Don’t stop. Walking is okay, but not stopping.
This is going through my head as I pass a man who has stopped on the trail, ahead of me. He has stopped, and his pack is off, and he looks pretty beat.
“Are you okay?” I ask as I run by (not stopping).
“Yeah, just gotta have something to eat.” he says unconvincingly, as if he doesn’t himself believe it.
“Okay! Good run!” I holler, squeezing past him on the narrow trail, careful not to crowd him, as if the stopping were catching. I feel bad. I have been running behind him for about two miles, and could feel him starting to wither as I got closer and closer. But I can’t stop, and even if I could, I am not sure it would help his race any. We are at mile 16 of the Wakely Dam Ultra, and the past three miles were a major change from the first 10. The trail went from lovely flowy fairly flat non-technical to suddenly muddy, narrow, overgrown, and hilly. This is my first Wakely Dam and I have been training for this for most of the year. So far, the trail has been less threatening, less remote, and less challenging than any of my long training runs in Connecticut and Rhode Island have been. I move along the trail and think about this and think about the task at hand. No stopping, not even for the views.
This all started last year on a trip up to the Adirondacks with Tom. I was training for my first trail ultramarathon that would happen in October. In September, Tom and I camped at Buck Pond Campsite and ran an old railbed into Saranac Lake and back (22 miles – the longest I’d ever run on trails.) While we were there, I had read there was an 80K taking place that weekend for both mountain biking and running (the ADK 80K). We drove to find the festivities but found none. When I got back, I tried to look up the results, which showed only a handful of runners. I thought, hey, I could do that maybe? And looked to see where to sign up. Nothing online. I e-mailed the bike shop that put the event on and didn’t hear back. In the meantime, in my online travels, I saw a blog post about the Wakely Dam Ultra – a 55K on the Northville-Lake Placid trail, in one of the most remote sections of the Adirondack Park. Hm. A 55K. That’s like, 34ish miles? I could do that, maybe? I thought. Here I hadn’t even run my first ultra yet, and I was already planning my second (thanks, Gail.) The addiction had begun. I put the registration lottery date on my calendar and forgot about it for awhile.
In the meantime, I ran my first 50K ultramarathon (Pinnacle Trail Ultra in Newport, NH) and loved it. Pinnacle starts with 13.1 miles on a riverside doubletrack trail, flat and lovely. It then ascends (and descends) two little mountains. I came in at 6:30 and third in my age group, and like a fish-monkey, I was hooked. After that I unsuccessfully chased a Boston qualifier at three marathons (Baystate, Raleigh Rock-n-Roll, and Maine Coast) never feeling that love I felt as I ran on the trails at Pinnacle. I was also neglecting my bike, big time. My mountain bike is growing cobwebs. But I got in to Wakely and so Wakely was my focus and so I had to concentrate on spending my time on trails.
Biggest issues with me are mostly mental. Anyone who does any sport knows what this monkey is saying. And unless you are devoid of human emotion you understand that we are our worst critics always, and more often disappointed post-race in our “performance” than pleased as punch in our accomplishment. This has been my bugaboo. That, and so, so competitive. I hate that I am slow, even if I do get to smell the roses. It makes me think back to high-school track (average) and cross country (average) and field hockey (below average) and gym class (no flexibility). With trail races though, it “feels” less disappointing, because the best part of being out on the trail is being out on the trail. In my training runs, often harder than the events themselves, I beat myself up over my wimpiness, my lethargic short legs, my lack of umph up hills, my ease and giving in. On the other hand, I also know that I endure. I endure and endure. This is a trait shared by many ex-smokers and ex-partyers and drunks. Dude, we are so willing to put up with shit. We got stuff done with raging hangovers. We showed up despite messed up priorities and severe self-pity. That whole former drunk thing is for another post. But let’s just say that being one gave me some skills that have come in handy as a trail monkey. I know how to not stop, to keep going, even if I walk, I walk with purpose.
This is what Wakely is, in a nutshell: I woke up at 3:15 a.m. on Saturday, picked through my laid-out clothes and gear while letting my oatmeal get mushy (Tom heated me water the night before and put it in a thermos.) I popped an Airborne into a bottle of water. I peanut-buttered a bagel. I gathered my crap, threw on a hoodie, and crossed the campground to another site where a couple of guys were also getting up to go up to Piseco Airport, where we would pick up the bus to Wakely Dam. Once on the bus, I sat window-seat on the left to look out the window into the dark. Another runner I had met the night before at the dinner sat next to me and we talked dogs. I asked his anticipated finish and he said, “I don’t know, I have to wait until five miles in before I decide on pace” and when he said that, and just by looking at him, I guessed he would be long done before I crossed the line. “Have an awesome race!” I said, and grinned, and meant it. My whole plan was to get as alone as possible. I don’t like running with other people. I am a very social person (it is forced, from a childhood of eterneal geekiness and shyness overcome by being weird and dorky and as friendly as possible, like a monkey) but I don’t’ talk when I run. I also worry too much about other runners and whether I slow them down or run too fast. Especially on trail. Tom, who loves his monkey, is extremely understanding about this and knows me very well. He will run ahead and come back and scoop me up in a return. It took awhile but I love running with him, now, even though he is so fast and I am jealous of his fasty fastiness. But good, I think, because competitive monkey needs to chase.
