Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Who Let The Cows Out? Moo.

Finger Lakes 50s: 25K

July 6, 2013

So even though my second stab at the Finger Lakes 50s 25K was SLOWER than my first, I still had an awesome time. Most importantly, my mom came with me to beautiful upstate NY to camp out IN A TENT for her very first time! There was no Thermarest, no camp-stove. There was a privy, though. She didn't really appreciate that part...but lived to tell the story. We camped out with a view of the campfire and within earshot of the cowbells that would be clanging at 5AM the next morning.
Mom and I at the start of the race--I convinced her to go camping for her first time EVER! 
After race director Chris Reynolds gave the requisite pre-race talk (in trail races, these talks/directions traditionally are filled with self-deprecatory tongue-in-cheek jokeswarnings about potential animals out on the trail, information about trail conditions, and special commentary to hard-core road-runners who will potentially become angry and aggressive later on about missing a turn and getting lost, thus destroying their carefully developed negative-split plan...well that never happens) someone counted down and our seriously motley crew began a nice, long downhill on Potomac Road.

Big smile BEFOREhand...

The Motley Crew!

I didn't have to try to not overdo it, since overdoing it is not in my body's physical lexicon/muscle-memory. At this point I was the penultimate runner, and though intellectually I was okay with it, emotionally I wasn't okay with it.  In the end, you're still last. But at least you finished. I was thinking this the whole way, along with enjoying the course.

One of many beautiful single-track sections of the trail
We then made a right turn into the cool and dark forest on the Potomac trail. The first few miles (well the first 5.3 miles to be exact) flew by. When I reached the second aid station, I was surprised that I had covered this mileage without so much as a "when is this going to end" thought. I was huffing and puffing but feeling pretty okay at this point.

The lushness of the Finger Lakes National Forest is astounding as it weaves in and out of cow pastures and cool forest
Then the course weaves in and out of cow pasture and deeply wooded forest, some of it on the edge of a slightly precipitous ravine. At the 5.3 mile point you do 3 mile out and back using the same aid station. For some reason, that particular section of the course felt the longest. In your mind it's only three miles. But three miles is three miles, especially for a slow runner like myself. I sustained myself with Coke and Twizzlers, and ice in the sports bra. WHO KNEW?
My new friend, the Twizzler.

From then on you continue making a huge loop through the forest, entering cow pastures with pleas on the gates to CLOSE THEM lest you wish to be chased by herds of cows through the woods. Sounds eerily like a slasher movie.

Let's talk about the copious amounts of sole-sucking mud that slowed most people down except for the few annoying prancers who seem to glide over anything in their minimal shoes....shoot. There was so much mud in fact, that I seriously considering pretending I was in a spa, plopping down right in the middle of the trail and taking a mud bath. But wait, I did  take a mud bath, albeit unintended. Several mud baths.
This mud was pretty dry
And then there was this kind of mud. I lost my right shoe several times. Although it was really annoying having to tread through so much mud, this was when I felt my most hard-core. Yeah, cuz that's what trail-runners do.
On my left knee is probably the insect that basically tried to eat my entire leg.
In trail running, you get to hop over branches and fallen trees, jump over snakes, turtles and frogs, dodge cows and their steaming patties, and wade in really fun puddles. Trying to side-step these things is just plain, um, ROAD RUNNING. No offense, friends.

I was grateful for the mud-cleaning.
There were many points throughout the course that REQUIRED you to stop, breathe, and take in the scenery. This is why I love both trail running and road running in the country. There are endless scenes like this.

The dappled sunlight is breathtaking
At one point, a wilderness person told me to look to my left. I thought maybe there was a bear, or a herd of cows. But he was pointing to the excellent vista, making sure that in my alternating misery,   bliss, and incoherence I didn't miss nature's bounty. Thank you, Mister AWESOMESAUCE wilderness rescue guy!
I looked left and could see for miles
I can't get enough green. They should bottle this.
My favorite part of trail running is technical single-track. My least favorite part of trail running is beautiful single-track that goes on forever. And ever. And ever, under the unforgiving rays of  mid-morning, early summer sun. The last three miles of the FL50's course is half in cow pasture, half in the forest on a very straight trail. And because it is the last section of the trail, it seems like days until you can reach the finish line.

