Running In Circles: The New Jersey One Day

Deciding where to start telling the story of a long run is always a bit challenging; when the run in question is 24 hours and 73 miles long, finding an entry point is even more daunting.  However, with the New Jersey Trail Series One Day now two weeks behind me, I figure I need to just sit down and get some of the experience written out before it fades too far into the past.  I don’t expect this to be terribly linear, but then the experience itself wasn’t exactly linear either — rather it took the shape of the course itself, looping back onto itself again and again, much more temporal than spatial.  

Image

But I digress already.  Before I give myself overly entirely to digressions, however, I want to once again thank all the people who donated to my fundraiser though CrowdRise: thanks to all of you, I raised  $2,601 for ALS research and care. Your support and encouragement, as well as the thoughts of my uncle Chris and my friend Ian’s father and their current battles with ALS truly motivated me to push myself further and farther than I have before.

But I was speaking I of my thoughts looping about like the course. . .

1: The Course

I think I should start by describing the course.  It’s sort of remarkable how well I can picture it in my mind, but I suppose 73 laps of the same mile will engrave most details indelibly in your memory.  The course looped around the grounds of the Sussex County fair grounds in the hinterlands of New Jersey, roughly 90 minutes from Brooklyn.  When I arrived there was frost on the grass and my breath was fogging the morning air as I pitched my tent just off the course route before picking up my bib.

Image

 

Image

The starting line was set up between a large event barn and a concession kitchen, which was the aide station for the event. On one side of the starting mat, the table where the race director or one of his kids sat to shout out what lap you had just completed in case the large monitor flashing your name and distance  didn’t get your attention; on the other side, tables stocked with pretzels, potato-chips, trail-mix and a variety of drinks.  After running straight from the starting line, you took a right directly in front of the restrooms and the small patch of grass where I’d pitched my tent.  The course then followed an asphalt road for about 50 yards, did a 180 turn around, following the road back towards a large parking lot and past a number of support teams who had set up tents or simply propped open the back of a van or SUV to supply their runnier with food, drinks, and new socks. There was a sharp right, up a very slight incline (“Walk the hills!” someone inevitably joked, but just as inevitably we all did, in fact, walk the slight incline as if it were a hill), then the course looped around the edge of the fairgrounds on a 20 foot wide service road, an empty parking lot to the left and a wall of brittle, autumnal trees to the right.  After about a half a mile, the course cut a sharp left between some livestock pens and became rough gravel for about a hundred yards before turning back into asphalt as the path worked its way through the heart of the fairground.  Then with a sharp right you were back at the start.

Image

One mile exactly.  Again and again and again.

2: “Won’t You Get Bored Running the Same Mile Over and Over?”

This was the one question everyone asked, and honestly it was my biggest concern before starting: that the course would become so tedious and repetitive that the run would become more a feat of mental than physical endurance.  Surprisingly, however, I never got bored of the course.  Not once.  My body grew tired, and the slight hill at the edge of the parking lot eventually felt like a serious mountain after encountering it for the fiftieth time, but I never grew tired of running the same mile.

One reason was that it was never actually the same mile.  The day had progressed and the sun’s rays were cast differently across the landscape; shadows that were short became long, or the gilded light of a late autumn afternoon softened the edges of the buildings.  The leaves that had been rustling with a strong breeze before were now silent, or perhaps a crooked V of migrating geese would pass, honking, overhead.  On one lap you might be talking to the woman who had just run her first marathon three weeks ago or the 70 year old man who was walking the entire event, or more often you would be silent, by yourself.  Your muscles might be sore or not, the clouds dividing just enough so that the full moon and Orion could peek through or else blocking the sky in solid black.  But each lap was different, while at the same time identical, a zen koan looping through a New Jersey fairground.  The course was like a performance art piece, each loop letting me see the mile anew.  Or perhaps it was a minimalist opera, the slight shifting repetition of Einstein on the Beach translated into a foot race.  My thoughts constantly returned to that line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploring / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  

It was repetitive.  It was long.  But it was never boring.  Peaceful, painful, nearly eternal in the middle stretches, where one didn’t quite remember staring and couldn’t quite imagine finishing.  But not boring.  Never that.

3: The First 50 Miles (or so)

It’s odd to summarize a race in sections that are each the size of a marathon or even an ultra, but the first 30 miles went by easily.  The day started off cold but clear — we had ideal weather, with a pale-blue sky and just enough chill to make you feel energized.  I started with a long-sleeved shirt but ran much of the day in a singlet and shorts.  The start of a 24 hour race is a funny thing, as no one sets out at a real “run” and there’s none of the usual jockeying for position or darting around slower runners.  There were only about 50 of us anyway, and everyone started off at a respectable jog, or else just walking.

Image

My goal was to do 100 miles.  Ambitious for my first 24 hour race, but I figured a 12:30 pace for 25 minutes and then a 5 minute walk break would be a sustainable pattern, and for the first 40 miles or so it was.  I started out a bit faster, then slowed down somewhat, but generally just ran steadily and felt great.  I talked to a few people here and there but mostly was quiet, content to be with myself and my thoughts.  I didn’t have any music — my plan was to run without anything until night, then listen to an audio-book overnight, and finally break out the tunes to give me a boost in the final morning hours.  

At some point in the first 10 miles or so I made the turn at the top of “the hill,” and I was struck with the beauty of the autumn leaves and the crisp air, and overwhelmed with a sense of thankfulness and joy at having the opportunity to run on this day, at this place, at this event.  The most common reaction when I would tell people I was doing a 24 hour race was that I must be insane to want to do that to myself, but all I was experiencing was pure joy.  One of the few downsides of not believing in god is not having a focus for devotion.  I did a slight salutation with hands folded in gassho, muttered an “Om Mani Peme Hung,” and then offered up a spontaneous prayer to nothing and no one in particular: “Thank you for this mile, and all the miles that preceded it.  And thank you for the miles yet to come, whatever may occur.”  That was the mindset I had and hoped to maintain for the race — not to merely accept whatever occurred, but to be thankful for it, regardless of how it turned out, to embrace with joy 100 miles or 50 miles, a triumphant finish or a twisted ankle and sudden end.  I don’t know exactly how many miles I was into the race at that point, but for every lap after that when I made that turn I repeated my small personal ritual:  folded hands, Om Mani Peme Hung, and my prayer of thanks.  I must have repeated it 50 or 60 times more times at least.  So I ran and ate, talked some and gave thanks and stopped to get a picture of myself at 26.2.

