Saturday, November 15, 2008
Knickerbocker 60K - 9:51
"The unexamined life is not worth living." -- Socrates
"I like to move it, move it" -- Madagascar 2
The Knickerbocker 60K is the traditional race at Central Park two weeks after the New York City Marathon finishes there, and I decided to enter to see how my body would respond to 37.2 miles. No matter what, I was going to finish, because those quotes above are so true. My time was 9 hours 51 minutes. It was a harrowing trek through nothing but hills, rain and wind, and a test of willpower and drive. Something like this can teach you how to finish major projects and tests in your life, it can teach you new things about yourself, it can turn you into a warrior. I probably should have found a pancake course for my first ultra, but why do anything easy?
Two weeks after finishing the New York City Marathon, I arrived at NY Road Runners offices at 7:15 a.m. and registered. The NYRR office is right across the street from Runners Gate, which is the 90th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park. I received a Very cool long-sleeve souvenir shirt with the K60K logo. There were a few tents at the start/finish area, and many participants brought bags and coolers filled with their own snacks and drinks. You really didn't need anything, because the start/finish line's aid station was loaded with salty pretzel sticks, Doritos, chips, Powergels, water, Gatorade, fizzy Coke, etc. The other fluid station was exactly opposite the Reservoir, two miles away on the Upper East Side. At both places, volunteers cheered supportively.
The race started at 8:01 a.m. and there were about a hundred of us. We were told that the race would count toward eligibility for the 2009 NYC Marathon, and many runners cheered since this was previously unannounced. Here is the race starter speaking to us so you can see how few of us braved the conditions, and I can barely see my blue Nike cap in the middle of the pack:
We began with a simple out-and-back run, from Runner's Gate to 102nd Street and straight back, good for 1.38 miles. Then once we got back to Runner's Gate, we kept on going in a clockwise direction, and I didn't stop until 5:52 p.m. The nine loops followed the interior four-mile loop of Central Park, exactly 3.98 miles around.
I was wearing my iPod for this run, no question about it. But I noticed something early on. When I took my earbuds out so they dangled, runner after runner passing by me in the counter-clockwise direction would say a quick "Doing great, man" or "Keep going, looking good." I've never seen anything like this. The Central Park running community just knows. They see your race bib and they know what's up. The support was spectacular. For that reason, I wound up picking my spots on when to listen to tunes. If someone sees your earbuds in, their natural instinct is to not acknowledge you. Why not welcome it? You are supposed to be open to receive blessings.
My average pace through two loops was about 11:30-11:45. I started calculating projected finish times, maybe 7 hours 30 minutes, asking myself whether I would finish before they closed the course, etc. And every time I allowed myself to think that way, I immediately cut myself off and put up a STOP THINKING sign in my head. It was that easy. Stop Thinking. You can't control it. Just put one foot in front of the other. Focus. Just keep your head in front of your toes, lean forward slightly, dangle your arms in a relaxes motion by your sides. "Chunk it," Tony Robbins always said on the CDs I listened to in my car over and over in those rebuilding days after I lost everything in life and started anew. An ultra is too big, way too big, to contemplate at the outset. I never wanted to think of 37.2 miles -- only that current four-mile loop with which I was so familiar. The whole time, that is the only thing I allowed myself to think about. That present loop. My friend Sean had told me: "A body in motion stays in motion." It's all true. I like to move it, move it.
It started to rain. And then it rained more. It rained harder than any rain I have run through. For the full loop, I sloshed through large puddles, soaked to the bone. You feel like you are carrying an extra 10-15 pounds. Two or three times, I took off my shirt while running, and wrung it out, put it back on, and then watched it rain on me again. The park smelled so incredibly great...make it positive.
There was a big problem caused by all this rain, and that would be my biggest obstacle and pain threshhold the entire day. You know when you sit in a bathtub a long time and your skin is wrinkly-soft? You are waterlogged. OK, imagine that is my feet, and then I am grinding them on hills for miles and miles, just grinding. It was brutal. The soles of my feet hurt until the moment I went to sleep at night. I did a good job in this loop of not thinking about time at all, and so I won't write anything about it here.
I went over to the tent and put my iPod away. I was worried that I was going to ruin it in the rain, and also the earbuds were just trapping water in my ears. I would run the next two loops without it. The rain persisted a bit into the fourth loop. I was well past 12 minute miles now. I battled myself internally, again forcing myself to STOP THINKING. The problem, of course, is that you look up and the race leaders are lapping you not once, but twice. You begin to wonder how rough it might be late on this night, if you're the only one out there, whether anyone will record your time, etc. And at that very moment, each time I again put up the STOP THINKING sign. The reality is, I was going to finish but this was the most brutal way to run a first ultra. Pick the hilliest course you can find, throw in a day of rain and wind.
Changed my socks. I still had on the same shoes, so it was only of marginal help. A woman on the back half of the loop said, "You're almost there! Only 2 more laps to go, right?" I just said, "Thanks!" -- when actually I wished she hadn't said anything other than "Keep it up." Thanks for reminding me that I actually have four laps left; she was noticing all the faster runners who were down to laps left. I think it was this lap that I saw a familiar face coming toward me and passing me just before I finished it -- Carmen, my friend who works at Super Runners Shop. She sold me the pair of Brooks I was wearing, and she is always so nice and helpful with running advice. She's sort of a coach. Just nice to hear another way-to-go. And again, I can't say enough what a difference it makes to hear nudges of support by runners all over the park. "It's amazing what you all are doing," one woman told me as I ran past her, and I said "Thanks" and kept focusing.
