Friday, October 12, 2012

My First Ultramarathon Run

My First Ultramarathon Run
Martin Bodek

My path to my first ultramarathon began three years ago, when I was in a library in The Bronx, browsing the shelving cart for something new, different or interesting. A book named "Ultramarathon Man" by Dean Karnazes beckoned my probing fingers. It was definitely something new, different and interesting. I read it with relish and when I was done, I had already decided that I would earn myself the same moniker as the book title.

First I polled my running friends asking what minimum distance would be required for one to complete and consider himself an ultramarathoner. The answer came back: 50 kilometeres, or 31.25 miles. A "mere" 30 miles simply wouldn't do.

Next I attempted to find a reginal/local, early-starting, late-season, non-trail, relatively-flat, minimal-impact-to-family-time 50k. The exact number of these was zero.

I had to stage my own.

But first, my wife made clear her safety concerns. I could not do this without my friends, was the chief request. I would honor it along with her other wise notes of caution.

I had it all set up last year for a date that was two weeks after the NYC Marathon. I was all set, but was suddenly deluged with requests from my friends to join them for the inaugural Brooklyn Marathon, taking place on the same day as my ultra. They beseeched me with such fervor that I accepted their invite, and forwent my ultramarathon dreams, to be revisited a year later.

I did not forget my passion for the race, and took care to schedule it for a most-convenient date, which, because of subsequent Jewish holidays, would also offer the participants the maximum post-race rest that was possible. I snaked it through four of New Jersey's twenty-one counties, and strategically had it run through parks every 4-5 miles for their water fountains and porta-potties. I called it the Unsanctioned JRunners Quad-Counties 50k Ultramarathon.

I trained hard for the run. At the moment of this writing, I have put in 290 more miles in training for the year than I did at the same point last year. I've been blessed with health and strength.

Two friends signed up to run the distance with me: Matt Katz and Adam Orlow. Two others would escort us towards the halfway point before bidding us good luck and farewell.

On the morning of October 5th, 2012, the game was afoot.

3:30 AM: Wakey wakey!

3:31-4:57 AM: Preparation, which was mostly comprised of four visits to the potty, as I did not wish to burden my fellow runners with such while on the course.

I also had a light breakfast, chalked the start line on my sidewalk, got supplies ready for the me and my fellow runners, hydrated, charged up my phone and paced around a lot.

4:58: Adam arrives.

5:01: Pesach arrives.

5:02: Matt arrives.

5:03: Jonathan arrives after an early AM run to wish us well.

5:10: I say tefilas haderech.

5:17: I sing the national anthem and muck up the lyrics because I'm insecure about a) my singing voice, and b) my fear of mucking up the lyrics like I learned them yesterday. Not only do the fellas not laugh at me, but they also doff their caps in respect. We begin with class.

5:18: And we're off!

Mile 1: I led the pack through lovely, and flat, Third Ward Park, famous for being part of the first mile of the JRunners Unsanctioned Quad-Counties 50k Ultramarathon. We finished it at a 9:14 pace. A nice, slow, steady, flat (12 feet of elevation) start. Only 30.25 miles to go.

Mile 2: We picked up the pace just a wee bit. We were all relaxed and conversing easily. A very JRunners relay race-esque directional sign pointed us in the right direction. 'Twas a funny sight. I did notice it was a bit more humid than I would have favored, but I didn't think we'd have too much trouble from the heat today. We were done with the mile at an 8:58 pace. 42 feet of elevation.

Mile 3: A bit uphill with a 58 foot elevation, but a nice long straightaway that was easy to pick up the pace on. We went a little faster and completed it in 8:52. The pace we were setting was absolutely perfect.

Mile 4: At mile 3.4, Glenn Pfeiffer was waiting for us, responsibly wearing reflective gear. What a wonderful way to make his acquaintance! With the renewed vigor of his pleasant company, and the 20 foot drop, we went even faster at an 8:38 clip. This, we realized collectively, was a bit too fast. So we reeled it in, especially because we were about to embark on our biggest climb of the race.

