Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Ghosts in the Trees

What follows is a detailed account of a one hundred (100) mile excursion that occurred throughout the daytime and nighttime and also daytime hours of October 10-11, 2016. I have done my best to be accurate, not exaggerate and view the events through the eyes and mindset of the individual who accomplished the task as it took place. It is rambling and I understand if you never make it past the first sentence. If nothing else is drawn from this jumble of words, the point of it is this: challenge yourself. You may not make it the first time, so try again. Conquer your doubts and set your goals high. In the end, I think, it is worth the pain.

It was the Oil Creek 100 that introduced me to ultra running. At the time I was training for my first road marathon, a daunting enough challenge for a runner relatively new to distance running. The idea of running 100 miles seemed unfathomable at the time, however I had agreed to pace a friend through the last 17 miles of his third loop of the course. My wife and I arrive late on the cold October night in 2011 to find Matt in bad shape. His then wife was preparing to head out on the trail with him, which I knew would be a detriment to his finish, as she was a complete non-runner. I had not yet developed the ability to say no or allow another to suffer, so I laced up my Salomons and headed out for an all night hike over the gorgeous, challenging, haunting course. It was the first I had traveled that far on my feet as well as the first I had seen the sun come up through a pine forest after moving all night long. My recollection of much of the night is now all but washed away, filled in with more recent, more personal accomplishments. I do remember the pain, I remember the elation of Matt's triumph as we walked him across the finish line. I remember climbing the ridges of Oil Creek State Park and seeing the headlamps of other runners, suffering, battling, surviving, seeking what it is that we seek in the forest at night. They were ghosts in their own right. Ghosts made of sweat and spent curses, lumbering toward the finish of their challenge, whatever the outcome.

I was hooked. My unexpected participation cost me my first marathon as I struggled in at over 4 and a half hours, but it had sparked my interest in something that has, at times, dominated my life.

I returned to OC in 2013 after running my longest race to that date, the Laurel Highlands 70.5 mile run. I've covered that debacle previously. I was left with an unmet goal that burned in the back of my mind.

In 2016 I found myself in the position to attempt the race again. My training, as is usually the case, was lack luster. However, working the midnight shift, coupled with post-shift long runs and steady heat training left me in a good place mentally and so-so physically. Sleep deprivation was the main goal of my training.

I packed the truck, preparing for this race like have not prepared before. I picked up Kel and Coryn, my crew, and dropped the pups off at the parent's house for the weekend. The pup situation was one of the mental factors that led to my 2013 DNF; I knew my boxador was sitting at home in her crate all night with noone else in the house and it wasn't fair to her. With everything at home squared away, we met Todd Lewis and Ralph Smith and set out for Titusville. A couple of pit stops including three grown men urinating in the weeds along route 36 and we arrived. Packets were retrieved, camp was set, food and beverages were enjoyed at the Blue Canoe and it was time for bed. It was a relatively sleepless night, punctuated by dancing toddlers running through our camp, mother's searching for said toddlers and a gas generator that I still can't fathom why it was running at 9 pm.

