Sunday, November 10, 2013

Eulogy: Delaware Water Gap, November 9, 2013

Runners speak of feeling absorbed into the universe, of seeing the story of life in a single weed on the side of the road.
-Scott Jurek

I remember an old story about a Native American dying ritual.  I don’t know how much of it is based in fact and how much is Hollywood imagination.  Regardless, the story stuck with me.  It tells of an old man who thought that his body was failing him.  He climbed up on a mountainside and sat down, waiting to die.  Three days later he came back down, and only much later did his life finally end.

My grandfather died this week.  He didn’t climb any mountains, his body was too sick for that, but I am glad to say that he had his wits about him until the end and that he was able to live out these past few months as much as possible on his own terms.  This week my family and I will fly to Colorado to celebrate his life and mourn his death.  For our family this is a dramatic passage.  You could call it a sea change, or an earth-shaking event, or whichever other metaphor you like; as my mother said, we have lost our patriarch.

When a man dies we might think of building memorials, casting statues, or erecting obelisks with his name inscribed on the side.  For most of us it’s more likely to be a stone marker placed by our graves, which is both understated and more fitting.  Regardless, the goal is the same.  We place stones and monuments to ascribe a sense of permanence to the life that has ended.

I think that we as a people are far too concerned with permanence.  Mostly, this is a matter of security.  We want our houses to stand forever, so we will always be able to come home.  We want our jobs to be untouchable, so we will always be able to support ourselves.  We want our relationships to endure indelibly, so we will never be alone.  Of course this is illusory.  The next hurricane blowing across New Jersey could knock one of my neighbor’s towering white pines onto our roof, most jobs are under constant layoff scrutiny, and I’m writing now because one of the people I loved has just died.  We are temporal beings, and life is constantly changing around us.  I try hard to accept this daily, and I try hard to maintain versatility and flexibility, which makes the changes less threatening.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”  I think he was speaking of this same impermanence.  The insignificance he mentions is a result of the temporary nature of our selves and everything we create, even the statues, stones, and monuments.  The things we do or make will fade away in a day or week or month or, at most, a generation or two.  Even the pyramids of Giza will one day dissolve in the desert sands.

The question, then: why it is so important to do things?  The key is the difference between durability and meaning.  Little in life is as meaningful as joy, sorrow, and inspiration, and none of these last beyond the moment.  A job well done is a wonderful thing; don’t forget that it will have to be done well again tomorrow.  I’m not sure if anything is more important than teaching a child, but every day he will have new things to learn.  Meaning, not permanence, is what matters.  Water flowing down a river is ever changing, each current different, each current necessary.

If I were a stonemason or a sculptor, I would probably ignore what I’ve just said and try to make a permanent memorial for Granddad anyway, but I’m not.  Instead, I am a runner, so I decided to build my memorial by experience on the trail.  I chose the Appalachian Trail in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area; Granddad was a park ranger for much of his life, so I thought he would appreciate the location.

The Appalachian Trail runs through the Water Gap from the Totts Gap boundary in Pennsylvania to the I-80 crossing of the Delaware River, then south along the river to the confluence with Dunnfield Creek.  I planned to intercept the path there.  I wanted to follow the trail through the Worthington Forest to Yards Creek Crossing, and then retrace my steps. 

From the bank of the Delaware the trail ascends the Dunnfield drainage to Sunfish pond, climbing a thousand feet in the first three miles and resembling the relentless growth of childhood.  It circles the western edge of the lake through a garden of stones, a rocky adolescence where the path is not so much a trail as the idea of a trail, a general sense of direction discernable only by the occasional white blazes on the most prominent outcroppings.  There are many possible routes, some false-leading and some true, but all crossed only with determination and effort.  After reaching the head of the lake, the route climbs further along a clearer trail to the crest of the Kittatinny ridge, whose name is derived from the Lenape phrase for endless mountain.  The trail rolls along the ridgeline for five miles, a firm, steady adulthood, then descends to the Yards Creek valley.  The descent is sometimes smooth and even, sometimes sudden and rocky.  In the end, it arrives at the stream with finality.  There is even a bridge to the other side.

