Ragnar Relay Adirondacks Race Report
Before I get into this, let me clarify the post by saying that I simply will not be able to adequately convey how awesome this weekend was for myself, and it seems, everyone else on the team as well. There are just so many things that happen in small increments and fleeting moments during a race that brings together 12 individuals in two separate vans covering 200 miles over 2 days, that it would be absurd to attempt to write about them all. So for the sake of clarity, and my own sanity, I’m going to try and focus on what mattered most to me this weekend, what made this one of the best weekends of my life. There were many elements to this experience, my first Ragnar, but the expressions of celebration, ethics, friendship, and determined running stood out among them all and I hope to at least give a small taste of the emotional intensity and inspiration we shared among each other and still carry onward today, so without anymore delay, I’ll write this under the banner of the team rally cry…”Good Slap!”…wait, no, that’s not it….”Strong Hearts To The Front!” There we go, that’s better.
The Cancer Card
I was asked to run for team Strong Hearts Vegan Power back when I was in NO STATE to be running. I think I had given the impression through social media that I was back to running again, albeit slowly, but the truth was that I had only gone out for a couple runs with the aid of Vicodin and couldn’t sustain much more than those fleeting, drug enabled efforts. So when the team captain, Joel Caplongo, asked me to run for the team I had to turn him down, however, he stayed in touch and asked me if I knew of any other vegan runners to round out the team as the deadline for registration approached. I put out a call, but was coming up empty handed. That was around the time that things started to change for me physically and each day I began pushing myself further and further on the bike, somewhat surprised at my progression. And as if a switched was flipped on, my body continued to respond and I suddenly found myself feeling strong, confident, maybe even willing to start running. That’s when Joel asked me about finding more runners again…and that’s when I said to myself, “Screw it…I’m in.” And I told Joel as much, as I continued asking around for more runners. In turn, that definitive goal to run Ragnar lit a fire in me that brought me right back into my old life of not only running, but running consistently and even TRAINING, which as any runner can tell you might have a greater emotional reward alongside the value of the physical progression that comes with it. To be succinct, I simply felt whole again. I felt like myself.
But that doesn’t mean the lead up to the run didn’t come with challenges. Chemotherapy is no joke and the side effects of my specific drugs attempted to impede my progression as the Hand and Foot Syndrome ate at me from the inside. My feet ignited in pain when I ran past 6 miles, the continuous pounding breaking capillaries and leaking chemo into my extremities. When on my bike the skin on my hands tightened, turned different colors and peeled at the contact points where I grabbed my handlebars as I sped up the trail or climbed the hills with determination. But I could work through that, and I did, increasing mileage slowly, kicking up my pace when I felt I had the lungs, until I finally felt confident enough to do a speed workout. And that was HUGE.
Up to this point, I wasn’t sure I would ever race again. Honestly. My body was so destroyed during surgery and is still being severely compromised from the effects of chemo that I couldn’t even consider the idea of racing again…let alone putting in speed work to prepare for the possibility. But there I was, committed to running intervals and finding myself knocking out short bursts at 5:30 pace, then 5:20, and even 5:15 at one point. I was ecstatic….briefly. Because the body continued to fight back and the friction from the consistent running and higher intensity began to eat at my feet and toes, forming blisters of various types with each passing effort, causing me to nurse them every night, popping blisters, applying various strips of moleskin, filling my shoes with Gold Bond powder, rubbing Body Glide on hot spots and even buying toe socks to prevent friction. But like I said, Chemo is no joke, and my efforts only gave me shortened relief. The race had almost arrived and I put in a 10 miler at sub 7:00 pace when I was stopped in my tracks. My feet were in so much pain from sensitivity and blistering that I couldn’t even ride my bike to keep building my cardio strength and found myself laying on the couch most of the day hoping the healing process would have me ready for Ragnar that was now 3 days away. Chemo, however, slows the healing/repair process and I had my doubts about my abilities when the travel day finally arrived.
I will say this though, although the “cancer card” always sits in my back pocket, it never crossed my mind to play it during the run. I was not going to let my team down and began preparing myself mentally to run through pain, convincing myself of it’s inherent temporary state, and getting ready to run through a pain I knew would only increase with each passing leg. But, above all else, whether that was a frustrated emotional state, a severely slowed pace per mile, even the need to walk some of my portions, I was NOT going to play the card and hand my legs off to someone else. This was a victory I wanted for the team, but most importantly, for myself.
Alan “Hungry Legs” Vedge, Ultra Runner and the only other Hoosier I roped into the event, picked me up bright and early Thursday morning to start our trip to Syracuse where we would meet more of our teammates and new friends. After an uneventful drive we arrived at our team’s namesake, Strong Hearts Cafe – you have committed a vegan sin if you’ve ever been near Syracuse and not stopped in to eat -, and met up with Becca “The Shark” Wellner who would supply our vans with baked goods of all kinds, most notably the protein bars that I had a hard time not eating too many of. After finishing my intentionally “safe” meal of a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we headed off to meet Team Captain and owner of Strong Hearts, Joel “Cappy” Capolongo, his partner Kendra, their harem of cats and the Greatest of Danes…Duke! We spent a small portion of the night catching up and talking before heading off to sleep as we were getting picked up at 4:45 by Becca in “The Disco Van” or “The Avenger” or “The Roller Rink” (choose whatever name suits you). In the morning we stopped to pick up a box of bananas and avocados, which would add to our already growing arsenal of vegan food, then stopped once more at Strong Hearts to pick up more members of the team and fuel up on coffee. There we met Laura “Nails” Ryan, General Manager of Strong Hearts and a soft-spoken but hard as nails runner, then Sean “No Nickname” Scott, who would be an invaluable part of the team as the Driver of Van 1…and burgeoning runner.
