Saturday, March 24, 2018

Long, Cold, Miserable, Happy: My History at the Eastern States 20 Mile

"And no known drink
No known drug
Could ever hold a candle to your love" 
-Japandroids, No Known Drink or Drug

About a year ago, I had to face up to some tough realities. I was feeling a lack of motivation, I was in a bog of depression, I had gained a bit of weight but more than the physical stuff I felt drained emotionally. That was when I wrote this post about personal failings.

I didn't run the Eastern States 20 mile today. I've run that race for the past three years, and I truly love it. I love it even when I'm not using it to train for a spring marathon. It is a lovely course, and a point-to-point, which is pretty rare to find in the racing world. I'm not happy about not running it. I'm not really all that happy at all, anymore.

That was a tough time. I had a baby who had just learned to walk, was becoming super interactive, and the highlight of my life. I'd put on Japandroids No Known Drink or Drug and my daughter and I would dance around in the living room. If you've ever danced with a toddler, and you've seen the unbridled joy in their face when they recognize a song, you know the sweet melancholic joy I experienced in that. The recognition that you are so happy in that moment but also know that it is fleeting, and can never be lived again. I'd hear the song mid run and tear up at the somber and yet happy feeling.

Through the depression I was still happy to be where I was in life. I was just tormented by some harsh relationships, tough work life, and a lack of sunlight that affects New England for such a long time (always longer than I expect.)

I wanted to make a plan to come back from that depression, and I've worked really hard to make that a reality in the time since. I'm running regularly again, I had a successful holiday running streak. I've been monitoring the stuff that I eat (not really restricting anything other than calories.) I'm feeling a lot better, and my mood seems to be a lot better as well.

I'm getting ready to go back to the Eastern States 20 mile road race. I'm not really sure I've ever told the story of my history with the race, and I want to write that now.

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.” 
-William James

Back in 2013, having just run my first marathon in October, and then doing a holiday run streak, I was at a point in running where I had to make some decisions. Basically I could get into other sports, or I could stick with running as my primary outlet. But I knew I wasn't ever going to be anything big in running. I was too old, for one thing. Also, I'm not a tremendously competitive person by nature. I prefer collaboration.

So what I decided to do was to run races that seemed like fun, would offer me some good stories, or some interesting travel. I decided I'd look into some races that were in New England, and at different times of year. I especially looked into what I considered novelties: weird distances, weird combinations of events, trail races, obstacle courses. That was how I found the Eastern States 20 miler in 2014, and signed up to run it for my first time.

I had to get up pretty early to make the drive up to Hampton beach, which is about two hours from where I live. It was cold when I got up, and even though it can be pretty mild in the daytime in late March, overnights are usually brutal. I had a bag with some food, gear. I didn't know what I'd need to do the race, and I wasn't really sure how the logistics would play out. What I knew was that it was pouring rain. I mean, just absolutely torrential rain. The highway I lived on at the time was flooded as I drove out.

When I arrived at parking lot in Hampton beach, the school buses were already lined up. I had my printed bus ticket. I got onto one of the buses, having left my stuff at the car (I was too new to racing to really trust anyone with my gear if I checked it.) The race director, Don Allison got on the bus. I'd been really looking forward to meeting him, since reading his brief mention in Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. Don's a former editor of ultra running magazine, and he's a hell of a race director, too. He got on the bus. There were a bunch of us sitting there in seats, in our running gear.

"So who would rather drop down to the 10 miler?"

Some folks chuckled. No one raised their hands.

"People, I'm serious. If you want to run the 20 miler, that's fine. But if you aren't prepared for it, in these conditions, hypothermia is a very real risk."

OK, so that freaked me out a bit. No one raised their hands. I didn't raise my hand. He continued talking, and bandied around the word hypothermia a bit more. I went back to my car, grabbed another layer (a big orange hooded sweatshirt) and threw it on under my Brooks light jacket. Better safe than sorry, right?

The shuttle ride wasn't terrible, and we were soon at the school where the race would start. One of my acquaintances from Strava had planned on running the race as well, but I wasn't able to find him at the school. It would have been nice to pass the time talking to someone, but I opted to take a few warm up laps around the inside of the building instead. I was overhearing people talk about the rain, and hypothermia. Fun.

The states had an alternate course that year due to some bridge construction. It was still 20 miles but started at a different school and ended near to the casino at Hampton beach (instead of in Salisbury where it usually ends.) I didn't track the run on the app I was using at that time. I was nervous, I didn't know what to expect from the race, the weather, the course, and I just wanted to have fun.

We took off out of the school parking lot on foot. Overcast, decently cold, with an occasional gust of wind. Since I had opted not to track the run, I didn't really worry about anything other than just moving. Through the town, over bridges, eventually running with the beach on our left and at point long stretches of marsh on either side. I grew up playing in salt marsh, catching fish and chasing crabs, so it felt very much like being home. At around ten miles I stopped and asked a photographer who was taking pictures from the tailgate of an SUV where we were.

