Shore Footed: 2017 New Jersey Marathon (State #47)

It’s hard to PR these days.

New Jersey Marathon Starting Line

They say that you reach your peak after seven years of running. While I can’t name with any due certainty who “they” are, there seems to be widespread agreement on this theory. Something potentially stalls after seven years of consistent training and a self-propelled drive to improve. It could be aging, burnout, or the ignition of a very specific gene that targets your VO2 max with surgical precision. Regardless, this theory exists and as someone who is still very much on board with running and improving my times, I refuse to succumb to it.

But despite the inspirational aphorisms to the contrary, running is very much a physical activity. After this much time, running through my late 20s and early 30s, what many scientists and laypeople alike would consider the tail end of someone’s athletic prime, my best times become harder and harder to best. So when I decided to re-focus my training in 2017 to once again try and qualify for Boston, I knew I had to do something new, something different, something that those familiar with my training habits would consider radical.

I joined a running group.

Thanks to Fleet Feet Chicago’s Boston365 running group, I honed my speed like I never had before. We would gather on Wednesday nights in the parking lot of Lincoln Park Zoo, rocketing through intervals in dense pelotons, and reconvene in the hilly suburb of Barrington on Saturday mornings for long runs. As the weeks went on, I expanded my comfort level with explosive speed, setting an aggressive PR at the 8k distance in late March. But I wasn’t quite enjoying the same surge in improvement with long runs.

Everyone in the group was training either for the Boston Marathon or another race held shortly after. I had chosen the New Jersey Marathon in Oceanport as my spring race, the event that was going to bear the brunt of all my training. It not only takes place in a state I have yet to run, but I quickly learned that it is considered one of the flattest races in the country.

Smiling through mile 6

The race began on the grounds of a raceway in Long Branch, a few miles west of the coastal town of Oceanport. Shaking off my last minute nerves, I put on my sunglasses to block the eastward breeze keeping us cool. It was game time. I had put in four months of solid, uninterrupted training for this race, each of which broke that month’s mileage record. I had run 50% more miles leading up to his race than in the same time period before my standing marathon PR. I had masterfully eaten a reliable stream of carbs in the three days prior and hadn’t even sipped a beer in ten days.

So it was with great confidence that I knew literally anything was possible.

Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that nothing is guaranteed. The distance is so long that it gives ample opportunity for anything to happen. If you start too fast in a 5k, you will probably only suffer for one mile, and even then the decay won’t be as pronounced. If you overdo it in a half marathon, you might not know it until mile 9. But over the course of 26.2, you could be riding high for 15 miles before you even get a hint that this glory chase is actually a fool’s errand.

Mile 20 at the Asbury Park Boardwalk

And that is mostly what happened to me. When you’re trying to qualify for Boston at my age, you have to run a marathon in about 3 hours, 8 minutes. That, therefore, requires that you pass the half marathon mark in about an hour and thirty-four minutes. Thanks to gray skies and a cooling sea breeze, I was able to confidently run the first half of this race about a minute slower. Many times during that first half, I evaluated my form, my breathing, my turnover, and cadence, feeling emboldened by how easy it felt to carry a 7:09 pace this far into a race.

Two miles later, I got the first indication that this wasn’t my day. As I ran through black asphalt ocean-side neighborhoods, I glanced at my watch and saw that my pace was ten seconds slower than my target pace. That would normally not be an issue were it not for the noticeable uptick in perceived effort. This early in the race, I knew there was no way I could keep up the pace. Had this slowdown happened after mile 23, I could dig deep into my grab-bag of clichés and save the day. But at mile 15 you’re not even past the psychological halfway mark.

Mile 24

I was therefore faced with that frustrating decision: do I keep going as fast as I can, whatever that pace may be, and dip my attitude into a vat of acid for the rest of the race, or force myself to slow down gradually, at my own pace, and still somehow enjoy the experience?

Salvaging the race and finishing with a semblance of a smile felt like the better option. I know what it’s like to snarl through the second half to finish with an unimpressive time. It shines a pool of light on the decision some elites make to simply drop out of a race around 30k rather than finish. If you’ve been training for months to murder your PR and you can tell this early that it’s not going to happen, what is the real reason to fight against the strain?

Mile 26.1, oceanside

The only real reason was simply because! Life is for the living! Leave it all on the field! Nut up or shut up! But you can’t make that decision until you’re actually running the race and can feel the blood pounding in your head and lungs, realizing that every mile will only get worse if you continue to resist the ever mounting weight in your legs. When you’ve run 36 marathons, you learn to take these days in stride, pun fully intended.

All of this is to say, I took it easy in the second half despite running smoothly through the race’s early miles. It seemed that my group runs had imbued me with great speed but not with the necessary endurance to keep it going. Moving forward I might try and break one of the foundational rules of long-distance training, and actually run some of my longer distances at race pace, rather than just the last few miles. My subpar performance in New Jersey (a 3:41 for those who care) hasn’t killed the quest to BQ, just delayed it until the fall.

Surprise race participants Chris (remember him?) and debut marathon slash birthday girl Melissa

As for the race itself, I really enjoyed it. It was easily one of the flattest courses I’ve ever run, especially the second half. What begins in tree-lined residential neighborhoods on wide roads eventually became a tour of New Jersey’s many seaside communities, from Long Branch to Asbury Park, Allenhurst, and Monmouth Beach.  Several miles were run on dew-soaked wooden planks, which felt elastic after seventeen miles of black asphalt. The smells of sea salt mixed with cotton candy as runners passed through each new community, the crowds lining the shore growing as the miles ticked up.

With state 47 behind me, I have just West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii to visit to bring my 50 states journey to a provisional close. In between now and then, I’m letting myself be lured down a new path, one with its own language, maps, and cultures, not only to explore uncharted terrain but to reignite the flame of athletic discovery and re-draw at further distances the lines that we call our limits.

Ever onwards.

Rhode Runner: 2016 Newport Marathon (State #46)

Like someone who accidentally drinks a cocktail laced with kryptonite, I feel like I’m losing my superpowers.

2016-10-09-06-53-14For years, I was able to control the weather. If I wanted to ensure a dry morning for thousands, even millions of people, all I would have to do is sign up for a race on that date. Weather forecasts were impotent against my talents. Even hours before sunrise, charlatan clairvoyants would augur the coming of tempests, and I would dash them with a simple wave of my hand. They called me the Diviner of Dryness, the Denier of Drizzle, Prohibitor of Precipitation.

But then I ran the Mad Marathon in July, whose pristine wooded hills were beset by rain for most of the race. However, it felt like a refreshing mist, an almost welcome addition to an already beautiful journey. It turned an otherwise rural path into a fey peregrination through mystic lands. It was almost as if I had refused to concede my powers, and instead pretend as if I had, just for a moment, allowed the rain to join me for a run in an act of peaceful communion.

I must have angered the cosmic forces whose joint abilities hold sway over the gathering of clouds with this impudent display, because they decided to make an example of me during the 2016 Newport Marathon. Five days before race day, the seaside city of Newport, Rhode Island, was in the potential path of Hurricane Matthew. But though its path would eventually move east into the Atlantic, much to the delight of many people with actual concerns for their well-being, the rains stayed staunchly in the forecast.

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And they stayed, resolutely, for the entire day. Even as I flew back to Chicago that night, it was still raining in the area. I would later learn that locals were thrilled with the prolonged downpour, as it certainly helped many parts of New England that had been suffering an unusually harsh summer drought. It was a slight consolation for enduring the wettest race I’ve ever run.

2016-10-09-07-43-26The race started at Easton’s Beach, a thin strip of land separating its eponymous Bay and Pond under grey skies that threatened to spoil the area’s beautiful coastline and quaint commercial streets. Before the starter’s pistol, runners were either huddled in an empty parking structure or shivering in line for the bathroom, tiptoeing around the rapidly growing puddles, only delaying the inevitable. As the opening notes of the National Anthem rang, we oozed reluctantly out of our concrete shelter and into the shower.

The race course is divided between the towns of Newport and Middletown, which together make up the largest island tucked in the Ocean State’s many bays and inlets. For the first four miles, we ran through Newport’s picturesque town center and neighborhoods, almost on our toes to avoid any splashing. We eventually reached the shore and began skirting the island’s perimeter, where we beheld several massive homes. Moneyed tycoons of the Gilded Age built mansions in the area that rivaled European palaces, which today are open to the public as museums to excess and profligacy. I would have taken several pictures of them but my phone was too wet to respond to swipes.

2016-10-09-07-52-30Our path took us alongside several of these impressive estates, from Marble House to Rosecliff and the Breakers. Along the way, even the roads themselves felt prestigious. It was a remarkably beautiful course and for most of it, I had almost forgotten about my sagging clothes and waterlogged shoes.

I was brought back to reality by the awful realization that the marathon course was going to literally run right next to the half marathon finish line. There’s something inherently difficult about watching four out of five runners stop what they’re doing, rest their hands on their legs, and march towards the buffet tables, beaming and proud, while you’re only halfway done. It’s not the distance itself, but the psychology of knowing most everyone else is breathing a sigh of relief. Even diverting the half marathon at mile 12.5 would make the rest of the race easier. But even if you divert your attention and defiantly look away, you can still hear the announcer congratulate them on their accomplishment. And honestly, a tiny voice in your head definitely wishes the accolades were for you.

