Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reaching The High Country (At Sea Level)

The spell begins to break with the distant whirring of a plane’s engine.  As the season’s first significant snow begins to fall in ernest, seemingly captured in the small, silvery globe of my headlamp, I remain awed.  Each flake seems to chime off the bare branches, echoing onto the dried leaves on the ground.  The moment’s magic becomes ephemeral as my watch buzzes to tell me I’ve been gone for an hour.  It’s time to make my way home.

- - -

What does it take to bring 300 runners out on cold Friday night, in the middle of December, 99% of them not sporting form-fitting tights or a technical t-shirt?  A movie about running (although if you had reasoned free food, that would be completely understandable).  December 13, Trail Animals Running Club stalwart (and my erstwhile travel/racing companion) Michael Tommie McDuffie organized a screening of Joel Wolpert’s film, In the High Country (a movie filmed largely at 14,000 feet above sea level), at the New England Aquarium’s IMAX Theatre (a setting literally sitting on the sea).  As McDuffie introduced the film, he eloquently stated how there seem to be two types of running: the kind we practice individually, moving within a landscape and our bodies and minds; and, the kind that brings us into a larger community of runners.  So often our larger community only comes together at races, a very distinct form of communion, that seeing a huge number of friends “out of context,” and being reminded of this communal spirit was as distinct a pleasure as the film itself (honestly, there were a couple of people I had to do double-takes with because I did not recognize them with hair coiffed and jeans on!).  It was all the great energy of a race, minus the nerves and anxiety about the task at hand.  People simply were there to enjoy each other’s company and the IMAX’s massive screen, which even though it was not in true IMAX-size, from where I sat in the first row, definitely made the film’s two stars (the Rocky Mountains and Anton Krupicka) seem larger than life.

In the High Country is, ostensibly, about the epic runs and journeys that Tony takes.  Journeys that easily spark envy in runners – high mountain summits and alpine lakes, sinewy single track, an onlooker marvelling, as Tony crests the summit, “Did you run up here?”  The film inspires a sense of wanderlust, that sense of freedom and adventure that a new trail, or route up a mountain, can inspire.  Yet the film drives home a deeper point, a point espoused by both the filmmaker and star.  It does not seem that Tony reaches for a summit simply, as George Mallory stated, “because it’s there.” The drive to run to these peaks is more about the desire to find one’s place in the physical landscape.  To feel a part of the physical world, to feel familarity in the practice of being exposed to it, and still be awed by its changing colors, seasons and temperments.  In essence to connect and feel “at home.”

Before the screening, a number of Trail Animals took Tony on a tour of the Blue Hills, just south of Boston.  Between skyline views and hopping ice, the conversation ranged from trends in running gear, to our group’s oddly color-coordinated attire, to training methods, to race plans for the coming year, to our collective addiction to electronic devices and media, to if said addiction is altering our neural pathways, thus making us less intelligent, to the remedy for such devolultion (it was agreed that running in the woods is a fine place to start!), to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech (alas, four years after Liz and I left) This is Water.  In this speech Wallace suggests “. . . learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”  And this is what In the High Country drove home for me.  A connection to place does not necessitate the grandest vista or the steepest climbs.  It necessitates a choice in each of us to be aware enough to notice the landscape, be it physical or human, and to choose how we will experience this, both externally and internally.

- - -

As my watch’s delicate reminder of an hour’s passage stirs me from my wonder, I remember that sixty minutes ago, I dreaded this experience.  I was warm.  The thermometer was reading fourteen degrees.  Snow was falling.  I've been fighting a cold all week.  Rest is good.  Do I really want to wear a headlamp?  Is it worth it if I just go for 10 minutes? I donned my gear, and headed into the building tempest, chiding my own foolishness.  Slowly I become aware of place.  Each turn felt familiar, but strangely new.  The hard-packed snow from earlier in the week had changed the landscape.  The falling snow made the path different  within the hour I was in the woods.  How long had I just been standing there, listening to the snow fall?  Four minutes?  Two?  Thirty seconds?  I was not standing on some remote peak, above the clouds.  I was in a one-hundred-twenty acre parcel of conservation land, just minutes from my door.  As I began the last few minutes of running home, noises brought me back to my neighborhood.  A snow blower clearing a driveway.  A pickup, plow attached, its diesel engine rumbling to life.  Two kids laughing in their yard.  My footsteps making that perfectly muffled sound that only the first slight layer of snow can create.  Forty-two seconds from where the trail meets the road.  I’m home.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Perpetual Growth

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering … 

- Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

As far as I can figure, the concept of perpetual growth is centered around economics and the belief that economies can just grow, and grow, and grow into, well, perpetuity.  As a runner, and especially as a runner who fancies himself being "competitive," this model of perpetual growth is something that I would like to achieve in my practice.  And, as a runner (especially as a runner who fancies himself to be "competitive"), growth is most easily measured in numbers, by the time on the clock.  For the clock never lies.  So what happens when the clock tells us we’re slowing down?

Stone Cat 2013 was a bit of a game time decision for me.  After putting myself in the hospital during the VT 100 in July, I didn't run much for about 5 weeks.  When I started training again, around the start of September, it was clear my fitness had taken several steps back.  My heart rate was spiking on easy runs, at paces that had been casual jogs.  My "workouts" were lackluster, and, what little speed I had built before Vermont seemed to have vanished in the Mt. Ascutney Hospital ER.  In 2007 Stone Cat had been my first race ever (a DNF after 3 loops), and each year I have returned with one intention: to run my heart (and legs) out.  It is the one race I consciously run to win.  It is the one race where I consciously strive for the course record.  I desire to run Stone Cat at such a high level that, when training started again, I was not confident I would be up to the task.  For the clock never lies.  And the clock told me I was moving slowly.

It was the end of September when things started to "click." I repeated a workout from the first week of my training cycle, and knew the cobwebs had been cleared (for the clock never lies).  My "speed" was getting back to where it had been pre-VT 100.  I became giddy thinking about running around Willowdale on November 2, picturing the start line, seeing the volunteers at each aid station (the cries of "BACON!" at Al's Aid Station!), the smell of the leaves on the ground, and my "special" section, the only one I remember from the first year, between Al's and Fast Freddies, running on pine needles by the water.  I began the pre-dawn, weekend sojourns to train on the course.  I had my nutrition dialed.  I figured the heart rate I should keep early on to run even splits.  I did long runs on the course, pushing hard the last hour, so the mind and body would know exactly what to do on race day.  I ran my fastest loop ever on the course .  I was confident because the clock never lies.  I began to visualize crossing the line on Nov. 2, the clock at 6:00 even.  

Following TARC's Fall Classic two weeks pre-Stone Cat, Jerimy Arnold invited a number of friends to his house to trade war-stories and talk smack about how we all ran.  Although we missed it ourselves, but liking the idea and ethos behind it, Liz (my dear and lovely wife) and I decided to make Stone Cat 2013 a social affair.  It began by inviting Sebastien Roulier (this year's winner and new course record holder) to stay with us pre-race, as he would be driving down from Quebec on Friday.  It ended around the fire pit in our backyard, with some incredible people, laughing at our collective eccentricities, sharing some great food, talking smack, and planning future adventures.  

In between these two social-bookends, there was the event that ostensibly brought us all together: the actual running of Stone Cat (a social event unto itself!).  Like the Onceler in Dr. Seuss's tale above, my approach to Stone Cat is that I always must be "biggering" (and by "biggering" I mean running faster, actually making the time on the course smaller . . .).  My first run in 2007 ended in a 3-loop DNF.  In 2010, I returned to get 2nd place, in 6:40.  2011, 1st, 6:29.  2012, 2nd, 6:18.  Since "returning" to the race, I had improved my time by 11 minutes each year.  Naturally, like the Onceler, I believed, ". . . I had to grow bigger . . ." I had put in the training.  I was ready to run fast (and shouldn't it be 11 minutes faster?).  Alas, this year, in addition to the (incredibly delicious and perfect) pumpkin pie at the finish line aid station, I got a decent helping of humble pie.  For the clock never lies.

