19 March 2011 - NJ Ultra Festival – Long Valley, NJ – NJTrailseries.com
Running starts with one step.
Train your body slowly.
Build wisdom with every mile.
Or bite off more than you can chew.
Most of all...
Be grateful of every step you can take.
The thing is, I don’t consider myself an athlete. I don't run for fitness and I don't compete in races to win.
Having said that, I have always loved getting from one place to another under my own power. Even as a kid, before the running craze of the 70's, I would walk everywhere. I'm not even sure that my parents knew that I was out walking to the next city when they thought I was just outside playing. I had epic days, by myself, getting out too far and then mentally pushing myself to get home in time for dinner. I suspect these early experiences are the true beginning of my ultra-run story.
As a teen, I ran a bit. Mostly because my father bought into the jogging craze and I wanted to impress him. I never ran far. Maybe 6 or 7 miles max. Not far, but far enough to get a feel for endurance. Then I dropped it. I dropped running for other interests that come into a young mans life like girls, cigarettes and other fringe activities. I still kept walking though. I enjoyed the headspace it provided so much that I deferred my driving license until university. Even then, since I had no car, I continued walking. The "first" college I tried was 10 miles from home. Most days, I walked. When I quit college to work in a warehouse and study art, I got a car and stopped walking. More cigarettes and fringe activities ensued.
A hard year of warehouse work will teach you the value of higher education, fast. What it won't teach is the value of living healthy.
But, who cares when you are in your invincible 20's. I was fortunate beyond my knowledge to have pulled myself from the warehouse back to university. I blew through a five-year Architecture program in three. Going summers and working hard.
No going back to the warehouse for me. Needless to say, three years of two-pack a day study left me, well, overweight and breathless. Fortunately, still in my upper 20's, I found bike racing. It started when, desperate to get in some sort of shape, I got my old clunker bike and started riding Prospect Park. After a few months of heavy breathing, I was sort of able to hang in the back of the pace line of the local club racers. This was during the time of the LeMonde / Fignon era of the TDF. The sport was just starting to be broadcast on TV and I got interested in trying a race. My first catIV race was abysmal. I was dropped in the first mile. Eventually I learned to hang in the lifeline of the peloton and over the next several years, worked myself into a decent mid-pack racer. The problem was, I often enjoyed the long training more than the actual racing. I never really found a home in the peloton, had a few nasty race crashes, which eventually led me away from the sport. I still rode, but not competitively. The good news was that I dropped weight, quit smoking and got really healthy.
When my wife and I moved from the city to the suburbs, cycling actually got harder for me. At that point, I was trying to build my career, time was getting shorter and training less frequent. Then we started our family and exercise stopped for me. For about 12 years, I was entirely focused on my career and my family. Maybe more like 15 years.
There were sporadic runs and bouts of training. But, nothing to write home about. My weight steadily went back up. Slowly but surely I ballooned and peaked at about 205. My overall health was not good either.
During all of this, running; especially distance running was gaining popularity and my attention.
Every year I would watch the NY Marathon. As a resident of the city, I always wondered if I could ever get fit enough to run it. Like many things, I wondered but never really did anything about it. As years went by, that race swelled to a size that became somewhat unappealing to me. A nice to watch on TV excuse was in the making. Still, there was this yearning. I had a desire to traverse distance. I wanted to return to that endurance headspace from my past experience.
So June 2010, at 205 pounds; I decided to start running again. I bought the C25K app for my iPod, dusted off my old shoes and went outdoors. That first run was horrible. The program starts you off with a run / walk program, which in the beginning is more walking than running. The idea is that over 12 weeks you will be able to run 5k non- stop. I barely made it through the first day. Nonetheless, I soldiered on knowing that I needed to get back to the place where I would be running for a while without stopping to walk. That would take me back to a place of fitness and perhaps a headspace that I remembered in my youth. 12 weeks later, after really suffering and working hard, I ran 30 minutes without stopping.
Now what. What's next? I am fortunate to live next to the Watchung reservation. It is a wonderful wooded preserve full of trails both bridal and single-track hiking. I decided to try running there one summer evening. From my house to the reservation there is a short 1mile stretch of road before you are fully on the trails. From there, you can trail run various loops ranging from 1 to 10 miles. No cars, rolling terrain, old growth woods; what an amenity. Little did I know, I was becoming a trail runner. I ran those trails for most of August, and started itching for more. That's when I discovered NJ Trail Series.
