The 50-Mile Mountain

May 12, 2019 – The Next Day

As I drove home from Philadelphia on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I could not help but be reminded of the weekend I just had as my car radio blasted The Eye of the Tiger.  While the song played, the memories of the feat that I had accomplished the night before had resurfaced and made me forget momentarily about my unbelieveably tired and achy body.

Just like any Rocky movie where the Italian Stallion goes through a kick-ass training regimen that eventually leads to the Big Fight, the song reminded me of the many months that I had to endure during my training to attempt my first ultramarathon. Training that required me and my ultra-running comrades from the Prospect Park Track Club to run in single-digit temperatures in the middle of Winter, snow,  ice, pouring rain, and with constant tiredness that frequently affected our personal lives.  For me, the added challenge was training alone 98% of the time.  I had to develop the mental fortitude and focus to help get me through it all.

Last December, Coach Matt put together an Ultrarunners Training Group.  Training started on New Year’s Day and continued until the day before the big event.  While Mickey was Rocky Balboa’s coach, Matt was ours.  Rocky trained for the Big Fight.  Our Big Fight was the Dirty German 50-Mile Trail Race.

May 11, 2019 – Race Day

My memories of race day shot straight to the moment I lined up at the start.  There was a lot of electricity and excitement in the air coming from the other runners.  I, however, wasn’t feeling it.  A lot of self-doubt clouded my mind.  I wondered how the hell could I accomplish something like this.  Since I had never attempted an ultra-marathon before, especially one of this length, I didn’t believe that I could actually pull it off.  However, Adam, our club’s biggest cheerleader, told me right before the race in no uncertain terms that I would get the job done.  When I had no faith in myself, Adam’s words settled into my subconscious and morphed into a mantra that would help carry me through the race.

Since a 50-mile trail race was way off the radar for even a 36-year seasoned runner like myself, I decided to treat this event as a challenge the same way a mountain climber would attempt to climb a mountain.  In my mind, there were three parts to this “race”, the uphill, the summit, and the downhill.  If I can mentally focus on this race one section at a time, I would be able to complete it.  This 50-mile course had the perfect format to apply my mountain-climbing analogy to.  It was comprised of three 16.67-mile loops.  With this setup, I could break the race into thirds to make goal-setting more achievable and completion a possibility.

Somewhere along the first loop, I came across a seasoned ultrarunner from Germany named Peter.  We quickly befriended each other.  I liked his slow-moving pace and his claim-to-fame that he often comes in last in many of his ultra races.  I was so terrified of not finishing that his presence reassured me.  As we got to know each other, we created simple rules to help us get through the course.  When we approached an uphill, we would both walk it.  When we picked up the pace too quickly, we would intentionally slow each other down.  During our time together, we discussed everything from my curiosity about a German’s point view of President Trump, the sordid history of the United States, our children’s accomplishments, and beer.  Peter helped carry me through a good 18-20 miles of the race.  While he helped me, I reflected on the time I ironically helped another German runner achieve pr glory during the 2014 NYC Marathon when I was a NYRR pacer.  You can read about that here.

Peter and I both completed the first loop together.  Several miles later, his consistent pace was too much for me and I eventually pulled back from him.  I was alone again, but still stayed the course.  By Mile 25, my road shoes were full of all kinds of small pebbles, mud, and water.  At that point, I seriously looked forward to completing my second loop where I could make a pit stop at my team’s tent to change into a fresh pair of trail shoes and socks that were in my drop-bag.  Eventually, I was able to do that as I completed my second loop, which was now at the 33-mile mark with 16+ miles to go.

As I continued the race and as the miles wore on, my spirit and body quickly degraded.  My pace slowed down.  I became listless and a feeling of hopelessness began to settle in.  Add to that the painful feeling of plantar fasciitis began to flare up in both my feet, I was falling apart both physically and mentally.  Then at the 38-mile mark, something amazing happened:  I experienced a Terminator Moment.  In the original Terminator film, the Terminator is killed towards the end of the movie.  Just when everyone thinks he is dead, a backup battery turns on inside of him to reignite him into action yet again to continue his rampage.  That was me at mile 38.  I had this renewed vigor with the resolution that I WILL now finish this race and nothing was going to stop me.

As I continued past the 40-mile mark, I played a new mental game with myself to carry me through the final 10 miles: the single digit countdown.  Nine miles became eight miles, then seven miles, etc.  With every mile that was clicked off my belt, my excitement level doubled.  With every terrain challenge I conquered such as the hills, river and mud crossings, I would wave au revoir to each of them knowing that that was the final time that I would have to deal with them.

