Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On My First DNF

I'm going to post my last two races out of order because I'd rather not dwell on this one for too long. On 9/17, I ran the Barkley Fall Classic and had one of the best performances of my life. One week later, I entered the Mountain Madness 50K and dropped out of the race for the first time in my running career. The latter story will be the focus of this post.


After a brutal Barkley race the prior weekend and three days of intense hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, Alex and I signed up for Mountain Madness on a whim. We both had "credits" with NJ Trail Series from volunteering and making the podium in previous races. This allowed us to sign up for about $20 combined. Alex wisely chose the 7 miler, and I decided to use the 50K as my last long training run before Grindstone 100, which will be on 10/7.

The Race

The MoMa course is held on the beautiful single track trails of Ringwood State Park in NJ's Ramapo Mountains. The 50K has about 5,000 feet of elevation gain and is known for being rocky and technical. I decided that this would be excellent preparation for the technical trails that I would face during Grindstone, and I told myself that this would not be a "race" in the conventional sense, but rather a long easy effort to get in more mileage. The last thing I wanted to do was push too hard and injure myself two weeks before my 'A' race for the year.

We started promptly at 9am in perfect 60 degree weather. Although I'm usually a solitary runner, I quickly found myself behind a group of three guys about my age, some of whom had run the course before. This allowed me to put my head down and just focus on running, while leaving the tricky navigation up to them (mistake #1). We chatted as we effortlessly clicked off the first few miles of rocky trail. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we made a crucial navigation error only 2.3 miles into the race, where the course crosses over itself. Following an arrow that was not intended for us, we had turned right instead of going straight at an intersection (mistake #2).

The clusterfiasco that was my MoMa race

We followed this trail for a mile and a half, all of it in exactly the wrong direction. At mile 3.9, we came to a fork in the trail that we were not expecting. After a too-quick glance at the map and a bit of frantic discussion, we chose to go left and took off at a brisk pace (mistake #3). Half a mile later, we realized that we were approaching the finish line (27 miles too soon!) and turned back. We came back to the fork at mile 4.9 and decided that we should have gone right, although we were still on the wrong section of trail entirely (mistake #4). We followed this trail for another half mile until we saw an arrow that pointed back in the direction that we came from and realized that we were - at best - several miles off course.

At this point, the three other runners decided that their race was over and ran straight to the finish. I decided to continue on by myself, still not totally sure where I was on the course. I floundered around in the wilderness for a while, running way too fast on my tired legs with the intention of making up lost ground. By the time I figured out where I was, I had gone almost six miles off course. I arrived at the first aid station more than an hour behind my anticipated time.

Regardless, I wanted to finish the race. I was feeling strong, and the weather was perfect, now sunny and 70 degrees. Unfortunately, my body had other plans.

Half a mile from the aid station, still running hard to make up for lost time, I felt a familiar tightness in my right hamstring. It was the same little cluster of muscle fibers that had bothered me during, and after, the NJ marathon. I knew that I could run through this issue as long as I was cautious. Hell, I had run 7:15 miles at the end of that marathon without too much issue. As that thought went through my head, I tripped over a small rock and extended my right leg to catch myself. My hamstring seized, and what had been a small twinge of pain turned into a full on muscle pull. My race was over; I just didn't know it yet.

I gingerly jogged onward, but the hamstring complained. I tried stretching. I walked for a bit. I stretched again. Nothing worked. I could still run, but every step put me at risk of further injuring myself and jeopardizing my Grindstone 100 race. My Hardrock and Western States qualifier. My one chance this year to enter the lottery for the two most prestigious 100 mile races in the country. I knew what I had to do. I limped back to the aid station and informed the volunteers that I was dropping out. I had a long and solemn seven mile walk back to the finish line to think about what had just transpired.

A few 25K runners passed me as I got close to the finish, and I could hear the crowd cheering for them. I ducked behind a nearby building and sneaked into the finish area. I didn't want people cheering as I came in.

Some Perspective

I always took a lot of pride - maybe too much pride - in finishing every race that I started. Until this past weekend, I had run 6 marathons and 17 ultramarathons and never dropped out, despite fighting through heat, cold, rain, snow, and extreme fatigue. This stubbornness has even earned me a few victories in races where no other runner was willing to continue.

I always imagined that my first DNF (did not finish) would result from some horrific injury: a broken leg, being struck by lightning, getting mauled by a bear, etc. Instead, it was a small twinge of pain in the back of my leg and the specter of missing my goal race.

I suppose I made the mature decision to drop before hurting myself even worse and compromising months of training and preparation. I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had to withdraw from a race for one reason or another. It still stings. But what's done is done. My hamstring is healing, and I'm on track to start my big race in 10 days (gulp!). Alex, incidentally, had a great MoMa race and finished on the podium in third! Her success softened the blow from my epic failure.

