Earlier this month, Ultrarunning Magazine published an article I wrote about my experience running through the night during The Great New York 100 Mile Running Exposition. Enjoy!
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me.
- Walt Whitman
Here's a feature article I wrote for Ultrarunning Magazine about Trishul Cherns. With several Canadian national records and over 42,000 ultramarathon racing miles under his belt, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy Trishul's inspiring story of running, spirituality, and pushing personal limits.
This past September I toed the starting line at the IMTUF 100 just outside McCall, Idaho. I was kicking myself while camping the night before for not bringing a warmer sleeping bag as I woke up several times to find myself shivering. Once we got moving it wasn't as cold. After around 5 miles, I started feeling a pain toward the back of my knee and tried to stretch it several times thinking as the temperature got warmer it would loosen. It ended up going the other direction and got worse as the pain began to shift to just above the side of my knee and I eventually figured out it was my IT band. It got to the point that by mile 15 or so I couldn't run anymore and it was a huge chore to even hike on a steep downhill. I didn't feel any pain though while power hiking flats and hills, and made the decision to just keep hiking and enjoy the day until I timed out of the race. That moment came at mile 58 just after 2am but before then I experienced one of the most enjoyable days on the trail in the past year. The IMTUF 100 course is incredibly scenic, well run and tough, and I met several other runners along the way, had visits from my crew of family and friends, shared some great miles with Kerry who paced me that last 10 miles or so, and was able to see a beautiful area of mountains in central Idaho that I'd never seen before. As disappointing as it was to experience my 2nd DNF, knowing that I did what I could and stayed on top of things mentally had me leaving the race feeling that it was a positive experience. I went to the finish line for the last few hours of the race and cheered the final finishers. There's nothing like watching people cross the line after running 100 miles…it's one of my favorite things to do.
The IMTUF 100 is definitely one to come back to and I'm considering running it again next year. I've been 100% healed up for several weeks now and have started to plan out 2015. I'm registered for the Austin Marathon on February 15 and I'll figure out the rest of the year after the Western States 100 lottery drawing on December 6.
This is a very late post but back in July I had the awesome opportunity to travel around Vermont and New Hampshire before running the Vermont 100. Was very impressed with the Green and White Mountains and I'm trying to figure out a way to go back there soon to get a peek at the fall colors.
The Vermont 100 went really well with my friend Beth taking the train up to Windsor to crew and pace me. As memory serves, I physically fell apart with blisters under the balls of both of my feet around mile 80 or so (maybe it was earlier?) and death marched it in with Beth by my side. Was mentally on top of it all day and night, with the exception of battling sleepiness and impatience as the night wore on. Was very happy to finish in 27:32:20.
I'm trying to resurrect this blog and hope to get a post out soon about my IMTUF 100 run last week.
Playing major catch up here! Ran TNF 50 at Bear Mountain for the 3rd consecutive year back in May. There was a course change which made it easier on paper…what wasn't foreseen was that the area had severe rains the few days prior to the race and major sections of the course were underwater. It was a lot of slogging through the mud and after it was done, I remember thinking that the course was actually tougher this year because of the conditions. Despite this fact, I felt mentally on top of things much more than the previous 2 years…rebounding from a healthy puking session shortly after the 40 mile mark was a highlight of this. TNF 50 is always a good spring fitness test…not sure if I will run it next year or if I might try something different. I would like to come back and try to lower my time eventually and know if I can manage my nausea I could easily take 2 hours off my best time here. Definitely one of the most difficult ultras in the area and was glad to get my 3rd finish.
Got 'er done!!!
Ran the L.A. Marathon with Andy Garfield who completed his first 26.2 miles. The run started at Dodger Stadium and worked it's way through Los Angeles, passing though Hollywood, Beverly Hills and ended at the beach in Santa Monica. A great day spent with one of my best friends.
On March 2nd I rode out with Wayne, Cherie and Mary to the Caumsett Park 50k in Long Island, NY. Having signed up to run the L.A. Marathon the following weekend, I had no intention to run, but to volunteer. For the Vermont 100 I needed 8 hours of volunteer service. I could have used the day I volunteered for the Telluride Mountain Run this past summer for my requirements, but I think it's good to give back and help out for the sake of helping out…and since my friends Cherie Yanek and Mary Harvey were running, I figured I could cheer them along as well.
Riding to the race, the first thing I noticed was how much more snow was on the ground than last year when I went to film a short documentary about Ray K. It was virtually bare ground then, but this year had a decent deposit of snow. As luck would have it, the wind never picked up during the day, so even though there was more snow, it was much warmer than last year.
The start of the Caumsett Park 50k.
I watched the start of the race, then rode out to the marathon mark to help with timing. They had a special mat at the 26.2 mark so the fast runners could gain a Boston qualifying time in addition to their 50k finish. I spent the first few hours entering numbers in the computer to double check against the chip timing for the marathon, then went back to the tent by the start/finish line to print out results and split times for runners who had finished.
As I printed out statistics, I got to chat with a number of other volunteers and runners and met a lot of people. The Greater Long Island Running Club seemed like a solid organization and community to be a part of and the highlight of the day was getting to know various people at the race. Both the men's and women's course records ended up being broken, so it was an exciting event to be a part of. I was very thankful to get a ride out of the park by Rich from the Broadway Ultra Society…I've been wanting to do a timed event for a while, like a 6 hour or 12 hour...I'll have to do one of his races at some point.
