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Quarantine Thoughts of a Runner

 Working at the store, we get to meet many US Army War College students from around the world who are coming in to buy running shoes or attending our group runs. Last year, we had the pleasure of meeting Terry, a student from New Zealand. During his stay here, Terry immersed himself into PA life probably more than anyone else I had met – this included going to pay a visit to Punxsutawney Phil! 

     When Terry was finally able to make it home to New Zealand this past June, he had 14 days of quarantining alone in a hotel room before he was allowed to go home to his family. During his quarantine, he used this time to collect his thoughts and write about the past year. The following is a blog post that Terry wrote, reflecting on his running life here in Carlisle.

     For those of you that know me, you know that I run… I run most days as well as enjoying cross training and cycling. I have ‘run’ since I have been in the Army for Physical Training testing, however didn’t really take up running or exercise in any major way shape or form until 2014. I started cross training with gym work and running in late 2015 and then got a coach in 2017 to help put more form around my training and start to focus to achieve my goals. Focusing on goals and particularly through a coach was really beneficial for me. What I didn’t appreciate, though was kind of aware of, is that I don’t deal with change well. How does that work when you are in a job that can change in a moment? Well for me its about a routine, particularly at the start of the day, involving exercise to get the endorphins going. Running in the morning also allows me to frame my day, think on what I know is coming and prepare for the known. This ‘plan’ gives me a blueprint for the day that will evolve, but I have at least got an idea about how things may play out which is a great way to reduce stress.

     Running is very much a mental health thing for me, it allows me to be more mindful, living in the moment. It gave me an easy way to acclimatise to Carlisle in the summer, having moved across from the depth of a kiwi winter. It also gave me a great way to get to know the town and figure out where everything was. In my previous post, I mentioned Timewalker Tours, what I also had done, prior to leaving New Zealand, was find the Appalachian Running Company or ARC (a local shoe store) online. I quickly stopped into the store soon after arriving and found that they did social road runs on Wednesday evening and trail runs on the Appalachian Trail on Saturday mornings. I did not realise that when I first appeared at these runs, the people that I met would end up introducing me to a whole different kind of running. The kind of running that challenged me, tested me and that I have really embraced. I also didn’t really appreciate that these fine folks would also become firm friends, through shared adversity and craziness, they have shaped me, giving me an entirely different outlook on running.

     Prior to arrival into Carlisle, most of my running was on the road. I was pretty fixated on distance and speed, which was largely driven by my goal, to achieve a 100% pass in the NZ Army fitness test. The special thing about the goal was to do it while I was the Commanding Officer of a Unit, less than a handful of people have managed this. The requirement is to do 2.4k (1.49mi) in under 8 mins running, 55 press ups and 130 ab curl ups. I was a solid runner, but did not have the speed to do the sub 8min run… so the training regime began. I worked for months slowly bringing the time down and with mere days before I left the post as CO, just before I left for Carlisle, I attempted my 100% pass in PERFECT conditions. I was bitterly disappointed when I did it in 8 mins flat, it needed to be under 8 mins, so while it was a pass on the test I didn’t achieve my goal. I know it sounds trite, but its not often that I don’t do what I set my mind to… this was a BIG lesson. Could I have done another attempt but the conditions were not really favourable, and if it was that close, I had little margin for error… I got on the plane and headed off. LESSON – you always focus on the win, but how you handle disappointment shows far more about your character.

     Soon after joining the ARC group, and on a random trail run on a Saturday morning, I met a guy who is a pretty crazy runner (something I had confirmed for me time and time again). He and I got to talking about an upcoming race he was doing, a ‘fat arse’ (i.e. no cost but no swag) 50k ultra race that was pretty challenging. The furthest I had run to that point was a marathon, which I didn’t train for, signed up with a few days notice and managed to land a 3hr 20min run time, I had never really run more than 10k on a trail before let alone an ultra. Before I knew it, with no gear, no idea and three days notice I was now in my first trail 50k ultra marathon! Dang, how did that happen?!?

     The race was run in July, on a HOT day, 110F (43C)… other races in the area, including an Olympic distance triathlon in NYC were being called off because of the conditions – we were still a go. So on the day, not knowing what to expect, I jumped in the car and drove off to a random forest to link up with the race team. The race director and his team of truly superb volunteers did this for love, not money. They were superb. As I mentioned, it was a ‘fat arse’ race, so each participant was asked to bring an item for the aid station – mine was pickles. Now, I am not a big fan of pickles and find the US obsession with them slightly unsettling, however when I asked someone where to get pickles I went to the store to buy some. I did not realise (though in hindsight I should have) the variety of pickles, sizes and flavours available. Not knowing anything I purchased 5-6 big jars of pickles and handed them to Don (the race director) on arrival who remarked “that’s a lot of pickles”, having never bought them before, I had no frame of reference. Why pickles? It turns out that pickles (in particular the juice) are great for cramps, something I had never experienced before in running but I was soon to find out.

