Monday, March 5, 2012

Defeat of Krampus - Umstead Trail Marathon 2012

Not having a race goal is strange. But this year at the Umstead Trail Marathon, I intentionally avoided making any real, or imaginary goals. I didn't need or want the pressure. Having flushed myself down the metaphorical toilet 3 weeks prior to the race, I didn't really know if I could even finish the race, much less meet any of my usual vague, nonsense goals. So, I resolved to simply wing it during the entire event. I hoped I had enough latent fitness after Uwharrie to finish, and perhaps even finish ahead of my bonktacular 5:49 finish time of the previous year. However, I tried to avoid making even that a real goal.

Not that I didn't want to finish. I really coveted the finisher's pint glass. More than that though, I coveted the finish itself, and a shot at redemption from last year's miserable race. But redemption isn't quite the right word. Revenge seemed more appropriate. The problem was that I was in no shape for finishing with a good time, much less for serving up a cold, heaping dish of revenge. But race day does funny things to your brain. Everything seems possible and wisdom is easily tossed aside.

The Tick Mob was out in force at Umstead.

Chatting with Josh (the barefoot) and Ash (the shoe-ru) in the starting corral, I heard the first whispers of my nemesis, Krampus.

"You have a chanssse at 4 hourssss.. Eazzzzy...." purred Krampus.

Nemesis is such a totally appropriate description of my relationship with Krampus. As Brick Top, a character from one of my all time favorite movies, defines it:

"Do you know what nemesis mean? A righteous infliction of retribution, manifested by an appropriate agent."

Yes, Krampus is truly a righteous infliction of retribution. He's the payback for all my stupid decisions, in both training and racing. He's the justified manifestation of the regular cramps and injury I inflict upon myself through my own stubborn stupidity. He is my running nemesis.

In the excitement of the moment in the starting corral, under the seductive influence of Krampus' slippery logic, I broke down, and verbally committed to a finish "somewhere between 4 and 5 hours."

So, when the thought of a sub-4 hour finish slithered through my endorphin soaked brain in the starting corral, I had two reactions. First, I did the quick mental calculations of what the 10-10-6.2 splits would need to be to achieve a 4 hour finish. Then, as the cold fear of that math swept through me, I quickly denied that I had done such a calculation. But I couldn't flush the thought out of my mind, even though I knew attempting a 4 hour marathon in Umstead in my state of fitness would be an utter disaster. The battle against Krampus had begun.

Miles 1 to 10 - Bread from Stones
Trotting away from the starting line, I buried the thoughts of an impossible 4 hour finish in the back of my mind and just concentrated on the joy of the moment. Umstead is a special race and I try to appreciate that fact, even though this is only my second year. The Godivans seems to have mastered the art of balancing organization, chaos, and atmosphere. Add that to the tough and beautiful Umstead course, seemingly littered with awesome volunteers, and you have a very special race indeed. I'm not the only one who feels this way either. Umstead Marathon is just magical and I can't describe exactly why. It's something you have to experience to appreciate. But once it grabs you, be prepared to return year after year for a feast of "bread from stones".

I'll be honest. The first 10 miles of Umstead are my absolute favorite. The mixture of bridal path and single track trail is ridiculously fun. Last year I blazed through those 10 miles because I intended to drop from the race after 15 miles. This year I blazed through those same miles because I couldn't help myself. The real difference this year is that I never felt like I was pushing the pace. I just relaxed and flowed along the trail at the pace my body seemed to dictate. Of course at Umstead, that means I was going too fast.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnstone.
Entering the Company Mill single track trail, I settled into what I thought was a decent pace. Amazingly, Ash, my running companion to that point, shot down the trail like an antelope and was out of sight in a couple of minutes. He would go on to his own excellent sub-4 hour finish. But for that moment, I could only envy the way he effortlessly slide through the trail traffic and right out of sight.

After what seemed like only a few minutes I found myself on the "Devil's Spine", successfully hopping past the "Tree of Death". Moments later, after a brief, but steep climb I hit the first aid station. AC and Harold Hill were both there jeering and cheering me on. "You can still catch the leaders!" taunted AC. "Come on, let's go, Slippers!" cheered Harold. Nothing like some good natured smack talking from guys you know to put a smile on your face.

