September 17, 2007

I'm Not Crazy - or - SOS (Survival Of The Shawangunks): A Race Report

People think I’m crazy. You’re crazy, they say to me.
But I don’t listen to them because I know they’re wrong. I’m normal.

It all started a few years ago when my sister decided to move to Gardiner, NY, two hours outside of the Big Apple. Gardiner is one of those small hamlets that would actually be quaint if it were big enough to have a downtown.

With only 5000 people, it nestles itself at the foot of the Shawangunk mountains in the lower Catskills. A haven for rock climbers, mountain bikers and off-road runners, Gardiner is somewhat of a smaller version of an outdoor-man’s paradise – as if Colorado were crammed into 30 square miles.

Meanwhile, zip over to the other side of the country and her younger brother (that’s me) had been gallivanting about for well over a decade in the sprawling concrete metropolis of Los Angeles. He had taken to this thing called triathlon, an activity that few people in the family really admitted to understanding. But he’s in California, they’d whisper quietly to others in their cocktail party confessions. You know those Los Angeles people, they do some really weird things. He’s a little crazy, that kid.

So when said sister saw an article in the local Gardiner paper about a race called the SOS (Survival of the Shawangunks), she thought it sounded pretty nutty. Maybe even crazy enough for the triatha-something brother in California.

You should do this race, she said to me somewhat jokingly, in the same way somebody might say, You should try going over Niagra Falls in a crockpot, that sounds like fun.

That DOES sound like fun, I responded with weird and crazy wide eyes.

That was the end of that conversation. At least for the next five years.

Fast forward to 2006 when my sister decided to do her first triathlon. Like many others before her, she learned to love the sport and was hooked. She started racing triathlons like they were going out of style – a sprint this weekend, an Olympic that one. I can’t believe you’re doing so many races, I’d say to her. You’re crazy!

Next thing I know we stumble into 2007 and I get a call from my sister telling me she wants to race the SOS and would I be interested. Huh? I mean…. Hell yeah!

And so we signed up.

I ask you, who is the crazy one now?!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the SOS, let me give you the quick rundown. Officially it’s called a “triathlon”. In real life, it’s probably a cross between a triathlon, an adventure race and the movie Alive… but with fewer plane crashes and significantly less cannibalism.

It starts with 30 miles of road biking. That leads to 4.5 miles of trail running which segues into 1.1 miles of lake swimming. After that you’ve got 5.5 miles of more trail running and another .5 miles of lake swimming. As if that’s not enough, toss on another 8 miles of trail running, another .5 miles of lake swimming and then cap it off with a .7 mile trail run that might as well be considered mountain climbing.

It all sums up to 30 miles of biking, 2.1 miles of swimming and 18.7 miles of running. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that there is only one transition - right after the bike ride. That means that you run with your swim gear and you swim with your run gear. Yes, that includes the shoes.

Crazy, huh? Maybe even a little weird – but in an intriguing kind of way? I thought so too.

Keep in mind that all of this takes place under the incredibly scenic backdrop of the Shawangunk Mountains at the foot of the Catskills, right in the heart of Gardiner where, if you remember what you read 30 seconds ago, my sister currently resides.

I had run on these Shawangunk trails during previous visits to my sister’s house and knew fairly well how gorgeous the area was. If nothing else, I knew the race would be an extremely scenic experience and as the date approached my excitement increased.

I have to admit that I don’t usually look forward to races with excitement. The nervous energy and anxiety usually pin any potential excitement to the floor and pummel it with wedgies and wet willies to the point in which the excitement doesn’t even want to come out and play anymore.

For some reason, this race was different. I was honestly excited about doing it. I smiled at the thought of it. Maybe it was because I knew the course was so gosh darn pretty. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t wait to swim in the pristine, fresh water lakes as opposed to the soiled, petrol-tasting salt waters of LA. Or maybe I was just looking forward to gallivanting on the scenic, winding mountain trails instead of dodging deranged drivers on the smog-filled, highly trafficked city roads of home. Either way, when Catherine and I flew out to Gardiner on Thursday, I wasn’t too nervous.

After a couple of days playing with my nieces (who, for the record, are the cutest things this side of puggle puppies), I still didn’t feel like I was about to embark on a difficult journey. However, there’s nothing like a pre-race athlete’s meeting to energize the anxiety-ridden animal from within. Saturday night’s mandatory meeting did just that. Which led me to the inevitable restless sleep on Saturday night. Which awoke me at 4:45 the next morning.

OK, time to bridle that anxiety. Let’s get to the race report...

