Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Back from The Waste Land

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding   
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing   
Memory and desire, stirring   
Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"


As best as my very brief research shows, T.S. Eliot was not a runner.  Yet, if one trait of great literature is that it speaks in universal truths, the above-excerpted opening to Eliot's master work "The Waste Land" applies to those of us who look forward to April not because of rising temperatures and blooming lilacs, but for the opportunity to run 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston.  For many of us, April can be simultaneously wonderful and cruel, sometimes on the same day, within mere minutes, on a well-worn route trod by countless distance runners over the last 116 years.

For me, the past year has been full of months (along with hours, days and weeks) both wonderful and cruel, as I have figured out how to make my way in the world since getting separated in February 2011.  Overall, things are quite good.  Work is going very well; the kids are thriving; and Tina and I are finding a way to be positive co-parents, and - quite possibly - friends.  That said, running has been a struggle, and thus blogging about running has seemed like a more frivolous and pointless pursuit than usual.

The training malaise which started some time in the summer of 2011 lasted all the way through Boston 2012.  Unlike during all my previous training cycles, I took unscheduled days off, bagged workouts, paid less attention to diet/nutrition, and essentially lost sight of how the consistency of daily action influences the achievement of long-term goals.

The historic high temperatures in Boston this year derailed many runners.  For me, though, it was a gift, as I now got a "free fun run" out of a race for which I was undertrained, and would thus have underperformed even in the best of conditions.  So, I set out with my friend James (a 2:55 marathoner coming back from an injury) and we jogged in the 90-degree heat, finishing with smiles on our sweaty faces in 3:53.  It was the slowest I've run since my first marathon (4:03 in Chicago 2007), but possibly the most fun I've had on a course, taking in the sights and sounds, high-fivin' the kids and turning around at Mile 25.5 (!) for an eternally memorable kiss from Meredith (yes, that friendship has blossomed into a whole lot more).


With Boston "out of the way", I decided to pull myself out of the running funk by setting an ambitious running agenda for the remainder of 2012.  Here is the Master Plan:


Pineland Farms would be my second official ultramarathon race.  It's known as a moderately hard course, with no giant climbs, but with an unrelenting rolling profile, along with the challenge of running through unevenly cambered/tufted mowed paths in farm fields.  This graphic may overstate things, but the dearth of flatness definitely comes through:

Pineland Farms Elevation Chart (25K loop)
Without putting too much scientific thought into goal-setting, I thought I could run the first of the two 25K loops in about 2:30, then hang on and do a slight negative split in order to sneak in under 5 hours.  As with so many of life's plans, the idea sounded quite good in my head.

We lined up at 8:00 a.m., with the day's 50-mile runners having had a two-hour head start, and the 25K runners waiting until 10:00 a.m. to begin their quest.  Given the mild morning temperature and net downhill of the early miles, I quickly settled into what felt like an easy pace, running well under 9-minute miles with little effort.  I drank, took gels and ate a Clif Mojo Bar as planned, along with taking an Endurolyte capsule every hour or so.  The humidity was pretty high, and I noticed that I was sweating . . . a lot.  Still, I figured I had nutrition and hydration under control, so I was not especially concerned.  Perhaps I should have been.

At about the 10-mile mark, the course brings runners around the start/finish area.  I ditched my disgustingly sweaty shirt, and pressed on for the last 5+ miles of the first loop.  I was moving well, and approached the mid-way point in about 2:18, well ahead of my arbitrarily projected pace.  I saw a race official and asked about the drop bags, which I thought would be in the start/finish area.  Turns out, I had run right by them at the Final Mile Aid Station about a mile earlier.  That was a regrettably dumb mistake on my part.  I should have researched EXACTLY where the drop bag (with my additional gels and food) would be.  With the potential consequences of that error in rattling around in my head, I also answered nature's call at the portapotties in the start/finish area.  Despite the slight setback, I was still feeling strong, steady and hopeful.

At the beginning of the second loop, the miles continued to tick off pretty quickly, and I started thinking about the possibility of a pleasantly surprising finish time.  No sooner did I start doing the "best-case-scenario math", though, than I started to struggle.  I lost energy.  I tried eating (mostly boiled potatoes with salt) and drinking (mostly Gatorade) more at and between the aid stations, but it was not helping.  I went from being tired, to being listless, to cramping up each time I forced myself to run.  I finally found my drop bag at about Mile 22, but at that point it was too late to fuel myself out of trouble.  A textbook embodiment of ultramarathoning inexperience.

After about Mile 24-25, I walked each uphill, the very same hills which had seemed quite slight on the first pass.  I tried to run the flats and downhills, but my left hamstring and right calf resoundingly vetoed that idea.  the race thus evolved into a proverbial distance running "death march", where the sole goal is to keep moving forward in order to complete the dastardly undertaking that seemed like a wonderful idea just a few moments earlier.  I bled time; I got passed; I passed some people (mostly slower 25K and 50-mile runners), and basically wrote off any specific time goal.

Of course, the Running Gods almost always have the last laugh, and as I rounded the final curve in the mowed field nearing the finish, I saw that I was not as far back from the 5-hour goal as my under-fueled, overtaxed brain had believed.  I gave it a final push, but it was for naught, since my official chip time was 5:00:58, good for 41st overall (out of about 200) and 14th in the ever-competitive Male 40-49 Age Group.

Not exactly smiling after 5+ hours of running.

Still, seeing a number of friends before during and after the race and just being part of such a wonderfully positive, life-affirming event was more than enough to soothe the sense of disappointment at not having executed a solid race.  My friend Nate broke 8 hours in the 50-miler, despite a pre-race hamstring strain and having a rough day out there.  My friend Kate won her age group in her very first ultramarathon, despite running with broken ribs.  Nate's brother Matt ran his first race ever, putting in a strong 25K.  I saw Chip and Scott and Joe and second Joe.  I brought my own good beer to share once the Smuttynose ran out.  It's truly a blessing to belong to the ultrarunning family, a close-knit group of pretty eccentric folks who constantly prop each other up.  If only more other realms of life could mirror this sort of communal kinship, the world would be a better place.


Now it's time for me to return running to a place of honor in my life, to remember the physical, mental, psychological and emotional benefits it provides, and to remain mindful of the way in which it can benefit others, both directly and indirectly.  Indirectly is through the apparent motivation and admiration others find in my recreational pursuits.  Directly is in the form of getting back to the fundraising-for-a-cause aspect of this whole lifestyle which helps break of the all-too-common box of self-absorption.  In the fall, I will seek to raise money for Achilles International and/or the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, combining the two marathons and 50-miler into a "we-can-all-do-more-than-we-think-we-can" pitch for people to support these two very worthy causes.

I'll make no grandiose promises about blogging (or not blogging, depending on one's perspective), but I will be more intentional about running, training, eating and racing from now until the end of the year, when further major life changes may take place.

Thanks for reading.  Happy running to you and yours.