Over the weekend I did a thing.
In the grand scheme of things, all I did was go and run a few miles. But in my little world, this thing was pretty big. Those few miles were actually 31 and change. And this run kicked off my 2017 season.
24 Hours of Palmer Lake is really not what I would consider my “style” of race. Until I did it. The course is about as flat as you will find in Colorado. I usually prefer the mountains and their long, steep climbs, and fast technical descents. The course is a 0.80-ish mile loop. I don’t do real well with loops. The mental aspect doesn’t work real well for me. Because this race is not what I like and not what I consider myself “good at,” I decided I should do it. Because there’s no way to get better at it until you do it, right?
Plan A was to get there at the start, and see if maybe I can crank out a 50k broken into three 10-mile sections… Perhaps I should back up.
The last 18 months of my life have been an absolute roller coaster. Saying my training hasn’t been consistent or demonstrating the mileage I “should” be producing is an understatement. The month of April produced only a couple runs before the race, both with distances that can be counted (in miles) on one hand. March wasn’t a whole lot better. My last long run was in November, and that was about 15 miles. There are two ways to look at this: 1) I’m under trained. 2) I have no reason to be tired. To be completely transparent, I was scared. Under trained can mean bad things. That’s how people get injured. Often injured badly. I know this. I probably should have just cancelled the whole thing. But a huge part of me wanted to know what I could do based on where I was at. So I signed up and showed up. Back to the plan…
We talked about plan A. Well, Plan A didn’t take into account kids activities. So I didn’t get to the starting line until the event was about seven hours old. On the drive down I realized I had forgotten lunch, and forgotten water so I could hydrate on the drive, and any sort of substantial snacks for the event. So lunch was a grocery store pre-wrapped sandwich. Sure. Why not? It had worked on so many training runs two long years ago.
So Plan B starts to unfold. I still have the stretch goal of 50k. The number is rather arbitrary, but based on my goals for the year, something in that area is where I need to be training wise. I haven’t ramped up to there, so it’s a stretch goal. My primary goal is to show up, do 10 miles, take a break to let the muscles get sore and stiff, and then go out for a few more laps. If I can turn that second outing into another 10 miles, that’d be great. Then I’ll rest again, and repeat. Plan B is born.
Based on my facebook feed, I knew there would be a lot of people at the race that I knew. There would be very few strangers. What I didn’t expect was the feeling of coming home to a family reunion. If there’s one single thing that I love most about the ultra community, it’s the sense of community. And here it was on display. Many of these people knew something about my struggles over the last year. And many more hadn’t seen me since 2015. There were smiles, hugs, and handshakes. I was home. I was where I belonged. And I hadn’t even gotten to the registration table yet.
The registration table is where my doubts and fears were laid to rest. I had shown up to the race with questions. Many deep and troubling questions about myself, my goals, my capabilities, and the world I find myself living in. And the race director hands me my bib. Number 42.
Let me take a moment to explain. There’s a great book (series of books really) called the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy. (Hey, spoiler alert!) Part of the plot of the book is people trying to find the answer to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. At the risk of ruining it, the answer is 42. Now if we could just figure out the question…
I take this as a sign. I smile. I breathe. It’s simply time to start running. I am meant to be here today. I will find answers, possibly to questions I didn’t know I needed to ask.
In the past I’ve written out long race reports. This won’t be like that. (Well, OK. It’s wordy enough to be called long as it is. But it won’t be a race report.) I started at about 2:00 PM. I followed my plan. I finished the 50k about 11:00PM with two good breaks, a bit of goofing off, and a whole lot of great conversation.
My highlights for the event all include other people. I’m not going to name everyone, because I’m sure to forget a few. But I did laps with several old friends, several new friends, some real ultra running bad asses (many pushing for 100+ miles over 24 hours), and some new people to the sport. If you will forgive the phrase, I “got chicked” by an 11 year old girl who put down something like 60Km for the day. There were trains, the smell of burgers rolling out of a bar, hints of live music, and just so many incredible people the loops melted away. I got tired. I got a little chilly. I earned one small blister. And I loved being back home with “my family.”
One conversation sticks in my mind. It was a talk about the mental aspect of the sport of ultra running. It was getting late (relatively speaking. I mean, I didn’t push too deep into the night compared to many). I was doing a run/walk lap with a friend and I was expressing my concern about my lack of training. And it hit me: The strongest part of my game is still my headspace. I can do this this because I know I can do this. I know how to “Find the Magic in the Misery.”
Now to get my training back on track so I can head out and crush some goals for 2017.
(Originally published 3/31/2016 on the Human Potential web site, edited 3/31/2017)
There are possibly hundreds of metaphors comparing running to life. And anyone who has run long enough (either in years or distance) will tell you that many of them are true.
My favorite metaphor is about peaks and valleys. You’ve all heard it. Many of you have said it. In life, and in running, there are highs and lows. In trail running, sometimes those can be literal as well as figurative. The highs are celebrated. The lows are… Decidedly not celebrated. (With a few exceptions, like literal named canyons and geographical low points.)
In life, and in running, the low points are viewed as weakness. Our culture doesn’t deal well with weakness. Weakness is buried and made to feel shame. Weakness is bad and must be purged from the body, spirit and soul as quickly as possible.
But what if that’s wrong? Sure, we all love to celebrate the highs. We get together and party. We take summit photos. We take victory laps. The summits are easy to love.
The summits are not where champions are made.
Champions are made in the valleys. Champions are made in the lows. Champions are forged out of weakness. Champions are the ones that claw their way up from the depths to the next summit.
There were two recent events in my life that have sparked this monologue. The first, we probably won’t get into in a public forum. The second, however, was the HPRS staff meeting where all (OK, most) the ambassadors for 2016 were meeting to go over the plans for the year. And Sherpa John is using me as an example.
“And just who is this guy? Who is he to think he can run 100 miles?”
If you’ve been around John long enough, you’ve heard him start things off with those words before. But for the first time in my fairly short relationship with John, he was talking about me. There were more words, but he concluded:
“When I saw him coming down that hill about two miles from the finish line, he was SMILING!”
And that’s when I realized John had just answered his own questions, and many of mine as well. You ever walk into a situation feeling way under gunned? That was me walking into that room of HPRS ambassadors. I had met most of them at least once before. I had put down some serious miles with several of them. Many of them have been featured in articles, and blog posts. And here I was. An ultra running noob whose only real claim to fame is being too stupid to quit.
And that’s just it. I kept throwing myself into the valleys of running. And I kept clawing my way back out. And I had learned to do it with grace.
I’ve seen pictures from Run Rabbit Run 2015. I was smiling. I was smiling nearly the whole time. Now to be fair, by the time I saw John on that last descent, I had been awake for well over 30 hours and traveled over 100 miles by foot. That smile could have been a grimace of pain. Or I could have been delirious, which is more likely. This was the section of the course where you could have your whole crew take a gondola ride up and “pace” you down the hill. And the crew and I were laughing, joking, talking, trying real hard not to think about the valley I had just climbed out of or the valley I was descending into. (Literal and figurative, in both cases.) In fact, I had just finished twerking to help amuse myself and my crew. We were riding the high.
But the valleys. The valleys are what define who we are. How we react when things don’t go as planned, how we deal with adversity, bad weather, unexpected hills, getting lost, a course longer than advertised… How we react to the curve balls thrown by life is what defines our character and shapes our moral compass.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be perfect. I’m not saying that sometimes we don’t hit the wall at mile 15 of a 19 mile training run and just sit down on a rock and cry for 10 minutes. It’s natural to be upset when the leader of the group mis-reads the map or misses a turn and takes everyone up to a mountain peak that is an extra thousand feet of climbing and a few extra miles. It’s fine to be down. It’s fine to be rolling around in the darkness trying to figure out which way is up. But when you’re there, take a moment to think about how you are reacting. When the weather turns unexpectedly hot, and you can’t keep food down at the half way point of a 50 miler, do you throw in the towel? Do you mope and trudge through it, entertaining the thoughts of dropping the whole time (or even succumb)? Or do you realize you can still take the Tailwind, and after you push through this 10k lower loop, you can start climbing back to 10,000 feet where it’s nice and cool?
What do you do when you wake up on race morning with severe intestinal instabilities? Do you go back to bed? Do you show up, get your shirt, and not run? You’re sick. No one will judge you for not running. Or do you try to hydrate and fuel as much as possible, and push your way through the 50k as best you can?
When it’s three in the morning, and you’re 70+ miles in, and you stub your toe for the third time that race on a (seemingly) fast downhill and you can feel the blister forming, what do you do? Do you get to the next aid and call it done? It’s cold. It’s late. You’re injured. No one would judge you for dropping. Or do you ponder the situation over a cup of broth and work your way back up to your crew for a change of socks and a look at the damage? When you see the sixth toe that is the blister, and your heart drops, how do you rally? I have to confess. This one nearly ended me. If I had not had a crew brave enough to lance that thing, my race would have been over. I wouldn’t have put a shoe back on.
I’m sure we’ll get to the importance of a solid crew later, but watching these people (some strangers along just to help!) dig in and patch me up was enough to put a boot in my ass. If they were willing to tear me apart and tape me back together, I was willing to see exactly how far I could go.
Reading this many will think of it as bragging. John Wayne machismo with running shoes. And I can see how that perception can be there. But these are only four examples from two thousand+ miles of training and racing over 13 months. And these are just a small sample of all the different ways life can go wrong and drop you into a low spot.
If you run long enough (in distance, or in years) you will come upon situations similar to these. And sometimes you will make the “smart” or “safe” choice and throw in the towel. There was a time in my life where I would have scoffed at such weakness. But having thrown myself into the valleys as often as I have, I totally get it. Even I don’t always find a way to rise from the ashes. But when it counts, when in the dark depths of the valley, I make the “foolish” choice. I make the “brave” choice. I make the “bold” choice. I crawl around on the valley floor to see if that’s really the bottom. I risk falling deeper. And sometimes, I find I’m not at the bottom. But sometimes, sometimes, I find just enough to start to pull myself up.
In running, and in life, I urge you take a moment and think. When you’re done, when everyone thinks you should throw in the towel, (and there is a good time to do that!) can you be bold enough keep going just a little longer? To paraphrase my ex-wife, during a discussion that had NOTHING to do about running, “If you quit now, that’s it. You’re done. Or you can try a little more. Stick with it just a little longer. And if it doesn’t work, you can always quit later.”
And maybe you just can’t stick it out any more. But you never know until you try. And in that trying, that’s where you figure out just who you are and what you’re made of.
Keep trying. Keep training. You can always quit later.
We’ve all heard it. Many of us have said it. Running is cheaper than therapy.
The science behind this is pretty sound. Running changes the brain chemistry enough to start pumping some of the happy juices. The alone time gives us a chance to reflect on our problems and sometimes come up with our own answers and solutions. Running with friends gives us a chance to vent a bit. Speed or hill work is a great way to work out frustrations.
But you know what? Sometimes you need a little more than that. Sometimes you need more than a good run to fix things. Sometimes… Sometimes you just need help. This happens to all of us. We all need a little help from time to time. And there’s no shame in this. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. There is something wrong with not asking for help and suffering alone.
One of the biggest problems (in my unprofessional opinion) is people wait too long to get help. There are various ways to justify this, but it comes down to prolonging your own suffering. How do you know you might need help? I’m not an expert, but I think it boils down to something along the lines of having more bad days than good, needing to “run it out” more than once a week or so, feeling distressed in relationships or work, and there are probably many other signs. About the best advice I can give is to establish a relationship with professional when things are good, or manageable. That way, when things get really hard, you aren’t adding to your stress by scrambling to find help during a time of crisis – you have a number to call.
So yes. This is a bit of a call to action. If you have something going on and you need to talk about it, I encourage you to find some help. Find a therapist. Find a psychologist. Find a psychiatrist. Find someone at church. Find a friend who can listen and not interfere. Reach out. Help yourself.
