Thursday, January 29, 2015
If you like this blog, you might also enjoy my book......
On January 25th, 2015 I "competed" (quotes explained later) in the Mountain Mist 50k in Huntsville, Alabama. If you have read my first book, you might remember that this was the site of my first ever ultra marathon back in late January, 2009.
To say things have changed in the past 6 years would be an understatement. Let me break it down in categories for you......
Training / Preparation
2009: For this first race I designed a 12 week training program and had it tweaked and adjusted by a professional endurance sports coach. This coach also worked with me every week to make sure I was staying on plan and not under or over-training. I did multiple back to back long runs, averaged around 500 minutes (approx 40 trail miles) of training per week for months on end. I did more than one hard run over 4 hours, including one 5 hour run 3 weeks before. I did a very organized and perfect taper for 3 weeks before the race. My nutrition was spot on, including cutting out simple carbs, alcohol and all anti-inflammatory meds for weeks before the race. I was unbelievably focused and nervous the whole week leading up to the race.
2015: I signed up for this race specifically because Troy B and I DNF'ed it last year and we both wanted redemption. I had absolutely no organized training plan and, obviously, I was my own coach. Total training in the month leading up to the race was about 15-20 miles per week, mostly from just one long run per week. No back to back long efforts, no really tough efforts at all. Obviously no taper cause none was needed. Nutrition was actually similar, but not because of the race -- it just happened that I was doing my yearly "sugar detox" in the month before the race. The night before the race we had pizza and beer for our pre-race meal!
Pre-Race Friday/Saturday morning.
2009: I traveled to the race early Friday, by myself, and didn't know anyone at the race expo. I stayed at the expo for hours, eating the pre race meal, listening to the speaker they had, checking out all the clothing for sale, etc. I stayed in a hotel and prepped my stuff for hours to make sure it was right. I think I packed about 50 gels and enough food to fill 2 aid stations at a 100 miler! I had two water bottles, both filled with sugar-laden sports drinks. I wore way, way too much clothing. Again, I was super nervous and keyed up the whole night before, got very little sleep and ate a HUGE meal the morning of.
2015: Traveled late Friday with a good friend, both of us couldn't have been more relaxed or had more fun on the way over. I knew a ton of people doing the race and was still in and out of the expo in under 10 minutes. Took me about 3 minutes to prep my stuff for the next day. Packed one water bottle (with only water) and a few gels, nothing else. Wore shorts and a couple of shirts to strip off. I was so laid back -- I was asleep within 10 minutes of closing my eyes and slept 7 hours straight, up feeling relaxed and refreshed. Ate one Clif bar and peanut butter the morning of.
2009: Got to race way too early (did this again in 2015) and was, again, SO nervous! I knew no one at the start, just put my music on and said a quick prayer. Started out way too slow (bottle neck at back of the pack didn't help). Started eating gels and food 20 minutes into the race, ate everything I could at every aid station. Had stomach issues throughout the whole race. Felt pretty good up until mile 17 and then thought the hills were absolutely brutal. Went through incredible emotional ups and downs throughout the race. Pushed myself as hard as I could the whole time. Did math obsessively every 10 minutes to see if I could break 7 hours. Thought I was going to die on the last climb and the last 1.9 miles felt like they took me about an hour!
Finished in 6:39 and was basically mid pack. Obsessed over my overall and age group results for weeks.
2015: Got to race too early again, but sat and joked the whole time with good friend ("OCD David" - another change, I not only have a bunch of new friends in the sport, I am also giving all of them nicknames), took pictures, totally relaxed. Knew a TON of people at the start and joked and had fun with all of them, no music this time and my prayer time is now organized and during the race so I was looking forward to that. Had absolutely NO plan for pacing, hydrating or eating -- just going by feel. Started out way too fast. Decided 30 minutes in, instead of having a gel like I normally do, to see how long I could go on just water without eating anything -- just on a whim! Was super happy, relaxed and in the moment for the whole race. Had absolutely NO down moments! Felt great the whole time, decided (on a whim again) instead of doing my whole rosary when I got alone to do one decade each 10k of the run -- and dedicate each decade to a different person or group of people! Thought the hills were "fun" and challenging, but not really that tough at all. Never really pushed myself, just stayed within myself and had an absolutely amazing time. Actually had many, many moments that I didn't want the race to be over! Didn't even know when the race started on my watch, never set a stopwatch. The last climb was great and the last 1.9 miles were beautiful, just a bit tough and fun!
Finished in 7:09 and was basically mid pack. Looked at my result for 2 minutes just to see if I was in the top 1/2 of starters (I was). No idea nor do I care where I fell in my age group.
2009: So sore I could hardly walk for days. Feet covered with blisters and sore. Unbelievably tired and hungry. Took Monday off work cause I couldn’t move.
2015: Slightly sore the day after. Feet totally fine. A little tired on Tuesday, worked a full day Monday totally fine. Still pretty hungry!
