Monday, April 27, 2009

Race Report: 2009 Leatherman’s Loop

Helter skelter in a summer swelter

An angry sun rose over Pound Ridge Reservation yesterday morning, squeezing every bit of burning heat from its nuclear furnace, hell bent on sizzling the flesh of we mortals as we lined up to start the 23rd edition of this great tradition of prancing through the mud. As I did my final pre-race sprint to try to awaken my aging legs, I gazed back at the assembled horde crowding the line under the flapping plastic flags. I’d never seen so many folks at this race, and the summer-vacation-like weather added a significant number of supporters in a concentric ring: spouses, kids, dogs, friends, and assorted curious onlookers. What a scene!

We jostled cordially for starting position and listened to the long list of stars (past and present) who were venturing once more into the fray. Then the traditional blessing was recited (… beauty above me as I run, beauty within me as I run …). I felt a rivulet of sweat already trickling down the nape of my neck and knew we were all in for a hot one. The scene felt so incongruous, because I associate the Loop with windy, gray, cold, rainy weather and shivering competitors huddled together for warmth and freezing cold, black, soupy mud … not smears of SPF 70 sun block and dry hot gusty breezes.

Just as my skin began to sizzle like cheap bacon, the horn sounded and we were off, in the most-chaotic start I can remember in years. I was pushed, elbowed, and stepped on repeatedly, while the sprinting masses closed in from both sides, shutting me off from contact with the lead pack. Uh oh. My work was going to be cut out for me in the woods. We turned downhill into the first muddy (barely) patch, and that bunch of macho dudes who shot out at the start all suddenly downshifted in unison … so I ran right into them, literally. Sorry, my fellow Loopers, no ill will intended on my part, I didn’t plan to bump and touch any of you at that point in the race, but these old legs of mine were still actually accelerating (it takes me awhile!), and all of you suddenly slowed down. I managed to weave through without major incident. My two older sons were counting runners at the first little stream crossing, and they had me at around 20th place, give or take a few.

The next mile or so of the course stays fairly narrow, with rocks and roots, and goes up and down a couple of times before hitting the first river crossing. I found myself trying to pass one particular runner who was already wheezing with effort, but he just would not let me go by. I tried three times to get around him, but each time he accelerated (wasting both his effort and mine). I backed off and waited about two minutes, until the river, when I shot past him and hit the water hard. I actually passed 4 runners who were wallowing about in the water (although one other guy passed me, nicely done). Up and out over the slimy rocks, and into mud we went. On this warm day, I was already cotton-mouthed and red in the face. Ugh.

The sand hill was just a tough as ever, with an added ‘bonus’ this year: the sand was palpably hot! With the unbroken blazing sun on our backs and the steaming sand radiating heat from below, it was like trying to climb the wall of a sauna. It was so hot that my visual cortex malfunctioned, I swear, all I could see was about 2 feet in front of me as I tried to find footholds and get over that monster.

I had been working my way through the field (“on your left, thanks … on your right, thanks …”) steadily, and there was Tony at the top of the sand hill announcing that I’d managed to get back to 9th place. Okay, not bad, but I’m melting!

The second half of the course is less technical than the first, and it’s all about maintaining your power as long as you can, and trying to reel in those in front of you. I could see old friends Steve Calidonna and George Buchanon up there, and did what I could to join them so that we could be a merry trio. I also assumed that my old pal and teammate Stephen Marsalese would eventually pull up on us from behind, and maybe we could call ourselves the Fearsome Foursome. But alas, on this day Steve was feeling the heat (and hallucinating that the course was somehow stretched half a mile too long), old Cannonball was busy chasing a young guy just ahead of him so I never did close that gap, and Stats Marsalese had his own duel going on behind me and never quite caught up with us. We were all doing our own thing, together but separate.

I was looking forward to the final river crossing near the finish like never before. In fact, for at least 10 minutes prior, I had been fantasizing about performing a perfect belly flop into the cool waters, then maybe spending 5-10 seconds underwater, anything to cool off my core just a little. That day-dreaming might have been just what I needed to motivate me to stagger through the final stretch of tall meadow grasses and jump into the not-so-raging torrent. An impressive gaggle of spectators had gathered, all hoping for us to trip up and fall flat on our faces in the murky water, cheering mercilessly. It’s funny, in trail racing you never expect to have any noise like that. If you are lucky there might be half a dozen hearty souls clapping politely along the home stretch. This was more like the crowd at a high school cross country meet, complete with screaming and clapping and shouting. Brought back some very old memories.

