Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic - 50 Miles

I am uncomfortable publishing this on a single pass, but I wanted to post it while it was still a fresh accomplishment. I'm sure it will not meet my two goals of making it interesting to the non-runner or helpful to the runner who is trying to learn something. It will, however, provide a starting point. It will provide me with a lasting aftertaste to a fine thing to be savored and improved upon.

The drama actually began a few months before the race itself. I had methodically increased my weekly distances to over 50 miles a week. I began to think that I could sustain more speed much longer than I had been and, at the same time, I began to increase the weekly miles more quickly than was recommended.

As I ran one morning, the nasty feeling of something in my knee moving in an unnatural direction followed by slowly building pain in my knee tendons was not a welcome development. I reduced my running to under 2 miles a day and then, sensing that I wasn't improving, I gave up altogether.

I didn't begin again until the first week in November. Two miles a day for a week. 20 total miles the next week. OK. I'll be OK. I entered the race still determined to get the 50 mile run under my belt. At her request, I signed my wife up for the 50k. She trains consistently in a gym but hadn't been running.

After beginning again, all of my runs had consisted of 9 minute runs followed by a 1 minute walk regardless of total distance. I was able to keep a 10 minute pace and decided this would be my strategy in the race. My wife and I took a run together on the Saturday before the race. I ran 11 miles comfortably. 9 minute run. 1 minute walk.

My wife ran about 8 miles. She was unaffected the next day and I knew that she'd be fine.

I ran 9 miles the next morning and 6 more on Monday. I forgot my water bottle and spent Monday and Tuesday recovering from dehydration. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday involved 2 mile runs. Friday, with our 11 year old daughter, we drove to Tallahassee and celebrated an early Christmas.

My father-in-law was kind enough to drive my daughter and me to the race location so I wouldn't have to worry about finding it in the morning. We got a little lost but found an easy route that made for an uneventful drive the following morning.

We were out of bed the next morning before the alarm clock. It was 4:30 AM. Both of us had slept soundly. I hadn't expected that.

We left our daughter to sleep and to spend the morning (and afternoon) with her grandparents and headed out. The thermometer in the dashboard of the car said 33 degrees. The night sky was clear and the full moon was bright.

"The moon will be as close to the earth as it ever gets, tonight," my father-in-law had informed us the night before. That would seem important to share with Gary Griffen, the race director, as we briefly ran near each other at the beginning of the race.

At the start/finish area, the runners who had made their way up from further down Florida's peninsula were quite conscious of the temperature. Everyone was upbeat and anxious to begin.

Gordy Hawkins, a race veteran with 24 starts, introduced himself to us. He would encourage my wife by name throughout the race.

After a few words about logistics and an inspirational verse from Isaiah (I would reflect later that I must not have waited very well. While I didn't faint after walking, I did grow quite weary and did not sprout wings.) the 50 milers followed Gary to their separate start line.

Gary and, I presume, his wife, Peg, used cell phones to coordinate the simultaneous start and we were off.

On the drive to Florida the day before, I had decided that I would go ahead and run for a couple of hours before starting my run walk routine. If my knee started feeling funny I could start walking earlier. It seemed that running when I was stronger made sense so that I could give up time on the walks when I wasn't moving as fast.

"Run the tangents on the curves," I heard Gary telling a runner he knew. "On a race this long you can run a lot less."

After about 3 laps around the 2.06 mile course I realized I'd need to stop to use the bathroom. "Too much coffee," I thought.

I had worked out the way I expected to run the race with respect to hydration. Three gulps of water mixed with gel would yield 16 oz. and 220 calories an hour.

My pace was under 9 min/mile.

Three more laps and I would have to stop for the bathroom again. Now I was beginning to think it wasn't just the coffee.

My stop edged me up over 9 minute pace. I still felt strong and hadn't even thought about walking.

Three more laps. Now I was irritated. I was carrying a 32 oz. bottle, one of 5 I had filled up for the run. It didn't seem heavy but I thought it would be nice to quit carrying it. I would try 4 gulps each time I came around. I had been taking three gulps every 10 minutes as I had planned. I grabbed a bagel from my own stash of goodies to help make up the calorie difference. I had no idea how many calories a bagel would give me but I suppose it wouldn't be enough.

