Thursday, November 20, 2014

10 Years

Where does the time go? Today marks the 10th anniversary of my first race/ultra.

On November 20, 2004 I completed the JFK 50 miler having never run more than six miles. Though it occurred exactly one decade ago, I remember the day quite vividly. In all honesty I had no idea what I was doing, or getting myself into. My freshman college roommate, Matt, dared me to do the race with him in September of 2004, and a few weeks later, for reasons still unknown, I signed up. This gave me, a beginner recreational jogger, a whopping two months to prepare for running 50 miles. Gulp. Matt had already been training for six months at that point, with 20 mile long runs, and in the past year I had only just started running a couple miles per day.

In October, my grandmother, whom I was very close to, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The news was both numbing and blindsiding, as well as the fact the doctors said she had about a month to live. On that timeline, she would be lucky to still be alive on race day. For obvious reasons running took a back seat to frequent trips to help take care of my grandma, in addition to working over 50 hours a week at my stressful first post college job. Every now and then I would make it out the door to run, but it provided more therapy than training. Eventually, I did manage to build up to one six mile run, which took me a sluggish 67 minutes. Needless to say, I was as physically and woefully underskilled and untrained as one could be. My co-workers semi jokingly and semi seriously placed bets on how far I would make it on race day. The overall consensus was if I made it more than 25 miles they would be pleasantly surprised.

When race day finally arrived I was relieved to have the wait be over. My grandmother was still alive, but just barely hanging on at this point. What started out as a silly dare to run 50 miles became a solitary mission of dedication. Race morning was a bit of a blur, but I do recall never feeling so out of place as I did at the start of JFK. It was cold and I had on a long sleeve shirt with black fleece sweatpants and $40 running shoes. I didn't even know to carry hydration and food. I remember being told to walk the first big climb and then running out of pure excitement to be doing my first ever race. I recall how surprisingly light and fresh I felt for the first 10 miles as myself and Matt found ourselves passing many people on the Appalachian Trail. Then, I also recall how reality hit as I reached the C&O Canal towpath in 3:17 and began to feel a heaviness that my legs had never felt before. My hydration and nutrition started to fall behind from not carrying anything, and rapidly my easy jog turned into walking with intermittent spurts of running. My body was hurting and I was in over my head. Mile 25 came and went, and soon I reached the "marathon" distance of the race in 5:16. "Holy sh*t" I thought to myself. I just ran a marathon!? Normally, the completion of such a bucket list item would be accompanied by celebration, but not when there's still 24 more miles to go.

By mile 30 my body and mind started to slowly descend into the deep dark pain cave. That's when I started thinking about my grandma and her battle. I realized nothing that I would experience on this day would hold a candle to the hell she was currently going through. My mantra became "She fights, so I fight. I am enduring, but she is enduring more." One foot in front of the other. Though I was surrounded by fellow runners, much of my time on the 26.3 mile portion of the C&O Canal was spent alone in thought. For some reason the physical pain I was experiencing created a spiritual bridge to my grandmother. In this brief place in time, on this chilly November day, we were united in our suffering, yet in a way that was emotionally and inexplicably empowering.

42 miles had gone by and the night was ushered in by a bitter cold rain. The trail turned back onto rolling country roads signifying the final leg of the race. Oh the sheer brutality of the sensation of hard pavement under weary legs. I had now gone seven times farther than I ever had and each step ached that much more than the previous one. My body was no longer just in the pain cave. but deep into its darkest bowels and depths. The darkness of nightfall balanced harmoniously with the battle raging in my mind. Just. Keep. Going. All I wanted to do was be done, but the torment of the final miles were not done just yet. My grandma occupied my mind as much as she could, but even so I could not block out the stinging numbness in my hands and swelling in my feet and calves. The mile markers counted down to the finish in a most mocking fashion. 5 to go. 4. 3. 2. Oh, thank the heavens, just ONE more mile.

I turned right. I could hear a voice over a loudspeaker in the distance. Cars filled with cheering friends and family members became more plentiful. This had to be it! I crested one more small hill before seeing the illuminated finish line. After 49.8 miles of the worst beating my body has ever taken I found myself accelerating. My lungs and legs engaged and for the briefest of moments my body felt no pain. I was grimacing, floating, my heart pounding towards that clock. 10:39:32.

My brain could barely assess what had just transpired. I had just run, walked, slogged, and sprinted my way through 50 freaking miles. The elation was short lived as my body started shutting down to a nearly catatonic state. My mind was buzzing, but my body now hardly able to move. It didn't matter though. I was a marathoner. No, I was an ULTRAmarathoner and my grandma was with me the entire time. WE did it.

A week later, during Thanksgiving, I saw my grandma and showed her my/our finisher's medal. I thanked her for being with me, both in spirit at the race, and in person for one last holiday season. She passed away two months later, but survived three months longer than the doctors said she would. That is what fighting the good fight looks truly like. That is real endurance.

After my 2004 JFK 50, I swore I would never run another ultramarathon ever again. Apparently, never again means 85 more ultras and 15 more marathons in the following decade. In 2010, I returned to the JFK 50 and ran over three hours faster than my time from 2004. I have to admit, when I showed up to that starting line in 2004, little did I know what a wild and crazy adventure that was beginning.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Richmond Marathon- 3:45 Pace Leader

This has been a big year for firsts, and leading the Richmond Marathon 3:45 pace group was again another great new experience. Overall, I must say the Richmond Marathon is one of my favorite races and it has really enabled me to reconnect with a city that was a big part of my youth. Having grown up near Richmond and now revisiting it as a runner, this particular marathon was the ideal place for my first pace leading gig.