Morning came early and humid. It hadn't rained as hard as the weather man had predicted and the cold front that was to have moved through in the evening hours hadn't. The heat and humidity had also played a large factor in my previous DNF, leading to crippling chaffing and blisters within the first twenty miles. The runners congregated in the gym, the pre-race talk was given and we filed out the doors to the start. The energy was positive and the race start came very quickly, my own loud mouth drowning out all but the "3...2...1!" We were off and down the long, dark bike path at a steady trot. Todd, Ben and I had all agreed in the weeks leading up to the race to stay together as much as possible on the first loop to keep each other in check. We also had the pleasure of picking up Perry Ligon to join our tribe as we began the conga line hike up the first climb towards Wolfkeil aid station. Lots of conversation and joking made the first seven miles fly by and we found ourselves in one of my favorite parts of the course: an open section of pines that reminds me of trips to Maine with my family. Before I shooed these memories from my mind we were looking for birthdays on the large calendars that led into AS1, eating grapes, relieving bowels and bladders and headed up the switchback climb out of Wolfkeil.
The group was doing well and feeling great heading up the hills. Todd had trained incessantly for this race. This was his fourth attempt at a 100 mile buckle and he had prepared mentally and physically, pounding out somewhere around 1,600 running miles in preparation. As we began climbing a short section of trail, Todd laid down the hammer. I heard a faint, "What are you doing, Todd?" come from Perry in an attempt to reel Todd in and keep him in check. It worked, sort of, as we rolled into Petroleum Center, AS2, at 8:15 am. This was 45 full minutes ahead of schedule for Perry. I knew it was too fast for me, but even with all my preparations for this race, I did not have solid split times. I like to leave some things open to change to meet the situations and conditions of race day. Also, split times tend to freak me out, especially when I fall apart and fall far behind where I should be late in races.
Kel, Coryn and Tony Berger were all waiting for me with chair, lube and a change of shirt. Having a solid crew and a beautiful woman waiting for you at key points in the race is a great motivator. I used Kelly as fuel to quit hiking and run all throughout the race, getting me back to her quicker. The humidity was still thick and my tape I thought was the answer to my chaffed nipples had failed me, it was a sore disappointment. I threw down a couple of hard boiled eggs, changed shirts and headed out with Todd, worried I hadn't spent enough time or replaced enough calories at the aid station. I hadn't.
Perry decided here he needed to eat more and we pulled out of the aid station without he and Ben, who had made a pit stop earlier. Heisman Hill was next and we hiked it well. Section 3 is arguably the most runnable section of trail on the course, with long double track grades and downhills. The boy scouts also have a way station set up at a permanent camp that provides water and warm bodies to talk to late in the night. It was near the camp that I decided to let Todd go a little. He was running fast and feeling great; I was calorie depleted and hadn't trained to sustain the pace I was running this early on. I kept up, for the most part, until Miller Rd., AS3, where I stopped to shove far too much food down my throat. They had it all: vegan wraps, ham wraps, breakfast wraps, general aid station fare and Swiss Rolls. Until this year, I detested Swiss Rolls; however I guess there is something about sleeping in the basement of the barracks on a couch that has God-knows-what kind of stains on it every other night that broadens your horizons. For me, this meant I discovered that there isn't a Tasty Cake or Little Debbie I don't like. I also discovered you can still watch Johnny Carson on some obscure channel at midnight, but this might be an isolated, Lewistown thing. One might also draw the parallel between my late night, post shift face shoving and the excessive weight gain of Winter/Spring '16.
The climb out of AS3, Cemetery Hill, is short and steep, ascending past the graveyard and onto the ridge. A secondary climb, I believe it's called Rockefeller's Revenge, is by far the longest climb on the course, or so it seams while you're trudging up it. It's not that the climb is overly steep, it just doesn't quit. The course again passes through beautiful sections of pines and empties out into a deciduous section of forest, which marks the beginning of the descent to the Drake Well loop. Along the way, the course passes the last climb of the race on the 7 mile Going Home loop. I've never taken note of that trail and had no idea what awaited on that last 7 miles, and when it came time to tackle it, I was glad I didn't know. The powerline crossing means there is less than a mile to the bottom.
The Drake Well loop was reached and run, knowing I had to complete it only two more times. The bike path, the last mile or so of each loop, is the most mentally punishing section of the course. Maybe it is because it is run twice each loop, maybe it is the pavement, maybe it i the length. Whatever it is, I despise the bike path the most of any section of the course.
At the end of the first loop I changed clothes in the locker room, ate, lubed up and headed back out with Perry after watching Ben come in. Perry and I walked the bike path and reached the single track, where we took out time on climbs and trotted the flats. I pulled away slightly and reached AS1 alone, enjoying some noodles and broth. Perry and I again pulled out together, along with two female 100K runners. At this point I wasn't in the mood for conversation and I could feel myself slipping further into my head. I began thinking about the race as a whole instead of sections. By the time I reached Petroleum Center for the second time I had almost completely lapsed into negativity. My feet were killing me and I was still looking beyond the moment at the whole race. However, everything was starting to come together now. The weather was cooling, I changed into a brand new pair of perfectly firm Hokas and slathered on the lube with Kelly using a blanket to shield the general public from the offense of Open Lewdness. I was hurting so much by now I didn't quite recognize the near perfect race conditions and pulled out of AS2 in a foul mood. The climb wasn't so bad and I made it to the boy scout camp fairly easily. By now I had entered into my state of near constant solitude, falling back into the back third of the pack. Knowing this, I put in my headphones and let my unmentionable guilty musical pleasures carry me through for a few miles. A scout leader gave me his last fun size Crunch bar which I took and offered me a swig of his half drunk Pepsi which I declined. The section following is where I fell apart. I got hooked up with three guys who were hiking, seemingly for the duration. I got lulled into the idea that if they can hike and finish then so can I. It hadn't crossed my mind that they may drop or get swept. At this point I thought I couldn't run any longer. I merely shuffled into AS3, sat for so long that they kicked me out  (14 minutes) and struggled through the last section. On the climb past the graveyard I heard a group of what I believe to be females screaming at the very top of their lungs for a very long time. I tried to think what lay below us on that side f the ridge and couldn't figure anywhere an aid station could be. I had to confirm that other runners coming up behind me had also heard the screaming to ensure I wasn't hallucinating. I wasn't, and we couldn't figure on where the screaming had come from.
I slowly, grudgingly completed the Drake loop and the bike path, coming into the school to find Todd Dishong cold and ready to get moving. Another lube up and we were moving very, very slowly. We made it out the bike path and started the short paved climb to the singletrack. We reached the dark section of trail and I turned on my headlamp, only to have it immediately shut down. I had used up the batteries and had left my secondary light at Petroleum Center. All I had now was a 40 lumen hand torch to dimly light the muddy, rocky trail. I was starting to fall asleep while walking and sat down for a few minutes, then laid down for exactly four minutes. Todd pushed me on, telling me stories about past ultras. A short while later I again sat down on the side of the trail and nearly begged Todd to let me sleep for twenty minutes. The answer was no, but he promised a short nap when we reached Woflkeil, where he could get a warm drink. Section 1 took an eternity. I couldn't run, I could barely stand and I had reached what would be the depth of my mental degradation. The aid station just wouldn't appear. In the absence of other runners and conversation I could hear the cheers of the aid station deep in the valley below us and at times see the light, but we still had miles to slog through to get there. Finally my dim light rested on the sign for the Wolfkeil Descent and we were again at the bottom, passing the giant calendars for the final time. I immediately hit the bench, stretched out, confirmed my twenty minute allotment with Todd and promptly fell asleep. After what I later found out was 14 minutes, Todd woke me and told me to get going. I asked for 4 more minutes, and he bartered it down to 2. I stretched out my legs and sat up, realizing that Perry had also come into the station while I was napping. I ate a cup of noodles, stood and we headed out, Perry, another runner named Terry and his pacer, Mark, in tow.
