Sunday, February 5, 2017

Swerve--Signing up for the Bigfoot 200 in 2017

Controlled adventures?

A "controlled adventure" is an oxymoron.

After 5 years of running ultra-marathons I had forgotten this.  Over the last few years, I had fallen into a comfortable pattern of laying out yearly schedules of ultra-running "adventures" that I knew I could finish.

I didn't do this consciously.   Pressed on the point I would have denied it.   These were 100s, after all, mountain races, all challenging enough.   I knew I wouldn't escape any of them without suffering and challenge.   Who says I'm taking it easy?

But the fear was gone.   The unknown was gone--or rather, all the unknowns were known unknowns.   Why drag them back in?   I'm 52, for God's sake--why introduce yet another uncontrollable or chaotic element in my life?

Why not be satisfied with planned, periodic adventures which, after all, most people would consider extreme enough?

To break the circle, swerve

Ants are the supreme trail makers of the animal kingdom.   One ant, stumbling blindly in a squiggly path, comes across some food.   Other ants follow, trailing after the chemical scent.   They follow a simple, binary message: this way, not that way.  Each ant straightens the path a little more, strengthens the chemical signal.     Soon there is an ant road, an ant highway, a network of trails connecting food sources.

On occasion, the perfect system defeats itself.  

Rarely, a trail forms that begins where it ends--a circle.    Ants fall into line, dutifully strengthening the circle ad infinitum, until it becomes an ant highway to nowhere.   The ants will march until they are exhausted, or starve.   In ant terms, they are acting rationally, following the signs: this way, not that way.

If you were to fall into a similar rut in your own brain--that other supreme maker of networks (and of ruts)--how would you know?   How would you break out of a circle entirely composed of rational, tested decisions--of well-worn signs, all of them telling you this way, not that way?

You would have to do something quite irrational.   You would have to do something that in the well worn logic of the circle didn't make any sense.  You would have to swerve.

Photo courtesy of Candice Burt (race director for Bigfoot 200 and "High Priestess of 200s")

Bigfoot 200

In 2010, I swerved sharply.   I began running ultra-marathons.   I made other "extreme" changes in my life at that time.

Seven years later, that one-time swerve had become a well-worn path.

I finally broke the circle (again) last December, signing up for the 2017 Bigfoot 200, an event that is truly way outside the horizons of anything comfortable for me.   With 96000 feet of elevation gain, it's a point-to-point scenic tour of the Cascades.  It's a continuous run, not a stage race.    You keep going for multiple days (up to 4) until you are finished.

The distance doesn't frighten me as much as the climbs, altitude, unknown terrain, the challenge of not getting lost, solitude, wild animals, sleep deprivation, and so on.   And those are just the "known unknowns."   What else might I encounter?

Contemplating this effort has had a strange effect on me.   As fear has seeped back in, so has my excitement.  Photos and videos of the course take on a sharper edge.   Maps of the course have a mystique about them, like maps of a lost kingdom.

Training has taken on a new urgency, too, well beyond my routine concern for health and fitness (another rut).   Getting stronger is not just a nice thing to do--it's a matter of survival.

Just in time, one more time, I've swerved again.   And it's reminded me of what I've forgotten.  There is no adventure without fear.   Ultra means beyond.    More is different.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

2014 Grindstone 100 Race Report - Second Chances

The 2014 Grindstone 100 was the nearest I've come to dropping out of an ultra.  This was my second Grindstone finish, a good deal slower than the first--technically speaking a really bad race, but by far and way my most satisfying ultra.   By the end, I was relieved, grateful and more than a bit astonished to have finished at all.

Over the edge

With a 6 PM start time, the first 12 hours of Grindstone are run in darkness.  This year added a few soaking showers and some fog on the high ridges.   The darkness was appallingly total.   There were no views of stars or the moon this year.  If you turned your headlamp off, you could not see your own hand held in front of your face.    It's an experience we never get in the suburbs of DC: real night, inky black and everywhere.  

The conditions weren't so bad for running though, the rain no more than an occasional bother requiring a little more care on the technical terrain.   And for the first 20 or so, up over Eliot's Knob and Hankey Mountain, I was quite comfortable, moving well.   

I had adopted the (for me) novel fueling strategy of taking in a steady 200 calories of glucose every hour, right from the very start of the race.   Although I've trained myself to run on low or no carbs, although I eat almost no sugar in my daily diet, and although every other ultra I've eased into a more varied fueling strategy--I somehow got it into my head that "storing up" the extra glucose during the early stages of the race would "supercharge" my performance.   

How did I know?  I read it in a book.   Three weeks before the race.  Brilliant, right?

It happened somewhere a few hours after 6 hours, somewhere along the course from Hankey Mountain,  Lookout Mountain, Grindstone Mountain, to the endless climb from Chestnut Ridge to Little Bald Knob.   Somewhere in the darkest hours, 3 or 4 AM.   In that long, wearying stretch, I fell over a (metabolic) cliff.

