The last time I raced to my maximum potential, I set a personal best in the half marathon. In the aftermath of that hard effort though, I also found myself crippled by the apex of bilateral Achilles tendonosis, an injury that would bury the rest of my lofty 2013 race plans and humble me to reevaluate my training.
That was six months ago.
Now I’m ready to give it another go when I toe the line this weekend at the Armadillo Dash Half Marathon in College Station, TX. I have been Boston Marathon training for ten and a half weeks now, slowly building back up to quality speed work and long, slow distance runs. I still don’t feel like I am in optimum speed running shape, but I do feel good. I feel strong. I feel focused.
And I feel like it’s time to see what I can do right now. But I also know that this feeling comes with a conscious finger hovering just above the abort button.
After my experience the last six months, my ultimate conclusion is that I would rather run slow than not run at all. To me, running is a gift. It’s a privilege. I am not guaranteed the ability to run, to have full use of my legs, to live this spry wonderlife each and every day. So each day that I get deserves my respect. If something goes wrong, I need to address it, immediately, and not just keep running anyway, just because. Like Stan Lee reminds us: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
I don’t expect to be swinging from building to building this weekend, using wrist-projected webbing and spidey sense, but I do expect to give my best race effort, using every bit of what is in the tank on that day.
Here’s to hoping I don’t run into any Green Goblins.
Or achy Achilles.
I owe the world a baseball metaphor.
First, the curveballs. Oh, how plentiful and how knee-buckling the curveballs have been this training cycle. Having trained through the winter for a spring marathon in the past, I was well aware that I would have to take some of my workouts indoors. I knew that I would have to fight treadmill boredom in order to get quality work. I did not know I would have to do it nearly every day.
Since I began training back in December for the Boston Marathon, 90% of my runs have taken place indoors. I have tried to get out at least once a week for a recovery or long run, but most of those workouts have been run at super slow snow picking pace. With the onslaught of sub-zero temps, knee-high snow and treacherously icy streets, I have been forced to go by heart rate, hoping that it ultimately translates to plus-fitness adaptations.
Creativity has been key on the treadmill. Trying to simulate the Boston Marathon course, while not actually going anywhere, has proved to be a difficult task, both mentally and physically. But pounding my quads with long, sustained downhills and interrupting tempo runs with three minute increments of squats, lunges and wall-sits has gotten me through much of that. So too have seven seasons of 30 Rock.
With eight and a half weeks left until race day, I feel like I still have enough time to log quality outdoor runs, but mother nature’s curveballs have definitely forced me to adapt my training plan. From a mental toughness point of view, these adaptations can only help. Besides, much of long distance racing is dealing with surprises on the fly.
As for the change-ups, I must shamefully admit my international race naivete. I knew the Mexico City Marathon registration opened in late January, but I (stupidly) didn’t think it would sell out — at least, not very quickly. Well, it did sell out. Very quickly. So in early February, when I went to sign up, I found out as much, and therefore had to opt for the half marathon version.
I was really looking forward to 26.2 in Mexico City to cap off a week’s vacation, but the half will have to suffice, which means I will be seeking out plenty of Mexican trail running in the days leading up to the event.
And just like the old adage proclaims, when one door closes, another opens. So I signed up for the Evergreen Lake Ultra and a Half (51 Miles) race being held on September 14, 2014, just a few hours’ drive from Chicago. I am friends with the race directors, Kirsten Pieper and Jim Street, both of whom have already been featured here in my Minnesota Voyageur report. Not only do they represent one of the best trail running acronyms of all time with the Shady Hollow Trail Runners (SHTRs), but they are also really cool people who sold me on this race by talking about the food they serve. If home cooked grub highlighted by scores of bacon is your thing, then you won’t want to miss this awesome race. Three different distances are offered, so make sure to check them out.
Hopefully by then we will all be out of our snow boots.
-Phil, Groundhog Day
– – –
Saturday, February 1, 2014
You’re running a half marathon… in Grand Rapids, Michigan… in FEBRUARY!? Um… why?!?
This is myself scolding myself during the treacherous drive along I-94 East from Chicago to my sister’s place in St. Joseph. Visibility is poor. The roads are slick. The driving is uber slow. By the end of the day, 8+ inches of snow will have dumped on western Michigan.
I want to go run in it.
Because I want a challenge, I reassure myself. Mountains of snow, polar vortexes… if you can’t beat the weather, might as well get out and live it. Right? Maybe? Hope so?
My girlfriend, Edna, is gaming for the adventure too, so I don’t feel too crazy. As someone with several hundred milers under her belt, her continued desire to explore herself through physical challenges cements the sanity of my own decision.
After a nerve wracking drive, a nice home cooked meal by my sister and an evening of playing with toddlers, Edna and I are psyched to get out in the snow and have fun ourselves. When I receive an email from a friend telling me the course conditions — that the trail is brutally tough with snow up to one’s knees in spots — we look at each other and know that we’re going to give it a go anyway. Last week we ran in circles for 6 hours in the face of 40 mph wind gusts and barbarously cold temperatures. If we could survive that (and have fun!) then running in knee deep snow shouldn’t be much worse.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
At 5 a.m. our alarm clocks go off in smart-technology unison and we are up. I sip some coffee, eat a banana and then Edna and I eat some pie (why not?) to finish off our breakfast.
It’s 5:45 a.m. and we are on the road — one that is in much better condition than it was yesterday.
The temperature is going to stay in the low 20s with plenty of clouds overhead and *GASP*, no real accumulative snowfall is predicted. Still, knowing what we already know about the trail, we both expect to take it easy today.
An hour and twenty minutes later and we are in the John Ball parking lot, huddled among other frigid crazies waiting to catch the shuttle to the start/finish line. It arrives, we squeeze ourselves in, and by the time we make it to our destination we only have ten minutes left.
The two of us push ourselves through the crowd gathered inside the warm hospitality tent until we finally get to the check-in table and grab our bib numbers. Hurriedly, we pin one another, and venture outside just in time to hear “And they’re off!”
Miles 1 – 4.4
Hurry up and wait. That’s what we do. This is, after all, a race run on a paved bike trail (though you wouldn’t know it from the snow cover) and the trail isn’t exactly wide.
We are way at the back of a decadently fluorescent conga line and by the time we get to the timing mat, two minutes have gone by. I think about darting up ahead, but from the endless stream of slow moving head bobs, I know there’s no point. Might as well just take it slow until the crowd thins out.
I stick by Edna and after a quarter mile of struggling through shin and knee high snow, I accept what I already know: today is going to hurt and today is going to be slow.
“I think the key here is to take smaller steps,” I say to Edna. “If I take too large a stride the potential for injury is too large. I’m going to try to keep my feet under me.”
Even heeding my own advice, the potential for disaster is still there. The snow is powdery. Slippery. But it won’t pack down, not even with hundreds of runners trampling over it. It’s a snowy, ill-footed mine field.
Every step is a surprise.
We hit the first mile mark in just over 17 minutes. Holy shit.
With a hat-tip to the Bill Murray film, the Groundhog Day Half Marathon is a 4.4 mile loop run three times. It features mostly flat landscape with some pleasant views of the Grand River and surrounding wilderness, all of which is covered in snow and ice. Every once in a while I remind myself to look up — to actually enjoy the scenery — but most of my focus is on staying upright, requiring me to look down.
A couple of miles in and already my hips are starting to scream while my heart rate soars. It’s not every day I “run” a 17 minute mile and maintain a 160 beats per minute heart rate. As we reach the first aid station, where I fuel up on Gatorade and those delectable peanut butter pretzel bites, I feel like a rebel soldier fleeing the Empire’s invasion of Hoth.
You could use a good kiss! I think to myself. Whew, I could also use a good recliner. This is hard work!
A little more slogging later, and the crowd opens up a little. I turn to Edna, get my kiss and kick on down the snowy trail.
Down to a 15 minute mile now (HUZZAH!), I find that the footing on the back half of the course is even worse than the first half. Slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT… save myself… slip… slide… WHOA LOOKOUT…
A lot of things are on repeat here.
After much struggle, I find myself back at the start/finish line, only 4.4 miles into the race, in a whopping one hour, nine minutes. Yikes! Before I give in to the idea of quitting — as many ahead of me appear to be doing — I immediately turn around and get myself back out there.
Miles 4.4 – 8.8
Back out on the trail now, I know what to expect the rest of the way: powder, pain and suffering. At least it’s not very cold, I remind myself. And there’s no wind.
It could be worse. It could always be worse.
I will myself to remember this bit of truth. Just think about all those crazies running the full marathon!
Indeed, it could always be worse.
Right now, despite my achy hips and slow pace, life is pretty darn good. The crowd has subsided. I’m running pretty much all by myself now, passing people who’ve been slowed to a walk on occasion.
Shortly after refueling at the aid station and kicking back down the trail, my watch gleefully beeps to inform me that I am in the 13 minute mile range now.
Oh boy we’re blazin’ now!
Relatively speaking, I am moving pretty fast. Though I may look like I’m moving in slow motion, I maintain
running jogging slogging pace. I only come to a walk at the aid stations.
And because I’m paying so much attention to the ground beneath me, the time seems to pass quickly. Another hour and seven minutes has passed and I find myself at the start/finish line again.
I dart out for my third and final loop with the kind of enthusiasm born from an impending completion of epic snow schlepping. And oh look, my face hurts… from smiling! Again!
Miles 8.8 – 13.1
Beer, beer, beer… chili, chili, chili…
I’m going to hang on to whatever it takes to get through this fluffy mess, and right now, I know that concentrating on the finish line fare (and warmth!) will get me where I need to be.
I should also note that this fluffy mess seems to get worse as the day goes on, not better. If the snow were just a little more damp, perhaps it would pack down and stay down. Instead, what we get is surprise after surprise after surprise.
Just before hitting the first aid station on this last loop I notice someone close on my heels.
“Keep setting the pace, man,” says the guy behind me. I find out his name is Steve. We will share much of this last loop together. After the mental struggle of the first loop and the isolation of the second, I welcome the company and conversation.
We share our race resumes and talk about annoying injuries past. We discuss the difficulty of running a half marathon in February. In Michigan. In knee deep snow. And we both come to the conclusion that we need a beer.
“Just keep pumping your arms,” I say. Someone gave me this advice for the last 10k of my first marathon and it has stuck with me. “If you move your arms your legs will follow.”
After the last aid station, I thank all the aid station volunteers. I’m sure this has been a tough day for them too. Keeping water from freezing in sub-freezing temps and listening to cranky runners whine about the conditions probably doesn’t make for the best way to spend a Sunday, but they’re all troopers and it’s nice to hear their cheers each time we come through.
“These peanut butter pretzel balls are amazing,” I tell Steve, as I take off down the last leg of the loop. “I’ve been eating them all day. I’m ravenous. I’m starving!”
Chili, chili, chili… beer, beer, beer…
I’m coming for you!
As we reach the last turn back towards the finish line I pick up the pace and notice Steve fall back a bit. I keep going. I want to be done. I want to be warm. I want to eat and drink and–
“Hola, mi cielo!”
It’s Edna! “Hola, mi amorsita!” I yell back. She is heading out for her last loop while I finish up mine. We stop for a short embrace and she assures me she’s feeling fine. Her smile lights up the trail like always and I can’t wait for her to get back so we can both be warm, rested and DONE. “I will drink some beer and eat some chili for you,” I tell her.
“Very good,” she says ironically (Edna doesn’t drink) before taking off through the snow.
Stuck in cheesy smile mode, I run the last 200 meters to the finish, coming across the line in a whopping 3 hours, 18 minutes, 51 seconds, a time more reflective of my recent 26.2 mile races. Exhilarated and gassed, I head straight for the hospitality tent.
I can’t see!
Seriously, I can’t. I’m snow blind. Some kind soul directs me through the crowd of exhausted runners to collect my finisher’s medal. Once my eyes adjust I am able to see just how bad ass this piece of hardware is. Heavy and profound, the medal features a dancing groundhog in relief and I put it around my neck, where it will stay until I get home.
For the next hour and a half I camp out next to the New Holland kegs and sip The Poet until my equilibrium requires me to eat some chili to rebound. I talk to a bunch of strangers. I share war stories with other finishers. I’m about as happy as can be.
Edna finally comes through and we hug each other, celebrating our mental toughness victories.
“Wow, that was hard!” she says.
“Yep. Yep it was. That was crazy hard.”
But we did it. We stuck it out.
We chose to be here and we knew what we were getting into. We knew we’d escape with a story worth telling — one that would leave us starving and snow blind and smiling.
You can’t get this sort of experience on the couch. You gotta take a leap and learn to adapt. That’s life right there. That’s what keeps it interesting.
And interesting never gets old.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
No me dejes nunca, nunca, nunca… te lo PIIIIIIIIIIIDO por favor…
Soup, soup, soup… hot… soup, soup, soup…
No doubt the above is an odd collection of unrelated thoughts turned mantras. But these, along with some choice others, were the phrases that kept me moving throughout my 7 hour 9 minute journey through frosty McHenry County wonderland at the 2014 Frozen Gnome 50k. This is my story:
Saturday, January 11, 2014
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
Boom. I’m awake. I can smell the coffee brewing.
I jump to my feet and shove a couple of bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat while I check the weather. A night of freezing rain descended on the Veterans Acres course and the high for today looks like it will crest above 40. This is good news, or this is bad news.
So far this winter, over 30 inches of snow have accumulated in the Chicagoland area and with the Polar Vortex treating us to negative high temperatures just a few days ago, I’m feeling quite joyous about not having to risk hypothermia and frostbite during this race. However, above freezing temps and lots of rain will likely make the already challenging, hilly course a roller coaster of slushy, slick and slow surprises.
I love surprises.
My girlfriend and I arrive at Veteran Acres in Crystal Lake, IL and we both take note of the pleasant, warm air. But as soon as we try to navigate the parking lot turned ice rink, we immediately connect on what kind of adventure is in store for us today.
“We’re going to have to take it easy,” I say, “we’ll be just one spill away from six weeks in a walking boot.”
We pick up our bib numbers and greet the swarms of friendly faces near the start line. This event, hosted by our dear friends from the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dudes and Dudettes (M.U.D.D.) group, has attracted runners from all over the Chicago area. And like other ultra races held around here, the sense of love, joy and community is in high definition surround sound.
I greet race director Michele Hartwig and course director, Geoff Moffat, both with a hearty hug followed by a questioning grin.
“I think we’re in for quite a test today,” I say.
Geoff’s sinister chuckle validates my thought.
The 10k’ers go off, hopefully packing down the snow-slush trail for us on the way.
15 minutes later and…
Loop 1, Miles 1 – 6.2
My game plan for today is to go out nice and easy, survey the course the first time around and adjust my effort accordingly. I’m in Boston training mode, so everything I do right now is in preparation for that. Today I expect to get some gnarly hill and mental toughness training; and I would like to keep my heart rate around 150 bpm, so I’ll be keeping a close watch.
The course is a 10k loop, repeated 5 times, so I should know it (possibly love it, or hate it) very well by the end.
The initial findings in my constant mind-body-mind feedback loop are: oh boy, this is a toughie, what have I gotten myself into?
The snow is packed down in spots, not so much in others. The ongoing thaw has created a perpetually messy slush-soup in some parts and when we hit the occasional paved paths it’s nothing short of an ice rink. Oh, and then there are the hills — steep climbs that force me to dig in hard with the fat lugs on my Salomon Speedcross 3s on the way up and cautiously pick away through an admittedly odd looking dance on the way down.
I prepare my mind for the impending hip flexor hurt and subsequent butt soreness.
Traffic on the trail is moving pretty well. I am in a group of steady movers who, like me, seem to be striving to go home in one piece. Everything is going swell until suddenly, at the crest of a long climb, we stop. Completely.
“What’s going on?” I ask to those up ahead.
“Butt Slide Hill,” I hear someone holler back.
I poke my head out from the congested conga line to see a group of runners stopped in their slushy tracks, unsure of how to navigate down the frighteningly steep descent. Their facial expressions say they aren’t sure, so I cut the line and head straight to the front.
“It’s not called ‘Butt Slide Hill’ for nothin’,” I say as I scoot to my backside and slide — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — all the way down.
Wow. That. Was. AWESOME.
I rise to my feet, and despite the snow filling my crack, I can’t stop from laughing.
“That was worth the price of registration alone,” I say to a runner close behind. “And to think, we get to do that four more times!!!”
A couple of miles later and my smile finally starts to wane as the thick slush soaking and freezing my feet reminds me that I have a lot of work to do, and a long way to go.
But I reach the start/finish line to a raucous cheer from a familiar cast of friends and volunteers. I fill my bottle, grab some grub and head back out for more punishment.
Loop 2, Miles 6.2 – 12.4
I walk fast while chomping down on some delicious cookies and notice my heart rate hovering around 140, even while walking. So far I have been successful in keeping my heart rate in the 150 range while running. I only wish it would drop a bit more when going slow. When I tackle any hill it seems to soar around 160-170.
I contemplate this, as well as the recipe to these scrumptious cookies, when suddenly I hear “What the–?” from behind. I turn back to see Jeff Moss, a friendly runner (with an awesome name) whom I met at the 2013 DPRT 50. He seems surprised to have caught me so early in the race.
“Oh no, it’s going to be slow-going for me today,” I assure him. “I want to go home in one piece.”
For the entirety of this loop, Jeff and I run together, sometimes talking, sometimes not, but always moving. We chat about races past and those to come. I am impressed with Jeff’s running resume, especially that he’s going to take on his first 100 miler this spring at the Potawatami 100.
“You definitely have the bug, don’t you? The racing bug.” I say.
“Oh yes, definitely.”
As we climb up towards the peak of Butt Slide Hill for the second time, I look back to see I’m first in a long line of runners. Eager to lead by good example, I excitedly drop down on my butt and — WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! — zoom down the hill.
I stop at the bottom, but again, I can’t stop laughing. I feel like a goofy kid drunk off life.
A couple miles of more slogging and we’re back at the start/finish line. This time there are cinnamon rolls! YES!
Loop 3, Miles 12.4 – 18.6
I start back out on my own, but it doesn’t take long for Jeff to catch up to me again. I welcome the company, even when the trail forces us to concentrate hard on staying upright, leading to limited conversation. It’s just nice to know that if I fall and snap my femur, someone will be there to help me up.
The loop is getting to be familiar now. Up this hill, down that one. Around this snow bank, zig-zagging over that one. Ankle high sloppy slush through this multi-track, cross country skiing with trail shoes through that one.
Every once in a while we are greeted by smiling course marshals and a ringing cow bell. It’s all becoming as familiar to me now as the rising ache in my butt.
“I’m getting beat up,” Jeff says.
“Me too. Me. Too.”
We reach the start/finish line and I head right for my drop bag and a much needed Red Bull. Friend and volunteer Julie Bane offers me some hot soup and I take it as fast as I can.
Ahhhhh… yes. It warms my soul as much as my gut.
“Wow, this soup is delicious, Julie,” I say. “It doesn’t necessarily pair well with the Red Bull, but man, did I need that!”
As I stand around my drop bag slurping soup and Red Bull, I contemplate a sock and shoe change. After 18+ miles of stomping through snow and slush, my feet are frozen bricks, and the more I stand around, the colder they get. It might be nice to have dry feet, I think to myself, but as soon as I get back on the trail they will go right back to being cold and soaking wet.
I’m better off just dealing with it.
So I do.
Loop 4, Miles 18.6 – 24.8
Jeff passes me as we head out for this loop and his backside quickly disappears from my view. That’s the last time I will see him until the finish line.
“Go get ’em, Jeff!” I yell, mostly to myself, because he is too far away to hear.
I put my head down, pump my arms and force myself to just… keep… moving.
My heart rate is hovering around 155-160 now and it’s getting harder and harder to bring it down. Each hill I climb sends it to 170 and beyond, and even when I slow to a fast hike I find it difficult to get below 150. I guess this is because THIS RACE IS HARD.
Up the hills, down the hills, up the hills, down the hills.
It’s a hard course, but beautiful, no doubt. I am all alone on this loop and the surrounding forest keeps me entertained with its eery quiet and comforting, wintery surprises.
I hit Butt Slide Hill again, chuckling all the way down, and when I find myself back at the start/finish line, volunteer extraordinaire Karen Shearer greets me with a beaming smile and more hot soup.
