Saturday, November 24, 2007

50 miles at the JFK: It feels so good... (or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the towpath)

While running at the 2007 JFK 50 miler this past weekend in western Maryland, a variation on an old joke came to mind:

"Why does this idiot keep running ultramarathons? Because it feels so good... when I stop!"

Yeah, at times, doing another ultra seems about as dumb as hitting myself in the head with a hammer over and over.

However, it's not my doubts about my own sanity, or the tired feet, or the quad cramps that stick in my head -- it's the brief glimpses of goodness that made me smile along the way...

... the mass of runners surging from the starting line at 7 am, heading uphill through the quaint downtown of Boonsboro, as the barbers and their customers watch the early morning commotion through the front picture windows of the barber shop...

... fast racers who blast up the first hill with more zip than I can muster on a downhill, running a 50 miler at a pace that would be all out for me on a half-marathon...

... the sound of footsteps crunching in the leaves covering the Appalachian Trail, with the ever-present backdrop of orange, yellow, red, and green, brilliant (and unusually late) fall colors, completing the scene...

... my smiling wife, waiting for me with extra shoes, socks, gatorade, and gels at just the right places, giving me a kiss if I needed nothing else...

... streakers -- not naked "streakers" like the fad back in the 70s, but runners with an unbroken a streak of races -- folks doing their 15th or 25 straight JFK, defying age by continuing even into their 60s and 70s, somehow without missing a year due to sickness, a car breaking down on the way, or bad weather...

... middle-aged joggers being met by their families at aid stations along the C&O Canal towpath, children cheering and holding hand-painted signs of encouragement for Mom or Dad...

... hikers who started at 5 am and are speed-walking steadily along the tow path, hoping to finish before the course sweeper picks them up at 7 pm...

... a father-and-son duo deep in conversation as they run, sharing the experience of completing an endurance event together...

... the husband and wife finishing this race together, having paced themselves all day to leave enough in the tank for a marathon the next day with a first-time marathon friend...

... enthusiastic crowds lining the last 100 yards of the route, with high-fives, cheers, and shouted words of encouragement for weary runners as they sprint, walk, jog, or are helped on friends' shoulders across the finish line.

November 17, 2007 was the 45th running of the John F. Kennedy 50 mile race, and my second finish of this race. The JFK is, in several ways, a run with history. The run is inspired by a fitness challenge that President Kennedy issued to military leaders and began as a small race back in 1963. It is held in western Maryland near the site of the Civil War's bloody Battle of Antietam. It starts in the small town of Boonsboro and runs uphill to the Appalachian Trail, taking the rolling and rocky trail until it descends to the edge of the Potomac River at the village of Weverton, the 15 mile mark of the race. From there, the race follows the historic, but pancake flat, towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal for slightly longer than marathon distance -- a stretch the fills some with boredom and dread of the regular mile markers. The last 8-plus miles of the race are on local roadways that follow gently rolling terrain through farmland and small settlements, coming into town the town of Williamsport with twists and turns and over- and underpasses, finally finishing in front of the middle school.

Last year, I ran JFK as my first 50 miler. Simply finishing that race was my goal, and doing so successfully was a real milestone for me. This year, I ran it a little faster (10:12 vs. 10:23) and made it to the end without experiencing the same kind of crash of energy and motivation that hit me around mile 30 last year. However, despite this, I ran with the wistful feeling that this year's race would have a hard time measuring up to last year's -- there is only one "first time". That made this year's run an interesting opportunity to ponder the nature of setting one's own expectations and how to measure success. And, let's face it, with 10-plus hours of running, there is no shortage of time to ponder such things.

As usual when I run one of these races, I had a goal. This year, it was to break the 10 hour mark. This isn't much of a challenge for a three-hour marathoner, but for a Clydesdale-class runner like me, it is a big goal. I also, as usual, had a plan -- as racing speed doesn't come naturally to me, I try to make up for some of that deficit in preparation. I had trained hard, and was probably in the best running shape I have been in my life. I had worked out how much fluid, food, and electrolytes I would take at regular intervals during the day. I had a pace chart with goal times for each checkpoint.

And, all of this preparation made for a really good day. I was at or slightly ahead of my goal times throughout most of the day. The Appalachian Trail section was fun, especially the chance to blast down rocky downhills and dance around runners less comfortable with the rocks. However, I actually like running the flat tow path, too -- it is unchanging enough that I get into a semi-meditative "zone" and can keep a relatively consistent pace. Toward the end of the towpath (around miles 34-38), I slowed slightly and got a few minutes behind my plan -- when I saw Jennifer at the Mondell aid (38 miles), I told her the only way I would break 10 hours would be with with plenty of caffeine, aleve, and adrenaline. However, in the last stretch of towpath, I felt decent and was fortunate to have company to keep me distracted (thanks Eva!). By the end of the towpath (mile 41.9) , I had made up the time deficit and was back on track.

Coming off of the towpath is a steep little climb, marking the start of the road section (miles 42-50). After power-walking up the hill, I went to run and -- bam! --my legs locked up, bringing me to a complete stop. The lower parts of of my quads just above the knee had begun wild spasms, turning them into quivering knots. I'd try to stretch them but couldn't really -- if I bent my leg too far, my hamstrings would start to spasm. So, I began a walk that looked like something John Cleese would do in the Monty Python "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch (video at link)... walking along at a squat, trying to kick my legs straight with each step, somehow simultaneously stretching my quads without offending my hamstrings too much. It was ridiculous. Silly, really.

My brain went through new calculations... if I have to walk the rest of the way, it would take me two-and-a half hours to finish... phew, not good, but regardless, I resolve that I'll finish by hook or crook. Why am I having this problem, I wondered? Some more calculations... thinking about fluids, it became clear to me I probably didn't drink enough... and, my decision to take one electrolyte capsule every two hours, rather than every hour, may also have left me short of salt. So, I took another Succeed capsule and drank more than half a bottle of water, continuing my Cleesian walk along the edge of the road.

