Monday, February 3, 2014

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100 (2014 USATF 100-Mile Trail Run Championship)

It's been "go big or go home" for me lately when it comes to racing.  So as I sit down to write this, my first thought is that maybe I didn't go "big enough" at the Rocky Raccoon 100 this past Saturday.  Surely the prize money and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run auto-entry for a top-three finish is as big as this sort of thing gets, and a reason to pull out all of the stops.  My effort fell a bit shy of that mark.

And considering that earlier today, I ran 6 miles at a typical training pace, my legs a little less than hard-marathon-sore, while others who finished ahead of me described their post-race experience as "crippled" and "hobbling" (and based on the people that finished close to me, I'd say that those words were not exaggerated), I can't help feeling that maybe I left something on the table.

But after further consideration, I think that I took a lot more away from this experience than a very respectable 11th overall/9th male/6th USATF male (i.e. competing under USATF rules, meaning, among other things, no pacers, no headphones) finish and a 16:38:36 100-mile finishing time (second-fastest 100-mile run time for me).  What I took away was arguably more important than either the prize money or the Western States 100 auto-entry.

But more about that in the closing paragraphs.  For now, the race:

After my third-place finish at the US National 24-Hour Championship (this thing), the US National 100-Mile Trail Championship seemed like the logical "next big thing," especially since it was about three months away (a decent amount of time to recover and rebuild), and at Rocky Raccoon, a race where I ran well in 2009.  The added benefit of having one more long race to add to my Badwater 2014 application, just before the application would be due, made Rocky Raccoon too enticing to pass up.  And of course, with the prize money and the Western States 100 auto-entry on the line, this race was going to draw a deep, competitive field, which would make it exciting to be a part of.

Between the US National 24-Hour Championship and Rocky Raccoon, I continued to train and race.  I ran 2:55:12 at the NCR Trail Marathon, as sort of a "target of opportunity" race, since it was a short drive, and a Boston-qualifying course.  A couple weeks later, I made it only a little past 70 miles in 12+ hours at the Desert Solstice 24-Hour Invitational, before throwing in the towel, primarily due to a total lack of any sort of speed.  Then I took some time off, and started a mileage re-build in mid-January, so by the time that it was Rocky Raccoon time, I was in the best shape that I could reasonably be in.  But given this mixed bag of training, I couldn't be totally confident that this was going to work out.  If anything, my performance at Desert Solstice had me slightly concerned that I had either reached my ultimate performance limit, or burned out entirely.

In the interim, life also happened.  My beloved 2001 Honda Civic EX (five-speed manual transmission, accept no substitutes), with over 207,000 memorable miles, nearly all of them driven by me, was totaled, in an accident that I watched from outside of the car, and I changed work assignments, both of which required plenty of attention that I may have otherwise given to running.  And then, on this trip, since I would be in Houston for a day prior to the race, and my girlfriend lived there for a substantial period of her life, I made a point of visiting all of her recommended restaurants, parks, and other attractions (incidentally, I highly recommend the Rothko Chapel).  Not to mention that I was car-pooling/room-sharing with two other runners, which I don't normally do (although this made for a highly amusing trip to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas, the town where the race is held).

So there were plenty of twists and turns and distractions, enough so that on the eve of the race, I wasn't particularly excited about running it.  In my mind, all of the other experiences that were rattling around in my mind, both on this particular trip, and in my life in the past few months in general, were far more meaningful and substantive than five 20-mile loops in a state park in an obscure city in Texas.  I didn't NOT want to run the race, but my pre-race lacked a certain sort of nervous energy that I'm used to before huge events like this.

On the other hand, being less wound-up about the race afforded sounder pre-race sleep, and helped me keep my cool during the parking catastrophe that turned a 20-minute drive to the start of the race into a 60-minute lurching-slowly-forward car-march.  Jackie, Robin, and I arrived at the start with about 10 minutes to spare, which is just the right amount of time to get to the starting line with your shoelaces fully tied, but not so much time that you pace idly back and forth and waste precious running energy.  It's even enough time to go back to the car, get your phone, and bring it back to your start/finish drop bag, as I learned by doing exactly that, re-arriving at the starting line about two minutes before the start, and using most of that time to weave through the 600-person crowd to the front of the pack, where I presumed optimistically that I would finish.

The countdown to the start happened, and we were off, at a leisurely pace for maybe the first quarter-mile, before, inevitably, people started sprinting ahead.  I was not at all surprised or shaken by this.  I said repeatedly, to various people in the weeks prior to the race, that my goal was to run the first 20-mile loop no faster than 2 hours, 50 minutes, and do the best I could from there, and that if I stuck to that plan, there would probably be about 40 people ahead of me at the end of my first loop.  That's how competitive races with a lot of whatever-you-want-to-call-it on the line work.  I didn't keep exact tabs on all of these numbers, but that's about what it felt like.

For my part, the first loop felt easy and comfortable.  The course was in great shape, with only a few random mud puddles here and there, all easily avoidable.  Of course, the roots were out in force, as they were on my last go-around with this race, but I was having no trouble picking up my feet and picking past them.  Some minor aches and pains settled out in the first half an hour, and I found myself enjoying the relative warmth.  After a month of running in temperatures in the teens every day, weather in the high 60s feels like a tropical paradise.  And not entirely in a good way, as it also had me drinking 20 ounces of water every half-hour, in my non-heat-acclimated state.  But overall, after a first pass, the course seemed easier than I had remembered it.  I even found myself socializing with other runners during the race (as it turned out, the woman who would go on to finish in second place), which I don't often do in these sorts of races.  And, with a split of about 2:55, I had more or less achieved my first-loop goal.

The second loop was more of the same.  Now we were entirely in daylight, so I could see better the parts of the course that I had run in the dark on the first loop, which added some variety to an otherwise monotonous task.  The eventual second-place woman, Kaci Lickteig, passed me on this loop (handing me a gel that had fallen out of my pocket as she passed, which was nice of her), and I passed a couple of others that were ahead of me, including Neal Gorman, who was walking at the time, but would go on to make a very strong comeback.  With an extra bathroom stop (the most interesting one, and perhaps the most interesting thing that happened on this loop, being the one where I went off the side of the trail to pee in the woods, and who should pass, but none other than Connie Gardner), and a few more walk breaks, I finished this loop in about 3:10, still feeling okay.

In the third loop, the wheels came off a bit.  Just outside of the Dam Road Aid Station (colloquially, the "Dam Nation Aid Station," due to its being the beginning and end of a six-plus-mile loop, the longest unaided section of the course), I waved to a couple of runners who were coming back, took my eyes off of the ground, and caught my toe on a root.  I sprawled forward, fortunately onto soft pine needles, so there was no real damage done.  But, having hit the deck, I was a bit shaken, and so, a couple of miles later, when I went to try to swallow something, I choked on it, and immediately had a violent vomit reflex.  Although I didn't actually vomit, my body wanted to, and it took some standing still, followed by some slow walking, to bring me back to "comfortable" (in a relative sense, considering that I was some 7-plus hours and nearly 50 miles into the race).  As a result of that episode, I stopped eating for a bit, and soon found myself dizzy and low on calories.  Fortunately, I was carrying a few gels, so I pounded those, then headed quickly, yet conservatively, to the next aid station, where high-glycemic-junk-foods of every variety awaited me.  While it was an ugly, slightly slow patch, it was far from the typical "bad patch" that people talk about in these races, and probably cost me only about 10-15 minutes, as my overall lap split of 3:25 suggested.

No major mishaps on the fourth loop, as night began to fall and people began to turn from runners into zombie-walkers.  I continued at a steady pace for the most part, taking walk breaks only when I felt that they were absolutely necessary, and continued my trend of not being passed by anybody, but not making what I believed to be any major passes, either.  It's worth pointing out that in a loop course that doubles back on itself in several places, it's hard to tell when you're passing people as opposed to lapping them.  So I could have been legitimately passing lots of people, but unless they were people that I could recognize under headlamp light, there was no way for me to know.  And, in a way, it didn't matter to me.  By this time, I was fairly "locked in," making steady progress, enjoying the race, and not really stressing too much about anything.  I turned in another 3:25 lap, and felt no dread at heading out for one more lap.

