F.A.I.L.ing Stupendously


It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

— J.K. Rowling


I attempted my first 50k Saturday, the Frozen Heart 50K in St. Mary’s County. It was a wonderfully run event on a really nice (dare I even say fun)  course. Everything was set up for a successful foray into the ultrarunning world. And then I screwed it all up.

I have never, ever, had such good preparation for a race. I was running well the few weeks before Saturday; I had gotten better eating habits; I felt strong; I slept well the night before the race; I didn’t forget anything I needed for the race and I didn’t get lost getting there. Every single detail was perfect. And then I found the perfect way to screw it all up.


 

Me pre-race, looking forward to an incredible day (left). Gorgeous sunrise in St. Mary’s Rive State Park (right).

Before the race, I was optimistic. I met some wonderful people and shared stories of runs and adventures, as is required when runners meet. The aid stations were warm, welcoming, and full of everything needed to sustain us through 31 beautiful, if a bit muddy, miles. Every base was covered at the race. And then I still managed to screw it all up.


Amazing trails here. I can’t wait to run them again!

I went out conservatively. I didn’t want to burn out early by going too hard, too fast. I wanted to finish loop one of the three-loop course in two hours. I came in at 2:03, almost exactly where I wanted to be. The first loop was fun, with photo ops and conversations with lots of other runners. I was pumped and couldn’t wait until for the other two loops, one of which I didn’t know would never happen. I distinctly remember, right before the end of the first loop, at about mile 9.5, thinking to myself, “You’ve got this! You are finishing a 50k today!” and smiling to myself. Little did I know I had already screwed it up beyond belief.

Three hours after that premature and triumphant thought, I was struggling with myself. I had walked a good deal of the second loop, and it had taken an extra hour to finish over the first loop. I wanted to continue, but every time I tried to even shuffle along, parts of me hurt that never hurt. My forearms didn’t just ache but burned and screamed when I tried to run. My legs felt good, but my hips and pelvis were shot. I had no vigor, no energy, and I had to sit down a few times to get my bearings. What the hell did I do to screw this all up?


There were a number of planks (top center) which helped with footing. The “little bit” of mud here and there kept us paying attention (bottom left) but the aid stations (bottom right) were full of cheer, good food, and encouragement.

In one of my favorite episodes of House, Hugh Laurie’s titular character drives himself to the brink of insanity trying to solve the suicide of a colleague. House needed a logical explanation for Kutner’s death, and because there wasn’t one readily available, House had moved on to assuming the death was a homicide. He needed something he could understand and wrap his head around; without one, he was a hot mess. I was that hot mess all day Saturday and into Sunday. I could not, for the life of me, find a reason why I had failed so spectacularly. In ten miles, I went from being on top of the world to being in the deepest recesses of a hell of my own making. I needed to understand why I had screwed it all up!

Fortunately, I got hungry on Sunday afternoon. I was working at the running store, and I grabbed a pack of black cherry Shot Bloks, a flavor a recent customer had just purchased that I had never sampled. They sounded good. I had run with orange and strawberry Shot Bloks on Saturday, liked the product, and wanted to see if black cherry would work in future races. As I casually glanced down at the nutrition info, I saw a number that stopped my heart.  The label stated that 3 Bloks provided 100 calories. I had taken two packages of Bloks, or 12 individual Bloks. I had only eaten eight of them, which meant I had consumed under 300 calories worth of Shot Bloks. Two of the eight Bloks were pre-run. so during the run, I had only eaten 200 calories worth of Bloks…over five hours! I had not taken anything but a small handful of 4-5 Swedish Fish at the only aid station in the first loop, not wanting to overindulge. That meant I had ingested maybe 200 calories in the first two hours instead of the 800 I had planned to consume. Three hours (and 1200 calories I should have eaten later) into the second loop, I had eaten only 140 or so more calories and munched on a few small sections of potatoes and salt, a few more Fish, this amazing concoction called an ultra ball, and a few peanut M&Ms. In short, I had figured out how I screwed up my perfectly planned race!

I pride myself on being a relative smart guy, but I had been done in by something I’m usually really, really good at: eating. I hadn’t ingested nearly enough calories to keep my over-worked body functioning. If I had simply popped more Bloks, more potatoes, and maybe a brownie or two into my pie hole, the whole day would have been different.


IMAG0163

Dammit, Pikachu, why didn’t you remind me to eat?!?!

