Monday, April 30, 2012

Me : Slow, Lost Burro - Owl's Roost Rumble Trail Half Marathon

For the past couple of years, I've been plodding through the woods of North Carolina like a slow, lost burro. Stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that I stink at running trails. I've been slow (Umstead). I've been nearly lost (Uwharrie). And I've been stubborn enough to run with a sinus infection (Philosopher's Way), and stupid enough to enjoy the experience (well, the running part, not the infection part).

Not that I enjoy being a slow, trail plodding, burro. On the contrary, I would love to be one of those graceful, effortless, trail antelopes who populate the small patch of the Serengeti that is the 40-45 year old master's category. Alas, I am not (I'm also too old to be a laddie. Sorry, I'm a sucker for puns).

Only two things keep me firmly stuck in the slow end of the trail racing speed Bell curve: talent and fear. Talent, of the lack thereof, I can't really do much about. I'm about as skillful as I can get on the trail, and I still fall down occasionally. Fear is the tricky one. My left knee is a ticking time bomb. After two surgeries to remove most of my cartilage, and a good chunk of my meniscus, I'm left with a joint that clatters like a bone xylophone, if I pound too hard when I run. I'm not fond of any of the tunes that I can play with my knee, so I try to keep it gentle. Then there are the three other surgeries to repair my anterior cruciate ligament and my medial cruciate ligament. I won't bore you with the stupidity that led to those wonderful visits to the Duke University Medical Center. Suffice it to say, my knee is in pretty bad shape.

So, how do you run fast if you are both untalented, and scared witless? Hell if I know. I just run for fun.

I ran Owl's Roost Rumble last year, knowing nothing about the race. This year, I was actually excited to return. Turns out, Owl's Roost is a really great race! The course is challenging enough for seasoned trail runners, and accessible enough for those attempting their first trail half marathon. This combination allows a great mixture of runners to toe the line the morning of the race, and a great atmosphere at the finish.

This year, I carpooled with Bob Sites, a recent Umstead 100 (yes, miles!) Endurance Run finisher and overall cool, old dude. I can call him old, because he's older than me (by 17 years). And faster than me. Way faster.

Bob and I talked race strategy in the car on the way to the race. I wanted desperately to finish in under 2 hours. I've been trying to convert my road speed (where I can run a half in under 2 hours) into trail speed for nearly 2 years, but have failed miserably at mustering 9:00 minute pace for any real distance on trails. Bob said he planned to finish somewhere in the low 1:5x range and would go out running 8:30-8:45 min/mile pace for the first couple of miles, and then settle into a slower pace for his anticipated finish time. This seemed like a good springboard plan for me. I could trail Bob for the first 5 miles or so, then fall off and stroll in for an easy sub-2 hour finish. There were only two problems with this plan. Bob is a maniac. And I am stupid.

Race Miles 1 to 5 - Me versus Greensboro
The first mile or so is mostly downhill, so I felt no pressure when trotting along behind Bob. Adrenaline and a downhill start can do funny things to your sense of pacing. But I trusted Bob. He's an old hand at trail running and has more miles (and years) under his belt than any other 3 runners combined. So, when we passed the 1 mile marker in 7:23, I was a bit confused. And concerned.

"Bob, did you see the pace we were running when we passed the 1 mile marker?" I wheezed.

"Yeah, we are movin'! Probably a little too fast" Bob exclaimed.

"I'm sure we are gonna pay for that later in the race" I gasped. "Probably me more than you!"

I thought I heard Bob chuckle up ahead of me.

Passing the 2 mile marker, I noticed that we had indeed slowed down. Only 7:45 for that mile. My adrenaline and my blood glycogen were circling the proverbial drain.

So it was, that while fumbling with my camera, I found myself suddenly airborne, a primate plane hovering momentarily above a trail veined with gnarled roots. I had time for 2 thoughts. "Oh crap!" and "Maybe I'll miss..."

Microseconds later, Greensboro experienced the mighty impact of my 140 pound frame, focused sharply through my left shoulder. Take that Owl's Roost Trail!

Bob never looked back, and I never saw him again.

Race Miles 5 to 9 - Me versus Me
Stumbling off Owl's Roost trail I grabbed a water and a Gatorade at the first aid station. I hate Gatorade! It does awful, unspeakable things to my guts during races, but I was desperate. I had gone out way too fast and was in danger of a complete and total bonk after only 5 miles. I choked down the Gatorade, chased it with the water, and then opened one of the two Honey Stinger gels I had stashed in my pocket "just in case." I struggled to keep even a 10 minute pace for the next mile as I entered the Nat Greene Trail. My legs felt dead and my feet felt like they had been dipped in molten lead. Running sucked. This race sucked! I sucked!

