Endurance Running



This is my first beard in approximately 20 years.  In this picture, I’m charging out of the half-way point of an awesome 50K feeling good, just zoning. I was in the middle of my strongest long-distance month of running ever, and I was having a great time. The beard kept my face warm.

My mustache is yellow, nearly flesh-toned, so it gives me a puffy-looking upper lip, like I had cotton balls shoved up under it. I don’t get the two-tone beard. There’s no natural advantage to having a black beard and a yellow mustache. my brother has a brown goatee and red mutton chops. I find the entire thing a little strange. No matter how full my mustache is, I end up looking like a nutria getting its grub on.At the time I post this, the picture is a month and a half old. In another month and a half, I hope to complete my first 100 mile run. It’s on poorly marked/ unmarked trails, in freezing weather, with no aid stations, no crews, no promo, no entrance fees, no T-shirts, no bullshit. It’s a run. What kind of run is that? Well, it’s a run for people who want to feel some pain. Look at the $8 watch on my arm and ask yourself if I look like I give a shit. I’m getting ready to run the Wild Oak Trail 100. How am I getting ready? By growing a beard. The two water sources on the trail are a couple of creeks. I’ll use my car as an “AID Station”. I’m going to leave signs taped up all in my car that say, “You gave up. You let yourself down. You are a weak piece of shit. Go tell your son you’re an asshole.” I have to do 4 loops, each a marathon (the run is 104 miles) and avoid the temptation of sitting in my car, turning on the heat and driving home in tears a quitter. Last year, the lone finisher clocked in at 35 hours. I am determined to meet this challenge.

-November 26, 2012

Pittsburgh Marathon 2012 Recap

I ran the Pittsburgh marathon pretty much the way I thought I would. I started with a fast duck-trot. I don’t know how to describe it other than to suggest that it involved short strides and arm movement, and very high emphasis on posture and never, ever letting the pace drop below 7:35. I had the weird robojog, but no tech on my arm, so I had to rely on the pacing guy. I opened up around mile 6 or 7 and slowed down. Way too slow. By midpoint I was 3 minutes off goal, and I would go on to blow it by 7 min, 51 seconds, or roughly the time it took me to run the last mile of the marathon.

I was a month from the marathon, out training on a beautiful day a few miles along some road. Not a car to be heard. Not a house to be seen, nothing, nothing but a gravel road and cows and I’m a jogger, not a farmer, so where was I? I took a couple of bad turns on my way to Mount Morris, but made it, 28 miles. I was already running at least a 21.5 mile hill eater every weekend, and trying to run night and day.

In retrospect, I feel that the bulk mileage was my greatest strength, but the total lack of mile repeats and intensive anaerobic rep work sullied what should have been a BQ-worthy run through the City of Bridges. During the race, during the first 1.5 hours, I felt really solid, despite the lack of sleep and tension I felt. I ran the race as fast as I’d been able to run a flat course the previous month. I finished about as quickly as I’d finished my “practive marathon” a month before.

Recovery? I think not. The truth of the matter is that, despite the non-BQ, I had a great race. I finished in the top 5% of all runners that day. Counts for something in my book, says I. The best thing to do is set high goals and go for them. Any good run is going to set me up for a chance to have an even better run later. So, I reclassify every “failed attempt” as a “training session”. Like jazz, I admit the version is every bit as pleasing as the origin. And with jazz, the version sometimes evolves without an origin point at all. Making and taking each goal leaves me suspicious.  If it’s so easy to do, maybe I’m short-changing myself. I don’t trust success as much as I trust failure, because failure means I get another shot at it. Because I love running so much, having a great excuse to give everything I have keeps me going. Medals are weights. If you’ve ever watched people crossing the finish line of a race, the winners aren’t necessarily in the front, not even in the first waves. Anyone who gives it their best, is doubled over at the end, dazed, sweating even when its 20F outside, eyes rolled up, those people gave it their best. I respect that. They will improve if they can take something valuable from the experience and build on it. And in a running community, that shared assurance that a great run is simply a great run, and can’t be faked, can’t be worn on the sleeve or qualified necessarily by a clock, that’s what those individuals are striving for anyways. Call it a runner’s high. There’s times when I hit my stride in the middle of a trainwreck long run that make me want to just open up and blow the pace, forget the intake plan, whatever else I had to do that day and just eat solid mile after mile, and surrender to the total involvement of body and mind, the unreal focus of the effort.