And, within a few minutes, the knots in my thighs began to loosen. I began a jog and felt OK -- my quads were still cramping, but not unbearably bothersome. If I sped my pace too much, the quads would lock up -- and, interestingly, if I slowed to a walk, they would also cramp. So, I moved along at a steady 12:30-paced jog, whether on the uphills, downhills, or flats. I leap-frogged a number of folks who were walking the uphills and running faster than me on the downhills.

The road section provides plenty of interesting things and people to distract from thoughts of fatigue or pain, a wonderful thing after so many miles of running...

... the local welcoming party, a father and his 10 year-old son holding misspelled signs telling JFK runners to get off their roads and go home, greeting me and a trio of
Canadian runners with unfriendly comments...

... a
nice guy from Dayton, OH (Mike Allen of the Dirt Dawgs), telling me about Dayton's history and the 1913 flood that is responsible for the greenspace that makes it a great city for trailrunning...

... the hamlet of Downsville, with enthusiastic, cheering crowds along the streets, giving encouragement where the runners probably need it most...

... TrailDawg Laurie Reinhart saying hello and passing, looking strong with only a couple of miles left...

... a woman on horse-back in English riding gear, taking a break from her horse training to cheer the runners (and remarking I was probably the fiftieth runner to ask to borrow her horse).

As the run entered Williamsport -- the last mile -- the folks doing traffic control gave another round of encouragement. One complimented me for having a smile on my face so late in the race. It's not a smile, I joked with her -- it's a grimace! I could hear the announcers ahead and soon saw the crowds and the finish line clock. Jennifer and other friends at the finish cheered as I crossed the line at 10 hours, 11 minutes, and 50 seconds.

A number of friends/fellow TrailDawgs/locals had already finished, and others finished not long after me. Angus Repper was top Dawg at 7:41:35. Dave Bursler knocked out another fast JFK in 8:15. Todd Pechar finished about an hour ahead of me, 9:12, as did Margie Hughes, in 9:18. With her strong finish, Laurie Reinhart crossed the line at 10:09. Soon after me were Scott Hodukavich (10:59), Carl Camp (11:39), Debbee and John Straub (11:42), and Tom Stack (12:28). And, Hunt Bartine managed to do more than 40 miles.

It is hard to not enjoy JFK. It is a truly grand event, steeped in history, fun, and well organized. Among the 1079 finishers are a wide diversity of athletic abilities, ages, and ultrarunning experience -- people-watching alone is a reason to see it. What have I learned from this day? First of all, to be grateful for the health to take on a challenge like this. Secondly, to keep things in perspective. Toward the end of the race, and at the finish, I was a little bummed about not making my sub-10-hour race goal. But (with some reminders from Jennifer), I quickly put it all in the appropriate perspective: just being able to finish this race is a significant achievement... compared to a year ago, I improved my time... and compared to where I was four years ago, unable to run a mile -- well, thankfully my running habit has me in a very different place now.

Yes, it really does feel so good to stop -- but as much for the satisfaction of the accomplishment as for the chance to rest. I plan to be back at JFK again next year.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stumbling to Johnstown: A Race Report on the 2007 Laurel Highlands 70 Mile Ultra

This entry is almost a novel so hopefully you have a little time...


It’s around midnight. The stars are shining brilliantly through a gap in the forest at the road crossing. A light, cool breeze sweeps across the quiet woods. With Mark’s flashlight shining behind me, each of my steps is transformed into a dancing shadow on the trail ahead. It is beautiful, peaceful. I sip from my camelback bite valve, taking the edge off my thirst. And, for the ninety-eighth freaking time since the last aid station, I trip on a rock and -- yet again -- barely avoid a face plant on the unforgiving sandstones of the Laurel Highlands. There is only one way for me to title a report on a run like this… “Stumbling to Johnstown.”

The idea

It’s a cold Thursday night in January, maybe February, 2007, the memory is a bit hazy. We’re doing another of the weekly coffee runs from Starbucks on Main Street and the usual suspects are there -– Stumpy, Carl, Matt, and Greg. We get into a rhythm running down South College Avenue, looping around the south side of campus, our breaths leaving a vapor trail behind us as we chat. Carl, who must have dozens of ultras under his belt, chats about his recent hundred milers like they are as normal as a jog along White Clay Creek. And I make a serious mistake -- I think out loud about the idea of doing a really long race. “Really long” for me means something longer than 50 miles, my previous long run. “Maybe I’ll try the Laurel Highlands run. It’s seventy miles, only a little more than a 50.” Carl says he’s done it, that it’s really pretty and a piece of cake. Stumpy is jogging just ahead, listening. A real friend would say “I’m from Pittsburgh. I know that area, and 70 miles in those mountains is nuts!” Instead, he says “Hey, maybe I’ll run it, too!” Back at Starbucks, we do a pinky shake. It’s a plan. Laurel Highlands here we come.

Road trip

Stumpy pulls in my driveway Friday around noon, right on time. It’s hot, maybe 90 -– I’m really glad the race isn’t today. Stumpy is wearing his TrailDawg formal wear, a green polo with the Dawg logo. I’m more informal in my Dawg tee-shirt. We end up with half dozen bags of gear strewn around the floor of his van, drop bags for tomorrow’s run, smelly running shoes, luggage for the night in the hotel. Stumpy remembers the way to Angus’ place just north of us in PA. Angus alluded to a little flatulence problem as we planned the weekend -- we hope he was kidding. He hops in and another set of drop bags and smelly shoes joins the pile.

All three of us are excited for this road trip, but Angus seems the most charged up. It’s his first race over 50K. He’s fast, a real runner, and he’s ready. Stumpy has done a 50 miler, JFK back in 2002, but nothing longer. I am new to the long runs but have both JFK and Bull Run 50 milers under my belt in the last 9 months. Stumpy and I did some good training weekends in preparation for this, including back-to-back 20 milers in White Clay Creek State Park. But, none of this preparation approaches the difficulty of 70 miles in the Allegheny Mountains of western PA. We talk almost the entire trip, nervously anticipating the trail, worrying drop bags, fueling, hydration, pace. Angus mocks my excessively detailed (“anal retentive,” says Angus) written race plan -- then admits he has brought along a copy to study. Stumpy is the master of ceremonies, cracking us up as we barrel toward Lancaster, then Harrisburg, then Johnstown -- we nearly laugh ourselves off the road a few times.