So now I've filmed at Caumsett one year and volunteered another. The only thing left to do is run it. Would be a great course for a fast 50k time or a Boston qualifier, and it's only an hour away from Brooklyn:)
2013 has been quite the busy year and subsequently the blog has suffered. I've run 3 races since I last posted about the TNF 50 Miler at Bear Mountain: Cayuga Trails 50, White River 50 and the Leadville 100. All three were great events with their own unique flavor. Cayuga Trails was the inaugural race and had a course that featured runners passing around 20 different waterfalls through amazing gorges and rock structures. White River was perhaps the most scenic race I've ever run, with inspiring views of Mount Rainier and although I lost my stomach several times heading up to Sun Top, I managed to PR. Leadville 100 was my main focus and all was going well until I was about a mile from the top of Hope Pass and felt a pressure on the bone on my right inner knee. As I crested the top of the pass, I started running down the backside and that pressure turned into shooting pain which left me unable to walk (let alone run) and I hobbled using my trekking poles as crutches all the way down to Winfield (50 mile mark) to drop out. It was my first DNF so it was a bit hard to swallow as I like to finish what I start, but so far it's been good to step back and contemplate how my running's gone this past year. I'm looking to get much faster so I don't have to worry about cut-offs, so I'm going to use training for the NYC Marathon as a way to improve my speed and then hopefully carry that fitness into next years ultra schedule. The knee feels much better (although not healed) so as soon as I'm good to run again you can bet I'll be mixing in more speedwork into my training.
Besides the races, I went on perhaps the roadtrip of my life this summer spending time in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Utah and Colorado. I made it a priority to explore wherever I went, so I got in a lot of running and hiking on trails of all types, visited 7 National Parks (Theodore Roosevelt, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain), and got to see several sections of the Hardrock 100 course (probably the highlight of the whole summer). The San Juan's are the most spectacular mountain range I've ever been to and I'm excited for the next time I can go back to visit them. In the mean time I'll be back in NYC to start grad school for Playwriting at Brooklyn College. I've very excited about being back in school and hope to find a good balance between staying mentally creative and physically active.
Near the top of Kendall Mountain, 3,500 ft. above Silverton, CO
For the second year in a row, Crest Hardware & Urban Garden Center has sponsored me to run the McCarren Park 5k. It's been a good humbling but fun reminder of how slow of a runner I actually am. I know I can get faster if I'd add just a little speedwork into my training and would like to run a sub 20 minute 5k this year which is totally doable. I ended up finishing a minute and a half slower than last year, crossing the finish line a few seconds after 23:00. A big reason for the slow down was my quads were still pretty sore from the Bear Mountain 50 miler a week before, but my lungs were also burning pretty good, so it wasn't all the tired legs. Still it was fun to deck myself out in Crest gear and run a few loops around McCarren Park.
What a difference a year makes on the memory. Since I ran The North Face 50 Miler in Bear Mountain last May I had forgotten the many details of why this race is so difficult. This past weekend, while I was in the middle of being put through the wringer, it slapped me in the face as it all came back to me. Only two days later though, the reality of the situation has begun to fade exponentially. To be a consistent ultrarunner one must have an inconsistent memory. Already I’ve begun to romanticize the run: Picking my way along the loose rocks and gnarly roots. Kneeling down to splash cold water on my face and neck to cool off as I crossed one of the many streams. Running past the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail, seeing campers cooking breakfast outside of their tents in the early morning and having my mind wondering what it would be like to continue on this trail, or the other great American trails like the PCT or the Continental Divide Trail. One year I will thru-hike the AT I promise myself as I look around to a 360 degree view of the rolling northeastern deciduous forests. And running down the finish chute while being cheered on by my friend Cherie and getting that long-awaited glorious medal placed around my neck all seem more than worth it.
What happened to cursing the terrain and agitatedly swatting flies away from my ears as I hiked up a steep ascent of loose and jagged rocks? Where’s all the worrying that I might pass out while running because I only got 2 hours of sleep the night before? No more stomach troubles that slowed me down as I constantly tried to suppress the desire to vomit for fear of losing all my calories and hydration and getting into REAL trouble. Gone is the uncontrollable crying at the sight of an older man with determination on his face and the care in the eyes of his wife and kids surrounding him about to send him off for his last 10 tough miles. Blowing out my quads a few miles later while picking my way down a steep and technical downhill and weakly asking myself how in the world am I going to finish Leadville are now only viewed as a dream. Moments that seemed dire have been transformed into delight, like getting passed by a guy around mile 46 doing an 8 minute pace saying he just wants to hurry up and finish so he can go home and eat, then catching up to him sitting on a rock a mile later at the top of a brutal climb as he vomited off the trailside, then being passed by him again another mile later with a smile on his face saying he got his second wind and we should have a beer at the finish.
This is the spirit of the ultra. And although I remember telling myself in the moment that this is the last ultra I was going to run and I don’t have to do these things anymore, I’ve lost the desperation behind those words and it all doesn’t seem so bad now that I sit on my easy chair typing this. It doesn’t seem justified anymore. I know that I run these because they are not easy and the lower the lows get, the higher the highs seem to be. So bring on the Cayuga Trails 50 in June, the White River 50 in July and the looming Leadville 100 in August. I’ll be sure to have forgotten every reason not to run them by then.