When I crossed the finish line at Pittsburgh, my eyes rolled up and I draped myself over a turnstile, staggered to my tent – it seemed to take an hour to cross 50 yards – and fell on the grass in the shade, lying there, smelling like sewage, feeling completely victorious. Nothing left in the tank.

November 25, 2012

Thunder Thighs, time to bring the rain.

November 11, 2011

Fire on the Mountain 50K race report

Race Report – Fire on the Mountain 50K

I’m running towards the creek, and I’m looking for any rocks to use to cross. I don’t want to slow down, but there’s a tree fallen across this one, a large tree over a wide creek. I love crossing creeks over fallen trees.  I clamber up and cross with careful, quick steps while a couple of runners slosh on by below me, straight through the icy water and to the far bank. When I come off the log, I’m thirty yards behind them. I take off in pursuit, gain ground. When I catch up to them ahead at the banks of another babbling brook, I see they’re picking rocks on which to cross like they were checking grocery avocado, so I forge straight through the next stream, passing the two, arms a-pinwheeling, up to my knees and high-stepping to the other bank. I stomp off down the trail, aware that I came out of the water and ran through a thorny bush, but I can’t really feel it. It takes a few minutes more for tendrils of feeling to steal into my shoes and wrap themselves about my toes.But just as I start to feel warmth creeping back, there’s another of the reported thirty-three creeks we are to cross, and I brace myself for immersion. I’m aware of a voice in my head, something out of an old black-and-white movie, a bellicose shout consigning my doom in a gravelly voice, “In the water with ye, dog!” I’d be running, and see the water tumbling looming before me, and that voice would pop into my head, “Try leading with your left, it seems drier.” Of course, that’s the foot that misses the rock, and sinks into Cartoon Slavedriver Creek. I’m trying to take myself seriously, but I really can’t. I’m maybe ninety minutes into a six and a half hour trail race Odyssey, running through frozen woodlands, and my goo packets are nearly frozen in my running vest. I would have to say that a casual onlooker would find the entire pursuit rather overwhelming. But the idea of a casual onlooker standing in the middle of a nearly frozen woodland trail-side watching sodden, numbered people threading their way along this course seems even more improbable and ridiculous than actually running it. The voice in my head, an unexpected bonus of this race, concurs.Fire on the Mountain 50K, boasting beautiful countryside, technically challenging single-track, a myriad of water hazards, miles of hard-packed logging roads, and a good bit of elevation change looked to be my final race of 2011, coming up a week shy of my one-year anniversary of running my first marathon ever, the flat and dusty OBX marathon in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Of that race, I can safely say that finding teachable moments in one’s life is important, and that race was, uh, instructional. A learning experience. Since then, I took on The Highland Sky in Davis, WV. and the fast Parker’s Challenge marathon in Cairo,
WV. which was my last chance for a 2012 BQ. Try as I might, I missed the qualifying time by 27 minutes, losing three on the way out, and twenty four on the way back, a positive split. I try to stay positive. It helps with deep flow. So, I was going to take my grandpa knees out to Flintstone, MD and go fall down in the woods all day, middle-aged and smelling vaguely of crisping glycogen, British Sterling cologne and mimeograph paper.Just to help the reader, let’s give the grand overview of the race in it’s chronological sequence. It went: Red trail, Green trail, logging roads, and Purple trail. Red, Green, Log, Purple. The red trail is basically  treacherous, with single-track plunging up and down the slopes of steep hollows, with creeks and mud in the bottoms. The green trail seems more of a lowland affair, and here there be creeks, lots and lots of them. My feet