first marathon four years ago, but on a much grander scale.  It always felt so far away, like the event that would never come.  But lo and behold, suddenly it was just a few months away, then a week.  Even as I write this, I can’t quite comprehend how quickly the last year flew by.

At 7:30 in the morning, the race director sends us on our way.  As I feel those first soft steps on the grass, I wave to my wife Steph and our friend Marla who was running the half marathon.

I’m not sure how my legs are going to react to running on trails again for many reasons.

2. How Hard Are You Willing to Train?

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We must be going super fast to achieve that motion blur

We must be going super fast to achieve that motion blur

During the winter and spring, I bought special trail shoes, went out of my way to run trails, and tested my stomach with different foods.  For one reason or another I did none of that over the summer, opting instead for running long, longer and super long.  It was not uncommon for me to run 30-50 miles per weekend and July was my biggest month ever at 223 miles.  I wasn’t getting any faster but I certainly felt like I was slowly reaching Peak Endurance.  Long runs felt effortless and my legs were surprisingly fresh the next day.  The so-called “food tuning” process I thought I would master did not happen.  I just ran.  I ran far, I ran until I was exhausted and then I continued running.  I even went for a long run at 5 in the morning in San Francisco after landing three hours earlier, napping for thirty minutes and spending the entire day in vineyards with friends.

And then I knocked out a 3-hour run the next morning.

As I run that first short loop through the forest, I try to stay focused on how I feel.  Every step reaches out, hugs the ground, and pushes forward.  Short, repetitive, delicate.  My arms stay close to my body, my focus on the ground ahead, looking out for roots and furtive rocks.  Everything feels fine so far.  The woods are cool, the sun nowhere in sight and the summer heat replaced by friendly zephyrs.  Otter and his friend Chris are a little bit ahead of me and Jay, who attempted the Leadville 100 last year and came to the Midwest to run with us, is already out of sight.  Nine minutes into the race, I stop to walk.  This was how I had learned to run seemingly forever.  Run nine minutes, walk one.  Lots of runners sidestep their away past, and part of me feels a little silly, but I know I will thank myself later if I reel in the exuberance.

0824_northcountryrun 19Three miles in we face our first climb, where I end up catching Otter and Chris.  We stick together for the next three miles or so, alternating slow uphills with fast descents.  We are cruising, cracking jokes with an insouciance that belies how much race we have ahead of us.

I went into training for the North Country Run with an aggressive combination of focus and recklessness.  On the one hand, I kicked up my mileage considerably, found time wherever I was to run, be it Florida, New Jersey or California.  I hit my numbers, but it wasn’t without a bit of bullheaded risk.  After the Ice Age 50k, I took a full ten days off to recover and then jumped back into training.  Conventional wisdom says to never increase your maximum weekly mileage by more than 10%, but if I was serious about running fifty miles, I had to kick that up considerably.  A ten mile run became commonplace, twenty miles lost their status as a rite of passage – they happened quite often and with little fanfare.  All was going well.

Until twelve days before race day.

Otter & Chris running the flats

Otter & Chris running the flats

Midway through a 13-miler I developed the dreaded runner’s knee, or patellofemoral pain syndrome.  Two days later, I ran two miles because that’s as far as I could tolerate.  My first ever 50-miler was around the corner and I was facing the possibility of not even starting.  I was already feeling shaky from not running on trails all summer … and now this?

The knee pain and my first potential DNS (Did Not Start) forced me to evaluate what racing and running means to me.  Training had been intense, but also very enjoyable.  I got to run in Miami with my mom chasing me on a bike, on the boardwalks of Ocean City with my uncle-in-law and over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  At home, I enjoyed every single mile of Chicago’s lake front path, from Loyola all the way to the South Shore Cultural Center and every sun-soaked park in between.  But without the race, was it worth it?  If you trained your ass off to hear a tree fall in the woods but you weren’t there to hear it because you were saddled with a knee injury, did it ever make a sound?

Aid Station #2, Watermelon City

Aid Station #2, Pineapple City

We cruise past the first aid station around 4.5 miles in.  My knee is behaving admirably, almost perfectly.  On occasion I feel a tiny echo of pain but it never lasts more than a few strides.  I feel great and run with a smile.  At the top of a long uphill, I behold the side-winding slide to the bottom.