I really don’t want to leave the comforts of the start/finish area. My feet are bricks. My hip flexors are screaming. My butt aches. Heck, it’s taken me five and a half hours to complete 40k, cementing the idea that this will be my slowest 50k finish ever, in the seven hour plus range. But race director Michele said she brought my favorite post-race grub, her famous taco soup, and I would feel guilty filling up on that treasure without having finished the race, so I put on my big-boy smile and get the hell back out there.
Loop 5, Miles 24.8 – 31
The biggest difference between this loop and the previous four is the fact that I’m doing a LOT of walking now, even on the flats. Also, I’m singing. To be specific, I’m singing “Te Lo Pido, Por Favor”, a song that has been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks now. Since I’m all alone and suffering, I’m even singing three different versions (Juan Gabriel, Banda El Recodo and my favorite, Marc Anthony) at the top of my lungs.
Tu me sabes bien guiar, tu me sabes bien cuidar…
Oh man, my butt hurts.
Good grief my feet are cold. I could use some taco soup right about now. Yes, soup… hot soup, soup, soup…
Whew. Wow. I’m gonna suggest to the course director THAT HE MAKE THIS RACE A LITTLE TOUGHER NEXT TIME.
Just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill, just get to Butt Slide Hill…
I get to Butt Slide Hill and now I know, yes, it’s… all downhill from here. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!
At the bottom of the hill, resting on my back, I just smile. And laugh. Sure I’m sore. Sure I ache. Sure my feet are frigidly cold.
But is there anything else you’d rather be doing today?
And with that, I’m up running again. I’m running slow, using an exaggerated arm pump to convince myself I’m running faster than I really am, but I am running.
Hot soup, soup, soup.
Te lo pido, por favor.
As I reach the finish line to cheering voices, my eyes grow large with with the type of joy only arduous adventure can provide. Somehow the sun, an entity that has laid dormant throughout the entire day, comes out to shine, as if to say:
“Welcome to the finish line, Jeff. Now get yer ass some taco soup.”
After a 2012 that saw me break beaucoup barriers and dream of crossing the marathon finish line with a 2-hour-something time, it would be easy to assume that 2013 was a letdown year for me. I didn’t come close to my goal time for 26.2. I suffered through a long recovery from ITBS. I got a nasty case of Achilles tendonitis.
But just like in any other discourse, life is what you make it.
So, positively speaking:
I negative split the marathon for the first time while simultaneously experiencing triumph through tragedy.
Despite the heavy rain and relentless terrain, I answered the bell for all 50 miles of the Minnesota Voyageur and had a kickass time doing it.
I PR’d the half marathon in one of my favorite local races.
I played in the woods with my friends, again.
I was reminded to be grateful for what I have, to live in the moment, to enjoy every second of life as it comes.
I volunteered at the Earth Day 50k, the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Miler and the inaugural Naperville Marathon, perfecting the art of cowbell ringing in one hand while handing out aid with the other.
I had another race report published in Ultrarunning Magazine (October issue).
I spent hours and hours pounding pavement, traversing trails, meditating through movement.
And I fell in love.
Thank you, 2013. My graciously heartfelt smile remains from ear to ear.
Happy New Year!
No matter how bad I feel a run or race went, there is always a part of running where I am smiling from ear to ear. If running can keep me smiling like that, it will always be a part of my life.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to make 2013 the year I accomplished my ultimate marathon goal of running under three hours. In doing so I developed chronic Achilles tendonitis and spent a lot of time on the bike, neither of which got me any closer to my goal.
In the three weeks leading up to the Chicago Marathon, it became very clear that sub-3 was not going to happen on October 13. I made peace with that, and hung on to the hope that I could fight my way to a 3:10 finish.
The running gods, in all their ironic glory, would have a little something to say about that.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
It’s race morning and I’ve been up since I went to bed. Did I ever sleep? Not really. And all this tossing and turning through the night has left me achy, nervous and cranky. I better eat.
A banana, a bagel and a half a cup of coffee later, and I feel much better. Being up on my feet and totally awake now has slowed the constant loop of worry that was going through my head: Will my heels hold up? Am I fit enough for the distance? Have I set myself up for failure?
Now it’s just a matter of going through my regular routine and getting to the start line.
It’s a tad chilly, but perfect for running. I suspect the temperature is hovering around 50 degrees, and though I’m wearing sweats while I wait for the corrals to open, I have to keep moving to keep warm.
I got here early, in anticipation of large crowds and heightened security, and now all I can do it is wait. And think.
My game plan for today is to start with the 3:10 pace team and just stick with them through 20 miles, then see what happens. Over the last several days, I have convinced myself I can indeed run a 3:10 marathon despite not having done any speed work since mid-September. I have convinced myself that my long hours in the gym and muscle memory from races past will be enough to propel me towards the finish line at 7 minutes, 15 seconds per mile.
I mean, c’mon, it’s 7:15 pace. That’s easy.
Oh Mr. Confidence, sometimes you can be a sly, deceiving little punk.
I’ve hit the head four times now, so surely there’s nothing left. I make my way to A Corral and slip myself into the warm-up loop circling with svelte, uber fast specimens. After a couple of revolutions, I see John Kiser and immediately say hello.
My newly coiffed mohawk must be throwing him because he squints and tilts his head to the side questioningly.
“Hi, John, it’s me, Jeff.” I say.
“Yes! Hi! How are ya?”
We both give each other the look. The look is: I don’t really know but we’re gonna find out soon.
A few days ago, I emailed John, a friend I met through the New Leaf and M.U.D.D. groups, to see if he would be leading the 3:10 Nike Pace team as he has done in years past. He assured me he was, but that he had been dealing with some aggravating tendonitis in his knee that may limit his abilities. Of course, I told him about my Achilles tendonitis, and we bonded as only extremely competitive, marathon maniacs on the mend are wont to do.
Now, here we are, just a few minutes from the start, exchanging the look with nervous undertones disguised as light conversation.
“Did you see the Bradley/Marquez fight last night?” I asked.
“Nah, did you see the Michigan/Penn State game?”
We carry conversation to quell the anticipation.
Joined by John are two other pacers, Dale and Brian — both skinny and fast, looking the part. I remind myself to just tuck in with these guys and hold on. Whatever happens, happens.
The elites are introduced, the Star Spangled Banner is sung, a fly over misses its mark and then…
Um… why is it so quiet? I think to myself.
Ordinarily, the beginning of the Chicago Marathon is a raucous roar of people down Columbus Drive. But due to the increased security measures brought on by two lunatics earlier this year, no spectators have been allowed at this traditionally jam-packed part of the course. And it sucks.
As my legs move underneath my feet and the pace set by our leaders begins to set in, the eery quiet makes me think: Oh boy, we got a looooong way to go. And this might be too much.
Doubt. I knew it would pop up eventually. It usually does and I’m usually ready for it. But I didn’t expect it to pop up before we reach the first mile marker.
When I began marathoning, a wise runner told me to “always respect the distance.” Running 26.2 miles is never easy. The distance makes sure of that. So running it at a particular, fast pace is never easy either. To think that I’ve reached a level where I can just go through the motions to accomplish what I consider a relatively speedy finish is as dangerous as it is foolish.
Respect the distance, or it will beat your ass.
Pretty sure today is gonna be one of those ass beatin’ days, regardless.
After the symphony of Garmin beeps signals the first mile, I look down to see I never even started my watch. Oh, nice move, Jeff.
All the more reason to stick with John, Dale and Brian.
Our group is probably 15-20 people but I can’t tell for sure because we are all spread out, still trying to get through the early maze of runners bunched.
As we approach Lincoln Park around mile 5, I realize I haven’t looked up from the ground hardly at all. I am so intent on staying with the pace group that the only way I feel comfortable is by not paying attention to everything around me. In some ways, this is a shame, because the Chicago Marathon is one of the most supported races I’ve ever run, with exuberant crowds lining the streets. It’s also a fantastic tour of the city I love so much. But today I am giving up aesthetics for performance, and right now all I can do to hang on is watch the feet in front of me.
Surprisingly, I feel pretty good.
In fact, 7.5 miles in and I’m still feeling pretty good. Except… I have to pee.
It must be nerves still because I’ve never peed so many times just before a race. Plus, other than a half cup of coffee, I haven’t had anything to drink since 7 p.m. last night!
Too bad, bladder. I’m not stopping.
I can’t believe I’m holding pace as well as I am right now. If I stop to pee I’ll never catch up.
As we zip through Boystown and the rest of Lakeview, our even split pace and building camaraderie in the 3:10 group is enough to silence my bladder. As long as I concentrate on staying with the pacers, I am able to forget about what ails me. Watching Dale’s feet — one step in front of the other, over and over and over again — has hypnotized me into a time trance. I’m totally focused on breathing and breathing alone.
The miles go by. The crowds continue to cheer. I’m completely oblivious.
This holds true until we reach the halfway mark about 30 seconds faster than goal pace. The celebrations within our group wake me from my trance, just as both Achilles remind me they are not having much fun.
I knew I was gonna take a beating, I was just hoping it wouldn’t be this soon into the race. But it is.
Keeping pace isn’t so much of an issue, but keeping pace with the annoyance of Achilles pain is. With each compounded step I can feel the calcaneal bursa sacs rubbing against the back of my shoes — tender and inflamed. I try to convince myself that it will all go away, but I’m not as stupid as I think I am, and the convincing doesn’t succeed.
This is where I should be sucking it up. This is where I should be lowering my head and digging deep.
Instead, this is where I begin to think about alternative goals.
But why!?! some part of my conscience interjects. You’re right with the 3:10 group. You’re fine! Just keep going! You can rest your heels when you’re done!
Every time this voice encourages me, its mirror opposite gets in the way:
You’re not in 3:10 shape, dude. You’re not gonna make it. Just take it easy. No use fighting. You’re gonna conk out any minute now. Just wait and see.
Back and forth they go, those voices in my head.
Don’t lose the group!
You’re gonna lose the group.
Don’t listen to that asshole!
This asshole wants you to be able to walk tomorrow.
As the argument builds, so too do my efforts to stay with the group. It becomes increasingly difficult with each step. The latter asshole voice gets louder. Still, I hang on.
Everythiiiiiiiing sloooooooooooows dooooooooooooooooowwwwwwn.
Boom. Just like that. The wheels fall off and there is no question: 3:10 pace is too much.
Yes, my heels hurt, but it’s not my heels that shut me down, it’s my cardiovascular system.
My body has had enough of that pace and it refuses to go any further unless I slow it down. Every muscle, every breath is against running another step at that pace.
Before giving in completely, I put forth one last valiant effort to catch back up to the 3:10 team now quickly disappearing before my eyes and… I… struggle… to…
Fuck it. Just not gonna happen today.
I take about 30 seconds to feel sorry for myself, to wallow in my shattered hopes. And then I recall Ali Tremaine’s words:
No matter how bad I feel a run or race went, there is always a part of running where I am smiling from ear to ear.
Hot damn, yes! That’s the perspective I was looking for! Mentally, I put on my big boy pants, hold myself a little taller, and keep on moving.
I’m still RUNNING! In the CHICAGO MARATHON! And all these strangers are cheering for me, so let’s go!
Suddenly 8:30 pace doesn’t feel so bad, in fact, it feels GREAT!
I go through Pilsen on 18th street screaming “Viva Mexico!”
I turn right onto Halsted and high five my buddy Omar.
I turn left onto Archer and stop to give my girlfriend a great big hug and kiss.
Before I get to Chinatown, I stop to take a piss.
Feeling infinitely better now that my bladder is empty, I charge down Wentworth, tucked in close to the crowd for support, smiling ear to ear.
At mile 23 I see my friend Alison, so I stop to give her a big hug, and now I’m really feeling good. Well, I’m feeling as good as a fatigued, wonky-heeled runner with 23 miles in his legs can feel.
I’m still movin’ ain’t I!?!?
Ah, yes, here we are on the home stretch down Michigan Avenue. This part of the race sure does feel different knowing that I won’t accomplish my goal for the day, but the warmth from the enthusiastic crowd cheering me regardless and the perfectly blue skies above remind me that I am indeed lucky to be where I am right now.
Be glad you can run, period.
And eat some humble pie, dude.
Enjoy the last few miles to the finish.
Absolutely. I make eye contact with volunteers. I high five random kids. I smile big and cheesy.
Then someone pinches my butt.
I turn around to see it’s John, my pacer friend. Apparently his knee issues came up and slowed him down too. But he’s smiling! And moving relatively well (faster than me) as he darts on by.
“Wasn’t expecting a butt pinch 2 miles from the finish line, John, but I’ll take it!” I yell as he speeds on by.
I laugh to myself all the way to Mt. Roosevelt before I make the last left turn towards the finish line. It’s a good day after all. It’s a good day indeed.
3 hours and 20 minutes after I took off on this journey, I am humbled and finally done.
One minute later, I have a beer in my hand.
Two minutes later, I’m thinking about the next marathon.
A very wise person once told me that I should learn something from every race, regardless of the outcome. Well, I learned a whole lot in this one.
I learned that, just like anything else in life, a race is what you make of it. If you want to feel sorry for yourself and miss the beauty of reality, then that’s on you. Attitude is paramount. And with the right perspective, one can truly find joy, even in defeat.
I also learned that it’s okay to give myself a break every once in a while. Setting goals and being productive towards achieving them is great, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of my health.
But most of all, I was reminded that running is what matters for me. It’s not speed, not distance. It’s not splits or weather or terrain.
Running brings me to the state of now.
And that’s where I always want to be.
The pugilistic metaphors runneth still.
BEHOLD! My all-time favorite round of boxing from my all-time favorite fight:
The moral of the story, of course, is: you can knock a guy down, (sometimes more than once, in the same round!), but you can’t take away his desire to keep moving forward, despite all odds against him — especially if he’s a stubborn bull like the late great Diego “Chico” Corrales.
I will certainly channel my inner Chico as I take to the streets running my hometown Chicago Marathon this coming Sunday, October 13. I may be screeching with each step; but I’m going to keep moving forward as long as I can, head down, arms pumping.
The truth is, my Achilles tendonitis, while a little bit better than what it was three weeks ago, is still keeping me from feeling my best. I haven’t been able to run much at all without stiffness and pain since late August, and I’ve resolved myself to just going out and having a good time Sunday. The main goal will be to simply revel in the greatness that is this world class event. I will look for my friends along the way, throw out lots of high fives and remember how good life has been (and continues to be) to me.
Right now my plan is to line up with the first 3:10 pace team. That even-split finish time calculates to a 7 minute 15 second mile for the duration — a much more accessible pace than the 6:50 mile I was training for (and hitting!) earlier this summer. Hopefully I can hang with the group up until 10k to go, then decide to either stay with them or take off on my own (heels allowing).
Of course, a very real possibility exists that even a 7:15 pace won’t be tolerated by my under-performing heels and now under-trained cardiovascular system. It’s quite possible that I’ll blow up or will have to dog it much earlier in the race. But just like Chico, as long as my legs still work and my heart still beats, nothing is going to keep me from crossing that finish line.
So as the city of Chicago buzzes with the excitement of marathon week and a hearty welcome towards enthusiastic athletes arriving from all across the world…
LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!
In the fall of 2011, while recovering in the back of an SUV from a particularly muddy climb up what the Michigan locals called “the stripper pole” section of trail, a teammate of mine from the Dances with Dirt 100k relay team mentioned a peculiar event that had just taken place: Run Woodstock.
“Wait,” I interrupted, “You’re saying that a bunch of people get together for three days to just camp, run crazy distances and hang out?”
“Yep. And there’s a ‘natural 5k’, don’t forget.”
“You mean, ‘natural’… as in, naked?”
“You got it.”
And I was. In 2012, I may not have run the natural 5k, but I did pace the women’s overall 100 mile champion to a 21 hour+ finish while spending the rest of the laid back weekend drinking beer and hanging out with awesome, like-minded folks.
A week after returning home, I circled the 2013 date on my calendar and encouraged my dad to come out from Houston to join in the adventure with me. With race options from the half marathon to a hundred miles and everything in between, I knew that a weekend in the woods with friends, family and a cooler of beer would be something I would look forward to all year.
I didn’t plan on toeing the line a bit hobbled — both by my heels and my low alcohol tolerance — but life throws us curveballs all the time. It’s how we swing at them that determines who we are.
Pre-Race, Saturday, September 7, 2013, 4:30 a.m.
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
Oh… my… what the… who was… ah, shit.
I’m hung over.
Hung over! WHY!?!? WHY DID I DO THIS!?!? WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS!?!?
Oh yeah, I am. I’m responsible. Well, shit.
Sure, it sounded good at the time. In fact, it sounded like a GREAT idea at the time:
Carbo load with beer! Why not? My heels and whatever Achilles-tendonitis-and-or-calcaneus-bursitis have limited my training to the point where I didn’t even think I would be able to run the race, let alone “race” it so let’s add something new to this race experience by getting loaded the night before! Your heels are gonna hurt anyway, let’s kill the pain!
At least, this is how I remember the decision making going down. Actually, as the fog clears, I realize it was less calculated. Only once I was four or five beers in (enough to put me in the ‘beyond buzzed’ category) was I able to justify my position with nonsense. And now… well, now it’s too late.
I’m parched. I’m dizzy. I’m running 50k.
I’m running 50k! I have the ability to run 50k… hung over… with wonky heels.
Life could be so much worse.
Dad wakes up beside me and our tent comes alive with amateur detective skills as we try to piece together all the shenanigans from last night. I am shocked to hear that I was a bit bossy towards my father in my delirium. Okay, so I’m not shocked, but I am embarrassed. I do my best to apologize before I force down a banana, chug multiple bottles of water and lube up for a long, long day.
Loop 1, Miles 1-15.5
It is still very dark as an amoeba of groggy headlamps makes its way towards the forest, where 15.5 miles of trail waits to inflict damage on my psyche and soul. My first several steps, as expected, are tender and sore. The backs of my heels — the absolute bane of my summer training — don’t quite seem to be in agreement with me today. I expect they will loosen up and not hurt as much after a while, but I know better than to think the aches will go away completely.
Luckily, my friend Jen is alongside to keep my mind off this fact. And I also have to pay attention to the trail in front of me for fear of–
Tripping. Tripping on the trail. Nice save, I tell myself, nice save.
I look down at my watch and am astonished to see I don’t have one on. Hm… no watch. Hung over. This IS a race of firsts.
So I don’t know how fast I’m going. That’s probably a good thing. I’m starting to feel a little bit better as I move along at what feels like a consistent pace, but if I knew my speed I would probably spend too much time beating myself up.
In fact, I interrupt myself, let’s just stop beating ourselves up NOW, shall we? You’re here to have fun. You had some fun last night, you’re having some fun now, you’re having fun, period. HAVE FUN!
And, just like that, I enter happy runner world bliss, not giving two shits about anything other than moving forward in time and space… and getting to an aid station because boy am I hungry.
At the first aid station, approximately four miles into the loop, I spy peanut butter and jelly. The volunteers look at me like I’m Godzilla on the attack as I stuff my face faster than I can chew. NOM NOM NOM. I grab a handful of Saltines for the trail and get going, intent on not stopping long enough for my heels to stiffen.
On my way out I wave goodbye to Jen who kept me company for these first several miles. Today’s going to be one of those days where I want the distraction of conversation so I’m glad I got through the darkness with a friend.
Now the sun is coming up, I’m starting to feel less nauseous and I have the whole day ahead of me.
The Run Woodstock loop is made up of mostly single track trail through luscious forest, but there are a few seemingly long sections of road that gnaw away at my patience. I remember this from last year; however, I didn’t run a step of last year’s pacing duties during the sunlight hours. I ran it all at night, so seeing the road stretch out in front of me tests my ability to shut off the negativity that seems to always want me to quit when things get tough.
Not today, negativity. Not today.
I spend most of miles 4 through 10 ping-ponging among a solid group of runners. My pace, while certainly below what I am use to, feels great and suits the wonkiness of my heels. I stop every once in a while to stretch out my Achilles, and I embrace the opportunity to slow down and power hike when I feel like my heart rate is too high.
By the time I hit the third aid station, around mile 11 or so, I conclude that my body has won the war against hungover dehydration. I celebrate by stuffing massive amounts of peanut butter and jelly in my mouth.
NOM NOM NOM
*ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOOOOOM*
What the? Half marathoners. Blazing. Flying! Right past me. I knew this was going to happen, that I would be embracing my inner tortoise, comfortably laboring along only to have my ego slaughtered by slender speedsters. With each approaching huff and puff gaining from behind, I politely step off trail to let them through.
