Wednesday, September 26, 2012

New Lessons in the Act of Attrition: Ocean to Sound 50 Mile Race Report

(It seems a few months off from racing has lead to a few months off from writing anything new here. So, as in the past, an ultra-long hiatus from jotting down my thoughts calls for an ultra long blog post...about ultras).

In any ultramarathon, some kind of unworldly doubt seems to want to follow you like a proverbial dark cloud above, or some arrogant demon lurking always in your own shadow below. No matter how many times you've tackled the distance, the seemingly insurmountable task of racing 50 miles or more tends to awaken the same unrelenting force in favor of anyone but yourself. This intangible predator is always more fierce than your human competitors. You can't see it, but you know it's there running with you, always at your pace, tracking you like you're some kind of prey. After awhile, you get to the point where a 50 mile race/run is not so daunting to think about, but simultaneously, you learn to respect the distance, revel in the unknown, and greet the demon at the doorstep. Sometimes, its presence is weak the whole way through, while other occasions can leave you shaken in the early miles. Regardless of when, indifferent to why, there's at the very least a minimal level of pain and suffering -- the price you pay for charging through 50 miles of bliss. Call me a masochist, but one of the greatest attractions to setting off on an ultra -- be it a competitive race or a weekend training run -- is that intangible beast that tries to knock you down as it plays its siren songs akin to the tune of "just quit, you've gone far enough. what's the point? 'Easiness' is not even one step away, just stop running." That said, in the face of attrition, we must discover the upper hand, ignore that dark cloud, and break down the demon. It'll try and try and try some more to wear us away. But every step forward, every positive thought process can tear those walls of doubt to the ground. Little by little, stride by stride, moment by moment, we eliminate any negative compulsion. Many times in races, and just as well in life, we can build instant strength by just wearing out our challengers. In an ultra, you push on: responding to low points with a blank stare, hell, sometimes even a smile. Through sheer determination we can transcend the skeptics by simply staying relentless -- more common than not, our best strengths are found in these acts of attrition.

Pushing through the last leg in the Ocean to Sound 50 Mile. Shameless shoe plug: The Hoka One One Bondi B served me extremely well on the road course.

50 MILES 52 MILES on my native Long Island

Missing a turn and going roughly a full 2 miles off course at the Ocean to Sound Relay on Sunday maintained my personal record of doing such a thing in every ultramarathon I've run so far in my early, and hopefully long, 'career' as an ultra runner... and I wouldn't change that if I had the chance. This is not because of the extra bonus miles I stole from the race directors (oops! I only paid for 50), but rather the circumstance that unfolded due to my navigational mishap. To my defense, the turn was not clearly marked for me AND the other handful of runners that plowed forward towards some "free" mileage of their own. However, I move forward with no regret in what unfolded, as you'll soon learn.

Since it was a relay, the majority of the runners out on the course were part of an 8-person team, each running a single leg of anywhere between 5.4 miles and 7.0 miles. I, however, was one of the few people running the entire 50 mile race solo. From the starting line at the Jones Beach boardwalk, I knew of only a few of the other guys setting out to tackle the distance in the hopes of bagging another 50 miler. Just minutes before we set out, I saw the competitor I had only just learned about the day before at the packet pickup. Sparing the extensive details of this seasoned veterans running resume, this guy is the stuff of legends. He may not be like the boys tackling 14'ers out West, or any of the elites from the european contingent, but this New York native has put down impressive top 10 finishes at races like Vermont 100 and Badwater (a 135 mile battle through the base of Death Valley, climbing in 120+ degree temps towards Mt. Whitney), just to name a few. Needless to say, he knew what he was doing, and I knew I could learn from someone of that caliber. I set out next to him, running shoulder to shoulder at what felt like a sustainable clip through the flats, but I decided to step off the gas a bit and follow close on his tail. We cut past the first mile marker at a low 7 minute pace... damn fast for a 50 miler. I had to smack myself to reinforce my mantra of running my own race, and not to go out too fast. I slowed up since I knew it would pay dividends late in the day.

I told anyone who asked in the weeks prior to the race that I wasn't going to leave anything out there in this one. My first 50 miler was a bit of a different story, and a much different course. My approach to that mountain race down in beautiful Virginia was to focus on learning, seeing what worked in my training and what I was capable of in much more rugged terrain than a flatlander is used to. This past weekend's Ocean to Sound race however was such a unique challenge. It was really a race against the clock and against myself since it was not a typical race where everyone in the field runs the entire distance. I told friends and family that I'd be going for broke, well aware that this course is designed to make you break if you're taking it on sans teammates. The entire race is on roads, not a lick of trails, and the first 20 miles or so is almost completely flat. This calls for speed, but it also creates a constant pounding on the same muscles over and over again since the constant terrain fails to create variety in your running gait. Go out too fast and you can really beat yourself up without realizing it, all just in time for the rolling hills courtesy of Long Island's North Shore. Those hills are no switchbacks in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but late in the game a 3/4 mile climb up a "douche grade" slope can put a dent in your plans of busting out a sub-8 hour 50 miler... Even if you do stay on course.