And PS...after the race Wayne and Cherie gave me a ride back to Brooklyn where I performed Ferapont in Chekhov’s Three Sisters alongside an awesome cast who I really respect. It was one of the strangest and wonderful stage experiences I’ve ever had, acting after running 50 miles, being completely in the moment and too tired to over-think anything, just do. I highly recommend it to any actor:)
This is much belated but back in February I finished the FebApple Frozen 50k in New Jersey. It proved to be a good early season training run. The trails were full of snow, ice and mud with light rain falling during a good portion of the race. The conditions slowed me down quite a bit, but were a good test in the art of slogging forward until you get to the finish line that I've become so good at. First ultra of 2013 is in the books...next up...The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Miler in Bear Mountain, NY!
I've never been fast. I usually just run at a comfortable pace. Most of my training is in the 8-10 minute/mile range. I never do speedwork and am fine with running long, slow mileage.
I work in the Garden Center at Crest Hardware & Urban Garden Center and they were nice enough to sponsor me to run the McCarren Park 5k this past weekend. The last time I ran an official 5k was in 2006 at the Toys For Tots Trot in Seattle where I finished in a sloth-like 27:46. I knew I'd be faster this weekend. I decked myself out in Crest gear and dashed around Brooklyn's McCarren Park, ending up running a 21:27, knocking over 6 minutes off my 2006 time. It left me wanting to run faster. It would be a good challenge to get that time down below 20 minutes, or 18 minutes. So I think I'll make a solid effort to add speedwork to my weekly mileage and register for another 5k in a month or two to see how things have progressed.
Might be a fun way to add some variety in between ultramarathons.
Hobbling around Brooklyn these past few days has been a rewarding feeling. Every now and then I’ll put just the right weight on one of my quads and instantly almost collapse to the ground, just like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, which is usually followed by strange looks from nearby witnesses, but I don’t seem to mind. It’s healthy to have a constant reminder of a good hard effort on a trail. A keepsake of a risk taken, a simple goal achieved: to move forward all day long and cross the finish line before a certain hour. Yesterday I opened a bag I should have opened a day sooner, full of wet running clothes smelling so pungent and vile I contemplated just throwing them away. After all, if something smells like that, will one cycle in the washing machine really rid them of their foulness? As it turns out, no, one cycle is indeed not enough. I’m taking bets on the second one.
Yes, 50 miles this past Saturday on technical terrain with a total elevation change of over 14,000 feet. To this date it is the toughest course I’ve ever run on and I have a new-found respect for the hills that lie an hour north of New York City.
The lowest point came early, between miles 5-10. While out of breath, stepping one foot in front of another up a steep incline of loose rock, I began to panic and say things to myself:
“Not even 1/5 done with this thing and I’m feeling destroyed. Imagine how I’ll feel when I’m 4/5 done.”
“How am I going to pull this off? I’m not sure I will this time.”
“I should have trained harder on the hills.”
“If I DNF is it okay?”
“Yes. It’s okay. I’ll think up a good excuse.”
“NO, DAMMIT! A DNF IS NOT OKAY UNLESS YOU ARE INJURED!”
“But maybe I can get injured. Soon. Maybe I can just step on this rock wrong and get injured and then I will have a good excuse to DNF.”
“WILL YOU QUIT SAYING DNF!!!”
“You’re right. Too much DNF talk. The acronym is burrowing itself into my brain like a bad song stuck in my head. I should say a different phrase. I like that song
. The lyrics to the first verse start with:
“YES I CAN!”
And shortly thereafter I was fine and moving along with rhythm and patience and acceptance.
At an aid station around the halfway mark I ran into Cherie, who I casually know from the Burning Man 50k I’ve run the past two years. She wasn’t feeling well and the two of us started chatting. And chatted some more. And kept chatting. And basically chatted for the entire second half of the race all the way to the finish line. And the range of topics we covered over those rugged 25 miles went full spectrum, from wonderful moments of the past, to bad experiences, and everything in between. I’ve randomly met up with people mid race and finished it out with them before, but this is probably the most in depth get-to-know-you conversation I’ve ever had on the trails. There were moments when I wasn’t feeling very well but Cherie was fine so she would lead us on, and there were times when she wasn’t feeling good so I’d push the pace. That good ol’ spastic physical and mental Ultrarunning Roller Coaster and we were riding it together. When it was over 13 hours and 26 minutes after it started I was so very grateful for her company and it was a good reminder of how big an impact another person can have on an experience. The hours flew by and when all was said and done we had a lot of fun and am thankful that she pushed me when I needed to be pushed and was not grossed out when I'd take the bandana off my head to wring out the sweat.
And as of right now I have no other races scheduled. Infinite options loom in my mind and it feels good to let them all stew: Grindstone 100? A fast marathon? Auditioning? Writing a new play? Perhaps I will stay in this place for a while. Or maybe I’ll figure out where I want to focus my energy by the time I awaken in bed tomorrow. And I know that when I finally decide, I'm going to commit to it. Because I like to finish what I start. But whatever happens, whatever I choose, it feels good to have open possibilities ahead of me right now. It feels freeing. And I like that…for now.
Last week I took my first camping trip up to the Catskills, just 2.5 hours from New York City with friends Monte and Amy. I took advantage of exploring the trails around North-South Lake on the NE edge of the Catskill Range, where the legend of Rip Van Winkle took place. Because it's still early in the year, the campground at the base of the trail was closed for another week, so I had the trails to myself.