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That nagging voice grew much louder just a minute later. Marathoners run past the finish line and then loop around the parking lot and back onto the road connecting Newport and Middletown, heading east. Right at that moment, as if someone had pulled a lever, we were struck by a fierce headwind. The second half had begun.

newport-marathon-02The rain pattered against my shirt and shorts, ricocheting off the soaked fabric as if I were wearing a tarp. Long ago, I had taken my energy gels out of my pockets and clenched them in my swinging fists. They were weighing down on my shorts and I was tired of pulling them up every thirty seconds. The next two miles covered an uninspiring stretch toward the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. Just before reaching it, we turned around and enjoyed a brief tailwind, which would escort us toward seaside neighborhoods.

I had run about eighteen miles and I was starting to slow down considerably. I blamed the wind, which had been pushing aggressively against me for four miles. But underneath the cold exterior, I was worried that I was hitting the same gruesome wall I faced in Omaha just three weeks earlier. One disastrous bonk is an outlier, but two can be an indicator of something real. Was there something happening with my fitness and training that had gone wrong in recent months? Or was I literally just being held back by the gales and gusts of the northeast Atlantic? I kept reminding myself that if I were to suffer a similar adrenal halt, I’d face a serious drop in body temperature. It felt melodramatic, but I knew I couldn’t afford walking more than a mile of this race if I wanted to leave the state in good health.

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As I ran along mostly empty streets, the answer was clear. I wasn’t in the kind of shape to threaten or even goad my PR, but I could still hammer out a marathon. Somewhere around mile 20, I was still keeping a running cadence, enjoying the gentle climbs and the occasional pocket of spectators. The rain and wind had predictably kept many people in their homes, but every now and then I would get a quick injection of motivation from a friendly Rhode Islander braving the elements from their front yard. It was a quiet second half, marked only by the sound of winds, and the squishing of shoes.

newport-marathon-08I was back in familiar territory; those last, long miles that seem to stretch on forever, conquered seemingly only by the slow passage of time and lethargic swinging of arms. I was used to this, this was my element. Though each of those last miles was a little slower than the one before it, the fact that I was still running through them certainly helped me smile. I was hoping to finish the year with a picturesque romp through a historical town, perhaps even with a fast time for the books. But given the unbalanced year I’ve had with training, any confident, forward progress was a cause for celebration.

We returned to Easton’s beach, to the parking lot where we had started the race, now filled with umbrellas and ponchos. The winds were roaring across the waters and no amount of last-minute sprinting effort could warm me up enough to stay and enjoy the sights. I crossed the finish line in 3:44, snatched a Mylar blanket, and sought shelter. There were two large vats of chili and lentil soup being offered by the gear check. Were I not so focused on finding dry clothing and protection from the winds, I would have happily joined my fellow runners and let these delicious broths warm my hands and spirits.

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Truth be told, this race earned me very little surface area on the map. But on the road to fifty statehood, it is just as meaningful as Montana or Texas. I won’t cross off the four remaining states soon, but I can still taste the finish. Slowly but resolutely, the journey continues, one unpredictable story at a time.

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The Wind-Up Hurt Chronicle: 2016 Omaha Marathon (State #45)

I woke up very early, as usual, and sauntered to the hotel mini fridge to grind a Clif Bar like a camel chewing cud, washing it down a Blue Machine smoothie. The 2016 Omaha Marathon was almost three hours away, and I didn’t want to wake up Mike in the next room by turning on the TV, so I put on some headphones and let the finger-tapped gothic musings of Katatonia wash over me. After four songs, I went back to sleep.

(left to right): Mike, me

(left to right): Mike, me

Hours later, Mike and I were following the crowds to the TD Ameritrade Arena. Within minutes of arriving, the speakers cracked alive with the sound of a nervous official who told us that there had been a nearby shooting, shocking the crowd into silence. We waited, slack-jawed and a little on edge, for the rest of the report. But even before reassuring us that our personal safety was not in jeopardy, he broke the news that the race start would be postponed by an hour. To make matters worse for many runners, the delay would also mean a last-minute course change.

The collective groan spread across the crowd faster than a 400-meter repeat. In that moment, I merely shrugged at the delay, though I was fully aware that it meant it’d be four to five degrees warmer than expected. Mike and I had walked around Omaha the day before under a cloudless sky in hopes of finding a local gem. We found Bob, a pedestrian bridge named after Bob Kerrey, former Governor and Senator from Nebraska, and I came home with a slight sunburn on my forehead.

But despite the sunburn, the delay, and the warm weather, I let no nerves invade my morning. It was another marathon, just like the thirty-three others I had run before, in a new state. Unlike many runners around me, who were loudly bemoaning the possibility that their times today wouldn’t be honored by the Boston Athletic Association, I had no time expectations. I was there to run 26.2 miles in whatever time I could.

