State 40: Wyoming (2014 Bighorn Trail 50k)

Otter, Jay and I waited for the start of the race under a cloudless sky. The mountains of Wyoming stretched out infinitely ahead of us, with little indication as to where exactly the Bighorn Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50k would take us. Marla would be here an hour later to tackle the race’s 30k. A steep ascent over a red dirt trail loomed ominously ahead of us. After asking a few friendly strangers, we learned that we’d be tackling that wall before anything else.  As I looked past the giant hill and the unknown challenges to come, I had still not shaken the insouciant confidence that would eventually doom me during this race.

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

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

“I don’t think I’m properly nervous for this,” I had told Otter two weeks prior. “Yeah, it’s a trail race; I’ll just take it easy. I’ll be fine. Very little trepidation, which is worrying me.”

“I reckon you’ll be fine,” he said reassuringly, but the enigmatic “haha” he issued beforehand wasn’t so comforting. I would later learn that he was appropriately aware of the punishment to come and had prepared with much more diligence. He had run the Kettle Moraine 50k two weeks prior to haze himself into trail shape and had fastidiously studied the Bighorn course maps like a sailor attempting to navigate the Straits of Magellan. As race day approached, he asked me more than once if I was ready to run the hardest race of my life.

I should have listened to him much earlier.

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

2014 Bighorn Wild & Scenic Trail 50k Google Earth Rendering of the First 14 miles

For though the first four miles were beautiful testaments to the natural high of trail running, I very quickly found myself in the depths of perdition. I could write pages about the distant snow-capped mountains holding onto the last patches of a brutal winter, or the white and purple wildflowers seasoned throughout sylvan clearings. But those moments of beauty and transcendence were like the sweet cherry on top of a cake made of lead and dirt.

Mile 0

Mile 0

By the fifth mile we had stopped climbing and there were no more easy rolling hills. Instead, the path all but disappeared into a precipitous drop, the steepest I had ever run. It was like shimmying down a black diamond ski slope but with loose dirt and rocks to slow you down. I watched as experienced trail runners marched downward confidently while I took each step carefully, knowing very well that lost balance would lead to a treacherous fall. I hammered my legs on the slope like a typewriter, stomping down with little ease, speed or grace. It wasn’t long before my quads began to ache.

Five miles in, I thought, and already my quads are shot. This race is going to suck.

That last sentence I may have said out loud. The woods responded quietly, indifferently.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Despite ramping up my mileage considerably in April and May, which included running almost 40 race miles in one weekend, I had done absolutely no hill workouts beyond whatever hills happened to crop up during races. I had done no strength training, hadn’t done any stairs or even completed a mile on a bike. It was a case of pure hubris, of a haughty runner who prematurely thought he had perfected endurance and become master of his body.

What an idiot.

Mile 3 - Delightful, flat terrain

Mile 3 – Delightful, flat terrain

The first real aid station welcomed me at mile 8 with the smell of crackling bacon. Though appetizing, I took the time to stop running and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a few ruffled potato chips instead. Runners that had passed me long ago were still there, mingling and enjoying the camaraderie and breathtaking scenery all around us. I capitalized on my quads no longer hurting by quickly refilling my pack with water and continuing the race.

The next six miles were a gradual uphill. I looked up at the road ahead and very high above, I saw the reflective glints of several vans and cars. It was the next aid station, the start of the race, and the end of our 20k loop. I wished I hadn’t seen it because it looked so impossibly far away. Have you ever walked toward a distant beacon, and been completely aware as you walk that it is not getting perceptibly closer? I liken it to walking in a city toward a skyscraper. If you look at it for even five minutes, it doesn’t seem to get any nearer.

That’s how I felt for about an hour.

Mile 11 - If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

Mile 11 – If you click and zoom in, you can see the reflection off the vans.