In the final loop, things got tougher, in a relative sense.  Given the general trend of my laps getting slightly slower each time, I anticipated more effort to counteract the natural slowing effect, which I needed to counteract to the maximum extent possible if I were to run a mid-16-hour race, as my prior lap times had now positioned me to run.  I can't say that the last lap hurt any more than the prior laps.  But it definitely required more focus than the previous laps.  As far as I could tell, I was in no-man's-land, with nobody close to passing me, or nobody close to me to pass, and the best I could do was to continue doing what I had been doing.  I ran the final lap entirely in the dark, which slows progress somewhat, as a headlamp can only illuminate things so much.  In spite of some slower first segments, and nearly running headlong into Jason Lantz as he was coming out of the Dam Road/Dam Nation loop for the final time, and I was going in, I managed to hold it together, especially in the final segment of the last lap.  About a mile from the finish, I was running up behind two runners who were walking abreast, and I said "excuse me," but they must not have realized how quickly I was coming up on them, and were slow to move out of the way.  To avoid running headlong into them, I half-stepped, and caught my toe on a root, falling one last time before the finish.  Again, as a fall into soft pine needles, very little damage happened, beyond a dirty arm and a slightly skinned knee.

If anything, the last fall gave me a little adrenaline boost that I may well have needed to finish as I did.  Near the beginning of the last loop, I had contemplated walking it in at the very end, not because I expected that couldn't run, but because I felt as though I had given everything that I had, and done as much as I could have reasonably done that day, and that a finishing sprint would serve no purpose.  But with the adrenaline surge still fresh, and the finish line so close, I started pushing a little bit, and managed an impressive finishing kick, which maybe a half a dozen people who could find the live finish line webcam and were watching it at nearly midnight (Eastern Time) may have seen.  Slightly more importantly, I edged out the 12th overall/10th male/7th USATF finisher, TJ Dunham (who I later found out that Jackie had been repeatedly mistaking for me in the dark, saying hello and being puzzled by why she never got a response) by less than a minute, having no idea that he was behind me the whole time.  (You know, for whatever that's worth.)  I also edged out the 3rd place female finisher, Shaheen Sattar, who had apparently been chasing me for the better part of the race, unbeknownst to me.  (You know, for whatever THAT'S worth.)  If nothing else, maybe I learned my lesson after the near edge-out at the finish of the NCR Trail Marathon this past October . . . all the way through to the line, all the time.

Not knowing any of that at the time, I raised my hands in triumph at the finish line anyway, and happily accepted the super-awesome re-designed Sub-24-Hour Finisher belt buckle and USATF medal for 6th Place Male, Open Division.  Then I congratulated all of the near-finishers to me, in their various states of disarray (Nicole Studer, the female winner, being the sweetest, and in the least disarray), and proceeded to spend several hours by the heater, lounging in a Texas-flag-themed camp chair, nursing a cup of mashed potatoes, and eventually nodding off to sleep.

I spent most of the time between my finish and Robin's and Jackie's finishes (just under 28 hours, and just over 29 hours, respectively) in the finish area tent, picking at the aid station food, helping out distressed runners where I could (turns out that chafing is EVERYBODY'S problem, and that the extra Butt Paste that I had brought along is decidedly the answer), and generally enjoying being outdoors (although never too far from the heater for too long, as I was having trouble maintaining my core temperature in the 50-degree, off-and-on rainy weather).

And now we come to the moral of the story, if there is one.  At the time, during the race, I felt as though I was giving everything that I had, and that I couldn't possibly have gone any faster.  After the race, I reasoned that my near-vomit escapade on the third lap cost me up to 15 minutes in time, but would have made no difference in finishing place, and was probably incidental to the experience.  But once again, considering just how broken every other finisher near or ahead of me seemed to be, and how functional I am as I type this, I wonder if I had more, and just wasn't able to access it, for whatever reason.

But regardless of what I had or didn't have left in the tank, what is clear to me is that this is the second-fastest 100-mile race that I've ever run, and through smart training, planning, and, most of all, working with my body and with life circumstances in general, I managed to maximize not only my performance on race day, but, more importantly, my life experience as a whole relative to this race.  The biggest accomplishment here is not my finishing time, but the way that I got there - through continued focus and resilience, while allowing things that could have been distractions or detriments to instead compliment or contribute to the experience.

I'll stop with that line of commentary here, as it's pretty much impossible to talk about this sort of thing without drifting off into various platitudes that soon start meaning nothing to people that haven't already had the experience, and therefore don't really need to hear them in the first place.  Let it suffice to say that for once, I truly feel the weight and value of all of those over-worn, home-spun sayings about patience, persistence, and commitment to excellence.  I'm sure that there are plenty more life experiences on the way that will one day make what I believe today to be a deep understanding of all of this seem relatively shallow, but for now, I consider this a major milestone not only in race performance, but in overall maturity in that other silly game that we're all playing, called "life."

And so, after an ambiguous past few months, it is once again clear to me that I'm on the right track, I'm doing things the right way, and that, regardless of what the deal was that day, there's more in the tank for the future, and many more good things on the way.

That, and I STILL haven't seen a single gosh-darn raccoon, rocky or otherwise, on that course.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Race Report: 24 The Hard Way (2013 USATF 24-Hour National Championship)

First, let me make one thing clear: running as many miles as possible in 24 hours, on the same loop, over and over again, is its own special type of hell. If you're looking for a "good time," look elsewhere. The race ends only when either the clock stops, or you give up. Until that point, your reward for completing a mile is . . . the chance to complete another mile. Your reward for fatigue and pain is . . . more fatigue and pain. 

So why, on earth, you may ask, would I want to do this? Well, I've been pretty quiet about running this race, because for me, this was a very personal endeavor. Here's why:

My introduction to ultrarunning was a 24-hour race (Around the Lake in Somerville, MA in 2007), and I was instantly and irrepressibly fascinated by what could be possible under such unusual rules. How many miles could somebody run in 24 hours? More importantly, how many miles could I run?

Since then, I've run ultras at many other distances, up to and including 135 miles (Badwater), but the 24-hour race always held a special appeal to me. In my mind, it continued to be a pure challenge of human limits, and one that I continued to want to test myself against.

And I did, several times, with mixed results. After a strong second-place, 111-mile performance at the Back on my Feet 24-Hour Race in 2008, under brutal heat and humidity, with virtually no shade, I failed, not once, not twice, but three times at the North Coast 24-Hour Race (the USATF National Championship race in 2010, 2011, and 2012), each time failing to make it more than 70 miles before throwing in the towel, deciding that being rewarded for my pain with more pain was no longer tolerable.

But after Badwater this past summer, and my huge comeback in the last 65 miles, I was soaking in the pool at the Vdara in Las Vegas with Chris, who's been around since I started this crazy ultrarunning thing, and when he asked me what was next, I paused for a minute. I considered the fact that I was pretty healthy and strong for once, and that the 24-hour riddle still felt distinctly unsolved. So then, with little hesitation, I told him, "24 The Hard Way - 2013 USATF 24-Hour National Championship."

So I trained with focus and confidence for the next few months, consistently racking up the miles, pushing the tempo runs, and concentrating on quality recovery. A week away from the race, I still felt a little uncertain about how this was going to go down. I would be flying solo, and with so many prior failures, history was not on my side. But on paper, I was going to show up rested, healthy, strong, and the wiser for my mistakes. Here was my opportunity; time to make the most of it.

I arrived in Oklahoma City and navigated all of the pre-race business with no major hiccups. I even got in some quality time at the Oklahoma City Monument (highly recommended if you've never been - a truly artful, tasteful, and meaningful memorial). 

One thing that I didn't do (and here is where the self-critique starts) is set very specific goals. I had a vague idea in my mind that 120 miles would be decent (at least a PR), 140 miles would be nice (solid total, and 5 miles more than the minimum to make the US 24-Hour National Team), and 160 would be super-awesome (but probably too hard). But I didn't really cement these in my mind, and I didn't hang too much of "success" on their achievement. Really, I just wanted to run respectably for 24 hours, and not drop out early, as was historically the case.

And so, a few minutes before 9 a.m. on Saturday, 25 October 2013, all of the runners gathered on the bridge just outside of the Bluff Creek Park loop, the 0.9675-mile monster that we would all battle for the next 24 hours. Make no mistake about this: while Chisholm is a gracious race director and an excellent host, the course was definitely doing this "the hard way," and not just because of the asphalt surface (traditional for a 24-hour race). With 50+ feet of gain/loss per loop, the elevation change added up to about 5000 feet over 100 miles, which eventually becomes significant. The weather was overcast and in the mid-50s at the start, but it steadily got colder overnight, and, after the afternoon rain, this was not the direction anybody wanted the temperature to take.  All of these conditions put together meant (to me, anyway, and certainly in retrospect) that this was a day to race against the competition, and survive, and not to set records or otherwise be a hero.

But of course, this is a championship race, and none of that stopped anybody from trying. So while I stayed within myself for the first 6 hours, running comfortably and barely pushing, the leaders were surging ahead. I was feeling okay, and getting comfortable with the loop, but I could feel (vaguely, since it is hard to tell where anybody is in a race like this) that I was losing ground. This was disheartening, and was further complicated by the fact that I couldn't quite get the nutrition right. My energy felt a little low, I had to pee too much, I wasn't eating enough, then maybe I was eating too much . . . On and on like that, and even though I kept going, the "comfortable groove" that I was hoping to settle into would never materialize.

