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.