Pinnacle Ultra – Narrative

And there I am, skipping through the woods on a particularly rocky descent. With each passing moment the bagpipe is getting softer and softer until it’s lost completely in the autumn foliage. I pass through a particularly yellow section, a stark contrast from the bright red oak leaves that just surrounded me. Perhaps this is a patch of beech, or is it elm? I’ll have to look it up when I get back home, but for now I still have many miles to go.

So, what was I doing skipping through the woods; and more importantly, why was I skipping? And why was there a bagpipe? To answer these questions and some of the other that you most certainly have, let me take you back to the summer before this beautiful autumn day. Now I am not quite sure when I first read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall; but as an avid runner and self-described outdoors man, I had been recommended this story a number of times. This is a book with more controversy surrounding it in the world of runners than Dan Brown’s Inferno does among art historians. It’s the kind of book where people either love it or hate it, yet thankfully plenty of people love it. I was one of those people who found every page compelling, interesting. A story, but also a philosophy, that felt comfortable and intimate. As the unknown world of ultrarunning was depicted before me, it was more like a rediscovery rather than something foreign; in other words, I fell in love.

After Born to Run I read a number of related books while always pushing myself harder on the trails which I ran throughout the summer. Once I had exhausted the readily available books on ultrarunning, or otherwise tired of reading about it and itched to do some of it, I looked online at ultrasignup.com for a race. I think it was the end of July, or maybe even August, when I signed up for the Pinnacle Ultra, a 50k trail race in Newport NH. While just the safe minimum to be called an ultra (technically anything over 26.2 miles 42.1 km), I knew that since it was run on trails and not roads it would be much harder than a marathon. After paying the entrance fee the only thing left to do was train.

My philosophy on training deserves an entire article to itself, but I’ll give you a brief introduction here. I am not, and don’t suspect I will ever be, a fan of highly structured training programs. While is true that some people blossom under these programs and love the knowledge that all their training is planned out for the next ten years, it is a regiment that I simply cannot do. Instead I submit that you should train with your body: pay attention and really listen to what your body is telling you. There are days when I’ll go our for a run but within a mile I’ll turn back simply because something’s not feeling right. Other days I’ll workout in the morning, then go for a long 20 mile run and then even workout again. As long as my body is feeling the right things I see nothing wrong with this “overtraining”. As long as you listen to your body you will be golden, but that’s just my two cents.

One aspect of my training that I immediately knew I had to change was where I was running. The trails near where I live are great, a real treasure, but I can’t really do distance work on them. There is no feasible way to run more than about 10 or 12 miles on them without dying of boredom; so, the roads became my new home. The trade off was fine considering that Boston is a beautiful place to run, especially by the river. As the summer came to an end, I felt confident that mileage would not be the limiting factor. I could go for long runs on consecutive days without soreness or fatigue and was constantly energized.

All too soon it was my last week before I had to taper for the race. Where does the time go? Naturally it was on this run that I developed a painful right hip issue which felt a bit like my hip bone was trying to play guitar on a tendon. I immediately jumped on the RICE method and did what I could for it. My hopes for a quick recovery wilted then it became noticeable even while walking around campus. Without much of an alternative I had to settle for wishing the issue away.

And then it was race day. The ultra heat started at 7am, so I woke up, dressed, and tried my best to relax. Thankfully I had Matt there to serve as driver, host, and crew for the weekend, and he took a lot of the pressure for getting things in order. All told, I have to say that I was oddly content before the race. I actually get more anxious looking back at the race than I was before or during the race. This probably should be contributed to my mindset going into the race. I knew the race might be amazing, or it might really suck. It might be anything; but all I knew and all I could control was how hard I tried. I would try my best and will crawl to the finish if that’s what it takes. So with that sort of mindset its not much use or even natural to be worried—the race will happen.

And so there I was, just running. The crowd thinned pretty quickly considering that it was a crowd of 30 people, but I stayed right with a group of three friends as they chatted and told jokes along the way. It helped to keep my mind somewhere else while doing this easy running and while finding my rhythm. This first leg of the race was the half-marathon route, and so it was a simple out and back along a XC ski trail. This part of the race was quite flat and open which led to a fast pace. So fast, in fact, that Matt was nowhere to be found when I got back to the start ready to continue onto my second leg. The plan had been to switch socks and shoes at this point (to a shoe with a bit more grip for the aggressive slopes) and possibly get a warmer layer on since it was 55F and drizzling. But oh well, the race goes on so I high tailed it out of there. I had run this 13.1 miles section in 1:46 (or ~9:10 pace).