So, 6 years after the start of my ultra-running career and I am starting to figure this stuff out. The less I stress and worry, the better it is. The less I eat the better my stomach feels. The less water I drink the better I feel and the less I cramp (to a point). The more I rely on God and the less I rely on myself the better it is. The more I stay in the moment and not worry about the next mile, or how far I have to go, or the upcoming climb.....the better it is! The more friends I make, the more this sport becomes about fellowship instead of performance and, you guessed it, the better it is.
Sort of like life, wouldn't you agree?
Thursday, November 13, 2014
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On November 1st and 2nd, 2014 I had the blessing and honor to be able to give back and help another first timer run his first 100 mile race, the Pinhoti 100 -- a point to point race that was the site of my first (and only) 100 mile finish in 2012 (see volume 2 of Quiet the Noise publish date early 2015.....).
It was a whirlwind and amazing experience.
But allow me step back a bit to give you yet another taste of how amazing and close knit the sport of off road ultra running is.
The person I helped (lets call him David "Y" because, well, that is his name) has only been a friend for a few months. I have run with him a few time at training runs and races, spent a fair amount of time with him getting lost at H9 this year but really don't know him that well at all. I do know much more about him than most men would know about each other spending the same amount of time together doing something "normal" like drinking beer, watching sports, playing golf, etc. as time spent ultra running tends to break down all the natural barriers that keep us from being authentic with each other. I have never done anything social with him, or met his family, or anything that "normal" people do when they get to know each other.
In fact, as of this writing I still don’t know how to pronounce his last name, and I guarantee he does not know how to pronounce mine!
So, lets step back and think about this for a minute. This man, who I have met just a few times, tells me he is signing up for Pinhoti for his first 100. I, of course, tell him how cool (I have a terrible memory) it is and "if there is anything I can do to help, don't hesitate to ask". Well, I am not one of those people that just says that and doesn't ever expect to help if it is actually needed.
I meant it.
And, guess what?
He took me up on it!
David put together a team of 3 guys (David W, Mark and me) to help crew and pace him through the race. Somehow I got picked for the finish, the last 15 miles…. Again, just like in 2013! I guess I have a reputation of being able to stay up and energized deep into the night/morning and I can motivate pretty well.
Maybe he just knew about my caffeine addiction and knew I wouldn't sleep through my shift!
It worked out well because we had a jam-packed Saturday so not having to be there till late Saturday night worked well. David worked out all the details, with a little input from us -- we actually did get together one time for coffee (I didn't recognize him at first cause he wasn't in running clothes) to discuss details, mostly I wanted to know his "why" and how badly he wanted this finish -- basically how hard can I push this man who I barely know to get to Sylacauga stadium in under 30 hours?
To be honest, I really didn't get a strong feeling either way from him. I could tell he wanted the buckle, but it didn’t seem “life or death” as it was for me! I figured I would use my 20 years of training clients to "play it by ear" as the day progressed, which ended up being a very good plan!
So, and this is how crazy long a 100 mile race is -- I have a full packed day of family activities, including me searching all over for a good thermos to bring hot soup (was worth every minute) and leave for Alabama right after my son's 5pm basketball game, and by the time I get there (2 hour drive but we gain an hour) he is still only 1/2 way done! The drive over was fantastic, did my Rosary and prayed for David and all the participants and gave HUGE thanks that I could do this crazy thing! The sunset was glorious and the temperature was dropping fast, a sign of things to come!
I met up with David W at mile 55 aid station (Mark had starting pacing him at mile 41 and would be with him till mile 65 when David would take over) and we got to know each other a bit. I Didn't know my other pacers much either, I had met David a few times (I didn’t know this till I saw him) and had never met Mark (I actually had them text me pictures of what they looked like so I would be able to find them at the aid station, crazy).
David Y showed up with Mark right on time (we had been tracking him all day on the live tracking site), around a 24 hour pace and looking great! He was having some knee problems but other than that he was doing WAY better than I was at that point in the race (at least nutritionally -- I fell apart at mile 27 and never really got my stomach back, he was totally fine)!
Funny side note here, being on the "other side" of an Ultra, I came to the conclusion it is SO similar to being a party where everyone else is drunk and you are totally sober. Seriously, participants are staggering, slurring (especially in this race when their lips are frozen), not making any sense, have to have people take care of them and have emotions all over the board. They also look (not all of them, but most) like the walking dead when they come into an aid station.
Makes me question wanting to do another on, but not too much.
I did notice something right away about our runner; he was taking a ton of time getting what he needed in the aid station. This was not a factor at all as he was way ahead of cutoffs, but I made a mental note to keep an eye on this if we got close later in the race.
We then drove to mile 65 to prep and wait for him to switch pacers. He slowed down a lot at this point but was still looking strong and way ahead of the cut offs at this point so no worries.
This was a cool aid station as it was right on train tracks (btw, either this aid station didn't exist in my race or I totally blacked out cause I don't remember it at all) so we got to see about 4 trains go past while waiting. We also helped a little guy who was totally hypothermic and had lost his crew -- he never was able to get warm again and didn't finish the race but it felt good to get him a blanket and try to warm him up a bit. It was getting progressively colder, ended up getting down to right at 30 degrees with wind up to 25mph, very tough race conditions.
