Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Running in the Dark

Sarah at the now infamous Exchange 25
One of the best parts about writing this blog is not only sharing my experiences, but interacting with those who read it.  Since May, my friend Sarah and I had been diligently planning and replanning for Ragnar.  Now that it's (somehow) over, we keep rehashing those 32 hours.  After reading my entry from last night, she sent this over to me, and I had to post.  So, without further ado, here is On The Bus Running guest blogger, and Got the Runs co-captain, Sarah.... 
As I hit the road on my last leg, I was alone… Rachel made the handoff sooner than expected… slapping the bracelet on me as I sprinted out of the port ‘o johns from my half nervous, half performance pee… my radio semi working, my feet not yet into the groove, though I hadn’t slept I felt stumbly, like I’d just woke up…. 4 a.m. and the world was asleep, I should have been asleep, my van was asleep… no one seemed poised to watch me off or wake up, so who knew if they’d make it to pick me up at the other side… 3.4 miles didn’t seem that far… but the dark made it a bit ominous.  I felt really alone… maybe a tad bit of a martyr, considering I’d chosen to run leg 11, but I wanted them there… I (the extrovert) surged off their power… Since the course began with a double back from the previous leg, I passed a few runners who were headed into the switch… but there was no one ahead of me, just blackness… the few passing said “morning.”  My legs screamed – this would be the second 5K in a matter of hours… coming from the girl who doesn’t really run.  I had just run before Rachel, dumb dumb, but I started to fall into pace…. Deep breath, loose shoulders… thinking about how far we had come already and how the “weekend” was almost at a close.  All this planning… and here we were, running our way home.  My eyes tired, the headlamp made the road ahead glow like a halo… just a weak ring in front of me, I kept blinking to see if I really could see.  The road had just been stripped, so the pavement was uneven and the brush on the side was dense.  There was broken glass in a few places… but in my haze it seemed like some sort of pixie dust.  My mind started to drift to the “What if” questions – melting out the Enrique in the background.  But I’d done that on leg 3, so I pushed the thoughts of disappearance or creatures in the trees to the side… and started thinking about me – I was proving something to myself.  Maybe that I was an athlete, maybe a runner, maybe that I was stronger than I thought… maybe that it was okay to be alone and depend on me… maybe that I didn't need someone else to feed my happy... maybe that I'd try anything once or that I could gut anything out if I had to, my mantra became, “You will not walk, you will not let yourself down, you can do this, you are awesome, come on Sarah, you will not walk, you are strong”… therapeutic in a way, under the stars, iPod low enough that I could still hear the silence through the candy pop.  1, 2 … 1, 2… just a few more steps… then just a few more… up the hill…. Then the fork – was I supposed to turn? Damn Ragnar and the unmarked trails, it all seemed harder to figure out in the dark, on country roads, hazy as hell from lack of sleep… as a van whizzed by, I put my thumb up in the air… and pointed in the direction I was headed.  The driver thumbs upped me back.  Then again, silence.  No one… 1, 2 … 1, 2… each step seemed to be smaller than the one before, and I was starting to breath hard and sweat in buckets.... the fronts of my legs ached... still no other runners in sight.... where was everyone? Out of the blackness loud honking and cheering on my right… the team woke up! But their passing felt like a blur, a race car whizzing by the stands of a race course, and then back to the silence... and my personal therapy session with the road and the stars - soul searching, finding my own reason for Ragnar.  Fatigue set in and while the incline was slow, it was steady.  Different than the exhaustion felt from hockey games or speed training… though I hadn't studied my legs, Ragmag said “easy”… come on Sarah, it’s “easy!”… I could see orange at the crest of the hill, and part of me imagined that I was the first runner to get this far and they were just now setting up the cones… but it couldn’t be.  If I could just get there…. I’d make it.  Still no other runners… I was alone.  As I neared the orange, a woman with a flag came up to me… I pulled off the headphones, thinking somehow I’d disqualified the team… but NO! It was my VAN! It was like a mirage in the desert… A ground swell of joy put an extra spring in my step… Betsy ran with me a few strides while I took a swig of water… renewed life force… like eating a magic mushroom on Super Mario brothers, I could hear the growing music in my head.  They were there with me in the night! They hadn’t let me down or forgotten about me! They were headed to wait for me at the switch, in the dark… minutes later I passed the one mile to go mark… then on up the next hill… sucking in the darkness and silence of the morning… This was Ragnar and I was running.  Spanish rap flooded the background of my brain… finally seeing lights, flares…. I increased my pace… deep breaths, relaxed shoulders, my feet doing their job without much mind control… almost there.  Finally, I did it! As I hit the switch, Patrick wasn’t ready… I turned and jogged backwards for a moment fearful that if I stopped running I wouldn’t start again... we passed the bracelet with a quick slap and the butt blinker, so he could blink on through the morning shadows... He took off… I somewhat collapsed... legs like jello, probably orange jello, but knelt down to smile near marker 25 before the rush of changing in the pine trees and getting back in the van.  A slew of runners fell through the slot behind me, I’d set the pace this Saturday morning, I’d kept both them and myself moving.  Dawn hadn’t yet broke… but something inside me started to glow. For the first time in my life, I think I felt a runner's high.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ragnar Relay Redux - Part II

