“I’ve definitely blown up out here.”

I once got mad at an employer for making what I stated as “arbitrary goals”.  The climate of the industry was such that the number of variables working against me was so overwhelming I couldn’t envision a scenario where I would succeed.  My frustration took me all the way to my Vice President who responded with “There’s something wrong with what we’re doing if you find the goals to be arbitrary”.

The goal was what some people refer to as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and they are meant to be a little “Pie-In-The-Sky”.  The term BHAG was pioneered by Jim Collins in his book “Built To Last” and in-fact is defined as 10 to 30 year goal that provides a marker for progress toward a future vision.  This is where the breakdown came in with my employer.  I was looking at my BHAG as a short-term goal!

Saturday I found myself once again in a drunken stupor of fascinating only on what I want myself one day to become.  In the purest sense I lost track of the moment in favor of a wished-for future state.  While I made a goal that was definitely a vision for my future, it wasn’t fair to myself to think of not reaching it as failure.  Sometimes success is hiding in what we choose to stubbornly see as failure…

Bandera 100k has become somewhat of a tradition for me at this point.  This marked the third year that I would take on the challenge of running some of the most rugged terrain possible for a trail runner.  It was different this year, I had some successes under my belt that made me feel like I was capable of competing in the big leagues.  As has happened so many times at Bandera though, I didn’t truly give the race the respect it deserves.

My past year of running has been filled with some incredible firsts for me.  A 100 mile race at Tahoe, a HUGE performance at Lost Pines Marathon, a HUGE PR for 50 miles, a HUGE PR for 10 miles, three solid sub 19 minute 5Ks…one that put me close to breaking 18!  My confidence was probably a little overinflated to think finishing Bandera in the low 10+ hour range was less than a race of a lifetime.

I pushed myself to get out with the lead pack, telling myself I was in the company of the elite, it worked…for about 15 miles.  But I was starting to feel something I hadn’t in a race this long, my heartrate was completely out of control.  I was running the flats and downs comfortably fast but as soon as I got to a climb (usually a chance to recover the heart rate) I was finding a shocking spike that surged thru my body…weakening me mile after mile.

It was only after a short (seemingly fortuitous) chat with one of my heroes, Steven Moore, that I realized what I was doing to myself.  Steven asked how I was feeling…my response wasn’t a very good one 15 miles into a 62 mile race.  My thinly veiled response, “I just can’t find a rhythm”, was actually a denial that I was pushing myself too hard.  When I heard Steven talk more about his philosophy to build during the race (see title above), I knew I was on the wrong path.  I wasn’t going to pack it in…but I certainly wasn’t going to let myself burn out!

My goal soon became to simply finish with a 10:xx but even that would prove to be a challenge.  I slowed my pace, recovered my heartrate and pushed forward…hiking the steep slopes to conserve my energy for the flats and downs.  I soon was battling a fading energy level and mental resolve.  At the halfway point, I tried to redirect my thinking…even joking around with the volunteer crew at the TrailRoots aid station.  My coach Erik took me out of my own head if just for a short while, taking some goofy pictures with me.

Congrats @ultracoop for hitting a PR at Bandera 100k! Great seeing you crushing it.
I’ve been in dark places during races before and I was getting there again.  The math calculations were stirring in my head, “If I can keep X pace thru this split, maybe I can still get that 10:xx?”  Luckily these thoughts tend to build on each other and keep you occupied when the alternative may be to beat yourself up.  It wasn’t until the final 10 miles that I really started to recover mentally.  I knew it would be close…but how close?  And if I pushed harder now would I completely burn out and hit the “Death March” wall?

Between mile 52 and 57 I managed to pass 5 people…the only confidence-builder in the race at that point was that I still had the power to do so.  In the last 4 miles I passed two more…one of them cheering me on with a “Nice finishing pace!”.  My watch had just died, I had no idea what my pace was…but I figured I could make myself hurt just a little more for a few more miles.  I was putting the hammer down in a now dark and rocky descent into the last mile of the race.

As I entered the campground and saw the approaching clock, I knew it was possible I could have done more.  The anger at myself for going out so fast overcame me.  I was so distracted by the frustration, I almost turned the wrong way into the parking lot.  With a final time of 11:07 I hadn’t reached my goal, or even my secondary one.  What I HAD done was accomplish a PR by 35 minutes though!

I also learned a valuable lesson of relativity and perspective that took me a while to understand.  Making BIG goals in ultramarathons is a shaky proposition when so many variables can come your way:

  • Is nutrition dialed in?
  • Are you using new equipment (this was my first race in Hokas)?
  • Is your head right?
  • Are the conditions conducive to your best performance?
  • Is your race strategy in-line with course design?

There are so many questions to answer in addition to “Did I train right?” that our only true solace is to focus on “What is my current situation and how can I stay present in this moment and learn?”

It’s a lesson that nips at the heels of your psyche when you let your ego tell you what to do.  That lesson is true in running as it is in life.  Ultrarunning’s biggest teaching moment to me remains…sometimes you find success in what feels like failure.

 

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Pinnacle – TRT100

Sometimes words cannot describe what human endeavors we undertake.  Achievements cannot be explained often until they are experienced firsthand.  But this milestone in my life seems to be perfectly defined by one simple word… pinnacle.

A pinnacle, of course, in the most literal sense is the top of a mountain or the peak of elevation.  But it’s also so much more…in a more figurative way we see a pinnacle as the greatest success or achievement.  It’s the best or most important part of something.  The pinnacle (so far at least) of my experience in trail running has been Tahoe Rim 100.

It started as a challenge for myself…something new to attempt, thinking I wouldn’t actually accomplish it.  In a weird way this philosophy got me from an unfit, depressed, corporate shell of a person to someone who has never been more driven, more focused and more fulfilled than I ever was despite having “real jobs”.  My first trail race was a 4×25 relay at Cactus Rose and it was a great experience…but I surprised myself.  I didn’t have too much trouble getting thru my first 25 mile run.  But I DID meet Steven Moore that day, who was running the whole 100 by himself.  The voice in my head that told me I could never do that is exactly what drove me to work for the next three years to try a 100 miler myself.

This Spring started very well for me.  I had recently hired Erik Stanley and Trailroots to train me in final preparation for TRT100.  I was building incredible strength and speed that I had never experienced before.  My first time racing an actual marathon distance (on trail) resulted in my taking second place (behind only Paul Terranova) at Lost Pines Marathon soon to be followed by a fourth place overall finish at Hells Hills 50 Miler.  I was on top of the world.

Training became nearly my only waking everyday thought and certainly my highest priority over the next 3 months.  But soon I was taken back down to Earth and deflated of my growing ego by developing a stress fracture in my fibula.  I was heartbroken but still training as well as I could despite not being able to push myself in pace or mileage.

Many long weeks of seemingly improved symptoms followed by seemingly disastrous ones continued over the next 8 weeks.  I had some good experiences such as Leadville Marathon that helped me to gain back some confidence.  But there were also simple weekly runs that felt like everything was falling apart again and I’d never be healed enough to run 100 miles.  Just 2 weeks before the race I was finally given a clean bill of health…though I still felt lingering pain on occasion and a reluctance to really push my limits.

The Race:

After a confidence boosting shakeout run I felt ready for the big day.  I had set out all of my gear (there seems to be a lot of it with a 100 mile race) the day before the race so waking up involved just rolling out of bed and putting my gear on.  I was up and out the door within 30 minutes to drive up the mountain to the start.  As usual, overplanning had me driving at 3:30am and arriving at 4:00am.  So my alarm had been set for 3:00am.  Not an ideal night of sleep before a race that was sure to last around 24 hours.  My initial intent was to run this race as close to 22 hours as possible.  My naivety certainly got the best of me though as I would end up adjusting my goal to 24 hours, 26 hours and eventually “Just finish the damn thing”.

As the “1,2,3 Go” (how quaint) was called we were off and running as Ty Reagan calls it “impossibly slow”.  The pace was frustrating for someone who is used to running 50k and gutting out a solid pace as long as possible.  In the world of ultrarunning most strong competitive runners can get away with this as the steam runs out with around 3-5 miles to go.  Then it’s just a little suffering until it’s over.  This was an ENTIRELY different animal though…100 miles!  The pace, “impossibly slow”, continued and I tried to stick to power hiking the uphills and running fast when I felt good and had a downhill.  That strategy allowed me to stay toward the front 1/3 of the runners without getting too tired.