With less than a mile left, I began hearing the loud music that was playing throughout the event at the race start area.  Literally and figuratively, this was music to my ears.  I was stuck behind another runner in a single track section.  She sensed my sudden burst of energy and moved over to let me pass her.  I was now in Terminator Mode after all.  Once she let me pass her, it was like a drain that had become unclogged.  I blew through what was left of the course hellbent on reaching that finish line once and for all.

As I exited the tree-covered trails and entered the final 100-yard stretch of  an open field towards the finish line, I felt more like a conquerer than just a survivor.  Only seconds away from the finish line, I was greeted by wild roaring cheers from all my trail-running friends from the Prospect Park Track Club.  I felt a great feeling of triumph at that moment.  This was in great contrast to the self-doubt that I had felt moments before the race started.  Crossing the finish line and receiving a well-earned finisher’s medal around my neck confirmed the reality of what I had just done.

After completing the race with a time of 12:04:00 (14:28 per mile pace), I had found out later that 25% of all participants did not finish the race distance.  It was nice to be one of the finishers.  It also validated all of the many months that I had trained for this event.

May 18 – Seven Days Later

As I needed a week to fully recover from this race to become my abnormal self again, I now have time reflect on what I had done.  I went through a roller-coaster of emotions throughout this event from self-doubt to absolute despair to total euphoria.  While the extreme tiredness and physical imbalance I experienced within the week after this race will disappear, the wonderful memories of it will always remain.

I am forever grateful for the support I received from all the members of the Prospect Park Track Club who were at the event.  They believed in me and  were my cheerleaders.  I would like to congratulate every single one of them who ran their own 25k, 50k, and 50-mile races that day and who persevered in spite of their own unique hardships and challenges.

In 1982, I became a runner.

In 1995, I became a marathoner.

In 2019, I became an ultrarunner!

DG Race Pic

Me within minutes of crossing the finish line.  30 minutes after this photo was taken, it became totally dark outside.  I put my headlamp on after completing the second loop just in case.

The Resurrection of the Brooklyn Triple Crown

BTC Photo

The Brooklyn Triple Crown, a wildly popular race series that ended with the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy back in 2012, made its triumphant return this year. Like the mythological Phoenix, this series came out of the ashes of its former self into something fresh and new. Originally comprised of the Dolan 5k, Cosme 5k, and Hoban 5-Miler under the directorship of Edwin Cosme, this year the race series was resurrected into three brand-new inaugural races with the help of Mark Vogt of Complete Race Solutions. This new series consisted of the Bay Ridge 4-Miler, Coney Island Creek 5k, and the Caesar’s Bay 5-Miler.

The series kicked off with the Bay Ridge 4-Miler in June. Tropical storm Cindy brought with it a heavy downpour of rain throughout the previous night and into race morning. Fortunately, with only 30 minutes before the race started, the skies cleared and the Sun came out just in time for the runners to toe the line. The race consisted of three distinct segments; the 79th Street Playground, the hilly Shore Road pedestrian path, and the flat Shore Promenade. Visual elements along the course included running up and down a staircase, the Narrows Botanical Garden, and the inspiring views of the Narrows along the Shore Promenade. A portion of the proceeds were donated to the Shore Road Conservancy.

Louise Demeo, a runner from Staten Island, broke her 3-mile personal record at the 3-mile mark of the race. This was the first 4-miler she had ever run. Diane Sassone of Bay Ridge had a very emotional response to this race. She said, “I had the pleasure of running two of the three Brooklyn Triple Crown races. There was a great build up being I am a Brooklynite who belongs to a Staten Island running club. It was that “must do” on my short list. The first race was a no-brainer being it was in my Bay Ridge Hood. I made sure my warm-up was an approximately half mile run in the rain to the start. Mark, Jenn and Rob Lenza were all there to welcome the runners. They are a few of the most dedicated people I know. Soon after, the race director arrived with his family in tow. Shortly after that, Bay Ridges’ own Senator Marty Golden arrived and spoke a few words and wished us well. At gun time, the sun suddenly came out and the steam was rising from the ground. I knew it was going to be a difficult one for me being I haven’t trained. But hey, it’s Bay Ridge, I had to be there. At the second volunteer spot, the director’s family was there directing and cheering the runners. What a great experience to be part of a family production! At the third volunteer station, his brother was handing out water. If it wasn’t for his comedic chanting, I may have DNF’d. I saw all these family members on the way back before spotting his daughter Emma with her camera at the finish. I tried to look as happy as I was feeling. (I really didn’t feel good, it was wicked hot). Beside the fact that this race was along my favorite running route, the Promenade, being part of a successful event that included family and friends was priceless. It was a great run for me. Not for time, but for the fact that I did what I love, in a place that I love and it was put on by people who love what they do. I look forward to running this one again next year.