From about 35 miles on, my blood sugar levels totally crashed.   It was all I could do stay conscious, let alone keep moving.   Caffeine didn't help.    This was no mere sleepiness: it was like a cloudiness in the brain, like morphine.   I felt as if I was losing my mind.   Even after the sun had risen, I just wanted to lie down on the trail and sleep--"let someone pick me up, who cares, what does any of this matter" went the incessantly negative internal chatter--a very bad place.

The Rollercoaster

I felt sad thinking about how I would be letting down all the folks who had pledged to support me in running for Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida.  But there was simply nothing to be done about it.  By 40 miles, the possibility of actually finishing seemed utterly ludicrous.  Making it to the next aid station was my only goal.   Then I could stop, sleep, and be done with it.

The sun rose, sort of.   Dawn showed itself, but dimly, and brought little relief.   I still struggled for consciousness.  My internal clock seemed stuck at 3 AM.  

I made it to the next aid station.  I thought that if I made it at least to 45 miles before dropping, that would be slightly less pathetic, and do a little more justice to the pledges. And so it went, aid station to aid station, feeling no better, telling myself this would be the one, at this one I would drop.  

My energy levels began to rise, in fits and starts.   I was now experimenting with whatever the aid stations had on offer.  At one, I would drink some ginger ale, at another I would eat a bunch of oranges.  I would begin to feel a little better, temporarily--before crashing down again.   That zigzagging of emotions and energy was my world for the next 8 hours or so. 
They call this stretch of the Shenandoah's "the Rollercoaster" for its elevation profile.   I scarcely noticed.   Mine was a metabolic rollercoaster.  But it was ok; I was moving, zombie-like but in a forward direction.  

My mantra against the negative chatter: just try something different; find out what works; remember that things can change.   

Cold fronts

Things did change.  This year's Grindstone featured both the highest ever overnight temperatures, on Friday, and the lowest, on our second evening.   By Saturday afternoon, the sky had cleared, and though the sun on the ridges was warm, it was clear that the second evening would be very cold.

The dropping temperatures made eating easy, kept any nausea at bay.   I was feeling, if not exactly energetic, at least human again.   Compared to the dark place I had come from, I felt almost fantastically alive.  Cooperating, the ridges we had passed in darkness and fog the night before opened up with gorgeous views of the Shenandoah Valley in autumn.

It happened around 65 miles--like a light snapping on in my mind.  I knew with absolute certainly I would finish.  It wouldn't be pretty, but I would get it done.   

Apparently, it was not pretty.  No observing me seems to have seen any outward sign of the inward change I felt.    So I was a bit puzzled--but grateful, and comforted--when aid station volunteers, or fellow runners, would ask me with looks of concern "are you ok?"   I heard this quite a lot over the last third of the race.

Hiccup guy

I reached Dowell's Draft and 80 miles just as the sun set for the second time in the race. After putting on my very light (and insufficient) jacket, and strapped on my headlamp again, I almost hurried out of the aid station, eager by now to head into the final 20 miles of the race.

Because the field was so much larger than 2012, having absorbed those of us who displaced by the 2013 government shutdown, I often had company to run with.   This was especially true during the last portion of the race.   

Although I enjoyed the company, I'm not sure whether the feeling was mutual.   A final insult in this race was developing a case of hiccups that persisted at least for the final 5 hours of the race.   The few hallucinations I had--a couple of scotty dogs, a milk crate, two penguins, and a floating bearded head--were too innocuous to scare the hiccups away. 

So it was step, step, hiccup all the way home.  My apologies to Rob Ulm and his pacer friends from Illinois for annoying them those last few hours!   
Second Chances

In retrospect, what got me through the long dark period in the middle of this race was wanting to do justice to those who had pledged to support Prosthetics for Life.   Gary Knipling even sent his check in early, before the race, saying he had no doubt I would finish.  How could I not at least try to do my best?  

This is all the ultra, the race of second chances, asks of us.  So, although you already know all this, here's my take-away for you when life isn't working: focus on what's important (not you), remember that conditions will change (always and forever), try something different (think!), and just keep going.   

Monday, August 25, 2014

100 Miles and 23000 Feet for Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida

A little over a month from now, I'll be joining 300 souls at the start line of the "Grindstone 100." Doing it once back in 2012 was slightly daring, well out of my comfort zone.   A second time is merely daft.

Two years ago, many of you helped to redeem this ill-advised undertaking by generously pledging a donation to Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida.  

I am asking for your help again this year.

Online pledge form here

The Cause for which I'm running

I consider mobility as more than a human need--it is, or ought to be, a right.  Yet poverty prevents many people from obtaining the prosthetics they need.  One of the organizations founded to help those who could not otherwise afford mobility is Fundación Prótesis Para la Vida (Prosthetics for Life), based in Ecuador.  Some of their patients (not the very young ones pictured here, obviously) have waited decades for a prosthetic limb.

Prótesis para la Vida is a very small organization, with bare-bones administration and facilities.

Your pledge of support will therefore go an astonishingly long way.  It will go directly to those who need the help.   As they explain on their website, for the same budget as a single below-knee prosthesis in the United States, their clinic is able to provide something like thirty equivalent prostheses to patients in Ecuador.

Prótesis para la Vida also provides low-cost adaptive designs:  aids such as standing desks and other equipment, ingeniously constructed out of cardboard and other affordable materials, to improve everyday life for patients.