The first 11 miles of the race are some of the most scenic I have ever come across in my short time running.  In fact, talking to some other racers…they are among the most scenic in the world.  This reputation was proven as I was taken back by both Marlette Lake shore at the bottom of this section as well as Marlette Peak.

tahoe pic2

To pass the time between being in awe of the amazing Lake Tahoe countryside, Ty and I developed a fun game (fun for trail runners I guess).  We started to play Fart Tennis…volleying back and forth at each other as our high-carb dinners/breakfasts settled themselves.  While we thought it was a great way to pass the time, avoid going crazy thinking about the race and not take this crazy endeavor too seriously…other runners didn’t seem amused.  Instead as we played and tried to explain the rules they would just clam up or adjust their pace to get away from us.  Haha….it was still a great time.

Just before the second aid station, Tunnel Creek, we came across possibly the most fun I’ve ever had on a trail run.  It was a ~3 mile string of amazing switchbacks with knee high boulders smooth enough to be creative in jumping over, on top of or swerving around.  For a moment I had forgotten completely what I was there to do and just engaged in the joy of movement and the dance of trail running.

boulders

But then the work began…our first serious section, a short 6 mile section with a steep descent into a valley and back out again.  It was named Red House Loop and my guess is the house was painted red because this section came straight from hell.

After descending and climbing back up to the Tunnel Creek aid station to arrive back at the altitude we had previously worked so hard to get to, we were soon climbing again!  This time to the second highest peak of the race at 8,800ft!  It was a tough set of climbs but easily runnable and this time filled with vistas of the other side of the mountains…overlooking Carson City and Reno.  Soon though it was back down the mountain for 5 fast miles on a downhill mountain bike course.  It did a number on my quads and I was aching by the time I reached the bottom at Diamond Peak Lodge.

reno vista

After a somewhat enjoyable stay at Diamond Peak Lodge, my naïve journey toward the Crystal Ridge ski run began.  Slightly deceiving in it’s steepness, the climb starts out as a service road before narrowing to what is essentially a 2 mile intermediate route in the winter for skiers and snowboarders.  To say that this climb is difficult would be an understatement…you could nearly reach out your hand and touch the ground as you climbed.

Here it is in winter…

slope

It felt that the ski slope would eat me alive on this first loop.  It was late morning, the sun was beating down on us and it was warm for Tahoe (86 degrees).  Just as I wanted to sit down and take a siesta the incline began to level out though.  The hope of an end was near and once at the top you could see the aid station just over a bluff.  With an intent to get used to actually running again versus power hiking I ran down the small hill toward the aid station.  We fueled up and were off again.

We were now heading back toward the Tunnel Creek aid station.  There I would fill up on Nutella and banana sandwiches as I had before…a moment of bliss in an otherwise overwhelming experience.  At this point Ty had started to develop some issues in his IT band and was getting stretched/taped up.  I waited for a few minutes to see if they would get him out quickly but he urged me to go ahead.  I figured this would be my time alone until the 51 mile mark when I picked up my first pacer.

As I exited the aid station I was met with the switchbacks we had enjoyed so much on the way down…only this time I had to climb them.  It wasn’t near as much fun but the challenge of this hill (between runnable and power-hike worthy) got me mentally focused for the rest of the loop.  Soon I was repeating much of the course I had seen but with a new vantage of all the incredible vistas and views.  It was breathtaking all over again.

way back view

Another aid station and a nice runnable section and then it was on to the highest peak of the course.  Snow Valley is an incredibly open field high atop one of the mountains that somewhat reminds me of the opening of Little House on The Prairie.  This time of year it was covered in wildflowers and the scent of the air was intoxicating as we worked our way up to the top.  At some point here, I was alone for long enough that I started thinking about the Family Guy episode where Stewie is running thru the field like Little House and it made me laugh.  Then I remembered he tripped on a rock and fell…better get focused and not do the same thing!

As I got to the top of the peak (and the last aid station) an Boy Scout met me just before the aid station…calling me by name.  Somewhat tired at this point I must have given him an odd look as he started to stutter and trip over his words asking what I needed.  By now potato chips had become a habit…and M&Ms whenever I could find them at an aid station.  I filled up one last time and headed down along the ridge on my last 7 miles of the first loop.

As I arrived at the halfway point I was still feeling very positive and energetic.  Usually on a loop race of this type of distance it takes everything you’ve got to drag yourself back out there for another harrowing loop.  But this time was different.  I was determined, I had accepted the distance for what it was and I knew I still had a long way to go to accomplish this goal.

I fueled up…changed shirts, grabbed my first pacer Stephanie and we headed off into the now light and visible part of the course I couldn’t see at the start.  It was great to have someone to run with again as I had just spent the last 20 miles alone.  I probably talked a little too much at first but kept my breathing under control as we power-hiked some of the initial hills of the course.  Unfortunately Stephanie was NOT interested in fart tennis and let me know this before I had even said a word to her…so instead of joking and laughing at the occasional gel fart, I just apologized.  She kept saying, “Go ahead…I’m just not gonna join you”.

stephanie

Stephanie and I had a great time exploring the areas of the course that I couldn’t quite see the first time around.  As the sun started to come up we were approaching the Marlette Peak vista again and I was excited to see her reaction to it.  As expected she was totally blown away by the beauty and got a little distracted herself as we ran along the ridgeline.  I was quick to tell her, “You haven’t seen the fun part yet!” as I knew the switchbacks were coming up.

We blasted down the switchback somehow at the same pace as I had just 8 miles into the race.  This time my body was surely starting to break down but I couldn’t tell as I was drunk on the beautiful, soft-packed soil and the fun, jump-able boulders that lay strewn across the trail.  I was approaching the furthest distance I had ever run but was on top of the world…my new personal distance record was going to sneak up on me.

As it did…about 3 miles into the Red House loop section I realized I had just surpassed my previous all time high of 62 miles.  It happened to be on a huge downhill section where I finally started to feel my body talking back to me.  We had fun on that section but I could tell that pain was coming and it wasn’t far ahead.  It hit me as I approached the next aid station…my right ankle (the one responsible for my stress fracture) was starting to tighten up and I could feel some tightness in my calves and right hamstring.

We circled back around to the Tunnel Creek aid station again where Courtney was to pick me up as my second pacer.  After a lengthy visit to a particularly handsy aid station volunteer, my ankle was adjusted, I was taped up and ready to get back out there.  It was an amazing experience to get to run part of this race with her.  We don’t run often together simply because my default training speed doesn’t tend to match her running pace.  But now I was a little worn out and feeling the effect of 65+ miles on my legs.  So we stuck together and talked about my favorite parts of the course.

It was starting to get dark and chilly as the sun went low enough in the sky to be covered by ridgeline and the twilight brought a relativity to this race that made me start to think about exactly how long I was running.  At around mile 70 my hamstring had tightened up considerably.  I was having to stop to stretch it out and wasn’t entirely comfortable doing so on top of a ridge at night in mountain lion country.  I continually would call out to Courtney saying I heard something in the woods…but she said she never did.  Maybe it was the exhaustion catching up to me?

At around mile 75 I had begun to break down in a significant way.  I took a couple breaks, sat on a boulder and had Courtney try to massage some of the tight muscles that were starting to cramp up on me.  Namely my quads had become like stone as the continuous up and down of the course had weared away at them over the day.  This wasn’t good news for the upcoming 5 mile downhill section thru the mountain bike course.  Sure enough this would be where I would be crippled by the pain, the momentary loss of mental strength and belief that I may have to drop.

Just before taking a gel I was heading toward a steep drop and my right knee just gave out on me.  As opposed to falling forward though it folded back into a locked position and I bobbled as I struggled to stay upright.  This was the moment…I screamed in frustration, threw my gel down to the ground and insisted that I would not finish.  Courtney was exactly what I needed at that moment as she calmly settled my nerves and focused me on “just getting to the next aid station”.  She knew I was close to my breaking point and just wanted to break my mind of the seemingly impossible 20+ miles still to go.