David Y came in still feeling good and about 2 hours ahead of the cut offs, he had lost a bit of time but was still doing fantastic! He again took way too much time in the aid station again and picked up David W for his pacing duties.
I was now free until picking him up at mile 85. He left mile 65 at 12:50am so I figured at his current pace he would be at mile 85 around 6am.
I was wrong, of course, but more on this later.
Anyway, at this point I had to take Mark back to his car at mile 41 so he could go home, no problem and he smelled fantastic at this point so I really enjoyed being in a heated car with him for about an hour! Actually, he really didn't smell bad, that or my truck just perpetually smells like the sweat of trail running -- probably the latter. We got to know each other and guess what.....
He, and David W, were not long term close friends with David Y either!
So, back to the nature of trail running and ultra running / runners in general. Here we are, 3 guys who are barely acquainted with this gentleman and we are driving to Alabama on a Saturday night, to stay up all night, in the cold, to crew and pace him and help him to the finish.
And loving every minute of it! Giving back feels good!
So, I drop him off at mile 41 and, of course, my GPS on my phone is not working so I have no idea how I am going to find the mile 85 aid station (I have directions from aid station to aid station but that would be brutal and probably not the quickest way to get back).
Bam, first of many God moments -- Mark has already printed these directions for me! Between the 3 of us we had it all figured out. Well, the 4 of us with God.
So, I drive about an hour on deserted country roads, at 2am, very tired at this point and find the mile 85 station. So glad I rushed so I could....
Now a funny part about this race and the clock. Picture this.
1. It is 2:50am Alabama time.
2. Which is really 1:50am Alabama time cause the clocks changed this night.
3. Which is actually 2:50 "Pinhoti time" cause they don't change the clocks in the race till it is over.
4. All the clocks in my truck are still on Atlanta time which is an hour ahead of all this.
5. So, what the heck do I do when I set my alarm on my phone, which btw, has automatically adjusted for the time change at 2am!
This is tougher than the running part, for me at least.
So I finally figured it out, I calculated that he should be at this aid station at around 6am so I set my alarm for 5am to allow for changing time, hot soup, etc. and I planned on being there at 5:30am to be safe and allow for the impossible, which would mean he got faster at mile 65-85 in a 100 miler, at night, in the freezing cold.
So, I actually fell asleep in my truck (I brought a pillow and sleeping bag) for about 30-45 minutes and when my alarm went off...
I had no idea where I was and totally freaked out, the only clock I could see was the one in my truck which was Atlanta time -- I had overslept!!!
OK, took me about 2 minutes to come back to reality and I figured out I was OK, it was about 5:15am "Pinhoti Time".
And I was frozen.
I had turned off my truck cause it was so warm when I fell asleep. I started it and shivered for a bit before I started to get ready.
I won't lie, this is when the "so happy to help a guy I hardly know" started to not make much sense. Thought a lot about my family at home sleeping in their warm beds and the thought of getting out of my car and waiting freezing by a fire was not very appealing! Actually, if I knew I would just walk up and start running, it would not have been bad -- but based on my last experience pacing when I waited by the fire for hours for "Silent Bob" I had a feeling that would not be the case.
I then took some time to pray. And the first thing that came to mind were people in the military. They deal with situations SO much worse than this and sacrifice SO much for others, how could I even think of complaining or that this was not a great thing to do. I was helping another human achieve and impossible goal, and it was made even better that I really didn't know him!
I got dressed, had some hot soup (yep, the ridiculously expensive thermos from REI was working great and totally worth it) and headed to the aid station.
When I got out of my car I actually thought I might be over-dressed, it didn't feel too bad. Man, I am so glad I didn't take off a layer!
When I got to the aid station at about 5:30am, it was still pitch dark and SO cold (especially when the wind was whipping). Last year this was my favorite part of the night, it was a beautiful night and every one was talkative and in a great mood.
Not so much this year.
I have rarely been so cold sitting doing nothing. We were rotating our bodies like pigs on a rotisserie to keep every section warm! I couldn't imagine how the runners who had not prepared with a warm change of clothes were feeling! I prayed for them, and David, and waited.
Turned out this section took him 7.5 hours (my estimate was 5) so he showed up around 7:20am and we started "running" at about 7:35am (again, too much time in the aid station). The one upside of this was the sun had come up and it had warmed up a bit, in fact as soon as I started moving I was fine. At this point we had 5.5 hours to "run" 15 miles which sounds like a lot, however, at one point he was about 3 hours ahead of the cut offs, he had lost so much time in the last section he was now only 1 hour ahead. At this rate of decline he would not make the 30 hours and that would NOT happen on my watch!
I knew he didn't have the luxury of walking the final 15 miles like I did, I would need to make him run most of it, and not take a lot of time in the aid stations.
I was fine with this role and looked forward to it!
David was still doing really well -- he sat down by the fire and we got him food, whatever he needed but then he started to shiver and my "type A" driving personality made it's first showing, "lets get out of here"!
The first thing I noticed was that he was able to run (not fast, but definitely running) whenever I asked him to. This was in complete contrast to my experience in that I basically walked the final marathon of my race! He also argued with me much less than “Silent Bob”, who was not so silent when I asked him to run.