Todd is a firm believer in the North American Bigfoot, or Sasquatch. Earlier, he had pointed out a formation of trees to me that would mark where a squatch had perished. For reference, a forked tree with another resting in the crook of the V is the formation we had seen. Somehow, during our conversation, the memorial formation came up. Mark, it turned out, is also a connoisseur of squatches. Wood knocks, calls and different squatch facts, that research has proven, were discussed. Loudly. After stating that the only state of the original 50 that had not had a squatch sighting was Hawaii, Mark was quickly corrected and reminded of the giant Hawaiin,  Israel Kamakawiwo'Ole. Israel sweetly sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow with his ukulele and, prior to his unfortunate death, was being studied as a possible link between man and squatch. Look him up.
We pulled away from Mark and Terry, just far enough to stop and make some wood knocks and for Todd to bellow out his squatch call. I can imagine hearing it elsewhere in the woods could be slightly unnerving in the early morning pitch blackness.
The conversation and my nap had lifted my spirits and gave me the strength, mostly mental, to move with a purpose. I was closing in on falling back to only one hour before cutoff and realized I needed to pick it up or be swept. We passed one last time under the oil derricks coming down off the ridge, across the hard road, up the small rise and once more onto the dirt road. We slogged across the bridge and I fell into my chair, Kel and company freezing. It was cold at Petroleum Center, colder than the rest of the course, from what I could tell. The geography and the river hold the cold tight. It was cold and damp, a deadly combo if you sit too long. As I sat, I watched two people drop, the Ham radio operator calling it out through the dark. I'd never been this far before. Seventy miles through the Laurel Highlands was my previous accomplishment. At this point, even with the climbs I knew lay ahead, and the one I didn't,  I was glad to not be on that rock strewn stretch of single track. I sat, bundled up in the blanket that was spattered about with blister juice and my feet propped up on my box of supplies. I promptly nodded off and kicked my box over. I stood and Coryn and I headed off for the last climb up Heisman Hill. I had slowed again, hiking the climbs.
I could out think the pain and focus in on something else to alleviate the burning in the soles of my feet. We ran when we could and hiked when I couldn't. We quickly cruised through the boyscout aid station and down onto the single track. This was the last I stopped. I don't know if Coryn said it or my slow churning mind pieced it together, but there was no point in going slow. Everything hurt and everything would hurt no matter how fast or slow we went. By now we'd been passed by people I knew I could hold off. We had come to the long descent toward the rail tracks and we switched it on. I'm unsure of the actual pace, but it felt like we flew down the hill and to the tracks. We passed Terry and Mark again and started to make up time. The next climb we traded Talladega Nights quotes with two guys, one who could imitate the French guy from the movie perfectly. It was another perfectly timed pick me up that spurred us up the climb. Coryn kept me moving with conversation and the promise of a nap I knew I couldn't afford. We cruised into AS3 for the last time under cover of dark. It was 0645 hrs. and we had gained about 15 minutes. I had pierogies and cheesy tators, drank as much ginger ale as I could and headed up Cemetery Hill for the last time.
I had been telling myself that since the turnoff of where the fourth loop heads back. The last time. This is it. You don't have to do this climb again. You don't have to see these trees again. This bridge won't try to make you slip again. You'll never...see this face... again! (King Curtis. Look him up.) With that in mind we crawled up the hill to the sign that reads six miles to the Drake Well.
We traveled over the bridges and streams, through the pines and into a slow dawn. We hadn't reached the deciduous trees yet, but the promise of the sun spurred us on.
Now for some uncomfortable details. I had managed to urinate the entire race. I had drank better than I had in any other race I ever ran. I even managed to keep it pretty clear. One thing I had not been able to accomplish prior to the previous day's start was the ceremonial pre-race poop. It had quickly come to my attention, however, that I needed to evacuate the bowels now. Right now. I tried to make it to the Drake Well loop, to the porta john like a decent human being. However, keeping with tradition, I couldn't. The cover was sparse at the power line where I made my stand and lost the battle of the bubble guts. The little bit of brush I felt comfortable walking to did nothing to shield my tired ass from oncoming runners. I thought I had enough time; I thought it would be quick and no one would be any the wiser. I was wrong. I heard the conversation and the sticks breaking. Before I could recover I heard, "Oh, there's a butt down there." Luckily for them, the deed was done, sparing them a truly scarring experience. We followed them off the hill into the Drake Well loop where I stopped with them for water. The red headed male with the thousand yard stare held the spigot as I knelt down and drank from the nozzle. I asked them then, did you see my butt? To which they answered in the affirmative.
The last time for the Drake Well loop. Four more goes at the bike path. Once more through AS4. We were close. On our trip up the bike path we passed Todd and Ralph one last time. "Catch me!" Todd said as we passed. Yeah right. He had cruised through this race, year number four for him. This was Todd's year and his training had paid off greatly. I made it back to my seat and was greeted by Kel and Danny Mowers, who had taken second in the 100K hours and hours ago. I stood and headed out for the last time. My fire was waning thin by now and the bike path beat me up. We reached the single track off the bike path and made it to the turn without falling. Coryn scoured through the empty water jugs for the dregs of water that I needed as I sat. We heard no one behind and no one ahead. I was again in unknown territory, relying on my poles to push me forward and carry me up the hills. We passed a male and female runner, crossed the suspension bridge and came to the Hill of Truth. I didn't know anything about loop 4. If I had known what was waiting at mile 94, I would have defeated myself mentally miles and miles ago. We started climbing and kept on climbing. I accidentally informed the two runners behind that we were at the top when we had approximately 3/4 mile left to climb. Switchback after switchback came and was covered until we reached familiar trail and cruised back to the Drake Well and up the path for the last time. Kelly met us at the end of the path and video taped us as we slogged toward the finish line.
Here we were. Three of us running toward the end of a journey that five years ago I couldn't fathom. We crossed the bridge and the finish was in sight. I dug my poles hard into the pavement and pushed forward toward the finish, Todd, Ralph, Ben and my buckle. I owe my buckle to my crew and my pacers. Without them, I wouldn't have even bothered coming up and I wouldn't have continued on through the dark. I felt like I was flying across the ground; more like floating. I didn't feel pain. My eyes welled up but held back the flood. With my crew behind me, I crossed the finish line in just under 31 hours. Hands were shaken, hugs were given, and finally the buckle was placed in my hand. It felt like it weighed ten pounds, a good heft. Relief flowed over me like I had never felt before.
This was my adversary, my only DNF. I had come back and with a lot of help from those I love very much I finished what I started.
I know I just said it, but I owe my buckle and my finish to my crew and pacers: Kelly, Todd Dishong and Coryn. Thank you all. I am in your debt.
We came to Oil Creek for the atmosphere and the challenge and neither disappointed. The race is executed flawlessly each time I've attended. The course is impeccably marked, the aid stations are stocked to the gills and the volunteers are top notch.
Congratulations to Todd Lewis, who conquered the course in 30 hours flat! On the nose! Without Todd, I wouldn't have come back this year and maybe never would have. Thanks for your support and example of dedication.
Congratulations to all finishers. To every DNF, there is always next year and I hope you take the opportunity to see the challenge through. From someone who experienced the same thing and finally overcame: it is worth the struggle.

