Redefining Hard.

A Guest Post by Chief Editor and Baby Daddy, Chris.

I’ve written about running before, several times. Running tourism, my first half, my first marathon, my second marathon. A central theme in all my running blogs is accessibility. As in, you can do this. You, the reader, if you are in reasonably decent health, can train and accomplish these things. I still think this is true.

I recently ran my first ultramarathon, the 27 mile option at the Lake Martin 100/50/27 mile endurance event on the trails at Russell Lands at Lake Martin. It was, by far, the most difficult athletic thing I have done. It was just a bit longer than a marathon by distance, but trail miles are very different from road miles. The terrain was at times technical, steep, slippery, sticky, and/or wet. The trails were full of roots, rocks, mud, clay, stream crossings, leaves, and pine straw. At times it was a 30 foot wide dirt road. At times it was a 12” wide single track ditch. As advertised, the rolling hills are relentless.

IMG_1069I was still feeling great after 90 minutes. {Photo Credit: Tanya Sylvan}

That said, I think for most of you, even an ultramarathon is achievable. It may seem crazy, but this is the heart of new, first time accomplishment – it redefines hard. You move the standard for what is physically and mentally possible.

So whether you are looking at a Couch to 5K program, 10k, Half Marathon, Full Marathon, 27 mile or 50K Ultra, 50 mile, 100 mile, or or a 150 mile race that starts with jumping out of an airplane and falling the first 2 miles (this does exist), that feeling of impossibility is just that – a feeling. It is not reality.

The truth is that with a realistic training schedule, a little knowledge about gear and injury prevention, some practice at hydration and exercise-related nutrition, and the support of your local running community (in my case, the BTC and the BUTS), you can do this.

FullSizeRender-3Rocking my BUTS gear after the race.

So, with all of that heady stuff aside, I’ll get practical. As are all first-time endeavors, it was a learning experience. So I will let you benefit from the wisdom of my experience.

What I did right:

Read. I read bunches of blogs about trail running, ultra running, gear, all of it. I read every line of every page of the Lake Martin 100 website, which is really thorough about all things course, preparation, and survival. (Gaiters For The Win!!)

Listen. I picked all the trail runner brains in my orbit. I did what they said. I like to benefit from the wisdom of everyone else’s experience. Because of others, I had all sorts of goodies like a blister kit, wet wipes, and super greasy feet impervious to water.

IMG_1065 copyI was still feeling good at the Heaven Hill aid station. {Photo Credit: Random Dude.}

Train. I asked a 100 mile vet what trails I should train on. She sent me to harder ones than I planned on, but I am so glad I listened and did what she said.

Overprepare. I had about 500 miles worth of Tailwind (advanced Powerade), snacks, sunscreen, bugspray, and socks in my drop box at the main aid station. Extra everything.

IMG_1063Ahhhhh, downhill. {Photo Credit: Tanya Sylvan}

What I did wrong:

Under hydrate. I drank approximately 5 liters of fluid, but I was on the course (including resting on benches and at aid station stops) over 8 hours.

Around mile 22, my legs began teetering on the brink of charley horses, twinging with every little trip, giving that moment of panic when you feel the muscles begin to tighten and curl.

At one point I intentionally fell down to immediately relieve the tension before it could tighten any further. By the time the race ended, I was walking all the hills, even the tiniest 1% grades, because even a minor incline was inducing the beginnings of Nightmare on Cramp Street.

Most of my trail training just happened to be on cold & dry days. The day of the race was humid, at times sunny, & after awhile, hot.

TMI, but after a final 6:35am pre-race port-a-potty stop, I didn’t pee until 4:30pm, long after finishing, rehydrating, and showering. Bottom line: under those conditions, 5 liters wasn’t near enough.

Not long enough training runs. My longest trail training run several weeks before Lake Martin was 16 miles. Since I had run a full road marathon 5 weeks prior to this race, I didn’t feel like a 20+ mile long trail run was necessary. Oops.

I felt great for about 20 miles. The last 7 were so much harder than they had to be. I wish I had done a 22 mile training run before I tapered down for the race. The single track inclines felt steeper and steeper as I went along, until I looked like I was sneaking up the secret path to Mordor, crawling with my weary hobbit legs at a 22:00/mile pace.

IMG_0992Mile 23. No comment.

What else:

When I got to Mile 23, the trail was named Rock Bottom. I sat on a bench. I took off my pack. I texted with friends. I just chilled. I did not see one other human for that entire section of the course, a 7 mile loop between aid stations. I assumed I was last, and I was just fine with it.

IMG_0993Rock Bottom wasn’t so bad.

I only got off track once for about 100 yards, but quickly retraced my steps and got back on the well-marked course. This is not unusual, but you can’t be lost for long. There are blue flags EVERYWHERE on the route, and signs marking every turn.

As it turned out, I wasn’t last. The last 2 miles of the 27 were an out-and-back to a spool of plastic tape to prove you made it to the turnaround. After I got my blessed piece of blue tape, I turned around for the last mile victory lap, and passed about 5 or 6 people. They looked just as tired as me.

IMG_1062-2The final stretch – I didn’t die! {Photo Credit: Tanya Sylvan}

But all of that eventually ended in a glorious wave of cheering, high-fives, a medal, pictures, fluids, potato chips, delicious soup, flip-flops, and later a giant cheeseburger.

FullSizeRender-4Kowaliga Restaurant. A+.

All together, it was a fantastic experience. The every-flavor forest was so many different kinds of beautiful. The lake itself was a frequent canvas behind the rustling trees. The birds and frogs and babbling streams provided the background music. The camaraderie of crews, pacers, and fellow racers – both old friends and people I met during the race – was worth the price of admission. The aid station volunteers were aggressively helpful and sincerely compassionate.

