Saturday, October 19, 2013

Broken: South Mountain Reservation, October 19, 2013

You can ask the mountain
But the mountain doesn’t care
~Antje Duvekot

I’ve forbidden myself to run until November.  Coming into my last race I was carrying four injuries: strains to the proximal left hamstring tendon, distal left posterior tibialis tendon, and left gastrocnemius, and a strange undiagnosed pain in the fifth metatarsal on my right foot.  All of these became worse during my last LSD run and even more so during the race.  The gastroc injury is probably nothing; if that were the only issue I would just keep running.  The tibialis tendon pain is also minor, although, to quote Drake, “like a sprained ankle, boy, I ain’t nothing to play with.”  It requires rest, but I’m fairly confident that it will solve itself with some strengthening of the glute med on that side.  The other two, contrarily, could be real problems.

The reason I worry about the metatarsal pain is that I don’t know where it came from (no memorable trauma to that foot), and it doesn’t seem to get better with time.  These are classic signs of a stress fracture.  WebMD will tell you that rest will heal a stress fracture, which sounds great, but when was the last time you heard about Yao Ming?  I’m probably just being paranoid over a bone bruise or a poorly fitting shoe, or perhaps I just forgot kicking whatever it was that I kicked, but the pain occupies a corner of my mind nonetheless.

The most serious injury, though, and the real reason for the 4 mph speed limit, is the left hamstring.  I first injured it in June, at the very beginning of my summer distance training.  I was running a Sierra/History trail loop in the Watchung Reservation, which always seems to take me an hour, and I saw myself behind pace with a mile to go.  The last mile is slightly downhill on reasonably smooth surface, so I opened it up as far as I could and basically sprinted until I felt the stiffness behind my hip.[1]  I slowed down, finished the run, and hoped it would be okay.

My leg didn’t feel too bad when I woke up the next morning, but after driving to work I could barely walk.  Ouch.  I cut back on training for a few days, decided it felt better enough, and tried to press through.  The muscle and tendon held up well enough through the intervening months for me to train and eventually to race, but they never felt quite right.  On top of this, there are two very clear training indications that something is wrong.  First, my top pace in mile repeats last spring was just over 5 minutes, and now I’m struggling to get below 5:30 for even one mile.  Second, my left leg can barely lift 40 pounds on a single leg hamstring curl, while the bar actually lifts up off my foot from the upward acceleration when pulling that weight with my right.  What does all this mean?  Left hamstring strain leading to muscle weakness leading to proximal hamstring tendonitis leading to “Oh crap now what?”  I’d even bet that the other left leg injuries resulted from a breakdown in my stride as the hamstring tired on long runs.  Now I’m just hoping that three weeks off will let me heal enough for the leg to withstand mild running and strengthening.

Rest may heal my body, but what about my mind?  Sitting around in the evenings is driving me stir crazy.  My sleep is suffering, and I can almost feel the daily uptick in my blood cortisol and thyroxine levels.  My wife is sure to reference me as an irritating and obsessive jerk any moment.  Ugg.

These are the feelings that sent me fleeing to the South Mountain Reservation today.  We were blessed with beautiful fall weather in North Jersey, low 60’s with a few clouds, dry air, and brilliant sunlight.  I’ve been meaning to explore the reservation as a close-to-home training backup to the Watchung, so after entertaining my (now three-year-old!) son with a hayride and pumpkin patch in the morning I set off for Washington Rock.  Stopped short by the “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign, I left the truck at the dog park and walked among the oaks, maples, and beech trees.

I’ve read many passages by runners claiming that running is “meditative”, and a scathing reply from a runner/monk who claims that the others have no idea what meditation is.  I’m no expert in meditation, but I tend to agree with the monk.  Meditation is about stillness and reflection.  Trail running is about motion and engagement.  But what about trail walking?  The challenges of a technical surface disappear below my 4 mph speed limit, allowing me to disengage from the immediate and apprehend the slow rhythms of the trees, the breezes, the deer, and the chipmunks (I admit it, the little stripy guys are one of my favorite animals).   As I walked, I watched brown and yellow leaves drop from trees and float slowly to the ground, their photosynthetic work complete.  I scared up a white tail doe, and warned an eight-point buck that I could catch him if I got hungry (false bravado, given the injuries).  He stared back, uncomprehending and unconcerned, never having had to worry that a running human might actually pose a threat.  He chewed the cud of whatever plants he’d been eating, storing fat by the moment. I told the chipmunk that I knew he was tiny, no matter how much noise he could make in the fallen leaves, and he rustled across the forest floor anyway.  I spread my fingers on lifted hands to sense the soft movement of the air, smelled the dust of the fallen leaves crunched beneath my feat, felt the weak warmth of the autumn sun on my arm as it played over the newly scarred skin, a memento of a misstep during my last run.  I tried to empty myself and allow the void to be filled with the timeless flow of life over the earth.  I tried to fill myself with the unhurried and unworried preparation that the animals and plants were making before the coming winter, building nests, storing energy, pulling back to roots, dying with secured eggs prepared to hatch when the seasons turned.

