Complex Roots of Unity

The forecast was fine for the 25th running of the Bull Run Run 50 miler. 


A bit cool at the start, and a bit warm by afternoon, but sunny and dry throughout. Earlier rainstorms had already left their mark on the course. 

My training was typically inadequate, a few 5-10K runs around town, and nothing serious since the Barkley Fall Classic in September. I also got my heart rate elevated watching results trickle in from the real Barkley the previous weekend. 

Inspired by seeing what serious training can accomplish, I set out to optimize my intentions, preparing a race card that would guide me to a glorious finish in 11 hours. Rather than shooting for steady 15-minute miles over a course that is anything but consistent, I set goals for each leg of the course based on my fastest completion of that leg in my three previous finishes. 



These plans would be dashed at the start, when it was announced that we would be running the “high water” course to avoid the muddiest bogs at the northern end, with an additional passage through the White Loop added near the end to maintain distance. 


Our team, Complex Roots of Unity, stood for a portrait and then we were off. I carried only a bottle on the way north and almost didn’t need it in the cool morning air. I planned to save time by buzzing through aid stations, and was pleased to see that I spent only 44 seconds at the Centreville Road stop. I Kobayashi’d a banana half and carried a cup of sports drink out. On the return visit I limited my stop to half a minute. 

The first thought of quitting came at 12 miles. Not quite a desire to quit, but a strong urge to start walking despite the flat, comfortable terrain. Beautiful, even. The sun was peeking through the trees in the east, highlighting the exhalations of the runners ahead and illuminating the blooming bluebells, of which there was a rich crop this year. 


The earlier rains left some of the crossings tricky, and I struggled to keep my feet mostly dry with careful stepping, but my shoes were pretty muddy and soggy by the time I got to my drop bag at the start/finish area at Hemlock. I was very happy to change into dry socks and clean shoes, and strapped on my belt. Sunblock and some snacking made this my longest stop, six minutes in total. I would spend under 15 minutes stopped all day, including one half-minute pee.

At the southern extreme, the Do Loop no longer seems as grueling as it did the first time. I heard a familiar voice and looked back to see Ray just behind, with two other runners. This put the pressure on to secure another pipe

At 3:00 pm I saw the “10.0 miles to Hemlock” sign. If accurate, it would mean I could hit my aggressive goal of 11 hours by keeping a 15-minute mile pace. But was it ten miles, or did the high water course add more? I could only manage a pace of 16 or 17 minutes now anyway. The descents were very hard on the knees, and I actually appreciated the climbs as a legitimate reason to slow down. 


I continued to express through the aid stations, sometimes basically walking through, though I did pause to let Alex P. dump ice water down the back of my shirt. It was as invigorating as an electrical socket, and he was pleased at my promise to give five stars to the Wolf Run Shoals aid station on Yelp. 

I wondered if not resting might be slowing me down. One group passed me four times, always after a stop. But it seemed incorrect in principle to be at rest before the job was done. 

Nearing the finish, I was mostly alone, plodding and plotting. Hitting 11 hours was out of reach, but 11.5 might be possible, a slight gain over my personal record, which I remembered as 11:34. But I couldn’t make the math work for a PR without knowing the course length; some people said it was longer than before, some shorter. I was at sea, just like the first time, simply shooting for 4mph. On average, I hit that target.

I slowed through an expanse of bluebells. With fatigue-heightened senses, the rolling green carpets dotted with blue-violet were entrancing. A gorgeous yet flimsy-looking butterfly fluttered past like a leaf in the wind. Such creatures cross continents? Some bees buzzed around as well, and the thought of their stingers prodded me back into a shambling run. 

I thought of the many champions I had seen earlier, super humans with low bib numbers. Knowledge of the off-course hardships some of them had overcome left me staggered, stricken by their gutsy determination. 

Finally came through at 11:36:24, which turned out to be less than thirty seconds slower than my previous best. Oh well! I stood by the finish line to cheer in a few more back-of-pack runners. 


Last and greatest of all was Frank, bib #1, who finished the 25th Bull Run Run with under two minutes to spare before the 13-hour cutoff. He has finished all 25 races starting in 1993, completing the first one at age 50.

Our team would win the category of slowest finish!

Technical notes / TMI

I ingested only one gel all day. I carried three, and thought about taking another with caffeine, but took a 200 mg tablet instead. I popped one electrolyte S-Cap at the beginning of each hour from 10 to 4 and had no issues with cramps. Took about three Advil. It was very pleasant to get by on normal food and Gatorade, though I did not indulge much in the 5-star BRR buffets (saw stuffed grape leaves again).

Compression shorts under bathing suit worked fine, with iPhone in one pocket and a supply of oft-used tissues in the other (though I was chastened by another runner for my dainty and dignified “snot rags”). Vaseline in the unmentionable zone was beneficial but should have been more broadly applied. Body glide around waist and sunblock perhaps mostly psychologically useful. Nathan Triangle belt for bottle and meds and gels. Carried a phone charger but thanks to Low Power Mode and limited use (Runkeeper counting off miles in background and a few photos) arrived at the finish with 30% charge. 
BRR 2013
BRR 2014
BRR 2015

Another DNF at Barkley

Q: What’s harder than failing to complete the Barkley Fall Classic?

A: Failing to complete the Barkley Fall Classic again.

Things looked promising at the start of the 2016 Barkley Fall Classic, the event at which I found my limit last year, when I did not finish the full distance and had to claim the “drop-down” option of a “marathon” finish.

Working against me was a slightly warm forecast, in the 80’s, and negligible training, just some cycling and 5K runs. But I was familiar with the course, feeling strong, and highly motivated to collect a Croix de Barque, the finisher’s medal which appeared quite glamorous compared to the dog tag memento I received last year. I knew what to carry: water, performance-enhancing tablets, and some solid nutrition, as gels are banned, and the provided aid was described as fairly spartan “light snacks.” Even cups were deemed too luxurious for this event, so I clipped a paper hotel cup to my pack, and got a mineral dose each time I stopped to pour sports drink into the dirt that accumulated at the bottom.

BFC_2016_cup

I had a sound plan: to at least pace Ray through the major climbs and never ever get behind Leonard, the Timex-like power hiker who knows every step of the course, always skirts the cutoffs, and always finishes just in time.

Everybody has a plan until they have to run through a swarm of bees.

The eternal switchbacks at the start were just like last year. We passed the Grim Sweeper at the top, a race official who would follow the last runners and make sure those who did not make a cutoff time were sent packing. He wore black and carried a large scythe for effect. I thought to snap a quick photo but decided against it; every minute would count today and there was no time for goofing around.

Conga lines formed where the trail was too narrow to pass comfortably, and these restricted my speed but helped me keep a conservative pace. I saved energy by walking at the same rate that people ahead and behind were running.

A few miles along, I heard screams and shouts ahead. Someone nearby wondered if a runner had taken a fall and gotten hurt. We approached a line of stopped runners, five or six, and I slowed as I passed by them on one side. I heard someone say “bees” and saw more people far ahead on the trail, beyond an empty, straight and slightly downhill section. Without stopping, I decided that there was only one thing to do, and sped up to a full sprint down the trail. I never saw anything, but suddenly felt like I had run through a swarm of bees, with a multitude of little bounces on the front of my body.

A few more strides at top speed and the stinging started on my lower legs. I began shouting, both to warn others that the danger was real and because it was fun to yell. Then I continued shouting because it hurt. I went on until I thought I must be clear of the swarm and stopped to swat away the yellow jackets I found on my calves and ankles. One had gotten down into my shoe and I had to fish it out with a finger, cursing all the while.

“Welcome to Barkley,” someone joked, and we continued along on the trail. I heard some terrible cries of pain from behind, reminding me of “the screaming bedlam of women” in the shipwreck scene of The Sea Wolf, the book I packed for the trip. I thought I should go back to try and help, but all I had was Band-Aids and Advil. I would later hear reports of people stung 40 times, and people with bees in their ears, so I felt lucky to get away with three or four stings around my ankles.

By the time I arrived at an aid station, two and a half hours in, I felt unwell. My heart rate was more elevated than it should have been and I felt a bit of nausea. I took on some fluids and walked out, making a note of the location in case I had to turn around and come back.

I walked slowly, and climbed very slowly, for about 45 minutes, and many people passed me. My ears were hot and itchy, my fingers were puffy and my palms tingled. Sometimes my ears would ring, but my vision was clear and I passed a self-administered MSE (though I had to think about my age because my birthday was the same weekend). I thought about the queries I would put into a search engine if I had a data connection: “bee sting symptoms,” or “antifrenetic” or “epipenetic” or “intergalactic” shock, whatever that’s called. I took an S-Cap electrolyte pill, which seemed the most useful item in the limited inventory of my Ziplock pharmacy.

An hour after the bees, I started feeling better. Anxious to get back into the race, I swallowed a drug cocktail, one dose of each remedy in my medicine chest.

  • Vitamin I (200 mg ibuprofen)
  • Go Go Juice (200 mg caffeine)
  • Salt (S-Cap)

These did the trick, and my mojo was back about four hours after the start. I reached the first checkpoint and asked the bib puncher about my status.

“How we doing on time?”

“I dunno. You seen any sweepers?”

“No. Haven’t seen Leonard either.”

“Oh, Leonard’s up ahead. He passed a minute or two ago.”

“Okay then.”

I had seen Leonard at the start but didn’t notice him pass. If I let him get far ahead I knew I would fail. I started running at a sustainable trail pace, determined that I would not stop running until I either saw Leonard or else dropped out. I managed to go on a while until I saw one of those defeating upward-pointing trail markers and had to start walking the climb. I asked a runner nearby if he had seen Leonard. “Yeah, that’s him” he said, pointing just ahead. Relieved, I caught up, observing that Leonard is not a monotonous power hiker after all — he was running wherever possible like everyone else. While passing Leonard I said hello and asked about his feelings about our position. He courteously pretended to have forgotten my name, expressed concern about the hot weather, and mentioned some target times for waypoints to come. I jogged on, extremely relieved to be able to keep a reliable finisher in view behind me and feeling strong again.

I arrived at Testicle Spectacle and saw the newbies stop to gawk and snap photos just like I did my first year. I didn’t pause for a moment and plunged directly into the steep initial descent. With my gloves on I was able to do a lot of controlled falling, usually on hands and feet, sometimes in full butt-slide mode. The entrants coming back out were spread thin but there seemed to be a lot of them and I knew I was near the back of the pack. It was a long and hard descent and there was an extra leg with a loop added to the end, with a checkpoint bib punch outside a church.

Leonard was never far behind. He said he wanted to be back at the top by 1 p.m., six hours after the start. At 1 p.m. I was most of the way up, but still a good snowball’s throw from the crest. It took me twenty minutes to haul myself up that last section.

Then down the other side, dubbed Meth Lab Hill, toward the prison. I didn’t feel like eating, but forced myself to start on the bag of peanut M&Ms I carried, unable to contemplate my two Clif Bars. Washing down the candy caused me to finish the water in my hydration pack, but I remembered an aid station at the prison entrance last year. It was there as expected, and they had ice.

I will always remember that distant afternoon when, facing an imminent mortal threat, I discovered that cooler full of ice. A volunteer shoveled scoops into my empty bag while I watched with immense satisfaction. As another volunteer poured lukewarm water over the ice, I knew it wouldn’t stay cold long, but I would enjoy the refreshment while it lasted. We jogged across the prison entrance drive, then through the prison and around to the back, where this year’s theme came into play: “Over the Wall.” Extension ladders were placed to enable an escape over the high prison wall, then we walked through a long and dark tunnel to get to the base of the long, long climb up Rat Jaw to the fire tower.

At the base, the steel cable was gone or cut from the short, nearly vertical face, and people were scrambling up by grabbing roots and weeds. I went up just left of the conga line, where it was a little steeper but less crowded. Then the fun began.

It was really just steep. The saw briers had been cut down, an immeasurable advantage, though it meant no shade and no restful time spent hunting for a path. There was nothing to do but climb. Climb until the heart is about to burst, stop and rest a minute, then climb some more.

