Archive for the ‘Racing Stories’ Category

213I wrote this over the course of the day.  It’s absolute garbage.  It’s the writing equivalent of the first run after a year off due to a compound fracture of your spine/cranium/tibia and heart.  I refuse to read it, and wrote it only for the purpose of documenting what I believe to be the strongest performance I’ve ever found within myself on the trails, regardless of what the time would indicate.

A couple of weeks later now.  I need a song.  Something to listen to so that I can dislodge the muck from my brain and put words down somewhere for the first time in so many months.  I dig into the library and go with Paul Kelly’s ‘Peace’ (reprise).  I’ll write now with this on repeat, because when I’m on the trails frolicking, fumbling, dancing and falling through the silent depths of my own personal fires, this is the song that always plays.  It rolls gently over my ear drums, through my brain, through my lungs and into my heart.  Where it pulsates and mutters subtle hints of the reality of what it is we do when we take on these monolithic tasks.

There is an often silenced but very deep philosophical side to my running.  It happens within me,  at the starting line, where I ignore reality so that I can make small talk with those that have come to fight with me against our sedentary inclinations.  I think a series of thoughts that make no sense.  They say to me that, “you aren’t merely a person.  You are an animal.  As your parents child, you age and you wither and succumb to time.  As a child of the entire universe, you are both powerless and powerful beyond all reason.  You are but a fragment of a grain of time lodged in history, but you are your own eternal moment of life.  You can achieve things that you never imagine possible, once you release yourself from the shackles of merely being what you think you are. You are a living being with a symbiotic connection to every thing around you.  The energy and the life and the colors and the cells of the world around you.  You belong to these things just as they belong to you.  You move forward with these things.  Even when you’re stepping backwards, you move forward.”

The reality was, on this day, that we were staring down the barrel of 31.1 miles of ups, downs, rocks, roots, slips, falls and near death experiences.  I put my foot on that line because I demand to know exactly what it is that my mind and body are capable of when I’m buried under the weight of my own self induced Hell.  You take your spot on this line for whatever personal reasons you have for pushing through the hours, closer to both life and death with each labored breath.  Dancing through the aura of silent, contemplative meditation, we find ourselves in front of or behind one another, tied together through the burden of our adventures.  And then we’re done.  And we reflect.

I came dressed for a Hoth blizzard.  It wasn’t cold out.  I arrived without water or a water bottle.  I arrived carrying a dead mp3 player.  I arrived without ambition or hope.  Maybe I subconsciously neglected the typical preparation to prove to myself that I didn’t need any of those things to finish the things that I start.  I wanted perhaps to know that I’d grown enough through the past year of suffering and silently waiting to put my feet back under me, to accept these things for what they are.  I’m not a runner.  I’m a person that moves from point A to point B by foot and wants to do it faster than everybody else.  At this particular starting line, I was so unprepared to compete that I simply let go.  I started the race chasing the lead pack, comprised of several semi-local workhorses that I’ll need an uninterrupted year of hill training to stick to for more than a mile.