Out here at Wakely, I have no Tom to chase. He is too smart to run more than 15 miles. After 15 miles, the body is like, why, why whyyyyyyyy. Some of us like this. I like this. Tom does not. But he has been game and has run many 15+ mile training runs with me. So, he has not signed up for Wakely and I am not sure where he is when I am at mile 16 but he is definitely on my mind. He is saying, in my head, “just keep going. Don’t stop. Walk when you eat. Walk fast, with purpose.” What’s funny is he wouldn’t say it that way. He’d just say, “pfft, stop? Why would you stop? It’s a RACE!” Or something like that. But in my monkey head, he is Coach Tom, and he is saying in a very coach-y voice, things like, “be the trail. Own the trail. Eat the trail.” All I know is I paid good money to be here, and I’d better freaking run when I can run.
So back to the race. The bus drops us at Wakely Dam, and I run over to the rustic outhouses and stand in line. In line, I meet the sandal guy (he ran last year and this year in a pair of thin Keen sandals) and we talked about the Lake Placid marathon and gravel. Even though he has gray hair, he has the air of a 12 year old boy. Ultramarathoners tend to be like that. They haven’t lost that joy of just being outside. In too short a time, we are hustled over to get a group photograph at the dam, and then before we know it, we start, up a dirt road and into the forest.
The first miles were quiet. I felt the weight of my pack. It felt good, actually. By this time, I had trained a lot in it and knew although it was sluggish, it didn’t bounce and carried all of the things that made me happy. Like a big security blanket. A bottle of water with NUUN on one boob, a filtration bottle (Katydyn), empty (cuz why carry water when I’m just going to filter stream water with it?) on the other; a full 1.5 bladder (leaking down my shorts) on my back; a tiny first aid kit just in case, a tiny folded up emergency poncho, a clif bar, two bags of homemade GORP (salted raisins, peanut butter pretzels, peanut m&ms, figs, walnuts), a KIND bar, a poptart in its wrapper, extra NUUN tablets, a slim jim end left over from a training run, some bandaids, a lucky feather. No phone. Forgot the compass and map. I am trusting the trail markers (inadvisable, but then, there are 66 others out there with me, and one main trail with blue discs…) For 6 miles of the first forgiving, easy, pine-needle covered single-track, I am running behind a young spritely girl with a blonde ponytail under a jaunty orange kerchief who is elusive and faster than me, and a guy with an Angry Birds jersey on who has hair whipped up just like an angry bird and who, it turns out, I am maybe a little faster than. I use him to keep my pace going out slow, but pass him when the trail opens a little. I do not catch up with the kerchiefed sprite. Chasing her, I notice I am alone and not seeing any blue discs, anywhere. I run down a long hill. No blue discs. The trail narrows. No blue discs. I wonder if I should stop. No stopping. I stop. I turn around. I look for blue discs going the other way. No discs. I start running back up the hill. I see a couple of guys (not Angry Bird, who must have gotten passed again) and ask. I am on the right trail, says Mike, a veteran. I thank him and bolt back down the trail. For the next few miles, it’s just me again, and I finally see some blue discs. At that point I slow to a walk to eat real food (not GU). I basically alternated GU on the hour (half a package) and NUUN with real food on the half hour. Systematically. Like a monkey-robot. Beep! Eat a GU. Beep! Eat some food. Real food. Thank god for GORP. My stomach cooperated nicely and everything felt like a well oiled monkey-machine. EXCEPT. Monkeys are sloppy sometimes, and one of my half eaten GU packages went upside down in my vest and was GUing up the entire left side of my self. But, no stopping. I fished for the GU and it wouldn’t come out of the pocket, so I grabbed a leaf in passing and slapped it on the pack over the GU-glue, and it stuck. Problem solved. Smart monkey.
The miles ticked by. A really gorgeous trail. It got harder, more technical, but I felt pretty good because in training, we did all that. We did mud, water crossings, rocky eroded trail, narrow grassy overgrown missing-disc trails, shale, hot no-shade days, mountains, boring riverside flats. Tom was in my head just ahead, his orange jersey and green sneaks plopping along through the washed out swampyness of mile 11. If he can do it I can do it I thought like a child-monkey, and then laughed, because he wasn’t doing it, I WAS. I passed some more guys. I was anxious because I wasn’t passing any girls, and that made me kind of pissed, because why were they faster than me? Well, they just are. The guys I was passing did not look like really super fast guys but I still felt a little chuffed passing them, if only to get the trail to myself again for a few miles. I passed some hikers and the guy goes “You are in the top 55” and I was like, uh, out of 68ish? I’d better get a move on.
