Category Archives: Running & Cycling

Being Gratefully Miserable

I sat in the passenger seat of someone’s car, depressed and feeling very sorry for myself. A few minutes before, I had reluctantly handed over my timing chip and withdrawn from the 2015 Glacier Ridge 50-miler. Only ten miles remained but I was dehydrated and lightheaded. The aid station captain and medics had agreed it was a good decision.

A race staff member kindly drove me back to the start/finish area. In an effort to take my mind off myself and what had happened, I asked him if he was an ultrarunner, too.

“I used to,” he replied, “but I can’t anymore.” An enlarged heart had not responded to surgery and even short distances left him out of breath. Running had been big in his life (“my stress relief”) but it was no longer possible.

His story instantly cured my self-pity. I’d failed to finish one race, but there would be more to run. He was done for good. Talk about restoring perspective! I came away from it all the more determined to return the next year and finish the damn race. In 2016 I did just that, and have completed every race since, including two 100-milers and a 150.

2016 – a much happier ending!

I was reminded of this story when reading one of the fitness blogs I follow. A fellow athlete over fifty has developed knee problems. She continues to be active but can no longer run, and it took her some time to come to terms with that. In this post she describes the grief she felt and how she dealt with it.

This year I’m working toward improving my speed and performance at shorter races (up to the half marathon). Training can be hard and uncomfortable, and races can take place in some pretty miserable conditions.

The Winter Switchbacks a few years ago – one of the better sections.

But I can remind myself, even at those times, how fortunate I am to be able to run, and to push myself toward new goals and face new challenges. With trail ultrarunning in particular there’s a sense of adventure and shared experience (re: suffering) that brings me deep satisfaction. I guess that’s what keeps me signing up for the silly things.

When the time comes that, for whatever reason, I can no longer run, I expect that like the people in the stories above, there will be a period of adjustment. But I hope I can look back without any regrets, and be grateful for whatever comes next, and for what I can still do to make life enjoyable.

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Eating and Running (and eating some more)

Last Friday I went to my friendly neighborhood healthcare facility for a routine physical exam. When I stepped on the scale as part of checking in, I got a surprise.

You see, for over a week I’ve had a nearly insatiable appetite. Everything I eat, no matter how filling or how much, transubstantiates into Chinese food. It started the moment I crossed the finish line at Trail Marathon last weekend, and has not yet let up.

Distance runners call this condition “rungry” and when we’ve got it bad, things can turn ugly. “Never get between a runner and his carbs,” someone said one day when I rather aggressively lunged for a piece of cake after a race.

When it’s really bad, we don’t even use our hands! (Actually from a Pi Day race.)

But with me, being rungry is infrequent and unpredictable. After the Potawatomi Trail 50 last month, I wasn’t all that hungry. I even had a sore mouth and throat that made eating difficult for a couple of days. (I’ve since learned it was likely due to a very dry mouth from long hours breathing hard.)

Trail Marathon Weekend, with 39.3 miles over two days, was a different animal. Chocolate chip cookie? Don’t mind if I do. Oh look, that one’s broken, gotta clean that up. And that one, too. That evening at D&D I ate my usual excessive amount, and things have continued like that since.

Okay, so what weight do I want to be? That depends on what race is coming up. For shorter distances (5K to marathons) I aim for a “race weight” of about 158 lbs. For ultras I like to be a few pounds heavier, since speed isn’t critical and they create a large caloric deficit. So for taper week before TMW (which I train for like an ultra) I tried to eat more while cutting back on exertion. Recovery week was also light on exercise, so that plus heavy appetite should have equaled some weight gain.

And yet the scale at the health center read 155 lbs. Ultra prep eating, plus a week of being “rungry” and I’m underweight! I didn’t weigh myself before TMW, so I don’t know what my pre-race weight actually was. It’s possible I was even lower, which could explain why I was low on gas the final miles on Sunday.

So what now? For one, I’ve stopped worrying about my appetite. I’ll let my body tell me how much to eat, as long as I feed it the right stuff, of course. And I think I’ll start charting my weight on a weekly basis. Not for diet control, but to see if I’m at the right weight for what I’m training for. With my focus this year shifting to getting faster at short distances, I need all the data I can get.

Gotta go. Hungry again.

You have no idea how hard this is.

Oh, and my height is down from my historical six feet to 5-11 ½. I have been drinking more coffee lately. I guess Mom was right.

When the Runner is Ready

IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE FATIGUE.

I’d just finished the Potawatomi 50 and was seated at one of the base camp picnic tables, removing my soaking, mud-caked shoes and examining my feet. To my surprise I had no blisters, just a raw spot on one toe. Pretty amazing given what they’d been through.

Next to me, a woman about my age was conversing with someone about the trail. She’d been pacing one of the ultrarunners and her knees were acting up. She said something like, “I wish I’d been doing this twenty years earlier. I could have done more loops.”

As an introvert I’m not comfortable butting into other people’s conversations, but my natural restraint was offline. Maybe it was the finisher’s high, or the need to talk to someone after a long day of solitude, or I was just too damn tired to feel awkward. At any rate, I spoke up.

“Hey, Emily,” I said. (I knew her name because it was printed on her hat.) “As one person who discovered running later in life to another, let me tell you that I would have been a terrible runner twenty years ago, because back then I hated running. I wasn’t ready.”

Not that I follow my own advice, of course. I too have “wasted” plenty of time musing about how good a runner I’d have been had I started in my twenties or thirties. No matter how successful we are at something, don’t we fantasize about being even better?

