Sunday, March 24, 2013

Release the Kraken!

I've been in a bit of a running funk lately. I think I've just run so much this Winter that I'm out of mental energy. My body feels fine, and I'm running well, but I'm just not feeling it lately. I think that's probably normal for almost anyone at the end of a long running season full of several tough races. I've been training for big races since last August - Medoc Trail Marathon, Uwharrie 40 Mile Ultra, Umstead Trail Marathon. And now, I have my last big race coming up fast - Mountain to Sea Trail 50K.

I needed 20 miles of time on my feet this weekend, preferably on single track trail to simulate the Mountain to Sea Trail 50K, so I headed out to Umstead for some quality time on the trails. My friend Jay, training for his second Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run, wanted to get about 20 miles in as well, so we met on the trails early in the morning and spent the next 10 miles trying to out-smartass each other. Our normal sort of run.

We took a quick break back at the parking area, where I decided that it would probably be better for me to finish the miles on the bridle trails instead of the single track. I just wasn't feeling it, and loss of mental focus on single track means the possible loss of skin and teeth.

Making our way along Reedy Creek bridle trail, I thought about just quitting and walking back to my car. Instead I just complained about everything to Jay. Never ones to miss being bad influences on each other, Jay immediately latched onto my complaints and slyly suggested that we could short circuit the run and head to his house for beers. I called his bluff immediately.

Thirty minutes later found Jay and I slowly but surely clearing out his random inventory of left over beers. We had agreed that Jay would give me a lift back to my car on the other side of Umstead a bit later. Then, somehow, the bourbon came out, along with the idea of running back to my car. But my body was finished. The 16 miles of that morning had drained me. It would take bourbon, beer, and a small miracle to get my carcass the 5 miles across Umstead to my car.

Never try to out-crazy Jay. You will lose. Still resistant to even the idea of running, Jay released the Kraken! Kraken Rum that is. After an oversize rum and coke, I somehow found myself running down the street outside Jay's house screaming "Release the Kraken!"

Everything gets pretty fuzzy after that. I remember passing random strangers on the trails screaming that we had released the Kraken. Jay took every renegade trail he could remember on our way back to the other side of the park. I had trouble running in a straight line. Jay didn't even try. He crisscrossed the bridle trail in front of me, darting into the woods screaming "Release the Kraken!" as often as his breathing allowed. Within a mile of my car Jay decided we needed more inspiration, so we stumbled down the Inspiration Trail loop, promptly losing the trail and getting lost by a creek at the bottom of a steep, rocky hill. We've renamed that trail Uninspirational Demotivational Kraken Invitational Trail. I plan to never run UDKIT again. Especially with Jay.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Top 'o the Morning to Ya! - Hanging Rock 11K Trail Race

My heart was racing, even though I had promised myself that I wouldn't run hard. Approaching the top of Moore's Knob I couldn't tell if my blurry vision was due to the clouds rolling across the ridge, or the absence of oxygen in my brain. I found the throbbing carotid artery on my neck and counted off heartbeats for about 5 seconds. Twenty. Multiply by 12, and... wait, that couldn't be right! Although, my heart did seem to be attempting to bust out of my rib cage. I couldn't blame it. I might do the same if I were trapped in a prison run by a sado-masochist, who even at this very moment of near meltdown, couldn't wipe the smile off his pained face. God, I love trail racing!

The little race at Hanging Rock State Park, this year falling on Saint Patrick's Day, and hence subtitled "Top Of The Mountain To Ya!", is becoming one of my absolute favorites. The beautiful wife and I had run the previous year's race, and we both enjoyed it. Well, me more than her since that was her first real trail race (I'm cruel like that), and I spent the entire race scampering around her taking pictures. This year, I wanted to run just a bit harder. The race was only two weeks after a tough Umstead Trail Marathon, so I planned a medium effort run, just to start getting my legs back under me. As usual, my plans and reality didn't align.

Profile from last year's race. Courtesy of Iris.

Chasing Leprechauns
There were two races this year - a 4 miler, and an 11K. The courses overlapped for the first couple of miles, with the smarter 4 milers avoiding the climb and descent of Moore's Wall Loop Trail. The 4 mile race also claimed to have a "Catch the Leprechaun" race within the race, which I thought was just a holiday joke, until a runner in full leprechaun attire shot off a side trail to lead the race just after the start.

