The lottery gods are good to me. I am humbled to announce I get to go back to my favorite race, and there have been many. The original 100 miler, the Western States Endurance Run in sunny California. It was my fourth year in the lottery since my 2013 race when I somehow got pulled to run with one single ticket. This year, I had 8 tickets (your ticket number doubles ever year not selected). To get to run it twice so close together is magical. I am extremely grateul and take none of this for granted. My Hardrock dream however continues to make me wait. Looks like it is going to be a speedy and heat training kind of training cycle (I also have my 6th Boston to look forward too). The rest of my year is TBD. The Grand Slam looms and I will decide on that or something else equally epic very soon. #ws #seeyouinsquaw
Tag Archive for ultrarunning
My first race of the year would be an ultra. That’s largely due to deciding to pass on focusing on the Boston Marathon as I have done the past four years. I guess I’m just not a streaker anymore! (Runner slang for consecutive days running or repeat racing, not the other type of running with no clothes on). With the ‘freedom’ of no marathon to train for, I knew the calendar of winter race options was my oyster. Talking of oysters, I ended up turning my attention to a local race, not so far from Oyster Bay. A road 50K in Caumsett State Park (which doubles as the far more glamorous title of the USATF 50K Road Championships race) was my choice. It’s a race that’s been on my radar for a few years and now seemed the right time to give it a go.
I begun training at the start of December which felt odd to me starting my 2015 campaign in 2014. I’ve never trained through the Holiday season and I knew that would be a tough phase to get through without losing focus. I was slightly lost how to go about training for a 50K road race with a firm emphasis on the word ‘road’. All of my previous 50K’s have been on trails, some gnarlier than others, but all without too much fixation on pace or goal time. I would have to hang my head if this wasn’t going to be a PR day.
I knew this race could be almost run like a marathon, just slightly less gas to save the engine for another 5+ miles. But I just didn’t have any great knowledge of how to train for it. Luckily, my good friends at The Run Smart Project do and they customized a nice 3-month plan for me. Through the winter months, I found some excuses to not run every run prescribed, something I’ve never really had much trouble with before. Whether it was because training in December in NYC is hard (the park is dead), my travel schedule involved two trips to Europe (not complaining) or I just wanted to stay home and play with our new Weimaraner puppy, Miles, instead of facing the cold winter nights I’m not sure. But most of the time I did layer up and train and put in good, not great speed workouts.
The training plan gives a predicted goal time (if you follow it precisely) and mine for March 1st read 3:22 goal time. I knew my fitness level was not there (it would have meant a marathon PR en route FYI) so I played a more cautious approach of aiming for a window between 3:30-40 which was in the 7-min pace range. I was hopeful but not convinced that was where I was, which I shared with my friend Ken Posner pre-race. I was however convinced that my 4:33 50K PR was about to be taken down though!
Ten 5K loops awaited me on a course I knew little about. I had chatted with Ian Torrence and Emily Harrison about this race a year ago and they said it was “definitely not flat”. I didn’t know exactly how to interpret that but was about to find out.
I asked around for information about what drinks were on the course but couldn’t seem to find a consistent answer. Bremen told me he thought it was Hammer which is low on sugar compared to other brands and therefore low on my list (sorry Hammer). I jammed four Honey Stinger gels into my gloves and tights and had more in my bag if I really needed to come back and reload. I had made a rookie diabetes mistake of trying to calibrate a new sensor for my CGM in the morning but the calibration hadn’t finished in time so carrying it was now worthless. The plus side of this mini disaster was that I had room for some more gels! The glass is always half full as a diabetic athlete : )
We took off in the bitter cold and I found myself letting a large number of male elites bomb ahead as I settled into a sub-7 pace alongside the returning female champ and course record holder, Emily Harrison. She had run a 3:17 last year so I quickly decided to ease up some more and try to relax into an honest pace.
The first mile was flat and then a long downhill, mile two, uphill and some rollers and the last mile went past the finish chute on and out and back lollipop loop which unfortunately involved lots of ice sections and cold puddles. I have nothing wrong with getting dirty but wasn’t this a national championship road race? This section was definitely the biggest challenge and hard to maintain a good pace.
By now, I had figured out that Gatorade was the electrolyte drink of choice on the course every 1.55 mile or so. With this really great news, I was able to quickly recalculate how and when to consume my carbs. Being that the type of race was not dissimilar to a marathon (where I don’t check my CGM often), I opted for my ‘every even mile’ carb intake approach.
I ran lap 1 in sub-21 and felt that was probably slightly aggressive. The elites remained a bunch of five slowly stretching the gap on me (and others), Emily and Phil McCarthy ran separately ahead of me and I sat solo with a bunch of ten guys in hot pursuit to my rear.
I’m not sure how to ‘jazz up’ 10 x 5K loops but it was surprisingly far from boring. This is coming from the ‘I don’t do loop races’ guy. The repetitiveness of loops made the race a mathematical game for me. Lap after lap I was running consistent sub-21’s (I did not slow down after all) so I could predict the clock time down to a few seconds. As I passed by a really inspiring buddy of mine, Ken Tom, he said to me I made it look easy but I joked back “wait until lap 8”. But lap 8 eventually came and my pace did not waver. I am not trying to downplay the race or the distance. An ultra is hard, heck marathons are hard, running is hard. But today I locked in a pace and maintained it really well. I think I have to thank the monotony of loops for that.
Once I had finally caught and passed Phil McCarthy at the halfway mark, I knew I had to keep pushing on and swallow some more runners up if I was going to make an indent on the Top 10 USATF results board. I never actually knew my place but knew I was likely on the outside looking in. But to keep me in check of how this was all going, I got then got lapped by eventual winner Zachary Ornelas (Sketchers) before I could complete lap 6. I ate humble pie big time! He was flying.
Due to the course, especially the last section, it was obvious to see which guys ahead were my targets. All of my focus was on closing that gap. The only other thing I had to think about timing my next Gatorade or Honey Stinger.
Lap seven went by, same gap. Lap eight completed, same gap. Lap nine, same gap. Whatever my place, it seemed locked in. The two guys ahead were not slowing down. What was pretty cool about the second to last lap was running through the timed mat to collect an official marathon time. I saw my watch flip to 2:55 on the nose as I came by. Nothing spectacular but it made me smile as that was first ever sub-3 in NY state (I have a long-term goal of going sub-3 in 50 states). On the same lap, I did manage to un-lap myself from third place which did nothing for my overall place and then caught Emily Harrison which did nothing for my Top 10 USATF overall men place. But what it did do was show me, I was running strong while others were fading.
On the final loop, I pushed and pushed just in case I could catch someone but my pace stayed at 6:35. My body was telling me this is it buddy, shouldn’t have skipped those workouts in December!The uphills now really beat my legs up (although they were gradual gradients or short rollers). I was going to sneak a peek at the finish clock before my final out and back section to see if I would make sub-3:30 but I already knew that goal was locked in so just ran, and ran hard through to the finish in a time of 3:27, a nice 66 minute PR!
Bremen, who ran the 25K (2nd place!), met me at the finish as snow was now coming down and I soon quickly realized how cold it had been out there. A giant blanket donated from him and some tomato soup was just the ticket I needed. I was content with my performance (almost as good as my post-race blood glucose!). I had to be. I got out of it what I put into it.
At the awards, I had my fingers crossed that I had pulled off 10th USATF place but alas, I was short by two; 13th overall, 12th USATF with an average pace of 6:41. As the snowstorm continued, I hung out with my amazing ultra friends, grabbed some lunch and packed up shop before the storm got any worse. It was such a great race to be running with the likes of Keila, Zandy, Trishul and Ian Torrence and those mentioned earlier. Running and friends. Oh, for the simple life.
A huge thank you to the Run Smart Project for my custom plan. I surprised myself with how well I ran but know I can still improve dramatically at this distance and surface. Top 10 next year? We will see.
I first saw images of The North Face 50 mile championship race held in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco a few years ago. My jaw literally hit the floor watching a video of the race. Single track cut into grass hillsides off the Pacific Ocean, glimpses of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, not to mention a packed field of elites, made this race an absolute ‘must do’. This course offered some of the finest trails in the US and I wanted in.
I put it onto my 2013 calendar as my closing race. It was to be my C race for the year after Boston (=B), Western States (A) and UROC (=B). Am I even allowed to have such a thing? Well, my rules, so I guess so. My training for it was far from specific since UROC 100K. I had run 4 marathons in 8 weeks. Two as pacer and two for myself but relatively little trails (does the Central Park bridle path count?) or elevation runs.
Excuses over, I was excited to be a part of this race. I’m not sure if the prize purse increased this year ($10K for the winner of both male and female races) but the elites flocked onto the entry list in the last few weeks of the build up and not just from the US. Ryan Sandes was coming in from Cape Town, Emilie Forseberg from Norway and her pacer was a guy called Kilian Jornet. The US elites included Rob Krar, arguably the ultra runner of the year (URY) even prior to this, Max King, Dakota Jones, Mike Wardian, Mike Wolfe, Dylan Bowman etc etc. It was easier to say who wasn’t running it.
It dawned on me how lucky I am as an amateur, to get to have these amazing race experiences with the best of the best from across the world. It’s the equivalent of the weekend golfer teeing it up with Woods, or rallying with Federer. But with trail running, the difference is, it’s the real deal. Of course, these guys who I have the utmost respect for, make fewer headlines than professionals in main stream sports, but running is my sport and I love everything about it. It is an honor and more importantly darn fun to be able to race with them.
After a few hiccups pre-race that included forgetting to pick up the rental car, forgetting to bring music and no batteries for the headlamp (at least I had my insulin), I made it to the start area in the dark and cold conditions at 4:30am (thanks Joe and Fick for driving me so early!). I met up with Joe Del Conte, a fellow NYC ultra runner pre-race and we shared the same excuses that this was to be a fun race, with a firm emphasis on fun. My blood glucose was a touch above my target at 225. I had a now watered down Gatorade in my handheld, a few gels and was set, ready to explore what this course was all about.
We left the now very familiar red bubble North Face arch just after 5am. The course started flat which then wrapped to the right and downhill across a road and over a footbridge onto Rodeo Valley Trail. The pace was way faster than I needed to go but I figured I would run what I could, the climbs throughout would slow me down anyway.
I climbed the first hill to the top of Bobcat alongside Joe as sunrise began to break. The view ahead and behind of the string of headlamps was breathtaking. It took me back to the sight at Turquoise Lake in the opening miles of Leadville. The climb was longer and harder than what I had studied on paper; probably not a great omen for the next 47 odd miles.
We descended down a wide and rocky fire road which was way too fun. I knew this descent would be repeated at the end of the race so tried my best to remember certain memorable spots or turns which may or may not help hours later. The only issue was, I was doing this observant task in the dark.
Along a flat section, we ran through the first aid; no need for anything much here. A quick gulp of water and I kept going. Along this road allowed more time to pound out some good speedy miles. So far, so good with my planned sub-9 hour goal.
