Saturday, 30 September 2017

How the Vermont 100 Called Me On My Bullshit


I DNF’d the Vermont 100 in July.  I failed.  I failed to complete the race and, more significantly, I failed to maintain my integrity.  It wasn’t a moral or an ethical breach this time (though I’ve had my share of those since I am a human and, thus, an inconsistent and incoherent wreck), but the kind of integrity lapse which has to do with saying something to myself and others, and not following through.  I’ll get to that.  It’s the crux of this ramble…

I’m on my local school board. I’ve developed courses in critical thinking and analysis, and’ve taught them internationally.  One of the things I have affirmed time and again in my life is that education does not just happen in the classroom.  It happens at home, it happens while listening to a podcast on your long run, and it happens while sipping a Heady and telling stories at the bar.  It also happens in races when you have no one else but yourself to converse with in the deepest and darkest hours.  Being pathologically metacognitive, which is to say that as I go through a thought process:solve problems, generate ideas, argue, make decisions, etc,  I am painfully aware of why I am thinking what I am thinking in the moment. It is distracting at times, sometimes it is useful. This race taught me something.

Amy Rusiecki directs a great race. The Vermont 100 is a delight.  Rolling hills through bucolic crunchy granola pastures populated by Holsteins and Highland Cattle, sylvan gambols dodging branches hurdling rock and root, and simple trots across covered bridges and through quaint and welcoming villages.  I live in Bethel, Vermont about 30 miles away from the race start, as the crow flies, and have never appreciated my state as much as I did as when running that race.

I saw this as a perfect race for my style of running. Technical single track, while fun, slows me down and frustrates me (and I have a niggling fear of falling and breaking my face on the downs), and too much pavement or flats bore me.   This one has a lot of undulating dirt roads, a bit of single track, horse trails, and some friendly rugged Jeep roads.  Not much pavement.

I ran Rocky Raccoon in February, my first 100 mile race and did well enough, getting a sub-24 buckle. I had a bad ankle sprain at 25 miles, but got it done, running very intentionally, slowly, gingerly, and pretty much ugly-slogging through the last 45 miles. Though I wasn’t thrilled with my time, I was happy with my grit.  The mental game seemed to be on point.

Karl Meltzer was my coach for Vermont, as he was for Rocky. A noob, having only started running ultra distances in Aug ’16, I figured I could use Karl’s expertise and being held to account on executing my plan. He has been great to work with.  This race was my 2017 target race and a step up for me.  Much more challenging than Rocky in terms of ascent, temps, and weather.  Karl had me running 65-80 miles and 10K’ of climbing per week for the two months prior to the race, followed by a 12-day taper. I worked hard, and executed the plan. 

Race weekend came and I felt more ready for this than any race in my life: light, strong, focused, confident, fit, and prepared.   Amy, smiling and wearing her big ol' rubber Wellies, briefed us on the ins and outs of the race, talking about signage, aid stations, drop bags, and all the rest of it.  She also shared a throw-away anecdote about some forlorn soul last year who missed the turn to bring him back into Camp 10 Bear for the second time. (Runners come in to 10 Bear at about mile 45, run a 25-mile loop, and then come back in again at around mile 70.)  This guy missed the turn and ended up running that 25-mile loop again, and he went on to finish.  “Holy shit; poor bastard,” I thought. Prescient.

The race began and I felt great.  The miles clicked by and my watched buzzed. “Too fast; slow down.  Too slow, speed up. Power hike the hills; don’t blast the quads on the downs-you’ll need them later.  Work your plan, Todd.”  So, that’s what I did.  I ran with some locals I know and along the way I met some new folks, and enjoyed just chatting about Life, the Universe and Everything.  Temps began to rise early on and by the time I hit Stage Rd at mile 31 or so, it was getting hot.  No problem, though.  I was hydrating well, peeing pale.  Nutrition was working.  I was on it.

After Stage Rd, on a few of the hill climbs, little muscle spasms deep in my hamstrings on both legs surprised and worried me. Electrolyte issue.  I drank some Tailwind and it helped.  I got into Camp 10 Bear feeling great.  The med check went well. I was hot and tired and I had the spasms on my mind, but they were being managed. I felt coherent, focused and ready to run 55 more miles.  I grabbed some S-Caps on my way out and began that marathon loop before I got back to the Camp 10 Bear festival for the second time.

I had written a plan for a sub 21-hour race.  I was pretty much on it when I left 10 Bear, maybe 20 mins slow.  But that was OK because my splits were faster than expected when I left.  So, I ran the loop- 50 miles, 55 miles, 60 miles, 65 miles.  I was back on plan, running smart.  At mile 65, I was running 3 mins/mile faster than I was doing at Rocky, and feeling strong. No cramps or spasms.  I passed a few 100K-ers with a cheery, “Good Work!”  As you do.

