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Saturday, September 8

Wakely 2012

“Oh. My. God. That was the most painful thing I have ever attempted. Never again.”

 Those were my thoughts after completing the Wakely Dam Ultra in 2011. So why, I was asking myself, was I toeing the start line of the same race (plus and additional mile and a half), the very next year? Why would I take on a race that was renowned for its ups and downs, locust-like deer flies that could pick up a small child, raging water crossings, quarreling, flame spewing dragons and meddlesome woodland nymphs? Ok, so the mythical beasts may have been an exaggeration, but the part about the deer flies is totally true. Perhaps it was my resolve to conquer a race I was ill prepared for the previous year? Maybe I was trying to prove something to myself? Oooor, maybe I was trying to achieve some higher state of being by putting my soul, body, and mind through the numerous trials and tribulations that are associated with running 55 kilometers unassisted? Nah, on second thought it totally must have been the savvy race directors (Kim and Doug Gardner) and the fact that they put on an impeccable race. Regardless of why I found myself standing on Wakely Dam at 6:30 in the morning, only to have awoken 3 hours earlier, the fact of the matter was: I WAS THERE!

So as I briefly alluded to earlier, last year’s Wakely didn’t treat me so well. That can largely be attributed to my lackluster training as well as my overall inexperience in terms of racing ultras, let alone pacing for them. So I set out this year with high hopes of training like a madman! Which was all well and good until I started summer classes in late May. I know, maybe I am just using that as a crutch, but taking a 3 hour literature class as well as a 6 hour organic chemistry class 4 days a week all whilst trying to fit a full time job into the nooks and crannies of my schedule that weren’t occupied by academia didn’t exactly leave me with an overabundance of time to train. So that’s why I more or less reserved my weekends for training – my aim was to get in about 30 miles every weekend. This worked out well; I had some great weekends of training in the Adirondacks, Ithaca, and around the capital district. Would it be enough though?

“Three, two, one, GO!” Doug’s voice rang out into the morning air from atop an 8 foot step ladder. A group of 72 of us self-proclaimed “ultrarunners” took off down a seasonal road, the very road that I finished the race on last year. This year’s course was to be run in the opposite direction for the first time in the race’s illustrious 11 year history. Several runners took off and by time we reached the actual trail I had lost sight of them. I had to fight off the urge to chase, I simply repeated over and over in my head: “Run your race, run YOUR race.” It turns out, running my race also happened to be about 5 other peoples’ race as well. Before long a group of us including one badass chick by the name of Molly, had formed a single file line and were racing together throughout the winding trails in the middle of the Adirondack wilderness. This proved to be quite refreshing; we talked about a myriad of topics, and before long I began to realize that I was one inexperienced hombre among this crowd (I was listening to the war stories from other ultras they had run). We had fun though, all the way until the halfway point, where one other from the group and I decided to refill our water – the others took off. This fellow and I stayed together a few more miles, swapping stories. I wanted to stay with someone; it made the miles go by faster.

Running ultras can be a lonely experience. There are no cheering crowds. There are no mile markers. There are no aid stations. Some runners claim ultramarathons to be meditative. Others claim they are only for the insane. My belief is somewhere in the middle. With no other voice but the one in your head to keep you company, things are bound to get interesting. Your mind begins whispering all sorts of good reasons to stop, to just take a break. “Look at that perfectly nice log to sit on!” your mind may say. “C’mon, just for a few seconds.” The trick is to quell that voice and turn it into something constructive, something that will help you achieve your goals, not altogether different from other aspects of life.

I split from my trail friend and ventured on by myself for the first time in the race. I felt pretty good considering my calf was sore from the get-go (PR’ing at the Boilermaker 15K the week before may not have been the smartest thing to do), and I was over 20 miles into the race. Step after step I ticked the miles off, trying to find some landmark to judge how far in I was. I began passing a few of those fellas that took off in the beginning, that gave me a boost of confidence.

Three quarters of the way in and I had now finally caught up to yet another member of our now split running group, Courtenay. For the last 3 miles I had just been catching glimpses of his blue shirt and white visor – so I ramped it up a bit to get on his tail. He had been running a great pace, and was absolutely flying on the downhills, so I decided to stick with him. This was, after all, the same guy who caught me last year near the end of the race while I was at my lowest point and swearing to myself. I figured he would be managing a strong pace throughout the toughest miles of this race. Which he was.

I decided to throw on my headphones for a little added “umph” as my body ached more and more. After doing a systems check, my legs were in pretty rough shape. As was usually the case, my glutes and hamstrings felt like jelly. The music worked. As a Chase & Status song came on and blared into my ears Fire in your eyes someday, I see fire in your eyes someday, my emotions were whirling. Did I just achieve enlightenment? I was thinking about my mom, who drove out and surprised me the day before, I was thinking of my brother who despite driving 4 hours on a motorcycle through the rain was here for my race, I was thinking about Doug and Kim, I was thinking about the camaraderie and affinity all runners have for each other. Always been a warrior, back from when I remember, now we stand together.  My eyes welled up. I bounced to the left of Courtenay and passed him, saying something like “I’m sure you’ll catch me before this is over”.   Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t, all I knew was that I needed to ride this wave of emotion for as long as I could.