All the while, I tried to suppress the negative thoughts. "Jeepers, that first hill feels like a mountain now." "Oh great, somebody else is passing me." "Yuck! Here's that spot that smells like poop again." But when you are forced to submit to the same stupid (albeit tree-lined and generally pleasant) scenery for hours and hours, you lose some mental resolve. It didn't help (alert: more self-criticism) that I hadn't been getting as much sleep as I would have liked in the week prior to the race. Not that I was falling asleep on my feet, but I just didn't have the mental energy to turn that negativity around.

But I kept putting one foot in front of the other, putting on a good show for the crews hanging around the start/finish in their makeshift tent-city, while each time I would cross the line and pass my lonely duffle bag, sitting in the grass on the side of the path, and wish just a little bit that somebody was there to encourage me, hand me fruit snacks, or even just tell me what lap I was on. Eventually, I started feeling bad for my bag, which got rained on, and then the rain froze on the bag overnight. Sometime shortly after that, I considered the possibility that I might have been losing my mind.

For everybody else's part, they were plenty courteous. Aside from one runner being rude to the start/finish folks when there was a lap count issue that affected everybody early on, and another runner who very aggressively requested AN ENTIRE CAN of Red Bull overnight, all of the other runners, including the race director, were encouraging each time that I passed. And that's all well and good, but I've heard all of that before. That brutally unbiased observer, to give me the straight story, wasn't there, and I found my resolve waning and drifting.

And so, struggling with the cold and low energy, at around 9 p.m., about 12 hours into the race, I stopped in the start/finish tent, and stared at the leader board. I was somewhere low on the list, with my 75 miles, and I imagined that everybody else was still going strong and charging hard. Laying down, under blankets and harsh floodlights, against the background hum of the generators, was what I knew how to do, and it seemed as though this would be yet another failed effort.

But I couldn't sleep, and I didn't feel that bad, so I got out there, this time in a jacket and long pants, and resumed running, about 45 minutes later. And just like that, I was back on track, knocking out the laps on the dark, dark path. 

About four hours later, my energy started falling, and with it, my confidence. I wasn't going to be able to keep this up. I stopped again.

And again, 45 minutes later, I was up and running. I marveled that not once, but twice in the same race, I could make such a significant comeback. Better yet, my legs barely felt sore, and my feet were plenty comfortable in my Nike Pegasus 29+ "Team" shoes, in green and white, which I added yellow laces to as a tribute to G-PACT, my Badwater 2013 charity, and the disease which my little sister struggles with. So maybe I could do this.

And then, another four hours passed, and I found myself with no energy, and little will to continue. I had been trying to make six laps an hour, but it was getting difficult, and having fallen off twice already in the same race gave me no confidence in my ability to continue. I had no idea what mile or lap I was on. All I wanted was for the clock to stop and the race to end. I wanted to stop running.

My stomach was shut down. The same water that I had drunk an hour ago was sloshing in my stomach. I grimly contemplated that this must be what gastroparesis feels like, and was darkly amused that I had inadvertently managed to connect to the disease and the charity cause by inducing it in myself. At the same time, I reasoned that people, including my sister, could live (albeit uncomfortably) with it, so I may as well keep on running.

And that I did, pushing through the blinding low points with slow jogging or walking until the lights came on again. I was getting a vague sense that I might be passing people and moving up in the standings. That was encouraging. But I had given up on any mileage goal. I just wanted to keep moving forward, mostly to prove that this beast hadn't won again.

Finally, the last lap came around, they handed me a flag with my number on it, and I had the next six minutes to run as much of the loop as I could before time was called. Part of me wanted to slow down or stop. But a better part of me wanted to prove, one last time, that the 0.9675-mile monster hadn't gotten the better of me. I pushed one last time up the mountain, one last time down the hill, cruised one last time on the never-ending straightaway with the maddening hill near the end, and ran one last time under the Christmas lights, still generator-lit at nearly 9 a.m. Two minutes. Push push. Then, at last, the gun. Relief. Who knows how I finished. Who cares. I could finally stop running that loop.

I trudged unceremoniously to the finish area with another runner, chattering about the race as if it hadn't been pure torture that had just ended a few minutes ago. 

And then, when I reached the finish line, and saw the results, I experienced an appropriate mix of elation and disappointment. My last surge had impossibly propelled me to third place overall, just seven miles behind the winner, and a mile ahead of Connie Gardner, of 2010 North Coast "why did you stop?" fame. But alongside that was the disappointment that I had made "only" 133 miles, narrowly missing the 135 minimum mark needed for US National 24-Hour Team consideration. 

But joy won out, and I thanked the race director copiously, before I sauntered over to my duffle bag to lug it, by myself, to my rental car, where I would go on to change my clothes, sleep in the back seat of, drive to an Indian buffet where I would eventually stop eating due not to being full, but fatigue, sleep some more, repack my stuff, and ultimately drive to the airport to catch a flight to Detroit for a work trip. Cage the Elephant was generally right:  "there ain't no rest."

Overall, a few days later, I have mixed feelings about this race. On the one hand, this is almost the most miles that I've run at one time, and certainly the fastest that I've ever run a distance this long. But my legs aren't trashed at all. This may be the first time after an ultra when I was back to normal running the next day. So I left something on the table. And with that "something" being 90 minutes of stoppage time, it's hard not to think that what I left on the table might have been the win, and the auto-qualifying spot on the US National 24-Hour Team.

But ultimately, I accomplished my basic goal - to legitimately push my limits in a 24-hour race. I survived, and, in spite of some errors, turned in a pretty solid result. 

And going forward from here, I feel even more optimistic about the future. The good thing about leaving something on the table is that you know that there's more out there, and greater potential to reach. Based on this performance, I am now more confident that, if not this year, some year soon, I will be toeing the line at the 24-Hour World Championship Race, proudly wearing "USA" across my chest. 

And beyond that, who knows. But there has to be something, and that's still a huge part of the appeal. 

So on this, my birthday, and the start of a new year in my life, I'm excited about the road ahead - especially since, health and powers above willing, I will be running it.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Race Report - Lehigh Valley Marathon

You know what they say - sixth time's the charm.  Well, okay, nobody really says that, but apparently that was the deal.  After five failed attempts to run a sub-3:05 marathon after September 2013 and qualify for Boston 2014 (Baltimore 2012, NCR 2012, George Washington's Birthday 2013, Rock N Roll USA 2013, and New Jersey 2013, to be specific), the Lehigh Valley Marathon was my last chance before Boston 2014 registration opened.

So I took, in a relative sense, no chances.  After Badwater, I had two weeks of 50-ish miles, then stepped it up in the following four weeks to run 85, 85, 71, and 85 miles.  Long tempo runs on Wednesdays, short, fast intervals on Fridays.  Doubles most days, longer singles on the weekend (up to 2.5 hours on my feet at a time).  You know, all of the fundamentals that need to be part of a program to run faster at a long distance. 

I was pretty fortunate that after Badwater this year, I didn't suffer a total meltdown, and was able to put in that sort of volume without forcing it or suffering too badly.  (Of course, if I really had to force it, or suffer a lot, this whole thing wouldn't have worked, anyway.)  I was also fortunate that the vast majority of this training was enjoyable, and that I didn't have to drag myself out the door too many days (even at 6 a.m.).

So given all of that, even though I made the slightly risky decision to "train through" this marathon, in anticipation of bigger events ahead (more about that later), I was pretty confident that even coming in on 58 miles in the six days before the marathon, I would still meet my goal.  And if not, well, I'd failed so many times in the past year that I could deal with it.

The lead-in to the race itself, minus the pre-race parking fiasco (maybe somebody should have thought more seriously about doubling the number of runners, to over 2000, as opposed to less than 1000 in previous years), was pretty hassle-free.  Packet pickup thankfully did not involve a forced scavenger hunt through the expo to pick up all of the piece-parts of the requisite swag bag.  There were plenty of low-priced accomodations in the near vicinity of the start of the race.  The number of runners was reasonable for the layout of the course, and there was no fight to secure a decent position in the starting corrals.  After a round of the National Anthem, and a round of "Face Down" by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, off we went.

Within the first couple of miles, I was questioning my plan not to significantly taper leading up to this race.  In my experience, tapering can fail in both the "too much" and "not enough" modes.  Either you taper too much off of too little volume, or taper not enough off of too much volume, and either way, you feel "flat" to miserable during the race. 