Unfortunately, professional therapists are something like running shoes – you may need to try several before you find the right fit. But when you find the right fit, this person can become an integral part of your life. No, they won’t become your friends, but they can become mentors, coaches, and personal leaders. Most importantly, if you seem to be in a spot where you simply REALLY need help, they can make sure you get whatever it is you need.
Help isn’t always in the form of medication. In fact, a 2012 study by the American Psychological Association shows, while easy and common, a doctor just writing a prescription for a psychotropic drug (like Prozac) without the appropriate therapy surrounding it may not always be the safest and most effective treatments. And this applies to many drugs that are prescribed like candy today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying go off your meds. I’m saying do your own research and figure out what treatments are supposed to be used with your meds and make sure you are doing everything you can for yourself.
So yes, run. Run it all out. Run out the emotion and the frustration. Run until you find clarity for your problems. But don’t forget that sometimes you just can’t run far enough, fast enough, or high enough. And that’s when it’s time to look for help.
If you need help and aren’t sure where to turn, maybe something here can set you in the right direction:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
WebMD: “How to find a Therapist” http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/how-to-find-therapist#1
Psychology Today “Find a Therapist” https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms
Also, don’t be afraid to ask friends for suggestions. You’d be surprised who sees someone fairly regularly. And a referral will hopefully shorten the list of who to speak with.
Running and Brain Chemistry: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/neuronarrative/201009/why-running-is-incredible-medicine-your-brain
One of my goals for the year was to figure out how to take better care of my feet. I started with a book, because that’s where I usually start. In the book, I learned that runners often need pedicures to keep things in check. So, when my girlfriend suggested we go get pedicures, I gave a tentative yes.
In the past, my response would have been along the lines of, “Pedicures are for other people.” But I’m trying to do better. I’m trying new things. I’m working on taking better care of myself. I went and got a pedicure.
The salon was a really well decorated place in a strip mall. We walked in and my girlfriend ordered up our services. While we waited for the chairs and soaking tubs to be ready we wandered over to the ENTIRE WALL of color options one could put on their finger and/or toe nails. I’ll spoil it right now – I went with no color. But if I had to do it again… Maybe I’d pick out something for my toe nails.
We wandered over to the chairs with the little soaking tubs for your feet. I was nervous and even a touch scared. I didn’t know exactly what to do. It’s rather confusing, really. Where do your socks and shoes go? Is there a better way to manage jeans than just scrunch them up and hang on? Well, that all got worked out, and I was happily soaking my feet in what I hoped wasn’t blue toilet water. (Do they still make that stuff?) The massage chair was poking my back in weird ways. I guess it sort of felt good, but having had several real massages, it was a bit lacking in accuracy and execution.
The lady who would be taking care of my feet sat down on her little work stool and got herself organized. She grabbed one foot and started scrubbing with this weird file looking thing. Then she stopped. There was an awkward pause as she looked at my feet and the callouses that so many miles and years had put there. The weird file looking thing slowly drooped as she turned to the guy working on my girlfriend’s feet next to me. In a foreign language, she pointed and asked something along the lines of “Just what the hell am I supposed to do with this?” He looked over and paused his own work briefly before responding. I have no idea what he said, but it was either “sucks to be you” or “just use the big tools first.” I felt bad for the lady. I figure it can’t be a good sign when the pedicure person needs to seek a second opinion.
And out came the big tools. It was… It was a cheese grater. There’s no other way to describe it. And she carefully yet deftly took it after the grossness of my feet. I could watch the material being knocked away and see something really gross growing on the back side of the grater. Both feet. So many callouses. And she took after them with a rapid care and carefulness that would indicate either an intense will to be anywhere but there, or a tender care for this poor idiot sitting in front of her.
The scraping ended. She went after the toe nails next. The more abused toes went quickly as the nail there is usually minimal (like today) or missing like after a big mile race. The big toes were interesting. I had been cutting them straight across like it said in the book. This was intended to limit ingrown toe nails. Before I could ask to keep things straight across, she nipped off the corner and then started DIGGING the tool into my toe to get the rest of what I can only assume is a minor case of ingrown toe nails. I guess that explains some of the weird toe pains on the longer runs.
I closed my eyes briefly during another quick foot soak. I opened them to the sight of the lady squeezing what looked like orange marmalade on my legs. If that wasn’t weird enough, she grabbed what I thought was a fruit salad for her snack and started rubbing my legs with it! Ok. This actually felt pretty good. I’m assuming this was some sort of grapefruit salt scrub based on the grit of the jam and the clear presence of citrus fruits. This wasn’t so bad. There was lots of scrubbing and rubbing of the lower leg. She rinsed off the fruit salad and applied what seemed to be toothpaste. The toothpaste got all rubbed in and I figured that would be the end of it, because, you know, no one eats after brushing their teeth, right?
Well, the lady went back into her lunch box and pulled out the guacamole and started to smear that all over my calves and feet. I’m not exactly sure what recipe she uses for the guacamole, but it had a minty, tingling feeling. My lower legs and feet then got wrapped up and the toe nails got more detailed attention. The whole time, the mechanical chair was poking, prodding and kneading my back in ways that I’m still not sure felt good or if I just endured because it was part of the experience. (I’m inclined to say it felt good, but unlike a real massage, I have no desire to run out and buy one of the chairs.) And things wrapped up with a good foot soaking, rinse, and dry. I was permitted to sit in the pokey-chair while my girlfriend got the nail polish applied.
And that pretty much sums up the event. A few days later, my toes still hurt where the nail was dug out. I’m going to assume this is a good thing. The callouses feel almost like normal feet parts again. Would I do it again? Probably. Having had a blister under a callous, I can see the need to keep those things in check.
It doesn’t take much time on the various running forums and Facebook groups to realize there are a lot of people out there who are capable of running really, really long distances. Ultra-running (running longer than a marathon distance) is becoming extremely popular. It’s to the point that one of the major running magazines published an article declaring the 100 mile run to be the new marathon.
It’s safe to say, ultra-running has reached mainstream popularity.
But here’s the deal. You don’t have to do it. More so, you don’t need to feel like less of a runner because you don’t run a certain distance. And even bigger? You don’t’ have to feel like less of a runner because you can’t run a certain distance at a certain pace.
So you… Yes. You. The one over there moping about your 31 minute 5k time. You trained hard. You did your best. So you missed your sub-30 goal. Why did you have that goal? What are you trying to prove, and to whom?
Yes. I dedicated a year of my life to running “stupid long.” And you know what I learned? You can have all the goals in the world, and if you don’t love what you’re doing, none of it matters. As I was in the peak of the training cycle for my 100-mile adventure, I started rolling around goals in the back of my head. Could I finish under 28 hours and get the special belt buckle? Could I finish under 24 hours and join the ranks of the super speedy mountain runners? Well, as it has a tendency to do, life kind of gave me a wakeup call. And it reset my expectations. I didn’t need goals. I loved what I was doing. I was looking forward to working with my crew and pacers. I was looking forward to just being part of the community that was going to gather to run up and down a couple of mountains for a day and a half. Straight.
I still needed to have some time expectations. This was so my crew could be where I needed them as I was going to be there. But, as happens, even those basic expectations were useless once the clock was ticking. (I set a new 50-mile PR during the race. That wasn’t part of the plan…)
And then the circus that is a 100-mile race died down. Life went back to mostly normal. My running friends were all excited about their upcoming races and their upcoming goals. But nearly all of them started phrasing things differently. More than once I heard, “But you wouldn’t be interested in joining us because it’s just a 5k on pavement.” Or even, “I know that’s not much to someone who just finished 100 miles…”
Let me dispel something right now. I still enjoy a good 5k. Yes, pavement has never been my favorite. But if it’s a good race with good people, I’m enjoying myself.
And then there’s the demon of comparison. Yes. I ran 100 miles. No. I don’t expect you to do that. In fact, if you ask me, I’ll likely try to talk you out of it. Own your goals. Own your accomplishments. Maybe you just ran your first mile without walking. Be proud of that. Wave that flag. Celebrate as you see fit. Maybe you just finished your first marathon, or set a PR at some distance. Again, that’s yours. YOU did that. Be proud. Believe me when I say “You did a good job.” Because you did. You did what YOU could do. I’m proud of you for putting forth the effort. I’m proud of you for training. I’m proud of you for showing up. I’m proud of you for just looking in the mirror and thinking, “I can be better.”
If you are doing what you can do and giving it your best, who is anyone else to judge? What does anyone else’s accomplishments matter? You do you, and be the best you possible. I’ll help you as I can. I’ll certainly help you celebrate.
Wow what a ride!
The tangible accomplishments of 2015 are really simple: My first 50k finish. My first 50-mile finish. My first podium finish (at the 50M). My first 100-mile finish.
And that was the goal for 2015 – a 100-mile finish. Throw in a couple marathon finishes, a couple half marathons, several shorter races in the 5k to 7-mile range, and it rounds out one heck of a running year. The B-races went OK. (Sure, the 50k sucked, but the time was still reasonable.) I have a handful of hardware including my first belt buckle and my first trophy. All told, I exceeded my own expectations. Despite what some of you may think, I’m still just an ordinary guy. If I can take on a goal like this and find success, what can you do?
The intangibles for 2015 are difficult to describe. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned about myself. I’ve learned about relationships. I’ve found new friends. I’ve likely lost a few friends. I’ve had a few eye opening moments. I’ve been trying for months, but I’m having a hard time putting it all in words. Perhaps the best way to put it is I am not the same person I was 12 months ago. As confusing as life can be, I have tasted clarity. I’ve pushed my limits only to find they weren’t there.
I don’t know what 2016 will bring me yet. I do know that 2016 is an off year for me. As the snow melts my wife will start ramping up her cycling miles, and I’ll be spending most of my weekends playing with the kids and doing homework with them instead of running through the hills. I’ll still run. I haven’t outrun my enjoyment of that simple act. Who knows, I may even be able to sneak in a few long runs at night while the world sleeps. (Ultra running has really opened a few training opportunities for me.) I’ll get a sitter for the kids and do a few local club races. I’m still hoping to run Bolder Boulder with my local RunJunkEe friends. But for the time being, I have no time or distance goals in mind. I did join a gym. I’ll put some time in there. I may even formalize a routine and put in some gym goals. But I’m looking at it as a year of recovery. 2015 was enlightening for both the body and the mind, but they both need some time. My body still isn’t quite where it should be. My mind is still a bit clouded. I plan to enjoy ski season. All of it. I plan to volunteer for some races. I may be crewing and pacing for a few people pushing their own limits and finding their own awesome.
And I look forward to helping rally the RunJunkEe nation to help support Adam Kimble and his record breaking attempt across the US.
That’s pretty much it. 2015 was amazing, and a bit terrible all at the same time. The support and encouragement of my fellow RunJunkEes helped make that happen. 2016 is a giant question mark. I’m sure I’ll find something fun. And I’ll be sure to share it with you all.
In the mean time, I look forward to seeing what you all attempt this year. I look forward to helping you all out, and returining the support and encouragement you offered me.
Happy New Year RunJunkEes!
It happens every time. I cross the finish line of a goal race. I celebrate. I bask for a few days or weeks. Friends and family join me in celebrating. And then at some point I have to take off the medal or belt buckle and get back to my daily life.
This transition is always difficult. My spirit feels free at the end of a training cycle. I’m on a non-stop runners high. And as soon as I cross the finish line it starts to fade. I was lucky this year. My goal race was in the fall. I was able to do several “B” races (and a few “C” races) in preparation and I was able to take that high and ride it through the next training cycle. But the “A” race is done. The race, and training required, were both big enough to really tax my daily life. So there was a lot piled up and waiting. (Both literally and metaphorically.)