It turned out to carry me to about 3 miles from the road. I had gathered this information from a hiker on the trail. At this point in the race I had transformed from my usual affable self into a zombie. Upon hearing this news I mumbled “That’s not what I want to hear”. It was becoming increasingly hot, I decided to stop at the last stream and fill up my water bladder halfway. This is when Courtenay skirted by. I knew it. I trudged onward, somewhat relieved that I at least had some water. The next miles dragged onward, my mind and body fell into something of a stasis. It wasn’t until I saw this familiar bare chested fella with tiny blue shorts seemingly floating towards me that I came back to earth. I gave a fist pump to my bro, Nick.

“How much farther?” I ask.

“About a half mile on the trail”.

 “And the road? How long is the road?” I had no clue how long this road portion was going to be, I was bracing for several miles.

“Only about a mile.”

Thank the gods. I checked my watch. It read 5:43 (I think). I was going to get under the six hour mark, I had to! Nick provided the additional boost of energy I needed to put the fork in this race. I took off with him by my side, tapping this new source of vigor. We caught back up to Courtenay, I said to him “C’mon man! Let’s break 6!” I guess it wasn’t quite inspirational enough though, we took off without him. I dug deep and pounded the pavement while nick encouraged me on.

It was a great feeling to round the corner and see my mother there waiting for me, with Doug and Kim in the background signaling the finish line. I crossed at 5:56 and change. I shaved almost a whole hour off my last years’ time.

I had set three goals for myself: 1. Finish in under 6 hours; 2. Place in the top five; and most importantly 3. Pass people in the middle and later stages of the race. A mantra of mine is “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” I had achieved all three goals, and I was in heaven.

An ice cold bottle of water is thrust into my hand and I do something I was thinking about all day. I stumble to the lake and lay down in its cool waters. I met many great people this day – It made for a euphoric atmosphere. But unlike last year, my thoughts weren't “Never again”, but rather “When’s the next one?
A refreshing sit. Photo: Ken Piarulli

Friday, August 10

Iron in the veins, Pain on the radar (Part 3)

Sunday July 22nd:
The scene: ~2,800 floating pink (female) and green (male) caps located in Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake.  In just moments an event unlike any other (from my perspective) will begin and will carry me from this rather wet location to a point within half a mile from where I’m treading with one minor caveat, I will have travelled 140.6 Miles to get there.  Once finished I will officially have earned the title ‘Ironman.’...

The past 3 days have been quite exhilarating.  Sam and I left Ithaca, NY on Thursday evening around 7PM to make the journey to the official Nick Kirk race crew cabin located in Saranac Lake, NY (12 Miles from Placid).  We arrived after an arduous 5.5 hour drive and immediately fell into a coma.

Sammi and I
Friday arrived and I quickly realized, in a panicked state, that a key suit case filled with raceday items never made the incredibly far journey from Ithaca the night before.  A lot of this: !!!! and a little of this: ??? filled my worried mind.  Apparently, in all the excitement I blew out of the house leaving my patient bag awaiting its lovely trip to the Adirondacks.  After the use of a few profound words I gathered my broken self back together and started to formulate a plan.  Surely I could find someone who hadn’t left Ithaca and who would graciously offer to shuttle it up with them?  With the help of my friend Ian I was able to arrange just that.  Selina saved the day!  J

Throughout Friday, Sam and I meandered around Placid accomplishing pre-race tasks such as getting my bike outfitted with race wheels (Thanks to my Mom and Brother), checking in (acquiring race bibs and other such items), indulging in the plethora of free samples at the Expo, and meeting up with support crew members as they trickled in one by one.

After attending the pre-race dinner (think over cooked pasta, loads of meaty sauce like substance, and, oh yeah, gourmet ice-berg salad, clearly we weren’t on the VIP list) and the mandatory race meeting we settled back into our cozy little cabin.  Admittidly I did experience some pre-race jitters and stress throughout the day.  Thankfully, my crew kept me together, :)

Saturday morning began with a 50 minute easy bike ride into Placid where I met Sam to convene on the rest of the items I had to complete before the afternoon ended; such as last minute bike adjustments, placing the bike in the transition area, visiting my new friend Selina at her campsite to pick-up my bag (yay!), returning back to the transition to place other cycling and running gear in the miniscule space allocated to racer 1157 (me), and gather with the support crew.  Once together we decided it would be best to reconvene back at the cabin in order to minimize decision making difficulties. 
Race cap
The race vehicle
Where's 1157?
Cabin activities included shenanigans such as poster making, food devouring, quaffable consuming (minus a select one of us), nutrition planning, and much laughing. 

