Archive for October, 2012

2012 CanLake 50

Posted: October 10, 2012 in Racing Stories

Spending seven hours in second place provides you with a unique perspective on an endurance event.  Especially when you haven’t seen your prey in five hours and the person chasing you could be the breeze that you just felt breathing down the back of your neck, but you don’t really feel like stopping to find out just how much ground you are sacrificing as your feet slowly become one with the pavement that you’ve been talking to for most of the morning and into the afternoon.

The start of the day was miserable.  I awoke at 5 am to make the drive from Rochester and was immediately disheartened by several things.  Most frightening, was the fact that I still had a low grade fever lingering from the previous day.  I was less concerned with this than the fact that for the fifth day in a row I felt as though someone had filled my lungs with cement.  Since transitioning to veganism at the end of 2010, my immune system has been a punishing machine of death for anything that slightly resembled illness.  So it only makes sense that I find myself choked out by an utterly debilitating respiratory infection for the entire week leading up to the race.  This was also not my biggest concern, as I had spent the prior days coming to terms with the fact that my first ever DNF was imminent.  You’ve all seen a fish out of water, so I need not describe what i felt like when I logged my staggeringly slow 5 mile jaunt the day before.  What really got under my skin was the sound of Armageddon on my rooftop.  You know, the kind of rain that sounds the way that drowning might feel. Had I not had my own funeral to attend at what was easily the least thought out race decision of my life, I certainly would’ve spent the next six hours doing all sorts of things that involved remaining completely comatose in the warmth of my bed.  Mostly just dreaming of oxygen in my lungs.

The rain followed us all to the starting line.  As I stood shivering in the blackness of the morning I looked around for a man named Daven Oskvig.  I had decided during the 45 minute drive out, that before DNF’ing and dying in the loving arms of the folks at the first aid station, i would try to hang out with him for a couple of miles.  I figured, when i saw the tremendously fit gentleman with the least amount of clothes on and no hydration on his person, that I’d either found the guy that had dialed his fueling so flawlessly that he knew he would win, or the guy that I saw sprinting repeats to warm up before the gun at my last 12 hour because he had no idea what his body was about to go through.  It was in fact Daven Oskvig and I was intimidated, just as I’d imagined I would be for the entire 8 weeks that I’d spent training.  I’d researched his race history and was staunchly aware of the fact that his experience doubles mine and his PR’s are all substantially faster than mine.  Fortunately I’m not big on training for any purpose other than victory.  I’m like every other sucker that spends his long runs imagining a shoulder to shoulder footrace down to the tape with the cheers of onlookers drowned out by the sound of my diaphragm forcing that last cup of Gatorade from my stomach back into my mouth as I claw desperately for triumph.

The race started as I’d expected.  He took off.  So I became his shadow.  I mimicked his every move, with the exception of dodging all the puddles that I’d heard him splashing through in the dark of the morning.  Wet feet were something that I’d deemed unacceptable this early in a race.  As we reached the lake, my lungs began to open for the first time in a week and I remembered the luxury of oxygen in my bloodstream.   At the starting line a gentleman had spoken of a gully that we would have to cross early on.  He’d said that it was full of water but we’d be able to jump over it without a problem.  It must have filled considerably since he’d last checked it because the only way I was clearing that expanse was with a pole.  I jumped straight into what felt like the lake itself and felt my hopes and dreams of dry feet drown instantly in my shoes.  Earlier in the week, while asking for advice to kick a respiratory infection in a matter of days, a friend of mine told me simply to “get a straw and suck it the fuck up.”  I’d thought about this briefly and decided that to be my only option.  I was decidedly not ready to be done yet.

We passed through a gate onto the road that would make up the first 20 or so miles of the race.  The leader went into cruise control and I followed suit, falling in directly behind him and matching every stride.  This felt surprisingly comfortable for most of the first ten miles or so.  When we’d reached the first noteworthy climb, he began to walk for a brief moment.  I knew that walking these brief but savage inclines was the smartest thing to do, but absent-mindedly made a move and passed him.  For roughly half a mile I galloped away from the real leader of the race.  I recall looking back and thinking of scenes from old horror movies in which soon-to-be victims are sprinting at full speed and every time they look back, the killer, walking casually, is getting closer to them.  He caught me on a hill shortly after my glorious stint at the front.  We engaged in small talk about who we are and what our training looks like and all that stuff that runners talk about.  A decent length into the conversation it occurred to me that we were charging up hills and he was still able to talk without breathing heavily.  This is probably the point in the race when I knew he was going to set a course record.  He lost me after eleven miles.  Somehow, he managed this on one of the most ridiculous downhills I’ve ever seen.  I’ve never been passed and subsequently dusted on a downhill.  I didn’t even think that sort of thing happened in the real world.  But it did.  And he was gone.  I suddenly had to be my own shadow.  Flattened to the pavement and desperately seeking an identity within a race that I still couldn’t fathom finishing.  Thus beginning my painfully silent battle against my own defeated body.

