The True Gift The Ultramarathon Gives To The Worthy

STIF #61 podcast cover photo

We must keep moving forward.

There are so many contexts in which that statement is relevant. I’ve been saying it a lot lately in the gym, too – If you’re not moving forward, you’re going backward. This past weekend I learned, definitively, that despite what I thought… I was not moving forward. Despite running, jogging, walking and physically moving forward for 60 miles over the course of 18 hours… I was not moving forward. And in that… I learned something. It took me a few days to get it… but it did hit me. I learned the true gift the Ultramarathon gives to the worthy.

For the full chat on this check out the podcast episode on iTunes here, on Android here, or on the web player at the top & bottom of this post. Don’t forget to hit “subscribe”!

I realize how this sounds.

Let’s be real here – I already recorded the podcast episode that goes along with this blog. I’ve (literally) said what I had to say and I more or less let it fall out of my face for an hour however it wanted to. Sure, there were some bullet points and notes to keep me on track… but I know what happened and so do you. I got a little carried away. Sometimes, though, we need to allow ourselves to do that. Call it venting, or gushing, or “communicating openly” and “sharing your emotions”… whatever.

At the end of the day… sometimes we just gotta let it out. And that’s what I did on Episode 61 – loosely controlled verbal vomit. Did I make a point? Hell yes I did. Was it a good one? I sure like to think so. Did I get a little “woo woo / hippie / touchy feely” towards the end? Uhm…. yeah I guess so. But so what?! It is what it is. And what it is… is honesty. Painful, blunt, self-accountable honesty. It came in waves.

First was admitting the failure to launch.

This, unfortunately, has been a theme for me since I moved to Attleboro in March… but in the context of this race recap… it goes farther back. All the way to the start, actually. If I’m being honest with myself… I really just never got off the ground strong with my training. This has been a weak point for me for quite some time, and honestly I’m not entirely sure what sunk me to begin with. In the end, though, the simple truth remains – not only did I not train properly and follow my initial good intentions… I hardly trained at all. In a way, though… that sort of makes the finish lines I did reach this year that much more impressive. We’ll come back to that later.

Bottom line… despite what I may have achieved, as far as the goals I set… I more or less set myself up for failure. I think to go into much more detail on how and why I basically didn’t train would get too much into the realm of “excuses”… plus, I already did it on the podcast episode, so go listen there. It is what it is – a dumpster fire of a “prep”. And, well, once you’ve squandered a perfectly good training cycle by doing nothing… what’s left to do?

Now it’s time to waste an ideal race day!

Ghost Train base campHooray! Seriously, though – this is what you could call the actual “race recap” portion of the blog… and I have absolutely NOTHING but good things to say about Ghost Train 2017. I, and my fellow nutjobs who lined up at the start, could not possibly have asked for better conditions (in my humble opinion).

For a start – the weather was very moderate (a gift from up on high in and of itself). The daytime heat was pleasant, and not so hot as to cause enough sweat to lead to chafing issues and sunburn. The wind was just enough to provide cooling breezes. The night was cool, as one would expect, but didn’t chill you to the core. Sweatshirts, sweatpants, and extra layers, in general, were barely needed. Nary a cloud in the sky… and zero precipitation to speak of. All in all, the weather was really about as close to ideal as you could get.

The course was magnificent as well.

Yes, really – I’m not embellishing here. The Ghost Train Rail Trail Race boasts one of the friendliest, tamest (in a good way), and flattest (again, a good thing) ultramarathon courses out there. You could absolutely call it “beginner friendly”, and I was eternally grateful for that… both this year AND last. It seems an odd thing to say – “This is a great first 100 miler to run” – but there it is, and truth it be.

The course is a 7.5 mile stretch of rail trail between Camp Tevya in Brookline, NH and the Milford, NH DPW building. Along that stretch is some beautiful woods, an old rail bed, several road crossings and a lovely view of the night sky. Oh, and a big f*cking hill. Hey, I didn’t say there weren’t any challenging parts of the course. And, of course, you’ve got to get back to where you started, so with 7.5 out and 7.5 back you’ve got yourself a 15 mile out-and-back course. Rinse and repeat several times and you, too, can claim a 100 mile finish.

There were even improvements to the trail, new this year!

For those who don’t know – your entry fee for this event goes into some sort of conservation commission fund… which apparently goes right back into the very trail we run on for the race. The big improvement this year from that was the section of the trail where the rail ties used to be. I say used to because, for all intents and purposes… they’re “gone” now. No, they’re not REALLY “gone”, just buried under about a foot of crushed gravel, which both covered the trip-hazard rail ties and raised up the trail bed to keep it safe from future flooding (thanks to a nearby beaver dam). What we have now is a very runner-friendly well-groomed crushed gravel trail. So nice.

The other improvement? A freaking STAIRCASE where a steep hill used to be. Yes, on the far side of the course, closer to Milford than to Brookline, right before/after a road crossing (depending on which way you’re going) there was a very steep climb/descent up the side of the trail. It was a pain in the butt when you’re fresh and during the daylight… nevermind at night when you’re pooped. Apparently… an Eagle Scout, for his big project, built a staircase there to improve the trail. I think it’s lovely. Trail – great.

And my own running experience itself wasn’t half bad, either.

chugging along the trailI was able to chug along pretty reliably for the first 8 miles – kept a nice even, steady pace, was feeling great, and was on a roll. Then right around mile 8… my old pal the hamstring injury came back to say hi. Hit me mid-stride and I knew it was the beginning of a beautiful day. Honestly… I think I knew in the back of my head that was a bad omen of things to come… but I kept chugging along anyway. After all, I was there to claim a 100 mile finish… I can’t just tap out at 8 miles because I’m a-feared something baaad’s gonna happen. So, I persevered. And eventually, the hamstring issue settled down to something manageable I could run with. Heck, after long enough, I even forgot it was a thing. Lap 2 went about as smoothly as lap 1 did, all things considered.

