Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Another Light-Hearted Continental Scribble

Visiting Neel's Gap....7 years later.

I decided it was time to post something a little more whimsical as all of my entries as-of-late have been very heavy into the running/ultrarunning.  An opportunity presented itself a few weeks ago for me to partake in a very abridged road-trip.  My mom was making her Spring trip back North from Florida, but had one too many cars to deal with.  I volunteered to fly one-way down to Orlando with my other-half for a quick visit, and then drive the car back for my mom....allowing her to leave a few days later and the car would already be in NY waiting for her when she arrived.  I figured it would be a fun way to drive up the spine of the Appalachians, hitting a few fun quick stops along the way.

Those of you that have read along in the past know that I am still pretty keen on road-trips, especially if those trips allow me to hit up new "unvisited" States.  Unfortunately when it comes to this aspect of my travel, I am somewhat limited as I have already now visited 49 of the 50 states and North Dakota would not be anywhere near my driving route this time around.   The good news is just as I have a secret love for visiting all of the States, I also have a love of hitting State High Points of which I've accrued 17 now.  With the tentative route we had planned, I knew it would give us the opportunity to hit a few new high points as well as a few other fun spots of interest along the way.  In all honesty though, I was truly hoping to wing it.  We only had 3 days for this trip, so any visits had to be quick and we wanted as much spontaneity as possible.

First stop:  NEEL's GAP

7 years ago, almost to the day, I made my way into the famous Neel's Gap store after my first 31 miles on the Appalachian Trail.  It was there that I first laid eyes on the wall map of the entire AT, and knew just how much further I had to go.  Having pushed out a solid 31, I quickly realized that it was barely 1% of the trail.  You could say that Neel's Gap is where reality first set in.  I've often wondered what it would be like to go back there...back to a place that represents a setting so early in my hiking infancy.  Spend a day re-remembering what it was like to be a nascent thru-hiker.  It was literally only the night before I hiked into Neel's Gap, while camped at Slaughter Creek roughly 23 miles into my thru-hike, that I had decided on the trailname that would still be with me now 7 years later.  I have often laughed when thinking back to how much I thought I knew at that point, and how little I actually did.  It truly seems like a different lifetime ago.  And yet, here on this road trip I knew I'd be driving right by again, AND that there'd likely be thru-hikers there.  I had to stop.  It didn't disappoint....

As I got out of the car and walked around, all the memories came rushing back as if I had just been there yesterday.  I can remember where I sat down to adjust my shoelaces, where'd I'd talked to other hikers, and even where I ate my first pint of ice cream.  One thing I didn't remember though was signing my first log book.  Half out of jest, I decided to poke through the logs and see if I could find the 2007 book.  After some digging I pulled it out almost 100% sure I wouldn't find my name.  Looks like I would have lost that bet...

Neel's Gap...The first true oasis on the AT

Just like old times

Finding my name from 7 years prior in the log-book.

I even walked up the trail a bit for old time's sake

Some beautiful Georgia AT

Next Up:  Brasstown Bald

I left Neel's Gap with a big smile and we happily drove further up the road to visit Brasstown Bald...Georgia's highest point.  The Appalachian Trail doesn't actually take you over the mountain and I had never been back to that area of North Georgia to knock out the highpoint since.  Here was my chance.  Brasstown Bald is easily accessible by car.  A quick drive up the approach road leaves you at the visitor store about 1/2 mile from the summit (which is accessed by a very nice paved walking path). At the top is a beautiful lookout tower that you can climb, which provides incredible views of the surrounding North Georgia and Carolina mountains.  We had a perfect day for it to.  

I got permission from a Park Ranger to get a photo at the physical USGS benchmark which is actually located behind a locked door.  I was quite grateful for this as touching the USGS benchmark on a highpoint is the way I personally mark my summits (I know it's a bit OCD, but it always gives me something fun to look for on summits....if there is an actual benchmark of course).

Brasstown's first marker (4784')

Atop the lookout tower on Brasstown Bald

At the actual USGS highpoint benchmark behind a locked door

Next Up: Sassafras Mt.

After leaving Brasstown, there was still plenty of day left to make a quick hop over to South Carolina's highpoint - Sassafras Mountain (Which sits right on the border between North and South Carolina).  The drive over and up to approach road was very quiet and when we started the drive up the mountain, we were in fact the only car on the road....and in the eventual gravel parking area near the top.  We spent over an hour playing around the summit, hiking some nearby trails, and taking pictures of the many vistas before tagging the summit and heading out.  It was a magnificent evening.

Back in the SC

Cooling off in the Chattooga River on the border between GA and SC

Perfect evening atop Sassafras (3553')

View from the near the summit

The official USGS Summit Marker

Next Up: Mt. Mitchell

After leaving, there was still enough time in the day to make our way through the fun/hip town of Asheville, North Carolina and hopefully catch the summit of Mt. Mitchell (North Carolina's high point, and the highest point East of the Mississippi) just in time for would be close though.  After playing around Asheville for an hour and getting some spectacular Japanese food to go, we bolted towards Mitchell.  The access road is long, and has a fairly low speed limit and it ended up taking much longer than expected to the summit.  The sun was slowly setting off on the horizon, and the summit was still a few miles off.  When we hit the parking area, we were the only car in it.  We jumped out of the car and ran up the access path to the observation deck and literally caught the last 30 seconds of the sun setting.  It was perfect timing.  After some pictures, we ate our dinners and drove on ahead for another hour so as to set ourselves up for a morning hike up Mt. Rogers (Virginia).