Got the Runs posing at the finish.
When the gun went off, the magnitude of what we were setting out to do hadn’t quite set in yet.  And truth be told, I’m still not sure it has.  We did the pictures, got through the safety check, and lined up along the start corral with cameras poised.  The announcer called “Go!” and my friend Sarah was off, scooting passed us, to begin the long 200 mi trek back to D.C.  As she disappeared around the bend, we looked at one another and said, “So, buffet?”  And with that, myself and the four other members of Van 2 went back to the hotel for omelets and oatmeal.
Somewhere in the middle of that sweltering Friday afternoon, it seemed to come upon each one of us all at once.  While we were driving, or eating, or laughing, or not sleeping, someone from our team covered ground.  
But before then, it was all about getting each other from point A to point B.  Not the finish line mind you, just the next checkpoint.  We prepped each other as the mercury rose reaching then surpassing record highs.  This on the heels of it being perfect fall weather all week and a near perfect Sunday as well.  No, we had to shuffle through the sweltering heat that rippled above the highway and dirt trails that snaked their way in, around, and according to my straining quads, UP!
In fact, on each of those first legs, we returned to the van a little delirious, a little cranky, and a little closer to embodying our team name.  But heart rates returned to normal, a lot of peanut butter was consumed, and though the salami sandwich hit the spot, it wasn't until another bag was torn open that I truly felt life return.

You see, I stared blankly ahead for sometime while the van drove on.  I drew my gatorade robotically to my mouth and sipped, hoping to regain all of those lost fluids.  Willing myself to recover, knowing that this wasn't the end...not by a long shot.  Then, someone pulled out the beef jerky.  The envelope was passed around.  When it came to me, I reached in, took a handful and started gnawing.  It could have been the salt, it could have been the teriyaki flavor, hell, it could have been the fact that it was dry meat, but I tell you this, that beef jerky was as good as sex right then.

My eyes widened and I moaned deliciously.  This of course brought on odd stares and laughter, but the speed limit on the road to recovery just got a little faster.

And so we carried on.  Other highlights from the trip included getting word that my friend Ski whom I play hockey with made it through his 6.9 mile leg, the farthest he'd ever run at one time, and hearing the utter jubilation that poured from him talking about it.

Having two members from Van 1 join us for the last two legs stirred up the dynamic in our van, though I'm not so sure it cut down on the crudeness, but then again when your team is called Got the Runs, I suppose it's to be expected.

The smell of manure growing stronger on my midnight run.  I knew the checkpoint was at a creamery and figured cheese equals cows equals manure; therefore, the end must be near.

Ebo, at the end of his 9.8 miler, going into an all out sprint so epic, he completely missed Rachel waiting for him in the chute.

Eliding over the the Rock Creek trail and having one runner shout, "Dammit, man, this is the third time you've passed me!"  And not long after, seeing the woman with the walky talky in her hand.
I pointed to her and called: "Are you standing there to radio me in?"
"Sure, am, sweetheart.  What's your number?"
"159!  Hell yeah!"
"Go, go, go!  You're almost there!"

The bittersweet feeling that in fact we were going to finish this race as the roads became familiar.  I likened it to a vacation where at the beginning, it seems like you have all the time in the world, then in a snap of your fingers, you're suddenly back on the plane heading home.

