Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fat Ass Marathon, Brighton MI December 2011

I probably shouldn’t be here. I’m recovering from a bad cold this week, even though the fever broke, I’m still not feeling well, aggravated by having to get up early, and whenever I have to get up early, I end up not sleeping well the night before, thus effectively putting me at only a few hours of sleep.

But I can’t help it. I’m curious. I’m at my first “FAT ASS” marathon. Although it’s being put on by the ‘RUT’ (Running Fit Ultra-Running Team), as I understand it, this is a growing nation phenomenon, in which someone with a little bit of time on their hands, enough to make some flyers and make a FaceBook group page anyways, invites anyone that wants to come out and run an unofficial race. For free. Yep, let me repeat that: For free.

And, a bunch of local runners have come out to do just that. We’re in the Island Lake Recreation Area, near Brighton, Michigan, so there are lot’s o’ folks from here and Ann Arbor, plus some from the outer Detroit burbs, and even a couple of us from wee ole Jackson, an hour away. We’re gathering in the parking lot of the trailhead, or a trailhead. Running Fit, the local running store chain, has actually donated their van, and some logistical items like flagging and a sign up/in sheet. The organizers seem to be upper management, or at least managers, from the local stores. Running Fit hosts a ton of ‘real’ races during the warmer months around here, so it’s very cool of these folks to donate their time to doing this. I suppose Running Fit gets some free promotion, but really I think it’s because they, and the RUTsters, just love running, and love getting runners together.

And, I’m seeing some familiar faces. There’s Mark, a fellow teacher at JCC, and all around crazyassfast distance runner. And there’s Sweet Melissa, my running partner from the Woodstock 50M, back from her finish at the Javelina Jundred down in Arizona. And here’s Jocelyn, another member of the Barefoot Running Society, who I keep bumping into (and sometimes just missing) at various and sundry races.

Those folks, plus others, faces, that I recognize from other events in the last two years. Many people seem to know each other really well, from the weekly RUT runs, but even they are saying that there’s a lot more people here than normal. Word is out I guess.

This does feel race-ish. The nervous chatter. The insider jokes. The war-stories and semi-bragging of when everyone’s next ‘real’ race is. I put my name on the big sign in sheet, where there’s a space for my distance and time when I get done, so they at least might have an idea if someone is out lost and wandering in the woods. Everyone (except, like, me) has brought food or something to drink, and it’s all mostly junk food, though some fruit.

One of the organizers explains the route is a combo of the two biggest trail loops in the rec area: the longer ‘blue’, which is I think around 8 miles, combined with the yellow, which is around 5 miles, which then hooks back up to the blue for a little bit at the end, making for a big loop of 13.4 miles (at least, according to on RUTster I spoke with). So, people can opt to run one or two loops, with the option to run the yellow loop again to make it 50Kish. It sounds and looks complicated on the map. I’m sure I’ll get lost. I’m sure I’ll be running by myself and be in my zen zone and completely miss a turn-off, but Mark assures me that it’s super easy. As for how long I’ll go, the way I’m feeling, I’m not sure if I’ll be up for more than a half-marathon today, though on the other hand, knowing my stubborn self, who knows.

By the way, it’s cold! Below freezing now, though supposedly going to be sunny and in the high 30s by the end of the day. I’m wearing a wicking shirt, an Ibex wook shirt, and my Bigfoot 50K warm up long sleeve, plus gloves and a knit hat. I have on my regular running shorts, some running pants over them, and then my warm-up ‘shell’ pants, which I was going to take off for the race, but Sweet Melissa and I both decide to keep that extra layer on.

My big new thing is my pair of Merrell ‘Glove’ minimalist shoes, which I’ve bought basically for this very purpose: cold weather. I’m a barefoot guy mostly, and even ran barefoot all one winter, but only in short spurts. Now that I’m more used to longer running, I just want to stay warm, and keep the snow and slush off a little.. The VFFs don’t cut it, at all, and in some ways seem to make my feet colder than when I’m barefoot. So far, my feet have been ok, wandering around, but the toes are starting to get a little cold. I hope we start running soon!

We all gather for a group photo. I’m bad at judging crowds, but it seems like there’s 40 of us? Maybe? Being with a bunch of other crazy people that would run a race in the cold feels great.

Then, people start running. Jocelyn and I look at each other. I ask, “Is that the start of the race, or are people running to the start line?”

“I’m not sure!”

Finally we just figure out that the ‘race’ has indeed begun. Ok, fine, I wanted to start out slow. I just don’t want to get all hot and sweaty right at the beginning. So, I jump in behind someone and we’re off down a trail.

Seems many people have the same idea as I, except for like Mark who I know took off sprinting. It’s actually kind of funny, I’ve never seen a ‘bottleneck’ this long, with about ten people in front of me and 20 behind, all of us in one long line. It actually reminds me though of why I like these races, because they’re less a competition than some kind of primal reenactment of a tribal hunt. Here we are all, the tribe, lined out and ready to isolate and run down an antelope.

There’s about an inch of snow on the ground and in the trees, which is nice. The trail is either packed down snow and ice, or sometimes melted off to reveal dirt. We’re certainly not in the wilderness, zigging and zagging over one road already, and then skirting another parking lot, but it’s quiet. Our pace is slow, enough to get me warmed up. I feel ok. I actually feel like my body is responding to running. Like, my cold felt worse just sitting around the house. Now that I’m outside with fresh air on my face, exerting myself, I’m feeling good.

So good that when the trail eventually widens into a two-track that I break out and pass the folks ahead of me. I’m not the only one: the whole long line dissolves as people find their pace. I end up with three others. We pass yet another parking area and zip out onto a road. And, get passed by one of the organizers, who must be getting a quickie in, since he’s going fast. I bet that one, he’s some kind of superfast ultra god, and two, he’s just going to run a half-marathon real quick and be there waiting for the majority of us back at the start. He smiles at us as he goes by. “Well, no one’s got lost yet! That’s good!”

The trail takes us over what I think is the Huron River, through some forest, over some fields, “where the winds hit heavy” and back into forest. It’s nice. I’m still feeling good. I like knowing that even if I’m feeling kinda crappy that I can still run at least a half-marathon, almost literally in my sleep! And my new minimalist shoes are working perfectly, keeping me warm and dry. Wouldn’t want to run on pavement with them, since I have absolutely no sensation down there, and am therefore striking harder than I would, but on a trail that’s ok. Or, at least not that bad. I’m still trying to run in good barefoot form: bent knees, lifting the feet, and relaxing my upper torso. It’s just amazing how tense I get, and amazing how much better/faster I run when I simply take a deep breath and exhale, letting my shoulders drop.

As aid stations, the organizers have left some big water jugs sitting on chairs as a couple places, but so far my water bottle has been enough. I should probably be drinking more, but when the air is cold like this, I hardly feel like I’m sweating at all.

And lo! There’s the turn off onto the yellow loop. I didn’t miss it! Yay! This section is a wee bit more hilly, but nothing too bad. It’s Michigan, it can’t ever be that hilly. More forest, river(s) (ie maybe the same one), and small lakes. Mostly low-lying swamp, with ‘sandhills’. And, the sun is out, for sure, reflecting brightly off the snow. An actually really good day for a run.

Through a parking lot filled with dudes and their mountain bikes. Not a woman to be seen. Biking has always seemed like a dude sport to me, because guys just seem to get into toys, like leaf blowers and chainsaws. They like have some machine that makes them feel manly. I just can’t get into it. I have two bikes actually, which I use to bike to work, and was a bike messenger at one time, but road biking just seems like an never-ending money trap. I mean, you can buy rims for $2000! Just rims!

And back on to the blue loop for not more than a mile before popping out back at the start, where other runners are gathered under the nearby pavilion, eating and drinking. I stop in for a banana and some orange slices, resisting the junk food until at least after I’m done. There is some homemade chicken soup though, so I break my vow of vegetarianism and partake. Thank you Chicken! I take you into me, so that you become a part of me, and I of you. We are one. I am Chicken Man.

Invigorated, I go to my truck to change clothes. Because yes, I’m going to do a second loop. I feel good. My three top layers are all soaked though, which throws a small wrench in my plans. I was sort of planning on using the top two layers and just changing out the shirt, but no. Hm. Well, I guess I’ll wear the second shirt, plus the hoodie I was just going to where after. It’s certainly warm enough, but it’s cotton, and if it gets really wet, will one, not hold heat, and two, be really annoying to run in. But it’s all I got.

After another cup of Mr. Chicken, energized now with Chicken Power, I head off for round two. Bwock bwock!

And I’m alone. I’m thinking a lot of folks just ran the half. Or are going to. I think I’m about half-way in the pack. I feel a hell of a lot more alone, and now I start having thoughts like, Crap, what if I’m one of the only slow people to do the second loop? Then they’ll be waiting on me.

But, wait, there’s someone coming up behind me. I remember seeing her in the parking lot. We exchange pleasantries, I tell her I’m glad I’m not the only one out here, and then she scoots on by, leaving me alone again.

The fields are a bit more windy this time around, creating a windchill factor, but once back in the trees, with the sun getting higher, the air is getting warmer, and the snow is melting a bit. A guy catches up to me and we run together for a while. He’s not sure he can do the whole loop again, having run 30 miles on his own recently, and with a ‘real’ race to do next weekend. He tells me about the short cut: that instead of taking the yellow loop, if one stays right on the blue, it’s only less than a mile back to the start.

“Man, I wish you hadn’t told me that! Now it’s going to be very tempting!”

We laugh, and despite his reservations, he’s on a faster pace than I am and takes off.

There are some more people out here though, because here comes two more. They run a little behind me for a while, so I can hear their convo, and the guy is telling the woman that he’s going to speed up a little. They say goodbye, he passes me with a hello, and is gone. Gotta admire all these people who can pick up the pace on the second loop, but anyways, the woman and I start talking. Her name is Hong, I remember her from the pavilion. She too is not sure about doing the whole loop the second time around, but seems ok with running my pace, which helps pass the time and in fact probably keeps me from bogging out. She’s one of the RUT people and has some ultras planned for winter and spring. We exchange histories and race info and I talk her into doing the yellow loop portion.

Another woman catches up to us, Melissa I think her name is, and she and Hong are friends. They’re going to a race somewhere soon together, along with a bunch of other women RUTsters. After handing with us for a while, she feels the energy and scoots on ahead. Again, admirable.

She seems to get Hong worked up, as she picks up the pace just a little bit. And...then I start to lose it. I friggin know that since we’re on the yellow loop that we can’t have more than a few miles at the most to go, yet, I just start to bog down. My stomach feels weird, like an alien chestburster might be lurking there, and the water I filled up on tastes weird and...I simply may not be in the shape I need to be. I’m trudging. Not walking, but not running too fast either.

Finally the parking lot with all the mountain biker dudes, though they’re all mostly gone now. Less than a mile! I still can’t pick it up though. Crazy.

But, then, finally, there’s the pavilion! I made it! Check my time: 5:33. Ok, I’ll take it! That’s about my normal time for a trail marathon, and this was actually a little longer.

Hong and her friends are there and I have to admit that it’s nice to have people know your name. The Cheers effect I guess. Now the eating of the food begins. Plus, why not, a Coke. Tastes friggin great. And the last slice of pumpkin pie!

I check the sign in sheet. Man, there was 91 people! Some of them must have started late. And I think the majority of folks ran just the half-marathon. Mark ran the 50K and in fact finished like 25 minutes before me. And actually, Hong finished in 5:03. Man, if I could have just stayed with her! But that means I lost most of my time in those last 3 miles, when she took off.

Most people have come and gone, most of the parking lot is empty. The organizer dudes are staying until 4pm (It’s like 1:30), but while I’m there, three guys come in and go back out for the shorter yellow loop to get their 50Ks in. So, I wasn’t even last!

But, I’m done. I’m fine with a marathon. Now that I’m starting to cool down, I’m beginning to cough a little. Interesting: I’ve been fine all this time. But, this may explain my bog down right at the end. I best be getting changed out of these clothes. Merrells did good though. Some blisters on the heels, but they’re still new.

I big adieu to everyone and the organizer shakes my hand and thanks me for coming out. How friggin cool is that? These guys rock! There’s another FAT ASS scheduled for New Year’s day up around here. I’m totally in. To run, free, with a bunch of other people who love running as much as I do. I hope this FAT ASS idea spread more.

And, now, I’m going to head on into Ann Arbor and hang out for the day. Hopefully there’s a good movie playing, as that’s about all I have the energy for. Sign me up for a nice hot green tea....


[photo courtesy of Mark McCaslin]