Friday, July 29, 2011

Mother Nature, What Did I Do?

All signs pointed to a good run. My legs felt limber.  The fatigue from Tuesday's hill workout had vanished.  Two fauns grazed at the trailhead and did little more than eye me with a courteous acknowledgement as if to say, "Isn't being out in nature wonderful?"  
"Eat a sandwich, Sasquatch," the deer said.
Turns out what they were really saying was: "Stay out of the woods...and for God's sake, put a shirt on!"  If anything, I thought that might help me assimilate further.  Anyhow...

I've taken to parking about three miles away from my local track and covering those miles along the Fairfax Cross County trail as a forced warmup/cool down.  That was my plan last night, and the workout would bring me a mere 12 miles away from my 400 mile goal.

Apparently, though, I had done something to upset the balance of nature because she had most assuredly turned her creatures against me this week.

Let's put the record setting high temps and the stifling humidity aside.  This is a Virginia summer after all, and it's to be expected.  Sure, when I set out on a 7.5 mile run on Monday night, the air hung heavy from an afternoon's worth of thunderstorms, and the air was so thick (how thick was it?!), let me tell ya, the air was so thick, I could have used a machete to carve my way through.  And, "Air Quality Alert" means the "Air is ripe for a quality workout," right?

The conflict, though, really began the night before.  I slogged my way through 10 miles.  My body was wringing sweat, my hip flexors tightening, and I ached for sleep.  With just under three miles to go, I pounded way through the woods of the Big Rocky Run trail.  My mouth slightly agape both from exhaustion and to taste that thick summer air.  

Mother nature: Beautiful sunrise in the morning;
Death in the afternoon. 
Then I saw it.  The world nearly came to a stand still.  It descended from the hanging treetops...and landed perfectly between my bottom lip and gums.  The world was no longer in slow motion.

I dug my tongue into the once vacant space as though I were trying to work out a dollop of peanut butter or fig newton, and promptly spit the intruder out.  Then I spit some more.  Then I started feeling the cuts along the inside of my mouth and the tip of my tongue.  Then I started to panic. Then I started running scenarios through my head.  A spider bite? Poisonous venom now coursing through me?  I could drop dead two miles from the house.  I'd be 23 miles short of 400!

It couldn't have been in my mouth more than three seconds, yet the battle we raged was epic.  However, I'm happy to report the damage was no more than what you might sustain after eating a sandwich on toasted sourdough.

Yet, I returned to the woods the following day.  Remember the deer?  I trotted off down the path, enchanted by my surroundings.  The woods crooned with the rhythmic humming of insects, the leaves rustling as squirrels darted over the fallen leaves.  Then, nature bit me.  

Now, I've been bit by mosquitos before, a horsefly once, a bee sting once (during a race actually).  They were all uncomfortable. But this is pain I have not felt before.  

About 400m into the run, a hot, searing pain shot into the small of my back.  I arched as though electricity had just passed through my body.  Whatever it was, "it" was still there.  I plucked it from the hot spot and sent it tumbling into the woods.  

I continued on and with each step, I could feel the spot getting hotter.  Then I felt the welt rise.  Then, again, I thought I might die.  

Thereafter, each spider web I ran through (and there were many) prompted a mid-stride, full-body scan for insects.  I'm sure I looked like I was having a bad trip or was sexing myself up.  Neither could have been farther from the truth.

So, Mother Nature, I ask you, what have I done? And perhaps more importantly, what can I do to get back in your good graces?

Monday, July 25, 2011

The End is Near

I can see the camp. It hit me this morning on my “easy” five miler. My shoes squished with each footfall over the last mile. The sun began to peek through the tree line and I wasn’t sure whether it would burn off the drape of humidity or steam the air even more. Whatever the case, I dropped the pace because I didn’t want to stick around and find out.

It was in that last burst somewhere in the middle of the steep rise that gives Ox Hill Street its name that it struck me: this is week eight, only 52 miles to go, and in 6m45s, it’ll be 51 until the tally reads 400.

Oh, how I longed for this week to come! After four weeks, I was bumping into walls. I couldn’t get enough sleep no matter how hard I tried, and the grocery bill seemed to double. “Four more weeks of this?” I questioned.

But then it started happening. The fatigue left (my legs at least). It seemed no matter how many miles, no matter how many times a day I ran, I couldn’t get sore. All those articles, all the experts’ words…it was working.

Make no mistake, though. The base phase is not glamorous; in fact, it’s pretty downright ugly. It’s the foundation of the house, the part that gets buried beneath the ground. It’s the hilt and “blade” of the sword, though that blade is just a crude hunk of metal, dull, blunt, and unrefined.

That’s where I find myself now, just six days and 43.4 miles (after tonight’s 7.6 miler) away from having built my foundation, having forged my sword.

I called this challenge "base camp" for the play on words as well as the metaphor for what a base camp is: it’s the launching point for the summit attempt. In this case, a marathon finish time that starts with a 2 on a clock in Central Park.