Then immediately chase them. Duh.
By the time I hit the end of loop one my heart rate is way higher than it should be, the sun is beating down from above and when I see the clock reads 3 hours and change I know this is going to be the longest 50k of my life.
But, as if the running gods could actually feel my pain, at the start/finish line aid station I am gifted with the glorious grace of… GRILLED CHEESE.
The kind volunteer who offers it to me marvels at my ability to clear the plate. Well, I hope he is marveling and not chastising. Either way, that grilled cheese doesn’t stand a chance.
NOM NOM NOM
Before I head out for the second loop I make a stop at my tent to roll out my calves with The Stick. My heels are really thumping me with aches now. Tight calves are often the culprit. I back all of this up with 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a nice long chug of water.
I stumble out of the tent and see my friend, Kirsten, who is running the 50 mile race.
“Hey, Kirsten, wait up!” I call out, anxious to share more miles with friendly faces. If I’m going to be out there for another 3+ hours, I want to have some conversation to keep my occupied.
Loop 2, Miles 15.5-31
Kirsten has showed up on this blog many times, notably here and here. It’s been cool getting to know her over the last year and a half, another testament to the notion that ultrarunners are awesome by default, regardless of gender, occupation, speed. We run long, and in doing so, share so much.
Her 50 mile race speed is slightly faster than my current 50k race speed, but I don’t want to be alone right now so I just stay on her heels as we head back into the forest. We chat about everything and nothing at all, keen on sharing elevated heart rate stories caused by the blazing fast half marathoners who caught us on the first go around.
My legs are getting heavy, and by the time we hit the road section I can tell I need to slow myself down. I wish Kirsten the best with the rest of her race before I stop, stretch, then settle back into a slow slog — smile still ear to ear.
Because really, what is there not to be happy about? I am still moving, right? I’m still having fun, seeing my friends, enjoying time alone in the forest. I’m alive, I’m sound. It would be easy for me to feel sorry for myself right now because I’m not 100% but I’m not having it. As long as I’m able to run — period — I am going to be happy about it. That’s the choice I make.
That choice, and the bliss that goes with it, is what convinces me to take the time to stop around mile 23. I’m really starting to feel the thumping in my heels now and I know that taking my shoes off and massaging my heels will give me some relief. I sit down right beside the trail and do this, to both feet, for a few minutes. The relief I get from it is well worth the time lost. I’m not breaking any records today anyway, so I might as well be as comfortable as possible.
Back on my feet now, my smiles grows along with my effort. I really, really needed that.
I reach a road crossing and tuck in behind a friendly woman in pink, donning a Marathon Maniacs jersey. Her name is Amanda and this 50k is her very first ultra.
ULTRA VIRGIN! YES!
And immediately behind me is a familiar voice. I turn to see it’s Betty, another friendly gal whom I met at Ice Age this year, where she was running her first ultra.
We’re just one happy ultra world, ain’t we!?
It turns out we are all New Leafers (hooray!) and we all have a lot in common: marathon-crazed, adventure-driven, Bears fans. We will spend the next (and last) 8 miles running together, enjoying a free-flowing, easy conversation that does wonders for my achy feet.
Now I’m not even aware my heels hurt anymore. I just concentrate on the company and conversation, quick to share my race experiences on nutrition, pacing and everything in between. The three of us are forced to stay on our toes as multiple masses of mountain bikers haphazardly fly towards us.
Death wish on handlebars.
After successful navigation through the gauntlet of disgruntled bikers, we are almost done. I can hear the music and laughter of the camp off in the distance. Betty and Amanda pick up the pace. I do all I can to stick with them, but as we approach the last 800 meters or so, I’m more interested in just finishing rather than finishing with a kick, so they leave me in their dust.
I couldn’t be happier for them both.
When I cross the line myself, arms up in triumph after 6 hours and 22 minutes of running, they are both there with big smiles and individual age group awards.
Hot dog! What a day! Now somebody get me a beer!
Post-Race, Hair of the Dog, Hippies Abound
If you assumed I would celebrate this 50k finish with an Anti-Hero IPA from Revolution Brewing, then you are most definitely correct. Waiting for me by the cooler was my old man, himself content with his own half marathon finish, and there, the two of us rejoiced in one of nature’s longest pastimes: relaxation.
With our tent situated right on the trail coming out of the start/finish line aid station, we spent the next several hours cheering runners (50 milers, 100k’ers, 100 milers) along with the raucous sound of beer and cowbell.
Much of the rest of the evening was spent in a similar manner. We ate, we drank, we cheered. We took in live music, shared war stories with friends, and some of us (not me) even enjoyed a naked jog through the woods.
But most of all, we celebrated the peace that is being in nature, running long and being alive.
For sure, I will be back to Run Woodstock. As for how sober I will remain, well, there are no guarantees.
The Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon in Batavia, IL keeps bringing me back. I PR’d there in 2011. I did it again in 2012. And since the quaint little town is so welcoming with its serene course and opulent post-race party, I couldn’t help but toe the line for a third year in a row. Besides, the race fits quite well with my Chicago Marathon training and, for the last two years, has accurately projected where I can expect to finish in an all-things-being equal mid-October 26.2 mile contest.
Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.
I am up and stuffing my face with bananas, toast and coffee. Despite the early morning butterflies, I actually slept pretty well last night. But now, just a few hours from the start, I begin to go through my regular cycle of self-doubt and reassuring affirmation. With this year’s Chicago Marathon goal being the loftiest I’ve ever imagined, the plan for today is to run all 13.1 at marathon pace, somewhere between 6:50-6:52 minute miles, finishing in 1 hour 30 minutes, which would be a new personal record by more than two minutes.
The weather doesn’t look too bad. It will be in the low 70s for most of my race with the type of humidity one can expect for the Midwest in August. If I can pull off a 1:30 finish in today’s summery conditions, I will spend the next 6 weeks feeling pretty confident about what I can do on October 13. Luckily, there will be a 1:30 pace group for today’s half, and having run this race twice before, I know the last two miles are essentially all downhill. As long as I can get to the 11-mile marker without dying, I should be able to accomplish my goal.
But 90 minutes at sub-7 minute pace… Jeff, you’ve NEVER done that before. You hear me? NEVER.
I’m only warming up and already my subconscious Debbie Downer is picking a fight.
And you don’t have the miles this year. Your heels are still wonky. Your speed work has sucked. Remember last week when you couldn’t hold 6:50 for two miles in a row!? And the week before where your legs just felt heavy and non-responsive? Yeah, good luck with that.
My subconscious Debbie Downer can be a real drag sometimes. I vow to shut it up. I’m coming in today off a mini-taper, feeling strong, feeling determined. I’m going to stick with the pace group as long as my body allows — and that means grinding through the pain.
“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”
I read that off someone’s Facebook feed this morning. I’m going to use that mantra when the going gets tough.
And it will get tough.
“Hi, my name is Jeff,” I say as I enter the chute and position myself next to two fluorescent yellow clad men holding the 1:30 pace sign.
“Hi, I’m Eric,” says the side burned leader, “and this is Kyle” he says motioning to his younger counterpart. I shake both of their hands and size them up. Both appear confident and svelte — two characteristics I usually look for in pace leaders.
“Do you plan on running even splits today?” I ask.
“Yes, 6:52 pace the whole way. Even splits,” says Eric. “I will be keeping track of the average per mile pace and Kyle will keep track of the actual mile splits each mile. If it makes you feel any better, we came in last year at 1:30:01.”
Awesome, I think to myself. Not only do these guys seem confident about their plan of attack, but they have also done this before, with success. I’m game.
“Okay, well I’m going to stick with you as long as I can,” I reply. “I just hope the heat and humidity don’t get to me.”
As soon as I say this I realize I’ve just given myself an excuse to abort if the going gets tough — an excuse my more determined self can’t accept right now.
Stick with them, Jeff. The whole way. The only thing that is going to stop you from achieving this goal today is a broken body part or a trip in an ambulance.
3… 2… 1… GO!
This is my third running of the race and the third variation to the start line I’ve experienced. In 2011 we began by going up a big hill. In 2012, that hill was gone. Today, there is another hill at the start but it’s in a different location. I think. Hell, I don’t know. I just know that we’re starting up an incline and it’s time to wedge myself into the group and get comfortable.
Eric and Kyle are in front. I tuck in directly behind. All around me are about 15-20 individuals who seem determined to hold pace.
This is your team, Jeff. Look around. Get used to these people. Stick with this group. Do NOT lose this group.
My subconscious voice is obnoxiously loud, but equally determined. Who am I to argue with what it wants?
The first couple of miles are a blur. We’re moving along right on pace and the folks in this peloton are focused. No ones seems to be huffing and puffing yet. Our footfalls create a natural, appealing rhythm. No one smells particularly awful.
This is work in motion — a thing of beauty.
Other than Eric and Kyle’s casual conversation, there isn’t much chit-chat. I can’t hold a conversation going this fast. I definitely admire those who can and the fact that our pacers seem to do so without losing a breath or a step is extremely comforting.
As we weave through the quiet neighborhoods of Batavia that remind me of the small town where I grew up, I notice everyone seems to know our pace leader, Eric. Course marshals, aid station volunteers and excited race observers alike are quick to shout out his name and wave a friendly hand.
This, combined with his detailed course preview assures me that Eric knows what he’s doing and that I should just stick on his heels. Right now, with the temperature still hovering right around the low 70s, I feel okay, but I am sweating a lot.
So when the first two aid stations only offer water and no sports drink, I begin to panic just a bit.
DOH! I need carbohydrate!
I recall this being an issue last year, that not all the aid stations offered sports drink and I had to just deal with it. I don’t know why I assumed that would change this year, but it didn’t. Am I being too snobbish by expecting that in a half marathon? I don’t know. I just know that the best fueling strategy for me is to take in carbohydrate and electrolytes from the very first aid station on through.
But a key element in distance running is adjusting to problems on the fly. I try to relax and know that I’ll get my electrolytes soon enough.
We get through the first 5k under 21 minutes and as I look around I see that our numbers are already dropping off. And so it goes with pace groups. Some days ya just don’t have it. I hone in on my constant mind-body feedback loop, keen to check my breathing, legs, feet, ankles. My wonky heels are aching a bit but that’s just going to be how it goes today. It’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. For now, I feel about as comfortable as I can expect to feel considering what I’m doing.
Somewhere around the 5-mile mark, we hit the steep downhill into downtown Batavia where the crowds are big, loud and supportive. The easiness of running decline combined with the cheering support and a MUCH needed Gatorade-rich aid station make the left turn on to the bike path a great relief to my tiring body.
We tuck in a little closer now as our path narrows, running alongside the picturesque Fox River. This well-shaded portion of the race is a welcome relief from the rising sun, and now that we find ourselves closer together, I marvel at the fact that no one has tripped yet. We are so close together that one slight misstep from anyone could cause a colossal crash and burn.
This is so cool, I think to myself.
But what is it specifically about running fast within a group that gives me goosebumps? Is it the sense of togetherness, the creation of community that is born of it? Maybe it’s the notion that I wouldn’t be able to sustain this type of movement just on my own. Or, perhaps it’s simply benefiting from less drag and focusing on the heels of the guy in front of me.
No matter what, I’m in the zone now. My only concern is right now. Right. This. Minute. Staying with the group. Sticking to Eric and Kyle.
“Eric and Kyle,” I say. “All we need now is Stan and Kenny to be complete.”
No one gets my bad Southpark joke/reference, but that’s okay, because we got work to do. A quick look around and I see we’re still about 8 strong. There are several fluorescent green and yellow shirts. There are also a few women among us and everyone is FOCUSED.
We pass the halfway mark and Eric briefs us on what is to come in the last half, which includes a couple of climbs.
Only 6.5 miles to go now, I tell myself. Just hang on. You’re doing great.
Oh yeah, you’re doing great, says my mischievous Debbie Downer self, if you consider feeling like shit doing great. You really think you can hold on to this pace? Ha!
I take a much needed gel, feel a bit more energized, and remind myself to pump my arms when the legs seem unresponsive.
The love and support our group gets from the people who came out to cheer us on along the course does wonders for my mind and body, but somewhere around mile 9, both start to suffer.
I don’t want to do this anymore.
No one cares if you run a 1:30 or a 1:35 or a 1:anything. No one cares. You can stop now.
It’s too warm. Too humid. You can chill out now, man. It’s okay. Seriously.
My Debbie Downer side bombards me just as my body starts to slow down. As we charge up an incline, I begin to fall off the pace. Actually, our whole group starts to fall apart. And while I entertain negative thoughts and consider just taking it easy from here to the end, Eric heads to the rear of the group, motivating those of us struggling to survive to stick to it, to pump our arms. His words and actions encourage me to dig a little deeper.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
And it’s only 4 more miles… the last two are downhill so just stick with it. STICK WITH IT, JEFF! NOW IS NO TIME TO GIVE UP!
The old adage of holding on through the rough spots because they’ll go away soon comes to mind as I find a little something inside to chase down Kyle up in front of me. My 30 meter surge is matched by a few others in the group and slowly, we come together again. By the time we crest the last of the inclines and hit the bike path for the last section, including the pacers we are a strong group of six. Eric and Kyle resume their leader spots, giving us much needed encouragement and support.
Holy cow, I can’t believe I just got through that, I think to myself.
“Isn’t this great?” Eric asks aloud. “A nice, steady decline here.”
Great? I think to myself. This is effing brilliant!
Properly shaded again and moving along the gradual downhill path, I look at my watch to see we’re less than two miles from the finish line and for the first time today it hits me: I am going to make that 1:30 mark. I’m going to PR and I’m going to finish this day satisfied that my marathon training is right where it needs to be to do exactly what I want to do.
The hairs on my arm stand up and I feel a cool breeze of satisfaction wash over me.
“You guys, this is going to be a huge, 4 minute PR for me today,” says the woman to my right, arms pumping, legs turning over at the high cadence which has locked in to all four of us surviving runners.
This is awesome, I think. This is simply awesome.
“If anyone is feeling good and wants to get by, just let us know,” says Eric. I definitely consider it, but when I try to accelerate, I got nothin’.
Nah, just stay right on their heels, Jeff. Just ride this out to the end and save that jolt for the finish line.
It takes all the concentration I have to just stick with the pacers. They look back every now and then to see how we survivors are doing and I can’t help but think the face I’m making must be a scary mess. I feel terrible.
But I’m almost done.
We exit the bike path and are close to the finish line because I can hear the crowd and a PA system. We turn left and run under a bridge of some sorts where we are forced to run single file.
Eric drops back and gives me one last “go get em!” as I slide by, steadily chasing the speedy Kyle in front of me. 300 meters from the finish, I feel euphoric — all the pain in my legs and lungs ceases. I feel myself well up as I thank Kyle for his help.
“Dude, thank you so much. I never would have been able to do this on my own,” I tell him.
“You’re welcome, man, awesome job,” he says as he motions me past him for my final sprint.
As I come down the finishing stretch I pass one of the guys who was in our pace group and suddenly I don’t feel my legs at all.
Am I flying? Gliding? Where am I?
I’m at the end. I cross the finish line, arms raised in proud triumph.
Holy shit I just ran a 1:30:10 half marathon.
I take a few seconds to catch my breath from the last sprint before I turn around and look for the rest of the group members. Kyle comes across and I immediately give him a hug, whether he wants it or not.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help. Thank you. Thank you so much,” I gush.
The last woman standing from our group comes across too and I give her a radiant high five for her huge PR. The smile on her face is one that I won’t forget. Those types of highlight smiles don’t wane easily.
Two other guys come through and I greet them with high fives.
Finally, Eric arrives at the back of the group and I make a beeline towards him, celebratory hug included.
“Dude! Eric! Thank you! That was awesome. I really appreciate your help. Two minute PR for me today. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
This enthusiasm, this cheer, this ecstasy… it always seems to find its way into my running adventures.
So I just keep coming back.
The good folks in Batavia host one hell of a post-race party. After my emotions calmed down, I had my share of all you can eat pizza and all you can drink beer. I was quick to thank all of the volunteers who made the event a special one.
Watching this race grow over the last few years has been a real treat. In talking with some of my friends at the post-race party, I learned that the race organizers and volunteers had to fight hard to keep the course winding through the neighborhoods like it does. Apparently there was some opposition. Some entity wanted to restrict the entire race to just the bike patch, which, in my opinion would totally kill the charming vibe of this race.
I love going through the actual town, seeing folks on their front lawns with signs and cowbells and high fives. If I wanted to run on a bike path the whole time I’d just stay in Chicago.
Hopefully, this race will continue its awesome streak and I won’t ever have to worry about that.
In thinking about my performance post-race, I realize it would have been nice to break that 1:30 barrier; however, my goal for the day was to run a 1:30 and considering the conditions, where the race fell within my training plan and the fact that I really gave it all I had, I have no regrets.
All I have is a sore face from smiling so much.
Long have I been a sucker for classic training montages, the cheesier the better. Whether it’s Rocky Balboa racing a boat, Daniel-san whipping crane kicks to get the girl or Frank Dux redefining ninjitsu, I just can’t help but get pumped up watching that all-or-nothing training mentality in superlative action.
And, of course, a nice score doesn’t hurt.
It could be said that race day is just the exclamation point on the process, whether one reaches his goal or not. Hours and hours of training are logged so that race day simply comes down to execution. We reach our goals with compounded hard work, not by a one-day luck of the draw.
The process of training — the long, drawn out montage in real time — is what the whole experience is about for me. It’s about getting up before light to log a lactate threshold run. It’s about strict attention to clean diet while my friends pack away the pints. It’s about daily massage, supplemental strength training and lots of sleep.
It’s about doing everything in my power to make myself as good as I can be, to (as Survivor would suggest) rise up to the challenge of my rival.
My rival is me — the old me, the me who couldn’t run a block, let alone speed through 26.2 miles all in one shot.
And while that old rival self may not exist in the flesh anymore, the doubt and negativity inherent to his being still lingers. The challenge of rising up against it is still very real. I want to put it to rest forever.
My target is the Chicago Marathon; the goal is to break three hours. It’s my hometown course. It’s built for speed. And I know every tangent, every turn, every double-sided aid station.
On August 4th, backed by a summer of long, slow base mileage, I began marathon training in earnest. Right now I have eight and a half weeks to get tuned into high turnover and to make October 13 one of the most memorable days of my life.
Of course, with high expectation comes the risk of major heartbreak. If it’s 80 degrees on race day then I will have to ditch the effort and just survive. If I go out only to blow up halfway through, I’ll have to suck up defeat and look forward to the next opportunity. Or I could get injured, I could get ill, I could spontaneously combust. Any number of detrimental things lurks, ready to stop me from achieving my ultimate running goal.
But one thing is for certain: even if I do get knocked down, I’m gettin’ my ass right back up.
I’m not going to quit. I’m going to achieve this goal.
It’s going to happen.
And by putting this declaration out into the universe for all to see I feel even more driven to get the job done, one 6 minute and 50 second paced step at a time.
It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger
In this year’s comeback from last fall’s IT band injury, I have been doing a lot of sparring at the gym. It’s a good thing I have been doing so, because the only thing that properly prepared me for the type of beating I would take at the Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile Race on July 27, 2013 was getting punched over and over again by dudes bigger and stronger than me.
And just as it goes in the ring, sometimes getting your bell rung can be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Pre-Race, Friday, July 26, 2013
First thing in the morning and my heels hit the ground pain free.
This is good. This is very good, I say to myself.
I haven’t run a step since Saturday and the extra rest has given me full motion in my ankles and heels, something I am going to need as I mentally and physically prepare myself for Minnesota Voyageur. The Achilles pain that scared me most of the week seems to be absent and with this added rest I feel confident about tackling the tough, gnarly course.
My friend, Kirsten, who I met last year at Clinton Lake, shows up at my house with Jim, another ultrarunner from central Illinois, and all three of us exude excitement with a hint of anxiety as we load the car and begin the 8-hour trek north towards the Minnesota wilderness.
The drive is long and confusing — long because it’s 480 miles from my house to Carlton, Minnesota; and confusing because it’s 55 degrees and pouring rain most of the way. Between the spry conversation and the giddy storytelling of ultra-adventures past, I make sure to look at my watch every now and then just to remind myself that it really is late July.
We arrive in Carlton and walk to packet pick-up shivering in the cold, wet rain.
The high for tomorrow is 57, says Jim as I pinch myself hoping to wake up in a warmer state. Supposed to be 42 at the start.
