Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Lesson Learned for Every Year

(photo courtesy of Aaron Schwartzbard)

If you aren't learning, you aren't living. I truly believe we learn from our mistakes, so long as we don't keep making them. I also believe humility is as much gained in our shortcomings as it is in our successes. The ability to not allow one, or the other to have a disproportionate amount of this humility is what I think establishes our maturity.

Thus far, 2013 has been a pretty rough year in terms of running. It's been the school of hard knocks, and it's only June. However, not for one second will I pout and harp on the would have, could have, should haves of the year. In a very real sense, this year has been perhaps the most mentally and physically demanding year of running because of the fact I was basically starting from scratch. I battled back from months of random, weird, and ill timed injuries to run a lot of not so stellar races. Normally, when fully healthy, my race results would have had me feeling fairly disapointed. I'd be lying if they didn't urk me at some point, but I learned to let them go in realization that I needed to set my personal expectations much lower when running with a body still on the mend.

In 2013, I learned that it is incredibly difficult to build up the training volume needed to just finish 100 mile races, while simultaneously trying to recover from other injuries. To be fair, it did come with some trial and error. Okay, so it was more error than trial. I accrued a nasty deep tissue bruise on my metatarsel that knocked me out of the Graveyard 100, I slogged through an 8 hour trail race, sprained an ankle 8 miles into a 50k, and proceeded to fizzle out on two other 50k trail runs. All that lead up to my back injury debaucle at Massanutten. Sounds pretty ridiculously not fun, right?

The answer? Half true. Of course in the moment, it really sucked. Feeling crappy always sucks in the moment, but being present with what is happening is the very reason I do these crazy ass races. I could easily try to wander off to some "happy place", and sometimes I've tried, but these incredibly physical and mental low points are the exact places you find out what you are truly made of. These are the places you don't get venture into every day, and sometimes, it takes running some insane 100 mile race to get there. I think humans have built in a wide margin of safe zones throughout their everyday lives. You know, kind of like the bumper guards they put up at bowling alleys so that even if you roll a shot that couldn't knock over a town drunk, you still never end up in the gutter. The gutter, my friends, if where the learning happens.

The Mohican 100 was a special race, regardless of the fact I got e coli sickness from drinking from a stream when I had run out of water. It was a calculated risk, and one that I ended up on the losing end of. But, here's a question for you. How many runners know what it feels like to spend over 4 hours at an aid station laying down sick after already spending an hour laying on the side of the trail? How many runners know what it feels like to be in the top 10 for 81 miles before a nasty virus strips them of their strength, and in an instant threatens to end their race? Most people, no less runners, would argue that having never experienced something like this is probably a good thing. How could anything like this be fun? Fun? No it was never fun, but a part of me relished the fact that I was getting to partake in an experience, albeit bad, that most people may never get to. This time around I knew that overcoming this bad experience would lead me to a place of greater fortitude than if I have never been there. It was a concept that I had not yet grasped during the onset of my struggles at Massanutten, but became so much more evident as I neared the finish.

Massanutten and Mohican were not pretty races. 203.7 total miles and 61 hours and 33 minutes of elapsed time. Slow as all get out, but I think I learned more in those two races than a lot of my other events combined. A 50k can't take you where a 100 will. A 50 miler can't take you there either. Sometimes you have to go beyond the conventionally accepted distance to reach those fascinatingly uncharted waters.

2003- The year I learned I actually like running
2004- The year I learned I can actually run really far
2005- The year I learned I can actually train to run really far and still be able to walk the next day
2006- The year I learned about proper nutrition
2007- The year I learned I can run 100 miles
2008- The year I learned I can run faster if I work hard
2009- The year I started running faster at ultras and it showed, but got humbled by races like MMT
2010- The year I set PR's at all distances and still got faster, but got humbled by races like Leadville
2011- The year I barely ran because of bad relationships, but learned to press on and finish my dream race, Western States
2012- The year I learned I still had mojo to run fast, but also learned the hard way to stop running when your body tells you to stop
2013- The year I lost a lot my fitness and somehow soldiered through five ultras, two of which were challenging 100's.

