Monday, July 21, 2014

Race Report - 2014 Philadelphia in24 24-Hour Urban Ultra

First, let's be clear about what this post ISN'T about.  It's not the Badwater post that you've come to expect around this time of year for the last four years.  And yes, it does feel a little strange NOT to be writing about Badwater at too-early-o'clock on the day after the race, as has been a mid-summer tradition for me.

This post is about another tradition, one that hearkens back to 2008, and the first Back on My Feet "20in24" 24-hour race in Philadelphia.  As a total unknown, having run ultras for only about a year, I showed up at the race with Collin.  While Collin had a bad day and dropped out early, I braved 95+ degree weather and no shade to run 111+ miles, and finish second overall, to Serge Arbona (who, at the time, was a relative unknown to me).  At the time, the thrill of battling it out for 24 hours under brutal conditions, and the resulting muscle pain, sunburn, and $75 prize check were the height of "epic" when it came to ultrarunning.

Then Badwater happened, not once, but four times, and each time was incredible and memorable in its own way.  It was a difficult decision not to run Badwater this year, but with the course change, and all of the background that went along with it, in the end, it just didn't FEEL right.  And, let's face it - a lot of things about ultrarunning, if not life in general, aren't entirely logical.

Fortunately, the Back on my Feet "in24" provided an exciting opportunity to do something different this year.  I had always wanted to go back and run it again, but since it always conflicted with Badwater, it was never an option.  Finally, this year, it was.  And not only was it a chance to run a race that I had always wanted to go back to, but it was also an opportunity to re-unite the Badwater 2013 crew - Chris, Shannon, and Meredith.  And, better yet, Chris, our perennial crew-member but complete non-runner, was going to race, courtesy of a few of us pitching in to cover his entry fee.  Back on my Feet also gave me a free entry to the Midnight Madness race to give away, and my friend Traviss won my contest for the entry, so he would be out there at midnight, too.  All in all, it was shaping up to be an exciting race.

There was one major downside, though - training.

After the Boston Marathon in April, I was sick for almost a full month.  Then I attempted 3 Days at the Fair in mid-May, and crashed and burned (unsurprisingly) in my attempt at a good 24-hour race there.  At that point, I now had 8 weeks before "in24," and between significant new job responsibilities at work, at church, and managing a newly long-distance relationship (after a couple of years of being as close as those type of relationships get), the time and energy to train the way that I had wanted to just weren't there.  I averaged 50 miles per week for the 8 weeks leading up to the race.  That's not terrible, but it's certainly not the kind of volume that's ideal coming into a 24-hour race.  (Although it's still better than Chris's 5 miles of walking a day, in preparation for his first 5K, 5-mile, 10K, 10-mile, marathon, 50K, 50-mile race . . .)

In spite of my lackluster physical preparation, for a number of reasons, I was mentally in the right place coming into this race.  The idea that, in contrast to 3 Days at the Fair, I would have my friends there supporting me, made a huge difference.  Even though there were not a lot of logical reasons to believe that this race would go well, I had a good feeling about it.  For eight weeks, on every training run, I thought about the race.  I thought about the focus that I would need to have, the pain that I would need to endure, and the feeling of reaching my goal, which was mostly to compete the best that I could for first place.  Considering the physical shape that I was in, a PR in the event, although possible, seemed unlikely.  That left competing with the course, the conditions, and the other competitors . . . the same way that the event was in 2008.

Pre-race dinner with Chris, Meredith, and friends, was as light-hearted as the pre-race Badwater dinners, albeit in the suburban jungle of Chipoltle and make-your-own-froyo, as opposed to a remote desert oasis.  Having not slept too well all week leading up to the race, I finally slept soundly the night before, knowing that when I woke up in the morning, the only thing that I would be worried about for the next 24(ish) hours would be forward progress, the best that I could.

After saying goodbye to Meredith's husband and daughter (the latter of which would have me laughing about her "on stairs" joke, that I'm not going to bother explaining here, since I am the only one in the world that thinks that it's funny), we headed off to Fairmount Park, found parking, checked in, and set up our tent (strategically next to Serge Arbona's tent, and just a couple of steps off of the course, for convenient access).  We had a good laugh at Chris's outrageously high blood pressure and resting heart rate (somewhere in the neighborhood of 145 over 91, and 78, respectively), which the paramedic taking the readings just shrugged at as he handed Chris the check-in form.  Chris, of course, being cheerful Chris, was undeterred.