Starting the fourth loop of this year's race, I knew three things for certain: One, Sebastien was running like an absolute madman.  Two, my third loop had been 9 minutes slower than my first two, and my legs were not responding to my mental drive.  And three, Sam Jurek was going to share these last miles with me.  Of these three, sharing the miles with Sam was the most important.  Sam and I have shared many miles over the years, and he's seen me at my lowest of lows.  He knows that my approach to running is about meeting personal goals and challenges more than anything.  Yet he still "gets" the special place Stone Cat holds in my running world and life.  Without any prompting, he said the four perfect words to keep me moving: "Think about the PR." I was still smiling on the third loop, and grunting on the fourth, but these words were the ones that made me try to push harder, even when I could tell the legs were not moving like I wanted them to.  As we approached the end at the edge of field, running that open stretch to the finish, I finally mustered some words to Sam, "I'd love a PR, but I'm not too optimistic." The clock never lies, and I crossed in 6:24:23, about 5:30 slower than last year.  

A couple of years ago, this result would have really bothered me.  At the time, even though I didn't (and still don't) race terribly often, I put too much stock in measuring growth by the clock.  A slower time simply meant a lack of growth.  The clock never lies.  But the clock only measures one aspect of our performance, of our running.  The clock doesn't measure the number of people who, as Diesel-san and I have discussed, "brought a chair" to hang out after their finish.  The clock doesn't measure the joy taken in the incredible November day, or the volunteers and supporters out on the course.  Don't get me wrong, I still want to come back and own the course record for Stone Cat, and the only way that is measured is by the clock.  But, I'm coming to realize it is not the clock that brings meaning to me, as a runner, and more importantly, as a person.  I will continue to train hard with the hopes of "biggering" my results.  In the hopes that the discipline and focus of the act of training will somehow help me become a more understanding and compassionate person.  But I will also recognize the absolute importance of embracing the experience with family and friends.  The Stone Cat experience began with Sebastien arriving Friday night.  The race began on a near perfect, pre-dawn morning, with 300+ souls entering into a great adventure and continued with me checking splits and heart rate.  The race concluded at a finish line with a clock and the pressing of "STOP" on my watch, but also in the company of great friends (especially Sam and Scott Traer, who had both helped crew during the run, and Steven "Sir Bard" Latour, who handed me the finisher's prize) and my family.  The Stone Cat experience finally ended as the last embers faded from the night's fire, and everyone said, "Adios" (or, as they apparently say in Germany, "CHOOOOOSE!").  

My take from this year's Stone Cat?  There's nothing wrong with seeking perpetual growth, nothing wrong with constantly "biggering" ourselves.  We've just got to keep an eye out for what, exactly, we are trying to "bigger."  Still, I won't feel too bad crossing that finish line with the clock reading 5:59 next year!

- Inov-8 Trailroc 245s
- Tailwind Nutrition drink (AWESOME!).  ~275 calories/20 ounce bottle
- Injinji Trail Sock
- 4 VFuel gels

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Easiest Decision I’ve Ever Made

Being an ultra-running dork, my life was devoted to “watching” the Western States 100 on June 29th of this year.  What stood out the most that day, despite all the incredible performances, was this image:

Most of the last 6 months of my life have been spent preparing for and imagining my run at the Vermont 100.  I asked (and got) a lot of sacrifice from my family: “Liz, I’ve got to get a 5 hour run in Saturday, and then a 4 hour run Sunday.”  “I am doing this race in a couple of weeks.” “I need to get a solid workout in tomorrow.”  Common theme here?  While there is a lot of good that comes from my running, it often comes to resemble that Toby Keith song, “I Wanna to Talk About Me”.  Don't get me wrong, it's a great song, but that's just not an ethos I want to live my life by.           

The Vermont 100 felt different.  It felt like running at home, the merging of my Vermont roots and my present life outside Boston.  I grew up about an hour north of the race, and Liz was going to crew for me (the first time she would see me during a race).  My family (siblings, cousins, parents, kids) would be there at the finish. My friends Justin Contois, Eric Ahern, Michael McDuffie, and Anthony Parillo had all volunteered to crew or pace throughout the day, and SamJurek was running his first 100K.  Justin arranged an incredible place for us to stay at Ascutney Mountain Resort.  It was a weekend event, a celebration of summer, friends, and running.  Competitively, I wanted to run near the front.  My ego wanted to win.  However, having approached a race like that before, I knew, for me, that would not make for a happy or satisfying day.  Ultimately, I was approaching this race as a recognition of all the sacrifices I ask of my family – a way for us to share the experience and to show them (and me) that it is worth it.  It was a celebration of the running community that has become such an integral part of my life.  As I told the eventual winner, Jason Lantz, when he asked me about my time goals during the early miles, “I’m less concerned with a time, and just want to run happy.”  And, even with the ultimate outcome of my day, that is exactly what I did. 

In late March, I decided to try something completely different in my running – I hired a coach.  Ian Torrence and Emily Harrison quickly changed my routine.  No longer did I just log as many miles as possible, but I had weekly workouts.  The results came quickly.  Minutes were shaved from my daily commute to/from school.  I became faster.  I was more confident on hills.  I actually felt energetic most of the time.  Things felt good.   As race day approached, my confidence built. 

The week before the race was spent with my folks up in Waterbury, VT.  I went gluten-free, as an experiment, looking to maximize my performance as much as possible (might be something there - the stomach seemed better than usual).  I did one last workout on the dirt track at my old school.  We celebrated my niece’s birthday.  I felt surprisingly calm, with only brief moments of that anticipatory anxiety/excitement that so often come with these events.  Not feeling over-confident, I simply knew I was prepared to run well.  I knew that I would be running 100 miles through my home state.  And I damn nearly did.

Fireworks announced our departure.  Real, honest-to-goodness, 4th of July fireworks, lighting up the pre-dawn sky.  With each shell being launched the slope of the distant hill could be seen.  About to take my first step on a 100 mile journey I was transported to my youth.  The scene before me had been played out years before, on the River Road in Duxbury, Vermont, staring in awe not only at the explosion of colors, but at the lightning bugs answering the concussive booms in kind.  The sound of each shell echoed off the surrounding mountains then and now.  Calm.  “GO!”

Friday, pre-race, Jack Pilla, ultra-stud and former winner of the Vermont 100 had graciously offered to pick me up on his drive down to the race, where he would be pacing and crewing.  Jen Sorrell and Kristin Lundy (also driving with Jack) kindly offered up the front seat to me, and we spent the ride reliving those awful moments from races it seems only other ultra-runners can appreciate and understand.  I was able to hang out with the “Vermont Crew” for much of the afternoon, a testament to the welcoming nature of this community.  The vibe was rather relaxed for a pre-100 mile run, and, once I met up with Justin and Eric, we headed over to our luxury chalet and began settling in.  A few back and forths between there and the start/finish and before I knew it I was laying in a comfortable bed, alarm set for 2:23 AM.  One massive thunder storm and a surprisingly restful (half) night later, and I was up (as were Justin, Michael, and Anthony, who were generously coming to the start and crewing the early miles, especially since it turns out they basically didn't sleep that night).  We drove to the start/finish, which swarmed with excitement.

Running through Woodstock around mile 11, was a trip down memory lane.  I shared these miles with Ian Sharman and laughed as we went by the Billings Farm & Museum, site of many elementary school field trips for me.  I very nearly choked up as we ran near the Woodstock Inn Tennis facilities, site of many of my first tennis tournaments.  Running felt easy.  I had so many memories of this place.  I knew I could create some more incredible memories on this day.  I already had.  And I continued to do so.