I kept climbing, alternating an efficient shuffle with power hiking, pushing dirt behind me to the tune of labored breathing, but every time I’d look up, the camp was still a day’s hike away. Six miles is an eternity when the end is always in sight. There was a silver lining in all of this though. By this point I had noticed that running slightly uphill was not painful at all but surprisingly easy because it didn’t require that I slam my quads down. Perhaps I’d be able to put that downhill battering behind me.

Mile 16-17 - The climb continues

Mile 16-17 – The climb continues

Finally at the aid station, after a lot of hiking, I took a little break. I downed some grapes, a cup of chicken broth and another handful of chips. The climb wasn’t over, there would be another mile of it, but at least I had reached somewhere. The rest of the race would be a point-to-point winding path ending in Dayton, Wyoming, where we had parked our car about five hours prior. The next six miles were beautiful and easy. I locked in step with a female runner ahead of me and scampered over dirt, flowers and the occasional stream. I was tired but the downhill pains weren’t too bad, allowing me to cover much distance with few grimaces.

And then it all went to hell at Horse Creek Ridge.

Perhaps I should have learned that those early aid stations were there not intended to just replenish your energy stores, but also to prepare you for an incoming gauntlet of pain. Just past that third aid station, where I filled up on fruits, I reached a creek. I walked shakily over the makeshift log bridge, steadying myself with a thin rope. A thin dirt trail snaked over the thick grass ahead. I could see several runners ahead hiking the path, which cut to the right, behind a group of trees and out of sight.

Mile 19 - This was right before the Haul.  I couldn't take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Mile 19 – This was right before the Haul. I couldn’t take the camera out for the actual climb because it was too steep.

Those trees, I would soon discover, were hiding a mountain. A short, but almost vertical mountain that the organizers call “the Haul.” No one ahead of me was running or even power-hiking this section. Everyone was pulling themselves upward, with their arms either resting on their hips or pushing off their legs. I don’t think my heels ever touched the dirt during this climb. A desire to rest taught me a harsh lesson: don’t stop. A break in the rhythm sent a flood of pain into my legs. I would have stiffened up completely and possibly fallen backward had I not snapped myself back into upward motion.

Heave, gasp, heave, gasp.

Once at the top of Horse Creek Ridge, something changed. The climb had sapped every last bit of strength I had, conspiring with the thin air at 8,000 feet to rob me of all remaining vitality. Every step from that point was painful, every single one. To make matters worse, the Tongue River Canyon opened up below me, interminably downhill. And there were 12 miles left to run. All downhill.

It wasn’t the race that changed – it was still the same brutal, unfeeling and uncaring event that I had found and decided to run. It continued to deny me any respite from the ever-growing acid in my quads or burning in my lungs. The mountains wouldn’t rearrange themselves and the path had no intention to suddenly pave itself to make way for someone who didn’t treat the distance with the proper respect. But even with this harsh lesson learned, and with every positive mantra I could muster at the time, I couldn’t help but slump.

Mile 20 - It would be all downhill from here.  Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

Mile 20 – It would be all downhill from here. Painfully, agonizingly downhill.

A runner’s quiver is full of motivational tools and positive thoughts. You have to overcome the bodily pain and ignore the struggle to get to the finish. I’d like to say that I overcame the challenges and stomped through the brick walls separating me from the finish. But that’d be a lie. In the moment, as it happened, I was not enjoying myself and really, desperately, wanted this race to end. Had there been a drop station, I am afraid to say that I would have seriously considered it.

The Tongue River Canyon was a gorgeous expanse of greens, lavenders, and yellows. Wild grass exploded out of the ground in enormous tufts, trees covered the exposed layers of rock in distant mountains like ancient mildew. It was truly a magnificent part of the country, the perfect place to embody the very reason why trail running is fun and in some cases, spiritual. But in the moment, as it happened, no part of me was enjoying it.

