Sunday, October 27, 2013

WC-50 mile trail race, 10.19.13.

WC-50 miler, 10.19.13, US Whitewater center in charlotte nc.

i.                      To Begin the journey is part of the journey.

It was a little after 4am when we arrived at the US Whitewater Center and Kas and Kyote perambulated sleepily through the parking lot while I collected my race packet, oriented myself.  The start/finish gate was built and sturdy beneath the stout full moon (which had finished her penumbral eclipse a few hours before).  Muffled activity stirred:  tents and tables, fire pits, runners milling with headlamps and flashlights. There was the quiet of the gathering, the whispered movement of preparations, the crews and family and the hopes of the day. 
A manmade waterway divided the race area from the parking lot.  Barely a creek’s worth of water leaked by the obstacles of the concrete river.  The river separated the start area and the bathrooms with a high, arching foot bridge.  The darkness offered no clue of what the trails held, not even where they were.
“Man I am so stoked on these trails!  The markings are over the top, the trails are spectacular.  I ran the loop a few hours ago, a midnight run and they were just awesome!” 
Nathan Leehman, one of two race directors for the WC-50, greeted everyone enthusiastically, a light in the void of predawn, a voice launched with excitement.  And when the race director has claimed many podiums in prominent ultras (to include winning the UROC 100k in 2013), you feel a deep push and heightened sense of ambition.  And with that elite athleticism guiding the race, one finds strong competition, like Karl Meltzer who was wandering around in his signature Hoka sleeveless shirt. 

ii.                   Beforehand.
It was early, that much we knew, and id snatched a few hours of sleep from the grips of a baseball game.
Our hotel was on Harris blvd, leaving us to cross an ultra-quiet northern charlotte with the skyline in the rearview in rare glimpses.   We were driving through a landscape that had changed much since I first left in 1992. The juxtaposing of charlotte’s layout had always excited me, the dramatic shifts were a romantic part of driving through her pockets … southern homes built with great pride and magnitude on one block were checkerboarded against a block that economic stability had abandoned, hip condominiums were phoenixed out of the shells of old factories and business centers grew into old factory housing areas… it was the southern urban wilderness of the Queen City, her wild patches of land sewn together by the many railroad tracks, like a once-brilliant southern sundress of azalea colors hastily repaired with material from an aged and sunbleached quilt.  Charlotte held a peculiar aesthetic, a mixture of southern industry rusting alongside glass-sided buildings of post-modern architecture.  Charlotte was a bleak puzzle, a patternless sprawl, a calculus riddle and I-85 explained the koan of space as we pushing through street lighted woods alternating against total darkness.
Chic condominiums with luxury cars, maintained planters and young oaks beneath clean street lights; working class neighborhoods settled during the 70’s, brick and box shrubs and chimneys, the slow drift oaks, the quite meadows where an occasional car garage collected spare parts and old tires, memories of acres of sun-stretched fields of Indian Trail where my grandmother had grown up and left but where, when I was a small boy, we’d visit every other Sunday among the smells of rich creambutter sauces and fresh greenbeans, okra and squash, the smell of cigarettes and heavy perfumes … the slatboard farmhouses leaning into horse whinnies and slow-roaming cattle.  Sweet tea and the percolating fragrances of strong S&D coffee mingled with smells of wild flowers and hay.  Later there were the record stores on central avenue where I bought circle jerks, misfits and the damned albums, met the ramones, saw nitzer ebb, dined at the Indian restaurants by Eastland mall, bought french PHOTO magazines to see the art and learn the language, danced and drugged at the clubs nestled in transitional industrial areas (park elevator, pterodactyl, milestone), read and heard poetry at the new bistros, watched dopesick kent play a vicious acid jazz sax in a coffee shop on north Davidson, the galleries nearby showing interesting paintings (long before the hook NoDa was established), walking the mint museum and her starched apparel of Victorian gloves and the intricate ceramics of tea service and 19th century linseed varnishes, the sounds of a nascar race in cool Sunday afternoons, the fishing ponds of Earnhardt property where my granddaddy would take me with a lunch of Vienna sausages and pork and beans, a thermos of hot coffee, earthworms, blood worms, the cages of noisy crickets whose guts would squeeze out against my hook on long lazy days. 
I loved charlotte and had an interesting journey there, and now I was returning as a trail runner on her scree and hills and red clay and the familiar landscape that I explored as a child in my grandparent’s backyard.
I picked up my packet, pinned the bib, and began scavenging.  I was concerned, having no coffee no breakfast and no real clue as to what we’d find but seeming to find only powerade and water but no hot water for the instant oatmeal and tea.  It was a bummer to find no breakfast options available and I cursed myself for not stopping along the route, for not bringing a camp stove.  Nor was there anything close for a quick errand. 
Having no breakfast would contribute to the difficulties of the long day to come.

