Category Archives: Ultramarathons

A Strange and Fickle Beast

Last weekend I had an opportunity to run a “fatass” trail race (up to 30 miles) reasonably near where I live. On that morning it was near freezing temperatures, raining, and I had a slightly painful knee that I’d “tweaked” somehow the previous night. Plus I had a 50-miler coming up in a week. So I passed on the fatass, stayed home, and did my taxes.

From last December’s Fatass run. I’m in the bright yellow jacket on the right. I did 21 miles because I had no excuses.

Now, those of you who aren’t ultrarunners, or who don’t know me all that well, are probably saying, “Sensible choice, what’s the issue?” The rest of you have, to a person, who I’ve told this to fully supported my decision.

Everyone except me.

Despite knowing it was the best choice, I still had some twinges of regret for at least not showing up and giving it a shot.

Why?

Because I have run ultras in the cold, and in the rain, and with a bum knee (although not yet all three at once). And enjoyed the experience each time. So I have a certain reputation of “indestructibility” that’s hard to set aside. Plus I just like being around trail runners.

This weekend is the aforementioned 50-miler at McNaughton State Park in Illinois. I arrived Thursday to see off those running the really long distances here, including my friends Kurt (150 miles) and John (200 miles). It was chilly and raining at the 4 p.m. start. The runners were geared up and ready. And no one – runners, race staff, or race director – complained about the weather.

Kurt (bib #400) and John (bib #415).

There’s very little fanfare at the start of most ultras. Runners are upbeat but quiet, grabbing a snack, conversing about other ultras, stretching, or jogging a bit to loosen up. Usually no music – that’s for pumping up people at shorter races, like marathons. And the starting “gun” is the race director saying something like, “Get outta here.”

And yet the energy is palpable, a current washing over the entire starting area. I’ve felt it every time, running or not. Watching the runners standing quietly in the queue before the start yesterday, I began twitching, and bouncing on my heels. Mind you, I was grateful not to be starting with them. But part of me was ready to jump in anyway. And had I signed up for that start time, I’d have been there, just as eager as the rest of them to get out on that trail.

They’re off! (Okay, maybe some are feeling the vibe more than others.)

My race begins early Saturday morning, and it promises to be a great day – sunny, with temperatures in the sixties. I’m really looking forward to it. And I’m only a little disappointed that it won’t be raining.

Yes, motivation is a strange beast, indeed.

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No BHARG This Year? What’s Wrong with Me?

I have a confession to make. For the first time in four years, I have no BHARG.

It’s February, and I ought to be at the peak of my winter training, working my buttinsky off at Body Specs and prepping for my spring ultras, culminating in a Big Hairy-Ass Running Goal in late May or early June. It’s worked like a charm for the Kettle Moraine 100 (2016), Lighthouse 100 (2017), and Veterans Memorial 150 (2018), with lesser sufferfests along the way, including 50-milers in the rain, 12 hours of trail looping, and the Boston Marathon. And it’s been an absolute blast.

Crossing the finish line at the Kettle Moraine 100, 2016.

Dirty German 50, 2017.

Third place (54.5 miles) at the Dogwood 12-Hour, 2018

Well, this year is different. I haven’t chosen a BHARG, and my strength training has been hampered due to lingering back stiffness. Had this been any of the previous three years, I’d be frustrated with the wrench tossed into my carefully laid plans. This year? Not so much. And I’m cool with it.

So what happened?

My attitude toward staying fit and challenging myself is as strong as ever. And there’s no shortage of races that look fun and suitably punishing. I just didn’t have the same enthusiasm to pursue the usual program this time. After wondering why for a while, I decided to stop worrying and just go with it. Perhaps my subconscious was telling me it was time to change things up.

For instance, I’ve been wanting to improve shorter distance times. I’m pretty sure I can still improve on my 19:38 5K PR and half marathon best of 1:32:40. But I’ve kept putting it off. After the BHARG races I’ve spent most of the summers in recovery, and then been too busy working Zero Waste at the fall events to focus on my own races.

And 2018 was going to be a difficult act to follow anyway. After running 150 miles in 90 degree weather, earning two podium finishes at the ultra distance, riding naked through a major city, and running a 50K and practicing Vulcan martial arts in the Nevada desert with 70,000 self-expressers, what am I supposed to do for an encore?

WNBR Portland, June 2018.

Burning Man, August 2018.

With all this in mind, I met with my running coach yesterday. We had coffee and kicked around some ideas, and out of that came a basic plan for the year, with a focus on improving my shorter distance event times. I signed up for two events right there and then, and added a couple more today. The enthusiasm is back, folks!

In my next post I’ll share my training plan and which races I’ve signed up for. And I’ve already started on the plan for 2020, which will definitely include a BHARG. Watch this space for developments!