“Are you gentlemen ready to fly?” I say before leaning forward and taking the hill.  Otter gives me his blessing and that is the last I will see of them for many, many hours.

The trail changes shape several times over the next ten miles.  Grass beds become sandpits, branches lean into the trail and create a lush canopy only to recede a few steps later.  Large mounds of straw and dirt suddenly erupt in greenery.  The sun, largely kept obscured by heavy tree cover, manages to pierce the verdant ceiling and cover the path in light here and then.  The perfect silence only makes it easier to get lost in the scenic beauty.  The only time where I snap out of this trance is when a course volunteer detours us from the trail to avoid an angry nest of hornets.

In other words, the run is going very well.  Until it isn’t.

3. How Much Are You Willing To Fight?

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I reach the fourth aid station and find my drop bag.  I toss my shirt in a plastic bag, refill my water bottle, stuff my pockets with snacks and take off after thanking the volunteers.  I immediately face a steep climb before the path flattens out, wild flowers growing on both sides of the single track.  It would have been the perfect time for another reverie were it not for a few dreaded twinges coming from my left knee.

Marla sprinting toward the finish of her first trail half marathon

Marla sprinting toward the finish of her first trail half marathon

I had almost forgotten that I could hurt again.  This wasn’t the first race that I run with a ghostly doubt in the back of my mind.  But in the last three years, my body has always managed to rally on race day, to exorcise all pain from every joint for the duration of the race.  Even if it comes back at the finish line, it knows game time and steels itself.  But today that is not happening.  I must be losing a few shades of color from my face as I realize what’s happening and with this realization come many bad thoughts.  I try to force them out, try to will my knee into cooperating with me.  It is thus far a losing battle.

I try walking a little more and that seems to help.  But the remaining twelve miles to the start area have the majority of the elevation change.  My knee recovers enough on the slow uphill to tolerate the fast downhill, so with this strategy I drag myself from one aid station to the next.  Though my progress is encouraging, I still wrestle with what to do.  The knee isn’t getting worse but it isn’t improving either.  The organizers give ultrarunners the choice to finish after one loop and run “just a marathon,” an opportunity I am seriously considering.

But I came here to run 50 miles.  I had talked about this race to anyone who would listen – friends, family, co-workers, strangers in elevators.  I had spent many an ascetic weekend sticking to my training routine.  What kind of message would I send to myself and others if I came back from this trip having done only half of my committed goal?

Just moments earlier, I had made the decision to start the second loop.

Just moments earlier, I had made the decision to start the second loop.

I push on, as if hypnotized.  After the last aid station, I hear distant cheers and know the finish line is close.  The last ten rolling miles had felt like an eternity, but I am determined to continue.  With one foot in front of the other, I climb the last hill of the course on a sandy trail divided by yellow tape.  I reach the top of a ridge that overlooks the Manistee State Forest, calm waves of green stretching into the horizon, a wooden bench the only sign of humanity.  I stop to take it all in before stomping down the trail, the beautiful vista having invigorated me and sedated my knee pain.  I catch up to two ladies who had been pacing me for much of the last five miles.  My alternating strategy of running and walking has us trading leads many times, and in a race of this length, that makes us very close friends.

“You still have a loop to do, don’t you?” one of them asks.

At this moment, I know the answer.  Of course I have another loop to do.

We explode out of the trees and back to the start area, 25 miles done.  I see Steph and Marla and I immediately want to talk about how I’m doing.  But Steph is much more focused than I am.

“Tell me what you need,” she says, my drop bag and our cooler within reach.
“My knee has been bugging me since mile 14.”
“Do you need food?  Water?  What should I get?”
“I’m feeling good though-”
“Do you need GU or Stingers?”
“How’d your race go?” I ask Marla.
“Fourth in my age group!”
“Do you want stuff now or after the marathon loop?” Steph asks, bringing me back to reality.
“I’ll … I’ll just do the loop now.”
“Ok, go!”

That’s the mark of a good crew – focusing on what you need and not letting the runner’s desultory mind take over.  After the 1.2-mile loop, I’m at the marathon mark in just a little over five hours, feeling fresh, powerful, like I can do anything.  I load up on GUs, Stinger Waffles, refill my water bottle, dip my buff in ice water and kiss Steph.  She came all the way up here with us to stand around for far too many hours with a subpar DJ blaring the same tired tunes in the background.  That kind of dedication and care is (one of the many, many reasons) why I married her.

