Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Messy Month+ - The Aftermath, Old Dominion Preview, and Badwater 2012

A few things:

1. Since the Palmetto 200 Relay, when life started going haywire, I've been remiss in recounting weekly mileage here.  So, in brief, here's how that's been:

Week of 8 April: 88 miles

Week of 15 April: 63 miles

Week of 22 April: 21 miles

Week of 29 April: 113 miles

Week of 6 May: 107 miles

Week of 13 May: 30 miles

Week of 20 May: 89 miles

Week of 27 May (projected): 133 miles

Which, if my count is correct, makes 2,053 miles since 1 January 2012, over 22 weeks, for an average of 93.3 miles per week, or about 13.3 miles per day.  Not bad for not quite half the year, especially with a few "down" weeks thrown in there.

2. My projected mileage for this week includes the Old Dominion 100-Mile Endurance Run, which starts this Saturday (June 2nd) at 0400 at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds in Woodstock, Virginia.  This will be my third run at Old Dominion - I ran it last June (http://tokenrunningblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/week-in-review-29-may-4-june-and-old.html), and in 2008, before I carried on about such things in my blog (in retrospect, I wish I had written about it then, because it was a down-to-the-wire race to go sub-24-hours and get the silver buckle, but oh well, story for another day). 

3. If Old Dominion goes well, I'll be making the long drive up to Bel Air for the Bel Air Town Run 5K on Sunday (June 3rd, starting at 8 a.m.), to keep my completion streak alive.  If I make it there and finish this year, that will be 17 consecutive finishes at the Bel Air Town Run, my longest completion streak for a single race, and a streak that's now becoming respectably significant in general.

4. And in the realm of wacky antics, let's not forget that Badwater is now just a little over 6 weeks away.  I'm excited for the race, but it's been off my immediate radar for a while (and everybody else's, too, it seems), so here's the reminder that I'm fundraising for the Challenged Athletes Fund again.  This charity provides equipment to people with physical disabilities to enable them to participate in physical activities.  Considering how good running has been to me, in so many ways, I'm excited to support a charity that allows others with the desire to be physically active, but the misfortune to make physical activity very difficult, to be able to have this important form of physical expression and emotional outlet.

So, in that spirit, if you'd like to donate a few bucks to this charity in honor of my run at Badwater, you can do so by following this link:

http://adventurecorps2012.kintera.org/davidploskonka

And, as a little "thank-you" to everybody who donates, this year, at Badwater, I will wear a shirt with all of the names of the people who donated to CAF written on it in Sharpie, since y'all are the ones that really enable and inspire my running antics. 

For an example of my skill with a Sharpie, see below:


In honor of Saint Patrick's Day 2012, which lasted for two full weeks in Baltimore.

The shirt that I wear for Badwater probably won't say anything about Saint Patrick's Day on it.
I'll scale the names according to the donation amount, with the smallest donation being the base scale unit.  So if you donate $20, maybe the letters will be about an inch high.  If you donate $2000, maybe the letters will be about as big as they are on the shirt above (unless you have a really long name, in which case I'll have to modify the algorithm to account for that).

So if you decide to donate, send me an email and let me know your name (or nickname, or whatever you want me to write on the shirt for you), donation amount, and what color Sharpie you would like me to use for you.  Thanks!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The "Where I've Been At" Saga, Part 4: Massanutten Mountain Trail 100-Mile Run Race Report

And now, the (maybe) exciting conclusion . . .

After the North Coast debacle (short version: about 50 miles in about 8 hours, then totally gave up because everything hurt too much), you might think that I wouldn't want to attempt one of the most difficult 100-mile races a week later.  And you would be right - sort of. 

As I woke up from my uncomfortable slumber in the back seat of Laurie's Nissan Versa at around 3 am, while North Coast was still going on around me, my first thought was that there was probably no way that I was going to be able to run MMT a week later.  But after staring at a neon-lit kite flying around in the night sky for what felt like a really long time, I looked down at my phone, and saw a missed call from Dave Snipes.  I called him back, and we talked about what was going on at North Coast, and, after we had finished talking, he said that he would put together drop bags for me for MMT.  No discussion about whether or not I should run the race - apparently, I was running it.

He wasn't the only one - Mark Rodriguez made hotel reservations, the girl I'm dating (after ragging on me for my plans apparently being ill-conceived and not entirely thought-through) immediately started discussing what she thought I needed to do in the next week to be ready for MMT, Meg Harnett got in touch with me about possibly pacing me at the end of the race . . . even my mom sent me a text message saying that she "had a good feeling" about the race.  So with all of that energy directed towards my running MMT, as the week went on, it seemed crazier and crazier to question whether or not I should run the race, in spite of the facts to the contrary.

And with the MMT 100, the facts are these:  The race is 103.7 miles (the current "official" distance, although I suspect that this measurement is a little short) of ragged, rocky, relentless mountain trails, punctuated only occasionally with gravel road sections to make you feel extra-terrible about not running because you're too tired from picking through rocks to run anymore.  Last year, I had a total meltdown at around 64 miles, but still managed to finish . . . in almost 32 hours.  That's a long time to be awake, and the prospect of another 32-hour slog after everything I had been through in the past month was not at all appealing, and, furthermore, seemed somewhat likely, after how poorly North Coast went.

But the week prior to MMT was occupied with travel to and from Israel, and by the time I got back on Friday, there was no time or opportunity to re-consider - Mark and Sniper had already put together my drop bags (with some assistance from Mike Bielik, who left some Hammer Gels with Sniper for me after the Bull Run 50-Miler) and made hotel reservations, and my girlfriend had planned the day around me leaving for the race.

I arrived at the Holiday Inn in Woodstock around 10 p.m., got to sleep around 11 p.m., and was up bright and early at a little after 2 a.m. for a 4 a.m. race start.  At least the 3 hours of sleep that I got was sound sleep, and I didn't feel too tired at the start line, or, for that matter, too cold, even though it was in the mid-40s (although my nagging sinus pain was suggesting that I may be coming down with a cold).  Most of the people I saw before the race (Jason Lantz, the eventual winner, Ryan O'Dell, 10 minutes behind me at the Winter Beast of Burden 100-Mile Run a few months ago, Jack Pilla, most recently of pulling-off-the-ground-at-the-Bandera-100k fame) looked at least a little bit cold, tired, and nervous, which made me feel a little better about my chances.

