Sunday, September 20, 2009

Since time moves too quickly, race me instead.

I have been writing this thing about a dead guy from Greece, but I can’t get time enough to think clearly and finish it, so let me keep that one on the back-burner and tell you about 36 hours ago…when things were so simple that I didn’t need to think much at all. I was running down the trail yesterday, my heart rate pushing 190 and my core temperature probably climbing into the triple digits, and I was thinking three things:

A. Lemme see if I can get out of this without splitting my head open on a rock. AND

B. This current activity is both VERY difficult and VERY simple…I like it. AND

C. When will that sumbitch in the floral shorts finally crack? One of us has to die soon…and I want it to be him.

I wasn’t always who I am today. I was never a terrific runner but I wasn’t always the guy who was walking down the trail vomiting and worrying his friends and relatives, either. Most of my running friends don’t know this but I actually have a competitive streak. Its okay by me that they don’t know. Most of my friends figure that being slow is just fine and dandy by me. I haven’t ever lied about my competitive nature…I just never mention it. Its easy to seem non-competitive when you are very very slow and somewhat good-natured. The very best part of being an ultra marathoner is spending time outdoors and meeting both new and old friends on the trail. I’m not lying about that either. If I relied on fame and fortune to motivate me I would have run out of that particular type of fuel and ground to a halt many years ago.

I love my friends, I really do. But I also believe that every so often, even if very long intervals of time pass between occurrences, it is healthy to give your friends the beating they so richly deserve. Yep, its OK to put your chin to your chest and administer an ass-kicking. That way, when you are exchanging pleasantries at the club’s ‘Secret Santa’ cookie exchange everyone knows exactly who’s-who. I like to be humble but how can I be humble if no one has ever, not even once, seen me do something to be humble about?

Most folks probably figure that I would be a bragger if only I had something to brag about. But that’s not true. Let me write that again…its not true! And just because I’m about to brag here and now doesn’t mean that I am a bragger. I’m still humble I’m just going to pass on this rare and valuable opportunity to display my humility for the sake of this posting. Its because I love you.

You are welcome.

I almost never race ultra marathons. Or do I? If racing means leaving everything out on the course and finishing feeling as though you could not possibly take another step then I race ALL of my ultras, because after each race I am more wasted than cooked carrots at a Viking feast.

Does finishing tired mean that you raced? I believe that it does. I also think that the two most rewarding things that you can race are yourself, or a clock. But you can compete against yourself or run a time-trial any time you want to. So why race?

I went to run the Youngstown Ultra Trail Classic 50K yesterday. It was a very cool race. Everything about it was awesome. They had terrific swag, great food, neat t-shirts, and wonderful volunteers. The course was marked such that if you paid sufficient attention you wouldn’t get lost. I got lost three times. The reason I got lost was because I wasn’t paying attention, and the reason I wasn’t paying attention was because I was tired, and this time…this time…the reason I was tired was because I WAS RACING!!

I didn’t start out racing. I started out trying to be polite. I was in a long conga-line of runners on a long stretch of single track trail and everyone was flying. There were 25K runners mixed in with the 50K folks which might have been part of the reason for the fast pace. But EVERYONE was flying, and no matter how many times I stopped to let a runner who was nipping at my heels go by, there were always more people whose path I was blocking. The only polite thing to do was to go fast.

And, as I now recall, going fast is fun.

After a while the runners strung out, of course, but by the time they did I was up in a part of the pack that I never visit. I found myself running with Nick Billock and Jeff Musick. On a normal day these guys can chew me up and digest me before breakfast. I knew this, and I knew that I should back off but they were so fun, so entertaining, and so skillful that I went into debt to stay with them for as long as I could.