This literally went on forever, I think.
But I finished straight into the arms of the illustrious RD, Chris Reynolds!

And then mom took lots of pics that unfortunately were just tooooooo unflattering, So I'll leave it at this one! (But thanks mommy!)
Exhausted and feelin' wonderful
If you haven't considered trail running, you ought to. It can be some of the most rewarding, challenging, but satisfying running you'll ever do. You get to participate in everything that nature intended us to be doing. Just get yourself out there, dudes.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Beginning Of It All

I  started running for the very first time in high school while I was played field hockey and lacrosse. I went to a boarding school in Westchester County where most everyone played sports. (The few who didn't had mandatory PE!!) I was excited to join a team since I had never had an opportunity to be on one in public school in Brooklyn. My friend KC and I chose to go out for field hockey, since we had looked over at the soccer tryouts in horror while their crazy coach was having them do 10 laps of the field, just to warm up!

We both looked at each other and made an instant but silent decision to try out for field hockey, since 1. we were closer to the field, and 2. they didn't appear to be running much at all. It looked a little like golf. We could definitely do this. Neither of us knew anything about the sport or what would actually be required of us. So naively, we shuffled over to the Field Hockey field, which looked to be shorter than the soccer field (score!). Plus, there was a woman coach--those were all good signs, right?

WRONG. After doing a couple of laps around the field (I nearly died after every loop), we did a timed mile. I had NO IDEA what running a mile felt like since I had never had to run, for anything. (Childhood tag on city streets doesn't count and I'll talk about fence races another time.) That first mile ever was probably the most difficult physical thing I had ever done in my life. It consisted of 2 loops of the very hilly campus. The start of each loop was a short downhill followed by a rolling course around campus. The finish of each loop was a steady uphill until you turned into one of the school's main driveway, where even the stupid speed-bumps made me tired and angry.

My mile time was around 15 minutes--much of which I was walking and huffing and puffing and dying. When you have no idea of what a running a mile is like, or how long it is, or that a mile is like running from your block in Brooklyn to a block in another faraway neighborhood (like running from northern Bushwick to Bed-Stuy, for example), you believe you are going to be running/walking forever. I was disappointed to be the penultimate person, but ecstatic not to be the last that very humid, late summer day in the Hudson Valley.

After the mile-run debacle, practice started. We sprinted lengths of the field with and without our sticks, we practiced dribbling and driving field-hockey style, ran some more lengths of the field, practiced flicking the ball, and other field-hockeyish things.   KC and I were also introduced to the concept of the suicide, which on a basketball court might not be so bad, but on a FIELD HOCKEY FIELD was like someone pulling you from the sweet confines of restful death into purgatory over and over and over again. Two hours later I both couldn't feel my legs, my back, my neck AND then an hour later felt them very, very much.

What had we gotten ourselves into? How had we made this huge and STUPID mistake? Why was everyone better than us? How were these girls running up and down the field like it was second nature? They weren't even tired. KC and I were both kids from the city; she grew up in the Bronx and I had the honor of being born and raised in the borough of all boroughs, Brooklyn.

After the first week of practice, we still weren't accustomed to the demands of playing a sport everyday, let alone for two and a half hours a day. We endeavored to do better and decided that we would practice running so that we wouldn't suck so much at the sport.

This desire to be better took the form of early morning runs on the field of just a mile because that, we decided, was what was holding us back. So we practiced doing the 6 loops of the field hockey field, with its freshly cut grass and wild onion aroma. We stopped and started. Started and stopped. Bent over, breathless and chest heaving. We then would have to walk back up a humungous hill back to the dorms so we could limp into the showers before a much welcome breakfast.

At some point during the fall season KC and I started being able to run the warm-up loops continuously without stopping. We were able to dribble around the field without gasping for air. We could withstand the 2.5 hours of practice without keeling over face down. We could even make it through the rest of our typical boarding school evening--dinner, study hall, and socializing without being narcoleptic. That, my friends, is progress.