Then it all went wrong.  I was at around 68 miles, following the signs, expecting to get into 10 Bear soon to re-cock my gear, and prepare for the coming night.  I ran on, not remembering exactly where the turn should be.  After a while, probably 30-40 minutes beyond where I thought I should be dropping into 10 Bear, and getting nervous, I noticed some things I had seen before.  “Hey, that backhoe in the field looks familiar.  That field of sunflowers is like one I’ve seen before.”  I continued for a few more minutes until I accepted the fact that I had run this before and that I was on that marathon loop for the second time.  Are you freakin' kidding me? Sunuvabitch.  I had done the same thing that dude from last year did. I stopped.  I stood.  I went inside myself and pondered.

Then I had a total mental collapse.  I can’t even describe the concoction of frustration, disappointment, anger, and ignorance I felt. I'd been running the race of my life, and then, all at once, I find myself in this dark place.  I raged, I shouted, I clenched, and I created profanities which had probably never been uttered in the history of human existence. I wish I could remember some of them.  They were quite rich.   My body felt fine, if tired,  the spasms had gone away, and I felt remarkably fresh, physically.  But, I knew I was at a crux moment, mentally.

I often listen to ultra-running podcasts when I train.  The athletes and their stories inspire me.  So many diverse backgrounds.  So many different life trajectories which got these runners where they are today. I thought very specifically about interviews I’d heard with Andy Jones-Wilkins and his 2016 Hardrock, and Kaci Lickteig’s about her 2017 Western States experience.  These are elite runners.  These are runners who are well known and highly respected in the community, and have won huge races (AJW is a past VT100 winner, in fact).  But on these days, they didn’t win.  They found themselves in a dark dismal pit, but somehow, using some mechanism I don’t yet comprehend, found the strength and finished.  It was hard. Physically painful, and psychologically tumultuous, but they got it done.  I found these stories to be profoundly moving.   

During my dark time, I found no such strength.  I did some quick calculations, and reckoned I would have to run 4-5 miles in addition to the three extra miles I had already done to get back into 10 Bear.  This stupidity would cost me about 1.5-2 hrs.  And here is where my integrity caved.  

When we run, we almost always have goals. I do, anyway.  We have an A Goal, usually secret and unspoken, and that would be our moon shot.  Then we have a B Goal, which is challenging, but achievable on a good day.  Finally, we have a C Goal, one that is probable and satisfactory.  So, when asked about my VT 100 goals, I would say, “Well, 100’s are hard, so I’ll be happy just to finish the thing.  But if I have a good day, I think I can get a sub-24.”  And that’s all I’d say.  Finishing is my C, sub-24 is my B, and I’m the only one who knows my A.

Turns out that was all complete Bullshit.  I didn’t mean what I’d said.  If I’d meant it, I would have done it.  I could have and would have finished.  I have no doubt.  I could also, if things had gone well, (maybe) have gotten a sub-24, even with my not insubstantial navigational screw-up.  So, both my C and B goals were attainable.  But, No.  I was on track to achieve my A goal, which was a sub-22 hour race.  (I wrote a sub-21 plan, knowing that wasn’t going to happen, but I did it to give me some buffer and enable my actual goal.) Getting that sub-22 was the only driving force in my mind.  So, since I couldn’t attain my A goal, I folded.  Granted, at the moment I was physically fatigued and probably somewhat cognitively compromised. Still, I felt like some grand universal power had marshaled forces against me, and denied me what I deserved. All the time, all the work, all the suffering.  I was owed this finish on my terms.  I was entitled, Dammit!

What a crock of shit.  Fact is, no one owed me anything.  Hard work didn’t entitle me to achieve my goal. It doesn't entitle me to squat.  At the time, I was acutely aware of the ridiculousness of my internal dialogue.  It was patently silly and wrongheaded. I know this now and I knew it then.  But in the moment things played differently. My reason didn’t work right.   I recall doing a visualization exercise in the midst of it where I imagined looking into a mirror and having a conversation with myself.  I said to myself, “Hey, Jackass, you are only going to lose an hour and a half.  You feel good, you’ll finish, and maybe even get in around 24. You'll hate yourself if you don't.  This is just bad luck.  Think of Kaci, AJW, Walmsley.  They missed their goals, but they got it done in spite of their frustration and disappointment. They found something.  Just sit down for a few minutes, regroup, and power through, you colossal whiny asshole.”  Or words to that effect.  But I didn’t find it.  My rage and frustration won the day, and I gave up. The mirror I was imagining exploded into shards which sliced into my stupid self-pitying brain.  So,  I walked down to the road, hitched a ride back to 10 Bear, cut my wristband,  grabbed a shuttle to the Start/Finish, and drove home in seething regretful silence. 

