Thursday, September 22, 2016

My First (Official) Ultramarathon

My First (Official) Ultramarathon
Martin Bodek

Tell people you’re running the NYC Marathon, and you’ll get oohs and aahs, and maybe you’ll even get people to donate to the charity you might be running for.

Tell people you’re running the Brooklyn Marathon two weeks later, and they’ll kind of look at you funny (then they’ll say, “There’s a Brooklyn Marathon?”).

Tell people you’re running a 12-hour race in between, and they send for the people in white coats.

So it was that I finally found myself participating in the first official ultra I’ve ever participated in (I’ve now ended two sentences with prepositions, but who’s counting?).

Now sure, I’d participated in many ultras of my own construction before, being careful to have them recognized formally (criteria: a) available to the public, b) 5 starters/3 finishers c) posted results, d) a director in charge, and e) known course), but I’d been bursting to take part in one where I could show up, run, and leave, without the other responsibilities.

Why had it taken me half a decade to finally find one? My criteria are too numerous:

  • Not on family time – I already impinge on that enough, thank you very much.
  • Not on work time – I’m not taking a day off to run. That time is for family. See line above.
  • Early starting – so it won’t impact family or work time. See two lines above.
  • During a high-mileage part of my running season – else I’d bonk.
  • Cool temps – ‘cuz me and heat? We don’t get along, my Badwater ambitions be damned.
  • Local – I’m not hopping on a plane for a long race, unless my family comes with, which they won’t. They have better things to do.
  • Need friends along – in case I get hurt, I want to be in the care of people I know. Also, I like my friends and want to hang out with them.
  • No trails – I hate trails. Trails are for people who wear “sneakers.” I don’t wear those things. I wear Vibrams.
  • Not on Saturday – I am Sabbath observant.

After first putting these demands into the grinder five years ago, the only things the ultra-machine spit out were races of my own design, at a time of my choosing. I put the list into the robot again, and suddenly it came back with quite a find! It’s called the NJ Trail Series One Day. It takes place in November, on the Sussex County Fairgrounds in New Jersey, and stages various races (24-hour, 12-hour, 6-hour, 50k, and marathon) over a 24-hour period. The 12-hour run starts at 9 PM on Saturday night.

Bingo. Notice how the paragraph above satisfies the needs of my criteria list just above that? I found my race. Some friends accepted my invite, and all my needs were met.

Now I can’t really file my usual mile-by-mile report, because that’s impossible. I have enough problems remembering details of the Brooklyn Marathon and reporting them (it’s run on Prospect Park’s 3.35-mile loops) in the exact order they happened, but on a 1-mile course over 12 hours of looping? Are you kidding me? Fuhgedaboudit!

I also can’t even give you an hourly report, much less a half-hourly report or 10-minutely report. What am I, crazy? Nobody’s memory is that good.

So what can I report to you? Let’s try something a little different: I’ll first give you a description of the race grounds, and its elements. Then I’ll give you an overview on how my friends did. Finally, I’ll save a little bit over in the end for how things went for me. We’ll get you home quickly.

The Course

As mentioned above, this took place on the Sussex County Fairgrounds, which is a 165-acre complex that hosts all kinds of interesting stuff. The website says, “This sought-after event venue has attracted many groups seeking powerful ways to integrate their brands with a fully engaged consumer,” but I don’t know what that means. It sounds like a slide from a business meeting. Simply put, they host horsey races, flower shows, craft fairs, farmer’s markets, the New Jersey State Fair, and our little race – with a 3-day version of the same in May.

The course itself is a mostly-flat 1-mile loop that cuts through and skirts around the majority of the complex. Actually, if you can picture it, it’s shaped a lot like a flintlock pistol, facing right. The rounded grip is the long, lonely stretch out in the fields, the trigger and trigger-guard house all the amenities (start/finish line, timing mat, kitchen, bathrooms), and the tip of the barrel represents the “out and back” portion of the course. Or, if you will – and if you are pre-Millennial – it looks a lot like the 1st Pole Position board, minus the tommy gun barrel-grip part.

The runners and their families all set up their tents and conveniences around the gun barrel part of the course, and near the trigger-guard. The rest (an exaggeration, “the rest” is just the .6 miles of the rest of the loop) was just encountering the same runners several dozen times.

Okay, enough firearms metaphors. You get the picture, I’m sure. I mean, shoot.

Okay, okay, done.

