Everyone told me that it would change me forever, that at the end I would be a different person. A new man. But for the transformation to happen, I would have to finish the race. Conquer the marathon.
Not your grandfather marathon. Not even your great-great grandads… The North Face Endurance Challenge marathon at Bear Mountain is a battle for survival. A trail race against hunger and thirst, against the heat, the humidity, the freezing streams that numb your feet, the thick bushes that scratch your skin raw, the blood-sucking mosquitoes, the hidden roots, sharp rocks, gigantic boulders.
Based on my half-marathon experience from the previous year, I knew that the full 42k would suck. Last year I fell hard on the course. Just once, but enough to puncture my knee and force me into a limp for most o the race. I completed the 21k slower than I wanted, dehydrated and starving, literally stumbling on the finish line in a little over two hours and thirteen minutes. In order to prepare the best I could, I visualized the upcoming inferno. I anticipated the worst. I internalized pain as a temporary part of the deal. I thought I could handle everything. And if not, I could always wing it. “Wing It” is who I am, what I do. I was so f-ing wrong.
There’s no winging a mountain.
I’ve been running for a few years now. Mostly on man made surfaces. The minimalist movement has notably influenced me. I transitioned from the 11oz Asics Kayano to the 7oz Saucony A-serie. I settled in the middle with the Brooks PureConnect, in which I ran over 1000 miles since they are on the market. The Connect has a 4mm heel-toe ratio, and the sole is slightly curved, propelling you forward. Running in these, I developed a fast cadence, low shuffle gait that, I feel, reduces the pounding on the legs. The low shuffle works wonders on a flat surface, like a road or a pavement. Or even Prospect Park’s manicured trails. It doesn’t work at all on a technical trail, where rocks and roots stick out of the path like Earth’s claws. Add extreme fatigue and you’ll start to understand why I crashed so many times. And why it hurt so much.
Pain is a strange thing. Really misunderstood. To me, it’s a defense mechanism. It protects us from ourselves.
I should have listened better.
I had a terrible week going into the race, struggling with injuries and deep emotional distress. My daughter fifth birthday on May 1st, and my subsequent 40th, left me mentally broken.
Subconsciously, I must have felt an impending sense of mortality.
I tried to glue myself together the last two days before the race. I toed the line feeling better. But quick fixes don’t last. The damage had been done and I was about to pay a steep price. Steeper than the mountain I was trying to climb.
I started ok, just a bit faster than anticipated. I had decent legs early on. I reached the first aid station at 3.9 mile in 43 minutes. I met a couple of decently fast cats, including Jean-Michel de Quebec, and hung with them for a while. One of the guys wanted to break 5:00:00. That was my goal too. I thought I’d try to stick with him. He seemed happy to pace as long as he had company. We formed a functional partnership and move along pretty well. I was still within reach at the second aid station (mile 9). Jean-Michel and my new buddy had taken a small lead, but I caught up with them while Jean-Michel was bandaging a nasty blister under his foot. At that very moment, I made my first strategic mistake: somewhat hungry, I swallowed a fistful of salty potato chips.
My stomach started to feel dodgy right after the potato chips episode. I should have known better than to ingest something I wasn’t used to. The junk food turned my stomach upside down. I gagged, spitting acidic saliva. It was bad, but pretty much nothing compared to what was coming next. Hunger wasn’t much of a factor during the second part of the race. I was too spent to even register it. Too spent and bloody…
The first fall, at around mile 8, didn’t really hurt. I bumped my toe on a rock, flew in the air, crashed on the trail. Scratched knee and pebble-encrusted elbow. No biggie. Last year, I fell once, but I really hurt my knee. If I could keep from falling again, I’d be fine. What I didn’t know is that more crash would follow. Many more.