Now, just over two months on, I’m feeling better about things.  I had a solid podium finish in a tough mountain heavy half, our ultra team won the 100 on 100 Relay, and I annoyed a friend to her first ultra finish.  Not bad.   I regret quitting the VT100. It was an unnecessary DNF.  I should have finished.  I learned a lot about myself that day, not all of which I like.  But as long as there is room for growth, there is reason to move forward.  And I intend to do that.  I have a busy 2018 race season coming up.














Tuesday, 7 February 2017

2017 Rocky Raccoon 100-mile Trail Run Trip Report


 Some Words About My Background & Training

I’ve been running recreationally for most of my adult life, mostly for weight maintenance and the endorphin rush. Up until 2005, I’d put in no more than 20 or so miles per week, and that would be a long week.  When I retired from the Navy in ’05 I decided to try marathons – one per year, just to see if I could do it. We lived in the UK at the time.  I trained using a version of Hal Higdon’s programs (my longest would be 23 miles, and my max volume would be maybe 45 miles/week), and ran my first one, the flat Kent Coastal Marathon.  It hurt, and I bonked hard, but I got my sub-4 hour goal, vowing at the finish line that, “I will never do that again.”  This vow would not be honored.  I ended up running three more maras: Snowdonia, Yorkshireman, and Loch Ness, in Wales, England, and Scotland, respectively.  When we returned to the US, I did a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in '12 (here is my journal for that), and when I came back continued training for the marathon distance.  I ran Adirondack twice,Vermont City, and my marathon work culminated in Boston ('16). From there I made the move to ultras, in August of '16. Just because.

I’m an ultramarathon neophyte.  I’d only done three of these things so far:  the Moosalamoo Trail Ultra (36 miles), the TARC Fall Classic (50K), and the Vermont 50 (50 miles).  I felt good about those races.  They were very do-able, didn’t kill me, and I placed well in them.  I expected a 9:30-10:00 or so for the VT50 and ended up running faster, so that gave me the bright idea to push harder and longer.  That’s why I’m here. I never ran track or cross country in high school; college was about studying, partying, and getting plump. In college I thought it would be a bright idea to run a 10K. I was probably trying to impress a girl.  I came in at 59 min, vomited, and marveled over my profusely bleeding nipples and ultra-chafed inner thighs. Drop dead sexy.  

I think it is safe to say that any marathoner can make a fairly easy transition to races of 50 miles and below. There may be an increase in weekly volume, and practice doing back to back long runs to get accustomed to tired legs is de rigeur, but the routine is largely the same.  Hundred milers are different.   Once I decided to go for 100s, I thought it best to get a coach.  So, I went with the whole on-line coaching thing and asked Karl Meltzer if he would take me on. I chose to go with Karl for several reasons: (1) I like Karl’s style.  He’s a no bullshit guy who has his race philosophy dialed in; (2) he’s won more 100 mile races than anyone on the planet; (3) though younger than me, he is closer to my age (55) than most of the young turks out there who hang up their coaching shingles; (4) I respect his dedication to the AT and in breaking the FKT last year; and (5) he is originally from New England and knows the terrain and conditions in which I’d be training.  The process has been great, and Karl has been a huge asset for me. I report in every Monday and send him an update video with thoughts and comments on my training week, and he provides guidance and a weekly plan.  But as I said, never having been coached in running, I was not familiar with the methods or the lexicon.  So, at the beginning, when he told me that Wednesday would be my “speed work” day, I didn’t really know what that meant. I had to ask him what “progressives” are.  I had no idea how to do “intervals.”  I had never done that stuff.  I had only run my miles by feel and never really dove into anything beyond that.  Pretty comical, actually.  Karl, in a utter lapse of good judgment, has agreed to coach me through to the Vermont 100 in July '17, as well.  I look forward to it.

Travel and Prep

The trip started when I left work on Tuesday (1/31/17). Work.  I’m an infrastructure security planner for the State of Vermont.   All day, my head had barely been in the game, anticipating the race on Saturday. Neither especially nervous nor particularly anxious, I was, I suppose, distracted. Distracted by the travel to come, distracted by the coming mental stress, distracted by the new level of physicality I was to experience.  I drank my morning coffee hot and black, slogged through some e-mails, read a document on cybersecurity, chatted with colleagues about things trivial and grim, executed a few bureaucratic necessities, got a nice slow 7-mile run done with a colleague, and went home. That night I packed, double-checked my gear, sat down, and reviewed my rather silly and compulsively planned race strategy, realizing fully that, as with most plans, and this being my first 100 mile race, it would encounter reality, and then promptly implode. I was right.  Read on.