I arrived at the Delaware River at noon.  I walked down to the bank and placed my hands in the icy river.  I splashed cold water on my face.  All of us are born from water, and in Christianity we believe that the water of baptism begins our life with Christ.  I wanted the symbolism.  I picked up a broken tree branch and wrote in the sand “Oak Park, Illinois, 1920”.  Then I turned and ran.

I ran the first three miles as hard as I could, trying to channel the boundless energy of my three-year-old, the boundless energy my grandfather must have had in 1923.  I pounded across the bridge over Dunnfield creek and hammered up the rocky incline.  I sprinted the first flat section with abandon, flew down the slope to Sunfish pond, and then slowed.  There was no reason to risk a sprained ankle or fall in the rock garden, and moreover, I had things I wanted to say.

When my grandfather was a child and young adolescent, the world descended into the great depression.  He told me once about his father, who, if I remember correctly, was an engineer in Chicago.  My great grandfather was able to keep a job longer than most, but eventually it was lost, just like so many others.  My granddad remembered with awful clarity the day that his dad came home and told the family.  He didn’t say much about the following years, but I’m sure they were hard.  My grandmother told me once about a Christmas during one of those years.  The only present her parents could afford was a brand new pencil painted bright red.  She treasured it.  Having grown up during opulent times, I can’t really imagine what those days must have been for them, but they got through the time with grace.  I knelt in the rock garden, took a piece of chalk from my pocket, and wrote on a flat stone “Greater than the depression”.

As my grandfather grew, the world got more violent.  Eventually, he became a marine in the Second World War.  He always liked to tell about the shooting drill competition that happened before he was deployed.  That day his squad had the highest aggregate score, and he had the highest score in the squad.  There was one other marine from a different squad who beat him, but he was always proud nonetheless.  I ran a few hundred feet over the rocks, knelt again, and wrote “Target practice”.  I got back up, started running, and almost immediately passed a pair of hikers.  They were talking about skeet shooting, and as I passed one of them said, “target practice”.  You can say whatever you like about coincidence, but if you’re wondering whether Granddad was watching me, I think that was the answer.

My granddad was sent to Peleliu Island, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater.  He told me many stories of his time there and his experiences of the war, most of which I’ve forgotten.  The story I remember most clearly isn’t really about war at all.  In early October 1944 there was a typhoon aiming directly for the island.  He and one of his buddies were stuck out on the beach.  They had two big earthmovers and a giant metal drum, so they trapped the drum between the earthmovers and climbed in to ride out the wind and rain.  They had a radio in the drum with them, and for most of the storm they were able to hold a station that was playing the World Series opener between the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns, who later became the Baltimore Orioles.  The Browns won that game, 2-1, but I think the radio batteries had run down before the 9th inning, so they didn’t know the result until later.  I wrote on a cliff face “typhoons” and “World Series”.  Later, after I’d finally gotten through the most technical stretch of the trail, I wrote “Surviving Peleliu”.

When my grandfather got home from the war, he was set to meet my grandmother at the airport.  They’d met before the war, and while my granddad was in the Pacific my grandmother sent him a pistol, but after so much time apart they weren’t sure that they would recognize one another.  They must have though, because it wasn’t much later that they were married.  I wrote “love at first sight”.

My granddad was fond of saying something else about my grandmother.  He said that one of the things that made her such an incredible person is that, whenever there was a debate or disagreement, she would always come more that half way to make it work.  He would try to come more than half way too, which gave them plenty of common ground in which to live their lives with peace and cohesion.  At the crest of the Kittatinny ridge I wrote “More than half way”.

