State 35: Utah (2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon)

I harnessed the GoPro camera to my head, careful to not elbow the dense crowd of runners around me.  It was fastened to an elastic band that squeezed my head in three directions, but it felt oddly comfortable.  The sun had almost crested the colossal mounds of red to our right, slowly warming us from the near-freezing temperatures of the desert morning.  The 2013 Moab Trail Marathon and Half Marathon was just minutes from starting and the race announcer was making sure we understood what we were about to do.  This wouldn’t be your average trail run, where your biggest concern is avoiding tree roots and the occasional whipcrack of branches on your face.  Today we would have to contend with cacti, crypto (a living bacteria that serves as desert topsoil), loose rocks and slippery terrain that could spell certain doom if not navigated properly.

I privately thought that we had bitten off more than we could chew.

In the waves behind me were Steve (my father-in-law), his brothers Greg and Jim, and his brother-in-law Dan.  Almost immediately after we all finished the Hoover Dam Marathon last December, the brothers began ruminating over which would be the next trip.  In one of the many emails, Moab was mentioned.  I knew of several races in the area, but one in particular stood out.  Having read Mike’s detailed and flattering account of the Moab Trail Half Marathon, I was intrigued and threw it in the ring.  Within days, flights were bought and race registrations paid.  As the weekend crept ever closer, excitement levels reached feverish levels.  I soon learned that Moab had a Mecca-like quality for Steve and Greg, over the years adopting an otherworldly character that always brought a fond smile to their faces.  In their biking days of yore, they would visit the red desert canyon and lay claim to every trail they could find, seeing breathtaking natural monuments along the way.

If you ever visit Moab, you MUST stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge

If you ever visit Moab, you MUST stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge

This long weekend was therefore not just another out of state race, but a poignant family trip down memory lane.

With race director Danelle Ballengee’s blessing, the crowd of bouncing runners was sent on its way (for Danelle’s riveting back story of survival and triumph, please read Mike’s Moab story).  I made sure to click Record and followed the human flood ahead of me.  The first four miles were all uphill, interrupted only by brief dips and rocky camel humps.  During this ascent, we would run over almost every possible kind of terrain.  We started on asphalt, which quickly became loose sand, a surface that sapped the speed from every footstep.  That soon disappeared, giving way to packed dirt with loose rocks, which grew to boulders and later entire mountains.  I took a moment to look up from the trail to behold the towering walls of red surrounding me.  This race, more than any other I’ve run so far, was the cruelest culprit of the central conflict of trail running — there is so much beautiful scenery to ingest, but you have to keep your eyes on the ground or you risk snapping down like a mousetrap.  We hadn’t run two miles before a gentleman ahead of me fell face first into a pile of rocks the size of human heads.  Although he immediately got up and shoo’ed away any help, I’m sure he took a rough hit to more than just his pride.

The Start / Finish Area

The Start / Finish Area

But like a kid trying to do his homework with the TV on, I couldn’t help but look up from time to time.  The mesmerizing towers of rugged sandstone seemed to close in on us, each formation more impressive than the previous.  The race followed the regular pattern of shock and awe from the previous day’s sightseeing tours.  We had hiked to the almost mystical Delicate Arch, absorbed the dizzying vastness of Dead Horse Point and drove through the cartoonishly smooth biking playgrounds of the Slickrock Sand Flats.  Steve and Greg had escorted us through each stretch of crimson landscape with the same zeal as an older brother showing his siblings Star Wars for the first time.  Each new sun-burnt carving was a wonder to behold, never once blending in with its surroundings.

That’s how this race felt.  Every single section, every part was completely unique and had its own story to tell.

