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.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Running the inner Grand Canyon: John Annerino's quest

John Annerino.   Running Wild, An Extraordinary Adventure of the Human Spirit.  New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992, 1998.

Thirty years ago, John Annerino--avid climber, runner, and sometime instructor at a community college
in southern Arizona--ran the length of the Grand Canyon.   He did so three times during the early 1980s, each attempt following a path more remote and arduous than the previous.

Running away and running toward

Annerino's motivations for undertaking these unprecedented journeys on foot were at the outset unclear even to himself.   Never reticent about dramatizing the private, he recounts a colorfully failed engagement (probably for the best), a climbing injury that nearly kills him and then nearly takes his legs, and a vague disaffection with modern culture, including the "running boom," still in its early stages, being hyped in ever larger and more commercial venues.  

Ultrarunners often begin by running away from as much as running towards something.  An emotional mess before his journey, as his Canyon trilogy progresses, Annerino seems to leave his personal demons behind.

What does he find out there?  It is the inner landscape that unfolds most revealingly.  Annerino comes to the end of each run on fire with a quest to know, to reimagine, to reconstruct and relive at personal level the experience of the "Anasazi," ancient inhabitants of the Canyon.   (Since his book was published, the term "Anasazi," or "ancient enemy" in Navajo, has fallen out of favor, because the Hopi consider these people to be their ancestors.)

Gradually at first and then ever more firmly as his narrative progresses, Annerino's running aims at a single question: could the Kaibab, Hopi, and their ancestors have run the inner Canyon as one leg of a grander 1100 mile trade route that stretched from the California to New Mexico?

The answer appears to be yes.

"Eaten by a wolf and shit over a cliff"

Starting in the spring of 1980, the first of his three runs takes him along the South Rim, along the rugged Tonto Trail.  Along the way, his foot swells and becomes a ball of pain, and he suffers from nausea, dry heaves, and the painful knowledge of the distance he still has to cover.  Annerino awakes on day 3 feeling as if he's been "eaten by a wolf and shit over a cliff."

Gradually, running improves and pain subsides for long stretches at a time (as all ultrarunners know, it always returns).  As he frees himself from fixation on his own suffering, Annerino's narrative begins to toggle between the extreme conditions in real-time, and the time-travelling vision fueled by his research on Native American traditions of running.   Space as well as time becomes jumbled.  Thoughts come to him of Eastern traditions such as the lung gompas of Tibet described by David Neel and Lama Govinda.  

The Hopi-Havasupai Trail, 1981

Daunting as the South Rim and Tonto trail had been, this is a mere warm up for the run Annerino has planned for the spring of 1981.

The Hopi-Havasupai trail proves to be, in the end, a desperate and dangerous struggle for suvival. It is less a "trail" than an idea, a leap in the dark.  A trade route may once have existed, but any trace has been scribbled over by centuries of wagon ruts and, more recently, the erosive tracks of pickup trucks.  Other times, Annerino and his crew find themselves following a trail that is "no more than a desert bighorn sheep path mashed into a forty-five-dgree slope...the most exposed and dangerous trail any of us has ever been on."

The desert days are broiling, the nights frigid.  Sleep on one particular night involves perching on a "slippery ledge without sliding into the brink or dying of exposure."   But day after harrowing day, he somehow finds a way forward.  Was this a trade route followed by ancient runners?  It seems incredible, and yet, when we remember the astonishing accomplishments documented in Peter Nabokov's 'Indian Running'--published in 1981, the same year as Annerino's Hopi-Havasupai run--just possible.

North Rim, 1982

In 1982, Annerino undertakes the third and final of his Canyon runs.  The North Rim route is a trek of 250 miles, of which fewer than 50 are on anything that could reasonably be termed a "trail."   This will be the most remote, extensive, and topographically challenging of his Canyon runs.  He will need to cover it with almost no logistical support.  His crew will have little access.

Annerino nearly drowns, nearly freezes to death, and barely escapes a rattlesnake bite.  Naturally, it is the most exhilerating and enlightening of the three runs.  As he goes deeper and deeper into this rugged terrain, he runs backward in time.  With ever more clarity he imagines, hears, and nearly sees a Canyon of centuries ago, one that is much more populous than today, with ancient runners following traditions of that are preserved, perhaps, by the Tarahumara of Mexico, who reportedly cover as much as 200 miles in their 48-hour kickball contests through the barrancas of the Sierra Madre.  

Aftermath and the way forward

Annerino tells us it takes a decade or so for him to absorb the meaning of his experience running the Grand Canyon.  In the years immediately following his North Rim run in 1982, he avoids returning to the Canyon trails.  It is too much.  When at last he is ready to see them again, he comes in company with his wife and children, gathering safely in areas designated for tourists.

Something rather mystical happens in that return visit.  I won't give it away--spoilers.  Suffice to say that Annerino leaves with a firm sense of the path he needs to continue following for the rest of his life.  Now a noted photographer and chronicleer of the Southwest region, he appears to have done just that (

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Thursday, October 3, 2013

2013 Grindstone, Interrupted

This is a race report about a race that wasn't.  Not for me.  As of this writing, it remains to be seen whether the 2013 Grindstone 100 will happen for anyone.

Last Tuesday, 2 days ago, we learned that the race was suspended.  Although the George Washington National Forest is open (a Forest is not a Park, you see), as a specially permitted event, the race needs to be supervised by USPS personnel--who, like most of the other 800,000 furloughed federal workers, are not allowed to so much as answer a work-related email while the government remains shuttered.

Getting off the grid 

What I will miss.

There is nothing in my experience like the moment just before the start of an ultra.  All the better if the huddled souls at the starting line are few, the location remote, the terrain rugged.  Better still if shadows are beginning to lengthen and the trail appears to disappear into the darkness of trees and mountainside.  A chill in the air doesn't hurt.  Best of all is when the journey ahead is far, far too long to mentally grasp.  When all you can do is accept the trail and the present moment as your temporary home.

In this moment before the start, fear mixes with desire until they are almost indistinguishible.  The sensation comes with a strong tang of release: you are going "off the grid."  Cellphones won't work (and you wouldn't carry one anyway).  No one can reach you.  No one is really sure where you are.

Hence the nervous laughter at the start.  This is, truly, absurd.

