The lottery gods are good to me. I am humbled to announce I get to go back to my favorite race, and there have been many. The original 100 miler, the Western States Endurance Run in sunny California. It was my fourth year in the lottery since my 2013 race when I somehow got pulled to run with one single ticket. This year, I had 8 tickets (your ticket number doubles ever year not selected). To get to run it twice so close together is magical. I am extremely grateul and take none of this for granted. My Hardrock dream however continues to make me wait. Looks like it is going to be a speedy and heat training kind of training cycle (I also have my 6th Boston to look forward too). The rest of my year is TBD. The Grand Slam looms and I will decide on that or something else equally epic very soon. #ws #seeyouinsquaw
Archive for Trail running
Pre-race Goal Setting & Strategy
The Vermont 100 aka the VT100, was probably my first real race since school XC days that I approached it without any fixed goals. No time splits, average pace stuff and no finish time predictions. I did have one clear goal however; to run as fast as possible from start to finish ‘feeling good’. But that was it, nothing more. A new approach to running a very long way.
My former runner brain told me to be obsessed with breaking 20 hours. I knew the course would potentially allow for this with a great race but I respected and trusted my coach to guide me into a new way of setting running goals. By running on feel, my ability would do the talking for me. Perhaps I would break 20 anyway or maybe it would be 22 or the flip of that, 18? By not obsessing over numbers, I no longer would be able to feel like I was ahead or behind during the race (goodbye anxiety and stress). Just look at what Kilian produced at Hardrock the week prior. He ran ‘easy’ for 70 miles and then took off for the last 30 because he felt so good. He even dropped his more than capable pacer (Rickey Gates) because he began moving so fast. But alas, I am not Kilian, nobody is, but I and we can learn from the best and their style of running.
The day prior to traveling up to Vermont, I listened to my trusty source of trail running tips and humor from Trail Runner Nation. It was ironically fitting that the topic of conversation was Vermont and how to race on feel with guests Jimmy Dean Freeman – attempting the six original 100-milers in 13 weeks(!!) and my coach, Ian. For those intrigued, here’s a link to the podcast to what I’m talking about by running on feel;
Listening to this was like getting a last-minute pep talk. Just in case, I wanted to say screw it, this approach sounds so vague, listening to this reassured me, this was how to do it. The detailed OCD sub-20 hour plan I had scribbled on my elevation profile chart weeks earlier was handed over to my crew on the 5-hour drive north Friday morning. Luckily for me, I had never re-read it to memorize any of it. It was now just a very basic guide to where I would possibly be for my crew of Tiffany, Francis and Rui (both paced me at Leadville in 2012) at each major aid station. Typical of them, they didn’t blink an eyelid to my very new approach which speaks so highly of who they are. They respected my strategy even though it would make it harder for them to track me down. Tip 1 for new 100 mile runners – get awesome crew!
Like Jimmy did recently at Western States three weeks prior, I couldn’t quite tear myself away from all my race data and planned to wear my heart rate (HR) monitor for the first 20 to 30 miles to guide me, capping my efforts at 150 bpm up the early climbs. And of course I would have my Garmin Fenix to keep track of all the data, yet I set my screen to only show elapsed time and my HR information.
July 19th – Race Day
Waking up at 2:15am Saturday morning felt anything like it. I had managed four hours of shut-eye and I was now ready to get going, my adrenaline was in full force. First things first though; a blood test. I was perfectly steady in the mid-100’s and I went to the kitchen to consume a couple of bowls of Honey Nut Cheerio’s, a yogurt, granola bar and a banana. Feeding the body calories now seemed to be the best move knowing a few hours later on in the day, I would not be craving real food so enthusiastically.
In the dark fields of Silver Hill Meadow, 300 runners set off down a wide dirt road at 4am. As I had been warned, some runners leapt out in front at marathon pace. My extent of course knowledge was limited to knowing what sections were up or down and the names of aid stations only because I was carrying a laminated course elevation chart in my shirt pocket. I was basically out there just following yellow plates with black arrows or the guy ahead of me hoping he or she was paying attention. After a mile or so of road, the route turned sharp right onto a trail with some rocks and mud (that I was surprised to see on the course) and we began the first climb of what would be many. The course was renowned for being a relentless series of hills in humid conditions. Nothing too long or too steep but it would equate to 14,000 feet of ascent by the time we had covered the distance. This was great prep for Tahoe 200 (40,000 feet) and was a big factor why I was here. We all lucked out on the humidity factor though. This was not to be a hot race compared to years past. On one hand, I looked back and was annoyed I had put in all those runs in Central Park with four layers on for what?! But on the other, I was relieved. 100 miles is hard enough without having to drown in sweat all day and worry about body temperature.
After an hour and change, the headlamp came off. The sun hadn’t quite risen but the openness of the land plus the non-technical terrain allowed me to be free of my Petzl Nao’s mega bulb. That headlamp is serious business people, highly recommended! At 5 miles, a hike up Densmore Hill was the first time to test out my strategic patience. Being able to resist the run and hike up gradients seems to be all part of the game at Vermont. This early on, everything feels great, my goal was to feel great all day long. Lots of folks around me pushed on while I went to power hike mode. My HR hovered at 151 and I knew I was now at my limit.
My ‘feeling good’ approach to the race took its first turn south at mile 10 however. Some very abnormal stomach cramps set in and I scrambled to figure out what was going on. After a little internal freak out, I nailed it down to nothing more than nature calling and took a detour into the woods (note; this was not someone’s property line! Last year, a runner pooped in a local’s blueberry bush which as you can imagine, caused quite the stir in town). Of course, this ordeal meant losing some time but the bigger picture was that I immediately felt better. Embarrassingly to admit, this scenario played out another five times throughout the first half of the race! I took the positive spin on this that I was definitely not going out too fast with all of these breaks.
Apart from my bathroom needs, the legs, lungs and mind were all feeling great. “How am I feeling?” was the question I would repeatedly ask myself. This could be to do with anything from drinking, getting calories down, salt pills, blood glucose levels or my effort level. The various topics were the same from mile 1 to mile 100. It was like the wheel of fortune landing on a different number (in my case, topic) each time. Doing so took focus and is why I didn’t care when I read in the pre-race literature that music was banned from the course. To not have any music as a distraction for me over 100 miles would be a first but my assumption of the rule was that running alongside horses was probably deemed a fairly dangerous situation! That’s right, this race was run alongside horses!
Sidenote: For those not in the know, this 100 mile malarkey that I can’t seem to get enough of came about 41 years ago because of a 100 mile horse race gone wrong for a guy called Gordy out in California. His horse went lame so the next year he ran the distance on foot and finished it in just under 24 hours. The next year more runners showed up and that race became known as the Western States 100. I talk about it from time to time!
This was my (and likely many others) first time ever running a race alongside horses. It took some good communication skills from both the rider and runner how to let the four-legged guys go by without any ugly mishaps. When the first horse ran up behind me (their race started an hour or so behind ours), I shifted to the left of the trail slowly and let them by while still running. The guy in front of me took a slightly different approach leaping off the trail and then standing still, looking petrified! Either he was in for a long day of this or I was doing something very wrong and about to find out about it.
To my surprise, I caught back up to one of the handful of horses that passed when descending a somewhat steep stretch and passed them back. “Oh. Think you’re getting away from me do you?!” heckled the rider to me. I assured her my ego was not that big that I thought I was going to beat her horse, I just wasn’t much enjoying standing behind a big horse. These were the only occasions you would (if dare) rarely pass them. The other time would be when they were drinking from their troughs on mandatory 45-minute breaks. While we ate gummy bears, M&M’s and gels, our four-legged friends were more into grains, carrots and apples (I am not a horse expert – a rider kindly filled me in on all this info).
One of the highlights of the day came early descending a long hill to Stage Road aid station. The runner ahead turned as I approached and said “Oh, I thought you were a horse!” In any other scenario, I would have taken being called a horse as highly offensive but this was one of the highest compliments I think you can say to a runner on the Vermont course! All I was doing was letting the grade take me downhill swiftly refusing to break to try to save my quads. It resulted in quite the fast pace, definitely nothing manageable for a long period of time.
At 30 miles in, the legs began to finally get that tingly sensation in them, the kind all ultra runners know. At this point I had caught up to Keila and Karen (running together) and felt a bit more assured when Karen mentioned her legs felt the same way. All three of us ran into Stage Road aid together and saw a bunch of our friends there. It was like Cayuga 50 all other again, so fantastic to see so many friendly faces.
Rui ushered me over to the crew area like I was a plane needing fuel which wasn’t far from the truth. My blood glucose was now 98 and it was time to get some carbs in to push that number back up. My crew had everything ready spread out on a blanket (I heard later kids looked enviously on at the goodies on display).
This was a bit smoother than the first aid station at Pretty Horse ten miles earlier. Tom (Elaine’s fiancé and crew chief) had asked me if I wanted my drop bag. “Drop bag?” (I didn’t have any) I said, “No. Where’s Tiffany?” I then turned to my right to see a very stressed and fast approaching Francis and Rui charging towards me. I got a good chuckle out of it, they didn’t find it so funny as they were about a minute from missing me.
While Tiffany was getting more ice into my bandana and cap, Rui was grabbing me foods and drink that I requested for my pack which left Frankie rubbing Aquaphor on my legs. Bug spray, sunscreen, by whoever was free next and then off again. What may sound like chaos was fairly well controlled, everyone with a job to do. All hands were on deck at aid stations but these interchanges were definitely the highlights of the day for me. Giving them a review of the last X miles, how I felt at that given moment and then normally me making an awful joke about something. This was what it was about, having fun with my friends while doing something crazy because after all, 100 miles is crazy. I’m fully aware.
Through the second and final covered bridge (Lincoln) of the day at mile 40 took me towards the hardest climb yet up to Barr House. I had asked my buddy Tony Carino a week before for course knowledge (he ran a sub-20 in 2013) and he said everything was runnable until 70. I forgot to remind myself that Tony is a monster climber!!! I happily put my head down and hiked the steep pitch up until finally reaching an unmanned table with water and Gatorade – the sign that the climb was over.
By now, I had discarded my heart rate monitor. I was well into my groove so had no need to risk chafing my torso for some almost irrelevant heart rate readings going forward. As the sun was now up, my concern was more on staying cool with ice, hydrating smart and getting calories in constantly. My stomach pains were coming and going but now they were more to do with the running. Luckily, my palette was taking well to Honey Stinger waffles so I went through a good few of those which clocked up 160 calories each time. I knew by keeping some sort of food in my hand as much as possible, it would remind myself to keep grazing. As for now, this food plan was working like clockwork.
I arrived at Camp 10 Bear, mile 47 (the main aid station which doubled as mile 70 where I would pick up my first pacer later) expecting a carnage of people and cars, much like you get at Winfield in Leadville. But this was Vermont and although one of the major four 100 mile races in the States, this was not what I call a big aid station. The welcome and energy from other crews made it great regardless. I hopped on the scales and hoped to see no weight loss from my Friday medical. One pound up in fact. I blame those waffles!
Shy of halfway, all was going well. How did I know? Because I asked myself “How are you feeling?” and all that mattered was my answer to that question time and time again. My crew brought me lunch as we had discussed the importance of real food as much as possible. A toasted bacon and cheese panini sandwich with arugula. Remember tip 1 for new 100 mile runners? Get awesome crew! I took half of the sandwich with me, restocked the bag and rolled on. Tiffany and Rui checked in with me as they were more aware than me that I was moving well and well under the taboo time of sub-20 but I assured them I was running my own race and was feeling good. The sandwich was a challenge however. It took me well over an hour to eat it. My stomach could handle waffles but this was a different story. My body was beginning to fight back, that darn stomach of mine.
At the halfway point according to my GPS ‘during my lunch hour’ I caught up with Otto climbing up to Pinky’s. Otto is quite simply a nut job. He runs more 100’s than I run training runs and is incredibly funny, I just can’t figure out if he means to be funny! He was in shock to see me coming from behind when I welcomed myself. “What are you doing here?!” he said in shock seeing me behind him. Otto is famous in our ultra circle for starting out fast and crawling home, but always making it home. I don’t think he has ever quit any of his many races. My response was simply “What are you doing here?!” He then questioned the situation “Either you are slow today or I am doing something wrong”. We laughed about it and pushed on ahead wishing him luck, not that he needed it. He just needed to pace himself and would be on for 21-22 hours. I knew where I was too now. I was just over 9 hours on the clock and my mind started to drift ahead to a sub-18 goal. This was probably a bit suicidal but I knew I was in that mix, especially if I could get to my pacers feeling OK. I remembered my strategy quickly though going back to the present “How am I feeling?” and continued on up the hill.
At Pinky’s aid, I wasted no time passing a weary looking Kevin Shelton-Smith looking to feast on all the goodies to get out of his low. He had bombed off the front with Brian Rusiecki (the race favorite), something Kevin likes to do. I wasn’t just passing my friends from NYC though, I was clipping off new friends too and having great conversations or small talk with all of them from Megan running solo to Dave who I recognized from Western States last year to high-fiving Jimmy Dean who I had barely met a few hours earlier when we small talked about his podcast. I love the interaction in this sport because the respect for one another is honest and we truly care for each other out there no matter how much we want to beat the other to the line.
A long ascent got me to mile 58 and the Seven Sees aid. It was the last crew meet up before pacers as they would skip Margaritaville because Francis had to get ready to pace me back at Camp 10 Bear. I knew he of all people was sad to miss out on that aid station! As rumors had it, this pace was decked out to the nines and would be my number one place to volunteer at in the future. They turned me down for an ‘adult drink’, not because I didn’t have ID but because I was too early the volunteer told me! 38 miles with a margarita on board might not have made the most sense anyway.
I had definitely taken a cut back on my calorie intake the last 20 miles. My stomach was struggling to accept anything. What drove me forward with momentum was the excitement of getting to run with my pacers soon. Up and over a climb, I ran strong into Camp 10 Bear. At 70 miles, it was the furthest I had ever run solo (Tahoe 200 will have the same rule in effect). Back on the scales for the public weigh-in, I had now lost my one pound from mile 46 and was back to square one. Tiffany offered me the other half of the sandwich from lunch to which I almost vomited just thinking about real food. My stomach was definitely my weakest link. I pretended to myself this wasn’t an issue but I knew it was or would eventually be. With the sun going down, I decided to ditch the hat and neck bandana which had been my ice holders all day long in the sun. But I kept the pack on, kept the same shoes and socks on. I wanted to simulate Tahoe as much as possible.
My only change was a fresh shirt and I was set for Francis to be my companion for the next 7 miles. We had decided as group to flip pacers more than normal. Francis would get a 7 and a 6 mile leg (mostly uphill) and Rui would get a 12 mile stretch and the last 5 (both mostly down) suiting their strengths (Tiffany unfortunately just found out the week prior to the race, she has a serious hip injury so had to work the crew chief full-time shift. I know it was tough for her to be there around all these runners and not get to pace. She is a tough cookie and I’m so happy she could put on a brave face at a very frustrating time for her. She is amazing and I love her so much for everything she does for me.)