I was actually not sure how he could be so close to the cut offs. The first 1/2 of his race he ran at the 24 hour pace so he "banked" 3 hours, what was going on? He was still running, he had no blister issues, no hypothermia issues, no orthopedic issues (the knee pain had gone away), nutrition was good, really he was in amazing shape!
I figured it out in the next 15 miles, more on this later.
The next thing I noticed was that David is the polar opposite of "Silent Bob". With Bob, we can go for long, long stretches without saying a word (this is tough for me as I am more like "Chatty Bob" but once I get into it I actually like it, plus you can run faster when you don't talk). With David I quickly realized that keeping him talking would not be one of my jobs, in fact I couldn't get a word in most times!
This was another very good sign that he was running well within himself and we would not blow up or fall into a "death march" anytime soon.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the first section. He was running well, the weather was perfect, there was actually frost on the ground and the sun coming up glistening off of it was amazing. I kept trying to get him to be in the moment and take it all in. David is a spiritual guy so references to being thankful to the Lord for what he was able to do were touching him, I could tell!
Also, I won't lie, after 12 hours of crewing, driving, waiting and more waiting, it felt good to be actually running!
We made it to the first of our 2 aid stations (mile 89.6) very quickly (for this stage and based on his prior pacing) and gained 15 minutes on the cut off! It helped that the sun was up, the final 15 miles are the easiest of the race and that I was dead set on getting him there in under 29 hours (he doesn't know this till now) instead of 30 -- I wanted him to enjoy the end, not be freaking out about making the cut off!
I also was keeping a very, very cool secret!
I had been keeping his adult son up to date on his progress and he had told me he and his two daughters were planning on surprising him at the finish.
How freaking cool is that?
A great surprise and also an "ace in the hole" for me in case he ever tried to quit, I could leverage that little gem to get him to run on a broken femur!
Again, he tried to take his time at the aid station and I would not have any of it, in and out, we had to move!
The next 5-6 miles to the final aid station were un-eventful, I kept getting him to run as much as possible and kept a close eye on the clock.
He was doing great, I was getting confident he had this in the bag!
Another interesting observation occurred during this sections. Remember how I said people look, and act, like they are severely intoxicated in these things? Well, you know how a drunk person's personality tends to be an exaggeration of their "normal" personality?
The same thing happens in ultras. For example, I tend to be a bit (ok, a lot) of a Type A, Alpha Dog, controlling, all around jerk and during my 100 I am sure I was 10x my normal "jerkiness".
Well, David is a super nice, caring and type B personality and this was multiplied in the race. He was super nice to his team, all the volunteers, every other racer he meet, etc. He was also totally submissive to my orders! When I told him to run, 99% of the time he did! He did negotiate a bit on pace and distance, but for the most part he did whatever I told him.
Scary, I am very glad he picked someone who cared about his wellbeing!
There were even points where he would say "I really have to go to the bathroom, I am sorry, is that OK that I take a break".
Ask my pacers if that is what I did when I had to go! Or what I would say when my final pacer, Troy, asked me to run. Not so much.
What a great guy!
Of course, I said: "NO!". Lol.
We reached the final aid station and our time was about the same, about 1:15 ahead of the cut offs.
David wanted to sit down, see above, of course he asked me if that was OK. We then encountered the best, by far, aid station worker I have ever met. This woman had it all down perfectly -- giving him a list of options instead of asking him what he wanted, giving him hot fluids, checking on him but all the while keeping an eye on the clock (she didn't have to, I was doing that part the whole time) and making him feel well taken care of. He was getting a bit too comfortable so I said it's time to go!
5 miles to go to glory!
Now, he really thought he could walk it in from here and I could tell he was about to ask me if we could. I pre-empted this question by telling him we didn't have a lot of time and would need to run where ever we could.
Again, he probably could have walked the whole 5 miles and made it in 29:45 or so, but I didn't want that for him.
More importantly, I knew he was just tired -- he didn't have any major issues and was fully capable of running, at least the downhill’s and flats, so I was going to push the issue.
I could tell he heard me cause his whole demeanor changed and he started understanding what I was saying when I said "everything you do from here on in has to have a purpose and a feeling of purpose -- run with a purpose, eat with a purpose, walk with a purpose, drink with a purpose - gosh darn it, pee and poop with a purpose"!
As we got closer to the finish I started really pumping him up, getting him ready for his moment!
Once I knew the finish line was around the corner it was time to really get him moving.
He asked me, more than once, if I cried when I finished and I told him I did, when I saw my kids run up to me about a mile out. I think he was looking for permission to let it out as I could tell he was getting emotional.
So was I!
We could see the stadium and I hugged him and told him it was an honor to help him finish, he started to cry and so did I (I am tearing up writing this!). He could barely breath, not from running, but from the emotion -- and he hadn't even seen his family yet!
We turned the corner on the track and I said -- "Are you ready for the surprise?" (I had told him we had a surprise at the finish at about mile 99 but he didn't know what it was and was really mad at me at that point for making him run so he didn't really register what I was talking about). He said "what surprise"? I said, look at the finish line! He still didn't see them or get it so I said "How about those 3 people yelling DAD!" -- He got it and broke down!