It worked…she was so patient, listening to me struggle and complain…barely able to run or walk as I hobbled down the mountain on quads which were near non-functioning at this point.  But we made it…and it was the most happy I had ever been to stop running and rest for a while.

I got what amounts to an ultra-runner’s pedicure from two podiatrists at the aid station and walked around barefoot for a while to let my feet breath.  The station (at the Diamond Peak Ski Lodge) looked like an episode of M.A.S.H. with runners spread across the floor like war victims.  Some were groaning in pain, some sleeping on cots, some had dropped and looked so happy.  I secretly wanted to join them…I was jealous that my stubbornness wouldn’t let me quit at that point.

After about 20 minutes in the “ward” I was finally on my feet and under my own power again as I headed out with my last pacer up the foreboding Crystal Ridge again.  This time granted in much cooler temperatures but it was now past 3am and I was starting to really just want to sleep.  In an almost zombie-like fashion we inched up the hill.  Luckily for me my third pacer, Corey was used to this type of shift as he works nights at the airport so at least one of us was wide awake.  The hill seemed to take even longer in the dark and I started to play music on my phone to keep my mind off the never-ending climb.  I’m not so sure the other racers enjoyed my selections but I just needed a distraction.  Corey and I sang together for a while and it made everything feel easier.

By the time we reached the top of Diamond Peak I was delirious.  The thought of having to run another 4-5 hours was not longer top of mind for me and I just tried to concentrate on keeping dialogue going with Corey.  About anything at all.  We approached the last stop at Tunnel Creek and I must admit I thought maybe the handsy aid station volunteer might perk me up by smacking me on the butt again.  But she was nowhere to be found.  It was just Corey and I at this point…me getting a little grouchy…insisting we go faster…he telling me I need to conserve energy.

At this point I didn’t realize how little energy I actually had.  I was so focused on finishing the race and getting to bed that it became my sole motivation.  The faster I could finish the faster I could get under the sheets, lay my head on the pillow and sleep the rest of the day.  It resulted in me having absolutely zero forethought into how long I might be able to hold a running pace.  And when that time came…I would be completely wasted…unable to finish.

Corey knew this and was doing his best to make me powerhike even when I thought I could run.

Much of the next 10+ miles was powerhiking in-fact.  It wasn’t so bad after a while though as the sun started to rise and the breathtaking views were once again visible.  It’s amazing how much energy they gave me even this late into the race.  I started to feel awake again as the orange glow came over the horizon and I saw the look of awe on Corey’s face just as I had seen on Stephanie’s.

After getting to the second-to-last aid station I was now just taking orders from Corey.  “Eat this”…”Ok”…”Time to drink”…”Sir, Yes, Sir” (My sense of humor was still there luckily)…”Time to gel”…”I’m done, here’s my empty packet”.  Yes, he was asking for proof.  I was pretty mindless toward the last 10 miles.  We left the aid station with a breakfast taco in hand and marched onward to the last two sections of course.

The climbs up to Snow Valley were no joke but at this point I was moving in an automatic mode…just putting one foot in front of the other as I thought about how close it was to sleeping in that amazingly hotel bed.  Corey would struggle to keep up on the powerhiking sections but then speed ahead on the downhills…I let him.  He deserved to have a little fun in exchange for putting up with me.

We got to the top of Snow Valley Peak again at I had perhaps the best surprise of my life while on top of a mountain.  They had SORBET…in 6 different flavors!  And it was GLORIOUS!!!  I chose mango and just stared at the amazing view in a daze as I shoveled it into my mouth.  I was needing something to get me thru those last 7 miles and the sorbet did the trick.  Just as we were finishing up…another surprise put a little kick in my step.  Another runner named Soon, from San Francisco, somehow recognized me!  This was weird…I mean I’m NOT a running celebrity by any means.  But he is currently being coached by Liza Howard and she had told him about me.  Wait….LIZA HOWARD?  Like, THE Liza Howard knows who I even am?  Awesome!

tahoe pic

Corey, Soon and I spent the next 7 miles on and off together, talking…being frustrated that our watches had died…wondering around what turn we’d see the last water station before the finish.  We had brought ourselves to the brink of destruction but were somehow still moving forward.  The course had not taken our drive away like it had nearly 100 other runners that day who DNF’d.  Soon and I, running our first 100 mile race were still IN the race and were actually going to finish in respectable times!  We basked a little in the glory of knowing we would get a silver buckle (under 30 hours) and it powered us the last few miles in.

Soon was obviously feeling a little better than I was as he got much more jovial as we approached the finish…in a joking tease he started to run ahead saying, “Hey I’m just gonna get ahead of you here if you don’t mind”.  I didn’t…I was spent.  I had given the race everything I had…chased pain all over my right leg but with what seemed like the help of a guardian angel I had not failed.  Those angels were my pacers (of whom I was now walking the last mile in with as Courtney and Stephanie ran out to find me).  I was overcome with emotion…but somehow unable to show with incredible exhaustion having taken over.  I was going to finish…

As I got within about a quarter mile of the finish the woods erupted with screams from my mother, sister, father and our friends from Austin that came to crew for Ty and me.  The finish felt anti-climactic to me until I sat down and finally shed a few tears.  I had done it.  After a good 10 minutes I staggered out in a haze…mumbled for help to get to the car and was soon heading for that beautiful bed.  The post-race meal (a shameless two doubles, Animal Style, fries and a Dr. Pepper) was no match for my exhaustion…as soon as it was all down, so was I…

cheeringfinish

Lights out!!!

Race The Field, Not The Clock!

 

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I haven’t run a really long race since January and that was a terrible experience.

Bandera this past year was 30 degrees, cold, sleeting and muddy!  So you’d think coming into the Hells Hills 50 miler would be a welcome…almost heavenly run.

BUT….

I’ve bitten off a lot to chew…something I think may be finally too much.  I’m currently training to run the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 mile race in July.  So much has happened since that decision…like hiring a full-time running coach, Erik Stanley, to help me.  It’s been a lot of hard work…going to the workouts, running every single day (which I never really used to do) and treating races as stepping stones to “The Big One”.

That last part has been one of the hardest concepts for me to deal with.  I’m not loud about it but I AM competitive…if you put me in the right atmosphere [foreshadowing] I don’t back down and I’ll give it everything I have until I hurt myself or pass out.

The Rocky Hill Ranch course for Hell’s Hills is a formidable one.  It sneaks up on you…with terrain that never seems to level out and has so many turns it’s near impossible to get a solid flow or rhythm to your pace.  This year the course was made even more difficult by having some really rutted out sections due to the Lost Pines marathon and duathlon that took place there just a few weeks ago. On a side note: I raced that marathon and ran like I was on fire!  I was excited to run two races at Rocky Hill Ranch because I knew if I could just do well in one of them I’d be happy with having a bad day at the other.

I spoke to Erik just before the race and we agreed that since my long term goal is Tahoe…I should just focus on how I feel the day of the race and not think too hard about running a certain pace or setting a goal.  I felt good about that.  Erik is big on racing the field and not worrying so much about the clock.  To an amateur ultra-marathoner that’s not an easy concept to embrace…we plan EVERYTHING…usually just in preparation for feeling our best throughout the race and getting thru the distance.

In a sick, twisted turn of fate I happened to have a depression episode that lasted for 3 days before the race.  It destroyed my ability to train for two days and I was feeling defeated and weak (both mentally and physically) the night before the race…I still wasn’t recovered from it as I fell asleep that night.  Great…I had NEVER started a race during one of these…I was SO afraid it would just make me want to quit or not even START.

Waking up that morning I decided to stick to the plan.  I didn’t stress myself out too much with a ton of extra planning, I got there about 30 minutes before the start (which I’d normally stress out about) and just calmly waited for the race to start.  I brought food and gels, my water…but no extra shoes or clothes…I wanted to just stick to taking my time and focusing on feeling good the whole time.