First off, we had what I was told was the hardest climb of the day back out of Camp 10 Bear. To be honest, I barely recall it. We talked easily and hiked efficiently. It was an absolute blast to have company and for those that don’t know Francis, his company and endless stories are second to none. With a couple of winding single track downhills thrown in to the section, we moved well. Francis was almost giggling to himself during one stretch because it was so effortless. My watch had long died since mile 60 so I was completely running by feel. He told me we clocked a 7:35 mile at one point. I did not believe him but he insisted it was true.
A fifth and final climb took us over a road and up to the welcoming aid station of Spirit of 76. The volunteer at the top pretended to pull us up with some rope while we demanded to use the ski lift. All stupid stuff but it shows you how much fun we were having out there on Saturday night, now with over 76 miles in my legs.
My buddy Jun was departing the aid station as I approached. We smiled and waved (it took me until the next day to realize he was running solo – no crew, no pacers, the same as Otto – RESPECT!). At every aid station, I really had two crews. Mine and Keila’s (Heidi, Benny and Denie) because she was always a few minutes behind since halfway. It was so great to have a handful of friends always there for me ready to do anything I needed. But no one got Francis’s Aquaphor job!
Rui’s turn and little did I know but this segment would be the hardest yet by a stretch. It was the old duo back together. Rui and me have great memories of bombing down Hope Pass two years ago, maybe too fast in reality and we were out to seek some more great downhills now. For the first five miles everything was working out that way, moving good, power hiking ups, never really walking anything. And then at mile 83 on a flat road, that all changed.
I felt my skin go pale, my head go faint and I started to stumble around with no energy whatsoever. My stomach hurt once again and almost immediatley I was dry heaving onto someone’s lawn (sorry!) with my fingers down my throat. There’s not anything much more painful than being sick I find. Unfortunately, because I had been failing to put solids in well the last 25 miles or so, I was failing to bring anything decent back up. Jimmy passed me by and gave me some encouragement, “suck it up bro” or similar words. It was kind of a blurry low in my race so forgive me for not remembering it exact but I appreciated it. He was right, suck it up. This was really my first low of the race at mile 83. Not bad really!
I gingerly stood up, took a couple of deep breathes and then we continued. Really slowly at first. Rui insisted on me getting in some S-caps and i washed them down with Tailwind (it was the best I could do for calories at this point). Within minutes, I was back to running and we caught up to Jimmy and his pacer Scott. He was in a bit of shock to see me but we joked I was back from the dead! I explained to him while we ran as a group of four my last few hours of running. Amazingly, Jimmy completely nailed what had happened to me because it had happened to him before. By removing my cap and bandana full of ice (at Camp 10 Bear) because I deemed the evening time not necessary to use them anymore, I had begun to overheat. The humidity had very subtly got higher as the sun went down. He had ice-cold water in his bottle and I sprayed the back of my neck and felt the difference. Now I just had to get to Bill’s aid (88) and get the ice back on! We ran together for a couple of miles before I had to back off the pace again. But before I reached Bill’s, I noticed my insulin insert had fallen off my stomach due to the sweat and ice dripping down it all day long.
Our pace went back to a hike and I had to drag my ass to Bill’s having now, my second low point in the span of five miles. Rui put his headlamp on but I stubbornly refused. I had set a new goal to get to Bill’s headlamp free and did that although barely. I knew Rui was concerned but he kept me moving. At Bill’s, I wandered over to the medics at the barn and got on the scales. I was down to 176, a 4 pound loss. “How do you feel?” the medic asked me. It was a great question, one I must have been failing to ask of myself for a few miles now because I felt awful. My grumbled response of “OK. Tired” wasn’t my best ever performance of faking the good life but she understood. I was at mile 88, my weight was steady enough and so they let me go over to my crew to proceed.
I walked over to the crew area set up at a section of grass and decided enough was enough and lay down on it. It was my first time off my feet in 88 miles. I had beaten my previous best of 80 miles at Western States.
My crew grabbed me hot noodle soup that I had been craving for about 7 miles now but was only available for the first time now. As they got my headlamp ready for me and some food into my backpack (just in case I could miraculously eat anything else for the last 12 miles) I checked my glucose which was now higher than planned due to the insert incidence. Perhaps another factor why I had probably had a really rough patch. I made some adjustments with my insulin, had yet another bathroom break and then I was back on the trail with Francis. It had been the longest aid stop by far today.
As soon as we left, my walking very slowly increased and Francis made it a point to tell me. After a half mile or so, we reached the next downhill and just like that, I began to run again. All the way down and then all the way back up to Polly’s aid (95), Francis kept me going strong. It was as if the sickness, the long aid station stop at Bill’s belonged to a different race. That’s the magic of ultra running right there. Those miles seemed so straight forward so soon after a chaotic five-mile stretch.
When we approached Tiffany and Rui for the last hand off, we already knew what we needed to do. Be efficient. Francis announced to them, this was going to be a quick aid stop. Blood test, refill of water and electrolyte drinks and go. It was all business mode again now and I caught Rui off guard by this turn of events.
I looked over at Rui as we left the aid, realizing he was wearing three layers. “What are you wearing Rui?” I asked him puzzled. “Well, you looked pretty bad back there so I put some layers on”. You have to realize that Rui got given the last leg at Leadville too where we army marched 10 miles home between 4am and 8am in the freezing cold. He started to shed layers as it soon became apparent that we were about to kick the last 5 miles apart together pretty efficiently. I asked him where we were for time. I wanted to know if we were over or under the 20 hour goal time. He did the math and knew we had to run 14 minute miles to go under.
Running a gradual descent, this was exciting news. We were both so pumped, we knew it would take a real curve ball now to screw that up. And then, we came to the end of the road, looked left, looked right and couldn’t see anymore of the green glow sticks. We kind of just wandered around looking for them and then Rui told me to wait while he ran back the way we had come. I just stood in the dark and waited for what seemed a very long time……..”Come back!” I ran so hard back up that hill to find him by a huge arrow on the ground and two yellow plates ushering us off the road to the left. “Better make that 13 minute miles I guess?” I said to Rui. We both laughed our heads off and got moving.
We ran everything, yes everything all the way in. He pushed me home taking two more spots up the last big climb along the way. We weaved around single track the last half mile as hard as possible and then turned a last corner to see the red neon ‘finish line’ sign crossing it in 19 hours 37 minutes. A new 100 PR for me by almost 3 hours. Yes, a different course, temperature, terrain, I know all of that. What I was most happy with was to nail sub-20 without having that as my focal point all day long and getting caught up in the numbers. The plan had worked and worked really well. I also just found out this week that I beat a horse! A few dropped out so I won’t count those guys but I beat a horse on my own two feet!
Work in Review and Looking Ahead
I asked myself at mile 99, could I keep running if I had to (thinking ahead to Tahoe 200) and I’m pleased to say with confidence, the answer was most definitely yes. I wanted to finish the race tired but not screaming for medical treatment and I achieved that fine line of effort perfectly. Overall, I was very satisfied with the whole race. Tiffany, Francis and Rui were outstanding. Their support and care for me is impossible to repay but I’ll try my hardest too. I am forever grateful to them.
I know where I made mistakes but I also know where I made good decisions, solved problems and ran smart. I will use all of this information to my advantage in a few weeks time. Excited to go beyond the 100 mile mark and explore a new chapter in my ultra running journey. Thank you all for your love and support. Roll on Tahoe 200!
“All net proceeds go to JDRF whose mission is to find a cure for type 1 diabetes and its complications through the support of research.
The 4.25-ish mile course is a great fun test of trail running…..it has some great climb, fun downhill, single track, switchbacks, along with plenty of rocks and logs to navigate…”
I knew nothing about my next race held at Kettletown State Park going into my first ultra of the season. Partly because it is located up in Connecticut (I rarely seem to venture there, just drive through it a lot) and partly because it was to be the inaugural race put on by some folks known as Trail 2 Trail.
I chose to do the 50K, the longest option of the four races (5K/10K/20K were the others) and this hugely excited me because it would give me one more state to tick off my slow completion of 50 states. Yes, going beyond the marathon distance counts and for the really curious, no, I am not even close to being halfway done!
I picked this race believing it would be good build up into my two 50 mile races, Vermont 100 and then onto something I keep harping on about, Tahoe 200. My imagination told me the course would be fast and there would be a good chance of a PR on it. My coach however had other ideas for me whether my imagination was right or wrong. He strongly encouraged me to take my racing cap off and treat it like a 50 miler (in terms of pace). Just a few days prior, the rule changed a bit more. It was now to be treated like the first 30 of a 100 mile race. I knew he was right, I just honestly didn’t want to hear it. You see, putting a bib on and taking it easy is more of a challenge than touching my toes. For those that don’t know me well, I cannot touch my toes!
Regardless of speed, I went into the race-non-race fully prepared. Some would even say over prepared. A tall runner in full neon joked with me at the start line “I take it you’re doing the 5K?” friendly mocking me about my fully stocked up hydration pack. The game plan today (other than not to race) was to eliminate all of the mistakes from two weeks prior at Bear Mountain. Today I was going to carry two water bottles. One was full of water, one was my timely prize from CLIF that I received the day before the race. I had S-Caps. I had gels. Lots of them. I even had a bag at the start/finish area so I could do blood tests, change shirts or just get more of all of the above mentioned nutrition. How does the saying go? Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. I was prepared to make sure Bear Mountain was a one-off mess.
The course at Kettletown was a 10K loop. A small loop on one side of a lake and then a larger one on the other side, shaped like the number eight. This design layout allowed for frequent aid stations. The aid station being the same one of course at the start/finish area. The race director explained to the group of over a hundred runners that there were no electrolyte drinks available. I already felt my IQ increase for my detailed prep work. For the 50K route, we were told that after three loops, we would reverse the course for the last two for no other reason than it would mix it up. To start the race, a song would be played and when it was over, we would begin. As we waited at the imaginary start line listening to House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, I couldn’t help but feel this all had a touch of ‘The Barkley Marathons’ to it with its quirky rules (or maybe lack of them) and interesting version of a start horn, gun or general loud noise. If you wanted a race the opposite of the New York City Marathon, Kettletown State Park was fast becoming a hot favorite for any tri-state runners.
The song from my years of puberty finished, we all hesitated and then realized we were meant to start running. Tiffany ran by my side (she was competing in the 20K) at the front and we quickly started climbing up a grassy bank into the wooded trails. Runners passed me by left and right and I watched as Tiffany ran ahead and soon went out of sight going uphill. With four different races going on at once, it was impossible to know who was racing what. With my racing cap left at home, I didn’t have to worry about this. It actually benefited me to have everyone thrown together.
Being clueless to the course, I threw out an idea that around five hours would be a good finish time; not killing it and or backing off too much (I was in the mind sight of opting for the first coaching suggestion of running it at 50 mile pace). One hour per loop would also be simple to track. my time game plan was of course planned out naively still without knowing what was in store for me. For starters, the previous night getting ready at home, my phone alerted me to a flash flood in the area! I smirked at my phone and then towards Tiffany and thought of my recent mud bath adventures at Bear Mountain. Would this be round two?
In reality, the mud or wetness of the course wasn’t ‘that’ bad. That’s not to imply my feet were dry though. A mile in to the race, I found the first muddy puddle and then a second one and then a stream crossing. You get the idea. It was virtually impossible to not take at least one step into the aqua and most people around me just went the most direct route. I already liked my Saturday company.
At the start of the descent from the climb, the course soon split. 5K runners were to go left (although I’m not sure I had actually seen any) and we (10K/20K/50K) descended a technical route over to the right of football sized rocks down to a small two plank, slightly unstable footbridge. Once over this, we headed back up, through tightly cropped foliage and over more rocks before descending steeply to the start of the loop down to the start/finish. A quick check of my watch and I noted the small loop was almost an exact two miles. With all my liquid still fairly full, I had no reason to stop at the aid and proceeded on across a really cool wooden bridge that crossed a fairly lively river. This was immediately the most scenic part of the course so far. Scrambling up and over big rocks alongside the river was a test of good core and foot skills. People were guessing the best route towards the next flag and making mistakes all over. Some went off course to the left, others to the right. I guess by the fifth loop we would have it figured out but for now, it was trial and error stuff.
Over a road marshaled by one of the organizers and I was back climbing again. I ran gently up all of it but knew deep down this would not be the same later. The trail turned flat and then presented a gradual downhill of sweeping single track over pine needles twisting and turning through the trees. It was a great section of trail. Dare I compare this section to part of Western States? …This part of the course felt like a section at Western States! Brownie points to the course designer for making me think of WS out there!
A water cooler with a stash of white cups sat idle on the trail and marked the end of the fun downhill. I then climbed some switchbacks which kept the grade manageable but still took a good grind until reaching the top which gave a partial overview of the lake now well below. Remembering looking out at the lake pre-race to try to gauge how hilly this course could be, I threw out a guess that the top of the hills were probably 400 feet above the lake. I assumed that now I had seen the lake, I was at the top of the hill.
My course knowledge was proving particularly worthless! The trail turned left and then up again over some wet rocks. I grabbed all sorts of thickness of tree branches to save me from spilling over and then up a big rock step, Kettletown’s equivalent to the Hillary step before clambering along a ridge line to now, the true peak. From there, the trail got really fun again with a long descent mixing the flat and random juts of rock and roots all the way back to the road. From there it was a third of a mile back along the rocky river stretch and over the wooden bridge to the start/finish aka race HQ.
When I got there, I wasn’t ready at all to be efficient with my stop. I was like a racing car pulling into the pits without any idea what I needed. I first dashed across to my backpack and rummaged for my blood tester. With a reading of 82, it was time to get some more quick carbs on board. I grabbed a few more gels and loaded them into my side pockets of my pack and then went to refill my bottles.
I should have had them ready in my hands and done this immediately in hind sight. By going to my bag first I missed the opportunity of the water cooler being free. Now I was waiting behind a runner to finish and losing time. It shouldn’t have mattered due to my non-race agenda but it bothered me that I was making small mistakes again and mistakes cost time. I need a chalk board to write “I will learn from this” multiple times over as punishment and by Tahoe, I will be a pro.
Once the cooler was free, I poured in a new powder packet of CLIF and refilled the other one with water. A glance at the time read 1h 07. If that was to be an honest pace for the day (as was the plan), I was looking at a 5:35 finish time. Probably a better conservative time than trying to go sub-5 without calling it a race.
I climbed up the long open trail again recalling my first mile split in the mid-9’s. I repeated this pace again and then realized I needed to focus more on my glucose numbers than my Garmin numbers. Why I didn’t mix both water bottles with CLIF was lost on me with my BG at 82 but I stopped to correct that at the top of the hill.
Like a scene out of Breaking Bad, I was in the middle of nowhere trying my best to pour a container of powder into a small water bottle hole and making a real mess of it! With the majority of it making it into the bottle, I sealed the cap, brushed the excess powder off my hands and marched on up the trail.
