Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done? Probably

Last year I participated in the Ragnar Adirondacks - a 200 mile relay race between 12 people. I went with what were originally strangers from my company and finished, having bonded with them and realizing that it had been one of my best weekends ever. Despite running over 20 miles in a van through 36 hours, the combined experience of effort, poor sleep, and the gorgeous sights of Saratoga Springs en route to Lake Placid made for a time so wonderful, yet inexpressibly so. 

I've thought about why it was such a great time and I still can't pinpoint why. One of the mysteries of emotion I guess. 

This fall, I couldn't wait to go back. Soon after we had finished our Ragnar run last year, we joked about running an "Ultra" which was essentially the same race but with 6 people instead of 12 people, doubling up our miles and halving our rest time (an unintuitive reality). 

Last year, there were 2 vans holding 6 people each. After 6 runners finished their 'legs' (3 total), the van went to the exchange point 6 runners ahead while the second van ran their part. It allowed for a nice 6-8 hour break between vans.

This year, the Ultra became more and more real. While I couldn't say no, I doubted whether I could actually do an Ultra run.

This year was spent running much less than the previous year. I joined a gym so much of my exercising was used up weight training. I had also injured my leg in the middle of summer running up and down the hills of San Francisco. Summer was usually the season I ran the most but it wasn't until around early August that I recovered and was able to run regularly.

Even worse, I got sick the Friday before but I thought I would recover by the coming Thursday, when we would leave the city for the run. Unfortunately, my cold turned into a strep throat diagnosis on Monday which meant I would be running on antibiotics and a less than stellar body.

This Ultra run would mean that myself, along with my other 5 team members would run over 30 miles each and run 6 legs instead of 3. There would be no break, and barely any time to sleep. 

Below are my diary logs - one before we started running, and the others written after each leg finished.


Ragnar log #1 

After bestowing ourselves the name "Ultradogs", we feasted on a NON Olive Garden Italian spread. We slept soundly for four hours and awoke at 3:45am. The sky was black, we were cold and tired but we were able to send off our first runner without problems.

Oh wait, she forgot her headlamp.

Sorry, Katie.

We met her down the road quickly, handed off a headlamp and enjoyed the rising sun. A few runners later and the sun is shining brightly with rising temperatures. As the last runner of our ultra team, I'm nervous (naturally) but optimistic. The energy is high and the camaraderie, jovial.

Raglog #2 

With my run over, we're a sixth of the way done. It sounds so much worse put that way (it is...)
My distance: 6.49 miles
My time: 58:56
My average: 9:05/mile

It's a little faster than I should be. While last year, I focused on speed and a prideful finish time, this year it's about efficiency, keeping your body running well in between legs (hard with no sleep), and controlling your runs.

My mind is at 98%, but my lungs are at 75. Damn you strep. I hope by leg three my congestion gets down and I can breathe easy.

Van 1 and 2 are doing great and have been running really well. Props to Jasmine Cortez for setting up our GroupMe chat. It helps us feel connected.

No pictures this time. I need some rest (and water)

Ultra log #3 

Leg 2
Distance: 5.21 miles
Time: 44.35
Average pace: 8.33/mile
Total miles

Times are tough. I can talk about how I went too fast (I did) or how these new trails are beautiful and ease the pain of logging miles after miles.

But at exchange 12, we lost track of time and took too long to meet our runner at the exchange.

Sorry Katie. We really are.

Powered by frustration and impatience, she has decided to take the next leg, a 7.9 monster. We're hoping to convince her otherwise, stopping every few miles but she won't make the switch.

Morale is low and we're not halfway through but I'm hoping we can catch a second wind as a team, when we'll need it most.

Update before sending this out: Katie came back halfway in! Running on mental fortitude, longer in one go than ever before, she's in better spirits and back on track.

Josuelog #4

Alone. Dark. With only a headlamp to mark my way forward.

A year ago today, I was in the same place, running this same route. A few things were different. A year ago I was scared. I was scared of the pitch-black sky, my surroundings that were only silhouettes, and the fact that if I was too slow, I'd be left by myself.

This year, these things did not scare me. Upon my first five minutes, I was left alone. The last blinking light of the runner in front of me turned the corner and I never saw him so close again. All I had was my music, my headlamp, and the intermittent hum of engines that grew louder as they crossed me.

Sometimes they honked in support and all I could do was raise my arm in gratitude. The bob of the headlamp proved a rhythmic play I could expect and rely on. But just beyond it there was a faint figure. An ephemeral wispy presence.

Was I hallucinating? I couldn't be, I wasn't even a quarter of the way through. It took a few moments later to realize that it was me. My shadow, cast from the moon.

I looked up.

The moon was large and bright. Offering a tiny respite to the looming darkness of the road. I looked to the right of me. The moon bounced it's light of a shimmering lake. A year ago I would've never taken more than a moment to look. And appreciate. Today, I was calm. For this was my moment and my moment alone.

Time passed and my muscles, initially numb from the colder-than-before weather we were experiencing, had not changed in feeling. They were still numb. Numb in the way that a tool is numb. And that's what my body was. Merely a means to finish my run. I wasn't tired. No. I know tired and that wasn't what I was feeling. My muscles no longer worked as an integrated whole of my being. I had to will them to action. I had to make them move. I had to complete the one objective I had in life for the next seventy-odd minutes.


This was why I was no longer scared of nature. Of the dark. Of the unfamiliar. Of being alone. Because I was alone and I was running alone and only I alone could do this.

That means I had to run right and run smart.

I kept my elbows tight and my forearms  high to conserve energy. I kept a slower pace at a mid to forefoot strike to optimize energy transfer and I kept my breathing steady.

But my congestion kept kicking in and I had to switch breathing patterns in order to blow my nose. Still, over halfway there and my lungs never felt stronger. The strep was slowly melting away and I imagine my lungs as a sponge, with its porous body freeing itself from the unrepentant sickness that had been plaguing me. The war was being won on one front. But could I win my second war?

That is yet to be seen. By mile five, I had lost my ace in the hole. Downhill running, which would often be a rest period for me, was no longer serving it's purpose. Neither my heart nor lungs were exhausted so the energy conservation part was less useful. But my muscles were too tired to be able to take the stress of my light 135 pound frame hitting the pavement at speeds past seven minute miles. Downhills were quickly becoming as difficult as regular running. And with such a varying terrain, the uphills stopped having a strong counterweight.

By mile seven, with 1.7 left, I knew I was in trouble. But I couldn't stop. This would be a moment of personal glory. Personal achievement. Personal punishment.

By the time it was over, I could barely walk. The worst of it being, I'm only done with 3/6 runs.

Distance: 8.68 miles
Total time: 1:23:22
Pace: 9:37/permile

Total: 21.38 miles

Log #5

My running has become hobbled to that of a seventy year old on his last mile. Tiny arm movements and small short steps. My legs ache and are working at what seems to be 40% percent capacity. It was only 2.7 miles but it was the hardest 2.7 miles I've ever ran.

I have two runs left. A 4.4 and the closer of the ultra, a 7.8. I fear I cannot finish this run without a collapse. I've also noticed a massive hunger welling up with every run, which might be a sign of malnourishment. I plan to load up on food as much as I can a good time before runs.

Also worth noting, we've passed the 24 hour mark.

Leg 4
Distance: 2.6
Time: 26:50
Pace: 10:19

Total miles: 23.98 (beating last year's total)

Log #6

My legs are no longer mine. They are independent beings I have compromise with in order to squeeze effort beyond the forward stumble that can be called "running".

It has worked so far. Downhills have been easier, quicker, and require less effort.

But uphills are slow and inefficient.

Alas, we must pick our battles to win.

With one leg left, I don't know what will happen.

Time will tell.

Leg #5
Distance: 4.37miles
Time: 41:49
Pace: 9:34/mile

Total miles: 28.35 miles

Log #7

I am finished.

Leg #6
Distance: 7.95 miles
Time: 1:24:11
Pace: 10:35

Total distance: 36:30 miles
Time: 5:39:43
Average pace: 9:21


Before I started the Ultra Ragnar run, I set two personal goals for myself. To finish under 10 minutes/mile and to never stop running. I am foolishly proud to announce that I accomplished both goals. Thinking back at what we accomplished together, it still amazes me.  
The run was finished over September 25th and 26th and as of the time of this writing, October 3rd, I am still walking slowly and hobbling up stairs.

I've never done anything harder, physically or mentally and I think the same statement could be made of many of my other teammates. Upon finishing my last leg, I collapsed on the ground while my team members and the other company team cheered and congratulated me. I could not stand up and could barely make it to the area where the team took pictures.

I look back at the weekend and think of how grand it was while realizing that it felt completely different than the year before. The sense of accomplishment is much larger but the enjoyment comes from a different source. Cheerfulness and an upbeat spirit had left the van after the halfway point. Our bodies ached and we knew the game was mental more than physical at this point. Every minute I spent running that last leg I thought "stop" but knew I couldn't, because that would equal failure.

Now I know that I'm capable of it. The only thing I have to think about now is "what am I doing next year?"