Noble Canyon 50k
When Life Gives You Lemons, Finish the Fucking Race
Four hours and 20 minutes into the 2014 Noble Canyon 50k, I was sitting in 5th place with just a mile and a half left until the finish line. I had run a strong race and was thrilled to be on the verge of finishing my first ultra-marathon. Through 30 miles and over 5,000 feet of climbing, all cylinders were still firing. I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained — but I knew it would almost be over. Dig deep, Terence. This is when it counts. Less than 15 minutes stood in between me and a finisher’s medal, a well-earned feast and the thrill of accomplishment. But then everything went horribly, horribly wrong.
Part 1 — Starting Smart
6:30am. In a valley within the Cleveland National Forest, majestic mountains stood stoically around us. Just standing there was humbling; but 200 of us had lined up to challenge these hills. The sun had yet to rise past these looming, powerful and regal mountains, but a cloudless sky foreshadowed a relentlessly hot day. The dry and barren hills would offer zero cover or protection. Even so, enveloped in the still-brisk air, we marched on for our 50-kilometer journey through the mountains and valleys of Pine Valley, CA.
The 31-mile course would require over 5,200 feet of climbing on technical trails. Between the tough course and inevitably hot weather, managing my effort would be critical for a successful race. I opted for a conservative start and latched on to a group calmly running the first mile at a 7:00 pace. Through the initial 6 miles, I ran in 8th or 9th place and held up the caboose of a steady train of 5 runners. As we meandered up and down the initial hills, it became very evident that most of these guys were stronger downhill runners than uphill. My strengths were just the opposite. Conservative approach be damned, my competitive drive took over. I calculated that if I were to advance in the standings, I would need to make my gains on the ascent and continue to drop the hammer through the rolling hills of the middle miles just to hold them off on the latter downhill miles. I thanked the train for the ride, pushed off, and a few miles later catapulted myself into 4th place.
I kept waiting to be overtaken. I kept waiting to regret my decision to leave the pack. I kept waiting for the wheels to fall off. But much to my surprise, I felt great throughout most of the race. My stride was strong, my cadence steady, and my footsteps swift, nimble and confident. I was steady throughout the ups, I powered through the flats, and my turnover sped me through the downs. There were a few near-falls, a few slow and steep pitches, and a few patches of mental and physical fatigue. But I found myself equipped to respond to each mini-challenge. Quicker turnover. Shorter stride. Wider arms. More salt. In my first attempt at this distance and on this terrain, I was miraculously prepared. But such is the virtue of training.
Part 2 — The Virtues of Training
Throughout the middle miles, whilst running alone through some stunning vistas, I let my mind wander. The serenity of the setting and the solitude made for great introspection. My mind found itself in New York City, in 2005, in my friend’s living room. There I was, a young clarinetist making music with friends. We were playing Max Bruch trios for clarinet, viola and piano. And we were intoxicated. Still, the notes flowed effortlessly from our instruments. I remember making intonation adjustments, responding to the musical phrasings from my companions, and being present in how my voice fit into the fabric of the piece. Heavy stuff for a few drunk teenagers. So this is why I practice! Because I was taught to work on intonation, long tones, scales, and drills in the practice room, I found myself equipped with the technical skills to be musical. This was gestalt — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Similarly, in the middle of a 50-kilometer trail race, I found myself equipped with the skills to conquer the challenges of the course. I became keenly aware of how my weekly session on the track improved my leg turnover on the downhills, how the thousands of squats and lunges I’ve done fortified me with the necessary strength to tackle the ascents, and how the hundreds of hours of yoga, stretching and drills gave me the flexibility and balance needed to negotiate the technical terrain.
I fell in love again with how honest the sport of running is. How beautiful it is to see and feel the results of consistent hard work. Three years ago, I phoned in mediocre race results while spending most of my week at bars — but here I was, racing in 4th place in the middle of my first ultra-marathon.