You know what lies ahead.  As the race grinds on, the strings binding you to ordinary existence will loosen and then snap.  Anxieties, memories, plans, hopes, the good and the bad, all of it--all of that stuff, the blah-blah-blah in your brain--will slip away.  After many hours and many miles, you'll feel yourself further and further out at sea, and that to keep moving forward in this small and frail vessel, you must chuck it all, piece by piece, overboard.

Where the Wild Things Are

I said that there is nothing I can think of quite like this moment at the start of a race like Grindstone.  But something analogous does to mind.  Like many little boys (and girls too, though I do not know), I was bewitched by the moment in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are when Max's bedroom begins to morph into a forest on the shore of a sea.

The fancy word for this--Max's experience as well as mine--is liminal.  It is to pass through a threshold, a gateway into a different world.  Maybe become a different creature altogether.  

(Mural in the children's section of the Richland County Public Library, Columbia, SC.
From Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, 1963;
The grid is everywhere

Perhaps this liminal experience stuff, this getting off the grid, is all just a grand illusion?

When news of the suspension of this year's race appeared in my email inbox, it was a moment of sharp cognitive dissonance.  So, events in Congress can affect my otherworldly Wild-Thing liminal romp in the mountains of Virginia?

Apparently they can.  You cannot get off the grid.  Not now, not anymore.  Our world is too small, there are far too many of us, the dependencies are too complex and multitudinous to simply unravel oneself and slip unseen into the mountains.

Or maybe there are other ways to get there?   Maybe there's a forest in a sea hidden somewhere in that wall?

Human ties

Cultivated self-reliance, a sense of being at home in your own skin and in the wilds, are probably necessary illusions for hauling one's body over the Grindstone course.  In honesty, though, self-reliance is insufficient.

Could I, would I, make my way over the mountains for a hundred miles without the help of volunteers at aid stations, a marked trail, the technology in my shoes, clothing, gear, headlamp and other devices?  Would such a cracked endeavor occur to any of us without the examples of all those who came before, those living and those long dead?  Without the company of like-minded runners all around me?

It seems the "grid"--ugly word, that--isn't the only network that matters.

There are other forms of human connection, other intricate and unseen webs of dependencies beyond the grid (or gridlock) of laws, governments, and economies.   These felt and experienced connections will not register on any surveillance device.  The NSA cannot hear the vibrations of these myriad threads.

A bowl of porridge

So let me amend my earlier statement:

The sensation of freedom and fear at the start of the race is one of my two most cherished experiences in an ultra.  The other is the very strong sense of not being alone.  Even when I cannot see the next headlamp or hear footfalls behind me, I know I am not alone.  I am never alone.  We are all on the mountain together.

When Max is on the Island of the Wild Things, his bedroom seems impossibly far away.  Yet it is right there.  At the end of his odyssey are a room, a bed, and a bowl of still-warm porridge, implicit signs that however fierce he has become, cavorting alone among the monsters, Max is still loved, still cared for, still at home.

Looking to November 2

As of today, Grindstone is postponed to next week (pending the re-opening of government).  However, I have withdrawn my entry and am refocusing my training on the Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50 Miler (MMTR 50), which takes place on November 2.

Why?  First, extending my taper for another week would start to shade into just plain "lazing around."  It's a fine line sometimes.  More importantly, living in perpetual uncertainty about whether or not the race will occur, rejiggering my work calendar yet again, and walking about denouncing our elected representatives would not put me a good frame of mind for an event like this.  Or anything else, really.

So, I broke my taper this morning.  I ran a good hard 2 hours on the trail, and felt--well, invigorated, energized, and quite over the disappointment of Grindstone and entirely focused now on the MMTR 50 Miler a month from now.

This gives me a little more time to raise money for the Soldier's Project, which provides mental health services, anonymously and free of charge, to members of the military and their families.  Please consider a donation:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

101.85 miles (and 23000 feet) for The Soldiers Project

This sinister-looking image is the elevation profile for the Grindstone 100 mile trail race, which takes place each year in early October in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia.  The race twists through what is sometimes called the "Rollercoaster," a rugged, relentlessly up-and-down course with a cumulative altitude gain of over 23000 feet and a total mileage of 101.85 miles.  

A year older, but apparently no wiser, in a bit over a month, I'll be returning to Grindstone for the second time.  On Friday evening of October 4, I'll set off with slightly fewer than 200 runners for a full night of running.  We'll run all the next day.  For most of us, when the sun goes down a second time on October 5, we'll still be running.

The cause for which I am running

This year, I'm running on behalf of The Soldiers Project, an innovative and award-winning non-profit that provides free counseling and support to military service members who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as to family members, who also struggle with the trauma of war.

The organization relies on the services of licensed mental health professionals who volunteer their time.  As a private, non-profit organization not affiliated with any governmental organization, it also relies on the generosity of donors.   

For most Americans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are "over."  Wars do not end so easily.  While advances in military technology and medicine have meant that many more soldiers survive and are able to return home than in past conflicts, that physical survival can come with a terrible cost to veterans and their families.  

Traumatic injuries of all kinds, including mental trauma, depression, suicide, and host of related effects are at record levels among members of the military and their families.   

A personal commitment

As an administrator and English professor at University of Maryland University College, a university with a long relationship with the U.S. Military, I have come to see first hand the incredible dedication and resiliancy of military students and military spouses who pursue their education in face of disruptions, uncertainties, and pressures that would derail most of us.   

You haven't taught Shakespeare until you've had students reading Henry IV on a base in Iraq.  Such students are a constant source of inspiration and sense of purpose for those of us who work at UMUC.

Over the years, I have also seen the other side of the coin--the constant pressures of deployment and the traumas that come with protracted wars can derail lives.  Members of the military and their families always deserve the support of their fellow citizens.  This is more important than ever at a time our government, seemingly unable to govern, has failed to adequately support military veterans and their families.  

It's up to the rest of us to do the right thing.

How to contribute:
Very simple.  Follow the link to my fundraiser on crowdrise for the Soldier's Project Crowdrise site, then click Donate.

Suggested donations: .01, .10, .25, .50, or $ 1.00 per mile.  You do the math.  Feel free to round down to 100 miles!

Every little bit helps.  Thank you!  

The next is that I need hold up my end of the bargain, get in those long runs and hill sessions, keep mind and body together, and show up ready to go on October 4.  

Whatever happens, you can be sure I'll share a complete report with you.