“I didn’t come all the way here to run a marathon,” I say and take off, cheers of “Go Ultra!” chiming in from all sides as I enter the woods for the second loop.

Jay figuring out his business 26.2 miles down

Jay figuring out his business 26.2 miles down

The next two miles are a walk in the clouds.  I am running light on my feet, breathing easily and completely cool.  I even touch my chest to find that I am barely sweating.  I walk every ten minutes, zip the downhills and feel energized with every step.  Negative thoughts have taken a positive tone and a smile returns to my lips.

I’m doing this.  I’m actually doing this.  This is what I came out to do.  This stupid, painful, impossibly hard thing, but with one foot in front of the other, I will make it happen.  

The first long climb seems to take forever to scale and it sucks all the wind out of the air.  I reach the top and continue running but soon my stomach starts to fail me.  None of the food that I’m carrying on me sounds appetizing.  At the sight of an aid station, I pick up my pace and dig into the watermelon tray, shoving five slices of heaven down my throat.  I don’t even like watermelons but I’m eating it like it’s been a lifelong favorite.  Once again, I’m a new man and it’s time to soldier on.  I pass 31.1 miles and do a little dance to celebrate passing the farthest distance I’ve ever run.  I have a delectably flat section ahead of me so I manage to hammer out several miles with little complaint.

My knee isn’t improving, but it’s not worsening … too quickly.  I hurt more now than I did at the start of the second loop, but so far the pain is still manageable.  I reach the next aid station and my heart breaks when I see that they don’t have any watermelon.  But this one has something better: pineapples.  I stuff six to seven wedges into my system, fully aware that I never eat fruits on the run.  But my body saw something it wanted to eat so I gave in.  I might be hallucinating and eating a dry sponge but they are the best sponges I have ever eaten.  I can taste the sweetness all the way in the back of my head and the rush of flavor is almost dizzying.  After this much-needed jolt, I continue.

But soon things get worse.  Downhills start to send sharp stabs of pain into my knee and the uphill walks are no longer keeping the agony at bay.  I learn that I can only move pain-free if I walk the flat parts, which are reserved for running to keep a decent pace.  I also can’t recognize the trail anymore.  Red flags pop out every now and then from the dirt to reassure me that I’m on the right path, but none of it looks familiar.  The more lost I feel, the worse the pain in my knee.  The pain gets so bad that I can’t run for more than four minutes without a walking break.  Ultra runners are starting to pass me with more frequency.  Many of them stop to ask how I’m feeling.  Rather than let my negative thoughts become contagious, I respond with typical, gung-ho affirmations like “Keeping it going” or “One step at a time.”

Tiny inclines that I barely noticed the first time around are killing me during the second loop

Tiny inclines that I barely noticed the first time around are killing me during the second loop

Although I am keeping it going, one step at a time, it’s at a snail’s pace.  Negative thoughts once again invade my mantra and I allow myself one loud curse into the unfeeling woods.  One quick, angry curse for the pain concentrated in one tiny, damned spot.  My quads are tired but otherwise fine.  My calves could use a break but they are working overtime without complaint; hamstrings are in fighting shape and ready for more.  I haven’t cramped at all nor have I become nauseous or short of air.  At this point, I face the sad truth.  I have to make a decision, soon.  Am I going to do something stupid or live to run another day?

I think of professional ultrarunner Scott Jurek, having read his book Eat and Run two weeks ago.  While he managed to endure far longer and harsher races, there were several times in his autobiography where injury prevented him from finishing a race.  I keep reminding myself that overcoming muscle pains, blisters, spasms and cramps is completely different from running through a potentially serious injury.  I know what I have, and it is definitely the latter.

But the decision is never that easy.  There’s no shortage of motivation to get you through difficulties like this.  They say pain is temporary, that glory is forever.  They say that ultrarunning is a mental game. They say that you have to dig deep, to find a source of mental strength to carry you over the hot coals.  But those aphorisms are meant to treat black toenails, sore legs, and upset stomachs.  They don’t apply to potential stress fractures, torn ligaments or bruised tendons.  At least I don’t think they should.

So really, how badly do I want this?

4. How Much Are You Able To Learn From It?

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I reach the next aid station, 36 miles into the race.  I see the watermelon tray and forget all my woes.  As I stand there with the fruit’s refreshing sweetness dissolving in my mouth, I see Chris approaching from the trail, fatigue written all over his face.