As you can see from the closeup of my watch in the picture above, it was 2:16 p.m. when I went back to the tent and plopped down to get some pretzels out of my bag. I had been running for 6 hours 15 minutes. Some runners were long since done. At this point, I had a real uplifting experience. A man named Alex came up to me at the tent and said, "You're the blogger, right?" I said, "Excuse me?" He said, "You have that Marathonomy blog." First of all, I can't believe someone remembered the title, which is a word I completely made up. None of my relatives can remember it. I tell them it's a cross between Marathon and Astronomy, the study of the powerful force of distance running. He said, "I was Googling the Knickerbocker 60K and your blog showed up." Alex said that is why he was here. He was thinking about entering and it pushed him over the top. I guess I can either take credit or blame -- lol. It was a true pleasure to meet him, and his better half who ran with him that next lap. Alex repaid the favor -- if you can call it that -- by assuring me that I could change my shoes. I had brought extra Brooks, but because I had the Championchip fastened on my shoestrings, I figured it would be stuck there. He pulled out a Swiss Army knife with built-in scissors, and proceeded to cut the little fastener cords on my Championchip. He did the same thing to his, and he showed me how you can loop your shoestrings through the ChampionChip. So, finally, I now had dry feet. Here's a pic of me and Alex taken by a volunteer:
I was starting to get confused over which lap I was on. That may seem hard to believe, but after running that long, your mind can warp. I don't have a Garmin, I have the Timex Ironman, and I was not keeping splits. I was just going by the time of day, knowing we started at 8:01. My only interest was finishing an ultramarathon. I would crawl if I had to at the end. But I needed to know what lap I was on. I fortunately would remember something that reminded me each time what the correct lap was.
Something amazing happened on this loop as I neared the Boathouse going down Cat Hill. I caught a leaf that flew from a tree high overhead. It was just right there in front of my face as I ran, and I reached out and caught it. That was my amazing feat for the day. Other than finishing an ultramarathon. This lap featured a lot of walking mixed in. At this point, I was basically running down hills and walking up hills. My feet were screaming, again thanks mainly to the Third Loop rain. I couldn't make it better.
At 3:35 p.m., Lisa was there at the start/finishing line as I concluded this lap. It was nice to finally see someone I knew. She had snacks and Gatorade with her, and it was a simple Nutrigrain fruit bar that really did the trick. At that point you just want something...different. She had parked a block away. I told her that I was going to be another 2 or 2 1/2 hours. It was getting blustery but she was a trooper and said she would stay around. That's when she called her daughter Rach and said, "I'm going to go for a walk for a little while because it's good exercise."
Finally, I saw an English Bulldog. It is superstition for me to pet an English Bulldog at every marathon (minimum) race I run. This time it happened about two minutes after I embarked on my eighth loop. I ran across the Central Park East Drive to see her. Her name was Bella. As I got down to pet her, she jumped up on me. "She's dirty," one of the owners said. I didn't care much, considering that I'd run 29.2 miles through rain and mud. You have no idea how much that makes me happy, carrying me another mile. Amazingly, I then saw another English Bulldog one minute later, but at that point I needed to keep running. Whenever I call my boys after a marathon, I always say, "Guess what I saw today." They answer: "An English Bulldog." Makes my day.
It was starting to get dark, and they were dismantling the course and timer. I got to the start/finish line at 4:45 p.m., with one lap to go. My main concern at this point was assuring that my run was not all for naught; that someone would be officially recording my time. One of the NYRR organizers was kind enough to say he would stay there, knowing it would take me another 1 hour and five or 10 minutes. Another gave me her NYRR business card, and told me to simply email her with my own watch time of my finish. It would be fine, and he would be there to witness it, anyway. I wasn't sure what to do with my baggage since the tent was dismantled, and I figured Lisa would watch it. Instead, she had changed into her running clothes in her car, and she was offering to run with me. When he said he would take care of the bag, I told her to come along, and we set off.
It was pitch-dark except for the lights along the Central Park trail, and that makes it bright and safe enough. There were two other runners behind me on the course. Lots more failed to finish, perhaps chased off by the early storm. I was very proud that I was going to finish, and I would have crawled if needed. But I didn't need to. Lisa pushed me that whole lap. I told her that I refused to finish at 10 hours or more, that I was going to get under 10 hours no matter what. It would be close. This lap was pretty funny, actually. On the back side, I would start running uphill when I hadn't before, doing whatever I could to at least keep my Eighth Loop pace. The whole way, I was making strange noises out of my mouth and I told Lisa to just ignore whatever sounds I make. She carried a big bottle of water the entire lap, and that was huge, because the West Side aid station had closed for this lap. Then with a mile left, we made the final turn south heading to the finish line, and the wind was in our face, strong. I was DRAFTING off Lisa. She would keep moving to the side and I was too tired to stay in line. I was still unsure if we could beat 10:00, but then it became clear, and in the last 400 meters, I pushed the pace with a finishing kick. I just asked her how fast it was, and she said, "The truth is, it wasn't THAT fast, but it was the fastest you ran on that pace." My reaction was: "Yeah, right, I was LIGHTNING FAST!" I looked at my watch as I crossed the finish line and it said 5:52 p.m. That meant my finish time was 9 hours 51 minutes.
The NYRR gentleman was there, and he walked us across the street to the NYRR offices, which had stayed open for me. My bag was waiting there, and then he said, "Wait, I have something for you." He came out with a Finisher trophy, and we took pictures, including these:
Then it was time for cheeseburgers, fries, chili, beer and ALEVE. As usual, I took a long icebath, and that helped reduce the inflammation, and the next day I was absolutely feeling great. I can't believe it. I am an ultramarathoner.
I want more out of life and I will have it. The unexamined life is not worth living.