Mile 1

Mile 1

An hour late, we were on the road. Two miles later, we were out of downtown Omaha and into newly built residential neighborhoods. Without a time goal, I decided to experiment with my breathing, opting for a faster intake earlier in the race. The farther we ran, the greener the path became. Around the 10k mark, we entered a park, whose leafy cover allowed us to forget that, just like the day before, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

And then, a mile later, we reached the river. A concrete path two people wide ran between the river and several industrial silos, whose petrochemical perfume stuck to me like an unwanted GU aftertaste. However, the mephitic odor wasn’t what I most lamented about this stretch. It was, instead, the complete lack of shade. From this point until the turnaround six miles later, where we would retrace our steps all the way back to the start, there would be no more protection from the sun.

Mile 5

Mile 5

Up until the half marathon point, I had been running comfortably, knocking out 8-minute miles as if on autopilot. But right at that turnaround, something happened. It was as if my body had decided to completely forget that I’ve been running marathons for almost seven years. All my experience on the roads, with the repetitive plod of feet across many hours, was harshly erased. My body crossed into a parallel universe, where my memories of running were intact, but my body didn’t make the transition.

Mike and I crossed paths just beyond the turnaround. He asked me how I was doing, and I replied that I felt like I was at mile 22, not just beyond 13. I was still running in the 8s but I could tell I was on borrowed time. Ten minutes later, like a wind-up toy that had only been cranked to reach fifteen miles, my body shut down.

This had never happened to me before. Like any long-distance runner, I’ve bonked before. I’ve bonked as early as mile 18, but every time, it’s been a slow descent into fatigue. Even in Berlin, where I ran the first half too fast, I still managed a slow deterioration. But in Omaha, it was a complete shutdown. I stopped to walk, shaking my shoulders and slapping my back, and tried to pick it back up. But within a quarter mile, I was gassed.

My body was either unable or unwilling to run, and I didn’t know which scared me more.

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Miles 7 through 19 were this exposed

Mike passed me at mile 19. He offered a few kind words of encouragement while pulling away from me. The last of it he spoke to the air, as I couldn’t run fast enough to keep up. Many more runners would pass me after him. With each one, I’d try and kick forward, trying to get back into a gallop. As if in a dream, I was unable to sustain it. My walking breaks grew, my pace crashed, and my attitude soured.

What the hell was happening.

Mile 13.3

Mile 13.3

I had no singular reason for why I had crumbled so quickly. I had eaten plenty the day before, had put in the requisite miles during the summer, and had run a very hilly 3:42 just two months prior. Objectively, it wasn’t even that hot. There were times when I actually shivered during those last miles. The wind had picked up, licking the sweat off my head and reminding me of how dry the air felt.

But there I was, walking the last two miles of the Omaha Marathon in their entirety as if I had never run before. My last attempt at running had left me seeing stars. A race photographer had stationed himself just a mile from the finish to capture everyone’s last dash toward the finish. I didn’t even bother with histrionics and shuffled past him with my hands on my hips, disappointed and dizzy. What tiny stores of energy I still had were saved for running the bases of TD Ameritrade’s baseball diamond, a sputtering toy too far removed from his last confident stride.

Mile 26

Mile 26

I stopped the clock at 4:22, my second slowest marathon to date. Mike was at the finish line to capture my unsightly finish, which started an afternoon of nausea and exhaustion. I found a patch of shaded grass and let my feet stop moving, loudly proclaiming to Mike that I had just finished the kind of race that could get me to reconsider running altogether. I was in no mood to read about silver linings or to exhume the bright side of anything. That race was a sucker punch to the ego and my self-worth. It’s one thing to push yourself to your limits and earn a deserved finish. This was not that. This was a sudden implosion, an inexplicable and precipitous failure of all systems.

Or was it inexplicable?

In the first half of this post, I formatted a few phrases and sentences in bold. As if to console my wounded self-esteem, I looked back at all these reasons as perhaps individual Jenga pieces that I removed over the course of the weekend. Perhaps it’s because I refuse to believe that I’m simply not in marathon shape, or that sometime in August of this year the gene responsible for sucking at running was switched on.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It's the shadow of death.

Finishers. Notice the dark, ghostly veil draped over me? It’s the shadow of death.

But either way, it shook me. Whether it was because of a series of subtle mistakes or one big, ineffable change in my body chemistry, I can’t say. But I do have another go at the distance on October 9 in Rhode Island. Whether I decide to tempt another potentially disastrous run or play it safe will depend on what happens between now and then. Either way, I will start the next one without the insouciant bravado of races past, where a sub-4-hour finish is basically guaranteed.

