Almost a week has passed since the Hyner 50k challenge, and my legs are beginning to feel close to normal. The muscular havoc that results from running 6:29 in the hills of PA, cannot be underestimated, but as the creatine kinase levels fall, and the exploded myofibrils repair, the pain too subsides and I find myself searching for new athletic challenges later in the year…
As a novice to the ultra-run, I had done the requisite homework. I studied nutrition and hydration strategies, weighed the options of various footwear and backpacks, followed the forums for tips on terrain management. With two 25k experiences at Hyner in the bag, I knew that strength training balanced with adequate high quality mileage was the key to pulling off a fun, injury-free successful race.
Infected by the Hyner bug, our fellow athletes trained together with Ed at *the shed*, rowing, jumping, lunging, pulling and pushing our way through sweaty puddles, and passed many dreary cold winter days hammering through the local trails in Montauk, East Hampton, Sag Harbor. We hauled weighted sleds and jumped rope, carried kettlebells across the baseball field, and bonded in the deep friendship that comes with spending quality sweat time together. A mid-winter trip to Costa Rica brought respite from the snow, and we woke at dawn to the howling monkeys, prepping us for our jungle adventures.
We trained hard, enjoyed hot, hilly, sandy, dusty runs around Nosara, and cold beers around a laughter-filled dinners at night.
As we edged closer to race-day, there were some casualties with Lyme disease (not-so-affectionately known as Montauk-knee), illness and old injuries rearing their ugly heads. Unbowed, though missing our full contingent of crazies, we piled into cars and headed west, through NYC, the bland roads of New Jersey, and into the rolling hills of Amish country. Over twenty flatlanders had managed to make it to the start line of the 25k and 50k event, not even officially called a race, but rather a “challenge”, though the race-faces were in abundance. The start-line scene was more akin to a mountain bike race, with campers filling the field behind the registration lodge, local families milling about with the athletes, schoolkids assisting with race-day duties, dogs wandering in the road. Race friends finding each other and hugging, high-fiving with seconds to go, and then OFF, over the bridge and along the cliff-trail.
Humble Hill is as it suggests, a force to beat down the ego, and for the third time in as many years, I took it on. My world began to shrink, moving from the expansive environment of science, training, human movement study, PhD, family, wedding plans, patients, work etc. to the 18” wide, 3 feet long section of trail in front of my face. I felt my ankles dorsiflex to their end point, then spring load uphill. Thighs pushing hard to pivot up and over the rocks, Glutes finish the hip extension, arms powering in reciprocal motion, breath heavy but steady. Hands scramble for a tree limb, some grass, as the mud challenges the traction at what seems like a 45degree angle. And so on for another 40 minutes, as the castle and ant-sized cheering supporters came into view.
Burning. I began to get out of my body and into my head. I was settling in. The descents in PA are insane. At least for Long Island flatlanders. No soft sandy stretches with occasional roots. No fescue grassy, mossy loamy soils underfoot. Sharp rocks, shale, slippery wet mud. All at ferocious angles and winding down the mountain towards the Susquehanna river, glimpsed through the trees when I had the confidence to look up and away from the trail.
I descended at a steady pace, pausing a few times to enjoy the view, and let some billy-goat bomb past me, half-thinking that we would cross paths later (we usually did). The valley trail seemed shorter this year, and turned sooner into the second climb, Johnsons run. Here the trail wove through the riverbed, climbing as it turned. The trail crossed from one bank to the other, and then rose right through the stream center in parts before making a hard left. Initial passes had me bounding between the dry spots, but soon gave way to leaps into the stream, taking the shortest route and saving the legs from inelegant pauses. The 50k course parted ways from the 25k course, and I headed into terra incognito…up Sledgehammer.
After another steep climb, the course opened out onto amazing vistas of the river meandering through the mountainsides, and I swear, it is worth the training and effort just to make it to this point. Knackered, I couldn’t even get my iPhone out for a photo, and didn’t dare stop, for fear of getting chilled on the exposed mountainside.
