Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Last Mile Post (or The Accidental 7-Miler) - Part II

“Oh, come on!” Joe yelled, dismounting.

The stream rushed over the giant boulders that did their best impression of a footbridge. It would have been a formidable challenge to get a bike over them even without the surging water. Having learned our lesson from the first crossing, Joe and I kicked off our shoes and began stepping gingerly onto each of the boulders. Our tactic from the first crossing wouldn’t work because the gaps between the boulders were too large.

We decided we could try passing the bike to one another until we were across. I stepped onto the first boulder and felt that familiar tug at my ankles. I steadied myself while Joe handed me the bike. He started to step onto my boulder when I stopped him.

“I think I got this,” I said.

I took the bike, thought about how glad I was to have been doing curls at the gym, and felt for the beginning and edge of each rock with my toes. With every step, the bike got a little heavier and the tires a little closer to the water. I knew that if the current grabbed the tire, we’d both be going for a swim. With each cleared boulder, I gained a little more confidence, until finally I was out of the water and back on dry land. I tossed a thumbs up to Joe then turned to see a couple watching me.

“You carried that thing all the way across?” the woman asked. “You guys must really want to ride.”
“You can go ahead,” I offered.
“Ah, no. This is where our hike ends. You two are crazy.” she said, before turning and heading back up the trail. “Or bad ass,” I thought.

“I hope that’s the last one,” Joe said as we pulled our wet shoes and socks back on and rode off.

With the sun high overhead and the temperature reminding us that it was indeed still August in Virginia, the trail suddenly emptied into a parking lot. A sign greeted us: “Fairfax CCT – Section 10 of 10,” and a final mile marker with a “0” on it.

“Ha! I guess this is it,” I said. We exchanged smiles and a quick fist bump, then tried to figure out what to do next.

Joe pulled out his phone and we found a trail leading into Great Falls Park. We decided to add a few more miles to our journey to see if we could get down to survey the Potomac.

We turned onto the new trail and began a series of climbs and descents. Joe rode a few feet ahead of me and I listened to the rustling of the leaves as a mercifully cool breeze flowed over me. My stomach felt empty and my body warm. It was the satisfying feeling of physical exhaustion that comes over me on long hikes and at the end of long runs. But just as easily as it came on, it vanished.

A quick good bye.
A cacophony of scraping metal. I turned the pedals over and the sound was jarring. I hit the brakes and looked down at the giant branch that had lodged in my derailer. I pulled it out and chucked it into the woods. Only when I tried to pedal again, my feet stuttered and the metal continued to grind. Joe stopped ahead. I got off my bike and looked down at the mangled mess of chain, spoke, and metal.

We tried to bend the derailer back but the chain wouldn’t fall onto the gears. I looked at my Garmin and the rationalization began. “What are you thinking?” Joe asked. “Should I go get the car?”

“I’m thinking that we’re seven miles from the car. The bike was $80 and I didn’t even buy it. I feel like the part and the installation is going to cost more than the bike. Clearly, I can’t ride this bike back to the car.”
“You want to ditch the bike?”

A beat.

“I want to ditch the bike.”

One less bike to carry back.

So, we glided down the hill to the start of the trail and snapped a couple pictures. I pulled my shirt off, cinched up my hydration backpack, and, with 18 miles already on my legs from the day before, started the seven mile run back to the car.

On the way back, I felt the full heat of that summer day. I prayed that no blisters would befoul my feet and that it wouldn’t turn into a gold bond kind of night (I had on cotton socks and mesh shorts, which raised the chafing alert to orange).

Joe carries the only bike back.
I ran the trail much the same way we rode it. I tore down the down hills and picked my way up the uphills, slowing to a jog to throw back some water.

When we finally reached the cars, the afternoon sun had begun to soften the light. We toweled off, scraped the mud from our shoes, and feasted on Powerbar products. Joe racked his bike and I simply tied my shoes together and flung them in the backseat.

We’d been to the end of the trail against all odds and taking only one casualty. With the windows down and the hot air blowing on our sweaty faces, we talked about one thing: when was I going to get another bike so we could ride again.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Last Mile Post - Part I

The trail turned to the left. My eyes followed the branch-strewn path to the hill’s crest and the reprieve I thought awaited us vanished. There was still more climbing to do. The chain on my bike made an awful jarring sound as I tried to switch to a lower gear. I rose up out of my saddle and willed my burning quads to turn over. The tires bumped over rocks and roots and split the fallen branches. With an 18 mile run just over 24 hours ago in my rearview, I thought, “This was supposed to be a recovery day.”