The objective of a pace leader is simple. Get as close to your goal time as possible without going over. At the fastest, we would not want to run quicker than 3:43, and at the slowest nothing over 3:45. If our runners wanted to qualify for Boston or get safely under 3:45 for other goal purposes, it was communicated that it was up to them to run ahead of us. That being said, while the ultimate goal is 3:45, we also had to make sure our mile splits also remained consistent throughout the day, as pacing is as much in the process as it is the end result. In my two previous Richmond Marathons, 2010 and 2012, I ran with a friend and my sister, both attempting their first marathons. They would go on to finish in 4:44 and 4:19 respectively, and though I was there to guide them, they were very much in control of the pace.

Race recap:

Despite an ominously chilly forecast, race day weather remained on the more favorable side. It was 18 degrees when I woke up at 5:15am, 27 degrees at the start, and 46 and sunny at the finish. Personally, I was very excited and honored to be a pace leader, and all the e-mails exchanged with runners and my co-pacers really built up some quality energy for race morning.

The start was a little crowded as expected. I stood in wave 2 with an Olaf balloon that had two 3:45 signs on either side of him. I was thrilled to have found him the night before since the character, who is from the movie Frozen, was super appropriate for a chilly race. Unfortunately, Olaf didn't fare too well and began rapidly deflating in the frigid air. It slipped my mind that Olaf loves summer. Though I was able to have Olaf with us at the start, I sadly had to "let him go, let him go" and left him near the start to get gorgeously tan laying against the burning sand......*big operatic finish*.....Innnnnn Suuuummmmeeerrrr!!!

Um, where was I going with this? Oh, yes, the crowded start. Yup, the first mile was a bit slow, something like 8:45, but we flowed into a nice groove thereafter. We had to pull back a bit on the big downhill at mile 6, and then crossed over the James River. Along the scenic Shore Drive, I asked who was trying to qualify for Boston and a surprisingly large number of hands went in the air. To that I responded with a "Awesome! Today is your day!", but also realized many people's goals and dreams came down to how well I performed as a pace leader. Mile 10 came in 1:25, at an exact 8:30 pace. Originally, our goal pace was supposed to be an 8:35, but since the Richmond course always registers at least 26.4 miles, we made sure to build an extra time cushion of a few seconds per mile. Shortly after, we crossed the halfway point in 1:51:32, again exactly where we said we would be. Our goal was to run the first half in 1:51:30 and the second in 1:53:30, or less.

The crowds along Forest Hill avenue brought a nice little boost, though some of the hills caused a few of the runners to fall back. I tried to keep the energy of our group high and would encourage those who came out to watch to make some noise for our runners. It's amazing to see how much a cheering crowd can give a group of runners a little extra bounce in their stride. Throughout the day our hodgepodge of runners became a marvelously mixed medley of faces and personalities. For each runner we lost several more would fall back into our group, or catch up. Then there were a handful of hearty souls that held tight and stayed with us the entire day, or at least until they broke away for strong finishes.

Mile 16 brought the infamous and exposed Lee bridge. I encouraged our runners to stay close and work together to block out the chilly wind that was now hitting us head on. The Lee bridge is where runners start to separate and carnage of unforgiving concrete, wind, hitting the wall all come into play. Of the handful of potential cruxes at the Richmond Marathon, getting the group over the Lee bridge and up the hill to Cary St was probably the most significant. The next few miles provided respite from the wind and hills as runners were given a little time to recover on the pastel streets of Cary Town and the Boulevard.

Just after mile 19 we hit the last significant hill on the course as we passed by the Richmond Diamond. Our runners were now decidedly more quiet as they were reserving energy for the closing stretch, though some started to have doubts whether they could keep up and whether we were still on 3:45 pace. At this juncture, being a pace leader becomes more like being a counselor as I discovered having a reassuring bedside manner can keep your runner's heads in the game. After all, at this point, the marathon becomes a mostly mental endeavour. We hit mile 21 in exactly 3 hours, or right at 7 miles per hour. Still a solid 8:30 pace. We urge those still with us trying to qualify for Boston to run ahead and remind them that our goal is 3:45, not the 3:44-3:43 they will likely need to gain entry in Boston. Everyone was working so hard at this point I couldn't help but watch my runners in admiration.

We reached mile 25 in exactly 3:35, which gave us 10 minutes to run the remaining 1.2 miles. I did some quick math and realized we'd have to drop down to an 8:20 to get it right at 3:45. The only thing I was genuinely worried about was if the course ran longer than 26.4 miles, and sure enough it looked like it would measure closer to 26.45. While an extra 0.05 miles does not seem like much, it is actually a difference of about 20 seconds. I had been systematically calculating every mile, and every bit of "bonus" distance, so that we could cruise into a 3:44:30 finish. That extra 0.05 miles meant we had to drop down from the 8:30 pace we had done all day to an 8:20, which doesn't seem like much, but anyone will tell you it is very hard to do after 25 miles. Thankfully, the last 0.3 miles of the race were a generously fast downhill, so we did not have to push the pace nearly as much as expected. We cruised across the finish line in 3:44:55. Success! (note: Most courses run "long" due to the fact we rarely run the exact tangent lines needed to get a perfect 26.2 mile measurement. No error on the part of the marathon. It's just the name of the game).