With our race shirts and bibs in hand, we get news that this year’s course will be different than the original one. Due to some washed out areas and bridge construction, the course has been modified from the one that made it famous, but we are assured that all the familiar Voyageur sections will still be there, including the infamous power line section of steep, brutal climbs.
We head back to the hotel, eat dinner and then commiserate on the less-than-summery skies mother nature will provide us tomorrow. We all agree that the cooler temps will make for nice running weather, but the chilly rain will make things quite sloppy. This isn’t going to be an easy fifty (are any of them really?), but the good news is: we are all prepared for a fight.
Jim, you ready to finish your first 50 miler? I ask.
Yes, I am, he emphatically replies.
More than satisfied with his confident answer, I wish he and Kirsten both a good night, turn off the lights and fall fast asleep.
Pre-Race, Saturday, July 27, 2013
*BEEP BEEP BEEP*
WAKE THE HELL UP, JEFF! says my brain to my body as I desperately reach for the “off” button on my smartphone’s alarm clock. I look around to see Kirsten and Jim are rising along with me.
Who thought it was a good idea to run 50 miles this morning? Jim asks.
Excellent. We’re cracking jokes well before the crack of dawn and that’s a great sign. Unfortunately, the weather report has jokes too, unwavering from its estimated high of 57 degrees. And right now, as I shove two bananas and a Clif Bar down my throat in the black of morning, it’s a balmy 43 degrees.
Armed with this bit of irony, the three of us ready ourselves with our own pre-race rituals. I take some time to get my head right, to focus my mental game on pushing my physical.
There is no question that I am stronger, right now, than I ever have been before. This increased muscle mass was born out of less miles and more rounds in the gym, so while I know the body is there for a full-on physical adventure through the woods, I still have questions about my endurance, especially over the course of a demanding, difficult race like I will face today.
The only other question mark entering my psyche this morning is whether or not my heels will hold up on this challenging terrain. I won’t know until I get going, so it’s no use worrying about it now.
Instead, I focus on being confident, and sometimes, that’s all it takes to get my stubborn ass moving the way I want.
After a 25-minute drive and some nasty, watered down gas station coffee, Jim, Kirsten and I find ourselves shivering together in the Carlton High School parking lot, still scratching our heads at the unorthodox July chill. It’s 47 degrees as we prepare to toe the start line and I overhear another runner say it was 80-something last year.
What a difference a year makes, I say as I stick my hand down my shorts to slather Vaseline all over my nether region, further exemplifying why I love the ultra community so much. Here I am coating my crack with grease mid-conversation and no one seems to notice, or care. It’s just part of the game.
So too is putting yourself in arduous predicaments. In fact, THIS is what I live for — the challenge of NOW — and I know that, no matter what, this entire day is going to be an adventurous exercise in taming doubt and experiencing the present, through every possible channel.
We pose for a final pre-race picture before the race director gives his speech.
A couple of good-luck fist bumps later and…
Slow, slow, slow.
Let’s go slow.
I repeat the above mantra as I settle somewhere in the middle of the pack.
My goal for today is to FINISH, of course. That’s always my first goal of any ultra distance race. But I would be a liar if I didn’t admit my sincere desire to run a sub-11 hour race today. After my dreamlike Western States pacing experience last month, I really want to start putting my name in the Western States lottery, and to do so I need to qualify with a sub-11 hour 50 miler. Because I plan to focus on Chicago Marathon training after this, I likely won’t be running any more 50s this year, so this is my one and only shot.
But considering how tough this course is, combined with the elements of rain and chill, I know that it is going to be nothing short of a fight to achieve that.
I’m also unsure about my heels. And as we start the short jog on paved bike path toward the trail head, my left Achilles starts giving me that wonky, sharp-YOW-YOW-give-out sensation. It’s not as serious as it was before, but it’s there, so each step seems like a question mark. For now, I try to be aware but not obsessive.
Once we turn onto the trail, the conga line of runners keeps my pace in check. Here there are jagged rocks and technical terrain alongside the gorgeously flowing St. Louis River. My heart rate is low. I’m just getting warm. Enjoying the slow.
You have all damn day out here, Jeff. No need to waste yourself now, I tell myself.
By the time we reach the multi-track leading to the first aid station at Leimer Road, my heels are all warmed up and won’t be an issue the rest of the day. Halle-ultra-lujah!!!
At the aid station, I grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some chips that I wash down with a half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. My most successful fueling strategy for ultras thus far has been to go on the “see food” diet, eating whatever I see that looks/sounds good at the time, favoring savory over sweet as much as possible. Yesterday I made sure to avoid all dairy products (they tend to make my gut a crap-shoot *rimshot*), so as long as I eat a little bit of real food at every station, supplemented with the occasional gel when I need it, I should be okay.
The aid station personnel kick ass with their awesomeness and before I head out, I tell them I can’t wait to see them again, some 44 miles down the road.
The Minnesota Voyageur is a wild, picturesque out-and-back course from Carlton to Duluth. I know I need to average 12-13 minute miles the best I can to finish under 11 hours; and while this seems like it should be no sweat for a three-hour marathoner who averages 7-minute mile pace in a road marathon, maintaining a 13-minute mile pace over this rugged terrain is going to be tough.
There are going to be spots along the course where running is just not possible. Hell, after hearing grizzled vets talk about what was in store for us this morning, I know that there are going to be spots along the course where even power hiking will be impossible — spots where we’ll be lucky to put one foot in front of the other without breaking something!
This is why instead of darting up ahead and through the conga line of mid-packers like I normally would, I just stay right here, somewhere in the middle, letting the natural pace of things rule. I am in no hurry. In fact, at Ice Age and Howl at the Moon last year, I suffered greatly from running too fast too early, so I know better and do my best to keep my heart rate low and my smile wide as I take in the beautiful forest all around me.
In every direction I see the greenest green. Luscious leaves of birch and pine soar high above me, the woodsy waft of nature fills my nose. This section out of Leimer Road is quite runnable, so I find a nice, easy, comfortable gear and just ride it steady, happy to be alive. I cruise along with other runners until there is a sudden halt in the line.
What’s going on? I ask, leaning my head to the side to see if I can see what the hold-up is. Before anyone can answer I see we have reached a shin deep stream crossing and some people up front are trying to figure out how to best get across.
It’s drizzling, it’s chilly. The trail is soaked, soggy and sloppy. It’s an absolute given that the feet are going to get and stay wet all day, so I bust out of the line and charge to the front, happy to jump in and out of the stream, off and running on the other side. Besides, my feet are protected with 2Toms BlisterShield Powder and Injinji socks, a combination that hasn’t let me down yet, so YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
After another good stretch of running on flat, grassy trail, I cross another stream in much the same way — banging on through without a care in the world, happy to be a part of this lovely forest. I am leap frogging with several friendly faces, but unlike most other races, I am not in a real talkative mood. I’m feeling more introspective, happy to live this particular adventure with my thoughts to myself.
This is pretty suiting, since I’m thinking about a lot of people today, especially my friends running the Burning River 100 Mile Race in Ohio. Thinking of them doubling the distance in similar rainy conditions motivates me to move along the best I can, to pace myself responsibly and to enjoy the experience.
During an ultra, it’s pretty common for me to question myself, to wonder why I keep going out on these long, time-consuming, muscle-busting journeys that test my physical and mental abilities unlike anything else. When such doubt enters the mind I remind myself how much my face hurts from SMILING.
I absolutely love it. What other reason do I need?
The Bull Run aid station greets me at the 8.1 mile mark. I grab some more peanut butter and jelly, some bananas and an orange slice before I kick out down the road.
And yes, it is a road. A long, welcoming downhill, road. My instinct is to bomb down it, but I’m working smart today, so I just take it easy, chilling on the ride down.
What’s really cool is that I can see, about a mile down the road, all of the runners ahead of me. What’s not cool is that I know I’ll have to traverse UP this damn thing later in the race, with 39 miles in my legs.
But today we’re working with the NOW, and that’s all that matters. Right now, I’m having a great time. Legs feel good. Heels feel good. Head feels good. Out on the open road it’s a bit chilly with the breeze, but otherwise I’m quite comfortable in my long sleeve technical tee and trademark short-shorts. Best of all, I’m right on time with my splits as I reach the end of the road and say hello to the good folks at the Chambers Grove aid station. More peanut butter and jelly. More half-water-half-blue-Powerade mix. More bananas and oranges.
Nom nom nom.
A quick thank you and cap tip later and I’m off to tackle the first of the infamous power line sections.
Now begins the climbing. Seriously.
Minnesota Voyageur and the power lines might as well be synonymous, because in my course study before the race, I couldn’t find any source that didn’t mention them both. Notoriously steep climbs equipped with the loud background buzz of high voltage, these hills test my patience as much as my body. But I am ready for both.
After I crest and coast down the last one I turn back to the nice woman behind me and say, Well, that wasn’t so tough.
Ha! she replies, we haven’t even gotten to the big ones yet.
Before we get there, we still have to travel through some more winding up-and-down trail. The ground is wet. It’s still drizzling off and on. But the footing is still pretty good and I make sure to take the downhills easy as opposed to trucking right down. With the grade as high as it is on some of these downhills, bombing them just isn’t possible and my quads probably couldn’t take it later on, even if I could. Caution ain’t a bad idea.
Several times we reach a point where the trail has been “closed” for “our safety”, except that the course markings lead us right through said signs and accompanying fence blockage, not bothered by whatever possible danger may lurk beyond.
The race director has jokes too! Ha! I love it!
As I reach Peterson’s aid station (where they have Ginger Snaps, holy-effing-YES!), I notice my right hip is aching pretty loudly. I stuff my face with cookies, bananas and oranges while I gently massage the bursa sac that likes to get inflamed sometimes during these crazy outings. It’s a nuisance, yes, but a nuisance I can and WILL overcome.
I go through more runnable, grassy trail before I hit the second section of power lines. I know I’ve reached the second section because I’m now looking straight up at the beasts I have to climb and my neck is not a fan.
Here’s where all those pistol squats are going to pay off, Jeff. Here’s where Kettle Moraine and Western States and Big Bertha repeats are going to pay off. Keep your head down, your confidence high and just get the job done.
Up, up, up.
Gingerly. Carefully. Slow enough not to tumble and break my face… down, down, down.
Up, up, up. Down, down, down.
Over and over.
As I cautiously crest a climb, clinging to some foliage to keep from teetering back towards my death, I hear off in the distance RUNNER COMING THROUGH!
What the —
It’s the youthful race leader, coming towards me, blazing by with ease and the most patriotic red, white and blue short-shorts.
Stars and stripes forever!!! I holler as I wave him through. He smiles and thanks me. Wow, the dude isn’t even sweating. He’s 10 miles ahead of me and not even sweating!
TEN MILES! HOLY SHIT! I’M NOT WORTHY, I’M NOT WORTHY!
I will say this to myself again as the rest of the leaders come through behind him. Meanwhile, it’s all I can do to keep moving forward, up and down the last power line before I make it to the Beck’s Road aid station at mile 21.
I have a drop bag here, and while the idea of changing socks and clothes sounds good right now, I’m going to wait until I get back at mile 28 to consider any of that. I still have to get to the turnaround before 11:30 a.m. to be on target with my sub-11 goal, and I have lots of hard work to do before that so I can’t waste any time.
I grab some grub, refill my handheld bottle and boom, I’m off.
Here is a mile and a half section that is flat as a pancake. From studying the course beforehand, I know that this is a place I really gotta push the pace because it’s the calm before the storm that is Jarrow Beach (pronounced JAH-row) — a section I’m told will “chew me up and spit me out”.
I try to run fast, pumping my arms as hard as I can to see if that will get my motor running. The problem is, I’ve been stuck in low gear all day long and now anything more than a steady jog seems impossible. Just as I work myself up to feeling good and speedy, I reach a defunct railroad bridge reminiscent of a Stephen King novel.
As I cautiously tip toe my way across, all the momentum I just built up on the flat ceases. The rain starts to come down a little harder too, further insulting my efforts.
But as soon as I get over the bridge, I have more fast moving terrain to spring me forward, making me feel pretty confident as I cruise along, taking in the sights and sounds. I’ll be at the turnaround soon and it looks like I will get there before 11:30.
My head is filled with happy thoughts.
I’m having a blast.
I’m enjoying the ride of life…
Until I find myself at Jarrow Beach.
Jarrow-effing-Beach. Where the hell is the sand? Where are the bikinis? Can’t I even get a mai-tai?
This ain’t no damn beach, this is a bone-breaking ankle trap intent on taking me down! If the power lines slowed me to a power hike and the dilapidated railroad crossing slowed me to a tip toe, the jaggedly edged boulders protruding through the earth at Jarrow Beach force me to a crawl.
No hyperbole here. I’m definitely crawling over the rocks. Sometimes I can stand enough to tepidly place one foot on another rock while I desperately search for a place to safely put the other, but it’s raining and the rocks are all covered in slippery moss making this traverse quite a challenge on my entire body.
Two guys I’ve been yo-yo-ing with in the race have caught up to me now and the three of us curse like sailors as we try to get through Jarrow without killing ourselves. I can’t help but slip and fall a couple of times. I twist an ankle — not badly, but enough to notice. I slip and land on a jagged edge, bruising my arches, toes, elbows, wrists and heels.
There is no running here. There is only surviving.
For the first time all race, I am extremely hot and sweaty. But we must soldier on.
Together, the three of us — me and two strangers who must like pushing themselves just as much as I do — fight through this section, one rock and misplaced foot at a time.
Our reward for getting through Jarrow Beach is some more flat terrain before the turnaround. I try to bust out with some speed, but my bruised and achy feet aren’t so excited about that, so I just move the best I can.
I reach the Magney aid station, halfway through the race, at 11:15 a.m. Right on target, but not without damage.
Most of all, I’m feeling pretty tired — an all-body tired, the kind you get from being on your feet all day climbing insane hills and picking your way through a boulder laced killing field. But my left arch is particularly achy from a poor landing and my right hip bursitis is really aggravating now. Besides that, both of my piriformis muscles are inflamed, causing that all too familiar butt ache to pulse to the rhythm of my heart.
But my stomach is doing well. I’m pissing clear and often. And I’M HALFWAY DONE, HUZZAH!
Off I go, knowing that I have to go through that damn Jarrow Beach again. Having done it once, I now have the confidence that I will get through it no matter what, and that my reward will be another mile and a half section of fast, flat terrain where I can really make up some time.
While I make the second pass through the boulders, I start to see all the other runners coming back towards me on their way to the turnaround. This offers me some delight. It’s always nice to see friendly, encouraging faces on the trail during a long effort. It’s even nicer to know I don’t have to do the boulder field again.
I get through with just minor scrapes and bruises this time and bust ass over the railroad crossing and back onto the long stretch of runnable trail. I’m moving much faster this time, despite the aches and pains, because I can’t wait to get to Beck’s aid station where I have the ultra-cocktail of Ibuprofen and Red Bull waiting for me. I also plan to change socks, shirt and hat, because the ones I’m in now are disgustingly soaked.
Sometimes, just putting on a dry shirt can make all the difference.
I reach Beck’s and as soon as I locate my drop bag, the sky opens up and, as if to laugh at my plan of getting into drier clothes, it begins to POUR RAIN!
What can I do but laugh?
Haha, you got me, Minnesota Voyageur. I know this wasn’t ever gonna be easy. Trust me, I get it. I get the joke now.
I’m in the middle of changing socks anyway, so I complete the change as planned and top it all off with my ultra-cocktail and some Icy Hot on my hip. I kick out down the trail as the heavens continue to rain down.
I don’t really mind the weather since I’m under canopy for the first part after Beck’s. But when I reach the bottom of the first power line section on the way back I realize what kind of test I’m really in for.
Mud, mud and more mud.
How could we possibly make a terrifying climb harder than it already is? Add pouring rain and a slick, muddy surface so that with every step forward you take at least two or three slip-and-slide ones back.
At first, I move forth daintily, trying to avoid a complete fall into the mud as I cautiously attempt to climb along the best line I can find. The problem is, mother nature don’t give a shit and before I know it I’m falling face down in the mud, clinging to the slanted earth with my fingers deeply embedded into the mud.
The nozzle on my water bottle is all but caked over in the rich, red clay and my new, clean (ha!) shirt is a pretty shade of filth. I’m lucky that one of the women I’ve been leap frogging with today is alongside for this section, because multiple times she has to push my ass up while I attempt to pull myself forward.
The pouring rain makes each step a dangerous one. And once I finally get to the top, I still have to go down.
Only way but one, the woman says as she butt slides her way down ahead of me. She’s totally right. I try to take soft, easy, calculated steps, but the ground is so sloppy and loose that it just gives way, sucking me down with it.
With mud on my face, in my ears and up my ass crack under the pouring rain, I wonder if I’m in an Oliver Stone film or in a 50 miler. Either way, this is the path I chose.
How often do you get to play in the mud? I ask myself.
Obviously, not often enough! YEEEEEE HAAAAAW!
Like a prize fighter just off his stool for the 12th round, I stumble into the Peterson’s aid station, rain and sweat streaking down my body.
Boy, am I happy to see you! I shout. I’ve been thinking about those Ginger Snaps for longer than I’d like to admit!
I grab a couple of them, even though they’re soggy and gross, and I force them down my throat while I get my bottle refilled. I look at my watch and know it’s going to be a struggle. I lost a lot of time on both Jarrow Beach sections and this last set of power lines. What’s worse is that the steepest climb of them all is yet to come and the rain is not letting up. If I want to get in under 11 hours I’m going to have to run all the runnable stuff as hard as I can.
At least the Red Bull and Ibuprofen are kicking in. My left arch and right hip are quieting, but my quads and butt, neck and shoulders are all taking a beating now too. In this tired, downtrodden state, the rest of the run will be an aid-station-to-aid-station test, and I won’t know if I can make the time until I inch a bit closer.
For now, all I can do is get through the aid stations as quickly as possible and give my best effort no matter the terrain.
I bust out of Peterson’s and take advantage of the rolling hills where I can, but once I get to the last power line section, I can’t help but think my time goal is doomed. Under all this rain, on top of all this slippery mud, there is simply no footing. I have no choice but to lie flat on my belly, in a leaning bear crawl position, and dig my hands into the side of the earth to pull myself up the hill.
The last and steepest of the climbs does all it can to knock me out, to put me out of my happy-misery. But it can’t. I signed up for this and I don’t care how much things hurt right now, I’m getting over this hill.
On the peak of the last climb I take a second to stretch my arms out wide, head pointed up towards the pounding rain. I laugh in the face of hardship and beat my chest before I mudslide down on my butt like a little kid.
I look at my watch and know I need to get to Chambers Grove soon. There, in my other drop bag, is another Red Bull. That, combined with the knowledge that I’ll only be 11 miles from the finish line might be enough to get me under 11 hours. But I gotta hurry.
Ahh, yes, but stupid me forgot about that ROAD CLIMB!!!
What was a long, happy, stretched out downhill coast the first time around is now a dooming, massive, impregnable power hike up what looks like forever.
I won’t make eleven hours. Shit. It’s just too much at this point.
*BIG FAT DEFEATED SIGH*
Oh well. I’ll still finish…
I’LL STILL FINISH.
Up, up, up I go.
Waaaaay ahead of me I see the silhouette of a girl who passed me around mile 5. I’m going to go catch her. I’m coming for ya, girl who passed me at mile 5! Here I come.
Head down, arms pumping.
Forget about the rain. Forget about the aches. Forget about the discomfort. You’re going to finish this thing and you’re going to feel so good about it for so long so just… keep… MOVING.
After what seems like forever, I’m finally at the top of the road and back on trail.
Oh yes how I love you, sweet, sweet trail!
I run as fast as I can (which, let’s admit, ain’t that fast really), taking advantage of every single downhill, despite the poor footing, while power hiking my ass off on every significant uphill section. It’s all or nothing now, only 8 miles to the finish.
And I have… (looking at my watch) an hour and thirty minutes to get in under 11?
Hot dog! I holler as I push through the pain and concentrate on high cadence and lots of arm pumping.
I quickly grab some grub at the Bull Run aid station, thank everyone there and move quickly through the rolling terrain. The rain continues to fall, but it’s less violent now and almost undetectable considering I’m nothing short of a muddy, soggy, sweaty mess.
A muddy, soggy, sweaty mess with a SMILE on his face and a pain in his ass! Ha!