I cruised down the hill and entered the Sycamore single track trail, immediately striking up a conversation with Shannen McGinness, who I discovered was running his very first marathon. And I thought I was crazy for accidentally running Umstead as my first marathon. To intentionally run Umstead as your first is whole new level of madness! My kind of guy apparently. Shannen and I ran together on and off again all the way out to about mile 13. He went on to a solid 5 hour finish for his first marathon. Good on ya, Shannen! Tip a pint for me!

Leaving the second aid station, the rain started coming down pretty hard. By the time I started down the second half of Sycamore, the trail was one giant mud puddle. For a few brief minutes I tried to keep my RunAmocs dry, but inevitably I slipped into a puddle and soaked them both. After that, I just splashed down the trail like some innocent, grinning 5 year old kid. Awesome! That was my favorite mile of the entire race.

Leaving the single track was kind of a sad moment. I had managed to catch up to Bob Sites, who was running the marathon as a training run in preparation for the Umstead 100 miler (true insanity!) and we chatted about strategy and smart running at Umstead. That conversation probably saved me from some very stupid running later on as I was already on pace for a finish of a bit over 4 hours. I needed to slow down and to start walking some of the steeper hills.

Running past the 10 mile marker, I was just a handfull of minutes off of my starting line calculations for a 4 hour finish.

"Exxxxcellent!!" hissed Krampus. "Pussshhh harder..."

"I'm here to have fun, not get hurt. Go bother someone else!" I pleaded.

"Weaknessss!" sniffed Krampus.

Krampus knows me. I pushed harder.

Miles 10 to 18 - The Training Will Save You
Leaving the aid station just past the 10 mile point, I was pushing a bit harder than I wanted, but still felt relaxed. I had hooked up with Shannen again and we gabbed away the next few miles and entertained ourselves by counting off the top placed runners passing us on their way back out the Turkey Creek trail. Once I hit the hills on the Northern end of Turkey Creek Trail, I decided that I wouldn't look at my watch again. Seeing the time at the 10 mile mark had caused me to surge a bit and I knew I would pay the price for that later.

Unfortunately, as I left the aid station at the race midpoint, I couldn't resist glancing quickly at my watch. I was still only a handful of minutes off of a 4 hour marathon pace.

"Don't worry. The training will ssssave you. Pushhh harder...." coaxed Krampus.

"Hell yeah! I have trained hard!" I thought.

I had actually trained quite a bit for Umstead this year. I had badly overtrained in fact, but I felt good, so no need to let that inconvenient fact enter my mind. I was still feeling very fresh after 13+ miles, so I pushed the pace again.

For anyone who knows Turkey Creek Trail, pushing through the Northern end of that trail is just plain stupid. It's actually the hardest part of the entire Umstead Marathon course (in my opinion), and you have to do it twice (out and then back).

But apparently, my training did indeed help me. I pushed through to the aid station past mile 15 and then cranked back down Turkey Creek towards the race mid point aid station, now at mile 17.3 on my journey towards the finish.

Last year, after deciding to continue running instead of quitting  at mile 15, as was my pre-race plan, I barely made it to the 17 mile aid station before my stomach cramped, and I bonked hard. This year, I blew through feeling great. A bit of water and a little snack and I was happily on my way. In fact, I cruised right through the remaining hills and onto the flat, two-bridges section separating the northern portion of Turkey Creek trail from the southern section.

It was there, on the lone flat section of the entire marathon, that my over enthusiastic pushing caught up with me.

I heard the clatter of cloven hooves skittering along the trail behind me.

"I'm doing it Krampus!" I breathed heavily. "I'm pushing, and it's working!" I gushed.

Krampus didn't respond at all. He simply took one scaly claw and jabbed it deeply into the center of my right calf.

"Son of a ...!!!!" I howled. "You back stabbing piece of ..!!!!"

