Sunday, November 8, 2015

Hiatus Curatus Episode III: III Days at the Fair

Race Deets:
Race:        3 Days at the Fair, 6 Hour Race
Date:          May 16, 2015
Location:   Augusta, NJ
Results:      46 Miles  
Of Note:    First timed race


For at least two or three years, I’ve heard tell of 3 Days at the Fair, a race which has become nearly mythical to me. It seems like every year a national or world record is broken at that race, and the very best runners from 24 hours to 72 hours show up and run their shoes off. The blogs of Sabrina Little and John Fegyveresi initially tuned me into the race, and my move to NYC gave me the opportunity to enter myself into this year’s competition. Now, mind you, I have yet to reach the level of respectability to enter a 24+ hour race, but I thought I’d give the timed race a try this year when I signed up for the 6 hour version. Not only would this be my first timed event, but it would be my first evening start, with a gun time of 6pm and a finish time of midnight.

I rolled into the Sussex County Fairgrounds at about 1 or 2pm Saturday--plenty of time to set up my tent, snag an hour nap, and walk the course. I set up my tent just steps off the course at about the quarter mile point. Immediately, my neighbors struck up conversation and I found out they were crewing and volunteering. Just to think that people had been running since 9am Thursday, and others had been volunteering even before that, is incredible. I am not yet at that level of running expertise, but just witnessing their trotting and jogging more than 50 hours into the race was, to say the least, eye opening for me. I’d read up about these races, and devoured the blog posts of many a timed event racer, but had never fully understood how visceral of an experience they were, even for the spectators. It’s pure drive and dedication, distilled into a potent 24, 48, or 72 hour run.
The Plunder

I jogged over to the start/finish line with about 25 minutes to 6pm. What had initially been a sunny and hot Saturday quickly descended into an ominously cloudy evening. Waves of dark clouds began roiling overhead and perhaps 10 minutes before the start, thunder crashed around us. A bit of lightening here and there lightened the mood, and the race director, Rick McNulty, told everyone that the clock would not stop. Everyone ran at their own risk. We few 6 hour runners gathered under the pavilion near the startline; two men, including me, and four women would toe the line for this race. Two people had already run their 6 hour races earlier in the weekend, and set marks of 32 miles for the men, and 27 for the women.  Moments before our start, the deluge came. It was more funny than frustrating--of course it would start pouring right as our race kicked off! As Rick gave us a count down, I ran to the timing mat to activate my chip, then took off at the sound of the bell.

The first lap was simply water running, which, if you’ve ever tried the actual version in a pool, you know is completely futile. The rain was coming down so hard, I had to close my eyes nearly all the way in order to keep the bombardments from crushing my corneas. I never knew rain could hurt so much! But it was a blast, and way too fast. I knew that I’d be overexcited out of the gate, and let myself indulge in that first loop. The adrenaline, mixed with the fact that I had a hard time judging my speed because I had to close my eyes, meant I ended up running a 6:31 first lap. But I relaxed after that. Running in loops was more enjoyable than I envisioned. Before entering the race, I couldn’t stop the questions racing through my head. Would I get bored or disinterested in the course? What would I think about? Would passing the finish line every mile get to me? Would my feet hold up on asphalt for 6 hours? I also didn’t know what kind of strategy to run with. Before the race, I had a feeling I was capable of 45 miles, but couldn’t decide on how to get there. I thought of trying to run the first 26 miles in 3 hours, then leveling out my pace to finish with 45 miles. I ran 3:11 in my first marathon in Cleveland back in 2009 and have yet to run faster over that distance. After conferring with Steve, I eventually made the intelligent choice of running an even pace throughout. Steve advised I try the goal setting Sabrina Little wrote about when she was preparing for her 48 hour run on the same course:

“Here is my race plan:
Don’t get greedy with the miles early on. Pace myself.
Eat before I’m hungry.
Drink before I’m thirsty.
Think about what I’m doing as little as possible.”

I decided to try the same goal setting for my much-shorter race, with the caveat that I would only drink when thirsty. (I figured I was running ⅛ of what she had been prepping for so that advice couldn’t hurt!) As the race developed, I decided to achieve 45 miles by running the first three hours at an 8 mile/hour pace and hanging on for the last three at 7 miles/hour. When I pulled into the start/finish line after that manic first loop, the downpour ceased and merely continued as a drizzle. It seemed that the sky was saving that 8 minutes of ridiculous downpour only as a welcome to the 6 hour runners. And it was a warm welcome at that. No really, the rain was really warm and strangely soothing. After that first loop, I lost my red singlet as it had collected a lot of water weight. I kept it off throughout the race, yet I never got too chilly. After another half loop, the insoles in my KMDs were slipping so far out of my FiveFingers, I had to stop and take them out. I tightened the velcro and dumped the insoles when I passed my tent. I had lined up a pair of real shoes in my tent in case the KMDs got too water logged or if my feet took too much of a beating on that asphalt loop. I never ended up needed any changes though.

As the loops ticked by, I focused on reaching the finish line each time within 7½ minutes of the last crossing. This strategy kept things interesting for me--if I stopped for food or drink, I’d speed it up a little to get back as close to 7:30 as I could. The race was not at all boring or repetitive as I worried it would become. It became very meditative, not in a faux spiritual sense but in more of a metronomic sense. Instead of focusing on the variances of the course, be it elevation, rocks, roots, or the very direction of the course, I was able to refocus all of my mental energy on pacing. I enjoyed running with people who were running all different races and trading words of encouragement when we crossed paths. If prior to the race I thought there wouldn’t be many spectators crazy enough to sit through three days of cheering even crazier people run repeatedly around a mile loop, the wonderful spectators, volunteers, and crewmembers at 3 Days at the Fair would have proven me wrong. You can’t help but feel great when there’s somebody at practically every corner of the course cheering you on each loop. It never seemed to get old for them, and I can’t thank them enough for bringing smiles to our faces. Throughout the night, more runners joined us, as a marathon and 50K started sometime before midnight. Although I know they must have been dead tired from running for 2½ and 1½ days, I felt the energy from the 72 and 48 hour runners. What they were doing was something I’ve read about but never witnessed first hand. It was more than worth the trip over to Augusta just to see a group of people achieving so many new goals. This is the most insane part--while there were eight of us in the 6 hour race, there were 72 people running the 72 hour race (perfect) and 43 people in the 48 hour race. I could barely wrap my mind around that. Where do you find 115 people who want to run 2+ days?!