As I ran, my wife and I kept crossing paths. She would give me a thumbs up. It didn't seem long before I was able to tell her she was half way.


We were headed in opposite directions and we were about a half mile apart when I realized that it was I who had done half of the 50k distance and she was a half lap behind me. Oops. Close enough.

I was now getting lapped and, less frequently, lapping others. The protocol of brief encounters had by now been determined. There were the serious, unresponsive front runners of the 50k, the meek, private runners and the extroverts attempting smiles or a fine atta boy.

I came up on a 50 miler who I had spoken with briefly before we started.

"How's it going?" I asked in the fashion instinctively engineered to balance between sympathy and encouragement.

"I'm just trying to make the 50k. Then we'll see."

"Hang in there."

At 25 miles I came across Gordy speed walking the 50k.

"I've never run this far before in my life!" I think I was bragging but may have sounded like I was complaining.

"Just stay in the now. Don't look ahead. Just stay in the now."

I was creeping up over 9 and a half minute pace. Somewhere in the mid 30 miles my watch told me I had tipped over the 9:40. Something clicked on and I attained a brief euphoric high. I looked back at my watch a few minutes later. 9:39.

Then, back to 9:40. Oh, well. I was hooked.


At the 40 mile mark my loss of training kicked in. Every half mile I'd loose another second or 2 on pace. I kept my smile and thought, "From here you could crawl to the finish."

The 50kers were pretty much done now and the looks of sympathy and encouragement that were exchanged when we crossed each others paths took on more meaning. We were asking the front runners how many laps they had to go. When runners got within a lap or two from the finish they began to volunteer it. "Two to go after this one." "One to go after this one." "I'm on my last lap."

As one runner passed in the opposite direction he pointed his finger in the form of a gun at his head and pulled the trigger. He used his other hand to represent the effect of the bullet coming out of the other side of his head.

On another occassion he would shout to me, "I just ate a roast beef sandwich! How stupid was that!" It sounded good but probably was affecting him differently than he intended.

Every report was received as an encouragement. He's going to do it! I'm going to do it, too!


Throughout the second half of the run it had been occurring to me that my daughter would be able to pace me if she wanted to. I had thought of how I would coax her onto the course when I saw her. With still more than 10 miles left I saw the car she would have come in. At 5 laps I asked my wife who had already finished if she had seen them.



Just as I was beginning the 4th to the last lap, I heard a cheer. There they were. Where was my daughter? There she is.

"Come run with me!"

"Go run with Dad!"

She was on the other side of a low hedge that she briefly contemplated jumping. She found her way around it and ran up along side me. She spent the next two laps running ahead of me and then waiting. At the end of the second lap she ran ahead and got my water bottle.

On the first lap with her I crossed the 10 minute pace mark going irretrievably in the wrong direction.

"But you're going to finish, Dad!"

I ran the second to last lap alone. I was barely moving.

My daughter rejoined me for the last lap. I picked up the pace and when rounding the corner for the final mile I realized that I might be able to finish just under 9 hours. I left my daughter behind for a desperate attempt a spontaneous goal.

I crossed the line at 9:00:03.

My wife and I were fortunate to have her father to drive us back to his home after the race. While on the ride I asked a question that had occurred to me throughout the race.

"What were those people protesting today?"

"What people?"

"The people wearing the signs with the word 'Ultra' covered by a circle with a line through it."

"Those weren't protester. They were running the race even though they didn't get registered. They were wearing those signs so that the lap counters wouldn't get them confused with the registered runners."


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Spiders and Fences

My long run took me again to the Chattahoochee River Club this morning. I had run Kennesaw three times on Friday then run a slow 5+ miles on Saturday, played a short tennis match (6-0, 6-0 thank you for asking) and was nursing a more painful than usual foot. No the plantar problem is not gone.

I started off at 20 minutes after 3 am. I expected a 4 hour and 10 minute poke fest. Maybe I need better self talk but I got what I expected.