We pull into the Johnstown EconoLodge. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Johnstown, since Jennifer went to school here in the early 1980s. It’s an old industrial town with closed mills and a scattering of government-funded medical and technology centers, all of which seem to be named after Congressman Jack Murtha. Guess he brings home the bacon. We quickly check in around 5 pm and dump our bags. Matters of utmost, pre-race importance are discussed and agreed upon -- in a room shared by three guys, this means we establish rules relating to bodily functions and room odors in ways that should not be discussed in polite company. However, we are not polite company -- we are trail runners.

The pre-race dinner is great. The race organizers hold it at a pasta restaurant on the east side of town. Rick Freeman, Tim Hewitt, and their family and friends hand out the race packets -- great shirts! -- and give the race logistics and orientation. These are really nice people, as are the many runners we meet. Carl is already there when we arrive, and we see a number of familiar faces from TrailDawg events, HAT runs, and VHTRC races. I carbo load on the abundant salad and pasta and a couple of pieces of cake. As we eat, the distant rumble of thunder outside grows into violent thunderclaps. The accompanying downpour arrives just as dinner ends, drenching us as we sprint to the van.

With a little time to kill, we head west to try to find the race finish line. The rain eases as evening comes on; it has cooled things a bit, but made the night more humid. Steam rises from the roadway. Misty gray clouds hang onto the edge of the steep hillsides that line the Connemaugh valley. About six miles out of town, we find the trailhead where the race ends. This should make it easier to get to the bus pickup point in the dark of the early morning. Carl has planned to sleep there and promised to share his beer when we find him. But, he’s not there yet, so we drive beerlessly back to the hotel.

The Laurel Highlands Ultra is a classic point-to-point race that runs from the south end of the Laurel Highlands hiking trail at Ohiopyle State Park to its northern terminus at the trailhead west of Johnstown. An extra ½ mile of road at the start makes it 70.5 miles. The race requires an early start, 5:30 am; for the many runners without a crew or chauffeur, the day is even longer. The organizers are good enough to make a bus available so runners can leave their cars at the finish and ride to the start. However, this means we need to be at the finish line before 3:30 am. Sleep? Who needs sleep?

Back at the hotel, we’re in bed by around 9:30. Drop bags have been packed, double-checked. Running clothes and shoes are laid out and ready to put on when we wake up. With such personable roomies, it’s hard not to talk. We’re excited. Nervous. We chat. Ten o’clock goes by. Some quiet. More chit chat. More quiet. I snooze a little. I wake and look at the clock -- it’s eleven. Angus still seems to be awake. Stumpy snores lightly but then is awake, too. A group of loud drunks is out in the hall. It’s after midnight. Angus goes out and shushes them. Quiet again. Then the alarm at 2:30 am. Damn, time to get up. Angus thinks he got an hour of sleep; Stumpy, maybe a couple. I may have done the best, almost three hours total -– but I still feel like a zombie.

We check out of the hotel and drive west again, arriving at the finish line before the bus. Our ride arrives, a big yellow Blue Bird school bus. Brings back memories of high school, taking a rickety school bus to soccer games -- but those were never at 3:30 am. Experienced folks seem to know enough to get on the bus fast. I don’t know any better. By the time we load up, the bus is at least half full, so we’re two in a seat with a lap full of drop bags. The trip to Ohiopyle takes a little over an hour. The bumpy country roads make it hard to sleep -- or is it the butterflies in my stomach?

We soon arrive at a start area hopping with activity. Dozens of sleepy people wander around, checking in at registration and raiding the breakfast spread laid out on the tailgate of a couple of pickup trucks. It is cool and damp. Swarms of insects buzz like electron clouds around the portable lighting. I munch on a couple of mini donuts and muffins and drink a Starbucks Frappuccino I have brought for just this special occasion. I sit on a curb, lightly coat my feet with Vaseline, and put on two layers of socks -- a thin Nike inner polyester sock and a thicker outer SmartWool sock. I slip on my snakeskin-patterned DirtyGirl gaiters and then my shoes, a pair of Brooks Cascadia that I bought a month ago and are now my favorites. My hydration pack is full with almost 2 liters of water, and I have a couple dozen Clif shots and Clif blocks jammed in empty pack space and my pants pockets. After one of the nicest race blessings I’ve heard, it’s 5:30 and we’re off, heading down ½ mile of road for the trailhead.

Trot through the woods

My heart rate is 160. It’s around 7 am and the morning humidity hangs heavily in the air. Water droplets still cling to leaves from the rain last night, soaking me as I brush the plants along the trail. I passed the Ohiopyle hiking shelter about 10 minutes ago and haven’t seen the 7 mile marker yet, nor the promised water stop in this area. The trail has turned into an unrelenting climb, each yellow trail blaze higher and higher up the hillside. I’m huffing and puffing, trying to maintain a steady uphill walking pace, but enjoying the challenge. Not too slow -- don’t want to lose too much time or even miss the cut-off. Not too fast -- need to save the energy for later in the day, not burn it all on these early climbs. The line of runners has spread out a bit at this point, the speedsters significantly ahead, Angus surely among them. Then there are the folks like me just looking to finish, minding their pace.

After the top of the biggest climb, at around 9 miles, the trail levels and turns into a more rolling affair. My heart rate drops a bit, and get into the rhythm of an enjoyable jog at a 13 to 15 minute pace. The woods are beautiful. A canopy of big oak trees and flowering tulip poplars shades the woods, the poplar’s little yellowish flowers littering the trail in places. I notice the sounds of red-eyed vireos, the preacher bird, high in the treetops all over the woods, calling non-stop to their sylvan congregations, “You see it -- you know it -- do you hear me? -- do you believe it?”

Somewhere between 10 and 15 miles, I greet Carl as I slowly pass him. I figure I’ll see him later when he re-passes me. Onward, on a nasty, steep little uphill around 18 miles, I am surprised to see Stumpy just ahead. Damn. He is faster and should be well ahead of me. When I catch up to him, it is clear he is suffering. He says that his knees and his back are really hurting. I try to give a few words of encouragement and tell him I’ll see him at the checkpoint coming up soon.

