Friday, November 8, 2013

Redemption Race

                “Can I get you anything,” the race director Valerie Abradi asked me as I came into the finish area of the 50 K Big Brad Ultra (BBU).

                “Yes, a shrink,” I responded as I had just dropped out of the 50K race with only about eight miles left to go. I couldn’t really figure out why I wanted to drop, why I didn’t want to run another foot, let alone eight miles, and even though I was having a really good day, ahead of my planned pace, I just wanted to take off my shoes and go home.

                Now less than two weeks later was my chance at redemption. Just like the Red Sox had the chance to redeem themselves from the previous season, I had the chance to redeem myself from a DNF. Coincidentally, the Sox victory parade was scheduled to take place the same morning as the race. I was fortunate enough to get a spot in the Stone Cat Trail Marathon in Ipswich, Massachusetts through their lottery and I was determined not to let this opportunity to escape. I had been unsure during the BBU that I even wanted to do this race, hell I wasn’t even sure that I ever wanted to run again. But in talking with my wife Mo, she got me determined to go out and do my best at the Stone Cat. I began to look at the BBU as a training run, I ran mostly with my dog and for two weeks I never wore a watch on any of my runs. It seemed to be working as I was enjoying running again and was really looking forward to redeeming myself.

                One other thing I did, or rather did not do, was to live a little like a normal person in the days leading up to the race. I didn’t obsess about details of a healthy runner’s life by totally carbing up, drinking lots of water, stretching a lot or even getting lots of sleep. There was a good reason for this lifestyle as the Red Sox were making their final push for their third World Series Championship in my lifetime and I was passionately tuned in. Oh yah, I did treat myself to fried chicken and beer after my DNF at the BBU, just like that pitching staff of 2011, which was now lights out.

                I spent a very busy Friday before the race getting the house ready for a visit from my mother and sister in law, a day after going out in the rain with the family for Halloween trick or treating, and all the time it took getting last minute items for their costumes. Like I said I was living a very normal life. So when my wife arrived home with her mom and sister from the airport, I spent less time with them than the time Clay Bucholz spends between pitches when I took off to spend the night at a hotel close to the race. Now it was time to wind down and I was treated to a glorious sunset coming into Portland.

                I got really lucky finding my hotel as I had just decided to pull off Route 1 in Danvers, MA at a restaurant which just happened to be right in front of my hotel. I checked in and then knocked on the door across the hall where Valerie and Rick were staying. Valerie accompanied me for dinner as Rick tried to get some rest as he too was running the marathon the next morning. We met up with Sean Case, who was to run the fifty mile race, at the restaurant and I had an utterly fantastic pasta dish, and really want to come back and do the race next year just to come back and try something different on the menu.

                Back at the hotel, I enjoyed watching a couple movies while trying to get to sleep. I was glad for the wakeup call at 4:15 as I hadn’t set the alarm clock correctly and sure I would have slept well past starting time. Well at least I could have gone to the World Series parade not so far away. My wife, brother and I did go to the 2004 Parade, which was the greatest sporting event I have ever been too, even though it obviously was not even a game.

                The breakfast buffet room was full of runners as I made a waffle and topped it with some honey. A little coffee to wash it all down and I was good. A cup of tea added some more caffeine to my tired system as I drove north on Route 1 in the dark. No problem finding my way but I began to wonder why runners were wearing headlamps walking from the parking lot to the school starting area. I thought they were all just trying to be safe while on the side of the road and didn’t think much about the 6:30 AM start time.

                After I got my race number and shirt I heard someone call out, “Hey, L.L. Bean.” I immediately recognized a guy who had run the Sugarloaf Marathon with me two years ago and was a customer of mine at the store. This Sean was from Massachusetts would be running the marathon as well and was still feeling pretty elated about his 3:14 performance at this year’s Sugarloaf Marathon which more than qualified him for Boston as he was a little over fifty.

                My usual pre-race nerves were nonexistent as I met up with fellow Trail Monster runners. As far as I could tell Danielle Triffit was relaxed despite facing her first fifty mile race, even though her husband and crew chief extraordinaire Ryan said she was extremely nervous. George and Ann Alexion were all smiles getting ready for their marathon. Bob Porier seemed dialed in for the marathon, Rick and Sean were also there getting ready to go with us as we waited inside the school gym.

                Around this time, Monsters noticed that I didn’t have a headlamp on. I stated that I didn’t bring one as I didn’t plan ahead. Ryan offered me one, but I politely declined figuring I would only need one for half an hour or so and could just mooch light off other runners and force me to take it a little slow at the start and not burn myself out.

                I hung out with Rick near the starting area outside while the fifty milers took off a half hour before our race. Bob came up to me with an extra headlamp which I couldn’t turn down. I put it on and it felt a little loose and didn’t seem to be putting out much light but I kept it on and soon enough our race began. I had been feeling warm enough even though it was chilly and I was wearing only a shirt and shorts but actually began to feel more chilled as I started the first of two laps around the athletic fields before we were to hit the trail. The headlamp still didn’t seem to do much for me and so I handed it off to one of the Monster crew members heading into my second lap.

                I stayed tight to other runners as we went around the school on the road and then finally onto the trail. I could see well enough by staying behind other runners and was thankful there weren’t nearly as many rocks and roots as I was used to running over and around back home. My pace felt a little slow, but I didn’t check my watch wanting to keep my footing, and would have to wait for other runners to pass before I could move forward using someone else’s light.

                Slowly but surely the sun began to rise, just like it always does and I began to run on my own while wondering when other runners were going to turn off their lights. I found the course to be well marked and kept a comfortable pace not having researched the course much ahead of time. Valerie had described the course as “Bradbury Lite” and I was enjoying not having steep climbs or hairpin turns to contend with every fifty yards.

                I stuck with water at the first aid station, even stopping to drink it all down and properly throwing away the cup before moving on. I ran close to a few other runners as we passed other runners. It wasn’t until around mile seven or more when we began to catch up to some fifty mile runners. One guy ahead of me was very encouraging to runners he passed and when I finally stepped past him I was awaiting some of the same encouragement but got none. No big deal, save your energy.

                My body was still a little cool as the trees shaded us from the morning sun but I was glad to be cool as I noticed many fifty mile runners dressed too warm and hoped they were planning to drop layers as they came into the main aid station, start/finish line back at the school. I found myself in a good zone and followed another runner dressed similar to myself. I also began to notice his gait and how his left foot kicked back at an odd angle. The only other thing really going through my mind was AC/DC lyrics. There were a few runners with headphones but I was glad my inner playlist was rocking some bad ass tunes from down under.

                I caught up with Sean Case sometime after the second aid station. I still checked in with him to make sure he had been eating and drinking. He looked good, and I felt good so I moved on enjoying my time on the trail. On occasion, I would give a check to my watch and was real surprised by my pace. I was sure I was not holding a sub eight minute pace and I most certainly did not want to be in fear of burning myself out. I had gotten in more than six miles before the hour mark and was on a similar pace heading toward the second hour. Before the race I had figured that if I did just a little better than six miles per hour than I would be able to break four hours in the marathon. So far, my plan was working.

                I was a little surprised when a few runners started coming toward me. Then even more were heading my way, but we all stuck to the right and I’m glad to report there were no mid trail collisions. I realized I must be getting close to the school and sure enough, just beyond the swamp and around a turn I was on the ball fields and heard some Monster cheers directed toward me. I told the crew that I was good and just drank some more water at the aid station. Heading back out, I was surprised not to see Danielle and asked Ryan her status, which turned out to be a porta-potty break.

                After a couple turns, I was climbing one hill and still feeling strong enough to run it. I didn’t want to stop running. I didn’t want to give in to any walking. I feared that if I did my race as I knew it would be over. There were more and more runners to catch up to, and I thought most of them must have been 50 milers until I saw Sean from Mass working his way up the next hill. I caught up to him a few minutes later and it was good to spend some time chatting with him. Eventually he told me to go ahead as he needed to slow his pace. I told him that I would probably be burning out in a few miles and that he would be able to catch back up to me.

                AC/DC was still rocking between my ears when I stopped at the first aid station once again. Just some more water, and taking time to drink it all. I got a little disgusted when I came upon a few cups thrown away to the side of the trail far beyond the aid station. Could be worse, sure, but made me appreciate just how courteous all the runners seem to be back at Bradbury.