iii.                  The Guts of the Race.
4:50am and the day was damp with drizzle and a chilled humidity.  The pre-race meeting, general advice, the “runners ready, set, go” and off we herded, some 60ish runners following a flat straight route, following orange ribbons into a narrow de kooning-like, pthalo-blue opening in the woods.  Reverse womb.  We were contained in a single track train, the runner in front of you pacing against the runner in front of them, the strange shadows of milling legs cast from multiple headlamps behind, the morning chatter, the start of breath, the newness of the trails, and the perils of nighttime running and the terrain became my primary focus as European accents layered into southern accents and male and female voices and the sounds and smells of wet leaves under footfalls. 
the trails were challenging as they sliced like wild dry creekbeds into the woods, pushing across man-made obstacles and rock outcroppings and fallen trees and quick cut turns ascending bursts of hill and just-as-quickly descending with a slight ski effect and wooden platforms crossing steeply sloped ditches and mile one chirped off and the trail continued into the bumpy charlotte landscape, still immersed in total darkness but for the pierce of headlamps.
Every so often, you’d see one of those headlamps shudder, thud into the ground, the light swallowing itself to a grunt.
The line thinned out mile by mile and I found myself, as usual, running alone.  There may be a headlamp in the far distance on either side, but I was running alone.  Running at night on unfamiliar trail translates (for me) to a lot of head-down running and I lost the trail for a half mile or so.  I followed headlamps and backtracked to the point of disconnect to fall back into the train, exhale frustration. 
The first loop was 12.98m in 2h27m and all I really wanted in the last five miles was a bathroom.  I traversed the ¼ mile to the bathrooms, did my business, and moved back down to the trail, downing the coffee kas had brought me, grabbing some gu chomps and a gel and getting back on the trail within 25 minutes or so.  Not a great re-entry.
The lack of breakfast was fully on me as the sun broke grey against trees and the drizzle percussed on leaves and I obeyed the trail through the woods, occasionally hearing another runner somewhere in the early morning.  The one valiant hill, called goats hill, was short but launched a decent grade of red clay and after the crest, you fell back down a hill and twisted through more charlotte woods.  I was unable to see trail on either side, unable to see 15 yards or so beyond or behind my current point. 
My stomach barked for food and my guts churned against the pad thai I’d shoveled down the night before.  It had been a delicious meal but I’d expected repercussions.  And they were upon me for the first few hours of running.  Finishing my second loop (26m) in 5h10, I headed straight to the bathroom.  After a warm reception from my family and a moment of false humor with a volunteer, I had to get out of sight to cry and pee.  I felt devastation and emptiness at a depth not known for quite some time.  I felt failure and self-loathing.  I washed my face and knew the challenges ahead.  My goal had been, privately, an 8 – 9 hour finish; I was reaching the halfway point in very unstellar time.  I grabbed watermelon and dipped a corner into raw salt, finished my coffee, declined the bagel my wife had brought, wished I had a hot chocolate or hot black tea.  I paced a minute, collected my mind, headed back out within 15 minutes.   The 50k mark came and I was still running but I found a tweak building in my right knee.  Downhills became increasingly painful and uphills began to heave with the hands-to-knees push of powerhiking. 
I pushed out to the first aid station and took some flat soda, powerade, cliff blocks, watermelon and moved through it.  I already knew the knee was going to be the biggest challenge and it only got more painful.  I was swiftly reduced to a power march, totally alone in the wilderness, no ipod, no hope of reaching my goal-time, and dredging through an ever-worsening headspace of slow miles.  This was where the current mental and spiritual health turned on me with an ugly cruelty, and the agony of solitary struggle began in earnest. 
With about three miles of trail left to the start of my fourth and final loop, Karl Meltzer passed me, running well, looking fresh, and thriving on the mileage.  It was about 8 hours in, 1pm, and I cheered him as he humbly thanked me and offered an encouraging thumbs up.  I heard the distant jubilation as Karl finished the race, winning the thing and setting the CR to 8h24m (which Nathan would explain was about 1h30m longer than Karl had originally believed it would require).
I finally exited the trail head gate but was unable to run the flat dirt road back to the start/finish point and when I tried, the right knee buckled and screamed, felt like someone was jabbing a flathead screwdriver into the knee joint, twisting and stabbing at the meat.  It was an insurmountable pain.  I finished the third loop with my bib already half-removed to surrender it back to a race director.
My family embraced me and I fought back an emotional release out of embarrassment.  I milled around, took the only advil I had (an advil cold that my wife was taking for her ailment).  Watermelon, a handful of m&ms, two gels in the pocket and about 20 minutes with my wife charging me to continue forward (“I can’t run” I said.  “then walk it,” she replied.).  I was ready to officially drop when Adam, the other race director, handed me a belt buckle.  “You’ll earn this,” he said.  It was a fucking gorgeous piece of hardware, and I felt a slight break somewhere inside.  It was 2pm, and off I marched. I stopped 100’ out, considering a return to get my ipod for the final loop, but didn’t want to risk heading back in and getting comfortable.  I flopped the feet, one in front of the other, and passed the 1/3m of flat dirt road in an agonizing effort at jogging, only to limp back into the trailhead into the final 12.98 miles of my race.