Races always start like this for me.  I find the rhythmic connection between my heart, lungs and legs somewhere buried within the energy of the lead pack and then I relax accordingly.  I backed off of the leaders and let several people pass me that I knew I would be able to pick off later if I decided at some point that I was unable to fully detach myself from my competitive nature.  I could feel the sweat starting to soak through my layers and for the first time became fully aware of how much trouble I would be in if I didn’t find a way out of my cocoon.  The first loop went by in about 50 minutes.  I was completely comfortable with this time and felt okay with my current situation within the chain of runners.  What was not going to work was the clothing.  I promptly rolled in to the trailsroc tent and stood looking contemplatively for nothing.  I did this a lot during this race.  It was the first time and the last time hopefully and most likely a result of going into the race in a severely dehydrated state.  I was confused almost all day at aid stations.  Apprehension is normal for me, but during this race I continually convinced myself that there was something missing and that I would find it if I just stood and stared blankly for an awkward period of time.  I snapped back to earth and promptly ditched the all upper body layers except for my tshirt.  I ran up along the road to the aid station provided by the race and spent another minute or so staring around contemplatively before downing a cup of HEED followed by a cup of water.  I would stick to this fluid plan for the entire race and it worked beautifully.  I’d say that I learned more from not having my own hydration that day than I had in all of my previous ultra endeavors combined.  After checking out of the aid station I set back out onto the road and felt the muscles in my legs begin to cook under the insulation of my tights.  I panicked briefly and reminded myself that I was still running and not trying to beat anyone, but rather finish in time to get to work at 2 pm.  “Oh, a bush,” I thought as I veered off the road and into the wooded trails of the course.  I staggered to the bush and looked around to make sure that nobody was coming, as there was decidedly no practical place to find complete seclusion for disrobing.  I slipped my shorts off over my shoes and thought to myself, ‘piece of cake. now just get these tights off.’  It seems only natural that my tights would get stuck on my shoes and send me stumbling naked to the ground.  After a quick face palm I looked up and saw a runner approaching.  I quickly kicked my shoes off, untangled the mess and peeled them away from my shoes before putting a shoe back on and realizing that I would need to put my shorts back on in order to finish the race, and avoid a lifetime on the registry.

Once dressed, I return to the trail and chase down the runner that passed me in all of my glory.  I asked how much he saw and he said that he saw nothing.  Skeptical, I pried briefly and explained that I had been naked just five feet off the trail before diffusing the situation by asking what his goal time was.  Runners are easy like that.  If anything awkward ever arises in social interaction, you simply ask them about a PR or a goal or their taper strategy.  The man I was deadlocked with at the moment explained that he hadn’t run long in a while.  That his last long run was the Rochester Marathon about 7 weeks ago and that he ran a 3:01 while sustaining hypothermia and hallucinating a great chunk of the finish.  I explained that my last run over 20 miles was 11 months ago and that he would surely lap me before the end of the day.

How is it possible to DNF the same race report 35 times, yet never drop out of an actual race?  Perhaps traipsing through this writing stuff is just that much more difficult that bombing a hill in the forest.

I carried my tights Heisman Trophy style for the next six miles.  My temporary companion stopped to walk a hill and I explained that I don’t do that stuff, and that I’d see him in a minute when he blew by me on the straight.  For the rest of the day I only saw him when I turned around.  I felt him breathing down my neck from a hundred yards away.  I ran.

At the end of my 2nd lap, which went about 3 minutes faster than my first lap, I dropped my tights off with the trailsroc folks and stood again, staring hesitantly and confused at a table full of stuff that my brain couldn’t make sense of.  I remember people asking me if I needed something each time this happened and I remember not having an answer.  Back up the gravel path to the aid station at the start line.  Another several minutes staring blankly.  Heed. Water. Gel. Run.

The third time I veered off the road into the woods I decided that it was time to race.  It occurred to me that I hadn’t been passed by Jamie Hobbs yet, thus must be doing far better than I thought I would, as Jamie is a stronger trail runner than I am.  On top of the realization that I’d not been passed yet, I realized that I wasn’t feeling any pain.  That’s not to say I wasn’t experiencing any pain.  I simply wasn’t feeling it.  The pains I was experiencing were probably frightening enough to where they were better if ignored.  There were two of them:

My kidneys were hurting fiercely since I woke up that morning.  I’d been drinking considerable amounts of beer for the past week or so and capped off the prior evening with a bedtime IPA.  With each stride I could feel what looked like the words ‘organ failure’ in bright neon letters.  Lights can be turned off though.

My bladder was sending pulsating, searing pain through my pelvis and groin.  It was the most excruciating pain I have ever felt running and there was no off switch.  Just don’t feel it.  It’s there, but you don’t need it.  Pain is just baggage.  Like carrying an extra water bottle full of concrete.