We crested the hill and sat back, letting gravity pull us down the declivity and stretching our legs out over the pedals. A breeze cooled the sweat running down my face and I felt euphoria wash over me in one delicious, satisfying moment of exhaustion.

Then something sounded horribly wrong.

* * *

For the last few weeks, my friend Joe and I have made steady progress toward reaching the end of the Fairfax Cross County Trail (CCT). The CCT twists, climbs, and descends through 18 miles of trail carved into the Fairfax County Woods.

Looking muddy and bad ass after our
first adventure.
Our last adventure, just one week ago, found us mud splattered and verifiably “bad-assed” when we returned to his truck. That 14 mile trip took us through stream and thunderstorm. We spent the ride home and the subsequent days throughout the week talking about “next Sunday’s ride” and where we’d set out from and how we’d finally see “mile post 0.”

Then there was an earthquake. Then there was a hurricane. Still…

With our wives at work, and Tropical Storm Irene’s bands lashing at the D.C. area Saturday afternoon, Joe and I tuned up my bike in his basement in anticipation of the muddy jaunt the next day. We ventured out to Target for supplies and spent the remainder of the day drinking beer (combining carb-loading and hydration) and watching “Band of Brothers.”

I went to bed that night with a heavy head, heavy eyes, and Irene rapping at the windows.

I awoke Sunday morning to a cloudless, wind-washed sky. A cool, heavy breeze blew through the trees and from the window, you’d swear it was fall outside. In my beer-fogged brain, one thought became clear: We were going riding.

Each ride has delivered a dose of nostalgia, back to my youth, back to times when we’d spend our Saturdays as explorers around the neighborhood, splashing through creeks, jumping over logs, venturing into uncharted territory before returning home with muddied shoes, fresh cuts and the occasional crop of poison ivy.

I find, however, that the reckless abandon with which I used to attack trails, hills, creeks, has been replaced by a much more cautious, “Holy shit, if I fall, it’s going to hurt and I’m probably not going to be running New York.”

So, Joe and I set off to find the last mile post of the CCT.

We started from the back of an ice skating rink parking lot in Reston and pedaled away from the world. It had all the markings of boyhood adventure, reminiscent of “Stand by Me” ... minus the dead body at the end of the trail but including things crawling up our clothes.

We imagined a muddy, soupy mess of a trail given the amount of rain that fell the day before. What we saw instead was a few puddles and stray fallen branches, which we happily crunched with our tires. However, neither of us had accounted for the speed of the stream.

The First Crossing
We reached the first crossing and watched the swollen creek surge through the stone pylons. We put our bikes down and began searching for a way around. Joe unlaced his shoes and headed into the current, made a face, and turned to me, “It’s pretty strong,” he said.

I trekked down the trail some and looked for a smoother place to cross, but the speed was replaced only by depth.

“Looks like there’s a dam down there that we could walk across,” he said, pointing downstream.

So, barefoot, Joe trudged through the high grass and disappeared around the bend. He shook his head as he made his way back across, then jumped. “What?!” I called.

“Definitely just saw a snake.”
“A snake?”
“I don’t feel good about this.” His pace quickened with the thorns and prickers raking at his legs and bare feet.

When he made it back to me, we stood, hands on hips. Suddenly our weekend adventure had turned into a team-building, problem solving situation. It was a corporate nightmare.

“If we were in Oregon Trail,” I said, “We could pay the Indian to get us across.” Joe snickered then started jumping up and down and swatting at his shorts. A praying mantis fell out and scurried off, as fast as a praying mantis can.

“Jesus!” he said. “It’s wild kingdom out here.” Joe gathered himself and I decided I’d see how strong the current was. I waded in and felt the tug at my ankles.

“What if we each grabbed an end and shuffled one bike across at a time?” he said.
Joe gets ready to check out
the Second Crossing
“Let’s try it,” I said.

So, we heft my bike up and took tiny shuffles across the stream until we got to the other side. Then, we shuffled back, and with much more confidence, did the same with Joe’s bike. With soggy feet and wet socks, we were riding again.

The trail turned to single track and matched what our original expectations had been. We bounced over roots, over rocks, through waterlogged banks, spraying mud onto our backs, up our legs and into our mouths. It was glorious.

That is until we hit the second crossing.