iv.                 Final Loop
There was nothing unique about the final loop except for the fact that it was the last one of four.  I have never been so tired, so spent on a race.  I literally considered napping in the middle of the trail.  I feared i might do damage to my knee.  I caught up with a few folks; a few folks caught up with me.  Four people passed me as i crossed the midpoint of the loop.  They were running, smelling the barn, and I tried to run but was immediately stopped by the knee.  Ironically, the legs felt strong and capable but for that knee joint ... the damage was from 20 years ago: I’d been slide tackled by a leg hooking against my sin from behind and i fell awkwardly into the leg, the patella jumping to the side of the leg right.  the coach punched the knee cap and it leaped back onto the top of the joint.  It gave me few problems it but could be aggravated to wake up the weakened tendons & ligaments.
On an ultra journey, one will find things, collect things, lose things, enter strange spaces of self and ramble the mindbody like a personal inferno narrative.  It is difficult sometimes, but necessary to explore.  The introspect, the solo exploration of Self is the point of these things for me.  And I saw no one for miles at a time. Completely alone in the wilderness in the middle fo a well-attended race.  I did find my humor at the 5.5m aid station, a refreshing thing, but as soon as I moved back to the isolation of the trail, my mind guttered.  I had hoped to finsh the race by 1pm, go to Southpark, go to a cafĂ©, go to a record store, go to NoDa, but those hopes were disappointment now. 
One has a lot of time to think on an ultra— it is a moving meditation, a transcendent experience, an upheaval of the Being not unlike a sundance or a sweat lodge or an acid trip.  Memories wash against the shore of consciousness, bringing things left behind, strange memories, remembrances of friends, some alive and some that died ... tragic birthday accidents, ALS, alcoholic liver failure, fatal brief relapse … i consider relationships, my history of sex, the history of connections lost to any infinite number of things … studios I have known, paintings I have worked, sold, lost, abandoned… language collected on sleeves of paper, prose or poems, music and concert ... i relive sexual experiences with forgotten lovers or i build sexual fantasies or my attention drifts into heart rates and the soreness of my feet or my right shoulder or the llammas of Penland or the dreams that built my life journey … I remember the illness of withdrawal & hangover, pangs of hunger, i recall coughing out the cold of mornings with a smoke as i set up mis en place in various restaurants… any number of things pass through the mind like wild children chasing fanstasy... you pray for yourself, you pray for your fellow runners, you send love to your family and friends, you revoke the prayers, curse the choices that brought you here, you whince and you feel like an asshole.  All of it, over and over again, a loop of jumbled entangled feeling-thought.
And then you roll through the long final 1/4 mile of flat gravel road, you limp and gimp it home, you feel the settling of bodymind as you sprint the final 30 yards, reluctant and angry, but you sprint for photographs and dignity and false triumph.
And so i finished.  And that was that.
I shook Adam's hand, got my buckle, my wife embraced me with great pride and joy, Kyote shouted that I was great, and I collected the few things kas had left (she was the best crew I could ever hope for), changed into something dry and warm and less smelly, and we moved out.