I stopped at the midway aid station and lollygagged for a brief moment, chatting with the workers, thanking them for volunteering, staring at things.  Jamie came blazing by me at this point.  He looked happy and strong and promptly knocked the wind out of my competitive sails.  I stood for another moment, contemplating how to proceed, and promptly turned and began running as fast as I knew how.  I caught him on a hill, exchanged pleasantries and ran harder, believing that I would be passed by him shortly after and pay for my over-extension of my actual abilities.  It didn’t happen though, and my fourth lap was complete.  And then my fifth.  And then my Last.  And…

As always, there is a cop-out built into writing race reports for looped races.  My race report for the Mind the Ducks 12 hour never happened, because 140 laps around a .5 mile loop is about a paragraphs worth of storytelling.  So I’ll apply that logic to the fact that I can’t currently loosen the sludge from my brain or my fingers and say a few brief last thoughts about this race.

10k trail loops are not for me.  There is no zoning out on such a course, thus the mental side of the race becomes something that I’m far less into than 2 50k trail loops or 12 hours of paved meditation.

The hills on this course were deceptively brutal and by the fourth loop I had resigned myself to patiently walking them except in cases where I needed to pass someone and make a statement.

My bladder and kidneys appear to be fine now.

Everything I did during this race was solely for the reason that I missed my girlfriend so much that I didn’t give a shit what was happening around me.  I don’t talk about these things because I’m not sure where such emotions fit into the world of competitive activity, but I share an absolutely wonderful love with a person that lives 4000 miles away and for just a day I found it possible to take the resulting emotions and dissolve them in a sea of lactic acid and self injurious behavior.  I finished in 4:39 or something. I don’t recall.  9th place maybe.  Cheers.




Oh Bandera.

Posted: January 18, 2013 in Racing Stories


Disclaimer: If this of sounds overly dramatic it’s because it was my second trail race in two years and my first trail race over 6 miles.  Up until now I’ve been a road guy.  Road running and trail running are entirely different sports. I knew going into this that I was unprepared for the situation.  The winter conditions in Rochester made training properly impossible.  As did my recent ankle issues.  Lingering between repair and prepare is something we all do though.  So by no means does this qualify as an asterisk next to my time.

Oh Bandera, how I love thee.

I have been unable to mash words together that would constitute a race report.  I want this to be better.  I want these words to be different.  I want you stuck in my shoes as I try to come to grips with the fact that each one of them is caked with 2-4 lbs of mud (not an exaggerated figure if you ask anyone that ran that day).  I want you to breathe deep with me as I brace for another 20 sotol bushes to lacerate my exposed flesh.  Feel the earth punch through my heels, up through my femurs and hips and organs, jarring my soul with every cautiously reckless step.  I am a human.  I run.  This is nature.  It sits still. Every inch of it sprawling under the mist awaiting my arrival.

In a tent, I spend the night listening to the painfully loud drone of several generators about twenty feet away.  I’d manage three hours of sleep that night.  Those hours would come to a slow, crawling halt at 6 am as I realized that I was drowning in ice cold sweat.  Without ever having been in a comfort zone, there is no reason to pity oneself for wandering alone into the forthcoming hell.

  • Priority 1: Put Ipod, shot blocks and gels in vest
  • Priority 2: Pound the nearest energy drink and eat two clif bars
  • Priority 3: Get in line at the porta-potty section
  • Priority 4: Remove as much waste from the body as possible
  • Priority 5: Figure out where the hell this thing starts and try to not miss it

I was rolling through my checklist, right up until 5.  Unbeknownst to my blank frame of existence at that hour, 50k and 25k runners all started at a different line than the 100k group.  Drowning in my own anxiety about the impending day, I must have missed the explanation as it came over the PA.  The consequences of my stupidity landed me running up the backside of a 265ish person pack that wouldn’t thin for what seemed like 20 minutes.