Some more links

The Soldier's Project

My report on last year's Grindstone 100

Race information site for Grindstone 100

10/3/13 UPDATE:

Last Tuesday, 2 days ago, we learned that the race was suspended.  Although the George Washington National Forest is open (a Forest is not a Park, you see), as a specially permitted event, the race needs to be supervised by USPS personnel--who, like most of the other 800000 furloughed federal workers, are not allowed to so much as to answer a work-related email while the government is shuttered.  

As of today, the 2013 Grindstone is postponed to next week (pending the re-opening of government). 

However, I have decided to withdraw my entry and am refocusing my training on the Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50 Miler (MMTR 50), which takes place on November 2.  For those of you who have donated to the Soldier's Project, I thank you again, and hope you are ok with my transferring my fundraising event from Grindstone to MMTR.  While it's "only" 50 miles, the trail is no less rocky and steep, with 9200 feet of elevation gain, the worst of it coming at you in the latter in the half of the race.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Lung-Gom-Pa Runners of Tibet

Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet.  New York: Dover, 1971.  (Translation of the 1929 publication, Mystiques et magiciens du Thebet.)

Lama Anagarika Govinda, Way of the White Clouds.  New York: Overlook Press, 2005.  

The first references in the West to the lung-gom-pa runners of Tibet are the eyewitness accounts of Alexandra David-Neel, published in 1929, and the spiritual autobiography of Lama Anagarika Govinda, recorded a decade or so later.  

Born in Germany in 1998 as Ernst Lothar Hoffman,  Lama Govinda describes in some detail the range of practices that are grouped under the umbrella of lung gom pa.  Multi-day cross-country "tramps," as David-Neel calls them, were just one manifestation.   The related practice of tumo, for example, involved the control of body temperature and the ability to produce internal heat, allowing the adept to walk about in the coldest weather with nothing but a light toga.  

Lung, says Lama Govinda, refers to air as well as vital energy or psychic force, the term thus denoting both a physical and mental phenonmenon (Buddhism considers illusory the distinction between these dualities).  Gom-pa signifies meditation, the mental and spiritual discipline needed to advance in one's practice.  So, lung-gom-pa in combination could be translated, according to Lama Govinda, as a disciplined concentration on the control of vital energy.  

"Extraordinary swiftness"

Lama Govinda's autobiographical the Way of the White Clouds is philososphical and poetic.  David-Neel's narrative is no less so, although her characteristic mode of discovery is exuberant, headstrong, restlessly active, as she explores a land that had been all but barred to all foreigners, let alone to self-styled "lady lamas" from France.

Travelling by horseback through Northern Tibet in the 1920s,  David-Neel spotted a tiny figure, no more than a "black spot" at first, moving rapidly towards her across the high grassy tableland.  She was astonished.  She and her servants were travelling across an essentially uninhabited landscape and had not met another person for two weeks.   

The man was running, after a fashion, proceeding "with an extraordinary swiftness."  As he drew near, she saw that he was not so much running as levitating with each step, lifted into the air as if "endowed with the plasticity of a ball."  She observed the man's face, perfectly calm, seemingly unaware of their presence, his eyes fixed on a distant point "somewhere high up in space."  

David-Neel's servants dismounted and bowed, telling her that this was a "lama lung gom pa" and that to accost him, to break his trance, would kill him.  

Skeptical, but chary of compromising her status as a "lady lama," David-Neel resisted acting on the spirit of insatiable curiosity and utter fearlessness that runs throughout her narrative: "I wanted to observe him at close quarters, I also wished to have a talk with him, to put him some questions, to photograph him...I wanted many things."  

"Moving Slopes and...Horses' Hoofs"

Lama Anagarika Govinda pursued his studies of Buddhism first in Ceylon and India, then in Tibet in the 1930s and 1940s.  In his autobiographical account of his time in Tibet, The Way of the White Clouds, he records an uncanny experience on the shores of Lake Pangong (below).  It almost resulted in his death but in retrospect revealed to him the secrets of the lung gom pa runners.

The climate of Tibet, he writes, is the closest place on earth to the surface of another planet, a place where "all accepted rules of nature seem to be changed."  So extreme is the contrast between sun and shade, one can, he reports, develop sunburn and blisters on one side of the body, and chilblains on the other.    There is no medium, no comfortable twilight zone, for "the air is too rarified."  It is also unpredictable.  Tempests can appear suddenly out a clear blue sky.

Nonetheless, on one particularly fine day, Lama Govinda set off clad lightly, wearing sandals, without food or water, planning to spend a day tramping and painting.  His immediate object was the short of Lake Pangong.  Along his hike, he has an encounter with a herd of kang, wild horses that are shy of humans and rarely seen.  

Approaching the lake, he has to pick his way across a field of boulders.  Between the boulders are deep grooves, forcing one to take large, awkward steps in order to avoid getting stuck.  Leaving the boulders for relief nearer to the shoreline, he narrowly avoids getting pulled down to freezing waters by a moving slope, a small avalanche of stones, that drops off at an angle of 45 degrees into freezing waters that would surely kill him in minutes.

He scrambles back to the boulder field.  It is then that he notices, in the deep grooves between the rocks, a strange and, on reflection, gruesome sight: a large number of horse hoofs, minus any trace of the horses.  It is if an entire herd has vanished.  There are no bones, no skins, no other remains but the hoofs.

The day wears on.  He hardly notices either the distance covered or the passage of time.  Clouds gather, darkening the sky.  By the time he has turned back for the return to camp, the sun is already sinking and the air is rapidly cooling.  He is now hungry, increasingly cold, far from camp, and uncertain of the way back.  

Darkness falls in earnest.  Resisting the urge to sit down and rest, likely fatal in these rapidly dropping temperatures, Lama Govinda begins at this moment to run.  In a pitch black night without stars or moon, he must traverse the same field of boulders where he earlier spotted the horses' hoofs.  And he must avoid the shifting shore, the sheer drop into icy lakewater, and perhaps whatever strange fate claimed the vanished herd of horses.  

It is then that his steps become long, sure, and rapid, despite the darkness and treacherous terrain.  He is aware of no obstacles, no fear.  Govinda later recounts that he "had reached a condition in which the weight of the body is no more felt and in which the feet seem to be endowed with an instinct of their own, avoiding invisible obstacles and finding footholds...." 

Only after several yeas have passed, as he reads for the first time, and with growing excitement, the earlier account of David-Neel, is he able to understand his experience as one in which he had "unwittingly conformed to the rules of," and in an inspired flash mastered, lung-gom-pa running.  

A rope of air

Generating enough body heat internally to sweat, although naked, in icy subzero air; levitating one's body through the air and running rapidly, without pause, for days and nights at a time: can any of this possibly be real?   