I winced with every step I took. If my quads weren’t searing in pain, then my toes were being bludgeoned against the front of my shoe. I did this for about four miles, stopping only to let faster runners zip by me. This was eternity, captured in an agonizing, yet beautiful stretch of slowed time. Each individual step did nothing to bring the mountains closer, but somehow, because each one had to lead me somewhere, I made progress. I was eventually thrilled to hear the heavenly sound of the Tongue River roaring through the canyon. I had reached the bottom.

Mile 23-24 -- In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Mile 23-24 — In the middle of Tongue River Canyon

Replying to the young volunteer who offered to refill my water bottle and pack was a struggle. Whenever I spoke, I could hear my voice echoed in my head, as if a fishbowl were surrounding it, which threw off my balance and concentration. I tried to equalize my ears by cracking my jaw around but that didn’t help. Instead, I ate a handful of grapes, clipped my pack around my chest, strapped the bottle to my hand, and kept shuffling onwards with the worst of the race behind me. What lay ahead was a slow, defeated march.

Now almost completely flat, the course had spilled out of its single-track, rocky confines and onto a wide, two-lane dirt road. Cars and locals on bikes would show up on occasion, but I had no leftover energy to say hi or even look at them. The sun, a fixture of the day, had hidden behind large storm clouds, allowing for longer bursts of running (though my definition of “running” during these last five miles left a lot to be desired). Normally in a long race, I laugh at the idea of being just four miles away from the finish line. On that soon-to-be-rainy Saturday, though, that felt like another exercise in forever.

Mile 25 - Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

Mile 25 – Alongside the Tongue River, lots of uneven terrain

The race was no longer divided into sections of ups and downs, but instead a single stretch of road that went on and on. Aside from one aid station and the advent of storm clouds, there was little I noticed. On occasion, runners would pass me, some of them on their way to a fifty-mile finish. One runner strode by me with a pacer, and another pulled ahead with trekking poles. I felt pathetic by comparison. These guys were most likely finishing Bighorn’s 100-mile race, which had started the day before, and here I was, sputtering like a lemon after running under a third of that distance.

I crossed a bridge and made it to the tiny city of Dayton. Under normal circumstances, Dayton is a city that you’ll miss if you blink and barely registers on a map unless you’re viewing it with a microscope. But as my feet hit pavement, it became a bastion of civilization, the Emerald City, Roland’s Dark Tower and Mount Doom all in one. I had never been so happy for a race to be over, and I could practically smell the finish line over the scent of my own disgusting state.

I entered Scott Bicentennial Park, a recreational area next to the river with a baseball diamond, playgrounds and picnic tables. There were crowds gathered, cheering for each new haggard face. I heard Marla yelling my name but from both exhaustion and perhaps shame, I couldn’t turn my head to look for her. I simply threw a brittle index finger in the air and kept running, possibly signaling the number of minutes I could tolerate before collapsing. I saw Jay directly ahead of me in his green rain jacket, having finished almost two hours prior. He made an arching motion with his thumb, pointing to the finish line.

Mile 27 - No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

Mile 27 – No more climbing or descending, just flat road.

I could have finished this race happy. I could tell you that I found a deep well of wisdom in that last mile and siphoned out a reason to smile. But I did neither of those things. I dragged myself under the finishing banner and had just enough self-awareness left to turn off my Garmin, which read just under seven and a half hours. I could have forced a smile then, but my ego was too bruised. Over the years I’ve tried to cultivate an image of a runner with perseverance and strength, an image of someone constantly facing huge challenges with a cool confidence. Every time someone calls me crazy for the amount I run, I soak it in as a deserved compliment.

But fifty kilometers over the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming had taken that sturdy effigy and dragged it through the dirt. All the years I had spent becoming a competitive runner seemed to mean absolutely nothing anymore. I didn’t feel good having completed this run in what I considered a disgraceful way. It wasn’t the result itself that stung me, but the fact that I came face to face with a lesson I didn’t think I’d have to re-learn:

Train.