At the next aid station (Tennessee Valley), I had climbed and descended a similar hill, this time rapidly down on switchbacks. I met up with Tiffany, Joe and Fick, did a blood test which was important (79), refueled my bottle and gels and gone. I hadn’t processed the idea until now that it was still too dark to hand off my headlamp to them. As I had no drop bags, I would be hanging onto this beauty until mile 28!
The third climb would bring about the best reward thus far. Once up on top, we were greeted to some brave souls swaying in the wind, pointing us over the ridge line and down a single track. This was the start of Pirate’s Cove.
Single track sweeping along the coastline. The ocean waves were breaking on the beach and smashing into a solitary rock which gave the postcard view the final touch of aesthetic beauty. Yes, this course was living up to its reputation alright and now it was daylight, I would not miss anything else. It was a gem of a trail. The fun descent meant only one thing and that was back up and over the north side of the cove. I re-caught Joe who had not stopped at Tennessee Valley. We ran side by side down a fire road. A runner ahead was less than impressed walking down to the aid. I stopped myself offering him a gel when I recognized it was Karl Meltzer. A gel wasn’t going to make his day any better. He was about to drop and I saved myself getting yelled at for trying to help.
The aid station at Muir Beach was an important time to stock up. The biggest climb of the race was ahead. I ran across a farm field which just seemed so strange like I was back in XC days. Those trusty ribbons pitched in the soil ahead reassured me this was correct. The ribbons lead us towards a hillside and the start of coastal trail. I looked up to see dozens of runners hiking switchbacks above me. I looked above them and saw even more runners!
I was prepared to hike all the ups today but because there were so many switchbacks, the grade never seemed to become an excuse to slow the pace down to hike mode. I enjoyed the back and forth twists and the ability to keep running for the most part. Note to self, don’t study the course profile so much! I was now running solo, Joe took the climb easier than me.
The climb was pretty relentless. It was 1,500 feet of up. I ran what I could but now 15 or so miles in, my body wanted to rest a bit more on these uphill sections. Perhaps the year of racing was catching up with my legs. Ironically, I was moving ever closer to Cardiac. The aid station name, not my physical condition. Through the aid, the terrain changed dramatically; weaving between trees and hopping over roots in a shelter of greenery. It was a nice change of environment. This was the fringe of the Muir Woods.
Although my surroundings were different, the elevation gain continued. I left the woods to find a marshal directing me right where the trail splits, pointing almost unknowingly towards five guys who all appeared to have on neon yellow tops. I waited to let them pass and realized it was the lead pack coming back from the out and back of McKennan Gulch.
Dylan Bowman, Mike Wolfe and others bombed passed in silence and made the turn down the hill. I think I was just blown away by how deadly silent they all were like assassins yet not trying to kill others, each other. The pace was a different league.
I marched onward and upwards along Coastal Trail single track around ‘wrecked car’ – a landmark of the trail which is exactly as it is named. The story of how the car got to lay somewhere so remote from back in the 1940’s apparently remains a mystery. This section was a not a great spot for an out and back being single track and all but I did get to see almost every elite runner I know over the next ten minutes from Ryan Sandes to The North Face favorite, Mike Wardian.
It made for some interesting exchanges. Some would just bomb straight past as I dove into the hillside (lead runner gets right of way) and others would give me a “good job” shout which felt wrong as they were ahead of me but that’s just what we say this side of the pond. The views of the Pacific high above Stinson Beach were just fantastic. The single track headed north to the furthest point north on the course. I was greeted at the aid with an offer of some hot broth. It wasn’t in my plans but it was windy and cold up top on the exposed hill at almost 2,000 feet so I gladly accepted. I stayed for a refill while small talking with the volunteer about the day and other random ultra stories.
But as more runners came into the aid, I knew it was time to get going south again. I caught up to and then passed the women’s UTMB champion Rory Bosio. I had no doubt she was having a bad day or was just burnt out from the year and didn’t dare ask her for clarification of my theories. I think she may have even dropped at the next aid. When I ran back the way I had come and saw who was coming towards me, I knew this race was definitely an end of season affair for most; Dakota Jones was about 4 miles back from me. I almost took a double take to make sure it was him. I found out later that he was running with the flu and taking it easy. Who runs 50 miles easy with the flu?! Check his humorous encounter of the race out; http://www.irunfar.com/2013/12/the-mid-packers.html.
I descended fast down part of the famous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach aid station where Tiffany, Fick and Joe were waiting for me. I put on a brave face to say everything was going well although in reality I was hurting pretty bad. First things first, I made them take my headlamp off me! My blood was good but not safe enough at 83. Tiffany said do you want me to jump in later for the last few miles. I jumped at this offer. I was without doubt no threat to the $10K winner’s purse and decided this would be a fitting end to the year. Tiffany has been with me every step of every race, none more so than through the night at Western States. Her enjoyment on the trails is forever growing so it feels great for me to see her have such fun out on them too sharing these races and places with me.
I left Stinson Beach and immediately had an uphill through the moors of Dipsea. I suffered all the way up that hill to Cardiac aid just as I had coming the other direction earlier. But now, 50K in, I was rethinking my 9 hour time goal. I was walking runnable stuff, my body was just trashed. The reality of being overly aggressive in the first half now spoke to me loud and clear. When a group approached from behind in relaxed conversational mode and took me down with me ease, I knew I had to start digging deeper to get the wheels back on.
I knew the game though. Bad patches happen. You are meant to suffer out here at some time or another. 50 miles is 50 miles. But when my suffering dragged on and on and more runners passed, I knew this was not a normal bad patch. For this race, I was not monitoring my glucose every minute. I was going off feel and my occasional blood tests when crew could reach me. What was actually happening was, I was heading south geographically and physically speaking too. I popped a Clif Shot gel and then another immediately after. 48 grams of simple carbohydrates to fuel the system back up.
Within a few minutes, I was moving better again. Run the downs, hike the ups, repeat. On a sharp right turn downhill, a couple of Dads watched with their boys. “Alright! Changing diabetes. I have diabetes!” shouted a Dad lifting his shirt to enthusiastically show me his pump insert. I gave him the thumbs up and continued along the trail.
This small interaction with another diabetic that I will never see ever again kick started my race both physically and mentally. That reminder that wearing the Team Novo Nordisk shirt across the country all year long touches people and shows them what is possible is a very powerful tool. It’s the ultimate win-win for both the spectator and the runner.
I reached Cardiac aid, refueled smartly and got going. My head was back in the game but my legs were still like lead, screaming for a walking break. I knew better though. The scenery changed again, I was immersed in big redwoods descending through the Muir Woods. Single track switchbacks winding steeply downwards and crossing over large trunks as bridges was another major highlight of the course, even with wrecked legs. To get to run on some of the famed Dipsea steps was just plain awesome.
I was behind on time and this next leg between aid stops was short and gradually down or flat all the way back to Muir Beach. I locked my brain into a fixation that I had to run this whole section, even if it killed me. I could reward myself with some walking later on but not here.
At Muir, the aid station was packed. It was a merging point for 50M, 50K and marathoners all coming and going different directions. I changed my focus from running to orienteering through here. All I cared about was making sure i followed orange ribbons, not red, blue or any other color out here.
I hiked up Coastal Trail along with the 50K’ers. Grinding out miles now. It was nice to have more runners around albeit ion a different race. There were a couple of guys around me from the 50M though that we ended up playing the cartoon car race game where the lead continually goes back and forth. Ultimately, we were helping each other push ourselves without talking much about it.
The climb had many false summits. My GPS was in no way accurate and I had long given up guessing the mileage I was at. The pain throughout my body spread but the views to my right of the Pacific took the edge off no doubt. I continued to fight for position with my competitors although way back from the front. This race was not about placing or even time anymore, just about giving it everything I had until the end.
Tiffany was all smiles waiting for me at mile 44, ready to go. Glucose 102 called for some fuel which I digested on the last hike up of the day. We spoke about her college friend Peter Hogg who was not only well ahead but actually finished. He had run a great race and competed against and beaten the likes of Mike Wardian and David Riddle out there. I was looking forward to meeting him later at dinner.
At the crest of the hill (Alta aid), I knew it was all plain sailing now. We were now back at the mile 3 section of the course and about to repeat the very first descent done in the dark hours ago.
I glanced my watch and realized a 9:15 finish time was possible. It was not the sub-9 goal but it was a hell of a lot better than the 10 hour mark I had feared may come into play when things weren’t going so pretty after Stinson beach.
Down the jeep road we went. I wasted no energy now. This was a new race. A 5K race starting now. The Golden Gate arch peaked over the headlands to my left. I had almost forgotten where I was running for the last few hours. This location was so close to San Francisco but yet so tucked away. I could see the draw of the city to the athletic yet also driven career types.
I knew 9/minute miles would do the trick. This was UROC heading down Vail Mountain all over again. I hammered the hills and Tiffany ran alongside. She worried I would go too fast for her but I assured her, I was not going to finish without her. This race was merely another excuse to be outside, travel somewhere new and experience the great trails of the west coast. My training did not quantify this as a race and therefor my time be it sub-9, sub-10 or now on the verge of 9:15 was all irrelevant numbers in the grand scheme of things.
We crossed the road which I knew marked the final mile. The sweeping left hill took the pace off my plan and we power hiked as my exhaustion kicked in one more time. I felt the 9:15 was gone as the hill seemed to never end but then I saw a glimpse of people in a field on the horizon. We ran hard again on the flat, turned right and through the arch together. My time? 9:15 and change. Not spectacular but an honest and great run. I was happy. Isn’t that ultimately the goal of anything we do in our lives?
I saw the winner, Rob Krar limping in my direction immediately after and grabbed a few words with him. If there is a more humble ultra guy out of the elites on the scene right now, I don’t know who it is. He is a great inspiration and great guy too.
I hobbled my stiff legs over to a tent hoping to get warm. A circle of chairs surrounded a heater with a couple spare. I sunk into one, did what all diabetics should do first, a blood test (113) and then changed into warm clothes while making new friends and recapping what we just experienced.
We met up with our friends, Joe and Fick, grabbed some food and a beer, mingled with some of the other elites like Kilian Jornet, Rickey Gates and Anna Frost from the Salomon team and then headed back into the city to celebrate this race and all the others before it from 2013. What’s not to love about this crazy world of ultrarunning?
The early crisp morning light in Breckenridge was filled with stars. Not so much in the sky but more around the start line; Kilian Jornet, Sage Canaday, Dakota Jones as well as runners not even running; Geoff Roes and Anton Krupicka to name a few were everywhere. Yes, “Call them and they will come” was proving a true statement for UROC, an abbreviation for Ultra Race of Champions, which boasts one of the largest purses in the sport of ultrarunning.