                All my gear and apparel choices were performing well. I had switched shoes from Brooks Pure Grits to more cushioned New Balance 1210 Leadvilles and was pleased that I was still able to be rather nimble over trail obstacles. Also, I had switched from a bladder backpack to a waist belt with a water bottle. My only complaint was that the strap would loosen up and I had to retighten it about every half mile or so. I wasn’t totally sure whether the strap was loosening or that I had dropped a dress size through the course of the race.

                With eight miles left in my last race, I had officially quit. I had sat down and quit about two or three times before that but with eight left, I finally left the course and walked back to my car. Now as my watch beeped and I saw that I was eighteen miles in with only eight left, I felt the wall. That feeling where energy moves away from your body and is replaced by a chilling tingle that says you’ve gone too far. “F… you wall! This is my f…ing body!” This was only a physical obstacle, I could overcome this.

                My first step was to eat a magical marshmallow. Well, it really wasn’t magical but if I thought it was magical than it would be. Sadly, this was the first thing I had eaten since before the race when I did eat one Clif Block. That marshmallow tasted so good, and went down so easy. I washed it down and soon let out a monstrous burp that had a couple runners twenty to thirty yards away turn their heads. One said, “Hey is that a Monster.” He turned out to be a runner from Maine who also works for L.L. Bean and was attempting his first fifty miler. We chatted a little but he let me move ahead as I was finding some new life.

                I had another Clif Block before coming into the next aid station, doing all I could to kick down that wall in front of me. I was a little confused coming into the aid station, as there was a sign indicating the next aid station was a little over five miles away, but that was just about how much distance was left in the race according to my watch, unless it was wrong. Could it be wrong? I hadn’t thought of that. I began to question that even more when I got passed for the first time and the young lady asked what we had for miles left. I figured somewhere about four, and as I watched her cruise well ahead I knew that I wouldn’t see her again.

                A week before the race, I went and watched Gravity all by myself, literally I was the only one in the theater, and I decided that if I found myself in trouble during the race that I needed to channel my inner Sandra Bullock to get me to the finish line. Now here I was with approximately four miles left, and I found that I did indeed need to pretend I was an astronaut lost in space trying to get home. I couldn’t give up, and I just couldn’t go through the motions. I had trained for this situation and I needed to execute. Keep the legs going, go as long and as strong as you can while minimizing the effort. Kind of contradictory I know. I needed to stay under ten minute miles to still break four hours.  As far as I could remember there was just really one challenging climb left, it was short but steep. When I did get up to it I kept running, very slow running but yet still running. Once over this hump I should be able to get to the next Space Station, I mean aid station.

                There had been one runner behind me for some time now and I felt like I had been pushing a little hard to keep in front, although I knew it was just a matter of time before he would pass. I was okay with that, as that would mean really only two people had passed me in the last lap and a half. I told him to go by, and he declined but I really did want him by me so that I could slow my pace just a little more. He finally sensed that, as I had also slowed up and made his way past me, but not as blazingly as the young lady.

                The trail grew flat and straight once again, and I knew that meant I was coming near the end. Certainly less than a mile left, I didn’t totally trust my watch. At a sharp left turn were a few people to cheer me and other runners and then I was making my way through the swamp where the trail was dry and only featured a slight amount of mud.  Another person was seated alongside the trail to cheer runners and as I made my way past her, thankfully she alerted me that I missed the turn that took me to the field and thus the finish line.

                There was a little more confusion on my part exactly where the finish line was but thankfully the Monster crew was there to direct me. I crossed at 3:52 and although I was tired, salty with sweat, and tired legs, my body did not feel completely spent. I grabbed some refreshments and was presented with my finisher sweat shirt and received congratulations from fellow Monsters. It was a really good feeling completing a marathon, it was even better knowing that I had beaten my goal time, and even better  knowing that I had beaten the finish time projection (4:06).

                I was real thankful to have a seat to plop down into at the Monster camp and have some good friends to share my joy with. I continued to hang with the Monsters while recovering and cheering on our other runners as they either finished or came and went on their fifty mile quests. The best treat was a brawt with all the fixings made by Ryan and washed down with some special coffee.

                Eventually, it was time to begin my drive home. As I got back to my car, I found WEEI on the radio and was able to tune into the Red Sox parade coverage. The parade was winding down with the duck boats coming back into Fenway and the players going back to their families officially ending their triumphant season by the time I was back in Maine. Although I will not have a World Series ring or free drinks in any Boston bar for the rest of my life, after this race I will have something that those players also have, REDEMPTION!