THE BIKE
The Distance
30 miles

The Day’s Bike Challenges
* The nervous feeling of nausea that started at the pre-race athlete’s meeting and just won’t go away

The beginning of the SOS is a little weird. I’ve done many a triathlon in my time and the pre-race ritual is always the same. You do the Dead Man Walking shuffle to the transition, slogging through the nervous energy that permeates the air like pepper spray, then you stake your claim on the bike racks, pee on the edges so everybody knows its your territory, lay out your belongings and all the time keep your head down in focused nervousness. You probably smile at a few racers, maybe exchange a couple of pleasantries, but it’s mostly a pre-battle zone. Having a conversation with somebody before a triathlon is more often than not seen as an invasion of personal space – like when those crazy Europeans stand three inches from your face while they speak to you. We just don’t do that in America.

But as I said, SOS is different. The pre-race energy at the start of the SOS is somewhat akin to a local Turkey Trot, except with a lot more super-fit folks. Like a small town Sunday morning coffee klatch, the beginning of the SOS seemed like another excuse for everybody to catch up on small town politics. It was a social gathering, a tea party on wheels. I have to admit, it was a bit weird and somewhat comforting at the same time. So while my sister intermingled with the masses like she was the Mayor of the Shawangunks, I just stood around and tried to act relaxed.

I’ve never been to a multi-sport race that had a bike start. It was a bit weird in a fun sort of way. Rumor has it that the SOS may be the only race sanctioned by USA Triathlon that starts with a bike.

Since they limit the field to 150 people, there were only seven waves for this race. So there we were, a few minutes before 7am, the fog still settled on the surrounding farms and 150 people all dressed in lycra, straddling their bikes in the middle of the street. If this was the first sight aliens saw when they landed on earth, they might very well get back in their UFO and hightail it outta here. Truthfully speaking, I wouldn’t blame them.

I was wave number 6: men 40-44. We were the second to last group to go out, which made me happy. I like starting in the back of the race, that means that there are more people ahead of me at any given time and less people to pass me by and make me feel slow. Being in the back makes me feel fast. I like feeling fast - even though I'm really not.

After the singing of the national anthem that sounded like it came from somebody’s four year old daughter (andprobably did), the clock struck 7am and the first group rolled out. With only 1 minute between the start of each wave, it wasn’t long before the clock clicked over to 7:06. Time to go. With a blast of the air horn, I rolled off toward the sunrise with my 23 other 40 to 44 year old friends. Giddyup.

Though SOS is primarily an off-road race, the bike is all on paved roads. It starts with 10 miles of flats to get the legs warmed up which is quickly followed by the rolling hills. After 15 miles of up and down, you suddenly stop going down. The final 5 miles of the ride are all uphill. Crazy non-stop uphill. The type of uphill that makes you realize the first 25 miles were just a warm-up and you sorta wished somebody told you to slow down long before you got here.

Many times throughout the ride I found myself staring off into the surrounding scenery. It was a gorgeous morning that was just coming alive. We streamed along endless rural roads that weaved in and out of farmland and forest. Ahead of us, the sun was rising over pumpkin patches, vegetable fields and towering rows of seven foot sunflowers.

I tried to keep a steady pace on the bike ride that edged just a little bit out of my comfort zone. With only 30 miles of riding, I knew I didn’t have to hold back too much. At the same time I had a long day ahead of me so I didn’t want to go all out and blow up on the run.

One would think that the pre-race coffee klatch mentality would cease upon the blowing of the starting horn. Nope. Since the starting times for each wave were so close together, the beginning of the ride was somewhat of a pack mentality. Moments of focused racing were interspersed with periods of socializing. More than a few times, another rider would be coming up to pass me on the left, only to stay by my side for a mile or so, introduce himself and share in the beauty of the scenery. It was very friendly. And very weird. We're not used to such overt race-time friendliness in California. We've got PRs to achieve.

By the time I got to the rolling hills, the group had begun to spread out. And when I say spread out, I mean that in the upstate New York, most rural sense of the word. At about mile 15 I realized that there was nobody in my site. Though I knew I was on course because I kept following the arrows, I couldn’t see a single biker anywhere in front of me. I turned around to see who was on my tail. Lord knows, there must be a bunch of people right behind me. Nope. Noone. The only person I could see riding behind me was at least a half mile away.

Now THIS is a race! Damn I feel fast!

Soon enough I hit the bottom of the 5 mile climb. One minute I’m biking solo through the rolling foothills of New England, the next moment I’m riding towards the heavens with a line of people stretched up ahead of me.

Fortunately, I’ve been doing a lot of uphill speed work this year to make up for the lack of running speedwork. Somewhere along the way of my training, I’ve actually become a more confident and stronger climber than I’ve felt in years. As a result, I was kinda looking forward to this part of the ride.

