“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|