But in the two weeks or so that led to this 50K (actual distance covered is 31.6 miles) race, just walking there and back left my knee rather unhappy.
I'm aware that the knee pain didn't just get brought on by a desire for a chicken parm sub. If anything, it was brought on by the reappearance of the glowing ball in the sky. Bringer of Vitamin D:
|I BRING YOU WARMTH. BUT NO FOOD.|
|I miss ETM, btw.|
|I WILL RUN AND RUN AND RUN AND RUN AND RUN AND RU|
[Peter Griffin Knee Gif, again. You get the idea.]
But slowly, surely, as the days grew closer (well, by the Thursday, before the Saturday race), it felt better and better. It wasn't throbbing from a walk to the sandwich shop and back. I could trot across the street to make a light. I figured, "Meh, at least tomorrow I'll go to The North Face Georgetown store and do packet pickup. I just won't tell anyone I'm running an ultra if I go do it."
|I realllllllly wanted a 50K distance, dead cats and DNSs be damned|
Saturday morning, O'Dark WTF, the alarm went off.
|It's not 50 miles. It's 50km. What would be the worst that could happen?|
I mixed up a bunch of tailwind, grabbed one other bag of it, and headed out to the wilds of Northern Virginia. I left early enough that I got to the shuttle location pretty early, so I had time to study the course guide. (Yes, a shuttle -- you park in an industrial/office park, and they take you over into the state park, which nicely cuts down on traffic).
There were a series of races over the weekend. Today, Saturday, there would be a Marathon, a 50K, and a 50 Miler. Tomorrow there would be a Half, a 10K, and a 5K. The courses overlapped in a lot of place, so they'd mark them.
Except when I got to this part:
|This race is . . . color coded? Excuse me, going to go have a heart attack now.|
This goddamn race is COLOR CODED?! Have I mentioned how profoundly color blind I am? Because I am. Badly. Every time I go to the eye doctor, I read one of those charts with the colored dots, and miss almost EVERY one of them.
Not just red/green, but also blue/purple, and yellow/orange. Maybe it's the underlying red that is the problem. Anyway. But not to worry, they had colored "confidence ribbons" spread out along the way.
|OK SURE I BET THIS WON'T BE A PROBLEM AT ALL (*shits himself*)|
|The blues on the far right are seriously all the same, and don't get me started on those reds on the left.|
I figured that, in all likelihood, I wouldn't be alone THAT often in the woods, and fortunately enough, it turned out that the blue ribbons marked the 50K path. Anyway, I arrived early, and started guzzling free coffee. I felt like a huge fraud being there, but tried to remind myself that I had some base fitness to get through this thing. The sunrise was nice, at least. The 50-miler racers had started two hours earlier.
|Remember, we get up this early for FUN.|
|That's the starting chute (and the finishing one!)|
Learning from the multitude of mistake I'd made at JFK, I had printed out and folded up a portion of the race guide. Specifically, I'd brought the part with the checkpoints and cutoff times:
|Not to worry, this won't be a stressful, "I just made it" race report!|
Keeping in mind the cutoffs is again a good thing, when you realize what this course involves. Here's a full-size pic of the North Face 50K elevation chart for the DC course. Forget the "big" mounds. Note the t-i-n-y little spikes in between. EACH of those is not just a "hill," but a WTFHILL. This is a hilly as hell course (does hell have hills? I suppose to a runner it would).
|North Face Endurance Challenge 50K elevation chart|
SECTION 1 --
Miles 0 - 13.1 ("Learn from your mistakes, and Always Be Churning.")
Let's start by noting one point about the course. It rained a LOT in April.
|If this raindrop is colorblind, it's fucked.|
The grounds were mud bogs, at least to start. As we made out way across a grassy field headed to the park proper, someone "blorped" their foot into a puddle and pulled out her foot . . . without a shoe.
She was chill about it.
|Like, literally, "oh wow, I probably will need that later"|
|Me, seeing that.|
PSA: WE SEE YOU. WE HEAR YOU. CHILL.
Ugh. Anyway. They were alternatively behind me, they'd pass here and there if I stopped to take pictures of the scenery, and then I'd pass them again. The scenery was worth stopping for:
There were amazing views for nearly all portions of the race. My phone photo skills weren't THAT impressive, but I tried. Still, I was working hard to reach the first aid station (5.6 miles in), very aware of cutoffs. I hit it at 8:01am, so just ahead on TNF's "middle runner" chart. Woot!
I pressed on.
8:01am. 5.6 miles in, 25 miles to go. 7 hours to do it.
|Which is kinda what got me into trouble in the first place.|
I pressed on. I was not going to be surprised again.
Passed the dudebros.
