May 2, 2015
New Paltz, NY
I didn’t make running plans after the Triple 7, plans made me. My friend Ken from Team RWB suggested I run the Rock the Ridge 50 Miler. He suggested it more than a couple times, eventually challenging me to do it carrying the US Flag the whole way while representing a big veteran presence at the race. Once he did that, I knew I had to do it.
Lately my running is less running and more exploring and accomplishing. It’s not enough to make it from the start line to the finish line, but I need something else in the middle.
Even after I ran the NYRR 60k, just a half marathon short of 50 miles, that longer distance still intimidated me. I didn’t think I wouldn’t finish, but I didn’t know how I’d handle all of the suffering.
Comrades, the first ultramarathon, is a bit longer than 50 miles, at 89k. It’s the granddaddy of them all and a thought that’s been at the back of my head since I ran Two Oceans, my first ultra. That one, at 56k, is a training run for Comrades. And, the world’s first ultramarathon is another run for veterans. I think everything is leading up to that.
My first ultra, although more than a marathon, wasn’t really a distance run or at least I didn’t think it was. Most of my other ultras were 50k, barely more than a marathon. One hundred miles is a distance run and all of us mere marathoners are just pretenders. Reading about Scott Jurek and Dean Karnazes and so many other completely insane people makes me think that if I’m not running the Western States 100, I’m not a runner. This 50 miler seems like a baby step into a bigger world of real running.
But that’s the sickness setting in, an athletic version of OCD, that takes over like that mind-altering fungi that turns ants in zombies. I don’t see any conspiracy to sell me triple the number of running shoes or extra jars of peanut butter. I don’t think that belt buckle factories are inventing ways to move product. I don’t what this bug wants, but I think it’s there. God damnit.
Rock the Ridge, though. I knew 50 miles was going to be tough, but I compounded it by aggravating a back injury two weekends prior and then catching the nasty cold that was going around. I hadn’t run for two weeks prior to the start. That wasn’t going to help. Still, I showed up at the gatehouse of Mohonk Preserve with my flag ready to run even if I didn’t know how I’d do past three miles. Denial is a big part of the ultra experience.
We started a bit after sunset, and that was the last time I’d see Ken until the finish. He was going for something around eight hours, while I had set an Best Case Goal of 11 hours after the cut-off time for Comrades.
From the start we could see Stone Point, a big stone tower on top of the ridge near Mile 15. With almost 7,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain today, my legs were going to be complaining.
Lots of runners were excited that I was carrying the flag, perhaps a bit more enthusiastic than the feat actually deserves. I had not carried it on a run longer than four miles, so 50 would be interesting. Would my legs or shoulder give out first? Would my body be uneven with one arm taken away holding the flag pole? As with everything else, I didn’t think about it. I just had to keep moving forward. Denial denial denial.
I fell into with a couple of other Team RWB runners, Jules and Nina who were running as a team, who had a similar time goal. They wanted to finish before it got dark. I secretly hoped I didn’t so I could use the headlamp I’d bought at REI on the drive up.
We saved our matches early on. As I’ve heard often from pro cyclists, everyone starts with a matchbook with a certain number of matches. You only have so many to burn during the race and once you’re out, you’re out. We’d vigorously walk the uphills, which doesn’t lose that much time, and run the flats.
So many hills though! I had not factored this into my 11 hour goal. I hadn’t looked at the profile or the map; I like those things to surprise me. As a group we just kept moving forward without thinking about the distance. I wasn’t even wearing a Garmin and the course distance was marked every five miles. How I got to 15 miles and Stone Point I don’t know, but we there there quickly. The companionship and the lack of explicit progress reminders and aid stations dilated the time.
From the top of the ridge we could look down on the tony Mohonk Mountain House. From there we had a brief downhill respite before the course would become more difficult.
Around Mile 24 we hit the second of the major aid stations, this one having food, massages, and medical support. We took a brief break while the masseur pulled on my legs to stretch them out. My feet hurt but felt much better out of my shoes for a couple of minutes.
Past Lyons Road is the waterfall. We’d turn away from it before starting the hellish switchbacks that would take us to the top. We’d come back this way later. We were vigorously hiking these hills, not looking forward to the next bit. When we entered Minnewaska State Park, we’d be in the sun. The temperatures would get near the 80s. Direct sun kills me.
We were fortunate, though. Clouds moved in and covered the sun most of the time we were around Minnewaska. I was getting quite warm and feeling a bit sorry for myself at this point. The Anger portion of the race had shown up. I didn’t know if I could finish this part, but I kept moving forward. On my own I might have quit, but with my two companions I just fell into the pace. Jules, running her first ultra (and first marathon, I guess), was strong. I concentrated on matching her.
At Mile 30 we reached the highest part of the course after six miles of uphill. That’s half of a half marathon, the Bargaining way of looking at it. After Mile 30, there was only the last “Fuck You” hill at Mile 45, so now we could make up some time. At least, that’s the way Bargaining puts it into my mind.
Unfortunately, Nina wasn’t feeling well. I think she had the same cold I had suffered but it was just catching up to her. We didn’t want to split up (veterans have this thing about “Leave no one behind”) so we stuck together, even if we were ten feet apart for some of it. We passed a park sign board with a thermometer. It read 78 F. I figured it must be warm. I was certainly warm.
Now it was a struggle to get back to Lyons Road and the aid station at 37 miles. That would put me at the longest distance I had run in one event. That became my goal. I wasn’t thinking about the end.
At the aid station we took another break. I got some chicken broth and crackers then sat by the side of the trail with my shoes off. Somehere in the past five miles my feet had stop hurting. They weren’t numb, but I’d gone past suffering into something else.
After about ten minutes, Nina decided her cold had gotten the best of her and she was going to drop out. I haven’t had a DNF yet, but I know it’s going to show up at some point. There will be some event where I have to drop out or give up on the suffering, but that wouldn’t be today. Watching someone else go through that half-filled me with dread. I still had a half marathon to run, so I still had my chance to quit. That would be much harder now since there was a minor aid station just a couple miles away, and then it was on to the finish.
Jules and I decided to run hard for the last bit. Most of hills were over so we made up time, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically at first. That five minute break does a body good. As the path wound around the ridges, we wondered how bad this “Fuck You” hill would be and when would it start. Does it start at Mile 45 or end there? How much distance do we have after it’s over? We were working out our end game.
The last hill started around Mile 43 and it was a monster, leading me into the Depression stage of the race. It was warm, the sun was going down, and any effort was making me feel a bit dizzy. But, I made it to the top.
From there it was almost easy peasy. We were almost done. The Depression gave way to Acceptance. We hadn’t finished before dark so I got to use my headlamp. Despite the full moon, the path was almost pitch black. We went single file with Jules leading the way. We were moving pretty quickly. We knew we were close put in the dark we couldn’t see the finish. Even though the sun was down I was feeling a bit flush. The temperature hadn’t gone down that much.
I’ve had these sorts of finishes before: Bagan Temple Marathon, Arizona Marathon, and the Chicago Marathon. I know I’m hurting myself by running too quickly when its too hot, but I’m so near the finish that I do it anyway. I got to the finish line, stopped, then fell on my butt. I sat there for a couple minutes. I’d just run 50 miles, a new distance for me and my first real long run. I didn’t make my 11 hour goal but who cares?