My granddad spent much of his career with the National Park Service as a park ranger.  There are hundreds of stories from those days, but as I was running I thought of only two.  One happened around a campfire, where a group of dads and their sons were boiling hot dogs in a large pot.  One of the kids, Stuart, was walking circles around the fire, and every time he came close to the pot his dad said “Stuart, watch the weenies”; you can imagine his stern dad voice.  Stuart didn’t touch the pot though, and eventually his dad got up to do something, walked by the pot, and knocked the dogs into the fire.  Stuart piped up immediately.  I wrote “Dad, watch the weenies!”  The other story:  my granddad and his partner were on fire watch duty at a remote station.  They’d stay up late at night chatting, then get up on time in the morning, radio the morning report to headquarters, and go straight back to bed.  I wrote “don’t worry, fires burn low in the morning anyway”.  I also wrote the names of the parks where I knew, or at least thought, that he’d been stationed:  Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Yellowstone, the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Another story I thought about occurred much later in Granddad’s life:  Our whole family had gathered at my grandparent’s house in Colorado, Aunt Jan and Uncle Ron, Mom and Dad, my sister and I.  We were playing volleyball outside in the yard, late in the evening.  The teams were by age, with the youngest playing the oldest.  We made a deal that we would play until the porch light, which was set on automatic timer, came on.  Granddad went inside and turned off the timer, figuring that he’d excuse himself for a bathroom break as soon as the old team was ahead.  Then he’d turn on the light and ensure victory.  The problem was that the young team never lost the lead.  Eventually it got too dark to play and he had to confess.  He said he’d been banking on the adage that old age and treachery will defeat youth and vigor every time.  As I dropped down the switchbacks to Cold Spring I stopped by a smooth-barked beech tree.  I wrote down the adage followed by “except in backyard volleyball!”

The sorrow hit me at the Cold Spring crossing.  I’d been thinking about our last visit to Colorado, 9 months after Jacob was born, in July of 2011.  Jacob was the first great grandchild, and we wanted to get four-generation photographs.  We got those pictures, along with many other groupings, at a studio in Fort Collins, and the prints are beautiful.  The one I keep with me, though, is a simple snapshot taken on the back porch of the house.  Granddad, dad, and I are seated around the glass table, and Jacob is perched on top.  He’s leaning forward, giggling, with the most mischievous grin imaginable on his face.  Granddad is leaning back in his chair, drinking it all in.  I stopped at Cold Spring, tears on my face, unable to breathe, knowing we’d never get a chance to sit together like that again.  I dropped to my knees in the moss and stared at the water.  Later, I walked to the other side of the creek.  I found the flat top of a sawn stump and wrote “Legacy”.

After a while I recovered, got up, and started running again.  Six miles in I came to a high rock outcropping that’s a favorite of New Jersey wilderness photographers.  The view is 360 degrees, and it looks back down on Sunfish pond.  I remember fishing in the reservoirs with my granddad and Laurie in 1986, catching actual sunfish with worms and grasshoppers on the hook.  Grandma filleted those sunfish and fried them with corn meal, and they tasted good.  I wrote “fishing with Granddad”.  On that same visit my grandmother signed Laurie and I up for horseback lessons.  We rode around a field and along a bridle path following the teacher.  I was young and afraid to be in charge of such a large animal with just the two thin reins.  I wrote “hold on tight”.

After Olivia and I were married we visited my grandparents in Colorado, just the two of us.  We talked long into nights, visited the elk in Estes Park, and road bicycles along the local bike paths.  Granddad said that he didn’t understand why people ran, because all the runners on the path had such pained expressions on their faces.  He said all the cyclists he saw were smiling.  I did everything I could to keep a smile on my face as I ran along the ridge, and I looked up at the sky every chance I got.  See Granddad?  It’s not so bad.

A few days ago my dad told me that his dad was the best dad you could have.  I would agree, except I think that my dad is the best.  I guess he learned a few things from his old man, and Granddad probably learned them from his father.  I wrote “Father and Son”, then, above, “Grandfather” and above that, “Great Grandfather”.

