Category Archives: Run Woodstock – 2012 & Beyond

Stories and photos from my weekend at Run Woodstock in Pinckney on Sept. 7-9, 2012, including my first-ever 50 ultramarathon, “natural” run, and more.

Eyes on the Prize – But What’s the Prize?

A recent posting on the Seeds4Life blog has me thinking.

When You Have One Eye on the Goal, You Have Only One Eye on the Path – Zen Master

Here a student asks the Zen master how long it will take him to achieve enlightenment. The master’s response basically tells the student not to worry about getting there, but to focus on the path.

Zen cat

My first reaction on reading this was something like: Yes, that’s very Zen and all, but it doesn’t make sense for everything. Like running, for example. Goals are what get runners off the couch and out the door, right? We all set goals for ourselves, whether it’s a 5K, a marathon, a trail ultra, or just being able to run a few miles in the fresh air.

Then I remembered my 100K attempts at Run Woodstock, and how I’d set myself up for failure in 2014 by thinking about how much distance I had left rather than where I was and how far I’d come. This year had been different, as I’d reminded myself to focus only on the trail directly ahead of me. By keeping my mind on where I was at the moment and letting the milestones unfold, I kept myself on a mental even keel and finished the race.

Perhaps this is one reason why I prefer trail runs for long distance running. In a road race, you don’t need to look down at the road, and the mile markers are clearly visible. With less mental energy needed, there’s more to worry about how much there is left to go, and how tired you already are.

By contrast, in trail running there is a literal reason for keeping both eyes on the path. You need one eye to watch where your feet land, as there are stones, roots, slippery spots, and sudden elevation changes to deal with. You also need to keep an eye out for the trail markings. Let your mind wander too much and you’ll wind up on your face in the dirt, or off in God-knows-where-land trying to get back on course. (Ask me how I know.)

DWD Devils Lake - Heading Down

Not a good time to put a foot wrong. (Dances with Dirt Devil’s Lake 50K, 2014.)

So how should goals fit into my running? As an important part of my training. But once out there running it, there’s no value in thinking about the finish line except as part of following my race plan. I’m running this pace because I’d planned to run this pace on loops two and three. I’m picking up the pace because I’m on safe, flat gravel road instead of tricky singletrack. I’m easing back because I’m ahead of schedule and don’t want to burn out.

When I took a Running 101 class five years ago, we were all asked to write down a goal for after the class was over, and how we’d reward ourselves for achieving it. The idea was to give us a reason to continue running regularly, and not stop when the class ended. I chose “run a half marathon” and promised myself a new pair of running shoes when I did.

That goal drove my training for five months, until I ran, and finished, the half marathon. Would I have continued running without that goal? Most likely, but I doubt I’d have improved as much without that 13.1 to work toward.

And it was finishing that race that convinced me I was capable of a full marathon, if I set that as my next goal and continued to train. And so on from there. And having completed the 100K, I’ve set a goal of running my first-ever 100-mile ultra next year. You heard it here first! (Actually, my wife and my running coach heard it first, but you’re next.)

You know, a road 13.1 sounds pretty good right about now.

You know, a road 13.1 sounds pretty good right about now.

Now, how about this? If I can agree that the journey is at least as important, if not more important, than the destination, what happens when the journey becomes unpleasant but I still have the goal? My thoughts on that coming up.

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Run Woodstock Part Deux: Shutting the Brain Off

Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical. – Yogi Berra

Training for my first marathon four years ago, I ran 16 miles along the back roads from Honor, Michigan to Beulah and Benzonia, then back. It was a pretty route, but by mile 13 I was sick and tired of running it. Not physically exhausted, but mentally.

Three miles still to go, the little voice in my head said. That’s practically forever.

There was no shortcut back to my car, so I had to stick it out. It helped that I’d strategically parked at an ice cream shop. But I was pretty discouraged. In two months I have to run this and ten more, the voice said. Given this run, how am I gonna do that?

Shirt-Running Sucks - 2

The answer was to do more long runs to get the mind used to that distance. And after making some basic adjustments, such as conceptually breaking up long runs into manageable segments, I had no more trouble with self-doubts.

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

With that level of mental discipline I got through my first marathon, first 50K ultra in 2012, and first 50-miler in 2013, so I figured I would be okay for the 100K in 2014. Instead, I hit several mental challenges that I was unable to overcome:

Empty Tank of PatienceDistance stretching. Four miles (the distances between aid stations at Woodstock) are short hops on the road, but on singletrack that same distance seems doubled. Distances also stretch out in the dark, so trail running at night called for a full tank of patience. Instead, it was one of the first things I ran short on.

The worst was the section leading to the second aid station. During my second loop it seemed like I would never get there. When I finally did, all I could think about was having to do it twice more. My attitude had soured, and I was no longer having fun – a bad sign on an ultra run.

I thought so!

I thought so!