It’s such a stupid thing to have to tell someone, let alone someone like me who has done these things before. The mountains don’t care about your road half marathon PR, or what your most recent 5K time was. The thin air beyond 8,000 feet won’t cut you any slack if you don’t change your training routine to face it. Rocky soil and uneven dirt paths won’t catch you if every mile you log is on a perfectly groomed city path.

Mile 29 -- Why won't this end?

Mile 29 — Why won’t this end?

And I knew these things. I knew all of them. But I had the arrogance to think that I had reached an echelon of fitness where I was somehow exempt from all of them. Though I was lucky to leave this race without injury, I paid dearly for that attitude and couldn’t quite feel proud. Looking later at a map, the distance we had covered looked absolutely dizzying from above. How could I have taken such a blasé approach to it? Was it symptomatic of runners’ general overconfidence towards health? Was I not cut out for ultra distances?

I struggled with these questions as I lay on the cool grass, trying to fix the hollowness I felt in my head. Experience and training were everything.  Jay had run a 50k PR and didn’t seem the least bit shattered by the experience, while Marla, who had moved to Colorado just three months ago, had run the 30k distance, saying it was the toughest race of her life. Otter crossed the finish line not long after me, looking like a kid busting through the gates at a theme park. He was talking like an auctioneer, rattling off his race experience to all of us at an electrifying pace. Though his body was certainly pretty beat, his attitude could have probably turned around and done the whole thing again.

Finishers!  And I look like a madman!

Finishers! And I look like a madman!

Now that I’ve had time to recover from the experience, a deranged part of me is looking forward to the next intense, body-mangling experience. As I writhed in pain on the damp Dayton grass, I swore I would never run another ultra, ever again. But that promise was tainted by a poor performance, begot by being a pompous idiot. It didn’t have to be this way. It will be different next time.  Next time, I won’t be an idiot.  Next time, my plan will be smart and simple, summarized by one word that means both the steady improvement of the body through stress, and a sturdy, robust machine seemingly impossible to stop.

Train.

Forty states down – the final stretch has begun!

Marathon_Map 050 (WY)

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2014 Race Schedule

In 2013, I mapped out the vast majority of my races for one purpose: to ramp-up to the North Country 50-miler.  While that race wasn’t as successful as I had hoped, the training leading up to it was more than worthwhile.  2014 won’t be quite as structured as I don’t have a singular epic event that will dominate my every interval run.  There is an ultra in the mix, but it won’t require as much all-encompassing focus as last year’s top race.

2014 will be about filling in some of the gaps.  With the South completely done, there are just three areas left to finish: the west, the northeast and the two pesky states not attached to the remaining 48.  This year I will be running two of the four remaining “western” states, but mostly I’ll be tackling the Atlantic Coast.

And so, while this list is far from exhaustive or definitive, it is how I envision my 2014 looking from a race standpoint.  I haven’t signed up for all of them – in fact, I have only signed up for two – but I don’t envision them selling out anytime soon.  Yes, I realize those are famous last words, but this is just to serve as a disclaimer.  Please let me know if you will be joining me for any of the races below, as it will definitely motivate me to sign up sooner!

01-miami

February 2, 2014
Miami, Florida

2014 will start with my very first charity marathon.  On November 25, 2013, my uncle Daniel Robert Bonilla died from complications stemming from glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant and extremely aggressive brain tumor.  He was there with me in 2010 and 2011 when I ran the half marathon distance in Miami, so I decided that in 2014 my twentieth marathon would be in Miami in his loving memory.  Given Miami’s propensity for intense heat and humidity, even in the first weekend in February, it will be a challenge to finish this one in under four hours without succumbing to dehydration.  Although it won’t be easy, I hope to channel Tío Daniel’s lasting memory and legacy with every step.

02-stlouis

April 6, 2014
St. Louis, Missouri

I ran the Go! St. Louis Half Marathon in 2010 with my cousin and enjoyed it, despite Olive Road squashing my speed with its seemingly interminable incline.  Like Miami, I decided to return this year and run the full marathon, thus shading another nearby state in red.  Although I don’t have speedy ambitions for this race, I will try and run aggressively and build a solid base to  threaten my PR later in the year.