What a cool moment!
He finished in 28 hours and 40 minutes (43% of the starters dropped out) -- he had made up 20 minutes of the time he had lost in the last 15 miles of a 100, what an accomplishment!
Praise, praise, praise God.
Without him, nothing is possible.
I was my pleasure and honor to be a small part of your day, David Y. Rest well!
Postscript: I was gone a total of 21 hours from Atlanta, probably driving 8-10 of those, running 4.5 hours and crewing and waiting the rest. Crazy but amazing.
Monday, September 22, 2014
** disclaimer, this blog has NOT been proofed, edited, spell checked, grammer checked or checked in any way, it is just my thoughts before they disappear into the abyss of my noise filled mind ****
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In late 2014, a race came on the calendar that I just had to do. It was called the "Barkley Fall Classic" - a scaled down version of the Barkley Marathons (very scaled down).
The Barkley Marathons is a race that is not widely known outside of the Ultra Running community, however, it is pretty much universally accepted as the hardest endurance event on the planet.
Really. This beast makes Ironman look like a local 5k.
The race takes place in Frozen Head State Park in central Tennessee. The story (I am doing this from memory so I am sure I am butchering the actual story, Google or Youtube "Barkley Marathons" and you will get the full story) goes that when James Earl Ray (the man who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King) escaped from the Brushy State Penitentiary (which is in or near Frozen Head), he only was able to make it 8 miles from the prison before he was captured.
55 hours after he escaped!
This gives you an idea of how tough the mountains are in this park, and how brutal the terrain is. Two guys were watching his escape and decided this would make a great place for an ultra marathon -- the Barkley Marathons were officially born!
The race takes place in March of each year and has its own very unique selection and interesting sign up procedures, etc. I won't go into a whole lot of detail but this is an ultra marathon definitely in it's own category. The race consists of 5 "20" mile loops (actually around 26 miles each) and the racers have 60 hours to complete it. Believe it or not (and I believe it now after being in that park) if they complete the whole 130 miles, they will have climbed and descended a total of 120,000 feet -- the equivalent of climbing and descending Mt Everest.....
There are also a number of things the race director does (like not telling people when the race will actually start, somewhere between midnight and noon, making them go in a different direction each loop and, this is the kicker, the course is totally unmarked -- they have to find their way using a map and compass -- no modern GPS allowed). He puts 5 books out in the woods and the racers have to pull a page from each book that corresponds to their race number to show they completed the whole course. More than once, racers have gone through all that pain and came back missing just one check point!
Imagine doing all this, while totally exhausted, in the middle of the night, after being up for 3 days straight.
Oh yea, and the weather can range from 20's and snowing to 90's. Lots of rain and fog that time of year.
So, it will come as no surprise that in its 30 year history (40 people are selected each year so over 1000 people have attempted) this race has a fairly low finisher rate.
OK, it actually has, by far, the lowest % of finishers of any race in existence (that I have heard of). 14 people have finished (no females, the farthest a female has made it is about 68 miles).
Yep, about a 1.4% finisher rate.
The race director (let's call him "Laz", cause that is his nickname) likes to say he has created an event at the edge of human limitations.
And he has.
So, none of us "normal" ultra runners would even attempt this race (or be accepted if we applied), but I have always been intrigued by how hard this terrain must be that it takes some people over 20 hours to do 1 lap. In fact, the man that holds the record for the shortest distance traveled covered just 2 miles....
In 32 hours!
So I just had to jump on the chance when they decided to create the "Barkley Fall Classic" - a "50k" that would be much tamer than the Barkley Marathons but would give you a "taste" of the terrain that makes up Frozen Head State Park! My questions of "how hard can this really be" would finally be answered!
So, how did it go?
Well, first of all, (again) I was not able to get in the specific type of training I would have liked to (long, sustained climbs and descents) beforehand but since I really had no idea what to expect, I was actually not nervous about this at all -- I figured I would take it as it comes and allow my spirit and faith to get me through the tough spots I knew I would get into. I was in good shape, but not in mountain shape.
I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
Add to this, 3 weeks before the race I sprained my right ankle, which I have done about 10 times before in varying degrees, which caused me to have a very light training week while I rehabbed it. I wasn't too worried, it was not the worst I have done and I have a good brace I could wear in the race so I wouldn't turn it again.
And again, I was completely wrong.
Race weekend, 9/19/14 - 9/20/14.
I talked a new running buddy, David "C" (made famous by running the last hours of the Death Race with me) into doing the race and traveling together. We met up Friday at lunch and headed up to TN, both of us very excited about a new adventure. It is always exciting to be a part of an inaugural race, especially one of this caliber and difficulty. David and I get along well, and have a banter that I only have with long term friends which is very fun and easy. He is also 10x as OCD and anxiety ridden as I am so it feels really cool to be the "calm and laid back one" in the group, not a common occurrence for me!
