In the last few weeks a little bit of chaos has been spreading through my life, or so it seems (maybe it was always there). I attribute the chaos to excessive business travel, but some amount of disorder is inescapable, whether in daily life or in ultramarathons for that matter. Here’s my account of the Rockledge Rumble 50k ultramarathon, a recent race along the Northshore Trail in Grapevine, Texas, together with the travel, logistics, planning and other headaches that led up to and spilled into race day, and how I tried to manage them….
It started a few weeks ago when I arrived at LaGuardia Airport with plenty of time to spare — almost an hour and a half before departure time for my Dallas flight — until I discovered that my watch was still set on Central Time, which meant I’d just lost my seat. Three nights ago I’d made it back from Texas at 2:00 AM, and during the taxi ride home I’d made a point to reset the watch to Eastern Time, but must have fumbled the buttons for evidently I’d failed to do so.
That was the first missed flight in almost a year of frequent travel, the first time I’d fumbled the timing, as normally the watch gets lots of attention, and more typically the challenge is, given limited mental resources, to keep from losing things. I’d been doing pretty well, with nothing unaccounted for besides a cellphone power cord, until some shirts and a sweater went missing. They were in a yellow tote bag, I think. I stopped by the Hilton where I usually stay in Dallas, but there was nothing in their storage room. Well, some loss is inevitable, it’s just the law of entropy.
A week later I was running in the Black Rock Runs 12k (8-mile) trail race, which takes place in the Black Rock Forest Preserve about an hour north of New York City. When running barefoot, I typically carry a pair of sandals tucked in belt or pack, just in case the surface is unmanageable. Indeed, the carriage roads in Black Rock Forest were full of gravel, and I was sorely tempted to grab the sandals, but I persevered barefoot, finishing the event in second-to-last place. Enormous relief that this ordeal was over, but then an awkward surprise: when reaching for the sandals, I found one had fallen out and was now lost. Well, they were arguably due for replacement (the tread was a little worn), and I’d been thinking of ordering a new pair; with the Rockledge Rumble coming up in a week, I’d pay for a rush shipment and make sure to use the Dallas Hilton as the mailing address.
(Another bit of chaos at the Black Rock Runs: the gear shift on my car broke just as I pulled into a parking spot, limiting me to neutral and drive. Without reverse, it was a little bit of an adventure rolling the car out of its spot and then driving over to the dealer, but they fixed it quickly as it was the subject of a recall.)
Back to business: New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Dallas. This time two items were left behind on the plane: the case for my reading glasses, and a black hat emblazoned with SRT Run in red letters. Not a big deal, but I would want a hat at the Rockledge Rumble, because it’d be cool in the morning, and then to keep the sun out of my eyes.
Then a bigger problem: after stopping for groceries on the way to the Dallas Hilton, it turned out the hotel didn’t have my reservation, or rather, as the clerk discovered after some confusion, they had me checking in the next day, and as for tonight, there were no rooms available. Nor was there space in any of the five nearby hotels which I drove to in rapid succession. I sat in the car, opened the groceries, and munched on some trail mix as I considered options, including sleeping in a park. At 9:25 PM, I called my admin, who dialed up the after-hours number for our corporate travel agency, and they found me a room at a nearby Comfort Inn.
Well, that was enough chaos for one evening, and the next morning, things seemed to be back on track, although there was the question of how to manage the groceries. I’d stuffed them in the small refrigerator in the Comfort Inn room, so now I dragged them back out to the car and drove over to work, stored them in the refrigerator there, and got them to the Hilton when I pulled up that evening to finally check in. The groceries survived the transit, although the next morning I discovered that the refrigerator’s temperature was excessively cold and the produce had frozen overnight.
(Another surprise that morning: my cellphone also froze, becoming unresponsive at 6:07 AM. I stuffed the phone deep inside my briefcase, so as not to hear the alarm, which was still ringing and which continued all day until the battery finally ran out. Once recharged, it functioned properly.)
Now it was Friday night, the day before the Rockledge Rumble. I made the drive to a local outdoors retailer to pick up the race bib and then after a couple of stops found a Yankees baseball cap to replace the lost SRT hat, which would allow me to represent my home state in style. When I returned to the Hilton, the clerk told me a package had arrived — the new sandals! — which I’d completely forgotten about. So, now with sandals and cap, I was finally ready for the race.