Moments after the sun finished setting on Mt. Mitchell

Summit Marker (6684')

Panorama taken from the observation platform

For this brief moment, every person East of the Mississippi was below me!

The sign and observation platform at sunset

The Mt. Mitchell Parking lot...with our car the only vehicle.
We had the entire mountain to ourselves

Next Up:  Mt. Rogers

As we left, we made our way up towards the Virginia border.  While hiking the AT back in '07, the trail took me over Mt. Rogers, but never up to the summit.  I'm not sure why at the time I didn't make the 2 mile side-trip to the top, but needless to say, I had yet to truly summit Rogers.  Unfortunately there's no easy access, and the shortest hiking route requires an 8-mile roundtrip hike.  We figured if we set ourselves up for an early start, we could be back down by lunch and on our way Northward to NY.  We arrived at the Massie trailhead the following morning, again the only car there, and had a wonderful hike up to the summit.  We enjoyed perfect blue skies, idyllic scenery, and the bucolic Grayson Highlands.   We saw many wild horses roaming the highlands and enjoyed the only Frasier Fir forest still standing East of the Mississippi near the Roger's summit.  At the top, again all alone, we took a long break at the marker (which was all tree-covered), and then headed back to the car.  Most of the trip was on the AT so I got to reminisce a bit...even passing one of the Shelters that I had slept in while on my thru-hike.  Good stuff!

On the climb up to Mt. Rogers

Some cattle roaming the highlands

Part of the trail goes through this slot

Wild ponies!

More wild ponies!

Mt. Rogers Summit

Last Stop: Skyline Drive / Shenandoah

Once back at the car we began the long drive up the spine of Virginia en route to PA and eventually NY.  We decided on one last detour however when we made it to Waynseboro.  With plenty of daylight left, we decided to drive the 107 miles of Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah's.  There was almost no traffic and we made great time winding along the spine of the beautiful north VA mountains.  We even stopped at many of the scenic vistas, AT crossings, and at a Wayside for Blackberry ice cream.  It was a lot of fun and quite scenic.  I was truly surprised at how few people we saw in total, not just on the drive, but on all the peaks and trails we visited over the course of the 3 days.  It was a great mini road trip that really allowed us both to unwind and destress...even if for only a couple days.

A quick visit to "Foam-henge" along I-81 in Virginia 
(A foam replica of stonehenge)

Skyline Drive

View from one of the many vistas

And of course another high point!

That's it.  I thought I'd keep this post simple and to-the-point.   Make sure to keep getting out there and enjoying this wonderful world any way you can.

hike on my friends,


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Another "3 Days at the Fair" 72hr Experience

Some Photos Modified from: T. Bushey

70 hours in...Brad and I having a good ol' time

Usually I will start a report off chronologically and begin by retelling the story of my race prep or of my pre-race routines.  Not this time though.

Somewhere, at some point deep into the final night at "3 Days", I had finally reached that point that I so long for...that state of existence so indescribable to others.   I had my head down, desperately trying to finish the last loop I had told myself I would do before hitting my tent for a nap....loop 222.  I was fighting every ounce of my being to stay awake, and my walking had become a bit drunkard in fashion.  I just had to make it that final 1/4 mile to my tent and then I would have earned my rest.   Marylou passed me and asked if I was ok.  I grunted something audible and somehow got out the words "tent" and "nap".  She made me focus and asked if I would set alarms.  I grunted again, but then somehow immediately flashbacked to last year's fiasco when I slept through them all on the final night.  I looked up at her with what little energy I had, and during a tiny moment of clarity, asked her to shake my tent if she didn't see me on the course in 2 hours.  This simple sentence would later save my run.  I put my head back down and was immediately out-of-focus again.  Marylou jogged on ahead.   My walk turned into a shuffle, and I could feel myself falling asleep standing up just a few hundred feet from my tent.  I drifted into oblivion while standing.

But then I felt someone grab my arm.  It was Marylou again.  She had turned around, saw me fading and had come back to pull me to my tent.  I could barely speak as I was now going on about 64 hours with about 2 hours of sleep.  She guided me to my tent by my arm as though I was blind man, and I fumbled my way up the grass somehow setting 4 alarms in the haze of it all on my phone.  It wouldn't matter though as I would turn all 4 off as soon as the first one went off 2 hours later.  (I have no memory of doing this).  I was asleep before I got my shoes off.

What seemed like moments later, I hear the zip of my tent fly, and a soft voice saying, "John.  Are you up?  It's been 2 hours and I haven't seen you".  It was Marylou, coming to my rescue yet again.  I felt only slightly rested, but well enough to get up and get moving again.  I was on pace to break my mileage from last year, and I wanted to break it by at least 10 and hit the low 240's.  Marylou was gone as though she was a ghost, and I never saw her until a few loops later.  I very slowly made my way around the loop, waking up, allowing my achy bones and joints to suss themselves out, and then rewarded myself with a large hot coffee and mouthful of brownies.  Breakfast of champions.  Two loops later I would finally see Marylou and give her an enormous hug, thanking her for saving my race.  I still owe her big time for that one.