I knew that the vast majority of the elevation change was in these next two legs, and the trail didn’t wait at all to show off the elevation. Miraculously just several hundred yards into the woods, I hear my name from behind me somewhere. It was Matt hustling up behind me with a pair of socks. And while I am sure he felt terrible having missed me at the start—his primary job—it was really just great to see him. The past couple miles had been pretty lonely running since I was by myself at this point, and the thought of the next 18 long, solitary miles was pressing on my psyche. As it turns out, he brought the wrong pair of socks, a pair of trouser socks, but he didn’t need to know that at the time and I didn’t much care at this point so I put them on and continued the scramble up the mountain.

I soon realized that I was not prepared for the elevation on this trail. I had been so focused on the distance aspect that my training completely precluded hill work except for the bare minimum. Thankfully I have always been pretty good at hills–and fairly well trained for them from all the trail running I’ve done. But still, the hills were taking their toll. I had already decided that this was an all-out race, and since everything was going well, I decided to take the descents like there was no tomorrow—so I took them hard. As it turns out: bad idea in hindsight. My right knee starting tightening about halfway through leg 2, or at about mile 18. I could still run on it just fine, except where downhills were concerned. There is something about running downhill that requires this one particular ligament, tendon, or muscle, which caused all this suffering. But for the most part I didn’t have much choice, so I just dealt with the pain.

By the time I came out of the woods that second time I was running a bit slower and with a slight limp, but I still felt great. Sure I was tired and cold and pained, but I felt amazing! Matt treated me to a powerbar that I saved for the trail, and we changed my shirt to the technical long sleeve [I got when I picked up my bib that morning]. And then after a change of socks and some Gatorade, I was off again. My time for this leg was 1:52 (or 12:27 pace).

My ‘high’ from the pit stop soon wore off and my condition began deteriorating. The powerbar helped some but only fleatingly. Barely two miles in to the third and final leg I started falling apart. To keep myself moving at a reasonable pace I started counting off seconds of running against seconds of walking.

“Thirty seconds of running and then I get to walk for 30 seconds…”

But as I came around a bend in the trail I was startled by a little girl, somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. She ran up to offer me a small cup of water. Eagerly, I took up her offering, thankful for the nourishment. Then she ran further down the trail and into a small clearing where she was met by her brother, about the same age as her (and my brother, Ian). There was something very beautiful in the scene – almost divine. I didn’t want to leave but had to forge on. Perhaps I hallucinated the whole thing, who knows? Something like 25 miles in. Either way I left that clearing with a renewed lightness in my step. The course was certainly still beating me up pretty good, but I was feeling better and moving just fine. At least this part of the trail was primarily uphill so my knee was just fine. The trail took me to the top of one of the mountains and there, right on top, a bagpipe player was standing blowing away. It was amazing, and probably one of the most bizarre scenes I could have imagined (and yes it was real, Matt could hear it occasionally from the car). From this position on the summit, you could see the entire town of Newport and all of the fall foliage carpeting the area. Absolutely breath-taking. All too soon I was departing the summit and making down a steep descent. It was then I realized that as long as I didn’t use my right knee to slow me down I could run just fine. As I played around with ways to reduce the pressure on that knee I suddenly found myself skipping. And there it is: skipping is a great way to maintain your pace by transferring all the pressure to your other leg.

So there I was skipping down the mountain with a renewed energy and making slow but steady progress. I had just 6 or 7 miles to go at this point.

You know those memorable moments you see something someone else made just to make others happy? Like a random note that you find that says something like “You are awesome!”. You know what I’m talking about? Well one of the those moments cane when I was rounding a bend and there was a little sign stapled to a tree which read:

You are now
Entering Ultra
Territory 26.2 miles

It was just the motivation and mile-marker I was hoping to see. After that there were probably about four signs spaced every mile or so with words of encouragement. It made for a very uplifting experience, especially when breaking through mile 30 or so.

The moment I got to my mental ‘end point’—the point where I knew right where  I was—the energy and adrenaline took over and my pace quickened. I came off the mountain feeling light as a leaf and swift as the wind (or at least that’s how I felt). Getting to the finish and given a warm round of applause by those braving the cold drizzle was absolutely incredible. Almost as incredible as the PB&J they handed me. Joking. Although I knew I should be completely exhausted and pained and unconscious, I was actually full of energy and feeling great. After some Gatorade and food I wanted to just keep going since I felt so lively. It was probably for the best then that I was confined to the car while Matt drove us back to Boston (while stopping for fast food on the way, of course). The final leg took 2:30 (or a 16:40 pace).

I can truthfully say that this race was the most challenging thing I have ever done. It is the furthest I have ever pushed myself and the most I have ever given. Would I do it again? Hell yeah! Although time has become a more precious commodity due to school, family, and friends, I would love to test myself like that again. It is certainly a highlight in my life.

Here is the elevation: Approximate Elevation