Our 3:44:55 also meant we ended up being possibly the closest pace group to their target time. At the finish there was the usual mix of fatigue, reunions, adulation and mixed uncertainty. Among the hugs and hive fives there was one runner who ran with us from start to finish that wasn't sure she if she qualified for Boston, though her watch read 3:44:57. I had certainly hoped she got her BQ given how much trust she put into our hands to get her to that finish line in under 3:45. In the few days after the race, I looked up the results of the runners in our group, and was thrilled to see that everyone made their BQ's, including the woman who wasn't sure. That alone, among many other things made the whole experience worth while. A big hats off to my fellow pace leaders Christopher and Matt for doing an awesome job and keeping our runners happy. I already can't wait to do this again next year.

Monday, October 20, 2014

100 Marathons and Ultras in Perspective

I will start by saying, I'm not taking any of this too seriously, and neither should you. I'm also not saying that reaching 100 marathons/ultras isn't something to be proud of. It is, but on the grand scope of things, running statistics, key word statistics, are trivial. It's like asking someone on their birthday if they feel older.

At an age of 33 years 119 days, I have now officially completed 100 running events of marathon distance, or longer. To the best of my knowledge, I am also the 11th youngest American ever to reach the 100 marathon milestone. My first marathon/ultra was on November 20, 2004, and my 100th on October 18, 2014. It took 9 years, 10 months and 29 days. The moment came to fruition on a beautifully verdant, albeit unseasonably warm autumn day at the Medoc Trail Marathon. The race was a delightfully fun, smaller, and yet incredibly charismatic event. In retrospect, it was a far more fitting setting than some larger race venue.

Per statistics from the 100 Mile Club of North America, there are currently 450 North American runners who have completed 100 marathons, or more. However, the actual number of people is a bit more, since I know a handful of others who qualify, but probably don't know, nor care, to be in the group. Safe to say there are probably closer 600 people who have run at least 100 marathons.

I will also note that a majority (86 out of 100) of my marathons occurred while completing ultra distances of 31 to 103 miles. Only 14 were actual races of 26.2 miles, whereas most of the 100 marathon club members totals are soley from marathons. Based on the statistic of having ultras comprise over 50% of "marathons", only Ian Torrence and Keith Knipling completed their 100 faster. That's pretty good company.

Another crazy statistic is that in 100 marathons/ultras I completed a total of 4,198 miles, or an average race distance of nearly 42 miles. What is the significance in that? If I had run exclusively marathons my 4,198 miles would actually be equivalent to running 160 marathons. Since 100 marathons, for most folks occurred at 2,620 miles (26.2 x 100), I was curious to figure out when I may have reached that total.

As it turns out, to the exact mile, I unknowingly reached 2,620 miles at the Crooked Road 24 Hour on December 6, 2011. The funny thing is the distance I chose to do that day was completely arbitrary, and I chose to run 62.7 miles because I had never done a 100k. Thus, I completed the equivalent of my "100th marathon" at age 30 years 168 days, which in 2011, would have made me the 5th youngest American to 100 marathons. Subsequently, after 2011 a handful of younger runners hit their 100 marathon milestones, hence why I am now 11th on the list.

I will say for certain that running as many marathons and ultras as possible has NEVER been my objective, nor ever will be. I simply run to have fun like anyone else, sometimes to push myself, and other times just to enjoy the freedom of the outdoors among friends. If I had really wanted to, I could fairly easily run a marathon, or two every week (like the Marathon Maniacs Club) and be somewhere around 400-500.

In all honesty, not that it isn't a big deal to do something like 52 marathons in 52 weeks, but most fit and experienced distance runners could trudge through a marathon any given day or weekend, but choose not to. Like me, they have a life outside running, and can't afford, or don't want to spend that kind of money constantly traveling and paying entry fees. They would probably also rather select a few focus races per year and keep the emphasis on quality over quantity. I also don't encourage, believe it is healthy, or admirable to run too many races. Running too much, especially before we physically mature in our early 20's, and even after, will no doubt lead to unforeseen health risks years down the road.

That being said, I've had tons of fun along the way and shared the miles with many cool characters. I'm looking forward to the next 100, but alas, as I alluded to before, it is JUST running ;-)

The top 11 list of youngest Americans to 100, and the age they reached it, currently looks like this. I am sure in the next few years the list will expand, but there haven't been many younger folks recently, until myself.

1) Brenton Floyd (18)
2) John Lui (24)
3) Laura Skladzinski (28)
4) Ian torrence (reached 100 ultras by 29, probably much younger to 100 marathons/ultras)
5) Justin Gillette (29)
6) Matt Jenkins (30)
7) Hideki Kinoshita (32)
8) Leslie Miller (32)
9) Jonathan Young (32)
10) Keith Knipling- I have no idea where he would rank, but I'm fairly sure he's in the top 5-6
11) Me (33)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reaching 100

When I graduated from college in 2004, I could jog 2-3 miles, and on a good day I could push it for 3 or 4. At the time my only real bucket list item was to finish one marathon in my lifetime, but given my personal best for distance was six miles in an hour and seven minutes, it was a longshot. However, I figured if I kept at it for enough years or decades, I’d eventually get there and it would be something I could tell my grandkids about.

This Saturday I will be running my 100th marathon/ultramarathon. It is a statistic that nearly blindsided me as it had arrived one month shy of the 10 year anniversary of when I ran my first ultra. Sometimes I am humbled when examining what a span of a decade truly looks like. I am no longer the over whelmed, clueless college graduate toeing the line of his first ultra. In the following ten years, that clueless guy who only ever wanted to run ONE marathon ran 86 ultras, 13 marathons, and enough total miles to circle the earth. Life, in a similar fashion as the many miles on trail, has transformed me in those years. Running has become like clothing in that it has come to mirror my trends, my mood, my culture and my expression. A hobby fit to be worn on the sleeve. As the athletic world, and running in particular, is enamored with numbers, times, and totals, it occurred to me that there was something drastically different about reaching 100. I don't really care about it....

