Thursday, September 30, 2010

Groundhog Fall 50k, September 11, 2010

Phabulous Phun with Punxsutawney Phil!

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is a bit of a one-horse town. Actually, it's a one animal town, namely, the groundhog. Punxsutawney Phil, who is certainly the best-known of the supposed spring-predicting groundhogs is honored by at least 32 six-foot tall fiberglass Phils in the town. In the few blocks of downtown Punxsutawney it is impossible to look in any direction and not see multiple representations of Phil.

And no visit to Punxsutawney, even to run a 50K race, would be complete without an opportunity to meet the real Phil. Which I get to do at the spaghetti dinner the night before the race. Phil makes the rounds of the dinner on the shoulder of a member of the Inner Circle, Phil's caretakers.

Naturally, the Pantall Hotel, where I'm staying for the race and where the dinner is being held, has its own "Phil'd with Service" outside. Since one should never bypass a chance to have one's picture taken with a six-foot tall fiberglass groundhog, Gayatri, who has carpooled with me to the race, and I go outside and take each other's picture with the impossibly friendly, if immobile, creature.

I wander off to buy some bagels for the morning and drop a postcard in the mail for my aunt. On the two block walk I spy at least half a dozen other Phils. Before heading off to my room I stop at the hotel bar for a beer. "Hydration," I think to myself. Back in the room I eat a cookie that I had bought on the drive up.

Can You Run if You Can't Stand?

At 4:30 I awake. Not because my alarm has gone off or because I'm nervous about the race and can't sleep. It's my stomach. It's bloated and distended and starting to feel painful. I get occasional attacks of this nature and generally the only thing I can do is lay down until the attacks passes in several hours. Since the race starts at 700 only two blocks from the hotel, I figure that I have a chance that the attack will pass before I start to run. I spend a restless couple of hours trying that plan.

Promptly at 7:00 the mayor of Punxsutawney climbs a ladder by the start line, says 'go' and the 74 starters are off. Two hours earlier, 22 "trekkers," including Gayatri, set off in the dark.

Unfortunately for me, my stomach is not cooperating. In fact, I can barely run. I can't stand up straight. I can run a bit and walk, and I would be wiser and more comfortable lying down in bed waiting for the episode to pass. But, no, I paid to run in this race, drove 200 miles, paid for a hotel room, and by God, whether it feels bad or not, I'm going to run this damn race. Or at least walk it. Or at the very least, start it and DNF.

The course is an interesting mix of paved and gravel country road, trail and dirt logging and mining roads. We go uphill out of town past the high school, then onto a gravel road and then a dirt road that becomes a wide trail. At one point we pass a tree stand that appears to be made of about thirty packing pallets piled upon each other and secured with random boards running at various angles. We climb a hill and reach the top of Two Beers Hill.

The hill is a very steep and rutted with loose talus making footing uncertain. Working downhill takes concentration and planning and I zig-zag slowly down the hill. When I get to the bottom I realize that my stomach is not bothering me, either do to concentrating on the descent or from having contracted my abdominal muscles on the way down.

Unfortunately the relief doesn't last long, and I spend much of the time to the Buck Run Aid station at mile 7 walking. The scenery is pleasant - mostly forest single track, so skirting a nicely reclaimed strip mine. Leaving Buck Run I down a Succeed!, figuring that the salt tablet can't likely do any more harm than what I'm feeling and it might help.

From Buck Run, the course takes two laps of a 8.1 mile loop. Unaccountably, I feel cold and put my gloves back on for a while. About a mile into the loop the trail ascends the steep but relatively short (300 feet) climb up Yellow Bus hill. Having endured the 700+ feet climb of Virgil Mountain on technical trails three weeks earlier, the hill doesn't seem so bad. Despite the pain in my stomach, I manage to fake running for the photographer waiting at the top.

From Yellow Bus the trail gradually descends until the foot of Cry Baby hill, another short (about 150 feet) but steep ascent. But my stomach pain continues, making running difficult. All morning I send out a series of tweets complaining of my condition.

From Cry Baby the course generally descends on a logging road that now appears to be used for gas mining. The area around Punxsutawney is replete with small wells collecting natural gas extracted through the use of 'fracking,' a process that involves shattering the shale that the gas is trapped in thousands of feet below.

After passing through the Seven Springs Aid station about halfway through the loop (mile 11.2) the course follows Big Run uphill. The footing is a bit soft and wet as natural springs on the side of the hill provide water for the run, and the water crosses the trail to get to the run.

It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Leaving the run the course follows a gravel road back to the Buck Run Aid station. It's on this road that the leaders, now finishing their second loop while I'm still on my first go by. I'm going along with Amy B. who is running her first ultra. We have a nice chat, but my stomach is killing me and I'm starting to think that I'll quit when I get back to Buck Run. The other half of my brain argues that this is just 'a bad patch' and it will pass.

