Oct 27, 2015

Brain Dump: Ghost Train 100 mile trail ultra marathon

Jim Lampman and I after the race. We finished within five minutes of each other.
photo by Erin Klinkman

I will once again post a brain dump, rather than a long-form report, because I don't have the time or mental energy to write one. And the memories are fresh, so, 'here goes..

finishers award was a railroad spike

  • Today is Monday. My brain is mush today. It's crazy.
  • The best part of any ultra - including this one - are the people. Met up with old friends, made new ones. 
  • All the DFL Roundtable regulars were there: Eric, Mike, Scott and myself.
  • Special thanks to "new friend" Terri who hung out with me for 30 miles! Wow! That was fun.
  • So I'm probably 15-20lbs heavier than I was at Umstead, and boy did I feel it. My easy "I can do this all day" pace was about a minute per mile slower.
  • After my continuous mile, I started a 0.2 mile walk, 0.8 mile run protocol that I maintained for most of the first half of the race.
  • The course is a 7.5 mile stretch, repeated round-trip, six times. Then a seventh "short lap" where we went to a turnaround point at mile 5.
  • It was mostly rail trail (I know, shocking!) but not completely. There was a 0.5 mile road section where were weren't able to acquire permission from landowners, and another <0.5 true trail section where - from the looks of it - the rail trail has been permanently diverted around someone's house. This section was a bit of a stinker. Short but steep, and with lots of  rocks and roots and stumps.
  • There were a couple of road crossings with steep ascent/descents, and also a tunnel which looked more like an oversize culvert.
  • The true rail-trail sections - 80% of the course - was flat, occasionally rocky and with some ancient railroad ties. 
  • This was a no-frills race with a $50 entry fee. Showed up 30 minutes before the start, got a bib and safety pins, and was ready to go. 
  • However, for a "no-frills" race, the aid stations were just fine. All the normal stuff you'd expect in an overnight race. Excellent volunteers too (are volunteers ever not excellent?)
  • It was chilly, but not cold. The fires at the aid stations were nice. Too bad they were only at the aid stations.
  • It rained a bit overnight. 
  • Joey says hi.
  • "It's on strava or it didn't happen"
  • Halloween decorations were fun. Some group spent a ton of time carving pumpkins for us.
  • Really love the TARC vibe. You guys have a great thing going up there.. don't take it for granted. Trail Animals Running Club Website
Getting away from the bullet points for a sec..

They say every ultra is a learning experience and I want to write a bit about what I realized during and after this race. What follows is my opinion, realized only after years of experience, which may change again after a few more years.

This race was really really hard for me. And not because the course was particularly difficult, or because I did something stupid that ruined the race, or because of some sort of adverse environmental factor. But I was really demoralized, and I lost all the will to finish. It never felt like I was incapable of finishing; I just stopped wanting it. Why was I out here? I've done this before; I have nothing to prove. I know what it's like to finish. It's not worth it. I can stop now and be comfortable and get some sleep and enjoy the rest of my weekend.

The week prior, there was a discussion on the ultra list about DNFs. I wrote that "tenacity is the highest value in ultrarunning" and the desire to never quit was in our DNA. Thinking of that, it occurred to me that the only reason I'm still in this thing is to not be a hypocrite. My friends will be so disappointed. But nobody will remember in a year. Who really cares?

Crazy as this sounds, experienced readers are no doubt nodding in agreement right now. The crux of a 100 are the mental games we play in the wee hours as our mind wrestles with the decision to quit or not, and this is what makes 50 miles categorically different than 100. Just about anyone who can complete a 50 in 12 hours can also complete a 100 in 30. It's not really a factor of extra training. 50s are little more than a feat of physical endurance, but what gets you from 50 to 100 is between your ears.

Here's a concrete example that we hear all the time, given as an excuse to quit: "It stopped being fun." That person played the 100 mile mental game, and lost. The point of a 100 is to continue even when it sucks. Don't like it? You should have entered a 50.

And that's the special appeal that 100 milers have. That's what makes 100s unique. Most beginning ultrarunners think 100s are merely a next step from the marathon or 50. But I've completed the 100-mile distance eleven times now - and let me tell you - 100s still intimidate the hell out of me. They're an exercise in getting over everything you're dealing with - mentally - and continuing towards the goal no matter what. It takes a massive amount of mental energy, so much in fact that I can't do more than a few per year. I simply don't have the mental capacity. Right now I'm sore and tight and achy and can't walk very well, and those are expected outward manifestations of having run an ultra. But what may not be obvious is that I'm just as exhausted mentally as I am physically.


I sent a draft of this rant to some friends for review, and here's what one had to say:
An interesting thing for me is that in the mental struggle we lie and rationalize and equivocate, but we do want that finish. We really want it. I plodded for miles at viaduct with Mary Vish with wrecked feet and we talked about how arbitrary 100 miles is and how insignificant a finish is in the great scheme of life and the universe. We went so far as to agree that chasing a 100 finish when completely beat down was just stupid. Then we finished and hugged and prepared to go our separate ways and I said something to the effect that we would see each other at the fair or someplace and reminisce about our stupid perseverance at viaduct. She looked at me like I was nuts--like, it's not stupid; it's an awesome accomplishment borne of two warriors' refusal to yield. (I'm paraphrasing more eloquently than the conversation went, but the gist of if was we weren't stupid; we were badass.) I thought it was funny how fast she flipped when we had done it. - Fred Murolo

Here's what "Laz" wrote to the Ultra List a couple of years ago:
we all have our own voices. each one attuned to our own personal weakness. it isn't the temperature, or the altitude, or the distance we must conquer. humans are remarkably durable... physically. it is those dam voices. because humans are remarkably weak... mentally. it always seems like a good idea to run the race when we sign up. and it seems like an even better idea to quit, when we quit.
All that brings me to my last bullet point:

  • This was a lap-based course (instead of a single loop or point to point race), and every time you come by race HQ, there's an enticing opportunity to drop. The contrasting point is that, when you're out on the course, that opportunity simply isn't there. So it doesn't matter how much bitching and complaining and bellyaching you'll do out on the course, because you don't have any choice but to keep moving forward. The key is how you behave when in HQ. The nice thing about this is that the action required to not quit is insignificant: just stop complaining, take two minutes, and start the next lap. Once started, I know that I'm not going to stop early and turn back. It's an automatic fifteen miles added to my total. Then repeat, until 100 is achieved.

finishers' belt buckle available for purchase
I only took four photos. One was of the railroad spike, above. Here are the other three:
mile 92 selfie
waiting to start

"only one can be dfl"

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