Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pacer to Racer at Virgil Crest

Many weeks back, my mom asked me if I'd heard of "that guy Jake Brown." I hadn't. He was, she told me, this guy who was running barefoot across the United States, and that I should check out his Facebook page. I clicked Like but never saw any updates in my News Feed, thanks to Facebook's algorithmic assumptions, and then mostly forgot about the whole thing. Just a few weeks ago, though, my mom reminded me when she said that "that Jake Brown guy" was running a 100 and wanted pacers and that I should message him. So I did, and all of a sudden it was September 17—time to go!

I picked up my rental car and made the drive up to Rhinebeck, New York, a small town where, apparently, Paul Rudd and Uma Thurman, among others, go to hang out. It's also where that Jake Brown guy's mom lives, and that's where I was meeting him. He'd put his transcontinental run on pause to run the race this weekend, which required him to take a train from Columbus, Ohio, where he left off, up to New York. After the race, he'd gingerly make his way back to Columbus and finish up his trek—less than 600 miles to go. Which sounds like a lot, until you consider that he'd already gone 2,500. Lots of stories.

But it's not about him. He made that clear. It's about all of us. His project isn't about one guy running across the United States—any idiot can do that if they don't have anything better to do—but rather it's about fostering community. He's not running alone; strangers join him for stretches along the way, strangers drive his pack ahead for him, strangers give him money and food and a place to stay (having nothing, he's essentially a panhandler). As Jake was explaining this to me, over bacon-wrapped steak and a healthy side of sweet potato, I couldn't help but think of Zen monks (of course, with me, everything goes back to Zen monks). These monks relinquish their worldly belongings in order to meditate mu-gen—that is, infinitely—and they beg rice from the townspeople. The townspeople give the rice not because they find the monks so admirable, but because they see what's deeper: that the monks are rooting for all of us, that they connect all of us, that they show us there's another way to live in the world.

The next day, Friday, we made our way northwest toward the Finger Lakes. Along the way we passed what Jake promised was the best pizza place in the whole world—Benny's Pizzeria in Stone Ridge, New York—so of course we stopped and of course it delivered (I got a slice of classic sausage and then a slice of breaded eggplant, which was amazing—and I don't even really like eggplant). A few more hours and we made it to Hope Lake Park, in Cortland, where we checked in and Jake set up his camp—I'd sleep in the car. We finalized our plans, talked a bit with other runners, and then went to bed.

Jake and me, the night before the race

The race started at 6 a.m. It was my first time being at the starting line of an ultra and not running, so I got to appreciate the spectacle from the other side.

Headlamps across the lake, only 99.5 miles to go!

The plan was I'd meet Jake at mile 25 (the endpoint of the out-and-back) with some gear, then again at 50 (the start), and then at mile 75 (the endpoint of the out-and-back) I'd join him for the final 25 miles to the finish (the start). I was excited to get some night running practice in and to help coax a 100-miler-to-be out of the typical mile-75 misery.

Leading up to the mile-25 turnaround, the trail was marked with magazines

I got to the mile 25 aid station around 10 a.m., which was super early, and I got to see the first runners come through. I didn't expect Jake till after noon, so I hung out and tried to read sometimes but mostly sat. There was a wonderful view from up here:

The view from the Rock Pile

Shortly after noon, I got a text from Jake saying his ankle was messed up, that several people had looked at it, and that he was having trouble even walking. He wasn't far past the mile 20 aid station, but he wanted to make sure it was a legitimate injury before throwing in the towel, so he was making his way toward mile 25, and he'd keep me posted. Yikes. Long story short, I picked him up around mile 24 at a road crossing about two hours later, and we drove back to the start (the finish), where he officially dropped out of the race.

Bummer notwithstanding, I kinda still wanted to get in a long run over the weekend. I was thinking about going for a 20-mile run the next morning on the streets, but how stupid would that be when I was already at a race with a beautiful course... If only there were a way... And then I realized that the race weekend had a 50k the next day. (The 50 mile and 100 mile both started together on Saturday, and the 50k started on Sunday morning.) I spoke to the race director, and he awesomely let me register for the 50k. Which meant I'd be able to mark New York off my states-to-race list.

Now that I was racing, I went to the grocery store for an avocado and some dark chocolate, and that night I found a more comfortable way to sleep in the car (the trunk). I woke up the next morning SO EXCITED. And the race didn't start till 8, which is super late by ultra standards, so I had plenty of time to drink coffee and get ready.

The race itself was super fun. It was a small field, about 25 runners, and we quickly spread out. For long stretches (and virtually all of the second half) I didn't see anyone else. It was super tough. I hadn't been training on trails at all recently, and I almost forgot how mentally taxing it is having to pick out your steps. And then the elevation: The 50k course had about 6,500 feet of elevation gain and the same amount of loss. A lot of this was cruelly near the turnaround, where we had to climb up two ski slopes, including one black diamond–rated one. Still, I was really happy with my performance. I pushed myself to keep flying down the hills when I could, to make up for the long, slow climbs. All said, I finished around 6:24, which seems slow (slower than 12-minute miles) but it put me in 8th place overall.

