For Others; Pacing the NYC Marathon

April 2004, London; I lined up behind the 3:15 pacer at my first marathon believing I had done all the right things in my training only to fall well short of my goal time, crawling home to a 3:48 after having a pretty bad hypo experience at mile 21. That pacer disappeared from sight at mile 15 in and I had no idea how anyone could run so well, stay on pace and carry a sign. The marathon humbled me. I went so far as to take a break from racing for a few years.

London Marathon 04 with my Sis.

The archives; Post-London Marathon 04 with my Sis.

November 2013, NYC; I lined up as the 3:15 pacer at my umpteenth marathon. Ten years on, I have become a runner that I didn’t think was possible. I was lucky enough to be selected by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) as one of the official pacers for this year’s much missed New York marathon (after the cancellation last year following Hurricane Sandy). I was happy to be allocated the 3:15 time. An average pace of 7:26 per mile would be needed. As much as I run these days, this was to be my first official pacing gig. I felt honor and pressure. I had a horrible image of quitting in the Bronx and getting on the subway with my pacer shirt and orange balloons saying 3:15. I say this only because two weeks prior, I was hobbling around the streets of Brooklyn with my family with inflammation in my right heel. With rest and icing, it healed just in time for arguably the best day of the year.

My love affair with the New York Marathon started in 2007. Since watching my own country’s, Paula Radcliffe win the race, I got inspiration I needed to run another marathon. It could only be New York. I took the plunge the following week and went to Nike Run Club (I had heard about it for over a year but stubbornly not wanted to run in a group). It proved to be a huge turning point in my life both in terms of running and friendships. Those few days really kick started the second chapter of running in my life.

But my next marathon would have to wait a while longer.  Knee surgery forced me to defer my New York bib a year. So I ran the 2009 race instead and took a 47 minute chunk of time off my first attempt. It put some demons to bed, that’s for sure.  For those that know me, the journey has anything but slowed down from there.

Working the booth with Tommy.

Tommy and me working the booth at the expo. Photo credit: Elaine Acousta

My pacing duties actually began well before standing at the start line.  On Saturday morning, I worked at the Pace Team booth. The people and questions came thick, fast and sometimes very personal; “What is the pace team?”, “How much does it cost?”, “I pee a lot while running. Should I try to break 4 or just settle for 4:15?” Yes, I got to meet all sorts. It was quite an experience. It really made me realize a) people do really come from all over the world for this race (most came back from last year’s cancellation from as far as Sydney!) b) they do really rely on the pacers to help them achieve their goals.

Looking back to Manhattan while crossing the Verrazano.

Looking back to Manhattan while crossing the Verrazano.

Race (pace) day begun in Times Square at 6am. Our NYRR contact, Paul Leak directed me onto the correct bus. He had promised me Pamela Anderson (she was running it) on the bus and all the other VIP’s. Paul had let me down, it was just the pacers! We drove through Brooklyn watching the sunrise over our great city and then over the Verrazano bridge to the start village in Staten Island.  Getting into the village was a tough task. It was the first real reminder of the day how big this race had become. Over 50,000 would run making it the largest marathon in history! Paul handed us our goal pace signs, which somehow worked like VIP passes to get into the village. The security was super tight. I didn’t appreciate getting a metal detector run over me (twice) but respected the need for solid policing. The world was watching after all.

Security overseeing runners head into the start village

Security overseeing runners head into the start village

People asked me what perks we got as pacers. Well the heated tent with a breakfast spread was a nice touch, I will say. Unfortunately, for pacers like me in the wave 1 start, we didn’t have much time to enjoy this. I always like to eat two hours prior to a race and was now already inside this window. My BG was a bit high at 198 but I wanted to be there at the start of the race so I calculated my carb intake needs and took off a unit of insulin to make sure I would stay in that range. The tricky part with my diabetes was having to be in my assigned corral early. That meant doing my last blood test with about an hour and a half before the start. I decided to take a bottle of Gatorade with me as a safety precaution along with my pacer sign and giant meeting point sign.

Pre-race with Keila and Jackie. It was cold I swear!

Pre-race with Keila and Jackie. It was cold I swear! Photo credit: Jackie Choi

I dragged my stuff around the village trying to dump my bag in the green village (green bib) and then figure out where the blue corral was as this was my assigned start corral. Immediately, everyone around me thought I knew everything about anything. “Where is the green corral?” and “Should I use the bathroom now or wait until the corral?” People seem to like talking about toilet needs to me for some reason.

As I approached the entrance to the corral a man approached me and said “Oh great. You’re here. They have been asking about you”. Did ‘they’ think I was Pamela Anderson? It all felt a bit strange. Everyone stared at me as soon as I entered the corral. I waved my sign at them as an ice breaker and everyone just stared back. I think looking back they were all thinking ‘Is he really going to run with that giant sign the whole way?’. The answer was no, although when a big burly French guy actually asked me that question I said “No, you are and while you’re at it, you can shield us all from the wind to please!” The temperatures were perfect but the wind would not be. Up to 20 mph headwinds would be a big problem for the runners today. Luckily, for any of them savvy enough, I would be the one battling the wind without choice. I predicted that my effort would make it feel more like a 3:10 than a 3:15.

While hanging around for the start, the big two questions were “Are you running in kilometers?” and “Are you running even pace?” I politely told them I last ran in kilometers in school cross-country and no, I would not be running even pace. I had printed off a wristband with mile splits that took into account the hills of the course and would therefore run even effort. That meant the first mile would be about 8-minute pace and the second, 7-minute pace purely because it was over the bridge. After that, the pace would settle to 7:20-25’s for a while through Brooklyn and Queens.

The gun fired, Frank sung ‘New York, New York’ over the sound system and we clambered over people’s throwaway clothes (that they had clearly done a bad job of actually throwing away) towards the start line. Here we go. The goal was to run as close to 3:15:00 as possible without any crazy sprints or slowing down shenanigans. I felt the pressure as I had a sea of people swarming around me putting all of their faith in me.

The famous start over the Verrazano Bridge.

The famous start over the Verrazano Bridge. Can anyone spot Thunder?!

Among the 50,000, I quickly saw friends. Steve “Thunder” Lee was posing for a photo on the middle divide of the bridge wearing his Superman costume and then Angela from Nike Run Club. She told everyone they were in good hands. I appreciated the compliment as I’m sure their were some doubters in the group.

An NYPD helicopter hovered at bridge height to our left, a stark reminder of how tightly watched this race was going to be. At the highest point of the race was mile 1. I hit the pace almost perfectly. The descent would be fast and I did my best to keep it at 7 minute pace. Some runners went ahead and kept checking over their shoulder to see me. I didn’t have to say anything for them to know they needed to back off slightly.

The 3:15 group going over the Verrazano Bridge.

The 3:15 group going over the Verrazano Bridge.

During the entry into our second borough (Brooklyn), all three colored corral starts split and rejoined a mile or so later. I was looking for my other 3:15 pacer, Andrew, who begun in the green corral on the lower level of the Verrazano. On 4th Avenue, crowds were growing and so were the runners. At 3.5 miles in, all corrals were now as one. I spotted a sign ahead which looked like Andrew’s 3:15. I just had to pray it wasn’t 3:10 as I closed the gap. It was him.

Green, orange and blue routes separate briefly after the Verrazano Bridge.

Green, orange and blue routes separate briefly after the Verrazano Bridge.

The real-time pacing was going well but my GPS version was not. Either I was submerged with too many of them (GPS watches) or buildings were throwing off the data. My average mile was saying 7:10 when I knew we were doing 7:25’s. I knew because I kept checking elapsed time at mile markers. I was basically running pre-GPS watch era.

Some concerned runners wondered why two 3:15 signs were spread apart. I simply told them, we started in different corrals. We were slightly behind goal pace and he was probably slightly ahead. I phrased it that if they ran in the space between us, they would be ‘on the money’. I think that was all the reassurance they needed to hear. We did however have 20 more miles to go which would have been my greater concern as a runner of the race.

By the clock tower building in Brooklyn, myself and Andrew finally connected. We figured that I should be behind him due to starting at fractionally different times. I had felt some pressure from my group to catch him and I should never have let that be the case. I eased off slightly as we climbed the hill north on Lafayette Avenue where the crowds were and are always amazingly loud.

The reward was a long gradual downhill. Most of the faces I had seen on the Verrazano were still the same. We were all here, we were all running as one big group. I urged them to stay relaxed. The race did not begin until 1st Avenue and I hoped they trusted that fact.

Empty cups; I did not drink smart early in the race.

Empty cups; I did not drink smart early in the race.

As pacer, my aim was to run in the center of the road on both straights and turns. Going through the aid stations trying to grab liquid was therefore not too easy. After a couple of failed attempts, I found my glucose level dropping. I realized that I was simply not following my normal carbohydrate intake methods all because I was carrying a stick! What is the first rule of pacing? Look after yourself or you can not look after others. It was true.

I grabbed a gel from my shorts. Within half a mile, I grabbed a second one (which I rarely do). Luckily, my pacing remained as it should have even though the effort I had to exert went up a notch for a mile. A good save but I should have never have put myself in that situation.

Running through the Hasidic Jewish community is one of the quieter and strangest sections of the race. It’s a place where two separate worlds collide for a few hours as 50,000 people run through their neighborhood. I watched a runner try to high-five several men in a row and they all just stood there staring. But as is New York, all of a sudden, one block further ahead, we heard a DJ blaring some music.  We were entering the start of Williamsburg. Crowds roared again and you could feel the lift the runners got from the noise.

At 11 miles in, the pace was perfect. I was not afraid to let them know this either. I liked telling the group every mile or two if we were up or down and by how much. There were a few cheers when they heard we were exactly on pace.

At the Pulaski bridge, we clocked a halfway time of 1:37:40, ten seconds behind. My pace data on my watch was so off, I wanted to switch it off and just wear a normal watch. Gauging the 7:25’s off feel was not as easy after spending years relying on my ‘techy’ watch. “Ten seconds is nothing” I told them. “The crowds in Manhattan will shave off one minute of time for you without you having to do anything”. They liked hearing this as we looked over to our left and saw the amazing skyline of Manhattan. They knew the main part was to come.

But something in Queens didn’t go right. My pace kept dropping and my glucose was definitely OK (now). Two miles later, we completed the last turn before the long Queensboro bridge begun and I had lost more time. I was now 45 seconds behind. Andrew and his group had stayed close by me. We had since realized I should have been the one ahead of him and his green wave group. I was not happy with this and subconsciously pushed the bridge climb. At this point in the race, it was hard to keep track who were my runners from the start gun and who had jumped on for the ride. I intersected with more friends running their own race; Marisa Galloway and Tony Cheong notably. Tony looked like he was hurting some and didn’t seem too thrilled to see me. Then, my pacer light bulb went on. I was the guy no one in front wanted to see! The sweeper, if you will, for some of the fast folks with goals of 3:10 and faster. If they saw me, they were not having their day.

By the middle of the bridge, all you get is an eerie noise of feet on road and breathing, nothing more. As pacer, I felt pressure to say something but I waited and waited and then when we descended over and into Manhattan and the roar of noise slowly began. As the crowds came into sight I declared “Party time!”. The contradiction of  silence to the ‘wall of sound’ coming off the bridge is a special moment along the course. We turned under the arch of the bridge and then looked straight up 1st Avenue.

The view ahead was a sea of people on both sides of the street with signs, balloons and runners as far as the eye can see heading for the Bronx. I checked my watch. I was all of a sudden only a few seconds behind goal time. What had I done on that bridge? I certainly didn’t mean to close the time gap so quickly, especially over one of the toughest parts mentally and physically of the course. I was not proud of myself. I had broken my rule of no dramatic shifts of speed.

The masses along 1st Avenue

The masses along 1st Avenue

A mile up 1st Avenue, I saw my friends lining the left side. There were lots of them but I only managed to lock eyes with Francis and Tiffany before I moved back to the center of the road. The first signs of fatigue were now evident. My group of runners seemed fine, no complaints from anyone at least, but ahead, runners were walking, holding hamstrings or going a fraction of the speed they were probably going in the first three boroughs. The marathon wall in New York for some reason seems to come earlier than other races. The course is just tough, no two ways about it.

Working 1st Avenue. Photo courtesy; Reiko Cyr.

Working as one up 1st Avenue. Photo credit; Reiko Cyr.

Through the gel zone, I grabbed as many as I could. I learned this tip from my veteran pacer friend Otto Lam. As soon as we were through, I turned to offer the gels to anyone that didn’t get one. In doing so, I saw the amount of runners working hard to keep pace with me. It was an awesome sight to an extent but it really added to the mounting pressure that I had to nail this time goal.

The last mile of 1st Avenue sucks. I didn’t try to pretend otherwise to the runners either. I said “This section of the course gets really quiet but in one mile we will be in the Bronx and the it will be loud all the way home. I promise. For now, just focus on this mile”. I felt the need to say something as I heard the breathing getting louder as the crowd fizzled out. With silence can come doubt and at mile 18, this is a high drop out zone of the course. You need to tell yourself that you can do it. As long as you’ve done the training, it’s basically a mental game not a physical one from here on in. I carried my pacer sign as high as I could so they would always have a visual. In hindsight, I could have probably carried it a bit lower as you know what you’re looking for after 18 miles of running. To me, it just felt like my way of helping as much as possible.

“Up a short climb over the Willis Avenue bridge and we will be in the Bronx”. My memory had left out the long second climb before we actually got off the bridge. I regretted using the words ‘short climb’ but still no one was heckling me. I had balanced out the pacing up 1st Avenue and we were now at a really nice ten seconds under goal pace.  Some of the crowds here in the Bronx were big but not as loud as they could have been. I turned to my trusty pacer stick and used it to pick the crowd up. It worked immediately. I guess they were getting bored with watching all these serious runners so I started having fun with the crowds and it worked. The runners appreciated it. It was a win-win move.

Bronx bunching; Mile 21. Photo credit: Oh Snapper.

Bronx bunching at Mile 21. Photo credit: Oh Snapper.

My Danish running friends (who I had met at the expo) were running strong. They asked if the bridge ahead was the last one. It was. Madison Avenue bridge back into Manhattan and then five miles left. I found the question an interesting perspective from another runner. As I had been mentally counting hills to go, they had been counting the bridges as a way to break up the race. My concern for the group was the 5th Avenue hill still to come; a mile long up before entering Central Park.

Off Madison bridge, we turned left turn down 5th Avenue greeted by none other than Michael Jackson’s Thriller (They’ve played this song here every year for some time now). “If anyone hanging with the group has anything left, now is the time to go” I said. Most of them laughed/cried and said “We are trying to hang on!” OK, good to know. It really was impossible to tell if any of them had broken away, fallen off the back or I had gathered up some new runners along the way. I’m sure it was a combination of all three. Anyone we now passed in dire straits got a tap from me and words of encouragement. I referenced Dusty Olson’s words “Dig deep” that he used pacing Scott Jurek during his ultrarunning hey days.  I didn’t like to see people walking and know these two simple words can be very powerful.