And when I say "chances," specifically, I mean my chances of finishing the race in under 24 hours.  Finishing any 100-mile race in under 24 hours is generally regarded as an accomplishment of note, but at MMT, finishing the race in under 24 hours is very difficult.  Each year, about 200 people start, and typically, only the top 10-15 runners finish the race in less than 24 hours - not to mention that about 40% of starters fail to finish the race.  But ever since I first came out to MMT, to pace Sniper in 2009, finishing this brutal race in less than 24 hours was a goal of mine.  Of course, considering my past month, finishing at all would be a minor miracle.  Then again, having made it to the starting line after all of that, and being presented with the opportunity to achieve this goal, there was also no thinking about whether or not it was realistic, given the circumstances.  Here was the opportunity, and I had to do my best to make the most of it.

In contrast to last year's start, this year's start, on the paved road, felt awful.  I was nowhere near the front of the pack, and all I could think about as we ran down the road was how much I wanted the road to end, so we could get on the trail, where hopefully this would hurt a little less.  Amazingly, once we turned onto the trail, I started speeding up, and passed a number of people who were ahead of me during the road section.  With my trusty dual-headlamp setup (one on the head, one around my waist), it may as well have been daylight in front of me, and I was running fairly comfortably over the rocks.

Unfortunately, my stomach was a little less comfortable, and I spent a total of about 30 minutes during the first third of the race taking "bathroom breaks," mostly in the woods, with the exception of the "real" bathroom break at Elizabeth Furnace.  Other than these unscheduled stops, I was mostly feeling okay - taking what the terrain would give me, and backing off a little bit as it gradually warmed up.  Much of the first third of the race is a blur in my mind, punctuated by loops of "Someone's in the Wolf" by Queens of the Stone Age and thoughts that a sub-24-hour finish might be possible.  After the first 20 miles or so, I wasn't gaining on anybody, but I wasn't losing ground, either.  I was mostly running alone, with a nearly blank mind.

The race only started to become distinct in my mind when I reached Habron Gap, knowing that the next section, nearly 10 miles long, in the mid-afternoon heat, to Camp Roosevelt (mile 64-ish), was the one that ruined me last year.  In my mind, if I could make it through this section relatively unscathed, I should be able to finish strong.  I had also skimmed times from last year, and realized that if I made it to Camp Roosevelt around 5 p.m. at the latest, I had a good chance at finishing in under 24 hours. 

In spite of the seemingly never-ending yellow trail to Camp Roosevelt, on which I ran out of water and wound up walking the last mile and a half of, just to be safe, I made it to Camp Roosevelt not feeling too bad at all, and was in and out of the aid station quickly (just long enough to drink some Gatorade from my drop bag), prompting the volunteer in charge of the aid station, who had been there last year when I spent three hours there, to comment on my improved "through" time.  It was around 20 minutes after 5 p.m. when I left the aid station, and while I was thrilled that I was still in the 24-hour-finish ballpark, I was trying to keep restrained, as the last third of the race is notoriously difficult, and any number of things could happen to mess things up.

And sure enough, not long after, mini-disaster.  All this time, I had been waiting for my cold to sneak up on me and ruin my race (which it never did), but I hadn't anticipated that my left contact lens, which had been bothering me since earlier in the race, when I took a branch to the eye when I took my eyes off of the trail for a second to drink from my hand bottle, would actually fall out of my eye.  But there, on Kerns Mountain, picking through some of the nastiest rocks on the course, with 30+ miles to go, I felt the lens loosen, blinked, and then it was gone.  I spent a few seconds looking for it on the ground, before I realized that (a) I wasn't going to find it, and (b) even if I could find it, it wasn't going back in my eye.  I would just have to re-learn to run over the rocks with compromised depth perception.  As it turns out, this is not easy, and my feet were hating me the entire time.  (Miraculously, for as many times as I stumbled, I didn't fall to the ground - sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.)

Fortunately, I made it off of Kerns Mountain before the sun set, and just after sunset, I was climbing Bird Knob, and now very seriously thinking about going sub-24.  I had been running fairly conservatively up until this point, and feeling relatively good the entire time.  But now that I couldn't reliably run over the rocks, I got the feeling that I was going to have to be careful on the really technical sections, and run every runnable section as quickly as I could.  I had already lost 10-15 minutes by walking the flat section at the end of Kerns Mountain, and I lost another 10-15 minutes by walking the flat section at the end of Bird Knob.  But when I made it to Bird Knob, and had three major sections of the course left, and was still looking at a potential sub-24-hour finish, I decided that perhaps this feeling should be more than that, and that I was going to have to buckle down and run everything that I could.  And considering the safety net that I had following the upcoming purple/pink trail section leading to the Picnic Area aid station (Meg Harnett was waiting to pace me, if I got into trouble), now seemed like the best time to put this plan into action.

In spite of lots of rocks, and not being able to see very well, I somehow made it to the Picnic Area at around 19 hours, 35 minutes, leaving me a little over 4 hours to complete the last "16" miles of the course ("16," because with the rampant mis-measurement of the course, plus the rugged terrain, this "16" miles is more like 18 miles).  I bounded down the steps to the Picnic Area aid station, where somebody offered me a chair, and, after looking at my watch, I flatly responded "I think that's a really bad idea right now."  I also turned down Quattro's offer of a shot of Jim Beam, instead choosing to twin-fist Gatorade and Coke (it really seemed to be doing the trick).  I was happy to see Meg, and although I didn't need her services, I thanked her for being there, and continued down the trail without much delay.  At this point, I was a man on a mission.

