Friday, September 30, 2011

2011 Ragnar Relay Redux

It could have been the rendezvous point for escaped mental patients or the freakshow tent at a circus. There were dudes in tutus, disheveled superhero costumes, drag queens, *cough* mustaches *cough*, ladies in bright gold shorts that would have made Michael Johnson jealous. No. Instead, it was the complete manifestation of all things that give runners the rap of being weird. It was the Ragnar Relay DC. And for 200 miles, it was ok to be weird.

Our team, All Night Mustache Ride, gathered together in a loose circle on the grounds of the Rocky Gap Resort. The great orange Ragnar arch that marked the start of our 29 hour journey rose behind us, the lines of other teams checking in at our back.

We looked on nervously at the ominous clouds moving in over the mountains and pretended not to notice the intermittent spits of rain.

"Ok, I'm going to go try again," our friend Katie said matter-of-factly. Heads turned toward her and we watched her make her way over to the line of port-a-potties.  That's when the cheering began.

"Wooo! Yeah, Katie! You can do it!"

That came from our team.  Then the team next to us caught on.  "Come on, Katie! We're rooting for you."

Then strangers began to clap for her. She turned and threw a wave at her fans. Why the boundaries of bowl movements suddenly disappear when more than one runner is gathered, I'll never know. But, the team bonding had officially begun.  And soon after that the relay itself.  Here's what happened along the way:
  • I arrived with a beard. I left with a mustache. It was creepy, it scared my wife, it got approving nods, it got pointed and laughed at, it was perfect.
  • Everyone ran their first leg in the rain or mist or fog except for Ebo and me; instead, we ran in the humidity that followed the rain; also, I had to second guess myself when contemplating going shirtless with only a reflective vest on...with the chest hair, it was, um, a bit much.
  • It's always nice to pass a runner and overhear, "I didn't realize I was standing still."
  • The best spaghetti is served at Clear Spring high school. Could be because we were ravenous after our first leg but I'm not one to argue with someone putting a heaping plate of noodles, sauce, and chocolate cake in front of me.
  • Mustaches make everyone uncomfortable in a high school cafeteria.
  • It's possible to sleep in a hallway but it will not be good sleep and, really, the only way I knew I actually fell asleep was the sour taste in my mouth; also, our new teammate Sharon needs her sleep!
  • It's torturous to smell burgers grilling at a creamery in the middle of Nowhere, MD at midnight...and you can't eat any because you have to get ready to run.
  • Apparently some people took issue to our name and thought we were some weird 70s sex van theme; we promptly considered changing our name to team Lighten Up.
  • Mud+Suburbans and/or 12 passenger vans = Puuuuuush!
  • Few things are more peaceful than the moon at night.
  • Geico's headquarters have a nice lawn to sleep on, though local DC-ites will think you are homeless; and let's face it, we probably smelled homeless.
  • The first leg is adrenaline and excitement; the second is bliss; the third is all guts no matter how short; on my last leg, I wore my dad's singlet from the University of Florida and ran by people who had Gator gear on; I started pointing wildly at my chest; when they realized this crazy freak with a mustache was just a runner wearing a Gator singlet, they hollered, "Yeah! Go Gators." It was enough to get me through another quarter mile.
  • The beer at the end of 200 miles and 29 hours goes down easier than water and it makes me a little dizzy.
  • The enchiladas I ordered after getting home never stood a chance.
  • It's acceptable to go to bed at 8:00 p.m. and sleep for 13 hours after a relay.
All Night Mustache Ride crossed the finish line in D.C. 29 hours 16 minutes after it left Cumberland, MD. I woke up the next morning with what can only be called a "Ragnar Hangover." It has all the markings of a "hard night out drinking" hangover. I was still groggy, still a little sore, still finding unaccounted for bruises, the late night hours were a little hazy, and I craved greasy food. Nevertheless, I moved through the house glowing with that exhaustive euphoria knowing that I regretted nothing and am all the better for having done it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Late Shift - Ragnar Relay Style

*When I started to write my Ragnar Relay Redux, I immediately went to my favorite portion of the race -- the night run. For whatever reason, it tends to be my best run whether it's at 11 p.m. or, in this case, 3:30 a.m. I tried weaving in other parts of the race but it started to turn into a novel. So, here is my "night run redux." Make sure you come back for the full Ragnar Relay Ramblings Redux later this week....