“No shit!” I yell and he looks up with a surprised look, almost as if he doesn’t recognize me.  I wouldn’t have expected to see me here either.  “Dude, you’re looking strong!”
“Yeah, we’ll see,” he says.  “My hamstrings are going to seize up any minute.  This isn’t going to end well.”
“How’s Otter?”
“I left him at the last aid station.  He was overheating.”
“What’s his name?” a volunteer says, alarmed.  “Tell us his name and we’ll check on him when he gets here.”
“He’ll be fine,” Chris replies after giving them his name.  “He’s not going to do anything stupid.”

Jay on his way to the finish line

Jay on his way to the finish line

I eat a few more slices of watermelon and leave, letting Chris evaluate his caloric needs.  Almost immediately after the aid station I face a very steep, unforgiving hill.  An earthquake must have taken place between loops because I can’t remember this mountain.  Every step feels like misery and I can’t fathom the thought of running another hundred feet, let alone another half marathon.  But for now, I have no choice.  I stubbornly move forward, muttering imprecations at the tiny spot on my knee that is solely responsible for my grimace.

Eventually Chris catches up.  He asks how I’m doing and I decide to be honest.  I tell him about my knee and how my stomach is also starting to do a few flips.

……“Did you throw up?” he asks.
……“You sound like you have.”

So I guess the misery is coming through in my voice.  I tell him I don’t want to hold him back but he’s enjoying the walk break.  Not long after, he takes off, looking strong.  I hope Otter’s okay.  Given my current status though, I keep looking behind me to see if he’s caught me.  I continue walking for what feels like an eternity.  On occasion, I pick up the pace and run.  But mostly I walk alone with my thoughts, interrupted every ten minutes as I dodge to the side to let someone pass.  Downhills are a series of icy stabs, uphills are dull grinds.  I can feel the damage I’m doing, one wince at a time, and the last ten miles are nothing but hills.

Chris just seconds away from finishing his first 50-mile race

Chris just seconds away from finishing his first 50-mile race

After dragging myself over three miles of thick forest with a slight limp, I finally hear the next aid station.  Volunteers can see runners through the woods and begin clapping and whooping.  My walk becomes a run as I enter the clearing.  Under the tent two volunteers are tirelessly filling pitchers with Gatorade and keeping bees off the fruit.  Family members are sitting on the dirt, waiting for their runners and their smiles somehow brighten this cloudless day.

“Looking great, runner!” one of the volunteers says to me.  “What can we do for you?  We have broth, pineapples, sandwiches.  We can fill you up with Gatorade or water.  What’ll it be?”

“Thank you guys so much for the support,” I say after a deep breath.  I look at the three volunteers individually, allowing myself a fleeting moment of shame before doing what I have to do.  “But I’m afraid I have to drop out here.”

Without missing a beat, the volunteers change gears.  Chris had passed by earlier and mentioned to them that I was running with a bum knee, so they had set up a few chairs with an ice pack.  I sit down for the first time in almost nine hours and sink into the earth with the weight of almost forty miles.  Though I’ve stopped moving forward, my mind is still racing.

Am I doing the right thing?  Could I keep going?  What’s a little pain in the face of such a huge feat?  Ok, scratch that, what’s a LOT of pain plus the potential to seriously damage your knee when you’re talking about the glory of finishing a fifty-miler?  Why am I even doing this in the first place?

I catch myself wondering what people will think.

Does it matter?

Otter doing the Bernie at the finish line

Otter doing the Bernie at the finish line

I ask for a cell phone and text Steph to let her know my day is done and that I’ll be back at the starting line eventually.  Fifteen minutes pass and Otter shows up to the station, looking like he’s having fun.  He is happily absorbing the energy from the volunteers that I couldn’t reciprocate.  He sees me and doesn’t quite register what has happened until he spies the ice pack.  His look of dismay is genuine.  He knows more than anyone else how much I want to finish this.  But each person runs their own race and after I reassure him that I’m fine, he gets back to the aid station.  He has somehow become reborn since mile 32, joking with volunteers, bouncing back and forth between his drop bag and the aid tent as if tethered between them.

