I'll be honest. My DNF (did not finish) at Leadville still haunts me. I have dreams about standing at the top of Hope Pass, exhausted, spent and knowing deep down that it wasn't going to happen for me this year. Standing there, at 12,600 with the wind whipping around me, I felt exposed, raw and vulnerable. I can't shake that feeling. It comes to me in the middle of my runs. It comes to me late at night as I drift off to sleep in the comfort of my own bed. It is always there, serving both as a bitter reminder as well as a powerful motivating force.
I didn't run for a week after the race and then only short runs of an hour or so. During those runs I was tired and felt drained. I spent a lot of time on line and talking with friends looking for coach. I finally settled on Scott Weber, who only works with ultra runners and has spent many, many years helping runners get to the finish line at Leadville. I have been working with him since late August. I find it very helpful to be held accountable to a coach. It is far more difficult to rationalize skipping a workout if I know I'm going to have to tell someone about it. Especially someone I am paying to help me run.
He suggested a GPS, so I went out and purchased a Garmin 610 with a heart rate monitor. I have run with it since August and have discovered several things. The most glaring of which is that wearing a GPS is a lot like being married. The watch, much like a good life partner, tells you when you are doing a good job, but doesn't lie to you when you are not doing what you set out to do. It's unrelenting honesty helps to make me a better runner. I can't fudge the numbers when they are staring right at me. They speak for themselves. At first this was very unsettling and depressing. I was running so slowly and my heart rate was through the roof. However, over time, and with consistency, I have seen my pace increase and my heart rate decrease.
Several weeks ago I had some strange sort of breakthrough. Coach Weber has been having me run slow and easy at a comfortable pace to build a good base. That pace hovered around 10+ minutes per mile on the average until the Medoc Trail Marathon at Medoc Mountain State Park last month.
This is a fantastic race. The entire course is very runnable and most of it is a non-technical single track. It consists of three loops through the park which allows a good amount of crowd support for a trial race. I focused on running conservatively from the beginning, planning on about a 4:30 or maybe a 4:20 day. Early on I felt strong and relaxed and managed to take in lots of nutrition on a regular basis. At the halfway mark, I still felt great and was actually beginning to move a little faster. I was beginning to move up through the field and pass people regularly. I crossed the line in 4:10 and felt great. I wasn't spent and spent about 45 minutes hanging out and watching other finishers before I had to head back for a family engagement. Most surprisingly, I was not sore at all the next day.
I went out for my Tuesday run and was surprised to see that instead of plodding along at 10 minutes per mile I was running between 8:30 and 9:00 per mile and feeling great. This continued both Wednesday and Thursday. It was as if my body found another gear. The following Saturday I went to Umstead and ran 12 at just over a 9 minute pace and went back to the park again Sunday and ran just under 10 at about the same pace. Both days felt relaxed and fun and easy.
Last week my training was a little off as I went with my wife to support her as she completed the Florida Ironman. She has been working very hard for the last several months and it showed. She finished in 13:15 and change and felt great. She ran the marathon in 4:11, which was only two minutes slower than her PR for a stand alone marathon. Talk about throwing down the gauntlet.
The week after my wife rocked Ironman Florida my long time training partner and fellow lunatic Tim and I traveled to Richmond, VA for the Anthem Richmond Marathon. When we signed up for it several months ago we both had visions of setting PRs there as it is a fast course. As we got closer to race date we began to reevaluate our potential for a strong finish. Tim has been sick and busy with work/family and had not gotten in the miles he had planned. I, on the other hand, had gotten in plenty of miles, but they weren't fast ones. In fact, race week was a peak training cycle for me with 10 hours of scheduled running. My coach and I decided that I would train through the race and not try to taper or peak for it and just run strong and see how it went.
The weather was PERFECT for a race. It was in the upper 40's at start and quickly warmed up into the 50's and was in the low 60's by noon. My previous PR for a marathon was 3:51 in Charlotte a couple of years ago. When I signed up I told the race organizers I was going to run a 3:45 so I ended up in that starting corral and decided to hell with it. I would try to keep up with the 3:45 pace group as long as I could and them limp to the finish. They said go and we were off. I had decided to travel light and carry just my Hammer Gels and no water. I ate a gel about every 4 to 5 miles and used the water from the aid stations to wash them down. This strategy seemed to be working as I was still running comfortably with the pace group as we passed the halfway mark at around 1:51. I kept waiting to blow up but still felt good. Our pacer did a fantastic job of running at a fairly consistent 8:30 pace. He has run several ultras so we spent some time talking about various races and what it was like to run 100 miles. Around mile 17 a guy on a bike rode past the group and shouted encouragement. I immediately recognized his as legendary ultrarunner David Horton. Our pacer pointed him out to me and we spent the next few minutes talking about his exploits and the races he organizes in Virginia.
Strangely, I was still feeling great. I had been running and chatting with Scott for the past several miles. He is from Raleigh and was running his first marathon. He hoped to finish in 4 hours. Shortly after mile 17 we began to pull away from the 3:45 pace group and started running mile splits closer to 8:10 and 8:15. We kept this up for a while and when we got to the 22 mile mark we began to pick it up and push one another. I figured that I could suffer just fine for 3 miles and even if I blew up and walked I still stood a good shot of setting a new PR. By the time we passed mile 23 we were running sub 8 minute miles. Mile 25 to 26 was at a 7:30 pace. We were passing runners left and right, getting faster and faster as they slowed down. Slowly I began to realize that I wasn't going to blow up. That I was having the race of a lifetime. I knew I was going to set a PR. I knew I was going to run under 3:45 and there was a very good chance I could run under 3:40.