The physical recovery from the 100 mile run took longer than anticipated. The muscles were in pretty good shape by the end of the following week. The trauma to my feet to this day (about three months later) is still a bit of an issue. Most of the first month was spent wearing flip flops. When it was cold, toe socks were involved. That actually limited some of the literal piles I could address. For example, it took all I could muster to wear boots long enough to get the last of the firewood buttoned away for the season. And I even broke my own rule and did a fair bit of the stacking in flip flops.
The high from finishing lasted much longer than I expected. I’m not sure to what I should attribute that, but I guess it shows just how much of a stretch goal it really was. I think part of it had to do with all the friends and family that kept making a big deal out of it. Every time I ran into someone that I hadn’t seen in a while the subject would come up and it would start all over again.
But here’s the embarrassing thing: I can’t seem to let myself claim any glory. Oh sure, the first few days I was on such a high it didn’t matter much, but at this point, I’m just a guy who went for a run. I haven’t really lapsed into avoidance type behavior, but there’s no swagger. By now, even the online bragging has dwindled to a few inside jokes with my coach, pacers, and crew.
I chose to celebrate my run by ordering a custom belt for my new belt buckle. It’s being shipped right now. And I’m not sure I’ll allow myself to wear it more than a couple times. And that’s a shame because the thing is beautiful. OK. That might be avoidance type behavior. But the glory has faded. I don’t need to be reminded of that every time I put my pants on. I don’t even need to be reminded of the race all that often.
What I need is to move on. I need to find something else to draw my focus and my attention. My kids haven’t seen much of their dad since February. My performance at my day job has been a far cry from what I usually do. And I haven’t really been much of a husband. We won’t even go into the neglected housework and honey-do-lists.
But I’m stuck. I made one of the classic mistakes. I ended something big without another goal in mind. Sure, I put in for the lotteries at Hard Rock and Western States. But I know enough about math and statistics to know that my chances of getting into either were pretty dang slim. So I’m wandering.
I’m still running. But I hate my shoes and can’t seem to get comfortable in the winter layers. I don’t want to run any of my usual routes. (And where I want to run becomes dangerous this time of year.) That is to say, leaving the house is a chore. I’ve joined a gym. I now have access to a treadmill and weights for the first time since… Well it’s been a while. And I’m using the weights. I’m working to correct some of the flexibility issues and muscle imbalances that kept me from feeling as healthy as I could be through the last training cycle.
For the time being, my diet is rubbish. This isn’t just a post-race thing. Every winter I have a hard time eating healthy foods. I’ve learned to live with it a bit. This year though, I seem to have embraced it. My shopping choices look almost as if I let the five year old write the grocery list.
Clerk: Cake and ice cream! What’s the occaision?
Me: It’s Tuesday.
Ski season is here. I’m excited to hit the slopes with the kids. I’m looking forward to logging some miles (and elevation) on the cross country skis. I tell myself once I get in the habit of getting up there I’ll be fine. But I’m even resisting that.
Reading through this, it sounds like I’m complaining. Maybe I am a little bit. But it is intended to be an example. It’s that time of year. Looking through the RunJunkEes Facebook group, I’m not the only one struggling with the changing seasons. I know all the usual fixes – sign up for a race, set a goal, get a hobby, move somewhere warmer. But none of that fits my lifestyle right now. 2016 is a down year for me. My wife will be ramping up her training cycle and I will fall into a support role. I may still get some longer runs, but I’ll have to hire a sitter for the kids. Do you know how hard it is to find a sitter to show up at six in the morning?
As painful as it will be to live through this year, I’m actually OK with it. I know the time off will make me stronger. Not running 8-16 hours every weekend will allow my body to heal. The weights will make me a better all-around athlete. The diet will come back in line. I’ll get some quality time with the family. I’ll be able to show my wife and kids some of the incredible places I ran this year. And it will involve a real picnic and a nice relaxed pace.
I’m struggling for a good way to wrap this up. I guess all I can offer is, “It’s going to be OK.” This is normal. Everyone goes through this to some extent. If you’re in a funk, ride it out. Make the best of it. The magic is still there, it just might not be as easy to find.
Just keep moving friends.
A drive through the Rockies in mid-September is a beautiful thing.
That's the thought that kept rolling through my mind as I was stopped in traffic along a minor highway. There was road construction. I had been stopped long enough that I turned off the truck. In fact, I was pondering getting out and stretching. And I did. We were stopped because the highway department was building an animal overpass - a bridge over the highway to allow the animals to cross the highway safely. This stretch of highway is in both deer and elk country, and the moose numbers are increasing. Along with all of those come a fair number of road kill incidents. The bridge was supposed to help all that.
The weather was exactly per the forecast. Sun and beauty. The aspens were turning. There was just a bit of rain, but it passed quickly. I had given myself plenty of time to get to Steamboat, so I didn't mind being stopped. And stretching against the truck felt good in the September sun. After traffic broke, the drive was uneventful and every bit as beautiful as I had expected. The road that drops into Steamboat is wonderful any time of the year, but in the fall with the leaves, it's a little extra special.
My first stop was the grocery store. The day before a long run I always go out and buy breakfast for morning. I grabbed my usual muffins, and wandered over to the bananas. And there were none. I looked around. The typical healthy looking people of a ski town hid things for a bit. But if you knew what to look for, you could tell the store was filled with runners. The food in the cart was just a bit healthier than one might usually expect. The shoes were mostly old wore out running shoes. Not the kind that looked like they had been used as work shoes, but the kind that looked like they had been run in until they could barely contain feet, and then were delegated to daily wear shoes. There were bits of KT tape sticking out of shorts and peeking through rips in jeans. The typical race T-shirts were sporting distances that didn't look quite right. The typical 5k shirt had an extra zero. So did the 10k shirt. The store was overrun with ultra runners. And they had picked over the bananas in a grand fashion. I wandered over to the organic section and found a bunch that looked like it might be yellow enough by morning.
The rest of the afternoon was spent packing and re-packing drop bags. There were two aid stations I would pass through more than once without crew. One I would hit at about miles 11, 52, and 90, and another at about 57 and 81.
Race mistake 1: When holding your headlamp and fresh batteries, swap the batteries before you get distracted and forget.
After the drop bags, I moved onto the gear I was going to wear and carry. My starting race clothes, my vest, some extra layers. With all the mucking around with gear the nerves were in full swing. I was having a hard time retaining focus. In fact, the whole week my mind was all over the place. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't work. Eating... Well OK. I was eating just fine. It's save to say I was eating everything I could fit in my mouth. I called it good enough. I knew the basics to pack. I knew I had crew that would help me. I knew I had drop bags to help me help myself.
So off to check in and to drop off the drop bags. And instead of the stress levels dropping, they went up. Check in wasn't ready. The bibs weren't there yet. I was getting a hard time about one of my drop bags. (It was a cooler. They don't want coolers. But it was smaller than some of the backpacks that were there, and I had it taped shut, so it was allowed.) I was trying to figure out if I needed to run across town to buy a back pack, as well as trying to figure out if I should eat dinner then or wait until after check in and the mandatory race meeting.
I am no stranger to pre-race stress.
Things start to roll. The line is backed up and slow. Due to the discussions with the drop bags, I'm now near the back. I get checked in, and get my bib. We all sit down and put on bunny ears for a picture. The big difference between this and other races is the check-in stop where a medic with a laptop was asking if you had any medical conditions. I made some crack about a mental disorder that made me think running 100 miles was a good idea. The lady just smiled and said I was certainly in the right line. At the end of the check-in line was where I bought the party tickets for my crew, and the gondola tickets for the ride up. And there, at the end of the table the kids sized T-shirts caught my eye. And for the first of many times over the next two days my eyes filled with tears. There were two shirts. One read, "My mom can run 100 miles, can yours?" And the other read, "My dad can run 100 miles, can yours?" I didn't buy them. Just in case. And that made my eyes water even more.
I stopped at Q-Doba for dinner and took my football sized burrito back to the condo we had for the weekend. As I was eating the crew and pacers started to arrive. I had my crew boxes pretty well set. They were marked Eat Me, Drink Me, Fix Me, and Dress Me. I still had a fair bit of gear to muck around with. Shoes and whatnot. One of the many things I had meant to do the few weeks before the race and just never quite got around to was attach velcro to the backs of my shoes so I could wear my gaiters during the race. There was a brief discussion about gluing things together there in the condo and for whatever reason, I didn't. I was going without the gaiters.
Race mistake number 2: Wear the damn gaiters.
It was getting late. My crew and pacers were urging me to sleep. Of course they were right. I made my usual joke about pretending to sleep the night before a race and went to bed after setting a couple alarms. I'm not sure what happened, but for some reason I actually slept a full night.
I woke up an hour before my alarm. I checked to see that the alarm was still properly set and went back to sleep. The dreams in that hour were remarkably weird. I don't remember all the details, but in one I was late for a race. And the alarm finally sounded. It didn't sound like anyone else was awake. I used the flashlight on my phone to head to the kitchen to retrieve my muffins and bananas. I brought those back to my bedroom, turned a laundry basket upside down to use as a table and started to eat breakfast. I didn't get too far into my banana when people started wandering in. I felt sort of like people were staring at me and expecting me to do something. But everyone was in a good mood, so it wasn't too awkward. I finished breakfast, put on my race gear, and it was time to go.
Everyone who was awake went to the start with me. Anaka, Lisa, and Melissa were troopers. We hung out in the tent near the start for a while. And it started to rain. I started to freak out about the weather, and the layers of clothes I was wearing. Lots of people were putting on more layers, jackets, hats. I calmed my panic by thinking. The first four miles were straight up the ski hill. Regardless what I was wearing, I was going to be soaked through when I hit that first aid station. So I took a look at the actual temperatures and decided to put on my extra long sleeved shirt and my light gloves and left the rest of the cold weather gear for later.
After I was re-situated my team gathered around me and started to show me posters they had made. Without me knowing they had gathered some quotes from people I knew and made them into a poster collage. I read a few of the words in detail, but I started to cry and resorted to just trying to make out the names in the tears. Seriously, you guys are all incredible.
Go time. We all wandered to the start. It was still spitting rain, but nothing much. I'd say I was dressed about right. I lined up near what I thought was the middle of the pack, on the side where I knew my friends would be with cameras.
Stop and think a moment. When was the last time you started something without really knowing what the outcome might be? That's where I was. Lined up for the great unknown. I knew I was going for a run. I knew it was going to be long. I was pretty sure I was going to finish, but I didn't know I was going to finish. And if I'm honest, there was a good chance I would not finish. It was big. It was scary.
The start went much like the start of many long races. We all took off, but no one took off too fast. We ran past the crowd on a piece of flat land. Then, we turned up the hill. It didn't take too long for the pack to turn into one long string of fools. I did seem to be about in the middle. That's good. That's where I wanted to be in order to pace myself.
Part of running races on trails is navigation. It is important to know where the route goes and how it is marked. The absolute most important part is knowing where the route goes. Sometimes marks get moved or are missed. And at less than half a mile in, the leaders and about half the pack missed a couple markers. I saw them. A few guys in front of me saw them. We headed up the hill in the right direction and called out to the others. We were on course, and I looked ahead and did a quick count. Four people in front of me. I was running my first 100 mile race, and I was now in 5th place overall. It felt good, but it didn't last long. I didn't expect it to. But the five of us in the lead pack took the chance to celebrate and make jokes. And we worked our way slowly straight up the ski hill to the top of the Gondola. And it started snowing. It wasn't the graceful, quiet snow of December or January. It was the sleet-like snow of September. But it was snow. And I smiled.
During these first four miles I had plenty of time to walk through my strategy. I was not running 100 mies. I was simply going from aid station to aid station. Including the finish line, there were 18 aid stations. The longest distance between them was about 8.5 miles. I knew I would see my crew at about miles 20, 30, 47, 64, 74, and somewhere along the last 6 miles.
(Photos in the slideshow above are from Kurt at Slimside photography and are used with permission and thanks.)
