This is written with two voices: Zak (normal font) and Kevin (italics).
Photo Credits: MountainPeakFitness.com
I’ve struggled for years finding new and interesting ways to report on races. How do I uniquely capture all that goes on during a race mentally, physically, and emotionally? Does anyone really care to read how I was feeling between mile 31 and 43? Do you want to know that the reason I was so slow between miles 9 and 13 was that I had to poo so bad that I had to walk? I mean really? To that end, I’ve got a ton of unfinished reports dating back 3 years…I know, pitiful. So here it goes, Manitou’s Revenge Race Report 2016, the race report to end all race reports, the War and Peace of race reports. Just give me the Pulitzer now.
“At least I’m not bleeding from my wiener…” I exclaimed to Kevin with a smile. It was going well, really well, considering that I was about 18 miles in and had a long way yet to go I was feeling positive, about as good as I knew I’d feel all day. For a few weeks I’d known that I’d be heading to Phoenicia, NY solo and meeting Kevin for a weekend in the Catskills, how lovely. Weeks earlier on my birthday, I’d sent a panic message to him simply saying “please come with me to Manitou’s”, and graciously he made it happen and I’m forever thankful for the support.
If Zak was nervous about the race, the night before, his demeanor didn’t let on, but his actions did. Zak knows me better than any other human on the planet and I know him just about as much. We’ve seemingly just fell into a life-long friendship from the very first day we started hanging out. I have no doubt that if he and I were to go shopping for clothes and ended up trying something on, the other would exit the dressing room and look for the other to get an opinion before the first one bought it. We eat off the same plate without realizing what we’re doing. So, when Zak had asked if I had a stove to make coffee with at the campsite the morning of the race, but neglected to bring his own coffee (or any coffee) or anything to make said coffee with, I knew he was anxious.
About a month before the race I’d asked him who was crewing/going with him and got the response was hat it was a solo trip. Because I’m not going to let that go by without even offering help I threw out the brotherly “need a hand” to which I got the obligatory “nah, I’ll be fine.” Zak says the word “fine” in a way that screams the exact opposition to the definition while he picks at his fingers.
I kind of actually let him sweat a little bit even though I’d already cleared it with my lady to use the truck that weekend and gave him a good old, “Cool man, let me know how I can help” kind of open ended foolery. About a day later I got the confirmation that he wouldn’t mind a crew because, at that time in the game, the race seemed a little daunting. Zak is more capable than anything to run this race and run it really smart. It was his first time running it, though, and could use an extra set of eyes.
A week or two later he ran the Pemi (has run multiple times) with a buddy of his and all I got back from him was, “I’m ready. The Pemi was easy.”
I properly called him an asshole.
This race had been on my radar for a couple years and I had been slotted to race last year and had to pull out with an injury, which luckily didn’t turn out to be serious. Charlie Gadol, the race director, was kind enough to roll over my entry to this year so I’ve had it on the calendar for a while, looming, intimidating, like the proverbial Sword of Damocles.
Training over the last three years has been at times a struggle. In my effort to keep my Husband-and-Father-of-the-Year title, I get out and run at all times of the early morning and for a race like Manitou’s that simply meant that if I needed to get 20 miles in, it would be a 4AM run around Back Cove, dead flat and easy. Fantastic, looks good on Strava, but how in the hell was I going to pull off being ready for arguably the hardest 50-miler in the country that has a 24 hour cut-off? The endless planning and coordinating with my wife to get my long runs in is a complex endeavor for which I am mostly ill equipped. Spontaneity be damned, I guess.
My calendar consisted of some very well planned foray’s to my favorite early season mountain run, Pleasant Mountain just on the other side of Shawnee peak. It’s a painful experience but a recipe that I’ve found works. Go up and down the damn thing as hard as possible at first for 3 hours, and then in subsequent trips extend the workout until it doesn’t hurt to walk the day after.
Then a trip up to the mid-coast (read: my parents for extra babysitting so my wife could work and I run) to run all the Camden Hills and connect over to Ragged Mountain. On just about all these runs, I had some really low moments of motivational funk like I’ve never had before, at times literally sitting down and saying to myself “why am I doing this?”
Inevitably I’d pick myself up and continue on but my head was not always in to the task at hand; I’ll leave the reasons why private but it’s a constant source of both strife and motivation, if that makes sense. I even doubted my overall fitness for Manitou’s right up until running the Pemi loop with Mr. Mike Carbone.