Trail runner Corey Griffith played
the part of the leprechaun. His pot of gold
is still out there, somewhere... 

I'm getting better about starting a race at a sane pace. I hit the first mile mark in just under 9 minutes. Normally, I would have busted out of the gate and flamed out with a sub-8 minute first mile in such a short race, but not this year. Not two weeks after Umstead. I forced myself to walk up the steep gravel road to the Wolf Rock Trail head, chanting "Don't race. Don't race!" while other runners streamed past me. On Wolf Rock Trail, I was stuck in traffic for a while, which was good at keeping my pace under control. Arriving at the single aid station of the race, the 4 milers split off and the rest of us nutjobs started up the long, rocky, steep ditch that is the western portion of the Moore's Wall Loop Trail. About 10 yards after making the turn onto the long course, the runner immediately in front of me stopped, turned around, and ran back down the trail yelling "No! No! NOOO!" I'm not sure if he was a 4 mile racer who had made the wrong turn, or if he was just smarter than everyone else.

I'm Not Racing!
Me, not racing.
The Moore's Wall Loop Trail route was reversed from last year, when we had to climb the endless stone stairs to Moore's Knob, and then descend the western ditch on the loop. When I learned that the loop had been reversed for this year, I hated the idea. I had hoped I would be walking up to Moore's Knob on the stairs and actually running a good portion of the descent. I didn't think I would be able to run down the uneven, grit covered stone stairs without leaving a bloody impression of my face on the ground somewhere along the way.

So, when the steepness of the climb set in, I let the small group of three or four people I was running with, fade into the distance while I power walked the rocky ditch up to the ridge. Within minutes, they were gone, leaving me to enjoy a nice quiet hike.

And I really did enjoy the hike up to the ridge. The clouds were sweeping across the mountain, wrapping the forest in a mysterious, but beautiful veil of cool gray mist. The woods were quiet except for the thin sounds of the breeze blowing through the still naked branches of the winter forest. The small crunches of my footsteps on the trail and my labored breathing were the only sounds spoiling the near perfect peacefulness.

Nearing the top of the trail, I found that all the sound, as well as my vision, was fading away, to be replaced only by the hammering rhythm of my struggling heart. Even power walking up to the ridge had pushed me over the redline. Trust me, it's one tough trail!

OK, I'm Racing!
Me, racing.
Lucky for me, I redlined just as I reached the ridge. Within a few yards, I recovered and started running again. I stopped thinking about pacing altogether, and just ran, enjoying the feel of the chilled clouds sweeping over the trail along the ridge top of Moore's Knob. Scrambling over rock outcroppings and along the steep slopes near the ridge, I found myself running faster and faster. And smiling uncontrollably! I hit the endless stone staircase descent in just a few minutes, but instead of slowing down, I sped up. I flew down the mountain, sometimes leaping down several steps at a time, sometimes running down the edge of the trail next to the steps, but seeming to go faster and faster. Fear only slowed me down for a moment when my footing shifted on a particularly long leap down 4 steps, but for the most part I just flowed like water down the mountain.

Arriving at the bottom of the trail, and with less than a mile of flat lakeside trail to the finish, I let everything go and ran hard. I raced, even though I promised myself I wouldn't. I'll forgive myself eventually.

There are a handful of moments that I am blessed with each year when running trails. Moments of pure sublime beauty and joy. Times when I am totally consumed by the beauty of trail running, of the moment, and of life itself. Flying down the trail off Moore's Knob, on those brutal stone stairs, I was lucky enough to capture one of those moments. Thanks Hanging Rock.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tour de Cramps - Umstead Trail Marathon 2013

Just when you think you have the Umstead Marathon figured out, reality steps up to slap you in the face. I was sure I had defeated Krampus. I had run Medoc in the Fall with nary a muscle twinge, and had even navigated through 40 miles in Uwharrie without so much as a single muscle spasm (aside from my own cookie induced bowel issues). But Krampus is sneaky. Having been defeated on race day, he decided a pre-emptive strike was in order. Krampus doesn't believe in just war.

