Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lost Among the Ultras: April 2

As close as I will ever get to being an Ultra-Man!
I got used to being out of place during the years I spent in Japan.  Being over six foot and pushing 3 bills, I stood out in every crowd.  I am the easiest person to find, other than the bride, in several of my Wife's friends wedding pictures.  Oddly enough, I rarely felt self-conscious among the Japanese because I was so hopelessly lost and intensely focused upon just getting by that feelings of embarrassment were a waste of energy.  The times that I ended up feeling most embarrassed or self-conscious were in the presence of other Westerners because they were keenly aware of how out of place I was or the oddity of my behavior.

Living abroad in a country where English is not the native language and you have little grasp of the native one, will reduce your functional vocabulary by 2/3, slow down your conversation rate, and make your facial expressions mimic those of a silent film star, so when you find yourself back among people from your native culture, eventually you'll become starkly aware that you resemble Nell.  If you are lucky, the other person will have been abroad just as long as you or longer and you can share a good laugh at your own expense after spending three days trying to remember the word "flight attendant," so that you can stop calling them "those people on the plane that help you," and once again sound like you own more than a second grade vocabulary.  My point being that I felt more uncomfortable not when I stood out from people that I had no hope of blending in with in the first place, but when I was around people who had the potential to fit in with and failed. 

Which brings me to Saturday's run in Umstead Park, let me start of by saying that I am not an Ultra Marathoner, nor do I have any aspirations of ever being one.  I was a ware that The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Race was taking place on Saturday, but also knew the park would remain open.  I wanted to run 8 miles, which would be my longest run to date and had mapped out a course that I wouldn't require running outside of the park or an out and back course.  I planned to start at the Harrison Ave. gate and run a loop route consisting of portions of the Ready Creek, South Turkey, and Cedar Ridge Trails.  From my second mile through my fourth mile, I would be on the same course as the Ultra Marathoners.  I didn't think it would be an issue because that portion of the trails is a very high traffic area.  Once I got to my Fourth mile I planned to take a different trail and be on my merry way.  My only concern was that I would be running near one of the aid stations, but I didn't give that much thought.

I arrived at the park a little later than I had hoped but started my run at around 9:45 in the morning.  The first few miles went by without any problems.  Once I got out on the Ready Creek Trail,  I began to see signs for the Ultra and a few participants, but by far most people that I encountered were just doing their regular Saturday run.  Since the Ultra course was 8 laps around a 13 or so miles of the park trails, and the portion we would share was between their miles 4 through 7, I doubted that I would really see much of them.  And, as it turned out, I was nearly correct.  I had seen just a few Ultra runners as was heading down the trail toward my turn off.  I knew t the aid station was near the turn off but hoped that it would after my turn and could ignore it.  As I went down the hill, towards the where I needed to turn, I noticed that the aid station was before my turn and began to feel a little uncomfortable.  My discomfort grew as I noticed people at the aid station cheering for the couple of Ultra runners ahead of me.  People began clapping and shouting words of encouragement as each runner approached.  And, I just started thinking that this was going to be awkward.  If people clapped and cheered for me, I was going feel like a tool.  If they just looked at me blankly as I ran by it would be like telling a bad joke and having no one laugh.  I tried make it clear I was not wearing a race bib but prepare myself for either option.  What ended up happening was kind of the worst of both worlds-- a few blanks stares, a smattering of applause, and few lukewarm words of encouragement, but it was over rather quickly, and I was able to shrug it off.
I picked up my pace and quickly found my turn off, but as soon as I turned I saw something that I wasn't prepared for at all -- the trail was flooded.  We had some heavy rain during the week and now about five inches of water running across the trial.  I couldn't Jump it and there was no bridge. I wasn't going to be able to cross without either soaking my shoes or taking them off.  I didn't like either option.  There was a guy on the other side just sitting on a fallen tree, so I asked him if there was another way, but he wasn't aware of any.  I looked for a map board, but couldn't find one.  I assumed that it too was somewhere on the other side of the trail. 

After staring at the stream for a bit and trying to bring the map forth from some dark recess of my brain, I was facing an age old problem: keep going or go back the way you came.  I knew that going back I would run just over eight miles, but I would be covering the same ground that I had run the last two weekends and I would have to back through the Ultras' aid station.  Or, I could press on in hope of finding a hiking trail or a foot bridge of some sort, so that I could get back on the course I had planned.  I thought things over for a second or two, and then did what any  Red Blooded American Male would do and headed off into unknown territory.  Yep, just call me Trial Blazer Greg!

Now, I doubt that you would need to be Nostradamus or even Carnac the Magnificent to figure out that this was a colossal mistake!  Hell, I am sure that I realized that it was a mistake at the time but went ahead with it anyway.  I continued on and mile five had a big old juicy hill right about halfway into it.  The sucker was the biggest hill that I have found in Umstead.  From talking with other people, who run in the park, I knew that there are some big hills and thought that I was prepared, but I wasn't.  Furthermore, I soon realized that the only people going in the same direction as I were Ultra runners and people riding horses, which may have been nothing more than coincidence, but in my mind, was a very bad sign.  As I climbed up the hill, my calf's began to scream in pain.  I was hardly reaching a a good jogging pace once I got to the top, and any  relief was short live because I saw one of the Ultra sign that read "hills are your friend."  I knew that this was only the beginning of the hills.  Also, I still had no idea how to get back on course.  If I turned back now, I would be committed to 10 miles, but if I continued there was still a slight chance that I might able to catch a hiking trail, get back on course, do something close to my eight and be near the parking lot when I finished. 