Early on during day 1

I have many times thought about it, that feeling I get late into these endeavors....especially when reminiscing about my thru-hikes or say the final descent down Chimney Top at Barkley, but it is such an elusive feeling that I find myself tripping over my own words when trying to tell others of it, or even remembering the specifics.  Even as I write this text now, I find myself trying to remember it almost as a dream after having just woken up.

There comes a point for me during these ridiculous things that I do, when I am reduced to my absolute identity (for a lack of a better way to describe it).  I guess in some way I find that I am like many others in that I am collection of multiple layers.  An onion, a russian nesting matryoshka doll, or whatever other metaphor you want to use.  I am the sum of all of these layers upon layers, that have grown and evolved over time through my experiences.  Together, these layers comprise the totality of who I am, what others know me as.  But, at the very base, at the core beneath the mantle beneath the crust, there is the base layer...the innermost me, as it were.  It is in these rare and fleeting moments of utter exhaustion, sleep-deprivation, and internal exploration that this fundamental "me" finally may surface and is exposed.  Those few other runners who may speak to me during those times, will see me and know me, as very few ever have, or ever will.  It is an incredibly surreal and almost liberating feeling to exist in this state, even for such short periods of time.  All the proverbial layers are stripped away, and I can simply be my true self.  It is really magical and I find that when it is all over, and days later (such as now), that it often brings a sadness to me.  I want to find myself in that state again, but I cannot simply will it to happen.  Perhaps that is why I keep going back to these ultra events.  I pine for those few moments of self-clarity like I had during Vol State, or Barkley, or my thru-hikes.  Moments when simply opening my eyes, and breathing in the air, can give me goose bumps.

Like I said, this is all very hard to verbalize, and I imagine by now it seems as though you are reading some Undergrad philosophy major's pseudo-self-transcendental rant on existentialism or some nonsense.  I can assure you...that whatever it is, it is beyond description and the clarity I achieve is worth all of the pain I may go through.

The final morning would progress well, the sun would rise and wake me up further, and then the hours would tick down to the final few.  At some point with about 70 minutes left, I decided to put on my favorite running music and was overcome with a burst of emotion.  I ran hard for all 70 minutes getting in 3 more miles than I thought I would giving me a total of 246 at the Finish Line.  I ended up running one entire lap with Joe Fejes...which in itself was quite surreal, and then 4 of my last 5 laps with Marylou.  I watched her top 271, breaking her own Canadian Record by another 5 miles.  I pushed out one final 9-minute mile by myself coming in with less than a minute left on the clock.  When it was finally over, I was entirely depleted and would not have wanted to run another loop.

Whatever pain I feel today, whatever hardships I will endure was all worth it for that lucidity I was able to achieve late into my third night.

Marylou and I finishing a quick lap together late on Sunday morning

Backing up a bit....

While my numbers certainly indicated a better running than last year, the weather was most certainly worse.  Thursday, while dry, was ridiculously humid....and it rained for nearly 12 hours on Friday.  Saturday was much improved, but only the last morning (Sunday), was truly perfect weather.  The humidity on Thursday didn't really hit me too hard, but the rain on Friday was downright miserable.  It was so hard to stay motivated during the downpours because all day the rain would tease us into thinking it was done, only to open up again and re-soak us all.  Keeping up on chafing protection was a challenge, and we were all constantly pushing each other to get up and get out there.  Still many of us lost precious hours of time by sitting out the rain, and the inclement weather likely cost the quick guys their chance at breaking the 48-hour record too.  But despite this, people like Marylou were still able to top 271 and set a new Canadian record, and Joe Fejes managed 230 in the 48 (7th place on the all-time list).

Last year I did 95 miles on day one, and then 70 and 66 the following two days.  This year I told myself I wanted to get closer to 100 on that first day to build a slightly better cushion.  I knew I could run 100 comfortably in 24 hours on a relatively flat course.  I had done 114 back in November at the One-Day as well.   This would allow me to plan for roughly equivalent days 2 and 3, and come out near 240 miles total if all went right.  But as I knew (along with many others), many things can go wrong, and any plan that I came up with had to just be a template....that would likely be altered many times as the days progressed.

Day 1 started well.  I got a good night sleep the previous night, had a hearty dinner of pancakes and eggs at the local greasy-spoon diner with fellow runner Jim Lampman, and was all ready to get some miles under my feet.  I was a little worried about muscle fatigue as I had run a rather fast-paced 12-hour event last weekend (Mind the Ducks) and pushed out a respectable ~73 miles.  I had only run a short 3 mile recovery jog since then though and given my legs 4 solid rest days to recover.  I was ready as I would ever be I had figured.