When one thinks about humidity they think about discomfort.  This is enhanced exponentially by the prospect of running a jagged and razor sharp 31 mile trail in visibly dense, oxygen deprived air…twice.  When one thinks of humidity thick enough to short out and render worthless the source of the day’s ultra-inspirational, meticulously planned playlist before the first mile has elapsed they think about…’fuck.’

So, with chronic tendinitis ravaging both ankles, three hours of jackhammer laden sleep, soaking wet clothes and not a single note of music in my ear, I set off into the rubble.

It would be beneficial if I could illustrate the dramatic absurdity of the course.  It makes this race what it is.  I’m afraid that there are no words for it.  Videos and photos also do it no justice.  It needs to be felt under foot to be believed.  Even then it is completely unbelievable.  I would say that to create a comparable course, one would take 31 miles of high powered explosives, drape them over a series of small mountains, like Christmas lights on the bushes in your front yard, and detonate them.  After some of the smoke clears and the endless sea of jagged and variably sized rocks settles, take thousands of needle wielding, psychoplants and position them in the most inconvenient places possible all over the course.  Then carve out an endless sea of deceptively intense climbs with utterly death defying descents (unless you’re one of the elite descent runners that seems superhuman when it comes to tap dancing a 5 minute mile down a jagged mess of inconsistency.)  No two foot falls are the same in this race.  Only after it ended, would I understand why this made it so perfect.

For twenty minutes I sauntered over narrow, technical climbs, going at the pace of the hundreds of people in front of me.  Aside from affording me the opportunity to observe the quiet morning beauty, I was certain I’d never start at the back of a pack again.  The feeling that I’d lost my strongest minutes never quite left me.  The negativity of my thoughts weighed me down as much as my already drenched clothes and my lungs felt heavy under the dense humidity.  I noticed very early that the gentle rainfall had left the rocks extremely slick.  This would make descents even more brutal than they already are.  Aid stations were stocked with typical fare; gels, soda, heed, pb&j, quesadillas, red bull, peanut butter covered apple slices, and orange slices; which i subsisted on for the better portion of the race, only eating bread at 31 miles to soak up some gel in my gut.  Most importantly the aid stations were stocked full of beautiful personalities that eagerly treated every runner with the utmost concern before assuring them that they were kicking ass, and sending them on their way.  There truly is no way to thank volunteers enough.  I’m always left in awe by their compassion and caring.  Bandera had the best I’ve ever encountered.

For 17 miles I talked myself into dropping out of the race.  I had essentially made up my mind to bail as soon as the next aid station was in my sight.  I’d broken free of all clusters and was logging 9 minute miles in my concrete shoes all alone and completely miserable since mile ten or so.  I’d hit a particularly nasty hill full of more of those sotol things; unavoidable ninja plants that somehow managed to annihilate me through my DIY compression sleeves/shin guards.  I even stopped after one particularly painful cut and just stood with my hands on my hips, muttering swear words and sighing breaths of defeat, like I would if I were in a Hollywood feature demonstrating what it looks like when one simply gives up.  Like life though, I prefer to believe that I’m not done unless I’m dead in the literal sense.  Figurative death is small. It is humbling but surmountable.  So I finished the climb, navigated the descent, landing on as many hard rocks as possible in an effort to break free of some mud, and began running again; telling myself, “If you can walk you can run.”  (I think Scott Jurek said that.  But I might be wrong.  I think Scott Jurek said half the stuff I tell myself when I feel like I’m plummeting straight to hell.)

“How’s it goin?” said the confident voice that was blowing by me on the right.

“Good,” I lied through a gasping cough, not looking at first.  Then noticing as the man passed me that it was Timothy Olson.  (Timothy Olson is one of the best runners in the country, and my personal hero.  He started the race some five miles behind the 100k group, just to give you an idea of the speed at which he was moving). Promptly realizing that one of my dreams was coming true, I increased my turnover by about 2 million percent and like the little star struck fanboy we all have in us somewhere, said, “I’m gonna run with you for a minute, because it’s a dream of mine.”

