Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Know When To Fold 'Em...

7:45am, shortly before the start of the Bimbler's Bluff 50K Ultra
Kenny Rogers said it in "The Gambler" - You got to know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em; know when to walk away; know when to run. 

This past weekend, I raced in the Bimbler's Bluff 50K, a trail ultramarathon in southern Connecticut. That decision - of when to stick with it and when to call it quits - was the theme of the day.

For a full week leading up to the race, I had gotten less than 5 hours of sleep per night. I was going to bed routinely at 2:00am. Life's been busy with many irons in the fire. That sort of schedule may have worked for me in college, but not anymore. And that's no way to get your body strong for an ultra.

On Saturday, I did a good job with my pre-race gluten-free nutrition. Dinner that night was a heaping bowl of whole grain brown rice pasta with turkey bolognese (ground turkey in a tomato-based sauce). Later that night I had some more high-octane fuel.

I also laid out my food for the race the next day. At 32-33 miles, this was a shorter race than the Virgil Crest Ultra from one month ago, run at a faster pace. As such, the nutritional needs were different. I basically did a simplified version of my Virgil Crest foods, with an emphasis on carbs: GU energy gels, chocolate, oranges, apple slices with peanut butter, Gatorade, water. Simple and effective.

I turned in for bed at 11:00pm that night. It was the first time in 7 or 8 days I'd gone to be before 2. But because I woke up shortly after 4:00am to drive to the race start, it still ended up being a very short night.

We arrived at the race venue in southern CT around 7:00am. Before the race even started, I was feeling tired and fatigued. This was not a good thing. Yet, I somehow thought I could overcome it, thought I could simply run through the fatigue, that it wouldn't matter. Mind over matter can only take you so far, however. The body can give up, despite the mind's best intentions.

The fact that I thought I could just will myself to overcome the fatigue was perhaps one indication that I wasn't coming into this race with the proper mindset. As I would soon discover, I both underestimated the course and overestimated my self confidence. That's a dangerous combo. In some respects, it was a rookie mistake. I shouldn't have made it, but I did.

Racers head off from the start of the Bimbler's Bluff 50K
The 8:00am race start was cold and cloudy. Most of us began the race in long sleeves. It was good race weather for me, much better than if it'd been hot and sunny (and worse, humid). 

In the first miles, my legs felt sluggish and heavy. It was hard to get into my rhythm. I discovered that though the course didn't have nearly the elevation gain and loss of Virgil Crest, it still had its ups and downs (both literal and figurative). There was a lot of elevation change hidden between the topo lines, not immediately recognizable on the course map. But the hills were there, none the less.

I wasn't sure if my legs felt heavy from the 2-hour car ride that morning, or from the fact that I'd done just one training run 8 days earlier, followed by nothing all week because I'd been too busy, or if something else was amiss.

Aid Station 1 came quickly. I was running fast, despite the fatigue with which I started the race. If this ultra was a cycling race, there would have been a breakaway, a chase group, and a long, strung-out peloton. The breakaway took off like a rocket. I was part of the leading edge of the chase group, in great position. At the aid station, I paused briefly to shed my long sleeve shirt, allowing most of the chase group to run past me. I fell in behind them and we all continued on at roughly same pace.

I re-passed some of them on the rocky downhills. Many racers slowed down in the steep, unsure footing. For those moments, I felt like a mountain goat, cruising downhill, skipping from rock to rock, moving quickly. It gave me a temporary boost of confidence. The confidence would be short lived, though.

Slowly but surely, I was self-destructing. Some of it was just dumb luck. For example, at one point, my right foot knocked a large rock up into the air. As I continued running, my left foot kicked it like a soccer ball, sending it hard directly back into my right ankle bone. I couldn't have done this if I tried. Suffice it to say that I saw stars. I limped for what felt like a good 200 meters before I could resume my normal gait. By the end of the race, the swelling made it look like I had a secondary ankle bone next to my real one.

I also made the wrong choice in footwear. I raced in my Inov8 RocLite 295s. They're a lightweight naturalistic trail running shoe with minimal heel-to-toe drop and with aggressive treads. I wore them for every mile of the Virgil Crest 50-Miler one month ago, and loved them. But the Bimbler's Bluff 50K proved to be a much rockier course than expected. With the fallen leaves, seeing the sharp rocks was difficult. Sometimes, they were simply unavoidable, whether you could see them or not. It made for tough going for my feet. Had I known this about the course, I would have worn my Montrail Mountain Masochists, which have a full rock plate (Montrail calls it a Trail Shield) in the sole of the shoe, protecting your foot. What's that they say about hindsight?

Then came the Bluff for which the race is named. It involves a steep ascent to the summit cliffs of a small forested peak that overlooks a scenic rural valley. It's basically a mandatory power hike section. There's no running up that thing. As I topped out and resumed my run, my left calf seized in a cramp. I broke my stride, leaned against a sturdy tree and stretched my leg. This was uncharted territory for me. In the 6+ years I've been endurance racing, since early 2005, I've never had a muscle cramp. At all. And my left calf was just the beginning. Over the course of the next miles, my right calf threatened to cramp up. Then my left quad started threatening to cramp up. What was going on?

What's more, my right ankle - which I rolled trail running back in July or so - was acting up.

At this point, it felt like a lot more was going wrong than was going right. About the only thing that was going well was the nutrition. I was drinking a lot, keeping well hydrated. I was eating well, pushing in lots of nutrtition... GU packs every 30-45 minutes, chocolate, apple slices with peanut butter, oranges, Gatorade.

But that wasn't enough to keep this boat from sinking. I'd been stressed all week. I was overworked, sleep deprived, you get the picture. I expected the race to be a time to sort all that out, to let go of it and recharge. Trail running is often a valuable time for me to "re-set" my system. Only this time, it didn't reset. The tension just threatned to boil over. The macho, stoic man in me is reluctant to admit this publicly, but there were a handful of times during race when I thought I might shed a few tears. This was an odd experience for me. That kind of thing seldom happens to me... the whole crying thing. (For the record, I didn't shed any tears during or after the race, though I came close...)

What that all boiled down to was that my heart and mind were not in the race. I felt defeated. And as my body continued to fight against me, I felt my morale and motivation sinking further.

A racer begins his ascent of the infamous Bluff. 
Stop running and commence power hiking in 3... 2... 1...
By the time I arrived at Aid Station 4, after 22 miles, I had serious doubts about continuing. Physically, mentally, emotionally, it wasn't my day. Normally, a trail ultra of that distance (32+ miles), over that terrain (mostly rolling hills), at that pace (roughly 10 min per mile), should be no problem for me. But it was. Something was majorly off.

I told Kelli as much when I ran into the aid station, where she and the girls were happily waiting.

"I know that you can finish this race, if you want to," she said re-assuredly. "But is it worth it?" That was the million dollar question.

After an agonizing few minutes, having contemplated the decision, I walked over and told the aid station volunteer with a clipboard and spreadsheet that I was withdrawing.

I looked over her shoulder and watched as she flipped the page, found my bib #, and scribbled the initials "DNF" next to my name. Did Not Finish. It was my first DNF. In any race. Ever.

If you compete for long enough, every racer has a DNF at some point. This, I think, is a nearly universal truth of endurance racing. I don't know why I thought I'd be immune to it.

In the past, as I've thought about this hypothetical future moment (which had just become my present reality), I always envisioned it as a moment of crushing disappointment. Surprisingly, it wasn't. In some ways, it was a relief. Did this mean I had given up? I don't think so. I think that deep down I knew that this was the right decision to make.

Kelli was right. Sure, I could have finished, but at what cost? I was in rough shape. I had to think about the rest of the year...the girls, the busy holiday season, two looming book deadlines, the 2012 race season. I'd been burning the candle at both ends for too long. Heck, if my candle had 3 or 4 ends, I'd be burning those, too. I feel like I've been flirting dangerously with chronic fatigue. It's time to take a step back, to really rest, to let my body fully recover to 100%, and come back in a month or two refreshed, strong, ready to go. Besides, "it takes courage to withdraw," Kelli comforted me.

We walked as a family down the trail and to the car. I wouldn't run those last 10+ miles of the race. As I changed my clothes, from shorts into jeans, I lifted my leg to put it into my pants, and my hip cramped up. Seriously? What was wrong with me? It was another sign I had made right decision.

Yesterday, tentative race results were posted to the race website. I immediately noticed that my name is missing. Upon further inspection, it became clear that the race director didn't list the DNFs. What? I was taken aback. Did only finishers get the "honor" of being listed in the results? Was the race director trying to save us DNF folks the "disgrace" of being listed as such? My missing name was like a little extra kick in the gut. I was there. I toed that starting line. I ran for 22 hard miles. That counted for something.

Looking at the finish times of other racers, I felt a twinge of regret for pulling out of the race. Kelli had been keeping approximate track of my place in the race. At the time that I withdrew, after those 22 miles, she estimated I was right around the top 20 mark in the race. Even at my slower pace, as terrible as I felt, I likely could have finished the race in a time that would have still kept me in the top 30, in a race that had 170+ registered competitors. That's nothing to scoff at. (I wonder too how well I might have done if I'd been feeling better for the race.)

But then I reminded myself - yes, I could have done that. I could have finished the race and "salvaged" the day. But at what cost?

It has been a valuable learning experience. 

I wonder - now that I have my first DNF - if it will be a gateway drug. Now that my streak has ended, and I finally have a DNF on my record, will that make it easier for me to do it again in the future. I don't think so. Now I've tasted it. I know what it feels like. And I know I don't want to do it again. This time it was the right decision to make. But I also don't want there to be a next time.

Part of my plan for assuring I don't DNF again is to get back to 100%. Doing that requires not competing for a little bit. I told Kelli as we left the aid station together, "In a few weeks, if I start talking about doing another race this fall, remind me of this conversation."

I'm going to take some time. No racing. At least for the next two months. In the interim, I'll focus on "lifestyle" fitness... a bit of late season surfing, some hiking with the girls, rock climbing, and soon, ice climbing and skiing. I'm going to get my legs pain-free. And I'll be back trail running again before not too long either. It's hard for me to stay away. But before I resume, I want to make sure that all systems are go.

Although I don't know what it is just yet, the next gluten-free endurance challenge is waiting for me around the corner. Time to look ahead to the race calendar and make some plans. In the meantime, I've got other work to do... =)

- Pete

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Foto: Raspberry Rum Punch Cocktail


You may have noticed that in recent weeks we haven't been posting as frequently as usual. There's a good (and exciting) reason, though. I promise. Our first cookbook - Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking - is being released in a second edition come spring 2012!

In partnership with our publisher, The Experiment, the entire book is getting a major overhaul. New cover. New design/layout. We're revising and updating old recipes. We're adding a bunch of new recipes. We're incorporating bake-by-weight measurements to any recipes that call for our Artisan Gluten-Free Flour Blend. And instead of a center insert of small, ho-hum photos, the new edition will have 50 or so full page, full color photos throughout the book, like Artisanal Gluten-Free Cupcakes

Needless to say, we're very excited for the second edition! We're also exhausted. We've been hard at work taking photos, and it is no easy task. We're constantly trying to raise our own bar; to hold ourselves to a higher standard; to make this work better than the work we've done before. We're succeeding, but it hasn't been easy.


With two young girls at home, carving out time to prep the food, style the photos, take the shots, etc. has been a challenge. Plus, since I'm working full time as a magazine writer and editor, taking the photos during the day - when the photographic light is best - just hasn't been possible. And so we've "built" a photo studio in our house. That studio is also known as "our former bedroom."

We needed a space where we could leave everything set up, and not have to take it down after every shoot. We needed a space that could be closed off, so the girls wouldn't be at risk of hurting themselves, or damaging any equipment. We needed a studio.

We didn't have one. But we did have a large bedroom. So we moved out. Earlier this summer, we had moved Charlotte's crib into Marin's bedroom so the girls could share the air conditioning. That left the small room that once contained Charlotte's crib and a glider rocking chair pretty much vacant. That cozy space has now become our bedroom. And believe me, it is cozy. It literally has enough room for our king bed (pushed against two walls), one small laundry basket, and that's it. I'd take a picture of it, but I don't have a wide-enough angled lens to shoot in such a small space and still capture everything. But it's working for us. Like a hobbit hole. Or something like that.


Meanwhile, what used to be our bedroom has been transformed. Around the perimeter of the room are tables and filing cabinets and dressers piled high with dishes, silverware, tablecloths, napkins, cups, bowls, glassware, and an assortment of cutting boards and other wood surfaces. There's our camera, a new tripod (our old one just wasn't cutting it), a trio of lenses (including my new infatuation, seen in the photo above), a studio lighting set up, and an assortment of reflectors.

I won't bother going into the photographic particulars here. Perhaps that'd be another post for another day. But here's a sneak peak at one of last night's dishes we photographed...Pad Thai. I haven't done any post processing. No white balance adjustment. No brightness/contrast adjustment. No tweaking to "calibrate" the colors. This photo is straight out of our camera. I hope you think it looks as delicious as I do. (I also have some insider information on the pic, since we also ate the pad thai for dinner last night!)


All of this said, we're in a celebratory mood. Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking was our first baby. (Our first cookbook baby, at least.) And she's growing up. With the forthcoming second edition, she's maturing and becoming a more refined version of herself. What better way to celebrate than with a cocktail?

Today's cocktail recipe had two primary sources of inspiration. One is summer, hence the fresh raspberries. (Although I must say, I'm pretty excited about fall being here...) The other inspiration is Copa D'Oro. Copa D'Oro is a bar in Santa Monica, California. I first learned about it during a press trip to Santa Monica. But to call it "just" a bar doesn't do it justice. This place specializes in making what it calls "market fresh cocktails." Translation: the bartenders regularly go shopping at and stock the bar with produce from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Fruits. Vegetables. Herbs.

Mint? Sure. But how about some basil or rosemary or sage in your cocktail?

Strawberry or raspberry in a cocktail? No problem. But how about slices of apple, or blackberries, or blood orange?

Celery in your bloody mary? Standard. But how about some ginger, or some jalapeno or bell pepper in your drink?

The most exciting part of visiting Copa D'Oro, for me, was not going in and inventing my own cocktail with their unique "market fresh" ingredients. Instead, it was telling the bartender a drink I like - a mojito - and then giving him free reign to "sex it up" with an unconventional twist. Buried somewhere in my notes from that trip, I have written down exactly what I ended up with. Based on memory, it was a mojito, but with a different blend of herbs and fruit...some basil and blackberry, as I recall. And it was good. Very good.

In that spirit, we give you today's Raspberry Rum Punch Cocktail. Bottoms up!

Raspberry Rum Punch Cocktail
Makes 1 drink, if 1 part = 1 shot

Ingredients
1.5 parts white rum
2 parts seltzer
4 parts fruit punch
3 muddled raspberries

Steps
1. Combine all ingredients. Serve over ice.

Enjoy!

This recipe is: gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, tree-nut-free, fish-free, shellfish-free, soy-free, refined-sugar-free.


Note: For the fruit punch, we used a 100% juice, no-sugar-added, no artificial colors option.

- Pete

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Gluten-Free Ratio Rally: Grilled Pizza


Historically, I have not been shy about professing my love of pizza here on the blog. Over the years we've posted a number of recipes. Most recently we developed our San Marzano deep dish pizza recipe. Before that, there was a recipe for spicy buffalo chicken pizza. There was a dual recipe for Sicilian and thin crust pizzas before that, in a post I titled, "The Pizzaholic." And there was a margherita pizza and others before that.

When this month's Gluten-Free Ratio Rally decided to tackle pizza, I was pretty excited. As usual with the Ratio Rally, Kelli and I wanted to challenge ourselves with a pizza we'd not attempted before. We almost immediately settled on our goal: a grilled pizza, cooked over an open flame.

Now, I don't want to let the cat out of the bag here, and I don't want to overly pat ourselves on the back, but oh my gosh. This pizza is good. No, this pizza is great. Kelli declared it possibly the best pizza we've ever made. And we tend to have a pretty high opinion of our pizzas, so this is saying something. The delicious char and unmistakeable grilled-ness on the slightly crunchy yet chewy crust. The fresh vegetables. The balance of sauce and not too much cheese.

But, you don't have to take our word for it. Try the recipe and see for yourself! And while you're at it, head on over to Karen R.'s blog, Cooking Gluten-Free. She's hosting this month's ratio rally, and you'll find links to lots of other tasty gluten-free pizzas there!

As for the ratio of the recipe itself, the participating bloggers began with a starting ratio of 5:3 flour:water. The more we work with gluten-free doughs, the more we like those doughs to be pretty wet. With the case of something like a pizza dough, we like for it to be right on the edge between workable by hand and too wet/sticky. The result, for this pizza, was a ratio of 1:1. We used flour and water in equal quantities by weight.

Regardless, the end result is what matters, and this time around, the result was divine, and I don't mind saying so.


Grilled Pizza
Makes 1 pizza, Serves 2-4

Ingredients

For the dough
175g warm water (3/4 cup)
1 tbsp honey (or sugar)
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 tbsp olive oil
175g Artisan Gluten-Free Flour Blend (about 1 1/3 cups plus 1 heaping tbsp)
1 tsp xanthan gum
1 tsp salt

For the pizza
250-275g crushed San Marzano tomatoes (about 2/3 of a 14.5-ounce can)
110g shredded mozzarella cheese (about 4 oz)
1/4 red bell pepper, sliced thin
1/4 green bell pepper, sliced thin
1/4 red onion, sliced thin
Dried oregano
Dried basil

Steps


To make the crust
1. Preheat your oven to 500 deg F.
2. Combine the water, honey/sugar, and yeast in a bowl and let stand until the yeast is well activated, about 5 minutes.
3. Stir in the olive oil. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, xanthan gum, and salt. Add the liquids and mix to form a dough that is soft but not sticky to the touch. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil into the bowl and roll the dough ball to evenly coat.
4. Drizzle a liberal amount of olive oil onto a cookie sheet and press the pizza dough into a thin crust shape, approximately 15" x 7.5", or whatever will fit comfortably on your grill. Let rise 10 minutes.
5. Par-bake the crust in your pre-heated oven for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat your grill to 500 deg F, then decrease the flame. (How much you decrease the flame will depend on your grill - you want to get good grill marks and char on the bottom of your pizza, but don't want to burn the crust before you melt the cheese and cook the toppings.)
6. Use a spatula to separate the pizza crust from the cookie sheet, and transfer to a pizza paddle, if desired.

To make the pizza

7. Spread the tomatoes/sauce on the par-baked crust, then add the shredded cheese, then the sliced vegetables, and finally a light sprinkling of the dried herbs.
8. Finish the pizza on the hot grill, baking for about 5 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the toppings are cooked.

Enjoy!

This recipe is: gluten-free, egg-free, peanut-free, tree-nut-free, fish-free, shellfish-free, soy-free.


This recipe is easily made dairy-free with the use of dairy-free cheese. This recipe is refined-sugar-free as long as you don't use sugar to activate the yeast.

- Pete

Monday, October 3, 2011

Race Report: 2nd Annual Gluten-Free Ultramarathon Challenge

Topo map of the out-and-back course.
Well, the 2nd annual Gluten-Free Ultramarathon Challenge - and my 2nd Virgil Crest Ultra - are now one for the record books. The race was a little over one week ago, and just enough time has elapsed that I can sit down and write this race report with a bit of perspective.

The fact that I'm writing a race report at all is itself a small miracle. Exactly one week before the race I was in the emergency room of a local hospital. Between the Thursday before and the Tuesday after that trip to the hospital, I'd seen five different doctors. Then, two days after seeing an infectious disease specialist, we drove from our home in the Hudson Valley to Kelli's parents' place in Ithaca, about half an hour from the race venue.

When we arrived, Kelli's mom said to me, "What am I going to tell everyone at church on Sunday? It's awkward. This past Sunday I had them all praying for you. Now you're going to race."

"Tell them the prayers worked!" I said. (On that note, many thanks to all of you who also sent prayers, positive vibes, healing thoughts, good energy, etc.)

When we arrived I also had an email waiting for me from my good friend, Tom. He ran the 50-mile Virgil Crest Ultra last year also. This year, he's been busy training for the New York City Marathon, which is in early November. The subject of the email said "Good luck." The body of the email wasn't exactly so positive. "Just did a 20-mile training run," he wrote. "All I could think was, 'I'm so glad I'm not doing 50.'" Way to inspire!

But he had a kind of point. I had been pretty sick not a week before the race. What was I thinking racing 50 miles across rough terrain?

Elevation profile of the course.
The Friday before the race was largely consumed with preparation. I built a new spreadsheet that would allow Kelli to track my aid station arrival times and my average per mile pace. I printed out driving directions to several of the aid stations for Kelli. She slaved in the kitchen baking scones, cookies, Italian meatballs. I peeled oranges, sorted GU packets, loaded zip lock bags with all sorts of foods. My mother-in-law cooked up a pound of bacon, and made trips to the supermarket to pick up last minute odds and ends for my race nutrition. It was a real team effort.

By that evening, we had all the food portioned out and sorted on the kitchen counter, and boy there was a lot of it. I knew I wouldn't eat it all. Not even close. That wasn't the point. Race day nutrition can be a bit of a crap shoot. Depending on how you're feeling, how your stomach is handling the exertion, and how your body holds up to the miles, you may or may not feel like eating certain foods. By bringing lots of options, my hope was that I'd be able to find something palatable to eat.

Friday night was also the pre-race meeting and bib number pick-up. News about the condition of the course wasn't good. It was raining during the meeting, held in a local firehouse, and it had rained every day of the week leading up to the race. There was going to be mud. Lots of it. And some streams to cross, where getting wet would be unavoidable. Lovely.

As the evening drew to a close, I retired to the bathroom to try and put in my contact lenses. My right eye especially had gotten swollen from the hemorrhage. With the rain and mud and sweat (though hopefully no blood or tears), I was reluctant to run in my eyeglasses. I was also reluctant to run without any corrective vision whatsoever. The last few times I've done that I've tripped on unseen roots and rocks. All week I'd been using prescription steroid eye drops to reduce the swelling. The opthalmologist said there was an outside shot I could wear contact lenses by the weekend. And so I tried to put them in and...they felt fine! (In fact, over the course of the night, the subtle pressure the contacts placed on my eyes helped to push blood away from my corneas, actually improving my vision!)

I turned in for bed sometime around 11 or so that night, I think, and woke to my alarm clock at 4:00am to eat breakfast and get ready to hit the road by 4:45am or so with Kelli. She graciously served as my support crew for the entire race.

Ready to go at 5:40am, 20 minutes before race start.
At Hope Lake Park - the start/finish of the race - some 150 runners from the 100-mile, 50-mile, 50k, and 100-mile relay races mingled about. Most of us huddled under a covered picnic pavilion. It was raining. Again. Rather than a heavy downpour, it was a constant mist/drizzle, and the brutal humidity seemed to indicate that we were in the clouds that were raining on us.

With my race # clipped to my running shorts, my Camelbak filled with water and stuffed with a few GU packets, and my wristwatch timer set, I was ready to go. Or so I thought. The day would unfold not exactly according to plan, but I'll get to that in a bit.

