Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why and HOW do you run 100 Miles?

 Photo: Rami finishes the Pinhoti 100 Trail Ultra run in 26 hours & raises $8700 for the Central Night Shelter!


Why and How do you run 100 miles?

Ah, where to begin?

Might as well begin at the end.

I finished my 100 mile journey! 

26 hours and 52 minutes of pure joy, pain, more pain, more joy and finally, overwhelming gratefulness, peace and relief!

It has taken a bit to get this blog out, not because I have not been writing, but because I have been writing too much!  As of today, I have put down on paper over 100 pages for my next book, all related to the Pinhoti 100.  I had to think a bit about what, if anything, to put in the blog….

The question was, this is all good for my editor to cut to pieces, but what do all my faithful (I think I am up to 4 now) blog readers actually want to hear out of this 100+ pages?

I finally decided that, instead of sharing the “gory details” of the race (you will have to wait for the book, if you are even remotely interested in these, which should be out in early 2013), I would share the lessons I learned along the way!

As I am sure you can imagine, the number one question I get, over an over, from my non-ultra-running friends, family, FormWell members, etc is…….


My 2 favorite answers, even though I know they come across as a bit egotistical are:

-         It is a finish line you have to cross to understand
-         If you have to ask the question, you wouldn’t understand the answer

To expound on this a bit from a personal viewpoint, I recently wrote a whole chapter in my 2nd book about my reasons why.  Here are the “highlights”:

1.    Because I can
2.    Because I am blessed to be able to
3.    Because I feel really alive when I do it
4.    Because I really, really like it
5.    Because it brings me closer to God
6.    Because I pray more often,
7.    and better,
8.    and longer, during and after
9.    Because it makes me a better father,
10.                       Friend,
11.                       Husband,
12.                       Business owner
13.                       Because it calms me down
14.                       Because it excites me
15.                       Because it challenges me, helps me find my limits
16.                       Because I am competitive and want to see how well I can do (not much of a “why” lately but used to be)
17.                       Because I want to stay young at heart
18.                       Because I enjoy nature
19.                       Because I can do it with my family
20.                       Because my social life revolves around it
21.                       Because it is one of the only things that makes me feel “raw”
22.                       Because others don’t do it – I like being different
23.                       Because others do it – I like being around like-minded people
24.                       Because it gives me purpose
25.                       Because I can.

So, that gives you a small idea of the “why”.  I realy think the best way to truly answer this question is to join me on a trail run.  Almost everyone (almost, some still think I am nuts after trying it) who goes out on a trail run starts to understand a bit of why I love it so much.

Now, on to the “How”, the second most common question I get.

There are many ways to get to the start, and finish, line of an Ultra Marathon.  In fact, I would venture to guess that of the 240 people that signed up (btw, if you like statistics, 192 actually started (a 20% DNS rate), 107 finished (a 44% DNF rate) and I was 54th overall almost exactly in the middle of the finishers – not that any of that really matters), there were 240 different “plans” on how to approach this race.

I will share with you what worked for me, and more importantly, how this might become a “blueprint” for any very large, scary and worthwhile goal you might have in your life!

To begin, I will be completely honest.  Sometimes, well most of the time, I really don’t know how I do and did this.

I am not a natural runner.  I am not a natural at anything athletic, except perhaps bowling and billiards.  I am larger by many, many pounds than your average ultra-runner.  I run about 50 – 75% of the weekly volume that I see most of my ultra-running friends doing.  I did not run cross-country or play any “normal” competitive sports as a child, except 2 years of little league baseball.

For some reason, I am able to finish events that, for the most part, I should not be able to.  This is not bragging, it is really just my honest assessment of where I am as an athlete.

As I look back and “connect the dots”, as Steve Jobs so eleqountly put it before his untimely death, I find some things that I think might have helped me finish and might help you, the reader, finish whatever “ultra” you are attempting in life.

The Physical first:  put in the miles AND do the weight training and core work.

I won’t spend a lot of time on this as there are plenty of people out there who know way more than I do about this side of the sport.   I will say, however, that putting in the long miles is 100% necessary (i.e., the CrossFit people who think they can finish one of these without doing any endurance running).  In addition, I feel that consistent weight training and core work, even during the peak of the run training, is 100% necessary also.