I made the rounds, saying hi and catching up with friends.  At 9:00 am we were off and I settled into a smooth and very comfortable 9:30 minute-mile jog.  I figured I could easily maintain this for a long while.  I had just sort of told myself I wanted to get through as many of the early miles as I could before really breaking or resting for any significant amount of time.  I knew I'd eat a bit, stop for salt, stop for bottle refills etc, but no big rests. All morning and into the afternoon I plugged away, maintaining sub 10-min mile pace.  When I crossed 19 miles I got to stop and ring my 250th mile bell.  Because I had accrued 231 miles last year, this meant I now had 250 total miles on the course.  The next big milestone would be at 500...which I would most certainly not achieve this year.   When I finally hit 50 miles, I still felt fantastic and was pleased my body was holding up well.  The humidity was high, so I was stopping for water a lot, but I hadn't once checked the leaderboard.  The real race doesn't even begin until the 2nd night in my mind, so there's no sense in getting worked up on stats.  My only concern was 240 miles in 72 hours, and 100 the first 24.

My station set up in the same spot as last year

My sheltered tent spot up behind a nice tree

Before dark I was well into my 60's and was prepping for my first night out on the course.  By this point I was giving myself short sit breaks every ten miles (which had started at 50).  This allowed me little mental breaks to look forward to, and time for me to elevate my feet.  I had told myself I would start elevating my feet earlier this year.   Getting through the first 100 is mentally tough when you know you are shooting for 200+.  There's just something about knowing you are over 100 that makes the miles come easier.  It's almost as though 0-100 are the preface in a novel you are really excited to read.  You just want to get to the good stuff, but have to get through the front-matter first, in a sense.

The night went by rather quickly though, and the miles racked up.  I was still on pace to make my 100, and by this point I had instituted little walking break sections along the course.  Walk to the bathroom, run the loop and straightaway, walk the little hill up to the big loop, run the big loop to the 2nd cone, walk to the gravel...etc......."  Each lap was taking about 11-12 minutes now, which was perfectly fine with me.  At one point I had glanced at the leaderboard and did see I was somewhere in the top 5, but again wasn't really worried about it.  A lot would change.

I made sure to talk to as many people as possible while I was still cogent and in high spirits.  I wanted to take in as many stories from fellow runners as I could.  I obviously caught up a lot with friends like Dave Lettieri, Melissa Huggins, Brad Compton, and Jim Lampman, but I also made sure to say hi to new folks and random people I had never met before.  I wanted to learn about people's goals for the weekend, and their motivation for doing the event.  And I wanted to laugh and smile a lot .... which I was.  It was already turning out to be a great weekend.

As the sun came up on the second morning, my mileage was in the 90's, but I hadn't really slept yet.  At 9:00 when the 48-hour runners started, and my first day ended, my odometer rolled over to 104 miles and I was content to sit in Dave's reclining chair for a 30-45 minute power nap.  I had achieved my goal of 100 miles.  Things were going well.  The nap was entirely too short, but I told myself I wouldn't take more than 45 min sleep breaks until the final night.  I got up slowly and stiffly, walked over to the kitchen and put as much food and coffee in me as I could.  It would take me a loop or two of walking to warm back up and get my running legs back on.

As I passed Keith Straw's tent, I saw he was tearing it down.  I was sad to learn he had decided to go home and that the multi-day venue wasn't for him.  He is always a fantastic individual to have on course and chats with him will most certainly leave you smiling or laughing.

Then the rains came.

Day 2 is notoriously the roughest in most people's opinions.  You are deep in the mid-section of the race, not half-way yet, but with many miles already under your feet.  It's equivalent to mile 120 at Vol State.  You feel like you've come so far, but yet have an impossible way to go yet.  With the rain, it would only be harder.  I turned to my ipod for solace and began listening to a lot of music.  I need as many distractions as possible, and a lot of people weren't out on the course.  I layered up in rain gear and began slogging wet mile after wet mile.  Every ten miles I would gloriously sit under my dry canopy and enjoy a beautiful rest.  I would frantically check my phone's weather apps to see how much longer the front would be dumping rain on us and it always seemed to be in the same place.  No matter how much time passed, the rain just kept coming.  It was extremely demoralizing.  The 48-hour runners were powering through it, but even the fast guys weren't doing as well as they would have liked.  Still, with all this said, everyone was still making miles one at a time....even if slow, and that's all that matters.  Forward progress.

The mid-100's were endless, and my 10-mile breaks seem to take hours and hours.  I was walking a lot at this point and taking short rain breaks under the main pavilion.  I even took another 20 minute power nap in Dave's chair at one point as well.  Reports finally started coming in at dinner time that the rains would stop around 10 pm.  By this point I was at about 150 miles and ready to sleep for real, but decided to push on to 160.  It was a very long 10 miles, and by the last 5, I was beginning to stagger quite a bit.  At 160, I walked up to my tent, and took my first real nap of the race....setting 4 alarms.  Immediately my hips began screaming at me and I couldn't get comfortable.  When I finally did get into a position that worked, it seemed only moments later my alarms were screaming at me.  I had slept almost an hour, although it only seemed like 2 minutes.  I got up and walked a couple of slow miles to get warmed up, noting that the rain had finally indeed stopped.  I could even see a few stars.  I had hoped to get to 180 by the 48-hour mark.  In the end, I hit 177 (or 178?) as the 2nd day ended, so was content.  I was getting quite fatigued by this point and I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the 3rd day...a day notoriously filled with a lot of power hiking....and not much true running.