The support crew hard at work 
The finished products

What I've observed thus far is that the coordinated ‘cattle herding’ of athletes and supporters is quite incredible at an Ironman event.  I truly applaud the race directors, assistant race directors, the handful of coordinators, and the army of volunteers that make an event of such grandeur become a reality.

...00:00:00 - CRACK, goes the race gun.  We’re off!  Stroke after stroke 2,800 of us begin the 2.4 Miles of violence known to everyone else as ‘The Swim.’  The energy is static yet fluid.  Everyone is moving in the same general path although the splashed water seems to be suspended in the foot and a half of air directly above the surface of the water.  My choice to start in the front was a scary yet very rewarding one.  Scrambling to find a vacant 2’x6’ area of the lake was inconceivable yet not quite as alarming as I previously thought it would be.  The current amidst the crowd sucked me in the only direction I wanted to go, forward.  The energy fell during the second lap as the group began to spread.  To my surprise the second lap proved to be more painful than the first as I took a few good thwacks to the rear of my head.

Swim start
01:09:19 - From the water I made my way to transition #1 located 400 Meters from the swim exit.  Taking my time I transformed from a rubbery swimmer to a 'techy' looking cyclist.

After driving one loop of the bike course I had a good feeling that I would enjoy this ride.  From Placid the course dives down into Keene throughout which I approached speeds in excess of 40MPH.  It was during this time and again during the second loop that I was the farthest from another competitor (~200’) the whole race.  Consequently, loneliness isn’t a feeling I would relate to this experience.   Inspiration, on the other hand, never ceased to fuel my ambition to drive this 112 Mile expedition to 0.  Much of this inspiration came from the sidelines, encouraging volunteers who repeatedly shared their delicious (at least in the beginning) food and semi cold bottles of water proved to bolster my very spirit.  Along with this I always had a fellow group of Ithacans or a rambunctious crew of personal supporters to look forward to.  And in return they always received a warm smile and an occasional remark or burp of laughter for their efforts. 

The ride didn’t truly begin to hit home until around mile 80, ironically coinciding with the bulk of the courses uphills.  I know, I was shocked too J Luckily I knew I only had to complete a marathon after battling the relentless Adirondack ‘hills.’  This was surely motivation and if that wasn’t then maintaining a positive attitude was a must.  My IM training included such aspects and were labeled ‘Mental toughness' training.  The technique I chose throughout the bike ride was positive self-talk.  By simply repeating a positive word or statement in your head you can orient your mind around a positive train of thought which eliminates any negativity from your thoughts.  ‘Yes, yes, yes,…’ was as creative as I was able to convince myself to be.  Turns out it worked, I made it to transition.

6:54:37 (bike split: 5:45:18) - During transition #2 I escaped my cyclist costume and donned a pair of anxious running flats to embark on the final leg of this adventure.

From here on in it will be one foot in front of the other.  Getting to the run felt like a huge accomplishment only to be dwarfed by the thought of running 26.2 Miles while feeling more exhausted than I have felt in the past six months.  The only difference was that I had adrenaline and a sea of spectators on my side and I took advantage of both.  Unfortunately, the adrenaline wore off after the first 3 Miles.  The crowd, except for sections of under populated areas kept the energy high.  I quickly realized that by simply smiling I could reap two benefits, one was the simple act of smiling made me feel better about the indelible feelings that persisted throughout my body.  The second was that spectators LOVED it!  Yeah, it was palpable.  Instead of getting not so motivating ‘Hang in there!’ remarks I was now getting ‘You’re looking great!’ and ‘Looking strong 1157!’ or my favorite ‘He’s not even breathing hard!’  The last one probably had something to do with the fact that my legs simply couldn’t go faster than the shuffle I now maintained quite steadily J

On the run!
10:52:52 (run split: 3:46:37) - By far, out of the whole experience, the finishing shoot was the most exhilarating.  So much so that it brought me to tears.  Rounding the Olympic oval seeing the crew and crossing the finish line was a powerful and moving experience.  One that could only be topped by a post race burger and beer at the LP brew pub with a dozen close friends and family members.
On the Olympic Oval
Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving Placid with what I came for, an unforgettable experience filled memory complete with a tangible reminder of such, a finisher’s metal.

Wednesday, Aug 8th: 
My gratitude to this day (two plus weeks after IM) is immeasureable.  I’m supremely grateful for the 14 individuals who made the trek to Lake Placid to partake in my journey to becoming an Ironman.  I would also like to thank the many remote supporters that sent their positive energy through the internet.  On top of this I gleened much positive energy from the 22 other fellow Ithacans that joined me throughout this event and all their supportive people that followed them to the start line to spectate.

It is without further ado that I would like to unvail a little video treat that that I put together for everyone who helped make this happen:

Until next time (50 mile trail race on the horizon???)...