In the valley of the trail this time around was a lost and bewildered runner coming towards me shouting “where is the start?” To begin with, I had no idea what race he was trying to be in. I soon figured he must have made a wrong turn and come back the wrong way along the 5K route to a T-section which is where I met him. After suggesting his best bet was to follow me and run three miles back to the start from where I was, he decided to seek a second opinion from a nearby hiker instead.
As I had been assisting, a runner I had been running behind and catching for the last mile decided to take no part in the puzzle of how, where or why the lost runner had got himself into this pickle. She had shot off up the hill and away from me again! Once I was back up the ridge line, I had managed to catch her again not impressed with her lack of desire to help and now with the last mile and a half down to the start/finish over a nice grade, I opened my legs up and pushed on ahead.
As I approached the wooden bridge, this was now my landmark to get water bottles ready and go straight to the cooler. I was excited to see Tiffany at the finish and learn how her 20K race had gone. She came over to me as I filled my water and was not too happy to have finished second. It was tough because I was having a grand old-time of it, enjoying the course, running conservatively and all of that good stuff and she had just finished a hard-fought race and had this raw emotion of defeat. But as I left the aid station, I thought about it and realized how much competitiveness she has inside. I kind of liked that she was mad. I was happy she wanted more and not content with how she did. Maybe because it showed me, she always wants better, always trying to improve. We are very similar in some ways and that is a probably an attractive personality trait we both give each other.
On the third and final loop (in normal direction), I had a guy in a white shirt on the hunt for me. We had been going back and forth since loop two and now I was hearing loud rustling along the trail close behind me, I was surprised he was back again but decided to keep moving forward without reacting to it. With the downhill back to the lake over the next climb, I pulled away once more and ran the rest of the third loop solo.
Going up and around the ridge of the lake, a runner in blue came bombing towards me. I waited for the next runner, probably Dan from November Project (the neon runner) bringing chase but no one came. Wow, I thought, he is on loop 4 and has a huge gap. Impressive.
At 30K in the bag, I was back for more liquids. Brian (the guy in white) was calling it quits which really surprised and disappointed me. The yo-yo game we had been playing for a few hours was officially over. The RD approached me and said something about ‘done’. Given my bemused look, Tiffany interrupted and explained what he was asking. “No! I am not done, give me more!” I responded. With 20K left, my mind was nowhere near done and I had to verbally say it with meaning before my body could even process that bad idea.
Loop 4 was the start of reversing the course. The concept was quirky enough let alone the results of it; some runners ran the big loop first but once at the option to go reverse, went the normal loop direction, some ignored the rule completely and kept running the same way and then their were others (me) that took the rule literally and ran the whole 10K loop in reverse.
It was easy enough to navigate the red flags and when I saw the back of a whiteboard, I knew that made sense too. Whether I was right or wrong for doing it this way (let’s say I was right), the race as such was now just a bunch of time trialists’ going all sorts of directions in Kettletown.
When the top five guys all came at me in the opposite direction, I realized I was the one isolated and doing it differently so at the last start/finish to refill my water one last time, I discussed with the RD’s the Wacky Race situation out there and decided I wanted to go back to the normal direction.
First off, everyone who didn’t change direction had an advantage of course knowledge. When you run a 10K loop three (or four times) in a row, it’s pretty fair to say you get to know the course well. My loop 4 felt like a whole new course. And secondly, if I was as close as I thought I was to them, I had better go the same way. Yes, I wasn’t here to race but if they were tiring and my pace was staying moderate throughout, I wanted to know about it both physically and visually by perhaps climbing a place or two on the board.
I checked my glucose and was happy to see it perfectly in the right zone. Now doing the shorter loop of two miles again first, the leader sped by me. That meant he had almost two miles on me. But another guy was in my grasp. We had passed along the single track minutes earlier on the end of my loop four and now I could see him ahead and not looking too hot.
He said his hip flexor was shot and refused and water or S-caps I had to offer him. I returned to the lake with a marathon in my legs and still felt good. Tiffany exclaimed “You are not racing are you?” to which I replied “No, it’s not my fault people are getting tired!” with a cheeky smirk. “Then how are you catching them?!”. That was the first time I knew my proximity to the leaders was for sure closing. Now that I could sniff blood, it was hard not to push a bit harder, see who was around the next bend. This is obviously a huge pitiful of using a race as training miles.
I crossed the wooden bridge and saw what Tiffany was talking about. Another runner appeared who I had not seen for a long time and one I would not have got by continuing to go in the reverse loop. Down went third place without any fight either and now just like that, I had a podium spot.
Knowing the leaders large gap, the only mystery that remained was where was second place? I knew who it was now. They guy in blue that had been going different directions on the loop all day long. Talk about everyone going different directions, this guy just made up his own rules from the get go! But regardless of everyone’s direction, the distance would be of course be 50K for all. And I also knew one more thing, he would be coming towards me on this final four mile loop stretch.
I knew exactly how to gauge the gap. If I hit two miles to go before seeing him, it was advantage me, if I saw him first, advantage him. Did he know this? Maybe, maybe not. I pushed the next mile hard, up and down the craggy rocks and over the ankle-deep stream one last time, through the over grown trees and up high overlooking the lake. The course was second nature to me now. The watch beeped mile 28 and there was no sign of him.
Within ten seconds though he appeared. We exchanged nods and went our opposite directions. It was a 2 mile time trial to the finish. Game on. I climbed the ridge line harder than I had all day now and ran down the other side even harder knowing my route back to the river was slightly easier to traverse than his. I had snuck on the racing cap for better or worse most definitely now.
Coming out onto the path where the loop meets, I knew if I saw him, I could still push harder but I arrived to nobody, not a sound. I stopped to listen, I would have heard a pin drop. I scrambled the rocks by the river one last time, managing to run off trail one more time (I never did learn the best route here!). Without anyone around, I was fairly confident I had clawed my way up to second.
I crossed the invisible finish line in 5:37, climbing a surprising 5,000 feet of up over the distance and being confirmed as suspected as 2nd overall by the RD’s. I saw Dan Berteletti (the winner) sitting on the grass at the lake and congratulated him. I received my wooden medal and a buff. No fan fare, no fuss. I enjoyed how low-key it was and the guys who had put on the show for us or was it us for them? Probably a mix of both I guess, it was an exciting and close finish for a 50K.
The best part of the race though was that my legs felt great and my glucose levels were equally cooperating. Pushing the last loop was definitely not the game plan and the dangers of pushing hard in small tune up race scenarios need to be cut out to avoid burn out. The bigger picture has to be Tahoe and every training run and even ever race needs to focus on just that. I will grow as a runner if I can manage my competitive nature. Just as I know now to let the guy fly by me on a Tuesday night in the park, I now need to let the guy in a C-race do the same. If I can’t do that, I need to stay away and run 31 miles away from a race environment. This is a skill I am clearly yet to master. For now, one ultra down, many more to go for 2014 and a new state on my list is complete.
For the fourth straight year, I decided to physically and mentally put myself through the rocks and roots of the Bear Mountain trails at The North Face Endurance Challenge. Being just up the road from my base camp of NYC, this race is hard to pass up. The event marks my anniversary into the world of ultrarunning (50K in 2011) although this time, I was back to try a new shorter distance than usual; the classic 26.2.
Getting to just run today came about thanks to the flexibility of The North Face staff, notably Susie and Karen. My original reason for being at Bear this year was to volunteer but when the runner in me figured out I could squeeze a marathon in between two volunteer shifts, I shouted “sign me up!” and a long day ahead was put on the calendar.
May 3rd – Race Day
I arrived at the very misleading grassy fields of Bear Mountain at 3:30am with Rui. He was about to undergo his first ever 50 miler and was definitely one of the first to arrive. My schedule for the day was; 3:30-8:30am registration tent, 9am-1pm?? marathon and 1:45-7:30pm registration/t-shirt printing. Arguably, this was an ultramarathon day for both of us, just that my GPS device would be unable to back me up on this one.
I was introduced to Nick in charge of registration. With a sea of laptops out and ready, the job at hand at first seemed a little overwhelming for so early in the morning. I watched as he checked in the first 50 miler runner and took a mental note of what had to be done.
As soon as the next runner came by, it was my turn. The key to my job was to basically not hand out a bib and plug it in the system as something different. If the shirt or socks I handed out were the wrong size, I could live with that but the bib being wrong would have killed me! Luckily, I had a cup of coffee at my side and after not messing up the first guy, I got on a roll and like clockwork, I became a veteran at registering runners in and wishing them good luck!
After the 50 milers left at 5am, the 50K runners slowly emerged and a new wave of registration begun and then once more for the marathon runners. Marathon runners! That was my race. It was time to shut up shop and get ready for my race.
I had eaten my breakfast albeit nothing that great (a dry half of bagel, Nature Valley granola bar and a banana) at 7am but hadn’t paid as close attention as I would have liked to with my blood tests. Working a new gig and it being so early, I wasn’t as focused as normal going into a race. By the time I was scrambling to get ready for my race, I had begun my day of what would be many mishaps; mishap #1 – lack of constant blood glucose monitoring pre-race.
My glucose ten minutes prior to the start was far higher than I wanted. I knew I wouldn’t be needing any glucose intake until at least the second aid station (mile 9) but still carried three gels in my shorts for safe keeping.
In unison with not testing my blood frequently throughout my busy morning, I had barely drunk any water. Counting two cups of coffee did not count. I probably had one bottle of water in six hours. And that was just pre-race. To think not carrying a hand-held would save me time would in fact do the opposite when I would start to get dehydrated later on; mishap #2 – lack of hydration.
With five minutes to go I was just about ready. I had decided to go with compression socks over no-show socks. My theory lay with all the mud and slush expected out on the course. With a higher sock line, the risk of debris flying into my shoe would be reduced. That’s all I had, so I went with it!
I met up with De’Vang and Ruth at the start area, friends from different NYC clubs and my T1 buddy Kirk who I’ve not seen in a couple of years. As the horn sounded, I sped across the grass field heading for the underpass; the gateway to the trails where the adventures awaited. Within the first 400 meters, my feet were soaked in ankle-deep muddy water as I ran straight through the huge puddles splashing whoever was in close proximity. This puddle was really just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone knew the course was technically tough but the water and mud were extra star guest appearances for today’s race.
A couple of guys jockeyed hard to control first spot and I left them to it sitting content in third. Remembering my coaches words “run within yourself” I tossed my competitive ego aside and let runner after runner pass me by as we climbed up for the trail for the first three miles.
As much as I let them runners go ahead, I consciously counted my placing as I was adamant that the majority of these runners would come back to me later in the race. De’Vang joined me by my side and another runner called John. We ran together, conversing energy on steep ups with power hiking and running the rest. We had no intention of splitting up and rolled into the first aid station (Anthony Wayne) together tied for 11th.
I grabbed a couple of cups of fresh H2O and swiftly kept going along the road to the next section of trail. I checked my watch to see it took less than 30 minutes to get here. This meant we were ahead of course record pace. This was not a good thing! I told the guys the news although we didn’t really do anything about it. Inevitably, the trail did it for us.
From mile 5, we climbed up and up, some on trail, some on road and were joined by one more runner, Brandon. He wasn’t your typical looking trail runner; covered in tattoos, sporting tri shorts, but then again, is there even such a thing as your ‘typical trail runner’?
Brandon was a top guy. This was his first trail race jumping across from the tri scene to get his feet wet. Well, we were all doing a good job of that today. Every mile or so, a puddle emerged that was so long or wide, the effort to try to stay dry was just not worth it. Plus ploughing straight through them is always more fun! The blister risk was going to be high today but we wouldn’t find out the results until we were done hours later. I put my faith in my CEP socks and Brooks Pure Grit and got on with the task at hand.
I ended up letting the three of them go ahead. John was the nearest to me but De’Vang and Brandon felt good enough to push on harder and actually caught the next group ahead by doing so. I took a gel from my pocket as I felt this may have been the cause of why I was letting them go ahead. At the summit, I ran over a section of large flat rocks (very common in this state park) and looked down the other side at the steep descent to come. Low and behold, everyone was there delicately scrambling down the rock face. I used my downhill skills to catch back up with a few of them and get back in the mix on the fringe of the top 10.
As we headed around Silvermine Lake to the mile 9 aid, for no apparent reason, my left contact lens begun to act up. At some angles, my vision was OK, but for the most part, my view was just a blur. At the aid station, I made a B-line for the nearest car mirror; mishap #3 contact lens malfunction.
Before the volunteers could tell me I was going the wrong way, they figured out what I was doing. Keila was cheering everyone on with Michelle Mason and came over to investigate. She grabbed some water and poured it into my cupped hand with the lens waiting to get cleaned up. I put it back in but my nothing had improved.
Ironically, the mirror belonging to the car was an EMT vehicle! I didn’t even notice (hard to with one eye working!). The EMT guy was scrambling for saline trying to be of assistance, probably more used to twisted ankles than failing contact lenses. He finally came to my rescue and showed me a small plastic tube of the stuff which I snatched and intuitively bit off the plastic seal to his hygienic horror. I forgot, this wasn’t really “my” saline as such. Nothing a few wet wipes wouldn’t clean up though right? I dosed the lens in saline and tried again. It was slightly better but nothing like normal. I had been hanging around for a couple of minutes now and my pack of runners had this time most definitely fled. I decided ‘good enough’ and got back on the trail.
I chased down two runners splashing my way through more deep puddles of mud not wasting any time with the dry feet route. They had made the most of my blurry pit stop but finally I re-took my position. By mile 11 I was ultimately out there alone chasing a pack of five or six that I could not now unfortunately see, even through a stretch of flat(ish!) trail through the trees.
The highest point of the course was halfway but first I had to get there which required a fairly grueling power hike. I rejoined John again and we worked together up it. At the peak, my watch showed me 2:05, a sub-4 time goal I had set myself now seemed dubious. The fact I was behind on time was the least of my worries though. My left eye was showing me double and triple rocks! Planting my feet in the right safety spots had become a tougher challenge than normal out here.
Once at the high point, I got to run along a relatively flat section. A fallen tree made for a natural hurdle and as I took off, I immediately felt a sharp twinge in my left sartoris muscle (the muscle that wraps from the hip over the quads into the medial knee point). Mishap #4 cramping. This was not a good omen for the 13 more miles that remained. A first cramp is never a last for me. I only had one choice; to back off the pace to try to tame the pain away.
Another tree obstacle appeared down the trail and though I climbed over it with slightly less aggression, now the other leg gave out. Sartoris left and right were forcing me to deal with some serious pain management skills. Chasing the pack had now become a distant goal. Trying to see, stop cramping and getting some fluids inside me jumped up the hierarchy fairly quickly.