I definitely plan to do another ultra. Maybe a 50K.

And I will benefit from the wisdom of my own experience the next time I redefine hard.

Second Time’s a Charm

Guest Post by Chris the Husband.

Last year about this time, I ran a full marathon for the first time – with a disgusting sinus infection in a light rain – and called it a win. I finished without being miserable. This, boys and girls, is why we train – not only so we survive the challenge, whatever it is, but so we don’t have to feel miserable afterward.

Its been a whole year, and I haven’t gotten any slimmer, but I have kept running. And I’ve gotten faster. So this year, I had a goal in mind – to shave a LOT of time off of the Mercedes Marathon. Last year, I just wanted to finish, so I took it easy. This year, I wanted to see what I could do.

In pretty much all of my life, a pound of preparation is worth far more than an ounce of hassle, so I joyfully strategize and plan details to optimize everything. In marathon terms, it means several things.

It means that Rachel gets full credit for booking a last minute hotel room for Valentine’s Day within 100 yards of the starting line.

It means my fitness plan included a Tour of Italy at 2:00pm the day before to go along with soup, breadsticks, and Alfredo sauce.

It means going to bed really early, not too long after watching the sun set behind the silent course, marked and waiting.

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It means getting up early enough the day of the race to go to the bathroom so many times that the trips get named after Star Wars movies.

3:45 Wake up before alarm. The Phantom Menace.

4:00 Study weather [as if.] Drink full bottle of water.

4:15 Drink first cup of coffee. Attack of the Clones.

4:30 Do awkward stretches in the dark.

4:45 Think about breakfast. Revenge of the Sith.

5:00 Eat oatmeal with brown sugar. Bring breakfast to wife.

5:15 Second cup of coffee. A New Hope.

5:30 Lubricate everything with Body Glide.

5:45 Re-evaluate wardrobe choices. The Empire Strikes Back.

6:00 Chapstick everything that doesn’t have Body Glide.

6:15 Actually get dressed. Return of the Jedi.

6:30 Start to head to the race. Nope. The Force Awakens.

6:45 Group photo.

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7:03 Run.

The actual running part is not terribly interesting for you, the reader, so I’ll spare you all of that. There were some really bright moments. Some of my Birmingham Track Club Saturday Morning Long Run people were working a water stop at Railroad Park, and familiar faces are always a pick-me-up. Plus, you have to make it look good for your friends, because they will take pictures of you and post them – so you best be smiling.

IMG_6084Photo Credit: Bob Sims, BTC Water Stop Volunteer

Last year, I took several handfuls of gummy bears from volunteers along the course, trying to baby myself through the race, but this year, with a vast 1 marathon under my belt, I took a few more chances.

The Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS) is another fine organization that operates a water stop, and they are somewhat notorious for their varied offerings to weary runners. On my first pass around mile 10, I got high-fives, smiling familiar faces, and a miracle.

A face I can’t remember extended a plate in my direction. I looked down, and thought I had lost my mind.

That can’t be. It looks like – is that – ? – it is.

I reached out with my sweaty gloved hand, and grabbed a perfectly reasonable handful of bacon. After a shocked thanks, as I kept running, I lifted my hand to my mouth, and in that cold morning air, that fresh, hot, greasy, salty bacon was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.

The second time I passed them, 13 miles later, I took the heart-shaped Little Debbie cakes, also delightful. Not bacon-level, but still much needed and fantastic for getting icing on your lips to keep licking off for the last few miles.

I pushed myself hard on the second loop of the course, and I did it. I took 35 minutes off of my time from last year. Thank you again, bacon. As I came in to Linn Park, my dear sweet wife and several running friends were waiting and cheering for me – I so do not deserve any of these people.

I finished the race, slowed to a staggering walk, got my medal, my swag bag, and started peeling off my toboggan and gloves. I grabbed a Powerade bottle and shuffled to the exit gate, pausing for a second to have the staff mark my bib.

Less than one minute from the finish line, the moment I emerged through the gate onto the sidewalk, swaying like a leaf in a gentle breeze, a well-meaning lady caught my eye from 12 inches away. “Excuse me, would you take our picture??”

I almost didn’t believe she meant me. My heart was pounding, my hands were full. But here she was, handing me the phone. I lifted it with my swag and junk loaded hands, and tried to stabilize myself while the five of them posed.

I took a second look at them. And a third. The runner in their soon to be well-focused and carefully taken picture was the apparent twin of my ex-girlfriend from 18 years ago. Whatever. I managed to tap the screen a few times and smile at them as I handed their phone back.

I found Rachel, and off we went into the post-race party to get Jim n Nicks BBQ and celebrate. I got my food, and headed to the sauce/pickle table. Lemme tell you, runners, just because you ran a marathon does not mean that the rules of polite society are completely gone. There were 2 giant bowls of scratch-made pickles, each with its own tongs. And the dude in front of me grabbed a stack of pickle slices with the tongs and went straight to his pie hole with it. BOGUS. PARTY. FOUL.

I got my pickles from the other bowl.

I could bore you with my time and and pace, but instead, here are fun statistics:

Fitbit Steps in my marathon: 41,345.

Lose It calorie credit for my marathon: –3,828.

Trips to the bathroom during the race: 0.

New members of the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society: 1.

Let me say, if you didn’t read last year’s post, or if you did, you can do this. I’m 39 and over 200 pounds. If you start slow and train properly, you can do this. There is a welcoming community in your town ready and willing to encourage and push you to do things you would never do on your own.

Editor’s Note: He’s right. You can do it. But it might be helpful in meeting your goals if you don’t have a littering aversion like our daughter.

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