I am human though, unable to escape worry and distraction.  As a species, our ability to project possible futures is a great and defining tool, but a bother also.  I know no peace, because I know my present is built on an unsustainable construction of culture and infrastructure for which I bear no responsibility.  I know my future will unfold amidst an unpredictable torrent whose currents I cannot affect and whose waves can pull me under in a moment or lift me up and shatter me against the rocks.  I know that the coming winter is the least of my problems.

It takes great strength to find serenity.  What makes it so hard is that this strength is the strength of inaction, of weakness even, of letting go.  It’s not a strength of doing, of making a better future, because those efforts can easily fall in vain.  Nor is it a strength of faith, which would promise that tomorrow will be okay, when in truth it might not be.  Serenity is the strength of accepting the torrent, accepting the waves and the rocks.  Serenity is the courage of living your life and striving for goals in full knowledge of their present and future irrelevance.

I’m not going to lie to you and claim that I achieved serenity today.  The preceding paragraph is purely intellectual for me, so I’m not even going to claim an ability to put one word of it into practice.  When I got back to the truck, I’m sure the cadence of my heart matched exactly what it was when I left.  My leg and foot still hurt, and my mind is still full of whispered urges to let loose, take off, and run until I can’t run anymore.  I quieted the whispers, got in the truck, and drove home to my beautiful wife and compelling son.  Tomorrow I will get up and perform the duties that my life requires of me.  And I will walk, empty my self, and hope to be filled by the serene.

[1] For anyone who is new to distance training, this was sheer stupidity.  I was begging for the injury that I got.  There’s no reason to sprint out the last mile of a training run when I couldn’t keep pace for the first seven.  Far smarter would have been to coast in, feel bad about the slow time, get a good night’s sleep, and rock it the next day.

Carpe locum: Blues Cruise 50K, October 6th, 2013

I remember being seven or eight years old, lying on the grass in my parent’s front lawn on a lazy June morning, enjoying the sun.  Our neighbor told me that I should stop lying there, that I should get up and play.  He said that the summer would be over before I knew it, that the days would just fly by.  He said “Carpe diem”.

“Seize the day” gets said quite a bit, usually to tell someone to quit being lazy; to get up off the couch and do something, which can be an important reminder for a runner.  In graduate school, as we drank copious amount of coffee and worked in the lab late into the night, my classmates and I would jokingly alter the saying to “carpe nactum” - seize the night.  The meaning, however, wasn’t really changed from the connotation of carpe diem; we meant that there was an opportunity presented to us, and that we should jump at the chance to exploit it.

There is a deeper meaning to the phrase though.  It means not just to exploit the day, but more importantly to live in and experience the day.  It reminds us that this day is all we really have.  It reminds us of something said by sages, philosophers, and mystics; that we should live in the moment, enjoy what we have, and not worry too much about a tomorrow that might not even come.

As I’ve grown older, and run farther, I’ve tried to adopt this deeper meaning of carpe diem, the notion of living in the day that is.  I’ve also tried to adapt it further to the notion of living in a place, focusing on the people who are actually present and the landscape that is actually around me.  I try to remember that it is important not just to be someone, but also to be somewhere.  You could call this “seize the place”, or better, “carpe locum”.

Focusing on your environment is important when running trails.  It’s particularly important for me to pay attention to the surface of the ground extending from my toes ahead about eight feet and a few feet to either side.  Missing an aberrant rock or root within this box has put me on my face in the dirt plenty of times, and I greatly prefer to stay upright.  More than that, though, the great benefit of running trails is that they take me places I’d otherwise never go.  And, when I pick my trails well, those places can be beautiful, inspiring, and serene.  Paying attention to them can bring joy and strength that would melt away on asphalt roads and rubberized tracks.  Running trails keeps me in touch with my immediate place, and my life is fuller for it.  Carpe locum.

