The day I became an ultra-runner (and didn't even know it)
I am not an athlete and I never thought of myself as one - the one and only time I would dare dream of being and athlete was during my youth when I absolutely loved playing football with my siblings and friends. This was the time of the once famous, now infamous 'OJ', who was a hero to so many Buffalo Bills fans. I loved running, being outdoors and I loved the fresh air and the varying scents of the seasons. Often times, I found myself wandering through the fields behind our house, sometimes for hours on end. Those fields and forests were a peaceful place for me to wander and wonder. The musty smell of the swamp, the cool running water of the creek where my friends and I searched for crawdaddies, the leaves and branches and soft pine forests provided me with a love and appreciation of this amazingly beautiful world we live in. There was always more to see and do and I was never bored outdoors.
Fast forward several decades. I had gotten married, had a child, traveled around the world, earned my doctorate and found myself living in Bayside, Queens with a job teaching music. That year, my life took an abrupt and completely unexpected turn. One brisk Sunday morning in November 2000, I happened to be watching the New York City Marathon on TV. It was the most awe-inspiring thing I'd ever seen. Literally, thousands of people from all walks of life were running, moving their bodies towards this goal of completing 26.2 miles no matter what problems, ailments, history, health issues, handicaps or burdens they may have had or needed to overcome. In that single moment, I was inspired (it was much like the first time I heard the sound of the trumpet 30 years earlier). During the early Spring months of 2001, I began running. First one or two blocks, then more and then even more. My love for running continued and grew stronger year to year. After a brief move to Poughkeepsie, we settled into our first home in Niskayuna, NY and soon afterward found out about a running club called the "Albany Running Exchange" (ARE) led by Josh Merlis. During the summer of 2008 began my membership with this awesome group of runners where every Thursday evening throughout the summer months we would meet at various parks around Albany to enjoy the camaraderie of group runs. Once again, I felt excited and energized running these trails with like-minded people. It brought me back to my memories of my youth when I could spend all day in the fields and forests and never want to leave.
During the colder Winter months, I ran mostly on weekends, but when teaching obligations were fulfilled and Spring had arrived, I would increase my weekly mileage up to about 40 miles weekly. During these years I started reading up on trail running, first with Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, Scott Jurek's Eat and Run and Dr. George Sheehan's Running and Being. Learning something new was exciting. These texts eventually led me to Alberto Salazar's 14 Minutes, Vanessa Rodriguez's The Summit Seeker, and Hal Koerner's Field Guide to Ultra Running, as well as many other fascinating books by members of this fascinating running community. The seed had been planted as I began to wonder if I could I ever run an ultra (any distance further than 26.2 miles). The furthest I had ever run was ten miles.
Then on one warm August day in 2013, I woke up on a Monday morning and after a nice warm-up/practice session on trumpet (trumpet always comes first), I went out for a typical 6 mile run. The following morning, I felt great so I went out for an 8 miler. Again the next morning, I decided that since I've never run further than 10 miles, I would to go out for an 11 miler and again, I felt great. Thursday morning arrived and I decided since I felt so good that I would like to try for a half marathon (13.1 miles) distance. Using RunKeeper, I found a nice 13.1 mile loop and headed out the door to attempt a distance I never thought I would be able to run. Really hungry and really thirsty and a bit chaffed (it was about 85 degrees, sunny and I had no water/food belt and no hat) I returned home several hours later. I had achieved something I thought nearly impossible - and it wasn't that difficult. My body reacted well to the stress of many miles run. That evening at the ARE trail run, Josh wisely suggested I take off the next day and it was really only due to the chaffing, I agreed. But again, I wondered, how much further could I go?
Early in 2014 I decided there was only one way to find out. How far could I push my body? What could I endure physically, mentally, emotionally and where would it take me spiritually? What would I experience through my new found love of distance running? With Springs' arrival and warmer and longer days, I could commit to increasing my mileage to train for my first ultra. Online, I found a local race that was only several hours drive - Virgil Crest Ultra - in Virgil, NY and signed up early for the 50K. My training began.
