Just keep running, just keep running, running, running…

I’m getting stronger. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, but I’m undeniably getting stronger.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 5.00.01 PM

A few weeks ago, I recorded a weekly mileage of 38.07. That may not seem all that amazing, but I haven’t hit a 1-week mileage in excess of 38 miles since my Big Sur marathon training in late March 2015, nearly 2 years ago. It’s been a long. damn. time.

Last October, I ran the Ath Half in 1:48:52, a 5.5-minute improvement over the previous year. Just this past week, I ran the Albany Half in 1:48:24, the fastest half marathon I’ve run since the GA Publix Half almost two years ago, also in March 2015. It’s been a long. damn. time.

As has been a regular mantra here of late, I still have a long, long way to go. I’m still barely within sight of my half marathon PR of 1:41–set back in May 2014–and I haven’t done speed work in so long I have to actually sit down to think about what a 7-minute mile would translate to on a per-lap basis.

My mental game is also an utter disaster. I seem to have completely forgotten how to push when I’m entering the pain cave; I mentally cringe and try to hold the pain at bay (which, of course, does nothing except exacerbate it) instead of accepting it and feeding off it. My brain runs at a million miles an hour, just like it does at work, which all but keeps me from settling into a rhythm and letting the miles just tick by.

And holy crap, I can NOT give myself a break. Remember just a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned this year’s Albany Half? By all objective measures, and especially in my specific context, I performed extremely well. Intellectually I understand that, but emotionally I just cannot convince myself I ran a good race, that I’m improving, and that I should be proud of my performance. All that registers on an emotional level is that I’m still 7+ minutes away from taking another crack at my PR, and jfc my mental game is shit.

I know at least some of this is, as always, the fault of the crazy stress levels I’m feeling from work. I’m 300% overextended with no end in sight until at least July; every week is a new version of finding a way to squeeze 100 hours of work into 60, which invariably means dropping the ball on some things, pushing off others, and outright sucking at whatever’s left. Running may be an escape, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s still a function of everything else that’s going on.

One of the few reasons I’ve managed to stick with it is because everything else is also a function of running.

It’s March already, and I still haven’t outlined a concrete set of 2017 resolutions. Or, as of last week, Lenten resolutions.

There are definitely some things I want to do that I know would help across the board. For instance, yoga 5x/week: I did this back in grad school for several months, and the results were absurdly awesome. The problem is when the debate inevitably arises between sleep and yoga, guess which one wins 95% of the time.

I also want to start regularly incorporating core work and weights. For the latter, I’ve already been semi-successfully bringing back “DropAndGiveMe.” But core work has been nonexistent, as allocating time for it has largely run into the same conundrum as yoga.

Speed and tempo work are things I’d like to do regularly, but as long as I’m getting the miles in, these won’t be too difficult to mix in.

Finally, I need to get my diet back on track. Through January and half of February it was pretty good, but I fell off the bandwagon. Stress snacking is one of my less-healthy coping mechanisms, but definitely something I can work on without a huge additional time investment.

As I’ve said, I don’t really know how I’m going to implement some of these. But I suppose it’s a lot like my running. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to get back to making runs at my PRs, but somehow, I’ve kept plugging away when I’ve had no desire to. As a result, every measure says it’s been paying off. Progress has been agonizingly slow, but undeniably measurable. Maybe that’s a good way to approach these resolutions: even when it isn’t pretty, even when it feels like it isn’t working or I would be better served by forgetting about it this time and trying again tomorrow: just keep plugging away.

Just keep running!

9k=-1

Finish chute photo!

Advertisements

Race Report: Holy crap, where did that come from?!

To those of you who stop running because it became tiresome and grindy: I absolutely get it.

The last year of running has been the most unproductive and least enjoyable that I’ve ever had. It’s come from a really bad combination of 1) stressful job that hasn’t let up in this time frame, and 2) bad, lingering injuries that have been extremely slow to heal. I’ve had to mentally put myself in the position of essentially starting from scratch, albeit with the knowledge of having once run 5×1600 with 6:20 splits and a half marathon PR of 1:41.

“Frustrating” is putting it kindly. So when someone expresses their own frustration with running, or dreads going out for a run, or drops it entirely for these reasons, I totally get it.

But if you manage to catch a glimpse of light at the other end, a whiff of progress out of the seemingly-endless grind, it is beautiful.

With very few exceptions, my running the last several months has been consistent down to the week: mid-20s’ worth of mileage.

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-12-06-18-pm

It’s just that so little of it was actually fun. That the majority was during the absolutely horrific summer we suffered through this year probably didn’t help much, but an enjoyable run in this stretch was the exception, not the rule.

Sheer determination to hit 20+ miles each week, seeing how many weeks in a row I could do it, and stubborn refusal to give up on it were just about the only reasons I kept going out every day. That, and trying to keep my endorphin levels as high as possible with the stress of work. If I wasn’t running, I wasn’t working out, period. And I needed to work out.

So I kept running. But it wasn’t confidence-inspiring; if anything, it did the opposite. When almost every run hurt, my already-dim view of my own abilities only drooped further. It probably doesn’t come as much surprise, then, that when Ath Half rolled around, I was just hoping not to thoroughly embarrass myself.

<Aside>

You can argue that one’s finishing time ultimately doesn’t matter. And you’d be 100% correct! The problem is, once you actually hit the road, that just doesn’t matter anymore. The fact that I haven’t run a half marathon in over 2 hours since 2010 weighed heavily on me as I considered possibly exceeding 2 hours in this race, given how miserable my runs had been.

I was telling everyone ahead of Ath Half that I just wanted to come in under 2 hours.

</Aside>

Truthfully–as runners do–I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to come in under 1:55, since my 2015 Ath Half time was somewhere around low-1:54. C’mon, I thought: at least make a run at last year’s time, right?

But I had absolutely no gauge for what I could do. The last half marathon I’d run in recent memory was the brutal downhill Scream Half, where I posted a respectable 1:53, but the insane elevation change obviated any possibility of comparison. Plus, that was all the way back in June. I had no barometer against which to infer my limits.

And, because the aforementioned summer sucked so freaking much, I wasn’t putting much stock in my abilities. Hence, sub-2 sounded like a treat to me.

Enter race day.

14523070_10106070238844540_418103367267214522_n

Up and at ’em, rise and shine!

One of our running buddies, Jonathan, was the 1:40 pacer. A bunch of ladies on the Fleet Feet running team were going to hang with him. Going in, I figured I’d stick with the group for the first mile for the lulz, then just coast the rest of the way to the finish. An eclectic plan for sure; it also betrayed just how not-seriously I was taking this race.

(and belied how much I was dreading it)

Still, the weather was quite a bit nicer from Ath Half 2015. That year, it was muggy as hell, and I suffered quite a bit as a result. But while the more pleasant weather was certainly welcome, it did nothing to assuage the dark recesses of my mind worrying about the hills on the back half of the course. They’d be there no matter how nice the weather was.

Thus began the race.

It was clear within the first couple of blocks that I wasn’t going to stick with the 1:40 group; I let them go pretty quickly after the start. Still, I knew I was being pulled along at a decent clip by all the folks around me, so I focused on slowing down.

8:06

Cool! But too fast, let’s try to draw it back a little.

8:01

Wow, that’s neat. But still too fast. Pull back on the throttle.