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P.S. And by the way, I haven’t been idle while I worked all this out. At the end of December I ran a “Fat Ass” event with some equally trail-crazy folks. I enjoyed it a lot; a dusting of snow brightened up the woods, and an “aid station” of brownies and a shot of cinnamon schnapps provided the energy to carry me 21 miles.

And last month, like I have since 2014, I strapped on the snowshoes and ran the Bigfoot 5K up in Traverse City. It was colder than usual, but trail conditions were excellent, and I finished in the top 10 for the first time!

Sprinting to a 7th place finish!

An Ultra Like No Other: The Black Rock City 50K

How many running events are you aware of that have a) whiskey, b) hugs from random strangers, c) a course that takes you through a dance party, or d) shameless nudity? And the only “entry fee” is a gallon of water and a few snacks for the aid stations?

Well, as far as I know, the Black Rock City Ultramarathon is the only race that offers all of the above.

The race is hosted by the Pink Lightning camp, which provides bibs, timing chips, medals, T-shirts, and refreshments – all for no charge to the runners (excepting the crazy expensive Burning Man ticket, of course). About 250 people sign up each year.

From Pink Lightning the course runs clockwise along the Esplanade, which separates BRC from the “deep playa” containing The Man, the Temple, and the other major sculptures. Out to and along the trash fence, with an aid station at its “peak” (top of the route map). Then down the other side and back along the Esplanade and return to Pink Lightning.

Each loop is seven miles, so you run four of these loops, then do a quick 3-mile out & back to get you to 50K, (31.1 miles), more or less.

Since it’s impossible to describe everything I saw, heard, and experienced running the BRC 50K, here are a set of vignettes that hopefully give you a sense of it.

Sorry about lack of photos; my phone was nearly dead and my solar charger didn’t work. Besides, at Burning Man you are encouraged to, “be a participant, not a tourist,” and taking photos takes you out of the moment. However, at the end of this post I’ve provided some links to photos and videos others have taken.

Okay, here’s one. Yes, this “art” is an actual 747, and we ran past it during the race.

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Tuesday August 28, 4:30 a.m.: Crawl out of warm sleeping bag, put on clothes and gear meticulously laid out the night before. Ready to go – except I can’t find my headlamp. I rummage through my clothes bag, gear bag, and everywhere in my tent before I find it around my neck, tucked under my shirt. Slap head and bike to Pink Lightning as fast as I dare. They start late, thank goodness, because I don’t know BRC well enough to understand the course map. I follow the crowd until I get oriented.

Starting in the dark means we see an amazing sunrise, with the sky turning from red and yellow brush strokes into bright blue. And the temps stayed cool until late in the morning, which helped explain some very fast finish times (the first five runners were under 3:35).

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Loop one: Pain in my left big toe, like something sharp is pressing on it. It gets worse, so at the aid station I find a chair and peel off my shoe and sock. I don’t find anything, so I remove the tape on the toe – and the nail comes off with it.

No big surprise, as I’d damaged it at an earlier race. I cover the bare area with a Band-Aid, retape, put sock and shoe back on, and I’m good to go. A volunteer shakes his head. “Hard core,” he says admiringly.

Not really – just standard ultra fare. And now I’m running pain free. Never been so happy to lose a toenail.

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Loop two: I catch up to a guy wearing some really unusual shoes. Under the soles are metal bands acting as springs. Along with the bouncing stride, they add about four inches to his height. He tells me they’re “rebound shoes” with the springs providing a large energy return, and that he likes them a lot. He’s not sure if they’re “race legal,” but hell, this is Burning Man, so who cares?

Here they are. Photo from Flickr.

Here’s a link to the website if you’re interested in finding out more. They also make a brief appearance in the video below.

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Loop 3, approaching the Esplanade: a woman waves a bottle at us. “Whiskey! You know you want it!”

Runner ahead of me: “No thanks.”

Woman: “Well, F*** YOU then!”

Note: a bad attitude at Burning Man is almost always “snark” and not to be taken seriously.

I’m offered the same (and also decline) and starting loop 4, a young lady holds out a 2-liter bottle of a mysterious red liquid. “Please say yes!” she pleads.

Time for some snark of my own, I decided. “Yes!” I responded – and ran on right past her.

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Loops 2-4, returning to Pink Lightning: there’s a dance party in full swing on the Esplanade. No problem, we run right though it, getting hugs and high fives. On one loop as we get near, “YMCA” comes over the loudspeakers. Do we act out the letters during the chorus – while running? Do you even need to ask?

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Back half of loop four: My wandering thoughts hit upon the fact that while I’ve seen a few naked men running (including one guy in orange body paint), I have yet to see any women so (un)attired. Then a spectator says, “Hey, naked woman coming.”

