Chasing Santa Claus (Wapack and Back part 1)

So, when Blogger went down for "maintenance issues" last week, I lost more than half of the following published race report from the Wapack and Back Trail Races (part 1) and all of the comments. I also lost ALL of the draft of the conclusion of the race report which I had almost completed. I've been SO thrown for a loop by this that I haven't even wanted to sit down and re-write the work that I had done. I'm guessing this will be a turning point of some type for me as a blogger.

I'm either going to stick with blogger, but make sure all of my posts are backed-up on Word, or as many have suggested "don't use blogger!" I am exploring all of my options including Wordpress (which has always scared me). But I've also been putting a lot of though this week into podcasting. I've thrown the idea around before but I honestly just don't know where to start. I'm just finding it harder and harder to sit down at the keyboard and keep churning-out blog posts, but I never seem to have a problem talking (excessively, even to people who don't care) about my running experiences, lessons, philosophy and adventures.

So, anyway, without too much further ado, here's the restored and "fixed" to the best of my recollection race report from the Wapack and Back Trail Races (part 1)...

One of the first climbs
I ran my first long-distance trail race on Saturday! The Wapack and Back Trail Races are in one word... Challenging! I ran the 21.5 mile version with my buddy Jeremy (@silentproject). The course runs the length of the Wapack Trail from North Pack Monadnock Mountain in Greenfield, NH in the North to it's Southern terminus at the base of Mt. Watatic in Ashburnham, MA. There is also a 50 mile version of this race for the truly insane. It goes the full length of the trail South to North and back again (that's right, that's only 43 miles), then BACK out to the aid station at 3.5 (after a wicked climb to the top of Mt. Watatic) and back AGAIN (a BRUTAL descent) to make it an even 50 miles.

For obvious reasons, the race organizers let 50-milers drop-out and give them "credit" for a 43 mile finish should they choose not to leave the relative comfort of the finish line/aid station to tack that extra 7 miles on. From what I saw, this is the finish that most of the 50 mile runners opted for. There were 35 entries this year in the 50-miler and only 9 finished. 16 others opted for the 43 mile finish, which means 10 runners dropped completely. There were 65 entered in the 21.5 mile version, and 56 finishers. Said Steve Pero about the race:
"Wapack is without a doubt one of the most difficult trail 50 milers in the country...and I've run Zane Gray, San Juan Solstice (my absolute favorite), Jemez,Bel Monte and Pittsfield Peaks for comparison."
Indeed the toughness of this race was far beyond what I could even imagine. It was also by far the most rewarding race I've ever run! As we forged-ahead up and down 5 peaks, walking some, climbing some more, running the "runnable" (loose definition) downhill sections (at first because we could, but later because it hurt too much not too). My Garmin 405 read 10750 feet of elevation gain and 11500 feet of elevation loss. Jeremy's Garmin 310 gave him 7500/7800, so even if it were say, somewhere in-between the two (or if Jeremy's was more accurate than mine) holy crap! That's some EPIC shit right there.

The view from North Pack

Everything started-off well enough coming off of Mountain Road in Greenfield, NH and hitting the trailhead going up and down North Pack Monadnock, everyone was keeping-up a good pace, some friends we met on the bus (yes, I said friends, it's funny, but at an event like this everyone is talkative and becomes fast friends) were hanging with us, keeping-up a good pace. When we hit the first climb up Pack Monadnock, the trail got decidedly trickier and some of our new friends took off ahead of us and some dropped back. Jeremy and I settled into a group of about 8 runner's who were keeping the same pace (generally) and kept moving forward making small talk as we passed some on the climbs and some passed us on the descents. This is where we met out nemesis of this race. We called him... Santa Claus!