Van 1 now loaded with gear, food, water, and the first formation of Team Strong Hearts, we caravanned to a small town just South of Saratoga Springs to meet up with the rest of the team and drive to the start of our 200 mile journey. Rolling up in succession was Jared “xveganx” Avigliano, (school teacher and man of positive intensity and determination), Mario “Super Mario” Mason, (PGA golf professional and hill crusher), Jonny “Jonny Hero” Reith, (a flag carrying member of the Strong Hearts hockey team out of Ann Arbor, Michigan and, from what I’m told, hilarity creator), Laura “Wonder Woman” Kline, (a Triathlete and Du-athlon National Champion and destroyer of all other Ragnar teams), Mike “Easy Peasy” Pease, (who’s easy-going nature and tall stature is outmatched by his ability to run that extra height at impressive speeds), Aaron “Ma Bell” Bell, (a pleasant and kind individual who seemed unable to be shaken by the stresses of a Ragnar event), and Peter “Gramps” Nussbaum, (the oldest runner of our group who’s inherently kind and gentle nature masks his incredible multi-marathon running resume).
In all, that’s 13 individuals stuffed into 2 vans loaded with more food than one might find at a wedding buffet, gear bags, shoes, and other such luxuries. In the parking lot where we all exchanged handshakes and hugs along with names and nicknames we’d soon not forget, we divvied up the baked goods, compiled Clif Bars, Shot Blocks and other energy gels into a box, passed out bananas and avocados and all the other foods I would be labored to remember. The teams then split into Van 1 and Van 2, piled with some semblance of order and began the trek to the next town up at the start line. It had officially begun.
It goes without saying that I fly the identity flags of Running and Veganism, at times trying to tie the two together, but often I’ve found the connection between veganism and running is based primarily on performance benefits, where my reasons for being vegan are fundamentally ethical. I’m vegan because I want no part in bringing harm upon other creatures, be they human or non-human. The easiest way to do this is to simply not eat animal products, not wear their skins, not use them as commodities and to overall opt out of systems of exploitation that confine or abuse animals in any way. The systems of exploitation may be complex on their own, but opting out is truly quite simple. Making that ethical connection to my running, however, is not so defined. I may have an influence towards others as an individual with my expressions of ethical veganism, but intersecting my actual running and vegan activism isn’t so inherent. When I go out to run I’m not saving animals. When I run races, even while wearing a vegan running singlet, my ethics aren’t so blatant. And even when I’ve chosen to opt out of certain exploitive races (The Drumstick Dash for example), my decision often goes unnoticed. But that was NOT the case during the Ragnar…and it took a little while to understand just how powerful the effect of team Strong Hearts Vegan Power was on the other runners, in that we weren’t just “the vegan runners”, but that our expressions of veganism were not confined to food and/or performance, but undeniably about the ethics behind our motivations. During Ragnar we successfully bridged the gap between running and ethical veganism in a tangible, undeniable way…and this was, beyond everything else, the most rewarding dynamic to the entire experience.
Our expressions of veganism became immediately apparent when we approached the starting area of Ragnar as a team and encountered the general mood of the event, which is more akin to Burning Man than an animal rights protest..for good reason. The idea is to have a great time running amongst the absurdity of doing so for 200 miles crammed into a van, so teams are all themed, wear costumes, have dance parties at exchanges, tag each other’s vans with magnets, decorate their vans and keep track of “kills” on the windows, and just generally run for the sake of running. We, on the other hand, did all that too, but also brought with us a seriousness that the other teams didn’t embody. And that was fine…I don’t say this to cheapen their fun or experience, not at all, but to just highlight the differences between our involvement and theirs. Adding to our separation, it should be noted that we didn’t necessarily come into the event expecting to stand out. To be honest, I figured our ethical veganism and more “bad ass” approach might get drowned out in the festivities or seen as something of a buzzkill, but we had something else in our bag of tricks that helped us out…speed and determination. We were serious.
So when we all stepped out of the vans wearing our all black uniforms and the words “VEGAN POWER” emblazoned across the front, it quickly became clear that in one way or another…we weren’t messing around. And that was kind of funny to me, because on the running side of things, we had repeatedly told each other that we weren’t in this to be competitive, but to just have the experience…to be awesome. I think, in one way or another though, that the competitive fire kicked in with each team member as we found ourselves amidst all the other teams. Maybe it’s constantly finding ourselves on the fringes of social culture, but it seemed like we found a strength and determination in being the “different” team, the ones not wearing tutu’s or making running jokes.