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Four miles later, I could feel the top of the climb, the end of the race’s opening act.  I did my best to avoid walking, but there were several steep escarpments where everyone ahead of me had stopped to power hike the smooth mounds of red and white.  The peak was at the top of a gradual incline of jagged rock and the sun was just beyond it.  Slender, alien silhouettes ambled ahead of me towards the light and I followed in short, dusty steps.  Even with my sunglasses, I was almost blind.  But once over the other side, it was like entering another world.  The light changed, everything came into focus, and just like that, I was flying.

moab-trail-half-marathon-mile-8I could feel the crunch of sand and rock with each step as my feet skipped over the surface.  Although it was so easy to give in to gravity, I would meet a long, gruesome end were I to accidentally slip and fall to my left.  So I kept a respectable distance behind the runner ahead of me and let my eyes dart to and fro on the path ahead, evaluating where to (not) step.  Like a stream finding the fast-flowing river, we soon spilled from the rocky cliffs and onto an orange dirt path, hugged by miles of desert, distant mounds of jutting turmeric acting like walls of an enormous arena.  The last four miles had consisted of a slow, sustainable running pace with brief periods of hiking and a few four-legged scrambles, so the suddenly flat, soft trail easily broke the chains.

I hit Record on my unicorn camera and let reckless impulse consume me.  One by one, I passed runners, often running along the edge of the trail like a skater on a half-pipe.  My Garmin’s wrist strap had broken the day before, so it was bouncing in my back pocket, my pace a complete mystery.  But in the middle of flight, I didn’t care.  I had laser targeted the red skyscrapers on the horizon and was closing in on them like a hawk, every step effortlessly pushing off the packed dirt, every rock providing a spring to the next, nothing in my-

Beep-beep-beep.

“What the,” I said and pulled the harness off my head, my skin practically stuck to it.  “Are you serious?”
“Battery dead?” a nearby runner asked, mid-stride.
“No, full memory card.”
“Ah, that’s a shame.”
“Yeah,” I said, clumsily strapping it back on my head like a mascot caught out of costume.  “I could probably make some space on it, but I doubt my father-in-law would appreciate it if I delete his Scuba diving videos.”
“That’d be a terrible idea.”
“Oh well,” I said.  “At least I got the hard part on video.”

The runner laughed and continued with his run.  He didn’t say anything else though.  In retrospect, I suspect that he had run this race before because, as I would learn just a few miles later, I had not quite reached the hard part of the race.

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I reached the first of two aid stations at the end of the flat stretch, where I drank some HEED energy drink and ate an orange slice with a sugar cookie before continuing on the path, which was no longer a discrete trail.  For much of the next three miles, we would be on the shoulders of red bluffs just a head turn away from awe-inspiring canyons (also known as a giant, potential graves).  Running was happening in short bursts, whenever possible.  Loose rocks, curious shrubs and a general sense of self-preservation kept me from attacking these cliffs.  The slower pace gave me a chance to absorb the enormous gap created by ancient water, an expanse so large it almost rivaled Dead Horse Point.  I continued leaping over rocks and sliding under natural overhangs, wondering how the brothers were reacting to this race so far.  After all, I was the one who suggested it.

I could imagine Greg admiring the view in his congenial Midwestern voice that hints at his goofy personality; Dan would stop and appreciate the monuments with pithy, no-nonsense remarks while stroking his goatee; and Jim would take a hundred pictures with his phone and remark at each new vista with gushy adulation in his slow, mellow intonation.  Meanwhile, Steve would yell “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” like a wild man, pick out the most efficient way possible to tackle the challenge ahead and continue enjoying the trip he put together with the bros in his life.

moab-trail-half-marathon-mile-10But I did hope they were being careful.  The orange ribbons that marked the trail weren’t as easy to find anymore.  There was no one ahead of me to follow so my eyes were working overtime to find the next marker and keep me from tripping on rocks.  For several stretches, it felt like I wasn’t following ribbons as much as unearthing them.  During one slight downhill, I began to pick up speed but couldn’t lose focus for a second.  As I fell methodically down the stepped rocks, I felt like a cyborg targeting every possible object and evaluating its relevance, four, five times a second.

I was enjoying this so much, I couldn’t help but smile.  It didn’t take long for the downhill jaunt to become a dance, with short, rhythmic steps clicking against the sand before a semi-graceful leap over a rock.  I was living every step, focused so intently on form that it felt like I was holding my breath the entire time.  I wouldn’t have noticed if the spires in the distance had uprooted themselves and done Tai Chi.

But soon all running would come to a grinding halt.  The shoulder of the mountain was narrowing with every step until it was scarcely more than a thin ledge with clumps of red dandruff.  The only things separating me from tumbling down the side into a canyon popping with vegetation was an arm’s length of space and a poor decision.  I was also holding a hand above my head to keep the camera from scraping a red ceiling.  Two days earlier, we had hiked to see Delicate Arch, which included a slow walk next to a similarly sharp drop-off, during which Greg had mentioned his fear of heights.  I could only hope he would keep it together during this leg of the race.