What I didn’t realize was that getting to base camp can be a haul in and of itself.

Just as the base phase is unglamorous in the middle, so too is it when it comes to an end. There’s no start line to toe. No finish tape to break. All that waits is more toil. 
When you arrive, the real work begins.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sharing the Path

The sunlight began to seep over Henry Hill. The cannons, long since dormant, stood watch across the ridge. Rohan and I pulled off our warmups and stripped down to our “summer running weather” attire: split shorts. A few other runners eyed us while we went through our routine. A pack of hikers tightened water bottle tops and extended their hiking polls. I snickered to myself.

“What’s the plan?” Rohan asked, while we stretched on the back of his car.
“Two loops and change to give us about 11 miles.”

He nodded, swinging his leg back and forth.

“Just remember: what the trail takes away, it eventually gives back.”

His head tilted toward me with a curious smile.

I’ve been running Manassas Battlefield for close to four years and it continues to be number one on my running trail list, not only for the scenery and the history, but also for the challenge.

It is indeed a trail for all seasons, both beautiful and brutal. From the yellow leaves that set the hillside on fire in the autumn, and the eerily resplendent snap of the air in the winter, to the muddy springs that leave splatters of mud up the side of your legs and back, and the balmy summers when the trail comes alive and sings to you.

No matter the carnage, I always return to the car with that sweet feeling of empty exhaustion that lets me know I’m stronger for having made (and completed) the effort.

So it was with particular relish that I got to share this path with Rohan for the first time. We clicked our watches and started down the path of the First Manassas Trail. The air still retained some of the evening’s crispness and I felt the goosebumps rise on my torso.

“I haven’t felt this kind of cool on a run since I can’t remember when,” I said while we trotted down the soft path.
“This could be one of those special days.”

We carved our way through the woods, spooking deer and avoiding stray turtles. We passed the early miles by catching up on life, including how we’ve been handling our 400 mile challenge. Before I knew it, we were half way through the first loop.

The trail rises sharp and steep from Stone Bridge. The conversation ceased here, replaced instead by our ragged breathing. We earned a brief meandering reprieve to let our heart rates settle back down before the trail dumped us back into the woods for a rolling ascent toward the open battlefield.

One of my favorite things about having a running partner is the obligation. During our one mile rise and fall and rise again, I felt the heat drag on me all at once. I sucked down some water and plugged on, wondering how I would tell my friend that I needed to walk or that he should go on without me. I let him pull me along unknowingly, wanting to at least get to the end of the first loop so he’d know his way before I turned him loose on his own.

We emerged from the woods and the battlefield sprawled and swelled before us. The sun crept above the tree line and steamed the early cool air so that the perspiration clung heavy to us. The Visitors Center loomed high atop the opposite end, the final mile of our trail. We shot down the declivity.  Each time I arrive here, I want to spread my arms wide as if to take in the entirety of it all.  "This is why we run!" Rohan shouted as the pace dropped.  Our sweat-soaked shorts swished faster with each footfall.

The last climb is a steep, punishing hill that minces your stride, forcing you to pluck away at the grass path. We picked our way to the top where a lone tree stands guard over the crest. Our stride returned to normal…and so did my head.

I took one more sip of water and found my rhythm.

We passed the second loop mostly in silence with the exception of our shoes crunching the trail and the demons we tried to quiet in our heads.

“You like it?” I asked as we stretched out under the shade.
“Oh, yeah. I might hurt tomorrow.”

When the sweat had mostly dried, we pulled our dry clothes back on and drove back toward home to fill that satisfying emptiness with a big breakfast.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Flashy Shoes: Not Just For Sprinters Anymore

Women and shoes. That’s the stereotype, right? But I haven’t met a runner yet who doesn’t share some sort of infatuation for their running shoes…myself included. I once wore the pair of shoes I qualified for Boston in to Boston just to generate some good shoe karma. I’ve written extensively before on my attachment to my shoes.

My training partner cozies up to his new
pair of Brooks.
Some people have pics of their kids on their cell phones…I have shots of my Asics. One last way to memorialize them before they head off to that great garbage bin in the sky, right? Right?

I’ve always wondered though why the track shoes get to be so flashy. Why don’t the distance shoes ever get stitched with bold colors? Is it because we’re not as cocky? Do we not swagger? Is there not enough bad-assery in covering courses that rise and fall, that take more than one minute to complete? Since when did going anywhere from 5K to 26.2 become boring enough that we don’t deserve a flair when we lace up?

Well, people, our time has come. Feast your eyes on these:

These shoes are walking sex. Or rather, “running sex.”

I can’t wait to lace these babies up and take them out for their first spin. I wouldn’t be surprised to turn around and see scorch marks on the pavement.

Do you have the same love affair with your running shoes?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Conquering the Mountain

Old Rag looming above.
“There it is,” Ebo said. We craned our heads from behind the windshield to bring Old Rag’s craggy summit into full view. “Crazy to think we’re going to be up there soon.”