At the top of the first climb was the top of the main Gondola at the Steamboat ski area. There were people everywhere. And it was awesome. The snow had moved on, and things were starting to clear. Just below the top of the climb I saw a familiar figure. There was Kurt from Slimside Photography taking pictures. I had a feeling this was the hard part of the climb. Kurt knows how to find people at the tough part and make them look good. We exchanged some pleasantries and jokes as I crawled by in a line of runners. It wasn't long at all until I was in the crowd of spectators that had gathered at the top of the lift. There were familiar faces everywhere. It seems many of the people I had met over the last year involved in the Colorado ultra running community were either racing, pacing, crewing, or just hanging out cheering. I don't remember everyone I saw, but it seemed everyone was there. I remember seeing Laurie. I remember telling her (excitedly) that I got snowed on. And I remember her smile as I worked on through. And that was the end of the insanely steep climb up a black diamond ski run. From there we were on snow cat track and maintenance road climbing to the top of the mountain. Melissa was volunteering at the first aid station. As I rounded a switchback I looked up and saw her. She was down from the aid station and cheering on runners. And she hiked to the aid tables with me. My bottles got topped off. I had some food (a chunk of watermelon, and a few potato chips). I confirmed this was the right aid station, and confirmed that my watch was now useless.
I had the watch in "ultra track" mode to extend battery life. I expected accuracy to be less than what I was used to, but my training runs had indicated things would be within a reasonable rounding error. Yet here I was at the first aid station, four-ish miles from the start, and the watch said I was over eight miles in. That was not a reasonable rounding error.
(Pictures above by Melissa Wood and used with permission and thanks.)
Aid station 1. Including the finish line, 17 left to go. About mile 4.5.
The next section of course was fun. Rolling hills with some short climbs and some long, rather fun descents. I fell in behind a guy with gray hair who was moving at a strong, steady pace that felt "too slow" and decided I was going to stay right there with him for as long as our pace matched. I'm pretty sure he said his name was Gerry. He had just run Cascade Crest a few weeks before and was nowhere near recovered. But he was here and moving well. We talked a fair bit about nothing and everything. Gerry had some serious experience. I decided to hang with him as long as possible, and maybe even change up my plan and pace a bit to spend more time with him. We had a common goal of finishing on the buckle side of the cutoff. We got passed a fair bit. And I was OK with that. It was early. And I was a newb. I really had no business passing people at this poing in the race. My goal was survival and not getting cut off. And this pace felt great.
At the next aid station, I sat to re-tie my shoes. I knew there was a long downhill coming and wanted to keep my toes off the fronts of the shoes as much as possible. I topped off my bottles, grabbed more watermelon, and a small piece of peanut butter jelly sandwich and was on my way chewing as I headed down the trail. Gerry was right in front of me. I could see him rounding the next bend. With a little push I would catch him in just a few moments. I was right where I wanted to be.
Aid station 2. 16 left to go. About mile 11.
The eleation profile on my arm confirmed we had about 6 miles of downhill on a trail I had been on many years before. I wound up in front of Gerry when nature called and since he wasn't pacing me I took the hill at my own comfortable pace - paying attention to make sure my feet found the flat spots. I quickly caught the group in front of me and fell in line. There was conversation, and some laughing. At the front setting the pace was a lady named Monique. I had first met her at one of the many training runs my local ultra runners (And Human Potential Running Series) organize. With her was a Mr. Robinson from the Dallas, TX area. There were a couple others that were in the group, but they passed at the first opportunity. I didn't know it at the time, but Monique and Mr. Robinson were to be key contributors to my race.
This was also the stretch where I started really talking and really getting to know people. There was a young man from South Carolina whom I would bump into repeatedly, as well as a lady I know only from facebook. She and I train many of the same trails, sometimes on the same day, but never together or at a time close enough that we could actually meet. So it was nice to put in a few miles with her and see her training paying off so well.
Oh, and there was a trail too. This is the Fish Creek Falls trail. From the top it's about six miles of downhill with a fairly technical section, some mud, one rock hopping stream crossing, and a lot of tourists nearer to the parking lot. And the tourists and hikers were incredible. They were cheering. They were encouraging. Even if they might have been muttering about the loonies "bombing" down the trails, they didn't express any disdain in a manner that the runners could hear. And that really boosted the spirit. And when the spirit is boosted, so is the pace. The six miles went too quickly. The trail was fun. The people were good. And I wanted more. We came up to the "limited aid" stop. From here it was about four miles of pavement into town to the next aid station. The weather was still cool. My bottles were full enough I didn't need to stop. I pondered the vault toilets for a moment when some of the group stopped to use them. But Mr. Robinson and I kept on trucking, barely slowing for the aid stop.
Aid station 3. 15 more to go. About mile 17.
The next three miles were pretty much all downhill on pavement. My body wanted to fly. Mr. Robinson reminded me that was a bad idea. To paraphrase someone else, "Settle down. You have all day to hurt yourself."
And it didn't take long for the group to re-form. We were a good fit. Mr. Robinson had been on the course before and knew what to expect. The rest of us were just hoping to run a conservative feeling first half and let the second half work itself out. It was somewhere in here that I started doing the math and started to worry. Was I going too fast? Maybe. But it wasn't feeling like work. We were keepign it very conversational. There's no doubt that everyone in the group is well within their aerobic boundaries. So we kept going. This is where the watch would have been useful. Accurate distance and pace could tell me exactly if I was moving too fast. I was essentially naked (running without technology) and I did not have the data I was used to using to pace myself.
This is when I got passed by Lisa. I also met Lisa on one of the training runs with my local ultra tribe. Laurie (from the Gondola) was going to pace her later. Lisa and I even did a training run together where she proceeded to try and kill me. it was bad enough that she came back with a car to pick me up. And there she was on race day passing me. it felt right. I was happy for her. She was clearly feeling good and moving good.
Coming into town felt odd. We had been on the road with cars for a while now, and I had gotten used to that. Stopping for the crosswalk signal is what did it. There I was in a race. The clock was ticking. And I was waiting for a light to change. If this were a road race, I'd be screaming about ruined mile splits. But it's not. And while a 1.5 minute wait is an eternity, in this event it was unlikely that a minute and a half was going to matter.
The next mile or so to the aid station went quickly. The sidewalks and bike paths through town were flat. The next road crossing was a simple stop sign and the cars were happy to wave us through without making us even break stride. And this brings us to the next aid station. And the first time we really get to see our crew.
Aid station 4. 14 more to go. About mile 21.
(Photo by Slimside Photography runner 655 is me. 651 is Mr. Robinson. Green shirt is Monique. White hat is Kristen from Ft. Collins if I'm not mistaken.)
I saw Kurt first. He was taking pictures again. Then I saw Lisa - my crew chief. She was sitting on a chair on the side of the path. When she saw me she jumped up and we started to swap out bottles. Lisa fell into the crew role brilliantly. One of my main concerns was lingering at aid stations. While a 10 minute aid station stop is no big deal, if you do it 18 times, that's three hours over the course of the race. That's getting cut off. So I gave the crew extra bottles. (I was carrying four bottles to be filled with tailwind, and a bladder for water.) The empty bottles got swapped out as Lisa walked me into the only hard walled indoor aid station. And the sound was deafening. The voices echoed off the rafters and the ceiling. I could hardly hear. It was hot out, and I have a hard time eating when it's hot out. So I grabbed more watermelon, a few chips and a couple M&M's and started walking out. Mostly, I just had to get out of the building.
I kept talking with Lisa and Anaka as we walked. At the next aid station, I was going to want shoes and socks. My coach was going to be there too. As I started to exit the aid station area Laurie made another appearance with the camera and I paused for a picture with Anaka. (Lisa, is in the background.) Estimated aid station time was about three minutes.
This next section was a blast. This was a piece of trail I never even knew existed. We climbed a ridge and went along the top for several miles. There were spectaular views in all directions the whole time. After an initial couple exposed miles the rest of the climb was in the shade. There were deer and elk track everywhere. Nothing was too technical. The trail had a cute name that I don't really remember, but it was something along the lines of "Lane of Pain." It was solidly steep, but nothing too sustained. Then we summited out and started to cruise down transitioning from pine and aspen into scrub oak.
And the group reformed. Me, Mr. Robinson, and Monique were all just kind of cruising. Though I will say Monique totally dropped me on the first big climb. She was cooking!
Water only. Aid station 5. 13 more to go. About mile 25. (Except this was WAY early on the course, so lets call it mile 22.5.) Bottles and bladder had plenty. Didn't even slow down.
The trail was cut through the scrub oak. That meant there were several exposed roots, and a few stumps in the trail to be worked around. None of this was complicated or technical, but you really had to pay attention. And Monique took a digger. We gathered her back up and confirmed the bone wasn't showing. (Bone ain't shown? Keep on goin!) Not long after, I caught my own foot on root or stump. I hit it in just the right way such that whatever it was I kicked came down through the top of my shoe and hit my toe. Hard. I stumbled. I swore. I didn't fall.
This section of trail was downhill and downright fun. We were cruising in the sun. There were birds circling on the air currents. There was still mindless conversation to use to check your effort. And I hit the same toe on the same foot again. I swore a bit louder this time, but I just kep on going. The group had a rather detailed, and I'm sure comical to outsiders, discussion about a porta potty we could see that did not appear to be on the way to the next aid station. And as we crested the little rise we could see the tents and start to hear the people.
Aid station 6. 12 to go. About mile 30.
My crew was there. I know there's a picture somewhere, but I can't find it. Someone grabbed my bottles and started to fill them. Someone else found me a chair and we started to change my shoes. My coach was there. We had some discussion about something that seemed important at the time. I was washing my feet with baby wipes. I had only one question: Was I going too fast? I could tell by the look on his face the answer was yes. But his words were comforting. I hit that point in the race about the same time he would have. I now had some time in the bank for later. But I didn't need to push any harder than I was, and I could even relax a little. Then my coach, Sherpa John from Human Potential Running Series, made me some sort of bacon tortilla wrap and stuffed it in my mouth. And it was good. This was the first "real food" I'd had since breakfast. Had you asked me, I would have said I was too hot to eat. But he didn't ask. There was food. In my mouth.
So I ate as I walked down the road out of the aid station. Estimated stop time, more than five minutes, but way less than 10. Not bad for a shoe change.
As I walked down the road I took a few minutes to look around. This could have been any creek bottom in Colorado. There was pasture. There were cottonwood trees. And the road was both well worn, and rough from all the rocks, washboard, and washouts. I've spent a lot of time in places like this, and I felt a bit at home. Kristen from Ft. Collins caught me and we talked a bit before she took off. It didn't take long for Mr. Robinson to catch me. And we continued chatting about nothing as we turned off the road and started up the trail. There was a good size mule deer doe muching grass not 20 feet from us. As long as we stayed on the trail and didn't change our cadence too much she didn't care we were there. This section of trail was a gentle climb back to the top of the scenic ridge. It was well wooded and shaded. And I was able to relax and cruise. I hiked most of it. But there were plenty of runnable sections that got me going. There were even some banked turns. 30+ miles in and I was relaxed, running, smiling, and having a good time. Though I do admit I forgot to make airplane noises on the banked turns.
As we neared the unmanned "water only" stop the first of the hares passed us. I should back up. The format of the race is unique. The average Joe starts the 100 mile race at 8:00AM. The above average Joe who expects to finish in a faster time starts at 12:00PM. I was being passed by elites. And they were happy, and friendly, and some of them were having as good a time as I was.
We also passed the back of the pack and the course sweeper on the out and back. DFL seemed in good spirits and smiled as we gave him a cheer.
When we hit the unnmanned "water only" stop, the jugs were nearly empty. There was about two water bottles worth of water in them. Mr. Robinson and I combined the two jugs, and I drained the water from my bladder into Mr. Robinsons bottles. I still had one full bottle, and we were going to save the water in the Jugs for someone who needed it more. About this time, Monique caught us. We let her know about the water situation and our estimated distance from the next real aid and she also decided to save the water for those who needed it more.
