Oct 10 2009
I should start my story with the pre-race preparations that started in the preceding months. Consistency was the word to describe my year of running before Grindstone. Logging over 2700 miles and races consisting of four 50K’s, two 50 milers, and one other 100 I felt that the work was done to complete my third hundred miler in a good time and hopefully achieve the goal of a top three finish. As you will read, the race did not play out according to my “resume”.
My excitement pre-race was not jitters, but true excitement simply to get to do a supported run in the mountains for the next 20 hours or so. I had never been so calm before a race and it was almost eerie that it felt like I was starting a training run. Since I started directing the CMMM 50, I have had the opportunity to get to know many more fine folks in the sport. I had a good time hanging out and talking to all my friends new and old in the time before the race. I was almost more pumped and energized by Bill Potts and Robert Gillanders running their first 100’s than my impending run. There’s definitely something special about an ultrarunner’s first go at the 100 mile distance. Months before either Robert or Bill (I can’t remember which) asked me if I had any advice for him leading into the race. I gave him a few suggestions, but mainly said that I believe you run these things more with your head than your legs and that no matter what, “just don’t quit.” I did not know that I was going to need to listen so intently to my own advice.
The race started mildly enough and I settled into a pack behind the immortal Karl Meltzer, forming what could loosely be called a “chase pack”. That term is a misnomer since it can only be used when the assumption could be made that the pack could in fact catch the person they are chasing; impossible nearly this whole year for anyone racing against Mr. Meltzer at the 100 mile distance. I went through the first few aid stations smoothly enough and was certainly running my race, within myself, and apathetic to where others were in relation to me. The first spot where I met my crew (Kadra, Dan, and Paul) was Dowells Draft at mile 22. I had a quick interchange and really started catching people fast. Maybe too fast. I think I passed three or four guys in the first couple of miles before the next aid station and was probably up around third or fourth. This is the point that I had my first issues. A terrible headache set in and I just felt crummy all over. I made it to the next aid station after losing all the spots I gained earlier and I guess I looked bad enough for them to try some reflexology magic on me. A nice lady pinched my thumbnails and then had me breathe some peppermint stuff (looked like lip balm) and said that it should clear my head and nausea. It didn’t do much, but I certainly appreciated it and was sure to thank everyone there and told them I would see them tomorrow. At that point I was starting to wonder if I may be making a statement that I couldn’t follow through with though. I just couldn’t believe that I was having so many issues this early on!
I dug into my bag of tricks and tried some caffeine gum to see if it could pull me out of my funk. It helped a little, but I was still running in a fog. I rolled into North River Gap, the next crew station, feeling decent enough but far from myself. Before I ran out of the station, I had to be weighed. The scales showed me as four pounds down. Certainly not good for only 35 miles into a 100 miler, but not a huge problem. I planned on trying to get my fueling back together on the long climb over the next seven plus miles to Little Bald aid station. As I started the climb, I was beginning to think that I may be able to get back into a rhythm and start catching some people. I could not have been more wrong.
About three miles into this section I started getting really nauseous and vomited. I thought, “OK, get the bad stuff out so I can get started again.” The problem was that the bad stuff just kept coming. I vomited at least three more times over the next mile until I’m sure that everything I ever ate in my entire life finally came out on to The Wild Oak Trail. After I got sick, I was also getting SUPER sleepy; like the slap your face and guzzle a gallon of coffee sleepy where you just have to pull the car off the interstate for a nap. Well that’s what I had to do. I set my timer for 10 minutes and just lay down on the side of the mountain with the wind howling at 3:00 in the morning. As soon as my head hit the ground, I fell into a dream like state with the world spinning. A runner came up on me and asked if I was alright. My timer was at three minutes. Seven minutes on the ground was enough to throw me into some nice muscle spasms and the beginning of hypothermia on the exposed side of the mountain. I knew I needed to get up and move or else I was heading for real trouble.
When I rose from my seven minute nap I was seriously light-headed from all the vomiting and the inability to keep any calories in my system. I got to see some nice hallucinations from the hypoglycemia and fatigue. It looked like black monkeys swinging from the trees without any facial or bodily detail. Instead of enjoying my newly found cerebral manifestations, I knew I had to get to the next aid station and get some fuel down in order to make it there. I started moving and drinking; slowly, but surely. Out of nowhere the gut wrenching heaves returned and rid me of the precious fuel that I had just consumed. Just as I finished my last vomiting session, the first female came up on me. She asked if I was ok, which I probably answered with some guttural grunts, to which she responded, “It’s kind of early in the race for that.” That comment was the fuel I needed. Who needs calories when you’ve got anger? I ran past her and focused on making it to Jonathan Basham’s aid station up on top at Little Bald. What did I hope to find there? I don’t know, but all I knew was that I needed to get there.
When I finally reached the station, JB took great care of me. He sat me down by the fire and gave me chicken broth and some food to try to get down. I drank some of the broth, but the stomach just wasn’t allowing the food quite yet. I’m not sure how long I was at this station, but I know it was quite a while. JB gave me his coat as my dehydrated body shivered right up against the fire. He gave me some food for the road and kindly urged me along. My focus was just to try to make it to Briery Branch where my crew was going to be so that I could drop. There was no other option at that point. I didn’t even know if I could make it that far, but dropping at Little Bald just wasn’t an option or else I would have pulled the plug right there.