This signature White Mountain adventure is a fantastic baseline for ultra-fitness and the legs held up well on an absolute picture-perfect day with good company, and so I felt that I’d be okay getting through the race, it would just depend on the day and how I managed the ridiculous amount of climbing, especially towards the middle to late stages of the race.
My race planning consisted of…Tailwind, lots of it, and an extra pair of shoes and socks. Oh, and very importantly my personal stank-ass, death stick of Gold Bond, without that I was doomed. Kevin and I had a pretty lightly planned meet-up plan for each aid that I’d need him and that was it. Now do you really need to know how I slept the night before the race? No. I slept in the car, that is all.
The day before the race I left work at about 12 after a heavy morning (lifting things) and ended up getting down to Uncle Pete’s Campground – now on referred to just Uncle Pete’s, which should be shouted as UNCLE PETE’S! in a quasi-neck tone – at about 5 and we made quick work of getting him to a meal. Phoenicia is a mountain town, through and through.
As we walked towards the restaurant a mother bear and her cub languidly meandered around as if they were off to the Johnson’s for their afternoon martini and so that junior can play video games. It would be a theme, for me specifically, for the entire time we were there. Bears seemed to be everywhere and the humans were basically just treating them as nuisance rather than letting them be these scary large carnivorous creatures that people in other places make them out to be (like, say, Montpelier, Vermont). We got food in our systems, which is me trying to be nice about how terrible the food actually was and made our way back to Uncle Pete’s, settled in, built a fire and went to bed.
I actually woke up before Zak. I was a little nervous that my car navigational skills wouldn’t really be honed enough and I would miss him or something like that so I was up early with a couple of maps trying to plan out a good route since I was dropping him off at the bus in Phoenicia but I wouldn’t be there at the start.
But, that’s the funny part of being there for a bunch of the runs/races that he’s done in the past; now, it’s just like a normal, everyday thing to see your buddy off and let him know that you’ll see him in three hours, play nice. After he got onto the bus I went back to Uncle Pete’s and actually went back to bed. Taken as a lesson learned from crewing him in the past, if you get a chance to go back to bed after you’ve made sure that he’s:
A: at the start and
B: ready to go and has everything all set, you damn well better take it.
So, I left Zak at the bus at 3:30 and got back up at about 7, did some more logistics on the routes and left Uncle Pete’s at about 7:30 for aide station 3 (17.5 Miles – North/South Lake). My initial worry about not really knowing where I was in comparison to where I was going would get a first rate jump start that morning. I had originally gone back to this gas station (let’s call it headquarters because I was there a lot that day) to regain cell service (the only place in that area that had cell service – which, I don’t mind not having service, I can go a very long time without it unbothered but, Lenka (wife) and Sarah (sister) had requested updates) and made my way back to Phoenicia, past Uncle Pete’s to head towards aide station 3.
I was obviously backtracking a lot already but I didn’t know the area yet and it was going to be a long day so, some familiarity was welcomed. I misread the map and well, misjudged how long I would be on a particular road on my way there and ended up turning around twice before I just remained on the road and ended up where I needed to be (it’s one of those “this can’t be the road” feelings so you turn around and go back because you thought you saw where you were supposed turn only to get back to the original spot and realize that you just have to go farther).
North/South Lake was in a gated campground that reminded me of the places my parents took us when we were children growing up in New Jersey; you’re kind of in the woods but everything is clean and token and there’s floating partitions in the water to block off the deeper parts and showers in industrial sized bathrooms. The second in the themes of the day: I was very early, I always am. Mostly, I spent my time waiting memorizing the faces of the runners that were already coming in (I had just missed the leader when I got there – which, to me, was a good sign that I didn’t miss Zak – not that he shouldn’t be leading – our conversation leading up until that point had me under the impression that he was going out easy and making adjustments from there) so that I could get a good idea of where he’d be coming in at the following aide stations. And then, Zak came through.
The first thing I noticed was the fact that he still had a backup Tailwind pouch in his bag, which means he only drank the two liters that he had on his back. We had set up a system where he had a two liter on his back filled with Tailwind and had a zip lock on his chest pocket with tailwind in case he had to refill at the aide stations that were just water or the ones that he wouldn’t see me so I was prepared with a smaller bottle that he could chug at the station and then leave with a fresh two liter and a zip lock in the chest pocket. The first thing I heard from him was the fact that he was feeling great and was actually surprised at how runnable that part of the course was: that coupled with the fact that he didn’t need the secondary Tailwind pouch all leads to him starting his day in a really good fashion and setting himself up to rock and/or roll. Good start.