From here to the finish, the journey is painstakingly clear in my mind, and I could recount it in overwhelming detail, but for the purposes of keeping things simple:  I rock-hopped the best I could down the orange trail to the 211 road crossing.  I reached the wide white Massanutten Mountain Connector Trail on the other side of the road and was pleasantly surprised to find a few flat stretches that were runnable.  Then I was displeased to find that the section beyond the connector, leading to the yellow trail, was a lot more uphill than I had anticipated.  (But overall, between the two sections, the total amount of runnable trail was as I had expected.)  I hauled down the rocky yellow trail as best as my vision would allow, then turned right onto the road to the Gap Creek aid station, and, seeing that I had taken only a little over 2 hours to complete the last 9-ish miles, felt very confident about my chances in the last section.  Twin-fisted Gatorade and Coke at the aid station, and then I was off.

I struggled up Jawbone Gap for the second time - this time around, it was much cooler, which made the climb easier, then decided to walk the rocky backside to the road, even though it was downhill - far too dangerous and unnecessary to try to run at this point.  Once I reached the road, after one final pause to urinate on the trail (because really, who puts one of the nastiest, rockiest sections of trail less than five miles from the finish that DOESN'T have some sort of malice in their hearts?), I began a deliberate, rhythmic run, at just around 3 a.m., an entire hour left to cover the last "3" miles (probably more like 4+), all on roads and easy trails.  As I made the final turn to the finish, I knew that I had my sub-24, but instead of being overwhelmingly happy, I was just frustrated that I still had to run the "Chapel" trail behind the camp (in deference to this being a "trail" race), instead of taking the more direct route on the road, as vehicles would.  In "protest," I began walking, much to the chagrin of those waiting at the finish, who could see me (well, my headlamp, anyway) from far away, and, after requesting that I shake my headlamp to confirm that I was a finisher, demanded that I run through the finish line, because otherwise, they would run out of applause.

And, with minimal fanfare, 23 hours, 32 minutes, and 19 seconds later, I was finished.  In relief, I dropped my hand bottles on the ground, and had an awkward moment with the race director, since he was there to shake hands with every finisher, but the way I had dropped my bottles made it look as though I wanted a hug instead (it wound up being a handshake).  Then I sat down and started shivering uncontrollably - maybe that was the illness finally catching up to me.  The volunteers wrapped me in a blanket and tried to feed me (shredded chicken), but I really couldn't eat, and within a few minutes, all of the pain that I had been ignoring the entire race hit me, all at once, and it was so overwhelming that I nearly vomited.  Fortunately, 3 or 4 minutes of being hunched over a trash can, not vomiting, seems to work just as well as actually throwing up.

Eventually, after sitting at the finish line in my blanket for what seemed like forever, seeing four more people finish under 24 hours (and one person finish just 6 minutes past the mark), and making no real attempt to move, I decided that I needed to try to shower and sleep, and I made it as far as my car (which a volunteer had to lead me to), where heat was plentiful, before I passed out with the engine running, waking up a couple hours later, sweating profusely, as the heat had been on full blast.  Finally, I drove to the showers, cleaned up, and came back to the finish line just in time to see Meg pacing somebody in - I was glad to see that she had the opportunity to experience part of the course.  We hung out for a while at the finish line before I drove her back to her car at the Picnic Area (where she then proceeded to go out for more running), then drove back to the finish line to watch others finish, and wait for the awards ceremony and my beautiful silver belt buckle.

Yes, it is beautiful, and I feel okay saying that, even if it sounds a little silly, because other people saw it up close and in person and said the same thing, too.

For reference, the over-24-hour finisher's buckle, from last year.
Even as I write this now, with about a day to reflect on what happened, I'm still having trouble processing it all.  Of course, I always hope for the best, and I always want to believe that every time I start a race, I completely have it in me to achieve my goal.  Many times, though, that doesn't happen, and considering the circumstances, I was fully expecting this to be one of those times.  All during the race, the buckle was changing from silver to pewter to silver to pewter again in my mind. 

The best I can come up with is that with this race, I approached it with a healthy sense of balance.  Not just the kind of balance that you need to run over "trails" that are better described as rock piles, but the kind of balance over the week prior to the race that put training, sleep, nutrition, family, and friends in the places where they belonged.  That balance allowed me to step up to the starting line with a clear and healthy mind, and to approach each section of the race with an appropriate level of emotional investment.  And that approach allowed me to focus on my goal of running sub-24-hours, and not get too caught up in "racing."  In truth, there was at least an hour of slack time in that performance, and under better circumstances, I may have attempted to push harder.  But I'm very happy with the way this turned out - the storm clouds of last month really did have a silver lining.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The "Where I've Been At" Saga Part 4 Preview: The Massanutten Mountain Trail 100-Mile Run

. . . which brings me to Friday, May 11th, 2012, sitting in the Philadelphia airport, fresh (minus the security mishaps) off a plane from Tel Aviv, Israel, after a restful (? . . . okay, not really) week there, on Massanutten Mountain Trail 100-Mile Run Eve.  I think it's fair to call it some sort of holiday (or day of memorial, at least), in the vein of the fire-setting memorial currently going on in Israel, that has something to do with defeating the Romans a long time ago (go ahead, ask somebody in Israel, and see if you can get a better answer than that).

As hard as it is to believe, this will be my fourth straight year at MMT - two years as a pacer, last year as a runner, and this year, as a runner again.  I'll be looking to halt the slow-sliding disaster that has been the last month of running (and, more generally, my life).  And although MMT is arguably one of the hardest 100-mile courses in the world, and always comes around at a time in my year that's traditionally been a "low point," I can't think of a better event for putting things on the line again and turning things around.  Because if the last few weeks have taught me anything, it's that I can deal with a lot more than I had ever imagined could happen, and life will go on.  And when I think about running MMT, oddly enough, I can picture the course clearly in my mind . . . which doesn't make it easier, but sure makes the pain a lot more familiar (and manageable) than what I've been through recently.

Or so it seems at the moment.  Who knows, a couple days from now, I could be singing a very different tune.  But for now, all I know is that I have a lot of good people supporting me in this effort, and a lot of rocks to climb, and I'm thankful and excited for this opportunity.