It becomes very clear, after you obtain a certain level of aerobic conditioning, that this race is more about muscular strength and mental focus than it is about your V02 Max or Lactate Threshold (at least for us “just wanna finish” athletes).  I cannot imagine getting to this start line uninjured and strong enough to finish without the consistent (2-3 sessions per week) CrossFit, Functional and Traditional Weight Training workouts I did.  I am sure there are people who can get away with just running, but I feel they are few and far in-between.

Just my humble opinion.  And it is not influenced by the fact that I own a fitness club, at all.  Really.

Commit and be accountable.

I do best when I have concrete and measureable goals.  I also do best under pressure, i.e, picking a goal like the 100 miler that was really outside my “box”.  I didn’t tell a lot of people this before my race, but I was more frightened about this race than I had ever been before, for any athletic event I had previously attempted.  I was nervous before other races, but for most of them I had either completed the actual distance in training, or a huge % of the distance (i.e., for Ironman I had completed all of the 3 distances, just not all in one day, for my 53 miler I had done a 40 miler in training, etc).

Before this race, my longest run was just over 50% of the race distance, and would end up being about 44% of the longest previous amount of time I had run continuously.  in fact, my biggest volume week was only about 80 total miles!

So, this was a big “stretch” goal.  This kept me focused on the prize, which was crossing that finish line in under 30 hours.

Once I signed up (for the 2nd time) for this race, I designed a plan and committed to completing as much as the training as my body, mind, spirit and life circumstances would allow.

For the most part, I stuck to this commitment. 

I also made myself more accountable to more people for this race than I had ever done before.  I am a person who tends to tell a lot of people about his goals, and this was the “mac-daddy” in my book. 

I told all my friends.  I told everyone I knew at church and asked for prayers from everyone I knew who was religious.  I told and emailed, repeatedly, everyone on our email list at work.  I blogged about the training almost every week for 16 weeks. I spent more time talking about it on Facebook than ever (wow, what a “time stealer” that is, will have to detox in the coming weeks). I used this race to raise money for a good cause and this allowed me to reach out to our whole church to ask for donations.  I convinced 3 friends who train with me to be my pacers and run almost 60 miles of the race with me.  I convinced family and friends to be there the whole weekend.

With all of this on the line, plus my own internal drive to finish what I start, I left myself with…..

 No options

One of the things I heard many times from people leading up to this race was “I am going to do my best, but if it isn’t in the cards I will just pull out and sign up for another 100 miler”

This was not an option for me.

I think this might have been the true driving force to get me through the training and the race. 

It bears mentioning here that getting through the training and to the starting line un-injured and ready to race is an ultra in itself.  As mentioned previously, there were 240 people signed up and only 192 actually started (20% DNS – Did Not Start rate).  There were also a ton of people who did show up to the start but were definitely not at 100% - various injuries, sicknesses, etc.  Not the way you want to begin a 30 hour running journey.

I went into this race with a “do or die” mentality.  Not really die, but in my mind, they would have to pull me off this course for medical reasons or because I was behind the time cutoffs before I would DNF.  This was a HUGE sacrifice for me and my family and I did not want to feel that I had to do it again.

So I went in, truly, with no options.  I think this is how we should approach everything in our lives that means something to us.  Staying married.  Being an engaged and loving parent.  Keeping your business moving forward and alive in hard times.  Staying committed to your religious life.  Staying true to your values, morals and goals in life.

I think that in today’s society, we attempt great and difficult things, such as a life long marriage, but do not put a great effort or drive into them. This was not how I approached this race.

No options.

I went into this race with a singular focus.  I would rather sacrifice my time, sleep, etc. for a one time amazing goal than commit only partially with the thought of “if it gets too hard, I will just pull out and do another race”.

I arrived at the start line as close to 100% as a person could be.  Interestingly, most of the nagging injuries I had during training did not bother me at all during the race – this I attributed to 2 things, the almost unbearable amount of pain in my feet that suppressed all other pain and, more importantly, the incredible amount of people praying for me.

