Revelations on the Brink of a First Ultra
I found a spot against the wall, and settled among the other runners- fixing their bibs, attaching timing tags, finalizing their layers, and doing just about anything to delay their inevitable dip into the blustery fall morning. I would probably be outside for 7 to 8 hours, at least, that’s how long I guessed it would take me to finish the NYC60K. Seeing as how it would be my first ultra, and I have never ran more than 26.2 miles, guessing was all I could do.
Then, a thought popped into my mind, so obvious that to have missed it I suddenly felt like I had sleepwalked my way into that crowd of ultra runners.
“What am I DOING?”
The bib pickup was tiny by comparison of a typical NYRR race, but then again, this was no typical race.
For many, the NYC60k, formerly the Knickerbocker, slips by quietly since it falls about two weeks after the New York City Marathon. It consists of -a dazzling and mind warping- 9 laps around Central Park (1 five mile loop, followed by 8 four mile loops). In many ways, it is the antithesis to it’s five borough predecessor. Where the Marathon features a flashy course, unbroken miles of spectators,and nearly 50,000 finishers, the NYC60K sets you loose in Central Park until your heart is content (and then some), most of the spectators are actually also the course Marshalls, and less than 400 runners even begin the race, let alone finish it.
Journey to the Start
My first foray into ultra running came a little over 2 years ago when Charlie, aka Runner Brother, signed up for his first 50 miler- the North Face Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain.
I have no idea why he did it, but he did and it was brutal. B-ru-tal. Yet aside from the excruciating pain I witnessed, I will never forget my first glance at the ultra runners through the darkness that swathed their 5 am start. Their faces were mothers and daughters, brothers and grandfathers, but every calf looked like a tree trunk. To the uninitiated, such as myself, they looked like figures out of mythology, athletes beyond reason.
Two and a half years later, after crewing half a dozen ultra’s for my brother and completing three marathons of my own, I was ready to run my first ultra.
As I picked up my bib, I wandered back out into the hall, anxious to find a place to take advantage of the heat and get everything into place for the race. I looked at the bib they had given us: some sort of thick plastic strip was stuck to the front with instructions on how to remove and secure the old timing tech. To me, it looked as intimidating as if I had just been handed launch codes. I looked at the runners around me. We resembled each other in neither age nor sex, and they all seemed to have attached their alien timing strips.
I paused, The Thought had struck me- “What am I doing?”
So simple. I had the race on my mind for months, and this was the first time doubt had crept into my mind. Doubt so rational that the fact it had never crossed my mind before that moment almost struck me to the ground.
Did I think this through? Am I sure I am supposed to be an ultra runner? Do I belong here?
And then, slowly, I recalled week by week each run- each footfall- that had brought me there.
I remembered the night I ran home along the west side highway, trailing gently behind a duo of runners for security in the darkness while trying to beat the impending humid, summer rain.
I remembered the trail run where I joined a seasoned group of ultra runners to run once last trail check along a portion of (and for) the Cat’s Tail Marathon-my old cross country fears and (let’s face it) reality of always being near last seized me all morning, but I left the trail feeling free and empowered.
I remembered every early morning. I remembered every long run I could have stopped short, but instead chose another loop, another out and back, another couple miles.
Was I actually worried I might not complete the distance? I thought, no, not for a second. The trick now was to simply relax and not crash and burn out anywhere before mile 30. I could so that.
Never-mind “what was I doing here”- I belonged here.