Mile 5: 134 feet uphill, but gradual. We took it nice and slow, just as we'd done with everything so far. At this point Matt began regaling me with his 2012 JRunners Relay Race story (I'm putting a book together comprised of each runner's personal experience).We got to the top of the hill with ease and I promised no more elevations like the one we just had. It would be largely flat and downhill from here. We were now in Montclair, the prettiest, most well-kept and manicured stretch of our run, and where I spend most of my long runs. 9:04 for the mile, nice pacing. At precisely mile 5, we passed through Midland Park, which the runners seemed to really enjoy for some reason - even though we spent about 11 seconds running clear through it on a stone path - and about which Glenn opined that it was the world's smallest park. Actually, this is:

Mile 6: At mile 5.4, I scheduled our first mandatory water break in lovely Edgemont Memorial Park, a haven for runners, bicyclists, bladers, ballplayers, ultra mandatory water drinkers and prehistoric birds. Seriously, you've got to see some of these creatures. They're like nothing you've ever seen. I marvel every time I run through. Despite our stop, we still came in at 8:59 due to the entirely flat mile, 15 feet elevated.

Mile 7: Every elevation drop (wouldn't a better word be "descension?") was coupled with a pace drop. We descended (there we go) 21 feet and paced it at 8:41, bordering on too fast, but nevertheless still running a 9:00 minute per mile race. Mile 6.9 is the horse stable, in the backyard of one of Montclair's denizens. It's the weirdest thing.

Mile 8: Our fastest mile of the race, which prompted Adam to holler that this was the fastest mile of the race, and that we should slow down. That was hard to do with a nice drop coming up, but we resolved to rein it in going forward. We finished the mile in 8:31 - yes, too fast - because once again, we dropped  - 23 feet this time. Also at this time: I had the first of the gels in my "utility belt." Earlier in the mile, Matt finished telling me his relay story. Too bad he'll have to dictate it to me again, as Siri didn't pick up everything.

Mile 9: Onward we marched. The pack moved slightly ahead of me, and I shouted instructions for which streets to turn on. Glenn asked if I had the course tattooed to the inside of my eyelids. Why yes, yes I did, and I was very proud of the fact that I could direct the group from behind, giving the runners confidence in my knowledge of the course. I earned their trust. What I didn't trust was the pitbull leashed to a pole in a front yard. Man, that thing was ugly. We finished a super-flat mile (8 foot drop) in a super-even time (9:01).

Mile 10: Nishuane Park was at mile 9.3, where I staged another mandatory water stop and voluntary potty stop (can't really make that mandatory, can I?). While we were refreshing ourselves, talk turned to my breakthrough 18 mile Tune Up run just a few weeks ago, where I clobbered my PR by a minute per mile. My spirits didn't need buoying - I was having the time of my life - but they were buoyed nonethless. Onward. Despite the stop, we kept the pace under 10:00 and encountered another useful JRunners directional sign. Interestingly, each of these we encountered indeed pointed us in the proper direction along the course. I'll have in mind to keep that consistent for the redesign for next year.

Mile 11: The first of two miles that were so straight, you'd think they were part of the Eisenhower Interstate System. They also had very wide shoulders, with a runner-protecting large white line. The runners really enjoyed this part of the course. Sub-9 again.

Mile 12: see mile 11.

Mile 13: After mile 12.5 we finally made a right turn towards Brookdale Park, saying good morning to a group of people waiting for the bus to get them to work. I had noticed earlier that I was seeing a lot more people than I usually do when out this early. Duh, it was a Friday, not a Sunday. It was actually a matter of pride that our pack was so friendly to the passersby. At mile 12.8 we entered Brookdale Park, home of porta-potties, water fountains galore, plus a beautiful track, plentiful playgrounds and an archery range. What am I? An advertisement? It's a nice park, is all. This would be our last sub-9 for the race. No regrets, though.