And then, I gave up. I decided that the time goal was stupid and that I should just run the rest of the race for fun. As one of my trail running friends, Brandy, so succinctly put it - I pulled out my check list of excuses and promptly checked them all off with a single stroke of my mental pen.

  1. I'm tired. Work has been crazy the past week and I'm mentally drained. Check.
  2. I screwed up the start. I went out too fast and have now blown up. There is no hope of a good finish. Check.
  3. I'm in pain. My shoulder feels dislocated and my bad knee feels tweaked. Check.
  4. Beating last year's time (2:12) is good enough. No need for a ridiculous sub-2 hour goal. Check.
  5. I run for fun. I'm not having fun. Slow down and have fun. Check.

I pulled out my camera and began snapping pictures in a feeble attempt to improve my mood, as I continued to stumble down Nat Greene Trail. I glanced at my watch and noticed that the 3 minute buffer I had built up on Owl's Roost Trail had been whittled down to about 1 minute. Pfffft!! Who cares! Now there is absolutely no way I can make the sub 2 hour goal. Moments later, emerging from my dark, self indulgent mental playpen, I found myself airborne once again.

I managed a perfunctory "oh great..." before I pounded the trail with the same shoulder that had put a small dent in the Owl's Roost Trail. I stood up and took stock. Camera? Ok, just a scratch. Shoulder? Hurting, a lot. Attitude? Complete defeat.

I stowed my camera in my pocket and walked for a few seconds before resuming a slow trot down the trail.

Race Miles 9 to 13.2 - Me versus the Clock
Nat Greene Trail is a fairly tame trail, but when I emerged from the trail at the aid station, I was still surprised to see that I was only just over 2 minutes off the time needed for a 2 hour finish. I had lost my 1 minute buffer and had added a couple minutes of penalty with the mental breakdown on the Nat Greene Trail. On the bright side, the mental funk and resulting slower pace had allowed me to come out of the near bonk. I was feeling moderately good now, as I opened my second "emergency" Honey Stinger gel. I pulled out my camera and snapped a couple shots of the Lake Brandt Dam as I ran past on the way to the final Piedmont Trail section of the race.

I always feel bad when I have mental breakdowns during a race. For one, it's just plain ungrateful to not enjoy every single moment of a run. I'm running on borrowed time (left knee time bomb and all), so time spent in the pity pool is time wasted. But I think this is probably true for all runners. Running is a gift. One that should be cherished by both the most and the least talented among our tribe.

Turning onto Piedmont Trail, I made a decision. I would embrace the gift of running. I would run hard. I would run hard for joy alone. I would not look at my watch again. I would not think about a time goal. I would run free.

I think I flew down Piedmont Trail. I have no idea how fast I was going, but it felt quick. It felt light and easy. And joyful. Approaching the final up hill mile of the Big Loop, I was still running hard, and smiling. I cheered on all the guys I passed as I pushed harder and harder up the hill towards the finish.

Flying across the grass to the finish, I was focused only on putting every bit of speed I had left into the sprint. Crossing the line, I slowed and finally stopped my watch, allowing myself at last to see the final time.

I bought this picture from the official race photographer
because it shows my emotions perfectly the moment
after I realized I had made my time goal. 1:56 !!

Leaving the finish line, I was delirious. I couldn't believe I had achieved my sub 2 hour goal. I had somehow pulled back the lost minutes and smashed through my goal by several more minutes. I would have given anything to have my wife there at that moment, but Barefoot Josh would have to do. He gave me a big bro hug and let me dance around like a fool in celebration. Shannon came by moments later and gave me a hug as well. Actually, I was sort of a hugging doofus for a while there. I think I hugged, Josh, Shannon, Iris, and maybe even Bob. Thanks to everyone who suffered through my post race craziness!

