Wednesday, November 26, 2014

First Footprints: Watchung Reservation, November 26, 2014

1:30 pm, and my reactions aren’t done.  There is little a chemist can do to speed the work in the lab, so I pick my best friend and first option – heat.  The vials go in an aluminum block at 40 C, slightly over my core temperature, much warmer than the ambient air.  I have a few hours to wait before the endpoints are reached.

The day before Thanksgiving - I’m not supposed to be here anyway, a vacation day placed on the books long before.  I leave the building, step into the frigid outside.  Rain and sleet pelt my face, but I don’t pull up a hood.  Moments later I’m in the rented Chrysler, climate control set to 75 degrees, engine pulling me along the busy, slushy streets.  Soon we climb, leather-wrapped steel beast and I, up the flanks of the Watchung Reservation, skidding dangerously if slowly up the unplowed roads to the head of the Sierra and History trails.

Changing clothes in the driver’s seat of a car is always a bit entertaining, even more so mid-week in cold weather.  I toss slacks and shirt to the back seat; drop loafers into the passenger foot well.  Replace them with shorts, tech shirt, merino wool long-sleeves, trail shoes.  Add a shell, wool cap, and gloves for warmth.  A camera for the moments. 

A deep breath and I’m out in the snow.  The cold isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.  The snow on the ground holds together.  It doesn’t immediately soak my feet, and I’m glad for the reprieve.  I snap a photo of the trailhead then run through the image.  Frozen water and iced tree limbs, the bridge over Blue Brook’s unnamed tributary.  Rocky steps up the embankment.  Drooping branches, weighed down by the snow.  White planks of the swamp-passing boardwalk.  Glistening bushes, covered in ice and thorns. A laurel tree, holding fast to green, snow-covered leaves.  I snap photo after photo, until the freezing wind on bare legs reminds me that I’m here to run, not to attempt, however futilely, to capture the first beauty of winter.  I stow the camera in a pocket and run onward.

The trail drops down to Blue Brook, skidding along a slippery path.  I practice the sliding gait of the mountain goat.  At the bridge I turn left, eschewing the crossing.  Crossing leads to miles of rocks and swamp and memories of bruised, battered feet.  Instead I climb the steep ridge back to the Sierra trail.  A fork greets me at the top.  I muse on the road less traveled by; how can you tell which it is, when yours are the first footprints in the snow?  I plunge down the rightward path, downhill and away from the cozy seat of my rented car.  Whether less traveled or not, this is the path to longer running.

The Sierra trail drops back to Blue Brook, then turns away.  I abandon it, cross the footbridge, and climb up the Northern embankment.  On the climb I find my legs have little strength in them.  Is it the cold, or the trace of flu haunting my lungs?  Have sleepless nights, courtesy of job stress and life, robbed me of my vigor?  I patter onward, maintaining cadence.  I realize that the slow pace doesn’t bother me.  If nothing else, the short strides and light footfalls protect me from the uneven ground hidden beneath the snow.  I act and react, act and react, constantly recalibrating my position on the trail, climbing upward to the ridge.

The weakness persists on the Northern ridge.  I realize, despite the joy of running in the snow, that I’ve been moving tensely, worrying about a slip or fall.  I focus on relaxing.  I focus on spreading my toes in advance of the footfall, preparing to catch the ground rather than stab it.  Subtly, my pace increases and my effort drops.  I start to float over the sodden ground, then fly.  I soar over fallen trees, dodge past leaning thorns, splash through slushy puddles, glissade down steep embankments.  The distance ticks by in an effortless stream.

At Surprise Lake I pause, struck by the singularity of an empty bench by the water.  On warmer days this is a place to rest and reflect, a place to let the mind wander.  A place where children sit while parents fish, or where parents sit while children play.  Today it is abandoned and covered in ice.  It is forbidding and unwelcoming, alone.  I imagine my spirit perched beside it, a fair partner, unrealized, then I run onward.  A piece of me, however small, stays behind.  Somehow this place, frozen and silent, seems just about right.

Another climb and I’m back to the car.  A meager half dozen miles, a few hundred feet of climb.  An entry in my log book that wouldn’t garner a glance by its metrics, but a run that, shrouded in snow and mystery, holds a special place.  It’s the first run of this winter.

I drive back to the lab, chat strategy, attend to business.  My feet are still cold.  The reactions, heated, are predictably done.  I work them up, record the data, purify the mixtures.  I place the products in a freezer, awaiting further use.  They cool, and my feet warm.  Balance, however boring, is restored.

I look out through the window, the landscape dark but for the few streetlights.  I finish my reports.  I will leave now to go back to my family.  A part of me, however small, sits on a bench overlooking Surprise Lake.  I feel strung out. 

This weekend I will return to the trails.  I imagine that the snow will still shroud them, despite the many footprints placed in the interim.  I will wear spikes to make sure I don’t fall.  I will run with happiness and joy, and I will search, however futilely, for the part of me, left behind.