The good news was that I wasn't feeling miserable.  But the bad news was that I was feeling "flat." I was moving up in the pack by virtue of being aggressive on the early downhills, but otherwise, I was just sort of plugging along.  It felt like the average daily training run, except that my legs were moving slightly uncomfortably fast.  Still, as long as I wasn't losing ground or slowing down too much, I reasoned that I could at least hang on.

For about the first six miles, nothing too eventful happened.  Then we reached the gravel trail, which would be the majority of the rest of the race.  Some runners love this kind of surface.  But speaking from strictly a "speed" perspective, it's not as fast as pavement, and I could feel myself dropping back at the same effort level.  This was a little bit disheartening, but at least it was shady and there was a good view of the river. 

I reached the 12-ish mile relay exchange point at 1:21 and some-odd seconds, which, by my math, put me at just under 3-hour pace.  This was the first time I had gotten any feedback on my pace, since I decided not to wear a watch.  (Again, this is a strategy that can fail both ways - you can wear a watch and then be enslaved to it, not listen to your body, and push yourself to early failure, or you can not wear a watch, listen to your body, and drift off pace until you're too far behind your goal pace to catch up.)  I wasn't feeling a lot better at this point, but I wasn't feeling a lot worse than I did at the start.  So, more or less, all was well.

The race continued, mostly on gravel trails, with a few short paved sections, and only gradual hills here and there.  As I pushed past 17 miles, I started catching some of the people who had gone out way too fast and were now paying for it.  Eventually, I reached the 23-ish mile clock point (seriously, would it hurt to put the clocks in locations with clearly marked distances?) at 2:36 and some seconds.  This left me with only about 5 minutes to spare under 3:05 if I didn't push all the way through to the finish, so I carefully stepped on the figurative gas for the last three-plus miles of the race and hoped that nothing would break.

As I rounded the final turn towards the seemingly interminable straightaway to the finish (they always seem that way, don't they?), I heard a man shouting "3 minutes!" Not wearing a watch, and not wanting to ask "3 minutes until what?"  I assumed that he meant 3 minutes until 3:05, and broke into a wobbly-legged kick (yeah, definitely not tapered enough).  I started thinking that maybe not wearing a watch was a mistake, and that just passing people a lot in the second half of the race wasn't a good enough indicator of my pace.  The idea that I had maybe screwed this up one more time was not very appealing to me, but it was at war with a strong compulsion to just keel over right there, as there was not enough gas in the tank for much more push at the speed that I was pushing.  As I got closer to the finish line, I realized that he had meant 3 minutes until the 3-hour mark, as the "2" in the front of the clock time came into focus.

But before this revelation could result in any sort of relief, I ran past the finish line, staggered forward, took my medal, walked about 50 feet, and collapsed in the grass for about 10 minutes.  Finally, I had done it.  But there was no catharsis.  I just felt numb.  (Emotionally, that is, although feelings of numbness were coursing through my extremities.)

It wasn't until after I had gone to the bathroom, grazed the post-race food and drink, and was sitting on a rock near the finish line, about half an hour later, watching the river rush in front of me, that I felt anything at all. 

I felt thankful, not for the race result so much as the process that had gotten me there.  The repeated failures, the struggle back to health, and finally feeling as though I could run again without being in constant pain or misery . . . the race result was really the culmination of all of this.  It felt good to be back to a place where I had been before, but with a new, wiser perspective on it.  And I felt thankful for everybody and everything that made this possible, all at once.

Looking ahead, I'm feeling confident that I can train through this race, pace 3:05 at the Baltimore Marathon next month, and then put in at least a PR effort at 24 The Hard Way at the end of October.  The 24-hour race was my unofficial introduction into ultrarunning, and, since then, a good effort at a 24-hour race has repeated evaded me.  But now I think I'm in a place where I'm ready to get closer to my potential in this event, and I'm excited to see where the next two months of training take me.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Badwater 2013: Spirit Walker

It's happened every year, at least to some degree. But this year, it was the worst. As I crossed over to the right side of the road, to retreat to the relative cool of the crew van, just 18 miles into my 2013 135-mile Badwater run, the first and foremost thought in my mind was: How on earth am I going to finish this race?

Not that this was entirely surprising. After 2012's Badwater left me so physically spent, it was hard to imagine coming back to Badwater in 2013, especially considering how poorly I was running in February. But I had made a promise to my little sister to run Badwater in 2013 for G-PACT, and that, above all other reasons, was why I came back to Badwater 2013. Although I trained well, got much healthier, and improved my fitness greatly in the months that followed, my race results had been a mixed bag. There was really no way for me to be confident about a strong performance, and as race day got closer, this anxiety intensified.

On the logistics side of things, though, things came together without incident. With Chris and Shannon crewing again this year, and Meredith, a veteran of Badwater as both runner (most recently, last year's last-place Badwater finisher) and crew member, replacing Jackie (who is attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning this summer, which conflicts with Badwater), the assortment of gear and goods needed to run this race came together quickly, even affording us time to visit the Hoover Dam before the race. (I've wanted to visit for the past three years, but somehow, preparations always seem to take longer than expected.)

Since you've seen plenty of Death Valley pictures on my Facebook page and on my blog, here's something different: a nifty picture near the Hoover Dam. 

Race morning came, and although my own preparations were quick and efficient, loading the crew van was not. Being stuck behind slow-moving tourists who were yielding to runners from the earlier waves meant that we made it to the start with just 10 minutes to spare, missing the group photo, but in time for the national anthem, for which I wore a pair of pink-and-blue wayfarer-style glasses, with giant kisses on each lens, in the interest of being one step ahead of the trend - this year, the "Badwater Store" was selling these glasses, the kind that my entire crew wore in 2012, and Chris Kostman himself was sporting a pair, of white (our team's color) no less. 

(This year, our team's name was "The Spirit Walkers," at Shannon's suggestion, after the relatively obscure, vaguely obnoxious, oddly infectious Ween song, which pretty much sums up our approach to this event: http://youtu.be/g1_GoMgoT44. Hence, the feathers pinned to my cap and my wristwatch, although I think this will not be as trend-setting as the sunglasses.)

After the group countdown, we were off, and for a few minutes, I thought that, in consideration of what was expected to be extreme heat this year, even for Badwater, we would all run conservatively. But of course, about ten minutes in, this all went out the window as people started going off the front, stringing out the starters. I did my best to keep things under control as the heat rose, but I found myself passing the Furnace Creek time station just 10 minutes slower than my split last year, under much hotter conditions. I didn't feel too bad, so I reasoned that things would all sort themselves out . . . 

Which they did, in a less-than-desirable way. Shannon hopped out to start pacing me (pacing is allowed from the 17-mile mark at Furnace Creek to the finish), and I responded by immediately going into heat-exertion induced dry heaves. Of course, I'd been here before, as recently as last year at Badwater, but this I couldn't shake. I moved forward more slowly, but after another mile or so, I had to temporarily throw in the towel and head over to the crew van to cool down. After 15 minutes or so in the van, I went back after it, but it wasn't more than another mile before I was back in the crew van, packed with ice, hoping to feel better. The fact that Dean Karnazes had already "staked out" (gone off the course temporarily to seek assistance, medical or otherwise) was at least some reassurance that everybody was suffering.

By 3 pm, and about an hour of time-out in the van, I was back on the road to Stovepipe Wells, moving at a more controlled pace. I told my crew that hopefully now, the worst of this was over, and it would be relatively smooth sailing to the finish. 

Of course, this turned into a falsehood, as the temperature continued to rise above 120 degrees, with a hairdryer-hot crosswind making it feel even worse. Even with ice in my bandana and my hat, the heat cut right through this, and my pace slowed further as I neared Stovepipe Wells, the 42-mile mark. I reached the time station about an hour and a half slower than my 2012 split, feeling far, far worse. 

Still, I was not alone in my misery - Shannon Farar-Griefer and her gingham-dress-clad entourage were lingering there, and rumor from my crew was that Oz had blown up there as well. So I took about half an hour to eat an ice pop and try to cool down in the van before I continued. Townes Pass, with its 5000 feet of climb over 17 miles, is no joke, and I wanted to do everything in my power not to break down on the climb.

But sure enough, the blasting headwind and the continued heat meant that I continued to struggle. Just a few miles past the Stovepipe Wells time station, I got back in the van again, for another 15 minutes or so, wanting desperately to quit (although never saying it out loud, which, by Meredith's logic, doesn't count). My crew urged me back out there, but after another 15-20 minutes of trudging misery, I returned to the van. Shannon was clearly climbing stronger than I was, and I was feeling worse by the minute. Thoughts of not finishing the race and disappointing everybody who had supported me were getting louder in my mind.