Mile 14: At precisely mile 13.1 we stopped at a non-mandatory water fountain (because the park was filled with them). We all stopped anyway. I started snapping some pictures. We then asked a fellow walking his dog to photograph all of us. My photo sequence shows the progression of the man and his dog strolling, Matt asking him to take the pic, and finally the pic of all of us, with the rising sun in the background. It's an interesting progression of pictures. Once out of the dark room and refreshed, I needed another few seconds to get going, as I noticed that my wife had texted me, inquiring how I was doing. My response?: "Half marathon down! Tuneup to go!" I got a smiley face in return. Our half-marathon time was 1:57:40, excellent considering our intentionally slow pace. At mile 13.5, Pesach, Glenn and Adam moved a bit ahead while Matt and I took shelter in a pair of his n' his porta-potties. We exited to find a mesmerizing fog blanketing the field in front of us. We got running again, water fountained, and joined up with the rest of the pack as we exited the park and made our way to Glenn's parked car at mile 13.8. We refilled our stomachs and water bottles with Gatorade and bid farewell to Glenn and Pesach, our rocket boosters who fell proudly away as the main shuttle crew hurtled forward in exploration with their refueled tank. Enough stops over the last mile. It was time to get going and get down to business. We thanked our pacers, I popped another gel, and we were on our way.

Mile 15: We struggled through a weird construction site, were careful past the ramps into and out of the Garden State Parkway, and we made our way into Nutley, home of the kosher Rita's italian ices store that keeps beckoning my wife and I for visits. Nothing else is here. If there was, it wouldn't matter. There I go with the ads again.

Mile 16: The biggest drop of the race, 131 feet downhill. We ran with brakes on the whole way. I was a little ahead of the pack, doing some calculations about our pace and how we were generally doing when suddenly Matt hollered, "halfway!" Oh my, it caught me by surprise! 15.6 down and 15.6 to go! We were feeling good, all of us. More of the world was out and about. Crossing guards were greeting us with cheerfulness. How nice!

Mile 17: We made a right turn just 100 feet from Rita's (boy, if they were open at the time, I think I would have made a pit-stop) and traveled straight for a mile and into the town of Belleville, home of half the filming locations in The Sopranos ( Strangely, I noticed a misspelling on the "Welcome" sign that I had not noticed before. Can you see it?:

Mile 18: We ran past Hendricks Field Golf Course, where I would love to run, and into Branch Brook Park, where I love to run. Adam and Matt didn't like it at first, because the entrance rises 20 feet in 20 feet, which is kind of painful, but drops and levels out thereafter. As tour guide, it was my responsibility to announce that this park was the first state park in the nation. I texted my wife and told the guys that we had tuneup down, half-marathon to go.

Mile 19: At mile 18.6 I had another mandatory water stop and I used another porta-potty. It was here that I made a mapping error that subsequently would make itself apparent when we returned to Passaic with two less miles than we should have at that point. Turns out I had mapped the run to go further into the park, but I suddenly realized this was trail, which was a no go for me in my Vibrams. I'd have to make up for it with park loops back home. No biggie, but lesson learned. I popped a salt packet into my mouth, very satisfied that to this point, I had endured no cramping whatsoever. Neither had my mates. We were all in tip-top shape, banging out steady 9:10-9:15s. We made an about face and headed back out of the park, back up and over that 20 foot rise in 20 feet. Whew. We all felt it.

Mile 20: An absolutely flat straightaway (just a 5 foot rise) at a strategic point. 20 miles. None of us were hitting any wall. We were properly hydrated, nourished, and conserving energy properly.  11.25 miles to go.

Mile 21: I routed the mid-point of the mile through Belleville Park, which had another two pit-bulls on questionably-strong leashes tied to pegs in the ground. The owner stepped out of the porta-potty as we passed through. To my dismay, the water fountain had been capped. Out of order. That didn't make me happy, but the downhill for the next mile did. Matt pulled a bit ahead at this point, striding with authority. I was a little behind with Adam following. I heard Adam say to a crossing guard: "30 miles!" I hung back to ask him if she actually asked how far we were going today, as nobody has ever asked me that. He said "No, just offered." Funny.

Mile 22: Over the bridge spanning the Passaic River (Adam voiced his displeasure with the ambience) and into Kearny, home of the other half of The Sopranos' filming locations ( When we hit the corner before the left we were about to make, we first darted ten feet to the right into Hudson County. Hey, if the original five-city NYC Marathon covered Queens by running over a bridge, touching a signpost across the street and running back, then this counts. Don't even get me started on how much of today's course actually spends in Staten Island.