A side note on food
In “Eat and Run”, Scott Jurek mentions a raw-food dish derived from Lacinato kale, avocado’s, tomatoes, lemon juice, salt, and vinegar.  The full recipe is apparently available in the book “Raw Power”, but as an experimenter in the kitchen (and a cheapskate!), I’ve avoided buying the book and instead created my own recipe for kale guacamole.  It turned out remarkably well.  Here’s what I used:

½ pound Lacinato or tuscan kale, finely chopped (note: if your hands aren’t tired, it’s not chopped finely enough)
1 table spoon sea salt
Juice of two lemons
2 table spoons rice vinegar
Mix these ingredients into the kale, press, then let the mixture age while you prepare the guacamole

4 avocados, diced
1 and ½ cups tomatoes, diced (preferably a mix of roma and yellow heirloom)
2 shallots, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, pressed
Juice of two limes
Diced jalapeño to taste (note: children don’t like jalapeños)
Add these ingredients in a large mixing bowl, then add the kale.  I use a pastry blender to homogenize the mixture.

I serve the resulting guacamole with celery sticks, red and yellow pepper slices, and carrot sticks.  It works best as an hor d’oeuver or side rather than main fare.  The dish is vegan with a high fat/carbohydrate ratio and reasonably high calorie density, ideal for low-inflammatory recovery from a long, intense cardiovascular effort.  It is not a complete protein, so it should be served as a side to a grain/legume or meat-based dish.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

HURL Elkhorn Endurance Runs, August 2nd, 2014

I started putting on sunscreen in the dark.  It was 4:30 in the morning, the pitch-black dark pierced only by the headlamps of other runners and the headlights on the cars of occasional latecomers.  The stars glittered above us, Cassiopeia in her chair, the Big Dipper pouring out its water, and Cygnus the Swan, son of Neptune, flying his endless, tireless journey.  I focused on Cygnus.

The improbability began two days earlier.  I climbed a ridge in the back of Beehive Basin with my dad and my wife on our last backpacking day before the HURL Elkhorn 50 Mile.  I told them about a video of Kilian Jornet running down Grants Swamp Pass in the Hardrock a few weeks earlier, how he had dropped down hundreds of feet of near vertical scree in a matter of seconds.  Then I gave them my best impression and ran down the steep slope back to camp.  After watching my descent, my dad told me I would win the race.  I mentioned that I hadn’t been in danger of winning a race since middle school, but his confidence wasn’t fazed.

At packet pickup the next day, race director Steve Engebrecht handed me my bib, embossed with a bright red number 1.  I told him he couldn’t be serious.  I said that number 1 should be reserved for a returning champion, but Steve told me that in all his years directing the race he’d never had a winner return to run again.  The course was too hard.  Pause.  Wicked grin.  Chuckle from Steve and another veteran, Scott Blum, who was volunteering this year instead of running.  I tried to join in the laughter, but the joke was clearly at my expense.

In the dark before the race I rubbed the gleaming line of sunscreen over my neck and arms.  It disappeared into my skin, becoming part of me, becoming, along with my shoes and sleeves, headlamp and handheld, a final piece of armor wrapped around my body to shield me during the coming day.  Around my muscles and tendons I had wrapped the countless hill repeats and pounding intervals; around my mind the exhaustion of endless long runs.  I hoped, as Scott Jurek says, that the work would protect me during my most trying moments.  I hoped I had learned how to suffer.

As the 5 AM start approached we clustered around to hear Steve Engebrecht’s last minute advice.  Without fanfare he drew a line across the dirt of Crystal Creek road with his foot.  “This is your starting line,” he said, and we all stood back.  No one wanted to commit hubris this early, but moments later we surged forward with Steve’s “three, two, one, GO!”

I ran the Crystal Creek ascent next to a tall man with a red beard and a woman with the quickest
cadence I’d ever heard on a runner.  His name was Eric Gilbert, and she was Becky Wheeler.  I asked Eric if he planned to win, but he said no.  Becky asked what time I was shooting for, and I said maybe eleven hours if everything went well.  She dropped back, apparently thinking of a longer time for herself, or perhaps thinking I’d committed my hubris already.

I took the lead on the single track climb up the flanks of Casey Peak.  Most runners dropped their headlamps in a box at the top of the road, but I kept mine and used the extra light to accelerate by the others in the predawn gloom.  I crested the ridgeline alone and dropped down into Casey Meadows, yip yip kiyee-ing a heard of black cows off the trail.  I chased four elk across the meadows, heard the chirping of early morning songbirds, and startled a grouse into flight.  The wilderness thrived with life, both hidden and visible.  I relished the life around me.  I had come home to Montana to see my family, reconnect with the wilderness, and enjoy these mountains.  I cherished the opportunity to run on these trails with all the wild things, predator and prey, and to pretend to be a predator myself.  On the climb toward second ridge I heard clattering on the scree above me, evidence of large animals obscured by a dense stand of lodgpole pine.  More elk, or mountain goats, or maybe a moose?  A bear?  I didn’t know.