I knew if I just picked a steady cadence and maintained an even effort slightly above my comfort zone but short of having a coronary, I could fly up this hill. So I relaxed my body, shifted my gears to an easier ring, channeled my inner-Lance and pedaled my little butt off. Up, up and away in my beautiful Kestral (if you say that properly, it has the same rhythm as “balloon”).

I passed a few people immediately on the lower slopes of the climb. As the hill got a little steeper, I got a little faster. Soon enough, I caught up to a few more folks. My legs felt relaxed, my body focused. The gasping and hacking of others just fueled my energy to push forward. With each person I passed, I picked up the pace.

Within about two miles I saw my sister in front of me. She was moving at a steady clip and looking pretty good. She’s a good rider, my sister (and a better runner). If it weren’t for the long climb, she would have dusted me on the bike. But in a few minutes I reached her side.

How are you doing? I said as I pedaled up to her.

There you are! She responded with a smile. I was wondering where you’ve been!

After a few words of encouragement, I picked up my pace again and breezed up the hill.

I must’ve passed by at least 20 people in those 5 miles of climbing and by the time I reached the top, I was feeling excited about my ride and ready to tackle the rest of the course.

I hit the timing mat, dismounted my bike and stumbled towards the jumping screaming wonderfully supportive cheerleader that I like to call my girlfriend.


TRANSITION

If you’re thinking that the SOS transition is like a regular triathlon with secure fencing and bike racks and assigned areas, think again. One requirement of racers on the SOS is that you have a “handler”. The handler’s responsibility is to handle all of your crap. They get to the transition area before you finish your ride, lay all your knick-knacks on the ground, grab your bike from you when you arrive, lead you to your gear, then take the bike and all the remaining gear and get the heck outta Dodge while you are finishing the race.

Since Catherine is already accustomed to dealing with my crap on a daily basis, she made the perfect handler. When I got off the bike, I just meandered over to the yelling, effervescent jumping bean, she quickly grabbed my bike from me and led me to the little area she carved out among the masses of transition towels. I switched shoes, swallowed some endurolytes, grabbed some gels, gave her a kiss and I was gone.

Time to run.
Bring it on.

RUN #1
The Distance
4.5 miles

The Day’s Run #1 Challenges
* an extremely tight left calf
* a right achilles that felt like it might snap
* frustrations from all of the above


The moment I started to run I could feel something was wrong. My achilles was tight. Too tight. Rubber band about to break type of tight. It was the one part of my body that had me concerned before this race. So, naturally, it was the one part of my body that decided to act up during the race. The last thing I want to do is rupture my achilles. I had already promised myself that if the pain got too bad, I would stop and forfeit the race. I’m not ready to sacrifice a running career for this.

Unfortunately, I’m really not a DNF type of guy.

So the moment that the achilles started aching, I slowed down the pace to my usual excruciating-pain-shuffle. It seems to be one of my standard paces these days. Within minutes I was being passed by many people. All those I had zipped by on the last hill of the bike were running by me like I was sitting on the ground. It was aggravating. I felt like sitting on the ground.

About one mile into the run, my left calf started tightening up. SHIT!! I was already limping on my right leg because of the achilles, now I started limping on both legs. It’s tough to limp on both legs. When you limp on one leg you look like you’re in pain. When you limp on two legs, it just looks like you need to go to the bathroom.

I stopped to stretch and looked for something to lean on. But out here in the middle of the woods, there’s not much to stretch on. So I just kept a slow and steady pace and tried not to think about how much of a long, frustrating day I had ahead of me.

All of the SOS runs take place on mountain biking / cross country skiing trails. Most of the trails are packed dirt with a whole bunch of rocks thrown in for good measure. Every once in awhile you’ll hit a part that is loose shale. Those parts are usually on sharp turns during steep downhills, which is nice.

The first few miles of running are a gradual uphill. The “gradual” part kinda changes at mile three.

There are three hills on the SOS runs that are steep enough to actually have names. When you actually have to name a hill, it usually means it’s gonna hurt. Mile three was the introduction to Cardiac Hill.

Cardiac Hill is a bitch. Not much longer than a half mile, it’s the type of steepness that sucks the energy out of you pretty quickly. You think you can run it, but you’re wrong. You can’t.

Somehow I managed to make my way to the base of Cardiac Hill without crying. As I started up the lower portion, I suddenly heard my sister’s voice behind me. I knew she’d catch me on the run, but I didn’t think it would take this long.

This is your conscience speaking, she said. Don’t blow yourself out on the run.

I turned around to see her smiling, pink visored face approaching. I figured I’d do my best to keep up with her on Cardiac Hill but after 30 seconds I realized that the effort was unnecessary. Apparently so did she. So we walked.

It was nice to walk with my sister up the hill. It made me feel like we were really doing this race together, as a family. If we were both crazy, at least we were crazy together. For the past couple of years we’ve raced St. Anthony’s together, but with more than 20 minutes between our starting times, we really don’t see each other until the finish line. It’s not really “racing together” if you’re never racing together.

As we peaked Cardiac Hill, my sister and I started running again. Depending on the day and time, she can definitely be a faster runner than me and this was one of those times. It was a flat 1 ½ miles until the end of the run and I struggled to keep up with her. Soon enough, I realized my idiocy. (This is where you get impressed that I’ve actually evolved enough to recognize when I’m being stupid). I needed to save my legs from destruction, so I pulled back the pace as she moved off into the distance.

One mile later, I reached Lake Awosting, which marked the end of the first run. Let’s go swimming, shall we?


SWIM #1
The Distance
1.1 miles

The Day’s Swim #1 Challenges

* umm….nothing really


Once I got to the swim start, I saw my sister standing there. I know I’m a faster swimmer than she is, so I figured I wouldn’t see her until later in the race.

I climbed through the trees and got myself to a rock at the edge of the lake where I could sit down and remove my shoes and socks in peace. I have terrible balance and the last thing I’d want to do is crack my face open by trying to remove my shoes while standing up. That’d just be embarrassing.

Once I got my shoes off, I tucked my socks into the toes of the shoes, shoved my shoes into the back of my shorts, slipped on my swim cap, wrapped the goggles around my face, stepped in the water, bid farewell to my sister and I – ka-BAMM!! - I was off.

The Lake Awosting swim was nothing short of miraculous. First of all, it was 72 degrees. No complaints are allowed in 72 degree lake water. Complaints are only allowed in water that is 68 degrees or below. This is just a well-known fact.

On top of the refreshing temperature, this is a fresh water lake that is as clear and clean as Evian. There are no fish in this lake. No algae, no critters and no insects. Since there is no swimming allowed in it for most of the year, there is no trash or waste in this lake. With no boats, there is no taste of gas or oil. It is clean and pristine. I’d imagine that the Virgin Mary would approve of this lake, had she been competing in the SOS. When you get a little water in your mouth during the swim, it tastes more like Crystal Geyser than Shell. No gas, no oil, no scum, no algae. Just water. We don’t get a lot of this in Los Angeles.

I knew I’d be able to make up a lot of time on the swims, especially this long one. I’m a fairly decent swimmer and have the endurance to hold a rapid pace without tiring myself out too much. Since sneakers float, having them crammed in the back of my shorts didn’t slow me down in the slightest. I sighted for the far end of the lake, streamlined my body and kept my arms rotating.

I’d love to give you all sorts of stories about what happened in the swim but, honestly, nothing did. I swam and I swam well. Within a few minutes I started passing people. Then I zipped by a few others. And soon I found myself streaming by so many who had blown by me on the run.

It was fascinating looking at all the swimming styles. Some were wearing wetsuits that they no doubt had to carry for nearly 19 miles of running. Others had dry bags that they pulled like pack mules on the swim. Some others didn’t bother to take off their shoes (which doesn’t make much sense… it’s like swimming with a parachute), and others didn’t bother to take off their socks (which, again, doesn’t make much sense. If you’re removing the shoes, does it really take that long to remove the socks too?)

My arms felt wonderful, my body relaxed. In around about 29 minutes, I emerged at the other end of the lake, feeling pretty darn good about the entire thing.

I climbed up on to the lake side, pulled the shoes out of my shorts and sat on the grass to get myself dressed again. After wringing the water out of my socks I put them on, slipped my feet in my shoes, downed some liquids and Endurolytes at the aid station then was on my way for another run.

Whoooeeee. This is kinda fun!


RUN #2
The Distance

5.5 miles

The Day’s Run #2 Challenges
* cramping in the left leg


One of the things that really got me nervous at the pre-race meeting was all the talk about cramping. You’re going to cramp, they said. Everybody does.

I don’t look forward to cramping. To be honest with you, it kinda scares me. I don’t like knowing that at some point my body is going to start hurting a lot and there’s nothing I can do about it. Maybe I’ll be different, I convinced myself. Maybe I’ll be the one person that doesn’t cramp.

And maybe I’ll win the lotto while I’m at it.

The moment I started running after the first swim, I realized how great I felt. The swim really flushed out a lot of the pain from the previous run. My legs felt loose and relaxed. The calf pain was gone as if it never existed. The achilles still had a bit of a twinge to it, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. This is great! I said out loud with a smile as I picked up the pace.