On a personal level, the drive to be competitive could NOT be suppressed. When I entered the registration area I suddenly felt at home and found myself almost instinctually taking over the registration duties and getting that out of the way as soon as possible so we could focus on racing. And in that moment cancer didn’t matter. Yeah, it was there and everything, and I couldn’t shake the physical effects of it’s power, but in my head it just became something far off in the background. I didn’t care about my cancer….I cared about running fast and running determined. I cared about representing ethical veganism to it’s fullest, not by being someone “overcoming” a potentially fatal disease, but by refusing to be overlooked through fast, serious racing. At the same time, I was not only “at home” as a competitive runner in this environment, but also as an animal liberation activist, something I hadn’t engaged in such a long time..but this felt….right. I felt like a competitive runner, yes, but throughout the weekend I felt like we had effectively intersected athleticism and activism at an equal level…that we may truly have expanded people’s awareness to the extent they stop harming animals, by our determination and presence alone. It felt amazing to be a force of inspiration for veganism….but I’m still a competitive runner, and there was still a race to be run.
Standing by the start line, Jared suddenly walked up on me with his GoPro and asked, “What do you have to say?” Without much thought I replied, “What do you want me to say. It’s on now. This isn’t about fun anymore. This is a competition and we’re going to run these dudes down.”
The gun went off at 10:30 and Ma Bell took off from the start with about 6 other teams, out of 200+, running down the long stretch of beautiful roads that would bring us to the finish at Lake Placid. After hitting the first exchange and passing the slap bracelet to Gramps, we all piled back into the van…and that’s when it hit me, “Oh crap…I’m about to do this.” My first official race since pre-diagnosis, and although it wasn’t an actual “RACE race”, the effort was going to be the same, and that was hugely important to me. I was genuinely nervous…and concerned. We stopped at the exchange point and I started going through normal warm up habits – slight jogging, leg swings, knee lifts, etc. – and tested out how my feet felt with a bit of pounding. Honestly, it felt AWESOME to get my legs going. They were rested, as strong as could be considering and I felt that usual pent up energy ready to be released. I DID feel the pain at the end of my toes, but I was counting on adrenaline to subdue that obstacle. I anxiously awaited Peter’s arrival and was pleasantly surprised when he arrived sooner than we had anticipated.
Then SLAP! and I was off. I took off down the road at a pace that was probably dictated by my excitement more than my physical abilities, but this isn’t too uncommon for me, so I just went with it. I had 5.4 miles to cover and I wanted to do it quickly, but the rolling hills that defined the course made the attempt a little more strenuous than I was anticipating. To add insult to injury, there were no mile markers along the way, only a “One Mile To Go” sign posted..well…at one mile to go. That left me unable to establish a “safe” pace for my efforts and had to rely on mental determination to keep suffering as I continued running hard through the miles. Those hills kept coming though. They weren’t essentially mountainous (I didn’t have to run those), but they were significant and I ran as strong as I could, laboring my breathing and probably exceeding my abilities a bit, hoping to gain a little as the hills dipped back towards the finish. Then cancer showed itself for a brief moment. My legs turning over rapidly, but my breathing always on the verge of getting out of control, I hit the bottom of the steepest hill on the course and started to work my way up, but suddenly found my bowels speaking to me. They told me to slow down. They told me to walk the hill. They told me to jump into the woods and relieve myself, but I fought them off as I worked my way up to the top of the hill and when I started my way back down, everything eased up and I was able to get back to pushing comfortably.
On the way I started picking off other teams ahead of me, “Kills” we call them, and although they weren’t genuine “competition”, it felt good to be making progress and using them as motivation. One after another I saw the back of another runner and pushed to see how quickly I could catch up, gaining 5 initial kills on my first leg and not getting passed as further encouragement.
I continued pushing at a strenuous pace that bordered redlining it, at my current fitness levels anyways, and approached one last hill with the “One Mile To Go” sign halfway up. That incline knocked my efforts down considerably, but with so little to go I made sure to start pushing towards the next exchange, letting my breathing get a little erratic. I entered a neighborhood on the outskirts of a small town, careened down a quick steep hill and caught sight of the exchange just ahead, signaling for me to really turn it on. I pushed into a controlled sprint all the way to the exchange point, slapped the bracelet onto Super Mario and came to an abrupt halt, my hand on my knees, working to get my breath and strength back….but quickly, as we had to get back into the van and make it to the next exchange point…such is the nature of relay races. No rest for the weary.
I was excited to have finished my first hard effort at the distance, even as I limped towards the van on painful blisters and points of friction aggravated by the run, which I had fully expected. What I DIDN’T expect was the stress I had put on my lungs, both from the effort and the cooled mountain air. I started coughing, a lot, bringing up phlegm with each bout and felt a familiar abrasive sensation in my lungs with each deep breath from an intense effort. Then the expected pain set in to the balls of my feet and ends of my toes. I got into the van as we drove away and immediately pulled off my shoes and socks, getting to work popping blisters, rubbing powder on my feet and strategically applying moleskin to the most sensitive areas, doing whatever I could to prepare for my next leg that would begin around 9:00 pm at night. Of course, my concern about running on such pointed spots of pain grew as the hours ticked down, but I hadn’t yet got to the point of considering backing out. It was still NOT an option..and I was determined to keep it that way.
