Being fast is fun! Being fast on short runs is a good way to get prize money and trophies that the kids can use as props while playing, but it’s not particularly endearing when you’re as bad at appetite control as I am. I’ve always eaten like a horse, but running managed to temper my weight to something reasonable; keeping active is a way to justify that consumption, because otherwise it would just be gratuitous excess that would soon manifest in the traditional American look.
I didn’t start out with a plan, it just sort of arrived. I was looking back at my old notes on training, thinking about what I’d done well and what felt good, and I cobbled together something that I hoped would combine the best of all worlds.
After extensive reading, exceptional research, and a multitude of professional opinions -- also known as Google searches, this here transcript of how I got good before, and a quality motivational speech by myself to myself -- I decided to plan anew. This time would be like the ultra training schedule (which included lots of gooey trails in winter) merged with the speed training (which included sprints and hills).
I would call it Massive Motive Maintenance, or M3 for short, as I’m sure that can’t be confused with any other M3 in the world. Cycling declined, running boomed exponentially, and I endeavored to be a better-trained athlete. Two bonuses: I would spend less time working out -- something my wife would approve of -- but improve my overall fitness for a wide range of activities. (The training plan is shown below.)
And yes, I’d just gone through 2 training plans in a 4-month stretch, and I was embarking on a third. Hey, 8 a year isn’t bad, is it?
This particular run up the White Oak Trail, ostensibly continuing around the back of Hawksbill Peak, up the peak, and down the Cedar Run Trail, hit the apparent midpoint about 5 miles in, and the result was nearly disaster.
Sure, it was enjoyable clambering up White Oak's stretches of large rocks, taking in the scenery at the top of the gorge, then delighting in the last half hour of cool morning air on the lazy but consistent ascent of the Horse Trail/fire road (depends which map you use; the trail itself is clearly posted as "Horse Trail", but Google Maps shows the Horse Trail terminating at Cedar Run at its north end, while Open Street Maps shows this section as a fire road that terminates at Cedar Run at its south end) up to Skyline Drive.
As I hooked around the back of Hawksbill a little over an hour into the run, I considered the time and possible routes to the finish. A straight climb up the hill followed by a bombing drop down the other side and along the creek seemed like another hour at best, only the first part of the 5-mile return trip uphill. But I had spent almost 2 hours in the car getting to the trailhead, and since the day hadn't yet found its damp, sagging towel of heat to drape over western Virginia, a 2-hour run didn't seem worthy of that drive.
Instead, I would stretch this out a bit. I stuck on the Appalachian Trail and dove south, hoping to catch the Google version of the Horse Trail back from its crossing at Fisher's Gap, then making the 800-foot drop with Cedar Run as a closer. I followed signs to the gap, and after a few brief stops to send reassuring texts to my wife, I found myself back at Skyline Drive in maybe half an hour.
This, I thought, put me a little over an hour from the finish line, which would push my day's effort somewhere between 2.5 and 3 hours, depending on conditions on the Cedar Run Trail.
That sounded a little more reasonable, but I once again started thinking about the drive home and cleaning up the house and all the other things that wouldn't be running in the Shenandoahs once I had finished up. As there were no more "reasonable" extensions to make on this trip and I was down to about 5 oz of water, though, return was the only option.
This seems an opportune time to offer a useful side note about maps, specifically the variety of 2D maps and their associated terrain maps. When one views a "terrain map", one relies on a consistent rendering of trail path relative to the local geographical contours. Often this is translated by the map software into an altitude tag for each point on the trail, or at least a good number of them. Depending on your particular application's properties, these tags can be compiled real-time -- slightly slow but not unduly so -- or compiled afterwards in a post-processing step. Alas, with Google, this is not done at all.
Advice: Aim for real-time updates for maximum safety.
Not having had this minty advice beforehand, I was suddenly faced with a problem: the direct route I had originally mapped on Open Street Maps (the one up Hawksbill and down Cedar Run) was, in fact, basically up one side and down the other, as indicated on the terrain map generated once I'd put the path into the software. The new path I was on -- constructed by placing a half dozen approximate points on the OSM version where the Googs said the trail went -- was never included in the terrain map, as I either forgot to regenerate it or the software just used what was nearby, which would have been the road that runs along the ridgeline.
Also not included was the actual distance along the trail, since my half dozen points were not at all representative of a meandering path through the forest. This "rough estimate" was entirely too smooth: about 2 miles short and way more sedate than the actual trail's character.
A little more than 2 miles along the Horse Trail and I was definitely feeling a new burn in my quads, as the trail slashed across striations in the hillside, or bent downhill for 50-100 feet before following the fold back up to a "convenient" crossing. This happened a half dozen times or more, each time burning the legs a little bit more.
But still, I was outside, on a trail, clambering over trees and around puddles and through overgrowth (must not be many horses on their eponymous trail). That more than made up for the pain, especially since the descent to the car would be so bombingly swift once it arrived. I even spotted a bobcat padding its way along a fallen log before it unhurriedly ducked back into the forest when I made a little too much noise. It was all quite beautiful and serene, a spectacular diversion from the typical Saturday.
It was around a mile before the Horse Trail hits Cedar Run that I ran out of water. Almost immediately, the air felt a lot warmer. Within a half mile my pace was decidedly lower, and I started wondering how high the temperature would climb before I would reach the car (which, of course, would be by 9 a.m., right?) There were still -- by my reckoning -- more than 4 miles left in this run, and even at a solid 8-minute pace for the final downhill, the temperature had climbed enough that 30+ minutes sounded pretty taxing.
(Another side note: Never convince yourself there are 4 miles left in a run when there are actually 5, especially when it's getting hot.)
But there was no alternative, and surely I could tick off that time without incident and just rehydrate at the car.
An eternity later -- or maybe a dozen minutes -- I reached the trail convergence, noted the updated downhill distance (hey, 3.9 miles! annoyingly longer than expected.) and headed down the grassy path back to the car. At least, it was grassy for about 100 yards, then changed into a technically challenging and rocky path with exposed roots and a persistently inconsistent splatter of rocks ranging from golf ball-sized (uncommon) to Nintendo-sized (far too common) to haphazard stacks of 2-foot boulders (about every 20 meters). These various-sized chunks were strewn about with enough space between that they formed a nearly perfect ankle-breaking course, where the best place for your next footfall wasn't apparent until you were finishing off the previous step. There was no efficient way down this course, just a lot of stop-and-start to avoid damaging the lower extremities.
My pace plummeted from about 10-minute miles to slower than 15-minute miles, the Horse Trail's jog/run now more properly described as a slow trot (at the best of times) or perhaps a well-intentioned up-tempo walk (sadly often). My throat was parched, and though I was still sweating, I vaguely understood that I was gazing longingly at each pool along the creek. Various insects flitted about in the rapidly increasing heat and humidity, finding the sunlit boulderway that made up the trail particularly appealing.
Uphill hikers increased in number and frequency as 9 a.m. came and went, and while I tried gamely to seem totally fine with my hydro-deficient situation, I was really counting down the time until the parking lot. Every half mile or so I'd pull out my phone to check the time and verify how far I'd gone (this is highly unusual behavior for me, as the phone is generally reserved for emergency route-finding or sending those reassuring texts). I was almost always disappointed at just how much green was left between the little blue map arrow and the little blue "P" at the base of the hill.
Each 10-yard stretch I would pick a target, and when the occasional dirt section with just a few rocky juts or webs of tripping roots appeared, I would find new speed, hopeful that the debris field was safely above, then resigned once again to the slow slog through the next Field of Talocrural Doom.
About a mile from the end of the Cedar Run trail I topped a rise, sat on a rock, pulled out the phone (approaching 9:30!), and assessed how I was feeling. If one word is your game, it was "poorly"; for the more verbose, "like shit". I hustled down the ensuing switchbacks and veered off the trail to drink like an antelope from a clear pool eddied below a waterfall. At first, I knelt, hands planted next to the water, and dunked my face in for full gulps. A sly cramp started in my calf, and before it could get the better of me, I splayed my body against the rock, sucked up a few more mouthfuls of water. I clumsily rose and felt relief so complete I could swear it actually radiated through me. It felt like a caricature of refreshment pulled from a bad sports drink ad, but it was *my* refreshment, damn it, and it felt real.
I merged back onto the trail. The water completely changed my outlook.
Now instead of a scorching death march down an ankle-eating rockfall, I saw the rest of the Cedar Run Trail for what it was: a slightly warm, challenging and slow jog down an ankle-eating rockfall. The rocks -- my god, the rocks! -- they were still killing my pace, too close together to get between, too far apart to feel like a roadway; too large to ignore and either too small to give a good platform or so large you would have to jump off them -- and land on more just-too-large rocks below.
I had no desire to break myself coming down this hill.
Did I mention how frustrating the rocks were on this trail? Yes? Fine, I'll stop talking about them, because regardless of how many there were, I no longer dreaded them, just dealt with them as they came and carried on with the adventure.
The last mile of Cedar Run ticked off quickly (though still more slowly than I would have liked thanks to...well, I promised not to), and the final stretch toward the parking lot turned into a genuine run. Excitement built at each step. A dozen ounces of water had completely rejuvenated me, and when my feet hit the blacktop, I strode happily to the car, polished off most of a growler of still-icy water, and relished the thought of returning home to an ice bath, a hot shower, fresh clothes, and a substantial nap.
Mundanity rarely looks so enticing.
Next up: Your Future Hasn't Been Written Yet
Mash out. Spin on.
Ultra behind me, I looked ahead to the next race: 3 weeks later, the local 5k. This was the same 5k I managed 4th in the year before, the same race I’d been steadily improving times in year-on-year.