Image

Then 31 miles passed, and every step after that was a distance PR.  40 miles went past, and I was still feeling strong.  Somewhere in the 40’s, however, my right knee started feeling a bit tight.  My right knee is my one lingering ailment.  It used to bother me a lot when I started running, but it hadn’t bothered me since the Brooklyn Marathon back in the fall of 2011.  But then again, I’d never run this far before.  This was frustrating because my muscles felt fine and I had lots of energy, but my knee didn’t want to cooperate.  I walked a bit more, hoping I could just ignore it, and at some point the sun started to set, and since it’s winter in the North, it started to set early, and once it started its descent, vanished quickly.  One lap it was the golden twilight hour; the next lap it was a dim dusk gloaming; then it was pitch black.  

My knee slowly started to feel worse and worse.  Most frustrating was the fact that the transition from walking to running was what hurt the most, and of course taking walk breaks was the only way I would be able to finish the race.  My feet started to hurt as well, so I switched into my minimal sandals, which made for a great conversation starter in a crowd largely shod in Hokas.  After a bit more than eleven hours, I passed 50 miles.  

Image

The race director shouted out that I was on pace to do 100 miles, but I only grimaced, as that would entail maintaining the same pace for another half a day, and with each mile I was slowing.  I finished 52 miles in 12 miles — almost 2 marathons exactly — and then I hit the wall.

4: Finding A Limit

As a long distance runner, I’ve been familiar with the term “hitting the wall” for years, though I’ve never really experienced it.  I messed up my knee when training for my first half-marathon, and it gave out about 1 mile before the finish line of that race, forcing me to hobble over the finish in tears, but that’s not “the Wall.”  When I ran my first marathon with M in 2008, she wanted to keep pushing to break four hours in the last two miles, and I just couldn’t make myself go that fast and the last two miles were a painful blur, but that’s not really “the Wall,” either.  Or maybe it was, and most runners just exaggerate what the end of a marathon feels like, because after 10 or so half marathons, three marathons, and a 50K, I’d never experienced anything that I’d describe as “hitting the wall.”

That night, in the dark, however, I hit a wall.  My knee had been slowing me, but now my run, which had always been more of a jog, started to be more of a shuffle.  With the sun down, the temperature dropped into the 30s, and the slower I ran the less body heat I generated and the colder I got.  I lost time struggling into running tights and my jacket, then added sweatpants, and a hoodie.  Two layers of socks, two layers of gloves, two hats — and I was still cold.  I broke out the audiobooks that my coworker, Roger, had lent me on an old iPhone, but it wasn’t as focusing as I’d hoped; I was merely too exhausted to concentrate on either the narrative OR my running.  After knocking out 52 miles in the 12 hours before 9 PM, it took me over 3 hours to finish the next 6 miles.  

I still was offering up my prayer of thanks every lap, and somehow, as incredible as it may sound, I was still taking joy in each lap, but things were coming apart quickly.  My feet hurt, my knee hurt, and I couldn’t get warm.  After shuffling over the starting mat for mile 58, I sat on a bench and took stock.  For the last three laps, I had only managed to stumble around the course at a 30 minute mile, and since I couldn’t go any faster, I wasn’t going to be able to get any warmer and I was already wearing every layer I had brought with me.  Forget finishing, I was beginning to worry about getting hypothermia.  

I had to admit it — I needed a break.  Forcing myself to keep moving was at the best pointless, at the worst, injurious.  There was no way I was going to make my goal of 100 miles, as suddenly breaking into a run for the next 11 hours wasn’t happening.  I’d done 50 miles, which was a distance I’d never run before.  I decided a radically scaled back new goal could be 100K (62 miles), and if I got some sleep and woke up at 7 that would get me a little over 6 hours of sleep and I’d still have 2 hours to get in 4 miles.

I didn’t feel bad about giving in; at that point, I really felt I didn’t have a choice.  It wasn’t a lack of dedication — the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.  One of the reasons I’ve pushed the distances I’ve run is that I’ve been looking for a limit, a point of failure that would let me know I’d hit some sort of extremity past which I simply couldn’t go.  The fact that I’ve completed each new distance left me with the lingering doubt that I hadn’t pushed myself hard enough or far enough.  Staggering into the restroom at 12:45 before heading to my tent, however, I knew for certain that I’d pushed myself as far as I could go — at least for the time being.  There was a limit to how far stubbornness, grit, and determination will take you without actual training.  I’d prepared for the race by simply sticking to my regular 30 mile weeks, with one 31 mile training run thrown in in for good measure.  Obviously, that hadn’t been enough.

Image

I took a picture in the bathroom mirror, and posted it to Facebook with the following text:

The last few hours have been some of the most humbling of my life. It took me 12 hours to run 52 miles, and 3 hours to stumble the last 6. A 30 minute mile isn’t keeping up my body temperature, and since it’s so cold, I think I have no choice but to call it a night at 58. I’m going to try to get up at 7 and hobble out 4 more for a 100k, but this might be it.

Then I went to find my sleeping bag.  My body seemed to take the point of actual surrender as a signal that it could give up as well, as I suddenly became horribly nauseated, and had to rush to the garbage can where I spent a good three minutes violently throwing up everything I’d eaten over the last 12 hours.  I threw up repeatedly until my stomach was entirely empty, waving off a few supportive runners while insisting I was fine.  I managed to get back inside to a sink, rinse out my mouth, then stumbled the 20 feet to my tent.  

I found a handkerchief to wipe my face with, pulled off my sandals, then crawled into my sleeping back wearing all my various layers.  I was a bit concerned when I realized I couldn’t straighten my legs all the way; I tried massaging my muscles, but my hands were mostly numb and I eventually just accepted my knees would remain bent.  58 miles in a bit over 15 hours.  I thought I had 4 more in me in the morning, but was also resigned to the fact that I was most likely out of the race.  I set an alarm for seven and was asleep almost at once.