Meanwhile, I am slumped by the wayside, Stinger Waffles crushed to bits underneath me, the ice pack now a bag of cold water slowly sliding off my leg.  I feel pathetic and wish I could leave and go straight to the finish, but the volunteer in charge of that isn’t in the area yet.  Instead I watch as more people enter the aid station in varying stages of fatigue.  Some are heaving but set on finishing, others look like they just left home and skimming through a mental list of brunch places to visit afterward.  It would be uplifting in better circumstances.

Part of me was definitely happy to not look like this

Part of me was definitely happy to not look like this

I keep reminding myself of my overall goal: to run the fifty states.  This foray into the ultra community was a fun experiment, a side trip into a higher level of difficulty and determination.  But the stars didn’t line up for this race and there was no sense in taunting the cosmos.  Part of me still doesn’t want this to be the end.  A few minutes after Otter leaves, I stand up and run in place, briefly considering a superhuman last-minute ditch to the finish line.  But those last ten miles would have turned a nagging injury into a potentially serious threat to my long-term running career, hobbling me for more than just a few weeks.

With every passing minute, I come closer to terms with my decision.  Nobody’s invincible.  Greater and more disciplined athletes than I have been through this experience.  Today was my turn.  But it’d be disingenuous of me to say I’m completely at peace with it.  I really wanted to finish.  I never wanted the harsh blemish of a DNF on my racing history and it’s never fun to tell people that I had to drop out, especially when I made it a point to tell so many that I was running in the first place.  Plus, I chose this race for its enormous and beautiful medal, which I would have earned had I dropped at the marathon distance.  You get nothing for running 39.3 miles.

Huge Medal.

Huge Medal.

But I keep reminding myself that I can walk.  My legs are sore but I’m otherwise fine.  Had I continued, I would be writing with a different tone, likely describing the race more as a Pyrrhic victory than a meaningful personal accomplishment.  If this story sounds glum overall, it’s because I’m using it as an outlet for all the negative feelings I had during and since the race.  Overall it was a very fun weekend with good friends, heavy food and a grueling athletic endeavor.  Though I was more than envious of my friends as I watched them cross the finish line, I couldn’t help but revel in their success.  I know that Otter will be returning to the ultra distance, probably sooner than he suspects.  Chris may have conquered the distance but I’m not so sure he’ll be making a habit out of these absurd distances.  Marla has already said she’ll be back for more trail races, even saying she’d be happy to try a marathon.  And as for Jay, this was a walk in the park for him, a fun stepping stone on the way to truly insane runs.

I can’t say I’ll sign up for another 50-miler soon, but I’m glad I went for it.  So much of long distance running success depends on the simple act of committing that I couldn’t have come home without trying.  That medal I will see in my friends’ collections, hanging from the back of a closet hook or in a stylized shadowbox, and it will always remind me of the time when the race proved too much for my legs but not my drive.

There will be other races.

Wisconsin (2013 Ice Age Trail 50k)


The announcer took the microphone and began telling the 50k racers to line up on the wet grass.  I heard him from inside the cabin, where volunteers were managing packet pickup.  Almost comically, the sun burst through the clouds the instant I stepped outside.  Every runner, spectator and volunteer who had been tolerating several hours of intermittent rainfall began cheering for the warmth like angelic choirs.

You’re all welcome, I thought to myself as I scuttled past runners for a precautionary bathroom trip.  Almost ninety races done and I had yet to run in rain; my first ever 50k would not break the streak.

The Start / Finish / Aid Station of the Ice Age Trail 50

The Start / Finish / Aid Station of the Ice Age Trail 50

A few minutes later, I was toward the back of the pack, huddled with Otter, Jeff and Elizabeth.  Everyone was chattering nervously, eagerly anticipating the start of the Ice Age Trail 50k.  The truly unhinged group running the longer distance had been coming into the chute for about an hour, finishing nine miles out of fifty, the first part of a journey that, for most of them, would last between 11 and 14 hours.  Some looked extremely confident, as if they had just stepped out of their cars.  Others emerged from the path like they wanted it to be over, which was tragic considering they had forty-one miles left.

Those of us waiting by the start banner wouldn’t be running as far.  We weren’t many; the entire group could probably have fit in the small cabin where we had picked up our bibs earlier.  But the atmosphere was electric.  Nervous exchanges, loud laughter and shuffling feet came together for the ritualistic dance we were all performing.  But more to the point, the right people were there and their contributions to my exploits in long-distance running were perfectly summed up when I went to introduce my father in law Steve to Jeff.