For some reason, we always seem to have some grandiose idea in our minds of what it will look like, and what we will be like, when we reach a specific milestone. Will we celebrate it with a bucket list race, maybe among friends, perhaps try to PR a certain distance, or maybe have it align with an event that holds some special place with us?. We can often lose ourselves in believing we will ascend to some higher level of runner nirvana once we finish a certain race, complete a certain number of races, or run a certain distance. I, myself, would like to believe that after running as much as I have, that surely I would walk away from it with some profound new understanding of myself and the world. And yet, at best, in brief and fleeting flurries we will attain moments of clarity that only running can provide, but at the end of the day I am the same person with the same doubts, strengths and flaws. Maybe running just makes them clearer without the clutter of life’s peripheral caterwaul. However, arriving at the point of 100 marathons/ultras, maybe with some enhanced maturity, I’ve come to the realization that 100 is just a number. And running is just a hobby.

Don’t be mistaken, hobbies are important, and at times they can define us. They tend to embody the ideals that we strive for, ones that by their very nature are unattainable in the frenzy of the mundane daily grind. For the personality types that the lure of running attracts it can offer us everything that our wild at heart needs desire; adventure, danger, testing limits, comraderie, or just being outdoors. For those of us who have been fortunate enough, our hobby has grown to a place of such significance that it transcends the conventions of everyday life and forms a symbiotic relationship with life itself. Sometimes the boundaries of life and the “the run” dissipate into a place as blended as the horizon line of the sea and the sky.

As I type this, it’s become evident that maybe I have actually learned a few things. Do I attribute them to running, or just getting older, or perhaps the combination of both? Either way, here are a few simple things.

1) Failure is just as much a choice as success. Nobody’s definition of either matters except ours.

2) In the end our successes and failures matter only to us. I’ve never once thought differently or disparagingly about a friend, or stranger, because of how poorly, or well they ran. When I run poorly, or well, I need to remind myself that others view me the same way.

3) Appreciate what your body can do. Sometimes our accomplishments get so dilluted and lost in the deluge of what other people are doing that we can forget how special they are. Remember that our friends who reguarly run 100 milers and a dozen ultras a year make up an incredibly small percentage of athletes, let alone runners. Remind yourself that completing the distances and races you do is incredible, no matter how many times you've done it. Some people struggle to run a 5k, and others a few steps. Keep the perspective. Keep the appreciation.

4) Running will provide as much companionship, or solitude as you seek.

5) Running will not fix anything.

6) Sometimes running is the problem. Realizing it can be both sobering and scary.
a) Running should never be your only source of fulfillment, because the ability to run/walk can be taken away any given moment.
b) Running should never be your constant escape. We run ridiculously hard races to prove to ourselves that we can take on all life's challenges, so why not have that attitude with things outside of our running life (ie. Marriage, work, sickness, family). Don’t be afraid to bring the heroics into your everyday life.

7) Your body speaks to you all the time. Listen to it. I have only reached 100 marathons/ultras because I did a majority my races in my 20’s when my body was much more resilient. If I want to run until I’m 80 years old, I need to be a smarter more balanced runner now.

8) Keep it fun. Nothing sucks more than when the hobby you are most passionate about begins to suck.
a) Slow it down. This is doubly necessary for faster runners. Not every race has to be raced. Run a couple races just to have fun and enjoy the simple nuances that you might miss when in competition mode. Get to know your fellow runners and meet the volunteers. Plus, you’ll finally get to try some of that home cooked aid station food you were always curious to try, but skipped in favor of more gels. Doing this can make an event you’ve “raced” many times seem like a whole new event.
b) Speed it up. If you always tend to run easy, and know you can go faster, try running an entire race at full effort. You might be surprised what you are capable of.
c) Try something new. Getting a 10 time finisher’s award might be cool, but take the time to try out new events. Some of the best events are small grassroots efforts.
d) Volunteer

9) Have a bucket list. Don't do it all at once.

10) You will always run the way you train.

11) At some point we are all going to get older and get slower. We have no choice in that. However, how gracefully we do it is our choice. The ability to inspire is ageless.

12) It’s just running. Keep a healthy perspective on it. Running should help make life easier, or at least provide more clarity. It should never make it tougher, or less enjoyable, especially for those closest to you. The wide expanse of life will always entail triumphs and tribulations far greater in meaning and purpose than running.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Belmead Trail Fest

(Some of Belmead's lush greenery courtesy of Belmead Trail Fest)

A common theme that I have adopted over the past few years is trying to get the word out about smaller local running events. I have also gotten a lot of joy out of spontaneously showing up to first year events that nobody really knows anything about. I find that it keeps the running hobby fresh, full of zeal, and often directly supportive of the local community.

Belmead Trail Fest ended up being a delightfully low key and fun event with all the charm of a local race. The late September date means it likely won't be blazing hot, nor cold, and there's still ample sunlight to keep the 50 mile cut off time at 12 hours. Race day weather was in the high 50's at the start and hovered near 80 all day. While it felt plenty warm in the sun, about 70% of the course is on shaded single track trail, so it was quite comfortable most of the day. The event also boasts three separate race distances of 26.2 miles, 50k, and 50 miles that have a group 8am start. The 8am start is great for people like myself who don't necessarily like, or can't because of family, to get up at 4am to start a race in the dark at 6am. It's also nice to finally have an ultra option where you don't need to wear a headlamp for the start, though 50 milers who might take 11-12 hours would need to carry a light at the end.

