Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hidden Beauty - Uwharrie Mountain Run 40 Miler - Part 3

[Part 1 is here.]
[Part 2 is here.]

Miles 32 through 40 - Hidden Beauty
Sitting on the cold, plastic seat in the port-o-potty at the mile 32 aid station, my legs began to cramp. I had made it to the second "start" of the race, only to be sidelined by my own stupidity. Too many cookies about 6 hours earlier, combined with gluten intolerance, had left me a cramping, irritable bowel inflicted mess at mile 32. Uncle Uwharrie paced impatiently on the other side of the door.

"Get off the pot, boy!" said Uncle Uwharrie. "This ain't gonna get easier if you sit there. You stay in there much longer, and you're done."

He was right, of course. He was always right. My legs were shutting down with each squatting second. So, still cramping and miserable I emerged from the crapper to find my friend, and super volunteer, Harold, waiting with a warm cup of soup broth in hand. I sipped it slowly and had a few corn chips in an attempt to settle my stomach.

I'm not mad here, just miserable.
Photo courtesy of Harold.
I thanked Harold and the other volunteers and began a slow walk down the trail. Uncle Uwharrie was with me nearly all the time now. I needed him for sure. Each step I took was farther than I had ever run before, and more painful than even my worst marathons.

"Run now, before it's too late" warned Uncle Uwharrie. "Run now, or  you'll be walking these last 8 miles!"

I ran a few steps, but had to stop. Each step was like having my lower abdomen smashed with a hammer. My legs slowly loosened from the stop at the aid station, and when the bowel pain had settled a bit, I tried to run again. It still hurt like hell.

"Keep trying!" urged Uncle Uwharrie. "Don't you dare quit!"

I kept trying, and within a mile or so, my stomach settled and I was running again, slowly. But I was mentally exhausted. All I could think was "Almost 8 more miles of this hell! I hate this damn ugly, brutal trail! I'm not going to make it."

It was then that Uncle Uwharrie gave me the best advice of the day.

"You're thinking about it all wrong, boy! Don't think about the pain, that's just part of this place. Don't think about the last miles. Don't even think about the next hill. Just think about the next step" said Uncle Uwharrie. "The next step, nothing else!"

So, I did. I kept my eyes down and concentrated on the next step, and only the next step. Picking my way though the uncountable number of roots, rocks and holes along the trail kept my mind occupied. I stopped thinking about the exhaustion, and the pain.

The further I ran, the better I felt. The veil of exhaustion and ugliness fell from my eyes, and I started seeing the beauty of Uwharrie again. Was I miserable? Definitely. But that didn't matter any longer. I was going to finish, and I knew it! The pain was just part of the experience. I was glad to simply be alive and moving through the beauty of Uwharrie. Happy for the fleeting chance to dance once more across the ancient stage.

This happy at the finish.
Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnstone.

How do you find beauty in even the most miserable moments of life? Simple, you look for it. Not that the misery of life can necessarily be overcome by beauty, but sometimes just looking at the world through a different lens can cause some of life's inevitable pain to fade from view, to be replaced with a hidden beauty.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Hidden Beauty - Uwharrie Mountain Run 40 Miler - Part 2

[Part 1 is here.]

Miles 20 through 32 - Turn, Burn, and Churn
Coming into the 20 mile turnaround, I was feeling a bit tired, but overall not too bad. I had really tried hard to take it easy the first 20 miles. I had stopped at every aid station and made sure to eat and drink, even if I didn't feel like I needed anything. I had even eaten several cookies at the 11 and 14 mile aid stations (this becomes important later, I promise).

I probably spent too much time at the 20 mile turnaround. I peeled off a couple layers of shirts and sat on the ground trying to decide if I should change shoes. Both my feet were wet, due to the stream crossings, but otherwise they felt fine. Sitting there, staring at my shoes, I finally heard the first rumblings from Uncle Uwharrie.

"Don't sit there like a blame fool!" yelled Uncle Uwharrie. "Eat some soup and start the damned race!"

Uncle Uwharrie was right, of course. I had made it to the "first" start of the 40 miler. Most people I had asked about the 40 mile race said there are two real starts in the race. The first real start is at the 20 mile turn around, where there is lots of good, warm food, plenty of mingling 20 mile race finishers, and a couple of warm shuttle vans waiting to drive you away from the misery of a second 20 miles of Uwharrie trail. And then there's the second real start of the race at the 32 mile aid station, where lots of runners are at their lowest, both physically and mentally. I would worry about that one later.

"OK, time to start the race" I thought. I got up, sipped some soup and headed back down the trail, trying to imagine that I really was just starting the race, and telling my tired legs to stop lying to me.

I had made it no further than 100 feet down the trail before I realized that I had forgotten to grab my headlamp from my drop bag. I stopped cold on the trail, other runners passing by in both directions. I was on pace to easily make the 4PM cut off for runners without headlamps at the 32 mile aid station, but fear froze my legs.