I knew that it would be close and I would have to really work to have a finish time that in the 3:30s. I remembered the Grandfather Mountain Marathon that I ran in June and how much I wanted to run a sub 4 and how I was on the bubble for a couple of miles. I vividly remember exactly where I was on the course when I gave up and quit the idea of a sub 4. I still finished in 4:03, but part of me knew I could have done more. I didn't want to feel that way again. I wanted to go sub 3:40. Scott and I stayed together until the last three tenths of a mile when he got a side stitch. I opened it wide on the file stretch and crossed the line with a chip time of 3:39:09. Scott finished moments behind me but actually ahead of me as he had a chip time of 3:38 and change.
It was an absolutely amazing day. Everything fell into place. I couldn't have run as fast without Scott to push me. I finished and felt great. No cramping, no nausea. Nothing. Just a little hungry. I couldn't believe it. Tim finished well under 4 hours and only a couple of minutes away from setting a PR. It was an incredible day.
The next day I got up early to finish my training schedule for the week and knocked out an easy 8 miles. My legs felt a little heavy, but not too bad. When everything was said and done I ran 68 miles last week, including the marathon. No injuries and no soreness.
While I harbor no delusions that I will always feel this good I have decided to live in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.
I will now focus my efforts on getting ready for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in April, which I will use as a tune up race for Leadville in August.
I already have my room booked for race weekend in Leadville again. Some people never learn.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Where to start? I guess, with the obvious. I didn't finish. This was my first DNF, and it still stings. I made it over Hope Pass (12,600 feet) and down into Winfield at the 50 mile mark but was outside the cut off time and was pulled from the race. After slightly more that 14 1/2 hours, my race was over. More on that later.
ARRIVING IN LEADVILLE:
PACKET PICK UP:
I was anxious to get started with the process so I went to early packet pick up and medical check on Thursday morning. It went smoothly and was very exciting and somewhat surreal to finally be in Leadville with a bib number and timing chip.
DRIVING THE COURSE:
MANDATORY RACE BRIEF:
FISH HATCHERY TO HALF PIPE (Mile 23.5 to Mile 29.1) 1hr 45minutes
As anyone who has been reading this blog knows, I spent a lot of effort preparing for the 2012 Race Across the Sky. I ran over 1,200 training miles and spent six weeks sleeping in an altitude chamber from Hypoxico. I felt stronger and healthier than I ever have going into a race. I had remained injury free since February and was consistently running 60 to 80 miles every week, which was a record for me. I felt that I had done enough. I thought I was as ready as I could be, both physically and mentally.
ARRIVING IN LEADVILLE:
We decided to turn the race into a two week family road trip. We left Raleigh bright and early on Monday before the race and drove to Leadville, arriving on Wednesday afternoon. I managed to pick up a cold on the first day of our trip and was full on sick by the time we got there. Sore throat, sinus pressure, cough, runny nose, elevated heart rate. It wasn’t at all what I was hoping for. I had reached a point in my training that my resting heart rate hovered around 46 or 47 beats per minute. By the time we got to Leadville, between my cold and the altitude I was lucky to keep it down in the 70s, and if I walked across the room, it spiked into the low 100s. Ever the optimist, I chose to ignore this and the cold in its entirety and rely on my training.
We rented a house from Alpine Realty which was clean and had more than enough room for the four of us. We quickly settled in and then set out to explore the town. Our house was only 3 blocks from the start finish and 2 blocks from the 6th Street Gym, where the race briefing would be held on Friday.
Our first night there we had a nice dinner at Zichitella's. Although they aren’t in any way healthy, I highly recommend their homemade potato chips.We spent the next couple of days relaxing and shopping for supplies.
PACKET PICK UP:
|Getting weighed in during the medical check at packet pick up.|
I was anxious to get started with the process so I went to early packet pick up and medical check on Thursday morning. It went smoothly and was very exciting and somewhat surreal to finally be in Leadville with a bib number and timing chip.
DRIVING THE COURSE:
After picking up my packet, we decided that we would drive around and find as many of the crew access points as we could. If you are planning on running Leadville, I cannot stress enough how important this is. The roads in Lake County wind around and fold in on themselves and can get very confusing if you aren’t familiar with them. We spent a fair amount of time somewhat misdirected and turned around. The directions to the crew points in the race book were not as detailed as I would have liked, and our GPS was a little out of date and kept giving us wrong information. Finally I broke out the iPad and was able to pull up a detailed map of the area and plot our course. We found Tabor Boat Ramp, May Queen, Fish Hatchery, and Twin Lakes. We weren’t able to find Tree Line with the directions they gave us and ran out of time before we could get to Winfield on Thursday. Fish Hatchery and Twin Lakes are very easy to find, but you need to be sure to coordinate with your crew where to meet so you don’t run into the same problem I did on race day.