As the race began I quelled the excitement that usually gets me running out with the lead pack…but as it turns out everyone was easing into this race so it wasn’t difficult to slot in right behind them.  For the next 15 miles I would just keep my attention on what was right in front of me (which happened to be a LOT of trees with a pitch black 5am start time).  My light was fresh with new batteries and I started to get tunnel vision as I just looked straight ahead at what I could see.  For what seemed like ages, I struggled to make sense of the course markings and I ended up getting lost or having to stop to look around and get my bearings.  It was a long couple hours of darkness before the sun rose.

There’s something about running in the woods, in the dark that makes you feel like a scared deer and that feeling was never stronger than when I came around a turn to find a 10 foot tall Easter Bunny staring at me as I neared the bluebonnet field…”Holy Crap!” I screamed…luckily with nobody around me to embarass myself.  THAT woke me up from my zombie night mode…and just in time because the sun was coming up!

After getting thru the field there’s really a fairly smooth 9 miles or so back to the start (this race is 3 loops).  Since I was feeling good I decided to see if I could make an even 2.5 hour split which would give me a good goal for the second loop to match it.  I figured whatever happened on the 3rd loop I would just accept (feel good: try to get a good time, feel bad: slow down and chalk it up as a training run).

I got in from the first loop at 2 hours and 33 minutes…pretty close to my goal which got me excited for the second loop.  So excited that I really should have stayed at the aid station a while longer.  But I was excited to see if I could get another 2.5 hour loop in.  So I took off on my second round.  It went pretty well but as I neared the end of it I started to feel a little fatigued.  Maybe the monster progressive run I had just done on Tuesday…or me not listening to “Coach” and pushing a little too hard on Wednesday too.  But I figured I was still right on track for my strategy.

Frustration started to set-in as I neared the marathon distance and inevitably compared how I felt and what time I was at to the Lost Pines Marathon (I know, not a good policy to do this during a race but I wasn’t in a good place at this point).

As I got closer and closer to Loop 3, I had aid station volunteers telling me I was in contention for a podium spot.  That was exciting but also stress inducing and nobody seemed to know just where the 50 milers were…we were so spread out.  So as I started my third loop I tried to take advantage of the gap between me and the next 50 mile runner.  I gingerly left the aid station with a PB&J in one hand and a cup of Pringles in the other.  For the next mile or so I was mostly walking…and eating…trying to wash it all down my dry throat in-between chewing.

The fatigue had soon turned into pain…my legs were hurting…I was tightening up and my knees and hips started to ache from the constant ups, downs and creek crossings on the course.  I started to run intervals after about 5 miles in and figured I still might have a good cushion to go easy for a while.

Just as I got used to that feeling I was finishing up at an aid station and see none other than Thomas Orf barreling down on me.  He was getting to the aid station as I was leaving…NOT GOOD…and looked to be in good spirits…EVEN WORSE.  As soon as I saw that I snapped back into competition mode almost instantaneously!  The next 3-4 miles was a complete blur…I was on that last 9 mile stretch and had found some good flow (along with that “red mist” of fierce competition).  I kept telling myself that I got myself into this trouble…I’ll get myself out of it…even with aching, screaming joints and waning energy levels.  But all along I was worried how long I’d be able to keep up a 9 mile kick at the end of a 50 mile race!!!

The last 5 miles were high stress….running hard on the stretches I knew were level or downhill…saving my energy by power-hiking the hills.  Some of those hills are the worst on the course as you enter a big mountain biking area just before the last 2 miles.  I kept looking back to see if I could see anybody but at this point the 50k racers were mixed in with us and I didn’t have time to worry about whether it was Thomas or somebody not even racing me.  I just had to focus.

After getting thru the last of the mountain biking hills I just wanted to walk…but I kept envisioning Thomas barreling down on me and a neck-to-neck last mile…I didn’t know if I had the energy to do that but I was going to try one last kick whether he was there or not.  It worked and I hit a great sub-8 minute pace as I rolled down the last Jeep road to the finish.  Surprisingly it felt amazing…everything was working…I was sore as hell but still able to hold the effort and I passed 5-6 50k racers as I pushed thru the finishing chute.

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As I get across the line with Courtney congratulating me and taking pictures all I could do was hold my knees and try to catch my breath…then I hear, “Congratulations, 3rd place!” and was handed a trophy.  What an amazing finish to a race full of emotions…this is one I’ll remember for a long time!

It finally happened…

I bit off more than I could chew…

capt karls

Texas summers are notorious for heat, humidity and unrelenting torture for runners.  This summer has been slightly different as we’ve had the luxury of weather in the mid-90s for most of June and July.  But, like all Texas summers the heat eventually found it’s way into disrupting the hours between 9am and 7pm on many of our August days.  Saturday Texas really came into full bloom…with a high of 103 degrees.

I’ll start my story by saying that I just don’t do well in the heat as a runner.  I slow WAY down.  I typically need about 3 times the water because I sweat like a pig in heat and I get overheated fairly quickly as compared to some of my running friends.  This caused me to be EXTREMELY lazy about specific training for a race this long all summer and I knew I wasn’t prepared like I was in the past.

I had been talking about trying out one of the Captain Karl’s night races for some time and despite my rationalizations about why I couldn’t do the first two, I was fresh out of excuses for the third one.  So, knowing that anything I came up with would just be transparently saying I was being lazy…I signed up for Colorado Bend 60K.

I hadn’t raced since the Hell’s Hills 50K which was in early April and that race went REALLY well.  I find the more I race the more anxious those experiences make me because there is always the fear of performing up to a new standard and breaking thru another ceiling.

My nervousness was palpable all day long.  The Captain Karl’s races are night races so I was feeling somewhat out of my element (having to mull over what I was about to do all day rather than get up and be running before my brain realized what was happening).  It definitely put me in a quiet place.  I didn’t say much the entire drive to the park or before the race…even with friends at the race.  I felt bad about that…

7pm came around and we were off.  I had discussed the course with Joe Prusaitis of Tejas Trails and was a little nervous about the first 3 miles.  After about a half mile of smooth Jeep road we were headed for a long climb up a rocky, singletrack trail to the top of a ridge.  The first aid station was only 3 miles away but it was going to be a tough 3 miles to start the race.  I had started out with the lead group (which I’ve found tends to challenge me to find a good rhythm and pace early in the race) and soon realized with the tight singletrack I would need to keep pace in order not to hold others up.

Rolling into the first station I was feeling really good.  I had managed to stay in a tight group with the 3rd, 4th and 5th place runners and thru some gnarly terrain too…lots of roots, rocks and tree cover to navigate.

Being tall soon proved to be a major disadvantage and I started to worry about how long I’d have to endure branches hitting me in the head.  Even when I did see them I couldn’t bend down low enough to avoid them completely.  So I ended up expending extra calories to duck over and over again only to be “blessed” by several scrapes and bruises all over my head anyway.

The next few stations were a blur…partially due to my stubbornness to relax for a couple minutes and gather myself.  I was starting to rush thru them and would just take my already prepped water bottle (thanks to my amazing wife, Courtney) on my way to the next section.  But I still felt good and wanted to capitalize as much as I could on that energy.

Soon I was out of the trees and on to more rocky sections of the trail.  Things had opened up and my head was no longer taking a pounding from branches but the sharp rocks were starting to bruise my feet.  Just before the race I chose to lose the racing shoes for some heavier training shoes I’ve been using on my hill training days.  I quickly became VERY grateful for the decision as the rocks were nearly as plentiful as Bandera!

Just when it seemed the rocks would never end we were back on a fast Jeep road right next to the river…this was really the only time you could open up the throttle and make up time so I did.  The pace felt great and it was a welcome release to be able to stretch my stride out and feel the wind on my face as I ran a faster.  In the back of my head I wondered how much time I was really making up since everyone else was probably loving this part.

Then…..another climb…the other side of the ridge we ascended in the first 3 miles was right in front of me.  I had to make it up and over before heading back down the 3 miles to the halfway point.  This would be my biggest challenge having not really trained any long distances and minimally preparing for hill climbs.  It would prove to be a significant factor in my performance (in addition to my dehydration).