I got through the first 3 hours by aiming for my 8 miles per hour. For the first two hours I was eating pretty well. They had butternut squash soup, which was amazing. I would pour some into a cup, then run a lap to let it cool down a bit before grabbing it and taking with me on the loop. After the first two hours, though, my stomach stopped cooperating and I had a lot of trouble taking in food. It felt like I wasn’t hungry and couldn’t eat anything else, but I knew I would need all the energy I could get. By the time I wrapped up my 24th mile at 2:59, I really started worrying about my fuel intake. I had previously decided to take a quick sit down break at 3:00 to put on a pair of dry socks and reapply RunGoo to both feet. When I sat down at my tent to do so, and to put my insoles back in, the guys camping next to me asked me how my race was going. I told them it was going well, but that I was worried about not being able to get food down. Immediately they offered me their gummy bears and some Swedish Fish, which I graciously accepted. After spending four minutes fixing my feet, I was back up and running with a new bounce in my step that was equally due to the gift of candy as it was the dry socks. I ran a few laps with the bag of gummy bears, chomping on my loot, then placed them on the water bottle table when I felt like I had a good amount. I didn’t eat anything else for the last 2:45 or so, only drinking coke and water until the end of the race. I think other runners were able to make use of the leftover gummies, which made me happy!

For hour four, I aimed for 7 miles, since I knew that 4 minute foot fix-up would keep me from sprinting to get 8 in. I remember from running high school cross country, Steve would say that the penultimate mile, repeat or segment is always the most difficult in a run. I think that was the case for this race, though I fully understand it may just have been a self fulfilling prophecy. Going into the fifth hour, I felt relatively lively, but started to do a lot of mental math to make sure I got through the hour with at least 7 miles. I broke the loop down into what I thought were the quarter and halfway points, checking my watch to make sure I cranked through the loop consistently quick enough. I got to mile 40 at 5:11 and stopped to quickly fix the insoles which were trying to sneak out of my FiveFingers. I asked Rick what mile I was up to, and even though I knew deep down I was only at 40, I had this fantasy that I somehow amassed 42. He told me that I was at 40 and in the lead while I swiftly took off my shoes, fixed the insoles and slipped them back on. I was so focused it only took me seconds to do this, and someone commented that they had never seen someone take their shoes off and put them back on so quickly. Of course, I still had some dexterity left since I had the distinct benefit of not being out on the course 12 times longer than I was at that point. It still gave me illusions of team Somnambulant Hippopotami starting a NASCAR-esque pit crew where the runner sits down, and 6-10 people descend upon him or her to massage their tight shoulders and sore legs, stuff some food in the runner’s face, give them a squirt of coke or water, and get some fresh kicks on their feet only to push them out of the aid station 8 seconds later. Like this, but replace the expensive car with a skinny runner:

After that quick pit stop, I started thinking about how the race would finish up. I did not want to finish mile 45 with something like 6 minutes til midnight, thinking that if I only sped up a couple of seconds each of the five previous laps I would have enough time to squeeze one more lap in; but I also didn’t want to drop my pace and jog in the last five miles, when I already ran 40 miles under an 8 minute pace. I tried to motivate myself by repeatedly telling myself I had only five more laps and one little bonus lap to go. during the 2 previous hours, I had also promised myself I would start using the split function on my watch. I have a relatively simple watch that is GPS-less and can only store 10 lap splits. I had started my watch at the beginning of the race and simply eyed it for my time throughout the race. Going into those final miles I began to hit the split button each time I crossed the mat to make sure I truly got my laps done in 8 minutes flat. I still had a difficult time doing this, and ended up between 4 and 2 seconds over 8 minutes each lap. This worried me and by the time I got down to the one more lap then a bonus lap mantra, a sneaking thought crept into my brain, just go for 45 miles then call it quits, that was your goal anyway. When I was about halfway done with lap 45 I made up my mind to roll through and finish it at that, not pull out a bonus lap. Just when I came up with that genius idea, I was coming up on John Fegyveresi. He turned around and told me that I had one more lap in me. Now, let’s take a second to put this in perspective. Here’s a guy who is 63 hours into a 72 hour race. It’s midnight on the third night of the race and he’s cheering on someone who’s running 1/12 as long as he is? I didn’t know it at the time, but John was 222 miles into his race at that point. I knew he was in the 200s, and thought, crap, he’s right. When I crossed the mat for the 45th time, I had exactly 8 minutes til midnight. I tried to crank it up a gear to ensure I didn’t lose that last mile by seconds. By then, I could barely tell how fast I was going because I was relatively exhausted. Cloud Cult’s Brain Gateway began playing in my head, I’ll turn my stupid brain into a gateway / Meet me in the place where life comes to get away... which somehow felt accurate in describing the mental process of running a timed race. I was able to squeeze that one last mile in and crossed the mat for the last time with a minute to spare, because I simply didn't have a one minute mile in me that day.
Sunny Morning Award Ceremony

After taking a shower and getting some dry clothes on, I walked back to the start line pavilion to eat and hang out with whoever was there. It’s funny how quickly priorities change after a race--I was walking over with my awesomely warm 3 Days at the Fair fleece and an umbrella. (A very important side note to describe just how comfortable the fleece is--I failed to bring a sleeping bag with me but that 3 Days fleece worked better than any sleeping bag I've ever owned.) Hanging out for two hours with a mix of runners, volunteers and those of us who already finished our races was so wonderful. Everyone comes to a timed race for a completely different reason. Some people are speedsters trying to break a national record, while some are there to notch a personal best, and others are just there for a tune up race and the great energy. I came to get my feet wet, and ended up doing just that. If nothing else, I will come back to 3 Days at the Fair for my next foray at timed racing and for the company. Just being around such adventurous individuals makes me want to jump the gun and give 72 hours a go. Of course, I know I have a lot of crawling to do before I reach that point.

Oh, yeah, and I also want to come back for the rodeo. Yes, there was a full-on rodeo complete with parachuters occurring in the middle of our race.

Awesome Race Directors, and Bigfoot is Still Blurry

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hiatus Curatus

We're coming back from an unintended hiatus. This particular post is the first of a series on which we've been working diligently over the past four months. In a way we are just honoring the great Mitchell Hedberg who said it most eloquently, "I like to hold the microphone cord like this, I pinch it together, then I let it go, then you hear a whole bunch of jokes at once." 

Part One 

Race Deets:
Nathan ran the North Face Marathon on May 2, 2015 in Bear Mountain, NY
Nathan 3:40:35
Of Note:
First race representing Queens, NY


I rarely go to a race solo. One way or another I’m able to rustle up some company. Either that, or someone else gets me to join them for a race. Looking back on my short running career thus far, the only other time I’ve ventured to a race by myself was the World Peace Half Marathon in Kigali, Rwanda back in 2011. That was not one of my better races, seeing that my days had not the slightest hint of training. My daily life for the month leading up to that race in 2011 was consumed by sitting on busses crossing through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and Rwanda and walking around each city I landed in. Eating, walking, and bussing were definitely my priorities at that time. Training didn't even make the list.

