Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”

Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.

What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.

We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.

It sucked so much!

It was also transcendent.

Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.

Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.

Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.

We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.

No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.

Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.

Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.

My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?

Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.

Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.

I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.

Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.

I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.

Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.

Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.

At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.

Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.

Chattanooga, here I come!

If you asked the me from 2008 if he would ever express the words: “I’m excited about running the Raccoon Mountain Marathon tomorrow. Actually, giddy would better define my current mood,” he’d have looked at you like your face began to bubble, but much has transpired since then.

Six days ago, I was up at 4 am–usual for a Saturday–getting my run in so as to not miss any family time. Not only are weekend runs good for building my serotonin levels, releasing endorphins, and testing the limits of my cardiovascular system, they also provide the opportunity to catch up with friends. This particular morning, five of us hit the trail together, which was quite a large group considering the temperature hovered around 25° F. (Look, I know our behavior is atypical, but when one finds friends who stick closer than brothers, you make sacrifices to spend time together.)

Since I signed up for a 50k in May, my training plan called for eight miles that morning, and when my buddies, surprised at the reduced mileage, asked what I would be running the next weekend, I surprised all of us by responding, “I’m running 26.2 miles next week.”

“Woah, a full marathon?”

“That’s what my plan calls for.”

Normally, I don’t check my calendar more than a week in advance, but for whatever reason, that day I knew what the following week held.

Then Dave asked the fateful question: “Well, are you going to run a race that weekend?”

You see, I have the equipment, fortitude, and route knowledge necessary to run a marathon all by my lonesome. I can simply step out my front door, do the distance, and be back in time for breakfast, but as a number of miles had already flown beneath our feet, a dangerous cocktail of serotonin, endorphins, and caffeine flowed through my system, and I wondered if anyone had put together a nearby marathon and scheduled it for the following week.

Alas, a quick Google search revealed no one had. Mid-March tends to be too chilly in the Midwest to warrant many marathons, but I found quite a few in Southern climes, particularly Texas.

The closest one I found meant a six-hour trip to a small town in Illinois where I could look forward to a five-mile-and-change course that looped out from a junior high school. Running that same course five times through a small town held little appeal, so I scrolled on.

What? A trail marathon? On a mountain? How far away is Chattanooga? Seven hours? I can drive that! Let’s see, it’s $100 to register, not bad for a week before the race. It’s near a campground. Let’s see what kinds of accommodations they offer… Ah, I’ll probably do better finding a cheap hotel. Looks like I can book a room at Red Roof Inn for a hundred bucks. I wonder if the wife would go for it?

All of this happened over breakfast following the eight-mile run. Then I actually checked the race website for nearby accommodations only to discover a hostel existed in downtown Chattanooga offering bunks for $35 per night. Sold! I just turned my $200 weekend adventure into a $135 weekend adventure.

Apparently my enthusiasm was infectious, because the wife approved just as long as I paid for it out of my personal funds. Agreeing to these conditions, I quickly registered for the race and booked my bunk.

I packed my bag last night after small group and stowed it in the car so I wouldn’t forget it in the morning and spent today at work smiling at my students and humming songs to myself. I made it to Chattanooga just ten minutes shy of eight hours, having made a single stop in Cincinnati for dinner and gas. I checked into the hostel, visited a local brewery, and stopped at the bar next to the hostel to sample some Kentucky bourbon one can’t get in Columbus. It’s almost 2 am now, but I wanted to share this with you before falling asleep reading Kerouac’s masterpiece, On the Road.

My last blog post surprised many people. Apparently, when I’m dealing with anxiety and depression, I tend to put on a happy face. So I just wanted to let you all know that once again, life is good, and I’m enjoying it.

Please don’t worry; I’ll let you know how the remainder of my weekend goes. Wish me luck!