I suppose we first must know with some precision what we mean by the question.  

Govinda and David-Neel are learned, critical, authors and, I am convinced, trustworthy guides and witnesses.  David-Neel saw something out there on the high grassy tablelands of Tibet.  Something happened to Lama Govinda on the shores of Lake Pangong that day.  

Other parallels give pause to my own skepticism.  As Peter Nabokov documents in his Indian Running, the esoteric training, or hokep, of Yoruk runners includes a number of elements similar to the lung-gom-pa: a series of exercises to master breathing, until the rushing air becomes a "rope" on which a runner is rapidly pulled; mental focus on a single point, such as a star or a mountain, inducing a trance-like concentration; and the uncanny ability to surely navigate a demanding trail even in the dark.  

Yoruk runners, too, are said to be able to cover large distances rapidly--and to do so with a preternaturally long, levitating stride. As Nabokov notes, it is said that "runners reaching this state of consciousness could skim over the tops of close-growing manzanita bushes on the southern slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains.”

Vanished traces

The Tibet of which David-Neel and Lama Govinda write is gone now.  The Chinese invasion of 1950 and subsequent systematic cultural cleansing have largely swept away the otherworldly realm they describe: a land of lamas, hermits, necromancers, monastaries, magicians, bandits, ghosts, animated corpses, and mysterious floating lights.  

Like Lama Govinda's mysterious horses' hoofs, their words are all that remain to us of the lung-gom-pa runners of old Tibet.

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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Heat on the Potomac & New Blood on the Trails: 2013 North Face Endurance Challenge, Washington, DC

Fireflies at 5AM

I've seen some online kvetching about The North Face's decision to start the DC 50 miler just before dawn.  There are maybe 40 minutes of darkness before twilight, so why not just start at 6AM?  Adding to the annoyance of some, TNF race rules list as "mandatory" the possession of a flashlight or headlamp (although in three goes at the DC 50 miler, I've never seen anyone pulled out for not packing light).

Yet it makes for a magical first half hour.  You start out loping around a cool, dewy, grassy field.  There's a line of lights snaking ahead and behind, weaving and bobbing through the darkness.

Then on to the Potomac Heritage trail, plunging into the tunnel of trees, following the dangling glowsticks around the early twists and turns.   Out into the "lowlands" area, through long grass, marshy, nettly country.  The sun comes up by then, breaks brilliantly across the river to the east and south.

Frogs in a slow boil

The mid-Atlantic has had a mostly cool spring this year, punctuated by some weirdly sporadic heat, so I'm guessing most of the runners on the course were, like me, more or less utterly unprepared for 90-plus degree heat.  As an early AM runner, my preparation for the heat this year was, well, nil.

Yet the first two or three hours felt fabulous.  The air was warmish, but not particularly humid.  Almost silken in that first hour.  June air along the Potomac in the DC area can be a sloppy, muggy, atmospheric sinkhole.  But this was definitely not that.

When the first blue of the sky showed through the trees, it was that deep, low humidity sky I associate

with the West.   Sweat would be evaporating today in bucketloads.  Good and bad news.

I suspected things might get ugly, hours hence.  But like the intellectual knowledge that one will someday die, this seemed abstract.  I didn't feel it.  The knowledge of what was coming didn't seem personally applicable.   I zipped along at a good clip.

So. This was the first and happiest third of what I think of as a three-part race (Potomac Heritage Trail; 3 laps around Great Falls Park; back on the PHT).  I had good company in this section.  I fell in with Mason Mendenhall, running his first ultra.  A 2:40 marathoner, he surely must have been feeling pretty relaxed, running at my pace.        

We went our separate ways on the Great Fall loop.  The first lap, 7 or 8ish miles I guess, went by fairly quickly.  Still, not too hot.  Not too bad.

Well, wait.

Somewhere on that second loop around Great Falls Park, somewhere around 25 miles, I began to feel it.  Sun, heat coming off the rocks, heat radiating off my skin.  I was soaked.  My pack was soaked.  The water bottle was emptying faster.  I saw increasingly grim, salt-streaked faces on other runners.

Half hour after half hour, conditions ratcheted up with an almost deliberate, sadistic steadiness.  North Face organizers, to their very great credit, were ready.  Aid stations were awash in water and volunteers.  There was plenty to fill bottles and pour over our heads.


I was zipping along in the zone, totally focused on navigating the rock garden (or what TNF likes to call the "marquis section" of the race), focused on avoiding a precipitous fall into the Potomac.  So, not until the last possible moment before disaster did I hear the cries of "snake! snake!"  I came to a halt.

Laid out on the path ahead was a big brown copperhead.   It seemed inert, but I was taking no chances. I gave it a ludicrously wide bearth, circling around the tail end.  If that thing started moving, I was determined...not to have to squeal in an unmanly fashion.

For the rest of the race, of course, every stick under every rock seemed ready to rear up and strike.  Something to take my mind off the heat, anyway.

More good company

On the final, increasingly grueling lap around around Great Falls, I ran ahead, behind, and alongside Evan Fisher from Springfield, VA, who as it turns out was running just his second 50 miler.  The first one he finished in 7:30.  This one, not so flat and definitely not so cool, would obviously be slower.  We ran together until the end of lap three, then I took a good, long break before the final push.  Evan forged on, and eventually finished a good 15 minutes ahead of me.

The North Face Machine--New Blood on the Trails

This race seems to attract a number of first-time or relatively new ultra runners.  This was my own first ultra, three years ago.   Last year, I briefly got all sniffy about the "corporate" feel of the TNF events--the uninspiring "inspiration" from Deano, the booths at the finish, the circus of it all--and ran something else.

Stow your pompous cynicism and give them credit.  No mean feat it is, managing the logistics of four trail races on one day (50 miler, 50k, marathon, marathon relay), followed by three more the next (half-marathon, 10k, 5k).   And the circus stuff?  Well it brings new blood to trail running and ultras, and that is a good thing.

You look at the map before the race and you think, what?  This won't work.  I won't remember this.  But it does, and you do.  What it all feels like, from a 50 miler's perspective, is as follows.  Relative solitude over the first third of the race.  When you get to the laps around Great Falls, increasingly busy-ness, runners going this way and that.   The 50k runners join in, their blue numbers less crinkly and beat up than your pink number.  Then, bedraggled like you, the other 50 milers, running both directions on the trail (the loop is not so much a loop as a collection of out-and-backs).