Sunny skies in Kowak, Tanzania near Lake Victoria
I set off from Nairobi, Kenya after I completed my research paper on drug abuse in Malindi, Kenya, opting for the cheapest busses the entire way. From Nairobi, I headed first to Mombasa, then bussed on to Dar es Salaam, stopping for chapati and tea as a necessary training supplement (...replacement). I spent a few days there before the day-long train ride to Mbeya, Tanzania and on to Lilongwe, Malawi. With each new city I visited, I forced myself to memorize a street map before going out on the first day so that I wouldn’t have to check it and risk looking too lost. I’d spend hours each day walking through a city until I felt like I could find my way if I was dropped in a random spot. This was most difficult in Freddie Mercury's birthplace, Zanzibar, with it’s maze-like Stone Town, and easiest in Mbeya, with it’s tiny city center. That’s one thing I continued doing whenever I moved to a new city or stayed in one for a long time: I’ve spent countless hours exploring every street in Columbus and New York, and will do the same in any future city. I consider that ceaseless walking and chapati and chai diet my training for the Kigali half marathon.

From Lilongwe, I underwent the longest single leg of my trip, 1000 miles, to Mwanza, Tanzania. While on a side trip to Kowak, Tanzania, I completed one of my only training runs leading up to the half marathon. I ran down a road, then followed a stream until it ended in a valley of farms and grazing cows. Heading back, again following the stream, I found myself running alongside some cows, which was weird. This opportunity allowed me to run an anti-fartlek, in that i stopped running to let the cows go. This is also a training tactic that Steve and I have perfected States-side as we built up for various races over the past four years.

May I do my hill training here? Let me be clear, though, I definitely did more hill-watching than hill training near Kowak, Tanzania.

Heading out to Bear Mountain about a few months ago on May 2 was my first solo effort in four years, but that’s where the similarities end. I’m more connected with and have a stronger support network these days, even though I’m a few states away. It’s the forced solo races that make me incredibly grateful for the times they are close by. Whether they are at the race, or I’m able to see them soon after finishing, that immediate connection is so important for returning from the cerebral space of a long distance jaunt through the woods. Steve reminded me of something Yiannis said, “Like a tree that grows stronger with more branches and roots, you need to find more and more ways to be inspired.” As the distance gets longer, the source of inspiration must grow deeper. I have never fully wrapped my head around running from something or allowing anger or frustration to power my running. I tried that once and I just got tired and bored after a handful of miles. It’s hard to stay frustrated while running, so it only fuels me for the first half hour or so.

“I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We all yearn for reconciliation, for catharsis.” --Cobb, Inception

Up at Bear Mountain, physical proximity to The Network was a moot point, though proximity of support was in the highest order. I am so thankful for my support network--always a call away. The weather was absolutely perfect--mid to high fifties at the start and a cloudless sky. The marathon kicked off at 9:00am and a pretty large group of 15 or so of us stayed phalanxed together for the first couple miles. Sometimes I found myself running at the front which surprised me because my plan was to run this marathon with the knowledge I gained from Manitou’s Revenge. Walk the hills early and often, you’ll need the energy later. By no means was Bear Mountain close to the insanity of the Catskills, but it did have quite a bit of elevation change in the first fifteen or so miles, so I wanted to be careful. Over the last year I’ve been thirsting for a race. A full-on race. In the last year I’ve run a lot of unknowns--my first mountain run, my first 100, my first 10K (though not physically at the same difficulty of the previous two, the strategery required for a 10K was very new for me)--and I haven’t put everything into a marathon in a long time. I had three goals going into the North Face Bear Mountain Marathon: 1) run smart and kick my butt off the last ten or so miles, 2) run something close to the previous year’s winning time of 3:38, and finally, 3) if i found myself in spitting distance of the front runner at this point, kick even harder to stay with them.

Around mile two, we met the first of many inclines. Some spritely pups started kicking up these hills while I decided to sacrifice a couple spots for energy reserves. Another runner saw me hiking and said, “You must be a mountain runner.” This may be the biggest running compliment I’ve received, but I had to tell him that I wasn’t yet, I just learned my lesson from Manitou’s. We talked for a couple miles about mountain running, and I found out he was a recent transplant from out west--a true mountain runner. We griped about the dearth of hills in New York City and good-naturedly chided the front runners--who were at that point about 2-3 minutes ahead of us--for taking off too fast. Carnage will come. We didn’t know how it would look, but we knew their paces were not sustainable. Still, that early in the race I was only focusing on reserving some energy and having an enjoyable day.

Around mile five or six, when we were about twelve places from the front, we hit some flats. I felt good and took advantage of the momentarily easy terrain to slowly move up a few positions, and by mile eight, I sighted the top three runners galloping through a post-apocalyptic bed of broken rocks and twisting trail. They were pushing, and it felt like a good pace. We came up to the mile nine aid station; I got some oranges and other fuel, then took off to join the speedsters again. I chatted with the frontrunner, Allan, who was rocking a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves a size too small. My VivoBarefoot Trail Freaks were hanging in there, although I was punishing them with that rocky terrain. I felt a blister or two forming, but I fully expected that, especially since that was the Vivo’s maiden voyage. Allan was beasting the race, and it was his first marathon! We chatted about our footwear and he mentioned some problems with the small shoes. I reassured him that it was still a smarter choice than mine at Manitou’s when I chose to wear FiveFingers for the first 30 miles. He said something like, “Wait, you were at Manitou’s? I worked at the Platte Clove aid station!” Sure enough, Allan already knew about my sartorial misadventures of yesteryear. I wished him luck and pushed off, allowing my hungry toes to eat up more of the momentarily friendly trail.

In Malindi, I’d often go to the end of this 400m long pier at night because the breeze, waves, and stars made for a surreal experience. I also went here after running the Nairobi Marathon, taking the night bus back to Malindi, then stumbling through town because my legs had cramped up through the night.
If nothing else, this race was joyous. From mile nine when i took the lead, I was raving excited. The air was cool, the trail difficult, the forest just greening around me. I started coming up on some of the heroes running the 50K, and would give out the occasional joyful battle cry when powering up an outcropping of rocks and gnarling roots. Every now and then I’d hear a responding battle cry, but could never tell if it was one of my marathon compatriots nearby or one of the 50K runners in front of me. Regardless, it was so much fun to let all that excitement out. I tried to use the technical downhills to practice my downhill technique. Remember, stay above your feet. I felt like my downhilling leveled up here--my 8:00ish miles felt like I was positively flying downhill.

During the last four miles, I was running scared. I didn’t want to get to this point, but sure enough I did. I had been leading for the last 12 miles and didn’t want to lose it right at the end. I tried to kick it up a gear and was able to do so on the downhills, but my feet were getting knocked numb on the rocks, and I was still hiking the hills. The relay marathon teams started popping up around me, and I kept fretting that they were in my race. The last two miles were arduous--climb upon climb. They weren’t incredibly long climbs, just repetitious, enough to take the flow from your stride and the steam from your legs. I finally came upon the final rolling downhill and, as much as you can when beat tired by 25+ miles of trail, managed one final sprint into the finish chute.