In education, we always discuss how to F.A.I.L. simply means your First Attempt In Learning. To me and my Type A personality, failing has never been easy, and while my overtaxed brain is happy it knows why I crashed and burned and knows I will learn from that experience, my brain is now raging because it was a simple math error, not adding up calories correctly, that led to my demise. I’ll never get this chance back again. Even though the good people at the Frozen Heart 50 give you credit for what you did run and declared me a 34k finisher, I know that forever in my heart, I DNF’d my first 50k, and I am not happy with that.

My friends and family were wonderful in their support of me before and after this race (thank you all so much!), but part of me is just angry about my performance and it will take a while to get over the embarrassment and downright shame I feel over not finishing what I started. Today will be my first run since Saturday, and I go into it with a different mindset and different feelings in my heart and brain. To be honest, I don’t know what these feelings are. This first hour run back will be hard, not on the legs, but adapting to running to redeem myself at next month’s HAT 50k. I have to re-evaluate everything to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes. The worst part is, I have to be ready for the possibility of failure again. As prepared as I can make myself, who knows what the course or Mother Nature may throw at us. I think I’ve learned that part of preparation is staring down failure, something I didn’t even think of considering up to this point.

At least I have the nutrition part down; I will be chewing on that rather large slice of humble pie the race served me for quite some time. Hopefully, it is what I needed, and that grounding will serve me in the future to be smarter, stronger, and better to myself as I run.

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One Day I Will Be an Ultrarunner


“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you grow into the person who can.”

— Unknown


Or, in the words of one of my favorite authors:

vonnegut

I’ve been training. Putting in the miles. I’ve reacquainted myself with the aches and pains associated with distance running. My mind is full of dates of long runs: when I have to run back-to-back 25 milers; my first 35/20 weekend. But for all the bluster and noise, I am not an ultrarunner.

I have registered for three ultras: the HAT in March; the Siskiyou Out Back 50 miler in July; the Mountain Lakes 100 in September. In between I have a running camp in Alaska and myriad runs and races (some of which I have not even heard of yet), but still, I am not yet an ultrarunner.

Tolkien

My year in events scares me. I want to think I will be the man and runner I need to be by the time these events arrive, but this is unlike anything I have ever accomplished. My mindset is completely different from when I used to train for marathons. 26.2 is now a training run. Of course, 26.2 once seemed impossible to achieve and I did that, but that had a finite end, a set course. There wasn’t the possibility of roaming off-course for miles; there wasn’t the certainty of running through the woods and over mountains alone for long periods of time…in the dark, no less. How will I overcome this? I am not an ultrarunner.

Something in me wants to be, though. I lace up my shoes every day and head out for miles, hills, speedwork. I work on improving my core and strength through countless plans, push-ups, squats. I haven’t had a decent slice of pizza since August. I work with a health coach to refine my diet. Sacrifices are being made. I have a new cadre of like-minded people in my world, some who have and some who have not run ultras, but who all possess the crazy necessary to do it. And they are incredible enablers supporters. It takes a village to make an ultrarunner.

Stark

I’m beginning to accept one does not simply become an ultrarunner. One grows into it, as the above quotes suggest. It’s a process, one which will not culminate on March 19 with the finishing of HAT. Even after I’ve run 31 miles (give or take), I will only be an ultrarunner when I accept nothing as my limit, when I’m capable of pushing further than I ever thought possible.

One day, I will be an ultrarunner. That day is not today; it won’t be tomorrow. One day, though, I will get there. Off for a run now.

 

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You Did WHAT?!?!


“You need a little bit of insanity to do great things.”

— Henry Rollins


Jonas. Everywhere I looked, he was there. I could not escape him. Everyone at school pondered how long we’d be off, how much snow we’d actually get. Students were inattentive, even as the second quarter wound down, fixated on the possibility of time off school. I was distracted, too. I couldn’t get my mind off Jonas.

All I kept thinking was — how the hell am I going to get in my long run?

weezer

(Bonus points if you know who these cool cats are.)

Weather is an unpredictable mistress, especially in Baltimore. I has 22 miles to do, and only one safe way to do it without fear of snow: I was going to run on Trixie.

Trixie is a LifeFitness model treadmill at Mac Harbor East. I do quite a bit of training on her. I have become quite adept at giving the stink eye to anyone on Trixie when I enter the MAC. Other people don’t seem to understand that is my treadmill. All the other ones just feel off. Trixie is just right.