I pushed the final uphill stretch to the finish (into the relentless sun) the best that I could, somewhat confused that so many people in attendance actually knew my name as they urged me on to the line. Of course, post-race, I remembered that race organizers had printed our first names in bold letters on our bib numbers. Duh. It was a tough, hot day, but I had somehow managed to finish in 7th place overall out of 955 finishers (see results here). That gave me first place in my age group, but only because Tommy Nohilly won the race outright (he’s 42), and George Buchanon just turned 50, so both were removed from my age group technically, even though they finished ahead of me. Rest assured, that technicality will not hinder the enjoyment I get from eating the cherry pie that was my reward (yes, pies as prizes, not silly trophies … after all, you can’t eat a trophy, or share it with your family … all races should give baked desserts as awards).

No amount of water could slake my thirst after the finish, as I tried in vain to rehydrate. But once my stomach was sloshing about adequately, I wobbled over to the nearest stream bed with my sons. While they waded around barefoot, I sat right down in the cold water and soaked my weary legs. My older son Max remarked about how calm and peaceful it was to just sit in the woods, with no distractions and no reason to rush anywhere. Well put, my boy, well put. The truth is, even while racing in the woods, and even while giving it all I’ve got, I don’t actually feel “rushed”. In fact, and this may sound odd, I often find myself wishing the race could go on longer. I know that’s not a practical thought, and the truth is that my effort-level yesterday was geared toward a distance of 6.2 miles, so I would have completely unraveled if my wish had come true. So it’s not really about wanting the race itself to suddenly, magically be longer, it’s just the feeling of wanting the EXPERIENCE to continue, the wish to capture the moment and surround myself with it, the old dream that was expressed in song with “… catch a falling star and put it on your pocket, never let it fade away”. Corny and sentimental? Yes, but still true.

A huge thanks to the race organizers and everyone else involved with this great event. I heard a rumor that there might be an autumn race on these trails, I hope that it turns out to be true. Count me in. My one suggestion: use the entire set of trails available in that area and make it a nice and LONG race!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Race Preview: Leatherman’s Loop

This Sunday (April 26, 2009) I’ll head north to Ward Pound Ridge Reservation to take on the Leatherman’s Loop, one of the most-popular (and muddy, and wet) trail races in this area. Shockingly, this race filled up with it’s limit of 900 entrants only 16 hours after online registration opened this year. I wonder if race organizers will need to start going to a lottery system soon.

It’s well worth browsing around the race website, it’s a bit irreverent and includes a video of parts of the course shot from the runner’s perspective. The most ironic thing about the video is that it doesn’t even really show how difficult some parts of the course actually can be on race day. Crossing rivers and splashing through mud aside, it’s that darned sand hill climb that really does you in. I used to run up the thing (in fact, years ago there were TWO of these, but one was found to contain a rare species of plant and is now off-limits), now I power-walk it (and sometimes pass people ahead of me who are trying to run).

I’m not sure how many times I’ve run this race, the online archive of results is sadly incomplete. I’ve got all my races recorded in my running log, I should go back through and count them up. It’s got to be close to ten times (update: I counted ... it's actually only five times, which surprised me, seems like I've run it more times than that ... maybe just because I like it so much). I’ve managed to slip into the top 10 a few times, and I think I won the masters division once or twice, but I don’t expect anything like that this weekend. Not only am I getting just a wee bit older, but my training is focused on longer distances right now, and my left hip has been rather tight lately. At this point, I’m no speed-demon and I won’t be able to keep up with the young turks who can attack and accelerate for this short distance of only 10 kilometers. But I’ll give it my best shot.

One worry is the heat. Looks like it could be record high temperatures this Sunday, possibly near 90 degrees F. Horrible. Stupid global warming. I can’t recall ever running Leatherman’s Loop while wearing sunscreen. Usually it’s rainy, windy, and miserable (i.e., perfect). I’m not well-adapted to running in the heat, especially when it comes on suddenly. At least it will make the river crossings feel deliciously cool!

My favorite memory of Leatherman’s Loop? One year I was running strong and working my way through the field. At about the halfway mark, I put in a 300 meter surge and barely managed to pass three runners just before we dipped left down into a particularly swampy section (just before the sand hill). No sooner had I made my move when I found myself face down in a mud puddle, maybe 5-6 inches deep : black, slimy, stinky swamp mud. I had tripped over some hidden obstacle, probably just a root. I didn’t even really have time to get my arms out, so I was literally flat on my belly and slurping mud. Of course, all three of those guys went right past me while I was lolling about in the mire, so all that work I’d done to reel them in and pass them had gone for naught. What could I do? I just got up and got after them again. I managed to reel them all back in, one at a time, the last one right after the sand hill. But I finished that race with black mud caked all over me, even in my hair.