My reason for being here was certainly not to grow my bank account. I know my place. With 70 pro bibs and about 100 regular, I knew I would be a mid-pack runner today, privileged to be running behind such great athletes on this beautiful and testing course between two giant ski towns; Breckenridge and Vail. The course consisted of four big climbs over 100k (or 62.2 miles), an ultra distance not yet on my resume.
The starting line was located at the Vertical Runner Store (the country’s highest elevation running store at 9,600 feet). We could see the Tenmile Range mountains all covered in snow in the distance. Soon, we would be up there, playing in the snow – not what I had expected or particularly wanted. A police car led us out of town at 7am along the empty streets of Breck (lets face it, not many care about the Ultra Running World Championships and that’s actually how most of us like it!) before we beared right onto an uneven gravel surface and began our first asccent.
Over a bridge and already you could see Sage in the lead with Kilian close behind higher up. It was now time for me to start hiking. My good friend Carlo, also from New York, had informed me this climb was no joke. It was 1,500 foot of straight up. He had trained on this climb so shared his knowledge and said this was absolutely a walk all the way part of the course.
Me and Carlo climbed the path, sprinkled in snow from yesterday’s storm. I was now getting passed by more conservative starters from the street start. My glucose was at 220 and that was OK. It would decline with the effort so I held back on the Gatorade intake. The climb was one of patience. I didn’t like losing so many spots but it was so early in the race, I had to let that go. We never did summit the mountain which was a slight disappointment but got close and made a right turn at Vista Haus. Now at over 11,000 feet, the entire ground was caked in snow. You could see the town below amid the sunrise and surrounding white-capped mountains. Views like this were a huge factor why I wanted to be back here in Colorado. It would at least distract me from the effort that would be required to get through this course. The wide path of the uphill was now replaced with single track. I followed a group of four on the packed snow back down the mountain.
The sun was beaming in our faces and the snow was bright so I flipped my shades resting on the back of my head to on my face. We descended the switchbacks of Peaks Trail northbound. It was slow-moving at times. No one in front seemed to want to step aside and no one behind seemed urgent enough to scramble around so we stuck together as one twisting train through trees and open spaces. One guy decided to make his move only to fall onto his ass as he slipped on ice. Eventually, there was room to pass at a safer place and we descended at a better speed.
I rolled through the first aid station (Grand Lodge) before I knew it, just after the 5 mile mark. I didn’t check my watch but knew I was well ahead of my 12-hour target finish I had set myself. My water bottle was still half full (of Gatorade) and I also had two gels with me. I decided that I didn’t need anything so I kept going. My glucose was 114 and dropping. Wait, what? It was too late. I was already beyond the aid station. What was I thinking? Sadly, I wasn’t. I reduced my basal rate and grabbed a gel to save the low. It had started to freeze slightly so was a lot more work than I was used to over the Summer consuming them. I realized that I had 7 miles until the next aid in the town of Frisco. One gel and half a bottle of Gatorade was by no means reassuring to get me there. I had to pay closer attention to my glucose level from now on. That drop came out of nowhere.
Luckily, the terrain from here to Frisco was rolling trails. Me and Carlo had never drifted far apart on the descent and regrouped again for this section. We decided we liked the pace (albeit ahead of schedule) so worked together passing people and taking turns leading. My glucose issue proved not the main worry though. That would have been the hidden ice and the bridges covered in the snow. We both had a couple of ‘Bambi’ moments. The bridges were made of skinny trunks compacted together and a few pieces were missing on them showing us the icy stream below. We made sure our feet stayed dry and slowed when we had too.
We ran at a clip, about 8/min mile pace, knowing 11:30 average would get us sub-12. The last couple of miles before the suburbs of Frisco were all down and we let gravity do the work for us. Pulling into Frisco though was a different story. No matter if we ran east, north or south, headwinds seemed to get us in every direction. We laughed at the ridiculousness of this. The hardest part of the course so far was Frisco!
We turned left on Main Street and ran up to the aid station together. Tiffany gave me my hydration pack in exchange for my handheld bottle. Now the real climbs began and I needed to carry more fuel as the times between aid stations would increase. My good friend Doug Masiuk was there and put some great words in my head about how children with diabetes were watching me. It struck home instantly. I wasn’t feeling great for just covering 14 miles at this point but this helped keep my focus. I was doing this for more than just me.
I caught back up with Carlo as we left Frisco heading west. Asphalt road turned to dirt road and we got ready for the big climb of the day up and over the Continental Divide. Initially, I felt OK and ended up being a few yards ahead of him. This was the point we had agreed to do our own thing. I felt he was suffering a bit so just went my pace as he went his. But as we rounded Rainbow Lake, the climbing really got going. Effort increased, grade increased and my pace decreased. Carlo went tip toeing by in his style I still cannot master and off he went. He was closely followed by another runner who appeared from nowhere. I wasn’t surprised to witness this. From our training runs together, he has impressed me immensely with his climbing. I stuck to my much slower hiking pace, stretching the legs out as much as I could.
Before I knew it, my pace was no match for anyone. I felt like I was running the ultramarathon of Boston; in over my head and slowly being humbled by much better equipped competitors. But I reminded myself, this race was between myself and the mountains, nobody else. I was still early into this long 7 mile climb up the Colorado Trail through the pine trees. Eventually, the tree line broke and I got to catch my bearings to an extent.
I found myself in a wide mass of open mountain covered in a thick fresh layer of snow. I looked upwards and saw a trail of people switchbacking higher and higher until out of sight. I wasn’t sure if I preferred the heavy trees hiding my fate or seeing what was left to do! My lungs were piercing. My movement was slow going but onward I went dredging my feet through the packed down snow path. The snow required more and more energy expenditure as the air got thinner. I began to feel sorry for the leader rather than myself. Imagine leading the charge through fresh snow which was up to 18″ deep in places. No thanks! I was almost grateful how much my climbing sucked!
At a false summit, about 12,000 feet up, the Colorado Trail took us around the side of Wheeler Pass (the point we would cross at 12,300 feet) rather than directly to the top. To our left was Breckenridge, now just a tiny town from up here and every step I took, I slipped slightly down. My whole body was working to keep me upright. A couple of slips meant I slid down a couple of feet off the trail but this was all fun, right? I wasn’t exactly smiling, more gritting my teeth out of determination that I would soon see the peak at change the muscle groups up.
A couple of cheers ahead meant that moment was iminent. While others stopped to grab pictures of the 360 degree views of beautiful snow-capped mountains, I had more interest in descending so I could a) get some time back b) get some oxygen. The climb had knocked me sideways. I’ve never climbed anything that long before, let alone amidst cold temperatures and 30 mph winds through the snow. My hat is officially off to all the real climbers of the world.
My viewpoint from up above was firmly fixated on the many colorful dots lining the trail which gave me hope that I wasn’t the only one who was slow climbing to the top. I knew my strength was downhill single track and this was exactly what we had next. Albeit in the snow which made it tougher but it was fun and this time I meant it. As I ran back down to tree line, the snow turned to muddy and icy trails and I did my best to keep the legs going fast without making any fatal landings. I moved up several spots here and my confidence begun to come back knowing I could always catch the majority of good climbers on the way back down.
Noise from the bottom of the trail was a really welcome sound. Rather than a false summit, this proved to be a false base. It was two women directing us over a temporary bridge which I soon found out was not for running on. The bridge moved a couple of feet up and down so I quickly grabbed the railings to stay dry. Note the word temporary. Now that I was safely across, I looked for the aid station but there was nothing. This was not it. I followed two other runners who didn’t seem so disheartened as me that this wasn’t time to stop, refuel and go again. I didn’t no the course and it was messing with my head.
A long stretch later of rollers, I heard more noise. The trail ascended towards a few people and then from nowhere, Copper Mountain Ski Resort appeared. I put on my brave face and ran down to the aid station. Tiffany virtually jammed the blood tester onto my finger to make sure this time I did a test. My CGM had me going great; mid to high 100’s all the way down from the mountain but my tester was the real deal and said different; over 300. I was mad. This explained a lot of my exhaustion. I was probably high for the majority of the climb and descent. I wasn’t even halfway through the race, yet I felt like I had run 90K. My first thought was to empty out all the extra gels, chews and bars I was unnecessarily carrying in my pack. My second thought was do some insulin! I’m not sure why the weight of my backpack was a higher priority than getting some insulin in the system. I’ll just have to blame that on cloudy judgement. I checked my water bladder and realized I was not doing great at hydrating. Hydrating would also help bring my glucose down and clear my head.
I left the aid station feeling defeated. My eye caught a pro runner sitting in a chair telling his friend why he had decided to quit the race “I don’t want to be out here for 15 hours like these guys”. I had to bite my lip not to say anything. He wasn’t injured as far as I could tell, just decided it wasn’t his day. Well guess what. It wasn’t particularly my day either. I had fallen almost an hour behind my schedule after having a cushion the other side of the previous mountain and my glucose was not where it should have been. I get everyone has their own agenda. I guess mine is never quit. Being diabetic, you don’t really have a choice so I take this philosophy into my races too.
But just to contradict all of that, as I climbed a really steep climb away from Copper Mountain, I took pause on a mini-plateau to try to catch my breath. I bent over my knees and stood there for far longer than I had planned. Tiffany was just a few hundred yards below getting in the warm car, I was way off my plan goal pace, felt exhausted and I still had two big climbs down the road. I am not a “why me” type diabetic. Those days and emotions are years and years in the past. But, for the very first time in a long time it did just feel like too much to handle all at once. I wanted to throw in the towel so bad. But I knew I wasn’t a quitter, I was a fighter. I didn’t enter the race to fall short. I wasn’t injured, I wasn’t being ill. I just felt like a complete mess. It could have been worse.
I stepped up the hill. I got two or three paces only and again put my hands on my knees and contemplated how simple it would be to just turn around and get in the car. I thought of my uncle, my Dad, my family and friends that believe in me and have my back, Tiffany for unrelenting support on all of these crazy adventures I find and enter. I had to dig deeper than I already was.
Then, a runner passed by and tapped me on the back. “Stay strong brother, it will get better”. Words, I normally pass along to others were coming directly at hopeless me. I said “You promise?”. I asked him if this was the climb up to Vail mountain with dread in my voice. He gave me a funny look and said “No. This is a mile of single track and then the bike path”. Bike path? Why didn’t I know about this. I’m usually so fixated on the race course and here I was not knowing what was coming next. The whole exchange gave me life. I shuffled behind him on the single track and then descended onto the start of the asphalt bike path running parallel with the main Colorado expressway of I-70. I realized I had less than six miles of this slowly ascending bike path until the next aid stop. The asphalt felt funny on my feet after over a marathon on trails of mud, ice and relentless snow. It started flat and I moved along at such an awfully slow pace, I realized I was as good to walk as run so that’s what I did.