Friday, July 20

A house of Iron (Part 2)

Physical conditioning for Ironman has been anything but parochial in manner. Similar to my methods of mental and nutritional training, it reflects a deep desire to pursue all things in life wholisticly.

Early on (Jan, Feb, Mar) I incorporated P90x and other such body weight activities for strength, Yoga or stretching for flexibility, and speed or hill training for cardiovascular capacity.  It has been important to me to not let any one activity dominate my physical conditioning which is why I would occasionally incorporate other activities such as soccer, basketball, ice skating, rock and ice climbing, hiking, and skiing.

The reason I posited such an approach to training was to avoid weak links in my conditioning in order to prevent injury allowing me to train in my core activities (swimming, cycling, and running) at a high level throughout the past six months.

I guess the big question would be: 'Did it pay off?'  Maybe.  I still had physical issues such as hip tightness and IT band stresses.  What I do know is that I'm very happy with where I'm at and how far I've come which is what will ultimately carry the most weight come Sunday morning.

The following is a collection of my Ironman training experience.

Total time since April 1st: 15.8 hours
Cumulative length: ~21 miles

Swimming is a matter of technique.  The first 10-15 minutes are tough; getting the breathing down, concentrating on stroke, body position, and glide, and getting over the fear that I'm drowning.  After that it's repetition and focus:  tuning out the gargling sounds of the water around my ears, avoiding the occasional inhale of water, and not letting my mind drift from my technique.

Piseco Lake, NY
Forging the sea
Total time since Jan 1st:  102 hours
Cumulative length:  ~2000 miles

In January I feared the cycling leg of Ironman because of its sheer length.  What I've learned is to stay calm in the saddle, avoid jostling from side to side, keep my upper body relaxed and shoulders extended.  All the while keeping a tight reign on feelings of pain and discomfort as these are signals that my form may be slipping and that a simple shift one way or the other can prevent the dominoes from falling.

The Fuel
The Vehicle
The scenery
The Journey - 115 miles in 6:25
Total time:  90 hours
Cumulative length:  ~677 miles

By far my favorite activity throughout training.  Running, for me, is like getting a good nights sleep or relaxing at your favorite place; it offers a sense of freedom from persistent thoughts and stresses culminating from life's responsibilities.  My mental health improves the minute my legs break into a run.

However, during a triathlon the run is definitely the wildcard.  The swim happens when your the freshest, the bike happens thereafter but you are able to drink and eat almost limitless as the jostling is minimal and therefore cramping is less likely.

The run is where it all begins to break down.  If you didn't drink enough on the bike be ready for a good round of stitches.  If you didn't eat enough don't count on getting much down running.  If you ate too much or the wrong thing, look out for a stomach fit to ache.  The list goes on.  I've never been good at roulette; Tinman and Syracuse 70.3 have taught me much and I will apply every bit of it.

Crisp morning
My favorite place, the trail
Racing with friends along the way:
My perspective on racing is that you get to challenge yourself while scrubbing shoulders with people who are out to have just as much fun as you.  It really is contagious and never stops to thrill me.  Here is a collection of events that helped tune my race day anxieties.

Seneca 7 - 1st place men's team
32 mile mountain adventure, Pemi Loop, NH
Tupper Lake Tinman - 42nd
Boilermaker 15k - 226th
On Sunday the 22nd of July 2012 I will put my efforts to the ultimate test.  It's clear to me now that the only way out of this beautiful house is through the pain...

 IM #1157

Wednesday, July 18

An Iron Foundation (Part 1)

Have you ever gotten the urge to challenge yourself beyond your wildest imagination? Have you ever thought to yourself “I could never do that,” after hearing how a person defied their individual limitations and accomplished something so huge it seemed inconceivable?

Throughout my brief personal history I have truely been galvanized by people who dare to achieve fascinating levels of athletic ability in the hopes to put themselves to the test.  Or as I like to perceive it, an adventure of the mind, body, and spirit.

This is exactly what brought me to my computer 12 months ago as I sat there clicking the ‘refresh’ button on the Ironman Lake Placid website. Knowing that this particular IM event sells out sometimes within minutes of opening, I was feeling rather anxious. Twelve noon struck and once again I clicked the refresh icon. Suddenly my screen began loading what looked like an application form. How could this be!? I sat there staring and trembling slightly as I wasn’t expecting such a result. I, deep down, wanted it to be sold out as I knew IM required a commitment of time, energy, and money that I had never encountered in my previous athletic endeavors.

An IM distance triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run (aka a marathon).  These distances might seem arbitrary, however, they were selected out of a competitive dispute in 1979 between three men over which sporting event in Hawaii was the most grueling, the Waikiki 2.4 mile rough water swim, the Around-Oahu bike race or the Honolulu Marathon.

Borne from this competition Ironman took form and has increased in popularity among the endurance community ever since.  Ironman has become a worthy athletic goal by which to test one’s physical and mental abilities.