Not carrying S-caps or a hand-held to sip on fluid was proving to be a disaster. A rookie move. I had justified to myself that this was just a marathon and I would be fine without both and quicker on my feet if I wasn’t handling a hydration bottle. But a 4-5 hour run is the equivalent of a fast 50K for me and in that race distance, I would never think twice about carrying fluids. It’s just what you should do.
Running within myself now meant trying to avoid cramps. Even so, I still managed to pull some people back. I passed by one guy who told me “you’re now in 9th” to which I replied “no way!” Then a few hundred yards later, I passed a back of the pack 50Ker who declared “Wow, you’re in 5th”. I felt like the next person was going to say I had won an all-inclusive Caribbean cruise for four people. I had to ignore the noise around me and focus on the basics; running.
That was harder said then done. My cramping was spreading like a bad disease and now it had started, it would be hard, almost impossible to stop. Occasionally I just had to pull up and wait out the pain. Standing still while I cramped up took me back to my first 50 miler at JFK where I had the same situation. But this was happening, three years later! If you don’t cramp, let me just say you are lucky. The pain of cramping is unbearable. And then when it happens during a race knowing you have to run X miles just twists the knife in that bit more.
I reached a fairly unique looking aid station at 18 – Owl Lake. The set up was the back of a pick-up truck with various cups laid out! Craving some food I looked around at the offerings but only saw water and what appeared to be orange juice. I grabbed a cup and took a big swig immediately spitting it out onto the floor. Not orange juice. Then my eyes (yes, even the blurry one) spied a half-finished bottle of Coke at the front of the truck. I asked the volunteer for the Coke which he somewhat reluctantly fetched. Pouring me a cup, I downed it and reached out for more in true Oliver Twist fashion. A female runner next to me liked the look of the Coke and so she grabbed the last cup. I’m pretty sure the Coke was not meant for us but it did me the world of good! While a few tired runners from the 50K and marathon lingered at the pickup truck, I got out of there ASAP and knew I had jumped a couple of spots in the process. At a wild guess, I sat in 13th.
More climbing, more descending, the course unsurprisingly was relentless. My feet were dry and then soaked, it was described later by someone as the hardest Tough Mudder they had ever done! After a fairly standard section of trail, I felt a small stone playing around in my right shoe. I curled my foot inside my shoe to try to relocate it to a less annoying spot but it ended up going under my mid-foot which made it worse! I checked my mileage and pulled up by a branch to use as a step. I had 8 miles to go and knew the right thing to do was to just remove it. Mishap #5 foreign object in my shoe. That is the golden rule of objects in your shoes other than your feet. Take them out before they cause more problems than they are worth.
Reaching for my shoe was harder said than done however. My legs was so tight, my hamstrings immediately cramped up. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place (pun intended). I had to just keep going to take the shoe off which intensified the cramping. I eventually just yanked off the shoe. The foreign object fell out of my shoe easily enough but my laces were double knotted and tied as tight as you could imagine. I picked at the knot for minutes and watched one, two and then three runners go by. Mishap #6; laces in a knot. The unfortunate luck I was having was almost comical.
I eventually released the laces and put my shoe back on – if not for a little more cramping. I slowly caught up and passed two of the runners that had whizzed passed me as I dealt with mishaps 5 and 6. I got to Anthony Wayne aid station and didn’t spend a great deal of time there as I noticed the final runner who passed me was loitering at the food table looking pretty beat.
Anthony Wayne aid meant this was now the last aid station for me, 4 miles left. That’s what I hoped at least. I turned a sharp left rather than my usual route through the car park (the 50K/50M route) but hesitated for confirmation from someone. Keila was again close enough by to give me the nod that I was correct and said I was Top 10 or close to it.
I was literally going back the way I had come in the morning, the now barren course marked with all the distinctive ribbon colors labeled for each race distance. If I was just going back the way I had come, I knew the majority of the course was going to be downhill.
But after a mile of climbing up and following these ribbons I stopped and looked around. No one was around, there were only the sounds of birds, rummaging squirrels and me. I declared to myself that I had to be lost! My mind started to spin. I began to think that when I finally made it back to the world of civilization, I would figure out my mistake but it would be too late. I would have my first ever DNF because I went the wrong way. I already knew that turning back four miles and then running another four the correct route would have put my mileage super high for the day and that was definitely not going to be good long-term. The mind does some crazy things when tired!
Over a small ridge line, a runner wearing a red bib ran by below. Red bibs were 50 milers. This now made less sense than before when I had not seen or heard anyone! My trail merged with his and I followed him up and away from the direction I thought I was meant to be going towards the finish.
Before long, a marker cleared my head and had pink and red arrows pointing in the direction I was going. Analyzing the speed and freshness of the runner ahead, it clicked that this was a relay runner. They run 6.2 miles each. This must be right and I must be close to the end!
My body was over it. I hoped I was Top 10 more than I believed it. With so much stop and start running, keeping track of my position today had become no simple task. I descended downhill on less rocky terrain picking up much more speed than what most of the course allowed up to this point. Already going through my mistakes and bad luck, I begun to daydream about what my coach would make of my first trail race of the season. At least I didn’t…THUD!
And there I lay looking up to the sky with tall trees lining my view all around. My first fall of the day. The palms of my hands and back of my arms took the brunt of it. I brushed myself off and got up wearily. Mishap? Nah, this is part of the deal with trails. If you switch your mind off on a technical course, the inevitable is going to happen.
I kept going but through pure exhaustion just started to break down out there emotionally, thinking a lot about my late uncle. I think about him daily but rarely get to the point where I lose control. I guess the cocktail of almost five hours out on a rugged and wet Bear Mountain race course will do that to you, especially when it’s just not your day. I wanted more from this race but it wasn’t to be my day.
The descent finally took me towards a road that I knew well from training runs. Those last few miles just run were definitely new to me which explained why I thought I was lost and why I was confused to see a 50 miler runner who turned out to be a relay runner. Funny how these things all work out and no more talk of DNF’s! I am too proud of my clean record for that to become a reality anyway.
But getting on the familiar road, I thought I was home and dry. I was neither. The markings took us back into the trail via some wooden steps that acted like a champagne fountain with the liquid flowing down to the next level below. If this was champagne, trust me, it would have been very enjoyable but this was a brutal set of steps to get up with water flowing around my feet. Not only that, I now had a runner tearing down the descent behind me on some serious mission.
Convinced it was a late attack on me, I shrugged as my body physically and mind emotionally had shut down from competing for the day. When he passed, he tapped my arm and encouraged me as if we knew each other. That’s why I love trail running. He spurred me into a running motion and I wanted to try to keep that going through to the end. In fact, he was a relay runner for November Project, a likely mutual friend of NYRR’s Paul Leak who I know is linked to the team.
The trail became heavily clad with bushes tight either side scratching on my legs and then it opened up into a far more familiar rocky trail. Now, without doubt, I sensed the end was near. But my recent encounter with the runner who spurred me on was lying ahead on the trail motionless. I ran up to him and checked in. He said he had fallen because of cramping but it looked more than that to me. He looked pretty banged up.
“Go finish your race” he yelled at me. I didn’t really have time to go into how this was more of a mental training day for me than a race anymore but once I was sure he was fine, I carried on going. Of course, within two minutes he grunted past me again back at it and giving it everything. His grit was pretty awesome.
Under the bridge and getting my feet soaked one final time, the end was all but in sight. And as predicted, my gritty relay runner was friends with Paul. Paul and myself high-fived as I was finishing and he was beginning on his journey. Pretty sweet to have so many awesome friends into the same crazy stuff as you.
4:42 was good enough for 11th and third in my age group. It didn’t match up close to my pre-race expectations. I also never envisioned so many mishaps to have to work through out there. And after a quick break mingling with the likes of Dylan Bowman and Jordan McDougal, it was back to work for me, printing t-shirts for the runners for the rest of the day!
Being on my feet all day for 16 hours was definitely one of my longer marathon experiences ever but getting to spend all that time among like-minded individuals who push themselves to the limit and then find another level is so great to be around. It was a great first trail test for the year at Bear. Now to learn from my mistakes and move forward.
Part of me regrets putting the bar so high as most of the time, this will ultimately lead to perceived failure. The other part of me tells me, that’s just who I am. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” is how my buddy Jeff Le described it to me days later. I like that he said that. He basically told me to not change my hunger and to keep setting the bar where I want to set it because that’s just me.
Lotteries are a fairly simple concept. You buy a ticket, hope to see your numbers and win or in most cases, actually lose. But some lotteries are easier than others. My life experiences tell me I’m much better at running related lotteries than Mega Millions ($7 and counting). You could argue that winning a lottery to get to run a race further than most people choose to drive their cars should not be classified as winning per se, but in my world of adventure and fascination with pushing the body well beyond the comfort zone, I beg to differ.
I try to go about every day of my life, remembering it is no rehearsal. You have to grab every opportunity by the horns and if that means doing some crazy stuff along the way then even better. Here is my story of how I chose my 2014 A race as well as the rest of my race calendar.
When last December rolled around, it meant I had two important tasks to take care of. Buy Christmas presents and enter lotteries for popular ultra races. After my 100% lottery success rate at Western States (1 from 1), I got greedy and bought my ticket again with dreams of the Grand Slam in mind (Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch in the span of 3 months). I also insanely threw my name in the toughest 100 in the world; Hardrock (any excuse to go back to Telluride) but both entries were denied on the same day.
I found out later, I actually made the wait list for Hardrock, listed with 50 by my name. I wasn’t entirely sure if that meant what I thought it did. I ended up asking someone who knows a thing or two about ultras, Anton Krupicka, of all people at his NYC film event; In The High Country, a couple of days later. His smirk told me enough before his response even came out. As I expected, all 35 in my “never” category (first timers) would have to drop out and 15 of the 49 wait listed ahead of me, just to get a bib! Now I understand why they call this category never. It was time to move on.
Climb the Empire State Building? Sure, why not. This wasn’t my alternative for missing out on two huge ultras but it would be such a cool thing to do (read insane) it appealed to me! I entered the lottery ticket, didn’t dare tell Brian at the Run Smart Project (who is helping me with my Boston training) and waited….Result; “Thank you but….” Third strike! Next.
OK focus. Back to the big races with mountains and lakes, no more indoor quirky challenges to distract me. This was now it. I had most definitely saved the biggest lotteries for last; the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), arguably the hardest mountain 100 mile race in the world traversing Italy, Switzerland and France around the famed European peak and out of nowhere almost, a brand new race that drew me in as soon as I heard the name “Tahoe 200.” The race was instantly appealing for the unfathomable distance, location and the fact that it was an inaugural race.
After three outs, of course, the lottery gods woke up and I received entry into both races. With the races scheduled just 5 days apart, over 5,000 air miles not to mention a 10 hour time difference, the sane part of my brain said I had to choose just one. Would it be around a mountain or around a lake?
My brain was spinning. This led to numerous discussions with Tiffany, family and friends to get a sense of how to decide on this tough but ultimately very good ultra runner problem to have. As much as it frustrated me that I was about to let one of these two races go, I realized that many other runners from these lotteries and others did not have the same choice.
Saying that, it didn’t make my decision any easier. Over a week had passed and I had still not made my decision. UTMB or Tahoe 200? Alps or California? 100 or 200? Sometimes, it just seemed ‘easier’ to just do both. Could I physically do both? Probably. Would I hate every second of Tahoe though? Probably.
Just before I was about to put pen to paper and play the pros and cons game, Tiffany said “Choose whatever makes you happiest.” She was onto something. I went back to the moment in time I knew I was selected in both races. For Tahoe, I followed Twitter on a Sunday afternoon as names were tweeted in threes and fours every few minutes. 85 ‘lucky’ runners were drawn from a pool of almost 200 applicants. Giving up hope, my name was drawn dead last! But I was in and I was overjoyed to be in.
Three days later, I woke up to go to work and saw I was tagged in a Facebook post at 4am. I knew what it meant. I had just been selected for UTMB. Due to getting into Tahoe, my initial reaction was anything but joy. I had already started planning Tahoe. Tahoe is so unique. The inaugural 200 mile race. The appeal of it at present is just stronger than UTMB right now. Perhaps because UTMB is not inaugural, perhaps because I want a different challenge than 100 miles, perhaps because I might be able to compete at Tahoe. I think it’s all of the above. I’m lucky that I will get to share this journey with another two of my NYC ultra friends; Lucy Ledezma and Otto Lam and have my crew from Tiffany, Team Novo Nordisk and my family to help me achieve my biggest race yet. The adventure awaits.
“The first ever 200 mile single loop mountain race in the United States, the Tahoe 200 circumnavigates the sparkling, clear blue waters of Lake Tahoe from the Tahoe Rim Trail. The route occasionally detours off the TRT to explore aspen meadows, rock gardens of giants, small impossibly blue lakes, thick canopied forests, and long ridge lines with stunning views. The course is nothing less than magical.” – Candice Burt, RD, Tahoe200
Now the decision has been made, UTMB is far from forgotten. I will apply again and get to do it one day. For this year, every race builds towards early September and the Tahoe 200. The first goal race begins at a very special Boston Marathon. I’m tired of having a PR from 2011. Enough said. Then the Cayuga Trails 50 upstate New York which doubles as the USATF 50 Mile Championship and then Vermont 100, my third 100 ever and hopefully another great race. There are still lots of other races to add including what happens after Tahoe (I’m serious by the way). I’m going to knuckle down and find some more trail marathons, 50’s and maybe another 100K or two. 200 miles isn’t going to run itself.
February 15th: Martha’s Vineyard 20 Miler
March 15th: Rock N Roll USA Half Marathon, Washington DC
April 21st: Boston Marathon
June 1: Cayuga Trails 50 (USATF 50 Mile Championship)
July 19th-20th: Vermont 100
September 4th-8th: Lake Tahoe 200
I first saw images of The North Face 50 mile championship race held in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco a few years ago. My jaw literally hit the floor watching a video of the race. Single track cut into grass hillsides off the Pacific Ocean, glimpses of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention a packed field of elites, made this race an absolute ‘must do’. This course offered some of the finest trails in the US and I wanted in.
I put it onto my 2013 calendar as my closing race. It was to be my C race for the year after Boston (=B), Western States (A) and UROC (=B). Am I even allowed to have such a thing? Well, my rules, so I guess so. My training for it was far from specific since UROC 100K. I had run 4 marathons in 8 weeks. Two as pacer and two for myself but relatively little trails (does the Central Park bridle path count?) or elevation runs.
Excuses over, I was excited to be a part of this race. I’m not sure if the prize purse increased this year ($10K for the winner of both male and female races) but the elites flocked onto the entry list in the last few weeks of the build up and not just from the US. Ryan Sandes was coming in from Cape Town, Emilie Forseberg from Norway and her pacer was a guy called Kilian Jornet. The US elites included Rob Krar, arguably the ultra runner of the year (URY) even prior to this, Max King, Dakota Jones, Mike Wardian, Mike Wolfe, Dylan Bowman etc etc. It was easier to say who wasn’t running it.