My son, Cooper, was doing a sports camp with his cousins the week before.  We would pick up his cousins and then head up to Colchester, reversing the process on the way home.  On Tuesday we changed the routine and headed over to the Bolton “Pot Holes” a series of cascading swimming holes with cliffs to jump off.  As we got to the water on this 94 degree afternoon, it was clear many local youngsters had had the same thought.  A herbaceous smell wafted through the air.  Beer seemed to be flowing as quickly as the water.  Cooper jumped from an 8 foot cliff.  My 13 and 10-year-old nephews jumped from 20.  Not willing to let me them show me up (too much), I did something that my fear of heights had prevented me from doing the first 33 ½ years of my life: I jumped off a cliff.  From 26’ 4” above the water (and yes, I argue, being 6’4” makes it look that much higher), I felt oddly calm.  I simply knew I would leap into the water below.  No nerves.  I jumped.  It seemed to take longer to hit water than it should have.  I did it again.  I carried that calm into the race.

Mile 30 and I found myself still running with Ian and now Nick Clark.  I felt relaxed, the running was easy, and then it almost ended.  Leaving Stage Rd. Aid Station/crew access point, you run down the road for 100 yards and then take a right onto some mowed fields/trails.  There was a six-foot, wooden bridge to cross, which, with all the moisture in the air,  was very slick. My feet flew up from under me and I very nearly bit it.  Views of a cast to match Jacoby’s (my younger son) danced in my head (the poor guy broke his arm a week before and is in a full-arm cast for 3 -4 weeks).  I managed to stay upright and simply laughed, reminding myself to be present and appreciate every step.  I passed Ian on the ensuing climb and sort of leap frogged with him and Nick for the next many miles, sharing conversation which helped the miles click off.  Both were very friendly and it was fascinating to get their takes on the little race-within-a-race as they push each other in the Grand Slam.  I was running the race envisioned – controlled effort, feeling relaxed, not worrying about what other people were doing or how far back I was. I was present in the experience.  I was enjoying every scene, every step. 

It was amazing to see so many TARC folk at the pre-race meeting Friday.  I’ve come to realize that these crazy events are like a rolling family reunion, replete with everyone’s favorite uncle, Kevin Mullen.  You would be hard pressed to meet a happier person than Mr. Mullen, and his is an energy shared by most at these runs.  Even knowing what we were about to do the next day, it was relaxing to be in such good company.  Jill "The Cookie Lady" Puleo and Chris "C1" Haley lent me some duct tape for drop bags.  A 100-miler is truly a shared journey, as we all cover the same course and suffer the same struggles.  Knowing others are there supporting you, even in the smallest of ways, makes it possible to continue.

Pulling into Camp Ten Bear One, I saw our car.  Liz was there!  100 feet up, I saw her in the road.  She had timed it perfectly.  It was a great moment.  I ran up to the crew, weighed in, and gave her a kiss.  The Contois/McDuffie/Parillo pit-crew was on fire.  Everything ready, but I wasn’t in any great rush.  I was sitting in 6th place, but feeling super strong.  Some cold bandanas, another kiss to Liz, and I ran up the hill, out of Ten Bear.  My confidence grew – I had been running nearly every step, only hiking a few spots.  I caught up to Justin (Engle?) on the flat section about a mile outside the aid station. He had been ahead of me all day, but was starting to seize up.  I tried to get him to run with me a bit, but he graciously encouraged me to go on.  I did.  5th place.  The crew had told me Sebastien (a wonderful person and great runner, who I have gotten to know) was in the lead, but looked like he was hurting.  Nick was just minutes up.  I opened my eyes to the scenery and soaked in the beauty of my home state.  One of the neighbors of the race was offering sprays from a hose.  I (literally) soaked in the beauty of the cold water.  I was running happy.

Brian Rusiecki is an awesome runner.  I look up to him.  A lot.  At my first successful ultra, the Fells 40 Miler, we tied for the win.  When I saw what he accomplished the rest of that year, I was humbled sharing that victory with him.  Whenever we toe the line together, I always joke (probably much to his annoyance) that my strategy is to simply hang with him as long as I can.  Pre-race Friday I told him this again and he said he would let me go on ahead this time.  I joked that he would simply be waiting to pass me at mile 95.  He did it a few miles earlier this year.

Right around the mile 50 mark, the course goes steeply up Keyes Mountain Road.  It starts out as a road and quickly becomes a jeep track and trail.  I decided to not run this exposed stretch, and conserve some energy for the later miles.  My quads were starting to ache, but I was still happy.  About halfway up this climb, Brian powered by me, looking super strong.  He claimed to not be feeling well, but certainly didn’t look that way.  I kept him in site for many of the ensuing miles, but, as we started the descent, I noticed the quads were getting very, very sore.  I figured this is what they felt like at the Vermont 50, and I had just run a bit more than 50 miles, so no great concern.  Just didn’t want to do anything foolish with just under half the race to go.  Brian left the aid station right as I pulled up.  Sebastien was there, and, smiling as ever, announced to me that his race was done and he was “simply going to finish.”  He was hurting.  He left the aid station before me, but I knew I would catch him.  I dallied a bit, icing the quads hoping to give them a rest and to see if Ian was still lurking.  Brian was a minute or two up the trail.  Ian wasn’t in site. 

I first met Sebastien at Stone Cat two years ago.  When Sam and I set a foolish pace the first two laps, he was right there the whole time.  He eventually finished second.  This past year, he set the early pace, and I only caught him with about 2.5 miles to go.  He came over for pizza and ice cream that night, as his wife and three kids had stayed home in Quebec.  By chance I saw him as he crushed the Boston Marathon this year.  When I caught him around mile 55 at the Vermont 100, I was running a hill he was walking, but smiling.  I told him to just jump in behind and stick with me and we could clip the miles off.  He did.  We pushed the up and then the down.  The quads were getting really sore.  No site of Brian.  We reached the unmanned Tracer Brook aid, and I told Sebastien we should skip it as it was less than 2 miles to the new Seven Seas handler station.  We started running up the next climb (the course is basically always going up or down.  There are very few actual flat sections anywhere).  We ran side by side, passing 100K runners.  I heard Sebastien offer some words of encouragement and then drop off.  I pushed on.  Toward the top of the hill I caught sight of Brian about 100 yards ahead. 

It was around this point that running the downs became more than unpleasant.  The quads, which I thought were well “seasoned” to the task, were barking loudly.  There had also been an odd “sloshing” in my stomach – not the typical sloshy stomach feeling, but something that was not right.  When I first heard it, it sounded a bit like my bib was hitting my shorts (it wasn't), or some sort of drum in my stomach (there wasn't).  I stopped at the aid station before Ten Bear Two to see if they had a port-a-potty.  No luck.  I ran up the road a ways and used the bushes.  Trouble: I couldn’t squat.  At all.  Figured out how to take care of business somehow and jumped back on the road.  Ian was 20 feet back. “Hey Josh.”

We shared the next couple of miles.  I mentioned my stomach and he helped me trouble shoot (although one of his suggestions was to moderate the pace.  My ego wouldn’t let me do that, especially since we both knew that Nick and Brian were just a couple of minutes up!  In retrospect, that may have saved my race).  I pulled a bit ahead and, as we began the long descent that eventually leads to the climb into Ten Bear Two, I began to grimace as the quads just flat hurt.  I was moving reasonably well, but a pebble got stuck in my shoe and I had to stop to adjust it.  When Ian passed he asked if all was good, and I said it was, just had to fix a pebble.  As I did, I noticed my right quad (the more painful of the two) was swollen pretty well.  At almost mile 70, I expected this, although perhaps not quite so bad, yet.  I took it easy on the rest of the descent.  I stopped at one point and walked a couple of steps.  “Just run, you’ve got the uphill soon.”

I was looking forward to the climb to Ten Bear Two since last year’s race. I spent a lot of time here last year and, when Justin Contois had rolled through, made him run it with me.  From the day I registered, in the back of my mind I wondered if I would be tough enough, like he was, to run this climb (in all honesty, I half expected Justin to be at the bottom to prod me up the hill).  One of my greatest memories from the day will be of answering this long-asked question in my mind, and running up this hill, and, in reality, not feeling completely horrible doing it.  The run down to the aid station?  Not as pleasant.

Liz, Anthony, Eric, and McDuffie were ready.  I told them the quads were really sore and Eric jumped right in to ice them down, apologizing to Liz for being so "intimate." I laughed (at least inside).  I hit the port-a-potty to try to settle the stomach.  I had decided to skip drinking for 25 minutes in an attempt to let things settle (took a gel instead) and it seemed to have helped.  My weight was down three pounds, right around where I wanted it.  Eric was ready for the task of pacing to Cow Shed (where, like the boss he is, he would then head back to Ten Bear to pace Frank Hackett for the last 30 miles!).  I was moving slowly.  I was tiptoeing the downs.  I could get some momentum on the flats, but I wasn’t even hiking the ups that fast any more.  Erik was great and helped me appreciate the beauty around us.  While I was still feeling good mentally, he definitely helped me keep the negative thoughts out as he proclaimed wonder at different views and sites, and showed a genuine appreciation for simply moving, through the woods and on these beautiful roads.  It was postcard Vermont.  We ran up the hill to the Spirit of ’76 where Liz and McDuffie met us.  TARCer Cesar captured the grunt with video evidence.  As we left the aid station, I started running up the road, hoping that there was more up, as it was less painful and I could still run that direction.  Alas, the volunteers caught me and pointed me down a trail.  Teeth bared, we plodded on. 

At Western last year, I felt sorry for myself almost the entire race.  I didn't have the day I had pictured because all I wanted was a top-10 finish.  I didn't appreciate the history of the race or the beauty of the trail and people out there.  I was there to beat the course, not embrace it.  It was rather pathetic and it had a huge negative influence on my performance.  Despite being in much more physical pain this year, mentally, I was embracing the experience, the journey, which was my goal.  I knew it was not going to be easy, but my mind was willing to accept the physical pain.  I was (with Eric’s help) remembering to soak in the scenery, the beauty that is Vermont, a place that will always be home.  I enjoyed pushing the negative thoughts out of my mind and, as they crept in with the mounting fatigue, forced myself to look at my surroundings and smile.  When Eric stayed at Cow Shed, I had 5 miles until I met Liz and McDuffie, who would join me for the final 11 miles.  I enjoyed those 5 miles tremendously.  There was a long, flat section, where, despite quads that now just hurt with every step, I ran, at a pace I thought might be making up some ground on Ian, Brian, and Nick.  I ran some hills.  I caught Sam, who was in a world of hurt, but mustered the energy to run with me for about a mile, at which point he told me to go catch Ian, and I set off with a mission.  The mission line loomed, but there were a couple runners up ahead I needed to catch.  It was beautiful.

And then, just as quickly, it wasn’t.  Coming into Bill’s at mile 89 I checked in with medical.  I was totally cohesive, and my weight was the same as my starting weight.  Privately, that caused some concern – I had just put on 3.3 pounds over the last 19 miles.  They asked how I was feeling. “Great, considering I just ran 89 miles.” A truth (even if the quads hurt like hell).  They asked if I had been peeing. “Yes!” A lie (I had peed twice all day, but, given what I had heard at Western last year, was not too concerned with this, and figured the medical team at Bill’s didn’t need to know).  McDuffie and I were on our way. We had 11 miles to catch Ian, Brian, and Nick (heck, even Jason and Chad!), and I was hell bent on catching at least one of them.  Liz set off to meet us at Polly’s, a mere 6.9 miles up the road.  And just like that, the wheels came off.

For the last 40 miles or so, any pause had led to a difficult restart, especially for the quads.  Torturously, leaving Bill’s is a fairly steep (albeit short) downhill.  I nearly walked.   With Michael in the lead we hopped a small, muddy pool, and I decided to stop to try to pee (I think the medical team’s question put this in my head). “FUCK!”  Michael looked back and asked what was up.  “My pee is really dark or bloody.”  In a second, all momentum was gone.  I was really concerned.  Why?  One: My weight was up, when I thought it should have been down about 5 or 6 pounds.  Two: Something that resembled coffee (or beet juice in coffee) had just come out of me!  Three: I remembered that picture from Western States about the color of your urine.  Mine was definitely in the “Guinness” category. 

We ran a little bit, mostly in silence, as we tried to figure out what to do. Finally I said I just needed to hike to wrap my mind around the situation.  Our conversation was a bit like stream of consciousness (it is probably pretty clear which parts I added, and which parts McDuffie added):  Should I not drink?  I mean my weight is up, so I’m not processing water.  Maybe that's why my stomach has sort of been sloshy?  You took one salt back at Bill's.  Okay, let's try one more.   Do I drink as much as I can?  I’ve only peed a couple times all day.  Maybe this is just a sign of dehydration?  Pee can get pretty dark.  But my weight is up.  FUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKK!  If it was blood, some times the bladder can just get abrasions.  Maybe we should try to run.  SHHHHIIIIIITTTTTTT!  What they hell are we gonna do?  Alright, let’s just run.  FUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKK!  What if something is seriously wrong?  What's that thing that Erik Skaggs had?

Being an ultra-running dork, I read a lot of blogs and reports, and have read several stories, including ones about Erik Skaggs, AJW, Diana Finkel, and other top-ultra runners developing rhabdomyolysis and ending up in the hospital with kidney failure for extended periods of time.  Skaggs' story in particular stuck in my head.  The one thing I seemed to remember being the common denominator was this super-dark urine.  Finally, I just said to Michael, “I’m freaking out about this” and we hiked it in to Keatings at 92.4.  The plan was to consult with medical and see if there was a course of action that could remedy this on course.  I was fairly certain what was going on, but had no idea what I should do to treat it.  We got medical on the radio and they advised aggressive hydration and an ambulance to the hospital.  It became a no-brainer for me.  I was in a spot where I could cause some serious psychological damage to my family.  I couldn't do that, not when they already give so much to let me pursue these goals.  At mile 92.4, my race was done. 

A crew of volunteers were able to drive me and McDuffie to the hospital, which, it turns out, was just a couple of minutes away.  They got word to Polly’s, where Liz was, and told her what was going on.  Fortunately my cousin was there as well and was able to drive to the start/finish to tell my parents and Cooper and Jacoby where I was and that they would not be seeing me at Silver Hill Meadow in triumph.

It took a bunch of fluid to get the pee flowing (and there was not a lot that came out at first), even though I wasn’t too dehydrated (and electrolytes were spot on perfect).  When I finally did pee it was like that Guinness in the picture above.  Admitted to the hospital, and got a night there.  Given my early and secondary numbers, they had told me to be prepared to stay through Monday.  Fortunately, the numbers all started improving pretty quickly, and I was able to come home after less than 24 hours.  When Cooper first came to see me in the ER he said, “You could have just hiked to the finish.”  I have to say, I was more than a little proud of him for thinking like that.  However, I told him that sometimes we have to make our decisions not based on what we want, but what is best for other people, and that it’s more important to think about those we love first (this said, stopping was also the best decision for me at this point, as continuing would have brought further damage and could have seriously complicated the medical situation.  As my father, a family doctor in Vermont, told me about my numbers, even my liver function, subsequent to my discharge from the hospital, "Jeezum Crow!").

And, in the end, that’s what made this a super-easy decision for me.  I knew, without doubt, that I could have finished, maybe even moved up a spot or two. I was satisfied with my physical effort, even if it came up a bit short.  But, thinking about those last 7.6 miles, and what further damage I could have done, I was, in no way willing to put my family through my experiencing kidney failure or worse.  I think we are attracted to these distances because they do, in almost every way, strip us down to the core.  In that moment, when all that stood between me and the glory of the finish line was the distance of my daily run to school, I based my decision not on my own ego, my own desire to achieve a goal, to feel successful, but on how my actions would impact those I love.  Crossing the finish line became a superficial pleasantry to the reality of the situation faced, and I am, perhaps arrogantly, proud of myself for not thinking from my ego in that moment, but being present enough to recognize reality and not merely live in the world and outcome that I had envisioned over the last 6 months.  A 100 miler is, ostensibly, a competition, but it is also, however clich├ęd this may be, a journey of self-discovery.  I often tell people that my family is the most important thing in the world to me, while, hypocritically, thinking about how I can squeeze my runs in around them or making them change their plans to fit my running schedule.  As I spent yesterday afternoon jamming with Cooper and Jacoby to some cheesy (but oh so wonderful) pop music, instead of still being hooked up to an IV (or worse) in a hospital, I like to think that, at least this one time, I got it right.  Maybe I will continue to in the future.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to see those last 7.6 miles of the Vermont 100.  If the family is on board.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Trail Culture With Diesel-san

A couple weeks ago, my partner in crime for the TARC Trail Series, Bob "Diesel-san" Crowley and myself had the opportunity to talk with Don Freeman and Scott Warr over at Trail Runner Nation.  These guys host a great podcast.  Bob is a really thoughtful about this.  I actually just listened to it (I hadn't heard it since we did the talk), and was reminded of Bob's Hardrock story.  The podcast is about "trail culture" and how we keep it alive as the sport grows, so some fun, philosophical ideas - definitely nothing about training or anything like that.  Enjoy it if you have some time to burn (or like to listen to things whilst running).

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


I read (well, flipped through the pages of) a book this summer, by Thich Nhat Hanh and this is what I got out of it: it helps us to smile.  I'm guessing there is more to his teachings, but, for me, this made sense.  In my practice it looks like this: I wake up everyday several hours before my family.  It is usually dark.  I'm groggy.  I want to stay in bed.  I sort of roll myself upright, eyes half open, thinking about how much my body does not want to get moving.  And then, as I fight the sleepy thoughts, I force myself to smile.  I mean a really big, fake smile.  And darned if it doesn't change my attitude.  Forcing this cheesy grin on my face usually helps wake me up and flip my attitude.  Not sure if that is the point of the teachings I read, but, as a teacher of high school English, I've come to believe it doesn't matter what other people think about a book, but only what we, personally, take from it.

Earlier this year I signed up for the Wapack and Back 50 Miler, an out-and-back run (and then some) on the Wapack Trail that runs from Massachusetts into New Hampshire.  Last year, while I finished the race in an objectively good time (9:03:59), I doubt I smiled once during the whole run.  I approached it as a job, as a stepping stone to Western States.  I did not enjoy myself, and, literally 50 yards from the start line, felt lethargic, heavy, and worn out.  This year I was determined to force a smile on my face (not too easy when the alarm clock goes off at 2:45 AM - I'm still trying to makeup those Zs!) and actually enjoy the experience of running the Wapack Trail, twice, in one day.  Having been working with a great coach, Emily Harrison (of McMillan Running), I've tempered the volume and actually added workouts to my routine.  I have seen my average commute time (I run to/from school each day) plummet, but still wasn't sure how this would translate to an ultra.  Wapack was, in my view, the first real test of this new approach to training (for me).  Above all though, as I told friend, and TARC superstar, Eric Ahern over the first several miles, my real goal was to smile and enjoy the journey.  It's amazing what a difference a year can make.

Mt. Watatic is my nemesis.  It's not a very big mountain, but for a year, it has haunted my running dreams.  You tackle the climb up Watatic's south side twice in the race, from miles 0 - 1 and 43 - 44.  Last year, that first mile crushed me.  I felt slow/heavy.  I had almost driven out the weekend before this year's race just to run up Watatic, in a non-race setting, to create a "positive" memory of the experience, because I was so anxious about how I would feel at the start of this year's running.  Would the mountain destroy me again?  While I hiked a bunch of it this year, I felt good about it, because it was a calculated move to keep myself in control.  Last year I didn't have a choice - I simply couldn't run it.  This year, I reached the top, chatting away with Eric, and remember noting to myself, "We're here already?  That wasn't so bad."  I smiled.

Throughout the day it rained, or a light mist just sort of hung in the air (I suppose the more technical term is fog).  Eric and I cruised the first many miles together, hopping from wet rock, to wet root, to wet rock, to smooth trail, to wet rock, and on and on.  I commented, probably about 5 miles into the race, how the mist off the ridge brought me back to the early (cold, rainy) miles at Western States last year.  I thought about how fortunate I was to see this beautiful, mysterious scene, the mountaintops and woods shrouded in mist and cloud.  Just a few hours before, I had been anxious about waking up and running most of the day in the rain.  I smiled.

Perhaps I should have thinking less about vistas and warm fuzzies and been paying a bit more attention to the task at hand however.  Soon after this spot I took the first, of what would be many (6 - 7), falls that day.  I was cruising one of the smoother sections and managed to clip my toe on an invisible rock or root (aren't they all?) finding myself dirtied and my legs scraped as I looked down the trail from a salamander's point-of-view.  (I actually saw two salamanders while running, including one that was probably the length of a dime!  I took that as a positive sign that I was present in the moment, not simply thinking about the finish or how this race was a stepping stone to something else, but actually being aware of what was happening in the now (then)). Probably about 20 minutes later, while fussing with a gel I was hopping down a short 5-foot boulder section and again caught my toe.  The next fraction of second lasted an eternity, as in slow motion, I saw my face falling towards a large collection of sharp rocks.  I had time to process this fall consciously and remember thinking, "Thank goodness Eric is about 40 seconds back, because I am going to break my arm and skull" (I'm not kidding, that thought was consciously in my mind).  I have no idea how, but somehow, I managed to not fall and stay upright, averting what would have been a very, very bad situation.  I must have used my Herculean abdominal muscles for this, because I felt like I had done several hundred sit ups once I started moving forward (vertically) again.  I was fortunate.  I smiled.

Last year, at every small little rise I simply could not run.  This year, the times I hiked were all by choice, in an effort to preserve some strength for the later miles.  I ran most of the climbs, and instead of feeling defeated when I hiked, felt good about the decision.  I never felt like I was redlining.  I ran most every step.  That made me smile.

Miller State Park Aid Station marked the real implosion of my race last year.  I missed a tough turn and spent several minutes running up and down the trail, trying to find the course.  I arrived at the aid station frustrated, fuming, anxious about finishing.  This year, Adam Wilcox (who had passed me when I missed this turn last year) and his family, along with Dima and Karen, were working the aid station.  My attitude was much improved this year, and seeing all these familiar faces and hearing Dima prodding me, "We expected you a few minutes ago," made me (you guessed it), smile.  The next many miles to the Mountain Rd. Aid Station (and turnaround) are probably the toughest on the course (except maybe the climb up Watatic).  Because of the wet conditions, I actually hiked a lot more of this than I wanted to - a lot of the "flat" sections are off-cambered rocks and roots, that were getting pretty slick (and given my near-fatal fall earlier, I was playing it a bit conservatively).  Still, I enjoyed the day, and took solace in the fact that I was able to experience this race again, with a much different mindset and attitude.  I was having fun.  I was feeling good.  And when I got to the turnaround, there were Ryan Welts and his fiancee (he actually proposed at the finish line of this race last year) Kristina Folcik, both ultra-studs.  I've run with Ryan a bunch of times, but never with Kristina, but told her that I was trying to emulate her.  She appears to "get" what Thich Nhat Hanh is teaching about smiling, because every time I've seen her at a race, she is smiling.  Every photo I've seen of her from a race, she's smiling.  I remembered that about her at Wapack last year.  She just seemed to be having a great time.  That is what I wanted, and that is what I was doing.  I made it to the turnaround in 3:38.  A bit slower than I wanted, but I didn't really care.  I felt great, and starting running up the descent I had just come down.  I hiked almost all of this last year and felt worked.  This day running felt easy.  I smiled.

I passed Eric about 4 or 5 minutes after leaving the aid station, and was encouraged to see him moving well.  I continued to run the ascent.  Somehow it felt a lot easier/shorter than the descent.  I started passing other runners coming into the turnaround.  Encouragement all around.  I made it back to Miller, refueled, said hello to Eric Sherman, who was working his way northbound, and overheard a young girl (maybe 10?) there helping out with her family and say something like, "Wow, he's back already?  That's really fast." I mean come on!  How could I not smile at that!

The climb out of Miller is mostly a road, and last year I ran about 100 yards before being forced into my walk.  This year I ran.  I kept expecting to feel the need to stop, to hike, but it didn't come.  I ran the whole thing and felt fine doing it.  I wasn't moving exceptionally fast for this stretch, but I was moving and felt in control (I still feel like I can take a good chunk of time from what I did this year, especially if the conditions were better.  This section from Miller to Windblown is probably where I could push a bit harder, as well as Windblown to Binney).  Cruising along this stretch, the effort of the day was starting to catch me.  I was out of the VFuel gels that Garry Harrington had given me (they worked very well) and for the first time ever, I didn't really have a taste for my homemade energy balls (it might have been because the wet weather had helped smash them all together into a softball sized brick of wax paper, raw ginger and dates.  Not very appetizing).  I was also starting to get what felt like little mini-cramps in my feet (very odd for me).  So at Windblown I changed it up.  I took a salt pill with some Ginger Ale and a GU Roctane gel (my old standby).  Outside of races (and even then only rarely) I never drink soda.  It's good.  And so my new routine was born.  I ran to Binney Aid (3.5 miles from the start/finish, but 10.5 from the end of the race), took a salt pill with some Coke (holy monkey that stuff is really tasty!), a couple of cups of clean water and ran off to the start/finish, knowing I would need to save something for those last 7 miles.  It took me 36 minutes and change to cover those 3.5 miles.  For only the first or second time all day I looked at the time on my watch.  It had taken me about 25 minutes longer to make it back on the Wapack Trail than it had going out.  I really wanted to break 9 hours.  As I left for the last 7 miles my watch read 7:44.  I thought I had it in the bag.  I knew I would finish.

The weekend before Wapack, Coach Emily had me do a "Fast Finish" run.  I was on a 2 hour run at an easy pace, but for the last 40 minutes, the goal was to run pretty hard, at about 85% effort (I've been wearing a heart monitor).  I had wanted to do this on the Wapack Trail, but, to get more sleep and time with the family decided to do this run on the Skyline Trail at the Fells.  Those last 40 minutes felt great - it is fun to run really hard, whereas in the past I was usually content to slog something out, to say I had done my 40 mile training run, thinking if I ran more miles, I would be a "good" runner.  Turns out, my coach knows more about training than I do . . .

I hit the top of Watatic at mile 44, and knew I had just shy of 6 miles to go.  My body remembered the Fast Finish on the Skyline Trail.  I had just run this stretch of trail minutes before.  I knew what lay ahead of me.  I pushed the gas a little knowing it was mostly downhill to Binney.  I thought running sub-30 back to Binney was possible, even with the climb up Watatic.  I reached Binney and did the Coke/salt/water routine, wanting to need nothing those last 3.5 miles.  I looked at my watch: 8:20.  How the heck had it taken me so long to get back here?  I was moving . . . I thought. Only 40 minutes to break 9 hours.  Doubt.  A quick thanks to the volunteers.  There were 21.5 milers up ahead.  I stepped on the gas.  I ran.  I ran hard.  I squashed the doubt.  I've never felt that strong or confident at the end of an ultra.  I ran the 2.4 mile ascent up the north side of Watatic, passing many 21.5 milers (there is point-to-point race as well that starts after the ultra), but always encouraging them to run with me.  One of these runners did and stayed right behind me as I literally grunted my way up the hill.  I was working, but it didn't exactly hurt, like it often does.  I had found that elusive zone.  My arms were working with my legs.  My mind was completely absorbed in every step.  I did not think about the end, but about the now.  I knew I could run hard.  I did not doubt, I did not question, I just knew.  It was incredible.  I have rarely felt that great running.  I ran down Watatic, taking more chances than I should have, but having total confidence in my ability to fly down the hill.  I hit the final stretch to the finish line, a flattish stretch, littered with rocks.  Mind recognizes the real chance of breaking an ankle here, but calculated the body could continue.  There's the gate.  I hear Norm (the inventor of NTS (Norm's Timing System) and RD) yelling something about the 50-mile winner.  I hit "Stop" on my watch. 8:51.  I smiled.

What a difference a year makes.  The conditions were tougher this year, but I felt much better.  I still know there is room to go faster on this course, and I daresay, I think I might be able to, on a perfect day, get pretty close to 8:00 or even a little under (there are some people who could for sure).  I'm completely happy with this result though.  It was fun.  Last year at the finish line, in jest, I told Norm I didn't like him that much because it was such a hard experience.  I've thought about that comment/attitude a lot over the past year.  It is very telling of where my head was at in terms of running - I think I saw it as a job (getting ready for Western States), and, frankly, wasn't enjoying it.  This year, those 14 minutes I cut out on the course where a result of smarter training (thanks Emily!), but also a better attitude - appreciating the opportunity to do something I love, in a great setting, with some truly great people.

My partner in crime for the TARC 100 (and other races) Bob "Diesel-san" Crowley and I recently had a chance to talk extensively about community and culture in the ultra world.  Our conclusion about how to preserve the incredible culture?  Bring a chair.  Bring a chair to hang out at the end.  Bring a chair so that you have somewhere else besides your car to be comfortable.  Bring a chair so you can cheer on those finishing behind and trade stories with those who finished ahead of you.  Bring a chair so you can hang out with great people like Justin and his family, who weren't even running, but had come to support their friends.  You could feel the "Bring a Chair" vibe at Wapack this year.  Despite the less-than-ideal weather, people hung around, enjoying the post-race tradition of chili in a bag of Doritos (better than you may think), cheering folks as they finished, and encouraging the 50 milers coming in at mile 43 with another 7 to go.  As I look ahead now to the TARC 100, I just want to encourage everyone to think about that too - Bring a Chair (for after the race!).  There will be a lot of smiles that day for sure!


I decided to go "hands-free" this race, and wore inov-8's Race Elite 3.5 waist pack.  The one adaption I made was to use one of my larger (20-ounce) Ultimate Direction water bottles with it (it comes with a more rectangular, ~17 ounce (500 ml) bottle.  I have used handhelds for years now, but really loved wearing this pack and found it very comfortable. I could store a great number of calories and the pack easily turned to the front so I could reach the pockets/water bottle easily.  I'm bringing fanny back!

I also wore a new pair of inov-8 Trailroc 245s (the red ones!).  They had a lot of grip, even on the slick rocks, so I think it was mostly my caution that slowed me down.  With these I had a pair of Injinji's new Performance 2.0 midweight socks.  My feet were wet/muddy for the better part of 9 hours, and I only ended up with a blister on one of my pinky toes (which I had had going into the race already).  I've worn this combination for my last three or four races and have had almost no issues with my feet.  GOOD STUFF!

An image that captures the conditions of the day fairly well - everything was wet, and this is typical terrain of most of the climbs/descents).  Thanks to Scott Livingston for being out there snapping photos all day.  And, while it may not look like it, I was actually running at this point, probably just hoping not to break a bone):

2013_Wapack and Back 50 Mile Trail Race 34

Sunday, May 12, 2013

TARC Spring Classic - An RD's Perspective

Section One: The Numbers
Morning temps around 40.  Afternoon highs near 70.  292 starters.  261 smiling finishers (a few were sort of grimacing, and couple may have been in tears).  89% finishing rate.  Zero clouds.  10 loaves of bread.  Countless PB+Js, turkey sandwiches, and grilled cheese.  20 packs of Ramen.  12 quesadillas.  Dozens of energetic volunteers. One NTS (Norm’s Timing System, designed by TARCer/Wapack RD, Norm Sheppard).  These are the numbers that begin to define the 3rd TARC Spring Classic, held Saturday, April 27th, 2013 in Weston, Massachusetts.  Featuring four races (10K, half marathon, marathon, and 50K) all sharing a 10K course, this was the largest race in the young history of the TARC Trail Series.  

With only a couple of short hills, the course is billed as “flat and fast” with about 40 yards of asphalt and a mix of single and double-track.  As such, throughout its three-year history, the race has attracted a large number of trail-racing neophytes as well as those grizzled ultra-vets, either looking to crank a PR, or simply enjoy the company of like-minded folks on some beautiful trails as Spring begins its KO of Old Man Winter here in New England.

Section the Second: The Experience
TARC is built on the idea that animals stick together.  On group runs it doesn’t matter if you are a course record holder or fight for DFL, you stick together.  Our pre-race meetings always mention that, while we are competitive, we make sure it is not at the expense of looking out for each other, and enjoying each other’s company.  This year, in the greater Boston area (and the running world in general), this idea seemed to mean even more than it usually does.  Being held a mere 12 days from the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, and just one week from when the entire city had “sheltered in place,” throughout the crowd, there seemed to be an extra desire to connect with each other, to cheer for each other’s accomplishments, and to support each other when a race did not go as planned.  The day began with a heartfelt pre-race briefing by my co-RD, Bob Crowley, asking the assembled crowd to observe a moment of silence.  As we stood there, at the edge of the woods, all I heard were the birds in the trees.  I have rarely felt such peace, especially before a race and in a crowd of hundreds.  As an RD (and a person), this ethos hit home as New England ultra staple and all-around happy guy, Kevin Mullen, told me upon finishing his race, “I needed to restore my faith in humanity.”  We looked at the gathered finishers, friends, families, the runners going back out for their last loops, and both smiled.  We cheered as another runner crossed the line.  “There it is Kevin.  Faith restored.”

Perhaps it was Michelle Roy, infamous around these parts for carrying a log with her in nearly every race, running a 50K overnight (because fellow TARCer and RD of the TARC Ghost Train 100 Miler, Steve Latour, couldn’t run this year) before running the actual race.  Perhaps it was meeting up with Justin, to get our (now) traditional pre-setup run in (why do we think it is a good idea to meet at 4 AM to start running?). Perhaps it was Eric Nguyen and Ian Cross, showing up as the sun rose to “get a few extra laps in” before the race began.  Perhaps it was the dozens of folks, finishing a trail race or ultra for the first time and relishing that sense of accomplishment.  Or the veterans, like Adam, who crushed a PR. Perhaps it was the collective need to come together and breath deep the air of nature and tackle a personal challenge in a time of great turmoil. Or maybe it was less metaphysical.  Maybe it was the club’s Yeti prowling the course to encourage (or scare) people.  Or the tireless volunteers that ran the aid station and learned how the club’s new stoves operate (quesadillas, it was determined, are easier to make than grilled cheese. We also need a better way to light the stoves beyond our flaming pieces of cardboard).  Or the crew that ran timing and made sure to get every runner.  Or the NTS, being put to mass-use for the first time.   Whatever it was, there was something extra special about this year’s Spring Classic.  As Elizabeth Sherlock (one of the hearty volunteers who worked all day) posted on the Facebook regarding the day and the whole TARC experience, “One thing that has occurred to me is that you're not sure if you're at a race or a wacky family reunion/picnic. Everyone brings a crap-ton of food and greets each other as old friends, whether they've met before or not.”  It’s always good to see family. Even the crazy ones.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Glass Is Half Full

For the better part of the past 30 hours I have been fixated on one thing: The Boston Marathon.  Yes, much of this perseveration has dwelled on the heinousness that befell "Ah faih city" (apologies, I know Click and Clack are referring to Cambridge), but it has also focused on what I saw before and after that.  Initially, this chunk of time I had set aside was to write a report about the TARC 2013 Don't Run Boston 50K/50 Miler, but since about 4:09:44 into the Marathon yesterday, it has taken a different tilt.  At first I figured I would scrap all recollections of DRB, as it seemed trivial.  My perspective has changed however.  While, in the grand scheme of the universe, a race report is rather self-centered, telling the tale of event from the ego's perspective, I realized it is also what makes our sport so great.  It is human nature to share our tales of triumph (or tragedy).  We take solace in the voice of others and find excitement and inspiration in their journeys.  And that is why, with all that has happened over the last day in the city where I live and work, I am not angry (confused and saddened? Yes.  Angry?  No.).  I have been inspired by my friends who were running both at DRB and at the Marathon.  I have been inspired by the Mr. Roger's quote that is making the rounds via social media (I have shared this with my kids - for all the evil that exists, we must remember to see that there is a lot more good, there are a lot more "helpers"), because, as all the video and coverage shows, there may have been a few people who committed these acts of hate, but there were countless more who showed us, both before and after the attacks, just how strong the human spirit is.

Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the aim of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned - Buddha

I am working with a coach, Emily Harrison and Ian Torrence, from McMillian Running.  I decided that because I have never had a structure to my running and simply ran, and I want to put my best effort into the Vermont 100 this year, I should try to do something differently (besides just running as many miles as I could every day/week).  Problem was, I had no idea how, hence the coach.  Thanks to Emily, my running has a purpose and flow.  And yesterday, Patriots Day,  Marathon Monday, was, like the Sabbath, a complete day of rest (at least for my running).  Having run 50 miles the day before, at the DRB 50K/Miler, an un-marked, lightly-supported race through the Blue Hills, just south of Boston, coach was telling me to not run.  I listened (afterall, I'm also on school vacation this week, and aren't we just supposed to just laze about on vacation?).

Yet running was still a big part of the day, for it was the Boston Marathon - a day when it seems everyone in the greater-Boston area is a fan of running.  A day when people line 26.2 miles of road, often 3 - 5 people deep, to cheer professionally athletes seem like they are effortlessly floating as they run sub-5:00 pace (seriously, the front runners never look like they are even working hard.  It is a thing of beauty!).  A day when those same spectators remain, for hours, not to cheer the pros, but to cheer and congratulate and encourage the every-man and every-woman.  The people who work their jobs everyday, take care of their kids and sick family members, who train, not for money, but for personal fulfillment.  Who train to say, "I CAN DO THIS!"

Knowing that I was not running, I was able to enjoy the day and the incredible energy that comes with it.  Watching the start on TV at home with the family, we all started jumping up and down when we saw our friend (and U.S. 24-Hour Team qualifier!) Scott Traer (looking good in his green shorts!) start the race before everyone, guiding a friend of his, who is a runner (and amputee).  Talk about inspiring - a world-class athlete, guiding/pacing a friend to the finish.  Even watching last year's winner joking with other guys at the start line - it reminded me of most ultras I've been a part of.  And then there was meeting up with Sam, our friend and, uber-stud (the dude is winning everything from 5Ks - 50 miles lately), at mile 20 and handing off a prepared bottle of GU Roctane drink, as he flew up the last of the hills.  And, by chance, seeing Sebastien, who came from Quebec with his family, and yelling for him and seeing the smile on his face as he tackled the last hill.  Or encouraging the folks who started getting the "I can't do it" look, and seeing people clapping in rhythm for them, for no other reason than everyone is inspired by what these folks are doing.  You don't find any Mass-holes along the marathon route on Marathon Monday.  Even the drunk college kids are amiable and positive.  And that is the feeling I will cherish about my day off from running (which still involved a lot of running!).

Taking a day off from running is rare for me.  But I relished it, especially after my 51.13 mile effort at DRB the day before.  TARC's Don't Run Boston has a special place in my heart.  It is where I first got involved with the Trail Animals, and where I first met Bob "Diesel-san" Crowley, my partner in crime for many of the TARC Trail Series races (despite what he says, those last "19" miles of the DRB 50 are closer to 20 - 21!), and, where Garry Harrington, who I clung to lest I were find myself horribly lost in my first year at the race, possibly changed my life when he told me, after we finished the 50K together in course record time, "You're probably one of the best trail runners in New England" (I've never mentioned this to anyone before, but Garry, I owe you a huge thank you.  That meant (and means) a lot to me still, as DRB that year was only my second successful race ever).  It is also a race where the course is not marked and the course description reads like prose ("at the crest of a small rise there is an indistinguishable path at a cluster of 7 birch trees.  Turn left onto that path." My favorite part of whole course, and I will never miss that turn (although one of the birches is rotting it appears)) and the advice given to first timers is: "Run with someone who knows the course (who is still liable to get lost) and then come back and learn the course."  There is no-fanfare, just an aid station in the back of someone's car.  It was founded to be the anti-Boston Marathon (run the day before, on trails, no markings, etc.).  Today, I can't help but see the similarities.

This year's edition started, as always, with Howie drawing a line in the sand and saying, "GO!" (unfortunately, Howie couldn't run this year as he is returning from an injury).  From the start Double Top vet Anthony Parillo (who knows this course better than almost anyone and is aiming to run ten 100-milers this year), long-time Boston-area resident (and first-time visitor to the the Blue Hills - how is that even possible?) Daniel Larson, and, one of my personal heroes, Jack Pilla (to know why, simply read this.  B-A-D-A-S-S), whom I have met before, but never gotten to run much with, and I ran up front.  Not knowing the course, Daniel and Jack were anxious to stay with Anthony and myself.  We chatted for a while, and then, after about 6 miles or so, Anthony and I were consistently about 40 or 50 yards up.  I went into the race with the idea of simply following my heart-rate, keeping it around 75%, and was doing a decent job with that (except the hills - they're short, but pretty darn steep!).  I was feeling fine, and when we pulled into the aid station halfway along the rugged Skyline Trail (the "aid station," which you hit three times during the 50K) I was honestly quite surprised to be about 30 seconds up on Anthony and about a minute up on Jack.  We left to finish the little Skyline Loop, with me "talking" to those guys for about 5 minutes (I was up front) before I realized I was, in fact, talking to myself.  I had, unintentionally, pulled ahead.  I didn't slow down though, and just decided to run alone the rest of the day.

Each time I would come into the aid station, it was a mini-celebration.  Looking back, the volunteers, including Dima and Karen (two of my favorite people, who are always smiling and in good cheer), provided that same energy that I felt along the marathon course the next day (Dima and Karen happened to be running the Marathon as well and were quite close to the blasts).  While much of our time in these events is spent alone, in our own heads, we truly don't run them alone (except for Jack, as described above!), and, the positive energy that emanates from everyone is addictive.  The human spirit is indomitable and I'm coming to see that this fact is brought into sharp relief when we run.

The rest of the race was rather uneventful for me personally (especially compared to last year, when Scott and I were running together and he got bit by a dog, right on the butt - poor guy had to get rabies shots too.  He started running faster after he was bit too!).  It was a routine of eating my homemade energy chews and checking the heart rate (I only got off course for about 20 yards, in the last 5 miles of the 50K).  I battled a few mental demons when I just couldn't get the legs moving quick enough to bring my heart closer to the 75% I was shooting for (it was dropping to around 70%, although this might have been a technical issue with the heart rate monitor, because I felt like I was working!), but was steady the whole time.  I also discovered the magical power of Pringles (original flavor).  Not one to eat much solid food (or take salt pills), I ate a huge stack of Pringles at the mile 41 (and ~47) water drop.  Not only were they delicious (and a nice change of taste from my energy chews), ithey seemed to give me some sort of supernatural ability to move quickly again - maybe it was the salt, or the "there is nothing natural about this product" quality of them that did it.  I didn't look at the time on my Garmin at all, except to get a split for the 50K (4:54 - slower than last year, which was a bit disappointing, but the goal was to run faster in the 50 miler, so I was fine with it), and then at mile ~47, when I wanted to see if I had a shot to go under eight hours.

When I saw 7:40 on the watch at this point, I knew sub-8 was out of the question (it takes me at least 25 minutes to cover the last section, as some of it is on, as per the course description, "paths mostly used by deer, not people.").  I still tried to run hard, and, when I got close to the end, I knew I had a shot to break last year's mark (8:11).  My attention to the heart rate must have paid off, because that last mile or so, my Garmin said I was running pretty darn close to 6:00/mile pace and it felt okay (guess I should have been running harder throughout!).  I knew the time was going to be really tight, and I ran up the stairs to the parking lot (the "official" finish line), and hit the stop button.  8:10:31ish (the file is still on my watch, has been uploaded to my computer, but continues to fail to upload to Garmin Connect - any help?).  About 30 seconds faster than last year.  Even knowing that we had a few more bonus miles last year (and the canine attack), I was happy with the result - I was running alone for about 38 miles, and I felt like I could have kept running if need be.  I hadn't experienced any real big swings in energy or attitude, hitting those extreme highs and lows (I think that is a result of my homemade energy chews, which feature a lot of "good" fats, especially from coconut oil).  Hanging out with the handful of folks at the aid station post-run (which included Garry, Dima, Karen, and Jeff List - another local incredible-person/runner) just brought home the whole good-vibe that I have come to love about TARC and running.  To top it off, Lindsey Topham (TARC's "official unofficial" photographer) interviewed me about why I run ultras and am involved in TARC.  It was like my ego on steroids!  Liz and the boys picked me up and we went out to Bertucci's and Orange Leaf (a great self-serve fro-yo place in Lexington).  It was one of those days that reinforces how remarkable this life is.

So there it is.  Despite my fear, despite my anxiety (Liz was at the Marathon finish line last year on her breaks from work, directly across the street), running brought me great joy this weekend.  Today, as I ran through the woods (coach said it was okay to go out for 45 minutes!), just minutes from my door, I started thinking of the gruesome images of those whose lives were irrevocably changed, or taken, yesterday.  I felt sad, thinking of the young man who lost both legs, and as I started down a rocky slope, wondered what I would do if I could not do what I was doing, in that moment, anymore.  And then, as I twisted and turned along this rocky downhill, I started to smile.  Not because I am callous or cavalier.  Not because I don't care.  But because, in that moment, I realized that what I was doing, freely running through the woods like I did when I was a kid in Vermont, was something incredibly special.  I realized that every moment of my life had led to that (and this!) and that was something incredibly special.  I realized that all I had was that moment, that next step, that next footfall precisely between two rocks and then two roots.  I realized that running is so powerful because it is such a personal journey, meaningful for what we put into it and strive to get from it, but made more so when we share it with others.  That much was proven to me as I came into the "aid station" each time at DRB, or, as I stuffed my face with Pringles at mile 41 and waved to the volunteer dropping more water off for us to be able to finish our journey.  That much was proven to me when my friends, my wife, my children, and I cheered strangers up some hills in Newton.  It was proven when I saw footage from the finish line, both in celebration, and in chaos, as strangers rushed to help each other.  Sometimes, when we look for answers (Who did this?  Why?), which is what I have done for the better part of 30 hours, we forget to find meaning.  Hopefully we can all find a little bit of meaning in what happened this weekend and find a way to celebrate the awesome power of the human spirit.