When the brake lights disappeared over the ridge somewhere in the blackness ahead, I knew then I was alone. A light mist gave way to a heavy fog and my headlamp did nothing to illuminate the path ahead. My watch beeped and right on cue, the mountain began to rise. One-and-a-half miles up, I thought. The humidity clung heavy to arms, my neck, my face. Sweat flung from every moving part, yet still I climbed.

The road suddenly lit and I felt the headlights on m
e. I started to move over to the side of the already narrow gravel path. I thought the light would be a godsend but instead it revealed all the rocks, branches, and potholes I had only suspected were there. I trained my eyes on the path ahead and tried to avoid looking at the debris. The van was on me now, “Lookin’ good runner!” they called and soon the path was dark again.

I listened to my footfalls and felt my lungs and heart pumping the air and blood through me. The watch had beeped again and I knew I had less than three minutes of climbing to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. “Casey Jones” popped into my head but I’d changed the tune to, “No one ahead, no one behind….”

Then I heard it. The low rumble of an SUV pulling around the bend, the headlights swinging around to once again illuminate the path in front. "Awww, yeah!" I heard from behind me.  I smiled and fought to keep from looking over to look at my vanmates at the risk of twisting an ankle or veering off the trail.  So, I tossed a wave and picked up the pace to try and keep their cheers alongside me for as long as possible. "You're killin' it!" "We'll see you soon!"

The ground pitched underneath me. My legs turned over faster and my limbs tingled from the adrenaline rush of seeing our van. I’d hit the top and began my descent, which took me under a tangle of branches silhouetted against the sliver of moon that had broken through the clouds.

Orion’s belt blinked in front of me and the moon lit the low lying mist that crawled along the corn rows. A red light flashed off in the distance and I had to rein in my instinct to go after it and chalk up another kill. I hoped it might be a Ragnar directional sign or the coveted “One Mile To Go” marker. Instead, I watched it climb the darkness ahead of me that signaled one thing: another hill to tackle. I took a swig of water and girded my nerves and my legs to pick away at yet another one.

Instead of slowing down, I pushed away the feeling of fatigue that started to seep into my quads and accelerated up and over the incline. Keep it neat, I said to myself as I sailed down the backside. I overtook the flashing red light and got a nod from the other runner.

My watch beeped for the ninth time and I knew the light ahead had to be “One Mile To Go” in this 9.1 mile leg. I’d said not to count on a sub-60 finish since I already had one for my 9.4 mile route six hours earlier... that was flat. I decided, however, to let this one happen by feel and not look at my watch as I went.

“One Mile To Go” flashed by my hand lamp and I let go an audible “Come on!” and surged. I overtook four more runners before seeing the cluster of reflective vests, flashlights, and vans at the exchange. “What number!?” an orange vest cried out.

“2.4.9.” I managed between breaths.
“249 coming in,” she said into the walky-talky.

I unraveled the slap bracelet from my wrist, straightened it, then gunned it for the finish. At last, I could rest…if only for a moment.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mustaches, Knee High Socks, Short Shorts...Oh, Ragnar!!

Team "Got the Runs" at Ragnar 2010
“Who’s going to be out this week?” my colleague asked on our weekly team call. After a brief silence, I piped in.
“I’ll be out on Friday [pause] because I’m running a 200 mile relay from Cumberland, MD to DC.”
“Wait, you’re doing what?”
“Eleven of my friends and I are doing the Ragnar Relay. We leave early Friday morning and essentially take turns running throughout the day and night until we get back to DC.”
“Better you than me.”

Ah, Ragnar is in the air. That 200ish mile adventure that starts in Cumberland, MD and ends in Washington, D.C. The running is plentiful, the beef jerky never ending, the sleep, and the camaraderie forever.

What my coworkers haven't experienced, or perhaps don't care to, is the serenity that comes with running through bucolic fields and backroads with only the moon as your guide. I get it, though. Running 200 miles sounds awful to the average person.  But it's what transpires between those 200 miles that makes it not only an experience, but, cheesy as it sounds, one you'll never forget. 

