Friday, November 15, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 5: The Inspiration to Finish Strong

It was strange running past 22 miles.  After my nice rest and recovery at the aid station, I felt better than I had in miles.  Even though my legs (and let's face it, my entire body) had been feeling worse each mile since the 16th, I felt as if I was back at mile 10.  Shannon must have felt it, too, because while she was out in front pacing, our runs became longer and faster while our walks became much shorter and farther between.

For almost 3 miles, we felt great!  Our chatting turned to silent determination as we pushed forward along the course.  I had brought a handful of pretzels from the aid station, anticipating the need for an energy boost, but I hardly touched them.  My reactions to seeing our progress on my GPS watch switched from resentment at how little time had past to excitement that we had covered another half mile of trail with hardly a thought.

By this point, I was well practiced in an age-old Ultramarathoner's trick of "breaking up the course into manageable chunks."  The last had been the bag drop at mile 22, and the next was our final aid station around 26.5.

Unfortunately, as the aid station came closer, time seemed to move slower.  "Just 2 miles" until the aid station didn't seem as promising as it should have.  We fell back into a slower pace, at one point arguing over the exact distance to our goal.  Around this time I learned of Shannon's apathy (maybe even a little resentment?) toward one of the most well known Ultramarathoners around, both of whose books I've read and enjoyed.  She also told me about one of her favorite running tricks: when you start to get angry about everything during a run (as I like to call this: "entering the Bite-me Zone"), eat something.  It always seems to help, she said.  I ate a pretzel.

We reached the aid station, and for the first time during the race, I stopped running to get a refill and a quick bite.  My 3rd apple fried pie (the first two of which I ate at miles 5 and 12) tasted awful.  We chatted a little too long with the aid station volunteers about running nutrition and snakes, I threw away my last bite of fried pie, and we got on our way for the final leg of the race.

During our next couple of walk breaks, we recognized the fact that I had possibly just become an Ultramarathoner by finishing the 27th mile.  We weren't sure if I had to actually finish the race to earn the title, but we decided it was probably close enough.

But soon after, our chats tapered off.  We held pace as well as we could, although it became harder and harder to want to continue.  By mile 29, we had nothing left to do but grit our teeth and dig deep.  We started our final push as we ran through the center of a Boy Scouts campsite.  They had jokingly offered us hot dogs on our first pass about 2 hours earlier, but disappointingly, there were no hot dogs waiting for us this time around.  We pushed on anyway.

There's this trick I've started using to find inspiration in the later miles.  I have a stack of cards that I keep in a pouch, and the cards are printed with my favorite quotes about running.  I have a few from John Bingham, a couple Steve Prefontaine, and a smattering of others.  Sometimes when I'm getting tired or losing motivation, I'll pick a card to hang onto for a while.

I had started picking cards during walk breaks several miles earlier, but this time I had one specific card in mind.  I needed to see it.  I needed to hold it in my hand.  It's the one card in the stack that would be meaningless to anyone else, and it's the one I needed more than any other.

The quote is from my dad.  It comes from almost 2 years ago when my parents visited for the weekend of my first marathon, which I was running with Team in Training in honor of my dad, who was suffering from prostate cancer.  I referred to my dad as my "Honored Hero," Team in Training's term for the cancer victims we work so hard for.  My dad wouldn't accept the term.  He had a humility that told him others were always more deserving of such respectful titles.

The weather was awful on race day (40 degrees and raining during all 5 hours of the race), and I was worried that my parents wouldn't be able to wait outside to see me finish.  I had suffered through the last 2 hours of running, mostly by feeling dejected over out-pacing myself at my first-ever marathon, and I was ready for the finish line.  I had finally pushed myself back into a run, and a quick one at that, when I made the last turn toward the finish line.

First, I saw the crowd.  They were all cheering for those of us finishing the arduous journey.  Then I saw the finish line, the pinnacle of the event.  Then I heard one voice.  It screamed through the crowd, yelling "you're my hero!!!"  I knew even before I saw his face that the words were meant for me.  My dad stood out in the cold rain, waiting for me, just so he could tell me that I was HIS hero.  At a time when I thought my tank had run dry, I drained every last drop trying to prove him right, even though I knew he had it backwards.

"You're my hero!!!"
-Gary Dawson

That's the card I needed to see, because I never stopped running in honor of my dad.  He has been my inspiration run after run, race after race, and day after day.  The night he died, when everyone else went to rest after a long, sleepless night, I went for a run, because that's what connected me with the spirit of my dad.  And by mile 29 of my Ultramarathon, I had spent many miles with the memory of my dad running next to me, encouraging me, giving me strength.  As I went into the final 2 miles of my Ultramarathon, I needed to hear my dad's voice one more time.

Shannon continued to be my pacer, and as she pushed the pace, I followed step for step.  My friend Brant was waiting for us a mile from the finish, and I made sure to drag him along while he tried to snap a few pictures.  I saw more familiar faces as I pushed through the final stretch.  At the last moment, before the 20-step climb to the finish line, Shannon pulled back.  "This is your first, it's your moment."  I dropped down for a burpee (it's a CG thing), turned, and sprinted up the stairs to the finish.

My medal was waiting, along with a cold bottle of water, and many congratulations.  I don't remember much else, except how hard it was to stand back up.  I did get a couple of great congratulatory gifts from my friends, and a ham and cheese quesadilla from a race volunteer that I barely finished, both hugely appreciated.

You know how sometimes you mentally understand something, but somehow that understanding hasn't reached that place in your heart where you really know it to be true?  That's where I was after the race.  Sitting at a picnic table between friends, still focused on getting water and calories into my body, slowly realizing that I was done.  My 31.1 mile journey was over.  I was an Ultramarathoner.

Now, there's 1 question that seems to be on everyone's mind.  Will I do it again?  I learned one thing during this experience, and it's the one thing that will keep me coming back again and again.  To paraphrase Roger Hart:

What did I learn from running 31 miles, speeding through many miles and some not running at all, the miles run over rocks and roots and those long, dusty trails below the trees looking out onto the lake, my feet softly ticking against the trail?

I learned I was alive, and it felt good. God, it felt so good.

Always moving forward,


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 4: Digging Deep

There's another notable difference between road running and trail running, and it's the one that usually results in bloody knees and palms.  Unlike the nice, smooth surface of asphalt and concrete, trails are filled with all kinds of unkind hazards.

On this course, we navigated our way over roots, stumps, and rocks at every mile, and for long stretches these obstacles were covered with fallen fall foliage, rendering them nearly invisible to the quick-moving runner's eye.  We stepped carefully over and between rocks, sometimes large and jagged, sometimes small and easily rolled underfoot.  We kicked small stumps of young trees that were cleared from the trail.  Worst of all, pencil-thick roots had a tendency to snake across the trail, kicked slightly up from the dirt floor, and wait for runners like a trip wire.

By 4 hours into the course, my foot had found its fair share of obstacles.  For at least the 4th time during the race, another runner told me "wow, good recovery!" after a treacherous stumble.  I was glad to stop short of my face on the ground, but I had to wonder how many "good recoveries" I had left in me.  I knew that one more root could result in my leg covered in blood, or worse, a debilitating injury.

Shannon, my new-found running buddy, and I were at mile 20.  The next milestone was at mile 22, when we would reach our drop bag (which holds any gear, food, or supplies we decide to pack for ourselves) near the finish line.  This would be the end of the first loop and what I expected to be the most mentally difficult of the race.  We would be in sight of the finish line, yet we would have to turn around for a 9-mile loop before reaching our goal.

By mile 20, my legs were screaming.  Hers probably were too, but she was too nice to say anything negative out loud.  We were walking as much as running, and to make things more difficult, the mountain bikers had started taking on the trail.  We expected a few, but every time one pulled around the corner, we had to stop our forward progress, hop to the side of the trail, then summon the courage to regain our momentum.

It was slow going, but we finally reached the familiar part of the trail that told us we were close.  We navigated the last stretch of rough trail and turned onto the road.  Just as we saw the aid station, I was met with a surprise.

My friend and workout buddy, Brant, had come to volunteer.  I had talked to him before the start of the race, but what I didn't know was that he brought 2 more workout buddies along.  Brant jogged out to meet me, asked me if he could go find my drop bag for me, and I was showered with encouragement from my friends.

The aid station personnel refilled water bottles while I stretched, and Brant helpfully dug through my drop bag to find what I asked for.  I noticed a scrape on my knee, and I couldn't remember for the life of me what had caused it.  I mentioned this to someone, but if my voice sounded the way I felt, I wasn't making much sense.

Finally, with food and drink in hand, Shannon and I turned back to the course.  We walked for a while as we ate and rehydrated, and by the time we traded road for trail we broke back into a jog.

Surprisingly, this was my favorite part of the race.  I had worried, after studying this year's revisions to the course map, that the prospect of turning away from the finish line would be too much.  I worried that the task of 9 more miles would be more daunting than ever with the finish in sight.  But thanks to a few friends, this stop was exactly what it was meant to be.  It was a place to recharge, refuel, and rest before taking on the most difficult miles of the race.