Of course, this year, the time to beat would then be 17:55. But -- nah, no way I could manage even close to that. Coming off the ultra training, I wasn’t fast; I wasn’t supposed to be fast. It was time for a quick turn to focus on speed.
That change was effective and swift (get it? eh? fine, don't appreciate it now and see where it gets you). I ran almost as much, but instead of long runs, I let the distance slide and focused on improving my 10-mile speed. And those earlier baseline distances? Shorted, an interweave of pace running and hills, intended to jack up my strength and speed, in particular speed while tired.
Two weeks passed. I felt faster, but still slow. Projections for the result? Maybe a little slow, but not horribly so. Perhaps an 18:15? I wanted top-10, and that would put me there based on previous years’ results.
With the race in the offing, I decided not to taper, but to take a day off immediately before and maybe just feel good day-of.
The morning was pleasantly cool, with daytime temps anticipated moderately warm. It wouldn’t be a hot one, that’s for sure -- and good thing, too, because I really hate sweating during a 5k. What a drag to be thinking about your pace and catching the guy in front when a stream of sweat assaults your eyes.
Before the race is the kids run, and my eldest daughter opted for a late entry. Both kids ran the event, both finished around 11:00 (I have no idea, because who keeps track of their kids’ times when they’re 6 and 4? Crazy people. That’s who. And I’m not crazy.) So went the warmup. Toeing the line with a wad of high schoolers, I asked my neighbor on the team who I should follow, and the group pointed me to the guy planning to do 6:00 pace.
Looking at that number now, I’m amazed at how slow it is. How did I run a 10-mile race in Ithaca at almost that pace? Now 12 years older, I can hardly manage it for ⅓ of the distance. Oh, age, you cruel bastard!
Regardless, I locked onto this kid until about ¾ of a mile in, when I found his pace wasn’t keeping up with my standards. I slid by, targeted the next one, passed him around 1.5 miles, then found myself suddenly in 3rd place. At the 2-mile mark, I made my move on the next one, and as the course doubled back, we found ourselves -- quite inappropriately in a race -- jammed up behind the lead police vehicle. Fortunately the cyclist behind hopped the curb and blew by, turning this into a 1-second slowdown that wouldn’t matter in the end.
We hit the track having completely surpassed the other runners, and the lead racer took off like he’d hit those chevrons from F-Zero. Darn right I’m referencing Super Nintendo (or “Super Famicom” for you traditionalists). He power boosted his way up to the top spot, I trundled in for 2nd, and I was shocked that the clock showed me under 17:00.
It turns out I was that shocked because they screwed up the clock. But 17:57 was pretty solid, just a tiny slip from the year previous, far better than I expected, and proof that I could drop an order of magnitude in distance and still do reasonably well.
Immediately after, I wanted to go back to trail runs. Yes, off the road and back to the trails, but with summer looming, whatever I did would need to involve a good amount of very early or very late running; DC in July and August is notoriously oppressive.
Mash out. Spin on.
"I will never be warm again." The thought wormed its way into my brain as my body convulsed uncontrollably. The naked, gas-fired flame did little to warm damp, chilled digits, and it did even less to remove the persistent thought.
As the crowd around the heater grew, I slipped away to another with fewer people, one closer to the start -- and one where I could get closer to the warmth.
It began to snow.
April 9. Virginia. Snow. I shook my head at the incongruity of all of this: the snow, the crowd, my very presence at this run.
Three months earlier, Kevin and I met up for dinner. We discussed running and cycling (both of which he was just getting into), and by the end of the evening he let out that he and several others were weekend trail runners. "You should come this weekend," he told me. "One of the guys is going to do the long run -- 20 miles -- and I'm planning on doing half that."
Thus was the plan hatched, and therein did I meet the man who would have me slay the 50k beast. Or at least poke it a few times with a kind of pointy stick, lob a coin down an adjacent hallway, and slip by while the thing was distracted.
Kevin was not running with trail goons like the ones I had fallen in with back in Ithaca. My speed was solid, the idea of running a trail fast stayed with me, and I longed to return to the days when a 25k didn't mean slamming on pavement for an hour and a half, but kicking rocks and leaping roots for 2.5 hours. His running partners in this endeavor were slower, more deliberate, prepared for long distances but not too high on extremely rough tracks.
Brian was the 20-mile runner. He wore the traditional Camelbak pack and carried edible treats, prepared for a 4- to 6-hour slog across 20 miles of an out-and back. Kevin, a complete newbie to trails, was doing a point-to-point, and I opted to join him for two reasons: (1) because I knew the guy and felt a little odd ditching him and joining unfamiliar runners for the second 10 miles; and (2) because 20 miles seemed excessive. But with the less experienced runners with us, our trek took over 2 hours, and I closed it with a half-mile sprint up the final section toward the car to make it feel like more of a workout.
Fast forward a month, and I ran with Kevin and Brian - and a different 3rd runner - once again, shortly after my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in a foul mood, and the trail run (I argued to myself) would be cathartic.
At some point, I found myself outpacing the others, and when the trail crossed a river, I waited to rejoin them. They were talking races. Brian asked me about the North Face Endurance Challenge, a 50k along the Potomac. (The particular "run" in which I found myself was also less run and more adventure, but that's a story for another day.) I hemmed and hawed: having finished a single marathon, I didn't fancy myself a long distance runner, but I had thought of these so-called ultramarathons, wondered what they were like, considered whether I could do one at my advancing age -- or whether I could slow down enough to do one.
By mid-February I was looking up the race every couple days, thinking of the feasibility. Then one day I asked my wife, she agreed, and I signed up. It was definite now, something to plan for, and I immediately started lining up child care for the day, writing down strategies for the race, and considering the implications in my training schedule.
Weekly runs would need to ramp up. Daily runs would need to ramp up. Runs in general would need to be more distance-oriented, less speed-based. But there would need to be some speed or I wouldn't make a clean finish. So many details, so little time
I went with Kevin a couple more times, sometimes with other friends of his; I also added my own runs to the mix, and a week out was tapering for the event.
We were at Kevin's house the weekend before when Brian texted him the bad news: He had broken an ankle and would not be running. The one person I knew would be there had now bowed out, and it turned out that Brian’s normal running partner who was also slated to race had trained so severely she wasn’t sure she could run. I made a wisecrack to Kevin about a rule-of-threes.
Three days passed before I made my own stupid mistake, missing the bottom step while moving a couch (er...cushions, actually, but don’t tell anyone how clumsy you’d have to be to manage that) and crushing my right pinky toe. On Thursday I could barely walk, and that Friday involved a lot of limping during the half mile walk from the Metro to my office.
I debated whether to race, not knowing whether the toe would be good enough. I rested it, iced it, heated it, elevated it, stayed off it, stretched it, and popped some anti-inflammatories for good measure. My wife even changed from telling me I was an idiot for signing up to saying she wanted me to run. Injuries are at least good for sympathy!
Saturday morning, 5 a.m.: clothes on, bag packed, toe taped slightly upward. I was on my way. 40F, no wind, cloudy but dry -- perfect running conditions.
Saturday morning, 6 a.m.: at the course, huddled under a picnic shelter. 34F, wind picking up, downpour mixed with flakes of snow.
Thus do we pick up where we left off, the sun now rising behind the clouds and showing pockets of humanity like rookeries, the drenching rain having succumbed to gentle snow and now briefly giving way to a simple overcast.
The first wave was supposed to be sub-9:00 pace, but we all knew that could mean anything from 7:30 to 12:00, depending on trail conditions and depth of pain by Mile 22. At 7 a.m., we lined up, listened to some brief discussion of the trail (which was extremely well-marked and really needed no discussion), then headed out.
Within 20 meters, we were in mud and dodging small puddles. Another 200 meters and it was impossible to dodge the puddles, especially with the number of runners.
I latched on with a group of four who seemed to be about my speed. They appeared to be running as two pairs, with the lead woman (who eventually won the women's field) passing kit between her and her compatriot; the other two simply seemed familiar with one another. I was the odd man out, and my snarky comments from the back probably annoyed them a little. They were serious about this race, dammit, and I was treating it like a joyride.
After the wet start, we went through a stretch of almost 2 miles on a straight compacted-dirt road. The trail took a hard left through the woods on a wide stretch of patchy swampland, then ducked briefly along the river before heading across a golf course. We stayed together through this section, then the front two disappeared around Mile 4. The trail was busy with puddles and mud, but it was still pretty loose and runnable. Up the first hill was a challenge, as footing was difficult, and the descent included a lot of tree-grabbing for secondary stability, but it didn't feel dangerous.
Across the next stretch was more mud, the trail draining a tad now that we were 45 minutes or so in, and we made our way up the next climb: less dangerous uphill, but with a dive into the second aid station (5.7 miles) that took more careful footing. I dropped the other two heading out of the aid station, and began playing leapfrog with various runners about my speed over the next few miles. This section was the only part I didn't know already, with maybe 2 km that I had yet to run. The trail wanders along the river here, then turns away for a creek crossing, comes back for a few small rises, and arrives at the north end of Riverbend Park on a long, flat stretch.
In the park, trail conditions improved dramatically, and I was in my rhythm: 10 miles in, about an 8:30 pace, the run turned into a "race" among 10 of us or so, who paced one another with distance between. The bombing descent just before Great Falls Park was playful in spite of slick mud coating the hillside, and a mile later we were at the 4th aid station. We had also passed our first 50-mile runners.
This was my first experience stopping for any length of time during a race. I spent a minute or so collecting food, drinking water and electrolyte fluid, then shoved a salted potato in my mouth and headed off again.
Out of the aid station I was joined by another runner who really nailed my pace. We ran the first leg out (maybe 2 km) before being passed by an aggressive runner who also approximated my pace on the trails but couldn't contain his newfound energy. My new running partner took off to keep up with him, and once again I was alone.