I think I was searching the web for places to trail run when I stumbled upon it. NJ Trail series, "where running is not measured in time but in friends and beer" or something to that effect. Friends and beer? Sounded perfect for me and coincidentally there was a 5k trail race coming up soon. The course description said "very run-able". Perfect, I thought. I'm going to try it. This was before I got to know NJ Trail series race director Rick McNulty. What I found out about Rick after "running" this race besides his unbridled passion for beer, is that run-able is a relative and debatable term. I also found out that run-able in a trail race is very different than it is on the road.
This first 5K race was unbelievably difficult for me. The terrain was very technical with steep, rocky descents and even steeper and rockier climbs. Certain parts were hike-able at best for me but somehow, I was completely hooked. The race I entered was part of a series of events on the same general course that grew increasingly longer over 4 races and culminated with a half-marathon option. I ran each race increasing my distance each time and was somehow able to complete the half-marathon. Completed, but just barely.
During these 4 races, I started to get to know some of the regular runners. Most notably, Rob and Laurie. Rob and Laurie are a young married couple who run together. It just so happens that our pace is fairly similar. On any given day, one of us will be in front but it changes every time. I didn't know this at the time we met but they were fairly new to trail running too. We just got to talking during races and have been kind of sticking together ever since.
Every NJTS race, I'd see Rob and Laurie. We'd kid about who was going to “win” this time, run the race and share some laughs after. At some point, I think Rob told me about the NJ Trail + Ultra runners group. They are an informal group that does weekend runs on the trails around NJ. I found out they ran a lot at Watchung, my backyard. The group has a web forum called Njtrailrunning.com. The forum posts weekly group runs with an “all runners welcome / no runners dropped” policy. Sounded good. I also discovered while stalking the forum over the next few weeks that these people seemed really fun and welcoming. Over these weeks, I got to know (virtually) the group of guys and girls who seemed to share the same love for wooded distance running that I had. I say virtually because they all used screen names like silentstorm, RNR, tom7, mountain goat, dp, RPMcMurphy and so on. Some of these folks were “regular” runners like me. Others had resumes and were doing, or planning to do big distances. Big like 100 miles big. Some of the posts I read were simply trash talk. Or fish tales like who got the biggest blister or lost the most toenails in the last ultra. The posts that most interested me were the ones from runners who joined the group for the first time. They always talked about how great the experience was for them and what a great group it was. So, one Sunday in the beginning of the winter, I decided to give the group a try.
It was the kind of slushy, rainy snow day that really makes you want to stay inside but, with a group run on the calendar; I was determined to go out. I ran from my house to the meeting spot to get in some warm-up miles before meeting the " big kids" at the trailhead. When I got there I met tom7 (Tom) and mountaingoat (Len). They both said hello, decided to run the white trail, and off we went. I did my best to keep up. I probably pushed it a bit to hard and eventually was dropped on one of the bigger climbs. I ran on my own for the next few miles and figured I would be alone until I got home. To my surprise, as
I rounded one of the bends in the trail; there were Tom and Len, waiting for me. That hooked me. Both to the group and to the attitude of trail runners in general.
I ran with the group for the following weeks, getting to know other great members like Chris and Jason, Jules, Sean and of course Rob and
Laurie. During these runs, the conversation increasingly turned towards the ultra.
There are two early season ultra runs put on by Rick and Jen McNulty and the
NJTrailseries. The Watchung Winter Ultra is a Marathon and 50k trail race held in early January. The NJ Ultra Festival is a Marathon, 50k, 50mile, 100k, 100mile event in March. In early winter, everyone was focused on Watchung. Everyone but me that is. The race was being held on my daughter’s birthday. As much as I was interested in giving a try, love for family told me to respectfully decline this one.
During the weeks leading up to Watchung, I continued increasing my run distance. I was getting stronger, with better endurance with every step. Then, about two weeks before the race, it snowed. A lot. I went for a solo run at Watchung with about 18 inches of fresh snow covering the trail. It took me about 2 hours to go 4 miles. I took some photos of the trail during this run went home and posted to the forum. The photos I posted caused a frenzied response. This race was going to be epic. Since I couldn't run it, I did the next best thing. I went over early, helped a bit with parking the runners, watched the start and then went to my daughter’s birthday party. After the party, I was able to go back and see a few of the later finishers and help take out the trash. I went home with a real hunger to finally try running some real distance. The question was how far should I go.