As I reached roughly the mid-point on the hill I hear a familiar voice.  It was one I hoped I wouldn’t have to hear until much later in the race.  Ty had caught up to me…and he was feeling good.  His word were encouraging as always (a quiet “C’mon Joe”) but the voices in my head told me I was under-performing.  I repeated it to myself in my head with frustrated self-judgement, knowing that my preparation was lacking.  Ty was running well still and my speed was quickly starting to dwindle as the pain in my legs (which I hadn’t adapted to with training) limited my endurance.

Up and over the hill, I came into the halfway mark starting to feel defeated.  I was dehydrated, in pain and the frustration of getting so competitive when I knew I was not ready to race competitively was getting into my head.  I mumbled something about not thinking I was going to make it as I left for the second loop.

Those next 3 miles were pretty awful.  I climbed the ridge mostly with power hikes and obscenities.  The Darkness had come early this time around.  It was going to be a long, laboring battle to overcome it and I was feeling drained physically and emotionally.  I got into the aid station and immediately sat down, unable to move from the excrutiating pain in my legs.  I must have drank half a gallon of water at that station.

After what seemed like at least 10 minutes (and 3 more people passing me as I debated even going on) I dragged myself back out onto the trail.  I didn’t even try to run until I had walked a good 1/4 mile.  With the level of dehydration, cramps setting in and now HUGE stomach aches I was afraid to challenge my body.  I eventually started to run again and found my long stint at the aid station had helped considerably.  After a few minutes I quickly caught back up with my passers and was back in my mid-race position.

The next couple of aid stations were welcomed as my spirits started to slowly creep back up.  I was feeling ok but not good…I had accepted my fate (after some reminding words from Courtney about running MY RACE and not worrying about who was passing me).  The mile long climb before the fast, rolling Jeep road next to the river quickly extinguished my newly fanned flames though.  As I had mentioned to Courtney before leaving the last station…I was broken…just a little earlier than I had expected.  I did manage to pull myself together to run the Jeep road and quickly started gaining ground on the runner who had passed me at the last aid station.  Momentarily I would see glows of light from his headlamp as I rounded a corner and then they would vanish again as he did.

At the end of the Jeep road the glow of light had become a bright beacon for me.  I had caught up to the other runner…over the course of 5 miles but still…his dark shadowy outline was now totally visible!  If I just pushed hard up the hill to the top of the ridge I might catch him.  Right after having that thought, a cramp put me on my knees.  I rubbed it for a minute or so then started power hiking (err…limping) up the hill.  Incredibly I managed to catch up and pass the other runner just as we crested the ridgeline.  The cramp was starting to subside and there were just 3 miles to go!

The last aid station was something I was looking very forward to.  I needed water, I needed Heed (I was now carrying both, using two water bottles in a desperate attempt to recover my hydration), I needed food and most importantly I needed encouragement.  Stumbling in to the station I got all that from a jovial duo of volunteers that reset my attitude.  The jokes and kind words had me on a high and I blazed down the other side of the ridge toward the Jeep road.

As I navigated the switchbacks on the hill I started to think about how well the runner I just passed may be doing?  Maybe he was feeling good because of the last 3 miles to go and he was just behind me?  I started to look behind me…trying to catch a glimpse of that faint headlamp light again.  Only this time with worry.  After a few looks back I turned around to see an armadillo sitting right in the middle of the trail.  We both squealed and luckily he didn’t jump straight up into my path but just scuttled away instead.  That would have HURT on a rocky, dark trail with 2 miles to go!

As I turned each corner on the road I kept looking for a faint hint at the campsite…just a glimpse would keep me pushing forward…I had forgotten that it didn’t really come into view until about 1/10 of a mile before the finish.  But it finally did…I ran thru the chute completely drained of energy, strength…even emotion as I crossed the timing mat and walked straight to a chair.

I had never wanted to be back and SLEEP so badly in my life.  After 7 hours and 31 minutes I had finished the race and overcome some of my worst, longest lasting “ultra demons” ever.

REALLY???

 

hells hills

Being alone can sometimes be scary, it can sometimes be nerve racking, it can play tricks on your mind…BUT…it just may surprise you that things aren’t as bad as you make them out to be.

I wasn’t really alone at the 2014 Hell’s Hills trail races…in fact, oddly enough I was surrounded by more of my running friends than I ever have been at a race. This time was different though, EVERYBODY was racing and most of us were running without a crew.

[Participating in Hell’s Hills almost didn’t happen for me, I was fresh off of a “Birthday Miles” run just two weeks earlier in which I developed a nagging pain in my left hip.  Due to my schedule and my own stubbornness really, I had not gotten around to getting it checked out and just took it easy in the time I had before the race.  I told myself if it didn’t go away I wouldn’t race at Hell’s Hills but as race day got closer and closer and more people signed up I really couldn’t stand that I was sidelined.  About 4 days before the race I finally felt good enough that I thought I may be able to finish without injury.]

The night before the race I had opted to sleep at home, figuring an easy 45 minute drive to Rocky Hill Ranch wouldn’t make my morning too difficult.  I’m NOT a morning person but I do get up fairly early for the boot camp sessions I train 4 times a week.  But this was REALLY early…the race started at 6am and I had to register on-site.  I ended up getting roughly 5 hours of sleep and then groggingly patching together a breakfast and packing up while half asleep.

Traffic was extremely light and I ended up getting to the ranch very early so I had plenty of time to prepare before the timer counted down.  The rituals of eating, going to the bathroom, drinking coffee, going to the bathroom and deciding what to wear during the race consumed the next hour and a half.  Despite the cold weather, I decided to keep clothing to a minimum knowing that much of the race would be out of the wind and under tree cover.  The lighter the better!

As the timer counted down we were off, the lead pack fairly tight together for the first couple miles before the leaders decided they were warmed up enough to pick up pace.  This race starts with a pretty steady series of uphill twists and turns before finally leveling out (not for long) for the next couple miles.  It was here that Ty, Melanie Fryer and I started to fall into a rhythm (as much of a rhythm as you can develop on this course).  Perhaps the conversation and good vibes got the best of me as I started to pick up pace.  Soon I was jockeying for position between the 3 of us…moving in front of Ty and eventually Melanie.  It wasn’t my intention to go ahead of them, just lead for a little bit.

I was hearing conversation the entire time (I’ve never really had a chance to talk to Melanie much) but it started to get more and more faint as the miles ticked off.  Soon it was gone and after countless turns…there ARE that many…I found myself alone.  I suppose I was paying more attention to avoiding a fall than I was to the conversation.  After that it was up/down/up/down/left turn/right turn/left turn/right turn over and over again.  This goes on for about 5 miles before a fairly pleasant field of bluebonnets greets you as you arrive at the first aid station.

As has become habit I skipped the first station…I can usually get away with it as long as I have enough gels and the temps don’t have me drinking too much water.

The next section is more of the same…hills, up…down…turn…turn not always in that order but nonetheless this is the terrain…with LOTS of rocks (the small kind that seem to bite your feet as you catch one on the edge of your shoe).  At this point the sun was rising and the trail was starting to feel more comfortable as foot placement got easier with the sunlight.

As I started feeling that sentiment exactly I was reminded of a nasty truth…get too comfortable in trail running and you’re GOING to trip.  And trip I did…as I descended a hill a small root caught my toe.  I was soon flying…arms outstretched, bottle breaking my fall on one side…rock rash on the other.  I didn’t even stop…as I fell I was back up again…almost like a flying burpee.  The adrenaline released during a fall can be a great boost if you utilize it correctly.

I checked myself out a little later as I neared the next station…I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to need any medical work…luckily I came out mostly unscathed.  Quick stop for water and on again to the next section.

It was a big, fat, lie of a trail section…starting out fairly open…with some totally run-able hills but mostly straightened out compared to what preceded it.  THAT did NOT continue.  Soon we were on what could only be described as a roller coaster trail meant for mountain bikers…NOT runners.  Somehow this is what I’ve come to expect of Joe Prusaitis and his crazy courses.  Luckily it was only a few miles of torture before the last mile brings you back to camp.  I finished the first loop in 2:07 and change…much faster than I expected given the nature of the course.

I didn’t stay long at the half, there really weren’t any people I knew there so I was task focused like any other aid station…load up on gels, fill water, take salts, thank volunteers…and off I was!