And on a somewhat-related topic, Badwater isn't too far away, so if you feel so inclined, and would like to make a donation to my charity, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, in recognition of whatever amusement or enlightenment my adventures have provided you, feel free to do so at this link:

http://adventurecorps2012.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1013684&supid=331202845

And now, I'm off to make some more things happen. :)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The “Where I’ve Been At” Saga, Part 3: North Coast “24-Hour” National Championships Disaster Report


I was really hoping that I wouldn’t have to write this, but the sooner I write it, the sooner I don’t have to write it anymore.  So, with that in mind . . .

The North Coast 24-Hour National Championship race is a race that’s had my number twice already.  In 2010, I stopped after about 8 hours and 50-ish miles due to burnout from over-racing.  In 2011, I came in far less burned-out, but far more sick, and had to stop after about 8 hours, due to uncontrollable coughing fits.  A few months ago, when they announced that this year’s 24-Hour National Championship race would be in the spring, as opposed to the fall, I was excited for the chance to redeem myself for 2011 just half a year later.  So I foolishly signed up early . . .

And then life happened.  Between being sick right after the Boston Marathon, to life-consuming turmoil at work, in about three weeks, North Coast went from being a really great idea, to being a completely terrible idea.  A week before the race, I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to go there, because I wasn’t even sure when (or if) I would be going to Israel for work.  On Thursday, just two days before the race, the work travel situation finally became clear, and I had to scramble to make travel arrangements to get to the race.

Fortunately, Serge and Christian were pretty accommodating in allowing me to ride out to the race with them (an 8-hour drive, punctuated by numerous bathroom stops, and, closer to Cleveland, uncontrollable laughter at drifters walking through random fenced-off parking lots, always carrying plastic bags), and Laurie generously allowed me to stay at her house, so that I didn’t have to brave the Days Inn Lakewood (the “official race hotel”) again.  

For giggles, I did go in the Days Inn when I arrived there with Serge and Christian, and, sure enough, within seconds of walking in, I saw two men at the end of the hallway, vacuuming chairs from the rooms that they had taken out into the hall for some reason.  At the other end of the hall, a girl was trying to talk to them, which meant yelling over the vacuum.  When they couldn’t hear her from the end of the hall, she walked down the hall, still yelling, and they had their yelling conversation over the vacuums (which apparently could not be shut off).  Yep, still the same Days Inn.

I slept well on the futon in Laurie’s spare room, ate a good dinner (chicken ratatouille) and a good breakfast (eggs and fruits and veggies), and had a good laugh with her son and her husband at the apparent slave trade operation at one of the local Mexican restaurants.  We made it to the race with plenty of time to spare, and, despite a breeze, it was actually comfortable outside for once.  In spite of circumstances, I had a good feeling about this.  (It probably helped lighten the mood that, about two minutes before the race, Jenn Shelton was banging on the door of a port-a-john, wanting to take a dump on top of whoever was taking a dump in there, “like the dogs do.”)

After a slightly disorganized, nonchalant start, that, for the first time, did not include the US national anthem, we were off - counter-clockwise this time, which led to immediate joking from Jenn Shelton about "summiting the mountain" that is the first turn.  The race was sufficiently star-studded – Dave James, Jenn Shelton, Valmir Nunes, Serge Arbona, Connie “Constance” Gardner, Anna Piskorska, Sabrina Moran.  So we went off sort of fast, but not insanely so – even Dave James seemed restrained.  This may be the only time that I’ve seen an ultra with this depth of talent where there wasn’t an immediate “sprint out, burn out” at the start. 

I felt mostly okay, and occupied my mind by focusing on what number lap I was on, for the entire lap. (This was a good move, since the original timing belts failed, and the secondary chips that they stuck on our bibs after about six hours were probably not a lot more reliable, and the hand count, well, the less said about that, the better.)  I was running “my own race,” and wound up with a pretty significant gap between myself and the other runners most of the time.  I wasn’t feeling terrible, but I wasn’t feeling great, either, and gradually, the random pain in random places in my legs became more consistent and more severe.  Still, I kept nearly a constant distance behind Valmir for about five hours, and during that time, nobody passed me.

Totally focused on "summiting the hill," proof that there is actually a coastline in the vicinity of this race, and evidence of a windy day.

But I knew that it wasn’t going to last, and the first time I stopped to use the restroom, and felt the pain shooting through my legs, I knew this wasn’t going to end well.  After about six and a half hours, I stopped and sat for about an hour, ate some mashed potatoes, then got up and kept running for about another hour.  Mostly the cheering from Valmir (who had dropped at this point) and Jenn (who had dropped maybe 7 laps in, probably due to boredom) kept me going, but eventually, they left.  Then I sat again, and it was effectively over.  Perhaps I’ve hurt worse in races, but this was a different kind of pain – both sore and tired, all at the same time, and gradually getting worse.  With a long week in Israel ahead of me, then coming back to the US on Friday, to start the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 race at 4 a.m. on Saturday (spoiler alert), and any sort of significant goal out of reach (after around 50 miles in 8+ hours, depending on whose lap count you believe), it didn’t make sense to keep going.

I went to Laurie’s car and slept overnight, then got up at around 7:30 am the next morning to watch the end of the race.  Serge and Jon were still going (relatively) strong, and Sabrina Moran was killing it (Connie had staggered to her car a little before the 24 hours was up, apparently conceding victory – hard to compete with a new American record.)  I hung around for the requisite post-race awards and socializing, and it was nice to hang out with people, but after a while, the fact that the race had gone poorly, for the third time in a row, was casting a shadow on all of this, so it was even nicer to get to the Cleveland Hopkins airport and move on to other things (even if “other things” included standing in a stupid-long security line, where the TSA agent was slowing down the process by chatting up every girl that went through the line).

I feel okay about at least going out and giving this race a try, in spite of circumstances.  I had already scaled back my goal before the race to “run until my body tells me no more,” and I achieved that.  But it’s still disappointing that “no more” was only about 50 miles.  And Cleveland still has my number.  I’ll be back at some point, though . . . but I won’t be making that decision until about a week before the race, when I’m sure that I’m in top shape to take on the stupid-long challenge that is the 24-hour race, not to mention the stupidity that is Cleveland in general (okay, that last part I’m always up for, at least for a laugh).  