A few minutes before the official start of the race, all the runners assembled near the starting line between a pair of flaming torches. In most races I've been in, competitive racers crowd the starting line. I purposely stopped a bit shy of the starting line, expecting other runners to fill in ahead of me, leaving me 3 or 4 people back from the front for the race start. To my surprise, most runners filed in behind me, so that I constituted the front line of runners.

Race director Ian Golden gave us all a few last minute instructions. Then, as per tradition, he blew into his ram's horn and we were off. The first section of the race took us across a grassy field and onto a trail that wound around one end of Hope Lake, across the lake's dam, and then up into the wooded hills. Having done this race once before, I suppose I looked like I knew where I was going, because the other runners followed me. For those first few hundred meters of the race, I was in the lead. Either that, or I was shoulder to shoulder with another runner up front with me. That would be the first - and last - time I'd lead the race.

Once across the dam, faster runners moved ahead of me, and I focused on trying to find my target race pace.

Race director Ian Golden (left) giving last minute instructions to the runners. I'm in the front center of the group.
At that early hour, we were all running with headlamps on. It was surprisingly difficult. With the misting rain and heavy clouds hanging on the hills, running with a headlamp was a bit like driving in fog with your brights on. It made visibility difficult, but you needed to see where you were going, where the next reflective race marker was, where you were putting your feet.

Ahh, and where I was putting my feet. There was water and mud, seemingly everywhere. There would be no dry feet on this day. In places the mud was deep. A handful of times it threatened to pull a trail running shoe right off my foot, and I tie those on pretty snugly.

Getting dirty wasn't the problem. The real trouble was all the extra energy it took to run through the muck, all the subtle ways that more muscles were being called into action to help maintain balance in the face of unsure, slippery footing. Race director Ian Golden cautioned us to take it more conservatively than we had planned. I should have followed his advice more closely.

The first ten miles or so - through aid station 1 to aid station 2 - felt surprisingly good. I was running faster than my intended race pace. This was partly by design. I had run those legs of the race faster last year as well. In the grand scheme of things, they were "easier" than the remainder of the course. Running them faster now meant I was putting time in the bank, because I knew I'd be going slower later.

Arriving at Aid Station 2.
When I arrived at Aid Station 2, Kelli was there waiting, all smiles. "You're doing great!" she said. "I'm so proud of you!" Her encouragement was great. The race was off to a good start. My body was feeling good, and cooperating. No complaints. But things were about to get much more difficult in a big way, quickly.

Leg 3 of the race is known as the infamous "Alpine Loop," which takes racers up and over Greek Peak. Not once, but twice. The course gains - and loses - nearly 1,500 vertical feet in just 4.2 miles. Many sections of the ascents are too steep to run. Racers power hike them until the top, when you can start running again.

Wise from last year, I brought trekking poles this time around. They allowed me to better power on the ascents, using a bit of arm energy to conserve precious leg energy. I arrived at the next aid station feeling good. Hopefully, I could keep this type of performance going.

Arriving at Aid Station 3, 14 miles or so down, 36 to go.
The fourth leg of the race was another tough one - an ascent up and over Virgil Mountain - and the race's longest stretch between aid stations. For the first time, my body wasn't feeling so great. My legs developed a hint of fatigue, and my stomach was feeling unsettled. That unsettled feeling mostly affected my appetite. Certain foods that I planned on eating just didn't sound appealing at all. In fact, by the time I arrived at Aid Station 4, the Rock Pile, I couldn't stomach another packet of GU energy gel.

Just the thought of eating one more GU made me want to throw up. And I had planned on GU packs being an important part of my race nutrition on the trail in between aid stations, when I'd eat solid foods. Yet, as I came into Aid Station 4, Kelli was there with good news - I was still on my overall race pace. Awesome. What's more, a stereo at the aid station was blasting AC/DC. It just so happens that I brought two "psych up" albums for the car ride from Ithaca to the race: the soundtrack to Rocky IV (to any guy from my generation, this choice requires no explanation), and AC/DC.

"Thank you to whoever put on the AC/DC album," I hollered as I ran into the aid station. I changed my socks and tried to refuel. But my stomach and appetite just wasn't in it. Over the full distance of the race course I would manage just a single slice of bacon, and just a single Italian meatball. GU packets were out. Instead, I chowed down on zesty dill pickles, oranges, and slices of apple with copious amounts of peanut butter. And I stocked up on mini Reese's chocolate peanut butter cups for the next leg of the race. They weren't part of my race nutrition plan. My mother-in-law bought them on a whim. Thank goodness she did. They would prove to be a saving grace of the race.

Kelli would be staying at Rock Pile and waiting for me. Next, I'd head to Daisy Hollow, Aid Station 5, the turn-around at mile 25.1, and head back to meet her right back at this same spot. From this point onward, I'd be running farther than my longest training run this year.