|The kids playing on the shore of Turquoise Lake.|
|The trail from Twin Lakes toward Hope Pass.|
|The view from the road between Fish Hatchery and Half Pipe.|
Friday morning at 11:00 I headed into the 6th Street Gym, along with 800 other racers and their crews and pacers. The energy in the air was palpable. I don’t believe I have ever been in the presence of so many fit people, not even at my two previous Ironman races. We got an introduction and some general information and then a really excellent talk by the race’s medical director. The last thing on the agenda was the traditional speech by Ken Chlouber, who founded the race 30 years ago. Sadly, Ken’s brother died the Wednesday before the race, and he wasn’t able to make it. Instead he sent his son, Cole, to speak to the runners. Cole had grown up with the Leadville Trail 100 run since he was 8 years old. He has 5 bike finishes as well as one attempt and one finish of the run. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hear Ken speak, as he is an iconic part of the race. I shouldn’t have worried. Cole did an outstanding job. By the time he was finished, I had tears in my eyes and was fired up enough to eat nails. The entire gym was on their feet cheering. It was an amazing experience. Cole’s words echoed in my head throughout the next day.
After the race I stepped outside where I met two time Leadville champion Anton Krupicka. I wished him luck and asked for a quick picture. He was very friendly and accommodating. The briefing for the crews was set to start at 12:30, and I had a few minutes to spare, so I walked back to the house to get Wendy and the kids. We got back to the gym around 12:20, and the crew briefing was almost over. They had started it immediately after the runner’s briefing. Wendy and I were both frustrated because we really felt we needed some of the information. Wendy was worried about where to park and how I would find them. The gym was hot, and the kids were getting restless, so Wendy took them back to the house while I stayed behind to ask questions. The woman giving the presentation was also in charge of cut offs and was extremely nice and helpful. I followed her out of the gym, peppering her with questions, which she seemed happy to answer.
She told me that I should not have my crew meet me at Winfield because they have limited space and the traffic is terrible. My pacer (Jenn) was planning on meeting me there, so Wendy and I decided she and the kids would just wait at Twin Lakes. This decision also kept us from having to drive out to Winfield that afternoon to scout it, which was nice. We spent the rest of the day going over our plan - writing down directions to various crew access points and going over lists of supplies and potential times of arrival.
|Quick photo op with two time Leadville champion Anton Krupicka.|
I got up at 2:45, ate a small breakfast, and got dressed. Wendy got up while I was eating and got ready. Then we got the kids up a little after 3. They had slept in their crew shirts and bounced right out of bed, excited for the adventure. I had promised them they could stay up all night and sleep in the back of the van if they got tired. We walked down to 6th Street and Harrison with all the other lunatics where I got hugs and kisses from Wendy and the kids and headed off to find my spot in the starting corral for the 4am start. The weather was supposed to be perfect. It was right around 40 degrees at race start with a high of 68 and a low Saturday night of 38. No real chance of rain. It doesn’t get much better than that.
As I was standing on 6th Street, I looked up and saw Jen Cosco. I had met Jen at the Bel Monte 50 Mile Endurance Run earlier in the hear. She had attempted Leadville last year and was back for a second attempt. I have kept up with her blog, and it was nice to see a familiar face. We talked about nerves and training and whether either one of us was really ready for this.
A short speech, the National Anthem, a shotgun blast, and we were off and running.
|Posing with 2/3rds of my Race Crew just before start.|
|Ready for the start. They say ignorance is bliss, and I do look happy.|
START TO TABOR BOAT RAMP (Mile 0 to Mile 7)
Before I get into the nitty gritty of what happened, let me say this: In my preparation for this race, I read every race report, article, and blog entry and watched every video I could find about it. They were all full of lots of good and hard-earned advice. I read and processed all of it and apparently disregarded most of it. Every article talked about how crowded it can get on the single track around Turquoise Lake. I should have listened. I didn’t. I was so concerned about going out too fast too soon that I ran very conservatively for the first couple of miles. I was scared that I was going to go out too fast and blow up.
As always, I was wearing a Raleigh Running Outfitters shirt and hat. About a mile in a man commented on the shirt and said he was from Durham. It turned out to be Guido Ferarri. He is a regular presence on the running scene in and around the triangle. I had heard of him and we have a few mutual acquaintances, but we had never met. Funny that we had to be 1800 miles from home, running a 100 mile race in the dark in the Rockies to make a connection. He told me that he had one finish and one DNF at Leadville. We ran together for a few minutes before he pulled off for a quick pit stop.
After a couple of miles the route took a 90 degree right hand turn off the road and onto single track for a ways, then back out onto the road, and then back to single track around Turquoise Lake. This part of the trail was very frustrating to me. I was stuck behind a long line of people that were going much slower than the pace I wanted to run. I scooted around when I could but spent long portions of the trail walking behind people in front of me. I had no idea how far I had been, but I knew I wanted to be at Tabor Boat Ramp in a little more than an hour. It was close to an hour and 20 minutes before the ramp appeared suddenly out of the darkness, followed immediately by my family. I was surprised to see them and kept running after some quick high fives. (My son told me I missed his high five and hit him in the face. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he was none the worse for wear, and I see the humor in that story.)
TABOR BOAT RAMP TO MAY QUEEN (Mile 7 to Mile 13.5)
I was able to make up a little bit of time during this section and got into May Queen a little after 6:30. I didn’t stop at the aid station; I just checked in and out and met my crew on the road. I got some new Hammer Gels and headed off. I should have dropped my light because it was daytime by now, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. It was great to see Wendy. She seemed very excited and happy for me, which helped motivate me. My son and daughter were just starting to wake up. My son had some stomach issues and threw up several times that morning on the sides of various roads, but he never complained to me once. Now that’s a crew member!