Check back tomorrow for Part II to see if we made it through the second crossing and to the end of the trail.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

NYC Marathon Motivation

I was seven miles into an 11 mile fartlek run this week.  Work had taken its toll.  The sun beat down and my water bottle was close to empty...then this popped into my head...and carried me to the finish.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

Thursday, August 11, 2011

ZAP Fitness Camp Redux - Part II

(Part I starts here.)

The van swung around the curves leading out of the mountains. It was early, it was warm, it was long run time. The ZAP staff drove us out 90 minutes to the Virginia Creeper Trail where we could elect to go anywhere from eight to 17 miles. The humidity had already begun to build and reminded me that, indeed, I was back in Virginia.

All weekend we’d been told how flat the Creeper was. Pancake flat. But as we were about to set out, the staff mentioned that it’s about a half percent to one percent grade hill out, but of course you get to come back down. Oi.

I set out with a group of four (Anne Marie Letko, Matt the author, and my roommate Joe). I knew running with Anne Marie could become dangerous quickly, particularly having her paired with a renowned fitness author. We set out at an easy eight minute mile pace that began to descend with every mile marker crossed. Joe and I were content to draft and take in the scenery.

The Creeper trail is like something out of "Stand by Me": high trestle bridges span a deep, fast river that carves through the thick woods. I snapped picture after picture in my head. Despite the incline on the way out, the crushed gravel and dirt made for an easy ride.

For a quarter mile, the woods opened up into a roller coaster of a hill.  Gnarled black trees were the only evidence left of a tornado that had recently blown through the area.  The sun beat down upon us all at once. Anne Marie ducked off into the high corn somewhere after mile three so Joe and I continued on our own.

“What pace do you have?” he asked, while we returned to the relatively cooler shade.
“What?! That’s faster than my marathon pace.”

But Joe was a trooper and we fed off one another to the point where he said, “Let’s make it 7.5 out to get an even 15.” So we did.

Joe emerging from a post-run dip.
And dammit if the work on the way out didn’t pay off on the way back. Joe and I stayed together for 2.5 of the 7.5 miles back to the car. “Go!” he said. And I took off. I felt my stride open up easily and I breezed through the miles at 6:30 pace, feeling euphoric, feeling like I could stay at running camp forever.

I waited for Joe at the finish and we walked gingerly together down to the river and joined some fellow campers for a quick dip in the cool, quick water. Every run should end this way, I thought.

When we arrived back at camp, the group dispersed. Some to their personal sessions, others to massages, some to nap, some to read. I hung out on the porch and chatted.

People were training for their first marathon...or 14th. Some strove for BQs, others geared up for their first Boston. Some weren’t even there to run a marathon.  We talked of races past whether we were commiserating over shared experiences or gleaning advice on how to tackle certain courses. To others, I had to assure that the chest hair didn't slow me down.  What I loved was that we’d all come from different corners of the country for different reasons, but we could relate to one another’s goals because we were all runners.

Prior to dinner that night, we had the awkward pleasure of watching each other’s videos and having our strides critiqued. I found out the source of my IT band troubles stems from a weak right glute. Fortunately, we went straight from video to the weight room to learn how to strengthen the all mighty core.

Mini Marathon campers
Sunday morning arrived entirely too fast and with it, the notion of returning to reality began to seep in. We did one final run that morning, an easy, watchless 3.2 mile loop where we had to predict our time. The path wound through Christmas tree farms and passed through covered bridges, one last mental photo for the album.

Then it was final pictures and good byes, the “stay in touches” and “good lucks.” And as quickly as I’d pulled in, I found myself packed up and pointed back toward D.C.

When asked if I got what I wanted out of camp, I can say with assurance: absolutely. After eight weeks of mile after mile after mile on the same routes to get to 400, I returned to D.C. rejuvenated and excited about starting up my NYC training.  Perhaps I’ll even be back next year.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

ZAP Fitness Camp Redux - Part I

“Do you need some help?” a woman’s voice called out. I turned and walked down the flight of stairs (the wrong flight of stairs), toward her. A short woman in her early-20s with a tangle of brown hair pulled back and an orange fleece on walked over.

Far away from D.C.
“I have no idea where I’m going,” I confessed. She laughed and motioned for me to follow her. “I’m Brad,” I offered.

“I’m Alissa McCaig,” she said. For those who don’t know, Alissa is representing the U.S. in the women’s marathon World Championship in Daegu, South Korea in two weeks.

Welcome to ZAP Fitness camp.