The first two miles of the second run are all uphill. You pretty much climb straight to the peak of the mountains and look down thousands of feet to the lake from which you just emerged. As I started my way up the climb, I was feeling pretty positive. All of the sudden, the day was turning around. DNF?! Did I ever even consider DNF? Silly me.

About a quarter mile in there was only one person I could see in front of me, and he was only about 20 feet away. We had been going at the same pace but all of the sudden I started catching up to him. Suddenly he stopped. As I passed him by I could hear his grumblings…. Fucking cramps, he said.

Sorry about that bucko, I thought to myself. Good luck with those cramps. Really, good luck. No cramping for me. I’m the no-cramp guy. I’ll be in the history books for not cramping. You’ll hear about me later.

And on and on I went, yapping about in my head about how he was shit out of luck and how I don’t cramp and how I’m so muy macho and how silly he was to even think he could run faster than me and …

And that was about the time my left leg cramped.

It wasn’t much of a cramp, but it was bad enough. As I had said before, my legs felt all loose and relaxed as I ran up the hill. But then all of the sudden, my loose relaxed left leg turned into a concrete slab, just like that Gargoyle on the top of the building in Ghost Busters. You know, the one that goes back and forth between being a man-eating monster and a piece of stiff rock.

I let out a little yell. Maybe even a cuss word, though I can’t be sure. I slowed down my pace and waited, knowing that there wasn’t much I could do. Thoughts of DNF creeped back into my head.

Within 30 seconds, though, the cramps were gone and I was billy-goating my way up the hill. DNF? Did I mention those letters? I must be nuts.

There is an aid station at the top of the hill. The aid station is on the edge of a very large rock. The other side of the rock is nothing – it drops off to reveal the rest of the world in all of its splendid glory. Wherever they sell postcards of the Shawangunks, I’d imagine this is one of the photos.

As I stood at the aid station and guzzled down some Gatorade, I stared across the great expanse of the country that lay before me. It was breathtaking. I felt like I was in an a Runner’s World ad. Maybe even a Gatorade commercial. Then I started wondering why I was doing all this modeling for free. This is ridiculous. I need to call my agent and renegotiate.

I soon snapped out of my Hollywood fog and decided to continue on with my race.

Fortunately, the rest of the run to the second swim is all downhill. It twists and winds through canopies of trees, opens to panoramas of beauty and delves into endless fields of forest. The descent is steep enough to allow you to gather the speed of a gazelle, but gradual enough so you don’t end up slipping on the rocks and breaking your leg and being that one lame gazelle that gets eaten by the hyenas.

As soon as I started running again, it felt great. Beyond great. It was incredible. No, it was beyond incredible. What’s beyond incredible? Whatever it is, that’s what this was. I was an off-road maniac, zipping like wildfire through the forest of turns. I smiled. I laughed. I had chills stream up and down my spine. I may have even started singing songs out loud. You know I'm really happy when I start singing songs out loud.

Wow, I said to myself a few times between stanzas.

That’s all you can really say during this incredible experience. Sometimes three letters is all it takes to express the emotions.

Wow.

Within about one mile of running in solitude, I finally saw somebody in front of me. He was moving along at a pretty good clip – somewhere in the sub-8 minute mile range - though I was going a little bit faster. Soon enough I caught up to him.

Man, isn’t this incredible? I said as I approached.

He looked at me with the same glean in his eyes that I could imagine was exuding from mine. This is AMAZING! he responded.

We got to talking, this chap and I. His name is Dave. Dave is from New Jersey. He has done three Ironman races (including Kona in 2006. Lottery.), but, like me, this was his first SOS.

I’m not sure if Dave was trying to keep up with me or if I was trying to keep up with Dave. Either way, we kept picking up the pace as we got lost in conversation. Faster and faster we went as we yammered about the beautiful swim, the gorgeous trails, our previous racing experiences and all sorts of miscellaneous jabberwocky. Soon enough, I realized that we were practically sprinting.

I thought I should slow down, but it felt great. I kept going.
Wow, I whispered quietly to myself. Wow.

A few miles later, we reached Lake Minnewaska and the bouncing, screaming encouragement of my wonderful girlfriend.

I thanked Dave for an incredible run.

Time for swim number 2.


SWIM #2
The Distance
.5 miles

The Day’s Swim #2 Challenges

* complacence. I’m not good with complacence.