I won't be doing those loops again any time soon. I highly doubt I'll complete the four loops for the hundred. I know them well and they have my respect, probably too well.

It's late Fall now and the race schedule for next year is filling up. It's been three weeks of recovery: bike rides and slow runs. Bloody urine and a slight bout of post-goal depression. Looking forward always helps shake off the dirt and prepare for the next thing.

We have a sickness, a dysfunction. We are not normal. We go into the woods for our own purposes and find ourselves there. We fight ourselves there over the long hours and dark trails lit up by only our headlamp; sometimes we even win.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

You stay Dirty, Kilns.

     I was working on my second cup of coffee, sitting in bed watching the sun breaking through the clouds from my bedroom window. My wife was still laying in bed, where she would still be when I left the house. The burger I inhaled at the Golden Eagle pub the night before was still making it's way through my digestive system; I was concerned it wouldn't make a reappearance in time to make for a comfortable race. I had been away at work for three days. A mix of sleep deprivation and unusually busy days kept me away. When it comes down to it I'm just tired of driving, that's why I chose to sleep on a couch in the basement of the barracks for two nights. Beside producing a fitful 2 nights of sleep, it also deprived me of the opportunity to get in my desired shake out runs. I didn't know how today would pan out, I was making up excuses to stay put, in my bed, all day.
     The previous weekend I had ventured out with Todd, Ben and Joel to tackle the first 17 miles of the Lost Turkey trail. This first section of the LTT is net downhill. My longest run in months had been 10 road miles. I'm out of shape, but I wasn't aware how bad it was until 7 miles in. This knowledge, as well as the bulge above my waistband, toyed with me the lasts few days.
     Despite my trepidation I pulled on my shorts, layered up and set out for Canoe Creek and the first true trail race in the Altoona area, now in the fifth year. It's become iconic, drawing a steadily increasing crowd each year.
     Our weather authority had predicted strong winds and a couple inches of snow for the entirety of the race. Thankfully, sunshine continued into the first lap and even after the snow/sleet began to fall, it never got to be as bad as expected. This race has a history of good weather; this year being no exception considering the circumstances.
     It has been a while since I had the opportunity to see the local running crowd and it was good to exchange words, hugs and handshakes.
     I was fortunate to be representing Mile Level Physical Therapy for the race. I donned my shirt, got a picture with the rest of the team and headed to the start line. Ethan provided the pre-race announcements via bullhorn which, oddly, go largely unheard by those they area meant to direct. Everyone is too happy, to excited to listen, like kids ready for recess.
     9 AM on the dot we were given the "Go" and took off across the open field for the cross country style start. Less than a quarter mile in the first section of sucking mud claimed a right shoe belonging to fellow MLPT runner Pat Campion. I retrieved the shoe and tossed it to him. Pat is in much better shape than I; he quickly caught and passed me. We would, however, play leap frog over the next twelve miles and finish closely together.
     I felt pretty rough for the first few miles. The combination of burger, tight muscles and lack of fitness, as well as my decision to drink nothing but coffee all morning, was weighing on me. We passed the kilns standing guard to the right, silent and cold in the increasing cloudiness. Middle Earth, a beautiful, short section of trail, lay just behind the kilns around mile 7 or 8. We continued on to the first climb, the switchback up Moore's Hill. The top reached, we headed down the long, flowing section of singletrack to the first creek crossing. This year, due to the incorrect weather forecast, the actual creek crossings were nixed, opting instead for the new metal bridge. This next section, the Beaver Pond trail, is notoriously muddy. It was made better this year by the addition of shale in a few of the trouble spots. The largest mud hole, however, was right where it always was. Even with the mud I began to settle into a groove. My legs loosened, my lungs adjusted and I began using passing people as motivation to keep motoring on. The rest of the course came quickly: the dam, the roller coaster and the crossing at the lower dam. The dirt roads on the back side of the course gave me the opportunity to speed up and put the first loop away.
     I grabbed a cup of Tailwind from the man, Rick Eichelberger, and set off for the second loop. I was here I caught up with Josh Piotti, who was tackling his first trail race. By now I was tired. I decided before I started the race that anything under 3 hours was acceptable, under 2:30 would be great. I hadn't been monitoring my watch, but I knew I had ran the first lap too hard and had plenty of time. I hiked the climb and descended into my least favorite trail, Smith Hillside. Although the course was less muddy than previous years, Smith's is always slick and, due to the grade of the trail, the back half is always the worst section to descend. The runners behind me, specifically the young female I had been playing leap frog with, witnessed a spectacle. While attempting to bypass a section that looked especially slick I deviated from the trail into the loose leaves above the trail. My feet immediately shot out from under me and I slid on my side across the trail, shirt flying, gut out; a spectacle. I recovered, thankful I never did have much pride to bruise, and tiptoed down the rest of Smith's. I managed to slow jog up the entire next switchback climb to the bottom of the quarry climb.
     A slow hike led up the steepest climb of the course. Past the cave, up around the bend and we were descending the long hill to the water tower. I've never been a downhill runner and it was here I lost ground to runners behind me that I was not able to recover. At the bottom Rob Shirk directed us around a small stump and I again hike to the top of what the course map refers to as the "Horse's Back". Another steep downhill brought the course out on top of the kilns and to the small section of Middle Earth. Mattern's climb came quickly and I could hear the runners behind me losing ground as I cruised to the bottom of the climb. A hike up, a short downhill and another short hike up led to the switchback downhill section that leads back to the first creek crossing. After being passed by a male runner somewhere near my age on the downhill, I found myself alone as I entered into the Beaver Ponds. Being youth mentor day, some trout fishermen lined the creek, ignoring the idiots running around the lake on the increasingly cold day. At least we were moving.
     I was alone for most of the last few miles, catching Pat Campion and another runner as they stretched by the southern boat launch area. We headed off together and sped through the second traverse of the dam and rollercoaster. We caught up with a few 5 milers who were having some issue crossing the spillway. Once past, I reached the top of the steps on the north side of the spillway.
    I realized here that my body had quit a few miles prior; my mind and the desire to be done were the only thing keeping me going. I managed up the last short climb and back onto the short section of gravel road. I must have slowed significantly because as I rounded the turn into the home stretch I saw a large group coming up fast behind me. I hammered down (a relative term, mind you) and cruised across the grassy area of the main parking lot. The mats beeped as I crossed the finish line and I waited patiently for the young volunteers to untangle my finisher's medal, a unique wooden medallion engraved with the race logo.
    I was happy to be done, happy to receive a third place rock for my effort. I again had the opportunity to sit and talk with the other runners. We ate pizza and huddled together for warmth. Once we realized our collective body heat didn't amount to much we patted each other on the back, congratulated each other and limped to our respective warm vehicles.

