2011 Ozark Trail 100: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Ozarks

We were somewhere around Machell Hollow on the edge of the forest when the pain began to take hold.

I saw Bearded Dave again. He wasn’t looking good when I passed. We were together earlier, but I hadn’t seen him since the first quarter of the day. This time, later, I reluctantly left him behind in the dark, his headlight receding in the tree skeletons of November. I continued around the bluffs and through the hollers–unless you’re on a river, these are your only options for travel in Missouri–and a different pair of headlights was gaining behind me. Down, over Billy’s Branch, up the opposing bluff, on and on. I passed another racer who had stopped, stepped into the trees, put his head down, and tried to understand where it had all gone wrong.

The chasing headlights finally caught me, and kept going. What relief. I let them go, following for a few minutes before pulling over, putting my hands on my knees, and trying to understand where it had all gone wrong.

What time was it? How many more miles? Was the sun ever going to rise? What brain chemicals had caused this, and how might they be neutralized in the future? How long could I maintain?

Everything had looked good until Hazel Creek, five or six miles ago, mile 68 of the 102-mile Ozark Trail 100 Mile Endurance Run, 18 miles farther than I had ever run, approximately equal to my longest week of running ever. I had been riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. A sub-24 hour finish was unlikely, but possible–until it wasn’t.

//—–//

Why had I signed up for the thing? Curiosity. I had read Born to Run by Chris McDougall, and gone down to The City to see him and a cast of related characters from the barefoot and/or long distance running cult talk to their people. What was it like to go 100 miles in a single effort? There was only one way to answer the nagging question.

November 5: It was a cold morning, and I had slept in the cab of a pickup truck. Away we went, eighty-some runners in a pair of yellow school buses, rolling down the lettered Missouri highways for an hour and a half to the start line, a banner slung between trees in the dark in a place remote enough that not even the banjoists dared duel. Away we went in a line of flashlights and headlamps, rolling down the leaf littered Missouri hills for an hour and a half in the 6am darkness until the sun dared shine.

The first 50 miles were a breeze. I haven’t worn a watch while running since four months ago. Without any reference point, there is nothing but trail and trees punctuated by an occasional aid station and passed or passing runners. The sky was overcast most of the day–there was no time, only light. There were no expectations of pace or pain per mile.

But the sun did arrive, finally, sometime between Gunstock Hollow and Brooks Creek, between miles 35 and 44. That was pertinent. The light in the treetops above was my measure of how worried I should be. I stashed my headlamp in a drop bag at Highway DD, mile 51. Beyond that, the world was full of firsts. Every step was the furthest I had ever gone. Also, I had never run on the trails in the dark with a headlamp. The world shrank to the reach of the light, bits of reflective tape glinting on the trail markers ahead. It was very strange. There were no dimensions. No watch: no time. No horizon: no distance. The race was point-sized–located, effectively, in my mind only. As my mind went, so went the race.

The next segment, Martin Road to Hazel Creek, mile 68, the two-thirds mark, was the longest segment of the race. Nine point three miles. It was a smooth run. It felt quick. It needed to be quick. I was breathing plumes into my light, and the drop bag with my long shirt and stocking cap were at Hazel Creek. After Hazel Creek, the world unraveled. Or did it? Did my knees feel like bags of broken glass around mile 74, or did I lose my will and think that my knees were smashed? I could put together bursts of running, but nothing like the previous smooth miles that were punctuated only by occasional uphill walks.

I walked out of Machell Hollow, mile 76, and when I was out of sight of the aid station I experimented with running. It was awful. My body had become two halves. In the upper half, my chest tried to pull my body upwards in some anti-physical denial of gravity. In the lower half, my feet tip-toed on the trail, trying daintily to keep pressure of my knees. I stopped, put my hands on knees, and figured it was time to call it a day–or night or morning, as it must have been near midnight by then.

Along came Bearded Dave and Purdue Ryan and his pacer, Tony, a local runner who was in charge of maintenance of this section of the trail–talk about a fortuitous intersection. They convinced me to tag along with them as they speed-walked to Berryman Campground at mile 81. There, I stalled and sent them off without me, and tried to drop from the race. The aid station volunteers campaigned against it. I couldn’t manage the shame of (a) quitting and (b) trying to convince people that I wanted to quit, so I went on, determined to show them they were wrong, which is the kind of logic that gets employed when one is cold, tired, and frustrated.

//—–//

The next seven miles, from Berryman to Billy’s Branch, were feverish and ugly. The body felt crystalline and fragile. The mind looped the desire to drop from the race. The wind made the air feel cold. The batteries in my headlamp faded, and I replaced them in the dark.

Strange memories on that nervous night in the Ozarks. Five hours later? Six? It seemed like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era–the kind of running peak that never came again.

I tried to drop again at Billy’s Branch, mile 88, this time fully from shame. Twenty-four hours had passed, and the sky’s barely perceptible change meant that twenty-five hours, the latest I had ever imagined as a finish, must have passed as well. The aid station volunteers told me that it would be easy to walk the last fourteen miles and beat the thirty-two hour cutoff time and get a finisher’s buckle. That thought that must have been compelling to some, but to me it was a reminder of a great disappointment. Finishing the thing had never been interesting to me. I never had a doubt about that. The precipitous fall at the end was the frustrating.

No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride . . . and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well . . . maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.

I swished through the fallen leaves. I yelled at the trees. I sat and napped for a few minutes when sleep turned predatory. I had a homemade cookie at the final aid station. I swished through the fallen leaves. I brooded on the humiliation of walking a run. I discovered that the last seven miles weren’t a vanity cruise to the finish, but a trail coursed up and down the bluffs. But the mind–not my mind, but the mind, for I had ceased trying to own the thing–punished me more than any hill ever did.

And that’s the way it ended as I walked through the finish line, not even bothering to fake a run or to unscrew my face out of the disgusting mask it had become.

All very disappointing. A year of losing that was supposed to end triumphantly ended, instead, ambiguously. But a good race is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In. Having this enigma of a race means I might have to go out and vindicate myself–for good or ill.

Final time: 29:34.

//—–//

Notes

I wanted to write something original, but I copped out and twisted a few (too many) lines from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. and one from Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.

2011 Jaipur Half Marathon: The gauntlet

The Jaipur Half Marathon… I shouldn’t have run it. But here I am, three weeks later, and the bastard hasn’t killed me yet so I’m going to post this before the Auroville Marathon finishes me off.

I shouldn’t have run it. I mean this. I wasn’t in Jaipur to run. I was there for the Jaipur Literature Festival. The half marathon was a coincidence. I learned about the half marathon offhandedly, and I didn’t commit to anything. The Mumbai Marathon, on 16 January, was a road marathon and I don’t train much on roads so I was extra sore. And I had been pampered in Mumbai by Pradeep and his family, so I was also extra whiny when I got to Jaipur. It was the perfect storm for copping out.

But don’t worry, Dear Reader, after thirty years I’m not about to start letting common sense enter the equation. On the day before, an old friend in Illinois found the registration venue for me. (And I quote Mel: “rajput sabha bhawan, bagwan das road. i have no idea what i wrote, but i hope it helps.”) I went there. The sign said, “Registrations OPEN for Dream Run Entries Only Today.” If you follow the rules in India you are a fool. I went in. They let me register for the half marathon.

Sunday. 23 January 2011. 6:00am. Dark on the western side of one time-zoned India. Wake up in my running clothes. Pin my numbers on my shirts (That’s an intentional plural, numbers, front and back–only in India.) Tie my shoes. Here’s the exciting part: it is the first day since running Mumbai that I was able to bend down, tie my shoes, then stand up without using the bed or table to lift myself.

6:30am. Out the door. And then not out the door. It’s early. The guest house staff is somewhere else, asleep. The front door and outside gate are locked. Well, gosh darn it, I guess I’ll have to go back to sleep. Back upstairs to inspect my window for possible ways to climb out. Back downstairs to check one more time and–damn. A sleepy man fumbles through his keychain, letting me escape into the inky blue morning. I accost a rickshaw driver at the first intersection–the hunter has become the hunted. He’s too surprised to even jack me over on the rate to Albert Hall Museum. Victory.

The sun threatens to rise. A runner in a Santa Claus costume runs up to me and says, “Hello! I’m Santa Claus!” Indeed. A young boy, learning a new trick, doesn’t ask me for 10 rupees, he asks me for an extra timing chip because he, ah, needs one. It’s not like they just give out extra timing chips, little man. I wish they did. I looked down at my shoes and realized that my own timing chip was resting safely on my bed at the guest house. Lucky.

7:10am. The race is set to start at 7:00 Indian Standard Time, so it’s not late yet. There are other foreigners (read: pale people) in the running crowd. That’s good news. The per capita being-stared-at index went down a few notches. A few Running and Living guys came down from Delhi. They spotted me because I was sporting a Running and Living jersey from the Panchkula Half Marathon.

7:20am. The gate opens. The runners surge forward. To the next gate. I try running 200 meters to warm up. Not happening. My left calf and right quat muscles are furious. 200 meters is less than 1% of a half marathon. I try running backwards to see if my projectile crying will serve as a form of propulsion. It works. Six years and two aerospace engineering degrees haven’t gone to waste after all. (Hire me.)

7:30am. The gate opens. The runners surge forward. Dignitaries–politicians, actors, the sun–cheer from raised bleachers. A movie camera rises into the sky and captures a sweeping shot over the passing runners. The official Jaipur Half Marathon song blares from enormous speakers. I know it is the official song because the Hindi word for marathon is marathon. Hey, Chicago, where’s your official marathon song? That’s right.

Right. The half marathon itself. It hurt a lot. And then it was over.

What? More? OK.

The start of the Jaipur Half mraathon had everything I ever expected in an Indian race. It started late. There were stages on the sidewalk with drummers and music and dancers. (I appreciate the dancers in the Boys Town segment of the Chicago Marathon, but I have to admit a preference for dancing Rajasthani girls.) On the opposing sidewalk there were masses of working class men in stocking caps and rough cotton shawls giving the universal gape for, “What the hell is going on here?”

My goal was to not get hurt. I slacked off after the first kilometer, but then #5569, a high school boy running his first half marathon, came up and encouraged me to pick up the pace–and thanks to him for doing that. I tried to communicate that I didnt’ want to. I’d say, “You go ahead,” and sweep my hand forward. He’d respond, “With,” and give a sweeping gesture to come with him and his friends. OK. Slower pace, faster pace, it didn’t matter since every step hurt. I kept pace with them until 5 km, then no more, no more.

The first 6 km were a straight line down Jawaharlal Nehru Marg. Then we U-turned and returned. At the turnaround, race officials flicked some red stuff on our shirts as a marker to prevent cheating. It was a good idea. I say this with 50% conviction. The other 50% is reserved for when/if the red splotches ever wash out of my jersey.

As we looped back we met the Dream Runners. Ah, yes, they followed us. I should have known the dancing girls were for them. Blast! The upside was that they provided key crowd support for the half marathon runners–for me, at least. I’m not sure they asked all of the brown runners where they were from and how they liked India. Around 10 km, near the halfway mark, we cut west, left the Dream Runners, headed off into the wild.

Let’s all give the traffic cops the kudos they deserve. They had the uneviable job of holdin gback the increasingly mutinous Jaipur traffic. Every passing minute brought more pedestrians, more scooters, more rickshaws, more cars, all eager to take back their share of the morning road. In the second half of the race we runners were quite dispersed, tens and hundreds of meters between us. The held back drivers gaped in menacing disbelief at traffic cops stopped them at major intersections for each single, straggling runner.

In some cases the traffic prevailed and we shared the road. OK. I expected this in India: functional madness. We all went to our destinations in our own ways. I don’t know how we got there, but we got there. That’s India. I don’t know if I could do it every day, but it’s fun in doses.

And on and on. Past St. Xavier’s School and right onto MI Road, a major road now eerily devoid of traffic. Left through the reconstructed Ajmer Gate and into the old city, the Pink City. Through the not yet opened markets. I had an advantage here: I studied the course map before running. We were almost done. Good news: my brain sent a message to my legs that is was now acceptable to feel broken.

The traffic circle at Choti Chaupur–people crowded around like a tunnel like the sidelines of the Tour de France. The traffic circle at Badi Chaupur–more of the same, but larger, as the name suggests. (In Hindi, choti means small, badi means big… I think. Obviously I’m no expert.)

Almost there. Back onto MI Road, which is no longer devoid of vehicles. In Indian traffic as in oceans, it is foolish to think you can stop the tide. Into Ramniwas Bagh and Albert Hall Museum, down to the last few hundred meters. The next wave of traffic isn’t vehicles–it’s Dream Runners. They block the road in front of the finish line. That’s why most races have chutes and barriers at the end of the race. After 21km, no one wants to finish via a gauntlet.

As I noted earlier, I consider myself an informal ambassador of the United States of America. As such I see it as my solemn duty to introduce Indians to American culture. I taught the mass of Dream Runners a few (American) football moves: the cutback, the spin, the hurdle, the stiffarm. Thank me later, Hillary, thank me later.

Unofficial time: 1:50:50.

Mumbai Marathon 2011: The Unmarathon Marathon

The marathon is secondary at the Mumbai Marathon. Don’t let the supersonic Ethiopians fool you. The Dream Run, a 7 km charity run/walk, is the real ticket on marathon Sunday. I thought this was a bit annoying at first–hey, guys, I’m running the marathon, look at me! LOOK AT ME!–but I warmed up to the fact as the day itself warmed up.

The day took time to warm up. The marathon for humans started at 6:15am, which meant getting to the Chembur train station before 5:00am, which meant, well, early. (The superhumans, the Elites, started later at 7:45am.) The guard at the gate of the housing complex was asleep. The drivers were asleep in their taxis. People slept on and below the counters at the train station. The chai stall was the only sign of life on the street. Priorities, priorities.

The pulse was quicker in Mumbai proper, nearer to the Azad Maidan where the marathon runners assembled. Fences along the race route separated us from our destination. Security men in black walked arm-in-arm along the route, practiced clearing the course. Perhaps in Mumbai, the runners like to stage riots.

I was hoping for a chance to say that the marathon staging area was chaos. It wasn’t. The baggage check area was clearly marked, and so was the gate to the starting line. But, runners, what’s the most important station before the race? Yeah. The toilet. Where was it. Pradeep asked the baggage guy where it was. He pointed across the Maidan. I ran over there, one or two hundred meters, but there were only corporate tents there. (Maybe he wanted me to send them a message?) I ask a guy at the corporate tent. He points to another part of the Maidan. I run there–refreshment tent. I ask another. He points. I run. Medical tent. Ask another. He points behind the refreshments tent. I go there. Whoa, hey guys, sorry, I’ll let you do your thing.. I ask another guy, he points, I run–bingo. It wouldn’t be India without a series of a half dozen conflicting directions.

Through the gate and to the street. In the distance the announcer is going mad with enthusiasm, as a good announcer should. He even congratulated the contingent of Maharashtra state officials for waking up so early to see us off. Indeed. Congratulations, guys. Drink plenty of water and don’t overdo it if you’re feeling exhausted. And then we were off. And by  “we” I mean “the other people who were on time and at the starting line.” The rest of us were still wandering up the dark street. It wouldn’t be Kirk Kittell without a late start.

I was running for Muktangan, an educational group in Mumbai. They’re a very cool organization, and shouldn’t be construed with any of my silliness. To help them out, I ran as a human billboard, sporting the same hat and polo shirt that their participants wore in the Dream Run. Yeah, I ran a marathon in a polo shirt. And an undershirt. If I was going to run in front of a bunch of cameras, I wasn’t going to put my chest hair on display through a wet, white shirt. In the fight between heat stroke and vanity, I chose vanity.

Our first stop, figuratively, was Marine Drive–the Queen’s Necklace, a sweeping curve of streetlights that draw an outline of the bay in the dark. We were early. The states on the sidewalk were empty, TV camera stations stood unmanned, spectators were sparse. The only noise on the street was a band tuning and warming up, our feet, and a DJ from Radio Mirchi 98.3 trying his best to compensate for the vocal void.

Marine Drive at night

(The Queen’s Necklace, Marine Drive. This photo was taken later. The other photos, below, were taken by mobile during the race.)

At 44 minutes the sky was bright, and the half marathon leaders came charging by us. They started at Bandra, on the far end of the marathon course. They got to explore the Bandra-Worli Sea Link during the mild dawn–more on that later.

At 45 minutes I reached for one of the four gel packs I brought from home. At the Chicago Marathon I carried them in my hand, but in Mumbai I had a brilliant idea: I used athletic tape to secure them to the waistband of my shorts, two in front, two in back. I was worried that the bouncing would cause me to excrete the gel packs from my shorts, so I taped them securely. Very securely. For three full minutes I fought with the tape, at first pulling and then flailing at the back of my shorts, before I finally extricated the gel pack from myself. (“Say, what is that running white guy doing there? What strange customs they have.” ) Body-warm vanilla: it’s what’s for breakfast.

OK, right–the race. At the one-hour mark, we marathon runners were quite dispersed, big gaps of tens and hundreds of meters separating us. It is a very strange experience to have ample personal space in Mumbai. Ride a rush hour train or bus in Mumbai some time–it is a serious Cultural Experience. We weren’t alone for long. Soon the great mass of half marathon runners was streaming past us.

Mumbai Marathon: half marathon runners

Half marathon runners, congratulating themselves for not signing up for the full marathon.

And then they became us. At 1:12 the half marathon runners started pouring in from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link on the left, merging with us–great news for the lonely, but not so great if you wanted to run without dodging through slower-moving bodies. Chaos, chaos for three kilometers, then we separated to the left and rediscovered solitude on the streets of Mumbai.

Skip the following paragraph. It is not for Respectable People.

I made it to 20 km at 1:41:20. There I stopped to peruse the portable facilities. (If you’re a runner, you understand, yeah?) There were two. Behind door #1: no latch. No thanks. I only allow spectators on the race course. Behind door #2: No latch. Um. I’m not one to skip opportunities, so I asked the marathon staff member, a young guy, to hold the door shut for me. He shuts it, holds it for a while, walks away, then slides something heavy in front of it. OK. Outside, through the cracked door, I see him reach into a pail, grab a roll of paper, wipe his hands. Immediate alarm bells–that’s my lifeline out there. He replaces the roll, I reach out through the crack to acquire it, etc. I opened the door, emerged, and the pail of something white (milk?) that was stopping the door spilled over onto the pavement. As if in a choreographed routine, the staff guy and I look at each other, slowly look down at the spreading spill, then share the universal glance for, “Well, that was crazy now, wasn’t it?”

OK, no more stories like that.

Past the halfway mark at 1:50, and the crowd had finally rolled out of bed. There were people on the streets before that–and those people were saints, those few who helped us pass the early miles–but now a Crowd had arrived. Since the marathon runners were separated from each other, the crowd turned their cheering on and off as we approached and receded. In these crowds I heard a few India-specific kinds of congratulations, “Come on uncle, come on uncle,” or “Good job sir, good job, sir.”

We entered the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Some of us returned.

Mumbai Marathon: to the Sea Link

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link. Looming.

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link is a landmark bridge in Mumbai. It is beautiful, something visitors to Mumbai must see, and it was a pleasure to see it from the ground. I passed a few runners from the Runners for Life running club in Bangalore. They’ll also be at the Auroville Marathon, near Pondicherry, in February. They offered me a trade. They allowed me to beat them in Mumbai, but they offered me a beer if I’d lose to them in Auroville. I’m holding you to it, guys.

It was also a five or six kilometer slog through the sun. The slower runners, who would have crossed it when the sun was higher, hotter, have my sympathy. 

Mumbai Marathon: on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link

Still going.

After the bridge, I don’t have much to say. I don’t remember much. Marathon runners know: from 32 km on, the world gets a little weird. Let me tell you: it’s the same in India as it is at home, but maybe a little weirder. Past 32 km (that’s 20 miles, my imperialist friends), the key word is Survival. I’ll skip it here.

All of the sleeping stages and the missing crowds were there on our return trip down Marine Drive. Bands were playing,
people were yelling–chaos, chaos, but in the best possible way. At 39 km, there was an especially large amount of hubbub coming from behind, motorcycles passing us, people buzzing. And there they were. Runners. Super-runners. I had never, ever seen them in person, up close. The marathon leaders. Needless to say, I don’t spend much time at the front of the pack, so the staggered start was a unique opportunity to witness them in action. They ate us amateur runners up like wolverines. They sped past like a pack of missiles. It was a beautiful experience to be annihilated so thoroughly.

At 41 km I passed Udaya. I had been following him for a kilometer or two, and he was enjoying the race as it should be enjoyed–arms in the air like a victor, calling back to the crowd, bouncing from side to side to give high fives. If you’re not going to win, that’s how you run a marathon. Where did he get the energy? I was focused almost solely on maintaining a non-grimace. As I turned off Marine Drive and passed him, I put my arm around his shoulders and encouraged him to keep going, and he reciprocated. I’m wary about doing things like that to runners that I pass–I don’t want to make it seem like some kind of ego stomp, some salt in the wound as I go by. I just wanted to say thanks for being so entertaining. We talked after the race, and I’ll see him also at the Auroville Marathon.

In the last kilometer, there were crowds of spectators and, on the right, the crowd of Dream “Runners,” who started at 10am. As a somewhat Serious Runner, I have to admit that the walkers getting all of the attention was a blow to my ego. How dare they, etc. But when I saw the different groups marching, carrying banners and signs, dressed up as presidents and celebrities and onions, I changed my mind. What the hell? If you’re having fun, you’re having fun. If you’re getting the crowd to stand up and cheer, even better. If you’re using a major event in a major city to rise money or awareness for education, health, etc., then really, who cares about my ego? (Besides me, I mean.)

I talked to Amal, from Glenmark, who was running for Yuva Parivartan, and he said it best. “It’s good to see people come together to make a difference in good times instead of during a tragedy.”

The Mumbai Marathon isn’t a world class marathon. It’s not. Don’t let the 2:09 winning time fool you. Maybe it will grow into one, but it’s not there yet. The Mumbai Marathon is the Dream Run, with the marathon appended to it.

But that’s OK. I was asked after the race if I’d come back and run the marathon again, and I said, honestly, “Yes.”

Official time: 3:45:13.

Panchkula Half Marathon 2011: The Panchkula mystery race

When I first conceived this trip to India, my plan was to explore the burgeoning running scene in India. Today’s runners are at the crest of a wave. There will be more runners and more races on India. It’s coming. These are the pioneers, and I had to meet them.

Let me admit my conceits at the start. I nurtured a notion that maybe–just a tiny, tiny chance–I could sneak into the winner’s circle at the first race, the Panchkula Half Marathon. These Indians just learned how to run, right?

The weather on the morning of the race was better suited for staying in bed under a pile of blankets. That’s what the staff of my hotel in Sector 17 of Chandigarh was doing in the lobby. One, under a blanket, sitting in a chair against the wall, lolled his head to the side groggily as I walked by. I wonder if he recognized me. Perhaps he has heard the legend of the White Guy in the Mist.

The mist. The Mist. The mist rolled through the shops of the Sector 17 market. The mist was a canvas for sinister backlit silhouettes as I walked to the bus stand. The mist mocked even the idea of warmth as I jumped down from the still-moving bus–Bus 30, Sector 17 ISBT to Nada Sahib Gurudwara–down the road from North Park Hotel. (If you haven’t jumped from a moving bus, you’re missing out.) Two-thirds of my time during previous trips to India has been dedicated to sweating. Cold is something new to me here. Ah, but I come from the land of winter snow, so these guys must be suffering, right? Advantage: pale guy.

And then the Army rolled in.

I mean it: the Army rolled into the hotel, twenty of them in matching black track suits with red trim, some with ” X-Country 2011″ on the back, some with the still-mysterious-to-me “Fourteen.” They were strictly business, as Army men should be: clipped hair and mustaches, straight posture, granite composition. In short: lean, mean, running machines.

Hey, winning isn’t everything, right?

Now freed from the burden of being the Great White Hope, I settled into my natural role as the Great White Dope. I milled around the start line, saying hello, meeting the runners, finding the good and the not-so-good English speakers. (Oh, my Hindi? Terrible, terrible…)

Yes, OK, so many words and no mention of the race itself… But what the hell? Does anyone but the uppermost tier run for the race itself? Don’t we runners–we few, we sweaty few–go out there to suffer our personal challenges in the company of others? Indeed.

So, my American running friends, I am pleased to introduce you to your brothers and sisters over here in India–a wonderful community of runners.

That’s what I think Rahul Varghese and the Running and Living crew have done so remarkably, if the Panchkula Half Marathon is any indication. It is one thing to set up a course, time the runners, and give some trinkets to all of the participants, thanks for coming, etc. It is another, in my opinion more difficult, thing to build a community. Congratulations and thanks to the organizers for doing it so well.

The half marathon started exactly on time at 9am. Already I was confused. I was looking for something distinctly Indian about this race–something 180-degrees different than what we do at home. I had expected this race to respect the conventions of IST, i.e., Indian Standard Time, a.k.a., Indian Stretchable time, i.e., late.

No matter. The clock started, and we were off.

The mist refused to quit. The Shivalik Hills were mere meters to our right, but they were an abstract idea, a dark patch only. The sun appeared for a few seconds as a cold, impotent white disk behind the clouds, but then retired until Monday afternoon. I was secretly hoping to be the only white guy in the race but I was more of a purplish color.

(All photos are from Rahul Varghese of Running and Living.)

Two kilometers down the tarmac, and the runners began to separate. From there it was off the proper road and onto a series of jeep tracks and streambed crossings, past a few small settlements, through a stretch of fist-sized rocks, and puffing down a sandy trail. The rocks were challenging–known as “ankle-breakers” to hikers–but the trail was nice, with plenty of soft stuff. I could hear my knees and ankles say, “Ahhhh.”

On we marched through the non-landscape, nothing but a few bushes visible in front of the white curtains, nothing but the occasional buzzing powerlines overhead. Nothing looked different. What gives? The race was organized crisply like a (good) American race. The runners ran like Americans run. Shouldn’t something be wildly different? An elephant wandering by? Someone hassling me for a rickshaw?

On and on. The military men in the lead were doubling back on the twice-repeated out-and-back course. I was even getting whipped like this was an American race. 5 km, 6 km, 7 km–now I was feeling better. My skin was less purple, more pink. My legs were finally uncoiling from two weeks without running. Now that I was doubling back on the other runners, I got to see everyone face-to-face. And my impression of the race was sealed: the runners were wonderfully nice.

I was having a hell of a good time–I was running in India, how strange!–and I wasn’t alone. Runners called out encouragement to each other. “Good job!” “Awesome, awesome!” “Cool, cool!” “Keep running!” Clapping. Waving hands. Smiling. (And yes, grimaces, but that’s running.) So much warmth on a cold day.

Back to North Park Hotel, the halfway mark–51 minutes and some seconds. There were nine runners in front of me, five of them out of reach. The others? Hmm… tempting, tempting, but I’m here for the experience so no need to chase.

Off for the second loop, past the returning runners to the final turnaround–more pain but also more smiles and more encouragement–and still I had not seen anything demonstrably Indian. A man at one of the water stations asked if I was on my final lap. I told him, “I hope so.”

At the final turnaround, the three-quarter mark, I stepped off the course for a moment to inspect some bushes. Returning to the course, I heard some twigs crack behind me. What, hey? I hoped I didn’t disturb anyone. But there it was, what I was looking for, that Indian touch to the race emerging from the mist and onto the course like an errant river barge: a water buffalo.

(Now please, all of my American friends, don’t mention to my Indian friends here that I grew up in farmland USA, and that I’ve probably run by more cows than people. That would ruin my point here.)

5 km to go. All of the runners that I could possibly catch are within striking distance. I pass one of them, and then I am passed by someone else. That wasn’t in the script. There he went, pulling away, disappearing occasionally in the fog, an apparition on the trail.

What the hell? What kind of experience is it to get beat? Maybe this was the Indian race and the Indian runner that I sought. Maybe the difference didn’t need to erupt from the sidelines in a choreographed song-and-dance routine. (I have seen the movies. I know how this works.) Maybe I was looking for something more basic, simply: a race in India.

So I raced in India.

3 km–I reeled him in closer, closer. Four of his friends came in from the side of the road to help pace him home. Indian hip hop music played out loud from their cell phones as I caught the group, which now included one of the runners in front of us.

2km–The roving course ambulance trundled by, threatening to give its driver some extra work to do, pinching us to the left side of the road. As it went by I made a move. The runner in the white shirt followed and led and followed, back-and-forth. 1 km–We passed another runner, the pace accelerating with no end in sight in the mist. How long? How long?

The turnoff emerged from the fog like a water buffalo. Just a few hundred meters to go, and I made a move. This quick move dropped the runner that was going with me but, as I made the turn, the runner that had passed me 5 km ago, came in on the right and left me a few meters behind in the final stretch. Grinning like a fool, I crossed the line after him.

In India, they know how to race.

Final time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

Chicago Marathon 2010: Postmortem

All training before before the 2010 Chicago Marathon, and every line I’m thinking here to describe the marathon now that it’s over, centers on one thought: three hours and ten minutes. 3:10–that’s the Boston Marathon qualifying standard for my age group.

No suspense: my time was 3:21:46. Eleven minutes and 46 seconds too long. 706 seconds too many. 17 seconds per kilometer over budget.

Well, damn.

Before the race I thought I had 3:10 in the bag. I even entertained some delusions of breaking three hours because training had gone so well. I had the summer distance training in my portfolio, including personal records of 98 km in a week and two consecutive months of over 300 km. I finished a 50 km trail race three weeks before the marathon. (A marathon is 42.195 km). The length of the marathon itself was no longer intimidating. It seemed only a matter of lining up at the start and doing the thing.

So: let’s take it from the start.

From the start, the race progressed beautifully. I started too far back in the pack, about eight minutes off the line. I meant to start farther up, near the 3:00 pace group, but Dad and I had some difficulties parking that morning. I tried to lead us to the parking lot under Millenium Park, but the only entrance to Lower Wacker Drive that I knew–I am not a Chicagoan, no, no–was blocked by construction. We tried to improvise, but with the city streets closing down, block by block, we managed to only trundle through Downtown like rats in a maze. We found a place near Monroe and Desplaines, where I sent him ahead to the start line while I parked the truck–in part because I knew I could get to the line faster than him, but mainly because I didn’t want him to see how far I was going to drive his truck in reverse the wrong way down a one way street to get to the lot entrance. Better that he collapses during the race, not during parking.

Anyway. The first quarter was slow, as expected. It’s a big herd and it takes time to disperse. Keep to the sides where there is room to squirt around the pack. Don’t screw around with weaving through the middle.

At the half marathon mark, I was at 1:37:49. I needed a negative split for the final half, 1:32:11, but I anticipated this and was not worried. Nevermind that my best (only) half marathon time was a 1:43:07. I was in control.

I increased my pace slightly through the third quarter of the race. This is, as I’ve mentioned before, my favorite part of any race, the stretch where a runner’s mind starts to crumble under the combined weight of effort exerted in the first half and the finish line still so far away–an aura of suffering radiates from the plodding crowd.

The inflection point, the crossover from rising to falling, was near 34 km, just 8 km from the finish line. After that my legs began to shatter into pieces. It started as an inconvenience in my left calf muscle, which steadily became a problem–the functional equivalent of running with a slab of meat for a lower left leg instead of the well-tuned machine it had been for the first two-and-a-half hours. I started to fall back from the sub-4:30/km pace I was holding, and then began to punctuate that pace with bouts of hopping in the middle of the street.

Did you see a guy in a white bandana and yellow shirt, jumping up and down on one leg while yelling obscenities at the cramps in the other leg? Yes. Well. Hmm. Nice to meet you.

Later my hamstrings began to howl. I have never experienced that. My pace slackened further. I walked at the Mile 21 aid station, understanding that this would make finishing under 3:10 mathematically more difficult, but hoping that the brief quiet period would let me recuperate for a final attack.

I did not attack.

I could regale you with more details about pain and cramps and heat and other external factors–external in the sense that I could not control them as they occurred–but I don’t think they were the culprits. The truth cuts closer to the bone: (1) I trained hard, but wrong; (2) I stepped away from The Edge.

All of my long training runs–longer than 15 km–were trail runs. I enjoy running trails better than sidewalks and roads. I worried about combining high mileage with too much pavement–it seemed like a recipe for stress fractures.

The result is that I was trained for distance, but not the right kind of distance. Trail running is slower than road running. I think trail running is more difficult–more elevation change, more accelerating in and out of turns, more high knee running due to obstacles–but it does not prepare one mentally and physically for road running. My hamstrings weren’t trained for roads, and when those muscles began to behave badly–a novel experience for me–my brain responded with panic.

I am still incredulous of the end of the race. I was not exhausted by the marathon. I could have run another 10 or 20 miles–if, of course, I could have bent my cramped, ugly legs, something I couldn’t do with any facility until the next day.

I didn’t do enough fast training runs. I don’t mean track running, 400m and 800m intervals, I did those, but running more 8 km and 10 km and other distances at marathon pace or faster. A related mistake, perhaps, was not competing before the marathon. I ran the Escarpment Trail Run, the Bradford Bruiser, and the Pisgah Mountain Trail Race, but those were competitions versus myself, not against a fixed goal. Completing a distance and the blood instinct of racing the clock are different animals; running versus racing. Racing is running, but it is running with an edge–the conviction to get in the ring with fear and uncertainty and pain and just whale on the bastards until the clock runs out.

The second one, The Edge, is delicate. I don’t know, truly, how much I could have pushed those last 8 km. How uncooperative were my legs, really? Did I panic when the atypical pain arrived? Two days later, and seated in front of an air conditioning vent, I can’t accurately recall. Having survived, I know there was space between where I was and The Edge. How much? How much could I have pushed the preceding 34 km?

That line of questioning will stop now.

A more interesting question is: What’s Next?

A Run in the Woods: Escarpment Trail Run 2010

The Escarpment Trail Run is a 30 km race up and down a hiking trail in the Catskill Mountains in New York. Two hundred people are allowed to enter after going through an application process that begs them not to. (Bears! Bees! Broken bones! Bruises!) There are casualties. There is pain.

Mountain goats only

It was awesome. There are no medals for participating. There are no t-shirts handed out (the one above was purchased). There are no awards for winners. This is the essence of sport and it’s often hard to find in an organized event. Thank you, Dick Vincent, for putting it together. That’s my kind of race.

First things first: hooray for the Escarpment Trail Run volunteers.

Who is crazier than the 200 runners in the field? The volunteers. Sure, we ran up the mountains, but these guys started early and backpacked the water and other supplies to each of the three peaks and several places in between. And they were nice, too. Had I been a volunteer, I would have been a rotten, surly bastard from the hike.

So, thank you all. I don’t know why you do it but I know a good therapist if you need one.

Listen: I am not a trail runner. I posed as one to get in the race. Trail running is a different beast. To run the trails is to dance with the obstacles on the trail. Misjudge a step, face the consequences.

You may never see a trail runner in the wild. If you do, remain calm. Don’t make any sudden movements. They only want to get past you because you are standing between them and the beer and medical supplies at the end of the trail.

Trail running is different. There are trail running shoes. How they got hiking boots and running shoes to mate together I don’t want to know, but apparently it helps for navigating the boulders on the trail. I do not have trail running shoes. I am a cheapskate. And I am not a trail runner.

The race is run on a hiking trail. At the start, two hundred people funnel immediately into a single file line and start up — literally and immediately: up — the trail to Windham High Peak. I wound up in the back half of this line. That’s OK. I expected a rough day and wanted to start slow to avoid crashing utterly at the end.

View larger map | See the trail in Google Earth

The first part of the run is a walk as everyone gets sorted out. Some people like to do the running-in-place-at-a-stoplight thing when the going is slow. I prefer to do the Terminator Walk. It’s more menacing. And on it goes, nose to butt, for a kilometer or so, then I started moving forward through the pack.

The trouble is that it is a single-wide trail, so passing is treacherous. Fortunately trail runners communicate well. If you ask to pass they’ll let you by, or when they hear you coming, they offer to let you pass. When you pass or get passed there is also some good natured banter. “Let me know when you want to pass.” “Not yet, I’m dying.” “Not if I die first.” Et cetera. It takes that kind of system to make the race work. If you don’t take the race seriously enough, you crash and burn. If you take the race too seriously, you crash and burn. But there is a sweet spot in the middle where you crash and enjoy it.

On and on, up and up, to Windham High Peak, where volunteers were at the ready with Gatorade and water and cookies. Saints, all of them.

Then: down, down.

Trail runners love the downhills. Running downhill takes skill and practice. I hate the downhills. Give me uphills all day but keep the downhills to yourself. I am not a trail runner.

After Windham High Peak, there was this guy. He was amazing — utterly amazing. I shall refer to him now as The Cannonball. Why? He boomed down the mountain like a cannonball. If he had run off the trail and hit a tree he would have smashed the damned thing into boards and toothpicks. But he didn’t. Also, to move at that speed, over boulders and trees and around corners, let’s just say that he has certain anatomical features that are the size and composition of cannonballs. Ahem.

The tagline for the Escarpment Trail Run is “mountain goats only.” I am not a mountain goat. I was in awe of these guys giving themselves to the downhill trails in ways that could only result in brutal armbreaking falls for non-trail runners. Like me. Sometimes I would try to follow just to see what it was like to move so gracefully on the edge of catastrophe but I always backed off and waited for the flat and uphill sections. I couldn’t hack the downhills like the pros.

There are three types of uphills on the course. There are some sections that I could run. There are some sections that were a little too steep to run without burning out my legs, so I would use my Terminator Walk. Then, on Blackhead Mountain there is a third kind: climbing. Hands and feet. Go up and look at that elevation profile again. The bump in the middle is Blackhead. Sure, the application said there would be hand-over-fist climbing. But. I didn’t think it would be “hand-over-fist climbing,” per se. Somewhere in the Catskill Mountains I could hear Dick Vincent cackling madly.

On the way down from Blackhead, one of the other runners who had not died in previous Escarpment runs offered me some key advice. He explained the approach to the third and final peak, Stoppel Point, in terms I could understand. He said that if I knew what was coming, I could make it to the top without crying. Under normal circumstances I would have been indignant and intentionally ignored his advice. Crying? No, sir, I am A Man. Here, though, I hung on his every word. Besides, I was very nearly crying already, so what the hell.

The advice was simple. He said the final ascent had three distinct steps, i.e., up, level, up, level, up. If you didn’t know that, you might get over the first or second, winded and tired but satisfied that you had beat the mountain, only to be mentally ambushed by another ascent. Commence tears.

That was helpful advice. And he said once you made it to the top — which is distinctly marked by an airplane crash site, with the airplane right there by the trail — that you were home free, nothing but down, down, down.

What great news. I pictured an easy glide down the Champs-Élysées, drinking champagne, smiling with the other runners, etc. Looks like we made it after all, etc.

Hell no.

The end was the most technical part of the race. And at this point my brain was shot. Of course everyone is physically tired, but it was the mental tiredness that I was not prepared for. For three hours I had been concentrating on the trail three feet in front of me, picking a broken-ankle-free path over the rocks.

How hard was I concentrating? For the first time in my running career, I did not have any music playing in my head, nothing to hum to, nothing to set the rhythm of my pace to, nothing to retreat to when the going got tough. Nothing. Nothing but weird, ominous silence.

The final downhill was treachery. Maybe it’s my feverish memory of this part of the race, but the rocks seemed bigger, farther spaced. There were more technical sections, i.e., more climbing on hands and feet and butts.

All of these stimuli — where to step, how to step, what to avoid, what to jump — were being fed into a brain completely demented by the previous three hours. Sometimes I would walk stretches of downhill when I realized that I was descending more by luck than intent, bounding down boulders that I wasn’t even seeing because my brain was not processing the visual information at the same rate it was being acquired.

And then you pop out of the woods and it’s over. My goal was to finish under four hours but I fell apart in the final descent. I placed 32nd with a time of 4:09:00. And then we jumped in the lake to cool off.

What a disappointment to go so far and miss, although I am grateful for the chance to be part of the club of Escarpment Trail Run finishers. Does this mean I’ll be back next year to break four hours? Does a trail runner crap in the woods?

Other race reports and photos from the 2010 Escarpment Trail Run: