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):