In the meantime, I’ve got 100 miles of Massanutten Mountains to re-climb . . . 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The “Where I’ve Been At” Saga, Part 2: Boston Marathon 2012 Race Report


I woke up in a hotel room in Savannah, Georgia the day after the Palmetto Relay feeling as though this expedition was even more ill-conceived than I had originally imagined.  After 60-ish miles at 7:15-ish mile pace over the span of about 25 hours, with one night in a strange bed for recovery, I was off to run the 116th Boston Marathon tomorrow.  I’ve definitely felt worse the day after a race, but I’ve also felt far better, and at this point, the thought of “racing” 26.2 more miles in this state was difficult to process.

So I tried not to process it, and mostly concentrated on getting enough to eat, making my way through the maze of airports (Savanna to Atlanta to Boston) and to the expo (where between the lululemon yoga dancers and 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” blasting from a booth selling headbands for female runners, there was enough unnecessary hype to make an old-school marathoner like Bill Rodgers vomit . . . that is, if he wasn’t actually part of the show himself), and finally to a friend’s place to crash for the night.  By the time bedtime rolled around, I hadn’t even opened the bag that they had given me at the expo, let alone looked at my bib (for all I know, it could have been the wrong one – fortunately, it was not).  Stark contrast to the first time I ran this race, back in 2005, when I looked at my bib and immediately welled up with tears.  Totally detatched, but still strangely focused, I went to sleep.

I woke up at 5:30 a.m. on Monday, walked to the buses, and, for the first time ever, got on the first wave of buses out of town.  Turns out that there aren’t any lines at the port-a-johns when you get to Hopkinton early:  



In spite of the mild weather, I was feeling strangely cold (perhaps a sinister omen of things to come), so I ended up putting on my jeans and button-down shirt intended for after the race over my shorts and singlet while I waited for what seemed like an eternity to be called to the starting corrals.  I saw a few friends in the meantime, listened to the motivational speech again (it always seems to help), and then finally made my way to the starting line (after agonizing over my shoe choice, and finally settling on my Pirahnas with socks).  Finally, it was starting to warm up.  I remember dumping three cups of water over my head before the race, and then the rest was a blur until the gun went off.

Within the first mile, I felt as though this had been a huge mistake.  My legs felt heavy, slow, and painful, in spite of the downhill start.  People were passing me mercilessly, and I felt like I didn’t have it in me to pass them, even if I had wanted to.  And over the next few miles, each rolling uphill felt like a mountain.  I was slogging forward at a low 7-minute-mile pace, but the effort felt like I was going a minute per mile faster.  And to make matters worse, it was gradually getting hotter.  I had no idea how I was going to keep this up for another 20+ miles.

So I went back to my Sunday morning hotel-room strategy, which was not to attempt to process any of this, and to keep on moving forward.  People kept passing me, but the rate was slowing.  I remember seeing myself in the “famous” window around mile 8 and seeing that my form really didn’t look all that bad – I just seemed tired.  As I neared the halfway point, and the Wellesley girl screams faded in, the pain drowned out, as I passed the lineup, dead-eyed and barely blinking, just focused on one foot in front of the other.  I distinctly remember one girl looking me right in the eyes, and briefly thought about stopping for her, as the majority of them seemed somewhere between taken aback and horrified by the look on my face.  But I’d never stopped at Wellesley in my 7 previous runs here, and, as awful as I was feeling, stopping now would mean breaking concentration, thereby risking a 4-hour-plus finish, and I wasn’t about to let that happen.

But then, at around 14 miles, I passed my friend Dan, walking and struggling in the increasing heat.  Because it seemed like the right thing to do, I slowed briefly to walk with him. Then we started running again, and, within a few minutes, I realized that Dan wasn’t with me anymore. (I later found out that he had dropped out.) Dan wasn’t the only victim – with Newton hills looming and the temperature rising, gradually, the people around me looked to be in even worse shape than I was, which was encouraging, especially as I attacked the hills with everything that I had (which wasn’t a whole lot).  At this point, I was drinking a cup of Gatorade every mile, then pouring a cup of water over my head, and running through every misting tent and open fire hydrant I could find. 

Somehow, my aggressive cooling plan seemed to work, and by the time I reached mile 22, the race felt like a repeat of last year’s race, albeit 20 minutes slower.  I picked up the pace on the downhills, and knowing that the finish was near made the pain much more bearable.  I was passing everybody now.  No matter what my finish time ended up being (and at this point, I knew that it would be over 3 hours), finishing the race speeding past other runners, as opposed to having the crowd streaming past you, is the most pleasant way to finish a race like this.  Rounding the last corner, I saw one more runner in the distance that I wanted to catch – a runner who had passed me within the first couple of miles, who was wearing a bib on the back of his shirt that said “JESUS IS MY STRENGTH.”  I passed him about 100 meters from the finish line, and crossed the line in 3 hours, 13 minutes, 27 seconds. 

Nearly an evenly-split race, between the first half and the second half, in spite of the second-half hills.  A 6:50ish last mile definitely helped.  I staggered past the finish line, in less pain than usual during the seemingly endless deathmarch to food, drink, mylar blankets, my change of clothes, and the all-important finisher’s medal.  The fact that the post-finish-line-walk wasn’t quite so bad this year didn’t stop me from flopping on my back on the ground in the grass, sun beating down on my face and bugs crawling in my ears, in the “family meeting area,” where nobody was around to meet me.  I really didn’t care – I was spent, and not moving for a while was sweet relief.

Eventually I woke up, wandered around the city looking for food (which, in the area of the finish line, is nearly impossible to find . . . but plenty of designer clothes – go figure), then met with my friend for a night on the town that is best left un-recounted here.  The next day, I was horribly sick with some sort of cold, and didn’t feel better until the following weekend. (But at least I still have this snazzy medal - picture taken right after the race . . .)