8:02

Hmm. Is the throttle busted?

7:58, 8:02

Yeah: first 5 miles of the race in 40 minutes flat. I was not expecting that. But at the same time, I knew it was the flattest 5 miles I’d get, so I really, really needed to slow down, no seriously guys, for real, time to slow down.

Somewhere around this time, I caught up to The Lady, who’d fallen off the 1:40 group. I walked alongside her for a bit, checking in and making sure she was ok. I was also confident at this point that I no longer had to worry about living through my WORST NIGHTMARE of coming in over 2 hours (by my math, would’ve had to run 10-minute miles for the remaining distance for this to be a problem).

Turns out, we weren’t far from the next water stop, at which point The Lady stopped there for a bit to collect herself, and I started back up running again. I could feel that my legs were definitely getting heavy, and we’d only just started with the hills. Welp, I figured, I wasn’t going to set any landspeed records anyway. Let’s just see what happens.

I was mentally kicking myself at every mile, as I kept watch-hawking. I couldn’t seem to help myself; I was going by feel, but at the same time felt an overwhelming need to check the distance, check my splits, blah blah blah. I knew it was mental, that my mind wasn’t the honed, sharpened, hardened diamond it had once been, and as a result I was doing things and engaging in habits that were counter-productive in a race environment. But the discipline just wasn’t there. I tried to shake it off and just keep on going.

9:24

Yep, definitely slowing down (though I did walk this mile…).

7:54

Huh, apparently not.

8:23

This is where it started getting hard: the hills kept coming and my mental game wasn’t improving. Turning down some extremely rolling terrain, I tried to focus entirely on the relief I still felt that it was nigh-impossible at this point to finish in over 2 hours.

Still, that damn hill coming out of River Rd is effing brutal. I used the water stop there as an excuse to stop and re-tie my right shoe, which had become loose enough that it was becoming a distraction. I recalled at the starting line it had crossed my mind to double-knot my shoes, then something shiny must’ve come along. Go me.

8:54, 8:47

At this point I was coming into the home stretch where we loop around the stadium a few times. It’s both electrifying (lots of cheering sections) and deflating (so close to the finish for so long). I was still allowing myself to slow considerably on uphills; I’d like to say it was because I was refusing to walk at any point, but really it was because I was just mentally lazy and knew that I’d come in under 2 hours, so who cares about shaving off a few seconds on this hill.

Then I finally did the math–wait, I’m less than a mile out and barely into the 1:40s? I CAN BREAK 1:50?!

!!!

8:30

I tried to kick, I honestly did. My legs were burning pretty good at this point, and my chest felt like it was being compressed by an anvil, but for once in the entire race I managed to push my mental laziness aside and give it everything I had left–an average 6:43 pace.

1:48:52

I couldn’t believe it.

I just finished Ath Half–ATH HALF–not only faster than last year, but under 1:49!

For comparison, here’s the mile-by-mile breakdowns of Ath Half 2016 versus last year:

One hell of an improvement!

This is not to say I’M BACK B#^*%ES. I still have a ton of work to do. My cadence fell off considerably, especially in the last few miles. Given my foot issues from the last year, cadence is the one thing that I absolutely cannot slack on; it needs to stay above 160, preferably around 170.

Speaking of slacking, my mental game is a joke. I had absolutely zero capacity to settle in, let the world around me disappear, and just let go and go. I kept glancing at my watch at least a couple of times each mile, I kept oscillating between worry about the next hill and worry about embarrassing myself. And I had no ability to push myself in the last few miles, instead getting lazy and just slowing down, even though I clearly still had gas left in the tank. Speedwork and tempo runs will help with this, though.

And hills–in a not-so-distant previous life, a source of strength and motivation–have become borderline intimidating. That’s a little worrisome; downhills have always been hard for me, but it’s helped that I always got a boost out of uphills, even if it was only psychological.

But! Yes, there is, in fact, a “but.”

There’s a core here worth building on. Something has clearly been clicking for the past several months, to the point where I could run a sub-1:50 under less-than-ideal conditions; my previous sub-1:50 performance was at last year’s Chickamauga Battlefield half marathon. Absolutely perfect conditions–extremely gentle hills, near-freezing temperatures, and perfectly sunny–and it was still a squeaker: I came in somewhere around 1:49:57, and only after redlining the last two miles to do it.

I had time to spare this year, on a much harder course. Time that, of all things, I spent being mentally lazy on the final climbs. Had I really pushed myself that last 5K, who knows how much room under 1:50 I would’ve had.

I’ve been telling people how this past year has basically felt like starting over from zero, except with all the knowledge and experience of “I used to be able to do this…”, which has made it so easy to be so hard on myself. It’s been true in a big sense: I’ve had to accept limitations I haven’t experienced since I started running, and at that time I was blissfully unaware of said limitations.

That’s made it hard. Really hard. Which is why I understand if you’ve been in this position and have chosen to walk away and try something else. And who knows: maybe this race was an anomaly and running will go right back to sucking in the near future.

All I know is something clicked at Ath Half, and for something to click in a half marathon, something has to be clicking for weeks before that. Plus, I told The Lady years ago that I would retire when I broke a 1:35 half marathon; can’t stop now that I’m making headway toward that goal again!

Sprinkles Are For Winners!

*waves* I’m not dead yet!

So, first things first. The Lady and I were recently in our old stompin’ grounds–fabulous Pittsburgh–for the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. We’d formed a team a few months ago with Kim as our fearless leader, a team named “Sprinkles Are For Winners.”

The relay runs the full marathon course, split up over 5 runners who each cover some distance between roughly 4.5 and 6.7 miles. As The Lady and I had never run the full, there was an entire 13.1 miles we’d never run before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to see the full without actually having to run the whole 26.2 miles. And, y’know, see Pittsburgh and the folks there whom we love dearly 🙂

The race itself more or less went off without a hitch, albeit with a few wrinkles with respect to the weather. It was a lot more humid than anticipated due to in-and-out rain (which was also unexpected), and this made things a little tricky, but overall it worked out ok.

We stayed with Kim and her husband Scott in the Pittsburgh suburbs, and managed to absolutely pack our schedule with friend-visiting time. We arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday morning at 9am–yes, arrived at 9am; I’ll let you do the math–and spent the rest of the day meeting up with The Lady’s work buddy Lara, some of my former graduate school colleagues, and dinner with Matt and Maria, before heading to Kim’s for the night.

The next day was more running around. First, we went for a shake-out 3-mile morning run with Kim, Michael, and someone named Octavius or Jonathan or Maximillian or something, and his lovely wife Jill.

ChSyQHkWwAANKWc

Courtesy of Ferdinand. Or was it Randall? (that’s me on the far right)

Following the shake-out, we hit the Expo! Woohoo!

IMG_4939

Always a blast.

At the expo, we once again ran into Ellen, as well as Kelly and her family. Following the expo was a strategy session with Kim, a delicious pre-race dinner with Kim and Scott, and glorious, wonderful sleep.

The relay itself was pretty awesome. Our first runner, Danielle, was also running the entire full, so once she handed off to our second runner Shay she just kept going. I was the intrepid third runner, stationed around mile 10 of the course. I was excited to run my leg, as it started near where the half and full races diverged, so I’d briefly get to see some familiar sights before stepping off onto a course I’d never run before.