5: Forced to Quit, Choosing to Go On

At some point I half awoke and became aware of voices, the sounds of people chatting down at the aid station on the half hushed tones that one uses at a campsite in the middle of the night.  Is it morning already? I wondered. My phone read 3:45 AM.  I’d been out for three hours, and had more than three hours until I had to get up. I stretched my legs, and I could straighten them.  My muscles were sore, but I could move, and my head was clear again.  I lay on my back staring at the tent.  When I had passed out a few hours before, I hadn’t had a choice: I had to stop.  Now, however, I realized I did have a choice.  I was sore, I was tired, but I was capable of getting up.  If I didn’t get up now, I would be choosing to quit.  Last night hadn’t been the test of my limits — right here, lying awake at 3:45 was.

That was the point where running the event for a cause really came to the front of my mind.  I though of my uncle. I thought of Ian’s dad.  I thought of all the people who wanted to run or walk but couldn’t, the people whose every day entailed more pain and struggle than my last 12 hours. I thought, All I have to do is walk one mile.  I can always quit again after that.

Somehow I crawled out of my sleeping bag and took stock of my body.  Every part of me hurt, but I was coherent, even oddly energized now that I’d made my decision.  I peeled off my socks, and was a bit horrified at the number of massive blisters covering both my feet.  I probably should have noticed them hours before I quit for the night, but I had been so uncomfortable and unfocused that I hadn’t paid attention to them.  Wincing, I put on new socks and managed to squeeze my feet back into my shoes.  The predawn air was bitterly cold as I stumbled out of the tent, the mid autumn constellations still bright in the sky as I made my way around the track once again.  The course was almost deserted, with very few runners still grinding away at this hour.  With each step I felt better, stronger, more awake.  And 3 hours and 40 some minutes after I’d crossed the finish line for the 58th time, I crossed it for the 59th.

I got a blister kit from the aid station and spent a few minutes lancing and bandaging my feet, and when I started on mile 60 I felt indescribably better.   The kitchen made me a grilled cheese sandwich, and the next lap had breakfast burritos and slices of caramel apples.  I couldn’t run, but I could walk at a decent pace, and sometime long before dawn I finished 100K and kept going.

6: The End Comes To You

Eventually the sun came back. I greeted it with my ritual of thanks, and managed to honestly be thankful even for the long, painful hours from the middle of the night, for the blisters and vomiting and aching muscles.  How could I not be thankful? I was still moving forward, still awake to hear the birds awaken and see the rosy fingered dawn stretch out from the East and cast its pale light across the New Jersey hills.  

Image

Slowly more runners rejoined the course.  Someone gave me an encouraging, “Keep it up!” I responded, “I figure I just have to stay on my feet — the end will come to me.”. Because in a  24 hour race, the end DOES come to you, and at the same speed it comes for everyone else, elite or amateur, young or old, running or walking. Minute by minute it comes for you, and everyone reaches the finish line at the exact same moment.  No one has a second more or less: it is simply a matter of what you manage to do in those allotted 24 hours.  At some point the thought crossed my mind that the end of this race is a bit more like life itself than most races: that the end will eventually find you whether you are running or sitting on a bench, walking the course or sleeping in your tent.  You don’t have to DO anything to finish; its simply a matter of how much you manage to finish that is in question.

For a few miles I hoped I could speed up enough to finish 78, to make it three marathons, but I settled in at walking  a 15 minute mile tops and would gladly take whatever I could get.  After 62 laps, the few I would be able to get in seemed like nothing at all; then I was across the finish line with 25 minutes left, knowing I could get in one last lap but not two, so it was walked with an oddly unhurried finality.  I crossed the finish line about 8 minutes to 9, and my cousin and his girlfriend were there, having arrived to drive me back to Brooklyn and making it just in time to see me cross the finish (or perhaps the start?) for the 73rd and last time.

Image

7: Reflections and What’s Next

Its really hard to answer the question, “What was it like?” It was easily the hardest thing I’ve done, beating GoRuck without a question.  It wasn’t “fun” per set but I enjoyed it, took joy from it, and loved every minute of it.  I finally found that limit I’ve been searching for, and truly learned something about myself in the freezing pre-dawn moments lying in my tent.  The question isn’t “Will I do another 24 hour race?” but rather, “When?” When thinking back on what I did right and what went wrong and what I would do differently next time, I realized I love the nearly epic sweep of the strategy, pacing and fueling broken not into miles or minutes, but four or six hour blocks, the same self-knowledge and reassessment of a 5K, bit slowed down and stretched strategically over an entire day.

I learned to respect the distance of 100 miles, to realize that not all goals can be reached by flippant bravado and determination.  So far my distances have been reached mainly be willpower without any real training; I don’t think one can BS one’s way to 100 miles the way one can with a marathon or even 50K.  Of course, the event was timed.  In a race without a 24 hour cut off, could I have made it 100 miles? I don’t know.  I do know that the first 50 came pretty easily, so I’m thinking I’ll train for and race a 50 mile race first.

Physically, I recovered quickly.  I’m not sure if was due to not ever running that fast or all the walking at the end or the three hours of sleep, but after resting Monday I walked the five mile roundtrip to my school Tuesday, and jogged it Wednesday and Thursday.  There was actually more mental recovery; it took most of the week before I could stand how incessantly my students talked, and I responded to everyone with a slightly distracted delay.  I missed the silence, the constant, steady movement forward.  And then there’s the mild depression that follows the accomplishment of any large goal, as suddenly there is this massive hole in your life where that future event once lived, no longer looming ever present but rapidly diminishing into the past.  

But it is done.  And for now I’m content with my daily commute, and can focus again for a while on picking up my speed.  I’m not sure what my next epic run will be, but there will be one.  All in good time.  And in the mean time, I give thanks for this race, this day I sit here typing and all the days that have came before.  And I give thanks for the days to come, whatever they will bring.  Om mani peme hung.  

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

An Open Letter to the NYRR Objecting to This Year’s Marathon

[UPDATE: About 45 minutes after I posted this, Mayor Bloomberg and the NYRR announced they were rescheduling the marathon.  While I which they would have done so earlier, as this late cancelation will create unnecessary inconvenience for the runners who had thought they were running the race, I am glad they finally listened the the overwhelmingly negative feedback their decision to continue the race had garnered.   While I think the best leaders make decisions rather than react to popular opinion, I am still thankful that they listened to that popular opinion and responded accordingly.  I know they will face criticism for this decision as well, and wish them luck in the monumental task of rescheduling such a major event.]

