This is Very Bad Idea.
(Aren’t those usually the best ideas)
It’s April 24th at 9:31PM. We’re now a little over a month into the quarantine in my home town of Philadelphia. In early April 4th 20 day’s prior, which feels like 3 days ago, and 3 years ago all at the same time, I signed up for a virtual 30 mile ultra marathon. I have zero clue how the signup appeared in my Instagram feed one day, (Josh could tell us) but it did and I fell for it and signed up. it’s through Yeti Trail Runners and they have been really impressive. Very reasonably priced ($35.95) part went to charity and you got a kick ass tech tee. Check them out.
The rules are simple.
Every 4 hours run 5 miles, 6 different times. = 30 Miles. Woof.
I have never done an ultra, but I have run 5 miles a couple hours apart. I have been to some VERY long winter track meets where it was hours in between events or two workourts 8-10 hours a part, but nothing like this.
This sounds tough, but of course as insane distance runner I have to add some challenge to this! I thought of this as I was running the first round..
I added two rules for myself. 1) Drink at least one beer in between each round of running. I mean, why not? 2) Negative split each round. Each round I want to run faster than the round prior. This one could end up being painful, but I need something to keep this interesting.
If you’re reading this, it will be a complete stream of consciousness. Forgive any egregious grammatical errors.
Full Disclosure I have been partially furloughed from my restaurant software consulting job. Everyday is the same but different. Time passes, but the actual time on the clock does not really mean much. Some days I have work projects to do, many days I do not, and I dive into social media far too often. I personally need outside forces at time to provide structure and this current environment provides none of it.
This has been FAR different from my life pre-quarantine. 6:00 AM alarms to either go running or attend a HIIT class. Immediately after, a quick shower, and breakfast and a ton of coffee on the go, of a vegan protien in a shakeer.
Next its conference calls while on the road to a meeting and inbetween typing away on my laptop or phone all day. I used to program into my calendar what time I have to be somewhere and Waze would tell me how long it would take and warn me when I have to go. Most of my days are regimented and booked up. Just to fill my time more, I also bartend part time and coach other runners.
Basically the only free time I had pre-quarantine, was on Sunday’s after my long run, from 1PM until I fall asleep.
Now? Mid-quarantine. Sort of, Who Knows?
Life is confusing and uncertain. I have just been running, A LOT. Probably too much. The last week has been tiring on the legs, but has not tired out my mind. The sudden increase in miles have left my legs weary and achy. Early in the quarantine running was a great escape, but now recently it has just been a bit painful. Sleep and recovery have been tough to come by.
The hospitality world that has been my entire professional life is completely upside down. While I am lucky that I still have some portion of a job, there is no shortage of anxiety of what the future of my industry looks like. Yes we the world will reopen, but what do restaurants look like? How many of my clients stay in business? Will I have a job and career after this? All questions that no one really knows the answer too.
I bring this up because the anxiety and lack of of sleep has had a very real physical affect over time. Lack of sleep=poor recovery. Poor recovery=my muscles, ligaments and my body feeling like shit. I could get into the nitty gritty of how the body feels ALL forms of stress and what hormones are generated during REM sleep, and why they are important for recovery, but not today.
This Ultra is going to be tough.
8:00 PM – Round 1.
The weather in Philadelphia has been as confused as everyone else is right now. It has been raining all day but the skies have cleared. As I set off it is bit cold and in the high 40’s but it’s very humid so it feels like the mid 50’s. I see some people walking around in hats, facemasks and winter coats, I see others in shorts and a t-shirt. Who knows what to what to wear, or what to make of it..
All I know is every weather reports I have been looking at is saying the next 24 hours look great. We’re even supposed to hit mid 60’s and sunny tomorrow.
As I start, I go on a very well worn route for me. Out from my apartment, past the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Rocky steps, down along the Schuylkill river trail into the city and back. The paved trail winds next to and even over the river, past downtown and on the opposite side of 30th St Station and UPenn. It’s a very urban route but offers some the most unique views of the city.
I start off WAY too fast. I have legitimate addrenline building up as I start. If I wanted to, I probably could have done a blazing first mile. If I wanted to.. I think better of it after the first 400m, take a deep breath and slow the F down.
The miles felt easy(ish), but my there are some twinges in my hamstrings and lower legs that have built up over the previous 5 weeks of intense running. My mind wanders. Mentally I have not been able to leave the weight of the movie we are in, (This is movie right?) and our current world behind.
Despite the rain all day, the cloud cover is starting to break up. You can even see the final light of sun setting off in the distance behind Franklin Field. Penn Relays, the world’s largest track meet is supposed to be happening right now.. This day.
The days really are getting longer. Maybe it is my mind playing tricks on me, but I have certainly noticed how much clearer the beautiful Philly skyline has been lately. Less traffic, less haze. I hope we can find a way to drive less after all of this.
Only in the last mile of my run, I begin to feel present in the moment. My legs finally start to loosen up and I accelerate. My feet are now easily turning over and I am not feeling the individual steps. Then my garmin watch goes off, a block away from my apartment. 5 miles down, 25 to go.
Now what? Eh let’s add more things to do and document this. Hopefully this calms my inner monologue running a bit for the next leg.
After the run, a couple of tacos, a beer (Bells Two Hearted), lots of water and typing. Now (11:00PM) less than an hour away from round 2. Where the fuck did the time just evaporate too? Let’s see where this adventure goes.
5.01 Miles – 35:06
Round 2: 12:00 AM
I quickly realize in gathering a new pair shorts, socks and a new shirt, that I did not prep properly for this, and I throw a load of running gear into the laundry before I start. Whoops. I am going to blow through some clothes. The weather is just humid enough to cause some serious sweat, and I am not putting on super damp cold clothes from the first run. Using sweaty clothes is also the fastest way to some serious chafing.. (There’s a tip for new runners.)
I start off, at midnight down the middle of my street, and Uh oh.. I swear my legs are different lengths. If it’s not one leg, it’s the other one causing issues. Recently my right leg had IT band, and hamstring issues that have been slowly improving over the last couple of months. All of a sudden now my left knee is in pain? Great. It’s very tight. I don’t slow down of course and just ease into the next 5 miles.
I pick another familiar route. Out and back along Kelly Drive, past Boathouse row, almost reaching the regatta stands. I have run and biked this particular area hundreds of times but never like this, at this time of night. Recently it has been jammed with experienced athletes and just people attempting to get out of of the house from dusk to dawn. Now there is no one.
The river is smooth as glass. I have NEVER seen the Schuylkill river like this, calm, steady and stunning. I can clearly see reflections of center city in the river. As I near the mid way point, I feel the wandering internal aches moving around my legs, that I think all runners are accustomed too. If it’s not the knee, it’s the hip, then the hip feels ok and a part of my quad tightens up. Roving and maurneding soft pain accompanying me along. Fun..
Right around 3.5 miles in, the aches fade, the legs loosen, and I really am able to look around. The normally crowded path, hidden behind people, strowlers, dogs, and cyclists is wide open at this time of night. It’s an 8 foot wide boulevard, with large trees on either side showing the way. It’s gorgeous in its emptiness. My pace quickens, I even rattle off a couple of miles too quick. I have a long way to go. I take the last mile easier and get home. More stretching, a Separatist Beer Project Tiny Magic, Pounder, and and attempt at a couple hours of sleep.
We shall see on the sleep. In an odd way I have butterflies and the feelings I have before a big race. I am already 10 miles in, but I know the tough miles are too come.
Total Miles – 10.01, 1:09:09, Split – 5.00 Miles, 34:52.
Round 3 – 4:45 AM
I slept in a bit. Whatever.
What are they going to do, DQ me..
When I get started the birds are already chirping. There is very faint light coming from the east. The route I picked is something completely different. Straight down the main road of Philadelphia, Broad Street. At a couple points I even run right down the middle of the large four to six lane road. Why not? There is not a car in sight.
Biggest problem, my knees. They are stiff. Think of really old rubber bands that have very little elasticity left, fraying on the edge and about to rip.. That is what my knees feel like.
Pavement, hurts. Uneven sidewalks hurt even more. Warming up and cooling down is making it even worse. I am running on the Nike Zoom 3’s, (No Next %’s here. I was going to wait for one of my projects to wrap up, get paid, then purchase them. Then, well you know, pandemics) They are comfy but not ideal. Also shoes take time to recover cushioning, usually about 12-24 hours, (THAT IS WHY YOU SWITCH SHOES! Dumb move Kevin. Another Tip) and these I feel have been worn down a bit the previous two runs.
I finish ok, but not quickly. My form is very robotic right now and clunky. The very second my watch hits 5 miles I stop immediately and walk down the middle of the street.
The sun is coming up and the sky is very clear. It is going to be a gorgeous day. Time to stretch, eat, and drink a Sunshine Pils. Get it?
Total Miles – 15.02, 1:44:02, Split – 5.00 Miles, 34:53.
Round 4 – 8:00 AM
I am Kevin’s angry stiff knees. As I start off down my street, I barely make it ten seconds before my extremely tight legs make me stop dead in my tracks. My feet are landing like cinder blocks slamming on to the pavement. Everything below my hips are in some degree of pain.
As I stop and attempt to stretch I make a deal with my legs, again. For the hundredth time since high school track. Get me through this next 5 mile round and I’ll stop. I promise.
Maybe. We’ll see.
When I start back off very slowly, my body slowly loosens up. I am still in some serious pain though. Miles of pavement and the cooling off and warming up process in between rounds has done a number on my joints and muscles. As the ligaments and small muscles tire in the feet and lower legs that usually absorb the impact of my feet striking the ground, the larger muscles now take even more of a beating, and tire. My lower body hurts.
The sun is out, there is barely a cloud in the sky, and it is mid-50’s. Spectacular running weather. After my start and stop, then restart, I head off to the Ben Franklin Bridge, which offers some of the best views of the Philadelphia skyline.
I am solely focused on dragging my body through these 5 miles, that I forget, oh yea, there’s a pandemic.. Seriously. I forgot. Until I saw someone with a mask on.
Running has that odd way of taking you places, you never imagined you could go, within the same geography and time. Maybe you have been to that place a hundred times, but when you go running by it, you see everything through a different light.
That is where this ultra is taking me. It’s allowing my mind to wander and see the wide world there is without quarantines, shelter in place orders, phases, masks and the endless politics of everything. I am transported to different dimension, just ever so slightly beyond reality.
I turn around on the bridge at 2.5 miles to return back, and see the spectacular Philadelphia skyline. The thought of bringing my phone to capture the moment crossed my mind before I left, but it stays at home. Running is my time to disconnect and I very rarely bring the phone with me. Today is no different. I’ll just have to remember this moment. Someone else can Instagram it. Would have made a hell of a post.. Whatever.
As I meander through the city on my way home, my running is far more of slog, but I start to plan.. I will get to the next round, and see how the legs feel. (Sorry legs)
This is not an all out race though. I am trying to run and stay active throughout this quarantine, therefore I am not going to risk even a light injury to finish this challenge. Far better to fight another day. (Tip)
That being said, I want to finish. I need to finish. The watch hits 5 miles, and I stop immediately on a dime a couple blocks from my place.
Total Miles – 20.04, 2:31:41 , Split – 5.02 Miles, 36:39.
Round 5 – 12:00 PM
Back at it.
In between rounds, I did something different, than I had before. I do not stop moving. Counterintuitive, but it should work. As soon as I am done, I stretch a lot, attempt to type a bit and find things to do. I do some laundry, change my shirt, and take my dog to a local park.
The Wissahickon park in Philadelphia as been my escape the last month. It is gorgeous. A little area, filled with 50 miles of trails that keep my busy, when I have time to make the 20 minute drive over. I bring my dog, and we go on a quick 2 mile(ish) hike. It is slower paced than our usual trots, but it is exactly what we need.
After looking at my watch, it’s time to get back.
Starting at 11:30, I work on dynamic stretching and plyometrics for a solid 20 minutes before I start out on my run. I need to make sure I am taking care of my body these last 10 miles, or I am going to be in a wheel chair the rest of the quarantine.
I start off with another pair of shoes, the new Infinity’s by Nike. I have not been a fan but I need to mix it up.
I pick the route back along Kelly Drive, because there is a section, about a mile long of a gravel trail that I will hit out and back for a total of about 2 miles. Any little bit helps.