It dawned on me how lucky I am as an amateur, to get to have these amazing race experiences with the best of the best from across the world. It’s the equivalent of the weekend golfer teeing it up with Woods, or rallying with Federer. But with trail running, the difference is, it’s the real deal. Of course, these guys who I have the utmost respect for, make fewer headlines than professionals in main stream sports, but running is my sport and I love everything about it. It is an honor and more importantly darn fun to be able to race with them.
After a few hiccups pre-race that included forgetting to pick up the rental car, forgetting to bring music and no batteries for the headlamp (at least I had my insulin), I made it to the start area in the dark and cold conditions at 4:30am (thanks Joe and Fick for driving me so early!). I met up with Joe Del Conte, a fellow NYC ultra runner pre-race and we shared the same excuses that this was to be a fun race, with a firm emphasis on fun. My blood glucose was a touch above my target at 225. I had a now watered down Gatorade in my handheld, a few gels and was set, ready to explore what this course was all about.
We left the now very familiar red bubble North Face arch just after 5am. The course started flat which then wrapped to the right and downhill across a road and over a footbridge onto Rodeo Valley Trail. The pace was way faster than I needed to go but I figured I would run what I could, the climbs throughout would slow me down anyway.
I climbed the first hill to the top of Bobcat alongside Joe as sunrise began to break. The view ahead and behind of the string of headlamps was breathtaking. It took me back to the sight at Turquoise Lake in the opening miles of Leadville. The climb was longer and harder than what I had studied on paper; probably not a great omen for the next 47 odd miles.
We descended down a wide and rocky fire road which was way too fun. I knew this descent would be repeated at the end of the race so tried my best to remember certain memorable spots or turns which may or may not help hours later. The only issue was, I was doing this observant task in the dark.
Along a flat section, we ran through the first aid; no need for anything much here. A quick gulp of water and I kept going. Along this road allowed more time to pound out some good speedy miles. So far, so good with my planned sub-9 hour goal.
At the next aid station (Tennessee Valley), I had climbed and descended a similar hill, this time rapidly down on switchbacks. I met up with Tiffany, Joe and Fick, did a blood test which was important (79), refueled my bottle and gels and gone. I hadn’t processed the idea until now that it was still too dark to hand off my headlamp to them. As I had no drop bags, I would be hanging onto this beauty until mile 28!
The third climb would bring about the best reward thus far. Once up on top, we were greeted to some brave souls swaying in the wind, pointing us over the ridge line and down a single track. This was the start of Pirate’s Cove.
Single track sweeping along the coastline. The ocean waves were breaking on the beach and smashing into a solitary rock which gave the postcard view the final touch of aesthetic beauty. Yes, this course was living up to its reputation alright and now it was daylight, I would not miss anything else. It was a gem of a trail. The fun descent meant only one thing and that was back up and over the north side of the cove. I re-caught Joe who had not stopped at Tennessee Valley. We ran side by side down a fire road. A runner ahead was less than impressed walking down to the aid. I stopped myself offering him a gel when I recognized it was Karl Meltzer. A gel wasn’t going to make his day any better. He was about to drop and I saved myself getting yelled at for trying to help.
The aid station at Muir Beach was an important time to stock up. The biggest climb of the race was ahead. I ran across a farm field which just seemed so strange like I was back in XC days. Those trusty ribbons pitched in the soil ahead reassured me this was correct. The ribbons lead us towards a hillside and the start of coastal trail. I looked up to see dozens of runners hiking switchbacks above me. I looked above them and saw even more runners!
I was prepared to hike all the ups today but because there were so many switchbacks, the grade never seemed to become an excuse to slow the pace down to hike mode. I enjoyed the back and forth twists and the ability to keep running for the most part. Note to self, don’t study the course profile so much! I was now running solo, Joe took the climb easier than me.
The climb was pretty relentless. It was 1,500 feet of up. I ran what I could but now 15 or so miles in, my body wanted to rest a bit more on these uphill sections. Perhaps the year of racing was catching up with my legs. Ironically, I was moving ever closer to Cardiac. The aid station name, not my physical condition. Through the aid, the terrain changed dramatically; weaving between trees and hopping over roots in a shelter of greenery. It was a nice change of environment. This was the fringe of the Muir Woods.
Although my surroundings were different, the elevation gain continued. I left the woods to find a marshal directing me right where the trail splits, pointing almost unknowingly towards five guys who all appeared to have on neon yellow tops. I waited to let them pass and realized it was the lead pack coming back from the out and back of McKennan Gulch.
Dylan Bowman, Mike Wolfe and others bombed passed in silence and made the turn down the hill. I think I was just blown away by how deadly silent they all were like assassins yet not trying to kill others, each other. The pace was a different league.
I marched onward and upwards along Coastal Trail single track around ‘wrecked car’ – a landmark of the trail which is exactly as it is named. The story of how the car got to lay somewhere so remote from back in the 1940’s apparently remains a mystery. This section was a not a great spot for an out and back being single track and all but I did get to see almost every elite runner I know over the next ten minutes from Ryan Sandes to The North Face favorite, Mike Wardian.
It made for some interesting exchanges. Some would just bomb straight past as I dove into the hillside (lead runner gets right of way) and others would give me a “good job” shout which felt wrong as they were ahead of me but that’s just what we say this side of the pond. The views of the Pacific high above Stinson Beach were just fantastic. The single track headed north to the furthest point north on the course. I was greeted at the aid with an offer of some hot broth. It wasn’t in my plans but it was windy and cold up top on the exposed hill at almost 2,000 feet so I gladly accepted. I stayed for a refill while small talking with the volunteer about the day and other random ultra stories.
But as more runners came into the aid, I knew it was time to get going south again. I caught up to and then passed the women’s UTMB champion Rory Bosio. I had no doubt she was having a bad day or was just burnt out from the year and didn’t dare ask her for clarification of my theories. I think she may have even dropped at the next aid. When I ran back the way I had come and saw who was coming towards me, I knew this race was definitely an end of season affair for most; Dakota Jones was about 4 miles back from me. I almost took a double take to make sure it was him. I found out later that he was running with the flu and taking it easy. Who runs 50 miles easy with the flu?! Check his humorous encounter of the race out; http://www.irunfar.com/2013/12/the-mid-packers.html.
I descended fast down part of the famous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach aid station where Tiffany, Fick and Joe were waiting for me. I put on a brave face to say everything was going well although in reality I was hurting pretty bad. First things first, I made them take my headlamp off me! My blood was good but not safe enough at 83. Tiffany said do you want me to jump in later for the last few miles. I jumped at this offer. I was without doubt no threat to the $10K winner’s purse and decided this would be a fitting end to the year. Tiffany has been with me every step of every race, none more so than through the night at Western States. Her enjoyment on the trails is forever growing so it feels great for me to see her have such fun out on them too sharing these races and places with me.
I left Stinson Beach and immediately had an uphill through the moors of Dipsea. I suffered all the way up that hill to Cardiac aid just as I had coming the other direction earlier. But now, 50K in, I was rethinking my 9 hour time goal. I was walking runnable stuff, my body was just trashed. The reality of being overly aggressive in the first half now spoke to me loud and clear. When a group approached from behind in relaxed conversational mode and took me down with me ease, I knew I had to start digging deeper to get the wheels back on.
I knew the game though. Bad patches happen. You are meant to suffer out here at some time or another. 50 miles is 50 miles. But when my suffering dragged on and on and more runners passed, I knew this was not a normal bad patch. For this race, I was not monitoring my glucose every minute. I was going off feel and my occasional blood tests when crew could reach me. What was actually happening was, I was heading south geographically and physically speaking too. I popped a Clif Shot gel and then another immediately after. 48 grams of simple carbohydrates to fuel the system back up.
Within a few minutes, I was moving better again. Run the downs, hike the ups, repeat. On a sharp right turn downhill, a couple of Dads watched with their boys. “Alright! Changing diabetes. I have diabetes!” shouted a Dad lifting his shirt to enthusiastically show me his pump insert. I gave him the thumbs up and continued along the trail.
This small interaction with another diabetic that I will never see ever again kick started my race both physically and mentally. That reminder that wearing the Team Novo Nordisk shirt across the country all year long touches people and shows them what is possible is a very powerful tool. It’s the ultimate win-win for both the spectator and the runner.
I reached Cardiac aid, refueled smartly and got going. My head was back in the game but my legs were still like lead, screaming for a walking break. I knew better though. The scenery changed again, I was immersed in big redwoods descending through the Muir Woods. Single track switchbacks winding steeply downwards and crossing over large trunks as bridges was another major highlight of the course, even with wrecked legs. To get to run on some of the famed Dipsea steps was just plain awesome.
I was behind on time and this next leg between aid stops was short and gradually down or flat all the way back to Muir Beach. I locked my brain into a fixation that I had to run this whole section, even if it killed me. I could reward myself with some walking later on but not here.
At Muir, the aid station was packed. It was a merging point for 50M, 50K and marathoners all coming and going different directions. I changed my focus from running to orienteering through here. All I cared about was making sure i followed orange ribbons, not red, blue or any other color out here.
I hiked up Coastal Trail along with the 50K’ers. Grinding out miles now. It was nice to have more runners around albeit ion a different race. There were a couple of guys around me from the 50M though that we ended up playing the cartoon car race game where the lead continually goes back and forth. Ultimately, we were helping each other push ourselves without talking much about it.
The climb had many false summits. My GPS was in no way accurate and I had long given up guessing the mileage I was at. The pain throughout my body spread but the views to my right of the Pacific took the edge off no doubt. I continued to fight for position with my competitors although way back from the front. This race was not about placing or even time anymore, just about giving it everything I had until the end.
Tiffany was all smiles waiting for me at mile 44, ready to go. Glucose 102 called for some fuel which I digested on the last hike up of the day. We spoke about her college friend Peter Hogg who was not only well ahead but actually finished. He had run a great race and competed against and beaten the likes of Mike Wardian and David Riddle out there. I was looking forward to meeting him later at dinner.
At the crest of the hill (Alta aid), I knew it was all plain sailing now. We were now back at the mile 3 section of the course and about to repeat the very first descent done in the dark hours ago.
I glanced my watch and realized a 9:15 finish time was possible. It was not the sub-9 goal but it was a hell of a lot better than the 10 hour mark I had feared may come into play when things weren’t going so pretty after Stinson beach.
Down the jeep road we went. I wasted no energy now. This was a new race. A 5K race starting now. The Golden Gate arch peaked over the headlands to my left. I had almost forgotten where I was running for the last few hours. This location was so close to San Francisco but yet so tucked away. I could see the draw of the city to the athletic yet also driven career types.
I knew 9/minute miles would do the trick. This was UROC heading down Vail Mountain all over again. I hammered the hills and Tiffany ran alongside. She worried I would go too fast for her but I assured her, I was not going to finish without her. This race was merely another excuse to be outside, travel somewhere new and experience the great trails of the west coast. My training did not quantify this as a race and therefor my time be it sub-9, sub-10 or now on the verge of 9:15 was all irrelevant numbers in the grand scheme of things.
We crossed the road which I knew marked the final mile. The sweeping left hill took the pace off my plan and we power hiked as my exhaustion kicked in one more time. I felt the 9:15 was gone as the hill seemed to never end but then I saw a glimpse of people in a field on the horizon. We ran hard again on the flat, turned right and through the arch together. My time? 9:15 and change. Not spectacular but an honest and great run. I was happy. Isn’t that ultimately the goal of anything we do in our lives?
I saw the winner, Rob Krar limping in my direction immediately after and grabbed a few words with him. If there is a more humble ultra guy out of the elites on the scene right now, I don’t know who it is. He is a great inspiration and great guy too.
I hobbled my stiff legs over to a tent hoping to get warm. A circle of chairs surrounded a heater with a couple spare. I sunk into one, did what all diabetics should do first, a blood test (113) and then changed into warm clothes while making new friends and recapping what we just experienced.
We met up with our friends, Joe and Fick, grabbed some food and a beer, mingled with some of the other elites like Kilian Jornet, Rickey Gates and Anna Frost from the Salomon team and then headed back into the city to celebrate this race and all the others before it from 2013. What’s not to love about this crazy world of ultrarunning?
The early crisp morning light in Breckenridge was filled with stars. Not so much in the sky but more around the start line; Kilian Jornet, Sage Canaday, Dakota Jones as well as runners not even running; Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka to name a few were everywhere. Yes, “Call them and they will come” was proving a true statement for UROC, an abbreviation for Ultra Race of Champions, which boasts one of the largest purses in the sport of ultrarunning.
My reason for being here was certainly not to grow my bank account. I know my place. With 70 pro bibs and about 100 regular, I knew I would be a mid-pack runner today, privileged to be running behind such great athletes on this beautiful and testing course between two giant ski towns; Breckenridge and Vail. The course consisted of four big climbs over 100k (or 62.2 miles), an ultra distance not yet on my resume.
The starting line was located at the Vertical Runner Store (the country’s highest elevation running store at 9,600 feet). We could see the Tenmile Range mountains all covered in snow in the distance. Soon, we would be up there, playing in the snow – not what I had expected or particularly wanted. A police car led us out of town at 7am along the empty streets of Breck (lets face it, not many care about the Ultra Running World Championships and that’s actually how most of us like it!) before we beared right onto an uneven gravel surface and began our first asccent.
Over a bridge and already you could see Sage in the lead with Kilian close behind higher up. It was now time for me to start hiking. My good friend Carlo, also from New York, had informed me this climb was no joke. It was 1,500 foot of straight up. He had trained on this climb so shared his knowledge and said this was absolutely a walk all the way part of the course.
Me and Carlo climbed the path, sprinkled in snow from yesterday’s storm. I was now getting passed by more conservative starters from the street start. My glucose was at 220 and that was OK. It would decline with the effort so I held back on the Gatorade intake. The climb was one of patience. I didn’t like losing so many spots but it was so early in the race, I had to let that go. We never did summit the mountain which was a slight disappointment but got close and made a right turn at Vista Haus. Now at over 11,000 feet, the entire ground was caked in snow. You could see the town below amid the sunrise and surrounding white-capped mountains. Views like this were a huge factor why I wanted to be back here in Colorado. It would at least distract me from the effort that would be required to get through this course. The wide path of the uphill was now replaced with single track. I followed a group of four on the packed snow back down the mountain.
The sun was beaming in our faces and the snow was bright so I flipped my shades resting on the back of my head to on my face. We descended the switchbacks of Peaks Trail northbound. It was slow-moving at times. No one in front seemed to want to step aside and no one behind seemed urgent enough to scramble around so we stuck together as one twisting train through trees and open spaces. One guy decided to make his move only to fall onto his ass as he slipped on ice. Eventually, there was room to pass at a safer place and we descended at a better speed.