It was such a great weekend. Mostly, being out of the city and in a wonderful, remote place. Then, the ultra atmosphere, which is always... nice. Then, all the awesome people I got to meet. It always strikes me as amazing how ultrarunning can bring people together.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Hundred Miles

If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.
—Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

There are some things you can only learn by running 100 miles. I'm not yet sure what those things are, exactly, but maybe I'll figure them out next time I run 100 miles. All I know is that, even now, sitting at my desk, when I think back to that final stretch, my throat chokes up and I can feel tears welling behind my eyes. So, something happened here, but it might be a while before I figure out what.

I'm currently working on my Fulbright Student Research Fellowship application, and my personal statement is centered around (1) running and (2) my family. Because of this, I've been thinking about both these themes a lot, and how they intertwine.

I started running after my mom signed herself and most of my siblings up for a 5K at the county zoo. Before training for that, I'd never run more than a mile (before college, I could never even run an actual mile). And that wasn't too long ago—just 2010. I don't know why she signed us up, and I don't know why I took it so seriously, but I suspect it had something to do with finding a way to bring our family closer together after a long string of estranging events. Running has brought our family closer—along with the wider family of the ultrarunning community, but I'd be hard pressed to believe my mom could see exactly where that little neighborhood 5K would lead us.

Tropical Depression Bill came to Ohio to make
the Mohican 100 as depressive as possible. Photo
by Nasa. Finder's fee of $0.00 goes to Mike Massie.

Camping in The Middle of Nowhere, Ohio, in the rain. My family and some of our friends were sprawled across four campsites. Things weren't going exactly well, and I couldn't help but feel selfish for dragging everyone along for such a dismal "vacation" just so I could do something stupid. There was plenty of tension: I tried playing a board game with some of my siblings, but my tent was leaking and I didn't want it to get ruined so I made us stop. The first night we almost couldn't eat because the rain precluded making a fire and all the restaurants in town closed rural-early. Setting up a canopy, I accidentally smashed my sister's French press with a propane tank.

I was plenty crabby, too, but not because I was stressed about the prospect of running 100 miles, per se. Rather, I was on edge because we couldn't manage to come up with a plan for pacing me (we had an assortment of people who offered to pace for segments of 4 to 24 miles, but the details were all TBD up until the night before). Also, we faced a deadline of leaving at noon on Sunday, which was an hour before the cutoff for running the 100 mile. I had initially agreed to this plan because I didn't think there was any chance I'd need that long. I figured 24 hours at the most. But especially after I got started and saw how slow going the run was, trying to finish in time for everyone was a key stress point for me. I was frustrated because I couldn't get my body to move any faster, and I knew that the longer I took the more I'd be stressing everyone else out. I thought about quitting countless times—which is normal, I hear. If I dropped out, then they wouldn't have to wait for me to take forever to finish, and I wouldn't stress them out. But they'd probably be disappointed. If I continued, at least I'd finish, but at what cost? Again, running 100 miles seemed like the most selfish thing to do. I came really close to quitting a few times.

When it really came down to it, none of us knew what we were getting into. Zach told me to imagine a 100 Mile as more like three 50 Miles in a row, but I guess I didn't really understand what that meant. Maybe I was imagining a nice jaunt through some casual trails, only for an extended period of time. Running 100 miles in 24 hours is like 14-minute miles. Anyone can do that, right? So I was pretty casual about the whole thing. Until, a few days out from the race, I relented to look at the weather forecast. Here's what it said:

Indeed, the weather was about as bad as seasonably possible. It had been raining in Loudonville all week, and it was slated to continue through Saturday (the race was Saturday to Sunday). This would be a problem for many reasons: First, camping in the rain is the worst. Second, rain meant muddy trails, which meant there was no chance of me finishing if I were to wear my Luna Sandals. They're great for almost everything, but mud is their kryptonite. So what was I supposed to do? I ordered a pair of shoes and a raincoat.

Before I knew it, I was standing at the start of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile, wearing those shoes and that raincoat for the first time. What was that thing they say about trying something new on race day?

A few minutes before the start. Photo by my mom.

All things considered, I felt pretty serene. I found starting a 100 Mile less stressful than starting a marathon, because in a marathon you need to put in a more acute effort. I guess because the effort in an ultra is distributed over such a long period of time, there's less performance anxiety. Probably not so for the elites... I was just looking to finish. (Although I did have some notions of being a breakout and placing in my age group; these notions were quickly dashed.) I think I was also calm because I had already put in the pre-first-100 jitters at Lake Martin 100, where I DNF'd. Anyway, I waved past my mom and sister, who had lovingly dropped me off at the starting line, and tried not to think about all the hours ahead. Just think about now, I told myself. By the time we left the camp ground and entered the trail, I had settled into my place in the conga line and just relaxed.