Also, I smiled for the cameras. I mean, c'mon. Cameras!
|Is that guy taking my . . . yup. Ok then. Hope I was smiling!|
I blew through the second aid station at mile 8. Still happy. Still pressing. No pain.
The spiky hills were a little crazy though. You'd go RIGHT THE HELL UP, peak, and then do whatever you could not to fall down. I developed a system, one I'm sure isn't THAT unique, although I didn't see a lot of runners doing it.
After all this nonsense, miles of it, I was REALLY grateful for the station at mile 13.1.
Not even 10:00am. 13.1 miles in, 18 miles to go. 6+ hours to do it.
Well, damn. This is working. I can't believe it myself.
This stop was in Great Falls, which was a total party zone. LOTS of supporters, friends, families. I screamed, whooped, and enjoyed a few cheers back. I used the last of my Tailwind (uh oh), and refilled with the remaining baggie of it. Dudebros passed me, (this is true) high-fiving because one asked a spectator for her phone number as he ran.
Whatever. I was in a great mood heading into the loops.
|Red Shoes of Doom slowly turning Brown.|
SECTION 2 --
Miles 13.1 - 20.x ("My knee just has to hold on, and here I am running in circles.")
This is an odd section of the course. You get through Great Falls at 13 and then (if you're a 50-miler runner) you go off and run back and forth and back and forth and you get the idea, basically enough to gather up another 20 miles. Um. Ew.
|YOU SAID IT, LILO! #Ew|
I felt good enough that I texted a few of my running friends during the race, and was all, "So, I'm, um, actually out here doing that 50K after all," and got the usual replies of insanity, but I was more and more confident.
|But first lemme take a selfie.|
This part was . . . a little tedious. I went from the energy of Great Falls to just this line of ants trudging. Getting lost wasn't an issue, although I still had a habit with the "confidence ribbons."
I'd grab them. Well, I'd touch them as I passed. I wanted to TOUCH the blue ones, and I only found myself asking a fellow runner a few times . . . "Um, is this blue?"
|They almost always answered.|
When, um . . .
. . . I accidentally picked him up hugging him, and palmed his ass.
LOOK, he's a VERY fast runner and weighs less than most of my MEALS. IT WAS AN ACCIDENT.
I know I palmed his ass because when I put him down, Jesse said, "Dude, you grabbed my ass."
|Anyway, great meeting you!|
Nothing hurt. I'd fallen behind the guidebook middle runner for sure by this point, having chatted with Jesse a bit, and slowed my pace to guard my knee, but I was in a GOOD mood. I had tons of time to get to the finish.
Time to head back to Great Falls, and then it was all familiar ground as I worked the last 11 miles.
One funny part as I hit Great Falls. Marathon runners, 50K runners, and 50-Milers all pass through this park, but it's also open to the public. So we're running through tourists and TONS of little kids.
In my own mind, as they wander out in front of my path (over and over again as I make my way through the park), I'm being patient about it. I'm sure it was more like this:
|MOVE BITCH GET OUT THE WAY GET OUT THE WAY BITCH|
|May the Spock be with your Dumbledore.|
Miles 20.x - 31.5 ("THIS IS HAPPENING!.")
Still concerned about my knee, I took my time earlier at the Old Dominion Aid Station (stop #5), and smiled as a volunteer (1) refilled my Nathan backpack while at the same time (2) explaining to me that Camelbak was better. Don't ask why. I was fried, and not really able to keep up. There was the other small matter ....
... I was out of Tailwind, and it kept getting hotter.
I like heat running. I do. But I, you know, like to have actual SUPPLIES when I run. Meh. I had snax too. The aid stations had Coke. All good. I was slowing down, but I wasn't worried.
Just out of Great Falls, I ran into another Tweep, this time Scott Mason, who was running the marathon (I think it was his first). Scott is basically the anti-Tai:
|Scott & Tai file photo|
Here's a helpful chart:
Scott and Tai, a comparison chart
Well over six feet tall
Short Italian who at best could only work as Mario's stunt double in a Donkey Kong movie
Manly Facial Hair
Any attempt to grow a beard looks like:
Steady, easy running stride
Looks like Shaggy running in place after he’s seen a ghost, monster, or the DEA (c’mon, you know he was baked like ALL the time)
Wears sunglasses while running
Put on sunglasses
Puts them on his forehead
Squint and feel stupid
Put on sunglasses
(repeat until falls off a mountain)
Bearing all this in mind, I recognized Scott before he spotted me, although I'm sure my signature Washington Nationals shirt was a hint. We chatted a bit while runners passed on either side, I discussed the knee just starting to act up, but that I wasn't worried. I mentioned the ultrarunner motto, "Start slow, and then ease off" (like I had or have any business saying what ultrarunners do or think). It was funny. Just as I said that, three women runners trotted by and kind of knowingly whooped over the phrase. Clearly, there is something to this strategy. I love me some negative splits, but I wonder if the average ultrarunner focuses on them?