My plan was to eat one Hammer Gel every 30 minutes. I was already way behind. I started rationalizing stretching that out after the first 30 minutes. I was averaging about one an hour - not enough, as I would come to find out. Still, I felt pretty good and had no aches or pains, and my legs felt strong. It was hard to keep my heart rate down, I think because of a combination of my cold, the altitude, and the excitement of the race. The high heart rate was slowly starting to make me tired and my walk breaks were becoming longer and longer.
MAY QUEEN TO FISH HATCHERY (Mile 13.5 to Mile 23.5) 2hrs 21minutes
The 10 miles from May Queen to Fish Hatchery climbs over Sugar Loaf (11,000 ft) and down Power line Hill. The run up is on Hagerman Road, which is an old dirt road with a long but gradual grade. I was able to run portions of it without too much difficulty. I alternated running and fast hiking it in an attempt to save some energy. There were some truly amazing views as we climbed away from May Queen and Turquoise Lake. At the top the route plunged down a rough, rutted power line right of way. I was not able to bomb down it as I had hoped, but was able to run at a comfortable pace. After several miles of descent, the course popped out onto a paved road and continued about a mile and a half into Fish Hatchery. I checked into the aid station right around 9am. I had hoped to be there by 8 but I was still a full hour ahead of the cut off time so I wasn’t too worried. I grabbed some chips and a coke and headed out. Just outside the Hatchery I saw 2/3rds of my crew running down the road toward me. I followed them back to Wendy where I shed ear warmers, arm warmers, gloves, and the light I should have given them at May Queen. I got some fresh Gatorade, some more Hammer Gels, and a Red Bull and headed out. I was in a great mood and still moving well, if not fast. In retrospect I knew in the back of my mind that I needed more calories and that I was heading for a meltdown. However, much like a character from an Albert Camus novel, I seemed helpless to alter my actions and plodded contentedly on toward my inevitable implosion.
|Coming out of Fish Hatchery Aid Station, with crew escort.|
|Greeting my race crew with a smile.|
|Heading out from Fish Hatchery toward Half Pipe.|
FISH HATCHERY TO HALF PIPE (Mile 23.5 to Mile 29.1) 1hr 45minutes
Man, this was a long 5 ½ miles. The course followed the road from the Fish Hatchery for what seemed like an eternity. The scenery was gorgeous, and it was nice and flat, but I couldn’t make my legs go. I would run for a few minutes and then walk a few minutes. I resorted to using the countdown timer on my watch to make myself run for decent intervals. Here I played leapfrog with lots of different people. This is when I started to realize how far back in the pack I was. I kept telling myself that if I kept going at 4-5mph I would be more than fine. After spending what seemed like an eternity on the road, the course veered off and ran along a rolling trail with the mountains looming in the background. There is a crew access point called Tree Line around mile 27. We opted to skip that as it was only a few miles past where I had just seen my family. Just a couple of miles past Tree Line is the Half Pipe aid station.HALF PIPE TO TWIN LAKES (Mile 29.1 to Mile 39.5) 2hrs 21minutes
I made it to Half Pipe at 10:35. The sign at the aid station said that Twin Lakes was the next fully stocked aid station at mile 39.5 with a cut off time of 2:00pm. I already knew that. It also said there was a water station between Half Pipe and Twin Lakes. The problem was that I read the sign wrong. It actually said that the water was at mile 36. I thought it said the water was in 3 miles. I drank some coke and ate some potato chips and orange slices here before heading out. It was getting warm but nothing compared to the heat and humidity we have in North Carolina, so I wasn’t too phased by the afternoon sun. I took some chips in a bag with me for the trail. I hiked and ate and talked with another runner and shared my chips. I kept doing mental math - calculating and re-calculating my pace and how far I thought I had gone. The water station would not show up. I began to get really discouraged. I had been going for over an hour and still no water station. Surely I was moving faster than that. I was still able to run/shuffle along without too much trouble. I began to panic as I saw my watch get closer and closer to one o’clock. Finally, around a bend was the water station, along with volunteers who said that Twin Lakes was a little over 3 miles downhill. I was so relieved to know I was still moving as well as I thought. I came down off the hill and into the Twin Lakes aid station at 1:05. 55 minutes ahead of the cut off. Still nowhere near as fast as I had wanted to be, but I thought I was going to be fine. I had until 4:30 to make it 5 miles to the aid station on Hope Pass. Surely I could go 5 miles in 3 ½ hours. Right?