Mile 23: We were slowing down now. Matt stayed ahead, strong as ever, with me and Adam following. We turned into Riverside County Park where, once again, a water fountain was out of order, which made me very grumbly. Matt and I munched on some jelly beans, but We needed water, now.

Mile 24: We found it when we exited the park. Across the street was a gas station. We popped in, bought some water, Gatorade, chocolate bars and ate them while slowly walking along the course until our bellies were satisfied. The walking led to our slowest mile, 14:16, but we were still in good health and renewed spirits. Only 7.25 miles to go.

Mile 25: Back in the game and running strong. We were running slower, but not in any pain. Just soldiering along, we band of brothers. We ran into another section of Riverside County Park, where, yet once again, my designated water fountain wasn't even in existence! Earthmovers were redoing the entire baseball field! Arrrgh! Three straight out of order water fountains, each for an entirely different reason. Frustrating.

Mile 26: At mile 25.35 my iPhone died. The Runkeeper app had sucked the power dry. Good thing I had my cro-magnon version of a running GPS watch as backup (my momma didn't raise no fool), which saved the day. Rutherford has little paved parks along the Passaic River. We took advantage of all of them, as we needed the added mileage anyway.

Mile 27: Mile 26.2 was the most anticlimactic ever. No finish line, no crowds, no hootin' n' hollerin', no photos. Nothing except my announcement that we hit the milestone (at 4:20:41), and that we had only five miles to go. Mile 26.5 was a 7/11 pitstop to load ourselves up, have another gel or two and take inventory of how we were feeling. Matt was filled with energy, but Adam and I were a bit fatigued. We all walked it out for a bit until another bridge over the river welcomed us back towards home. Pesach Sommer pulled up in his car. I borrowed his phone and called my wife to inform her where I was on the course. We then all began running again as we hit Passaic proper.

Mile 28: At mile 27.6, Matt took leave of us so he could finish up the race a bit quicker, jump in the mikvah, daven and meet us at the end. He had that much juice left in him. I gave him instructions for the rest of the course, and asked him to inform whoever was on my front porch that I had just three miles left and I'd be home soon. Adam and I continued together, walking a bit, running a bit, taking it easy. We had a lot of miles on our legs and we didn't want to hurt ourselves. 5k to go. Popped another salt packet.

Mile 29: I picked the pace up a bit and began running, Adam joined along and suddenly complimented my calves, which he offered with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality. Hey, I'll take compliments anytime. Midway through the mile, we entered Third Ward Park and suddenly found it crowded with more people than I've ever seen. Perhaps they were celebrating Columbus Day a bit early. To this day, I don't know, but the added porta-potties were reassuring. We entered the park, filled with pickup games of all sorts and accidentally partook in a bit of football. Still on our feet. 2.25 to go.

Mile 30: Matt suddenly bounded up towards us, floating on air. He was starting to look freakish, especially in comparison to my and Adam's slow stroll. He was almost done! I asked him to report at my home that I had just two miles left. Two miles left! Wow. Adam and I started running again. Finish line in sight.

Mile 31: We walked at the beginning of the mile. A random soccer player started running alongside me, in half-mockery. I said, "Dude, do you know how far you'd have to go to run as much as I have today?" My awesome manliness silenced him forthright. With three-quarters of a mile to go, Adam and I were collectively upset at ourselves for all this walking. We decided to run all the way to the finish, come what may.

Mile 31.25: Glory be. We did it. I ran a little ahead of Adam, hit the watch at the 50k mark and turned around, holding a faux finishing tape in my hand, which Adam pretend-broke. We had completed the ultramarathon. I would offer the cliche, "I can't believe we did it," but that would be false. I knew we would. The camaraderie, plus our hard training, would ensure we'd make it. We did it. We did it. Hot diggity. 50k. We did it.

Post-race: Home was just 200 feet from the finish line. Adam and I ambled up my 21 steps to my front porch, where we parked on one of the swings I have (metal for post-ultramarathon runs, cloth for dry people) and ate a forty-course meal provided by my wonderful wife, who was proud of me despite my zaniness, and clearly relieved to see me in one piece. Her crazy-yummy brownies were a huge hit. Matt returned from the mikvah and joined us. I handed out the medals and we took pictures for posterity.