The next section was one of the loneliest times of my life. It’s 4:00 a.m. on top of a mountain after 45 miles of “running” and I’m freezing my butt off. Fun was in no way part of the equation anymore. I gave up on fueling. “What’s the point” I remember thinking. I was starting to deal with some mental monsters now. I have never quit a race before and I was ashamed that I was heading for a DNF. More than the shame though, I felt really bad that Kadra, Dan, and Paul had come out to help me and that I was letting them down. I prayed as I walked in the dark over the next few miles for God to guide me to the right decision and to help me persevere some way. I reached the Reddish Knob station and decided to go ahead and summit the mountain. Why? I have no idea since I was fairly convinced that I could not go on to finish. When I got up to the chilly summit of Reddish, I took a few moments to look around at all the lights in the distance. It was one of those magical moments. Somewhere on the way back down to the station I thought, “I’m not going to quit!” As I barreled by the station, that’s what I told them, “I’m not quitting”. One mile later, I wished I had not said those words.
When I finally reached my crew at Briery Branch turn around (mile 50), the mental demons had full hold of me. I was in a really low spot; lower than I had ever been. I was mentally done running, my muscles were cramping from losing so many electrolytes and calories, and the top of my right foot was killing me. The thought of turning around and doing it all over again was an impossible action in my head at that moment. Dan walked with me (wearing boots) up to the Gnashing Knob station and we slowly walked every step up and down. We talked the whole time about what to do and by the time we reached the bottom, I had decided that I was done. That was that. Paul and Kadra weren’t done with me though. Kadra sweetly urged me to keep going and not give up, but I killed her appeals with my stubborn wrath. Paul was the oak and kept stoking my weakening coals with an ardor and insensitivity that only he can impart. His indignant spirit became contagious enough to get me to rise to my feet, but the thought of going another tough 15 miles before I had a chance to drop was almost more than I could bear. I felt as if I was entering the gates of hell itself as I left the aid station around 6 a.m. that morning. Numerous times I told Paul I was turning around, but was met with his iron will going forward leading to several heated moments between us. Finally I shut my mouth and just kept moving. When we made it back to the Reddish Knob station, I decided that I was done with gels and fancy sports drinks. I decided to hone in on a hamburger. What could it hurt at this point, I thought?
There were a few reasons that I rose from the ashes to attempt to keep going. First, Paul made the trip down to run with me and I owed that to him. (No matter how slow or painful it might be.) The second reason was that I had heard of the mythical powers of the rising sun on the feeble mind and body. I felt like I was beyond even the sun’s help, but my goal became just to make it back to North River Gap and at least get in a 100K for my efforts. Lastly, I didn’t want to be one of those front runners that everytime a race isn’t going their way, they drop. My head was completely full of thoughts. Some good and mostly bad. Somewhere between Reddish Knob and Little Bald, the sun came up and so did my spirits. We were still moving slowly, but my disposition changed from a death march to merely enjoying the beauty of a fall day in the mountains with a friend. My mental demons were killed and the focus became simple again. I ate tons when I visited JB again. I’ve never had such great breakfast of burritos and blueberry pancakes as what I had there that morning. My full stomach trudged on; heavy and happy.
The section back to North River Gap that ironically was complete torture and absolute hell on the way out became my turning point on the home trip. I remember saying to Paul that I just might as well finish this thing if I can make it back to North River Gap. “It’s just a Horton 50K left” I remember saying. From here on out I became more my self again. Food from the aid stations and fluids were going down, staying down, and being put to good use. Paul and I ran fairly well together all the way to Dowells Draft where I was to start with Dan pacing me for the last 22 miles. Paul told me that if I continued to run hard and didn’t let up any that he thought I might be able to break 24 hours. I thought it was far fetched, but it gave me a goal at that point in the race. I believe we had about five hours to go the last 22 miles of difficult trails. It was certainly not going to be easy, but I was willing to give it my all.
Dan and I started solid and just never let up. We started the climb up the Chimney Hollow Trail at a good pace and tried to just keep the accelerator pushed down the whole time. We caught up to two runners on this section. We just kept pushing it, racing the clock and not really focused on anything else. We slammed through the next aid station and we worked our way up the next climb. We ran down Elliott Knob fast, trying to make sure we had a shot to make it under 24 hours. I knew that we should aim to have at least an hour for the last five miles. When we made it to the last station a little after 4:30 p.m., I knew that we had a sub-24 in the bag. We talked and enjoyed running this next section of the race together and crossed the finish line in 23:36 in good spirits; good enough for 9th overall.
So what did I learn and what do I hope to impart from my experience? Look no farther than the title. “Just don’t quit!” I am not trying to sound conceded when I say that this was not a good race for me. I am happy that I was able to break 24 hours, but I am in no way satisfied with my time. I am satisfied though with my experience, which is a much better gauge of performance. We ultrarunners are consistently pushing our minds and bodies to their limits. It is only by pushing our limits that we can ever hope to explore them. Sometimes we find those limits at different places than we expect them (higher or lower). It is how we respond to the moments of adversity that define us as individuals and in running. This experience has made me ponder even more about just how much mental vs. physical capabilities play a role in ultrarunning and about my preconceived limits for both; food for thought over the next months.
So next time you are in a race and you feel like quitting, “Just don’t quit!” Hopefully I can continue to take my own advice.