My climbing cycles became shorter and shorter. I used the proven motivational technique of choosing some point ahead and determining to march on to that point, forgetting everything else, then I would rest. Usually I could plant my feet and stand still and blow to recover, but sometimes I flopped over and sat for a minute or two. If someone was behind me, I thought I would have to let them pass, but they often stopped as well rather than overtake me. There’s a lot of camaraderie among the people foolish enough to sign up for an event like this, and the encouragement and “good job” salutes can start to feel a bit automatic and tedious after a few hundred times. On Rat Jaw the focus was on survival and relentless ascent and no calories were spared for salutations. I remember having a long sit, washing down another S-Cap and staring vacantly as some climbers crept past me. I spotted Leonard coming up and realized that sitting was the way to fail.

I continued setting small goals, advancing on them, and rewarding myself with a half-minute bake under the sun. Sometimes my objective was to get my feet on a root or lump of earth that I could have reached out and touched with my hands. My steps were short and monotonous, lifting the advance foot, putting it down twelve or eighteen inches ahead, then pulling the rear foot up behind. Step, step. Mortar. Block. Mortar. Block. Inexorable, slow progress toward a goal Ivan Denisovich would surely find quixotic.

It always seemed the top was just ahead. Then we would reach it and there would be a new top just ahead. Leonard caught up and I asked him what to expect. He said we were almost done with the hardest pitches, then the course would bend left and the climb would be less severe. He went on above me but I kept him in sight. When he passed a power line pole about 50 feet ahead I checked my watch. It took me seven minutes to reach the pole, seven minutes that felt like a week.

My sweating was profuse, which I took as a good sign. I popped another S-Cap every 45 minutes. The ground was so dry and crumbly, it was like climbing a sand dune. I tried not to look up often, and when I did it was always the same line of sitters and climbers up to the next crest.

Somehow I got out of it. The comparatively gentle climb under forest cover was a relief and I made the best time I could. When I sighted the fire tower between the trees I hooted with joy and scanned it for a sign of Leonard’s red hat. He was out of sight before I got there, using my arms to pull myself up the three flights of stairs. The bib puncher at the top said I had about an hour until the cutoff, and “four or five” miles to go, as if an extra mile were not worth measuring. My watch showed 8 hours 40 minutes, and I knew ten-minute miles even on level trail would be extremely optimistic. I swung myself down the stairs on the handrails and headed toward the next aid station, overhearing someone say “If they’re not charging down the mountain now, they’re gonna get cut.”

I spent half a minute at the AS, half-filling the two-liter bag in my pack which I had emptied since the prison. I was unfit to run, yet I ran. I slowed when my legs felt rubbery or the terrain was difficult.

I wasn’t sure if I could make it to Laz by 9.5 hours. He would be on gun time, synchronized with the start, but I started my watch a little later, when I crossed the starting line. Mainly I didn’t know how far I had to go. But it was slightly downhill, and the pain would be over sooner if I covered ground faster. I ran on. I imagined the pleading and justifications I might make if I were just a little late, hoping to get waved through, contrary to Laz’s reputation. Then I told myself I should focus on running instead of thinking of excuses for being late. Then I told myself to shut up, I was running, and needed something to take my mind off of that.

I passed some entrants walking; they courteously stepped to the side of the trail to let me by. I checked my watch at about 9 hours 20 minutes. I passed a guy lying flat on the side of the trail. “I’m okay” he groaned, not very convincingly. I ran on.

I heard voices up ahead. My watch showed 9:27. I ran on. The voices continued, but I didn’t see anything. I glanced at my watch again and saw 9:29:57. I ran on.

When I turned the last corner and saw the small crowd, I knew I was late, but pretended not to. I let out a whoop and bounded straight up to the RD and said “Great to see you Laz! Where do I get my bib punched?”

Laz replied calmly: “It’s marathon time.”

“Laz, I ran all the way down from the tower. I’m feeling great, you gotta let me go on.” He said I was three and a half minutes past the cutoff. I told him I could make that up in the next mile. I began remonstrating with propaganda prepared on the way. “Laz, I ran when I wanted to walk.” Some people around chuckled, recognizing the language Laz used in e-mail messages sent ahead of the event, vaguely threatening, but not really, but yes kind of. “I gave up a chunk of my soul on Rat Jaw.”

Laz wasn’t budging. Someone told me he had already cut off five other runners, dashing any hopes I had of an exemption. This was a lie, only one runner missed the deadline ahead of me, but he missed it by 9.8 seconds and was still cut off.

I stood rooted for a few minutes, staring up at the treetops to keep my nasolacrimal ducts clear, though I was too dried up to need to bother. I hunted down my drop bag, picked it up and started hiking to the finish, giving Laz an awkward fist-bump/high-five hybrid as I passed.

Later it would occur to me that I ought to have asked Laz if I was required to proceed directly to the finish, or if I could perhaps dawdle around a bit and maybe take a detour past Chimney Top on my way to the finish, staying on the marked course. He might not have DQ’d me, but I wasn’t going to get the Croix and have doubts as to whether I could have completed the full course, even with the additional 3 hours 50 minutes allotted for the last leg. I was spent.

Eighteen runners were awarded the drop-down marathon finish ahead of me; all but one were qualified to continue for the 50K but declined. Of 324 starters, 73 suffered DNF, 132 finished the drop-down, and 119 completed the full distance, including Leonard, who finished with eight minutes to spare.

I got another dog tag, which I’ll keep at the very bottom of my sack of race trinkets so I don’t have to see it often. But I don’t mind looking at the record of progress recorded on my bib. Each checkpoint had a punch in the shape of a different letter, to spell out a message compatible with the year’s theme of scaling the prison wall. I didn’t complete the event, but my bib spells out the theme and symbol of my day in the Tennessee mountains, i.e., S-Cap.

BFC_2016_bib

Achieving DNF at Barkley

It was 6:59 a.m. on a warm September Saturday in Frozen Head State Park when I began the Barkley Fall Classic, the first running event I ever started that I did not finish. The letters DNF are often considered a badge of shame among runners, but I’ve come to believe that if you never fail, you’ll never find your limits.

We set off at the ceremonial lighting of a cigarette by Lazarus Lake, the race director notorious for devious and cruel events designed to break the will of the most hardened runners.

BFC1_laz_lights

Laz is the man behind the infamous Barkley Marathons, held in the same mountains near Wartburg, Tennessee. According to race lore, he was unimpressed by the eight miles covered in 55 hours by escaped prisoner James Earl Ray. He mapped a course in the mountains around Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and challenged entrants to complete the circuit five times, for a total of about a hundred miles, with a twelve hour limit for each loop. Many years no one finishes. Recognition is offered for a lite version, the “fun run,” which consists of three loops.

“The Race That Eats Its Young” is therefore an unrealistic prospect for rational creatures, even those foolish enough to think that the word “marathon” is improved by the prefix “ultra.”

So Laz launched a baby version of the Barkley, the 50K Fall Classic. This requires a single transit of a Barkley-like course, with a seemingly generous time limit of 13 hours 20 minutes. (I am a dedicated back-of-the-pack trail runner, and needed 6½ hours to finish a Virginia 50K on a hot summer day.) As an added sop, a “drop-down” option of a “marathon finish” is available to those who complete the first 22 miles within 9.5 hours. Shortcuts back to the finish, termed “Quitter’s Roads,” are conveniently indicated along the way for those who decide to bail out early. (The 2015 results would show 101 finishers of the 50K, 69 who took the the drop-down option, and 44 DNFs.)

My strategy was to stick close to the heels of Ray, who had completed the inaugural BFC the year before. He treasured his medal from that event, and was determined to pick up the rare and illustrious Croix de Barque offered for the first time to finishers of the 2015 Fall Classic. Ray would be familiar with several signature features of the course, which changes every year, and his report from 2014 included intel he gathered from Leonard, a power-hiking veteran of the real Barkley.

The sun rose as we began our climb from the start/finish area into the mountains. Ray told me to expect a lot of switchbacks, and the trail delivered them. There might have been some people running near the front, but everyone I could see was content to march up the zigzag trail at a steady pace. I got a stinging welcome from a yellow jacket along the way. As a kid I was terrified of bees and would get an allergic reaction to stings requiring Benadryl and hours of cartoons. Now I laughed the annoyance off, certain that a bee sting would soon be the least of my discomforts. The switchbacks were tiresome, but eventually we reached a crest and started jogging along. “That wasn’t so bad,” I thought, the first of many positive thoughts to be dashed that day. The climbing soon resumed, and it was an hour before I reached the real peak, after a climb of about 1600 feet. I calculate that it would take a typical escalator half an hour to gain that much elevation.

Down the other side we went and then some more ups and downs until I reached the first aid station about eight miles in, more than an hour ahead of the 4-hour cutoff. Laz is an old-school cross country runner and doesn’t go in for fancy signs and flag-waving volunteers directing traffic at every corner. GPS is prohibited, and runners are required to carry a compass and whistle along with a cloth topo map of the current year’s course, a closely-guarded secret until packets are distributed the night before. Nevertheless, I spotted several course markers along the way, though I suspect that some of them were meant to dishearten as much as assist.

BFC2_climb_ahead

A few more hours of running and hiking and we arrived at the first real horror, a feature the map described as a “scenic side trip” dubbed “Testicle Spectacle,” allegedly named by a Barkley victim who made the sign of the cross upon first witnessing what lay ahead. We were at the top of a power line right-of-way clearing that stretched steeply down into the valley. Wasted-looking humans wearing colorful synthetic fabrics, slick with sweat, were clambering out of the void. Going down was quite challenging, with a few short nearly vertical drops and longer dirt sections that could only be navigated by butt-sliding. We struggled to the bottom, got our bibs punched at the checkpoint, and turned around to march out, crawling on hands and knees where necessary.

BFC6_climbing_out

At some point my mind fused the identities of Lazarus Lake and Leonard Smalls, the Harley-riding villain of “Raising Arizona” played by Randall “Tex” Cobb. Ray would provide a reinterpreted description from the movie:

He was horrible. The lone race director of the apocalypse. A man with all the powers of Hell at his command. He could turn turn the day into night and lay to waste everything in his path. He was especially hard on the dilettantes – the untrained and the gentle runners. He left a scorched earth in his wake befouling even the sweet mountain breeze that whipped across his brow. I didn’t know where he came from or why. I didn’t know if he was dream or vision.

I dutifully crossed myself as I clambered up out of the valley and took a few minutes to regroup. There was a runner prone and getting some attention, probably in the early stages of heat exhaustion. Ray pointed out Leonard, the experienced power hiker, and I made a mental note of his appearance with his walking stick.

An entrant with a British accent asked me if I had any water to spare. I didn’t have a sanitary way to share water from my hydration pack so I declined, but kept an eye on him until we made the next aid station. It was at the bottom of the other side of the mountain, near the entrance to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

BFC4_bushy_entrance

The prison was closed in 2009, and Laz had arranged for the course to go through it, passing the cell that once held James Earl Ray. There was a checkpoint in “The Hole,” a tiny cell in a pitch-black corridor. Runners clumped around anyone with a light and lined up to get their bibs punched.

BFC5_bushy_interior

The relative cool and shade was a relief, but the comforts of prison life did not last long. We were at a low point topographically, and would soon be at a low point spiritually. The Rat was just ahead, to be followed by the infamous Rat Jaw ascent.

Rat Jaw is the stuff of legends. It’s a steep climb, of course, but overgrown with saw briars. These are too tall to see over and do to exposed flesh what their name implies. There is no trail, and the way is vaguely indicated by a fallen power line and an unrelenting ascent to a fire tower at the top of the mountain.

To get to this attraction, we had to scale The Rat, a short but very steep exposed rocky outcropping. I put on my Harbor Freight oil change gloves to get a better grip on a steel cable that once supported a utility pole and hauled myself up. Under the sun it was very slow going.

I rejoined Ray at the base of Rat Jaw. I had some idea of what to expect based on his report. We plunged in, trying to pick out a path between the thorny bushes. The scratching was annoying, but the real irritation was the constant snagging on clothes and gear. My hat got snatched repeatedly and soon looked like it had been in a blender. We were making slow progress and at one point Ray stepped to one side and offered to let me break trail. Against my best judgment, I forged ahead, eager to take on the challenge.