I dubbed Mondays 'Marathon Mondays' as the day when I would go for my long trail runs and increase my distance every several weeks. I began with runs of 13 miles, then 15, then 20 and 25 and by Labor Day I ran my longest run of 26.2 before I began my two week taper. Mondays became one of my favorite days of the week. I would go up to Thatcher Park, which has the most beautiful trails with hills, technical sections and pine forests. I ran over bridges and over boulders, over rocks, roots and thick carpet of pine needIes. I ran through rain storms, thunder storms, sunny days, humid days, days of relentless black flies. It was tough and rugged. But I was running in God's country and it was always beautiful. It was a gift I would never take for granted. After every run, I always thank God for giving me the ability to run.
By the end of the summer at Virgil Crest, I had succeeded in running 33.4 miles of trails (6 of which were ski slopes) and made it back before the cut-off time of 10 hours. I was drawn to tears not only because I had achieved a goal that I had thought impossible, but mostly because my beautiful wife and son were there with me supporting me every step of the way (Anthony had been following my progress through texts and he called me immediately after I finished). It was truly one of the single most moving experiences of my life.
The following morning I woke up in my hotel room with the biggest smile on my face. My body was fine, just a bit of soreness. But I was ready for more. I would have never thought from that one chance viewing of the New York City Marathon fourteen years earlier I would eventually be inspired to become an ultra-runner. Where does inspiration come from? Does it ever end? What does my future hold? 50 milers? 100 milers? I just need to set a goal and achieve it.
Virgil Crest 2015
I had learned much from my first ultra and I knew that I needed to train harder and smarter to better prepare for the demands of such a task. Starting Easter break (from teaching), I started training (6 months from the race) and my immediate goal was to build up mileage so that by June I was comfortably running approximately 45-50 mile weeks. That would become my base upon which I will build strength and mileage.
My goals for the months of April and May were easily met. Starting in June I needed to change my training to include tougher trails and hills. Once again, every Monday I headed to Thatcher Park to run trails. This time, I ran 4.3 mile loops on the toughest I could find and finished each loop with .7 mile road run back to start the next loop. I could comfortably complete the 5 mile loop in one hour, often times much sooner. Then I would go out for another loop, every several weeks adding a loop starting with three in June (15 miles) and finishing with five loops (25 miles) by Labor Day.
I also changed my rest days from last year’s schedule. Using Hal Koerner’s brilliant book, “Field Guide to Ultra Running” as a guide, I realized that I need to include back to back long runs in my routine. After my “Marathon Monday” run, I would go out on Tuesday for an 8 miler thereby training my body to run on tired legs. Wednesdays and Sundays became my rest days, although I would sometimes go out with my wife for an easy two miles or so. The other days of the week I ran 8 milers.
I also changed my eating/drinking practices: I ate oats for breakfast with a banana, honey, peanut butter and cinnamon, used a 22 oz. hand-held that was filled twice for each loop (once plain water with a gel and once with GU Brew), and ate GU gels for fuel. I felt lighter, never ran out of energy and experienced no cramping.
My plan worked. At the Virgil Crest 50 K, I shaved off 2 hours and 15 minutes from last years’ time finishing in 7:35. I never bonked, I never cramped and with the addition of compression shorts, I suffered very little chafing.
The experience of running has become a very deeply spiritual experience, although it also combines the mental, emotional and physical. I often find myself running alone but I never feel alone. I often find myself deep in a state of prayer and meditation and there were many times during the VC 50k when I felt like I was being carried in the palm of God. It’s difficult to describe…
Once again, I wondered what I was capable of. How much further could I go? What could I endure and what would I experience during this test of spirit and endurance? I needed to find out, so I will be signing up for the VT 50 miler to be held in September 2016.