Checkpoint 1, just before the Route 653 crossing, is the second aid station. The morning mist has begun to lift and it looks like the sky is giving some thought to letting the sun appear. The first 19.3 miles has taken me 4:40. I am a little worried because this is well ahead of the 5:07 time I had targeted -- maybe I have burned too much energy on the uphills? I have been taking a gel or a few Clif blocks every ½ hour or so, and religiously taking an S!Cap for electrolytes on the hour, but definitely need extra calories and fluids here. As one of the aid station volunteers (bless them!) kindly fills my hydration pack bladder with water, Stumpy comes into the station. He’s still hurting and thinks he’ll get some ibuprofen and take a break. I try to be encouraging and tell him he has plenty of time for this -- an hour until the cutoff -- take time, relax, let the “Vitamin I” do its work, get some food, and you’ll be good to go. I head out of the station with a handful of pretzels and a cup of gatorade, wasting as little time as possible. [Soapbox -– what in tarnation is so difficult about carrying trash to the next aid station? After this stop, as well as most other aid stations, I saw cups on this beautiful, otherwise clean, mountain trail]


Still short of mile 25 and all is not well. I left Checkpoint 1 feeling pretty good and got some needed extra calories and drink. But, six miles further, on an uphill towards Seven Springs ski resort, my feet are headed north as my energy is headed south. I am walking an uphill and not enjoying it. I slow down as I fall into a funk, then slow even more. “Why in hell am I doing this?” I ask myself. I realize that this race was a stupid idea. I am tired, hating each step even more. The mile markers -- one numbered concrete icon every mile -- have turned into a constant and cruel taunting, rubbing in the reality of the distance yet to cover. I am nearly overwhelmed by the realization that I still have 45 miles ahead of me. The preacher birds are still calling from their pulpits high in the trees “You see it -- you know it -- do you hear me? -- do you believe it?” No, I don't believe it, and shut the hell up already!

The sun has come out and it is beginning to get warm, almost hot. People are passing me. I don’t care. I get to the aid station at 26 miles. Just in time. Maybe a break and some more food will help. The aid station volunteers are really nice. I take a few minutes more than I have at other aid stops, but I remain in foul humor. I leave with a handful of pretzels and a cup of Gatorade, and refueling as I walk, but continue in my funk. I am nearly despondent as consider the fact I have 44 miles left. I want to quit -- but at the same time don't want to quit. Much of the trail through the Seven Springs ski area is very runnable, but I'm not in the mood to run. I have visions of the relief it would bring to drop out right here -- a nice nap on a soft bed of oak leaves would feel so good.

I am passed by a guy who I’ve been leap-frogging all morning. He asks how I’m doing, probably clued into my funk by the big frown on my face. I tell him that I am struggling and having to talk to myself, not telling him it is to keep myself from quitting. Another example of the kindness of ultrarunners, he gives me some encouragement as we walk along. “Just shoot for the next aid station… that’s all you need to make, the next aid in 5 miles... the weather is great, not too hot, a beautiful sunny day… keep moving, you’ll make it.” All I can say -- whoever you were – is a sincere thank you!

The pep talk helps me get the left brain to reason with the right brain. All you need to do is keep moving, I keep thinking. I remind myself that, in the other ultras I’ve run, I’ve almost always hit a rough patch between 25 and 30 miles. I try to reason with myself -- it’s just my body is switching from carb burning to fat burning mode. “Relentless forward progress,” I chant to myself, over and over. Keep moving, even if it’s just walking. Don’t think about the whole race, just the next aid station. The funk will pass. And, actually, it is a beautiful day.

I gain a little energy and walk the next uphill (mile 28 to 29) with a little more purpose. When the trail levels off, I fall back into a jog without thinking. All is well. Got my mojo back.

Grinding away the miles

Rockin’ and rollin’ -- I’m not exactly rockin’ and rollin’, but the trail is, for sure. After reaching its high point in the Seven Springs ski area, the trail bounces up and down, with rolls of 50, 100, 200 feet -- lots of ‘em -- and rocks, wobbly, ankle twisting rocks that seem to be an ever-present feature of this part of the Allegheny Plateau -- lots of ‘em.

I am steadily and determinedly moving forward again, grinding away the miles. As I approach the aid station and checkpoint at Route 31, I am feeling better and better. I’m now jogging more than walking, making better time. A few fast-moving 50K runners pass me, and soon I see the signs for the turn-off of the 50K course. Cutting my day short at 50K? I don’t even give it a thought. Really. OK, I lie. I give it a brief, thought, imagining the relief -- but I am determined to do the whole 70 now so press on.

I cruise into the Route 31 aid station (32.3 miles) at just after eight hours into the race. I am a little ahead of my target time of 8 and a half hours. I stick to my planned routine of a brief stop, topping off my water pack, and taking some pretzels and Gatorade to consume as I walk. I keep grinding away the miles, walking the uphills, jogging the flats and downhills.

Ahead on the trail is another of the ever present mile markers. As the day has gone along, each marker seems to take slightly longer to reach. But this marker is a real milestone and not just another marker -- it is the 35 mile marker. With one step, I am over a psychological barrier. I congratulate myself for having passed the halfway point. Sure, there are a lot of miles to go, but I know I have completed more than I have left. The thought gives me an extra burst of energy.

Soon I hear traffic. As the sound gets louder, the pedestrian bridge over the Pennsylvania Turnpike becomes visible ahead. I wish Stumpy were here. This was supposed to be a highlight of the run -- Stumpy promised to “moon” the turnpike traffic! I hope he is doing OK and worry about the back pain forcing him to stop. I take a break to watch the fast moving cars below, the diesel fumes and the din of tractor trailers making a jarring contrast with the fresh air and peace of the woods.

Onward beyond the bridge, making sure to follow the not-so-obvious trail instead of the very obvious (but wrong) dirt road on the other side. Back in the quiet of the woods, another climb, at least 400 ft and rocky. I hike steadily upward, trying to keep good posture and some power in my uphill walk.