I look forward to this race every year for the spirit, the course, and the friends I see at the start and during the race. Of course, I’d like it even more if it was 10 or 12 (or more) miles longer …

Monday, April 20, 2009

Happily felled by a crafty stone

Trail running is my passion, my play time, my challenge, my inspiration. For me, a 20 mile run on the roads, even in perfect weather with great companions, is at least part drudgery. So repetitive, so leg-deadening. I always feel sort of hungry and bored after the first 90 minutes or so, and just want to head home. Sigh. But yesterday, I ran 22 miles on trails, back at Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park again for probably my last recon run prior to the race on May 9. The weather was rather glorious, typically histrionic meteorological predictions of gloomy precipitation never reaching fruition. The park was as crowded as I’ve seen in awhile, with lots of hikers (many proudly stomping about in squeaky-clean new boots) probably out for their first woods excursion of 2009. Some were a bit stunned by me; admittedly, I must have been a rather stark contrast to the sunny, quiet spring woods as I came thrashing along, dripping sweat and slurping out of my energy drink bottle.

But most folks were friendly and happy, displaying that kind of peaceful glee that getting out of your car/house/office and spending time in the woods will do for you. It’s something not only joyful, but also broadening … I’m finding it hard to put into words. People are friendlier when they are out on trails, water bottles bouncing and trail mix in their pockets. It’s almost like it becomes difficult to be in a bad mood when you are walking in the woods. I think this also applies, at least to me, about running in the woods.

I bumped into a few fellow runners who were also out checking the course. In fact, I passed the same two guys three times, they must have been using shorter routes than I was … you’d think they’d have been annoyed by it, but in fact each time I caught them they were grimly studying their trail map, trying to figure out which way was up. So I think they were glad to have me come huffing and puffing past each time, saying hello once again and pointing them in the right direction.

Long trail runs aren’t without their perils, of course. It was warmer than I expected yesterday, and I did not really bring enough liquids with me. During the final 7 miles of my run I must have crossed 4-5 streams of babbling clear cold water. I was just dying to plop down and drink deeply, but alas one can no longer do that because of giardiasis. I should have brought something to purify the water. I also didn’t eat enough (again!), so I was bonking a bit for the last hour, but I struggled through.

The laugh-out-loud moment came at about 18 miles, when I had just finished a long and gruelingly technical descent on a rocky trail, and finally hit an easy section of fire road. Within 15 seconds, I was face down in a small cloud of dust. I had tripped over the only stone within at least 50 meters in any direction (isn't that the way it always happens?). There it was, clear as day, about the size of a loaf of bread, sitting in middle of the trail and seemingly mocking me. I swear I never saw it. In fact, I think it may have been hiding behind a small shrub, plotting its attack, and then executed its plan perfectly, catching me on the toe and dropping me immediately. I had hit the dirt with a solid thud and a sort of neanderthal grunt which echoed off nearby boulders and came right back at me. It sounded so cartoonish that I guffawed like a teenager at a Seth Rogen film.

I ask you this, how many times do you think you have fallen down clumsily, bloodying your knee in the process, and then responded by laughing hysterically? You see, that is the magic of running on trails.

However, I do hope that rock picks a different victim on May 9.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Complain, but take nothing for granted

Complaining is a time-honored tradition among runners. We complain pre-race (tired, under-trained, not enough sleep, bad day, etc.), we complain mid-race (too crowded, idiot in front of me can’t keep steady pace, volunteer dropped water cup on my foot, etc.), and most of all we complain post-race (sore/injured, disappointed, should have run harder, should have gone out faster/slower, wore the wrong shorts and got chafed, feet blistered, etc.). We engage each other in a subtle game of one-upmanship at each stage, to us it’s just part of the ritual. To others, of course, it’s just more evidence confirming that we are out of our collective minds.

I ran a 10k road race on Saturday. I could complain about it for a paragraph or two without even thinking too much. But if age and experience were to bring you only one thing, it should be a sense of perspective. Once in awhile, I actually find some.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was in a hospital emergency room with a completely severed Achilles tendon, the result of an ill-timed leap for a rebound in a rec league basketball game (what was I thinking?). The thing was just shredded, like a rope that had been pulled too hard and just ripped apart. The on-call physician stood shaking his head and told me that I’d probably never run again (yes, all I was asking about was running, I didn’t really care about much else). Okay, it did happen more than 5 years ago now, but the terror of that on-the-spot prognosis still sends shivers down my spine.