Aid station 7. 11 more to go. About mile 39.
From here the course got fast. Pretty much all downhill. A few technical sections. A few steep sections. The steeper stuff got walked to save the quads. (Settle down. You've got all day to hurt yourself.) And I tripped on that same foot in the same way. I swore louder. Somehow I managed to not fall again. Mr. Robinson dropped back at some point. And I think that was the last I saw of him. Thank you sir. Your company on the course was priceless. We saw the film crew that was there to record the leaders of the hares race (us mortals were all tortoises). They didn't even lift up the cameras as we came into view. But they did give us a cheer and a clap as we cruised on by. And Monique and I accelerated down the hill into the next big aid station. We were both smiling and running strong. Getting back to civilization and the setting sun and cooling temps boosted our spirits.
We were back at Olympia Hall. This was an important stop. This was the last crew access before night fall. This was the last chance to really grab supplies and warm gear. There would be several miles, several thousand feet of climbing, and several hours before we saw the crew again. And this was where I could pick up my first pacer. I ran into the aid station jazzed by the downhill, the civilization, and the overall excitement to see my people and run with Jeff.
(I don't remember where those pictures came from. If they are yours, please let me know!
Top - Logan, Anaka, and LIsa sending me out of the aid station. Bottom - Jeff and I about to have a really good time.)
(Photo credit Slimside Photography - Me, coming into the aid station fast and happy.)
Aid station 8. 10 more to go. About mile 42.
Things quickly got serious. This was planed to be a longer aid stop. But none of that could even start until I got these burrs off my leg and shorts. At one point, quite some miles ago, I stepped aside on the trail to let one of the faster runners through. And in doing so, my leg hair and shorts picked up a fair number of these burrs. They didn't hurt. They didn't get into the skin. But I knew I couldn't change socks and risk having one fall into my shoe. And putting pants over them couldn't possibly be a good idea. There was a flurry of activity outside the aid station. Hands were pulling the burrs off. Faces were coming in and out of my vision. There were a slew of questions about the status of my bottles, hydration bladder, what clothes I needed, where I wanted things packed. I answered everything to the best of my ability and wandered over to the aid table while the rock star crew did their thing and dug through the supplies to find what I had requested.
And I have to admit, this is where things started to fall apart a bit mentally. There were faces that I knew I should know, but I couldn't put names to them. And those were faces that were comfortable enough with me to touch my sweaty self and help clear burrs off my skin.
There was a young girl working the aid station food table. I'm guessing she was 12. And someone trained her well. I was reaching for watermelon when she asked what she asked, "What do you need?" That's an important way to phrase it. I just stared at her. Without prompting, she slowly started listing off the hot food she had on hand. Again, excellent training. Just start talking about food and maybe something will sound good. I was just about to waive her off and go back to the crew when I thought I heard her say "or meatballs."
Me: Meatballs? You have meatballs?
Her: Yes, would you like some?
Me: Yes. I would like a meatball please. (ALWAYS be polite to aid station workers. Always.)
Her: Just one?
Me: Just one. Yes. That should do.
I'm not sure, but I thought I saw someone behind me waving. When the meatballs showed up, there were two.
I don't remember the details of the wardrobe change because it happened quickly and kind of a NASCAR pit stop thing was going on. There were people helping with my socks and shoes. There were people helping me change shirts. There were people packing my vest and putting it back on me. My handheld bottles disapeared for a while and showed up full. And at some point I took a bite of the meatball.
And everything stopped. It was the best meatball I had ever had. I know it was one of those frozen ones from the store that are probably made in a factory in New Jersey. But that doesn't change the fact that it was the right food at the right time. Suddenly my crew was very happy. I guess they were concerned with the lack of food. And I was very glad there were two meatballs.
At then the activity slowed and I was fully dressed, wearing my vest and holding my bottles. My headlight was on top my head. It was time to head back up the mountain. Jeff was my pacer for this section. We were to follow the paved road we took into town many hours ago, and follow that awesome cruise of a trail back up the mountain to the next full aid station. There was a water stop about 4 miles in, and it was another six miles to the full aid station. And the climb was big. Real big. There would be precious litle running for the next 10 miles.
On the way out of the aid station I saw one of those very familiar faces that I knew I should know but didn't. He cheered me out. And I hit the brakes. I stared at him a minute, and the lightbulb painfully came on. I actually pointed and said, "I just figured out who you are!" My mental state was clearly dimming. But I had the important parts down. I knew where I was. I knew what I was doing. I knew where I was going. And I knew who I was with.
And I knew I was still having fun!
Jeff and I enjoyed the little cruise through town. We actually ran the flats. We fell in with a happy group for the mile or so until the climbing started. We all waited at the crosswalk until the course marshall said it was safe to cross. And it didn't take long for the running to stop and the power hiking to begin. The four miles of pavement to the water stop went pretty smoothly. I had to stop to get something out of my shoe. (Use the gaiters!) The headlamps came on when it got dark enough. The cars were all well behaved.
As we neared the end of the pavement I heard someone call out from behind me, "Go Bomb 'Chelle!" I knew what this meant. Michelle Yates was there. Michelle is an elite ultra athlete. Last time I ran with her was a small running club trail 10k and she was like 9 months pregnant. (No, it's not an exageration.) I had a great race that day and she beat me quite soundly. And here she was passing me on a climb. I picked it up a bit to run with her a moment. I wanted to say hi and cheer her on a bit. She was working hard, but still kind enough to chat a moment. The excitement of that meeting carried me for more miles than I should probably admit.
Aid station 9. 9 more to go. About mile 46.
There was about a quarter mile of downhill that I think I at least tried to run. This was well groomed dirt. At the bridge that crossed the creek the downhill ended and there we were facing about six miles of nothing but up. It was time to climb Fish Creek Falls. I relaxed into my hiking pace. Jeff and I were talking back and forth a bit, but not too much. There was a whole lot of climbing to do and we were both working pretty hard. We started reeling people in and passing them. I felt like I was in my element. It was dark. I was in the mountains. And I was climbing. And it was getting colder.
We were pretty near the top of the steep section when things started to get cold. Unlike many people, I did not put on my cold weather gear at Olympian Hall. I had my crew put it in my pack. Remember the first 4 miles straight up the ski hill? Same situation here. No matter what I was wearing, I was going to be soaked through with sweat when I got to the top. So I chose to keep the warm stuff as dry as possible for as long as possible. But it was finally time to stop and put some real clothes on. I don't remember how long this took, but some of the folks we had passed had caught back up. As I put my hands in my gloves I realized another race mistake. I hadnt' counted on wearing my light gloves at the start. But I did. And they got rained on, snowed on, and sweaty. And I just put them back in my vest pocket. Well, here I was six plus hours later wearing the same wet gloves.
Mistake: Swap out the gloves for fresh ones! You packed them. Use them. Secondary mistake - Put gloves in the drop bags!
Well, there was just one thing to do. I told Jeff my problem and my proposed solution. It was time to turn on the speed and increase the effort to get my heart rate way up in order to get my hands sweaty to ,in turn, warm up my gloves. Jeff looked at me like I was nuts. I'd been here before more times than I can remember. Winter training runs. Cross country skiing. Downhill skiing. Ice climbing. Hunting. And it's worked every time. I had no reason to believe it wouldn't work now. Of course, the risk was pushing too hard and burning out with a whole lot of miles to go. So I had to pay close attention and get things just starting to heat up, and then regulate temperatures wtih my other clothes to prevent over heating. I also had to know when to slow down again. And I took off up the hill at the fastest hike I think I have ever done.
I don't remember the exact sequence of events, but just as my hands felt normal again I found myself in line behind the guy from South Carolina. And we cruised together for quite some time. We passed a familiar face and her pacer huddled on a rock eating or drinking something. We worked our way through the mud bog. I was exra careful to keep my feet out of the mud, but that's really hard to do at night. I wound up stepping in pretty deep. Because of this, the next aid stop was going to be a sock change. The idea was to just remove the wet socks and keep the feet as warm and dry as possible. At the rock hopping stream crossing my friend from South Carolina was having some balance and confidence issues. His pacer lead the way, and I held his hand as much as I could (literally) while he worked his way across. I don't think he actually kissed the ground on the far side, but it seems he thought about it. As I danced across the rocks he laughed at me and said something along the lines of, "You just made me look like a little bitch." We all got a good chuckle.
It was at some point through here I hit the 50 mile mark. It wasn't official, but the first 50 miles of my first 100 mile race were faster than the 50 miles of my first 50 mile race just a few months earlier.
As we hit the jeep road at the top of the climb I knew we had about a half mile of mostly flat with some puddles to dodge until we hit the aid station. I think I started running. At a minimum, I used the lack of incline to pick up the pace and come into the aid station strong. Nearing the tents, I could smell the bonfire, smell the food, hear the music and the people. It was a strong and exciting draw. It reminded me of the parties in the woods back in college. But the similarities quickly ended as I entered the cirlce of light and saw for myself what was really going on.
There were runners around the fire. Many of them looked very downtrodden. Some had clearly been crying. A few of the faces were familiar. People I've seen on magazine covers. People who weren't supposed to be involved with this part of my race. They were supposed to be nearing the end of theirs. Not camped out in the light of the flames looking sullen. I made it a point to not look at the fire or the people around it. That's not where my head needed to be. My mind didn't actually use the word "drop" but I knew...
I found my drop bag and got to work on the socks. Jeff filled my bottles, brought me ramen and bacon. LOTS of bacon. I told him it was way too much. But then I took a bite and decided he shouldn't take any of it away. I pulled a mountain dew out of my drop bag and pounded it. Caffeine and sugar. Fast. There was a dog roaming the aid station that had locked onto my bacon. He was well behaved for a begger. I'm ashamed to admit I fed a strange dog a bit of bacon as I packed things up. I hope that didn't upset his stomache any. Because Jeff had spent so long taking care of me and getting me what I needed, he wasn't quite ready to go yet. With the eating and sock change, we hadn't yet hit the five minute mark at the aid station. I wasn't worried. I wandered close to a propane heater for a minute while Jeff finished up what he was doing. I got just close enough to warm my gloves a touch to remove the cold edge and avoid the need to head out at a "too fast for this stage in the race" pace just to warm up my hands again. My other gloves were not in the drop bag.
Aid station 10. 8 left to go. About mile 52.
The next leg was "all uphill" to the next aid station. It was about 5 and a half miles. And I had the weird feeling I was off course. Things were flatter and more runnable than they should have been based on the elevation profile. But there were markers and Jeff was helping to navigate. We ran the flatter stuff because we could. There was a right turn we almost missed, but didn't. And it was shortly after that the climbing started again.
The stars were spectacular. Jeff and I were alone for most of this segment. There were a couple people we passed on the climb, but compared to the Fish Creek Falls trail, it was vacant. The solitude made this piece feel long. it felt like it took forever to get to the aid station. But when we did, it was quite the sight.
Have you ever gone clubbing with friends, and got to the club WAY too early? So the music is going, the lights are going, the bar is open, but there's just no one there. That's what this aid staiton felt like. I almost didn't want to stop. But that wasn't the plan. So I stopped and went in the tent. As my eyes adusted to the light and the warmth hit me, I looked up and saw two familiar faces. There was Lisa and her pacer (and a lady I have trained many miles with) Laurie just hanging out by the heater. By my guesses, Lisa should have been WAY in front of me at this point. She invited me to sit down and get warm. I laughed at her and declined. Later, explaining the situation to my next pacer, Melissa, I actually uttered the phrase, "Homey don't play dat." One of the things I learned hunting is how dangerous getting warm can actually be. My goal was to grab what I needed and go eat outside before I got too comfortable. Jeff stayed inside a bit longer. Partly because he was helping me. I had a drop bag here, but there wasn't anything in it I needed at the moment. I would pass back through here after sunrise. The notable takeaway from this aid station was grilled cheese. I took the last little piece they had and it was spectacular!
