Sorry for the rather long caesura — in addition to all the usual excuses (kids, job, et cetera), I’m still recovering from spending a week in the woods with a dozen teenagers. From early in the morning on October 31st through the late evening of November 4th, I was on “Adventure Week,” a five day Outward Bound trip that is one of the cornerstones of the Expeditionary Learning School model. While I did have two Outward Bound team leaders to help me head up the trip (and give me a little connection to the relatively sane world of adult-hood), it was pretty much me, my crew of 11 students, and snowy woods of the Sharpe Reservation for some 96 hours.
Note that these were all teenagers from East Flatbush, none of whom had ever been camping before, and none of whom were exactly thrilled by the prospect. If Adventure Week was not a graduation requirement, I doubt any of them would have been there, so “reluctantly coerced” was about as positive a starting point as there was. Of course, my group had it even worse than the others, since most of the other teachers from my school had been reluctantly coerced into the trip as well: my crew, however was stuck with a morning person who loves camping and who packed a harmonica to get them out of their sleeping bags at 7:00 am with the strains of “Oh, Suzanna.”
I also packed my running shoes in anticipation of sneaking in some real trail-running before my charges woke up each morning. What I didn’t anticipate was the trail conditions. Two days before we left for Adventure Week, New York experienced a freak October snow-storm. It dropped half an inch then left, and so I didn’t think much of it. When we arrived at Sharpe Reservation, however, their pipes were frozen, they had not yet regained power, and there were four inches of snow on the ground.
I looked at my Altra Instincts, gave one longing look at the still unbroken snow at the trail-heads, and realized I was going to be confined to roads the entire week. I was still upstate, however, so that meant I got to run in the crisp, clean air surrounded by trees and silence. Also, since it was the last week of daylight’s savings and I had to get up before 6 in order to fit in my runs before my student’s 7 o’clock wake-up call, it meant I got to run under the stars.
My training schedule had me running 6, 4, and 4 miles — a rest week, so perfect timing for a trip. Tuesday morning my cell-phone vibrated under my pillow at 5:50, and I spent a few minutes trying to decide how insane I really was. It was 38 degrees out and pitch-black, and I was lying a sleeping bag inside an Adirondack lean-to. I was going to have to crawl out of my warm sleeping bag and get dressed in the freezing cold by the light of a headlamp, then jog a quarter-mile up a slushy, muddy trail to get to the road. Luckily, I have a mantra to help me through moments like that: “Ultra-marathons don’t train for themselves.” Besides, being cold is a powerful motivator, so once I’d dragged myself out of my mummy-bag, I was dressed and running in under five minutes.
Its pretty hard to take a decent picture of a night — or rather, morning — run, but these actually capture the experience pretty accurately: it was dark. The one thing they don’t capture is the brilliant stars overhead. Since I was getting up early in the morning, I got to see the summer constellations that normally are long gone this time of year: Orion blazed brilliantly to the south, his dogs at his heels, locked in battle with as he perused the Pleiades across the heavens. Without my Garmin and with responsibilities waiting for me when my kids woke, I just ran by time: 30 minutes out, 30 minutes back. The usual law of inverse returns applied: the harder it is to get out on a run, the more you enjoy it. I started the day fresh and awake, rejuvenated by the starts and the frozen morning air.
Wednesday I repeated the exact same routine, only for twenty minutes out and back to hit somewhere around 4 miles. Thursday was supposed to be the same plan, but that night we had actually hiked into the woods, and were camping away from our shelters. I followed the trail back to the service road we had hiked up, but after the higher temperatures the day before, it was now a frozen slick of ice leading down-hill for a good mile. Since the snow had begun to retreat I tried an actual trail, but after just a mile or so I realized that between navigating roots and rocks in the dark with just my head-lamp and the remaining patches of ice and slushy snow, it was going to take me a good 15 minutes to go a mile, or I was going to break an ankle, or possibly both. I slogged back slowly to camp and called it a day.
So week 4 of ultra-training ended with a weekend without running — something NOT called for in my training schedule, but desperately needed by our household. I came back physically and emotionally exhausted from a week of intense contact with my students, and of course M had spent 5 days working full-time and then coming home to Nat and Angelica without any back-up, so her week was even more exhausting than mine.
This week was week 5, and I did my normal 21 miles to and from school. I wasn’t quite sure what to do for my weekend runs: my schedule called for 26 miles today, but I pushed that to next Sunday by signing up for the Brooklyn Marathon. I planned for 14 today, but only did 7 after foolishly having a large helping of Thai food for lunch. I wasn’t feeling too hot as I started back from 14th Street for home, and then Nat woke up 10 minutes into the run, and my left ankle started giving me problems, so I decided to cut things short. I’m not racing my marathon next weekend, but it is only my third marathon, and I’d like to be in good shape for it. Of course, I’ve also got a longer-term goal to be thinking of, so discretion is certainly the better part of valor.
And so I keep moving, slowly but surely — “relentless forward progress” as Bryon Powell’s book says. After all, ultra-marathons don’t train for themselves, do they?