The first few miles were calm. And, because the race started at 5 a.m., dark. I used a handheld flashlight through the first two aid stations, by which time it was light enough to see, even beneath the forest canopy. Not that you needed light, necessarily, to tell what was there: mud—sloppy and slimy. Boy, was I glad to be wearing shoes. Until a few miles had passed, when I realized that my feet were going to be soaked, sloshing and wrinkling, for a very, very long time. I had a couple of changes of socks (as an all-weather sandal-wearer, I have very few socks to begin with), and I changed them when I could and simply wrung them out when I ran out of fresh ones. Either way, the relief didn't last long—there was ankle-deep mud waiting around every corner.

My feet were quickly converted into misshapen, white raisins. Not appetizing. Maybe I will never eat raisins again. Blisters sprouted as decorations and then popped with painful flourishes. That's when I gritted my teeth and pretended that it wasn't happening. Same with the pain that smacked of a stress fracture coming from the top of my left foot. Same with all the times I stubbed my toes.

A good look at the bottoms of my feet after the run.
Photo by Mike Massie.

Never thought feet could look this good. Voyeurism by Mike Massie.

Now, about 48 hours after taking my socks off for good, my feet have mostly de-wrinkled, but each toe is still hanging onto the two or three blisters that have called it home. Some are your classic oval blisters, and others are shaped more like the hat of a garden gnome. Overnight some blood seems to have seeped out from around the corners of a few of my toenails. My left foot has been slightly numb. Wearing sandals, I never had to deal with any of this stuff before—but maybe, to some extent, it just comes with the 100-mile territory.

"So that'll be like... an hour and a half maybe. And that's the first loop done. Can't imagine doing three more. But I'll just go a little bit at a time. So, yeah." (Voice memo at 4 hours, 46 minutes)
My running didn't go as well as I'd hoped. I had gotten over my calf strain that plagued me for the first third of this year, thankfully, and I'd gotten in all my training. So I had high hopes. But it just wasn't there for me. Maybe I pushed myself too hard at my half marathon the previous Sunday. I was sore for several days afterwards, after all, which isn't normal. I might have also had some sort of infection; I had some sort of blistery rash on one of my feet that looked like poison ivy. In short order, it spread to my other foot, my arms and my hands. That was four days prior to the race. I was feeling overly fatigued (I needed a nap every day, which isn't normal for me), and my muscles were sore. I don't know if poison ivy can cause fatigue like that, but who knows. On top of that, I had moved the previous week, which was an insane few-days workout and a lot of stress. Anyway, even though I felt fine on race day, I probably wasn't at my 100%. And it quickly showed. After only 25 miles I started cramping up, which was basically my worst nightmare—way too early for that to be happening. After mile 60 or so I basically couldn't run anymore. Oh, also, my ears plugged up somewhere around 3 hours into the race—again, way too early for such alarming things to be happening—and they stayed plugged up for 9+ hours after that. All that time I felt like I was underwater. I couldn't hear anyone that well, so I didn't want to talk to other runners, which didn't help the situation. (Talking on the trails usually helps cheer me up.)

"I had a scare a little while ago. I had what Michael Massie would describe as a slight stabbing pain in my lung. So that was a little scary because I was like, 'Well, I might die. And then on my grave they would have to write DNF.' But then I was thinking that that's funny because, when you're dead, you kinda did finish. That's, like, the definition of finishing." (Voice memo at 9 hours, 18 minutes)

The experience of running 100 miles was, in a word, humbling. In the most literal sense: lowering one's estimate of his own importance, dignity and ability; feeling decisively defeated. I'm not sure if I can describe this in a manner sufficient for a reader who has not done this to imagine it. When you run 100 miles, you break yourself down so far that even going as fast as you can you're going slower than you ever imagined possible. It's not that you're in all that much pain, but you just can't make your body do what you want it to. I got a sense of this in my first marathon, but that was only five hours. This time it was almost 32. That number is only two digits long, so you can read it in an instant. Maybe it doesn't seem all that long. But stop and think about that: Thirty-two hours. Thirty-two hours and you're getting slower and slower, getting more and more broken, just trying not to think about how much farther you have left to go, wondering if your body will really hold out that long. It was the longest I'd ever been awake in my life.

Half a mile from the finish line.
A jovial spectator: Hey, now! That doesn't look like running! I thought this was a run!
Me: (Laughter) I—
Jovial spectator: But it feels like running, he says. (Laughter) Sure feels like I'm running! You're almost there, just keep going. 

The biggest problem I faced during the run was being overwhelmed by the number of miles I had left.  For example, it took me about 14 hours to finish the first two loops, meaning I had run 52 miles. It had been raining for the first 9 hours, but it finally stopped. I was exhausted. I'd already run so far. And I had another 50 to go. Everything I had just done, I had to do it again. It was too much. To quell these feelings, I tried to think of the event not as a race, but as a sort of stone-age migration. Something that was normal for early nomadic humans. I just took it one step at a time. I looked for distractions—trains of thought, looking around at the natural beauty. When it got really bad, I put on some music; I didn't have any headphones, so I just played it from my phone's speaker, which may have annoyed some other runners but at those points I just couldn't care.