My foot was causing more pain than usual and I considered bagging the run. I decided to run an hour and turn around if it was still a problem. Sometimes it loosened up after a while.

I realized I had forgotten my flashlight. Oh, no. I knew where that would lead since I was intent on taken the very route I had aborted due to a missing flash light a month and a half ago.

I had run less than a half mile. Brother.

I remembered the light was in the car and turned around. After retrieving the light I headed the opposite direction. This would put me on Old Atlanta Road but at 3:30 am how many cars could there be. It turns out that a lot of people are just getting home but I made it to Windemere without... ...well, frankly, without dying.

The foot pain did not subside but did not get any worse so I lumbered on, stepping off the sidewalk onto the grass or weeds wherever the terrain allowed. The foot had been giving me problems long enough now that my expectations were sufficiently diminished and I only thought wistfully about the sub-10 minute times I had become accustomed to.

The long up and downs of the hills between Old Atlanta and Highway 20 went by uneventfully until I diverted to the golf course restroom and soda machine to discard an empty Gatorade bottle in a trash receptacle I had found there.

As I turned to go I noticed paper cups stacked above the trash receptacle. Hmmm. Sure enough, where there are cups there is water. I would not have been happier if I'd have looked down and seen a twenty dollar bill.

When I came back this way I would have another empty bottle. I would not be throwing it away. My smile lasted a quarter of a mile or more.

A couple of weeks before I had discovered that the Fish Hatchery was closed and I would not be able to access the trail up to the dam there.

I was now a veteran of the River Club and had no problem finding the trail.

This would be new. Anticipation and soft earth quickened my pace. I rolled up the small berms around corners with the bright beam of my $6 flash light illuminating the dark.

I came to a bend in the trail. Before the bend there was a fence blocking a gravel road on my left.

As I continued down the trail in the dark I heard the footfalls of a startled deer on my right. I swung my light around but saw nothing. The trees wrapped themselves over my head. I heard what could have been a branch fall in the dark behind me.

I thought of Bilbo and the Dwarves of The Hobbit in Mirkwood. On cue, a thin strand of a spiderweb gently settled across my forehead. I was amused and wiped it away. Running early on Kennesaw had cured me of being adversely affected by such a triviality as had the spider bites on the back of my neck.

Not much further and I was stopped. A tall chain link fence with barbed wire stretched across the top stood before me. I thought I had been heading upstream but I would later come to understand that I had found the other side of the trail that I had been barred from by the fence at the fish hatchery a couple of weeks before.

In my consternation I thought that I had found yet another fence that had effectively blocked another potential route to the top of the dam.

I turned dejectedly back. I thought I would just bag the run as successful enough and head home.

But, where would I go next? I needed to find someone who ran in the night like I did. I needed to find a trail that wasn't closed. Closed! First I find that running would cost money. Now I find that I'm closed in by the fences of the 8-to-5-ers.

But then I came back to the gate to the gravel road. I stepped under it and headed in a new direction.

The road wound pleasantly by a small meadow and ended at some sort of communications shed with a high antenae. Warning signs posted the danger of quickly rising waters when the dam water was released and something about horns blowing warnings and what to do.


I had found the trail up the dam!

Beyond the loudly painted warning signs, the antenae and the shed was a narrow trail.

First it was narrow. Then the reeds began to close in. Then it was narrow and low. I was running stooped over like a clumsy giant in elf land.

Then it happened.

In a split second my light fell on something that vanished too fast for me to register and I was covered with web. This was no random trace of web across a trail. The clumsy giant wasn't in elf land. He had found spider land.

The web was off me as quickly as it was on. Now I was creeped out.

I began again. One, two, three steps. This time the web was highlighted beautifully in my lights beam. The residence was occupied. I reached out to one of the anchoring strands with my light and pulled it back. The web, spider in the middle, was still intacked.

I swiped it again. It was gone.

5 more steps. Repeat. Repeat, again.

I only ran through one more web. I thought about what kind of spider bites I might be dealing with.