Thirty minutes into my six hour drive to the Blue Ridge Mountains, I felt the stress of living in the D.C.-area melt away. The thought of escaping for four days to live in a small dorm in the middle of the North Carolina woods with little more to do than think about my next run, eat, and soak up all the marathoning knowledge I could seemed…well…amazing.

When Alissa got me where I needed to be, I checked in, found my room, and headed back out to mingle with the other runners who’d already arrived.

The ZAP campus
The ZAP facility has essentially three components: the main house that’s comprised of the kitchen/dining room, weight room, and athlete apartments; a large porch; the camper dorms. The facility looks like a small swath of green carved out of the woods.  But then you get inside and realize there's nothing small about it.  Magazine articles of runners breaking tapes, autographed banners, and medals adorn the walls.  Then you turn and see those same runners no more than five feet from you.

One of the best parts about being at a camp for runners is that there’s no danger of getting that glazed over look that your friends, acquaintances, and co-workers sometimes give you. You know the one where you start talking about races, splits, long runs. At a running camp, it’s what people go to first. What races are you running this fall? How many marathons have you run? Where do you train? What kinds of speed workouts do you do? How’d you get into running? In other words, the ice is already broken.

Moses Cone Park
After brief welcomes from the coaching staff, we boarded a couple of vans and drove out to Moses Cone park for a "shakeout/get-to-know-your-fellow-campers" run. The athletes use Moses Cone for interval work as a 1500m cinder path rings the lake.

Twenty-one of us trotted off together at our own paces tossing questions and answers back and forth through the pack. We were runners from as far west as San Diego, as north as Michigan, as far south as Florida, and as close as the town over. Everyone seemed to breathe a little heavier as we wound up and through the woods and let the 5,000 ft altitude take its toll.

When we returned, dinner awaited and not just camp food…we wait like royalty. From fish with quinoa salad to chicken curry, and spaghetti in homemade bolognaise sauce, there was always plenty to go around and most decidedly there were always seconds.

The first night concluded with a talk from ZAP’s head coach Pete Rea on marathon training followed by a bonfire out on the lawn.  This was just one in a weekend filled with sessions including nutrition, stretching, and mental preparation for the marathon.

The Manor shrouded in fog
Day two brought a return to Moses Cone park and an even more intimidating climb to the manor house. Our group strung out and I found myself running with sports author Matt Fitzgerald who was both attending camp and doing research on a book about ZAP and its athletes. Matt and I passed seven miles together fairly easily as he got me to open up about my former life as a hockey player and ultimately transition to runner.  What we discovered is I took my own shot similar to the ZAP athletes except mine came prior to college rather than after it.

That afternoon, we had the opportunity to sign up for personal coaching sessions and massages. I fired off an e-mail to my wife to the tune of: “I’m in heaven. Personal coaching session with ZAP coach coming up followed by half hour massage from a two-time Olympian.” Did I forget to mention that? Since retiring from running, apparently two-time Olympian Anne Marie Letko is now a full-time masseuse. I hoped she might rub some of that success into my legs.

Check out Part II to find out what happened the last two days of camp, including a brisk end to a 15 mile run, a sasquatch sighting, and the harsh reality of returning to the real world.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Off to Summer Camp with ZAP Fitness

Staring down the ripe age of 30 a few months ago, Mrs. Onthebusrunning came to me and asked what I wanted to celebrate my three decades on this earth.  I gave it some considerable thought.  We desperately need a new TV.  I can always use more running gear.  A trip?  Perhaps.  Nothing really spoke to me.

Then I started flipping through an old training log of my dad's.  He printed each entry in his meticulous handwriting (the product of growing up under the cruel tutelage of Catholic school nuns) and cited miles he logged prior to and through his senior year in high school.  The first week in the log covered his time spent at a running camp in the woods of Wisconsin.  This triggered memories of several conversations he and I had about this camp on long car rides.

Going out to the woods, running trails for a week, bonding with your fellow campers.  It sounded ideal.  It sounded like the memorable experience I sought for my birthday. It sounded like a job for Google.

For all intents and purposes, society now considers me an adult.  With that in mind, here's tip number one when searching for a running camp: make sure you add the word "adult" into your criteria, otherwise you'll be the creepy old dude running with the high schoolers if they even let you in at all.

Once I modified my search, I came across ZAP Fitness.  ZAP is a 68-acre campus that houses several elite runners.  Not only do they offer a multitude of adult running camps during the summer, they have a Marathon Mini Camp on the menu.  
When I found it, I was finally running injury free and trying to ramp up as much as possible for Boston.  In my head, though, I was already putting myself in a NY state of mind.  I thought this camp would be the perfect way to not only usher in my 30s but also kick off my healthy training schedule for my first NYC marathon.