When you're running one of your three legs, you grow to depend on your vanmates, for food, for water, and perhaps most importantly, for support.  There's nothing like the adrenaline surge when you're six miles into a nine mile run (that's mostly uphill), feeling like you want to stop, only to have your vanmates drive by, their heads hanging out the window shouting things like, "Damn you like sexy!" as the sweat stings your eyes yet somehow you manage a smile.  And it's enough to get you through your leg.
"The Most Interesting Team in the World" finishes
American Odyssey 2011

When else could you make a checklist that looks like some sort of running apocalypse is encroaching:
3 Loaves of bread
PB and J, Salami, Turkey
Clif, Kashi, and Power bars
4 bags beef jerky
2 cases of water
Gold bond (not to be combined with Vaseline unless paste is desired)
A “stick”
Mustaches (real, fake, and magnetic)
Knee high retro socks
A nod to the first running boom

Mrs. Onthebusrunning and I have all these items scattered across our dining room table. To the casual observer, one might assume we’re preparing for a John Cusack movie or embarking on the modern equivalent of the Oregon Trail.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Inspiration for "All Night Mustache Ride." Side note: the
middle guy is my dad.

Rather than hunting for our food, we’ll be hunting “kills.”  We’ve traded wagons for Suburbans and Typhoid fever for shin splints, achy quads, and overall exhaustion. 

Last year, we were rookies setting out as team “Got the Runs?” This year, we’re grizzled veterans on team "All Night Mustache Ride," primed to show our rookies a good time.

There was a three day retreat that the seniors at my high school used to go on. Each retreat was led by students who’d already gone through the retreat. It was always a special experience to go back as a leader and watch the transformations that would take place among the new participants.

I’m excited to relive my first Ragnar through the eyes of our newbies this year.

Are you ready for All Night Mustache Ride?  Come along for the ride by following me or my good friend Sarah on Twitter:


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Navy Federal 5K (and 20miler) Redux

It started with a few odd glances. That became smiles. There were waves, and there were head nods. Then it dawned on me: I was the leader. Well, sort of.

This past Saturday, I decided to take on what Quenton Cassidy would call, “running through.” In other words, I decided to race through my training. The scene opens with Cassidy letting go ragged breaths as he charges up a hill and watches in vain as his closest opponent disappears across the finish line before him. While he retches on the side, his good friend Jerry Mizner reassures Cassidy’s concerned girlfriend saying, “He just run himself a race is all.” Then Cassidy, Mizner, and Bruce Denton go trotting off for an easy 10 miler. "To beat someone while running through, Cassidy said, is to own them body and soul."

I haven’t raced since Boston back in April and coupling my base building period with the summer heat, I haven't exactly felt race sharp. In fact, I've felt pretty damn blunt. But seven weeks into marathon training, you start to get that itch, wanting to test your mettle, wanting to see if "it" is working.

So, that’s where I found myself staring down my first 20 miler (with the last 4-6 miles at a “fast finish,” whatever that means for a 20 miler). The trainer at our neighborhood gym was the co-chair of the Navy Federal 5K and subtly twisted our arms, err, encouraged us to sign up.

For the marathoners, there’s something about 20, isn’t there? It somehow takes on mythical proportions despite being only two miles more than your previous long run. Maybe it’s that it starts with a two instead of a one, maybe it’s a rounder number than 18 or 16, or perhaps it’s purely that it sounds bad ass saying that you just ran 20 miles over the weekend. Whatever the case, the 20 mile long run is one that is never taken lightly, and, for this runner, is never far from the front of my thoughts the week leading up to it.

I enlisted the help of Mrs. Onthebusrunning who agreed to Sherpa for me that morning. It's one thing to crew for someone on a long's quite another entirely to throw away precious hours of Saturday morning sleep to bike before the sun has even come up. She has my eternal love and respect for such sacrifice.

Timing was everything. I wanted to be on the trail by 6:50 to be back to the car by 8:50 so we could throw the bike in the car and make it to the line for the 9:00 gun.