I paused at the top of the descent to Yards Creek.  I rested by a downed tree that crossed the trail.  My granddad died of congestive heart failure.  It seems a tough way to go, your body failing to expel liquid, slowly compressing your lungs and heart until you can’t get enough oxygen.  He’d held off the disease for a long time with a portable oxygen tank, which allowed him to maintain mobility and do many of the things he liked.  One of those things was spending Wednesday mornings at McDonalds with old friends, talking and telling stories over 25 cent cups of coffee (no reason to splurge on a $2.41 venti at Starbucks!).  When the heart failure got worse and they had to up the oxygen, he couldn’t go to the coffee sessions anymore.  I’m sure that wasn’t as important as many of the other things, personally and medically, that were happening at the time, but it seemed to me to be as sad as anything. 

I’m not sure what I believe about heaven.  I doubt it has much to do with clouds or white robes or naked babies with wings; at least I hope it doesn’t.  What I hope for my granddad is that his heaven is full of high mountains and green trees, clear rivers and fiery sunsets.  I hope it has a McDonalds where he can sit down with old friends and enjoy a cup of coffee that he gets for a quarter.  I hope his body is strong and fit, and that the physical pain is gone.  I hope that he can breathe deeply and easily, and that the air is sweet.  I hope there is a spot there for each of us, because we’ll all be heading that way eventually.  I pulled out my chalk, sat by the downed tree, and wrote “Breathe” and “Coffee with friends”.

During the descent to Yards Creek I looked up at the sky, costing me bruises to both feet on the sharp rocks.  The sky was clear and blue and timeless, bespeaking neither today nor tomorrow nor yesterday.  The descent was not though.  It seemed to take only seconds to cover the mile down to the creek.  I crossed over the bridge, my planned route complete, but I didn’t want to stop.  I didn’t want the symbolism anymore, and I didn’t want to think about dying, so I kept going.  I ran up the next hill to a rocky meadow and sat there, looking out toward the ocean, feeling the breeze on my face.

I’m sad that my granddad is gone, and I’m sad that he had to suffer at the end.  I’m glad that he had his mind though, and that, even when his body would no longer let him be a strong actor in the world, he could still be a cognizant observer.  I’m glad that he got to see the incredible play of Peyton Manning and his Broncos, and I’m glad he got to watch one more World Series.  I wish his Cubs could have won one while he was alive, but I’m glad he at least got to watch my Red Sox win theirs.  Of course, he was rooting for the Cardinals.  With the last stub of my chalk I wrote “I can’t believe you were rooting for the Cardinals!”

On the way back I tried to let my animal instincts do the running, leaving my mind free to wander.  I tried to let myself be absorbed into the universe, and I tried to see everything around me with greater clarity.  I saw the dried green lichen on the stones and the dried brown grasses among the barberry bushes. When I’d been on the ridge a week earlier the trees had been resplendent with autumn leaves, yellow and red maples, bronze beech, orange oak.  Now their branches were empty, long grey fingers reaching for the sky.  The moss by the side of the trail seemed browner, and the only insect I saw was one orange wooly worm crawling across a patch of dust.  It seemed that even the endless mountain itself was, if not mourning Granddad’s passing, at least taking note of it and marking it with the descent of this summer’s life into winter.

When I got back to Dunnfield Creek it was already getting dark.  The few clouds in the sky had light pink linings, and the trees’ shadows had dissipated.  I jogged past my truck, through the gap in the fence, and back down to the riverbank.  I cooled my hand in the water and washed my face, marking the end of my memorial.  I picked up the tree branch, still there, and wrote in the sand “Fort Collins, Colorado, 2013”.  Then I threw the branch as far as I could out into the water.

Tomorrow the wind will blow, and soon the rains will come, then the snow.  By the spring my memorial will have disappeared from everything but memory and the sinews of my body.  It is a temporary, impermanent thing, marking a temporary, impermanent life.  It is only momentary, soon forgotten.  But for me it as a moment filled with meaning, marking a meaningful life.

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!