What was happening? I had perfectly groomed Vail Parks and Rec. asphalt with not a slither of snow, ice or rock in sight and I was walking! I could feel the mini daggers stabbing my lungs. I was now on a low part of the course, well below 10,000 feet but for all I cared, it felt the same as Wheeler Pass minus the temperature and wind. I tried my hardest to run anything flat and had to play games with my brain; run to the bridge, run to the next red flag. I did whatever I could to speed up but for all the games I thought up and tried, I was a tortoise and the hares were whizzing by my every few minutes. To add to my growing woes, my CGM had packed up. It had obviously had enough of the cold weather. It then dawned on me that I wasn’t carrying a blood tester in my pack. I was now somewhere between a high 300 and a low but wouldn’t know it until it hit me. I had to hope I made a good judgement call with my shot of insulin back at Copper Mountain.
I reached a car park and saw a couple of guys I recognized. They had been watching the race in both Frisco and Copper so my brain process thought they were working and therefore this was the aid station. I was adamant this was the top of the 1,000 foot climb to the aid station. False alarm. Through the car park, I went and down on a nice gradual descending road with a lake to the left. I saw a runner ahead and wanted to keep the same gap on him. I had no desire to catch him, my expectation levels for the race were evaporating. I just didn’t want to let him go like many others had today.
I saw some Hoka One One flags and a couple of cars ahead but I was so tired, it didn’t add up until I saw Tiffany. Now, I had finally made it to the aid station. It had taken me forever to cover the straightforward terrain to get here. I was a train wreck already off the tracks.
“What do you want?” asked Tiffany. “To sit” I said. She didn’t like the answer and tried to warn me of my favorite cheesy ultra line ‘Beware of the chair’. (Yes, I have taught her well!) Ultra running legend Geoff Roes was manning the aid station with his buddies. He did not seem too impressed with my performance as he didn’t even speak to me! Instead his friend fed me three cups of ramen soup which did me the world of good. It was early afternoon but my body was still really cold. I took my gloves off and did another blood test; 160. Fantastic, even more so considering I was guessing my levels the last couple of hours.
I was quite happy sitting there. Tiffany less so and she couldn’t hide her concern for how I looked or how I was faring. “Can you pace me from Minturn?(mile 52)” I said exhausted. Let me stress, I am not a fan or believer of pacers for less than 100 miles but I was pretty desperate and drained. Only the elites were not allowed pacers. I was fairly confident at this point I wasn’t one of them or going to catch ones that were.
Up I got from the chair. I had the easiest miles of the course ahead; 6.6 miles of gradual downhill back on the asphalt. I waited until the gradual became a slope to kick-start my running motion. My legs were holding up OK but my chest and head were not. I told myself to run to a certain marker but this eventually was reached and I kept on going. The key was keeping it at a steady pace, nothing heroic but no more walking except for the few uphills.
The path ducked under the I-70 and turned right, away from Vail. Nobody was around (I had passed one person since the aid station). I was convinced this was wrong. To go wrong and add on mileage seemed like the last thing I could handle. I was not living in Kilian’s mindset of “more miles, more fun” which he said while getting lost at Lake Tahoe.
The path eventually twisted back west and widened. I ran over big chalked words; TEJAY and VOIGT. I knew were I was instantaneously. This was the end of the USA Pro Challenge bike time trial stage that occurred here a couple of weeks ago. The use of watching dome rare TV was now helping me in my ultra!
I ran down a long right bend and saw an even better site. Two runners ahead and an aid station. I didn’t expect either things to be possible in my very off day. I was catching people and I had reached an aid station sooner than anticipated?! This aid station was situated just before the second biggest climb; up to Vail mountain. The volunteer told us it was 4.2 to the top and we all looked great. I believed the first part only. My glucose had dropped to 98 so I was pretty wary of my energy needs. I had some Coke and Clif blocs and got the hike going. I wasn’t eating well and knew it. I had a Clif bar in my bag but literally couldn’t stomach myself to even try a bite. I should have eaten this or similar way earlier in the race before my stomach decided to disintegrate.
I was convinced we were going to enter Vail village which in part would have been nice but also a tease as this race still had 20 plus miles to traverse. We did not. Up we climbed by a small waterfall and followed the stream over and under big fallen pine trees. I noticed a big difference from the morning climbs. No snow, well at least none on the trail itself. The sun had worked its magic and cut me some slack for the final third of the race. Switchback after switchback we went up. My view was of pine trees and a solo runner ahead. I had been slowly catching him, not because my climbing had improved but because he was violently throwing up or at least trying to every few minutes. I offered him whatever I had in my pack but he just needed to press the restart button before he could think like that. As much as my nutrition wasn’t good today, I was grateful to not being feeling like him.
When the tree line stopped, I was greeted to a grand mountain view of open yellow field with many more switchbacks going up. A couple of runners who I had not seen for hours were just above me but struggling. It was reassuring to know others were in the same discomfort as me.
After these switchbacks and me catching up to them, the climb plateaued. I kept checking my elevation numbers on my watch as I knew Vail mountain was about 11,000 feet. We seemed to have climbed that but alas, no aid station was in site. I felt confident on Vail mountain. It was the only part of the course I had been to from my previous trip here last Summer. The view of the famed Vail ski bowls to my left looked the same but I could not see the main gondola house that I was familiar with.
I had my eye on two more runners ahead who I had reeled on running along a muddy but beautiful ridge line of the mountain. They slowed to descend a technical rocky section and for some reason I tried to pass one of them here only to lose my footing and begin crashing to the ground. I tensed all of muscles, ready for the hard impact of flesh on rocks when an outstretched arm hooked under mine and reduced the fall to barely nothing. What a Godsend. Ultrarunning competition sure beats the sharp elbows of a 5K! I thanked him over and over. He got the idea. He literally saved my ass!
I skidded along more muddy trail and spotted asmall Scott Running set up in the distance. Relief once more, time for a break. MY glucose was still on the lower side of safe; 102, so I reached for a fresh can of mountain cold Ginger Ale and consumed it in a flash along with a contradicting warm cup of ramen soup. I talked with the guys volunteering about who had won, where all the main elites had placed etc. It was mind-boggling to me they were all done. How do they cover the course in such a frenetic pace, especially with all the snow and wind conditions. Before, I got too comfortable talking about everyone who had finished, I decided I better get moving to follow suit. I had a two more descents and a climb to go. It sounded better than saying over 16 miles!
The sun was on its way down but as the descent to Minturn was only a few miles to go, I wasn’t concerned. Tiffany would be there ready to pace me and hand me my headlamp in time for the last two or three hours of what was left. My sub-12 pipe-dream would not have called for such use but such is life and here I was just trying to finish at this point. After a mile of running a relatively flat section, I started to become a little nervous. I really hadn’t descended much at all yet where as the sun had.
Red flags signaled a turn off the wide dirt road onto single track. This led to a set of switchbacks through long yellow grass. I didn’t count them but heard later there were 38 switchbacks in total. I was hammering down the mountain here playing a game against the sun. Who would get done first; me to Minturn (aka headlamp HQ) or the sun behind the mountain range. I pushed and pushed the pace. I truly believed that any minute now, I would catch a glimpse of the small ski town below and it would all be fine.
I did catch a glimpse of some early evening lights below. Unfortunately, I estimated the distance at about two miles downhill, an impossible distance before the sun would set. I looked up and saw the sun nestling behind the dark mountain skyline and knew my fate was almost sealed. As I got lower, the trees around me increased. More trees equalled less light. My eyes were fighting hard to see the path, the rocks and roots ahead and to make sure I kept seeing a red flag every once in a while. But then ultimately my fate was sealed for me. I planted my left foot down but it never landed as expected. It kept on going into a hole for another foot or so and my knee gave way slightly to the shock of the landing.
I steadied myself to check my leg hadn’t fallen off. A bit shaken from the surprise hole in the ground, I decided there and then that this was just not my day. I had been hopeful of getting to Minturn by 7pm or at least 7:30. It was now approaching 8 and it was pitch black with no one around. I walked down the trail with no headlamp. I couldn’t tell a long blade of grass from a red flag anymore and was adamant if I came out of this trail head in the wrong place, I would be calling it a day. The course had mentally and physically abused me all day in many different ways.
Walking down the trail in the dark was a bit depressing at first. Why where there no glow sticks or reflectors? I felt like the race was for elites and I had crashed there fast party and didn’t belong. This course was laid out for runners finishing before dusk. Enough of the violins though. I had to think how I could make this joke of a scenario better. I had a MacGyver moment and realized I had the next best thing to a headlamp, the backlight of my watch! I pressed the button and got some minuscule light showing me the way (as long as I kept the watch low to the ground). After 15 seconds my watch blacked out so I had to press it again. In all, I ended up walking down the trail which of course got more and more technical and must have pressed that darn button over two hundred times! I had to laugh at how badly wrong everything was going. A light finally shone from behind me. It was a runner I had passed back at the top of Vail Mountain. He said “How are you doing?”. “Great” I said, “I haven’t got a headlamp” in my most sarcastic tone. And he just flew down the hill! This happened another couple of times. I was the hitch hiker that nobody wanted to acknowledge existed. Then I got a shout. “Do you want to share my light?” “Um, sure.That would be great” I said taken aback. Someone was helping poor old me out. Who else would it have been than my ass saving rock friend. This guy was my guardian angel today!
We walked down the trail together. My new ultra hero Ben (not Kilian anymore) was feeling out of it from the altitude. He was stopping at Minturn. I tried my “But you have X more hours to make it X miles” line but it was of no use. He was physically done for the day. We laughed how we were both having a rough go of it at 10,000 above our usual habitats (Ben lives in Chicago). A flashlight came streaming towards me and Tiffany followed jumping on me. She had decided than rather wait (she had been waiting a while) in Minturn, she would walk up the trail to me and give me my headlamp. This was awesome! Talk about waiting for a bus and then two come along at once. I signed off with my guardian angel Ben and walked with speed and my own light down to the bottom of the trailhead with my favorite pacer.
First things first. I needed warmer clothes. We detoured to the car and I put on another jacket. I did my blood test in the car. The car wasn’t even on and it was so much warmer compared to the outside temperature. My glucose was a perfect 157. Everything was better. We jogged through the main street of Minturn and checked into the aid station. I was looking forward to some soup. No soup. OK, some Coke then. No Coke. The volunteer kindly told me they had both at the next aid station. The next aid station was five miles up the mountain though! OK, everything was not better! UROC was not rocking but I wasn’t done with it.
We left Minturn not very happy. I made do with some Oreo’s. My headlamp was no way near as bright as Tiffany’s and I asked if it had new batteries in it. We stopped at her new-found friends house who were having a campfire watching the race. They knew me and her like we were family! We sat by the fire and changed the batteries. Time was ticking by but right now, my only goal was to finish. I soaked up the heat of the fire while I could and bonded with strangers that seemed to already know everything about me! It would have been as much fun to hang out with them but the job was not over; five miles of up and five miles of down to go.
