Simple joys and enduring pain of the 20-miler

Some of the trails at Turkey Mountain I programmed into my 20 milers. Hard work but worth it, and a welcome break from the asphalt.

Some of the trails at Turkey Mountain I programmed into my 20 milers. Hard work but worth it, and a welcome break from the asphalt.

Some interesting things happen on those long training runs. I mentioned a few of them in a post awhile back. Now 15 weeks into marathon training, I’ve got two 20-milers under my belt.

Part of the challenge in these runs is planning the route. Twenty miles on flat pavement can be a serious drag. The tedium alone can break you down.

For my long runs, I intentionally programmed in some trails through the woods. That would give me something different to break up the monotony as well as more challenging terrain for an added training benefit.

Success on both counts.

But it’s often the unexpected things that I encounter that make these uber sweat sessions memorable, beyond the pain they induce, of course.

For this run, I start out where I normally do: at the doorstep of my gym in downtown Tulsa. I do a loop through downtown’s up-and-coming Brady Arts District, a mix of art galleries, concert venues, apartments, restaurants, pubs and a cool little park. Life in the suburbs is often measured in car traffic. Life downtown is seen by the number of people you see walking around.

For that reason, I’m stunned at drivers’ inattentiveness when it comes to looking out for pedestrians. Some gal in a pickup looked both ways while rolling through an intersection without bothering to look in front of her, right where I was. The gal almost crushed me. She got a couple of salty words for her trouble.

It was pretty quiet in the district as I made my loop and headed south. That southern stretch would last for more than 8 miles and take me deep into south Tulsa.

Tulsa did a smart thing when it installed a park-like strip of walking and bike trails along the banks of the Arkansas River. The sliver of green that is the Riverparks system is a go-to place for runners and cyclists, not to mention everyone else just trying to get some fresh air. The park is home to a disc golf course, and in the middle of a fatter portion of the park, there is a rugby field. When I cruised past that field around mile 6 or so, a game between women’s squads from Austin and Tulsa were getting ready to start up, with a small crowd gathered on the sidelines to watch.

Scenes like that are the little distractions you need on a long run, something different to look at, people-watching on the fly.

A couple of miles after rolling past the game, I started to catch up to a couple who were running the same direction as me.

As I passed, I noticed the guy speed up and try to say something to me. I was wearing headphones (a rarity; more on that later), so I popped them out to hear what he said.

“How far are you going today?” the big fella asked.

“About 20,” I told him.

“Hey, us too!”

So we struck up a conversation. It turns out, he and his wife were about 13 miles in and training for ultras. They were also running the Route 66 Marathon, which is what I am training for. But clearly, these folks were long-haul runners beyond my abilities.

We ran together for about 2 miles, a welcome break that ate up an otherwise tedious stretch. They stopped for a break and I kept going, making my way to a long bridge that crosses the river and would take me to the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, the place where I do most of my trail running.

The bridge crossing west to Turkey Mountain is not quite a mile, and is a gradual uphill climb that steepens toward the end. There is a small airport to the south, so you can watch planes take off and land as you plod away.

Setting up tents at the Tulsa Campout on Turkey Mountain. I gotta do this next year. But this year, training comes first. (Ken TZ Childress photo)

Setting up tents at the Tulsa Campout on Turkey Mountain. I gotta do this next year. But this year, training comes first. (Ken TZ Childress photo)

Turkey Mountain’s trailhead parking lot is normally pretty crowded on a weekend when the weather is nice, but this weekend was a little different. The Riverparks Authority was hosting the Great Tulsa Campout, a new event that had tent camping, live music and food trucks. So there were a lot of people on the trails – runners, hikers and cyclists. The smell of grilled food filled the air. This was a cool event that I hope grows every year, and I wish I could have stayed. But training comes first.

My last 20-miler took me here as well, but the trail loop I did added more mileage than I needed. So that 20-miler was actually a little more than 21. I chose a shorter, easier loop this time.