Day 3 last year I hit my 200 miles sometime right around sundown.  This year, I had 12 hours and just 22 miles to make that same milestone.  I knew I was well ahead of the pace, I just needed to keep moving.  The day would prove to be long.  Despite a whole slew of new runners on course (24-hour runners, 12-hour runners, and 6-hour runners), I was in a constant battle with fatigue.  There comes a point when losing time to some much-needed sleep actually ends up making you faster in the long run....because walking while extremely exhausted is just so darn slow.  I plodded out many a slow mile, but finally creeped up on 200 around 5 pm.  When I did eventually hit it, I decided that in a tribute to last year I'd walk one additional mile before taking a long break.  This way, I'd have 201 in case for some reason I couldn't get back up.  Unlike last year, there was no fanfare associated with my 200.  I simply ran it alone, popped across the timing mat and Rick announced "200 John!  Nice!!".   Just like that, I was in the 2's again.  I had just 31 miles, a 50k, to tie my miles from last year, and over 15 hours to do it.  I felt pretty confident I'd hit 240, but was still cautious about my optimism.

It was at some point around here that I finally started checking in on the leaderboard regularly.  I was surprised to learn I was holding a solid 2nd place standing.  Most people had shifted around quite a bit, several were lost to the rain and sleep...and others were plugging along steadily, climbing ever-so-slowly up the board.  The 48hr speed runners were all off record pace now, although Joe was still putting up ridiculous miles and would most certainly top 200.

I was already starting to think about sleep again, but desperately wanted to get up to at least 220 and a good ways into the night.  I didn't want to have too many dark/cold hours after waking up before the sun would rise.  Getting to 210 was ok, but it was around mile 211 that I finally found myself descending into the abyss and when my final "layer" came off.  For 10 lonely and peaceful miles I trotted around the course in a rather surreal state of existence.  I had finally found that feeling again and it was magical.  I enjoyed every second of it knowing that it would be fleeting and could fade at any moment.  I had decided that my goal mileage would be 242.  It seemed like a good random number.  This meant I wanted to get to 222 before sleep so that I'd have an even 20 left to do.  It seemed totally reasonable in my head at mile 216 when I came up with it.  The problem was that the next 6 miles would be the longest of my entire life.  It's funny how a 10k can seem like an eternity, when I'm running 200+ miles.  Each mile was slow and extremely labored as I became more and more exhausted.  People would try to talk to me and I would only make a soft and abbreviated noise in response.  I was incapable of true speech.  I had one runner ask me if I wanted her to walk with me to keep me awake,  I grunted out, "i'm ok", and she ran ahead.  At mile 220 I truly did not believe I'd make another two miles.  I drank a little coffee and sat on a bench not sure I had 2 more miles in me.  I got up convinced that I would just walk to my tent and surrender 2 miles early, but when I got there, I was so out-of-phase, that I literally forgot to stop.  Soon I was halfway around the loop before I realized I passed my tent.  I finished 221 and said well shoot, I can tough out one more, no?

It was mile 222 that would herald in my complete collapse...and where this race report began.  Thankfully, moments before my demise, Marylou rescued me....twice.

The final morning was cathartic.  The first few miles after my 2 hour sleep went by quickly and before long the sky began to lighten up.  I hit 231 miles very early and celebrated my first few steps out onto mile 232 as new ground.  Each new mile was now uncharted territory for me and I was thrilled to get in as many as I could.  Brad Compton (Fellow Vol Stater), who had been down in 5th or 6th place for most of the race, and steadily moved himself up to a solid 3rd place just 15 miles behind me.  He exemplified the slow-and-steady adage, by plugging away consistent miles with minimal sleep.  With about 70 minutes left in the race I finally hit 240 miles and let out a hearty yelp of excitement.  I knew I would also hit my random goal of 242.  It was then that I put on my favorite tunes and starting running. I had originally planned on simply hitting 243 by walking in 3 slow miles, but I decided that was no way to end an event like this.  I wanted to end like last year.  I hitched on to Joe Fejes for a mile and it got me fired up as I ran an entire mile at his pace.  It was a blast.  Then at the end of the loop I caught up to Marylou and we ran 4 miles together.  It was probably my favorite miles of the entire race.  I had great music blasting, goose bumps for all 45 minutes of it, and an enormous smile going.  It was bliss.  During our last mile together we had just over 20 minutes left at the finish.  I told her I was going for 2 more and she said that she wanted to just do an easy-paced victory lap.  She had earned it for it would be a total of 271 miles and an outright win.  I burned on ahead finishing my 245th mile in just over 10 minutes and went on to push for that last mile of 246.

I looked behind me and there was no one.  I would be at the very end and I needed to keep it moving or I wouldn't make it.  My entire body was aching and I had to stop for short walk breaks...but by the half-way point of the loop I still had 6 minutes left.  I knew I would make it.  Dave Lettieri shot out of nowhere pulling out a 6:30 loop and passed me in the final few hundred yards.  I smiled as my watch counted down the final two minutes and I rounded the corner crossing the final timing mat with 30 seconds to spare and 246 miles under my very sore legs.