Onwards. With trepidation and even a little reluctance … but onwards, nonetheless.

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Mammoth Run: 2016 Ice Age Trail 50-Miler

I danced downhill over rocks and exposed roots, side stepping onto the soft earth as if it were a ramp, letting it gently guide my legs over the next obstacle. My eyes were three rocks ahead, trance-like and robotic, finding the optimal path to avoid tripping. Every second my gaze would dash three or four times, my strides never the same, with short steps quickly becoming bounding leaps over large rocks, followed by heavy, typewriter stomps over steep terrain. Tiny flecks of sleet fell from the canopy, dusting the damp trail in a crystalline white pattern. In this moment, I felt unstoppable, efficient, and powerful.

But it was also in this moment that my quads began to singe. And I still had twenty miles to go.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart. After a lackluster training effort thanks to injury and last-minute illness, this is the beginning of the end; this, right here, is my last chance to feel confident and capable, the last upright steps that portend the miserable slog to the finish. I might as well enjoy them.

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Ice Age Trail Runs Start

Many hours earlier, I was in LaGrange, Wisconsin, at the starting line of the Ice Age Trail 50-Miler, a race billed as one of the country’s “classic ultramarathons.” Whether the race has earned that description from age or by bearing the standard for how ultras are organized, I had neither the experience nor the research to say. But I had made it to the starting line as a tangled knot of nerves. A knee injury in March had made ultra-long trail runs nearly impossible, relegating my training to merely fitness upkeep, and a slight head-cold the week before was threatening to dehydrate me more than usual.

Remembering my last and only attempt at the 50-mile distance, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and dejected. I sat on a folding chair in the woods of the Manistee National Forest with an ice pack slowly melting off my knee, watching as dozens of dusty bodies entered the North Country Run’s aid station with bright smiles. How were they able to make it this far, 39 miles into a race, still happy and energized? What did they know that I didn’t?

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Nordic loop, mile 1.5

Whatever it was, I hadn’t learned it in the last two months. And yet, there I was, listening to the Star-Spangled Banner in the dripping wet woods of the Kettle Moraine State Forest with kindred spirits Otter and Mike, just minutes away from a distance I had never completed before. The miles I had run in the lead up were paltry and my confidence at an all-time low. The only option I had was willful submission. I was going to enter the woods, walk through the verdant looking glass, and let the journey unfold as it should.

Otter was running because he loves trails and the Ice Age races in particular, but also because he too was on a redemptive attempt of his own, having dropped out of the 2015 event seven miles short of the full distance. The two of us then goaded Mike, RaceRaves’ Chief Lunatic, into running his first ever 50-miler by assailing him with enough text messages, pictures and emails to pave the entire trail.

Mike + Otter

Mike + Otter

The three of us had decided to run the first nine mile section together. Called the Nordic Loop, it is a fairly wide path that traces a jagged circle over soft pine straw, rocky paths, and grassy stretches of flat land made for speed, finishing back at the start. In between, it rises and falls like an ancient roller coaster, assuring that our pace would see similar peaks and valleys as we would stop to walk uphill ready to pick up the pace on the other side. The field of 372 runners was a tightly-packed human train for most of this loop, allowing for the kind of friendly chatter that completely belied the monumental task ahead.

As we reached the first aid station, I remembered the need to eat early and often. I was attempting fifty hill-ridden miles, a feat that would burn between 7,000 and 9,000 calories, and the average person typically stores anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 in their reserves. Rather than wait until I actually felt hungry, I planned on noshing at every aid station to avoid an early bonk. I surveyed the spread under the white tent, the only artificial blemish in an otherwise serene wooded path, and grabbed a few Oreos.

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

Runners + Crew, left to right: me, Steve, Mike, Katie, Otter, Lisa

The end of the Nordic Loop would mark the last time the three of us would run together. The casual, carefree banter that we exchanged mostly to distract us from the task ahead, was coming to an end. As we approached the starting banner, we found our respective crew members amid the whooping clamor of spectators. Mike grabbed a sandwich and high-fived his wife Katie before speeding towards the race’s next section. Otter’s girlfriend Lisa was in a bright green winter jacket, ready to keep him in fighting shape for the 41 miles to go. My father-in-law and trusted crew master Steve refilled my water pack and bottle with the course volunteers before urging me to eat. Otter and I realized we were both ready to go at the same time, so we marched back into the woods shoulder to shoulder, feeling light and cool.

The occasional clearing

The occasional clearing, mile 4

We had started the race shivering. The early spring warmth of the previous week had been dashed by an arctic wind, whose gust was rustling the dense forest around us, often drawing creaks from nearby trees. I had considered shedding some clothing a few miles earlier, but once I stopped running at the aid station, that lingering desire became an immediate need to stay warm.

