“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go….and the poet who fears to take the risk…is a man who has surely failed, who ought to have adopted some less adventurous vocation.”
– T.S. Eliot, Preface to Harry Crosby, Transit of Venus (1931), p. ix.
I am not a poet, but running has become my adventurous vocation of choice. After a “playing it safe” effort at Zane Grey while recovering from illness I approached the San Diego 100 with a renewed seriousness and I devoted a lot of mental training time to really believing I was capable of a great performance, a podium performance and even a winning performance. I wanted to risk going too far.
It has become very comfortable for me to just go out and “do my best” or “run my own race” and I have had pretty good success doing just that in the past. Ultrarunning is a very friendly sport and as someone that is not very competitive in other aspects of my life I found myself finishing many races knowing that I hadn’t really left it all out there. I would reassure myself during the later stages of a race that “it’s okay to be top 10”, “it’s okay if they are having a better day”. In a recent race there was a moment when I was passed by a number of competitors less than 10 miles from the finish but it wasn’t until someone I knew caught me that I actually responded. I managed to stay with them and then mustered a strong enough kick to hold them off. It was one of many peaks behind the curtain of what I am really capable of and how much my mind can hold me back from my true potential.
During my spring races this season I became quite familiar with my measurable fitness variables. I know where my quantifiable physiological limits are and to some extent my early season racing felt like an exercise in just checking the numbers and putting in the right amounts of water and food. Hold it just below your threshold, eat “x” amount of calories every 30 minutes and drink “x” amount of water between aid stations. Rinse and repeat. It was still a ton of fun, I got to see beautiful places, I got to run with great people and I was finishing up front or even on the podium, but I knew that I was capable of more.
There is a place for running your own race, but there is also a place for throwing HR, pace splits and preconceived notions of what you are capable of out the window. You never know until you try and ultrarunning is about so much more than the numbers. If it were just about the numbers, as Jack Daniels has said, you could just measure everyone’s VO2 max, or even their more accurate velocity at VO2 max and hand out the awards without racing.
My schedule this season built nicely from two 50k races, to a 50 mile race to my first 100 miler of the season in San Diego. Thus far, 100 Milers have not been my thing. Historically they drag down my Ultrasignup Score, I don’t place very well and my back-half running is lacking. Yet I am drawn to 100s because it forces me to leave the comfort zone, to get into those darker and harder spots. Pushing this hard can be devastating. You can blow your quads, get dehydrated, puke, etc. There will be pain, and you will have to push through it, and the mental aspect during the back-half is paramount. Going into this race, Ultrasignup had me ranked 8th, and I was determined to do better.
The San Diego 100:
I flew down the day before the race, met my parents that were going to crew me and we drove into the hills to set up camp and check in. After traveling and sitting all day I had a splitter headache and my entire back and posterior felt tight – nothing a couple NSAID’s couldn’t handle. I woke up feeling fresh and ready to roll after a decent night of sleep. Huddled at the chilly start Scotty Mills let us know just how great the weather was and set us off.
Less than a quarter of a mile into the race we came to a junction with lots of flagging to the right, but Howie Stern had set up to the left and shouted at the lead pack to head that way. We did, then stopped as we saw runners going right and after an agonizing 45 seconds of standing still, not sure about where to go, we followed the obvious flagging and the rest of the runners (Howie had accidentally set up on the return course). Now at the back of the pack the leaders frantically tried to pass on the overgrown single track.
Eventually the course hit a fire road and it was easy to move up to the front again. Rolling into the first aid station I was in sixth place, just a couple minutes apart from the leader. Just before reaching the second aid station I came to a trail junction that had chalk heading uphill to the right. I took the obvious marking only to realize after a half mile that no one was following behind me and there were no tracks or other flagging on my route. I turned around, hesitantly, but could hear cowbells off in the distance. As I rolled into the second aid station the guys I had been running with, Kris and Michael gave me high fives and said not to worry about it. Kris, Michael and I ran the next 30 miles or so together and they would drift away from me on the climbs and I would catch back up on the mildly technical descents, as per usual with me. On the first big descent of the day I was flying and feeling comfy. I had a bandana loaded with ice, my nutrition was dialed in and things were feeling great and under control. The final miles of steep downhill pavement were a surprise, but I kept my form in check and arrived at the bottom of Noble Canyon in 3rd place. I filled my bottles, drank a good amount of water and headed up.
Halfway up the climb I tried to pee and was horrified by the painful, dark and meager results. I did some calculations about how much long I had to go until the next aid station and things didn’t look good. Halfway up the climb the trail cut up a hillside and left the creek we had been following. After a momentary hesitation of weighing the risks between heat exhaustion and wrecking my race this early in the day versus filling up a bottle from the creek and risking an all-too-familiar bout of giardia after the race, I decided to go for it. Time to commit and see how far I could go – I filled up my bottles and drank the warm creek water to the next aid station.