Prayer, by me and for me

I think that this, by far, was the determining factor in my finishing this race.  I cannot count how many people that were praying the Rosary, praying silently, praying in groups before, during and after the run, etc.  My own religious journey also took a "quantum leap" forward in 2012 so my own prayer time was more than ever before, including on each and every training run!

My faith that prayer works was never more evident than on 11/3 – 11/4/12.  I could literally feel the uplift that comes with a prayer coming my way and I know that during my down times, the prayers helped me to trust that things would get better if I just stuck it out, not worse. 

I felt God with me from the minute I woke up (at 2:30am Saturday, btw) till I crossed the finish line at 8:52am Sunday! 

Prayer works, period.

Do something you love as a “BHAG”

At my first ultra I got to hear David Horton (an ultra running stud, for sure) speak about “BHAG’s”.  What is a BHAG, you ask.


He, of course, was talking about ultra running at levels I will never see (never say never, I know, maybe when I am retired and kids are out of the house) like running across the US or running the whole Appalachian Trail.

But his point was well taken, and it was about having goals that scare you, put you outside of your box, challenge you and have a pretty high chance of failure.

These are the goals that are worth fighting for, in my book.

In order to achieve a BHAG, I feel you can “stack the deck” by making it something you love to do to start.

By now it is no secret that I LOVE trail running.  It is really one of my favorite things to do.

This being said, this was a HUGE amount of running for me, in training and in the race, to achieve this goal.  Even with my love of running, there were times, more than once, that I wanted to quit a training session.

I also love alone time and love being alone on the trails.  Again, there were many times, especially when I was training “tired” and the training runs got over 4 hours that I craved some human contact and conversation.

The point here is, if you want to do something “epic” as we are fond of saying in the endurance sports world, start with an activity you truly love. 

It won’t be easy, for sure.  But it will be a heck of a lot easier than if you pick something that you only marginally like, or deep down don’t like at all.

Team Effort

Ultra Running, and running in general, is at it’s core, a solo endeavor.   You are relying on yourself, your physical strength, your mental toughness and your spirit to finish each workout and race. 

This is one of the reasons I love it so much.

However, this event was really all about my “team”. 

First of all, my family and friends supported (for the most part) what I was planning to do.  This helps a ton as I know others who love this sport but struggle with a non-supportive spouse and/or family. I cannot imagine how hard that is.

I took a team of 10 people with me to Alabama that weekend.  My family, crew and pacers.  They were all there to support me and I cannot thank them enough for their time and sacrifice to help get me to the line.

My wife and I decided it would be best for me to go the night before by myself.  I was pretty darn nervous and would be trying to get to bed by 7;30pm, not a good recipe to bring family and friends along. 

This was a great decision and worked out perfectly.

We also decided, due to the logistics of following a point to point race and getting to all the aid stations, that the first time I would see them would be at the 41 mile aid station.  About 9 -10 hours into the race and on top of the highest mountain in Alabama.

This was another great decision.  My low point of the race was actually from mile 27-35 (due to heat and stomach issues, which, btw, continued to plague me for the rest of the race).  Knowing that I would see my whole family and friends at mile 41 kept me going and really was the highlight of the race for me.

Except for the finish, of course.

My team motivated me with hugs, cheers and really cute and funny signs.  We all wore the same shirts that promoted the homeless shelter we were raising money for.  My pacers were fantastic and kept me company and alive during the really low times during the night. 

I don’t know if I would have finished without them, and if I did it would not have been nearly so sweet.

You might think you can achieve BHAG’s alone, but I am here to tell you, you really cannot.

Make it not only about you!

Training for and completing a 100 mile Ultra Marathon is a very selfish thing to do.  Anyone who tells you it is not is not being truthful with you, or themselves. 

When I decided to fully commit to this goal, I wanted it not to be a completely selfish act.  I wanted to give the glory and thanks to God that I could even attempt this and give something to those in need.

So I decided to make this run a fund-raising event.

Months before the start, I met with the head of our church (who, btw, was also part of my team as he drove 2 hours to the start to give me a blessing before I headed out – amazing) to decide which charity to raise money for.  Pretty quickly we both decided we wanted to do something local. Large charities are wonderful but a lot of the money you raise goes to administrative costs.  We wanted every penny to go to those who needed it!