Trails were clean dirt here, well-drained but busy with 50-milers and 50k runners. Each section was an out-and-back, so we overlapped significantly, and the races began mingling freely. Every "out" included a marking on the bib, and heading "back" about a quarter mile from the end of each I would see the woman I started the run with, her pace not affected by the first 14 or 18 miles.
The final segment in Great Falls was across the rocks along the river, and here I ran into a snag: the mixed races included a run that ended in the park, and many participants were barely moving. I tried not to be pushy, but did not want to slow too much. Rocks are threatening to many people, but after running with another local named Brandon a month earlier, I had regained some of my aggression on them, relishing the stair-like drops and climbs, the need for attentive foot placement, the potential for disaster on anything wet.
I felt like an asshole driver, riding up on someone's bumper until they stepped aside. This happened a dozen times or more, and every time I apologized profusely, but most people seemed to appreciate that, though aggressive, I was not endangering them.
Finally we emerged once again onto standard trail, heading somewhat toward the aid station, but veering north instead. This was the "back" part of the main out-and-back, a little over 19 miles into the run
But here the trail took on a patchwork of difficult and slippery mud flanking more traditional dirt-and-puddles stretches. My fuel was running down, and I was now feeling the pain of having run 20-some miles. It was a short ways to a marathon, though, at which point just 6 miles would remain -- easy by almost any standard.
I ate a little, drank the last of my water, and chugged on, hoping the next aid station would bring relief.
Before the next aid station, though, trail conditions turned to shit.
What had been a series of single-track puddles was now a thick ribbon of mud snaking through the trees. The surface offered little to no traction, and runners for the 50k were still coming. (I have no idea how they expected to finish that run; we were over 3 hours in and they had done maybe 15 km, meaning they had little chance of making the 9-hour cutoff.) Instead of taking on the center track, we were forced to jump from one side to the other, trampling grass and wildflowers, pushing aside new-growth trees.
The mud formed a perfect medium for suction on wet sneakers that no longer fit quite perfectly after 20 miles of abuse: Every stretch across the center threatened to tug the shoes off the feet. I began counting steps, thinking of the number it would take to get to the end of this straightaway, the end of this mile, the end of this section, the end of this run. Still 8 or 9 miles to go and I was being mentally broken by the mud.
Worse, this was the unknown portion with no familiar landmarks and seemingly endless repetition: 20-meter straight, followed by a pair of small curves, entering into another 20-meter straight.
Every step, I tried to envision a new way to get through the course.
miles until recognizable trail.
until the compacted gravel.
Marathoners appeared at the base of the next hill. I hiked up slowly, aware once again of the pain in my foot, and gingerly dropped down the other side. Forever and a day went by, or perhaps it was 20 minutes. And then I passed the tree Kevin and I had turned around at a month earlier. Mentally that kicked off a small and short-lived celebration; I was officially in known territory! No more than 6.5 miles left! Except, wait, we stopped at the parking lot. How far from the actual start line was that? A mile? OK, 7.5 left. Aid station at 5.7 left, so the next milestone in 2.2.
A runner passed. I quickened my steps to keep up with him, 40 meters back - one curve pair away -- and tried not to let the conditions wear on me through the woods. Slipping left and right, hopping off the trail and back on, dodging occasional oncoming traffic: each action sapped my strength, crushed a small piece of my psyche. And then, a creek crossing! Surely, I thought, the aid station was nearby. But it seemed like the universe might end before the aid station appeared, an impression partly forged by my 12- or 14-minute pace. I didn't know my speed, and I cared only to the extent that it couldn't increase with the trails so ugly.
Finally we crossed the small bridge, turned around a couple bends, and there at the end of an airy but still canopied swath of wildflowers and swamp grasses stood a half dozen volunteers and an abundance of food and drinks.
I got my last signature on the bib, then lingered, drinking several cups of water, electrolytes, and Mountain Dew. I dropped M&Ms in my mouth like they were candy, plowed through a whole banana, feasted on a quarter of an orange. I made small talk with the weather-beaten volunteers, who danced in place to keep warm and seemed entirely too jovial to have been at it since 5:30 that morning; I joined them, happy simply to be out of the worst stretch of the trail.
Another runner came up behind; we paced one another through half the golf course before he passed me as the trail dove back into the woods. Here, a trio of bridges signals entrance into the final park, an informal 3-mile marker. He mounted the first bridge and slid out, muddy shoes unable to grip the wet and also-muddy wood planking. He was lucky to drop to his right, where the lone handrail stopped him.
I checked that he was OK, and we both carried on, paces unslowed by the fall. He began to pull away around the slicker stretches as I became more cautious, well aware that mental mistakes are the most common vector for injury late in races. His lead lengthened to 20 meters heading out of the forest, then 40 meters as we completed the broad stretch of swamp back up to the compacted dirt pathway.
It was here that I regained my composure. There were no uncertainties on this surface: a long straightaway, 8 feet wide, with only a couple small creeks; then a right turn and a straight shot to the finish.
My eyes closed slowly, and a smile spread over my face. My legs picked up again, and at the final aid station I grabbed a drink to go, reached into my pocket for a few M&Ms, and wheeled away without stopping, hearing clearly, "Straight ahead, 1.6 miles to go." I pushed on, the gap shrinking, pace increasing each minute. Now around us were 10k racers and people doing some sort of relay event, runners being cheered by friends and relatives on the sides.
One of them passed me, and I ratcheted up again to keep on her heels. She slowly pulled away -- very slowly -- but I tried to keep her as close as possible. The guy in front of me couldn't hold it, and a kilometer from the end I strode by him. We were now three, the one in front in a different run entirely, but the two of us had clearly renewed energy reserves.
We motored around the final turn (where by "motored" I mean at about an 8:00 pace, which is pretty much motoring in Mile 31), headed down the slight descent toward the river. Wide fields around which we had started the run opened to our right, but we stayed on the paved path, straight down and across the small access road.
I tugged off my hat for the first time, too warm to need it, gritted my teeth, and told myself I would finish strong. I churned as hard as I could -- according to my GPS, my pace went to about 7:30 in here -- and held a 5-second lead over the person behind. And as I crossed the line, 3 thoughts dribbled through my head:
1. I am done, officially done, with an ultramarathon.
2. I need food and water.
3. I am, at last, warm.
Next up: More On Training
Mash out. Spin on.
In spite of a week of the county government claiming parks were closed, for the first time they had made the effort to block them off. No big surprise, given the amount of maintenance the county does, but this still caused a small amount of annoyance as I pulled up to my usual parking lot and found a chain dangling across its entrance. I parked in the "secret" spots - a little pulloff at the end of the road - and watched the rain intensify while I prepped for the run.
Now ready to go, I stepped into a pretty typical rain - maybe a 3/2* - and started off. The train was muddy from the overnight off-and-on waterings, but it wasn't unrunnably bad, and I didn't feel abusive going over it. It was still easy to stay on-trail and step straight in the puddles without wondering just how deep my ankles would sink.
I headed up onto the trail and took a right to do the large loop out first. This was pretty easy, though I was definitely wet by the time I'd hooked back to the powerline section. I climbed the hill and at the top heard a rumble.
This rain had just turned to a thunderstorm. I dropped down the hill and back into the woods, figuring it was safer to be in the middle of a forest than on the flats of the powerline stretch. A few rumbles later and the rain really started, coming now in heavy droplets at moderate volume. This has escalated to a 4/3 or even 4/4. I certainly wasn't drowning in it, but there was quite a bit of water falling.
And now came the second time across the creek. Except it wasn't possible, as the creek level was so high that leaping across looked precarious and fording the rapid waters sounded a little silly. I made my way to the bridge and up the river, the rain coming down hard the whole time. This stretch felt muddy, brutal, difficult. A creek crossing arrived that fortunately hadn't been flooded, and I hopped across gamely. As I neared the forest exit, the rain let up, and by the time I was in the open again, my rain gear was burning me up.
The next half went easily, with just a couple little detours to dodge blown-up streams. A couple loops through the south section, then back up to the powerline (again: no creek crossing; bridge it is!), closing out the run with a set of up-tempo segments.
It's definitely colder than I expect this time of year in Virginia. We're far enough south that it feels like spring should be in full bloom by the second week in April, but we've had a frost blow in on a 15 mph wind and now I'm fully bundled.
That's not necessarily bad. We're all out in masks now, and my running buff works serviceably for the purpose on the trails. Plus, of course, there won't be the clusters of walkers and cyclists on the unavoidable paved stretches of the path.
I roll out the long way, even though this is the end of my running week. Down the trail, shoes sticking in mud everywhere the drainage is inadequate, I'm now looking for the longest single-loop run I can manage at Wakefield. Out along the river, back on the double track, left onto the access trail, then a hard left to loop around.
Here's the muddy stretch that bikes have torn up. I try to run through it, but in some sections the mud is so thick it threatens to eat my shoes. I tiptoe around as little as possible, ride the boards where they've been dropped in, and get through in way better time than expected. Now come the curves and the big loop back up, then across before ejecting onto the powerlines.
The wind is bitter out here, and I'm hoping the sun cuts through it before the end. Everything's dry, and I'm feeling great. Around the end, then winging back along the interstate wall: normally traffic noise is a continuous stream here, but today you can hear each engine as it passes on the other side. The trail is firmed up here, the going easier, and now I'm warming up.
Descend? No! Back around to the forest path again, this time the other way - no repeats, no hesitation. Around the trail, across the wooden bridges, slicing back to the powerlines again and slowly looping down the hill. At the bottom it hooks back up, and I take the hill at pace.
Now back to the top and the winding drop to the creek. Interstate path straight across, into the power station segment, then back to the curving forest stretch. Definitely too warm for the kit, I start to unzip: jacket off, sleeves rolled down, ready to blow through the rest of this.