Miles 10 - 12

Miles 10 – 12

I began descending, quickly.  Not only were the ribbons leading me down into the canyon, but runners were catching up with me – probably the ones I passed during the flat, dirt road – and I didn’t want to be the bottleneck.  I saw a spotter up ahead, who ushered me towards a pit between two large boulders.  Rather than crabwalk down the edge, I decided to jump.  I landed with a full crouch, my knees almost touching my ears.  After picking myself up and slapping the dust off my gloves on my legs, I slid down until I could turn around and see the line of people waiting to shimmy down the rock face, wishing my camera had some space left to capture the vertiginous descent.

I reached the bottom of the canyon, the next aid station just a few minutes away.  The trail was thicker here, so I ran with my hands outstretched, pushing away the plants and reeds that had joined the cavalcade of obstacles.  As I approached the station, I noticed with great confidence that I was still feeling strong and not drained by the air at 5,000 feet like I had expected.  I downed another cup of HEED and left the station through a thin layer of trees that separated the canyon from the main road.  We had driven here the day before and knew what was to come: a long, dry climb.

Miles 10 - 12 (Google Earth)

Miles 10 – 12 (Google Earth)

So up I went.  I started with a slow jog, pushing the gravel behind me in short steps.  I passed a few walkers along the way, who would later pass me as I took my own break.  A quick asphalt switchback pulled us quickly up the slope and for the first time in the race, I could feel my quads start to burn.  The top of the climb was in sight, so I let myself take one last walk break before topping the hill and turning on the afterburners.  Though the road was full of small rocks that could still be felt through the soles of my trail shoes, I wouldn’t have noticed.  The downhill had the perfect slant – not too weak to just be a false flat, and just shy of a quad-melting grade.  I came up to an older runner who looked to be in his 60s.

“This is more like it!” I yelled as I passed him.
“That’s the way to do it!” he said with a fist in the air.  “Save it all for the end!”

The sinister stream

The sinister stream

But the downhill, like every single act of this race, was short lived.  A small sign dug into the side of the road showed a little black arrow pointing left, into a shallow canyon.  As if to avoid temptation, the organizers had stationed a few friendly volunteers next to the sign to make sure everyone stopped their exuberant prance and made the proper left turn.  The road became slickrock so my run became a jog; the slickrock began dropping into the canyon in steps, so my jog became a cautious scoot.  Once flattened, I got back to running, eager for the finish line.  But there was one obstacle left to face.

This last barrier to glory would come in the shape of an ice-cold stream, winding in and out of the canyon, surrounded by mud-drenched rocks.  The organizers had warned us that the local beavers had been busy, so we should plan on getting our feet wet.  There was a volunteer at the first crossing, who wasted no words by telling us that we simply had to get in.  There was no way to avoid it.  It was too wide to jump and no rocks were breaching its surface to act as stepping stones.  So in I went.

Jim on the final scramble to the finish line

Jim on the final scramble to the finish line

Those first steps were awful.  Though it was only shin-deep, the cold sensation shot up my legs and through my spine, causing me to stiffen completely.  I lumbered across that stream with my arms moving around me as if I were shaped like a sphere, all grace and confidence draining into the icy water.  But to my delight, it only took me about five or six steps to reach the other side.  Once on land, I knew it was vital that I run to bring my feet back to life.  We were deep in the canyon and there was very little sunlight reaching us, so running alone would warm them up.  I was trying to actively hug the ground with my toes with every step, leaving the cold sensation on the damp grass.  So far, it was working.

That wasn’t so bad, I thought.  Now time to … get back in?

All elation of being almost finished was dashed when I looked ahead and saw runners crossing back to the other side of the stream.  If we had to ford this thing more than once, then it was possible that we’d have to cross it a third, fourth, maybe even a fifth time.  I was right on all three counts.  Just as my feet would warm up, I would once again drown them in an icy bath like a cruel interrogator.  But at least the crossings were quick, requiring only two or three fully underwater steps.