What will I learn next?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Lazarus Man- Mohican 100

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly....if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Teddy Roosevelt

*Update: Apparently, my issues were from a bad bout with e coli. Read on.*

Opening Scene. Fire tower aid station. Mile 86

"We can call our medic, and he can give you a ride back"
"Yeah, I'm done. I can't even move my knee"
"Ok then. Just relax, keep that ice on it, and we will drive you back soon. 86 miles is still an incredible effort. Fire tower to finish. We have another drop"

"Who's that that all wrapped up laying there?"
"Oh, that's Mike, he's been here for three hours"
"Is he ok?"
"No, he's had some serious stomach issues for the past 4-5 hours and it's only gotten worse"
"Good news, our medic just arrived to pick up the two drops. You should wake Mike up so he can get a ride back with them"
"Mike, mike! If you want, you can get a ride back now"

Me: "No way! I am finishing this thing"

Eight hours earlier at the Hickory Ridge aid station. Mile 71.

A volunteer yells, "Mike, you have really been moving up all day!". Indeed, after fifteen hours of running my strategy was starting to pay off. I ran the first 26.8 mile loop in a fairly relaxed 5 hours flat. The second 26.8 mile loop was an even more relaxed 5:45 in order to save myself for a strong push later. I was going to keep the effort level comfortable in the heat and humidity, and wait until the cool of the late afternoon to start an aggressive push towards the front. I was going to crush the remaining two 23.2 mile loops.

For the past 5 hours, I had been picking my way past runners. Top 30 through 26.8 miles. Top 25 through 41 miles. Top 20 through 50 miles. Top 15 through 58 miles.

As I passed yet another runner around mile 67. My position climbed one more time.....9th overall. I was running with all cylinders firing away. I knew even if I faded a little on the last loop, I would finish in about 22:30. Out of nearly 300 starters, I was in the hunt, and closing in on my goal to run a 22 hour race. I was focused, and executing to perfection the race I had planned out.

......But, I had noticed my stomach starting to fall apart. No, not now! Not after all this hard work to finally crack the top 10. Everything was going too well to let my stomach eff it all up. Just like Massanutten, it looked like my race was going to unravel after mile 70. I tried fighting back as hard as I knew how. I knew my body well, and over the next few hours I used every trick in the bag to attempt to settle my stomach. Ginger, ginger ale, salt, soup, Tums, ice, ice water, Ensure, daydreaming about Maria Sharapova handing me a cocktail on a tropical beach.....on and on. I tried everything. Things that had worked in the past were failing to provide any semblence of relief. Nothing freaking worked! Other than serious injury, stomach issues are the worst. When you can't eat, you lose energy. It made walking forward a chore, and moving up any kind of hill nearly impossible. Strangely enough, I had yet to be passed by anyone except the ninth place runner back at mile 71, and it wasn't until mile 81 that I was passed again, and officially relinquished my top 10 position.

Mile 84. All I had to do was walk two more miles to the Fire Tower aid station, and I could lay down for a while. Nope, I couldn't wait that long. My body wasn't having it. I needed to lay down now. I was walking 45 minute mile pace. Over the next two miles I layed down on the side of the trail four times for a total of about an hour. My stomach was not feeling any better, and it took nearly 1.5 hours to walk two miles. About a quarter mile from the aid station a volunteer came bounding down the trail to look for me. A few of the other runners had reported to the aid station they had seen a guy laying on the side of the trail "just sorta chilling there like he was relaxing".

When I finally got to the aid station, I knew my only resort was to lay down for a while. How long, I did not know. Within a few minutes I was already getting incredibly cold and wrapped myself in several blankets like a little Asian burrito. After an hour I got up to pee and nearly vomited to which I commented "Just like being back in college!". Pee pee break done, back to being an Asian burrito.

Two hours passed.....Small bobbing lights would come into view. Runners trickling in the dark night and vanishing off into the even darker early morning......My stomach was still churning and bubbling......Three hours passed.....I could hear bits and pieces of faint conversation between my lapses in sleep. A cool rain was falling....3 hours and 30 minutes.....the medic came and went....4 hours was now, or never.