I waited at the finish line for the next marathoner. Luckily, we all had on the same colored bib so I could tell who it was. He came in a bit more than 20 minutes after me. I didn’t remember seeing him throughout the day; he ran a smart race and didn’t book it to the front of the pack in the first miles. And guess what? It was just his first marathon! Pretty impressive to snag second in your first marathon on a beautifully hilly course like the one we had at Bear Mountain. I couldn’t wait to touch back with my support network and re-energize; they’re always there when I call. Who could ask for more?

Part Two Coming Soon...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Interim Report: Still Blithe and Jaunty

Over the last several months, we've been running a half marathon here (Rugged Red--Steve), a 10K there (Race for Preservation--Nathan), and a 5K way over there somewhere (Run4Refugees--Steve). This one's not exactly a race report, but an update that's been percolating for some time.


Steve's Thoughts:

Running was my first love. Deep-rooted in my childhood are memories of the freedom I first felt flying across an open field, clean air in my lungs, feet lightly gliding over the grass as the ground raced by. It was so easy then, so smooth and pure. I can recall qualifying for and competing in my state’s youth track championships in grade school: Stepping up to the starting line in my tennis shoes and loose-fitting gym shorts, I looked across at my competition. All of them were members of various track clubs. They were there to compete, wearing singlets and racing in spikes. I was just there for there joy of the competition and happened to have the speed to make the finals. I wasn’t on the same level as these guys, but I didn’t really care that my chances of placing were next to nothing. I was proud to be there and I loved to run. So I ran.

In high school I discovered Cross Country and my love affair grew to encompass the world of distance running. Here again I barely knew what I was doing, still just running young and free. I showed up to the first day of XC practice in a pair of basketball shoes and refused throughout the day to let the upperclassmen who led the pack pull away from me. The coach told me I showed promise but to throw away my shoes and come back tomorrow in running flats. So I did as he requested, and he, in turn, slowly molded me into a disciplined, knowledgeable runner.

I was learning rapidly, but often this newfound knowledge seemed to constrain what I was capable of. My freshman year I would simply lock on to the more experienced runners and run at their pace, and I was successful. With each successive year, however, as I became more of a leader and set the pace on team runs, my running became more cerebral and less spontaneous. I could go out and hit a given pace on a track to the second, but I hit a mental block when it came to pushing myself in competition. I knew what I “should” be able to run based on past performances and wasn’t able to push through that plateau. I no longer enjoyed running like I had used to, but I felt compelled to continue competing. So I kept going, grinding out the same mediocre times race after race, focusing more and more on the minutia of diet, sleep patterns, and stretching, thinking maybe these would solve my problems, all the while staying inside a mental comfort zone while competing that I couldn’t shake.

Then along came Nathan during track season my junior year. As we trained together and formed a friendship, running slowly regained it’s vibrancy. He helped me to push through my block and to run my best time at District’s my senior year, the peak of my competitive running career to date. After high school, I ditched the watch I had become accustomed to running with and stopped worrying about pacing and distances and competition altogether. I would just go out and run, and once again I felt free. I recaptured the joy of that kid in the field: all feet, and lungs, and sky. And I loved it. Through the pressures of architecture school, running became my outlet, my stress relief away from the convoluted world of projects, professors, and design. I would occasionally sign up for races, but I never really trained for them. I would show up and push myself to a point, but mostly I would just enjoy the high energy atmosphere and the great community of runners. There was no discipline to my running routines; sometimes I would go for several months without running so much as 5 miles, other times I would have multi-week streaks of running daily.

When I landed my first job in Columbus and started living with Nathan, my excitement for this sport grew all over again. I had initially coerced him over to XC from soccer, but he was the one who went off the distance running deep end first, and now he began to drag me down with him. He started telling me of his interest in ultrarunning, which to us was this mystical echelon of distance running reserved for the crazies and the legends of the running world - guys like Yiannis Kouros or Marshall Ulrich whose running feats boggled our minds but somehow captured our imaginations. Witnessing Nathan’s discipline training for his first 100 mile race was eye-opening for me. The grace with which he handled the often grueling training schedule showed me something I had previously considered impossible: a way to train hard and compete harder without losing the freedom, joy, or purity that I loved about running. He was able to stay focused on his goals while keeping the individual runs I accompanied him on lighthearted and fun. Pacing his 100-miler was an experience unlike any I’d had previously, and it was a point of clarity and conversion for me. I decided I wanted to join the incredible community of ultrarunners, and that I was finally ready to compete again.

So here I am, committed for the first time in seven years to training hard and pushing my limits. Come the Mohican 50 in June I won’t settle for going out and just running, enjoying the day and the race atmosphere while shying away from my potential. With my best friend by my side, I intend to race the hell out of that 50-miler. To test myself and see what I’m capable of. And in doing so, I hope to discover the elusive balance point between the childish exuberance of running free and the fulfillment that comes from sweat and hard work and that secret inner strength known only to the crazies, the ones who dare: ultrarunners.

The ferocious hippo, lying in wait...


Nathan's Thoughts:

Running through Forest Park, Queens late at night, slipping on the snowy trail that had been beaten to ice by my daytime compatriots, I was taken back to those moments six months ago during the Burning River 100. Although I was not as weary and practically somnambulating as I was during that race last summer, the flashback reminded me how important having a training partner was for every race in 2014. In my short running career, I have been very lucky to have positive running reinforcement--I ran with Steve back in high school, had a college roomie in Chicago who was also a runner, and then shared an apartment with Steve after college. You could say the formation of Somnambulant Hippopotami was inevitable, seeing as our Columbus apartment was a runner’s echo chamber.

In November last year, I took a job in Queens, NY. The decision to end or put on hold this echo chamber was not made lightly. A roommate who drags you out of the house and into track repeats on sub-freezing February nights is not the kind of roomie from whom you willingly jump ship, but when your dream job comes up, sometimes you have to trade in those ice cold Columbus runs. Steve and I had been best friends from the time we ran track and cross country in high school, but sharing an apartment in Columbus while we started our non-running careers made us brothers. The events this blog has documented thus far are small windows into that brotherhood. I can’t overstate how our friendship and brotherhood has helped me grow as an individual and a runner.

Unfortunately, now team Somnambulant Hippopotami stretches from NYC to Columbus and onward to Cleveland. The Hippos still rear their fearsome heads in ultimate frisbee tournaments around Ohio, and will return as a running team at the Mohican Trail 50 mile race on June 20th in Loudonville, OH. This will be Steve’s first 50 miler! I’m incredibly excited to run with him during this race. I camped at Mohican as a kid and have heard tell of that great Ohio race ever since I tuned into the ultra world.

These days I’m getting back into running regularly. I intended to take a three month break after last summer’s little race in order to recover thoroughly, but I had a bad case of runner’s block that only allowed me to run a week or so at a time before slipping back into an extended recovery period. Recovery is good, though! I have another race lined up--3 Days at the Fair in Augusta, NJ. I’m not running with the crazies (those running the 24, 48, and 72 hour races have earned that nickname). Instead, I’ll get a taste of timed running by doing the 6 hour race. I’m looking forward to this adventure, but it pales in comparison to the excitement I have for Mohican. It’s a good thing I haven’t experienced any polar vortex days here in NYC, because I know I wouldn’t be able to run through them without Steve.

As I jump into my new job, I’m also diving into a new running world. My new apartment sits atop a decently sized hill, good enough for hill repeats at least. I live within two miles of a public track and have the Catskills looming a couple hours north of me. Just a hop, skip and jump away (although I usually run) from my apartment is the course where Yiannis Kouros broke the 24 hour world record at the 1984 Sri Chinmoy 24 Hour Race. Also just a mile away is the course of the Self Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, where, you guessed it, Yiannis Kouros set the 1,000 mile record at 10 days, 10 hours, 30 minutes and 36 seconds. Apparently Sri Chinmoy told Kouros, “You will do many miracles on earth.” Even if running on ground hallowed by Kouros doesn't inspire me, I only have to remember how Steve got me out of the house to run and cross train, and how he dragged me from failure at Burning River 100 to inspire me as I look forward to and train for the Mohican 50.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Things Are Gonna Get Easier

Race Deets:
Date:         August 2-3, 2014
Location:   Cleveland, OH (Willoughby Hills, OH to Cuyahoga Falls, OH)
Results:     Steve (Crew) - better than 1st, Nathan - 30th (23:55:11)
Of Note:    Realized the importance of brushing teeth every 17 or so hours


Nathan's Thoughts:

Somewhere around mile 84, I found myself in the middle of a hazy glowing bubble. Unfortunately, I was not having an exhaustion-induced hallucination, though exhaustion was no innocent party. The bubble of light emitting from our headlamps, the beams hazy with humidity in the wooded single track, barely revealed more than 15 feet of trail at a time. How is Steve putting up with me? I thought as I woke from microsleep, thankfully managing to stay upright while power hiking. Heading into these woods two miles previously, we had decided I should lead so that Steve could ensure I stay awake and moving--by no means was I leading the two of us because of my vast energy reserves and speed, which found their way out of me around mile 29, an intangibly long time ago. His foot is busted with blisters, I’m talking to myself and barely making forward progress…What keeps them crewing and pacing for so many hours? I haven’t crewed for someone yet, but I suspect one does so for the same reasons as the one running the thing.

Before the race...when we all had muscles

Early that morning, following ice cream sandwich creation and two hours of sedulous sleep, the group of 8 (consisting of my sisters Eva and Claire, Steve, his brothers Michael and Matthew, my parents, and me) descended upon the Burning River 100, a skeleton of a castle silhouetting the startline. While going through the pre-race checklist (bathroom, vaseline on feet, water bottle in hand, saying my goodbyes etc), a fellow runner overheard Claire and me discussing at which aid station to break out the ice cream sandwiches. He stopped at our crew truck and said he’ll keep an eye out for our crew later in the race. We didn’t end up seeing him again, but had he gone through a late-in-the-race aid station calling out, “Ice cream sandwich! Ice cream sandwich!” as we said he should, he would have gotten one.

We runners ran on deserted roads for an hour or so of darkness and the first hour of daylight, meeting each other and carefully reigning in our excitement. I met Mosi Smith, a fellow ninja runner (we both ran sans headlamp at the beginning), and a few other folks, but turned inwardly pretty quickly. The sun never really rose. Instead, a thick mist over the roadways steadily revealed itself. Claire got us all to call this mist dementoids, and like a mix of dementors and altoids, it was both frightening and refreshing. I knew I would love seeing the crew at the nine crew-accessible aid stations throughout the course, but I did not foresee how much I would look forward to them getting my mind off of the all-encompassing silence of the race. While that silence is part of what drives me to do such a ridiculous thing as run 100 miles, it can at times become too heavy a thing to deal with by yourself.

Chased by dementoids in the first 13 miles
The first 30 miles went by smoothly, the road section followed by easy, rolling trail. It was humid, but the canopy blocked the harshest of the sunlight, so only the picturesque spilled-light seeped in. Running this unknown distance, I was often in check-up mode. How am I feeling? Am I eating enough? Are my legs going to have enough for the last quarter or third of the race? I was drinking the right amount and eating just enough, but not as much as I probably should have been. At mile 21, the Shadow Lake aid station was pumping music--a nice deviation as I was running unplugged. The crew met me there. While they ensured i wasn’t dying, I made sure they had played a sufficient number of Clubbin’ Baby Seals games. I wasn’t and they were. Even trade.

The beauty of Burning River 100 is surely the variety of local and national parks runners get to see. One moment, I’m running on a dirt path around this small, pretty lake, and the next, I’m powering up rolling bridle trails. I grew up in Cleveland, but before this race I did not realize the wealth of trails that exists in the area. Some sections I met like an old friend, having run other races on them, as was the case on sections of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park from about mile 50 to mile 80, where I ran my first trail marathon, Running With Scissors, and my first ultra, Fools 50K. Others, such as the Bedford Reservation section just after mile 30, I recall from running there with my dog, Kato, back in 2009 when the idea of trail running was just taking root in my mind. At this point in the race, or endurance run, as I came to think of it, a dull soreness crept into my legs and remained for the next 70 miles. I think the inordinate amount of quad soreness was a remnant of Manitou’s Revenge, because never before had my legs been so thoroughly conked so early in a race. I love living in Columbus, but I really gotta spend a part of my life somewhere where there are true hills and mountains.

If the dearth of hill training is the contributing factor in my improvable performances at Manitou’s Revenge and eventually Burning River, my crew is the sole factor in my eventual success in completing the latter. My demeanor went downhill from mile 30-50. Often, excited to see the crew, I would speed up as I approached an aid station, only for my mood to dip as I got food in me and tried to walk/jog out to the trail. I began looking longingly toward picking up a running partner at the Boston aid station at mile 55. The first person to pace with me would have to do about 12 miles. I knew Steve was having serious blister problems before the race, and was thinking about waiting ‘til later in the race to pace, so at the aid stations leading up to Boston, I tried not to put pressure on him by saying how much I needed someone to run with. When I ran into Boston, 9 hours and 49 minutes into the race, I found out that they had decided to condemn, I mean choose, Michael to pace those 12 miles with me. This guy really stepped up. He had never done longer than a 9 mile run in the past, so he was basically running his first half marathon with a sourpuss he couldn’t sprint-finish away from.