The first of God's wonderful interventions this weekend was a scheduling issue (my fault) that caused me to be at our meet up place around 30 minutes early, so I had time to do a calm, full Rosary and pray for everyone in the race (and other things). I prayed, as I always do, that God would open my heart and soul to a new and better version of myself by me doing this competition.
Or at least teach me something that I was needing to learn!
We got up there around 5pm and went straight to get our race bags and settle in. There was a planned showing of the new documentary about the Barkley and a pasta dinner scheduled for 7:15pm that we were signed up for.
I told my wife -- I traveling up to my favorite place, the mountains, to do an ultra marathon in the mountains and I am watching a movie about an ultra marathon in the mountains, in a room filled with like-minded ultra marathoners, who love the mountains as much as I do.
Heaven on earth, for me at least!
The movie was pretty cool, and amazingly inspirational -- I just cannot imagine that any human could finish this race -- with my sense of direction I would hopelessly lost after 2 miles and break the aforementioned record! The mental strength and tenacity that these competitors have was awe-inspiring and very motivational -- I was ready to "taste" this course!
Got a great nights sleep (David did not, remember, I am the laid back California surfer-dude in this "bromance") and headed to the park at around 6am (race started at 7am). When we got there we were both kind of disappointed that the parking lot was so neat and tidy and well organized. Somehow I think we both thought the suffering would begin even before the race began with terrible parking, bad directions, or no directions -- no such luck, they had more volunteers than I have ever seen at a trail race!
On a side note, it seems this race (which allowed 300 people to enter, sold out almost immediately and then had 100 people drop before the race even started, re-sold 100 more slots and still only had 240 show up to start) was the biggest event this town had ever seen and everyone from the high school kids to the Rotary Club to the Cattlemen's association (really) were out helping. Also, I am pretty sure a lot of the proceeds, if not all of them, went to benefit the town which is really, really cool.
Anyway, my calm feeling continued this AM, which was even more surprising cause I was traveling with someone -- I am normally a bit of a wreck when I travel to a race with friends as it messes up my pre-race prep and rhythm -- I am used to not having to think or worry cause I keep everything I need, and stuff I really never need, in my truck all the time so I don't really have to pack.
Again, David being so freaking nervous and high strung must have calmed me down a bit -- if you are reading this brother, thank you so much for being such an OCD mess!
One thing I was thinking about (again, not worried, just conscious of it) was that the trail marking would be minimal on this course and -- if you have read any of my books or blogs -- you know I can get lost on the best marked trail in existence. Because of this, I started in the middle of the pack instead of towards the back as I normally do, didn't want to have any situation where I was left alone to make my own (read: bad) decisions out on the trail this day!
Laz didn't give us much confidence as, in addition to the normal crappy throw away "swag" in our race bags there was a whistle and a very nice compass! Nice touch, sir.
The race started out with about a mile of road, which I really hate, and because I didn't want to get left behind I started without my normal 5-10 minute walk to warm up my tight, pain filled muscles and joints. Of course, everything started to hurt right away: My turned ankle, my right knee, my 15 year Achilles injury -- even my left big toe for some strange reason. Couldn't wait to warm up, have the endorphins start flowing and the joint pain go away (to be replaced with the wonderful race-specific pain that I knew was coming).
Speaking of what was coming, we did have very detailed maps (which I actually packed, in a waterproof holder and, never, not once, looked at it -- I would just let others make the decisions on this day) but they did not have an elevation profile so, except for seeing the telltale zig zag of switchbacks -- it was really hard to tell where the big climbs and descents would be.
Just the way I like it. Again, I think this added to my calm demeanor, as they say "ignorance is bliss".
The race hit the trail, we got to see the famous "yellow gate" that the Real Men and Women of the Barkley have to touch each lap to make it count and it went, straight up hill. For what felt like 5 miles.
I was feeling wonderful spiritually and attitude wise (lots of fun and happy banter the first hour in every ultra) and like total crap physically. I was not worried as the first hour of all of my long races start this way.
Basically, the race felt like a series of very long, tough climbs followed by long, not too technical descents and -- I was actually a bit disappointed again. I signed up for this to experience the rugged and unpredictable nature, at least a taste, of what Barkley is famous for. Trust me, it was physically tough but not unique or scary or rugged or remote.
I would not be disappointed for long.
After about 2 hours I caught up to David and he was not happy to see me! I was feeling good and very talkative at this point (I had warmed up) and he was not having a very good day.
I actually started to feel better and better as the day went on and was running up hills I would normally walk up and I was listening to great music and loving life and then.....
I turned my already sprained ankle, badly!
Could hardly walk, had to stop and let it calm down a bit before I started again. Pain eventually went away but I was running so tentatively on the downhill's (normally the only area I am somewhat strong on the trails) that, of course, I sprained it again on the next downhill -- even worse this time. I was limping for about 1/2 mile downhill.
On top of that, I smashed my head on an overhanging tree on a fast descent -- hard enough to see stars and cause a very nice gash my children really appreciated the next day!
Despite all this, I felt fantastic when we hit the turnaround at "mile 15" -- most racers' GPS's had this course at least 5 miles off, to the good for Laz of course -- David got 37 miles total so that is what I am going with, not that it really matters!