The course brought me past our campsite on every loop. This is me
climbing the steep hill toward the end of my first loop. Photo by my mom.

Aid stations were 4 to 7 miles apart, and passing them really reinvigorated me. Hopeless though I might have been, I almost always felt like a million bucks once I left an aid station. The feeling tended not to last long, but at least it was there. The best was when I passed an aid station where I had a drop bag, which meant I could change my shirt or shorts. After doing so, especially while it was raining, it felt like I had just scored the most decadent luxury imaginable. When you're running an ultra, it's the simple things.

The climbs were killer. The course has about 12,000 feet of elevation gain (and equal elevation loss). That's over two miles, straight up, and then over two miles, straight down. Think about that. It's the same elevation gain/loss, roughly, as the Leadville 100, the granddaddy of punishing 100-mile events, but this one had the added fun of every climb and descent being a mudslide. I wasn't prepared for this. Even though I got some hill training in the Wissahickon leading up to the race, you just can't find those sorts of climbs in Philadelphia. And I hadn't run in mud since my last trail marathon in January 2014.

"Climbing that hill is really hard. It makes me think of having to do it again, and that makes me want to quit." (Voice memo at 14 hours, 6 minutes)

Toward the end of my second lap, I was looking forward to meeting my sister at the aid station. That's when we could begin having pacers, so she was going to run with me for about 9 miles. Then I'd have to make it 14 miles by myself, and finally Mike would join me for the last 24. Looking at it like that, it didn't seem so bad. Au contraire.

Nearing mile 60, hiking up a hill.
Photo by my sister Kim.

When my sister joined me, the sun was starting to set but we still had an enjoyable run. It was a pleasure to share with her my world of ultrarunning, and we got to talk. She also gave me some coffee and peppermint oil, which helped reawaken me a bit. Even with her there, though, I was starting to get overwhelmed and really crabby. I shudder to think of what it would have been like to be alone for that time.

"I'm going so slow. And it's so hard. I feel vaguely nauseous. And then I stopped, and then my head was spinning when I stopped." (Voice memo at 15 hours, 19 minutes)

Eventually my sister left me. I continued on shortly behind an older Irish guy and his Irish pacer. Listening to them talk was a pleasant diversion, and they also gave me a lot of good tips on night running and running ultras in general. They told me that if I could finish this course, there were loads of other 100s I'd have no trouble with. Apparently it wasn't a very gentle course to choose for one's first 100 Mile. Ah...

The night. Photo by Mike Massie.

But soon the Irishmen had a shoe issue and told me to go on ahead. (They went on to finish about 10 minutes after me.) I ran alone then for a long time, and it wasn't easy. By then it was pitch black. Ultrarunning in general is characterized by unknowns, and night running epitomizes that. Imagine spending six hours alone at night in the forest, trying to run through the mud, with only the little light of your headlamp to see by. Not only that, but it's foggy, so you can't see that well even with the light. And not only that, but you're wearing glasses and have poor night vision to begin with. And not only that, but you've been running for 17 hours and you are so, so tired. More than once I fantasized about going to sleep under a tree until sunrise. I didn't do it, but only because I didn't want to get wet. If I wasn't going to sleep under a tree, I thought, I should at least drop out. Then it would all be over. Then I could stop running. The nausea would pass, the disorientation would pass, my feet could get out of their sopping prisons... Everything would be better. But for some reason, I didn't stop. I just kept shuffling along, mostly in misery, looking forward to sunrise. Everyone was telling me that when the sun came back up, it would get better.

More than once I had the fleeting sensation that I might fall asleep right there, still in motion. Something was wrong. Moving, I felt sick. When I stopped, everything I saw was still in motion, and I felt dizzy. I thought I was going to puke. I was tripping on all kinds of things—even air. Sometimes I stepped sideways instead of forwards. I felt like I was slowly fading away. That's how I passed the final two hours or more of the third lap. Not fun. It was a long time coming, but eventually I finished my third loop. Only one left. It was about 3 a.m., and I was feeling dismal and nauseous. I didn't know if I could go on like this, so I determined to get myself better at the aid station before setting out on my final lap. I ended up spending over 90 minutes there. I changed socks, tentatively ate some potatoes and ramen, and waited to feel better.

I was also waiting because this is where I was supposed to meet Mike, who would pace me through the final lap. But there was a communication snafu and I was taking much longer than anticipated, so he wasn't there. The aid station volunteer helped me look for his car in the parking lot, which he was supposedly sleeping in, but it was nowhere to be seen. So this all made me feel worse. And I just sat there. Should I stop, I wondered. I wasn't feeling great, and I didn't want to go out there alone and risk passing out and falling down a hill somewhere, never to be seen again. I waited, hoping things would get better. Eventually my sister appeared from nowhere, and that was a relief. She brought me more coffee and we talked a bit. That cheered me up enough to get off my butt and back out there. I still wasn't feeling great—I was still lightly nauseous, very disoriented, and very tired. I left with a small group of other runners who were starting their final lap, and we sort of leap-frogged each other for the ensuing 24 miles, which took about eight hours.