I checked into the aid station and sat down for two minutes to eat some orange slices, chips, and pretzels and drink a coke. I headed out looking for my crew, still very much enjoying the day and the crowds. I walked past the aid station, down the street, turned right, headed down to the parking lot by the trail head. No crew. Shit. Where were they? I really needed them. My plan was to switch shoes and socks, trade my two bottle belt for a hydration vest, and get my trekking poles. Most importantly, they had my headlamp and rain gear. I turned around and walked all the way back to the aid station. Still, no crew. I decided to hell with it, I would just go ahead and go. I walked back to the lot and there, about 15 yards past the end of the lot where I had turned around the first time through, sat my crew, anxiously awaiting me. By this time it was 1:20, and I had spent almost 15 minutes wandering around looking for them. I plopped down in a chair and changed my shoes and sock. I had a small hot spot on the outside of my big toe on my right foot so I cleaned it and put on a Band-Aid. I drank a Red Bull, grabbed my pack and poles, kissed my crew, and headed off to conquer Hope Pass. (12,600 feet)
|Being tended to by my crew at Twin Lakes.|
|Smiling and ready to conquer Hope Pass, which you can see looming in the background.|
TWIN LAKES TO HOPELESS AID STATION (Mile 39.5 to Mile 44) 3hours
I wasn’t too worried about losing 15 minutes. I was still moving well and was able to hike/walk about 3.5 to 4 miles per hours comfortably. I crossed the river and enjoyed the cold refreshing water on my feet and legs. I got to see the leaders coming back into Twin lakes during this section. The trail winds through the marsh to the base of Hope Pass and then turns up with a vengeance. Any ability I had to move quickly and comfortably quickly evaporated as I climbed up Hope Pass. The majority of the climb is in the woods and sheltered from the sun, which was nice. I forced myself to keep moving forward, no matter how slow or how tired I was. I expected it to take about an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours to get to the top. I wasn’t too far off. I finally made it to the Hopeless Aid station a few minutes before 4pm.
For anyone who is not familiar with the history of the race, Hopeless Aid Station is about half a mile down from the summit of Hope Pass and is staffed by incredible volunteers and has limited supplies because of its remote location. These supplies are packed in by Llamas. That’s right, I said llamas. As I broke free from the trees I was greeted by a volunteer who said, “Welcome to Hopeless Aid Station.” Behind her, scattered across the mountainside were at least a dozen llamas, hanging out grazing. To call the scene surreal is an understatement. Dozens of volunteers are running around fixing food and water and soup and checking on runners who are laid out all over the grass in various states of disrepair. It looks more like a MASH unit than an aid station. I spent a few minutes at Hopeless before pushing on to the summit. My head felt fuzzy, and it was hard to catch my breath. I knew it wouldn’t get any better until I got down the other side.
HOPELESS AID STATION TO SUMMIT OF HOPE PASS (Mile 44 to Mile 44.5) 30minutes
I departed the aid station right around 4 and began my trek up to the summit. It was very deceptive how far and how steep that last push was. The trail is narrow and rocky. I was really bonking -no food, no appetite, no oxygen. I was moving about as fast as an anemic slug. To complicate things further, there was an ever increasing number of runners returning from Winfield. The trail was narrow, so I had to stop and move carefully off the trail to let them pass. This added several minutes to my ascent. It took me almost a full 30 minutes to make it the ½ mile to the summit. It felt really good to get there. I crossed the timing mat and didn’t look back. I bent down to pick up two small rocks to give to my kids from the summit and realized I hadn’t even looked back to enjoy the view. By this time I was 15 yards past the summit and didn’t have the energy to back track for the view. I had from 4:30 until 6:15 to go downhill 5 miles. I was confident I would hit Winfield and be back. It might not be pretty, but I was sure I’d be back. I told myself if I could get there with just a few minutes to spare I could eat something and get some energy back before my return trip. I would have the advantage of having a pacer with me for motivation on the trip back up. I was still optimistic.
SUMMIT TO WINFIELD (Mile 44.5 to Mile 50+ish)2hrs 5minutes
This was one of those sections of trail that never ends. No matter how fast I tried to go or how far I thought I’d been the next aid station seemed to keep getting farther away. I figured I was moving downhill between 3 and 4 miles per hour. After about an hour I encountered a runner and his pacer coming back up. I asked them how far it was to Winfield, figuring about two miles. I was shocked when they told me it was 5 or more miles. They couldn’t be right. I waited until I passed another pacer, this time with a GPS and asked again. The first group had been right. Two things were happening. One, I was out of gas and moving much slower than I should have been. Two, the backside of Hope Pass is longer than advertised. The race director announced on Wednesday before the race that they had received permission to use a new section of trail into Winfield. The message boards were all a flutter with activity. The general consensus was that this new section added a total of 2.5 to 3 miles to the course and another 600 feet of elevation gain.
I kept moving forward, hoping the runners were wrong and that I would somehow make it to Winfield before the cutoff at 6:15. I tried to move as fast as I could, but wasn’t able to run more than a few steps at a time. When I did push harder and force myself to run, I was reduced to a crumpled, vomiting pile on the trail. I recovered as quickly as I could and got back on my feet to keep moving. 20 yards down the trail, I started vomiting again. I was not surprised or discouraged by this. In fact, they said it would happen during the medical briefing. I just kept on pushing as hard as I could and looking at my watch. 6:00 passed, still no sign of Winfield. 6:10, 6:11, 6:12, 6:13 - still pushing as hard as I could. Finally, I looked down and saw it was 6:16. It was over. I was done. Leadville had beaten me. I was still able to walk at a decent pace without any discomfort and headed into the aid station. As I passed runners and their pacers heading back up the climb after the cut off they were all kind and said supportive things, but they all looked at me like my puppy had just died. There was a lot of sympathy in their eyes and voices.
In the final quarter mile I passed Jen, who I had seen at the start. She had a bad day and missed a cut off earlier and was waiting on some friends. We shared a few words and I kept moving. I was disappointed, but it wasn’t real yet.