Ultimately, despite my growing concern with the coming runs, I internally basked in the accomplishment of finishing my very first intense race effort since before cancer began attempting to ruin my life. In a small way, I had won yet again, fulfilling a moment, an experience, that completes me as a person, that separates me from others and affords me an emotional intensity that has never been outdone by any of my other interests. Where I once thought cancer might have taken running and racing from me completely, I had officially won the moment and proved it wrong. I was going to use that success later in the day. For now though, I ran past 5 teams, 5 miles, and one huge life threatening obstacle…and I had hours in the van to reflect on that victory.
Getting a relay team together is a risky proposition, a potential conflict of personalities, especially when a number of individuals on the team have never met until the start of the race. No one has a solid point of reference to begin connections. You don’t know if someone has an abrasive personality, what their humor is like, how their insecurities are expressed, what they hide, what they exaggerate, and so you initially walk on egg shells until more solid connections are made and you can guess how one will react to any normal social situation. But then you put 7 of those individuals into a van filed with smelly clothes and fill a second van with 6 more, then drive those vans non-stop for 200 miles, each runner depleting their stores of energy from intense running, shifting uncomfortably from physical stresses and periods of extended sitting, getting VERY LITTLE sleep, and generally not eating full meals for over 24 hours….and you have a potential recipe for reality show style personality conflicts.
And this very complex dynamic is why this weekend is one I never wanted to end…because for at least those 2 days I can’t think of even one minor unpleasant exchange between teammates. There was no fighting, no anger, no frustration, no blow ups or subsequent resolutions….there was only an inherent support, encouragement, and growing friendship between everyone involved as we cheered each other on, joked at our mishaps, physically supported each other as the physical stresses accumulated, and overall just had an exciting and positive endurance running experience. It truly felt like it was us against the world and we had each others backs all the way through, even if the only battles we encountered were against the course or ourselves. When runners got injured, others stepped up to carry them through the pain. When some of us were dealing with personal struggles, others made sure we were as comfortable as possible, without asking. When moments presented themselves to offer words of encouragement, they were given unreservedly. And when humor was necessary, it flowed freely.
So when the race was over and we had our personal awards ceremony, gathered for one last meal over vegan pizza and calzones and then said our goodbyes in the parking lot….it felt shockingly abrupt, as if the previous stability we shared had just been yanked out from under us. We made sure we had each other’s contact information, genuinely expressed our desires to keep in touch, and then went our separate ways with more words of gratitude and appreciation….but that physical bond was suddenly severed. It didn’t feel good. I wasn’t done getting to know everyone. Hell, I barely got to know the other teammates in Van 2 and wished we could have mixed up the pairings halfway through the race. On the other hand, we remain connected through all our social media platforms and have already begun planning for next years race (chemo willing), furthering our vegan activism efforts through a few projects that sprang from the weekend, and are striving to rebuild that foundation of stability beneath us again.
At the awards ceremony I gave my own impromptu speech regarding some things I had been wanting to say to everyone, the most important being, “I feel like I have just made 12 new best friends”…and I meant it. If there are specific commonalities I want to base new friendships on, it’s certainly through running, veganism and positivity, and in all those I found a great set of new friends through 200 miles of running in the Adirondacks.
I have a secret love for night time running. Most of my very first runs after rediscovering my talents as a 30 year old were done after I got off work…at midnight. I would come home, throw on my running shorts and take off down the country roads into the small town of Franklin, IN where I freaked out the drunken locals as I blasted through the center city shirtless and rocking out to one hardcore CD or another. There is something undeniably invigorating about running in the dark, through a cooling air, and as if on a stealth mission, so when my second leg approached I got prepared to chase down as many flashing lights on the backs of runners in front of me as I could. This second leg was my longest of the run, 5.8 miles, and at a net loss…meaning downhill. But downhill in the Adirondacks is deceptive and I feel bad for getting a fellow runner’s hopes up when I told her about the net loss at the start. “Oh thank you! You just made my night!” Well…probably not after her leg was finished, because although there is a net loss, you still have to run UP the hills to experience the subsequent descent. And that’s what this leg consisted of, downs that led into ups that led into downs that led back into ups, all the way to the finish. Of the three legs I ran, this one took the most physical toll on my body as I had to work the inclines and then pound my quads on the descents. All part of the fun right?
I stood in the exchange chute with my headlight on full blast, my rear light blinking a false distress signal and my reflective vest acting as a luminescent billboard that screamed, “Don’t run my ass over!” to every passing car as their speeding headlights hit my chest. I was mentally ready to take on the pitch dark challenge, but also sufficiently concerned at the intense pain that sat underneath my two big toes that were devoid of any protective skin at this point. I only hoped the adrenaline would kick in again and let me focus on the run instead of the pain.