Dear Mary Wittenberg and the New York Road Runners:

As a former (and potentially future) member of the New York Road Runners, I am writing to express my objection to the running of the New York City Marathon this weekend.

I was a very active member of the NYRR from 2005-2010, running as many as 14 races a year with your organization, and completing the New York City Marathon twice (2008, 2010).  My two finishes of the marathon rank among the greatest experiences of my life, so it is not without experience or reflection that I believe holding the marathon this weekend is a huge mistake.  More than a mistake, I think it is misguided, self-centered, and offensive to all those who are still struggling with the devastation left by hurricane Sandy.

Mayor Bloomberg has said the marathon will not divert any necessary resources from the city’s relief effort, and although I find that claim dubious, I will take him at his word.   Apart from official city employes, however, the marathon requires an army of volunteers and resources – volunteers and resources who could be better directed to the thousands of people who are without food, water, or shelter even as we speak, people who will be suffering even as the first runners cross the Verrazano bridge Sunday morning.  Generators will supply power to tents and computers while millions are without electricity in our region.  Tables will be laden with bananas, bagels, coffee, and Power Bars, while Super Markets remain boarded up and thousands run out of food, some scouring dumpsters in an attempt to eat.  Scores of volunteers will hand out water along the route, while across the river in New Jersey they are boiling water to survive, and high-rises in the Lower East Side have no running water.  The hundreds, if not thousands, of people who help put on or run the marathon could all turn their efforts to aiding those who are truly in need.

The New York Road Runners have declared they are running the marathon “for the city,” but for those who were truly devastated by this disaster, a marathon is NOT what they need — they need emergency resources.  Mayor Bloomberg has said that the marathon is a sign of our city’s strength, of our resilience.  In eight weeks or so when this disaster has passed, that might be true, but the disaster has not passed; for millions in our region, it is still unfolding even as we speak.  We are not just in the shadow of the disaster, we are still in the midst of the disaster, and holding the marathon will not be a sign of strength but a sign of callous indifference to those in need.  As the temperature drops and the days without water, power, and food drag on, we run the danger of repeating the mistakes of Hurricane Katrina, where the most horrific stories were told as people died from exposure, starvation, and dehydration.  If even one elderly person starves to death in a high-rise on the Lower East side as a real estate agent from San Diego is handed a banana on First Avenue, it would be criminal.

The fact that the New York Road Runners cannot see this, and seems tone-deaf to even the negative PR that this will generate, seems to show a narrow-sightedness that I had not thought the organization possessed.  Turn Marathon Sunday into a day of service for the Tri-State Area — ask runners and volunteers to go to Hoboken, Long Island, the Far Rockaways, to organize the human and material resources they represent in a way that the city can truly use.  Instead of shuttling people to “Marathon Village,” sent those thousands of busses full of thousands of people into the neighborhoods and communities that are in dire need of food, water, batteries, and manual labor.  Reschedule the marathon and declare that New York is “up and running!” in a month, two months, next spring, whenever we are truly up and running again.

I was a long-term and devoted member of your organization.  I only let my membership lapse when I had two kids and no longer could participate in enough races to make it worth while.  Unfortunately, I am not currently a member, because I would revoke my membership in protest over the decision to run this year’s marathon.  As it is, I highly doubt I will join the road runners in the future, and certainly will not do so under the current leadership.

Respectfully,

Chris Van Dyke

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Calling a Hiatus a Hiatus

I’ve posted before about how I’ve been updating this blog less frequently, but I think its gotten to the point I need to just admit it — “When I Talk About Running” is sort of in limbo.  I’m not calling it quits per se, but not only have I not updated in almost 6 weeks, but I’ve had no desire to write anything.   About once a week I thought “I should update my blog!” but it was more out of guilt than an actual urge to write; and if there’s one thing I don’t want to be doing is writing out of a sense of guilt or obligation.  This blog is about sharing my thoughts and love of running, not about trapping myself into some artificial “job.”  

Largely this can be blamed on all the drawing I’ve been doing lately.  I’m finishing a 22 page comic book with my friend/co-creator Ben, and working on launching an on-going web-comic.  Between teaching, two kids, running, drawing, and this blog, something had to give.  My family and work are obviously non-negotiable, running is my escape, and right now I’m getting more joy out of drawing than blogging.  If you’re interested in following the development of our comic “company” Voyager Comics, you can check out my art blog or go like our Facebook Page.  In fact, I’d really appreciate it if you did.

I’m still running, I just haven’t had much to say about it.  I’m sure I will again, so subscribe to my updates or RSS feed if you haven’t already, and someday it will tell you I’ve got some thoughts on running or a review of some minimalist shoe.  In the mean time I miss my running blogging community, but I’ll see you around the internet . . .

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How (Not) To Train for an Ultra Marathon

Going into my 50K two weeks ago, one of my only goals was to merely finish the race — and honestly I wasn’t completely confident I could.  This wasn’t just first-timer nerves or a lack of self-confidence, because I had a good reason to be somewhat anxious; according to everything I knew about ultra-running, I was woefully under-trained, which seemed like a pretty bad position to be in for one’s first ultra.

In fact, I specifically didn’t write about my training here, and avoided talking about it in general, because I was almost afraid I’d jinx myself if I told anyone how little I was doing anything that resembled “training.”  I figured if I DNF-ed I would learn a valuable lesson and could share it with all of you here, but if I succeeded, I could chalk it up to an “un-training program,” like what Jason Robillard did before finishing Western States in under 24 hours.

Since I not only finished but had a great race, I can safely tell you how not to train for a 50K.  Or rather, how to not train for one.

***

There are pretty much four rules to training for an ultra-marathon:

  1. You need to follow a long training program for at least 16 weeks.
  2. You need to do lots of long runs (12-20 miles)
  3. You need a number of back-to-back long runs on the weekends.
  4. You need to train on terrain similar to what you’ll be racing on.

