Monday, September 17, 2012

Full Circle

Three years ago, I invited myself along on a friends journey, and so the adventure began.

For those of you who recall a while back, the resurgence of my running career began a few years back, when my friend Justen signed up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 10k in what is advertised as Madison, WI. A former runner myself, hearing him talk of this upcoming weekend brought something back to me that I had been missing, and so in keeping with formalities, I asked him if he would like a running partner for the weekend. I won't bore you with (and I don't remember) the details of this race except for a very brief conversation we had while at the start/finish area. There we were, standing around watching the other runners, and admiring the 50 milers in particular. Thinking how crazy that would be, neither of us could imaging doing it, but both of us agreed it was on our "list". Someday.

Fast forward to last Saturday. It's 4:50 a.m. and I'm standing in the dark with 221 other runners listening to Dean Karnazes ask "who is running their first 50?" Fifty freaking miles. Here I was, at the starting line of the SAME event from three years ago that got this whole madness rolling listening to a legend in the ultra world wish us all good luck and to have a good run. I didn't know it at the time, but while listening to one ultra running celebrity, I was currently standing right behind another. Ian Sharman, a growing name among the ultra world, and eventual winner that day, was standing right there, applauding all of us 50 "virgins" and those others hoping to qualify for Western States.
A sea of headlamps 

The race itself started out pretty uneventful.  The first 6.7 miles went by quickly and dark. Mostly wooded ski trails, the footing was good and the rolling hills kept the mind occupied. I found my pace (a 9-9:30 range), tucked behind a small group of runners, and spent the next hour plus listening to others tell their tales of ultras and running. Feeling good, I cruised in to the first aid station, where my crew of Justen (the same) waited with my pre-mixed fluids and grabbed any gear that needed shedding. A quick heads up on what he should expect from me at the next crewable aid station at mile 21.1 and I was back on the trails quickly.

The next 14.5 miles kind of went by in a blur. Pretty uneventful, I kept an effort to maintain around a 9-9:30 pace, but occasionally found myself pushing 8:30. Somewhere in this section I realized I was thinking too much about the "race" and how I was "running" and sticking with other runners. I started to take in my surroundings and let everything go, letting the other runners fade around the corners and out of sight and mind, and I quickly settled in to a rhythm and a pace that was mine. This portion of the race brought the first section of the Ice Age Trail, and ironically, the second we hit it, the temps dropped about 10 degrees! However, the morning was warming and it was welcome. The Ice Age trail was narrow undulating single track with some short climbs and steady decents. A perfect trail for this portion of the race. Mixed with several short and long wooded "bridges" and walking paths, this trail provided just enough to keep the mind occupied.

Cruising in to aid station #4, I quickly spot Justen and indicate a shoe change is in order. I started the day wearing my Vibram Spyridon's, and though my feet were still feeling good, I sensed wearing these much longer might bring a whole other story. So I slipped on my NB MT10's, grabbed some more food and another handheld refill, and heading back to the trail towards my next goal: Aid station #5 and mile 28.2. This section of the course is the most undulating that I encountered all day. The course guide states that is "keeps the mind busy". I suppose if swearing at every uphill you come across for 7 miles is keeping the mind busy, then it did it's job. The hardest part of this section wasn't the hills. I walked the hills. It was actually some nice recovery. The hard part was never getting in to a rhythm. Finding the motivation to start running again when you could see up ahead that you would be walking up another hill in 50 meters was difficult. Knowing that due to the extra walking that this 7 miles would take nearly twice as long as normal was excruciating and nearly disheartening. But it was planned and expected, and I kept telling myself that this was all planned for. Finally climbing out of the hills, the course opened up to a prairie section and some warming sun. This section also introduced some out and back, which gave us the opportunity to see some of the front runners cruising along like they weren't even working! It was actually pretty cool and kept me entertained while I battled the hills.

Aid station #5 came up and again I met up with Justen. While he refilled my handhelds, I headed to the food table and really took advantage of what they offered for the first time that day. By this point, although I was not keeping up with my calories like I should have been, and I had only eaten a few GU's so far, sweet didn't sound too appealing. Then I saw them. Potatoes. And salt. My savior! Seriously, the best thing offered all day. Although the chicken broth sounded amazing as well had I had read that it works wonders, I passed due to the day's rising temps. This was also the time of day when the physical battle took a back seat to the mental. Already farther than I had ran in any training run all year, I new that I was getting in to unfamiliar territory and would soon be running farther than I have ever ran (previously 35.6). "Just an average Saturday run left" I told Justen, and with some encouragement from a volunteer who agreed with me, I was off to tackle those damn hills again!