Within 20 minutes I was up ahead but firmly stuck. In a half crouch I crept left and right but couldn’t find a way up. I couldn’t stand to get a look around and couldn’t sit to rest. Eventually I found something sort of flat to park my butt on and sat to drink some water and breathe. Between the tops of the briers I had a gorgeous view, all green hills. I shouted at Ray and added some oaths for good measure but didn’t hear anything back. For the first time, I was alone.

Really alone. Deep down I knew that by nightfall I would be resting in a clean bed, but for now I was exhausted, miserably hot, sucking tepid water from a rubber bag, scratched up and itchy, with no prospect of relief or forward progress. I passed a long dark half-hour of the soul, wondering how this was supposed to be fun and what I was doing in such a place. I didn’t care about finishing anything any more, I just wanted to be done with it.

There was only one thing to do: move on. After a while I found some beat-down paths and dragged myself along them, eventually finding my way to more of a cleared area that was still steep but showed signs of human passage. I kept climbing and finally found a proper trail. There were reassuring footprints so I hiked along a while until I walked through a spider web. That couldn’t be right, so I turned back the way I came, noticing that the prints were left by hiking boots, not running shoes. I thought about blowing my whistle, but wasn’t in danger and didn’t want to raise alarm. Continuing roughly upward, I encountered a wayward band of entrants and joined them.

It was a long hike up. I think Leonard must have passed ahead by this time. The last bit was another short vertical climb to a gravel road by the fire tower. I was spent and sat down to watch other people haul themselves up out of the forest.

Some volunteers were hanging around cheering people on and calling out directions to climbers below. I saw the power line and realized that it was the top of the right-of-way clearing that was choked with saw briars. I asked a volunteer if any runners came all the way up through the thorny bushes. “Yeah, the bloody ones,” he said. He told me he saw one guy slip and do a faceplant into the thorn bushes, letting out a daisy-cutter F-bomb.

Ray appeared and suggested that his race was probably over, it would be tough to make the time cutoff to qualify for the last section needed to get the full 50K distance. Some people were still running on, though. I felt numb and didn’t care one way or the other. I climbed the fire tower to the checkpoint at the top and took another breather. There was a body and a nice breeze. I enjoyed the view then climbed down and began the long slow hike toward the cutoff point.

BFC3_tower_body

Laz was there, making wisecracks about all the abandoned drop bags scattered around, wondering what they might fetch on eBay. There were lots of trekking poles. I was glad to know my ordeal was over, silently swearing I would never set foot in Tennessee again.

I asked Laz for a photo and he agreed to pose for my souvenir selfie. “This is for my lawyer,” I quipped, getting a chuckle out of the R.D. from Hell. I hung around a while longer, enjoying the banter between Laz and some volunteers and worn out runners, until I realized that I wasn’t done. It was another mile or two back to the start/finish before I could leave this place.

BFC7_with_laz

I walked along, now on a paved park road, dejected. I spotted the famous yellow gate that marks the start and finish of the real Barkley and stopped to take a photo, but I couldn’t find an angle that looked right. Eventually I realized it wasn’t the same gate. I walked on.

Sometimes runners would pass me, shuffling along like war wounded fleeing some atrocity. What’s the point of rushing, I thought. Then it occurred to me, they were still in the race, they had long since beat the cutoff and survived whatever trial by ordeal was on the last leg and were heading to a glorious finish. I goaded myself into a pained jog to maintain appearances.

At the finish, they didn’t check my bib for the missing punch but simply asked me how far I went. I got a dippy dog tag consolation prize for completing the “marathon” version. Failure is failure, but it was nice to get some recognition, and the official results included me as a finisher for the shorter distance.

I renewed my firm vow to never again make the mistake of taking part in such a foolish enterprise. I think I decided I was done with running altogether. It’s all kind of fuzzy now, as it’s been a year since the Barkley Fall Classic. Probably it will come back to me when I try my luck again in Tennessee this weekend.

15 × 50

Much was in my favor before the 2015 Bull Run Run 50 miler. I had survived the two previous years, giving me confidence of not only a finish but a lot of fun. I had been eating better and making more vegetarian choices for several months, leading to the unintended loss of a few pounds and a greater sense of well-being. And I had recently returned from a week in Paris, an ideal spot for carbo-loading. Jet lag had me asleep by 9 p.m. and up at 6 every morning during the week before the run. Friday I had four meals, followed by a dose of pizza Friday night at Ray’s place, topping off the tank.

I hoped these factors would compensate for my having run fewer than 25 miles during the previous three months. I hadn’t run more than ten miles in one go since the Canary in the Cave 25K+ five months earlier.

My “alpine style” success at that event led me to retreat from the siege mentality I had previously brought to Bull Run. I started with my utility belt lightly loaded with three or four gels and a half-full bottle of Gatorade. I knew I could survive the early miles in the cool morning without extra fluid.

Most important, I had a strategy. I reviewed my recorded pace data from prior finishes and saw wild changes in speed from mile to mile. 2014 was smoother than 2013, but it was clear that if I could avoid the egregiously slow miles of 20+ minutes and keep closer to my 15-minute target, it would be a big help, even if it meant giving up my occasional fast miles under 15.

BRR_charts

To achieve my steady pace goal, I determined to start slow, even more than I determined to start slow in 2014. I started among the back of the pack with Bruce, my teammate on the “Wheezing Geezers,” a gang of four we thought might have a chance of taking the slowest team prize, if not the most aged. (Our average age of 45 was barely over the average entrant age of 43.) I took it easy on the early miles, focused on chatting, walking the rises, and patiently waiting at the crowded stream crossings.

I came alongside Ken Swab, who I had greeted in the morning with Mark Zimmermann. Ken told me that Mark preferred a steady pace, while Ken followed the “fly and die” philosophy. That sounded like my usual style, to run when the legs had run in them, but I was trying to maintain discipline, often putting on the brakes during these early miles. (Ken’s report, Mark’s report)

Ken mentioned that he had studied his past data, and prepared a pace card with his target arrival times at various points of interest. I had done the same, but forgotten to bring the slip of paper along. I also forgot to tie my shoes — or rather I had intentionally tied them very sloppily to make sure I would tie them properly before the start. I paused to take care of this business, and also made frequent stops to relieve pressure from sipping Gatorade while not sweating. I told myself these slow miles would be so easy they wouldn’t count against me in the second half.

I spent a brief minute at the first aid station, continued on to the turnaround, and counted other runners to determine my position: 64 from the back, my slowest start by far. The plan was working, now it was time to get to work!

runner_late
photo by Bobby Gill

I caught up with veteran Frank Probst, and mentioned to him that our team had been DQ’d because of one no-show. Frank had earlier expressed surprise, or perhaps umbrage, that our team would dare to attempt to claim the “oldest team” designation. His team, Huffin and Puffins, would win easily with four finishers of average age 66.

I arrived at the start/finish aid station (mile 16) after three and a half hours, a pace of just over 13 minutes per mile. Close enough to 15. I considered dropping my belt, since the weather was perfect and I could maybe get by with just a bottle like the elite runners, but wanted to keep my pocket pharmacy of band-aids, Advil, salt tablets, and caffeine-laced gels. Maybe next year I will start without the belt and pick it up after 16.

After six hours I had covered the marathon distance, with an average pace a little over 14 minutes. This is a psychological halfway point, though it is a peculiar kind of pick-me-up to say “just another marathon now.” I knew it was much less than 26 more miles, but it was still too early to start counting down. I kept shooting for 15-minute miles, and was usually within a minute or two of my target. The White Loop was not as defeating as before, though very solitary. The archery range warning signs and the bangs and booms from nearby Fairfax Rod & Gun Club always provide incentive to move along.

By the time I reached the Do Loop after mile 30 I was still on my pace target and knew I would have a good finish if I could avoid mishaps. The weather was still fine, though warmer, and I didn’t mind the frequent ups and downs with the views over the water. It’s the last one-way section, and with no witnesses I dared to take my shirt off. It was a pleasant sensation and helped take my mind off the long climbs. Toward the end there was a group of three spectators watching what must be a fairly boring spectacle, and I made a show of channeling my annoyance at the constant elevation change by charging up a rise. I didn’t regret it as much as I expected to.

Decently attired again, I resumed the homeward stretch with just over a dozen miles to go. I knew the fastest runners were already finished, and I was happy to get more for my money by hanging out in the back of the pack. I covered a mile with a serious runner who claimed to hold an age-group record for the course, but had been slowed this year by surgery, maybe knee surgery (apparently just a few weeks earlier; a doctor had vetoed his plan to do a marathon the previous week).

I saw an impressive pair of calves ahead, but did not know it was Gary Knipling until I caught up and recognized his infectious smile and cheerful voice. We chatted a bit before I pressed ahead and joined another low-bib-number veteran. His modesty belied a considerable amount of experience running trails. He said he could not recall better weather for a BRR, and I later learned that he was tied with Frank for the record 23 finishes. He did not mention his celebrity status, but I noticed that volunteers would cheer and call his name as we approached an aid station. I snapped a quick photo of legendary Tom Green at the superhero-themed Wolf Run Shoals aid station.

BRR_Tom_Green

Be well, Tom!

I finished in 11:36:01. By the nominal distance, my pace was under 14 minutes per mile, but Runkeeper shows a GPS-based pace right on target.

BRR_2015_pace

Excel confirmed my steadier legs.

BRR_pace_131415

The organizers seem a little touchy about the distance: “We believe that our course is about 50 miles long. That is all current management of the event cares about.” But the course notes also point out that “Some of the hills on the course are gentle, a few are rather steep.” These elevations changes add distance, of course, as Science-based Running investigated.

I did my own experiment, and found that my iPhone 5 did not give me credit for climbing a 50-floor building, showing only 48 feet of climb. So there is definitely some unreported additional distance. When my Runkeeper record appeared, a friend commented: “Dude. For real? 46 miles?” I felt a little cheated too, but perhaps I saved by running the tangents.

Runkeeper Record

2014 BRR 50 report

2013 BRR 50 report

BRR_2015_finish_self

Alpine Style

The New River, along with two other Appalachian rivers, is among the oldest in the world. It is also the site of one of my oldest memories. My grandparents lived in South Charleston, West Virginia, and I remember long drives along highways and hilly byways for Christmas and Easter visits. One year we visited the New River Gorge Bridge, perhaps around the time construction was completed in 1977. My father took a slide photo which ended up in my collection.

nrg_bridge

So when Ray suggested the Canary in the Cave “25K+” trail run, and I saw that the course would finish with a long riverside approach to the bridge, I had to jump in. Ray reserved space at the Morris Harvey House, the top floor of which we would share with Peter, the speediest of the colleagues Ray cajoled into coming.

Canary in the Cave course map

The forecast was for a sunny and cold day, and we woke to 23°F and a dusting of snow on the ground. After chilling in the starting area, I got off to a fast start to warm up, finishing the first mile in 9:19, but soon found myself walking in a single-file conga line. But as the field spread out, I fell into a rhythm of consistent ten- and eleven-minute miles.

Going in to the race, the scorecard showed a lopsided 4-8 record against Ray, and that was counting a half-second photo finish victory at an earlier 5K. I had yet to win at a distance greater than ten miles. Ray was making the usual noises about injuries and lack of training, and I saw this as a desperate chance to begin to correct the 2-to-1 ratio on the scoreboard.

Despite my speedy start, I knew Ray would not be far behind, and I may have spotted him over my shoulder. As a PSYOPS tactic, I sped through the first aid station, hoping to appear stronger than I felt, grabbing only a paper cup of water. There were (false) rumors of inadequacy at the aid stations, including a shortage of cups, and I held on to that paper cup for the whole race, just in case. I was running alpine style, carrying only my phone and layered clothes, with hat and gloves. The outer layer came off early, and the event photographer captured my black with green accent ensemble, a photonegative of a Pamplona bull runner.

We continued along the ridge trails, struggling to pick steps through a layer of leaf debris and the snow. I kept to the middle of the path, trampled down by earlier runners, hoping to avoid invisible obstacles. Then, I fell.

Falling down must have been something my forebears got a lot of practice at, and the judges of fitness took notice. I don’t do it often, but I seem to be good at it. I don’t know how it started, but before I knew what was happening I had folded my knees to one side, rolled through on a thigh and hip, and splayed my arms ahead to sacrifice the more expendable joints on impact. I also heard myself emit a loud “puta madre” before landing, though I doubt it enhanced my survival chances. With an irrational concern for decorum, I bounced up right away, checking for witnesses while shaking the snow and leaf litter off, then continued on unharmed.