I didn’t follow a single one of these rules.  That’s why I was nervous.  Breaking one or two would be a bit maverick.  Not doing ANY of them?  I was worried I was being over-confident or at least naive.  Because I wasn’t just breaking them — I was utterly ignoring them.  Let’s recap.

  1. You need to follow a long training program for at least 16 weeks.  When I was training for the 50K back in January, before our housing debacle caused me to miss it, I had a 16 week training schedule.  I had a calendar taped to my wall at work, with runs during the week and long runs scheduled on the weekends, including a marathon in November.  After I decided I’d run Bear Mountain, I initially set up a truncated 12-week training program, but I quickly realized there was no way I was going to follow it.  With the new house, kids, school, and A applying for her job, I couldn’t commit to any long-term plan.  So I just ran when I could.
  2. You need to do lots of long runs (15-20 miles).  Not only did I not do “lots” of long runs, I really only did one, and that was only barely a long run.  Looking back at my training log, I did a 15 mile run January 30th, nothing over 7 miles during February, nothing over 5 miles during March, 13 miles on April 28th, and then 50K on May 5th.  My total milage wasn’t even up with my average: 70 miles in January, 106 miles in February, 112 miles in March, and 68 miles in April.  This isn’t a fraction of training for a road marathon, let alone an trail ultra.
  3. You need a number of back-to-back long runs.  Since I didn’t do any long-runs, I obviously didn’t do any back-to-back long runs.  And this is supposed to be the key-stone of any ultra-training program.  Oops.
  4. You need to train on terrain similar to what you’ll be racing on.  This was actually what had me most worried.  Running on trails is very different from running on roads — the hills work different muscle sets, as does the uneven terrain.  You have to pick up your feet to get over rocks and logs, move sideways and watch your footing.  Everything I read and everyone I talked to said I should do most of my training on trails, or at least some major runs on trails, and I did . . . none.  At all.  The last time I rain on a trail was April 30th, 2011, over year ago.  I did all my running — all my short runs — on the roads of Brooklyn.  And I was planning on running a trail ultra in the mountains.

****

Common sense would have had me DNF-ing half-way through the race.  So why wasn’t my race a disaster?  I don’t have a good answer.  I assume part of it is that I have a pretty good base-level of running fitness.  I’m not as hard-core as a lot of marathoners and ultra-runners, but I commute to work 5 days a week on foot.  That’s a lot of slow, steady running under all conditions: early (when I’m tired), at the end of the day (when I’m tired again), in the rain, wearing a pack.  It’s just a theory, but I think my minimalist running helped a lot, too.  Running in zero-drop, non-supportive shoes works out different muscle groups and strengthens your legs, so I think I had stronger muscles than my road-running would suggest.  Bare-foot running form also gets you off your heels and makes you lighter on your feet, with a quicker cadence and a higher step.  There was very little adjustment needed when I got on the trails, as my legs and feet were used to the motions needed to navigate the rocky paths.

I’d like to say the rest was stubbornness, but I never thought of quitting.  Which is why it was such a success: it was hard, yes, but not unreasonably so.  I don’t know how it went so well with so little training, but it did.  It’s funny to look back at how uncertain I was when I signed up for the race months ago, but that uncertainty made sense.  Now I can join the rest of my crazy ultra-friends in encouraging others to sign up for ridiculously long races they aren’t at all prepared for.  Hey, it worked for me.

Posted in Ultra Running, Ultra Training Log, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

The Road to Recovery

I’m pretty pleased with how I’ve recovered from my 50K.  Today is 10 days since Bear Mountain, and running to work today I felt 100 percent back to normal.  It seems the only lingering effects will be the loss of my two big toe-nails, which, as I suspected, have begun to turn black.  Ah, the joys of running!

5/5 DAY 0: Exhausted, but happy.  The first thing I did after crossing the finish line (well, the first thing after staggering around in an incoherent buzz of adrenaline) was take off my shoes.  Might be the best feeling ever.  Walking up and down stairs wasn’t easy.

5/6 DAY 1: The day after an endurance race is when your legs feel it.  Day one they’re sort of in shock; the next day is when they get over their disbelief and just get pissed.  We’d bought tickets to “Day out With Thomas” for our son, so the day after running for over seven hours we piled in a car and drove 2 and a half hours into Connecticut to see a Really Useful Engine.  Any change of elevation hurt like hell — going up and down curbs hurt, stairs were just plain evil.  I had to lean on the hand-rail going up, and went down stairs backwards (an old runner’s recovery trick).  Every few steps my muscles would threaten to give out, and I’d give a bizarre stagger like I’d just had a mini-seizure.

5/7 DAY 2:  Pretty much the same.  This was actually better than I’d feared — walking on level ground was perfectly fine, it was just stairs that caused problems.  My muscles were still tight and I felt like stretching my legs constantly, but they weren’t in pain, or even that sore, just wanting to stretch.  Still used the hand-rail.  The part of me that was actually the most sore was my right big toe.  I couldn’t actually bend it, and if it had hurt a little more I would have worried it was broken.  It hadn’t started to change color, but I was pretty sure I was going to loose my nail.

5/8 DAY 3: Back to work.  Having a job where I stand 90% of the time was probably good for my recovery, though I did drive to work, and stubbornly refused to take the elevator, so I hobbled up and down the stairs.  Going up wasn’t that bad, and I only needed to use the hand-rail going down.  Still taking the stairs backwards.

5/9 DAY 4: Drove to work again, and didn’t have to walk down stairs backwards.  Did have to take steps one at a time and lean on the hand-rail, however.  Just for the hell of it, tried to jog down the hall to see how I felt and almost collapsed on the floor at the first step.

5/10 DAY 5:  Not up to running, but I walked to and from work, 2.75 miles each way.  Felt great, and didn’t need the handrail on stairs.  Getting over-confident and trying to take more than one step at a time did almost result in my going head-first down a dozen steps, so I wasn’t quite as recovered as I thought.  Tried jogging in the hall again, and could manage a geriatric shuffle.

5/11 DAY 6: Decided to give running a shot.  Wore my Instincts for a bit more support than usual.  Everything felt fine except my quads, which were definitely still sore, and got tired really fast.  Ended up walking about half the distance, and running the other half — three blocks running, walk, run three more blocks.  Stairs and I finally came to a reluctant truce.