At the 39-mile aid station, another quick refueling and I press onward. The trail -- mercifully! -- levels a bit, but it becomes rocky as hell, negating the advantage of the flatter terrain. I settle into a steady slow-but-careful jog, making sure to pick up my feet as I dodge and dance across jagged and wobbly rocks. It’s hard to take my eyes off the trail too much, but the scenery is great in this stretch. The trail winds, zigging and zagging through narrow slots between rock walls in a pretty area called Beam Rocks. There are also some soft sandy stretches interspersed with little boardwalk-type bridges -– it is flat and different. Following the main Laurel Highlands Trail becomes a bit confusing in this area. A network of other trails cross it here, but the trail becomes less defined and the yellow blazes harder to see in the understory of the shady, deep green hemlock woods.

Soon enough I hear traffic and know the next aid station is near -– the Route 30 checkpoint, which means 46.4 miles done and my drop bag! I am more than 20 minutes ahead of my target time (12 hours 34 minutes vs 13 hours) and almost 90 minutes ahead of the cutoff time. I take a nice, long, relaxing break. Friendly volunteers take care of everything -– they offer me a chair, retrieve my drop bag, bring me pizza, treatment I don’t even get at home! The pizza seems to be just the kind of calories I need -– somehow, two slices of a simple pepperoni pizza become one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. A number of support crews meet runners at this stop, and I chat a bit with the runners and their friends. I take off my shoes and socks, clean the grit off my feet, let them breathe for a bit, recoat them with a thin film of vasoline, and put on a fresh set of socks. I make sure my hydration pack is topped off and stuff four more hours worth of gels and blocks into the pockets of my shorts. My plan has me getting to my next drop bag just after dark, so I also take the headlamp and small handlamp I have stashed in this dropbag. The break gives me a bit of extra energy. After tying a windbreaker around my waist, I am off.

Day becomes night

I realize that the clock is rapidly ticking away on daylight. It is almost 6 pm when I leave Route 30, solo, and I know I won’t be at the next manned aid station until after dark. Although I am not moving especially fast at this point, I also don’t feel bad. I am jogging when I can, but the uphills provide a good excuse to walk, as do the rocky parts -- I just don’t trust my tired legs to pick my feet up high enough to avoid tripping. In a little less than five miles there is supposed to be a self-serve water stop, but at this speed it will take an hour and a half to reach it.

This stretch drags on… “where the devil is that water?” I keep wondering as my watch ticks past an hour and a half since Route 30. It turns out to be a lonely unmanned water drop, some water bags placed where the trail crosses a dirt road. I drink a little of this water but don’t top off my water pack (I should have). This part of the trail is a bit different than earlier, less natural. The woods are almost eerily quiet -- few birds are around, perhaps due to the disturbed vegetation. There are more frequent lumbered areas -- long stretches where the trees have been thinned, replaced by fields of ferns in places and brush in others -- and an area where the trail parallels a ten-foot high fence, outside of which the woods are nearly a wasteland. There is an upside to being in this area as the day ends, though -- the clearings make for a nice view of the sunset. As the sun slowly drops below the western horizon, the air quickly cools and I begin to feel chilly for the first time since I started.

I am glad I have experimented with different light options in nighttime runs the last few months. The combination of my excellent (and outrageously priced) Petzl Myo headlamp and a small Craftsman handlamp show the irregularities of the trail surface reasonably well. I find myself having a hard time judging the terrain in the twilight when contrast is poor, but visibility gets better as the sky becomes completely dark. I jog along in the darkness, alone, playing it safe and walking where the trail is most uneven. After carefully navigating a boulder field, I begin to hear the sound of people and soon see distant lights in the darkness. Civilization! Or, at least, my next drop bag.


The aid station near Route 271 arrives. My target time is 16 hours and 17 minutes and I arrive just ahead of it, at 16 hours and 10 minutes. Volunteers, tables, and chairs line both sides of the trail in the middle of the woods, the lantern light making it feel like a tunnel through the trees. I take off my windbreaker and change into a silk-weight long-sleeve shirt and a fresh short sleeve shirt and try to get warm. I get some hot food -- soup is the answer -- and drink a frappuccino from my drop bag. After three lonely hours since the last manned aid station, I finally have people to talk with. Besides the nice volunteers, Mark McKennett is here. Mark is a enthusiastic young ultra runner from Maryland and easy to remember. He is usually the guy sporting a hairdo distinguished by a shaved head -- shaved except for hair spelling out race initials. I first noticed him at JFK and had a chance to say hello at Bull Run. We chat a bit and Mark offers to wait a bit so we can run together.

As I try to eat some more, one of the runners sitting across from me is suffering immensely. He is cold, shivering, and nauseous. He stumbles away from the aid area as his stomach erupts. His running partner tries to help him get it under control, but he hurls violently, again and again. It is painful to watch -- and difficult to imagine how he will finish. It makes me thankful that my stomach is stable when I run.

I am dog tired at this point and the break at this aid station has helped recharge my batteries. However, even after I am done with the essential refueling, I am dawdling. The prospect of going off into the cold, dark woods makes it easy to hang around this welcoming aid station, with its comfortable chairs, lights, and cheerful conversation. The length of my stay borders on loitering -- I think it was at least 20 minutes. Mark looks ready to go. OK, it’s time to go. We head northward on the trail.

Though cold, the night is clear, pretty. Mark and I get into a good conversation and hit a steady, albeit modest, pace. I am truly thankful he was interested in running together -- not only is the company good, but he’s enjoyable to talk with, and the conversation makes the miles pass more quickly. I am most of the time in the lead. My handheld flashlight provides helpful contrast at my feet, negating the camouflage that darkness provides for the unpredictably scattered rock hazards on this part of the trail. My headlamp seems as bright as a searchlight. At times, I feel like I am running in a tunnel of light, the light beam creating a narrow, shimmering corridor ahead in the otherwise all-engulfing darkness. Mark’s light from behind makes it look like my shadow is running away from me, dancing back and forth across the trail but not managing to get away. I have run plenty of times at night, but tonight, the combined effects of the lighting and fatigue give the trail an especially surreal feel.