Of course, the elevation of my leg was…interesting.

Ok, I don't feel *quite* as bad about how deathly I felt near the end. #PGHMarathon #PGHMarathonRelay

A post shared by Shannon (@magsolium) on

Yeah.

I went out feeling fairly good, and climbing Birmingham Bridge wasn’t too much of a problem, but there was this offramp that took us onto Forbes…that beat me up pretty good. I was definitely hurting after that.

I didn’t set any landspeed records–8:38 average pace, which for the 10K it essentially was is definitely on the very slow side for me–but I finished intact, handing off to The Lady in Squirrel Hill, right next to Bakery Square.

IMG_4960

Kim saw me around mile 5 and snapped a photo. I was deep in the pain cave at this point, but thanks for the awesome shot!

After The Lady dashed off, I took some time to hang around Bakery Square, get some coffee from the adjacent Coffee Tree Roasters, and generally take things easy before hopping back on one of the convenient relay buses that took me back downtown for the finish.

Soon enough, The Lady handed off to our anchor and fearless leader Kim, and The Lady and I managed to meet up at the finish with [almost!] our whole team.

IMG_4955

4/5 (runners 1, 3, 4, and 5) of team Sprinkles Are For Winners!

We hit up Burgatory afterwards for some glorious burgers and spiked shakes before getting cleaned up and hitting the road back to good ol’ Athens.

It was a really fun race weekend. Exhausting for sure–we spent the next week trying desperately to catch up on sleep. But not only did we once again have the privilege of running through the city we’d fallen in love with, but we got to see a large number of the people who made the city so special to begin with. We don’t see them nearly often enough and it was great to catch up doing the very thing that effectively introduced us to each other all those years ago.

As a bonus, the Danimal and Sarah were in town, too! They both ran the half marathon–Sarah’s first ever! They joined us for post-race celebrations at Burgatory, and a wonderful time was had by all.

There’s more to be said–lots more–but I wanted to go ahead and reassure the MASSES WHO READ MY BLOG (lolololol) that I’m still alive, still running, and especially in this case, still having a lot of fun 🙂

 

It’s the journey, not the injury

Like I mentioned in my previous post, the longer I’m out due to injury, the more I’m convinced this will ultimately be a good thing for my running psyche.

Allow me to explain using two races I ran in the last weeks as Exhibits A and B, respectively.

Sunday, Sept 27: Pittsburgh Great Race 10K

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, The Lady and I returned to the city we are still as madly in love with as ever (disclaimer: we really and truly do love Athens and the wonderful people we’ve met; doesn’t mean we don’t still miss Pittsburgh, too) for a wedding: Kim and Scott (go ham)!

It was a beautiful ceremony, and so very Them. It took place at North Park, an exceptionally picturesque park that’s far enough outside the main Pittsburgh area that deer are a regular sighting (also host to such events as the Frigid Five Miler, Spring Thaw, and Just A Short Run). The ceremony itself was intimate–maybe 70 people in attendance–and took place under a pavilion on a day that God Himself was probably proud of: mid-60s, a gentle breeze, low humidity, and barely a cloud in the sky. It was, in every possible way, perfect.

But it just so happened their wedding coincided with the Great Race, Pittsburgh’s annual 10K that has as much personality as the city that hosts it. We couldn’t pass up the chance. Even with my injury, I felt my foot could handle 6.2 miles, and with all the cycling I’d been doing felt confident my cardiovascular system could keep up.

I went into the event knowing I wouldn’t be setting any PRs; in fact, I wasn’t going to try, not even for anything close. The Lady had to use the race as a training event and stick like glue to her goal marathon pace (8:12 min/mi), and I felt like sticking with her would be plenty given my complete lack of running mileage the past month.

<3

So that’s precisely what I did. I soaked in the sights and sounds to a level I rarely ever have at this event (been too busy in previous years gunning for a PR), and all the while felt great. I wasn’t officially pacing for The Lady, but I also had to be careful: I noticed I would keep speeding up to a sub-8 pace without realizing. Come mile 5 and the infamous Boulevard of the Allies climb, The Lady said I was more than welcome to take off if I was feeling good; she would stick to her own pace.

I pushed an 8-minute mile 5 (nothing spectacular), a 6:45 mile 6 (not too shabby!), and a 6:23-pace last quarter-mile before crossing the finish line at 48:41. Definitely not a PR (almost exactly 6 minutes long), but I’d had a blast and felt great the entire time. I was truly on Cloud 9.

Yeah, I was definitely sore the next week: muscles I hadn’t used in almost a month had suddenly been called upon to run a hilly race at a reasonable clip. My lungs, quads, and hamstrings were more than up to the task, but all those little stabilizing muscles had a serious case of WTF M8. Furthermore, my foot was pretty pissed at me the rest of Sunday; while it felt great during the race, it tightened up very quickly afterwards, so I made the decision that I would skip the next weekend’s half marathon in Atlanta and resume healing.

Sunday, Oct 4: Michelob ULTRA 13.1 Atlanta

…at least, that was the plan. Until I recalled that The Lady and I had signed up for the ATL Challenge and had already completed the first of the two required races back in March. I wanted that medal, dammit!

Of course, if it was just the medal, I would have been disappointed but not enough to switch strategies. I noticed that come Monday (24 hours later), my foot was feeling better. As in, better than before I’d run the Great Race. So I started aggressively icing each night after work while making plans for completing the ATL Challenge.

Like the Great Race, I had no plans to attempt a PR. 100 miles of cycling each week, while certainly more than sufficient to maintain a baseline level of cardiovascular fitness, does not for a long-distance PR prepare one. But I was still nonetheless confident my fitness level could carry me through the race standing up.

Come race morning, me and the 7.2 miles I’d run in the last month (Great Race, plus a 1-miler on Sept 4, the only other time I’d run) lined up at the starting line, with the lofty goal of a sub-1:50. The Lady, meanwhile, was using the race as a training tune-up: she had her coach’s blessing to open up the throttles and see what she could do. With that, The Lady took off at the start, while I settled into something that felt comfortable.

A few things I very quickly realized within the first three miles:

  • This humidity was going to be a problem: I’d drained 2/3 of my handheld within the first few miles and my body temps were still skyrocketing.
  • A sub-1:50 wasn’t going to happen; 8:24 min/mi just didn’t feel comfortable, and I had no intention of feeling uncomfortable within the first few miles of a race that was effectively doubling in one morning my entire running mileage for the last month.
  • Holy. Hills. Batman.

Really, that list could be condensed into just the third point (with the side addendum: there were 11 aid stations advertised on the event website, but only 5 on the actual course). The hills were brutal. They were fast elevation changes that zipped up and down, leaving the runners very little on which to build some momentum before shifting yet again.

Michelob ULTRA elevation chart.

Michelob ULTRA elevation chart.

…and yet, I felt strong. I felt focused, alert, and in control. I wasn’t breaking any speed records, but I was consistently staying within the 8:30-8:45 range every mile, regardless of terrain; in fact, only mile 3 broke 9 minutes (9:07); the rest were below 9, often solidly so. Helping even more was a steady, misting rain that started around mile 5: it perfectly countered my rising body temperatures and kept them stable through the rest of the race, allowing me to preserve what was left in my handheld water bottle in case of emergency.

