Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Lesson in Attitude

[I originally wrote this in January of 2016 as a guest post for another blog, but it ended up never getting published. I've decided to publish it here, during the 2017 running of the BoB. My full race report from the 2016 race is here, along with some New York State history.]  

I never thought running 50 miles would be easy. Ever. But when the course is a pancake flat, double out-and-back towpath, it can't get much easier.

Just past the first turnaround, only 13 miles in, I already felt my strength slipping away. I knew that running out of gas was imminent, but to slow down so early by so much was almost embarrassing. Even the amount of effort it took to avoid slowing to a walk felt unsustainable. A mere three weeks into the new year and I was already about to fail at my number one running goal for 2016. Completely frustrated, I wanted this to be over after it had only just begun.

Let's back up a bit. Over the last several years, I've had the same primary goal for each year regardless of fitness level,
training schedule, or race plans. That goal is something I write down every January 1 in the beginning of my training log, and reads as follows:

1. Remember to have fun with running.

People are innately competitive when placed in a demanding situation where they will be judged or scored against others—a timed foot race, for example. However, I wish to continue making running a part of my life for as long as I am enjoying the sport. While competition can motivate one to push harder that he or she would otherwise, sometimes it's best to let that competitive drive take a back seat to the simple act of enjoying the activity for what it is. That means not taking things overly serious or holding a grudge against oneself for failing to achieve a goal.

On a chilly Saturday morning in mid-January I traveled up to Lockport for the Beast of Burden Ultramarathon 50-Miler. I was interested in a new type of challenge—one that involves battling the patented Upstate New York cocktail of snow, ice, and wind for the better part of a day. The 50-mile race is a double out-and-back along the Erie Canal Towpath between Lockport and Middleport, while the accompanying 100-miler is a quadruple out-and-back. In the lead-up to race day I felt pretty confident I'd land a 50-mile PR by a huge margin. As it turned out, the "easiness" of the course left me overconfident, my mind and heart not really in the right place for a stellar performance. Although two months of race-specific training had gone pretty well, I had failed to give The Beast the proper mental focus I'd given to other "A races" in the past. Suffice to say, I simply wasn't prepared.

The burden of The Beast began to weigh me down shortly after the aid station at the 12.5 mile turnaround. I struggled to keep moving over the next several miles as I was passed by runner after runner. It was difficult not to continuously look at my watch and see the minute-per-mile pace rapidly slowing. My goal time was already far beyond reach, and my core temperature was dropping along with my speed. (How could there possibly be a headwind in both directions?!) Everyone else on the course appeared to be moving swiftly, and with ease. I never wanted a race to be over with as badly as I did at the Beast of Burden.

It was during this low point when I encountered Ithaca ultrarunner Chris Reynolds passing by in the opposite direction. We slapped hands and exchanged a few words before going our separate ways. I immediately thought of the other times I'd encountered Chris during a race. Never one to shy away from a trail race, she routinely runs in the back of the pack and always has a kind word and a huge grin on her face. As a serial trail racer, she beats herself up time and time again and smiles and laughs about it the whole way. She consistently does what I was failing to do at that very moment. That is, focusing on the positives and remembering to enjoy my time out there.

As I slowly made my way along the inbound path toward to halfway point, it felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. For the previous three hours I'd been concerned with nothing but pacing, forgetting that things don't always go as planned. In this rugged sport, bad days happen but you have to adjust and roll with the punches. I suddenly felt blessed to be out there on a winter's day with 100 other like-minded runners, on a historically significant, 200-year-old canal path.

I'd be lying if I told you the rest of the day was all fun and games, but my mind felt much clearer and my legs much stronger for the remaining 30 or so miles. I continued to guzzle nut butter packets, Tailwind, and gels over the next several hours. Heading west down the 12 mile homestretch I had the pleasure of watching a beautiful sunset over the Erie Canal. Running by headlamp through two inches of snow with a full moon blazing overhead in all its glory made for a unique experience. It's sad to think that without the change in attitude I would not have appreciated all Mother Nature had to offer on that fine January day. Eventually I cruised happily into the finish tent well behind my original goal time, but still a 50-mile PR by over 30 minutes.

I passed Chris two more times along the canal, and last I checked she was still all smiles!

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