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 . . .