03-shiprock

May 3, 2014
Shiprock, New Mexico

I’ve run three desert races, one of which was a marathon, and have loved all of them.  Given the climate and the course’s net downhill elevation, this one seemed like a no-brainer.  I’m still a little unsure as to how hot it will be in early May, but I don’t plan on killing this course, so I’m not too worried.  Plus, if I fly into Albuquerque (just under 3 hours away), it will give me a chance to visit all the sets of Breaking Bad, like everyone is doing these days.  Forgive me for following trends.

04-maryland

May 10, 2014
Fulton, Maryland

Admittedly, I’m at the point in my 50-states quest where I no longer have a reason to run certain races.  Some of these races simply exist in states that I have never visited, so I find one and decide to run it (which is made most apparent by the fact that each race is basically the name of the state in which it is run).  But in the interest of trimming the budget, I decided to once again double-up on states.  However, unlike my Pacific Northwest Double-Marathon Weekend of 2013, I won’t be doing 52.4 miles this time.  Instead, I will be running 39.3 – a half marathon on Saturday in Maryland, followed by …

May 11, 2014
Wilmington, Delaware

2014-Marathon-Layout-Vert-with-CC-logo… a full marathon in Delaware on Sunday.  This is another race that I don’t know that much about, but fit nicely with my schedule.  In fact, a lot of these states don’t have particular significance to me but I do have friends who live in the area, so I will no doubt make it a point to visit them in the process.  There have been very few races that I have simply run without some sort of personal attachment and I don’t intend to make this pair succumb to that fate.  That way, when I’m done with my 50-states journey, I’ll have great stories for each one.  Even Delaware.

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06-bighorn

June 21, 2014
Dayton, Wyoming

Dayton, Wyoming is a tiny western town with a population that barely cracks 1,000.  But it’s the closest example of civilization that I could find to the Bighorn Trail Run course, which peaks at around 9,000 feet.  Sometime last year I realized that my two ultramarathons were being run in states that I had already completed, so I figured that my next huge race should at least net me another state.  If I’m going to put hundreds of miles running hills on the treadmill, I might as well get a new state out of it.  Pickings were slim in the flat states, so I decided to go crazy and do one at altitude.  Along the way, Otter, Marla and Jay (80% of the North Country crew) joined as well.

October 4, 2014
Bristol, New Hampshire

NHmarathongrayscale.jpgI will definitely regret doing another 39.3-mile weekend if the first one above doesn’t go well.  Regardless, my trips to New England will once again be minimized with a double-up.  Saturday will start with a half marathon in what is regarded as “the most beautiful race in the Northeast” (and one I have hitherto never visited) followed by …

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October 5, 2014
Portland, Maine

logo… a marathon in Portland, Maine.  Curiously enough, it will be happening on the exact same day as the marathon in the other Portland, which I ran in 2013.  With this state done, I will be at forty-two states, with the potential for a forty-third in November.  I haven’t made any commitments but I do anticipate squeezing out another run in the last two months of the year, leaving just a few empty spots on the map before the last states to ever join the union are run in 2016.

So there you have it, my 2014 race schedule.  It’s pretty straightforward, focusing mostly on marathons with the half distance only making an appearance (for now) as a prelude to the full distance just 24 hours afterward.  I was originally going to run the 50-mile distance at Bighorn to vindicate my DNF from this past year, but then I ran 4 miles at 4,000 feet and, while wheezing from oxygen debt, decided that an additional 46 at twice the elevation might not be what some call “intelligent.”  So while some may call us crazy, there is still a point at which the runner’s ego hits a wall.  The 50-mile distance still taunts me though, but I will likely table my next attempt for another year.