Prior to the last leg, as I mentioned yesterday in Part I, we spent, I want to say a night, but really it was more like an hour, sleeping on the soccer field of a middle school.  I remember unrolling my sleeping bag, sliding in, and falling instantly into a deep slumber.  But, I awoke to the tink tink sound of a spike being nailed into the ground.  I peered out and saw 11-year-olds clad in bright orange soccer uniforms gathered around the tinking sound.  

"Why are all these homeless people on our soccer field, coach?"  I heard, then laughed.  
"These aren't homeless people," he said.  "They're running a race and, well, never mind.  They'll be off the field before it's game time."

Homeless people we were not.  But we very well may have smelled like homeless people.

So many other memories will keep coming back.  mnchick34 posted on my blog last week about how the high of running Ragnar stays with her for weeks following the race.  I look forward to these memories surfacing on my runs, in pictures, and even when something pops up and conjures up a moment.

But of course, my last memory that I'll share is the one of seeing my wife wringing sweat, making her way across the Wilson Bridge, baking in the Saturday sun, no shade to protect her, the last two miles of our odyssey to cover.  I was so proud to watch her trudge on and not stop.  

We waited for her 100m from the finish and saw her white hat bobbing along the boardwalk. That's when we unleashed the screaming.  She reached us with a big sweaty grin and we fell in step and charged up the final hill to cross the finish, 11 runners, 203 mi, 32:42 behind us, and a life-changing experience.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ragnar Relay Redux - Part I

Team Got the Runs before the adventure began.
The alarm went off and I woke with a start.  Had I actually slept?  Where was I? I started crawling out of my sleeping bag and noticed that I now shared this patch of grass with 20 strangers who weren't there before, so I must have fallen asleep.  But for how long?  I got my bearings and heard my wife talking on her phone.

"Now?" with urgency in her voice.  "How long is her leg?  Shit! Ok, we'll get ready."  She gestured to me to get up and get moving.  
"What is it?"
"Betsy just started her last leg.  She'll be here in about 40 minutes."
"What?!  We just went to bed."
"Well, she's coming."

I pulled myself up, rolled up the sleeping bag, and hustled over to the car, thankful already that I'd prepped all my running gear before heading to bed for what couldn't have been more than 20 minutes of actual sleep time.

I pulled off my mesh shorts and t-shirt, stripping down to my running gear, slipped into my reflective vest and secured my headlamp.  Rachel clipped a butt blinky to my back, we were like the airborne doing one last safety check before jumping head on into the inky night.

More of my team arrived bleary eyed and groggy.  I pulled out the peanut butter and wolfed down half a sandwich with some electrolytes.  Butterflies batted around in my stomach.  This was either going to be a 6.8 mi run or a half marathon, depending on whether or not we could get someone from van 1 to take the vacant leg.  Rachel dialed up van 1 again and appeared to have a solution.  I swished some nuun in my mouth to get the stale taste of sleep out as well as get one more swig of fluid.  

"Ok," she said, "Sarah's going to take the short leg if Ebo takes the longer leg.  Ebo?"
"Sure, I'll take it."

And like that, the butterflies vanished.  

"Let's head up to the exchange point."

We trotted up to the chute and waited for the volunteer to call out "159!" through her bullhorn.  Van 1 showed up and we shared a minute of stories from the last leg.  "Scary as hell!" said one.  Just what I wanted to hear.  I shook my legs out nervously.  I repeated the street names over and over in my head in case the course hadn't been marked.  Headlamps flickered like LED fireflies across the church parking lot.  Reflective vests caught the stray lights and lit up like strange cyborgs rolling through the night.

"159 coming in!" the girl cried.  A shot of adrenaline dropped down and spread through my body.  The cheer went up from my teammates.  The stream of light bobbed up and down coming toward us.  "Let's go, Betsy!  Bring it home!" We yelled.  

She peeled the slap bracelet from her wrist and snapped it on to mine.  More shouts.  And I was off.  The cheering rapidly disappearing behind me as I found my stride.  The PB burning slow.  I found a rhythm and shot through the black black night and disappeared into corn fields illuminated by a full moon.  Just the rhythmic pounding of my asics and the steady exhale of my breath as I covered ground in a hurry to the next exchange.

