Find a good rut and stick with it.
“Thirteen miles to the finish.” I stared at the volunteer, frantically calculating, then burst into tears. I was ninety-plus miles in already, and I’d been running at threshold for the past two hours, desperately trying to make up time against the possibility of missing a thirty-hour finish. “Someone told me it was seventeen,” I sobbed, “and I just lost my shit”. She stared back at me with that ‘maybe I need to pull this guy from the race’ look. Through the tears I said, “No, I’m fine. Really, I’m okay. Thank you for being out here. It’s just so hard.” I ran away before she could tell me I had to stop.
There were a lot of tears shed in Colorado last week. I’d planned the trip almost a year ago, in part to race the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile, but mostly to have a chance to spend time with my Grandmother, the last member of her generation in my family. Instead I arrived just in time for her memorial service. I started my eulogy by saying that I would try to tell some stories from her life, but that if I broke down, people might have to think of their own stories for a while. They almost had to. The other members of our family kept it together better than I did. Beautiful stories were told, and beautiful music was played. One piece we didn’t sing was “I’ll Fly Away”. As my sister recounted, Grandma hated that song because they always played it at her friends’ funerals.
What I didn’t say at the service, and would only slowly come to accept, is that my Grandmother had also given me an incredible gift by her passing. All the members of our family came together in Colorado to celebrate her life. It gave us a chance to reconnect with each other, and it gave us time to remember who we were and how we came to be. It meant that we were able to share our history again and, with the travel already made, it meant we could spend a few days together in the mountains. For me, selfishly, it meant that my whole family would be with me when I needed them most.
After doing what little we could to help settle affairs in Fort Collins we drove through the mountains toward Steamboat Springs. We stayed at the little ranch cabin Dave and Sandi and Jan had built in the 1970’s just before I was born. It sits on an open plateau of grass and sage seventeen miles from town. It has a huge picture window with a view all the way to the mountain. When we first arrived the mountain was enshrouded with dark and angry-looking clouds, but the next day, as we drove to town, the storm broke. We were greeted with first a solitary rainbow, then a pair. They were the brightest I’d ever seen, and at one point even the space between the two seemed streaked with color. As omens go, it was pretty hard to beat. It seemed as if my Grandmother was giving us one last goodbye, a beautiful, joyous farewell. It turned the page for me, leaving me to focus on the race.
At our family pre-race meeting on Thursday night we went over the course and the aid stations, the pace estimates and gear. We covered who would meet me at each of the crew access points and what I might want there. And we talked about focus and motivation. Olivia took a black marker and wrote on my left forearm ‘This is what you came for’. On my right arm ‘Not all pain is significant’, and on my hands ‘Be Somebody’ and ‘Experience Joy’, all visible reminders of how to keep my darkest thoughts at bay.
At the race start Friday morning, 8 AM, I started in the back. The course contains four thousand feet of climbing in the first four miles. I knew I’d be walking all of that, and I did. I checked my watch, keeping my heart rate below my target of 132 bpm, ten beats below MAF. At first the clouds spit sleet and rain at us, but soon the sun broke through, bathing the mountain in light, though not warmth. The sight was incredible, green spruce and fir surrounding stands of aspen that had turned not just yellow and gold but even red. Blue sky and gray rock and the tiny stream of brightly garmented runners climbing slowly up the face. At the top of the gondola I met my family for the first time, exchanging quick hugs and handing off my rain jacket before hiking along.
We soon came to the Mt. Werner aid station, well above ten thousand feet, where the course levels and contours along the ridge. I was frustrated to find that I couldn’t keep my heart rate down at anything above a slow jog on the flats, and that even the slightest climb or descent required walking. I began to repeat what would become my mantra for the first day, a quote from Mark Allen: "Total Commitment plus Total Surrender equals Great Significance." I hated watching others, clearly less fit, run by, but I knew the fastest way to destroy my race was to overexert my sea-level trained body at elevation. I have a plan, I thought, and that plan will work. Total commitment to that plan. I was probably placing somewhere around 190th of the 211 starters, but I refused to care.