Santa Claus was a sixty-something mountain goat. Running in broken-down, beat-up old running shoes, gym shorts and a cotton shirt, and carrying no hydration or nutrition. Every time he's pass us on a descent he was huffing and puffing so hard I thought he was moments away from a massive MI. I imagined we'd be carrying him off of the trail at some point. His small talk focused on the weather and conditions of years passed (he was obviously a seasoned Wapack veteran), how he hadn't trained enough this year, or how he had "nothing left in my legs for these climbs," and how he's "just not gonna make it if I keep up this pace!" We passed him on the treacherous descent of Pack going down into the first aid station, and thought we'd seen the last of him and I swear I heard him say he was going to "drop at Miller."

The "trail" going up Pack Monadnock
(notice the yellow triangle blaze marking the "trail")
Coming down North Pack we hit it pretty hard. Jeremy told me that most of that downhill segment we had run at sub-9 minute mile pace and said that we should probably take it easier from here on out. But, I was just running on instinct, letting my feet fly, minimizing the braking forces as much as possible to try and save my quads for later in the race. I was able to get into the incredibly focused "zone." It was a lot like Zen meditation for me. JB made mention of how awesome it was to have his brain going just as fast as his feet as he was trying to find his foot falls. I told him "man, I wasn't thinking at all! It just felt instinctual for me." And it did. It really felt like I just knew how to do this and I was totally relaxed letting it all happen naturally. And it was exhilarating.

Summit of Pack Monadnock
Mount Monadnock in the distance (I think)
On our way up Pack Monadnock, we made our first of three eventual wrong turns. The trail kind of forked and we went to the left. Next thing I noticed was a lot of blue blazes, instead of the yellow we were supposed to be following for the Wapack. So I said something to Jeremy and he yelled to the guy in front of him and so on... This is where we met and co-opted the third member of our "team," Jonah. We'd been following him, for a while, but now we really started hanging together and talking. Come to find out we had similar senses of humor, taste in television/sketch comedy, and could quote all of the same movies. Yes, he was one of us (even if he was a leg-shaving cyclist)! We made it back to the trail and continued the rest of the way to the summit of Pack.

It's all downhill from here...
On the way down Pack the trail got really rocky and technical. We were basically climbing down, but we did manage to pass Santa Claus. We knew that the aid station at Miller State Park (5 miles) was quickly approaching and ran as much as we could as hard as we could. We ran it in to the aid station and one of the ladies manning the station was taking pictures and said "hey, here comes the Red Team!" And that was it, we'd found our moniker for the day. 

Coming into Miller
As we stopped and lingered probably longer than we should have, Santa Claus came in grabbed a cup of Coke and headed back out. He was a wily veteran! We didn't give it much thought as we figured it wouldn't be a problem to catch-up to him again. We ate a  couple of pb&j's which were heavenly. It was here that we were introduced to the potatoes! Plain boiled, quartered potatoes which you dip into a vat of salt and eat. Apparently they are a staple of this race (or maybe of ultra endurance events in general, I dunno) and as bad as they sound, they were awesome! Something to look forward to at each of the other aid stations...

The Santa Claus
In the meantime I put some more water and a couple of Nuun tablets into my massive 3L Camelback H.A.W.G. hydration pack. I think that I will be buying a more suitable pack for future races as soon as I can, this thing was just too big. And of course, since I had the room, I packed it with a bunch of shit that I didn't end-up needing. As we left the aid station, the volunteers reminded us to "be careful crossing the road!" Good advice. As we were running the rest of the way down, we were quite suddenly dumped to the side of State Highway 101. We joked around at playing Frogger with the cars trying to cross the road and how maybe this was the race organizer's way of thinning the herd!

Deceptively runnable...
Once we crossed the highway we headed-up what appeared to be an old ski area. Most sections of this trail up looked deceptively runnable. Compared with what we'd been navigating it was wide and clear of rocks, roots and debris. But it was steep! Too steep to run most of it. As we were climbing, we'd catch glimpses of Santa claus that would give us hope that we were actually making progress. At the point that we headed back into the heavily wooded trail heading up Temple Mountain, the trail became rocky again with lots of roots and heavy pine debris. The thing about Temple was that it actually has two peaks  we had to summit.