I rolled through the first aid station (Grand Lodge) before I knew it, just after the 5 mile mark. I didn’t check my watch but knew I was well ahead of my 12-hour target finish I had set myself. My water bottle was still half full (of Gatorade) and I also had two gels with me. I decided that I didn’t need anything so I kept going. My glucose was 114 and dropping. Wait, what? It was too late. I was already beyond the aid station. What was I thinking? Sadly, I wasn’t. I reduced my basal rate and grabbed a gel to save the low. It had started to freeze slightly so was a lot more work than I was used to over the Summer consuming them. I realized that I had 7 miles until the next aid in the town of Frisco. One gel and half a bottle of Gatorade was by no means reassuring to get me there. I had to pay closer attention to my glucose level from now on. That drop came out of nowhere.
Luckily, the terrain from here to Frisco was rolling trails. Me and Carlo had never drifted far apart on the descent and regrouped again for this section. We decided we liked the pace (albeit ahead of schedule) so worked together passing people and taking turns leading. My glucose issue proved not the main worry though. That would have been the hidden ice and the bridges covered in the snow. We both had a couple of ‘Bambi’ moments. The bridges were made of skinny trunks compacted together and a few pieces were missing on them showing us the icy stream below. We made sure our feet stayed dry and slowed when we had too.
We ran at a clip, about 8/min mile pace, knowing 11:30 average would get us sub-12. The last couple of miles before the suburbs of Frisco were all down and we let gravity do the work for us. Pulling into Frisco though was a different story. No matter if we ran east, north or south, headwinds seemed to get us in every direction. We laughed at the ridiculousness of this. The hardest part of the course so far was Frisco!
We turned left on Main Street and ran up to the aid station together. Tiffany gave me my hydration pack in exchange for my handheld bottle. Now the real climbs began and I needed to carry more fuel as the times between aid stations would increase. My good friend Doug Masiuk was there and put some great words in my head about how children with diabetes were watching me. It struck home instantly. I wasn’t feeling great for just covering 14 miles at this point but this helped keep my focus. I was doing this for more than just me.
I caught back up with Carlo as we left Frisco heading west. Asphalt road turned to dirt road and we got ready for the big climb of the day up and over the Continental Divide. Initially, I felt OK and ended up being a few yards ahead of him. This was the point we had agreed to do our own thing. I felt he was suffering a bit so just went my pace as he went his. But as we rounded Rainbow Lake, the climbing really got going. Effort increased, grade increased and my pace decreased. Carlo went tip toeing by in his style I still cannot master and off he went. He was closely followed by another runner who appeared from nowhere. I wasn’t surprised to witness this. From our training runs together, he has impressed me immensely with his climbing. I stuck to my much slower hiking pace, stretching the legs out as much as I could.
Before I knew it, my pace was no match for anyone. I felt like I was running the ultramarathon of Boston; in over my head and slowly being humbled by much better equipped competitors. But I reminded myself, this race was between myself and the mountains, nobody else. I was still early into this long 7 mile climb up the Colorado Trail through the pine trees. Eventually, the tree line broke and I got to catch my bearings to an extent.
I found myself in a wide mass of open mountain covered in a thick fresh layer of snow. I looked upwards and saw a trail of people switchbacking higher and higher until out of sight. I wasn’t sure if I preferred the heavy trees hiding my fate or seeing what was left to do! My lungs were piercing. My movement was slow going but onward I went dredging my feet through the packed down snow path. The snow required more and more energy expenditure as the air got thinner. I began to feel sorry for the leader rather than myself. Imagine leading the charge through fresh snow which was up to 18″ deep in places. No thanks! I was almost grateful how much my climbing sucked!
At a false summit, about 12,000 feet up, the Colorado Trail took us around the side of Wheeler Pass (the point we would cross at 12,300 feet) rather than directly to the top. To our left was Breckenridge, now just a tiny town from up here and every step I took, I slipped slightly down. My whole body was working to keep me upright. A couple of slips meant I slid down a couple of feet off the trail but this was all fun, right? I wasn’t exactly smiling, more gritting my teeth out of determination that I would soon see the peak at change the muscle groups up.
A couple of cheers ahead meant that moment was iminent. While others stopped to grab pictures of the 360 degree views of beautiful snow-capped mountains, I had more interest in descending so I could a) get some time back b) get some oxygen. The climb had knocked me sideways. I’ve never climbed anything that long before, let alone amidst cold temperatures and 30 mph winds through the snow. My hat is officially off to all the real climbers of the world.
My viewpoint from up above was firmly fixated on the many colorful dots lining the trail which gave me hope that I wasn’t the only one who was slow climbing to the top. I knew my strength was downhill single track and this was exactly what we had next. Albeit in the snow which made it tougher but it was fun and this time I meant it. As I ran back down to tree line, the snow turned to muddy and icy trails and I did my best to keep the legs going fast without making any fatal landings. I moved up several spots here and my confidence begun to come back knowing I could always catch the majority of good climbers on the way back down.
Noise from the bottom of the trail was a really welcome sound. Rather than a false summit, this proved to be a false base. It was two women directing us over a temporary bridge which I soon found out was not for running on. The bridge moved a couple of feet up and down so I quickly grabbed the railings to stay dry. Note the word temporary. Now that I was safely across, I looked for the aid station but there was nothing. This was not it. I followed two other runners who didn’t seem so disheartened as me that this wasn’t time to stop, refuel and go again. I didn’t no the course and it was messing with my head.
A long stretch later of rollers, I heard more noise. The trail ascended towards a few people and then from nowhere, Copper Mountain Ski Resort appeared. I put on my brave face and ran down to the aid station. Tiffany virtually jammed the blood tester onto my finger to make sure this time I did a test. My CGM had me going great; mid to high 100’s all the way down from the mountain but my tester was the real deal and said different; over 300. I was mad. This explained a lot of my exhaustion. I was probably high for the majority of the climb and descent. I wasn’t even halfway through the race, yet I felt like I had run 90K. My first thought was to empty out all the extra gels, chews and bars I was unnecessarily carrying in my pack. My second thought was do some insulin! I’m not sure why the weight of my backpack was a higher priority than getting some insulin in the system. I’ll just have to blame that on cloudy judgement. I checked my water bladder and realized I was not doing great at hydrating. Hydrating would also help bring my glucose down and clear my head.
I left the aid station feeling defeated. My eye caught a pro runner sitting in a chair telling his friend why he had decided to quit the race “I don’t want to be out here for 15 hours like these guys”. I had to bite my lip not to say anything. He wasn’t injured as far as I could tell, just decided it wasn’t his day. Well guess what. It wasn’t particularly my day either. I had fallen almost an hour behind my schedule after having a cushion the other side of the previous mountain and my glucose was not where it should have been. I get everyone has their own agenda. I guess mine is never quit. Being diabetic, you don’t really have a choice so I take this philosophy into my races too.
But just to contradict all of that, as I climbed a really steep climb away from Copper Mountain, I took pause on a mini-plateau to try to catch my breath. I bent over my knees and stood there for far longer than I had planned. Tiffany was just a few hundred yards below getting in the warm car, I was way off my plan goal pace, felt exhausted and I still had two big climbs down the road. I am not a “why me” type diabetic. Those days and emotions are years and years in the past. But, for the very first time in a long time it did just feel like too much to handle all at once. I wanted to throw in the towel so bad. But I knew I wasn’t a quitter, I was a fighter. I didn’t enter the race to fall short. I wasn’t injured, I wasn’t being ill. I just felt like a complete mess. It could have been worse.
I stepped up the hill. I got two or three paces only and again put my hands on my knees and contemplated how simple it would be to just turn around and get in the car. I thought of my uncle, my Dad, my family and friends that believe in me and have my back, Tiffany for unrelenting support on all of these crazy adventures I find and enter. I had to dig deeper than I already was.
Then, a runner passed by and tapped me on the back. “Stay strong brother, it will get better”. Words, I normally pass along to others were coming directly at hopeless me. I said “You promise?”. I asked him if this was the climb up to Vail mountain with dread in my voice. He gave me a funny look and said “No. This is a mile of single track and then the bike path”. Bike path? Why didn’t I know about this. I’m usually so fixated on the race course and here I was not knowing what was coming next. The whole exchange gave me life. I shuffled behind him on the single track and then descended onto the start of the asphalt bike path running parallel with the main Colorado expressway of I-70. I realized I had less than six miles of this slowly ascending bike path until the next aid stop. The asphalt felt funny on my feet after over a marathon on trails of mud, ice and relentless snow. It started flat and I moved along at such an awfully slow pace, I realized I was as good to walk as run so that’s what I did.
What was happening? I had perfectly groomed Vail Parks and Rec. asphalt with not a slither of snow, ice or rock in sight and I was walking! I could feel the mini daggers stabbing my lungs. I was now on a low part of the course, well below 10,000 feet but for all I cared, it felt the same as Wheeler Pass minus the temperature and wind. I tried my hardest to run anything flat and had to play games with my brain; run to the bridge, run to the next red flag. I did whatever I could to speed up but for all the games I thought up and tried, I was a tortoise and the hares were whizzing by my every few minutes. To add to my growing woes, my CGM had packed up. It had obviously had enough of the cold weather. It then dawned on me that I wasn’t carrying a blood tester in my pack. I was now somewhere between a high 300 and a low but wouldn’t know it until it hit me. I had to hope I made a good judgement call with my shot of insulin back at Copper Mountain.
I reached a car park and saw a couple of guys I recognized. They had been watching the race in both Frisco and Copper so my brain process thought they were working and therefore this was the aid station. I was adamant this was the top of the 1,000 foot climb to the aid station. False alarm. Through the car park, I went and down on a nice gradual descending road with a lake to the left. I saw a runner ahead and wanted to keep the same gap on him. I had no desire to catch him, my expectation levels for the race were evaporating. I just didn’t want to let him go like many others had today.
I saw some Hoka One One flags and a couple of cars ahead but I was so tired, it didn’t add up until I saw Tiffany. Now, I had finally made it to the aid station. It had taken me forever to cover the straightforward terrain to get here. I was a train wreck already off the tracks.
“What do you want?” asked Tiffany. “To sit” I said. She didn’t like the answer and tried to warn me of my favorite cheesy ultra line ‘Beware of the chair’. (Yes, I have taught her well!) Ultra running legend Geoff Roes was manning the aid station with his buddies. He did not seem too impressed with my performance as he didn’t even speak to me! Instead his friend fed me three cups of ramen soup which did me the world of good. It was early afternoon but my body was still really cold. I took my gloves off and did another blood test; 160. Fantastic, even more so considering I was guessing my levels the last couple of hours.
I was quite happy sitting there. Tiffany less so and she couldn’t hide her concern for how I looked or how I was faring. “Can you pace me from Minturn?(mile 52)” I said exhausted. Let me stress, I am not a fan or believer of pacers for less than 100 miles but I was pretty desperate and drained. Only the elites were not allowed pacers. I was fairly confident at this point I wasn’t one of them or going to catch ones that were.
Up I got from the chair. I had the easiest miles of the course ahead; 6.6 miles of gradual downhill back on the asphalt. I waited until the gradual became a slope to kick-start my running motion. My legs were holding up OK but my chest and head were not. I told myself to run to a certain marker but this eventually was reached and I kept on going. The key was keeping it at a steady pace, nothing heroic but no more walking except for the few uphills.
The path ducked under the I-70 and turned right, away from Vail. Nobody was around (I had passed one person since the aid station). I was convinced this was wrong. To go wrong and add on mileage seemed like the last thing I could handle. I was not living in Kilian’s mindset of “more miles, more fun” which he said while getting lost at Lake Tahoe.
The path eventually twisted back west and widened. I ran over big chalked words; TEJAY and VOIGT. I knew were I was instantaneously. This was the end of the USA Pro Challenge bike time trial stage that occurred here a couple of weeks ago. The use of watching dome rare TV was now helping me in my ultra!
I ran down a long right bend and saw an even better site. Two runners ahead and an aid station. I didn’t expect either things to be possible in my very off day. I was catching people and I had reached an aid station sooner than anticipated?! This aid station was situated just before the second biggest climb; up to Vail mountain. The volunteer told us it was 4.2 to the top and we all looked great. I believed the first part only. My glucose had dropped to 98 so I was pretty wary of my energy needs. I had some Coke and Clif blocs and got the hike going. I wasn’t eating well and knew it. I had a Clif bar in my bag but literally couldn’t stomach myself to even try a bite. I should have eaten this or similar way earlier in the race before my stomach decided to disintegrate.
I was convinced we were going to enter Vail village which in part would have been nice but also a tease as this race still had 20 plus miles to traverse. We did not. Up we climbed by a small waterfall and followed the stream over and under big fallen pine trees. I noticed a big difference from the morning climbs. No snow, well at least none on the trail itself. The sun had worked its magic and cut me some slack for the final third of the race. Switchback after switchback we went up. My view was of pine trees and a solo runner ahead. I had been slowly catching him, not because my climbing had improved but because he was violently throwing up or at least trying to every few minutes. I offered him whatever I had in my pack but he just needed to press the restart button before he could think like that. As much as my nutrition wasn’t good today, I was grateful to not being feeling like him.
When the tree line stopped, I was greeted to a grand mountain view of open yellow field with many more switchbacks going up. A couple of runners who I had not seen for hours were just above me but struggling. It was reassuring to know others were in the same discomfort as me.
After these switchbacks and me catching up to them, the climb plateaued. I kept checking my elevation numbers on my watch as I knew Vail mountain was about 11,000 feet. We seemed to have climbed that but alas, no aid station was in site. I felt confident on Vail mountain. It was the only part of the course I had been to from my previous trip here last Summer. The view of the famed Vail ski bowls to my left looked the same but I could not see the main gondola house that I was familiar with.
I had my eye on two more runners ahead who I had reeled on running along a muddy but beautiful ridge line of the mountain. They slowed to descend a technical rocky section and for some reason I tried to pass one of them here only to lose my footing and begin crashing to the ground. I tensed all of muscles, ready for the hard impact of flesh on rocks when an outstretched arm hooked under mine and reduced the fall to barely nothing. What a Godsend. Ultrarunning competition sure beats the sharp elbows of a 5K! I thanked him over and over. He got the idea. He literally saved my ass!
I skidded along more muddy trail and spotted asmall Scott Running set up in the distance. Relief once more, time for a break. MY glucose was still on the lower side of safe; 102, so I reached for a fresh can of mountain cold Ginger Ale and consumed it in a flash along with a contradicting warm cup of ramen soup. I talked with the guys volunteering about who had won, where all the main elites had placed etc. It was mind-boggling to me they were all done. How do they cover the course in such a frenetic pace, especially with all the snow and wind conditions. Before, I got too comfortable talking about everyone who had finished, I decided I better get moving to follow suit. I had a two more descents and a climb to go. It sounded better than saying over 16 miles!
The sun was on its way down but as the descent to Minturn was only a few miles to go, I wasn’t concerned. Tiffany would be there ready to pace me and hand me my headlamp in time for the last two or three hours of what was left. My sub-12 pipe-dream would not have called for such use but such is life and here I was just trying to finish at this point. After a mile of running a relatively flat section, I started to become a little nervous. I really hadn’t descended much at all yet where as the sun had.