That's how the second leg for Van 2 of Team Got the Runs started.  When I let out, it was just past 11:00 p.m.  Our team started from Cumberland, MD at 7:30 that morning and had been ticking off the miles back to D.C. ever since.  Those blissful 20 minutes of sleep were the last I'd get for another 7.5 hours.  Until then, we prepped water bottles and recovery food for the runner already out and the one getting ready to take over.  Then a mad dash to the next exchange point, stopping for a moment to cheer our runner on and check up on their fluids and food.  

The hours of that night rolled by and I marveled at how awake and energized I felt.  Even reaching the final exchange, while my vanmates slept, I hopped up and walked around, chatting with other runners, and eventually finding van 1 and listening with jealousy at how they'd gotten to catch some z's for a few hours.

The crash didn't come until 6:30 a.m.  Rachel and our friend Paul tried in vain to follow directions to the next major exchange only to get turned around several times.  Our short term memories had become sieves.  "Turn right on Barnesville," Rachel would say.
"Got it."  A beat.  "I'm going left on what?"
"Um, it's a right...and it's on Barnesville."

And so on. 

Once we pulled in to the middle school, I turned the car off, reached back for my sleeping bag and headed out to find a nice patch of grass to close my eyes once again.

Check out Part II to see what was in store for Team Got the Runs upon waking up as well as other highlights from the race including the necessity to always have a steady supply of beef jerky on you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

12 People, 2 Vans, 24 Hours, 203mi to Cover

It started in the way of all good and unexpected things: on a whim.  In this case, it was an e-mail, or maybe it was a simple Facebook post.  You'd expect it to be one of those stories about a bunch of people several drinks deep, where the creativity is buzzing and the atmosphere is ripe for far-flung ideas.  But it wasn't anything that debaucherous or regrettable (yet).  Either way, it popped up and we seized it.

203 mi suddenly stands between my team of 12.  203 mi from start to finish.  203 mi from the mountains of Cumberland, MD to the lights of Washington, D.C.'s National Harbor.  This time tomorrow night, I'll be piled into a Suburban pointed toward Cumberland, MD and counting down the hours until the gun goes off for the Washington, D.C. Ragnar Relay.  

Somehow, my friend Sarah and I wrangled 10 others to join us on this overnight odyssey.  Our crew, a.k.a. team Got the Runs, is comprised of friends, co-workers, and two brave souls we picked up on Craig's List (who aren't creepy as far as we can tell).  We come from various running backgrounds, from past-marathoners, marathoners-in-training, serious runners, casual runners, floor hockey players up for a new adventure, and so on.  We're all relatively close in our own various degrees of friendship...but sure to be even closer by the end.  I mean, if you're single, it's like having three dates -- three progressively smellier and sweatier dates.

Here's how it works.  We have two Suburbans; six people per car; each runner runs three times over the course of 203 mi until we reach National Harbor; the distances vary, so one runner may run 15.6 total miles while another runs 22.5; we leapfrog each other until it's over...that means running through the night, sleeping at some point, and eating whatever we can get our hands on...a potluck on wheels if you will.

This I feel begs the hygiene/comfort question.  As runners, I believe us to be a relatively open group where cordiality is left at the trailhead and is rapidly replaced by snot rockets, farting, and spitting.  Call it a special form of social lubrication.  As I said, we all know each other relatively well, but I see this rapidly devolving into a sweaty, pungent mess...particularly when food becomes fuel (lots of PB, coldcuts, granola, and beef jerky).  All we're missing is the campfire.  I pity the folks at Avis who will greet us Saturday morning.

When I've told people about where I'll be this weekend, what I'm doing, it's met with a quizzical look, a narrowing of the eyes, as if to say, "Whaaaa?  Why would you do that?"  And the, oh so clever, "I wouldn't even drive that far, heh heh," wink wink, nudge nudge.  

And so in the immortal words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, "We are about to embark upon the great adventure toward which we have striven for many months..."

I invite you to come along with us for the ride.  I'll be tweeting along the road and you can follow me at  

Track our progress, leave us comments, check out photos, videos, and see if indeed we live up to our team name.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Change of Pace - When Running and Hiking Collide

It wasn’t a marathon in the traditional sense. There were no water stops, no fans cheering…there wasn’t even a t-shirt. In fact, it wasn’t even 26.2 miles. But it sure felt like it. A little over a week ago, my friend and I found ourselves staring down (or rather up) at a 2.5mi climb to the top of Yosemite Park’s Half Dome. The only problem was that we’d already covered 4.5mi up winding stone staircases and relentless sets of switchbacks.