There are no aid stations at Wakely Dam ultra. They joke that there is beer at Aid Station #1 (the finish.) This section of the NLP trail is in one of the remotest sections of the Adirondacks. As I ran, I thought that there are not many folks who get to see this. There are us crazy ultra monkeys and there are through-hikers, and that is about it. If I get hurt, if I can’t finish, there is no paddy wagon. You go in one end, out the other. Unsupported. No whiners. So in my head, I’m like, keepmovingkeepmovingkeepmovingkeepmoving. No camera to take pictures of very pretty very remote swamp or rising sun in the mist or flowy singletrack or selfie going SEE? I AM DOING THIS! Just movingmovingmoving as it all flows by. I walk the ups but it is walking with a purpose and I multi-task. I eat, drink, or when given the chance, fill my filter bottle on the fly (I filled it three times and drank every last drop.) My feet are coated in diaper creme (it works) under Injini toe socks and black all purpose CVS diabetes knee-socks, and they keep getting wet but I am not worried, I keep moving. My digestion is happening correctly but I only need to pee once, and do so (stopped) behind a tree, quickly getting back on trail and movingmovingmoving. The trail goes up, down, up, down, up, down during miles 16-22, relentlessly. I pass a couple of guys. “Nice pace!” one yells. Monkey machine. My head is all weird old Cars tunes, memories from out of nowhere, birds’ eye view imagined of my route (which I saw Tuesday after hiking up Snowy Mountain, which overlooks the very wilderness I had run just days before) and math problems. Actually, they got annoying and slowed me down some. The day got warmer. As rumored, there was an impromptu Aid station (family of a runner hiked in 17 miles with water, candy bars and motivational signage) and it went by like it was happening to someone else. Oh, this happened last year according to someone’s blog was my thought. Thoroughly out-of-body. It was in no way weird to me that this Dad guy and Mom lady were 17 miles into the wilderness at a lean-to offering me Kit-Kats and telling me “more than halfway there!” I ran on.
I had also read (and did my homework) that the last 10ish miles were all downhill. This was good in my head. Mike, a guy we ate dinner with who has run this many times before, warned that the last 8 miles were rock wash and root, albeit downhill. So I was prepared. Because this is what Rhode Island trail is all about. RHODE ISLAND REPRESENT! I pulled out my pocket Killian Jornet (soooo glad I watched that video of him blowing down the side of a rocky hill at Western States) and bombed down hill after hill, falling twice (and yes, bloodied that knee again.) Uphills became “walk breaks” between wild flies down long, rocky dry streambeds. I ate my last GU and was suddenly thirsty all the time. I was at mile 25. My watch threatened low-battery mutiny. I felt awesome. Watch gave at mile 26 and so I started counting. This was not as machine-easy as the watch beeping at me, and I also lost count and had to start over a lot, resulting in some weird moments of out-of-body trail chicanery, unsure how many miles had gone by and whether this thing would ever freaking end. Doug, the RD, had said to look for the Piseco XC ski path and not take that but take the SECOND one where he placed a blue ribbon. After the first Piseco XC sign (it was flat again, so I was waning on the euphoria front) it seemed eons, EONS! before any sign of a second… so long that I thought surely I had missed it, and then, finally, finally, the little blue ribbon. I was nearing the finish. The re-route took us along a never-used XC ski double track with knee-high grasses and swampy(?!) grabby reeds and prickers. Ah fuck. In the last mile? Rilly? Siriusly? But whatever. I though, oh gosh, I just completely wasted an awesome run worrying about being on schedule and it just went by and now it is almost over. I was a little sad. Until I got to the airport, and was to follow a marker string along (but not ON, not really near) the runway. Through uneven, uncut meadow grass, something I had not really trained on, on a big open field, with a slate, hot sky above and little tiny figures moving way off in the distance at the finish line. Okay, I thought, just put your head down and run. You are almost done. I chugged along. Tom said that at this point he could see me in the distance and even though he had no idea what I was wearing when I left the tent that morning, he told RD Kim, “that’s number 33. I know her… stride.” (because I waddle.) I looked up to see RD Doug on a mountain bike by some orange cones and am momentarily confused because JUST ACROSS THE RUNWAY is a small crowd yelling and waving at me. I make a gesture, like, do I cross the runway? And they are like, NO! NO! and point at Doug. I run to Doug as he rides around a big hoop of orange cones. Okay, I think, this is one of those sucky-through-the-parking-lot-to-add distance things… I can do this. And they are watching me so I’d better damn well run. No stopping. I chug, waddle, monkey plunge up the grassy last stretch to the finish line. First thing I hear from Kim is “congratulations! You finished!” and then to Tom, “she’s your problem, now.” I laughed. Someone gave me water. I walked and walked, past the finish, Tom beside me, kept walking, no stopping.
Me three days after Wakely Dam Ultra, at the summit of Snowy Mountain, overlooking the Cedar Ponds wilderness where I had not stopped.