Ready, at least, with respect to gear, but there were serious questions about strategy. I’d signed up for this event because the Northshore Trail is a favorite place to run when in Dallas — in fact, my training log showed thirteen runs there year-to-date. The trail is a great surface for barefoot running, since there are stretches of smooth sand interspersed with rocks, which gives you a mix of easy running and then forces you to pay attention and focus on technique. However, to complete 50 kilometers (31 miles) of this trail without shoes seemed like an aggressive goal, not only because of the rocks, but also because I’d banged my left heel at a race two weeks earlier, and then after the rocky carriage roads at Black Rock Runs, the heel felt extra tender, in fact I was limping around the next day.
Therefore my goals had to be realistic. With other races scheduled later in the year, it’d be important not to turn the heel into a lingering problem. Additionally, the Rockledge Rumble has a strict cut-off for the final aid station, which meant I’d have to sustain a minimum pace of 3.5 MPH. This might not seem very fast, but I’d found that even when fresh, my pace on the Northshore trail ranged from only 3.5 to 4.0 MPH. Part of the reason is that the trail twists and curves through thick brush, limiting visibility, and then there are sharp-edged rocks cluttering the path whenever the trail jumps over the little wiggles in the terrain, and sometimes the underlying shale and limestone strata are exposed. When barefoot, you’ve got to pick your way over this stuff rather carefully. Barefoot “running” at the track or on smooth pavement can be fast, but on this trail it ends up, at least for me, as a mix of slow trotting and some walking.
After mulling over these considerations, I set up a spreadsheet on my laptop with a pace plan and typed in some decision criteria for the event. First and foremost, the all-important “exit rule,” which would determine the conditions under which I’d drop out: in this case, if the sore heel, or any another injury, raised in my mind a more than minimal risk of not being able to run the next race on my schedule, a Turkey Trot in three weeks. In other words, success was defined not only as finishing this race, but the next one, too. Then I wrote down the rules that would govern whether I’d run barefoot or in shoes: specifically, I’d switch to shoes if I fell behind the minimum pace upon reaching any of the aid stations. I also considered the idea of starting in shoes, to build up a little cushion against that cut-off.
Then I laid out my gear, starting with the sandals and the Yankees cap. Being brand new the sandals posed the risk of any untested gear, so I decided as back up to carry a pair of lightweight Fitsocks, which had worked well at a previous race. However, the Fitsocks’ soles were quite thin, so I also brought along a pair of minimalist running shoes with a thicker rubber sole. That was three pairs of footwear to cover all contingencies, provided I could stuff them all into my running pack, and then I threw in a roll of tape for nicks or cuts and a short-sleeve shirt in case the running pack irritated the skin on my shoulders, as had sometimes happened.
Race morning, the alarm went off, I gathered my gear and arrived at the start around 6:30 AM. It was 41 F and still dark, and I was not feeling especially enthusiastic. So I started the race in sandals. And these worked well enough, allowing me to keep a steady pace over smooth sand and rocky sections alike.
A mile or two into the race someone running behind me remarked that my sandals brought to mind Colin Fletcher, author of the bestseller “The Man Who Walked Through Time” (an account of his epic solo trek through the Grand Canyon). “Hey, I’m reading that book right now” I replied. This was a strange coincidence, and perhaps a little bit of payback for the chaos I’d recently experienced.
Another runner was sticking closely to my heels. I could tell because he was constantly wheezing and grunting, as if he had a cold or indigestion. Arriving at the first aid station, I kept going, but behind me heard him say, “Give me something with sugar!” I felt a little smug: as per standard procedures for a race of this distance, I was running in a fasted state. If I wasn’t bursting with energy, at least I wasn’t dependent on sugar to keep moving.
After five miles in sandals, I took them off and stuffed them into my pack and carefully zipped the top (no more tucking them behind a belt!). I headed off barefoot at a very slow pace, discovering that this section of the trail was much rockier than I remembered. The wheezing runner soon passed me. After persisting for five miles, I put the sandals back on to move a little faster, mindful of the looming cut-off. But a few minutes later I felt some irritation on the side of my foot and looking down discovered that a strap was rubbing the skin raw. Hardly a surprise, given that the sandals were brand new, so now it was time to cover the abraded skin with a piece of tape and then switch to the Fitsocks.
Five miles in Fitsocks, then a couple barefoot, but I was finding the trail unremittingly rocky. It was one thing to run four or six of maybe ten miles on this trail without shoes, as I’d done several times before, but this morning the miles were adding up, and even with some protection my feet were getting tender. And now there was an irritation on my shoulder: sure enough, the running pack was rubbing a sore in the skin. As much as I would’ve preferred to run shirtless, especially with the sun out and the day warming up, it seemed I already had enough sources of discomfort and didn’t need another one. It was time to stop and pull on a bright orange t-shirt, which had been the official shirt of the 2015 SRT Run.