Ray appeared and said he had taken a tumble as well. He thought he was bruised, but the photographer captured evidence of a long thigh-scrape, a souvenir from the trail.

I got a compliment for bringing my own cup to Aid Station 2, but was too dull to come up with a better response than “Uh, it’s not heavy.” I took on some fluids, but it was still too cold to remove my hat so I wasn’t sweating much. I continued on, keeping up a fairly steady pace around 10-11 minutes. Then we started down the Craig Branch Trail, a gradual descent from the crest of the mountain. I had gotten ahead of Ray and was mostly unaccompanied through this section. It was a wide and flat road, stubbornly cut into the steep mountainside.

Trail runners speak of “runnable” terrain as wine drinkers use the term “drinkable” — something you might think goes without saying. This smooth road, padded with a layer of leaves, was like going down a slide. I knew Ray would be locomoting like a mofo through this section, so I pushed the pace, posting my fastest mile of 9:03 as I descended into the valley. Then there was a hairpin turn and we were finally heading back toward the finish, the New River to the right and the bridge a few miles ahead.

I was in a good zone and feeling strong, confident that I could make good time until the last two miles, where an arduous climb out of the valley was promised before the finish. I even paused to take a snapshot of an old mine entrance along the way.

I hit another aid station, presented my paper cup, and made a prepared quip about my “official Dixie Cup of the Canary in the Cave.” It was warming up a bit and I took off my hat. As I approached the climb out of the valley, a race official told me there was ice up ahead, and I said “Awesome, thanks!” imagining filling my cup with ice cubes. I’m not sure why that sounded appealing, since I wasn’t planning to improvise an ice pack for one achey joint or another. But ice cubes would have been preferable to the stream crossing ahead, slick with ice-covered jagged rocks.

The last climb begain at mile 15.5, with 25 kilometers done this would be the “plus” in the 25K+ event name. I started hiking up, pausing again for a self-portrait with bridge.

Before long I could hear my heart beating in my ears, and counted a 160 pulse, a tolerable level within my discomfort zone. It was about a mile and a half to gain 600 feet of elevation, costing me 17 minutes for my slowest mile. Coming out on top, I ran in a 3:22 finish and grabbed a quick shot with the RD wearing the gimme hat race premium, then jogged off to the parking lot.

finish

I found Peter sitting at a picnic table, looking pretty ragged — understandably so, after his finish in just over three hours. He gave me the car keys and I retrieved my jacket, then jogged back to the finish line to see Ray and the others come in. I had just enough time to pose with my prop, a briar pipe, when he came over the line. It took a while for anyone to get the joke, that the leaderboard uses an ASCII pipe symbol for each win. I recorded this score with a more suggestive mark.

canary_leaderboard_pipe

North Face Endurance Challenge 50K

My first official events were a 5K in 2010 and the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011. Gradually I filled in most of the intermediate metric and statute distances and then added a 50-mile trail event after noticing that, in contrast to pounding pavement, trail running is actually fun, so it makes sense to get more for your registration money.

I was missing a 50K. In addition to doing this “marathon plus 5K and change” distance for the first time, I would be doing my first event during the warmer months, making the heat an intimidating factor. The June 7 forecast called for a high of 84 degrees (29°C). These uncertainties led me to predict a pretty wide spread in my probable outcomes:

5%: DNS
10%: < 7 hours
30%: 7-8 hours
30%: 8-9 hours
10%: > 9 hours
15%: DNF

I thought it wise to carry a water pack, but wasn’t patient enough to wait for an online order. I ended up grabbing a CamelBak Sabre with a two-liter bladder at a military supply shop. I gave it a test drive on a run home from work, about nine miles, feeling a little silly since it was cool and raining. (To complete the image, I was carrying my umbrella, which I thought I might need in the morning.) Two liters did not seem too inconvenient at first, but after going up a long rise I started to notice the weight. I decided to start the 50K with the bag about half full and refill it as necessary.

The weather was great Saturday morning, and I actually felt cold on the drive out to Sterling, making a mental note of the sensation. I was at the parking area early and got some intel from veterans on the shuttle bus. The couple in front of me had done this course and Bull Run Run before and were fans of both. The guy next to me was doing his first 50K and seemed hungry for advice as his experienced running buddy had bailed out.

At the start/finish, I had 45 minutes before the 7 a.m. start to apply sunblock, adjust gear, and drop my bag. I decided to go without bug spray, figuring I should be outrunning them. I carried two caffeinated gels, three or four each of salt capsules and Advil, and a little medkit with Band-Aids and tissues. I was looking forward to a long run with empty hands and no belt.

I saw Robin and her crew; she invited me to their post-finish picnic. I told her of my eight-hour target time and said she didn’t have to wait around, but they were planning to stay and watch people come in from the 50-mile event that had started at 5 a.m.

With my gear sorted, the only remaining duty was Job Number Two: elimination. This is often a challenge so early in the morning, even with a salutary coffee. Focus, determination, and a positive attitude produced the desired output in the end.

And then we were off! I started in Wave 3 at about 7:05, my wave no doubt determined by the back-of-the-pack 8-hour finish estimate I provided during registration. Even eight hours seemed a bit optimistic; I had finished the Bull Run Run behind 77% of other finishers, while at last year’s North Face 50K 72% of finishers took less than eight hours.

I was near the front of my group and soon ran into the rear of Wave 2. The early miles were on a very narrow trail with few opportunities to pass. And because of crowding at obstacles the pace was frequently slow. Thinking I would race smarter, not harder, I found I could walk several paces at a time without losing ground to the runner in front of me. More than once I walked quickly for at least half a minute while everyone around me was running at the same speed.

I found myself behind a guy wearing a shirt with a NPS logo with some Latin on it that I couldn’t make out. He executed some daring passes, bounding through underbrush on the sides of the path, and I kept up with him. We made some small talk about his school and running on the west coast, then he made some more passes and faded ahead.

Somewhere near two miles out, we approached what looked like an old stone house. But as we passed, I saw it was a cinderblock structure under construction with stone walls that had been half completed. I decided that would be a good reminder to kick for the home stretch.

Before long we were running alongside the Potomac. This was the part of the river I had played and paddled in as a kid, though I doubt I ever saw more than a mile of the shoreline in a day. It was sometimes muddy but fairly flat as we approached Riverbend Park. The trail opened up and I made good time, trying to cover some miles in the cool morning and make up for the early walking.

Crude plank bridges spanned most of the streams that were still swollen from recent rains, but one crossing was a major obstacle. I noticed a backup while approaching and surveyed the scene while walking up. People were clambering across a thin fallen tree, getting little support from a climbing rope that had been strung parallel to the makeshift bridge. The stream was too wide to jump over and too deep to cross without getting at least one foot soaked, an invitation for blisters later.

I took my spot in line behind a young guy who was making what seemed rather delicate, whining noises about his shoes. He managed to get across without spoiling his footwear, then within ten steps slipped in the mud and executed a full-body splat into the soft brown earth. The sound was exactly the same as that of a body impacting terrain on Saturday morning cartoons. It was all I could do to postpone my grin until I had made sure that he was okay and passed ahead.

mile / minutes
1 / 13:02
2 / 9:33
3 / 10:45
4 / 11:34
5 / 13:05
6 / 12:25
7 / 11:02
8 / 10:18
9 / 13:55
10 / 10:11

I passed a group of four young guys who had stopped to roll around in the mud and apply it to their faces. I tried to think of a “Predator” reference but came up blank.

A bit farther along I was chugging along a gravel road and some runners in the woods to my right caught my eye. I spotted one of the day’s innumerable arrow signs pointing out a hard right onto the trail and made the turn and heard someone say “oops” behind me. The runner thanked me for saving him from missing the turn and we chatted a while, mostly about nutrition on long runs. He was experienced at long distances but was doing this event for the first time. I mentioned that I usually pop an Advil or two in the second half. I don’t notice that they make me feel any different, but still seem to get a performance boost. “Placebo ergo volvo” came to mind, but I didn’t say it because the tenses were all wrong. Alan told me he was shooting for six hours, and shortly after I told him my target was eight hours, he bade a kind farewell and advanced ahead. We crossed paths once or twice more with a wave and a smile. I think it was Alan Kusakabe; if so he met his goal with a finish in 5:40:56.

The hills began in Great Falls. I was expecting three good climbs, twice each, on the out and back course, but only remember two significant efforts, and only one of them as heartbreaking as the rises that come regularly at Bull Run. The aid stations were welcome breaks, though I had been told to expect rather less than the five-star buffets I had been spoiled by on the BRR 50. Sometimes I found my staple, PB&J sandwich quarters, sometimes I found a jar of peanut butter and some bread scraps. I was conserving my last remaining salt capsules, and took advantage of the “french unfries” I found at most stops. These were chunks of cold, boiled potato served in plastic baggies. Grab a few and drag them through the plate of salt and wash it down with whatever brightly-colored fluid is on offer. Sometimes it was just a can of Morton’s Iodized to dump into your hand with the potato, but the main thing was to get salt in.

At an early aid station I heard a familiar voice calling out bib numbers and recognized my neighbor G. I stopped for an extra minute to chat, while stuffing nutrients and minerals in, and asked if his wife Blair was running. He reminded me that she was five months pregnant and suggested that she is “retired,” but I don’t believe that simply having a kid is an effective cure for this hobby.

Before I knew it I was cruising through the scenic paths in Great Falls Park. I refilled my water pack and wondered how well the runners were faring that were carrying only a handheld bottle. It was warm out but the trail was almost completely shaded and largely level. I came up to a stop where a race official inscribed another checkpoint glyph on my bib. Beyond them was a nearly vertical rocky climb. “Now we go up?” I asked, pointing. No, it was the turnaround point, I was already halfway done and it was just past 10 a.m.

Confident of a finish and a PR, I hadn’t been calculating a finish time, but now realized that the first half had taken me just over three hours. I was feeling good and wondered if six hours was a remote possibility. But I also knew I had started out too fast and would undoubtably slow down in the second half. I saw the Predator guys less than a mile from the turnaround and decided that my only absolute goal was to finish before them.

I overheard a couple chatting behind me, the older guy advising the young lady on what to expect. He said there was some technical rock-hopping ahead, but it was beautiful and his favorite part of the course. I thought I wouldn’t mind an excuse to slow down a bit. We climbed some and came out on a ridge and enjoyed beautiful vistas into the gorge and islands and the water below. I walked and gawked a bit and made a mental note to come again sometime when the clock wasn’t ticking.

mile / minutes
11 / 11:17
12 / 11:04
13 / 11:34
14 / 12:26
15 / 11:26
16 / 12:58
17 / 13:16
18 / 13:04
19 / 14:58
20 / 14:02

We were on the home stretch, and I heard more than one person remark on the psychological benefit of taking steps toward the finish rather than away. I saved a second runner who cruised past a turn, shouting to her to be heard over headphones. I had started into my salt capsule supply and taken my second gel with caffeine. I picked up two more from an aid station, each loaded with 50mg of the wonder drug. All together it was the equivalent of a large coffee and gave a welcome boost. It was time to get to work and grind out the long flat miles, no excuses, knowing that Team Predator was on my heels. I leapfrogged with a very disciplined black jersey with a big white H on the back. I passed him on a pee stop and he passed me again. I passed him at an AS and he passed me again. I kept him in sight for a long time but eventually lost him ahead, and didn’t get to thank him for pulling me along.

My water pack was definitely an asset, but when full it tended to ride up on my left side and rub into my neck. It would have ground down to the collarbone if I didn’t keep adjusting the strap and pulling my shirt up. Serves me right for getting the rugged military version instead of day-glo running kit. I took my last electrolyte capsule and sucked at the tube to wash it down; they always seem to go down sideways. I heard the disheartening sound of a straw at the bottom of an empty milkshake and barely managed to get enough fluid out of the pack to get the pill down. It was nearly a worst-case-scenario — hot and sweating and running, adding salt, and out of liquid — but I hit another aid station soon and had one last fillup and one last pee stop before the final stretch.