So, as a last resort, similar to what I did in 2011, and with Shannon's blessing, I lay silent, by myself, in the dark crew van, for an hour. I didn't really sleep, but an hour of collecting myself made a huge difference. I returned to the course, Rhapsody-enabled iPhone in hand, and blasted Attack Attack while I, well, attacked the climb. I started moving more comfortably, as Shannon, Meredith, and even Chris took turns pacing me up the climb. I passed Shannon Farar-Griefer and her crew apparently having some sort of picnic behind their van on the side of the mountain, which made me feel even better about my progress (they laughed at our water gun system of cooling, so it all worked out for everybody).

When I finally reached the top, it was "business time," and I gained some momentum on the downhill. I could see the line of blinking crew vehicle lights ahead of me in the valley. We were now in a sort of no-man's-land, as all of my early stops had separated us from the rest of the race. But I was running a good downhill pace, and slowly but surely, I was gaining on the runners in front of me.  Meredith paced me in to Panamint, where I tried to use the restroom, but discovered that it was occupied. In the interest of never spending more time at Panamint than necessary (see previous years there), I just left. Walking away from Panamint quickly is always at least a minor victory.

It was now 5 am, which put me at about 4.5 hours slower than my 2012 split, mostly due to stoppage time, as opposed to running slower. So I knew that I had the legs to do this, if I could just hold it together for the next 63 miles. With the sunrise, I perked up a bit, and made brisk progress up the climb to the Father Crowley overlook. I was chatty with both Meredith and Shannon as they alternated pacing me, and feeling better about how this was going. 

Sure enough, in four hours, I had covered the tough 18 miles from Panamint to Darwin, the mile 90 time station, where Meredith welcomed me with a little "Darwin dance." And sure enough, I was passing plenty of people, which was a mental boost, even if some of them (like Tammy, who was fascinated by the fact that she was "ahead" of me, even though she had a 4-hour head start) were in earlier starting waves. (In Tammy's case, she tried to get her pacer to take a picture of her ahead of me, but by the time the pacer got the camera set up, I had already passed her for good.)


Holy cow, I'm running Badwater! (From more or less this section of the race; I just like this picture.)

From Darwin to Lone Pine, a 32-mile stretch, the course becomes more runnable, and, channeling some of last year, that's what I did. In spite of a 15-minute nap break, because I was falling asleep on my feet, I covered this section in 6 hours, getting stronger and stronger as I got closer to Lone Pine, fueled by Kaskade, Ke$ha, and New Order blasting on my headphones. My crew and I had finally hit on a sustainable strategy of water, soda, spraying, and ice bandanas, and everything was clicking. The crowning achievement was passing David Goggins about a mile away from the turn to Lone Pine, at a 7-minute mile pace. Who knew what place I was in at this point, but the surprised, "who the hell is THIS guy?" looks that I was getting from those in front of me, zombie-marching while I approached at a full-on run, told me that some people were going to be very surprised that I was hot on their heels . . .

At this point in the race, this was pretty much everybody's view of me.

Shannon and I blasted through Lone Pine, hollering, screaming, and fist-bumping with the sheer joy that comes with running that fast after having covered 122 miles on foot, and we jay-ran across the street (albeit inside the crosswalk) to Portal Road, where Jimmy Dean Freeman, who I chased in my first epic climb up Mount Whitney, and who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, encouraged me to "climb like you're chasing me!" I told my crew that this would not be a wobbly-legged climb this year, as it was last year, and I proceeded to put on a climbing clinic, power-hiking up the hill, head forward and headphones still blasting. I didn't speak much, lest I lose focus on the task, which was not only to power up the climb as fast as possible, but also to make sure that I didn't crap out at some point, so that, as I had promised, Meredith would get to see Mount Whitney in the daylight. (As a "slow" finisher, she always ends up climbing Mount Whitney at night, and was excited by the prospect of seeing it in the daylight.)

And then, somehow, almost impossibly, for the second year in a row, after over 100 miles of running, I had passed Dean Karnazes.  I couldn't believe how I had done it.  To this day, I'll still never understand how it happened.  But I did it!

As is the case in this part of the race, the air gets cooler and the climb gets more comfortable near the top, in contrast to the 109-degree heat near the bottom. So I sped up closer to the top, not really sure what my split was shaping up to be, but having a vague sense that I might be on track for a PR. I was pushing the edge at this point, low on calories but not wanting to eat and upset my stomach. I was feeling woozy with a little over a mile to go, but two well-timed bags of chilled fruit snacks later, I was feeling strong again, and powered through to the finish. My crew and I ran through the tape together, finishing in 32 hours, 7 minutes, and 51 seconds - a 3 hour, 12 minute split to Whitney Portal, slightly faster than my 2011 march. And of course, Jimmy Dean Freeman was there to share in my success, and offer me handfuls of peanut-heavy trail mix. Another victory. 

Victorious.

We got down the mountain as quickly as we could, in our starved, sleep-deprived state (those post-race hamburgers at Whitney Portal really hit the spot), and headed for sweet sleep at the Whitney Portal Hostel. Sweet, sweet sleep.

I finished 3.5 hours slower than last year, and 8 places lower, but ultimately, I think that I ran a smarter, better race. Last year, I had the benefit of "mild" weather, a tailwind, and plain old luck. This year, many more things were stacked against me, from my long recovery to health to the extra-hot weather. I had my share of low points and then some, but I worked through them well, and ultimately ran the last 63 miles of the race, from Panamint Springs to the finish, in 13 hours - an hour faster than my best for this section, including a new PR on the climb to Whitney Portal, and, overall, about the same as the top finishers' splits on this section of the course. So, in a way, this year's Badwater was a lot like this year's buildup to Badwater - fumbling and frustrating in the early going, but eventually smoothing out, and going on to exceed expectations. 

I am deeply thankful to all of those who supported me and my efforts this year, and the years prior - family, friends, crew, donors to G-PACT, and I'm not going to list any more right now because I'll surely miss people. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you all are the reason why I ran Badwater this year, and you all are the reason why I kept fighting to turn the race around and finish strong. And thanks to all of you, fingers crossed, I'll be back again next year, for my fifth consecutive Badwater, with the goal of making it the best yet.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Anticipation

https://www.firstgiving.com/G-PACT/david-ploskonka-badwater

. . . Before the race has even started, I've met at least one goal; as of today, $2000 total raised for GPACT.  So of course I'm raising the bar - the new, lofty goal is $4000.  Because, hey, why not?  And, as I did last year, I'll write whatever you want, in whatever color marker you want, on some article of clothing that I wear during the race.  If you haven't told me what you want written yet, let me know soon.

In other news, I thought that there would be more levity here in this blog since the last post, but there hasn't been.  Not in a bad way, exactly.  It's just been work, work, work, and then work some more to put the finishing touches on the best possible training and preparation that I could muster for this race, considering the deeply compromised state that I was in back when this journey started in February. 

All things considered, it's been a solid effort.  I've averaged 82-ish miles per week for the past four months, and 93-ish miles per week for the past month.  Last week (30 June - 6 July), I ran my first honest-to-goodness 100-mile week (i.e. without a ridiculous race to prop up the mileage) since - get this - the last week of January 2012.  And that was a week that, like each of the preceding weeks, included a quality long-hill day.  (Most weeks included a hill day and a tempo day, but considering the magnitude of last week's hill workout, and its proximity in time to the race, I'm okay with just a hill day for last week). 

Typical minor dings, scrapes, and bruises aside, I feel no worse for wear.  Obviously, a one-week taper is a bit of a gamble, but considering the relatively short length of my mileage build (about half of how long I had to build last year), I'm guessing that I have a little less damage to repair.  In any event, random unfortunate events aside, I'll most likely be lining up on Monday much healthier than I was last year.

But that's all the numbers and technical stuff.  What has me the most excited about this race is the level of mental focus that I have going in, which has steadily increased since the TARC 100 fiasco.  My training in the weeks following TARC has been some of the most consistent, joyful running that I've done in a long time.  Especially in the past couple of weeks, there hasn't been a question in my mind about whether or not I was going to do the workout that day.  The workout was going to happen, and it was going to happen according to the plan, and physically, I was responding.  And there's a quiet joy in the rhythm of that kind of consistency in training - the joy that comes from the slow, steady progress towards a desired state of fitness.

And there's also the more visceral joy in the process.  The sweat pouring down as I clip along at a measured pace under a blazing-hot afternoon sun, in 100+ degree humid Baltimore City heat.  The smile that I can't suppress as I fly down a steep hill at breakneck pace, the scenery blurring in my peripheral vision.  And the sublime relief that comes at the end of a long, hot run from downing a huge glass of ice water and flopping on my back on the cold-floor, with the stereo blasting Kaskade.  The process feels good again, and has felt particularly good lately.  And that means something.