But even that small luxury was stripped from me as we found ourselves wading in the middle of the stream, parallel to the bank, those damned orange ribbons hanging from the branches above us.

This is getting silly, Steve would think.
Oh boy, Greg might say aloud.
This is sooooo cooooool, Jim would chime in.
Dan, meanwhile, would scoff out an expletive and soldier onward.

I was happy to see this Arch in Moab, even if it didn't take millions of years to form

I was happy to see this Arch in Moab, even if it didn’t take millions of years to form

This pattern continued for a few more crossings until we were finally out of the water and onto the road.  I was thrilled to be back on dry land, even if we had yet another climb ahead of us.  It felt like I had an ice pack squeezed between the tops of my feet and my shoes, but it was quickly melting with each step.  At the top of the climb, I could hear the muffled sounds of the race announcer and a red arch, slightly obscured by a row of porta-potties.  The adventure was almost over, so it was time to empty the tank.  My legs had shuffled through cliffs, slid over loose rocks, climbed up dirt roads and now battled with glacial waters, but I managed to kick uphill, pulling the finish line closer.  The end was near …

… until it wasn’t.  What I thought was the entrance to the parking lot looked more like a complete turnaround, back into the canyon.  My suspicions were confirmed by the cheery volunteers pointing downward into the realm of the cold creek.  I told the friendly woman who rerouted me that what she was doing was downright cruel.  She assured me that there was just a quarter-mile left, which was friendly volunteer-speak for “a vast expanse of unfathomable distance separates you from success.”

Jim finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon, just 3 weeks after the Chicago Marathon

Jim finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon, just 3 weeks after the Chicago Marathon

Just as I had thought, we’d be crossing the dreaded stream again.  There were a few rocks poking their heads out of the surface a little downhill, so I tip-toed over them and into a wall of reeds and dirt.  I regretted that decision because I ended up covering my shoes in muddy runoff just to avoid getting them wet.  Once back on the trail, it was business as usual – a thin, serpentine path interrupted by enormous boulders with ribbons leading the way.  Jim would later joke that he imagined the race director tying each one in a deliberately treacherous location while snickering sadistically.

The shrubbery was thicker and taller here, making me feel for the first time that I was in a forest.  I reached the stream again to find a black pipe connecting the embankments, just a few inches above the water.  My first thought was that we were going to tightrope across it.  And why the hell not?  We had done most everything else in this race except zip-lining as Steve would later point out.  But a volunteer showed me otherwise.  She pointed to the muddy water next to the pipe and told me there was a cinderblock there.  I looked down and saw nothing.  But after exploring the water with my foot, I felt the solid structure underneath.  Like magic, the rest of the water became translucent and I could see the remaining stepping stones.

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(left to right): Dan, Greg, Steve finishing the 2013 Moab Trail Half Marathon

I walked over the water like a basilisk and ran over smooth dirt toward the finishing area.  Up ahead were about forty people ceremoniously standing above a giant rock, looking down at runners and cheering.  One of them yelled, “She’s gaining on him, watch her go!” so I gave everyone a show and picked up the pace.  I ran up and slid past the rock to behold a short, but very steep chute covered in orange sand.  I could tell it had suffered the fanatical footsteps of many runners already, giving me neither traction nor elegance.  But once at the top, it was just a quick left turn to dash across the finish line in 2:19:22.

national-championshipAfter changing into dry shoes and socks, I made my way back to the top of that last climb to see the rest of the boys finish.  Jim soon came scrambling up the mountain, proving that he had enough endurance to finish this tough race just three weeks removed from his second marathon.  Not long after, Greg and Dan emerged together, matching each other stride for effortless stride under the finisher’s banner.  Shortly after them, Steve climbed through the arch, conquering the trails of Moab for the first time on foot and cementing the five of us as finishers in the most intense adventure race any of us had ever experienced.

We spent the rest of the day gabbing about the race like girls after a One Direction concert.  While everyone enjoyed the event in their own way, there were signature moments that couldn’t go unnoticed.  Cresting the top of the first four miles, the fast dash through the open fields, the perilous descent, the long hill, the treacherous creek, the false finish line and that last crawl through the inflatable arch.  It was clear that everyone loved the race.  I can already hear us talking about it when we return in ten years for the next grand adventure with brand new faces.  And return we no doubt will.

