Monday, August 31, 2015

Green Lakes Endurance Runs 50k - stupidity and catharsis

Ok, fair warning: there's not a whole lot of stupidity in the tale itself. I would love for you to come along on this journey, but if you want stupidity, you're just going to have to follow this blog and wait. I promise, I'm guaranteed to oblige eventually.


I find myself thinking a lot about my emotional state when approaching a long race - how I'll deal with dark points and what things from my life I'm bringing in - I evaluate these things as carefully as more mundane elements like water, food and pace. Well, actually, those things aren't so mundane, to me at least, but they're relatively easy to fine tune given enough time. The emotional aspect is so much more slippery, and unlike the others, I know that there's a part of me that hopes for everything to go awry. That's when those cherished cathartic moments occur... the ones that make for such good stories.

So although I had previously decided not to use anger as fuel , it's not like it suddenly goes away. I mean, I'm not GG Allin or anything, but there's always the STUFF. And I got to thinking: what if there was a moment when you could get rid of it? Stranger things have happened to me out on the trail. I started to envision the course like a mile race (I've done a few of these lately): The first two quarters you muster as much speed as you can while staying smooth and easy, the third quarter is all guts and gnashing of teeth and the last quarter is hallucinatory, where you find what you didn't think you had in you. SO -  however unlikely, that became part of the fourth quarter plan:


But what became clear over the course of the day is- you have to bungle the mundane aspects first to get into catharsis. Neglect your nutrition until you hallucinate, fry yourself to a desiccated skeleton in the sun, go out way too fast and then need to grind out miles on legs that explode in fire every step - they'll all punch your ticket. You have to do something stupid, or be horribly unlucky, to get there. In a long race there's a lot of opportunity for both, and I had just never been without.

So now let me tell you about Green Lakes.

It's a dream of a course. Wide trails of crushed gravel and woodchips and lined with giant white cedars wind around beautiful, anomalously turquoise lakes. It's a drop of the Mediterranean in the upland forest of central New York. The moderately rooty climbs and descents are limited to ~500ft of vertical per 12.5k loop. The open fields of the upper portion boast scores of wildflowers and breathtaking views of the surrounding hills. Seriously, no ultra is easy, but those thinking of dipping a toe in this wonderful world could do a lot worse. And afterward you can swim in the lake!

I awoke in the campground, oddly bustling with runners, at 4:30am. It was 60 degrees - great temps, though by 10am it would hit 73 on its way to a high in the mid 80's. The race began with a pep talk in the half darkness and the national anthem, a whisper of a recording amplified by a megaphone at a distance of 50 yards and sounding as though the real world was very far away indeed. Tim, the friendly RD, counted down the seconds to 6am and we were off. I started out in the lead group of four, running easy with super-talented Cole Crosby, gracious course veteran Justin Weiler (who showed the way and gave tips on the course) and chatting with Jason McElwain who has seen his share of recognition in athletics and was on his first ultra jaunt. We got strung out in the fields (called 'Serengeti' by local runners) with Cole out front and looking for a course record, then Justin, me, Jason. I was feeling good and enjoying the rolling hills in the fields and the descent back to the lake path. As I was coming up to the start/finish at the end of the first lap I caught a glimpse of someone catching up to me, and quickly. This turned out to be Cole, who had gotten turned around on one of the two-way-traffic sections of the course. This should have been a warning to me, because well into the second loop, after finishing the one bigger climb and successfully dodging bees, I heard a recently stung runner who was finishing his first lap call out from behind me, "Hey, you're going the wrong way!"

"No, I'm not," I said. But by now you know - I was. I finally met a couple of nice ladies who were able to convince me that even if I was on loop two, I was now heading in the reverse direction on the upper portion. I thanked them and backtracked. This all cost me about 8 minutes, but I only found that out later (it was also at this point that the excellent Jason Mintz passed me on his way to winning his very first 100k). In the moment I just set myself to the task of getting back the places I had lost during my detour. It sucked, but you know what? I got all but one of them back, and it was the only thing that went wrong.

