Monday, August 15, 2016

The Beast

"Runner discretion.  Please use runner discretion.   You will face adverse weather conditions, please use your discretion and keep yourself safe"  

That’s how the race directors start each pre-race meeting.  What they fail to realize is that the discretion of many of these runners should be questioned...thoroughly.

This race, which is really two races, is located north of Buffalo, NY.   Unfortunately, all of the stereotypes about Buffalo weather hold true.   We get snow.  We get bitter cold.  We get melting summers.   And, in the minds of the two race directors, we get the Beast of Burden.

The Beast, is run in both the winter and the summer.   In order to get the coveted “Double Buckle” you must run both.  In that order.  In the same year.   There are no exceptions.  The Beast doesn’t want to know your sob stories or excuses.

It sounds easy enough.   The course is pancake flat.  There is only one road crossing.  The only other obstacle you will encounter is a lift bridge used to cross over the Erie Canal.   In the summer, this bridge may cost you a few minutes when a boat requires it to be raised.   You’ll hear the alarm.   It is your discretion to hurry and cross, or take a  quick rest break.

That’s it.  The Erie canal is on one side of the gravel path, and civilization is on the other.   But the Beast lies in those 6-10 feet in between.   There is no shade.  In the summer, you will have no cover from the relentless heat.   In the winter, the snow will swirl around the frozen canal, and attack.  The wind will find you in both seasons.   It has no discretion.

The Beast also boasts  the worst two miles of ultrarunning.   The course runs on one side of the canal, where a runner can see the start/finish on the other.   Runners must run a mile, cross the bridge (hopefully, without an extra wait period) and return on the other side of the canal.  Music from the lively aid station can be heard the entire time.   You are so close to where you want to be, but the Beast will get in your head, before it lets you get there.

I have run over 800 miles on this course.  I possess two “Double Buckles”.  I have PR-ed and I have finished at the back of the pack.   I took first place in a 24-hour division, when such a thing existed, and I have DNF’ed, twice.   The Beast doesn’t care.  Sometimes, it lets you win, other times it fights you with all it’s got.   

The Beast boasts of the challenges it will set before you.   Every starting line will be filled with stories of “adverse weather” the Beast has concocted.   The first year, there was a blizzard that closed schools for several days.   We here in Buffalo don’t close schools often.  This past running, in August, had temperatures in the high 90’s with a heat index over 100.  As the race directors say, “We have never cancelled a Beast, and this will not be the first time”.

There have been windstorms, ice storms, hail, blinding heat, dry lightning, and thunderstorms. I think if you listen closely, at around 2 am, you can hear the Beast laugh.  I know I’ve heard it.

In the winter there are snowmobilers.  In the summer, boaters.   All carrying on life and enjoying the elements.   You will be forced to watch as you slog along the 12.5 mile path, do an about-face, and repeat until you have completed four loops.

While the Beast will attack you with the elements, it does allow for some relief.   There is a pirate ship playground a homeowner has serendipitously parked on the race course.  It has become an unofficial requirement to grace the slide.   Aid stations are not only stocked with the kindest, most-helpful perennial volunteers in the business, but in the summer, they offer you a sno-cone, in the winter, a warm fire pit.   Camaraderie is second to none.  The adage that misery loves company is not lost on the Beast.

Many fail to cross the Beast’s finish line.   Some only choose to run in one season, stating that the other is “too hard”.  Some try, time and time again, only to fall victim to the Beast’s warped sense of entitlement.   Some take it on every time, and face the challenges with vigor.   No matter the circumstances that leads to the end of your race, be it DNF or finish line, the Beast will challenge you, and it doesn't’ care about runner discretion.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

113 Miles on the Appalachian Trail

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  Teddy Roosevelt

Natalie is away at camp for two weeks.   Noah is busy with his job, training, and girlfriend.  Mark has muscle-show prep, work and a certification he is working on.  There was no need for me to be at home.  In fact, it seemed like Mark  was trying to get rid of me.   “You don’t have to rush back, ya’ know…” Ok, I got it, pose away.  I know those tans aren’t going to spray themselves on.

I had the priceless gift of time.

I set off for the Appalachian Trail.   The inspiration came from the most unlikely place, a Regents exam.  NYS does not allow us to see the exam before the students.  Normally, it is quite boring, and I feel like I am reading paint ingredients to disinterested students.   This time, it was about the Appalachian Trail, and I was enthralled.   My friend Jen caught me after the exam.   I don’t remember her exact words, but  they were something like, “I know you read the ELA.  When are you going?”.  I told her I had no idea what she was talking about.   She told me I had a crappy poker face.  

A couple days before I left, Natalie, my sister-in-law Barb, and I went hiking.   Barb recently had a serious surgery, and I wanted to stick with her.  I told Nat to take the lead.  “Mom, I don’t know how”.  She protested.   “Follow the blazes, set a good pace, and watch out for what is around you” was my reply.  "What if something happens?" she asked. It did, she did great.  “Momma,  can you make your next blog about running for a different reason?”  I questioned her further.  “Mom, your trail trip is about the journey, not the finish line”.  How on Earth did I get lucky enough to raise this kid??

My first day was rough.  I was lost almost immediately after starting.  I know how to read a trail, but what was this off-set white blaze thing?   Omg.  What the hell was I doing?  Why was I doing this?   I could simply drive home.  I had to get ahold of myself.  I went with what I know.  I hiked back to my car, dropped my pack and switched out my shoes.   I went for a run.  Everything fell into place.   I feel in love with the trail.  Knowing I could go from Maine to Georgia on a very skinny national park, was surreal.   I was excited to get going.   I finished my run and was now ready to hike.   I did 25 miles that first day and slept on the trail.  

I spent the next few days pretty much off the grid.  I was solely responsible for the success or failure of my journey.   I am finding this blog very difficult to write, because in many ways, I was just a girl who went hiking and camping for a week, but in others, I was a woman who overcame fears, made both good and questionable decisions, became an element of nature, and and found beauty in the ruggedness and tranquility of parts of the planet, that others may choose not to experience.

I focused on the the journey.  I ran when I wanted to feel free and and at ease.  I hiked when I wanted to simply enjoy the the world that had enveloped me.   I stopped when tired.  I ate when hungry.   I diverted onto a blue blaze trail, simply because I wanted to.  I was alone, but rarely lonely.  This was not a race.  This was an opportunity,   In the end, I was able to traverse 113 miles.

I was married outside.  It caused a logistical challenge, but I was insistent that was what I wanted.  In fact, it was the ONLY aspect of the wedding that I pushed for.  I lost count of how many people questioned the validity of my choice  “What if it rains?” was the most common refrain.   “What if it doesn't?” was my reply.   It did rain.   I didn’t care.

I met with similar naysayers regarding this trip.   “What if something happens to you?”  (Usually followed by some gruesome story that the person had heard about) Something did happen to me.   I learned my backpack, hiking poles, and Deep Wood Off are  lifesavers.  I found a beach that felt like a mirage.  I took a shower under a waterfall.  I found trail logs with amazing personal journey stories,  My presence caused the flight of a flock of birds, that sounded like helicopters, and let me know I was the only human in the area. I found hidden views that seemed undisturbed from the day God made them. I climbed over boulders, traversed streams, across valleys and through miles of forest.  I got scratched, bruised, tanned and bug-bitten.  I got lost and found my way again.  I slept under a sky filled with more stars than I could ever wish upon.  I sat and watched fireflies, simply because they captivated me.  I know I need both my running shoes and my hiking boots.  "Follow the blazes, set a good pace and watch for what's around you" turned out to be pretty practical advice.  I smiled, laughed, swore and prayed.  I was alone, but I felt loved and supported, by those that matter most to me.  I experienced “trail magic”.   I learned that I want to do this again.  It may not be on the Appalachian  Trail, but then again, it might.   Because, like my daughter taught me, this was about the journey, not the finish line.