I still hadn’t seen Ty and Melanie as I was at camp but as I set off again they were coming in.  They both looked fresher than I felt…which can be deceiving given that you always feel worse than you look.  This put me in an interesting state of mind.  The last time I was just a hair ahead of Ty was at Bandera 100k and we’ve had a lot of good times laughing about how it got both of us competitive.  He was trying to chase me down the entire time as I was trying to escape him.  Figuring this was once again the case (it definitely was in my mind) I mustered all I could to set myself back into a rhythm on the first 5 mile section.  What I didn’t think about was how much easier I had taken the first 47 miles of the 100k before the last 15.  I once again had 15 miles left but I had been putting in more effort during this race.

I felt pretty good for the next 5 miles…even the next 7 or 8 before I started to slow from the pain and fatigue.  I was starting to take gels closer together now in an attempt to stave off the inevitable.  By about mile 26 my competitive mood turned to a dark intense anxiety that dominated every thought as the pain in my hip returned.

“This mile was off pace, they’re catching up.”

“That trip just slowed me down, they’re catching up.”

“If I am running at a :30 slower pace and they’re 3 minutes behind they’ll catch up in 6 miles…that’s not even halfway into this loop, they’ll catch me.”

Those are seriously the calculations that start to appear in my mind as I reach my darkest places.  As soon as one starts to overcome you with grief you try to think of another one to calm yourself back down.

“If I can run the same pace thru this section they’ll only catch up in 12 miles and then I’ll have a chance to race them to the finish.”

Thought after thought…calculation after calculation…all consuming me until I realized I’ve slowed down even MORE.

Then it happened…at the second aid station as I filled my bottle and tried to regain my composure, Melanie rounds the bend.  She looks fresh…she definitely paced this race well.  She’s a little more experienced than me and I accepted her smarter strategy.  As she left me behind she gave encouraging words that kept me from falling into a pit of self-loathing.

[This simple act is just a testament to this sport and how supportive even fierce competitors can be.  There’s this common faith in the process…and that everyone runs their own race.  I have never felt that kind of community in any other sport I’ve competed in.]

Just as I’m accepting the fate that Melanie had outpaced me a male 50k runner also passes me.  The next 5 miles seemed to drag on forever…I was in pain…I was tired…SO tired…I felt nothing but the pain in my hip and the frustration that I’d started the race too fast.  It was just after the next Jeep road section that I resorted to walking.  I had convinced myself that I was done.  “Just finish, you’re not competing anymore” said the voice in my head.  Immediately after that thought, I saw a woman I had exchanged kind words with during the first loop (she was running the 50 miler), she was catching up and passing me.  When she did she said a few simple words, “Just a little bit to go, you might as well just push it a little longer and run”.  The words got to me…in the perfect place…I could still run, I just let my frustration and pain stop me.  So I picked up pace…probably at a pace not much faster than a speedwalk.  I could at least shave some time off…and Ty still hadn’t caught me.

The hills…oh those hills that Joe likes to put at the end of races…there they were.  I let out a big sigh as I started to speedhike again…this time up and down over and over…for the next few miles.  I told myself I’d hike them and as soon as it flattened out a little, run the last mile and a half.  The 50 miler’s words must have had more effect on me than I realized because I had soon caught back up to her.

“There ya go!” she said as she saw me coming up behind her.  Three more kind words fueled me like an “emotional gel”.

Then the Jeep road…and the cattle guard…it was happening…I was on the last mile.  I ran as fast as I could…which was still pretty slow at that point and crossed the finish line with a slow jog.

“Congratulations” I hear as I step across the line, “5th place!”

“REALLY???” was the only word I could mutter.

I had given it everything I had…and actually finished in my second fastest (by only 9 minutes) 50k time ever…on a pretty tough course!  The negativity was all in my mind…it wasn’t bad…it was just a 70/30 split in effort…I had done well.  Despite how I felt…my performance was good.  As I met up with other running friends and told them my time the feedback started to build a little with each conversation.  The frustration and disappointment that I had crashed at mile 27 was slowly replaced with reassurance that this was in-fact a well-run race overall.

Mental note: LEARN HOW TO PACE!!!

You are capable of so much more than you think…

You are capable of so much more than you think...

The lesson for this race was that no matter how low you are, no matter how far down into the darkness you get…you ALWAYS have the power to climb back out of that hole!

My first 100k was set to be a blast from the start. All 3 of us…Billy, Ty and me were running it and I got so excited simply by that fact. I went into the race knowing that if it did all go downhill (which I admittedly feared having had some trouble in the Cactus Rose 50 miler) and I broke down, I’d have people there to inspire me to keep going and finish.

Somehow, deep down I knew I was going to finish. It was just a matter of wondering how well I would do. Initially I set a goal for myself of 12 hours thinking that with an extra 12 miles that was just about on-pace with my performance in the 50 miler. Self-preservation was another goal and I told myself that I would try to make my loops closer in time and work on my pacing…

FORESHADOWING ALERT!

The day of the race I set about my typical pre-racetime morning routine. I had gotten up a few hours before the race knowing I needed to get a lot of calories in to start well. I had my morning coffee (2 cups), about 4 bananas and OF COURSE my peanut butter pancakes from Snap Kitchen here in Austin. Soon we were off to the race…Billy and Kat had stayed with Courtney and I in a house downtown in Bandera. It was nice having everyone together to chat about our excitement the night before and the whole way to the park. It started getting real and the nervous jitters were definitely starting to bubble up in my stomach.

We got to the park and started our other silly ultramarathoner pre-race rituals…which usually consists of doing calesthenics up and down the parking lot…there were lots of people joining in so we didn’t look too crazy. A few nervous poops later (also very common in the running world) and we were standing at the start line ready to go.

As the runners and organizers counted down the seconds to the race everything snapped into focus. I had trained pretty well for this event, I had my strategy, I had my calories, I WAS ready. Soon we were off and on to the first set of hills. I was tempted not to head out with the lead group but as Ty was next to me and just as excited I soon found we weren’t far behind them. As the terrain became more rocky and the incline increased I was so “in-the-zone” I hadn’t realized I quickly lost Billy and Ty somewhere in the first few miles. I immediately thought to myself “Am I moving too fast?”…”Should I not be running these hills?”…I felt great so I figured if I started to really feel fatigued I’d back off.

First stop down and then another…things were going great. I had never felt faster in a race and I was keeping up with national elite ultramarathoners. This couldn’t last I thought. Just as I started to doubt myself I came across the 2 women in the lead of the race. They were chatting away at a pretty fast pace…I jumped into their conversation when they welcomed me coming up behind them. We talked for a good 15 miles….about what…I don’t really remember. But then, just as fast as I had caught up to them…we came to a big incline and they were gone…like billygoats running from a mountain lion uphill. I was alone again…and this time…I was alone with a body that was starting to scream at me.

 

Quad cramps dominated the next 25 miles of my run…by mile 20 I was nearly screaming in agony at the pain. Since I was running this first loop by feel this immediately translated into the belief that I was horribly over my time goal. I kept hearing, “You’re doing great! Your splits are really fast!” but would blow it off as the familiar encouragement you always hear at the aid stations. Nonetheless I would only stay at the stations long enough to fuel back up and head on my way…as the pain was starting to make me feel like I was breaking down.

I got to the last 5 miles of the second loop and hit rock bottom emotionally. At the top of the ridge as I ran across to the other side where the last descent and finish were, I was drained mentally. I started to build negative, self-defeating thoughts as I neared the finish. Tears were running down my cheeks…whether from the quad cramps or the realization that I may have to drop out, I wasn’t sure. As I finished the first loop a surprise awaited me when I saw the timer…I had run the first loop in 5 hours flat! A time that if I had been running the 50k would have put me in the Top 10…NOT what I was trying to do!!! An exciting acheivement for sure BUT, HOW was I going to pull another 31 miles out of these legs???

At the end of the first loop I had convinced myself I couldn’t go on (but had not told the crew). Courtney and Kat were there and as supportive as ever. Even some friends from boot camp had just finished the 25k and stopped by to tell me how well I was doing. Their words got me excited to at least see if I could make it back out there and get past 50 miles (the most I had ever run). So reluctantly I dragged my tired aching body back out and told myself, “Just make it to the next aid station and you won’t want to quit.”