"You won't need it, boy" growled Uncle Uwharrie. "Go!"

"What if something goes wrong and I miss the cutoff?!" I thought, panic stricken.

"Didn't I tell you before, you gotta have a mind of steel out here. Doubt will kill you. Run!" said Uncle Uwharrie, practically shoving me down the trail.

But I did have doubts, lots of them. And fear. So, I turned around and went back for the headlamp. I could feel Uncle Uwharrie's disapproving glare as I started the race, again, this time with a headlamp bouncing in my left pocket as I ran down the trail.

Making my way to the aid station at mile 23, I could feel my legs tightening up. I had been eating well enough, or at least I thought I had, and this didn't feel like a bonk. More like the beginnings of cramping. So, when I trotted into the 23 mile aid station, I scanned the table for anything with salt. I ate a few corn chips and then noticed a tray of mini pickles that hadn't been there on my first pass through. I tried one, and the salty, vinegar rush over my tongue felt almost as good as a hit of morphine through an IV drip (I've you've been in the hospital and had this, you'll know...). I gobbled down almost a dozen pickles and trotted off down the trail feeling pretty damned good.

I could hear Uncle Uwharrie screaming something in the back of my mind. Something about potatoes. "Pfffffttt!" I thought. "Who needs potatoes when I can have the sweet sodium hit of crunchy little pickles!"

Aside from passing the random straggling 20 milers, I was essentially alone on the trail. I felt alright and tried to stay positive, but I could feel my mood souring. I had been running for nearly 6 hours, and I was running low on positive attitude.

Luckily, I finally ran across my old running, racing, and training partner Ryan a couple of miles later. We both stopped and spent a few minutes just shooting the bull and recharging our mental batteries. Funny how something as simple as seeing a friend in a down moment, can totally change your attitude. I parted ways with Ryan feeling much more upbeat about my race.

Unfortunately, I needed something more than good feelings to power my legs. For some reason, a mile or so later, my legs seemed to totally shutdown. I could run, but it was really only slightly faster than simply walking. What the hell!? I had been fueling properly and taking it easy all day. Why were my legs suddenly dead?

"You are dumber than a box of rocks, boy!" chided Uncle Uwharrie. "I told you to eat them taters!"

And then, trudging along on dead legs, it hit me. Pickles! Pickles are essentially a calorie free food. I had filled my belly with a whooping 40 calories of salty, crunchy, delicious WATER. I painfully trudged up the trail, towards the 26 mile aid station where I refueled, this time with taters.

With a bit of luck, my mini-bonk lasted less than a mile, and shortly after the 26 mile aid station, I was feeling good enough to run again. I cruised through the 29 mile aid station, making sure to get a few potatoes and some nice hot chicken noodle soup broth into my increasingly grumpy stomach. Something had began to stir deep within my digestive system, and I didn't like the feel of it, at all.

Around mile 31, Uncle Uwharrie kicked me in the guts. Hard! I could still run, and my legs felt alright, but something had tied my intestines in a rapidly constricting knot. I remembered all the cookies I had eaten at the 11 and 14 mile aid stations, and realized I had screwed up.

"You'll learn to mind me, boy" growled Uncle Uwharrie. "I told you to eat the taters!"

Last year when I ran the 20 mile race, I was able to  eat cookies without any issues, at least during the race. I paid the price for my gluten intolerance several hours after finishing the 20 miles race. Sometimes a deal with the devil, or Uncle Uwharrie, is better than no deal at all.

Stupidly, I had eaten cookies again, assuming I would pay the price a few hours later, after the race. Unfortunately, a few hours later wasn't quite long enough to finish the 40 mile race. Not even close really.

I trudged into the 32 mile aid station, and went directly to the port-o-potty confessional, where I spent some quality time confessing my cookie eating sins to Father Cerulean. The last 8 miles were going to be ugly.

Final chapter of the race report - Hidden Beauty

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Uwharrie Calling - Chapter 1: Departures

Prologue: The Claim

"Breakfast" said Eno, poking his head inside my room. The pale light of a cold, cloudy dawn shown through the only window of the guest room, the same room where I had slept as a kid. I don't know if I expected to feel some sort of connection with my childhood, but the room and the house felt very distant from my memories. Everything seemed smaller, rougher and colder.

Walking into warm kitchen, the smell of bacon, eggs and strong black coffee washed over me. At least that hadn't changed. Eno was dicing a potato, dropping the chunks into the hot pan where they sizzled in the remains of the bacon grease. Uncle Uwharrie sat at the end of table, staring at me over the rim of his coffee cup as I sat down.