On the first Sunday of October I tackled a new trail as part of my first ultra race: the Blues Cruise 50K around Blue Marsh Lake near Reading, Pennsylvania.  My wife and two-year-old and I drove over from New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, checked into a rather questionable hotel, and then drove over to the starting line at the Dry Brook public access.  While the little guy played on the beach I jogged out about a mile and half to familiarize myself with the opening hill, descent, and stream crossing, and to get a sense for the technicality of the trail surface.  Happily, it was largely smooth single track with only occasional sections of rocks and roots.  The bugs were plentiful, but luckily not of the biting variety.  The trees provided plenty of shade, and the leaves where an appealing mix of summery green and autumn yellow.  All in all, very inviting.  Encouraged, we headed back to the hotel to carbo-load on rice and quinoa with black beans, mangos, plumbs, and apples.

I awoke the next morning at 4:30 am, an hour before my alarm was set to go off.  I was jittery and clearly a bit nervous, which might be understandable before my first ultra.  I tried to calm my myself by pacing in the dark, added to my carb balance with an Ezekiel muffin and another apple, then woke the family for the drive back to Dry Brook.

I was a little intimidated by the field of runners I found at the starting line.  I spent quite a bit of time examining shoes and hydration packs, T-shirts and tattoos (my favorite T: “that which doesn’t kill me had better start running”).  I looked for people wearing Altra’s, a zero-drop but non-minimalist shoe I’d been thinking about buying for technical trails, and I looked for the Jurek/Krupicka style race vests with the bottles up front on the straps.  There where plenty of both, and plenty of other gear showing that the people here where serious about trails and serious about ultras.  Partially because of that, and partially due to my longstanding habit of flying and dying in races, I started far back in the pack.

The 8:30 start came with a cool but humid “Ready, Set, Go!” from race director Stephan Weiss.  The pack jogged out across a short stretch of road to the trailhead, then spread out along the single track going up the first hill.  We pattered over the crest and down the first decent, splashed across the tiny stream, and climbed up to the rolling, partially forested hills along the north side of the lake.

The first ten miles were pure joy, smooth, gentle, and beautiful.  I moved up slowly, competitiveness getting the better of discretion, picking off a few runners each time the trail widened, and slowly the pack cleared out to small groups of runners carrying similar pace.  By mile ten I was running nearly alone, until I smacked into the group that slowed to a walk on the course’s first real hill, the ski slope climb.  I tried running up it, using all the advice about maintaining cadence and shortening stride, but ended up walking the top anyway.  A great warning sign hangs at the top: “Long Downhill Ahead”.  A few of us joked that we could have used a warning sign at the bottom instead!

After bombing down the “Long Downhill”, I found myself running along with eventual 6th place finisher Andrew McDowell.  I told him that the Blues Cruise was my first ultra, and he told me about finishing the Vermont 100 four of the last five years.  He told me that this race was his fifteen-year-old son’s first ultra, and I mentioned that my two year old likes running trails too, but that I usually have to carry him back to the truck after a mile or so.  I kept up with Andrew for much of the middle section, eventually letting him go shortly before the bag pickup at mile 18.  I’m proud to say that he and Scott Thomas were the only two runners to pass me during the race, but that pride is tempered somewhat by the fact that they are ten and thirteen years older than me, respectively.  Who said old guys can’t run?!?

The aid stations at the Blues Cruise are particularly great, far more entertaining than the simple “table full of plastic cups” version I’ve found at shorter races.  At one a grass-skirted Hula girl pressed a cold towel to my head.  At another a Bavarian waitress filled my water bottles and joked that I might be faster running in lederhosen.  My favorite, though, was the Blues Brothers station at mile 26.5.  I’d had a tough time from mile 23 to mile 26, bonking and dehydrated, and I had trouble getting the lids off my bottles.  A guy in black suit, black tie and sunglasses took them from me, filled them, and handed them back while I grabbed salted potatoes.  We laughed about what health inspectors would think about the sweaty hands of so many runners picking through the food, and I looked at the 26.5 mile sign, officially farther than I had ever run.  I left with renewed energy and optimism.

The last few miles were tough anyway.  It was hard not to look at my watch, hard not to calculate the miles remaining and how long they would take.  I had to keep reminding myself that the race was not about finishing.  It was about running.  I had to remind myself that I came here to run, that I came here to be here, in this place with the beautiful lake and autumn leaves, and the smooth box of trail, two feet wide and eight feet long, stretched out in front of my feet.  Carpe locum.