(Photo credit: Lauri Nakauchi Me in red and Jeff Chatting with Lisa and Laurie in the middle of the night.)
While chatting with Lisa, a very tall guy stood up in the corner and introduced himself as he was leaving. His name was also Matt. We had a frend in common. Someone I knew from high school (and haven't seen since) and someone he knew from working in the emergency medecine field.
Aid station 11. 7 left to go. About mile 57.
About seven and a half miles of almost all downhill to the next aid station. On a very rough and rocky road. In the daylight it would have been very runnable. But even with the headlamps, the rocks made it pretty tricky. Or maybe it was the fact that it was midnight or so, and I had been on my feet 16+ hours and had nearly half the climbing for the course done with?
We cruised through as best we could. At this point, I was exploring new distances. I was in uncharted territory. And I was having a good old time! There were people camped along the road. Some were hunters. Some were just out or a weekend in the woods. It never occured to me to be envious of the campers sleeping. I was still having fun. The stars will still shining. The company was still good. Jeff and I played Leapfrog with Matt for a while. Then he went storming by as things leveled out. Had I been more familiar with the course, I may have gone with him. Or maybe not. who knows. I was certainly running my own race at this point. Maybe two miles before the next aid station I saw a shooting star. This means I was relaxed enough to look at the sky. So I made a wish.
Rolling into this next aid station was creepy. It was about 2:30 in the morning. The forest road was lined with camp chairs. The chairs were occupied by people in sleeping bags, blankets, heavy coats, and some just clearly wearing all their clothes. I'm sure the faces were asleep. But they looked dead and erie in the glow of the headlamps. Where the other aid stations on the course had greeted runners with cheers, these corpse looking faces greeted us with silence. So I did what I do best. I deployed awkward. I broke the silence with an overly loud "GOOD MORNING EVERYONE!" A few people laughed. And a group of chairs exploded and called out my name. I found my crew!
Aid station 12. Six more to go. About mile 65.
(Photo Credit: Melissa Wood)
I forget exactly what happened at this aid station, but Jeff had been with me for 25+ miles and it was time for me to switch pacers. Jeff was off to catch some sleep. I would see him again tomorrow. It was Melissa's turn to take a lap with the stupid runner. (That's me.) This part of the course was 4.5 miles of single track downhill to the next aid station, then right back on the same trail. The far end of this trail would actually put us nearly back in town. The not-quite-ten-miles should probably take me around two and a half hours at this point, maybe three.
As I left the aid station, someone I had only met through facebook somehow recognized me in the layers and the poor light and came out to give me a hug. That boosted my spirits a fair bit. This actually happened rather often throughout the race. And every time it was spirit booster.
There was lots of idle chatter. I shared a song that had been looping through my head.
I can't feel my legs when I'm with you
And I love it!
That got a good laugh. Though, it really isn't as funny when I haven't been awake for nearly 24 hours.
I don't know what my pace was through this downhill section, but it felt pretty dang strong. I was running well and having a good time enjoying the trail. And like all good things, that came to a bit of an end when I smashed my foot on a rock during a faster, semi-technical downhill section. Yes. The same foot. I didn't fall, but I did use some rather grown up words to express my displeasure. I regrouped and we continued on. And it hurt a fair bit. But like everything else, the pain dulled as I continued. It didn't take long for a new distraction to arise. We came around a bend in the trail and there was something in the middle of the path.
When people hear that I like to run in the woods at night, they immediately start asking about the animals. Common sense would dictate that I should be afraid of mountain lions, bears, moose, and even deer and elk. But I'm not. All of those are very predictable, and if you keep your wits the encounter will be a bit strained, but likely end with only a good story. There is, however one animal I am afraid of in the woods. It's an animal that simply does not care. An animal that has a very unique defense system that can be used on things in the immediate vicinity, unlike claws, teeth, hooves and antlers that require contact. And there it was. The biggest one I had ever seen. Right in the middle of the trail.
I stopped dead in my tracks. Melissa had momentum and was trying to pass me. I reached up and grabbed her shoulder. I shined my light right on the thing and started yelling.
SKUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNK! RUNNERS! THERE'S A SKUNK IN THE TRAIL!
My intention was to let anyone coming know that there was trouble, as well as make enough noise and light to encourage the skunk to continue moving along and well off the trail where the loud, bright, smelly runners were. (I don't know how bad you have to stink to scare off a skunk, but I might have been there.) I don't know how long it took for me to feel safe moving again. It was probably less than a minute, but it felt much, much longer. And we carefully moved through where the skunk was. I was avoiding looking where the skunk went, just in case there was a jet of unfathomable stink headed my way. And somehow we made it through without smelling terrible. I did warn the next couple runners I saw. You know, just in case.
As we neared the aid station my foot was starting to hurt. The one that I had smashed now three or four times. But it was supposed to hurt. I was 70 miles into my day. Everything was supposed to hurt. Melissa and I made a game plan for the aid station. She was going to fill my bottles, I was going to find some soup, and maybe something to chew on. I was going to avoid the warming tent. This lead to a discussion about all the people we had seen at past aid staions huddled around the warm and my concern for their race. Melissa made some comment about how I should avoid getting warm, and my response was a simple, "Homey don't play dat."
Aid station 13. 5 more to go. About mile 70.
Still laughing about "homey don't play dat" we rolled into the aid station. Things went pretty much as planned. The soup was very, very hot. I was just standing there staring at it. One of the volunteers offered to add some cool water. I clearly did not think of that. It worked. I drank soup. And we were back on the trail.
The 4.5 miles of up were slow. And each step was more painful than the one before. I was starting to wonder if I had broken a toe again. I've run on a broken toe before. It really did feel that bad. All I knew was I had to get back up to the nex aid station where the crew would be and would have my Fix Me bucket with my medical kit. Even though things hurt, I did what I could to keep my spirits up. I kept singing my song. I kept greeting the other runners as we passed them. (70+ miles in, and I'm passing people.) It was an out and back trail and there were lots of people. I tried to greet them all with a friendly hello.
At some point, I think it was down near the aid station, we had a discussion about the status of my headlight. Remember earlier when I mentioned I was holding batteries and didn't swap them? Well things were getting dim. I didn't really notice, but Melissa did. I had practiced with so many different headlights over the year that running dim didn't bother me too much, but Melissa really didn't want me smashing my toes again. So we swapped. And that was a good idea. I seem to recall the discussion took longer than Melissa thought it should have. I was in stupid runner mode and Melissa was going through the pacer negotiation steps before taking my old light from me and putting hers on my head.
While the trip down the hill had some excitement, the trip up was uneventful. As things flattened out near the top I was paying close attention to my foot because something felt... off. And I figured it out. There was something squishy between my toes. But not like wet squishy, more like there was a gummy bear between my toes. But not a normal gummy bear. You know those larger cinnamon bears? It was like one of those.
Aid station 14. 4 more to go. About mile 74.
The discussion at the aid station was short, and I don't remember much of anything. I don't even know if I ate. I assume someone filled my bottles. All I knew was I needed a spot to sit and someone to look at my foot for me. I was steered to a chair and sat. Someone (I think it was Anaka, my next pacer) took off my sock and shoe. I dared a look down.
I had six toes.
I didn't start the race with six toes on that foot.
I was told the next day that at this point I got pale and my facial expression dropped. That makes sense. That sixth toe looked a lot like the end of my race. It was the biggest, ugliest blood blister I have ever seen. And it was on my foot. I was positive I was done. At this point, my crew came through in a manner I could not have expected or asked. The safety pins in the first aid kit were found. The alcohol wipes came out. The pin got cleaned. The cherry tomato part got cleaned. And Logan poked a hole in my foot.
I should tell you a bit about Logan. I met Logan like two weeks before as I was working the aid station for another race. The last time I saw her, she was addressing a blister issue on her foot. And it was a great big one. I helped her out then and here she was helping me out now. Karma.
I'll skip the gore. Logan took three band aids and cut them apart and put them together to make something both small enough to fit in my shoe and big enough to cover what I can only call a wound. Then it was time to find the tape to make sure everything stayed put. We needed duct tape, or athletic tape. Both of which I was SURE had made it into the Fix Me box. But there was clearly no tape. None. I forget who said it, but I think it was Lisa who recognized I had used duct tape to attach the lid of the box to the bottom. My intent was to make sure the lids didn't get too lost. But now it was time to use that duct tape to hold me together. I was taped. Someone found the body glide that I had in the tub and it was decided that my feet were going to get a good coat of glide. Logan was still down low, and somehow the job went to her.
I'm not sure what the other runners and crews around us were expecting to hear that morning, but me giggling and squealing, "IT TICKLES IT TICKLES IT TICKLES" was not likely on the list. But that's what happened. Twice.
I got fresh socks and fresh shoes. These shoes were a full size bigger than the last pair. And they felt tight. I was helped to my feet and carefully put weight on the foot that previously had six toes. It certainly didn't feel good, but that would work.
This was the longest aid stop of the race. But it was still pretty dang fast. It felt like forever, but couldn't have been more than 15 minutes. When you have an awesome crew, this is what you can expect. NASCAR style aid station stops. Fast and accurate medical help. Smiles. Encouragement. Just general happiness and awesomeness. And pre-dawn foot tickles.
It was time to say goodby to Melissa and start running with Anaka.
Next up was a seven mile climb to the aid station that looked like an empty club in the middle of the night. The sun was starting to light the horizon. Anaka and I headed out. It took a while for me to find my rythm with the injured foot. And I was starting to feel some other blisters as well as some muscle fatigue from changing my stride to account for the pain.
On one of my last training runs was with Lisa and Val. The girls dropped me. At the last major intersection, Val came back to find me. We had a talk about my hiking speed and how long I could maintain it. Val, the answer is, I can hike the skin off my feet, and then keep going at about the same effort.
As we climbed up, up, up, and up I slowly gained on the people in front of me. 75+ miles in, and I was power hiking past people. Things were starting to get dark in my head. I was in pain. This was work. But it wasn't terribly bad. I tried to smile. Anaka and I made some idle chatter. She took some pictures. The hill was relentless. But hiking up it didn't hurt nearly as bad as running down it several hours earlier. We were back on the rough road. The going was a bit on the boring side, but the scenery was fabulous. In fact, the scenery on the entire course was incredible. Just the views were enough to make it worth being there. And it was light enough for Anaka to take some pictures.
Aid station 15. 3 to go. About mile 81.
Breakfast time. I was hoping for another grilled cheese sandwich. What I got instead was some french toast and fresh fruit. And it was the best french toast ever. I ate on the chairs outside the tent while digging through the drop bag. I was in the sun and feeling pretty good. This drop bag wasn't all that full. I had the space to stash my jacket and hat. Anaka dropped off some of her things. The weather was clear. The sky was a spectacular blue. The leaves were changing. It was a great morning to be in the hills.
The course ducked off the road and back onto a trail. I can't describe this trail in a manner that will do it justice. But next time I'm in Steamboat, I'm running this trail. Gently rolling, mostly smooth. If I wasn't 80+ miles in, this would have been an awesome, fast, run. I'm sure the elites had a blast on this section.
Somewhere in here my watch died. So I don't know how what time it was. But I had been awake for over 24 hours and moving for most of that time. Mentally, things were starting to fall apart a bit. I held it together as good as I could, but I was starting to see things. Shapes and colors were combining into things that just didn't make sense. This wasn't much of an issue and allowed me to amuse myself for a while. Until Anaka and I passed by this old weathered stump. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but in my mind the stump was actually growing out of Anakas head. My reaction to this was aparently enough to get Anakas attention. She asked what that was all about. I said something along the lines of, "That stump really isn't growing out of your head, right?" And we got a good laugh. But Anaka stayed close behind me. Just in case. If you hang around the ultra world long enough you hear stories about runners losing it and taking off through the woods chasing a hallucination. If you're in front of a runner who is seeing things, the runner can get some good distance and possibly get lost in the woods. If you're behind the runner, you can at least follow along.