     It was another well executed race. The course, with the snow and mud, was beautiful. Matt Lipsy related to me how the trees looked to be budding with white flowers, although the cold and snow were actually prolonging the dormancy of the trees.
    Unlike the flora and fauna, the cold brought out the strength of the runners who took on the 5 mile and half marathon courses of the Kiln. We are a strong, unruly breed of humans and I'm glad I was able to enjoy the company of others like myself again.

     Thanks to all the RDs and volunteers that brought another great race. See you next Spring.   

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Green Monster Rising

"Turn that jazz off."

It was about 0300 hrs on race morning, and I was awoken by the soft jumble of a good jazz band playing through the Prius' speaker system. The only radio station that came through without static, which had earlier been playing funeral style pipe organ tunes, was brought to life by Tyler's turning on the car to get warm. I lay in the back, stretched diagonally across the folded down rear seats; Tyler sat/laid in the front passenger seat.

It was 43 degrees when we crawled back into the car after the three hour drive and sharing pre race jitters with a few runners who were also toeing the start line in the morning. It was now hovering around 35 degrees, where it would stay until well after race start.

It has been a long year since beginning a new career. Commuting 3+ hours each day and sitting in a car or doing paperwork for the majority of the workday has taken it's tole. My opportunities to get out are fewer and father between, and my motivation at many of those opportunities has been greatly lacking. My gut has also regrouped and has mounted a mighty offensive against my size 34 pants; he continues to be a worthy adversary. Couple this with Kelly's training for the Mount Desert Island half marathon the weekend after Green Monster, and basically I've been training for an ultra distance race with a half marathon training plan. I did manage to get in a 20 miler in early September, but beside that my running has been short and slow. This is not entirely unusual, though. If you've followed any of my races over the years, you'll notice a pattern of little training punctuated by stretches of not training at all, peppered by obscenely difficult long runs. I subscribe to the "running is 90% mental" theory, which I've proven to be correct on multiple occasions.

Race morning came slowly. We drove to town for DD coffee and to contact the wife to let her know we had arrived the night before and were preparing to begin our adventure. She, like every other red blooded, Bible believing, common sensed citizen of our Commonwealth, was asleep.

The debate over whether I should run the 50K or step down to the 25K was quashed when I joked (pleaded) with the lady at the registration tent. It was too early for her; the answer was a definite "N-O." I had mentally chewed on the idea of switching races for about a week, as it became apparent that I would not be running this thing fast and would, in regular fashion, be struggling out there for a good many hours. This was compounded by our conversation with our new running acquaintances, who related the difficulty of the course. Again, it is common for me to choose a race solely on the distance and whether or not I have that weekend available to run. I knew this thing was supposed to be tough; we were in Tioga County, after all. The topography in northern PA is very much straight up and straight down. Terrible mountain biking terrain. I was unaware, however, of the extent of the horror that awaited.

0700 hrs. We were huddled around the campfire at the start line. The race meeting was held, we stripped out of our sweatshirts and walked to the start line for the playing of the national anthem. I wished Tyler good luck, confident he'd be crossing the finish line hours before me. Even now, I was still thinking I could just ditch it at the 25K turn. I didn't have to do all this. I wanted to be home, warm in bed. My motivation was severely lacking, even at the starting line. This was not a good way to start the day.

The horn sounded and we were off. The gravel road crawled by under my feet as I fell into my "Ultra Shuffle" gait. I settled into where I am comfortable, somewhere between the last of the fast and the first of the slow, and chugged along. Again, there is no flat running in this race. We started out with a climb first thing. The grade, for the most part, was runable for approximately a mile and didn't become too difficult even after I began hiking. I met Mike, who we had talked with the night before, on the course and settled in with a group of guys from West Chester, Scranton and Jersey Shore areas. We played leap frog on climbs and descents for most of the first half of the race. The first climb under my belt, I knew this wasn't going to be as bad as I thought. Folks at the start talked up the first climb, claiming it to be the worst on the course. Blue Knob was worse than this, I thought. Maybe I'll finish in seven hours.