What’s on the 2014 docket for you?  What’s the one big race that will monopolize your training?  Is there a race that you would love to run this year, but for whatever reason, you can’t?  Mine is Berlin.  Goddamn I want to run that.

End of Year Recap (2013)

If 2012 was the year of speed, where I lit up the race circuit with as many PRs as I could, then 2013 was the year of distance.  Despite a few new personal bests, what highlighted the year were my adventures past the 26.2-mile threshold and the brutal weekends that I had to put in to visit the great unknown with as few detours as possible into agony and self-hatred.  It all started with a suggestion from my running hetero-lifemate Otter, which I first thought was in jest.

A 50-miler?  Was a hallucinogen somehow warping a “K” into the word “miles”?  Had Otter lost his mind?  How the hell were we going to do that?  The ultramarathon had the same veil of mystery that the marathon had for me four years ago, so that prickly feeling in my stomach had returned.  Almost because of that trepidation, I decided to go for it.  It reminded me of what it was like to view the mountain and commit to climbing it.  The challenge itself and the overwhelming, almost dizzying heights is what drew me to add my name to the Ice Age Trail 50k and the North Country Run 50-miler.  To paraphrase the overused but still effective words of George Mallory, we do these things because they are there, because we can do them.

… or at least try.

Recap_2013

But first, let’s do the usual numbers dance.  Although I spilled paint all over the map last year by filling in twelve states, I wasn’t as irresponsible with my body and budget this time around.  In the last twelve months, I filled in seven new states, four of which I had never visited ever for any reason.  I completed the west coast with Washington and Oregon, dotted the west with Utah, added Kansas and Louisiana to the map, completed the South with North Carolina and added some Northeast real estate by running in Pennsylvania.  Illinois also ceased to be the only state in which I’ve run both a half and a full marathon, now in the esteemed company of Florida and Wisconsin.

Race Stats

Half Marathons Run: 4*
Fastest: 1:31:13 (NC Half Marathon)
Slowest: 3:06:42 (Cerros de Escazú 21k)

*This tally includes one trail 25k, which, because of a poorly marked course, ended up being just over 14 miles.

Marathons Run: 6**
Fastest: 3:23:12 (Rock ‘N Roll New Orleans Marathon) PR
Slowest: 3:56:41 (Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon)

**If you include ultras, this number is 7.  If you’re feeling merciful and add the DNF from the North Country Run, where I technically ran more than a marathon, it’s 8.

Number of fellow runners: 101,000+
Largest race: 33,219 runners (Shamrock Shuffle)
Smallest race: 142 runners (Lakeside Festival 5k)

Mileage Stats

Miles Run: 1,626 (new record, previously held by 2012: 1,366)
Average Pace: 8:21
Race Miles Run: 296.9
Average Race Pace: 9:24

And the newest stat, which I find intriguing, is how many miles I ran on the treadmill this year.  That total is 272, which is worth noting because the total amount of treadmill miles I logged in the four years between 2009 and 2012 was 304.  So in this year alone, I almost doubled my lifetime miles on the machine.  Does this mean I’m becoming a bit picky with the weather?  Or perhaps I’m being more strategic with my workouts.  Regardless, I had to point out my nascent love affair with the hamster wheel.

0324_nc-half-marathon 07Although the numbers speak for themselves, I’d be remiss if I didn’t gush about the impact the year has had on me.  The signature event for 2013 was the North Country Run 50-miler.  I changed the way I ran, focusing very intently on going long and recovering more quickly.  I spent my entire summer pushing my weekly mileage totals, routinely breaking distance records.  Prior to this year, I had never run more than 142 miles in a month.  In March I ran 178, a record which was decimated in July, where I logged 223.5 miles.  I was up early on almost every Saturday and Sunday, running back-to-back long runs not limited to the reliably sunny and humid Chicago 0414_cerrosdeescazu 11lakefront path.  My travels took me to Ocean City, New Jersey, where a 5 AM run on the boardwalk was the only way to avoid the 100-degree scorchers.  I visited Miami and took my ultra-training to the Rickenbacker Causeway, where I would be lacquered in a thick layer of sweat just two miles in.  I ran 15 miles along the San Francisco coastline and on the Golden Gate Bridge just three hours after landing in the Bay Area at 2 AM … and then I ran 20 miles the next morning while my friends nursed hangovers at the hotel.