(left to right): Me, Greg, Dan, Jim, Steve

(left to right): Me, Greg, Dan, Jim, Steve.  Where’s my matching team shirt, you ask?  Covered in sweat and crumpled in a plastic bag, where it should be in the interest of public safety and comfort.

Because there was something unique about the landscape in Moab, something difficult to describe that separated the red desert spires from any other natural formation.  Each stepped mountain was not just an impressive sight worthy of a telephoto lens, it was a painting of the enormity of the planet’s geological history.  I’ve been to the Alps, biked the Rockies and walked around volcanic craters in Costa Rica.  But I seem to imagine the creation of a mountain like a child – three or four earthquakes and suddenly, there are mountains where once a plain existed.  But the slowly eroding red top hats and stone scepters in southeast Utah give you a true sense of just how long it took something like Dead Horse to reach its current state.  Similarly, it makes me realize that we’re just a blip on earth’s radar, and that millions of years after we’re gone – assuming we don’t decimate the entire planet – Delicate Arch will still be there, moving a bright circle across the desert, a silent caretaker with a thinning cane.

But until that happens, I will enjoy that short blip in the company of great people as we visit amazing places.

Marathon_Map 044 (UT)

State 33: Washington (2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon)

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

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

The marathon start was remote and beautiful

The marathon start was remote and beautiful (Google Earth)

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

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

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

Pacers ready to go, picture courtesy of Otter

Pacers ready to go, picture courtesy of Otter

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

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

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

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

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon Google-Earth Rendering

2013 Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon Google-Earth Rendering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was legitimately saddened that it didn’t last.

Somewhere between miles 21 and 23.

Somewhere between miles 21 and 23.

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

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

Chugging through mile 24

Chugging through mile 24

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

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

Finishing a pinch too fast

Finishing a pinch too fast

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

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

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

Left to right: Otter, Bean, me

Left to right: Otter, Bean, me

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

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

Marathon_Map 042 (WA)

The Catharsis of Ultra

1. How Far Are You Willing To Go?

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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.

Bonus: Costa Rica (2013 Cerros de Escazú 21k)

(foreground) Pa, Ma, Me, (background) Challenge

(foreground) Pa, Ma, Me, (background) Challenge

In the last two months I’ve been putting in some time on the trails to prepare for the two ultramarathons I intend to finish this summer.  Once a week I leave the hard pavement of Chicago’s lake front path for the more secluded dirt paths of the Palos Forest Reserve in hopes of strengthening my legs in ways that repetitive road running can’t.  But though it’s genuinely trail running that I’ve been doing, I haven’t exactly made it a difficult experience.  Sure, there is more elevation and some rocks and roots to dodge, but the trails I’ve chosen haven’t been very technical.  It’s partly my fault because I haven’t really sought out other options.  Despite this, my limited experience with trails has helped me become a stronger runner, not just in how much punishment my legs can take, but in how much confidence I have that I can finish these daunting races.

So when I found myself in Costa Rica for a close friend’s wedding, I decided to try and hit up the local trail running circuit and bolster my trail résumé with an international event.  I found one called Cerros de Escazú which had 21km (half marathon) and 10k race options.  I signed up for the half and convinced Chori, another friend of mine from high school, to sign up for the 10k.

Packet Pickup / Race Start in San Antonio de Escazú

Packet Pickup / Race Start in San Antonio de Escazú

It soon became clear that we had signed up for a famously difficult race.  That was apparent in the race title, which means “Mountains of Escazú.”  San José, the capital of Costa Rica, was built in the middle of a valley and while some of the surrounding mountains appear to rise gradually from the ground, those that overlook Escazú rise dramatically and tower over the city.  I knew all of this when I signed up but assumed that the race would take place around the base of the mountain.  I was expecting a few climbs, soft mountain dirt and at least a little technical hopscotch.