v.                   Moving on.
I saw Nathan on the way out and he gave me a big prop for finishing, for “gutting it out.”  I have to offer big gratitude to his positivity just for keeping me engaged in the goal of finishing.  Sometimes we need another’s light to find our own path.
I plunged into the passenger chair, let my head lull across the shoulders, released the race with a long exhahle (for the time being) and Kas let purr the car, pulse some easy reggae.

vi.                 Aftwerwards. 
There was a cup of hot coffee, a bath with Epsom salts, tiger balm on the knee.  There were strombolis with more hot coffee and cheesecake and there was quiet reflection and the stirrings of confession, there was disappointment and rambling resentment, a sense of failure at not meeting or exceeding my hopes, all that alternating with the joy of being finished and the gratitude of accomplishment.  And I was grateful to be clean and warm and now holding a 50 mile belt buckle, my first ultra-buckle, and I was grateful for easy breath and strong body and quietening mind.  I stretched a few struggling postures, forward folds & triangles, some marching down dogs, two Advil, a big glass of water and I soon fell asleep to some shit on television with my right knee throbbing in certain motions that wrongly twisted the joint. 
It was a good sleep after a rough day.

vii.                Epiloguish type write-up.
The feeling of accomplishment is not full.  The race was tired and bitter and hollow. The ultra was a powerhike, certainly not a run.  That quality (or lack of quality) of experience indicates that it is high time for a revision of my running goals.  It is time to reinvestigate the intentions of signing up for an ultra.

Going back to my original goal, my original vision:  I wanted to run across mountains.  I wanted to mill miles with grace and power (internal and external) across the mountains i have always loved, and I have accomplished that.  I have felt bliss and raw connection to earth and sky and heat of sun and fire of muscle, of mind and trail, life path and trail’s terrain, I have released demons across miles and I have reclaimed joy and ecstasy in Massanutten, the Uwharrie range, the Appalachians of Georgia & Virginia & N. Carolina ... I have run Grandfather mountain, Leatherwood mountains, Black mountains.  To run wild with ecstasy and lucidity, to push into a nexus of body and earth, to inhabit that synapse of heart and footfall cadence and distance covered… to have joyful movement, to have the power and the freedom to run terrain, that was the point and the vision. Likewise, to lose the embarrassment of my body’s shape, to run shirtless on primitive trail and feel a full release, to know “real freedom is now possible” and to express that profound truth with joyful movement, to lose the fat kid self-image, to find hard body and strong breath, the resolve of training, these were also the goals.  
If my times are slowing, if i am running less and less, if the distance is doing damage to my body, if my mindspace lacks gratitude and surrender and exploration, if there is no balance of darkness and light, well then I have lost the intention.  If my mantra becomes  “lets just get this fucker finished,” I am accomplishing no growth, no joyfulness.  I am rutting into ugliness and suffering.  In fact, I am rutting into ugliness for hours at a time. 
And especially with the damage part: Maybe it is time for choice.  I love my daily runs, those anonymous unromantic worker hours that release me to breath and body, that immerse me in tired environment to reinvigorate the mindbody, that build endorphins and accomplishment.  I love my daily runs, whether the distance is 5k or 15k, and I ponder whether I am at a fork in the trail.  I question the health of my body and it's miraculously intricate structure.  I ponder whether ultras are still beneficial to my whole.  Without question or pause, I'd 86 all future ultras to retain those daily runs and sustain the benefits.
My right knee is still sore and swollen. Am I faced with decision, with the choice ...:  Perhaps.

