Sunday, August 17, 2014

Roots, Rock, just needed the Reggae

I have completed my first ultramarathon. Just 50K, pretty much the shortest race you can do and have it qualify as an ultra, but I did it. Just 50K. On trails, mostly single-track. What an event.

First, those who regularly go I had huge respect before. You hundred milers...awe.

The race was the TARC (Trail Animals Running Club) Summer Classic 50k. It was held in the woods only about and hour and 20min from my house. First impression...very low key. I didn't even know I was in the right place until I got there. Just the basics, just people there to run and run and run. I saw signs for a wedding, and thought "Oh there's a wedding in the park as well." Well actually the wedding was for two of the runners; the bride in white running gear, the groom in black. They got to go first and lead us into the woods. Then there was the race meeting: Follow the markers, don't be littering pigs, we're guests here. Pretty much summed up what you need to know at any race. And then the fun began...

3x10mile laps plus a 1ish miler extra tacked on to the beginning. The first lap I played the role of naive rookie runner.  I had started pretty far back and had to work a bit to move up, or so I thought. In retrospect there was ample time to do that and it was stupid to do what I did. This isn't road running. People stop, people let you by. I did settle in with 3 other guys and had a nice comfortable pace. And then all hell broke loose as a swarm of the worlds largest hornets (think Hunger Games!) attacked. They were huge. As one victim said, "I went to swat the one stinging my head away and it felt like I was hitting a bird." He wound up in an ambulance but was later returned to the finish to cheer. The hornets or wasps (or Tracker Jackers maybe!) were in a section of the course we had to go through 4 more times. As confusing and disorienting as the course was, EVERYONE took a mental snapshot of that area. It was weird hearing the screams in the woods every now and then as other victims were claimed (hell I was waiting for a canon to go off at times!) but to the best of my knowledge only one other runner didn't finish.

The biggest impression made on me was just how "unnimble" I am as a runner. I stumbled...a lot. I hit the deck 3 times, once on the first lap and twice on the last lap. I had MANY other near misses where only a desperation tree grab kept my on my feet. And then there were the cramps...good lord I got cramps in places, like my left hip, that I have never gotten in my life.

But let me tell you something I learned about the ultra community firsthand yesterday: they all help each other out. More so than in any other sport in which I've participated. When I hit the deck the first time I was on a downhill and my thigh slammed onto a ball of tree roots, my knees and hands on to rocks. It hurt..REALLY hurt. Well all 3 guys stopped and came back. They helped me get to my feet and made sure I could move myself forwards before they set off again. We were in a race, but they all stopped. When I got to the start/finish area after the first lap, bruised and bloody, everyone, be they spectators volunteers, what have you, was ready and willing to help. I had had momentary thoughts of not being able to finish, but with this kind of support out there, I knew I could/would.

Lap 2 was largely uneventful and the first lap where I think tactically I started to do things correctly. Clearly slower than lap one, but I had stayed upright and hadn't burned too many matches so to speak. The last lap saw me eat pine needles two more times, because muscle control was failing, once within 10yds of the tracker jackers. I had visions of writhing on the ground getting stung into submission, but by that point someone had come out with wasp spray and eliminated the nest. No the hardest part was getting back off the ground. Each time I fell my calves or hip or something cramped so severely I was uncertain how I'd proceed, but I did. I developed a technique where I rolled over into push-up position, walked my hands and feet into downward dog, and then was able to stand. Once standing I could walk and then "run." Two people past me on the final loop, but I finished while still maintaining some semblance of form. The cramps had subsided largely due to the help of the volunteers at the aid station. Watermelon dipped in salt...lots of salt. Pretty much a gagger, but chase it with some bubbly soda to keep you from throwing it up and 10min later all was good in my world. Salt. Fabulous. I thought I had been getting enough, but clearly I needed more. Fabulous find.

It was an important day for me as an athlete. I had not finished an endurance event since the Quassy 1/2 in June of 2012. After the first wipeout I had a momentary concern that another DNF was in the mix, but then it clicked and I was once again that person who would continue to move forwards regardless of physical discomfort. Time and place didn't matter, the goal had been to learn what an ultra feels like. I had no mental image to use to help me wrap my brain around 50miles in Vermont at the end of September. I do now. I can imagine a 50miler. And tactically I know what I need to do. Take the approach of lap 3, when I was on vapors, cramping, light-headed at times, and use that right out of the gate. Once you feel you're in a good rhythm and going slow enough, slow down.

There's always debate over which is harder: an ultra or an ironman. It's a very type A triathlete debate, as I did not get the sense that the ultrarunners are driven by that kind of ego. I'm going to say, it's a stupid debate. It really depends on the course and how you as an athlete are wired. I've only hurt like I hurt this morning a few times in my life. Each time was after the first time at a new distance/event. I've never been bloodied in an Ironman.

Ultra running can seem a very individualistic venture. Hey, I had been concerned I was going to Vermont by myself, that I'd be alone. But I learned you are anything but alone out there.