Mentally I have been building up for this very moment, the decision.  To digress, in 2009 the biggest block, in my mind, was the marathon as I had never ran more than 10 miles at that time.  How does one deal with such a block? 

My approach was to register for a Marathon and make it my focus for the next four months.  

Rochester Marathon
To further my mental preparation I decided in 2010 to compete in the Tupper Lake Tinman half distance triathlon (1.2 Swim, 56 Bike, 13.1 Run).  

My brother and I in Tupper Lake
Keeping pace with my goal, throughout 2011 I ran the Wakely Dam Ultra (a 32.5 mile unaided trail run) and Ironman Syracuse 70.3.  

Wakely Dam Ultra
Syracuse 70.3
Each event brought me closer, mentally, to not only breaking down these barriers but also refining my training and nutrition approach.

Ironman training has not only proved to be a test of my physical abilities but of both my mental strength to endure the long training events and a test of my time management skills.  Squeezing 15-20 hours a week into an already tight schedule can be a daunting task. 

In a long distance triathlon such as Ironman there are really four components of the race: the swim, the bike, the run, and nutrition throughout the race. I placed a large focus on the nutrition portion both during and between training events. My diet drew from the philosophies contained within a book I read last fall, “The China Study.” The short of it is I have completed the last 6 months of training by eating a 90-95% vegan diet (ie. no meat or animal products) which was about 35-40% raw . TCS defines a diet consisting entirely of whole plant based foods. A typical day of eating would look like this:

-Breakfast: Oatmeal & a slice of bread with Avacado

Rolled oats, cashews, filberts, pecans, almonds, walnuts, raspberries, and blueberries
-Lunch: Homemade granola with dried or fresh fruit
-Dinner: Salad with a grain (rice, spelt, barley, etc) and a bean (black, pinto, kidney, etc)

Spinach with onions, hummus, grapes, honeydew, freekah, and balsamic
-Snacks: dried fruit, fresh fruit, trail mix, oatmeal, nut butter and bread     
Toast with avacado tomato and salt

-Other aspects: Plenty of vitamin D in the form of sunshine, .75 to 1 gallon of water daily, a shot of wheatgrass juice 3-4 times per week
Along with tracking my performance, diet, and training I have also been tracking such details as my Cholesterol, resting heart rate, weight, and happiness. 

            -Cholesterol - These results were rather profound.  My family has a genetic tendency to have high cholesterol and a predisposition for heart disease.  It’s a focus of mine, nutritionally, to avoid this undesirable heirloom that has been passed to me.

                        -December 2011:
Total – 213
Triglyceride – 59
HDL (good) – 74
LDL (bad) – 127
Ratio (Total/HDL) – 2.88
                        -June 2012:
                                    Total – 146
                                    Triglyceride – 56
                                    HDL – 76
                                    LDL – 59
                                    Ratio – 1.92

            -Heart Rate - I have always been fascinated to hear how low the resting heart rates of top performing athletes are.  Training your cardiovascular system, through aerobic activity, to operate at a lower heart rate helps the body to be more efficient in transferring oxygen and nutrients while conserving the necessary energy needed to perform at high intensity or for long amounts of time.
                        -January 2012:             50 Beats/Minute
                        -June 2012:                  45 BPM

            -Weight – A fear of mine was that I would be burning a ton of calories and not be able to sustain myself given the foods that I would be eating.  It turns out that we can glean every vitamin, mineral, and macronutrient (protein, carb, fat) that we can from meat and dairy (with an exception of B12) from plant based sources all the while being more bio-available upon consumption.  I made an effort to incorporate foods that contained amounts of each macronutrient as to not be deficient (avacados – fats; nuts – fats and protein; potatoes & fruit – carbs; & lots of fiberous plants).
-January 2012:             133.5 lbs
                        -June 2012:                  132 lbs

            -Happiness – This one is somewhat controversial.  How might one accurately track their happiness?  I guess the best answer is that if happiness is something that you are dedicated to perusing in your life then you will likely find a way.  For me, I qualified each day at the end of the day by giving it a rating (borrowed from Sammi J) and assigning each symbol a percentage:
J’ is 100%
                        ‘+’ is 75%
                        ‘=’ is 50%
                        ‘-‘ is 25%
                        ‘x’ is 0%

            Then at the end of the month I would average these values out into one number.  This gave me the results below.  I began to notice that such things as not exercising enough, exercising too much (low energy and little time for other things), eating poorly, not getting enough social time, improper balance of work and personal time all played a roll in predicting this score.  I drew from the book ‘Thrive’ in determining just what aspects of life influenced my happiness.  

-Jan 2012:                    57%
                        -Feb:                            74%
                        -Mar:                           61%
                        -Apr:                            78%
                        -May:                           69%
                        -June:                           88%

Happiness was an important aspect of training for me mostly because if I wasn’t in a good mood I was less likely to train or eat according to my plan.  Focusing on this helped me to be consistent and predict feelings and emotions which correlated almost directly to my training schedule.

