Monday, April 2, 2012

Bel Monte Endurance "Run", An Exercise in Humility

Saturday before last I "ran" the Bel Monte 50 Mile Endurance Run.  It almost broke me.  I mean really broke me.  Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.  This race pushed me farther than I have ever been pushed during any sort of endurance event. Ever.

I woke up Saturday morning to gray skies and a steady rain that didn't seem to be in any hurry to move along.  I was able to get a parking spot about 20 yards from the finish line and take a shuttle to the race start, where I huddled under tents with other runners waiting for the race briefing and start.  I was feeling foolishly optimistic because my hip had been feeling pretty good for the last couple of weeks and I was well rested.  (I chose to ignore my general lack of conditioning and the fact that I was at least 10 lbs heavier than my desired race weight.) Shortly after 7:30 I took my spot 3/4 of the way back in a group of runners who were there for either the 50 mile or 50 kilometer race.  When the race director said go, we headed out a short but wet and muddy driveway and out onto the road.  We stayed on the road for the first 3.4 miles, which allowed the field to spread out and avoid a bottleneck on the single track. I skipped the first aid station and headed straight for the trail, still feeling good.  This section of trail had several shorter climbs but nothing too long or difficult.  However, there were lots of sections along this route that were pretty technical and slowed me down.  We stayed on this trail until the next aid station at mile 12.6. I ran with a group for a while but soon realized that they were lighter on their feet than I was and let them pull away.  I began to run out of motivation. I kept getting passed and just couldn't go any faster.  I felt like I was falling apart and began to seriously wonder if this race would be my first DNF.  I wasn't even a quarter of the way in, and I was already in bad shape.  I began to rationalize quitting and how it would be okay.  I told myself I didn't have to prove anything to anyone.  I told myself I had already finished this race before, and there was no need to do it again.  After all, why the hell was I out here in the woods, hundreds of miles away from my family?  Just quit, I told myself.  Sadly I began to listen to myself, and the more I listened, the more I could feel the motivation draining out of me.  I even began to question why I run at all.  I contemplated how I would write this race report, trying to explain and justify why I had given up.  All along, there was still a part of me that saw what was happening and was screaming, "Stop being negative!  If you give yourself a reason to quit, it will be easy to quit!"  I knew this was a dangerous and slippery slope, but I couldn't break the cycle.  If there had been a place to drop during this section, I probably would have, but there wasn't, so I had to keep going.  I ran when I could and walked as fast as possible when I had to until I finally made it to the aid station at mile 12.6 in about 2 hours and 45 minutes. (After the race there was much discussion about the actual length of the course.  Most runners calculated the race at somewhere over 53 miles.)

The course this year was different from 2010 when I finished in 12 hours 30 minutes.  Up to this point, it was all new.  As I splashed across the shin deep stream into the aid station, I finally knew where I was.  For some reason this helped a little.  I got some coke, gummy bears, and a handful of pretzels and started walking.  From that point, we were to run down a "dirt" road for 1.3 miles, turn around, and head back to the aid station.  I'm sure at one point it its life it had been a dirt road, but on this morning, after a full evening and morning of steady rain, it was a road consisting entirely of mud and pond sized puddles.  The good news is that the rain had finally stopped.  I walked most of this section, telling myself to just keep going, at least back to the aid station.  I figured I would save as much energy as I could and see how I felt.  I was still ahead of the time cut offs and in no danger of being pulled from the race at this point.  When I got back to the aid station, I saw a man sitting down on a big rock, utterly and completely defeated.  He was leaning over, shoulders hunched forward, pale face staring blankly into the distance.  I could see the exhaustion and hopelessness in his eyes.  I saw the moment it happened,  the moment he said uncle and threw in the towel.  This was the first of several people that I would see that day pull the pin and drop.  For whatever reason, it stirred something in me.  I knew right then that I wasn't going to quit.  I also knew that there was a very real possiblity that I might miss a cut off and get pulled, but I wasn't going to quit, not voluntarily.