Otter and I ran together for a few miles until the aid stations began separating us. For the next two hours, I followed a very reliable pattern. Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station, hand my wares to Steve, watch as Mike would leave the aid station, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, suit up, chase Mike …

At mile 19, I reached the next checkpoint in a clearing surrounded by tall grass. I gave my hydration vest to Steve and he looked at me with a mixed expression of confusion and fear. “You should eat something salty,” he says, as if there were a grim sign of it on my face. I grabbed a handful of pretzels and chewed on them until they were a mealy paste caking my teeth. I put myself together and took off, wondering if Steve’s admonishment was a sign that I was starting to succumb to the ghostly pallor of exhaustion.

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Otter and I, Mile 10.5

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, catch Mike, pass Mike on a downhill, reach an aid station …

I would strike up brief conversations with Mike as I would reach his heels. But since I’m not much of a talker on the run, I kept the exchanges short. Without music or a running partner, it was up to the course’s beautiful and constantly changing character to entertain me. Thin single-track eskers became wide open mounds of earth, which led into tree-lined promenades and serpentine dirt paths. If it weren’t for the nagging voice in my head, reminding to keep moving forward at all costs, I would have stopped to breathe in the Wisconsin air, crisp enough to slice and eat.

Meanwhile, everything seemed to be working. My left knee, which had plagued me with all manner of discomforting pain during March and April, was at the top of its game. Despite being covered by weary and worn road shoes, my feet and toes were free of blisters, and I wasn’t chafing anywhere. My stomach was happily digesting the food I had eaten, and my lungs were thrilled at the fresh air coursing through them. I reached the aid station near the shores of Rice Lake, just shy of 22 miles into the race, the farthest trail distance I had run in anticipation of this event, feeling composed, energized, and ecstatic.

After stocking up on supplies, I grabbed Steve’s hands and leaned back into a squat to stretch my hamstrings. With a quick slap to legs, I shuttled out of the aid station once again in Mike’s footsteps. Water, electrolytes, energy gel, water, electrolytes, Mike, downhill, aid station, all in a reliable cadence of clean breaths through an unpredictable series of open clearings and narrow paths. The ease and relaxed stride that carried me through every mile felt invigorating but deceptive. Ask any long distance runner and they will tell you that the first half of any race feels great, but there will inevitably come a time where, pushed against your limits, you will begin to suffer. With very few exceptions, I have faced that awful wall and have never been able to recover. Once it hits me, I’m done and have no choice but to drag what’s left of me to the finish.

Wandering in a wooded wonderland

Wandering in a wooded wonderland, mile 26

The first sign of worry came just before mile 30, as I drummed downhill toward a roadside aid station. A tiny pinch in my quads had emerged and I felt twinges of pain with every downhill step.

This is it, I thought. This is where it all begins to fall apart.

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

Approaching an aid station, Mile 19

But I continued moving forward, almost daring the pain to get worse. Given enough time and distance, the body will find a way to collapse, and with twenty miles left, there was plenty of both. I would have dwelled on the pain longer, but I could hear the hollers from the aid station emanating from the woods. I reached it to find Steve busy tending to a runner with dried streaks of blood on the right side of his face. Seeing that he was handling a delicate matter, I filled my own stores. Once he was free, I told him where I was and how I felt.

The next crew-accessible aid station was ten miles away. Up until now, our crews were there to help us roughly every three miles. And it wasn’t just Steve who would be there at the mouth of every aid station, but Katie and Lisa as well. That kind of support and dedication were better rewards than any sugary treat and I had come to rely on it to keep me going. Steve was also providing real-time updates to my family in Costa Rica, which was an added surge of motivation to stay strong every time I reached an aid station. The next ten miles away from my support crew, into the hills and in the shadow of Bald Bluff, the tallest climb in the race, were surely going to test me.

Drink water, drink electrolytes, eat an energy gel, drink water, drink electrolytes, chase Mike, chase Mike, reach an aid station, continue chasing Mike … where the hell is Mike? …

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it

Bald Bluff, or about 30% of it, mile 33

I continued my pattern of walking uphill, running the flats, and stomping downhill with great temerity. Every runner that I was able to catch, I would slowly approach and then storm past them on a downward section, letting my long legs leap over rocks and the occasional stair, acutely aware of what could happen if I clipped a root or slipped on a moss-covered rock. My quads were still feeling a tiny pinch with every hill, but they had miraculously not worsened. I kept expecting everything to go south at any minute, knowing how furtively the wall can suddenly plant itself, but against all odds, that hadn’t happened yet.