I had received news via e-mail from RD Ian Golden that Virgil Crest was no longer. There were too few runners, trails were being taken over for motorbikes and an assortment of other problems that made it too difficult to keep this run happening. Bummer! I was so upset to hear that because I really loved that run, the trails, the volunteers and the small group of runners crazy enough to attempt VC. Alas, I had to find a new run and soon came to find the Vermont 50 that takes place during the end of September - beautiful running weather in even more beautiful Vermont.
Although I had some early on set backs with a misdiagnosed foot problem, I stayed on task with my training goals. I initially had some pain in my left ankle but after meeting with my PT I was given several stretches that were perfect for relaxing and stretching that area. As in previous years, I used Hal Koerner's training guide which was quite effective.
For the new distance, I had set four goals: 1) be at the starting line healthy, 2) finish in under 10 hours, 3) finish in under 11 hours, 4) finish with legs still attached! I achieved two of those goals - No. 1 and 4.
Of course, being my first ever 50 miler, I wanted to be able to finish so I went out really easy. My amazing wife (and Superstar Crew Chief) and I arrived early. I was told there would be a mandatory meeting for all bikers and runners at 5:30 am, but it never happened. It was a cool but beautiful day with clear skies. Following the bikers start at 6:00 am, we followed at 6:30 am. It was smooth going for the most part with dirt roads, a bit of trail, and some paved roads. I was surprised to find that the first 25 miles or so were either up or down with very little flat terrain. While using my Garmin 220 GPS as a pace/distance guide, at about 15 miles in I mentioned to a fellow runner that we were at 15 miles. Her response was, "only 35 miles to go." That was tough to hear since the furthest I had ever run during training was 30 miles and to think that I had already been on my feet for several hours and still had more to go was tough on the psyche. I was reminded how vitally important proper mental preparation can be during these times.
Still, there I was moving along through some of the most beautiful country side one has ever seen. It was just about as beautiful a day as anyone could have ever asked for. I was thankful for the sunny, cool afternoon, rolling hills, meadows, streams, cows and fellow runners and wonderful volunteers. We were all together putting our selves on the line to see what we were made of; we were all fulfilling our dreams after months (years) of training and dreaming.
It was really excited to meet my brother Mike at mile 40 who would pace me to the end. Keep moving forward...keep moving forward. Everything seemed to be working quite well. My fueling and hydration were excellent - just as I had trained. The compression shorts were awesome and my feet felt just fine - no hot spots or blisters. I was relly thankful to see my brother there waiting for me when I arrived. By this time I was a couple hours behind 'ideal' goal pace, but I felt good - I still had plenty of energy. After a few quick bites of my favorite 'ultra' foods - potato chips and cookies - we were under way. Mike took an awesome photo of me running down the trail with the sun lowering in the September sky.
After reaching the final aid station with only four miles to go and plenty of time, I started to slow down. I think I was more interested in reminiscing than running. After about two miles mike let me know that we were running out of time. We had two miles to go in less than 30 minutes. That seems like plenty of time, but not so easy when in the midst of fairly technical trails and 48 miles on your feet. Anyway, I was determined to finish in the 12 hours allotted and so we took off at a pretty fast pace almost catching the runner just up ahead. I came in at 12:02 which fulfilled my 4th goal of finishing.
There was much to learn from this experience.
1) I need to use my Garmin, but not the GPS since it dies at around 9-10 hours. I had no idea what time it was for the remaining 15 or so miles.
2) Run everything that can be run. Only walk steep inclines.
3) I must improve my power hiking abilities. I noticed may others that were much faster than I on the inclines although almost all of them were not that steep - nothing compared to the alpine loops of Virgil Crest.
4) My socks, running shoes, compression shorts worked perfectly. Don't change them! I had no chafing, no blisters or hot spots.
After a long, hot shower and a filling, delicious meal I felt completely renewed and so proud of my accomplishment. But without the support, encouragement and love of my wife, son and brother, I would not have been able to do this. I'll be back next year to shave off two hours or more. God willing, I'll be ready.