I finally came out of the reeds into a wooded area. I registered the noise of swift water. Someone had put a several pieces of patio furniture out to look down on the river. I could just make out the water below but with the flashlight all I saw was mist.

I turned to go on. The trail seemed to take a turn away from the river.

There was another sign. "Private Property, No Trespassers. Protected by dogs behind invisible fences."

Finally, a fence I could get through!

I looked at my watch. It was time to turn around. Time and mortality. The two strongest fences.

At least there would be no spider webs on the way back.

Of the 17.5 miles of the run less than two were on the trail.

The trip back was uneventful. The water from the golf course was a treat. It took me 4 hours and 10 minutes.

I would hold off buying a pack for fluids. I will need to carry something to clear webs on the next run. I had no discernible bites in spite of the chaos I had inflicted on a quiet spider neighborhood.

My journey to the top of the dam in the dark was unfettered and would be revisited.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Soar Feet and a Wandering Mind

I am a little delayed in this post. I ran Tuesday and came a little undone.

More on that in a moment.

After running the Tuesday before, I took what turned out to be a week off to nurse the pain in my right foot that had begun over the weekend. By Memorial Day I was brimming with energy and used it at the local water park with my family. The foot was only a minimal nuisance which put it at about as good as it ever gets.

The next morning I knew I'd be ready to go.

When the alarm went off at 4 AM there were already hints of trouble. "That's OK," I said to myself of my early morning weariness. "A week of sleeping in has made you a little soft."

I did begin to suspect that I may need to forgo my normal Tuesday speed drill and just be satisfied to be back on the trail.

My wife got up and I delayed my departure in favor of our now regular and very enjoyable early morning conversation. As a result I arrived at Kennesaw Mountain around 5:40 AM. My car was the first to park on Old 41.

"Slackers," I thought smugly to myself.

I was feeling more soreness in my foot than I expected so after crossing Stylesboro Rd. into the park I did a couple of the stretching exercises I'd become accustomed to over the previous week. I had found good information at the Mayo Clinic website and from a book I had browsed through a couple of days before and then promptly forgotten the name of.

A man went by, walking his dog. The man never looked at me. The dog never took its eyes off me. I said nothing. They were headed up the mountain. I was headed around it. They were the last living things I saw until I returned from my run.

I started off remembering that I was abandoning my...

My new shoes were loose. I stopped after only taking about 10 strides and tightened both laces.

My old shoes had never given me a blister or a single reason to complain. They had taken me from counting paces starting out with only a 10th of a mile while healing a wounded knee to as much as 24 miles in a single run over the course of about 6 months.

I had read on the Mayo Clinic website that a pair of running shoes would be good for about 400 miles. I had logged almost 900 miles in a half a year. At my current pace I'd be going through a pair of shoes every couple of months. Continuing to increase my distance would be an economic decision from now on.

I'm sure the Mayo Clinic was overstating the problem.

Anyway the Plantar Fasciitis had only been a mild inconvenience...

...this time.

The pain in my foot was mild and I set into an easy gate. There would be no speed records today. It was good to be back on the trail.

I ran in front of the Visitor's Center and was a little miffed at the effort required to push up the hill to where the actual trail exited the trees on my right.

My foot was slightly pained but my legs were fresh. I came to the point where the trail merged with the trail that came down from the paved road up the mountain in about 5:40. Not extremely fast but much better than I was expecting.

Without a big challenge ahead my thoughts began to drift. My most common musings involved nature and my place in it. Many of my ideas were played over and over cementing themselves into the background of other less common ideas.

On a run long ago I had come to think of nature as a compartment in which we exist. All that we understood to exist, the limitations we experience and all the mechanisms we establish to cope are part of nature by this definition. Even our bodies were subject to the laws and therefore belonged much more to nature than to anything that I could consider to be "me".

As I ran, I began to put this idea to the test. If nature was a compartment then it bore no ill will toward me and in fact bore no ill at all. The pain in my foot and the tiredness in my overly refreshed body seemed to indicate otherwise.