Before the race I'd set out my stuff on a chair along the stretch of course between the start/finish and the main aid station as was allowed. Just a towel, some extra gear, a handful of gels and three handheld bottles of Tailwind (at 200cal/18oz bottle). Each lap I would just grab a new bottle and a gel. I got to find out how great the main aid station was when feasting on watermelon etc after the finish, but as for the race I was expertly crewed - by a chair. In all, I took in around 900 calories (most of the Tailwind plus a caffeinated gel in laps two and three) and drank about 64 ounces and it was perfect. The easy early pace made sure that although things got tough, especially out on the Serengeti as the temperature began to climb, there was enough life in my legs toward the end.

So late in the race when I pulled up that STUFF, I found that it was only chalk outlines and I couldn't hold onto it. I wasn't hurting that much and it all just seemed to flow away from me... and I think that's because there was no crucible to put it into, which is maybe because I mostly avoided doing stupid things for a day. And maybe being out on trails in a kind of otherworldly, beautiful place, succeeding at doing something that I love - some days that's more than enough. My cup overflows.

Official time - 4:15:44 - 4th overall - lap splits (56:02, 1:06:40, 1:03:37, 1:09:26) - Strava data here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Study What You Think You Already Know: Running the Trails at Allegany State Park

It's late now, and as far as I can tell, everyone is asleep. The coals from the stirred-out fire gradually dim and grow their coat of gray ash while above, the starry sweep glitters, unobserved now after treating us to a show of two dozen or more meteors all while we warmed our feet by the fire. And I can sit in darkness on this porch, close my eyes, and feel the land wrapped around me.

This cabin is nestled into a hillside at the foot of a old, slumping rise, barely a mountain; close by to the east is more of the same, and across the silent lake as well. I see the old growth, the glades, the rings of stinging nettle, jewelweed and blackberry; a little higher up, the rock gardens, where the tumbling bits of the mountain settled as glaciers receded, and above that simply the majestic upland forest that crowns and covers each peak, filtering bars across the view of more mountains in the blue distance. I have been coming here for 30 years, have hiked and camped all over this park, pulled fish from its lakes and crayfish from its creeks, plucked ramps and chanterelles from leaf litter in dappled shade for fireside snacks, laid in its grasses, on its hillsides, and walked through its oppressive darkness, hairs bristling, without a light. Yet I feel as though it's taken until now to be able to hold the form of it in my mind, to feel the land rise and fall, bend and fold, around me.

And perhaps it's mostly due to finally immersing myself in it because for the last week, I've covered the majority of the trails here with as much diligence as I could muster. I've gone from one end of this park to the other. I've scrambled up each of its modest peaks. I've run this land, put my own prints on the paths that run through it, and in doing so etched it into me.

It's not as though it's a singular experience - I have a similar sense about the little 14-acre patch of forest at home where I've stubbornly cut trails through invasive wild roses and honeysuckle and innumerable pine deadfalls and then pounded a track into the earth with my feet over thousands of laps. If anything, I know that land more intimately - every rock and root, trees that lean precariously, waiting for their striving to come to an end with the next big storm, little patches of raspberry and stands of pine - but it's so small by comparison, not big enough to feel humbled by.

And then there are also the larger swaths around home, bounded by country roads that are host to more than half of my long runs, where although I have memorized the ebb and flow of the land, that knowledge is softened somewhat, maybe by the inches of asphalt that keep me just slightly disconnected. I find lines, intersections, climb hills, see familiar structures from a distance, but it's more like having a map vividly come to life than it is to feel that life beneath and all around you.

Here I lie insignificant as it rises and falls and all but breathes around me and for some reason because of that, I am at peace in it.

I feel that now, on this last night of my stay here. I have grown to know this land like a lover -  that is to say I have a deep appreciation and knowledge of one or two aspects of it and focus on these, even as I set aside ugliness and choose to remain blissfully unaware of the fullness of it, unknowable anyway. I love it in the way we all love, finding a piece of ourselves reflected in an other and carving its identity from that raw material.

Tomorrow I leave. When I return again it will be a joyous reunion, and an opportunity to begin with what I have finally opened my eyes to and then to begin the discovery of something new in a place well known.

Brief trail reviews:

Firetower: The trailhead near the entrance control leads quickly to steep trail, where the Coon Run trailhead doesn't.It's almost always better to go up the steep section. Lots of runnable singletrack in the middle.

North Country(from Firetower): Features some lean-to's along the way and various bridges and walkways over wet areas. Significant rock strewn technical areas throughout, significant stinging nettle and blackberry patches overgrowing the trail both on the descent of Mt.Tuscarora and ascent of Mt. Seneca. Currently well-maintained and recommended.

Conservation: From behind the Red House administration building, its ascent is fairly regular and rooty technical. Lean-To is crumbled and not usable. Coming from the North Country end was ok. I imagine less so from the other end.

Firetower / North Country / Conservation

Osgood: A mile up, half mile at the top, then scream back down. No BS. Some very technical rock areas. Good crucible, if you like that sort of thing.

Red House Bike Path: Couple of rises that make you earn your breakfast, but all in all easy peasy. Good alternative to trails on an off day. All other roads out of the lake area turn uphill pretty quickly.

Osgood + bike path

Beehunter: Dynamite mix of heart-pounding ascents (both ends of the trail), technical rock and root sections and plenty of runnable singletrack. Marked as 6.5 and can't be more than 6, but that's the only flaw that I can see. Start from the picnic area trailhead.

Beehunter (+)

Patterson: A very even grade all the way up (or down) from the Summit area... 1000 ft or so, but it's a great, low risk opportunity to pick a gear and practice extended climbing.

Ridgerun: Similar to, but less regular than Patterson, if you like some variation.

Patterson -> Ridgerun

Snowsnake: A true switchback trail, tough to find here. Often unmowed and with ankle to knee high grass, can be steep for short sections, but a challenging way to get down the mountain that doesn't let you off too easy and  leaves you with a couple of choices for how you'll climb back up.

Snowsnake -> Patterson

Sweetwater: Easy, nice scenery and wide trail like all in the Art Roscoe ski area.

Christian Hollow: Short, with semi-steep hills on both ends, the middle section features an overlook with (by far) the best view in the park.

Sweetwater -> Christian Hollow
View from Christian Hollow overlook

Recommended runs/hkes:
          North Country to lean-to from ASP1 (4mi): Not too much climbing and all on the back half. Blackberries along the way and the impressive lean-to is a great natural break and turnaround. Avoids the overgrown sections.

          Christian Hollow Loop from Summit (3.6mi): See the view above!

          Ridgerun -> Patterson (6.8): Fun jaunt that takes you down in bursts and then a regular grade for grinding back up. This aint the carnival, it's bread and butter.

          Beehunter (5.5ish): Very technical in spots, involves walking some steep sections, but lots of runnable areas await the bold and plenty of rolling will keep you honest and engaged.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The most important element of training for the Boston marathon:

Pound down hills.

Being able to run well downhill after Newton will bring *huge* dividends. I can't really think of anything else that matters nearly as much. The course isn't hard; it's a dream. Train downhills and it becomes downright fun.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

What's Real, What's Imagined (Beast of Burden 50 - winter)

It's a common enough story- my first 50k wasn't exactly an easy experience (you can read about it here), and yet there I was a day later reminiscing fondly and planning for another race. I'm sure part of it is the excitement of the challenge and the soft edges of memory, but a good chunk has to be attributed to plain wishful thinking. I've always tried to be very calculated and conservative in my approach to running, but when training distances by necessity fall far short of what you run in the race itself, it can be difficult to manage your expectations and stay on track. Ultra brought with it my bizarro self.

