Friday, October 10, 2014

On Feeling Not-So-Ultra

Taking a little break from my silly "Brofelby" story to write about a recent adventure in running.

This past Sunday (October 5th), I ran my first ultra-marathon. This race, known as the "Blues Cruise," features a 50k (31 mile) trail that loops around Blue Marsh Lake, just outside of Reading, PA. The trail features mostly rolling hills, with a couple steep climbs and some flat stretches, for a little over 3,000 feet of total elevation gain.

I had been training for this race all summer--since late May. (I ran a 25k and a half marathon in the spring, so I needed to pretty much double my endurance capacity). By late August, I was averaging about 45 miles per week and had run a handful of 20+ mile training runs on the actual course. I was feeling pretty confident.

Weather for race day was perfect: chilly to start (low 40s), warming up to high 50s / low 60s, not very humid. Gorgeously autumnal.

I had 3 goals:
  1. Finish the race.
  2. Don't get injured.
  3. Finish under 6 hours.
During the first couple hours, I tried to keep myself at an 11 minute / mile pace. At first, this meant slowing myself down. After a dozen miles and some hills, however, this pace didn't seem all that slow anymore. By the time I hit the mile 17 aid station, my average pace was around 11:15.

This aid station--like all the aid stations--was great. Friendly volunteers eager to fill up my water bottle, and a remarkable spread of snacks, none of which I dared eat. (Don't try to digest anything on race day you're not sure you can digest while running, they say. I had brought my own food--mostly Kit's Organic Clif Bars, but also a liquid fuel concoction made out of coconut powder, rice milk, and spirulina.) 

But the best thing about this aid station was I got to see Yuriko (my wife)! She had a fresh shirt and baseball cap for me, as well as emergency shoes, which maybe I should've taken, but I didn't. (My feet felt fine at the time. By the end, not so much.) She asked me how I felt. I think I said, "tired." We kissed, and I told her I'd see her in little over an hour, at mile 24.

I felt myself slowing down during mile 20, and I began to realize I couldn't do 11 minute miles anymore. Oh well. No big deal. I still might finish in under 6 hours.

Around mile 21, there is a pretty challenging climb near an abandoned ski area. While hiking (not running) up this hill, I started to feel a little tightness in my right hip. It wasn't alarming, but I knew I had 10 miles to go, and I was hoping it wouldn't get worse.

Just after this climb, the trail pops out onto a road (Heidelberg Ave) at the northernmost point of the loop, and there's another great aid station. After dipping some boiled potato chunks in salt and scarfing them down (what the hell--I needed the carbs and the salt), I saw my friend and old neighbor, Michael Heimes. The only reason Michael wasn't running "Blues Cruise" himself was because the big race he'd been training for--the Steamtown Marathon--was a week away. 

Michael had already run a couple 50Ks earlier this year (Ironmaster's Challenge, Dirty German) and a 50 mile race (Cayuga Trails 50). He's an extraordinary athlete and a personal inspiration to me. There's a good chance I never would have taken to trails or ultras if it wasn't for him.

It was a real lift to see him. He made sure I wasn't about to walk over the bridge which crossed to the east side of the lake, and he told me I was going to pass a lot of walking runners during the flat stretch ahead. We bumped fists, and I was off.

I felt great. And then about five minutes later, I felt pretty terrible. That tightness in my hip came back and started moving down my thigh to my knee. I had to stop and walk a couple times, and then I tried some yoga stretches for my IT band. But the pain kept coming back.

I couldn't run for more than 5 minutes without stopping. It took forever to get to the next aid station, at mile 24. Michael and Yuriko were both there, and they knew by the lateness of my arrival that something was wrong.

After I told Michael about the tightness in my hip and knee, he agreed it was probably my IT band. He asked if I had salt pills, and I told him I'd been taking one every 5 miles. My electrolyte level should have been fine. Yuriko got some ibuprofen for me, which maybe wasn't the best idea, but I knew the knee pain was likely to get worse during the next 7 miles without it. Then I sank down into a pigeon pose to stretch out the IT band.

In retrospect, of course, I can see that this is where my race should have ended. Yet, at the time, stopping was simply not up for consideration. Michael assured me that I didn't have much left (less than 7 miles), and that I could shuffle through it. That's exactly what I wanted to hear and what I intended to do. I had been training since May--I would walk the last 7 miles if I had to.

The Yoga stretch and the ibuprofen bought me some time, and I was able to run quite a bit over the next 3 miles, where I met my "team" again at the final aid station.

Less than 4 miles to go. Knee and hip bad, but stable. Some new pain in my ankle, but whatever. Ate some more potatoes and salt. My rice milk cocktail was empty, but I refilled the bottle with Gatorade, which dissolved some traces of spirulina. Yuriko and Michael told me how close I was, and I said I'd see them at the finish line. "I'll crawl if I have to. I'll gnaw off the right leg if it gives me too much trouble."

A few minutes after heading back into the woods, a micro-burst of hot pain erupted on the top of my right foot. I tried to ignore it, but as the pain and pressure increased, I stopped to check it out. It felt like my laces were too tight, but they weren't. My foot was just swelling, rapidly, and there was no longer enough room for it in my old ASICS (which had too many miles on them).

The intensity of the pain was rolling, like the hills, like a sine wave, and strangely I had these little bursts of energy where I felt like I could run up inclines easily, until the pain came back. I wasn't really tired. But I was definitely tired of the pain.

About a mile and half from the finish, there is this gorgeous overlook, and I wanted to sit there and just stare at sunlight bouncing off the lake, framed with all the oranges and yellows of early foliage. And why not? The dude who won the race had finished about two and a half hours ago. I wasn't going to meet my sub-6-hour goal. Why not just sit down, take off my shoes, give my swollen foot some space to breathe, relax, and enjoy this gorgeous view? Wasn't 29.5 miles enough?

Of course, I didn't seriously consider any of this. I just paused, looked at the lake over my shoulder, wished I was enjoying this a bit more, and then trudged onward.

After another annoyingly long incline, which I mostly walked, there was a bit more trail, and then all of a sudden I was on a park road, winding my way toward the finish line. I ran hard the last couple hundred yards, you know, to look tough and strong at the end.

Official time: 6:14:29. According to my watch, my stoppage time (time spent not moving, either at aid stations or behind trees urinating) was about 15 minutes. So if I had just never stopped moving...

The post-race spread was impressive: bratwursts, potato pancakes, grilled cheese. Finishers also got a little extra swag--lawn chairs--to go with our tech shirts and hats we got before the race.

I did it! Hooray!

After enjoying the moment, though, I immediately began to wonder, "At what cost?" When would I be able to run again?

I originally started running (just a couple years ago) because I knew, for health reasons, I really should have some regular cardiovascular exercise in my life. Once I got past the gasping-for-air stage, I started to actually love doing it. I wanted to run farther and farther; I loved spending all that time outside, moving along trails, breathing in fresh air, feeling my mind and body in-the-moment, in-space, in-my-surroundings, and occasionally letting my mind drift wherever it did during a long run, meditating on this and that. When I finished a run, I would think about where and when I would run next.

Normally running is something I do in solitude, but races give me a chance to practice this passion in a slightly more social setting. (I'm not super-chatty with other runners during races, but I like that they're there, doing what I'm doing.) Signing up for progressively more challenging races prompts me to ramp up my training, and protects against skipping runs if I happen to feel a little lazy.

But races present a real danger, too. They can usurp the main goal, which is to practice running as much as I can. Training easily becomes a means to an end, but I want my daily runs to remain ends-in-themselves.

After Blues Cruise, most of my aches and soreness went away in a couple days. But that right foot remained swollen all week. I'm going to see an orthopedic specialist today, and I'm kind of expecting him to tell me I have a stress fracture. And that might mean a month or two of no running at all.

If I had it to do over again, I really would stop at mile 24. Finishing is not worth 6 weeks of no running, however disappointing not finishing would have been. Yet, in the moment, how does one make that call rationally? How does one put aside one's competitive, masochistic, gritty drive--which one is disproportionately proud of--and decide not to push it?

A new commitment to my running life: Run today, in such a way, that you may also run tomorrow.

**UPDATE: Doctor said it's not a stress fracture, and I can run again once the swelling subsides. So glad I didn't stop at mile 24!!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

"Brofelby" (Part 2)

(continuation of a work-in-progress)

At first, the absence of grades seemed to haunt each class, like the ghost of an elephant in the room. No one would bring it up, but everyone was worried about it. Brofelby suspected that Shakima had shared her conversation with some of her classmates and the word had gotten out--everything counts, but nothing's being graded. Whatever that meant. It smelled like a trap, so everyone was on guard.

Unsure of the algorithm Brofelby would ultimately use to generate grades, students became somewhat paranoid that any little screw-up might one day be used against them. What if it's just based on attendance? What if it's all participation? What if he's taking off a point for each comma splice or spelling error? 

So they came to class on time; they participated; they edited the best they could. It was the only way to manage the anxiety.

Then, oddly, after awhile, everyone seemed to just forget about it. Class became interesting because everyone talked. When essays were handed back, students couldn't find any grades, so they were forced to read the comments, looking for little hints. What they found instead were little bits of praise for their efforts, and a suggestion or two about what to try next time. This was a pleasant surprise. Maybe not quite as viscerally satisfying as knowing you had an "A", but agreeable nonetheless. 

During Finals Week, when students presented their portfolios, they were genuinely proud not only of their own work, but of each other's work. Students lingered around after Brofelby's end-of-term pep talk to compliment each other and to make plans to meet up during break.

No one asked about grades. Brofelby might have thought, Success! They have been liberated!, except that he didn't. It simply wasn't on his mind. He was just enjoying the end of a particularly successful semester.

Three days before Christmas the dream was shattered. Brofelby was wandering around the King of Prussia Mall, a little lost, shopping for his wife and dog, when his cell phone rang.

Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum. (His ringtone was the opening bar from Beethoven's Fifth.)


"Professor Brofelby, this is Tom from the Registrar's Office. We seem to be missing your grades from all your courses this semester. Did you try to submit them on Banner? We're trying to figure out what happened."

It was the first time anyone had mentioned grades to him since his conversation with Shakima. He was, initially, shocked and confused. What is the man talking about? Doesn't he know I don't do that sort of thing anymore? Then he realized his mistake. No -- no one knew. Only his students. And they weren't here to help him explain.

"'m think I'll have to get back to you about this."

"Ok, professor, but please do so soon. If any students didn't pass, we'll need to readjust their schedules for the Spring. The sooner we know, the better."

"Of course. I just need to...check my records."

"The campus is open tomorrow, but then closed for the holiday. Do you think you could figure things out in the morning?"

"I'll do my best, Tom. Thanks for calling."

The next morning, Brofelby woke up early, walked his dog, cooked pancakes for himself and his wife (she preferred agave syrup on hers; he maple on his), put on his second best suit--complete with vest and tie--as well as his scarf, gloves, hat, and overcoat, and made his way with his own two feet to his supervisor's office.

The Dean was a good man, and Brofelby respected him. Many times in the past the two had debated matters of great importance--the modern relevance of Great Books, the conditions (if any) when it is advisable to split an infinitive--and although they didn't always reach consensus, they knew that each was committed to a dignified vision of progress.

Brofelby was a tad out of breath when he arrived at the Dean's office (which was on the fourth floor). The Dean heard him panting as he approached.

"Brofelby! Good to see you! Why the hell haven't you turned in your grades?" This was not said angrily, but more in an affectionate oh-you-incorrigible-absent-minded-professor-you way.

"That..." Brofelby paused to catch his breath, "is what I need to talk to you about."

"Let me guess. You did all your grading on an Excel spreadsheet for the first time, and then you spilled your coffee on your laptop and it wiped everything out. You're worse than the students!" Oh-you-so-and-so!

"No," Brofelby said, simply. The Dean heard the strange tone of his voice and dropped his jocular demeanor.

"What is it, Brofelby?"

"I've more grades."

The Dean beamed. Brofelby is such a character! He couldn't wait to find out what this was all about. 

"What do you mean, Brofelby?"

"I won't be grading anymore."

"How is that, exactly?"

"I'm just not doing it. I haven't been doing it all semester."

Brofelby felt much better now that he had confessed.

"You didn't grade any papers? How did you get away with that? I mean, nobody likes grading, but everybody does it. It's part of the job, Brofelby. What were you thinking?"

"I read my students' essays. I gave them comments. I assessed their work qualitatively. I think that should be enough."

"But no grades."

"No grades."

"But why?"

"It's better this way."

The Dean nodded. He had to admit, it made a kind of sense. But it put him in a very awkward position. Students were bound to call. Parents were bound to call. The Provost will want an answer. There have to be grades.

"So," the Dean said. "Should we just give them all 'A's?"

Brofelby shook his head. "No grades."

"You're serious about this, aren't you?"

Brofelby nodded.

"This is going to be a hard sell, you know. I can't see it going over well."

Brofelby nodded.

" grades. That's something."

For an instant, Brofelby felt a kind of electric surge--he wanted to give one grade. Shakima. She deserved an "A." There's always one. One who stands out. One you know is going places. You want to give her that "A" because she's given you so much. 

But then it hit him. She doesn't need it. She doesn't need my "A." She'll be fine.