We decided on The Night Shelter, a homeless shelter for men in downtown Atlanta.

I am involved with this shelter through the men’s club at my church.  We go down there 2x a year to feed the men and spend the night with them.  It is really an eye-opening experience and, trust me, you will have a tough time complaining about your life or circumstances after you spend time down there.

I also decided to have people sponsor me per mile, instead of a flat donation.  This was a partly selfish act as I knew it would help motivate me to keep pushing on, as each mile would be more $ for the men in need!

Making this race not all about me was a wonderful decision and helped my training and my motivation to finish. 

As of this writing, we are actually inching up towards $100 per mile (my original goal was $30 per mile)! 

I did my best to run for God and God rewarded me by allowing me to finish. 

How do I feel now?

Peaceful.  Complete. Blessed and Thankful.   Still a bit sore and tired, but that is a good thing!

I am so thankful that God allowed me to start and finish this race.  I cannot imagine how people in my situation (those looking to do this just once) felt the day after if they DNF’ed.

This race changed me, on a very deep level, in ways I cannot truly articulate yet.  More on that later but know that the changes are all positive and amazing.  Just ask my family and friends!

What is Next?

This is probably the 4th most common question I get: 1. “Why”, 2. “How”, 3. “How bad did it hurt and what were your high and low points” and then 4. “What’s next”?

I am not surprised when people ask this question.  After all, those that know me well know that in 2008 I did my first off road run, a 10k that took me 51 minutes and slowly increased my training and racing distances up to a 40 miler in 2009, a 53 miler in 2010 and now a 100 miler in 2012!

The common assumption is that I would attempt 120 miles, or 150 or 200 miles in my near future.

So, what is next? 

Honestly, I don’t know and really am not thinking to much about it right now.

I will tell you this, unless something drastically changed in my life (like winning the lottery, which I don’t ever play) – I will not train and do another race of this distance again.

I am so committed to this statement, I told my final pacer, Troy “B”,  that his job did not end after running with me for 32 miles and 10 hours.  His job was just beginning: To make sure I don’t sign up for another one of these when the pain and agony wore off!

I also had my wife film me at the end, saying I will never do this again.

I am serious about this.

It is not the pain I felt during the race, although it was beyond anything I have ever felt at times.

It is the sacrifices I needed to make to get to the start line.

Even though I trained much less than most of my friends, I still committed a huge amount of my weekly free time to running, traveling to running places, prepping for runs, recovery from runs, eating for runs,  etc.

As mentioned, I absolutely love trail running and this experience was amazing and life changing, really.

But, for now, it was a “bucket list” item to be checked off.

A “one and done”.

I know I am serious about this because I did it with my Ironman race.  One was more than enough for me.

Many people asked me, and I know even more thought it but didn’t verbalize it;  Do you think this level of running is healthy?

Here is my answer.  I really think we are meant to run long distances, specifically in nature (not on roads).  I think that if you have the time to commit to this lifestyle in a balanced, healthy way (i.e., keeping the volume of running appropriate for your body, great nutrition, low stress, 8-10 hours of quality sleep per night, etc.) that this is a VERY healthy way to live.

That being said, an “almost 50 year old” married man with 2 young children, who is running a small business cannot possibly approach this in a healthy level.

Unless he sacrifices something important in another area of his life.

I was more than willing to sacrifice for 4-6 months to achieve this goal and have absolutely no regrets that I did. 

I will not continue to sacrifice to do another.   I have other things I want to do with my life.

Please don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the addiction and pull to do more than one of these races.  And I would be lying if I told you that, after the pain subsided a bit, I didn’t start second-guessing my race performance.

But this pull is nothing compared to the pull of my family, my religious journey and my career.

This does not mean, of course, that I will quit trail running.

I will take some time to think about what appeals to me and shoot for that goal!

Right now I am thinking of taking up golf or joining a bowling league J

Thank you all for joining me on this journey.  Of course, the journey never ends, it will now just change, to what I have no idea and I am ok and happy with that.

God Bless you all!

11/15/12 – 11 days “AP” (after Pinhoti)

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