The weather was much cooler than expected, thanks to the "polar vortex," rearing its head once again in the middle of the summer.  This would make the race interesting, since with reasonable temperatures, anybody who was truly in shape for the event (not me) and raced smart could potentially log huge mileage.  Off we went, and I settled into what felt like a reasonable, comfortable pace for the first four hours or so, ticking off the 8.4 mile lap in somewhere between 1:15 and 1:30 per lap, employing strategic walking breaks to make the task more mentally manageable.  Serge had gone ahead, and there was nobody in particular who was running at my pace, but that was okay.  I was enjoying the freedom of finally running the event that I had planned on running months ago.  My stomach was bothering me a bit as I started settling in, but amusingly enough, when I passed Chris, he had Gas-X to give me, proving that he can crew even when he's running a race.

Nearing the end of four laps, the cloud cover was lifting, the sun was coming out, and the temperature was climbing.  This was the insidious sort of temperature increase, that you don't realize is a problem until your stomach turns and you start throwing up.  I could feel my control on the race slipping away, but then the first of a series of well-timed things happened.

About ten minutes away from the end of my fourth lap, Shannon showed up, right on time to begin pacing (pacing was allowed after four laps).  He was fresh, and throwing down a tough pace, but it was exactly the sort of challenge that I needed at that moment to push through the mental low point that I was reaching.  Shannon paced me for another two laps, and had me talking and laughing enough that I forgot about the increasing pain everywhere.

I could tell that Shannon was fatiguing, though, and at this point, not quite 9 hours into the race, there was still a ton of time left.  And then the second of a series of well-timed things happened.  Jackie and Jeff showed up just as I was finishing my sixth lap.  Although they weren't exactly "fresh," having "run" (read: scrambled over boulders) quite a bit on the Appalachian Trail earlier in the day, they were still less fatigued than I was, at just over 50 miles in.  Having their company and distracting banter for the next lap once again helped me push past what could have been a low point.  They left for a lap, which was just enough time alone with my thoughts, before Jackie jumped in for one more lap, again, just the right amount of help.

At that point, it was getting late (after 10 pm), and Jackie and Jeff needed to leave, but then the third in a series of well-timed events happened.  Traviss, who was my Midnight Madness contest winner, was standing around near the start/finish waiting for his race to start, and, as he overheard our conversation, he offered to pace me for a lap or two after he finished his race.  Left to my own devices for a lap, the Midnight Madness runners proved, again, to be the perfect distraction, as they ran towards me with their glowsticks and words of encouragement.  I smiled a lot during that lap.  Here I was, out there running for 14 hours, still 10 more hours to go, with these runners just starting out, and I was actually able to smile.  So, I may as well smile.

Near the end of the lap, I picked up Maggie as an impromptu pacer, and she pushed me through the next few miles, matching (and in some cases exceeding) my pace.  Once again, a well-timed event that carried me through to the end of the lap, where, as luck would have it, Traviss was finishing just as I was getting ready to head out again.  I set out for another lap with Traviss and Maggie in tow, and once Maggie reached Lisa, who she had promised to pace, it was just Traviss and me for the remainder of the lap.  Once more, the perfect support and distraction, especially at nearly two in the morning.

Unfortunately, Traviss needed to leave after a lap, since this was an unplanned pacing gig anyway, but he did bring me some particularly delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice before he left, which, stomach-churning effects aside (nothing that some Tums and Coke can't fix), was probably the best thing that I had tasted the entire race.  Now I would be on my own for a while, and my thoughts turned to the competition.  I had been at the start/finish a couple of laps ago when Serge lapped me, so, short of a blow-up on his part, or a miracle on his part, I was unlikely to beat him.  But Mark mentioned to me, a couple of laps ago, that the mysterious second-place runner (who I had heard was old, young, from Haverford, and probably a dozen other things) was only about 20 minutes ahead of me.

I had no idea who I was looking for.  Maybe I had already passed him.  But without the aid of pacers, I needed the motivation of trying to catch somebody who was ahead of me to prevent me from lapsing mentally.  After a little bit of iPhone-aided research, I discovered that his bib number was 61, and I would spend the next several hours looking at every person that I passed for that magical number.

