I was never much of an athlete as a kid. Always preferring to strike out on my own in the woods and find an adventure than conform to the requirements of the typical adolescent sports team. Hours were spent in my formative years running around the woods from fort to river to fort to fort. I joke that I was a trail runner before trail running was cool!
For more than half of my life, I’ve identified myself as a climber. My cardio routines were always a means to an end…approach a route quicker or with less effort, be less winded when the grade was high and I needed to move, or race back to my car in order to pick the kids up from school on time. I never considered competitive running a possibility until my friend and colleague, Sean Mannion convinced me to train and run the 2017 Breakneck Point Trail Half. Very little (and poorly planned) training preceded the race. Which up to that point would be the furthest I had ever run. I placed 14th and was very proud to have my family at the finish line, but a lack of preparedness and strength gave me an ITBS (Iliotibial Band Syndrome) issue that nagged for a long time.
Here enters MPF Coach Elizabeth Azze. I contacted her a few weeks after Breakneck with the goal of recovering from the ITBS that I had going on and running the Cat’s Tail Marathon. I’ve never had a coach before, always thinking I knew enough about training because I had read some articles, books, and spoken to others who are more athletic than me. I thought wrong. One man’s advice is just that…advice from one man. No one but yourself can take into account all the hurdles, personal factors and stresses that culminate to make training as difficult as it is.
I work 24 hour shifts as a FDNY firefighter in the Bronx. My job is the greatest job in the whole world and I’m immensely proud of where I work (if you think yours is better…well…you’re wrong). Our schedule is very flexible, we get to do cool shit on a regular basis, little kids wave at you when you pass. We’re the last of the American cowboys! However, it wasn’t until I met Elizabeth that I was able to understand the toll my job takes on me. Specifically talking about my lack of regular sleep and how it relates to performance. You just don’t want to run intervals on Wednesday if you just finished working straight for 24 hours, slept a broken 4 hours, and inhaled/absorbed vast amounts of smoke and toxins on Tuesday. I learned quickly that I couldn’t be overly optimistic about the training time availability that I provided her every Saturday for the following week.
The training itself felt smart. A lot of conditioning, stretching and rolling that I had never done. Strength training that I never considered before. She had me hunt down a few races in the coming months which in hindsight was invaluable. I learned how to run my own race and by the time the Cat’s Tail came around I had gotten rid of any pre-race jitters. I knew how to crumble up and fold neatly my bib number and that it belonged on my right leg so as not to hook up and interfere with my gps watch on my left wrist. I knew my water intake habits according to the temperature. I dialed in my favorite trail shoes/sock combos (Salomon Trail Sense Pro2 and Injinji 5 finger socks).
Long story…short. I felt a sense of accountability to Elizabeth that I couldn’t replicate on my own. If I cut a run short, she would know. If I skipped a run, she would know. It’s said, real integrity is doing the right thing regardless whether anyone will ever know you did or didn’t do it. When it comes to training myself, I have discipline and can use more. When it comes to integrity, I have it but can use more as well. Coaching works for me. Shut the book.
The Cat’s Tail Marathon…I’m conjuring images of a soft orange tabby bedding down on top of some shitty old couch. How bad could it be? The sun is shining through the window, bathing this feline in solar warmth. Meow. Then I’m reminded of what Mike Siudy said in his intro to the application process. “This is not meant to be someone’s first marathon.” Well…it turns out two things are true. Mike Siudy does not know me. And I am fucking allergic to cats.
Night before the race, I sleep in my truck in the parking lot of the Phoenicia Pharmacy. 8 hours later, I disable my alarm 5 minutes before it’s supposed to go off. Heat up some oatmeal and make a cup of coffee. My buddy Sean pulls in 5 mins later opting to sleep at home the night before and drive the hour and change the morning of the race. My strategy was to gain an hour of sleep by staying in my truck that night. So when he asked how I slept, I looked at the ground, lied, and said, “oh yeah bro, pretty good actually!”. Fucking liar
The first shuttle bus picked us up and I felt surprisingly at ease and prepared. The bus stopped at the trailhead and someone announced the presence of a porta-john. I pictured 20 puffy-laden, trucker hat wearing trail runners bolting for the bus door. Some of them escaping out the back emergency exit (the ultimate adolescent dare!) I didn’t hesitate for a second. Not only did I feel like the third person to ever use that particular porta-john due to it’s ultra cleanly condition, which in itself is a win! But my coffee did the trick and I relieved myself of some unnecessary weight. Great success! Yes?