As for the course, all three race distances run the same 10 mile loop with various add ons for the marathon and 50k. The 50 miler was simply five loops. The trail itself was both very runnable, but also surprisingly technical. Per other's gps accounts the 50k had roughly 1,840 feet of gain, which meant nearly 3,000 for the 50 miler. While the elevation gain for the course is fairly benign in comparison to a Mountain Masochist, all the twists and turns, roots, snakes, corn, and short little climbs made it slower than a course like JFK 50 where the elevation gain is about the same, but you have long flat sections to stretch out the legs. Still, on the grand scheme of things, I'd say the course is on par with running trails at Bear Creek Lake, Holiday Lake, Prince William Forest, Bull Run, or Lake Anna, all home to a lot of local ultra events. The course was also very well marked, though it didn't prevent myself and three others from going a mile off course.

The course itself race could be broken down into two main parts. Miles 0 to the 3.7 mile aid station (more like 3.0 miles?) were are on bridle paths that circumnavigated rolling corn fields. It may very well be the only race where the possibility exists to roll your ankle on the many ears of corn strewn on the bumpy grassy horse trail. In all honesty, while scenic, this was probably my least favorite part of the course and the only place where you are out in the sun. However, later in the day the sun shifted enough so that there were sections around the cornfield that became shaded. It should be noted that this 3 mile section will probably be replaced next year by trails that go down to the James River and the Belmead estate. Miles 3.7-10 were mostly singletrack through the woods and some wider service roads. These 7 miles were by far my favorite of the race as they brought you into some wonderfully green wooded areas with enough variety in the trail to keep it exciting, even after 5 loops. At the end of each loop you had access to aid and drop bags, so you never had to go more than 4 miles without support.

My personal experience at Belmead was very positive. I like the fact you feel like you are entering a civil war battlefield just driving to the start. The morning mist rising up from the fields served wonders to transport us back in time 150 years, even if for only 4-12 hours. In addition, I spent most of my day running alone and never really knowing who was running what particular race. In essence, it allowed me to let go of the race vibe and feel like I was on a nice long solo run in the woods. Since moving in January, I've only had limited access to trails, and run almost exclusively on roads, so for me a day in the woods was just what I needed. The finish was just as low key as the rest of the day. By the time I finished the 50 miler almost everyone doing the marathon and 50k had completed and gone home, and the only people remaining were still out on the course. So, it was definitely different to come in with just a handful of folks, but I didn't really expect otherwise. I loved the finisher's medals, which were hand crafted cross sections of wood. It was a pleasant deviation from the standard race medals, though I suspect next year they'll have something else unique and cool for finishers.

All in all, I definitely suggest giving this event a try. The entry fees are cheaper than most races, the course was fantastic (if you don't mind loops), and it's a great time of year to work it in as a fun run, or training run for a fall race. I hadn't intended on doing any more ultras until at least 2015, but the proximity and forests were just too tempting, and I was able to register on race day. The best thing is that all proceeds from the event benefit Francis Emma, the non-profit organization that maintains Belmead. The best way to keep history alive is to support it!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Forged in the Furnace: Becoming an Ironman

The road to the Ironman was truly a trial by fire. I was a novice swimmer who hadn't swam in five years. I was novice cyclist who hadn't been on a bike more than three times in the past decade. I had never completed a triathlon of any distance, let alone a full Ironman. The task at hand was daunting and loomed large, but the task was simple. As a child growing up, and even as a young adult, I had considered athletic feats like the fabled marathon and Ironman to be in a realm far beyond my natural abilities. But, as I got older and took on endurance challenges head on, I realized how false my misconceptions were about my own personal limits. After years of setting aside the notion of attempting an Ironman, I decided that 2014 was the year I was finally going to make it happen. In February 2014, I took the plunge and entered Ironman Louisville.

The training for an Ironman was a much needed reality check, and due my spring running schedule, I only had four months to spare. In the early stages, the idea of completing a 2.4 mile swim seemed overwhelmimg as I struggled to swim even a couple laps in a pool before needing to rest. Learning how to ride a road bike wasn't much better as I found myself stiff and sore from riding only 30 minutes. For the first time in a long time none of my running experience mattered, none of my marathon times matter, and none of my ultras mattered. Swimming and cycling were completely different beasts, and they couldn't care less how many races I had run. This was not running, and at times I wondered if I was in over my head.

But.....I was patient. I picked up good advice, practiced, and kept practicing. I went at it day after day, week after week, and month after month. Slowly but surely I could ride 30 miles comfortably, then 40, 50, 60, and 70. My swimming efficiency also improved as I increased my workouts from 500 meters, to 1k, to 1 mile, 1.5 miles, and then 2 miles non-stop. But, it wasn't some amazing overnight transformation. After grinding it out for months and months, I could start to see the triathlete being born, and eventually witness myself becoming more than just a runner. All was going as well as I could have planned, and then on one of my final long rides my IT band completely gave out and forced me to cut my ride short by 30 miles. One of my big fears had been realized as I was now only two weeks away from the Ironman and my IT band was shot. The doubts began to rear their ugly heads, and I began to wonder how on earth I could complete Louisville's notoriously hilly 112 (actually 115) mile bike course, when I couldn't even do half the distance without pain on a flat bike path. I trained my ass off for four months and it came down to this? The questions mounted. Did doing the rim to rim to rim at the Grand Canyon three weeks earlier jeopardize my chances at completing my Ironman, and did I virtually sacrifice one bucket list item by doing another too close? Only time would decide, but one thing was for certain. I owed it to myself to at least show up to the starting line.