As I ran the words of better runners echoed in my head.  On the descent to Teepee Creak I heard Sally McRae talking about quick stepping down the steep technical tracks of the Western States (quick feet quick feet quick feet).  Kilian Jornet described the mountain goat descending, weight over its back feet, front feet stretched forward (center mass center mass center mass).  Scott Jurek – “Flow downhill like water” (momentum momentum momentum) and Caballo Blanco – “Don’t fight the trail” (easy light smooth fast easy light smooth fast).  On the climb to Elk park there was Yassine Diboun’s voice “if you have to hike, hike like you’re late for work” (late for work late for work late for work) and the advice I got from Krissy Moehl “start running before you get to the top of the hill, and keep running after the next hill starts” (start running start running keep running keep running!).  As I worked up the switchbacks the sun broke over the saddle behind me, bathing the sky and ground in pink and orange.  I turned for a moment, awash with its glory.

I ran alone through Elk Park and past Tizer Lake.  The climbs were relentless, steep, and rocky.  My energy ebbed away, and I felt my like stomach was liquefying.  Just before the highest point of the first half I heard runners talking behind me, and on the descent to Elkhorn Ghost Town I heard the clattering of Eric Gilbert’s feet on the rocks.  I stepped aside to let him pass.  He looked so strong running by, and I stumbled in his wake.  At that moment I was sure I would never see him again.

My family met me at the Elkhorn Town aid station.  My son rang his cowbell, and my sister raised her hand for a high five.  I collapsed on a cooler, gratefully accepting soda from the aid station crew.  In a moment I had four people massaging my legs, my parents each taking a calf, my wife on one quad and my sister on the other.  I told them that I felt terrible, that my stomach was flipping out.  I thanked them for being so nice and supporting me.  They gave me a moment, but then my sister bent down and looked straight into my eyes.  “Quit thanking us and get out of here!”

I left the aid station in third – Eric Gilbertson had left as I arrived, and Adam Parkison had passed through while I sat on the cooler.  I followed their footprints in the dust past Elkhorn Cemetery.  I thought of Geoff Roe’s essay on racing, not just running, and I measured the length of their strides in the dust against my own.  To my surprise I discovered I was gaining on them.

I found Adam at the first crossing over Elkhorn creek.  He was splashing water on his head, overheated and trying to cool down.  I went one step further, lying down in the icy water and rolling over, drenching myself.  It helped.  I passed Adam on the steep climb up Queen’s Gulch, dropped him, and soon I saw Eric pounding up the hill.

I passed Eric just before Leslie Lake, but he stuck with me when I tried to pull away.  We ran together for three miles before he dropped back.  I tried to widen the gap, ignoring the screaming of my sea level trained lungs as we climbed near 9000 ft elevation on the shoulder of Crow Peak.  I bounded over rock fields, followed distant signposts through meadows of waist-high grass, navigated crisscrossing animal paths deep in the forest, always looking ahead for the next trail marker.  I got lost in the maze, backtracked, found my way, got lost again, rediscovered the route, and soldiered onward.  A mental haze descended as I traversed the woods.  I kept looking for the Tizer Creek aid station and listening for the chatter of the volunteers, but time and distance seemed to stretch boundlessly, as if the journey would never end.

I was so grateful for company when Scott Blum greeted me at Tizer Creek that I lingered, and soon Eric Gilbertson arrived as well.  We left the aid station together, and a minute later we heard cheers for another runner.  Was it Adam, recovered from the heat?  Or Brian Story, who’d run smartly and conservatively over the first half, reeling us in?  Had Becky Wheeler’s quick feet carried her through the field to our heels?  I quickened my pace.

Over the final thirteen miles I put a minute per mile on the field.  Ignoring pain, exhaustion, dehydration, sugar depletion, and all the hallmarks of every ultra runner’s race, I pushed and pushed and kept pushing.  On the climb back to Elk Park I chased down a multitude of 50K’ers, trying to encourage them as I went by.  On the descent to Teepee Creek I used every trick I’d ever learned for downhill running and blazed down the switchbacks.  With five miles to go I found my sister, who’d hiked in from the road to pace me.  She’d had no information since my third place exit from Elkhorn Town, and she was preparing to tell me how many runners where ahead of me and how much time I had to make up.  Instead, she saw me in first, and she began jumping up and down and screaming.  She was super pumped, and she fed me that energy all the way to the finish.  We flew down the single track, blew past the aid station unchecked, and hammered down the road to McClellan Creek Campground.  There was my son, furiously ringing his cowbell.  There was my wife, yelling and waving.  There were my parents, chasing after me to the end.  I ran under the finish banner at 10:22:52, overcome and with tears in my eyes.