I've spent a lot of time this past year lamenting about how far away I live from the mountains and nature of the West. After last week, I now feel pretty certain that my desire to explore natural places can be pacified for the time being with what lies close by in the Catskills.
A picture of me and a pull quote from my Rocky Raccoon 100 race report made it to the pages of Ultrarunning Magazine this month. Monte took the picture (his name's in small print) of Ciara and me so it was nice to see my two crew members make the magazine as well. Here are the pages:
It was 5am, an hour before the start, as I was changing into my running gear at our campsite, when the heavens opened up and all hell broke loose. Seeking shelter in the car with Ciara and Monte, we witnessed one of the most massive and intense thunderstorms our eyes had ever seen. Thunder, sheets of lightning and driving rain coming down so hard, if you were out in it for five seconds it looked like you had jumped into Lake Raven. They dropped me off at the start line and I huddled under the big tent with all the other runners awaiting the gun to go off. Everyone chatted away as I kept to myself, riddled with nerves and nausea from the thought of what I was about to embark upon. 100 miles. Five 20 mile loops through Texas’ Huntsville State Park. Sounds epic enough. Add a thunderstorm to the mix and you’ve got Frodo heading into Mordor (or by the looks of it one of the bearded dwarfs).
Just before the start. Photo: Monte Jenkins
At 6am we were all off and running the first loop (miles 1-20) through the rainy and muddy trails in the dark. Soon enough the sun rose and you could see the forests which are much more what I’d expect to see in Louisiana or Florida than Texas. Swamp country. Gators exist here. An armadillo had startled me yesterday by my tent. I was out of my element and had no choice but to keep moving forward and focus on the present moment instead of the miles and mud ahead. It was such a joy to be out of New York City and get the opportunity to do some trail running. I briefly chatted with a few people as we wove our way through the trails and back to the end of the first loop.
Photo: Monte Jenkins
Photo: Monte Jenkins
Photo: Monte Jenkins
On the second loop (miles 20-40) the rain was letting off but it had done its damage to the trails. I was traipsing through muddy filthy gutter muck hog slop puddles with soaked feet and clothes. Overall I was in good spirits though. Ciara and Monte would meet me in aid stations to give me various supplies and moral support. They were an amazing crew and I respect them highly for all the oppressive smells from my clothing and shoes they were made to deal with. The other runners were great too and always saying positive remarks as they would pass by like “good job” or “looking strong.” The ultra community is full of such positivity, and you need all of it you can get because there are too many things that can happen over 100 miles to derail your race and cause a DNF (did not finish), especially with this weather.
Photo: Monte Jenkins
Ciara with new supplies. Photo: Monte Jenkins
The sun went down just before I started the third loop (miles 40-60) and there I was, out on the trails in the middle of the forest with just me, my thoughts and the span of illumination that my headlamp produced to keep me company. Around the 45 mile mark, while on the most remote section of the course, my mind started getting the better of me and things turned dark. I suddenly got really sad, inexplicably so, and began to let the sadness of the world consume my thoughts. I would come across runners and get a glimpse of their strained faces saying positive words to me, and see how good their intentions all were, not only in this race but in life in general, and thought how such good people trying their best in life and helping others around them eventually have to die one day. I began crying thinking about it. Then thought of the people in my life that I care about that one day too will find death and I felt incredible sadness and loss thinking of it all. I dwelled on it for quite some time out there in the middle of nowhere before eventually the thoughts dissipated and I was moving along fine again and mentally feeling back to normal. In fact I got really happy and motivated and it was perhaps the best I felt all race. Then shortly after, at mile 55, I got irrationally annoyed at everything around me and began charging along at a pretty good pace toward the 60 mile mark. I ran pretty fast even though the effects of running the entire race with wet feet had taken its toll and by the time I finished the loop my feet were in really bad shape. Large blisters had developed on the balls of both feet. A couple of my toe nails felt as if they were dangling and about to fall off from stubbing my toes so much on the roots. By the end of this loop I had renamed the race ROCKY ROOTCOON.
The moment I started the 4th loop (miles 60-80) I found it hard to run again. My feet were shot and shortly after my quads followed. Thus began what turned out to be a 40 MILE DEATH MARCH. Monte met me at mile 63 to pace me and the two of us disappeared into the night. This turned out to be my toughest section of the race. Monte said, “you are doing this and it will be completed.” I wasn’t so sure. My stomach was upset and I found it hard to eat food without almost puking. At one point, while sitting on a log trying to change my socks I got an intense case of chills and started shivering, probably due to a lack of calories. Monte gave me the coat off his back and I quickly put my shoes on as I knew I needed to start moving again if I wanted to get warm. While we trudged on I started to think of how far I had yet to go - 30 plus miles still and began to panic wondering how I was going to go that far not being able to run at all and told Monte I was not doing well. We had some great conversation to get my mind off of the physical and mental suffering. He also read me some notes from a list of people that Ciara had contacted to write to me as a surprise during the run, which was wonderful. In hind sight, if Monte wouldn’t have been there to talk to, I have no idea where my mind would have gone during that section, considering where it had gone on the previous loop. Who knows, I could have easily rationalized a DNF. It seemed like an eternity, but finally we finished the 4th loop.