When I get to the aid station I notice that there are Tums on the table! I had missed them the first time thru. Maybe there is some relief here. And I've done 15.1 miles; nearly halfway done. There really isn't any debate now and I start the second loop.

I'm feeling decent now - not great - but I can run. I notice that there are no groundhogs to be seen, but plenty of chipmunks, who scurry away at my approach. They rustle leaves as they scamper away into their hiding places.

The second loop is uneventful and near the end I'm feeling close to normal. Kathy B. and I leapfrog each other over Cry Baby Hill, through the Seven Springs aid station and on the way back to Buck Run for the third and final visit.

We leave the aid station together and resume our leapfrogging. I take her picture as she passes again then run off and catch her as we head up Tower Hill on a return course that differs slightly from the one we went out on.

Tower Hill is another one of the course's typical short, steep inclines. I power walk up, leaving Kathy behind for the last time. Up and over and it leads to a long flat stretch of grass - perhaps the floor of an old reclaimed strip mine.

In the distance I spot a runner, and to make the time go faster and for motivation I play a mind game: "Lion of the Serengeti." The open, grassy terrain inspires me. I'm the lion and the runner up ahead is the prey. Patiently I stalk the unsuspecting victim gradually closing the distance between us. He doesn't know it yet, but he will be run down and figuratively devoured.

As I draw even with Joe D., I ask him, "Which are you, kudu or zebra?" I explain my game to him and he selects zebra. Joe and I had been together early on and he knew of my stomach troubles and encouraged me hours earlier. We reach the Adrian Aid station (mile 27.3) together but I leave him as we begin the walk up Two Beers Hill. It's easier to ascend than it was to descend hours ago. Traversing the rest of the course is routine and mostly downhill. I'm feeling pretty good and run steadily. Perhaps my early stomach pain had kept me for going out too fast in my usual 'fly and die' method.

I cross the finish line in 6:37:31, a twenty minute 50K PR for me. Overall I finish 59th of 93, with three other runners who drop out. Gayatri finishes in 8:26, but having taken the early start, only has to wait about ten minutes for me to finish. First timer Amy B crosses in 7:08, with scrapes on both knees, a hand and her chin from a fall later in the race. We all collect the dark blue Groundhog Fall 50K folding camp chairs finisher's premium to add to our runner's premiums of a shirt, Groundhog Beer and a stuffed Phil.

Gayati and I eat, including spectacularly delicious homemade cookies and desserts as well as pizza, take showers and head home, happy from our time visiting with Punxsutawney Phil and friends.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Monster Trail Marathon, September 5, 2010

After a quick stop at the registration table to pay my $25 entrant fee, an application of vasoline to guard against chafing and a decision to where a long sleeve shirt to start the race, I walk the twenty feet to the start line of the Monster Marathon in Virgil State Forest, south of Cortland, New York. It's a beautiful day to run and Sandy and her niece Kathy are dropping me off while they proceed to Syracuse to go to the State Fair.

At precisely 7:17, we're off! Actually, that's 'I'm off!' as the race uses an age- and sex-graded handicapped start, and I get a 43 minute handicap in advance of the official 8:00 a.m. start. Since there are no others in my age group, I start alone.

The course consists of two repeats of a 13.1 mile round trip out and back. The first .85 mile is downhill on a gravel road. Easy, and a nice way to warm up for what follows. The course goes by what is a forwarning of what is to come, namely a chairlift to the top of the ski resort of Greek Peak.

But the road goes a bit further, and near the end of the gravel road chalk on the ground directs the runners to turn right onto the Finger Lakes Trail. Within a few paces the trail crosses a stream and heads uphill.

"Follow the white blazes," I repeat to myself, but within a couple of minutes I'm on what might be the trail, or not, and my eyes are scanning the trees looking for blazes. Another runner comes along and says, 'The trail is over here." Sure enough there are plenty of white blazes in that direction. I haven't been running for more than ten or eleven minutes, and someone has already made up the handicap on me. He won't be the last by any means. But at last I'm on the trail.

The single track proceeds steeply uphill. For the next 25 minutes its an unrelentingly steep climb on a trail with roots and rocks nearly every step of the way. It levels out a bit, then goes uphill a bit more, although not as steeply. Finally, I reach the top of Virgil Mountain after a climb of about 700 feet over 1.5 miles of trail. Although the summit is the highest point within 70 miles, the thick woods preclude much of a view other than from a powerline cut near the summit.

In another mile I come to the first aid station. I'm feeling fresh, so I grab some sports drink, a couple of chocolate chip cookies and some Pringles and dash off. Since the course is two laps of an out and back, I'll visit here four times before the day is over and I figure there will be ample time to socialize with the two volunteers later in the day.

The course continues its up and down nature over rocky and rooted terrain for the next three miles to the turnaround aid station. On the way I start to get passed by more and more of the later starters. But since there are 37 starters in the marathon, most of the running during the early part of the race is done alone. I do catch up with one runner who started before me and we trade stories of our experiences at the Miwok 100K, which he and his wife had run several times.

