Tag Archive for running

The Finger Lakes 50s: Tales from the Tail of the 50 Mile Trail

It had arrived. The eve of the much anticipated Finger Lakes 50s Trail run which would be my first 50 Mile race. The Mister and I had spent the day driving towards Ithaca from New York City and debating, with varying degrees of intensity, exactly how dark it would be when we finally set up our tent in the Finger Lakes National Forest.

Traditional Race-Chocolate-Chip-Pancakes I ate Thursday in case I couldn’t any while we were on the road Friday- wise move!

I tend to be a little higher strung than my mister and combined with with a healthy dose of pre-race anxiety I was ready to be stretched out inside a tent, full of food, and off my feet. We achieved two of those things earlier in the afternoon by stopping in Ithaca and grabbing a bite of food at the ever-delicious and well named “Gorgers,” which makes huge hot sub sandwiches with in all the styles of your grandest dreams.

Normally, I stick hard to my plain butter pasta pre-big-race, but it was getting late and I was ready to stick with what was accessible than spend more time tracking down pasta and trying to special order it like an asshole. This may have been my one big mistake or at least contributed to my main source of discomfort the next day.

We left Ithaca and wound our way up towards the National Forest, where we parked along side the road. Here, you can see part of the baby loop, and I remarked that I would probably really, really, really hate that baby loop after 49.5 miles. Truer words were never spoken.

We wandered into the camp and registration area with our things (we loaded almost everything into one of those old-lady shopping carts/ big city laundry carts and it was a super smart decision). At the registration, we signed the Mister up as a pacer for the final 16 mile loop and I bought a Finger Lakes 50s hat (that is either brown or maroon, I really can’t tell) for a bargin price of $5.00!! I’m normally pretty superstitious about buying finisher items before actually finishing a  race and I will never, ever, wear a shirt for a race during that very race- gasp, the horror. But I didn’t want to miss out on a sweet hat and I was so excited about this race I broke my rule, and luckily, not my leg.

We set up our tent which, unfortunately, was apparently in a spot that was really bad for runoff and rain was headed in our direction. Fortunately, a kind local gentleman who I think was assisting with race logistics and obviously knew the area far better than we did, pointed out our error. We dragged our tent goofily to higher ground and I called it a night as a huge downpour broke open. Laying in the tent we listened as the rain pounded the tent and I watched the silhouette of a tiny gecko climbing around our tent wall with his bulbous toes holding him there like magic.

Morning came and oh, good god, this is happening! This start included both 50 Milers and 50K-ers (the Finger Lakes 50s, eh- eh?). I knew from looking at the participants ahead of time that they were pretty equally registered with about 80 people starting out for each race.

The first lap started out nice and easy, as usual, it always takes me a good 3-4 miles to even begin to feel settled into a nice, easy, loose run. I ran along Al, who  from miles 6-15 or so, I came to think of as my “Trail Pal Al.” He was a really nice gentleman from Rochester, if I remember correctly, and he was running hist first 50 Miler too. It was great to stick with him for such a slice of the loop and I would have tried to keep my trail pal for longer, but I slowed a bit due to the start of what would be on and off stomach issues. Ugh.

At the end of loop one, I was 16 miles in and feeling great. I got to see my Mom, my father, and my aunt who had driven the hour down from my hometown to cheer me on. It was a huge boost to see them and know that I got to have them near for such an incredible day.  I hit the trail again and began cutting my way into the second loop.

Loop two went well enough- it amazed me during the 60K last fall, and it amazed me again how the marathon mark slips by so uneventfully that I barely notice. 26.2 can be excruciating and is in its own right, a formidable distance. Yet in the midst of even a slightly longer race it is reduced to little more than an “oh, whatever. It cracks me up.

Don’t Let the Cows Out! Photographic evidence I enjoyed this race experience.


And then, early on this second loop, it happened. The stomach problems. For all the runners, I don’t need to say more because I think everyone understands. I had to stop two or three times because my stomach was so uncomfortable/ I thought there was going to be a real disaster, haha, luckily, there was not.

The real downside to my stomach issues, other than the loss of time, was I became increasingly less able to eat. Which really stunk because it was pretty hot and mentally, the idea that I was in the middle of 50 miles and not going to be able to keep the fuel levels up, was really discouraging.

I came into the finish of loop 2 feeling relatively fresh on my legs, but my stomach was really messed up. I told my family the current status, letting them know I thought this could be something that would slow me substantially on the final loop.

On the upside, my Mister was going to be joining me for my last loop!


The 16 Mile Loop! times 3 + the Baby Loop = the 50 Miler


On the downside, it was a pretty ugly final loop. The first mile after the home aid station was a complete mind-fuck (sorry about the language, but there is really no other word for it). You spend 15.9 miles thinking about getting somewhere and its pretty motivating. And then after two rounds of that, you depart again and it is like being set adrift at sea with not a hint of land insight. So there was that, and then there was the nausea. And that first mile or two with the Mister was pretty slow.

But I was really eager to show him The Morgue Aid station. We meet another runner there, who looked at us and said “Think we can make it?” I laughed, because I thought he was like 100% joking, and said of course, we were going to make it.

Little did I know.

About 3 miles from The Morgue, IT HAPPENED, mind-fuck number 2. You didn’t know there would be a second one? Well, neither did I.

A guy comes running up behind us, and I step aside, “You should go, we’re pretty slow right now.”

“You don’t want me to do that- then you’ll be on no course” he said, or something to that effect. “I’m just picking up the flags. Take your time, don’t let me rush you.”

And then the entire forest swirled around me- whaaaaaaaat!

Ok, you’re last. That part I could totally deal with. I knew time wise that I was looking pretty good for the cut offs and was well within the normal time range of finishers. I was not, some under-trained lollygagger.

However, the idea that my slowness at this point was now going to actually be holding people up- people at aid stations, volunteers spread over 16 miles, literal forest rangers, race directors- completely destroyed me. I’m pretty shy, so the idea that so many people would be thinking about the last person, and where is this slowpoke, and thinking I wasn’t prepared, just wrecked me.


The Race Begins

We fell into a pattern of trying to run as much as I could, while I wondered if maybe I was foolish to attempt this and should just pack it in. But I keep thinking, well, I guess I can make it to one more aid station, and then we’ll see. I couldn’t even begin to imagine returning to the finish line in a car. So we made it to the South Beach Aid station (twice, as the course has it) and then began the reluctant push to The Library. This was the last cut off of the race.

As we started, the course-deflagger/spirit-crusher ran after us and said “I think you guys can make the cut off, but you are going to have to move a little faster. You were doing about X minute miles last stretch, and you need to do X-2.” (I forget what the times were, but we had to go about 2 minutes per mile faster. Ha. Ha.) I was grateful that this gentleman had done some math for me, but on the other hand the idea that I had any control whatever over how fast I was going was hysterical.

A nice, deep, first-50 miler, burn had settled into my legs, and wasn’t going anywhere. I knew this type of pain was coming one way or another, but because of my stomach problems earlier, I felt like I had to deal with the leg pain for more miles than I expected.

We set off for the Library Aid Station, with the idea that we do the best I could, and whatever happened with the time, well there was nothing I could do about that. When we finally emerged from the woods and made our way across the road for The Library, all the volunteers were cheering.

“You made it!” they said. “Literally, by like a minute!” they added. (I was almost sad I had to keep going). “No one can you off the course now!”

I looked at my Mister, “I know we can go on, but I don’t know if we should.” My legs felt like mush on fire. Why should I waste everyone’s time?

The volunteers were so kind. One of them even said to me, “The next bit goes on and then comes back out after a mile by so-and-so, who has his car by the road. So if you want to stop then, you always can.”

One more mile try? Can’t argue with that. And from that point on, my motto was, “Let’s try.”

Can you run a few feet? Let’s try.

Can you make it one mile? Let’s try.

Can you make it to the next aid station? Let’s try.

And that was how we got to The Outback Aid Station. (Did I mention we met up again, momentarily with the runner from The Morgue, the Do-You-Think-We’ll-Make-It Guy? It felt good to no longer feel like literally the last person on the course).

The volunteers made me feel even better.

“Thank you SO MUCH  for being here. I’m sorry I’m so slow.” I said.

They laughed, “Are you kidding? We’ve been out here way later before. You’re doing fine!” And then they tried to get us to eat the rest of the Aid Station food- at some point someone tried to get me to take the remains of a huge package of Twizzlers!

We left, spirits more buoyed than when we arrived, and set out for the final miles.

I should mention, the Baby Loop. As we staggered toward the finish, I thought about the Baby Loop with the fiery hatred of 1,000 suns: F*@k that Baby Loop, I thought, when I get to the finish area I am done. (You have to go *through* the finish, and back out for the 1/2 mile Baby Loop). They can’t make me do it. I entertained myself often those last miles with the absolutely insane notion that I was going to DNF 49.5 miles into a 50 mile race.

But somehow we made it to the finish line and I set off to finish on my own. As I was moving through the final wooded area, I heard it- Eye of the Tiger was playing at the finish area, which was unfortunate because I really wanted to walk. However, I knew that my family must have requested it, because Eye of the Tiger and I go way back to the Musselman Triathlon and when I thought I might drown in Seneca Lake and my uncle yelled “Eye of the Tiger Sam!” And the only way I was going to get to the finish line in time was if I started running right now.

So I ran. And as I ran into the clearing, about to finish my first 50 mile race, I saw that almost every person in the finish area had formed a tunnel, their hands raised up like a bridge, and I had to run under their hands and through the human tunnel to the finish.

I wish I could describe it. I get teary eyed now thinking about how overcome with emotion I was in that moment and I smushed down all my tears so I wouldn’t cry, even happy cry, in front of a bunch of strangers.

That, was my first 50 miler.

And my last. At least, that was what I told myself on the drive home that evening. Well, I don’t think I’ll every need to do that again, I thought with a good amount of confidence. How long does it take to forget the feeling of ragged mush muscles set on fire? Mmm, about 24 hours.

That, was my first 50 miler.

And my last.


Things learned:

-Last doesn’t feel that bad. I knew my training was good and I was well within the time frame of finishers over the years. Other than that, eh, whatever. Last- someone has to be.

-Learn to eat real food for ultras. I ate gels and I ate real food. I wouldn’t describe myself as gel-dependent. I ate maybe 5 before my stomach bonked, but I blame the gels 60% (Gorgers, I’m looking at you for that other 40%). I hate peanut butter sandwiches, but I think I need to learn to love this ultra staple.

-Pacer doesn’t necessarily mean pacer. Spirit guide, I believe is much more accurate. I always kind of knew this (trying to “pace” runner brother often turned into “try to be upbeat, not annoyingly so, and don’t feel bad he is super grumpy”), but now I understand it.

-Anyone can quit. I wanted to quit. But, no one signs up for 50 miles so they can learn what it feels like to quit.

I signed up to push at the expanse of what I thought I was physically capable of. 26.2 miles is a number I had come to know. It had structure and tangible edges- a beginning, a middle, and an end. 50 miles? I stood at a race start three years ago and told myself that I would never be one of those people. That there were some special people out there who could accomplish something as unfathomable as that and that I was wise enough to know I would never be one of them. Three years ago was before my first half marathon. Three years ago, was before my first marathon, before I knew the size, and shape, and scent of a marathon. Three years ago was before I realized that the best leaps of faith, test your faith in yourself.

Not letting my embarrassment or insecurity get the best of me has been something I felt I never quite got the hang of, even after all these years of sobriety. Finishing this race, even with the loop of pain and misery and doubt in all its ugly rawness (sorry you had to witness that mister!) I realized that not every journey, whether on the trails or off, is picture perfect or goes according to plan, but that doesn’t render it worthless.

The First Ultramarathon, Part 1: Getting to 60K

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.

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 own 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.

trails ultra running cat's tail marathon

Catskills this summer. (two charlie’s pictured) Photo via Cat’s Tail Marathon

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.


Part 2: Going 60K

Part 2: Taper Sadness

For my first Marathon, this past spring, I experienced the Taper Madness for the first time. I had a slight foot injury and was trying to balance a light 3 week taper with not exacerbating my ankle problem. I felt like I was going crazy between tapering, trying to heal, and pre-marathon anxiety. And thus, “Taper Madness “ was born.

Marathon Training

This time around, I had entered into a period that could only be described as “Taper Sadness.”

Since the debacle on Staten Island, I was on a strict fast and furious regiment of…. rest. Rest. Ice. Hobbling. And…. more rest. No running for me whatsoever. Is that even technically a taper? My one goal at this point was to banish the knee pain into oblivion with the hope that I could test it out on a run during the Poland Spring Marathon Kick Off 5K, one week before The Marathon.

For nearly two weeks my knee would ache after merely being on my feet, which was frequently unavoidable since I waitress.

Ice, Ice baby….

I did a light mile jog to pick up my bib on Oct 25th, for the Kick Off. It was not terrible, but it still hurt. I made the decision to forgo the race so I could squeeze in more healing time. A zero mileage taper would be far from ideal, but no marathon would be a nightmare.

And so I officially DNS-ed my first race.

I picked up a knee brace at Jack Rabbit. I’m not a medical expert by any stretch of my imagination, but the braces always seemed to me a bit of wishful thinking hocus pocus. Obviously, I was desperate.

Lo and behold, I should have bought that thing weeks ago. It mushed everything in just right and all week it was like having a little miracle hug my knee in all the right places. One of my co-workers saw it and said “Isn’t that thing great? I’m wearing one on each knee right now. And I run with them.”

Where was this information all my life? I thought. I am but an infant in the vast ocean of running related knowledge.

New york city tcs marathon expo

On Thursday, I sprang out of bed and limped over to the TCS New York City Marathon Expo. It was bittersweet. I had dreamed of attending as a marathon entrant for more than a year, but now I felt like an impostor since I wasn’t sure if I was actually going to be healthy enough to run. It was incredible though and I tried to imagine that everything would be fine when I did the Dash to the Finish- that my knee would be great and I could finally put my head in The Marathon 110%.

Dash to the Finish

Saturday morning, as my family was in the middle of a 5 hour drive to the city for marathon spectating, I prepared for the Dash to the Finish. The race would be cold and wet. Quite wet.

We kicked off in front of the United Nations and almost immediately my knee began to ache. By the time I had finished at my “nice and easy” pace of 10 mins/mile, I was devastated. The last thing mile as we passed the mile 26 banner all set up for the marathon, I thought: There’s no way I’m going to see that sign tomorrow because I’m not going to be able to do the marathon.

As I funneled out with the finishers, I skipped the water and snacks; I couldn’t run fast enough to even get thirsty, and the more I thought about my diminishing marathon prospects the more I felt sick to my stomach.

I called the Mister and began to cry as I told him I wasn’t sure I should try to run tomorrow. I thought I would know with certainty what my knee would be capable of, and I didn’t. I thought I would know 100% whether to run or not run, but I didn’t.  I prepared for over a year and a half, and my family was already en route, for a Marathon that probably wasn’t going to happen for me. I was devastated.

Moreover, my Runner Brother has been dying for years to run NYC and I desperately wanted to gift my bib to him (so he could enjoy the race, and my family wouldn’t have driven for nothing), but NYRR strictly prohibits any sort of bib transfer. Period. So realistically, not much of an option.

The Mister and my family basically advised: 1.) Listen to your body, if you can’t run, that’s ok, you’ll do the race one day. It’s not worth permanently injuring something. 2.) If you think you can at least try, at least try.

I agreed with #1, though it wasn’t very palatable.  #2 made a lot of sense in theory, but I hesitated because I felt like everyone was underestimating the key element of my own stubbornness. If I started, I would want to push it as far as I could, as long as I could, no matter how bad my knee got (a la the Staten  Island ½ Marathon). And since that was a day of poor decision making culminating in one of the most excruciating days of my life, I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn what was supposed to be my marathon dream into my marathon nightmare.

I told my brother “Best case scenario, my knee manages to hold together for 26.2 miles but hurts the whole way and I still spend every minute of that run on an emotional roller coaster waiting for it to all fall apart.”

Ultimately, I told everyone that I would try. I would see what happens, but to know ahead of time if I drop out, it’s because the knee is bad bad bad. Either I run it and finish, or I drop out in Brooklyn and we all go to lunch.

I told everyone my mantra would be, I WILL drag my body through every borough of this city.

And just like that, it was on.

tcs new york city marathon expo

Part 1: The Beginning of the End

At last, the New York City Marathon has come and gone. The last month has been crazy with training (and not training- more on that) so I will begin at the beginning of the end.

Staten Island.  October 12, 2014.

The plan was to complete my last long run in combination with running the Staten Island Half Marathon.

My Mister drove me to Staten Island where we parked near the start line around 7:00 am. That left me with about and 1 hour and 15 minutes to squeeze in a comfy 7 miles before getting to my corral. I set off along the course route and ran 3 ½ up towards the Verrazano, before turning around and returning. I was encouraged by the dozens and dozens of runners also adding in miles along the same route- we were all marathon bound and this was our final training stretch!

staten island running

Now the thing is, I had run Grete’s Great Gallop ½ Marathon the previous Sunday and experienced an odd twinge of pain in my left knee. I’ve never had any sort of knee pain, running or otherwise, and it shook out quickly during the Gallop even as it ebbed and faded during the Gallop so I didn’t give it much thought. Until now. During these 7 miles it was back. And it wasn’t exactly shaking out. It was a general pain that tightened as I rolled through strides on my left leg.

I returned to the start area around 8:15 right on schedule and regrouped with my mister as we headed towards the corrals.

Staten Island 1/2 Corral

The Mister tells me, “Make sure you step on home plate when you finish.” I told him “I’m feeling good, but I’m not sure about this knee. If I’m not on schedule during the ½ it’s because I’m having major issues. Major issues.”


The race began, and a FDNY fire boat kicked off the celebration in rare form.

fdny fire boat

Also in rare form, my knee which was already in twice as much pain as I had experienced that morning.  This is mile 1. 12 more to go, right?

It got worse, and worse. By mile 3, I was seriously considering stopping, calling the Mister, and getting the heck out of there. I have no clue what is wrong with my knee, hypothetically I have a Marathon in less than 1 month, and this is the now or never time for my last long run, the ever important 20 mile threshold. And the Mister woke up early on his day off and drove me out to Staten Island to see a Half Marathon.  If I wanted to do an everyday, plain Jane, sub-par distance training run I could have just gone to Central Park and at least he could have slept in. At least this is what is going through my mind since I can be tough on myself to the point of plain old foolishness.

So I continued. And hobbled. And walked. And welled up with tears as my marathon future flashed before my eyes and disappeared into a blur of ace bandages and ice compresses.

Near Mile 7, someone  came up behind me as I was walking and choking back tears yet again. He put his hand on my back, “You’re ok. What we’re going to do is run two of those lamp posts. “ He was still running and began to pull me too,  “I have two fake knees!” he added and I thought, “jeez, the universe is really laying it on heavy. If he is smiling with two fake knees and can give this another go.” So we began to run. I learned his name was Tommy, he was from Staten Island, and his current goal was to run a marathon on every continent.

Later that afternoon, I would actually discover via the Staten Island Advance that this was local legend Tommy Hart. And I couldn’t have been more gracious to experience such selfless encouragement from someone who clearly represents the best in our running community.

We passed a flock of the famous Staten Island turkeys. Too cool. We wondered together where in god’s name the turnaround was. Altogether we ran about 2 miles together until we parted.

At this point my knee is howling. Real bad. I have no clue what is wrong with it, or if I should even try to keep running on it. It hurts just to walk and half of the time when I try to start running again it is excruciating and impossible to put weight on it.

And all of these thoughts keep going through my head:

Even if I can’t run any more, shouldn’t I walk to the finish? But I’m still 4 miles out, won’t that take too long? They will close the course. So you want to quit because you’re embarrassed? Do you want to quit because of knee safety or pride?

And I couldn’t answer that last question so I kept going. I was so far off of my normal time bracket and falling deeper and deeper into the field of participants. And at first, it pains me to say, my pride was wounded. I was walking a lot, I was nowhere near a time I was prepared to deal with, and I imagined every single spectator judging me. It takes guts to be slow, I thought. And I thought some more, I’m an ass for even trying to define what I think is slow. A real asshole that completely undermines everything that is beautiful and meditative and, I hate to use the word, uplifting about running. I have always known running isn’t all about a number, but then again I’d always been fairly satisfied with my performance and, similarly, my time. This was uncharted territory for me and I learned what lies beyond is an experience far more evocative than running for a number.

On the topic of numbers though, this it what 13 miles of pain looks like with Grete’s Gallop as control data.

compare #2

And with wounded pride, a busted knee, and an entirely new view on running, I found mile 13.

finishing the Staten Island Half

I was, however, very disappointed to find that I could not, in fact, “step on home plate,” upon crossing the finish.