were wet at minute thirty-two along Red trail, but they stayed wet and cold for most of the Green trail. The logging roads were airy and really gave me a chance to catch some of that abundant sunshine swallowed up by trail passage. The purple trail rounds out the race, with rolling hills, some more muddy bits, a couple of creeks to remind you that your ancestors slithered from the mud eons ago, and then the bonfire and the spoils of victory.The race was due to be run October 30th, on Hallow’s Eve Eve. Dude, no way. That’s extra spooky. So spooky, that Mother Nature colluded with Kevin to bring an extra challenge in the form of a fierce and terrible ice storm that freakishly blew in on the 28th and mired everything in a thick layer of hoarfrost, cracking and bring down limbs, whole trees even. The cheese wagons do not sport four wheel drive, so the racers had no way en masse to the starting line. On the switchbacks the morning of the rescheduled race, I totally could see why Kevin cancelled the event and bumped it back a week. If those roads had iced, we could have easily gone off the end of a switchback and plunged down a ravine, adding to my repertoire of heel-strike and mid-foot-strike the technique known as face-strike, which no amount of stretching could ever ameliorate. I heard that a bunch of people were upset and had to cancel. If you’d seen the roads, you would’ve sided with the decision. There’s no way I would’ve taken a bus through that over icy, unsalted roads. I’m sure that’s exactly what the bus drivers said, and my hat, as always, will be forever off to bus drivers, especially school bus drivers.Which takes me to the grandmotherly kindness to be found in the act of falling down. When you fall, and sprawl, and your ass goes unannounced over tea kettle, you are still a human being, you still have dignity. For me, falling is a question of when. I accept that I will fall, and the trails  will be challenging. In this race, I would fall around minute twenty-five.  There was a guy right behind me when it happened, and although I laughed, he declined to join in my laughter. So polite. A few minutes later, I’d see him eat it on some rocks in a creek and get super wet. He would disappear ahead of me, seemingly faster from having a full-frontal soaking. I was practically jealous. After that big tree crossing, I stopped trying to pick my way across the creeks if it meant slowing down. None were deeper than knee high – except one towards the end of the Green trail.But, let’s backtrack to the unbelievably “technical” scrambles of the Red trail. By technical, I mean that my yikes-o-meter was going off like crazy. Some of those descents were harrowing occasions, navigating the roots and rocks that would make a butt-slide an impossible option. We passed under the overhang of a spilling waterfall inches from a drop of dozens of feet nearly straight down – I didn’t really look long enough to gauge whether it was fifty or eighty or a hundred feet, too busy. And there were lots of these sections of careful movement along the edges of oblivion. All kinds of mud, fallen trees, snarls of upper branches to push through or run around. The ice had brought a lot of this down. There were trees to jump, climb over, or go underneath. I skipped the first AS, the volunteers shouting encouragement, and I still had plenty of water – too much – in my vest bladder. This would come back to haunt me between miles 26 and 27, when I would become dehydrated and suck all the water out of my vest, get head throbs and whatnot. I need to work on drinking more from the vest. I eventually want to get away from using bladders during any race. They take too much time to fill, and I would rather not break stride in an ultra for any reason.  And during the Red Trail, there was little room for worrying about water.The Oasis afforded the runners with a stunning view over the valley.

The start of the race afforded us with a spectacular view, and I hope someone has a picture of it. The fog lay below us so thick that it seemed like I was looking down at a giant bowl of cream. It was lovely, and truly inspiring.