A few weeks later, the Coney Island Creek 5k brought runners six miles south to Kaiser Park, a venue with amazing views of the Creek and the Verrazano Bridge. This small location demanded a 5k route that was full of exhilarating twists and turns much like the nearby Cyclones Roller Coaster. The excitement culminated when runners sprinted their last quarter-mile of the race on a track that was inside the park. The organizer of this race named it after the nearby creek to raise awareness to the greater Brooklyn community that Coney Island does in fact have a natural water habitat in need of conservation. Assembly member Pamela Harris spoke to the runners right before the race and mentioned how this event is a great asset to the Coney Island community. A portion of the proceeds from this race went to the Coney Island Beautification Project.

The series ended with the Caesar’s Bay 5-Miler in August. Race day was unseasonably cool and sunny in the 60s which was a perfect day for running. Assembly member William Colton officiated the start of the race after wishing all of the runners a great race. Many of the runners enjoyed the inspiring views of Caesar’s Bay and the grandeur of the Verrazano Bridge present throughout the course. As they made it to the 2.5-mile turnaround, their excitement grew as they could see the finish line from afar almost two miles away. Being a very flat course, runners were able to concentrate on their pace and speed as some strove to work on placing for trophies while others aimed to break their 5-mile personal records. A part of the proceeds for this race went to the Kiwanis of Brighton Beach and Coney Island.

Jacky Lee felt that the Caesar’s Bay race was the most challenging although she was still able to achieve a personal record with a 9:09 pace. Her children enjoyed running the Coney Island Creek race and helped pick runner’s names from a hat for a pizza raffle after the race.  For Amy Hernandez, the Brooklyn Triple Crown was a family affair. She and her husband Yakir and their two children Gabriel and Emily ran a few of the races in the series. They all enjoyed the events, especially the free pizza at the Caesar’s Bay post-race party.

Michael Ring, a life-long runner, member of the Prospect Park Track Club and survivor of GBS/CIDP, a rare and crippling muscle disease that affects the entire body, had completed all three race events under his own power. After contracting the disease three years ago, he was unable to engage in even the simplest of activities including standing up. Working hard with his physical therapist, he improved enough to complete the 2017 Brooklyn Half Marathon. He plans on completing the NYC Marathon this November. When asked about his time completing the Brooklyn Triple Crown series of races, he stated that by the third race, he felt like Norm from Cheers because everyone knew his name.

Laura Lombardo, a walker by choice who completed two of the race events, was an Achilles guide for Michael Ring. She said, “I was very grateful to Michael Ring and Jacky Lee for inspiring me to join Achilles International to guide those in need. They are a great group of runners to know. Even though I chose to walk and not run these events, participating in them was a thrill for me. During the races, I noticed that there was a lot of camaraderie amongst the runners. Amy Lenza, a Staten Island resident who ran all three events, had this to say about the series, “The highlight was running in Brooklyn in three different great neighborhoods and running with people from the Prospect Park Track Club”.

Race participant Lynn Holly-Love was a newly-minted runner as of last year. She had this to say about the series, “I appreciated having the three races scheduled throughout the summer because I don’t love to run in the heat and I needed the motivation. It was my first summer running season and I only ran my first race last November at the SIAC XC Championship at Freshkills Park. I was challenged and forced to push through and as a result I believe this made me a stronger runner. The courses varied in length and gave me the opportunity to run at longer distances. I also hit a PR for my fastest 5K at the Coney Island Creek race and placed 2nd in my age group. I enjoyed this running series and look forward to participating again next year”. Jennifer Marzella, a Staten Island native and active member of the Staten Island Athletic Club, was in shock after placing within the top three places in her 30-39 age group for each of the three race events. After being plagued by a year-long hamstring injury, she was ecstatic that she clinched the entire series for her age group. For Jennifer, running the Brooklyn races was like a homecoming for her since she remembers living in Bay Ridge while pushing her newborn daughter along the Promenade.