5/12 DAY 7:  Emboldened by the day before, I ran to a Saturday planning session at work, then 4 miles to the park for about seven miles total, again in my Instincts.  Quads a bit sore, but I ran the entire time without having to stop, and felt good.  When Nat wanted me to repeatedly run up a hill in the park with him, however, my legs were like “Hell, no.  We just did hills last weekend.”

5/13 DAY 8: No running, felt fully recovered as far as normal life was concerned.

5/14 DAY 9: Ran to work, just time in my Inov8-155′s for a bit less support.  Felt great — still not fast, but definitely running, not jogging.

5/15 DAY 10: Broke out the unshoe huaraches, and today felt completely recovered.  Ran fast and light, without any soreness at all.  Itching for a longer run again, but should probably not push things too much — I know that when recovering is when the most injuries happen.  Wore my sandals while teaching, and freaked my students out with my now black toe-nails.  “Nah, its fine.  Its just going to fall off in a few weeks.  No, its just because I ran 31 miles last weekend.”  Saying it out-loud makes it sound a LOT weirder, doesn’t it?

I’ve got a few more posts I can squeeze out of my 50K.  In the mean time, its back to commuting to work on foot.  And, of course, conspiring to figure out when I can find the time to run some stupid-long race again . . .

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“What Do You Think About For Seven Hours?”

When I tell people I’ve run for over seven hours (or even four, or three), one of the most common things people want to know is what do I think about during that long of a run?  It’s hard to sum up, but I tried to do a statistical break down of what occupied my thoughts for seven hours and thirty-seven minutes.

30 minutes: Chatting with other runners.

35 minutes: “Ow.”

25 minutes: Singing Brittney Spears “Until the World Ends” in my head.

53 minutes: Singing the Robillard’s “Roctane” jingle in my head

12 minutes: Wondering “Do I need another gel pack, or is eating one going to make me sick?”

65 minutes: Fantasizing about crossing the finish-line

25 minutes: Fantasizing about crossing the finish line of Western States

15 minutes: Fantasizing about collapsing but still crawling across the finish line in an inspiring act of endurance that brings all the spectators to their feet.

45 minutes: Wishing I’d brought 2 water bottles.

12 minutes: Sucking at an empty water bottle even though I knew full well there wasn’t any water left.

60 minutes: “This hill can’t keep going up forever, right?”

35 minutes: Writing a blog post about the race in my head

20 minutes: Thinking about the fact I was writing a blog post about the race in my head.

2o minutes: Wondering what I’d been thinking about for the last hour.

This is a bit facetious, obviously, but also rather accurate.  Thoughts come, thoughts go, and time is sort of suspended while you keep running.  It doesn’t seem “long” really, thought it certainly doesn’t seem short.  It just is.

But if you really want to know what one thinks about on a long run, the best description is from Murikami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:”

I’m often asked about what I think about when I run.  Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves.  I always ponder the question.  What exactly do I think about when I’m running?  I don’t have a clue. 

On cold days, I think a little about how cold it is.  And about the heat on hot days.  When I’m sad I think a little about sadness.  When I’m happy I think a little about happiness. As I mentioned before, random memories come to me too.  And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel.  But really as I run, I don’t think about much of anything worth mentioning.

I just run.  I run in a void.  Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.  But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void.  People’s minds can’t be a compete blank.  Human beings’ emotions are not strong or consistent enough to sustain a vacuum.  What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void.  Lacking content, they are just random thoughts that gather around that central void.

The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky.  Clouds of all different sizes.  They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always.  The clouds are mere guest in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.  The sky both exists and doesn’t exist.  It has substance and at the same time doesn’t.  And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.

Posted in Murakami, Musings, Quotes | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Bear Mountain 50K (7:37:42)

I’ve been trying to figure out where to start this post for a few days now.  I’ve got so many thoughts, and the experience was so immense, that every time I start I type I’m sure that there’s somewhere better to begin.  Deciding how to capture it isn’t easy; actually, I’m pretty sure its impossible.  There’s something about the sheer scale of running for over 7 hours that really puts it beyond the realm of “just” running.  I now understand why ultra-runners talk about ultra-running less like its a longer distance and more like its an entirely different sport.

***

After a week straight of pouring rain and thunderstorms, the weather for Saturday was nearly perfect: cool and overcast.  The only problem was it was quite humid, and for the first few hours my glasses kept fogging up which made seeing the trail tricky at times.

Friday night I took the train out to Connecticut to stay with M’s mom.  I slept on her couch, and then at 4:15 woke me up to start the day — it was my race, but she was willing to get up before dawn to get me there, which was amazing.

We got to Bear Mountain state park around six, just as the sky was getting light.  There was a heavy mist over everything and the other runners were just beginning to straggle in.  There’s something about the start of an ultra that is vaguely post-apocalyptic, with everyone milling around in their patch-work outfits and checking bags of gear.  I think a lot of people assume that ultra-runners would be more intense, but the start was much more low-key that any race I’d run before.  Normally there are runners doing warm-ups and hard-core pre-race sprints, but when you’re going to run for 31 miles, you’ve got the whole start of the race to get warm.

About 5 minutes before the race started the announcer told everyone to line up, and everyone milled around towards the starting line.  Then there was a count-down from five, and we were off.

***

The first 11 miles were run on enthusiasm.

The next 22 miles were run on determination.

The end of the race was run on too stupid to quit.

***

Friends and co-workers have asked me how I ran 31 miles.  The trick is I didn’t run 31 miles — even having finished a 50K, I can’t quite wrap my head around that distance.  I ran a series of smaller races: 3.9 miles to the first aide station, 4.5 miles to the second, 5.3 to the third, 7.0 to the fourth, and so on. Each segment wasn’t that far: just five miles to the next break, that’s not too bad.  All in all, running for over seven hours didn’t feel any different than running four hours in a marathon.  There’s a point where you just settle into running, a point where your body just moves forward almost involuntarily.  You slip into a place that where time seems irrelevant, nearly infinite: and infinite plus one isn’t any larger.