KC and I at our Senior Tea, after having survived several seasons of Field Hockey
The other thing that kept us going was simply being a part of a team and knowing that if we got better, if we worked on stuff, the team would also get better. During breaks, our coaches asked us to keep working out, and to try to run everyday. This was my first foray into running for the sake of running. I would don my best "workout" clothes, cotton and all. I mean, who knew? Into the front pocket of my heavy sweatshirt would go my SONY Walkman stocked with a cassette tape with a combination of Whitney Houston, Sade, and Simon and Garfunkel. (Later on in my high school career, it would be Puccini, Special Ed, and Indigo Girls.
Go figure.)

I would start timidly at first, because NO ONE in my neighborhood ran unless they were playing tag or stickball or racing up and down the block. People would stare a little and then go back to what they were doing. I would run up my street until it ended at a public school track CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC. Then I would circle the perimeter of the track, and continue on my street until it ended at a cemetery, and then I would be brazen and run through that. It wasn't until last year that I figured out the mileage of those runs back in the day. At the most, I ran 2, maybe 3 miles. Still, it felt epic back then. Just EPIC.

How freeing. How absolutely liberating! Especially in the confines of the grids of the real North Brooklyn, not today's hipster North Brooklyn. No hard feelings, guys......

This was when I discovered what running really was. To be able to move my body JUST BECAUSE was a pretty awesome feeling. That feeling continues today.

Deliciously Sore

My neck, my back..... Remember that awful rap/song by Khia? Obviously she was not referring to the weekend activity that I prefer to engage in. (The song is a disgustingly objectifying piece of crap non-music that no one should EVER listen to). Weekends are for running and er, recovering from  long jaunts outside in the sun, rain, snow, sleet, wind, etc. They aren't meant for other things. Maybe an occasional kayaking trip, or SUP lesson, or a bike race....

I'm addicted to the delicious soreness that remains and/or comes in full-force a few hours/days after a particularly grueling exploit. It is a constant reminder of the brute physical force and endurance required to carry one's heavy self miles across concrete, asphalt, dirt, gravel, rocks, and rogue tree roots. Even the stiffness that presents itself after a difficult exploit is welcome. It says "I did something EPIC." While the mileage I ran and walked this weekend wasn't what I would call EPIC,  it was enough to bring on the pleasant exhaustion and satisfaction that comes from that sustained effort.

This weekend, I endeavored to run 37 miles on the TGNY100 course. Why? Because one of my trail-runner friends had planted the seed in early June.  I was going to be in NY anyway training for my third Marine Corps Marathon in October and a possible September TNF Endurance Challenge in Georgia. What was I thinking? That I'd run my age, you know, just because I should. Actually, one of my Facebook friends and fellow trail runners convinced me to consider signing up for the TGNY100 because I had been looking for a way to train for the NJ Trail Series 6-hour Running With The Devil race at Mountain Creek in July. He suggested that I try the TGNY100, but I couldn't get my registration in quickly enough. So I decided that I would try to run some of the course anyway, unsupported. I admit that I had a lot of anxiety about pursuing such a long, unsupported run.  I didn't want to bandit the actual race so I made sure to start a good 20 minutes after the official start. This would ensure that I wouldn't get tempted to stop at any of the aid stations--they would be torn down after the last official runner passed through.

I woke up at 4 am, after having slept 5 hours (for some reason, it is essential that I not sleep too much before a long run. I think I run better and can go for longer on less sleep. Go figure.) I took the subway from Brooklyn with the early morning revelers who were returning home/headed for more partying. On the way I downed a Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bar, my favorite pre-long-run food, and a few sips of Lemon-Lime Heed (disgusting but effective.)

I exited the Times Square Subway station to be greeted by Broadway lights, and streets already starting to fill up with tourists. At 5:20am. The city that never sleeps. And this is why I love my hometown! I felt the energy of the city and the recently departed runners drawing me in and giving me the okay to get started.

I began running on Broadway at 47th, north to Central Park. Did you know that Central Park is uphill in every direction, even on the downhills? That's what it felt like during those first two or so miles. I remember thinking to myself that whoever was participating in the bike race that was happening in CP that morning had it easy; at least they had wheels!