Treadmill

Everyone thinks I’m insane for my love of the treadmill. Sure, it’s not the same as running a trail or even a road, but there are a number of advantages to using one. I can control my pace; I can set the incline I want; I can run inclines specific lengths; I can have food and drink at the ready; I can experiment with said food and drink safely, knowing a bathroom is mere meters away; I can cross train before or after my run because, well, it’s a gym. There are lots of reasons to love the treadmill.

My 22-mile treadfest was going to be a first for me, though. I had never gone quite that far on Trixie. But I had a plan. 4 hours of running (yay, time on my feet!), 5.5 mile intervals, each interval something different. For my first interval, I did a basic flat course. The second interval was hills. Third was speedwork. Last interval was a combo of flat and hills, with some speed mixed in at the end. It was a smorgasbord of running! And I tell you what…it was one of my best runs ever. It felt like some kind of PR.

Best of all, I got my long run in before that bastard we know as Jonas really hit the city, forcing me to take a couple days off. But they were days off well earned, having conquered 22 miles and keeping my plan for HAT intact (less than two months!). So don’t be too hard on treadmills. They’re great training tools. Try one out and see, especially when you don’t have many other options!

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Ground Control (Literally) to Major Tom


“The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.”

— David Bowie


This was not a wonderful week in my world.

Last Monday, one of my heroes, not just in music but in life, David Bowie, passed away at the age of 69 after a courageous battle with cancer. Perhaps it was sharing a name, perhaps it was simply his tremendous awe and reverence for this world, but I had always felt a close bond with the Starman, the lad insane. I like to think Bowie would have made an incredible runner. He was always pushing the envelope, whatever the arena, and he wanted to take this world and suck the marrow from it. He never held himself back. He would have been at home on the trails.

So with a little help from Ziggy, and with him in my mind and my still-heavy heart all day yesterday, I ran my first trail race since 2010 and my first race of any kind since 2012, the PHUNT 25/50k. I needed every ounce of inspiration I could gain from Bowie, and his words ran through my head all day.


“I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”

— David Bowie


I laid there in the mud for a few seconds, wondering what exactly was poking me in the back and legs. Ground control to Major Tom, indeed. As I moved to get up, I realized I had not only stumbled and fallen on the downhill, but I had managed to slide through the mud into a sticker bush. Good times.

I was about two-thirds of the way through the 13th annual PHUNT 25/50k, but my feet were telling me I had run something closer to 50 miles. Oddly, my legs were fine, but the constant battle with the extreme amount of mud had caused my feet and ankles to work overtime, righting a ship that was constantly in danger of falling.

As I walked up the next hill after my fall, I considered what a great learning experience this 25k was. If I am going to be on trails more and more, I certainly need to use days like yesterday as opportunities to get better, to grow. My three major takeaways aren’t exactly revelatory, but they’ll help shape me into the ultrarunner, nay the superhuman, I want to be.


“I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.”

— David Bowie


1) Trail running is so very different from the road races I used to do. Sure, there are still extremely competitive people, but the idea of running as you vs. yourself is much more pronounced on the trails. It’s me and the mud, the roots, the mountains, and I could not care less about trying to beat so-and-so breathing heavily behind me.  “I’m working for me” is what trail running is all about for me, and there is a perverse satisfaction in that beautiful bit of selfishness, to me. Out here, you can be you, worry about you, and find out who “you” really is.


“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

— David Bowie


2) Ultra and trail runners are the best humans I know. Maybe it is the “you vs. the trail” mentality, but I see more humans banding together on trails than I see anywhere in society, regardless of the “working for me” mentality we all have. Mother Teresa must have been an trail runner, because the only place I tend to see her compassion, her love for fellow members of society, is during trail races. Aid station volunteers on the trails are the best. They know you’re hurting; they understand the struggle. They offer you things you didn’t even know you wanted in the nicest of tones. They encourage but they also challenge. Their job is to make sure you are the best you possible at that moment in time. They are amazing. Props to whomever made the S’mores at Aid Station #2 of PHUNT yesterday; you are a shining beacon of greatness in an otherwise dark world.

Then there were the three complete strangers I finished with yesterday, urging, cajoling, bribing each other through the final chute. You have to work hard to find complete strangers working together toward a common goal these days. Except during trail races. Trail races teach you that loving and caring for your fellow human is a privilege. There is true love out on the trails. And maybe that really is what “working for me” is all about: making a better human than the one who left the start line hours before.


