Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tis

Last weekend I completed my first 50 mile trail run, the Virgil Crest Ultramarathon.  This was not only the culmination of the last 9 months of training, but really something I have been driving towards for the last 2.5 years since I ran my first ultramarathon in Florida.  I finished the race in 10 hours, 39 minutes, 21st place of 134 finishers.

The night before the race I re-read a race report from my neighbor Dan, a fellow ultrarunner who passed away last February.  The report is based on his first 50 miler, the Shaker 50, which took place in Western Massachusetts last year.  The report put a smile on my face and gave me some additional strength when the times got tough last weekend.  Below is his race report.  My full race report on Virgil will be posted later this week.

- Scot


‘Tis a Gift to be Simple, ‘Tis a Gift to be Free (Shaker song lyric by Joseph Brackett, 1848) 

Imagine for a moment. It is nearly dark. You are sprinting, flying across fields of cool grass past antique Shaker farm buildings. The sun has set as the breeze of your speed rushes in your hair, cools your skin. People are cheering, but the only person you sense is a few inches to your side. You have run and struggled together for hours over mountains and rocks, through mud wallows and brambles. You have watched each other rejuvenate from near exhaustion. Now you are flying over the grass as if running were the most natural, most liberating, and most joyous thing humans can do. Perhaps it is. 

A few days ago I ran my first 50-mile race the Hancock Shaker Village 50 in the mountains of western Massachusetts. It was the first running of this race, and the organizers did a remarkable job. Running 50 miles is hard. Running 50 miles on steep mountain trails - most of which are covered with loose rocks, rocky slabs, mud, sticks, brambles, and the occasional body of a stumbling runner is harder. Add the fact that the trails are underused, overgrown, and marked for walking speed rather than running speed, and you have challenges for the muscle, the eye, the mind, and especially for whatever force of will knits them together. You also have a challenge for the stomach because eating and drinking enough makes the difference between finishing and spending a cold night lost in the forest. 

The race start was a bit comic. We stood in darkness so profound that we couldn’t see the famous and magnificent round stone Shaker barn 40 feet away. (Note: my wife says it’s really worth a look, but since I left and returned in the dark I couldn’t actually swear to it). There we stood, shivering in our skimpy running clothes and nervous anticipation, watching the nearly invisible form of the race director point out equally invisible landmarks. I figured I’d keep the headlamp of the lead runner in sight and hope he knew where he was going. What, I asked myself, would the Shakers have thought of us? ‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free. Simple and free: running. 

Running so far in these conditions is even less popular than you might think. I’ve started races with 17,000 runners. I’ve started races with 1,700 runners. I’ve started a race with 170 runners. 17 hardy souls started this one. We might end up loving each other or hating each other, but we’d certainly all get to know each other because this was an “out and back” course. We’d run 25 miles on the trails, then turn around and run them the other way, meaning that each of us would see every other runner both coming and going. Or that was the plan. Some of us got so lost that we missed entire trails and aid stations, and thus missed each other. So even though I came in last of the seven finishers, I saw almost everyone. Yes, fewer than half of the starters actually finished...it was that hard. 

After downing 2 glazed chocolate donut holes and 2 cups of coffee more about digestion later - I was off with the pack. Headlights bobbing, we all went out too fast, and came around to a surreal sight: dozens of gleaming, steaming orbs in the field. Like a 50-eyed monster, whatever-it-was charged toward us. Then we saw clearly: a small herd of cattle, stampeding toward the runners! Not something you see every day, and a neat way to start. But that wonder faded quickly as we headed into the deep, dark woods, and up a steep and rocky slope. 800 of the 6000 feet we’d climb over the hours to come. 

Running uphill in the dark is no problem for an old goat like me I built my legs hiking as a teenager. But staying on the trail in the dark is tricky, especially in a forest that has been used heavily; abandoned roads, temporary trails, animal paths, fire access lanes, and ski routes criss-cross, and most are unmarked. When you’ve got 50 miles to go you really don’t want to get lost at mile 2, but I think all of us took at least a couple of wrong turns. 