For the last 15-mile section, back along the Potomac Heritage Trail, you retrace your steps from earlier in the day, back along the river to Algonkian Regional Park.  Here, you are joined by the marathoners.  Zipping by now and then, as if they inhabited a different time-space reality, are the relay runners.   And now and then, the occasional 50 miler, a fellow sufferer; as you pass or are passed, you have only to glance at them to share a wordless solidarity of pain.

(Photo on right is courtesy of Katie Keier, whose excellent blog is at

Giving up gobs of time on the final 15 

I made no knuckleheaded mistakes this race, unless you count even starting a 50 mile race under such conditions.  I knew I would slow, probably a great deal, over the last 15 miles and in the ever-increasing heat.  And slow I did, just as predicted, but not catastrophically; I ran the whole way, shuffling steadily forward under the noonday sun.

This last section of the race repeats the morning in reverse order.  In the first 8 miles coming out of Great Falls, there are steep hills, carved by erosion and the uneven distribution of soft sediment and hard igneous stone.  One moment you are at the top of a ravine, peering down a deep declivity, then next you are rushing down to the riverside.    Over the last 7 or so, the trail flattens, eases up.  In theory, you could go faster here.  But now the heat has settled in, a palpable weight.

Dude, you're 48??

One of the things I especially like about this race is that I'm surrounded mostly by young guys, not "battle hardened veterans" (to put it most flatteringly) like myself.  I think the next person in my particular old-man category was a good hour behind me.

More than once, I was asked, point blank, how old I was.  The guys who asked were half, maybe rather less than half, my age.  The second, when I told him 48, seemed about to fall over.  "Dude!"  As in, dude, is that possible?  Or, as in, dude, you look pretty good.  Or as in, dude, it's amazing you can even walk.

I enjoy this stuff.  Seriously, I can't wait to hit 50.


In the parking lot, I heard winner Mike Wardian telling a buddy it was "brutal out there."  Yeah, well, Mr. Marathon des Sables, you only ran 6 and and a half hours.  Try being out there an extra two hours.  That's when things really got brutal.

I can't imagine how it was for those out in the heat 11, 12, or 13 hours.   I could not have done it.  When I was done, I was done, cooked.  Happy, having run my second-best of three attempts on this course (8:48) under wretched conditions; 22nd place overall, 2nd in my age group; still alive, not too beaten up, uninjured, and with my 5th ultra of 2013 under my belt.

Sunday, and a Victory in the Half Marathon

I stuck around Saturday night.  At the Marriot Residence Inn in Sterling (recommended), I was joined by my nephew Andrew and his dad, my brother-in-law Mike Catanese.  On Sunday, Andrew ran--and won by a wide margin--his first trail race, the half-marathon.  Yeah!

Andrew said at one point he was going downhill so fast, he knew he wouldn't make the turn, so went straight into the underbrush to break his descent.   Sorry, dude, never, ever had that problem myself.

A steepchaser at Washington U in St. Louis, Andrew has ambitions of running a trail ultra someday soon.  I'm really looking forward to following his progress out there.  He's going to tear it up, I predict.

What Worked: my nutrition puzzle solved

Three years of running ultras, and the insoluable problem for me has always been my gd stomach.  It has tortured me, drained me of energy, brought my running to a grinding, painful halt.  I have nothing good to say about it.

This kind of extreme heat should have been the worst possible situation.  The math turns all against you in the heat.  Eating, drinking, taking in electrolytes, draining the stomach: in extreme heat, it becomes a calculus of impossible complexity.

I was just fine.  This was the first ultra where I can truly say I took in adequate calories.  And hydration.  No worries.

I've never plugged, as in really plugged, a product before.   But I have to say, for this experiment of one, the new Tailwind Nutrition product was exactly right, exactly as advertised.  Tailwind is a powder you mix with water, an all-in-one solution that combines calories with electrolytes.  You can ditch all the pills, gels, all that sticky artiface.

I bought Tailwind  out of desperation. Every experiment seemed reach same conclusion: I had a digestive system ill-suited for ultras.   So, for me, this was a revelation.

Maybe they'll give me some free product for the endorsement.  Maybe not.  It makes no difference, because I'll keep buying the stuff.  I can't imagine myself ever again fueling an ultra, and certainly not an ultra in the heat, on anything else.

Thanks to Tailwind for being the first to finally get it right.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ultramarathons on Mars

Among the time-wasting diversions that parade daily through my virtual life are updates from a site called "Trail Porn."  TP serves up big glossy high-res images not of naked people doing naughty things on trails but of impossibly gorgeous locations around the world for running or hiking.  People, naked or otherwise, are beside the point.  Typically they are lost in the landscape like figures in Chinese paintings of terraced mountainsides.  Sometimes the landscapes are empty, human presence implied only by thin ribbons of single-track snaking into the wild.
Most TP images depict mountains or deserts.  Space, solitude, and a red ochre color palate are recurring themes. Western States figure prominently--dunes in Oregon, canyons in Arizona, mountains in Colorado.

Other locations are, for a North American viewer, more exotic.  A curving passage through the Razorback in the Australian Victorian Alps.  Or this photo of the Spanish La Palma, jutting into space like the prow of a ship.  Were it not for the blue sky and sparse pines clinging to one side, this could be a shot taken from the landscape of Mars. 

If the name is just a little too cute, "Trailporn" is an apt enough description for the visceral longing for the Wild these images evoke for some of us.   A desire so piercing it is almost a taste in the mouth, something sharp and tangy, a stirring sensation in the lower belly and an excited flutter in the chest.  Wild fever.

As all of us of certain age realize, these kinds of feelings invariably lead to trouble.

Years ago, I remember driving on a broiling summer day through the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, thinking--idly at first, then almost a little afraid of myself--about what would happen if I stopped the car and wandered out into the maze of that strange, rugged landscape.  I've felt it, too, running alone up the side of Scout Mountain near Pocatello, Idaho, pausing at threshold of a trail I hadn't seen before, then plunging forward and up despite the unfamiliar route and despite the long low shadows of a late autumn afternoon (an extremely poor decision, by the way, and it's only through sheer luck I'm here now to write about the experience).  Most recently, I've felt it at the start of the Grindstone 100, heading into the twilight start of the race and into the unknown.

I recognize the same tug of the Wild in some of the ever-improving images from a place I will never go, the Martian landscape.  Like this recent image from the approach to Mount Sharp showing angled strata and a series of rises that apparently have areologists very excited, as they "did not expect" to see anything like this.   What is just over the last rise, I wonder?