Weekend Plans

You know that feeling you get when you’re working up the nerve to ask someone out? Where you can feel the clockwork in your brain gearing from one function to another while the blood pumps through your hands at such a rate, it seems you could click your chopsticks together to find a housefly pinched between them recalling each of the faces of his 500 children before he heads to that great trash heap in the sky? I’ve got that, the feeling of near panic mixed with equal parts trepidation and glee where the brain recognizes the body’s about to endure an ordeal and has initiated a shot of adrenaline.

Don’t get anxious. I’m not facing any danger…yet. I’ve just finished packing my bags for a weekend trip to Niagara with the wife and a few friends. No, we’re not having an intervention. No, I’m not crossing the border to disappear into the Canadian wilderness. My friends and I are going for a run. A 50K. Thirty-one miles. On foot. In one go.

I teach eighth-grade English, so I’m used to people looking at me with incredulity seasoned with pity, and when I’ve shared my weekend plans, people’s reactions seem all too familiar.

“You’re going to do what?”

“How far?”

“I could do that. In my car!”

“Are you ready?”

That last question is the most pertinent as well as the most difficult to answer. I’ve run marathons before, including a marathon-distance training run just a few weeks ago, and the 50K is only five miles further than that, but I don’t know if I’m ready or not. This weekend will see me start my first ultramarathon, but I’m not certain I’ll finish.

Have I trained harder for this than any race I’ve done prior?

Yes.

Have I been getting plenty of sleep and kept myself hydrated?

Yes.

Is there a pain in my right foot, and did I experience a twinge in my left calf on a run not too long ago, hearkening back to injuries I suffered fours years ago that put me on crutches?

Why, yes. That’s an oddly specific question. You’re very perceptive.

That’s what’s got me nervous. Have I pushed my body too far, and instead of building it up for this race, have I pushed it to the point where it’s going to crumble beneath me?

I don’t know; no one does.

There’s only one way to find out.

Grand Rapids

Steve texted, encouraging me to sprint the entire length of the Grand Rapids Marathon. He claims he’ll select random runners tomorrow back home in Columbus and call them by my name, cheering for me by proxy. This entry could get quite cheesy with a moment like that, but I’ll spare you the swirl of emotion as I consider all the people who’ve encouraged me along life’s way, and blah, blah-blah, blah, blah.

I love to run, the connections made, and the friendships deepened through taking up this sport. I love the fact the guys to which I’m closest traveled four hours with me to finish a third marathon in as many years and as many states. The city’s beautiful and one of the cleanest I’ve seen. The mussels I had for dinner caused unbidden yummy noises, and the craft beer stretched a smile wide across my face. The bar’s reaction to Michigan State’s victory over Michigan still reverberates across the country, and interacting with my wife and kids over Facetime capped the evening with glee.

Cosplayers? They roam the lobby. Race director? Met and gave him the six-pack we brought of various Central Ohio brews. Josh disappointed by only a few of the songs selected for my playlist? It’s hard to believe, but true.

Look, do the things you enjoy. Do the things that make you a better person, and do them with others. You’ll find yourself in places you’d never expect. You might even find yourself doing a happy dance in front of your students the day before you leave.

Jake’s Top Ten Reasons for Running

Aglow from the caffeine of two Clif Shots and a finish line coffee coupled with the endorphins produced during the Emerald City Half Marathon, I felt now would be a good time to share with you why I run.

10) My gut no longer hangs over my belt. I exchanged the impetus of my runner’s life for a sleeker frame, muscular definition, and enhanced stature. Reading up on how elite athletes run on vegetarian chili and green smoothies, I can’t argue against exchanging empty calories for nutrient-rich meals. Do I now consume only the best grains and produce the local farmer’s market has to offer? No, but I provide my family with healthier choices, and instead of complaining when Laura serves a meal minus the meat, I now make tempeh and quinoa, beans and rice.