Pain management. Sore feet and chafing got worse as the night wore on. By the third loop the Body Glide wasn’t working and I was constantly adjusting my shorts, without much relief. More pain came from tripping on roots and rocks, and from branches in the trail that stung my ankles. I dealt with this increasing discomfort by getting more and more frustrated.

Bonking. When inadequate hydration and electrolyte management caught up with me, I didn’t have the focus to work through the nausea and correct the imbalances, and allow myself to recover. Despite having plenty of time to rest and still finish the race, I dropped out at the 56K mark, done in by a combination of things, but above all, insufficient mental discipline.

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

Yeah, those tabs pretty much covered it.

Over the subsequent year I fixed the bonking problem, but as Woodstock 2015 approached I still worried that I needed a way to handle the mental challenge of those loops in the dark. Help came from an unexpected and last-minute source.

The night before the race I went to a local runner’s clinic on handling long runs. Most of the advice I’d heard before, but one comment stood out: the need to shut the brain off.

Not completely, naturally; a trail run requires being alert to the course and your physical condition at all times. What needs shutting off is the mental chatter – the continuous stream of trivial thoughts, especially the negative self talk and worries. So I would work on getting into a “zone” – a disciplined, quiet mind, at peace with itself and living entirely in the moment. Here’s how I applied it.

One flag at a time.

How do you finish 100K? One flag at a time.

– I created a mantra for myself: Focus on the trail in front of you. The milestones will come. Every time I began to fret about how much distance I had left, I silently repeated this mantra and I would settle back into the zone.

– During the stretches when the aid station seemed light-years away, I would remind myself, It’s really not that far. It just seems longer. I even used it when I passed a runner on that interminable second segment. “Man, they must have moved the aid station,” he said. I assured him out loud what I’d been telling myself silently.

– When I tripped over roots or rocks I told myself firmly that it was over and in the past. Then I’d forget about it. If that didn’t work I would stop and walk until I returned to the zone. Running is a happy activity for me; I would not run angry.

– When pain came in my feet, legs, or shoulder, I did not fight it. I acknowledged it was there, embraced it as part of the experience, and let it go.

– Staying hydrated and salted kept me on an even keel. I had no nausea or swings of equilibrium to deal with. But just in case, I was prepared this time to deal with it. As I overheard one pacer telling his runner, “You’re not having a bad race. You’re having a bad moment. You will get through it.”

marathon-sticker

The results exceeded my highest expectations. I stayed in a steady, positive mental state throughout the race. And one week later I’m still on that high. Maybe I should do this more often?

Make More Mistakes

Woodstock 100K: The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of De Feet

MY FIRST EVER 100K FINISH!

I finished in the dark, so my starting line photo will have to do!

I finished in the dark, so my starting line photo will have to do!

Run Woodstock, “a weekend of peace, love, music and running,” has become my favorite annual event. Despite some brutal conditions over the years, including swamp-like trails, thunderstorms, and falling trees, it’s always a laid-back and joyful atmosphere. Out on the trails the runners encourage each other throughout, and the campers cheer on the runners as they finish each stage.

Approaching Finish Line 2

Woodstock 2013 - camp

The course is a roughly 16-mile loop through the Pinckney trails, with some dirt roads, and four aid stations. The 50K race is two loops, 50 miles three, 100K four, and 100 miles six. Severe chafing, 90+ degree heat, and dehydration did me in at the 56K mark last year, but with July’s success at the sweltering Voyageur Trail 50, I felt ready to stuff that DNF into the compost heap of history. (*)

This year the trails were nearly perfect, the temperature was in the sixties, and the threatened rain held off. We were off at 4 p.m. Friday. My main goal was just to finish, but I set a stretch goal of under 14 hours so I could watch the start of the 50K and 50 mile races at 6 a.m. Saturday. To give myself the best shot, I chose a strategy that went against a couple of the classic adages of ultrarunning:

Adage #1: Start out slow. If you think you’re starting out too slowly, slow down some more.

Pace too fast 2

Not this time. The loops in the dark would be slower anyway, so  I wanted to get in as much distance as I could before sunset in 4 hours. Also, starting in the back would stick me in a conga line on the singletrack for awhile. So I went to the front and got in those first few miles at my own pace. I finished the first 50K in 6 hours, giving me some cushion for the 14-hour goal.

Adage #2: Carry extra food and water. Also some extra gear if needed.

With a cool evening, and well-stocked aid stations only four miles apart, I eschewed (**) my backpack and relied on one handheld water bottle, with salt tablets in my belt pouch. I kept a Clif bar in my other hand for eating on the trail. I had a moment of regret when it started raining on loop 2 with my rain shell in the pack 12 miles away. But Nature was merciful and the rain lasted only 15 minutes.

On the other hand, I've been wet before!

On the other hand, I’ve been wet before!

Some critical rules I did NOT break:

Adage #3: When running in the dark, carry more than one light. I had a fully charged headlamp, but partway through my final loop it began to fail. I had another one at the aid station just 4 miles away, but getting there would take nearly an hour. So I switched to the small flashlight I carried with me and got there safely.