Six hours was unrealistic, but I was making good time and felt confident of making seven, well ahead of my target. I remembered 50K was about 32 miles but didn’t know if this course might measure long or short. Around the time my phone announced 26 miles, someone said we had four and a half to go. That would be a nice discount and was easy to believe but would prove a lie. We did the big climb again, me leaning over with my hands below my knees, or else levering each step with both hands on my thighs. This time I had to walk down the other side too. But as we got closer I thought I might make 6:30. The Predator guys were nowhere in sight.

I kept pushing, trying to run a little faster in the sunny stretches to get them done sooner. I started looking for the stone house after six hours, sure it was just ahead. Miles passed, a quarter-hour at a time. Finally we came up on an aid station and someone told us it was 1.6 miles to the finish. This was exceedingly welcome news. I blasted through the station without a pause and began bounding with long strides, no longer avoiding puddles. I kept this up for what felt like a mile. Where was that stone house?! Was the route different on the way back? Everyone in this section was pushing hard, but it wasn’t easy to tell who was who because of the simultaneous events. Bib color indicated who was in the 50-mile event, the 50K, the marathon, and the marathon relay. Some of the relay runners were just starting and ran like 5K sprinters. I obligingly moved to the side when runners came up from behind, and ran through nettles on the left while overtaking.

Finally, the stone house. I was gassed, but kept the steam on. Then the course turned onto exposed blacktop. The last mile was like running through a pizza oven. I saw many runners forced to walk at this point. I caught up to the NPS shirt and very gradually overtook him without a comment. For the next few minutes every spectator seemed to say “good job guys” and I knew NPS was about to pass me back, but it would be someone else. I did not look back for fear of seeing Predator. Someone said “almost there,” gallingly vague. Then someone said “300 meters.” I started counting my strides but lost count. Finally we came to the green lawn and the finish chute and I opened all the valves, sprinting on my toes for a proper showoff finish. I heard the announcer say my name but was cognizant of little else as inertia carried me over the line and toward the nearest source of shade. I stood puffing for a while until I felt confident that my stomach and legs would not betray me, then walked back to the finish line to collect a medal and my prize of a water bottle. It was hot and empty.

mile / minutes
21 / 12:25
22 / 13:22
23 / 14:13
24 / 17:14
25 / 11:30
26 / 12:11
27 / 18:04
28 / 16:00
29 / 14:35
30 / 15:20

It took another twenty minutes or so to stop sweating, while I sat on the ground and recharged my phone and sucked the last water from my pack. I found the picnic and watched other finishers come in. The joke of the day was that we 50K runners were distractions from the main event. At aid stations and the finish it would be a perfunctory “good job good job” to us blue bibs and then “here comes a 50-miler what do you need water here gatorade there!” when an orange bib showed up. I met G again and he bought me a second beer after my free one, which was plenty since it was going in almost like an IV.

I heard a lot of finishers complain of cramping. I saw the guy from the bus, he was stretched out flat and said cramps had really slowed him down. I remarked on his cold hand after a congratulatory shake and he said he was back from the ice bath. Salt intake not to be neglected.

Final time 6:34:06. Runkeeper captured 29 miles before the battery died.

209 of 442 finishers (behind 47% overall)
161 out of 284 among males (behind 56%)
36 out of 57 in my division (behind 61%)

A Journey of 80,000 Steps Begins with a Single Mile

Preparation

Last year’s Bull Run Run 50 Miler was my first, so I was careful not to make the rookie mistake of starting out too fast. Nor did I finish too fast. In 2013 I just beat the twelve-hour mark on my first ultra, and given the weather and my utter lack of training in 2014 (one impromptu 18-mile jog in February snow), my realistic goal this year was to do no worse. My hopeful goal was to attend the 6 p.m. award ceremony, and my conservative goal was again to avoid a DNF. This despite the wisdom I had since encountered on the value of “achieving” a DNF in order to explore one’s limits.

This wisdom, and much more, appears on the ^zhurnaly, the online repository of ^z = Mark Zimmermann, an indefatigable polymath who has enlightened me on such subjects as Bayesian probability, Frog and Toad, and quantum mechanics, and also inspired me with his reflections on far more diverse subjects in the deep Zhurnaly.

I again enjoyed the gracious hospitality of dear friends, staying at Chez Ray Friday night before the event. Last year Ray calmed my nerves with a showing of “The King of Masks” which features no long-distance running. This year we started with a friendly go match in which he spotted me a handicap of at least 13 stones; the board looked something like this:

Despite what I thought the proper strategy of ceding much of the board in order to reinforce and secure a couple of corners, I failed somehow to make life and eventually accepted a courtesy resignation offered before all my stones overflowed Ray’s bowl lid.

After the teaching game we watched a documentary on the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100, for which Ray qualified and has entered this year. The MMT is for those who find a mere double-marathon in the hills inadequate to achieve a DNF. The DVD depicted the 2006 event, in which Sim Jae Duk was the unexpected winner, setting a course record by finishing the race in less time than it took him to fly to the event (from South Korea, two days before the race, according to a New York Times profile).

Ray had invited me to join him at the MMT, but in the same spirit of generosity he showed at the go board, he would give me a 63.5-mile head start. I would meet him as a pacer for the back third of the course, an intimidating and challenging idea as much of this would be done after nightfall.

Overnight I sorted my supplies, collected using my inventory list from the year before.

2014_BRR_supplies

 

I brought:

  • a paperback
  • chia seeds
  • Starbucks poop inducer (ineffective)
  • gels
  • Clif Bars
  • wet wipes
  • medkit with athletic wrap, Body Glide, Vaseline, Chap Stick, and sunblock
  • towel
  • bandana (not used)
  • smartphone armband
  • my uniform: hat, tech shirt, swimming trunks, compression shorts, DryMax socks
  • (not shown) my cleaner pair of sneakers

My belt was loaded with one 22-ounce bottle and sundries like S-Caps, Advil, Band-Aids and a sleeping pill. This last item was not like the others, and I ended up using it late Friday night. I couldn’t sleep for what felt like an hour or two, though I didn’t dare look at my watch for fear of adding deadline pressure to my restless mind. I would have plenty more opportunity to struggle against the clock.

Outbound

My accommodations included a drop-off at the start (thanks, coach!) and we made our way through the dim early light to set out our drop bags and perform final preparations. Ray spotted ^z and we exchanged greetings and good wishes. Ray then went up to the starting area for some breakfast, while I hung back to bug Mark for a celebrity photo.

Before the start, I got one more photo but didn’t see any familiar faces among the 321 starters.

The first mile is a casual loop through the parking area, spreading out the field, with most people adopting a comfortable warmup pace. I joined in somewhere in the middle of the pack. It felt good to be moving, to get into the physical rhythm that the body understands. I was already thinking about pushing just a little harder than my leisurely start last year. It seemed a good idea, as the forecast called for temperatures as high as 70 (21°C), and the weather was perfect and cool at 6:30 a.m.

My biggest mistake in 2013 was lolling about far too long in aid stations, spending perhaps as much as an hour over the day idly stuffing my face with peanut butter and jelly sandwich quarters and chasing them down with Gatorade. This year I again used my watch to time the minutes I spent stopped, with an eye to improving my finish time without spending much extra effort. Runkeeper on my phone recorded my progress, with audible announcements of my time and distance every mile.

Somewhere along the first few miles, I heard a familiar voice behind me. I turned and saw the face of Gary Knipling, who seemed omnipresent at the 2006 MMT. “I saw you on TV last night!” I called back. “You wasted twenty bucks on that thing?” he replied. I introduced myself and we chatted a bit. The dialog was frequently interrupted by greetings from seemingly every other runner, who greeted Gary by name, and he responded in kind.

I made good on my hopes of an express pit stop at the first aid station near Mile 7, pausing for just one minute and 15 seconds to load in some food before moving on. I was concerned about pushing too hard so early, so I planned to determine my position in the crowd. Before long I saw the leaders coming back from the turnaround at Mile 9 and I began counting the runners ahead of me. I also watched out for the few entrants I knew, and managed to recognize and greet Bernard and Robin as they passed going the other direction.

I was quite surprised and confused on arriving at the turn to have counted about 135 people ahead of me. I clearly remembered that my position at this point the previous year was 92. I guessed that I wasn’t going as fast as I thought, but at least I was ahead of Ray, whom I had not seen yet. We crossed ways a little bit after the turn, and his exclamatory “Dude!” with elongated vowel and falling intonation (PDF) indicated that he also thought I was setting an aggressive pace. Eventually it occurred to me that I was 92 positions from the back last year.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
1 / 10:38 / -42
2 / 10:55 / -101
3 / 10:23 / -17
4 / 11:09 / 59
5 / 12:27 / 46
6 / 11:58 / -51
7 / 12:12 / -62
8 / 12:54 / -9
9 / 10:41 / 29
10 / 10:36 / -2

This first section seemed casual and fun, like before. I noticed that I managed ten miles without serious thoughts of quitting, which seemed an accomplishment. Not being a first-timer made a considerable difference in my confidence. I made another short stop at the Centreville Road aid station heading back, and saw Ray enter as I was leaving. I was following the protocol I established last year of walking out with my hands full, and this time paused by a trash bag to down the last of a sandwich quarter and some liquid so I wouldn’t have to carry the cup. Ray had wasted no time snacking and joined me there.

We proceeded together a while, both revealing the intel that a more insistent pit stop would probably be required before the day was done. He gave an enthusiastic recommendation of the loo we would pass after Mile 16, at the start/finish where our drop bags were waiting, but I was wary of even going a little off course only to have to wait in line. When Ray suddenly fell silent and disappeared, I concluded that it was this duty and not a root that had awarded me the lead again.

He didn’t linger long, though, and pulled on ahead before we got to the drop bag stop. I then saw him there briefly as he slipped on fresh shoes and set out, looking strong. I tried to chug a lot of the water with chia seeds I had prepared in the morning and grabbed some more gels and two Clif Bars. I decided to leave my spare battery pack behind, making it a race between me and my phone to see which had more juice.

By now the warmth was beginning to tell, and I was finding it hard not to think about the magnitude of the physical task ahead. Another two or three hours would make it a marathon, yet it was still far too soon to start counting down miles to the finish. I alternated greeting other runners with a cheery “Good morning” and the hopeful witticism “Got it in the bag.” At some point I asked someone if it was still morning and was assured that it was. I did the math and concluded that it was not yet 10 a.m. We reached the soccer fields and I spotted a proper Porta Potty. Another 90 seconds on the stoppage clock and I was on my way again, lighter and more comfortable.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
11 / 10:30 / -15
12 / 15:11 / 34
13 / 12:46 / -9
14 / 14:25 / 107
15 / 13:44 / -128
16 / 15:50 / 140
17 / 17:46 / -38
18 / 15:30 / -36
19 / 16:20 / -88
20 / 16:01 / 32

The middle fifth was the one I’d just as soon forget, and mostly did. I was still keeping to my promise of maintaining some kind of running gait over level ground most of the time, but with some cheating now and then. Somehow I managed not to worry about my speed very much, often not even paying attention to my phone’s time and distance announcements. I was usually low on fluid entering aid stations but never felt overheated or sick. I was confident of a finish, and the only motivational struggle was over the goal of beating my previous time.

I remembered the White Loop as a ruinous walk of 20-minute miles, and determined to do better this year. What I didn’t remember was that it is actually pretty hilly. But a chance encounter led to some conversation that helped the miles pass. I caught up to someone with a T-shirt from Le Marathon du Médoc: “le Marathon le plus long du monde.”

“So how long is the Médoc marathon?”

“Oh, it’s a regular marathon, it just seems long.”

“Is it because of the metric system?”