In some ways the second swim reminded me a lot of the Ironman Lake Placid swim. Like Mirror Lake, Lake Minnewaska is ½ mile long. It is also the same 70+ temperature, the same clean and clear water and the same beautiful setting – a mountain lake wrapped in the down comfort of beautiful green trees. More importantly, like Mirror Lake, there is a rope down the center of Lake Minnewaska for swim direction. All you’ve got to do is follow the rope. When it ends, you’re done.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Here’s the problem, I’m not a very straight swimmer. In fact, my swimming is somewhat akin to a drunk sparrow. I should be flying straight, but instead I’m weaving and wobbling all over kingdom come and it’s somewhat amazing that I don’t end up face first in the trunk of a tree, or , at the very least, into a big orange buoy.

One would think that having a rope right down Broadway would help keep me on track. If it were only so easy. After five minutes of drifting about like a runaway train, I saw another swimmer going at what I guessed was my pace. Maybe I’ll draft off of him, I thought to myself as I pushed towards his feet.

For the next five minutes I stayed locked in this guys wake. I really don’t have a ton of experience drafting on the swim, so I assumed that the fact this seemed so easy was normal. I was putting out very little effort and had to keep slowing myself down so I didn’t grab his feet. But I’m drafting, I reminded myself. It’s easy, but I’m probably going a lot faster than I normally would.

Soon enough we reached the end of the swim. I looked at my watch. 15 minutes. Whaaa?! FIFTEEN minutes?! It was at least a minute or two slower than I expected. Slower than I know I can do on my own. Maybe Mr Drafter wasn’t as fast as I assumed. Maybe I should’ve passed his slow ass way back in the middle of the lake when I first thought of it. Maybe I really need to let this go and start running. I've got bigger things to worry about.


RUN #3
The Distance

8 miles

The Day’s Run #3 Challenges
* tired legs
* squishy shoes
* a body that decided it had enough and would rather lay down and take a nap


I took my time putting on my wet shoes and socks. Knowing that I had a long run ahead of me, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get any loose rock or lakeshore debris stuck in my feet. Eight miles of pebbles in socks can turn into more pain than I really need at this point in my life.

The first mile of the third run takes place on the only paved road of the run. Unfortunately it is an extremely steep hill of the down variety. It’s the type of steep where you almost have to swerve back and forth, slaloming your way to the bottom in hopes of maybe saving your knees to run another day.

Though I’m not a huge fan of running down these incredibly steep hills, I will freely admit that it’s much worse when you do it in wet shoes and socks.

I’ve got these fancy Teva shoes that dry out in about two minutes of running. They’re so great, that when I run on trails (post-swim), I can’t even tell that they are wet. What I discovered is that when you run on a steep, paved downhill in these wet shoes, the feet squish and slosh and float around like fish out of water. It’s kind of like running down a mountain on a Slip n’ Slide. Maybe fun for a 10 year old. Not so much for me.

Once you reach the bottom of the hill, you hop back into the forest and onto 7 miles of scenic solitude. The first part of the trail weaves its way along the side of a babbling brook. I saw only one person running here. It was a woman, and when I passed her by she was complaining about her knees. Clearly she didn’t do any Slip n’ Slide training.

As I ambled along the creekside trail, I quickly became mesmerized by the soothing sounds of dribbling water, only to look up and realize I was sailing in solitude down a flat path with nothing in sight but an endless tunnel of trees.

I’d imagine that this part of the run could be viewed in one of two ways. It could be a frustrating venture, struggling through the endless tedium of unchanging scenery. Or, you could engross your mind in the soothing sounds of the rustling trees and the silent peacefulness of the pitter-pattering of your feet. I opted for the latter – the pitter patter - and had a grand old time running through the forest.

I smiled, I sang, I remained in awe of the senseless beauty. I laughed out loud when shivers of joy flooded my body. I couldn’t see a single person in front of me for as long as the path stretched forward. I looked behind me. Not a soul.

This must be heaven, I thought. When I die, I am going to be sent to a long trail in the woods for me to run on in peace. I don’t think I’ve died yet, but this is probably what it looks like.

I tried to keep a steady pace that was, again, just out of my comfort zone. My legs were definitely tired at this point but I knew I could keep this up without a problem. Then, completely out of the blue, at around mile 13 of the running (mile 4 of this run), my body decided it didn’t like what I was doing anymore.

It didn’t even bother to give a warning. Nothing like “hey, bucko, we’re about to pack it in in a few minutes, you might want to come up with a Plan B.”

In an instant, my knees started hurting, my quads started tightening and everything else felt like it was teetering on the edge of disaster. You know that game where you build a tower of little wooden pieces, then you pick the wooden blocks out one by one and the person that loses is the one who picks the last block that makes the tower collapse. Well, here I was at mile 13 of the run and I suddenly felt like I was one block away from total collapse.