I cross the parking lot lawn, head over the road, pound the wooden slats on the bridge and do the triangle extension, then dip through the tunnel. This is the back side of the course, the section that's hardest to loop because the paths seem to all come together in random ways. But I'll do my best.
I start out right and make the big loop to the end, then turn hard right and come back to the entrance. Make the next right, lean left to stay on the unused path, then stick right to get down to the main path after a cutback or two. There's a little strip on that path that I don't think I can get out of repeating, but there's the last path pair that gives me a nearly-complete looped course.
On the other side of the creek, the logs keep things interesting, and I take the widest course. There's an inner path, but there's no loop possibility out here: not enough paths to do entrance and exit without repeating a decent segment. So I re-cross the creek and head for the exits, 9km into this run.
I don't need to look both ways anymore, crossing to the dirt path, then rejoin the paved trail at the end. Right turn, back toward the car, a couple people are now out - it's pushing 8 and definitely in the 40s. I leap the creek through the dirt and find another mud-filled pile of a path. It's all about dodging over here, because the puddles and mud pits are everywhere.
It's forest time again. Head down, rapid-fire, pulsing across the trail. A couple cyclists roll by, and I cut through the brush to avoid contact. The Mud Pit of Doom - my last trail work effort - has a puddle on each end but a long, dry stretch through the middle. I hope it holds.
Along the river here, the sounds are everywhere: falling water, of course, but also squirrels scurrying around the trees, birds out in force, the winds flowing through long grasses at the forest edge. I'm happy here.
There it is, though: the last creek crossing on this strip, and I know the end is coming. Up past 10k now - not super long, but long enough to feel good - and I've almost single-looped it. I lean right to take the last "bonus" stretch, then cross the creek where I've crossed before. Staying to the left - does that count as a loop? For our purposes, sure.
I'm going left now, then back into the woods, and now past the main exit to the first dive back to the double track. I don't think there's anything longer here, but the return on that double track is rock-strewn and ankle-threatening. But here I go!
The actual loop is about 10.5km, with just under a kilometer each way car-to-path. I'll be back again. And again. And again and again and again. Though there are plenty of options around, it's hard to imagine finding another place where there's even a place to park.
Looping it again, this time on pace. I've found my 12km loop, now it's all about rhythm. There are people today: it's warmer, drier, all-around better. Every high-pace strip feels brilliant, like I'm running downhill even when it's a steep climb. My legs are more than happy, they're thrilled.
Nights now I go to bed with legs tingling from effort. It's a delightful tingle, like they want to quit but just know there's more tomorrow. I can feel the build here.
Am I getting faster? Probably not particularly. But I'm getting more comfortable and more confident. After four months off I needed to make a good return, and this truly feels like it.
Masks on, even when it's 50F. The tour today is simple: warmup lap, nothing too long. The first half disappears under my feet before I even know, but the last third feels infinite, like I've been out here at Wakefield forever.
Back in high school and college I ran the same course every day. The repetition was good for mentally checking out and just getting the miles done. But with the taste of variety that trails bring, I generally don't like to repeat anymore.
It's hard, though. I need a trail to limit strain on the Achilles, but I can't roll the dice on other familiar trails. In fact, I know that most of them are closed off: they're national parks or state parks off major roads, with no parking alternatives.
Wakefield or bust!
Mash out. Spin on.
[Ed Note: It's been a while! Sorry for the large gap, but training took over and updating this site fell by the wayside. But there's more storytelling, so here's a return to the book!]
I spent the next few months thinking about getting into better shape. Running was great, but I couldn’t sustain the 8 miles per day I had done in Washington. It simply wasn’t interesting enough around my house -- there’s something about trails and mountains that makes an hour disappear where roads make that hour seem like half a day.
My first move was to get some weights and start lifting at work. I took 10 minutes each day to just lift something, never too much but just enough to feel like I was stressing my body a little. This routine went along with more rides to work, and I decided to explore a couple of the trails near my office that I had neglected over the previous couple years. These turned out to be entirely too short but still foresty enough to be attractive.
Late in the fall (or early in the winter) I made my way to the edge of Department of Agriculture land, dashing around the end of the cornrows to the only open stretch visible: a power line track that included a creek crossing. Worried I would be late for a coming meeting, I picked up the pace, but it turned out the power lines led to a tall fence which, once I’d clambered over it, dropped me a couple miles from the NASA campus. My 5-mile venture turned into about 10, and when I got back to the office, I was covered in mud and debris. (This was several jobs ago; it may or may not have contributed to my sudden departure from there. Who's to say?)
Winter descended, but more like a feather sporting a parachute than its usual falling brick style. This was 2015-2016, when legitimate warmth stuck around until the beginning of January. Mysteriously, I decided to do more cycling than running. Many days I would get home by 5, drive a car to the Metro, and leave it for my wife to drive home so she didn’t have to take the bus. In mid-November, there were days when this left me running in 80-degree sunshine; by early December I would occasionally need to wear a long sleeved shirt.
Our usual family strategy around Christmas and New Years is to travel somewhere warm. On our slate that year was Costa Rica, where we’d rented an apartment to share with other family members. On the day we left, DC was gripped by a cold front: low-70s, clear weather. We landed in darkness, with CR temps in the mid-70s. It barely felt like we’d left home
The apartment was spectacular, but one problem with beach vacations (because, you know, it’s appropriate to complain about beach vacations) is that - and I know you'll be shocked to learn this - the sun is extremely hot. For the next two weeks, in order to avoid the heat of the day, I would get up before sunrise, shuffle out the door just as the sun peeked over the horizon, and get back an hour or more later ready to get back into air conditioning. My first run was an attempt to go up the hills behind town, but instead I found the resident dog population after making a couple wrong turns. It took a few days to work out the route, but eventually I found the road and did a solid 7 miles of hilly dirt -- still avoiding a variety of unfettered canines.
A couple runs took me across town or down the beach, and I tried to explore as much as possible. Often this got me funny looks from locals and tourists who thought the guy clambering up the “trail” on the side of the hill probably needed some quality chill-out drugs. After establishing this routine, I felt it necessary to run each day, so my trips to the beach were somehow even more lazy than a typical trip to the beach. My legs loved the attention.
On my last day in town, I decided to go to the next town through the hills, about 12 miles round trip. I made my way out early and was pleasantly surprised to find no dogs. But 5 miles in, a horse trotted by going the other way, no rider in sight. I thought the situation odd, and 3 rolling climbs later found the cause: a man stood in the road with a rope in one hand and a water can in the other.
My Spanish, I’ll admit, is pretty poor, but I’m good enough to talk about caballos without much issue. So the conversation that ensued was quite entertaining to the horse’s owner, whom I will call “Spanish as a First Language”, the gist of whose side is wholly invented below:
SFL: “Have you seen a horse?”
Me: “Yes. Without a friend.”
SFL: “I went to get his food he slipped out of the rope. How far away was he?”
Me: “Two, maybe three. Up down.”
SFL: “I should probably get him then.”
Me: “Yes. With speed!”
SFL: “You’re a weirdo.”
Me: “I go!”
I carried on to the town, which was set in the hillside on the next -- very steep -- rise. I pushed toward the top, but when a dog emerged from one of the uppermost houses, I retreated. Back toward the horse owner I ran, noting that he seemed wholly unconcerned about the escaped horse. Instead, I saw him carrying a bundle of sticks around his house.
I went up the hill, up the next, up the next and the next and the next, the rolling terrain grinding on my legs until they made a strange clopping sound. They don’t normally make such a sound, but...what’s this? As I came up the second to last hill, I saw the horse strolling along, its head bowed after its multi-mile effort. The gap between us closed, then it noticed me and picked up the pace; on the uphill, its pace was enough to pull away, but descending on the other side, I gained ground. Up the last hill (on this road) we went, the horse once again putting distance between us, and on the long drop back to the highway, I got within perhaps 25 meters, the horse looking back at me uncomfortably.
It turned right, with me hot on its tail. I had no designs on catching the thing, it just happened to be returning to my hotel. I whipped out my phone and took a grainy, shaky video of the escaping equestrian before the beast plunged onto a side road, barely avoiding disaster when an oncoming car swerved in surprise.
And that’s how I ended up with a video of a horse running down a highway.
We got back to Virginia early in January, and the snows and cold weather hit immediately. I also got in a discussion with a friend about running, and he invited me to join him on a trail run. This, as we shall see, was perhaps a mistake by him. For his safety from my wife, I shall refrain from referring to Kevin by name.
Next up: I'm Into Nothing Good.
Mash out. Spin on.
All I could spot was a sliver of pink close to the ground, the slenderest hint of a marking. Gingerly but firmly, I tapped my way across the boulders until I found myself standing next to a half dozen grassy tips with a flattened ribbon knotted around the largest, boulders in both directions as far as the eye could see, three metal poles now visible.
My shoulders slumped, and I stretched my neck by turning my head in a circle. Drawing up my frame to its full extent, I said to the Nobody That Was Here, "It will be whatever it's going to be." I set off for the next pole.
Wherein the Author Makes A Potentially Disastrous Mistake
Until that Friday, 50k had been my limit. I'd never done more, and before 2019 had never thought of nor desired doing more.
When I'd emailed my friend Kevin in early January with a "crazy idea" akin to his crazy idea of riding a 200-miler in the DC/Maryland area during the previous summer, I assumed we'd both get a chuckle out of the thought before discussing a realistic adventure like hiking for 3 days or something.
The timing was right, of course: beginning of August, right when I wanted to be in Washington to visit my parents. But running 40 miles around Mt St Helens sounded a bit excessive, even to my run-obsessed self.
But instead of laughing, Kevin responded by signing up for the race.