My entire running schedule was built around it, with every 0420_1_garminmarathon 62other race handpicked to serve a purpose.  I learned to eat while on the run at the Garmin Marathon, battled the trail elements at the Paleozoic 25k and Cerros de Escazú 21k.  I happily logged miles at the Walt Disney World Marathon and then test-ran my ultra preparedness at the Ice Age Trail 50k, my first venture past 26.2 miles.  Every race run in the first eight months of the year had some component that I was either testing or validating.

In other words, I was dead serious about this race.

0511_iceage50k 04But then, for lack of more eloquent phrasing, shit happened.  Two weeks before the race, I was hit by an unexpected pain in my left knee.  Despite employing every preventative measure I could think of, by mile 14 of the year’s headline race I was hurting.  Every system was firing on all cylinders, rallying with me in hopes of obviating the hot pain shooting from my knee, but it wasn’t enough.  Just shy of 40 miles, I decided it would be dangerous to continue.

The decision hurt at the time.  I’m the kind of person that likes to make his commitments public because I don’t 0824_northcountryrun 12like letting people down (who does, right?).  So the inevitable series of explanations that followed kept my shoulders closer to the ground than I like.  But six weeks later, my decision to call it quits bore fruit.  In my first ever trip to the Pacific Northwest, I ran two marathons back to back and both under four hours.  As if to prove that everything was still fine, I ran just shy of my PR in Philadelphia just a month later.

So really, there was a lot to learn this year.  I was faced with the unfortunate reality that life doesn’t always unfurl as intended.  But the pain I suffered in my left knee was leavenworth-marathon-05insignificant compared to actual hardship.  Although it is easy to feel like the world has betrayed us whenever race plans go awry, we have to step back and realize what a privileged complaint that is.  If this is what’s making us upset and monopolizing our grievances against the universe, then we need to pause and take a deep breath.  There are other races out there, and not all of them involve running.

About a month ago, my uncle passed away from complications stemming from a malignant brain tumor.  His wife, my aunt, is my godmother and his children grew portland-marathon-group-pictureup with me.  Although he and I didn’t have a uniquely close relationship, his sudden departure was agonizing.  He was in Miami with us when his oldest daughter and I ran the half marathon in 2010 and 2011.  So I felt that it would be fitting to dedicate my 20th marathon to him.  While I haven’t yet finalized my resolutions for next year, it will start with my first ever charity marathon.  As of this writing, I’ve already reached my fundraising goal.

2014 will be about many things.  It will be about remembrance, vindication and fortitude.  It will be about improving what is working, fixing what is holding us back moab-trail-half-marathon-groupand changing focus on what matters.  At this time last year, I didn’t think I could possibly top 2012’s excitement and thrill.  But somehow, I managed to do it.  Even though I wasn’t completely successful, I felt more alive this year as I scurried up wooded trails, scorched over flat pavement and clambered up sandstone cliffs.  Perhaps facing defeat gave each finish line an extra jolt of satisfaction.  I always assumed that I would finish every race no matter what, but that hubris was put to the test in August and I’ve taken the harsh lesson to heart.

And so, with a thick mix of emotions, I bid farewell to 2013.  As the pictures on the side suggest, it was an excellent year for my feet and my heart and I look forward to every starting line 2014 will offer me.  From old friends to new companions, there was no shortage of good company as I tackled the year’s challenges.  There aren’t many people who use running as a means to stay in touch, but I’m glad and honored to be one of them.

Onwards.

The Catharsis of Ultra

1. How Far Are You Willing To Go?

0824_northcountryrun 33

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

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