A Final Analogy

This self serving post has gone on for way too long already, but I want to finish with a final thought.

Back before Alex and I became runners, we were indoor rock climbers. We would go to a rock gym 2-3 times a week and usually spend a couple hours top-roping and bouldering. We had very different approaches to climbing. Alex hated falling, and she would choose routes that she knew she could complete. I, on the other hand, had no qualms about flailing around on routes that were well above my ability level, falling repeatedly while Alex dutifully belayed. Often, I tried to convince her that she needed to fall more. Falling was a sign that you were pushing your limits during a climb. That you were challenging yourself and improving.

Since taking up running, our attitudes have switched somewhat. I have used conservative race strategies, and even avoided a few races altogether, to maximize my chances of finishing everything I started. Alex, on the other hand, has signed up for a few races that she knew would be tough, maybe even impossible, to finish.

So maybe I need to fall more.

Or maybe I should just stop overthinking these things and go for a run.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Great New York 100 Mile Running Exposition

Running by the Unisphere around mile 55

The fifth running of the Great New York 100 Mile Running Exposition took place on June 18 of this year. The 2015 edition of TGNY had been my first 100 miler, and I was looking to build on my experience from the previous 12 months of running and hopefully come away with another top 10 finish. I had the usual suspects crewing and pacing me during the race: Alex, Dave, and Julie, with the new addition of ultrarunner Harry Uberti.

Some Pre-Race Drama

After a ludicrously early alarm clock and an hour of driving, we got to the starting line at Times Square at 4am. This left an hour for us to prepare before the start of the race.

I believe it was Confucius who said "One must start a race with a full heart and empty bowels." Not one to ignore running advice from an ancient Chinese philosopher, I made a bee-line for the McDonald's bathroom across the street, only to find that it was closed for repairs. No matter! I went down the block to the Starbucks. Surely a coffee-based business would open early and have a bathroom for its customers. Nope!

The next few stores we tried were also closed. A porta-John in a nearby construction zone turned out to be locked. Starting to feel the effects of my morning coffee (and probably some pre-race jitters) I broke into a nervous sweat and contemplated whether there was a discreet way of crapping on the sidewalk in the middle of Times Square.

Folks, let it be known that "The City That Never Sleeps" apparently stops pooping for a few hours each day.

After more than half an hour of searching, we finally found another McDonald's (which had strobe lights and was blasting techno music - ah, New York City!) with an open bathroom. I had to wait a few minutes for a man who - judging by the sounds he was making - was attempting to pass a whole cantaloupe. But at last, I had accomplished my first goal of the day.

I suppose at some point I should talk about the race.

The Race

TGNY is unique among urban ultras in that it is composed of a single massive loop around the perimeter of New York City, as opposed to many small loops. It is also held on open roads, sidewalks, bike paths, etc., so part of the adventure is dealing with traffic and pedestrians.

TGNY course map

My plan was to start out at a conservative 10:00/mile pace and try to maintain that pace as long as possible. I figured that I would slow down a bit in the second half of the race, but I wanted to avoid a complete meltdown like the one I had last year, where I walked the final 20 miles of the course.

We took off shortly after 5am from Times Square, heading north past Central Park, Morningside Park, and Grant's Tomb. The headliner of the race was ultra-phenom Mike Wardian, who is known for racing nearly every weekend of the year, and occasionally multiple times in the same weekend. On June 6-7, he had finished 4th in the highly competitive San Diego 100. He then ran the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Half Marathon on the morning of June 8 in a time of 1:18:28 (5:59/mile average pace). So, yeah, I wasn't planning on winning this thing. I wished him luck at the starting line and figured I wouldn't seen him for the rest of the race. Spoiler alert: that's exactly what happened.

Course record holder Tommy Sung Pyon (aka Teaspoon) was sidelined with a lingering injury and local running stud Paul Denunzio was not able to start. This left the podium wide open for us regular runners. My running buddies Charlotte Dequeker and Ke'mani Smith were back this year. Charlotte had put in a solid year of running, finishing 10th woman at the North Face Bear Mountain 50 miler and third woman at the grueling Mt. Tammany 10. Ke'mani, after finishing TGNY 2015 on a torn quadriceps, had fully recovered and finished 5th at the Lake Waramaug 100K in April.

Milling around before the start of the race

The majority of the field quickly left me in the dust. I'm a very conservative runner in ultras, and my typical race strategy goes something like this: the first third of a race should feel really really ridiculously easy. So easy that you feel like you can run all day and never get tired. The middle third should be where it starts to feel like work, but you're still not pushing too hard. Your legs are a little tired, but not particularly painful. The last third of the race is where the gloves come off. Every step takes effort. There is very little "zoning out" or daydreaming because it takes all of your concentration to keep your body moving forward. Crying is acceptable.