Running behind Nick is a lesson in what proper trail running form should be. Watch Nick for a while and you will note that he runs with a full stride through the roughest terrain. The fact that he doesn’t twist an ankle or catch a root seems, at first, to be dumb luck. Watch him a while longer, though, and you will see that luck has nothing to do with it. Nick runs with his foot strike directly below his center of gravity, lands on whatever obstacle may be there, and makes constant tiny, almost unnoticeable adjustments in his hips, shoulders, and arms such that the sum line of gravity of all of his body mass always falls between his feet…regardless of the terrain they find. Run behind Nick for a while and its impossible not to duplicate the stride. And if you manage to duplicate his stride you will not fall often, and you will appear to be as lucky as he seems to be.

Running behind this fine runner showed me that some of my slowness is not due to
fitness but due to running form. My current form, developed by me over many years and
many miles, was crafted and practiced under the banner of “safety”. I figured that it is better to be safe-and-sound, even if the pace had to slow a bit. The irony is that while watching Nick I realized that jumping for spots between obstacles is neither safe nor efficient.

If Nick was the master of the terrain then Jeff was the master of maintaining an
even keel. Jeff ran mile after mile seemingly without a trace of effort or any unnecessary expenditure of energy. He rarely walked, he rarely slowed down, and he never strained. On two of the occasions when I ran off the course it was because I had gotten ahead of Jeff and sacrificed judgment for speed. Fast runners have skill and I learned that from Nick. Fast runners also have flow and I learned that from Jeff.

And for what its worth, fast runners DO point out beautiful sights and they DO chat. They DO enjoy the moment. Nick, Jeff and I talked up a storm. Trail skills, and a proper mental outlook, allow a guy to multi-task I guess.

Another thing about running fast that I already knew, but had forgotten, is the simple fact that pain is a symptom. It’s a warning sign, but in the case of the circulatory and muscular system of a trained person the 'pain alarm' goes off far before we need it to. Because of this you can run in distress for hours on end…and sometimes you can get away with it. I did. I was so tired at 18 miles that I wanted to cry. So I settled in behind Jeff and he pulled me along for a while at a FASTER pace and I snapped out of it. The pain remained but it became a curiosity rather than something to be feared. My ability to keep on keeping on was a surprise to me, and I love surprises…even in ultras.

Now, before I go off the friggin deep end please allow me to calibrate things. Racing
must be defined by the individual. Although I was delighted and surprised by my race I need to tell you that the race winner came within minutes of LAPPING me on an 8 mile loop. I will also point out that my 10 minute miles aren’t going to earn me invited runner status at any race. But being in a race with other runners allowed me to know that 10 minute miles on this course were pretty good. Running alone I would have wondered if I was running well or merely suffering due to having a bad day.

But, regardless of pace, racing is racing and I did race the man in the flowery shorts…and he raced me back…and this time I won, and it was awesome. I raced another guy as well, he had goose bumps and he was kinda red all-over. He looked awful, and he dropped me so hard on a sloping uphill that the vacuum created by his vanishing mass caused me to slam my chest into a rock. That guy, and that rock, pounded me, and it was equally awesome. I also skinned my knee somewhere and it hurts today. I don’t remember doing it. And when you really think about it, isn’t that awesome as well?

So to answer my original question, if we can compete against ourselves or the clock any time we like, should we race? And if so why? I have absolutely no clue whether or not you should race. But since you have been kind enough to take the time to read my question, I ask you to please consider my opinion. My opinion is that we should race, at least occasionally, because it brings out the best in us, because we can make new friends in different parts of the pack, because each experience is a learning experience, because it gives us another thing to daydream about on cold winter days, because it doesn’t TAKE AWAY from our love of friends and love of the outdoors. And finally and most importantly, because surprising yourself is fun.

All my best (at least occasionally), --Mark


  1. Great post, Mark, and great job BEATING me! Heck, you were gone before I even got done! That last lap around Cohasset kicked my tail, for sure. Way to go beating the flowery shorts. I know exactly who you're talking about. At least one of us got 'em.

    Thanks for the accolades, too. I never had someone describe me running on trails, definitely not from the rear! It was very interesting to read your perspective. On roads, I'm known to have a very odd gait and run very upright. I think that odd gait on roads has translated into a great way to run you described it. And, every time I start to trip (meaning I'm really pooped and/or day-dreaming), I start thinking "twinkle toes...twinkle toes" to get my feet lifting up and over the obstacles. I did that a lot yesterday.

