The Catharsis of Ultra

1. How Far Are You Willing To Go?

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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?
……ARE WE THOSE PEOPLE NOW

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!”
“Nice!”
“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.
……“No.”
……“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.

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2013 Race Schedule

I don’t usually have a perfectly solidified race schedule so early in the year.  At any given point, I have a few races set in stone with a select group waiting in the wings, either because I haven’t registered or because they have yet to graduate from “flight of fancy” to “official commitment.”  However, this year I am very confident that it has been completely mapped out through November.

The reason for my confidence actually stems from a comment Otter made to me a few days ago.  He said that (almost) every race on his radar has a purpose.  I looked at my own race calendar and had a similar epiphany.  With a few exceptions, the big races on my schedule were meaningful stepping stones of some sort, which made it easier to ink these events into my otherwise palimpsest of a calendar.  Though I haven’t officially registered for all of these, I decided to at least publish the schedule to keep me from flaking out on any of them.  And so, with great excitement and hope that I encounter no sudden injuries, this is the path that 2013 will take:

01-RNRNOLA
February 24, 2013
New Orleans, Louisiana

The Disney World Marathon was supposed to end my marathon-a-month streak and mark the beginning of my ultra regimen.  However, on something of a whim, I decided to go for the Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon.  If you’ve been following my adventures, you’ll find this choice of race a bit odd.  True, I’m not the biggest cheerleader for Competitor’s RNR series, but I refuse to run Louisiana in any other city and this is its only marathon.  The timing for this event wasn’t entirely whimsical though.  It has not escaped my notice that every marathon I’ve run since Des Moines has been slower than the previous.  Perhaps spacing them so close together has made it so I’m never fresh enough for a faster time.  So this will be my last shot at a fast marathon for a long time.

02-PALEO
March 16, 2013
Willow Springs, Illinois

I first saw the Paleozoic Trail Run on ultrarunner Jeff’s blog.  While the signature event is a 50k, the shorter 25k option looked like a great race to test our trail skills leading up to longer races.  I sent a link to Otter and he showed great interest, signing up almost immediately.  I was surprised at his enthusiasm, given that he has a loose rule about never signing up for inaugural races.  But here’s something intriguing, if not intimidating about their tagline: “Finish or Fossilize” which written on a T-Shirt is alone worth the registration fee.  Located just thirty minutes southwest of Chicago, it’s an easy race to reach and will surely give us a taste of the challenges to come later in the year.

03-NC
March 24, 2013
Charlotte, North Carolina

I originally wanted to run the NC Half Marathon in 2012 to continue a series of races that all had race tracks (Pomona Raceway, Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs and the Indianapolis 500) but airfare was unusually expensive and nobody else seemed interested.  So I tabled the race for 2013.  As of this writing, a group of 5 of us are registered and ready to start our engines.  While this race isn’t a building block of any kind, it will be the first half marathon I run since August and the last on my calendar for quite some time.  In other words, it’s my last shot at a fast half (perhaps even a PR), possibly until 2014.  Posting a record time will depend on the weather, but North Carolina can expect a bloodthirsty performance from me regardless.

04-GARMIN
April 20, 2013
Olathe, Kansas

You can’t run a marathon in  Kansas without it having some theme related to the Wizard of Oz.  Held three weeks before my first 50k race, I decided to use the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz as a training run.  By this point I will have spent a lot of time on trails and will simply want to strengthen my legs and steel my stomach.  My goal for this race will therefore be to run conservatively, practice my food intake and finish comfortably (in other words, avoid throwing up).

05-ICEAGEjpg
May 11, 2013
Ottawa Lake, Wisconsin

The Ice Age Trail Runs include a 50-miler and two shorter distances, a 50K and a half marathon.  In order to continue training for a much longer event later in the year, Otter and I decided to sign up for the Ice Age Trail 50k as our first venture past the 26.2-mile barrier (and no, I’m not counting his 26.5-mile Route 66 Marathon as an ultra, no matter how pedantically he tries to suggest it).  Running this will be similar to my first marathon; the next big event, the one where once again I’ll be unsure of the outcome and all excitement is slathered with a thick layer of trepidation.  While pictures from the event look gorgeous, I’m sure my face afterward will be far from comely.  It will be the single hardest race I’ve ever run.  That is, until …

