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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Long Island Greenbelt Trail 50K

I haven’t written a blog entry in quite some time, but I have been training and planning for races. One of the highlights of my recent training was my annual birthday trip to Harriman State Park for some suffering on my bike while I negotiate the hills. I’ve done this on May 7th for the last 3 years. My goal for the birthday ride is a 100 miler, but I’ll take what I can get. This year it was a pleasant, but painful 70.5 mile ride. I’ll write a more detailed entry about it some time soon.

Anyway, this training ride set me up nicely for the Greenbelt 50K trail run this past Saturday. Where do I begin describing this race? Perhaps I should mention that the night before the race I cracked one of my teeth and the merest whiff of air against it would throw me into spasms. I almost decided not to do it in order to get the tooth fixed the next morning, but after speaking to my coach, he told me to put some ear plug wax over it. This worked out nicely, so I decided to go for the race and just wait until Monday to get the tooth fixed.

The race was definitely one for the record books. Let’s just say it was not what I expected. I thought I would have an easy 5 hour , 31 mile run with my friends Larry and Willie over some pleasant trails, but instead this race turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever done, if not the hardest. Larry and Willie both felt the same way.

The race started out easy enough. The course is two loops of an out and back trail, so we all left our resupplies in the car. It left from where we parked our cars, and then on roads for about 2 miles before we entered the Greenbelt trail. The trail at this point was relatively smooth and easy going. It was a pleasure to get into the woods and off the asphalt. I was able to run steadily and easily and began to range ahead of Larry and Willie. There were some difficult parts along the first couple of miles, but nothing so bad that you couldn’t make good progress. There were plenty of roots along the ground and you had to constantly watch your step. However for the first few miles you were mostly able to run it. At one point we came out of the woods into a wide open pasture, with beautiful clear blue skies and a pleasant breeze.

It is really hard to describe the entire course. The best I could really do is separate the 7.5 mile trail (remember it is out and back) into the first 4-5 miles and the last 2-3 miles. The first 4-5 miles was mostly runnable with the occasional walking breaks to climb some stairs of to navigate some particular rocky and rooty areas. The last 2-3 miles was a freaking nightmare. Since it was out and back, you had a 4-6 mile section of course that was like something out of a Charles Dicken’s novel. It consisted of long stretches of ups and downs in densely covered woods. This entire section had a dark feeling about it with obstacles thrown at you every few yards. I remember feeling pretty good up until this part began, but then feeling my mood slip and the trails became more difficult to negotiate and the course harder to follow. Many runners on this first loop were taking wrong turns and you really had to concentrate to stay on course. As the trail got tougher on the way out, I began to doubt whether or not I could do it.

During the run out on the first loop, we passed the same runners over and over again. This is because they took several wrong turns along the way. There was one woman in particular who took several wrong turns and I guess this caused her to bail out of the race at the turnaround point. The turn around point was a steep trail down a hill with steps along the way. It dumped you out somewhere near Cold Spring Harbor. Waiting for us at the turnaround were a couple of volunteers with Gatorade, water, cookies and potato chips. I really wished they had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

On the way back we started to come across the lead runners of the 25K. They started out an hour after the 50K start. It was amazing to see them fly up and down the hills that we were struggling with. I wished I was them, not so much for their speed, but for the fact that they were only doing the 25K. The way back to the start was tougher than the way out. All the time on the way back on the first loop I was thinking that I would just bail out once we reached the cars. The Long Island Railroad was sounding very good to me. I figured I’d get my stuff out of Larry’s car, perhaps call my brother who lived nearby, and head to the train station.

On the way back my mood started to lift again, after we got out of the treacherous part of the course. We were able to do some decent running again and the constant motion served to calm me down. I still didn’t want to go back out again and all I wanted to do was call my brother-in-law who was taking my son to his baseball game to see how my son was doing.

As we started to get closer to the starting point, I tripped over something on the ground. I hit the ground and rolled for a few feet, but other than getting dirty I was fine. As we started to see the lead wave of runners come back at us, we noticed that many of them were dirty and cut up from falling as well. Finally, we came out to the trails end and what I thought would be a loop around to the cars. However, we were told at this point we simply head back out on the trail to do it all over again. I was literally in shock and in a panic over this news, because all of my plans for either bailing out, or calling my son or resupplying myself just flew out the window. I said to Larry that I wasn’t sure if I could do this, to which he replied to just put one foot in front of the other. We were at this point over 3.5 hours into the race and I had expected to be done in 5. I somehow just managed to follow Larry back onto the trail and talked myself into calming down and to just keep moving. Within a few minutes of heading back out I began to feel better and settled into a steady rhythm.

The joke of the day on the course, especially when we got back to the difficult part was how the course was Challenging, but fair. This was the race director’s description of the course on the website. We really were questioning exactly what fair meant. What did he mean by challenging, but fair? This was the most difficult course any of us had run on and there didn’t seem to be anything fair about it. The course looked to trip you up almost with every step of the way and it was a long time between aid stations. This course was more about survival than being fair. I finally decided that the RD meant to say fare, as you were certainly paying a price for running on it.

As difficult as this course was, I do have to say that I probably had more fun doing it than any other race. When the going got really tough, there was really nothing to do but laugh about the situation. Many times during the day, I simply busted out in laughter at the absurdity of what we were trying to do. Everything that we could say about the day brought out peels of laughter from the 3 of us. We laughed at how there didn’t seem to be much quality running to be had as at times the most you were able to run was able 15 feet before you had to negotiate a steep hill or obstacle.

The 4-6 mile difficult part of the course on the second loop was just as difficult if not more difficult than on the first loop. Let’s just say we were all glad when we left it for good on the second loop. We passed a few runners who were still coming out for the second loop and all I could think of was how I was so glad not to be them, first having to negotiate it. It was a major relief to finally put behind the difficult section of course for good.

Along the way back a couple of runners had passed us. This kind of annoyed me even though I wasn’t going out to be competitive in the race. One particular runner passed us at one of the aid stations, but he never got that far ahead of us. We tracked him through the final miles of the race. At the last two miles of the race, I realized that we could break 7:30 for the race. I also wanted to catch the runner who had recently gotten ahead of us. I found a second wind on these last two miles and just let my legs start running. I am sure it was a slow pace, but it certainly felt fast compared to the previous miles. We caught the runner who got ahead of us at a road crossing when he went the wrong way to enter the trail. I started to run ahead of him with Larry and Willie following me not far behind.

My adrenaline at the thought of the finish got the best of me and I totally blew out ahead of Larry and Willie. I crossed the finish line about a minute ahead of them and immediately felt bad for not slowing down and finishing with them. I couldn’t help it though, I was running and feeling good and couldn’t slow down. Hopefully they didn’t mind so much, especially since if it weren’t for them, I am not sure I would have finished the race.

As tough as this race was, I am contemplating doing it again next year. It was definitely a great workout and I did have a lot of fun. Next time I’ll be prepared for it. I took it easy the next morning by riding my bike for an hour and then heading to Coney Island for a swim. The cool 56 degree water felt great on my legs and wiped out any aches and pains that may have lingered from the race.

I am feeling confident now that I’ll do ok at Escape from Alcatraz 3 weeks from now. It feels good to know that I must be in some pretty decent shape to complete the course I just did.

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