I was very, very mistaken.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 08Everyone else, family and friends alike, seemed to be aware of just how awful it was going to be.  My sister cautioned me that it had pretty much everything I couldn’t simulate in the last 6 months: elevation, mountains and the tropical climate.  There had also been an unusual heat wave going through San José and it wasn’t going to stop for a small race of just a few hundred people.  Family members who lived in Escazú gave me concerned looks just when I told them where it started.  But as I ate a delicious pasta meal with everyone the night before, I talked about the next day’s challenge with enough sangfroid to calm a 90-pound linebacker.  Because if we’re being honest, I get a definite rush of excitement and pride when people tell me what I’m about to do is nuts.  I knew the race would be tough – that’s why I picked it over a flat 10k happening a few miles away.  But I also knew I would finish it, come what may.

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy.

I was at the starting area in San Antonio de Escazú with my parents about an hour before the start of the race.  While Escazú has for a long time been the more posh area of San José, with designer stores and plenty of US restaurant franchises, the town plaza in San Antonio was nothing like that.  Packet pickup was in front of the local church on a soccer pitch, which was surrounded by a wall that had been carved with images of carretas, campesinos and bueyes, hallmarks of the small country’s rich cultural heritage.  Locals gathered around small pulperías, música charanga echoed out of restaurants, the clamor of the city (bulla) far below.

Chori and I at the start

Chori and I at the start

With my bib pinned to my shorts and a Camelbak slung over my shoulders, it was almost time to go.  My uncle Randy had showed up at the starting line with his two adorable daughters and quickly mapped out what the course was like.  The event’s Facebook page had a rudimentary diagram of the route but I didn’t delve too much into it.  But Randy found out, probably from a seasoned veteran, and quickly pointed to a nearby peak.

“That’s where you’re going now, and then you go to that one,” he said, pointing from one peak to the next with a sinister grin.  I, on the other hand, had more of a nervous smile as I stared at the rising earth before me.

“I’m putting this on airplane mode so you don’t waste the battery,” Randy said as he stuffed a phone in the Camelbak.  “Take a picture at the point where you lose all energy (fundirse) so the geo-tracking can mark it.”

I knew he was only half joking.  You couldn’t stare up at the cerros without a lot of concern.  The night before I had predicted a three-hour finish, taking into account the trail, the altitude and potential heat.  But I hadn’t counted on the race course going, to put it scientifically, balls to the wall.  The organizers weren’t kidding around – we were going straight up and for a long time.  Chori had read somewhere that it was the toughest race in the country after Chirripó, which would be the North American equivalent of Mt. McKinley.

Me embarqué, I thought.  Definitely more than I could confidently chew.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 13

The race started surprisingly on time.  A bright orange arch had been inflated over the street and a crowd had gathered underneath.  The announcer fired off a few last-minute warnings and directives before sounding the horn.  The first few strides were on asphalt as we left the main city center.  Randy was at the start and took a video of the field.  Less than two minutes into the race, we were going uphill.  Not just gradually uphill, but straight up, feel your shoes on your toes uphill.  I told Chori I’d run with him until the 10k turnaround so up we went together, the sun beating down on our backs, sweat already dripping onto the black road below.

Laugh at how much taller I am than everyone else:

“Falta muuuucho!” a revelrous runner yelled from behind us.  At the time, I couldn’t tell if what he said was a question (“Is there a lot left?”) or a statement (“There’s a lot left!”).  It was the worst time to hear such a comment because the race was already difficult, with absolutely nothing behind us and all of it still to come.  To add to the challenge, we had started at 4,000 feet, the air already feeling slightly thinner than Chicago’s sea-level oxygen.  We were plodding upwards on our toes to the tune of a 14-minute mile, many runners already walking.  Some were even walking as fast as I was running.  For those first two miles I contemplated taking a walk break but soon learned that doing so, for an ineffable reason that I’m sure has a simple physiological explanation, was more fatiguing than running.

Still climbing, Chori on the left in the blue shirt

Still climbing, Chori on the left in the blue shirt

I eventually had to take a break, so I walked to the side of the road and took a few pictures.  My shirt was almost completely soaked in sweat by then.  We had passed an aid station where volunteers had tins full of bolis, plastic water pouches whose corners you bite to open.  Every race I’ve done in Costa Rica has them and last year’s Miami Half Marathon implemented them to much acclaim from its Latin American contingent.  They’re useful because they’re much easier to carry without spillage than cups and much easier for the volunteers to transport.