Climbing up Temple
I recall Temple being one of the more mentally challenging sections. On the way up to what appeared to be the summit, we discussed the formation of our new team and somehow our surroundings and "Red Team" turned the conversation to the movie "Red Dawn" and we went screaming "WOLVERINES!!!" down just far enough for us to realize we had another climb steeper than the first. This was also where I realized my shoes were getting full of pine needles and starting to get a bit irritated. At one point during this summit attempt we all caught a glimpse of Santa Claus. We all thought we were going to catch him on this climb, until at once he looked back over his shoulder gave us a wink and a hearty "Ho, Ho, Ho!" as he disappeared down the other side. I swear.

(to be continued...)


My Soul is Thirsty

"Send some rain, would you send some rain?
'Cause the earth is dry and needs to drink again
And the sun is high and we are sinking in the shade
Would you send a cloud, thunder long and loud?
Let the sky grow black and send some mercy down
Surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid
But maybe not, not today
Maybe you'll provide in other ways
And if that's the case . . .

We'll give thanks to you
With gratitude
For lessons learned in how to thirst for you
How to bless the very sun that warms our face
If you never send us rain

Oh, the differences that often are between
What we want and what we really need"

- from Gratitude 
by Nichole Nordeman

Lately I've been feeling like a horrible person. I've been trying to figure out where all of these feelings are coming from. What I know is that something has been missing. Something has been missing from my writing and something has been missing from my running for some time now. More importantly something has been missing from my life and all of my interpersonal relationships.

I think I may have figured it out, but it has been a slow, painful realization. What I've been missing is myself. More specifically, I've been missing the "attitude of gratitude" that I adopted over the years. That attitude of being thankful for all that I have, all that I am, and all that I am able to do for myself and others is what has helped to make me who I am. It is at the core of my being and somewhere along the line, I lost it. Well, maybe not lost it completely, but I certainly misplaced it.

When I started on this journey I was just happy that I was able to run. Once I realized that I was able to run and could use my running to help others, I started figuring out exactly how I was going to do that. Whether it was using my sales/marketing background and organizational skills to help produce Lex's Run with my wife Lex in order to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, or using my physical talents and my heart to raise money for Children's Hospital by running the Boston Marathon, running had a purpose in my life greater than serving myself.

Somewhere along the line I lost sight of that. 

I know it was there when my friend James (Brenya's Father) said he wanted me to run Boston for Brenya again. He was supposed to run for Children's Hospital this year but was halted due some health issues of his own and was unable to continue his training. I didn't even hesitate. Even though Lex and I had just welcomed our second beautiful daughter into this World, and I knew that training with a new baby in the house was going to present distinct challenges to both me and my family. Even though I knew how difficult it was going to be in these tough economic times to raise the $3500 again. Even though there were so many variables that could upset the apple cart and become huge obstacles to my success this year, I signed-up. I knew full well what I was getting myself into and I did it anyway. Because that is who I am.

Then, as they say, something happened on the way to Hopkinton. There was the whole Boston Marathon registration debacle where many people who had earned their way in and truly deserved the opportunity to run Boston got shut out. The backlash was almost instantaneous against charity runner's of all people. A small group of runner's on twitter, facebook and their own blogs started to wage an ideological war against people that they felt didn't belong in a  race like the Boston Marathon. It is a race after all and if you couldn't qualify then you shouldn't be there. I wrote a post about it, so I don't want to rehash it all here. But it seemed that suddenly some of my "friends" on twitter, Facebook, dailymile and elsewhere had an axe to grind with me. 

Of course, if you know me, you know I can be outspoken. So, I had a lot to say and was involved in a few heated back-and-forth arguments with people who seemed to consider themselves above everyone else in the running community because they were able to run a BQ. This discourse devolved into runner's that I respected and admired actually trying to define what an "actual" runner is, and feeling like they had the right to differentiate between runner's and jogger's for instance, or defining running and racing differently. It all became very pernicious and demeaning, and as a result I ended several on-line friendships and even "blocked" certain people from my facebook page and twitter feed. I even went so far as to make my twitter stream "private" after all of this. It deeply saddened me. But is also motivated me.