On August 21st, my dad and I made the long 700 mile drive from Virginia to Kentucky. The hustle and bustle of race weekend could have been a blur, but I took the time to enjoy it and enjoy some quality time with my dad. The weather forecast was ominous as an unusually hot heat wave was predicted to blanket Louisville through race weekend. On top of that, race day temps looked to be the worst, as the heat index would reach 103 degrees with very little shade. In the mean time, I shifted my focus to doing last minute gear adjustments, trying to relax, and also enjoy a bit of the town.

Race morning was a bit surreal to wake up knowing what would transpire over the next day. In that sense it was much like any other race morning trying to absorb the great expanse of physical and mental things I knew I would experience by the time I would be back in my hotel room. From a race perspective, I had waited six months to do this event, and it always seemed that race day was some far off event that was just out of reach. The reality sank in as I acknowledged that that very day had arrived, and in essence it was a day that I had been waiting not just six months for, but rather many years.

The early morning was still dark, but alive with energy from the spectators, athletes, crews, and thousands of volunteers. I made my final round dropping off gear bags and walked to the swim start with my dad. The sky was beginning to lighten and the energy was building up to a palpable frenzy of focus and nerves. The only real glitch of the day occurred when I was misdirected as to where to line up for the swim which cost me 2 miles of walking and also had me being one of the last athletes in the water. I shook off the incident, made my way to the dock, and waved to my dad one last time before jumping into the water and officially starting my Ironman quest.

I knew the swim would be the toughest leg of the race mentally, and I was right. Having never done an open water swim of any kind, I freaked out as soon as I hit the water. Visibility was non existent and I was experiencing the bumping and nudging notoriously associated with triathlon swims. This was made considerably worse knowing that it was the point of no return, and there was only one way to go, and that was forward. For some reason, it brought me back to learning how to swim as a child. I would stand at the edge of the pool, my dad would hold out his arms and tell me to jump, I would take a leap of faith, swim as hard as knew how, and eventually get scooped up in my dad's arms. This, by comparison, was like the first time I had to jump in a pool without my dad there. I knew I could swim, but the proverbial safety net was gone. The Ohio river was not a pool where I could rest at the wall every 25 meters if I had to. Somehow I quickly collected myself and remembered to apply the smooth swim techniques I had practiced over and over in the pool. My breathing calmed down, my muscle memory found itself, and soon I was passing a number of folks in the water. At the turn around I took advantage of the generous current and gained some much needed time before the crux of my day, the bike portion. I popped out of the water, ditched the wet suit, waved to my dad, and made my way into transition one.

I knew the bike was going to be my weakest link. IT band issues had cut several important long rides well short of their intended distances. I had also feared the rolling hills, which I couldn't train for on the flat Dismal Swamp bike path, would flare up my already iffy IT band. Conservative would be the name of the game, but I would learn that even a conservative 112 mile ride is still hard work. The first 10 miles were fairly flat and sufficient cloud cover meant the temps rested in the mid 80's. However, the comfort was short lived as the sun would come out for the remainder of the day and the hills would begin and not relent for another 90 miles. Per usual, the beginnings of Ironman carnage began to show as bikes began to break down and then the athletes themselves. Two loops of the bike course meant you knew what hills to expect the second time around. Both good and bad. For most of the bike portion I was passed by quite a few folks. For most sports, I believe the gear does not make the athlete. An expensive pair of running shoes, or golf clubs mean nothing if the person using them has no skill. However, though I have a fairly nice bike that retailed for $899, there was absolutely no way I could compete with folks on triathlon bikes that cost upwards of $2,500-$5,000+. One sad reality of triathlons, and specifically Ironman events, is that they cater to an audience that has a high level of disposable income. I would have to make do on my bike, and realize that sometimes you can't always have what others have, and that's the way the playing field goes at triathlons. Much to my chagrin, my bike was going to take an hour longer than my goal time, but at least the final 10 miles back to transition two was flat.

Finally off the bike, I was now in familiar territory. The run. From here to the finish, those fancy $5,000 bikes no longer gave an advantage, and the only thing we had to project us forward were our feet and a pair of shoes. I welcomed back the even playing field, but alas the 103 heat was undeniably present. While the bike provides a constant breeze, running the downtown streets of Louisville was unforgiving. There was no shade, no wind, and only the heat resonating from the pavement and buildings like a furnace. Water stops were plentiful, the course now flat, but the toll was heavy on many of the weary athletes. I was only managing a light shuffle with walk breaks to hydrate and fuel, but it was still faster than many of the folks reduced to a lethargic 26.2 mile "death march". After reaching the outbound turn around, I made my way back to the city and to the end of loop one. In a most cruel fashion the end of loop one literally brings you a hundred yards from the finish line cheers and coveted Timex finish clock, but then directs runners to veer right to endure another 13 miles of pavement.