Decades ago, Kim Stanley Robinson imagined it all on a grand scale.  In his Martian trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, a character named Nirgal covers vast distances alone and on foot across the terraformed, and by then habitable, landscape.  His runs grow progressively longer, culminating in a competitive event known as the "round the worlder," which he manages to dominate for a decade, beating much younger runners year after year.  In this Martian ultramarathon, participants are able to choose their own course, heading east or west, with the goal of circumnavigating the planet and covering some 21000 kilometers.  Navigational devices are not allowed, and satellites track participants to ensure they do not stray from the equatorial zone.  

Robinson's fantasy of a terraformed and runnable Martian landscape is centuries away--or will never come at all.  (Although if the Mars One project turns out not to be as completely mad as it seems, the first human footprint on the Red Planet may come as early as 2023.)  For decades after we landed on the moon, the desire for exploration seemed to go into a strange abeyance.  Reaching the red planet began to look doubtful.   But over the past few years, there has been a shift.  Duplicating a trip to the moon, or tooling about in low-earth orbit is no longer enough.  Human travel to the red planet sometime in the next few decades again seems a possibility.

Mars fever is back.  A novel plan for getting to Mars is hatched seemingly every year.  Some of the ideas for getting there are either wildly creative or desperate.  Like the one-way-ticket approach of the Mars One Project: go there, settle down, wait for supplies to be shipped up periodically, but don't expect to ever return home yourself.

Yet I doubt the Mars One organizers will have trouble finding volunteers.  As ultramarathoners know, hundreds of people will want to sign up for the most fantastically ill-advised adventures.  Unlikely as it sounds, it is no coincidence, I sense, that the push for Mars and the growth of ultra trail running are contemporaneous.  Mars fever and Wild fever are born of similar impulses.  Something about the overly complex, overly connnected age we live in generates both.   "Trailporn" and bold thinking about flights to Mars are signs of the times.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei

Straw Sandals

Among the many evocative black-and-white photographs that grace this wonderfully strange, if not entirely satisfying, book is the image of a row of straw sandals, hanging illuminated in the darkness.  They look unpromising as protection for the feet, less like shoes than elongated birds' nests held together by bits of string.  Yet these are the sandals worn by the gyoja, the so-called "marathon monks" of Japan, as they run the rocky and frequently rain-slicked paths on the five peaks that make up the mountain complex of Mt. Hiei.

One pair of sandals suffices, under ideal conditions, for perhaps a single day of running.  Conditions are frequently not ideal in this part of Japan.  And the gyoja will run far more than a single day at a stretch.

In heavy rain, the straw sandals disintegrate in a matter of hours.  So something seems seriously amiss with the figure of 80 pairs of sandals that Stevens tells us is allotted to each monk per 100-day "marathon"--an ordeal that entails running up to 52 miles a day, every day, without a break for the entire 100-day cycle.   Leaving aside every other aspect of running so mind-bogglingly far, the battering their feet must endure is difficult to imagine.

1000 days of running

Although Stevens does not dwell on the details (he has little to say about the actual experiences of the gyoja while running) similar hardships surely abound for the gyoja.  They run through the night on mountain trails without illumination, except what the stars and moon might provide.  They scitter along on their flimsy straw sandals across sharp rocks and nests of leaves that may or may not contain vipers, making innumerable mandatory stops at shrines and other stations whose location must be memorized.  It makes a modern, organized, supported 100-mile ultra look cushy.

Before each 100-day cycle of running, the gyoja observe a period of preparatory maegyo, which involves a careful settling of one's affairs and a severe restriction of diet.  For members of one sect, this means subsisting on a diet of nuts, buckwheat paste, potatoes, and pine needles.  Food intake during the 100-day run is hardly more robust, apparently amounting to fewer than 2000 calories a day.

Like the 80 pairs of straw sandals, there is something screwy with this figure.  It seems wholly inadequate for the effort of running 50 miles a day for 100 days.  It seems scarcely adequate for 100 days of lying around at home on the sofa.

Ten 100-day cycles completed over a period of 7 years make up the sennishi kaihogyo, the grand 1000-day cycle of running.   Each year ups the ante, with the longest sustained runs occuring in the 6th and 7th years.  Yet the 5th year ends with what to me seems the most harrowing and terrifying test of all.

"The heart of emptiness is not forgotten"

The doiri, or "entry to the hallway," is not a run.  In doiri, completed at the end of the 5th year in the 7-year cycle of sennichi kaiyogo, the monk endures 9 days without food, without water, without sleep.  During this time, he must remain standing, keeping his head erect.  It is symbolically, and sometimes literally, an encounter with death (apparently the doiri was originally 10 days, but too many monks died).  Those who pass through this ordeal emerge as something new, living Buddhas.

In several centuries worth of sennishi kaihogyo, scarcely more than a few handfuls of monks have completed the entire 1000-day 7-year cycle.  The monk Saicho, whose image appears on the cover of the book, has completed it twice.  More remarkably, his training as a gyoja did not begin until the atypcially advanced age of 40.  Saicho's unusual life story, from unpromising youth and troubled adulthood to mid-life conversion, is told in this book, along with accounts of other well-known gyoja.

Stories of individual monks like Saicho are the most engaging sections of Stevens' book.  When it comes to the inner experience and sensory impressions of the runs themselves, however, he has little to say.  So what was it like?  He doesn't appear to have asked the question.  Stevens speaks only of externals--sandals and hats, mileage and calorie counts.   Calmly or blandly, depending on your perspective, he reports the bare facts of this most unusual chapter in the history of human consciousness.

Perhaps the lack of affect is deliberate, yet I had moments of sympathy with the Goodreads poster who commented that, despite the inherent fascination of the topic, The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei "read like a field guide to fungus."

Taken on its own merits, though, the book is rewarding, and there appears to be nothing else on the subject quite like it.  The first half is devoted to a brief history of Tendai Buddhism and the development of the monastery on Mt. Hiei.  This structure mirrors the preparation of the gyoja: before they are permitted to undertake the sennichi kaihogyo, monks must undertake years of study and meditation.  They learn calmness, how to "stop the waves of confused thinking from churning"; the goal is to perceive the emptiness of the world, but not be separated from connnection with others, to be "engaged in a thousand affairs yet not be ruled by emotion beause the heart of emptiness is not forgotten."