I woke up on Wednesday (2/1/17), said my farewells to Carol, Ben, and Ethan as they went off to do their days, had a couple of fried eggs, did 30 minutes on the elliptical to get the blood flowing, and went out for a 7-mile run in the snow. My last run in Vermont, before the race. The crisp, clean 19 degree air refreshed and calmed me.  I appreciated the run that morning from my house in the hills because I knew I would be soon be racing in the Texan heat and humidity, something to which I am certainly not accustomed.  I’ve been training for this race for the past 4 months in the Vermont Fall and Winter; temps and conditions have been extreme, mostly bitter cold. I wondered how the southwestern climes would affect my effort.  And then, of course, in the midst of my reveries, I fell. Sure, I did.  My pace had been a slow and relaxing 9 min mile (target pace for Loop 1 at Rocky) and I lost myself in the moments.  Then I found myself on my ass after having slipped on a patch of black ice under some snow.  I went down hard, banging up my right hip, elbow, and knee.  I got up, shook it off, and starting moving forward, but the knee hurt. A lot. I was worried for a minute or two.  I walked a while, then started to jog slowly. Nothing broken.  Just a bruise to the knee and the dignity.  It couldn’t have been an elegant tumble. They never are with me.

My flight was to leave early on Thursday (2/2/17) from Manchester, NH.  So, I drove down Wednesday afternoon and stayed in a La Quinta, where I could do some work, get a good night’s sleep, park the car, and shuttle over to the flughaven for an early morning launch. Good plan.  I got to Manchester in short order, checked in, and after doing some work, binge-watching Bosch for a while, and having a cold, cheap beer in a large can (being a beer snob, I was embarrassed),  I realized I was famished. The stomach was loud and yelling at me in a language borborygmous and guttural.  I opted for Chinese. I can’t remember the name of the place but there is a 90% probability it contained the word, “Jade,” or “Emperor,” or “Express.” Noodles sounded great, I craved carbs,  so I went with the “Special” House Chow Fun, and a couple of spring rolls.  The Chow Fun was dense, thick, brown, and festooned with all manner of unidentifiable proteins.  I couldn’t tell the chicken from the pork from the beef; it was all pale, gray, and shiny with oil. Gingery, but unremarkable.   It was too rich for my gut.  I’ve been eating healthily, and now this insult, this vague nausea.  That’s OK, though; the race will likely also bring me the same delights, although I expect the nausea to be more acute and substantial.  The spring rolls were crisp, tasty, and filling. Each was the size of a Trident D5 missile.

Thursday morning came quickly.  I arose at 3:15, showered, packed, had a coffee, and met the shuttle at 4:00.  The driver guy was hilarious. A local Manchester cabbie with a thick accent, and thicker gray hair, he proceeded to start talking and did not stop until we reached the terminal.  I grunted a bit here and there, when he asked, “You know what I mean, brother?” It was my cue to respond.  Politics was his focus.  While not a full-on Trumpista, he was a moderate/right Democrat (“A JFK Dem, not a Teddy Dem, mind you.”), who feels strongly that America ought to be first,  and that we should take care of our own,  especially when it comes to Social Security, his pet peeve. He wasn’t a fan of Mexicans.

In the airport, I went through security, as you do.  I had originally planned on checking a bag, and had packed a really sweet knife I’d gotten when I worked as an intelligence officer for a SEAL team back in the day. I figured it would be good for killing gators if attacked on the course, also to slice blisters open.  Then, when I decided to carry on both bags, I forgot to remove the damned thing from the one I was going to check.  TSA found it and took it.  I was pissed, but it was my own fault.  Nice knife.  Oh, here’s a helpful tip, racers:  when you have 8 or 9 little packets of Gu all squeezed together in a drop bag, apparently, it looks like a brick of C4. So, they made me unpack my stuff and show them that it was only tiny servings of the heinous gut paste.

Once through security and its concomitant frustrations and trauma to dignity, I went down to Dunkin’ to grab a coffee.  The counter attendant looked like Edward James Olmos with a misshapen grayish bun atop the head.  She was very nice though, and the coffee was hot.

