Friday, May 11, 2012

My Return To Ultrarunning

"You may be disappointed if you fail, but you're doomed if you don't try" - Beverly Sills

I ran my first ultramarathon back in '81 (no, not 1881) when I went to Leland, Mississippi and ran in the 1st annual Mississippi 50 Mile Run. Wasn't sure what I was doing and for sure didn't know why, except that two years removed from running my first marathon, I wanted to try a little longer. It was 36 loops around a park with two bridge crossings. Absurd as that sounds, following that race, I was hooked on long distance, but there wasn't much of those crazy-ass races around back then. Two months later, I ran in the 3rd annual Strolling Jim 40 Mile Run in Wartrace, Tennessee (this past weekend, they ran the 34th edition!). Throughout the next decade and a half, I ran road ultras, and it wasn't until 1997 that I ran my first trail ultra...a 50k in California. I did 50 miles, 100 miles, 12 Hour Runs, 24 Hour Runs, plus the dozens of marathons that I did mostly as a coach for TNT.

As has been too-well documented in this blog, my ankles started to rebel in the mid-aughts and in 2007, I ran my last Boston, and also ran my last ultramarathon. I was convinced I might never run another marathon under 5 hours (I have a PR of 3:03) or an ultra of any length again. Pretty hard slap to the back of the noggin for a guy who just LOVES to run long distance. Little things that I did for the ankles helped very slowly; chugging along like a truck trying to start on a cold morning. The storm clouds began to break a little and I began to run a little longer, but still doing less than 30 miles per week and all on road. The biggest jump that pushed me forward, unequivocally, has been buying a pair of Hoka One One shoes about 8-9 months ago and running in them exclusively. They have saved my running (slow as it is), to where each step is not a venture into discomfort that causes me to limp along. Maybe in a future blog, I'll talk more about Hokas, but, in February, because of them, I could do the Mercedes Marathon at a pace that would have gotten me under 5 hours (though other non-running circumstances put a dent in that and I finished in 5:19).

We have an annual 50k here at Oak Mountain in Birmingham in March that is quite technical. I've done this race 7 times in the a matter of fact, the OM50 was my last ultra back in '07, and I got some wild-hair idea I might be able to run it this year. So, I delved into the training, but once I hit the tough (not toughest) parts of the trail, I crashed like a raw egg hitting the floor. I was sure that was the do-or-die test and I was "all-in" on the die side. The ankles, Hokas or not, could not handle the roots, ruts, rocks, or hills that the OM trails threw at me. But, like everybody who has a baby or runs a long distance event, you have no memory, and I saw this entry for the Run For Kids Challenge 50k to be run in May. It was also at Oak Mountain, but on what me and my good buddy, Moha, call the "Sissy Trail". It is a 3.4 mile trail around OM Lake that we had run often. No killer hills, no creek crossings, no downed trees to go over or under. So, on a silver platter, here was handed to me 9+ loops on the semi-flat sissy trail that would lure me back to ultras (sissy or not, 31 miles is a long way!). So, we trained, running multiple laps, up to 20 miles, with varying degrees of feeling not-too-bad to holy-crap-I've-got-to-be-out-of-my-aging-mind. But, one week before the race, I reluctantly sent in my entry. I must say that through my many years of doing long distance runs, planning got to be fairly routine, but not this time. I planned more meticulously for this race than I can remember. (If you want to read about exactly the type of planning I did and how the race panned out from a run/walk/nutrition/heat adaptation/clothing, etc point of view, I've gone into more detail in my other blog, TRAINING WITH AL, so when you finish this, swing on over to there).

The goal I set for this race was very conservative, even too conservative for me, but what I told myself was an hour per lap, so I was thinking 10 hours if I was purely pedestrian, and between 9-10 hours as a realistic goal. Sub-9 was that A,#1 goal that would only happen if all went better than even I expected. Everything, of course, depended on how my "I-wonder-how-we'll-let-Al-run-today" ankles performed. Race day dawned with a forecast of close to 90 degrees, but I never felt anxious about it - control what you can and I felt I had prepared. Apparently, I had planned well because the laps went by without any ankle pain (sure, there was some soreness, but PAIN was the lightning bolt to avoid). The course was one that could be broken up very easily (after all, it was only 3+ miles long!) and the familiarity of each lap made the run feel more like it was pulling me instead of me pushing it behind me. I remember reading recently an article by Scott Jurek how he talked about running trails picturing himself like water in a stream bed just flowing along. That's how I felt much of the time and it's a feeling I haven't felt in a long, long time.

I ran basically alone, except for one lap with my good friend Ken, and one lap with Moha when his back was hurting. That allowed to me to just focus in the mile I was in. I knew from the 15 mile point that things were in my favor and I would probably have a good run. When I finished in 7:52, I felt like I had a great weight lifted - I was an ultrarunner again. I was an hour ahead of my A#1 goal and never felt like I was pushing into the danger zone. I had surpassed all my goals and I still felt good (as in still standing). I had no misgivings that this was an easy course. No, this was a 50k, no bones about it! And my fear of never doing a run like this again was dashed in the dirt.

I don't know what the future holds, but I got this one chance to put it together and see if I could do the distance with a fairly good result, and it worked. That's all I wanted, that one chance again and run with it. I will continue to work on these bad wheels I've got because I want to run down more trails, through more woods, around more lakes. I'm not ready to hang up these Hokas yet.

As much as I love to write, I find it very difficult to accurately put into words what this race meant to me. I have felt like my running has sorta fell off the Continental shelf the last few years - running competitively one day in marathons and longer, and suddenly stinking it up in just my daily short jogs. This wasn't exactly Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at bat kind of moment, but it was my moment, and I'll sure take it. Like I say to my trainees after they run their first marathon..."Nobody can ever take it away from you".

OK, new mindset, same body. Another finish line, same legs. Don't you just love to run? I'll see you on the roads - AL

PS - Don't forget to read the particulars of training and running the Run For Kids 50k at TRAINING WITH AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"


Gretchen said...

awesome Al! CONGRATS!! and just think of how fast you might have been if those annoying mtn bikers would have gotten out of your way! hehe

Al D. said...

Thanks Gretchen. Mtm bikers are just one of those things that make trail running interesting - like roots and snakes and holes. Just kidding. I really enjoy seeing you out there.

Yo Momma Runs said...

Looking up Hokas after this. I have to know! And every time I finish a race, it is the exact same feeling as having a baby. It must be all of the endorphins, but there is just a lot of love and gratitude and feeling close to your maker. And a tendency to forget all of the really miserable parts.

Congrats on your ultra comeback!