"Okay, we're at 27 hours, 14 minutes, and I'm actually feeling good. Right now we're just bringing it home. Can't really run anymore, so I am sort of hobbling. I call it hiking uphill, power-walking downhill and gremlin-running the flats." (Voice memo)

The hallucinations. I wasn't prepared for that. It started during the night, when I would look ahead and see, for example, a life-size Nativity scene or a little crouching Chinaman. The illusion would last a second or two, and then I would see that it was just a fallen tree or some foliage. When the sun finally rose, the hallucinations got worse. At that point, and through the remainder of the race, virtually everything I saw was actually not what it looked like. I saw aid stations and phantom runners, but I also saw concrete walls, garbage cans, carriages for Medieval Japanese royalty, lots of crouching people... Even when I looked down at the mud, I saw toy soldiers, tiny medallions, wooden toys, swords... Usually the illusion would only last a second or less, but there were several times when I saw someone up ahead leaning against a tree, and I'd say to myself, "Okay, that for sure is a person." As I got closer, I'd be about to say hello or something, and then it would turn out that they were just a tree stump. It sounds funny, but it was more frustrating than anything—especially when it came to seeing aid stations. I couldn't trust my eyes anymore. As I mentioned, the hallucinations lasted to the very end. In the final quarter-mile, I thought I saw a little kid crouching along the path, watching me run. I waved, but the little kid turned out to be a fire hydrant.

After the race, my sister revealed to me that she, perhaps unwittingly,
added some Essence of Spider to my coffee. She thinks this might have
contributed to the hallucinations.
It took absolutely forever, but the final miles approached. The stretch from the final aid station to the finish was particularly brutal; it was mostly downhill, and going downhill hurt the most at that point. Those last seven miles felt like the longest marathon of my life (well, probably because they took about as long as a marathon...). Approaching the finish line, I could feel my body trying to cry, but it couldn't. I was almost there. Almost there. Finally.

I saw Danijela when I passed by our campsite, about a mile and a half from the finish, and then my mom and brother were waiting at the bottom of the next hill. I was happy to see them, but I probably snapped at them because I didn't know what was going on.

And then, finally, I turned down the finish chute, into a final stretch of mud, along some lawn, and across the finish line. That's when I stopped running.

Crossing the finish line. By Mike Massie.

Oh, look. Another one of those thingies to put in that box in my closet...

I lay down, put my feet up and drank a few bottles of water. The last few runners came in, the 32-hour time limit passed and the course closed. Only 45% of the runners finished the 100-mile course. I'm glad to count myself among them. Only the top ten finished in under 24 hours (the winner was just under 18 hours).

About an hour after I finished, my body had had enough, and it involuntarily shut down into a long, dreamless sleep.

At the finish line. Photo by Mike Massie. Sculpture
presumably by someone who was not running.

Running 100 miles doesn't really register on a scale from easy to difficult. Nor can I say that it went "well" or "poorly." Words like that don't even begin to describe it. In some ways, it wasn't hard at all. I was never in terrible pain, really, and there were only a couple of times when I questioned my physical ability to cross the finish line. But in other ways, it was the hardest thing I've done in my life. I thought of quitting more times than there were miles.

I got through mostly by thinking of my family—to make them proud (as proud as someone can be of a pathetic and hobbling brother/son), but also to make good on my promise to run 100 miles and thereby make their trip to Ohio worthwhile. (Since, given the weather, I'm sure it wasn't all that pleasant for anyone. But maybe it was. I didn't get much of a chance to talk to them after the run.) It also helped to recall how upset I was with myself after dropping out of the Lake Martin 100 back in March. And sometimes I even thought about that stupid buckle.

I wish I could give a big hug to all the volunteers who helped me, especially during the night. The care and personal attention I received during this race was unlike anything I've experienced before. I know I wouldn't have finished without them. And also a huge thank-you to my family who came to Ohio to support me—before, during and after. Especially to my sister Kim for bringing me some well-timed cups of coffee and staying up throughout the night, beyond the call of duty.

Finally, super kudos to my little brother Ricky who ran his first marathon at this event! He did the entire thing in the rain.

There are plenty of things I can improve upon for next time. Here are a few:

  • Not taking so long at drop bags and aid stations. If I plan and organize my things better, I could save a lot of time. I calculated that I spent over two hours at aid stations (not counting the 90 minutes before my final lap), doing things like changing socks and rummaging for things. Having a crew would also expedite all that.
  • Not consuming only acidic foods. I think this was a big cause of my stomach issues. Along the way I was drinking fizzy ginger ale and Heed, and I was eating only chocolate and oranges. I guess I should have balanced out the acidic stuff with some more alkalinizing foods, which would have helped the nausea. 
  • Getting more caffeine. Every time I had some coffee, I felt better shortly afterwards. Immediately for the warmth, and then for the effects of the caffeine. I wish I had some more at some of the mid-loop aid stations. For this race, I cut out caffeine in the days prior to the race (though I usually only have one cup of coffee in the morning), with the hopes that caffeine would be more effective during the race. I'm not sure this was very helpful. And, worse, it threw off my digestive cycle, so things were not off to a good start. (Not having to take so many bathroom breaks would also save time.)
  • Better course-specific training. Well, to the extent that it's possible. 
  • Practicing night running. Or taking some measures to improve my alertness and vision.
  • Avoiding muddy courses at all costs. Or figure out a better footwear situation.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Gearing Up for a Good 100