Starting around mile 15, the trail goes up to mile 20 (or 22, according to GPS) at the top of Bald Mountain.  I grabbed an orange and started walking.  I was still not feeling good.  I wasn't going to quit, but I wasn't motivated to push myself either.  The first 4 miles or so is a gradual uphill that sapped my strength and, frankly, pissed me off.  There were sections where it was so muddy that you couldn't walk without slipping and sliding across the trail.  I missed a turn and got lost for a minute.  Then I backtracked and found my mistake.  I crossed about half a dozen streams during this section, which was cool and refreshing since I had long since given up any hope of keeping my feet dry.  As I crossed the last stream before the climb to the top of Bald Mountain, I was caught by a woman named Jen.  She had done one of the training runs and was familiar with this climb.  We began to commiserate about how much the climb was going to suck as we started up.  We also talked about running in general.  As it turns out she did the Beach 2 Battleship Iron distance triathlon last year, as did Wendy and I.  In fact, she finished about 10 minutes ahead of us.  She also attempted Leadville last year but missed a cut off by 3 minutes and is going back this year to try again.  I was very excited to hear this as she is the first live person I've met who has run any part of Leadville. That made for excellent conversation as we made slow and steady progress up to the top.  As we got closer to the summit, the trail got steeper and steeper. It was still walkable, but it was one step at a time, pant for breath, walkable.  The clouds were starting to gather and we could feel a light sprinkle coming down, which was nice and refreshing.  As we reached the aid station at the summit, the bottom dropped out and it began to pour.  I spent about 3 minutes at the aid station, eating some pretzels and gummy bears and drinking some chicken broth as Jen refueled and took some advil.  I usually try to avoid advil on longer runs but had finally broken down and taken some about an hour before the summit of the climb.  There were a couple of other runners there, one of whom was wearing a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.  I complimented his courage to wear those on such a tough course.  He responded that he didn't know about courage and that a lot of stupid things were done and agreed to over beer.  I don't seem to need the beer to do stupid things.

As Jen and I headed out and down to the next aid station at Kennedy Ridge, which was 5.6 miles away, I felt strong.  I felt rejuvenated and was able to run easily.  This section is largely downhill but has one section that climbs a fair amount.  This is where Jen and I got separated.  I have long legs and am able to walk uphill at a good pace, and she was having trouble keeping up and told me to go on.  (You can check out Jen's excellent race report here.)  Feeling good, and like I wasn't out of it yet, I began to run.  I made up some time and actually caught and passed a couple of runners.  I had a couple of scary moments on the way down. I was trying to make up time and run as fast as I thought I could safely down the mountain.  More than once I misjudged foot placement and tripped on a rock.  One of these times left me shaky.  I had just passed a runner and was really striding when the toe of my right shoe slammed into a rock. I lurched forward, trying to get my other foot underneath me before I slammed, face first, into the rocky ground.  I  experienced a strange sensation during this moment.  On one hand, time began to slow down, as it does when something really bad is happening or about to happen.  I could see the downhill slope, scattered with large rocks, and began to calculate how badly I would be hurt if I didn't stop the fall.  I could envision broken teeth, a broken nose, maybe even worse.  I got a mental image of my limp, unconscious body sliding face first down the mountain like a sack of flour.  On the other hand, I could sense my head accelerating an an amazing speed, almost like it had been shot out of a cannon, toward the ground. I could feel my eyeballs being pushed back into my skull by the rapid acceleration.  This probably lasted less than a second but was very intense.  I was able to catch myself before hitting the ground and keep going.  I was more careful after that.

I got to the Kennedy Ridge aid station, just before mile 26, in good time and was well ahead of the cut off.  I sat down, had some ginger ale, a few snacks, and then headed off.  From there to the Stony Run Trail aid station was 3.1 miles on a well-maintained gravel road that rolled up and down.  I set a goal of making that aid station in 36 minutes, a 12 minute pace, and got there one minute off my goal time.  I was 45 minutes ahead of the cut offs and feeling good.  It was mid afternoon and the clouds had finally disappeared from the sky, which was now a vibrant blue.  I stripped off a layer of clothing, refilled my hydration pack and headed up.  The volunteers at this aid station were amazing - friendly and supportive.  They helped me figure out how much time I had to get to the next aid station and the 8 miles back to the top of Bald Mountain before the cut off.  I knew I was not going to be able to run this section, but I felt strong enough to hike as fast as I could.  However, the trail is covered in rocks, sand, and puddles.  Over time, they began to take their toll on my motivation and energy.  I was tired and couldn't think very well.  I kept looking at my watch and trying to figure out how long I had been on this section of trail and how long I had to go.  Every time I tried I came up with a different number, a different result.  I finally gave up and told myself to just keep moving forward. After all, the only control I had over the situation was to move forward as fast as I could.