Peter “Gramps” Nussbaum came up the rise and found his way into the chute to pass off the bracelet, sending me off down the road to chase down the runners in front of me and find my way to the next exchange almost 6 miles down the road. I started off at a quickened, but tentative, pace as I gauged the pain in my feet and worked my way down the first descent. I immediately picked up a couple kills and looked ahead for more blinking red lights in the distance to run down, only to be brought back to reality with the fiery pain at the road. My toes hurt like hell running down the hill and I thought to myself, “If I was feeling this during my run at the gym…I would stop and call it a day. This is not a smart move to run through the pain.” But this context was different….I wasn’t at the gym. This was do or die and dying is the very thing I’m trying to avoid right now, so I wasn’t about to stop. Then about a mile down the road after a couple small inclines and more descents the pain was dulled by the accumulation of adrenaline…or just my own intense stupidity. No matter, suddenly the pain was gone and I could concentrate on picking up more and more kills.
One by one I looked for blinking red lights and went after them, quite surprised at how quickly I was coming up on slower runners and passing them, offering words of encouragement as I passed, “Good job.” “Keep pushing.” etc. Unfortunately, the darkness had some of them spooked, and as I passed one runner she let out a shocked yelp and then quickly apologized. I’d like to think she thought my flashlight was moving fast enough to be a car passing far too close for comfort. I kid, I kid…mostly. This continued on for awhile as the hills began to take their toll on my pace. I knew pushing as hard as I did the first leg wasn’t a good strategy for an overall fast pace, so this time I let the hills dictate my uphill pace, not letting my breathing go erratic, and then pushing harder on the downhills to make up the difference. I hit one hill a few miles in and felt my pace slow, but felt it pick right back up as I started to hit the crest where it leveled out….and that’s when I heard a familiar sound. A car rolled up behind me and a familiar beat started pounding out of the speakers, followed by some added percussion on the side of the car. JUD JUD. JUD JUD. JUD JUD….and for those in the know, you can guess this was the beginning of Firestorm by Earth Crisis. Van 2 had pulled alongside to offer some musical encouragement as I pushed up and over the hill and down the other side. Admittedly, I was feeling a little spent from the effort, but was glad to use the descent to at least look like I was running hard in front of my teammates. And the music was helping, actually, it had me concerned that I was running TOO fast, but when someone plays Earth Crisis during a run…you go with it. Those are the rules. And that’s what I did…even when they pulled away to get to the next exchange.
Then all of a sudden I found myself running alone. I couldn’t see any red blinkies up ahead and the quiet consumed me. At one point I even caught sight of the night sky unrestricted by light pollution, the stars brightly dotting the darkened ceiling, and wished I could turn off my lights and run under the stars. Unfortunately…that’s against the rules…for good reason to. Some of these winding mountain roads are downright dangerous with no visibility, sudden curves and very, very, VERY thin shoulders. Most drivers that night took extra precautions, but the occasional speeding car had me envisioning unpleasant scenarios that kept my mind occupied as I ate up the miles.
The restrictive pain in my feet was still held at bay as I moved through the course, finally hitting an abrupt curve that I knew signaled my 4 mile mark and meant I could open things up a little more as I was less than 2 miles out. And as luck would have it, after passing that curve I caught sight of more blinkies up ahead, giving me more motivation to turn it on and reel them in…and that’s what I did. One by one I got my seventh kill of the leg, then my eighth, and ninth, and finally hit double digits at my tenth. I passed the precious “One Mile To Go” sign, now beginning to feel hot spots on the tops of my toes where I hadn’t yet, signaling a further deterioration from the effort, but pushed on to one more blinkie up ahead. I was now close enough to the finish that I wasn’t sure I was going to catch them and hit a final ascent up towards the exchange point. I wanted that last blinkie bad and began pushing at my finishing pace, suddenly surprised to find myself gaining on that 11th kill very quickly. “Are they walking?” I thought to myself. I went after them harder and harder…and that’s when it hit me. That blinkie on the back of that runner isn’t on the back of a runner at all. That’s the final “turn here” pylon. No wonder I was gaining so quickly. I was as relieved as I was embarrassed and made the final push to the finish where Super Mario waited for the slap to take him up the tallest climb of the race…..except, when I crossed the exchange line….Mario WASN’T THERE! This didn’t make sense. The van had passed me early in my leg and so they were surely at the exchange point and just as I dropped my head in dejection, Mario came trotting up from the bathrooms to take the hand off and go. I gave him a quick verbal lashing….in good fun, and sent him on his way, myself limping back to the van to begin my ritual of foot care, again feeling excited and hugely accomplished at getting past the most mentally difficult portion of the three legs. 2 down and only 1 more to go….chemo deterioration be damned.
Effective, safe running is about knowing your limits and appreciating the time needed for sufficient recovery. Every hard effort should be met with about a 24 hour recovery time to prevent injury or aggravation, but in a relay, this sort of common sense just goes out the window and no matter what level of runner you are, you prepare to run through one degree of physical trauma or another. What you can only hope to avoid is a complete injury that can’t be recovered from at all, that can’t be run through no matter how much the heart is willing. I would like to say each individual on the team avoided these physical struggles, but that was simply not the case…on the other hand, when those physical struggles came to the forefront, we came together as a team to make sure they didn’t break our teammates resolve or prevent them from completing their leg. It could have been easy to get frustrated. It could have been tempting to say, “Suck it up and run.” It could have been easy to practice some “tough love”, but when push came to shove, we took the higher road and came out on top.