I emailed him back the next day: "M-- is down with me signing up, once we have our second paycheck back thank you very much shutdown wanky business. We'll also have to work out childcare or something ... Future me problems. See you this summer!"
The exclamation mark was perhaps a tad compensatory. But when the shutdown ended on Jan 25, I immediately signed up, knowing I wouldn't actually pull the trigger if I really thought about the ridiculousness of the event.
It's not that 40 miles is, in and of itself, a particularly great leap from a 50k. But the Bigfoot 40 Mile goes around the "base" of St Helens along trails that offer almost 10,000 ft of climbing on a course whose times look more like those from a 100k.
Oh well, nothing for it now but to prepare. On our flight back from Glasgow, where I'd spent that late January on vacation, I mapped out a training plan for the coming 6 months, with early segments to improve hill climbs and top speed and moderate endurance while the late segments would enhance hill climbs and long endurance.
The trip seemed forever and a day away until it was a day and a day away instead. Future Me had, indeed, worked out the problems. In order to avoid having an excuse not to try, I advertized the event loud and clear to everyone around. New job? Tell all the coworkers you're going on this trip to run around Mt St Helens. Dance competition? I've got to disappear to run and train for Mt St Helens. Birthday party? Happy birthday to me, next stop is Mt St Helens.
Preparing for the Mountain
Wednesday, August 7, we landed in Seattle, and in spite of a small luggage snafu, our pre-arranged plans got me to Kevin's by noon on Thursday. A couple hours of packing later and we were on the road, cruising the 100-ish miles south to Cougar, WA, a small town that lies at the convergence of access to the ring road at Mt St Helens and I-5. It's also the apparent end of cell service.
We wound our way up the lower section of the mountain and parked in the lot with dozens of other runners. We set up a 2-kid tent for Kevin and a hammock for me, cooked a fine dinner of asparagus and mushrooms in couscous, and chatted up some of the neighboring crazies for the next couple hours, until darkness began to descend and my confused body clock told me it was way past bedtime even though it was still only about 9 p.m.
I disappeared into the hammock and promptly passed out. Around midnight, I awoke with a massive urge to pee. Held fast by the mummy bag, I struggled a while before flipping on a handheld light to find the bag twisted and the pad hiding the exit hole. It sounded to me like I would wake up the whole campground trying to extricate myself. Finally, I shrugged out of the bag, crammed my foot through the hole, and stumbled - thanks to the brilliant light that had wrecked my night vision - blindly into the forest. The handheld came with me to the pisser, and along the way I could hear other people walking the same path but could see absolutely none of them. Once relieved, I went back into the hammock and resolved all the issues by laying the bag over my body.
Around 4:30 I was awake, wide awake, energetic and ready to go. It's hard to kill 3 hours before a race, but I managed by getting dressed, checking in, taking some long-exposure photos, and eating fruits and drinking small sips of water.
When Kevin and I made our way to the start line, most of the 90+ runners were already there. We talked start strategy - I have one, he doesn't - and ended up in the "back of the front third". Until right before the gun, when the RD told us to actually come up to the start line and nobody else would, so I marched up and took one of the front spots. Whatever guys, it's 40 miles and you're all acting like you think your start position will influence how people think about you.
There's Still Time To Turn Back!
Away! Up the forest path, past the split to June Lake, up and up and up at 5-10% grades. I walked almost all the climbs, jogged where I could, didn't worry about other people passing or falling back unless they would be in direct conflict with where I wanted to be.
Now we were talking race strategy. "The way I see it," I told Kevin, "if someone told you this was a 35-mile run with 8000 feet of climbing, you'd be way happier. So just walk the first chunk and you'll get that."
It's weird, but it works, since it brings the scale of a large race into perspective. Running 10 miles (at this point) isn't hard; running it two or even three times in a weekend isn't hard either; running it four or five times consecutively suddenly doesn't sound as bonkers.
The rise continued through a dusty rock field topped by scrub trees, then wound back into the forest. By this time I had relinquished the lead spot and was letting another runner dictate the pace. He cruised through a particular section and hopped mysteriously, then yelled over his shoulder, "Wasps! Wasps!"
I just about shit myself. If there was anything I didn't want to deal with today, it was wasps. In the previous three weeks, I'd recovered from a bee sting and a wasp sting, both of which caused some ugly swelling. Just like me to get into this whole thing and be tagged with a Rule of 3s assault.
I leaped over the area and quick-footed through, crossing my fingers that I wouldn't be stung. And I wasn't! Then I heard Kevin yelp behind me and knew he'd been harpooned.
"You ok?" I asked him.
"Yeah, I think so," he responded. I suggested he take some benedryl; he declined.
We carried on together briefly, the scrubby pines giving way to a regular forest path and tall northwestern firs. Here, Kevin fell back as I continued behind a woman with a steady and only slightly insistent pace. Our heads-down push gained us the boulder field rather soon.
It was around here, on a bouldered switchback heading up a towering hillside, that the clouds thinned, wisped, and finally fell away below. We climbed out of them and were rewarded with the stunning emergence of the glorious Mt St Helens, the first time any of us had seen it since coming to the mountain; distant prominences pocked the low clouds in the valley to the left.
Within what seemed like a half mile or so, the cairns and marked rocks fizzled out and - having passed my pacer - I was once again simply on the path. We switched back along the ash and dirt, bounded along this local shoulder of the mountain, then descended into trees once again, our constant companion returning to obscurity in the fog from whence we came.
This forest path was more packed than near the start. It lowered us slowly into a valley, and I spent a good amount of mental energy making sure I didn't overrun it. I slowly caught up with a 100k runner with a notable snake tattoo on her left calf. We chatted on the descent, and Kevin caught back on briefly to update me on his adventure: no problems with the sting, but a digger near the end of the boulder field that left his hand bleeding. I ultimately popped by snake calf when she slowed somewhat to stay behind another 100k competitor.
"Nice moose!" he said as I passed the two of them. I misheard this as "Nice moves", then way too late realized he was complimenting me on Moosey Elisabeth, my daughter's stuffed moose gift that was strapped to my backpack. I had to shout back, "Thanks, it's from my kid!" like some sort of weirdo. (Kevin stayed back with them, so I hope he explained it.)
The descent continued until the trail split, then increased down the left side of the split and emptied us into the aid station, where volunteers checked and double-checked numbers. Fruits a-plenty, some simple cheese, veggie, and turkey wraps greeted us. I choked down some peanut M&Ms and a wrap, nibbled some watermelon, drank a bit, and refilled my bottles. I also happily emptied my shoes of dirt and rocks, as the course justified every penny spent by others on gaiters.
Finding the Rejuvenating Spring
Shoes cleared and electronics now weighing down my backpack, I headed back up to the split, where the other fork pointed down into the creek valley. At the bottom of the hill, I was the leader of a knot of 6 or 8 folks, but I couldn't spot a marker across the creek that showed where the trail led. Instead, we trekked up the dry riverbed, finding occasional flags - false ones, it turns out, likely from logging. During the trip the guy behind me asked about Moosey E, and we started talking about keeping kids engaged in our activities, finding them positive ways to feel included even when they were absent. I like this guy, I thought. And I'm uncomfortable about this route, I also thought. I yelled back, "Someone check my work!" Finally someone looked at a map and said, "The trail is back where we started!" Down we went.
Now back on the trail, we re-entered the forest, but I was quietly alone, climbing slowly up the long and grinding woodland way to the edge of the ravine we had been running up just minutes earlier. The trail wound away from it, crossed a small stream, and climbed once again, this time to the edge of the substantial cut of the Toutle River.
The Toutle does not approach with any stealth. Where the top and bottom of the valley are ashen and flat, the middle of the walls of the carved valley look like cement packed with large river stones, as though the entire apparatus dropped 30 feet in seconds. As, indeed, it functionally did when the Toutle filled with hot ash and rocks and trees shortly before my first birthday, crashing through bridges and scarring the channel on the way down. Perhaps this center region was the top of the river's flow where all the dust had been scoured from the rock.
The forest opened into a high meadow feel, but only briefly, before a rope-assisted descent to the Toutle. Most of us sipped (through filters) from the river and splashed ourselves with water before tugging up the rope on the other side. (I later found that the women's leader, an alpine climber, simply scrambled up that second side, a prospect that in hindsight seems rather challenging but not impossible.)
Now came the more alpine, condensed trail, with blueberry and huckleberry bushes showing their wares unabashedly in a forest of largely deciduous, relatively small trees. No more of the towering firs: these felt more cozy, a little less imposing.
Switchbacks brought me through these trees, which turnstiled aside to deposit me in a foggy, ashy span along the hillside above the Toutle. Looking down the slope, I could see gray with splashes of lavender and red where wildflowers bloomed.
With a few hundred feet of altitude gain, the fog below dissipated, leaving a grand view of the river hiding beneath, its path through the landscape not a single slash but a series of striations in the valley, each a characteristic color and texture. The trail continued to switch back up the rise, and every turn brought an even more glorious vision.
I was now behind a runner whose upslope place put her in a thin fog; I was gaining at what seemed a tectonic rate. The ashy ground was extremely soft, like running on a sandy beach at the edge of the compacted line: some steps it would hold fast, others it would fall away underfoot, showering the shoes with pebbles and ash. I regretted not having gaiters. (Though this is not for lack of trying to obtain some: my fat ankles are off-limits to quality gaiters, and I can't pull the trigger on something that won't hold up. Suggestions welcome.)
The Toutle finally dropped out of view behind the vertical curve of the hillside, and we caught up with a much slower runner. In the distance, in the fog, another runner appeared, also traversing the course at an almost identical pace. The three of us caught a few more racers near the top of the hill, and the fog persisted into a flat, sparse meadow where life clung to every surface not littered with rock. I passed the rear runner unceremoniously, overtook another two 100k travelers, passed the front runner, and made the sweeping right turn to continue across the plain.