I was so looking forward to the "signature climb" called "Rat Jaw" which is a part of the actual Barkley course and, people told us the night before, we could expect to take up to an hour to climb.
By the way, it is .8 miles long.
So, we are running along, feeling good and thinking we were getting close to another aid station when we see this arrow in the ground, pointing up a mountain/power line that goes straight up.
And you cannot see any trail at all, just huge nasty looking briars. For a minute I thought it was a joke, then we looked closer and listened and you could see and hear "runners" buried all over this climb trying to get up it.
Now I was excited!
I put on my $2 work gloves that David convinced me to buy the night before and was ready to climb! Of course, I had to wait about 30 minutes for OCD David (his new nickname) to put on his full armor sweat suit cause he was afraid of hurting his sensitive skin. Seriously, he did cover his whole body -- probably a good move but I wanted to really experience this race so I went in with shorts and a t-shirt. Gloves were a very good idea, however.
This was, absolutely, my favorite part of the race and probably my favorite short climb in any trail race I have ever been in. There is really no way to accurately describe it unless you were there but I will try. Imagine climbing up a grade so steep that you have to get on your hands and knees to pull yourself up. Then add complete over growth, 90% of which is nasty large briars. I was pulling myself up, crawling, rolling, falling, laughing screaming and groaning at the same time.
It. Was. Awesome.
I also couldn't stop thinking that when they do the whole course, they have to go up, and down this, 5 times! In the middle of the night, with no course markers, with no sleep, with no aid. And it is usually cold and muddy.
They are truly a breed of humans apart from the rest of us.
We hooked up with some friends and found our way up. At times we would end up on the side of the briars on a semblance of a trail (when they got so thick you could not even move in them) which was still very tough due to the grade but didn't draw as much blood. Almost all of us ran out of water, we were really working hard and I, yes me, actually found a trail a couple of times to lead the group away from getting off trail! I didn't want this part to end!
When we finally got to the top I looked at my watch and could not believe it. 1 hour and 10 minutes to go .8 miles.
You do the math.
Looking back, I could have had the finish line of this race be at the top of rat jaw. I was spent, felt awesome, felt accomplished and had "tasted" enough of Barkley to understand how it could take someone so long to complete just one lap of this.
But this was not to be. To add to our misery we had to climb a watch tower to get our numbers punched and then move on to the next aid station.
Again, I was feeling fantastic, after this aid station we had a long (4 miles) descent that I felt so good on I ran the whole way (this may have been my undoing after climbing Rat Jaw I probably should have taken it easy down this and paid attention to my nutrition more), pacing off Joel and Rachel (running buddies from Atlanta) while listening to music the whole way.
Got to the "22 mile" aid station (closer to 26 miles) and still felt fantastic. I was, however, having huge cravings for something other than water to drink. The aid stations were very minimal and I get sick of just water after about 3 hours -- this was 7.5 hours into the race and I would have paid $20 for a cold Coke! David had 2 ice teas in his drop bag and he shared with me. Now, to his credit, he told me the ice tea he bought had a ton of sugar in it and I shouldn't drink too much.
It tasted so good so of course I guzzled the whole thing. And ate 3 chocolate chip cookies.
You can guess what happened about 30 minutes later.
On top of this, mentally I was in a space that "the hard stuff is over, the last "9" miles shouldn't take too long". I really should have listened when they explained the course. And that people got to put their hiking poles in their drop bags before this section. I just kept thinking after Rat Jaw nothing would be that tough.
I. Was. SO. Wrong.
We left the aid station and started up another climb and I started to feel bad almost immediately. My energy dropped, my stomach felt terrible and more than all of this -- my spirit, drive and desire to finish this thing completely left me.
You absolutely cannot explain this to anyone who has not done an ultra, and you don't have to explain it to them because it happens to all of us, all the time. You can be running down a hill, feeling fantastic, singing, appreciating nature, being thankful to the Lord for all your blessings and then, BAM, you feel like you are dying and questioning everything you are doing and everything you are.
I am not exaggerating, ask anyone who has run more than 5 hours straight.
I immediately tried to repeat the mantra "It never always gets worse" (think about it) but this state of mind, and sour stomach is sort of like clinical depression -- you cannot just "cheer up". It doesn't work that way. You just have to suffer through it, keep moving and pray it gets better.
I also took it as an opportunity to be grateful for suffering. Didn't work too well, but I did try.
My stomach was bad, and like an idiot (you don't think very clearly after 8 hours of constant effort) I thought that "maybe my blood sugar is just low" so I choked down a gel - and almost puked. I had just ingested about 50grams of pure sugar in 20 seconds that made me sick as a dog and my thought was that if I ingested another 25grams it would make me feel better.
Kind of like of having one more beer to "sober up". Ultra Brain.
The one thing I did realize, as this was how I felt in the Death Race, was that at this point I could go the rest of the race with virtually no nutrition and would have to because the thought of taking in anything, besides cold soda, which did not exist except back at the car, made me want to curl up and die.
