Tag Archives: trail

Taking Some Self

My first ultra of the year is just a couple of days away, and I’m training for it in the most sensible manner – resting up and eating a lot.

This is not as easy as it sounds.

Having trained hard all winter, it seems unnatural to hit the brakes, even when it’s logical and my body is telling me I need the rest. My coach set me straight. “The hay’s in the barn for this race,” he said. “Pushing yourself now will do no good and could get you hurt.”

So I took some self. I cancelled most of my Body Specs gym sessions and forced myself to take several days completely off. Naturally, it was warm and sunny those days. Sigh. Land Between the Lakes, you’d better be worth it.

I also indulged in a little mental self – as in self-reflection, in particular what it is about ultramarathons that makes me want to keep running them. My thoughts went back a few years to when my wife was bringing my brother up to date on my latest ultrarunning escapade. I forget which one. At any rate, Doug didn’t seem overly impressed.

“Does he enjoy torturing himself like that?” he asked her.

He had a point.

No, I don’t care so much for the pain and discomfort. Or the grind and tedium of the continuous hours of running. Or the mud, bugs, rocks, thorns, and other features of the trail.

But all that is part of the deal. An ultra is a spectrum of highs and lows, excitement and monotony, euphoria and pain, all experienced individually and yet blended into a complete entity I find highly satisfying. All of it, every sensation and emotion, contributes its part and would be missed if absent.

For a rough analogy, try Vietnamese coffee sometime. Espresso + condensed milk = bittersweet magic.

But the satisfaction stems from more than the event. The race is the cashing in of an investment I began months, even years, before the gun goes off. It’s the culmination of all my training, and planning, and the anticipation that motivated me to sign up and get to the starting line. Running the race is the manifestation of all that work, and the medal, or belt buckle, or whatever, represents all of it, not just that I crossed the finish line.

Or in this case, a small copper kettle. Was it worth running 28+ hours for? Yep.

So is racing the reason why I run? I don’t think so. I enjoy running for its own sake, and for the social aspects, and its physical benefits. I don’t need an upcoming race to get me out of bed and off to run club on Saturday mornings, or to toss on one more layer and go out for six miles in the snow. That’s all just part of my life now.

Ultrarunning taps into something deeper within me, an urge to push outside of my normally comfortable life and prove something to myself. Races, and the training for them, are a self-test of my limits. You won’t find me BASE jumping or climbing mountains in Antarctica; I don’t need to defy death to feel alive. But running ultras are times when I feel particularly alive, and in the moment. And that’s special.

Now it’s time to take self to bed. Need my sleep. Big day Saturday!

NOTE: I have Microsoft to thank for the Millennial-style post title. When I saved the first draft, Word used part of my initial sentence as the file name, and may have inadvertently created a new catch phrase. “Taking some self” just crushes. I’m so on fleek!

Trail Marathon: Chasing Ghosts

April 30 was a cold, gray day on the Potawatomi Trail – and the ghosts were out.

Trail Marathon is the original and oldest race put on by RF Events, celebrating its 32nd running on April 29-30. “It’s so old,” says RF Events owner Randy Step, “that it doesn’t even have a fancy name. It’s just ‘Trail Marathon.’”

I ran the 5-mile race here for several years, gasping all the way and marveling at the signs that said, “MARATHON MILE 13” and such. How was it possible to run even a half marathon on these crazy trails? And a full marathon or 50K? Inconceivable! That is, until a pivotal conversation led me to find out in 2014 that it wasn’t only possible, it was fun. I’ve run the marathon or 50K there ever since.

2014, after finishing the 50K. No wimps, baby!

But it wasn’t until last year that I found out about the Rogucki trophy. Named after the late local running legend John “Road Kill” Rogucki, the top marathon finishers each year (male and female) age 50 and older get their names and times on the trophy.

Isn’t that worth running a marathon for? I thought you’d agree!

Well, there was something cool to shoot for! But in 2016, I was preoccupied with getting our Zero Waste program off to a good start. So I ran a solid 4:20 but didn’t focus on trying to win. I was happy with my time, until I discovered I’d finished second in the Rogucki by just five minutes.

Well, that settled my plans for 2017 – I would run the marathon again. And this time I’d mean it.

With last winter’s hard training, I figured I’d be in peak shape for Trail Marathon. It was just two weeks after Boston, but I lined up Sunday morning feeling confident I could give the race my best effort.

My plan was to run the first loop in under two hours, then hold steady in the second, with an overall finish around 4:10. Nowhere near the 50+ record time, (Randy said Rogucki had run it in three hours) but a winning time in many past years.

I started with the front runners to establish a position early. The leaders soon disappeared, but I settled in at the pace I wanted. Despite the cold weather, I heated up fast; at the first aid station I peeled all my top layers off. I’ve never run a race shirtless before, let alone in 45 degrees, but here you go:

Near the end of the first loop I was still among the top marathoners and hadn’t seen anyone else near my age. I powered up the hills between miles 11-12 feeling good. If I could sustain the pace, I liked my chances. I tried to imagine Rogucki’s spirit running with me. Or was I too slow even for his ghost?