Heading back in to the prairie and towards those hills was not an easy task. The heat was nearing it's high (I believe upper 70's) and knowing what was a head of me made for little motivation, but again I kept telling myself I was getting some good "rest" while walking that I would need near the end. I was also now heading back towards those runners behind me, and it was very cool and fun to see them pushing on as well and cheering them on as they did me. It was sometime shortly after leaving the last aid station that I also realized something important. Early in the race, I was peeing. I wasn't anymore. Not only that, I could feel my quads tightening. Fuck. I was getting dehydrated. I had 32 oz to get me through seven miles, and unlike the other aid stations, this time I intended to arrive at the next one empty. With a mile to go, I did just that, and came cruising in to the last crew accessible aid station completely dry.

As part of my race plan, I broke the run into three phases, with the individual aid stations as sub phases to keep my mind occupied from how much distance I had remaining. Leaving Station #6 was the beginning of my third stage, and the final 15 miles of my race.  With a new plan to stay hydrated and a couple salt capsules in me, I pressed on. The return trip went much the same as the first time through, though rejoining the major trail system brought us back to join in with what were now runners from the other races that day. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as by now us 50 milers were thinning out and it was nice to see some signs of life out there. But even better than that were the reactions of those 50k'ers and marathoners. One might think that being passed by someone running 50 miles would have been disheartening to them, but the reactions were just the opposite. Excitement and cheers were commonplace, and I don't think it could have come at a better time. Nearing Station #7, I found out just how important those 50k'ers could be. As I approached a group of runners ahead of me, the "leader" of their group noticed I was running the 50 mile, and promptly and enthusiastically shouted "50 miler coming through! Way to go man! You are my hero for the day!" I wearily and kindly returned the thanks and encouragement back to them, and joined them for the final quarter mile to the next aid station, laughing and forgetting about everything but enjoying the moment.

Amongst all that camaraderie aside, I still had a mission ahead of me, and now it was getting real. I had entered the day with the goal of finishing. Just accomplishing that would have been enough. But me being me, I also put in a time goal. One that if everything went perfect and according to plan, I felt confident that I could accomplish. This goal was 10 hours. Throughout the day, and with the aid of my Garmin, I was keeping tabs on this goal in the back of my mind. Always slightly ahead of this goal, I knew and planned that I would soon be slowing down, and that things would average out. Mile by mile, I remained under this goal, and as the miles ticked away, so did any doubts as to accomplishing this goal. But it was station #7 were this hit the hardest, and the adrenaline started coming back. I was now at mile 40.2, and had just under 10 miles to go. At my current goal pace of 12 minute miles, I would finish in just over nine hours. Barring any major disaster, I would crush my goal. Keeping my station stop brief, I refilled refueled, popped another salt capsule, and charged towards the next and final aid station. It was about 200 yards in to this next section that I calmed down and reminded myself that, although only 10 left, this was nearly two hours away. So I pressed on, but never really took my eyes off that watch.

As prepared as I was for this race, I have to be honest that I really didn't study the race guide like I should have. I knew where all the aid stations were and which ones were crewable. I knew when and where I would make gear changes and where I would make any kind of move or decision as to my race. But somewhere in those 45 miles, I lost track of how far the last aid station was, and more importantly, how far I had left AFTER that final aid station. So, when I pulled in to station #8 and over heard a volunteer telling another running "only 3.7 to go", I almost choked on my potatoes! "Wait, how far did you say" I asked, and he confirmed what I had wanted to hear. Even though I was wearing a GPS watch that told me how far I had ran, I still had it in my head that there were about 5 miles to go. I had lost all sense of the physical and was now feeding only off of those numbers running through my head.

Hearing this amazing news, I dropped my food, grabbed my handhelds, and headed straight for the finish. I quickly did the math, and if I maintained the 12 minute miles I had planned from the start, I would finish in just UNDER nine hours! From this point on, the count down had begun. Every half mile, I re-evaluated and saw that finish time get lower and lower. With a just under two to go, my lack of caloric intake had caught up with me, and my stomach was pissed. But I made a deal. "Stomach, you have 20 minutes to go. If you get me to that finish line, I promise you I will find a tent, head behind it, and you can throw up all you want, but you are NOT puking now!" Somehow, it agreed, and with half a mile to go, I exited the trail and hit the pavement that led back to the visitors center, and the finish. It's funny, because normally at this point, I put down that final kick to the finish. I to be honest with you, I think I may have tried! But the legs just kept pressing forward at their current pace and that was good enough for me. I was going to CRUSH my goal of 10 hours. Justen was just ahead to jog me in a little, and the finish festival was in sight and beaming with excited fans and runners waving me home.

So here I am, 8:47:20 later, finishing my first 50 mile run. Looking at this picture, I remember being a little more excited crossing that line, but I guess this was all I could muster! I was greeted by Justen and hundreds of excited fans, and although I couldn't express it, I was happy. I spent the next hour getting water and unsuccessfully trying to bring my heart rate down. I was over heated and exhausted, and I spent a good 40 minutes in the shade behind a tent. But things got better, I was able to walk around and take in some of the events of the day, including the awards ceremony, where I watched Dean Karnazes award the winners, and Ian Sharman. It was now me who was applauding him. They day had come full circle. Just as I have.