Warm, heavily layered, happy.

I was surprised to find myself half way done, and spent the next few miles with that same photographer playing "leap frog" as he'd drive ahead to get a photo or two, and then I'd pass him only to see him further on.

As we came into Hampton I remember the last couple of miles taking a toll on my legs. All in all I finished that year in about two hours and fifty six minutes. I was really proud of the accomplishment, and at the end went into the casino. I walked over to Don and shook his hand, and thanked him for a really great race. Moving was tough, as it always was after a run like that, but I was euphoric. I glowed for hours after I got home and hummed with an energy that irritated my wife.

“A man on a thousand mile walk has to forget his goal and say to himself every morning, 'Today I'm going to cover twenty-five miles and then rest up and sleep.”   
-Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

In 2015 I wanted to go back to see what the original course from Kittery to Salisbury was like. No construction that year. I imagined that with the weather having been so bad the first time out, there was always a chance that I'd get lucky and actually see the sun this time.

Same deal, up early. Get some coffee. Eat along the way driving up to the shuttles. This time there was a guy in the parking lot who asked me what the deal was with the buses. I recounted the previous year's experience, and my impressions of the whole thing. The guy was pretty amiable, and we ended up chatting on the bus on the way up. Then hanging out in the gym at the Traip academy, where I found out he was a previous winner of the event. He told me about how he was hurting, and had forgotten his gels, but Don had given the previous winners free entry to come and run the 20th anniversary of the event. "He wants us to make sure the overall winner comes in under two hours."

Nice guy. We chatted for the morning until the start of the event. I had a good run that year, coming in a six or seven minutes faster than the previous year. My acquaintance from the morning ended up coming in second overall. He did that in an hour and fifty-six minutes. So there you go, we both had good days.

That year I wore jean shorts over tights, which multiple people remarked on during the race. One particular gentleman from Australia saw me along the course a few times as we leap-frogged. He would stop and talking to me about running in jeans, chafing. He saw my Marine Corps Marathon jacket and we talked about that race, how much we loved it, and parts of the course we despised. It was a fun bit of camaraderie, where often racing in New England has you in with people who aren't super friendly or open to talking to strangers.

“Winning isn't about finishing in first place. It isn't about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.” 
-Kilian Jornet, Córrer o Morir

In 2016 I ran the ES20 because I was starting to see the race as a 'tent pole' to my running year. I wanted to get to a place where I'd run this race many times, and I was starting to feel at home in it.

I was also using it as a last long run before the Big Sur International Marathon, and a measure of my training to that point. It was a beautiful, if cold, day. Sun was shining, though. I was a bit over dressed for the race that year, wearing jean shorts over my tights. I also had a bag checked with some food and stuff for after the race -- a first for me at this race. I was running unsupported, so I needed to make sure I could take care of myself at the end.

I was impressed at how well I knew the course from the previous year, and all the landmarks along the way. I was wearing a pair of tights with running shorts over them, a lightweight brooks jacket and bandana. I think I had dropped my sunglasses somewhere along the way, which was a bummer. I also ran in the shoes I ran Big Sur in, so that was a good chance to test them out before the big race.

I remember feeling like the last two miles took me forever during that race, and I was so happy to cross the finish line. I started to over heat on the shuttle bus, but staved off fainting by downing some cold water from my pack.


“But it is a blessed provision of nature that at times like these, as soon as a man's mercury has got down to a certain point there comes a revulsion, and he rallies. Hope springs up, and cheerfulness along with it, and then he is in good shape to do something for himself, if anything can be done.”

-Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court


In 2017 I set an alarm, told myself I was going to get up and make the drive up to Hampton. The alarm went off, and I never got up to make the drive. I had to face the reality of the depression I was in, and 20 miles wasn't going to happen for me that day.

A few days later I got the news about running New York in November, and while that felt impossible in the midst of the doldrums, the months after that saw me covering distances, connecting with my running tribe, and eventually finding rebirth as an endurance athlete on the streets of New York, overweight and running in sandals. I've come to realize that like life, my running is going to have many years and many changes to it. I don't plan to stop doing this anytime soon. I've gained many benefits from it. So I have to allow that some years will be bad years, and some years will be very good years. I have to be patient with myself and my circumstances when things are down. I have to allow them space to change - to morph into something else.

Tomorrow I'm going back to the Eastern States. I've been running, I've covered 20 miles already this year, and I'm down 12 pounds. I'm not at my fighting weight, for sure, but I'm much better off and feeling so much stronger. I'm looking forward to making the drive up in the early hours, waiting for the shuttles and hanging out at the race start.

I've learned a lot, and I'm planning to use my previous experiences. We will see how successful I am, but my plan is three fold: to run for a time close to my course record, run from a place of strength, and cover the distance as a last long run before my April marathon. I'm planning to write a race review so I'll get into the details of my preparation, pre-race rituals, post race stuff there. Forecast looks decent for tomorrow, with an early two hour drive north for a long, cold, miserable, blissful day of running.

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