In the few months leading up to the Beast of Burden 50, I developed a problem with an achilles tendon. Being a new injury to me (and the first I'd had in 2 years), I was hesitant to really dig in and work on it. I ought to have known better- had previously learned better. But I went straight for the outdated RICE protocol. I mean, some rest is a good idea, but movement, compression, soft tissue work- these are the things that'd kept injury at bay. So after two weeks and no improvement I woke up, went to the compression band, the rolling pin, the eccentric exercises. No anti-inflammatories, NO ICE. And a couple of weeks later I could run 3 hours, then 4 hours. I was feeling good about my progress, and not thinking too hard about having only put together a few 50 mile weeks, and two long runs(20,27). Even then I might've been ok if I'd adpoted a much more conservative strategy, but with so much unknown, I just elected to start out easy and walk as needed. At least I got my gear dialed in.

I am in dark red
Race day dawned with temps in the 20s and wind out of the west at about 10mph. The vast majority of the course is on the Erie Canal towpath from Lockport to Middleport (12.5 miles and almost completely flat), and although long sections were clear, there were significant patches of uneven ice and snow. Still, it was simple enough to keep up a good easy pace. I ran with buddy/competitor Will Kolek and we worked on keeping it relaxed, but still we were clocking 8:35/mi. I would come to regret this. Dani was waiting to swap bottles for me at the turnaround, but we were in and out pretty quickly.
---> Leg 1 of 4 - 1:54

Will is in light red
The second leg I ran with Will again. The wind comes right down the canal at you on the way back, something I'd prepared for with a neoprene facemask with a hole cut for easier breathing (awesome) and a pair of ski goggles (didn't use). There weren't any gusts to speak of, just a consistent 10-15mph bitter wind in your face. Still at easy effort, we had slowed to around 9:00/mi. I was starting to feel like I'd need to change up some shirts, but that stuff was all back at the Middleport turnaround, so I'd have to wait till mile 37. My nutrition was mostly Tailwind with some caffeinated gels for backup, and it was going ok, but it was becoming difficult to drink as much as I needed to get the calories in with 250cal/18oz bottle. If I were to do it again (I won't. Not this one, anyway) with these temps I think I'd go with 350, despite what the literature says. Around mile 22 I was starting to tire, and knew it was too early to be feeling this way. No freakouts, but then, no plan either. We reached the Lockport end and seeing Dani and friends briefly lifted my spirits as I picked up pacer Charlie, but I ran into and walked out of that aid station.
---> Leg 2 of 4 - 2:02

Mixing Tailwind is serious business
At this point, knowing that I was only halfway there was kind of daunting. The feeling was not unlike the last loop at Mendon, but having a lot longer to go. I didn't want to run, but Charlie did his level best to keep coaxing me into it. Around 30 miles I got so confused and tired, my eyes starting to close, and I slowly became dimly aware that finally, finally I had reached a personal goal. Bonnnnk. And whose fault is that, anyway? Yeah. Right here. It sucked, and I didn't have anything else to take in, let alone the wherewithal to ask Charlie for something. But he did get me to keep picking it up. So it was run walk run walk run walk BROTH. Ah, broth, restorer of my soul. I loved the folks at the Gasport aid station. They also had apple cinnamon Hammer gels. After that, things got a bit better, but I tried not to think about the final stretch.
---> Leg 3 of 4 - 2:27

I picked up Dani for the last leg, finally got some new clothes on and another cup of broth in me and was feeling good for the first half mile, though of course it didn't last. The headwind was a constant companion and it just wasn't possible to walk for very long without the chill creeping in. It was getting darker, and sleet began to fall. We arrived back at Gasport with ice buildup, and it certainly wasn't going to get better. Dani was convinced that the impromptu run-walking was hurting more than helping, and I had to agree that it hurt most to walk- I just couldn't sustain a run. So she hatched a plan to grind it out, we're talking 10:30 pace here, and actually reminded me to slow if I started to pick it up. And you know what? It worked. I could handle the pain level of the grind, even if muttering, "I can do it," incessantly was part of the package. I squinted ahead into the darkness and sleet, the way on barely illuminated by our too-dim headlamps, and entered a timeless space. It was better not to think of what had come before or what was ahead. I thought to myself, "There is only now. Only myself and her, only this slow churning ahead through the darkness, only icandoit icandoit icandoit."