On the descent to Fish Creek Falls my body could finally begin to move without spiking my heartbeats. I passed a few runners on the smooth early sections then danced by the crowds that had slowed on the rocks. My East Coast technical trails were finally coming in handy. As I skipped over the stones the song my Grandma hated filled my mind. I began to sing softly as I ran down the trail, then more loudly – I’ll fly away, Oh Glory, I’ll fly away in the morning, when I die Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away – and I smiled as I gathered strange looks from all the hikers who must have thought I’d lost my mind.
My brother-in-law Chad met me above the Fish Creek aid and ran me down the road through town. We chatted about the day and the race, and he showed me a video on his phone of our family cheering for me. The miles clicked by quickly until we met the whole crew at Olympian Hall. I got fritos and coke and a calf massage, and I picked up a trucker hat full of ice. I spent too much time there, but it felt good.
On the loop out to Cow Creek I stuck with my plan, repeating over and over again: Total Commitment. Chelsea from Vancouver caught up and eventually passed me, along with a pair of Japanese runners, Kara from Steamboat, and a few others who were in no mood to chat. It was the heat that was slowing me now, and I thanked God and my Dad for the trucker hat full of ice. I’d learned my lesson at the HURL, and I wasn’t going to overheat again.
At Cow Creek I refilled on ice, gels, and hugs. I hit my first real low of the race on the gentle road climb above the aid station. I walked along, letting my body settle, fighting off the negative mentality. Once I hit the single track I felt better, and soon my energy returned in full. I began to see runners ahead, and for the first time I let my competitive impulses push my boundaries. I became the hunter, picking off runners one by one and in groups. I whistled songs aloud as I approached and passed, flaunting how relaxed I was, how far I was from oxygen debt. I road that high all the way back to Olympian Hall, making up time against the clock.
Chad ran with me through town again, keeping with me in the gathering dark. He asked me how I felt about having to run through the night, sunset to sunrise, and I said I was worried. He asked me my three favorite things about running by headlamp. I couldn’t think of any, but I could see he was doing his best to help me. That alone was enough.
The night was hard regardless. I passed more runners, and began to be passed by more and more of the elite “Hares”, who’d started four hours after we “Tortoises” were on the course. In the dark the high country air was icy. I felt tired, sleepy. I wanted to lay down, to cover myself with the space blanket from my pack, and it was so hard to keep up any reasonable effort. I would check my watch after what seemed like hours only to see that we’d moved less than a mile.
Back at Long Lake Jenn Shelton was tending to runners and handing out shots of whiskey to anyone who was willing. Andy Reed caught me there. He was moving well, but he said his stomach had turned badly. I followed him out of the aid station, nauseous as well, and watched his headlamp disappear into the dark. He was still at Summit Lake aid when I arrived, but he said his stomach had recovered. He showed me a note card his wife had slipped into his drop bag: “Embrace the Pain”. We laughed about it and about my HURL race report, about how he knew I was cooked long before I did, and we tried to help another runner whose knees and hips were betraying him. Soon Andy disappeared down the trail again, this time for good. I followed along slowly until my friend Karen Holland, another elite starter, caught me, then kept time with her for a few miles before my energy crashed completely.
I struggled into Dry Lake, where the love of my life met me. I told her I wanted to quit. We talked for a minute, and then she told me I’d passed my lucidity check. She told me to quit my whining and get out of there, but she tempered her hard side with hugs and a hot mocha. I left the aid station and within moments, at 2:30 AM in the freezing dark, received the most incredible jolt of energy I’ve ever felt in a race. Her strength and warmth propelled me down the trail to the Spring Ponds turnaround, then back up to Dry Lake with Chad in tow again. It was the most amazing feeling.
