Oct 22, 2019

2019 Badger 100 - Southwest Wisconsin

The same group of folks that I joined in Chicago last year to run the World's Longest Turkey Trot are now full-fledged legit proper race directors, and I was happy to join them for their inaugural race, the Badger 100, held in Southwest Wisconsin.

This Wisconsin Race actually starts in Illinois

Race Director Scott has specifically asked me to write a report on the race, presumably because he think that since I've run a dozen 100s, I know what makes a race good and a race bad.

So I'm going to come right out and say that my easy-to-please ass has nothing critical to say about the race, which must be frustrating to a guy who is looking for areas to improve (I get it, man, I really do) but, unfortunately for Scott and his co-RD Adam, I have to blow them for putting on an outstanding race.

That's not to say there aren't petty annoyances that bothered me, some avoidable, most not. But from an organization and production standpoint the race had no issues, which is no small task for an inaugural race.

the course features a ¼-mile dark spooky railroad tunnel - which 100-milers pass through thrice

Me - on the other hand - I was totally fucked, and it's my own fault. I went out too fast. I didn't drink enough water. I was undertrained, I was overfat, I wasn't prepared for the heat, whatever.

It is interesting that I went out too fast, because even though I know I have nothing to prove, I still run as though I do. My strategy by the numbers wasn't irrational. It was a credible walk/run strategy. Kept it up for a full marathon. And the numbers were not too fast .. in the neighborhood of 12-13 minutes per mile. Yet I wasn't up for even those speeds due to training or heat or whatever, and I knew it.

Anyway, I paid dearly for my early enthusiasm. My finish time - north of 33 hours, is by far the slowest 100 I've ever finished. I walked the second half of the race. I was told I had the ultra-lean. My pace had dropped below 24 minutes per mile. I had to be "un-fucked" by Holly when I came into her aid station with apparent heat exhaustion. I was in bad enough shape that she said she'd not object to me requesting a drop - at mile 93. I had a similar sentiment from a different volunteer at mile 60 - where came in to the aid station so fucked up he assumed I was dropping, and seemed surprised when I got up to go back out on the course to what we both knew would essentially be a 40 mile death march.

Outside of the tunnel, the entire course is like this - railroad easement

Holly sufficiently unfucked me (thanks!) and I was able to continue and finish the race. Scott hugged me and gave me a buckle. I wasn't special, he gave hugs and buckles to everyone who finished. Yet in that moment the thing I appreciated most was Scott's friendship, not my own grit or tenacity. Then I sat down and talked with Joe P, who walked with me for about 25 miles overnight until I couldn't keep up with him anymore. Having just finished, the moment was all about me, but again what I really appreciated was the privilege of spending time with him.

Bringing this full circle, that might be the disappointing lesson of a dozen 100-mile ultra finishes. I don't think I'm any smarter or wiser. What is true is that with less experience I would have quit a lot sooner. Also, with less experience I might have found something about the race to complain about. It was too hot, too exposed, there was too long a gap before that one aid station. But I feel none of those thoughts, rather all I feel is that it was awesome that holly was there to unfuck me, and also the unnamed guy at mile 60, and rachel too at mile 67/74, and of course joe, scott, adam, juli, and everyone else including the stranger I encountered on the trail who said, "Are you Steve Tursi? I heard you are a total savage!" These people are the reason I love doing this.

I finish these things on my own two feet, but in no way am I alone. And while swag and awards are nice, what I really appreciate is a race with a strong and vibrant community of people - which is what the Badger offers.

Apr 17, 2019

Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run - 2019

Melissa and I shortly after Aid#2 on lap 3 (I think). Photograph by "Someone"
Two weekends ago we all once again headed down to Raleigh to run Umstead. I am a 5-time finisher. My friends Fred and Bill, both of whom I talk to every day, are both in the 1000 mile club (Bill has 15 finishes). And there are at least two dozen other people who I look forward to seeing every spring as we all return to my favorite race on the calendar - among them, Melissa, who has been my running buddy for hundreds of miles, including pacing each other at other 100s, and would be attempting the 100.

