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!