We climbed the same trail we had just come from. That wasn’t too exciting as I hadn’t forgotten how rocky it was. The five-mile climb was no joke, it was straight up. No switchbacks, no plateaus, a relentless grind up to Eagles Nest aid station at over 10,000 feet. I was making all kinds of weird noises, digging deep to keep a solid pace going. I wanted to get to the top by 16 hours. I knew I still had the smallest of chances of breaking 17 hours and therefore getting a belt buckle to go alongside a finisher’s medal. I hadn’t particularly cared for the sub-17 buckle (finishing before midnight) as I have far more treasured metal from Leadville and Western States. I wasn’t convinced before the race, a buckle was a deserved prize for ‘only’ 100K but now living in the moment of this race I had changed my mind. This was as hard, if not harder than either of my 100 mile races. Being so close to the buckle cut off time gave me a desire to push and go after it.
After a few miles, I saw ahead on the right a handful of yellow lights. I was convinced this was the aid station and made a big fuss out of it to Tiffany. She wasn’t sure. I was almost at the 10,000 feet mark so it made sense. Just a bit more of up and the road would level out and lead to the lights. It was soup time!
I saw a big metal sign up ahead which was a good indicator that it was the beginning, or in my case the end of the trail head. I walked by it and was now standing on an access road. No flags pointed towards the light and neither did they point the other direction. The red flags pointed straight up the steep mound in front. I couldn’t believe my (lack of) luck. Tiffany marched on while I stood there defeated. I was mad at the people in the hut/house, whoever they were and whatever it was. Did they not know their was a 100k death march going on tonight?!
I sulked up the steep grade, one step at a time. I knew as soon as I saw the real aid station it would mean no more climbing. And then on a plateau, far in the distance we could see the lights ahead of Eagles Nest aid station. No. More. Climbing!
We ran towards it and I jumped in a chair. Ramen soup was in my hands moments later. I glanced at my watch to see how things were shaping up; ’16:10′. “We have to go” I called to Tiffany just as she was grabbing some food herself. We were informed it was 4.7 to go, better than 5 I guess. I needed all the help I could get. We would have to average 9-minute miles and if so, I would just make it under 17 hours.
Off we went. Luckily it was on a wide red-clay dirt road that winded down the mountain. Tiffany ran on my left and we both looked for red flags to make sure we didn’t make any wrong turns. A wander off course now would have ended my buckle plan in an instant. I felt like we were really hammering it. “Are we going 7:30 do you think?” I asked her. She kindly made it obvious we were not. Darn my legs must have been trashed because it sure felt like it! Whatever the pace was, it was still hard work even though we were going down.
Winding switchback after winding switchback but no sign of the village lights. Luckily, we both did have some course knowledge (finally). We had been two sevenths of the participants in yesterday’s fun 5K. We knew a blue gate was a 1-mile to go landmark. We passed an area by a gate and Tiffany was sure that was it. I stopped to see what cushion I had to do the final mile in; 22 minutes. I knew we had been flying! We kept going, winding down the road, shouting out when we saw a red flag or when their was a batch of rocks to avoid. But one problem remained. I caught a glimpse of the lights below and knew instantaneously that the finish was well over a mile to go. We had called the finale too early. I guessed it was at least two miles. If I was right, I was still OK but barely.
We ran and ran harder. I didn’t want to miss out by a minute. What hadn’t mattered to me a few hours ago now meant everything all of a sudden. We saw the blue gate ahead; ’16:50′ on the watch she I hit the backlight. A ten-minute mile and it was done. We started passing houses that were now above us rather than below us. We were so close. And then with not much warning, was the finish arch. I turned left and saw the digital clock. The numbers 16:57 beamed at me in neon red.
I crossed the line to the crowd of two. A timekeeper staying warm by her laptop and a guy handing out medals. He gave me my medal and then paused for a long time as I looked at him and wondered if the rumour of sub-17 hours was in fact correct for the buckle. “Oh, and you get one of these by the skin of your teeth”. Man, no need to tease me like that!
I ended up being the very last runner to get a belt buckle from the race. Even though it felt like I had come in dead last, I had most definitely not. The finish rate was 55%. To be on the right side of that felt like its own triumph. I was proud to have finished, to stay in the game even when everything seemed to go wrong for me all day.
I leave UROC knowing I was under prepared for the race. Kilian Jornet used a great quote after his sub-par Western States debut in 2010. “I think when we win a race, we don’t learn so much because everything is perfect. It’s important to lose because that’s when you learn.” I fully appreciate where he is coming from. I never came here to win but I did set lofty goals on myself and fell way short.
All in all, I am proud of my race. It was an absolute sufferfest. I can confidently say, it was the hardest race of my life. It tested me to my maximum and then some more. I have never quit a race and will continue that streak as long as I’m not about to come away from it seriously injured. I want to keep showing the world that you can do anything you want while having diabetes. Even climbing five mountains in the snow at altitude over 100K. It’s a crazy life but someones got to do it!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
A year ago I stepped up to what many regard as a ‘real’ ultramarathon; 50 miles. The race to me was simply known as JFK. I have since learned much of its history. It is the oldest 50 mile foot race in USA, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and implemented by President Kennedy in 1963 to make sure all military officers were fit for war. The course has stayed the same each year since. Starting out in the small town of Boonsboro, MD, the race is 15.5 miles of road climbing and Appalachian Trail (AT), just over a marathon on the C&O canal towpath and ending with 8 miles of rolling road hills into Williamsport, MD. I learned a lot from my first 50 in 2011, mostly don’t assume your body will keep going without fueling or pacing! I was however ecstatic with my 7 hours 13 minutes and 33rd overall. How could I not be? It was a PR!
I returned to this historic race for precisely that reason. This year was the 50th running of the oldest 50 mile race in the country. I signed up in Spring for one of the 1,000 places against 10,000 people and was lucky to get a place. I think I put about six stamps on my envelope come to think about it, just to make sure I had paid enough postage and maybe it would get there even quicker!
Race Day: November 17th 2012
I woke up at 5am to temperatures just above freezing that would rise to a high of 52. Perfect running conditions. First, great weather in Leadville (no thunderstorms), then Chicago (no heat) and now JFK. The weather gods have been kind to me this year. Walking the half mile from Boonsboro school to the start line on the main street bundled up in five layers, I had the intention of starting the race with a long-sleeve top over my Brooks ID singlet and wear hat and gloves. I scanned what over runners were wearing and decided to scrap my extra layers and go singlet and sleeves from the start. A final pre-race blood test had me at 240. My glucose had risen from 143 at breakfast. Not ideal and a slight miscalculation of bolus intake. I already had my hand-held bottle filled with Gatorade which I now wished was just water. I poured half of it away, upset with myself for not having water to replace it with and/or having a better starting blood glucose. Probably both. I increased my basal rate on my insulin pump and knew I could get water at aid stations to stay hydrated. I would figure it out, I always seem too.
The great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt fired the starter pistol to get us under way at 7am sharp. I sat right behind the two favorites; Max King and David Riddle before they quickly pushed up to the very front. As the top 25 of us quickly took off from the main pack, I immediately wished I had kept my gloves as the cold wind rushed over my hands.
The pace was fast, faster than I had thought possible. 7:02 at mile 1. I had studied my Garmin data from JFK 2011 and knew I was too aggressive in the first half of the race which led to a breakdown in the second half with cramps through miles 32-38. So why was I running a 7-minute mile?! In my defense, the start of the race is a good time to jockey for position before the trail section and road miles are always going to be quicker than trails.
My plan for this year’s race was 8:30 average pace through the first 15 miles and 7:30’s for the last 35. This would equate to a 6 hour 30 minute race. Plan B was: 6:43. Why so precise? A 30 minute improvement from 2011 sounded nice and Plan C was to go sub-7 hours. My training seven weeks post-Chicago consisted of not much training. Rest had become the new mileage. My longest run had been 16 easy miles.
We soon climbed steeply for a mile and jumped onto the first section of trail. As the sun rose on my left, the shining light flickered through the trees making it hard to see the trail but at the same time, was one of those beautiful images that remind you why you are a runner. This trail section was fairly wide and still a frenetic pace for 50 miles. An aid station appeared so I grabbed a cup of water as planned to balance out the effort of the first few miles.
We hit a road section again, in the woods now, and climbed again, this time steeper to get to the highest point of the course. Ellie Greenwood was a few yards ahead of me and I studied her as she chose when to run and when to walk the hill. I copied her. My average pace had fallen to 10/min miles but I trusted what I was doing. This is the two-time Western States 100 champion as well as numerous other amazing achievements in the sport. Others around her chose to run the whole way up. I knew I would see the majority of these people again before the race was over.
A familiar looking volunteer from last year pointed at a narrow gap into the woods and I now knew we were onto the magical AT section for 10 miles. This is by far the toughest part of the course, not because of elevation changes but the jagged rocks buried under and around large brown leaves. The pace now fell into that 8:30 range but the energy expenditure felt like 7:30’s. As tough as it I say it was, it is and will always be the most fun part too.
I joined forces with a familiar face, Derek Schultz on the AT, a fellow Brooks ID runner with a very strong ultra background (Laurel Highlands Ultra course record holder). He bombed the downhills and I caught him on the flats as we shared stories for a few miles. We passed the JFK 50 legend Eric Clifton in his trademark outrageous running tights (neon pink this year) and Derek chatted to him while I closed the gap on a pack of three ahead.
I tagged on the back and we became a solid four, staying in order passing the early 5am starters. The last few miles of AT are where the rocks get trickier as your brain gets more tired. It’s also a place that has put a nice dent in my right shin for life from my fall last year.
Just as I thought to myself I may just get off this trail without falling, down I went at the feet of two men from the 5am start. They were staring straight down at me as I moaned in some serious pain. One of them said to the other “That one looked like it really hurt” as if they had been hanging out at the third corner of NASCAR all day comparing car crashes.
They were right. That one did really hurt. My left foot got tucked under a rock and down I went hard on my right side, my right knee connecting perfectly with a rock embedded on the trail waiting to cut me open. I very gingerly got up and got handed my water bottle that must have flown off course during the downfall. I looked down to see if the pain was actually warranted and saw a nice line of claret over the notch of my tibia and was relieved. I mean, if you’re going to fall and moan about it, you want to see proof it hurt right! I hobbled, I walked and finally I ran again and slowly got back into my stride, relived it had not been any worse.
At 14.5 miles, I was now functioning like nothing had happened back there. I descended the steep Weverton Cliffs switchbacks down to the Potomac River. A 1,000ft drop in less than a mile. There were lots of 5am runners in this section so I had to communicate well to get by without any more drama. If the switchbacks had a tree on the inside, I grabbed it and swung around the turn without losing too much speed. Clearly the fall, had not hurt my confidence.
I heard lots of cheers below and soon ran through a large crowd of spectators including Michael Chu as I got close to the C&O canal towpath section. At the aid station prior to this 26.3 mile stretch of flat monotonous running was Tiffany, being a trooper running around Maryland all day supporting me. She greeted me with a huge smile and handed me my blood tester. I pricked my finger, blood strip already set up and got my reading: 275. 27…what?