The buildup to the race in my case was characterized by my heavier-than-normal out-of-shapeness. Weight is something I've always struggled with, and it has been especially bad the last few years - one lesson I've learned over this period was it's exceedingly difficult to lose weight - or even maintain it - when other things are on my mind. But the vicissitudes of my anxieties are a topic of another time - the point is that I showed up at the starting line up above 310lbs - 15lbs heavier than I was in 2018 when I ran 28 and change - and at least 30lbs heavier than my sub-24 run at Umstead in 2015. On paper, I was doomed.

Melissa, also feeling undertrained, listened to my concerns and resolved to run with me the entire race. We might both die out there, but at least we'll die together. Moreover, she would generously share her crew with me, promising to have them attend to my needs as much as they'd attend to her. I insisted that I don't need anything except maybe a ride to the race in the morning, but appreciated the gesture, and sure- if someone wanted to give me a 5-hour-energy I'd take that. 

And that brought us to 5:59am - Fred, Melissa and I standing behind a pack of 250 runners in the dark, nervously anticipating the gun.

For those who don't know, Umstead consists of eight 12.5 mile loops on gently rolling crushed gravel.

Melissa might have saved my race. Without her I could have pushed myself to run in the 2:30's on lap 1. An easily-run sub-2:30 lap 1 would indicate a level of fitness I didn't possess, and left to my own devices I might have pushed myself just to achieve the number while sabotaging the next 7 laps. Melissa tempered that destructive mindset. As it turns out we ran about 2:50 - nervously long for me - even out of shape I should be well under 3 hours, and be running sub-3s for at least the first three laps, and I knew I'd slow down in lap 2. But Melissa was confident we were fine, and intellectually I knew it too. A fast start ensures against running out of time should I death march laps 7 and 8. A slow start reduces the odds of the death march. I've done enough of these to know better. But occupying my mind was the notion that, at my weight, is a death march unavoidable? "Better run fast, just in case."

Lap 2, with the light out but clouds keeping the sun away, was uneventful and we managed to stay under 3 hours here too - but not by much. I was nervous. Lap 3 was pretty bad - but lap 3 at Umstead is always a low point for me - I've come to expect it. It was over 3 hours. Lap 4 didn't improve, and Melissa was struggling. I suspected that she wanted to drop; take the 50. I wasn't going to let her. And we stuck together, until the hills of miles 7-9. I jogged down a stretch and looked over my shoulder and she was gone. And after walking - slowly - it was clear she wasn't catching up. She was going to drop. I knew it, she knew it. And sure enough, I got a message from her saying that she's giving her crew to me for pacing lap 5. This was unacceptable to me - I was not going to take her crew from her when she needed them the most. My own condition had not improved after my loop 3 malaise however I knew I could do lap 5 on my own and be fine. Afterwards I'll take a volunteer pacer if they had one, and keep going otherwise. 

However, the matter was settled. Melissa made it clear to her crew that she would be dropping and wanted to lie down - there was nothing they could do, and frankly she preferred to be alone. Bill, half her crew, who was also a reserve Navy medic and cross-fitter who had never run more than 8 miles in his life, was going out on lap 5 with me and there was nothing I could do about it. I accepted this. And Bill was great. We weren't running much at this point, and what I needed in the lap where the sun went down was a companion, someone to talk to. Bill was not an experienced pacer but he was good at conversation and had no issues hiking 12.5 miles. Lap 5 was when I started to recover.

When we came back, Melissa was ready to go back to the hotel and her crew would go with her (I obviously had no problem with this.) I asked at the pacer desk for a volunteer and .. someone came out. Someone ("Someone" shall be his name, for in my stupor had forgotten it, and I think I embarrassingly forgot it soon after we started and called him Bill the whole time. I don't think his name is bill. He never corrected me. Sincere apologies, Someone.) Someone was a more experienced pacer and Umstead vet (and photographer) and was good at keeping me moving at a good speed - lap 6 was well under 3:30 - faster than the previous laps. We had a great conversation and I was rallying. We had caught and passed Fred. We passed 15-finish-Bill too. We finished lap 6 ahead of all my friends and Someone joined me on lap 7 as well. We ran the entire airport spur at 2am (necessary for a running streak) and finished the lap in the neighborhood of 3:30, still ahead of all my friends, and shortly after 5am, ensuring that I would finish under the cutoff even in the case a disastrous lap 8. Thanks Someone, you rocked.