“Hi,” Jeff said, extending a tattooed arm.  “I’m kind of responsible for getting these guys into running.”
“Wait a minute,” Steve said with a mix of skepticism and light indignation.
“Ultra!” Jeff spat out, immediately noticing his omission.  “For getting them into ultra running.”
“Much better,” Steve pointed with a smile.  “Because I’m pretty sure I got him into running.”

(left to right): Jeff, me, Otter

(left to right): Jeff, me, Otter

He was right about that.  Shortly after that comment, he amended the history to correctly reflect how he strong-armed me into running by signing me up for a distance I had hitherto never run.  When I ended up embracing the sport with an unexpected intensity, he became a mentor.  Then there was Otter, my only Chicago friend with the passion and endurance to run these events with me, whose reaction to reading about Jeff’s first 50-miler was enough to spin more than one twisted cog in his brain.  I’d be lying if I said Jeff’s ultra exploits hadn’t nudged me closer to the law firm of Jurek, Karnazes & Ulrich, but without Otter’s ironclad commitment, I might have tabled this adventure for another year.

Steve and I figuring out the drop bag situation

Steve and I figuring out the drop bag situation

These three gentlemen were instrumental in getting me to this start line, where we continued to quip anxiously.  It had been a long time since I had been overcome with such a profound feeling of uncertainty.  Every marathon I’ve run in the last three years I have started knowing I would finish.  Fast, slow, easily or with bleeding ears, I would eventually finish.  But today I wasn’t so certain.  I had never run that far before, trails tend to beat me up very quickly and my left knee had been pestering me all week.  But here we were, just minutes away from starting with the lush greens of the Kettle Moraine State Forest dripping all around us.  I barely had time to set up my GPS watch before we were off.

The 50k was divided into two sections.  The first consisted of a 13-mile out and back on the Ice Age Trail, a very narrow single-track path that at times was barely wide enough for two people.  With many ups and downs, it was by far the most technical section of the race.  I ran the first 5k with Otter and his friend Elizabeth, who kept the atmosphere light by exchanging funny and colorful stories.  It was nice to run and talk because it momentarily got my mind off what I was doing.

However, Otter and Elizabeth were executing a pretty conservative strategy with the downhills, which I approved for these first few miles.  After a while though, I wanted to do some flying.  So with limbs akimbo, I began my reliable pattern of darting down and slowly pattering back up.  I would see them later on the way back, all smiles.  Before, during and after, I left thousands of footprints on the Ice Age trail, which was anything but consistent.  Very rarely would I ever have time to look up and enjoy the breathtaking forest because it would mean risking a hidden root or a treacherous rock.

We are off (Jeff in the red singlet on the left, me in the blue / grey)

We are off (Jeff in the red singlet on the left, me in the blue / grey)

I locked in behind a group of runners who were matching my stride and up and down we went in a reliable pattern, screaming downhill with our arms waving like windmills and marching up in single-file.  Just when it felt like I could keep this mechanical pattern without trying, I kicked a root going downhill and snapped forward like a mousetrap.  I broke my fall with my hands and water bottle, but still scraped up my left side.  I went for a drink but the nozzle on my water bottle was caked in mud.  I had momentarily lost focus and the trail made sure I paid.  The worst part wasn’t the bruise I got on my palms or the occasional speck of dirt I’d feel in my mouth after a swig.  Instead, it was the fact that I was only at mile 8, with my legs still fresh.

How many times would I fall in the later miles, where it feels like cement has invaded my bloodstream?

My thoughts were quickly reverted to the trail as I stepped on a slick rock and almost lost balance.  I had to focus on every single step, trying hard to not get too close to the person in front of me, whose steps would prevent me from seeing places to put my own feet.

Two hours and ten minutes into the race, I was almost back at the start.  I could hear a furious cowbell ringing and nearby crowds.  One last turn revealed the white circus sheet of the medical tent.  There, in front of everyone else, was Steve.  Twelve hours earlier, we were in Chicago with the rest of the family, watching a production of Oklahoma! at the Lyric Opera.  Despite the show ending late, he drove me out to Wisconsin, where we would only get about four hours of sleep before our race-day alarm sirens would start shrieking.

13 miles down.

13 miles down.

