Monday, November 16, 2009

... North Coast 24 Hour Run; Part 2

WARNING: This post is VERY long. I could have broken it into pieces but didn't. Take an aid-station break if you need to. Sorry to test your endurance : )

The sport of ultra marathoning is changing. It is becoming more organized, more popular, more mainstream, and at the same time way way way more laid back. The epicenter for this national change is Cleveland, Ohio. I mean this literally. Cleveland is changing the sport and I think I recall the moment immediately before the big-bang occurred. I was talking to Joe Jurczyk many years ago when he was the race director for the Mohican 100 mile run. Back then the race had a stipulation that any runner must have finished a 50 mile trail run to gain entry. Joe told me that he didn’t care so much about the 50 mile distance as much as he cared that runners knew what they were getting into when they ran on a trail. He told me that he was going to waive this requirement in the case of two brothers who were impressive enough in their own right. “These guys are amazing and they really get trails…so I’m letting them run if they want to”.

Mark and Steve Godale took ultra running by storm. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Godale brothers but I will tell you what I have seen and I will tell you what I believe they have accomplished. Inside of their first couple of years the nation knew the name Godale. They both ended up as Mohican Champions, both have had success in national class and national championship races. The have represented the USA in world championship events. Mark was Ultra runner of the year in 1999. The most amazing thing about the Godales, though, wasn’t their speed. It was their inclusiveness and approachability. The Godales would beat you by several hours in a race, then sit around a campfire with you afterward and talk about YOU. They developed a reputation for running with or racing anyone, anywhere, at any time, and at any distance. They clearly loved the sport and they loved their friends, fast and slow alike. Their approach was refreshing. It was cool. It was emulated. And it became the expected norm for trail running in this part of the country. The training clatches centered in northeast Ohio continued to grow and supportiveness led to participation and participation led to increased numbers of events, which led to COMMUNITY. And the northeastern Ohio ultra running community is like no other. You can talk about San Francisco or New York or the Rocky Mountains all you like and I’ll sit and listen. But Cleveland is where community is happening.

This sense of community allowed Terry Hawk and I to catch up on each other’s lives even though we had never actually met. Terry was the first Ohio runner to win Mohican and he has had a terrific career. Terry is a legend. I am an also-ran. And yet when we met during our crossing-guard shift change we learned that we both knew of each other. In fact we found it to be somewhat amazing that we had never met. We spoke of past races and training for an hour before he left the road crossing and the conversation was not that of two strangers. It was more like two college friends reconnecting after several years apart. That is what I mean by community. I believe that this exists no where like it does in Cleveland, and I believe that is what makes us special.

When Terry left I was joined by Dan Bellinger and Mike George. We had a great time catching up. Mike decided to go get his truck and blast music as the runners passed by. Over the next several hours the three of us, chatted, cheered, occasionally ministered to an ailing runner, and generally had a blast.

At first glance the runners seemed to be machines. They trickled by. This one was walking, that one was running, those three are near each other but don’t seem to ever talk. Here comes one eating a ham sandwich. Some would disappear for a while and return. Others were bent to the task at hand. I wanted to cheer for each one and I did. Some just LOVED the applause. Others seemed to want to be left alone; in these cases I still applauded but otherwise remained silent. Jill Perry ran by several times before I realized she was a competitor. She was pretty, smiling, seemingly carefree and ran with a bounce in her stride that one might expect from a college half-miler, not a mother in the lead in the 16th hour of a 24 hour national championship race. It was clear that Jill was focused but she seemed to be having fun. The regulars were there as well: Roy Heger, Fred Davis, Ron Ross. They represented the tried-and-true ultra runners among us. They were up in the top 25 runners or so and practicing their craft in yet another event, in yet another location, in yet another year of their illustrious careers. They had been in this situation so many times before that it was as comfortable as an old shoe. They socialized, they thought deep thoughts, they relaxed…and they never, ever, ever took their eye off of the ball. They also never showed any signs of fearing the ball. Anna Pekoska, Debra Horn, Kim Martin, and the legendary Connie Gardner tried to keep Jill Perry within striking range while contending amongst each other for a spot on the national team. Similarly, Wyatt Hornsby, John Geesler, and Phillip McCarthy contended with several other runners for both the crown and the plane ticket. Suzanne Pokorny came by each lap with a HUGE smile and usually a funny comment. I once made a conscious effort to not return her infectious smile, just to see if it could be done. I failed. Other runners were more serious, but none were surly or rude.

One runner nearly intimidated me in his alone-ness. I came to think of him as “self-contained-man”. He seemed to be at peace. He was most certainly polite. He would easily and willingly make way for a faster runner. But it could not have been clearer that he wished to be left alone. Each lap he drifted by, cut the road’s tangent perfectly, and disappeared into the night. Other runners made musical requests of Mike or me, but self-contained-man wore an ipod. Self-contained-man looked neither left nor right. He did not look up or down. He never changed his shirt. He never added a jacket or a pair of gloves despite the night’s chill. His stride never changed. He did not move fast but I never saw him walk either. It was impossible to tell if he was running well or not. He was tall and he was thin and he was… alone. He had a crew cut. Perhaps fuller hair was too much to bother with. And the strangest thing of all was that he wore a hydration pack. In a race where the runners passed an aid station every 0.9 miles I saw no other runner carrying so much as a spare square of toilet tissue. And yet self-contained-man seemed to need only himself and 24 hours. I cheered for him but in a way that didn’t interfere with what he was doing…whatever that might have been.

At first a few runners seemed taken-aback that we were enthusiastic about their efforts. One of them asked me “You aren’t going to clap all night are you?” I responded “If you can run all night then I can clap all night”. And that was when I realized that I had given my ethics talk 16 hours too soon. Because I tell you from that instant-on the ethic of care (There is such a thing: look it up) arose from the light mist and came to envelope our outpost. I could look over my shoulder and see the buzz of race headquarters several hundred yards away. But the race was happening right here. The ghosts weren’t dead and in fact they weren’t dying. They were becoming more human each time they passed and I began to have affection for each of them. The runners thanked us for the music so many times that it tugged at my heartstrings. One runner wanted to hear some Willy Nelson and so we dug and dug into Mike’s collection until we found some. Most runners wanted upbeat goofy music. Little Richard was an unexpectedly HUGE hit, as was Johnny Cash, and the Bee Gees. I have volunteered at races before but there was something about seeing the runners again and again that was simply beautiful. We witnessed 100 deaths and 100 resurrections. At one point a runner to whom I had not ever spoken walked up to me and told me that he didn’t think he could go on. I told him to enjoy the night and that I would see him in 15 short minutes. Soon thereafter he came by and gave me a grin and called out 14:53!! Every lap thereafter he sailed past and we celebrated every sub-fifteen minute mile.

Another runner approached me and told me that he was going to take a short nap but wanted to know if I would still be there when he came back. I told him that wild horses could not pull me from this post and, in fact, when Race Director Dan Horvath came by to make sure I was OK I told him that I wasn’t leaving until the race was over and so he didn’t need to send anyone. He warned me that that would mean a 9-hour shift. I didn’t care. By 3:00 am the ghosts had turned fully human and needed affection. Well, self-contained-man didn’t seem to need any but most did. Runners began to share bits of themselves with me. I have been in races before where just a bit of care could carry me forever and it was wonderful to be a source of positive energy for some runners. Many included me in their count-downs. “Mark, I have only 9 more laps until 100 miles” was a typical newsflash from a new friend. From that point we would count together until they hit their mark. Others would announce that they would not hit a mileage goal and needed to chat for a few minutes about why this was OK.

Ron Ross hit 100 miles and took a break before continuing. So did Fred and Roy. Jill continued to expand her lead and Connie and Kim, the lionesses of Ohio Ultramarathoning for so many years ran well but dropped back. Neither of them gave up. Similarly something was wrong with Wyatt. He ran with a pained expression and ever stiffening gait. For hour after hour he churned out steady miles and moved up through the field but something was wrong. Wyatt won Mohican this year and he will most certainly win many races and make a national team in the future. But today was not to be the day. Despite his discomfort Wyatt never stopped, never complained, and competed until the gun fired to stop the race. Despite his struggle he finished very well, in 7th place, and I will recall him making something of nothing in the final hours of this race for as long as I live. Its going to be fun to watch this man’s career unfold. Up front a relaxed Philip McCarthy took over the lead and kept his cool despite the aggressive running of John Geesler among others. Of all the runners in the race the veteran Geesler was the only runner who struck me as a racer. I believe I saw surges thrown, displays of strength, and strategies unfolding in the early hours of the morning. Geesler was implementing a plan as others slept. Meanwhile self-contained-man drifted by. He was so slow and silent and steady he might have been a wave lapping the Lake Erie shore.

As the late night hours approached some runners began to drift off for a few hours of sleep. In some cases these rest breaks were part of a careful strategy and in other cases they were an unavoidable consequence of a long day and many miles. As night wore on Leo Lightner was slowly but surely evolving into the big story of the race. Eighty-one year old Leo was rolling steadily around the course and zeroing in on a national age-group record. No runner in Cleveland is more loved, or more deserving of love, than Leo. Leo has been a servant on the Cleveland running scene since the days when the “Cleveland” marathon started in Hudson. Leo was never a star. He was never famous. He just showed up and gave…and gave…and gave. And now Leo, in his 9th decade was on the road to fame. And EVERYONE (EVERYONE) was holding their breath and hoping beyond all hope that he could hold on and pull this off. Leo reports and sightings were everywhere:

Leo had to sit down!
No, Leo Planned to sit down.
Leo is struggling!
Leo is rallying!
Leo should be eating more.
Do you think we should encourage Leo to put on warmer clothes so that he doesn’t get chilled and crash?
And so on…

Every runner on or near the course was praying and wishing that they could run the race for Leo.