Then I saw my pacer. Jenn and I ran together at the Umstead Trail 100 last year. I was able to finish that one but Jen had to drop due to an injury late in the race. She came back this year and finished, and I paced for her. After the race she moved to Colorado and agreed to meet me at Winfield and pace me as long as I needed her. As soon as I saw her, it all became real. As she walked up to me, I got choked up, and tears filled my eyes. She gave me a big hug and told me I had done a great job on a tough course. We walked into the aid station, which was being dismantled, and I was approached by a race official with a pair of scissors in her hand. She seemed more upset than I was to have to cut off my timing chip. She gave me a big hug and told me what a great job I had done. Nice words, but they didn’t have much meaning to me at the time.
Jenn’s significant other, Nick, was there with his car, so we piled in and headed to Twin Lakes to meet Wendy and the kids. They were afraid I hadn’t made the cut off but weren’t sure. When we finally got out of the dead zone that is Winfield, Jenn had several texts from Wendy trying to find out what was going on. I called her and told her I was done - that she could pack up and meet us at the car.
I was a statistic. 1,000 people had signed up for the rae. 802 had started and 360 had finished. True to history, less than 50% of the field finished the race. At least I had lots of company.
AFTER THE RACE
I did my best not to be too upset because I didn’t want to be a bad sport in front of my son and daughter. After all, they are a main source of motivation for me. I was upset. This was my first DNF. I had sacrificed a lot to be here. So had my family, and I didn’t finish. That was hard to swallow.
We headed back to the house and hatched a plan for the rest of the week. We had initially planned on staying in Leadville until Monday and then driving home across the south west. Since we weren’t up all night Saturday, we decided to head out early Sunday morning and spend the next week driving down to Four Corners, the Grand Canyon, and any place we wanted to stop along the way back home. We ended up having a truly amazing family vacation. It was just what I needed to decompress and put the race into perspective. We arrived back in Raleigh the Saturday after the race, having driven over 4,600 miles through 16 states in 13 days.
PRACTICAL LESSONS LEARNED
It’s hard to even express how much I learned during this race. I think the most important thing is that I know the course now. I got to see the entire thing, even if was only in one direction. That helps tremendously in knowing what to expect.
- I learned that I have to put way more emphasis on nutrition. I have always half-assed my way through races, relying on a base level of fitness and determination. Next time around I will spend as much time training to eat as I spend training to run. (My legs weren't even sore the day after the race becaue I didn't have enought fuel to push them hard during the race.)
- As much as I love my kids and as much as they had an amazing experience, I would not come back with them as crew. It was too much for Wendy to try to crew for me and to babysit an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old. Simplify, simplify.
- I will plan nutrition bags that I can pick up at access points and carry with me that have more than just gels in them.
- I didn’t need a two bottle belt, and it weighed me down. Next time I will run with either a single bottle belt or a handheld. The hydration vest worked well, so I’ll keep that for my trip over Hope Pass.
- I’m torn on the trekking poles. On the upside, I used them a lot on the way up, and I’m sure they helped. The downside is that they are a pain in the ass to run with. I’m sure that I would have done a little more running without them. That will be a decision that comes later.
- Next time I will go out much faster for the first couple of miles to try to avoid getting caught in the never ending conga line around Turquoise Lake.
As I have said, I was and am disappointed that I didn’t finish. However, after a week’s worth of reflection, I have to say that I really enjoyed the experience. Leadville is a special race. This race experience taught me a lot about living in the moment and enjoying life for what it is, not what you wish it to be. There is an old Tibetan Buddhist expression that seems appropriate for my Leadville Experience. “If there is a problem for which there is a solution, there is no need to worry. If there is a problem for which there is no solution, there is no need to worry.” I might not worry about not finishing, but I’ll damn sure use it as motivation to make sure it doesn’t happen again next year.
Before we went to bed on Saturday after the race, Wendy and I talked about coming back. I told her I have to come back and finish, that I can’t leave it undone. She thought about it for a while without saying much. A short time later she said we should come back next year without the kids - that I should get the tent from Hypoxico again and that I should look into hiring a coach to help me. So that, ladies and gentlemen is the plan. I trained more for this race than I ever have for anything else, and I came up short. While that realization is daunting, I also see it as an amazing challenge. I will simply redouble my efforts and try again. Some people might refer to this as a flat learning curve. I prefer to think of it as dedication and determination.
I owe an incredible debt of thanks to Wendy. Without her support and encouragement, I never would have made it to the start line. She was behind me 100 percent. I look forward to returning the favor when she kicks ass at Ironman Florida this November.
Thanks to my kids, Sutherland (8) and Kettler (6), who think it’s normal to have a dad who gets up at 4am to run for six to ten hours on weekends and that all families drive across the country to run 100 mile races in the mountains. They were amazing sports throughout the whole ordeal and shed tears of outrage when "they wouldn't let me" finish the race.
Thanks to Jenn Coker for being the best almost pacer a guy could ever ask for. I’ll see you back in Leadville next year!
Thanks to Raleigh Running Outfitters, who has helped and supported me for the last several years. I truly believe they are one of the best running stores in the country. Thanks for everything guys.
Thanks to Matt Eckert at Hypoxico for all his help with dialing in my altitude training. While I didn’t have the race I wanted in Leadville, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I did without you.
Saturday, August 4, 2012
I can’t believe that the Leadville Trail 100 Run is two weeks from Saturday. When I registered last November it seemed like a lifetime away and now it’s here. Holy shit. It’s really here.