The Death March. Photo: Monte Jenkins
Ciara began pacing me for my 5th and last loop (miles 80-100). At an aid station I sat down and instantly got the chills again. I had been moving for over 20 hours now, sleep deprived and felt as if I could pass out at any moment. They put a blanket over me and gave me some coffee and cheese quesadillas. Ciara didn’t tell me at the time but let me know later that at that point she was really worried about me. My pupils were dilated and I wasn’t all there when people were talking to me. She forced me to keep moving. And we did. And it was the most painful 20 miles of my life. I was moving around 3 miles an hour, trying to be patient but failing and convincing myself that I never wanted to run again. I’ve never been so mentally and physically miserable for such a long time. A true suffer-fest. When I would stop to pee I'd look down at the ground and have intense visual hallucinations with the ground moving or transforming into different textures and knew that I couldn’t indulge in the visuals or else I would be passed out face first in the trail in no time. I kept moving, following Ciara, hardly talking and by mile 90 my walk had developed into a struggled limp.
More Death March. Photo: Monte Jenkins
I had to swing my arms to keep forward momentum. The sun came up as I saw my second sunrise of the race. Ciara read to me more notes that people had written for me and I was very appreciative of all the people who took the time to do that and for Ciara for organizing it all. After many miserable hours of mental and physical suffering we finally made it to mile 99.5 and mustered enough energy to run to the finish. We made it across with a time of 27 hours 34 minutes 54 seconds.
(Click here for complete results and stats)
It didn't sink in right away that I had just finished 100 miles, I was too tired to think about it and just glad to be done. I got my buckle from the race director and chatted for a minute. He put on a really great, well organized race.
Chatting at the finish. Photo: Monte Jenkins
Chatting at the finish. Photo: Monte Jenkins
I sat down in a chair under a tent which was the most pleasant sit I've ever taken. After five minutes I went to get up and couldn’t take a single step without falling over. My legs lasted as long as I made them and once they reached 100 miles they said “nope, no more.” Monte had to pull the car up and I braced my arm around his shoulders and hobbled my way to the car. I called my parents then took off my shoes and socks to assess the damage. Not pretty.
The next morning I awoke with an extreme sense of optimism. I felt so excited for the future, whatever it may hold. Both feet swelled up really badly but I was walking again on my own after a day or so. A big reason for originally wanting to run a 100 miler was to find out what it was like to put myself through the physical and mental wringer. Mission accomplished. Although a lot of the time it wasn't fun, there was a whole lot of life that happened out on those trails that I wouldn't have gotten to experience if I would have stayed at home. If anything, it makes me want to take more risks in life and invest myself fully in whatever I'm doing. I am so thankful for Ciara and Monte and am in awe of their generosity. Without them, I'm not sure what would have happened. To the next adventure!
With my new buckle! Photo: Monte Jenkins
I wake this morning in a dark room with a slight groggy feeling of dread, knowing well what must be done. As I shower, I turn the knob as hot as it will go, trying to get my core temp as high as possible, all the while knowing it won’t last. A half hour later I’m fully dressed with a hydration pack on my back standing on tired legs from last week’s back-to-back 20 milers. And then I’m off, running down the rural Idaho dirt road, with a faint light appearing from the ridge line to the east. 50 miles lay before me. Four 12.5 mile out-and-backs from the house down the Middle Fork Road and into the Boise National Forest along the half frozen Payette River. My first shot at a distance which over time my mind has begun to comprehend.
Soon the condensation of my breath gathers on my beard and quickly crystallizes from the sub-freezing temperatures, transforming the dark brown hairs into stiff white icicles. Two miles down the road, with Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Wooden Ships” in my ears, I glance to the left and see 30 elk occupying a pasture under the dim light. They begin to retreat at the sound of my footsteps, then stop, as they watch my slow running movement for a brief time before heading back into the timber. My mind is at peace. I’m ready for the miles ahead.
The first out-and-back goes smoothly, except I discover that the final 2.5 miles of my route are all to be run both ways on sheets of ice and gritty ruts which hurt the feet as well as slow down their cadence. Back at the house I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich my dad makes me. He was an excellent crew. I change my hat and jacket to lighter ones thinking it is much warmer by now. A half mile down the road I realize I was wrong, and find myself irrationally cursing the cold as well as all the cars now zooming by me. “How could there be this many cars in such a rural place? Can’t they just leave me alone? Unbelievable!” Despite my grumpiness, I get the 2nd out-and-back done, reaching the half way mark.
In the middle of the 3rd, as I pee on the ground, I get minor hallucinations while staring into the snow surrounding my feet. I shake it off and keep moving as my leg muscles now are showing signs of true fatigue, causing me to briefly focus on how many miles I have left, which sends me into mini panics of impatience. My dad meets me halfway down the steep hill which leads to the house and walks back with me, getting a read on how I’m doing. He gives me another peanut butter and jelly sandwich before sending me on my way.
The final out-and-back has my legs writhing in pain. I trudge on knowing that I will finish what I started. Out of nowhere I have a thought which bolts my eyes out wide and stops me from running in a genuine, full-fledged, oh-shit moment. Realizing how shot my legs feel at the 45 mile mark, I know that this is just a training run, and in a month I’ll be running the Rocky Raccoon 100. "How in the world am I going to get through THAT!?!" I tell myself I’ll figure it out later and for now, don’t think and just keep moving. And so I do, under a wonderful sunset making the ridge line look like it exploded in flame.
I return to the house at dusk, finished, having run from sun up to sun down, without a bit of emotion in me, strangely stoic and feeling like the 10 hours and 23 minutes behind me were just a strange dream, a passing hallucination in the white snow. I hobble around the house and devour a homemade pizza from my dad’s hands, before retiring to bed early.