As we round a turn, chatting away, I seek a large dark figure ahead, rapidly moving from right to left across the path. My heart skips a beat and the hair on the back of my neck instantly stands on end. “Holy crap!” I yell as I turn to Mark -- “A bear!” My heart is racing, nearly pounding out of my chest. I turn back ahead, take another step, and am hit in the face by a bunch of leaves on a small branch. I realize then that the bear was only the shadow of this branch ahead of my light. I laugh nervously, relieved, as I mumble to Mark something about ignoring my hallucinations.

We come out of the woods and turn left on a dirt road, following the occasional glow stick that lights the way. Mark and I turn off our lights for much of this, jogging under a clear starlit sky. We see the light beam of a runner ahead of us and make it a game to catch him before the next aid station, sneaking up with our lights off (the game making me forget, momentarily, about my fatigue). To our right, the sky glows dimly, reflecting the lights of the city of Johnstown just below the horizon. This is a welcome sight. It makes me feel like I am getting closer to the end. We catch the runner and jog along with him. A car passes us, we think someone involved with the race. Soon, there are voices and lights ahead. The final aid station, I think -- I am ready for the food, drink, and chance to rest. As we get closer, there is music and the flicker of a campfire -– but it is soon clear that the activity is off the road and just a bunch of weekend partiers. False hope behind us, we continue northward in the dark.

Another quarter mile -- it seemed like miles -- and we arrive at the real aid station, where this dirt road interests another and ends. There is chili, mountain dew (I think grilled cheese sandwiches, too), and very comfortable -- too comfortable -- chairs. It is 11 o’clock, late on a Saturday night, and the folks volunteering still manage to be cheery as they provide comfort to exhausted, hurting, thirsty, hungry, semi-dazed runners.

Actually, at this point, I don’t know that I qualify as a runner. Jogger? Slogger? My legs are sore and a bit wobbly, but more than anything my feet are really beginning to hurt. I can feel hotspots developing on the balls of my feet and this is making a fine excuse to not push myself. As I sit in a nice comfy chair eating a warm cup of chili, I consider taking off shoes and socks to check out my feet. I know I should at least armor the hot spots with duct tape -- if they are beginning to form blisters (I don’t think they are), I could use the moleskin I have with me. But I am so dog tired that I am unwilling to make the effort to deal with it. I figure that I am almost done, and the feet will be fine these last 8 miles. So, I enjoy my chili and have another drink.

As we are eating, I am surprised to see the sick guy from the last stop come running into this aid station. Inexplicably, he looks strong and seems to be almost completely recovered. He quickly grabs his food and drink and is, in short time, back on the trail with his friend. Mark is also looking like he is getting ready to go, so I muster the energy to get out of the chair and throw back on my refilled hydration pack. Thanking our hosts, we resume our northward slog.


Mark and I are moving along slowly. Although the trail is relatively level for a while after the final aid, we are alternating between jogging and walking. I think Mark could have kept jogging when I walk, but he is nice about it and sticks with me. He says that he’s in no rush, as he doesn’t care about his time at this point as we know we will finish. So, we keep forward progress but don’t push too hard.

The trail begins to roll a bit more, more downhills than uphills, but there are a few short climbs. We pass across a clearing, I think for electric lines, looking up at a large power-line tower with eery blinking red lights, the first major man-made structure we’ve passed since dark. Back in the woods, in a valley, I realize that the trail blazes are a bit dull looking. Maybe my light isn’t reflecting off of them well. Uh, actually, they are a faded blue. Crap! I’ve led us down the wrong trail. I think someone else followed us, too. This is a spur to a hikers' shelter, as it turns out. Where did we miss the turn for the main trail? We backtrack and find the trail junction, only a couple of hundred yards back. A few other runners are near the same junction and run past us on the significant uphill leading away from it.

At the top of this rise, about five miles from the finish, the trail turns into a nearly unrelenting downhill. With every step, the balls of my feet yell louder at me. Damn, I should have taped them. They hurt. I can feel that squishy sensation of a nasty blister on the ball of my right foot. Each step hurts more and more. Not only do the blisters hurt, but my feet ache deeply, seemingly all the way to the bones. There are more rocks than before. I know I need to stay alert on this dark rocky trail -- it would be hell to break something in the middle of nowhere at 1 am. However, my tired legs aren’t too interested in helping me pick up my feet and my brain isn’t too sharp either. I trip on a rock but manage not to fall. I trip on another. Between the pain of the blisters on each downhill step, and my fear of a doing a spectacular face plant, I am having a hard time maintaining a jog. I tell Mark I need to walk and, nice guy he is, he walks with me.

The trail passes in and out of openings in the forest cover. There are occasionally open views of the starry sky over the distant hills to the right. I’m focused on where I put each step, not looking too much at the scenery. However, at one point I shine my lights to the right and see nothing -- and, swinging the beams downward, only more nothingness -- as it dawns on me that I am at the edge of a major drop off! It is a steep slope of more than 1000 feet into the Connemaugh Gorge. Another excuse to walk -- and to stay on the left side of the trail.

The trail steepens. My feet hurt like they have never hurt before -– the ball of my right foot feels like raw hamburger that has been generously seasoned with salt and vinegar. Mark is doing better than me, but clearly exhausted too. I have never in my life wished so fervently that I could just be done with something. Every part of my body is bone tired -- even my hair hurts. God, I want this to end. The trail gets steeper and steeper, seeming almost a scree slope of rocks in places. Here and there I hang onto trees to keep my footing -- my legs feel like they barely have the strength to brake my fall. Mark is slowly getting ahead of me. I think he is staying close enough to make sure he sees my light but, with only a mile or so left, has to smell the finish line. Finally, the marker for Mile 69 – not even a mile to go, as the last mile on this trail is blessedly shorter than a mile.

The steepness of the descent mellows a bit, giving my blister and quads a little relief. Mark waits for me and I try to jog a little. We hear people, then see light. The seventy mile marker appears, then the finish-line chute and the sound of hollering and cheering for us. We put the last steps of these 70.5 miles behind us just as the race clock ticks past 21 hours and 17 minutes. We’re done! At the end of chute is race director Rick Freeman with a smile and our finishers awards, beautiful miniature wood replicas of the trail’s 70th mile marker. I smile and thank him -- and confess to all in ear-shot my rock-solid conviction that the Laurel Highlands Ultra is undoubtedly the stupidest thing I have done in my entire life. I am pleased to have completed this race, but it is probably fair to say that, above all, I am relieved to be able to stop and sit down.

As we hobble toward a line of lawn chairs, Angus comes over to congratulate us. He has smoked the course. He finished more than six hours ago and has even had time for a nap. He is doing that normal, funny, post-marathon walk but otherwise looks good. I ask him about Stumpy and Carl -- were they picked up from an aid station or are they still running? I tell him about how much Stumpy was hurting early on. He hasn’t seen either of them, so we are hopeful. Not more than two minutes later, there is more whooping and hollering as another pair of lights come through the woods. Son of a gun, it is Stumpy and Carl together! This makes my day.

This is just the type of closing scene we had all hoped for. Mark, Stumpy, Carl, and I are reclined in lawn chairs, in a pretty park woodland, smiles on our tired faces. Angus and race volunteers run back and forth to bring us food, drink, blankets, jackets. For four of us -- me, Stumpy, Angus, and Mark -- this race represents the longest distance we have ever raced. We trained hard. We prepared well. And we all finished. As we sit recovering, feeling our exhausted muscles and joints begin to stiffen, we all know it is an accomplishment that each of us can remember with pride.

However, another major challenge is now in front of us. Stumpy, Angus, and I didn’t get a hotel room. How in the hell are we going to drive home after this?

The Ride Home

It’s just after sunrise, but already we’ve made someone’s day. In the darkness, up in Johnstown, we determined we would try to drive home -- we could stop to nap if needed. Now, after a couple hours on the road - Angus at the wheel, looking like he has toothpicks holding his eyelids -- me, talking to Angus in between narcolepsy-induced head-bobs -- Stumpy, sleeping like a baby, stretched out on the back floor of his minivan -- we decide we need gas and a java-and-potty stop. We pull off Rte 283 somewhere between Harrisburg and Lancaster, find a Turkey Hill quick-mart, and attempt to get out of the car. From a distance, you’d have thought we were a field trip from a geriatric home. We groan and delicately ease ourselves out the van doors, muscles spent from the run and stiffened from nearly three idle hours in the car. Slowly we make our way, three waddling figures, across the parking lot and into the store. The clerk looks at us with a foggily confused, early morning, “what-in-the-hell?”-expression on his face -- understandably wondering what these three smelly guys with muddy legs were doing shuffling around his store at 6:30 am.

We get our coffee, take care of essential bio-matters, and head out the door -- only to encounter the Grand Canyon. Yes, it was only little curb stepping down to the parking lot, but to three guys who just ran 70 miles, that three-inch step down may as well have been a thousand-foot chasm. We each try to step, and groan in pain, pulling our feet back up onto level ground. We stand there, laughing at ourselves, making more pathetic attempts to step down, moaning as we try, all while the clerk stares at us through the glass storefront, clearly with no idea why anybody would be behaving so strangely at such an early hour. Finally, we all make the leap down -- me using the old down-the-steps-backward trick -- and feebly waddle back to the van for the rest of the ride home.


As big an accomplishment as this race was, I was not in the best frame of mind about running this kind of distance after finishing. In fact, my dominant thoughts in the few days after were: 1) this was the stupidest thing I have ever done; and 2) never again.

The physical toll was part of it. Sunday was miserable. I was exhausted and terribly sore. Monday was unpleasant as I hobbled around the office, but surprisingly better than 24 hours earlier. Tuesday was only mildly uncomfortable, with the afternoon noticeably better than the morning -- I even jogged on the beach a little in Ocean City, NJ. Wednesday was not at all bad and by Thursday I seemed to have only lingering faint calf tightness.

I think the psychological part may have been as tough as the physical. This run was overwhelming at times, like nothing I have experienced before. Miles 26 to 29 were very, very hard. This range is always a challenge for me but in this case I went through that “zone” with the knowledge that I was tired had more than 40 miles to go. The last 5 miles were also tough -- both Mark and I remarked several times how we just wished it could be over right then. My pace really slowed in this stretch, but there was no longer a question of finishing -- we knew we could finish well within the cutoff even at a slow walk. I was surprised to find that the finish line was more of a relief than a joy -- none of the same adrenaline surge as finishing JFK or Bull Run, just a desire to rest and eat.

This run also, once again, convinced me how tough ultra runners are. Angus was truly amazing. This was not just his first race of more than 50K, but a 70 mile beast with significant climbs and lots of rocks, and he aced it. Stumpy and Carl showed real mental toughness in finishing this together. Stumpy was hurting by the 15 mile point, but was able to regroup, pick up the pace, and almost catch me. He's an animal (and I mean that in a most complimentary, TrailDawg way).

My obsessively detailed race plan served me well, in the end. I ran this race about as fast as I expected: a 21 hour goal, a 21:17 race. I had mentally broken the race into three parts -– nine miles of climbs, 50K in daylight, 50K in the dark – and set a target time between each aid station based on research I had done about the course. I ran each section but the last in less than, or just over, my goal time. However, I was not really satisfied with how I ran it. It was the first race in which I had not beaten my time goal. Only six of the seventy finishers did the last timed section slower than me (I was slow but also wasted too much time in the two aid stations on this stretch -– maybe 40 minutes). And, the last five miles felt like a death march, the fatigue reducing me almost entirely to walking.

What went right and what went wrong? My fueling/electrolyte/hydration plan went pretty well. I never felt either dehydrated or bloated (25 oz fluid and 1 S!Cap per hour). I never had any real stomach problems, no nausea. My caloric intake seemed adequate (250-300 cals per hour) -– I ended up being able to eat more solid food than I expected so ate fewer gels and, except for perhaps at the end, I never bonked. So, why was the end so hard? Of course, the stupid decision not to take care of my feet at the first sign of trouble was a major part of it. However, it is clear to me that fitness also was a factor, especially strength for the hills. Stumpy did fewer training miles than me before the race but spent serious time in the weight room working his legs. I probably did more miles, including hills, or at least what we call hills in our area. The result got him the same finish time as me. So, it looks like his idea to work leg weights is a smart one.