The run from the Rock Pile to Daisy Hollow is always a place to take stock. Since Daisy Hollow is the race turn-around, anyone heading the other direction is ahead of you in the race. By counting the number of runners you pass heading the opposite direction, you can count your current place number in the race. I started counting. But before I arrived at Daisy Hollow, I gave up. Keeping stock of my place in the race was taking too much mental energy, and I sensed that my body was starting to betray me. My place in the race didn't matter. Finishing the race did.

By the time I arrived at Daisy Hollow, I was somewhere between 12th and 15th place in the 50-mile race, out of 76 or so runners. But by then a mantra had entered my head. Instead of counting my place in the race, I silently repeated the following phrase: "Honor the distance. Respect the course. Find a rhythm. Listen to your body." The only problem was, my body was saying "stop."

After reaching the Daisy Hollow aid station, I refilled my water bladder, and set off the way I came. The miles were earned with much more difficulty, and I could feel myself slipping off the pace. My left knee hurt. My right calf hurt. I'm not sure if I tweaked one leg, and then favored the other, thus tweaking it as well, or if they were just independent aches and pains. Even my nipples hurt, and that has almost never happened to me in a race.

As I ran, now facing all the runners who were still behind me heading out to Daisy Hollow, a surprising number caught me off guard by sincerely asking if I was feeling okay. It took me until mile 29 or so to finally realize why: they saw my eyes, and thought that the blood-red color happened during the race. Now I got it.

When I returned to Kelli at the Rock Pile at mile 30, I wasn't too far off my pace. By then, however, my body wasn't feeling so hot. I sat down in a camp chair and rested. I changed my socks. (In total, I'd go through 4 pairs of socks during the race. Each pair got wet and muddy within minutes of leaving an aid station, but they felt oh so good to pull onto my wrinkled, drenched feet.) I took time to really force myself to eat a lot of food. I knew my nutrition hadn't matched my physical output. I actually managed to eat a little too much, developing a slight stomach cramp that thankfully went away soon. And I joked with Kelli: "How long do you think I can take a nap before I should start running again?"

Inertia was setting in big time. My goal had been to keep my aid station stops to roughly 3 minutes each. When I glanced at my watch, I was stunned to discover that this stop had lasted more than 11 minutes! Time to get moving. Slowly.

At the Rock Pile, mile 30.
The next 6-plus miles from Rock Pile back to the base of Greek Peak were the toughest of the race for me. It felt like my body was self-destructing in slow motion. I walked long stretches of trail. I hobbled and jogged other sections of trail. This train was starting to derail; the wheels were coming off the wagon. If I continued this downward spiral, things would not be looking good. In fact, for the first time in the race, I seriously faced the realistic possibility that I might not finish. Withdrawing when I arrived at Aid Station 7 at mile 36 entered my mind as an appealing and likely option. I had bitten off more than I could chew; tried to do too much too soon after being so sick the week before. I was humbled.

Yet, despite how miserable I felt, I despised even more the idea of quitting the race. I didn't want to DNF. I wanted to finish the darn thing. I looked at my watch. I'd been moving for more than 8 hours. The race cut-off time was 16 hours. Heck. From Aid Station 7, it'd be "just" 14 miles to the finish. With the number of hours remaining in the race, I could walk the rest of the course and still finish within the allotted time.

The final section of this leg of the race was a long, steep descent from Virgil Mountain back to Lift House 5 at the base of Greek Peak. I knew that at the bottom of the mountain I'd make a left turn to run briefly along a gravel road called Tone Road before arriving at the aid station. In my race induced delirium, my thought process on that descent went something like this: Hmm. Tone Road. That reminds me of Tone Loc. And that reminds me of "Funky Cold Medina."

At that point, "Funky Cold Medina" started looping in my head endlessly. And that was awesome. It turns that song has a tempo and beat that's just right for trudging along at a modest run. I powered in to the aid station.

Not exactly all smiles, finishing up Tone Road and arriving at Aid Station 7 at mile 36.
At the aid station I leveled with Kelli. I told her exactly how I was feeling and what I was thinking. Not that it surprised me, but she handled the situation with expert tact. In between refilling my water, feeding me whatever I could eat, and re-stocking my chocolate peanut butter cups, she told me that she understood how I was feeling. She gave me the option to gracefully exit the race just then. She explained that doing so was in no way a bad reflection on me. That there was nothing to lose in making that choice.

But in the same breath, she also unconditionally supported my continuance of the race. She knows me. She knows how badly I would want to finish a race such as this. She trusts me to listen to my own body, my own needs. If I wanted - or needed - to walk the rest of the race, finishing in the darkness of night. She'd be there. If I found some unknown hidden reserves of energy, and could run to the finish, she'd be there.

And so I decided to continue. In a way, I sensed that - despite the misery of miles 30-36 - I might actually be able to finish. My rationale (and psychological self-trickery) was thus: miles 36-40 were a repeat of the Greek Peak alpine loop. Much of it would be power hiking (alternating with steep downhills), assisted by my trekking poles. Surely I could power hike 4 miles. From there, miles 40-50 were the "easier" miles of the course. Miles 40-46 or so would get me to the Gravel Pit aid station. If I could get there, then I'd have just 4+ miles to go to the finish, with a net elevation loss. Surely I could do that. There's no way I would let myself get that close to the finish and not make it.

In this way, I knew that as I reached each of the remaining aid stations, I'd have a compelling reason to continue on to the next one. And with that strategy - taking one leg of the race at a time - I'd finish.

With trekking poles in hand, I looked up at Greek Peak and took the next strides.

As expected, by the time I finished the Alpine Loop, I was starting to feel a bit better. What's more, when I jogged in to Aid Station 8, Kelli's mom and sister had arrived with Marin and Charlotte (wearing a "Team Daddy" shirt). I had a small cheering section to root me on. The motivational boost was great.

In fact, in retrospect the mental (and physical) shift between miles 30-40 and miles 40-50 was remarkable. I went from the depths of despair to a perspective of real optimism and hope. With spirits buoyed, I set my sights on the Gravel Pit, at roughly mile 46.

En route, my body started "coming back," too. I was running longer sections of trail, downshifting only to hike the uphills. Superb.

Arriving at the Gravel Pit.
A swig of Gatorade, some M&Ms, a last change of socks, and 4+ miles to the finish.
At the Gravel Pit, Team Daddy was out in full force. I plopped down into the mud and wet grass and changed my socks for the fourth and last time. Although I was only 4-plus miles from the finish, I credit my sock changes with my successful avoidance of blisters and other foot problems. Charlotte toddled over and shoved a small handful of M&Ms into my mouth. Marin traded swigs of Gatorade with me. And then I was off.

There were a few short but noticeable uphills on the last leg of the race, but for the most part, it went downhill (in a literal sense). In the last mile, the course spit me onto the trail that circled around Hope Lake. As I approached the dam, the sun had come out. Across the smooth lake, the green grass, colorful trees, and finish line glowed in later afternoon light. It was beautiful.

This was only the third "environmental" observation I'd consciously made all day. Once, on the return trip over Greek Peak, I looked up from the mud for long enough to admire the surrounding hills, which were beginning to set ablaze with the colors of fall. The other thing I noticed were the mushrooms. They were everywhere, probably thanks to all the rain. I must have seen more than two dozen varieties.

Running across the dam, I heard some loud cheering. It was probably folks cheering another runner across the finish line. But I imagined that it was Team Daddy and others at the finish line. They'd spotted my bright red shirt, and were giving me a final motivational boost for the last few hundred meters. I raised one arm in the air and pumped my fist to acknowledge them.

And at long last, across the dam, the trail circled around, made a left onto the grass, and it was a straight shot to the finish line, where Team Daddy was waiting.



I crossed the finish line in 12 hours 15 minutes. I had finished. Not only that, but I was only 30 minutes behind last year's time. Given both a) the muddy conditions and b) my recent illness, I was more than thrilled. It was the most difficult day of racing, and the most painful and hard-earned finish, I've ever had. By a long shot. And it felt good. (That sounds crazy, doesn't it?)

And though I didn't successfully repeat a Top 10 finish as I had hoped, my place finish was still pretty respectable. Based on preliminary results, I came in 22nd out of 78 runners in the 50-mile race. The 100-mile race had an incredible 50% DNF rate. Any 100-miler who passed the 50-mile mark, but later dropped out of the 100-mile race, was awarded a finish place in the 50-mile race. When you take those folks into account, I finished 29th out of 100. Not too shabby.

The Bronski clan
The full Team Daddy.
Another Gluten-Free Ultramarathon Challenge had come and gone.

And so now I can say many, many huge "thank you's." Thank you to everyone who supported me through the training. Thank you to everyone who supported me through my illness. And thank you to everyone who supported me come race day.

Thanks, also, to all of you who made donations to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. This year we raised nearly $3,030. I deeply appreciate every one of your dollars, which the NFCA will use to benefit the gluten-free community. This brings our two-year fundraising total to $6,600!

Finally, I want to say thank you to all the great gluten-free companies that made donations to support the NFCA, especially this year's Sustaining Sponsors: Bard's, the Gluten-Free Bistro, and Rudi's.




My recovery from the race has been going well. I've taken a bit of time off to rest my body and mind. I haven't run since the race. The soreness is gone. I can walk up and down stairs again, and wrestle with the girls around the house. And believe it or not, I'm already eyeballing my next ultramarathon. It's in three weeks. =)

- Pete