“Twice,” I added. He sniffed. “Yeah.”

There are few runs that have made me nervous in the past, but for some reason, running Old Rag left me a little squirrelly. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the most strenuous and difficult hikes in the Shenandoah. To reach the summit and escape down the fire road leaves one with a great sense of accomplishment for the day. The feeling that you really earned that bacon double cheeseburger and chocolate shake from the roadside shack. Your quads certainly won’t let you forget it tomorrow (and the next day). But to do it twice in one day? It sounded like suicide.

So, it was with a cooler packed with coconut water, chocolate milk, and some trepidation that my friend Ebo and his parcour friend Aaron and I set off on the half mile walk to the Old Rag trailhead. We made final preparations, a tightening of the backpack strap here, a retying of the laces there, one last trip to the porta-potty. We groaned about our fitness level, laying out the excuses should we not perform up to snuff.

My watch beeped, and we set off into the woods.

A gray blanket of clouds had pulled over the mountain and trapped the humidity under the canopy of trees. We started sweating immediately. Aaron set a brisk pace on the trail that begins to climb with each step. In the beginning, it’s all good moods and jokes. We pontificated on the merits of chipotle burritos, the limits of the body, and other noble pursuits like handstands (you get into these things with parcour enthusiasts). As the mountain began to rise under us, the conversation kept the pace light and brisk while we began picking off other hikers. Ebo was the first to utter aloud the challenge we were all thinking: wouldn’t it be great if we could pass these people on our second loop before they’d even finished their first?

The conversation quickly died and the work began.

The trail begins alternating switchbacks for the first two miles. From mile 2-3, it’s a combination of scrambling over boulders and ducking and pulling oneself under, over and through narrow passages. You might call it the natural environment of the parcour-man. I watched as my nimble friends crawled, bounced, and jumped from rock to rock with ease. I did my best to stay with them and not twist an ankle or go careening off the side of the mountain. Aaron plowed ahead and was waiting for Ebo and I at the summit.

My chest rose and fell softly. I hadn’t caught my breath since we’d started. We took a moment to take in the gentle swells of mountains around us before tapping the summit sign that read: Old Rag Parking Lot – 4.5 mi.
On top looking down for the finish.

The plan: run down the trail, connect with the fire road and finish our first loop at a gallop. Following Aaron we plunged into the trail hopping roots, dodging rocks, and essentially doing everything in our power not to fall or pull a hamstring. We picked our way through the trail like this for 1.5mi until hitting the fire road. I cinched my backpack tighter, took one last sip for courage and felt the fluidity in my stride return. The trail widened, the terrain turned to packed gravel, and I relished being in the runner’s natural environment. I stole a quick look at my watch and saw the pace tick down 7:30, 7:00, 6:45 as the trail dipped farther and father downhill. I made notes of landmarks to remember for the way back, the sound of the creek, a campsite, a metal bridge. It all went by in a blur and I wished like hell I’d done this kind of downhill training in preparation for Boston.

When I reached the trailhead, soaking wet in the afternoon humidity, I tossed up a little fist pump and waited for my friends to return.

We took a moment to collect ourselves. We conquered loop one in 1hr54mins. The goal now clearly to finish in under four hours emerged.

Aaron took off ahead of Ebo and me. We didn’t want to hold the speedy hiker back. We passed the time mostly in silence, only the sound of our shoes scraping the trail. A deer spooked as we trudged by it eliciting only a minor reaction from either of us as the fatigue set in. We caught a group of chatty hikers beginning the scramble. Ebo managed to slip in that this was our second lap of the mountain, which left them in chatty disbelief.

At the summit, the effect had worn off. There was little fanfare since we’d been here already...and couldn't wait to get back down. Neither of us even stepped through the clearing to see the view.

We descended together praying for the fork in the fire road to hurry up and get there. My quads cried for relief and quivered whenever I stopped to dodge debris. Finally, with 2.5mi to go, I broke away from Ebo and let my stride open up. This time, the watch read: 6:30, 6:00, 5:45, 5:30. A smile cracked my face and I flew through the trail checking off my landmarks. I caught Aaron with about a quarter mile to go. “Eight minutes to 4 hours!” I yelled by him. His pace quickened.

I flew through a pack of hikers noting that I’d seen them on lap 1. It struck me that we had created some odd race that only the three of us had entered. 

I crossed the line and tossed my backpack aside. I could have wrung it out. Aaron crossed next followed by Ebo, all under the four hour mark. We kept moving to keep our legs from stiffening, though each man sported some sort of limp or hitch in their step on the walk back to the car.

The enthusiasm that left us in the middle had now found us once again at the end. We talked of our bad-assery, Ebo finding Beast Mode, and “no-shirt-o’clock.”

The mountain now only appeared in my rearview mirror. It wasn’t the mountain, though, that brought the silence back, it was the pile of French fries that had buried our chicken sandwiches.
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