That philosophy worked…for a while…

The quad cramps continued…and it wasn’t until after the next station that I felt like I was ever going to even finish. When I stopped at Mile 40 my attitude was in the toilet…I didn’t want to continue…but I was quiet about it. As was the case throughout the race though I kept telling myself, “Ty still hasn’t caught you yet” and it was the main motivation for me to continue. This time I stayed a little longer…I was still in pain but because I had dealt with it for 20 miles I think I just became numb to the cramps. I ate a banana and this time drank some chicken broth. I’m not sure what it is about trail races but chicken broth tastes like the most amazing thing in the universe during a race. Maybe it was all those times being sick as a kid and Mom making you soup? In any case I profusely thanked the volunteer who offered it to me.

On the next leg I was starting to realize that I may actually finish. I didn’t think too much about it but instead just went into “robot mode” where I ignore my thoughts (positive or negative) and find my zen state. It seemed to work in allowing me to forget about the cramps…wait…or were the cramps leaving? They in-fact were…by the last mile of this leg I hit the pasture coming into the next station and looked down at my watch (which I finally put on at the last aid station)…lo and behold I was running an 8 minute mile…I must have gotten rid of them! I blazed into the aid station and Courtney greeted me with, “What are you doing??? Slow down!” THAT got me excited that I still had the ability to do this!

As soon as I realized the cramps were gone my attention immediately focused on beating my goal of 12 hours. I knew that if I could just continue to feel good I was perfectly able to do this. The feel good vibes continued as I started to talk up some of the other racers who were by this time also running at a much slower pace. We shared our stories of woe and where we felt we went wrong. Everyone was in good spirits. Hearing that other runners were battling with nutrition, pace and cramp issues brought my state of mind around. I knew that I hadn’t failed as much as I previously thought. And I felt good so I kept pushing.

Another aid station had come and passed. I was beginning to think more and more about my goal but also about where Ty was. The competitive side of me became my motivation for pushing forward despite a growing fear that if I was ahead of Ty he was either not feeling well and I was running too slow to break 12 hours or I was running too fast and may fail completely. I continued to battle the self-doubt that was telling me I couldn’t succeed.

The last aid station in this race is called Last Chance. For a number of reasons…one because it’s the last opportunity to get supplies and fuel up…another because it’s only 1/2 mile from the lodge so it’s literally a last chance to drop out. By the time I reached it I was back in race mode. The doubts were starting to shrink until I saw Ty’s dad there and he told me I only had about an hour left before I would hit 12 hours. This got me REALLY worried. BUT, I told myself THIS is my last chance to beat my goal.

The last 5 miles of this race are definitely the hardest. One of my campers, Chris, warned me about it. She told me that if I didn’t leave something in the tank for the two huge hills in the last five that it could be my downfall. Obviously with my pace setting issues I had not listened to her very well. But there’s a certain energy that bubbles up (from where I’m not sure) when you know you have a chance to beat your goal…and you’re still ahead of the person you’ve always looked up to. So with determination I set out for the last five…looking behind me every 5 minutes…sure I was going to see Ty barreling down on me.

Somewhere a fire was lit underneath me. The first hill is immediately after the aid station and I powerhiked it knowing I needed to conserve still. When I got to the top I pushed myself to run hard. I was at the top of a ridge with nothing around me but pitch black and rocks upon rocks. At some point during this leg you honestly don’t even touch soil for what seems like miles at a time. By the time I reached the next hill I was completely back to my zen state and had run half the hill before I realized I was there. That was confidence building and I decided to keep pushing. Just as I crested it another confidence builder arose…I was gaining on other runners. Some just slowing to a hiking or jogging pace, another doubled over puking. Once again perspective allowed me to realize that I was in much better shape after 57 miles than I could have been and I WAS going to finish and there WAS still time to beat my goal.

I decided not to look at my watch at the beginning of this leg but now I was tempted to see how much time I had. I looked down and saw that it was 7pm already…this pushed me to run even harder and I started to bomb the downhills as I reached the other side of the ridge. The end was in sight…but I had no idea how many miles I had to go. With the pitch black and not having had a watch for most of the race I didn’t really know where in the 5 miles I was. Sometimes the fear of the unknown can be your driving force for success. It was definitely true in this situation. I picked up my pace again…this time looking down at my watch and THEN behind me every 5 minutes. I would round a bend and then struggle with polar opposite beliefs that I was near the end or nowhere near the end. Was Ty going to catch me? Was I going to see a light down the trail the next time I turned around? I did this for what was probably the last 2 miles of the race…over and over again. I was literally starting to lose my mind.

Then the familiar Jeep road we had started on came into view. I looked at my watch again…7:14…I was going to do it! Just don’t fall, don’t pull a muscle, don’t get sick, don’t cramp up and I was going to beat my goal.

I once heard Scott Jurek (a famous ultramarathoner) speak of a phenomenon where your mind realizes it no longer needs to keep pushing you and the reality that your body wants to shut down immediately overcomes you. It often happens when the finish lines comes into view and the built up stress that keeps you going is finally released. Well, it happened. As I finished (11 hours and 48 minutes) and crossed the timer mat my legs finally gave out. I fell to the ground…looked up and there was Courtney and Joe Prusaitis…both asking if I was alright. Joe thanked me on a great effort and handed me my Bandera 100k belt buckle.

It was over…and I never felt so accomplished in any other athletic achievement in my life!

50 miles…

50 miles...

I didn’t think I would ever do something like Cactus Rose 50. In fact, I used to complain about DRIVING 50 miles. But then…I also didn’t used to think I could do 50K and that has proven to be a somewhat regular occurence for me…whether in training or at races. But, 50 miles is more…MUCH more. It’s 19 miles more than a 50K! I had never run this far before and when you are entering a world of unknown limits and abilities it’s almost a given that you will have doubts.

My doubts surfaced as a belief that I may not be able to finish. I had trained hard, I knew I put the miles in…but mentally, I was not there. In fact I wasn’t there even at 4:59am when I toed the line!

Then I heard “GO!” and everything snapped into focus like a flash of light. Many of my miles training were done with runners MUCH faster than me. People like my friend and running mentor Ty Reagan. Others that have been runners for many many years…some of which did this in college…competitively. What that translated into when I heard the word “GO!” was an eagerness to go out with the lead pack.

(As an aside, I have found that what works for me is to push myself close to my limit early in a race and see how long I can hold it. It’s what some would consider a dangerous or fool-hearted strategy for races but “pacing” has just always allowed me to fall into a rhythm that I can’t seem to break out of.)

Running with the lead pack is fun…albeit hard work. It’s great to hear the elite runners talk back and forth about different races, training regimens and gear during the race. Maybe the only reason I held onto their pace for 8 miles or so was that I was enthralled in conversation with what I consider to be “the greats”. In fact this distraction helped me get up and over Lucky Peak without even realizing I had done so. Predictably however, when they got bored of talking to each other and settled into race mode, my distraction was gone. I realized I couldn’t hold the pace I was running or I would surely “bonk”. So I backed off.

The first aid station I stopped at was 10 miles in. I had planned this from the start as stopping 5 miles into any ultra is kind of silly in my opinion. The aid station was after a long stretch of fairly flat course so needless to say I was feeling pretty good at this point. I said “Hello” to my trustworthy crew (my wife Courtney, fellow ultramarathoner Billy and his wife) threw down a couple dates and went on my merry way. It was still dark at this point in the race and I had really only trained 2-3 times in the dark. I chose to wear one headlamp while holding another in-hand. This lit up the trail well but as the course got more and more technical, my lack of night running started to show. I was constantly missing on my foot placement…finding the sharpest rocks at times to decide to strike on. Just as I’m deciding to slow my pace again I hear “THUNK”. One of the sotol plants on the course had a stalk hanging over the Jeep road and I hit it perfectly on my headlamp at full speed. Had I not had it I may have knocked myself out completely! OK, THAT was a sign…time to slow down and get ready for the hills.