I sat down after lap 7 for 10-15 minutes to change shoes, shirt, and just get a little more comfortable in preparation for the final 12.5 miles. I was not concerned about my friends (who deserved to beat me anyway). There were no volunteer pacers available, so I said my goodbyes to Someone, grabbed headphones for the first time in the race, and hit the road. 

The first half of lap 8 was ok. I was moving pretty well, not running much but walking purposefully. In the last five miles, however, I was reduced to sub-22 minute miles. I put on some hardcore punk rock and made the best of it. With two miles to go, my 15-year-old son joined me and walked me in. I finished in 28 hours 17 minutes 14 seconds - faster than last year, when I was lighter and better trained.

So, what got me through it? I guess there's more to running than weight and training. Last year had crummy weather - but that crummy weather is ok with me. But having done a bunch of these - this is my sixth finish at Umstead alone - I suppose I have internalized the values of "just keep going" and don't waste time. Most of my stops at aid stations were minimal - less than 30 seconds. And there was never a notion at all of quitting. There was a desire to quit - I suppose that never goes away. But there was no serious thought given to quitting. No indulgence on heaven or earth would have gotten me to stop. It was work for sure, but I wasn't going to stop until the work was done. And that attitude didn't come to me naturally - I learned it over many years. So I would say experience got me through it. And I'm sure luck had a lot to do with it too.

I don't know how to finish race reports. Bye.

Dec 10, 2016

On the Tenth Anniversary of my First Marathon

This is a reflective "what have I learned post."

tl;dr: The friends I made in running are much more meaningful to me than running itself, and I'm extremely grateful to them.

December 10, 2006
This is the only photo I have of my first marathon finish
Ten years ago today, in Las Vegas, on December 10th, 2006, I ran my first traditional-distance marathon. You can read my report if you're interested in my mentality at the time. It's fascinating to me.

2007 Philadelphia Marathon
The following year, in 2007, I would run three more marathons. In 2008, I ran my first ultra (a 50k), followed by a 50 miler. That was the year I ran the Chicago Marathon. By 2009 I was attempting 100 milers. In 2010, I finally finished 100+ miles in a single event - in a 72 hour fixed time race where I hit 100 somewhere north of 60 hours. It wasn't until 2012 when I finished a fixed-distance 100-mile race under the 30-hour cutoff.
Tammy and I at Umstead 100, 2012
I tend not to run normal marathons anymore. In fact I haven't run one since 2013. Marathons aren't challenging - or, I should say - I don't run marathons in a challenging way. Marathons, run properly, are actually the hardest race there is; which is why I don't do them.
That time in 2008 I drove to Chicago to run a marathon with Rizzo - then drove home that night.
Instead, I run ultras. And, for the last few years, almost exclusively 100 milers or 24-72 hour fixed time races. They're social events for me, which leads me to the point of this post. But I'll preface my monologue it by saying I used to take racing much more seriously. I was frightened of DNFs, and had the typical pre-race anxiety that most runners get before a big race. These days, DNFs are rare, and though I still approach 100-milers with nervous anticipation, my anxiety comes from elsewhere in life. And while there's no shortage of the anxiety I feel from non-running activities; it's a topic for another time. (Preferably in person, with adult beverages in front of us.)

Anne, Ami, and Joey on my 40-mile 40th birthday run earlier this year
I am going to tell a tale here of two runners, and will refer to my first runner as the "real" runner. Someone in a podcast that I love calls this person "the douchebag runner", which is not meant pejoratively but rather in jest. I think it's funny; laugh every time I hear it,  but I'm not going to use it. If you're this person, you're not a douchebag to me. I'm going to give you the respect you deserve and call you a "real" runner.

("but some of my best friends are douchebags..")