Then someone in gray hair and a gray-white beard passed me. Not a sudden burst of speed pass; his pace was steady and strong. Past me, up the hill, and down the trail, the distance between us steadily widening.

Oh, sh**.

Well, what to do? Step it up and try to stick with him, or stay on plan and let him go? With over half the race left, a faster pace risked burning out. But it looked like my shot at a Rogucki win was rapidly fading into the distance with the back of this guy’s shirt.

I made the decision; I would run my race, not his. And who knew? Perhaps he’d get tired near the end, or tweak an ankle (which I do NOT wish on anyone, but it happens). And if he won, well, more power to him. There was always next year.

I finished the first half in 1:58, right on plan. Then things went downhill (not the good kind). I struggled up the inclines, and my legs were sluggish. Maybe it was too much to expect, so soon after Boston? My spirits picked up when I spied my opponent up ahead, only to fall hard when I realized it wasn’t him and likely wouldn’t ever catch him.

But that turned out to be the low point. I relaxed and focused on keeping my cadence up despite fatigue. I caught a second wind and fell into a rhythm that carried me through the remaining miles. At Boston, the final four miles were agony; here, they weren’t easy, but I was able to enjoy them. The rain held off, I was on my favorite trails, and running strong. Couldn’t ask for more!

Why yes, I AM having fun. Can’t you tell? (From 2013)

I crossed the finish line eighth overall in 4:08, beating my goal time and improving last year’s time by 12 minutes. Success by all measures – except one. And as I walked through the finish chute, there was my worthy opponent, stretching by a picnic table. He’d finished seventh overall, just ahead of me.

By five minutes.

I walked up to him and congratulated him on his great race. “Thanks,” he said. “This was my first marathon.” Yep – his first ever, and on these trails! We figured that on the road, his performance would translate to about a 3:15 finish. He looked puzzled when I mentioned the Rogucki, so I took a mental deep breath and asked how old he was.

“I’m 40,” he said. So he wasn’t even eligible for the trophy for another ten years! The gray hair had fooled me completely. I went over to the display of results, and there it was:

It was funny, but I felt relief more than pleasure. Not from winning, but that I’d stayed disciplined and stuck with my plan. If I’d tried to chase him down, I might have cost myself an excellent result – and the win – for a nonexistent competitor. For a phantom.

And if he’d been over 50 after all? Well then, so what? So much of winning a race is outside one’s control – the weather, the trail conditions, and above all, who shows up and who doesn’t. What really matters is that I ran the strongest, smartest race I could that day. That’s at least as gratifying as my name on the trophy. Not that I’ll refuse it.

As Nature Intended

Near the end of my Monday workout at Body Specs, one of the trainers and I began talking dirt.

Mud, more correctly.

As I was catching my breath after a particularly strenuous set, she (Rachel) asked me how I got into running. I explained how I’d started with occasional short runs, which eventually led to a half marathon, which started me on the slippery slope to the full marathon and beyond to the land of Ultra.

And *up* the slippery slope, too.

Slippery slopes go both down and up in the land of Ultra!

Rachel said she had no intention of following me down the ultra trail, but she did sign up for a Tough Mudder later this spring. And just as she no plans to start running ultras (which I completely understand) I will not be following her into that kind of event. Chacun à son goût, as they say, but a TM is definitely not to my goût.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Tough Mudder, it’s one of a popular genre of events collectively known as obstacle races. These events combine running with various types of calisthenics and man-made obstacles to climb over, duck under, and crawl through. Here’s a sampling of typical Tough Mudder obstacles, courtesy of the Wikipedia article:

  • Arctic Enema – Participants plunge into a dumpster filled with ice water, dunk underneath a plank that crosses the dumpster, and pull themselves out on other side.
  • Electroshock Therapy – Live wires hang over a field of mud which participants must traverse.
  • Funky Monkey – A set of incline and decline monkey bars over a pit of cold water. The bars are slicked with a mixture of butter and mud.
  • Everest – Participants run up a quarter pipe slicked with mud and grease.

tough-mudder-pipe-crawl

Now I have nothing against getting dirty as part of a run. I’ve run several trail races where rain either before or during the event has turned the course into a slippery, shoe-sucking morass. My first trail 50K was a 6-hour slog following an all-night rain, and at some of the hills were impossible to climb without hand-over-hand grabbing of bushes and trees. I’ve even run through an actual swamp. Below is what happened when I stepped off the log I’d been dancing along.

DWD Hell - Deep in the Mud

I’ve run ultras in the rain, in 95 degrees and high humidity, and as of last month, in the snow. I’ve sweated buckets and frozen my tooshie. I’ve climbed piles of boulders and slid down ravines. I’ve flirted with hypothermia, bonked due to hyponatremia, and been sore everywhere a body can be sore. All with no regrets and every intent to keep doing it as long as I can or want to.