This sounds like an effective mental state for running immense distances, or just navigating an average day in the modern world.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ribbon of Asphalt and Sand: 2013 Graveyard 100 Race Report

"The sea was angry that day, my friend; like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli" -- George Costanza

Friday evening before race day, I pulled up to the pier house behind the Hilton in Kitty Hawk to turn over my drop bags and catch the mandatory prerace briefing.   The sky had been clear on the drive over and the weather forecast for the weekend looked promising.  So it was a bit of a shock to step out on to the beach into the full force of the wind.   A chaotic surf pounded away at the pier.  Whitecaps were visible miles from the shore.   Gathered with other runners inside the pier house, I could feel the wooden framework rocking and swaying underfoot like a tethered boat about to snap free.

Although the weather system behind all this activity had struck far to the north, its back-end produced coastal surges that flooded and reshaped roads along the 100-mile route.  Race Director Brandon Wilson informed us that there was about a 50/50 chance that instead of running straight to Hatteras Lighthouse supported by a tailwind all the way, we would be turning back before the bridge to face 50 miles of headwinds.

In any case, we wouldn't have an answer, one way or the other, until about 9AM--4 hours into the race.

With this sobering uncertainty, I headed back to my hotel in Corolla for more last minute fussing with my gear, half an hour of "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" on the Food Network (food porn for a vegan non-cable-subscriber like myself), and a few fitful hours of sleep.

Cold Morning and Bright Stars: Currituck Heritage Park to Kitty Hawk

Out of my room in time to catch the 3:30 AM shuttle out to the park, I grabbed a few of the bagged breakfasts-to-go the Hampton Inn had prepared for race participants.  This wouldn't be the last instance of Outer Banks hospitality I was to experience.  Although the 2013 race was just its second annual iteration, the Gravestone 100 seems to have been adopted by residents as their own.  I see a mid-Atlantic ultramarathon tradition in the making.

Among the folks with whom I shared my early shuttle ride was a West Point Cadet who had come into town late the previous evening.  Not only was he running uncrewed, but had brought no drop bags.  Everything he needed had been meticulously placed into a tightly fitted Solomon pack.  "Keep it simple," he said.   I didn't mention my own five overly stuffed drop bags.  Later that day, I would come to appreciate the wisdom of his approach.

The start was typical ultra low key stuff.  We sang the national anthem (some of us more in key than others) then ambled off into the dark morning.  The Currituck Lighthouse sent a few long slow flashes through the trees before we hit the road and headed south under a sky of stars which, for someone who lives ten minutes from the DC beltway, were jaw-droppingly bright.  Not since my 2007 trip to Australia had I seen the dramatic shape of Scorpius so clearly and completely, undimmed by the perpetual glow on our southern horizon here in the Maryland suburbs of DC.

Corolla went by quickly in the cool dark moring.  When the sun came up, I took off my jacket, stowed the headlamp, donned my sunglasses.   Setting a pattern for most of the rest of the day, I was alternately too hot or too cold--and sometimes both at the same time.

As always, this was the chattiest portion of the race.  There seemed to be a surprising number of "first timers" at this race, more than I have met in other hundred milers.  Among them was Drew Coombes, one of a contingent of runners from Wilmington.  A little further on, I ran for a bit with Jordan Dornan, a triathalete from Colorado, who was also running his first hundred, along with his father, an experienced ultramarathoner, and his brother.   (Checking the results a little later, I saw that Jordan and his father finished together!)

AS 1 to AS2: Kitty Hawk to Nags Head

Check the route of the Graveyard 100 on Google or Mapquest, and the fat highlighted line of road makes it look as if you're running across the sea.   As in truth you are.  Despite the illusion of mainland normality created by touristy shops, hotels, restaurants, and endless beachhouses, the Outer Banks has many ways to remind those who live here that they are surrounded by sea.  Runners were appraised of this fact soon after leaving Aid Station 1.

Parts of the road through Kitty Hawk had become essentially a sand dune, interspersed with small ponds and an occasional runnable stretch of pavement.  The photo gives you some sense of what we faced.  Sucking dark sand lay thickly around the edges of the water.  I found myself at one point crawling desperately up the side of a sandbar to get to a more runnable surface at the top.

In the end, I found the best strategy was to accept getting wet and run straight through the little road lakes.   I could deal with blisters or wet clothes later.

Although the road cleared up in Nags Head, these conditions did not auger well for our continuing on to Hatteras.   So I was not surprised when somewhere around mid-morning, another runner informed me (with what sounded like grim satisfaction, I thought) that we would be turning around before the Hatteras Bridge.  It was to be headwinds, then, and the "alternate course"--whatever that meant--on the second half.

Into the Wind: Nags Head to Bodie and Back Again

After spending an inordinately long time dawdling about in Aid Station 3 (it was very hard not to linger, since the stations in this race are so few and far apart), I got on the road again.  With its wind-swept dunes, this inaugural section of the Hatteras National Seashore was my favorite part of the course.  I was sorry to have to miss most of this section.   We ran to within sight of Hatteras Bridge, but no further.

Among the runners I'd been running off and on with during this first half of the race was Kelly Wells, from South Carolina.   I'd always know when I was coming up on her, because like me she had the Ultraspire Revolution Pack (unlike me, however, she has mastered the leaky top on their oddly shaped water bottle).  Kelly reached the turnaround at 47 miles, several minutes before me, and was taking off just as I arrived.  That would be the last time I saw her.  Although I was no slouch on the second half, her second fifty was incredible.  Kelly finished under 19 hours and second among women--and most likely would have been first, too, had she not managed to talk the amazing Connie Gardner (American record-holder for most miles run in 24 hours) to enter the race.

Turning back into the wind was every bit as hard as I expected.  The thought of battling these headwinds for more than 50 miles was a tad demoralizing.  Oddly enough though, the enforced slowness soon made me feel a bit a better, and seemed to settle my stomach, which had gone a bit queasy between 30 to 40 miles.

After several miles of head-down running through the wind tunnel, we detoured for the first of two Brandon's two "extras" on this alternate course.    The side trip out to Bodie Island Lighthouse was a pleasant respite, sheltered most of the way by pine forest.   During this quite stretch of road, I fell in with Andrei Nana of Florida.  Andrei seemed to know everyone.  He chatted away about having dinner with Mike Morton, and various other elite or sub-elite runners I probably ought to know, but don't.  He also entertained me with details about the tradition and formality of the Spartathalon, an annual race of over 150 miles from Athens to Sparta.