Those last 13 miles are a gut check, and for many it's where Ironman dreams either live or die. As the sun set, the temps remained in the 90s, but even the slight cool down gave me renewed energy. If anything, I wanted to make sure that I finished my Ironman experience feeling strong and looking strong. I found my stride and passed mile markers 20, 21, and then 22. It was the homestretch with less than four miles to go, but with persistent heat even at night there was still no room for error. I continued to hydrate, take my gels, and dump water on my body as I had the entirety of the run. With 5k to go I accelerated, with a mile to go I pushed even harder, and with a half mile to go I flipped the switch to a full out sprint. I negative split the marathon by 11 minutes. A quarter mile from the finish I saw my dad, made a left hand turn, and finally a right toward the electric 4th street finish pavilion. I blasted down the final hundred yards, urged the crowd to make some noise, and arrived at the finish line in a place I had envisioned being for many years. As I crossed under the clock a voiced boomed over the loudspeakers "Mike Bailey, you are an Ironman!".

It had happened, and it happened on a day that saw the most DNF's ever at Ironman Louisville. One of my lifelong dreams had finally become a reality. I WAS an Ironman. While it was a sweet victory in itself, it was made even sweeter by having my dad to share it with. While my family hasn't had the opportunity to witness many of my running events, it harkened back to a time where they saw me become a black belt, play baseball, win my first ultra, and finish with my sister at her first marathon. While in duration, the road to the Ironman was only six months long, with four months of training, it was a road far longer in length. Thanks to the many volunteers on the course and my #1 support crew, my dad, for being there the entire way. Here's to many more adventures along the way.

Afterthoughts: In 2005, a friend of mine discussed which was harder, an Ironman or an ultra. Having now done both, an Ironman is much harder than a 50 mile ultra, or even 100k ultra. However, it does not beat you up nearly as much as a 50 miler, and definitely not as much as a 100 miler. Ironman training is more demanding and stricter as you are training for three sports. When doing solely running, you can have high mileage weeks and still work in rest days. Rest days are almost non existent in triathlons because you are always rotating sports. The only real soreness I have from the ironman is in my glutes, neck, and shoulders, which is entirely from the bike portion. My quads only have moderate tiredness from the marathon, and it doesn't appear the swim caused any soreness.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Inya'a, Hala, and Aha- A Journey of Rim to Rim to Rim

For nearly a millenium the Havasupai Indians have inhabited and wandered a place of ancient marvels and lore. For much of the world the Grand Canyon only exists as a photograph in a magazine, or as a photo op on along a bustling tourist route. But, long before Europeans stumbled through the great red sandstone rocks, the Havasupai graced a landscape that mirrored the meaning of their very name which is translated as “the people of the blue green-waters”.

For me running and hiking rim to rim to rim was not about conquering a particular distance or terrain in a specific set time frame. In the world of running, we all too often limit our experience through the gripping confines of clocks, splits, placement, and competition. The Grand Canyon, as I perceived it, was far too venerable and noble to reside within the cages of the race environment. And as I would learn, the greatness of the canyon in its own expansive form, does not allow itself to be held on a level so miniscule as to be cluttered with races. The Grand Canyon is above racing, and although the Rob Krars of the world have run it in 6:21, and maybe one day under six hours, the expanse of the canyon is bigger than any FKT and any one athlete. I believe anyone who has ever completed R2R2R, no matter how fast, how slow, or what utter lack of reverence they began with, ultimately climbs out of the canyon knowing this. The Grand Canyon serves as a warm womb where a metaphorical rebirth tends to occur as people incubate within the living breathing hearth that is the red and verdant canyon walls. While I personally did not experience anything like this, I ascended out of the great canyon knowing that I was tied to a place and experience that few humans on earth would ever know. Part of writing about this is that some people by choice, or by circumstance, will never have the opportunity to see what I have, and reading this is one way I can grant to others some level of empathy of the rare things I have enjoyed.

It is August 4th, 2014. Along the South Kaibab trail a dark glittered night sky turns to navy, and then a spectrum of deep reds and light blues. On this particular dawn, I am going to complete a solo self supported double crossing of the Grand Canyon. Flashes of fiery orange give way to the golden sun and then the light begins to dance around the seemingly endless miles of the canyon walls. Myself and a handful of others, some turning back after just a few brief miles, are just visitors among a primitive world forged from the forces of the earth over the past 40 million years. As I drop lower and lower into the canyon I am simultaneously traveling back in time mimicking the colored transitions and textures in the rock faces. Intense beams of sunlight radiate into the dark confines of the canyon and make the early morning shadows retreat with the evening. I pass through sandstone, limestone, shale, and the myriad of paleozoic elements that remind me just how small of a speck the human life span is on the scale of earth's own creation.

The trail seems to have a rhythm of its own as it snakes around the bends in the rock. It creates an aesthetic pattern of switchbacks down to the river floor and serves as a gateway to the Colorado river. After seeing a few dozen folks near the South rim, there are but only a handful of hikers on the trail scattered once every few miles. After seven miles and 4,800 feet of elevation loss from the South Kaibab's 7,260 foot rim, the river signifies the end of the first, and easiest, leg of R2R2R. After crossing the Colorado river by way of bridge, in its own way symbolizing my crossing of the Grand Canyon, I am welcomed by mules trains en route to nearby Phantom Ranch. It is here I leave the South Kaibab trail for good and unite with the North Kaibab trail that will bring me to the North rim in 14 miles.

I am now at the geographic low point of the day, as in the lowest elevation of the R2R2R route. After Phantom Ranch I enter The Box, which is narrow section of the canyon that follows along the light chocolate colored Bright Angel Creek. It actually reminded me a lot of the chocolate river from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, though the last thing you would want to try and drink would be that. For the next five miles the canyon rose straight up thousands of feet to my left and to my right. I was taken off guard by the pleasantly surprising abundance of lush greenery that coated the basin with a quaint floral aroma. In contrast, the steep walls of The Box were an ominous presence as I knew they concealed the enormity of the task at hand. After several small bridge crossings, and just beginning to feel acquainted with my new friend Bright Angel Creek, the trail pops out into an exposed valley of cacti and shrubs. It is here, near Cottonwood Campground, that the identity of the North rim comes into view and you realize just how far a mile of elevation gain looks when you see it from below.