Like a finely-tuned machine, I took swigs of water and HEED, ate at regular intervals, and shoved peanut butter sandwiches down my throat at aid stations. If I heard water swishing in my reservoir, I would drink it; if my water bottle was heavy, I would drink it; if the road was flat, I would run it; if it bent up, I would walk it. I was focused on the singular act of moving forward, subconsciously expecting the demons of running to shank me at any minute, spilling my energy like blood on the damp trail.

At mile 35, I reached the base of Bald Bluff. I followed an older runner in a yellow singlet, who refused to power hike and instead took tiny, yet still airborne steps to tackle the mountain’s bright, gravel path. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I nipped at his heels with my long walking strides. I passed him on a flat section and continued upward, acid seeping into my quads with every step.

Following the path

Following the path

Here it is, the thought crept again. Much later than I would have ever expected, but this is where the knives pierce my legs, this is where each ligament and muscle becomes a wrought-iron cable, stiff and heavy.

I continued hiking uphill, keeping my body as upright as possible to avoid reflux. My quads were burning, but this far up, there was no stopping. As I crested the top of the bluff, I lunged forward into a run and found that I still could. The seeping burn into my legs was only temporary as I climbed, and now that I was back to running flat terrain, they were still willing to cooperate. In fact, after a minute or so, it was as if nothing had changed. Bald Bluff, the most imposing part of the race, had only slowed me down a little, but had done nothing to break me.

Mike, mile 40.8

Mike, mile 40.8

What the hell is happening? I thought, completely aware that I was questioning a good result instead of merely enjoying it. Where was the breakdown? Why wasn’t my stomach rejecting all the food I was eating like it has in every other ultra I’ve run? Why don’t my feet feel like they were marbled and ground? Why wasn’t I gasping for air, this far into the longest continuous run of my life? Where was the sound of the freight train, the inevitable thud of fatigue that can trample the strongest of wills?

In short, why was I doing so well?

Although every step I took got me no closer to answering these questions, they pushed me toward the next checkpoint. I saw Mike running toward me, fresh out of the upcoming aid station. He clapped when our paths crossed, content that I was still in the game forty miles into the race. Not long after, I reached the Emma Carlin aid station, which was a raucous party thanks to the Flatlander Ultrarunners. I ran comfortably in and began replenishing my hydration stocks. I told Steve I was feeling great, and that I was eager to take this all the way to the finish. He looked me dead in the eye and reminded me to relax for a minute and celebrate this moment, as I had passed the longest I had ever run; that every step I took would be an improvement over the last 50-miler I tried to run, whose coiling path was cut short at 39 miles almost three years earlier.

Otter, mile 39

Otter, mile 39

With the electrifying encouragement of my crew behind me, it was time to retrace my steps. Although I felt accomplished and could sense that the finish was near, ten dense, hilly miles separated me from the end. I could face any number of perils in that long swath of trail, from rolled ankles to sudden gastric discomfort or perhaps energy depletion.

I tried to avoid thoughts that might throw my focus off balance. I still had ahead of me the same distance that separated me from the aid station where Steve was helping the injured runner, which felt like an eternity. I had to re-scale Bald Bluff and every smaller hill in between, with only two aid stations to break up the miles. By this point in the race, the field was spread so thin that I rarely saw anyone ahead or behind me. Everyone had found their pace, marching in unison like colorful ants. But if I ever came across a runner, I would always pass them on the downhills, which I was still somehow able to tackle with alacrity. I saw Otter approaching and we both came to a dead halt, which almost threw off the person I didn’t know was running quietly behind me. We exchanged brief status updates and fist bumps before returning to our paths.

Up and down I continued, drinking and eating, running and drinking, eating and running. In a haste to speed up, I clipped many roots on my toes. I stumbled on many occasions and quickly regained my footing, allowing the woods to absorb a loud “Come on!” before resuming the path. I was lucky to fall only once in the entire race, and it happened during a slight uphill about six hours earlier. It was almost as if the trail itself were trying to keep me from pushing the steady pace, as if it could tell my patience was being tried and had quietly hunched a few roots into my path.

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff

A very tempting bench at the top of Bald Bluff, mile 47

Reaching the top of Bald Bluff proved easier this time. I stopped briefly at the top and took in the view before scrambling down the loose gravel path on the other side, leaping over rocks and wooden planks like a mountain goat. I reached the next aid station and skipped it entirely. I was 2.5 miles from the finish and feeling great, with no sign of stopping. I felt my phone buzz in my hand and I checked it to see my cousin calling from Costa Rica. I answered and told him I was 48 miles into a 50 mile race. He laughed almost incredulously and urged me to keep going.

