In life and racing, there is joy and pain, highs and lows, setbacks and triumphs. The extent of such factors are often the delta between expectation and outcome. If you are anything like me, you enter a race with an idea or goal of how things ‘should’ play out. Then, about halfway through the race, as my body and spirit begins to falter, I realize that ‘the plan’ was largely based on wishful thinking and best case scenarios. Sure, my plans have some type of base and logic to them, but like the gadgets in Star Trek or a prediction that the Cleveland Browns will win the Super Bowl this year, it always involves varying levels of imagination. Many of my best races follow an event where I am humbled (usually by my own race plan/goal). The resulting disappointment, anger, and animosity often deter me from setting another strict or overly aggressive race goal. This often causes me to go into my next race more relaxed and carefree.
I had high expectations for my performance at the inaugural Thunder Rock 100. It was my second 100 miler and I was determined to join the 24 hour club. This was an aggressive goal considering it had been less than a year since my first 100 mile trail run, which played out more like a Rocky style boxing match than a run. Granted, that run was the Leadville 100, but it also took me 28 hours to get to the finish. In the case of Leadville, my expectations were to come home with a belt buckle the size of a cow patty. This belt buckle is awarded to finishers who crack 25 hours. When I stumbled into the 50 mile aid station and was informed that I was nearly 7 pounds lighter than I had been at the start, I was forced to reassess my goal time. This was the day I learned that recovering from a dehydration bonk was far worse than the ails of a glycogen-based bonk.
This time it would be different. At least that’s what I continued to tell myself with each training run. I also relayed these expectations to friends, family, anyone who asked and even those who didn’t ask. Barista: “It’s a great afternoon here at Starbucks, what can I make for you today sir?” Me: “I will crack 24 hours at Thunder Rock 100…and…I would like a tall coffee…any blend except Pike Place, please.” My logic was that by declaring it to myself and others, I would not only be more convinced that I was capable of, but also accountable, to deliver on such a statement. (And also… I really detest the flavor of Pike Place, it’s like I’m drinking coffee-flavored Listerine.) I wanted to somehow convince myself that the expectation was grand, but not grandeur. Yes, that’s it, my plan resides somewhere in between grand meadows and grandeur mountains, and also, I’m pretty sure this is the year that the Browns come home with Super Bowl rings.
There is a certain level of pressure that accommodates such declarations. Recall how Babe Ruth would infamously point his bat to a section of the bleachers then hit a home run with the ball landing in the very same area he had pointed to only a few seconds prior. Michael Jordan is known for having saved more games with his last minute shots than any other basketball player. It’s magical yes, but people don’t seem to recall that Babe Ruth would strike out just as often as he would deliver his ‘targeted’ home run. Michael Jordan has also missed more game winning shots than anyone else. As elite marathoner Ryan Hall says, “If you live cautiously, all your friends will call you wise, but you won’t move mountains.”
I’m quite certain that an underlying rationale to my daily (and sometimes hourly) sub 24 declarations was in fact to convince my biggest critic that he was wrong. Namely, I had to persuade myself into believing that I was both worthy and capable of such a task. With only a few weeks before my race, I began completing my training runs without music or running partners so that I could focus on visualizing the feelings and emotions at different points of the racecourse. There was the initial climb from miles 10 to 15, the steep descent at mile 18, the muddy miles along the water during miles 30 to 40, the Lake Crossing at Mile 82, and of course, the big climb at mile 83.
I typically struggle with the taper period. I tend to hit the weights harder since I can’t run as often, or maybe convince myself that I haven’t run much and end up putting a few hilly miles too close to race day. This time was different. I channeled my energy towards visualization and success. Light spin sessions were the workout of choice in the days leading up to the race.
There are a few hard rules with running races: 1) Don’t try anything new on race day. 2) Don’t try anything new on race day. 3) Don’t tell anyone about Fight Club.
I decided that instead of carrying two water bottles with my hands I would try a race vest. The Kuprichka model from Ultimate direction fit the bill and I had just enough time to wear it on a couple of short training runs. I found that the bottles included with the vest felt like someone poking me in the rib cage… every 2 seconds. I ditched them and replaced them with more ergonomic options (a soft flask and a curved water bottle).