9) The frequent phrase, “I feel like I just ran a marathon,” spilled from my mouth years before Josh, Matt, and I completed our first 26.2 mile race last fall. Now I understand how vast my exaggeration. Pushing myself past what I thought possible unlocked reserves I didn’t know existed. My mettle far outstripped my self-confidence. Wobbling from the finish line, I repeated, “I just ran a marathon,” several times before asking, “What else can I accomplish?”

8) Running taught me when faced with pain or trouble, I can make it worse by tensing up, or I can release what concerns me, accelerating even as I do. I never realized how much energy I wasted stressing out about light and momentary troubles until discovering the mental equivalent of taking a vacation. Some would call it entering a Zen state, but I prefer the phrase disconcerning myself. Running becomes so automatic, your body enters a rhythm like one setting a metronome. Your brain releases your legs to tick away each step then wanders off to play. Applying this practice to the rest of life allows me to complete challenging projects without fear.

7) Running taught me to smile, experiencing joy no matter the circumstance. After pushing my body so long, the muscle ache and general weariness often set my mind to complaint, repeating thoughts of “this is too much, I gotta stop, I can’t do this,” and the like, so my friends, Matt and Josh, and I started telling each other jokes as we ran. Besides forcing euphoria, cracking my friends up got me out of my own head, stopping the self-pity, and taught me pretending to enjoy myself soon turns to true enjoyment, so smiling throughout the day allows me to master my emotions, instead of them mastering me.

6) Josh and Matt care for me even as I look out for them. Spending at least an hour with these guys three times a week builds trust, which frees me to share things I wouldn’t with anyone else, giving perspective, encouraging advice, and promoting acceptance.

5) I became part of a community I didn’t even know existed. People reference the running bug, like it’s a virus, a foreign species capable of invading your body and ravaging it without knowledge nor permission, but taking on the discipline changed me. Words like fartleks and repeats, split pace, and VO2 max entered my vocabulary. I bought a hydration belt and compression shorts. I collect finisher’s medals and tech shirts. I frequent stores and websites I didn’t even know existed five years ago. And there are millions of people like me all over the world that had they read this paragraph, would’ve recognized it as true to their experience as well.

4) Mystified, I became an athlete. Despite going out for teeball in kindergarten and volleyball and basketball in middle school, my participation in organized competitions only served to underline how gross my inability. Uncoordinated on the court, I embraced books and videogames, but I teach with a guy whose image appears throughout the trophy case just down the hall. Knowing I ran, he asked me how many miles I put in that morning. When I told him, “Six,” he guffawed in disbelief and remarked, “Jake, you are quite the athlete,” before stopping another teacher to hear how many miles I ran.

3) When I started running, I was most unfit. My muscles ached for weeks, and as my circulatory system struggled to maintain oxygen flow to my cells, I thought my heart would blow out like a truck tire, but instead, I grew stronger and got faster. At races, both Josh and Matt finished long before I did, but during one 5k, Josh paused to tie his shoe and didn’t see me again until after crossing the finish line where I waited, and now, whether training or racing, any one of us can kick to the end before the others arrive.

2) As I became a runner, so too did my wife, Laura. We’ve completed numerous 5k’s as a couple and even a few pushing our double stroller. This past winter, the first I trained through, knowing she added LASIK surgery to her Amazon wish list a few years ago, I asked Laura if running a 5k in February interested her. “Are you crazy? Just because you run through snow doesn’t mean I want to.” She changed her mind after I told her a local LASIK center sponsored the 5k I found and anyone entering the race qualified to win free surgery. She signed both of us up within 10 minutes with the understanding if they pulled my name, she’d get the surgery. When they called her name at the starting line, I had to confirm she heard right before she walked up to receive the certificate. Laura’s not worn glasses or contacts since.

1) When our five-year-old daughter asks, we lace up our shoes, secure our son in the stroller, and take a family run through the neighborhood. My reduced pace a small sacrifice for watching Magnolia chug her little arms and legs as she surges ahead, runs back, tickles Asher, greets her mom, and reaches for my hand.