Meanwhile, Leo listened to advice. Leo chatted with friends. Leo ran and walked and did precisely as he pleased. He never appeared to worry about the record that he eventually shattered by running 82 miles. Word spread around the course, from croaky throat to happy ear, the moment Leo got the record. It was my happiest memory of being a runner from Cleveland.

Meanwhile the relationships between runners continued to strengthen. The strong and the struggling shared a bond and it was my selfish pleasure to be a peripheral part of such love. Liz Bauer traveled from Georgia to Ohio to run in this championship and every lap seemed to be a celebration for Liz. Her race was what every single race should be. Liz seemed to be pushing hard. Liz seemed to be enjoying the challenge. And Liz and I were getting to know each other. Each lap she would give me a bit of news about her progress. Liz was not bragging. She knew I was interested and she knew I wanted to be included. She shared her race with me and by morning I felt that I had gotten to know someone a bit. Meanwhile self-contained-man ran by and gave me a ‘thumbs-up’….at least I thought that’s what I saw.

Dawn on Lake Erie is murky. This one was as well. A million seagulls appeared with the first rays of light and someone not related to the race began to feed them, creating chaos. Sleeping runners ambled back onto the course. Mike Keller continued to pound out mile after mile while keeping an eye peeled on his young daughter, Autumn, who decided to forego tent and sleeping bag and, instead, aid and charm runners all night. There is surely a service gene in the Keller mix and Autumn adopted it. Cars began to arrive to watch the end of the race and for the first time all night my traffic patrol duties became real. Most drivers were friendly but one man, who seemed to have cornered the world’s hair-gel market, rolled into the park at 60 mph and howled at me for keeping him waiting. By this point in time I could have killed him for putting “my” runners at risk. I let him sit a couple of minutes beyond what was absolutely necessary…because…you know…this story can’t ALL be about good Karma : ).

With about an hour to go self-contained-man shocked me out of my socks by stopping right in front of me and saying “Mark, I have three laps to go to get 135 miles and I’m in the top three! I think I can make the team!” I was stunned. I had watched the entire last 1/3 of the race and had no idea that he was moving up through the field in this way. I was also surprised that he knew my name. I had been cheering for him and fascinated by him all night long, and now I felt absolute anxiety that he should keep moving NOW (!) so as not to lose any ground. Self-contained-man’s real name was Dan Rose and he had driven in quietly from Washington D.C. and entered the field of all-stars. He had hoped to pull off a huge upset and now here he stood, on a bike path in Cleveland, Ohio about to earn a USA jersey as a result of doing what Leo had done, and Wyatt had done, and Mike had done. But today he had been perfect. And he needed someone to know. And he chose me. And I realized that Dan was why I had come to Cleveland. I needed to see the improbable happen. I needed a dose of hope. I needed to see a wonderful upset. And here it was. Dan wasn’t self contained and I wasn’t sent to help Dan, I was sent to see someone crash through adversity and come away shining. Dan and I began the three lap countdown after which he learned that another runner was within a lap of him and closing hard. Despite the pressure Dan made some small celebratory gesture each lap as he held on, held on, held on.

As fate would have it Dan happened to be within sight of me as the gun fired to stop the race. He football-spiked his wooden marking-chip to the ground as he slowed to a stop and for the first time slumped, then knelt, then smiled, then teared up.

I likely won’t ever see Dan again, and that’s OK. He was going somewhere exotic to run against the world. I was going back to Delaware, Ohio to get ready for the Run With Scissors Double Marathon. My palate felt like it might stay cleansed for a while this time.

I like this sport.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Give and Take: Holding Up Traffic at the North Coast 24 Hour Run; Part 1

Isn’t it funny where you find yourself sometimes?

At 7:00 p.m. on October 3 of this year I found myself standing by my car, completely naked despite the 50 degree weather, pouring water over my head from a plastic bottle, and scrubbing mud from my shins with my sweatshirt. I was in Cook Forest, Pennsylvania and the truth is that I never really planned to be there. I surely hadn’t planned to put in the 20 mile run that I had just completed. The day started in State College, Pennsylvania where I presented a paper at an ethics conference. The conference was nice. Sometimes I write very good ethics papers but the one I presented that morning was average at best. I didn’t find the subject matter particularly interesting and the room gave me the praise I deserved. Then we went to the basement and ate prime rib at 11:30 a.m. After the prime rib they brought out some sort of pudding, or yogurt or some such thing and I had to use a different fork than we had used on the prime rib for some unspoken reason. I didn’t want to use a fork at all. I wanted to use a spoon but that would have been wrong for the same reason I suppose. Everyone seemed to know about using the different fork, including me. I also knew to wear a necktie and I knew that I should open with an ethics joke, but not one about priests, or rabbi’s, or nuns, or popes. Really though, when you exclude that group the ethics joke universe shrinks a bit. I told one about a bear and a rabbit. It was a poor joke but everyone laughed a little bit and then those with glasses draped on chains took the glasses off and settled in to my talk, where they learned that the joke was kinda gonna be the highlight. Everyone was so darn nice. The ethics world is kind of like the ultra world because there aren’t many of us and so we all kinda know each other. It was nice seeing everyone. I’ll go back to the conference next year if they let me because I’ll want to see my friends again. After I was done with my pudding they handed me a mint. It was given to me to cleanse my palate. It worked I guess but I’ve found that cleansing your palate is a lot like making your bed. It doesn’t last long.

On October 3rd my car drove itself more than I drove it. In fact it took two unplanned turns. The first unplanned turn was the sudden right I took to get to Cook Forest. When I was a kid we passed through Cook Forest and I remember almost nothing about it except that my Dad bought me some Mexican jumping beans. We weren’t really poor but there really wasn’t a lot of money either so I learned not to ask for things. But Dad bought me the jumping beans and the forest was dark and the leaves were green and life was mysterious and it was perfect and I never forgot it.

Standing naked by my car didn’t cause me the least bit of concern or fear of arrest. For one thing I couldn’t be arrested for public indecency since I hadn’t seen the public in well over three hours. For another thing I was a man with not much to lose. This blog is about running and it will remain about running. But I have a non-running life and part of it has been troubling and hurtful and as a result I had no place to go where I was particularly needed. Thus the planned 45 minute run turned into an hour and then two hours, then three. The air was pine filled and the forest trails were endless and soft. Everything was calm and still and perfect. It was self centered. But self-centeredness in less evil when said self is not requested by others and so Cook Forest worked its magic on me again.

The second turn that my car took was, plainly and simply, a brain-stem response. The impulse to turn never made it to my mind. The sign said that I could go I-76 toward Akron and then on toward home, OR that I could stay on I-80 by veering right and go to Cleveland. The car veered right and, after it did, I figured I’d go say hi to Mike.

My buddy Mike Keller was running in the North Coast 24 hour Endurance Run and I knew that it was in progress at that moment. I hadn’t thought about it all day and here it was, 10:30 P.M. and I was headed to the race where I would, I imagined, give Mike an attaboy and go home. The North Coast 24 was serving as the National Championship this year and there was a lot on the line. The first three runners would make the national team that would go to the world championships, provided they also ran a minimum of 135 miles. The idea of three runners covering the distance seemed virtually assured given the entry of U.S. National Record holder Mark Godale, seven-time Western States 100 mile winner Scott Jurek, and a virtual who’s-who of the nations best vying for the title and a spot on the team. By the time I got there, shortly before midnight, Jurek and Godale had decided to leave their best efforts for another day, which just goes to show that even the greatest runners on earth can have an off day. None of the ghosts that drifted by me as I slowly walked a loop of the 0.9 mile course seemed troubled by the absence of these stars.

It was actually a bit macabre walking in the silent darkness as faceless runners whispered past me on their way to the once-per-loop aid station. The gentle breeze off the cool lake seemed to make the loop a lonely place, until the runners hit the bright lights, companionship, buffet of food and drinks, and overall sophistication and well-being of the race headquarters. A moment later, however, they were out on the furthest reaches of the loop, 0.45 miles removed from love and comfort. The race energy seemed to me to be a quasar; when the energy pulsed on it was all-powerful and when the energy pulsed off it was the loneliest object in the Universe. I ran into Mike, walked another lap with him and, purely on a whim, asked Joe Jurczyk if I could help in any way. Joe didn’t get to be the best race promoter in Ohio by turning down help and so, moments later I was introduced to Shannon Fisher, the volunteer coordinator. Shannon is really one of the loveliest people one could ever hope to meet and, I imagine, it must be hard to say no to her. It might have been Shannon or it might have been the “use whatever fork you want” nature of the event, or it might have been my need to be around other lonely people but I simply jumped at the chance to relieve T.J. Hawk at the course’s only road crossing, which marked, almost precisely, the halfway point of the loop.

I will write more soon. There were so many people, so many stories, so much good Karma in this event that even writing up the 1/3 of it that I saw will take another installment. I need to tell you about Connie and Kim
and Philip and a couple of Dans and John and Jill and Anna and Debra and Suzanne, and Ron, and Liz. I’m gong to love telling you about Liz. Also I think you should know about Wyatt and Mike and so many others that visited me, time after time, throughout the night. I’ll get to it soon. I hope you come back and read it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Dr. Pepper: My RWS Race Report

Consider the peak of a very high mountain. It is usually very beautiful and it is usually very hard to reach. It can be the most beautiful part of the mountain. From the peak you can attain a perspective that is impossible to gain from a lower place. The peak can be, and often is, a risky place; windblown and crumbly. The path to the peak can prevent you from reaching it and if you do manage to get there the inclement weather or wear and tear of the journey can do you in. You cannot hang out at a peak for long without risk overtaking reward.