It was during this part of the race that I achieved a sort of temporary inner peace.  As I plodded ever upward under the warming sun, I suddenly realized that my mind was quiet.  I wasn't thinking about anything.  Normally I have a very busy head, with lots of thoughts and ideas and inner monologues going on.  Not this day.  I was just moving forward, breathing and walking.  I have meditated on and off for years and this sensation was exactly the same.  It allowed me to simply become absorbed in where I was and what I was doing and lose all sense of time and space.  I have no idea how long I kept this up or how much ground I covered, but it was an extremely powerful realization and is one of the  reasons I run.  Ironically, after I got home, I read an article on about achieving "flow"during a run.   It does a much better job of explaining the experience than I can.

I finally reached the aid station at the summit of Bald Mountain again.  Depending on who you asked, this was either at 36.9 or 40 miles.  No matter who you asked, there was still a long way to go.  I caught another runner as I entered the aid station.  He seemed haggard and tired, and I headed out before he did in an effort to make up some time.  Although I had pushed as hard as I could on this climb, I was losing time and close to getting pulled from the race.  I didn't stay long before heading down to White Rock Gap, which was 3.8 miles downhill to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I was familiar with part of this trail and knew that it has some very runable sections of soft pine needles along a ridge line.  I also knew that it had a large section of rocks, rocks, and more rocks. I told myself to run as hard as I could.  I was not going to quit.  I knew I could still make the cut off at the next aid station.  All I had to do was average about 5 mph for 3.8 miles, downhill.  I ran as hard as I could.  There were sections that were so technical that I had to basically walk them, even though they were flat.  I caught 3 more runners along this section of the trail.  The trail never seemed to end.  I should see the aid station by now, I kept telling myself.  I thought I was moving well.  I felt good and thought for sure I was running at about a 10 minute pace when I was running.  That had to average out to 5mph, didn't it?  I told myself that I might as well give it everything I had, because if I didn't make the cut off, I'd be riding back to Wintergreen in a stranger's car.  Earlier I had wanted to quit.  Now I was fighting as hard as I could to not get pulled from the race.  I thought a lot about my son and daughter during this section and what type of example I want to set for them.  I don't want them to grow up thinking that if things get hard it's okay to quit.  It's when things are hardest, when you work the most and suffer the greatest, that you have the best outcome, no matter what it is.  I didn't want to go home to them and say, "Daddy got tired, so he quit."

When I finally saw the tent, I knew I hadn't been fast enough. I was outside the cut off.  This 3.8 miles had taken me over an hour. I had thrown my very best at the trail, and it had laughed at me.  Thinking my race was over, I walked up to the volunteer and asked him if I was out.  He said no, and even if I was, he didn't have a way to get me back.  I couldn't believe it. They were going to let me finish.  I got some more food and prepared myself for the next section.  I was all done with single track.  The next 5 miles were on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The clouds were starting to gather, and I felt a few drops of rain on my arm.  A man arrived in a van and said the national weather service had just issued a thunderstorm warning for the other side of the ridge line.  It was nice to be on the road for a change.  The only thing keeping me from running at a fast pace was me.  As was my routine, I walked uphill as fast as I could and ran downhill and on flats.  As I progressed, the rain began to fall in earnest.  I dug my headlamp out of my pack and turned it on.  I could still see fine, but it was dark and rainy enough that I was worried about being visible to oncoming cars.  As I rounded a corner, I saw a headlamp and tent and heard a man yelling encouragement.  I made it to the last aid station as the rain started to pick up and the last hint of daylight disappeared behind the mountains.  There was one lone volunteer there who offered to refill my water, got me some gatorade, and was full of kind words.  He explained to me that it was 4.9 miles from there to the finish and that I was to run down the mountain to the entrance to Wintergreen.  There would be a trail to take me out to the top, where I would finish on the ski slope.  I knew he was speaking English, but I was so tired I had a very hard time keeping anything he said straight.  I thanked him and headed off.

The next mile was straight down.  I read it was a 15% grade, but I have no idea.  I just know it was steep, and I was able to run.  My legs felt decent, but my feet were a different story.  I had developed hot spots on the balls of both feet and on several toes.  I knew there was nothing I could do about it, so I just decided that I would ignore anything my feet told me for the next 4.9 miles.

By the time I got to the bottom of the descent, it was pitch dark and pouring rain.  I mean pouring.  I might as well have been standing underneath a garden hose.  At the entrance to Wintergreen there was a sign indicating that runners were supposed to turn left while bikers were supposed to go straight.  The way the sign was oriented it seemed to me to say that bikers were supposed to follow the main entrance up to the Wintergreen Resort and that runners were supposed to take a trail off to the left.  I stopped and back tracked and spent several minutes searching the wood line with my headlamp, looking for a trail head.  I became frustrated and annoyed.  Where the hell was the trail?  Why couldn't I find it?  Why wasn't it marked more clearly?  Sure, most folks had come though here in the daylight, but I was still out here.  Finally, after several minutes of splashing around in the ditch in the dark and pouring rain, I decided to hell with it - I would just take the main road up to the top.