     I knew very little about race nutrition (arguably I still don’t as my go to remains milk duds and giant nerds – I have a sweet tooth), preparation or gear before I crossed the start line on 21 July 2019. My runs prior had largely been 10-15k on the road and my thought was road run time (mileage per hour) plus a minute or so would be about right for a finish… I was thinking 50k, done in under 5hrs… yeah, nah… we stepped off and I stayed with the group, yet the group slowed on the hills and I kept on running (as you would on the road), downhill gives you a chance to go quicker, aid stations just slow you down… that approach, the bull in a china shop approach, hit me at about 3hrs in… it was hot, I wasn’t eating properly, I had no salt tablets to replace the sweat I was losing at a rapid rate, though I was still reasonably competitive. I hit the second to last aid station placing 3rd overall, eating boiled potatoes covered in salt in a hopes to stave off cramps that I could feel coming on. I then left to the final two legs. At the top of the last (and very emotional climb), the legs that I was nursing in the hopes to stave off cramps finally gave up the ghost, 5k from the finish, and cramps set in. I have never felt so helpless. I had pushed my body as far as it could go, it was refusing to go any further, even though I was trying to make it. The 4th placed runner caught me and very kindly offered his last salt tablet (I now never leave home without some on any run over 1 1/2 hrs) and the relief was almost immediate. I limped into the final aid station (only some 400m away and drank a 1/2 bottle of pickle juice… the magic cure and managed to roll into the finish line (52.5km total), as I learned, trail ultra races are never to the actual distance! The total time wasn’t 5hrs, rather 7hrs, 37mins with the last 10k taking 2hrs!

Things I learnt about myself and life:
1. Salt tablets are a thing and they would have stopped me cramping at 45k!
2. Pickle juice is a great way to alleviate cramping.
3. Merino running socks are awesome, not one blister or hot spot ✅
4. Body glide anti chafing ✅
5. Arm warmers with ice around the neck is what I will use next time.
6. The top 3 inches matter.
7. 50k is a bloody long way over the hills.
8. Shower beer is a thing post race!
9. Trail runners are a diverse bunch of really interesting and welcoming people, you meet great people on the trail.
10. All sorts of funny stuff happens over 50k and it’s hard to keep track 🤣     

Since that race, I have a new benchmark. With the many (now lifelong) friends I have met through ARC, I completed the US Army 10miler, the Punxsutawney Phil 5k (that was a wolf pack of one adventure), Frozen Snot 21k in the freezing cold (that is a whole post by itself!), the JFK50 miler, run 1000 steps, randomly run for kilometres (or rather miles) in the driving rain – so much so that I needed swimming googles, 1mi every hour for 24hr races, lots of training in Pine Grove Furnace for Ironmasters with the gang, 50k at a time and ultra distances are no longer scary (well, maybe anything over 100k until I do that). I also made the Jim Thorpe Track Team at the war college, which was pretty cool, even if COVID meant we didn’t race…

     What I was most pleased with this year was the helping hand provided to me in mid July 2019, I could pay forward before I left, helping another runner achieve their first 50k goal. I have to say that the conditions were vastly better, but that’s for me and in no way denigrates the great work of my mate who crushed his goal. LESSON – never be too proud to ask for help, accept it when given and ALWAYS look for opportunities to pay it forward. It takes a village.

     I had a lot of fun in the hills around Cumberland Valley with my friends and will cherish the time that they gifted me. I am very thankful for all the tips and tricks that I have learned and hope to be able to share these with others in due course. I was also very thankful that the small crew that were working towards the Ironmasters 50k, that was based on the Frozen Snot team, came together through the COVID crisis. Here the relationships were cemented for me, and referring back to my first post, it wasn’t about my job, role or rank, it was about Terry the person. It seems really strange, but in a career where you tend to keep people at arms length, and I feel that I need to be guarded with people, this was such an accepting group who brought me in. Running was what initially brought us together, however the mate-ship grew well beyond that. I don’t know if they will ever know how much that meant to me and what a profound impact it had on me.

     For now, I will leave running there… I could talk about it forever, but there is a truism “how do you know if someone has run a marathon? You wait for them to tell you”… and with that, I will close the running post.