The pack split into groups quickly as the sun came up, and I found myself with Stephany (a very experienced ultra-runner from the Bay Area), and Ying (an experienced ultra-runner from the Boston area). I think I was the oldest guy on the course, but still the rookie. We stuck together, knowing instinctively that 6 eyes were more likely to see the right paths than 2. After an hour or so we saw a young woman with long braids come charging up the trail toward us; one of us was going the wrong way (us, as it happened). She plunged off into the forest pursued by two young men, and we sauntered after. By this time we were on a “single track” trail. This didn’t mean there was an actual visible track, but rather that if there had been a visible path it would have been quite narrow. Instead there were 4” square blue signs nailed to trees about 8 feet off the ground, just high enough to be out of sight for a man staring at the roots, rocks, sticks, and stumps at his feet. What would you choose? Getting lost or falling on your face? I did both. Got off the trail a couple of times. And when my toe snagged a small stump, over I went for my first of many face plants. This tore off my number bib, bruised my knee, and got me nice and muddy. Stephany and Ying made sure I got back up and then took off. I dusted off my ego and followed. Pride, shmide, thought I. 

We’d topped the ridge and were running along the Taconic Crest Trail, a meandering but apparently unused path, overgrown in places, eroded to nil in others, but passable. Still, we were two hours in and hadn’t had a drink, had climbed around 2000 feet total, and had yet to cover 10 miles. Then a frustrated woman with a hydration pack came running the other way toward us, declaring that she’d been running in circles, that the trail was impossible to follow, that the race director was something unmentionable, and other pleasantries (she had a great time in the end, and came in first among the women). As we set off together, now a foursome, I heard a surreal sound. Out of the fog in the middle of the woods I heard my wife shouting “Dan! Dan!” She’s always a welcome sight, but her timing could not have been better. The aid station was just over the hill, and Stephany, Ying, our frustrated new friend (named Elizabeth), and I piled in for some much-needed sustenance. 

Sustenance. That which sustains us. I’m a fast eater, so in 90 seconds I downed a PB&J, a couple of cookies, 4 cups of water, 2 cups of coke, and 2 cups of sports drink. Sure, this was begging for a tummyache, but it’s harder to run 13 hours on an empty stomach than a churning one. We were 10 miles in. Ying said this wasn’t her day and planned to drop out. So Stephany and I, eventually catching up with Elizabeth, clomped off through what I call “the shredder”: a half mile of overgrown, thorny brambles winding up and down on the Taconic ridge. Then a gentle descent for a mile. And then the bottom dropped out, literally. We plunged down a steep, damp, slippery, endless slope. Felt like Wile E. Coyote chasing Roadrunner...until he realizes that he’s in thin air with the ledge 10 feet behind. It was fast and flailing and a long way down. Call it the Quad Killer. The prospect of running back up it 25 miles later nagged at me. But at the bottom we tanked up at a small aid station. The very pleasant volunteer said “just follow this road and you’ll be at the next aid station in 3 miles.” I chowed 8 ounces of potato
chips, some sort of energy bar, a quart of sports drink, a salt pill, and then our feet took us up a steep, eroded dirt road. 
 
A mile of relentless climbing later we crested the ridge and found a big fork in the road. So much for the volunteer’s advice to stay straight. Which way was straight? Stephany saw a sign to the left. I saw a sign to the right. Elizabeth saw no evidence of footprints (a good thing too that we didn’t see the leader’s footprints: he had taken a wrong turn around here and got lost for 2 hours). I had studied the topographic maps pretty closely, so we charged off in the direction I thought right: down a long straightaway, with a surface of eroded stones. That about killed the soles of my feet, which made me run funny, which led to The Dreaded Event: my first cramp of the day (in my first competitive marathon I cramped so badly I ended up in the hospital). When you cramp with a mile left in a race, you know you’re in for 10 painful minutes. When you cramp with 32 miles to go, you know you’re in for an ordeal unless you can balance your electrolytes quickly. I gobbled 2 more salt pills, a ton more potato chips, and more electrolyte drink, before Stephany and Elizabeth shot out of the aid station and up steeply on the rockiest bit yet. I was having a great time! Easy to turn an ankle, easy to get tired, but so good to have fun with upbeat companions. Stephany and Elizabeth with their experience literally took it in stride, and I followed. 

Soon we reached the Taconic Skyline Trail, an ATV trail with deep mud wallows as wide as the trail and occasional roaring ATV’s. Slip, splash, glurk. Between the mud puddles, the trail was often exposed, slanted, slick shale-y plates so the footing took its toll, but the wide trail made it impossible to get lost. Aid station 5 at mile 20 came and went. Just 5 more miles to station 6 and the turnaround. It was very pleasant, really, to frolic in the cooling mud in the lovely forest after 20 miles of up and down. Elizabeth and Stephany told stories about their various 100+ mile escapades, I chattered aimlessly, and we started to wonder why we hadn’t seen the leaders coming the other way. Either everyone was lost, everyone was having a slow day, or this was a much harder course than anyone expected. Some of each as it turned out. 