The next part of the race was one of the gnarliest hills on the course “Ice Cream Hill”…which sounds so sweet and tantalizing…until you’re climbing a 200 ft vertical over just a half mile. Luckily for this hill…just on the other side is a nearly equal descent that you can pretty well bomb if you have some downhill running experience. I took this opportunity as the sun was coming up to tap into my hours and hours of training at the Hill of Life back home in Austin. Ok…back down…but that was just a taste of what was to come and I knew it.

I barreled into the next aid station still feeling pretty good but definitely primed for the challenge within a challenge that was next. 5 more climbs and descents…all very technical and literally back to back. When you look at the profile for the course it shows ZERO valley which is very accurate. As you crest a hill, heart racing…near redline…you descend again with just enough time to regain your confidence that you can keep on-pace…then another climb. Luckily these are broken up by an aid station at Boyles but not before you must climb Sky Island…a slogfest (at least for me) that includes a 300 foot vertical in less than a mile. That’s about a 7.5% grade over a mile of rock strewn, Texas Sotol covered trail. At the top I felt like all the wind had been let out of my sails but I knew the next part was going to recharge me…a fast, fun downhill section followed by the Boyles aid station halfway up the next climb.

I got to Boyles and was feeling….good…but not great like I had been earlier in the race…the climbing and descending was starting to take a toll on my muscle endurance and I was slowing. Courtney showed me my entry times for the aid stations up to that point and the time between stations was starting to lengthen. If I couldn’t hold onto pace I felt I was in danger of a steady slide into “Bonkville”. I fueled up with a PBNJ, gels, a half a can of Redbull and some M&Ms (which made me so happy…it’s the little things) and was on my way again.

Time to hammer down…I sent myself on a kamikaze ride toward the Lodge to finish out my first loop. A couple more climbs and then a nice smooth descent onto the last Jeep road that leads back to the start/finish line. By this time I was starting to see the elite runners on their second loop and was motivated by their friendly comments as I passed… “Good job”, “Looking good”, “Keep it up” passed back and forth between our mouths in a way only trail runners (even ones competing against each other) can convey.

Loop 1 DONE! 4:12 at the halfway point! I had reached a personal milestone and the “red mist” had caught me…

I fueled up again and (knowing if I stayed too long I would think too much about the other half that was to come) busted back out of the chute on my start of Loop 2. This loop I was familiar with…having run the relay a year earlier. So I knew the hardest part was going to be the next 10 miles. All those climbs and descents…the rollercoaster of heartbeat and emotion I had to do over again…and NOW…not later. I just decided to put my head down and go to work.

By the time I got to Sky Island the second time around I was feeling the effects of having done these hills twice in a row. I needed FLAT trail…even the descents started to wane on me and what was earlier an entertaining chance to bomb the hills was now just a nagging sting in my quads and knees. I started to get nervous again…those thoughts of not finishing creeping up from my subconscience…playing tricks on me. The Sotol was back too…ripping deeper into the wounds I had incurred earlier in the race. Keeping a consistent pace had become nearly impossible.

I pulled into Equestrian defeated…though I didn’t let my crew know intentionally, they could see it too. All that was entering my mind at this point was, “You’ve run farther than you ever have…the rest of the race is going to be unknown territory”. This, in hindsight, was a thought I should have tried to expel from my mind the second it surfaced…but I didn’t…I let it fester. Perhaps the only thing that kept me going was my crew thinking for me and pushing me back out onto the course.

The next 5 miles was the darkest 5 miles I’ve run in a good while. I had just finished climbing and descending those 5 hills and now here’s that god awfully named, “Ice Cream Hill” in front of me! I climbed it with a sense of acceptance that this was where I was going to bonk…I just knew it. It took me probably twice as long to climb it as when I raced the relay last year. I got to the top and figured, “I’m not going to finish, I might as well check out the view and enjoy where I am”. In that fleeting thought…and with a glance out over the horizon an epiphany came to me… “I’ve just run nearly 40 miles and I’m STILL GOING…maybe not at the pace I was before but it’s still one foot in front of the other”. I picked up my pace and went to bomb the downhill on the opposite side.

That wasn’t a great idea…

My legs were screaming…I could feel my quads at the limit of their endurance…my IT band was starting to “talk to me”. NOT GOOD…I’ve had IT band syndrome before and the symptoms created an immediate lump in my throat. Time for self-preservation I thought…I started to slow…even walking some of the smaller hills. Just about that time I started doing something else that is a sure sign your confidence is wavering…I looked behind me. When I did I saw Lise Plantier barreling down on me. Another shadow in an increasingly dark moment. I pulled myself together…started running again and held off a pass for as long as I could. Just before I hit the next station at Nachos she passed me. I was becoming a sputtering, smoking heap as I screeched into the station.

My crew surrounded me…they had everything I needed including my yoga mat laid out at the station. I collapsed on it going straight into Pigeon Pose to relieve the pain radiating from my IT band. Just then…another runner’s unfortunate defeat became my inspiration. Courtney told me that two runners had just bowed out of the race at Mile 40. One of them had been holding the place ahead of me…another was a 100 miler. All I could think was…”I’m not hurt enough to bow out, I need to get myself together and finish this thing. If those other runners felt this way they’d keep going”. Just then, Billy came to me with some more inspiration…telling me that it’s been an epic run and he’s enjoyed every minute of it…and that I was so close he KNEW I was going to finish it.

10 miles…this was it. The point where your mind becomes the catalyst for your success and your body is just there for the ride. My nutrition to this point was spot on…I felt a little sick from all the gels but otherwise was fresh, full of energy and functioning. Time to tell my body what’s gonna happen and not let it make me quit! We did the math and figured the pace I needed to accomplish my goal…I started my GPS which was off the entire race until now so I could stay on track. I took off for the next aid station…realizing quickly that I was going to need to run intervals if I had a chance at staving off the IT band soreness. It seemed to work…run a little…walk a little. Over and over…push it till it made me tear up…then back off. The frustration of this moment set in when I realized this was where most people make up time. Good shady singletrack…a relatively smooth Jeep road and a flat pasture I should have been able to bomb thru. This section was SO runable…but I didn’t have much run left in me at this point. Rather than focus on what I couldn’t do I thought, “I’m doing this…not fast but I’m doing it”.

At the 5 mile mark I again collapsed under the pain from the IT band and my quads straight onto my waiting yoga mat. Everything hurt…I didn’t want to continue…but I knew there was less than 5 miles to go. There were several crews there…all in good spirits. Some women were right next to us telling us how amazed they were at the performance of the runners. I stored those little compliments deep in my psyche, drank what must have been a gallon of water, fueled up one last time and jumped back out on the trail. The trail again goes into the pasture and I resolved to force myself to run all the way thru it and back into the singletrack before I’d let myself walk again. As I pushed thru the field my crew was honking at me from the Jeep road. I couldn’t let them down. I was GOING to finish.

One last hill and it’s all downhill from there. Lucky Peak…the hill that I COMPLETELY didn’t notice in the beginning of the race was now my only barrier to success. I ran intervals throught the next section…counting down “…only 4.5….only 3.5…only 2.5…have I already gone over Lucky Peak?” Nope…2 miles to go and there it was grinning at me. “OK…all you have to do is get to the top” I thought. “Don’t worry about how fast…just do it.”

Getting to the top of that hill felt like the finish to me. So much so that I forgot I had to keep running. “Oh yeah” I thought as I started to run again. This time though…there was no thinking involved. It was a mile until I’d finish my first 50 miler. Pain was gone, insecurity was gone…it was just an afternoon jog at this point. I started to pick up my pace. As I got closer and closer I could see the Jeep road open up…every turn I thought, “This is the chute…no this is…no this is”. Then finally…there it was! I looked at my watch…I was running an 8 minute mile…where the HECK was THAT the last 10 miles??? People were cheering…I picked it up more. Then just a hundred feet to go I hear, “You just broke 9:30…on your FIRST 50…you should be REALLY proud of yourself!”

I crossed the finish line and was handed a medal and lo and behold…a 5th place trophy??? What felt like a failure the last 10 miles was just the reality that I had left EVERYTHING on that course and gave it my all. And heck…my all wasn’t THAT BAD! I basked in my success for an hour and then slowly hobbled to the car. What an amazing feeling!