I ran my first 50 miler today surrounded by the pine forests and mountain homes of Idaho. One month from now, I’ll wake up staring at the ceiling of a tent in a Texas State Park, somehow ready to do this all again…times two.
Hurricane Irene hit New York City on Sunday, August 28 causing my flight to Burning Man to be delayed by a couple of days till Tuesday, resulting in me missing the first part of the festival.
I survived the tempest and after a sleepless night on Tuesday I left the house at 2:45am - 2 trains, 1 bus, 3 planes and a car ride later I arrived through the gates of Burning Man. There was a big round of hellos to good friends then I went to the car to get all my belongings and my act together because for God’s sake I was running the Black Rock City 50k Ultramarathon in the morning! Was in my sleeping bag close to 11:30pm and the distant sounds of techno music put me fast asleep. In my dreams I could hear the steady bass beat of the music - oonst, oonst, oonst - then awoke to realize it wasn't the techno music but my alarm beeping at me - beep, beep, beep, beep, oonst, oonst, beep, beep - it was 3:30am and with a whole four hours of sleep after a tired day of travel it was time to get up and get on with it. This is what Burning Man should be. Take all the comforts and everything you think you know and flip it upside down and try to scramble to survive and somehow make sense of it all. Or not. Maybe it's best to just ride out the wave.
I opened the trunk of the car and disrobed then put on my running costume. My wife Ciara was at a family wedding and couldn’t make it to the festival this year, but she had given me a stack of envelopes that I was supposed to open each day so she could, in a way, be with me for the week. For this particular morning she wrote me a wonderfully inspiring note for the run on a card that almost brought me to tears. I folded it and put it in my hydration pack in case I needed to take it out and read it during the run for motivation.
With clothes on my body, three bananas in my belly, band-aids on the nipples, a handkerchief on my head and vaseline lining my crotch I was walking by myself in the dark to make it to the start line by 4:45am. What the hell was I doing? Where was I? An ominous flaming octopus on wheels blasting music and filled with furry people yelling inaudible randoms passed by me as I wondered how my life had taken me here, to this place. What the hell was I doing? I was about to run 31 miles through all of this. Don’t make sense of it. Don’t try to be grounded. Best to float in space for the next several hours and hope that when I do land it is feet first.
I ran the Black Rock City 50k last year, when it was an inaugural event. This summer, the humidity of the northeast had really gotten to me and I hadn't had the best season of running. Physically I was under-trained for the 50k distance but missing out on it wasn’t an option - I like the sound of finishing 2 out of 2 too much. It was surprisingly warm for this time in the morning in the high desert at around 3,800 feet elevation. Last year I was shivering under a coat and hat. This year I was without shirt sleeves. Hopefully it didn’t mean it would get hotter than last year. I think it did.
The crowd was gathering and a group of about 60 of us were fastening our race bibs to our clothes and getting ready to go.
A little after 5am we were off. The course was four loops around the Esplanade and deep playa then a final out-and-back that went along the Esplanade to 2:00 and C then back to the finish line.
I tucked myself in with a group of runners and as we made our way to the deep playa the sun was beginning to rise.
We all completed our first loop and with a stop to the aid station the group mostly split up and as I kept running I locked on in a smaller group of around 5 or so. Three of the runners were from my fellow Brooklyn and part of the running group North Brooklyn Runners which I have been meaning to run with for the past year now and haven’t. In this group was Cherie Yanek who had the drive to create this 50k last year and has been the race director of it for two years now. Toward the middle of the race she would developed a big bad blister on the top of one of her toes which caused a lot of pain. So what did she do? Took of her shoes and ran the rest of the race in her socks! And finished the race long before I did. And just a week and a half later she was scheduled to toe the line for a 100 miler. Amazing!
The second loop was interesting because there was daylight now and as you ran you would pass by all sorts of Burners who were heading home after a full night of partying out on the playa. If Burning Man is the place where all the freaks go, we were running by the most hardcore that exist in the freak kingdom - and they were all staring at us like we were the weirdest people they had ever seen. We were the freaks to the freaks. And we kept running. You had acid heads with beers in their system chasing after us trying to run alongside until their energies gave way. A woman in only her underwear was shuffling along with her legs locked together towards the port-o-potties. As we came up behind her I realized why she was shuffling - she had shat herself. Yes, this clearly was the hour when the animals were still wandering free out of their cages. The junkies were scouring the land. The werewolves were looming about. A lost soul came up on us, suspiciously asking if we were undercover cops. We assured him that we were. People stopped what they were doing to check us out. There was a chorus of comments:
“You guys are crazy!”
“What are you running from?”
“Dig the mustache!”
“What the hell are you doing!”
“Are you serious!?!”
“This is awesome!”
“Am I hallucinating?”
“Aren’t you afraid you’re gonna die?”
“Stop here for a beer!”
“Take a swig of this tequila!”
“You guys are idiots!”
“You guys are hardcore!”
“You guys are at the wrong festival!”
“How far are you running?”
“Is this the Marathon?” to which we replied, “No, it’s the Ultramarathon.”