The flight took off and I fell asleep immediately. I was awakened by a bit of a ruckus directly in front of me and to the right, on the aisle.  An older gentlemen had passed out and could not be resuscitated.  His travel partners were frantic as they shook him, yelled, and slapped his face.  They called a flight attendant who then made an announcement asking if there was a doctor on the flight.  There was.  A short, swarthy, dark-haired man wearing gray suede Nikes walked purposefully down the aisle with stethoscope and BP cuff in hand.  He took charge of things. Quite some drama. 

Now here’s where I have to concede being a bit of an asshat.  I woke up at the beginning of this medical donnybrook.  My first impulse was not, "Oh, poor chap, I hope he's OK."  Nope.  My first thought was, “Oh, for the love of God.  Are you kidding me?  I hope to Christ that this plane is over halfway there so we don’t have to turn around.  I have a race to get to.”  Like I said.  An asshat.  Selfish.  And I’m not even a millennial.  Turns out the man was OK.  They gave him some oxygen, he was met at BWI by some paramedics, and he walked off the plane under his own power. I was happy for him.

The flight to Austin was uneventful. I’m glad I came into Austin; the ticket was much cheaper than flying to Houston.  Turns out the Super Bowl is being held down there this weekend.  It would be a zoo getting out of there on Monday. I got my rental car, stopped for a greasy Sonic cheeseburger which went down easily, and drove the three hours to Huntsville. The rental rig was a Nissan Sentra which vibrated and whined whenever I went faster than 70.  Annoying as hell. I was forced to listen to 80’s glam rock standards to mask the noise. Nothin’ But a Good Time, indeed. 

Upon arrival at La Quinta, Huntsville, I changed into my running kit and went out for my last pre-run shake-out, a jaunty 5-miler. Felt good.  Nice to undo some of the travel-sloth.  On Thursday night, it was dinner at Los Pericos (The Parrots), a well-regarded local cantina,  consisting of a margarita (rocks), chile con queso, and an enormous plate of chicken fajitas, guac, beans, salsa, and dirty rice.  Pile this on the homemade corn tortillas, as light and delicate as tasteful lingerie, and you have yourself a meal.  Following this up with longnecks of Lone Star, Dos Equis, and a Corona, I rolled myself back to the room and became comatose, somehow making an effortless transition to slumber.

I awoke on Friday (2/3/17) morning having slept a solid 8 hours. I felt rested.  I fueled up at Denny’s with coffee, some eggs, toast, sausage, and hash browns, hung out there and read the news for a while, then headed off to get hair cut off my head. I reasoned that going into the race with a shorn skull might make me more aerodynamic and improve my time by 5-6 seconds over 100 miles.  I’m tactical, you see. At 3 pm, I headed over to the race venue at Huntsville State Park to check-in, pick up my number, leave my drop bag for delivery to Damnation aid station, and listen to the race briefing.  The rest of the day was spent lounging around, trying to get my head around the task in front of me, checking my gear, reviewing my plan, watching UFO abduction documentaries on Netflix, and staying off my feet.  At the end of the evening and on the advice of a one Mr. Jack Pilla, Vermont ultra-running brahmin, I did a good luck pre-race shot of tequila at the cantina next door and went to bed around 8, anticipating an early morning wake-up. 

Sleep was fitful and I arose just before 3 am (2/4/17).  I probably got a total of 5 hours in 1-2 hour blocks, none of it REM.  Once up, I changed into my running gear and walked up to the gas station for some coffee and breakfast.  This done I returned, collected my things and left for the race, arriving at the park at 4:45.  I had an hour and a quarter to kill so I donned the headlamp, brought my drop bag to the Start/Finish (aka Dogwood Aid Station), and strolled around a bit in the low 40’s chill (perfect conditions for me), people-watching.  Being there utterly on my own, I envied those racers with a crew.  We were now ready to join the gaggle and wait for the start.  I had butterflies. It was to begin.

The Race 

Lap 1   
Goal: 3 hrs (9:00 min/mile)   Actual: 3:14 (9:44 min/mile)
We launched at 6:00 on the nose, several hundred headlamps dancing around in the darkness like glow sticks at a rave (or so I’m told). Benighted, we’d be moving like this for about an hour. My first tactical error was starting as far back as I did in the cluster of souls.  It cost me dearly (7-8 min) in the first 4 miles.  We were channelized on single track heading out and it was very difficult to pass.  Lesson learned. I consider myself a “top third mid-pack” runner, and I should place myself in the start that way in future races.  Consequently, after mile 5, I had to speed up and try to make up some time, and in doing so I was injudicious in my foot placement and tweaked my left ankle a few times. Nothing horrible, but just a reminder to be more aware.  The Nature Center aid station was mayhem, the good kind.   We could hear those crazy bastards screaming their support seemingly a mile away.  I honestly thought the high-pitched screams were coyotes. Until I heard the cowbells.  We need more cowbell.  After the long Jeep road, straight into Damnation where I managed to put a couple of sub-9 miles together, I stopped, fueled with Pringles, bananas, and orange slices, filled my bottle, dropped off my headlamp, and took off.  That 7-mile Damnation loop was interminable. I stopped at Damnation again to fuel and hydrate on the way back and pushed the last 7 miles to the Start/Finish.  I was 14 minutes behind plan when I finished.  Also, I learned that I don’t like running by headlamp.  I needed to file that away for later. At Dogwood, I changed out my handheld for the Salomon vest because I wanted to ensure I had ample water, since my pace was a bit slower than I’d wanted.