My glucose went up after 15.5 miles? I filled my water bottle with water and kept on going. I analyzed in my head why 275. I had thought that maybe on the trail I was going low around miles 10-13 so knocked back two gels, which in hindsight I never needed. I readjust my basal level from -60% to -20% and would see where my glucose was again at mile 27.
I checked my average pace for the first third of the race; 8:25. Just faster than I had planned but I was happy with that. Now was time to get into my faster stride. I was hitting 7:38 average for the first few miles of the canal. Not quite the 7:30’s I would need for Plan A but it was still early in the race and I found my pace to be manageable. The most important thing was not to run a mile faster than 7:30 even though I felt good. I passed a pair of runners who made a comment “The race doesn’t start until mile 30”. It made me think. I actually put that in my head but changed it to mile 35. I still remember how quickly the body can fall apart from miles 30-35 with that ‘still X miles to go’ mentality.
Just shy of marathon distance, I saw a deer ahead on the canal path. I’ve always enjoyed seeing them while out on the trail. As I got closer, I waited for the deer to see me and bolt but it never did. I ran around it giving the guy some space but clearly not enough as it begun to follow me and then decided to chase me! When did deer ever chase humans! My pace went into marathon mode for a few yards until it either felt sorry for me or just got bored with this running thing.
I then teamed up with a human. We chased each other back and forth but not like the deer. We decided it would be easier to say hi, acknowledge we were running the same pace and run together. He (Nick), like many others in the race was part of the military, based at West Point, NY. We ran into a main aid station at 27 to lots of cheers, still chatting away. Tiffany was there again, ready to help me with my blood test; 250. Well, going down but still not low enough to start really eating much. I gave her my handheld water bottle, no need for that anymore as now aid stations were frequent along the canal path (every 4 miles or so) and I was carrying gels in my compression short pockets anyway (if I would ever need them), so I didn’t need to be lugging around Gatorade on heavy arms. Tiffany told me we were in 26th and 27th place.
I caught back up to Nick and we carried on at our pace. We discussed our JFK races from last year, both with similar stories of good but not great performances. He was way ahead of his time goal so when he stopped to take an S-cap and said he would catch me back up and never did, I wasn’t too surprised.
I hit 50K and knew the next few miles would be the toughest mentally. There would be aid at mile 34 and the next main one at 38. The aid station at mile 34 never seemed to come as the long left bend around the Potomac River just kept on going and going with no one in sight. I almost wanted to see another deer! My pace was now slipping towards the 8 minute mark and I wasn’t feeling great. I knew I wasn’t going to cramp like last year; I had been taking two S-Caps on the hour like clockwork. It was my sugar. This time, I knew it for a fact. I could feel the symptoms of a hypo, not just the effort of running 34 miles. I finally saw a dozen Santa and elf hats and an area decorated in tinsel. What a great sight! A volunteer asked what I wanted and I said “Everything!” I grabbed two cups of Coke, M&M’s, orange slices, pretzel sticks and some cookies. I told them, this was the best aid station on the course. Partly because it was decked out for Christmas but also because mile 34 of 50 miles sucks! It’s far enough into the race that you’re really hurting but still too far enough from the finish, you can’t get too excited about it being ‘almost’ over. I played games in my head; 8 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. ‘Lets go’ I told myself.
I left the aid station swiftly and munched on the food. I had three cookies left. I ate one but quickly realized I was not carrying any more liquid. Their was no way I could eat the other two cookies without getting a really dry throat. I decided to keep them by putting one in each of my short pockets. I don’t know why I did this, I had gels on standby if need be but laughed to myself as I felt like the Cookie Monster taking on the JFK50! Churning out these mid-30’s miles was real agony. I knew a 6:30 finish time was off the table now but as I turned a corner onto a long straight away, I saw a great sight; three runners way ahead. I knew I would eventually get to them. This image gave me new energy. Seeing them and my mile 34 aid station intake made me feel so much better. The pace came back to 7:35-40 and I closed the gap gradually. Eventually I passed them and knew I was now closing in on the top 20 of the JFK50. This became a new goal in itself, one that I did not plan or think about at all pre-race.
I kept my placing but felt my energy and pace dip again as the final aid station on the C&O canal path was not too far away. I pulled out one of the cookies from my shorts and ate it with an energy gel, about 50 grams of simple and complex carbs as one. My mistake of experiencing two hypos close together was that I had tweaked my basal rate of insulin between miles 27-38 and I had been too aggressive to bring my glucose level down.
At the aid station, Tiffany asked how I was doing. My reply was negative for the first time “I’m so tired”. Rightly so, 38 miles is, well 38 miles. But it wasn’t the distance. My glucose was 90. Proof that I had been fighting hypos. I took a Gatorade from her and downed it in seconds and grabbed some Jelly Belly Sport Beans.
I pushed on but still didn’t feel great. The third place woman passed me and I watched her as she ran with an effortless stride (unlike me). I realized she was hurting too, just not showing it. I kept her in sight and as my glucose rose from the Gatorade and sport beans, my body felt better and I noticed on my watch that there were now only 10 miles left. That’s nothing, I said! 2 miles of canal path, 8 miles of roads. Dig deep. And I did. 7:09, 7:07 for the last two canal path miles.
I had caught back up and re-passed her, promising her beer and pizza at the end for helping me. By keeping her in sight, we had both closed the gap on some other runners who were now also behind us. One of which was third place runner Jeff Buechler from last years 2011 JFK. I felt bad for him, his leg must have blown up or something to be this far back from the leaders.
My pace was now really going up in gear. My glucose felt like it was back to normal and I was about to hit the last section of the course; the rolling asphalt hills. The part I like to forget, is the immediate climb off the C&O canal path which is 200m of pure agony. Your pace goes from hare to tortoise as you clamber up it. I didn’t dare look at my heart rate data but I’m sure it was close to max. I reached the crest with no desire to go any further until I saw a runner ahead. As I ran along the farm roads, one turn then showed me that after him there was no one left to catch. With under 8 miles to go, I was convinced this would be my last place to take. I contemplated sitting on him until one mile to go but quickly realized he was suffering far worse than me so passed by, wished him well and I truly felt sorry for him even though we had over a 10K to go. I asked him if anyone was ahead. He said no. Why would he have said yes? He knew it would only motivate me to kick on. Smart runner, dumb question from me.
I crested a hill as I opened the gap on him. He was right, no one. Just me and the road and an excruciating 7 miles to go! I chose the 8.5 road miles to think of my uncle and his battle with cancer using each mile as a year of his fight. It really helped me because I was absolutely exhausted. I went past an aid station and grabbed a cup of Gatorade to top up my glucose level. I refused to have another hypo now and didn’t care so much if I went the other way. I even threw away my last cookie like a pro cyclist would throw away a water bottle before a big climb. Every ounce mattered to me. I’m pretty sure looking back, that throwing the cookie away didn’t do anything for me!
For the first and only time on the course, we had mile markers. They were traditional wooden blocks by the side of the road with the number of miles to go. All on my own and ready to be done, all I wanted, was to see the next one with a 6 on it. As I closed in on the mile 6 board, the wind knocked it over on its back as I ran past. I laughed at that one. This was exactly how I felt! I hadn’t looked at my watch for a while. My pace at this point was what it was, meaning I had no more speed to give. It was just under 8-min pace which I knew would put me around 6:43 finish time (Plan B goal). I focused hard to remain sub-8 minute pace.
With 5 miles to go, I noticed a guy in the distance running on an adjoining road. He looked the part. Light shoes, skinny, skimpy shorts. The tell-tale signs of a fast runner. He joined the race road and ran ahead of me. After having some time to really think about this ironic scenario, genius me realized he was not a random runner, he was the next guy ahead of me! I had to assume he went the wrong way or took a pit stop. Either way, I was on his heels and soon he was another one behind me.
I turned right in between a row of small houses and saw a police car stopping traffic. I knew this was mile 46. I also knew I wasn’t going to see Tiffany here but really wanted too. This pain was really getting unbearable now. Then, of course she jumped into the street cheering me on. It was awesome. My energy was again lifted and the road was now coned off to traffic with the final 4 mile stretch.
At three miles to go, I hit another long straight and I could see three more runners ahead. One was Ian Torrence who I had run with in the pack of 4 back on the AT, hours earlier. I had to pinch myself that I was going to maybe catch this guy. He is a few years older and maybe not his old speed but this guy is a real name in ultra running.
And so it was, I chalked off more guys. My plan to not run hard early and blow up was working. My tank was close to empty but I had been slowly improving my place for most of the race. I had not been passed properly since early in the AT section.
I climbed a sweeping hill to the final aid station at the top. I remembered this and knew I was one mile shy of the end…until the volunteer shouted “1.5 miles to go!” Oh well. What’s half a mile over 50.2 miles right? I turned left to roll downhill on a main road and glanced to my left to see the last person I had passed way back and no threat to me now. I could have eased off the pace at this point and kept my place but I knew I was close to a 6:40 finish time. I made that my mission as I clocked off a 7:10 mile 49.
I climbed a slight hill on the final straight and saw the finish in the far distance. What a sight! I pushed all the way home and made it; 6:40:38 an average pace of 8 minute miles. I had just taken 33 minutes off last year’s time. What a difference a year makes in my short ultra running career.
I got helped over to a chair by the finish line where I got to celebrate with Tiffany and was also greeted to another familiar face; ultra runner Mark Rodriguez, who came out to watch. I did a post-run blood test for the first time in the comfort of sitting down; 123. A man stood over us and said “I like to see those numbers” explaining further that he was a doctor. We agreed. It was the first good one of the day!
I walked into the Williamsport school to go and take a shower. I hid from the first aid medics that would have loved to play with my gashed knee (I learnt my lesson from this last year!), chat with Ellie Greenwood (by far the best female ultra runner in the world right now) who enjoyed the fact that my last name was England like no tomorrow and met with Max King and David Riddle too. Top ultra runners but better still, top people who genuinely care about their fellow runners as much as they care about their own performances. JFK next year? Maybe. I prefer the mountains to flat courses. If I do go back, I have to consider breaking into the Top 10 males as my goal. We will see. With this much fun and support on the course, why not? For now, rest and more rest before my inaugural race for Team Type 1 in the California International Marathon on December 2nd.
Winfield – Twin Lakes (50 – 60.5)
With Rui by my side, we strolled out of Winfield. I was now wearing gators over my shoes as I was sick of wasting time, stopping to remove stones. I was digesting food on the road back to the trail section so it was a pretty slow start. Even so, I was excited to show Rui Hope Pass. He would be my witness to how tough this was! I had two concerns going on. My stomach wasn’t happy and climbing Hope from the south side was going to be a steeper grade and test me.