The second and more drastic change was to go gel free. After finishing Sonoma 50 just 4 weeks prior, I told my buddy Ryan that I’d sooner sucker punch myself in the scrotum than eat another racing gel. I’m not opposed to race gels; they just don’t agree with me and cause my blood sugar to look like the elevation profile of this race. Ryan pointed me towards a product that was a thick drink mix (think putting 8 sticks of chalk with 12 oz of water in your blender. Ya, bottoms up!). To drink this required a true mind over matter approach, or at least a strong aversion to gels. I can confirm I possess the latter trait.
I knew both of these changes could backfire, but my thought was that the aid stations would be my backup plan, (e.g. ditch the vest, run with a bottle and snack from the proverbial outdoor buffets).
The race started as planned, then at about mile 8 it began hailing. Yes, as in balls of ice started falling from the sky. I’m uncertain as to whether the ancient Greeks ever experienced this weather phenomena, so I decided myself that the god of Hail would be named ‘Pete.’ Pete, being based on the Greek words ‘Petra’ and ‘Pagos’ which mean Ice and rock. Also, because Pete sounds like the type of bullying bastard who would hurl snowballs at you on your way home from school for no damn reason, so, there’s that too.
On this day, Pete made a demoralizing visit. The hail started with smaller, bebe sized pellets, then quickly grew to pea sized hail. The first storm lasted about 5 minutes. Then, about 20 minutes later it began to rain and then hailing again. “C’mon Pete, gimme a break already,” I mutter as I climbed the first ascent. Admittedly, it was more of a nuisance, than a show stopper, but there was an unintended side effect. I began to get very cold. Running in a tank top on what turned out to be an overcast day with strange weather has consequences. My arms and hands began to go numb and I had neglected to pack a jacket for running in the night. This is a classic rookie mistake. I had been so focused on my nutrition and hydration changes that I had neglected the basics. Granted, it was supposed to be a warm day and night with a 10% chance of precipitation, but nature, and Pete the god of Hail, were in a folly mood.
It’s rare, but every now and then I blurt out a phrase that turns out to be well founded and wise. This happens so infrequently that you could probably count the number of instances this has occurred on one hand. On this day, I had made such a statement. As I was standing at the start line, I walked over to a friend and asked him to text my pacer and request that she bring arm warmers. I couldn’t be sure she received the message or even that she was able to accommodate the request, but I was certain that if I did not have some warmer gear before nightfall I would experience some very cold miles and hours of self loathing.
As the sun set, I checked my watch. I was right on schedule. I had made it through the technical and muddy sections before nightfall and I was now on forest service roads. I was halfway to the finish and had stuck to the plan of running at a casual pace the first half of the race. I was on track, mid pack, and on schedule to accomplish my sub-24 goal. Other than being very cold, everything was going according to plan. When I saw my pacer (Ginny), I felt a sense of relief. When she showed me the arm warmers it was like receiving an emotional hug. Now that the risk of hypothermia was no longer a concern, I focused my thoughts on how I could make the most of the next 50 miles. I kept things casual and conversational for miles 50 through 60. I was slowly dialing in my effort level and trying to determine what pace I could sustain. Things were going well, really well.
At mile 60 I felt fresh and invigorated. I had spent the last 10 miles entertaining the possibility of running more aggressively than the plan had called for. I passed mile 60 with no major sense of fatigue. At mile 65 I switched pacers and my new friend Joel joined me. I had met Joel less than 24 hours ago when I picked up my race packet and we had hit it off well. The atmosphere changed immediately when Joel started running with me. It was all business and I began running more aggressively than I had the entire race. With each mile we would pass runners who were walking or jogging while we were in full stride. This was both euphoric and surreal. This was the type of thing one might commonly see in athletic movie sequences that often induce an experienced runner to roll their eyes and mutter, “It never happens like that.” With each mile I felt a change inside me. Confidence was now butting heads with caution. Grand was within my grasp but grandeur was seeming like a real possibility. It was at this point that I felt I was being given a choice.
Take the Red Pill: Go hard and see what happens. It was entirely likely and realistic that I would eventually bonk and be reduced to a shuffle, but I would still finish the race. Red Pills often involve more risk and require inducing more pain and discomfort on one’s self in order to hold a more aggressive pace.
Take the Blue Pill: Play it safe and ensure I get the sub-24 finish as planned. Slow down or walk when I begin to feel pain or fatigue and run conservatively when I’m feeling good. After all, there was no shame in finishing in under 24 hours.
I have emotional scars (carved by rivers of lactic acid) from getting too caught up in ‘the moment.’ Like the legend of Icarus, if my race pace gets too aggressive I fly high into the clouds only to have my proverbial wings melt away. A short while later, I fall to the earth exhausted and embarrassed with no relief in sight.