Or maybe how far could I go.
By this time, Rob and Laurie were committed to the 50 mile at the NJ
Ultra Festival. Others in the group were doing 100 miles. I was thinking about trying the Marathon or the 50k. The winter got colder. The snow got deeper. We did epic runs together through deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. We started doing road runs because the group was trying to get distance in their legs. I was still not committed to a distance but tagged along on the longer runs. I would peel of and head home alone when things got too far for me with my longest run topping out at 19 miles.
It felt good to run that far. It was painful, but good. I was getting stronger. My endurance was increasing. I started thinking about, and talking about trying to run the 50k. This was early February. The Ultra Festival is mid-March. Six weeks away and I still hadn't signed up for anything.
While this was going on, my trail running comrades Rob and Laurie were solidifying plans to move away to Boulder. Then it happened. In a semi-committed way typical of my non-committed attitude to completing an ultra-distance run, I posted some nonsense to Facebook about what to do at the Ultra. Within seconds, a reply popped up from Laurie. "Run the 50 mile Steve" she wrote "it will be fun." "We can trek it together. " "WHAT!?!" I thought. "She must be kidding. " "She must not know I can't go that far. " " I can't go that far. " " Well it would be nice to start with them and the 50k I was planning to try doesn't start till an hour later. It's only a few bucks more. I could sign up for the 50 mile. That way I can do an epic run with Rob and Laurie before they move. I can always drop out after the Marathon or the 50k. A DNF is not too bad after all. Better than DNS I always say. " 24 hours later, I was signed up for the 50 mile event. I had no idea what I had just done to myself.
The next weeks, I stuck to my schedule. I didn't push too hard but didn't slack either. My long runs were long but not too long that I could get injured. I stuck to my winter walking schedule too. Getting off the train a stop early on my way home from work and walking to my car. I started using these walks for visualization. I started visualizing completing the whole thing. Completing all 50 miles. In fact, every time my feet were in motion, I visualized completing the whole thing. This was despite my longest run to date of 19 miles. My sub-conscious was dealing with this part through anxiety. My ego was wrestling with the possibility of a DNF.
A few things happened about three weeks before race day. The first was that the course sequence changed. Originally, we were running what amounted to two 25-mile loops. One loop on the long side of the "T" shaped course and one loop of the short side then repeat for the full 50. The change had us running two loops on the long side followed by two on the short. This change messed with my visualization for a few days. I knew the course and had spent a few weeks picturing it in my mind. I didn't panic but it did cause me a bit of anxiety for the few days it took me to readjust. The second thing happened about three days before the race. I started feeling a cold coming on. My throat was sore. I was slightly feverish, and generally not feeling well. I wondered if it was somehow psychosomatic. Was my mind playing tricks with my body? I decided to consider it a gravity issue and kept on with my mental preparation.
I took the day before the race off work, packed my gear, checked it about 10 times and headed over to the venue to volunteer in prepping dinner and registration for the 300 other runners coming from all over the place for this event.
The volunteer group was primarily made up of runners from the group I was running with on weekends. We made ourselves busy helping Rick and
Jen stuff bags, organize bags, and distribute bags to runners as they filed in to register. Rob and Len did the cooking while the rest of us dealt with the bags. We all then shared a little pasta meal together, had a few nervous jokes and then headed off early to our hotel, tent, car or house depending on where we were trying to sleep. I headed home, as I wanted to sleep in my own bed at the good advice of my wife.
The 50-mile race start was 6AM. I got home around seven, ate again, went for a short walk to clear my head and went to bed. It was probably 11 before I fell asleep. I tossed and turned in a restless semi-slumber before getting up at 3:30 to eat, get ready and go. I arrived at 5AM, an hour after the 100-mile start and an hour before mine. I did the normal pre-race stuff. Got my gear ready, checked everything a hundred times, went outside to get my satellites and walked over to toe the line. The weather originally called for rain but somehow turned into a clear morning warm enough to start in shorts.
The moon was full, bright and close. I was a bundle of nerves but ready to get this thing underway. Headlamp on, Rob and Laurie close by, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 go. We were off!
We had a plan or, I should say; Rob and Laurie had a plan, which I followed because I really didn't have a plan. We were going to go at this running 11 to 12 minute pace with tenth mile walking breaks every 4 miles to take on gu and food. The nice thing about the "T" shaped out and back course was that you see other runners all the time. It allows you to spectate and participate at the same time.