Lap 2
Goal: 3:15 hrs (9:45 min/mile)   Actual: 3:26 (10:20 min/mile)
It was light out. Temps were perfect in the high 40s.  I was feeling strong and confident that I could make up some time.  Nutrition was good, my Tailwind was treating me right, no bonk or anything close. I knew my race pace plan was ambitious, but I still felt I could stay close to my time hacks, and put together a strong showing. Once again running through Nature Center and saluting the madmen there, I put my head down and focused on getting to the Jeep road to do some speed work and get to Damnation.  It was not to be.  

[I read a book in grad school by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart. The book is a novel about British imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa.  The title, taken from a Yeats poem, is one that has stayed with me all these years because it is a meta-statement of an eternal existential truth:  No matter the domain- personal, familial, political, professional, intellectual, physical, or athletic- things fall apart. Cosmic entropy made human.  Shit happens.] 

I was going down a slight incline curving a wee bit to the right. The trail was cambered to the left and I am a supinator, so all of physics was against me.   Now the grim part.  I must have lost concentration for an instant and I came down wrong on my left foot. My ankle gave out, and what seems like all of my 162 pounds came down on the thing.  I heard a crack before the pain hit. I howled in agony and hit the dirt at the same time. I was bewildered, dizzy, and nauseous.  “My race is over,” was my very first thought. There was a woman I had just greeted and passed on the trail a minute back.  She saw the whole thing happen, and just passed by, with a dull bovine stare in her eyes. No words, no offer of assistance.  She is now forever “that Bitch,” to me. I sat on the side of the trail, head in hand, trying to process this event, struggling to not lose it and to find equilibrium. Another racer I had passed earlier came by a couple of minutes later, saw me sitting and stopped to check in to see if I was OK.  I thanked him and told him to push on and I’d be alright. It was only a mile or so back to Nature Center and I could get myself there if I had to drop out. Dizzy, I stood up.  I gently put weight on the ankle and it bore up.  It was tender and sore, but not broken.  The crack was either a branch snapping, rocks colliding, or maybe the timing box on my left leg had hit a stone and made a clicking sound.  Funny what the mind does.  I really thought I'd broken my ankle. I could walk, and I did.  I placed the left foot down very deliberately to maintain its vertical angle and not twist or bend it.  The pain dulled and I made way, slowly. I started to jog and it felt very sore but bearable.  I felt I could continue. Not prettily, but relentlessly progressing forward, as they say.  I made it to the Jeep road heading to Damnation where the terrain was flat and forgiving.  I moved from jog to run and was able to do it with only mild pain as long as I attended to foot placement on every stride. The body has this remarkable natural analgesic ability.  How?  I don’t know.  After Damnation I moved from Jeep road to trail again, and it was okay.  I managed to get myself over the course, but the sprain changed my game.  A sub-20 was no longer in play for this race.  I had to give up on that and I had to be careful.  My ankle was damaged and my confidence moving over technical trail was compromised.  This was my new reality and I had to deal with it, and adjust.  (Later, after I completed the race, my wife, my sons, my Mom, my friends at work, (and I) would ask, “Do you think it was wise to continue?”  What they all wanted to say was, “Hey dumbass. You should have dropped out.”)  I get it.  Doing 75 trail miles on a sprain like that isn't too bright.  Sometimes my stubbornness has its way with my rational mind. 
Here is the ankle right after the race:


Lap 3
Goal: 3:30 hrs (10:30 min/mile)   Actual: 4:03  (12:09 min/mile)
This loop went surprisingly well, considering my sprain.  I knew it would be my last circuit of the course in full daylight so I had to find the correct balance of maximizing pace in good visibility while continuing to be super attentive to the foot, as I had for Loop 2. One more strain and fall like I’d had would be the end of it. This enhanced concentration on my left foot strike angle and placement was mentally exhausting, and it slowly, insidiously, took its toll.  I wasn’t fast but I was careful and I made it through the circuit looking forward to contact with my loved ones at the end of it.   I also was excited about changing into a fresh pair of socks and my Hoka Challengers. I’m not exactly sure, but I’m wondering if the Hoka Stinsons I’d been running in exacerbated the pronation, or not.  I love the maximalist cushioning because it feels good, but there does seem to be an element of instability to the shoe as well, in keeping the foot up so high.  I finished this loop and was 60 miles in to the race at 10:47, a respectable time, if not blazing.  Only 40 miles to go.  I went into the drop bag area and changed shoes and socks, grabbed my mobile to call my family, rigged up my watch charger (so I could get the whole thing on Strava and review it later), threw on the head lamp (dreading the darkness to come – a sentiment which applies to ultras and to Life, btw), did a shot of hot ramen broth and noodles, and headed out with exactly 11:00 on the clock. It was a long break to reset myself at the aid station, but I needed it.  My stomach had started to go south at around mile 50 and nothing seemed appealing.   I never vomited, but only barely kept stuff down.  Pickle juice worked for me in the VT50, but not in this one.  I tried it and it was repellant. Also, chocolate felt like wax in my mouth. Tailwind was always good to go, though.  That, the ramen, bananas, and grapefruit wedges, seemed to do the trick and settle my gut. Bottom line, I don’t think I have my nutrition fully dialed in. Gotta work on that.

Lap 4
Goal: 3:45 hrs (11:15 min/mile)   Actual: 5:28 (16:25 min/mile)
As I left Dogwood, I called to check in with my family.  It was so great to hear their voices.  I told them about the fall, my sanity was questioned, and we hung up with promises to “See ya soon.”  I did the math, and figured at this point, that I wanted to get through the next two loops in no more than 11 hours.  This would put me right at around 22 hours, give or take.  I also knew that I only had an hour or two of daylight left, so I had to maximize that.  This loop saw me jogging tentatively and gingerly, as best I could while it was light out.  Then, when I finally had to illuminate the ground in front of me, I slowed down.  I did try to run by headlight, but only on the flat, rootless terrain, not the single track. LED lighting messes with my depth perception.  While running was out, I called upon the muscle memory of hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2012, and Vermont’s Long Trail in 2016.  I could speed hike and get about 4 mph over ground.  So, I jogged when I could and speed hiked intensely- head forward, eyes front, legs pumping- the rest of the time, getting me in with a 5:28 split for that lap.  Slow, but necessary, and with 16:30 or so on the clock with only one lap to go, I felt very good that I would get a sub-24, maybe even come in under 23 hours.  A far cry from my original goal, but I was making lemonade.

Lap 5
Goal: 4 hrs (12:00 min/mile)   Actual: 6:23 (19:09 min/mile)
I left in a good mood, considering. I had music: Classic Rock, 14th Century Madrigals, Metal,  Opera, soundtracks from musicals.  It helped take my mind off of the bad things in life like my ankle issue, global overpopulation, and Tilley hats.  The last part of Loop 4 had ground me down to the nub and I felt my body start to give up. I didn’t want to eat or drink.  My hip flexors were as taught as a tightrope. My ankle throbbed and looked like an enormous engorged pale tick. My knees felt like tiny invisible elves were hammering chisels into them. And my quads burned with the fire of suns.   I’d hoped I could sustain somewhere around a 4 mph pace.  It was not to be. I managed just over 3 mph.  Adequate to get the job done, but I was definitely fading.  I was out there for a while but I powered through, anticipating crossing that timing pad with each step, throwing my arms up, and promptly collapsing in stunned relief and joy to have made it.  Then, I got there.  I’d done it.  Though I was emotional and incoherent, a nice gent who'd clearly seen it all gave me my choice of buckles and an age group award.  I thanked him, sat down, and then headed back to the hotel.



I showered, crashed, woke up later on Sunday and attempted to walk to get something to eat.  I must have looked either like a zombie or very drunk as I struggled to move from point to point. Beautiful.  

Lessons Learned
At the end of it all, and with the benefit of hindsight, here are some things I learned which may benefit other runners (and supporters) who may want to take this on:

1.     Don’t spend too much time trying to figure out why. People who participate in this sport have a screw loose.  And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but as a function of our raw humanity.  Ultrarunners are either running away or running toward something- or both. Motivations are multiplexed and at the end of the analysis, determining certainty in our reasons for doing this is fruitless.  

2.     Running on trails at night takes practice.  Headlamps, especially LED ones, take some getting used to when running on technical terrain.  The roots and the rocks have to be dealt with and the light can affect depth perception.  So practice.