As I skipped the last aid station, I almost felt ungrateful. But I had everything I needed to reach the finish line. Even though I could almost taste the end, I kept my regular pattern: walk uphill, run the flats, drink often. Here I was, just minutes away from accomplishing a goal that had haunted me for three years, and yet, it somehow felt un-ceremonial.

The final sprint, mile 49.9

The final sprint, mile 49.9

It’s no secret that long distance running and masochism can sometimes feel inseparable. Deliberate suffering or at least the mindful acceptance of it is part of the experience and for many runners, it’s a source of pride. The last six miles of a marathon are an exercise in attrition, fighting against the building agony and seeing how far you can go before you relent. Salt deposits, staggering limps, and even a black toe or two are as much battle scars as they are badges of honor. But as I approached the finish line on that cold Saturday afternoon in Wisconsin, I was feeling great.

With each step, there were more spectators standing where the trail meets the woods, clapping and smiling. I was half in the moment, enjoying the experience, and half in a daze, completely shocked at how I was able to do this with such a lackluster training season. I had fantasized about this moment for the last five months, expecting that I would turn the corner into the finish line, in plain sight of my crew, a ragged mess with a proud glint in my eyes. But that wasn’t who emerged from the woods. The lone traveler was instead completely free of heaves, tears or a lip-biting struggle to reach the banner at any cost, speeding up and ending his journey in ten hours and nineteen minutes.

Victory.

Victory, mile 50

In the moment, it was just another stretch of trail, which, if followed past the crowds and parking lot, would have led to another series of winding paths. I could have honestly continued further into the woods, deeper into the indifferent beyond. Despite the cheering crowds, the finish felt a little anti-climactic, precisely because I didn’t have to dig myself out of a spiritual trench at mile 40. Instead, I had managed to put all the pieces together to run seemingly forever. The result, in a word, was magical.

For a beautifully written summary of the day’s events from Mike’s vantage, please read his post at Blisters, Cramps & Heaves.

Even as I write this, I can’t quite process everything that happened. Every ultra I’ve attempted has resulted in wrecked legs, a tumultuous stomach, and gassed lungs, and those all followed a successful training regimen. The worst I suffered during this race were a few side stitches after mile 40 that went away with a quick walking break. Part of me credits the weather with keeping my sweat rate down and allowing me to stay hydrated and thus, able to digest food and continue running. But what truly kept me going were the people who shared the day with me.

13235096_1080472668665361_5347430754452198483_oThe belt buckle I earned at the finish line goes out to everyone who helped me along the way. I dedicate it to Steve, who is not only responsible for my running lunacy in the first place, but kept me focused and honest with my nutrition and wouldn’t let me leave aid stations without a handful of pretzels; to Lisa and Katie, who were always waiting for me at every trailhead, cheering as if I were leading the race and never complained about cold or hunger; to the many friendly volunteers who bundled up and braved the winds to keep this race a world-class event that sells out every year; to ultra-runners Paul and Jeff for believing that I could finish this beast, even when I was at my most skeptical; to Mike for humoring us in the most dedicated way possible by agreeing to run the longest race of his life and selflessly sticking around after a huge 9:54 finish to capture our finishes; to my family and in-laws for their constant real-time support throughout the day; and to my excellent partner in life Steph for always supporting me in my running adventures, even though they require early morning alarm clocks and a separate laundry hamper.

What a day, gentlemen

What a day, gentlemen

Last, but certainly not least, I couldn’t have finished this race without my running pal Otter, who not only believed in me more than I ever did, but routinely went out of his way to help me overcome my woeful training. There were times during the spring where it felt like he was more interested in getting me across the finish line than earning the buckle himself. After all, he was the first person to see me hobbled at my first failed attempt, and knew more than most how much I wanted to earn the title of 50-miler. But he too was out here for more than just another run beneath a green canopy.

On the morning of April 9, he lost his father. The weeks that followed were a test of Otter’s emotional fortitude, as he took charge of the heartbreaking tasks that come with the death of a loved one. Although I never met his dad, it was apparent that he was a kind, generous, and selfless man, whose driving purpose in life was to help others. I didn’t say it at the time, but I’m certain that at some point during his communion with the wilderness, Otter must have thought about his departed father and everything he learned from him. His willingness to put my success ahead of his own is nothing short of a loving testament to his father’s legacy.

Into the woods

Into the woods

Since I’m still trying to make sense of everything, I don’t yet know how this experience will shape my running path going forward. After all, there are tacit questions that come with a successful finish like this one. It certainly made me more confident about my abilities and shed light on why so many people love the ultra life. But don’t expect me to sign up for any similar or longer races in the near future. I’m still basking in the glow (and residual muscle soreness) of a race completed, but won’t plan on another one until I’ve finished running all 50 states.

For now, I’m happy with my redemptive day in the forest.