I have so many different feelings as the clock runs out on my preparation. I’m excited beyond words to take part in such an iconic event. The level of my excitement is matched only by my level of terror. The doubts are beginning to pile up. Did I train enough? Did I do enough hill work? Why didn’t I do any super long runs? Did I spend enough time sleeping at altitude? Will the altitude training have any effect at all? Am I dragging my family 2/3rds of the way across the country and spending thousands of dollars just to run into a wall and fail spectacularly?
I have said, often to people who are rolling their eyes at me and sighing in exasperation, that running an ultra is a metaphor for life. This is in no way an original sentiment, as I have heard it expressed time and time again. However, the fact that it may be a bit of a cliché doesn’t make it any less accurate. Just like this race, life will sneak up on you if you’re not ready for it.
You face incredible highs and soul crushing lows during the course of a 50 or 100 mile event. There are times when you laugh and sing and feel like everything is easy and life it great. These times are followed inevitable by the lows - times in which you don’t know how you can go 10 more feet, let alone another 20, 30, or 80 miles.
It is during these times that we learn the most about ourselves, when we get to see who we really are, not who we think we are or wish we were. We all tell ourselves that we can be great when we are drifting off to sleep at night. Then it’s easy to think we’ll be great. It’s not so easy when you are nauseated, dehydrated, exhausted, cold, wet, and tired.
When you begin to ask, “Why do I do this to myself?” is when we get a rare and precious gift. We get to see ourselves for who we really are. Will you quit when it gets difficult? Will you quit when you’re tired? Will you quit when you get discouraged? Quitting is the easy way out, at least in the short term. Sure, if you quit then you get to stop, eat, drink, put on dry clothes and sit or lie down and rest. If you listen you can always hear the sirens calling to you, pleading with you to stop. To rest. To quit.
If you manage to resist the sirens' song and push through those low points, you get to experience a high that is a thousand times greater than any low you have felt. If you quit, you may have immediate comfort, but that decision will be with you for life and will become a part of who you are. If you are able to persevere you reach a place of transcendence. A place where you gain perspective on your pain, perspective on your own abilities, and, most importantly, perspective on life.
I am a firm believer that you get out of life what you put into it. I work in a profession that requires me to be cautious and calculated. One that forces me to look for the worst case scenario and often tell people, “No, you can’t do that.” I run to escape that. I want to live a full and rich life. If I choose to sit at home and watch TV and eat ice cream I would certainly be comfortable, but not satisfied, and certainly not fulfilled. A friend once told me that the goal in life is to live a life that is exciting enough to have great stories to tell, but not so exciting that you get struck by lightning. While I’m pretty sure she was referring to some sort of sin induced wrath of God type thing, I’d still like to avoid getting hit by a random bolt of lightning on top of a mountain. I want to live a life where I can find out who I really am and where my limits are. I believe that most limits are self-induced.
That’s why I run. That’s why I’m running 100 miles through the Colorado Rocky Mountains in two weeks. I want to test myself. To find my limits. I can’t guarantee that I’ll finish in less than 25 hours. I can’t guarantee I’ll finish at all. What I can guarantee is that I will give it everything I have and leave it all on the course. I can only hope that the training and preparation, both physical and mental, will be enough to get me over the mountains and through the low points to the finish. Either way, I know it will be an experience I will remember forever.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Saturday, July 14th was the 45th running of the Grandfather Mountain Marathon, and I was there for my first attempt. This is a small race (cap at 500) that starts in the Kid Brewer stadium at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. The course runs around the track for a lap and a half and then through campus before heading out of town and eventually up to Linville, NC, where it finishes on the track of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. It is run entirely on public roads, which are not closed to traffic and are typical windy, two lane mountain roads, with lots and lots of blind curves.
I arrived Friday afternoon and picked up my packet and housing information quickly and efficiently. I had opted to stay in one of the dorm rooms on campus offered by the race. This worked out nicely as it was close to the start, and I didn’t have to check out until 5pm the next day, allowing plenty of time for a shower before my drive back to Raleigh.
My neighbor, Rob, ran GMM in 2010 and suggested I drive the course. I tend to listen to his advice as he has completed multiple 100 mile events and running with him is a lot like running with the Energizer Bunny. He just keeps going and going . . . you get my point. Anyway, his advice sounded good to me so, after I got settled, I poured over the course directions and headed out to drive the course. I had studied the course profile and read many blogs about it but wanted to see firsthand what I was in for. Almost immediately, I missed a turn and got lost. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to back track and figure out where I was and where I had gone wrong. Back on course I began to drive up the mountain.
The scenery was absolutely beautiful - lush green mountains, large rock outcroppings, waterfalls, stone walls, cozy homes carved into the side of the mountain. It was a fairly constant upward grade, with a few downhill sections. As I followed the curving ribbon of black top, I began to reevaluate my goals for the race. I finally made it to the finish area in Linville, NC, just past the entrance to Grandfather Mountain. It seemed like it had taken me forever to get there, and I was really starting to worry about how I would feel running all that way.
I had set a goal of breaking 4:30 going in, with a super secret goal of getting as close to 4 hours as I could. Doubt began to creep into my mind as I processed the course. On the way back to the dorm, I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza and then settled into my room with a book. As I lay there, staring at the institutional dorm furniture, I began to really worry about how I would do on the course.