06-NCR
August 24, 2013
Wellston, Michigan

… this guy.  I still don’t know how an undertaking as massive as running fifty consecutive miles could start with something as simple as a webchat at work.  You’d expect things like this to happen after a bear with a broadsword orders you to do it or if a band of marauders captures your children and leaves them fifty miles away, hungry and afraid.  But somehow I found myself receiving an email saying I was registered for the North Country Run 50-Miler, wondering how it was possible that I had signed up.  50-milers are for crazy people and I just run marathons.  In fact, I still can’t truly process what this is going to be like, but it will likely change me, for better or worse.  Given its date, there’s a good chance it’ll be warm and humid, so I’ll have to double-down on training and nutrition to ensure that I don’t donate my body to the dirt beneath the Manistee National Forest.

07-LEAVENWORTH
October 5, 2013
Leavenworth, Washington

This marathon isn’t a milestone of any sort by itself (besides being my first in the state).  In order to understand its significance in this story, you have to move to the next race.

08-LEAVENWORTH
October 6, 2013
Portland, Oregon

I doubled-up on half marathons in 2012, which meant that it was only a matter of time before I tried the same with the full distance.  Just like the North Country Run, it started off as a suggestion, which grew into an idea and finally became a commitment.  Given the distance, I will have to practice both steady discipline and measured food intake in order to successfully complete both races without hating myself too much.  There will be additional challenges, such as avoiding atrophy on the drive between cities and eating enough to both replenish and restock.

09-PHILADELPHIA
November 17, 2013
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Assuming that I survive everything so far, I’m aiming to run the Philadelphia Marathon because … well, because I want to.  It’s not part of a greater plan nor is it supposed to teach me anything.  It’s simply because after all the year’s meticulous orchestrations, I want to run something simply because I want to.  Isn’t that why we run in the first place?

Given that I haven’t signed up for all of these, there’s still a very real chance that this schedule may change.  However, I’ll do everything possible to stick with it and hold myself accountable.

But more importantly, I’ll need advice from all experienced runners on trail running, nutrition and doubling-up.  I’m going to face these challenges directly with little but intuition and my “stick-to-itiveness” as my wife once noted, but I will definitely need as many tips and tricks as possible.  All insight and anecdotes will be appreciated.

Onwards!

The (d)Evolution of a Runner

madison-outlineI’m going to speculate that when I first started running regularly, I did what most people have done for decades: run the same route at the same pace over and over again.  This might be an insultingly narrow view of the human mind, grossly underestimating our creativity.  But at the same time I like to think the majority of us are cautious creatures.  In those first months of trepidation, we didn’t know how far we could go, so we stayed in the nurturing embrace of a nearby circuit.  Eventually we found our comfort zone, where we could run without constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure we were within shouting distance of our front door, and gave it the nebulous term “pace run.”  After that, some of us decided to stay there to maintain our fitness.  Others chose to dial up either the speed or the distance, depending on what goals we had in mind.

Fast forward a few years and we’ve added different routines to the schedule, adding a smorgasbord of exercises to the runner’s simple, reliable pace run.  There’s the explosive interval, the hard effort tempo, the grueling mile repeats, the exhausting threshold run, the gradual progressive buildup, ladder/pyramid drills, hills, sprints – and that’s to say nothing of cross training and weight lifting.  Organizing the run schedule for the week now resembles putting together a 6-piece jigsaw puzzle with 20 different possible pieces.  At the very least, this adds a lot of variety to the act of training for a race and keeps it from ever getting stale.  It also keeps us from getting stuck in our comfort zones.  It happens all too often that we build walls around certain numbers, like a 9-minute pace or a 16-mile run, seeing anything faster or farther as a sure sign of instant fatigue or physical collapse.  Changing the run, the style and the goal can make it so we break through these barriers without the intimidation of crashing through them head-on.

While I don’t have any intention of chronicling my training in this blog, I decided to write about a very noteworthy week in my experience as a runner.  I’ve been talking about how we go from simple runs to more complex routines, targeting specific muscles and abilities in order to maximize our efforts on race day.  In a way, it’s like evolution.  We start off as single-celled organisms who just want to make it to the next distance milestone, and eventually – those of us with a little OCD – develop into meticulous planners with multi-tab color-coded running logs complete with a litany of graphs, historical averages and conditional projections.  When we first started, the only gear we had were shoes (and while they were probably not the right fit or kind for our stride, we had no idea).  Eventually, just getting ready to go running became an ordeal as we covered ourselves in gadgets, arm warmers, wicking socks, fuel belts, and gels.