One of my mantras while running on particularly difficult, rolling trails is, “It gives back what it takes away.” In other words, the work you put in to climbing is gifted back with a merciful declivity or plateau. In this instance, it was the stunning views of Vernal and Nevada Falls that kept us trekking, not to mention the sheer awesomeness of the cliffs and mountains that swallowed us up.

At this now infamous 2.5mi juncture, we took pause to catch our breath, swallow some electrolytes, and take a quick photo in front of the “Dangerous” sign, warning hikers of the cables they’d have to endure for the last 400ft up Half Dome (more on that later). The sign may as well have read “Mile 20.”

The day – the trip – had started to wear on us physically. We’d set out from L.A. five days before, driven up the coast to San Francisco, went careening down the Muir Woods trails, seared our lungs ascending the Dipsea Trail, spent a day wine tasting in Napa, hiked up and down the trails surrounding Crater Lake, Oregon, and narrowly avoided freezing rain at Lake Tahoe.

Half Dome in the background

Though we’d enjoyed all of those stops, Half Dome had become the focal point of the trip – the one trail we’d prepared for for weeks. The trail guides estimated a 10-12 hour hike to cover the 14.2mi out and back, so it left little time for delay.

We pulled out of Tahoe at 6:30 a.m., bleary eyed and wrapped in various fleece articles to stay warm. Finally, nearly five hours later, we trotted up to the Half Dome trailhead in hiking shorts and t-shirts. It was 11:15. Our backpacks were filled to the brim with food, cold-weather gear, and headlamps…just in case.

The pace started brisk. We overtook tourists of larger carriage at a great clip, bounding up hills that seemed to never end as they disappeared around corners. Everyone’s destination appeared to be Vernal Falls, a mile deep into the trail. Hordes gathered at the footbridge at the base of the falls, while others bravely (and slowly) tottered to the top of the falls. I was amazed at the diversity in gear. Everyone ranged from serious hiker to khakis and polos (for lunch at the club after a morning walk) to *gasp* flip flops. Flip flops!

We carried on.

And on.

And on.

And when we got to the top of one particularly punishing set of switchback stairs, we looked up at Half Dome. Exchanged smiles as if to say, “Look how bad ass we are. 10 hours? Ha!” Except as we got to the map, in one horrific moment, we realized it wasn’t Half Dome at all. In fact, we were .2 miles outside of half way. It was a good place to stop for lunch.

We walked on in silence until reaching the aforementioned 2.5mi sign. After pausing for the photo, we both inhaled deeply and set out. Uphill. Always climbing. Never resting. My quads were tight. My hamstrings quivered. And the trail just continued on. That creeping despair crept in that comes in the last 10K of a marathon, where you’re not sure if you’ll see the finish line, yet you’ve come so far. You go to the well and urge yourself on. I called back each of those experiences with each grueling, sweat flinging step.

Finally, we hit the tree line. And began walking out along the ridge. And came to one more set of stones to climb.

About those cables. Roughly 100 yards from the top of the staircase, we reached what looks like a wall. They’ve bolted cables into this wall. There are gloves at the base of the cables for people to use to haul themselves up. And so that’s what we did.

It was awkward at first but finally we got a rhythm down and pulled ourselves up the side of this mountain, hand over hand. I made the mistake of turning to look down at one point and felt the odd sensation of my stomach flipping completely over. “Going back down this is going to be a treat,” I called up.

“Just trying to get up first,” my friend called back.

And so we did.

The trail paid us back in full, because of the view of Yosemite Valley. It made the despair we dragged ourselves through not 30 minutes before vanish. Instead, we walked from edge to edge taking in the 360 degree view of the Valley.

We returned to the base of the trail in about two-and-a-half hours. The whole thing took us seven. Satisfied and grateful to be alive, we devoured steak kabobs and black beans over the campfire. And that trip to Napa? The Stags Leap Winery Chardonnay didn’t stand a chance.

The next day we walked gingerly through the park, driving to various destinations, stepping out, taking in the view, snapping more pictures. There was no race medal at the finish, but the experience was all we needed.
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