Bopple Hill redefined running for me.  It’s the kind of hill I always want to show people when they tell me they like to run hills.  I’d done repeats there several weeks prior to race day and managed to run up it five times without stopping.  I knew that on race day I would walk part of it simply because it makes sense at mile 15 of a 50 miler.  I made it to the top of the hill still feeling quite strong and resettled into a mid 7 minute pace.  Shortly thereafter I caught up to a group of early starters.  They informed me that Daven was 2 minutes ahead of me and I was finally able to relax and accept my role as the guy in second.

The downhill section that comes roughly a mile after the ascent of Bopple is one of those ‘free fall’ type of downhills that you spend cursing each step and wishing that it was on a trail, or that you included a parachute in your race day attire.  I struggled to slow beyond a 5:30 pace for this entire section and my knees began to disagree with my strategy of bombing hills and dealing with the pain later.  I’ve always been of the mindset that I have all the time in the world to recover after a race, but I only have the time immediately in front of me in which to finish the race.  So I absorbed the shock of the man-made world, regardless of how damaging it may have been.  I reached Bristol Springs with some gas in the tank and continued forth requiring only vaseline to help address the kind of situation that men face when they don’t pay attention to details on race day.

Though I’d not seen Mr. Oskvig in about 10 miles, I was just now beginning to feel the impact of continual solitude as I turned down Parish Rd.  Less than a mile long and completely flat, this road felt eternal and desolate and I spent most of it questioning whether or not I’d made a wrong turn.  I reached Rte. 245 several minutes later only to nearly have my DNF confirmed by an inattentive motorist that thought he might be able to go fastest if he traveled on the shoulder.  As I pressed on towards the Sunnyside aid station it occurred to me that i was going to beat my marathon PR.  This is borderline irrelevant though, as this PR is extremely outdated.  Nevertheless, it planted the seed in my head that I had gone out way too fast and continued to do so for far too long.  This was another byproduct of my certainty that I couldn’t finish the race.

My feet began to feel like bloody mush as I approached the Sunnyside aid station.  I imagined the scene in Robocop where the man turned to fleshy paste by toxic waste gets hit by the car and explodes.  I changed my socks without looking at my feet, as I was not intent on seeing how bad things really were, and chatted with my crew for a moment.  My longtime friend Devin, a total gear aficionado, loaned me his Balega socks (by far the best running socks ever), but I was not ready to abandon my waterlogged Green Silence shoes yet, so my feet instantly became saturated again.  Like a twit, the only backup shoes I brought were my brand new Newton Gravity’s that I’ve only logged 20 miles on.  I trust Green Silence to get me to hell and back but still managed to leave several pairs at home.  My handler and pacer each gave me updates on the locations of first and third place and sent me on my way.  Retrospectively, visiting with these three at aid stations was probably the only thing that got me from start to finish on that particular day.

Loneliness matters not, over the next leg of this course.  Something about seeing cows during a race puts me in a zen like state.  This is a good thing, especially at that point where your form takes a backseat to your agony and you move forward looking like a guy that accidentally left the nursing home without his wheelchair and is just beginning to remember that he hasn’t walked in five years.  The pavement along this leg is treacherously jagged.  I spent the majority of the time thinking that if i collapsed and fell, I would probably bleed out in the middle of the road.  A bow-hunter crossed the road in front of me, covered head to toe in camouflage, looking quite ready to kill.  I smiled and nodded.  He looked like he no longer wanted to kill deer, but rather the creep in the road with the dreadlocks.  I quickened my pace a bit.  I ran past a photographer at this point and realized several minutes later that most of my face was completely covered in snot.  ‘At least my respiratory/sinus ailments will be immortalized in the land of digital photography,’ I thought to myself.  For whatever reason these are the thoughts that get me through the darkest parts of the race.

There’s an aid station at a Church in Middlesex.  It’s thoughtfully placed before a relatively staggering climb up Rte. 364 to the intersection with S. Vine Valley Rd.  This was the first time I’d been beaten into a mantra by the awareness that my legs literally had nothing left to give.  I began repeating something stupid in my head.  Something rhythmic and meditative and related to the fact that without a body I could be without pain.  Ultrarunning is like that.  Sometimes you need to be able to leave your body and just let your mind do its thing.  No body.  No pain.  I turned onto S. Vine Valley Rd. at mile 30 and braced myself for my still imminent DNF.