From my spot on a chair by the finish I cheered the other runners across the line.  A few 50K’ers, then Eric Gilbertson, finishing second overall and winning the master’s division.  Becky Wheeler, first in the women’s race and setting a new master’s division course record.  Adam Parkison, nearly overcome by the heat in Queen’s Gulch, charging home in seventh.  A multitude of others whose names I didn’t know, but whose courage and tenacity glowed brighter than the afternoon sun.  As I sat there I thought about running and about winning, and somehow it didn’t make any sense.  Had we really been competing?  Or was the competition a mere marker on a trail toward the mountains, where we could run free?  I didn’t know, but I did think that next year Steve might have his first returning champion.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the tenacity and decency of the volunteers at the HURL Elkhorn endurance runs.  Volunteers at all ultra races go above and beyond the call of duty (just ask Joe Grant!), but usually the aid stations are supported by easy road access with motorized vehicles.  Most of the stations in the Elkhorns are accessible by foot only.  Above and beyond by this measure means backpacking in the night before, carrying gels and bars, bananas, potatoes, and a hand-pumped water filter, then waking early in the morning to purify enough water from the stream to cool a full race of runners.  Doing these things with bright smiles and raucous cheering, the HURL volunteers epitomized the wonderful spirit of Montana and the race.

I wrote the piece above with the hope of publication in Ultrarunning Magazine, which caused me to gloss over or leave out entirely some memorable events in favor or brevity and flow.  I’ll cover those here.

This is the first race where I’ve really used crew and a pacer.  Laurie’s pacing exploits (friggin’ awesome pacing exploits, that is!) were covered in some detail, but I’d like to enshrine in memory the importance and joy of having my family running support for me.  Crew access was limited to Teepee Creek and Elkhorn town, but that didn’t stop us from taking full advantage.  My mom and MJ hiked in to Teepee Creek aid station in the dark and met me when I arrived there at 6:45 am.  Their presence was inspiring and heartwarming, but more importantly at that early juncture was their willingness to take my headlamp, shirt, and sleeves.  This allowed me to run the first ten miles of the race warm and well lit without having to worry about carrying extra weight on the eighteen-mile stretch from Teepee Creek to Elkhorn.  The advantage of the light, in particular, allowed me to outrun my competitors early.

The other key strategic decision I made, also possible only due to my family’s crewing, was to carry a single 20 oz handheld during the first half of the race.  This setup was perfect during the cool morning, allowing me to carry minimal weight and run shirtless and even hands free as soon as the bottle was light enough to tuck in the back of my shorts.  There was no way that was going to work in the afternoon heat, when the aid stations would be 75 to 90 minutes apart, the temperature in the upper 80’s, and the climbs on south faces with full exposure to the sun.  My family gave me a lot of things at Elkhorn town, importantly the aforementioned encouragement and leg massages.  What I didn’t mention is that my wife also handed me a hydration vest with more than twice the water capacity of my handheld.  The two bottles in the vest allowed me to stay hydrated internally and externally during the hot part of the race. 

The “external hydration” component is critical and worth describing further.  I didn’t drink much more than 20 oz of water between the aid stations in the second half of the race because I wasn’t particularly thirsty and I didn’t want to become hyponatremic.  Hyponatremia (defined as low blood sodium levels, which can be race-threatening at a minimum and life-threatening in the extreme) happens when an athlete drinks too much during intense exercise.  Antidiuretic hormone, which tends to be up-regulated by the sympathetic nervous system during exercise, limits fluid loss via urination.  Simultaneously, loss of sodium in sweat leads to net sodium depletion, which in turn leads to confusion, loss of muscle control, and ultimately seizures if things go too far.  Strangely enough, sodium ingestion during exercise is not associated with an increase in blood sodium levels in the short term, so salt tablets won’t save you.  What will save you is using the extra water bottle to squirt water on your head and chest and down your back, keeping your head and shirt wet while you run.  As a heat-control method this is even more effective than sweating, since the water is cooler than your body temperature.  It’s not quite as good as rolling over in Elkhorn Creek or diving into Leslie lake, but it’s far more portable and has the advantages of being less time consuming and of leaving your feet dry.

I’d also like to write about the impact of altitude and the importance of downhill technique.  In short, altitude killed me in this race.  Never have I walked so much runnable terrain, and never have I felt so limited by my breathing.  Compared to the Cayuga Trails 50 I ran in June, the Elkhorns were a bit more technical and had slightly more vertical change, but are run at an altitude that is about 7,000 feet higher.  Put that together and I was 85 minutes slower.  I don’t have great advice for anyone about how to handle this (other than not moving to New Jersey!), but don’t underestimate the difference in oxygen availability at sea level compared to even moderate (8,000-8,500 ft!) elevations.