But that sort of transcendental reverie was hours from the start.  The race started out easily, the first few miles on gravel fire-road before turning into dirt path.  There were a few hills, some walking, but nothing too intense.  I talked to a few people, most of whom commented that this was a rough race for one’s first ultra.  My glasses kept fogging up, and I was out out of water about thirty minutes before I reached the first aide station.  Because of the humidity, I was drinking a lot more than normal, and my single hand-held kept running out throughout the rest of the race — next time, I’m taking two.

***

Ultra aide stations are awesome — if nothing else, they make the distance worth it over road races.  You stagger out of the woods and there’s a group of people cheering and hollering and ringing bells, offering to fill your water bottle with water or Gatoraide or GU Brew or Nuun.  At each station I ate half a peanut-butter sandwich and a banana and a few glasses of GU Brew.  I kept it pretty simple, but there was chicken broth and M&Ms, pretzels and boiled potatoes.  I’d down my food, chat a little, then head back onto the trail.

After the first aide station, things got more intense.  The trail headed into the mountains — or rather, up the mountains.  When the course headed towards a peak, it didn’t usually zig-zag back and forth, but headed straight up; at one spot we had to actually climb vertically up about twenty-feet of rock out-cropping using our hands to cling to trees ledges of the boulder.

The course was described as both very difficult and very technical, and both proved to be very true.  The pictures I have don’t begin to show what most of the race looked like, let alone the most difficult sections.  The trail was always rising and falling, and there were almost no stretches where there weren’t large, loose rocks under-foot.  I’m really glad I took Jason’s advice and got myself a serious pair of trail shoes, as the Altra Instincts held up great.

Trying to recount the race, I find I’ve got an odd mix of generalities and specificities swirling around in my memory: I seem to be able to clearly recall much of the race, but when I try to pin it down, the memory slips away and become unspecific.

***

I remember being pleasantly surprised at how fast I was going at the beginning, knocking off 11-12 minute miles without it feeling like much of an effort.  I wondered if I should slow down, since my target was 8 hours (a 15 minute mile) but I really felt great so I decided not to worry.  In retrospect, I think that was the right choice — I don’t think my pace hurt me at the end in any way.  What did that was the killer climbs that were waiting in the second half of the run . . .

At mile 11, I was on track to break 7 hours, and briefly allowed myself to get my hopes up, but then I realized my Garmin was still programed to stop recording whenever I did, so it wasn’t recording aide station stops.

At mile 19, I noticed my hip abductors were getting really sore, and gave a little twinge every time I had to clear a fallen log.

At this point I was also running out of water a good mile or more before each aide station, which wasn’t terrible, but left me a little less comfortable that I’d like towards the end of each stretch.  Eating peanut-butter sandwiches with a dry mouth is difficult; I’d shove a quarter sandwich into my mouth, gulp some GU Brew, and swallow the entire mess.  I was eating about 2 GU packs between each station, and another after my sandwich and banana.

At mile 22, it felt like every muscle in my body was sore.  What’s odd is that is exactly the distance during my first marathon that I felt the same way.  Four years ago I told everyone that the last 4 miles of the marathon were the hardest thing I had ever done, since from mile 22 on every step hurt.  This Saturday I felt the exact same way, but it didn’t bother me — I recognized the discomfort, but it didn’t concern me or bother me at all.  It was like an unwanted thought during mindfulness meditation — one acknowledges “there is a thought” but doesn’t fight it, doesn’t chase it, just let’s it go.  There was discomfort, hovering around the edge of my consciousness, but I just kept running.

Somewhere around here I passed the 4:20 mark, making it the longest I’d ever run.

At mile 24, I got a second (maybe third?) wind and felt great again, light, fast, fluid.  It was also around then that I grabbed what I thought was Gatorade and found myself downing Mountain Dew for the first time since high school.  And 5 hours into a trail race, it was the best thing I’d tasted in my life!  I drank two glasses at each of the following two stations.  I also had a change of socks in my back-pack, and changing socks at this point was blissful.

At some point my Garmin read 26.3, and I’d just run further than I’d ever run before.  Nothing magical happened — I just kept running.

At mile 27, I wanted to cry, but then I had just dragged myself up two massive hills, and was crawling up the third and steepest slope of the race, Timp Pass — mile 27 took me a full 20 minutes to complete, as the decent on the far side of the pass was almost as steep as the ascent, but worse because it was all large, loose rocks that made walking, let alone running, nearly impossible.   At this point, the hardest part of running was downhills, as my toes were so battered that every time the slammed into the front of my show I winced.  We’d also just come through a stretch of forest-fire burn, where the air stank of charred wood and I was a bit worried my stomach, already somewhat tired of gel and Gatorade, was going to rebel from the fumes.

At 27.5, pulling out of the last aide station, I felt great again.  From there the trail was wide and easy again.  I didn’t have enough energy to really speed up, and the “hills” I walked started getting smaller and smaller, but I was still running.

And then the trail turned, and you could see the field where we began and the cheering crowd at the finish.  I somehow found a reserve of energy and managed to pick up my pace for the last 500 yards or so, and crossed the finish line at a run with a smile on my face seven-hours and thirty-seven minutes after starting.

M, her mom, and our two kids were driving up from Brooklyn to meet me, but since I finished almost 30 minutes before I expected, I crossed the finish-line before they arrived.  Which was actually okay, because I was so tired and incoherent with adrenaline that I was glad to have a half hour to walk around, eat, and regain myself.  I think if they would have ben there I would have collapsed on the ground sobbing just out of an excess of emotions and exhaustion.

The first thing I did was take off my shoes and put on my hauraches to let my feet breathe.  They were pretty frightening looking, and I could tell from the throbbing in my tow big toes that I was going to loose at least those two toenails.  I grabbed my free grilled chicken sandwich and beer, though it turned out I had no desire to finish my beer and dumped it out after a few sips.  What I wanted was water and Gatorade.  Lots of both.  And more food.

Then my family showed up.  Nat asked if I won.  M told him “Daddy won the way he wanted to win,” which seemed like the perfect answer.  Because I did.