So, what have I learned from this run, with a few months to reflect and the pain just a memory? I said that I wanted to do the Laurel Highlands Ultra to test my limits of endurance, limits I felt I had approached but not really confronted in 50 mile races. Well, this run tested my limits for sure. It taught me that the Laurel Highlands 70, and any race over 50 miles, is a truly difficult challenge for someone of my modest running abilities. It was the stupidest thing I have ever done. So, of course, I’ve signed up for a 100 mile race.

Monday, November 5, 2007

I got schooled

I just figured out that I was "schooled" at the C&D half marathon yesterday and didn't know it at the time.

Within sight of the finish, less than a half-mile straight shot, another runner came up behind me, passed me, and gradually pulled away. I was trotting along steadily at my 8-minute mile goal pace and watched him go by, figuring "Who cares?" -- I was just doing this race as a long fast tempo run ahead of the JFK 50.

The guy finished maybe 20 seconds ahead of me -- and, as I learned from this morning's paper, finished in third place in my age group. He took my plaque!

Well, not really, of course... he earned it, I didn't. And truthfully, the way he was running, I'm not sure I could have beat him on the home stretch even if I went all out. Regardless, lesson learned: be competitive once in a while, at least when it counts!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Dedication and running (C&D Canal RunFest)

The C&D Canal Runfest today in Delaware City was a great reminder of the guts and grit of people who have been dedicated enough to train for and complete these races. The festival includes 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon races. All types ran... serious racers... experienced recreational racers looking for a challenging Sunday run... newer runners for whom these races represented one of their first forays into distance running... and a half-marathoner racing in a wheelchair.

Congratulations to all of the runners who completed their races at the canal races today. Special kudos to TrailDawgs Angus Repper (marathon winner!), Phil Nissen (marathon 2nd in age group), Greg Forgang (half-marathon 2nd in age group and 8th overall), Eva Van Stratum (half-marathon first in age group), and Stewart Dotts (half-marathon first in age group and 15th overall). Me? 1:49:42 half mary.

The race directors from Piranha Sports did a very nice job organizing an event that deserves more participants (the field was very small - not much more than 100 for all races). We lucked out with superb weather - a cool (50s), sunny, fall day with a bit of a breeze to make for shimmering red, orange, and yellow leaves in the trees. The course was pleasant, a reasonably fast and flat out-and-back, flat except for the old St. George's Bridge over the canal. The bridge has a pretty steep 100 ft rise, with a much more significant grade than the new bridge just to the west - the 5K and 10K runners got to turn back before it. After the bridge crossing, the half marathoners did a little over a mile on the dirt access road along the canal - the marathoners were able to enjoy around 14 miles on this nice soft surface. On the way back, the northbound bridge crossing threw a stiff headwind at us. On the way down, I greeted the wheelchair racer coming up, fighting hard to muscle his way up the steep bridge grade.

The wind was a blessing on the last part of the course - a tailwind! Between that, and the overall slight downhill, the last few miles were fun. But, it did seem to take forever to get to the finish, as runners could see it from a mile away on the straight road.

Aid was good, with water, gatorade, and abundant gels. The workers were nice - actually, more than nice, really enthusiastic - and included kids from a local police Explorer's group assisting the Piranha Sports folks. Good sandwiches and snacks at the end.

The positive energy of the runners made a great contrast with a few articles that have been discussed in online forums this week. I really shouldn't waste bandspace on this, but I can't resist a rant about it.

"How Oprah Ruined the Marathon" By Edward McClelland

The author asks: "Has this country's marathoning spirit been trampled by hordes of joggers whose only goal is to stagger across the finish line?"

Of course, soon after he tells us: "I had to give up marathoning just as everyone else was getting into it." Aww, poor guy. Why? "My bum knee..." he tells us (whaaaa, whaaa! I could have been a contendah!). But, his knee is good enough for him to struggle through a half marathon, we learn.

"Running With Slowpokes. How sluggish newbies ruined the marathon"

We really must to listen to this guy's point about all those damned slowpokes clogging up the races: "
I'm an avid runner with six marathons under my New Balance trainers." Wow, I wish I were that cool. Maybe he can give runners lectures on how to avoid chafing, too?

Maybe there needs to be a club for too-cool elitists like these guys. A club for people who are just too good to run with "those people," those slow runners, people who (despite a lack of speed or genes for athleticism) have enough dedication to get up off their derrieres four or five days a week - instead of eating chips and watching TV - to put in the miles to be able to complete a race of this distance, to do their personal best.

How nice it is that the majority of runners, and basically all trail runners, don't have the kind of snotty attitude of these guys. Now, back to my bag of Doritos and surfing the web...

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Why run?

Why do I run?

I guess a good way to begin my blog is on running... Why do I run? Keeping off weight. Staying healthy and in shape. Stress relief. Staying in touch with the outdoors after work days indoors. These are all good reasons.

For me, though, it really adds up to self-preservation. In 2003, I weighed 286 lbs. Even at almost 6' 3", that's big. Not good for the knees, ankles, or heart. I had high blood pressure. It finally struck me -- living like this as I got into my 40s could put me on the path for an early heart attack.

So, I decided to take up running. I started with walking, adding short jogs now and then to raise my heart rate. These developed into short jogs with walk breaks. I cut out empty carbs (sugars, non-whole-grain starches). I began to drop weight. This allowed me to run more, and further.

I set a goal of doing a 5K -- about 9 months later I did my first. A few weeks later I did my first 10K, which was the furthest I'd ever run. Next goal -- a half marathon. I did my first six months later and won the master's Clydesdale division (at an amazingly slow time). The roll has kept going since, with a marathon 7 months later, and eventually ultramarathons. I weigh a lot less - 75 pounds less. I run 30 to 40 miles most weeks. Still not especially quickly, but I get these miles on my feet.

Most days I look forward to getting out on a run. Many days, it is one of the highlights of the day. Some days, however, it would be easy to make an excuse and stay in. That's when I remind myself of one of my favorite lines from a post to the the internet mail listserver for ultramarathon running, the Ultralist: "It's not like I've ever knocked out some miles and said, 'hmmm, that sucked. I wish I wouldn't have done that'." I owe the author of that quote thanks for the motivation.