I did finish eventually, of course, jumping up to tap the banner with both hands at 4 hours, 39 minutes, and 28 seconds, good for 13th overall.  I congratulated Scott Adams, who finished 11th, and asked him if he was famous because I thought I recognized his face.  He said he thought he recognized me too, but we couldn't fathom where we might have met.  We reflected on how we were both nobodies, really, and maybe it was just two guys who liked running recognizing the similarity in one another.  At the finishers' barbeque I sat at a table next to Rob Steffens, who finished 3rd.  I joked that I was glad I didn’t have to carry his heavy award stone, and he told me that his girlfriend was going to kill him.  This was her first ultra, and he’d told her that the course would be flat and the temperature cool in October.  She didn’t kill him though.  I saw them together later, after she’d finished, and I realized that I’d run most of miles 2 through 4 next to her and enjoyed snippets of conversation.  This is one of the things I love about trail running: in the midst of a quintessentially solitary activity, both momentary and lasting friendship.  I love the runners, all of whom had come today to do something.  And to be somewhere.

Lost in Ringwood Park Run, September 8th, 2013

I ran in Ringwood State Park this weekend with the goal of tracing out portions of the Mountain Madness 50K route.  That race will be run later this month (without me; I haven’t had time to prepare for 5000 feet-up and down-of elevation change).  The map and course description on it’s web page make it seem like it might be the most interesting trail race in New Jersey, so I thought it might be a good place to spend a Sunday afternoon.  The terrain also looked like a nice testing ground for the SJ Ultravest that just showed up in the mail from Ultimate Direction: more on that later.

The race starts at Sheppard Pond in Ringwood State Park, a few miles west of I-287 just on the Jersey side of the NJ/NY border.  The intended route follows the carriage path around the south end of the lake to the red-blazed Ringwood-Ramapo Trail, which heads south toward the Ramapo State Forest.  Not having a map with me, and misunderstanding the term “carriage path”, I first ran back down Sheppard Pond Road looking for a trail.  I stopped at the construction zone for the cross-park natural gas pipe, thinking that runners and bulldozers might not make the greatest mix.  I turned around, ran back to the parking lot, and then ran up Mansion Road past a chapel to a skeet shooting range.  The shooters and spectators at the range shot me a few “why don’t you come up here and trade places with the clay pigeon” looks, convincing me that I’d again run astray.  Back down to the parking lot, and finally, by chance, along the packed soil carriage path, which does indeed lead to the red blazes of the Ringwood-Ramapo trail.

I followed those blazes for about a mile, at which point I again came across the gas pipeline construction.  I chanced it past the first and second “authorized personnel only” signs, but at the third sign I lost the trail and, with it, my willingness to risk contentious discussions with construction workers in hard hats and lug-soled boots.  I snuck back through the construction zone to the last point I seen a blaze and then followed the trail back toward Sheppard Pond, eventually taking a right turn on an unmarked two track that appeared to head away from both the pipeline construction and the constant bangs and crackles of the skeet range (by the way, what happens to all those steel bb’s?  I didn’t hear any raining through the trees around me at any point, but given that the range was on a hilltop, they must have had an opportunity to rain on someone). 

I followed the double track along the edge of first Sheppard and then Potake ponds to the point where it crossed a set of high-voltage transmission lines.  A sign reading “Trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law” (quaint, really.  Where I grew up in Montana, those signs read “Trespassers will be shot on sight”) sent me backtracking to a trail that followed the path of the high voltage line.  This trail climbed to a hilltop, then dropped down a nearly vertical back slope toward the Cranberry pond drainage.  As it turns out, the area is a favorite with ATV enthusiasts.  The startling roar of unmuffled engines contrasted greatly with the friendly waves, grins, and calls of “Hey, Runner Guy!” of the people riding up the trail.  I hopped up on a bolder to let them pass, then dropped the rest of the way down to Cranberry creek.  I followed a fork of the trail up to Cranberry spring, then climbed the side of Bald Mountain to a hilltop swamp.  After a brief respite, double-espresso Cliffshot gel, and some water, I headed back to the truck.
Note post writing:  Just posted the run on Strava and found out that I set three segment course records.  Come on people, I was jogging!  Get back out there and kick my butt!