The dedication I have placed on Ironman nutrition and mental preparation laid the foundation on which I was able to build a house consisting of three rooms: swimming, biking, and running.  

Monday, May 14

A Climb Amongst The Founding Fathers: Single Day Presi Traverse

Monday January 3rd:

Nick: “Let’s just do a single day Presi Traverse.”

Me: “Ok!”

Tuesday January 4th (2:30am)-

That was our wake up call only a few hours after, it seemed, we had decided to tackle something we’d always talked about. As one is probably able to infer from the above-mentioned dialogue, there wasn’t an excess of planning that went into this trip. We did all the prep and route planning the night before. While Nick (and Ma) prepared dinner, I pulled out the trusty AMC White Mountain guide and the maps that accompany it to get a few of the logistics ironed out. After about an hour and a half of poring over the guide, maps, and trip reports posted online, I had finally nailed down the exact route, with various escape options off of the ridge in case the weather got out of hand, etc. The term “Presi Traverse” gets thrown around a lot, so there is a medley of opinions of what a “true” traverse entails. I wanted there to be no doubt about it so decided we would be tackling the 8 high peaks (Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson) as well as the intermediate peaks in between (Clay and Franklin). With the route planning out of the way, we got down to business packing up gear. Our theory was light and fast equated to safety. Being bogged down with an excess of gear would most likely accomplish nothing other than placing additional fatigue on our bodies (which often leads to hazard, if not just making things miserable). So, after much deliberation we narrowed it down to: snowshoes, crampons, down jacket, heavy top, two pairs of liner, 2.5 L of water, sandwiches, snacks, goggles, mid-weight top, hand/toe warmers, gaiters, headlamps, mountain axe, poles, and face masks. All fit in small day packs.

 After eating and heading to bed, our alarms at 2:30 came much too soon. I did have a feeling of angst the night before and upon waking – not unlike pre-race nerves. Nick made breakfast (see a recurring theme here? :) which consisted of eggs on bagels and salad from the night before. We did a final gear check then headed out in separate cars. On I-93 North just south of Franconia Notch I saw a spectacular shooting star. I immediately called Nick to ask if he had seen it too, which he confirmed. Yeah, this was going to be one badass trip. We stashed one car at the end of the traverse near the Highland Center and then made for the trail head of Valley Way Trail. By the time we arrived, suited up and hit the trail it was 4:36am. It wasn’t long before we were both stopped and stripping off gear. So much for my motto of starting cold J We climbed and came upon a junction of Watson Path. Originally we had decided to take alley way up to Madison hut then take a quick up and down approach to pick off Madison – the first of the high peaks. Nick suggested taking Watson Path so we could avoid the out and back. It’s not the wisest thing to deviate from any given plan, but since when do I stick to plans anyway? We agreed to make this slight change in route, and perhaps paid for it when it became increasingly steep. After a somewhat sketchy water crossing we both elected to strap on the snowshoes because the trail was far from packed out. As the trees began to thin and we passed one of the signature signs of the Presidentials:
From this point forward it was going to be all above tree line – nothing but windblown snow and rocks. It’s a pretty stark landscape here in the winter…nothing but blacks and whites. We headed into the wind and snow, trading snowshoes for crampons. Our goggles proved to be an early asset as well. The summit came fairly quick, and we were even graced with breaks in the clouds.
Ascending Madison

After a hasty snapshot we ventured down to Madison hut where we grabbed a bite and I messaged mom to let her know our progress. I normally shun technology like phones in the mountains, but she was more than a little worried and rightfully so, what we were doing has more than a minute amount of risk associated with it. From here we made way for Adams which came and went with a photo and before we knew it we were crossing the col to Jefferson. It was at this point that the sun came out in her full glory and shown down on the beauty around us. Our spirits soared! We joked lightheartedly and seemed to bounce across the uncharacteristically calm landscape towards Jefferson. It wouldn’t be until we had to search for the next summit that our spirits would come down. As if to warn us not to become complacent, the sun dipped behind clouds and the weather grew inclement once again – our visibility decimated. Each cairn seemed to blend into the setting around them. I foolishly wanted to just keep climbing “up” while Nick insisted we backtrack and find the cairns. I obliged and we eventually happened upon the trail and slowly made way towards the summit. 
View From Adams