“No, it’s a standard 42 kilometers, but it’s like a big party. Every year there is a theme, and everyone dresses up in costume. When I was there, the theme was space. My buddy and I got some shirts with a steampunk motif, but a lot of people took it farther. There were robots, aliens, stormtroopers. A Chewbacca. I got a photo of a line of ten supermen before the start, all peeing. The aid stations are châteaux and they serve wine and cheese, everything. And I don’t mean a little sip of wine, you can get a whole glass if you want. People who usually finish in three or four hours take six or seven there. It’s great. Toward the end one of the châteaux was serving raw oysters. It was actually really good race food. Feel free to go on ahead if you want. Some of the costumes we couldn’t figure out what they were. We saw these guys running and pushing a giant bowl. They were all dressed up in yellow with red on their heads. We asked them if they were chickens. “Non, non, super shoe!” They didn’t speak any English, and we couldn’t figure it out, they kept saying “Super shoe!” After the race we asked our hosts if they knew what the Super Shoe was about, they didn’t know either. We came back home and tried to look it up. Asked friends and relatives. Nobody had any idea. Finally we found someone who recognized it. Soupe aux choux, it means cabbage soup, it was the name of a movie. It’s about these two old men who spend all day sitting on their porch getting drunk and farting. One day an alien comes and visits them and offers to take them back to his planet in exchange for their cabbage soup. But the men don’t want to go. The alien makes promises and gives them gold and says they can have whatever they want. One of them men asks for his wife back; she died long ago. So the alien brings the wife back to life, but she is still 20 years old and she immediately runs off with a young man to Paris. So the men continue drinking and farting on their porch. But eventually the town changes and becomes more developed and they don’t like it anymore. So they decide to go with the alien to his planet. It’s a well-known movie.”

Then he said something about having to “plant a seed” or “water a tree” and stopped, then later passed me and I lost sight of him ahead.

[Update: Ken Swab’s report from Médoc, including Supermen photo.]

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
21 / 20:14 / 17
22 / 18:05 / 41
23 / 17:32 / 81
24 / 17:21 / -104
25 / 20:57 / -21
26 / 17:04 / 81
27 / 19:04 / -17
28 / 17:28 / 25
29 / 15:31 / 7
30 / 17:48 / -71

How to carry two Clif Bars for 30 miles and despise them the whole time

It was a little farther on to the Do Loop, where I anticipated a popsicle at the aid station that greets runners before and after that circuit of grueling elevation change. Ray was on his way out as I arrived, some three miles behind him. The spark of competition had faded, but I was motivated by the approaching point at which the shortest way to get to the finish would be to go directly to the finish. There was a small line for a frozen treat but I didn’t mind waiting, using the time to drain some of my freshly-filled bottle to make space for more. They also had stacks of pizza boxes, but a hot greasy mess was the last thing I wanted to take with me. I strolled out with my popsicle and took the loop at its word; it was neither less nor more than anticipated.

On the way out I thought I should appreciate the pizza; it is really an amazing job that the volunteers do all day. I had run out of Gatorade by the time I came back so that was a priority, but I grabbed a couple of thin slices of pizza to go and worked on them as I walked out. I had been taking S-Caps every couple of hours but wondered if they would make me drink more. I had also taken an Advil by now and a caffeinated gel, hoping to spark another kick like the one that carried me in in 2013.

The kick was not as dramatic, but it came at a good time. The miles after the Do Loop are long, dull, and fairly flat. Since my fast start, I had been getting passed pretty regularly all day, but now I started pulling people in. Many of them were still running, but I managed to keep up a pace just fast enough to overtake, and each time I passed one there would be another runner in sight ahead to keep me going. I leapfrogged with a lady in an “Alaska” shirt several times, mainly thanks to her longer stays in the aid stations.

I ran low on fluid again, and applied the motorist’s ill logic of going even faster to the next station to get there before running dry. Seeing the “10 Miles to Hemlock” sign gave me almost as much of a boost as it did last year, when it seemed an impossible lifesaver.

By now walking was very little less unpleasant than running, so I continued to try and make time. I had started the race with a thin pair of Injinji toe socks under my trusty Drymax trail socks, but the toes of my right foot seemed cramped and I had removed the Injinji sock on that side. A root caught that foot pretty good, and I cut the corner off a turn demonstrating that most ungainly of human gaits, the pre-faceplant: hunched over, stomping and windmilling, but somehow managed not to fall down.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
31 / 18:59 / 47
32 / 16:44 / -39
33 / 20:27 / 56
34 / 19:45 / 27
35 / 17:00 / -7
36 / 16:44 / -21
37 / 12:46 / -94
38 / 20:24 / 45
39 / 16:11 / 74
40 / 17:04 / -95

At some point my phone emitted a plaintive buzz and then ceased announcing my mile times. I was likewise pretty well used up but sensed that the job was going to get done. The aid stations were frequent and refreshing, with iced Gatorade tasting as good as something can taste. There were cold wet washcloths, also uncommonly pleasant. I would drape one over my head during the whole of my brief respites from forward progress, trying not to drip onto the doughnuts, chips and cookies spread out.

PBJ and Gatorade was not the only awkward combination made palatable by exertion. Pizza and popsicle went together surprisingly well. At a station toward the end I heard someone say there was coffee, and while waiting for a cup I spotted a tray of stuffed grape leaves, delicious-looking dolma. A volunteer said they were popular and I grabbed a serving, but it didn’t quite hit the spot. Washing it down with tepid black coffee didn’t help. I finished it off, though, and managed to get through the day with no tummy trouble. I hated the thought of those Clif Bars in my pocket though. I was afraid to throw them away for fear of regret, but they are hard enough to get down with a drink and I never had any desire to open them.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
41 / 18:33 / -28
42 / 21:36 / -3
43 / 13:41 / 7
44 / 22:18 / 3

With no smartphone updates, I thought I might still be able to beat my previous time, but didn’t feel much urgency about it. Then I remembered that my stopwatch was also a watch. I switched it to clock mode, having timed just under 30 minutes spent not in motion since the start. I wasn’t sure how far I had to go, but it looked like I would finish well past 12 hours. I gave it a good push though, and only walked the incontrovertibly upward-sloping hills during the last miles.

The finish was no less sweet for having seen a “12” on the clock. I sprinted in the last stone’s throw for show, then gathered my loot and plugged my phone in to stop the recording and get a shot of ^z coming in. Among those who finished in both 2013 and 2014, he was one of the few who managed to improve his time this year. I was happy to see that I was only about 1% slower, a little better than the average change, and my overall average time was still just under half a day.

Coda

Probably I am not the only person who finds it difficult to give satisfying answers to the questions posed after an event like this. How could anything be worth that much effort and discomfort? After it’s done, it doesn’t seem like any effort at all. It is really just a matter of not doing one very specific thing from the time you start until the time you finish. After last year’s unlikely success, this time I never had serious thoughts of quitting. And another answer: were the things I did on the previous and following Saturdays worth the effort I put into them, now that I have forgotten what they were?

Maybe it is simplest to focus on the little pleasures. It’s one thing to extol the charms of a rag soaked in ice water. How much more appealing is the idea of spending hours in the woods, hardly ever hearing an engine or seeing a house. Being among people who are all in an improbably good mood. Absolutely no distraction from any thoughts of the outside world, just one single task upon which all attention is focused. And now and then you look up and see a stretch of gorgeous single-track smooth dirt path surrounded by wooded scenery.

I was immersed in this effortful reverie about 15 miles in, trying to experience the moments and not dwell on the challenges ahead. I happened to be on my own, just running through the forest. Suddenly there was a grand mechanical roar and an Amtrak train appeared, racing by on unseen tracks atop an embankment. Like something from a film, resplendent with power and momentum. Nothing more natural for that body than to keep moving. The image carried me through the day.

After the final chow of burgers and soda, the beginning of a couple of days in which food and liquid would disappear into some internal void, it was time to go home. I looked up directions on my phone, to avoid getting turned around in the dark, and headed out on the country roads. It was strangely exhilarating to travel with such speed and so little effort. To move while seated, a little miracle.

At a red light, I pulled up beside a car with IRUN100 vanity plates and bumper stickers to confirm that we were both coming from the same place. I tooted the horn.

She didn’t put her window down and gave me but a brief glance. “How was your race?” I said aloud, but mostly to myself as the driver stared straight ahead. This wouldn’t do, but I would have to double down before it got any better. I pulled out my finisher’s premium, a large beach towel, and honked again. She looked over, and I held the navy blue towel up, the full moon doing little to illuminate the dark lettering, and gestured at it. Hey, I’m the jerk in the car again, and I have a towel! Fortunately the message was received, she held her own towel up, we exchanged thumbs-up, and then I stared straight ahead until the light changed.

The drive home was 24.7 miles. I am no Sim Jae Duk; the race took me a good deal longer than the commute.

BRR 50 Report from 2015

BRR 50 Report from 2013

La Soupe aux choux

“Everybody has a plan until…”

distance_2013

Runkeeper supports the hypothesis that my run reports are related to miles run, as I have not reported since the BRR 50 in April. With two marathons on the schedule, at least one of which I plan to actually run, and that a mere three weeks away, I realized last weekend that it was panic time. My last outing was a ten-mile tourist jog along the Sea of Marmara, great fun but not great training.

So I declared to a few friends that I would cover twenty miles on Sunday, hoping that shame would do the job where common sense had failed.

While I did not expect that distance to be easy, I supposed I could somehow push through it with willpower. Which, in the end, is about all I could do, but the second half was much more a shambling mess than I envisioned, and completely outside the realm of the Oprah Line territory which I am considering a goal for the MCM. If I had added an 6.2 additional miles at my average pace, my marathon time would be 5:38. If, realistically, the last six were done at the same speed as the last six of my 20, my marathon time would be closer to 5:50. Perhaps even that is not realistic, because I was not being lazy during the last two miles and simply could not propel myself faster than a 15-minute pace.

GPS record: http://runkeeper.com/user/wasoxygen/activity/253034389

My discipline was not very good, and I hope I can improve on that score. Several times I broke pace for no good reason. During the long boring stretch alongside Four Mile Run, I got passed for the first time. I kept the runner in reach by running on her head’s shadow while I tactically prepared for an overtaking maneuver by laying in some more of the Powerade I grabbed at the Arlington Exxon and squeezing in another gel. But then instead of a civil passing, I took advantage of a corner like it was some kind of Formula One race, then to “put some distance between us” and “destroy her will” I posted my fastest mile (9:11) since the first two. This strategy had the obvious result, as I was gassed after making the turn north by the airport. I resisted the urge to look back but thought it was likely she was pulling me in. When I did look back, I realized that my hypoxic brain had memorized a rather unhelpful feature to recognize a runner: yellow headphones. But eventually the yellow headphones pulled alongside and then on ahead, maintaining a steady pace. I kept her in sight and decided that if she stopped at the potties at Gravelly Point, I would take the chance to regain the lead. But she did not stop, she did not look to the left and she did not look to the right but kept on like she had cruise control. I started walking, at first to look for a water fountain and then because my will was broken.

That first long walk was finally ended by a goose. It was thinking about crossing the path in front of me and gave me an evil look as I approached. I glared back, and he opened his beak to prepare a hiss. I hissed first, and somehow channeled that aggression into resuming a run.

I brought my headphones along, correctly anticipating that running for hours on paved trails would be a bit tedious. This probably made it easier to walk, providing one more distraction from my goal. At some point I was passing time blabbing to myself in broken French, and it occurred to me that the word “courier” means “runner.” That seemed kind of cool and evocative and worth looking up.

A little later I had another breakdown of discipline. I was starting to get thirsty and planned to cross the pedestrian bridge to Roosevelt Island for the water fountains. When I saw the locked gates I was more than a little annoyed; I had not anticipated that the island would be shut down along with the federal government. I would have to detour to Gas & God to get some more fluids. While jogging along and entertaining such thoughts, I saw some dog-walkers on the path ahead. I moved to the left lane to pass them and resumed my beat-down, hunched-over posture. I looked up a bit later and realized that I wasn’t gaining on them. This was so infuriating that I burst into a flat sprint, which continued as I climbed the roundabout ramp bridge over GW Parkway. I was breathing pretty rough when I got up to Lynn Street, and the “Pacers Oasis” set up there was about a welcome a sight as I could imagine. I assumed they were set up for an event, but they called me over and said the water, sports drinks and snacks were there for everyone. I drank about a quart on the spot and topped off for the way home, glad of an excuse to linger through another streetlight change. They didn’t have a tip box out, so I had to express my gratitude on Twitter.

I started with two Clif bars and four gels, one with caffeine. I took that one and two Advil at the oasis, but didn’t sense any obvious effect. By mile 16 or 17 it was obvious that poor conditioning and not discipline was keeping me down. No amount of cursing or promises of self-bribery could get me into a decent pace zone.