We had four miles of temporary pain left together. I wanted everyone we passed to jump on the 3:15 bus. We hit 110th Street which meant the beginning of the 5th Avenue climb. “Time to do work” I said. “Hang on guys”. This hill is truly something. I think I’m accurate in saying we can all blame the legend of Fred Lebow for the placement of this one mile hill so late in the race. I wanted to tell them they were halfway but stopped myself when I read the street sign ’96th St.’. Wow, I guess I was hurting too. Andrew, was still by my side. I was now a comfortable 30 seconds ahead of the goal time. I wanted to hit 3:15:00 but feared the one second over scenario so much I didn’t want to risk being that close. I know it would have haunted me and I would have viewed my job as a failure so I aimed for a 15 second window.

Grinding at Mile 22. Photo credit: @raysphotos (Instagram)

3:15 group grinding at mile 22. Photo credit: @raysphotos (Instagram)

With two blocks of the hill left, we were close enough “Come on. Almost in the park and then no more hills” I shouted. That wasn’t’ quite true but no more hills like that. It was a close enough statement to say to fatigued runners who were probably not even listening to me anymore.

Central Park looked nothing like usual as is always the case during the marathon. A sea of people lined the left side of the route as we weaves around the MET museum. A small climb towards Cat Hill made teeth clench. I gave a heads up that a nice downhill would be the reward.

Two runners glued themselves to my sides. Down to the edge of the park, a large crowd awaited us. Just like the Bronx, I asked for noise for the runners and received it in full force. As I glanced up and saw a ‘800 meters to go’ sign, I knew I was OK, comfortably under 3:15. We turned back into the park at Columbus Circle. I pointed out to the lead singer of the band playing and he pointed right back at me, both smiling like a couple of Cheshire cats from Alice in Wonderland. Boy, we were basically in Wonderland, this was awesome.

I grabbed some high fives from runners as we climbed the last 0.2 up the teaser of a finish. I slowed a little to make sure runners just behind knew if they could catch me, they were under the 3:15 time. I crossed the line at 3:14:44 just as happy as if this was my own race.

Home stretch; I finally had time to relax and enjoy the finish!

Home stretch; I finally had time to relax and enjoy the finish!

I found Andrew at the finish and we congratulated each other among many of the other runners we had paced. We collected our medals, foil blankets and some food as we walked north through the park to reclaim our bags. When, I finally got my stuff, I grabbed my glucose meter. I was 82. Time for food, anything but gels!

The amazing finish area in Central Park.

The amazing finish area in Central Park.

The whole race was truly about other people. From 50,000 runners to over two million spectators, the NYRR, the police. But it was even more than that. It was for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the people of Boston and for everyone gunning for sub 3:15 around me whether they made it or not. It seemed truly fitting that this race was not about me, I was just a small part that was very happy to help. Thank you Brian Hsia, John Honerkamp and Paul Leak at NYRR for selecting and trusting me as a pacer. It is one of my best running experiences I’ve ever had.

NYCM 2013

NYCM 2013 medals

 

 

 

 

Twin Cities Marathon; The Sub-3 Experiment

TCM logo zoom

Observation:

Ultra runners are not normal. Ultra runners refuse to follow normal runner rules of training and racing. We ‘like’ to run 100 miles at altitude, 24 hours around a one mile loop course or dream up our own challenges. Some of my friends ran Boston backwards and then forwards this year. Why? Why not? Most of these ideas and races seem abnormal and impossible to most of the human race. Part of that is my drive.

Artist Impression of the course

Artist Impression of the course.

The Twin Cities Marathon (Minneapolis/St.Paul) is labeled “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America”. I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. The only problem with this year’s race was the date. It fell just a week after my 100K race in Colorado that I knew would (and definitely did) exhaust me. Most people would let the race go and look for it again on the calendar next time around. It would just not be ‘normal’ to run it so soon after such a hard effort. So, I said to myself ‘Imagine if I could break 3 hours at Twin Cities on really tired legs. That would be cool’. And there, the idea was born. I called it the Sub-3 Experiment.

To put my fitness into perspective, just three years earlier P.U. (pre-ultra), I broke the three-hour barrier in the Chicago marathon for the first time. I crossed that line with such emotion after having that goal from a young age. I wondered how future running achievements could every top that moment in time. Oh, how narrow-minded I was!

Chicago 10-10-10; 2:58. A priceless moment in time.

Chicago 10-10-10; 2:58. A priceless moment in time.

Hypothesis: Mind over muscle (fatigue)!

Prediction: This is where I have to be really decisive? Yes, I will do it!

Experiment:

Me and Ryan represented Team Novo Nordisk for the weekend at Twin Cities. We walked from our hotel to the HHH Metrodome (where the Minnesota Vikings play) where the start would be. We met up with my NYC marathon maniac friends; Kino and Thunder who I seem to bump into as much away from New York as in it. We discarded our warm clothes and got ready to go to the start line.

Getting race ready inside the much warmer stadium.

Getting race ready inside the stadium.

After my best night of sleep before a race ever, I was in good spirits. This was probably due to the fact that the ‘race’ was more of a game to me. If my legs weren’t feeling it, I would slow down but still finish. I was here to have fun and enjoy the challenge I had set myself.

I did a final glucose reading before handing my bag in and was surprised how low I was at 110. A 110 reading is normally perfect for everyday life but not before 26.2 miles. I was well below my target I always set myself of 180. As I had a 32oz Gatorade with me, now seemed a good a time as any to get some in the system. A few gulps and then a few more. I ended up polishing it off. I decided why risk going low in the race, I could always hold back on my carb intake in the first few miles if I felt it necessary.

Twin Cites route and elevation chart.

Twin Cites route and elevation chart.

I went outside to temps in the low-40’s. Most runners where already in the corrals waiting. I got into mine and weaved my way closer to the front. As soon as it became more trouble than it was worth, I settled on a spot and waited for the usual proceedings of speech, anthem and gun.

Start of the 32nd Twin Cities Marathon

Start of the 32nd Twin Cities Marathon

Off we went west through downtown Minneapolis. I didn’t try to rush ahead, I just stayed at the pace of most around me and moved up when a gap presented itself. The city had a similar look to Chicago, just not quite the same masses of runners. I believe we were about 9,000 strong.

By mile 1, I realized just how far back I had started. I was only now catching up to the CLIF pacer group of 3:15 led by fellow ultra runner Harvey Lewis. He read out a 7:21 split for mile 1 (I needed an average pace of 6:51 per mile for sub-3). OK, so thirty seconds down but no big deal. I had allowed for a slower start until 2.5 miles until the road flattened out.

We ran passed a church with its Sunday service bells chiming and then turned ninety degrees left up a long gradual climb. I noticed Kino ahead and caught up to him. We small talked, wished each other luck and then separated again.

Within two miles, we were in the suburbs of the city with beautiful tree foliage either side of the residential street. OK, the artistic impression of the course was pretty accurate. We wrapped around our first of four lakes for the day at Lake of the Isles. My average pace at the mile 4 was now down to an average of 7/minute miles. I had been gradually speeding up and so far so good. I told my plan to Crazy Chris Solarz in the week and he warmed me the wheels may fall off as early as mile 2. After a 100 mile race he had done last year, the next weekend he ran a marathon and it was not too speedy for him. I had been warned by the master but I was pretty determined to give it a fair crack at the whip.

The course was very flat now as we headed south. Around the biggest lake of the day; Lake Calhoun, and I could now appreciate why everyone who lives here loves their lakes! The lake looked glossy from the sunrise and a range of yellow, orange and green-leaved trees wrapped around the perimeter of the lake as the backdrop. During this lake, I passed by the last official pacing group on the course (3:05ers) which proved a bit more difficult than I wished for but once through, the space ahead was open and I continued at my steady pace.

I clocked 43 minutes at the 10K electronic mat. More to the point, my pace was now exactly on sub-3 hour target. All I had to do was maintain it for another 20 miles! I was surprised how many cheers I was getting of “changing diabetes” and “diabetes”. I’ve been wearing my Team Novo Nordisk shirt with pride all year-long but I guess running in the mountains and remote trails doesn’t attract the same level of spectators as a city marathon. It was a pleasant change. I enjoyed the acknowledgment of people recognizing what we are trying to do; diabetes doesn’t hold any of us back.

Early miles staying composed

Early miles staying composed

I was consuming a cup or two of Powerade at every odd mile marker to make sure my 110 pre-race glucose wouldn’t drop any lower. It by no means should have after that Gatorade I consumed but I was feeling more on the low than high side in the early miles. I ended up grabbing a gel from my shorts earlier than I would normally do. I was frustrated that a low now would possibly affect my pace rather than my legs that were doing a great job. Well done legs!

From mile 8 on, I knew the course descended very subtly all the way until mile 20. I didn’t want to increase my pace dramatically but knew it would be nice to have a cushion on my goal pace before the long hill from 20 to 23. I glanced my watch again and saw 6:47 pace. I stuck with this pace over the next few miles as it felt manageable.

The race director clearly knew what he was doing with his lakes because he saved the best of the four until last (only 9,996 lakes still to see in Minnesota!). As we hugged the south bank of Lake Nokomis, there was a great view of Minneapolis behind, probably a good five miles away. The houses around the lake were no joke either. I guess, if your living the good life in this part of the world, you live by a lake!

As much as I was enjoying my views and the race, my bladder was not enjoying any of it. I had been holding out for a few miles now. I really just didn’t want to stop to go or the complete opposite and wet myself so I just thought if I kept running, the problem would just go away. Shortly before halfway, I took a detour into a porta potty and oh man, did I feel better after that! I got going again and noticed the thirty seconds of cushion time I had just built up had gone again but at least I didn’t wet myself. I’m not sure I physically could have. How do people do that anyway?!

I clocked my half split at 1:29:40. Things were shaping up for the perfect sub-3 race but I was still concerned if my legs were coming along for the whole ride. I had to hold this pace for the same amount of effort again and climb this hill positioned at the hardest miles in any marathon. My mind was wandering and doubting. I had to break the race down before I cracked. OK, six miles until the bridge over into St. Paul. Let’s focus on those six gradual downhill miles and nothing else I said to myself.

I had noticed I was passing people every hundred yards or less the whole race. This felt great. Not that I was racing anyone except the clock but there’s something immensely satisfying about running smart, holding back and finishing strong. Time would tell if I was holding back or already close to my max though. Nothing was a given. I’ve never heard many people anyone say “that marathon was an easy” and respected the distance and discipline required.

Flying through the last aid station; I could wait 1.2 miles for water.

Pushing the pace on the second half.

As we ran alongside the Mississippi River to our right, I knew the bridge was imminent. With just about a mile of Minneapolis real estate running remaining, I got a tap on my back from a tall runner. “I love your team” he said. “Oh, thanks…me too” I said. “Are you T1?” I asked him. He was indeed. I was impressed. I demanded he apply for the team immediately!

During the conversation, I felt a growing number of runners swarming around me as we descended down the road towards the Franklin Street Bridge. I wasn’t one to enjoy doing all the leg work with a light breeze coming at us so I pushed the gear up enough to breakaway and cross the river independently.

Bridge the gap; between Minneapolis and St.Paul

Bridge the gap; between Minneapolis and St.Paul

The view of the rowers on the Mississippi River with the tree foliage either side was picturesque to say the least but I would have traded the view at this point for no wind which was blowing me all over the place. As I reached halfway across, I felt my speed pick up again. In part because the bridge was now descending but also because I heard the cheers of a large crowd on the St. Paul side of town.

I ran though this noisy section and kept my pace high as I kept drawing more and more runners in who were now fighting hard to stay at their earlier pace. Mine had picked up again, now to 6:31. I questioned if that was too much but knew for every mile, I was putting a nice twenty seconds in the bank that I may need to spend again on the hill.

Under the Mile 20 arch

Under the Mile 20 arch pushing at 6:30 pace.

Though a 20 mile arch I went and I still felt good. Better than good, I was growing in confidence that sub-3 was just 10K away. I had about 45 minutes to cover the ground. I kept with my hydrating system of Powerade every two miles. The temperature was now perfect running weather now in the low 50’s and overcast.

I waited any moment for the climb to begin. I had built up two minutes of cushion since my pit stop. I knew I could sacrifice my pace back down to 7-minute miles going up, push for the last 5K and still be OK. After a small climb, the view surprised me. It was a long gradual down again. What a bonus! Where was this hill then?

I approached a small group clutched tight together. As we turned sharp left onto Summit Avenue, a spectator gave us encouragement “Good group here, work as a team up this hill”. Team? I’d only just met them! I stayed at my pace  and pretended like they weren’t there. Sure enough, no one followed and I pulled away from them. I reminded myself, I had just climbed five mountains last weekend and this hill wasn’t going to be my excuse for slowing down.

Up ahead carnage was ensuing with a couple of runners staggering and walking the hill. I flew past them. The crowds were great here, a couple of rows deep in places and really had my back.  The legs were now feeling a little wobbly. I could fee the pain of the marathon kicking in and feared my pace had fallen off. It had slowed but not by much; 6:45.

Summit Avenue was as straight as a dart. I focused on the solid line painted on the asphalt for a bike lane and used that as my personal line. I kept my effort fair for the miles that were left to cover. The risk of my legs not feeling it was too high so I maintained my 6:45 pace all the way to the summit of Summit to be specific.

Classic mat shot with 5K to go!

5K to go; the classic mat shot!

Now I was passed 23 miles and I could see the road ahead descend again. Less than 5K to push. The crowd got louder as the legs began to get tighter and make their own kind of noise. Runner after runner, I kept closing the gap on the next one and charging ahead. I haven’t felt this good in the closing miles of a marathon since my PR at Marine Corps in 2011.

At mile 25, a couple of back to back hills presented themselves in front. I ran right through the aid station. I could drink as much as I wanted in 1.2 miles. In doing so, I blitzed through typical final miles marathon carnage; a guy holding his hamstring and another drinking from three cups of water. I knew now that I was not only going to break three but do it in style too.

With the final push uphill I looked up for the church in the skyline as I knew this would mean the home stretch. I was anticipating a tight left turn with a hidden finish but it was so much better. Down below the hill in the distance was the red and orange decorated finish arch. I realized I could cruise in but didn’t want too. I made every next step lighter and more powerful. Mind over muscle all the way home.

Home stretch still pushing hard

Home stretch still pushing hard

Result:

Across the line in 2:56. I keeled over and realized I was pretty dead. I bent over for an eternity soaking up my achievement. I didn’t want to leave the finish area. If their was ever a way to not PR and feel amazing, this was how to do it. I had achieved a big negative split of 1:30, 1:26 (something I don’t do nearly enough). The stats got better; nobody passed me after the halfway mark.

Like clockwork; the numbers make it look easy but I assure you i't wasn't

Like clockwork; the numbers make it look easy but I assure you i’t wasn’t!

I waited for a while draped in my foil blanket. Thunder came in next with a 3:15 and we waited for Ryan and Kino who were both shooting for 3:30. The rain that was forecast finally came down momentarily. Shaking from the cold rain, it was time to get our bags and change into dry ASAP. My flowing running legs minutes before were replaced with stiff hamstrings, calves and IT bands. I was looking forward to a few days off.

gghg

The home straight in St. Paul. A great finish area!

Re-grouping post-race with my team-mate Ryan, Thunder & Kino!

Re-grouping post-race with my team-mate Ryan, Thunder & Kino!

Conclusion:

The past two weeks, I have run two marathons and a 100K race in three different states (pacing Tiffany in the Top of Utah Marathon (3:05), UROC 100K  in Colorado (16:57) and now Twin Cities in Minnesota). I’m tired.