Another runner goes by wearing a Dipsea shirt. "Dipsea or Quad Dipsea," I ask. "Quad," he says, referring to a notoriously tough 28-mile run in California which requires runners to navigate over 800 irregular steps on steep slopes - four times. For him, the 5500 feet of climb and descent of the Monster Marathon should be easy work, even if it isn't for the rest of us. Another pair of runners are discussing whether to go to South Africa to run in the 56 mile Comrades Marathon. "Hardcore folks out today," I think.

Then Brennan M. catches up to me. We exchange greetings and he tells me that this is his first marathon. He's nuts to choose this as his first, I think. Later he tells me that he enjoys trail running and had done a 30K trail run, so there is logic to his choice. And he can be assured that any other marathon that he runs will give him a better time.

Leaving the turn-around quickly I start to see the first of the 52 half-marathoners headed out-bound. I stop at the intermediate aid station and ask one of the volunteers to take my picture.

At one point the course comes out of the woods and follows a gravel road for a few hundred yards. There is a volunteer there to check off runners and as I turn onto the gravel road and begin to proceed up it he yells to me that I'm about to follow a driveway rather than the road itself. "There's kind of a strange guy who lives up there he warns," and I don't know if he is joking or serious.

The steep downhills are starting to make my quads sore. After exiting onto the gravel road leading back to the start - and the turnaround for the second tour of the course - I find that I can't do much running on the slightly uphill surface, even though it is one of the rare places where the footing is good. Getting to the turnaround, I go to my bag, drop off my hat and change from the long sleeve shirt to a short sleeved one and head back out. It took 1:28 to go out and 1:37 to come back, even though the return was net downhill, for a half marathon time of 3:05.

The second outbound leg is tough going. At least I know the course and know that the Virgil Mountain climb will only take about 25 or 30 minutes. On the way up I take a picture of the steam boiler that is sitting by the side of the trail. It looks like part of a locomotive, but more likely it was used during logging operations in the forest at some point in the past. But how it was dragged up to this point midway up the mountain, or whether it was assembled there, who knows. But however it got there, it was work that I'm glad that I didn't have to do. I'm having enough trouble dragging myself up the mountain, let alone hundreds of pounds of iron.

Approaching the intermediate aid station, one of the volunteers is running toward me carrying a couple of towels. He asks if I saw a women down on the course, as he had received a report that a runner had fallen and was seriously hurt. But I've seen no one, and neither has the runner who comes into the aid station behind me. The volunteer returns before we leave. Apparently it was a false alarm.

Running the downhills is becoming as hard as the uphills. Too many rocks. Too many roots. Too steep. The excuses multiply and my time deteriorates. It takes 1:55 to get to the outbound turnaround this lap, 27 minutes, and 30 percent more, that the first time. And I'm treating the aid stations more and more like rest stops rather than pit stops. No sense of urgency any more.

Shortly after leaving the turnaround aid station, aptly named 'The Rockpile', I'm passed by first-timer Brennan and Jack R. Jack is from the Catskills so he is used to running in mountains, although he says that at least in the Catskills you get rewarded with vistas for your climb. Off they go while I continue to complain to myself about the lousy footing. Truthfully, the footing is forcing me to pay more attention than I might otherwise, and with the exception of a small ankle jam and a scrape on my shin against a log while getting out of the way of runners coming the other way, I don't fall, stumble or roll an ankle all day.

After a leisurely stop at the mid-course aid station, eating and chatting with the volunteers about their time living in the DC area and their running plans for the coming weeks, I head off for the final three miles, including the descent down Virgil Mountain. My quads are really complaining now, but I reassure them that we'll be done soon. I'm mostly walking the steep parts, but trying to run where the footing is good and the downhill not extreme.

And surprisingly I spot Brennan and Jack ahead! And I'm gaining on them. I pass Jack before we get to the road, and catch Brennan on the gravel road. By now I've really gotten my second wind, and as there are no more rocks and roots, I run a fair amount of the rest of the course, as it is uphill and no cause of complaint for my aching quads.

After crossing the finish line in an official time of 6:10:21 (6:53:21 clock time without my 43 minute handicap), I collect my rewards: a ceramic bead on a string necklace and a 'trail 26.2' oval bumper sticker. I walk over to the picnic area for a turkey wrap, some potato salad and an Arnold Palmer. As I'm leaving, I chat with one of the race officials about the day. "Would you do it again?," she asks. I don't hesitate to respond. "No," I answer, "that was a very tough course."

I wound up 27th of 32 finishers. There were five DNFs. Undoubtedly I'll never finish in the top 30 of any other marathon. Unless I come back to the Monster. Nah, that would be crazy. Still, next year I'd get an additional two minutes added to my handicap. And it is less than a dollar per mile to enter . . . .