But make no mistake about it - by and large, Badwater this year is not about me.  While it's certainly encouraging and exciting to feel this level of joy in running again, I don't need to go all the way to Death Valley in the middle of July to feel it. 

But I do need to go all the way to Death Valley in the middle of July for a lot of other people - the folks at GPACT, my little sister, all the people who donated to support GPACT, all the people that I've trained with in preparation for this event, and all the people that have otherwise sponsored, supported, or encouraged me to get back out there, for whatever reason.  All of you are the reason why I need to go back to Death Valley, and all of you will be the reason why I will be able to endure the inevitable pain and suffering in the 135 miles between the Badwater Basin and Whitney Portal.

So that's all for this blog until after the race.  Stay tuned to the rest of the internet (Facebook, the Badwater webpage, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, whatever) for updates in the meantime.  And thanks to all of you for getting me to that starting line - you'll get nothing less than my best effort between there and the finish tape.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Perspective

First things first:

http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/DavidPloskonka/david-ploskonka-badwater

As I've been mentioning for a while now, my 2013 Badwater effort is in support of G-PACT, the Gastroparesis Patient Association for Cures and Treatments.  My little sister struggles with this disease, so this cause has particular personal significance for me.  Any and all donations are appreciated.  And, as was the case last year, if you donate, I'll write whatever you want me to write, in whatever color you'd like, on an article of clothing that I'll be wearing during the race (I'm leaning towards an arm sleeve).

And, with that said, it's now July, or, more significantly, Badwater month.  With just a couple weeks now until the big event, and the better part of the proverbial physical hay (the kind that collects from as many hours as I can stand, running in whatever heat that I can find) in the equally proverbial barn, most of the task now becomes logistical and mental preparedness, so some perspective is in order . . .

Flashback to February, after I couldn't manage to average sub-7-minute-mile pace for 10 miles at Club Challenge.  The idea that, in five months, I would be toeing the line for another 135 miles through Death Valley, chasing, if nothing else, the ghost of my impressive endeavor there last year, was downright terrifying. 

And the year since then has been one big scary adventure into the unknown.  From missing the Boston Marathon for the first time in eight years, to repeatedly near-missing qualifying times for the 2014 Boston Marathon, to adventures in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Bolivia, to an unlikely success at MMT, to an abject failure at TARC, nothing has been very predictable, and everything has kept me on my toes.

Now I'm here, July 1st, after the longest coldest winter I can remember, on the verge of running what has the potential to be the hottest Badwater ever.  For this year, that seems to be par for the course.  And with the course of 2013 being as fraught with peril as it has been so far, I'm reluctant to make too many promises or predictions about what might happen for however many hours it takes after 10 a.m. on Monday, July 15th (aka the Ides of July).

I will go as far as to say that there will be pain - and lots of it - from the Badwater Basin to Whitney Portal.  I'll also go out on a very short limb and say that, based on recent race experience, I will want to quit, and frequently.  But I won't quit, no matter how much I want to - and I strongly suspect that I will want to.

Because if the first half of 2013 has reminded me of anything, it's that there's plenty more to running than competition.  Since my burnout in 2012, it's been a long way back to re-learning how to run healthy, and to re-gaining the little joys that come from that smile from a passer-by, or that glimpse of scenery that burns itself into your memory.  And now that I remember that running can be like that, more often than not, that's how I want it to be.  And more often than not, it should be that way.  But come race day, it's not going to be that type of pleasant; it's going to be an excursion back into the darkness that was the latter half of 2012. 

For myself alone, I have no reason or desire to go back into that darkness.  It's too recent, it's not fun, and it's not the way life should be. 

But I'm not running Badwater this year for myself.  I'm running it for my sister's charity, G-PACT, because I promised that I would.  I'm running it for the people who supported G-PACT through their donations, because they believe in the cause and they believe in me.  I'm running it for my family and my friends and the city of Baltimore, because they've supported my running for all these years, and they deserve to see the fruits of their support now and again.  I'm running it for all of my Badwater crew members, past and present, because no matter how well I run there, they always deserve better.  I'm running it for the other competitors, because I owe it to them to contribute to the challenge of the event, to push them to their limits.

So for all of those reasons, I'll spend the next two weeks running in whatever heat I can find, packing up the various and sundry clothes, shoes, and gadgets that make this sort of expedition possible, and mentally preparing to go back to that dark place for many hours in the hot desert sun.  Because this year, Badwater isn't about me.  And it's only because this year, Badwater isn't about me, that I'll make it to that finish line.

(And if that was, "too much f***ing perspective," a la Spinal Tap, just wait a few days - maybe until next week, at the latest, when I'm sure that I can come up with something much more whimsical; hours and hours in the heat make me downright silly.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

2013 TARC 100-Mile Mud Run / Deathmarch Report

It's now a little over a day since I took my last painful step on the extended mud pit that was the 2013 TARC 100-Mile Run course (otherwise unofficially known as the world's longest Tough Mudder), and I am no less ambivalent about how things went.  So this is a little more detail about how it was, and a little less clarity about how I felt. 

First, a little background.  Originally, I had planned to run the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Run, in keeping with what I've done the past two years to prepare for Badwater (running the MMT 100 and the OD 100 back-to-back).  Unfortunately, I was sick with a pretty bad stomach bug the day before the race, and ultimately decided not to start.  It was a tough decision.  I would have liked to have posted here that in spite of being on my back on the floor in the airport in Bogota, Colombia, en route from Bolivia back to Washington, DC, crippled with stomach pain and drained from way too many trips to the bathroom, I managed to bounce back less than 24 hours later and finish a 100-mile race (and maybe even finish well).  On the other hand, that may have been too close to an outright miracle for it to have been even a remote possibility, and, in the interim, the race could have turned into a painful, miserable, injurious struggle. 

Enter the TARC 100, which had me at least a little more (but still not entirely) at peace with my Old Dominion DNS.  Two weeks after OD, and a month before Badwater, the timing of the race made more sense than the timing of OD.  Based on the course description - relatively tame trails with little elevation gain/loss - it seemed as though it could be a "fast" 100-mile race, which would be a good complement to MMT, which is a much slower, more technical run.  As Massachusetts' first 100-mile run, though, there was the element of the unknown.  There could be something terribly wrong with the course measurement, or markings, or organization otherwise that could have made it an ordeal.  And usually, the first time around, these events have those sorts of problems.  But the materials that were available online were detailed and thorough, and it seemed as though the race directors had everything covered, so it seemed like a risk worth taking.  Plus, at $60 to enter, including a really nice finisher's jacket, the price was right.

Pre-race logistics went as well as could be expected.  Patrick and I left from Aberdeen on Thursday evening after work, and although it rained steadily for most of our drive up, we missed any potential tornadoes or flash-floods that the weathermen were threatening.  We crashed at my friend Steve's friend Nate's place in Charlestown, slept for most of Friday, and left for the park in Weston mid-afternoon on Friday, encountering minimal traffic along the way.  After a quick run to the little grocery store and bagel place in Weston, we parked, endured a strangely long and slow line to check in and pick up our bibs, and then got dressed and ready for the race.

At the pre-race meeting (6:30 p.m. meeting, with a 7:00 p.m. race start time), the race director warned us that he had run the entire course earlier in the day, double-checking the markings, and due to the heavy rains over the past few days, there would be mud.  Not everywhere, but parts of the trail hadn't drained, and probably would not drain entirely.  He recommended just running straight through it, as opposed to rock-hopping, which was potentially slippery and dangerous.  You could say that we were fairly warned.  But running one 25-mile lap of the course, in daylight, on fresh legs, is quite different from running four consecutive 25-mile laps, at least partially in the dark, as we would all soon find out . . .

We counted down backwards from 10 to the start, and right on time, we were off.  A lead pack of about 10 of us were together for the first mile or two, but the pack began to splinter as the runners looking to win the 50-mile race really took off.  Glen, Jack, Patrick, and I were all fairly close together during the first 4.5 mile loop, and we chatted a bit about this and that (including Badwater, which Glen will be running for the first time this year, with Ian Sharman as a pacer, apparently).  For my part, it was a decent start, and I was in no particular distress.  We passed the start/finish area on our way out for the next 20+ miles of the first loop, only slightly muddy from a few relatively minor puddles.  Our false sense of security had been established.

The next section of the course was far more representative of what the entire race would be like, and was a mud-ridden, bubble-bursting nightmare.  Ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud pits about every quarter mile, coupled with flooded streams that, in the worst cases, were waist-deep on a short person like me, ensured that our feet would be forever wet, and our footing would be never stable.  Since we were all still feeling reasonably good, we plowed through most of it with reckless abandon, but I could hear comments that this would not last, and we wouldn't be running this way later in the race.  When I ran through what appeared to be a puddle that turned out to be more of a stream, with giant, jagged rocks at the bottom, and nearly twisted my ankle as I planted my foot awkwardly on a rock and plunged waist-deep into the cold water, I was more than inclined to agree.