When I was younger, I imagined myself as a famous golf pro (Arnold Palmer was my hero) and even more unlikely, a basketball star. But I’d never, ever, imagined becoming a runner. Nothing about the sport appealed to me; it seemed like a lot of pointless, unenjoyable effort.

And my life back then, with career challenges, raising kids, and other interests, was already full. To train and race like I do now wasn’t feasible without giving up something else I enjoyed. Then in my mid-forties, more time and mental space freed up for new pursuits. Add in my desire to remain physically fit, and the way had opened to give running a try. I’d become ready for it.

I don’t find it surprising that trail ultrarunning has so many participants over forty. I think the “long haul” aspect of it appeals to folks who’ve lived long enough to acquire some perspective. They’ve developed the discipline to see something through when the path is unknown and the end is a long way off.

In the 2016 Kettle Moraine 100, my first hundred-miler, 73 out of the 133 finishers, and six of the top ten, were age 40 or older. And a 74-year old finished too, less than a half hour before the cutoff. He was the first-ever runner over seventy to complete that particular race, but for him, victory and fulfillment wasn’t about his finish time. It was about getting over that line. As it was for me at that race, too.

I finished number 96 out of 133. The crowd went wild. (Trust me.)

As for Emily, she accepted my unsolicited advice with grace, and we chatted about ultrarunning, the trail conditions, other stuff. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was a pleasant conversation. She even said it was nice to have met me. (Whew.)

Gut Check at the Potawatomi 50

My first (and possibly only) ultramarathon of 2019 is done. I can’t say I enjoyed every mile, or even most of them. Yet I’m grateful for the experience. Lemme tell ya why.

I’ve run 22 ultras now, and every one has been memorable, whether for a competitive time (Veterans Memorial, Dogwood), extreme heat (Lighthouse) or cold (Yankee Springs), challenging terrain (Voyageur) or the surreal (Burning Man). Last Saturday’s 50-miler at the Potawatomi Trail Races combined sticky mud, hard climbs, and physical discomfort into a thirteen-plus hour sufferfest.

My shoes after the event.

It was worth it.

The race website quotes a runner as saying, “…they took all the hills [in Illinois] and put them ALL into one spot and called it McNaughton Park.” Having driven across Illinois, then run in the park, I can confirm this is true.

With 1,600 feet of elevation gain per ten-mile loop, I climbed nearly as much in 50 miles as I did at the Kettle Moraine 100. The uphills are sudden and steep, including one with rope assist. Yet they are exceeded in quad-shattering ferocity by the downhills, aptly described as, “elevator shafts.”

Two friends, John and Kurt, were responsible for my presence there. Kurt was attempting the 150-miler (15 loops), while John would try the 200, a 20-loop exercise in torture which awards a belt buckle too big to wear. This I wanted to witness. I settled on Saturday’s 50-miler as my limit after an inconsistent winter of training, but I was there to see them off at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Kurt (left) and John, just before race start on Thursday.

On Friday I volunteered at the base camp aid station, ran a few miles to keep loose, and went to bed early. I headed down the muddy path at 6:00 Saturday morning fired up and feeling good.

One mile in. Welcome to nine more miles of this!

The first loop, messy, slippery, and still a bit dark, was quite fun. I completed it in two hours flat, which I was very pleased with. No PR here, but even with a shoe change or two I expected to finish in around 11 hours. That plan went south starting late in the second loop.

Runners climbing one of the signature hills in the park.

A burning sensation appeared in my lower abdomen, almost like needing to pee, except I didn’t. This had happened at the Lighthouse 100, which I’d blamed on an unfamiliar electrolyte drink. I’d stuck with familiar food and drink this time, but here was that pain again, and getting worse.

Not wanting to quit, I pressed on and began experimenting. I tried drinking less, then a lot. I consumed more salt. I tried eating and not eating. After loop three I sat for a while. Nothing made any difference whatever. Even ginger ale and a Tums had zero effect. The day was pleasant and the trail was drying out nicely, but the constant pain was ruining any chance of enjoyment.

I made it through lap four (40 miles) and collapsed into a chair next to the timer. “Ready for your victory lap, Jeff?” he asked. No, I was not. In fact, I felt a tingling in my hands and flush in my face that signaled a bonk coming on. I got to my feet, walked to a nearby grassy patch and lay down for a nap. Plenty of time for one. Heck, with race cutoff over 24 hours away, I could even leave, recover, sleep, and finish the next day. I dozed for about twenty minutes with the afternoon sun warm on my face and body.

When I got up, a miracle had occurred. The abdominal pain had vanished, and I was full of energy. Victory lap on! I walked the first mile just to be sure all was well, then ran the rest of it comfortably. With competitive pressure gone, and feeling well again, I was able to fully enjoy those final miles. I finished just as it was getting dark. At 13-plus hours it was my slowest 50, but I was satisfied. And grateful.

So what made the experience worthwhile? I learned I could push through a long period of discomfort. That I can use a bad situation to learn more about myself and what I’m capable of.

Also, two things stood out about how my body performed. Though my quads were screaming from the downhills, they held up, and everything else – glutes, hamstrings, calves, even knees – felt fine throughout. And on a steep, muddy trail, I didn’t fall once. I give full credit to the trainers at Body Specs for their attention to whole-body training and stability work. All those one-legged squats and work on the wobble boards paid off. Thanks, Skip and crew!

This will pay off…this WILL pay off…

And how did my friends doing the crazy miles make out? Mixed results. John’s attempt at 200 ended after five loops and a rainy, miserable night. He was understandably bummed, but is already looking forward to his next challenge. Kurt finished his 150 miles at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, one of three to complete that distance. And four runners actually completed the full 200. Outstanding work, guys. I am in awe.