Red flags signaled a turn off the wide dirt road onto single track. This led to a set of switchbacks through long yellow grass. I didn’t count them but heard later there were 38 switchbacks in total. I was hammering down the mountain here playing a game against the sun. Who would get done first; me to Minturn (aka headlamp HQ) or the sun behind the mountain range. I pushed and pushed the pace. I truly believed that any minute now, I would catch a glimpse of the small ski town below and it would all be fine.
I did catch a glimpse of some early evening lights below. Unfortunately, I estimated the distance at about two miles downhill, an impossible distance before the sun would set. I looked up and saw the sun nestling behind the dark mountain skyline and knew my fate was almost sealed. As I got lower, the trees around me increased. More trees equalled less light. My eyes were fighting hard to see the path, the rocks and roots ahead and to make sure I kept seeing a red flag every once in a while. But then ultimately my fate was sealed for me. I planted my left foot down but it never landed as expected. It kept on going into a hole for another foot or so and my knee gave way slightly to the shock of the landing.
I steadied myself to check my leg hadn’t fallen off. A bit shaken from the surprise hole in the ground, I decided there and then that this was just not my day. I had been hopeful of getting to Minturn by 7pm or at least 7:30. It was now approaching 8 and it was pitch black with no one around. I walked down the trail with no headlamp. I couldn’t tell a long blade of grass from a red flag anymore and was adamant if I came out of this trail head in the wrong place, I would be calling it a day. The course had mentally and physically abused me all day in many different ways.
Walking down the trail in the dark was a bit depressing at first. Why where there no glow sticks or reflectors? I felt like the race was for elites and I had crashed there fast party and didn’t belong. This course was laid out for runners finishing before dusk. Enough of the violins though. I had to think how I could make this joke of a scenario better. I had a MacGyver moment and realized I had the next best thing to a headlamp, the backlight of my watch! I pressed the button and got some minuscule light showing me the way (as long as I kept the watch low to the ground). After 15 seconds my watch blacked out so I had to press it again. In all, I ended up walking down the trail which of course got more and more technical and must have pressed that darn button over two hundred times! I had to laugh at how badly wrong everything was going. A light finally shone from behind me. It was a runner I had passed back at the top of Vail Mountain. He said “How are you doing?”. “Great” I said, “I haven’t got a headlamp” in my most sarcastic tone. And he just flew down the hill! This happened another couple of times. I was the hitch hiker that nobody wanted to acknowledge existed. Then I got a shout. “Do you want to share my light?” “Um, sure.That would be great” I said taken aback. Someone was helping poor old me out. Who else would it have been than my ass saving rock friend. This guy was my guardian angel today!
We walked down the trail together. My new ultra hero Ben (not Kilian anymore) was feeling out of it from the altitude. He was stopping at Minturn. I tried my “But you have X more hours to make it X miles” line but it was of no use. He was physically done for the day. We laughed how we were both having a rough go of it at 10,000 above our usual habitats (Ben lives in Chicago). A flashlight came streaming towards me and Tiffany followed jumping on me. She had decided than rather wait (she had been waiting a while) in Minturn, she would walk up the trail to me and give me my headlamp. This was awesome! Talk about waiting for a bus and then two come along at once. I signed off with my guardian angel Ben and walked with speed and my own light down to the bottom of the trailhead with my favorite pacer.
First things first. I needed warmer clothes. We detoured to the car and I put on another jacket. I did my blood test in the car. The car wasn’t even on and it was so much warmer compared to the outside temperature. My glucose was a perfect 157. Everything was better. We jogged through the main street of Minturn and checked into the aid station. I was looking forward to some soup. No soup. OK, some Coke then. No Coke. The volunteer kindly told me they had both at the next aid station. The next aid station was five miles up the mountain though! OK, everything was not better! UROC was not rocking but I wasn’t done with it.
We left Minturn not very happy. I made do with some Oreo’s. My headlamp was no way near as bright as Tiffany’s and I asked if it had new batteries in it. We stopped at her new-found friends house who were having a campfire watching the race. They knew me and her like we were family! We sat by the fire and changed the batteries. Time was ticking by but right now, my only goal was to finish. I soaked up the heat of the fire while I could and bonded with strangers that seemed to already know everything about me! It would have been as much fun to hang out with them but the job was not over; five miles of up and five miles of down to go.
We climbed the same trail we had just come from. That wasn’t too exciting as I hadn’t forgotten how rocky it was. The five-mile climb was no joke, it was straight up. No switchbacks, no plateaus, a relentless grind up to Eagles Nest aid station at over 10,000 feet. I was making all kinds of weird noises, digging deep to keep a solid pace going. I wanted to get to the top by 16 hours. I knew I still had the smallest of chances of breaking 17 hours and therefore getting a belt buckle to go alongside a finisher’s medal. I hadn’t particularly cared for the sub-17 buckle (finishing before midnight) as I have far more treasured metal from Leadville and Western States. I wasn’t convinced before the race, a buckle was a deserved prize for ‘only’ 100K but now living in the moment of this race I had changed my mind. This was as hard, if not harder than either of my 100 mile races. Being so close to the buckle cut off time gave me a desire to push and go after it.
After a few miles, I saw ahead on the right a handful of yellow lights. I was convinced this was the aid station and made a big fuss out of it to Tiffany. She wasn’t sure. I was almost at the 10,000 feet mark so it made sense. Just a bit more of up and the road would level out and lead to the lights. It was soup time!
I saw a big metal sign up ahead which was a good indicator that it was the beginning, or in my case the end of the trail head. I walked by it and was now standing on an access road. No flags pointed towards the light and neither did they point the other direction. The red flags pointed straight up the steep mound in front. I couldn’t believe my (lack of) luck. Tiffany marched on while I stood there defeated. I was mad at the people in the hut/house, whoever they were and whatever it was. Did they not know their was a 100k death march going on tonight?!
I sulked up the steep grade, one step at a time. I knew as soon as I saw the real aid station it would mean no more climbing. And then on a plateau, far in the distance we could see the lights ahead of Eagles Nest aid station. No. More. Climbing!
We ran towards it and I jumped in a chair. Ramen soup was in my hands moments later. I glanced at my watch to see how things were shaping up; ’16:10′. “We have to go” I called to Tiffany just as she was grabbing some food herself. We were informed it was 4.7 to go, better than 5 I guess. I needed all the help I could get. We would have to average 9-minute miles and if so, I would just make it under 17 hours.
Off we went. Luckily it was on a wide red-clay dirt road that winded down the mountain. Tiffany ran on my left and we both looked for red flags to make sure we didn’t make any wrong turns. A wander off course now would have ended my buckle plan in an instant. I felt like we were really hammering it. “Are we going 7:30 do you think?” I asked her. She kindly made it obvious we were not. Darn my legs must have been trashed because it sure felt like it! Whatever the pace was, it was still hard work even though we were going down.
Winding switchback after winding switchback but no sign of the village lights. Luckily, we both did have some course knowledge (finally). We had been two sevenths of the participants in yesterday’s fun 5K. We knew a blue gate was a 1-mile to go landmark. We passed an area by a gate and Tiffany was sure that was it. I stopped to see what cushion I had to do the final mile in; 22 minutes. I knew we had been flying! We kept going, winding down the road, shouting out when we saw a red flag or when their was a batch of rocks to avoid. But one problem remained. I caught a glimpse of the lights below and knew instantaneously that the finish was well over a mile to go. We had called the finale too early. I guessed it was at least two miles. If I was right, I was still OK but barely.
We ran and ran harder. I didn’t want to miss out by a minute. What hadn’t mattered to me a few hours ago now meant everything all of a sudden. We saw the blue gate ahead; ’16:50′ on the watch she I hit the backlight. A ten-minute mile and it was done. We started passing houses that were now above us rather than below us. We were so close. And then with not much warning, was the finish arch. I turned left and saw the digital clock. The numbers 16:57 beamed at me in neon red.
I crossed the line to the crowd of two. A timekeeper staying warm by her laptop and a guy handing out medals. He gave me my medal and then paused for a long time as I looked at him and wondered if the rumour of sub-17 hours was in fact correct for the buckle. “Oh, and you get one of these by the skin of your teeth”. Man, no need to tease me like that!
I ended up being the very last runner to get a belt buckle from the race. Even though it felt like I had come in dead last, I had most definitely not. The finish rate was 55%. To be on the right side of that felt like its own triumph. I was proud to have finished, to stay in the game even when everything seemed to go wrong for me all day.
I leave UROC knowing I was under prepared for the race. Kilian Jornet used a great quote after his sub-par Western States debut in 2010. “I think when we win a race, we don’t learn so much because everything is perfect. It’s important to lose because that’s when you learn.” I fully appreciate where he is coming from. I never came here to win but I did set lofty goals on myself and fell way short.
All in all, I am proud of my race. It was an absolute sufferfest. I can confidently say, it was the hardest race of my life. It tested me to my maximum and then some more. I have never quit a race and will continue that streak as long as I’m not about to come away from it seriously injured. I want to keep showing the world that you can do anything you want while having diabetes. Even climbing five mountains in the snow at altitude over 100K. It’s a crazy life but someones got to do it!
Tiffany and I ran out of Foresthill side by side, stride for stride. We politely turned down all requests to refill my water and eat the aid station food. We had all those options and more at the car, which was parked a quarter-mile down the course. I had increased my cushion from Michigan Bluff to thirty minutes ahead of sub-24 and felt pretty good, as was always the plan. The cushion was not but I was hoping it was here to stay.
At the car, I finally relieved my shoulders of the backpack and picked up two hand-held water bottles, perfectly prepared by Benny and Sean; one ice and water in the blue bottle, the other ice and Gatorade in the grey bottle. My glucose had dropped a lot to 99. I reduced basal again and grabbed some gels for the next stretch. I changed tops from T-shirt to singlet. What a difference all of this made. I felt lighter and fresher. I did however refuse to play the new socks/shoes game here. With Rucky Chucky river crossing in 16 miles, I was likely going to change them there anyway so I was reluctant to waste time and go through this process twice. We had what we needed; headlamps, gels and the last section of my wrap sandwich.
We took a left onto a dirt road. We would not see Benny or Sean until the end of Tiffany’s pacing at Green Gate (mile 80). The trail turned remote again almost immediately. We walked as I tried my best to eat the wrap. Not to my surprise, Tiffany had lots of news to tell me about from the day. But to my surprise, she told me she had been scheming a master plan all week with family and friends for this very moment at mile 62. She had gotten everyone to write a personal message to me that she then proceeded to read out as we moved along the trail. It was awesome!!! Everyone, that did that, thank you so much!!!
As I fought with my sandwich to go down, I listened to all the messages; a mixture of humor and seriousness wrapped (no pun) into one. The timing could not have been better as I was now feeling a bit rough around the edges. This was more than just cramped legs, my body was slowly shutting down. It was a huge lift to know I had the full support of everyone back in NYC, Hong Kong and of course England.
After a mile of fighting, I finally tossed away the food. My stomach had just shrunk too much that it was not happening for me. It was a long descent into the next aid so we ran sections of gorgeous single track at a pretty good clip. I let gravity take me down and rolled with that pace until the effort hurt or a climb appeared so walking made sense. This was going well for a while but after a few miles, I kept having to stop after a few minutes of running. I threw my hands on my knees, bent over and had to regroup. And then I would slowly start to walk until I was ready again. Luckily, Cal 1 aid station (Dardanelles) put a break to this stop start motion. Ice, refills and some fruit to go. Some cups of Coke pushed the glucose up and perked me up.
We hiked the majority of the next five miles to Peachstone. It was two separate climbs and the power hiking felt good as I had got tired of running. Tiffany made fun that she had to run to keep up with my long stride up the hills. But the humor was short-lived. I was, for the first time, sensing that five miles seemed really far away. I had been working aid station to aid station off my map with a certain pace to keep. That map got left behind at the Foresthill aid so we were now working with less information for better or worse. Was that why it seemed harder? Or was it that I wasn’t eating? Or was it that the sun was slowly setting and I was not looking forward to nighttime running? (I moved really slow during Leadville in the dark). Whatever the reason, I was hurting.
Aliens marked the entrance and exit of Peachstone. Either that or I needed some more Coke. (You find the craziest themes at aid stations, especially at night that this was fast becoming). We left Peachstone fairly quickly. I ate some fruit but not much else. My glucose was fine, my stomach wasn’t, so I had no great incentive to eat much. I was starting to feel sick so food wasn’t going to help that situation out too much.
I ran hard again on the descents down to Fords Bar(Cal 3) but kept stopping again. This scenario played itself out countless times so I was now being ‘that guy’ that would pass someone only to be passed back moments later. When I was just walking easy, Tiffany tried her best to get me to run in her comforting tone. I stubbornly refused. But the comment did not go away. It lingered and weighed guilt on me as the clock was ticking. I knew I had to keep moving, keep running the flats and downhills, walk the uphills. Just keep going while we still had sunlight. And most times after a delay, I would start running again. I told her “No sitting down at Green Gate, no shoe change”. I had planned to do both but was so fixated on time, I didn’t want to be stationary more than I had too, even in this numbing pain. I felt like I was losing time here although I wasn’t.
My pacing was not smart. When I ran, I really ran but the slumping over and walking were not doing me any favors. It felt like the right thing to do because the faster pace felt comfortable. That was the only defense I gave to Tiffany. I knew a slower but more consistent pace was more textbook but I couldn’t fathom doing that all the way to the river crossing.
This was a major mental pit full for me. I had stopped working on the small victories and now wanted the medium ones, this being the river crossing. Tiffany asked “What do you want?” “The river” was my smart reply. I only had the river to go off as a landmark, everything else around me was now feeling old. I needed the river crossing and was growing increasingly impatient. We saw it from high above in descending the mountain but it was the crossing, I craved for.
Leaving Cal 3, we passed a DNFing Jennifer Benna walking towards us with her pacer (husband). He said “Great job, get to the river before it’s dark”. What a great idea I thought. Imagine if I could make it to the Rucky Chucky crossing in daylight? And just like that, I made it my goal to see the famous crossing in daylight.
But my stomach was really in knots, shrinking by the mile, intestinal pain on the rise. I tried to force myself to be sick several times in a row. “Are you sure you should be doing that?” came from Tiffany. “Ann Trason said making yourself sick is sometimes the best thing you can do!”. I couldn’t have felt any worse by not doing it so it was worth a shot. Dry heaving is not fun mind and I eventually gave up.
I called for the headlamps to go on with about four miles to go before the river. I didn’t want to fall because we were being stubborn that the light was fading fast. I felt defeated that I had missed this ‘small victory’ opportunity. It was ridiculous. I was never meant to get to the river until 10:40pm but I had forgotten that and instead sulked that I missed out on a new small victory that I hadn’t even planned for!
