by Michael Arnstein
Race Report: A life changing race at The North Face Bear Mt. 50 mile
Race Report: A life changing race at The North Face Bear Mt. 50 mile Today I ran the North Face 50 Mile Ultra Marathon in Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park (New York).
It is one of the most difficult technical 50 mile trail races in the country. I really can’t describe the conditions in words. It’s hard to appreciate how tough this race is unless you experience it first hand, and at a great physical effort. To make this race even more shocking for me was the fact that it was really my first 100% mountain trail ultramarathon. I knew it was going to be a tedious, strenuous, long and dangerous. It’s over now, and I finished thankfully in one piece. I learned a massive amount about myself in this event. I’ve had some of my best races when I least expect it. In this race I didn’t win or break any records, but I had some immense personal insights and lessons that I will not forget, for this reason this was a very significant race for me. The day began at 3:30AM! I was sleeping in the back of my van in the parking lot at the base of Bear Mountain (the race started at 5am and I wanted to be close to the start for obvious reasons). I was awoken by the blaring horn of a car alarm that had gone off in the car parked next to mine. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I got on the starting line with about 5 hours of sleep. I was a bit groggy, but still ok. I prepared my 3 drop bags with my race fuel: fresh squeezed orange juice, big fresh majool dates and about 15 salt pills. I grabbed my water bottle and waist pack and was ready for 50 miles of hell! The race had some incredible competition. There were 10 guys on the starting line that could win the race, it was an elite field and no one was going to get away with a casual pace. For sure there was going to be carnage. The gun goes off and we all start off in the dark with our headlamps on. Immediately the terrain is nothing but jagged rocks, mud, small streams and loose boulders, and up and down grades going over the many 1200’ peaks in the state park. It was endless, mile after mile of hopscotch, rolling ankles, jumping over fallen trees, running through swamps, mud, picker bushes and endless up and down grades, with some grades being extremely steep. Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park is massive. The race covers every corner of this fantastically beautiful preserve in the southern Catskills of New York. There are vistas of rolling hills, groves of pine trees, beautiful swamps and marsh, treeless mountain overlooks streams, pristine lakes and ponds. Birds and wildlife abound. It is pure natural beauty. Yet I was pushing my physical limits and risking serious bodily injury to literally race through it all – without ever looking up to enjoy the beauty yet risk crashing violently. I had trained very hard for this race. I had been running 130-160 mile weeks for months. In fact just 4 days before this race I had run 37 miles up and down the road that goes from the base to the summit of Bear Mountain. I was built like a mountain goat and strong as an ox. I was ready to push myself to the limit and take great risks. My Fruitarian diet has been a very big part of my training program. Yet I have yet to learn how to overcome some very serious issues regarding ultra-distance running and electrolyte hemostasis. I was feeling very good and running fast for about 20 miles. I was in 4th position and focusing on having patience in the race as I moved slowly up in position. Yet about 22 miles into the race I started to feel the onset of hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is a lack of sodium in the blood. It can be deadly if not treated in extreme situations. You become disoriented, dizzy, faint, breathless, you see black spots and feel very ‘fearful’ in how you ‘feel’. I’ve experienced this condition many times since my first ironman many years ago. My brother had a severe case of it at the Hawaii Ironman and almost died when he passed out during the marathon portion of the race. He was rushed to the ER where the doctors said he was close to death! Hyponatremia is a common issue in ultra-distance athletes no matter what their diet. The hotter the conditions, the intensity level of exertion and the duration of activity all play a role in the onset of hypernatremia. Having had so many person experiences with this condition I was acutely aware of warding off the symptoms before they became severe. My Fruitarian diet is a low sodium diet, and my body has adjusted to having low sodium. I can train in heat for 2-3 hours without any issues, yet usually after 4 hours of intense physical exertion I need additional salt. I carry supplemental sodium with me in my ultra-endurance races and training. Yet I still have problems knowing when and how much sodium to take. Too much salt will cause a lot of other problems too. Keeping a balance is the biggest challenge in these ultra-races! About 22 miles into this race I started to feel the onset of hyponatremia. I immediately took one salt tablet. About 15 minutes later I started to feel fantastic, in fact I felt amazing, and I started to run effortlessly and increased my pace. About mile 28 I started to feel hypernatremia coming on again, so I took another tablet and continued to drink water as usual. I like to drink a lot of water during my ultra-races and I normally go to the bathroom every 30minutes. Yet the one salt pill I took didn’t seem to help my ill feeling much, and I started to slow my pace even though my leg muscles