Over the next 15 miles I took time to drink a full bottle at each aid station and was back on top of my hydration by the time I met my crew around mile 48. I swapped out shoes and socks (so much cheatgrass!!!) and took off, back in 3rd place and with a solid 50 mile split time. I was moving well through the first pass of Dale’s Kitchen (no aid) about 60 miles into the run, but started to feel tight in my left hip on the descent to Cibbet’s Flat where I would meet my parents again. I came in to Cibbet’s still in third, but I had lost a lot of time on the leaders with an uncharacteristically slow descent. My parents got out my vest for the night with my lamp and layer, I grabbed some Tiger Balm and did a little stretching hoping that my hip would loosen up as many little nagging sensations often do during a 100 miler. Mentally I was ready to attack the hill and chase the leaders.
Half way up the big climb back to Dale’s Kitchen, around mile 68, my Sacroiliac (SI) joint and the surrounding musculature had tightened so much I was experiencing agonizing pain with each step. In the course of about 3 minutes I went from being able to power hike at 4mph to barely being able to walk as my lower back and left glute seized. I considered descending to Cibbet’s Flat to drop out of the race but moving downhill was much more painful and I knew I would pass lots of runners on the ascent that I could get help from if I got into a really bad spot. The initial goal was to get to the top before sunset, but I knew I wouldn’t make it so I took off my ice bandana, dumped it and tried to get as dry as possible before the temperature dropped. I staggered up the hill, grunting like a pirate with scurvy. The 5 miles back to Dale’s Kitchen took me almost 3 hours. My soaked shirt and vest failed to dry before the temperature dropped and the wind picked up so I started getting chilled quickly. After getting a mixture of “good job” and “are you okay?” from passing runners I finally hobbled into the Dale’s Kitchen aid station, shivering and devastated.
I came in, sat down in a chair and just lost it. The decision to drop was easy to make since I couldn’t even walk and I have no regrets since it took me almost three days to be able to walk again. Angela Shartel and Scotty Mills both gave me some great words of wisdom after helping me get reunited with my crew and after hearing their stories it was a lot easier to try and take the long view. The pain of the injury has far outlasted the pain of dropping and I know I’ll be back.
It took a couple days but after spending years telling my students that failure is essential for learning and to always “fail forward” I managed to adjust my mindset and see this as an opportunity to learn. The weekend ended up being a great opportunity to spend time with family since my parents and sister were out to crew and after running 73 miles I had no shame in trying every type of pie that the town of Julian had to serve up.
While I was devastated and demoralized pulling out of a race while still in top contention, I put it all out there, I risked going too far, I ran by feel, I believed I could and I had a great 73 miles. The injury that derailed me had been in the works for weeks and there was nothing I could have done on race day but drop out and begin the recovery process.
A bit of kit: Altra One V3 and Lone Peak 3.0 shoes with Altra Trail Gaiters, Altra racing shirt, Altra race shorts, Altra Racing hat, Altra Performance Half-Zip, Swiftwick Aspire 4 socks, 5-6 Honey Stinger Limeade Chews every 30 minutes during the event, homemade rice balls ( with egg, honey and liquid aminos), First Endurance Ultragen recovery drink, Salmon Advanced Skin 3 Belt, Sense Hydro Set Handheld and Sense 8 Vest, Petzl Nao Torch, Garmin Fenix 5, iPod shuffle with Yurbuds, Smith Podium shades, Zombie Runner Cool Off Bandana (Money!!)
Favorite (or most apropos) song: Ludacris – 2 Miles an Hour (so everybody sees me)
The Anatomy of an Injury:
In the heat of the moment as I hobbled up the final climb to get to the nearest aid station to drop out I was kicking myself for my choices. Often SI joint pain happens and people have no clear idea of what caused it, but the searing pain that immobilized my left glute and back had a pretty clear cause.
In addition to the stress of trying to buy a home and moving to a new town in a new state, I made the error of spending too much time slouching in bed watching movies and working on a laptop. My body is used to standing all day and while I thought I was doing a great job of resting and enjoying summer vacation by chilling out during the day, the slouch monster got the better of me. It just took 68 miles of all-out running to turn the gradual strain I had placed on my back into a full blown injury.
During my recovery I had the opportunity to give back to the community and captain an aid station for 18 hours straight during the River of No Return Endurance Runs put on by Paul Lind. I had a blast, taught a runner how to put on compression socks late in a race, did blister treatment for a guy from Singapore, cooked my body weight in bacon, quesadillas and pirogies and saw countless inspiring acts of compassion, determination and endurance.
The Idaho trail community has been incredibly welcome and I am committed to going for it at the Bear 100, fearlessly. But first, patience.