I allow for a bad race, I know I made errors and it is frankly a little embarrassing.  I thought that Leatherwood 50 miler would be a paramount challenge, that the charlotte race would feel so much faster.  I had planned to ‘race’ the WC-50.  I even took an hour at Leatherwood to make coffee and re-settle myself … I lagged very little at WC-50 and still came up 30 minutes later.

Many of us wanted to match Karl, to run his race effort … but chasing Karl Meltzer for two hours before sunrise on unfamiliar trail at his opening pace, then trying to sprint out to reclaim ground after a half-hour and backtracking … I just should’ve paused and grounded and released.  But I felt good, all the way up until I didn’t feel good.  I got locked into running others’ races and not settling into my own cadence and experience but rather getting ego-ridden and angst-fueled and kicking from ego, not from heart and spirit. 
A lot was learned and a little was earned at the WC-50.  I am still resting the knee three days later and re-evaluation on future races continues.  Meanwhile I am sincerely proud to have at least completed the race, no matter how unspectacular, no matter how little grace and light came from the experience.   

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Leatherwood Mountain 50 miler, take two.

Welcome to Ferguson NC, home of the Leatherwood 50 miler.

Friday April 19th... driving into Wilkesboro`in a raging storm.  Roads were puddled, vision was addled, mountains were lost in clouds.  I found Dixie Donuts nestled on a random intersection, stopped for coffee and a donut, exhaled, and the combination made the drive all good.  The lady at the counter said I was one of several runners that day.  We were close.  I was nerves and road-fatigue.

We arrived at Leatherwood and, after much debate regarding camp or a dog-friendly hotel, the rain paused long enough to pitch a tent by the river.  Then, dominance and wind, a vicious storm resumed. We stripped the campsite, moved under a stable.

Kas heated plates of pasta and served us in the tent.  I devoured the meaty sauce, sopping the tomato sauce with black olive baguette and butter and hot tea.  Runners arrived, looked around, reunited.  The meal was delicious and my mind was settling into evening.  Pre-race dinner and meeting.  The storm continued and black mud was churned under the feet of runners, their crews, dogs, vehicles. 

Jennifer Pharr Davis (who holds the FKT for a female through-hike on the AT, maybe the MST also) spoke that night for the pre-race dinner.  A flood of people were showing up, representing North Carolina’s solid outdoor/running community.  There were also folks from Michigan, Ohio, Montana, Coastal South Carolina, Georgia.  Charlie Engels was lining up, Brandon Thrower, several MTC runners, with Mark Connolly and Tim Worden at the controls for the gig.  

7 am Saturday, 4.20.13, brought a crisp air and clear sun, a moment of silence for the victims of the Boston bombing, the national anthem, a quick “racers ready, go.”  We opened with a 9 min pace behind Tim’s bike for an easy roll out, where Jason observed that no one was pushing pace… exchange of names, home towns, notes of running,theories of what laid ahead, etc… Breathing accelerated, deepeneded, slowed, and the first mile chirped as we turned into the premier unpaved climb.  We kicked up the gravel road, then power hiked, then ran as the gravel road sliced into my first wrong trail... run back into the crowd towards a summit for a display of long-reaching vistas.  Mountain meadows and vast stretches of misty green.  A mountain lake.  We followed yellow ribbons and savored the scenic sections of Leatherwood Resort.  Horses grazed fields in morning ease and we continued running… another wrong turn, jamming down a paved road for a ½ mile or so (singing jane’s addiction “coming down the mountain,” feeling good), before rolling back to where we lost the course.  Four of us on that detour, and two took off again.
Into the trails.  Mountain meadows, high in fields of tall green grass in otherwise pale earth, a spring yet unpigmented … traces of spring in little white flowers on rock faces, like lace forming on the escarpment.  Real masculine mountain lines, jagged, cut, sucking down shoes, cool mud, cool morning, oily sweat of exertion.  altitude.   

This was not Umstead multi-use trails or even knotty mountain bike trails.  These were horse trails. Runners ganked for the trails for one day, but they were trails made by horses and traveled by horses …  Fist-sized stones were oiled by red mud on steep ascents and steeper descents.  Power climbing became the prominent traverse with downhills working at the knees and hips, jumping side to side like moguls to control speed.  Dead leaves covered trail and there was gamble and risk in each stride.  Clusters of people moved forward with howls of laughter as we slid on asses and skied on mud-caked shoes.  One fella lost both shoes in a mud crossing, losing one to the mud, and when turning to retrieve it, lost the other to mud.  We were maybe five miles in (excluding distance gained while lost) and over an hour had passed.  Leatherwood would be about endurance, not speed.

