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The Running Bostonian: Starting an ultramarathon

Posted by Joe Allen-Black  May 17, 2011 06:00 PM

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First in a three-part series from a North End runner participating in the The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K at Bear Mountain, N.Y.

It was 2:30 in the morning, and I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and I turned, taunted by my girlfriend passed out like a log next to me and her brother, Bryan, long since departed for slumber land, in the other hotel bed. I have to be awake in three hours for the most taxing physical endeavor of my life. And, of course, it’d been a week since I’d slept a full
night.

It would seem that six nights of restlessness was culminating in … another night of
restlessness. I must have finally dozed off because the next thing I remembered was the sound of my alarm. I was surprisingly alert, excited to get out the door.

I threw on my clothes, ate a couple Clif Bars, chugged some water with Nuun electrolyte tabs, brushed my teeth, and was in the car with my girlfriend behind the wheel and Bryan slung out across the back seat. 5:45. Not bad.

As we drove the 20 minutes to Anthony Wayne Recreation Center, a rosy dawn enveloped the southern New York foothills. Beautiful. And bad. Red in the morning, sailors take warning. We were in for some bad weather it seemed. Great. Sleep deprivation and rain storms. Fantastic.

Finally, my girlfriend dropped us off in the parking lot and headed back to the hotel to slip back into bed. Bryan and I got on the shuttle bus and fifteen minutes we arrived.

There were a few hundred other people there already. Some were stretching, others were eating, and still others were just hanging out shooting the breeze with complete strangers. It was only 6:30. We still had another half hour until it was time to begin.

With 10 minutes to go, I downed my last banana, made sure my hydration pack was set, got out my sunglasses, and I was ready to go. I looked over to Bryan during my final preparations to see him shaking. It wasn’t nerves but genes. The Brazilian was freezing in the morning dew, waiting until the last possible second to take off his top layer. Otherwise he seemed surprisingly composed for a guy who was about to run 31 miles of trails having never run longer than half that distance on roads.

At 7 o’clock sharp we were off -- all 234 of us men and women. As it turned out Bryan was the youngest male, the only in his 20-and-under age group. Everyone else, I would learn along the way, tended to be in their mid-30s to mid-50s.

If we were smart, we could learn from some of the most seasoned ultrarunners in the northeast.

We ran the first section of the course more or less with Mark and Tom, two middle-aged friends who had run this race several times before. At the first-aid station, however, they just kept on running while Bryan and I loaded up on fuel and fluids.

We didn’t see Mark and Tom for quite some time. For the next leg we ran with Marco from Staten Island, who, in his mid thirties, was training to qualify for the Boston at the New York Marathon this fall.

The three of us swatting insects for a while as we passed a lake. After that the course began to get quite steep in places, with roots and loose rocks doing all they could to snap our ankles. The course was rated a five-out-of-five for difficulty.

Not only was there a ton of elevation gained and lost, but it was about as technical a course as any, requiring navigation around rocks, over roots, and general all-around scrambling.

What a great way to earn my ultra wings. Halfway to the second aid station, I looked up to find myself alone. For long stretches during a trail race, one doesn’t notice the stunning scenery (the course was also rated five-our-of-five for scenery); all one sees are his or her feet and the obstacles over and/or around he or she places those feet.

Rather than panic, I reveled. This was the place I liked to be. I was on my own, just me and nature, just me and this ridiculously challenging course.

To be Continued…

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