 But just as quickly as he had appeared, Krampus vanished with a cackle. I thought I heard him hiss "Hubrisssss!!!!" as he disappeared.

Miles 18 to 20 - My Kingdom for a Horse
I immediately slowed. Something felt really tight and painful in the center of my calf. Not a cramp, but something more sharp, and scary. Strangely enough, once I slowed, the pain went away completely. But as soon as I pushed the pace, it returned with a searing vengeance. So, I trotted slowly back toward the 20 mile aid station feeling very sorry for myself. A few guys passed me and I grunted to one of them about how glad I would be to get off this f'n trail.

"Easy slope up to the 20 mile aid station from here!" he encouraged me.

I wanted to chuck a rock at the back of his head as he sped away from me up the "easy slope" that seemed to be sucking the life from my very bones.

I ground into the 20 mile aid station feeling depressed and tired. Fortunately, this aid station had Oreos, orange slices, and bananas. I gobbled down an Orea, two giant orange slices, and a big chunk of banana and continued my plodding.

Miles 20 to 26.2 - Coming Full Circle
Within a couple of minutes, my mood improved. I must have been really low on blood sugar, because by the time I made it to mile 21 I was feeling great. AC cruised up on his support bike and offered up anything he was carrying, along with some stuff he really didn't have. Unfortunately, I only wanted the shot of booze he jokingly offered me since my stomach was already full of aid station goodies. I was feeling tired, but overall my legs were working well. I still couldn't push the pace without feeling the strange calf pain, but that no longer bothered me. My mental funk had cleared and I was running happy again. Pace didn't matter. Finish time didn't matter. I just wanted to enjoy my remaining miles through Umstead. I felt a bit guilty about the pouting, pity party I had held for myself back on the end of Turkey Creek. I decided to enjoy every last step of the race to make up for that bit of childish stupidity.

Making it up the big hill to the Cedar Ridge aid station, I was very happy to see that the volunteer crew had poured dozens of cups of flat Coke. I immediately downed two cups. Near the end of a marathon, flat Coke is nectar of the gods! Not that I'm a god, but I will gladly drink their nectar.

I was feeling so good and relaxed about the race, that I actually hung out at the aid station for a minute or so discussing my crazy bedroom slippers. People are always asking me about the RunAmocs, and I never really get tired of talking about them, even during the final miles of a marathon. Anytime I can plant the little seed in someone's head that running isn't all about shoes, I take the time to do it. Running is about you. Not your shoes. If a broken down, middle aged guy like me can run marathons in moccasins, then anyone can run a marathon, and probably without big motion controlled, orthotic filled, cushion shoes.

After the big down and up of the Cedar Ridge trail, I grabbed one more cup of Coke from the aid station, thanked all the volunteers, and took off for the final two miles.

My broken down training and running partner, Ryan, rolled up on his volunteer bike at just that moment and rode with me the next half mile or so. Ryan made me laugh and generally just encouraged me, which really took my mind off the stiffness and pain that was creeping into my legs. He turned back to the course to go help out some other runners just as I approached Cemetary Hill. Strangely, I never slowed down and managed to run all the way to the top of Cemetary Hill, walking only about 20 steps to catch my breath, before pushing hard for the finish.

If my calf was hurting, I didn't notice in the last mile. I pushed hard because I felt great, and crossed the line feeling strong in 4:31. I ran directly into the arms of my wife and two young sons, feeling happy and fully redeemed.

Thanks Umstead. I'll be back again next year.

Epilogue - Defeat of Krampus
Defeat? Didn't Krampus trick me into nearly bonking and injuring myself? Very true. But I've finally realized something about my nemesis. Krampus is me. He's just the irrational, exuberant, self destructive, and perhaps, slightly demented part that pushes me beyond my own limits. In fact, I think Krampus is a part of all runners.

Maybe I haven't truly defeated Krampus. Maybe defeat is not even the right idea. But I do think I have at least come to terms with that side of myself. It's taken over 2 years, but perhaps I have finally tamed Krampus, and I can now stop trying to redeem my past failures and simply enjoy running.