I'm grateful to all the runners who partook in all or part of the journey. I'm specifically thankful for two things: that we did not litter and we did not answer the call of nature outside of a portapotty. We were good to the earth that was good to us.

Thank you, gentlemen.

And thank you, Sweetie, for your wise concerns pre-race and unreal TLC post-race. Your hubby's an ultramrathoner! Okay fine, an ultramarathon finisher, for now.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Thoughts on My First "Successful" Hadran

Two months ago I merited completing Shas. My wife threw me a grand banquet, invited family and friends, and spoke wonderfully before I delivered a speech that I had written over the course of years. We rejoiced together and were positively jubilant. The experience was joyful and uplifting to a degree I did not even anticipate.

A few days ago I completed maseches Brachos for the second time. In a poignantly significant way concerning a facet of the accomplishment, the personal joy I experienced may even have surpassed the joy I felt upon my completion of Shas: it was the first time I merited returning to a completion of a masechte. It was my first successful Hadran. This is perhaps an even fuller, and more satisfying, circle than the completion of Shas.

Whenever I have said "Hadran" at the end of a masechte, I meant it earnestly. I wanted to return. I also meant it hopefully. I did not just read the words and think to myself what the translation actually meant. "I will return to you" is nice, and good lip-service, but in my mind I gave it more credence. I also spoke it as a prayer. When I spoke the words, I mentally inserted "yehi ratzon" before each phrasing, because I also offered supplications to God to allow me to indeed return. I wanted my desire to not be just mine, but also His. 7.5 years is a long time, and as we know, "A mentsch tracht in Gut lacht." Man proposes and God disposes. I wanted my "tracht" and my proposal to be in consonance with His as well.

I have applied this sincere hopefulness in other areas as well. My wife and I merited to go to Eretz Yisroel 7 years ago, when I was 30 years old. At that time, it had been 22 years since I had last been there when I was 8 years old.

In a similar way that I treated the Hadran, I also treated every time I said "l'shona habo biyerushalayim." This comes up on Pesach and at the end of Neilah on Yom Kippur. Every time I've said it, my entire life, I took it to heart, I said it sincerely and I said it as a prayer. I remember saying to my wife when we landed in Ben Gurion 7 years ago, "Look at that, last year I said 'loshono habo,' and now we're here. Boruch Hashem."

Ironically, but perhaps not coincidentally, in the closing pages of Brachos, on daf nun hey amed beis, the gemorah says, "Amar R. Levi, 'l'olam yetzapeh adam l'chalom tov al yud beis shono. Minalan? MiYosef." R. Levi says, a person should remain hopeful for a maximum of 22 years. From where do we know this? From the story of Joseph." His father Jacob mourned for him, sincerely and hopefully, for 22 years, and he was rewarded. I too, was sincere and hopeful for 22 years, and I was rewarded.

And here now, I have said "Hadran" for 7.5 years, and I have finally been rewarded.

This completion is dedicated to my son, Yonah Avraham, who we all know as Freddy. His bar mitzvah will occur 3 months after the next completion of Shas. I intend to complete it in his honor at his bar mitzvah (since my wife is now used to throwing huge parties for my siyumim), therefore I find it appropriate to start it in his honor as well (this is only fair, as my first completion of Brochas was in honor of our daughter Naava).

This is my hope and my prayer: that I complete it again at the time of his bar mitzvah, that I will continue hadraning and hadraning, returning and returning, shteiging and shteiging. That my hopes and dreams will be rewarded because of their sincerity. That way past the time that I become physically frail in my own old age, I should please have the mental faculties to continue learning, that every Hadran I ever say should be a realistic goal, and that I should merit the blessing that also occurs in the final pages of maseches Brachos on daf nun hey, amud alef, which quotes Yeshayahu, which ironically, but not perhaps coincidentally, I'm in middle of learning as I try to complete Nach Yomi for the first time: "visachlimeinu vihachayeynu." "May you make me dream and give me life."