As the mountain and the trail and the trees stood by indifferently the pain began to increase a little. I definitely needed to call my podiatrist today.

My foot hurt but not to badly. It also moved on in indifference obeying the commands that I effected on it through the simplest connection I had with nature. The connection that ended at the edge of my physical being.

The compartment was indifferent and my existence inside it is temporary.

If the compartment was temporary then there was no need to get angry with God. Any pain in this compartment would not carry on to that which is outside. The pain was the foot on the body that was part of nature. Outside the compartment was new and inconceivable. Confuoudingly, even no outside it is inconceivable.

It is said that there must be an outside because we've imagined an outside. Now we've imagined no outside. What does one do with that?

I approached a small but steep hill that rose up along the back of a neighborhood. My agony was not increasing so I ran on. Now I was slowing and was nearing the 10 minute mile pace. At the top of the hill I increased my speed.

How long it took for that speed to laps I do not know. I had again drifted into contemplation.

I had recently read a biography a person had posted about himself on a running blog I visited from time to time. He had begun by suggesting others might want to do the same. The one point I had remembered was that he had said, "I believe in a creator, but not the ones the religions teach."

I thought about the compendium of minds that had considered the gods the religions teach. The depth of sincere devotion given while each mind stood at the edge of the abyss. At the edge of that which is outside. How each mind had built on, modified and discarded the thoughts of the minds before.

Here was a man who off to the side had managed to come up with a better version. How had he considered such a compendium and then come up with his own better version?

I was aware that no one had responded with questions and presumed that they, like I, was suspicious that he had the wherewithal to have truly done such a thing...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Run Before Church

Consider this fair warning. While I hope to incorporate my musings from my runs into this blog this, my first post, has nothing in it that is more overtly spiritual than the title. In fact the experience became a little more earthy than I would normally experience.

The alarm went off early. It was Sunday morning and I limped out of bed to shut off the alarm hoping to minimize the impact it would have on my still sleeping wife. My daughter had a friend over and they kept us awake with their thumps and giggles until after midnight.

I knew I'd have to get going quickly to get in my full run. If I could get out of the house in 15 minutes I'd have 45 minutes to get ready for church when I finished my run. We had had guests the night before and I was a bit disorganized. I shoved snacks in my pockets, grabbed a drink from the frig and turned to go.

I remembered that my flashlight was in the car. I couldn't remember where my keys were. I'd have to go without. I thought, "wouldn't it make a great story if this decision came back to haunt me."

My experiences running on the trails around Kennesaw Mountain had taught me that the city lights reflecting off the clouds often provide plenty of light. I was fairly certain that it would be the case today.

I had decided to take a new route based on a information I had seen in a post on a trail running forum. It appeared that the beginning of that trail would allow me to travel a short distance on it after a long run.

As was typically the case on morning runs, I started slow and sped up very little. "Just keep it under 10 minute miles." I said to myself, "You'll speed up later."

My first mile ended with an 8% grade down a hill with a similar grade back up the other side. At the top of the hill I was still under 10 minute miles.

At Mathis Airport Road I turned right and began a short journey on the only portion of the run that would put me directly on the road. No sidewalks were common around South Forsyth. At this time of the morning it didn't matter. For two thirds of a mile I didn't see a single car.

Now I turned onto a road that would take me all the way to the trail head that would take me to the top of Buford Dam. I only had a rough idea of the distance but I was running for a specific time and would turn to come back when I was half way.

Half way to Old Atlanta Road I encountered what had become a challenging hill. Cresting it just before Old Atlanta was my turn around point for runs during the week. I was feeling strong when I came to the intersection and crossed the deserted road.

I could feel the onset of plantar fasciitis in my heel. I had first felt it the day before and incorrectly diagnosed it as another of a list of pains my right foot had recently began to haunt me with. Nature would be a distant and unconcerning entity if I wasn't so directly connected to it through my incessantly aging body.

After Old Atlanta, The hill began to rise again. As I continued forward I was amazed that I never traveled this way. The road stretched on with sidewalks on each side for mile after mile. Hills a half mile, three quarters of a mile and even a mile long stretched out in front of me. A little way before reaching the next major road I crested a hill to see the most daunting hill of all.