I kept cruising, feeling strong, taking the hills at a slow-but-steady pace and chewing up the miles. I high-fived The Lady a few times as we passed each other on out-and-backs, cheering her on. The only hiccup was around mile 9, when I discovered my calves were really hurting but I couldn’t figure out why.

And then it dawned on me: I haven’t been running, so my calves weren’t used to absorbing the shock from my midfoot-to-forefoot strikes, and the Great Race was too short for this problem to surface. Cycling is great for your quads and hamstrings, but doesn’t do a whole lot for your calves. The last couple downhills I had to switch to heel-striking to give my calves and ankles a break, but I made a mental note to start mixing some calf work into my workouts.

I crossed the finish line at 1:53:10, again setting no speed records but nonetheless giving me an immensely satisfying finish, especially considering 1) the humidity, 2) the lack of aid stations, 3) the omg-hills, and 4) my complete lack of running mileage.

Also got my hands on this supaswank challenge medal (in addition to the regular finisher’s medal [not pictured]):

13.1 from the Georgia Half Marathon, and another 13.1 from the Michelob half.

13.1 from the Georgia Half Marathon, and another 13.1 from the Michelob half.

Again, I’d felt great throughout the race. The hills were brutal but I never stopped having fun. The pace was a good workout but it still felt comfortable, giving me a huge psychological boost toward keeping doing what I’m doing while making me all the more antsy to get back to running full-time. My foot was somewhat pissed the rest of the day, but I’m waiting to see if it does the same as before and feels better following the initial 24 hours post-race.

Conclusion

Technically, I’m still injured. My foot definitely still hurts when I walk, some days worse than others. I’m still not going to run on it during the week (dooming myself to miss even more group runs with Fleet Feet and Athens Road Runners), and I’m going to keep hitting the bike as much as I can to maintain my cardio fitness.

But I’m cautiously optimistic that my foot is–slowly–healing. I’m thrilled that I can still race and hit certain milestones. And I’m stoked that I enjoyed those races as much as I did, that I’m chomping at the bit to get back into running form. I miss running. And I like that I miss it.

I needed this break from running, without a doubt. Now I want to do everything I can to get back into it.

Race Report: The Hilliest Marathon Evar

Upside of running a marathon on the opposite coast: it basically forces you to take a vacation, unless you really want to fly back within 24 hours of touching down (not this guy).

Downside of running a marathon on the opposite coast: holy 500 unread emails, batman.

BUT ANYWHO. BIG SUR!

West coast best coast?

West coast best coast?

This whole trip was a very interesting logistical ballet. While the race was on a Sunday, we flew into SFO on the previous Thursday, giving us a few entire days to get settled beforehand. Afterwards, we left on that Tuesday, giving us yet another day after the fact to stretch our aching legs and tour around before cramming back into a tiny metal tube flying at 35,000 feet for several hours.

It turned out to be a brilliant plan.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday: Pre-race

She is SO EXCITED for the 6-hour plane ride.

She is SO EXCITED for the 6-hour plane ride.

The flight was long, but uneventful. The wild card, I noticed in class I was teaching the previous day, was a tickle in the back of my throat that, historically, signaled the onset of a head cold. With hardly 72 hours to go before a marathon, I was more than a little worried that this could be problematic. So we tried to accommodate by making sure we got plenty of sleep and fluids.

That first evening, we stayed in a hotel right next to the airport. Pretty much rolled out of the plane and into bed.

Friday morning, we rented a car and drove the ~2 hours from San Francisco to Monterey.

It's a surprisingly long drive, especially if you're still a little jet-lagged.

It’s a surprisingly long drive, especially if you’re still a little jet-lagged.

The plan was to arrive by lunch time, both so we could get to the Expo in plenty of time, and so we could meet up with friends of ours from Pittsburgh who were also running–Danielle (The Lady’s running buddy!), and her husband Jose (who ended up not running). We met them for lunch at a nearby crepe restaurant (omnomnom) which, not at all coincidentally, was a block away from the Expo.

We picked up our bibs, bought a bunch of really cool swag–they had some awesome stuff there!–got all the information we needed on the buses that would drive us to the starting line at oh-God-o-clock the next morning, and by the early afternoon we were all wrapped up!

Danielle and Jose wanted to spend the rest of the day in San Francisco, but since The Lady and I had just come back from there we were loathe to make that drive two more times in the same day. Instead, we planned to meet up the next morning before parting ways; The Lady and I made our way to our hotel further up the road, which turned out to be a lovely inn about two blocks away from Cannery Row. So we took the opportunity to do a little bit of sight-seeing!

It was nice to get out and about, particularly since we knew we’d be spending all of the next day lounging, giving our legs as much rest as possible before the marathon.

Not too much rest, though–that Saturday morning was a group shake-out run with several Runner’s World reps, including none other than Bart Yasso!

You're jelly.

You’re jelly.

Fun fact: we actually got to meet him before the Pittsburgh marathon a few years back, but this was the first time we really got to run and chat with him. Wonderful guy with boundless energy who thrives on meeting new people, especially runners.

After the shake-out, we went back to our hotel, got cleaned up, and lounged the rest of the day. Bedtime was early, as wake-up was super early: around 3am.

Sunday: Race Day!

At this point, nearly two months out from the race, I honestly don’t remember how early it was that we woke up. But I do know the buses left sometime in the 3am range, so it was early. The bus ride itself was a good 45-60 minutes over Highway 1; very rolling. I somewhat dozed in and out; it was still pitch black out, so it’s not like I could really enjoy the scenery anyway.

We arrived at the starting line–seeming civilization in the middle of nowhere. Fortuitously enough, we encountered Danielle, and huddled together until the sun came up.

The start was right around 7am. The sun had only just started coming up an hour before, and the landscape as it came into view was, simply, breathtaking.

We had a few minutes to warm up (darting between runners) and generally attempt to shake out the butterflies, but soon enough, the starting time arrived. After a few announcements, the race director wished us good luck…and we were off!

Miles 1-5

The whole course was beautiful, but the first few miles almost felt like I was alone on the western coast of the United States. It was absolutely beautiful; there were giant trees to both sides of the road, killing the wind but also keeping out the rapidly rising sun. There were almost no crowds to speak of; the occasional house or lodge we passed by might’ve had a handful of people outside watching us go by, but other than that it was just the quiet pitter-pat of running feet punctuated by the occasional conversation between runners.

I loved it. Really helped me settle in, mentally. Plus I’m just kind of a nature freak: being by myself out in the great quiet embrace of Mother Nature is incredibly calming and soothing.

The road itself was, as advertised, rolling. The first 5 miles were a net downhill of 250ft, but there were certainly uphills as well as downhills on the winding road. We kept a fairly consistent sub-9 pace: 8:52, 8:40, 8:38, 8:44, 8:51.

Miles 5-10

With the exception of the last mile of this stretch, it was a significant net uphill. Gone were the cover of the trees; we had emerged along the California coastline, and the wind made its presence felt. It was absolutely beautiful; we could see the waves crashing on one side, and on the other the rolling hills complete with grazing cattle (we could even hear them; we imagined they were cheering us on). The Lady in particular recalled how there was a solid 2-mile steady climb during this stretch, where you could see the entire two miles; the road was a straight shot the whole way. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I felt pretty good. I had settled in nicely, and while our pace had slowed due to the climbs, I was enjoying myself.