When I became serious about my training two years ago, I fell into an awesome positive feedback loop where the more I did, the faster I got, and the faster I got, the more I wanted to do. I lauded the virtues of hard work, and started to believe anything was possible. I was, in fact, once called a “fitness-Republican.” I don’t discount that natural talent exists — and I may very well be predisposed to some previously untapped gift of running. But in the middle of this race, the idea that I worked and willed myself to this point buoyed me through the miles, the hills, and the pain. What are my limits, actually?
Part 3 — On the Brink
I reached mile 26 physically and mentally fatigued, perhaps more so than I’ve ever been in a race. Now in completely unchartered territory, I wondered if I had what it would take to finish strong. Another runner, Jeremiah, whom I had met and passed on the uphill, was charging fast behind me. I estimated about a minute difference and wondered if I could hold him at bay for 5 more miles. Just don’t lose more than 12 seconds every mile, I thought.
He passed me just 3 minutes later. I was disappointed but not dejected. He was clearly a more experienced and better-trained runner and had raced a smart enough race to surge forward in the last miles. I was impressed – inspired, even. He flew down the hills and navigated the rocky terrain with incredible ease. I held on for a bit, laboring behind him while making up some ground on the ups, and we entered the final aid station together.
“You guys can do it,” a volunteer said. “There’s a guy about a minute and a half ahead, and another guy a minute in front of him.” “Awesome- work together?” Jeremiah asked, as we both sponged off with ice water. I smiled and nodded, but I knew I wouldn’t have enough left to genuinely race the last 4.3 miles. One foot in front of the other, yes. Attacking and advancing past another runner, probably not.
Leaving the aid station, I struggled through the ascents, even walking the steeper pitches, but still made occasional progress on catching Jeremiah. I had a sense that once we hit the downhill, he would take off. I was right and he was already out of sight as I crested the last big hill. No matter, I thought. I just needed to keep a steady cadence through this last mile of downhill on the trail. We would then hit a paved road for the last mile where I would try to turn on the afterburners. I held on to hope that, perhaps, I just might have a slight advantage on the road. I braced myself for a struggle, for the pain, for the potential of a complete breakdown; but I could not have imagined the catastrophe that would strike just ahead.
Part 4 — Disaster and Devastation
I knew something was off when my watch registered mile 30.5. I should have reached a parking lot and then the final road. Instead, I reached a fork in the road with no clear trail marker. I turned around immediately, praying that I held a large enough lead to protect 5th place even with this stupid mishap. I stayed calm and tried to hold the frustration and anger at bay. “Navigation is just part of the race. You messed up, now make it right,” I thought to myself.
I doubled back for a quarter mile, then a half mile, then a whole mile, but saw no sign of the course. Shit. I was now even more horrendously lost than I was. Fear now piled on to the frustration. I tried not to panic, knowing that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. Still, scenes from 127 Hours and Castaway flashed in my mind. I had completely run out of water and it must have been close to 90 degrees under the blazing hot sun. This is every New Yorker’s worst nightmare. Would this be how it ends for me? Alone, lost and dehydrated?
My body was taxed to the brink, and I knew I couldn’t waste time running in circles looking for the proper trail. So having given up on finding the course and depleted of all energy to head back in the direction of the hills, I decided to follow an instinct (e.g. a completely uneducated guess) about where the road might be. I was still aimlessly wandering, but having some sort of direction was somewhat calming. 10 or so minutes later, a house came into view. I couldn’t judge the actual distance, but the sight of at least the potential of salvation brought me overwhelming relief. I did a combination of jogging and walking, trying to strike a balance between conserving energy and getting there quicker.
By the time I emerged onto the road by the house, my watch had registered 34 miles. I found two gardeners outside who were nice enough to offer me some water and point me in the direction of the finish area. “Down the road and turn right,” they said. “Should be about a mile, maybe mile and a half.”