The sky was overcast, the air crisp with the first breath of fall air, and my legs popping from the first steps out of the parking garage. In short, there was that fall magic in the pre-dawn darkness; the day that you dream of to get yourself through those torturous summer miles was finally here. It’s as though I had three lungs and dammit if I didn’t feel like I could run the whole marathon that morning.

We turned on to the W&OD trail, a notoriously hilly bike path that is famous for its interminable slow, gradual climbs that are enough to snap your will if you haven’t steeled yourself. I save this route for the big runs to use as a measuring stick.

My wife and I were chatty, laughing and cavorting in the early-going. She pulled alongside to offer me water and Gatorade from the backpack and we regaled one another with childhood stories that we hadn’t yet heard about one another and talked about our future goals…all those creative, dreamy thoughts that come so easily to the surface on good long runs.

To save time post-long run/pre-race, I pinned my number to my singlet, so I was that guy on the trail with his race number on. Then I realized…I wasn’t the tool with his race number on, I was the race leader.  And my wife was on the bike guiding me through the course! “So this is what it feels like,” I laughed to my wife.

My watch beeped for six miles and I marveled that time and distance had come and gone so fast. Before I knew it, we’d hit the out and started the back. The pace dipped to 6:20s over the last three miles and I rode it all the way back to the race.

The weather had grown a tad warmer but I was in that perfect homeostatic state where my arm warmers and hat still felt comfortable.

“Do you care?” she asked. “I mean, do you have a goal?”
“Just want to hit marathon pace,” I said. “Anything else is gravy.”

That’s what I said. And mostly that’s what I thought. But the competitive fire stoked inside me and I wanted to see what my legs could do. I didn’t want to go into oxygen debt and I didn’t want to veer into the puking zone. But….

At the gun, I was a pack of one. The leader bolted ahead and I watched him disappear into the neighborhood. A pack of four was ahead of me and the rest somewhere at my back.

“Keep it neat,” I repeated, meaning my stride.

At mile 1 I’d gained ground and a smile broke across my face as I looked down at the 5:45 staring back at me. “I guess I can still run fast,” I said. As we hit the hills, the pace rose to 6:00 at remained that way, at least for me. I started to reel in one who’d fallen off the pack. I could hear that raspy breath as I came on him and we started to climb. I relaxed my shoulders, reset my breathing with a deep breath, and strode confidently past him so he’d know I wasn’t hurting nearly as bad as him and he’d only see my back the rest of the way.

With one mile to go, I kept the accelerator down and tore through the final stretch.  It was somehow different, though.  It wasn't that awful lactic acid storm that normally comes at the end of a 5K.  It was a relaxed, one more mile to hit 20 and end the workout feeling that I can't ever remember experiencing during a 5K.  I was in control, like I could drop the hammer and pound out that last mile or just focus on maintaining pace and enjoying a nice Saturday workout.

I came across the line in 18:26 and rounded out the top 5, good enough for second in my age group. I was more than satisfied and came away with the lingering thoughts of, “What could I have done without 17 miles on my legs already?”

My wife came across the line. We sipped our water and gathered our things. Then we trotted off to the car, not for 10 more miles, but to meet our breakfast club friends for some much needed eggs and pancakes, and to let that sweet, exhausted satisfaction of a workout gone good seep in.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My Meet Up with RunDanRun

I haven’t been on a first date in more than 10 years. But my meet up with RunDanRun last Saturday brought back all those familiar jitters. The butterflies, the planning, the conversation topics. Where will we eat? What will we do? Yep, as my wife declared, this had all the makings of a man-date.

Dan eloquently told the story of how he and I began corresponding online in his blog, giving me entirely too much credit, I might add. But over the last year, we’ve essentially become virtual penpals and even virtual training partners. And let’s face it, sometimes it’s nice just to have someone who speaks your language. In this case (in our case), the runner’s language.

It reminds of the scene in Once a Runner when Shorter and Denton go trotting down some hallway spouting off weekly mileage numbers and workout splits like it’s some dialect only the two of them know. And truth be told, sometimes it feels like you’re a foreigner in the real world when your friends’ and co-workers’ faces gloss over at words like tempo run, fartlek, interval, repeat, etc.