He was likely tired and definitely hungry.  He should have been at a nearby Dog ‘n Suds, but instead stayed rooted at the start with his camera, clearly enjoying himself.  Before the race had even started, he had found people that he knew.  It made me happy knowing he wouldn’t spend the day sleeping in the passenger seat of his Jeep.  I flashed a quick thumbs-up and made my way to the blue tarp, where all of our drop bags were haphazardly strewn about, looking like a wreckage site or an evidence pileup.  Steve joined me seconds afterward and I gave him a brief rundown of how I was feeling.

I threw some Stinger waffles into one pocket, a CLIF bar into another.  Steve prepared a new water bottle and gave me a red bandana to wipe off the dirt and sweat the trail had left on me.  I was probably at the aid station for just a little over two minutes before heading toward the second section of the 50k race: the Nordic Loop.  This 9-mile trail circuit was wide enough for two-way traffic and for the first few miles looked like a meadow.  I couldn’t help but speed up a little, charging happily past slower runners and chewing on oat bars with absolutely no regard for etiquette.

If Steph could see me, I thought, she’d probably file for divorce.  That girl hates mouth noises.

Looking happy so far.

Looking happy so far.

But the peaceful and soothing Nordic loop soon deceived me.  We reached a point where the puffy soft grass spilled into the trees and became hard rocks, as if the trail were a stream that got suddenly rerouted and desiccated.  Once in the woods, I learned that the steepest and longest hills were all here, and not in the first section as I had originally thought.  Down I would go, leaning slightly back, flailing my arms at my side and stomping on the soil, then immediately slowing down and hiking up.

“I’m not looking forward to running these again,” said my temporary running friend with the yellow Camelbak.

Since the Nordic Loop was 9 miles long we’d be running it twice.  I was feeling great during this first attempt, keeping a very reliable pattern of speed spikes, eating my Stingers or oat bars every 30 minutes without much issue.  Though I began to tire around mile 18, I got a surprising burst of energy when we re-entered the tall pines.  Red straw and wet cones had softened the trail to the point where it felt like walking on clouds.  I once again heard the furious rattling of a cowbell and thanked the woman responsible.  I sped up a little and reached the Start in around 3:36, quickly finding Steve at the front of the crowd, checking on my progress.

22 miles down

22 miles down

I felt invigorated by how quickly it seemed like those last nine miles had passed.  I didn’t want to delude myself into thinking the next and final nine would be the same, but I was coasting happily on the endorphin high.  Once again, I found my drop bag, this time opting for just GU gels.  I must have looked like Gollum searching for his lost ring because I felt completely wired, like nothing could stop me.  Steve gave me the thumbs up, told me I had this, and I left the station for the last loop.

It didn’t take long to notice that something wasn’t right.  My legs were fine; turning over without much complaint.  My feet, after striking the uneven, rocky terrain tens of thousands of times, were also performing admirably.  I wasn’t sweating that much because the weather was cool with winds occasionally slicing through the trees.  Every system that matters for shorter runs was working like a champion at mile 24.  But the one that I needed the most for the long haul was beginning to fail me.

Two miles earlier I had eaten a Stinger waffle, a tiny sugar-filled disc that I had eaten several times already.  But this one felt like it didn’t have anywhere to go once I swallowed it.  Steph had once told me that when she was young, she thought food piled up in your stomach until one day it reached the back of your throat and you couldn’t eat anymore.  That’s exactly how I was starting to feel.  Even small drinks of my electrolyte solution felt like they were swishing in my throat above my chest.  This uncomfortable feeling soon turned into frequent burping and reflux, which made it so I couldn’t keep my head up.

At the end of a long stretch of pines I reached the Nordic Loop aid station.  As I approached it, I tried to keep my sight firmly fixed on the tent, but I couldn’t.  My head would stay up for two seconds and then drop, as if the strings holding it up were cut.  I laughed a little when this happened.  How it is possible that I couldn’t even keep a steady forward gaze?

I took a few orange slices, hoping they would help with my digestion issue.  If they did, I didn’t feel the effects.  I kept moving forward, slowly up and quickly down, but all the while with a rod in my throat that wouldn’t dislodge.  My esophagus was full, clogged beyond repair.  There were times when I thought vomiting might make me feel better.  It never came down to that, though I still don’t know if it was for the best.