I had long lost Jason and a few others I’d hoped to run with.  Getting lost was demoralizing, adding work to a strenuous enough course, when a third wrong turn left me feeling disastrous.  “its just not your day” one guy remarked.  My spirit of competition weakened.

The storms of Friday had stolen ribbons and I was studying the terrain, less observant of the yellow-green ribbons, which blended into the new spring colours.  My competitive energies had dissipated and I was running my own trail in my own space in my own journey.  That is the gift of ultras, and I had found it earlier than expected at Leatherwood.  Again, as with most races, I found myself alone on some unknown trail in unknown territory.  I had to consciously remind myself to appreciate the moment, to be here in this stride, on this mountain, in this body.  I thought of the yoga class I normally taught at that hour, 9am.  I teleported myself into that yoga studio, on a mat.  My mind looped through mudmuck and skylight, but my thoughts were feeling gravity with every ascent. I was loosing light and purpose and I wanted it to be done.  
Then a lift of fog, a pleasure of running mountain.  And a sinking and grovelling.  Seeds of Cycle.

The trails were spectacular with beauty in sections, with other sections passing through filtered light of graybrown and becoming only the push of legs.  Peaks came and went, with the first seven miles surging upwards.  The course ribboned the surrounding mountains with some really nice runnable sections and then deposited us into a community of homes on a road for an aid station.  Gummy bears and heed and salt.  Peanut M&Ms.  The road split into a dirt road, very runnable if you had legs, flat and fast… gorgeous pastures fenced by powerful oaks, beech trees, cypress.  Mountain cabins.   Shed roofs made of road signs.  The sun was brilliant and the sky was as deep as any cerulean in a tube of oil paint.  Dogs ran up, licking hands and pressing their muzzles into palms.  I do love a dog and this was a mental lift.  The morning was fresh and the air was clean and miles accumulated with a relaxed effort.  The reprieve of the opening 25 mile loop was soon before me: a shin-deep river crossing of mountain cold water that fully reinvigorated the legs and mind.  My feet absorbed the coolness, my legs boiled their excess heat and swelled into the water.  I paused for a few extra moments as the sand rolled through bruised toes.  

Then it was time to get the hell off the dirt road and back onto the trails.

More trails, more ascents, descents.   I was harvesting intense climbs, short but steep, and was still alone.  I was brutal at moments, overwhelmed at moments, grateful at moments. I was soon joined by two others and, as I ran down a hill, I caught my right shoe on a stride which folded my leg back, bringing my right knee full onto the edge of a rock as my left leg anchored my movement back to vertical.  I felt the stone cut in across the lower patella.  I hobbled for a moment, tested the movement of the joint, sprayed some heed across the wound, checked the blood flow.  Gashed knee at mile 23,  because I knew someone was going to get hurt on this course… another 2 miles to the stable, the start/finish/loop area, and I asked for some disinfectant. 

ugh. some blood & the pause.  

At the stable, the base of the run, I sat.  I was waiting for a bandage and bactine for a good forty minutes.  Talking dogs, talking running, talking weather …  Slowness of the medic, a kind-faced man with a mountaineer’s sense of time, with my seemingly thick curtain of flesh folded back from the knee, exposed mess and blood.  Again, all competition drained from my mind and legs. "Thanks" I said as he taped my gauze and told me that he had gone to the same college as my wife.  A helpful soul who told me to pay attention to that knee and to wash it.  

I had lost all concern for time, for racing, and I walked down to the camp to check on my dog.  I set up the pocket rocket, boiled some coffee, had a hot sugary cup of Columbian .…. A good hour break (debating privately and seriously a drop), a change into new socks and trail shoes, half the race behind me and the other in front, I ran up ambush trail to start the second loop at roughly 12:30pm.  Several bodies had passed, my mind was in an unsettled space, and I vowed to finish the second loop if only to achieve 40 miles for a technical ultra distance.  