I collapsed on the ground for a very long time with an enormous grin on my face.  It was all worth it.  I had bested my previous run by 15 miles and nearly achieved 250 total (perhaps a goal for next year...)

Many thank to Rick and Jennifer (and all the volunteers) for this great event, and allowing all of us to come out and find each of our own little moments of clarity.

My 2nd place prize and 250-mile coin

Napping...feet-up, at a rest-stop on the interstate drive home

Sunset over Seneca Lake just before getting home

Final Numbers:
Day 1:  104
Day 2:  72
Day 3:  70
Total 246 miles.
3rd place overall, 2nd men (Darren Worts had 254 Miles)

Lifetime Miles at 3 Days: 477 Miles (Just 23 more for my 500 coin!)

More photos and detail to come as they become available.

hike on my friends,

Monday, May 12, 2014

Minding the Ducks for 12 Fantastic Hours

Photo Credits (T. Perry, R. Heerkens Jr.)

72 laps done...and enjoying some well-earned happiness

Never in a hundred years would I have thought that I'd have the opportunity to run an ultra in my childhood home town, just 5 miles from the house I grew up in.  Thinking back to my junior-varsity cross-country days, I recall that my very first organized race, a short 3-mile local invitational, was in Webster Park just down the road from North Ponds.  Here I was on Saturday, some 20+ years later running again in Webster.  It was marvelous.

North Ponds Park is a place I hadn't been to since I was very young.  I have vague memories of flying kites there with my dad when I was probably 8 years old.  When I happened across a listing for a 12-hour ultra event titled "Mind The Ducks" that would take place at the Park, I had to sign up.  I knew that I was already signed up for "3 Days at the Fair" for the following week, but I couldn't pass on the opportunity to run loops around my old childhood stomping grounds.  The only limit I set for myself was to not do anything stupid and mess myself up for 3 Days.  Which...well.....I maybe sort of did do.   Oops.

North Ponds Park (with mile loop around the perimeter)

A view along the lovely course

Another view of the course

Just how close the race was to my old house

The drive up took maybe an hour from where I was staying down in the Finger Lakes.  I was running late due to some road construction and didn't pull into the parking lot until about 6:48 or so.  I had only about 10 minutes to get ready.  Thankfully I came already dressed to run, and simply had to swap shoes, move my supplies bin over to the course, and make a bathroom stop.  I checked in, pinned on my number, and by the time I readied myself I had only about 3 minutes till the start.....but I still needed to hit the restroom.  I figured....well, this is a 12-hour, so it won't really matter if I start a minute or two late.  I stepped into the port-o-potty, took care of business, and outside I could hear some muffled speech through a megaphone.  I never heard an official "start" or horn, but when I stepped out of the restroom, the runners were all already on their way and I was left standing alone at an empty start line.  I couldn't help but chuckle a little.  I stepped over the starting mat, and began jogging my way up to the front of the pack.  

My pace goal from the start was to try to maintain a moderate-to-easy pace for the first 25-30 miles.  To me this mean about a 9 minute mile (perhaps a tiny bit slower).  I ended up pushing it a smidge and was averaging 8:45's for the first 15 or so.  I was kind of using my memory of my Pine Creek Challenge races as a sort-of gauge.  At Pine Creek, I ran comfortably all day, and managed a 10:21 100K.  This meant, if I went a touch slower, I should be able to tack on a few extra over 62, but really didn't think I'd get that far.  Knowing I had "3 Days" the follow week, I kept trying to tell myself that I would limit my effort to 50 miles or less....perhaps even 50k.  Once out there though, I just couldn't bring myself to quit early.  Everything about the day was simply marvelous.  I have been under a lot of stress lately with dissertation writing, so getting out on the beautiful loop in my home town was just too good to quit early.  I was smiling, and enjoying myself...and figured as long as I was having fun, there was no need to stop early.  Life is too short to always be planning for "the next race".  I was in a wonderful event, and I was going to suck the marrow out of it.

Race Start....(and I'm in the outhouse in the back!)

And they're off! (without me)

...and I'm playing catch-up in the first minute of the race.

A lot of people have asked how a self-described "trail-runner" like myself, could possibly enjoy a paved 1-mile loop.  The honest answer is that I'm not entirely sure why I do...but that I just do.  I really just like being outdoors...and running.  It's that simple.  I like mixing things up too and having a diverse blend of events that I participate in.  This way, things don't get stagnant or too familiar.  Last year was the first year I decided to take a stab at timed events and so far, I've really enjoyed them.  I never had any interest in them at all, but now that I've done a few, I can say that my opinion has changed.  I would still choose a narrow, serpentine single-track as my first choice of course, but that doesn't mean running loops around a lovely little park in upstate New York can't also keep me smiling.