So why, you might reasonably ask, wouldn’t an obstacle race appeal to me? After all, trail race course designers make you run through tall grass, swamps, rivers, and up and down incredibly steep hills. Aren’t those obstacles?

DWD Devils Lake - Heading Down

But there’s a big difference between a muddy trail race and a Tough Mudder. The first is created by Mother Nature and the elements. The second is created by sadists with construction debris and garden hoses. And to me, that makes all the difference.

I like tackling a trail race as Nature intended. When I sign up for a trail race, I have no control over what conditions will be on race day. The trail could be dusty, hard as rock, soaked and slippery, or a paradise of soft pine needles. The uncertainty is part of the experience. It’s expecting the unexpected, as it were.

I may get covered in mud, but it won’t come about by dragging myself under electrified wire or sliding around flaming tires.

tough-mudder-burning-tires

Like Spartan Races, which I’ve written about previously, I find the concept fascinating but don’t really have the interest to participate. That said, I have yet to actually attend either a Tough Mudder or Spartan Race, so I won’t be saying “never” just yet.

Best of luck, Rachel!

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P.S. For those of you hoping my title might mean the kind of run that, say, one might do at Run Woodstock, I’m sorry to disappoint you. However, you can read a couple of stories about my experience there. Here’s a post from 2012 (my first such experience) and one from 2014. Enjoy!

Do What? I Can’t Imagine. . .

If there’s one thing being a runner is good for (*) it’s getting a sense of perspective.

This morning I was meeting with our company president, an aficionado of the latest and greatest in technology (you can read my “Gadget Man” post here). A message from one of his daughters had appeared on his Apple Watch, and he demonstrated how to finger-scrawl a reply and have it turn into a text message.

Then he looked at me.

“She’s recovering from a slight concussion,” he said. “Her coach told her to go jog an easy mile to see how she feels. That just doesn’t make sense to me. How is a mile an easy jog?”

Before I became a runner I’d have shared his viewpoint. But to me now, I told him, it made perfect sense. An easy mile seemed just right for her purpose. I do exactly that myself as part of my pre-race warmup. But to the non-runner, “one mile” just doesn’t fit with “easy” at any speed.

Fast forward to this afternoon’s workout at Body Specs. Another runner trains at the same time I do, and he said he’d heard that 200-mile races were growing in popularity. He told me someone had interviewed a veteran 100-mile runner about this, whose comment was, “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to run that distance.”

This is where I am on the spectrum. A 100-mile race is the most I’ve ever seen myself doing. Double that distance? What for? (**)

crazy-aunty-acid

And yet for some runners, even 200 miles is just a stepping stone to greater distances. Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes once ran 50 marathons, one in each U.S. state, in 50 consecutive days. And Pete Kostelnick just completed a 42-day, 3,000-mile run across the U.S. from San Francisco to New York, an average of over 72 miles (nearly three marathons) per day. To them, a mile must be like stepping outside to get the mail.

Just going out for a run! Back in a couple months!

Just going out for a run, honey! Back in a couple months!

This kind of perspective comes in handy when I race. I see faster runners pull away, and look at the results of the top finishers, and wish I were more like them. And yet as I’m usually at or near the top of my age group, there must be many other runners wishing they were more like me. And I know people who wish they were able just to run at all. Being aware of this makes it hard to feel sorry for myself when I don’t perform as well as I wanted to.

slow-runners-make-fast-runners-look-good

I know there will always be people faster than I am, stronger, more naturally talented, mentally tougher, more of every quality that makes for a successful runner. No matter how hard I train, or how far I run, I will never match their performance. Well, so what? There are always things to learn and ways to improve, and one can enjoy the experience regardless of the result.

Last Saturday’s Run Vasa 25K was a great example. A cold but beautiful morning on a wide, well-groomed, leaf-strewn trail, with a small group of fellow dirt-loving runners. I was pushing my pace and had blisters on both heels, but there was nowhere else I wanted to be.

About ten miles in, I saw two runners approaching me from ahead. Oh, crap. Was I going the wrong way? “Oh, no,” they said. “We cut the course by accident.” They were basically DQ’d, but both were smiling. Several other people took a wrong turn and ran an extra four miles. No one complained. Stuff happened. They still had fun.

Days like this on trails like this. What it's all about, baby.

Days like this on trails like this. What it’s all about, baby.

Final thought: apart from Pete and Dean, I’m sure every runner has an “I can’t imagine” limit. In 2014 I was part of a webcast featuring Meb Keflezighi, the Olympic marathoner and Boston Marathon winner. When he found out that some in the audience were ultrarunners, he expressed amazement. “I can’t imagine running that kind of distance,” he said, and told us he’d stick to running marathons. Just as well. I don’t need his kind of competition.

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(*) [One thing running is good for] – in addition to health, fitness, being outdoors, a great social activity, and others.

(**) [What would it prove?] On the other hand, I used to think a 50K would be the most I would ever run. Until I ran one, and the little voice in my head said, “You could do more…”