Running has been the one constant in my life. Running has been there for me through the turmoil of adolescence and the ambivalent emotions of growing older, through successes and failures at jobs and relationships, through times of loss and grief, through times of growth and celebration … I’m not certain who I would be without running. The threat of losing running as part of my life was nearly overwhelming.

Luckily, I found the right surgeon, who promised me that my Achilles would look rather lumpy and ugly but that he’d put me back together so that I could run, IF I followed all of his advice on accelerated rehab. I did, and I’m here today running and blogging about it. Thank you.

So, about that race … okay, so it was cold and rainy and windy and way-too-crowded, and my training has been all wrong for this type of short road race. Okay, so I only finished in 143rd place. Okay, so I used to run much faster when I was younger and I always feel just a little bit embarrassed at my road race times these days. Whatever. In the end, I was able to run hard for just over 37 minutes and cross the finish line strong (I actually finished 6th out of 348 in my age group) then stumble into the warming glow of the bright smiles of my teammates who were all happily and breathlessly buzzing about their own races. As one after another crossed the line and joined the impromptu huddle, there was a clear sense of pride over having ignored the elements together and given it our best. How can I complain, really, when so many people couldn’t even dream of doing what I’d just done, and when I myself have been threatened with losing that ability forever?

I think it’s important not to take for granted this running thing that we all love so much. It can be snatched away at a moment’s notice. It is precious, like so many things in our lives that we value deeply but too often treat as if permanent and not worthy of acknowledgement. We should never forget that everything is temporary, which is why it is so vital to embrace each moment of our lives.

The next time you hear me complaining about some silly little thing (“that fourth mile marker was at least 4 meters short!”), look me in the eye and smile knowingly. I’ll shut up fairly quickly. Then again, if only I hadn’t gotten that little blister on my heel during the race I think I could have broken 37 minutes …

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why race?

I occasionally meet other runners who seem to train all the time but never race. If asked about it, they either say that they just don’t care to race, or that they don’t like racing. If you press them, they sometimes will claim that they are not competitive and/or dislike people who are. Hmm. I suppose that I can accept that for some people running is a kind of meditative experience and that jumping into a race would feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, life is filled with uncomfortable experiences, some of which are not only important, but lead to deeper self-awareness and personal growth. If you never challenge yourself, then how can you know who you really are? You say you don't like people who are competitive? Good luck with that one, because it's human nature to compete (Disagree? Observe a group of children for an hour and get back to me). Furthermore (and leaving the psychobabble behind) putting a few races on your calendar is likely to make you a better runner, period. Here are some of the reasons that I think all runners should plan to participate in at least a few races every year:
  • Racing is honest. It provides you with an objective measuring stick for your fitness. The clock does not lie. The results of your races can be used to establish the proper training paces for your workouts, which will lead to improvement.
  • Racing provides focus to your running. It guides your training cycles (weeks of build up, peak, race, recover, repeat), which in turn makes you a better runner and reduces your risk of injury. With no races on the calendar, you can get into a rut, do the same workouts week after week, eventually tire and feel burned out.
  • Racing provides focus to your lifestyle. When you have a race planned you are likely to eat better, get to bed earlier, spend more time at home with your family, limit your distractions and vices.
  • Racing inspires. You are inspired by those around you, and they in turn by you (that goes for your fellow runners as well as spectators and supporters).
  • Racing motivates. This is especially true if you are a member of a team or have friends in the same race. There is something about a race that I call the pull-push phenomenon: The fastest runners at the front of the race “pull” the rest of the field along and help everyone to better performances … but in addition the back of the pack, by running hard and doing their best, also "push" the front of the pack to faster and better performances.
  • Racing is exhilarating. It is a peak experience. Racing is an opportunity to challenge yourself and your boundaries, to feel truly and completely alive.
  • Racing is satisfying. George Sheehan said, “Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” Pleasure is cheap and readily available, you can get pleasure from a good ice cream cone ... but you get true happiness by pushing yourself and battling your inner demons until you have succeeded, and a race is a perfect crucible for that experience.
  • Racing is self-affirming. By completing a race, you realize the reward for the preparation. You feel the glow of having reached for a goal and achieved it.
  • Racing is a fun and social activity. It is a chance to see your friendly rivals and to meet potential new ones. It is a shared experience. In a race, you have become part of a community. We’re all in this together, after all.
  • Racing is ACTIVE, not passive. In a race, no matter your pace, you are doing instead of just watching. In an of itself, doesn’t that just feel good?