This is a trail at night with no headlamp. Good luck!

This is a trail at night with no headlamp. Good luck!

Adage #4: Stay on top of hydration, salt, and sugar. As at the Voyageur, I made sure I took in 600-800 mg of salt every hour. At first I relied on S-Caps, but as the temperature dropped I switched to chicken soup at the aid stations. Mmm-mm-good! For food, I carried Clif Bars and supplemented with bananas and grapes at the aid stations. I broke the “don’t try new foods during a race” rule slightly; the grilled cheese sandwiches looked too darn good. (And they were.)

The result was a finish in 13:46:27, winning my age group and finishing 9th overall!

This isn't me, but this was how I crossed the finish line!

This isn’t me, but this was how I crossed the finish line!

Physically, I felt much better than I could have expected. My legs stayed strong the entire race, allowing me to run smooth and steady. No stomach or other digestive issues, and no nausea or dizziness like last year. Not even any serious chafing – the tri shorts came through again!

Only one small disappointment to go with the big high of triumph. Sometime during the third loop I mashed some toes on my left foot from kicking a hidden rock. The pain subsided, but came back after the finish and was bad enough I went to urgent care for X rays. Nothing broken (yay!) but I won’t be jumping rope for a while.

And, finally, I know that some of you are asking the question: What about . . .?

Sign-Natural Run

Alas, not this year. In addition to my suffering toes, it was cold and damp out, making it unlikely I would enjoy even a short frolic through the woods in the altogether. Maybe next year!

Next up: Handling the “mental side” of the race was at least as important to finishing the race as the physical side, as negative self-talk, the tedium of long solo stretches in the dark, and nagging pain all contributed to last year’s DNF. I’ll describe how I dealt with those issues this year.

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(*) As a more environmentally conscious Trotsky would have said.

(**) “Eschew” and “titillating” are two of my favorite words. Ain’t English grand?

Let Go of Expectations, Embrace the Adventure

THE BIG 100K is tomorrow! Training and tapering are over, and it’s time to do the deed. I’ve tested the course, my watch and headlamp are charged, and I’ve packed plenty of salted caramel Gu. No need to stress about anything; in fact, to stress about an event named “Run Woodstock” would be missing the point altogether.

So, naturally, I’m a little stressed.

Not about anything related to the course, the conditions, or anyone’s expectations of me. Instead, I’m fretting a little about living up to my own expectations. I expect to finish, and to have a decent finishing time, too. But what if, after all this time and preparation, I can’t do it after all?

No worries, man! Chill out and run!

No worries, man! Chill out and run!

As my (awesome) regular readers know, I came up short in my first 100K attempt last year. But I learned from it and made adjustments, and this year I feel much more prepared. And with a 28-hour window (we share the 100-miler clock) I can take my time and focus on finishing rather than hitting cutoff limits. Still, there’s that nagging self-wondering if I can really pull it off.

A couple of things have helped.

An article on the AirFareWatchdog site I read this week was very timely. It points out that when traveling, things often happen that are out of your control, and may affect where you go and when you get there. The article quotes author Anne Lamott, who said, Expectations are premeditated disappointments.

Gotta admit that’s profound, man. If we expect everything to go smoothly, or (heaven forbid) need everything to go smoothly, any deviation will be annoying at best. Even when we mentally prepare for changes or setbacks, we can get terribly frustrated when things don’t go our way.

The AirFareWatchdog article has this advice: Your experience has a higher likelihood of being one-of-a-kind and transformational if you let things happen. This is something Americans are often not very good at accepting but there’s a peace in letting go.

My great-uncle Albert shows us the value of this advice years ago. He traveled the world each summer, and in 1996 my wife and I were privileged to accompany him on a trip to England. He paid all expenses and we took care of his luggage and drove him around.

With no GPS back then, and the oddities of English roads, I naturally made some wrong turns. We always seemed to be heading toward South Wales, which became the joke of the trip. Albert waved off my apologies. “It’s all part of the adventure,” he said.

And then just earlier today, I dropped in at a talk on tips for running a marathon. Most of the advice I’d heard before, but one comment stood out – the need to “switch the brain off” when running a race. If there’s one thing that knocks a runner out of a race, or makes him fail to attain his goal, it’s the negative self-talk when things get tough.

There’s a physiological reason for this, we were told. The brain lives on glucose, and when supplies run low through hard physical effort, it attempts to slow the body down, long before the body is actually in danger of permanent damage. Elite athletes have learned to push past the pain and ignore the negative messages. I can run “on autopilot” for some time, but if I ever want to get to the holy grail – the 100 miler – I will have to improve here as well. So this race will be a good test.

Do I have to run this race? Nope. If I choose not to run it, or drop out partway, I will only be disappointing myself. In the end, any running race is a test of oneself. I can fret about what might happen, or I can let go of my expectations and just run. Which is what I plan to do. Part of the adventure!