Finally, heading into my 14th lap, coincidentally enough, very close to where I had stopped in 2008 when I ran 111+ miles, I jogged up behind a group of three people in their mid-20s, surrounding another person in his mid-20s.  This fit one of the vague descriptions of this "Cohen" fellow that I was chasing down.  I passed him, said a friendly hello, looked at his chest, and sure enough, partially obscured by the mandatory reflective gear that he hadn't yet taken off (I hadn't taken mine off, either) was that magical "61".  He asked how I was, and I said "just taking it one step at a time."  And with that, I knew that I had to make my move, and I took off running.

I pushed through the next lap in around 1:25, the fastest lap that I'd completed in quite some time.  I wanted to make sure that when he came around at the end of the lap, and asked how far behind he was, I would have put the maximum distance between us that I could, and that that might break him.

As I later found out, after the race, when he came over to me and shook my hand and congratulated me, he confirmed that my strategy had worked exactly as intended.  He had thought that he was further ahead of me, but was already a bit demoralized to learn that he had just a 12-minute lead.  When I passed him with authority, and got far enough ahead of him, he actually stopped after 14 laps.  Not knowing this, I had to "suffer" through an entire 15th lap, to arrive at the start/finish with 45 minutes left, to confirm that I didn't need to go any further, and that, with 126+ miles, I had secured second place, with no chance for first.

Meanwhile, amidst all of this competition, the final of the very well-timed things happened.  As I reached the last half-mile of my 14th lap, Shannon and Chris were off to the side of the course, getting ready for one last push to the finish.  Chris was going to make his 50 miles!  I slowed down to walk with them, and we walked in together.  I didn't realize it at the time, but, as we crossed the finish line, both Chris and I were victorious (him with his 50 miles, me with securing second place) at exactly the same time.

What I did realize at the time is that both Chris and I were in horrific pain, Chris moreso than I was.  But my time would come.  I could feel myself mentally breaking down at the end of my 15th lap, having left Shannon behind, who himself was tiring as a pacer for Chris, and Meredith, and me, putting in over 50 miles himself between pacing the three of us.  As I let my guard down, and the adrenaline started to wear off, the pain starting to overwhelm me. The thought of Chris dragging himself through the finish, and how he must have felt, was in the back of my mind.  Slow or fast, in these races, we all have our moments of doubt and suffering.  Soon enough, though, I would be sitting in a chair near the finish, spent, glad to be finished, and delighted with the DJ's sense of humor, as he played "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica, and then "Money" by Pink Floyd, in succession.

After a massage and perhaps lingering too long on the Lloyd Hall upstairs patio with a banana and a bottle of water, I went downstairs for the awards ceremony, to greet Serge with a fist bump, and it looked something like this:

Serge and me, 1st and 2nd place, post-race, all smiles.
(Thanks, Meredith, for capturing this moment!)
Just like in 2008, Serge had finished first, and I had finished second.  He had run just over 142 miles today, and I had run just over 126.  Just like in 2008, neither of us had had our best day, but as competitors, we gave it our all until the end.  Unlike in 2008, we both walked away with a lot more money - Serge with $2500, me with $1000.

The in24 in Philadelphia certainly isn't Badwater. Only Badwater is Badwater (and this year, even that is unclear).  But the in24 was the right midsummer race for me this year.  At the end of the day, I got exactly what I had wanted out of the race - great competition, and quality time with great friends, all of whom I cannot thank enough.  I've definitely started races in better shape, and I've definitely had better performances by the hard numbers.  But I can't think of a single race that I've run where I've had more timely and valuable support from my friends leading up to, and throughout the event.

So now this is going to sound like the end of a Badwater race report, as I offer my most sincere thank-yous to Chris, Shannon, Meredith, Jackie, Jeff, Maggie, Traviss, Meg, Tina, the mysterious "Cohen/61," Serge, Mark, Christian, the rest of Serge's crew, all of the folks at Back on my Feet and Pretzel City Sports and Stroehmann Bakeries (that make lots of gluten-filled foods that I personally can't eat, but are great for everybody else), all of the participants in the Philadelphia in24 races, the amazing, enthusiastic volunteers on the course, all of the other sponsors that made this race possible, and probably a bunch more people that I'm forgetting.  At the end of the day, this, like Badwater, was a race that was about bringing a team and resources together, and competing the best that you are able to.  And, thanks to the great friends that I have, that all came together to help me through this, the 2014 Back on my Feet "in24" 24-hour race was exactly as amazing as I had hoped it would be, and, this year, exactly the right race for me.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Boston Strong, and the Road Ahead

The good news is that I made it back to the Boston Marathon this year. The bad news is that it didn't quite turn out the way that I had hoped. In spite of better training and a more focused pre-race taper, stomach issues got the better of me, and derailed what was, for about 18 miles, shaping up to be a PR effort. 