When we were back on the trail, I asked my ultra-experienced running buddy a hard question.  "Be honest with me," I asked.  "Does it get harder?"  She knew what I meant.  My entire body was beginning to rebel.  I had been running for 5 and a half hours by this point, longer than I've ever stayed on my feet before.  My legs were in pain, my body vehemently urged me to stop, and I was just flat ready to be done.

I waited for the answer while she thought.  I hoped she wasn't trying to find a nice way to deliver bad news.  She finally answered "it doesn't get worse."

Great, I thought.  I get to deal with this for 9 more miles.

More to come,


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 3: Just Keep Running

When preparing for my 50k, I drove to Murrell Park and ran some miles on the race course.  There was 1 part of the course in particular that I hadn't run before, and I had heard this was the hardest part of the trail.  I made a trip out there a week before and tried it out, and it was even tougher than I expected.  I knew these miles would slow me down, and by 9:00 I was into this terrain.

There's a great thing about trail running that helps with these miles: walking.  Unlike road runners, all trail runners walk from time to time.  They know it's dangerous to navigate some terrain at a run, and when you're running 31 miles or more it's just not worth risking injuring yourself at every rough patch for a little extra momentum.  Only having run 1 trail race before (a 15k exactly 1 year prior on the same course), I was learning just how the later miles differ from a road race.

Almost 2 years ago, I ran my first full marathon.  I had trained for months to the point that I completed a 22 mile training run 3 weeks prior to the race.  I was used to the mileage, so the looming question was how to pace myself.  I could have kept to my training pace to ensure that I could finish, I could have aimed for a reasonable goal, or I could have pushed myself to try to reach my highest potential.  Unfortunately, I opted for the third.

During the weeks leading up to the race, I had run the numbers over and over and decided that I should be able to finish in about 5 hours 10 minutes without pushing myself too ambitiously.  But the more I looked at that number, the more I wanted to reach 5 hours flat.

I kept running the numbers again and again, played with the length of my walk breaks, walking vs. running pace, and first stretch vs. last stretch pace.  I had finally found a set of numbers that would get me close.  Close enough that, if I could summon the energy in the last few miles as the finish line was within reach, I could reach or break the 5 hour mark.  It was perfect.  Not impossible, not far from the pace I knew I could run, just enough to work.

I stuck to my plan on that race day.  My first few miles were a little faster, while I had adrenaline to pull me along, and my pace steadied as I pushed toward the 10 mile and half marathon mark.  It felt great until about mile 15.  I started to feel as if I was running out of fuel.  My legs still worked, but my heart rate was increasing and my lungs felt strained.  I pushed on for 1 more mile, and I knew.  I pushed too hard.  If this feeling had held until mile 20 I could make it, but this was too soon.  I couldn't push through this for 10 whole miles.

I walked.  A lot.  Probably 3 miles straight before I decided I was recovered enough to run, and by then I could only run about as often as I walked.

The Ultramarathon was different.  By mile 16 I had hoped to push back to the pacing I had maintained during the first hour (since I had returned to the easier terrain), but I also knew this would be the hard part of the race.  Right on schedule, my legs began to tire.  I had gained a running partner by that point (who would continue to help me pace the remainder of the course), and I told her "I'm going to be hurting in 3 more miles."

She told me to stay positive, but I couldn't avoid this reality.  It happened every time I passed the 16 mile mark.  First, my legs started to tire.  Then, walk breaks got longer.  By the time I reached mile 19, my legs were screaming, and I could hardly convince myself to begin, or even hold, a jogging pace.  Race day was no different.

I had reached the hardest point of the race, and it was time to dig deep.

More to come,


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 2: Pacing the Way

By 8:00, 1 hour into the race, I was cruising along the trail with 3 people behind me: David from Odessa, Curtis, and Shannon.  I was the impromptu pacer for our misfit group at the time, and I was leading us down the trail at a good first-stretch pace.  Not too fast, so that we didn't burn out, but not so slow that we were wasting our energy before it started to wane.

I seem to end up in this position in trail races.  Early in the race, the runners are still a little crowded, and the trail is usually only wide enough to accommodate 1 runner until someone steps aside to let a faster runner pass.  I think I end up here from a lesson I've learned from almost 5 years of distance running: I run my own race.  I don't keep up a particular pace just because the guy in front of me is, and I try not to let the adrenaline get the best of me.  I stick to my goals, and I do my best to run no faster than what's best for me.  Since I'm not a follower, I guess that makes me a leader.  This group stuck with me until the first aid station.

To me, the idea of running your own race is the most important and most difficult lesson in distance running.  We look to others for advice and leadership, and while we take their nuggets of wisdom for our benefit, we have to understand that every runner is different.  I learned this lesson in a different way than most.