By the third lap as we crossed the Esplanade and made our way to deep playa the group really split up and for a while I found myself running alone. A man in a suit jumped out of a giant beetle on wheels and started sprinting laps around me then got back on the beetle and took off. The sun was steadily rising as well as the temperature. Soon most of the people that had been out partying had gone to bed and the early risers hadn’t risen yet. Things got pretty quiet. It is here when you really feel like you are isolated in the desert.
Photo from last year's race. I'm on the left. Imagine me without the other 3 bodies.
Up to this point I had been doing a good job of taking a GU every half an hour and been taking regular sips of water from my hydration pack as well as drinking the orange Gatorade from the aid stations. Maybe too good of a job. The liquids were sloshing around in my stomach, making me nauseous and sick to my stomach. I really wanted to puke it all out and clear it away from my stomach but I was afraid of doing so because it was starting to get really hot (heading toward the 90’s) and I feared dehydration. As I was in the middle of nowhere running along the border fence I couldn’t take it anymore. A woman and a man passed by me on bikes and told me I was looking great and to keep it up. A few seconds after they rode by I was hunched over the trash fence violently hurling orange foamy liquid into the desert dust. My abs clutched so tight I thought that I had strained them and a new fear set in, not of dehydration but of pulling a stomach muscle. Thankfully the pain was temporary and a good four heaves or so later and I was feeling better but I knew there was more. I forced myself to keep moving to avoid a second round that would put me into the depths of dehydration but about ten minutes later I found myself hunched over the fence again retching out more orange. It was at the end of this round that I felt I cleared what was bothering me out of my stomach and was able to keep moving again, slowly. Although I felt better, my stomach was still feeling rough and I wasn’t sure what would happen when I would begin to drink water again.
This was the low point - alone on the boarders of Burning Man, having just vomited all the contents out of my stomach, with the temperatures of the dry heat slowly causing my body to bake and knowing that there was much more left to run. This is the point where things can start to turn. This is when everything can go from manageable to dire. It’s times like these that you step back and look at what lies in front of you and you make the decision to stop or continue on. For me, even though things had almost gotten to the point of dire, I never once considered quitting. What I did wonder was with my stomach feeling the way it was, how was I going to get through the rest of this race? How was this going to happen? How were the cards going to be played out? I pulled out the card from Ciara and re-read it.
The last part of the note.
And so I kept moving.
It was shortly after this that Peter, one of the runners from Brooklyn came up behind me and we got to chatting. He was having difficulties with cramping and I told him about my stomach troubles. We moved along together for a short time before he was ready to pick up the pace. I wasn’t, so he said that I would probably see him at the aid station up ahead. I wasn’t so sure the way I was feeling. About a half hour later it turned out he was right. I got to the aid station, refilled my hydration pack, tried to eat a few pretzels and take a few sips of that orange Gatorade I had gotten to know so well and the two of us were off together with one loop left to go plus the out and back along the Esplanade.
Peter and I more or less decided we were in it together for the remainder of the race as we passed by the familiar theme camps, by some of the same people that had been watching us each loop and by some people that were seeing us for the first time. More comments. More conversation. More people on acid with beers in their system. More continuing on. The last camp you see on 2:00 before reaching the deep playa fence is a camp that I like to call Camp Heckle. They were there last year at the same place, on the outskirts of town, probably put there because of the wealth of complaints they get from year to year. Loud dubstep techno blasts from their speakers and a jerk on the microphone hollers out as many insults as he can think of towards whoever passes by. And being the freak runners that we were, we may as well have been running with a target attached to our clothes instead of a race number. In truth they weren’t as bad as last year. A year earlier in the exact same spot, the last words my friend Tyler and I remember hearing them say to us while making our way to the outer fence, echoing from the loud speaker throughout the desert was, “FUCK YOU, RETARD!” How do you respond to that? What do you do? Say something back to them? Or maybe sneak into their camp at night and puncture holes into all their water jugs? Naw. This is Burning Man. The world has been flipped upside down. You just smile, shake your head, and move on.
We finished the fourth loop and resupplied at the aid station. Keeping out of the sun behind a large art piece, a woman who had just finished the race was taking off her shoes and hobbling along. I asked her how she was doing and she said she was fine although her feet were really hurting. Having turned into an ultrarunning nerd the past year, I was pretty sure that I knew who she was but I wanted to ask what her name was just to make sure. “Kathy D’Onofrio” she said and I had been right. I asked her, “You won Western States twice, didn’t you?” For those readers who don’t know, The Western States 100 is the very first 100 mile foot race in the world and is known as the Super Bowl of American 100 milers which attracts the most elite distance runners not only from the US, but around the world. She had won the woman’s field in 1986 and 1988. Kathy humbly said, “Yes I did win Western States, but that was a very long time ago.” I told her I thought that was totally awesome and she thanked me and said, “But let me tell you something,” and she pointed her finger right at me and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You could win it too!” Time froze for a moment as I was taken aback by this, never haven really considered the notion. Before I could say anything she asked if I was finished with the race and I told her I had the out-and-back left to do. Her mouth dropped open and she gave me a funny look and yelled, “then what are you waiting for, GO GET EM!” And she started jumping up and down on her tired feet yelling over and over again, “GO GET EM, GO GET EM!” And with that Peter and I were off for the home stretch.