As I sail along with relative ease, I am thrilled with how my body feels. Everything is moving relatively well. Yes there is some pain but the movement in between rounds has paid off big time.
I am not thinking about pandemics, or even my running a whole lot. Finally my mind can wander a bit, and I can just meditate a bit. Call me crazy but running is meditative for me, if I can quiet my mind. It took 20+ miles of and 16 hours, but it’s finally happening today. The sub-conscience and muscle memory takes over the run, while my conscious mind can just wander and expand. I need this right now, this is my brief therapy. My version of a runner’s high even. My brain slowly starts to plan what my fall running schedule will even look like.
I also start to plan EVERYTHING that I am going to eat in a couple of hours. It’s the little things.
Before I know it, 5 more miles are done.
I have two beers. Why not?! Another Troegs Sunshine Pils, and a Troegs Perpetual IPA.
Total Miles – 25.1, 1:44:02, Split – 5.08 Miles, 35:34.
The Final Countdown!
Ha. Hopefully that song is stuck in your head.
In a twist to the narrative that was occurring earlier, my legs and body are having their second wind. I keep active in between rounds again with stretching, plyometrics, and a trip to the grocery store, (Which now takes some time)
I go back to the same route again along Kelly Drive and Boathouse row. It is 65 and sunny, and the path is PACKED. People who have never gone running or wandering along this trail are suddenly out and about. There are kids and families everywhere.
The same route that 16 hours before was silent and wide open, is now jammed and chaotic. Social distancing for better or for worse, is out the window. I know some experienced runners that have complained about all the people out, but honestly, what are we to do? Let’s celebrate people getting outside and moving their bodies. Want to really avoid people? Run at midnight.
The first three miles, I fly along (relatively) knocking out my fastest miles in the last 20 hours. After three miles though I ask my body for more speed. Adrenaline is starting to build as I get closer to the finish and my simply says, “F**K You dude..” The cumulative effort has caught up, while I would love to finish in a blazing last mile that is not happening today. I can live with that.
I am reflecting back on this ultra as I turn around and head the Philadelphia Art Museum. I had been struggling and grappling with my ‘why’. Why do I run? Why do I workout this often? Why am I insane and really enjoyed the marathon? Why do I do this to myself? What is motivation? Why can’t I just watch all the Netflix constantly? I do not think I will ever fully answer that question, for now I find something.
When I started this virtual ultra, that only exists because of a pandemic, my real goal was to forget we were in a pandemic. I started off this for lack of a better term, ‘race,’ to run away from the real world for a bit. To take a moment to attempt to have the insanity of an ultra outweigh the disaster movie of the real world at the moment. In this regard I failed. I found myself embracing the moment before me.
Running allows me to test myself in situations that I would NEVER be able to be in this modern world. 30 miles in 21 hours?! Who does that? Running, life, and most of all our own mind places hurdles and challenges in front of us, that we have to find ways to conquer them. Running allows me to run the same route three different times, and see three very different versions of the same world.
While my life pre-quarantine was just a mad rush to the next stop with little to no thought of being present in that moment. Always looking to the future, or my watch, or of course my iphone. Never present. Running and fitness do not allow you to speed up and take short cuts. You cannot text fitness that you are going to be 5 minutes late, (Which drives me INSANE. I hate being late, but seemingly always am.)
Running forces me to build a plan slowly and steadily over time, to achieve a larger goal. I chop a bit of wood and carry some water every day to improve just that a fraction more. Add a layer each day, no matter how small or large it is.
I could go on and on about this, but at least right now, in this moment we are in, running is my way to continue to grow and push myself.
As I weave in and out of people I take a slightly different way home and turn to finish directly in front of the Art Museum. In a total cheesy move, I sprint up the steps just like Rocky, and stop the watch at the top. I don’t jump up and down like Sly Stallone, but it is one hell of a location to finish 30 miles at. I take in the view, that I have seen a hundred times of the Ben Franklin parkway and the Philadelphia skyline. Done.
I slowly walk home and plan on eating everything in my place.
I am thrilled, exhausted, and cannot wait to sleep. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I started this, but it was one hell of a ride, that I did not think I would complete at times. But I did. My mind is slightly more at ease, and I realize no matter what happens we’ll be ok.
I need a beer.