The first two miles went by very fast. It was then that we started seeing headlamps coming our way. The hundred mile racers who had started two hours before us were returning from their first loop. It was great to see and I think they shared in the excitement. Tom was running strong and one of the first recognizable faces in the dark.
We then started seeing other members of the NJ Trail runners. Chris, Jason, Sean, Len and Jules. All were looking strong and in good spirits. We shared high-fives as we passed on that first leg in the dark. The sun started to rise shortly after seeing our guys. The warmth felt good as we settled into our plan. 4 miles on pace, maybe even a bit fast, walk for a GU and back to running. I really had to pee at the first aid station. It took a while for the port-o-John to open up so I lost some time there. I told the others to go ahead and was prepared for a long catch-up after. About a half mile down the trail, I saw Laurie coming towards me. At first I thought something might be wrong but she just smiled and said it was too early to separate. That's the kind of people Laurie and Rob are. They are great running comrades. Trail running is like this in general, where the large majority of it's participants are as concerned with the shared experience as they are with their individual goals. Laurie and I ran tempo for the next few miles to catch Rob who was waiting for us at the turn around. We had a relatively easy run back to the end of loop one except for Laurie’s blazing surge at around mile 15. I think she smelled real food at the main aid station. We al re-fueled, shed some layers, and head back out for loop two.
Rob started having nausea issues around mile 20. He dropped off the pace to sort things out alone for a while. I thought this was smart of him as this distance is hard enough to manage when you are feeling well. I can’t imagine it with an upset stomach. It was really hard for Laurie to leave her husband behind like that. But, she pressed on with me at his request. We talked about it being the right thing to do for the next few miles and stuck with the plan. Laurie congratulated me for running my first Marathon at 26.2. I smiled, looked at my watch 5h 30m and pressed on into the unknown.
The next few miles were tough. We had to talk our way from tree to tree for a little while. Once we saw that we were within two miles of completing the second loop, we were motivated to get to the aid station, so it felt like we had pushed through that wall. By the time we were within site of mile 32 aid, my left IT band was hurting and so was my left ankle. Laurie and I decided this would be a good time for a bit longer aid stop. She wanted to change socks. I just wanted real food and to get my head sorted for the last two loops on the short side of the course. 18 miles to go.
Then, as if by magic, I started hearing a familiar voice shouting, "Go
Steve, Go Steve!!!" it was my wife and kids who had just arrived for a surprise visit! I almost started crying as I saw them running from the car towards the aid station. I kept things together despite this most unexpected surprise. I didn't ask her to come out to the race.
Our weekends are busy enough without having to burden her with waiting around the finish line for hours just to support me for a few minutes. I didn't ask but, it sure was great to see her and my kids. I let my daughter help mix my next food bottle; I ate a bit and told Laurie I would walk until she caught up to me. Rob rolled in during that time to and was looking much better. I made my way up and out of the aid station.
Two loops to go. 18 miles left. Spirits high, I knew I was going to finish. I walked about a half mile. Still no Laurie. Another quarter mile, where was she? I figured she was taking her time at aid and checking in with Rob so I started jogging slowly with the hope she would catch up. About a mile later she caught up with Rob not too far behind. Things were getting really difficult now but we pressed on with more frequent short walking breaks every few miles Rob was still back a bit running his own race. Laurie and I made it about 40 miles together when I decided to press on alone. We essentially came in to the last aid stop together and I told her this was going to be a "gas and go" stop for me. I will never forget those 40 miles and am forever grateful for the collective endurance we shared. At a certain point at these distances, you have to run your own race. We parted ways and I was on my own for the last loop. 9 miles to go, and the flattest mountain I've ever climbed.
That last loop seemed to take forever. Especially going out to the turn-around. By this point everything hurt. The pain on my right side had finally caught up to my left. This actually made running a bit easier (if you could call my now slow shuffle running at all). I was running about a mile at a time with a short walk between. After what seemed like a lifetime, I arrived at the turnaround. This felt great beyond words. Waves of emotion were starting to hit me. I had 4 miles to go.
I saw Tom after I hit the turn around. He was on his hundred-mile quest with about 36 to go. He had been looking good all day and was slowly reeling me in. Not bad for a two hour head start. The first chink I noticed in his armor was when he asked, "Where's the bloody turn-around. " I replied "about a half-mile" as we passed each other.