Given that we weren’t aiming for any particular time goal, we stopped a couple of times to take pictures of the scenery.

We stayed solidly in mid-9s territory: 9:04, 9:03, 10:08, 9:25, 9:48.

Miles 10-15

Ok. Here’s where things got interesting. I’ll show you, and then describe it to you. Here’s the elevation chart as compiled by Strava from my GPS data of the race.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.55.49 AM

That spike in the middle, ladies and gentlemen, is known as Hurricane Point, and this elevation chart isn’t exaggerating: it is indeed a straight climb for two miles, during which you ascend just about 500ft. It’s not rolling; it is, quite literally, a straight climb. Mile 10 is the worst–you gain over 300 of the total 500ft in just that one mile.

Thankfully, I had my game face on and chugged up the hill, feeling surprisingly good the whole time. The Lady stuck right with me, too.

Upon reaching the top of the hill, we thought about stopping for another photo op, but the wind up there was crazy. I don’t know how strong it actually was, but I do know that, in the small amount of time that my foot was off the ground when I’d lift it to take another step, the wind would blast it sideways. My bib rippled, crackling loud enough to make me worry it would get blown off. So we kept moving.

We got a bit of a reprieve with a fairly lengthy downhill. At precisely the 13.1 mile mark, we reached the famous Bixby Creek Bridge. Of course we stopped to take a few photos.

And yes, as per Big Sur tradition, there was a pianist on a grand piano here. Absolutely delightful.

Despite Hurricane Point, we still made pretty good time on this stretch, keeping our mid-9s pacing on average: 9:48, 10:28, 9:53, 8:46, 9:54.

Miles 15-20

We were still cruising pretty well. I was definitely feeling the fatigue creeping in, but I still felt strong. However, for whatever reason, my GI tract decided to stage a revolt at this point. At mile 16 I had to make an unscheduled pit stop (The Lady had made one several miles ago; we were making excellent time so far, given our frequent photo stops, pit stops, and the general hilly course), after which I felt immensely better. Hashtag runner problems.

This was also where the course started deviating more inland, away from the coast. Kind of sad, though it did mean the wind eased up a bit. However, the sun was starting to get pretty warm, and while we did move further inland, there wasn’t a corresponding increase in tree cover. Instead, the surrounding area seemed to turn into farmland. The shade was a bit spotty.

Still we pressed on at a pretty decent clip: 14:13 (pit stop), 9:33, 9:42, 9:46, 9:47.

Miles 20-25

You know “The Wall” that runners talk about, and the concept of “hitting” it? That’s pretty much what happened to me at mile 20. One minute I was fine, the next minute, I really, really wasn’t.

I call this maneuver the

I call this maneuver the “Final 10K Shuffle-Step”.

I wish I could say it got better, but it really didn’t. While this probably would have happened anyway, my sneaking suspicion is the head cold I mentioned at the beginning hit full force here. Marathons put a ton of stress on your body, and one of the ways that stress manifests is by shredding your immune system. Most of the time this isn’t too much of a problem, but if you’re already getting sick, running a marathon will kick the disease into overdrive.

I was having a hard time breathing without launching into coughing fits that had me doubled over. My legs wouldn’t cooperate. It was painful.

The Lady, incredibly, was hitting a stride. Where I evidently kept her in the game for the first part of the marathon, she was the single reason I kept pushing forward past the 20-mile mark. 11:29, 11:31, 10:57, 12:38, 10:55.

Final mile

I had an amusing revelation the day after Big Sur. We ended up driving by the finish line to meet up with Danielle and her husband before they left town. I recognized the finish, remembering the tents and the people cheering us those final agonizing miles. But as we drove past the finish line and into where miles 25 and 26 had been, I startled to realize:

I had no recollection of it whatsoever. Even on the drive back, when we were driving in the exact same direction along the course that we’d run–towards the finish–I couldn’t place the surroundings. They were completely unfamiliar to me.

That’s to illustrate that, while I don’t remember the course in that final 1.2-mile stretch, I vividly remember the pain I was in. Again, if not for The Lady’s gentle but constant encouragement, I don’t know how I would have dragged myself across the finish line.

Finishing time: 4:26:11 (according to the official Big Sur finisher’s book)

The immediate aftermath was painful. The lead in my legs began to set almost immediately after I stopped running, and it hurt. A lot. I think The Lady was honestly worried there was something wrong with me aside from the whole “just ran a marathon” thing. It took the better part of the ride back on the bus before the pain in my legs began subsiding.

We went back to the hotels, cleaned up, and rested. My legs, while completely beat, were functioning semi-normally by that evening. I couldn’t yet tell how bad my head cold was going to be; given how badly I knew I’d just trashed my immune system, I imagined the virus would be rampaging through my body virtually unchecked for the better part of the next 24 hours.

(turns out, that was prescient: it took about that time before things really got bad)

By that evening we were both feeling decently well rested–and HUNGRY–so we took a short walk to a nearby burger joint. It turned out to be perfect.

Photo Apr 26, 20 49 48

It was very much a local mom-and-pop establishment. We were even treated to a group of retired folks who had organized themselves into something of an orchestra, conducting a regular practice session in the middle of the restaurant. So not only did we have a warm, inviting atmosphere in which to chow down on burgers & fries, but music from adorable retirees as well. It was perfect.

We slept well that night.

Monday, Tuesday: Post-race

It turned out to be a brilliant decision on our part to sacrifice two work days for the purpose of easing ourselves back into civilization. It gave us time actually enjoy traveling.

Since our hotel was all of a few blocks from Cannery Row–and therefore the beach and the Monterey Aquarium–we spent plenty of time checking out both. It was a convenient way to stretch out our legs a bit, and let’s face: beaches and aquariums are awesome. We had a lovely time.

Monday late afternoon, we said goodbye to Monterey and road tripped back into San Francisco to spend the night with my college-friend-turned-badass-Bay-Area-developer Amanda and her roommate. We don’t get to see each other very often anymore–what with living on opposite coasts and all–so it was a treat to be able to hang out with her for a night and catch up.

Oh, and we got along just fine with her apartment’s third, and furry, inhabitant.

Meet Jake the Cuddle Monster. He will cuddle you to death.

Meet Jake the Cuddle Monster. He will cuddle you to death.

Come Tuesday morning, as Amanda was departing for work, we packed up as well, said our goodbyes, and headed for the airport and home.

Epilogue

This was one of the most bipolar marathon training sessions I can remember. Granted, I’ve only been through all of three (I guess, technically, four? I ran the 2014 AF half but trained as though it was the full) so I’m not exactly working with a large sample; each training session is likely to have its own “first”s and “most”s for a few more yet to come. But the move to Athens can’t be discounted entirely, either; we were here all of two months before we started training. Kind of hard to imagine there wouldn’t be some bumps in that particular road.

Also, I was coming down with a head cold four days before the race. And as predicted, about 48 hours after the race, my immune system had recovered enough to discover that my body was saturated with whatever virus it was and flipped every alarm switch to DEFCON 1. tl;dr I was the most miserable wreck all of Tuesday for the drive to the airport and the flight home, what with a runny nose, splitting headache (that ibuprofen didn’t even put a dent in), and general lethargy. In that light, it’s kind of amazing that broke down at mile 20 as opposed to, y’know, mile 1.