That’s where I ran into another runner and his dog. I believe the guy’s name was Will, and his dog was this beautiful brown-spotted Dalmatian. We were doing the same loop, and even though it was all singletrack, we were able to pound out some mileage and carry on a conversation.

He’s a big dude. I took him to be about 6-4 and more than 250 pounds, with a long, wavy and graying mane. He was also an ultra runner with a goal of racing in at least one marathon every month for the rest of the year. He’d already knocked out a 50K at October’s Pumpkin Holler Hunnerd and would be racing in Route 66. There is another beefy race slated for December.

As impressive as it is for a dude that size to run like he does, I was more impressed with the dog. She’d logged 800 miles with him so far and never faltered during our brief jaunt together. Some dogs make better running buddies than others. I’m thinking Dalmatians might be ideal running dogs.

We parted ways after a couple of miles, as I was needing to get back on the road and head back; he still had another 12 miles on the trails in front of him.

I’d done well to that point, but the increased pace of the day and the hard week of training the week before finally started to catch up to me. Fourteen miles in, it started to get tough.

One thing that helped was music. I never run with headphones, but I wanted to try it this time to break up the monotony. I get it now.

But the headphones kept popping out, and it got worse as the run wore on. I ran out of patience 15 miles in and just let the earbuds hang free for the remainder. I’m definitely in the market for a better, more stable set of earphones, though. For runs this long, the tunes are a godsend.

By this time, the spring in my step was gone. Real soreness had long ago set in. Energy levels were low.

What carried me through my last 20-miler was challenging myself to do it, to see it through. With the knowledge that I can do it, the problem now was wanting to do it again.

Running along the river’s west bank trails, the miles between Turkey Mountain and a large power plant are always the most taxing. It’s flat and boring. It’s close enough to being done that I know I’ll get there, but still too far away to relax.

Eventually I crossed the river again on a wood plank pedestrian bridge (a welcome break from the asphalt). The weather was still perfect, and plenty of people were still out. Every runner looked faster, fresher. Good Lord, I just wanted to be done. But still two miles to go.

The trouble with running back into downtown is that the final 1.3 miles is basically uphill. Downtown Tulsa is built on a crest of a small riverside ridge. It’s great for running out of town, or for training on shorter runs. It makes for an exciting finish on the Tulsa Run 15K. But after 19 miles, it’s rough.

My calves were sore. And my hamstrings. And quads. Hell, my abs were feeling the strain.

But then it was over. The loop was complete. I walked around like I was 80 for the rest of the day. Napped. Ate. Slept hard that night.

And now, bring on the taper. I’m still a bit sore from Saturday, but it’s all downhill from here until race day.

These long runs are sufferfests. They’re tests, too. For the most part, mental tests. My guess is that the method to the madness is that come race day, my body and mind will be ready. Will I get that taper madness people keep talking about? I doubt it. Well, maybe that last week, when those 8, 12 and 20 milers give way to workouts that last 40 minutes or less. And when the marathon ends, I have a feeling that race day will be memorable. But no more so than those solo long runs where there were no crowds, no competitors, no finish line parties and no one but myself to encourage me to see it through to the end.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


6 thoughts on “Simple joys and enduring pain of the 20-miler

  1. What a pretty looking run. As a city dweller I can relate in your frustration with drivers not paying attention. I’ve had to hold back from pounding my fists on several hoods. Conversely, I’ve also been the victim of irresponsible runners a few times as well (running directly in front of my car when I’m going through a green light and theirs is red/don’t walk).

  2. Congrats on the 20. The singletrack photo looks like a great trail. Sounds like Tulsa is doing some pretty cool things for its residents … especially that cookout. Good luck on your marathon.

    • Much thanks! Though the real achievement will come at the end of this month when I tackle the marathon. Finger crossed!

      Tulsa isn’t perfect, but it has its strong points. Setting aside land for an urban wilderness is definitely one of the better things the city and its benefactors have done, and the trails are, like you said, pretty sweet. The city has been a pleasant surprise for me since moving here a couple of years ago.

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