The physical pain was intense for us both. We’d run until it was too much for one of us and then we’d have to walk for a while. We reached the turn around point and gave the Esplanade one last hurrah. My stomach was really upset and I felt sick. The heat was oppressive. If I ran for more then a few minutes I would come close to puking. The wind kicked up and before we knew it we were in the middle of a thick dust storm. We put the bandanas that had been tied around our necks over our mouths to filter out the dust. I took a few breaths through it and immediately took it off as I realized it had been around my sweaty neck for the past six hours and smelt so bad I preferred to breath in the dust. I struggled with a few bouts of coughing. And then after all the way we had gone and how little we had left to go, Burning Man decided to throw one last obstacle in for us to navigate through. Blocking our path was a steady stream of several hundred fully naked men riding on bikes. There was so many of them it was hard to cross through to the other side. We had no other option but to carefully make our way across, fording the river of naked bicycle men, feeling like we were in the Atari game Frogger. After much concentration, we safely made it through, managing to avoid being hit by a bike or a loose body part and we kept moving. We trudged on together. It is unbelievable how great company is for an event like this, especially when you are suffering. Good conversation will take potentially hellacious miles and turn them into pleasant moments. I was very grateful for Peter's company and hopefully I’ll make it out to some of these North Brooklyn Runner events in the future. Finally we made it to the finish with a time of 6 hours, 27 minutes and 4 seconds and received a nice big finisher’s medal around our necks and a t-shirt to take home.
Peter at the finish.
I can’t say enough good things about Cherie for organizing this crazy event and for the volunteers at the aid station sitting through the heat of the day to make sure the runners were properly taken care of and accounted for.
Although I had a lot of physical stomach problems over the course of these 31 miles, besides that one quick moment in the deep playa, I stayed pretty strong mentally. I knew the whole time that somehow I was going to finish this race. And I did. Mission accomplished - now bring on the rest of the week!
I was surprised at how fast my body ended up recovering from the race and two days later I found myself running again, this time a half marathon around the perimeter fence of Burning Man with two stellar people, Andy and Sage from the Yummy RUMInations camp.
It’s amazing how quickly the feelings of suffering fade from one’s mind and you are left with nothing but good memories of elation towards an experience. As soon as they fade comes into your mind the next big question:
I just finished the 2011 SunTrust National Marathon in Washington DC on Saturday, March 26. Here's how it went:
I woke up at 4:45AM, took a shower, had a breakfast of oatmeal, banana and coffee, got all my things together and headed out the door. I was staying with my VERY generous friends in Falls Church, Virginia. The Metro Rail started running at 6:00AM, just one hour before the start of the race at 7:00AM. Because my friends' apartment was a good distance away from RFK Stadium, I didn't want to risk missing the start of the marathon so I opted to take a cab. Turns out I should have saved $40 and taken the Metro anyway as the starting gun was a bit tardy to go off and it took over 20 minutes for me to cross the start line from when the race began. There were some 17,000 runners in the three events of the day (Marathon, Half Marathon and Team Relay) and I was placed in the very last starting corral. Anyway, it was better to be safe than sorry and I had plenty of time to wait in the long lines to pee and soak in the pre-race atmosphere.
The weather was pretty chilly in the morning - probably in the low to mid 30's. I brought an extra hooded sweatshirt that I wore until my corral started to move then I threw it off to the side of the road to be donated. The best decision I made all day was about a minute before I was to cross the starting line I jumped a fence and hit the port-o-potty one last time. Because the race had started, there were no lines and I finished my business and jumped back over the fence in no time to start the race. By doing this I saved myself a few unpleasant miles and waiting in a long toilet line at the first aid station.
The first half hour or so was spent threading my way through the thick crowd, passing runners. In that half hour I warmed up and shed my hat and gloves and tied a bandanna around my head. A little later I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. What had been a cold morning turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. It remained fairly crowded until the half marathon mark when the other two events finished, leaving only the marathoners for the last half of the course. It was really refreshing to get the extra running room and for a boost of inspiration, at about mile 14 I passed by a single leg amputee runner who was trucking along with a prosthetic leg.
The course offered some great views of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument amoung other DC landmarks and had us running through several neighborhoods as well as past Nationals Park. Hopefully one day I'll return here to watch a baseball game and cross another stadium off my bucket list.
The course was mostly flat although there was a few little hills mixed in, but nothing major. The cherry trees and magnolias were in bloom and at several times during the race I would zone out and just look at them in contemplation and appreciation. At every aid station I would get two cups of Powerade and then a cup of water and probably ate 5 gels over the course of the day. I felt pretty strong the whole race, even though by the end my legs were tired. I kept my mind off them by looking at all the trees in bloom and chatting with some fellow runners. It is always fun and special to quickly get to know someone during a race.
The race ended where it started at RFK Stadium and I crossed the finish line in 4:17:18 (9:49 pace), a new PR for me having shaved off over an hour on my previous best and much faster than my initial goal. I got my medal, had my picture taken, drank some water and called Ciara and my parents before heading to the Metro stop to ride back to Virginia.
There are two philosophies for what to do the day after you run a marathon. The first one is to rest. The second one is called active recovery which means that even if you are hobbling, get out and run a couple of miles to loosen things up. I chose a happy medium as I ended up walking probably at least 10 miles all over DC including visiting the American History Museum, Natural History Museum, Holocaust Museum, Ford's Theatre and the Jefferson Memorial. What a great way to keep things loose and now three days after the marathon I've run twice and feel well on my way to recovery.
I had a great time at the marathon and it was wonderful to train for something all winter long and get to celebrate the hard work by running through one of America's greatest cities. Now it's onward to new goals and adventures. What's next!?!