Sean took off in the first wave. I gave him a pat on the ass and wished him good luck. Though I knew he wouldn’t need it. He’s a monster athlete with the mental strength to achieve whatever he puts his mind to. He spent a good portion of his life as a competitive cyclist before he became a firefighter. If we lived closer to each other, he’d be my first pick as a training partner. He uses the same mantra, No Weak Shit, that I also adopted years ago from Kyle Dempster and Scott Adamson, two climbers that I’ve respected and tried to emulate from afar in my little corner of the United States. They were both killed in Pakistan last year on Ogre II attempting the still unclimbed North Face.
I took off on Wave 2 and settled in. My strategy was to pace (try and keep up with) Kehr Davis and/or Natalie Thompson the first couple miles and see where that took me. Their names were familiar from previous races and I knew their finish times to be close to my goal. I ended up keeping about 50 feet, more or less, behind both of them for the bulk of the first couple miles. Their pace was a good one for me, but I couldn’t help notice their talkative nature with each other, trading places a few times. It reminded me of the time I was behind my wife as we wound our way up the Lions Head Trail on Mt. Washington. As she was huffing and puffing, I reached into my pocket and very randomly pulled out a balloon. I started blowing it up, when my wife turned around with a look of great disgust… “Is that a FUCKING BALLOON?” I couldn’t carry a conversation with myself in silence let alone talk with someone else as we all headed up to Panther Mountain. These two we’re chattin it up!
I stuck to my plan of using my hands on my quads and pushing with my arms at every uphill section. This allowed me to focus energy into engaging my glutes. If Kyle and Scotts mantra was “No Weak Shit”, then Elizabeth Azze’s is “Engage Your Glutes”. I knew my quads would be pounded on later, why not get my arms and my weak posterior chain in on today's action? I ended up losing both Kehr and Natalie somewhere around the top of Panther Mountain. I tried my best to skip through the wide muck pits that seemed to dominate the trail between Panther and Giant. I wanted to get a little muddy but not too much, especially around the shin and calf area. I like the “salty look”, the look of a hardened trail runner. But I didn’t want to soak my socks too soon for fear of blisters and what not. Hopefully there would be some mud around mile 24 – 25. That would work out perfect!
I arrived at Aid 1, checked in and filled up on a little water. In hindsight, I could have thanked the volunteers and kept running. I love water, I think it’s great stuff. But there was plenty of it at Aid 2 and from doing my homework. I knew the running was easy from Aid 1 to Aid 2. I asked the volunteers how far ahead Kehr and Natalie were and they said only a minute or two. That was good to hear and spurred me on a little. I threw in my ear buds and relaxed for the next couple minutes. What I should have done was run a little faster. Not the time for No Weak Shit type running, just run a little faster.
I got to Aid 2, filled up on Gatorade, water, ate a little and spoke with Karl Loops a little bit. He said Kehr and Natalie were a few mins in front of me. I was familiar with the slog ahead from a training run a few weeks earlier and knew the only way it would get better is if I got uphill trail behind me. This is the first part of the race where I really wish I had someone faster and stronger right in front of me. I moved efficiently, always making upward progress. Sean shared his personal techniques with me a few months before and it made good sense to me. “Always go up” he said. “Don’t waste your movement by adding in extra lateral steps”. Spoken like a true cyclist, no wasted movement makes a big difference over the course of 26 miles. So I concentrated on big strides with no side stepping, even setting some Strava PRs for that segment, but just didn’t have that fire under my ass like I could have.
Once I got to where the trail’s grade eases off a bit, I felt good but still lacked the rabbit I wanted to chase. Somewhere around Slide, I caught a view of Natalie and some other dude from Wave 1 through the trees. These were the rabbits I was looking for (I’ll save the Elmer Fudd jokes for another time). I caught up and stayed behind them for as long as it took me to realize I was now moving faster than each one of them and politely asked to pass. If I have any strengths at all in this trail running game, it’s negotiating rocks with my longer stride. I process very quickly, sometimes not at all, my foots next landing zone and always opt for the spot that’s a little further than the one that’s closer. This particular terrain called to me and I made great time through it.
I was happy to have run the Woodland loop a few weeks earlier and knew the braided sections of trail on top of Cornell. Making quick work of the Cornell descent, I bumped into Joe Azze near some of the more technical stuff. I remembered a key root that serves as a great hand hold for traversing a cute little baby cliff. Joe had some words of encouragement and followed me with his camera. Which is an amazing kinda thing all on its own. I don’t know how he does that? I’d have a broken kneecap and a broken camera if I was in his shoes. A few steep drops later I came up on Elizabeth and Sam, the Azze’s aussie shepherd. I appreciated the fact that Elizabeth was silent as she videoed me running by. Sam didn’t say anything either. She put out her hand and gave me a high five. I told her I was thirsty and I left with a bit of a spring in my step. It felt good to see my coach and be reminded that I was racing and not there for the small talk. We could talk later.