“People are so fucking dumb. Nobody reads anymore, nobody goes out and looks and explores the society and culture they were brought up in. People have attention spans of five seconds and as much depth as a glass of water.”

— David Bowie


3) Mr. Stardust would be proud of trail runners. The dedication and mental fortitude necessary to complete a trail race of any length, combined with the beauty of the trails and the exploratory nature of all runners, prove there are still some people willing to commit to being attentive for hours at a time. One unseen root, one missed piece of yellow tape, and the whole race can change. I tend to fall over things that aren’t even there. I just lose my footing, simple as that, because I zone out sometimes, I stop paying attention. And if there was ever a metaphor for the power of focus, it’s trail running. One lull and you’re off course or, like me, reposing under a sticker bush at the bottom of a muddy hill. Trail running changes your brain; the stars, indeed, look very different today out there.


“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.’ ”


“I’m not a prophet or a stone aged man, just a mortal with potential of a superman. I’m living on.”

— David Bowie


With too much Bowie on the brain, I couldn’t decide on a final quote, but both sum up what trail running does to me and for me. It brings out the best in myself and in others. It helps me experience wonder. It pushes me to extremes and tests my limits. The crucible of the trails take in mortal me and spit out a superhuman. Truly, it’s the best therapy for a world gone mad. Mr. David Robert Jones may have passed into that otherworld from whence he came (and is probably better suited), but he will always be right beside me on the trails, just off my shoulder, feeding me inspiration and challenging me to be better than the man I was when the gun went off.

Thank you, David, for all you were to this world and to me.

Rest in peace.

 

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No Sympathy for This Devil


“Please allow me to introduce myself,

I’m a man of wealth and taste.

I’ve been around for a long, long year,

Stole many a man’s soul and faith.”

–The Rolling Stones


He returned tonight, suddenly and with no warning, as is his wont.

I always knew he would, but his arrival is always a crude surprise. We all know him: The Demon. The Tempter. The Liar.

His is the niggling voice that attempts to persuade me that I don’t need to do my run tonight. I’ve worked a long day; I have papers to grade; I have books I want to read, movies I want to watch. I can do a run tomorrow that will make up for today. I should take a break, relax, not run.

I do not like him at all.

Mainly because most of the time, he is easy to listen to. He makes sense. He tells me what I want to hear. And let’s be honest; when it’s been a long day and it’s 8:30 p.m. and I still haven’t gotten my run in, it sometimes is easier to give in than to head out for the 90 minutes I’m supposed to run.

Since the advent of my return to running, the voice has been absent, silent, impotent. Every day has dawned with the promise of a great run. Most days, I’ve chafed at the idea of adulting instead of being free to roam the roads and trails. But tonight, the voice was loud and clear. The result was something I didn’t expect: I became peevish, impatient, testy. I was short-tempered, almost angry. I was trapped. The demon was back and I wasn’t in a position where I could run right away; I was forced to listen to him.

My biggest flaw (of many) as a runner has been to acquiesce to this hateful little voice too easily. To cop out, to bail, to give in. While physically I am returning to form, I wondered what would happen mentally, especially after such a long layoff. So my ability, at least for a night, to silence the Tempter brought joy to my heart. It didn’t make my run easy (all my runs this week have been a struggle) or pleasant, but it gave me hope that this time around, I’m a different person mentally, that I can banish the Demon to his own personal void, where he cannot get to me. It made me smile as my legs burned.

I wish I knew how I muted him. But I don’t; all I know is I just did my run. I know he will return, and I hope I am strong enough to ignore his lies of comfort and entitlement, working instead  to strengthen myself, body, mind, and soul. I know I will win some…and I fear I will lose some. I know I need to rest, but I know this needs to be on my terms, my body’s terms, not the terms of a cheat. Not to simply be more comfortable for one night.

We all have demons; we all hear this Demon. How we overcome him is unique to each individual and a triumph in and of itself. Because to be who we want to be, we have to silence doubters. Unfortunately, the most powerful doubter oftentimes lives inside of us.

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Before and After


“…on a brand new precipice of Before and After…”

— Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


Humans are obsessed with time. We mark important occasions in Sharpie and commemorate their yearly arrivals with celebration and fanfare. Runners, especially, are immersed in the realities of time: “what’s your PR?”; “what pace did you run?”; “how long are you running this weekend for your LSD?” Garmin has made serious bank on runners’ desires not just to get faster, but to be able to see proof of this faster on their wrists at any given moment. I readily admit I love my old Garmin 405. He’s been there with me for my highest highs and lowest lows, dependable, stoic always.