My family seriously cheered me up at Boston. In the months leading up to the race, I made a booklet complete with directions, my predicted thoughts at each section of the race, my race strategy, and the occasional personalized MadLib and wordsearch to keep the crew entertained. When they read some of the material back to me and showed me some of their artwork (apparently I had to be on the lookout for a 35 mile large dementoid in the final third of the race), my mood improved and the running became less of a burden. I got some laughs, soup, and coffee in me before Michael and I headed out for a just under 3 hour ramble to the Ledges aid station. We talked a lot and discovered the art of slingshotting, whereby we would catch up to a runner going through a rough patch, cheer him or her up with our often ridiculous conversation, let them latch onto us with our blisteringly restrained pace, and then watch them gain their mojo back and head off into the sunset (theoretical sunset, as the real thing was still a few hours off). We had some long road sections and finally hit upon my favorite section of trail in Northeast Ohio--the Ledges. This gorgeous bit of real estate consists of sandstone cliffs spilling and spitting rocks out onto the trail. I race best when the trails narrow and begin to squiggle. The Ledges, with the memories of speed I associate with my first two Running With Scissors Marathons, served as a reprieve from the heaviness of the race. We caught up with Mosi, Green Shirt, and Leading Female and latched onto them until they slungshot us into the Ledges aid station. Michael did an incredible job getting me through some tough spots, but there were more of those to come. Oh, and this Mosi guy who we passed at mile 66? He ended up finishing third in the race!

Eva had been an incomparably amazing crew captain up to this point. We had discussed race theory and race theory, in addition to food and water intake, long before the start of BR100. She, along with Michael, was the first to join Somnambulant Hippopotami, the team name Steve and I have given ourselves whenever we enter an ultimate frisbee tournament or do a Tough Mudder. Colloquially, it’s how we refer to our feats of endurance in general. Eva started off as an all around sportswoman, competing internationally in T-ball, and eventually swimming and playing tennis in high school. She finally caught the bug and ran her first 5K in June 2014 at the Farm Fresh 5K in Blacklick, OH, a perennial favorite of Steve and mine. Although none of us knew 100% what to expect in this race, I think Eva was the most prepared--her intuition is incredible. At every point through the race, she was able to gauge my pace, nutrition levels, disposition with nary a word from me. Mind you, I’ve been racing these things for five years, yet could not even hope to get on her level with regards to innate race knowledge and athlete analytical ability. This is why you need a team: there are always people smarter and faster than you, though hopefully, they’re on your team. At mile 66, Ledges, she teamed up with my Mom and Claire to force feed me. I had been doing a less than stellar job photosynthesizing, and needed a pick me up. They gave me a Clif Bar and wouldn’t let me leave ‘til it was finished. Talk of ice cream sandwiches started to surface.

Slowly, Matthew and I were off. I gave him the low down of how I was managing the race. We walk up hills, jog the flats, walk down steep hills, and if we’ve been running a flat for a while, we throw in a short walk to make sure I get to the finish in one piece. After an easing-out-of-the-aid-station period, we started a little something, as I had come to pseudonymously refer to running. Matthew is a conversationalist for the ages. He knew when to listen when I choked up the energy to spit a few words out, and knew when (the majority of the time) to ease the race for me by talking about anything and everything. That is what got me through to mile 72, the boundary to the most difficult portion of the race.

Next I got to run with the venerable Eva. I had been worrying about her nagging injuries for a few months, though she seemed to have a break during the Farm Fresh, finishing with an injury free 24 minute 5K, good enough for a PR. She ran with me for about 4 miles through trail I knew in a different life as the soul crushing final hilly miles of the Fools 50K--the Salt Run trail. My mind was the perfect combination of trail-addled silly-grandeur and quiet-before-the-storm laidback. We crushed those four miles and peppered relay runners with our ostentatious conversation. At one point, one of them said how surprised she was that we had so much energy so late in the race. You and me both, sister. Looking back at it, what could be better than running with your best friends/siblings for an entire day? It’s a very weird way to connect with people, but coupling established friendship with adventure always makes for an indescribably good time. I truly don’t know what I would do if they weren’t there. Well, I do know…

Gorgeous mile 72 in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Eva and I crossed a country street, bounded up a small bump, and began crossing the parking lot to get to the aid station. This was only mile 75 but there was a tunnel of people around the course and at the corner of my eye, just to the left in front of the aid station was my crew swaying into the first bars of O-o-h Child by the Five Stairsteps, singing as though no one else was there and we were all just enjoying a relaxing Saturday.

O-o-h child
Things are gonna get easier
O-o-h child
Things'll get brighter
O-o-h child
Things are gonna get easier
O-o-h child
Things'll get brighter
Some day, yeah
We'll get it together and we'll get it all done
Some day
When your head is much lighter
Some day, yeah
We'll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Some day
When the world is much brighter

I was floored, and for a second, I believed that things would indeed get easier. And for that second, things did: it was mile 75 and time for some ice cream sandwiches! We determined this was the sweet spot of the race--I could use the dreams of these delectables to drive me this far, but if we waited any longer the diminishing returns would be too great and it would no longer be a motivating force. After finishing the jaunt through the woods with Eva, I crunched into a macaron ensconced disk of roasted red pepper-basil ice cream with a blueberry sauce core. All homemade. All heartwarmingly amazing. My favorite part? A crew/runner that smashes food together stays together--this dang team waited 15 hours and 45 minutes with a cooler full of these things. I don’t know where they found the control.

Only four more miles til ice cream sandwiches?!
I do not have the words to accurately describe the toughness and soulbaringness of the final marathon. I doubt anyone does. As I stated in our last race report, Dovid Fein told me during Manitou’s Revenge that the true half-way point in a 100 miler is mile 70. Timewise, my halfway point was about 62 miles into the race (just about the 12 hour mark). Effortwise, my halfway point was about mile 80. In the race booklet for the crew, I joked that every mile from 70-100 would be 2⅓ times as difficult as each mile from 0-70. I wasn’t that far off. It may sound like hyperbole to describe a particular mile as twice as hard as another mile, but it is not. My internal odometer was so thrown off by the time Steve started pacing me that I couldn’t predict from my pace and time elapsed how far I had run in a given period. As the shadows stretched across the trail and night swallowed us up, Steve and I wound through what felt like a corn maze. Every now and then a pair of headlights from the nearby road cutting through the depth reminded us that we were not in fact on some desolate moon.

That part came after we passed through a Covered Bridge. This is my favorite aid station on the Burning River course. I volunteered with Dan Bellinger during the 2011 race, and recall thinking, I can do a race like this. I was woefully underinformed regarding ultramarathons, but thankfully received some knowledge from Dan, who suggested I start with 50Ks. Dan and I had the duty of restocking aid stations in the latter stages, and we made a long stopover at Covered Bridge aid station in the middle of the night where a veritable party ensued on the ancient bridge. Lights were strung, a campfire raged, runners were strewn across the slats of the bridge searching for the motivation to go on, and pacers readied themselves for the most difficult legs of the race. This year, during my race, the aid station was a bit more tame. I was still somewhere in the top 15 or so, though my mind and place were constantly slipping. After the aid station, we headed into a four and a half mile segment of moonscape, if the moon had trees. Our bubbles of light didn’t help my nagging mental exhaustion. Steve forced me to go through a checklist of my system and concluded that I was in good enough shape to finish in a respectable 24 hours. I don’t know if he noticed me slip into a microsleep as I started explaining how my earlobes were in great physical shape… We continued our fast walk over hill and endless hill, and when I started to slow, Steve would say, We’re doing about a 3 or 4 out of 10 right now. Can we bump it up to a 5 or 6? I tried not to complain about the obvious tiredness, as it would help neither of us, but I couldn’t help eyeing comfortable-looking parts of the trail for sleeping spots. That is to say, if Steve had not been there with me, I would have chosen absolutely any section of the trail to take a nap on. Each patch of gravelly trail called to me as a feathery pillow, every hill a recliner. At one point, I leaned up against a cozy looking tree thinking Steve won’t notice this at all. Of course, he did. Though a 5 or 6 felt like a dead sprint to me, we weren’t hiking quickly enough for Steve to mysteriously not notice my antics. How is Steve putting up with me?