The road soon turned to dry dirt and rocks, but the slope stayed the same.  Every new turn meant another climb, another dashed hope that we had somehow miraculously made it to the top.  My visor was soaked, dripping with every footfall, sweat sliding off my elbows with every thrust of my arms.  Although the heat was tolerable, there were many stretches where we couldn’t hide from the sun.  I was using my calves like they had never been used before and my forefoot was getting far too comfortable with being the only part touching the ground.

Por dicha he estado practicando en esa cuesta por mi choza,” Chori said as he strode onward.  Despite being a lifelong athlete, he too was struggling to avoid the dreaded uphill walk.

Finally flattens out, but the rest of the climb looms ahead.

Finally flattens out, but the rest of the climb looms ahead.

Around mile 3, at long last, it seemed like we had found a brief respite.  The course flattened out and even dipped downward a bit.  We had reached the top of a ridge connecting the different peaks and on both sides were majestic views of Costa Rica.  To my right were endless mountains draped in jungle, to my left the entirety of San José.  This is what it was like to look left and right:

0414_cerrosdeescazu 250414_cerrosdeescazu 17

After taking a few pictures, I noticed that the 10k “escape” route was ahead, so I waited for Chori and said goodbye.  He turned downhill and I continued onward into a single-track trail that was barely wide enough for one person.  I was alternating between looking up and down because while I was trying to avoid roots and rocks, I had to also be mindful of branches.  I was the tallest person at the race so I’d be facing more obstacles than anyone else.

Just before the 10k "escape"

Just before the 10k “escape”

0414_cerrosdeescazu 24I was keeping a constant 14-minute pace, wondering whether I’d be able to maintain it as we continued climbing.  It wasn’t long before I’d get my answer.  Around mile 4, the path reached the edge of a dropoff, with nothing but barbed wire stopping a potential fall.  Though everyone slowed down at this vertiginous section, all runners became walkers upon reaching a canyon-like hiking trail carved straight into the mountain as if by a giant axe.  The ground was a damp, orange dirt, with ground leaves adding to the instability.  My hands were given the unusual task of doing something during a race as I had to hoist myself up numerous times with tree trunks and exposed roots.  I could go no faster than the person directly ahead of me, whose shoes were at my eye level.

Up and up we continued, the jungle getting thicker, the air thinner and my heartbeat pounding in my head.  We weren’t moving fast at all, but even if we wanted to speed up, there was no room to pass.

“Di qué, yo pensé que esto era una carrera?!” the runner in front of me said, prompting a few laughs from those ahead of him.  Not long after, he would yell “Falta muuuucho!” and I realized it was the same person from the first mile.  He didn’t sound or look tired, but like everyone else, kept a slow pace as he marched with the rest of us like ants up the trail.  It was around this point that I started getting worried about missing my flight.  I had to be at the airport in three hours.  Would I have enough time to finish, go home and shower?  Miles were now taking upwards of twenty minutes to complete and I still had more than halfway to go.  If I could just make it to the top …

Google Earth Rendering of the Top of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Google Earth Rendering of the Top of the Cerros de Escazú 21k.  Toward the top, the jungle really was as thick as it looks.

Sí, efectivamente falta muuuuucho.

Sí, efectivamente falta muuuuucho.

The top of the climb did eventually arrive, but I do not remember it.  I suppose I was expecting a simple, rounded peak, over which I’d run with my arms thrown above me and eventually descend.  But instead, the trail simply stopped climbing and soon I was leaning back, pounding the dirt with my quads, using my hands to swing around trees and stop myself from going too fast.  It was here that I saw how much experience these runners had with downhill running.  For though we were hiking in single file uphill at the same pace, I very quickly lost those ahead of me as the ground dropped.

And somehow, I wasn’t going fast.  I could hear the rapid fire of my feet hitting the dirt, the split second of panic while airborne, quickly searching for the next rock to avoid without going off trail.  The world was passing by me one obstacle at a time, but my pace was still registering in the twenties.  It took me a few minutes to realize the steepness of the slope was responsible for my slow pace.  I couldn’t run consistently downhill, opting instead for a series of short bursts as I’d face each individual obstacle.  I was using my arms more than I had ever used them during a race, pushing branches out of the way, bracing my fall against trunks and slapping mosquitoes off my skin.  The dirt path quickly became another dirt half pipe, which had me running from wall to wall as if on a swing.  It was fun at times, but I was a little concerned.  I was already feeling a pinch in my quads with every step and I didn’t dare imagine what shade of purple my toenails were adopting.

