This is my favorite ultrarunning event of the year in a mixed calendar of running that I try to maintain as diverse as possible, i.e. trail races, road races, marathons, adventure treks, fatasses, 50 and 100 milers on the road and trails. The only omission is the mountain races like Mt. Washington that require more luck at the lottery than anything else.
The Sri Chinmoy Self Transcendence six day has some negatives: each year its start closely dovetails with the recovery week of racing hard at the Boston Marathon so that I feel somewhat disadvantaged with those that have fresh legs. And the weather in recent years has been, in a word, abysmal. This year’s full-fledged Nor’easter that blasted down on us shortly after the word go was of epic proportions, a storm that race director Sahishnu labeled "the worst in my 35 years of race directing." Suffice of it to say that most of us carried umbrellas that first day and a half, the rest wished they had them, and many were blown inside out whenever the implement did not have the correct sail angle to the raging storm.
I had been confident that I had an extra weapon for old man time this year, as with the help of running friends Jeff List, Julian Jamison, and Carl Asker, I had somehow carved another ten pounds off my frame, a weight that I hoped would prove an extra arrow in my quiver for the miles and miles ahead.
However, my opening day plan of compiling 75 or 80 miles did not happen; a skinny total of 57 stood naked in the freezing rain on the scoreboard, and with a week of dismal forecast I spoke these ugly words to Jane — "This is stupid. I am thinking of forgetting the whole thing and heading on home with you when you go."
"Oh no! No, no, no, no you’re not! After all you’ve been through? All that training? Those 100 mile weeks? Come on, let’s get moving here," as she bustled about getting some warmer gear ready for my exit from the dugout. Jane does a good Mike Wallace imitation. She wasn’t entertaining for even One Minute the idea of driving me back home.
Ah, well, so much for the tough guy image…I submitted to her encouragement and knew the storm was a much smaller adversary than my 120 lb. wife when it came to ferocity, and integrity of purpose. Bet ya didn’t know that, did ya? Yeah, she appears soft and gentle and mild, but when it comes the time for her to protect the passion I have lying just under the thin layer of my competitor’s soul — her warrior man, she is right there by my side showing the way.
Basically, my plan in all five of the six days I have done thus far has the same sleep and time-frame schedule. Run through the first day until no longer productive, hit the tent about midnight, sleep until awake again (usually about 4A.M. when the proximity to Kennedy Airport wakes you from the screaming of the jet engines warming), then run steadily until 12:30 or one PM, where I would repair to the little tent for a power nap of 20 to 40 minutes. I have found that after two days, five minutes soaking the feet in Epsom salts is effective, and always, always eating in small portions on the walk/run. Sitting in the dugout enjoying food is a no-no insofar as moving the pedometer. One rests by simply walking slowly and taking the opportunity to socialize. This is important to me because my asthma prevents me from talking while running, and the loop style of the course really allows you to get to know your mates.
Also, burning the coal a bit slower regenerates the engine, and being the inveterate sports fan that I am, Mark Dorian delivering the sports section from the daily paper was a welcome distraction to the bloody battle each of us was waging (as well as radio station F.A.N.S. serving up a N.Y. Mets game every night and scores announced every 20 minutres from the NBA and NHL playoffs. There was only one classical music station Jane could find me, and frankly, it sucked). Cricket games in the park, eight oar college rowing teams gliding out on the lake, soccer at every level, softball, pick your sport in this multicultural smorgasbord – it was all there. And whenever it was not raining, musicians would be found playing at various points from instruments as varied as saxophones to sitars. And wildlife abounds at Corona Park – an observant birder would find many species, particularly with the lake right there and the proximity to Long Island Sound.
You go by the giant scoreboard each loop around, and I challenge you not to get goose bumps when you hear the announcer note your passing – Pete Stringer, the United States, 168 miles.
Moi? Little old moi? You bet. You are representing your country, young man, even if you do happen to be 70 years old.
168 miles was exactly 32 miles short of where I was hoping to be after three days, so I readjusted my numbers and decided that minimizing the damage was going to be the key to how well I would do.