The trail was a little congested with runners coming towards us making their way to Winfield. An unwritten rule is that whoever is in front has right of way, so it got under my skin when some of these folks didn’t seem to care about this and made me wait for them to pass. It reminded me of the NYC subway system, a complete free for all with people getting on the train before allowing people to get off. When the terrain was flat or down, I ran, if it was uphill or slightly technical underfoot, I went back to walking.
We reached the sharp left turn, the start of a 2.5 mile climb up approximately 2,400ft. Embedded rocks acted as steps and skinny trees acted as a handrail to propel me up the mountain. When these natural objects weren’t available, it was good old-fashioned steady relentless steps, the ‘no stopping’ rule again in full force.
Rui reminded me to drink water. I guess the altitude wasn’t making me believe I was sweating and therefore threw my brain off the necessity to hydrate. Also as we climbed, the temperature was dropping, another factor as to why I wasn’t dying of thirst. I had a sip or so every time he said it but it was not easy. Eating and/or drinking going up is tough. You’re trying to take down energy or fluids while your body is going up. Not a great combination.
About halfway up the climb, Rui pulled me to the side of the trail to eat. My glucose was in the low 200’s so we opted for some potato chips, carbs without the sugar. This was also the best food source to fight off nausea as well, so it had a double effect at 11,000ft. I took down two chips real slowly. I’m pretty adamant my face looked no different from when I was 7 years old refusing to eat my greens while my Nana told me how good they were for me! Rui was doing a good job playing Nana. He didn’t let up. He made me eat several more before allowing me to continue the climb.
As a big group came towards us up the climb, I was down to the last chip. We didn’t want to get stuck behind this group so we jumped back on the trail, onwards and very much upwards. The surrounding trees soon thinned out which meant we were close to the top (if you count a mile as close). We climbed a section where it was hands and feet stuff before getting onto the switchbacks to the top.
A few runners were sitting down with their patient pacers. I gave them a high-five or a tap on the leg to try to get them going but refused to focus too much on their agony, it could be me any minute if I let my brain think about. The climb was now really tough with the thin mountain air in full effect. Certain parts involved climbing on tippy toes. If you were to put your heel down, you would have fallen backwards. I was playing real life Snakes and Ladders and I refused to land on any snakes! Rui paced slightly ahead and we were in a groove rolling double sixes all the way up.
For the first time in the race, I felt rain. On went the rain jackets. I borrowed one from Francis only the day before. It was a thicker jacket than the one I planned to use. I wasn’t motivated to throw it on because of the rain though, this was just drizzle to a Brit. The reason lay in the temperature drop. It was significant and the winds were now swirling all around us.
We hit the top of Hope Pass. We looked back, we looked forward. Such incredible scenery. I instinctively grabbed a rock to keep as a memento.
Rui adjusted his jacket as the wind was kicking our asses all over the place. His brand new cap flew off his head and he could only watch it as it flew away. He thought it was cool rather than getting annoyed at his misfortune. I didn’t want to hang around to lose my hat so off I went descending the trail. I was pretty confident he would catch up!
It was half a mile to Hopeless aid station. I had run further than ever in my life while climbing Hope Pass twice. A guy called Donny told me Thursday night “Don’t quit, you’re going to want to quit. Probably around mile 55”. Donny couldn’t have been more wrong. Me and Rui were two big kids flying down this famous mountain without a care in the world. We startled a few runners ahead with our enthusiasm and energy. Should I have held back a little bit? Maybe but I wasn’t going to win this thing, I was here to enjoy the experience and I was most definitely doing that.
Hopeless aid station was full of runners refilling water bottles, getting hot soup or fixing their feet. We stopped and I did a blood test; 193. I took off my rain jacket and grabbed some water and a cup of soup. I wanted to keep the descent going to bring the glucose down but Rui again held the reins on me and told me to eat before we continued. Besides, when would we next eat soup next to llamas again?! My stomach was already feeling better than back at Winfield. My pacers persistent caloric intake was working, even though my brain was saying ” just run”.
We thanked the volunteers and said our goodbyes. We had 3 miles of descending to do. Without doubt, this section was the most fun. Not too steep or too technical so we upped the pace all the way down making up some time from the outbound section, whizzing past cautious runners. As Rui was ahead I had a path to follow. If it looked good I followed, if he had to move his feet out of a tricky situation, I took a different route.
What felt like sub-7 pace was actually 8:30’s. The average pace of last years winner Ryan Sandes was 10/min miles for the whole race so if I could just sort my climbing out I’ll one day start cashing checks for having this much fun! Here’s to dreaming. The trail widened and flattened out as we reached open meadows. This meant the river crossing was near and I was far too excited to share this experience with Rui. He wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as me to run through the iced cold water. It was about 7:30pm, sunset. I guess he had a point that cold feet with no sun isn’t the best mix. But we had no choice!
I went first and showed him how much fun it was. I ran through as fast as possible. It seemed to have got deeper than four hours ago and I had forgotten there were two parts to it. The second part, even deeper. What a great way to stay alert!
A couple of girls were running alongside us. The pacer of their group had a radio hanging off her backpack with M83 playing. I ribbed Rui for not having one of these as we ran into Twin Lakes with them, laughing as the music blared. I don’t know what Rui did, but I was feeling so much better after that stretch. I was ready for fresh clothes, some food and my next pacer, 49 years young, 2:41 marathoner, Frankie Bubble aka Francis.
Twin Lakes to Fish Hatchery (60.5 – 76.5)
I sat down and had a large choice of what to eat. Francis and Keila had gone off to buy me sandwiches from a deli (god knows where they found one!) Savory food items were something we did not factor for as much as we should have. Complex carbs with fat and protein. This was ideal food to put on some weight while not spiking my blood glucose. I grabbed a grilled cheese sandwich and some chips as roadies. The one definite savory item that was working for me provided by the aid stations was the Ramen soup with noodles and crushed crackers. Never try something new in a race. Screw it. 100 miles was new and it was working out just fine, the same way I borrowed Francis’s jacket over Hope Pass.
After 60 miles and more importantly, two river crossings it was also time for a wardrobe change. Off came the shoes and compression socks. I looked for blisters although I felt confident this wasn’t that necessary a procedure as my feet felt pretty good. I found about five, oh the power of adrenaline! I slapped on Vaseline, put on new socks and a fresh pair of Cascadia’s. This pair actually belonged to Francis, another late decision. We realized how little give the trail road gave from our Thursday shake out run and my own spare shoes; Brooks Pure Grit (a light weight trail shoe) and Brooks Ghosts (a neutral road shoe) wouldn’t be as suitable. Thank god we were both 11.5!
I changed leukaemia T-shirts, threw on my long sleeve Brooks top and my thin weatherproof Brooks jacket. Lastly, on went the wooly hat and the headlamp. I didn’t think I would need this until the end of this section but it was getting slowly getting dark. Off we went saying goodbye to my parents, Rui and Keila.
This 16 mile section was known as being the most runnable but first we had to climb. I told Francis a statistic I remembered about the race. If you make it out of Twin Lakes inbound, you finish the race. Hope Pass was over with. If he was worried about my mental state, he needn’t of as I confidently told him that. I felt like I was back in the game and the sub-25 buckle was still very much a tangible goal.
I had forgotten that this ascending section was quite long before I could try to run. The plan was to knock out 16/min miles for 10 miles (to Half Pipe aid) and then 14’s into Fish which was flat for 6 miles. My blood glucose was hovering around the 200’s and my caloric intake was still not hitting 500 calories between aid stations but my stomach was trying its best to understand what I was trying to get done out here!
We hit double track trail which was great news. We could run side by side on a track each. We could run! And run we did, at least that’s what it felt like to me in the pitch black with our two headlamps and a flashlight to guide us. I drank a lot more here. Why did i start to drink more now? Probably because it was flatter terrain, I was running and I knew I needed to put on weight for the dreaded next weigh in, especially as I was still under-eating. That had to be at Fish Hatchery.
We arrived at the aid station feeling good, looking good, talking all the way there. Half Pipe sure was a busy Saturday night hang out for the middle of nowhere. Lots of runners looked far too happy to be sitting down and chilling for my liking. I said to Francis, let’s make this a quick stop. I chugged two cups of water, grabbed some fruit and Ramen soup. Maybe Ramen soup will sponsor me for my next 100? That’s right, I was definitely not in a “never again” kind of mood, this was fun, this was what I had trained so hard for over the last six months.
Off we went for 5.6 miles of runnable miles to go. Francis kept encouraging me by telling me the average pace was dropping quickly and we were heading towards the planned pace for the section. We passed through a crew section which was pretty lively. We didn’t use it for Team England and I was glad. My crew needed some sleep and me and Francis were having a grand old-time anyway.
The dirt path road turned a corner and we saw car lights in the distance. It was route 24, the main spine road through Leadville that crew cars had been using to hit up all of the aid stations. Then we saw closer car lights and I knew that was the asphalt road that led me 2 miles into Fish Hatchery. I went for another sip of water from my bladder. It was mostly air.
Rather than waste time and pour water from Francis’s bladder to mine, we adopted the scuba diving ‘buddy breathing‘. He tucked me under his wing as I took water from his mouthpiece whenever I needed it. We had a good laugh at how ridiculous this looked yet no one was actually around to witness it.
Next came the realization I was still wasn’t eating enough food for the weight watchers medics eagerly waiting for me. I ate the second half of the grilled cheese sandwich and some chocolate. This was the plan. Eat and definitely don’t pee in the last miles coming into Fish. I was also now adopting Francis’s warmer jacket as a fourth layer over my backpack. Apart from a water bottle sticking out of my chest, it would take an eagle-eyed medic to realize I was wearing my backpack under the jacket (the crazy ideas you think of at midnight!). I also had on my hat, headlamp and two pairs of gloves. After all I was in the Rockies!
We heard some wild Texas music up ahead. Wow, the aid station is pumping out some Cotton-eye Joe pretty hard we thought. Then we realized it was two southern dudes doing their thing to motivate the runner. We had buddy breathing and ideas to cheat the scales, they had cowboy music. Two different ways to pass the time and entertain ourselves!
We ran into the aid station. The pros had all finished and I’m sure a boatload had not returned from Winfield either due to time cut offs or pure exhaustion. I ran into the food area alone. Frankie had done his shift and done it awesomely. I looked for the dreaded scales left and right. Nowhere. I walked ahead. Nothing. Should I ask someone? By the time I considered that I was out of the aid station and back with Francis, Rui and Keila ready for her night shift. No weigh-in, after all that deceiving and well thought out plan!
Fish Hatchery to May Queen (76.5 to 86.5)
My feet felt fine. No need to address them or change shoes. We filled my empty water bladder back up to the max 50oz, reloaded the hand-held with Gatorade and tried to eat a granola bar and some fruit. From the calculations we had done, if this could be a slightly faster than planned 10 miles, Rui would have the chance to whip me back to the finish in sub-25. We all believed it was on.