Some runners understand how important something as trivial as a mediocre PR can really be. Some runners understand the joy of even the simple achievements. I'm glad to have them as my friends. And I'm glad to have finally fulfilled a small running dream, through joy alone.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cosmic Jokes - Umstead Coalition 4 Mile Run

Sometimes I think running is some sort of cosmic joke. And for some reason, I don't quite get the punchline. Take the last couple of runs I've attempted. On 4/20 I did something sort of like a painful, old man shuffle for 4.2 miles for the 12athon in honor of Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker's series of books (If you haven't read these, do yourself a favor and pick them up. Hilarious genius.). I won't call it a run, because that would be insulting to an actual run. It was awful. Every step felt terrible and disjointed. My limbs seemed to move as if they were attached to 4 different, goofy, white-man bodies, all trying to dance wildly to totally different music, at weddings on 4 different continents. But without the warm, sweet glow you get after 2 glasses of champagne. When the run ended, I was happy not to have dislocated a hip.

Change the scene to one day later. The Umstead Coalition has an annual charity Run/Bike/Walk event each Spring for Umstead State Park. The last couple of years, I've had conflicts and missed the race but this year I was determined to make it out. I had planned to take my entire family, but Ryan, my oldest, wasn't feeling great, so it was only me in the car as I pulled into the grassy field next to Umstead.

I had no expectations for the 4 mile run itself. I was there mostly to experience the event for the first time and to catch up with some of the local Godiva folks. I was treating the event as more of a social occasion than a real race. For anyone who knows me, that's a very fine line (maybe even an imaginary line). I'm not really a "racer."

Checkin was easy and I had a race bib and a great Umstead t-shirt in a matter of minutes, so I spent a good bit of time wandering through the various tents and running into friends and acquaintances. I watched the bike riders roll out 15 minutes before the start of the walk/run 4 mile event, but then decided to head to my car to drop off some stuff, including my camera, which was running low on battery charge (should have checked and charged it before the race!!). By the time I got everything settled and had a drink of water, they announced a 30 second countdown to the start of the 4 mile run. Crap! It would take more than 30 seconds to walk from my car back to the starting line. I was forced to jog back to the starting line! Running before a race? Sacrilege according to Scott's Book of Slacker Running!

Strangely, he didn't have Fat Tire beer in that bottle. Pity.

I just managed to tuck around the side of the start line, next to the notorious, dastardly AC and his dog Dooright, when the race started. Hey, this was new! I was starting at the very front of the pack for the first time ever. Usually, if I start too far forward, I simply get trampled for about 10 minutes until I assume my natural pack position in the final third of the runners. But for some reason, watching the absolute joy of the dogs and the pack of kids who sprinted out like their feet were on fire, I just let it rip right from the start. If I blew up in 1 mile, so be it. This was fun!

Luckily the out-n-back course is basically an elongated V shape, so the first mile is down hill. I was flying. I hit the 1 mile mark in about 6:45. Crazy, insanely fast for me. My fastest mile ever (post high school cross country team) is 6:30, set at last year's Magnificent Mile.

I hit the long, steep, winding Corkscrew Hill to the turnaround thinking, "Well, that was fun! Time to start walking." Strangely though, I was able to keep a decent pace all the way to the top and hit the turn at about 15 minutes, where I caught up with the amazing Shannon who was running with Jeffery the 3 legged lightning bolt. Shannon wanted me to stop so she could get a picture, which I was happy to do.

Shannon and Jeffery - a 5 legged speed machine, near the finish.

But then I thought, wait, Shannon is supposed to be running hard to beat AC, who had snarkily named her dog-human pairing Team Coprophagia. So, I told her not to worry about the photo and to chase down AC and Dooright (the Dick Dastardly and Muttley of dog-human racing).

I shot back down Corkscrew Hill, even managing to pass a few people and hit the mile long grind back up Reedy Creek Bridal Trail to the finish. I glanced at my watch. Holy William Shatner! I might finish in under 30 minutes! A 29:XX 4 miler would be phenomenal! I could envision myself bragging about my 29 minute 4 miler to all my other slow running buddies. But then the self doubt brigade made the usual charge through my brain, assaulting my cerebral cortex with excuses and misgivings.

"Slow down! Under 35 minutes will be a fine time for you. You're tired anyway. Remember yesterday's craptastic run? You simply can't run fast. Hell, you wear slippers you goofball!"

Maybe I'm right about me. Maybe I can't run fast, or even moderately quickly. But the one thing I have learned in the past couple of years is that I don't know squat about running. Every time I think I have something figured out, I discover that I don't even have the right question in mind. Why should today be any different? What gives me the right to think I know anything about my own running abilities. Ignorance can be bliss. I embraced the thought of failing at failing, and pushed harder up the hill.