Cresting to the summit cairn, we spared no time and were on our way down to make way to the mighty Mt. Washington, but not before hitting the sub-peak Mt. Clay. The latter proved to be quite the kick in the ass. A leg burner in the truest sense of the phrase, and I really don’t know why. Upon the descent of Clay we once again lost track of the trail but came across the cog railway, which we proceeded to follow to the summit. The rail provided comfort, both as a guaranteed path to the summit (provided we followed it the right way of course:) and it reminded us of our ski trip up Mt. Washington the previous year. We reminisced and ticked off the footsteps until before us loomed the summit observatory. Towering into the sky, the outline of the various summit buildings produced what appeared to be the shadow of a strange medieval castle. We sought refuge here and ate our lunch. However, as had happened every time we halted, I grew cold to the point where I shivered uncontrollably, so I loathed hanging out motionless for long. We hit the summit sign for a quick Kodak moment and set out in search for the Crawford path; the trail that would take us a vast majority of the rest of the way. This proved to be a bit of a conundrum however, because you see, one needs to actually find a cairn to know the whereabouts of the trail. We searched for what seemed to be an eternity to no avail. Nick suggested we just abandon ship and hike down the cog railway, but this time I insisted we find a way. So together we backtracked a bit and somehow found a cairn in the terrible visibility. This section was sparsely populated with them so we had to exercise extra caution as we proceeded. 
Descending Into he Unknown

We eventually made our way to the Lake of the Clouds hut, indulged in some water, and made way past the frozen Lake of the Clouds up the shoulder of Mt. Monroe. The climb was moderate but it was at this point that my knees and ankles began to ache like nothing else. I suspected the culprit were the crampons. We trudged on nonetheless and ticked off Monroe and continued onward to Eisenhower. In my mind I set a goal to reach the summit before needing to put on headlamps, which we did, but barely – and no thanks to another navigational mishap (interlacing trails threw us for a loop for a quick minute… or ten). We trudged onward towards Pierce after donning headlamps. The peak came, but not before I began to become extremely fatigued. Over 20 miles of rugged winter climbing will do that. My spirit began to slip and hit a low as we finally made the .9 mile descent to the Mizpah hut. Here we saw the first people of the trip, a group of NC State students being led by a professor. It was at this point that we decided to ditch the crampons – what a brilliant idea, one I wished we had partaken in earlier! We cruised for the last summit of the day, Jackson, and did so making great time considering how long we’d been on our feet. We strapped on the crampons for one last time to traverse the icy summit of Jackson then enjoyed a fairly quick descent aided by a fair bit of glissading.

16 hours after we had started we stumbled out of the woods to the car. It was a great feeling (especially because we had inadvertently parked RIGHT near the trail head). A drive through a snowstorm and back to the house where pizza and beer were waiting for us provided the best ending to an incredible day. I had only one beer but I felt drunk – not from the alcohol, but from having pushed my body and accomplishing a great feat. There were many lessons learned and some great memories formed from this adventure – one I’ll never forget!
Parking lot glee!

Some stats from the day:
  •      Weather: Freezing Fog
  •      Temp: -2°F
  •       Visibility: 200 ft
  •        Relative Humidity: 100%
  •      Peak wind gust: 126mph
  •      Average Wind speed: 76.2mph

Wakely Dam Ultra

Ultra running
The following recollection is a synopsis of an ultra-marathon:

Beep, beep, beep,… The alarm indicates that it’s 4:30AM. 
My mind is telling me it’s the middle of day due to my vivid alertness and the excitement of what lies before me this morning. 
I’m lying in a tent next to my brother. 
We drove 4 hours the night before in an attempt to avoid a long drive this morning (July 23, 2011) and to make an effort at catching some shut eye prior to today’s race. 
However, my mind’s inability to quiet itself works to undermine all physical efforts we set forth upon. 

I slip out of my bag, unzip the tent and head for a clear patch of woods to empty my bladder which is urgently alarming me that nature’s ring tone is more painful than it is audible.  My agitated brother would most likely disagree with this audibility statement given my repeated unzipping of the tent and desperate groans and grunts as I barely complete my brief (no pun intended) missions throughout the valuable hours of the night.  *Over-hydrating the night before a race definitely has its draw backs despite its numerous advantages during the race.

On this day we are near Wakely Dam in the southern Adirondacks between Piseco and Indian Lake townships.  The race we have been preparing for, both physically and mentally, is the Wakely Dam Ultra (WDU). 

Ultra is short for Ultra-marathon and is a foot race that consists of running any distance longer than 26.2 miles (aka a marathon).  The WDU is unlike most ultras, it is 32.6 grueling miles which takes place on a section of the Northville-Placid trail between Piseco and Wakely Dam.  What distinguishes this race even further is that during this distance you will not cross one road and are completely unassisted; all runners must carry their own food, water, necessary supplies and perseverance for the duration of the race.  

My goal on race morning was to hold down a consistent pace of 9min/mile (4:54:00 to complete the race).  My average pace for half this distance on trail is about a minute per mile faster.  This, for me, was a progressive goal worth striving for. 

After an early morning snack followed by a relaxing bus ride, we arrived at our destination, the starting line.  The energy before the start of an endurance event is exhilarating.  Camaraderie is more common than competitiveness throughout the ultra community.  These races are more of a test of one’s own abilities and endurance than trying to be well placed in the pack.  