If these things are true of a literal peak then the peaking that occurs in our sport is a near-perfect metaphor. Most seasons end without a peak due to injury, exhaustion, poor planning, or bad luck. The peak is a beautiful place but when you attain it, by definition, descent follows almost immediately.

Standing at the starting line of the Run With Scissors Double Marathon-plus I definitely felt like a man who had reached a peak. This year has easily been my best year as an ultra marathon runner. The Fools Run, held in early April along parts of this same course, seemed like years ago, as did the Forget the PR 50K. I failed to finish Mohican in June but, in so doing, I decided that despite my 14 years in this sport, it was time to become a student of long distances. I spent the rest of the year experimenting with running form, diet, and mental attitude. I read of the resilience and looseness of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico; I decide they had the correct approach and tried to copy it. More than any other change, though, I made ultra running friends this year. They encouraged me and I grew to truly love them and this sport. Standing on the starting line looking at 53.4 miles I felt fit, fragile, peaked, and hopeful that I could squeeze one more race out of my body. I felt like the day could end in success or in injury…and it did.

In one of my first blog posts of the year I mentioned that if you don’t know Roy Heger you need to get to know him. If you haven’t gotten to know Roy yet, make it a goal in the coming year. Roy is a beatnik. Roy is a genius. Roy is hilarious. Roy is soft spoken. Roy is wise. Roy is kind. Roy will throw your ass out of his race for littering (he really will). Roy has ten buckles from the Massanutten 100 mile run, eleven buckles from Mohican, has well over thirty 100 mile finishes overall, has finished in the top ten in a national championship race, and yet does not feel that competition is reason enough to run ultras. Roy can command the attention of a large crowd but just as often gets lost in a crowd of three. Roy can finish an hour behind you in one race and an hour ahead of you in the next. Roy drives a beautiful but somewhat unreliable vintage pickup truck. Roy suffers no fools. And Roy is the race director of the Run With Scissors. He doesn’t talk much but when he does you should listen. Sometimes he speaks with his actions and examples, and when he does you should pay attention.

Did I mention that Roy believes in safety? He does. But Roy doesn’t particularly feel that discomfort is dangerous. For this reason the Run With Scissors started at 5:00am on October 25 (2.5 hours BEFORE sunrise). It also traversed a course that had it all: freezing cold at the start, shirtless running by the finish, it was hilly, it was flat, it had fields, mud, and sections where ankle deep fallen leaves covered human-head sized rocks, it had river crossings. It also had wonderful aid stations and terrific volunteers. The course was spectacularly beautiful…one aid station was a covered bridge…and it had peak fall foliage. In trail ultra-running, unlike road marathons, evenly distributed energy expenditure is not always the best way to run, and on a course like the one we were running, such an ‘Even-Stephen’ strategy might do you in. On this course its best to “make hay” on level, safe sections and ease-off on highly technical terrain…saving the legs for the next run-able portion.

This was my last race of the year and, just this once, I wanted to run with the leader for a little bit to see what it was like. I kept pace with Dave Peterman for about 200 meters at what I felt would have been a good 10k pace for me before immediately backing off. I ended up running in about 15th place with Terri Lemke and three men for the opening miles. They were moving too quickly for me but the group’s five lights combined to make the forest floor well lighted and safer so I figured that staying with them for the first 13-14 miles was energy well spent. At daylight I dropped back a bit and the first 26.7 mile loop went pretty uneventfully. I felt sluggish but was moving well nonetheless.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that although a few others read this blog, the main reason that I write it is so that I can remember what ultra marathons were like some day when I cannot run them. I will say here that I want to remember the second half of this race for as long as I live, because it was all so strange…

I hit the midway aid station feeling OK. I was tired and beat up and dehydrated. I had another marathon ahead of me but I was PERFECTLY relaxed and confident that the energy would come from…somewhere. I had cramps and fatigue but no worries at all. In fact, what I had was euphoria. I had danced through leaves and around invisible rocks all morning and had not fallen or stumbled. My trail legs were tired but my trail legs were somehow just fine as well. There is an old adage in ultrarunning that says “It never always gets worse”. That’s what the second half of this race was like. I pushed along at a fairly decent pace and awaited the oncoming crisis. It never came. I recently read an article on an elite marathoner who described a perfect race when the miles flew by as being like “catching lighting in a bottle". Today my lightning in a bottle was more like the miracle of a car running on empty for mile after mile after mile without ever stalling. No fuel, just power. My form never dropped off. I suffered for hour after hour and the crash never came. I realized, as the hours rolled by, that I wasn’t feeling better, I wasn’t slowing down, I wasn’t going to slow down and, in fact, I didn’t slow down. During the worst of the pain and feelings of dessication I would look down at my legs and there they were, churning away and seamlessly shifting gears as terrain moved from uphill, to downhill, to rutted, to smooth. It felt like a trance.

At one point I knocked the head off the skeleton that was placed in the middle of a creek holding a book that we were required to cut a page out of with scissors. I stood for a moment and watched the head begin to float downstream and wondered, if littering would earn me a DQ, what the punishment would be for committing a skull-ectomy? Another time I ran off-course for about 18 minutes. And do you know what? I didn’t care at all. I didn’t mutter any cuss words, I didn’t roar into a new gear to catch up, I didn’t whine. And when I regained the course and realized that the turn I missed was marked by almost ridiculous amounts of ribbon and multiple pie plates (seriously, you could have spotted the turn from the space shuttle) I didn’t get mad at myself for missing it. It was as though the act was more important than the result. I was concerned with completely emptying my tank before the finish line and beyond that simple goal any other outcome did not matter. After the finish I realized that this must be what the Tarahumara feel a trace of when they talk of "racing not to beat each other but to be with each other". I think I might have become a real ultramarathoner in Roy’s race.

A few miles from the finish line I jettisoned the last of my water and gave my waist pack belt a tightening tug. I had lost a good bit of weight and was running shirtless, an absurd act in 60 degree weather but on October 25th, I figured, there was no sense using sense. I was hot for some reason involving a poor thermoregulatory system but with 30 minutes to go in the season I simply didn’t care. I stopped briefly to toss a gu packet into the trash. In the trash bin there was a nearly empty can of Dr. Pepper and in the can were a few bees clambering for the low quality sugar along the rim of the can. If fireflies signal the arrival of the main part of the ultra marathoner’s year then perhaps bees signal the end. These bees had no access to pollen. They had somehow survived a few frosts. They were past their peak and running on empty. The were seeking energy in the lowest places they could look. They could surely not survive much longer. I should have seen this as a sign.

I felt a thrill at this particular finish line that I have not felt before. I believe I have run better in races but I don’t believe I have ever pushed through nothingness for so long and so utterly without panic. And all of this happened in the final race of the Western Reserve Trail Running Series. It was perfection. I’ll ask other readers to please forgive my indulgence or any appearance of arrogance. My performance was only impressive to me but I want to remember it when I am 70 and so I am writing of it here. I felt that for the first time in my life I used every part of myself utterly and completely up. 2009 was a terrific success.

Two days after the race I awoke with a lump in my right groin. Two days later I was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia, and yesterday I had surgery to repair it. The doctor asked me how I strained it. I told him of the race and he told me that rather than injuring it with one single tearing motion I most likely fatigued the inguinal ligament by repeated stressing it. He used the analogy of bending an aluminum pop can back and forth until it finally fatigues and breaks.

I wondered how the bees were holding up.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Winging it

Wednesday, March 2, 1143 B.C., 9:13 a.m., Isle of Crete
Daedalus was nearly finished with a project that been many months in the making. The final construction took only a few hours and the gathering of feathers was easy. It was the constant tinkering with the base material that had troubled him. All types of wood had proven too heavy, animal bones too fragile to bind reliably, and bamboo simply wouldn’t hold the feathers.

It was going to have to be wax.

Wax took bees and bees took time. But time was no issue. He and his son had little other than time in this island prison. The worrisome thing about the wax was that it could melt, but only if his son, Icarus, flew too close to the sun. All the lad had to do was play it safe. All he had to do was maintain the status quo, walk the line, stay well above sea level, but not too high above sea level, and get the job done. If he pulled this escape off he would have the rest of his life for adventure. Surely the boy would do the right thing. Wouldn’t he?

Friday, March 4, 2:04 p.m., 1143 B.C., One mile off the coast of the Isle of Crete
The freedom was too much. Years of confinement left Icarus as he did another loop and let out a final yelp of pure unbridled joy. He soared to impossible heights and then he plunged to his death.

Thursday, May 28, 1983, 3:27 p.m., Athens Ohio
“Every morning when you wake up this summer there will be a certain amount of training that you should do to attain fitness by fall. Too much is not good, too little is not good. Your job is to wake up every morning, determine what the proper amount of work is, and go out and do it.” –Elmore Banton, Head Coach, Cross Country and Track, Ohio University.

Saturday, July 11, 1983, 8:37 a.m., lying beside a dumpster behind Marathon Gas Station, Berea, Ohio
I lay on the ground on my back looking straight up at my feet propped against the dumpster. I’d averaged 112 miles per week for the past six weeks and this is where it brought me. I was beaten into oblivion in the Berea “Between the Lakes” 4th of July race by a pack of mugs, including J.V. runners from my old high school. The answer had to be more mileage and so I was attempting to cover 150 miles this week. I ran to work, slept in my lifeguard chair all day long, ran home, slept, and went out for another 10 miles at night. Today I stared at my shoes for 45 minutes before I put them on. I was moody, thirsty at all times and, strangely ONLY felt good when I was running. Trashed, tired, depressed, but hopeful when running; ill at all other times. Now I was 4 miles from home and staring at my shoes again. The sun was getting high in the sky and scratchy summer heat was becoming a factor. My gaze shifted to the Marathon logo and the irony hit me. I stood up, wiped the gravel from my bare back, found a dime on the pavement, went into the gas station, bought three tootsie rolls, and ran home. The next time I had a weekly total over 40 miles was three months later.

Tuesday, October 8, 2009, 10:23a.m., The University of Findlay, Findlay, Ohio
“Collagen based tissues, such as tendons, ligaments, and bones, hypertrophy at a much slower rate than muscle tissue or vascular structures. Furthermore they have poor sensation. If you are not careful your patient’s fitness can outstrip their skeletons and stress reaction injuries will result…you really have to progress training slowly, methodically, and in response to their symptoms. It pays to be smart.”—Me, lecturing physical therapy students at UF

Tuesday, October 8, 2009, 8:17 p.m., The North Rim Trail, Mohican State Park, Ohio
I am climbing a mud-slicked hill on my hands and knees, flashlight clenched between my teeth, to guard against the pitch-blackness. There is no defense against the pouring rain or 52 degree temperature. I am 16 miles into a 20 mile run and I’m feeling more certain than ever that the pain in my left foot, specifically the ventral aspect of my 5th tarso-metatarsal joint, must be a stress fracture. I’m trying to regain the lost trail, and despite it all I am at peace. This is killing me. It must be good training for…something.

As I was climbing the hill I flashed back to my time behind the Marathon Station. I also recalled that my shoes were the Nike Pegasus. What is it with our sport and Greek Mythology? Pegasus was a winged horse, Nike the goddess of victory, Marathon the legendary battleground that resulted in the death of a messenger and gave birth to the most epic race on earth.

Nothing is named after Icarus though. Alas.

I guess that tragedy as a result of bad judgment doesn’t make it as a brand name in corporate America. It’s a pity though isn’t it? If Icarus was tragic and Icarus was irresponsible, wasn’t he also passionate and adventuresome? Shouldn’t that count for something? Was there something even remotely noble in Icarus’ failure? Do I get a simple attaboy for the drive that led to my crash behind the marathon station? Was my risky run in the rain completely without honor just because it was stupid?

If our sport is rife with examples of bad judgment can we, or should we, improve our decision making skills? I have heard ultra running described as an “extreme-sport” but I doubt that I will ever see it televised on MTV’s “X-Games”. I cannot decide if our sport is truly extreme or if it is not extreme at all. Surely running all day and all night in all temperatures, sometimes without adequate oxygen, sometimes in high humidity, always on poor footing doesn’t place it in the middle of any bell-curve. But don’t we also achieve what we achieve through a careful and miserly meting out of our resources? Doesn’t patience and wisdom usually prevail? Then why does the compulsive behavior and drive that can push judgment to the bad side of the tracks seem to reside in nearly all of us?

I don’t know the answer to these questions and I have recently decided that I no longer care. I’m not foolish. I don’t court injury but I don’t yet fear injury either. Everyone seems to know the story of Icarus. Most of us remember the part where Icarus was warned against “flying too high” but the part that struck me upon re-reading it was the warning to also avoid flying too low. I wonder if other cultures recall the metaphor of not excelling too much and forget the part about keeping well above sea level the way we have. I wonder if we fear success more than we fear failure. Icarus was a fool. There is no doubt about that. We can say that Icarus should have known better and we can extrapolate this need for conservancy to risky business ventures, unwise love affairs, or going for a touchdown when a field goal seems like guaranteed points.

But I don’t think knowing is enough. After all, let us never forget that Icarus was warned.

On the day of my Mohican 20 miler I stood on a sore foot and lectured about stress reactions. After the lecture I grabbed my gym bag and sped to the Mohican forest. I knew my situation well enough to name the injury in detail. And yet sometimes my soul needs to fly no matter how unwise. That’s how it has been lately. I needed to take off the tie and grovel in the mud. I had so much fun being borderline hypothermic and lost that I wonder if my mind didn’t lead me, literally and figuratively, down the wrong path so that I could have the adventure my heart needed. Maybe someday I will fear injury. I feel certain that someday my running will fall to earth. But in the meantime I have to acknowledge that it might be sinful to ignore the miracle of flight.

This paradox dooms me to a life of monitoring softening wax.

Coaches speak of building character and tolerating pain. Nike’s own commercials show athletes heading out to train in the rain, Hollywood makes a movie about a guy pounding raw beef with barely bandaged hands in a meat locker. If such behavior is considered heroic on celluloid shouldn’t our real life heroics be admired in some sense as well? Perhaps the passion is part-and-parcel with who we are…and how we should be. Maybe its evil to try to bottle passion.

I wonder if Icarus would admit to any regrets? I like to believe he wouldn’t.

I like to believe that I won’t regret a moment of it either.

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

Friday, September 4, 2009

Werewolves, Teen Idols, and Us.

I just finished a run under a shining full moon. It was a perfect reminder that fall is just around the corner. I love fall. I guess all runners do. Thinking about fall got me thinking about Halloween which got me thinking about werewolves and you probably have already guessed that thinking about werewolves got me thinking about Hannah Montana. Its all so perfectly linear isn’t it?

I recently had occasion to watch Hannah Montana’s movie. I can’t remember its name because I wasn’t paying close attention but I think it might have been called ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. Anyhow, I thought that it was just going to be another poofy meaningless tweener movie such as ‘Secret Agent Cody Banks’ or ‘The Godfather III’, but boy was I wrong!

Warning: I am going to give away the plot to Hannah Montana’s Movie here so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want me to ruin it you should go see it before reading on.

OK. Well like I said I didn’t pay close attention but the movie is about these two girls, Hannah and Miley. One of the girls (Hannah) overcomes the debilitating handicap of a dreadful singing voice to become famous and rich for some reason that I missed. The other girl (Miley) is fabulously beautiful and fun but is still, for some reason, picked on and misunderstood by all of the other children. I absorbed all of this while folding laundry and keeping up on dishes and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches mind you, but the end of the movie was a shocker….THE TWO GIRLS ENDED UP BEING THE SAME PERSON!!!! I kid you not!! I have no reason to lie to you. They were the same person all along!! No one could possibly have seen that ending coming.

So really, when you think of it, ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’ had essentially the same plot and story line as ‘Fight Club’.

I don’t know who wrote and directed ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. I could look it up in about 2 seconds because I am currently on the computer. But I am tired from my run and from life so I’m not going to look it up. Instead I will simply assume that it was Quentin Tarantino.

We mustn’t be too hard on Quentin Tarantino for ripping off the plot of ‘Fight Club’ and using it in ‘The Hannah Montana Movie’. Divided personalities and dual identities are commonplace throughout the history of literature and the duality of man has been portrayed in every form of media from the caped crusader, to Judas, to werewolves, to the Phantom of the Opera, to Hannah Montana.

Take Dr. Jekyll for example. Dr. Jekyll worked very hard to earn his doctoral degree from a prestigious university. In so doing he took out cripplingly large student loans, spent seven years in a dysfunctional relationship with an undergraduate modern dance major, and put up with a scaldingly abusive dissertation chair. After graduation the poor chap whips up a little celebratory homebrew and turns into Mr. Hyde, a man who is lacking a terminal degree and is, therefore, fearful and loathsome. Don’t we all relate to Dr. Jekyll on some level? Haven’t we all dated a lithe, gorgeous, total-nut-job dance major who is too crazy to live with and too sexy to leave? And if we haven’t, haven’t we always wanted to?

You see, I believe we are drawn to tales of the two faces of man because nearly all of us are two people. We see evidence in the news all the time. The loving nanny who steals from the children she is caring for, the husband who, after 20 years of love and nurturing, tells his wife it was an act all along, the priest who has performed 40 years of kind acts while also abusing children.

School started back 2 weeks ago and we’ve been having fun. I gave a 4.5 hour long lecture last Tuesday on zygapophyseal joints. The students loved it and so did I. I put on a nice comfy necktie and stood under fluorescent lights and we talked about back pain. You should have been there. But you weren’t because you were probably doing your other life somewhere as well. I’m a pretty good professor. Hardly anyone at work knows that I run. Dave Essinger knows though. He’s an English professor at Findlay and he finished Mohican this year. I see Dave every now and again and we speak in hushed tones of mud and carbohydrates and also of a mist we saw rising above a river. Then he puts on a tie and teaches writing. Dave told me he reads this blog. In my professor life it scares me that an English teacher is reading this. But my runner side doesn’t give a hoot. I hope that runner-Dave is reading this and not writer-Dave.

So if I can be a professor I wonder what else I can be? I can be a bad singer I guess. I could be an alcoholic if I decided to but I don’t think I could be violent or abusive. I can be polite in trying circumstances and I can hold my tongue in a staff meeting. I guess I could be, or pretend to be, nearly anything I like. In my life I have been a lifeguard, a pizza delivery guy, a land-crew worker, a boyfriend, a dad, a husband, a business owner, an overnight “guest” in the Summit County Jail, an alter boy, a brave, a bobcat, an oiler, a physical therapist, a recipient of an eviction notice, a professor, a patient, a race director, a faculty senate chair, a philanderer, a spendthrift, an enemy, and a friend. But in all of these roles, I held the dual identity of runner. In fact on very nearly every day that I ever portrayed any of those roles, I also ran.

I quit soccer and I quit the trombone, I quit chewing tobacco and I quit buying Volkswagon Jetta’s. I quit boxing and wrestling and basketball and football. But I never quit running. And more to the point I never quit running hard. I did, progressively and by sad degrees, stop running fast but I never stopped running to the point of exhaustion.

So if I use to be all of those things and now I’m not…and if I could be lots of other things that I currently am not…maybe I’m really a runner. It’s the only thing about me that has lasted.

I think some of you may be runners as well. You are probably other things but I bet the running has lasted the longest…or will endure the longest. Not everyone runs for a long time though. Some people run for a few months, finish that 10K or marathon, get their silver blanket and medal and head back to the handball courts. God bless their hearts. I really mean that. I hope they enjoyed their time in our sport. But the lifelong runners, the ‘identity’ runners that I know are different. They all have one thing in common. They all have suffered and will suffer again. They don’t like suffering but they do see the value in it. They go to great lengths to avoid cramping, chaffing, hypoglycemia, and anoxia. They use intervals, lubricants, tinctures, and orthotics to be pain free.

And yet…

And yet they do suffer. They have suffered and I believe that in that moment of purest suffering, that piece of aloneness, they see clearly the one and only person that they are. No necktie can ease the pain, no pep talk can lift them, its just them and eternity.

And its beautiful. And its peaceful. And it can be scary. Once many years ago I shared the lead in a small but locally important race with a friend. With one mile to go I looked over at him, sized up his long legs and bouncy stride, told myself I could never outkick him, and proceeded to set a goal of removing every molecule of oxygen from his bloodstream with an increased pace. I actually relished in the pain I was causing him. After the race I was alarmed that I could be so cruel. I have also marveled at how defeated or how lonely I can be when suffering…and how much I can love life and love God.

Some people are cynical regarding the concept of a sinner having a deathbed conversion. I’m not though. I believe that some unfortunate individuals only have the alone moment that suffering can bring on the day of their death. How sad that they might learn who they are and change only in the last moments of their lives. And how happy for us that we don’t have to wait that long. We all have the darkness and lightness that come with and from the duality of man. But some of us can, when we want to, synthesize the two by burning away the superfluous. And when we do the real us emerges. And it turns out to only be one person after all.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Summer Breezes

Two paths diverged in a wood…and I took the one less traveled by…

…and then I looped around and checked out the other path, because I am an ultra marathoner. I became one for real this summer. But summer is now over and its time to head back to the University of Findlay on a more regular basis starting tomorrow. There will be meetings and free donuts all next week and then the week after that the students return and things will be fun again, but there will be no free donuts. Life is like that sometimes.

The family and I just came back from Disney World and I drove all night long, which is a very ultra-like thing to do. Yep, all night long I drank coffee and listened to music. Then I listened to this guy on the radio talking about UFO’s. Then I listened to music again. It rained for a while then it didn’t rain anymore. The driver’s side windshield wiper was ineffective and the passenger side windshield wiper was in perfect shape. Alas. Then I stopped at a convenience store in Charleston W.V. to get more coffee and interrupted a lovers quarrel between two clerks. I tried to start polite and healing conversation by telling them of my experiences in the Rattlesnake 50K run, which is their local ultra. They weren’t interested.

Driving all night is a lot like running all night except that I find that there is much less puking. And the aid stations charge you money. And no matter how much money you are willing to spend they never have pierogis. Also, they try to get you to buy Lottery tickets, and the T-shirts that you can buy all have dirty words written on them.

I guess that driving all night really isn’t like running all night at all.

But I wish it was like running all night because I miss it already.

Disney World was awesome except for the smothering heat and the part where I hemorrhaged cash day after day. The kids had a blast and everything was well done. The entertainment was great. It was all packaged up for you, just like a present; an expensive present that you buy for yourself….but a present nonetheless. I got in some impossibly awful runs. Every runner knows what its like to go to an amusement park all day long and then run after getting home at 11:00P.M. But I did the run anyway because I became an ultra marathoner this summer and so running is what I do.

I spent a lot of time this summer seeing patients and rewriting a course that I teach. I also spent a lot of time this summer chasing belt buckles. Back in 1977 I spent the entire summer pursuing Halle Stordhouse. I was so unsuccessful that, even to this day, she has no idea that I was pursuing her. This summer I was unsuccessful until I finally did succeed. Sometimes you win sometimes you lose.

Actually spending a summer pursuing something isn’t that unusual for me. I have pursued other women and I have pursued other buckles so this summer was normal. The difference this time is that I didn’t just put on some shoes and set out to conquer Mohican, with every race and training run devoted solely to it. This year I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends. I had a few very good and wonderful people that I ran ultras with before this year but I never bothered to meet anyone new. This summer I think I finally learned some new things about the sport. This summer I grew to love the idea that I am an ultra marathoner. This summer I noticed that there are lots of other ultras and lots of beautiful places to run and lots of great adventures and friendships to be had. I still love Mohican and it will be a goal in 2010. But I now also love Burning River…and there’s this running with scissors thing this fall…or maybe that one in Youngstown. The whole gang will be at each of them. Hopefully I will be too.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


I just finished a slow 60 minute crawl. The only way you would have been able to tell I was running was the concentration on my face. What with all of the tapering and then 100 miling and then recovering I had forgotten how good a simple jog can feel. Physically I felt terrible but I feel like a million dollars mentally. I can't wait to do another one just like it tomorrow. Are we lucky or what?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 5)

When a problem comes along
You must whip it…
Get straight
Go forward
Move ahead…

We were now closer to Akron than Cleveland. It just somehow felt like we were into Zips territory. I thought about my wife Jenny and my kids and I figured they would be happy to know that I was still moving. This section of the course mercifully included a couple of miles of paved bike path and road so I took a nap. I didn’t lie down, I just went to sleep. This is a trick I learned by accident and if you have never done it you surely won’t believe me but it is possible to do a controlled sleep walk, and so I did. I kept one eye open and let the rest of my brain sleep. I don’t mean I relaxed and I don’t mean I coasted. I’m not speaking metaphorically. I literally slept. I don’t recommend it because its dangerous but the truth is I can grab a couple of dozen ten second winks on a mile of road and, don’t believe me if you don’t want to, but it helps! I finally woke up when Fred Davis passed me. As he passed he said “I just keep looking at my feet…they are moving forward and so am I”. I tried this but I imagined my feet flipping me the bird and hating my guts so I went back to listening to Neil Young singing about rust and about how it never sleeps. I imagined that I could still show rust a thing or two. Then I smiled. Then I vomited.

Coming into the Happy Days Aid station I once again learned from everyone that I looked great. Yay. I look great. Someone notify Revlon and get me a f%&ing contract. By this point I was defiant. Go ahead stomach, turn turn turn, this is apparently the time for your purpose under heaven. But guess what stomach? I’m still moving. You do your thing and I’ll do mine you mother! Suddenly Nick appeared and put his face right in front of mine. “Mark!, Mark listen, listen to me!” he’s saying. “Yeah Nick I know I look terrific yada yada. I love you man so don’t bullshit me” I’m thinking this not saying it but Nick isn’t stopping. “Listen!” he says and turns me toward him, “you need to picture that finish do you hear me?” I know it sounds hokey and corny but honestly I felt like he was talking to me while underwater. But he was so persistent. “You need to think of that finish and think of that finish and don’t stop thinking of that finish. Do you hear me?” And you know what? I DID hear him. He didn’t tell me a lie. He didn’t tell me I looked good. He told me how to get home. And I used it, just as Freddie was using his feet to lead him home I walked along for the rest of the night, through the ledges and into the oncoming rain picturing the finish.

After that things got better and worse. With each mile I grew weaker but with each mile I started to believe. During one down patch Ron Ross appeared at my shoulder. At first I thought that I was asleep again or that Ron had dropped out and come to find me but neither of those things was true. Ron is like some sort of guardian angel to me but he wasn’t here on a mission of mercy. He was here because he was suffering too. Seeing him helped and seeing him suffer helped too. God forgive me for that but try to understand that it gave me hope; Ron was sick but Ron always finishes. We walked together up the sound of music hills and I had the strangest sensation that we had done this already. At the top I lay down in the mud and tried to sleep…for about a minute. I let the rain begin to fall on my face and felt the ground pull on me. This is it, I realized. If I can stand up now I will finish and if I don’t I won’t. I pictured the finish. I got up and walked out. Ron slowly inched ahead as I had encouraged him to. The rain started coming harder and a deep fog arose. The last I heard from Ron he was calling up from the bottom of a valley, “Mark are you there?” “Go get ‘em buddy” I called back, “I’ll see you at the finish” and for the first time in hours and hours I began to wonder if that might actually be true.

As I approached the 80 mile mark and the covered bridge I found I could take a mouthful of seven-up and gargle it and spit it back out. It helped. I still heaved but I thought maybe I was getting some sugar. The Covered bridge Aid Station looked like an infirmary and Captain Tanya Cady looked like Florence Nightingale. I walked in, she looked at me, we chatted for an instant and she gave me a smile and said “You’re fine” and moved past me to someone sicker than I. She didn’t tell me I looked good. She didn’t offer any platitudes. Tanya is too loving for that. What she did was flunk me in triage, at least thats what it felt like, and this is gonna sound messed up but it thrilled me. Proceed, she seemed to say. Tanya knows her stuff and if she told me to scamper then scamper I would. I also saw Steve Godale, a past Mohican winner and national class ultra runner. He could have been tucked into an after-hours club or pancake house celebrating his brother Mark’s win but instead he was at the temple of ugliness, the temporary dropout capital of the Midwest, the covered bridge as 4 a.m. neared. “Looks like you are gonna finish” he said. He had been cheering me on all day. I told him “Steve this is weird I haven’t been eating or drinking but I’m still moving”. He was, at that moment, distracted by someone else and called back over his shoulder “You can do anything you want to do”. He didn’t mean me, I was convinced, he meant human beings. Mike Keller was there as well and helped me remove my filthy, digusting shirt and jacket and my filthy, disgusting shoes and listened to my filthy, disgusting, but now psyched-up language. Mike gets it and Mike knows about despair and he knows about lost hope and he knows where to find it. It was no mistake that he was at the bridge in a pre-dawn rainstorm 40 minutes before the time cut-off. If you know Mike then you know that he wouldn’t be anywhere else. He is some of God’s greatest work.

The Bridge-to-bridge loop on the Perkins trail was so hard and gnarly and muddy and steep that it defies description. It just does. To top it off it was pouring rain now and the hills were mudslides. I stopped to puke and as I stopped puking I looked up and stared into the fog. I couldn’t see the bottom of the hill I was running down, just mist rising into blackness. Then I saw the finish. I saw myself running across it. I saw Rob Powell standing there just to the left of it. I didn’t imagine it this time, I actually saw it. I felt the buckle being pressed into my hand. I heaved and coughed and the cough turned into a laugh and the laugh turned into a howwwwl. This was off the friggin charts. At that moment I knew I would clear this loop and I knew I would finish. I had broken through.

The final miles of the race ran along the towpath again. Groups of Sunday morning joggers whooped and hollered for us as we jogged and walked past them. One man slowed his car almost to a stop, rolled down his window and yelled “Hey you! Are you one of those 100 miles guys?” I admitted that I was. He pointed to me and called out “Good for you! Good for all o’ youse!” It felt, for the hundredth time in 100 miles, like coming home.

A couple of miles before the finish I told a lie and prepared to commit a crime. I was running with a pair of runners from Wisconsin and told them that I felt wonderful (the lie) and that I would be pushing ahead. I ran until they were out of sight and then unpacked the secret I had been carrying with me the entire race, in a baggy in the bottom of my waist pack. The finish would be here soon and Rob would be at the finish line, just to the left of it exactly as I had pictured. I would pick up the phone to call home. Instead of calling I would find seven text messages and 3 voicemail messages. The family had been watching the web cast of the race and knew just when I finished. Dad watched it from Colorado and broke down in tears during his voice message. I would sleep in the van for 4 hours in a shopping center parking lot before driving home; my buckle and a bucket of KFC beside me. But all of that was in the world beyond the finish. For the moment I looked around, made sure I was alone, took out the small package of wooden matches that I had carried with me, lit one, and tossed it into the Cuyahoga. It fizzled and bobbed on the current on its way to Lake Erie.

We win!

Burning River Report (Part 4)

At fifty miles I knew that everything about this race was perfect except me. The last few hours brought the slow realization that I was tired. Lightning-strike tired. Maybe it was from Mohican, maybe from Rattlesnake, maybe from life. Despite this I couldn’t get over the course and the race volunteers. Every aid station felt like an Indians game tailgate without the baseball. I had the feeling that the entire world was cheering for me.

The whole world might have been cheering for me but only one man was fully committed to making sure that my sad butt ran its way to Cuyahoga Falls. Since 50 miles Nick Longworth cheered, advised, and cajoled. Then he drove God-knows-where to get me a burger that I first asked for, then refused, then unceremoniously ate and, finally, threw up. Nick was pacing another runner but managed, from mile 50-70 to somehow handle both of us although a fair bit of distance separated us. At one point I asked Nick for something…God-knows-what…perhaps a spare kidney or maybe a seat on the space shuttle…and he went SPRINTING to his car to seek out the backscratcher, or perhaps it was a helper-monkey, or an application to Boston University or whatever else it was I thought I needed at that moment. What Nick needs to know, and what ALL handlers need to know, is that the decency and love at moments like this are truly more helpful than any sort of ginseng extract, or hydraulic Gu-pack opener, or any other physical thing ever could be.

Sometimes not knowing a course in advance can be a great blessing. For example, I had heard of the “piano keys” but didn’t really know what they were other than some sort of steep hill. I crested the 88 steps on the way to the Boston store thinking that I was merely going up yet another of the endless hills we had been on for the last 13 miles. My ignorance also allowed me to literally stumble onto Brandywine Falls without any prior knowledge that it would be there. I have always heard ultra runners talk about the climb being worth the view from the top. This talk is usually nonsense but I tell you here that Brandywine Falls was the prettiest sight I have ever seen in an ultra and a climb five times longer than the one we just took would have been a bargain. I stopped for a minute to simply soak it in, and then I took a few steps and felt a wave of humidity hit me. I began to sweat. Gosh when did it get so hot? Then it occurred to me. “Oh God no!” I said and began to wretch violently.

Nausea had forced me out of Mohican and I spent the last 6 weeks carefully devising a plan to count my milligrams of sodium, avoid solid food during the heat of the day, eat ginger candy, and otherwise avoid stomach troubles at all costs. Now, despite everything, I was sicker than I had been at Mohican and it was occurring 10 miles EARLIER than it had at Mohican. The walk back to the store and the 60 mile mark was a slow realization, emphasized by repeated puking, that it was all just like it had been before. I sat on a log and started to cry. Before the race I had promised myself that if the nausea started I would simply drop out immediately. But that was then, years ago and this morning. That was before I had fallen in love with this race and with my past and before I had grown old. I have known for several years that some day these ultras will all stop. I could accept that this morning but I didn’t want to accept it now. The toughness had skipped a generation. My Dad was tough and my kids are tough but I sat weak and shaking and vomiting as lovers walked by. God, I did not want to quit here, especially not here, in Mike’s old neighborhood.

Mike Bunsey was my room mate and team mate at Ohio University. He grew up right around here and graduated from Walsh Jesuit High School. Mike had two lives; both of them too short. After Ohio University he earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Cornell and within a few years had established a reputation as a world class researcher. He sifted through offers from several elite Universities and chose to become a professor at Kent State because of his love for this area. Most of Mike’s academic friends had no idea that he was a runner and most of Mike’s running friends had no idea how famous he was in his field. An individual of strikingly average talent he worked and willed his way into elite-runner status, finishing fifth at the Cleveland Marathon one year and winning the presigious ‘Elmirathon’ 10K in Elmira, New York five years in a row. Mike had been a friend during the formative years of my life. The late night talks, long runs, struggles with injury, lost loves, and hangovers that make people who they are happened to Mike and me concurrently. In his mid twenties Mike won a 5K road race on a Sunday morning and died of a heart attack while on a training run a few days later. These were his trails. I wasn’t going to quit here.

I walked into the Boston store again and tried to acknowledge all of the claims being made that I looked good. “I love these people” I thought. I figured I’d drop in some quieter place so I wouldn’t let them down. I knew the temperature swings between boiling and freezing would start soon so I left Boston store ridiculously clad in a toboggan hat, a coat tied around my waist, and bare-chested. “Good Lord” I smiled through my nausea, “All I need is a keg of beer and some body paint and I’m dressed for a Brown’s game in the 'Dawg Pound'”.

The next miles were lonely ones. There really wasn’t any reason for hope. I was strangely alone. I hadn’t seen another runner forever, the sun was setting and I knew from past experience that food and water wouldn’t be possible for …maybe the rest of the race. There was no way I could go 40 miles heaving every 20 minutes. But I kept asking myself “Can you just not drop here? Can you just do a bit more?” Each time the answer was yes. And that made me feel good and tough and somehow worthy of what this race represents. “Go down fighting” was my new motto.

I walked until nightfall and as I walked I noticed that there was some sort of weird static coming out of my ipod, which was turned up to its maximum volume in an attempt to drown out my own inner voice. “Great” I thought “first my stomach goes and now my ipod”. I took an earpiece out to see if it was sweat that was making it sound fuzzy, but when I took it out of my ear the sound strangely got louder. Much Louder. This sound wasn’t coming from my ipod at all. It was coming from the woods. Someone was screaming. No wait, lots of people were screaming…no…they were cheering. And since I was the only person in this neck of the woods they could only have been cheering for me…and ringing cowbells. I have no idea how they even knew I was coming but they must have because they were actually calling my race number. This could only mean that I was arriving at the Pine Lane Aid Station run by “Red” …and the Summit folks…

The Summit A.C.!

Thirty years later the name still causes a chill to run up my spine. In the 1970’s eastern road racing was monopolized by a few groups of diehard fastmen. There were Bill Rogers and company from the Greater Boston Track Club, Frank Shorter, Jeff Galloway and friends from the Florida Track Club, and unlikely as it may seem, a group of hard nosed kids from Akron known as the Summit Athletic Club. I recall an issue of Runners World arriving in the mail that had a picture of the lead pack of the AAU cross country championships. In the picture were Frank Shorter, Gary Bjorklund, Jeff Galloway, and FOUR members of the Summit A.C. They were on the upper slopes of the distance running world. Jeff Hlinka had recently set the national record for the one-hour run and had beaten Frank Shorter for a top ten finish in the Gasparilla Classic on Frank’s home turf. In 1981 my hero, Olympian Craig Virgin, came to Berea to run a 12 kilometer race just three weeks after winning the world cross country championship for the second time. After beating the world, this race in Cleveland’s west suburbs should have been nothing more than a chance to stretch his legs. But I recall standing on the course with one mile to go watching Virgin, eyes wide with surprise, gasping for breath and desperately trying to hold off a fast-closing Ric Sayer from the Summit A.C. The other invited runner, 1976 Boston Marathon winner Jack Fultz, had been dropped miles before. I can still recall the look of horror on Virgin’s face and the wild animal look in Sayre’s eyes, the frothy spittle spreading across his bearded face and his shoulder length hair flowing crazily in the wind he created with his ferocious stride. I stood in awe. Numbly my allegiance shifted and I heard my own voice call out “Kiss his ass Ric!”

Ric Sayre went on to win the inaugural Los Angeles marathon in a time of 2:11and the club’s accomplishments would fill too many pages to include here. These days the club, now known as the Summit Athletic Running Club, is a large, family friendly organization open to all ages and abilities. They are fun, friendly, and well organized. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t still open a can of “whup-ass” if the occasion calls for it. For example, at this moment one of their own was winning this very race. Mark Godale, 1999 Ultrarunner of the year and current national record holder for the 24 hour run, had taken a commanding lead over a national class (and almost entirely local) group of frontrunners. Many states were represented but those runners were strung out behind the Ohio contingent. Similarly, Connie Gardner from Medina, one of the most decorated woman ultra runners over the past ten years had taken the lead over an equally talented group of women. In fact, she found herself in fourth place overall with only three men ahead of her; all from Ohio.

Yep, Northeastern Ohio runners; world-class and home-grown.

I walked slowly into the aid station to sincere applause. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this helped. I had never met Red but I have been a fan of her Blog (see link under “My Blog List” on this page) and I was excited to meet her in person. She was delightful. It hurt me to no end that I couldn’t try one of her pierogis, or even any of her water for that matter. Although this aid station was open for business my stomach was not. Instead I filled up on affection, turned on my headlamp and headed into the night, feeling better for reasons that must have come from someplace outside of my wrecked being.

Still reading? Gosh, I should send you a belt buckle :). Thanks , I'll post one more entry soon and that'll be it. This is cathartic for me!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 3)

As the saying goes “Cleveland Rocks” and if you have any doubt about that you should have seen the crowd gathered in the square in Cuyahoga Falls the night before the race. The “Rockin’ on the River” event was rounding into full gear as the registration/dinner/bag drop off was ending. Northeast Ohioans like their music and they like their beer and they see no reason to hide either of these facts. Despite all of this I managed to get an hour of sleep in the back of my van and made it to the bus stop by 3 A.M.

The Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run is a point-to-point race and logistically the easiest way to get from place to place is to leave your vehicle at the finish, catch a ride to the starting line, and then run back to your car. The bus drive was one of the most amazing parts of the race. Some runners slept, some listed to music, and some quietly chatted. I looked up at the stars from the school bus window and marveled that we actually were, no kidding about it, being driven from friggin’ Cuyahoga Falls to bleepin’ Willoughby and that the actual plan (not just on paper this time) was that we would RUN back. Suddenly it seemed absurd and impossible and irresponsible. And the bus wasn’t making a return trip so once you were on the bus you were committed. And here is something that I need you to read and to understand: NO ONE other than me seemed remotely concerned about the wisdom of this plan!

I don’t know who “Squire” was but he sure had a nice castle. The starting line was right on his front lawn and off we went at 5 A.M. sharp. Knees and elbows and headlamps. There was the inevitable bustle at the start but it was not your mall-at-Christmastime variety of haste. It was rather, more of a subdued ‘Late-for-detention’ kind of rush into the pre-dawn darkness. The first 13 miles were on flat roads to the Polo field. The roads were fast, paved and absolutely spectacularly beautiful. The sun rose as we passed lovely mansions and equestrian farms glistening in the morning dew. This entire stretch I spent running with Michelle Bichsel, a friend of mine who was taking it out easy. She benefited from the slow pace and I benefited from the great company.

My main reaction to the entire first 37 miles of this race was one of shock. I had grown up around here, how could I have missed so many beautiful places? We ran through woods, fields, along single track trails and horse paths. We saw lakes and deer and I even think I may have seen an eagle. Was it really possible that it would be this beautiful all the way to the finish? I kept recalling the lyrics of a ‘Pretenders'’ song that complained that the Ohio that singer Chrissie Hynde had known had been over-developed and ruined “From Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls”. I felt like the opposite was true. My trip to Cuyahoga Falls was one of constant wonder at how much more beautiful it was than I had recalled. And how easy…at least until Station Road…

Here’s a useful ultra marathon tip: If you ever want to run 100 miles and not feel sorry for yourself run along an 1800’s era canal for most of it. Heading into Station Road we ran in the hot sun for about 3 miles. It really was pretty tough. But there, right next to us, was the canal. Immigrants, including many many Irishmen, dug that canal for one dollar plus a jigger of whiskey per day. I don’t know how much a jigger is but I imagine its approximately the same as a 5-pack Gu dispenser. I would either need more money or several jiggers of whiskey to do that work. At any rate the thought of those men toiling in that hot sun made my walk to the virtual picnic-party occurring at Station Road more palatable. And when we got to Station Road what a party it was! The place was a hive of activity as some runners came through at 37 miles and other runners came through a second time at 43 miles. Many family members and spectators were there watching and cheering and on top of that the usual string of regulars, having nothing to do with the race, were out biking and jogging along the path. Despite all of this I got my own personal volunteer who attended to my every need for every moment that I was at the station. People seem to just love to volunteer for Joe and also for Lloyd. Captain Lloyd ran this aid station like a freshman meet-and-greet and it couldn’t have been a more pleasant environment.

I'll write more soon and, if you have the endurance, you are welcome to read it : )

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 2)

One day in the winter of 1953 my Dad decided that he had had enough of being poor. He had grown up in Dublin Ireland in the 1940’s and during that era, in that country, you grew up to do whatever it was that your father did. When my dad was 15 years old his father was killed when a ditch that he was digging with a hand shovel collapsed, burying him and leaving his wife and ten kids penniless. My father, being the oldest child, dropped out of school, hopped a boat to London, and worked piecemeal as a longshoreman, sending whatever money he could back home to his mother. This kept everyone fed, more or less, but there was no reason for hope. There would never be a connection to employment in Ireland and in London he was treated as a second class citizen. It seemed he would indeed follow in his father’s footsteps and scramble to scrape together survival wages until his own death occurred. There really wasn’t a way out in sight…until he heard about Cleveland.

Dad had an uncle who had come to Cleveland a few years before and he sent my dad a loan to buy a plane ticket. He was promised that there was so much work in Cleveland, in fact in all of northeastern Ohio, that no more advanced planning than this was necessary. He turned out to be correct. Dad got a job at the Ford Motor Company plant in Brookpark and, six months later, sent a ticket to his girlfriend, who joined him and they married later that year. Dad went on to work for other companies, finished school, became a tooling engineer, and eventually moved half of his Irish family to Cleveland where they similarly prospered.

We love to tell this story at family reunions but the truth is that the story is not even remotely unique or even particularly interesting to those outside our immediate family. By the 1950’s Cleveland had been a city of dreams for over 150 years. Untold thousands of immigrants came to Cleveland and flourished. Oil, steel, tooling, shipping, salt, and dozens of other industries flourished. Wealth was created and shared. Generations lived and died in this place of ample opportunity.

By the 1960’s things began to change. Unemployment was rampant, industry was dying out and a sort of hopelessness had enveloped the city. I was five years old in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I remember almost nothing from that year but I do remember starting kindergarten and I remember the moon walk and I remember the fire… or maybe I don’t. Do I actually recall it or do I think I remember because as a Cleveland native I was never allowed to forget?

Growing up in Cleveland in the 1970’s I learned to love the city the way one loves an abusive relative. I was always cheering for it. I was always hoping that Cleveland would win but I was always also being told that it was no good. I hated it for the bad things but I also saw the good parts and wondered why no one else could. The stand-up comics on television had only just begun to get warmed up on the river fire when Mayor Ralph Perk set his hair on fire while giving a fire-safety demonstration downtown. The critics never stopped for a breath. “Of course Cleveland’s football team is called the Browns; the sky is brown, the water is brown, the buildings are brown, so why not the football team?” they said. The city appeared to be dying. Even Cleveland’s tallest building, they pointed out, was “Terminal”. The basement of Terminal Tower had homeless individuals living in it and outside on Public Square storefronts were boarded up. Mayor Dennis Kucinich (yes, he was Mayor of Cleveland after Perk) battled to keep the city from bankruptcy. Shipping slowed and the once busy docks in the flats were now places where the Mafia dumped bodies. Crime was rampant; domestic violence and drug use were up. The Browns lost the AFC Championship in heartbreaking fashion three years in a row, Cleveland State was denied a trip to the NCAA final four when David Robinson tipped in a last second shot for Navy, the Cavs were chronically in last place, and the even the free tickets that the Indians gave to schoolchildren went unused for lack of interest.

This was when I discovered running. We used to run through the metroparks for miles and miles and wonder why no one else could see the beauty. I won’t speak for Joe Jurczyk but I remember Joe from high school cross country meets. He went to school in Brecksville, just a few miles away from me. He must have seen all of this as well.

In hindsight the tower wasn’t really terminal and neither was the city. You don’t take the hardest working and most diversely talented gene pool ever assembled on this planet and hold them down for long. These folks were of good stock. Their work ethic and ingenuity created a rubber industry in nearby Akron, a collection of Universities and museums unrivaled outside of New York City, and a faith in their ability to succeed fueled by the stories told at their own family reunions. If they could dig the canals they could dig out of this mess as well.

And they have.

The basement of the Terminal Tower now boasts ‘The Galleria’ one of the most beautiful shopping malls in the country and the only people sleeping in the Tower these days are paying top dollars to The Ritz hotel to do so. The flats are now the place to experience the city’s night life. The Lakefront boasts parks and athletic facilities that are the envy of nearly any city and just try getting a ticket to a Cavs game these days to see LeBron!

The jokes still remain though and they have become annoying in their inaccuracy. When the time came for Joe Jurczyk and friends to put together the first one-hundred mile trail race in the region they decided to call it “The Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run” and gave it the motto “eracing the past. Moving forward.”

To me the name issues a challenge: “Hey funny guy, haven’t been paying attention? should see us now! The Cuyahoga River Valley is now a NATIONAL PARK, and one of the most beautiful places in the world. Care to join us for a little jog? We’ll arrange to have some of our local runners show you around…they are, after all, one of the most talented and decorated communities of ultra runners in the United States and you can just entertain them with your little jokes for as long as you can keep them in earshot. OK?” And one more thing, “In case you have heard that Clevelander’s are rude, we are going to blow you away with our goodwill and hospitality”.

A few days after my DNF at Mohican I knew it was time to return home. I may or may not have another ultra in me, I figured, but if I had one left I wanted it to be Joe’s race. Besides, if Dad got a second chance, and Northeastern Ohio got a second chance, and the Cuyahoga River Valley got a second chance, well then why not me?

I’ll talk about the race in the next post, I promise.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Burning River Report (Part 1)

Just a very quick note to say that I finished Burning River!!! I believe that I am one of the happiest guys on earth right now! I had stomach problems again, about as bad as at Mohican, but I handled them differently. I also had so much help from so many friends and so much good fortune that my head is spinning from it all. It felt like the whole world was cheering for me and giving me a soft shove in the small of my back to help me down the trail (don't disqualify me; I'm using meataphore...kinda).

The course was spectacularly beautiful and very rough. The scenery constantly changed from one type of beauty to another all day and all night long. The weather varied as well. We had heat, we had rain, we had fog, we had perfect blue skies and sun dappled rivers.

The volunteers were saintly and I have to say that Joe Jurczyk must be the best race director on earth. I heard someone say that they knew the race would be a good one because it was "A Joe Jurczyk event". I guess that makes Joe a brand name. He deserves it. The event can be described in one word: perfect. My finish requires two words: Ugly and Ecstacy.

I'll write much more in a few days.

To all of you who got me to the finish line (and there were many of you): Thank you and I love you. Chat soon. --Mark

Thursday, July 30, 2009


Forty-eight hours from now, if things are going well I will be running Burning River. I just want to say that the nicest thing that has happened to me this year has been the new friendships that I have made in ultrarunning...and how new and exciting the entire sport seems to me.

I have been the recipient of so many well-wishes and encouraging comments regarding BR that I'm stunned. Thanks everyone, for all of it. My status is that I don't feel quite as fit or as sharp as I did before Mohican. This is OK though. I have a plan and I have my health and I have more love than any one person can process.

I'm already this one is for others. This one is for Rob who deserved a Mohican buckle this year more than anyone I ever met. This one is for Nick who is having a banner year. And this one is for Luc who inspires me every time I think of him. This one is for Kim and for Michelle who will be on the trail with me. This one is for Red who I am going to meet at the 64 mile mark. This one is for Scott and got me to this new starting line more than you know. This one is for Ron for being so kind and Roy for being so wise and Colleen for being so beautiful. This one is for Jenny and Emily and Colin and Caleb because, my efforts aside, Carroll's really are tough after all. This one is for my beloved Delaware County Special Olympics Racers..the last time we went to Northeast Ohio you guys won state. I'll try to go there now and win a buckle.

This one is for Mom who will be watching and for Dad who could finish this thing twice while drinking beer and kicking a soccer ball, if only he had two good feet.

This one is for fun and this one is for real. This one is because I can and because I'm grateful that I can...I'm grateful that I know that I can and I'm grateful that I'm grateful.

And all of that business about this being a science experiment? Forget all of that. I want to finish.


Sunday, July 26, 2009


Did you know that I have a pontoon boat? Yep, I own a leisure-time-vehicle. It’s a 20 foot, 1989 Mercury outboard and it was a beautiful boat, back during the Reagan administration, when it was new. Nowadays it sits in the sun, uncovered, all year long, except for the times when it sits in the rain, or snow, or dark, also uncovered. I imagine that my boat appreciates air flow and enjoys the out-of-doors as much as I do so I let it enjoy these things. My favorite times are when the boat and I are sitting in the sun together, with an inner tube hauling several kids along behind us. I keep the boat docked at Delaware State Park and when it is not serving as a refuge for my weary mind it serves as a refuge for various animal species. Seagulls and hornets are common in the summer and raccoons and squirrels in the winter.

The engine always works except for when it doesn’t. Just a while ago it didn’t work until I goofed with it, and then it worked again...and will for a while I imagine. It was the starter again. I can never tell when the starter will go until it goes. I can tell it’s the starter because of the sound of grinding gears and smell of hot metal. The first time it happened I worried that I would be stranded but now I simply pull the engine cover, take the popsicle stick spacer out, trim it, and wedge it back under the drive gear to move the teeth back into proximity with the other gear (the non-drive gear?). Then I don’t worry about it until it happens again. No sense planning for every single thing that can go wrong in life. Have a plan for the big stuff and figure out the rest when it arises. That’s what I always say…

Well, I don’t always say that…

I bought the boat 8 years ago and one of my favorite things to do is to sit on it and gain weight during the months of July and August. This is an especially enjoyable time after a Mohican finish. I can reflect back on the accomplishment and tell myself that I am a terrific endurance athlete as I eat another bag of Cheetos. This year, though, I am still bent toward the task of earning a belt buckle. Today the boat ride got cut a bit short because I need to pack my drop-bags for Burning River. And, despite all of my “fix life’s problems as they arise” platitudes, packing my bags for a 100 miler now takes the better part of a day.

I hate packing the bags for a 100 miler. I mean I really hate it. I used to think that I hated this activity because it was time-consuming but I no longer believe that the time factor is the chief irritant. I now believe that the thing that I hate most about the entire bag-packing process is that it is an extended exercise in imagining all of the things that MIGHT go wrong. The truth of the matter is that all year long I imagine running ultra marathons and, in my mind’s eye, I envision things going well. I imagine myself running powerfully and cleverly diagnosing and treating small maladies before they become killers. These thoughts are always pleasant, and I believe that this type of mental imagery makes us better athletes and better people. I believe that negative thinking yields negative results and that positive thinking ennobles us. But to assume that everything will go well while packing drop-bags is to render the entire activity useless.

The truth is that if everything goes well I will need 2-3 shirts, maybe 2 pairs of shorts, 5-6 ibuprofen tablets, 6 batteries, a spritz of bug spray, a dab of Vaseline, 8-10 Hammer Gels, a headlamp, and a few endurolytes. Beyond that I can rely on the aid stations and God’s love.

The problem is that I can’t be sure that things will go well. I know that I will always have God’s love but if things don’t go well I need to augment this with my gigantic pile of stuff, bags and bags of it, all gathered under the banner of “just-in-case”. I need some things just in case I get hypothermia, other things just in case I get hyperthermia, some things for high blood sugar and others for low. Let’s not even get into all of the things that can happen with minerals but instead mention that "they" say that pain caused by inflammation can be treated with ibuprofen but non-inflammatory pain might be better served with acetaminophen…so wouldn’t it be wise to have access to both? If I have no blisters I have no problems but if I do I need lots of things. The same could be said for gastrointestinal distress, or sleepiness, or chaffing.

Now, add to this list of possible tragedies the fact that I don’t know WHEN any of these problems might arise, and so I need to have access to EVERYTHING ALWAYS. But since I don’t own that much stuff and not every aid station allows drop bags I must sit around IMAGINING when each unfortunate event might take place. I will come home and, whether the race goes well or poorly, I will unpack my bags and find that 90% of their contents are clean and unused. The inefficiency can be chalked up to nerves and registered in the race ledger of my mind under the depressing line of “insurance”.

And that, my friends, is the worst part of ultramarathoning.

The worst part of ultramarathoning isn’t the blisters or nausea or muscle cramps. It isn’t even the loneliness or self doubt. These things are real and thus have earned their place in the pantheon of possible experiences that make ultras a challenge. The worst thing is the negative imagery that comes from trying to control the uncontrollable.

Isn’t it possible for me to just adjust my thinking? Grab the reigns? Possibly get myself on some antianxiety medication? The answer to these questions is that yes, these things are possible. But I have observed at the finish line of many ultra marathons and from what I have learned excusing myself from this painful imagery, while possible, wouldn’t be terribly bright. I have never heard a runner at the end of an ultra say “My legs just could not go on” or “I just ran out of energy”. I have learned that you can go a long long way on a pair of blown legs but you cannot go very far without a light at night, or when your body temperature drops (or soars) to dangerous levels, or when you cannot process food and water. Things like a sweatshirt, or an aspirin, a contact lens, an asthma inhaler, or a Tums can, if available at just the right moment, remove the “d” and the “n” from a “dnf”.

I love the spontaneity of our sport and nothing is less spontaneous than packing drop-bags. And so I must, if only for today, ignore my image of myself as primal-man, moving relentlessly across the landscape on a heroic mission to save my community, never knowing how my mission might end but moving forward using my strength of will and drinking from whatever stream might be available. Instead today I must play the role of primal man’s anal retentive nanny, making primal-man put on galoshes and wear a sweater. And on the way out the door perhaps a spoonful of castor oil “just-in-case”.

All of this is, of course, an effort to help me to stay afloat. Alas. Perhaps I should look into getting a higher quality popsicle stick for my boat.