    Well, great job at YUT-C and for successfully "racing" me. Of course racing is normal...and expected. We're Type A men...would you expect anything less?!

    Happy Trails!

  2. Nick
    I'll call it a win if you want to call it that but you were smart to cut back on the pace. I believe you have Akron and then the 100 miler....yikes...I'm not even walking straight today.
    It was an absolute blast running with you and I learned a lot. And I meant what I said; when they consider who to give the award to for contributing to the ultra-community your names deserves to be front and center. Good luck at Akron, I can't wait to hear about it. --Mark

  3. Mark,

    As always a great read. I could see Nick as if he was running in front of me as I read...I know how unflappable Jeff is too, as long as he doesn't hear a witch at night on the trails...

    Perhaps this week we could do HBanks together?


  4. Thanks Mike
    Yes definitely Highbanks this weekend. I know exactly what you are talking about re: the witch. I read that on Brian Musicks Blog...very scarey.

  5. Mark
    Really enjoyed this post. Most of the time I just run races to have fun but when I do "race" them it's a fantastic feeling to be running fast and strong.

    Keep running and writing. You have a talent for both.


  6. Great race Mark! I checked the results and saw that you finished 11th overall - that's excellent. You've clearly got another gear that you can shift to when you need it. You might have to change the name of your blog :)


  7. great job!!! what a good read. I need to really think about why I race and I'll let you know the answer when I have one.
    I'll call the next time I'm in Delaware for a good run!

  8. Finally found your blog! Awesome race report Mark and really nice meeting you! I appreciate the compliments and that I helped you get out of a funk. But actually, you running behind me helped push me along and encouraged me not give into the pain so easily. This was my first time racing the 50K distance but I've learned in the past that you can push alot farther than you think. After a point, the pain really doesn't get too much worse. Anyways, look forward to running with you again!

    Mike - I found a gear that night I never knew I had!! I think another West Branch witch hunt is in store!

  9. Great Race Report. Awesome job on a great finish.
    Reading about you getting lost had me laughing so hard. I must be sleepy.
    My running form is terrible and I equate it to feeling like I am running with cinder blocks on my feet.

    Let's run soon.

  10. our posts parallel every once in awhile. Yes...I'm going to race The Bird and run like Nick Billock...smooth as silk!

  11. Mark,

    That was an excellent post. I really enjoyed it! My whole take on the subject is one I will save for the next time we run together. I hope it will be soon. I ran a completely different strategy at Burning River and it may have paid off if I wouldn't have forgot to eat the whole race. However, running in the back is not my usual place but I will say that it was one of the most enjoyable runs I have had. The reason was because I got to run the first 10 miles with you. Even after all the pain and agony from 60 miles on...running in the back and chatting with you, Roy and others will be a great memory to look back on. I learned a lot about easing up on my competitive spirit and what it could get times with good friends enjoying the trails together.
    GREAT RACE at YUT-C!!!

  12. Dan, same here...I always forget how fun racing is : )

    Mike, thanks but no worries about changing the name of the Blog. I still slog. : )

    Yeah you need to let me show you the trails down here. Actaully I need to get a BUNCH of runners together for a trail run. You'd all be surprised I think.

    Jeff, It was an absolute blast running with you! I learned a lot. Thanks!!

    I don't think well on my feet...and your running form is terrific, what are you talking were made for forest trails. I was made for an armchair!!

    Red, I am currently looking everywhere trying to see how you did at Akron this morning...please report in!! I've been thinking of you and cheering for you!

    This is the most fun I have had in 32 years of running. And its because of the new friends I have made. You are a MAJOR part of that. We need to run very soon please. I hope we both make it to Mohican in the morning!

  13. This post makes me want to go out and do hill repeats... I usually hate hill repeats! :) That's a compliment by the way... Great post, Mark!