Kyote ascending Ambush Trail.

Up and up and up we climbed, finding some rolling trails to jog, and though my garmin had died, I estimate 15 min/m at best.  Then the complement to climbing, massive body jerks down supersteep leaf&rock&scree, running tight moguls, jamming hips and trying to control acceleration in the falling momentum of body.  Here we found some more mountain beauty, the reason I’d come, and my bad space lightened a little.  The ipod came on around mile 28, loosening my funk.

Less than runnable course.  Horse trails occupied by runners.  Endless scrambles that left the legs gasping.  Areas that were runnable were muddy, tarry, or my legs were just too anaerobic to push a decent pace.  The muscles of cycling and stair running proved the key muscles of the race.  I had been running on a treadmill on alternating 4.5% - 10% grades and then jogging/power hiking to a peak grade of 15% for 8 weeks.  Trail miles every other run. Core work and power yoga to build the back and abs and lungs, though I’ve had a sprained psoas for 6 months which limits core work and yoga postures.   But that was my training, and it would’ve been fine for a lesser course.  I considered dropping. I considered cutting course.  I kept moving forward though.  Relentless forward motion as they say, albeit sourced in a determination to just finish the loop.

More of the same, muddy single track with rare bursts of rolling trail, gravel road, one sun-soaking snake stretched out and lazy, miles of ascent, reggae, an out-and-back that passed flat, perfect green meadows of long green grasses.  Rich and rewarding.  Another section felt like western states with sunbaked clay, juts of rock, a sweet overlook.  I finished the second loop, traded bracelets, paused and exhaled the forty miles of work behind me …. brilliant volunteers... the knee was sore, my mind was grumpy.  I saw Kyote, Kas, Maya enjoying the sun.  I grabbed S-caps, had amazing homemade breads, pocketed a couple more gels, was off.  I joined Brew Davis and Brandon Thrower to get up the last loop of 10 miles, knowing that I had to get out of the stables... a body in motion stays in motion.
Power hiking, an effort at peeing ( far too rare in the day), and some conversation… I eventually ran on, trying to keep my wits and legs intact, trying to smell the barn, but the last loop was straight fukn gnarly and my 1.5 hr projection spreading to nearly three hours.  The worst series of false summits and power climbing I’ve ever experienced were about 7 miles in, meaning 47 miles in, and the misery continued for a mile, leaving me absolutely bankrupt of energy and momentum.  I was beat down, and my mantra became “just finish," the gloom occasionally interrupted by a misfits song, a groundation rift, a view.  

At the last aid station, a local fella told me there was a bear at the bottom of the trail and I just figured wrestling a bear was part of the race.  Fortunately I never saw a bear, though the final three miles were horror on the quads and femurs like a bears teeth and claws… the trail dumped into the paved roads of Leatherwood resort, tennis courts and cabins... in the final mile of non-technical running, I thought of my friend Lee who had recently died... sad moment... I thought about work, friendship, family, things I’ve lost, things I’ve gained.  I meditated my existence and I gave thanks for being clean, sober, healthy.  I sent namaste vibes to the mountains and those still traversing them... i continued into a tangent onto trail behind cabins before emerging to the final paper-lamped chute and finish gate.  Eleven hours and fifty one minutes, with eleven hours of those being actively hiking/running 50 miles of mountain trail. Rarely have I been so proud of finishing something.

Rachel, Tim, Brew, Doug and many others finished up soon thereafter.  David dropped due to aggravated knee tendons.   A dozen others dropped mid-course, though many had dropped in recent weeks from the 50 miler to the 50k or 10 mile race. 

Leatherwood was a powerful run, and my family was key to my finish.  Kas pushed me, quietly but firmly (once I finished my coffee) back onto the second loop.  Her glare was reassuring, rectifying, threatening, like a sergeant might glare.  Kyote had great fun and was much help.  Kas had already taken our camp back down to the river, where I shortly collapsed into the bag for a cold nights sleep, relieved to have rest.