So now, the deep, dark depression of ultra Marathoning settles in. The thoughts become totally self defeating and loathing. Your confidence disappears. Then the thought of quitting starts. Here is just a small sample of the flowchart of the downward spiral:
I feel like crap
Maybe if I just slow down I'll feel better
If I slow down too much I wont make the cutoffs
I am such a fraud, I don't belong out here
Lord, give me strength to get through this -- I promise I will take time off to heal and not do any long races for a long, long time.
*** interject here, on a tiny little downhill section I turned my bad ankle for the 3rd time, which leads to......
I am being so irresponsible running on an injured ankle, if I do permanent damage in this race I will be so disappointed in myself
****then, the dreaded .....
I am never going to make it to the finish feeling like this, I might drop at the next aid station (which was only 3 miles from the finish, btw, but again, like clinical depression I was not thinking straight)
How will I explain this to my family?
My Cross Country kids?
How can I possibly be so miserable and complaining to myself. I have such a great life, so many blessings, I brought this upon myself and when this is over I have a great home, family, creature comforts to go home to that so many people, especially homeless do not have.
I am a fraud.
I will tell everyone that dropping out was the smart thing to do, given the possibility of long term injury
I don't care what people think.
I don't have to prove anything to anyone.
This race is incorrectly measured so I have already "run" 31.5 miles, which means I have already completed a 50k, what do I care about some stupid finish line or medal?
I hate this
Why do I do this to myself, over and over.
Why did I think I could run a 12 hour race when my longest training run was 5 hours? On much easier terrain?
Why didn't I train more?
I can't believe I won't even be able to enjoy the finish because I will have dnf'ed and feel so bad I cannot eat or even drink a beer (believe or not this was a common thread in my thinking, if I dropped out I would hate the finish line)
How bad will it smell in the car when I drive back with the aid station people that take me home after I drop out? I will open the window to save them (this one I thought about a lot and what I would tell them about why I dropped. Seriously, I was out of my head)
I am never doing another race longer than 5 hours
I have nothing to prove to anyone
What is wrong with me?
This thought process went on for about 2 hours. I varying degrees, getting worse and then better when I decided I would drop, then worse again when I questioned myself.
On top of this, I was climbing as slow as I could possibly walk without falling over. I have only stopped during a climb to take a break maybe 5 times in my life, and I stopped and sat down at least, no exaggeration, 20 times during this climb. Every time I saw a log, or rock that looked comfortable I would sit down. Then it got so bad I just sat on the ground. Then anywhere. Then I took pictures of my legs, no idea why. Then I sent a text to my wife that I was quitting due to my ankle.
At one point I actually laid down, in the middle of the trail, looking up at the sky and groaning.
Not ashamed to admit I almost broke down crying at that point. Lucky for me another runner came by and thought I was dead which broke me out of my miserable self loathing moment.
Another runner gave me a mint.
Another runner gave me ginger.
I ended up climbing with two other guys, both hating it as much as me (one was puking as well - gave him my other mint to see if would help - it didn't) and stopping as much as me.
After we finally got to the top of this climb (btw, it had a false summit that I was able to shuffle down -- I had firmly decided I would walk to the next aid station, not matter what the terrain, since I was quitting anyway) I started to move a little faster.
Then, somehow, I started running! Before I knew it, I actually felt better -- I hadn't eaten anything or drank any water in almost 2 hours and this must have cleared my stomach problem.
Praise the Lord! I was feeling better, my mood was improving!
Ironically, my legs actually felt really good all day. Besides from the painful ankle, and terrible blisters on my left foot because I was favoring that leg, I really did not have any leg problems at all. It was just an overall exhaustion and mental and spiritual depression I was going through.
By the time I reached the final aid station my mood was almost as good as the morning and thoughts of quitting were a distant memory. Thinking back, I was so far ahead of the cut offs I probably could have walked from the base of the final climb to the finish and make it back in time.
I ate 3 potato chips and poured water over my head.
Found a great playlist on my iPod.
Thanked the volunteers (little did they know but one hour earlier I had decided they would be driving me back and smelling the worst smelling human in their lives) and headed down the final descent.
The people at the aid station told me it was "3.2 miles downhill" and I said, with a touch of anger, "you better be serious, not more "Laz Miles" here, right". They promised me they worked for the State of TN and could not lie.
Looking back, that was pretty funny.
I was going to finish this darn thing!
I ran almost all the way back, a few walking breaks and was thankful and grateful to our Lord the whole time -- I know it was he who brought me out of that terrible, dark place. I was singing again, praying, talking to my Father in Heaven and loving life.
This 4+ hours of the race (I left the "ice tea" aid station at 7.5 hours and finished in 11:39) were the perfect metaphor for our lives.
You can be going along, feeling wonderful, and life can just kick you in the ass without any warning and you can ask God why and get no answer. And you can suffer for a long time, with no end in sight. But if you have faith, and stay the course, and just keep moving, not matter how slow -- God will always bring you out.
And that is the lesson I learned, for the 100th time, in the Barkley Fall Classic.
That, and a cold beer after you finish something like this is one of the best tasting things on earth.
Thank you, Laz, and all the volunteers and everyone involved for a small taste of the Barkley Marathons.
For now, that was more than enough for me
God bless you all.