Keila and I walked out of Fish Hatchery shortly before 1am. I was eating (nibbling) and needed time to digest it but unfortunately I now had an even more painful area to deal with than my stomach. I was chaffing in my groin really bad. I know, not pleasant reading. Trust me, it was far more uncomfortable trying to knock out the last 23 miles in the discomfort. I had been adding Vaseline at every aid station all day and night but for whatever the reason, my body and my Salomon compression shorts were not getting along down there. I’ll leave it at that.
The road rolled up and down, to the right and then dipped left onto a dirt path. This was all very runnable stuff but I wasn’t running now. I just walked it as fast as possible towards the start of pipeline climb to the peak of Sugarloaf Pass. I knew the climb would be slow and grueling so I justified that walking towards it would converse what little energy I had left for the long climb. Neither Keila or myself knew the exact distance, we just knew it had several false summits.
The first section was straight up for one mile. We saw a spectacular view of headlamps ahead of us. From memory, this climb then turned left and kept bending around the mountain for at least another two miles. Just like Hope Pass, I told Keila this wasn’t the time to focus on the average pace plan for the ten-mile stretch. This was about what pace could I go without having to stop.
The pace was good. The path up was very smooth if you discounted the huge cracks we kept jumping over in the trail where water must gush down at a frenetic pace during thunderstorms up here. We were however lucky with the lack of rain for the race. The straight up section was done in no time. After two more miles, I found I was only being passed by runners/pacers with trekking poles. I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of these accessories in ‘running’ events. Did they work? Absolutely. We’re they anything to do with running? Absolutely not. I asked a guy who seemed experienced (yes he had trekking poles!) how much further until we hit the summit? He confidently said one mile.
One mile later I was still disappointed that it wasn’t the top. People with trekking poles are also liars! Keila felt my frustration as I would say “this is definitely it” for the umpteenth time. I wish I never had asked anyone. I wish I had said at the bottom it was at least 5 miles of climbing and then I wouldn’t have got myself into this emotional mess of false summits. I was warned but the newbie in me didn’t listen or research this section enough.
Finally, we made the top. It was now freezing. I still had my two pairs of gloves on and four layers so felt warm enough however. This was now the time I had been waiting for to descend the remaining miles into May Queen. I had told Keila “don’t you worry, when we get to the top of this, we are going to run all the way down to the aid station”. The words were positive but somewhere over Sugarloaf Pass, I let my brain do some more calculations. Even if I could have run down this section, I would have needed a sub-2 hour half marathon finish to get the bigger belt buckle; the under 25 hour finish. Francis had told me earlier that it helps to be really, really stupid in these races, meaning don’t think, just do.
Unfortunately for me, my brain would not shut down. I had run over 80 miles and I was still alert, still calculating, still not being sick! But atop Sugarloaf, my brain told my legs, forget it, that big buckle is not happening, not this time anyway. My legs went into complete sleep mode and would not run. I wanted to, I wanted to so bad but their was nothing. I knew I was going to finish, even if I just walked in. I think i also and knew that if I had tried to run in for the last 18 miles to a sub-25, I risked a very high chance ending up in hospital for a long time. So, I was caught between two not very appealing options and dragged ass to finish in that huge five-hour window.
We walked and talked all the way downhill on very runnable road to single track to road where a row of cars were parked just before May Queen. We almost kept on going but then realized one of the cars was Team England! It was 4am and it was now the coldest part of the race so far. Sorry Keila, I gave you ten miles of walking but you sure helped me keep moving all the way.
May Queen to Finish (86.5 – 100)
Francis had the chair ready by the side of the car and was open for business! “What do you need Stevie?” I probably muttered something sarcastic like “to finish this race”. Rui was bundled up head to toe. This was August 19th right? My Mum also looked unrecognizable in numerous layers shaking her hands. This wasn’t triumphant shaking, this was freezing shaking. I pleaded with her to get in the car which Keila had already done to get warm where the heat was on full blast. She finally listened to my advice. Looking back at this scene now reminds me how much determination and positive energy I had the whole time. We got a great tip from Gary Brimmer the day before the race; don’t let him (me) see the car ever. We liked it. We also didn’t use it and it never crossed my mind even for a spilt second to jump in the warm car and call it quits. I had six hours to complete a half marathon and therefore complete my first 100 miler in Leadville, the highest ultra marathon in the States. You could have shown me a warm bed, a shortcut, a free pass to the finish line. Would not have made a difference. I was going the way I came and Rui was going to get me there, absolutely no question.
Off we marched down the road into May Queen aid station. Again, it was jam-packed. Runners camping out trying to get warm, taking their time, some contemplating if they would ever get going again. I wanted something hot unsurprisingly. I said to Rui I wanted Ramen soup and a cup of cocoa. He advised against this combination so I changed up the menu and just went for the cocoa. A nice hot roadie with enough sugar to keep me from having any hypo problems. We broke this last section into two. 7 miles of single track along Turquoise Lake until we would see Francis again at the boat basin (a crew area).
This stretch was my real low point. The sub-25 game had long gone as we walked the trail by the lake. What I remembered as easy trail running on the outbound had now become a really hilly and technical section. I started to get dizzy and told Rui to slow down (he was going as slow as possible) in case I passed out. I tried to munch on some potato chips and sip water as this was the best cure. It worked but then repeated itself every few hundred yards. I think we knocked out those seven miles at about 25/minute per mile. Sounds impossible right? I guess I like making the impossible possible but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind! Rui told me I looked like Iron Man. I corrected him and said I was Ultra Man! The humor didn’t last long. When I saw a face in a rock I knew I needed to wake up fast. I guess after 25 hours I had finally become tired.
Just as I had told Keila earlier, I told Rui as soon as we get beyond Boat Basin, the trail flattens out and the road widens up to the finish. I promised him I would get faster. I felt this huge amount of guilt that he was having to go so slow in such cold conditions when only hours before we were two kids flying down Hope Pass at 8:30 pace.
Before I could start thinking too much about how far Boat Basin was, Francis appeared on the trail. What a great sight! The car and that comfy chair couldn’t be far away. We high-fived and kept walking. Only a handful of spectators were siting outside by the lake watching the sunrise. My Mum and Keila were passed out in the car but Francis had it all under full control. I needed more Vaseline I exclaimed! I sat in the chair for a while with the throw over me to try to get warmer. My sugar was over 200 but I didn’t care. Better than dealing with a hypo at this stage of the game. Runners were passing through slowly. I noticed that none of them looked cold. They also had less layers on than me. That was it. To hell with all these layers! I took off my track suit pants, gloves and one of the jackets. If I was cold now, I would just to have to move faster!
We left and immediately walked at a really brisk pace. It was probably around 15/min miles. Rui said “We are going to walk like bad asses all the way into the finish line and take back some places that belonged to me!” A random woman sitting right there said “Hell yeah!” We had no clue she was there but were amused she was a ‘fly on the wall’ to our crazy army talk!
Off we went. The first few steps were so excruciating, I cannot find clean enough words to describe the pain. But as soon as I got into astride, the pain numbed (slightly). It sure felt better going faster than 25/minute miles. I hadn’t gone this fast since running into Twin Lakes over 17 miles ago. We marched down a dirt road as the sun kept rising. We were passing people. One guy, then another, then one more appeared. The best part about this was they were still in running motion, we were power walking and it was no contest.
Rui knew it was 3.5 miles of gradual uphill to the finish. I had forgotten this part completely. He told me to swing my arms as if I was running while maintaining the brisk walking technique. Who was this guy? An English teacher or a marine? Our pace went from 15/min miles to 12:15’s with this technique! More people were passed.
This wasn’t to say it was easy. Far from it. I was real beat up doing this but happier than dragging ass into the finish. He had a game plan and I trusted him with my life. Occasionally Rui would ask the random spectator the actual time. His plan was foiled when one person responded “You can break 28 if you keep going like that”. I liked his plan, until he told me we would need to run the last mile. The last mile was 2/3 uphill and he wanted me to run it?! Would have been so easy, if only I hadn’t run about 104 before it!!
He firmly shouted “Go!” and we started running. Another runner said “You’ve got plenty of time” referring to the 30 hour limit. He obviously didn’t have a Rui pacing him home! After 100 yards of running though, I stopped and went back to walking hoping Rui wouldn’t notice. He turned and said “Come on!”. For one of the rarest times in my life I said the words I hate most “I can’t”. He didn’t let up and said it again and again. “Rui, you know me, right? If I could I would but I just can’t. Sub-28, 28 and change. It’s the same thing. Let me enjoy the final mile rather than kill myself. Their will be other times.” He sighed and gave in to my plea, maybe because I implied this wasn’t going to be a one and done 100 mile show. But what a pacer. This guy had never paced anyone before and here he was with these techniques and motivational words all the way home. 4 hours to cover 13 miles. I owe you lots of pacing brother!
We met Francis and Keila with about 3/4 mile to go on E 6th Street. I whipped off my backpack, jacket and top. I had to showcase the leukaemia T-shirt for the final stretch. Their was no need to run anymore but I instinctively did anyway. I ran that 3/4 mile as hard as I could with my three amazing pacers alongside me.
At just after 8am, I stepped onto the famous red carpet and broke the tape, a nice touch the organizers do for all official finishers. My eyes swelled with tears as I sent a little prayer up to heaven to my uncle. 28 hours and 2 minutes. I received my medal from a woman I recognized from the Leadville Race Series store. We hugged as if we knew each other for years, not two days. Then I was surrounded by my pacers for high fives, big smiles and more hugs and then my Mum which was such a special moment. We didn’t say much but I’m sure we were both thinking of what I had achieved in honor of Uncle Dave. Medics took me into a tent for a mandatory check up and weigh in. I was up 2lbs from Winfield, must have been all that buddy breathing with Frankie!
I left the finish area staggering out. Moments earlier I had just run across the finish line but now my body was in complete shut down. The brain is so powerful, its scary. I found a space on a bench and dumped myself onto it guzzling cold water next to Rui who looked as beat as me. He had run a marathon in total and not eaten or slept well for a long time either. That’s the thing about crewing/pacing, you are as tired as the runner and I fully appreciated that and everyone’s commitment. I did my post-race blood test; 178, OK, great. No need for any sugar or insulin, my brain could shut down. Francis got the car and we drove back to the hotel. Although it was only half a mile away I still managed to fall asleep during the ride! I got carried up the stairs to the room and I crawled into bed, fully clothed. Out cold with a smile on my face. Finishing is winning? Darn right, especially in Leadville.
Now that it’s all done and dusted, I’ve had lots of my friends ask “What was the worst part about it?” That’s a pretty negative question and my answer is relatively short. If they were to ask me “What was the best part?”, they would have heard what you just have read. Everything about it was the best part. From the training, the leukaemia fundraising, the build up races, the research, my friends and parents coming out to Leadville and of course finishing it. My place was 169 out of 364 finishers. A very low 45% completion rate. Those numbers make me feel proud, I’m forever part of the Leadville family as are my parents, Rui, Francis and Keila.