The alarm went off at 5am for the 6:30 start time. I got up, dressed, ate and headed down to the stadium for the start. I told myself to just take it easy and run my own race. At this point I was hoping to finish in less than 5 hours. It had rained the night before, and the morning air was cool and very humid. I’ll take humid as long as it isn’t 100 degrees. (My last long run had been on a day with a record setting high of well over 100, with 90% humidity.) This weather felt great. I started near the back and made a conscious effort to take it easy. I have gone out too fast at the start of races time and time again. Not this time I told myself, and, for once, I actually listened. I didn’t pay much attention to my watch as we passed the first couple of mile markers. I just made a concerted effort to run well within myself and listen to my body. I stayed light on my feet and focused on keeping my leg turnover nice and high, while my breathing stayed steady and slow. I ran like this for a while, making polite conversation with some of the people around me. I met and ran for several miles with John Sugg, who is doing his graduate work at ASU. I had run behind him for a while and noticed the ease of his stride and how he looked like he wasn’t working hard at all. He served as an excellent pacer until we finally ended up running side by side. This was his first marathon, and he was hoping to finish in around 4 hours. (He finished in 4:11) We ran and talked about the Western States 100 and Bad Water and other sources of inspiration. At some point while running and chatting I realized that I had been running consistent 9 minute miles and some even faster than that. I also noticed that I still felt really fresh and that I wasn’t breathing hard as I ran up hills. I started to become encouraged for a 4:30 finish after all.
John and I eventually separated, and I pressed on alone. There were several familiar faces in the crowd, including a large contingent of runners from Raleigh Running Outfitters, and, for once, I wasn’t the last one in the race. At mile 12 I looked at my watch and saw that I was at 1 hour and 50 minutes. The problem was that I misread the mile marker and thought I was at mile 13. I began to get really excited. I still felt great, I had plenty of energy, I wasn’t too hot, and I was starting to pass lots of people. I began to think I was going to go under 4 hours and maybe even set an all time PR, besting my Thunder Road Road 3:51 from a couple of years ago. I ran on in oblivious euphoria for the next eight and a half minutes until I saw the 13 mile marker. 1 hour 58 minutes. Oh…well, yeah, that made a lot more sense. I allowed myself a minute to be disappointed and then another to feel like an idiot and then let it go.
I was still making great time and feeling fresh. It was super humid, like running through a cloud. The sweat wouldn’t evaporate and my clothes were drenched. By mile 22 I could both hear and feel my shoes squishing with each step.
It was turning into one of the best running days I’ve had in a really long time. I concentrated on the gentle rocking of my shoulders back and forth with each stride and kept my breathing in check. As I would start to get out of breath I would back off the pace just enough to recover and then gradually pick my tempo up again. The hills were long but gradual, and I was able to run up them without redlining. There were nice little breaks of flat stretches and even some downhill sections nicely spaced to allow for recovery and a stretching of the legs.
The last 3 miles on 221 to Linville are pretty much just up. This is where I could tell I had been running at a decent clip for the last three and a half hours. I kept looking at my watch and doing the math over and over. I knew I was going to be right on the bubble for 4 hours. On one hand I was over the moon that I had run this well and felt this good. On the other, I REALLY wanted to have a number 3 at the beginning of my finish time. Each time I did the math, I came out with a different answer. It wasn’t until I hit mile 25 at 3:52 that I began to realize I wasn’t going to break the four hour barrier. I was starting to get more tired and my breathing wasn’t as free and effortless as it had been. I passed the sign that said “GRANDFATHER MOUNTAIN 200 YARDS” and knew I was home free. The road leveled out at this point, and I could catch my breath. I high fived a couple of little girls on the side of the road cheering for runners just before making the right hand turn off the road and into the Highland Games. I ran down through the mud and up a short, but what seemed very steep, hill to the cinder track that circled the stadium that was the heart of the games. As I popped out onto the track, I realized that I had pushed just a little too hard on that last hill, and my heart rate had spiked, and I felt like I was going to throw up. “Not now,” I told myself. “Not in front of all these people, not after you felt so good all day.” I was able to slow my pace and allow my heart rate to recover as I circled the track. Bagpipes were playing, crowds were cheering (not all for me), big men in kilts were competing in the Sheaf Toss in the infield, and I began to feel a little like Eric Liddell. I crossed the line in 4:02 and change by my watch and 4:03 by the race’s clock. I’m going with mine because I like the way 4:02 sounds better.
I wandered to the Marathon Tent set up for the runners and had a few cups of Gatorade and an oatmeal cream pie as I chatted with Sam Brown from Raleigh Running, who had finished 7th overall in a time of 3:09. I stayed for a while and cheered for runners entering the stadium. Within 10 minutes of the finish, I felt great. My legs weren’t tired, and I still felt remarkably fresh. I took the shuttle back to my car, hit the dorm for a quick shower, and jumped in the car to head home. I got home and hopped out of the car on legs that still felt fresh and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in Dad mode. Sunday I ran 12 on the treadmill to avoid the heat and felt awesome.
Although I didn’t break 4 hours, I am as pleased with this race as I have been with any race in recent years. I ran faster than I ever thought I would and did so while feeling really good the entire time. It was just the confidence boost I needed as I make my final preparations for the Leadville Trail 100 run next month.
A special thanks to my family for supporting and encouraging me, as always, and to Raleigh Running Outfitters for their continued support.