Personally, I was dealing with the increasing effects of chemo side effects in my feet, but I detail this enough in my leg recaps, so I’ll leave it at that. I’d rather talk about the real struggles my teammates faced and the pride I felt in watching others step up and do what they could to make sure we carried each other to the finish.
At some point during the second leg Laura “Nails” Ryan started experiencing a knee pain that only grew as she headed towards the exchange, a sure sign that the stresses were building and she needed to give her leg a long rest and repair itself…but she still had one more leg to go. And if I learned one thing about Laura in our short time together, it’s that her soft spoken nature hides an incredibly tough interior. I could see this in her as soon as we met and it came out completely between her second and third leg when the pain in her knee grew to a concerning level. She WANTED to run, badly, but the pain and tightness was not subsiding and the pressure when her leg hit the ground only aggravated it more. The look in her eyes and scrunched up face when she talked about the pain or tried to stretch her leg made me think she was more dejected about not being able to finish the last leg more than experiencing a longer term injury. I could only offer words of support and ensure her that no one on the team would think less of her if she had to bail in order to protect herself, which would probably have been the smarter thing to do…but sometimes the compulsion of accomplishment is stronger than common sense. She wanted to try, but suggested we had a back up pace her in case she had to drop. Alan, our insane Ultra Runner, who was finishing his last brutal, primarily downhill, quad busting leg stepped up without hesitation. Laying on the grass in exhaustion after what he thought was his final leg, I immediately approached him.
“Hey, how you feeling? How are those quads?”
“What quads?” he joked.
“Good….you want to pace Laura on her next leg? She’s having a hard time with her knee.”
“Yup! Lets do it!”
And that was that. Laura and Alan started the leg together, Laura looking pretty solid at the start and not limping away as I feared she might, and for the next handful of miles they worked their way up the road, literally UP, only taking a couple walking breaks before kicking back into 8 minute miles, all the way to the next exchange where Becca took over. Whether it was necessary in the end to have Alan run along with Laura or not, the support was there and his decision to step up and encourage her to the finish was the sort of gesture that defined the character of our team…and it didn’t just stop with Laura’s support, as Becca had her own crew as well.
Becca’s leg was a short little 3 miler, but it was also marked by an abrupt uphill that didn’t cease till the very next exchange where Jared would run us to the finish. Expressing some concern at the uphill battle, Super Mario stepped in to help her along, and consumed by the excitement of it all, and probably a little bored with driving so damn much, our van driver Sean Scott also decided to get in on the fun and kick off his own running career! How’s that for infectious support? Slowly, but surely, the three picked their way up the continuous incline to the final leg where Jared waited to take the final slap.
And with that last exchange, every one of our runners completed their three (and even four) required legs, refusing to give in to the mounting stresses and physical traumas that define continuous and repetitive running. Personally, I had finished my legs earlier that morning, but watching the support and determination of my teammates was almost more fun than running the race myself. The pride I felt in sharing this experience with strangers the day before, now turned friends a day later, rose immensely.
As we drove to my last exchange point I didn’t know what was about to happen as I stepped out of the van. My feet had gotten so bad that I wasn’t sure if I was going to buckle under the pain or not, but I did know this was not going to be pleasant. I had spent all the time between my last exchange at 10:00 at night and this morning airing out my feet, popping blisters, applying moleskin, rubbing powder on them and pouring it into my shoes, but to no avail really. The skin had simply been rubbed clean away and I was left with a tiny protective layer that offered little relief from any sort of rubbing. I was desperate to try anything, going sockless, which seemed like a good idea until my feet started sweating. I even considered running barefoot, but knew that would be absurd as soon as I started the attempt. Ultimately, I relied on perseverance, determination and the hope that the adrenaline would kick in as soon as possible and alleviate any debilitating pain. However, when I stepped out of the van and made my way to the darkened exchange I found myself walking on the outside of my feet in order to take the pressure off my toes. This was, undoubtedly, going to suck. The only things I hoped to look forward to on this final leg were 1. Finishing and 2. Running under a rising sun that had JUST started to outline the Adirondack mountains along the roads we were running.
With my headlamp pointing the way “Gramps” came into my exchange, slapped the bracelet on me, and off I went…sort of. Another runner left with me simultaneously and my only encouragement was that despite the intense pain that began reverberating in my feet I started to run away from him. Unfortunately, the first section of our course was downhill and the pounding and braking immediately forced me into something of a limping run as my skinless toes pushed into the ends of my shoes, and the most annoying of the blistered, worn toes got repeatedly squished under it’s unforgiving neighbors. I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep going through all 5.7 miles of this, but continued to push through in hopes of reaching that level of sweet adrenal secretion that might numb the pain.