In honor of Jennifer Lee Knowles (1965-2012)

In the long night of a hundred miler, I often feel myself running with those who are gone.  My good friend since college, JenLee was a remarkable person in so many ways.  Smart, compassionate, and tireless, she served as the U.S. Coordinator for Prótesis para la Vida.   There's a moving tribute to JenLee and her work in Ecuador provided on the website.

There's also an inspiring report on the first JenLee 5K, held in the shadow of the Imbabura Volcano.  The photos of participants, including prosthetic patients among the runners, gives you a good sense of what the work of  Prótesis para la Vida means to the community.  I think this race is an appropriate legacy for JenLee.  An avid climber and mountain biker for many years, she could be scarily tough and resilient.  Those qualities certainly shone brightly throughout her struggle with the serous carcinoma that ultimately took her life.

The Grindstone 100 Mile Race

This excursion through the Virginia mountains adds up to a little bit over 100 miles (101 point something, as if that matters) and includes some nice little "hills" amounting to an elevation gain of 23000 feet.  The unusual feature is that you start out at 6PM, just as the sun is setting, with a good 12 hours of running through the night on single-track trail.  Then there's another day of running--and for most runners, another sunset and another night on the trail.

I am duly humble about my chances.  Having done this once is no guarantee I'll do it again (it was a close matter the first time).  Plus you can't trust mountains.  They call the shots.  They make their own weather.  What is passable terrain one day, is a slough of mud and rocks the next.

Please pledge your support

Here's the deal.  You fill out the online pledge form now, promising X amount per mile actually completed.  After the race, once I recover consciousness and stop eating pizza, I will send you documented proof of my finish (or portion thereof), a copy of the most wretched selfie you will ever see, and instructions on how to send in your donation.

Online pledge form here.  It's fast, it's easy, you can pledge what  you like (a penny a mile, ten bucks a mile) and I won't sell your info to marketers!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Clawed by the Cat: 2014 Catoctin 50K Race Report

John Steinbeck said of trips that we don't take them so much as they take us.   Every trip, every journey is its own character, a distinct personality with its own its own wants and its own agenda--"and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless."

I already knew from two previous finishes that Maryland's Catoctin 50K is an ornery character, a diabolically rock-littered roller-coaster of an ultramarathon--held, just for good measure, in the soggy heat of late July.   It doesn't even respect the 50K distance, growing a bit each year through erosion and trail changes to its current 33-point-something length.

This time I would also learn that the Cat is entirely unimpressed by any "experience" I might have gained in two previous finishes.   Or with my careful planning and strategizing.   Cats have their own prerogatives and don't care about yours.

Old stones

The race starts where it ends, at Gambrill Park in front at the "Tea Room," a magnificently solid little structure of local stone and timber built in the 1930s by the "boys" of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  (In so many ways, and to our collective loss, they don't do it like that anymore.)

The views from the Tea Room and other points on High Knob are spectacular.  But don't be fooled.  These will be virtually the only scenic views available from this course, which takes you deep into the stony, foliage-enwrapped heart of Catoctin, and doesn't let go of you until however many hours later you stagger back to the Tea Room in a state of melting, grateful collapse.

So it's worth taking some time to soak in the views before the race begins.  

What you'll see looking south/southwest from High Knob are two green, craggy spines cutting across a flat plain, rolling towards more distant, dim mountains at the horizon.   The spine on which you are standing on is the Catoctin mountain.  Off to your right (West) will be South Mountain, whose ridge line marks the course of the Appalacian Trail in Maryland.   

These mirror-image ridges running in parallel give the impression they must be connected in some way.  Turns out they are.  With your mind's eye, imagine each ridge line as one side of what would have to be a truly enormous mountain range.  That imagined monster, the geologists tell us, was once a reality.

The great mountain is gone, but the South Mountain and Catoctin ridge lines have endured because they were formed out of the toughest, hardest stone.  Old stones.   The stuff you will running on for the rest of the day.   

If you are to have any hope of making it over these old stones, you will need to absorb some of their tough resilience--preferably not as I did, in painfully literal fashion.  

Into the heart of Catoctin

The first several miles of the race descended steeply under dense foliage, deep into the heart of the park. I saw bright glints of white quartzite near the bottom.   While the course already felt "technical" to me, by the end of the race I would find myself thinking of this as the most runnable section of trail.  

As the elevation chart suggests, beginning around 6 miles, I entered a less vertically challenging section of the course.  But the temporary break came at a price.  It was the rockiest, and for me the toughest part of the course.   My strength as a runner is still on smooth, predictable footing, whether on hills or flat--and this was the opposite, still way out my comfort zone even after years of practice.

In this section, you don't even contend with just one kind of rocky trail, but with a whole compendium of types.   There are the honest fell fields in which you are essentially running across a pile of rocks.   At least you know what you are dealing with.   Worst are the deceptively "smooth" stretches of single track that stealthily conceal jagged stones, sticking out of the ground like the broken teeth of a superannuated but still dangerous carnivore.

Which is to say, the Cat never lets you get into any sort of rhythm.  The moment you feel comfortable, one way or another, this course will slap you back into awareness.