And that’s why September 28 will always stick in my head. Everything preceding that date will always be the Before, and everything post-9/28/15 will be the After.

Time

On that date, I reclaimed the title (in my mind, anyway) of runner, busting out a humble one-and-a-half mile treadmill run at the gym, reclaiming my life in the process. On that date, I began my journey into the Void, making it an everyday part of my existence. On that date, I changed as a runner and as a person.

The thing with Befores and Afters, however, is sometimes I focus too much on the After, and I think runners will understand what I mean. We get into that zone, urged on by that runner’s high that lingers throughout the day, and we begin registering…FOR ALL OF THE RACES. Everything needs to strengthen the After. We need more and more future dates to which we may look ahead and say proudly, “THIS is why I am training; THIS is my target.”

I’ve made this mistake before and I made it again recently, registering for a marathon in May that I’m not sure is truly my goal anymore. Fortunately, it was cheap, and I won’t lose the money for airfare and hotel if I change my mind and don’t go, but I must re-examine this need for a specific date to circle on the calendar, what I thought I needed for motivation. Of course I’ll still be excited about races, but the way I think about them and when I register for them will change.

What I’m learning now is that my insistence on celebrating the date when my life changed for the better can be a burden. The positive change in me is something I want to extend much longer than any single target race or event, and I don’t need to rush a race, a date, a number on the calendar. I want to stand proudly on that precipice between the Before and the After, that moment of continuation, to commemorate the mundane, to find joy in the simple act of being able to run (something I’m ashamed I once took for granted), without worrying how far or how fast I run.

Thus my new goal: to enjoy the pain, the euphoria, the struggle, the imperfect perfection of each and every run, be it a one-and-a-half miler or something in double digits. Because in what we consider ordinary often resides the extraordinary, and I don’t want to become blind to that. Life on the precipice, in the Void, has begun teaching me that the moments we too often ignore, the ones we don’t mark, are the moments we should cherish.

 

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Entering the Void


“I just run. I run in void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”

― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running


In March of 2012, I ran a magical race.

I will never forget that day or weekend. It was in New Orleans, the day was perfect, I was with friends who were really family, and I ran a pace I didn’t know I had in me.

It was also the day I gave up running for three years.

Sure, I did some runs with friends, signed up for races that I ultimately bailed on, and even did a half marathon, but my heart and my soul weren’t in any of those activities. Running and I broke up on that magical day in March. And I still don’t know why.

I have excuses about health scares; about going through a rough breakup that running couldn’t heal (like it normally did); about thinking running was something I could always just pick back up. But none of that matters now, because as of September 2015, running and I are a thing again.

The summer of 2015 was a frightening time for me. I was sick — really sick. I hit a point where I could have given up and succumbed to whatever would next attack me or I could find the old me. I chose the latter. And something happened — I didn’t just rediscover my old love of running. I understood what it was about running I loved so much and why I could never take it for granted again.

When I first read the quote by Mr. Murakami, it hit me like a slap in the face. I had always tried to put into words what running did to me and for me, but his phrase “I run in order to acquire a void” struck a chord deep within me.

Most people hear the word “void” and think of complete emptiness; their thoughts turn to the negative, the unwholesome. When I hear the word “void,” I think of creation, mindfulness, a peacefulness that my day normally doesn’t have. And I think of the positives: how I might fill those voids, populating them with people and thoughts and ideas.

And when I run fast enough or long enough or right enough, I create this void, this perfect protective bubble of possibility around me.

And that’s what I gave up, that’s what I forgot, for three and a half years.

This time around, I was a record of everything: the good, the bad, the wonky, the painful, the messy, the moments of pure beauty. I want it all recorded so that I may never again forget why I run, why I love running, and why even the worst run is helpful to body, mind, and soul.

I don’t know who, if anyone, will read this. Maybe it will just be me. I can’t promise a specific number of updates; only that I will be writing frequently, sometimes about runs, sometimes about nutrition or gear or a race. Sometimes to just vent. But part of the beauty of the void is sharing these experiences with others. So out come the feelers, hoping to find some like-minded void junkies.

Thanks for joining me, and may the void be with you.

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