A very steep downhill led us to the most charming aid station I have ever seen: a lone dude standing in the middle of the woods with a wheelbarrow of bananas, water, and sandwiches. This saint had carted supplies a mile and half up a dirt path for us! The menu? Another PB&J, a couple of bananas, lots to drink, and some genuine worry that I’d run out of salt and cramp up so badly that I’d have to stop or worse. We’d been on the go for about 6 hours and seen just 3 people going back the other way. It occurred to me that the woods were very empty. If anyone got badly lost they’d likely be out all night. 

5 miles back along the slanted rocks and mucky pools. I studied Elizabeth and Stephany carefully, watching them walk the uphills to rest and speed the downhills to re-use the potential energy they had gained in climbing. They focused more and more intently, insuring that they didn’t trip on the rocks, and clearly gathering their inner strengths for the final dozen miles (which included that very steep and long slope). Experience is a beautiful thing to behold. Interestingly, my body was climbing very well, but the footing had me stumbling a lot and I did a few more face and thigh plants. Just before the aid station (mile 30) we caught sight of the braided woman we’d seen earlier – her name was Lauren. She was trekking along, but had slowed a bit, and I watched the gleam in Elizabeth’s eye as she assessed just how
soon to catch up and pass. Despite being generous and kind, she has the racer’s instinct, the ancient sense of the hunter for when her prey is weak enough to catch. Just out of that aid station (three handfuls of chips, a packet of gu, 16 ounces of warm coke, water, and a salt pill) we caught up with Lauren. I had just a rather spectacular fall - a groin plant if you get my meaning. I had fallen just so onto a big rock. The three women heard me groan, and I waved them on while I caught my breath and wondered whether this was nature’s way of balancing the pain of bearing children. 
Stephany & Elizabeth chugged on, Lauren & I slowed down. We’d not see them again on the trail, though Stephany kindly waited to see us cross the finish line hours later, and an hour after she had crossed. This was not my best moment of the race, and Lauren lifted my spirits – she’s observant, creative, open-minded. A working artist exploring themes of endurance and nutrition through sculpture and performance art how often does anyone these days have the thrill of meeting someone with genuinely new ideas? Also an impressive trail runner with several 50 milers under her belt, years of cross-country racing experience. Humbling for me to be twice her age and have less than half her ultra experience. But she didn’t care, so I didn’t have to care. And I had other woes: my cramps were under control but not great, my antichafing pads had fallen off, and it was touch and go to get back before dark. Running in the woods in the dark after 45 miles didn’t seem like a safe way to end the day. We knew even before we talked about it that today’s goal was for each to finish in one piece, at peace. 

So...next aid station...off went the shirt to relieve the chafing...I downed 1⁄4 cup of salt in a few small cups of water (yes, that was gross) to prevent cramps...a few more ibuprofen to relieve the foot ache. And we were off. Lauren paced me up the endless dirt road, and then back down the steep other side. She seemed very tired and had slurred a few of her words, but I was completely confident that she had another 13 miles in her as we approached the next station where, as luck would have it, her father was manning the table. 13 more miles? A half marathon to go? How hard could it be? So Lauren and I were confident and determined, if tired.
Of course, I had never seen Lauren when she had not run over 30 trail miles, so I had no concerns. But she must have looked a bit peaked because her father seemed worried. He was with a friend who started to thank me for taking care of her. Little did she know who was taking care of whom! Oddly, Lauren ate almost nothing as I wolfed another PB&J, a salt pill, an energy bar, and a few sticks that got between my mouth and my hand. A high fiber diet. (Note: when a friend’s wife overheard me telling him what I’d eaten that day, she said “he’s got an iron stomach.” My friend said “no dear, he has an iron head.”) And then, cell phones being what they are, word immediately traveled to the last two aid stations and the finish that Lauren and I were on the move, looking weak, and taking care of each other. 

Then we were back on the Quad Killer, this time going up 800 vertical feet, followed by a twisting, winding rolling climb through the brambles. Remember that climbing is what I do best, so I felt great. Lauren on the other hand started to fade and trip more often, especially after the adrenaline rush of climbing the steeper parts. So the moment forced me to ask myself whether I should go on ahead or stick with my newfound teammate. 