Sure enough, a nicely proportioned woman wearing nothing but shoes soon passes me, smiling and entirely at ease. Another runner complains he’s getting warm. “Take your clothes off!” she yells to him. “You’ll be more comfortable!”

She stops at the coconut water station, so I go back ahead for a while. When she catches up to me again, I confirm she’s also on loop four, and I have to know. “Hey, you didn’t run the entire race this way, did you?”

“Oh, yeah!” she says. I mention it was cold at the start, and she shrugs. “I ran fast!”

Note: every woman I’ve told this story to goes wide-eyed and asks about whether “bouncing” wasn’t an issue. I’d wondered that too, but didn’t have the courage to ask. Apparently it didn’t bother her And she finished ahead of me.

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At Pink Lightning after loop four, grabbing some snacks: I get a surprise hug from behind. It’s my daughter Rachel and her boyfriend there to cheer me on. “I’m so proud of you, Dad!” she says. (Hard to top a moment like that, folks.)

I take off for my final three miles, and they’re waiting at the finish line, where I cross at the 5:25 mark with my hands in the air – and promptly bonk in the pavilion. Here I am with her, doing my best to look happy while waiting for the Gatorade to kick in.

Photo courtesy of Rachel’s SO Eugene.

So, did it live up to my expectations? Since I didn’t really have any, the answer is Yes. Would I do it again? Sure, although I haven’t decided if I’d run it for a PR (nice and flat) or slow down and take photos. Plenty of time to decide!

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As promised, here are some links to photos and videos of the BRC 50K from previous years. Enjoy!

YouTube – Running an Ultramarathon at Burning Man – from 2017. Really, this one is all you need to see what goes on. I didn’t see the stuffed animal trampoline this year, though.

Facebook – search on “Black Rock City ultramarathon” and a gallery will pop up. Here’s one of the photos.

Now Leaving Reality, Return Date Uncertain

So long to the world I live in and the life I know!

For a week or so, anyway.

Yes, I’m in Nevada, about to enter Black Rock City on the playa, for my first-ever Burning Man experience. While I’m immersed in whatever mind-blowing universe they’ve built there, I will be disconnected from “defaultia” as they call it – i.e. no Internet or phone or texting. This is due in part because BM culture expects you to do so, and in part because cell phone service is so bad there anyway.

I’ll do my best to take some photos, although excessive “recording” of the event is also frowned upon, the mantra being, “participate, don’t be a tourist.” Plus there are tons of photos from past Burns on the Internet, and I’m sure there will be another bumper crop from this year.

So, here’s a brief summary of the week leading up to my getting here:

Saturday & Sunday: Manage Zero Waste at two local races. Major time suck. No time to pack.

Monday & Tuesday: Business trip in Chicago. Got back late Tuesday. No time to pack.

Wednesday: Do some shopping for the trip, then work Zero Waste at an evening race. Can’t pack because I need my car to hold race stuff.

Thursday: More shopping. Finally attempted to pack car. Fill interior, hitch bag, and roof bag, with still more stuff to get in there somehow. Strap bulky and unwieldy camping cot to roof and hope it holds.

Burning Man 2018 - Jeep packed up

Packed up except for camping cot. At this point I was still trying to figure out where to put it.

Planned departure: 2:30 p.m. Leave driveway: 6:00 p.m. Cot flips over within a quarter mile. Go to hardware store for tie-downs and strap cot to bike rack. Leave Ann Arbor 7:30 p.m. Arrive in Iowa City for the night at 2:30 a.m. Central time.

Friday: After a few hours sleep, drive 750 miles to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There’s a lot of Iowa, and even more of Nebraska. And it feels like every mile of I-80 is under construction.

Burning Man 2018 - Fat Dogs store

Saturday: Decent night’s sleep. Random guy in hotel parking lot strikes up conversation with me. He recommends I go to the Chuckwagon in Laramie for breakfast. Go to Safeway for final shopping, drive to Laramie to fill tank, and guess what I see right off the exit:

IMG_20180825_104826

Guy next to me at the counter strikes up conversation. Turns out he’s from Michigan and now is a rancher. He was also an instructor at Wyo Tech, an auto tech institute, and now is a part owner and helping keep it going.

Burning Man 2018 - Me with Jim at Outlaw Cafe in Laramie - 2

Wyoming people are the friendliest! And their cinnamon rolls are obscene.

Continue on, stop at Delle, UT for gas. Restroom out of order. So is soda machine. Why? “Someone shot our well,” the counter guy says. Yep, I’m out West all right.

Burning Man 2018 - Cowboy Cafe - Delle UT - Art on Wall - funny

After 785 miles, arrive in Winnemucca, Nevada. Just a couple of hours to reach Fernley, then onto 447 for God knows how long a wait to get into BRC. Better sign off now. I need all the sleep I can get.

See you when I emerge from the playa!