The fog thinned quickly, a distant peak suddenly visible, and immediately after I snapped a photo of the pointed shadow, we emerged fully from the cloud.
Islands of trees and rock drifted through a sea of pure white, next to an iceberg wedged against the hill. To the right, the mountain remained hidden, but this view of her fellow travellers stopped me short. (I snapped some photos, not surprisingly.)
In the open and without the fog, the temperature slowly began to rise. I could see two runners ahead moving about my pace, but as before I was gaining on them, slowly but surely. The trail crossed rock-strewn dips, dry creek beds, and dusty meadows. I caught and passed one of the runners ahead, caught and hung on with the other, and spent 5 or 10 minutes being leapfrogged by the guy I'd passed moments before as he alternated between sprinting ahead and falling back. (I suspect he was a little low on energy at that point, as he would slow significantly then blow by.)
I was now running with Will, and I moderated my pace a bit to stay with him through what I estimated was the midpoint - that is, turning around now would mean a longer run than heading to the finish line. We chatted for 15 minutes or more as we traversed the plain, until we came upon a river.
"I'm stopping for a drink," he said.
I shrugged. Sure, why not? The river was a little silty, but with plenty of eddies that offered better drinking options. We both sucked down water, wet our swiftly warming heads and necks, and carried on. The mountain was half-visible, a blast of clouds cutting straight west off her side.
Our conversation came in and out for another few minutes as we passed the turnoff for the 100k run, and Mt St Helens became fully apparent: a rocky prominence fringed with sloping shoulders interrupted by vertical slabs.
Will and I carried on together for the next 20 or 30 minutes heading toward Windy Ridge. It was pleasant running with someone, having a distraction from my increasing wear. We were around the marathon mark in the course, but I hadn't even considered the fact yet: distance simply went, dictated by the course conditions and not my physical limitations.
The terrain was consistently inconsistent throughout this stretch, with ridges visible in the distance, rocks and dirt mingling through some depressions, dry beds still appearing regularly, wide turns around meadows of low shrubs and flaming wildflowers. It was starkly beautiful, an ancient core wrapped in a shell of recent renewal.
We heard the distinct sound of a river and came upon a copse of trees. Another runner was clearly above the trail, and as we came to the river we found out why. Here was a crystal clear, glacial spring, the frigid waters falling out of the earth in a shaded paradise. Will and I stopped and drank the delicious nectar eagerly, and I wished I could bottle the stuff for the rest of the race. As we enjoyed the spot another half dozen runners came up from behind, and the place felt more like a house party than a mid-race pause.
After 5 minutes or so, I decided it was time to move on, and I shrugged on my pack and skipped over some stones out of the trees. The others followed, and soon enough our gang strung out across a quarter mile of trail, two runners in front of me, 5 or 6 behind. We were all refreshed by the stop, but we were also now all within ourselves.
The trail dropped down to the base of a dirt road beow Windy Ridge, site of the next aid station. I set a pace and stuck to it, held it up the 2-mile climb. It should have been brutally painful to climb those 500 feet, but the refreshment of the stop mingled with the consistent grade and the knowledge of the pending aid station, practically propelling me up the hill. Mt St Helens lay behind, her top clear of clouds, and to the right Mt Adams loomed over the valley but hid her peak beneath a thick cloud.
After a seemingly interminable approach, the aid station appeared, and I tugged Moosey E out of her sling. This stop would be a quick one to minimize mental inertial loss. My shoes were full of sand and my socks slightly damp, so I stripped to bare feet. I felt entirely satisfied, wanting nothing more in that moment than to sit in bare feet with that tingling sensation of 30 miles on the legs and a view of Mt Adams and Mt St Helens.
A Bold Start - A Speedy Crash - A Modest Recovery - A Few Rocks - A Flying Moose
The aid station workers passed me a PB&J and filled my bottles with apple juice and Tailwind, a product I'd never used before. I shook some salt into the Tailwind, thinking it was like Gatorade (oh boy was I wrong...we'll get to that) and forced myself to take a moment to be sure I took advantage of the station. A girl who looked to be about 14 took my backpack to fill with water. Behind the counter I spotted a beer case of Elysian Space Dust.
"Aid station powered by Space Dust?" I asked the station's clear organizer, pointing at the case.
"That's just an empty box," he said. Then he leaned in so say more quietly, "We emptied it into here." He patted a cooler tucked most of the way under the table.
I smiled and nodded. "You deserve it," I told him.
A 200-mile runner moved into the aid station and asked about drop bags. I stepped aside, tugged on my socks - now dry - and shoes - now debris-free - and pulled my backpack on. Water poured down my back. I quickly shrugged out of the pack and re-seated the cap to the bladder, then turned back to the aid station table to thank them. An open beer sat in front of me.
"Just one or two drinks, ok?" the organizer said, grinning.
I took a couple pulls from the bottle, the sweetness of the front end accentuated by my calorie-starved body and cut that much more abruptly by the hoppy back. It was delicious.
I set off about 20 yards behind another runner (I mentally named him "Nathan" for his pack choice but never actually asked) and decided to hurry to catch him. We ran together up the small rise back to the top of Windy Ridge, passing a film crew along the way.
"Nice moves!" the documentarian seemed to yell. I'd heard that before, though, so it took less time for me to recognize he was talking about Moosey E. "What's his name?"
"Moosey Elisabeth," I told him.
"Yup, named by a 6-year old, no way I could change it," I told him.
"And really, why would you want to?" the other runner joined in.
I briefly explained the story of Moosey E, but we were pulling ahead and I was in consistent-speed mode, trying to hold effort as much as I could for the remaining 14 miles.
Halfway down the hill we veered left to go up the adjacent ridge. The climb was steep, the temperature rising, the progress slow, the effort high. But it didn't feel as brutal as it apparently was. The two of us were able to make the trip up the hill together, talking about Montana and Canada and the Northwest and logging and trail races.
At last we reached some pockets of trees and shrubs, each well populated with huckleberries and salmonberries. These lined the trail heading up, then continued as the trail bent onto a wide, flat plain. The mountain was fully out, the sun now almost hot. For the first time all race I could feel sweat dripping down my forehead, and my arms were slick with it.
The trail went up and down here, and I held my pace, moving ahead of my companion and closing the distance to the next couple runners. On a relatively steep climb, I overtook another runner and recognized her from the start of the race, the woman who led me heading into the first boulder field. Now the trail character changed again, climbing out of one dry or slightly damp creek bed via an ashy, rocky ascent, wrapping around the next jutting hill, and steeply descending the dusty and rocky back side - one wrong step here would mean major injury.
The pattern was brutal and pace-killing. There was no way to find consistent performance in this stretch, and it worked on every leg muscle. I began sucking at the Tailwind, but the taste and effect were terrible, like salt water that made my gut contort. To add to the discomfort, the sun was heating the rocks around, causing everything to radiate. It was now uncomfortably hot. The only redemption was the scenery: a pristine view of the imposing mountain standing firm in the sunshine.
After what may have been the 4th or may have been the 10th of these profiles, I felt my calves tense up at the bottom of the descent. I slowed a bit in deference, but another two valleys later, I took a small slip near the bottom of the hill and my right calf cramped. My body twisted, and I dropped onto my butt (or, rather, my phone, which took some screen damage) to keep my left leg from fully cramping.
There I sat, cramping and immobile, at least a minute of simply waiting in front of me.
A runner passed, then another, both asking about my condition and understanding the circumstance but, of course, unable to help because there was nothing to be done about it.
Finally, i gingerly stood and walked. I walked until it felt reasonable to jog a few steps, then jogged those few steps at a time until it felt reasonable to jog more, then jogged more until it felt reasonable to slow to a walk. Strangely, my phone lit up with messages: here was cell service. The chimes sounded almost otherworldly, forgotten relics from a former age where I gave a damn about sending texts.
When it seemed only 6 or so miles remained in the course, I gave myself leave to sit by a creek and take a 5-minute break. My food disgusted me, the Tailwind was gross, and I knew there was no way but through.
Here came salvation, as though I had constructed my own impromptu aid station. The second runner to pass gave me salt tabs, the third was Will, who handed me a couple Gatorade Blocks. I was thrilled to have the boost from these, and I stood up and carried on.
No more than 100 yards down the trail, my straw made that sucking sound I dreaded: I was out of water. The aid station worker hadn't fully filled the bladder, and the spill left it even more empty. This was...bad.
"The mountain will provide," I said aloud. I looked at St Helens, standing calm and strong against the blue sky. "You've provided so far, you'll provide when I need it." I just had to convince myself I didn't need it immediately.
A few dips later was a wet creek, and I sucked at it through the filter. I moved on, and now the top of the rise was a longer, flatter plateau where I found a huckleberry bush covered in beautiful fruit. I plopped down next to the bush and raided it for nutrition. It was here that the last person I would see all race passed by, seemingly amused at my U-Pick picnic.
I don't entirely know how much more of this up-and-down passed, but finally a small boulder field appeared. I skipped over the top of it - a couple minutes at most - and delighted as the trail took a left, descending turn, a dusty slash across the main boulder field into the forest.
No more exposure, just forest from here on out! I rejoiced mentally and set to the task of closing this out - a little over 4 miles perhaps, soft and maybe rolling but under cover at least most of the time.
A half mile later, the trail passed the turnoff to June Lake. This was it! The trail took a right and climbed. Then it climbed straight back out of the woods. I was exhausted mentally and physically, and this steep climb carried me back to the heat and exposure and brutality of rocks and dirt.
And after a few tenths of a mile of careful hiking up the steep ascent, it climbed back into the boulders, this time a seemingly unending pile of them. The trail was marked by metal poles and low-to-the-ground ribbons, and I often found my way from one to the next by following the three or four footsteps visible in the slender strips of dirt that arose occasionally.
Each turn seemed to bring more boulders, each marker pole spawning another two markers yet to achieve. It went on. And on. And on. And on.
Maybe 3/4 mile? Maybe a mile? It's unclear how long this boulder field was, but it was taken almost fully at a walk, a walk where any wrong move might cause my legs to cramp again, a walk where I was out of water and desperate for the end, a walk where I could hear and see waterfalls in the deep, forested valley to my left. "It will be whatever it's going to be," I kept telling myself. The only way out was through. Etc etc etc. It was a run on the Bank of Mantra, which was fresh out of currency.
With about 3 miles left, the boulder field finally came to an end. A silty river drained from the mountain into the forest. I sucked at that thing for what seemed like minutes. Finally (mostly) sated, I stood, rolled my shoulders front-to-back a few times, and went on.
The boulder field was done, but now I was in the dirt-and-rock segment, still fully exposed. It went quickly though, and at the entrance to the forest - that glorious forest! - I stepped off the trail to pee and eat some huckleberries. There were under 3 miles left, somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes if all went well.
This was previously-run terrain, the reverse of the start. The trail dropped quickly, and I noted the ruts that beset it that I hadn't noted on the way up. I was moderating my pace, counting my steps, but still letting gravity do the work. There need not be anything left at the end. After a while I pulled Moosey E out of the pack and started thinking about how to end this thing: a forward dive? a Moose toss? a failed cartwheel?
And then the finish line came into view. As I approached the arch, I tossed the moose, pumped my fist, caught the moose, and waddled to a seat. Crossing the line in just under 11:10, I had met my main goal (finished!), and fallen just short of my stretch time.
The company was great for the couple hours I remained. Kevin rambled in an hour or so after me, and we chilled with the women's winner, a couple from Miami (who found out they lived a block from three other runners in the 40-mile), and a Frenchman. We ate grilled cheese and cake and potato salad and soup, chugged water, and turned to beer once we'd changed into warmer clothes. It was all very relaxed and may have been the most satisfying post-race atmosphere possible, feeling like a casual get-together of old friends rather than the typical cagey post-competitive sizing-up.
Around 9 p.m. the storms moved in. Thunder boomed around us and lightning fitfully exposed the finish area scene. We scattered before the rain got too terrible. Kevin and I set up the other tent, packed away what we could, then turned in. My body was sore, the threat of leg cramps persisted, and my body clock was thoroughly confused. After a pretty poor night of non-sleep, I was up for good at 4 a.m.
I went back to the finish line and cheered on those brave few who had carried on to the finish after waiting out the thunderstorms at Windy Ridge, where many had arrived drenched and cold from the rain- and hail-battered flats. They appeared from the darkness with headlamps illuminated, often looking no worse than those of us who rolled in a third of a day earlier. I couldn't help but admire these folks, nor blame those who dropped at the second aid station after running 80km into a storm.
It's easy in short runs to look at these latecomers as ill-prepared or somehow "not real runners". In an event like this, every person hacking their way through 40 miles or 60 miles or 200 (!) miles is still putting themselves out there and doing the work. There's no shortcut to a day circumnavigating a mountain like St Helens. It ultimately doesn't matter how quickly or slowly you do it - nobody will ask, almost nobody will have a reference anyway to decide if 10 hours or 14 hours or 18 hours is "slow" or "fast" - it matters only that you do your best to press up against your limits, hopefully crossing that line in the process.
Regularly scheduled entry up next.
Mash out. Spin on.
Mid-summer passed uneventfully, but I maintained a relatively high standard of fitness, even for me. As August approached, I spent significant time staring at park maps and planning trips, getting a feel for what I could do with the kids while we were visiting my parents in the PacNo.
As for my time, I had some ideas: good, bad, probably both. The date finally arrived, and I packed my children into a metal tube to be flung through the air at several hundred miles an hour by a set of controlled-inferno air compressors. The day after we arrived, my adventure started: a childlike, carefree delight of re-discovering the paradise in my backyard.
There is a trail that runs along the waterfront, up the cliff near my parents’ house, out past the airport, across the nearby river, and along a local lake. I joined the trail at its closest point, then took back roads into some familiar territory: the road that led to my friend’s house, the same road on which I used to sprint between telephone poles to do speed work (or sprint walks) back at the beginning of my running career. It was all coming full circle! Or at least it was a closed path, wended among the hillocks and dales of modern life. And from here it would emanate once again, a new path this time, a longer and slower path, perhaps to return but perhaps not.
On this particular day, I just ran by that old road and went home, 9 miles of wishful thinking. Then I got up the next day to do another 9 miles, this time along the water and around town, a route I'd never seen before. The next day counted another 9, these across town and through a trail system I had never known existed. And the next day saw another 8 hammering along the nearby trail once again. Then 9. Then 8. Then 10. For seven straight days, I pushed 12 km or more out of my legs, and on the 8th day, I took my parents’ car early in the morning, drove to a familiar trailhead, and took “the alternate trail”, one I had never set foot on, figuring on doing another 10 miles, these in the mountains to celebrate their dominance in this landscape one final time.
Instead, they asserted that dominance and beat me back.
The trail I was familiar with led to Lake Angeles, heading up a series of switchbacks a thousand feet or more. It then carried on around the lake and went up to the ridge, a ridge I didn’t know the altitude of but was pretty sure was about 2000 feet above the parking lot. Along the ridge lies a connector trail that hooks to the top of the alternate trail I now printed my tread on.
One way to deal with running on an unfamiliar trail and staying on course is by using any known features as a sort of map edge, reducing the odds of simply getting lost. After all, if an unknown segment of trail is bordered by known segments, it’s damn near impossible to lose the way in any meaningful sense. So it was on this day, when I opted to take on the unfamiliar segments (the alternate trail and ridge line), then descend via a familiar path once I reached it.
I started up at a modest pace. It was a climb from the start, and I was pretty sure the trail was something like 7 miles heading up to that 2000-foot ridge. The trail did, indeed, go up, and after about 30 minutes, I paused to check my phone for position and altitude. I was already over 1500 feet above the parking lot, about 2 miles out. That seemed about right, and I was confident the trail would flatten. I carried on.
Another 30 minutes ticked off, still significantly vertical, and I finally reached an area looking out on the crease through the mountains, ridge visible at the top. The ridge was about 1500 feet above me, perhaps a little less, but it appeared to be at least a half mile or more away horizontally. That meant a minimum of 3 more miles. I checked the phone, which indicated an altitude about 3000 feet over the parking lot. And just under 4 miles notched.
An hour of running, not quite 4 miles. Typical speeds for my outings on this trip had been in the 12.5-13.5 kph range; this run was about 6 kph. I looked up at the steep climb in front of me and figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a glance around. Up I went, another 500 feet almost straight up the wall. Far short of a mile. Time elapsed: 20 minutes. I was now only a little more than 4 miles into the run, my legs jellied, approaching 1.5 hours on the trails. My confidence descended as my heart raced.
I snapped a photo from just below 4000 feet, turned around, and tried to bomb the descent. Even with the speed increase, with straightaways bookended by steep drop-offs that required forethought to even approach, I couldn’t reach top speed; with my mind already mostly out of the run, each switchback seemed a death-defying feat. I finished with 12 km logged in an impressive 2-and-change-hour slog (hey, check out that notch up in pace!). And my legs still felt about as solid as a slug’s trail.
When I got back to civilization, I could hardly walk. But boy did I feel good.
Next up: Every way Virginia
Mash out. Spin on.
The year was 2015. It was a comeback year. Another comeback year. Yet another comeback year. Once again yet another comeback year. Still once again yet another comeback year.
The winter wasn’t particularly grueling, though I spent ample time doing the 10-mile course through the local park and back along the trail. I probably increased distance with light and temperature sometime around March. The darkness of winter faded, washed gently by anticipation, the feeling that this was going to be another great running year.
I wouldn’t do anything crazy or rash, just go all-out and hammer out some entertaining runs. In early April, I went back to the Goddard 2-miler and put in my best time yet (the aforementioned 11:22), good for 6th place.
I bought Olympic National Park trail guides, pulled maps from the internet, and started dreaming big.
Next up: PacNo In Brief
Interlude for a race recap. In preparation for a 44-mile run around Mt St Helens in August, I've signed up for several intermediate races. These aren't to test my mettle against the locals - though it's always fun to compare - but to inject a little interest into the training regimen.
I like to think of the training season as standing next to a dirt pile and trying to build it as tall as you can. Every session is a shovel of dirt, and when you start out, it's easy to just chuck that dirt on top and see some growth. But after a while you need to get strategic: if the dirt mound is too tall and not broad enough, it will fall back on you, so some days you need to lessen the slope of the pile so it won't collapse. (Overtraining is like finding that your dirt source is the pile you're trying to build.)
So a couple weeks ago, I decided to run the Laurel Hill Park 10-miler. My schedule indicated a 10-mile run was in order. The prior Thursday had been a particularly rough interval session, in which I totally misread my training notes and ended up blasting my legs to excess at 5-mile pace. As Friday drifted into Saturday, my legs were sore, so I wasn't hopeful for a great performance. Indeed, I plotted out the course with 8:30 miles in mind, and a stretch goal of 1:15.
Before the race, I practiced my prep. People who have a consistent pre-race routine usually see better results simply because their bodies are in "race mode". The routine I've settled on:
1. About 30 minutes before the run, drink some coffee. Not much, maybe a half cup. I've weaned myself off daily caffeine, so this really hits me.
2. Go to the can. This is enough time to clear things out so that if I don't get another chance, I'll be fine during the event.