At the start of race I it began to occur to me that the first section of the course was too narrow to pass comfortably.  Luckily, I was able to place myself in 4th from the start. Quickly realizing the 3rd person wasn’t keeping my desired pace, I announced “on your left” and smoothly skirted around him.  I continued in 3rd for the first hour of the race following 1st and 2nd place runners closely as to feed off their energy and pace. 

For the duration of the first 1.5 hours of this race, the first 6-8 of us were closely spaced.  I could hear my brother bantering back and forth with our friend Zach for a bit of this time.  Around the 2 hour mark the 1st place guy stopped to answer nature’s beckoning call.  At this point it was I and one guy hot on my heels…

To give a first-person sense of the course:  The ground is soft, the trees and plants are close with smells reminiscent of a cool summer’s morning.  Vivid awareness of your surroundings is vital to navigating through the woods on this trail.  At any one time you may only be able to see 10-30’ of the trail before it snakes around a curve or pitches up a hill.  A high level of vigilance is needed on the ground 3-6 feet in front of you to avoid any hazardous objects (narrowing of the trail, rocks, roots, puddles, etc) that could end the running day early if improperly navigated. 

…When it comes to uphills I am well equipped to hold a steady clip (thanks to Ithaca’s hills).  During these moments I could feel the gap behind me widening only to be lost during the decent.  We ‘slinkied’ for well over a half hour until the trail suddenly vanished… He attempted to go ahead until I effectively communicated the absence of the trail. 

At this point the 3rd place man was with us as we did some searching.  Apparently the trail took a sharp right and continued on over a foot bridge to the other side of a stream whose parenting lake we were able to look out across.  The 2nd place runner decided to take this opportunity to dip a quick drink from the sparkling waters of this pristine Adirondack lake.

This was the last time I would see any other runner besides Chad (now in 2nd place).  The two of us continued on softly through the woods.  We talked for miles about such topics as running and racing, our background lives, travels, and of course our favorite trails to run (one of them being the Pemi loop, more on that in a future post)…

It is speculated that a persons ambitions to partake in an athletic event is stemmed in our ancestral past which consisted of physical endeavors such as hunting and/or combat between other tribes.  It was in these times that individuals were required to condition their bodies in preparation for such events.

For me, running offers many benefits depending on the day.  Among these would be physical conditioning, meditative relief from stress, adventure, and a truly visceral way to connect with the environment. 

Running is inherently a great way to increase longevity, if performed correctly of course.  Form is a must as it is a very repetitive activity continuously straining certain areas of the body.  This is why I chose to run in my Five Fingers (aka: toes shoes, monkey feet, socially unacceptable footwear, stinky fingers, or a combination of the above). 

These shoes allow me to correct my form almost automatically only requiring minor adjustments throughout.  It is through this activity that one may strengthen tendons, muscles, bones, lose weight, increase cardiovascular strength and, in my case, increase happiness.  It also allows me to challenge myself beyond the run as I'm not relying on purchased goods to totally take away the discomforts of the surface I'm running on.

…Time check – halfway: 2:31:24 (pace: 9:15 min/mile, oye!).  Around two thirds into the race, I quickly stopped to refill my bottle with fresh stream water.  In a matter of 30 seconds I managed to separate myself and my running friend (Chad) an unobtainable and ever increasing distance.  From this point on it was going to be me and my thoughts for the remaining 12 miles with brief interludes by lone hikers and a forest ranger. 

The absolute exhaustion that one feels during an event like this is like nothing else.  Your mind activates every sense to its loudest alarm:

Eyes – While closing in on the final 7 miles, continuous burning becomes status quo from the constant movement in keeping up with my stammering feet and the ever changing trail.

Nose – With fewer than 6 miles to go and a sweltering sun in mid July, ‘heat’ is the only scent in the air.

Ears – The voices that occur in the remaining 5 miles aren’t fellow racers or inquisitive hikers they are internal, as if your mind is trying to keep you company along this lonely stretch.

Taste – Mile 4, texture sensations lose their appeal as I developed numbness for water with ‘chunks’ in it.  Flavor follows suit as my tongue, and its friend, my stomach, convinced me that eating a clif bar was a bit too cloy for the moment.

Feeling – Egregious in its current nature, 3 miles never seemed so far. 

The feeling of putting yourself in circumstances that require you to give something all you have and then continuing to press on beyond that point is beyond words.  The mental, physical, and emotional edge that a person can take themselves to is incredible. 

As the finish line materialized through the convoluting heat waves in the distance I felt a sudden rush of emotions which translated into a lone tear escaping from the left optical region of my face.  Upon finishing all that I was pining for was graciously fulfilled, fresh, clean, chunk FREE, cold water, REAL FOOD, real people with smiling and welcoming faces, and the satisfaction of completing the race in 5:14:39 (pace: 9:39 min/mile).

1)      Chad Denning – 5:06:10
2)      Nick Kirk – 5:14:39
3)      Christopher Bunyan – 5:47:55
12)  Ethan Kirk and Zach Yates – 6:52:36