The terrain of the course is very similar to Blue Knob with a steady mix of rocks and roots thrown in with a few short clear sections. It was terrain I felt comfortable on, as Blue Knob is my main training ground. This familiarity was helpful in not face planting during the long, rocky descents.

The second climb was similar to SOB, if you are familiar with Hyner. The difference between the two is length; this thing made SOB feel like a 10 foot climb. The climb as half crawl, half ladder climb of loose scree. As we climbed we were freeing rocks an dirt from their resting places and causing them to tumble  back onto our fellow runners. I apologized and kept climbing, passing a few runners that would not catch back up with me for the rest of the race. At the top of the climb I closed my hands and realized they had swelled like sausages due to the change in elevation.
It was warmer on top of the ridge, but the weather was short lived as we dove down the mountain again only to be met with an equally steep climb. "What goes down must come up!" I yelled as we started tearing down the technical stretch, side stepping, hopping and stumbling my way through the softball size rocks. "What goes up, must come down!" someone behind me yelled back. I liked his attitude and it helped me change mine for the better. At this point we were only about 8 miles in and I was still thinking about how I was going to spin my reason for dropping out at the 25k.

The next descent and climb were routine by now. The top of the climb, though, provided a nice respite with a beautiful section of singletrack that ran along the top of the ridge for a few quick miles. As I made my way up another climb and into the (roughly) mile 13 aid station, I vocalized my concerns about dropping to the volunteers. The family had no idea what to say and just sort of looked at me for a minute and went about their business. It was a little more strange, though, because I was the only runner at the aid station. I drank my eighth cup of gingerale and headed out for Frankenstein's Forehead. This eighty degree descent consisted of nothing by loose scree that had been chewed up by the fast guys who came before me. The trail was like running straight down a glass covered sand dune with a vague, winding trail cut through the loosest parts. Another runner had warned me the night before that the descent was like running through snow, so I dug in my heels and attempted to stay upright as I plunged toward the floor of the hollow. I missed a quick turn in the trail, however, and ended up ass to grass in a nice pile of rocks. I decided to change methods and tiptoed and slid sideways down the remaining section. The course description even states the descent will have you cursing the race director, which is accurate.

The bottom reached, I was met with the decision I'd been contemplating the last 14 miles. An arrow pointed left and promised an end to the seemingly endless ups and downs. My thoughts went immediately to my wife, who was probably up by now, making a pot of coffee. I don't get many weekends off, and the few I'm allotted can be switched and moved at random based on staffing needs. I had left her at home alone, again, as I drove to the northern border of the Commonwealth to run around in the woods. I knew if I'd dropped, I'd have a lot of 'splanin to do in order to justify using the weekend for anything beside time spent with her. With this in mind I let out a quick expletive, turned right and trotted up the hill to face the next 17 miles.

I quickly reached a small stream just wide enough to stop me from jumping over it. I instead used a branch lying across the width of the stream as a bridge, so as not to soak my feet. This, of course, didn't work out and I ended up face down, half in, half out of the stream with my right foot fully submerged. Again, I thought how east it would be to turn around and end it. I pushed on, coming to a semi-dry creek bed. The issue was where I stood was approximately three feet above the rest of the trail. The slight drop into the creek bed from the bank where I stood wasn't a big deal, except the rocks that made up the creek bed were covered in freshly fallen leaves. After a few moments of contemplating where to aim for I landed safely in a flat spot and climbed up the other side of the bed and up the side of another mountain.

Tyler was at this spot long before me and had stood, making the same decision about where to aim for when he jumped into the creek bed. His landing, though, was not smooth as he landed on a rock hidden by the leaves. This caused him to stumble and, in an attempt to stay upright, wrenched his lower back. In turn, this slowed his pace to a crawl, dropping him from top 10 to mid pack. He managed to hike to the next unmanned aid station about 2.5 miles up the mountain from the creek bed. He filled up his handheld and continued on to the next station at Hessel Gessel, mile 20.

I did not know this had happened, as I was far behind him and the incident happened in the stretch of trail where there was no access and the 17.5 mile aid station was unmanned. I crawled up the mountain, hit the 17.5 mile aid station and loaded up on gummie candy. A runner came trotting up an access road to the aid station and determined he had lost his way, cutting approximately 4 miles off the course. Lucky.

I slogged up the hills leading to the mile 20 aid station where Tyler laid, overdosing on Ibuprofen. The first woman passed me on the climbs here, chugging along strong. I kept up with her and we cruised in to the aid station together. I stopped, she did not and she disappeared into the quarry.

By now I'd chafed the undercarriage to a raw mess and needed some reprieve. The aid stations were all manned by the great athletes of the local high school cross country teams. They were great help, getting us all we needed or wanted, but I wasn't about to ask a 14 year old kid for lube. I'm pretty sure that's a misdemeanor offense. I instead whispered it to the only adult working at the station, who handed me a small white tube o' lube. Having no concealment in sight, my earlier effort at being discreet in the presence of the tent full of juveniles was thwarted when I shoved lube down my shorts and almost cried at the initial burn. "Are you sure this isn't icy hot?" It wasn't and the pain subsided. This is when I found out what had happened to Tyler earlier. He thought he could make it to the next aid station, and if he didn't feel good there he'd drop. I figured with my glacial pace he could suffer through the rest of the course with me. With a hand warmer duct taped to his lower back and 3 full bottle of Ibuprofen and Tylenol in his system we set off into the quarry, guided by a young volunteer. The trail crossed over a rock outcropping and required us to jump from boulder to boulder as we came out of the quarry. This was a favorite small section of the course, even if it was poorly placed.