By this point, running was an unattainable dream

Somehow, though I am not sure how, we made it to mile 91. Nine miles left. In a normal world, that would be but a quick hour-and-a-bit canter around Columbus. In this world, it was three hours and twenty minutes of staggered steps and slurred speech. I’ve run a few marathons faster than the amount of time these nine miles took. I don’t remember much from the aid station here, but I recall arriving and giving Eva a big hug, and trying to put a smile on. Mostly I remember the faces of my family, Claire and Mom, checking to make sure I was OK. Steve let me sit down for a hot minute as someone went to the truck for some aleve for my aching knee. My eyes were closed, because I was meditating on our mortality of course!

Michael joined me for the next five miles of crushed limestone trails. We decided that it was easier for me to stay awake, though no more of a reality, if we turned off the headlamps and walked gentle through that good night. Perhaps Dylan Thomas knew something of 100 mile races and how important a high powered headlamp is. If he did, it was more than I knew prior to this race. Michael and I ran like that, he, forcing me to finish my sentences in attempt to ward off sleep, and me, listening captivatingly to his stories about an imminent ambush from soldiers lying in wait in the dense foliage on the side of the trail.

Finally. Finally, we reached mile 96, the aid station introduced with small solar powered lamps staked into the ground next to the trail. My family, the crew of the ages, met us there with their ever present smiles and good humor. I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t know if in my life presence had greater meaning. Their presence. My presence. This race’s. All of it thrown together. There wasn’t really anything else besides finishing. The crew had decided that Matthew would round out the pacing. I’m glad Eva got a break--although she could’ve done another couple miles, I didn’t want her to aggravate an injury...not to say I had the presence of mind to comprehend that sentence at the time. Michael had put in probably more than he bargained for, though he never let it show. Steve dealt with me at my worst and kept me going through the longest section (time-, distance-, mental-, and emotional-wise). Mom and Claire kept me alive when I didn’t want another calorie and Dad would eventually get me into the truck at the end of it all. But this was not yet the end. Although a finish felt inevitable, it still took every corner of my being to get my feet over those four miles.

What's that off in the distance?
Matthew and I ran on road for a bit less than a mile, which dumped onto trail, then a jeep road. This straight jeep road, overgrown and seemingly abandoned by all, crept slowly along the Cuyahoga River to Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. Through the sparse woods between us and the river, we saw a bridge, the Front Street bridge that would take us to the finish just over a mile away. We let out some ca-caw ca-caws, because our team, who was ready on the bridge, had to be warned that we were sprinting around the corner, ready for a finish…

What better way to finish a race of this distance and time? Speed walking with four of your favorite people, with three more of your favorite people waiting at the finish line. After cresting the last hill, with about three quarters of a mile left, I said to hell with my knee and useless legs and jogged it in. We took to the middle of the deserted 5 lane street, and I could see the clocktower and finish line.

I let it pull us in.
Sometimes Matthew and I hang out with a clock


Steve's Thoughts:

‘Twas a crisp morning air that greeted our little band as we first set foot out of Nathan’s house in the early hours to prepare our crew vehicle for the day’s expedition. We knew this was to be an epic undertaking, but the look on every sleep-be-duggared face as I surveyed our crew showed little hint of the excitement that was to come. We had rather foolishly been up fairly late the night before, baking macarons for the ice cream sandwiches we intended to enjoy late in the race, and subsequently, rising after a mere two hours of sleep around 3 am, none of us was feeling particularly sprightly. Shortly, however, our preparations complete, the van pulled down the driveway and headed off to the first of many destinations for the day, Squire’s Castle, the starting point for the Burning River 100.

Ninja running only works early in the race, just before dawn

We were eight embarking on this quest. Of the Szabados’s there were five: the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Szabados, Nathan’s two sisters, Claire and Eva, and of course our esteemed racer himself, Nathan, with three Dobers rounding out the crew: my two brothers Michael & Matthew, and myself. As our van trundled through the thickening pre-dawn mist, there was little conversation. Each of us was occupied with our own thoughts, envisioning what trials and treasures the day had in store, though I’m certain none of us in our pre-race musings even remotely imagined how the day would turn out or how each of us would grow individually and grow together as a team by the time the next 24 hours had played out.

In the dark before the start, the stone structure of Squire’s Castle loomed up out of the mist atop a small incline, woods closing in on either side with a long, narrow expanse of grass stretching away into ghostly obscurity down the hill. As we approached the castle, dramatically lit by a few strong floodlights, the last vestiges of drowsiness that still clung to my senses slipped away and were replaced by a growing feeling of excitement. The base of the castle was a flurry of activity with runners, organizers, and crew bustling about, the whole area punctuated by splashes of color and sound that seemed out of place in a setting that was otherwise still and dark. With glowsticks everywhere, music pumping from speakers, and the ever-present shadow of the castle overhead, the feeling at the start was something between a rave and a cultic ritual. Nestled on top of all this was a strangely subdued, but tangible energy that was the anticipation of hundreds of athletes preparing to push their bodies to the limit for the next 20-30 hours.

There was no starting gun to give that dramatic, staccato burst that typically signifies the beginning of these sorts of contests. Instead, just a spoken word, and a gentle surge down the hill and across the dew-covered grass, the spectators watching for only a handful of moments before the column of runners had faded into the morning mist and disappeared completely. And just like that the energy in that place was gone and the woods around us felt dead. We climbed back into our vehicle and headed to the first of nine crew accessible aid stations to wait.

At this first aid station, there were several basic needs to attend to: breakfast, naps, and visits to the port-a-johns were in order for most of our crew, and with these essentials taken care of we turned to joking around and tossing a frisbee to pass the time. Before we knew it, the first runners began to trickle in, and near the front of the pack was Nathan, bounding into the station looking alive and fresh despite having already covered the equivalent of a half-marathon. We cheered him in, watched him get some aid station sustenance, and he was off again into the melting mist. We wasted no time in making ourselves scarce from that first station, as it had become rather crowded with race crews and spectators.