So what made this week special?   In some ways, it was an example of the ever-growing bag of tricks available to every runner.  But more importantly, this week was a prime example of the exact opposite concept: devolution.

1. The Dreadmill

treadmillFor the last few weeks, the wolves of winter have descended on Chicago with their icy jaws.  While I am always game for running when it’s cold, I draw the line at 20 degrees and these days, that number is cause for a pool party.  So I’ve been knocking out a lot of my weekly miles on a treadmill.  This week in particular, I managed to log 22 of them through a mix of a ladder run, a consistent pace run and a progressive run.  I was very hesitant to admit it, but I actually enjoyed all three of these sessions.  Prior to this winter, my relationship with treadmills was acrimonious at best, but now I’ve grown to appreciate how useful they can be.

A fellow blogger wrote a short ode to the treadmill and it certainly helped in mending the ills between me and the moving belt.  After all, the entire run is under your control.  You shape the universe, how fast it moves, how high it slopes and how many butlers are running alongside you with water, sports drinks, towels, even a TV with classic Seinfeld and Family Guy episodes to keep you entertained.  Best of all, you live in a world where it’s always a comfortable 70 degrees with a ceiling fan to spread your musk throughout the room and impress others.  I soon fell under its seductive spell.  With all the wonders of modern technology at my fingertips, doing all my runs on this machine was almost irresistible.

But my more primal side wouldn’t have it.

2. The Long Slog

I’m three weeks out from my next marathon, which means it’s time for the bread, butter and knife of all training programs: the long run.  As I walked my dogs Saturday morning, snow fell on the three of us in tiny crystals, their movement barely interrupted by wind.  Though walking slowly, I wasn’t cold, which was a good sign that I was in for a great run.  A few hours later, my cold weather outfit and hydration pack were hugging my body, ready to make some fresh tracks.  It would be a traditional long run, with only water and a watch to accompany me.

chicago-grant-park

I hadn’t reached mile 2 when I seriously contemplated turning around and cozying up with the treadmill.  It was like someone had opened a door in south Chicago and had created an enormous draft pushing against me.  The snow on my face felt like sand, my fingers were slowly icing despite being locked in tight fists and my knees were already pink.  Though I own a pair of running tights, I never use them for long runs because they give me crazy saddle burn (and when your legs are doing most of the work, they’ll warm up on their own).  In fact, a better name for this blog could be “Pantsless Runner.”  But to make matters worse, I had completely neglected to buy an insulating cover for the water hose on my hydration pack.  In other words, my water supply was blocked by a tube of ice by mile 3.

There was no way I was running long without water.  I could deal with cold knees and squinting through the snowstorm but dehydration is not something you want to risk.  By this point I was at the tip of Navy Pier, having finished my third mile.  How willing was I to turn around now and do the rest of it on a treadmill?  Oh, comfort, you vile temptress!

The short answer was, not at all.  So I decided to improvise.  My gym has several locations in Chicago, one just across the street from my apartment, another about three miles north of where I was in a neighborhood called Old Town.  So in the absence of a reliable source of water, I’d have to use that gym as my next and only aid station.  By the time I reached it, my phone had frozen and had stopped working.  I also didn’t bring a wallet or credit card with me, so even if I wanted to stop running, I had no way of paying for a cab and no way to use public transportation.  I therefore convinced myself that I had no choice but to see this run through.

chicago-navy-pier

I had managed to store enough heat to endure the teeth-cracking winds when I stepped back outside.  For the next ten miles I remembered what it was like when I first started running.  I didn’t want to venture too far away from the gym because I knew I’d need a water fountain soon, much like how I never ran too far from my apartment for fear of not having enough energy to return.  On the way, I crossed paths with my friend Marla, who managed to tell me through a frozen mouth, “I’m in hell right now.”  I told her at least she was running downwind, which did little to brighten her day.  I was still running north, straight into the wind, much like I had been for the last 90 minutes, developing a crusty ice beard along the way.  My face was locked in a permanent grimace and I must have looked like I was trailing something with a truly acrid smell.  It hadn’t been an awful run, but it was certainly testing my patience.