She eluded me on the road, but ironically now just five miles from the finish, I see that same girl who passed me at mile five up ahead. I decide I have to pass her now.
Head down, arms pumping.
A few minutes later I’m cruising on by, exchanging happy salutations with her as she keeps her slower pace. I look down at my watch again and know that if I can get to Leimer Road with at least 40 minutes left, I might be able to break 11 hours. I say, “might” because the last three miles include a lot of technical terrain and another jagged rock field that will definitely slow my pace.
You’ll never know if you never try, I tell myself, and we know that the only thing worse than missing your goal is knowing you didn’t give your best effort.
HEAD DOWN. ARMS PUMPING.
I whiz through the Leimer Road aid station, falling just short of telling the volunteers I want to make love to you all! I don’t have time to tell them exactly how much I appreciate their being out here today, so a quick “THANKS I LOVE YOU” will have to do. No doubt, this race features grade-A race personnel. Every single volunteer I have come in to contact with today has been as helpful as he/she has been kind.
And let’s not forget, standing outside in the cold, pouring rain isn’t very fun if you’re not running over gorgeous terrain. I blow them all a kiss and charge down the multi-track trail which turns left and back on to the technical stuff along the St. Louis River.
I have about 30 minutes to get to the finish line now as I slowly and deliberately pick my way over rocky trail. I haven’t been using the GPS function at all today, knowing it would kill my battery, so I have no clue really how far I have yet to go. My body throbs and aches with each slowed step and when I squat down to go under a fallen tree blocking the trail, I realize just how seriously messed up my body is.
Getting back out of the squat takes all the effort I can find — serving as one final joke from mother nature and the Minnesota Voyageur before I am able to push on towards the final stretch.
Ha! Too bad the joke’s not on me today!
I bust out of the trail and onto the paved bike path in Carlton. The finish line is less than a mile away. I have fifteen minutes to make it there.
Oh boy, here it comes.
Why this happens to me so often on the longer, more spirited efforts I’ll never know, but I do know that I can’t fight it anymore.
Fucking cry, who cares. You deserve a good cry every now and then anyway.
I follow the yellow ribbons toward the right hand turn to Carlton High School.
And there it is.
There is that beautiful, glorious, triumphant finish line.
I did it.
I ran the Minnesota Voyageur 50 in 10 hours 51 minutes. I open up my arms, point my head to the sky and enjoy every last drop of rain falling on my face.
After the race I grabbed a quick shower inside Carlton High School (a great race bonus by the way!) and changed clothes so I could wait outside for Kirsten and Jim to finish. Seeing them on the out-and-back section was a real boost to my morale and I wanted to be sure I got to see them finish.
They came in at 12 hours and 40 minutes and we all shared a good hug, especially celebrating Jim’s first 50.
In fact, I hugged just about anyone who would hug me as they came across the finish line. There’s nothing quite like being witness to one’s ultra victory. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, spend some time at a finish line and watch the range of ecstasy flowing through the faces. You won’t regret it.
That night, back at our hotel, celebratory beers in hand, the three of us reminisced over our individual battles. Every single muscle in my body ached. For two whole days! Including muscles that have never ached during a run before (forearms, biceps, neck!)
Admittedly, I’ve never been beat up so badly by a race. But I was doing the Frankenstein walk like a champ.
As every enlightened sage and holy man has ever attested, to be whole, you must be broken.
Right now I’m about as whole as I can get.
Or at least I am until…
The next adventure…
If you aren’t living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.
— Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mt. Everest
Running opens the door to infinite adventure. Each test against the clock, each journey through the wilderness and every single foray into the unknown seems to hold the potential for being yet another pinnacle life moment — a time when I can truly disconnect from the busyness of everyday and just soak myself in the nature of epic, blissful surroundings.
Though my proclamations often sound like hyperbole, I assure you: they are not.
Running is real. The adventure spawned by this seemingly simple activity is real. And as long as I remain open to all possibilities — fighting through then learning from the lows while also allowing myself to soak in the ecstatic highs — as long as I stay within myself and embrace this simple way of living life, all the glory in the world is within me.
Few activities rival the profoundness I feel when I run.
Pacing my friend, Siamak Mostoufi (pronounced SEE-mack) at the storied keystone event of ultrarunning, the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, I knew was yet another opportunity to grasp at the skirt of greatness.
Pre-Race, Friday, June 28
I wake up feeling groggily fresh with the kind of excitement that comes from hours of flight delayed napping combined with more elevation than I’m used to and the prospect of seeing the Western States course with my very own eyes. The day before was rough, but once I landed in Reno, all travel frustrations ceased to exist. The only important task for the day is getting to Squaw Valley and fighting through this thin-air headache so I’m ready to go tomorrow.
Siamak has a bounce in his step and an edge to his gait signifying the countdown to epic adventure. His girlfriend and crew chief, Meret, whom I got to know a little bit during the drive last night from Reno to our hotel in Truckee, also exudes excitement. This is her first time experiencing (let alone CREWING) an ultrarunning event, and I playfully point out to her that this is like a 16-year old getting a Mercedes as her first car.
WE ARE AT WESTERN STATES!!!
And, just in case, I didn’t believe it, here at the Squaw Valley check-in, there’s legendary runner David Horton to remind me. And there’s Tim Olson. And Ian Sharman. And oh yeah, there’s Meghan Arbogast and Mike Morton and Dave Mackey and Rory Bosio and Karl Meltzer and Ann Trason and Gordie Ansleigh and OH MY GOD HOLY SHIT ALL THESE AWESOME RUNNERS ARE HERE FOR THIS AND YOU CAN FEEL THE ELECTRICITY IN THE AIR AND I WANNA JUST SQUEEZE SOMETHING AND HOLD ON AND NEVER LET GO OF ANY OF THIS AWESOMENESS!!!
Goosebumps pop up all over me as Siamak gets checked in. Base weights and vital signs are taken. Some helpful reminders about combating the intense heat he will face tomorrow are given. We move from station to station, acutely receptive to all that is around us, including the breathtaking views of mountainous landscape and the warmth of the sun cutting through clear, blue skies.
I feel like I’m gonna cry at any moment because I’m so happy. I get to be here for THIS! I get to pace my pal, the same guy who pulled me out of the doldrums of crap city during my first 50 miler a year ago. I get to experience THIS.
I am so lucky. And thankful.
The mandatory pre-race meeting ends and everyone disperses, off to stock coolers and stuff faces with all-you-can-eat pasta. Siamak, Meret and I stop at the grocery store to get all the food, drink and Red Bull we will need for the race.
While I stand in line with an armful of deli goods and a sleeve of shortbread cookies, Siamak nods his head to the gentleman in front of us. Look who’s here.
Wow! Mike Morton. Hi, I’m Jeff, I say a bit overeager. I shake the endurance beast from Florida’s hand. I’m an in awe of his humility and slight, thin build. He smiles big when I tell him I’ve been following his career renaissance.
Yeah, but all these fast guys… he says, somewhat nervously.
Dude, you are the American 24 hour record holder. You are the fast guys, I reply.
We wish him well, buy our goods and head back to Truckee for a bite to eat followed by pre-race packing and last minute crew debriefing. Meret and I get the low-down on how Siamak will fuel his race, what is packed where, and how to get from one aid station to the next. Once we are are all on the same page, it’s off to bed for us. While I immediately enter deep, sound sleep, I can only assume Siamak — on the eve of running the race of his life — does his best to not toss and turn.
Race Morning, Saturday June 29, 3:00 a.m. – 5:00 a.m.
Siamak is up and ready to go. I’m getting quite used to seeing him smile, but the one he’s wearing this morning seems a little bigger than the one from yesterday, and for good reason: today he tackles the most coveted 100 mile race in the world.
And as we busy ourselves in and around the Squaw Valley Olympic Village prior to the race start, he knows it. He also knows that he is not alone — that hundreds of our friends back home in Chicago and across the world are following his steps via Facebook, Twitter and the Western States ultracast where his splits will be updated live, for all to see. A simple upload of his smiling face causes my phone to blow up, even at 4:30 in the morning.
A few nervous hugs, high fives and fist bumps later, Meret and I walk him to the start line then make our way a few hundred meters up the trail to record THIS.
IT’S REALLY HAPPENING NOW!!!
While the runners are well on their way to their first bout of suffering, tackling the monstrous escarpment climb of Emigrant Pass, Meret and I make our way back to the car. Still immersed in darkness, we go back to the hotel to stock the car with the day’s provisions before heading out on I-80 towards our first stop of the day: Robinson Flat, 29.7 miles in to the race.
During this 2+ hour drive through the scenic high country, I confess to Meret — an accomplished professional flutist and music educator — my continual obsession with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. She is quite sympathetic and for once, I am able to have a long conversation about Bach, Albinoni and Vivaldi, freely discussing my love of the Baroque period without feeling like an obnoxious jackass.
Meret and I make a good crew team and she is going to do great today. I can already tell. My thoughts are validated when she says:
Siamak says this is going to be great because you have a lot of experience and I am, as he says, very conscientious.
Conscientiousness is a must and I further explain the time-tested acronym of C.R.E.W. (crabby runner, endless waiting) to Meret so that she knows what to possibly expect later on. Lucky for us, our runner is Siamak Mostoufi — one tough dude rarely seen without a smile on his face.
Robinson Flat, Mile 29.7
Meret and I reach Robinson Flat sometime around 9 a.m. and set up our mini-aid station at the bottom of the hill, next to where the runners exit and head back onto the Western States trail. We get there in time to see the leaders come through: Tim Olson, Rob Krar, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and many more make their way through this colossal aid station to the roars, claps and whistles of the following crowd.
Wow, that is so cool, I couldn’t help but think to myself while watching the leaders pass through, exchanging bottles and aid with their individual crews like formula one drivers. This is some serious ultrarunning!
Following the elites is a steady string of runners, mostly of the hot and sweaty variety, as the Robinson Flat aid station is preceded by quite a a bit of long, steady climbing in exposed high country where the elevation and intense morning sun beats down on all those underneath. Most folks have covered themselves in white clothing: white hats, white shirts, white bandanas. And the smart ones, Siamak included, have been busy dousing themselves with cold water at every opportunity.
I wait at the top of the hill, close to the check-in area while Meret remains with our stuff at the bottom. Our plan is for me to make contact with Siamak as he comes in, to find out what he needs while he’s being weighed and attended to by race officials, then run down the hill to help Meret prepare whatever it is he needs.
It’s been several hours since we have seen him, and with the way I’m pacing back and forth, my eagerness to check in on him is obvious. Finally, amid the crowd of runners, spectators and crew, I see his white shirt and blue shorts emerge from the visible heat waves off in the distance.
Here he comes! I scream.
Couldn’t miss him, since his smile has hardly waned since 5 a.m.
What do you need? I hurriedly ask at the top of the hill.
Gels, amino powder, grapefruit juice, maybe some ice, he says.
Cool. We’re at the bottom of the hill on your left, I say as I dart down the hill to Meret where we rush to prepare the spread. Sifting through the enormous plastic bag of gels Siamak packed, I can’t help but think nauseous thoughts. In running, we are all an experiment of one, that much I know. But I also know my experimentation with solely gel-based nutrition during ultra events has not been good, so I tip my cap to my runner thinking he must truly have an iron belly, which is not a bad thing to have in an event like this.
Meret’s first look at her boyfriend after several hours of sweat and toil seems to go over just fine. They hug and speak briefly as we try to get an understanding of what he has run so far.
It’s hot, he says. Very hot.
Yep. In fact, today is going to go down as the second hottest Western States 100 on record, ever.
We waste little time in debriefing and instead get him everything he needs before setting out again for another long, hot stretch. I give him a pat on the back, Meret gives him a kiss and then off he goes, back into the wilderness, towards Miller’s Defeat.
Hmm… that was a salty kiss! Meret says.
Oh yeah, I forgot to warn you, another given in ultrarunning is, well, the runner is always going to smell bad.
We have a chuckle then pack up the gear and schlepp our way back towards the car.
Michigan Bluff, Mile 55.7
Another significant car ride, this time through narrow, winding switchbacks up and around a mountain, and Meret and I find ourselves at Michigan Bluff — complete with a large party of spectators, crew and staff in what would otherwise be a remote, sparsely populated ghost town featuring lots of horses, chickens and one obnoxious rooster.
Here we park the car and hike to the shuttle. We squeeze ourselves and our belongings into the short bus, already eschewing the unwritten rules of modesty and personal space. As a complete stranger smashes his sweaty body against mine, I can’t help but be grateful that we are all a dirty, sweaty mess.
Once we reach the drop-off point, Meret and I then rush to find what little spot of shade we can find. At this point, just like the entire day thus far, shade is quite a hot commodity (pun intended, naturally).
The temperature gauge back at the car told us it was 102 degrees. In the shade, it seems like a manageable 90. And after devouring a home cooked burger with fresh, grilled onions chased by a lemon flavored popsicle, the shade and a spot of grass is all I need to nod off for 20 minutes or so.
I wake up from my nap to the cheers of the elite women coming through Michigan Bluff — all of them looking fresh to death. I get up and walk around when I can and explore what little exists in the area. Surprisingly, a few people actually do live here and I can’t help but wonder what it’s like in the winter time with two feet of snow on the ground. As is the case with many of the stops along the Western States route, there is a much history to this area, most of it centered around the 19th century gold rush, and I take the time to read some of the commemorative plaques detailing as much.
Meanwhile, Meret and a whole host of others waiting patiently for their runners appreciate the hydration PSA at the main aid station. It is a very clever way of navigating what is a very serious subject. I know Siamak is taking care of his hydration. He had an alarm set on his watch to remind him to drink every 15 minutes. He’s going to be just fine.
Meret and I got to Michigan Bluff quite early, so while we wait for Siamak to come through (and current race updates inform us he should be in between 6:15-6:45 p.m.) we pass the time clapping, cheering and talking about everything from the oddities of online dating to the hilarity of the The Gospel According to Biff.
As the expectant time draws nearer, Meret heads closer to the trail where the runners first appear while I head to the end of the aid station to set up our gear. Sure enough, at 6:30 p.m. I hear cheering and look up to see Meret jumping with joy at the appearance of her man, who comes through strong and still smiling ear to ear.
Hot dog! I say to myself. He looks great!
Anything can happen in a hundo. Anything. In fact, the hundred mile race is the great equalizer. You can be the most prepared, most talented, most in-shape human being on the planet and still get struck down by nausea, or dehydration, or a busted limb. But Siamak comes through the 55 mile mark all smiles, absolutely loving life, and at this point I am certain he has the finish in the bag. It’s only a matter of time.
I laid down in the water before Devil’s Thumb. It was a little bit out of the way but it was worth it because it really brought my core temperature down, he tells us as he takes in some calories. We rush to fill his bottles.
Yes! Great job, I say. Plenty of people have come through here looking pretty rough. The heat is just terrible, I’m sure.
It’s so hot in those canyons.
I can only imagine.
At Forest Hill I’m going to change socks, he tells us. I’ll also need some Bodyglide and my head lamp.
Check, check and check. Meret and I make note, give him a nice, celebratory send off and then watch him as he disappears over the road horizon.
Forest Hill is less than a 7 mile run for him, so we have to book it. This means we have to skip over the long shuttle bus wait and instead hike all of our gear up a nasty hill as the 100+ degree sun continues to beat down on us. Hiking up with all this gear at elevation is making me breathe kinda hard, which sends my mind racing with doubt about my own abilities.
No! I tell myself. Focus. Time to FOCUS.
I put my head down and concentrate on what fun we’ll have running through the Sierra Nevadas at night.
Forest Hill, Mile 62
Meret and I arrive at Forest Hill and are greeted with rock star parking, directly across the street from the runner check-in station. With cell phone service now, I get online and update what I can while also casually skimming through the barrage of social media support for Siamak coming from our friends and family back home. The response to his journey is overwhelming. This community is full of love; and the out pour of affection streaming in from all across the country is just plain badass.
Still, I have a task at hand. I have to finish getting dressed, tape my nipples, lube up in the appropriate spots and make sure to hit the john before 8:15, approximately when I expect Siamak to roll in.
While coating my groin with Vaseline, I look up, embarrassed that I’ve been caught. But then I scratch my head. Um… Dave? I ask. Dave Mackey?
Hi, yeah. That’s me. I dropped.
I can’t really believe it. Dave Mackey, 2011 Ultrarunner of the Year Dave Mackey, was having a bad day and dropped at Forest Hill. And now he’s standing beside me while I slather Vaseline all over my balls.
A bit shy, I offer my standard reply to what I assume is a noble DNF: You live to fight another day.
He smiles and nods while jumping in the back of an SUV. As he drives off, I can’t help but think, on some level, us mid and back of the packers face an entirely different reality than the elites when it comes to ultrarunning. If they’re out of the front running and a fast time or podium is out of reach, it makes better sense for them to just drop rather than suffer on the rest of the way, causing more muscle damage and pushing back recovery time. For most of us though, finishing is all that counts. Finish. Run 100 miles. Just finish.
Lost in this contemplation, I think I hear the PA system announce Runner 293, Siamak Mostoufi, welcome to Forest Hill.
Huh? That can’t be right. It’s just past 8 o’clock–
OH NO! He’s here! They called his name! He’s here, yells a suddenly frantic Meret while moving quickly to grab the gear bags and cooler.
Oh shit! He’s running faster. Damn it, I wasn’t — okay, let’s just take it easy. For a few seconds I panic, but then, a deep breath later, I try to calm us both down. You grab everything and go across the street. I’ll be over in a few seconds.
Meret skips across the road carrying a ton of stuff while I slip on my Salomon water vest and try to prepare mentally for the next 38 miles at hand. I see Siamak now. I can’t keep him waiting. No time for that john stop. Just going to have to deal with that later.
In the Forest Hill Elementary School parking lot now, Siamak busies himself with a quick sock change while we prepare his amino powders, gels and head lamp. The sun is just going down and I figure we have about 40 minutes or so left of daylight.
Man, you really picked up the pace there from Michigan Bluff, I say. He replies with a big, fat smile — a pleasantly reoccurring theme for this particular adventure.
With everything gathered and both of us ready to head out, Siamak gives a goodbye kiss to his girl and we set out on the road leaving the school.
Forest Hill to Rucky Chucky, Miles 62-78
This is my current running pace, just so you know, he says as I excitedly stride alongside him.
Dude, I don’t care what your pace is, I’m with you no matter what. I can barely hide my giddiness, and this pace doesn’t feel slow at all. It feels like my friend has 62 miles in his legs and is still A BONA FIDE WARRIOR.
We traverse through a few neighborhoods on road and then drop down to the trail head, Siamak in front, me right behind him, which is his preference, especially on the downhill sections.
You wearing your hat regular or do you have it on backwards? he asks.
Midstride, in a monumental display of bro solidarity, Siamak turns his hat backwards to match mine. We are wearing the same one — our New Leaf club hats — and now I know this is going to be a fantastic, epic journey.
With that we begin the long, long descent out of Forest Hill.
And we’re flying. Fast. Maybe… too fast?
Man, I don’t know. If he’s feeling good I should just let him feel good and run, I think to myself, but as we continue to drop down, down, down, flying at pretty much top speed to start, I’m only a couple of miles in and my quads are already starting to ache.
Well, that’s too bad, Jeff, this is what you signed up for, I tell myself. If he can fly after running for 13+ hours, you can too.
Down, down, down we go, quad pain receptors extinguished.
We reach the Cal-1 aid station at 65.7 miles, but we don’t stay long. As we leave and get back into a constant, smooth running pace, it hits me. My gut.
Damnit! You should’ve gone before you left! I curse to myself. I was going to, I reply, again, to myself, but he showed up quicker than I thought and now (in my best Luke Skywalker voice) I’ve endangered the mission and I shouldn’t have come.
Negativity. Always a bitch when it comes to ultras!
Knowing as much, I grit my teeth and just concentrate on moving. One of these aid stations will have a john, or I’ll just pull over and do what I have to do. Ultras tend to break life down into its most simple tasks. Move one foot in front of the other, take care of “business”, etc.
The main thing right now is to keep this discomfort away from Siamak, so he can just concentrate on moving, without worrying about me. He’s moving great. In fact, he’s moving SPLENDIDLY! We are taking advantage of the free speed offered to us by gravity, running constant on the flats and power hiking all the ups.