So, sign up for a race soon. See if you can prove me wrong on one, some, or all of the above. Then again, you might discover something I’ve missed … if so, send it along.

See you at the starting line.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

North Face 50k Recon, Part 3

With the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k Trail Race coming up on May 9, I have been making time to get to Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park to traverse the entire route as preparation. In previous postings, I described some of the challenges of the first 7 miles and last 9 miles of the course. That left the middle 14 miles as unexplored (at least for me). My chance to cover those miles came last Sunday afternoon, following the short trail race I ran that morning.

It’s somewhat hard to decide how objective I can be about this latest recon mission. First of all, I was a bit tired from running all-out in mud that morning. Second of all, it was a cool, breezy, misty day, which left the course a bit sloppy and the rocks quite slick; I didn’t fall, but I came close a couple of times, very close. Still, even taking all of that into account, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the middle 14 miles of this race course include the most technical and difficult (and in two cases actually a bit dangerous) portions of the course.

I actually ran 17 miles of the course, from the 3.9 mile mark to the 20.9 mile mark, according to the race booklet. Having run a race earlier in the day, I think I took on a little too much in the afternoon, because I ended up running out of fuel and bonking at about 14 miles. That made for some slow slogging and uphill walking during the last 3 miles, but I suppose I should be glad that it was my energy level and not my legs that gave out on me. Even my sore right hamstring, which had really bothered me in the race, seemed to hang in there just fine at the slower pace of this trail run.

As far as the course, it’s pretty easy from the Anthony Wayne Recreation Area for about 3 miles until you pick up the Ramapo-Dunderberg/AT trail. This is technical singletrack folks, with typical east coast rocks and roots and the need for you to choose carefully your every foot fall. You ascend, then descend, and the last hundred meters down to the shelter at the next trail intersection is very treacherous: on this wet day, it was downright dangerous. You basically hop down some boulders, but they are scattered at odd angles and there are no good hand holds anywhere … be very careful here, a fall is possible and injury likely if that happens!

The next couple of miles, ending up at Silvermine Lake, are nice, and especially a short section just after the lake along soft pine needles. After you cross Seven Lakes Drive, it’s a long slow climb on a fire road to hook up with the Long Path, which puts you back into technical singletrack and several significant climbs and descents for a few miles. The danger zone comes right after passing the Stockbridge Shelter (on your left at the top of a large rock outcropping), where you once again have to hop down and around a few boulders … on this day those rocks were wet and slippery, and the hikers who were holed up in the shelter shook their heads at me as I slipped and skidded down. Eventually, you hook up with the AT again via a short unmarked trail, and emerge on Arden Valley Road. You plunge downhill on the road (ugh!) to Tiorati Circle, then head right back uphill on the road straight across. Navigation got weird at that point, as a completely unmarked and unmapped trail is supposed to take you into the woods to hook up with Ramapo-Dunderberg again … I don’t know if I took the right trail, but I managed to get there. You aren’t long on the RD before you turn off on another unmarked trail, and this one is a bit of an adventure. It’s completely overgrown with underbrush (looks like blueberry bushes and other low bushes), and there must be at least 20 trees that have fallen down across the trail that you have to jump over (update: ran that section of trail again on 4/5/09, and simply counted the downed trees that I had to step over ... 74. No kidding). Luckily, it trends almost entirely downhill. Lucky also that the race will be taking place in the spring, because by summer that trail is going to be so overgrown you won’t be able to see it (although snacking on the blueberries would be nice).

The remainder of this part of the course is actually quite nice and very runnable … of course, as I mentioned earlier I simply hadn’t eaten enough pre-run so I ended up speed-hiking parts. What I’ll need to remember is to stay relaxed and on pace through this area during the race. As I’ve written before, my common mistake in longer trail races is that I tend to pick up the pace mid-race, not because I’m trying to do so, but because I’m just enjoying myself so much and I get into a sort of rhythm that is just a little too fast. Because this section of the course, which will be from about 17 to about 21 miles on race day, is fairly easy I will have to be careful to hold back.

So, at this point I’ve seen the entire 50k course, and I am both impressed and a little nervous about the race. There are a few really difficult spots, and certainly a half-dozen places where a navigational error would be very easy. Hopefully, the course will be marked well enough for that not to be a real problem, but only race day experience will answer that. If you are running one of the races on May 9, best of luck to you. I hope we all have decent weather and great races.