We’d like to thank all of the runners who participated and the following runners who ran at least two of the races in the series:

Amy Lenza, Angelique Demeo, Jazmine Alvarez, Jacky Lee, Lisa Swan, Alvin Prawda, Jennifer Marzella, Louise Demeo, Yakir Arteaga, Eduard Nogol, Lynn Holly Love, Michael Ring, Frank Tropea, Diane Sassone, Yolande Rose, Richard Cahn, Laura Lombardo, Davon Culley, Jonnie Soltan, Marc Cornier, John Cassidy, Ron Rudolph, Salvatore Pagano, Kathleen Lewis

We would also like to thank the following sponsors who helped make this series a success:

Unlimited Smiles, Bay Ridge Federal Credit Union, Klaygirl.com, IHOP of Coney Island, NYRET, The Vitamin Shoppe, Baya Bar, George Hamboussi Jr, Esq, Avenue O Multi-Specialty Clinic, Matoushi, My Three Sons Coffee Shop, Community Counseling, Fort Hamilton Foot Care, Sandro Frasca, DPM, Ben Bay Realty, Deloor Podiatry Group, Kitchen 21, Coney Island Brewery, Pizza D’Amore, Brooklyn Running Company, Chipotle, Gargiulo’s Italian Restaurant, Bagel Baazar, and Grimaldi’s of Coney Island.

Lastly, a big thank you to George Mattera, Matthew Lebow, Aaron Pesin, Jacky Lee, Richard and Kathleen Weaver, family members Emma, Hunter, and Bernie, the Explorers of the 60th Precinct, police officers Edward Raasch and Desiree Marino, Dionne Jordan Brown, Senator Marty Golden, Assembly Members William Colton and Pamela Harris, and Pamela Pettyjohn of the Coney Island Beautification Project (CIBP).

And of course, to Mark, Rob, Fred, and Tom of Complete Race Solutions. Without their expertise and equipment in putting on these events, these races wouldn’t have happened.

The Soda Controversy: A Personal Success Story

super-duper-gigantic-big-gulp

Over 20 years ago, the City of New York implemented an AIDS curriculum in all public schools as a way to control the AIDS epidemic.  Teachers taught age-appropriate AIDS lessons from kindergarten through the 6th grade.  After that, junior high and high school teachers continued teaching AIDS awareness and prevention lessons through their respective health classes.

While AIDS is still a widespread problem today, another epidemic that has been rapidly growing throughout the United States is obesity.  This is a silent epidemic due to the pervasiveness and widespread availability of soda throughout every corner of society.  I applaud Mayor Bloomberg for trying to pass legislation that sets limits on the size of soft drinks, for people addicted to soda will buy whatever size is available even if it means increasing their likelihood of diabetes and other health complications related to the overconsumption of sugar.  Bloomberg’s soda legislation was ultimately shot down, and as a result, soda as a health issue will continue.  I believe that like the AIDS lessons from 20 years ago, the most effective way to control the overconsumption of soda is through education.  As a preschool teacher, I would like to share with you a personal success story that supports this.

Over the past 11 years, I’ve been teaching nutrition lessons to the children in my classroom.  Two years ago, I began to dedicate more of my teaching time to nutrition, for I knew that the things that I teach these children now will have a positive impact on society as they get older.  I began to keep things very real with my students, saying things like “McDonalds, Burger King and Wendys is bad for you.  Tell your parents not to bring you there anymore”.  I even brought a 2-liter bottle of soda into the classroom and had the children pour out the contents of the entire bottle into the toilet, loudly chanting,”Goodbye soda.  We don’t want you anymore!”.  While appearing extreme, I knew that these activities would leave a lasting impression in these kid’s heads, which will make them more conscious about the food and drink choices they will make as they get older.

Soda #6

Goodbye soda! We don’t want you anymore!

About a year and a half ago, a new child named Christopher entered my class.  He was an unassuming and quiet child, but little did I know that he would become my biggest cheerleader in the field of nutrition and the extent of his education would eventually go far beyond the classroom.  As I did my thing teaching proper nutrition and condemning junk food and soda through my vivid demonstrations, Christopher would just sit there, listen and watch.  A year later when it was time to discuss his progress with his mother, I was shocked to hear the following from her:

Christopher does not drink soda anymore; he drinks water.  In fact, nobody in our house drinks soda anymore because Christopher told us that, “Josh said that soda is bad for you”.  His big brother gave up soda and lost 15 pounds.  I gave up soda and lost 15 pounds and his father gave up soda and lost 35 pounds.  Christopher will not let us bring him to McDonalds anymore; he makes me cook a lot of vegetables for him now because, “Josh said that McDonalds is bad for you and vegetables are good for you.  His grandmother who lives in Mexico has diabetes.  Christopher told her that he eats healthy now so he won’t get sick.

Christopher is just one success story to show how education can affect change for a healthier society.  I believe that if all public school teachers were given a mandated nutrition curriculum to follow like the AIDS curriculum of 20 years ago, soda sizes will naturally get smaller simply because our society will be educated enough to know better.

Chris' Family

Christopher and his parents celebrating his fourth birthday in my classroom.