3. About 20 minutes before race time, do a short, ~0.25 mile warmup jog at extremely low pace.
4. Push-ups and sit-ups. Nothing too strenuous, focus on getting the core activated.
5. Additional ~0.5-1 mile warmup jog. Focus on loosening up, so do some butt kicks and stride steps and cross steps.
6a. If needed, strip off warmup gear. Your body should be race-warm at this point.
6b. If possible, do 1-3 hill climbs, no more than 5 seconds each. These will raise the heartrate and activate the core a little bit.
With 5-10 minutes left before the race, your body is now warm. And that's where I found myself 10 minutes before race time, standing on a paved path in a knot of runners. Feeling a little more confident now that my legs were warm and I'd assessed the actual leg soreness, I slid my way near the front.
The race went off easily enough. I slotted myself about a dozen people back from the lead, since there was a mix of 5-mile & 10-mile runners. Around the first couple bends we were together, and I slid up a place or two. It's hard to contain overexuberant legs, so I was hesitant to make any aggressive moves.
The first 3/4 mile felt like nothing. We were on the paved Cross County Trail (CCT), which also makes up part of my hometown Wakefield Park trail system. We wrapped around the back of a storage building, skirted the east side on grass, then re-entered the CCT. Finally the pavement gave way, and we hit the big descent with switchbacks that was slowed by the people in front of me. Ever so quietly, two 10-mile runners broke off the front and disappeared a few dozen yards ahead as we moved into the woods.
I could have shaved 10-15 seconds off the final time with some aggressiveness in this section, but it worked out as I found my spot behind a fellow-paced runner. I rode his heels for a couple miles, sliding by another half dozen others who had more stately paces until at last we reached the first turn-off loop. I followed him in the slight rise into the woods.
As we approached that rise, I heard someone behind me. The characteristic footfalls and rustle of clothes held back for a half mile or so before finally whisking by on the arcing, descending curves. Their owner popped ahead like a man possessed, and I said to my pacer, "He must be a 5-miler." Then I spotted his bib: red stripe, definitely a 10er. He had the pace to break away, but as the trail leveled he and his bright yellow top took up a spot maybe 15m in front of us.
We stayed with him at that distance through the rest of the side loop and halfway into the extension loop. By this time I'd been on the same person's back for almost half the race, and since he showed some reticence through the dusty, rocky turns along the far plateau, I slipped by him. He stayed with me for a little while, holding my heels through several curves, but the descent and climb up at the far end of the course put him firmly 10 or so meters behind. I gained an equal amount on our leader.
We were maybe 5 miles through now, and I still felt good. My leader was young, probably not too experienced at race tactics; the guy behind me was my age, but I knew the final switchbacks of the race course would give me opportunity to run him down as long as we were close. With that in mind, I now started a game with the yellow jersey: he hated hearing footsteps, so I'd let go during descents, get close enough to be audible on the ensuing flats or rises, and he would pace up until he got out of earshot. I imagined his power level dipping at each of these, an extra jab here and there in a long bout.
We hooked around to do the main loop the second time, now passing runners from both races. Our pace picked up a bit along the flats at the top of the main hill, and as before the yellow jersey cruised on the wide turns into the valley. He got a few extra steps on me, but as we rose back up on the other side, I caught up again.
"Was that other guy a 5?" He finally asked.
"Nope, 10. He's still there," I told him, having seen the third in our group no more than 20m back along the switchbacks.
We came out of the woods, bent right at the aid station, and I was aware of someone behind me. We polished off the loop, and now he was just a few meters back. Back to seriously overlapping with both races, we made our way along the base of the dirt pile hill in the heart of the course mostly by running next to the trail, calling out our passes as we went.
Having cleared the bulk of this, we opened into a wider stretch, and the guy behind made a move. He passed easily and camped a half dozen steps ahead of the guy in yellow, with me now taking up the rear. Our course turned down into a dip, then sent us into some rollers that were set up for rapid-fire mountain bike fun but made for slightly less running fun.
We strung out a bit, since this small slope and the few runners we were passing slowed us all to different depths. Now into the woods again, I expected the final climb, but it didn't come: a small up-and-down, then a brief drop to cross the tiny creek. And after that, the ".5 miles to go" sign.
We made a hard right, and I considered my place only a moment before opting to go. Worst case, I figured, I'd blow up and lose by 20 seconds. Best case, I'd hang on and close out ahead.
I passed easily, kicked up a notch in pace. The lead guy muttered, "Go get it!" I rolled onto the pavement thinking it was the end of the course, but after a brief stint we hit the final climb on those switchbacks from the start. I quick-stepped up, each time seeing the pair behind by no more than 10m. But at the top, I dug deep to roll over it with speed in spite of the steeper lip. Race tip: don't be lulled into a lower pace by a hill.
Now clear, I accelerated smoothly onto the final mini-descent. Pavement, a few runners, over to the guard tower turn, I hazarded a look back: they weren't in sight, so were still behind those runners I'd passed. It was mine if I didn't ease off.
I dashed across the grassy knoll and slid through the finish a full 12 seconds before my chasers. Final time: 1:09:58, good for 3rd and a full 5 minutes faster than my "stretch goal" time. Maybe it's going to be another one of <i>those</i> seasons, which I certainly don't mind.
At the end, I didn't feel overly wrecked, but after a few hours these legs were sore. The course was decent, featuring good variety, including lots of meadow/dry/exposed areas with some whipping wind. I preferred the wide turns in the forest for runnability and pleasantness, but since it's just 20 minutes away, this little park might be a future site of a long weekend run.
Mash out. Spin on.
The closest I came to training in grad school was tacking a training schedule up to my cubicle wall and checking off the days as they came. I followed that plan as a minimum - in order to finish a half ironman, I would need to do at least that, but obviously I could turn a 50k ride into a 70k ride, or a 10k run into a 10-mile run.
Training to me was not rocket science. It was really just an exercise in linear progression, as far as I was concerned, and I certainly didn't mind running daily. That first plan was actually the first time I enacted a "rest day", which I only sometimes took seriously. As I advanced in my pseudo-career, I kept the rest day but really didn't change the basic training idea.
In general, when there was no plan, that included a pre-breakfast run or ride.
Alas, the schedule of the Goddard folks was quite different. They met at Goddard, assembled before lunch, and ran through what was my normal lunchtime. I couldn’t eat prior to these runs, lest they turn into...uh...runs. So I found myself counting down the minutes to the midday meet-up runs. And because I wasn’t on campus, the rest of the group typically came out to meet me closer to my office.
Jake apparently had a plan, as he spent much of his coaching effort sending out detailed schedules that included pace and distance. Workouts were often 10k or longer - not counting warmup and cooldown. My mileage went up, and my speed did as well, at least in some ways. It turned out that, since I wasn’t 25 anymore, my legs didn’t adapt the way they had back in The Day. But I tried my damndest to hold on.
A couple months into this adventure, Jake encouraged me to find a 10-miler to run. I had improved my speed and endurance and picked the Turkey Burnoff in Maryland. A couple of us Goddard peeps signed up for the chilly/not-chilly race, and I expected to bring up the rear. It was a two-lap race. I figured by the second lap I’d be wiped out mentally. But when the gun went off, I went at my pace; around mile 3, I picked up that pace; and by mile 5, I was passing one of the other Goddardites, and thinking ahead to markers where I could make up time.
That run was a real push, and as I dug deep for the final 3 miles, I knew that at the end of this race would be a hot shower and some tasty victuals. The last climb was a killer, but I passed someone near the bottom and never looked back, hacking up the hill to make the final turn and cross the line in 1:05:26. Not bad for a sort of comeback run.
A brand new event experience followed in February: a meet held at a local track. Really. For real, running on a track competitively like some sort of track and field guy.
I showed up and did a brief warmup (and I mean brief -- others were doing a 5k to get warm, stretching like crazy, and really taking it all seriously; I showed up, maybe put in a 500-meter warmup lap around the neighborhood, then stood around chatting up the locals until Jake insisted we do a warmup run as a team). The event was the 1-mile, and I knew I had it in the bag.
So much so that, like every other running event I’ve been involved with, I had no idea what to expect and probably underestimated my abilities. So I stood at the start line where Jake told me to, watched his shoes, and ran like a demon devil. While my final time of 5:21 was certainly solid for a 33.5-year old guy running on a repaired knee, I felt it could have gone better, especially if indoor running didn’t involve breathing dry and slightly musty air.
But Jake wanted us to do another track meet, this time in Maryland. So a few weeks later, I obliged and ran some sort of distance, but it’s not clear what, as no results seem to have been retained. I’m pretty sure it was the mile, and I’m pretty sure I burned the crap out of my legs and pushed for something like a 5:17. There was definitely some sort of timing glitch, as the Goddard runners finished something like 4 of the top 8 and 6 of the top 15 or some such ridiculousness. But since it was all for fun and cost a dollar or two (no really, a dollar or two), I didn’t mind, though the drive back took me through the RFK parking lot for no apparent reason, and I did quite mind that.
I started the summer hot and just got hotter. Every week I could feel more strength infusing in my legs, my power returning after years of neglect. I was free again!
Actually, I started feeling pain in my left achilles and had to back off, stop running, talk with a physical therapist, and fix my gait. I had been running on the repaired knee with a funny hitch that was obvious when filmed, and it took some time to convince myself that biking was acceptable for fitness and running would have to be on hold for a bit. I put the runs on the back burner, where they would simmer and eventually explode to make a big mess in the kitchen that wouldn’t even come out with the good soap and heavy-duty sponge.
The rest of the year was all about rest, recovery, and riding. I abandoned running because it was agonizing. But biking became agonizing too if it lasted longer than a couple hours. I had to build up slowly, do a lot of stretching, and finally -- and most importantly -- change my shoes. There’s a story in that.
Maybe next time, eh?
Next up: Comebackuppance.
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.