I realized pretty quickly that the first third of this race was not going to feel ridiculously easy.  My mile splits were pretty much on target, but that magical run-all-day feeling was just not there. My legs didn't have that springy-ness that typically accompanies a two week taper and race day adrenaline, but instead felt sluggish and heavy. By the time I pulled into the mile 10 aid station, my right IT band was tightening up, and I new I was in for a long day.

Things Start to Heat Up!

No, literally. Racer J├╝rgen Englerth did some research and found that 2016 was the hottest TGNY in its five year history. Temperatures only peaked at 86 degrees, but that felt like a sauna after a relatively mild spring.

Coming into the mile 20 and already feeling the heat
Luckily, my crew was well prepared with bags of ice, which they stuffed into bandannas and tied around my neck at every aid station. Every time I saw them, it was like a pit stop at a Formula 1 race. Alex would hand me a towel or wet sponge to cool off, Julie would swap out my water bottles, Dave would fill a Dixie cup with berries and hand it off. Within 30 seconds, I was off. We were a well oiled machine.

The worst part of the course came at mile 47 when the course followed the Joe Michaels Health Walk. I don't know who Joe Michaels was, but he must have been a real jerk, because his "health walk" is a 2.5 mile stretch of shadeless sun-scorched asphalt which follows the Cross Island Parkway. This was a serious low point for me. My ice melted quickly in the blistering heat. The asphalt pathway absorbed and re-radiated the sun's heat at me from below. The health walk seemed endless.

The Perks of Being Insane

Luckily, my subconscious has this fun habit of playing music while I run. Sometimes the songs are fun and motivating. I'll rock out to Black Keys, Cold War Kids, or Band of Horses on long training runs. What did my subconscious have in store for me today? Probably something great to get me out of this funk, right?


Just Like Fire, by Pink.

Yes, that Pink. Yes, I clearly have some questionable taste in music. I should probably take that top 40 station off my car's presets. If you haven't heard this song (and I don't honestly recommend that you listen to it), it has a wonderfully poetic refrain that goes like this:
We can get 'em runnin', runnin', runnin'
where the "in" in "runnin" is emphasized every time. There's also some stuff about fire and burning and whatnot, but my subconscious doesn't know those lyrics. So the following battle played out in my head while I ran.
Subconscious: We can get 'em runnin', runnin', runnin'
Conscious Me: Hey that's cool and all, but do you know any other lyrics? 
Subconscious: LOL nope! We can get 'em runnin', runnin', runnin'
This went on for several more hours, including a few hours that I spent with my pacers. I opted not to tell them that my subconscious mind was being microwaved in the heat and that it was getting revenge by driving the rest of my brain crazy.

Right then, back to the race!

The Race, Part 2

Shortly before the mile 50 aid station, I blatantly disregarded a course marking and ended up running an extra quarter mile. In a race this long, a few minutes doesn't make much of a difference. Surely this momentary lapse would not come back to bite me in the ass!

New ice bandanna and a cold wet towel to wipe my face off. Nothing better in a hot race!

Reaching the half way point was simultaneously a mental boost and also a bit demoralizing. The heat was taking its toll on me despite the best efforts of my crew, and there was still a lot of running left to do. Thankfully, I picked up my first pacer, Julie, at mile 55. Our conversation helped pass the time and also kept Pink to a dull roar in the back of my mind.

Around this point, I learned that I was in fourth place, and only a few minutes behind Charlotte and another male runner. I passed the guy soon afterwards, and Julie and I worked on stalking Charlotte (sorry Charlotte, but it is a race after all!).

We caught sight of Charlotte and her pacer somewhere around mile 70 and, after exchanging pleasantries and a few encouraging words, we parted ways. I was now in second place with thirty miles left to run. Or thirty miles left to walk. Or crawl. Depending on how my legs felt like performing after 13+ hours of movement.

Shortly after leaving Charlotte, I picked up my second pacer, Harry. Harry and I had met at the Wildcat Ridge Romp the previous summer, where he was running his first ultra, and I was taking a crack at the 100K. Harry's wife Eileen had somehow gotten roped into crewing me while Alex and Julie were out on the course, and we've all been friends ever since.

We made good progress through Rockaway Beach, Jacob Riis Park, and across the Marine Parkway Bridge, and we passed the time easily by telling each other our life stories. My legs were starting to tighten up by this point though, and I was forced to walk for a few minutes after every aid station to loosen them back up. Nevertheless, most of my mile splits were in the 11:00-12:00 range.

Coming into Sheepshead Bay (mile 80) with Harry

We passed through Coney Island around 9pm, just as the last rays of twilight were disappearing. Some quick calculations told me that I was on pace for about a 1am (20 hour) finish time. Given the heat of the day, I was happy with this anticipated result. Shortly afterwards, Harry's pacing leg ended, and I picked up Alex for the final push to the finish.

