The results of my first ultramarathon are in: a strained and swollen right hand, a slightly less strained right foot, scratches and bruises, an unfamiliar soreness in my legs and shoulders. Also: a sense of accomplishment, even glory, after a fifth place (of forty finishers) in 4 hours and 48 minutes at the very well organized Maylon Mayhem 50K in Central New Jersey last Saturday. (Others ran the 25, 75 and 100K.)
I had never run more than the 42K of a marathon. But I have been gravitating for a while toward trails, on the insistent advice of my coach Toby –the Kenyans avoid roads at all cost, he explains– and many other folks who know what they are talking about. My knees and back like it much better. On the road, every step is the same; on the trails every step is different and new, which is good for body and soul.
After getting up in the quiet dark at 3:30 AM, an ungodly hour even for a morning person, running buddy Eddie and I drove westward and got ready for the 6 AM start. A small band of thin, serious, nice people had gathered. We hit the trails and it was immediately confirmed that real runners always seem to underestimate the difficulty of a course. “Not too technical?” It was hilly, rocky and single file for about half of the 12.5K loop. But the weather was gentle and cool. The woods were gorgeous and quiet.
After an easy first loop, refilling the water bottle and eating someone’s excellent homemade cake, I decided to pick it up. I felt good, physically strong, confident, light on my feet. I was in my element, focused only on the trail and my steps. This is what running can bring. Solitude in the company of others. Adventure in new places. Clean air. A test of strength and will, a gentle pushing of boundaries and limitations – usually self-imposed. To me it’s not that different from playing with the waves and kites and balls on the beach as a kid.
I need to ask someone about the etiquette for approaching another runner from behind on a trail. Cough? Yell? Talk? Be quiet? I was just pondering these small but not inconsequential issues as I approached a rather interesting young lady who clearly knew I was there right behind her. I had said nothing so far but I was distracted. Then I lost my balance and crashed hard to the ground, which was soft and forgiving at this point, thankfully.
A few years ago I crashed a motorcycle on 1st Avenue in the East Village. I vaguely recall jumping up right away and, without checking or knowing my physical state, calling out that I was fine, seriously, just great, to no one in particular. Maybe to myself. Saturday, too, I got up quickly, shook off the dirt and the scare, and kept on running. My hand was gradually swelling and my foot hurt a bit. I suspected blood underneath dirty scratches on my lower leg and elbow. Then I found my pace and rhythm again and embraced this run, here and now, my breathing and legs in sync.
After the finish the throbbing in my hand started. As I ate a hamburger and chatted with other, true ultramarathoners, the adrenaline waned off and and pain began to spread. Now I have a hard time turning a key in the door. I am learning to use my left hand as I ice the right one.
Trail running definitely beats up the body more, said a running friend. Indeed; the day after I felt like I had been in a brutal fight. It was worth it.