“Okay,” he chuckled, willing to converse for a second.

This meant the world to me. Having someone that’s deadlocked with another runner for first place in an extremely important race take time to exchange words with a mere mortal is something that oozes positivity.  It’s what makes this sport sustainable and unique.  We bantered for a minute and I stuck with him for maybe a mile or so before I got a grip on the situation and parted ways with him so that I had enough energy to get to the next aid station.   I didn’t think about quitting again til mile 31.

The thing about double loops on a course like Bandera is this:  You’ve just completed the most difficult task of your life.  Nothing else has even come close.  Brain death set in 3 hours ago and muscle failure set in shortly after.  You’ve reached the end, but its only the start.  You have to do this again.  Right now.  You have to take all the unfathomable agony that you just subjected yourself to, and make it happen again, basking in the complete awareness that you have nothing left to give.  So, I sat down for a minute.  I said to myself, “yea, I’m just gonna change my shoes.”  Which was code for ‘it’s over, I’m not doing this again.’

“Hey Mike!!!” said the familiar voice from over my shoulder.

It was Timothy again.  I knew immediately that I wasn’t dropping out of shit.  He told me excitedly that he won and I tried to conjure up enough energy to convey how happy I was for him.  We talked briefly again and I hobbled back into the tent to put different shoes on.  The dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

When changing shoes during a race, be certain not to put on smaller shoes.  Your feet are swollen after 30 miles.  I switched from my Brooks PureGrit, with about 50 miles on them, which were doing very well aside from holding too much mud, to my ancient New Balance MT 100’s that barely have soles on them anymore.  Why?  I don’t really know.  But I knew before I got back onto the course that it was going to make every step feel like I was being stabbed in the foot.  I feared that if I sat back down to change them back, I wouldn’t get up again.  So I set back out.  Whatever though.  What’s 31 miles of agony?

The only easy thing about a double loop trail course is writing the race report.  It makes the second half of the article a breeze.  The second half of the race was not so simple.  It went slow.  But hurt fast, like this: Blisters on four toes, bloody discharge from under three nails, puncture wounds in both shoes, thus in both feet, muscles running on bone movement alone, not even burning protein or muscle tissue; just existing in a perpetual state of agonizing forward motion.  Bone hinges swing involuntarily, much the way a pendulum swings without knowing why, but just knowing how. Descents are impossible to run under these conditions.  You take them fast anyways, hoping that you’ll misstep and your DNF will be due to skull fractures and grievous bodily harm inflicted by Ma’ Nature and her army of jagged rocks.  But, as in your training run fantasyland, the DNF never comes.  The DNF is just a finish line that you perpetually bypass until the race is actually over.  The idea kicks your heels all day.  It lays hurdles at shoulder height and compels you to climb over them because you can no longer jump over them.  When you know how it feels to have walking hurt more than running, then you know what this is all about.

So there are ten more miles in the pitch black, with fog so thick that partnered running with several headlamps is borderline necessity.  Or maybe I’ve just sunken into this logic as a means of pretending that I have a pacer.  Or because I’m sick of laying lonely footprints in the mud.  And my ears have spent 51 miles growing tired of my voice.  And I’ve finally learned to abandon the idea of placing above any given runner. And that the experience that almost kills us IS the adventure.  I’ve finally learned that adventures shared are so much more valuable than experiences that pass through me as quickly as I pass through them, never to be uttered again, because words can never do justice the things that shake our bones and rupture our flesh and force us bury our pride under a rock in the middle of the wilderness so we can accept how frail we are; and how strong we will be when its over.

I finished 32nd out of 256 starters.  It was the USATF national championship 100k trail race.  This placing makes me happy.  This was the best field I’ve ever run against and my giddiness to have been on the same trail as Sage Canaday and Karl Meltzer and Dave Mackey and Timothy Olson and countless other incredible runners has yet to subside.  Ill be back for it next year with the intent of being healthy and shaving 2 hours off of my finish.

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.