By now we had met back up with a few runners I had been pinballing with all morning, including a gent we met the night before. Unfortunately, I can't remember his name for the life of me; good dude. He was wearing NB Minimus and had stepped on a sharp rock a few miles back, causing him to cramp up and slow significantly. Together, we made our way up and down the much smaller climbs. The second half of the 50k is much more runnable than the first 25k. I was relieved as we rolled into the mile 25 aid station, where Mary Ann and two young volunteers served us hot pierogies before sending us up another climb. This one, I know, was merely there to get the necessary mileage for the 50K. I know it was necessary, but at the time the fact the I traveled about 1.5 miles in 3 miles up immediate up and down was unnerving. We crossed the creek for the last time, managing to stay dry this time, and rolled into the last aid station at mile 28.5 as they performed a rousing rendition of.... well I don't remember the song. It was motivational, though! If I'm not mistaken, this is also where Tyler was hit on by an aid station volunteer. She liked his beard.

The final climb was brutal. It was a double track style trail the followed the hollow up for about 2 miles. I wasn't steep, it just wouldn't stop climbing. After asking if we had entered hell, we finally made it to the top. I cannot adequately express how much I wanted this climb to end. I had cramped for the first time in the race. Even with kicking and stumbling over rocks along the course, I hadn't truly locked up until a quarter way up this hill. We still had fuel in the tank though, and after asking a mountain biker how far we had until the bottom (2 miles), we cranked it up, leaving our other cohorts behind.

A runner we had been playing leap frog with since mile 20 came into our sights as we cruised down the final descent. "Let's catch him", I said, and we were off, hot on his heels. We caught up to him at the very bottom of the mountain, just as the hard road was coming into sight. Tyler's foot caught and he ended up tumbling onto the ground just as we got out of the woods, which seemed ironic considering the technical trails we descended without issue all day. Still, we cruised on toward the finish line, giving every fume we had left in reserve. The runner we had just passed was coming up strong behind us, and we kicked it on for a sprint finish. I focused on the start line, where I assumed we would be finishing. I got tunnel vision and completely missed the finish line off to the right of the hard road. I even tuned out the volunteer standing, blocking the start line screaming, "No! Go right!" All that effort for nothing. After embarrassing myself, I crossed the finish line at 7:56.08, three seconds behind Tyler.

We exchanged handshakes and man hugs with Gary, the runner who we caught on the last descent, and thanked eachother for the push. Our wooden medals/keychains acquired, we hit up the tents for some top notch BBQ and finished off the last of Yorkhollow's supply.

Three weeks removed, I'm still impressed by the course. It was hard. It's a monster, no exaggeration. It was also up to par with what I expected from the group of guys who put it together. It was well planned, marked and supported. The volunteers were great and it was a fun couple of days up in Tioga County.

I'll probably be back, but for the 25k. I've slain the Monster once, I don't think I'll be challenging it to a fight again any time soon!

Thanks to the race directors and volunteers who gave of themselves to give we runners a great day!  Check out their site and sign up for next year's race here: Green Monster Website

Sunday, April 5, 2015

In Our Real World

     My realization that I had been living a proverbial dream life came months ago. My acceptance of the relinquishment of this life came slowly and painfully. Even still I try to capture and hold onto the slightest remnant of what I used to have. 
    In my early adulthood, I had fostered a sort of free-wheeling, fulfill your every dream mentality that led to the creation and destruction of many good things. I had bought into the rhetoric that you'll hear at any institution of higher learning; the pump-up song, if you will, that keeps you paying the exorbitant tuition.
     Currently, my time is split between my work and my home life. Mind you, I love them both very much. The latter, of course, more than the former. Unfortunately, this leaves very little time for the other life I left behind.
     Having the opportunity to spend the day at the DK trail race yesterday left me with that empty feeling of an ended relationship. I was able to be there, to spectate from a slight distance, but I was unable to immerse myself like I once had. I saw the suffering and the hard work that went into the planning, execution and actual participation in the event; for the first time, I felt the disconnect. The mud, the cuts and the pain belonged to everyone else. My only discomfort was a slight chill from the incessant wind. I captured some pain and joy in pixels, but the translation didn't quite reach through the filters and lenses of the camera. 
     For the time being, I know this is how it has to be. I hold out hope that I'll get back into it eventually. My dreams and plans for both the local running community and Fox Trot continue to grow, but for now I am a bystander.
     I miss it. I miss you all very much. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Lesson