 Le Fin.
Sunday morning was a slow breakdown of gear, a drive to Boone for breakfast at the Bagelry.  We stretched legs on King Street then drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway where we hiked a mile or two of the mountain-to-sea trail.  Kyote ran and ran that trail, falling two, three, four times, but getting back up and hitting it again.  Kas and I noticed that the trail was surrounded by debris and the trees look like they had been splintered by tornados.  No other hiker was seen, nothing but quiet and air and evergreen and the white circles blazed on trees.  Perfect walk through the woods with the family, one of those moments I live for, and my gratitude swelled ... as did my feet and legs, but not beyond expectation.  Hitting the road to return home, there was an easy vibe, a will to be home, but not a rushed thing… we allowed the time to be here, and here, and here, to be in the journey.  That’s the lesson taught by ultras, especially Leatherwood.

Props to runners, volunteers, crews, dogs, and especially Mark and Tim for putting this whole mess together.   I hope to be a part of the Leatherwood Ultra 2014 to see the evolution of this race, its participants, and its times. 

Overlook, Blue Ridge Parkway.

More of the MST Scenery.
Mountain to Sea Trail.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Leatherwood Mountain Ultra, Take One.

Meditations on leatherwood mountain 50 miler.  Four days until line up.

Seven years ago, I began jogging with my girlfriend.  She was training for a marathon and I was trying to get clean. 
She'd run pre-sun hours on the wooden slats along the cape fear.  I'd follow.  I'd follow and I would foam at the mouth, gasp air into my beet-face, stomping and barking through dawn.  My stride was a heavy, broken cadence, a struggling thud & plod.  My sweat was a gelatinous ooze, a cold murky petroleum of stale drink, drugs.  But, every run, she’d drag me across her miles, talking music, talking poetry, talking water and sky, until I was gasping out a 13 minute pace and feeling the accomplishment of a morning run.  Grab some coffee & a smoke, try to hold out the cravings.

The running escalated and the other shit diminished, albeit slowly and arduously.  Goals evolved, gradually expanded.  I began jogging alone because I wanted to jog.  Sobriety and running wrestled and conspired against each other. Passing the Barbary Coast, panting and ridiculous, I might stop, enter, order a beer and another.  The next run, I might set a goal to get past the bar, to get to Chandler’s Wharf, run repeats on the hill by the governor’s mansion... and I may or may not make it past the bar on the way back.  But I was earning progress. 

I embraced the meditation of movement, the medicine of movement.  My thoughts opened, free-roaming the poetic space of things, sometimes coherently, sometimes wildly hinged like a monkey in branches.  I still had the delirium of evening, cravings, but there may be a pause, a softening.  I might observe something interesting: the quirks of light, an unusual face, a formation of birds, a boat on the river, a handwritten note on the ground.

I noticed the runs easing up, a settling of body, the presence of rhythm.  Miles of nostalgia, mood and memory, self-confrontation.  The run, the act of a run, appeared an organic and ever-evolving thing, akin to a drawing or a language.  I learned that a run could be an artful expression of the mind and soul.

Eventually I bought running shorts, read Dr. Noake's The Lore of Running.  Kupricka, Roes, Koerner… ultra-runners, 100 milers, fifty milers, Western States, Leadville... I learned basics, I worked nutrition, I dropped from 200 to 180 to 175.  My constitution improved, my spirit found grounding.  

Eventually I distilled the ultimate image, the pinnacle, the goal-vision of myself, that I’d run on the power of my own body through the trails of magnificent mountains.  That I would have the freedom, the strength of body, the command of mind, the consistency of effort to endeavor such feats enthralled and intimidated me.  That I could be powerful enough to run up a mountain, healthy enough to enjoy it, spiritually sound enough to be present in the act... I did not need to be a lithe Kupricka bounding through miles and rock faces in bare feet.  I wanted to be a reborn man, running through and with the Land.  The vision was a reclaiming of body, a reclaiming of the mountains I'd always loved, a rebirth of belief.

The journey has been a powerful process, exploring my darkness and my light.  Now, I face a 50 mile trail run in the mountains right beneath my second home, Boone NC in the Appalachian mountains. Boone, where much of my chaos found an opening.

The runner girl is now my wife and crew.  She's seen a few ultra races at this point, and she'll be crewing the Leatherwood Mountain ultra in four days.

I am nervous. My pre-race agitation is as wild as a wolf under a full moon.