It wasn't too long until I would encounter the biggest physical challenge of the course yet. No, it wasn't another 4.5 mile climb up a ski slope. It was a very large tree that had fallen across the trail. And this was a HUGE tree. It was bigger around than I was. And it had fallen across the trail and was sitting just high enough that going over it wasn't an option. There was enough undergrowth to make going around it unrealistic. And there was just enough room under it for someone to crawl.
At this point I was around 85 miles in. The ground looked so far away. Getting on my hands and knees was not at all what I wanted to do. I stopped and stared at the tree and assessed the situation in a manner that made Anaka laugh at me. I eased myself aaaaallllll the way to the ground and crawled under the tree. And it hurt every bit as much as I expected. But I was able to get up without help. So I guess that's a win.
And we were back to the trail. We were mostly hiking strongly, but we got a little bit of running in. We were making good time. We got passed. We passed people. It was just a good time all around. The 8.5 miles to the next aid station went by pretty quickly. There was another small tree to manage as we got closer to the aid station, but this one I was able to go over without much issue. As we were nearing the aid station the front runners of the 50 mile race blew by. These guys were moving. It was awesome. I don't think I was doing that well 50 miles ago.
Aid station 16. 2 to go. About mile 90.
On the way into the aid station Anaka and I were having some negotiations. She wanted me to start dropping gear. She said it was time for the vest to go away and for me to just use the hand helds. The compromise was I would empty out the vest, drop the bladder, and continue with three bottles instead of four. That seemed fair.
I need to take a moment and address my handhelds and thank the crew at Orange Mud. Rounding up gear for the race I noticed one of my hand helds had gone missing. I put in an order with orange mud, paid for the overnight shipping, and sent them an e-mail letting them know what was going on. Within hours I got a personal e-mail back confirming some of the shipping details, and a follow up to make sure everything arrived on time. Considering the pre-race stress, this was huge.
The aid station was a welcome sight. In my drop bag I had a mountain dew waiting or me. I was looking forward to the caffeine and sugar doing their thing on my brain. I changed socks. I ate a mostly cooked grilled cheese. And I seem to recall some bacon, but that could have been my mind playing tricks on me.
There was a medical professional at the aid station. He came over to talk to me. He was a bit concerned about the blisters, but had said we had done about what he would have. We chose not to address the remaining blisters. They were bad, but no where near as bad as the sixth toe. Mr. Medical came back a couple times to check on me as I was sitting there eating, changing, and stuffing things into the drop bag. I couldn't tell if I appreciated the concern or if I was worried he was going to find some reason to pull my bib. So I put some hustle to the aid station work and got up and out.
The official distance for this next piece is 6.4 miles. But most people seem to measure it a fair bit longer. I knew this going in. Anaka reminded me of the rolling nature of this section of the course. She encouraged me to run when I could, relax and just enjoy it. We were back on single track in the woods. Again, a great piece of trail. And then Ananka turned on the music. I don't know how she knew, but that was exactly what I needed. What a kick in the pants! Rocking out in the woods. Running. Relaxing. Having a good time. As we were passing someone, C&C Music Factory came on. And the pacer ahead of us made me laugh. I called out, "I totally thought he was going to bust a move!" And there was laughter all around. As we were working by them the song was talking about, "Jump to the rythm jump jump to the rythm jump" and I laughed out loud and said somethign about just not being able to the rythm right now.
It was starting to get hot. And I had more crap in my shoe. And I don't remember so many hills. We could hear the aid station well beore we saw it. There was lots of cheering and cowbell. Anaka and I made a plan. I had to get this crap out of my shoes. But sitting down was a bad idea. The transition from sitting to standing to walking/running hurt the foot skin too much. Anaka was going to help with the shoes. We were going to make it happen without me sitting down. And I was going to have some watermelon, and maybe something else. Eating wasn't sounding good right now. I was glad I had the bottles of tailwind to provide the calories I needed.
Aid station 17. Last aid station. Just the finish line left. Official distance 96.3. Most people measure this closer to 100.
The volunteers at the aid station were fresh. And they gave us a great big whoop as we came into sight. I remember wanting to run into the aid station to feed off their excitement. I don't think I was actually able to pull together a run. But I waddled in with authority. Bottles got filled. Watermelon was in my mouth. I ate a lot of watermelon. It was great. Anaka told me to lean on the table and she picked up one of my feet, untied the shoe, pulled the shoe off my swollen foot, shook all the dirt, rocks, small plants and woodland creatures out of my shoe (WEAR THE FREAKIN GAITERS!). She placed the shoe under my foot and got me to stand on the shoe - giving my foot a chance to relax and breathe a bit. The aid station workers brought over a chair and asked if I needed to sit. Anaka and I at the same time and with the same severity in our voice said, "NO SITTING!" The volunteers laughed and kept their distance. Anaka repeated her work on the other foot and I stood there eating watermelon.
It is really weird standing there, leaning on a table, eating watermelon while someone works on your shoes and feet. I was greateful and a bit sharmeful all at the same time. I was an adult. I knew how to tie my shoes. I could do this. But Anaka wouldn't let me. And that was the right choice. It really was.
As this was happening, I was talking with the aid station workers trying to get directions to finsih. They said it twice, and I just didn't understand. I know I should have. I know they were using small words. It just wasn't sinking in. "Forgive me," I said. "It's been a terribly long day. So I take this road down, and roughly how far until the Gondola where I can meet the rest of my crew?" And they explained it again. Two miles or so until the Gondola. Another four or so to the finish. Watch for the left turn onto the mountain bike trail. That didnt' sound too bad.
I remember making a bit of a screaming sound as my shoes went back on my feet. It was bad enough that the aid station got quiet and everyone stared. That's right. My feet hurt. I was within a rounding error of 100 miles and my feet hurt. So what.
And then, the directions sounded bad. The road was a snowcat track and maintenance path. it was the same one we came up over 24 hours ago. And I was suddenly very thankful that Anaka had reminded me to enjoy the last section. Because I was not enjoying this road. It was rocky. It was steep. At the time I thought I woudl have preferred heading down the ski hills. I could feel every step in every inch of my body. And it wasn't good. I didn't need to go the full two miles to the Gondola to meet my crew. They had started heading up the mountain to meet me. And I was never so excited to see people. seeing them meant the end was near. This was the first time it really occured to me that I was going to finsih this thing. That the next aid station point was the finish line.
I don't know how long the next five miles took. but it felt like a week. I walked most of it. I shuffle/ran some of it. Sometimes I had to stop and turn around to face uphill just to releave the strain on my body and mix it up. The 50 milers were running down this. Shoot, 50 miles ago, I probably would have too. Some of the hares were passing me. Some even running. Some of the folks we had passed between the last two aid staions passed me. It was getting hot. I was falling apart both physically and mentally.
I never wanted to drop out, but I suddenly understood the people that drop after mile 90. I totally get that now. I completely understand how the pain and mental anguish can consume you to the point that finishing doesn't even matter anymore. I could see the roof of the hotel at the base where I knew the finish was. And it didn't seem to get any closer. There were more and more people. And people I recognized. I remember seeing Sarah Foster from one of my local running groups. I remember seeing Rob. Just before Rob there were a pair of grouse on the roadside. I got walk right up to them. Rob hugged me much like I hugged him at the aid station while he was running the Hideaway 100. There was Laurie, and my coach, Sherpa John. Laurie said something cheerful and took my picture. John gave me a great big hug and told me he was proud of me. I migth have mentioned sort of wanting to punch him about then... And the last three miles went like that. It was nearly a parade of people I knew and friendly faces of strangers. Quitting never crossed my mind. But sitting down in the shade and resting sure did. Of course, that was a bad mistake, so it didn't happen.
After what seemed like forever, I saw Kurt, my photographer friend, again. I loved seeing Kurt. He knows exactly how far he is from the next landmark. In this case, the finish. Kurt followed us down the last mile taking pictures the whole way. Me and the crew were just having a good day in the hills by the looks of things. But on the inside, I was a mess. And we got really close to the finish line. Kurt pointed it out and told me I could run it if I wanted to. I could make it all end just by getting through that inflatable red arch.
It took a while for that to sink in. That I could run. That I could end this. And then I had an idea. I told Kurt it was time to run ahead of us towards the finish. He got a good lead, and I started to pick it up. The transition from walk to shuffle hurt. But the shuffle felt OK. The transition from shuffle to jog didn't hurt so bad. My body seemed to kind of understand what was happening and what was needed. The crew was getting excited. I could hear the crowd at the finish. They were cheering louder as I went faster. So I went faster. I don't remember transitioning from jogging to running. But the crowd got louder. As I started to sprint, I could hear the crowd explode. It was only a few dozen people, but between their noise, and the protest from my body it sounded like the time I played hockey in front of a packed stadium.
I have to say the finish was a bit anti-climactic. I crossed under the inflatable arch. I stopped and put my hands on my knees for a moment and just breathed. As I straightened a nice lady handed me a belt buckle and and beer mug. There was a quick picture with the crew. And then a simple, "OK. We're going to the medical tent to get those feet looked at."
Lisa went and got my flip flops. The medical guy just kind of laughed at me. We had done pretty much everything right. Since the race was done, there was no real point doing anything else to the blisters to treat them. "Just don't wear shoes for a bit." And soak them in an epsom salt bath. Just don't wear shoes. Looking at my feet, I didn't think that was going to be an issue. Things were swelling. And not just the blisters. I was almost watching my ankles go away. My toes were swelled and blistered and looked like overstuffed sausages.
After a few minutes I felt bad about occupying the medical chair. So my team helped me stand and gain my balance. (Yes. It was needed.) And I shuffled over towards where a car would come to pick me up in a few moments. Well, the few moments took longer than I thought. And my stomach was turning a bit. I wanted to sit down. So Melissa led me over to a nice rock in the sun. Now that I wasn't moving I was starting to get cold. And I just laid on that rock. It felt great. I don't know how long I was there, but not long enough to fall asleep. The car was here. It was time to go.
The pick up zone was the front entrance to a fancy hotel. There was a valet. And the car was parked in kind of an odd spot. As I shuffled over I could see the valet coming over to give the driver a talking to. I shouted out, "I'm coming as fast as I can! I just ran 100 miles." The valet gave a little nod and wave and went back to where he came from. No big deal. 100 mile finisher just shuffling to the car.
Back in January I posted a bit about goals and explained my goals for the year. (Original post here: http://www.runjunkees.com/matthew-rutldge/setting-and-meeting-goals)
Part of goal setting is to take a step back now and then and evaluate progress and see if things need to be adjusted.
So my goal for this year is to run a 100 mile race at Run Rabbit Run in September of 2015. As part of that goal I have hired a coach. The coach provides me with a training plan, advice, feedback, and this coach has even provided an online community of like-minded folks to provide even more feedback and suggestions. (Reach out to the folks at Human Potential Running for more details about coaching for crazy long distances.)
How are things going? Pretty dang good. I am following my training plan as best I can. I won't say I'm nailing it 100%, but it's pretty close and I'm feeling pretty healthy. Honestly, a runner can't ask for much more than that. I've hit more than 95% of my planned miles for the year so far. Considering I have a full time job, kids, a house that needs work, and other grown-up style obligations, I'm pretty proud of that.
The race is coming up. I have about three more weeks of hard core training, including one really big weekend of miles, then some tapering. I feel about as ready as I'll ever be. The physical aspect will be an interesting adventure. The mental aspect will be a game I don't think I've ever had to play before. The 36 hour event will be one giant adventure. I will continue my "experiment of one" and see if I can put together a favorable result.