All that aside, it’s still tough for me to shake the disappointment with what appeared to be a second consecutive 20-mile breakdown. At both Marine Corps and now Big Sur, mile 20 has been a wall that has thus far been insurmountable; I’m rolling, until that crucial final 10K where the wheels abruptly fall off.

And yet…there’s this neat feature on Strava where it attempts to intelligently discern how much of your workout you actually spent in motion. Since I don’t stop my watch during races (why would you?), it had the data to come up with a guess of what my time would’ve been minus the 2 bathroom breaks and 3 photo ops. Any guesses?

A 9:47 min/mi pace (for reference, my average pace for my official time was 10:10 min/mi). Any idea what my current marathon PR pace is? 9:47 min/mi.

So discounting the bathroom stops and photo ops, I ran Big Sur–in all its crazy elevation changes, with a head cold, and after a relatively subpar training cycle–at the same pace as my PR.

That gives me a glimmer of optimism. It also means it’s time to get back to work.

Ragnar Trail Relay: The Third Leg, Epilogue, and Everything Is Awesome

Fresh off barely 3 hours of sleep and knee-deep in mud, I trudged to the Exchange Tent to await Tim’s arrival. I did have one thing going for me, though: the sun was out, and it was beautiful.

Soon enough, Tim arrived, and my final leg began.

Leg 3: Red Route

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.25.15 AM

The sun was beating down pretty hard. I’d put on sunscreen before entering the Exchange Tent, but I wasn’t fully prepared for how much more exposed this course was relative to Yellow and Green. The other courses had been exclusively through densely-wooded trails; Red crossed a few streets, ran along a golf course, and across a field. There were some densely forested parts too, but there were stretches that had no cover at all. More than anything, I was worried about overheating.

I started at what felt like a reasonably easy pace. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I’d clocked the first two miles in at a 9-flat average. To be fair, the trail up to this point was extremely gentle; in fact, it was mostly double-tracked. After my second leg on the Green Route, I was also thoroughly enjoying being able to see everything in the light of day, so that may have contributed to my surprisingly brisk pace (even with a quick bathroom break; didn’t stop my watch!).

The gentle double-tracked trails ended around mile 2.5, however. I entered into yet another Yellow look-alike: a single-track, winding path through the foliage. I even came upon a hill that was literally too steep and muddy to run up. I recalled The Lady had described this during her last run; she’d even helped someone behind her get up the hill. I employed a similar strategy: I basically climbed from tree to tree alongside the trail, pulling myself up with my upper body. It was certainly an interesting change of pace!

That was probably the worst part; the next mile, while certainly technical, wasn’t any worse than Yellow had been. Around mile 3.6 was a welcome aid station. It was unmanned, but was stocked with plenty of cold water coolers. I arrived at the same time as another runner, and we joked that this aid station may very well have been a mirage.

I was still in good spirits and feeling pretty good, but it was getting oppressively hot out. Topping off my water bottle, I headed out again.

The next part of the trail was actually lovely. It was the smoothest single-track I’d been on, sloping gently up and down as it followed a nearby river. There were still roots and muddy sections to watch out for, but seemingly gone were the near-constant switchbacks and random sharp inclines and downhills. It was well-shaded, too, which I was immensely grateful for.

The good feelings disappeared at mile 4.2, where a climb I called simply the “Stupid Hill” began: 100 feet of elevation in 0.2 miles, according to my GPS data. The first quarter I plugged onward, only to realize that I’d completely wear myself out with a full two miles left to go if I kept trying to “run” up the entire hill. So I slowed to a power walk. It still burned but felt significantly better, as my breathing evened out.

The Stupid Hill now behind me, I kept my feet moving in a slow run. I could feel the fatigue of nearly 24 hours out here, barely 2 hours of sleep, and almost 15 miles creeping up on me. I was still feeling surprisingly good but I knew I didn’t have a whole lot left to draw on, and when I was empty it was going to be a rapid crash and burn. I focused on the next step. And the next. And the next.

Around mile 5, I arrived at the “granite” part of the trail. This was kind of interesting: basically a giant slab of granite protruding from seemingly nowhere. We ran a few times up and over, and while the elevation certainly changed rapidly it was never more than a few feet here and there. I had to watch my footing carefully, but for the most part it was uneventful. Though I did help one runner who accidentally blew past a trail marker get back on the trail.

I was coming up on about a mile left to go when we arrived on the golf course. Amazingly, I was still feeling pretty good, though shade was a bit more sparse in this area. Still, the trail itself was gentle, so I went with it, never pushing too hard but also curious to see how I could finish this final leg.

At mile 6, I was just cresting over 1 hour, which was shockingly fast by comparison; common times for the Red Route were on the order of 70-80 minutes, and it was looking like I’d come in well under that. I checked my watch around mile 6.4, just in time to see that the 0.2-miles-to-go checkpoint was dead ahead!

OMG, ALMOST THERE!

I cranked it. I absolutely cranked it. I mean, as much as one could crank given the 1) trails, 2) mud, and 3) fatigue, but according to my watch I was cruising in around a 7-7:30 pace for the last 0.2 miles. I couldn’t believe how well it was going; finishing the Red Route under 70 minutes, holy crap!

I came flying into the finish, pushing a sub-7 pace, soaking in the crowds and the announcer, unbuckled the team bib…

…and stood there, with nobody to hand it off to. Other teams came in and exchanged, but Ellen–and any of my teammates to speak of–were nowhere to be seen.

I handed my bib to one of the Ragnar staffers in the Exchange Tent, pulled out my phone (which, thankfully, I’d packed for this particular run), and texted some of my teammates. Not a minute or two after, Ellen came sprinting into the tent, apologizing profusely but explaining that she’d JUST WON A SUNNTO GPS WATCH ($450 VALUE HOLY CRAP) but was in the process of picking it up when she got my text–apparently no one had expected me to arrive before the 70-minute mark! Ellen ran into the tent and got on her way, and I started walking back to the team campground. Along the way, I encountered The Lady and Kelly, who were also shocked to see me, likewise saying they’d expected 70 minutes bare minimum.

Oops. At the same time, it was kinda cool 🙂

By my watch, I finished 6.6 miles in 1:07:05 for a 10:10 average pace. I had only 1 more “death” for a grand total of 7, but added another 21 “kills”, bringing my total for the event to 48. A 7:1 kill:death ratio ain’t half bad!

The Final Countdown

We had three runners left: Ellen had already begun her jaunt over the Green Route, and would be followed by Lara over Yellow, and finally the Danimal on Red. It was around 1:15pm, so we predicted a team finishing time of roughly 4pm. In that time, we packed up more of the tents, rolling up everything that was dry and consolidating as much as we could. It kept getting hotter, so we left the shelter standing to provide some much-needed shade. Of course, while the heat was getting pretty oppressive, it did have the added benefit of rapidly drying out all our soaked tents, bedding, and shoes; it certainly made for easier packing.

Right around 3pm, Lara handed off to the Danimal, who galloped out of the gate, intent on beating the 60-minute mark for the final leg!

With our final runner out on his final leg, we tried to get as much of our stuff packed as we could. Many other teams had already packed up and left, having finished a few hours earlier. Such was the disadvantage of not being terribly fast, but just fast enough: we didn’t have to officially double-up on our runners since we weren’t in danger of not finishing by 6pm, but we certainly weren’t shattering any speed records either. Consequently, all the really slow and really fast teams were already done and gone; the campground was feeling more and more lonely as the minutes passed.