The Cat strikes

Somewhere after the second aid station but before the long 4-mile descent into Cunningham Falls, my foot caught on one of those hidden rocks.  I hit the ground in a flying skid, holding out both hands to stop myself.   I lay there stupidly for a few moments, spitting out dirt and doing a mental check for major damage.   Nothing broken.  I pushed myself up, dirty but seemingly unscathed.

Staggering on a few feet, I was surprised to see bright red streams of blood running, almost gushing, down my thigh.   It may have been a superficial injury, but it was a spectacular one.   Stick them, and thighs can really bleed.

I resisted the ridiculous urge to take a "selfie."  That, in any case, would have been unnecessary.  I don't think I have ever been as photographed as I was on this day.  A bloody leg gives you a sort of temporary celebrity in an ultra.   Perhaps all the more so in a course like this, an out and back on a narrow trail, in which you meet every runner in the field at close quarters at least once.

It was amusing to see the different ways men and women reacted.   Women tended to look concerned, to ask me whether I was ok, even offer help or aid.   In general, men would almost congratulate me with a cry of "that's awesome!" or "good blood."  Have to admit it: I enjoyed both reactions.

The best and most memorable moment for me was a fist pump and a knowing wink from Gary Knipling as we passed each other in opposite directions.   If there is a living embodiment of the Cat 50K, it is Gary, who by his own admission can't remember how many times he has completed the course. 

Halfway done and two-thirds to go

Race director Kevin Sayers told us, very truly, that the first half of the race is just one third of the effort involved.  The return trip from the turnaround to the fourth aid station is the toughest stretch. See that monster dip in the elevation chart?  Now you ascend rather than descend some 1300 feet over 3 or 4 miles.

I didn't feel too bad during this section, but by the time I reached aid station 4, the wheels were coming off.   I slowly and painfully made my back over the "flat" section, trying not to become discouraged by the several people who passed me.  

The final 6 miles of the course were run mostly alone, as the field had become strung out by that stage.  Approaching the Tea Room was a slow, agonizing process.   The course loops you within sight of the finish line--then takes you away for one last run around the building and up the steep steps to the parking circle.  I came in at 6:55, more than half hour slower than my first finish on this course, but all things considered, a satisfying end to the day.


At home the next day, the wounds in my thigh look for all the world as if I had been raked by the claws of a cat.  My wife shakes her head.  I do this to myself for what reason?

Two deep scratches--two parallel raised ridges, like Catoctin and South Mountain.   I think of Gary's wink and fist pump.   I feel as if the Cat 50K has put its mark on me, a kind of recognition that after three finishes, I have now covered 100 miles of some of the toughest landscape in the area. 

Homemade energy gels

Ala Scott Jureck, I'll conclude with a recipe for the homemade energy gels I took with me on this run.   They worked out fairly well, and seemed to me more palatable and longer-lasting than the commercial stuff.

This particular concoction is a variation on the recipe from Brendan Brazier's Thrive. 

5 dates
2 tbsp coconut oil
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp dulse flakes (a kind of seaweed)
1 tbsp yerba mate (a green tea)
1 tbsp cacoa nibs

Put everything in a food processor and blend until smooth.  Makes about 8 small balls of gel, each packing a good 70 calories or so.  The dates provide a quickly metabolized source of sugars.

Coconut oil is a medium-chained triglyceride (MCT), which has some unusual characteristics for a fat; MCT is  metabolized directly by the liver, rather than taken through the small intestine.  In a sense, it acts like a carbohydrate, although with twice the calorie content per ounce.  

There are some unusual ingredients, which you should feel free to leave out.  Dulse is a bit of an acquired taste, but blends in here and provides sodium and other electrolytes.   Yerba mate and cacoa nibs provide a mild caffeine kick.

My only modification in the future will be to store the gel in a flask, rather than wrapping each bite-size piece separately in cellophane.   That technique works fine at room temperature but becomes messy 4 hours into a hot race. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lost in the Graveyard: Race Report on the 2014 Graveyard 100

Road to Hatteras

Roiling surf the Friday before race day seemed to auger a repeat of last year's event.   In the 2013, second annual, running of the Graveyard 100, coastal flooding forced a reroute, turning runners back just at the threshhold of Hatteras for a return trip to Corolla.

Conditions seemed worse this year.  Steady winds pushed a lashing cold rain in from the north and east.   Little hurricanos formed in random gusts.  The thought of running in this was appalling.  I struggled just to walk from my car to the hotel lobby.

But weather reports assured us Saturday would be different.  Race director Brandon Wilson sounded confident at the 3PM briefing (one of two provided on Friday), giving us a 95% chance of safe crossing into Hatteras.   I had run the out-and-back alternate before and felt comfortable with either outcome.

I was intensely curious to cross the bridge into Hatteras and I fell asleep that night hoping I'd have a chance to experience the "true" point-to-point journey.

Careful what you wish for, I might have reminded myself.

Currituck to Bonner Bridge

Skies had cleared by the 5AM starting time.  We began as we did last year, on a cold morning in Currituck Park under a slew of stars.   Jupiter in Gemini glowed steadily white.  Blood-red Antares boiled in the southern sky.  Cold light seemed to blow about in the wind around us.