I barreled back through Tannersville and stopped for a breakfast sandwich because Zak had mentioned breakfast sandwiches and I instantly wanted one, so I stopped a got one. It was a really nice place (that’s me trying not to tell you that all I ordered was a breakfast sandwich (which is to say, “May I have a ham/egg/cheese on a bagel and that’s basically all that I want so just please hand me a ham/egg/cheese on a bagel and nothing else because I even ordered off of the ‘sides’ portion of the menu expecting to get simply a ham/egg/cheese on a bagel because I want nothing more.” Why did you give me a ham/egg/cheese on a bagel, a side of fries, a salad and home fries? Rant over) and got much more than what I paid/asked for originally. I had also intended on stopping somewhere to pick Zak and I up some local steaks for the fire afterwards (Uncle Pete’s had those metal fire pits with the hanging grill over them and I was going to buy some good old meat for us to not use utensils with) but couldn’t really find anything too great and with the knowledge that there’s bears around, I thought better of it.
On my way to Aide Station 5 (Platte Cove – 31.5 Miles), I made another detour (I should mention that my navigational skills without a vehicle are very good – but I was following the directions that the race had supplied the crews backwards and it became tricky to try and read and drive at the same time) and ended up going down a REALLY fun little hill but in the end I made it and Zak hadn’t shown up yet so I scored that in the “win” column. The folks that I’d memorized started coming in that were fairly far ahead of Zak at the lake so I left my perch and headed back to the truck to get sunflower seeds. As I was walking back up the driveway towards the station I saw Zak filling up his bladder at the aide station. So I’m the asshole now.
I got him over to the “set-up” that we were rocking (two bags) and got him ice and more of a bottle of Tailwind and got him set up to start the hardest part of the day. To this point he looked like he just went out for a run and just got back. Kind of like the look of, “oh hey, yeah, I just got back from my run, let me take a shower and we can go watch the hockey game (my wish, not his).” I had little run-downs planned for when he’d arrive at the aide station but I really didn’t use most of them. He and I had gone over the game plan the night before and the elevation profile and all of that; I just used this specific time period to let him know how many ups and downs he had before he saw me again. The word I used the most for the section he was going to see after this station and before he saw me again was “death march.” This is a race that just gets harder as it goes on and this section; this twelve mile stretch between the times that he’d see me would be the gangliest of the course. At least, that’s according to the people who run it; I just had to hike a mile to the next aide station. It made me sweat.
It should be mentioned that in between all of these stations, I was driving all of the way back to Headquarters to give Lenka and Sarah updates (and to answer questions from work that came through when I got service) – sometimes I would just buy a bag of ice or a coffee or something as a “have to pay for use” thing that gets stuck in my Taurean mind and other times I would decide that Zak is REALLY going to want to drink a lot of beer when he’s done and maybe we don’t have enough so I should pick up more. I had a lot of beer left over in the cooler when I got home. I still have some.
So, I made my way to aide station 7 (Silver Hollow Notch – 43.5), the last time that he’d see me before the finish. I’m glad I met up with some other people there or I wouldn’t have realistically found the “trail” that the aide station was up. The instructions were, “go up a road and when you see a trail, take it.” Seeing the trail was the hardest part and between two of us, we made it happen. It was actually fun to hike since I’d been in the truck most of the day but it made me feel really out of shape to be sweating around people who are hiking a lot harder trails than that one but, well, it was humid and I’d been sitting in the truck all day.
This is an aide station that I planned on staying at for a long time, knowing what was between the last one and this one. The runners started coming in and there was reports of agony behind them. Some people’s stomachs dropped out (figuratively speaking here folks), other’s their legs; other’s their will to move forward. There was one person particularly who’s fiancé was bribing from aide station to aide station with beer and would allow them to drink the beer only if they made it to the next aide station. I saw a lot of thousand yard stares in that aide station. It wasn’t like Bill’s at 88 in Vermont where it gets downright carnage at a certain time during the night but you could tell that what people have just returned from was worthy of their ilk.
And then Zak came in.
He gave me the look of “phew, that’s over.”
The race starts out innocently enough with a bit of road running before turning off on to the Long Path for a day in the Catskills. And what a day it was. I had a couple up and down moments and a steady headache, which I blame for my inability to remember to bring coffee. But, mostly I was steady all day, climbed as quickly as I could and ran as much as I could when permitted to do so. After the section of the Devil’s Path, 12 or so miles of climbing ridiculousness my climbing legs did slow but I still had enough in the tank to really gun the downhill sections that allowed for a bit of speed. Oh, and did I mention that I left home without my watch? Right, so no coffee and no way to tell time, did I really finish graduate school?