And then the light, cutting through the darkness down the canal. Wide Waters. The finish. All that's left is to go down to the lift bridge and back up the other side. 2 miles. It felt like forever, but she actually got me to pick it up for the last mile, and you know what? I was fine. I thought of Ray Garraty in The Long Walk, at the end of all of this still finding more within. There's always more, it seems. And help as well. Even when we do it all wrong.
--->Leg 4 of 4 - 2:24

Finish time - 8:47:19 - 10th place - C goal met
p.s. Will beat me by half an hour!

Captain BNAC and the Middleport Mustachio, with pacer extraordinaire Dani shedding some light

*Photos 1+2 by Dan Salmons, 3 by Adam Hudson, 4 by Sarah Anderson, 5 + 6 by Jay Lang

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Just Because It Burns Doesn't Mean It'll Keep You Warm (Mendon Trail Run - 50k)

I have been training for today for the last four months, but the reality of it goes way beyond that.

When I came back to running a little over 2 years ago, I swore that I would never run more than 3 miles at a time. I had enjoyed racing XC in high school, but I never trained well and the inevitable post-race nausea resulted in an aversion that took 20 years to cure. But with careful training came a string of successes, and the distance I was willing to run gradually ballooned to the point of 'ultramarathon'. This is how I found myself in Pittsford, NY this morning, toeing the starting line at the Mendon Ponds Trail Run 50k. In the end, I finished in 4:47:40 and in 9th place... not bad for my first time out. It was a grueling run, but despite that I got a lot more out of it that than a cup of soup and a finisher's medal (both of which I was very happy to receive).

The day dawned cold and rainy, and we shivered as the RD gave his instructions and sent us off. As planned, I began at around 8 minute pace, a good bit off the lead group but well within myself. The course is a 10k loop that rolls constantly and for the first three laps everything was great. I was putting in an honest effort without redlining and grinding slowly up the few short, steep hills in low gear, a skill that I've had difficulty with in the past. I was waving to volunteers and enjoying a day out in the woods. The Mendon course is mostly made up of a trail that winds its way over eskers, geological formations that are like little ridges and being among them is both beautiful and isolating. During the fourth lap, my muscles started to tighten up and I got some salt into me, just in case, but I don't really think that was the issue and by then I'm not sure that there was anything I could have done.

Not far into the fifth and final lap, muscle and joint pain slowed me to a walk. I would try to get going again, only to be reduced to walking a few hundred meters later, legs screaming. My mood was black. I got passed. And so I called upon what's always gotten me through:

I have to confess that I've often fueled my running by burning off pain and frustration from my life. Sometimes it feels like the running is what makes everything else possible, the locomotive carried along by the power of the fire within. I've met lots of people who do the same or similar. And while there's nothing wrong with or quite like an honest 5 miler to clean the slate, the mistake I made was thinking, "I have known such darkness and always found the dawn on the other side - this is what I will use to get me through a difficult race." Dragging myself around the course I called upon it... and it only took me further down. I could see what was happening, but couldn't find the way out. I had to be led.

He came up slowly on a slight incline and I looked over and gave the standard trail runner greeting, "Good job." He half smiled and shook his head as he passed, wincing with each step. He was clearly hurting, but he just kept going, growing the gap between us... until I realized he wasn't getting any further away. I had unconsciously begun mimicking him. When he walked, I walked, and when he broke into a shambling run, I did the same. His bright yellow rain shell bobbed up ahead, always about fifty feet away. I began to realize that although it was painful to run, there wasn't anything specifically wrong with me. Once the pain had reached a certain point it didn't get any worse. And while turning this over in my mind I realized something else.

I was gaining on him.

When I finally caught up to him we talked a little. This race had been his first 50k, and since then he'd done it seven times consecutively. I mentioned that the first three laps had been easy, and he grunted in agreement,

"Yeah, I always tell newbies to take it real easy the first two or three laps or by the last one they'll be sucking, and look at me now. I'm sucking. But at least we can run."

I pointed out that the worst of the climbs were behind us and he laughed,

"Smooth sailing from here on."