That navigational mishap occurred somewhat early on, around mile 15. Shortly after some other navigationally challenged folks and I (yes, I'm in that category too) back-tracked our way back on course, a shorter and older runner who had also missed the turn fell into pace with me. "Running the whole thing?" he asked. Now, I've already answered said question three dozen times at this point, but I was happy to respond with an excited "yes" along with an energetic smile. "Yeah, so am I. Good thing we decided to run that mile or 2 out of the way." I responded with my canned answer to the given situation, "Bonus Miles!"

Now running shoulder to shoulder with a fellow ultra runner, the typical conversation between two strangers in the act of pursuing a similar passion ensued. In every race it starts the same way, with the simple introductory questions like "Is this your first 50?" ... "Have you run this race before?" ... "How long have you been running ultras?" It usually goes back and forth like this, and it can be some time before you finally ask "Oh, by the way, what's your name?" Before we got that one out of the way (his name is Jay, for the record), I discovered that the solo runner leading the race -- the stuff of legends I mentioned earlier who survived the trek through Death Valley -- was his good friend and main ultra running mentor. He had also been a fairly experienced 100 mile racer, with everything from strong finishes to torturous DNFs out west, as well as a crew member and pacer in races like Badwater and Western States. Now I was hooked. The miles we shared as we raced in stride became more of mobile classroom. Yes, I'm a runner, but I'm always eager to learn from the guys and ladies who ran the races I one day want to run. They've experience more pain and suffering, more highs and lows, and more euphoric bouts of bliss through some of the toughest, unforgiving terrain... all by their own choice. It's these lessons and this amazing camaraderie that I love the most about racing ultras. Thanks to going off course, I've made yet another connection to a fellow runner and shared some priceless miles on a beautiful course. We'd separated for a dozen or so miles, but eventually met back up in the closing miles to push each other through the breaking points, little by little, in that act of attrition.


My one-man race was supported brilliantly again by my one-man crew: my dad. This race, being all on roads, allowed my dad to use his pickup as a mobile aid station. I carried my pack with some gels and CLIF Bars and water, as the Man had a fully stocked cooler (more water, coconut water) and my go to 50 mile fuel sandwich consisting of almond butter, banana, blueberries, and agave nectar (delicious and the perfect real food for when your stomach is rejecting GUs after mile 38). Big Rob kept me on pace the whole day through, tossing the goods at me and snapping some pics along the way. Though I'm lucky to have gotten through without any real nutritional low points, the biggest blow came at mile 44. After power hiking a big climb, I dabbled with the idea of slogging a death march the rest of the way to the finish. The roads really beat up my knees, even more than the time in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which was more of a quad-busting experience. I knew I was finishing, but to push the pace to get a sub-8 hour 50 mile was almost out of the question. I started doing the math, figuring out what mile pace I could get away with to still tackled a sub 9-hour finish at this point, which was still a solid time, and one of the fastest one that course for a one-man team. My dad stocked me with the final sandwich, I chugged some water, and popped a few more Tums to break up the stiffness in the legs (due to the calcium in the pills) -- a trick I learned too late in my last 50 miler, but quite a useful one at that.

I was inspired by my dad's unrelenting work out there all day, an incredible reason to push on hard. I could have walked the rest of the way in, but I knew a strong, hard finish would make me ions tougher mentally, despite how beat up I became physically. In the final miles, Jay caught up with me and he told me just what I had told myself. "If you push this hard through the finish, you're going to be really tough for the next race." Can't argue with that, so we talked each other through to the finish at a pretty aggressive pace. My dad said he was driving to the finish line, and that we were almost home free just as my uncle, who ran the race as part of a team, jogged along with us to tell us the same. It felt great to know I'd put another hard fought 50 miler in the bag. A hard effort, fast-paced, and new lessons learned from both other runners and the course itself. I have one hell of a crew, too, and I am grateful for having my dad's support on the course. It all culminated with even more support as the finish line came into site. The clock was still under 9 hours and my parents, friends and neighbors waited near the finish as I crossed it in 8 hours 55 minutes. If that feeling was something you could taste, I'd say it would hit the lips like a finely crafted IPA, such as a Hoptical Illusion from Bluepoint Brewery... Oh wait, that actually happened, too...

Whatever your inspiration, find strength in your stride, discover true power in will. Sometimes transcendance lies in the Act of Attrition... Stay Relentless...and miles to go...