I think this race has given me fuel for a few more posts, since I had a lot of time to think out there.  For now, I just want to thank everyone who encouraged me and supported me in the weeks and months leading up to the race: Jason, Shelly, Angie, Katie, Vanessa, Robert, Christian, Krista, Trisha, and the rest of the insane ultra/barefoot/soon-to-be-ultra/smiley runners who, based on no evidence whatsoever, told me I could do it, if for no reason that it seems they support every crazy idea one of us has.  I mentioned her before, but M’s mom was invaluable: letting me sleep on her couch, driving me to the race before the sun came up, then driving all the way down to the city to pick up my family, back up the park to meet me, back to the city to drop us all off, then back to her home in CT. She completed an ultra-event herself.  And, of course, my amazing partner M, who supports all my crazy ideas as well, and let me leave her alone with our two exhausting kids so I could go run in the hills.

***

Of course, the obvious questions everyone asks is: will you do it again?  And just as obviously, my answer is: of course.  My legs still haven’t fully recovered yet, and I’m already fantasizing about my next ultra-race.  I think I could do a less rugged course in under 7 hours.  But now that I’ve done 50K, I can’t help but start thinking a little larger: next step is 50 miles . . .

Posted in Races, Runs, Runs outside the City, Ultra Running | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

21 Hours and Counting

Last night I picked up my number and chip from the North Face store on 73rd street and Broadway.  Angelica and I stood in a short line, then I handed my ID to a perky young woman behind a table covered in race bibs and technical t-shirts.

Image

“Last name?”

“Van Dyke.”

“What distance are you running?”

“50K.”

I sort of felt that answer deserved some dramatic response — a gasp, a look of awe, or fireworks or something.  Of course I knew it didn’t really, since 499 other people are also running the 50K and 500 are doing 50 miles, but still I couldn’t help but feel the exchange was a bit anticlimactic.  Months of anticipation, an hour traveling on the subway, then some lady hands me a race number, a t-shirt, and arm warmers.  The t-shirt looks great — nice material and a simple logo on the sleave, nothing gaudy — and the arm warmers were the North Face Flight Series, which retail for $30, so its not bad.  

Compared to the gala-extravaganza that involves picking up one’s number for the NYC Marathon, however, anything else is pretty pedestrian.  I’ve got conflicting feelings about that.  On one hand, the Marathon Expo is a bloated, over-produced waste of resources that invovles bags of promotional crap and a glut of advertizing by products and shoe companies that epitomize everything wrong about what should be a simple, minimalist sport.  On the other hand, its pretty cool.  It hypes up the event, makes it big, significant.  

All in all, however, I like that this wasn’t a big deal.  So I’m running 50K, so what?  Eh, people do stuff like this all the time, right?  More to the point, its in the woods, in its nature, it should be simple.  The running is the point, not the t-shirts and bags of Emerald Nuts and Powerbar Recovery Shakes.  Getting my bib wasn’t the event — tomorrow is the event.  I’ve decided not to take a camera, do the race simple and in the moment, just me and the trail (and a few hundred other runners

24 hours from now, I will have been running for three and a half hours.  Tonight I’m taking the train out to A’s mom’s in Connecticut.  We’re getting up at about 4 to leave by 4:30 to be in the park by 6:30 for a 7:00 start.  It’s been pouring for the last week, so the trails will probably be muddy and crazy.  But since its supposed to clear up and be nice tomorrow, I guess the mud just adds to the fun right?

Image

My bag is all packed.  I’m under-rested and under-trained.  Hopefully being over-caffinated and over-confident will make up the difference.  Wish me luck!

Posted in Runs outside the City, Ultra Running, Ultra Training Log | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Three Days . . .

. . . until the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K at Bear Mountain.  Between school, family, and the house, I’m too busy to be nervous, or even really excited.  I keep thinking about it, but I have so many other things to do that I haven’t really had a chance to come to terms with how soon it is.

Today I started packing my bag — three days might be a bit early, but if I realize there’s something I don’t have I need a chance to run out and get it.  I assume I’ll over pack, in terms of gels and things like that.  My first half-marathon, I think I had six GU’s stuffed into my shorts pockets, and of course now I head out the door to run 13 miles without any.  Heck, I think my first 10K I took a power-bar, as if I was headed out for the Marathon de Sables instead of a short jog in Central Park and was running a serious risk of dying of malnutrition over the course of 6.2 miles.

And yet, without the benefit of hind-sight, I find 31 miles through the woods intimidating and will undoubtedly end the race with a Camel Pack filled with uneaten gels.  I’m still trying to decide whether or not to take my camera to get some shots of the course.

Three days.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

One Week

In little over a week, I’ll be at the starting line of my first 50K.  I haven;t written anything in three weeks, because I haven’t had much to say about running.  I’ve been running to and from work almost every day, and done a few runs with the kids in the stroller, but that’s about it.  

What about my ultra training, you say? (cough cough)  LOOK OVER THERE!  Now what were we talking about?  The fact that I’m spending all my free time drawing and planning comics?  Oh, yeah. my training.  Actually, I’m not going to say anything about it until after the race, since i don’t want to jinx myself.  If I finish well, I can talk about it safely in retrospect; if I DNF, I can ruefully deconstruct it after the fact.  Let’s just say my ultra strategy consists primarily of stubbornness and ignorance, with a dose of stupidity thrown in for good measure.

I’ve got a checklist of gear to prepare over the next few days.  Thursday I’ll go pick up my number, then Friday I’m going to stay with my mother-in-law, who is generously offered to drive me to the start (we’re leaving her place at around 4:30 am).  She’s going to pick up m and the kids and come meet me at the finish line.  The face is in Bear mountain State Park, so it should be a great place to hang out with the family.

I’ve learned its best not to go into any serious race without goal of some sort.  I was never planning on racing this 50K in the fist place, and my lack of serious training has certainly confirmed that, so my goals are modest to say the least.  In order, they are:

  1. Have fun.
  2. Don’t get any serious injuries.
  3. Cross the finish line.
  4. Finish in under 8 hours.

As long as I do at least #1, I’ll be happy.  I’d like to do the first 3.  The time is utterly arbitrary — I have no really long trial runs to estimate a pace on.  I figure I’ll start out slow, enjoy the rugged scenery, enjoy some long solitary hours in nature, walk a lot, take some pictures, and eventually travel 31 miles).

One week.  Crazy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment