Friday, May 22, 2015

Finding My Way at The Dirty German

"I want to go home..." I can't believe I said this out loud to Kourtney somewhere between miles 41-47. Somehow I was reduced to an eight year old child. It was a very odd moment of mental weakness for me and not exactly what you want to hear or think for that matter when your in the middle of your first 50 miler. I am still shocked I said that and at the time I meant it. Home is comfortable, calm, with air conditioning. Home has clean clothes. Home has a shower and home has my family and my dog. That is were I wanted to be. However I first had to fight the hardest battle and race I have ever been in and the heat and brutal humidity and many miles were standing in my way. The struggle between brain and body was real and I felt caught in the purgatory between the two.

This is from Web MD:

Heat exhaustion signs and symptoms include:
  • Faintness or dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Heavy sweating often accompanied by cold, clammy skin
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Pale or flushed face
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Weakness or fatigue
I had every one of the these symptoms on the third lap at The Dirty German Endurance Fest 50 Miler, plus swelling fingers, occasional cold shivers and feelings of being disoriented. This was not how my first 50 was supposed to go down. I felt lost, hopeless, and alone out on the course even though I ran the entire thing with my running buddy Kourtney and ran with many friends. These were foreign feelings to me during a run. I have run countless marathons and tough 50K's but this....this was a superior beast I had never come across. It sounds like I'm sensationalizing the description but I can tell you flat out I am not. The only reasoning I can come up with was the humidity and an untrained body and minds reaction to it. I am not a heat runner and when you couple that with heavy humidity and no breeze it's just makes the oncoming suffering that you know is coming that much harder to cope with.
6:00 am and the humidity has hangin around already.

Ten hours earlier before we set off the mood was so upbeat and positive. I was able to chat with so many friends before the race. We hung out with Amy and Emir Dedic, Ryan E. from Nazareth, the very talented Michael Daigeaun and I got to finally meet another instagram friend and local Michael G. who was also doing his first 50 miler. I really enjoy the vibe just before the race starts. There is always this nervous but exciting static in the air. The race was a looped course and the 50 milers had the privilege of doing three loops, the 50k folks did two, and 25k kids did one.

The first loop start to mile 16.5

I was able to actually meet up with another internet friend whom I saw on the trail, Bob Bodkin. Kourtney and I ran with him for a few miles early on as we were settling in. Bob is from Coopersburg  right near me and we share the same chiropractor and many running friends. Runners are such an easy bunch to talk with and meet especially during a race. I think it's because we all are heading for the same eventual train wreck of suffering. There is sort of a comfort in knowing you will not be alone in the pain department. But these first few miles flew by fast.  Bob eventually pulled away at an early aid station and the 50 milers really thinned out. Even with the thinning of the crowd we were still going out way to fast for the conditions. The course is very very runnable which is actually harder then a hilly course because you can lulled into running fast and risk burning out your energy prior to the third loop. If it was a nice crisp fall day our pace would be fine but not today. Today was different and required an immediate recalibration of expectations and pace. Something I ignored and paid dearly for during the later miles. But it's a lesson that one only really needs to learn once.

We were cruising along nicely by ourselves and met another runner, Mandy from Lancaster. We ran with Mandy on the second half of the first loop. She was so nice and kind and we both really enjoyed sharing the trail with her. We talked marathons and common races we all have done. We even commented on how easy the trail was and how hard it was to run really slow. We then caught back up with Bob and he actually knew Mandy from pacing the Garden Spot Village Marathon in Lancaster. The four of us chit chatted and laughed and spent a few miles running the next winding sections. It was the perfect little train just cruising and talking running. Eventually we parted ways but it's those small moments in a race that are really fun and memorable. That is one of the many ways of how friendships are made in running.

Our new friend Mandy heading off into the heat.

We pulled into the last aid station for the loop which we actually see twice on the figure eight loop. I also noticed another runner I know Jeff Merritt. I don't actually know him but we both are members of the Trail WhippAss, a small trail running club based in NY. He was working the aid station along with a few other experienced ultra runners. The one volunteer Michael was wearing a Western States Endurance Run shirt. He had run WS a few years back. It was great to have several runners with 100 mile experience set up with that aid station. It would become increasingly clear just how important that aid station would become for me as the race unfolded. The start was only 4.5 miles away and about a mile from the start area my old friend Tim came running past us. I had talked him into signing up for the 25k and he looked like he was loving it. I was really glad we got to see him. His day was basically done and ours was really just starting. We crossed with a first lap at 3 hours 12 minutes. I quickly changed my shirt and wiped down what sweat I could and off we went for the second lap.

2nd loop miles 16.5 to 33

We ran this lap for the most part alone. The runners really thinned out here because the 25k runners were done and now it was just the 50k and 50 milers. We continued to run and started to mix in more walking due to the suffocating air and heat and humidity. Being an urban park in Philadelphia there really was no breeze to be had. That made the woods a stagnant heat box. It was starting to get really nasty. My heart rate continued to stay at an unsustainable rate. I elevated it so much on the first loop that now trying to get it to come down with the rising heat was futile. Luckily I was fueling well by drinking tons of Tailwind and eating salted potatoes at every aid station. So my fuel was on point. My body however was in a frantic race to cool itself by pumping blood to the skins surface to release the heat which of course sacrifices the blood pumping to your legs for running and your stomach for digestion. My body was working overtime to do many things and it just could not keep up. Something was going to break. It was on this loop that I first started to get a little dizzy on a very minor hill climb. It was that woozy feeling. It was at this moment that my race changed. Feeling tired and sore and hot is one thing, that's part of running and you learn to deal with that and block that out. Becoming light headed, dizzy, and wanting to vomit is not a normal running dilemma that I'm used to experiencing. This caught me seriously off guard and we were only on the second loop.

We pulled into the the final aid station. It was hear I saw the chair off to the side and I asked Michael the guy wearing the Western States 100 shirt if I can sit in it. He of course said yes. So I sat down. I was a little dizzy and sweating heavily and I needed to collect myself. Now I have read so many times to "avoid the chair" at all costs during ultras. But to be honest that chair and the few minutes I sat there collecting myself really helped me. I poured water on my face, chatted with Michael and Jeff and the one women there. All three were so nice and helpful. We would see them two more times for the third loop. I got up from that chair feeling ok and we made the last few miles back to the pavilion for the third loop. However on this four plus mile stretch my feet really started to give me problems. My socks were soaked with sweat as were my Hoka Stinson ATR shoes and my feet felt like there were submerged in water the sweat was so bad. I could feel several blisters forming and debated to myself on whether or not to fix my feet at the pavilion and change socks or just suck it up. I think I made the correct call looking back. I decided to change my socks and load up my feet with petroleum jelly especially on the blister areas. I had a few band aids that I used to try and bye a few miles out of. This probably took close to five minutes just to do this but it was time worth spent. When I took off my socks my feet were pickled and pale like they were sitting in a swimming pool for hours on end. I will always look back on this as a valuable lesson to always do in the future. Take care of the feet!

3rd loop miles 33-50

We hit the aid station right past the start area and I immediately asked for ice and they had it! Thank god I thought. I filled my handheld with it and water and off we walked up over the bridge for the last time and back down onto the trail. I kinda felt a little refreshed and renewed knowing that this was it and we were not going to see this part of the trail again. Each step was getting us closer to being done and that's how we approached it. One step at a time. We actually jogged off and on here on this section heading to the experienced aid station. But the walking was creeping back and so was the miserable feeling of just how far we had to go. We jogged into that aid station and I immediately noticed Ryan (my friend from Nazareth) standing there at the aid station looking somewhat dazed and lethargic. He had already done the 8.5 mile loop to get back here and only had another 4.5 mile to go to finish. He looked at me and said "Bryan, I want to quit." I said no you are not you start walking as did the volunteers and everyone else. He was doing so well and was on pace to finish with a great time. I watched him slowly walk off up to the trailhead feeling very jealous as he was so close. Then the realization hit me that we still had 13 miles to go. That was a sinking feeling for sure. I sat back down in that chair and collected myself again. I had a headache, felt sick, and somewhat disoriented. I wanted to be done. We asked and they said it should be 8.5 miles to get back to here. It's funny that distance is nothing to my normal mindset, but at that point it sounded almost impossible and incredibly far. So up I stood and off we walked the opposite way of Ryan, under the bridge, and up to that small climb.

We were totally alone here. Mile after mile after mile of speed walking and loneliness. It was here in these first miles following the aid station that my calves started to violently lock up and seize up making running impossible. I wanted to run, I could have at least slow jogged but every time I would try the pain was sharp and shooting in both calves. I have never ever experienced this. I was confused by it. Was it an injury? What the hell is wrong? I could walk somewhat strongly but not run. So walking it was. You do what you must do to finish. That is what I said over and over. If you can't run then you walk and vice versa. Since the course is not very hilly we were actually hitting 14 minute miles by walking. That is slow but it kept us under the looming cutoff that I was starting to obsess about.

It seemed to take forever to get to he halfway point of the third lap. As we entered onto the bike path and over the little foot bridge to the aid station at the halfway lap point it was so great to finally get to that aid station. Relief is more like it. There were so many locals out in the park on bikes with their families walking and hanging out. The park seemed really busy. There were a lot of people around and at this point I hated everyone of them. That is a harsh thing to say I know but I was really in a bad place at this point and I'm not going to sugar coat how I was feeling. I was done, finished, over it. Running was impossible and walking sucked beyond belief. I felt like I was failing and seeing everyone staring at us didn't help my fragile psyche. The aid station volunteers here were great also. They poured water over my head and then the one guy said, "you only have 9 miles left to go and three hours to get it done!" Really? Seriously? My heart sank at the thought of that. I tried to calculate the math and came up with something like 10 minute miles in my head, which is way off obviously but at that moment I was like a 2 year old.

We thanked them and off we went walking. And then the strangest thing happened. Coming towards us on the bike path were several visibly intoxicated homeless folks. No teeth, filthy, dreadlocks, staggering addicts just shouting out to anyone for cigarettes. They asked us in a very aggressive tone several times for cigarettes. One of the women with them said "you can't ask them they are running a marathon or something!" Seriously with this? We ignored them of course and actually this encounter provoked a bit of running out of me. I actually got an adrenaline burst and started running. It was short lived but I told Kourtney even with heat stroke and cramping I can still outrun those mother f'ers. We actually got a brief chuckle out of it. Only in Philadelphia. But this bike path section went on and on and on and I know it was only two miles or something but I swore it was five or six. Of course my sense of anything was way off. Back into the woods we went and I had to sit down again on a log. I was getting dizzy again. But then I finally had to urinate! For the first time during the race! Small victories. I was nervous I didn't want it to be coke colored because if it is you are in deep shit. But thankfully it was somewhat normal colored. I couldn't believe it. I was obsessing over this all race as well. Onward we went.

The last aid station. A utopia. A bastion of safety and hope. There it was and there was Jeff, Michael and that nice women. I put both hands on the table and Michael asked me what I needed. I just looked at his WS 100 shirt. then I looked at Jeff who was asleep in the chair and he had a caterpillar slowly crawling up his leg that I just stared at that as well. It was strange to see this but it took my mind off the pain. It just slowly inched up his leg to his knee. It must have been strange for the caterpillar. It was strange to me. I really wasn't all there mentally. It was really soothing in a weird way. Michael gave me water and poured it over my head and talked to us about how much was left. They all were so attentive and kind. I remember the women said "finishing exhausted and spent is better then a DNF." I hung on that because I wanted to drop so bad. I asked to sit down and just sat there for at least five minutes. I think I woke up Jeff at that point! I had to get my heart rate down. Jeff was now awake and said we have less then 7 miles but at least 4.5! Haha that was classic. So I got my ass out of that chair and off we went.

Mile 47, reduced to a walk on super easy single track. ARGHHH!

During these last four plus miles I tried to run but quickly stopped as my calves were cooked. It wasn't really until we were about two miles from the finish that I finally felt like we were going to finish. Then we finally hit that last water crossing. Then I could here Pine Rd and the first car I saw sitting there along the road was my wife's! OH Happy Day! We started jogging, hit the blacktop, onto the grass high fived Jeff who was there and a few others and across the finish we went. 11 hours and 50 minutes  after we started we officially were 50 mile finishers.

After much reflection I have come away with a few random thoughts.

1. The jump from the marathon distance to the 50K distance is really not a big one. The jump from the 50k distance to a 50 miler, is huge. A totally different animal altogether. Don't get me wrong road marathon's are very hard and bring their own sense of pain, especially if you are racing them which I do not do. The 50K distance is very challenging and at times suffering is present however the suffering is often limited and at least for me usually lasts for a very brief time because before you know it your finished.

2. The suffering in this particular 50 miler was long and pronounced. It seemed to really start somewhere around mile 36 or so for me. Fourteen miles of suffering is a really really long time. I run these races simply to finish and am in no way running competitively or looking to place in my particular age group. The heat was a killer and in a way was a good thing. I now see the value of what this race was for my training heading into Oil Creek. There were many lessons to be learned here. Foot care, chafing, heat related exhaustion, drop bags, looped courses. So many great things to mull over.

3. It was the perfect trap, very easy flat single track coupled with crippling heat and humidity. It lulled most runners into a dangerous game of glutinous excitability. Run it fast, beat the heat, finish quick. A few could do it and last, but most could not. In the end what I should have done was tamper my excitement and slow down in order to last the duration. But yet the course was just so damn runnable.

4. I can't wait to run another 50 miler. Now I know what they are and how to mentally approach the distance. For now I have a very busy summer loaded with marathons and 50k's prepping for Oil Creek 100. Yee Haw!

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