The climb up the North rim keeps you honest. The bright white colored granite near the top of the rim served as a constant reminder how far you still have to go. The trail here could be defined by one word, majestic. Though it starts off rather benign, the North Kaibab trail has been known to make even the heartiest of souls feel a little queasy in their stomachs. At certain junctures the trail is only several feet wide and right along sheer cliff drops, and yet I felt fairly relaxed. My mind was simply more occupied by the beauty of my surroundings, and though I exercised good judgement, my brain had no vacancy for irrational fears. Nearing the North rim, as expected, I began seeing a lot of people, and again it was a great reminder that most people don't get to experience much more than 1-5% of the Grand Canyon. But not me.

As I reached the North rim, there was no celebration, but rather a brief moment of pause to rest and have a quick lunch. Though 22.8 miles were completed, more than half of the adventure still lay ahead. The trip down North Kaibab was energizing as I passed many of the hikers I had seen in the previous hour. I passed through the narrow ledges, down the mule worn rutted steps, and as time seemed to float by I was already back at Cottonwood campground. Once again I refilled my pack with the most vital nutrient I could have on this long journey, and that was water. Though only 54 degrees at sunrise and high 70's at the North rim, the temperatures of the canyon floor had gradually risen to 110 degrees. The "dry heat" is deceptive, and I knew it. It can lull people into a false sense of comfort, they push hard, and then before they realize it they are broken down. The heat is why over 200 people are rescued in the canyon every year, why even elite runners have died there, and why many choose the early spring to attempt R2R, nor less R2R2R. Though water was available roughly every 7 miles, I still chose to fill my 3L hydration pack to full capacity. My logic was simple. I'd rather carry more weight and move slower, 16 lbs total, than not enough and end up in deep deep crap.

From here, I retraced my way back through The Box, which I could have then aptly been named The Oven. The red rock acted like a heat conductor and even in the shade it radiated the absorbed warmth from the intense afternoon sun. Fatigue is starting to set in, as expected after nearly 6,000 feet of quad jarring descent wearing 10x more weight than I would normally carry during a race. But, again, this was no race, and I had to remind myself that in this place, where you are now is just as important as where you will end up. The time it took was not a relevant matter in this excursion, and in a world fixated on speed and instant gratification, I wanted to savor this. With a few hours of sunlight left I arrived back at Phantom Ranch and now made a right hand turn back over the Colorado river, but now on the Bright Angel Trail. For the first few miles the trail falsely climbed a few hundred feet, only to drop back to the river. This was a bit unsettling since I knew I would soon be making up all the elevation gain at some point. On paper, the climb to the North rim is said to be steeper, but in reality the net gain from the base of the South rim climb is actually more. Eventually the climb in earnest began and the miles got slower and slower. 20 minute miles gave way to 30 minute miles, and 30 second rest stops become several minutes. But again, time need not exist in this place, or at this moment for it held no value amongst the composition to earthen hues.

In the reverse order as they had appeared in the morning, the bright blue sky became yellow, then amber to rose to blush. Night had fallen on the great Grand Canyon. Now instead of being able to see for endless miles, my world had shrunk down to the 50 feet illuminated ahead of me by my headlamp. The South rim, which had seemed unreachably far like the unreachable star was now shrouded in black. I was Don Quixote slaying windmill giants, but now the giant existed on as the small lights of grand canyon village in the distance. The trail continued into the night, one turn followed by another, then another, and another. This continued for hours and then I could hear the faint chatter of tourists and the clamouring of cars and children. Out of the dark a single bobbing headlamp arose from the mighty canyon and back into a modern world of gift shops, restaurants, post cards, and hi speed wi-fi.

I was done. Rim to Rim to Rim. Solo.

As I reflected on the day's events it reminded me how small of an expense humans choose to live in comparison the large literal expanses like the Grand Canyon. Part of me knows the Grand Canyon, among many other places, are the physical and geographic representation of what some like myself embody in personality. It's why we are drawn not necessarily to the challenge, but also in knowing that we are seeing the natural world not just from a lens, but from a more complete perspective. My relationship with the Grand Canyon will always be shaped after events like my R2R2R experience, and I hope to continue this paradigm shift in a culture increasingly diluted with "technologies" that suffocate the human experience. Though somewhat curious, I don't think I would ever want to see how fast I could run R2R2R, as I believe it would negate the value of such a magnificent place. I wouldn't sprint by Michelangelo's David, the Pieta, or the Mona Lisa with just a quick glance would I, so why do the same with nature's most impressive art?

One of the great ironies is that during the hottest and toughest parts of my R2R2R all I could think about were luxuries like having an ice cold drink, being back in my air conditioned apartment, and having a cool comfortable place to sleep. In the ensuing days, once I was back at my apartment with the amenities I had day dreamed about, all I could think of was being back in that beautiful hot abyss of the Grand Canyon. But, as I sifted through my dirty laundry from the trip, I could still smell the canyon as I shook the red dust from my clothes. As much as the bright red dirt had encrusted my shoes and clothing, I realized that the Grand Canyon as a whole had soaked into myself just as much. Even 1,800 miles away, I had brought the canyon back home with me.