At the second pass through Dry Lake we hit our one hiccup of the race. My faster pace and the crowded shuttles meant my parents hadn’t arrived at the aid station, which meant that I didn’t have the warm clothes, bottles, and headlamp batteries I needed before I climbed back into the high country. For a moment I sat, bewildered, as Chad frantically searched for a spot with enough cell reception to find out where everyone was. I was freezing, stuck, and my stomach had turned sour again. I could almost see the mental demons slithering over the frozen ground toward me, stalking me. Then, unbidden, a quote from Nickademus Hollon’s Tour des Geants race report exploded into my brain: “I accidentally kicked a rock hard with my right foot then. The pain opened my eyes right up and I repeated to myself: This is the best possible thing that could possibly happen to me right now.”[i]
This is the best thing that could possibly happen to me right now! I stretched my fingers out in front of me, made fists, then relaxed. I got a cup full of hot salted broth from the woman at the aid counter, then a second. My stomach began to settle – the best thing that could happen right now. Chad worked his hands over my calves, and a few of the knots began to loosen – the best thing that could possibly happen right now – then he moved me to a warming tent. My fingers thawed, and I stopped shivering. The best possible thing that could possibly happen to me right now! Hollon’s statement is not true in its essence, but it can be made to be true. My parents arrived, and the gear transition was fast and seamless. I hugged them hard. Those hugs were the last thing I needed before vanishing into the dark. This is the best possible thing that could possibly happen to me right now.
I climbed back to Summit Lake as the world slowly brightened. At altitude my energy evaporated again. The aid station was supposed to be eighty-two miles in. I’ve learned over many races that even at my worst, even at altitude, I can still walk consistent twenty-minute miles. My aspirational goal of a twenty-four hour finish was long out of reach, but I still had my sights set on a sub-thirty hour buckle. The course was supposed to be one hundred three miles, meaning the remaining twenty-one miles would take me at worst seven hours. It was 6:58 AM. I would just make it. To reassure myself, I asked a volunteer how far it was to the finish. He looked at his sheet, adding up distances from one aid to the next. “Not far now,” he said. “Twenty-five miles to go.”
In that moment I felt the world closing in. I rebelled. There’s no fucking way I’ve worked this hard to miss a thirty-hour finish! I have to make up a fucking hour twenty over then next twenty-five. That’s seventeen minute pace, no, 16:48. Shit. 10,000 ft for the next 15, and the next two aids will cost you time. Damn it. I don’t know if I can do that. Fuck. Go, go, go!
The battery of my heart rate monitor had died hours earlier. I clearly wasn’t going to make it at 132 bpm anyway. I gave up on my plan and started pushing, hard. I ran everything I could, and climbed as fast as I could when I couldn’t run. My hands started to swell, and I started to see things I knew weren’t there – a coyote that was really a stump, a blue shirt that was really a flash of sky through the trees, a bizarre dragon-like creature that was really a pile of rocks. I was loosing sodium balance, but I didn’t care. Fine. I’m not drinking til the end. I can do that.
I kept it together emotionally until the return through Long Lake, eight miles later. I’d made up half the time I thought I needed, but it had cost me. I was hurting, badly, and I didn’t know if I could keep it up for another seventeen miles. I checked with a volunteer again “How far until the end?”
I almost fell over. I started crying, hard, wracked by the intensity and the relief and the knowledge that I still couldn’t rest. I tried to pretend that all this was normal and no reason for a forced DNF. I left as fast as I could to make sure she wouldn’t pull me from the race.
After a while a sense of normalcy, or something resembling normalcy, returned. I stabilized my effort, walking the ups and running the downs. I didn’t know what I should do on the flats, but there weren’t enough of them to worry about anyway. Eventually I caught up with Karen again. We walked together for a moment, and she said she was hurting. I said not to worry, we’d just run the downhills together. At the next pitch I skipped down the rocks and she called from behind “Your steps are so… dainty”. It made me smile, and I needed that. Karen didn’t follow, though. She was solidly in forth place, third far ahead and fifth far behind. No need to risk injury or overreaching.
I carried on, up to Mount Werner, where I pretended my swollen hands and visions were nothing of concern, then down the long cat track toward the finish. Three miles from the end I found my sister. She sent a simple text message to our family, two words. “Got him.”