still felt quite fresh. From about mile 30-35 I felt very faint and disoriented; the symptoms came on very fast and harsh. I took another salt pill yet still I didn’t feel better, so I took 4 pills and slowed my pace dramatically as I waited for the salt to take effect. I was looking for some words in my mind to describe the race course. Pretty soon the only word that could accurately describe this race course was: Satanic. Yes, satanic is how I would describe this race course. The race was slipping away from me. I was in 5th place and going very slow, even though my leg muscles were in good condition. I felt as if I could pass out at any moment. It was very scary and the endless fumbling on the trail continued endlessly. I continued to take salt pills waiting and waiting to feel better. About 40 miles into the race I finally started to feel better. So I started to run faster. Much faster. In fact I was flying by mile 41 as if I hadn’t run the entire day. Yet I was running with great anger and rage within. I can’t exactly explain why I was angry? Was it because wasn’t going to win or place in the top 3? Was it because I was frustrated with the endless difficult trail conditions? Maybe because my GPS watch showed the course was going to be 52 miles and not just 50, or maybe it’s simply just some dark side of my being that I can’t seem to control? I can’t really understand it, but it was happening, like I was Jack Nicolson in the movie The Shinning – just running through the forest insane. I was pounding the rocks under foot and almost running through the forest as a mad man, a man with some demon inside, some crazy part of my inner self that needs to continue to punish and test the man I am. I ran furiously, and took risks that were extremely foolish with the loose rocky footing. I was punishing myself greatly. All along I was also taking more and more salt at each aid station (later this turned out to be a terrible mistake as I ingested far too much sodium and came down with a toxic reaction). An angel was clearly with me over the last 10 miles of this race as I ran with punishing effort and risk towards the finish line. I had no chance of catching the 4 runners in front of me after 10 miles of slow running during my bout of hypernatremia, yet I did make up a great deal of time and finished 5th overall with a very respectable time (8:00.30) on such a difficult course. Yet after the race I began to have a massively pounding headache. I thought that the punishing race and 8 hours of running was the cause for my pounding head. Yet I soon realized that I had taken in way too much salt and now I had effectively poisoned myself with salt toxemia, another serious health hazard. I began to drink as much water as I could to try to flush out the salt in my system. It wasn’t until the next morning after drinking a few gallons of water that I started to feel better. I sat in my car after the race looking in the mirror. At 33 years old and I often feel like I have little understanding of who I am and why I do what I do. I know that this race experience and my obsessive compulsive behavior can be a very sharp double edged sword. I trade one bad habit for another. I try to improve my health in one area of life, while destroying it in another area. Am I experiencing life or just following an endless circle leading back to where I left off? I have experienced great rewards in pushing myself to mental and physical limits; I have attained great personal satisfaction and self-awareness in doing so many times. I do not regret many of my sacrifices. Yet lately I find that there are limits and I should try and evolve and mature as a person. The natural progression for me as an athlete has always been to push new limits, run faster, run farther, run more. Yet I see that I might need to now start running less or certainly run with a simpler purpose of balance. My fruitarian diet is still something I believe in strongly. I still have a gut feeling that eating whole raw fruits and plants is the best option for nutritional health. Some people will say that my diet isn’t optimal since I seem to have had serious problems during ultra-endurance events trying to maintain my dietary principles. Ultra-distance training and racing is something I am glad to have experienced. Yet I don’t believe it is something that I should be doing if my goals in life are finding true health. The more I run the more I need to eat, and the more I eat the more time and energy that goes into eating. I eat too much, just as I run too much. I don’t think it’s healthy to eat as much as I do, even when everything I eat is so ‘healthy’. It’s amazing that I’ve figured out how to make something as healthy as fruit unhealthy. I laugh out loud at myself, I really do. I would never have to eat so so so much if I didn’t try and run 160 miles a week. I will never have to worry about hyponatremia or salt toxemia if I stop running and racing for endless hours. I need to learn how to work towards ‘ultra life’ not ‘ultra running’. I learned a lot in my ultra-marathon today, but will I remember? Will I grow from it and mature as a person? I hope so, I really do. If I really take to heart the lessons that came to me with such suffering and punishment on my body then I didn’t come in 5th place in the race, I came in 1st place, first place for Michael. I have a personal rule to always run a minimum of 3 miles a day, but I think I might try and force myself to walk those 3 miles. It will be very hard to do. I might find I’ll get to where I want to be a lot faster.
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