So, I'm coming off the completion of my 400 mile base building challenge and heading to the mountains of Blowing Rock, NC.  

Starting Thursday, I'll be a summer camper, clicking off the miles over woodsy trails and absorbing all the marathoning knowledge ZAP has to offer.

E-mailing with my running partner this week, we were rehashing our 400 mile journey and talking about what's to come.  When camp came up, he noted, "You are truly experiencing the runner's high now, my friend."

Monday, August 1, 2011

The View From Base Camp

400 mile club
I took the left off of Independence Avenue then turned again onto the gravel of the National Mall.  The sun was up now, stretching its rays over the city and mercifully burning off the morning humidity.  Sweat dripped off the brim of my backward turned cap and slid down between my shoulders.

It was here that I could see the end. The mileage count read 397 and each step chipped away at another tenth.  The adrenaline dropped in and with it, the pace fell.  I let the Washington Monument draw me toward it, and beyond it, the Lincoln Memorial...the last stop before crossing the last bridge back into Virginia to click off the last miles to mark 400.

A smile broke across my face as I took a brief moment to stare up at the Monument.  D.C. still manages to awe me even though I've left footprints along this trail for more than 20 years.

Emerging from under the shaded path that lines the reflecting pool, I tossed a quick nod to Abe, no time to talk today, and hoofed it up and over the Roosevelt Bridge.  Georgetown appeared to my right, Alexandria somewhere off to the left where planes traced the twisting contours of the Potomac.

I blew by two startled runners and bounded toward my imaginary finish line, where the tape waited for me to break it.  Then I clicked my watch, put my hands on top of my wet head and looked up to the sun.  Tomorrow, I thought, I can sleep.

Sixty days ago, I had no idea what I'd be getting into.  "Just run miles," my Uncle said.  Sounded sort of easy enough.  Four hundred miles to be exact.  Four hundred miles between June 1 and July 31.  But it became so much more than that.  And I learned a few things along the way:

  • Never judge how a run is going to feel until you're a few miles in.  Quentin Cassidy said two miles.  Somedays, the final seven miles of an 11 miler felt invincible, yet the first four nearly brought me to a halt.
  • Pulling your shirt off in the middle of a run lowers your body temp at least 10 degrees; well, it'll feel like it does, anyway.
  • There is no substitute for Gold Bond powder.
  • Standing under the hose after a hot humid run in nothing more than your short-shorts can steal your breath when the water hits you...and it causes quite a stir amongst the neighbors.
  • I. Love. Sleep.
  • It may be agonizing to get out of bed for a two-a-day but staring down 7.5 miles in the afternoon is somehow more doable than 12.5 all at once.
  • Sometimes 50 miles can feel like a "down" week.
  • Keep plenty of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer.
  • Beer.  Drink it.
  • You can conquer a mountain by hiking to the top and running down it.  You can belittle it by doing it twice.
  • There are days that make you think you never want to run again...that are immediately followed by days that make you feel like you will run forever.
  • You will run into people who have no idea what your name is, but know you only as "Runner guy" or that "Dude who runs all the time" and this is enough for them to strike up a conversation.
  • Lastly, it's near impossible to do a challenge like this without the support of your family and friends...so thanks to all of you who came on this journey with me and offered your kind words, jokes, and empathy.  And a big congrats to those who completed the challenge with me on Daily Mile -- whether it was 400 miles or whatever distance you chose, like my Rockstar friend Louise who swam 40mi!

So, now I've arrived at Base Camp.  Four hundred miles are stretched out before me. Some are sweaty, soggy miles.  Some are in the dark of night others in the haze of morning.  Some are frustrating.  Others are freeing.  Some are alone with my own demons.  Some are with friends.  Some had stacks of pancakes waiting for them at the end.

But there's not much time to enjoy them.  I'll of course add them to my mental lexicon when the going gets tough.  But I have many more to go to reach that craggy, cloud-swathed summit.

There’s a 1.4mi stretch of path along a 9-mile route that is essentially 1.4mi straight with one slight curve. It seems to stretch on forever. You can see the bend but it never seems to get any closer. I have to look behind to see how far I’ve come and I always like to take one last glance before I disappear around that bend to remind myself that indeed I did cover all that ground. It’s one last confidence boost to tackle the last miles.

Consider this the glance over my shoulder.  Ever onward....

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