Here things got really hard and a little bit scary.  The rain was still coming down in buckets, and the storm that had been off in the distance was now right on top of me.  I had been counting the seconds between lightning flash and thunder crack for the last several miles.  I was able to convince myself that I was fine, as there was usually 5 to 12 seconds lag time between the two.  Now I was down to a second or two.  The lighting was so bright that it lit up the entire mountain as if it was broad daylight.   This was followed by a very loud and very close clap of thunder.  This happened over and over again as I trudged ever upward.  The road twists and turns around the mountain, and I was able to see the headlights from oncoming cars well in advance.  Whenever one would come down the mountain toward me, I would stop and get as far off onto the shoulder as I could.  Often times this meant standing in or straddling the ditch.  Lots of cars passed and a few slowed to offer encouragement, but no one offered a ride.  Finally the volunteer from the last aid station pulled up next to me in his very warm, very dry looking car and asked how I was doing.  I told him I was fine, but I had missed the turn off for the single track.  He said I hadn't and that he was on his way up to that point now to make sure it was still marked.  I was astounded.  I was sure I was way off course.

In the darkness and the rain I could look up at the sky and see lights at the top of the mountain.  At times they seemed so far away they might as well have been stars.  I knew that's where I was going, so I decided to stop looking up because it was too overwhelming to see the lights so far over my head.  When I finally got to the turn for the single track, word had just come down that, due to the storm all the remaining runners were going to have to follow the mountain road all the way to the resort.  I have to admit I was secretly relieved not to have to run a section of unfamiliar single track on a dark rainy night during an electrical storm.

I finally saw the resort and knew I was almost there.  I've never been so happy to see civilization.  I topped out on the ridge line and made my way out onto the ski slope for the final few hundred yards.  Confirming my suspicion that race directors are closeted sadists, this section was covered in several inches of snow that had melted and refrozen so many times, it was basically a giant sheet of ice.  Somehow I managed to make it down the slope without falling and ran the final few yards across the finish line.  I had completed the race in 13 hours and 15 minutes.  After crossing the line I realized the only other person still outside was the race photographer.   I stood there in the parking lot, soaked to the bone, cold, exhausted, and a little overwhelmed.  The photographer directed me to a nearby building and said there was food and heat inside.  I wandered in and got a drink and realized my hands were too numb to unhook the straps on my pack. I asked a volunteer to help me, fished out my car key, and started to head for the car.  It was on my way out that Francesca, one of the race directors, came up to me and put a medal around my neck.  It meant a lot that she realized I had finished and came to find me to make sure I got a medal. It was a nice touch.


By Tuesday all soreness had vanished, as had many of the vivid memories of the worst parts of the event.  I mentioned to Wendy tonight that I have found myself thinking that I would like to go back and try the course next year.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a flat learning curve.


A typical section of trail between White Rock Gap and Turkey Pen aid stations.  

Same section of trail as above.  Did I mention there were a few rocks on the course?

One of about half a dozen stream crossings between Turkey Pen and Bald Mountain

Halfway up Bald Mountain (the first time)

On the way down from Bald Mountain to Kennedy Ridge

From Stony Run Trail back to the top of Bald Mountain - 8 miles, most of which looked a lot like this.

Another shot of the trail up from Stony Run to Bald Mountain

A nice blue sky on the second ascent to the top of Bald Mountain

Leaving Bald Mountain on the way to White Rock Gap.  The storm clouds begin to gather.

A section of trail between Bald Mountain and White Rock Gap aid stations (yes, there's a trail somewhere in there).  

Last shot before the skies opened up and the sun set.  This one was taken shortly after leaving White Rock Gap on the way to Reeds Gap.
Shoes:        Brooks Cascadia- 6
Socks:        Smartwool
Shorts:        Nike
Shirt:          Nike (Courtesy of Raleigh Running Outfitters); 2XU long sleeve compression
Pack:          Salomon S Lab Advanced Skin 12S Lab 12
Hat:            Headsweats -RRO
Light:         Princeton Tec Fuel
Nutrition:   Stinger Waffles, PowerBar Energy Blasts, Endurolytes, PB&J, chips, gummy bears,            orange, Mountain Dew, Coke, Ginger Ale, chicken broth, pretzels, Heed and Gatorade