Laurel. 2017.

Posted: June 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

19274976_10102325536667915_402205771300282383_nThe Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is a permanently marked 70.5 mile trail that runs from Ohiopyle to Seward, Pennsylvania.  For 38 years, people have been showing up on the 2nd weekend in June and seeing how fast they can get from one end to the other.  They’re so ambitious that they even pay somebody to impose cutoff times for them.  This year I was one of those ambitious folks.  I made the trip down the night before with my wonderful girlfriend and training partner Natalie, and my friend Jon, with whom I’ve been sporadically working on a film project that will ultimately, with any luck, someday be the Spinal Tap of trail running movies.

How did I get into this mess?

December 2016:  “Yo, anyone doing Laurel this year?  Cool, I’m in.  Good talk”

January 2017: “Hey Dick (Vincent), wanna coach me for Laurel Highlands?  Cool.”

February 2017: I’m trying my hand at down hill skiing.

February 2017:  I’m out cold, pretzeled in a tree with a broken branch jabbing into the soft flesh that protects my cranium like a 1908 football helmet.  I regain consciousness and quickly credit my hair with saving my life.  The next day I collapse trying to walk to the bathroom.  My spine doesn’t work.  Death is imminent.

Later in February:  I receive a call from my sister informing me that my brother has died.  The world stops moving.  I pause reality.  I unpause it intermittently in moments of lonely despair, screaming silently for an alarm to go off and awaken me.  I want to wake up now.  I go to the mountains.  I ski up Whiteface.  I ski down Whiteface.  I bury the tip of a ski in the ice at top speed and learn that I can do a 360 degree rotation, pivoting at the knee and not care that I may have just detonated a soft tissue grenade inside of my most valuable joint.   Running is not life.  Anymore.

For a minute.

Its March now.

The slow crawl toward an inevitable departure from this life of scattered joys and sorrows is no longer enough.  Pick your head up.  To the front.

Later in March 2017:  I can run with only ‘severe’ pain.  This is one Welden pain meter level down from ‘crippling’.  I resume training.

Even later in March 2017:  I toe the line at the Syracuse Half with weeks of something like 6, 8, 12, 2 etc miles under my belt.  I PR with a modest 1:22:27

It’s April now:  I’m at Breakneck Point Trail Marathon.  I’ve been poking at the corpse of a dnf’d race report for several months.  Here.  It’s partial and poor.  It’s me.

May:  I’m at Thom B. in Ithaca running a 52 kilometer looped trail race as a final tune up for the big dance.  Scotie Jacobs is becoming one of my favorite runners each time I pass through the start/finish and hear that he has put another 10 minutes on me.

Hello June: I’m in Ohiopyle with my spectacular squad. We eat dinner in the hotel room and I drink a single beer after a peaceful walk along the waterfront.  I’m grateful to have these two with me and my love for them both is immense.img_4483

^Beautiful beet and sweet potato gnocchi dinner with a beautiful girl and a beautiful ridge.

Naturally, like every other transcendental experience I’ve had in my life that I later wish to write about, I wait two weeks too long and the memories occur only in blinks.

I blink.  I’m on the toilet eating oatmeal in the hotel room cursing myself for not being fast enough to be competitive at shorter distances.  I tell myself I should have been a sprinter.  Sprinting sounds exhausting too.  Everything sounds exhausting at 4 am when you can hear the dead silence of people still sleeping six feet away.

I’m walking across the hotel parking lot thinking that it’s really nice to be able to walk to a race and wondering if I shit enough a minute ago.  Or ate enough.

I blink again and I’m ducking behind a tree to unload my bowels 100 yards from the start line in a sleepy panic, watching the sparse headlamp beams of nervous runners slice the blueish black air of dawn.  “Should I have a headlamp?  There are three in the car.  Can I get to the car?  Do I need a headlamp”

I blink again, again.  I’m grimacing at the only wiping utensil in sight; a broken stick that my dog was probably grinding in his teeth last night while we walked the waterfront.  It’s not smooth.  “Has anyone ever run 70.5 miles with a fresh splinter in their sphincter?”  I congratulate myself preemptively on winning this category.

There’s a prayer before the race.  I’d forgotten about this happening when I’d come here as a pacer a couple years ago.  I look around to make sure it’s okay to leave my hat on while people that believe in God ask him to help them with the journey ahead.  Instead I find myself looking at last year’s CanLake 50 winner Brad Popple’s crop top and being glad that I don’t look like Jim Walmsley.  Looking like the best guy in the sport must be as exhausting as waking up at 4 am to recycle your breakfast in real time while wiping sleep boogers from your eyes and wondering if you just inadvertently gave yourself  pink eye.  Looking like the fastest guy that slept in a dumpster fire last night is easy.  All I have to do is show up.   I start my usual pre-race ritual and stand in a middle row judging people by the length of their shorts and what kind of hydration they’ll be carrying, as though I’ve ever made the right decision in the matter.

I go through the names of the people in the field that I expect to beat me and try to figure out who they are.  There are numerous previous winners in the pack and several other runners that have spent the last several years assembling far more respectable resumes than my own.

The guy in charge says go.

Everyone goes.  I let 20 or so people get out in front of me and hope for a slow bottleneck at the trail head a half mile up the road.  Something to control me.  Something to make me crawl.

The first several miles of the trail go toward the sky.  My ‘old man’s shuffle’ is on point to the extent that I’m running with a guy that appears to be in late 90’s.  But this is ultra running, and for all I know he just hit the sport too hard after kicking an addiction and is in his early 20’s.  I wonder if I will look like a well-loved leather couch by the time I hit 35 in October and the sound of 50 watches chirping the first mile into the dense air lets me know that I have 69.5 miles to go.  Or 71 miles if the guy that wheeled the course once was using a functional device.

There are a few downhills the I run hard because bombing switchbacks in PA when you’re half asleep is a good way to wake up.  Or to lose your teeth if you don’t wake up.  And then we’re climbing some more.

Here is the course, if you’re the kind of person that does better with visuals.

laurel

Once you’re on the ridge here you’re greeted with about 50 miles of rolling single track broken up by a few aid stations and a mile or so of serene heat stroke inducing exposure through a ski resort.  The relatively runnable nature of this middle section makes strategy a bit tricky if you’re the kind of guy that has learned over and over again without ever learning, that running fast for a little while is irrelevant in these things if you can run just under fast for a long time.   It’s really easy to become comfortable at a pace that is just a bit quicker than responsible, leaving yourself blowing fumes of despair out your ass on the fastest section of the course.  As you can see from figure 1.1, the fastest part of this course should be the several miles of free falling to the finish line with occasional ground contact, but only if you’ve run a smart race.  To make a long story completely short so that I might ramble about more important things, I managed to turn this section into the slowest few miles of my racing career somehow.  Science explains this quite well.  Fuel the fire, or it goes out.  On to more important matters.