I slowed down a bit and tried to let my heart rate come down and my muscles recover. It was too late for DNF, that didn’t even cross my mind. I tried to separate myself from the pain and focus on the beauty of my surroundings. Maybe that will help. Pretty trees. Fields of grass. Scenic path. Focus, focus, focus. This is heaven. I love this. Focus. No pain. No pain. Focus.

As I turned the corner I saw another aid station in the distance. OK, that might help.

I stumbled into the aid station and stopped. There was nobody else in sight, just me and the volunteers. I had some Gatorade. Some water. I ate a banana. Then another. A couple of Endurolytes. A gel. More water. Some Gatorade. Was I hungry or just stalling? I’m not quite sure. But this is a free buffet, right?

After I had stuffed myself silly, I decided to give running a go one more time. Lo and behold, fuel seemed to be what I needed. As I began to jog down the path towards the next swim, I noticed my knees felt better and my body felt more in tune. Granted, everything was still tired, but at least it wasn’t hurting. The tower had been rebuilt.

So I picked up the pace a little and kept moving forward.

In about five minutes I heard another runner approaching. I looked back, it was Dave. My Run #2 buddy. And he was moving along at a fairly good clip. As he neared me, I did a little soul searching. Can I keep up with him? Do I have enough in me to pick up the pace for another three miles? How deep can I dig?

How you doing?! He smiled as he reached my side.

Pretty good, I replied happily. But there’s no way in hell I can keep up with you this time. (I suppose that was my decision). Have a great run, I continued. See you at the finish.

That was the last I saw of Dave during the race.

At mile 15 (mile 6 of the third run), there is only one thing that separates you from the final swim and the finish. It’s called Godzilla.

As I mentioned before, there are three runs that are brutal enough to have special names. Godzilla is one of them. Godzilla is a two mile uphill. It’s a big brutal monster that keeps swiping at you and trying to break you down.

As for me, I’m not so much scared of monsters.

At the pre-race meeting, somebody who had competed in SOS before suggested that I walk Godzilla. Most people walk Godzilla, he said.

Well, with only three miles to go in this race, I’m apparently not most people. If you know me, you know that I like myself a good hill to run up. Godzilla was no different. I tucked my head down, took a big breath and started to climb. It was brutal. I struggled up, one step at a time. Half way to the top, I thought of walking.

Walking?! I suddenly heard my mind arguing with my body. Why the hell would you want to walk?! Keep running you wuss!!

So I listened. In the end, Godzilla’s bark is much worse than his bite. I reached the top and was feeling pretty darn good about it, thank you very much.

As I hit the flats I saw a man sitting in the middle of the trail and heard the roar of screams from up above. I turned my head up towards the skies and saw the top of a mountain. Is that the finish line way up there? I asked the man.

Yep, he said. You’re almost there. Take a left into the woods, don’t trip on the roots and run to the lake. Good luck.

Left in the woods? Whaaaa?

I looked around for the path to run down, the path that would take me to the final swim. But I couldn’t see any path. There was nothing but trees. I looked on the ground where his fingers had pointed. Suddenly I saw an arrow leading directly into the woods and over tree roots. Don’t trip on the roots, he had said. I suppose that means this is the way to go.

A free-form forest sprint after 18 miles of running. Crazy, but fun. I scrambled through the trees for the couple of hundred yards until I finally saw the final lake stretched before me.

The last lake. The last swim. Almost done.
Let’s frolic in the water one more time, shall we?

SWIM #3
The Distance

.5 miles

The Day’s Swim #3 Challenges

* some more of those damn leg cramps

The last swim takes place at Lake Mohonk, which is right in front of the incredibly scenic Mohonk Mountain House. The Mohonk Mountain House is one of those exclusive resorts that has probably been nestled here in the woods for well over 100 years. It is an enormous structure that towers above the Shawangunks in all of its splendid beauty. After traipsing through the woods, conquering monsters and battling the body, it is an awe-filled site to then stumble upon the monstrosity of Mohonk.

Like all of the other swims that I had done, I quickly tucked my shoes/socks into the back of my shorts and started on my way. And, like all of the other swims I’d done, there weren’t that many people around – but I ended up passing all those that I could see.

Lake Mohonk is nothing different than the other lakes. I suppose at this point in the race you get somewhat jaded.

Oh, another pristine lake? What’s the big deal. Clear, clean water? Whatever.

Needless to say, I pretty much enjoyed the swim. Though I was struck with slight leg cramps a hundred meters from the end, I made it across without too much issue.