At this point, the sun was out and I was really feeling my thirst. I started to think about my wife who was 7,000 miles away in India probably in the sun too. She had put up with so much to make this a possibility and many feelings came flooding in. I wanted to see her and my kids on the trail cheering me on but knew that was a selfish request. I settled back into my music. Rodrigo y Gabriela. Great tunes to get into a meditative state with. I had a couple shots of water left but wanted to save them for the little bit of climbing onto Wittenberg. Wittenberg’s summit is another slightly confusing area if you’ve never been, as there are some dead ends and braided sections, but I got through the area quickly and was really looking forward to the descent.
I LOVE moving quickly down terrain like this. Since I was a child, when I view mountains from afar, a deep feeling wells up in me. I unrealistically imagine myself effortlessly hopping and flying from one summit to the next.
I’ve had a quote etched into my gear storage area for a few years now that says, “If you let go, you won’t fall, you will fly”. That saying means a lot to me and I want my children to see it often and think on it throughout their young lives. They’ve asked me what it means. I’ve told them that it means different things to different people and sometimes different things to the same people at different times of their lives. But to me it means, I can’t truly accomplish something great until I give up caring what others think and ultimately what I think of myself. You just have to roll with it. It’s this state of mind that I believe carries me quickly down terrain like the backside of Wittenberg. I commit to the steepest line possible and expect to land on my feet. Allowing the law of positive attraction to carry me down. I know it sounds like super cheese, but for me, it’s the closest thing to flying. Rest assured, I will one day surely break my ass, ankle or leg using this “New Age” formula for disaster. But until then, Happy Trails!
At some point on the descent off Wittenberg I heard some cheering ahead of me. If they were cheering, that means someone is up there. As I dropped down a few big rocks, I saw Kehr Davis and my soon to be new friend Chang. I caught up to Kehr first, making sure my pace was faster than hers before I committed to asking to pass. At some point she sort of stepped to the side and I thanked her. But immediately, I was worried that she’d be on my ass shortly. I made some kind of comment/question about cramping to her that I’m sure was not delivered as was intended. But my head was scrambled. I was elated that I caught up with her and was hoping she was on track to run the same time as last year or better. I was now behind Chang, who I knew was in the first wave. He turned out to be a little more challenging to pass and was not going to give me anything. I remember thinking to myself Ahh ok…this is racing, I like this! I stayed close behind him for a while until a moment presented itself and went for the pass. He made an encouraging comment like “go for it”. And as soon as I did, I realized that I poked the hornet's nest. Was he being sarcastic when he said, go for it? Like… try me motherf-er! I wasn’t sure. So I ran as fast as I could which was not very fast. He stayed right behind me for a while, then I lost him. Then he found me again. We went back and forth a few times. He veered off trail twice and in the spirit of good sportsmanship, I called out. In hindsight, that was the right thing to do and I reaped the rewards of having integrity a few miles later.
Aid 3. Oh my sweet Aid 3. How I love your oranges and your coke and your Gatorade and everything else on the table. If this wasn’t a race and Chang and Kehr were not right behind me, I would have devoured the legs of the table given enough time. I thanked the volunteers and took off. As I did, one of the volunteers shouted “Watch the leaves!” To me, an obvious wise ass was this man. He clearly didn’t know who he was talking to. I took his ominous warning regardless. This was no ordinary section of trail and this is where my allergy to cats and their fucking tails took hold of my body and brain. This is where my first marathon started! The trail was tough, runnable in it’s grade but felt like a straight up bushwhack through the woods without the bush. The leaves kind of sucked and veiled the potential for a broken ankle. The orange markers and blue blazes seemed to evade my vision on a 50/50 basis. There were a ton of non-descript quick turns and switches. Unseated unstable rocks and more small piles of leaves. This was trail running! Jay Lemos had warned me the night before about this section of trail feeling like it went forever. He was absolutely accurate. I came upon another racer and passed him, now feeling like the rabbit that he and Kehr and Chang were chasing. I lost the trail a few times, probably 3 or 4. Once or twice being rejoined with the dude (who I think was in hiking boots… WTF?) that I had just passed. He provided a semi-confident second opinion on the direction of the trail. More unsure turns and more trail. Lemos was right. This proved to be the toughest part for me. My head started fall apart at this point. I was alone, had enough of a lead but was by myself. My bladder felt like it was full so I stopped to take a piss. I unleashed a torrent of about…wait…what?... 1-2 cc of urine on the ground. It felt like I was about to take a “been drinking bud all night kind of piss” and that feeling came and went in a few seconds. I instantly realized how much tougher it was for women to run these races. Here I am, leaning against a tree like a bum on a light pole. Trying in vain to piss. I must have muttered something to myself and re-jacked my shorts around my waist. If only these moments were caught on video!