At some point I managed to work out of the limp run and into a more stable form and cadence, but the pain had yet to subside. The course continued to fall and rise as was anticipated and slowly but surely the pain in my big toes began to subside, much to my surprise, but unfortunately, the piece of moleskin I had attached to one toe slid free and found its way under the the most blistered toe, causing my leg to buckle in pain each time it landed directly on it. It started to happen so frequently that I even debated stopping and quickly taking off my shoe and sock, then finishing the leg half-sockless, figuring it would at least make for an amusing story for my teammates…but my competitive drive refused to let me come to a halt, probably giving up the kills I had already accumulated to that point. Then, much to my relief, the moleskin slid away, the adrenaline had kicked in, and I was left to run the course with only the stresses of weakened legs and increasingly sore spots in my quads from the previous leg’s downhills.
And then something unexpected happened. I got calm. I fell into a quickened and stressed pace, but at a rhythm that felt sustainable and race pace comfortable. The sun had now broken the dark enough that the power of my headlamp was continuously becoming less relevant and visibility increased with each passing 1/2 mile. The morning dawn that had become my favorite time to run over the years blanketed the road in front of me and made clear some of the beautiful mountainous scenery. I felt in my element. And with that sense of calm came an appreciation of what was taking place in that moment and what everything that had happened to that point. I was about to finish my third and final leg….and to be honest…maybe my last run for a LONG time. Maybe my last run ever. That’s what it felt like. The mounting side effects of chemo had become so obstructive and persistent that I worried how much more deterioration I was going to be able to fight through after my next infusion, and wasn’t convinced that I was going to be able to do it. And so, although I didn’t back off at that point, I made a conscious decision not to push through to the finish…something quite out of character for me. This time, I decided to ENJOY every step. I was running so smoothly and consistently that I didn’t even want to reach the last exchange. I didn’t want to miss any of the rising sun, the painless footfalls, the comfortable pace…any of it. I just wanted to run until my legs gave out from under me, in case this truly was my last run for the rest of my cancer experience, or in a worse case scenario…for the rest of my shortened life. Of course, the exchange WOULD come though, and I’d have to hand off the bracelet to Mario for the last time, so although the sky continued to afford me beautiful silhouettes of the runners in front of me, I kept going for the kills (9 total) until I was done. I took the last turn and found myself faced with a somewhat short, but very steep hill, and as If I had found another reserve of strength in my legs, was able to run with effort all the way to the top, picking off a couple more runners along the way, before hitting the chute at speed and slapping the bracelet one last time.
I bent over, grabbed my knees to catch my breath, and uttered one last, “Fuck cancer.” before heading to the van to give my shredded feet all the recovery they needed to heal back to normal. Victory was mine.
When you are burning calories again and again through repetitive running with short recovery times, in a van traveling over 200 miles, with 12 other individuals…food is a necessity. But how does one effectively prepare for the necessary caloric requirements in such a situation, and in a way that doesn’t leave you stuffed before your next run, but also properly fueled to go and keep going? That, ultimately, is up to the individual to figure out and know their limits, but I’ll tell you what, whatever the needs might be, our vans had it COVERED. It kinda goes without saying that when you’re vegan, and you’ve been vegan for as long as most of us on the team have been (an AVERAGE of 12 years each), food becomes a frequent topic of conversation. When the rest of dominant culture is so slow to accommodate your eating habits, you tend to fend for yourself and although everything gets figured out over time, when a large group of vegans comes together and all the food is plentiful, it can get rather exciting. We joked before the race that this had actually just turned into a mobile vegan pitch-in as we all discussed what foods we might be bringing. So, how much food did we bring? Let me TRY to remember everything in the following list.
Multiple boxes of Clif Bars
A box of Clif Shot Bloks
Handfuls of Clif Gels
A box of Clif Builder Bars
Chocolate Chip Banana Bread
Half Moon cookies
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Homemade Protein Bars
Individually packaged Eggplant Lasagna
Individually packaged Quinoa Salad (one care package for each van, lovingly made from Gramps’ farm/garden)
A box of bananas
A box of avocados
A case of Coconut Water
A jug of homemade beet (and other vegetable) juice
Two large coolers of water
Dark Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans
Mint Newman O’s cookies
Vega Gels (or as Jonny Hero affectionately calls them, “Kangaroo pouch sauce”)
Multiple containers of Nuun tablets
Quinoa Banana Bread
Chocolate Pinole-Chia Muffins
and probably more I’m forgetting at the moment
So yeah, as the list shows, we were well prepared for ourselves, but even better, we were prepared for others! It didn’t take long for some of the race volunteers to notice some of the foods we had brought and ask about them, maybe their curiosity piqued by our “Vegan Power” uniforms, and there were ample opportunities to explain our eating habits and share some amazing homemade food. Then, even better, we ran into other vegan runners who were in something of a food desert among their non-vegan teammates and we were able to pass along some of our goodies to their much appreciated bellies. These small gestures seemed to have gone a long way in building our reputations as both serious runners, but also open, sharing individuals throughout the Ragnar teams. It was great to present ourselves as the type of vegans who are both passionate and positive, not the oft-cited judgmental or generally miserable types we sometimes get stereotyped as. Our enthusiasm and openness, aided by our sharing of food, was fully on display and where we initially just wanted to fuel ourselves by bringing good and plentiful food, our sharing ended up becoming another form of unexpected ethical activism for the animals. The food was great, but the effect was greater.