It was now 4:45am. I arrived at the aid station at 12:45am. Four hours of laying down, and I inexplicably felt worse than when I arrived. Over the past 10 hours I had not eaten more than a cup of broth and a few sips of ginger ale. Since laying down obviously didn't help, I knew I had to just get up and get moving. It was the only way I was going to make it to the next aid station, no less finish the race. At this point my G.A.S (give a shit) meter was also broken, and I switched into just finish mode. I got up, threw on a Snuggie (yes you read that right), because I was freezing from not moving for so long. After over fours hours at the Fire Tower aid station I made my first steps of forward progress, in my Snuggie, and was sent off with loud cheers. My body had long since been running on fumes. The meter was on empty, and had been on empty for quite some time now. Now I was moving on the pure strength of my will. It was all I had left. The resurrection of Mike Bailey.

Six hours later, through mud and chilly morning downpours, I crossed the finish line in 28:55. The last 23.2 mile loop of the course took me 12:25. I had needed to casually walk/run it in 7:22 in order to break 24 hours. Basically, I could have walked the final loop and broken 24 hours. However, some days are just not meant to be, and all you can do is just try and finish. It was like going on a date with Beyonce, and having her look like Oprah by the end of the night. Still a wealthy bang for the buck, just not nearly as attractive.

I think the races that give us the most challenge, can often come with the most reward. I think my crappy Massanutten 100 made me more mentally tough to handle a horrific day at this race. In a way, Mohican was much more mentally agonizing because of how well I had been running when shit hit the fan. At Massanutten I was never near the front, and was still pretty set on dropping, and yet at Mohican the notion of dropping never entered my thoughts. Even without a pacer, or crew, and even offers to get a ride back, I was 100% set on finishing. I suppose it really is the rough days that make us tougher, and not so much the "easier" successes.

Other than that, there were some fun quirky moments of this race.

1. Unknown to me, I ran the entire first loop with my shirt on backwards. That's what I get for putting my clothes on in a dark tent
2. I did run 3 miles of the race wearing a Snuggie
3. I lost both a handheld bottle and a flashlight
4. Shattered my "motionless at an aid station" PR by three hours (previously set at Massanutten)
5. Had roughly a 30 minute conversation about poop with a female runner (note: it was mostly her talking)
6. Drank water from a stream (possibly the reason I got sick. It almost makes sense with the timing of events)
6. Ran through a waterfall as tribute to The Last of the Mohicans yelling "I will find you. Just stay alive!"
7. Forgot to pack a watch. Ran watchless all day. The second 100 I have finished without a watch.

waterfall on the long loop --->

<---the beautiful covered bridge

Monday, June 10, 2013

Even Silver Fades

It had been a year since the race, and I had not looked once at my sterling silver Old Dominion buckle. For nearly 355 days it sat on a desk in my old bedroom next to my other 100 mile buckles, dozens of race medals, and a plethora of old race bibs. For the first time ever I decided I was going to wear one of my 100 mile buckles. I figured volunteering at the very race I earned it at was a fitting venue, and also a nice way to motivate several friends who hoped to attain the very item I proudly wore. Oddly enough, one of the first things I noticed about the buckle was that it had started to turn a dark color, oxydated by time and neglect. In less than a year it had lost the bright sparkly gloss it had when it was awarded to me by the race director after the 2012 event. Like all things, even silver fades.

The interesting thing is that there are seasoned veterans who have amassed hundreds of buckles, medals, age group awards, overall awards, and whatever else you could ever think of obtaining from years of running. However, most of these items get stowed away in closets and drawers, and in the best case scenario get neatly displayed behind a piece of glass, or on a shelf. Even there these small hallowed symbols of a our personal endeavors get covered in dust and begin to fade with the passing years. Sometimes my running awards remind me of toys from my childhood. Things that at the moment seemed of the greatest importance, but as I grew into adulthood they became merely objects filling empty spaces in a house. My once best friend, Mr. Teddy Bear, is now a disheveled centerpiece amongst the Transformer toys, Lego cities of ruin, and old rusted Matchbox cars. Even my baseball and tae kwon do trophies have been befriended by cobwebs and have become more artifact than fact. Will these medals and buckles become memories of more valiant days, or will they linger on? Sometimes on a quiet day I can glance at the awards and still hear the cheer of the crowds, the voices of friends, and the smell the forest and earth in my clothes. Sometimes.