As I waited at the last road crossing a guy came up on a bicycle and said “hola amigo.” He was all sweaty and told me it was 90 degrees out, maybe 100. I was ready to believe the 90. (It was actually 70 in the morning and 79 when I got home.) We both complained a bit, then he told me he was from Honduras, where it was “tres veces más caliente.” Maybe I should run a marathon there, so at least I will have a good excuse.

 

An ultrarunner, am I?

On Mon, Feb 4, 2013 at 11:51 PM, Steve Gadd wrote: “so you finish a marathon, and instead of sitting and resting and gloating, you … do a marathon: boggle”

Thus did this wannabe grapple with the concept of a 50-mile trail race, the 2013 Bull Run Run. My first two official races were a local 5K in 2010 and the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011, so I don’t mind skipping over intermediate distances, but I had plenty of time to train up for my first marathon. The Bull Run Run was coming up in two months and would extend my maximum distance by over twenty miles, as well as adding an awful lot of hills. The organizers talk these hills down — “An elevation profile map would be a straight line with a lot of very little bumps” — as if a breath-stealing hike up a minor mountain is no big deal compared to the uncommonly long horizontal distance you are expected to cover.

I also had plenty of mental time to worry about the October marathon, since I had to commit far in advance during a frenzied registration in February, allowing plenty of time for research and a pretty regular training regimen, albeit on my lazy once-a-week schedule. The BRR, in contrast, is a model of fairness and sobriety, with no mad browser refreshing, no panic buying under a deadline. In fact it is a seductive trap, promising all manner of outs while you are still unsure of the whole concept. The initial signup is free, so there’s no good reason not to sign up. Then they hold a lottery to cut the number of runners down to 350, so you can let fate decide for you. Except there aren’t very many more than 350 applicants, so most everyone gets in. Then you have to pay, within some comfortable amount of days, or someone on the waitlist will take your spot. But even then it’s hard to make excuses, since you can transfer your registration later. It’s all very seductive, and suddenly the race is a week away, you haven’t been running for a month, and you realize you really want to at least start this thing, just to see what happens.

We got going at first light, right at 6:30. The first ten miles were just fine, easy and fun. Ray and I started near the back of the pack, with no complaints about the energy-conserving traffic jams. According to plan, we walked up anything with a positive grade from the start. There were lines for troublesome rocky passages and stream crossings, another excuse to break cadence for a minute or two.

Ray kept me company a while, then said something about “moving up a few positions” and that was the last time I saw him going the same direction. At the Reston ten-miler in March, I was too disciplined with maintaining my pace and did nothing to keep up when he pulled ahead. If I had pushed harder, I probably would have flamed out before the end, or been more hampered by blisters, but an hour now seems like a pretty short time to suffer for a cause. This time my conservative goal was to finish a marathon distance — barely more than half the course — so I was determined to observe the mantra “my race, my pace.”

My goals were, in increasing order of desirability:

  1. Cover 26.3 miles: Beat my distance record, in the hills. This seemed like an accomplishment, especially since I had run fewer than 50 miles total all year. I would have to find a place to declare myself a quitter, then make my way back to the start/finish, head hanging. My first DNF.
  2. Do the marathon distance and keep going until breakdown. Less convenient, more noble.
  3. Finish the course before the cutoff time of 13 hours. This seemed too unlikely an outcome to give much thought to.

The first aid station was at mile 7. Not needing my stopwatch to time the event (the time of day, or even the movement of the sun was accurate enough), I decided to use it to measure my stopped time at aid stations and other interruptions. I spent over four minutes at that first stop, walking in circles, confused, trying to figure out what to eat and what to do. I had already eaten a Clif bar and maybe a gel. I grabbed a cookie and a potato chip and drank some Gatorade, and used it to wash down my first S-Cap. Then I saw the sign indicating that we would be back after 4.5 miles and realized I was wasting time. I moved on.

Soon, the leader passed me going the other way. As usual on the trail, my brain was overwhelmed with thoughts of root-avoidance and it took me a second to realize that he was in my race and that the first turnaround was ahead. The expressions of the lead runners (certainly not jogger/walkers like me) were positively inspiring, showing hunger and drive and determination. I continued along the sometimes rocky, sometimes muddy trail, now watching ahead for oncoming traffic.

The first thought of quitting came during the eighth mile.

I hit the first turnaround after about two hours, 9.3 miles. Overall pace 12:38. I recalled prior estimation that a 15 minute/mile pace would get a runner to the finish on time with a bit of cushion, and I started performing the tedious, simple calculations that would tax my mind for most of the day. I also counted the people I saw behind me after the turn. By the time the crowds thinned there were about 70. A few stragglers and a few passes got me up into the mid-80s by the time I got back to the aid station. I restarted my stopwatch and added another two minutes to my stoppage time, refilled my bottle with water and remembered to dump the trash I had been carrying since before the first stop.

Ten miles in 2 hours 5 minutes; overall 12:30 pace.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
1 / 11:54 / -39
2 / 13:37 / -101
3 / 12:19 / -14
4 / 12:48 / +27
5 / 13:37 / +74
6 / 11:52 / -55
7 / 11:56 / -51
8 / 13:53 / -11 (aid station)
9 / 11:57 / +17
10 / 11:34 / -2

The next ten miles were not painful, but I slowed down significantly, from 12.5 minutes/mile to 14.5. I was still on track to beat the cutoff, but didn’t know what to expect in the afternoon. The weather was perfect in the morning, comfortably chilly, but it was supposed to get up to 70. I felt a need to eliminate, but it wasn’t urgent and I didn’t want to lose time squatting in the woods, watching my stopwatch count up idle minutes. I started making plans for when I reached my drop bag at the start/finish area near mile 16. I ate a second Clif bar to make space and made a mental review of my inventory.

I started the race with

  • my dirtier pair of sneakers
  • Drymax lite trail running socks (an excellent recommendation)
  • compression shorts
  • bathing trunks (left front pocket for gels, right for trash)
  • Nathan Triangle belt carrying water, two white chocolate macadamia nut Clif bars, three or four Gu gels, and two small zippered pockets transferred from another belt with Band-Aids, tissues, S-Caps, ibuprofen
  • smartphone in armband with Runkeeper recording
  • digital watch
  • tech shirt
  • hat
  • sunblock cadged from Ray, mixed with borrowed bug spray, tasted awful

My drop bag contained

  • spare shoes
  • spare socks
  • spare shirts
  • spare belt
  • headphones (prohibited during the early part of the course)
  • Chia seeds (with some mixed in 8 ounces of water)
  • Snickers bar
  • Clif bars
  • Pop-tarts
  • assorted gels
  • Body Glide anti-chafing stick
  • athletic wrap
  • Band-Aids
  • tissues
  • cell phone charger and cable
  • flashlight
  • paperback

It should have also contained

  • water
  • Gatorade
  • lip balm
  • sunblock
  • towel
  • wet wipes

I spent an unconscionable amount of time fussing with my drop bag despite careful planning. Before the race I had done my best by the instructions for the anti-chafing stuff: “APPLY WHERE NEEDED.” I had never needed it before and so rubbed it on places I imagined were likely to be annoyed by a day on the run. Now I added more around my waist where the belt was rubbing. My phone was still mostly charged, but I plugged in the backup charger and put it in my pocket, feeding the cable through my shirt. I was afraid I might be stranded somewhere remote come evening. I emptied and restuffed the belt pocket, rooting for more gels I felt sure I brought. I put the headphones in a pocket in case I needed inspiration later, but would never use them. I chugged the chia seed mix. I then walked the aid station, which was looking more like the sizable buffet later stations would have.

My estimated position was 92 from the back. In recent years roughly 30 starters failed to finish, so I felt like I was in a good spot. I was determinedly walking the rises with a hunched-over, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal plod, and usually returning to a regular trot at the top. I felt like I did pretty well on the climbs, where I executed a lot of my passes. Going up one hill, I noticed a novelty: I could hear my heartbeat. It made it easy to measure my pulse, 150 bpm. Safe enough, but I decided I wouldn’t start running while I could hear my heart pounding. Fortunately, after that climb I never heard it again. There were also some tricky descents which I also walked, telling myself I was avoiding a turned ankle but also glad of the excuse to take a break.

I chatted briefly with some other runners and eavesdropped on others, but usually didn’t keep pace with anyone long enough for much conversation. I tried to memorize bib numbers of interesting participants, but couldn’t keep them straight. There was a surprising amount of math involved in the endeavor. Simple arithmetic, but I couldn’t divide by 4 with my legs, where most of the oxygen was going. I calculated again and again my ETA based on a 15 minute per mile pace, never trusting the result. I maintained a count of the runners behind me. I kept track of the number of cumulative minutes I was ahead, and later behind, my target pace. Finally I focused on the number of minutes of cushion I estimated I had — how far ahead of the final cutoff I would be if I maintained 4 mph for the rest of the course.

Twenty miles in 4 hours 27 minutes; overall 13:21 pace.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
11 / 11:58 / -10
12 / 13:13 / +39 (aid station)
13 / 12:01 / -20
14 / 14:26 / +121
15 / 12:12 / -130
16 / 13:23 / +128
17 / 23:41 / -26 (drop bag)
18 / 12:48 / -45
19 / 13:42 / -85
20 / 13:59 / +23

The next ten miles were a slog. It wasn’t even noon of this all-day affair, and I was just approaching the halfway point. I began extending my walking sessions. At the start of each mile, I noted the time and added fifteen minutes for a target time. Then at the end of the mile, I subtracted the overage minutes from my cushion. I had calculated that 50 miles at 4 mph would give me one hour of cushion, and didn’t want to depend on it too much. I got a little boost passing the 25 mile mark, and soon after passed the marathon distance and recognized that every step was a new personal record for distance. But it was still a slog. I passed the imaginary point where I had estimated that I could quit and walk back to the finish if necessary, but wasn’t aware of it. The leaders had passed the second turnaround and started coming from the other direction, still running, still looking determined, though hollowed out somehow. Some of them were running up hills faster than I was running down them. That’s why they’re called leaders, I reasoned.

I entered the White Loop around mile 27, a two-mile detour that is omitted on the return leg, so there was no oncoming traffic and very little company. No witnesses: I walked the whole thing. I continued doing the math every mile, but it seemed obvious I was eating into my cushion at a rate that would lead to disqualification. Gradually my attitude shifted, from worrying about getting back to the finish somehow before dark, to resolving that I would keep moving forward on the damn course until somebody made me stop.

There were more aid stations, some with cute themes. I hated that some of my miles took a minute or two over my target because I stopped for chow, but knew I couldn’t afford to skip them. I worked out a strategy for a disciplined, efficient pit stop.

  • Run all the way into the aid station — you are about to take a break, you lazy slacker!
  • Stop running, start the stopwatch.
  • Hand off bottle for refill.
  • Dispose of trash. I often forgot this step.
  • Grab a PB&J sandwich quarter and a Gatorade cup, force them down.
  • Recover and stow bottle.
  • Refill or grab another cup, chomp some Pringles or cookies or something.
  • Grab two sandwich quarters.
  • Stop timer.
  • Walk out, eating sandwich.

This technique got me through an aid station in one to two minutes, depending on the crowd and the help. The support was amazing on this race, both in positive attitude and eagerness to render assistance. And the food was plentiful. I subsisted mostly on the PB&J quarter sandwiches, or peanut-butter-and-Nutella when available. Later in the day the bread was sometimes dried out, but I found the Kobayashi tactic of soaking a mouthful in Gatorade made the whole thing go down easier, and was not even disgusting. (I have not tasted peanut butter, jelly or Gatorade since, however.)

One aid station had an amazing spread. In addition to the sandwiches and cookies and chips and fruit, and a bowl of bacon, a side table was loaded with a comprehensive array of equipment. Vaseline, Body Glide, Band-Aids, aerosol sunscreen, bug spray, S-Caps, painkillers, and duct tape. I reapplied sunblock, took another S-Cap, and was glad I didn’t need the duct tape. I was taking the electrolyte capsules something less than once an hour, not sure if I should be more concerned with an overdose or a shortage. In the second half of the course I started refilling my bottle with Gatorade instead of water, and backed off a bit on the pills.