We ran most of those last three miles, pushing forward and picking off a final few competitors. They didn’t even try to follow. As I neared the finish the announcer joked that I looked like a 5K runner, and that my tan lines matched my shorts. I stopped just before the line to pick up my son and my niece, then carried them across. I hugged the designated hugger, officially completing my journey, then collapsed on the grass in the shade of a card table. I’d finished 19th overall in the tortoise division, and while 38 of the elite hares would have faster times, I even picked off a few of them. Not to mention the 30 elite DNF’s.
I stood up to cheer Karen across the line, and she soon took my place lying down in the grass. I was so proud of her. She had just crushed a course that had felled the likes of Michele Yates and Tim Olson, and finished fourth among the elite women. It was an incredible performance. Later we exchanged messages about where to meet up next – maybe the Georgia Death Race or the Cruel Jewel 100? We’re both looking for UTMB points, and who could turn down another 108 mile “one hundred mile” race?
Post script: Execution vs. Plan
In the corporate world where I spend my days there is much discussion of execution vs. plan. How did earnings compare to projected earnings? Has cycle time been reduced as expected? Have we come up with an appropriate metric to measure our number of metrics? You get the idea.
For this race, though, I did have a very specific plan. Most of it was heart rate based. I had aspirational time goals, but the primary point was to run as fast as I could at an effort that I could sustain for one hundred miles. I defined that effort in advance as an average heart rate of 132 bpm, 10 beats below my MAF heart rate, and I added an additional cap of 142 bpm. Looking back over the data I violated the high end cap routinely but never for long and, amazingly, my average HR when the battery gave out at 71 miles was exactly 132. I’m sure it was much higher over the subsequent 32 miles, but I’m okay with that. At some point in a race you have to take risks – just don’t take them too early. That said, in the future I’ll likely plan somewhat more aggressively regarding effort. Based on my experience here I think I can sustain MAF – 5 for a full day, and a MAF + 5 cap is reasonable if not violated for long.
Other key points of the plan were around temperature control. I bought my TRN trucker hat specifically for the purpose of keeping ice on my head during the heat of the day. I taught myself to run with it on, even though I hate having anything on my head while running. It worked. Granted it wasn’t 97 degrees this time around, but the impact of the afternoon sun and heat was minor and mitigated instead of major and goal-crushing.
The cold in the high country at night was a whole different ballgame. For the early part of the night I carried a wool shirt, light rain jacket, gloves, and beanie in my UD vest, slowly putting them on as the temperature dropped. It was enough, but carrying the vest was frustrating and likely unnecessary; I eventually dumped both bottles just to stop hearing the sloshing. After the second Dry lake pass I added a heavier jacket and gloves, ditched the vest, and picked up my handheld again. The heavier jacket was nice in that the pockets allowed me to stow hat, gloves, buff, and headlamp after morning rendered them unnecessary, but by midday I felt like I had the Spanish Armada tied around my waste. As a person who naturally runs hot, I plan to carry substantially less cold gear next time around. There is some risk with that plan, but barring disaster, fighting off cold with movement and body heat seems better than carrying too many coats.
Post post script: Reevaluating myself as an athlete
Coming into this race I really wanted to break 24 hours. There’s something magical about the idea and phrase “100 miles, one day”. I raced nearly as well as I could have and ended up at 28 h 15 min – not close. Part of that is the course in question. The Run Rabbit Run course record (which is legit, given that Tim Olson and Rob Krar have failed to break it!) is 17:15, as compared to 14:46 for Western States and 12:44 at Rocky Raccoon. The larger reality, though, is that I’m not the runner I wish I were, at least not this year. If I actually want to run the times I’d like, I need to make major changes to diet, training consistency, and, most importantly, reduction of life stress. Job-related stresses destroyed at least a month of key training this year, and I’m sure I suffered more because of that. Add on an occasionally laissez faire approach to eating, sleeping, and running, and I’m four-ish hours off of where I want to be. Luckily, all of those things are fixable.