Eno and I had sat at this very table until late the previous night, talking about why I had come back, and what I wanted to do. And catching up. I had only spoken briefly with Eno by phone a few weeks earlier about my planned visit. We hadn't really spoken for more than 20 years before that call. Eno seemed different than the kid I remembered, but we'd both been through a lot, and the space of 20 years can be a universe for some.

I felt bad about not telling Eno the entire truth about the reasons for my return, but I wasn't ready. Reopening some of those old wounds were for me alone.

We were both 17 when I had last seen Eno, two days after our final adventure with our cousin, Harris. It was the day Uncle Uwharrie and I had fought. The day I had left, swearing never to return. I remember Eno watching from the front porch, as I walked through the gate and down the hot, gravel road, away from the house, away from everything. I couldn't read his expression. He face was blank and empty. He didn't wave. Neither did I. We weren't big on goodbyes, never had been.

That was the Summer when Harris' mother had died. Harris was 15, a couple of years younger than Eno and I, but he had always spent most of his Summers with us. Most mornings Harris would ride his old bike the 10 miles from his father's farm, nestled on the side of a ridge, by a bend in the Yadkin River, to Uncle Uwharrie's place, hidden on 110 acres way back in the hills. Eno had a lot to do with that. You could always count on Eno to dream up some sort of adventure on a lazy August afternoon. His crazy obsession with hiking, camping, and exploring meant we were never bored, and never far from some sort of trouble.

It was Eno who had come up with the plan for Harris. Eno's mother had died a decade earlier, but I think he could still feel the pain of that wound. He thought he could help Harris. I trusted Eno on that. Besides, we hadn't done anything truly stupid in over a month. We were due.

Eno had laid out that original 4 day hike twenty some years ago. Starting at Uncle Uwharrie's house, we had planned to trek over the ridges, avoiding roads and farms where possible, on a primitive, rarely traveled route to the Yadkin River,  ending near the farm where Harris lived. By itself, this hike wasn't that unusual for us. We had done plenty of long, hard hikes, sometimes staying gone for 5 days at a stretch. The difference this time was that we were each allowed only one survival item. Eno was crazy, but fun.

Who would have known that our choices for that trip would mean so much to us in the end. And for the rest of our lives.

Eno plopped down a heaping plate of eggs, bacon and hash browns in front of me with a wink.

"You going with us, Pop?" Eno joked to Uncle Uwharrie.

Uncle Uwharrie, who had seemed momentarily lost in his own thoughts, stirred. He gave me a long hard look and said "I reckon so."

Neither Eno nor I had expected that answer. Eno, who had cleared Uncle Uwharrie's plate, froze with it still in his hand, hovering above the sink. I wanted to recreate that trip, or least the route, but this time with real supplies and at an easy pace. I had planned it with only me and Eno in mind.

I knew Uncle Uwharrie had already asked Eno about our plans, and I could tell by his look that he wasn't satisfied with whatever Eno had told him. He would ask me directly, in his own time. For now, I would simply wait for that moment.

"OK. Let's get packed and hit the trail" I said. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hidden Beauty - Uwharrie Mountain Run 40 Miler - Part 1

Absolute panic! I couldn't find the insulated thermal tech shirt I had planned to wear at the start of the Uwharrie Mountain Run 40 mile ultramarathon, my first ultra, and I needed that shirt. The temperature at the race start was forecast to be around 20F. I gutted both my large travel bags, strewing their contents on my hotel bed in the room Jay Spadie and I had split to be near the race start.

"Jay, have you seen my blue thermal shirt?" I asked. "I know I packed it, but it's not here!"

Jay stopped arranging the 200 gel packs on his bed, and reached under a pile of gear to pull out a blue thermal shirt. He held it up to show me.

"That's it!" I exclaimed. "I wonder how it got into your pile?"

Before I could even take a step to claim the shirt, I noticed a small hole near the shoulder.

"Only a small hole" I thought. "No big deal."

But the hole suddenly grew, like a strong acid was eating away at the fabric. Then I saw them - BUGS. Billions and billions of tiny, thermal tech shirt eating bugs swarming over the fabric! In seconds the shirt was a tattered rag.

"Dammit, Spadie! Why did you bring the bugs?!" I shouted.

Jay just looked at me as if to say, "Hey, it's me, Jay. I bring the crazy! You get the bugs for free."

Jay, bringing the crazy, with
underwear headgear.

I woke up in a cold sweat, with my heart racing. This was the third panic dream I had the night before the race. In the first, I had forgotten my running shoes. In the second, someone had stolen all my running clothes. Now, at 2AM, the bugs. I was getting pissed! I could have punched the sandman square in the mouth.

Panic and Paranoia
Panic and paranoia perfectly described my mental state during the couple of weeks leading up to my first ultra marathon. I'm can honestly say that the Uwharrie 40 Miler had me scared. Really scared.