Downhill technique, on the other hand, won the race for me.  I essentially ran even with or behind Eric Gilbertson on the flats and ascents, but I put serious time into him on the two descents to Teepee Creek, early on from the Casey Peak ridge and late coming down from Elk Park (in fairness, he did beat me on the descent to Elkhorn town when I was in my worst low of the race).  The interesting part of this is that I suck at downhill running.  I only consider it a strength because almost everyone else sucks even worse than I do!

Here’s the thought experiment:  Go to the top of your favorite hill.  Imagine dropping a soccer ball at your feet and watching it roll down the slope.  It rolls slowly at first, then accelerates, then really starts to fly.  By the time that it gets to the bottom, it’s probably be moving at a completely uncatchable pace, maybe faster than a car on a freeway, possibly even faster than an airplane if your favorite hill is more fun than mine!  The ball would also be caroming off rocks and bouncing off trees, and if you ever found it again it would probably be scarred beyond recognition.  The thought experiment tells us two things.  First, without providing any propulsive effort, we should be able to accelerate downhill to an unbelievable pace.  Second, if we do that completely uncontrolled, we’ll end up scarred beyond recognition.  If we ponder that for a moment, we realize that downhill running is entirely a balance exercise.  Gravity provides the power, and our legs are responsible for keeping our motion headed in the right direction, over the rocks and around the trees, essentially by making small lateral adjustments.  The common mistake we make as runners is stepping out in front of our bodies and forcing eccentric contraction through the quads to slow us down, giving us more time to make those lateral moves.  This, naturally, SLOWS US DOWN, and has the side benefit of trashing our quads.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year teaching myself to descend while keeping my footstrikes under my center of mass, which prevents me from using my quads to slow down.  This naturally means that I have very little time to make the quick adjustments in direction.  To accommodate for that I use the trick of increasing my cadence to the 110-120 strides/minute range, far above what I use for running flats or climbs.  The larger number of footstrikes gives me more opportunities to correct my balance and adjust direction; in essence the larger number of footstrikes gives me a larger number of opportunities to avoid falling.  It also allows me to keep each footfall light, spreading the increased downward impact over a large number of steps, further saving the quads.  I’m still not great at this (seriously, take a look at, and note how Kilian drops about 400 ft in 45 seconds without ever planting his feet at all!  Also note how Kilian puts about 30 seconds on Tim Olson and Julie Chorier, two world class trail runners, on this one descent), but I’m good enough to run away from the more typical competition on extended technical descents.

Lastly, a side note on food:  I grew up eating fairly large amounts of zucchini, on account of the facts that it is green and grows well in my parents garden.  I did not, on the other hand, eat it entirely willingly.  Zucchini, while cooking, transforms from woody to soggy in a matter of moments and has neither attractive flavor nor texture in either form.  I’ve enjoyed zucchini genuinely twice in my life, once during a French cooking class (don’t even think you can repeat the wizardry shown by that chef) and once at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY.  The Moosewood cooks proffered up a stew of beans, various vegetables, and, shockingly, zucchini!  More shockingly, the flavor and texture were amazingly awesome.

I haven’t attempted to recreate the Moosewood recipe directly, in part because I’m sure I would fail and in part because it’s probably included in one of their available cookbooks.  I have, on the other hand, taken on the task of making palatable zucchini-based stews.  The effort yielded a tasty concoction, which I made twice for my families and in laws while home in Montana.  The result, as described below, naturally substitutes yellow squash for my green nemesis.

What I used:
½ cup red quinoa, simmered for 10 minutes with 3 cups water
1 cup black beans added at 10 minutes
1 cup garbanzo beans added at 10 minutes
4 cloves pressed garlic added at 10 minutes
2 medium size yellow squash, cut along the midline and then diagonally to ½ inch chunks added at 20 minutes
20 mint leaves, finely chopped, added at 20 minutes
2 nectarines, diced, added at 20 minutes
20 fresh basil leaves added at 20 minutes
simmer until 30 minutes
salt and chilly infused sesame oil to taste

The recipe essentially involves simmering a large pot of water and adding ingredients every ten minutes over a 30-minute period.  If you’re a fast chopper, it literally takes 30 minutes to complete.  If you’re a mere mortal in the kitchen, or if you have a three-year-old demanding half your attention, I’d suggest getting a start on chopping the yellow squash, mint, and nectarines (substitute 4 black plums if nectarines are out of season) before starting the water.  The resulting stew provides a complete protein, courtesy of the quinoa and beans, so it can be used as a main dish on a low effort day.  On an intense training day it serves as a tasty side to something with higher calorie density.  Makes 4 servings.

One last question: is it any good?  I can only tell you this; my farther-in-law, David Tudor, had two bowls.  That’s right.  An Iowa farmer turned Montana machinist asked for a second serving of a vegan, low sodium stew.  Consider yourself warned.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Bear Mountain 50K, May 3, 2014: Wanting what you're going to get

Wanting what you’re going to get:  Bear Mountain 50K, May 2014

“You’re not going to get the pitch you want. You have to want the pitch you’re going to get.” ~Anonymous

The four am alarm came as a jolt. In my head I immediately heard “You’re late,” “You’re not going to get there in time,” “You don’t know where you’re going,” and “You don’t know what you’re going to do when you get there!” It was all of the usual type-A anxiety that I would normally face on my way to Newark International Airport, post 9-11 style, where any combination of early morning traffic, security line hiccups, and minuscule imperfections in the weather could result in a delayed or all-out aborted flight. I took a breath, rolled out of bed, silenced the alarm. This wasn’t the morning before some long-awaited family vacation – it was just the morning of a race.

I looked around the room, the dark highlighted only by the faint glow of the alarm clock, and found my shoes and race bag. I filled my handheld bottle at the kitchen sink. I brushed my teeth and splashed water on my face. Three hours until race time.

In the truck on the way up the Garden State Parkway I tried to calm my nerves. I tried to take each small worry in hand, label it as irrelevant, and push it to the back of my mind.

You don’t know where to pick up your race bib! It will be obvious.
You don’t know the way to Bear Mountain! I have a GPS enabled phone.
There’s not enough time! Seriously? It’s 4:45 AM. The last shuttle to the start leaves Anthony Wayne at 6:15.
What if you don’t have enough quarters for the tolls?!? Stop.  Just stop.  Seriously.

I knew, even then, that the nervousness was misplaced. Somehow, I wasn’t worried in the slightest about the race itself. Retrospectively, I should have been.

I’d signed up for the 50K only twelve days before the event. I’d had Bear Mountain in the back of my mind ever since I’d read about the race eight months prior, but in the midst of injury recovery I’d thought I wouldn’t be ready. Then, two weeks out, I had one of the best training runs of my life, 27 miles of technical trail at an 8:38 clip, feeling good all the way. On the way home from that run, I reasoned with myself that a steep, technical 50K was just what I needed in the run-up to Cayuga Trails. It seemed like a chance to get some more race experience - and vertical experience - and to see some new trails before diving into the 50 miler. And it’s not every day that The North Face puts on just that sort of race an hour drive from your house. Opportunity beckoned.

The subsequent two weeks were a disaster. I decided that, since I was using the race as a training run, I’d only taper for one week.  On the Saturday before the race, I set out for a 30-mile long run only to pull up, cramped and bonking, at mile 22. Then, on Tuesday, the rain started. By Wednesday night we were working the shop vac constantly in our basement, ankle deep in water that poured from the skies and gushed through tiny cracks in the foundation of the house, flooding across the basement floor. On Thursday the rain abated and the skies cleared, but the damage had been done. Around Bear Mountain, the swollen rivers seemed to prefer the trails to their own beds.

At 5:45 am I pulled into the Anthony Wayne recreation area and parked next to a grey sedan. I got out of my truck at the same time as its driver. I said hello and learned that his name was James. He was from Ottawa, so I told him that, as a native Montanan, I considered myself half Canadian. He laughed and told me he was running the 50K too, so we chatted race strategy as we walked across the parking lot to the shuttle bus. We watched the stragglers of the 50-mile race, nearly an hour old, stopping at the aid station for water and gels.

The bus took us to the Start/Finish area in a field by Hessian Lake and the Bear Mountain Inn. I found the tent where volunteers were handing out race bibs – as expected, its location was obvious – and grabbed my credentials. With other runners I huddled around a fire in the chill morning air. We swapped stories, questions, and advice, as mid-packers do, about our shoes, the conditions, the trail, and the last race we finished. A short, fat man with a white beard told us that the course was hard and slow. Glee radiated from his eyes as he described the descent from Timp Pass - “downhill on rocks the size of bowling balls" - that would await us in the final miles of the race. Around the mountains where I grew up we had a similar phrase, “downhill on marbles,” used to describe the crumbling scree slopes on the East face of the Rocky Mountain Front. I remember being five years old in those mountains, listening to my parents warn of the dangers of the rocks. “Never walk directly below someone,” they said. “If they fall or dislodge a rock, you’ll have no chance to get out of the way.” Of course, I was the one that fell, with the stitches and concussion to prove it. But this was the Appalachians, and the man was old and shapeless. I wasn’t worried. I knew that, by the time I reached Timp Pass, he would be hours behind.

As the 7 am start approached I began to focus my mind on why I was here. As I stripped off my warmups I thought about preparation and experience. As Dean Karnazes echoed the old man’s words (“No one’s going to set a PR out there”) I thought about Joe Vigil and compassion. As the “three – two – one – go!” chant sounded, I thought about my wife and my three-year-old. As the crowed charged up the first hill, I thought about transcendence.

I don’t know why I spend so much time running, not really. I know that I like the endorphins and the movement. I know that I like having a body that, at age thirty-six, looks more like thirty and less like fifty. I know that I’m running away from aging and dying, and that I’m running toward health. And I know that I’m running toward a chance at the experiences that others describe, the experiences where the mind and body and earthly concerns disintegrate while the spirit transcends. If I could ask for anything from the hours and the effort, it wouldn’t be money or a Brooks deal; it would be transcendence. It would be a moment of seeing the world in some purer, deeper way. I would ask for a moment when the petty narcissism and materialism disappeared completely, leaving me bare at the mercy of the world.

On the first downhill my mind began to focus more on the task at hand. I thought about keeping warm, then quickly switched to thinking about keeping cool. I commented to one of the other runners how awesome it was that the morning sun glinted off the water on the muddy, rocky trail, ensuring that we would have no idea what morass or boulder would welcome our landing feet. I thought about pacing, aerobic metabolism, and staying relaxed. I shadowed the heels of the top women, Kristina Folcik and Amy Rusiecki, knowing from experience that their pace was likely to be just a bit faster than my best. I pulled off my shirt and tucked it into my shorts; the chilly 55-degree start rapidly became a hot 55-degree day.

Before the first aid station at Anthony Wayne I’d left Kristina and Amy behind, as usual throwing out caution in favor of valor. Moments later James from Ottawa flew by me, a flash of brilliant orange cool-max fabric, and I decided that he was either going to crash later, or that he was a far superior runner; either way, I wasn’t going to worry about him. Shortly after James passed me, a man with a long black beard, a Rastafarian tam, and a cowbell rose out of the mist. He hammered the bell as we passed, cheering each runner in turn. I smiled, waved, and ran on, marveling that a he would come so far into the woods to support his friends or family.

After the Anthony Wayne aid station I jogged over the Palisades Parkway and crashed into the climb to Seven Lakes Drive. I passed a few runners, noted that they didn’t know how to run uphill, and categorized them as having gone out too fast. Black-Bearded Cowbell Man emerged from a car on Seven Lakes Drive and appeared again before the Silver Mine aid station. I told him that his bell would be my mantra for the race. He told me that he wasn’t sure I wanted to know it, but I was running in the top fifteen overall. I said that I thought that was awesome, that I couldn’t hope for better, and beamed a smile as I ran by. I thought of my grandmother, now gone, who rang a cowbell at graduation ceremonies for my sister, for me, and for my cousins, and I thought of my mother, who owns that bell now. Her strength, and her mother’s strength, and her mother’s strength; without them, what would I be? Would I be anything at all?

The trail between Silver Lake and Arden Valley reclaimed my attention, and, in honesty, broke me. For every stream crossing there was a mile of water and mud strewn rock garden. At every incline the route climbed straight up, eschewing switchbacks. At points I needed both hands and feet to scale the outcropping walls. After brief respites at the rocky tops, where I wondered if competitors behind could close the gap by cutting the course not shorter, but longer around the bluffs, the route plunged down over cliffs just as steep. Each step became a leap downward, a grave-digger’s six foot drop, onto merciless grey rock. I thought of the story of the tortoise and the hare, how the tortoise wins the race by running slowly and steadily. It’s a quintessential ultrarunner’s story, but of course the race is not won by running slowly; it’s the steady part that counts. But how could I run steadily, with consistent effort, on a course that changed so drastically from moment to moment?  I knew, as I dropped down from one of the ridge tops, that I'd underestimated the course.  All my work and effort had not prepared me for this.

As I approached Arden Valley, Black-Bearded Cowbell Man appeared again. I tried to cheer him as strongly as he cheered me. For whom was he here, I wondered? Certainly not me, no matter how much I appreciated his presence. He must have had a friend, at least, if not a soul mate, running through these woods. He must have had a reason to be here, a reason to transcend his day-to-day, just as I hoped to transcend mine. As much as he became my raison d’courir, his raison d’être must have been focused on someone special to him. He must have cared so deeply for his one runner, and I could only hope that his one runner would care as much for him.

After Arden Valley I chased Matt Halliday, and Vincent Gautier chased us. We coalesced at mile 16. I passed Matt, but then slowed as my stomach began flip-flopping inside me. As Matt and Vincent ran by, I begged them to ignore me, bent over in the in the leaves. We never saw Vincent again, but I caught up with Matt and we ran together back to the Anthony Wayne aid station at mile 21. Black-Bearded Cowbell Man was there again, cheering us on, and I told him how happy it made me to see him.

After Anthony Wayne I began something I had hoped never to start in an ultra - the walk of shame. There are two legitimate reasons to walk in a race; either the macro-terrain is too steep, or the micro-terrain is too technical for running. Both situations indicate hiking as hard and fast as you can. After the second pass through Anthony Wayne, I experienced neither. I was left with the third reason for walking, which is pure weakness. My calves cramped; Matt’s adductors screamed. We both walked through the parking lot. After a while, I looked over and said “we can do this”.  I started running, and Matt started running, but we weren’t fast.  Matt slowed to nurse his muscles, and my stomach restarted its queasy churn. Soon the freight train of high-level runners began to flow by us.

My buddy Jeff Bagdanoff once told me that happiness is not getting what you want; it’s wanting what you’re going to get.  He’d once heard a baseball player talk about hitting that way, how success came from wanting the pitch he was going to get.  I tried to focus on wanting the steps before me.  I tried to want the hills and the rocks.  I tried to want muddy trail, but it was hard.  I didn’t try to want the pain and nausea, even though I knew they were still coming.  I reminded myself that, if nothing else, I was getting the experience I came for.

Eventually I recovered and started running along with Kevin Ravasio of Lansdale, PA.  I followed the trail with Kevin for what seemed like hours.  He was a remarkably nice guy, and he helped me with water when my dehydration became acute. We ran together for five miles and talked about running and about work. I talked about the pharmaceutical industry and how, all else be told, when we succeed, people’s lives get better. He said his cousin was a chemical engineer with a pharma company, and that he understood the industry. He talked about sales and how, if we couldn’t get medicines to patients, all the effort was lost.

I lost Kevin at mile 27. He was feeling strong, and my stomach rebelled again. Several pounds lighter, I jogged into the Queensboro aid station. Jordan McDougal, a top competitor in the 50-mile race, arrived simultaneously with me. We replenished water together, then bounded out of the aid station. I told him that Mike Wolfe, another elite 50-miler running second in the race, had passed me only a few minutes before. Jordan said, “Yes, I can see him,” and flew away. Jordan seemed weightless, bodyless, as he flowed up the incline. He looked like water exploding upward under reversed gravity. The elite athlete is an amazing thing to behold.

I followed Jordan and Kevin up Timp’s Pass. Early in the climb I heard voices. They weren’t anything special; it wasn’t the bodhisattvas or Jesus speaking to me. It was just Kristina and Amy, chatting away as they probably had been ever since I passed them at mile 2. They caught me just after the top of Timp’s Pass. Amy assured me that it was all downhill to the finish. I smiled and waved good-bye, and noted to myself that pity is even worse than scorn. I admired them, but simultaneously I wished that I’d been strong enough to finish ahead of the women for once. Fortunately for me, Amy was (mostly) right. After picking my way over the “boulders the size of bowling balls” - the old man hadn’t been exaggerating after all! - I ran down to Timp’s brook, then up and over a small ridge, and down to the finish area. I sprinted to the finish as hard as I could, coming in 16th overall at 5:19:19.

As it turned out, I didn’t transcend anything in the race. I ran with joy through mile 15, concern to mile 22, and terrified exhaustion until the finish, but through it all I was restrained within myself and the typical realities of life and running. After the race I congratulated James Galipeau who came in 3rd overall; needless to say, he was the better runner.  I commiserated about cramps with Matt, and I reconnected with Andrew Seigmund, a fellow New Jerseyan, who came in 14th in the 50 miler.  He told a great story about running an hour each alongside both the men’s and women’s champions of the 50 mile race. I refrained from interrupting Rori Bosio, the women’s 50 mile champion, to say how much I admired her.  Maybe she would have appreciated it, but I doubt it.

On the way home, down the Garden State Parkway, I stopped for calories at a rest area.  To borrow a line from Ani DiFranco, the building was filled with cranky travel people, all tired and hot and rude and mind-numb from miles on the road.  In line at Sbarro’s Pizza I waited for a truly unhappy pair to make their order, slowly, painfully, offensively.  I began to smile.  A sense of joy began to pulse through me, and I wanted nothing more than for those two people to be happy, to feel that joy.  I wanted the people behind the counter to feel it too.  I wanted that peace and joy to flow over everyone in the building.  I got my slice of pepperoni, tipped lavishly, and sat down to eat. After finishing, I walked over to the trash bins.  A woman there had dropped her tray. She was embarrassed and flustered; I helped her clean up. She thanked me, and I smiled back. I felt beneficent enough to help anyone with anything.  I felt warm enough to love everyone in the world.

The feeling didn’t last, of course. Soon enough I was stuck in the hyper-aggressive traffic on route 22, amazed that people could drive that way and live with themselves. I got home and returned to my life, where I love my family and wonder a bit about everyone else. But just for a moment, I lived and felt something outside of anything I would ever have experienced otherwise. It wasn’t visionary or transcendent, but it was about as close to that as I’ve ever gotten. For that moment, exhausted, physically stressed, dehydrated, and hypocaloric, I felt like I would do anything for the benefit of anyone and be happy about it. 

I will continue to seek transcendence in my running.  It’s too attractive a goal to abandon, even if I never reach it.  And, while I seek it, I will be happy with the endorphins and the movement, the health, and the joy.