I am haunted by a true story, a shocking and true story, of mountaineers on Mount Everest passing by a dying climber beyond hope of recovery, leaving him to his fate while they tried for the summit. He did die, alone. The image does not leave me. So perhaps I do have an iron head, or at least a head with iron rules, and one of them is that I never, ever leave a weakened person in the woods. Period. Lauren and I were going to finish together or not at all. And besides, what could be more delightful than hours of hiking in beautiful forests with a new friend? The longer the experience lasts, the better. Emil Zapotek, a famous distance runner, once said “if you want to win something, run 100 meters. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.”
Anyway, the problem was simple. Lauren hadn’t eaten enough, and the humid day had drained her body of salts. Lack of salts and water makes your nervous system malfunction because it’s the salt that allows electrical charges to span the synapses efficiently. When your nerves don’t fire quite right, you feel tired. The deficit gradually saps your coordination, your attention. Muscles cramp as the nerves fire irregularly. You stumble, and things go downhill from there. Few people ever perspire enough for this to be a problem with our salt-rich western diets, but Lauren and I were aggressive runners on a humid day on mountain trails. And while I’d pickled myself nicely with all that salt and a bellyful of PB&J, Lauren was depleted. It was hard to watch her struggle, her will fighting the mountain, her body caught between them. 

We talked about this a lot, about balancing our diets (I a veggie, she a vegan) and about the endurance that she studies. Does endurance require suffering? How do perseverance and endurance differ? How do the physical endurance of sports and the softer endurance of giving compassionate care to the chronically ill differ? Does neuroscience or art have a better chance of deepening our understanding of endurance? How will they inform each other? 

People should spend more time with working artists. The world would be a better and deeper place.
Lauren took a couple of my salt pills and felt a bit better in minutes. We found strength to run over the final hill to the 40 mile aid station. There we regrouped as more of her family popped out to do what they could. Frankly, they all looked sort of worried, but I projected enough confidence and bon vivance to make it clear that no one was in real trouble while Lauren ate a sandwich. It was rude of me, but I talked with my mouth full, hoovering whatever was on the table, which included sand. I was focused on chafing, water, and time. It was 4:10pm. I had watched the previous night’s sunset carefully, and knew it would be too dark to run in the woods by 6:30. So I packed our headlamps into a small bag and told a couple of really bad jokes while Lauren munched, and off we went. We walked for a few minutes to digest. 

Have you ever watched as new rain lifts the grass? Have you seen a person rise from her sickbed after the fever breaks? Have you heard of heroes finding deep wells in themselves, rising stronger after falling? This was Lauren as she left the 40 mile mark. A bit of food, a bit of salt, a bit of support these bits all helped. What she found and where I do not know, but find it she did. As I watched her posture straighten and her shoulders rise I thought that perhaps this was her truest performance art: endurance
and nutrition in a living sculpture. Genuinely and literally inspiring as she took breath. Within 5 minutes she looked back with a gleam in her eye and said “let’s run.” 

10 more miles. Rolling up and down on those steep and hard-to-follow trails, past the muddy patches, through the complicated intersection, down a long and tricky and leafy and grassy and rocky haul road, darkness slowly coming on. She led every step of the way, down across a small bridge to the unmanned final aid station where we watered up and donned our headlamps. 4 miles to go. Totally alone in the woods. Less tired than we had been all day. Our instincts taking over so that we stumbled and tripped less rather than more as the light faded. Complete confidence in the other helping us trust ourselves. 3 miles to go. Up Shaker Hill the final big climb until the headlamps were essential. Now down, 2 miles to go, holding back our speed to make sure we didn’t get hurt. The woods now completely dark, Lauren running before me so gracefully, so lightly. The lights from our lamps danced...were we dancing? Under a mile to go. The slope ended, the trail curving sharply to find the last bridge, and then a long, flat, rocky section. We could hear the road. We could hear our families cheering they must see our lights bobbing in the trees. We leave the woods and know without speaking to finish strong, know how much strength and speed the other has left. Our feet fly through the cool grass. We pick up speed, matching step for step, our wills pulling each other toward the barn, our lights and steaming breath like the stampeding cattle of the morning. 

Imagine for a moment. It is nearly dark. You are sprinting, flying across fields of cool grass past antique Shaker farm buildings. The sun has set as the breeze of your speed rushes in your hair, cools your skin. People are cheering, but the only person you sense is a few inches to your side. You have run and struggled together for hours over mountains and rocks, mud wallows and brambles. You have watched each other rejuvenate from near exhaustion. Now you fly over the grass as if running were the most natural, most liberating, and most joyous thing humans can do. It is. 

- Dan Scharfman - September, 2012

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