The Amenities

The kitchen: Oh my gawd was there food pouring out all over the place. ‘Twas a conveyor belt of goodies being produced through the night. There was fare even cooked up for vegans. Most of the cost of the race must have gone here. Now mind you, I and my friends all keep kosher, so we couldn’t enjoy everything – but there was plenty we could, and I ate, a lot, every time I passed by, every mile. Ahhhhh numnumnumnumnum. Hunger was not a factor at all.

The bathroom: the course had indoor bathrooms. Indoor. Bathrooms. Can you believe it? Of all the amenities ever provided on any of the 200+ races I’ve run, nothing has been as wonderful, beautiful, and kind as this one. It was clean, it was well-stocked, it was warm, it had actual soap (hand sanitizer is not a proper substitute. Look up the difference in your local library - oh, wait, the internet was invented a short time ago. Go ahead and google that).

The timing: every runner was given a house-arrest anklet (I’m guessing it’s not officially called that) to wear. Every time we hit the start mat, we triggered updated information displayed on a large board housed in the little hut/kiosk/gazebo/belvedere structure thingie that served as headquarters. Lap, pace, ranking, and the like. All the good stuff.

Speaking of good stuff:

My Friends

I was so happy to have some good friends along for the ride. I wouldn’t have participated without this crucial criterion in place. I put out a casting call, and these fine people answered. I’ll list them in order of how many miles they covered (what? How else should I list them? By how much I like them? That’s just rude).

Michael: He looked strong for most of the race (he has an impressive and commanding power stroke – like, the opposite of Paula Radcliffe), but after about the 20 mile mark, I encountered him walking during some of my loops, then I saw him seated, then I saw him seated in such a fashion as to suggest he wasn’t getting up anymore. When I noticed that, I stopped looping for a minute to ask him if he was done. He said he was. He had a leg issue he was battling. I looked at his watch: 26.1 miles! I told him to get his butt out there and finish up what he needed to complete a marathon. He did exactly that. Okay, I wasn’t the motivator. He had to walk that distance to pick up his trophy (a license plate! Personalized by the race director! Neat!).

Yisroel: Jolly St. Sruly drove Michael in, went round and round (for a small chunk with me; more on that later), went a mile longer than he ever had (he’s the veteran of multiple 50Ks), then had to call it a night so he could support Michael. That’s what friends are for.

Rebecca: The MVP of the night. I’ll put it simply: Old 12-hour female course record: 63 laps. New record: 68 laps. That’s an 8% increase; the equivalent of a 60-game hitting streak, or 79 home runs in a season, or 108 points scored in a game. Okay, enough sports analogies. She killed it. She destroyed it. She was dy-no-mite!

Ari: No slouch himself, Ari came this close to emerging as champion of the male race. He cleared 71 laps. The winner? 72. The equivalent of missing out due to an ill-timed pit-stop. Oh my, though he is no less deserving of a round of applause.


As for Yours Truly, I had the time of my life. Now this wasn’t in a rah-rah sign-waving roaring-crowd sense, but rather in a dreamlike, trancelike, easy-does-it like sense. That’s the difference between a big city marathon like the one I ran the week prior, and this one, on horsey grounds, surrounded by woods, with only runners and their crewmembers present (and, for part of the evening the wedding party on a secluded area of the grounds in a giant barn-y thing with poor soundproofing).

I arrived, with Rebecca in shotgun, to the most quiet quietness and misty mistiness I’d ever seen on a racecourse. Temps were in the high 40s; they would drop to high 30s during the night.

Uninitiated, I parked in the first spot I saw – at the end of the gun barrel, as I mentioned above – and saw runners looping around a sawhorse at the end. I realized this cohort was closing in on the midpoint of their 24-hour race, while anybody else showing up was doing a “mere” 12.

We scouted the course, reviewed the amenities, picked up our bibs and swag, welcomed Ari and Yisroel and Michael when they rolled in, set up our respective gear (AKA “food”) along the lip of the course and on a little table Yisroel provided, and rested until go-time.

My plan was thus: run four miles, walk one, repeat. Do that for as long as I can, then shuffle along at whatever speed available to me after that.

My nutrition plan: partake of all the tummy-approved foods that I brought with me, plus all the kosher fare that the race offered, plus enjoy some of the newly-tested instant soups that I brought along. I scheduled that for every four hours of the run.