Krampus Outflanks Me
At 5:00PM the evening before the race, Krampus launched a norovirus sneak attack. For those of you who haven't experienced the joy of the norovirus, let me attempt to describe it for you. A wave of exhaustion suddenly sapped all my energy, putting me on the couch. Within 15 minutes, I felt the first long range viral mortar shells exploding in my bowels. A few minutes later, Krampus unleashed the full scale bombardment. I spent the next few hours lying on the couch in the fetal position, attempting to deflect sledgehammer blows to my digestive system by moaning pitifully. And that was just the first stage. Come race morning, things took a turn for the worse.

I don't give up easily, especially for digestive issues, which I've been dealing with since way before I started running again a few years back. I also have a decent pain tolerance level, one of the "benefits" of 5 knee surgeries. So it takes a lot to knock me out of race, especially my favorite race. So, I loaded up with the beautiful wife, and headed out to the race the next morning, prepared to drag my cranky, crampy bowels for 26.2 miles through the hills of Umstead. Krampus be damned!

Fast Times
The race started well, although a bit fast. I found myself at the 4 mile mark pretty quickly (under 9 minute pace). Too fast really. I made a conscious decision to slow down for the next 3 miles of single track trail. One of the benefits of running Umstead Marathon for the third time is the knowledge that attacking the single track too aggressively can ruin your whole race. Hammered hips don't fare well in the Turkey Creek hills around mile 17. I made it to the 5 mile aid station without too much trouble, but had a moment of doubt about whether or not I needed to visit the port-o-potty and whether or not I needed to eat anything. I decided I could skip both. I heard a loud thump as I ran away from the aid station. Krampus was laughing so hard, he had fallen off his perch on the top of the port-o-potty.

Heading down the last section of single track, I made it only a half mile before I totally regretted skipping the port-o-potty. Now I had 4 miles before the next official restroom stop. So, I abandoned my "go slow" strategy and picked up the pace.

Move It or Lose It
Luckily, I had some good company in Sean Butler during this section. Chatting with Sean kept my mind off the ominous, painful rumblings sweeping through my lower torso. Sean and I rolled off the single track and into the aid station at mile 8. I had skipped eating anything at mile 5 and I knew I needed some calories if I intended to finish the race without a bonk. I also knew that putting anything in my stomach meant additional suffering. I had a gel and some water. Krampus could barely manage to scamper along behind me. He was totally consumed with his own evil cackling laughter.

The next two miles saw the misery meter peg 11. By the time we hit the 10 mile aid station, I told Sean I had to stop. I ran straight through the 10 mile aid station, right past all the super friendly volunteers in red dresses, and directly into the cozy, welcoming, peppermint scented port-o-potty. If there was anything better than a fresh, clean port-o-potty at that moment, I couldn't name it.

Lose It and Move It
I emerged several minutes later, a slightly lighter and slightly more nauseous runner. I choked down a handful of corn chips and a couple of cups of water, and then headed down the trail hoping for the best. And for the most part, things got a bit better. My stomach seemed to settle down somewhat, and I knocked out a few miles in relative comfort, cheering on the front runners as they passed by on their way back from the 15 mile turn around.

Arriving at the 13 mile aid station, I thought my cramping, irritable bowel had finally settled down, so I pounded down a bunch of corn chips and several cups of water. Blogging friend Steph had arrived just after me so I waited for her and we ran the next couple of mile together, chatting and cheering on our friends along the way. I have to say this was probably the best 2 miles of the race. The norovirus seemed to have been mostly flushed (sorry, bad pun) at the 10 mile aid station and I was moving well and enjoying the day and the company. Unfortunately, about a half mile before the 15 mile aid station, Krampus rallied the norovirus legions and made a fresh assault on my bowels.

Retreat and Defeat
Stopping at the mile 15 aid station, I bid Steph farewell and got in line at the one and only port-o-potty. But the assault was in full swing, and I simply couldn't wait. One of the aid station volunteers pointed me towards the trail leading away from the race down into the cabins, telling me that there was a toilet hidden a short walk away. I sprinted down the trail.

A Brief Restroom Review
The restroom hidden among the cabins by the Sycamore aid station is fab-u-lous! Not only do  you have a window to allow natural lighting, but you also have your own electric heater, the controls of which are accessible from the sitting position.

Bonus external lock. Trap your racing
rivals inside to gain valuable minutes!