Yes, all my experienced ultra running friends kept telling me I was ready and I would do fine, but I'm a worrier at heart. I get it honest. My Dad is a world champion worrier, according to my Mom anyway. But I knew the real reason for my worry was my mediocre training. I had completed only three runs in excess of 20 miles since late November - 24 miles, 29 miles, and 22 miles, the last one a training run in Uwharrie itself. I hadn't touched 30 miles, much less 40 miles in the soul destroying hills of Uwharrie.

WEEKLY total mileage since late November.
That's right, NO running over the holidays.
That's beer drinking time!

I had run the 20 mile race in Uwharrie the year before. This simply couldn't be enough training for the 40 mile race. I could feel the disapproving eyes of Uncle Uwharrie burning into my very untrained soul, and I dreaded the probable punishment that awaited me in the hard, cold hills of Uwharrie.

Cold Mountains
Jay's car thermometer indicated the outside air was 16F a couple of miles from the checkin and shuttle departure area. Stepping out of the car upon arrival, I believed it. Bone chilling would be a totally appropriate description. The cold seeped in through your clothes, finding even the deepest, most insulated crannies, and obliterated any warmth. I was shivering in seconds.

Luckily, Bull City Running organize a great race, so even after checking in, and missing the "last" shuttle to the starting area due to an unusually slow men's bathroom line, a group of 40 milers still managed to grab another shuttle to the starting area, arriving with just a handful of minutes to spare. I spent the shuttle time talking to experienced ultra marathoner Sean Butler and trying not to puke on my shoes due to nerves.

This was good and bad. Good in that we didn't have to stand around in the frigid air for very long at the starting line. Bad in that there was a total panic in the bag drop area with people trying to decide what clothing to keep on for the race, and what clothing to stuff into drop bags.

Normally, given my panicky nature, I would have made some ridiculously bad decision and either overdressed or underdressed for the conditions. Somehow, I managed to get it absolutely perfect.

Miles 1 through 8 - The Mud Skate
As the race started and we began the climb up the big hill, my decision to wear shorts, 4 layers on my torso, hat, buff, and gloves proved the perfect combination for body temperature regulation. What can I say, even a knuckle-head gets lucky every once in a while!

The sun rising over a distant hill in Uwharrie.
Gorgeous morning!

The ground was frozen and you could feel it through your feet. The dirt was stiff and frigid and unyielding. At least there wasn't any real ice to speak of on the trail. Of course, leave it to me to find the only icy patch in the first 8 miles, and to promptly bust my ass on it.

Around mile 5, trying to pick the safest path down a steep section of trail just before the only real bridge on the entire trail, I chose to run down what appeared to be exposed red dirt, rather than the mysterious leaf covered section immediately next to the dirt. I swear my foot never even made contact with the dirt. I put my foot down, but it seemed to miss the ground entirely. I'm now sure that frozen red mud is the slickest substance on the face of the Earth. According to my ass, it's also the hardest.

Running friend, Gene Meade was directly behind me, and I didn't have any time to warn him before I heard him thump the frozen hillside as well. Luckily, no real damage was done to either of us.

Ice in my beard, mud on my hand (from the fall),
and frozen potato chips. Insanity at mile 8!
Photo by volunteer extraordinaire, Harold "Galoot" Hill.

Miles 8 through 16 - Drinking From The Friendship Canteen
After leaving the 8 mile aid station, I found myself nearly alone. I ran with an older ultra veteran for a couple of miles (I really wish I could remember his name) and we had some good discussions about Uwharrie and ultra running in general. But then he pulled off trail for a nature break and aside from seeing other runners at aid stations, I ran alone for several miles.

There were hours of running like this.
I spent the time thinking about my family (especially my oh so patient and lovely wife, Sherri) and all the friends who had been thoughtful enough to wish me well prior to the race. I ran easy, enjoying the moments when I could.

Miles 16 through 20 - Friends A Plenty!
After power walking up Dennis Mountain (the biggest, nastiest hill in the entire race, just ask anybody who's "run" it!), I reached the summit and saw the first returning 40 miler that I knew, Ronnie Weed, in 3rd place. A shout of encouragement and a fist bump from a smiling Ronnie really lifted my spirits.

The miles leading in to the 20 mile turn-around were full of whoops, hollers, high fives and general awesomeness as I saw friend after friend coming back on the return legs of their 40 mile runs or passing me on their way to a 20 mile finish. Thanks to Ronnie, Bart, Jeff, Doug, Heiko, Jay, Sean, Karen, Kevin, Rebecca, and many others who I can't remember now. Fatigue had made it's first appearance on the stage of my mind, and it looked like he might possibly be attempting a one man show to end all shows. All of you helped to sweep away the doubts and fears in my mind those last few miles before the turnaround.

Strangely, I had not yet heard the first growl from Uncle Uwharrie. That would soon change.

Part 2 of the race report - Turn, Burn and Churn...