I was glad he was doing so well in the second half of his adventure.
He eventually caught me at my last aid station with about three miles to go. I had to make a pit stop so he got a bit ahead of me. I caught up to him because he dropped one of his gloves. I could then see the reality of the effort he was putting in as he slowly and painfully bent down to pick it up. We ran together for a short bit. He knew I was on my last loop and mentioned that I could run ahead of him to the finish. I laughed at the absurdity of that statement as he pulled away from me.
It was really a nice closure to my day to be able to share a small bit of the run with Tom. He was the first of the trail running group folks I met in the beginning of the winter and a top-notch guy.
When I finally arrived at the turn out to the finish, I felt really good. Don't get me wrong, I was in a lot of pain but I knew I had about 2 miles and 150 feet of climbing to finish my day. I shuffled my way up the hill making my way through almost overwhelming clouds of emotion, pain and joy. Up through the farm past the chicken coop next to the finish and rounding the last corner for the final 300 thankfully downhill yards to my finish line.
With about 200 yards to go, I saw Tom gearing up to go back out. He looked up, smiled and said "congrats." I then heard Rick yelling to me in his booming race director voice. "You're finishing?" he said with a note of sarcasm in his tone. "No, I think you have another lap to do" he said with a smile. I think I asked him if he could read sign language as I had a couple of fingers wagging at him jokingly but close to my chest so the kids hanging around couldn't see. "12 hours
18 minutes" Rick said as I crossed the line. "Good job" he said, "give me your hand." We shook hands. Then Jen, Rick’s wife and co-race director came over and said to me what she said to all the runners coming in that day. "When you are ready to tell me what you need, come tell me and we will help you." That statement sums up Rick and Jen and the njtrailseries races they run. They are unassuming. They don't get in your face with marketing or hype. They love trail running and the trail running community. It shows in the solid events they put on.
I decompressed, went inside, sat in a chair and called my wife to tell her I had finished. I then changed into dry, warm clothes. By the time I returned from changing, Laurie had finished and was inside getting warm. We exchanged congratulations and began the wait for Rob. It was dark when we heard Rob was coming to the line. Then, out of the darkness, Rob came to finish. It was not pretty. Rob was hurting but it was pretty fantastic to see him finish his event. Rob had trained the hardest of the three of us, wanted this race more than any of us and deserved this finish most of all. I am glad he didn't stop. He could have. Most would have under the circumstances he experienced. He didn't, and I deeply respect him for that.
I stuck around to watch Jessi Kennedy finish her 100 in first place overall. She came in under 17 hours looking as fresh as when she started. Unbelievable feat. I'm glad I stayed to see that. I wished Tom well when he headed out into the darkness with 18 miles to go. I then headed to my car to go home and find a place to lie down. I got home, had a shower, nursed my aching and blistered feet ate and went to bed.
When I woke after a few hours of uncomfortable and sore sleep, I talked a bit with my daughter who was up early too. She asked if I finished the race. She hugged me when I said I did and ran to her room. She came back with a rubber medallion with the words "Great Job" inscribed on it. "Here" she said "I got this in gymnastics for something but, now I want you to have it." "We can share it" I replied as I put it around my neck. "Ok, but you keep it " she said, "to remember." "Oh, I'll never forget."
I spent the day nursing my sore body, my aching and blistered feet and eating just about everything in sight. The week following was tough.
While my muscle soreness went away quickly, my blisters and tendons took quite a bit longer to recover. It has now been ten days and I am just getting back to normal.
I learned quite a bit by doing this event. The obvious bits are easy.
I can endure a lot more pain than I ever thought. I can persist and have the mental toughness that it takes to go this distance on relatively little training. What I didn't realize until after completing this is that the actual race is the shortest part of the experience. The preparation probably goes all the way back to my youth. Walking from city to city. Training my mind to get to the right headspace.
Visualizing positive outcome. All of those things which take a lifetime to build and a certain amount of maturity to hone to useable tools all added up to my ability to finish this event. I now understand the parts of me that make the distance runner and the parts of me that fight it. I now know I can overcome the parts of me that fight it and hope to carry that knowledge into other aspects of my life.
The question now is what's next. Is it to try to improve my time at this distance? Or is it to try to go even farther?
Deep inside, I know the answer. But for now, I'm not saying a word.