On my fourth or fifth plunge, I hurt my wrist. I tripped, flew, face planted on a huge rock. Hands first. The rock cut through the skin like an unsharpened butter knife. While anfractuosities shredded (one more time) the palms of my hands, I heard a pop in my left wrist and felt a bolt of pain run up my arm straight into my left ear. As I rolled on the dusty trail, my entire right leg started cramping. Underfoot, calf, quad. Unable to reach my foot to stretch the leg, I was forced to wait the cramps out. I laid on the course, bloody, bleeding from my hands, unable to stand. I stayed there for a few minutes, hoping someone will pass and help me up. But no one came.
In fact, the cramping started at mile 11. First the toes, then the arches of the feet. The muscle distress crept up the claves. Slowly. Up to the quads, the hips and the lower back. By mile 15, both my legs where either stiff like hardwood, or shaken by spasms. Moving forward without enduring a severe cramp became a solo game of twister. I was kind of ok on the flat, but the damn course was never flat. Unable to use my calves, I walked uphill with an exaggerated penguin stance, feet wide open and arm stretched on the side. I walked downhill either on the side, crab-like, or simply backward when it wasn’t too steep. I looked like a freaking idiot and I was very conscious of it.
I felt angry and frustrated. Angry at the world, frustrated at my legs. Not being able to run or to quit, I was forced to endure the humiliation is walking slowly on the trail, stepping humbly aside to let everyone and the kitchen sink fly past me. I really didn’t care for encouragement or slaps in the back.
In times of deep crisis, raw emotions come to the surface. Unwarranted fear, anger, rage. At times I felt lonely. Lonely.
The thing is… I love being alone. It’s hard in a large city. Harder in a narrow Brooklyn brownstone, surrounded by two restless kidos, a spouse, an uncatchable mouse and the haunted spirit of Nemo, the now dead betta fish. Might even be one of the reasons I love running, just to be on my own for a while.
And at that time, I felt lonely. And it terrified me. Gladly, I was still conscious enough to sort out the good from the bad. I tried to be mindful. It was fucking hard.
The Bear Mountain course is notoriously difficult. It’s hilly, with almost 10’000 feet of elevation change, and incredibly technical. I mean, rock climbing and tree hugging technical. I trained on the trail, but Prospect Park’s manicured trail is no teaching ground for Bear Mountain. Using a brand new set of stabilizing muscles for the first time killed my legs. Using them for 42 kilometers of ups and downs killed me.
After mile 15, I had zero legs. I was running on toothpicks. The constant bumping of the toes against rocks and roots became a nightmare. Not only it caused me to stumble and fall dozens of times, but I also bruised three of my toes, including the big left one. Running downhill, with the toes pounding inside the shoes, became some sort of sick torture. Toward the end, the only thing I could do to mitigate the pain caused by the friction was to stand for a minute in each the freezing streams that I crossed. My feet got colder. And wet. And blistered.
I was a hot day. Felt hotter in the forest. I kind of stop sweating half way through the race. I felt my face dry up, a layer of salt and dust covering my skin. My t-shirt dried up to. It felt itchy. I mismanaged my water intake. My handheld bottle was too small (8oz) and the distance between each aid station too big. I’d finish my bottle in 10 minutes and agonize for the next hour. I also made the mistake to suck on the deep cut in my hand, leaving me for hours with nothing but the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth.
Why didn’t I quit? I don’t know. Combination of many things, I guess. I certainly thought of it. Every second for the last 11 miles, or three and half hours. Up until mile 25. The last half-mile was easier. Flat. The crowed cheered. I even managed a smile. I steeped on the line and stopped running. I swore to myself I’d never run again.
What happened when I finally crossed the line? Nothing. I felt absolutely nothing. Just pain. Did I expect enlightenment? Nop. Did I expect nothingness? Neither.
People say I accomplished something by running a marathon. I agree. I accomplished running a marathon. Nothing else. And it accounts to pretty much nothing.
I went through this shit because I wanted to. No one forced me to sign up, or continue when my soul was begging me to stop. I did it because I wanted to.
Running always gets you what you want… even when you don’t need it.