But he was strong.
Nothing was hurting (apparent to me), he was in decent spirits, and was moving along well. He was doing what Zak does; he was getting it done. Seeing him in these races, specifically as he’s matured with the sport and learned, reminds me of Chinese water torture. He just keeps pounding away until the desired effect is reached and he’s the one who’s always the drop.
At that point I was asking him to put the hammer down once he got over the last hill (he had two more climbs coming after that aide station) and he told me that “he’d see.” This was an instance that he emptied the bladder on his back as well as the extra pouch so I refilled everything (I taught myself a cool trick for summer races – these aren’t mind blowing but I’m sure they helped – I filled zip locks with ice for his neck and forehead and also kept his spare bladder and bottles in with the ice in the cooler – I’m sure that felt good) and told him that I’d see him at the finish. I left the remaining ice with the aide station workers for runners coming in and hiked back out to the truck, turning my attention towards Phoenicia.
I made my way back to headquarters to send off some more texts and then slowly made my way back to the finish, knowing that he still had some time to go before he’d be there. At some point throughout the day he and I decided that he was on pace for about thirteen hours. That was before the Devil’s Path though and fourteen plus was more what he was thinking after he left the last aide station.
There should be a word for the feeling that you have when you’re waiting at a finish line for someone at an ultra marathon. There is a weird haze about it. On one hand, you’re kind of a stylistic optimist who loves the underdog story of someone who’s been out and beaten and then OUT OF NOWHERE comes in a surprises everyone with a miraculous finish. On the other, you just kind of want to see that they’re OK and that they survived and it’s over for them now.
And then the Cuban (I hope, I called him the “Cuban guy” in reference a lot) Guy came in. He was just behind Zak at the last Aide and seeing him kind of gave me a tremor. Like, “uh-oh.”
But then Zak came in.
And the Cuban Guy started yelling at him.
I guess Zak had got caught by him on one of the last hills (he had about a foot height on him) and Zak pushed the pace on the way down, motivating this guy to push and push until gravity took over and someone with longer legs can really gain some ground on someone with shorter legs going down hill on a road (the last mile of the course). It was a gentle ribbing but it appeared that Zak really got whatever out of this guy that was needed for him to finish.
But Zak didn’t really seem too fazed by what just happened. He seemed tired and sore but he wasn’t even close to being even slightly beaten. Or, at least, that’s because I’ve seen him beaten and this isn’t anywhere close to that. He ultimately ran a smart and calculated race and, well, got it done.
My favorite part other than finishing?
Running with some great company on a beautiful day; something that I lack on a consistent basis in my training these days so that was a welcome change.
The only time I came close to falling all day was from laughing so hard at JoJo from Donegal, Ireland. We had been joking how he had not come with his family either and slept in the car and (I’m paraphrasing here) that doing these solo ultra-race weekends for him is “…like sex after you’re 40, if you do it more than 3-4 times a year your wife just gets annoyed with you.” I just about lost it and laughed my way off a cliff. I got to run for 10-20 miles with some other fantastic Tailwind junkies, Kevin from NYC via Montana and Guillermo Ayala, who provided a constant stream of comic relief and incentive to get my ass off the road during the last mile or so of the race. The ultra community is full of characters and I enjoyed meeting some new folks and sharing the trails with them. The volunteers were fantastic as always and Kevin took care of me each time I saw him; I’m pretty sure he had an exhausting day running around trying to find each aid station and hiking in to see a pretty spaced out me. I can’t wait to crew for him some day.
I was so happy and exhausted to finish, so tired in fact that I didn’t even bother showering. Kevin had some fantastic beers waiting and I scarfed as much food as I could, slipped on some sweatpants and crawled in to the car and slept like a dirty rock. The next morning I was moving ok, pretty sore, but not 100 mile sore. We packed up and I even managed a shower before leaving for breakfast.
The morning found us having the best meal that we had during our time there (no offense meant to the post-race meal but I’m pretty sure Zak doesn’t remember eating it – it was an afterthought after digesting) and parting ways. The last thing I said was something motherly like, “let me know when you get there,” which was more of a “man, I hope his feet don’t cramp” than an actual concern that he wouldn’t make it home.
5 hours of a very dull drive later I’m back home, unpacked and so happy to see Lenka and Emma, whew. Manitou’s Revenge 2016, there you have it. Get out there to Phoenicia, its fantastic!
I just hope he doesn’t invite me to the next race so I can make him sweat and show up anyway.