I settled back into a rhythm, and caught a few of the guys who had passed me at the last aid station. The weather had been alternating between cool sun and snow flurries, with a biting wind.
With limited fat stores, I am generally pretty cold sensitive. However, as I have been doing more long runs in training, and experimenting with both my outfits and my brain thoughts, I have been succumbing less to my normal issues with cold. I had decided to travel light as possible, so with wool baselayer, long socks and shorts, my only options for heat generation were to put on my thin gloves and pull up my hairband over my ears. Oh, and run harder. Amazingly, I was able to sashay between headband and no headband, gloves and no gloves, sleeves pushed up and sleeves down, thumbs through the thumb holes in the sleeves and not. A wide variety of “outfits” emerged and I was able to thermoregulate in style! Right at 3:58, approximately mile 16, my GPS died, succumbing no doubt to the cold air drawing heavily on the battery. I felt glad on some level, not really needing to know that I was only half-ways, and with less pressure on me to count the miles, I picked up my pace. Mile 19 had a “heat” stop, designed no doubt, to deal with the cumulative stress of long running, inclement weather, and the need for a brain break. It was a simple log cabin in the middle of nowhere, with no apparent road in or out. But warm soup, friendly faces and refills for fluids were in plentiful supply. Once chug of veggie tomato barley soup later, I was on my way.
Re-joining the 25k course and continuing up Johnsons run, I was mixing it up with the back-of-the-pack 25k hikers. No runners here, they were hiking with poles, chatting, struggling over streams and fallen trees, having fun. Some were older ex-runners, with their sharply defined calf and quad muscles belying the shuffling gait and bent spines, some were morbidly obese, and huffing through the streams with intent, and a vision of a lighter life. As someone who has been lucky in athletics and genes, I haven’t spent that much time with this group, but when I do, I always feel that medals and awards should be given in reverse. The back-of-pack athletes deserve a ribbon, a medal, a prize for getting off the couch, fighting their genes, their weight, their age, their story.
Running long distance races differs from the short stuff in many ways, but I find the internal dialogue is familiar to both. The years of hard bike racing, swimming and running, for me, have given me a space that allows me to spend (much-needed) time inside my own head, with my own thoughts. The day passed with waves of good moments, followed not too long later by bad moments. And if I waited enough, the good moments came again, in this sinusoidal wave of ups and downs, aches and powerful moments, sluggishness and springiness. I sat back inside my head and enjoyed the ride, watching my thoughts emerge as if I was looking at them from a different room, allowing them to ebb and flow like the tide.
And then Monika passed me. The last downhill was a familiar one, Huff run. A 2 mile, rocky, steep descent to the road, then the finial mile to the finish. I had passed her earlier, at 3 hours, and since she was a seasoned 100 mile runner from Virginia, I was happy to have shown her my heels. But here the novice gets a schooling, as she bounded past me at high speed, we high-fived as she passed, solidarity amongst the women, but my legs had nothing left to meet her challenge. I picked my way down, and happy to be on flat ground, gathered some speed for the finish.
Six and a half hours of running was taxing, on both mind and body, and as I wondered how much more I had inside, I was already thinking of digging further in the future, even as my hip muscles screamed on the last little climb…towards the finish line.. And there: all our gang, safe and sound after their 25k race, beers in hand, waiting for me and cheering like lunatics! I squealed with happiness, the support of my *family* washing the aches away, and completing this long journey with joy (and beer).
We had a great night out on the town in Lock Haven, limping around like arthritic old dogs, heavy legs, but light hearts. To carry off this great event as an endurance athlete is one thing, but to do it with such good friends who buoyed each other all the way, is something else. While I coach athletes in order to prepare them for these races, I too got coached, guided, supported by all of these people in return. Ed might have missed the race with his injured knee, but he was buried deep in our legs and our hearts as we tore up and down the mountainsides. As it takes a village to educate a child, it takes a community to build an athlete. What a great community we have. And now, more recovery please..