I won't go into too much detail in describing the real runner, because you already know him or her. The real runner is interested in being the best runner they can be, and they're going to put in the hard work to be it. Real runners are admirable. Real runners do track work, tempo workouts, and hill repeats. Real runners count their calories, figure out which macronutrients to eat, measure their VO2 max, know their lactate threshold, are aware of exactly which heart rate zone they should be in at all times, and carefully plan and select the races they run. In most ways, real runners are better than me. A large part of me envies real runners. I wish I had their discipline and dedication. If I was a real runner, I'd probably be thin. And their fast finish times wouldn't be bad either.
Me pretending to be a real runner at the 2014 Wharton 5K - I ran 23:56
But, alas, I am not a real runner. I am the second persona: the social runner.
Stopping to shoot a selfie with the kids mid-race
Point of clarification: before I go any further I must say that the two archetypes are not mutually exclusive. Real runners in fact tend to be quite social.  And social runners almost always do care about finish times and will push for a good time in a race. But any experienced runner will tell you that almost everyone has a prevailing mentality, and for the purposes of this post I'm going to assume a clear distinction for convenience's sake.

Melissa and Ami are two of my favorite people in the world, and I deeply value their friendship
Most people who begin running as adults start out thinking they should be real runners. I was a real runner when I ran that marathon in 2006, despite my nearly-7 hour finishing time. They obviously don't call themselves real runners; they just think they're normal runners (and, to be sure, they are.) Some people stay real for the rest of their lives. Many people burn out and quit running altogether. But a lot of us, and I fit this pattern, transition from real runners to social runners.
That time I ran a beer mile in a blizzard with Jen
It starts out innocently enough. You make some running friends. Maybe they're online, maybe they're at work, maybe you met them at a race. These friends become training partners. And you get to know them, their families, their jobs, their interests and hobbies. Soon, you're doing long runs with them. Or you're entering long races with them. If you run with them enough, you'll learn their secrets, their fears, their anxieties. And these people who you've gotten to know deeply: you're now suffering with them. In 100 milers it's particularly poignant - you'll find yourself suffering with someone at 3am on the side of a road. You keep each other going, feeding off the other's energy.
RJ and I, 4AM, mile 87.5
And without realizing it, you've long since stopped caring about your VO2 max. All you give a shit about anymore are the friends you've made. You care about them far more than you care about any stupid race. And they care for you. They care about you, and listen to you in a way only a true friend can. And the value in suffering together with a friend far outweighs the value in finishing in a certain time. You'll find yourself seeking out longer and harder events - because more intense and time spent suffering with them leads to deeper and more meaningful friendships.
Fred and Ami, my most valued running friends
To put it succinctly, you start out with them because they provide a transactional value to you: the quantifiable benefits of having a training partner. But soon their friendship becomes more meaningful than some economic arrangement. You want to spend time with them because of their intrinsic human value. The fact that you get a training partner is just gravy.
Melissa, my other most valued running friend
Running for me has become part of my identity, and so when I interact with non-runners they tend to assume that I'm the first persona. They think that running 100 milers in some way resembles the way their cousin runs 5Ks. I guess for some 100-mile runners it does, but they're not like me. What I do is in no way similar to what the real runner does. It's not better or worse, but different. In fact the only thing I have in common with them is we run. "Running" seems like something that unites us, but not really. I can sometimes hang with real runners, especially if I want a hard workout for some reason, but they're typically not interested in hanging with me. To them, the way I train - at slow paces with lots of walk breaks (and sometimes a pizza and beer break) is a waste of their valuable training time, and that's OK. Everybody has their priorities.
Some of my amazing tri club friends after an early morning track workout
Everyone has their reasons when they start running. For me it was weight loss.
400 lb Steve in the late 90s, with my cousin Sue. She is 21 now.
And to be sure, if I stopped running tomorrow then my weight would probably balloon back to four hundred pounds. But I don't run to maintain weight. I run instead to maintain the circle of friends that mean more to me than running ever will. And to those friends: I can't overstate the gratitude that I feel. Thank you for the conversations both serious and light hearted, the opportunity to suffer together, and the insights I've gained into myself by your companionship. I'm a dramatically different person than I was ten years ago - much more honest, empathic, and disciplined - and I can't give credit to running; but rather to you.

To each and every one of you - thank you.
Ami and I before Beast of Burden 2014 - her first 50 miler!
With Eric and Tony
Tony taught me everything I know about running ultras.
That time I was on a Badwater Crew for Tony (2010)
Also: Chris, Eric, Meredith, Eddie, Herb



Stephen, Bill, Jim

Tammy, Fred 


Lynn David Newton
My tri club
Dr. Larry
Gary and Bob
The Three Days Crew, 2015
Randy and Phil 
Melissa, Rick, and the Kids
Hasher friends
Jonathan (matching socks)

RayK and Melissa
More Hashing Friends 
Fred and Andy

I thought it would be fun to enumerate all the marathon-and-longer distance events I've completed in the last ten years:

Las Vegas (2006)
Self-Transcendence (2007,2009,2010)
Breakers (2007)
Philadelphia (2007)
Chicago (2008)
Big Sur (2009)
NYC (2009)
Marine Corps (2011, 2013)
NJ Marathon (2013)

Across The Years 72 hour (2x)
Ancient Oaks 100 mile
Beast of Burden 100 mile
Booty Rumble 50K
Caumsett 50K (2x)
Damn Wakely Dam 32.6 Mile (2x)
Forgotten Forest 9 hour
Ghost Train 100 mile
Grand Teton 50 mile
Hinson Lake 24 hour
Hudson valley recover from the holidays 50K
JFK 50 mile
Knickerbocker 60K (2x)
Lake Waramaug 50K (2x)
NJ One Day 24 hour (3x)
NJ Ultra Festival 50 mile
North Coast 24 hour
Parsippany 12 hour (2x)
Russell B. Cheney 50K
San Francisco 50 mile
Ted Corbitt 24 hour
The Great New York 100 mile
Three Days at the Fair 48 hour (2x)
Three Days at the Fair 72 hour (4x)
Umstead 100 mile (3x)
Umstead 50 mile (2x)
Vermont 50K

Also: Ironman Florida (2012)

Final thought. 2016 has been a rough year for me in many ways. We received lots of bad news this year, and coping has been difficult for me. Two of the reasons for this are of ultrarunning friends - people who I spent time on the trail with, but not enough time - and who I wish I knew better - passed away.

Eric and I in late 2015. He suddenly and unexpectedly passed away suddenly 
earlier this year. He was a kindred spirit, a lot like me. Family man and 
unapologetic back of the packer, who forged his deepest friendships while running.

I had the distinct pleasure of sharing a few miles on the Ancient Oaks course with Stu Gleman in 2014
He passed away from cancer in September, shortly after finishing one last 100-miler

Here is a tribute to him, written by Laz
(ARFTA = A Race For the Ages; fixed time event that Laz puts on.)

the old guys at the ARFTA have stories to tell.
they have a love of life to share.
and lessons to teach.
greatest of those lessons...

to savor the moment.

when we are young,
we do the things that young men do.
we hurry always.
barely able to finish one thing,
before we must rush off to experience the next.

what irony that those
with all the time in the world
are the ones in a hurry.
and only when we feel the limits of that time
do we learn to slow down,
and savor the moment.

stu gleman was one of us at the ARFTA
savoring the moment.
it was his best performance in a long time.
it was his "one more hundred"
as, shortly before the clock ran out,
he completed his 110th circuit of the deadman mile.

for those who shared laps with him;
old friends who talked of days and races gone by,
new friends who might have heard the stories
the many stories
of a man who grew up poor in the west virginia hills
ran his first ultra in 1962
and was a NASA scientist,
when we were putting men on the moon.

stu was one of a kind.
i am sure the tributes will come
and the stories will be told.

what i remember most were his words a few days before the race.
ARFTA did not fit easily in his schedule,
"it is important that i come.
i have friends who will be there,
and i need to tell them that i love them."

we all know in our minds that we are not guaranteed tomorrow.
there comes a time in our life that we know it in our hearts.
stu knew it in his heart.

i am so glad that i had the chance to savor those moments with stu this weekend.
i am sorry that there were not more.
because there are no more tomorrows.

stu passed away tonight.

all that i have now are the memories.
but those will shine brightly,
until i have my own last tomorrow.

stu gleman was one of a kind.