Siamak isn’t much of a trail talker, which I already knew coming into this, having run with him on trails before, so at least I don’t have to say too much while I quietly beg the gastrointestinal baby in my stomach to please calm down.
At Cal 3, Mile 73, I take care of business, and much to my relief, I am a new man.
LET’S ROCK THIS THING!
Heading out towards Rucky Chucky, Siamak and I talk about the 24 hour goal, which, because of the intense heat of the canyons earlier in the day, pretty much seems impossible now. We’re more than an hour behind the 24 hour cut-off, and fatigue is starting to set in.
But I still have a chance to PR, he says quite excitedly. That would be pretty cool to PR at Western States.
Indeed it would, I note to myself. Siamak’s PR, or personal record, at the 100 mile distance came at The Pinhoti 100 back in November. His time then was 24 hours, 56 minutes. And he did that with no pacer, all alone in the night, fighting by himself those last 20 miles.
If Siamak is anything, I told Meret earlier in the day, he is one tough dude.
If we are close, I’m going to get him that PR, I tell myself. It’s a done deal.
For now, I say out loud, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing. Moving steady, running downs and flats, hiking with a purpose on the ups.
And boom! Here we are at Rucky Chucky, the nearside of the river, mile 78.
Meret greets us with the same exuberance and attentiveness she has displayed all day and night. In fact, I’ve been running enough miles this evening now to let my emotional guard down, and I feel the hair stand up as I watch her move, eager to help us in whatever way possible, as fast as she can.
This is her FIRST time crewing! Wow! She’s kicking some major butt!
AND she is wearing a green hoodie that she created bearing the words: SIAMAK ATTACK. Um… somebody get this gal her Girlfriend-of-the-Year Award.
Siamak sees it and does all he can to hide that he’s blushing.
We waste very little time getting what we need here as we say goodbye and focus on the river in front of us. Waiting to assist us in the river crossing are a handful of dry suit donning volunteers who do a fantastic job of telling us where to put our feet as to avoid the most slippery and dangerous of rocks hiding underneath. The air temperature is still in the mid 80s, but boy is this water COOOOOOOOOOOLD!
Siamak is in front of me, shivering quite hard. Just keep moving, I say. Just keep moving til we get to the other side.
Once we do, it is evident that he has a strong case of the shivers. An aid station attendant gets him some hot soup as Siamak and I both decide it’s not worth it to stop and change our shoes and socks here like we had originally planned. I’m afraid if he sits down for more than a few minutes — and let’s face it, changing footwear at this point of the game would require more than a few minutes — he won’t be able to get back up and move like he was moving just before we crossed.
We have quite a big climb to tackle coming out of Rucky Chucky, so we put our heads down and power on up, keeping our legs moving to bring the warmth back into our bodies.
Rucky Chucky to Highway 49, Miles 78.1 to 93.5
We may be power hiking, but we are doing it with a purpose. And up to now, we’ve done nothing else but pass people on the trail. Lots of people. We have passed men. We’ve passed women. We’ve passed people doing the zombie walk. And we even passed the legendary, 14-time Western States Champion, Ann Trason! (Ann was pacing someone rather than running her own race, so this accolade is a bit of a stretch, but still, how many times can one say we passed Ann Trason!?)
Of course, all of this moving up in the overall rankings during the overnight hours is a clear testament to Siamak’s smart first half race strategy of staying within himself, taking it easy during the hottest parts of the day, and taking every opportunity given to lay down in the cool waters to drop his core temperature.
He’s hurting a little bit now, but like in any ultra, it’s coming in waves and he is doing what he can to fight through. After each alarm on his watch goes off, I remind him to eat, to drink, to take salt. We keep running the downs and flats, power hiking the ups. We continue to pass people.
When the occasional runner and his pacer creeps up behind us, a fire is lit under Siamak’s feet and he moves just a little bit faster.
They can pass us, he says, that’s cool. But not for free, he adds, turning on the jets.
Hell to the yeah. This is what it’s all about!
In fact, we take the time to talk about it — how ultrarunning seems to break life down into just one single task: move one foot in front of the other. Nothing seems so hard when all you’re asking yourself to do is move one foot in front of the other. I think we’re both in that emotional guard let down phase as we explore this theme. But hell, it isn’t the first time we’ve waxed this poetic. It surely won’t be the last.
When we get to Auburn Lake Trails (mile 85.2) the aid station staff immediately grab him for a mandatory weigh-in while I hurry to refill my pack. While doing so, a volunteer approaches and puts his hand on my shoulder asking, How’s your runner doing? He looks a little dry. Is he drinking?
Absolutely, I reply. He’s dumping cold water on himself too. It’s pretty dry out there, but I assure you he’s hydrating.
Satisfied with my response, the medical volunteer moves along and I reconnect with Siamak as we head out towards Brown’s Bar. As we surpass the 85.2 mile marker, we both revel in how professional and on-top-of-it these aid stations and their volunteers are.
The minute you step into the checkpoint, someone is there to greet you and they don’t leave your side until you have been totally taken care of and are on your way.
That’s how you do an aid station, I remark. Before I can say much more, Siamak takes off and I follow right behind, passing more folks with an assortment of bad conditions along the way. Some are puking. Some are on the side of the trail, hands over knees, resting. Some are barely moving.
We are moving just fine. In fact, we are moving so well that I give Siamak our estimated time of arrival for Brown’s Bar based on our current average of 4.5 to 5 miles per hour.
Say that again? he asks. I comply. And boom! It’s off to the races. AGAIN!
Siamak takes off flying, utilizing gravity as much as he can.
Was it something I said? Why is he running so fast now? I don’t really know, and I can hardly find the breath to ask so I just dig deep and hold on.
We reach Brown’s Bar (mile 89.9) just after 3 a.m. and know that it’s just a Wednesday night group run distance now to the finish. We have 1 hour and 50 minutes to cover 10 miles. We can do that and break 24 hours. Right?
I hurriedly check the posted 24 hour cutoff times and to my dismay, we’re still an hour behind.
Why? How can this be? I ask, somewhat to myself but loud enough that a volunteer hears me.
You got two really big climbs to go yet, that’s why, the volunteer says with a consoling smile and a wickedly braided goatee.
Siamak and I share a moment of disappointment knowing today won’t be a silver buckle day. But this brief impasse is intercepted by the goatee’d gentleman’s sage words of encouragement:
You know what they told me when I got to No Hands Bridge last year? he asks. They looked me in the eye and said: Today… you’re going to finish Western States!
This hardass with the braided goatee might as well be Confucius himself because that is EXACTLY what Siamak and I need to hear, right this minute!
YES! I scream. YES! THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ABOUT, MAN!
Siamak is going to be a Western States finisher today. And I will be his wingman.
As we exit Brown’s Bar on our way to Highway 49, I remind him: We can still go for that PR. Let’s see where we are at Highway 49 and go from there.
He agrees and off we go, a bit reined in now compared to our effort from Auburn Lake Trails, but determined nonetheless.
At Highway 49 I know Meret is waiting for us, and with her are two cans of Red Bull and a bottle of ibuprofen. I check my watch. We might have a chance. We just might have a chance for that PR.
Highway 49 to Robie Point, Miles 93.5 to 98.9
We reach Highway 49 at roughly 4:20 a.m., greeted by raucous cowbells and animated cheers from the kind of strangers I would like to spend a whole lifetime with. After all, it is the people that make these sorts of events so special. Tonight is no different. In fact, a volunteer hands me some bacon and I’m suddenly in heaven while Siamak gravitates towards his own version of heaven in the form of Meret, Red Bull and ibuprofen.
I will have some too, I declare. Ordinarily, the Flintstone vitamin taste of Red Bull turns me off completely, but when tired from the trail just before dawn, there’s no better stay-alert cocktail than NSAIDS and a Red Bull chaser. I am aware of the risks involved with using anti-inflammatories during long efforts like these, but since I can count on one hand the times I actually take ibuprofen in any given year, I feel like the time is now. Besides, we still have work to do.
Next time we see you will be at the finish, Siamak says to Meret with one last kiss goodbye. All three of us are ready for that moment. No doubt.
We exit Highway 49 and enjoy a nice steady drop in elevation down towards No Hands Bridge. I keep checking my watch, calculating splits in my head. I know that if we get to No Hands Bridge by 5:15 or so we will have a fighting chance to break his personal best time. It’s going to be a fight, IF we can even get there with a couple of big climbs to go still, but it’s a fight I’m willing to lead.
We cruise down for about three miles before tackling a big, steep incline. We continue to move forward, with a purpose, passing people along the way. We crest the top and then go down, down, down again, picking up speed.
The sun is coming out as we approach No Hand’s Bridge. Siamak, you good on water? If so, let’s just blow through this aid station, no stops till the finish.
Having left his vest back with Meret, and feeling a bit lighter now, he confidently replies: I’m good with that.
We come into No Hand’s Bridge and fly right on by to the cheers of aid station personnel impressed by this late-race push. We make the turn, crossing the bridge and I switch on the GPS function on my Garmin watch.
Take a look around, Siamak says as my Garmin frantically searches for a signal. All around me is the infinite wonder and beauty of nature — a sight so glorious and perfect for my purposeful demeanor that I get those damn goosebumps all over again. My watch says 5:15 a.m.
Time to go to work.
Without saying anything I instinctively pull ahead of Siamak, leaving a good 10-20 yards between us.
Just stick with me, man. Keep your eyes on me. Just stick with me.
I’m getting him that PR today, or I’m gonna waste us both trying.
I look back to make sure he’s still there. Not only is he there, but his face has now gone a bit white, his mouth hangs open, and it’s quite clear that he’s giving all he’s got. My man. DIG DEEP, SIAMAK. This is what it’s all about.
He won’t say another word to me until the finish line.
We have to run fast here on this flat and slightly downhill section. We have to bank time, I tell him, because we still have the climb into Robie Point and then one more long climb in Auburn.
We have less than 40 minutes to do it. We’re running 8:30 pace right now. I hope I’m not killing him.
I look back every thirty seconds or so to make sure, but it’s difficult to tell. The faces he is making aren’t pleasant, but hell, he’s been running for over 24 hours now and I’m pretty sure nobody looks good after doing that.
Use your arms, I direct. Pump your arms and your legs will follow.
Concentrate on quick turnover, I continue. Dig deep, deep within yourself. You can do it. I know you can do it.
I do know he can do it, but holy Sierra Nevadas I’m pushing him hard.
Just hold on to me, Siamak. Keep chasing after me.
We hit the bottom of the climb up to Robie point and I know we can’t slack now. Time is not on our side. Gotta keep moving.
Power hike with a purpose, Siamak. Lean into it. Use your arms, keep your head down and move with a purpose.
He is doing the best he can, but I know it’s tough. Still, we have to try.
The climb up to Robie Point seems to take FOREVER. I look at my watch: 5:40 a.m. Damn, I don’t know if we can–
And then, I hear it: I hear cowbells. And cheers. Not far in the distance.
Come on, Siamak, pump those arms we’re almost there!
We turn a corner on a switchback and above us are some friendly volunteers with pitchers of ice cold water approaching.
Hello, welcome to Robie Point. Can I get you anything?
Yes! Please pour some water on my friend back there, I say pointing back towards Siamak, who is giving it all he’s got to power hike with a purpose up the never ending, dirt incline.
How about you? the friendly man asks as his fellow volunteer rushes towards Siamak, ice cold water pitcher out and ready to go.
Yes, please, pour some water right here, I say, pointing to the nape of my neck. HOLY EFFING SHIT THAT FEELS AMAZING. I look back and Siamak is chugging water straight out of the pitcher. Good man. No time to fill your water bottle anyway. We got a PR to chase! I say to myself.
Cooled off and hydrated, the two of us crest the climb and are dumped out on a road. A ROAD! MY GOODNESS WE’RE ALMOST THERE!
But we gotta move, gotta book it, can’t waste any time!
We are running at a mighty quick and focused clip now, which is why it takes me a few seconds to even notice Meret is now running alongside us. Wow! Hi, Meret! I say before moving back into the lead position, that dangling carrot to coax Siamak’s ultimate triumph.
Thirty seconds go by before I look back to see Siamak is staying close on my heels, still carrying the face of death. But Meret… Meret has dropped back. And she’s… I think she’s crying. Oh no!
We’ve dropped Meret. Here we are, the two of us with 136 miles in our legs combined and we’re dropping Meret. She is clearly upset.
Don’t worry, Meret. Just meet us at the track, I offer. We’re chasing a time right now. It’s nothing personal. We’ll see you at the track. Take the shortcut!
I don’t know if there is a shortcut, or, if there is, where or what it is, but it sounds like the only good thing I can say right now to console her. She obviously meant well to run it in with us to the finish; and if we weren’t chasing this time we totally would, but this is too important and one’s opportunity to do something this badass is rarely available, so we have no choice but to soldier on now and explain later.
Judging from Siamak’s determined stride and ghastly white gaze, he’s in it to win it.
Just stick with me, Siamak. Pump those arms. Dig deep, my brother! It may hurt now but it will feel SO good for SO long after. I promise.
We hit more incline and power up, up, up. It’s hard. Oh is it so hard! But we are almost there and we don’t have any time to spare.
FINALLY, we reach the top of the last climb and now we are going downhill.
Use that free speed, Siamak! Pump those arms.
I can hear the PA announcer.
I can. I can hear it close by. I can also hear and see the folks waiting and cheering us on the street, obviously wowed by our late race effort.
As I admire it all, I notice Siamak is now beside me. HELL YEAH, BROTHER! I scream. HELL YEAH!
We hit the bottom of the hill, make a turn and THERE is the track entrance. I look at my watch and hope that mine is synced correctly to the race clock because a mere 30 seconds off will derail this entire effort and make me have to explain why I just wasted my runner for the last 4 miles.
No matter what, we’re here now. And we’re RACING IT IN!!!
I lead as we come into the track then I immediately direct him to take the inside lane. No use adding extra distance at this point. Upon entering I hear the PA announcer call out his name to the cheers of people nestled tightly in their seats, eager to watch the last 300 meters of what can only be called a VALIANT finish.
We hit the turn, I see the clock. 24:55:20… 24:55:21… 24:55:22…
We did it. WE DID IT!
SIAMAK DID IT!
DUDE, I scream, YOU DID IT! THIS IS A PR, BABY! SOAK IT UP! OH MY GOD WE DID IT! YES! YES! YES! THIS IS HOW YOU FINISH A HUNDO!!!
I completely lose myself in my own screaming and my own elated state of emotions. I let him take the lead and cross the finish line, victorious, while I do all I can to reel in my complete and utter ecstasy.
Turns out I can’t. But no one cares. To prove it, watch this video of his finish.
Siamak just ran 100.2 miles of the Western States trail in 24 hours, 55 minutes, 57 seconds, setting a new personal best and proving to me and the rest of the world what I already know: he is one tough, dedicated, brave man who knows only one way. And that way is giving it his all.
He collapses backward into my arms and smiles the biggest damn smile I’ve ever seen.
Meret found us about a minute after we crossed the line. She was in tears, but those tears quickly faded once she was in her man’s arms, celebrating with him his champion achievement.
We couldn’t have done it without her and her introduction to the world of ultrarunning was as exciting as it was epic. Siamak was right that her conscientious character would play out, in a variety of ways, from getting us the supplies we needed when we needed them to finding a way — a shortcut that is — of getting to the track by flagging down the help of a kind Robie Point stranger who didn’t think twice about giving her a ride. That’s thinking quick on your feet.
And when it comes to quick feet, Siamak proved you can still run as fast as 6 minute pace, even with 100 miles in your legs. Here is the Garmin profile for those heroic last 3.65 miles — some of the greatest running of my whole life thus far.
The truth is, running these trails, taking part in these adventures, spending time with the kind of people you meet through it all… it just keeps getting better. Each effort is more and more meaningful.
Right now, the 2013 Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, is at the top of those experiences for me. Running is the Moore’s Law of my life, which means that from here on out, things will only get better.
Then, they’ll get better than better, before they’ll get even better than that!!!
THIS is living the high life. And for me, there’s no other way to live.
*From El Dorado Creek (Mile 52.9) to the finish, Siamak passed over 70 people, moving from 176th place to 106th by the end. He was passed by three people during the night. We caught one of them with a mile to go.
It’s been over 72 hours now since I watched Jen Birkner cross the finish line at the Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the smile her accomplishment put on my face still stretches proudly across my cheeks.
Jen overcame the intense morning humidity, the marshy sauna of the meadows and over 50 miles of macerated, blistering feet to still cross the finish line like a champ, proving once again that the ultimate test of one’s abilities is the strength of his or her thoughts. Her achievement was mind over matter, relentless forward progress at its best.
And I couldn’t be more proud.
Jen’s accomplishment also makes me a perfect 3-for-3 in 100 mile pacing duties. And in each case, getting my runner to the finish line has required a great deal of focused energy and thoughtful preparation. Pacing gig number four is coming up at the end of the month as I pick up Siamak for the last 38 miles of his epic adventure on the grandest ultrarunning stage of them all — The Western States 100 — and thinking about what it takes to be a good pacer, I thought I would share some basic ideas that have helped me fulfill my duties thus far.
In no particular order, they are:
KNOW Your Runner
Before pacing someone, you should know if he or she prefers you run in front or back, if she likes to talk or keep quiet, if he wants to power hike the hills or charge right up them. You should know how she fuels. You should know what he expects out of you. There should be no surprises. Communication is key, and I would consider being able to read body language and emotion an essential element to that communication.
Be Comfortable Knowing This Is Not YOUR Race
Your own wants/needs/dreams have no place in your role as pacer. This is your runner’s race, and the pacer serves best as a shadow of his runner — a very cool, strong, receptive and determined shadow, of course.
Talk to People Who Have Paced Before
What better way to know what you are getting yourself into than to ask those who have already had the experience? In the lead-up to all my pacing, I have made it a point to pick the brains of those who have already succeeded in such a role. Race specificity is key too. Talk to those who have already run the course. Know what to expect ahead of time.
Know/Study the Course
Though this seems obvious, I mention it still because there are going to be times when the pacer must be the voice of reason for a super-tired runner, and if he or she knows all that the course will throw one’s way, this makes those future decisions just that much more informed.
Go Over the Game Plan with Your Runner BEFOREHAND
Really take the time to sit down with your runner and discuss his or her goals before the race. I think it’s important to know what he or she is thinking, what direction she wants to go. Remember, as a pacer, this isn’t your race. It’s your runner’s race, and his or her game plan is what needs to be followed. Knowing the A goals from the B and C goals will also help you make important decisions during the race that the runner may need some encouragement and/or help making herself.
Be Prepared for Whatever Nature Throws Your Way
At Kettle, for example, we knew that thunderstorms were a likely scenario. Though they never came, Jen and I discussed beforehand what we would do in the event of a thunderstorm. We talked about visualizing that situation, so that if it did happen, we would be ready for it and it would not get us down.
I liken this concept to the “rule of positivity” my friends and I used to practice back in our youthful *ahem* partying days. Nothing kills a buzz (running or dance club induced) quite like negative thoughts. Even when your runner is in a bad spot — and he likely will be at some point during a hundred mile race — try to focus on the positive as much as possible and leave negative thoughts for another time and place.
Think Before You Speak
This goes along with the previous point, but it is important enough to be singled out alone. People can interpret things in different ways, so before I say anything to my runner I try to imagine how she might hear what I’m saying. If anything I might say could be interpreted as a negative thought, I keep it to myself.
Know How to Do Split Math In Your Head
Have a watch. Pay attention to what time you leave each aid station. Be prepared to throw out split times, estimated arrival times and cut-off times so your runner can concentrate on just running and not have to fuss with calculations.
You Are Not Allowed to Hurt, Not Allowed to Complain
Your feet might ache. You might have a blister. You might have a chapped ass. That’s fine. Just don’t say anything about it. As a pacer, and following the “no negativity” rule, I think it’s best that you leave your own issues out of any conversation.
Get Plenty of Rest
Especially if you are going to be running overnight, I highly recommend you sleep as much during the day as possible so you are alert and thinking clearly during the hardest late night/early morning hours.
Monitor Your Runner’s Fueling
Ultimately, I think it is up to the runner to fuel himself properly, but it doesn’t hurt to monitor it as a backup, especially as the late hours and extended fatigue set in. A bonky runner is an unhappy runner, so it’s best to just avoid that altogether.