I predicted I could do it before I started but honestly I had my doubts and even a few doubters. I kept the demons at bay and went after it like I always seem to do. Think you might lose and you already have. My plan simply worked because I had one. Some determination and gusto didn’t hurt me either!

Now for a short break before the home stretch of 2013; New York City and Philadelphia Marathons and then onto the trails once more for the North Face 50 Championships in San Francisco. What, you thought that was it?

A medal I will always be proud of. 2:56 on a beautiful course!

Twin Citites medal; one I will always be proud of.

Surviving the UROC 100K

UROC logo horizontal

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.

Breckenridge morning

Breckenridge daybreak

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.

UROC 100K elevation profile

The UROC 100K elevation profile

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.

Some familiar faces lead us out on the adventure!

Some familiar faces lead us out on the UROC adventure!

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.

First climb; 1,500 feet up to Vista Haus

First climb; 1,500 feet up to Vista Haus

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.

Descending down from Vista Haus

Descending down from Vista Haus

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!

Frisco aid station

Frisco aid station

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.

Climbing the vast mass of land up and over the Continental Divide.

Climbing the vast mass of land up and over the Continental Divide.

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!

Climbing up to 12,300 feet in the snow. Hard work!

Climbing up to 12,300 feet in the snow. Hard work!

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.

View from Wheeler Pass at 12,300 feet

View from Wheeler Pass at 12,300 feet

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.

The view ahead; the long descent to Mountain Creek.

The view ahead; the long descent to Copper Mountain.

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.

Mile 27; running into Mountain Creek

Mile 27; running into Mountain Creek

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.

Bike path

Bike path; the groomed asphalt leg towards Vail Pass

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.

Geoff Roes aid station (Vail Pass)

Vail Pass; the Geoff Roes celebrity aid station

“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.

Looking back down the climb up to Vail Mountain

Looking back down the climb up to Vail Mountain

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.

Racing against time; the descent to Minturn started pretty until I ran out of light.

Racing against time; the descent to Minturn started pretty until I ran out of light.

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.

Exhausted yet triumphant; my 100K finishers medal.

Exhausted yet triumphant; my 100K finishers medal.

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!

The sub-17 hour bling!

The sub-17 hour bling!

Pacing in the Canyons; Top of Utah Marathon

Top of Utah Marathon Anyone?
Top of Utah Marathon Anyone? Photo Credit: Nicole Smith

Due to the extreme jump in demand for places at next year’s Boston Marathon, people were scrambling around in late Spring or looking for earlier fall marathons to BQ, an acronym referring to Boston Qualify to my non-runner readers.

Plans for Tiffany to run Chicago in mid-October were revisited, we knew that race fell too late in the year, so we landed ourselves in Logan, Utah, a small town situated just off the base of the Wasatch Mountains and a few miles shy of Idaho.

The race (Top of Utah Marathon) was picked for many reasons. The date, the course profile (starting elevation 5,500 dropping over a 1,000 feet), the  scenery (through a canyon in the mountains) and those fabulous moose medals!

The real draw to the race was the moose medals!
The real draw to the race was the moose medals! Photo credit: Top of Utah

Initially, I planned to jump in as pacer for the second half of the race. Realizing that the first half (18 miles) was the most scenic, I upgraded my pacing duties and entered the whole race. I was just hoping she wouldn’t go too fast as my 100K race in Colorado was the following week. No, seriously, I was very concerned!

Net downhill!
Net downhill!

Needing a BQ of 3:35, was not the concern for her. A 1:31 half and a couple of 19 minute 5K’s told her she was in 3:05-15 shape. A 20-minute cushion to fall back on and a limitless faster window was the game plan going into it.

We took a bus from our hotel at some ungodly hour and transferred to a second bus situated at the finish area which climbed up and through the canyon road, the same one we would descend. It felt like the Utah’s version of Boston all being crammed on a school bus with loads of excited….well, adults!

The combination of 6 AM and 5,500 feet above sea level made our start location anything but normal mid-September weather for what we are used too back in New York. We competed to see who could look more ridiculous with the most amount of layers on. I recall at least five for me and am claiming victory on this post!

Just prior to the start, we did a mini shake out in front of the start line. When my eyes locked on a guy wearing exactly the same kit as me, my instinct said ‘How did he get that kit?!’ I approached him, a skinnier version of me and then realized it was my Team Novo Nordisk teammate, Seth Pilkington, whom I had never met and clearly neither of us knew we would be here. He said he was going for the win so we backed off a few steps before the gun was fired.

7 AM and the sun was barely rising as we were moved off down the canyon. The strategy Tiffany was using was the 10/10/10 rule which translates to the non-runner as the first 10 easy, the middle 10 focused and the last 10K with all your heart. I have used this strategy myself. I particularly like recalling Jack Daniel’s quote which is almost identical;

“Run the first two-thirds with your head, the last third with your heart”.

After the first couple of miles, the easy part got thrown out of the window, we were running 7:05 pace. I tried to convince Tiffany to bring it back to 7:15-20 but she wasn’t having it. A sea of people lined the single lane asphalt in front and behind us. This was the only sign of anything man-made for miles. It was just a road, a canyon and lots of very happy runners.

The sunrise hit one hillside and left the others dark. The scenery was perhaps more spectacular than we had predicted it would be here. And this race only attracts 2,000 runners. Go figure?

Goofeballs!

Goofballs descending! Photo credit: Marathonfoto

By mile 7, the pace had dropped to the same number. This was shaping up to be a fast day! Tiffany was in about 10th place for the women. Every mile or so, we would see one more further ahead and gradually reel that person in. Their was not much banter between them. They knew they were all fighting for top spots in the race. I was beginning to feel like the only guy in the front row of The Bachelor Tells All. Shouldn’t really be part of this but as I am, I’ll take the best seat please. (That was also a public confession to watching The Bachelor FYI – what a show!).

My role was to ultimately to limit the pace to 7 minute miles. The canyon descent was so inviting as well as seeing the next target ahead but we had agreed to not hammer down the 1,100 foot descent. That’s why we had a plan after all. There would be flat miles to finish, 8 to be precise, in the Cache Valley which had a risk of feeling anything but fun on worn out quads at the current pace.

A pit stop at a rare man-made object at mile 11 wasn’t ideal but ultimately, the 30 second break we both got from the pace seemed to do us both good. The 7:35 on the watch was in essence another 7:05. We lost a female place in the process but caught back up to her within the next mile to resume as we were in 6th or so. The pace was dropping and we went as low as a couple of 6:30’s which bemused a couple of guys working the same system as runner and pacer as we bombed passed.

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Exiting the canyons having way too much for 16 miles into a marathon.           Photo credit: Marathonfoto

Coming down lower we got to see more humans other than very nice aid station volunteers and/or runners. Crowds formed first in patches and then as a mass section at a fork in the road at mile 16. We ran through the aid station smoothly, grabbing our fluids and turned a slight right. I asked for confirmation that she was in 6th place but got a quizzed look from a spectator. Tiffany told me to forget about it. If she didn’t care, nor should have I but we both knew a top 5 meant prize money, a nice little extra for her efforts today.

We pushed on through some flat roads at the base of the canyon among small bungalow homes heading north towards Logan. But now begun the mind games. 18 downhill done and 8 rollers to get home. Mile 19 produced the slowest mile other than the pit-stop. it was time to dig in. Luckily for Tiffany, she had a female to focus on ahead, that we assumed had to be the elusive 5th place.

The next few miles were tough. The gap would close but at every aid station, Tiffany would take her time to hydrate and collect herself and the gap expanded again. With 5K to go we finally reeled her before turning onto the main high street. it had taken 5 miles from initially seeing her to taking her down. This fly on the wall pacing gig was awesome!

Up main street for a long mile, we could see in the distance what looked like another female runner. Once confirmed, it was game on again. This gap closed but we were running out of time. The advantage we had, was that we could attack from behind without her (competitor) knowing.

On the turn, she finally noticed but like a deer in headlights literally froze knowing this was the end of her luck. We went past and I was adamant Tiffany had pass with utmost conviction. And we did but somehow her competitor kicked back. It was now game on for the last mile.

Tiffany slowly stretched the gap as we ran full stride. Her breathing was heavy, it was really gutsy and awesome to watch but nerve-racking too. All I could do was encourage and lie a little bit. “How much is the gap?” she asked me approaching the last turn. “Not enough” I replied although it probably was.

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Incredible push for home to snatch 4th place female right at the end. #proud. Photo credit: Marathonfoto

Tiffany ran that final straight so hard, I barely kept up! She clocked in at 3:05 and some change and I finished between her and the disgruntled fifth place female. At first, the news was coming through that her time meant she had beaten her PR Berlin but alas not to be true. She missed it by seconds but that did not put a damper on the post-race festivities.

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Two happy marathoners. Photo credit: Marathonfoto guy with our phone!

Somehow I managed to snag an age-group award for my pacing duties and for that I earned a small moose trophy but the show deservedly went to Tiffany with a giant moose for 4th overall and $500 cash. Take that Uncle Sam! What a day and what a fun race at the Top of Utah. Post-race five-hour drive to Zion National Park ahead and a full six days to recover before my inaugural 100K in Colorado. The fun never seems to stop.

Believe in the Dream; Western States 100 (62-Finish)

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.

Foresthill trail sign

Foresthill trail sign

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.

Trail to Peachstone aid.

Trail to Peachstone aid.

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.

American River from the WS trail up above but still not close to the crossing.

American River from the WS trail up above but still not close to the 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!!

Tired and weak; 'I have to get to that rock?'

Rucky Chucky river crossing; “I have to get to that rock?!”

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!

Rucky Chucky river crossing; so this is how traffic jams happen!

Rucky Chucky river crossing; this is how traffic jams happen.

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!

Getting organized at Green Gate aid.

Getting organized at Green Gate aid with the help of Katy.

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.

Pacer change at mile 80!

Pacer change at mile 80! (Matt P with a great photo bomb!)

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!

Highway 49 aid station

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.

No Hands Bridge

No Hands Bridge

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.

The uphill finish to Auburn would not be straight forward!

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.

Believe in the Dream; Western States 100 Miles ‘One Day’
Going sub-23 was the icing on the cake. Can you tell?
That finishing feeling is priceless!

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.

At the award ceremony with the shiny silver buckle!
At the award ceremony with the shiny silver buckle!
Who knew a belt buckle could make you so happy?!
Who knew a belt buckle could make you so happy?!

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.

 

 

Small Victories; Western States 100 (0-62)

I didn't make it to the Olympics Nana and Grandad but I'll take this!

I didn’t make it to the Olympics Nana and Grandad but this is pretty cool! #WS100

At first I was really confused, but then I grabbed my phone to switch off my alarm. Wow. I had done it. I had actually slept! I thought to myself ‘OK let’s go. Western States in two hours. Sweet’. Sleeping was a small victory.

I grabbed my blood tester so I could get my breakfast going. I wanted to scoff down my 600-800 calorie breakfast with a two-hour window before the gun. I knew a heavy breakfast would not be an issue, it would be my last normal meal for at least a day. Plus, the first four miles of the course are straight uphill to the highest point (8,750ft) from Squaw Valley (home of the 1960 Winter Olympics) which meant hiking not running so my stomach could handle this. My glucose was 165 mg/dL, a good start. My nurse and me had decided to bolus 75% of the insulin required for this carb heavy meal of two bagels, a banana, a yogurt and a cereal bar.

Hanging out in the warm with my crew prior to the start.

Hanging out in the warm with my crew prior to the start.

My crew of Tiffany and Team Novo Nordisk team-mates, Benny and Matt worked like clockwork loading the car and checking out of the hotel at 4am sharp. All I had to do was eat all those carbs and get dressed. We got to Squaw and I went off to grab my bib and ankle chip. I surprisingly had to go through a mini-medical again. My weight shot up 5lbs but I was now wearing my backpack and running shoes. I didn’t understand this process. Maybe it was because of the heat and Craig Thornley (RD) was covering every base? Afterall, it had been announced late yesterday that this would be the second hottest Western States in its 40 year history with a high of 102. It definitely was not hot yet though. We lingered inside the main building until five minutes to go. The start area was electric. Although dark, the sun would rise soon which was a positive only in the fact I wouldn’t need my headlamp until the evening.

I said goodbye to my crew and  squeezed my way to the front of the pack (just to get out onto the course efficiently more than anything else). I looked up and there high above me on a three-step painters ladder announcing the crowd in his skimpy blue shorts and white cotton t-shirt was the man who started it all forty years ago to the day, Gordy Ainsleigh. I shook his hand and am fairly sure I told him I loved him in all of my excitement. Come on. I mean, how can you not love Gordy? His horse was too weak to compete in the 100 mile race so he decided to run it instead and so he did, in under 24 hours by the way. No crew, pacers, water, aid stations, nothing. Just sheer guts and determination. That’s Gordy.  Needless to say, I was now really buzzing and just like that we had the ten second countdown and away we went, everyone screaming and whooping at 5am.

Mile 1 - up we go!

Mile 1 – there is no concern about going out too fast at Western States 100!

After 90 seconds, I stopped running and started my power hike up the fire road towards Emigrant Pass. AJW had mentioned at the veteran’s panel discussion pre-race “Only the sub-17 hours run the climb and those who believe there is a bank”. I did not fall into either of those categories. My plan was simple, strict and potentially hugely successful. I was following the sub-24 hour race times per aid station. I had 55 minutes to climb 3.5 miles which worked out at a 16-minute mile hiking effort. I was adamant I was going to stick to my pace so I would not blow up. I had pacers from mile 62 (Foresthill) to the end; my girlfriend Tiffany and team-mate Benny. They would kick my ass so hard if they needed too, because they knew how much I wanted the ‘one-day’ silver buckle. That was honestly my one and only goal for the race and for the course and temperatures, quite the goal to still strive for.

A flood of people passed me as I dropped back to what felt like the middle of the pack as we climbed the early morning light. Occasionally, the climb flattened and I could run a short spurt. As we passed  the waterfall S-bend section, I realized my shoes were not tight enough. I found a rock to address this and lost a minute or two of time. I reminded myself of Ellie Greenwood’s tip; don’t panic. So, I had lost time to tie my shoes better. So what? It was mile 2! I stayed calm and kept hiking. I hit the Escarpment aid station one minute early. Just like I had been encouraged to do, I had hiked so far on just half a bladder of water to conserve every possible piece of energy. I now filled it to the very top, grabbed some bananas and continued on up the last half mile to Emigrant Pass.

Climbing between Escarpment and Emigrant Pass.

Climbing between Escarpment and Emigrant Pass.

We passed some photographers at the top of the climb and spectators. I had kept turning to my left all the way up to watch the sunrise behind Lake Tahoe. This view was absolutely mind-blowing. I thought at the time ‘I have never run in such a beautiful setting’ and a week later, that statement remains true. AJW said “saviour the moment, soak up the Western States experience (being a lottery, you never know when or if you will do this again), thank the volunteers, enjoy time with your crew and take in the views, look back before descending the mountain for one more look at Squaw and Lake Tahoe”. I did and would do all of these things.

Emigrant Pass sunrise.

Emigrant Pass sunrise.

Follow the yellow *ribbon road.

Follow the yellow *ribbon road.

I followed the Montrail yellow ribbons down the single track the other side of the mountain. The highest part of the course was already over. With seven miles before the next aid, the thing to do now was to eat, and eat often and run at a very easy pace. The course here had zero snow on it compared to previous years. Holding back the legs took some serious discipline on my part. My pace was 10:45’s and I used my Suunto Ambit to guide me as best I could as I descended in the wilderness section of the course. I knew nothing of my place or cared. “Run your own race” said everyone at the panel. It’s true, you have to do this your own way, it’s 100 miles!

This was a rugged section of rocks with the added factor of amazing views of near and far mountains in high alpine country of the Granite Chief Wilderness. Supposedly, you could see thirty miles away here where the Robinson Flat aid station was. Looking up too much could cost you a fall so I tried to save my curious eyes when we had slight uphills to look around.

Towards the end of the section, I had joined part of a congo line; tight single track up a rocky stream. Keeping your feet dry was not really an option here but being patient was. Some people around me dug an elbow in here or there to jump ahead a whole place at mile 9. This seemed beyond ridiculous to me. I stayed calm and decided now was the time for my earphones.

Running the wonderful Granite Chief Wilderness

Running the wonderful Granite Chief Wilderness section.

When the course flattened out, I started running again. I wanted to hit the aid at 2h 10 and thought I only had a few minutes to cover some serious ground if I was going to make it. I must have lost a chunk of time in the congo line. But I turned a long right and then I saw people. Here I was at Lyons Ridge aid, two minutes ahead of time. A quick fist pump. Small victory. I checked my CGM and was around 150. Fist pump, small victory. You get the idea now. It was time to eat some more and not hold back as I could tell my BG number was dropping off. An old guy with a hose asked me if I would like some of Foresthill’s water. He said it with such passion, it felt rude to decline. It was only 7am and I thought, this seems early to be cooling off but the moment he sprayed my torso I felt a big difference. Everyone was right, dry heat (although not that hot yet) is deceiving.

Lyon Ridge

Lyon Ridge

Running along the ridge line on my way to Red Star Ridge (mile 16) was another spectacular section. The congo line had split up before the aid station and I got to run this part solo. My music was blaring out some 90’s British Indie; Placebo and Radiohead I recall. I was officially in my element. Life was good, real good. I sang (no one heard), smiled (no one saw) and ran with happiness. I even had a really fun pee break on the ridge. I’m ranking it number one on my ‘most scenic pee of my life’ list! On a more serious note, peeing was great as it meant i was hydrating well (my glucose level was steady). The ridge line went directly over a section of rocks and the trail then descended into wooded pine lined switch backs for a mile or so.

Scrambling up a section on the ridge line.

Scrambling up a section on the ridge line to Red Rock Ridge.

Running through a foot-strike scientific experiment (Western States is used for a host of sport science data) screamed ‘aid station approaching’ which was pretty darn sweet as my watch said 15 miles when in fact the aid station was officially mile 16. Reaching these check points before I expected too was a real plus mentally. Small victory, yes. Too add to the plus column, the aid station was really loud. It was in a really remote spot so no crew were here but it was a non-issue, the volunteers were simply awesome. I had a personal volunteer right on me saying “What do you need?”. She grabbed my backpack off my shoulders, refilled it with water and I topped up my hand-held with the GU electrolyte drink. Both drinks were packed with ice. I even spooned my hat in a bucket of ice and threw some more down my back for good measure. It had only just turned 8am but all of this was completely necessary to keep my core temperature as cool as possible as the outdoor thermostat was going up fast. I had already gone through 80% of my gels, chews and fruit bars – a good sign I was eating and eating often. I loaded my backpack with more and off I went. I walked out of the aid munching on a cereal bar. I kept saying to myself ‘eat early and often and run easy’. I was doing both textbook style.

From mile 16, it was more gradual downhill running into Duncan Canyon where I would get to see my crew of Tiffany, Benny, Sean and Matt for the first time since Squaw. That was almost five hours ago. The goal pace on the section was 11:30’s but I was definitely going sub-11’s. It was tough to hold back, sometimes it felt like I was doing more damage than good, by braking at that pace. Some parts of the trail were now very exposed, so I played a continuous on/off game with my Oakley’s. Running in the sun was a sure-fire way to keep me drinking regularly. I was more or less a robot anyway; take an S-Cap every 30 minutes, drinking water every 5 minutes, consuming 300 calories of food/liquid an hour. But a quick reminder from the sun didn’t do me any harm to keep at it.

Tiffany helping me refuel and Matt about to prick me!

Tiffany helping me refuel and Matt about to prick me!

After hours of steady relaxed running, I entered into an army of people at Duncan Canyon aid. I caught a glimpse of “Changing Diabetes” ahead on a shirt. My team-mate, Ryan Jones was just leaving the aid station. I locked eyes with Matt. He guided me off to the left like I was a plane looking to park at a vacant gate. He did a great job too. Away from the mass of spectators and into our own shady spot. The crew knew the drill here; towel (to wipe my fingers), blood test (result = 211), sunscreen (Tiffany slapped it on, she was not stingy) refill drinks with ice and a refill foods for the backpack. And go.

Tiffany and Sean - food display 10/10 : )

Tiffany and Sean – food display 10/10 : )

All the food I had bought from REI was carefully displayed on a blanket and I picked out what I wanted efficiently. The ‘piece de resistance’ though was the Anton Krupicka style bandana neck scarf supplied by Tiffany. This was not going to win me any style contests but with a chunk of ice wrapped in it, this would cool my neck and torso all day long. I hadn’t tried this out before but I couldn’t think of any negative reasons why not to try it. The one aid station hiccup we did have, was not having the Aquaphor on hand. I lost a load of time in Leadville due to chafing so this was potentially a big deal although I was not feeling any skin irritation yet. The crew would be back at Dusty Corners in 14 miles and I was confident it would be on everyone’s mind there.

I peaced out and descended a steep section of trail, focusing not too fall in front of all the spectactors. I entered the aid happy and left happier. It was really great seeing the gang. Everyone was in high spirits. I walked a small uphill and then decided to get going again at running speed. And DOWN I went like a sack of spuds! I had got my left big toe stuck under the smallest rock and fell down onto a section of dirt. On the positive, I found no traces of blood to wipe off. Small victory? Absolutely! At first, I didn’t want to clean myself up feeling like I was wasting water but the reality was, I now had 70 fresh ounces of the stuff to get me up to Robinson Flat aid at mile 30.

At mile 25, Ryan came into sight again. I caught up to him and we checked in with each other. He was feeling the heat and had decided he was going to change shoes up ahead to his more cushioned Hoka’s. He was only carrying one water bottle on his hydration belt which concerned me as it was only going to get hotter and hotter for the next several hours, especially in the most feared part of the course; the canyons. We hit a big stream crossing. There was no chance of keeping your feet dry here. We waded through knee-deep, grabbing big rocks as support. Upon, reaching the far side I almost forgot to dunk my hat in the cold water. I felt like Indiana Jones grabbing his hat at the very last-minute. The option of a cool wet hat versus a hot dry one for a few miles could make a big difference. Every opportunity to get cool, I took it.

Crossing the stream before climbing up to Robinson Flat.

Crossing the stream before climbing up to Robinson Flat.

The climb up Robinson’s was long and slow. A volunteer back at Duncan Canyon had told me six key words as I left “2 miles down, 4 miles up, looking great” describing this section, so I was mentally zoned in pretty good.  I had to do a bit of basic math for pacing as these miles called for 15-minute pace. I went with 12-minute downhills and 17-minute uphills or thereabouts. Ryan led the climb all the way. Conversation distracted us from thinking too much about the heat or the climb. I thought I would go past him here but he set a good pace and I tucked in behind. As Ryan had already decided he would need some more time than me at the aid to change his shoes, we agreed we would see each other down the road.

All smiles rolling into Robinson Flat with team-mate Ryan Jones.

Mile 30; All smiles rolling into Robinson Flat with team-mate Ryan Jones.

I hopped on the scales at Robinson Flat, the first major aid station with medical and more spectators than usual. We were just under 30 miles and my weight had dropped only 1lb. It got rewarded with a “great job” by the doc and so I walked over to regain my backpack from a volunteer who had been filling it with ice and water. Whether it was my constant weight in the heat or something else, I really did feel overall really good. The quads were my achilles heel however, tingling slightly at this point so I got a volunteer to sponge them down with ice-cold water that helped wake them up. What really woke me up though was seeing Jeff Le, a really inspiring Brooks ID runner whom I have known for years but never met until now. Jeff went on a life transformation by shedding 160lbs and is now an incredible role model for many; an ultra runner himself over the last few months. He gave me a nice distraction from my quad discomfort. Maybe so much so that when I started running out of the aid station I actually had to turn back! I had forgotten to put ice in my hat and down my back. Losing a minute to do so may have saved me ten by not doing so, who was to know? Now finally ready to roll, I sheepishly tried exiting again, running through a tight yellow marked path with people either side cheering me on.

Before I knew it, I was climbing again, now up on Little Bald Mountain with the most sun exposure thus far. Good call on the ice. The positive of the climb was that I knew the elevation profile. It was only a mile and change up, before four miles of all downhill into Miller’s Defeat. Just before I descended, I checked my pace chart and focused on easy 11-minute miles. I was technically now in the second phase of the course “the canyons” but that didn’t mean start going any faster. The downhill here would be over 1,000 feet and very runnable terrain on dirt roads but I had to save my legs for the canyons. Miller’s Defeat was a tiny aid station. It was an efficient cold shower here, more ice and bottle refill only which would easily see me through to Dusty Corners where my crew would be for the second time.

Mile 38; Running in the sun to Dusty Corners.

Mile 38; Running in the sun towards Dusty Corners.

I was eating good, really focusing on the caloric intake per hour and sipping water regularly. Glucose was overall, really good. If it dropped below, 120, I ate immediately but that was all. My pace stayed steady at 10’s (although I knew it should have been 11’s). I told myself, any slower and I would be doing quad damage. Whether or not I was right, I was doing 10’s and I knew I had gone from hitting aid stations on the money to now building up a few minutes ever since I left Lyon Ridge. I was breaking my strict plan of no faster than sub-24 pace before 62. What was wrong with me? Why can’t I ever stick to a plan? I hoped the great feeling I was experiencing would still be the there at Foresthill when pacing duties commenced. I did not want this to be a zombie march home like Leadville and waste the energy of Tiffany and Benny because I got greedy up front.

Yes. Pour more water on me.

Yes. Pour more water on me. I will not complain.

I flew into Dusty Corners with a twenty-three minute lead on sub-24 pace. Laura and her friend Geri had arrived direct from the airport in time to crew and pace Ryan. I gave her a sweaty hug, she didn’t seem to mind. Everyone was asking me how I was feeling and I couldn’t pretend I felt anything other than amazing. I truly did. The irony is, after the same time on my feet in DC four weeks prior I was crossing the finish line of my 50 mile race and was absolutely beat. And here I was, OK, a few miles less on my feet but in hotter conditions with many many miles to go and I just felt incredible. My glucose had raised into the mid 200’s (slight overcompensation on the carbs between Duncan Canyon and Dusty Corners) so I took a unit, filled my handheld up with Powerade Zero (no carbs) rather than Gatorade and took gels/chews in my pack for down the road. As it was almost noon, I decided now was a good time for some lunch. I have never really thought in this kind of mind sight before but it made sense to me. I had been grazing on gels, cereal bars and fruit since the start and now was time for something more substantial.

Everyone's happy at Dusty Corners with Laura and Tiffany

Everyone’s happy at Dusty Corners with Laura and Tiffany

I left the aid with a chicken caesar wrap. I purposely walked the next half mile so I could consume ‘lunch’. I soon got into my stride again and ran through the breathtaking Pucker Point that gives you a glimpse of what’s to come next; the hot and deep canyons. If I was here for a leisurely hike or training run, I would have appreciated the view far more but I was pretty happy not looking over the ledge to see how deep it went. My mind didn’t want to know, my body said, just get me there and I’ll figure it out.

Pucker Point. Don't look down unless you want to see how far you have to run!

Pucker Point. Don’t look down unless you want to see how far you have to run!

Around mile 40, things turned ugly and quickly. I started to get into some serious discomfort with cramping in my hamstrings and IT band areas. Stationary agony took over. To add insult to the situation, I was stuck in an exposed section of trail as the sun beamed down on me. An S!Cap, a slow walk, a brisker walk and finally some sort of shuffled running ensued to get me going again. But within yards, the same pain occurred in my other leg. This was not good. How many miles to go? Too many to count. I had to switch that off straight away. What did Ellie say again? Don’t panic. OK. Focus. I had too just put one foot in front of the other and so that’s exactly what I did.

I finally made it to a sign that read “single file runners”. I felt guilty that I was walking towards people conducting another gait analysis study and here I was, walking towards them about to be a useless statistic! So I put on a brave show and miraculously found some perfect form (heavily biased opinion) and passed their low fixed camera, even exchanging some pleasantries acting as if my legs had never felt any better!

Last Chance aid really was just that. Not my last chance to bail before the canyons (DNF is not in my DNA) but my last chance to really cool off the legs with a soak. I topped up all my water supplies and put ice in every possible place worth carrying it. Of all the course, you did not want to run out of liquid here before the next 4.5 miles. It would take (on paper) 80 minutes to descend 2,000 ft into the super hot Deadwood canyon and then up the steepest climb the other side; 1,500 ft in 1.7 miles with thirty something (I try and forget) switchbacks to Devil’s Thumb. A lack of fluid here would be a disaster.

Left appears a good option.

Left appears a good option.

As I descended the first of many switchbacks down, I instantly recognized the point where Kilian Jornet took off from Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka in the 2010 race (this was caught on camera for the inspiring documentary “Unbreakable” by JB Benna). As my quads stung with each downhill footstrike, my head shook in disbelief he actually could and did do that. If you want to be humbled as a runner, I encourage you to watch any of Kilian’s videos. Moments later, a runner in his mid 60’s came flying past me down the switchbacks without a care for saving his legs or any of the roots or rocks in his path. Double humble pie! And I thought I was a good downhill runner!

I ended up descending with a girl a few feet in front of me; Traci Falbo. She was pretty badass. I had no intention of taking the lead from her. I found out she is not only friends with my friends (Kino, Jackie etc), but this was only 25% of her Summer racing. She was one of the thirty-two going after the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (Western States, Vermont, Leadville and Wasatch in the space of three months!) Triple humble pie for me down the first canyon!!

Suspension bridge I purposely avoided at first to cool off in Deadwood Canyon's river bed.

Suspension bridge I purposely avoided at first to cool off in Deadwood Canyon’s river.

As I had learned from the course talk, I was instructed to go down the trail and cool off in the river at Deadwood before crossing the bridge. The temperature was supposedly 10-15 degrees hotter down there than the rest of the course which made it 117 ish (?!). Yes, it was hot but I won’t pretend it actually felt that hot. I scrambled down rocks into the clear water where other runners were soaking below. I lifted my insulin pump from my shorts and soaked in the clear water up to my chest. I didn’t really gage the time I relaxed here but as soon as Traci left, that was good enough for me. I scrambled out, crossed the bridge and got my power hike on still dripping from the river.

I checked my GPS for current mileage and added 1.7 to it so I would know when this climb of climbs would be over theoretically. Steady climbing to Devil’s Thumb, that’s all I could do. I guess I had my strengths and weaknesses wrong this whole time with trail running. I’m actually a climber, not a descender because I took no prisoners getting out of this canyon! I’m pretty sure I gobbled up ten spots on the climb. Most competitors were not enjoying the ride up, some were top ladies having rough days outside of the top 10 spots.

Devil’s Thumb aid station was booming with energy for the middle of nowhere. We were welcomed with open arms which was clearly just a trick to get us directly on the scales again. They had me at 174 and I bartered with them that it looked more like 175. My CGM was vibrating and beeping at me which is never a good sign. I double checked the score with my glucose meter I was carrying on board. Yep, I needed some glucose to push me back up. The next aid station was at the bottom of El Dorado, one hour away. I chugged some Coke and Sprite but my stomach was cringing that fizz now (I had been sipping on those all morning).

I saw a runner with an ice pop and asked him where he got it. A volunteer gave me the choice of three flavors. I took all of them. Ice and sugar together? Perfect. I still wasn’t convinced I was carrying enough sugar supplies in my pack to get me down the next 5-mile stretch safely when my eye caught a half drunk Gatorade bottle on the ground behind the aid station. “Can I have that?’ I asked boldly. “Um…well” and before I could get the long excuse why I couldn’t, a lady interupted “I have a frozen one in my car”. An angel at Devil’s Thumb! As she ran off to her car, I iced my legs, refilled my hat and bandana full of ice and then there it was, the coldest frozen best ever Gatorade I had ever held! I knew I was carrying 34 grams of carbohydrate, 34 grams of sugar in my right hand like the nerd that I am (have to be) and off I went. I had lost weight and time at Devil’s Thumb. But it was important to try to eat and leave fully stocked up on carbs to make sure I didn’t go hypo in the canyons.

A gradual descent pre-canyon

Moving along between canyons; sometimes one step at a time was better than nothing

Before the drop off into El Dorado, I ran some easy flat trails but was struggling once more with cramping. I decided after a lot of choppiness; run, cramp, walk, repeat, to just walk at a brisk pace on the borderline of cramping up but not quite. This kind of sucked because I knew doing this for long enough was eating into my time I had accrued (it was now down to about 15 minutes post-Devil’s Thumb). As the descent begun; the long 2,600 ft drop into El Dorado Creek, a runner passed at what looked like a nice controlled pace. I jumped on board, at first from a distance and mimicked his pacing. Could I hold this? Um…yes. For a minute? OK, sure. How about two? Yes, why not? My glucose felt good, right where it should be in the mid 100’s again. I kept going. “Hey man, hot as balls right?” he shouted back to me. “I guess. I’m more concerned with  cramps right now” I replied. “Double up dude” referring to salt capsule intake.

I try my best to take two per hour as per instructions but maybe he was right. Do the instructions know I’m cramping non-stop in the middle of the Western States canyons at 115 degrees? Jessie was his name and he proved to be my next saviour. More S!Caps in the system and me and Jessie were now descending this canyon like it was a 10K trail race. We joked the weather should be killing us. A London and Portland boy used to rain and clouds running sub-24 pace at the 2nd hottest Western States on record. We smiled and laughed at that one. We had unknowingly crossed the halfway point of the race on the descent and rolled into the aid station at the bottom. An aid station in the bottom of a canyon. God bless those volunteers.

Ice cold sponge showers were free of charge, so I took two. Jessie went ahead as I picked up some fruit and chocolate for the climb. At least three runners sat in chairs looking defeated. So far, I had avoided the chair like the plague. I was not planning on using one until Green Gate (80 miles). “Beware of the chair” one of many great ultra sayings. The chair doesn’t get you anywhere, you’re better off keeping the wheels turning, especially down in a hot canyon! Needless to say, I didn’t spend too long looking at the chairs and off I went on the 1,800 foot climb up to Michigan Bluff where the crew awaited me for the third time. Knowing that, put a rocket on my back. I soon and surprisingly caught Jessie again and this time passed by. My climbing strength shock me again as I passed several more people on the up. Was I being too aggressive? Absolutely not. My heart rate remained well in range, I just stretched my legs fully and kept the pace steady.

A famous Western States landmark sign (and shoes). 56 miles were behind me.

I reached a flat on the red sandy trail which spelled the climb was over. A few spectators hung out sunken into their $8 Walgreens foldaway chairs to my right. “Welcome to Michigan Bluff!” an older gentleman yelled at me. I smiled and responded “Great to be here!” It really was. One last ‘mini’ canyon and then it was pacer time, all the way to Auburn. Matt Patrick was the first person I recognized at the frenzied aid station with bright carnival flags lining the route. I think he said I looked great and if he didn’t, I remember, I definitely did. I had picked up some more time thanks to Jessie being my slingshot of energy when I was having a real tough time only a few miles back.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Michigan Bluff; Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Blood glucose was back at a safer 200 (it beat dropping off from 100 back at Devil’s Thumb). All the crew were there for both me and Ryan. They were, as per norm, on top of it  all, each with their own job to do; refill bladder with ice and water, refill handheld with ice and Gatorade, bandana with ice, ice packs on my head and shoulders, refill backpack with food etc etc. Race car crews should be asking for tips from my crew. I cannot and will not ever be able to thank them enough for their energy and support. It was beyond awesome.

One more canyon (Volcano) to go and then Tiffany would begin pacing me. That felt great to know. The stretch of trail before the canyon descent was straightforward. I tried to eat some more real food here. A swiveled around a metal gate and that gave me enough of a clue that this was now business time once more. The quads were hurting, getting numb almost but the worse pain were my Latin buddies; left and right sartorius that wrap diagonally form the lateral hip area to the medial knee (longest muscle in the body science fans). Those were killers and known to get painful with chronic downhill activity. Yes, that box was firmly ticked!

But my head was strong, I knew I was having a great race overall. I followed another super strong female runner down this final canyon. I shamefully asked her (Abby) if she thought the river was much further. We agreed it couldn’t be anymore than a mile. I felt better knowing she lived and trained in Colorado because she was flying! Eventually it (the river) appeared almost out of nowhere. Back in the drink up to my chest just for a minute or two. This was such a lifesaver to bring body temperature back down, a great tip from the veteran’s on Thursday. Abby was all business and climbed out the river and up the other side, never to be seen again (Spoiler alert; she finished F10 – the only female without a sponsor. Amazing.)

The climb up to Bath Road was standard procedure power hiking. I felt like I was ahead of pace here but didn’t bother to check. I have climbed Bear Mountain, NY enough times (the same climb in elevation change) that this one was definitely the easiest, plus it was the last one which helped in the head. The sign saying ‘Auburn Running Store aid station 1/4 mile’ though was not mentally good for me because it was way further!! Me and another runner playfully harassed the aid station for their false advertising sign! I didn’t hang here for even a second. Foresthill aid was in 1.4 miles where the crew would be waiting. I had everything I needed so kept going.

I didn’t know I had to keep climbing beyond Bath Road aid though but that’s exactly what I had to do. It was all asphalt which was a nice break from trail (normally I crave the opposite). Pacers and crew cars were coming down to meet their runners, so I had some nice camaraderie with them to keep working up the climb. I turned hard left on a pine trail parallel with Foresthill Road so I knew I was close. More and more people came into sight, my favorite one though had her new backpack on, cap back to front with pigtails and a huge smile on her face. It was great to see Tiffany so excited, about to pace me during Western States. What an experience for us to share.

The scales had me back up to 177lbs. Small victory. I was ahead of schedule by thirty minutes or so but felt great, not worn out. Small victory. 62 solo miles done, 38.2 to go, ALL with pacers now. Small victory. If you don’t build the puzzle one piece at a time, you never complete it. This was exactly how I was getting through the distance, managing the experience and adventure as best I could. I was enjoying it tremendously. Now I just had to keep it all together with the help of pacers and this would be a huge personal victory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-race build-up to the Western States 100

The calm before the storm. The Western States 100 start line at Squaw Valley.

The calm before the storm; The Western States 100 start line at Squaw Valley.

The start of the week leading up to departing for California were fueled with lists, packing and re-packing. I really had no idea what the weather would be like at midnight or 3am during the run so was packing every item of running clothing from spare singlets to a winter hat and gloves. I’m an over-packer regardless but this trip was not the one to be stingy on any one single item I might crave (you can read that as cry for) at mile 80. The one really worrying piece of clothing not packed, not even in my possession still, were my running shoes! A couple of fresh pairs of Brooks Pure Grit 2 were clearly going the scenic route from Seattle, WA to NYC. Thanks FedEx, just what I didn’t need!

Fresh out of the box, ready for some WS miles!!

Fresh out of the box, ready for some WS miles!!

My toy store (REI Soho) proved my saviour. The sales rep confirmed slightly confused I really wanted two pairs of the same shoe on Tuesday evening. When I confirmed and said it was for an upcoming race, he replied “Huh, must be some race”. I smiled, agreed and went home to pack them.

A1c on the money!

A1c on the money!

I had a great appointment at Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center Wednesday morning. My nurse Emily and I discussed the upcoming race in detail and compared my results from Leadville for guidance. We agreed on one main change. Reduce the basal level of insulin less than for a normal 8-mile run or marathon. This is due to two facts. My energy expenditure level is far less over 100 miles and I needed to make sure my BG levels were not too high so I could eat along the way to bring in calories. I would need to intake 250-300 calories per hour. To top off my visit, my A1c had dropped again; 6.3. Could life get better? Yes, I was flying out to Western States!

Tiffany and I flew out to Reno, NV that evening. It would give us two full days to get settled. But once at La Guardia, we heard immediately of our delayed plane. It was back to being anxious again (just like those shoes!). We questioned if we would get stuck in Denver for the night (our transfer city) and looked at other flight options to get us out to California direct. As per usual with flying, we really didn’t have any control over this. The biggest stress and question was, when would we now get to Squaw Valley?

We landed in Denver over two hours late. Luckily, we’re both runners.  A two-minute dash through the Rocky Mountains airport and a delayed second flight equaled a couple of delighted travelers high-fiving at gate 38. We would make it to Reno. We sat on the plane and I cheekily asked Tiffany if she enjoyed her first ever time in Colorado.

We landed in Reno at midnight, 3am east coast time. It had definitely been an ultra just

Reno ram goats!

Reno ram goats!

getting here. Yes I was tired but Reno-Tahoe airport is like a crazy dream. You get off the plane and immediately step onto wildly dated Aztec carpet with more slot machines than waiting seats. My highlight though was the taxidermy display of ram goats. OK, it was definitely time for bed. This idiot was delirious.

We woke up early, I inserted a new CGM site (so it would be at its most accurate for the race) and tried to bring my blood glucose down slightly. Stress, traveling and time zones play some games with blood glucose. We departed Reno on four wheels. A quick trip to Walgreens to get some water for the 90 minute road trip to Squaw Valley turned into a mass assault for anything and everything we would need for the race; fold away chairs, bug spray, Gatorade, Coke, Red Bull, an ice cooler, chips and chocolate!  In a way, we were pleased it was done before we got over excited with all the build-up to come at race headquarters.

We chose a more scenic drive west which added thirty minutes (and probably thirty photos). We winded up Mount Rose and descended the other side to the north rim of Lake Tahoe. Neither of us had ever been here and we were uncontrollably excited with the beauty of the Californian great outdoors; huge pine trees, mountains with snow caps and of course, Lake Tahoe. The “vacation” had now firmly begun.

Lake Tahoe is sweeeeeet!

Lake Tahoe is sweeeeeet!

We drove through the vacation town of Tahoe City (where we would stay) and drove the five-mile stretch of gradual incline to Squaw Valley ski resort. Our plan was to be at the peak of the mountain for a Western States opening ceremony at noon. We had the option to hike the four miles up (2,550ft) or take the tram which would save the legs. I used my head and saved the legs. Even after we reached the top of the tram ride at High Camp, we still had to hike another mile (550ft of gain) to get to the ceremony at Emigrant Pass – the highest part of the WS course at 8,750ft elevation. I felt a slight lack of oxygen on the climb but really quite minor. The views were as warned, epic. It felt like I was back in Colorado. I feel relaxed on the mountains in the summertime.  I cannot explain how or why I find such joy. I don’t need to analysis it in detail, I just know I am happiest here. Tiffany ran most of the mountain up and tested out altitude for the first time. I dared her to run a big section of uphill thinking she would bail and of course she did not just to prove me wrong! Two peas in a pod.

Emigrant Pass ceremony at 8,750ft. Mile 4 of WS.

Emigrant Pass ceremony at 8,750ft. Mile 4 of WS.

The ceremony was packed full of Western States veterans, today’s best (Andy Jones-Wikins, Ian Sharman and Ellie Greenwood I spotted) and many first timers and their families. We could see the huge alpine country to the west and Lake Tahoe to the east. We were standing in between large patches of snow, still clinging onto their last few days. Seeing the snow seemed weird to me. It was the end of June and the temperature was in the mid-90’s.

East view of Lake Tahoe from Emigrant Pass.

East view of Lake Tahoe from Emigrant Pass.

Tiffany got a workout in by running the four-mile stretch down the mountain to Squaw. I hiked back the mile to the tram casually. I was definitely jealous but knew I had to be smart. She even beat me to the bottom! We spent the afternoon off our feet at some really important and worthwhile meetings. Cue, Walgreens fold away chairs.

Meeting on the lawn.

Meeting on the lawn.

A ‘crew’ clinic helped confirm our team plan for where to go to on the course and where not too. Tiffany scribbled notes as I tried to not stare too hard at the veteran talker’s silver belt buckle. She had it all worked out anyway; where to drive, when to be there and of course she knew her pacing leg from Foresthill (62) to Green Gate (80) by heart. She let me relax, she was fully on top of this. My other two crew members were Benny Madrigal from Team Novo Nordisk. A Californian who  I regard as one of the fastest 5K to marathon runners of our twenty-something team. He has run trails all his life and would be my pacer from Green Gate to the finish. Sean McPherson and I met during The North Face DC 50K race in 2012. We placed 1st and 3rd but didn’t know we were both type 1 diabetics until months after the race. He would be a key crew member for me as he knew the course inside out (his parent’s live near Auburn). The third person also meant, they would all get some sleep.

The course meeting gave me some great tips, I otherwise would not have thought of/known. 1) don’t carry a full hydration pack of water up the first four miles, you can top up at Escarpment (first aid station). 2) run the first 30 miles to Robinson’s Flat super super easy and eat often. 3) put ice everywhere! The forecast was showing 101-102 degrees. Put ice in your bladder, bottles, cap, neck scarf, down your back etc and do it often. 4) cool off in the rivers  of the canyons. Rather than cross the bridges and climb straight out of the 115+ degree canyon, go down the trail a bit further and cool off for a couple of minutes. I also got various stats on how long climbs were, where medical weigh-in’s were, where most people drop from the race (I ignored this part) etc.

The final meeting (Veteran’s panel discussion) of the day was one not to miss. It was a gem. The host was Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW), a seven time Top-10 WS finisher. The panel consisted of Gordy Ainsleigh (the grandfather of ultrarunning), Tim Twietmeyer (25 time WS finisher, 5 time WS winner), Ellie Greenwood (2 for 2 at WS and current course record holder) and Ann Trason (14-time WS winner amongst many other women’s records).

The advice was priceless. Well, Gordy kept talking about wanting beer on the course which I think is probably a no-go by the lawyers but it definitely loosened up the audience. The main subject was “heat”. We all had this fear now that we were not only going to be running the most famous ultra race of them all; Western States (many for the first and only time), but we were going to have to do it in fiercely hot temperatures, especially down in the canyons around the middle of the day. I had been on the fence about how to hydrate for the race; with two hand-held bottles or my backpack. Ellie talked hydration and sealed the deal for me saying “better to have too much water than too little”. I would run with the pack (50oz bladder and a 20oz bottle) for the first 62 and then switch to two 20oz handhelds with my pacers for the evening/night-time running which would cool off a little.

Tim warned about personal goal times and now was the time to adjust those. It felt like Boston Marathon ’12  heat wave all over again. “Don’t adjust your times by 10-30 minutes, adjust it by three hours” he warned. I looked over at Tiffany and said “I’m not adjusting my goal (sub-24)”. She look slightly concerned for my well-being.  I knew in my head, if the conditions had have been cool, let’s call them ‘perfect’, I could perhaps run the course in 21 hours. That is a huge perhaps, as I only have one 100 under my belt and that was 28 hours. I used this completely irrational unknown fact to ignore Tim’s advice (sorry Tim). Let me emphasize my mental state; I did not come here for anything less than the “one-day” silver WS buckle.

Veteran's Panel; Ellie Greenwood, Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer, Gordy Ainsleigh and AJW.

Veteran’s Panel; Ellie Greenwood, Ann Trason, Tim Twietmeyer, Gordy Ainsleigh and AJW.

Ann Trason, shamefully urged runners that when they would go through a rough patch (which we all would) vomiting could actually be a good idea to reset the ‘stomach button’. Some cringed, some laughed. I took note, although, I have never been sick while running. The general advice though was, never stop moving forward. Just keep going. I left Squaw glowing. We drove back to Tahoe City to check-in at the hotel and relax. This would be my last chance to get one more decent night of rest.

Lake Tahoe for breakfast anyone?

Lake Tahoe for breakfast anyone?

WS-eve. We grabbed breakfast on the lake before driving back to Squaw. Benny and Matt fro the team were now in tow having arrived late Thursday evening. I met up with the Sports Science department from my old university (Liverpool John Moores) as a volunteer for a heart study they were conducting at the race. Pre- and post-EKG analysis and ultrasound studies. I have always been interested in the heart and it was great to have a chat with some fellow Brits, seeing who still worked at the university from my time there. I would see them again at the finish line in a completely different state!

A ‘fun-run’ was kicking off at 10am. Being WS, this was a bit more than your 5k local town race though. Montrail (the WS sponsor) were putting on the 2nd annual 6K Uphill Challenge which follows the WS course. Benny and Tiffany picked up their numbers and were going to race it hard. I went back and forth on whether this was such a good idea to do but Matt reassured me “Do it with me, we will hike it at the back of the pack real easy”. Done deal. And I didn’t regret it.

Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge @Squaw Valley

Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge @Squaw Valley (Benny in the lead!)

Being the first few miles of the WS course, it helped me understand what pace I would need to do this at tomorrow to hit Escarpment (3.5 miles) in 55 minutes, which is 24 hour pace. We walked, hiked and ran small sections of flat, making many new friends along the way. I even bumped into Nick Polito (a fellow Brooks runner) as he was descending the mountain. Running is such a small and oh so friendly world.

Post-6K challenge with Matt and Benny.

Post-6K challenge with Matt and Benny.

We never saw Benny. I think he sprinted the whole thing and came top 10! Tiffany was ecstatic at the top too. She had come 3rd or 4th woman and loved it. I feel some more trail running is around the corner for her! Me and Matt made it in 45 minutes. My 6k PR!! So, it told me, I could hike this ten minutes slower tomorrow and be on pace. That was really good information to have without wearing myself out. We grabbed the tram back down and met up with Ryan Jones (my team-mate also running WS) and his wife Robyn for lunch.

WS100 Check-in. Medical and lots of free gear!

WS100 Check-in. Medical and lots of free gear!

I did my pre-race check-in which was super fun. I bumped into ultra legends Hal Koerner, Mike Morton and Timmy Olson who are all great guys and super approachable. As Matt reminded me, name any other sport where you get to compete with the best in the world? I even snagged an official pre-race bib photo with Timmy which was awesome! My weight was 177lbs and that got marked on my yellow wristband. This stat was an important one. Just like blood glucose levels need to be steady so does your weight in ultrarunning. I would need to eat and drink smart to stay around 177 and therefore increase my chances of having a great race.

We split from Squaw mid-afternoon and did the famous grocery store run for last-minute food items and breakfast. One last team meeting on the shore of Lake Tahoe and a ‘final supper’. A grabbed a beer to try to take the edge off what was about to unfold. I was hopeful I could  get some sleep but I wasn’t convinced.

A Western States profile plaque for me to study!

All checked in and ready to go home and rest. Oh wait, a Western States profile plaque for me to study!

I was tucked up in bed by 9pm but not done quite yet. I ran the numbers one more time for each aid station arrival,  calculating average pace per section. I’m very scientific, maybe too much so, but it comforted me to know my pacing variations over the course I would need to hold for sub-24. I wrote these notes on my elevation graph print out, taped it (to waterproof it) and put it in my race shirt side pocket. I would carry this with me and focus on the numbers to a) try to hold my pace back and b) to  ultimately achieve a dream of mine for a long time – to complete the Western States 100 with a one-day buckle. Lights were out by 10pm. Time to dream.

Running the numbers. I went to bed confident I could execute this plan, even with the forecast of a high of 101 degrees.

Running the numbers; I went to bed confident I could execute this plan, even with the forecast of a high of 101 degrees on race day.

North Face DC 50M: Keeping up with Wardian (almost)

tnf dc BANNER

Walking under the start/finish blow-up North Face arch at Algonkian Park ( a few miles upstream of DC) brings back fond memories from last year. I surprisingly won the 50K event here, by far my biggest “W” and was back. This was to be no defend my belt day though, I was cranking it up a notch to “the big boys” 50 mile race as my running friend Kino would say. I needed a second 50 mile race in my legs for Western States 100 and with four weeks to go, this made a lot of sense.

I had a plan for the race. It was fairly straight forward. 9/min mile would get me in at 7 hours 30 minutes and a top 5 place based on previous results. Midweek leading up to the race, DC (and New York for that matter) got hit with heat wave temperatures in the 90’s and humidity sky-high to boot.

Knowing this didn’t throw me off my time goal but I did begin to toss around different ideas with people of how to run in such heat. I hate the heat but part of me was secretly happy. Western States 100 will be hot, probably hotter so in terms of ‘training’, the conditions were going to be a great test for me out there. The best advice came from my Novo Nordisk teammate, Matt Patrick. “Run em while you can” he said on the plane ride down their meaning run your miles before it gets too hot you have no choice but to walk. The race begun at 5am so I had at least two or three hours of cooler temps (if you can call 70’s-80’s cooler!) before the sun was to rise and the sauna was to kick in.

Out and back course with three loops at Great Falls.

Gore-Tex 50 Miler: Out and back course with three loops at Great Falls.

My new plan was to run 8/min miles early for as long as possible, maybe to the Great Falls aid at 19 miles. By the time the sun was beaming down on us, I would have a gap on competitors who would have to work really hard to catch me. If I was out of sight an albeit a mess, I still might pull off a good time and placing.

Now, most of my friends disagreed with this plan calling it borderline suicide or not saying anything and just pulling me the ‘ug face’. I think part of their disagreement made me want to experiment with this kamikaze idea even more. Something is definitely wrong with me!

My BG was a shy over 200 at 4:45am. I had been managing it closely since 2am when I gave up on sleeping and got the pre-race routine going. I diluted my Gatorade hand-held bottle down slightly. No backpack today – another experiment, also a big risk because of the heat but after the back pains I got during Bear Mountain lugging around 70oz rather than 20oz (a handheld bottle weight) I wanted to feel as light as possible, especially with my aggressive start. )The DC race course is set up far better for refueling with the biggest gap between aid stations being a shy under 7 miles compared to Bear too).

My other teammates (Matt, Ryan and Benny) were still asleep at the hotel with later start times for the 50k and marathon races. I did not mind one bit getting going so early though. I would have taken 4am if I could! I stood at the front of the start line near Michael Wardian (The North Face athlete with too many accolades to list here) He was being announced by the MC, a clear favorite to win the race in my eyes.

Fast start out the gate - a white blur of rundiabetes.

Fast start out the gate – a white blur of rundiabetes.

We blazed out of the start into the field. Down a dip, up a dip, along flat grass surrounded by waist-high grass – it felt very Cross Country like. I ran on the heals of the leader. The pace felt really easy. I think it was 7 minute miles.

Pushing the pace early with the other four leaders.

Pushing the pace early with the other four leaders.

Wardian came by. I re-introduced myself after we had briefly met at JFK50 (my first 50) in 2011. We begun too small talk, dead easy guy to talk too. We ran the long flat section south and the leader joined in the conversation as we now ran as three with several others hanging behind.

A lollipop extension around a pond was a new part of the course to me. (This is not part of the 50K course). As we returned to the main stretch we passed the first aid stop. I struggled to find the water section rather than sodas (way too early for that!) and immediately I fell off the back with no one else stopping to refuel. I knew carrying water bottles I would have to stop more but didn’t expect everyone else to blaze ahead and wait until mile 8.5 aid.

At first, I thought they were gone but within a few minutes staying at a good pace and not trying to run anything but my pace, I had jumped back on to them as we went up and down the banks along the golf course. No golfers were up this early to see the shenanigans of our race. Last year, I remember we got some funny looks during the 50K!

The more people spoke, the more I got to know my company. In the lead, a guy who had just paced David Riddle (JFK50 2011 champ etc etc) to a 50M win, Michael Wardian, Nikki Campbell’s (The North Face athlete) pacer and then a quiet, serious runner decked out in North Face gear, arguably the most intriguing of the four. He was all business. For that, I decided to call him Ivan Drago, the Russian nemesis from Rocky! And then there was me. What was I doing here?! Well, it felt great and I was having fun so I stood my ground and went with the plan.

We reached the first climbs around mile 10. This would be the end of the road for the gang of five. Instantly, the top 2 ran the hill. I knew my endurance level and hiked it hard instead. Nikki Campbell’s pacer (who I later found out to be Dennis Ball- we have several mutual friends) tried to keep up, saw I was right behind hiking and quickly followed suit. Rocky’s rival followed.

Several short but steep up and downs followed as we hiked and ran south, the Potomac River on our left, water flowing down towards the capital. This was a fun section, possibly my favorite. A stream crossing was ankle-deep. the same crossing was waist deep the prior year. What a hugely different experience this was on the exact same course.

I now sat in clear third but had lost sight of the front two. I was clipping off 7:15’s and that was definitely better than I had hoped for. The sun was rising fast and he heat too. I ran through six-foot tall grass, turned a corner and saw Wardian to the side of the trail ‘watering the plants’. I ran by. Whoa. Hold that thought. I ran by Michael Wardian.

I’m a big advocate of saying race yourself, not others. Your placing is merely determined by who does or does not turn up on any given day. But, this was Michael Wardian. I had to pinch myself that I was ahead of him running in 2nd place a third of the way into the race.

I ran through an open field and used the space to have a quick look back to see what was going on. Rocky’s arch nemesis was there but not Mike.

On a flat and then long descent I stretched my legs to try to get a nicer gap on the rest. I ran into the Great Falls aid station (mile 18) in 2nd. I met my girlfriend there. I think she wanted to tell me I was going too fast but instead smiled and said I was doing great. Like clockwork, we wiped my sweaty hands down, did a blood test (144) and refueled for the first of three Great Falls loops. But just like that, I was back in 4th. Both North Face runners were really efficient at Great Falls aid and were off.

I climbed the long hill road steadily as I watched Wardian pull away slowly. By the time we hit the top, I was back on my own. On paper, the Great Falls loop looks like a maze but in reality if you just follow the arrows, it’s not rocket science.

At the first of two turn around points, I saw a teenager sitting by a traffic cone with earphones in showing little interest of the race. Probably the son of a super keen runner/volunteer Dad I assumed. He pointed at the cone and mumbled. I paused and looked at him and said “This is the turn around?”. He nodded. “Really? Are you sure? Positive?” It felt wrong “Did see two runners ahead?” He jumped off his perched rock and ran off to find them.

I turned back and felt like I had cheated my placing back into 2nd. But this was not my fault. Within a mile, Wardian was back. He joked he wasn’t having he best day with a long pit-stop and then this mis-hap. The gap on first was already quite large at mile 23, he had a lot of work to do. Off he went again to push on. I just felt great to be running almost up to a marathon with someone of his caliber. I was waiting to blow up but really enjoying being up front that my confidence was growing and my body followed suit.

Great Falls cliffs - beautiful and treacherous all in one!

Great Falls cliffs – beautiful and treacherous all in one!

After the second turn-around point (people marked your bib as proof you made it, EMT was there and a full aid station – quite the contrast!) a fun descent followed with a few tricky rocks at the lowest point. This led us back to the river and to the most scenic but also treacherous part of the course – the Great Falls cliffs. Diagonal dagger rocks spread the trail and the use of hands became important. My hand-held went subconsciously back in my right hand in case of the worst happening. Tip-toeing through the rocks, I chose a safe controlled pace. This helped my heart rate lower as I slowed the intensity.

One loop done and back at the aid station. Blood glucose steady and off again. My Rocky friend nipped ahead of me pushing me back to 4th just like last time I was here. The climb was tougher but almost all runnable still.

The turn around point was now greeted with three mounted bikes, three adults and a sulky teenager who had clearer got an earful for letting two of the lead runners go past the cone and up the hill off the course! It was a pretty amusing site.

On the return to the spine of the loop you pass all the competition. This is all mind games stuff, looking at each other straight in the eyes to see if they are tired, broken or just god damn having a great day. I opted for the latter every time I had this opportunity. I hiked/ran sections now but was wary not to do so much of the hiking near my competition.

A shirtless duo were working well behind me and I feared them for a few miles since I first spotted them earlier on loop one. By the time I had clocked a marathon under my feet, they were heading on by and looked strong. I now lay in 6th.

Coming back to the aid for the final loop, I felt OK. I was running well, albeit loosing a couple of places. My glucose continued to sit tight, right in the mid-100’s. The course was now busy with two races, mine and the 50K. I overtook some of the back of the pack runners up the climb, who were not enjoying the long hill and complaining to me! I just shrugged and said “almost there”. Why complain? Negative thoughts won’t get you very far.

Wardian ran by me fully in the zone, followed by the silent assassin who still didn’t want to even say hello to me and then there were the twins looking very comfortable working as one. The turn around (for those interested) was now decorated with a natural road block (tree branches!) and an again lonesome and still sulky teenager. I kind of wanted to do a bonus loop for the next display!

I noted I had about three guys behind me but my gap was definitely a few minutes on each of them. The initial nods of heads from the first loop were now replaced with more fiery stares looking for any sign of weakness in me. But I knew they had to now push up a gear to get me and the heat was now my friend and their foe.

I was drinking really smart. 20oz (my entire hand-held water bottle) between every aid station. This worked out to be about every 30 minutes. Just to make sure I was cool enough, I was grabbing the water out of the volunteers hands and pouring it over me. The only negative of being this wet meant my CGM sensor fell out of my stomach so I was now reliant on actual blood tests for the remainder of the race.

I caught up with Ryan towards the end of the final loop. He was not having his best day with the heat really getting to him. Sensibly, he chose to run it in easy and save his energy for Western States down the road.

The idea of being paced for some of the race had been tossed around and I wasn’t that keen. I’m extremely stubborn and don’t ask for help very much I guess. But when Tiffany gave me a fresh bottle of Gatorade, more food for the umpteenth time at Great Falls with a pacer bib on standby should I want her help, it was an easy answer.

Off we went, 18 miles to go back to Algonkian Park. We ran along the riverbed getting cheered on by the Great Falls spectators. We soon took a left and cranked up a tough climb.

Benny flew by us in first place of the marathon as we had all predicted. He was a white blur of awesomeness. Tiffany and me counted minutes between him and 2nd. It took the distraction away from my pain and race for a few minutes at least. My whole body was worn out. No cramping and my lungs felt great but my limbs and torso just ached tremendously.

Climbing up with Tiffany as company at mile 35.

Climbing up with Tiffany as company at mile 35.

We reached the open field and walked sections that I would run on any other day. Was now the time the wheels were going to fall off and drop back twenty places? I did my best to keep my mind from such negative thoughts. I didn’t want to be thinking like the runners who were complaining earlier.

Running became less and less an option in the mid-30 miles. Downhills and sunshine spots, without a doubt were running territory but flats were becoming a real issue. Luckily, we hit the climbs next so I could break up the pacing between hiking and letting gravity take me back down into the valleys.

We caught up to some 50K runners. Every time I spotted someone, I hoped it was 5th but by now, I knew what and who they were. We reached my teammate, Matt and he was having an OK day but nothing heroic for him. We talked for a while in single file as I happily slowed to his pace to regroup. Tiffany departed back to Great Falls before she got stuck too far along the trail. Her surprise pacing section really helped keep me going strong.

After half a mile, walking and talking with Matt, I had decided that I had recovered enough and didn’t want anyone to gain too much time on me.

I shot off and wished Matt well. I had about 12 miles to go and all I could focus on was where the next aid station was. For what felt like miles and miles, I was hoping it was the next corner or the next or I would hear voices. My memory from 5:45am was faint, the same as how I felt. I was walking way more than I would have liked. I kept knocking back more water, kept throwing in the S-caps (salt capsules). I was holding up but it was a real fight five inches between my ears.

Finally the aid station came. I grabbed the water and gave myself a shower. Grabbed some chews and received my bottle back from a volunteer. And out. I had not been that efficient at an aid stop all day. My watch told me I was still ahead of my goal time. My average pace was around 8:45’s now. Having not seen 5th for miles, I was content with my place. I was even so wiped that if 7th had made a go at it, they could have taken it.

At the lollipop loop with 4 to go, the sun blazed down on me by the lake and I was pretty much done for the day. Then, Benny calls from behind and catches up to me. He’s still leading the marathon but not looking as good as he had done on his way out to the turnaround point.

Without much thought, I caught back up trying to go his pace. Even, if it was just for a few hundred yards. The fire came back, we started working together. I knew I had to dig deeper to stick with him through to the finish. And then, Benny stopped. He walked, he groaned in his own agony. Good to know he is human. I was now the one telling Benny to keep going, encouraging him to dig deep.

We came back to the main stretch of the lollipop and saw 5th running towards us. He asked where to go, clearly lost and panicking. He followed me and Benny. (I was less than convinced he had run the lollipop at this point).

At the turn by the aid, we had 2.5 to go. Benny was still struggling and took in more fluid than me at the aid. I was ready to go, he wasn’t and now I had 5th place up for grabs. He was staring at me in the face! 5th ran ahead. It was a tough call but I waited for Benny. We had agreed to help each other home without really saying it verbally.

A long, long straight followed. Benny put on his after burners and caught up to the guy ahead. I’m not sure where he found that energy but I had to try to do the same.

I took off and gave everything. I recall seeing 6:30’s on my watch. I passed 5th and this time with utter purpose. The problem with this, was I got so pumped that I blew past Benny too! I kept going at that pace all the way down the straight. I pretended to myself that the finish was right at the end of the straight. It was lactate threshold excruciating! I didn’t dare turn to show 6th my worry but I really wanted to make sure Benny was coming right behind.

I reached the end of the straight, an absolute mess. Definitely sub-6’s down that stretch. I stopped, turned and prayed Benny was close and not 6th place. Why did I doubt him? As Benny got to me, I looked back and saw an orange dot that signaled game over. It was almost in the bag, a top 5 place.

We stayed side by side on the golf cart down to the car park, crossed the road and made the sharp left under the finish chute. I let Benny have his moment. He had crushed the field and the marathon course record too.

Benny wins the marathon and set a huge CR.

Benny wins the marathon and set a huge CR.

I cruised in behind and was ecstatic to take 5th in the 50 miler, a year after winning the 50K. There’s something about DC racing (my marathon PR is still from Marine Corps down the road).

Benny and me celebrated, completely exhausted. Tiffany dragged me off. I knew I needed shade and found some in a tent. I collapsed there for a while, my body was in bits. I had really hammered those last four miles with Benny but to grab another place and see him win was well worth it.

A top 5 place at the DC sauna race. Yep, I was happy with that!

A top 5 place at the DC sauna race. Yep, I was happy with that!

This was a great race. A real moral boost for me after a disappointing 50 at Bear. I didn’t like the heat at Bear but this heat and humidity was way higher and I coped really well in it. I thought I didn’t like the heat. Maybe I just do well in bad conditions? This is all good feedback, looking forward to ‘The Big Dance’ in California. Temperatures are predicted to be in the 100’s and likely hotter in the canyons.

I say “Bring.It.On!” Another fantastic weekend with my Novo Nordisk teammates. We shall all regroup in 4 weeks at Squaw Valley, CA and do it all over again, just a few miles more with a bit more heat. Can’t wait.

Team Novo Nordisk #changingdiabetes at The North Face Endurance Challenge

Team Novo Nordisk #changingdiabetes at The North Face Endurance Challenge

P.S. Wardian won. I’ll get him next time ; )

Long Island Greenbelt 25K

Who knew? - the start of another great trail section in LI.

Who knew? – the start of another great trail section in LI.

After a 50 miler, most people shut it down for a few days, weeks, even longer. Fortunately I have friends who don’t. Joe mentioned midweek about the Greenbelt 25K/50K at the weekend. Keila and myself were sold instantly and just like that, this became the next race.

We tossed the idea of the 50K around all week but opted for the more sensible 25K option; an out and back (the 50K was a double out and back). We knew we could always add miles on if 15.5343 didn’t satisfy our legs and lungs. When training for 100 mile races (which all three of us are), the long weekend runs (yes, plural) are standard practice. Throwing a bib on and being surrounded by other trail runners can make those miles more fun.

25K - out and back course in central Long Island

25K – out and back course in central Long Island

The forecast was rain and lots of it! I didn’t mind that, it would beat getting hot as we had last weekend at Bear. We pulled up at a peculiar industrial lot in Long Island.  This was the home of Greater Long Island Running Club (the host organizers) in Plainview. We filled out day of registration forms, grabbed bibs and t-shirts and got ready. This was a no fuss local race. My BG was just right, I grabbed a gel to carry but would rely on the aid stations for Gatorade top ups today.

The 50K runners had begun one hour earlier. A couple hundred of us set off at 8:30am. I followed three guys who seemed to know where they were going. After an interesting sharp u-turn around a traffic cone down an asphalt road, we entered a tiny gap in the trees and found a trail. This, I guessed was the magical Greenbelt trail I had heard so much about from various friends for years but never taken up the opportunity to explore, until now.

Start of the 25K in the rain.

Start of the 200 deep 25K in the rain at GLIRC HQ.

I held third place and felt good. I saw second ahead but first had disappeared. The trail was mostly flat, single track with winding turns and a few small downed trees to hurdle. I didn’t know much about the course other than we were running north to Cold Spring Harbor and then turning around and coming back. My Novo Nordisk team-mate, Ryan, had told me midweek the course was relatively easy (he ran in 2012) but he did get lost that at the end and cost him the win!

I slowly closed in on second place over the next mile. We crossed a road and he looked me straight in the eyes, said nothing and ran away. I shrugged and continued to follow him.  He would look around a few times checking on me and who was behind me. By the end of mile two that would be no one. We had created a gap already battling for 2nd place.

The course was marked with orange ribbons but these were fairly spread out (this was no North Face event). Sometimes this runner in front of me would choose a trail route without a ribbon in site. I was truly lost and confused so needless to say, happy to let him lead me up to the turnaround point. Maybe I should have listened to the race instructions at the start rather than hide under the canopy from the downpour!

The trail remained single track, a few small climbs and descents, a field crossing hugging the perimeter and standard rocks and roots but this was by no means a technical course. It actually felt like a vacation away from Bear Mountain.

At a smaller road crossing an a quick sip of Gatorade at the next aid station, we descended a long section. I decided it was time to go ahead, I was ready to stretch my legs and felt as if I was losing too much time on first place being guided. I asked the guy what signs he was following. Orange ribbons I knew but it was the white paint markings on trees – the Greenbelt trail that I had missed from the race instructions. Good to know!

I hadn’t planned to be so aggressive with the race. I actually came into the ‘race’ without much of a plan. I knew I wanted an easy(ish) out and a strong back/finish (something I have been lacking in my last few races).

5 miles of climbing ahead (forget looking for splits here).

5 miles of climbing ahead (forget looking for splits here).

At 5 miles, some serious climbing ensued. Big steps were the first sign of things to come and the hiking began. The 50K leaders were coming towards us so this was now a time to race smart and look up too. Continuous climbing and small ascents were continuous.

I hadn’t had much time to figure out how my new Suunto Ambit watch worked. The one basic feature that was incredibly helpful, as always  though was heart rate. I was hanging around the 170 bpm. I stuck to my old trail trick of not letting it go any higher, no matter who was around. I  was now hiking frequently to keep my effort even.

Some of the trail now was not only hilly but more technical. Vast tree roots, a drop off going left as the trail wrapped to the right, that kind of thing to keep it interesting. Trees proved good support for climbing hills and also useful brakes for the shorter descents.

I crested another hill and saw the best view on the course; an overlook to the north shore, a good indicator I was close to the turnaround point in Cold Spring Harbor. First place ran by me, we acknowledged each other but my greater concern was how far ahead he actually was. I checked my watch so I could gauge the true time gap between us when I would eventually hit halfway.

I descended some steep steps to a handful of people at the aid/check point. Before I could do the math, they all made sure I knew I was far behind first place “Todd”; a big hint that he was the local hero and I wasn’t to mess with him!

I didn’t need to try. I was four minutes back and my recovering legs (oh, I didn’t mention I was tired?!) had no desire to push much harder to reel Todd in. If his wheels fell off, so be it but I wasn’t going to gun it, not for a race we had only mentioned a few days ago.

I said adios to the Todd fan club and climbed up the steps inbound. I was curious to see the gap I had created on my early guide. I was conscious not to be walking or looking anything like the word ‘tired’ when we were to meet face to face.

He ran by but his concern was what was on his heels; 4th place was now a stones throw behind and my buddy Joe was also close in 5th. I didn’t calculate my gap from them but it felt too small. I pushed the pace up a fraction. My hiking stride lengthened and my descent running took a few more risks now.

Inbound in 2nd place.

Inbound in 2nd place.

Saying so, I still stuck at my HR plan, well, no higher than 172 bpm seemed to be my new comfort limit. I had to keep reminding myself that walking hills was perfectly reasonable, everyone chasing would have to climb the same grade and tire themselves out more if they chose to run them. I truly believed running these would be foolish and punished later in the race on the flatter section home.

I said ‘hi’ and ‘nice run’ to all my fellow racers who were still on the outbound. It was a great atmosphere, even while the rain began to start belting it down. I think (most) people enjoyed the trail and rain combination.

Back at the aid station meant the tough hills were now firmly in the bag. It also meant I could grab a quick Gatorade to keep the levels up. As I had pushed my pace a bit more than I wanted too, I thought it was worth asking the volunteers how far ahead the leader was.

I got blank stares at first. “Oh, you mean Todd? He is um…well gone”. My legs were too tired to question if the locals were calling my bluff. I had five to go and was happy with how I was doing managing the race.

The long home stretch was largely uneventful. There would be no Todd sightings, no attack from behind. It was just me and the trails. I was cranking out some great  8/min miles. It felt like a training run now. I wasn’t hammering it and red lining but I also was not cruising. It felt, well, not too far from perfect.

Just as I calculated I only had one more trail mile to go before I would hit the asphalt, I surprisingly saw people at the end of the trail. I got directed to the left  which was confusing as an out and back course told me I had to go right here. At least got to avoid  the tedious traffic cone u-turn I guess. It didn’t make sense but who was I too argue.

Energy discipline: steady HR throughout was  really my only race plan coming home.

Energy discipline: steady HR throughout was really my only race plan coming home.

I ran the road downhill and could now understand how Ryan had got lost the previous year. The next marking was nowhere so I had to go from memory as to where my left turn was meant to be to get to the industrial car park finish.

The rain was now really hammering away. I pulled into the home straight. No crowd here, not even a photographer. Just a clock timer and some cones to finish between. The race directors were all hiding under the canopy to  keep somewhat dry. This really was a no fuss local race. I kind of digged it.

I found Todd under the canopy. We small talked. He has won this race three years in a row now. His strategy? Bomb ahead and make the catchers get discouraged by the gap when they see you coming back. At least I know for next year!

Joe came in just after the woman’s winner in 4th and Keila soon followed in 6th (2nd female). Taking 2nd, 4th and 6th a week after 50 miles was pretty satisfying but just being out on new trails getting the legs going was definitely why we were there.

LI Greenbelt day of reg. finishers; 2nd, 4th and 6th. We will take it!

LI Greenbelt day of reg. finishers; 2nd, 4th and 6th. We will take it!

We grabbed lunch and made new friends, some of which were local legends; the USATF 50K race director and an ultra pioneer with a Western States and Badwater finish from the 90’s. A great (wet) Saturday morning well spent just down the road from our concrete jungle home of NYC.

The North Face 50M: Surviving the Bear

Bear Mountain - start/finish line

Bear Mountain – start/finish line

Saturday May 4 2:30am; my second installment of 50 miles at The North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain, NY was about to begin. (Yes, I ran it last year and made a conscious decision to come back). It was to be my first of two 50-milers in preparation for Western States 100.

My blood glucose was higher than I wanted, just above 200. I juggled the numbers with breakfast and basal rates. By 4:45am, just before lining up, another test, still 200. I changed out my water bottle of pure Gatorade for one of a mix of Gatorade and water, effectively halving the carbohydrates.

50 mile elevation chart!

50 mile elevation chart!

My 2012 time of 9:17 was good but I felt I could go sub-9 if everything fell into place. The race was about 300 deep and not many cared about being right at the front. Purely on my time goal, I opted to toe the line with McDougal and Schmitt (the two favorites). The weather was cool, for now in the upper 40’s but was headed towards a high of 72. I hoped the trees would protect my light skin (I’m no hot weather running fan).

5am: the start of the adventure!

5am: the start of the adventure!

We took off exactly at 5am, across the flat field, under a small bridge and then onto the trail.  The section was a lot of gradual ascending for three or so miles in darkness, our headlamps our only guide looking for the guy in front or glow sticks. There is definitely something really cool about night running or very early morning running as this was. I think it’s the fact knowing that 99% of people in the same time zone are sleeping. I know my choice. I view the 50-mile race, Bear in-particular, as an impatient hike due to the amount of walking involved with constant elevation changes. I’m pretty sure I was the impatient walker growing up, long wooded walks in the English countryside and darting off ahead.

Mile 2

Mile 3

I rolled out of the trail, just shy of 4 miles at the Fort Wayne aid station (doubling as the 40 mile aid too). I chucked my headlamp to a volunteer, shouted my bib number and kept going. I was ahead of schedule (I had sharpie data written all over my forearms for time/aid station as a rough guide).

I was in the top 20 and felt fine there. I placed 19th in 2012 so felt I was right on track. The next section was single track with rocks, roots and more rocks everywhere, basically a lot more technical than the first one. The eyes were in overdrive looking a few feet ahead, occasionally looking ahead to track the route via the runner ahead or the next ribbon marker. Eventually a more runnable section by the side of a misty lake was a great sight. The views you get to witness so early in the morning in mountains are priceless. I flew through aid two without any wasted time.

Descending a tricky single track soon followed. A few guys ran on my heels and I let them go by without a fight. I wasn’t going to force a pace that wasn’t comfortable on this terrain. I tried to let one more pass but he resisted. “No. It’s me Carlo”. Argh! A friendly face. I stayed ahead, we small talked for a while. As we then climbed a long asphalt road, my team-mate Ryan Jones caught up to make us a group of three.

Ryan had not run Bear before and made a few comments about the course so far, mostly swearing. We all laughed. Yep, the Bear sure is grizzly. The truth of the matter was, we were only 10K in and there was way harder stuff coming up for us. I checked my CGM while I wasn’t having to look for the next place to plant my foot and saw my BG had settled nicely at about 150 now.

Back on the trail, the three of us were about to do some of the hardest climbing of the course up to the peak at 15 and then again at 20. Picking when to run and when to walk was key. I mixed it up pretty good but definitely know my weakness on the trails; climbing. I let a lot of guys go here. Either they were stronger or naive. Carlo, was stronger as was the first placed woman. Ryan sat back and ran smart.

The climb took us to one of my favorite parts of the course. The trail looks like it ends with a big rock boulder in front. You look left and right searching for the orange ribbon but this is Bear, that’s not what goes on here. By my feet was a 50-mile arrow pointing straight towards the boulder.

I scrambled up the rock face using hands and feet together to get to the top. The reward is magnificent; flat rock sections to run on with views for miles. This ends sooner than you would like as you pass a small mountain cabin and descend again with hands and feet on the other side.

A standard descent at Bear.

A standard descent at Bear.

The runner below to my right shouted to a bunch of runners on my left “wrong way”. All those  climbers that went past were now behind me because they missed a marker. It’s that simple to get lost, one runner makes a mistake, everyone around follows. I felt lucky to have been where I was at the time and able to not make the mistake.

A steep and treacherously rocky descent followed for over a mile where everyone that had gone slightly astray was now working overdrive to get back in front. (Was it me or did we still have 35 miles to figure this all out?) We climbed a nasty rocky single track to the Arden Valley aid station, first heard (volunteers loves cowbells) and then beautifully into view.

Jumping through the rocks

Jumping through the rocks

A volunteer refueled my bottle. What I mistook for being Gatorade on offer was in fact the event sponsor’s brand; Clif, a similar electrolyte drink. So what? Well, I know that 20oz of Gatorade has 34 grams of carbohydrate (all sugar). What did Clif electrolyte have? Exactly. I had no idea. It was too late, what could I do. I had to assume the same carbohydrate rate. I have nothing against Clif, their chews and energy bars are awesome but I had never tried the drink. I had many gels and energy chews stuffed in my shorts and backpack so if I did need a fast-acting glucose, I had over means readily available.

A guy ahead was putting ear phones in down the road. I didn’t want to deal with passing him with music blaring so got in front before the next trailhead begun. Other than him, the pack had spread thin and I was now solo for a few miles. We ran by a rare open yellow field with the sun beaming down heavily. The trail was mostly pine here sloping heavily to the left which made for some good core work and tree grabbing skills. Occasionally, I would see a runner ahead or two and close in on them. A few big stone sections between marshy streams, remind me of the film, Labyrinth with the dog trying to get to the castle to rescue the girl from David Bowie! I guess my castle was the finish area but I couldn’t think that far ahead quite yet.

I knew from the elevation chart, I had now passed the highest point of the race. That really doesn’t mean as much as you think on Bear though due to the never-ending continuous ascending and descending and rocky terrain to stop you ever getting into a rhythm.

A guy ahead dipped his hat in a stream. I thought it was a bit overkill so early in the morning. As I passed the stream, I copied him and put my hat back on. He was correct! The sun had come up and it was already getting that hot. So hot I guess that I ran down a hill turned right and ran back towards some runners behind me. As embarrassing as it was, I was glad they were there to stop me going further than a few feet the wrong way!

Rocks and water hazards galore.

Rocks and water hazards galore.

By mile 21, I was at another aid station by a big lake. I didn’t have much time to marvel this view but Tiffany probably did. She was there to greet me and do a blood test (she was carrying my spare meter);143. I clenched my fist with joy as the aid station volunteers stared at me. Maybe they thought my lottery ticket had come in.

I refueled the large bladder of water here for the long stretch ahead. I grabbed some cups of Coke and a few orange slices. Tiffany tried to point me in the wrong direction. Now, not only was I trying to run in the wrong direction but my number one crew member was trying her best to do it to me too!

Over a stream via tree branch and then across the road back to the trail. The section involved lots of long straights. A part of the course to get some time back from the earlier climbing. This section is far from boring however. At the southern most part of the course, is where the magic is and only the 50-milers get to see it. Huge open spaces with flat rocks for our feet  and 360 degree views for our eyes and heart. It feels like stepping out onto a new State (Utah always springs to mind, although I’ve never been – yet!). The direction of the trail changed frantically from straight across a flat rock to a hard right or left through a small gap or jump down to a lower rock. Adult’s playground? Absolutely. My only company up here were bemused Japanese hikers who stared at me, not sure what to think! Well the impatient hiker in me could run free here and I did.

Running the rocks: the top of Harriman State park

Running the rocks: the top of Harriman State park

I rolled into Camp Lanowa aid station at 27.7 miles, now in ultra territory. Some high school boys were throwing a football around to entertain themselves cheering me in. I got a small bout of energy from them and called for the ball. This kid didn’t take into account, I had just run over a marathon or that I’m English. Yes, excuses over, I dropped the catch! (Jerry Rice would not be proud of me Team Run NYC!).

Another blood test here; 124. Not only were my numbers great, my CGM was showing me the same readings. I had been monitoring it all morning and seeing a great level of consistency, really, rally satisfying stuff. A few cups of Coke, orange slices (why change a good thing?) and back at it.

Well, “back at it”, sounds very misleading. I had now started hitting my wall. The positive was, the two longest sections were done. I knew my times were off, I wasn’t hitting my aid station goals for sub-9. My Garmin watch wasn’t helping either claiming I had run two more miles than I actually had. This began to mess with my head when I thought I would see an aid station but had to plough another twenty minutes until I actually did.

Obstacle Mountain - yes, this is part of the course!

Obstacle Mountain – yes, this is part of the course!

In between trail sections here, was a long asphalt climb. And I mean, real long! As soon as it went up, I knew I had to walk it. Ryan Jones came up by me. I hadn’t seen him for a while. We exchanged “pleasantries” about how hot it was, how tough the course was, how much our bodies ached. Oh, we also were having great blood glucose control though! Are endocrinologists would be proud of us for that. Ryan is one tough guy. He came into the race after a week of flu and therefore, obviously no running. He also had just won the NJ 100 earlier in March. We ran a section of the climb together. I felt bad to say anything to him but I had to stop and walk again. Ryan was relieved to hear it and for a moment, both of us were hands on knees in the middle of the road just saying “Oh man” in synch. It was kind of comical looking back.

Ryan found 2nd gear afterwards and kept going. I followed but remained in 1st (with the hand brake also up). The trail began again and was a nice change from the asphalt climb, well until we started to tip toe over some more basketball sized rocks all spread out. I had found a couple of new runners now to mingle with and we were all asking the same question; where was this next aid station?! At this point, the brain needs to break down the race into small chunks just to handle the magnitude of the task at hand. Aid stations are mini-goals. It’s like trying to run to the next lamppost when you’ve never run before. By the time you’ve made it, you grow in confidence and can push yourself to look for the next one.

By the time I was back at Fort Wayne aid station, I felt like I was surviving the course, not running for any sort of time. My whole body was really fighting to stay in the event while my fried brain was looking at ways out of it. I saw Ryan again at the aid station, he was about to head out. My blood here was 191. My highest of the race. I ditched most of my Gatorade and replaced it with water to weaken it like I did at the start.

Off I shuffled up the very unattractive car park area for a stretch. I caught up to Mon and Jess from TeamRunNYC. We stopped for a photo. Mon was apologizing for slowing me down. “Do I look like I needed slowing down?!” I said. I was barely alive at this point. Kino, also joined us. He was a second pacer for Jess’s first ultra. That’s one cool trio right there folks. Kino and Mon pacing the whole 50K for a friend. Hats off to all of them.

I went ahead as the trail was flat, winding left and right over a few bridges. But then trouble really came. A climb. It must have been all of six feet high. It looked and felt like agony. OK, now I’m in serious trouble I said to myself. I walked sections I would normally bomb. This was not pretty. The pain my body was letting out was almost too unbearable. A week later, I still can’t find the right words to describe this pain. Jess, Kino and Mon caught back up. Kino kept offering me gels and food snacks believing it would help. He didn’t know my sugar was 191, he instantly thought I just needed sugar. I think he was in shock to see me in so much pain! They continued as I dragged my way along pathetically losing a bunch of time. I questioned when this would be over. I still had Timp Pass coming up (a huge climb and descent). If I walked from here, that would be over two more hours, nowhere near my initial goal time. It was depressing.

I looked at rocks, I was shopping for a nice big smooth rock. If I could just find a good one, I knew I was beyond ready for a nice sit down, maybe even a nap and call it a day.  I had told myself that Keila would catch up soon and when she was here, she would just wake me up! What a great plan. No, that was a terrible plan and completely unlike my nature but I truly did think that. Let’s just say, thank goodness I couldn’t find a rock I liked.

I descended down a super steep section with Jess and co only just ahead. In my hour of absolute agony, it felt comforting to have friends close by. I was still dreading the big climb, I knew it was anytime soon….and then out of nowhere we had made it to the 45th mile aid station. A really fun party atmosphere one in the middle of the woods with lots of people working or 50K’ers having a few moments break from the course.

I was in shock. I had been dreading the climb and it wasn’t where I thought it was. Two 50K runners were eating and drinking and patting each other on the back. “Right, this is it. The final push, 10K to go” one of them said. The light bulb in my low energy head went on. He’s right, the final push. I didn’t even say bye to my friends (who were having a great time by the way), I ran on, got on with it. My watch had hit 9 hours. The dream goal was well gone. This wasn’t to be my day for any PR’s. I knew I knew I had about an hour more of pain.

It was now a good mix of 50K runners and 50 milers. The atmosphere was picking up, you could sense we were all close to the same ultimate goal, finishing. A sharp left and Timp Pass begun. You could see people ahead high up climbing the big rocks to the peak of the curved climb. 3rd place woman now passed by and looked strong. My watch read 9:17 up the climb. I shook my head and couldn’t fathom how I ran that time a year ago.

And down Timp I went. Not overly fast, there was nothing to gain now but still fast enough to impress some of the 50K runners. I guess, when I did my first ultra here two years ago, I recall a runner running down this section and was in disbelief of how they could do it. It must all come down to experience on trails, leading to confidence over time. It truly is, a very different type of running than road running.

As Timp got lower, the rocks got bigger. EMT was trekking up the opposite way to take care of the guy with a gashed knee. Talk about a tough place to try to get too, Timp Pass was most definitely it. The trail finally became runnable and instantly, the last aid station was there with 2.8 miles to go. I have never stopped here and didn’t plan on starting now. A couple of 50 milers were milling around and I took advantage of that. I had no idea of my placing, nor did I overly care. My focus was solely on breaking ten hours and would need some 8/min miles to do it. I flew down the descents, over a bridge and up a climb on the far side giving it everything, I couldn’t afford to walk. But, I had no choice, walking it was. My legs were dead. I sloached moving forward. There was no way I was going to even break 10-hours now I thought.

One...more...mile

One…more…mile

A final mile and a half to go and most of it downhill, I stretched my legs again and let gravity do most of the work for me. I was playing leapfrog with a guy in green (later to find out it was Jason Friedman, a fellow NJ trail series/Leadville runner). A few more teasing ascents just to really dig the knife in and then I saw the bridge which I had gone under hours earlier. My watch read 9:56. I was relieved to know I somehow was going to duck in under ten hours. A long, long way short from my sub-9 goal but small victories are something you take at Bear Mountain, at ultrarunning actually.

Tired!

‘Ooh – comfy grass to lie on!’

This was definitely not my day. I had been looking forward to lying down for hours and chose to do so immediately as I crossed the line. This was anything but a celebration, pure relief and joy I could now finally stop moving forward. It was over.

Lots of my friends surrounded me immediately. Tiffany helped me up, Melissa gave me an ice-cold cup of water and Den Is, all smiles gave me a helping hand too. He told me he won the 50K when I asked. That didn’t surprise me. I later found out his time was 4:13 and had won by over 47 minutes!!! That did surprise me but he is something else.

An ice bath for my feet followed. I’m not used to them, so didn’t last anything close to the prescribed ‘ten minutes’. My quads and calves were completely shot. I wanted to go the medical tent, beer tent and food tent all at the same time. I opted for the DIY medical tent with ice bags on my quads and regrouped with my Team Novo Nordisk team-mates; Ryan, who had just finished ahead and Matt P – who ran the 50K (smart man).

We hung out at the finish line area on the grass bank for a few hours as we eagerly awaited our final team-mate’s arrival. Laura, had just flown in from San Diego the day before and this was her first ultra. No 50K, no flat, easy 50M, straight at it! Matt, Ryan and me were needless to say impressed. And more so, when she finished all smiles. I think we’ve just got ourselves one more ultra runner!

Team Novo Nordisk back in one piece! #changingdiabetes

Team Novo Nordisk back in one piece! #changingdiabetes

So, I left feeling slightly disappointed. I set the bar high (again). I’ve had days to reflect what the race means. Number one: I don’t quit. That’s the best news I can ask for getting ready for Western States. I managed my blood glucose control really well (I started at 200 and finished at 146 with zero problems for 50 miles). I can’t wait to do it all over again at Washington DC in four weeks. Yeah, I think everything will be OK. As Matt said, you can’t always have the perfect day but you can always have fun. That, I did for sure.

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