So the summary of the goals check in - all systems are go. I can't predict what will happen during the 100 miler. But that's the nature of the beast. Anyone at the starting line who claims to know exactly how that race will go is probably lying. But I can commit to this: I will show up. I will run. I will give it all I have. I may even give it more than I have. My only goal is to continue moving forward until I either hit the finish line, or a race official tells me I cannot continue.
As my training has progressed, my safety orange RunJunkEes shirt has become one of my favorites. First, the color will help people find me if I happen to fall off a trail and need help. Second, the saying on the back has come to summarize my summer.
The journey is the reward.
We've all heard that the race is simply the victory lap marking the end of a training cycle. This is the first time I really believe that. My wife and I were talking about this earlier in the week. While I want to finish my 100 miler, and I want it to go well, for the first time in my running career I am under no pressure. And the joy I have found, the adventures I have had, and the friends I have met through this crazy year have been worth every step. This journey has simply been incredible.
How are your goals going? Are you on track? There are still a few months left to get things rebooted and rolling again.
Wednesday morning I logged into my work e-mail like I always do. There was a message from a colleague inviting people out to cheer on the burro race in a small mountain town not terribly far from home. After a bit of casual banter back and forth I figure out the long course matches my distance goal for Sunday. And the next thing I knew, I had signed up for a burro race.
Did you know you can rent a racing burro? Me neither. But the crew at Laughing Valley Ranch have been doing it for a while now. And doing it well I might add.
The course was exactly the sort of thing my coach would like to see me running. A mile or so of pavement. Some twin track through the high mountain prairie. Some weird trail in the road ditch. Some Jeep trail. Some cross tundra route finding. It had nearly everything the Colorado mountains had to offer - including topping out over 13,000 feet above sea level at the top of Mosquito Pass, and some really wet shoes due to stream crossings. I even could have spent some time in the snow had I been so inclined.
Why burro racing? Well there's a story behind all that. Legend has it that two miners struck gold at a claim on the same day. And they were fighting over who owned the claim. And the only real way to establish that would be to get down to town and register the find. The first miner there got all the gold. So they loaded up the burros and raced into town. The burro race is a sort of reinactment of that event, only we get the bonus of running up to the mine then back, and not just down into town.
There's even video of the start! I make an appearance about 1:20 in. Orange shirt, black and white hat, somewhat short and choppy stride. (kind of like a burro now that I think of it...)
The first mile of the race went nearly nothing as I expected. I had heard stories of burros blasting out of the gate. Thumper and I (the burro's name was Thumper) took off at a good clip, but nothing too fast. I was kind of feeling him out and he was kind of feeling me out. As the terrain got rougher, Thumper would slow. And that was fine with me. And we walked a bit. And then Thumper stopped.
My friend from work had explained to me that the burro was a cautious animal. If something was new, the burro was probably going to stop. Sometimes the best thign to do would be to just let the animal check things out and make a decision by itself. Well, Thumper had found a bit of leather strapping that had fallen off the saddle of one of the faster teams. And even I admit it looked kind of like a snake sitting there in the grass. Way to go Thumper! So I picked up the strap and put it in the saddle bag.
And that was pretty much the end of the fast stuff for a while. Thumper and I managed to get caught by a couple of kids. These kids had more experience than I did, and they were very nice and taught me a bit more about handling a burro. And Thumper fell in with the herd and we all kind of ran, walked, pulled, and pushed for another five miles together.
A couple times since the race I've been asked the question, "What was it like running with a donkey?" Well, best I can describe it is like running with a four year old. You go fast. You go really fast. And then you stop. The stop might be a short look at something. It might be a stop for a snack. It might be a potty stop. And then you walk a bit. And maybe you get distracted and start going the wrong way, and someone throws a fit and gets all stubborn and decides they aren't going to move for a bit. (Could be you, could be the burro.) And you just repeat that in a random sequence and that was pretty much my day. We'll get the yelling and trickery later...
As we (you know, Thumper and I) approached the turn around for the short course Thumper decided it was time to stop and get pet by some spectators. The family in the camp chairs was nice enough to ask if I minded. I just kind of laughed and said I didn't think I had much choice. I rummaged in the saddle bag and found the carrots I had stashed in there. I was going to lure Thumper away from the family the old fashioned way. As Thumper reached for the carrot and started to follow, another passing group of burros reached us. The people laughed at me. I guess they hadn't seen the carrot trick actually work much. Thumper and I fell into the new pack. Everyone was moving pretty slowly, and this was just fine with Thumper. I'm sure the burros had a discussion about how the day was going, but by now it should be ovious that I do not speak burro. So I can only assume they were laughing at me. The people started to talk a bit too. Turns out the three of them were intending to do the long course.
Now I have to admit, at this point I had resigned myself to the shorter distance. Between Thumper not being interested in running with me, and the building clouds, I didn't think there was any way going up the pass was going to be a good idea. But here was a group moving about my speed (well, Thumpers speed) and I was welcome to join in. Taking on the long course with just me and Thumper didn't sound like a good idea. But with a group, things seemed a bit more manageable. I shifted my mindset one more time. I was in it for the long haul again!
You ever get a song stuck in your head while out on the trails? Since I stopped using music it happens to me rather frequently. And on this day, the song was the theme from Raw hide, as performed by the blues brothers. You know, this one:
So I'm there humming along. And a few words slip out. Next thing I know, some others in the crew are mentioning they have the song stuck in their head too. I should probably apologize for that, but I'm not really sorry. The song was just too fitting to let go.
One of our group was Amber. Her burro was Willie. Amber was the burro racing veteran of the group and willie knew exactly what to do. On the uphill climbs, Amber would put the rope behind her hips, drop behind Willie, and he would pull her up the slope. Thumper and I had things pretty much reversed. I was in front, and I was pulling Thumper up the hills. In fact, when I would drop in behind Thumper, he would pretty much stop.
This is a bit of a problem. You're supposed to be behind the animal, and the animal is supposed to pull you up the hills and along the flats. On the downhill, you want to be in front to control the speed. No where in the list of things you're supposed to do is pull your burro for 25+ miles.
The scene was classic Colorado. The high alpine was excellent. The storm blew through with just a few minutes of light rain, and less than an hour of cloudy drizzle. There was no lightning. The flowers this year have been incredible. We even got up into just a bit of snow - though that was easily avoidable. And we topped out at Mosquito pass just over 13,000 feet above sea level.
What do a guy from New Jersey, an Iron Man from Houston, an ultra runner (can I claim that title now?), and a mom recovering from health issues have in common? Four hairy animals and a goal to make it up the pass and back down to town. I mentioned Amber and Willie. Our Iron Man was Rob. He was with Smokey. The guy from New Jersey was Randy. Randy was running with Mr. Ziffel. We were a bit of an odd group, but we got along well and helped each other finish the race.
The way back down was much of the same, only with Thumper deciding he REALLY wanted to chew on some thistles and drink from the streams that were crossing the path. Clearly, we were in no hurry. At some point on the way down Amber noticed the saddle on Willie was broken and sliding forward. Remember that leather strap that Thumper found? Well, we used that to patch up the saddle. Thumper had saved the day!
I'll skip over most of the descent. It was beautiful. It was wet with the snow melt running down the jeep road. And it was slow. The course passed through a small neighborhood of cabins and seasonal homes, and just a couple year round houses. And we were welcomed. There were unofficial aid stations that gave us and the donkeys water. There were people just hanging out in their yards cheering on the animals and their people. It was great to feel the community come together to support the Colorado tradition of burro racing.
There was a check point where the course was to make a turn and follow the paved road. Coming to this check point Amber had mentioned she was having issues with her feet and shoes, and that she had a fresh pair and a desire to swap out. I let Thumper take a great big drink at the check point. Even though a burro can go quite some time without water (I was told second only to a camel, but I haven't fact checked that.) Thumper sure was a thirsty beast today. I'm willing to guess he drank at least as much water as I did, and probably consumed more pounds of thistles and yellow flowers than any racer should eat on the course.
As Thumper continued to refuel, Amber found a good spot for shoe changing. This is when our herd splits. Two other burros had come in while I was letter Thumper do his thing, and Randy and Rob set off with them. It was a race after all. (I learned later they thought we were still together. No hard feelings. Had I been in their spot, I'm not sure I would have turned back or stopped.) Thumper and I hung out while Amber changed her shoes. We both had a snack. Even Willie was enjoying a good graze. I hung out for several reasons. First, Amber was suddenly not looking so good. Part of the spirit of the ultra running community that I love is the way people take care of each other. And I didn't feel right leaving Amber when she was hurting. A second reason I stayed with Amber is that I didn't exactly know the course back. It was different than the way we took out. And third, it was about to get dark, and she had a headlamp. I didn't. And fourth - things of this nature are so much better with company.
I don't remember the exact details of of the brief conversation when Amber stood up. I remember I asked a simple question. "Are we finishing this?" And I remember Amber's answer started with, "Let's go." So we did.
Going by the waterfowlers trick of guessing sunrise and sunset times by when you can distinguish color, I'll say the sun set as we turned off a brief piece of dirt road and fell in on a single and twin track that sort of followed a creek. Funny thing about burros. They don't run in the dark. In fact, they don't see all that well in the dark, and they'll get right up close to you. Thumper was so close to me that I forgot to take in the slack in the lead and he stepped on it a couple times. The last magestic sight of the day was when the trail rose a bit above the water and the brush along the creek and I could see the nearly full moonlight reflecting off the water. I remember staring at it a while without really recognizing what it was I was staring at when Amber mentioned it. It was a beautiful sight.
We passed the last checkpoint in the dark. Amber didn't have her headlamp turned on yet. We were still navagating by light of the moon. And it was going pretty well. We had some navigational issues leaving the last checkpoint, but we got back to where we were supposed to be. The course finished by going through a gravel pit. And in my opinion, this was the toughest part of the course. (Sure, the dark didn't help.) Heading out the far side of the gravel pit required sneaking through some rather dense undergrowth with poor footing. It was all I could do to keep Willie in my sight, and he was following Amber's light. Thumper was just being dragged along. As we started to climb, things got ugly. Amber told me I should just grab onto Willies back strap and follow that way.
That seemed like a great idea. Until Willie decided to go, and Thumper decided to stop. We were headed up a hill and the footing was loose. I was being pulled up the hill by one arm, and down the hill by the other. And I slipped. But I didn't fall. I was just hanging there, suspended in the air between two donkeys heading up a rocky slope. I quickly got my feet back under me and we finished the last of the climb. And then we were nearly to town. We followed the road. A car filled with Amber's family had come out to the main road to watch for us. And we could hear them yelling back to the rest of the folks that we were coming. And then we could hear the crowd. Amber stopped us. We got our herd organized. The goal was to make a race of it. Less than 100 yards, one left turn, and then another short straight away to the finish line.
Somehow Amber rallied. She managed to get both the burros running. So we hooted and hollered our way down the road. At the turn both burros kind of got confused, but we got them facing the right way and kept it up. We made a good show of it for the folks that came out of the bar and hotel to cheer us in. Thumper fell in behind Willie. That's where he wanted to be. And I was fine with that. Amber's kids came and ran a bit and actually scared Willie onto the sidewalk for a moment. This cause Thumper to put on the brakes. I was able to watch Amber finish with her family. And then Thumper and I got ourselves across the line.
And that's the story of my first DFL (Deak F***ing Last) finish. I'm sure it won't be my last, but it will quite likely be my most memorable.
Photo credits -
Most of the pre-race photos are mine.
I took some of the mid-race photos.
And I have to confess, the rest I lost track of the original photographers as they bounced around facebook. Most are used with permission. Some, I don't think I actually asked.
I would like to thank Rob Crane for several photos and a day of great company.
Amber - I would not have gotten my miles without you. Thank you.
Randy Pedretti, thanks for letting me crash your day. I love the tradition your family has started.
A special thank you to Jennifer Mewes for allowing me to share the finish line photo. My smile is not fake.
And thank you to GZ. This will not be my last burro race.