Keep Aid Station Stops Short and Efficient
It is quite easy to dabble at an aid station. A lot of time can be lost. When my runner and I are approaching an aid station, I make sure to go over everything we need and everything we need to do, out loud, so once we get there we’re not standing around scratching our heads. Apply Bodyglide, change socks, eat something… knowing what to do beforehand will make the stops quick and efficient.
Know the Basics of Foot Care
Having a good idea of how to treat battered, blistered, macerated feet will come in handy. Check out Fixing Your Feet for all the gnarly details.
Carry an Emergency Gel or Two
Ya just never know when you’re gonna need it. I also carry extra batteries, Ginger Chews and salt tabs.
Be Prepared for the Bad Patches and Fight Them with Simple Goals and Positivity
Inevitably, bad spots are going to come. It’s a hundred-friggin-miles, man! Just know that they are coming and be ready to fight them back with short, simple goals. Just getting to the next aid station is a classic cue that really works and keeps the focus on something doable when the rest of the race may seem overwhelming. I have found that it also helps to point out all the great things my runner has accomplished up to that point so that she has some positivity to fuel off of when things get tough.
Know When to Stretch the Truth
I don’t ever lie to my runner, but when she asks “How far to the next aid station?”, I will construct an illusion of truth by replying with a time range that offers hope, even if part of it is impossible. Oh, we’re about 10-20 minutes away, I will say, knowing that the low range is impossible. I think it just helps the runner to hear a low number when that is what he wants to hear, even if he doesn’t know it.
Be Your Runner’s Biggest Fan
Your runner needs you. That’s why you’re there. Take care of her. Encourage him. Do whatever it takes (and you should know this by already knowing your runner) to get her to keep moving one foot in front of the other. And if you need something to motivate you as pacer, let me tell you:
OH HOW SWEET IT IS to watch her cross the finish line knowing you had a role in her success!
Of course, I do not consider the above collection of notes to be the all encompassing way to go about pacing, but the tips I offer have all worked well for me. If you have anything to add, please feel free to drop a line in the comments section.
Last year, the Ice Age Trail was home to a most glorious running experience. It was such a memorable event that I was absolutely adamant about coming back. But when it came time to register, an injury-laden winter and the knowledge that I would be fresh off a challenging Boston Marathon made me bump down to the 50k option.
On May 11, 2013, I ran the Ice Age Trail 50k — a challenging yet highly runnable course and now all I can think about is running it again in 2014. This is my story…
It’s 4:15 a.m. and my alarm sounds off along with my buddy Siamak’s. The unison doesn’t last long as we are both wide awake. In fact, I’ve been tossing and turning all night long and just happy to be fully awake now, ready to get the day started.
My off-and-on sleep was the result of the warm hotel room and a subliminal tick infestation planted in my brain by our waitress at Sperino’s the night before. She warned us that “the ticks were bad”. Indeed, I was tick-incepted by an Elkhornian and I didn’t get much sleep because I was more worried about the invisible critters sucking on my blood than traversing 31 miles of trail.
Still, I feel pretty fresh now that I’m awake. Siamak and I eat, go through our respective rituals of preparation, and by 5:10 we are in the car, driving to the start line.
As expected, the start/finish area at John Muir is a who’s who of familiar, crazy runner folk. Even though the majority of the people stirring about are running the 50 mile race, which begins at 6:00 a.m., I am glad I am here among the crowd because I won’t see most of them again until much later in the day.
My alarm wakes me from what was a fitting 90 minute nap (or was I meditating just now?) and I feel fantastic. I grab the gear I’m going to need (a handheld water bottle, gloves and a cap), I lube up where necessary (this is becoming automatic nowadays) and I head over to the start line. Here I run into two other recurring Run Factory faces, Dan and Otter. This is the first ultra distance race for both of them so I remind them to ENJOY the experience, have fun, take a look around. They both look pumped. I’m excited for them and can’t wait to hear about their experiences once this is all done.
We cheer on our friends in the 50 miler coming through the 9 mile mark at the start/finish line before the race director corrals all the 50k runners and tells us to get on our marks… set…
Miles 1-13, Out to Horseriders and Back
Here we go! The start line energy is high as I take off, trying to remind myself that ultras require pacing. Hell, all races require pacing! It’s just that the longer the distance, the less I tend to adhere to that important nugget of truth. Take it easy, Jeff, take it easy, I tell myself. We got a long way to go.
But, as we start to cruise the luscious single track, it isn’t long before we hit the first series of downhills and I… Simply. Can’t. Help myself.
I feel great. I feel strong. I feel like flying.
Yep. I’m doing this. I shouldn’t be, but I am. I am definitely FLYING down these hills. I’m power hiking up them, but I am flying down. Fast. Too fast. I know this. I know this! But I’m also loving every second of it and am willing to deal with the repercussions later, if they come (they do).
As I pump my arms, tilt my pelvis forward and allow my heels to kick me in the butt on the descent, I think of all the reasons why I should check my ambition right now:
- Limited weekly mileage (no more than 35 per week) since January
- This first 13 mile section is all rocks and roots, quite technical and hard on my unseasoned feet compared to the easier Nordic sections coming up
- I’ve run on trails just ONCE since November and it was only for 25k
- I have only run more than 20 miles in one shot ONE TIME since October and that was at the Boston Marathon, just a few weeks ago
- I have too much energy exploding through my being unchecked for this to end well
I internalize all of the above, and then, like a lot of ultra freaks, I quickly disregard everything and decide to just have fun.
I’ll fly when I wanna fly, walk when I wanna walk.
Later I will also walk when I don’t want to walk, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Right now I’m four miles in and the field has finally spread out. I’m marveling at the lush green landscape, the twisting turns of the trail and the pesky pricks of the rocks under my feet. Every two seconds I also check for ticks. Damn you, lucid dream inspiring Sperino’s waitress!
Suddenly, two strong fellas are right on my tail, so much so that I look back and offer them open passage on my left.
No, we’re good, the one in front replies. This is a good pace for us.
Cool, I reply. I like to let ‘er rip on the downs. I’ll be power hiking the ups.
They fall right into place and suddenly we are one. Down, down, down. Up, up, up. Their names are Tim and Mike. This is their first ultra. They are having a blast.
And they are pretty darn quick too. Turns out one of them (sorry, I can’t remember which because they’re both behind me while we talk) is a Nike Pace Team leader who led the 3:25 pace group at the 2012 Chicago Marathon.
Do you know Chris? He was my pace leader for the 3:05 group, had a California-bro accent of sorts.
Yes, I know Chris.
Boom. We are all instantly connected. That was the best run of my life so far and I spend the next couple of miles rehashing the experience. I get all jazzed, talking about fast marathons. I seem to forget about pacing all together. And when I find out they know another friend of mine, John from Grayslake, another Nike Pace Team leader, I get all bubbly telling them about some of our prior ultra battles (ED50k and Howl most notably).
Before I know it we are seeing the 50k leaders coming back towards us, approximately half a mile from the turnaround at Horseriders. We all marvel at their speed, speak fondly of their poise.
It’s one thing to run fast. It’s another to run fast on elevating, technical terrain.
We get to Horseriders. It’s just the three of us and the aid station crew. We chow down on some peanut butter and jelly. A minute or two goes by and we are just eating and stretching, drinking and breathing. But standing around too long in this chill is not comfortable so it’s time to go. After all, it’s barely 50 degrees and the sky is cloudy — very, very cloudy.
The three of us take off back into the woods, but we aren’t a half mile back in before I realize they are going way faster than me up the hills and there’s no way I can keep up. I tip my cap and wish them the best. It’s going to be a long day yet.
Still, the next several miles present A LOT of smiles because I get to see all my friends passing the other direction. As I scream down the hills I high-five and fist bump lots of folks, Dan and Otter included. Everyone is looking good. Everyone is smiling.
There’s no place I’d rather be right now. THIS is the life!
I’m past 1o miles now and I won’t be seeing anyone else on this out-and-back section. The next sign of human life will be at the start/finish line.
Hmm… I wonder if they have Oreos. I could really go for some Oreos right now.
And just like that, my OCD kicks in and all I can think about are OREOS OREOS OREOS. Such are the strange fixations of an ultra-distance race. In my every day life I wouldn’t touch an Oreo cookie. A drop of soda does not touch my mouth. I make it a point to eat clean — very, very clean. But throw me on a beautiful, wooded trail for hours on end and suddenly I will devour all processed foods and binge on soda pop. Like a boss.
I get to the start/finish. They have Oreos.
Miles 13-22, 1st Nordic Loop
It was nice to see some people at the start/finish line but I got a lot of work to do yet so off I go, back into solitary run mode.
Just a couple of miles in and I realize how much easier the Nordic loop is compared to the one I just finished. Instead of technical, rocky, rooted, up and down terrain, what we have here is a lot of flat, grassy ski trail. I should be able to fly through this.
SHOULD. Of course, I can’t right now because I beat myself up during the first 13, flying downhill like I was a mountain goat or Killian Jornet. Clearly, I am neither, as my quads and now achy heels can attest.
I am 16 miles in and anxiously looking for some hills.
Where are the hills? My legs hurt and I want to walk. Can I have a hill please?
No one can hear me. I’m all by myself. I have been all by myself since mile 8 so if I stop and walk, surely no one will see me.
A little bit of walking is allowed. Right?
I turn the corner and I see a HILL! I sprint towards it — OUCH — get to the base, and power hike up that baby.
For no good reason at all, Mozart’s Requiem pops into my head. Lux Aeterna, the last movement where Wolfy takes us from the world of the living to the world of the dead, blasts through my ears.
Why, brain? What are you trying to tell me?
Oh boy. I am tired.
While the IT band is just fine, my right hip starts to ache. I’ve had this ache before. It feels like bursitis. I stop and stretch. I massage it with my right thumb. Doing so makes it feel better. But as I stretch I notice the bottoms of my feet are sore too, probably from all the pounding during the first loop. I wiggle my toes around… and yep, just as I thought, definitely got some nails loose.
Oh well! What’s an ultra without losing some toenails?!?
REQUIEM, sings the choir.
Hey, finally some company, says a voice behind me.
I turn around and amazingly enough there is another human being! I find out his name is Matt. He’s from Wauwatosa and, of course, we know a lot of the same people from the running community.
As we marvel at how small the world really is, we also relax a little bit and find a nice cruising pace. We are about 18 miles in now and I’m feeling pretty beat up. Instead of complaining, I just hitch on to his heels and let the friendly conversation take us along.
Unfortunately for me though, Matt is much stronger right now and I have to dial back. I know we are on sub-5 hour pace (which, for this course, is a fantastic time), but I just can’t sustain that right now. I’m too tired. When I stop to walk the hills it’s taking a lot more concentration than it should to contract my quads and I know it’s because I went out too fast. I knew slogging along the second half could be the result of my eager start, but it’s way too late now.
A slog it is! Might as well enjoy it.
I complete the first Nordic loop, reach the start/finish aid station and all I want is Oreos. Duh.
Nom nom nom…
Miles 22-31, 2nd Nordic Loop
Just 9 miles to go, I tell myself. You could walk 9 miles. In your sleep. Speaking of sleep, check for ticks!
No ticks, but my armpits are kinda chafed.
Oh what I would give for some Vaseline right now.
And just like that, as if Mother Nature confused “Vaseline” for “sunlight”, the clouds in the sky part on cue, revealing a glorious, GLORIOUS sun.
Take that, Mozart! HALLELUJAH!
Sunlight, Vaseline, whatevs. The sun is out! The sun is out I tell you!
This picks me up as I try my best to run the entire first stretch of my second Nordic loop. But the truth is, my run is more of a shuffle than anything right now.
Doesn’t matter. Still moving. Still having a blast. And if I just keep moving, there will be more… Oreos!!!
Still, there isn’t much company. There is a tall, skinny white guy with a Prefontaine mustache out here every once in a while cheering for me (and others I would assume). Each time I see him I light up with a smile, and try to look as if I’m running strong (even though I’m not).
Next year we’re taking the first loop easy, then flying on the second and third.
Next year? I ask myself.
Yes, of course, next year, I reply to myself. You’re doing Boston again next year, then you’re doing this 50k again. It will be deja vu all over again, except less aches and pains. Probably.
Deal. Just make sure there are plenty of Oreos.
The 27.2 mile aid station is an absolute oasis in the forest. I devour what I can of those tasty, chocolatey, cream-filled treats. I stretch a little. And like I often do during long distance races, I find myself in a poignantly emotional state. I take the time to thank the volunteers and gush about how grateful I am that they are all there. I’ve been on both sides of the table now and volunteering is often harder than running the race. Even though my butt hurts, my hip aches and my feet are sore, I am much happier to be less than 5 miles from being done. These guys are still going to be here a while.
With the volunteers’ blessing and the bright sun in the sky urging me on, I take off on the last leg of my journey. To get me to keep moving I focus on landmarks up ahead, urging myself to just run to that tree, then walk for a few seconds and get around that bend, then stretch for a bit.
After several exhausting rounds of this tortuously fun process, I see the Prefontaine ‘stache guy one last time and he tells me I’m less than a mile from the finish.
Please tell me there is beer, I plead.
Hell yeah, man! Lots of beer! Good beer too!
That’s all I needed to hear. Suddenly my legs are fine and I’m flying again.
I hear a cow bell. And voices. And more Requiem.
There’s the finish line.
With a confident and incessant arm pump I cross the finish line in 5 hours 22 minutes and 11 seconds, sporting a big-ass smile and chafey armpits.
I couldn’t be much happier.
Besides the glorious trail running experience, the other main reason to run Ice Age is for the post-race party. Lots of free beer. The food is good. And there’s nothing like sitting at the finish line cheering on your friends. Most of my pals were running the 50 mile race, so to see them all come through in such epic fashion was a real cherry on top of my day.
Plus, my friend Moffat and I got the McHenry County Ultrarunning Dude and Dudettes’ mascot super drunk:
Like I already told myself:
See ya again next year, Ice Age!
I’m more aware. I’m more sensitive. I’m more than grateful that my loved ones and I are alive and well.
Today, I should be celebrating my first Boston Marathon finish with friends and family over drinks and laughs. I should be clinking glasses to mark overcoming a lengthy IT band injury. I should be fist-bumping my pals to commemorate my very first negative split. Instead, I find myself deeply saddened by yesterday’s tragic and cowardly acts. I find myself questioning humanity, wondering how someone could be so evil and so spineless as to hurt such a mass of innocents on Patriots’ Day, a day that traditionally brings so much love and joy to New England and all those who choose to be in and around Boston to run the world’s most prestigious and historic marathon.
Today, like much of the world, I am in mourning.
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”
–Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon
Because of this mourning, and because so many families find themselves in pain today, I feel it would be insensitive and trivial to craft my typical first person progressive play-by-play race report. At the same time, I think it would be equally insensitive to altogether forgo any writings on my experience, which is why I want to take a moment to applaud and recognize the people who really make the Boston Marathon such a world class event: the people of Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston. These are the same people who cheered me on as I crossed the finish line, the same people now gone or severely injured. These are the people who deserve our recognition: the good people of New England.
The minute I arrived in the Commonwealth, I was welcomed with friendly smiles and a never ending stream of “good luck at the race!” The people of Boston know how serious the Boston Marathon is and they recognize the diligence and hard work necessary to even qualify for such an event. They know that theirs is special and that to just participate requires tireless hours of perseverance and determination. They know this. They respect this. And they go out of their way to make us runners, coming from all corners of the globe, feel special and welcome.
From the good folks at the expo and the people at the hotel, to the waitstaff at restaurants and strangers on the street, I couldn’t walk 50 meters without someone wishing me well on the upcoming race. I was told prior to arriving that that would be exactly how I would be received, but I didn’t believe it until it actually happened.
Such welcoming arms made me feel special, made me feel comfortable. I wanted to run well, not only for myself, but for all of those who welcomed me with such warm, open hearts.
During the race, I was even more surprised at how many loving supporters came out to cheer us on. From the very beginning in Hopkinton, all the way up Route 135 and into Boston, I ran on the deafening cheers of happy, smiling strangers. Thinking that I might need a boost of encouragement at some point during the race, I wore my singlet with my last name (Lung) sprawled across my chest. Instead what I received was 26.2 miles of “Go, Lung!”, “Lookin’ good, Lung!” and “You can do it, Lung!”, an auditory pleasantry that, even now recalling this, brings tears to my eyes.
But perhaps what impressed me most about this race experience was the pure love and joy along the course evident by how many families were out, together, celebrating the marathon and all it represents as a metaphor for life. I saw so many young children and so many packs of friends and family united together, taking part in what has always been a great day to commemorate the human spirit.
That contagious and joyous energy forced me to hug the left side of the course, where I incessantly fed off the endless support and continuous high-fives from strangers. I ran most of the Boston Marathon without thinking about my legs because I didn’t have to. I had the crowd to ride on.
My finish was truly special, something I will never forget. I was told that once I saw the Citgo sign I would be on the home stretch. I saw it and suddenly my fatigue disappeared. I became another person. I sped up. I still had a couple of miles to go, so I tried to hold back the tears of joy coming in response to being on the cusp of finishing the World Series of marathons, but I knew it was coming and I was overcome with happiness.
When I came down Boylston, heading towards the finish, I made sure to take it all in. The crowd noise was deafening, but I heard just enough “GO LUNG”s to really kick it up a notch. In the last 385 yards, I smiled so big my cheeks hurt. I was in complete awe of the finish line celebration — the grandstands, the waves of people, the copious amounts of LOVE.
To know that just an hour and a half later that exact location that provided me with such everlasting memories of love, triumph and joy would be a murder scene more heinous than one could ever imagine, makes me sad beyond description. My heart aches for all of those families affected by this tragedy and I desperately wish I could take away their pain.
While there might not be much I can do to accomplish that exact sentiment, I am determined to rise up with my Boston brothers and sisters. I have decided I will re-qualify for the Boston Marathon. I will be back to show my love and support for the very city that was selfless in supporting me and my efforts. I will smile more. I will welcome strangers to my city. I will tell my people I love them.
My dad and I were lucky to have been near Fenway Park, about a mile and a half away from the finish line when the blasts occurred. We saw the bee line of state troopers on motorcycles fly by, but didn’t really know what was going on until we crossed the river and were in Cambridge heading back to our hotel when a kind Bostonian stopped us to let us know there had been some sort of attack. The immediate fear and chaos forced us to stay in and watch the news all night, relaying to our friends and family back home that we were indeed safe as best we could.
To say that we are lucky sounds a bit trite, but it is the truth. Both of us are back in our respective homes now, safe and in perfect health. The same cannot be said for Martin Richard. It cannot be said for Krystle Campbell, nor Lu Lingzu. It cannot be said for the 170+ innocent people injured during this cowardly crime.
“Boston is a tough and resilient town, so are its people. I’m supremely confident that Bostonians will pull together, take care of each other, and move forward as one proud city and as they do, the American people will be with them every single step of the way.”
Regardless of one’s political philosophy, the above statement is absolutely true. I experienced the Bostonian spirit firsthand, and I promise I will experience it again. We, as mindful human beings, will band together and we will always overcome the hatred of a few.
No amount of cowardice will ever stop that.
Patriot’s Day is only six weeks away, which means my long awaited dance with the World Series of marathons will soon be a dream come true. The natural excitement and nervous energy that come along with it will only escalate.
But I’m down with that.
Yesterday I nailed a 16 mile long run with 11 miles at 7:15 pace, with no aches or pains — yet another promising sign that my ITB issues are finally far off in the background. I wasn’t going to celebrate my lack of ITBS symptoms until I was able to sustain a good month of dedicated speed and hill training alongside the general aerobic long runs that are the staple of any solid marathon training plan.
Five weeks and counting, no residual aches, pains or soreness. I’m feeling damn good.
My buildup for this race, albeit unorthodox due to the limited training and mileage prescribed by coming off of a serious injury, has been about as much as I could ask for. I’m not overdoing it. I’m resting when my body directs me. But most of all, I’ve adjusted my mind to allow for a fun, possibly once-in-a-lifetime race experience. Rather than being hellbent on time goals, I’m focusing on toeing the line healthy, ready to deliver on whatever my body seems capable of on April 15, 2013.
This is in large contrast to my normal marathon training as I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I instinctively marry myself to routine, to nailing splits, to chasing down the guy ahead of me. And while I know quite well that outside of myself, not one single person on the planet really cares what time I get when crossing the finish line, I still feel like if I don’t throw down a personal best in every race then I’m not doing it right.