It’s almost a month later, and I still have mixed feelings about this performance.  On the one hand, in spite of all sorts of adversity, I persevered, finishing fairly close to my seed (1234 overall, versus bib number 1001).  On the other hand, 3:13, other than being a palindrome, is pretty meaningless as a finishing time – it’s not a PR, it’s not sub-3-hours, it doesn’t even qualify me for the Boston Marathon next year.  So I think I will agree to disagree on this one, and look forward to future performances, where the results can be evaluated with less ambiguity. (And the conclusions to the race reports can be more satisfying than this one.)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The "Where I've Been At" Saga, Part 1: Palmetto 200 Relay Race Report

Forgive the lateness of these updates, as I've been, among other things, sick with roughly every disease in the hospital lately, not to mention poked, prodded, evaluated, and re-evaluated, spent too many consecutive 10+ hour days at work (all stories for another time). Although you may have seen some of this on Facebook in pictures and status updates, what follows is the more thorough retelling of my adventures for the past month, with a certain amount of hindsight judgment thrown in for good measure (but only a certain amount . . .)

But for those with very little patience for what will inevitably be a long story, here's the condensed version:  Ran about 60 miles at the Palmetto 200-Mile Relay in South Carolina on 13-14 April, at an average pace of 7:15/mile, flew from Savannah, Georgia on 15 April to run the Boston Marathon on 16 April.  Plowed through Boston in 3:13:27, in brutal heat, a lot better than most people fared, but failed to re-qualify for next year.  Immediately got deathly ill the day after the marathon, sick for the remainder of the week, came back to work the following week to find that my plan to travel to Israel the week before the North Coast 24-Hour Race was, in my absence, totally hosed.  Spent pretty much all day every day sorting things out, to manage to get my trip sandwiched between North Coast and the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 (MMT 100).  After a long, last-minute drive to North Coast, found myself physically and mentally exhausted at around 9 hours and 50 miles, and decided to pull the plug in the hopes of saving myself for MMT 100.  Results of that decision currently pending . . .

But first, the Palmetto 200 Relay:

The story of the Palmetto 200 Relay, for me, goes back to this past Valentine's Day, which was a particularly crummy day for me, as my current romantic interest's interest in me was at an all-time low. So you can maybe sort of a little forgive my stupidity when Marie-Ange Smith sent me a Facebook message at around 10 am, when I was still struggling to shake the sickness from my stomach (maybe something I ate, but more likely, emotionally-induced), and asked me, rather insistently, to be on her relay team for the Palmetto 200. Nevermind that this would be a four-person, 200-mile relay, meaning about 50 miles per person, in a state that I had never been to (South Carolina), finishing up on the Saturday before the Boston Marathon (giving me only Sunday as a rest day, but mostly, a travel day). I had a (running) valentine, so of course I said yes, and felt temporarily better.

Then I had a couple of months to second-guess my decision. Setting aside the whole Boston re-qualifying thing (this would be 8 consecutive Boston Marathons, but a 9th could be in jeopardy with all of the miles I would be running beforehand), the travel logistics and general fear of the unknown set in. On the other hand, we only go around once, and, what the heck, why not see if I could pull it off?

Before I knew it, the 12th of April came along, and I was on an uneventful flight to Columbia, South Carolina, the start of the relay. Tim Waz, one of my relay teammates, met me at the airport, and we drove to the Hilton (swanky as it comes in this city), where we would be staying for the night. After lunch at Mellow Mushroom (a lunch that I remembered this time, unlike the lunch at Mellow Mushroom in Asheville after the Blue Ridge Relay, which is pretty much a blur in my memory), we went back to the hotel to hang around for a few hours and wait for Ed George (another teammate) and Marie to show up. We then assembled in Tim's hotel room, and, after a certain amount of derisive laughter at our sponsor, (Don't) Tri-Sports's pathetic contribution to our expedition, we were off on a misguided journey to a fittingly mis-named "Just Running and Walking" store (their local running store) to buy Ed compression shorts.  We ran there, of course, and along the way, I learned interesting facts, such as the surprising prevalence of HIV in Columbia, and how giant my quads are, courtesy of Marie-Ange.  When we got there, they had no compression shorts, so it was off to Dick's, where they also had nothing suitable, so finally, we found ourselves at Earth Fare, where the food was at least somewhat suitable (especially if you have strong moral objections to eating cute animals), even if the creepy clown-addled dining atmosphere left something to be desired.  Somewhere along the way, I bought a "Black Panther" dark chocolate bar, we witnessed men in high heels behind our hotel walking in a "Sexual Trauma" rally (whom we could no doubt soundly defeat in their "walk" in our running shoes), and took silly pictures of Ed on the ground in front of a "Don't Be a Victim" sign in the hotel parking garage.  All of this, and the race hadn't even started yet.


(In spite of what the above might suggest, we were, in fact, there to run.)

After a decent night's sleep in a real bed, we assembled at the "historic" (read: dilapidated) Columbia Motor Speedway to begin our adventure.  Tim would lead off, followed by me, Marie-Ange, and Ed.  According to this rotation, I would be running a little over 53 miles - by a small margin, the most on the team.  But before I had a lot of time to stand around and think about this any more than I already had, the 10 a.m. wave started, and we did the requisite yelling at our runner that we could before it was time to move the car to the next transition zone (or, more accurately, for Marie-Ange's dad to drive us to the next transition zone, as our originally-scheduled driver had bailed on us just a couple of days prior to the race).  Fittingly enough, I would start my first leg from a wastewater treatment plant.

First Leg: 6.02 miles, 41 minutes, 30 seconds

It was a warm and sunny morning when Tim handed off the reflective slap bracelet to me, and I darted down the paved road away from the wastewater treatment plant in my beaten-up Asics Pirahnas.  After our little bit of back-tracking, we turned left onto a gravel road, and it was APG Lunch Run in full effect, with a little bit more dust from the passing vehicles, on their way to the next transition zone.  I plugged along and felt pretty good in spite of the heat, and I was passing people in front of me, to boot (a theme that would continue throughout the race).  Before I knew it, I was at the transition zone, a little slower than I thought I would be, considering how the pace felt to me, but all in all, not bad for my first run of the day.


(chilling in the van after my first leg)

Second Leg: 7.99 miles, 54 minutes, 30 seconds

Now that we were getting into a bit of a rhythm, the horsing-around was in full effect.  Before the start of this leg, I lost my Tri-Sports jersey, sporting my requisite reflective vest over . . . nothing, and inherited $200 pink sunglasses and a flower barrette, courtesy of Marie-Ange.  So I looked a little ridiculous as I hauled down the paved road, over one of the hilliest sections of the course, but the fact remained that I was moving pretty fast.  So fast, in fact, that I was genuinely surprised when I looked at my watch at the end of this one. Sure, I was pushing it up the last hill, but I didn't think that I was actually moving that fast.  I probably picked up a good bit of my sunburn on this one.


(sweet reward for finishing my second leg)

Third Leg: 10.03 miles, 69 minutes, 45 seconds

Here was where things started getting serious (if "serious" is a word that could ever describe this endeavor). The mid-afternoon sun was now in full effect, and the road ahead was long, straight, and seemingly endless.  I took the slap bracelet much more reluctantly this time, and chugged down the road the best I could.  The 4-ounce bottle of water that I had been carrying as sort of a joke up to this point (since the rules required you to carry water with you during the day) was actually useful, and even inadequate, at this point.  The paved road eventually gave way, after a left turn, to hard, ragged gravel.  This was probably about the worst surface for my Pirahnas, but I tried my best to ignore it and post a time in line with my sub-7-minute-mile average.  And I did, just barely, unfortunately failing to catch the "tall, fast guy" (not to be confused with the "less tall, slower guy") on one of the "ultra" (i.e. 6 people or less) teams that we were neck-and-neck with.  That disappointment soon gave way to the "dog" incident - Ed was running behind another runner, who attracted two unleashed dogs.  The dogs darted out into the road, and the runner in front of Ed avoided the dogs, as well as an oncoming pickup truck, but what did not avoid thedogs or the pickup truck was a third dog, darting into the road from the opposite side.  The truck hit the dog, breaking its legs, and leaving it lying in the middle of the road, while the other dogs viciously attacked it.  Ed backtracked, got in the bed of the truck, and the driver graciously drove Ed past the incident, lest he become a casualty.  We watched in horror as Ed drove past us in the pickup truck, while another man came out and poked the downed dog with a stick, for some reason.  So at least THAT wasn't me.


(a lovely lakeside scene that was not at all an omen of things to come . . .)

Fourth Leg: 5.25 miles, 36 minutes, 45 seconds

Coming into this leg, I was definitely hurting.  Leaving the bucolic splendor of the waterfront, and the best barbeque restaurant along the course, for the increasingly fast-food restaurant, gas-station, and strip-club-riddled road to the next transition zone was not helping matters.  The sun was low in the sky, and our transition was sloppy, because after asking me if I needed a headlamp (to which I responded "no," since I figured that I would be finished this leg before dark), the volunteer monitoring the transition point told me that I needed a headlamp, which delayed my start a bit.  I had changed from my Pirahnas into my Asics 2150s, which seemed much more comfortable for the long haul.  Slower, yes, but my feet were no longer being cut up, which was a plus (although the cuts still stung).  I made it to the transition point right on 7-minute-mile pace, but not easily . . . but definitely before nightfall, so, take that, volunteer.


(Tim's leftover barbeque, and my reward for four legs down)

Fifth Leg: 9.67 miles, 72 minutes, 30 seconds

After the sun set, here was where this went from a like-clockwork endeavor to a real team sport.  Marie-Ange's dad would no longer drive for us, since his eyesight was bad enough in the day without the darkness to complicate it, leaving us to take turns driving overnight, after a long day of a lot of miles for all of us.  Tim's injury had gone from something that was slowing him to something serious, so while he did help me in donating the leftover barbeque that I didn't get to partake in before my last leg, he didn't help me by limping into this transition point, indicating that he may well be out of the rotation for the remainder of the race.  Still, I consoled myself by the fact that this was my last "long" leg, and with Marie-Ange's just-barely-fitting black Graveyard 100 shirt to keep me warm, if I could make it through this, the rest of the race would be "easy." So I set off down the road, headlamp and blinkies blazing, and for about 6 miles of this leg, things weren't so bad.  Then somewhere between 6 and 7 miles, between the growing darkness of the forest surrounding the road, the cold, and my increasing hunger, I ran out of gas.  I walked briefly in a few places, but mostly, I just tried to get to the next transition point as quickly as possible, so that I didn't have to be out in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of random dogs barking and police car lights flashing (apparently to keep the dogs away and the traffic at bay, but it is pretty unnerving for red-and-blue strobe lights to be the primary sign of civilization for hours on end).  I was overjoyed to reach the church parking lot, but went inside only to find that both bathrooms were occupied, and the only "food" they had there were ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread, which they were selling for $5.00. Yuck.  But now that THAT was over, the worst was over, right?

(a brief interlude for something that we saw in a church bathroom, which made no sense)

Sixth Leg: 3.69 miles, 26 minutes, 20 seconds

And there I was, in the dead of night, preparing to run my first legitimately "short" leg of the race.  I was excited about this, because I was now verifiably tired, and hadn't eaten very much after the last leg (because there really wasn't that much to eat, and dozing off in the van was preferrably to eating at this point).  And as cold as it was now, I was excited to start running.  But as soon as I started, my turnover stopped.  My legs were pretty dead.  I slogged through this one, but it FELT nearly as long as the other legs, as uncomfortable as it was.  At this point, Tim's injury was now officially sidelining him, so it would be me, Ed, and Marie-Ange for the remainder of the race.  I gratefully handed off the bracelet, and prepared for a sleepy blur until my next leg.

Seventh Leg: 3.2 miles, 25 minutes, 20 seconds

Now well into the night, with legs being traded and doubled (and, in some cases, us sleeping through transitions in the van), I was far from excited to start this leg.  I tried to console myself with the fact that Ed had run a "double" leg that was close to 7 miles long, and Marie-Ange had run almost the same distance (with somebody on a bike that she had conned to run with her, since as much as we were concerned about her fear of the dark, none of us had the legs to run with her at this point).  But in some sense, I felt as though I would rather be Tim (who had taken over most of the driving duties at this point, since his injury made him the most qualified to do this) as I headed out into the cold, police-strobe-light-checkered darkness for another "short" leg.  And, sure enough, this leg felt just as long as the last one.  But at least time-wise, it was over quickly, and I could laugh a little bit at the people who ran straight over the railroad tracks, missing the ONE really obvious turn in this section of the race.