But all of that changed when I turned around.  As if I had hit mute on my surroundings, the white noise hitting my ears was gone, replaced by the soft landing of shoes on soft pavement.  The snow was now falling at the same speed that I was running, as if the world itself were a giant treadmill moving underneath me.  It was pure serenity and well worth the arduous journey.  I was ushered by this calming yet enthusiastic wind back to the gym for another water stop, then back to my apartment to round out a successful 22-miler.

3. Into the Wild

Though I had to rely on others for my water, my long run was still very much in a planned environment.  I followed running paths used by several other runners (only one of whom, by the way, was also wearing shorts) and kept a very consistent pace on uniform, comfortable terrain.  In other words, it did little to prepare me for the two big trail races for which Otter and I have registered this year: the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country 50-Mile Run.  For that, I would have to ditch the convenience of the Lakefront Trail for the unpredictable terrain of the Palos Forest Reserve (on a recommendation from ultrarunner Jeff) just 20 minutes outside of the city.

palos-forest-reserve-01

Otter and I arrived at the turnaround by Bullfrog Lake at 7 AM.  The snow was coming down in large, deliberate clumps, covering everything in sight.  It was much colder than the day before, but the absence of winds made it just barely tolerable.  I put on a brand new pair of Saucony Kinvara TRs and began running in circles to warm up.  My left knee was aching a little from the previous day’s long run but it didn’t take long before it realized I was running this show.  I had donned some black CW-X tights, which practically choke your legs into position and layered my upper body with two shirts and a windbreaker.  Topping off the ensemble was a black balaclava, meaning my entire body was being squeezed by some sort of compression garment.

saucony-kinvara-trWith nothing but a cursory understanding of the trail map and a desire to officially start the ultra training season, we hopped on a path and ran wherever it chose to take us.

Two miles later we were in a clearing with four different paths.  While this may sound like the perfect place to quote a Robert Frost poem, it seemed like all four paths were decidedly un-trodden.  The snow was so thick that not once did we ever know if we were running on crushed limestone, gravel, or dirt.  We could have been running on paths made of laminated currency.  There was no way of knowing.  Even the paths themselves were hard to discern.  After a few minutes of looking back and forth, we chose one at random and ran over branches, logs and a few stepped descents until we reached a different trail.  We would later learn that we hadn’t chosen a path at all and had instead just run blindly through the woods.

We finished our run in about an hour, covering exactly 10K through a variety of terrain.  We ran on open trails, narrow single-track sections where we had to keep an eye for branches above and below us, over lop-sided terrain and under lots of leafless canopy.  The only signs of civilization were the occasional walker and a few ice fishermen walking over frozen lakes.  It was a very scenic run, which was not lost on either of us.  Thrilled with our first official trail exercise, Otter and I left the reserve and headed back to the city with very high hopes for the grueling regimen we will have for the next seven months.

Otter contemplates which trail to take

Otter contemplates which trail to take

“It’s the irony of trail running,” I said as we entered what looked like a picnic area, “that you’re always surrounded by beautiful scenery but you spend the entire time looking down to make sure you don’t kill yourself.”

Icebeard.

Icebeard.

And that, I think, rounds out my so-called “devolution.”  In one week I went from running in a controlled, almost sterile environment where I was in charge of every last detail, to covering miles on unpredictable trails where every footstep could mean a hidden rock or devious root.  I went from lording high over my workout to being at the mercy of the elements.  My point is perhaps more accurately described as a convergence between my evolution as a runner and how I’ve embraced the different terrains available to us, and my reliance on always having everything on me.  Regardless, it was a very fun week, where no two runs were the same.

This is a pattern that I will likely follow for a while in hopes of preparing myself for the intimidating challenges ahead.  I won’t make it a habit to write at length about it but I felt it was important to officially mark the week where ultra-training began.  I’m glad we were able to make it happen on a day where the mercury hit single-digits.  My reasoning is that if we can knock out a trail run with layers of snow quickly building up on us, then surely we can handle the spring.

It’s the summer that worries me.  But more on that later.