The one thing that is significantly different in the Mohonk swim than the others is the end of it. Whereas the other swims end on the shallow shores of the lake, the Mohonk swim pretty much dead ends at a stone wall. Actually, it’s less of a stone wall and more a pile of boulders that you have to climb over to get out.

I heard of quite a few people that were so tired by the end of the swim, they had to stay in the water for a few minutes before finding enough energy to pull themselves out. Fortunately, my arms weren’t that tired, and my cramped legs had recovered, so I popped out of there as quickly as I could and put on my wet socks and shoes as rapidly as possible. Less than a mile to the finish. Time to get this adventure over with.

RUN #4
The Distance
.7 miles

The Day’s Run #4 Challenges

* leg cramps
* I forgot to bring my climbing rope


The last run is fairly short, only seven-tenths of a mile. The first tenth of a mile is relatively flat, as is the last tenth. It’s really the middle half mile that you need to worry about.

Remember that I said there were three runs that were steep enough to have names? Welcome to Skytop.

This last run is the type of hill that is difficult to walk up, much less run. The slant is so steep, you have to lean forward to keep yourself moving. In ½ mile you climb 300 feet. To put that in perspective, it’s like climbing to the top of a 30 story building. But before you do that, why don’t you bike 30 miles, run 18 miles and swim 2 miles. Great, now go climb a 30 story building. Good luck.

Oh, and if the path is too difficult to run up, you’re really going to be pissed when you realize that it’s so steep in the end you’ve got to lift your tired, burning legs up a flight of oversized stairs. Yeah, you’re definitely not gonna like that part.

My legs started cramping before I even got to the real incline. I guess in a way that helped me to relax a little bit because I had to slow down to flush them out. No bother though, soon enough the pain of the hill out-shadowed the pain of the cramping.

I had dreams of really pushing myself to the limit on this hill. In retrospect, I realize I did push myself to the limit, I just didn’t realize that my limit would be so gosh darn slow.

This run to Skytop was, without a doubt, the most challenging, the most brutal, the most unrelenting run I’ve ever done in any race at any time in my life. After three minutes of climbing, I was gasping all sorts of nasty words under my breath. I dared not look up, for fear of realizing the trail continued on. And by the time I thought I had absolutely nothing left and may just crumble onto the ground, I reached the stairs.

It’s less than 10 stairs, but it takes all the energy you can muster to get up them. Though it might be cliché to say these are like the Stairway to Heaven, they are. Remember, nobody said the stairs to Heaven were easy.

But once you reach the top and lift your eyes from the trail to see what lies ahead, you realize you are standing on the top of the world.

It’s an incredible, awe inspiring feeling that chilled every bone in my body.

Skytop is the peak of the Shawangunks. It overlooks everything. It overlooks Mohonk and Gardiner and New Paltz. I didn’t have my glasses on, but I think it overlooked Paris and Beijing and Kona as well.

When you lift your eyes and see you are on Skytop, you know you are done. You have Survived. The pain begins to clear. The row of onlookers begins to cheer. And as you stretch to the finish line that beckons in front of you, suddenly you forget that you are tired. You forget that you have cramped. You forget that your body may not have really enjoyed the entire journey. But you have, and that’s pretty much all that counts.

I screamed in joy as I reached the crowd. They clapped and cheered and made me feel like a hero. I saw Catherine - my bouncing, screaming, loving cheerleader - and ran to give her a kiss. I was happy. Ecstatic. My body wanted to finish, but I had too much fun to want to stop. I flew effortlessly the remaining 100 feet to the finish and crossed the line with a smile that stretched across the Shawangunks.

I survived. I am a Survivor.

It was a tremendous adventure, the SOS. A truly incredible experience. Without a doubt, this bike-run-swim-run-swim-run-swim-run was the most amazing race I’ve ever completed.

Sounds crazy, huh?

6 comments:

Crackhead said...

Geez--I HAVE to do this race! Congratulations. Great race, great report!

No Wetsuit Girl... overseas! said...

Epic! It was well worth the wait for the race report and DEFINITELY well worth the better part of an hour I spent reading it!

There's too much in there for me to say something insightful, but it was an excellent performance, and an excellently written post. Great job!

ChrisM said...

Well done jefe! Sounds like a blast, definitely a race I'd like to do some day. Great report.

Andra Sue said...

Great race report! And I've always loved that gargoyle thing from Ghostbusters...didn't it have a name? Not sure. Anyway, congrats!!!

Spokane Al said...

What a great race and a terrific report. With your reference to the song by the Fifth Dimension, I would have enjoyed knowing what songs you were singing as you ran.

DV said...

great report! That sounds like a blast, in a tortured sort of way...