I continued on keeping disciplined about my hands on my legs and pushing with my arms at every climb. This is something I will surely adopt from now on. I imagined a little cartoon version of Elizabeth sitting on my shoulder, crossed legged, chomping on an apple. Engage your glutes, engage your glutes. This is where my shit started to get a little silly! The sun was baking the eastern slope of that ridge. I thought about rattlesnakes on the trail and was truly so tired, I didn’t give a shit if I stomped on a pile of them. I’ll deal with your venom later, for now… I need to get miles behind me. I was hitting a wall hard and completely inside my head. When out of nowhere…HELLO CHANG!!! He came up on me like a freight train and I hitched myself right to him like an old hobo looking for a ride. We talked for a while. I needed someone out there and he came along at the perfect moment! His pace definitely pushed me, but boy was it better than being myself. We both fell once or twice, thankfully in safe spots. Each one of us stopping quickly to make sure the other was ok. I wasn’t surprised by his sense of caring for another racer. That’s what makes this community of trail runners so cool
Get right back up and keep running, resume his pace, No Weak Shit. It’s definitely time for No Weak Shit type running.
We passed another runner and made great time as we approached the downhill monster switchbacks that didn’t come soon enough. At some point, I stopped to take another “piss” and yelled to him “See ya later”. I don’t know if he heard me, but I should have yelled “Thank You!” He helped me put the tough miles down. After he left, I entered the switchbacks to Aid 4. I noticed a little ramshackle house and was psyched to know that I was near the bottom of this ridge. As I approached the house, I was understandably flabbergasted when I realized it was a large ass boulder! No Matt. That’s not a house. You’re not anywhere near where you think you are or want to be.
Aid 4. What a great thing it was to hear that cowbell as I came down the final hills! Pavement, mailboxes, real houses made of wood, the finish line SOON! I took a swig at the aid station and they started to ring the bell again. Guys! I’m here, you don’t have to ring it again. Shitballs! Here comes Kehr Davis. I did not want to be passed on the final stretch. I ran on fumes and really dug deep to focus on my pace. I glanced over my shoulder once and saw Kehr a few hundred feet behind me. I thought to myself…Don’t do that again! Focus on the road ahead, not behind!
Once I turned onto Main Street, I saw Sean on the sidewalk from afar. I visually soaked in whatever strength he had to offer, and he had plenty. Giving him a high five about 100 meters from the end, I crossed the finish line at 5:32:56. 15 or 20 seconds before Kehr and 11th overall (race results). I wanted to hug Sean or cry or something. But he was on his phone, probably researching bike parts. So I walked off by myself behind the parish hall like a sick dog to have myself another “piss”.
I was super happy to complete my first marathon and a feeling of great accomplishment soon overtook me. Quickly followed by feelings of knowing I could have tried harder, run faster, dug deeper, prepared a little bit more. I questioned every training interval I did. The ones I cut 3 seconds short when no one was looking. The times I stopped to take a real piss or tighten up a shoe and secretly enjoyed the break it gave me. I’ll never stop being hard on myself. It’s a curse that I live with and embrace. One day I’ll truly let go and fly, but for now, I’m still holding on to the bullshit in my brain. Only letting go when it feels right.
At this point, it seems appropriate to put this down officially in written form. I want to thank my coach Elizabeth Azze for the work and time she put in to get me where I am. I sent many emails which morphed into many texts. She was always patient (as long as I didn’t text after 9 pm) and always got back to me as soon as possible. I’m sure I pushed the boundary of the coaching tier I was paying for, but Elizabeth just rolled with it. She is a true professional who is passionate about her work. She makes you feel good but doesn’t hand out compliments like Halloween candy. You have to work for it. Plain and simple…It’s the best money I have ever spent!
The biggest thanks goes to my wife Willie Mae and my girls. You are my biggest cheerleaders and provide me with the drive to “win small everyday”. You put up with my early to bed nights and early mornings. You picked up extra duty when I was out doing my thing. And even though you were half a globe away when I ran this race, you thought ahead of time to leave the coolest most heart felt card hidden in our bedroom for me to find when I got home from the Catskills. You make me feel like a superhero. Thank you. The bad news is…I’m ALREADY REGISTERED FOR NEXT YEAR!!! HAH, HAH, HAAAA!!! Get in the kitchen toots and make me some carbs!