Ultrarunning. Is it the next frontier for me? With my friends, Kino, Lucy, Scott, Mon, England, Jess, Keila, Deanna, all accomplished ultrarunners, who continually espouse their love of ultrarunning, it is hard to resist the temptation to see how far I can push the envelope.
I don’t know much about ultra running. Sure I have heard many things about it through the years, but I have always shied away from it. Part of it was being more than happy just doing training for a marathon. I’m mean, who would want to do even more training to prepare for an ultra. The other was the doubt of being able to go beyond the mileage of a marathon. If I do anything, I want to say at the very least I prepared for it and not bomb at it. But I never gave it a serious thought until this year. My friends have been doing ultras left and right, not to mention signing up for 100 milers! Along the way, they have been urging me to test the waters. Most of the time I have been giving them my raised eyebrow look. It wasn’t until Jess asked me to help pace her through part of her 100K run in the Great NYC 100 mile at the end of June that I began to wonder. Soon after Jess asked me, Mon asked me the same thing and that he was doing the 100 miles. My friends were asking for me to be there for them. I do not take such things lightly. Whether they needed me for 1 or 26, I said to myself I need to be ready.
These past couple months I have been on a dual track with my training; logging training miles for the fall marathons and testing how well I could hold up if I did sign up for an ultra. In May I put in about 190 miles and so far this month I have clocked in the ballpark of 90. I know it may sound like a bit much. With every run I do take stock of how I feel. Even I understand there are limitations and tipping points.
So when I ran my first trail race during Memorial Day weekend, it was all part of trying to understand and adapt to something new/different. The whole thing was last minute and that probably helped because I didn’t have too much time to think about it. Jess texted me that Friday asking me if I wanted to accompany her and one of her ultra friends, Eric, for a day trip down to Philadelphia for the Dirty German Endurance Trail Run. She was planning to do the 25K and and Eric the 50K. Our friend Keila was also doing 50K in preparation for her Leadville 100 later this summer.
With the race starting at 8 am, it was a very early morning start to get down there. In a rented car, our journey began at 5 am. With light traffic on a holiday weekend, we arrived at PennyPack Park with plenty of time to spare which we needed in order to register for the race. It was that last minute.
The great thing about races that are not monstrosities like the NYC marathon, is the quaint, community-vibe, aspect of the smaller ones. From what I understand most trail races are like this. Everyone there knows what they are getting involved in and there isn’t the manic energy that surrounds even a 4 mile race in Central Park. People went about their business of putting on their bibs quietly without the need to broadcast what they were or were not planning to do. Our bags were placed underneath this tent that served as bag check. It seemed safe enough and it was.
All I knew about the course was that is was loops around the course. Jess said it wouldn’t be that difficult and I should have no problems completing the 15 miles. With the previous day being wet and soggy, I expected there would be muddy portions so I wore my Pegagus Shields figuring they were the best I had for such conditions. Jess, on the other hand, wore her NB Minimus trail shoe! Then again, she trains in the Nike Free 4.0. I desire a bit more cushioning, at least for the here and now.
With a old-school amplifier and a mike, the 50 milers took off first followed by everybody else. We ran through an open field, went very short distance on the edge of the park, and then entered into the park again where a trail unfolded before us. It was just about then I realized why it was important to be up front if one was going to run for time. The trail had room for maybe two people going across. The further back you are, the longer it will take to move on ahead. What made this start get off on a bottleneck was that people stopped to navigate the first of many many muddy portions of the trails. Didn’t people realize they signed up for a trail race? Did they expect to come out and finish with pristine shoes? Very odd.
I spent the first several miles edging my way up. I knew it was a waste of energy but I wasn’t really running for time and I wasn’t going that far. There was a female runner ahead of me who was moving a decent clip. I did my best to follow behind her. From her form and surety of movement, I knew she was an experienced and fast runner.
For awhile I managed to keep up until we hit a single track. Once that happened, it was over in terms of me following her. By the time the single track cleared up and there was room to maneuver, she was already far ahead. Oh well. I continued on my merry way through the brambles, fallen trees, muddy tracks, everything that one would expect on a trail run. The organizers were kind enough to have pink ribbons marking the course making it somewhat easy to find your way around.
What I noticed the most during that first hour was how time and distance is completely turned on its head during trail running. There were times I could’ve sworn I had gone a much longer distance but it wasn’t the case at all. Other times I felt I was moving slowly like sludge. Then I saw others around me and knew that I was mistaken.
And then there was running on the terrain itself. One has to keep focus out there, if you don’t you could pancake easily on a root or rock. Several times I felt the dirt shift beneath me forcing an immediate correction. The demands on the body was fairly intense due to the constant adjustments. And that was on the relatively flat parts. Going up and going down was a new thing for me. How should I go up? How should I go down? Those rocks look mighty big and how do people fly down? And who put this fallen tree with some mean looking splinters smack in the middle of the trail?
I had brought along two Clif shots with me using only one of them. I took about 2 fluid breaks; the first one they made me stop at the first aid station for some reason to mark my bib so I took a cup of water. I never felt tired or weak. The weather was perfect, no stifling heat to sap the energy out of me.
This being my first trail run I tried to take in my surroundings. I was moving but I made it a point to look around. I know that isn’t what one is supposed to do if running for time, but I wasn’t running for time. There were scenes that I really wanted to never forget, like the stream running smooth and clean, the open field, the single track where there was just me and no one else. If by any chance this was going to be my last trail run, I was going to take with me moments that would never come again.
About 3/4 of the way through (I had peeked at my watch to check time and mileage just to make sure I wasn’t going to bonk), I had the company of at least 3 other runners, all guys. Two of them I had passed when we had hit the road portion of the race, but when we got back on the trail, they came up and were behind me for some time. I led the way snaking through some very intricate single track mazes. When you’re in the lead, you feel this weight of responsibility to keep going even if the mind is telling you to slow down. This of course stresses you out sucking even more precious energy from you when you can afford it the least. The 3rd guy we meet up along the way and he wound up just a few yards behind us when we passed.
When we got to a fairly steep downhill that is when the 2 guys barrelled past me. They attacked the incline with vigor and abandon. Me? Self-preservation was key. I took a look at the descent and made a quick assessment of how well I could adjust to terrain and said it would be wise to be conservative. I slowed down and it was a good thing because even with me slowing down it was still fast and at the end there was a muddy section where I lost some footing and rolled my ankle for a second or two before righting myself up. One of those rolls where you feel it and then pop up immediately as to do no harm. Breathing a sigh of relief that something far worse could have happened, I decided to ease up a bit. This allowed the 3rd guy to catch up and for the rest of the way we were together. There was only one other point that scared me and it was around the end. We were coming out of a downhill turn and I just couldn’t navigate the turning radius with a faster cut and nearly went into the trees. Lucky I planted hard and managed to stop the momentum before becoming one with a tree. Slow down, I told myself.
By the time the end was near, I got nearly so wrapped up in my surroundings that I missed a pink ribbon marker for a turn. Lucky for me the 3rd guy called out and I was able to turn back. At that point, I said better that he goes in front than me! Til the end of the race, I followed him saving myself the embarrassment of missing another marker and getting lost so close to the finish.
I crossed the line in about 2 hours and 5 minutes or so. Not too bad for a 1st time. Although it wasn’t a difficult course, it was a challenge. I came away with even more respect for my friends who are able to cover such unbelievable distances in all conditions and at all elevations. Trail running is not for meek or the dirt phobic. The farther you go, the more guts and mental stamina it takes to get through it. The 15 miles I had just done was a mere drop in the bucket and I knew that. Aside from some muddy shoes and a couple of scratches, this was a baby step in reality.
Joe, who came up with Keila, was waiting for me at the finish line. Joe, who is an ultrarunner, was not running the race and had come just to provide support. Nice guy. He mentioned that Keila had just passed through on her first loop. I missed her by a couple of minutes. We chatted while waiting for our friends to come in. I had in my mind a certain time frame I thought Jess would be coming in based on her normal pace per minutes. Jess is generally in the 9:30 to 10:00 range running easy. If she pushes she goes at 9:00. This being a trail, I had to factor in she would not be going 9’s but closer to 10’s.
When I saw her flying down towards the finish, it took me a bit by surprise. Jess was moving faster than I had thought. Good for her! But why was she sprinting to the finish? Then I realized there was another woman just a couple of steps ahead of her with about 50 meters to go. This is was the first time I had seen the competitive Jess: arms pumping, face focused, going hard. Wow. She looked bad-ass. Of course, she wouldn’t think she was but I felt bad since I wasn’t ready with the iphone to capture the moment. Jess finished in about 2 hours 30 minutes or so and this was a training run for her! What she has done in a little over 3 months has been astounding.
After Jess, we were in waiting mode until Keila and Eric came in for their 50K. Keila was looking to place and Eric was running to complete. The 1st place male runner for the 50K came and went without hardly anyone noticing. Jess and I had looked up when a lone runner came bounding down the path, moving fast and clearly not heading to the aid station that the 50 milers would break off to. He came right on through to the finish line. Done. Hardly a clap or two. Joe, Jess and I looked at one another with the same question, this was the 1st place guy? Okay.
The 1st woman came in to finish and she was not Keila. But Keila did come in 2nd, I think in under 4 hours 20 minutes. Keila is superwoman out there on the trail. And to think this was a training run for her too. My friends were putting me to shame and I could not help but feel proud of that fact. More power to them. I’ve know Keila since those days of Boston Training Group at Nike with Bruno and the progression she has made through the years is mind blowing. There would be no way in hell I could keep up with her at any point out there on the trail. She is way too fast and too good. So fast, I barely had time to get my camera ready when she came to the finish.
Eric rolled in about 30 or 40 minutes after, all muddied after falling a couple of times. As I stood there talking to Jess, Eric, and Keila, I looked at them and they all were none the worse for wear even after putting in mile after mile in training and races. Jess had done the Bear Mountain 50K earlier in the month that had obscene elevation that would have had most seeking comfort in not running for a long time afterwards. Keila had done Boston twice in a day, going and coming, as part of her training and she was faster during the race than heading out to the start line!
For my taste of a trail, I found it very intriguing and worth at least a second and third look. As my friend and fellow pacer Lucy put it, “ultras takes training and Guts a lot of Guts.”, when she completed her 50 mile Cayuga with 10,000 feet elevation. I don’t know if I have the guts for it, but I am willing to try to see just where my limits are. And so many of my friends, Jess, Lucy, Scott, Kino, Stephen, Mon, they want to be there when I go for it. So after the fall marathons…..