Then we were moving.  The usual emotions of release, unreality, even hilarity.  The first hours, as always, were full of multiple adjustments, little annoyances, calls of nature.  Too warm one moment, too cold the next.  Hydration pack too tight or too loose.   I helped another runner with his cap, which had flopped off and dangling off the back of his pack.

Coming out of Corolla, we ran through first through the shadow of enormous hedges, dividing sea and sound.  I thought of the Great Hedge marking the outer frontier of the Shire in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.   Once past the hedge, it felt as if we were well and truly underway.

And then the sun was up.  We ran through dune-swell, golden brown grasses.

Into the town of Duck, then onward towards Kitty Hawk.  I won't say the first 20 miles were uneventful.  But they were pleasant, clicking along like clockwork, almost without my noticing their passing.

I was keeping to my plan: run 10 minutes, walk 30 seconds.   Keep to a heartrate of 130 (roughly 75% of max for me).   Easy.  

I should have said, and would learn by the end of the day: not easy enough.

Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, and Beyond the Bridge

Between Aid Station 1 and Aid Station 2, I remained way ahead of where (in retrospect) I should have been, but for now, the pace felt comfortable, manageable, and I still felt I was reining myself in rather than pushing.

The commercial strips of Kitty Hawk and Nags Head were mentally wearying.  In the self-similarilty of the strip, there seemed to be endless variations on the same theme: hotels like the "Cavalier Motel," with a 17th Century English pirate, or restaurants with names like "the Froggy Dog."

Absurdly, I felt moments of panic that I was going in a circle.  But there was the ocean on my left.  The sun in the south.  No possible way to be lost here, right?

(Photo courtesy of Outer Banks Connection)

Now I was closing in on 50 miles.   I texted Kathy, my wife: "feeling fine."

Running over the spectacular, if pedestrian-unfriendly, Bonner Bridge is one of the highlights of the point-to-point Graveyard 100 journey.  From Bodie Island and the Oregon Inlet, you run up over a magnificent panorama--scenic stretches of marshes, the Oregon Inlet, and Pamlico Sound.  At the end of the 2.7 mile bridge, there is the only true hill on this course, a whale-back "hump" that cuts off your vision and makes it seem you are running into a blue void.

An Experiment of One

After a successful 50k last December in which I kept up a steady pace of 150 bpm minutes (or 85% of max pulse rate), I figured that I could maintain, at best, 130 bpm (or 75% of max). Figuring that 150 works for 50k, then 140 should work for 50 miles, and 130 (or 75%) for a hundred miles.  Or something like that.

Another beautiful theory slain by ugly facts.

The problem with being an "experiment of one" is that negative results can really hurt.

What I discovered, in retrospect, was my ideal pace for 100km (62 mile).   Some time after I crossed Bonner Bridge (I'm finding it impossible to recall now: 1 hour?  3 hours?)  Mike Bailey pulled up along side the road to inform me that I would see a town, then would have another 1.5 miles to the aid station.

I couldn't at that point see any town.  Just sand and sky.  Dunes going everywhere, including right across the road.   I was alone on the road.   Although I could see far, I couldn't see another runner ahead or behind me.

Again, the powerful sensation of being lost.  But reminding myself: that's impossible, there's the ocean on your left, just keep going.

Hatteras at night

Aid station 3 seemed to take forever to arrive, and, once there, I was loathe to leave.  But having topped off my fluids, ingested a little broth, I had little reason to hang around.  I staggered a bit getting back on to the road.  Sudden sense of fatigue, in the form of intense drowsiness.

Ahead lay essentially a marathon until the final aid station, at mile 87.  Nothing for it but to continue: I took a caffeine pill and started in.

Triggering my drowsiness, no doubt, was the gathering darkness, the falling temperatures.    I was dressed warmly enough, however.  And the cooler temperatures mitigated some unpleasant, though manageable, stomach issues I'd been having.   Darkness, though, has funny effects on the fatigued brain.

No actual hallucinations for me this time, but my brain had become a Doctor Whovian TARDIS generating strange alterations of time and space.   Distances compressed and stretched, as did time.  Ten minutes would drag by, then an hour would vanish with no trace on the memory.

Beacon at Mile 87

The next 20 miles are a bit of a blur.  I kept to my 10 minute increments, and stayed in the moment, kept up nutrition and hydration fairly well--but any pretense of keeping my pace was abandoned.   I had in fact torn off the heart-rate strap in disgust and stuffed it in my pack.   I did what I could to maintain cadence, but my pace was radically slower.

With several miles to go to the final aid station at mile 87, the myopia of night running--you and your little bubble of light, your world reduced to ten-foot circle--was periodically broken by the big looping beam from the lighthouse.  The light swept across the treeline in great circles.

After an interminable approach, I was there, at last, under the tent and eating and drinking.  Eating what, I scarcely recall.   While my final dropbag was equipped with shoes and other gear, I declined to have it brought out and told them to just send it on to the finish.

(Photo credit:  Amaury Laporte,

Lost in the Graveyard of the Atlantic

I ran out of the final aid station with just a half marathon to cover until the finish.