A couple of miles later, another coincidence: someone shouted, “Hey, did you run the SRT race?”
“I’m the race director!” I replied.
This was Rick from Maryland, who had attempted the SRT in 2015 together with his friend Gin. Neither had completed the event, although Gin had volunteered to help at one of our checkpoints, which I’d appreciated. Rick said he’d like to come back and try it again, and I said I’d be delighted to see him in the fall.
Back to running. Another barefoot interval, but at this point my feet hurt so much I didn’t last a mile. Nor were the thin-soled Fitsocks providing adequate protection any longer. It was time to pull out the shoes. Granted, these were not the super-cushioned types that have become increasingly popular among trail runners. My shoes had all of 1/4″ of rubber sole, and so flexible you could crumple them in a ball, like slippers.
I labored on, eyes fixed firmly on the trail, for even with these shoes I couldn’t afford to land on lurking rocks. On prior visits, I’d admired the oak-cedar forests, bamboo, sawbriers, and exotic lichens, but that was not my mission today. Although I noticed red berries in the underbrush, short trees with blackened seed pods hanging from the branches, waves lapping rhythmically along the shore of Grapevine Lake, and how the blue water sparkled in the sunlight!
Three miles to go. Even with shoes on, my feet hurt a lot. In fact, it felt like I might be developing a blister on the ball of my right foot. After groaning and cursing for a little while, I spotted a convenient tree stump, where I sat down, pulled the tape roll out of my pack, and applied a strip to the ball of the foot. Suddenly I noticed a prickly sensation around my waist. Heat rash, perhaps, or had sand gotten into my shorts? As I rubbed the skin, I noticed a tiny black insect, barely a speck and hard to see without glasses — and then remembered where I was, in the Republic of Texas, where lots of things bite and sting. I jumped up and moved out, frantically brushing off shorts and skin. I guess I’d chosen the wrong stump to sit on, or perhaps it was the Yankees cap these Texan ants objected to (that evening I’d count ten separate bites).
But at least the tape was helping: the right foot felt a little better, although both feet complained all the way to the finish.
* * *
It was the slowest and most painful 50k of my racing career. But hanging out at the finish I got to meet a couple of Texas runners. Someone pointed out a woman who reputedly held the Guiness Record for the most marathons run in a single year (thought to be 129). The last participant finished a few minutes later, a very large woman with close-cropped hair. She had dragged herself around the 30k (20-mile) course, mostly walking, but managed to trot the last few steps across the finish line to a standing ovation, with everyone in awe at her accomplishment.
Back at the hotel, I found that the refrigerator had been fixed. It was too late for the endives and cucumbers, but the rest the groceries seemed to have survived. I sliced some mozzarella, threw in grape tomatoes and fresh basil leaves, and doused the salad with olive oil, and then sauteed a tuna steak, while listening to a new song from Tame Impala called “It Might be Time”:
It might be time to face it
It ain’t as fun as it used to be, no
You’re goin’ under
You ain’t as young as you used to be
It might be time to face it
You ain’t as cool as you used to be, no
You won’t recover
You ain’t as young as you used to be
It might be time to face it
This song brought to mind a quotation from Edward Hoagland: “The forties are the old age of youth, and the fifties the youth of old age.” For someone like myself, a runner now his in his mid-to-late fifties, this comment implied that nothing was going to get easier, rather there would be more challenges to come and more chaos. But chaos — or disorder — or randomness might have positive outcomes, as well. I’d found the Hoagland quotation while reading “Way Out There,” an account by fellow New Yorker J.R. Harris of his hiking and trekking exploits, and that’s also where I’d discovered Colin Fletcher. Random connections and coincidences are valuable, especially when they involve people. We wouldn’t want to live in a world of perfect order, it would feel too much like a school or perhaps a prison.
For now, I took pleasure in having completed the Rockledge Rumble, for even if it was slow and painful, it was my eighty-first race of marathon distance or longer, and with nothing seemingly broken (a few days later I’d run an easy four miles with the heel not objecting), it would soon be ready to draw up plans for number eighty-two.
One of the reasons I stay at the Hilton is that I like the people who work there. A few days after the race I was walking into the hotel after a run in a nearby park, when the clerk asked me, didn’t I want my yellow bag? It had been placed by mistake in a different storage room, she explained, but she saw it and recognized my name.
Why, thank you!