I plodded on. It was time for the Do Loop.

Thirty miles in 7 hours 22 minutes; overall 14:44 pace.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
21 / 21:12 / +66
22 / 15:29 / -16
23 / 15:41 / +74
24 / 15:52 / -91
25 / 18:58 / +80
26 / 14:58 / -75
27 / 21:40 / +63 (White Loop)
28 / 19:20 / +26 (White Loop)
29 / 17:10 / -11
30 / 15:13 / -52

Ray was kind enough to offer me a room the night before at his place nearby, and a coach to provide rides and encouraging hugs. In March, he had taken me on a tour of the Do Loop and the White Loop, about 12 miles total of the course, which he knows up and down. This was invaluable intel, and to my shame was my last training run before the race, over a month in advance. So I felt at least mentally prepared for the loop at the southeastern end of the course, the name of which seems always to follow the word “infamous.”

A popsicle from the last outbound aid station was a good way to get started, and I kept to my pattern of taking a mile at a time and walking all the rises and most of the descents, of which there were plenty. I passed the Nash Rambler, picking up the Bruce Springsteen tune it was blasting in an endless loop and carrying it with me for the next several miles.

Finishing the Do Loop it was quiet and lonely, another one-way section. The hills were considerable, but not so very much more challenging than others throughout the course. I continued, mostly walking, starting to regret that I wouldn’t be getting the finisher’s premiums. I caught up, while walking, to a competitor who was busy texting. It was his first 50 as well, and he complained a bit that the course map did not have an elevation profile. He seemed to want to chat, but he was going even slower than I felt like going, so I marched ahead. I jogged now and then, eventually pulling up to a couple of guys who kept a very disciplined pace. They walked rises, but always picked it up again at the top. I decided to keep them in sight. They pulled me through some tough miles, and I even got ahead of them briefly when they lingered at an aid station. But eventually they faded out of sight ahead when I couldn’t convince myself to give up walking on a long level stretch. I’ll just walk a little longer, then start running. Just a little longer.

Then, someone came up from behind. I hadn’t been passed by anyone for some time. He had a shirt with words on it and a weird blue bib. Something wasn’t right. Then it clicked — he was a sweeper! I sped up, but the sweeper wasn’t subtle at all and left little distance between us. This was going to be the end; I had burned up my cushion and they would stop me at the next road crossing or aid station. Then I looked at my bib; it was also blue. He was just another runner. But he had put the fear in me. I popped a couple ibuprofen tablets, though I wasn’t in agony. It helped considerably; soon I was able to maintain a measured running pace again.

The math still seemed to be against me. I had realized that a 15-minute mile pace would only leave a 30-minute cushion before hitting the 13-hour cutoff for the finish, and I was sure I had already used it up, and my average speed was only getting slower. I arrived at an aid station and saw the coach again — she had given me an encouraging pep talk when I passed by outbound. This time she congratulated me on having become an ultramarathon runner. I said — optimistically I thought — that we would see. No no, she said it was in the bag, I just had to cover a little more ground to get to the marina and I could “walk it in” from there. That sounded appealing, but I was full of doubt and confusion. Reluctantly, I waved goodbye and rejoined the trail.

I plodded on, calculating and recalculating. I had finished 36 miles, and had less than four hours before cutoff. With my recent pace of 16 to 20 (!) minutes per mile, I wasn’t going to make it. Then I saw the sign: 10 miles to Hemlock Overlook, the finish. I pulled out my phone for the first time and counted the mile markers on my outbound track. It seemed right, the end was in sight! I finished the ten-miler a month before in 1 hour 21 minutes. Now half that speed would be sufficient, and that’s about as fast as I could manage. I adopted a face-saving lope when I saw people fishing or hiking on the trail ahead. It’s just too ridiculous to walk level ground with a race bib, no matter how long you’ve been going. One guy told me it was just a mile to the marina ahead, where I would pass the final aid station and then five miles to the finish. I took one more ibuprofen tablet and at some point sucked down a caffeine-loaded gel.

Forty miles in 10 hours 16 minutes; overall 15:24 pace.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)
31 / 17:46 / -16 (Do Loop)
32 / 16:16 / +38 (Do Loop)
33 / 20:30 / -29 (Do Loop)
34 / 16:57 / +54
35 / 16:10 / -17
36 / 17:00 / +55
37 / 15:59 / -43
38 / 17:09 / -84
39 / 16:35 / +81
40 / 19:19 / -77

I arrived at the last aid station at 5:10 p.m., awkwardly jogging in and thanking a spectator, who was clapping and calling out encouragement despite the fact that I was the only entrant in sight. While stuffing my face with my last PB&J sandwiches, I saw the posted cutoff for this location was 6 p.m. I had 49 minutes to spare, and knew for the first time that I was going to finish.

The record shows that I celebrated with a two-mile walk, posting my slowest consecutive miles since the White Loop promenade. But somewhere around mile 43 something came over me, and I entered a mode I didn’t know I had. Maybe it was the caffeine, maybe the thought of getting the thing done. I stepped up to a respectable run and started feeling great. The trail was flying by, and even the rises were no problem. My breathing was perfectly tuned, one breath for every two strides. I started passing people, eventually catching up to the pair I had tailgated for so long. They stepped to one side and one said “Have at it!” I just said thanks as people yielded the way, worried they would soon see me on the side of the trail, wheezing.

I came up to the tricky, rocky section alongside the river and hopped and jumped along, afraid the spell would end if I slowed. The river cut east after mile 44 and I pulled up behind a tall runner who seemed determined not to be passed. I paced her for several minutes, my shadow directly under her feet. Eventually she started making pained gasping noises, like a tennis player late in a match, and finally stepped to the side. I kept on, posting my fastest mile since noon.

Finally I slowed down for a breather and to suck some Gatorade, and thought I heard shouting. Could it be the finish? I picked up my feet again and rounded a bend, leaving the river behind. Instead of the finish line, I met a brutal, soul-crushing hill, as high as any I had seen all day (in fact I had already climbed the same hill, going to the drop bag, but that was just mile 16). I grudgingly hiked up to the top and started a determined jog. I had realized that I was coming up on twelve hours, and thought I could try to finish this project in half a day with a last good push. I was going to say as much to a lady I passed, but she looked like she was already digging deep. The cheers were now clear up ahead, and I turned a last corner and saw the finish. The clock read 11:59! I whipped off my hat and began sprinting the last fifty yards, keeping it up for good form after realizing that I had misread the clock and had minutes to spare. I was then a confused, spent doofus in the finish area, barely able to shake the RD’s hand, collect my loot, including a delicious cup of ice water, and make use of the most welcome item of the day: a wet washcloth.

GPS time 11:56:53, pace 15:31. Official time 11:55:31, 246 out of 295 official finishers, 322 starters.

mile / pace / elevation (ft)

41 / 19:17 / -21
42 / 20:29 / -14
43 / 15:50 / +98
44 / 15:11 / -81
45 / 12:59 / -4
46 / 14:15 / +149
47 / 15:24 / +7

BRR50_elev

elevation profile

This event was great fun. I don’t usually prefer out-and-back routes, but it was fantastic seeing the other runners coming back on the same path, many of whom offered a “good job” or other encouraging words. And with no pressure to PR, just to survive and hopefully get in by dark, it was never miserable, never like miles 18-20 of a road marathon. It was really very little like running two marathons. The first 26 miles, taking over six hours, was more like a walk in the woods with some running mixed in.

Recovery was, surprisingly, no worse than after a marathon. Spending all day at the event meant that I slept through the flushed, logy feeling I get for several hours after finishing a long race. My heart rate was back to a normal 65 the next morning. Sunday night I found a small blister on one foot, at the edge of the mostly-healed big blister from the ten-miler. My nose and lips were raw from blowing and wiping snot about a hundred times and, well, being a mouth-breather for twelve hours. By Monday I was climbing stairs again, but only out of spite.

A great day, and a great timeexperience!

DCFC9CD5-8CC6-4352-93E5-210B7B02F72C

Runs with tortoises

While the Condor was splitting a weekend marathon over two days and mixed terrain, I found myself in the Land of 10,000 Lakes without running shoes. After the unexpected discovery that Minneapolis has more to offer than the Mall of America, we decided to stay through Sunday, so I started looking for a local route to accommodate my once-a-week running regimen.

Long Meadow Lake was the one nearest our lodgings, so I scouted it while walking to the hotel pool. There was an entirely suitable crushed gravel path parallel to the water’s edge, leading into a tantalizing verdant tunnel. This sight was powerfully inviting.

I decided I wasn’t leaving the state without a proper run. I experimented with a few strides in my flip flops, but they were far too annoying and floppy to be of use. Back at the hotel I looked hard at my leather street shoes: they would do in a pinch. But on a later visit to the mall, I spotted a pair of New Balance Minimus in my size and grabbed them without even trying them on. That night I found it was hopeless. Stuffing my feet into socks and the extremely snug shoes left me too uncomfortable to even walk around.

The mall wouldn’t open until late on the morning of our return travel day, so I was back to the dress shoes. Then I thought to try the shoes on without socks. Not bad. They were still very snug in the heel and midfoot, but roomier in the toes.

I started plotting a route. A body of water seems to demand a circumnavigation of some kind, and I saw a bridge in the satellite view that I could use to cut across and loop around the northern half of the lake. Strangely, I could not map a route across the bridge, but got a rough estimate of the distance by requesting walking directions from one end of the crossing to the other.

This would be my first outing in any kind of minimal shoe, and I wasn’t sure of what to expect from the trails or my feet, but I was looking forward to trying both. I got up in the morning a bit later than planned, dressed for an overcast 60° day, and slipped out past the breakfast buffet, carrying only my phone, a credit card and the room key.

The shoes were amazing, completely comfortable even across the parking lot. I have never been able to maintain anything other than a heel-strike for more than a few strides; it just felt too awkward. But with these shoes landing on the ball of my foot felt natural, like I wasn’t adjusting my form at all. Perhaps all I needed was the minimal 4mm drop from heel to toe in the Vibram sole.

It wasn’t long before I got my first reaction to the aggressively-styled shoe. On the access road, I stopped to photograph a trail map and then met a local resident.

The snapper did not seem too impressed by my footwear, perhaps even threatened. But both animal and shoe were out of their natural element on this asphalt. A little farther on and I joined the Hogback Ridge Trail, feeling utterly light on my feet. I glided nearly silently along the lakeside, spotting dozens of red-winged blackbirds, geese, goldfinches, and the ever-present great blue heron.

Up ahead I took a fork in the trail leading to the bridge crossing. This turned out to be a mistake, taking me to a long highway bridge with unwelcoming hard shoulders. I considered running across but thought better of it. I decided to continue on a bit then turn around for a somewhat disappointing out-and-back route.

But I hadn’t gone much farther when I found the crossing I had planned for, though it wasn’t exactly what I had planned for.

Again I considered turning back, but something told me this was going to be the best part of the outing. The day before, a four-year-old had shamed me at an amusement park attraction. Sure, he cried once, getting stuck on a particularly tight spot, but I was sweating and gritting my teeth constantly once we reached the second level. I wanted to cross the cables and wobbly plank bridges unaided, with the same casual disregard he showed for the dizzying, multi-story drops below our feet, but it was impossible. I squeezed his hand in my sweaty palm and clung desperately to the safety rope. I imagined taking a photo looking down between my feet, balanced on bouncy two-by-four-topped parallel beams, to the concrete floor far below. The attendants had caught me trying to sneak my phone along and made me leave it in the locker, but I could never have managed to take a picture anyway. Just as well, since I will never forget that view. So I was prepared to disregard warning signs, squeeze past obstacles, and tiptoe over rusty girders poised over muddy swamp.

Once across the bridge, I was committed to completing the loop and started to make good time, hoping to get in before breakfast closed. I stopped to admire some more turtles, which were busy digging in the sandy soil and showing annoyance at my presence. A walking couple suggested that they were laying eggs.

The trip record would show that I covered almost eight miles. Other than some tightness in one calf, I felt great during the run, but it turned out to be far too much for a first experience in a minimal shoe. My feet were fine, but my calves were knotted and sore for days. By Tuesday I was reduced to about the speed of those turtles, but looking forward to the next time I’ll squeeze into those shoes and hit the trail.