The course then took me onto Morningside Drive with its beautifully verdant park on the right and majestic Union Theological Seminary/Columbia University-owned buildings on the left. As Morningside curved into 122nd, the first major hill stood before me. I made friends with that hill. After crossing Amsterdam and making a right onto Riverside drive then passing Fairway on 12th you enter the Hudson River Greenway on 135th. Um, HELLO? How did I not know this was here? Yeah, I'm one of those New Yorkers.

I ran and walked some on the Greenway for a few miles, getting spectacular views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. At some point I entered Fort Tryon Park in Inwood and after a mile or so (maybe two, maybe three, maybe .25 mile?) I crossed the Henry Hudson Bridge into my old neighborhood, Riverdale. It was really cool to be able to run from Times Square to Riverdale. Who knew that eight years after moving from my small one bedroom across from Van Cortlandt Park, I'd be running there from Times Square instead of hopping on the 1 train? I relished the opportunity to run through one of my favorite parts of the Bronx; I was especially excited to run in Van Cortlandt Park again, the scene of my very first trail race in the late 1990s (where I wore a too-tight pair of Brooks and couldn't walk for days) and the site of many a pre-marriage/pre-child run.

I passed the VCP ball fields filled with weekend cricket-players on my left and the tortoise and hare statue in the distance and entered the wooded part of the park, onto the well-groomed cross-country trail. The course then took me onto the John Muir trail (oh the fond memories!) and briefly onto the Croton Aqueduct trail. I love running in the woods alone, especially on tight single-track. However, I do NOT like running under dark and spooky underpasses. This is the case in VCP.  But I soldiered on, reminding myself that I had traversed this many times in the past and that there had been many runners here earlier, and none of them had been kidnapped I supposed...
After some twists and turns, the trail brings you to the other side of VCP in the northeastern part of the Bronx. Contrary to popular belief, the Bronx consists of much more than Jonathan Kozol's South Bronx or the industry and tractor trailers of Hunts Point. This particular neighborhood has neatly groomed houses and clean streets. I stopped at a corner store (bodega) and refueled with some Gatorade and Lays chips. Good thing the chips are a lot saltier than they used to be.  The cashier asked if I was part of the group that had been in there earlier, because you know, "You're late." I told him that I wasn't technically part of the race and then he said, "Well 85 more to go!"  I smiled, nodded, thanked him and left knowing at that I wouldn't be doing 37.

I ran next to the Woodlawn Cemetery for a bit and then after crossing a few avenues (I think) and  entered the Bronx Park Greenway, which follows the Bronx River and then intersects the Pelham Bay Park Greenway. There were more than a few people out running, skateboarding, walking, and even a group heading out for a canoe trip taking advantage of this day that had started with a beautifully ominous cloud cover and then morphed into brilliant sunshine. Some gave me quizzical looks (most likely because of the bright yellow "Running With The Devil" t-shirt I wore), and others shot me a good morning nod. At this point I was about 18 miles in. My neck, back, feet, and hips started to hurt. And let's just say I should have had an extra supply of Body Glide handy.  This was also when the sun started to beat down furiously, roasting my already very dark skin. (And yes, black people can get sunburn. I am living proof.)

As you enter Pelham Bay Park, New York City's largest park, you leave an urban landscape, cross the Pelham Bridge over the Hutchinson River, where you stop and appreciate the noisy aquatic birds and the families out fishing,  plunge into lush greenery and begin smelling forest and the briny waters of the Long Island Sound.

And this is where I missed the turn into Orchard Beach (I'm sure it was well-marked) and ran over the bridge to City Island instead.  I made the decision to stop here. A Dunkin Donuts Iced Coffee sounded like a great idea at that point since I was boiling, had run out of water and Heed, and was pretty satisfied with the mileage I had done for the day. According to my GPS, it was a little over 23 miles. I took it.

The first 22 miles of the TGNY100 course re- introduced me to some of the awesome urban road and trail running that is part of what makes New York City so incredibly varied and exciting. I didn't finish the 37 miles that I had intended to do, but I am appreciative of the fact that I was able to run through two boroughs on a gorgeous summer day, and test my endurance in my hometown.

Next: Finger Lakes 50s 25K