I’ve set some modest goals for Boston 2013. I haven’t regained my Chicago 2012 fast legs yet, but I’d like to finish somewhere between a 3:15 and 3:30, mindful of the fact that finishing and living in the moments presented by the most storied marathon in the world are, above all else, the most important things. If, on race day, my abilities push me beyond the 3:30 mark, then so be it. I vow to cross the line with a smile and a triumphant fist.
The cliche “it’s not the destination that matters but the journey” comes to mind. In my case, the journey has been profound in what it has revealed about me, about how I handle adversity both instinctively and through contemplation.
For someone like me, opportunities like running the Boston Marathon are certainly the exception, not the norm. I will treat the experience as exceptional, from Hopkinton to Boylston Street, and everywhere in between.
I still belong to one of those good old fashioned email listservs. It’s one that I have been a part of for a long time now — one I look forward to every afternoon; but at the same time it sort of stresses me out. It stresses me out on a very superficial level, I admit, but still, stress is stress.
To be more accurate, this daily email often overwhelms me more than anything, as it generally features 20-40 individual links to the hottest news stories of the day. These often include fascinating scientific breakthroughs, underground and outside mainstream opinion pieces and lots and lots of pictures of cats. Rarely am I able to read/view every single one of them. There just isn’t enough time!
Take the above alongside my afternoon dose of front-to-back Chicago Tribune reading, a neverending stream of Google Reader aggregated posts from my 100+ favorite blogs and the bevy of Facebook/Twitter feed links and articles being thrown my way every two seconds and I find myself actively vetting my reading material based on how sexy a URL may read.
There is just too much information out there — information I think I want! — attacking me via my laptop, my desktop, my phone, my other laptop and my BRAIN! If I’m not careful, I become Fred Armisen, trapped in a technology loop:
Sometimes I get trapped in there, for very long, uncomfortable periods of time.
Running is the antidote.
Of course, I can’t always be running, or exercising for that matter.
Enter Johann Sebastian Bach.
I have long been acquainted with the works of Bach. In high school and college I often cursed his named, wondering if he had ever even bothered to try singing one of his own tenor fugue creations. People have to breathe, y’know. Singers really need to breathe.
But sadly, my appreciation for his music never matured beyond the basic acknowledgement of his reinterpretation of what music could and should be. I knew all the greats (Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, etc) looked to him as the godfather of melody — that the foundation for the classical explosion was rooted in the Bach catalogue, but that was about it, and I never bothered to appreciate any of it.
More than a decade later, while circumventing the technology loop with a playlist full of Lady Gaga, Die Antwoord and Modeselektor, body and mind ready to explode from information overload, I stumbled across this:
Instantly, I was at peace.
And I was just getting started.
The last few months have been a joyous trip through the ever uplifting works of J.S. Bach. From violin concertos to piano sonatas, to choral masses, organ fugues and everything in between, I have become a bonafide believer in the beautiful bounty of Bach.
And the very best part?
Now I am running to Bach.
Not with headphones. I don’t run with music. I don’t have to, because Bach is in my head. It is always there and I am always elated! No more I’m Henry the Eighth I Am poisoning my psyche. No more Cotton Eyed Joe, no more Hey Mickey, no more Blue da ba de da ba die stuck on autoloop for miles and miles and miles.
Thanks to the musical genius of J.S. Bach, I am free. Free at last!
FREE AT LAST!!!
The two weeks of progressive running leading up to the Houston Half Marathon gave me plenty of confidence that my IT band syndrome issues had finally subsided. I knew that I probably wasn’t ready to push myself to the point of all out racing, but I knew that I had a good shot at finishing 13.1 miles pain free.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Pre-Race, 4:15 a.m.
The alarm clock goes off and I’m ready to go through my now conditioned routine: half a cup of coffee, one banana and a bagel. I peek out the window to see the trees outside my dad’s house blowing violently in the wind. I open the door to see just what type of weather I will be dealing with today and I quickly shut it, less I freeze to death. Low 40s. Lots of rain. 20+ mph winds.
Dad throws his bike in the back of the truck and we begin the 45 minute drive to downtown Houston. I didn’t sleep much last night so I take this time to catnap. I visualize a succesful race, one without knee pain, without giving in to the elements. Training in Chicago the last several years has made me pretty tough. I don’t like running in the cold, windy rain (does anyone really?) but I know I have the ability to shut it out, toughen up and just get the work done regardless.
In my corral now, I’m huddled among a mass of anxiously freezing runners. I have decided to wear my lightweight running jacket over my singlet. The high powered winds are just too chilling for me to go without it. A quick look around shows that I’m not the only one dressed for warmth, and as the announcer begins his introductions, the rain starts to come down steady and strong. A gust of wind hits me below the belt. Dressed in my trademark short shorts, I start to worry about the safety of “my boys”. But it’s too late now. All I can do is focus on running.
And we’re off…
Brrrrrr! Well, it’s a good thing I’m not trying to break any records today, I remind myself. The first few miles are a mental showdown between me and the elements. The winds are strong and mostly in my face, pushing me backwards with violent force, but I just keep my head down and barrel through. I stop trying to avoid puddles — there are just too many of them, and my feet are already soaked anyway.
Since I lined up at the very front of the corral, I’m not suffocated by a bunch of people tripping and skipping their way across my path. I’m surrounded by runners who match my fitness level and at the two mile mark I’m drafting inside a tightly formed pack. My plan is to just go out at a comfortable 7-minute pace and hold it throughout the race. I cross the three mile marker in 21 minutes. Right on schedule.
My body feels good, but I’m not really enjoying myself. All I can think to myself is I can’t wait until this is over, I can’t wait until this is over. This is a rare thought for me, especially during a race, but the elements are wearing on my mind. The gusts of wind keep coming at me, from all directions, and I’m pretty sure my balls are frozen now.
At least my leg/ITB/knee feels good.
Until, *BAM*, it doesn’t.
Oh shit. Here we go. I pass the six mile marker and almost immediately, I start to feel that familiar ache developing at the ITB insertion point of my right knee. No, no, no… this is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening.
Except, it is happening. And there’s not much I can do about it.
Maybe it’ll go away, I think to myself. I grit my teeth, trying to ignore it. But having been dealing with this issue for so long now, I know better.
Around the seven mile marker, I see Dad, a bright spot. Goooo Jeff! he encourages me.
Not feeling good. My knee is starting to hurt, I tell him.
Uh oh, he responds. The look on his face is the same look I’ve been carrying for the last mile or so — the same one I was hoping to avoid indefinitely. Sometimes we do all the right things and we still don’t get what we want. This is a lesson I’m trying to understand.
I keep going, pushing along as my pack starts to move ahead of me. The ache is becoming a throb, so I stop and do some ITB stretches, hoping this will make it go away. The stretching feels good, but once I get moving again, the pain persists. I push and push and push, but another, more sane voice finds its way inside my head and says, Dude, it’s not worth it. Stop now. Live to fight another fight.
I hate that this voice is right. But, for once, I listen.
I stop running. I look down at my watch. 8.62 miles in one hour exactly.
Well, now what? I ask myself. All I really want to do is punch something, to scream, to break things.
I resort to a hobble-walk. I can’t walk too fast. The ITB pain gets worse the faster I move.
Just as I feel myself succumbing to the dark cavern of negative thoughts, I see Dad up ahead. I’m happy to see him, but beyond disappointed in my condition. I tell him how I’m feeling and, knowing how pissy I am right now, he doesn’t say much. Instead he peddles alongside me on the race course while I try to stay out of the path of the hordes of runners passing me.
I can’t help but feel embarrassed, defeated. I’m sorry, I tell him.
Don’t be sorry. You have no reason to be sorry with me.
I’m really trying hard not to be a baby right now.
If it wasn’t so damn cold, windy and rainy, maybe I’d have the strength to have a good cry. But I’m shivering, struggling to stay warm.
Do you want your warm-up pants? he asks. I try to run again, hoping maybe everything was just in my head. It wasn’t. I still have ITBS and running is not an option right now. We stop so I can put my pants on. I pin my bib to my front leg. He gives me his raincoat too, which helps immensely.
We discuss me dropping. I really want to. I hate hobble-walking while the crowds continue to cheer for all of those running past me. I know they mean well, but if I hear one more person tell me I’m doing a good job, when I CLEARLY am not, I might do something stupid.
We get to about the ten mile mark and I decide that not finishing is NOT an option. DNF’ing was not a part of the plan today, so I’m going to gut this one out and hobble across the finish line no matter what. Dad labors alongside me on his bike, offering consoling conversation when I need it, but mostly just staying quiet, like me.
I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have a dad who would bike alongside me like this in such shitty conditions, offering up his own coat so that I don’t freeze. Despite my bum leg, I’m a pretty lucky dude.
With a half mile to go, the course narrows and the crowd grows. There isn’t enough room for Dad to bike alongside me anymore so he splits off and we agree to meet back at the George R. Brown Center.
I cross the finish line just as the lead American marathoner finishes his 26.2. The deafening roar drowns out my depression and I take a second to cheer the guy on myself. I’ll have days like that again someday, I tell myself. This ain’t my last rodeo.
I’ve had enough time now to find a little bit of healthy perspective on the whole ordeal. Despite my positive training runs leading up to this event, I’m thinking that my body just wasn’t ready to handle that sort of continuous speed quite yet. Or maybe it was pounding on the few rolling downhills the course had to offer. Or maybe it was the conditions. I don’t know.
I will see my sports doctor on Tuesday to get his perspective and advice.
In the meantime, I’m finding comfort in the fact that I didn’t continue to push my body through the pain — that I didn’t act with recklessness as I probably would have once done. I let reason dictate my actions. And I’m hoping such discretion will allow me to have enough time to adequately train for Boston.
Perspective is a bitch sometimes, no doubt, but I’m glad I finally have it.
It seems so silly now to think how defiant I once was against even trying something like yoga to supplement my running habit. To think how I secretly questioned Scott Jurek, my running idol, and his unabashed dedication to the practice seems so immature. My prior disbelief that I could actually benefit from yoga seems, now, to go against all practical sense.
And such disbelief only existed because I thought… *GASP*… that I would look foolish.
Floundering in the land of what-ifs is foolish.
And so it wasn’t until I found myself injured, unable to do what I love to do, that I finally listened to all those who had advised me. In my circle, there was no shortage of yoga proponents. Every single one of those individuals touting the practice was sincere in his or her belief that it would help me. How could I ignore such considerations any longer?
I found a local yoga studio, signed up for their beginner’s course and seven weeks later I’m here pondering how I ever lived without it. As a runner, there are myriad benefits to practicing yoga (flexibility, controlled breath work, increased synovial fluid production to name a few), but what I appreciate the most are the calming, meditative principles applied through movement. This is essentially what happens to me during a really good long run: I connect movement to the breath and allow my mind to experience the now.
Like running, yoga is a door to the present.
I’m just as susceptible as most to the infinite technocratic noises of the world, but I also know there is a way out. I know I am happiest when I exist among the calm of the present tense. Running gets me there. A baseball game on a lazy, summer afternoon gets me there.
Now I know yoga gets me there too. And even when the practice is over, I still feel like a glowing, hundred foot giant of awesome.
* * *
I am still out of commission, but staying active and positive. I’ve seen a sports medicine doctor now who is sure my condition is ITBS and nothing else. So I can only continue to do what I’m doing: stretching, icing, foam rolling, strengthening, yoga, boxing, watching Bulls basketball (despite this giving me headaches from time to time) and re-reading all my favorite Carl Sagan books.
I will not be able to run the Houston Marathon in 2013, but that’s okay. I am at peace with that. There will be plenty of marathons to run once I’m back to full strength. My focus now is on getting better in time to train well for Boston. I start physical therapy this week and aim to invoke my inner Derrick Rose as I focus on strengthening my hip flexors as well as my mind.
One thing is certain: this unscheduled time off from the sport I love so much has been as humbling as it has been healing. The majority of my other constant niggles, aches and pains have gone away with the time off and I am confident that the forced disassociation has strengthened my mind. When I do come back, I am going to be more hungry, more ravenous and more determined than I have ever been.
Special thanks to Lisa Kinlinger, who has provided me with excellent ART treatments as well as a final, swift kick out the door and into a yoga studio.
“Holy… effing… shit,” I said to Dr. Jay, my long-time chiropractor (and now, savior), “I wish I could explain to you the type of relief I’m feeling right now.” I lay there, face down, breathing alleviated breaths that seemed to crescendo into sweeter, livelier respirations of victory. Finally. Everything made sense. Sort of.
“Yeah, even your ribs were all out of whack.” he said.
Ribs? Back? But my problem is ITBS… or so I thought.
In fact, the last three weeks have been as frustrating as they have been debilitating. Laid up from my DNF at the Des Plaines River Trail 50 from what was most certainly IT band syndrome, I have spent the last 20-some days scouring the internet for anti-ITBS clues, searching frantically from one runner injury forum to the next, soliciting advice from anyone with any inkling of authority, even if his handle is RUNNERSLAVE69.
I bought a $15 compression wrap that would be better used as a headband. I endured three intense ART sessions. I rolled and stretched my IT band so much that I feel like I should be an inch or two taller.
But none of it seemed to do anything to help, which led to repeatedly asking myself: WHY? WHY ME?
My hip flexors are super strong! My gluteus medius could be used as an anatomy classroom specimen! My quads are about as muscular as one could ever expect them to be! SO WHY ME? WHY NOW? DON’T YOU KNOW I HAVE A MARATHON TO RUN IN 9 1/2 WEEKS?
It wasn’t until I was on the phone with my dad, complaining to him as best I could without turning into a complete baby, explaining how I went from being uber tough BQ runner to debilitated hobby jogger who couldn’t run 4 miles without a flaring IT band leaving him hobbled, depressed and defeated.
“First I throw out my back on the ab roller,” I told him, “then my knee locks up from ITBS, and then, because I was so frustrated with not being able to train, I went straight to the heavy bag without wrapping my hands and now I’m pretty sure I have a broken wrist.”
(Luckily, I don’t actually have a broken wrist. Just a sore wrist. A very, very sore wrist.)
“Wait, what did you say about your back?” Dad asked.
“I threw it out on the ab roller. The Monday before my DNF actually.”
“Maybe that and your IT band are related.”
DING DING DING!
Why didn’t I ever think of that? I should have known that. I should have known that!
“Oh yes, the two are definitely related.” said Dr. Jay. “When you strained your back, all the muscles around it tightened, pulling inwards, which pulled your hip upwards, rotating it into an abnormal position.”
With the rotated hip, the IT band got off track, and voila, after a few gentle miles I wanted to saw my own leg off. Thankfully, I won’t need to saw my own leg off.
In fact, Doc says after another adjustment or two, I should be back to normal. Seven to ten days should do it, which is fantastic news for humanity, considering I’ve been a moody bear without my regular training regimen to keep me centered.
But just in case I have any lingering ITB issues, I did buy some KT tape. I plan to start using it immediately, which finally offers me a legitimate excuse to experiment with shaving my legs.
The running gods giveth, and the running gods taketh away.
One thing I easily forget as I tally up personal bests and races of a lifetime is that no one is immune to the possibility of failure. And that definitely includes me.
Unfortunately, accepting that reality doesn’t make the process any easier on my mind (or body).
I signed up for the Des Plaines River Trail 50 Mile race just a few days prior to the Chicago Marathon. I did it for several reasons, all of which now, in retrospect, seem foolish. In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed by admitting as much and I’ve seriously contemplated just skipping over the reporting aspect of this race experience all together, thinking that if I don’t acknowledge my failure then it will just quietly go away.
Life ain’t always champagne and chocolate. Sometimes it’s Old Style and pork rinds. And it’s best to just accept as much, learn from it, then move on to the next thing before you’re uncontrollably drunk and smell like pig.
Fear of missing out (FOMO as I’ve heard it called) played a primary role in my signing up for this race. Focusing on road marathons is sometimes a lonely place for me because most of my friends in the running community are focusing on the longer distances (50 miles, 100 miles, etc). We go on weekend camping trips to run/pace the big distances. No one packs the car up and makes an epic trip out of running a road marathon. And running a 3:03 in a road marathon is great and all, but it’s still only enough for 1,049th place in a mega race, whereas a fast time in an ultra will likely bring a top-10 finish and accolades galore from my peers.
(Of course, as I write this, I realize just how bogus such a mentality is. WHY ARE YOU RUNNING, JEFF? Get the hell outta here, dude…)
Having spent the summer witnessing a collection of great performances from my friends (Supergirl’s Hallucination 100 win, my friends’ epic Run Across Illinois, Siamak’s Woodstock 50, Whitney’s Howl at the Moon victory, among many others), I could not help but get wrapped up in what everybody else is doing while easily forgetting my own personal strengths and weaknesses. One of those weaknesses — recovery time from a road marathon — would end up killing my race.
I don’t know the exact reason, but it takes me a good three weeks to fully recover from a road marathon. I tend to run road marathons as hard as I can, and even though the residual soreness goes away in a day or two, the lingering effects of fatigue and lowered performance remain. In the two weeks after the Chicago Marathon, I had a hard time maintaining an 8:30 pace. Each run labored into a jog — some even a slog — and a dull ache in my lateral right knee developed, most likely from a tight IT band, something I’ve been aware of and trying to fix for some time.
Even with all of this knowledge, I still thought all I needed was a few days of rest to clear everything up, so I took the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before DPRT off completely. No running.
But perhaps the worst part of my lead-up to a DNF was the cocky mentality I had going in. Despite the aforementioned fatigue, the aforementioned achy knee and the aforementioned FOMO, I still had it in my head that I could run a very fast 50 miles. The Des Plaines River Trail course is flat. It is fast. And based on my recent marathon time and a few delusional minutes plugging numbers into the McMillan Pace Calculator, I figured a 7-hour 50 miler was definitely doable.
And sure enough, as I started out on Saturday morning, all systems were go. The rest had left me feeling fresh. Holding an 8 minute pace seemed easy. The trail was perfect and the day was beautiful. Who knows, I thought, could be something special.
But by mile 5 my right knee was aching. By mile 10 it was throbbing. By mile 15 it was hobbling.
Yet, I kept pushing on. WHY!?!?
I had never DNF’d before. And I always told myself the only reason I would ever DNF is if I was injured. Well, there I was, obviously injured, and yet I still couldn’t convince my stupid self to hang it up. The thought kept coming, but I kept shooing it out, thinking that if I just ignored it (and the knee pain) that it would eventually go away.
It did not. In fact, by the 20 mile mark, my stride had shortened considerably to compensate, and people started passing me.
At the 24 mile mark, I could barely walk. My knee wouldn’t bend. It was stiff as a board, and throbbing.
I walked/hobbled the 2.5 miles to Aid Station number 9, and as I approached, I knew that I was going to have to do the one thing I never wanted to do. I dropped from the race.
I haven’t had much of a love life in the last five years, but I still couldn’t help but notice the irony that exists in relationships as well as my favorite activity. Sometimes the thing (or person) you love the most, is the very thing (or person) that will hurt you the most. Not being able to run is my biggest fear. But I also know that sometimes, in order to avoid long-lasting, devastating damage that would keep me from running, that taking some time off is the only remedy.
The time spent in the back of the sweeper van allowed me to reflect on this. And I made it a point to suck it up and not make it an issue as I waited out the rest of the day, cheering on my friends to some fantastic finishes.
In fact, my friends were my saviors on Saturday. Siamak ran a 7:28 — A SEVEN HOUR TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTE FIFTY MILER!!!! — and Alfredo finished under 10 hours after having fought through his own troubles, both physical and mental. My friend Tracy WON THE WOMEN’S RACE! My friends Jen and Patrice both finished their very first 50 milers and a whole host of others had great days in the marathon and half-marathon as well.
Watching the joy and triumph from others was a good reminder of why I do what I do. And it was also a reminder to not get too wrapped up in the feats of others and feel obligated to replicate them. Right now my focus is on road marathons and that’s where it should stay until I finally reach all of my goals. Trying to push my body to do things it’s not exactly trained for, just because everyone else is doing it, is not beneficial to me.
So I am going to take a couple weeks off from running. I need to let my knee/IT band heal. I will get body work done. I will rest and regroup before starting my next training cycle. It will be pretty hard for me to do, mentally, but I will get through it by supporting my friends’ efforts (I’ll be manning an aid station at the Lakefront 50 all day this coming Saturday) and by acknowledging that everybody needs a break sometime, whether it be to heal an injury or to reboot from a long, long season.
Onwards and upwards!