Oh, it's June already. Which means I'll be running my first 100 Mile this month. If you're a regular visitor (lol), you'll know I was slotted to run Lake Martin 100 as my first 100 Mile, back in March. But sadly I got injured in January and was barely able to run leading up to it, and decided to stop at 50.

But my brain was sufficiently infected, so I sought out another 100 Mile to do later in the year. I was already signed up for Ice Age Trail 50 Mile, so I figured I could use that as my peak training run. I found Mohican 100 Mile on June 20, which was just about perfect timing, and I didn't hesitate to sign up. Look for a race report later this month.

My injury wasn't clearing up like it should, so I bit the bullet and went to see a PT. That was a wonderful experience, actually. Mike at Drexel PT & Rehab Services assessed my strength and mobility and prescribed a medley of stretches and band exercises to do every day. Et voila: Little by little things got better.

Ice Age Trail 50 Mile went great. I wore a goat shirt. I ran with my friend Mike, who was doing it as his first 50 Mile. We took it nice and slow, and when we were done I felt as though I'd only spent a few hours hiking. I think this means I'm ready for the 100! Since then I put on an 83-mile week (my highest mileage to date), followed by a 73-mile week (a hardy follow-up). My calf (the source of injury) is a tiny bit weird still, but the injury has largely gone away even while I've been piling up miles. I'm confident that as I start tapering now into June 20, it'll heal completely. The swelling is finally gone. Some simple daily PT exercises go a long way!

Before the race. Mike and I were running the 50 mile, and my mom and Mike's wife Danijela were running the 50k.
At mile 37!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What Running an Ultramarathon Feels Like: My Experience

Twenty-five miles in. I’ve been running for five hours. Slow and steady, but still: five hours. My legs are heavier than they used to be. I got tired a while ago, but I won’t be stopping any time soon: I’ve got 75 miles to go. The distance is unthinkable. The farthest I’ve run before was only 50. Even that was a long way. A really long way. And here I am, pacing towards 100. Everything past 50 miles is unknown territory. What will happen?

Now and then my ankle stiffens or my calf muscle fires a warning shot. Fear. Will it get worse? Can I run through it? I question everything. Should I have eaten that yesterday? Was my training enough? Did I set out too fast? How’s my form? I’ve never run 100 miles before, so I have no idea what a reasonable pace is. Run too slow and I won’t realize my potential. But even worse, I won’t make the checkpoints, which means DNF—Did Not Finish. But run too fast and I’ll putter out before the finish line. DNF. The three most terrifying letters.

Running this long is no fun. In fact, it’s horrible. My stomach has been clenched for hours now, a braced against tides of nausea. I’m hungry, but eating might just make it worse. My ears are plugged. Something beneath my arm has been chafing, and it’s getting worse. I’m seasick but nowhere near water. It’s so hot out and the sweat is making my eyes burn and all I have is my little handheld bottle, which doesn’t hold quite enough water to last me from aid station to aid station, so I’m always flirting with dehydration. I’m so bored. I’m sick of dirt and rocks and roots. Every now and then I remember how many miles—hours—I have left. The number discourages me. I’m already so tired. All I can do is get comfortable with the discomfort and look forward to the next aid station. Maybe they’ll have potatoes. Small goals. One aid station at a time. You can’t think about all 100 miles at once or you’ll get overwhelmed. But sometimes you can’t help it. One hundred miles is a long way, and there’s no getting around that. It makes it worse being all alone out here. When was the last time I saw a person who wasn’t actually a pine tree? And now I think: Why am I doing this, anyway? Whose idea was it to sign up for this stupid thing? I’m dropping out at the next aid station. It’s pointless. Who cares about a DNF? I’m never running again.

The next aid station comes. The volunteers there, many of whom are ultrarunners themselves, encourage me. “You look great,” they say. “You’re making awesome time.” I refill my water bottle, swig some ginger ale, munch on a handful of M&M’s and exchange a few smiles, and then I’m back on the trail. I wipe the crusted salt from my eyes and take in the scenery. Tall pines, sweeping trails, a slight breeze. It’s a beautiful day, and I’m so grateful to be outside, able to enjoy it. I’m feeling better. By now I’ve forgotten all about my decision to drop out. Running is too much fun.