My official legs were completed and although I was forced to gingerly walk around on bare feet to prevent any further running, I was glad to be done. Except I wasn’t. There was still a finish to be run, which was the culmination of Jared’s last leg and where we were to join him as a team for the last 50 meters of the course, fortunately on soft and forgiving grass. As was par for the course, team Strong Hearts Vegan Power didn’t finish like the rest of the teams, but instinctually made something of a greater spectacle as we swallowed up the last of the 200 miles. Most teams met their runner on the grass, quickly passed off a matching team uniform to put on and then casually jogged in to little fanfare, save for a bit of cheering or other minor shenanigans. Team Strong Hearts, however, came in a little, well, more enthusiastic…and although it wasn’t planned, I was sort of expecting it to happen as the ever intense Jared was our last runner and assumed he would come storming down the finish like a race horse. He didn’t disappoint.
As Jared neared the finish area we all gathered to watch the other teams come together or just lounge in the grass and bask in a job well, almost, done. We remained in our, hopefully not too intimidating, all black Vegan Power uniforms and kept an eye out on the long road that would bring Jared to us. After a couple false alarms we finally caught sight of him and everyone got prepared to run into the finish. We didn’t exactly discuss HOW we were going to do that, but it became quickly apparent how that was to go down when Jared took the final turn towards the inflatable finish line and immediately turned it on. Then like an ambush we all came rushing in from either side and matched his pace through the grass, myself trying to keep up and film the spectacle, as Jonny Hero lifted the massive Strong Hearts flag into the air. The announcer excitedly called out over the speaker system,
“And here comes Team Strong Hearts Vegan Power, finishing STRONG!”
We all ran across the finish line, the momentum of our effort almost dangerously carrying us into the lingering crowds of teams and spectators, as if we were triumphantly storming the castle instead of cheerfully celebrating a light-hearted relay race. That finish pretty much defined how we approached and carried ourselves throughout the race, as a passionate force to be reckoned with instead of the standard (and understandable) roving party that most people chose to create.
26 hours, 36 exchanges, and 196.2 miles later team Strong Hearts Vegan Power had successfully completed the 2013 Adirondacks Ragnar Relay, no longer a group of relative strangers, but a solid force to be reckoned with. And although we had FINISHED the race, something new had begun. Not just a set of valuable friendships, but a determination to carry our momentum forward into greater athletic accomplishments, and more importantly, a reignited and new approach to ethical vegan activism, of which the groundwork is being laid and built upon at this moment. 200 miles was just the warmup.
I won’t speak for anyone else, but I went into this relay race excited to experience a running event with other vegans and not much else. I didn’t expect to “spread the message”, inspire others, or feel a connection to ethical vegan activism in any definitive way. I just thought a bunch of athletic vegans were going to roam the mountains in our own little comfortable bubble of shared interests. Conversely, I actually thought our expression of veganism might be seen as off-putting to others, considering my standard experience is that most non-vegans feel immediately threatened at the mere mention of the word, or we might experience a number of exasperated sighs, eye rolls, and Portlandia type ribbing. What I never imagined was what actually happened, a genuine interest in our ethical reasoning, an appreciation of our expressions, and a serious respect for our intensity and running abilities….but that’s exactly what we got.
Other team members approached us for photos of our shirts, telling us about their vegan friends or spouses, even letting us know they have been considering going vegan. Another runner looked in our direction and exclaimed, “Vegans are FAST!”. And others approached to ask about what we ate to run, shared our food and engaged us in conversation about our ethics. As the miles continued on I felt a greater sense of responsibility to respond as completely as possible when the opportunities presented themselves, which was becoming increasingly often. I was no longer just affiliating myself with my teammates, but representing ethical vegan living to an audience of other runners, engaging in a manner of activism I haven’t experienced in many, many years. And it didn’t feel forced, confrontational or unpleasant in any way. On the contrary, everyone was so positive that it was more like having genuine and meaningful conversations with countless strangers, hopefully leaving a lasting and positive impression upon them to consider removing themselves from the systems of animal exploitation and suffering.
I simply can’t understate the importance of this experience, how I had finally felt a solid intersection between my running interests and goals to convince others to remove themselves from eating and harming animals. If running against cancer and fighting against a dying body wasn’t enough, to add the ability to help save OTHERS infused the weekend with an immeasurable sense of importance and satisfaction, that fortunately doesn’t feel isolated to that time period, but has seemingly energized us to keep pushing on with our athleticism and efforts to shift our society into a more compassionate reality. In the end, I felt deeply complete.
And we aren’t done yet…as I stated previously, this was just a warm up. Out of this experience and renewed sense of activism we have begun laying the groundwork for a few projects that will continue the Team Strong Hearts Vegan Power influence, with more races being planned, a documentary video of the weekend, a running group forming in Syracuse, a cookbook, social media push, t-shirts (but not the uniforms…you gotta earn those!) and more. Trust me, you haven’t heard the last of us, and as long as we’re able to keep pushing ourselves athletically and as long as our society continues to profit from the suffering of animals, we will continue this race for as long as necessary. As always…
Strong Hearts To The Front!!!
25th out of 215 teams