Around 3:50pm, we headed out to the Exchange Tent. The TVs that posted incoming runners were already shut off; many of the shops were closed up. Very few other teams were mingling. If not for the announcer still celebrating the few incoming teams as they arrived and the music playing in the background, it would have felt very ghost-town-like.

We assembled about a hundred feet from the finish, patiently waiting for the Danimal to appear around the corner.

3:55. 4:00. 4:05. 4:10. We passed the 70-minute mark; hope he’s ok?…

Right around the 72-minute mark, his goofy jaunt suddenly appeared.

We all congregated around him and finished together, happily belting out the theme song for our team as we crossed the finish line.

Trail Ragnarians! Everything is Awesome!

Clean Up

We had a little bit of time to rest and celebrate, but not much. We had to be out by 6, but given the hour drive back to our staging area in Athens and that it was already nearly 4:30, we wanted to get out quickly. We let the Danimal take a break while the rest of us started schlepping our equipment over to the gear drop area.

Tim and Alys were picked up by Alys’ parents, who live in the Atlanta area. The rest of us packed everything into the two cars we brought, hitting the road sometime around 5:30. Ellen and I rode together, and I know the two of us were having a tough time staying awake. Thankfully, the drive wasn’t too long, and we soon arrived at our house with plenty of time to unpack the vehicles, order some dinner (PIZZA), and enjoy the setting sun with our team.

I can’t describe how delicious the food was. The six of us remaining for that evening–Ellen, Kelly, Lara, Danimal, The Lady, and me–had a blast sitting in the front yard, soaking up the setting sun, drinking beer, and eating some of the most spectacular pizza I think I’ve ever had. Or maybe it was just because we were starving.

We took turns scarfing down food and showering for the first time all weekend; lots of dirt and grime to rinse off. To help with the process, we even laid down a towel along the house floors from the garage to the bathroom, so as to minimize the tracking of dirt through the house. We also got some laundry going, consisting of the most soiled clothes: those that had been in the tent when it flooded, and those that folks had worn out in the monsoon. It was only when we were getting cleaned up that we fully came to realize just how messy we were.

And it was awesome. Just like Everything.

We slept extremely well that night. Sadly, Ellen and Lara hit the road (they DROVE to Athens! From Pittsburgh!) at 7:30 the next morning, and Kelly took her car back to the airport at the same time to catch her flight. Danimal left not too long thereafter, hopping on a taxi service to the Atlanta airport.

By 1pm on Saturday, it was just The Lady and me again. We had a few errands to run, but we first made a stop at the local Starbucks, grabbing some joe to help get our neurons firing. We sat there, sipping our coffee, soaking in the memories of the weekend for nearly two hours.

Epilogue

It goes without saying that it was an awesome event, but I’ll say it anyway: it was an awesome event. The monsoon did its best to dampen our spirits but failed in that regard. It certainly made things interesting, and probably made an already-complicated event nearly impossible for the Ragnar staff to operate, but they did a phenomenal job under the circumstances.

I will say this: it was very different from the road Ragnar we did in 2012If you’ve done one but not the other, do not assume because both have the name “Ragnar” and both are team relays that the details are inconsequential. If you hate trails, you will hate Ragnar Trails, period. The team aspect will not cancel out trail drudgery, especially if inclement weather decides to rear its head.

Trail running is a very different beast from road running. It takes a wholly different mindset. Gone are any kind of reference points for speed, pacing, and strategies related to road racing; if you hold onto those, you will be frustrated on the trails and, most likely, [mistakenly] despise them for it. I would put forth the argument that trail racing is the purest form of running: you have to let go of everything to successfully navigate highly technical trails and simultaneously enjoy it. 12min/mi pace? You’re right on track. 10min/mi pace? You’re booking it! Ran one mile in 9min? Better slow down–you’re either going to burn out, or you just had an unusually flat mile that likely won’t last much longer.

If you can set aside road racing mindsets, Ragnar Trails will an absolute blast. The Lady and I agree that while Ragnar DC was a boatload of fun, we had even more fun at this event. Being able to hang out with our entire team (instead of splitting into vans), not having to worry about logistics of driving from one checkpoint to the next or waiting on the other van, camping out in one place and basically having a weekend-long tailgate party, and the purity of trail running all came together into an event that was as challenging as it was enjoyable.

It was so quiet and peaceful out on those trails; the silence was deafening. I know that can be unnerving to some, but I find it unbelievably soothing. It helps me let everything, absolutely everything, fall by the wayside. Just me and my surroundings, breathing the fresh outdoor air, listening to vast nothingness for miles in all directions.

Bliss.

A portion of the Green Route...before the monsoon hit.

A portion of the Green Route…before the monsoon hit.

And if you got lonely on the trails, you were guaranteed to see plenty of headlamps bobbing through the trees on other portions of the route. Given my 48 kills and 7 deaths over the three legs, that’s a total of 55 other human contacts spread over 15 miles–on average, I encountered another human being roughly every quarter mile. But the density of the surrounding foliage made it feel like it was just you and Mother Nature; if you wanted to embrace it, you could. If you instead wanted to focus on the headlamps visible through the leaves at the next switchback, you could.

I loved the feeling of hearing nothing but my footsteps on the ground, my breathing, and the all-encompassing silence of the forest around me. That is precisely the reason why, after every camping trip I’ve ever been on, I always feel so incredibly zen the first few days after returning. There’s something so settling and comforting about being out in the wilderness without distractions or obligations.

Just me and the trails. And, of course, my wonderful teammates.

race_898_photo_16123839

They’re troopers, every last one of them. Danimal, Tim, Alys, The Lady, and I are alums from our previous Ragnar team; Ellen, Lara, and Kelly are dear friends of ours from Pittsburgh who have an unhealthy love of running and trails in particular (Kelly’s Twitter handle is, to no one’s surprise who knows her, traiLion). Everyone pitched in to help plan and execute the logistics before our arrival. Everyone stayed calm and collected when the rain we’d been expecting was far, far more intense than we’d anticipated. Everyone went above and beyond helping wherever they could, encouraging teammates who were struggling, asking what returning runners needed.

In no small part, this Ragnar was a reunion of close friends with the side-event of running a few miles. On both counts, it was a spectacular success. In fact, the last week has been marked by flurries of emails among us, many already hunting for our next Ragnar event.

For now, The Lady and I have our sights set on the Big Sur marathon next weekend. But one thing’s certain: we’ll be doing this again! 🙂

Ragnar Trail Relay: The Monsoon, Teamwork, and the Second Leg

The weather continued to intensify. The rain had stopped just as I’d entered the Exchange Tent, but only a handful of minutes later resumed. And got worse.

And worse.

Driving, torrential rainfall hammered our tents. Our “common area” under our rented tailgating canopy was soon under three to four inches of muddy water. No exaggeration–the water came up to our ankles, fully submerging our bare feet (and bare feet was the best mode of transportation–we needed the shoes for the trails!). It felt like an anvil landed in my stomach when we discovered we’d pitched camp on something of a flood plain: water was flowing through our campsite as it drained. And, we later found, soaking not-insignificant portions of the insides of two of our four tents.