Ari, Rebecca, and Michael bolted out of the gates like they had business on the course to attend to. Yisroel hung out with me for a while.

As was my plan, I ran for four miles with Yisroel alongside me, then began walking. Yisroel wished me well and bounded off.

Doing this repeatedly meant I saw my friends a lot more often than I would had I stuck to a consistent running program. Head-nods and polite waves aplomb, but after a while, I couldn’t get Rebecca’s attention. She was focused and deathly serious about her undertaking. Good!

I kept up my 4/1 program for three rounds. In the middle of fourth attempt, it very quickly turned into a 3/2, and still in the middle of it all, a 1/4. That’s just as well. No regrets about that. This was an entirely new and different experience for me. I reached about twenty miles after around four hours, and it was time for my soup at approximately 1 AM.

Now, I swear, I think I fell asleep for the next four hours, lost in my dreamlike daze, because the next thing I remember after thinking, “Damn, that was some good soup,” was, “Ooh, I think it’s time for another soup!”

The time in between?  I spent it doing these:

  • ·         Shuffling along happily – I was just happy to be there, taking in this fascinating, new experience. I day-, er, nightdreamed a lot. I just kept moving forward. Because it’s such a short loop, people notice each other’s progress. I didn’t get pats on the back until I started shuffling following a long series of walking. In this scenario it’s easy to notice when a fellow runner is gutting things out. Also interesting was the one portion of the course that was sand and pebbles. During the night, these were easy to negotiate – what with my wearing my Vibrams – because of the shadows the large pebbles cast. Once day broke, and the sun moved overhead, the shadows disappeared, and it was more ow-ooh-ow for that stretch for the last few hours. Wasn’t so fun.
  • ·         Watching the sky – I’m a star-gazer by nature, and I don’t think I ever realized how dramatic the movements of constellations are over the course of night. They practically tumbled. For long stretches, I’d just stare up, impeded by nothing except for the curve of the road.  At one point, four superbright stars were stacked up one atop another. Ari passed me, patted my shoulder, and – knowing I’m an amateur astrologer – asked me if I knew what was up with the arrangement (it was that noticeable even to the uninitiated). I did know. They were not stars. They were the moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, all neatly queued up. Gorgeous.
  • ·         Making bathroom stops – an indoor bathroom  is such a wonderful favor that I found myself in it even if I didn’t necessarily need need to go. Needing to go sufficed. It was also just a great way to rest my legs every few hours. At one point, I was in a stall between two other runners. The runner to my left said, “Hey, anyone know what time it is?” The runner to my right said, “Yeah, it’s 17:30. Um, I mean 2:30. Wait, holy $#!+, I’ve been running for seventeen and a half hours?” Ha!
  • ·         Watching the leaderboard  - that leaderboard was fascinating to watch, and it was fun to parse out the statistics quickly every time I passed by. Quite often during the night, I’d be in the company of a runner whose status on the course I was curious about. I’d either keep pace, or race after them to see the numbers. Sometimes it got a bit hectic. If I allowed too many runners in between me and the runner in front of me, I wouldn’t get the numbers, so I found myself sprinting on occasion. It was fun chasing after Rebecca every time she passed. She was killing it. It was also funny when I’d chase the leader (who would end up running 135 miles!) but before he’d get to the leaderboard area, he’d pull off to the side to his crew. Doh! All that running for nothing!
As I approached the start area shortly after 8 AM, I decided that would be enough for me. I’d already gone further than I ever had before (previous record: 40 miles, on my 40th birthday), and I still had to drive home. It was imperative that I rest before doing so. So at 8:16 AM, after 11:16:43 of running, I pulled in and called it a day, er, night, having cleared 41.5 miles. The director signed my license plate, and I headed to the car to rest.

I plopped myself down at the foot of the little hill, and inverted myself with my legs in the air. I must’ve looked funny, because some runners started taking selfies with me.

For those who didn’t, presuming they were focused on finishing their races with squeezing out as much distance as possible, I yelled “One more!” People really responded to that.

I also managed to grab a few winks.

A half hour after the race was over, I was still lying there, well rested, when Rebecca came shuffling in, having clobbered the female race record, but now, suddenly, unable to walk straight.

We both managed to clamber into the car, and got home safely.

Then, I began my day.

My name is Martin Bodek, and I’m a biblioholic. It’s so bad, I write them while I wait for my favorite authors to come out with their next books. Help me. I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is when you enjoy my output:,


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