Still, it was an awesome experience to be a part of. In the now 9 times that I've run the Boston Marathon, I've never heard the crowds cheering any louder at the finish line, or along the course, for that matter. Coming around the final turn, the roar of the crowd was downright deafening. Congratulations are in order for all of the runners, volunteers, organizers, friends, families, and fans who pulled together to make this year's Boston Marathon an unforgettable event.

For me, the positive energy at the marathon lessened the sting of walking away knowing that I had a 2:45-2:50 performance in me that day, but failing to put up the finishing time to prove it. That same energy that the city of Boston rebounded with after last year's tragedy has, in spite of my performance, left me energized for the challenges ahead.

Next up is 3 Days at the Fair Provided that I stay healthy, I think that this race gives me a great opportunity to better my 24-hour mileage PR of 134 miles, set at 24 the Hard Way this past October.

The other race that I'm particularly excited about is the 20in24 in Philadelphia, put on by Back on My Feet ( I competed in the inaugural running of this race in 2008, and, on a brutally hot July day, set a 24-hour mileage PR of 111 miles, finishing second. The support staff and the fans made the race an amazing, unforgettable experience. Since that year, I've wanted to run the 20in24 again, but until now, other commitments (most notably Badwater for the past four years) have made that impossible. So I'm excited to have the opportunity to once again slug it out in the heat for 24 hours, and test my limits on that course.

If you're interested in being a part of the 20in24, the good people at Back on My Feet have given me one race bib to give away, to either the Midnight Madness 8.4 -Mile Race, or the Finale 5K. All you have to do is "like" their page on Facebook (, and then email me to let me know that you liked their page, and why you want the bib. I'll pick a winner this Friday. Good luck!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100 (2014 USATF 100-Mile Trail Run Championship)

It's been "go big or go home" for me lately when it comes to racing.  So as I sit down to write this, my first thought is that maybe I didn't go "big enough" at the Rocky Raccoon 100 this past Saturday.  Surely the prize money and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run auto-entry for a top-three finish is as big as this sort of thing gets, and a reason to pull out all of the stops.  My effort fell a bit shy of that mark.

And considering that earlier today, I ran 6 miles at a typical training pace, my legs a little less than hard-marathon-sore, while others who finished ahead of me described their post-race experience as "crippled" and "hobbling" (and based on the people that finished close to me, I'd say that those words were not exaggerated), I can't help feeling that maybe I left something on the table.

But after further consideration, I think that I took a lot more away from this experience than a very respectable 11th overall/9th male/6th USATF male (i.e. competing under USATF rules, meaning, among other things, no pacers, no headphones) finish and a 16:38:36 100-mile finishing time (second-fastest 100-mile run time for me).  What I took away was arguably more important than either the prize money or the Western States 100 auto-entry.

But more about that in the closing paragraphs.  For now, the race:

After my third-place finish at the US National 24-Hour Championship (this thing), the US National 100-Mile Trail Championship seemed like the logical "next big thing," especially since it was about three months away (a decent amount of time to recover and rebuild), and at Rocky Raccoon, a race where I ran well in 2009.  The added benefit of having one more long race to add to my Badwater 2014 application, just before the application would be due, made Rocky Raccoon too enticing to pass up.  And of course, with the prize money and the Western States 100 auto-entry on the line, this race was going to draw a deep, competitive field, which would make it exciting to be a part of.