Finally, Dan and I had a chance to communicate in person. He was the last stop on my weeklong vacation driving, hiking, and camping trip across the West. My friend and I set off on our annual trip using Denver as our base. When I discovered that his flight left five hours before mine did, Dan and I set up our midday rendezvous.

We Facebooked back and forth throughout the week wherever I found cell coverage and debated distances, restaurants, and meet ups.

So, that’s how I found myself standing on the curb in the United departures area at 11:00 on Saturday morning looking for a white Mazda with a roof rack. I wore the only relatively clean clothes I had left with a pair of running shorts and a sleeveless top underneath.

When Dan pulled up, we didn’t miss a beat. It was as if we were old friends picking up where we had last left off. We chatted about living at altitude, running and hiking in the thin air, races both past and future, food cravings, Starbucks, family, flatulence, how short Ryan Hall is….

Then we arrived at City Park in downtown Denver. We continued conversing as we dodged in and out of walkers and some odd collection of bikers in the park’s center. Every few minutes, Dan’s watch beeped to mark another mile and I marveled at how they seemed to click by despite the fact that he’d already run 15 miles that morning (BA!) and I’d done an 18.5 mile hike a day earlier.

After our run, we celebrated with cold beers and sandwiches on Denver’s 16th street. I ducked into the bathroom and did a quick wet ones wipe down to spare whoever had to sit next to me on the four hour flight back to D.C. Truth be told, it was the cleanest I’d felt all week after going five days without a shower thanks to the National Park Service.

Time passed as quickly as our miles did, and soon enough, we had returned to the airport. I pulled my bags out of the trunk while Dan coerced a cop to take our picture so we could officially document our afternoon.

We went our separate ways the best way possible: wondering when we’d get to do it again.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Into the Great Wide Open

The car twisted up the narrow roads that traced Zion Park’s many mountains. I rode shotgun while my friend Bill did his best to balance keeping his eyes on the road while taking in the park around us.

On top of Angel's Landing in Zion
The sun had barely come up, but it glinted off the ribbon of river below us and made the rock walls glow in a thousand shades of red and orange, like the lingering embers of last night’s campfire.

It was the second stop on our western journey in 2009. Bryce Canyon was at our backs and the Grand Canyon on the horizon.

We lived in shades of exhaustion.

Sleep came easily every night after a day of driving, a day of hiking, or some combination therein. I relished the warmth of the fire on my tired legs, the ease with which the beer went down, and the way the food (any food) transformed into a gourmet meal.

Each year comes with its own trials.  Our first year, we unzipped our tent bag only to find that it had no poles, so we spent our first night "sleeping" in the car.  When we bought a tent the next day, it was between the $100 eight person tent or the $20 junior tent.  Naturally we settled for economy and managed to squeeze two six-foot-plus dudes into a 6x4 tent.

That was two years ago. And last year’s trip took on a similar flavor: CA wine country, Crater Lake, Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite.
Climbing or sliding down Half Dome; the
dots at the bottom are people.

It started when we were in high school. It was a much simpler trip then with, one could argue, better accommodations. We spent our days sunning on the Jersey Shore, hitting the boardwalk’s mini-links, and, let’s face it, the beer went down just as easily back then too.

But as that thing called adulthood approached, and Bill and I found one another on opposite ends of the country after college, we decided to not only keep our summer tradition alive, but up the ante.

And so, the next installment of what’s come to be known as “Bill and Brad’s Expedition” begins this afternoon. We’ll meet in Denver this evening, then set out to Arches, Craters of the Moon, and the Grand Tetons over the next eight days. Drive, camp, hike, repeat.

I always find that while these trips are physically exhausting, one might argue not even a vacation at all, I returned refreshed, not only for life but for my running. Of course, I have a couple sets of running clothes, you know, “just in case” the mood strikes me to lace up and sneak in a trail run.

But I’m amazed at when I come back how all the nagging injuries, the tight hammies, hips, and IT Bands have suddenly unlocked since I don’t spend my entire day compressing them in an office chair.

On that drive up and out of Zion, I thumbed through the park’s NPS guide and came to this quote, “Break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Time to start scrubbing.
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