It was all I could do to could keep one simple rule in my head: when in doubt on this course, stay to the left.  Keep the ocean on your left, stay to the left.  All true enough: the road out of the lighthouse does take a left on the main road to the final half marathon.  But just before that left, there's another wee turn in the road.  A right.   I went left.

Several miles later found myself in a cul de sac, facing a dirt road and clearly in the wrong place.

It should have been a devastating feeling to be lost at this stage.  But I felt oddly detatched.  Oh, I'm lost.  I've just run almost 90 miles,  am exhausted, disoriented, and lost.  It seemed amusing.  I even smiled and shook my head.

I turned, tentatively made my way back.   Then I saw a headlight bobbing just ahead.  It was another runner, heading in the direction I just came from--as I learned later, Tim Scott, from Virginia.   Tim told me I was on the right path, must have just missed a turn.  

That didn't sound quite right to me, but I couldn't seem to form a complete thought.  I was stupidly relieved just to follow someone else's lead.

A couple of miles on, we found ourselves stuck in the same cul de sac.  I had gotten lost twice.  The impossible had happened: on the Outer Banks, I had gone in a circle.  We both took out our phones and noodled about on the map, puzzled at what it seemed to be telling us.

We headed back and, finally, saw the little road where we should have taken a right rather than a left.   A little more running, and we were back on the main road.

I had added perhaps 4 or 5 miles to the 102 mile course, for a total of around 106 to 107 miles.  Some consolation, I suppose, in knowing I had run further than I ever have before.


Graveyard 100 has forged a unique identity in the landscape of mid-Atlantic ultras.  Rather than the confined perspectives of trees, rocks, and technical trail, there are the sea, the sky and the open road.   Rather than loops and the comfort of regular aid, there is a point to point course, a true journey.  

Riding back in the shuttle from Hatteras strengthened this impression.  The experience was humbling.  A two-hour drive, looking out the window at the road unspooling in the moonlight, marvelling at the distance we had covered.

The race does this to us finally, if we've been paying attention.   Most of us live our lives out in a bubble of technology that "annihilates" distance and time.  For the time we give ourselves over to running 100 miles on the ribbon of asphalt and sand that make up the Outer Banks, one night and one day are restored to their primeval enormity.  They round out, in themselves, a single, complete little lifetime.

Perhaps that's why we run ultras, over and over again.  For more--more time, more space.  More life.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Coyote kill on the C&O towpath?

Early one recent Sunday morning,  I pulled into Riley's Lock, my usual start for long runs on the C&O towpath.   There were no other cars in the normally busy lot, which didn't surprise me.  It was still early, the sun just up, and with the so-called "polar vortex" settling in over our mid-Atlantic world, the temperature remained stuck in the single digits.   

I headed north. 
There were several inches of almost fresh snow covering the path. Mine were the only human tracks among the overnight skitterings of animals.

As I ran, the sun flashed through the bare trees and across the ice and the snow.  Thirty minutes in, I was warming up more quickly than expected and felt loose-limbed and relaxed.  I even stripped off a layer or two.

I felt a little frisson of excitement.  Putting words to a wordless sensation, it was the pleasure of a felt contrast between the icy woods around me and the warmth I was generating within--like sidling up to a campfire on a cold night.  I picked up the pace and grew warmer still.

Tracks in the snow

An hour or so into the run, I was joined a set of human tracks, moving in the same direction as my own.  Another runner, I guessed, and accompanied by a dog.   Sure enough, after about ten minutes, I saw a figure approaching down the path.   As we passed each other, I nodded in greeting to the other runner. There was no dog.

Another fifteen minutes went by and I reached the other runner's turnaround.  From that point on, the only human tracks were my own.

The dog tracks continued on.  Then more dog tracks appeared, several animals running in a pack.  Mile after mile the tracks continued in a straight, disturbingly disciplined line.  The domestic dogs I know are not notable for coordinated purpose.  They zigzag about in the woods, distracted by every sound and scent.

These animals--I thought of them as dogs no more--were in earnest.

Coyote kill on the C&O?

Seeing blood on the snow, I stopped, walked around and around, snapping photos as if it were a crime scene.   I will spare you the most gruesome photos of what remained of the deer.   Frozen pieces of the animal were scattered for about twenty yards on and off the towpath.

Coyote tracks--so I now called them, though I do not know my tracks--were all over the place.   There were signs of a struggle.    A series of grooves marked where the lower half of the deer's body, now missing, had been dragged across the towpath and down into the ravine.  I stifled a sudden mad impulse to leave the path and hunt the perps to their lair.  

Unexpected Wildness

The C&O National Park would seem to offer up the woods at their tamest and most organized.  All straight lines.   A river on one side, a canal on the left, and a flat path marked every mile.   Porta-potties and campgrounds every eight or nine miles.   The towpath begins in Georgetown, for goodness sake.

It is a grand illusion.  The C & O is a weird and unexpectedly wild place.  Its 12000 acres comprise a long, thin strip of land, stretched out over 180 miles along the Potomac.    It is a kind of superhighway for flora and fauna.   Species wander well north or south of their usual habitat.   The trees arching over the path are not benign: this can be an unpredictable and dangerous place to be in high winds.