I ran into MJ Ultralatte, who I’d met at the Highland Sky 40 Miler in June, on the last leg of the race, along the rolling goodness of the Purple Trail. On that race, we’d been part of a small aggregate that got lost on the descending ski slope where mischievous runners (or gremlins, I’m not ruling anything out) had pulled down trail markings. Or we were lost, I can’t say. Turns out, MJ would redirect me across a road crossing I would’ve missed and had been forewarned about missing. So, that was cool. At the end of this race, my thoughts were getting murky, but I’d tanked up at AS6 and was feeling much stronger than I’d had between miles 22 and 27. And speaking of helping hands, my dear orange-hat friends, you were the nicest. And the kids at the stations, as well as the adults, thanks for a couple of kind words, utterances of encouragement. Those brief exchanges translated into the touchstones that I really needed. I’m a runner that breaks down long races into AS chunks, and seeing a friendly face next to a big container of fluid and some snackies is what makes these occasions, and indeed this race, such enjoyable occasions. That many of you probably broke plans to come to the rescheduled race is even more of a reason to thank you.

I don’t know if it’s tradition for ultras to finish up amid a barrage of artillery or small arms fire, because this is only my second ultra, but both ultras I ran this year featured the stench of gunpowder, explosions, and a degree of fear you can’t get with any topographical challenge. At first I thought miners were blasting dynamite. Then I heard the chatter of fully-automatic gunfire, like an Uzi. Shotgun blasts, rifle shots, pistol cracks. There was a house close to the trail where the folks were unleashing a fearsome arsenal. Did this trail lead to Aintry? At Highland Sky, a Civil War Re-enactor group was blasting off cannons, yes, CANNONS at the last mile, scaring the crap out of me. Here, it simply was Full Residential Jacket. Is that usually part of ultra trail runs? In any case, like the effect bear odor has on me, I somehow run faster around gunfire. I can say I finished strong, having caught my second wind about mile 28. Knowing that I have a second wind at mile 28 is valuable. I have yet to determine if I have a third wind, if there is such a thing. In any case, I ran the last three miles suddenly on fresh legs, and it felt so good I can’t really do it justice.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot about the logging roads. There was about eight or nine miles of logging roads to run on, some hills too steep save for walking. They went up, down, around ‘ere and up ‘ere and whatnot. Do most ultras contain a middle section of dirt roads? Are most ultras very difficult in the first section? You see, I have questions my curiosity will winnow out over time.

There were a couple more creeks to slosh through on the Purple Trail. “Back in the water with ye, fast fish!” It actually felt refreshing, and cooled my cramping feet to plunge in a couple of more icy streams. Helped wash the blood off the scratches on my shins, which are the kind of macho style points that help me get through the day at the office. The interesting thing about the Purple trail was the leaves rendered it almost invisible in many places. I would be looking for an odd shadow cast by an unearthed damp leaf, the scuff of a toe or heel in the  carpet of leaves plastered on the ground. It was just the faintest hint of a trail.

O lovely bonfire, I placeth the wood upon your heaps,  already smoldering with the embers of the faster, the better, the truly fantastic runners who came much before me. I finished in 22nd place at 6 hr 37 min and change. The end of that race heralded the bittersweet end of my 2011 racing season, so it was time to Destroy the Diet. Within 30 seconds of dropping that wood on the fire, I had an RC Cola up to my lips, my other hand waiting to shove chocolate cookies in after that sweet nectar. I ate a hot dog! I hadn’t had caffeine or sugary treats or junk since mid-February. I won’t go into the Bacchanalia that lasted the week that followed, but let it be written that the intake levels of purloined sweets and devilish treats kept me from writing this report sooner, so indolent I was among the candy wrappers of my 3-year old’s Halloween haul, slurping endless cups of coffee with danishes, and so on.

The very next day I was already wishing there was one more race, my desire to run yet again rekindled by the 2011 Fire on the Mountain 50K Trail Race. Hope to see you there in 2012.

2 Replies to “Endurance Running”

  1. Joe! I’m so glad you’re blogging and writing about your running. That is awesome. I look forward to your posts.


    1. Thanks Laura. I’m doing the Janathon right now, just running every day, using another blog for that event, but I’m posting a weekly summary leading up to “The Race That Cannot Be Named”, a secret 100 miler in February. The Janathon makes me look at the grueling training as a positive thing, an event in itself. I’m doing 30 miles tomorrow morning. Yeesh. Keep writing. Loved your post today about finding happiness. Keep on keepin’ on!


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