Alex and I ran an endless (though very scenic) five mile stretch along the Belt Parkway Bike Path and underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, followed by an endless (and not very scenic) 2.5 mile stretch of 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Each block in this section was about 250 feet long, and each crosswalk  at the end of a block meant that we had to stop and look for traffic. This constant stopping and starting disrupted my rhythm and made my legs ache. But there were people hunting me, so there was no time to stop and pity myself.

At mile 96, we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and were treated to a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. Of course, Alex had to point this out to me, because I have a habit of looking at the ground while I run.
Alex: Wow! This view is amazing! 
Me: (glancing around for the first time in 10 minutes) Holy crap! I should look up more often!
We crossed the bridge and had just over an hour to do the remaining four miles and finish sub-20. I was feeling pretty content with how my race had gone and was starting to wax poetic about how running is, like, a metaphor for life, or some silly shit like that.

But then, it happened.

That Thing That Happened

Three miles from the finish line, I heard an ominous pat pat pat of footsteps behind me. I had heard this many times throughout the day and it was always just a random runner who was doing his weekend run. Not this time though. A flash of yellow reflective material whirred by me, followed by a slightly less bright, slightly slower flash. It was the unmistakable sight of a runner and his pacer. I had just been stalked and then passed - as I like to say - with authority.

"Oh f*******ck me!" I shouted to no one in particular.

He was going too fast for me to keep up at this point. My legs were shot. I was perfectly content with a third place finish.

Then I had a sudden change of heart.

"I have to give him a run for his money," I said to Alex, as I took off.

A burst of adrenaline propelled me forward, and I was sprinting. My legs screamed, but somehow accepted the order that my brain had issued.

I had to keep that reflective yellow blur in my sights. I had to catch him. If he was going to take second place from me, he was damn well going to earn it.

My GPS showed that I briefly hit 6:57/mile as I chased the other runner through the streets of Manhattan. I had just run this section of the course in a training run, and I had a faint hope that I could use this knowledge to my benefit. I chose my street crossings carefully, trying to take the shortest possible path as we climbed north on Broadway.

I lost sight of him in Union Square Park when we took different routes around the crowd of people gathered there. I kept pushing. My breath was ragged. It felt like the final few miles of a 10K, not a 100 miler.

With one block to go, the finish line came into sight. I couldn't see the other runner, but I had to stop at a crosswalk and wait for traffic. I had visions of him running in from another direction while I waited, helpless.

Portrait of a frustrated runner

The light changed, and I sprinted the final feet to the finish line.

Happy to be done, but not sure about my placing

"Did I beat him?" I asked race director Phil McCarthy.

"Nope," he responded, and gestured to a seated finisher.

Mike Shaddow was his name. He had bested me by two minutes and twenty seconds. Roughly the amount of time I spent off course at mile fifty. Less time than it required for a mid-race bathroom break earlier in the day. One point four seconds per mile.

On the other hand, he had forced me to dig deeper that I've ever had to at that stage in a race. My last three miles were, by far, the fastest I ran in the entire race: 7:58, 8:36, and 9:11 (incuding stoppage time at crosswalks). He had run 7:30 for each of the last three miles to beat me. We had brought out the very best in each other.

We had run so well, in fact, that we both dropped our pacers. Alex came running in a few minutes later with Mike's pacer. She was distraught that she missed me finishing, particularly since she had done 85 fewer miles than I had. I couldn't have asked for a better pacer though.

"WTF was that, Ry?"

I celebrated by sitting the heck down and finally giving my legs a rest. My final finishing time was 19:39:50, with 50 mile splits of 9:31 and 10:09. I had finally run a decent second half in a 100 mile race.

Mike Wardian, who had finished more than three hours earlier, came sauntering over, and I tried to make conversation while I silently geeked out about talking to a famous ultrarunner.

Men's podium: Mike Wardian, Mike Shaddow, and yours truly

Charlotte finished shortly afterwards in 20:04:05. We are quickly developing a friendly rivalry, which will again be tested at the Grindstone 100 in October. Ke'mani finished in 24:39:53, a three hour improvement over his time from last year.

Post Race Thoughts

I've had a lot of time to digest my thoughts from this race, and I have to say that I'm proud of how I did. The fact that I was still able to run well at the end of a 100 miler shows that (a) my training is paying off and (b) my pacing and fueling strategy worked beautifully. Of course I wish that I had been able to hold onto second place, but that's just more fuel for my future training runs.

Next up on the schedule is the Barkley Fall Classic 50K on 9/17 and Grindstone 100 on 10/6. I'll try to get the race reports for those done a little more quickly!