My whole body language changed immediately. We heard screams and laughter down below on the American river but could not see who or where. “It had to be the crossing, right?” Tiffany agreed. We begun to climb higher but I wasn’t concerned with this. I had heard from the course meeting that you think you are at the river and then you tap on some miles. This was obviously what was going on, wasn’t it?
As we walked further away from the noise, I begun to get desperate “When is the course going to swing hard left?” (as if it must). A slight left ahead got my hopes up but that wasn’t it. Was it a hard right up the mountain side instead? That didn’t make too much sense but I would have taken it. My obsessive focus was river, river and river as if it would solve my energy low.
We walked almost for miles continuously on easy flat trails in search of Rucky Chucky. It felt aggressive for a walk (I have been informed since, it was not). This was my low and I didn’t even want to register it. I wasn’t eating right or drinking right. I managed to take down a Powerbar fruit smoothie but even that was tough going. Baby food was tough to consume? This was not pretty!
Finally, and I mean finally, lights and noise appeared. I got ushered onto the scales. I stepped on and half stepped off. Somehow, none of the medics made a fuss of this wobble. My weight was 173. Four pounds lost since Foresthill. “Do you want to sit down?” said a medic. It was a question, not a statement so I had a get out. “No. I’m fine” I responded.
I had changed my mind about not sitting at Green Gate (mile 80). I knew I had to and I would solider on for two miles more before doing so. I walked to the food selection at Rucky Chucky. I looked at everything and was convinced whatever I would have picked up would have quickly come back up. The low was getting lower. I needed Green Gate badly.
Lights guided us down some steps to the river bed. I got halfway and then it finally happened. After miles of wanting to, I was now a real ultra runner, I had been sick!! Just like Ann Trason, had said, I immediately felt (slightly) better. “Do you want to go back?” asked Tiffany. “No, let’s go.” Green Gate was so close, why sit down when I could crawl?
Grabbing the rope, volunteers with waders and powerful headlamps guided us across the hip deep water. There were lots of big rocks to climb up or around. I didn’t expect this. I joked to anyone that cared to listen “Even the river crossing is difficult”. A young volunteer replied “This is Western States”. I liked his reply. It was smart and true, something I would have said to a runner half complaining myself! So, I was having a rough few miles. Go figure. What did I think was going to happen? 100 miles of glorious trails hitting all my time goals, keeping my weight, staying cool in 102 degrees? This was all just part of the adventure. I had to embrace it more!!
I looked at the positives. I was still ahead of sub-24 pace, blood glucose under good control, about to get to sit down and then just twenty miles to go. Oh, and I had just run 18 miles with my badass girlfriend during the Western States 100. Time to make the glass half empty again! Life was definitely better than it felt!
I steadily (OK, really slowly) crossed the river. My body now felt somewhat refreshed from the cool river water. I contemplated dipping my body in more at the far side (like I did in the canyons) but realized I had taken forever to cross the darn thing, I had better just get out!
After a mile plus of hiking the canyon road up to Green Gate, Benny and Matt came towards us to join in for the last mile up. Tiffany gave Benny the lowdown on my state of mind (not great!). I knew they were discussing how I was doing but purposely switched off and spoke with Matt. Maybe he had some magic energy that would get me out of the rut?
I wanted to be an hour ahead of schedule for the last twenty with Benny. That one hour cushion would have been a godsend to know I would break 24 hours. I wasn’t sure if I was there. In fact I knew I was shy but not just not by how much (I was 33 minutes ahead). Regardless, Tiffany had been awesome as I knew she would be. She saw me at my worst going through the motions and just helped me patiently and calmly keep moving forward. Relentless forward progress. I think she may have even joked after the weigh-in, I looked better at 173lbs!
My Brooks ID friend Katy Gifford was running the Green Gate aid station. She was there to greet me with a big smile, a hug and a much promised grilled cheese sandwich. Was this to be the magic energy? I slouched into a chair. I hadn’t sat down for 18 hours!! Needless to say, it felt like heaven.
As I looked at my grilled cheese sandwich figuring out how on earth I was going to actually eat it, I thought to myself ‘I feel…OK’. Not great, but a few gears up from being sick at the river two miles ago. Nearing 11pm, I decided to put on arm sleeves as the temperature would perhaps drop slightly, or maybe I just still feared my pace would and they would be useful for that. I reminded myself that my feet were already a mess and seeing them now would not do me any favors, so I pursued with the same pair of Grits for the last stretch.
After a couple of cups of hot soup and nibbles out of the sarnie, it was time to head out. We got about a minute into the journey and I asked Benny if he had the pacing map. He said no. I wanted it. I wanted to know my cushion. Benny assured me he knew exactly what time to be at each aid station, pace etc, so off we went. We had already spent longer than planned at Green Gate but it was important to regroup and get some energy back.
I had eaten about three mouthfuls of grilled cheese sandwich at the aid. Benny was holding it as he was more hopeful than me that I would eat more. We quickly got into a very easy running pace along flat single track. Real easy. I surprised myself that I no longer wanted to stop and have any breaks.
Benny ran behind (as was custom for the pacer) and we talked. Well, he talked. I was a good listener for the most part. When an incline came, Benny passed me the sandwich. “Eat” was the instruction. He wasn’t even asking me! One small bite and then some water to make sure I could actually swallow it down. The simple task of eating (what humans do to stay alive) was significantly harder than putting one foot in front of the other. These miles were all about eating, not running to stay on track for a successful result.
The ascent ended and I happily returned the sandwich to Benny. Back to running. But surprisingly, this repetitive task of climbing equals sandwich worked out. A few miles later and Benny had achieved his goal (largely against my will – could you tell?) and I had consumed the sandwich over five miles between aid stations.
Just before we entered the aid station, Benny made me stop for water. Not just a sip. Ten seconds of continuous drinking. “How many what…seconds?” I was not happy with this rule. Benny reminded me about my weight. So, we stood still in darkness on the trail at midnight and I chugged back ten seconds of water. As much as Benny was correct, I didn’t appreciate stopping anymore as starting again was the most painful exercise.
We rolled into Auburn Lake Trails aid at mile 85. This time, my name was called out over the MC. Things were getting personal and I liked it! But we hit a scales block. Dislike! I jumped on. “177”. I was back at starting weight. Like! And cue high fives between me and Benny. I sat in a chair. I hadn’t planned on this but was getting pretty exhausted and felt I deserved a minute or two off my feet. Benny didn’t show any major panic in his eyes so I assumed my time was good. I had given him full control of my pacing and ultimately my final time.
My CGM sensor had fallen loose so I was now working off blood tests only at each aid stop. Volunteers were eager to help me refuel but I had to politely tell them to hold tight while we drew some blood and saw where my numbers were. I was just above 200. So-so. Benny and me discussed basal rates and what to eat. Lots of broth and noodle soup was all I could take so that’s what it was. Some of the volunteers dropped their jaws to see two diabetics out here doing the numbers, figuring out carbs vs insulin vs energy. They had lots of questions for us! It was pretty awesome. I guess that’s a prime example of Team Novo Nordisk’s global mission of #changingdiabetes right there.
Off again. Benny was not saying much about my time cushion other than “you’re good”. As me and my team had discussed hours ago on the shore of Lake Tahoe, if I could control my pace in the first half of the race, Tiffany and Benny could motivate me and drive me on as my body tired for the last 38 miles. I trusted them completely. We also knew this tactic would mean passing runners who were now falling apart towards the end of the race.
Sure enough, this was happening. Seven spots had been taken in a few miles since Green Gate. Our pace was nothing to blow anyone’s mind but to me it felt great, to others around us it, it probably looked great, and that’s all that mattered. I knew I wasn’t going to see any of these people again until after the race. I knew the pacing for the last twenty miles had to be between 15-18 minute miles from memory and we were running most of this, so I figured we were going 10’s. If that was right, we were banking loads of time.
Brown’s Bar aid station could be heard from far away. These guys were here to party first, volunteer second! The speakers blared out The Killers as we crossed a tiny bridge decorated with Christmas lights (yes, really, this one topped the aliens – I was not hallucinating!) to the aid. I sat in the chair. The chair was fast becoming a mini reward for making the next aid station. Benny and a volunteer grabbed me more chicken noodle soup and cups of broth. Lots of them, my appetite was back to an extent.
The station was sponsored by Rogue Valley Runners from Ashland, OR. Owner (and WS racer) Hal Koerner was probably tucked up in bed at this point (he probably was but unfortunately with a DNF at the river). I talked excitedly about my upcoming trip out there in August. Benny was probably wondering why the hell I was talking about a future trip to Oregon during my Western States race! It didn’t make sense to have a random conversation about Oregon, where to go, what to do etc but that’s how relaxed I felt about my race at that time. I was definitely on the upswing.
Benny was anything but freaking out that I was sitting down and taking my time. I didn’t know it at the time but I had more than doubled my cushion time since Auburn Lake Trails. The only thing I needed to do better was get my glucose lower. As if 88 miles wasn’t enough to wear you out, now my sugar wasn’t coming down below 200.
Benny and me discussed the numbers again and took a bolus of insulin. We ideally wanted this number back at 150 range ASAP. The route to Highway 49 aid would be a mix of descending, flat and ascending. The pace remained steady with some confidence to it. And why not? Ten miles to go and Benny kept reassuring me the silver buckle was locked up, no matter how many times I asked him!
We crossed the road into Highway 49. US flags led us into a cheering frenzy. It was 2:30 in the morning but you wouldn’t have guessed it. Sean grabbed me a chair. Blood test. Glucose was back on target with 130. This was surely diabetic runners high right? I had iced water and iced Gatorade in my handhelds in no time. We were about to leave and I asked Sean, “Where’s Tiffany?”. “Um..you wore her out. She’s sleeping in the car” he said. We smirked although I knew she would be upset she missed me here. I would see them at mile 99 for the final push. 6.7 miles to go and the silver buckle was safe. Dream locked up!
We marched out of the aid. “OK, Benny” I said. “We have 6.7 miles to go. I have an hour and a half to do 6.7 miles right for sub-23, correct?”. Benny paused. I don’t think he wanted to tell me what he had already been planning since Green Gate. “Yep, that’s right” he said. “So, are we going to do this or what?!!” I said. It hadn’t crossed my mind until then, that I was cutting myself short with a sub-24 goal!
Before I could get too excited though, we had to climb a long hill but from that point on, it was gradual downhill all the way through grasslands to the famous No Hands Bridge. We didn’t mess around! I almost tripped a couple of times on some rocks and had to slow it down to avoid a potential wipe out. My fear came from cramping up rather than actually taking a layer of skin off. The legs were really stiff and heavy, the earlier mountains had done their damage on them. The section to No Hands Bridge was only three miles long but the last mile seemed to drag as the bridge just wasn’t coming into sight. When we did eventually catch a glimpse of it, we shouted out a couple of “woots” of pure excitement.
We had already discussed en route here, no more blood tests at any of the aid stations, refill bottles at No Hands Bridge and go. Time was precious if we were going to break 23 hours. Tiffany and Sean were there to our surprise. It was awesome. I told her, we were going to try to break 23 hours. She kind of already knew by the clock and the urgency Benny was putting on me to keep going. We ran off over No Hands Bridge, the lowest point of elevation of the course but with runners high. 3.3 miles to go. We were on a mission!
I still had lots of work to do. Benny and me discussed it plenty. We knew a 14-minute pace would seal the deal. Easy right? Well, we had to climb all the way up to Robie Point aid (where Tiffany and Sean would meet us for the final mile) which would leave 16 minutes of time remaining to cover the last 1.3 miles. If I only had 10 minutes, I was going to go for it I told Benny, but I would rather work at almost maximal effort now and relax for the last mile and enjoy mile 100 with everyone.
I didn’t mind changing my technique as running was really exhausting but the power hiking was losing me time (or so I thought). We caught six more runners and powered on through them. They were all pretty toast. I was close (to toast) but my new-found goal of sub-23 was driving me on like no tomorrow!
We heard cow bells at the top of the climb. Robie Point. In and out, without stopping. I checked the watch. 24 minutes to cover 1.3 miles! My body relaxed, I felt euphoric. We hiked the asphalt road following the orange spray-painted feet that I’m sure are for Western States? (we had been following yellow ribbons and glow sticks up to now). Tiffany and Sean met us at the crest of the hill and we did a mini-celebration. I think this is when Benny told me he had the pace sheet the whole time but didn’t want me to see it!!
We walked fast but didn’t need to. All the work had been done and this was now the moment to enjoy the occasion. I thanked everyone again and again for all their hard work. If I didn’t have such great friends who were organized and committed to the race, the sub-23 wouldn’t have even been a talking point. The bonus of going under one more hour is credited to them and I include my other team-mates, Matt and Laura in that as well.
We ran a section of the mile. I knew from watching countless Western States videos, you turn left and then a second left, through a narrow gate and onto the famous Placer High School track to the white finish arch wrapped in flags from across the world. In between left turns, I wanted to see the next left so bad. Marshall’s were there to show us just that turn I wanted along with a few die-hard locals who were staying up all night to cheer us home.
Onto the track we went for the 250m finale. I looked across the field and saw the famous white arch with my own eyes. It seemed surreal. Was this really happening?! This moment was special, really special. It turned the bend and ran down the final stretch and across the line shouting in celebration. 22 hours 53 minutes. I had believed in my dream that sub-24 could happen and achieved it. The sub-23 was just the icing on the cake to without doubt, the run of my life.
Tim Tweitmeyer was working the ‘graveyard shift’ handing out finisher medals. It was great to meet him. A true legend of ultrarunning winning 5 of his 25 sub-24 finishes at Western States. What a great person to receive my medal from!
I celebrated with the crew and crawled into a white plastic chair at the finish line. My glucose was 110. Nailed that too. Will someone please wake me up now?! A couple of others snuck-in under sub-23 which was awesome to witness. I went off to do some heart rate testing with the John Moores Sport Science team. Within minutes of the tests starting, my body just broke down completely; shivering and cramping everywhere. The new goal for my crew was to get me to bed! And so we did just that.
I found out later that day I came in the top 50 men spots (60th overall). It took a few days for everything to sink in and while hobbling around NYC with two banged up blistered feet, it finally hit me how perfect everything went, how precious health is and to stick your neck out there and try to achieve great personal things, not matter how small and inconsequential they are to others.
I’ve had days and now weeks (yes this blog is very late) to reflect on everything from Western States. I’ve had conversations with Tiffany, Benny, Matt and others about what’s next and when. What does this all of this mean anyway?
For starters, my confidence has sky rocketed. I knew I could do it. Even with the hot conditions, I was adamant it could be accomplished, but I still had to execute the plan. I’m a few hours (8 to be precise) shy of winning the thing, but I know I can do better. Not just in Western States or 100 mile races, in everything. I know I can work harder, work faster and keep pushing the limits. Because all that limits do are hold you back.
I already know that my diabetes doesn’t limit me. I’m excited to explore this “no limits” attitude in life and future races starting with my first 100K distance race in Colorado at the end of September. I’ll probably have a dream about it soon and hope to make that one come true too.