Music, in my experience, becomes irrelevant at this point in a race.  It becomes background noise that may or may not be harmful to your body’s rhythm, stride and ability to interact safely with the ground.  Running is, after all, a simple relationship between your feet and the ground.  When you drown out the communication between the two, a plethora of things can go wrong.  I turned my music up at this point, first because I tend to ignore common sense and secondly because I was sick of listening to my mind.  The hills over this leg roll aggressively into another ferocious downhill and into the most demoralizing piece of the race.  A 1.5 mile out and back.  Out and backs are painful at any point in a race because covering the same ground twice feels like running up a downward escalator.  This particular one was made exponentially more painful by the fact that I’d seen Daven Oskvig coming out of it as I entered it and had no idea that he was 5k ahead of me.  For all I knew, I had just caught up with the leader.  What’s a guy to do in this situation but immediately accelerate to a six minute mile.  I passed him and he said, ‘good job, Mike, its only 3 miles down and back. You got it!’  I stopped immediately and walked to my handlers car.  ‘Give me salt pills,’ I said, defeated.  How do you make this situation worse than it is?  You’re 32 miles into a race. You’re cold and suffering from every imaginable running related pain known to your species.  You have to run 1.5 miles down a depressing stretch of single lane road and then back up it.  You’re 3 miles behind the guy that’s going to win.  Oh, wait. Now there’s that giant, unrestrained, territorial and completely pissed off dog that just ran onto the course because that the person in third place evidently wasn’t a good enough reason to run faster.  Running from a dog that is intent on biting you is a bad idea in any case.  I’ve been surrounded by dogs for many years and have yet to encounter one that I’m able to outrun.  Pissed off and completely willing to have a dog be the cause of my DNF, I turned to figure out how I was going to handle the situation and finally had some luck.  The dog lunged once, snapped at me and then backed off the road merely showing its teeth instead of latching on or leaving with any of my favorite appendages.

I picked up my pacer at this point.  It was refreshing to have a voice besides my own to listen to.  The excitement of this was perhaps dangerous however, as I picked him up on a downhill and immediately found us putting down a 6 minute mile into one of the biggest climbs of the race.  The Bare Hill Climb is about 2.7 miles of up.  Its relatively miserable, but more so over the last .7 miles where you are likely to be walking faster than you would be running due to the extreme incline.  I honestly have no recollection of this climb though.  I attribute this to having someone to talk to.  I was able to effectively ignore what was going on around me.

The 11th leg of the race was the most mind numbing for me.  My body had been worthless for about 12 miles and the rolling hills offered just enough monotony to keep me in a zombie like state.  This is the most satisfying part of ultrarunning in my mind.  It’s the section of the event where I absolutely detest all physical activity.  I habitually renounce running during these times.  Running never gives up on me though.  So I continue forth, through the pain and agonizing desire to withdraw myself.  Then next 6 miles were like this.  They were the reason I hate running and the reason that keep running.  At mile 47 I found reprieve.

There is a point where you wonder where the lake went.  The solace provided over so much of the race by the astounding views of the lake had all but vanished for the last several hours.  It’s here where everything came full circle.  Where I was able to start running with my body again, instead of my mind.  Down a mile long stretch of CR 18, before turning on to Lincoln Hill road and finishing out the race, the course rewarded me with the most astounding view of the lake I’d seen all day.  At the very least, a view majestic enough to make me forget how much pain I was in.  A view that dropped me safely back into the necessary stillness of mind.  I carried this stillness the entire way down Lincoln Rd and through the dead end only to be jarred out of it by the utterly punishing 100 yard section of rugged grass the spits you out onto the final stretch.  I spent the last three minutes of the race laughing with my pacer about a variety of things.  For the first time ever, the runner’s high hit me while a race was still going.  In the deepest recesses of my soul, I embrace the moments in which these events end.  A sense of achievement is so elusive in the lives of many people.  I’m no different.  I cross the line and look forward to a day or two of not being able to walk because it will remind me that after years of destroying my body with cigarettes and chemical abuse, I can still do something remarkable.

Sitting at the finishing line after a race like this is the most inspiring part of my life.  Watching people from all backgrounds and with greatly varying degrees of athleticism finish such an adventure makes my blood flow harder than the race itself.  Though I’ll aspire to one day catch Daven Oskvig and to run alongside the Tony Krupicka’s and Kilian Jornet’s of the world, it’s not the elites that impress me the most.  It’s the men and women that got up one day and decided to do something profound and prove to themselves that unfathomable satisfaction awaits just on the other side of the absurd.