One of the great things about that 5k in 2009 was my running partner.  I didn't go lurking around the gym to find another runner, and I didn't try to schmooze my friends into taking up this challenge with me.  When I signed up for my first 5k, my wife signed up with me.  We registered together, we trained together, and we started the race together.  I wish we had finished together, because after I missed Katie's finish, it took another 15 minutes to find each other in the crowd.

This led to 4 half marathons in a year that we ran side-by-side.  My race was her race, my PR was her PR.  We signed up for Team in Training together, and we even took on roles as Mentors together in later seasons.  I had the best training partner I could have asked for.

Of course, taking on challenges with your spouse is just that: a challenge.  What we did was hard.  Training for and completing a distance run is tough, and sometimes it brings out the worst in you.  We saw each other at our most dejected, and we saw each other in pain, but we also held hands as we crossed finish lines, celebrated together, and hung our medals on the same rack.

After so many races side-by-side, we both started to look to our own individual goals.  We began to run races separately, and we had to re-learn our running habits.  We no longer had someone else to help gauge our pace, rather we had to manage it ourselves.  We didn't follow a run/walk schedule based on each others' needs, instead we drifted toward our own running priorities.  After 2 years of running, I finally started learning to pace myself.

I kept up my pacing as David, Curtis, and Shannon followed, and once they peeled away to visit our first aid station, I took off on my own.  My plan from the beginning was to eat every 5-6 miles and take a long walk break while I ate.  I enjoyed my break, then picked up the pace.  I knew that was starting to enter the most difficult part of the course.  This is where the race really started.

More to come,


Monday, November 11, 2013

Rockledge Rumble 50k - Part 1: The Start of an Adventure

It was 7:00 in the morning as I toed the start line in the state park with about 100 other runners by my side.  The sun had only just finished lighting up the sky on that cool Saturday, and we were prepared to start our race.  Moments ago, a friend asked if I was ready, to which I answered with a quick laugh and a "no."  I couldn't imagine that any of us were fully ready to start an Ultramarathon, and I didn't think I could ever wrap my head around a 50 kilometer (31.1 mile) run, even if I had just spent 5 months training for it.

But I've heard it said that we're never ready for the big challenges in our lives.  We are only ready enough.  The task ahead of me was daunting, but if I had been truly honest with myself, I was ready for an adventure.  I had to wonder how I reached this point in my life.

I first discovered distance running in Junior High.  I played tennis on the school team, and some of my favorite "off days" were the ones we spent running.  Not sprints and suicides, just running.  Sometimes our coach would point down the road to a driveway half a mile away, and we would head off for a mile.  Other times, when weather kept us inside, we would run laps around the top of the basketball colosseum with the cross country team for most of an hour.  I seemed to be the only one on the tennis team who enjoyed our running days.

I began using distance running to (literally) run off my pre-teen energy from time to time.  I would put on my tennis clothes and take on a few laps around our neighborhood.  My dad ran with me a few times, and this is when I learned that I didn't know how to slow down.  I only had 1 speed when running, and while I could keep it up for about 2 miles, it usually kept my dad from enjoying even 1 half-mile lap.

He would tell me that he spent a semester on his high school track team and how slow his 6:15 mile was compared with the seasoned track athletes.  I had never run faster than an 8 minute mile.  I started looking up to distance runners, knowing that they had accomplished more than I had, and that they had all worked hard to get there.

By college, I was out of shape and hadn't run in years.  Once or twice I ran a few 200 meter laps at our University's rec center, but that's it.  I finished out my college years 40+ pounds overweight with no drive to exercise.  I joined a gym after a while, and at times Katie and I kept up a routine of working out once or twice a week.  A desire finally built up in me to get fit.

The next February, almost 5 years ago, a friend encouraged Katie and I to run a 5k.  I could have accomplished this easily in my Junior High tennis days, but in 2009 this presented a challenge.  I don't know whether I have more redneck in me than I realized or if it's just testosterone, but I can't pass up a good challenge.

This was February 1st, and the race was February 28th.  Katie and I spent those 4 weeks running every other day, pushing back our first walk break farther and farther, until we were finally confident that we could (mostly) run for 3.1 miles.

The finish line was amazing!  Even though I walked close to half of the race, I sprinted to the finish as hard as I could!  I was greeted by cheers, congratulations, and even by a cold bottle of water.  I was ecstatic when I finished that race, and by the next morning I knew that I wanted to make myself a runner just to experience that feeling again.

This is where my journey began.  Years later, on November 9, 2013 at 7:00 in the morning, I started running my first Ultramarathon.

More to come,