The veritable monsoon continued unabated for over an hour. We were glued to our smartphones, risking the rapidly-dwindling battery in the hopes that the green/yellow/red-colored sheets smothering the radar images on our weather apps would begin to fade soon. Quite the opposite: predictions for the end of the storm kept getting extended. 8pm. 9pm. 11pm. Midnight.

After eating a quiet dinner with The Lady as the rain howled, my mood more and more reflected the sour weather. The knowledge that I’d ignored some nagging doubts about the location I had picked for our campsite was gnawing at me. At this point I’d already seen that the water had managed to sweep through and soak about half of our 6-person tent; not only would it be difficult to get in and out of our tents with three inches of muddy water swirling around the entrances, but the fact that water had swept into some of the tents themselves was grating.

It was barely 9pm, and while only a few hours ago I was bubbling over with excitement from having kicked ass in my first leg, I was now physically and emotionally exhausted. I cleaned up as best I could, found a dry corner of the 6-person tent, and tried to get some rest.

The rest was probably helpful; however, sleep did not come. I could hear people walking around outside, the mud making sucking noises as their feet sank several inches into the murk with each step. I heard my team in the common area, making the best of the glum weather by enjoying each other’s company, watching shows on an iPad, and in the cases of Ellen and Tim, civil engineering the shit out of the surrounding murk in an attempt to divert the aforementioned drainage rivers from going through our campsite. I’m not entirely sure if it worked, but it was nonetheless an impressive effort.

The rain slowed, then restarted, then slowed again. It seemed to stop completely just shy of 10pm, with radar indicating that the worst appeared to be over. I still felt bummed, but I tried to keep this feeling to myself; I can’t tell you how proud I was of the team. If anyone else felt like I did, nobody showed it; everyone was chatting away, or building moats, or generally being awesome and trying to keep everyone’s spirits up. It was truly heartwarming.

Resume

Around 10pm I heard the announcer echoing over the campground, restarting the delayed event and sending out teams again according to the order in which they’d been held up. Danimal, our 8th runner and anchor, headed out first. Our leadoff runner, Alys, headed out for the Red Route after, accompanied by Ellen. One of the [many!] cool things about the Ragnar Trail series is that your runners can be accompanied by a pacer. In this case, Ellen had been scheduled to run the Red Route right after my return; this way, she still got her Red Route in, and kept Alys company in the utter blackness of night and with the extremely slick trail conditions. The Lady was the next runner, and Lara–our #7 runner who had also been skipped earlier–accompanied her as well.

The pairings were clutch, I think. The utter darkness of near-midnight coupled with the deafening silence of the trails and their downright dangerously slick conditions were arguably substantially mitigated by having our runners pair up.

Around midnight, I gave up on trying to sleep and came back out. At this point, anyone who wasn’t out running was also trying to get some sleep. I kept company whoever was still awake, though I dozed a bit when things got quiet. At this point, staying warm was becoming a problem. The rain had dropped the temperatures several degrees, and having our bare feet perpetually submerged in several inches of water wasn’t helping. Kelly was borderline hypothermic. Fortunately, she was able to get her second leg in to stay warm, and Tim pounded out the Red Route as I prepped for my second leg.

It was around 2am when Tim departed, so I was expecting to start my Green Route sometime between 3 and 3:30am.

Leg 2: Green Route

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 10.25.09 AM

Right on schedule, Tim arrived just shy of 3:30am and handed off. In the pitch blackness, it was difficult to make out much of anything in front of me, even with the high-lumen headlamp. Furthermore, I knew from both my own experience and from our previous runners that the trails were in complete disarray. I knew I wouldn’t be able to replicate my performance on the Yellow Route, so I settled into something resembling a comfortable pace and plodded along.

The trail was every bit as bad as I’d feared. The first mile was ok; it was a wide double-track that was mostly flat, and save for a few large puddles it was in decent shape. However, after the first mile, the trail effectively became the Yellow Route: single-track, winding, and highly technical. In such conditions, I could either point my headlamp straight at my feet to see the condition of the mud, at the expense of anything resembling a running pace, or I could sacrifice resolution of the mud to instead see further down the trail for technical changes like turns, roots, and rocks, lending myself additional speed with the possibility of wiping out if I wasn’t careful.

I chose the latter, banking on my experience of six winters in Pittsburgh and the sensation of walking across frozen sidewalks; if I felt my feet slipping, I’d slow down immediately, hopefully before skidding out. Plus, everyone was going slowly; it’s not like I was a speed demon.

It largely worked. The only hiccup was during the second mile: my heart starting beating somewhat irregularly, making me feel short of breath. So I pulled up and walked for a bit, evening out my breathing for a few seconds, then resumed. From then on I felt perfectly fine; it was most likely fatigue given I hadn’t caught any sleep yet.

My strategy of plodding ahead seemed to pay off: with only 1 “death” at the very start, I netted 21 “kills”, many due to the simple fact that I was running–quite a few of the kills were from passing walkers. I certainly wasn’t going very fast, but I will say there are times when size 15 feet come in handy: the small increase in friction afforded by the increased surface area of larger feet can really come in handy in slippery conditions; same goes for snow and ice.

Soon enough, I passed through the 0.2-miles-to-go checkpoint and pulled into the Exchange Tent. Ellen was waiting; I handed off the team bib, and she headed out! For the 3.8 miles of the Green Route, it took me just over 40 minutes for an average pace of over 10:30. Amusingly, Green was a full mile shorter than Yellow, yet I ran it only 5 minutes faster than I’d run the Yellow Route several hours earlier. A testament to the effects of darkness and the extremely slippery conditions.

Upon my return to our camping area, I cleaned up as best I could and took another crack at getting some sleep. This time, I passed out within minutes of my head hitting the pillow. It was nearly 4:30am.

The Bright Sun Rises

I awoke sometime around 7am, but stayed in bed for a good extra hour as my senses slowly unfurled. I heard people walking around outside, I saw the sun peeking through the fabric of the tent fly, and I listened to my teammates outside chatting. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day.

Around 8am, I dragged myself out of the tent. Sunlight! The skies weren’t perfectly clear, but the sun was out and shining with nary a hint of storm cloud to be seen. There were still a few inches of water in the ground, but at least the flow of water through our campground had stopped. Once I got some food and was caught up on our current runner status–Alys was out finishing her final leg–we started brainstorming how to take advantage of the impending sunlight and make our campground a little more inviting.

We worked for the next few hours, effectively picking up and moving our entire campsite a few dozen feet away from its current spot; it wasn’t completely dry, but the ground was solid. We laid out some of the tarps flat on the ground to maximize the sunlight they’d pick up, pulled the flies off the tents, and exposed everything we could to the light of day. As the sunlight grew stronger, we could see the effects very quickly: the tarps and tents dried up, and the feeling of our feet on solid ground was unparalleled. Some of the pictures of our now-former campground were incredible; to think we’d actually been sitting and sleeping there!

The Lady finished up her final leg (Red), followed by Kelly (Green) and Tim (Yellow). At just short of noon, Tim rolled into the Exchange Tent and passed the baton to me. It was my final leg, and the longest one I’d run yet. I was as rested as I’d been since the event began, but I knew from our previous Ragnar that the third leg is anyone’s guess: you’re running on empty at that point. I just wanted to enjoy what was left of the event; plus, I’d been told by The Lady and the other folks who’d run the route that it was beautiful. With all that in mind, I set out for my final 6+ miles.