I’m running, I’ve been running, and I’ll keep running. It’s like breathing, only breathing isn’t difficult. Well, running isn’t difficult, either. Except sometimes. Same with breathing. Running I become small. So small. A tiny person in a great, big universe. But big, too, because there’s nothing left in the world that can tempt me. Only one thing: sitting down. I’ve been racking my brain for the past 10 miles and I can’t think of anything in the whole world I want except that. Can you imagine it? Breaking yourself down so much that all you want is something you’ve always taken for granted. And it’s the one thing you can’t have. Because sitting means stopping, and I can’t stop. I’ll never stop running. Because to stop running is to stop breathing—to stop living.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My First DNF at Lake Martin 100

Last summer I started seriously kicking around the idea of running a hundred-mile race. This came as a surprise because it was something I assumed I'd never do. Granted, there was a time not too many years ago when I assumed I'd never be bothered to even attempt a half marathon.

In October I signed up for Lake Martin 100, and I started counting down the days to March 21, 2015. In the interim I had another marathon and 50 mile to think about, and I'd likely want to find another 50 mile as a training stimulus in late January or February.

I had a great fall season, even jumping into a community 50k, and then I went to Japan and Hong Kong for two weeks, during which time I only ran two or three times. I thought I could use a little break, anyway. But then around Christmastime I jumped back into 70-mile-a-week training... and quickly found myself with a severe shin splint in my right leg. I powered through a 14-mile run when I thought it was just a little nagging pain, and then the next day I couldn't run at all.

The next several weeks were pretty dismal. I could only manage to run 5 miles at a time, and the injury showed no signs of clearing up. I stopped running completely for a few several-day stretches, but nothing. I dialed in my diet, slept excessively, worked on mobility... doing everything I could think of short of seeing a physical therapist (which probably would have been wise, but not wallet-friendly, especially given that mine is empty).

In the eight weeks leading up to the race, I averaged 30 miles per week. The day I was supposed to do a 50-mile training run, I couldn't run at all, and instead went for a 7-hour walk (I was hoping to go longer, but it started snowing). Finally, a week out from Lake Martin 100, my shin splint started to clear up. I credit this to my last-ditch recovery effort: taking high doses of fish oil, to the tune of 15-20 grams per day. But I was still woefully undertrained.

I discussed my options with my coach. He was confident that I'd be able to finish the race if I was feeling 100% on race day morning and, importantly, wanted to. (Wanting to finish, and reminding yourself why and that you want to finish, especially when you're feeling horrible, seems to be the key to finishing a hundred miler.) This lifted my spirits. Hearing a finisher from the previous year talking to me after the pre-race dinner about how horrible it is to run a hundred miles and how you probably won't finish without a pacer and how you should rethink your drop bag strategy, etc., in turn lowered my spirits.

A photo posted by Tim Gorichanaz (@timgorichanaz) on

On race morning I wasn't feeling quite 100%, but I thought I'd give it a try.

I should also mention for posterity that I was feeling extremely nervous the week leading up to the race. It's been a long time since I had the pre-race jitters! And on the morning of the race I was almost nauseous, just feeling so miserable about all the unknowns. As soon as I started running, through, that went away. Running is a nice feeling.

Since I could still feel my shin splint, I wore a brand new pair of calf compression sleeves and reminded myself that I would just go until I felt that I couldn't or shouldn't anymore. This was a double-edged sword: I gave myself an out that I'd surely take even if I didn't necessarily need to.

Normally I'm pretty determined and tenacious when it comes to this kind of thing, but in this case I couldn't fall back on the comfort that I'd trained sufficiently. I also had to think about the future: I was signed up for another 50 mile in about a month, and I'm planning to run a BQ marathon this fall. If I were to further injure myself running a hundred miles, then all bets would be off for the rest of the season.

Photo courtesy of Tiki Merritt Curry on Facebook (BUTS member)

Running, I took it easy. I walked up all the hills, ran at an easy pace, and chatted with other runners. There weren't too many of us on the course. However, my mental outlook was totally different during this race—solemnified by the prospect of going 100 miles. Since I'd only ever run 50 total, I couldn't wrap my head around going twice that. When I was around mile 25, it really hit me: I was almost at the end of a marathon (and by this distance my mom and our friends, who were running the 27-mile race, would be wrapping up), and if I were running 50 miles I'd be halfway done, but since I was going for 100 I was nowhere near done. To have run for more than five hours and be nowhere near done is a pretty extraordinary feeling. It's easy to connect the dots and feel utterly hopeless.

For a long stretch around this time I was by myself; at an aid station I'd gotten disconnected from the guy I'd been running with, and human contact was at a premium. I tried listening to an audiobook but that just stressed me out. I settled on listening to Kanye West's "All Day" on repeat, which I kept going for a few hours. I checked behind me frequently and pulled out the headphones any time I encountered another runner and usually we exchanged a few words.

Found a snake on the course

Red gravel and ashen leaves. Awesome combo.

At some point I was feeling pretty meh and was walking, and two other hundred-runners passed by and asked how I was doing. "Ehh," I said. "You're doing better than you think," said the woman. That simple sentence was really encouraging, somehow. Shortly thereafter, I found another wind. (The woman went on to be the second female finisher. She's awesome!)

