Monday, February 7, 2011

Blood on the Snow

My wife thinks I’m out of my mind, and she’s probably right. Well, let’s just admit that she is right. She’s always right. I ran a race this past weekend in conditions that she believes call for nothing more than rolling over in bed and sleeping a few more hours. Like I said, she's always right.

But sometimes I just have so much fun being out of my mind. I raced the third of the four-race NJ Trail Series Winter races this past Saturday. Just getting to the starting line was already a challenge. Not only was I sick at home from work on Friday with some kind of stomach bug, but Saturday dawned with light snow, changing to freezing rain. I gave myself a bit of extra time to get to Lewis Morris Park, but was happy to find the roads in excellent condition – just wet, no ice.

Not so for the venue. After I parked the car, I basically skated downhill to the available port-a-john. It was drizzling, and the ambient temperature was maybe 28F. The moisture was adding another thin layer of ice to the already-crunchy crust on top of about a foot of snow in the area. I also noticed that the very first turn of the race, which was a 90 degree left from a recently-plowed gravel path, was basically a sheet of ice. Back at the car, I changed to my screw shoes – an old pair of Nike Trail S+ with 11 hex-head sheet metal screws in each. I jogged down to test that first turn and made it through easily. Amazing how this setup works on ice, and I think it cost me all of $1.79 for the screws. A bit cheaper (and lighter weight) than a pair of Yak Trax or other similar ice cleats (of course, those can be taken on and off according to conditions, and once you put the screws in your shoes that's what you're wearing the whole way).

Just before the start, I peeled off my warm-up layers and decided to go with shorts – I always prefer racing with bare legs, because of the freedom of movement. It was a mistake on this day, and you can probably already guess why. The formula would be something like:

(10 miles) * (single track trails) + (a layer of ice on top of one foot of snow)* (not knowing with each step when one’s foot will break through the icy crust) + (one runner of questionable judgment) = blood on the snow. But we’ll get to that. Let’s just say that my choice of red shoes, while not planned as such, was nonetheless wise.

The start of the race was surprisingly slow. Really surprisingly slow. I actually took the lead 50 meters into it. I am a notoriously slow-starter. I’m always running from behind. I don’t think I’ve led the first 50 meters of any race since the early 1980s. But in this case I believe it was a combination of the icy trails, the effectiveness and relative lightweight of my screw shoes, and a hesitant field that allowed me this very brief “lead”. However, once the group discovered that they weren’t going to fall down immediately, the next 100 meters saw 8 guys rocket past me on both sides, so we reached that first left hand turn with some semblance of order restored.

I’ve written many times that bad conditions suit me. In fact, the tougher, the better. Throughout my 30+ years as a competitive runner, I have been able to beat some runners only when the conditions get bad. Why? I think it’s simple, really. They are more talented that I am. They are faster than I am. Put us on a track on a dry day with no wind and comfortable temperatures, and they will simply run away from me – I can’t keep up, no matter how hard I try. However, add some obstacles – say some cold wind, rain, mud, snow, streams, hills, rocks, roots – and suddenly I’m catching them. Toss in some more difficulties - like navigation challenges, swamps, treacherous footing, bleeding – and I’m out ahead of them. I could chalk this up to mental toughness or something like that, which is probably part of it. But it’s also my grind-it-out running style and my patience & experience with running through (over, around, under) obstacles. Anyway, a man needs to know his strengths, and on this day the course really suited me.

Then again, a man’s got to know his limitations. Thus, lessons can be learned from every race. On this day, these were mine:

1. Frustration is really only another hill to run up. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to run a race when you are slipping and sliding around, and when every step can result in a surprise (sudden traction, or punching through the ice into deep snow, or slipping in any possible direction – you get the picture). If you let this experience get to you mentally, it’s totally exhausting. If you just go with it – in fact, I laughed out loud once at the absurdity of it all when I ended up running sideways for two steps – it simply becomes another part of the challenge.
2. Pain is to be embraced. That punching through the snow thing was bad enough, but with ice on the top each punch resulted in a shin-deep hole that was rimmed with hundreds of little knife edges. Not only did my bare legs get scratched and cut on the way down into each hole, but also ripped up on the way out. In addition, the momentum of running caused my legs to bang into the ice hard enough to create immediate bruises up and down my shins and ankles, which continue to change colors even now two days later. In other words, some steps just plain hurt, and that pain got worse during the almost-90 minutes I was out there. I chose to embrace that pain – bring it on! – because I knew my competitors were not doing so (shouts of “ouch” and “sh*t” surrounded me).
3. A frozen shirt feels funny when it bounces. With the fine mist in the air and the cold temps, my singlet became slowly frozen solid. This left me running with something akin to a tailor-fitted sandwich board for the final five miles of the race. I also had some icicles hanging from my watch and my hat. Wish I’d had a camera.
4. Bleeding is not scary, unless you decide so. See number 2 above. After two miles of this torture, I glanced down at my shins to see both of them bright red with blood. By the midway point, I’d also ripped most of the skin off of my right knee, so that entire leg was covered in blood. I decided it was just a flesh wound, and ignored it. I’ve certainly had worse, I told myself.
5. Patience pays off. After those 8 guys sailed by me, we settled into the singletrack. The leaders roared off in tight formation, single-file and charging every hill. I sat in 9th place, maybe 50 meters back, with one guy on my heels. But he was already gasping for air only 800 meters in, so I didn’t pay him much notice. I just ran my pace, and waited to see what would happen up ahead. At first, they all pulled away. About two miles in, the overall leader stopped! he just pulled off the course, stood in the snow wheezing, and I think he was stretching his calf muscles. Half a mile later, the runner in 4th place also pulled off the course, and started fiddling with his ice cleats. At the same time, the entire lead pack slowed down, so that I ran right up on the heels of 6th place. Unfortunately, the dude in 5th was basically dying, and the 4 in front of him were running away. Despite having two of us on his heels, he refused to give way and allow a pass. The runner in 6th, Jim Sonneborn I believe, kept trying to get around the guy, but to no avail. I waited, slowed my breathing, relaxed, reassured myself that we still had at least an hour to go. Finally, Jim got around, but now I was stuck. Argh. It was at least half a mile until I could finally dive around the guy on a downhill corner. Yeesh. I’d lost a lot of ground, but soon I was coming up fast on Jim and the 4th place runner. Over the final mile of the first lap, Jim got around and pulled away, and I overtook the guy too, so I was sitting in 4th. Not bad, I thought, and as I watched Jim and the 2nd place runner John Montgomery scamper away I figured I’d be running alone for the 2nd lap, holding onto my 4th place.

However, these technical courses can really take their toll on people. Truth is that I had been holding back just a hair on lap one, planning to run negative splits. It became clear to me that John and Jim were pushing it the entire way, racing. I saw Jim pass John before that icy turn, and I caught John about 500 meters later, just after I saw him slip and nearly fall as we re-entered the single track. I could tell that I was also starting to pull Jim back, and then I saw him slow perceptibly on a series of uphills. When I caught him, he politely moved left and motioned me past. Nice guy. I gasped out a "thank you" and a "keep it going" to him. Incredibly, I was in 2nd place, bloody shins and all!

I caught glimpses of the guy in first a few times, but he was just too far ahead for me to mount a serious challenge. I would wager that I ran lap two faster than he did, but not by much and he wasn’t pushed, so maybe he could have gone faster if he'd needed to.

As I thundered down the final hill, leaving a trail of red drops, I could feel the satisfaction of having worked as hard as I could and persevered despite ridiculous conditions. Pretty cool. I ended up 2nd overall, far better than I would have predicted. That made the cold beer and hot noodles at the finish that much tastier (man, those steaming noodles really hit the spot – thanks to the volunteers who prepped them for us).

I once more have nothing but praise for the race organizers. In those kind of deplorable conditions, they were efficient, accurate, friendly, and supportive. Great job all.

There is one more race in this series, and I hope to be able to run it, and at this point I’m just so pleased with how it’s gone that I won’t even care how I place in the final race. After many months of not even being able to run a step, this series has given a renewed focus to my training and helped bring me back to feeling like a runner again. I could not ask for more.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fine Line between Adventure and Stupidity

I am planning to venture out to NJ again this weekend for the third race in this winter trail race series.

We've had more snow since the last race in January, and last night the area received almost two inches of freezing rain. In fact, this morning I basically skated in my shoes along the sidewalks to get to work. If it wasn't rather dangerous, it would be funny. It did warm my heart to see many people offering a helping hand to each other, just to get across the street. And you thought New Yorkers were a cold, hard bunch! Not when we face adversity together, baby.

So, of course I'm going to run this trail race on snowy, icy, potentially dangerous single track. It will be an adventure. Or, it could be one of those "it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt" kind of things. That's the fine line between challenging yourself at something difficult versus putting yourself in the path of stupid risk. I've tried to dance along that line a few times in my life, and I have the scars to prove it. Hopefully, this race will be on the right side of that edge.

To be prepared, I've loaded up a pair of trail shoes with sheet metal screws, just in case the surface is an impenetrable ice sheet. Without some kind of cleats, that kind of icy stuff leaves you spinning and flopping like an excited puppy on a waxed linoleum floor.

So far, I can't find anyone brave enough (or dumb enough) to come along with me. We'll see, sometimes they come running at the last minute begging for a ride.