3.     Attend to hydration and nutrition. Train like you will race, as best as you can.  If you intend to fuel on Tailwind exclusively then do it when you put in your longs, and don’t eat what you won’t eat during the race. I'm staying with 20 oz water and 250-300 cals/hr.

4.     You can predict your time, I suppose.  Look at on-line at race predictors for hundred milers and you’ll see that many say you’ll run 3 x (50M time).  I don’t buy it. I ran 2.6 x (50M time), and I got hobbled by the sprain.  I think the answer for a flat race like Rocky is about 2.3 times your 50M, and a hillier one might be a factor of 2.5-2.7.  I just think a factor of 3 is too pessimistic.  Well, maybe Hardrock…

5.     Be realistic in planning assumptions.  I’m a planner and analyst so I had goals, and knew where I should be for the entire race and how far off I was and why.  The pace assumptions I made at the outset however, were simply too optimistic for my ability. Around 90% of my training was on dirt roads in rural Vermont and I took the paces there and applied them to the trails of Texas with only a little adjustment. I should have adjusted more and as a rule added at least 35 sec/mile to my road times to account for trail.

6.     Be prepared to deal with what fate delivers, and adjust. Your race will not be flawless.  Something will go pear-shaped and you’ll need to adjust.  Prepare to do that.  Don’t expect a crystal clear, unwavering, pre-determined result.  Give yourself the space to adjust the bounds of your expectations.

7.     Practice power-hiking and speed-walking. You likely will take breaks to walk.  Practice that.  I found that speed-walking, though it killed my pace, really helped me to mitigate my pain and to finish the race respectably.

8.     Embrace the suck.  Ask anyone who has run 100s and they’ll tell you, "Expect very dark patches during the race, but keep pushing forward. You’ll get through it. It’ll get better. Don’t quit.  Push on."  That is true.

9.     Train on trail if your race is on trail.  Getting used to root and rock so as not to trip, sprain or injure yourself badly, is important. I trained for this race in the Vermont winter so the trails snowed and iced over in November and that last couple of months of training consisted of off-trail miles. That probably didn’t help me.

Thoughts on the Tejas Trails’ Race Execution

The things that were fantastic were…

·      Race Director Chris McWatters. His availability, professionalism, attention to detail, obvious love for what he and his wife Krissy do, and desert-dry wit, made the experience fun and familial. 

·      Aid station staffing and support.  These people were just incredible.  From the banshee wails coming from Nature Center to what feels like your own home team at the Start-Finish, these people were remarkable.  I thought I was going down alone without a crew. Turns out the volunteers became my crew.  They were so helpful and supportive and got me out and on my way with a smile.

·      Registration process and communication. Getting in the race was easy to do.  So too was getting any and all questions answered prior to the event.  The schedule, calendar, website, and background info was all on point. Terrific.

·      The fact that former RD/Tejas Trail owner Joe Prusaitis was racing.  The guy is a legend and has done so much for the sport. Thank you, Sir.

·      The course.  Though doing multiple laps is not my favorite thing, the course was well balanced, flat with undulations which made it interesting, forgiving, and very runnable. Oh, and scenic.

It would have been cool if…
·      …we didn’t have to wear the clunky timing boxes on our ankles. Though I didn’t realize it until the end, the strap gave me a blister the size of an eyeball.

·      …there were timing mats at the aid stations so that folks at home and at Start/Finish could get a better idea of racers’ progress.

·      …we didn’t have to pay another 5 bucks to come back in to the park on Sunday to collect our Damnation drop bags.  (That said, it was worth it just to be there when the racers made it in just prior to cutoff)

·      …they'd served that delicious moist banana bread and donut pieces all day at the aid stations vice just at the end

·      …there was maybe a video of the pre-race briefing available for later review or for folks who couldn’t make it in on Friday afternoon

·      …the elites held a “seminar” for other runners, in a Q&A panel format.  People who are new to the sport and veterans too, I’m sure, would dig that.

·      …the Friday check-in briefing included a keg

Final Thoughts
I finished with a performance most first time hundred miler, mid-pack runners would be happy with, and I guess I’m satisfied, though I know I could have done much better, if only.  But the "if only" is what keeps us coming back.   I ran Rocky in sub- 24 hours, finishing in 22:36:39 and did well in my age group.  But, that sprain changed my day.  I immediately had to recover mentally and galvanize my will to continue, or else I’d let myself succumb to self-pity, and quit. I had blood, treasure, and credibility invested and committed. I really needed to finish.  Running a hundred mile race was the hardest physical challenge I have ever experienced in my life.  I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I will in July. And I’ll be stronger, faster, and smarter when I do.   

Thanks for reading.