I decided to press on and immediately regretted it because the hills got worse.  The path narrowed and the horse shit increased.  I am not kidding . . . there was actual horse shit all over the trail, which normally wouldn't bother me.  However, when you're kinda lost, your legs are on the cusp of riot and the re cheeky signs about, little things begin to grate on your nerves.  Also, people riding bikes or running in the opposite direction started to mistake me for one of the Ultra Runners and began offering me words of encouragement as they passed, which made me feel like the horse shit that was laying about everywhere!  Even though I am fairly certain  the Ultra Runners had all kinds of things going through their minds, the least of which being me, I just knew that all of the Ultra runners were looking at me in disgust for stealing their encouragement.  They could tell so easily that I was not one of them, and it made me feel as out of place as a group English teacher in Japan, who have been admitted to hip Tokyo Mardi Gras party attended by the fabulously wealthy and beautiful just because they are westerns.  The people passing me may not have noticed a difference me and the people in the ultra me but, I was keenly aware of it.  Heck, they were on something like mile 20 and doing alright.  Me . . . I was struggling with mile 6 for Pete sake!!  I began to wonder if this is how it felt to run as a Bandit at Boston because you could make the time.  I felt ill with every word of encouragement.  The hills continued to suck, too!  By the end of mile six, I was contemplating darting of into the woods rather than stay on the stinking trail and feel like such a phony.  Turning around would have eliminated my stress, but by this point I was just so focused upon find the way off the trail that I didn't even think about turning around . . . plus . . . turning around would guarantee that I would do over 12 miles in some fashion.

Finally at seven miles, I came to an  intersecting trail and found a map board.  After some time of looking at the map and trying to will it read differently, I had to admit that I was now at least three miles away from my car.  I had two choices: stay on the easier multipurpose trial with the Ultra Marathoners all the way back to the road that led me to my car or take a much more difficult hiking trail back, which I was in no condition to run on.  As if I needed any help making up my mind, just as I began to run again, a family on mountain bikes streamed past me with the children screaming "go Ultra-man!"

I had to get off the Frickin' Frackin' trail, so I pushed my spent legs onward to the first hiking trail I found and walked 3 miles back to my car.  I felt disgusted with myself: 7.34 miles, and I was done in.  It was a hard walk back because I was no "ultra-man" and I knew it!  I was just a guy trying to get his run in, and I didn't want anyone to think otherwise because I sure as hell knew the differences between me and the people participating in that 100 miler.  I hadn't tried to pass myself off and didn't want anyone to think that I was the type of person, who would do such a thing.  I wished I was wearing a shirt that read "Not in Race.  Trail Flooded. Sorry, Ignore please." The entire way bad I wished that I had run somewhere else that day, and kicked myself for not turning around when I came to the stream.

Now, I would love to say that this was the moment that inspired me to one day become a real Ultra-man.  That it stirred deep within me and made me say, "one day I am going to run an Ultra!"  I know that this story almost begs for that moment.  But, I am not going to lie to you.  I never felt it.  Not for a second.  I saw tons of older men and women running in the race, and that was inspiring.  But, I wasn't inspired enough to have that moment where I found my calling to run an Ultra.  I love running, I desperately want to lose weight, and one day I would like to be fit enough to think about a Marathon, but that is enough for me.  The idea running in an Ultra . . . for me . . . is like telling the Wright brother to build you a rocket ship.      

When I got home Old Bob said I ran 7.34 in 1:15:19 at a10:15 pace

1  9:28.31
2  10:12.20
3  9:19.83
4 9:18.01
5 10:37.02
6  11:19.66
7  11:21.39
 .34 3:39.76 10:34


  1. Hello! I checked out your blog today because Jessie-Pants told me about you. I followed because #1:I was gawked at by Koreans when I lived there and I'm a GIANT for a woman in Korea and #2:I lost a boat-load of weight with running and wanted to tell you "well done!". That you stuck it out on this trail makes you a bad-ass in my book and Jessie-Pants and I would call it "ADVENTURE!".

  2. Funderson,

    Thanks!! I am glad that you are following my blog. I've never been colder in my life than I was the New Years I spent in Seoul. Brrrrr!

    One day, I would like to call those trails "adventure," but right now I call them "pain"!

  3. Man, good on ya for keeping going. I know what you mean about the weird feeling of not being in a race and getting the props.
    I still say you are a rock star training is training, no matter how long or short.
    Do you speak Japanese?

  4. I speak a little. But, I don't use it that much, so my speaking ability is going downhill fast. My listening has help up fairly well because I get to listen to my wife speak with her friends and family as well as watch Japanese TV.