Squint a little and you can see it: we live, even now, like Hansel and Gretel's starving and dysfunctional family, "at the edge of a great wood."

Wilhelm's two birds

Another half hour or so on past the gruesome scene, I reached my own turnaround point.

My return trip was an inversion of Hansel and Gretel's experience.   My going out was like their going in.   Dreamlike, the woods expand and contract around the children.   At the outset of the story, having lost their way, they struggle on for over three days and nights, the woods extending seemingly without bound.  Coming home, the witch safely incinerated and their pockets bulging with her treasure (where does she get it?), they seem to fly through the trees.

On my way back to Riley's Lock, approaching again the scene of the crime, I was greeted by the croak of a turkey buzzard, keeping guard over its meal.  I caught him mid-flight as he flew up into the trees.  We regarded each other warily for a few moments.

Unlike the two birds in Hansel and Gretel--the beautiful white bird and the plain but helpful duck--my bird was neither deceptive nor friendly to man.   Its look said nothing I could know.   Perhaps I was competition for the deer carcass--or perhaps I was potential food myself (unfortunately still alive).

Knocked off its perch, my mind wandered trackless for the remainder of the run.  What if, let's say, I sprained an ankle or knee?  What if I were stuck out there, unable to walk?  Would anyone else come by?  How long would it take to freeze?  If I encountered coyotes, would they sense my injury?  Would I fare better than that deer?

And a question right out of fairy tales: would I prefer to freeze, starve, or be torn to bits by animals?

Was I at home or not at home out here?  The woods had no answer.  In all of this familiar but utterly strange strip of protected land, with its displaced and immigrant plants and animals, here I was, an upright primate and long-ago immigrant from the savanna.  The strangest and most displaced creature of all.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Long run on a short day: the 2013 Seashore Nature Trail 50k

Some eight hours or so after solstice--the sun's southern turnaround in its annual race--I joined about 300 other runners for the start of the 5th Annual Seashore Nature Trail 50K.  Imitating the celestial seesaw, we would be looping back to this spot twice more, ending where we began, in a parking lot in the southern end of First Landing State Park, a beautiful maritime forest on the headlands of Cape Henry.

By chance, this year's race fell squarely on the first official day of winter.  You wouldn't know it from the conditions though.  Another lesson in the folly of consulting extended weather forecasts before race day: what had been projected as a cold pelting rain 10 days out had by 5 days prior fizzled to a warmish drizzle, then, with a day to go, had morphed into a prediction of mostly clear skies and Florida-like warmth.

The sensation of having traveled south was enhanced by hanging Spanish moss, glimpses of open water, sand, and the odd subtropical plant.  By the time most of us finished, the temperature was into the low 70s.  After a mostly cold December, that felt downright sultry.

Flat, fast--and rooty

The course begins, hits halfway, and ends in an area known as the Narrows, a strip of water connecting Linkhorn Bay with Broad Bay (and, according to legend, where Blackbeard hid out for a time).  There are two loops, mostly on trails, with some very short sections on asphalt.  As advertised, the course is flat, fast and nontechnical.

Still, this is a trail race, and "flat" is relative.  While there are none of the embedded rocks that are ubiquitous in the trails of the nearby Blue Ridge and Piedmont areas, and no steep climbs or quad-jarring descents, there are plenty of humps and ditches, areas of uneven footing, and a great many roots.  There's enough variety that runners need to keep their eyes open and feet nimble.

Narrows to Cape Henry

The first loop (and only the first loop) begins with a short out and back on the road, presumably added to bring the total up to a full 50 kilometers.  This 1.5 mile section is a good place to warm up, lay down your rhythm, go over your plan one more time, and remind yourself that 50k is still a long way to suffer if you go out too quickly.

Turning on to Cape Henry Trail after the short out-and-back asphalt section, you skirt the edge of Linkhorn Bay for a bit, following an attractive single-track with lots of hanging moss and occasional glimpses of quiet little bayside beaches.

Saltmarsh to "Desert"

Fairly soon, you hit a wooden bridge and boardwalk and cross into the salmarsh area.  This is a good time to look for an osprey--or at least an osprey's nest, sitting atop one of the scattered trees that poke out of the marsh.

After crossing Route 64 again, the Cape Henry trail takes you through the heart of the park, a higher area the early 17th-century English settlers used to refer to as the "desert," presumably because of its sandy, untillable soil.  This section of the trail is broad, a thoroughfare for bikes as well as walkers.  It is fast, with a surface of mostly hard-packed sand with few roots or ruts.

Bald Cypress and Osmanthus 

The speedway continues for a mile or so.  Then you bounce around a bit between Cape Henry and two other connector trails, White Hill Lake and King Fisher, before entering into the Bald Cypress/Osmanthus Loop.

Another blogger has referred to the "dreaded" Bald Cypress loop, but for me, this was the marquis section of the race.   Just as it sounds, Bald Cypress features lots of large, gnarled and knobby trees.  They are rooted in standing water, dyed glassy and black as mica by tannins.