Goes all the way to FIFTEEN!

Speaking of sitting, how much better is a shiny, clean, porcelain toilet than the sketchy plastic seat in the port-o-potty? Loads better! I felt kingly in my brief time in this special place.

Clean and shiny!
(before picture)

Totally worth the side trip from the race. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars! I would have given 5 stars, but there was no Musak playing to drown out the noises coming from the women's toilet immediately adjacent. Krampus is apparently an equal opportunity destroyer.

Restroom Regroup
There was no recovery this time. I left the 15 mile aid station feeling totally rotten. Ultra runner and totally nice guy, Jim Wei, was hanging out by the side of the trail snapping pictures, and he ran with me for a ways while we chatted. I'd like to say that this helped me feel better, but honestly every step I took just added to the avalanche of cramps pouring down my torso. Less than a mile later, I knew I was in trouble. I would really have to push hard if I wanted to make it to the port-o-potty back at the mile 19 aid station.

So, I ran hard. I blasted through the 16 mile aid station, grabbing only some water and a few more corn chips, and pounded as hard as I dared back down Turkey Creek Trail towards the loving arms of my sweet peppermint scented port-o-potty at the mile 19 aid station. Umstead park officials will be glad to know that I made it. Barely.

Fleeting Victories
Again, I bypassed the lovely Godiva volunteer ladies in their red dresses, and headed directly to the crapper, which smelled much worse on this visit for some reason. Several minutes later, I emerged, smelling of hand sanitizer and defeat. Krampus was giggling hysterically in some nearby bushes. This really pissed me off! I choked down a bunch of corn chips and 3 large chunks of banana and ran as hard as I could towards the Cedar Ridge aid station at mile 22.

I had completed the Uwharrie 40 mile ultra 4 weeks earlier. Absolutely the toughest thing I've ever done in my entire life. I wasn't about to let some cackling, mythical arsehole and his army of demonic viruses stop me at the Umstead Marathon. I ran hard down Reedy Creek trail, passing several people on the way up Corkscrew Hill. The only good thing about the severe bowel cramping was that it masked the pain in my legs.

I downed several cups of Coke at the aid station, knowing it was like drinking poison in my condition. But I needed the sugar and the caffeine. Life is full of choices, but I really had no choice this time. Cedar Ridge demands its own special payment from the Umstead Marathon runners. Sometimes the price is higher than others and today I was willing to pay almost anything to get to the finish. I ran down Cedar Ridge, passing several people along the way, made the turn at the bottom and, except for the short, steep bit at the very bottom, I ran all the way back up, passing several more people. Normally, all the passing would have made me feel awesome, but not today. I could only think about the finish, and the row of port-o-potties just beyond.

Arriving back at the top of Cedar Ridge and the aid station, I could only manage to down a cup of water. My digestive system had lost the battle. I had nearly two miles to run before the finish and my bowels were in crisis.

"You are not fasssst enough!" hissed Krampus. "You will fail. You will be defiled!" And with that, Krampus disappeared into the forests of Umstead, laughing maniacally in his certain victory.

I didn't bother to reply. I just ran harder, straight up Cemetary Hill without walking, and then faster still towards the finish. After mile 25 passed by, something of a calm fell over me. I was running easily and lightly, ignoring the waves of agony washing across my torso. I was going to make it! My happiness returned. I even slowed a bit to talk to another runner (Hi Sultan!) before cranking out the last mile in what felt like my fastest pace of the day.

I crossed the line in 4:27, and ran directly to the closest green box.

Finish photos courtesy of Jay Spadie. 
Only a true friend would care enough to document a miserable finish like this.
I can't wait to pay you back, Jay. 

A day later and I'm still feeling the effects, however I'm happy about my race. Krampus is running out of weapons, and I'm getting stronger. I'll call that a win.

More importantly, even through all the physical suffering of the race, I come away loving Umstead Marathon more than ever. For me, it's not about the finish time, or the incredibly difficult course, or even overcoming the inevitable challenges of the race. It's about the experience as a whole. The joy on the faces of the first timers crossing the finish line. The smiles of the volunteers. The high fives with old friends. There's a beautiful, natural fellowship that seems to spring from the stony ground of Umstead. A gift I hope to enjoy for many more years.