I said goodbye to Scott, but we agreed to try to rally for post-race beers at the finish festival. They also have ice baths, which sounded GREAT right about then. I pressed on, still trying to ease up the pace on my knee. More walk breaks now. Sucked on my hydration pack like crazy. Way hotter. SO undertrained.
Boom! Miles 19-25 went pretty slowly, but I knew I was just laden with extra time cushion, and felt little pressure. The frontloading of the race (doing my ABC thing without really "racing") had helped.
Then there I was. Aid station 7. There would be one more little station after that, and then the finish. But, THIS station -- this one -- was at mile 26.5 (see "50K 2nd pass" in the photo). I was an ultramarathoner. Again. JFK wasn't a fluke. I could do this. Of course, there's a slight difference between 26.5 miles, and the finish line at 31.6 miles.
|So. Close. Still work to be done (but not much)|
This was great. I'd started to get a second wind back, and we only had a short burst of spiky hills left to cover before we'd make our way to the finish line. I was taking longer now, but definitely saw myself coming in under 8 hours. A horrible time, but actually not THAT horrible because of the course. Plus, I was ahead of the Dudebros. This over-40 dork was not letting them ahead anymore.
Aid station 8 now. Just a little thing at Mile 30. About 1.5 miles to the finish. Still time to get under 8 hours, too.
I pressed. I passed. I "splurted" into more mud.
And I finished (also finished like 45 min ahead of the Dudebros).
|Nothing cathartic here. Just happy.|
Back to the sandwich shop. I thought of it as I rounded the turn to hit the chute, I really did. Less than a WEEK prior to this race, I couldn't really walk a block without pain in my knee. I rested. I aqua-ran. I said, "Eff it," and did an ultra. Still haven't grown a beard.
SURPRISE! Knee recovered well, so I (gently) just ran my 2nd ultramarathon, the @thenorthfaceECS! Aqua running FTW? 😜 pic.twitter.com/txWQYBoC2t— Tai Fung (@tai_fung) April 18, 2015
But, I did suffer one casualty. One personal loss. The Red Shoes of Doom had run their last race.
More like the #BrownShoesOfDoom, amirite?? #RedShoesOfDoom #FinalRace #FinishedWithASplurt pic.twitter.com/ivR9GkHmhK— Tai Fung (@tai_fung) April 18, 2015
They were done, and I was out of replacement. Time for a new fitting (and a new nickname for mah shoes!).
I noticed that Dean Karnazes was signing posters and posing for pictures, and that there was no line (because he was about to leave). I was literally the last person they took. First, before you get to him, you write your name down so he'll know how to spell it for the poster. I chose my real name as opposed to this online thing, because I didn't want to have to explain to him WTF a "Tai Fung" even is. We had an . . . interesting conversation anyway.
Me: (smiling) "Hi, I'd just like to apologize in advance for whatever hit your reputation will take for posing in a picture with me."
Me: "Ha ha!" (immediately after which I helpfully added a chortle).
Dean: (stares at me like a person corned by a timeshare salesman, begins looking at a North Face assistant who has my phone)
Me: "I just mean I --really-- suck at running. (Dean is now looking alarmed) So, can we get a picture?"
Dean: (appears gratified I'm not going to whip a knife/dildo out of my hydration pack, turns to assistant).
Who took this:
|We're like a before and after photo, assuming the product is beer and potato chips.|
I mean, there is a LOT going on in this picture. Was I supposed to flex too? He has a midriff showing. I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to do THAT. Unless that's a thing. Whose shorts are shortier? He's wearing a 50-miler medal and looks like he's about to go have a weighlifting session (where the weights are made up of battleships). What's going on with my left hand? Maybe I just naturally grab asses when meeting ultrarunners? This might be alarming news to Scott later. I should upload the full size version of this photo somewhere, so people can study it like the DaVinci code.
Dean scurried off (he probably went running), and I rallied up with Scott. Scott was hilarious. We had beers, a fun chat, and then made our way to the shuttle bus. A guy stopped us as we walked, and said, "Sir, excuse me, was there a race today? How far?" I told him, and he looked at both Scott and myself, and then said, "Did you jog that?"
|Why, thank you very FUCK YOU|
It was a good day. But now I gotta focus on what the real purpose of this race was:
All in all, this seems like a metric fuckton of effort just to have an excuse to buy 50K car magnet.— Tai Fung (@tai_fung) April 18, 2015