"It's been a long time." I said as we were climbing past the mile 21 marker. I hadn't been in the woods for more than 7 miles in more than half of a year and my body was beginning to realize it. I felt fine mentally and knew pushing through wouldn't be a problem. It was only 17 miles up to Windber from Burnt Cabins near the base of Blue Knob, a distance that hadn't posed a real problem in years.
     The plan was to run to the top, where we had our mountain bikes stashed, and ride them back down to the bottom. 17 miles or so each way, using the two basic forms of human powered movement. Truly, I wasn't here for the run. I recently bought myself a new fat tire mountain bike, a Surly Pugsley, and I was ready to put it through it's paces on one of my increasingly favorite trails: the Lost Turkey. The run up was Joel's idea, and I eagerly agreed that it would be a great adventure.
     The trail itself is mostly double track, something you don't realize in the summer when the grass and ferns grow up and close off all but a skinny sliver of dirt. This made running pretty easy for most of the way. It is a steady climb the whole way up with only a few short, steep climbs to challenge your legs. We had made all the correct turns for roughly 3/4 of the trip, until I spotted a red marker I supposed to be the LTT. It wasn't, and my mistake led us a little over three miles out of our way, round trip. There was also a pretty awesome powerclimb involved in the extra curricular miles which was a nice way to get in some extra elevation.
     When we took this short detour, we came down off the ridge to a tar and chipped road where a few guys with a backhoe were cutting down trees. I'm sure the sight of two grown men, one big and one little, wearing tights and popping out of the woods with no idea where we were gave them some interesting dinner conversation for the evening. "Okay, there's no trails down here, but where are we at right now?" I asked the second man we made contact with. He seemed especially bewildered as to why we were out there. "Well this is Lovely (a small village close to Osterburg). Winber is that way(pointing in the opposite direction of our current route of travel), Blue Knob is the way you're going now." Well we didn't want to go back to Blue Knob yet, so we thanked them, declined their offer for a ride to the ranger station to obtain maps and headed off back up to the top of the ridge. As soon as we saw the orange markers I knew I had led us wrong. I wasn't sure until I saw the mile 19 post, but all was well.
     Self assessment is an important part of participating in any outdoor activity. I had slowly made the climb up to the top of the ridge near the trail's terminus, but my legs were no longer cooperating with my mind even when I tried talking to them to get them to move. This slowed me to a crawl. I'm not sure of the air temperature where we were at, but I know it was cold; much colder than the hollows we had climbed out of. My face was going numb and when I spoke I sounded as if I had recently experienced a stroke. My hands, which is the weak point in my chain of mental capability, were blue. A very stark blue, and that freaked me out. I also, by this time, knew that I wasn't going to be able to pedal back to Burnt Cabin. I had come out on this adventure very much out of distance shape, and I was paying for it with every step. A few phone calls led to voicemails and I as becoming convinced that we would freeze to death on the mountain. Not truly, but I was worried about frost bite.
     I called Joel, who was at least a mile ahead of me at the bike stash, and told him, "This is not an exaggeration, this is a realistic assessment of this situation: I can't get back off this mountain." Joel is a very understanding, easy going guy with the mental and physical endurance of a world class athlete and warrior. Where I falter, he never does. He's truly an amazing example of an athlete and person. I don't remember what he said but the gyst was, "Okay, let's get a ride." Each time a phone call went to voicemail, I worried further. Not only had my current lack of ability put myself in danger, which I can deal with, it had put Joel in danger as well. I broke out my emergency blanket that I carry in my hydration pack and we wrapped up in it, shivering and cramping on a log.
     Finally, Charles, my father in law, called me back. After some coaxing and assuring him that the roads were clear of snow he agreed to come and retrieve us. "Charles," I said as we hung up, "Please hurry, we might die."
     Like a couple of vagrants, we waited ten minutes and began walking Rt 56 toward Bedford to make us easier to find and stay warm. Charles, who must've been boogying to get to us, picked us up in his little green Subaru and took us back to humanity.

     The moral of this story is don't overestimate your abilities, especially when it's cold. Lesson learned.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Death, Life and the Run

   As it always seems to happen, the threatening sky held off until I was a mile away from the homestead. At 35 degrees, the torrent that was unleashed started out as heavy sleet and freezing rain and slowly transitioned to a steady drizzle. It's times like these, when I'm outside during adverse conditions, that I feel the most human. Everything is stripped away from you, and you can feel your helplessness in the cold as it tightens your muscles. Every step becomes harder and the hills steeper.
     However, this is also the time I feel the most invincible. While cars drive by me spraying me with castoff from their tires, I am the only human truly out in the elements. My feet move across the ground, my legs pulling and pushing them. My lungs burn with the cold air, supplying my body with oxygen necessary for locomotion. My legs turn red from their exposure to the ice and cold, but with all of this I continue moving. I don't turn around, I don't ask for a ride back. I'm enjoying myself.
     Enjoying the sport is something that I had lost for a time. It took six months of waking up every day in hell to bring back my appreciation for it. Not only for running, but for life as a whole. Every single moment I missed out on. Morning coffee with my wife, taking the dog out in the woods, helping customers at the shop and every event, simple or grand, that I have not been here for.
     When I wake up, I enjoy it. When I lace up and head out the door, I enjoy it. When I am given the opportunity to sleep in my own bed with my wife and two dogs crowding me out to the edge, I love and appreciate it.
     For 27 weeks I was dead in that, in my absence, life continued without my input. Now that I've been given my second (third, really) birth, I waste as little as I can.
     For the purposes of this topic, I'll keep the conversation focused on running. I find that there are no junk miles, I enjoy every single time I go out whether it be paved or dirt. I appreciate what I can make my body do and thank God for every opportunity I have to challenge myself. I am less concerned with the quantity and focus on the quality, and there is quality in every outing.
     I speak from being on both sides of the grave. Everything and everyone I have is precious, and I am thankful for all of it, the great and the less so. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Into a Grey Sky Morning

The mix of leaves and snow sound cold as they are crushed. The stones underneath are packed hard and interspersed with shallow valleys of white. All but the oaks have shed their leaves, standing throughout the endless tangle of naked branches of the lesser trees. The birch stand stark white against the brown-grey backdrop of the dead and dying flora of late autumn. The mixed hues of grey obscuring the sun this morning reflect in the unusually calm waters of the lake, giving the illusion of a billowing sea on the glass surface.
The stillness of the morning is broken only by the sharp calls of communicating crows and the ruckus of a solitary goose that feels its space has been invaded and must take refuge further from the lake shore.
It is the same old loop that has been traveled many times before. The small inclines and delclines are a welcomed respite from the tarmac. The dam provides a sweeping view of the small lake, the bridges crossing her and the backdrop of the mountains to the north.
There is nothing special about the day, nothing new about the route, nothing to lock one's attention onto. That is what makes it perfect.
It is a late fall morning in Pennsylvania. The sun is still brightening the disgruntled sky and will set again in a few short hours. The furncae at home is roaring to life with flames from the fuel mined from the very core of the earth.
The work day is an hour away yet. At the present there is not another soul to share in the November morning.
It is unadulterated and an unmatched experience.