Team S.H., Clubbin' it up
Fortunately for us, our runner was no slouch, and was in and out of these initial stations before the majority of the runners began to arrive. This allowed us to arrive early at the next station to claim a prime parking spot and enjoy a bit of calm. The calm at crew station #2, Shadow Lake, consisted of several rounds of Clubbin’ Baby Seals and some group discussion on our crewing tactics for the remainder of the day. There were a lot of things we covered in our team meeting here that might not seem so obvious at first. Things like How aggressively should we be forcing Nathan to eat? How concerned should we be with his pacing at this early stage? Is he going too fast and heading for a burn-out? How will the changing temperature or humidity affect his running and his mood? Do you think he’s stopped to “visit nature” yet? and many other concerns besides.

Eva, our crew captain, was on top of things and thought of everything almost to the point of obsession. Throughout the day she was constantly checking the time and calculating, then a minute later checking again and re-calculating--When should Nathan be coming in? or He should be here in the next 20-30 minutes. to eventually Where is he? He should have been through 40 minutes ago! as the day progressed and our man fell increasingly off his impressive early pace. For the first half of the race her calculations were astoundingly accurate and her assessments of Nathan’s health and temperament at each aid station were of great use in anticipating his needs at the next station. At this point in the race Nathan was looking strong and everyone was in great spirits.

Where's the crew? You don't find the crew, the crew finds you!

Morale stayed up for most of the morning, with our long periods of waiting punctuated by a brief but frantic couple of minutes as Nathan would pass through first one station, then another, at each one looking strong and seemingly enjoying the day and this jog through nature. The aid station volunteers were often perplexed by our very animated runner asking his crew members how their legs were holding up and how they were doing so far, but Nathan made it clear that he thought of this race as a group effort and that it would take contributions from everyone of us to get him to the finish line in one piece. For the first 30 miles, we were little more than cheerleaders for him, as he hardly needed our support, but when his quads started giving him trouble around midday, and his spirits began to flag, we became acutely aware of our responsibilities as his crew.

Due to some fairly severe blisters I had acquired from an un-wise amount of ultimate frisbee playing the two weeks leading up to the race, my pacing abilities were diminished and at the outset of the race I was planning on only doing one of the shorter (5-6 miles) segments with him as opposed to the original plan of me pacing the two longest (25 miles combined) segments. This would leave Nathan to run a good portion of the second half of the race on his own, and we realized as a team after seeing him at a low point at the Oak Grove station that he needed companionship to let him escape the solitude of his own head. This is where the team really stepped up, with everyone agreeing to pace more than they had bargained for in order to ensure that we had someone with Nathan from mile 54 onwards. Michael took the brunt of it, volunteering for the first segment of pacing - a twelve mile stretch that on its own was longer than he’d ever run at one go - as well as a six mile stretch later in the race. I decided that I could push through the longest segment (15 miles), while Matthew and Eva came through in a huge way to carry the remaining mileage.

Pure _______. Fill in the blank. (Halfway point)
Our new pacing plan in place, we next began plotting how to raise Nathan’s mood, and in a fit of inspiration (or stupidity) we began practicing and choreographing a song/dance routine from Guardians of the Galaxy, a rollicking good time of a space adventure/superhero epic that we had gone to watch the night before. When Nathan next appeared, running the stretch of road into the Boston aid station at mile 54, we were ready and waiting, throwing ourselves into some questionable dance moves while crooning Ooh, Ooh, Chiiild! Things are going to get eas-i-er-rr. Ooh, Ooh, Things’ll be bri-i-ight-er. Our antics were rewarded, first with a weak smile from Nathan, which turned into doubled over laughter as he got closer, and nearly ending in him falling to the ground on his wobbly legs. We got him a change of shoes, coffee, and some soup, and off he went with Michael, still looking wobbly, but considerably encouraged.

The next we saw the two of them, they were powering into the Ledges station faster than we had expected, smiling and joking away, and with each subsequent station and pacer, Nathan’s mood seemed to improve, even if his pace was incrementally dropping. When he and Matthew crested the hill to the Pine Hollow aid station some miles later they both stripped off their shirts and ran into the station waving them in the air to the hoots and hollers of the aid station volunteers and bystanders. Nathan took a couple minutes of rest, during which we coaxed some more smiles and laughter from him by reading off the poetry we had composed for him in the crew guide booklet he had created for us. Eva went with him for the next loop, and when they came back in to Pine Hollow there were ice cream sandwiches waiting.
No pictures exist of the ice cream sandwiches...

With dusk just around the corner, Nathan and I strapped on headlamps and took off into the fading evening light. The next fifteen miles were to test both of us, but also ended up being several of the most profound and meaningful hours I’ve been privileged to share with this incredible friend. We made it through 6 or 7 miles at a decent pace, walking aggressively or jogging easily around corn fields and through wooded trails as the sun disappeared. At one point, I had him verbally run through a check-up of his body head to toe, and we determined that despite a splashy knee he was in good enough condition to finish the race if we maintained a conservative pace. We bantered lightly as we ran and I reflected on our ease of conversation. It has always been this way between us; we communicate at times so effortlessly that it’s like we are directly accessing each other’s thoughts instead of interpreting each other’s words. I value that about Nathan, but in this case that connection seemed to link our moods as well, which didn’t help when things got tougher.

As the night closed in, and our worlds were reduced to the wan spheres of light provided by our headlamps, Nathan’s emotional fortitude diminished and I could feel my own mood reflecting that negative energy back at him. At this point, he was battling not only against the trail and the thought of the miles yet to come, but also sleep deprivation, which increasingly began to show itself. At one point Nathan stopped moving, nestled himself against a “comfortable” looking tree, and closed his eyes. Realizing this, I pretended to glance up the trail and slyly quipped, “You don’t want to rest here, there’s a much nicer looking tree further on”. With a small chuckle he detached himself and continued moving, but from then on it was a constant struggle to keep us going at a reasonable pace. There was almost no jogging anymore and both of us were limping along, me due to blistered feet, him due to 80 some odd miles and a fed-up patella. I think our mutual suffering brought camaraderie, and in some strange way the fact that I was hurting as well bolstered him more than if I had been healthy, pushing him along and fostering his resentment against a drill-sergeant brutality.

His relief upon seeing his family as we entered the Botzum station was palpable and touching. He collapsed into Eva’s tight hug which lasted for at least a good 40 seconds. As Matthew ran to the van to fetch some aleve, I allowed Nathan a brief respite in a camp chair, and to my surprise he was back on his feet after a minute or two, without me having to prompt him or tip the chair over. My brothers took turns pacing the final two segments from there, and as he and Matthew emerged from the woods for the last time, we were there, Michael, Eva, and I on the bridge waiting to escort him the last mile up the street to the rest of his family and the sweet, sweet finish line.
Bigfoot is blurry

It was 4:54:49 am. The night was peaceful and cool. A sound & satisfied sleep was had by all.

Truly, this is a team sport. Now, how to cut the buckle into eight pieces...