While the leaders gained a little bit of separation from me during the first lap, for the most part, I held my ground, even as darkness fell, and the mud hazards became even more hazardous, as it was even less likely that you could tell what you were stepping in before you stepped there. I came through the first 25-mile lap in just over 4 hours, all in all not too disheartened by the caked-on mud from my knees to my feet, and pleasantly surprised by how awesome the power-line cut looked against the reddish night sky (my most significant regret relative to this race is not getting a picture of that).  Maybe this would turn out okay.

And then, somewhere within the first 10 miles of the second loop, things started falling apart.  My stomach had been unhappy with my level of exertion for the first loop, but I kept putting food and drink in, and hoping that it would eventually level out, get tired of protesting, and fall somewhere in the background noise that is the typical ultramarathon aches and pains.  Instead, it was gradually worsening, and it soon became apparent that I would need to enter survival mode. 

For the remainder of the second loop, I tried slowing down, I tried eating more, I tried eating different things.  I tried every trick I could think of to stabilize the situation, but no matter what I did, I couldn't find a way to run for more than about five minutes at a time without feeling like my stomach was going to explode, reducing me to a slower-than-normal walk that offset any of the gains made from running.  Pushing through the stomach pain only made the inevitable crash worse, as it demanded even more nutrition than my body could reasonably provide in that state.

In this condition, the goal became to make it to at least 50 miles, as that would be two complete loops, back at the start/finish area, where my drop bag and the car were, and where I could most comfortably end what was rapidly becoming an unmanageable ordeal.  I made it back to the start/finish area at around 10 hours, for a 6-hour second loop. 

I tried to console myself with the fact that everybody was hurting now.  Hurting from 10 hours of constantly wet, muddy feet.  Hurting from intense darkness from the tall tree cover and minimal light from the crescent moon.  Hurting, in some cases, due to slipping and falling (when I passed Jack, who eventually dropped, his entire thigh was bandaged, due to a "run-in" with a tree stump). 

But at the rate at which my condition seemed to be worsening, all of this was little consolation.  More than likely, the fact of the matter was that, in spite of this being two weeks after my digestive catastrophe, I had lingering effects of the stomach bug, or some other bug in my system.  But either way, my stomach rejecting everything, and the random aches and pains that weren't race-related were indication that I was sick.  Every step I took was going to be more stress on a sick system, and going to be just a little bit more difficult and painful than the one before.

So I had a decision to make.  Drop now, or keep going?  The race director gave me the typical (albeit very energetic) "it's a nice morning just go out and walk the first 4.5 mile loop and come back here and see how you feel" line, and there is definitely a part of me that responds to that.  There's also a part of me that responded to his interaction with another runner on the verge of dropping, when another person commented that the race director should show the runner the basket with all of the bracelets of the runners who had dropped (apparently, 60 people had dropped after the first loop).  The idea that it was still possible for me to finish, albeit slowly and painfully, and keep my bracelet on my wrist, instead of in the basket prematurely, had its appeal, and of course, everybody there at the race, and associated with the race, was pulling for me, and for everybody else, to at least finish.

But stopping had its appeal, too.  At the rate that I was going, barring a miracle turn-around, it could take the next 20 hours to finish the last 50 miles.  20 hours is a long time when you're sick and tired and far from home, and, in the grand scheme of life, there are people and places that might be more deserving of your attention (for starters, Sunday was Father's Day).  And even in the event that no long-lasting damage occurs as a result of the struggle, it's still not likely to be very much fun in that state.  20 hours of what was shaping up to be meaningless suffering without a point seemed more unappealing than it ever had in any race that I had run to date.

But since I was there, and, perhaps on some level, because I hadn't given Old Dominion a try, I felt very marginally motivated to at least give this a try, against all odds, knowing full well that it would be a huge struggle ahead.  After half an hour of laying out in the morning sun, warming up and letting some food digest, I went back out there.  It took me nearly an hour and a half to walk the first 4.5-mile section of the third loop.  My stomach vaguely protested, my legs felt weak, and now that I was walking and my feet had been wet for that long, my toes were even more painfully waterlogged and/or blistered (I wasn't about to take my shoes off to see).  People were passing me, and I had no energy to keep up with them, much less pass them back.

Still, I persisted, and walked through a little over half of the loop, before I got to the Ripley 2 aid station, where there was a conspicuous doctor and equally conspicuous cots.  I took this opportunity to eat and lay down, since the doctor said that I didn't look so good.  I spent about half an hour there, and coincidentally woke up just as Snipes was sitting down at the aid station.  I got up to talk to him, and he immediately got on the "follow me and we'll finish the race" soapbox, to the chagrin of the doctor. (I later found out that Snipes and the doctor had disagreed about some things on the last go-around, so perhaps that was part of the motivation behind his response.)  As much as I didn't want to, and as much as I clearly expressed to Snipes that more than anything in the world, I just wanted to stop, I followed him and his pacer Christopher out of the aid station and onward.

We spent the next 7 or 8 miles of the loop jogging slowly on the flat sections, walking the uphills, and walking the muddy sections.  I was hanging on, but barely, and I knew in the back of my mind that sooner or later, Snipes was going to drop me.  And in the last three miles of the loop, he did, directing Christopher to stay with me at least through the end of the loop.  The company for part of the loop was nice, but at the same time, it was a constant nerve-wracking experience to wonder when my body would fail and when I would get dropped.

I reached the start/finish at the end of the third loop, mile 75, and I was in significantly worse condition than I was at 50 miles, and dropping was significantly more appealing.  I knew that Patrick was having a good day, since I saw him near the end of my third loop, and that he would be finished soon.  It was now a little over 19 hours into the race, and, at the rate Patrick was going, based on where I saw him, I figured that he would be finished in the next 10 or 15 minutes (and, as it turned out, I was pretty close to correct).  I could have just stayed at the start/finish, waited for Patrick to come in, and packed up and left.  We could have been on the road by 4 pm, home by midnight, in time for a good night's sleep in a real bed, with a full Sunday of life outside of this mud-coated fiasco.  And, in the grand scheme of life, this all seemed very sensible and reasonable.

But again, the race director told me to just give it a try, and everybody was pulling for me (and everybody else) to give it their all and finish, and again, in a very marginal sense, these forces won out, against every part of my will that was screaming loudly "stop stop STOP!"  I tried my best to brace for the worst. 

The first 4.5-mile section took me an hour and forty-five minutes this time - immensely painful, considering that it took only 35 minutes in the good old days of the first loop.  I was getting passed worse than before.  Everything hurt.  At least the weather was nice - sunny, clear, and not too warm in the shade.

Back at the start/finish, now with just over 20 miles to go, the excitement should have been palpable.  But at this point, I'm not even sure that my heartbeat was palpable.  I was a weak, broken zombie, stomach churning and toes burning.  The race director described the rest of the race as "just a long run," which struck me as the equivalent of telling somebody who's just eaten 80 hot dogs that he could easily eat another 20 more, since he already managed 80.  But apart from the previous 80 hot dogs, he did have a point.  I lingered for a bit, ate some food, and prayed for it to digest so that I would have the energy to keep moving. 

Meanwhile, Glen, who had just finished, gave me a "c'mon, this is your Badwater training!" and then jokingly offered a young girl that he was talking with (apparently another runner) as a pacer, which of course she wanted no actual part in.  I'm sure that he didn't mean for it to come off as taunting or insulting, but in his post-finish-line glow/delerium (they're nearly the same thing), and in my 20-more-hot-dogs state, it felt awful to hear, and was definitely filed away in the "retribution later" section of my brain (maybe my opinion will change between now and Badwater, and it won't stay there, but for now, there it is).

Not wanting to hear any more, I got up and staggered forward, getting ready to gradually jam those hot dogs down.  Strapping on the headlamp, I felt particularly defeated, knowing that, barring a miracle, I would be passing that way again in the dark (the volunteers were confused as to why I thought that I needed it, furthering the sense of abandonment in this ordeal). 

On my out-of-the-way walk to get my headlamp (bad planning on the drop bag location), I saw Patrick on the massage table, and the race director commented that he'd been there for the past two hours (which I found out later was only marginally exaggerated), and that I shouldn't let him get too comfortable.  Patrick said "don't worry, take your time," but I never explicitly said to him that I was fully anticipating another 8 hours before I would be back, and I think he mistakenly assumed that I was making a comeback, rather than death-marching it in.  I apologized to him then, and I'll apologize again now.