The start of the downhill

The start of the downhill

The thick jungle soon changed into what looked like pines, the dry dirt below almost from another climate.  There was no longer a discrete path to take, but a general wooded area with large rocks and lumps of earth making a smooth descent almost impossible.  The trees in this section looked like their lowest branches had been sawed off, leaving four inch spikes right where my hands would have gone to stop a fall or during a break.  It definitely felt like I was in a video game and I was facing continuously more difficult levels.

Soon after, the course became considerably less precipitous.  But this convenience was countered by the large rocks that made up its surface.  I couldn’t run or even walk without considering every single step I was taking.  I would miss the flat side of a rock and accidentally dig a sharp point into the ball of my foot, a quick stab of pain preceding a loud curse.  More than one false step caused my ankles to roll inward slightly.  I was very relieved when the path once again became soft dirt, only to see it start climbing again.  I clipped a root and fell three large, booming steps forward before catching myself.  On the downhill, my left foot slipped from beneath me on a patch of loose dirt and I threw my hands behind me to stay upright.  Besides those quick incidents, I stayed upright for the remainder of the race.

0414_cerrosdeescazu 28Down and down I continued, each step increasing the acid building up in my quads and the ache in my foot.  We had spilled out of the jungle and into what looked like empty lots covered in overgrown grass.  After sliding down a few slopes, we made it back to black asphalt.  The road felt tough on my feet after 10 or so miles of dirt, grass and mud.  Though downhill, I couldn’t go much faster than a 9-minute pace.  Locals were out, walking on the street, most likely on their way to Sunday mass.  I passed several dogs who barely noticed I was there.  I kept rotating my visor to protect me from wherever the sun was, the only movement I made for the next three miles besides move my feet and bite into water pouches.

I took my phone out and called my parents, telling them I was probably about thirty minutes away from the finish line and that I would love some sort of electrolyte drink at the finish.  Ten minutes later I ran into a volunteer who told me to turn left, up a tiny hill, “y de ahí, seiscientos metros.”

0414_cerrosdeescazu 29Great, I thought.  Six hundred meters and then what?

But as I came to the top of that tiny bump, I saw the orange finish arch in the distance.  I called my parents again and told them I was wrong, that I was about to finish.  Suddenly I was capable of actually running again, as if the last three hours had done nothing to my system.  Block by block, intersection by intersection, I approached the finish line, the announcer’s voice becoming louder than my breathing.  Just a block away, I heard her call my name, telling the crowd I was from Chicago and that I was about to finish as an ambassador to the event.

Three hours and seven minutes had passed since I had started the toughest race of my life.  My dad was just beyond the finish line with a bag full of different flavors of Gatorade.  I took one and finished it in about five ambrosial gulps.  It was a mistake to go into this race without a salty beverage, but in no time I was back to feeling normal.  Two hours later, I would be at the airport, waiting for my flight back to the United States, my third Costa Rican race and a kitchen sink weekend under my belt.

Google Earth Rendering of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Google Earth Rendering of the Cerros de Escazú 21k

Pa helps out at the finish, the mountains sneering in the background

Pa helps out at the finish, the mountains sneering in the background

Though the race was a bit shy of a half marathon, it made up for the shortage with its 7,700 feet of altitude change.  And yes, I had fun.  I wouldn’t do this kind of event regularly, I might not even do it again if I were to find myself in Costa Rica on this same weekend next year.  But I’m very glad I did it.  If the one-of-a-kind scenic views of the Central Valley weren’t alone worth the climb, then surely the primal romp through the jungle sealed the deal.  This race pushed me outside of my comfort zone, slapped me in the face, pushed me in the dirt and asked me who was in charge.  Despite that rude awakening, I managed to reach the finish line in one piece.

As I write this, my legs are extremely sore.  This wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the Garmin Marathon this Saturday and the recent Boston Marathon incident still very fresh in my mind.  It will be interesting running one of the first possible marathons after such a tragedy with tired legs and a still troubled mind.  But as runners, we must keep running forward.  Here goes nothing …