As the loops began adding up early in the day, my pace remained fairly steady.  I was maintaining consistent 8:45 - 9:00 minute miles and still smiling.  The course was littered with Canada Geese and flocks of their fuzzy baby goslings, as well as numerous snapping turtles.  I must have stopped a dozen times to pick up stray baby turtles (hatchlings? turtlets? turtlings?) that were on the path...and move them to the grass off-course.  The field of runners was quite diverse with an incredibly positive and fun attitude overall.  I had some great conversations with many throughout the day.  In general, everyone seemed very happy to be there and all had some really great goals set for themselves.  One of the nice bonuses to a 1-mile event too is that you get a spectacular cheering section every 10-15 minutes.  All day as I came through the timing mat, I was welcomed with consistent cheering and encouragement.  Even at the 1/2 mile mark there were small groups set up to cheer us on all day.  This was particularly nice at the top of the short little pitch we had to climb about halfway into the loop.

Early in the day, the weather was perfect.  There was some misty clouds keeping the sun slightly shaded, and there was a slight breeze to keep us cooled off.  It was truly perfect running weather.  As the day approached noon though, the clouds cleared up and the sun got nice and hot (with some added humidity to boot).  It wasn't miserable, but it definitely slowed people down, myself included.  I was a little late getting the sunblock on too, and ended up with some slight sunburn.

Coming in to the end of a loop

Cruising down the one "hill" on the course


When I hit the Marathon mark, I decided to take a 5 minute rest break.  I made a pit stop, and then visited my supplies bin where I finally put on some sunblock, chapstick, and changed into my more ventilated button-down shirt.  I rolled my legs out with my "Stick" and simply took a few minutes to myself walking around to the aid station.  I had my bin set up about 0.1 miles from the finish, so it felt good to walk for a short bit.  At the station I finally enjoyed a nice sit-down break.  Up until this point, I had no idea what place I was in.  Each lap I saw my name pop up on the top of the TV screen, but just assumed I was on top because I was the most recent person to cross the mat.  It turns out that I was looking at the leader board.  I honestly hadn't even thought I'd have a chance to place at this event as I knew the current record holder was supposed to be running again (He had done something like 87 miles back in 2011).  It turns out, he wasn't there though.  I would be happy to get the 100K so was quite surprised to find out I was leading the race by 2 laps.  The race director announced as I came through that I was the "first marathon finisher!".  It was pretty exciting, but it also started to churn up some old memories of finding out I was leading at Pine Creek.  Now what?  Do I keep running to simply enjoy myself, or do I knowingly push the pace to try to secure the win?  I fought this question for the better part of the next 20 miles.  I did NOT want to push it, but there's just something so exciting about knowing you're leading a race...a feeling I almost never get (only once before).  I decided to just try to keep maintaining my steady pace, rather than to push it,  in hopes that everyone else would be slowing down throughout the day.  If by chance, someone were to catch me, than I would give them a hardy congrats and celebrate with them, as they would have obviously paced themselves better throughout the day than I did.  At this point there wasn't a whole lot I could really do other than to just keep trucking along and hope to maintain my lead.

The day continued to get hotter, and I was starting to slow significantly.  I was talking short walk breaks, and stopping consistently for 10-20 second breaks at the aid station.  The volunteers were wonderful though, and always made sure to have my bottle filled for the next loop.  I felt bad during the afternoon as the wind really began to pick up, and everything was blowing away.  They put in some monumental efforts to keep things "glued" down to the table.  As far as nutrition, I played it relatively well.  I kept a steady flow of gels coming through the day, and popped down occasional fruit, pretzels, and candy when I felt like it.  At lunch time I ate a couple of small pieces of pizza too.  I did get a little behind on my salt, until I realized they had tabs at the station.  After a few hours of catch up, I did finally feel like I got myself regulated and never had any major stomach discomfort.  I probably should have drank more throughout the day though as I didn't make as many bathroom stops as I would have liked.

By late afternoon the clouds had started to cover up the sun, and the temps became pleasant again.  It was a nice relief.  As I approached the 50-mile mark I was rather surprised to see that my time was 7:49, literally the exact same time that I posted for my fastest ever 50-mile PR at Tussey Mountain.  Granted this was a flat 1-mile loop, but this obviously had me a smidge worried as this seemed way too fast (although my body didn't seem to feel like it was).  I still felt ok and wanted to keep jogging away.  At mile 57, I was surprised when I came around a loop a bit tired and in need of a pick-me-up, to find my wonderful partner and other-half waiting for me and cheering me on near the finish.  I told her not to make the drive up from the Finger Lakes, but I was glad to see her...and glad that I would be seeing her for the final 3 hours.  Talk about a pick-me-up!  My sister and my nephew would show up just another half-hour later and it was simply fantastic to see them both at one of my events.  My nephew is coming up on his 1-year birthday and he seemed like he was having a great time and smiling each time I passed by.  Perhaps my plan to secretly plant the subliminal seed early for him to be an working!  It certainly brought a smile to my face to see them all each loop.   When I finally hit 62 miles just a hair over 10 hours (a new PR for 100k for me), I decided I needed a long break.  I sat for along time with my family and rolled out my legs on the grass.  I played with my nephew a bit and we all just talked about whether or not I should keep going for the final 2 hours.  I decided to just walk a full loop and see how I felt.  

Coming in on one of the many mid-day hot loops.