I fear it motivated me in the wrong way. I got frustrated. I got angry and gave in to it. I suddenly had a renewed focus. I felt like a new person. I set new goals. I decided to work on my speed in the Fall before starting my Boston Training in earnest in December. I began to perform in ways I hadn't dreamed of since high school. I trained harder and faster. I ran faster. I set PR after PR. I brought my 5k PR down from 25 minutes, to 20. Even after I started my endurance phase, I set a 23 minute PR in Derry, NH at the Boston Prep 16-Miler. I was psyched. I was ready. Ready to run my BQ and prove to all those people whom I no longer even had anything to do with that I could do it! I know. Insane, right?

In retrospect, I wasn't focused at all. I was obsessed. even driven by my anger. The crazy part is that it was anger over perceived slights by (mostly) total strangers. Slights against not only myself, but slights against the running community. Slights against people who inspire me through their running or just living every day, even though they run 12, 13, or even 15 minute miles. People who run to overcome. People who run despite being told they'd never walk. People who run through excruciating pain. The same people who don't give a second thought to giving kind supportive words to others. People who do it all with a smile.

I realize now that I internalized all of this anger, frustration and pain and used it.  I used it to push myself throughout the most difficult training cycle I can imagine. Through the longest, darkest, harshest Winter I can recall. Through blizzards and sub-zero runs. Through 18-miler's on the treadmill.  Through illness and injury. Through every conceivable challenge and obstacle placed in my way. I was driven to the point of madness. I neglected friendships. Relationships that should have been given extra care and nurturing, were instead chalked-up as "high-maintenance" and disregarded entirely. People I should have been leaning on, I instead pushed away. I ignored so many other things in my life that should have taken priority. I adopted a "run more, everything else will take care of itself" mantra. 

It became like an addiction. And like all addictions, it didn't end well.

I've spent the last couple of weeks in a funk. In withdrawal. Miserable. Depressed. Disappointed. Hurt. Disgusted. I realize now the mistakes that I made. I alienated people. I disregarded others. I only hope it's not to late to repair certain relationships. I'm hurting. I'm hurting because I've been hurting when I should be elated. I should have been celebrating! For Pete's sake! I raised almost $5000 again for Children's Hospital Boston. I kept Brenya's memory alive. I saw James and his wife Shana holding a sign that said that I was their "hero." I was Brenya's hero... I high-fived a whole group of "Miles for Miracles" Patient Partner's and their family's at Mile 24 and saw the hope and excitement in their eyes. I suffered. I crossed that finish line. And that's all that should matter. I had a great day. The only thing I regret is getting so down on myself that I couldn't enjoy it. Idiot.

I've said this all before, but, running is transformative. Running is healing an growing. Running makes me want to be a better person, a better husband and a better father. I need to remember that as I move on to my next phase, my next challenge. One in which I am sure I will find myself again. Spring and Summer will be spent on the trails and in the mountains. Reconnecting with that which gives me life. When I run on the trails it's so much more than running. It is primal. It is instinctual. Most of all it is fun. I run with wild abandon. I run with meditative peace. I run as if I'm a child again. I run happy. 

I will be running a whole host of trail and mountain races in preparation for running the Vermont 50 on September 25. We'll see what life has in store for me after that. No time goals necessarily. Just running. I'm going to ditch the Heart Rate Monitor and the Foot Pod for now. I'm also going to set the Garmin so that I can only see Total Time and Total Distance. I'm just going to run and having a great time doing it. 

My first running "adventure" will be this Saturday, May 7. The 21.5 mile version of the Wapack and Back Trail Race with my friend Jeremy (@silentproject on twitter). They say it "runs like a road 50k." I have a feeling it is going to be an excellent adventure! I'm co-opting a line from my friend Logan(@the_UnaRunner)'s blog post about, well, actually a picture of a t-shirt someone bought for him before, the Lumberjack 100 that he posted on his blog, as my theme for the foreseeable future... "DO EPIC SHIT!" My soul is thirsty...

There is no tomorrow... Go out and GET IT today!