Aid Stations 3 to 4: Luck of the Idiot

After spending distressingly long periods of time rummaging through my overstuffed drop bag, changing shoes, and fueling up, I was off for part 3 of this adventure.  Brandon had warned us the passage from AS3 to 4 would be the toughest.  It was, although not entirely for the same reasons as 2012.   Rather than running the the windswept lonely stretches of Hatteras Island, we would make our way back through Nags Head and Kitty Hawk--right back into the sand-bogs we passed through earlier in the day.

Now, however, the high tide had rendered these roads worse than ever, and in many places impassable.   And now it was dark, and now we were tired, having run more than 60 miles.  Large sand- (rather than snow-) ploughs patrolled the beachside road, rerouting cars, and runners, to side roads or, for portions, the side of the highway.

I wasn't thrilled about running against traffic in the dark, but fortunately the busiest road had a wide grassy shoulder.  I followed what urban planners call "desire lines"--paths of convenience formed by walkers--snaking along the road from shop to shop and gas station to gas station.   In this ultra on the asphalt, I got in some trail running after all, albeit strewn with cigarette butts and trash rather than rocks and tree roots.   The trail goes everywhere, I guess.

As a consequence of running off track, however, I missed more than one water stop, and at around 75 miles (by my best guess) found myself drinking the last of my water.  I didn't know how far off AS4 was, and was afraid I might miss it.   As I stared stupidly at my empty bottle, I heard a gruff voice from overhead asking whether I wanted water.  God??  I looked up and saw a couple on their deck, watching the runners tottering by down below.  Their daughter brought out some water and filled my bottle.   Once again I was impressed with Outer Banks hospitality.

Perhaps a half a mile on, I pulled into a gas station and met some race volunteers, who pointed me in the right direction.  They also told me to look out for the stoplight that marked the Fire Station; because I ended up approaching along a different road than I had come, I surely would have missed AS4 without this vital clue.

Magic Night...and Magical Thinking: Mile 78.5 to 95 miles

At AS4, we learned we were at 78.5 miles.  Heading out, I experienced one of those mysteries of the ultra.  I felt better at 80 miles, somehow, than I had at 30.  Although my watch does nothing fancier than tell the time of day, I feel sure that my pace through this stretch of the course--the town of Duck at night--was faster than it had been the previous morning.  One guy I passed asked if I was in the 100K; I thought he seemed just a little dismayed when I said no, I was running the 100 miler.

It was then the magical thinking took hold.

As so often seems to happen, the good periods contain the seeds of their own unravelling.   Unable or unwilling to do the math, I put out of my mind an obvious fact: simply running to Currituck Park would not get me to 100 miles.  Almost certainly, Brandon was hiding some sort of "extra" run up his sleeve.  But I didn't want to think about that.

I was like a drunk convinced he has superhuman powers.  I persuaded myself that I had now run beyond the ordinary need for food or water.   I could just cruise through to the end, feeling as good as I did that moment.  My gut conspired with these addled thoughts: the very idea of solid food--or even worse, gels--had become nauseating.

Endgame and Aftermath

Reality returned in the form of a gaggle of lights and voices, an idling car motor, and a makeshift finish chute of cones set up along the side of the road near the entrance to Currituck Park.  Brandon came out to deliver the news.  This was the finish, but not for me, not just yet.  I still had to run "about 2 miles" up to the beachhead, around a cone, then back.

None of this should have been surprising, but I felt utterly and suddenly deflated.  The way out went well enough, although I had to walk a bit up the hill, but on the way back, I starting coming apart.  Although going downhill, and with the finish a mere mile away, and with the 20-hour barrier within reach...I walked.  I was done, spent, didn't care.  I staggered in at about 1 minute past the 20 hour mark.

You are treated really well at the end, especially as an uncrewed runner.  There was a warm room, a bed to lie down and--if I had been in any condition to condition to take it--food and drink.  Heather Wilson, Brandon's wife and the Assistant Director for this event, took wonderful care of us, particularly those like myself who were running uncrewed.

I shared my "hospital room" with Rrick Karampatsos, at 68 the oldest runner in the race--and like many others that day, attempting his first 100 miler.  Terrible muscle cramps had caused Rrick to drop out, and as we runners tend to do, he was beating himself up over this.  But he certainly wasn't alone.  In the end, something like a third of the runners dropped.  The Graveyard 100 *might* be a good race for the first-time 100-miler, but as we were duly warned, "anything can happen" in early March on the Outer Banks.

A Sickly Sweet Odor

Back in the hotel, I noticed a strange smell coming from my tights, shirt, sweatshirt--from seemingly anything I had touched at the end of race.  This was not the usual funky running smell, but something more like rotting fruit, perhaps with a trace of fishiness.  And it seemed to be inside me, in my breath as well.   Really, really not good.

I had a hunch what it might be, though, and after some Internet searching for similar experiences on turned up my answer.  I was smelling the unmistakable result of ketosis--in the words of Karl King, a metabolic state of fat-burning associated with "profoundly low carbohydrate availability."

By way of antidote, I spent Sunday devouring a 16" large pizza (from Pizza Pizazz in Duck: highly recommended), two enormous pieces of key lime pie, several candy bars, and a variety of high-calorie snacks.  After this binge, and a couple of showers, the smell was gone (from me, although not from my clothes, which required a heavy wash when I got home).

What Worked:

  • Switching off to the Hoka Evo Stinstons at 57 miles.  As a minimalist runner, I've been skeptical of the Hokas, but have to admit: they were amazing.  If I knew how much they would help on the endless road miles, I would have switched into them at the first aid station.
  • Steady electrolytes and steady (but not excessive) water throughout the race.  I did very well managing fluids and elecrolytes.  I can't say there were no periods of queasy stomach or nausea, but these were far more manageable and minor than I've experienced in the last several ultras.
What Didn't:
  • My overstuffed, overwrought, overthought drop bags.  If I do this race again, it will be with a little larger pack, a little more self-sufficient, rather than relying on overfull drop bags.
  • My nutrition strategy for the last 20 miles.  Trying to just "cruise it in" on fat stores for the last 20 was not smart (and turned out to be rather smelly).  Solid food just seemed out of the question, and gels left me wretching, however.  Since I have more luck with liquid calories, for my next ultra, I'm planning to try the "Tailwind" product (noted in the commentary on AJW's Irunfar column on "Dreaded Stomach Issues").