I trotted along the road carrying a whole roster of emotions. Frustration, anger, shame, disappointment. A dramatic change from what I felt just an hour earlier. I realized now that I would probably get a DQ or DNF for not finishing the official course. So close, yet so far away…and now out of reach. The disbelief was unbearable.
I hobbled through the finish area wearing a face of dejection. My watch read 35.2 miles. Runners who had seen me on the course raised their arms towards me to say “what happened??” I went to the race director and told him about my ordeal. “Yeah,” he confirmed, “that can’t be an official finish, even though you ran more than the distance. I’m sorry.”
Part 5: Salvation
Completely deflated, I went inside the staging area. A friend took my water bottle and my hat, and was kind enough to leave me alone for a minute. I plopped down on the floor, closed my eyes, and tried to process it all. I didn’t know whether to cry or to hit something. At the moment, I actually didn’t have the energy for either. It didn’t sit right with me that this is how it would end — that there would in fact be no end to a day that started so well. All that training for naught. All those positive thoughts evaporating with one wrong turn. No, this couldn’t be it.
I knew there was nothing I could do about salvaging my time or my place. Lying there on the ground, I tried to convince myself that those things no longer mattered. I focused on what I could do – on what was within my control – and that was to finish what I started. I was a whole continent separated from Boylston Street, but I thought about the runners who were stopped before the end of 2013 Boston Marathon. Undeterred, hardened and resolved, 4,800 of them returned to Boston to finish the race on their terms. I would need to impose my own terms on this experience.
I went back to the race director and asked if I could double back to where I most likely made my error and then return on course for an official finish. “Absolutely. You’d really do that?” “Yes. This is what we do. We finish the race.” I grabbed a bottle of water from him and went back to grab my hat from my friend. I told her, “I’m finishing this fucking race,” and scuttled away before she could stop me.
A sense of purpose came over me. Finish the race. This is what we do. Finish, finish, finish. Cadence, stride, form, balance — none of that mattered at this point. All that I focused on was left, right, left, right, left, right. I passed a few confused runners coming the other way. I gave them a thumbs up, but could only manage to squeak out a toneless “got lost. doubling back.” I ran most of the road and hiked most of the hill, and mile and a half later, I reached the turn where I must have went wrong. The course veered right while the trail was grooved left. I still didn’t see a trail marker, but too tired to look, I turned around and marched forward. Every muscle ached and I couldn’t think straight. Still, invigorated by a new sense of redemption, I put one foot in front of the other. The positive energy from earlier restored itself with every step. And then reaching the finish area for the second time around, I raised my arms in triumph, let out a massive roar and bolted across the line — officially.
Part 6: Reflections
Quite a few runners and spectators came to congratulate me and to sing my praises after I finished. Many friends have done the same upon hearing the story. I’d be lying if said I didn’t enjoy this brush with vanity at least a little bit, but I think my decision to go back for the finish was a greater reflection on the running community than on myself. Runners ooze determination and grit and resilience. You see this in their training; you see this in races; and we all saw this in Boston this year. This spirit is contagious and nourishing. I put in the work, but I’m also inspired by and learn from others. It takes a special breed to sign up and train for a 50k race in the mountains. I was able to summon the tenacity to finish the race largely because I’ve seen others fight and hustle and dig. We don’t do this alone. Far from it, actually. So despite the wrong turn and added miles, I’m hopeful that maybe someone will read this story and find that they, too, always have a few extra ounces of strength to call upon.
My first ultra-marathon would be characterized by a strong run, marred by devastation, but salvaged by determination. It wasn’t the result I had in mind through the hundreds of hours of training; nor what I had envisioned during the first 30 miles of the race. It took 38 miles instead of 31, and 6:09 instead of perhaps a 4:35; but I am proud to say that I finished — that when consumed by overwhelming pain and confronted with devastating failure, I was able to do what it took to finish what I started. After pushing my limits all day, I learned that I actually had the strength to hurl those limits across the line when it counted. 5th place or not, I can hold my head high and say that when life gave me lemons, I finished the fucking race.