Because of the hardness of the course, I had brought seven pairs of shoes, cutting and carving them up as I discovered abrasive spots as the feet swelled and elongated. You can never have too many shoes, for what you might think works, will often not. I lucked out with a pair of slightly used Mizuno Wave Riders that Justin Neviackas had donated that he wore at our Frozen Fatass race. Whatever works. The man right next to me, Pedro Gaspar from Portugal, often ran barefoot, the rest of the time with minimalist footgloves. Jasper Olsen from Denmark,(famous guy running around the world – for the second time!) my other table mate, preferred a very flexible European model with a wide toe box. It is whatever serves the purpose at the time, but what fits perfect the second day might be the very worst three days later. One thing I did notice was that if you were not a forefoot striker, you would probably spend time in the med tent with shin splints. One thing that did work was alternating walking and running to whatever cadence and distribution your level of pain might be at that moment, but truth be told, I bet there were less than 30 or 40 laps that I ran continuously all the way around the park. For me, most of the time it would be more like run a quarter mile, walk 20 steps, run a quarter mile,…. But you would time yourself, and time everything. How long would it take to switch shoes? How long to scoop up some fresh fruit if it needed cutting? How long in the port-a-potty? (yes, I saw some pretty funny (and graphic!) examples of folks changing before they were actually inside the door. Hope they made it!)
By day four and the wind still howling, the field had sorted itself out and races developed. Interesting. I was now on the first half of the leaderboard, ninth or tenth of the 23 of the men in our race. Gayla Balassky, the Ukrainian Wolf, led our race in his nonchalant inevitable way, seemingly unaware of his competition even existing, while the higher profile William Sichel of Scotland and Asphrinal Aalto of Finland and the aforementioned Olsen of Denmark trailed in his wake. Other great champions like Michael Arnstein and the great Rimas Jackolitis had had their problems and were likely conceding for another day. My friend Don Winkley had to retire with a med problem, I believe, but at last notice was still heading over to France for his beloved Trans Gaulle later in the summer.
Jane had got me to the start and under way, but had to leave for work back on the Cape Monday, so for three days I crewed myself, and this is both a good and bad thing, depending on the runner’s independence and/or his communication skills. The incredible Dipali Cunningham has this down to a fine art, of course, and her smooth refueling begs the comparison to the NASCAR pit stops one sees at Daytona. She always has the look of a lady going out for a stroll in her garden, not a drop of sweat or bead of anxiety on her serene face. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.
Me, I look like one of the homeless, and an old one at that, with my scruffy bearded face, bloodied up nose, dentures loose for lack of what we shall call "Fixodent time" and the odor of a man badly in need of a shower. But no style points awarded in multidays, and of course, Dipali doesn’t beat me on looks alone — she simply runs faster.
I must mention the very nice friends that came by to offer encouragement: the great David Luljack, a past champion here, my great friend Carl Asker and his adorable Collette, Cherie and BF David from the list, Cindy Gaines, Nils Ahlin, and my ever-cheering young friend Julian from Austria.
Best of all, my longtime pen pal and ultrarunner Barbara Sorrell came by Wednesday night and really helped a lot for the next two days until Jane came back by Friday. Barbara was on her way to Waramaug, but more importantly, Comrades in Africa, her lifelong dream, Barbara is an expert on foot care and has read all the books that I have not on podiatry. Plus, she knows everybody in the sport, and would give me running accounts of some of the lead changes going on via her smartphone, particularly in the women’s ten day, where the placid veteran Sarah Barnett ran down her young adversary Kaneeka Janakova.
Saturday morning I roused myself about 3:30AM and saw that I had an outside chance of making 50 miles, the minimum per day number I had decided was one of my goals. A lot of this you can gain from the surging adrenaline you feel by the growing crowd at the finish line and the constant gong of the giant cymbal you hear clanging off in the woods as each runner answers their last day, very last loop call. At this point, I was turning tens, which after so many days of slogging feel like whizzing past the posted speed zone.
I do not shrink from admitting that those last few laps are run along in a sort of an ecstatic frenzy, tears streaming down my face, fists clenched, for I have not yet given up the fight ; oh no…not quite yet…with me hollering at Jane "that THIS! THIS is what I live for!" as the long hunted prey of the six day torture chamber suddenly discovers new power, his warrior’s manhood and now at last becomes the predator, crushing the miles apart with a new-found strength that has sprung from the bloody sands of the arena. And jeez, I swear. High above me I distinctly heard the clearly spoken and joyous announcement.
You did it.
I never doubted you.
332 miles at age 70
Flushing Meadows, NYC
April 28th 2012