Drop Bags Central

Drop Bags Central

During this struggle, I remember looking down at my watch to see that I was about to cross 26.2 miles.  That magic number where my pains and aches normally stop would mean nothing today.  My trusty watch, as if under the assumption that I was out here on another routine marathon, died 0.4 miles later.

It wasn’t long before I had returned to the tall pines and red straw path.  The trail was being shared by half marathoners now, many of whom were running faster than me.  I would speed up for short stretches at a time, slowed down by the frogs trying to escape my throat.  I kept up this seesaw pattern over the next mile, where I was soon overcome with many conflicting emotions.

Disappointment was there, with a scowl and slumped shoulders.  He wasn’t upset with me, but with my master plan to keep running on solid foods that didn’t pan out how I wanted.  Fear and concern showed up, wringing their hands under large billiard eyes, wondering how I’d be able to run longer distances in the summer if I was already losing it in perfect conditions.  But then elation and pride crashed through the walls in ATVs, a six-pack of beer in each hand, because they knew I had fewer than two miles to go and were ready to celebrate.

Up and down another hill, left and right around a new turn, my feet refused to stop moving.  I didn’t have the energy from the first Nordic Loop, but I was no less determined to see this race to the finish.  I was giving it all I had, running faster than I had in the last four miles, adrenaline magically fueling this last surge.  Two invisible pins were jabbing themselves into my quads with every lunge forward, but with the finish line so close, I didn’t care.  Up another up, down another down, some almost effortlessly, my central governor acting like a horse that caught sight of its stable.

I recognized the final turn.  The lady with the cowbell had left her post, but Steve had not.  Participating in the sport for over a decade had turned him into the perfect crewman and he didn’t miss a second of my final push.  I stepped over the red timing mats, my name was announced and skyward my hands went for that fleeting moment of victory.  After five hours and sixteen minutes on my feet, I had earned the title of ultramarathoner.

I walked over to my drop bag and pulled out a protein shake.  Finishing the race had given me a sudden headrush of excitement, but that would soon dissipate into a semi-nauseated state of discomfort.  I hadn’t felt this way since the Crazy Horse Marathon, so I knew it would just be a matter of waiting it out.  The organizers had set up a large buffet in the cabin with sausages, meat patties, potato salad and chips.  I served myself some, but couldn’t find the will to eat any of it.  Steve and I went back outside to a large tent where a cover band was crooning Tom Petty covers.  I managed to drink a beer but it wasn’t helping me get back to normal.  I saw Jeff and exchanged a congratulatory high-five with him.  We had very close finishing times, despite never really seeing each other on the Nordic loop.

2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain

2013 Ice Age Trail Run 50k Key Chain

I slumped down on a chair, my plate of food untouched.  I wasn’t dizzy or light-headed, but couldn’t seem to push any food down my system at all.  So I just sat there and watched people finish, some of whom were 50-milers and looked like they were barely hurt.  I got up when I saw Otter’s green singlet dashing up the path on his way to finishing.  He looked like a kid chasing an ice cream truck, the biggest smile on his face and not a single hint of pain or discomfort.  While I was in a strange haze of acceptance when I crossed the timing mats, Otter was in a beehive, bouncing off the walls.  He actually dropped down and did a few push-ups afterward as if to prove he wasn’t done.

In that moment, I realized how differently we tackled our races.  I knew on the course that it might be the only 50k I ever run.  So I was out for blood – to run aggressively and finish knowing I had nothing left to give.  Otter on the other hand, was there for the same reason most trail runners run in the first place: to have fun.  Though I didn’t run the race with him, I could tell that his goal had been to enjoy a prolonged communion with nature and experience the outdoors in the most direct way possible.  I actually felt a little envious seeing how great he felt and how eager he was to wolf down the post-race food spread.  Whether he had a mid-race epiphany is his story to tell, but the biggest lesson that I learned in LaGrange, Wisconsin, was that I have a lot to learn.

With Ice Age behind me, it’s back to the drawing board.  I need to retool my arsenal if I’m serious about running even longer distances in warmer weather.  Though Otter looked like he could have kept going, I was in no shape to continue.  But whatever happened in this race that seemed to stall my food intake (eating too much too soon, perhaps) should not happen later this summer with the right tweaks.  Until then, I need to massage my legs back to life, lest they atrophy too soon before the most intense summer they will ever endure.

After all, I merely joined the ultra club.  I don’t want my membership revoked.

Marathon_Map 041 (WI)