"It can't be any worse than the trail to the top of the dam." I reasoned and toiled on.

I crossed Highway 20 into the Chattahoochee River Club. Here's where what had been a long run became an adventure.

I was looking for a street called Trout something-or-other. This would be the turn that would take me down the road to the trail head. The neighborhood is huge and I ran further than I thought I should need to. I ran on confident and was not disappointed.

I turned onto Trout Place Road. The road curved back to the right, but the parking for the recreation area and the fish hatchery were directly on the left. I never considered going back to the right and wandered around the parking lot looking for the start of the trail.

Tick. Tick. Tick. My ten minute pace was slipping away.

I began to feel uncomfortable crunching across the gravel next to a large house. I went back out to the main road through the neighborhood and decided to run further in. I new that this road was still long and perhaps I would find another way onto the trail.

As my time to turn around drew nearer I struck pay dirt. Or, more accurately, pay wood chips. I had found a horse trail. I could see where it ran down around a house and into the woods toward the river. As I made my way down a hill by the house I saw a partially covered step. Then, as the light of the street lamps became more muted I discovered another more abruptly I slowed down.

There were a few more steps and less light at each one. As I came to the back of the house the light failed completely. I stepped forward and felt undergrowth against my leg. I stepped back, turned and tried again. Undergrowth.

After a couple attempt I found the clearing of the trail and started forward at a walk. I was just beginning to come to terms with the counter-productive absurdity of what I was attempting when I checked my time. Three minutes passed my turn around time. I made my way back to the steps. Going up required me to bend down to spot the steps to avoid tripping on them.

When I got to the street I took comfort. I was exploring and this was to be expected. All my detours would make it easy to return home in the time left.

I decided to remain on the horse path as it was easy on my aching heal. As I ran along I mused about my missteps. The flashlight, the flashlight and the flashlight. I did not know that I was adding another misstep as I ran along.

About a half mile from the last side road I found myself in a cul-de-sac. I had missed my turn. "You've got to be kidding!" I turned around.

I had made right turns going in. If I missed a left turn going back I would need to find it and turn to the right once again. I had added a mile to my trip back. Now I would need to hustle.

My issue from earlier was now beginning to haunt me again. The McDonald's at Old Atlanta would be open if I could just hold on. Just hold on for seven miles.

I finally made it out of the Chattahoochee River Club. I tried to disregard my increasing physical discomfort. I looked to the Million Dollar homes on the other side of the golf course to my right.

"I don't think, I'd ever want to live in a comm... Look a bathroom!"

On the edge of the golf course was a tidy building with two doors positioned in the universal sign of a his-and-hers bathroom. I thought it was unlikely to be unlocked.

It was locked.

I threw my accumulating trash in the unsecured trash can and ran on. I began to realize that I wasn't going to make it much further without relief. In fact I wasn't going to make it any further at all.

Across the street was a road with a sign for a park. A park! Surely they would have an open bathroom. Maybe they would but I would never find out.

When I got across the street I realized that the road into the park wound down to a parking lot that was about 50 million miles away.

I looked to the bushes on my left. They were thick and the bank dropped sharply off. There was nowhere to go there.

I looked to the right. The ground banked up sharply but was scalable. I dropped my remaining drinking bottle on the foundation of a lamp post and ran for the trees. I found a suitable spot and turned. I realized I was exposed to the park road still but it didn't matter. There was only one thing to do.

And I did.

A few minutes and a handful of leaves stripped of a small plant and I was on my way. My pace was freshened with the relief. Happily the leaves turned out not to be of any poisonous variety.

I was now on my final legs on the final leg. I realized that I had burned far to much time and would have to cut down Old Atlanta to get home on schedule. Traffic was light and I encountered no further mishaps.

I had started my run at 3:50 AM and finished at 7:20. I had expected to run over 21 miles but smiled to myself on an unusually eventful 19 mile jaunt.

I went immediately upstairs and awakened the girls to get ready to head out at 8 AM to get to an early church service.