And then, I was alone again, marching down the trail, stomping through the mud.  As people inevitably passed, I moved to the side of the trail, hands on knees, defeated.  People generally offered help and encouragement, but my universal response to how I was doing was simply "bad," and I didn't take anybody's help.  Then, at one point, as I was bent over, I heard a girl who passed say "hop on the train!" and maybe it was the expression, or some combination of interesting colors and shapes in my blurring vision, but I figured, why not, I'll try one more time to get some momentum going.  I ran with Hillary for a little while, and we chatted about this and that, which was a welcome distraction.  At one point, I got ahead of her, and she apparently waited for her father, who was also running the race, to catch up, so I left her behind. 

Maybe I should have waited too, as it would have slowed the pace, but instead, I kept going, hoping momentum would take over, and not too long after, I wound up reduced to a walk again, as if that were really a surprise.  So eventually Hillary passed me again, and I tried one more time in vain to keep up, although I knew it wouldn't happen.  And then I knew I'd be walking in the next 15+ miles.

I'd say that the rest of the race was entirely nondescript ever-darkening woods, mottled with foot and stomach pain, but there were a few other things that stood out.  After Hillary passed me, and I eventually made it to the next aid station, her father showed up at the aid station just as I got there - apparently she had left him, too.  He asked if Hillary had passed me, and I said yes, I wasn't feeling so good.  Then the guy that he was running with at the time made a comment about how he "raised his daughter right" and he joked that he would never let her date a guy that couldn't keep up with her.  Again, not entirely meant to be an insult, but in my state of abject misery, the insinuations that a.) I was somehow trying to "date" her because I was running with her for a little while, and b.) I was just some jackass trying to do this run to look badass, and not somebody who legitimately works hard at and trains for this sort of thing were deeply insulting.  Strike one. 

Meanwhile, the aid station volunteer asked if I needed my hand bottle filled, and I didn't have the patience at this point to try to explain to her I wasn't sweating at all, and water wasn't going to help my condition.  When I told her no, I didn't need my bottle filled, and she insisted anyway, I handed it over, then went over to the table in the meantime to try to eat something.  After I had finished eating, I asked for my bottle, and, a minute later, she still wasn't finished filling it.  Immensely frustrating, since she was prolonging my pain, and I didn't really need it filled in the first place.  Strike two. 

As I stood there staring while she fumbled with the bottle, "raised his daughter right" guy, in his own stumbling state, stepped on my left foot, right on my toes, where they were the most raw.  Strike three.

I don't remember which choice word was my knee-jerk reaction to the blinding pain, but I know that I immediately grabbed my hand bottle from the aid station volunteer, uttered another rude phrase, and marched off as quickly as I could.  The worst part was that I knew that I couldn't keep up that fast-walk pace, and that they would eventually catch me and pass me.  And they did.

So I spent the last portion of the race very frustrated, somewhat humiliated, and entirely alone.  Somewhere in the last five miles, I finally was no longer getting passed, which was some consolation - at least at this point, nearly everybody was walking. 

And, in a final moment of petty retribution, as I navigated the mud pits that were cruelly, unintentionally placed about a mile from the finish, ensuring that all my efforts to wash my shoes in the clean streams would be defeated, who did I pass but Hillary's father, struggling because "he hurt his foot," to which I responded "we all hurt all of our feet a long time ago."  Of course, he meant, and clarified, that he had done something particularly bad to one of his feet somewhere in the last mile (which would have meant less than three miles from the finish), but whatever.  In the miserable turtle race that close to the finish, I was going to struggle to the finish line ahead of him, rather than waiting up, since, based on our previous interaction, I knew that he would do the same for me.

29 hours and 12 minutes later, this whole stupid thing was over, and I was soaking my legs in a bucket of warm water along with all of the other busted-up people at the finish line, trying in vain to scrub all of the mud off.  I'm pretty sure some of it is still permanently embedded in my skin. 

Patrick had moved my drop bag closer to the finish area, but I had no idea that he did it, and he wasn't there, so I spent 10 minutes searching for it where it used to be (sort of far from the finish line), when it was actually sitting three feet behind me the entire time. 

Right after finishing, I had this new mess to deal with.

All around me was that vague glow of the exhausted pride and relief of the finishers, who had made it in just ahead of the 30-hour cutoff time, but I wasn't sharing in it.  Patrick and I both had to get home, and my extended wilderness escapade had put us way behind schedule.  I made myself as presentable as possible, and within 40 minutes of my finish, we were in the car and headed home, via the caffeine-aided buddy-driving system (Patrick took the first couple of hours, and I took the rest, since it turned out that he hadn't slept much at all after he finished). 

We both made it back to our respective lives in one piece, and I spent the rest of the day cleaning up the car and organizing stuff and visiting with my family - you know, normal human things that don't involve meaningless suffering without a point.  Also, sleep.  After 46 straight hours of consciousness, sleep is good.

That's the story, and I'm still ambivalent about the entire thing.  I do think that very few people understand what a deathmarch in an ultra really is, and this is perhaps an opportunity to clarify that.  For the most part, an ultra turns out one of three ways for a person that runs it: 1.) Better than expected (faster and/or less painful), and a pleasant surprise, 2.) More or less as expected, give or take a bit, or 3.) DNF.  Very rarely is it the case that somebody is on track to perform far worse than expected, but continues anyway, instead of taking a DNF. 

The reason is that, as the above has most likely illustrated, when you're doing awful in a way that isn't going to respond significantly to ad-hoc attempts to address the problem (broken bone, sprained ankle, stomach illness), the only way to make progress is to reduce yourself to the slowest possible forward progress that you can manage under deteriorating conditions, and hope that that pace is good enough to at least make the finish cutoff.  This is significantly different from having a "bad patch" in a race, working through it, bouncing back, and maybe even going through the cycle a few more times before finishing.  There is no bounce-back.  There is only struggle and pain until you reach the finish line - or drop out.  And most people drop out.

And not only is a deathmarch a miserable experience in the moment, due to the associated pain and suffering, but it's also, at least in my mind, the antithesis of what running is about.  Not because you're most likely walking, as opposed to running, but because it takes away from the feeling of freedom that is one of the things that makes running so awesome.  When a run is going well, you feel as though you're in control or even transcending what you thought was possible, to make it from one place to another under your own power, at your own pace.  When you're deathmarching, you're a slave to an unresponsive body, forced to play by its slow, miserable rules if you want to get anywhere, which, considering the amount of pain, a large part of you doesn't want to anyway.

So I have the distinction of being one of the few people with the "guts" or "toughness" or whatever you want to call it to finish a race under those conditions.  And I'm pretty sure the record will show that this was the worst that I've ever finished in an ultra, since I finished 54th, out of 64 finishers, just 48 minutes ahead of the 30-hour cutoff time.  And I did feel some sense of satisfaction in receiving my finisher's jacket and belt buckle.

But at the same time, what was the point?  The race was almost uniformly un-fun past 50 miles, and the only thing I wanted during the second half of the race was to stop running.  What did I really gain from that sort of torture?  Who did I hurt or disadvantage by continuing the way that I did, for as long as I did?  The awareness of the wonderful things in this world, like showers and soap and blankets and clean sheets and people that truly love and care about you, intensified as this ordeal progressed.  Why willfully forsake those things to "accomplish" something that, from many perspectives, could be characterized as stubbornness at best, and stupidity at worst?

I don't really have an answer for any of that, and at the end of the day, this is a classic "agree to disagree" situation, which, in retrospect, was heighted by the "backup plan" nature of the race (Old Dominion was still the race that I wanted in my heart) and unfamiliarity with the course (which, by the way, although appearing to be spaghetti on paper, was immaculately marked, and you would have had to have been an idiot to get lost, and that's coming from somebody with a history of getting lost), both of which weakened my resolve in the face of adversity (although the absence of those factors wouldn't have really helped my stomach situation).

Amidst all of the perceived negativity here, I would like to point out, here in this fine print, that anybody who can mark a course that is this confusing with absolute clarity, so that not even I get lost once, is an amazing race director.  Also, that if the course had been dry, it would have been much faster and more fun.  So congrats, race directors - you did awesome.

So one last clear, unambiguous statement before I leave this for good:  Badwater is about a month away now, and if this experience had any value at all (which is still debatable), it showed that if I can persist to complete a race in a situation in which I have barely the capability to, and virtually no interest in doing so, it should at least mean that for something that I do care about, like Badwater, something awesome is going to happen, no matter what condition I show up in on race day (but hopefully, due to lessons learned here, and a little good old-fashioned luck, it will be much better than this go-around).  So if you'd like to support that sort of effort, make a donation to my Badwater charity, G-PACT, here:

http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/DavidPloskonka/david-ploskonka-badwater

And now, back to life . . .