As I sit here writing I am contemplating how running always seemed to be the perfect metaphor for life. Somehow, maybe I grew up even furthur beyond my own naive ideologies as a novice runner. Maybe, I realized that running is not a metaphor for anything but running itself. I mean, I am three weeks away from being jobless, regardless of nearly 10 weeks of searching. I am about to move back in with my parents as a last resort because my current roomate decided it was time to sell our apartment, which he owns. I am about to be a jobless 32 year old who lives with his parents. While I am not wallowing in self pity over the circumstance, the fact that I have completed a race with over 103 miles of rocky mountain trails does not change anything about how my life has played out. Yes, it made for some good self discovery, I got a neat looking buckle, but would my world really look any different if I had never run the race?

I think back to before I ran ultras. Before 2004, I was 100% capable of being happy and healthy without ultramarathons, or even the sport of running for that matter. Ignorance was bliss. There was no frustration over PR's, finish times, bucket list races I can't afford, or why Western States and Boston are so freaking hard to get into. My life without running was just as good. Running, however, has brought about a unique part of my being that I believe no other activity could have done. And as for ultras. I think they helped me tap into a more primal state of being, and one that apparently does not coexist well with this modern pop culture society. Are the medals and buckles a biproduct of this introspective conquest, or are they just a fancy candy coated glitter for a simple hobby? I guess that's all up to the person who owns them, but for me I think of each buckle and medal as a chapter. Each one with a story behind it and a trail of life events that shaped and molded the version of me that succeeded, or didn't succeed at claiming the prize. Funny, while running certainly was a great coping and celebratory mechanism for a myriad of things, the lone act itself never really did anything to enhance the situation. When life gets tough, your buckles aren't going to make things better, and perhaps that's the wisest perspective you can have. Just because you have overcome blisters, self doubt, sleep deprivation, nausea, cramps, and whatever else you'd encounter in a race doesn't mean it will make you handle life's other curve balls any better. You will not miraculously be better at dealing with stress at work, a failing marriage, or terminally ill loved ones because you ran, or can run 100 miles.

There will be a day we will all be old and gray. Will it matter then that we have silver 100 mile buckles? Will it matter when we are all dead in 100 years? How about when the sun goes nova in 4 billion years and swallows the earth? Does a single 24 hour period of time really matter all that much in lieu of the expanse and eternity of our universe. I think it does because while we exist but on a mere dot on the timeline of forever, that dot is our entire world of existence. The dot defines 100% of what we are, and who we are. 24 hours is nothing, but it reflects a measure of a man, or woman that lasts forever. It's an everlasting thumbprint, or gobstopper of flavor to a flavorless place. Yes, I just randomly referenced an everlasting gobstopper. As Maximus said in the movie Gladiator "What we do in life, echoes in eternity". It will echoe long after gold turns to dust and silver fades to ash.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lady in the Rain

Sometimes a simple iconic image can remind us that our tough days are not so tough.

The traffic is halted and the light now red
My thoughts all crowded and cramped in my head.
Work, work, work, more and more bills to pay
Sitting, typing, sitting, in my windowless office all day.
Like these cars around me, my life is moving slow
I'm choking on the exhaust, I'm exhausted with this stop and go.
My job is as gray as this winter and my bank account is starting to drain
And that's when I look over and see the lady in the rain.

The cememtary was empty, a quiet library of stones
She stood there in reverence, she stood all alone.
Was she pondering the journey, one that had been so sublime?
Now her only companion were the years and recollections of time.
Her black umbrella contrasted against the white tributes to life
She stood once again by her husband, a loving dear wife.
How long were they married, 20, 40, 60 years maybe more?
Now she endures alone while his life slipped to distant shores.

But while the day was dreary, she glowed a certain light
It wasn't dark colors she wore, but rather a brilliant white.
So in the winter's cold grasp and the rain's bitter chill
She stood valiantly, a city of light in this cemetary on a hill.
Such valor and beauty in a place unexpected
It reminded me how simple life is, regardless of how hectic.

The light turned green, I venture back to the mundane.
But, for a second I was captivated by lady in the rain.