A photo posted by Tim Gorichanaz (@timgorichanaz) on

When I hit the mile 43 aid station, my mom and our friends were there hanging out, and it was nice to see them. I also got sent on a fun errand: to deliver a headlamp to two elderly women who were ahead a bit on the 27-mile run and were worried about not finishing before sunset. I was really excited and flew off at an extraordinary clip. Maybe this was actually my downfall, in retrospect.

Here's a pretty typical image of what the trail looked like

Furry forest

The view from atop Heaven Hill

Not long after I gave the women their headlamp, my legs started cramping up a bit in the lower quads, and I could feel everything beginning to seize. I could feel things getting progressively worse, and by mile 47 or so I had to walk all the way to 50 (which I hit at almost exactly the 12-hour mark).

Oh, I was taking little notes as I went along. I'll reproduce them here:

  • Mile 10: Yay! I love running!
  • Mile 15: Okay 100 miles is a long way...
  • Mile 16: New running buddy
  • Mile 25: Cabin yay! First lap done!
  • Mile 25.5: Can't keep up with running buddy, goodbye 
  • Mile 27: It's too hot for this crap
  • Mile 27.5: I'm dropping out
  • Mile 28: Okay I'm out of water I'm going to die
  • Mile 29: Nice guy gives me water. Salvation!
  • Mile 31: I'm dropping out.
  • Mile 32: Aid station! Thank you Jesus
  • Mile 33: Deer sighting. They can run way faster than me.
  • Mile 34: Found new friend and we're running to Heaven Hill together
  • Mile 40: I FOUND ENERGY!
  • Mile 43: It's starting to drizzle. Forecast: till forever.
  • Mile 45: Starting to feel a bit tired 
  • Mile 45.5: Some cramps thighs and above knees 
  • Mile 46: Delivered headlamp!
  • Mile 48: Where are all the humans?

Approaching the 50-mile mark I was feeling extremely tired and a bit nauseous and had decided to drop out. Even if I could possibly finish, I thought I'd be completely broken by the time I did and would have to throw out the rest of my season. I'd already decided it wasn't the end of the world, and I was proud of myself for even making it 50 miles with little training and an injury.

A photo posted by Tim Gorichanaz (@timgorichanaz) on

But that wasn't quite the end of it:

The awesome race director David Tosch wanted me to keep going (possibly at the behest of my mother?). He told me he'd never seen someone look so good at mile 50 (this may have been a lie, but it was nice), and that I was on track to finish in 24 hours and not many people could run 100 miles in 24 hours. He assured me that in 100 milers you go through high highs and low lows, and I just had to push through. He told me to walk—not even try to run—to the next aid station, and then reassess. If I couldn't make it, he said he'd personally come and pick me up. What an amazing guy. An older woman, a seasoned ultrarunner, came to his side and echoed his sentiments. They all wanted me to keep going. Even if I walked the entire rest of the course, I'd likely still make the cutoff. (Of course, walking 18 hours did not seem appetizing at that point.)

Now, this was unexpectedly inspirational. Directly at odds with me already deciding to drop. But then I saw, for a glimmer of a second, that I could finish. That I should finish! But I'd already decided to drop, and who could change that? And did I really want to go back out for potentially 18 more hours? But hey, that buckle... I didn't know what to do. I relaxed at the aid station for a little while... Had some chili, put my legs up, sat by the fire, and then decided to go out and see how it was. It was the first time "running" at night with a headlamp, and it was drizzling. More than anything I just wanted to go past 50 miles for the sake of going farther than ever before. And, somehow, I was actually terrified that I might start feeling better and have no excuse not to finish the race. It was a whole confusing assortment of different feelings. Could I actually finish? Would I get hurt? Should I try to finish? I was told multiple times by other people that there's no shame in DNF—heck, I hadn't even seriously started the day thinking I would come close to finishing—but all the same I couldn't help but feel a distinct sense of cowardice.

On my walk after 50 I heard some rustling in the bushes beside the trail, which really freaked me out. It turned out to be an armadillo. That was cool; I'd never seen one before. We saw another later on, which was a 100% increase. Bonus!

The next day was pretty depressing. It was gray and raining outside, and even a delicious brunch couldn't lift my spirits much. By this time the 30-hour cutoff had gone, and I hadn't been among the finishers. These were feelings that my logical mind, which ultimately convinced me to drop out, couldn't have anticipated. I felt then that I really should have kept going, and I was regretting my decision to DNF. I'm going to think back to that feeling in the future, though, if I'm ever thinking about dropping out of a race. I don't think DNF should ever be discretionary—it should only be done out of medical necessity.

The malaise continues to this day (writing this has helped). Should I have finished, or was it prudent to drop out when I did? I'll never know, really. But luckily it's not the end of the world. I've already signed up for my next 100 mile race—June 20 in Ohio.

And I had so much fun in Alabama that I can't wait to be back. I'm looking for a trail marathon to do yet in 2015, or maybe I'll have to settle for doing Lake Martin next March (hopefully I can wait that long).

At Russell Crossroads