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.

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