"Osmanthus" is named after the wild olive tree or "devilwood," which reaches the northernmost point in its distribution in this very park.  In a daydreamy moment, I thought about this as a sort of botanical reverse solstice.  Just as the sun had reached the southernmost point in its celestial race, the osmanthus here reaches its northernmost outpost.

A more frequent mental distraction, however, were the persistent Christmas carols I couldn't get out of my head.

Ah, the things you just never think to train for.  I must have spent an hour or so trying to expunge "Jingle Bells" from the mental soundtrack.  It was the sort of metastasizing earworm that keeps ratcheting up the performance to ludicrous heights: orchestral swells, a chorus of hundreds, cymbals crashing.  I'd just get it out of my head, then would hear some bells again.  Bells were a bit of a running theme in this race.  Bells on signposts.  Bells on the hat of a little girl in the group of spectactors.  A young woman running the race decked out in a costume festooned with tinkling bells.  Bells, bells, bells, as the poet said.

A well-organized race with lots of heart

The course has two main aid stations, each of which you pass several times, on the way out and back and on both of the loops.  Volunteers are warm, enthusiastic, and helpful.   While there are a few intersections and trail changes to negotiate, all are extremely well marked, and every trail is festooned with plenty of "confidence" streamers.  Those who get lost on this course have only themselves to blame.

As a whole, the race manages to combine excellent organization and a low-key, welcoming spirit.  I'd recommend this to anyone looking to complete a first ultra.  That seems to be the intention of the sign placed just past the 26.2 mile marker that reads "You are now an ultramarathoner!"  I'm a great fan of these little inspirational messages on ultra courses, and this one is a nice touch.

The finisher "medal," a small wooden plaque, is another nice touch--distinctive, and appropriately nature-ish.

Stuff for runners: Performance and Lessons Learned

I finished in 9th place out of the 263 finishers, in 4:15.    That's faster than I've done in a trail 50k before (although admittedly the ones I've run, Promise Land and Catoctin, aren't "normal" 50ks).   It was a bit of a surprise, too, after the last few weeks of work stress, holiday overindulgence, uninspired training, and an aggravating commute out of DC the night before.

For the first time in my experience (the last?), almost everything falls into the category of "what worked":

  • Using a heartrate monitor to cultivate "mindfulness."  While I've worn a heartrate monitor in ultras before, I've never used one quite like this.   I wasn't so much monitoring physiology as creating a fixed mental "anchor" to focus the mind, and to track all those little moments when the mind inevitably strays.  For pretty much the whole race, I was acutely aware of those moments: admiring botanical wonders, humming holiday tunes.  But each time I was able to bring my attention back to the number: a steady 150 bpm or lower (about 85% of my maximum).  In the first half, the challenge was to stay below 150; towards the end of the race, to pull things up from the mid 140s when I began to slow.
  • Rapid cadence.  This is always something I've practiced in trail running.  But now I went still more rapid, faster than the supposedly "ideal" cadence--ideal in terms of biomechanical efficiency--of 180 steps for minute.  I have theory that resilience is not the same as efficiency.  For a marathon or below, yes, you want maximum efficiency.  But in the ultra, it may be worthwhile to trade off some absolute efficiency for resiliency--the ability to stay springy after many hours of running.  That probably sounds a bit odd, but hey, we're all an "experiment of one" and have the freedom to try out whatever daffy idea we like.
  • Steady nutrition: I consumed 600 calories of Tailwind, all of it in one concentrated 16 oz bottle carried in the front of the my vest (the ridiculously light Tony Krupicka version of the Ultimate Direction hydration pack).  At one aid stop early in the race, I ate a handful of nuts, to quiet the hunger grumbles and on the theory that a little fat might slow and even out the absorption of calories.  My stomach remained untroubled, happy the whole race--not something it typically does in warmer temperature.
  • Hydration: I probably drink less than some people.  Formulas for hydration, I believe, are misleading.  Trial and error, sometimes painful error, has been unavoidable in my experience.  I consume by "instinct," which for me is a combination of feeling thirsty and making guesses, based on experience, about where I am in the race and how I'm responding to conditions.
  • Electrolytes: I know the science on this is inconclusive, but I have learned (again, the hard way) that steady supplementation of water with electrolytes is a necessity for this running body.  Although the Tailwind I was consuming comes with the electrolytes built in, given the conditions, I supplemented with a tab an hour of Saltstick.   This appeared to work perfectly, although I still found post-race that I craved salty things for a day or so.
  • The Inova 245 Trailrocs.  Racing in these was a bit of a revelation, actually.  All year I've been wearing Hokas at my races, and while I love the extra cushion on the downhills, there's something not right about how they affect my running.  I can't put my finger on it, but I think with every shoe there are trade offs, and the hyper-cushioned Hokas diminish the flexibility and proprioception (sense of the body in its environment) that are needed to make the constant little adjustments to form that allow us to cultivate resilience over the long run.  To put that in motto form: your feet are smarter than you are.
The list of "what didn't work" is mercifully short.  File them under "well, duh":

  • The night before the race, on the Friday before Christmas, driving south out of the DC area.  You will arrive completely frazzled and mostly drained of good will towards all.
  • Trying to avoid chafing from the heartrate strap by slathering it in vaseline.  It will slip down-- repeatedly.