Cresting the small rise before the finish, I glanced at my watch. I had only seconds to break 30 minutes. It was going to be very, very close. I was hyperventilating and could only manage a stumbling jog across the grass to the finish line. I watched in agony as the seconds ticked away. I was urging my dead, wooden legs to move faster, only to slow more and more. With one final, gasping push, I lunged across the finish. 30:00 on the nose.

Running is a cosmic joke. I am the punchline.

After 4:14 of gasping and weeping while lying in a fetal postion in the grass,
I took this picture.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Tax on Barefoot Running

Don't run barefoot. Seriously, don't do it. Too many bad things can happen and life is already full of enough fear and uncertainty. Don't believe me? Just turn on some cable news.

Take today for instance. I ran barefoot for 4.15 miles in celebration of US tax day (another brilliant 12athon idea!). Everything started so nicely, with sunny weather and happy feet.

I headed out my private local greenway, which is looking quite lovely this Spring.

But within a mile, I had already experienced a smirk-assault by a passing biker. I tend to wave and smile at everyone when I run, mostly because I try to enjoy every moment of my runs, but also because I'm just a friendly Southerner. Well, biker guy thought some barefoot doofus running on his greenway was just out of line. "Nice shoes..." he smirked as we passed. Good one. Haven't heard that one before. You're so clever.

But it takes more than some asshat on a bike to steal my running mojo. Especially my barefoot running mojo. I've been running barefoot miles for a couple of years now, and I think I've heard just about every sort of comment there is. "You forgot your shoes!" "Someone steal your shoes?" "What's wrong with you?!" Sigh. Such abuse.

Struggling to lug along my now bruised ego, I wasn't paying very close attention to the greenway. Barefoot running is dangerous enough without being mindful of your surroundings. I paid the price by nearly losing a toe to a snapping turtle!

None Shall Pass!!!

Sharp pointy rocks scare you? Pfffttt! Try losing a toe to a snapper! Luckily, the turtle wasn't interested in my sausage toes and only wanted to soak up some warm Spring sunshine. I delicately skirted the edge of the trail, and those lethal vise-like jaws, and continued my run.

My fear of smirky turtles slowly receded over the next couple of miles and I melted back into the smooth groove of barefoot running. Floating along, enjoying the soft sounds of my own footsteps, the cool Spring breeze, and the birdsong echoing through the trees, I nearly crushed the tiny baby turtle struggling to cross the greenway.

Of course, I helped it across. Nothing to fear here. Nothing to lose.

And that's when it hit me. Barefoot running is totally worth it! The fears are overblown and mostly unjustified. The reward far outweighs the price of pride, or the painful cost of attacks on barefoot running. You have nothing to lose.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Unstoppable Forces and Immovable Objects - Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run

No, I didn't run the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. That's a feat which exists outside my running universe, no more accessible to me than running an Olympic marathon, or taking a walk on Mars. I volunteered to work at the Aid Station #1 (Sally's Asylum) for about 7 hours, starting just after sunset and stretching into the dark hours after midnight. This post is in honor of the runners and has nothing to do with my meager volunteer work of serving hot soup and burgers to the real heroes of the race.

I've been using the word "amazing" quite a bit since I witnessed the race firsthand. Pardon me if I simply continue to abuse that word. When I started my volunteer shift, the runners had already been running for over 12 hours. And yet, they were still in good spirits, even though it was apparent that a good portion of them were beginning to suffer heavily.

As the night progressed and a massive thunderstorm rolled through the park, drenching the runners in a chilly rain, their cheer and good spirits slowly faded away, replaced with weary looks of determination. The "thousand yard stare" made an appearance on many runner's faces as midnight approached. And yet they continued to run.

For some of the runners, their determined, purposeful transitions through the aid station slowly transformed to a more confused, wobbly, hazy, drift through the tent. Umstead 100 volunteers acted as shepherds and guides, steadying each runner with gentle questions, aid and encouragement. Pacers transformed into the protectors and champions of their runners, encouraging them to eat and drink, and quickly relaying urgent requests for assistance to the aid station workers. It was amazing. The most touching, human scene I have witnessed in years.

For other runners, the miles solidified their determination. Easy smiles transformed to firmly set jaws. Smiling and dancing eyes locked into solid, serious and penetrating stares. Fatigue masked by bravery.

And then there were those who continued to smile. Those who continued to joke and banter, even though the humor became darker and more self directed. To be 18 hours into a race and to still be able to laugh at their own misery, at the very absurdity of it all, was amazing.

Here's to you, Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Runners! You were unstoppable forces, and you moved the immovable object. Long may you run!