Eighth Leg: 4.75 miles, 35 minutes, 20 seconds


DROP THE BISCUIT YOU'RE UP!

And now, with me in and out of sleep, the team pulled the ol' switcheroo on me.  I was looking forward to another leg of 3.69 miles, and then a final 3.1 mile leg.  But as I sat in the van with the sun coming up, eating a sausage biscuit, Marie-Ange came rolling into the transition zone, and Ed turned to me from the passenger seat and said "you're up."  And with the dead conviction that statement carried, I didn't argue for a second - I clumsily put down the biscuit, put my shoes on, and staggered out of the van to take the bracelet.  And of course, I felt slow, and even slower running down the left side of a major highway on a windy morning, with oncoming traffic only adding to the headwind.  After half an hour passed, and I saw no sign of the next transition zone, I started to panic - I hadn't seen any indication that I was supposed to turn, but I also hadn't seen any other runners.  So I slowed a bit, looked around, and, not knowing what else to do, decided to keep moving forward.  A few agonizing minutes later, I saw the transition zone, and jogged in, complaining that I thought this leg might have been long, maybe because it had been measured from the other side of the road, where the inside of the long, gradual curve was.  That's when Tim and Marie-Ange admitted that the leg was nearly 5 miles long - much to my chagrin, they had switched the legs around, so now I would be running a little more than anticipated.  Oh well, all in a day for Team Sexual Trauma, right?  (At this point, that had become our unofficial name.)

Ninth Leg: 4.2 miles, 36 minutes, 30 seconds (33 minutes, excluding "bridge penalty")

On my way to what I thought would be my last leg, we took this silly picture:


(Marie-Ange and me, clearly not having slept enough, although our animal friend seems okay.)

Which is a clear indication of my mental state at this point, as I requested that they drop me off at the 5K finish line that we passed on our way to the next transition zone, at which point I looked at the food, it all looked terrible, and I walked back to the transition zone with nothing in my hands.  And before we had time to argue about why I didn't bring anything back for anybody else, there was that damn bracelet again, and I was off . . . to find that about halfway through the leg, a drawbridge was up, and a group of people in front of me were stopped there.  I slowed to a walk heading uphill towards the bridge, but I suppose that I could have slowed further, since I still spent about 3.5 minutes there, waiting for the bridge to lower.  Meanwhile, traffic over the bridge (one lane each way) was backed up pretty far, and it occurred to me that I might make it to the transition zone before the vehicle did.  Sure enough, that's exactly what happened, and the volunteer at the transition zone suggested that I just keep running until the vehicle caught up with me.  (The answer to this was an emphatic "NO".)  After about ten minutes, the van showed up and Tim took my bracelet - he wanted to get in a little more distance, so he could go over a marathon, and offically run an "ultra" distance during the relay (he was at 26.2 at that point).  Marie-Ange went along with him, and Ed and I drove to the next transition point, where the bathrooms were painfully inaccessible, so we both wound up relieving ourselves in the bushes.  But at least my part of the race was over, right?

BONUS: Tenth Leg, 3.3 miles, 24 minutes, 45 seconds

Unbeknownst to me, the rest of the crew was splitting up the last two legs a little differently.  Ed wanted to run the entire 6.6-mile last leg, but the leg before that was 6.8 miles, which was a lot of distance all in a row, so somebody was going to run the second half of that leg for him.  I thought that was going to be Marie-Ange.  But when the transition time came, they all looked at me, so, with a heavy sigh (and heavy legs), I got out of the van one last time to run through historic, scenic downtown Charleston.  Marie-Ange's argument that I would get to "tour the city" was at least somewhat valid, as there was plenty of interesting people-watching, and even a few runners for me to chase down (one of my favorite things to do, even, it turns out, when I'm dead-tired).  I arrived at the transition zone, and a few of the people who had seen me stranded at the last transition zone joked again about my team, and where the rest of them were.  Fortunately, this time, Ed wasn't far away, just in the bathroom, so he came jogging up about a minute later, and finally, I passed off that darn bracelet for good.  I was more tired than I thought I'd be, but at least Marie-Ange was there to gently clean my nipples with a Wet Wipe.  (Or whatever).

We drove to the end of the race, and sprinted the last 100 meters or so of the race in with Ed, who was dead-focused on getting us in just under 27 hours (and we did).  All in all, we finished okay, but not great, but with the notable handicap of an injured/out-of-commission team member, we did a good job of "sucking it up and getting it done."  We were then treated to unlimited beer and unlimited tacos (the latter of which was particularly helpful, since, in getting two plates, one for Ed and one for myself, I spilled one of the plates on my black Asics 2150s, causing me to go through the agnonizingly long line again for my own plate, and sort of perma-ruining my Asics - not to give too much away, but I ran North Coast in those Asics, dried sour cream still on the toe of my right shoe from the spilled-taco incident) at the finish line festival, where we didn't linger for too long, because we all had other places to be, and other forms of sexual trauma to experience.  (For my part, I would spend the night in a hotel near the airport in Savanna, Georgia, and conveniently across the parking lot from a Wendy's, courtesy of Tim, who is awesome like that, awaiting my Boston Marathon adventure.)


(the team, 200+ miles and many sexually traumatic incidents later)

All in all, it was an awesome experience, especially since we really had to pull together as a team to get it done.  And even though I might sound a little cranky about being dealt some "surprise" extra mileage, in retrospect (i.e. about a month later),  I'm glad that I had the opportunity to be lost on a highway, stopped at a drawbridge, and chasing very literal tail through downtown Charleston in a very sleep-deprived state.  These are the kinds of things that will be burned in my mind forever as running memories (the fact that I remember them right now is proof).  So even though I found myself in quite a different place on race day than I did when this whole idea was hatched on Valentine's Day, it wound up being its own weird, twisted, but nonetheless special expression of running, sexual trauma, and love, and I (still) don't think I would trade a better shot at requalifying for the Boston Marathon at Boston for this.