Around the time we reached mile 72, I swallowed the red pill and decided to try to fly above the clouds. I turned to Joel and stated that I felt I could hold an aggressive pace for the rest of the race. He was supportive of the decision and I began to increase my effort. My visits to the aid station had gone from casual, greeting people with hugs and conversation, to business casual, saying ‘hi’ while filling up my water bottle then sprinting off into the dark.
Around 2:30 am we were getting off of the forest service roads and into the single track trails. They were wet and slightly technical so instead of speeding up and slowing down to accommodate obstacles, I stayed at a steady pace that allowed me to duck or jump on short notice. Joel’s presence alone was a blessing, but it didn’t hurt that he had the most powerful headlamp I had ever seen. It was like having a car behind me with the bright headlights activated. Seriously, this must have been a 1000+ lumens headlamp. With Joel’s help, and headlamp, I was able to traverse the tricky trails at a steady pace and without a single mishap. He even changed the batteries in the unit while he was running. Quite the renaissance man.
The lake crossing was cold and dark. When I arrived, the lead female runner was staring at the water and seemed a bit intimidated. I was on a mission to make up time so I didn’t hesitate to run into the water and power hike through the two sections of the crossing. Immediately after emerging from the lake I saw the aid station. I found a seat and proceeded to remove rocks from my shoes. I had planned to change shoes and socks after the river crossing but everything was going so well. I decided to stay with my original gear and hustle out of the aid station. This was the only occasion I have ever had the foresight to pack a drop bag and I didn’t even use it.
Everyone in this race knew what was in store for them upon leaving this aid station. The next 2 miles would involve over 2000 feet of elevation. I dialed in a very aggressive march. It was the type of march that was about as fast as easy jogging. Shortly after we started up the mountain, lights began to shine from behind me. It was a runner and his pacer and they were catching us. Twice Joel offered to let them pass and they declined. I couldn’t believe I was going up the mountain so fast, yet I was about to be passed. After 10 minutes, I could hear them beginning to pant. Five minutes later Joel whispered from behind me “Did you just pee without stopping?.” I replied, “Yes, I didn’t want to stop because they will pass me.” He let out a slight giggle and said “That’s awesome.” Five minutes later, their breathing became labored and they dropped back. This was the only point after mile 50 that someone almost passed me and all it took to hold them off was a steady pace and a sporadic stream of urine in my shorts. This was a stark contrast to the first 50 miles of the race where I was passed by runners on a routine basis.
As we reached the top of the mountain, the sun began to emerge. We began the 12 mile descent to the finish and I was able to remove my headlamp. It was as if I was now receiving confirmation that I had in fact chosen my red pill wisely. Faith, fitness, and fate had assisted in the creation of a blessing. This day was a gift and I had chosen to accept it as such. I ran with fury and determination knowing that I may never have another performance like this in my lifetime. I ignored any sign of fatigue and with each passing mile I found a hidden reservoir of determination and energy that was both inseparable and indistinguishable. The aches and pains that were barriers at mile 40 were now a distant memory. I ran as carefree and painfree as a barefoot child amidst the summer fields.
In the last 35 miles, I ran past fellow runners and friends that I had never seen in previous races because they were always so far ahead and finished long before me. The rareness of this occurrence served to enhance the surreal feeling of the moment. For once, and perhaps only once, I was on the elusive side of the lead pack. I had a clear goal and vision which led to my experiencing that elusive state of present minded awareness referred to as ‘Flow.’
As I emerged from the trail through the finishing chute, it was impossible to disguise the shock, elation, and pride in what I had accomplished and experienced. As if to make the moment even more enduring, two of my good friends and fellow runners (TJ Clayton and Fred Doss), were standing at the finish to record runners’ times. Mine read 20:20:55. We shared a golden moment together before I left in the bus that would return me back to the race start and reality.
I went to Thunder Rock with ambition and a goal. I left with a newfound sense of possibilities that challenged my previous reality. It was a good day, it was a very good day. I’m proud to have lived it and hope that in my memories and imagination I never manage to live it down.
A month after Thunder Rock I competed and completed the Chattanooga Stage Race. It was a humbling experience and a stark reminder that a day in the sun is often best followed by a few in the shade. I guess I can’t give them hell every time, but maybe with some help from Pete, lightning may strike twice someday.