The thing that sucked was crewing myself.

To be clear, I only had to crew myself at the Milford DPW turnaround – halfway into the course. Back at base camp the trusty, experienced crew of Mom, Dad, and FitWife Megan were ready and more than capable of handling all my needs in an efficient and speedy manner. At the turnaround, though… it was just me, myself and I. I took anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes to get in and out of that aid station. It was in these moments I learned another aspect of why your crew and pacers are so invaluable.

But, now’s not the time for regret and remorse – this is recap time. So, lap 3, too, passed relatively uneventfully. I spent a lot of time listening to podcasts. It was nice. Oh, and that was the lap I finally broke out my new Black Diamond Distance-Z trekking poles to attack the big hill with. They were magnificent. And eeeeeeeeeverything was great.

Until, of course, it wasn’t – on loop 4.

prepping to head outMy fourth time through the course began as any other – with sweet sweet hope and a positive attitude. There was one happy addition, too – FitWife Megan joined me as a pacer! At that point, honestly, I needed a smiling, positive face bounding along the trail next to me. Having her to keep me in good spirits and moving forward was really very helpful. What many people don’t realize is that your pacer can, during the course of an ultra endurance event, anchor you to the real world.

I cannot overstate how helpful that can be.

On that first half of the fourth loop… I finally, truly, hit my first (and only) “dark place” of the day. I think having Megan there may have helped me get out of it faster than I could have on my own. And out of it I did, in fact, get. And on we went – lap 4 went great and FitWife Megan was a huge help at the turnaround – she took care of my needs and we got the heck out of there.

The real problem came in the final third of the loop.

I had been progressively going slower and slower all day. So much so that I told FitWife Megan when she joined me “I’m going about 15 min/mile right now – that’s cruising speed now”. It was at this point, however, in the final 3rd of loop 4… that my speed all of a sudden took an even sharper drop. I reached a point where I could scarcely go faster than a moderate walk. The longer this went on… the more a very unfortunate, yet undeniable truth became apparent to me. I wasn’t going to finish 100 miles. I was still very mentally present, as I had eaten… so I was able to do the math. At that pace, and at the pace I could maintain… I simply wasn’t going to move fast enough to complete laps 5 and 6 fast enough to start the final 10 mile loop before the cutoff.

I cannot describe how disappointing that revelation was.

Up until that point… I truly thought I could squeak it out. Dealing with this letdown… a disappointment the likes of which I had never experienced in my brief yet illustrious running career… was less than fun. I felt like such a failure. I felt embarassed and guilty for dragging my family out here to sit all day and all night for me to, ultimatley, not finish the whole enchilada. Megan helped me process some of it… but I had to deal with most of it on my own, as you would expect. And so, we came into Camp Tevya, I crossed the mats for the last time, and we broke the news to my parents. Then we all collapsed in the cars to sleep since the portable heater for the brand new tent had decided to stop functioning.

Out of this crushing blow, however, came a profound awakening.

It took a few days for me to get it… but eventually, I did get it. I keep saying you learn a lot when you run an ultramarathon… and I stand by that. I would, however, like to expand on that. Now I believe there is a deeper level to it… a “true gift”, so to speak, that the ultramarathon also gives, but only to those who are “worthy”.

See, we do, of course, always learn something when we run an ultramarathon. Be it big or small, profound or subtle… we always learn something. You’re simply out there with nothing but your thoughts, the trail, and nature for way too long not to learn something. And sometimes, yes, that something you learn is so profound in its own right that simply knowing this new thing changes your life. The fact that you now understand this new truth… you see things differently, you experience life differently, and it automatically and irrevocably changes how you function on a day to day basis. How you live your life is instantly changed.

Not everything we learn and gain from an Ultra does that, though.

Some lessons are more like a key, or a combination. You need more than just the key or the combination to open the door. You need to know what door… what lock the key opens… and you need to know how to use that key, how to put in that combination… in order to unlock the lock and open the door… unseal the box… reveal the new truth and way of life that waits for you on the other side.

bin, bib, and the aftermath

That, I think, is the true gift of the ultramarathon.

I think that those of us who are, for whatever reason, deemed worthy, are given that very thing. We are given the knowledge necessary to apply this new thing we’ve learned to our lives in a meaningful and practical way. By this, we are able to behave differently and, effectively, change our lives.

And that, I think, is what happened to me as a result of the Ghost Train Rail Trail Race 2017.

Now, I’ve just yapped at you for about 2,500 words… and while I’m happy to share what exactly it is that I learned and was able to apply to my life… Well, if you want to get a peek at the gift I was given, you’ll just have to listen to Episode 61 of the So THIS Is Fitness podcast, won’t you? It’s worth it 🙂

For the full chat on this check out the podcast episode on iTunes here, on Android here, or on the web player at the top & bottom of this post. Don’t forget to hit “subscribe”!

What’s in this episode:

  • We recap the Ghost Train Rail Trail Race Ultramarathon
    • Talking about the lead-up
    • The race day experience itself
    • And the lessons learned afterward…
      • Including – where do we go from here?

Interested in working with Darrell?

If you don’t live in Attleboro, or don’t have an Anytime Fitness near you… consider working with Darrell anyway! Darrell is accepting Virtual Training Clients – it’s about as close as you can get to working with him one-on-one in person without actually BEING in person. If you’re ready to make a change and have it stick, e-mail Darrell@SoTHISIsFitness.com for more details.

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