The more that I reflect on this whole experience, the more I find myself thinking that it wasn’t running a race that mattered on that day, but rather suffering yet another tragic loss and finding a deeper bond with my best friend and partner as we stumbled blindly towards coping in real time with a race going on around us.  Somewhere stuck within the early moments of ambitious forward motion, time was shattered by the confusion of learning at an early aid station that my favorite cat, Natalie’s 1 year old furball Henri had been discovered lifeless at the bottom of the driveway back in Rochester.  Anyone that has lost a pet knows how much this can destroy someone.  Henri was literally the most perfect cat in existence and his lifetime of enriching our worlds with his antics was painfully short and ended without reason at all.  It presented me with the most confusing and difficult decision I’ve had to make during my hobbyist foray into this sport that I’ve come to love so much.  My partner in every single thing that I do in life is in tears trying to explain what has happened since I saw her an hour ago, and all I can do is offer to pack it in and head home.  She says no.  I can never repay her for pushing me out on to the trail.  For six hours I engaged the trail in a staring contest and experienced a flaming 72 car pileup on memory lane that was only broken by occasional opportunities to quietly banter with other runners as I passed.  I ran in a state of mourning and for the first time ever I wanted to finish a race due to the suffering of someone that means more to me than running, and not because of my own self-induced suffering.  When Natalie stepped into pace me for the final 25 miles, she had harnessed all of her sadness and provided me with the smile and voice that have been present for the hundreds of runs we’ve done together over the last two years.  She listened to me when I was able to speak all two times and she talked me into a place in which I felt only the ground under my feet and immeasurable love in my heart.  I crossed the line in Seward because of Natalie and Jon and that’s the most real thing that I can say.  Except for perhaps this:  There’s a section at the end of the Laurel Highlands trail that leads runners or hikers through several densely covered tunnels of foliage that comprise my favorite tenth of a mile of the course.  If not racing when I’d reached them, I’d have sat in the middle and closed my eyes and breathed deeply for as many hours as I felt necessary.   Passing through them I thought of the notion of despair.  In my physical reality I had finally reached the point where taking further steps seemed silly and impossible and meaningless.  In my emotional reality, I’d reached a point where taking further steps was all I had left.  It wasn’t just possible; it was critical.  People go to dark places at times like these.  They transmute pain and suffering into locomotion.  I’d spent the last 3 months controlling the equalizer knobs on my pain and suffering so that I could find tomorrow each day.  Fucking give me tomorrow, I’d ask, and only for that.  I’d turn the death knob to six and the joy dial to eight and the complacency knob to 10 and the survival dial to 11.  I’d let the tidal tragedy come in slow and silent waves so that I might survive it.  Every time I found myself alone in a car I would have a complete fucking meltdown.  For months.  There are no demons to exorcise in these situations.   The only thing I see every time I am alone is the brother that taught me to tie the appropriate knot for hanging a hammock from two trees in the Adirondacks one summer, sitting alone in his cabin tying a knot in a rope and looking up at the rafters.  A knot that he hopes I’ll never learn to tie; or want to.  He’s going through the required emotional thought process of optional survival versus optional death.  The despair I suffer in my solitary outer space oxygen deprived cries for a brother that won’t ever hear me again is perhaps nothing compared to the the despair that my brother felt in his final moments knowing what his family would go through in the coming decades.  I’ve never been one to expect the suffering people of my life to survive their agonizing realities just so that I wouldn’t have to suffer losing them.  When I was a naive 23 year old crying on the floor next to my father’s corpse I accepted that nobody owes my happy existence the suffering of their survival.  This is a sad reality.  In the darkness of the laurel corridors that signal the descent into the finish in Seward PA, I stopped picturing my brother panicking on his couch, looking at his aging mastiff and best friend, wondering which friend to leave him with and if he would be okay.  I stopped picturing, for a moment, the last breaths of the loved ones I’ve lost in recent years and  I focused on the breath of the loved one behind me.  A person that devoted an entire weekend of her life to the idea that I wanted to run 70 miles and risked serious re-injury to run and talk me through the last 25 miles of the race.  Most importantly, the last 10 miles, when I’d lost the ability to talk myself through ten steps at a time.  I focused on Jon at the finish line and that he drove 5 hours with the intention to shoot several hours of footage for an ongoing film project and ended up gladly stepping into the roll of dogsitter.  I pictured him sitting patiently with my 9 year old border collie, waiting for me to finish so that he could suffer through the five hour drive home and celebrate his young daughters birthday with her the following day.  In the darkness of the laurel tunnels of the last few miles I pictured myself running my first race ever- clumsily and with hope that I might stumble on some hidden ability several decades into my life.   And I pictured being done.

henri2

^Friendship.

henri

^Love

word

^Natalie, Coach, Me – Pretty much summarizes the happy side of 2017 thus far

When I’d started this race, I had a cascading list of silly goals, just as any other race that I’ve done.  Here is a retrospective look at these goals and how they panned out.

  1. Win.  Obviously this didn’t happen.   But what did happen, is that I learned I’m damn sure that I CAN win this race.
  2.  Beat Dick Vincent’s time from the mid nineties, because he’s my coach and he said I could.  And I did.
  3. Beat Jamie Hobbs’ time from when I paced in 2015.  Cut it way too close for comfort on this one.  But managed about a 2 minute gap.
  4. Ingest 400 calories per hour.  LOL.
  5. Hydrate responsibly all day.  Aside from becoming severely dehydrated for 20 miles or so, this went really well.
  6. DON’T STOP COMPETING UNTIL YOU CROSS THE LINE.  I think that in my ever broadening and ambiguously brave (or cowardly) definition of ‘ultra’ running, I’m finding that perhaps the greatest gift that is bestowed upon  us through these self mutilating journeys, is the idea that competition doesn’t mean shit.  If it takes me 60 miles to realize that I don’t care about beating x,y or z, then it took me sixty miles to realize that this isn’t about them.  It’s about me.  It’s about beating myself.  It’s about being better than I was when the guy said ‘go’ 13 hours ago, or 2000 words ago.  It’s about survival and detachment and reattachment and despair and breathing so hard that your diaphragm bleeds.  It’s literally as easy as doing the best that I can do.  Or that you can do.  That’s all it is.  And someday, in a complete blowout, referencing the thousands of races that happen each year in which someone wins with a time that would take 5th most years or in which someone takes 10th place in a time that would win most years, or about the time I won one of the areas most prestigious trail races with a time that most previous race winners could have walked in, I’ll elaborate on this notion that most people probably already understand and that my developmental delays only allow me to learn and unlearn over and over again- our only competition is ourselves and our only responsibility is to beat the person that we were before the race started.   Until I lay those thoughts out for myself, I’ll probably spend a lot of time toeing starting lines and staring at shorts, quads and gear while wondering who means business.

I finished 6th. 5th dude. I am content.

 

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