After the one-mile walking loop, I took note of the leader-board and saw that I still maintained a 4-loop lead.  I had sort of reasoned at this point that even if just plodded along for the final 1hr 40mins, that I'd probably keep the win.  So I began jogging.  But then the math started to kick in.  I started playing the numbers game of how many laps could I get in.  At first I thought hitting 70 would be about right.  But then I quickly realized that 71 was totally doable.  Finally, I thought it would somehow be a good idea if I ran 8:30 miles for 3 miles...then I could get in 72.  Not my most intelligent idea, but nonetheless what I decided to go with.

So miles 69, 70, and 71 were less than pleasant.  I began huffing, and grunting, and pushing rather hard just so that I'd guarantee myself at least 12 minutes for that last mile and perhaps a chance to walk a bit. For those three miles I never stopped at the aid station, I never refilled my bottle, I just ran solid. hurt a bit.  I had played it so safe all day, and yet here I was, likely blowing out my legs, just 30 minutes before the finish.  Oh well...carpe diem right?  At this point most of the field was still out there chugging along and most still quite happy.  I was really thrilled by all of the cheers and encouragement from the all as I made my way around those last miles.  I tried as much as I could to also offer words of encouragement all day to everyone that I could.  I was really impressed by everybody's effort all day.  There were likely many detailed and storied personal challenges at play out there that I wasn't aware of...and I know that all that participated should feel proud of their accomplishments.  

Finishing lap 70

Coming in at the end of 71, not feeling great...but
just one more to go

Finishing Lap 71...One more

As I rounded the finish stanchion at the end of 71, I tossed my water bottle, and began my final lap  with a full 16 minutes to do it.  I knew that this would be plenty of time to take it easy.  My pace slowed to a meager trot, and I tried to take in the cool air and enjoy the last mile to its fullest.  I stopped to walk about 1/2 way in to the lap and even stopped at one point to admire one last gaze over the ponds.  It was a fantastic way to end the day.  I walked a leisurely stroll along the far side of the park and when I rounded the last turn along the highway, I picked it back up to a slow jog.  I trotted the final 2/10 into the finish and crossed the line with almost 4 minutes still to spare.  I immediately walked over to the the plushest bit of grass I could find and laid down for a long 10 minutes.  I missed the final runner crossing the line at 12:00 hours exactly but certainly heard the cheers.  

The Finish (11:56:28).  72 Laps, 72.86 miles

Overall I was thrilled with my day.  Today, my soreness has all but gone, which is good, but I likely will have to take it quite easy at 3 Days.  To me, this is ok though.  I was able to notch only my 2nd victory ever with a quite respectable 72 laps (72.86 miles), and keep a hearty smile on for 95% of the day.  The volunteers were top notch, the race director took a very active role in the race and was there all day cheering everyone on, and even dressed up in a full shirt/tie.  I think it's quite refreshing to participate in an event that is run so well as an entire package.....especially one in my home town!  Thanks also go to the sponsors.

Thanks all for a great experience, and perhaps I'll see you gain in '15.  It was a pleasure running and chatting with each of you.


Some gear and geek stuff:
  • I went very standard for this event and brought very little with me.  I ran the first half in just an old beat-up running shirt and running shorts, and at the marathon mark changed into my old polyester button-down shirt.  I wore an old pair of Hokas that already had way too many miles on them, but they held up fine.  The tread was already severely worn, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to wear them even more.  Needless to say they are looking pretty bad now.
  • I carried a single old water bottle for random laps throughout the day, but never any food.
  • I ate mostly gels and fruit (and assorted aid station food), and took some occasional salt tabs
  • I drank a fair amount of caffeine (mtn dew), ginger-ale for my stomach, and gatorade/powerade
  • I took a tylenol late in the day.

FINAL RESULTS:  Mind The Ducks Results

Garmin Data:  Mind the Ducks Garmin
(The elevation data is messed up however)

My numbers plot clearly shows how my pace played out.  My first 26 were quite steady, and then I began to get rather erratic.  These times reflect my total pace including breaks (not just moving pace).  You can see things like my 26 mile break, and my breaks and walking loops at the end.  Additionally, you can see the 3 miles near the end where I picked it up.  I'm fairly certain that had the race been a few hours longer, that the top women's finisher (Vikki Baylis) would have likely caught me as she was only a few miles behind and was doing a much better job at keeping a steady pace all day.  Which reminds me.....major kudos to the womens field in general.  The leaders ran really smart races and placed 5 of the 10 overall finishes.  It was basically dead even between the top 5 mens and top 5 womens finishers if you compare times and stats.

Race Pace

One last thing....the prize swag is fantastic!  I honestly wasn't even really expecting anything over-the-top when it comes to swag, but the prizes here were definitely top notch.  I came away with an enormous bag of goodies, including a Buff, a thermos, coffee mug (already been used btw), and various other fun things.  I thought the way the race director set up the prizes was both clever, and very motivating.  He had assigned various prizes for each "milestone".  In other words, you got something for hitting the marathon mark, and then something else for hitting 50k, and 50 miles.  Lastly, you got the final awards for topping 100K...which is how I came away with all the prizes even including a small cooler and a Mind the Ducks towel.  I think this made for very discrete milestones for people to focus on achieving.  

I even got a wooden hand-made first-place finishers award!

All of my crazy goodies!

Overall MTD Winner Award.  Sweet!