Then we reached the aid station midway through the loop where he stopped and I went on. He didn't look back and by then I was afraid to lose the momentum. Because while we were talking I had begun to move pretty well again, like I had been caught in his orbit and then flung off in another direction. Or more likely, that I had been given something I could really use to help me along: a little human connection and the bond of shared adversity. I ran the rest of the loop, clocked a few better mile splits and finished with a smile on my face, despite coming in half an hour past my goal.

It took a while to struggle into some dry clothes and banish the bone-deep chill that had settled in during that last lap and I didn't see my new friend again, but I hope I'll get the chance to thank him someday.

[OK, spoiler. It's a little more poetic to say that, but these days it isn't difficult to look somebody up, and say, point them to the story you wrote about them. So thanks a million, Ted, for getting me out of a really tough spot. Maybe one day I'll be able to repay you.]

That afternoon brought the first snow of the season and with it thoughts about the upcoming Beast of Burden. How much easier would it be to run on a dead flat course even if I had to stuff myself into a parka to do it? But that was secondary to this:

Maybe we don't need to burn the darkness. Maybe it just dissipates along the way. And if I can get this locomotive cranking with crap fuel, just think of what'll happen when I stoke the fire something good.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Introduction: A step or a precipice?

I'm Tim. Hi.

I came back to running a few years ago and kind of surprised myself. What happened in the past- that's a story for another time, but when I came back I found that I actually was having fun this time around, and maybe because of that it was pretty good for my head, too.

I kind of eased into the act of training, but I devoured books, articles and movies on it, anything I could get my hands on; and I developed these strategies about how to approach it. I coached myself. I wanted to control everything, to do it perfectly. And it actually went pretty well. It's easy to keep improving your PRs at first as you start to get fit, but I continued to improve in a pretty linear fashion. I started to run longer races. I didn't get hurt. I tried a couple of cross country races that made me nostalgic for high school XC, and so I signed up for this trail race...

It was 9 miles long and I was completely unprepared for it. I mean, I knew the course profile and I had the fitness, but I was unprepared for how I would feel about it. My friend Steve, an avid trail runner, has described running technical trails as a 'different kind of athleticism' that's somewhat removed from road and track running, and when I was out on the singletrack I knew immediately what he meant. If you want to run on the trail, particularly at speed, evaluating each footfall needs to be involuntary, and doing it came so naturally... like an instinct that had been waiting to be expressed. It was visceral. It was fun. And then in the last mile, the course began to zigzag downward through a dangerously steep rock garden section - and then it became revelatory. Not only could I put concern for myself aside and scream down those harrowing switchbacks, I delighted in it. I jumped around other runners, picking new lines off of the trail, legs and arms wheeling.

But I didn't fall. I've fallen since then, but in those first moments everything was perfect. I was letting go completely and there was a sense of rightness about it. We are all gifted with things we are perfectly suited for in this life, but it's not often so clear to us. I didn't have to muster up the courage to bomb down that hill. I just acted. But the memory of that experience has helped me when the way in my life is not so clear, not so dependent on physical intuition and muscle memory. That experience changed me. It changed how I relate to the world and to the constant challenges it throws at us, and it changed how I think about running.

When I first started up again at 37, I set this arbitrary goal for myself: I wanted to qualify for and run the Boston marathon before I turned 40. The spring after that first trail race I ran my first marathon in just over 3:05 and realized at least the first part of that goal with a small smile. It was hard, but no clouds parted and there was no great emotional moment. I don't mean to diminish it or anyone else's journey, but it's not the same as that unplanned revelation in the woods. In some ways it feels like I was born out there.

This weekend I will run my first trail 50k. Training for it has gone the way most of my training does: cautiously, methodically, and more or less perfectly. I've had some great results in shorter distance trail races along the way (including a repeat experience at the 9 mile race (a top-notch and flawlessly run race called EVL9 in Ellicottville, NY, if you must know) despite running it while sick). But I can't help but wonder what's in store for me out there in Mendon, running hard for much longer than I've ever done before. Will it simply be something to tick off the list like the marathon, after which I regroup and plan for whatever adventure comes next? I hope not.