Between the US National 24-Hour Championship and Rocky Raccoon, I continued to train and race.  I ran 2:55:12 at the NCR Trail Marathon, as sort of a "target of opportunity" race, since it was a short drive, and a Boston-qualifying course.  A couple weeks later, I made it only a little past 70 miles in 12+ hours at the Desert Solstice 24-Hour Invitational, before throwing in the towel, primarily due to a total lack of any sort of speed.  Then I took some time off, and started a mileage re-build in mid-January, so by the time that it was Rocky Raccoon time, I was in the best shape that I could reasonably be in.  But given this mixed bag of training, I couldn't be totally confident that this was going to work out.  If anything, my performance at Desert Solstice had me slightly concerned that I had either reached my ultimate performance limit, or burned out entirely.

In the interim, life also happened.  My beloved 2001 Honda Civic EX (five-speed manual transmission, accept no substitutes), with over 207,000 memorable miles, nearly all of them driven by me, was totaled, in an accident that I watched from outside of the car, and I changed work assignments, both of which required plenty of attention that I may have otherwise given to running.  And then, on this trip, since I would be in Houston for a day prior to the race, and my girlfriend lived there for a substantial period of her life, I made a point of visiting all of her recommended restaurants, parks, and other attractions (incidentally, I highly recommend the Rothko Chapel).  Not to mention that I was car-pooling/room-sharing with two other runners, which I don't normally do (although this made for a highly amusing trip to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas, the town where the race is held).

So there were plenty of twists and turns and distractions, enough so that on the eve of the race, I wasn't particularly excited about running it.  In my mind, all of the other experiences that were rattling around in my mind, both on this particular trip, and in my life in the past few months in general, were far more meaningful and substantive than five 20-mile loops in a state park in an obscure city in Texas.  I didn't NOT want to run the race, but my pre-race lacked a certain sort of nervous energy that I'm used to before huge events like this.

On the other hand, being less wound-up about the race afforded sounder pre-race sleep, and helped me keep my cool during the parking catastrophe that turned a 20-minute drive to the start of the race into a 60-minute lurching-slowly-forward car-march.  Jackie, Robin, and I arrived at the start with about 10 minutes to spare, which is just the right amount of time to get to the starting line with your shoelaces fully tied, but not so much time that you pace idly back and forth and waste precious running energy.  It's even enough time to go back to the car, get your phone, and bring it back to your start/finish drop bag, as I learned by doing exactly that, re-arriving at the starting line about two minutes before the start, and using most of that time to weave through the 600-person crowd to the front of the pack, where I presumed optimistically that I would finish.

The countdown to the start happened, and we were off, at a leisurely pace for maybe the first quarter-mile, before, inevitably, people started sprinting ahead.  I was not at all surprised or shaken by this.  I said repeatedly, to various people in the weeks prior to the race, that my goal was to run the first 20-mile loop no faster than 2 hours, 50 minutes, and do the best I could from there, and that if I stuck to that plan, there would probably be about 40 people ahead of me at the end of my first loop.  That's how competitive races with a lot of whatever-you-want-to-call-it on the line work.  I didn't keep exact tabs on all of these numbers, but that's about what it felt like.

For my part, the first loop felt easy and comfortable.  The course was in great shape, with only a few random mud puddles here and there, all easily avoidable.  Of course, the roots were out in force, as they were on my last go-around with this race, but I was having no trouble picking up my feet and picking past them.  Some minor aches and pains settled out in the first half an hour, and I found myself enjoying the relative warmth.  After a month of running in temperatures in the teens every day, weather in the high 60s feels like a tropical paradise.  And not entirely in a good way, as it also had me drinking 20 ounces of water every half-hour, in my non-heat-acclimated state.  But overall, after a first pass, the course seemed easier than I had remembered it.  I even found myself socializing with other runners during the race (as it turned out, the woman who would go on to finish in second place), which I don't often do in these sorts of races.  And, with a split of about 2:55, I had more or less achieved my first-loop goal.

The second loop was more of the same.  Now we were entirely in daylight, so I could see better the parts of the course that I had run in the dark on the first loop, which added some variety to an otherwise monotonous task.  The eventual second-place woman, Kaci Lickteig, passed me on this loop (handing me a gel that had fallen out of my pocket as she passed, which was nice of her), and I passed a couple of others that were ahead of me, including Neal Gorman, who was walking at the time, but would go on to make a very strong comeback.  With an extra bathroom stop (the most interesting one, and perhaps the most interesting thing that happened on this loop, being the one where I went off the side of the trail to pee in the woods, and who should pass, but none other than Connie Gardner), and a few more walk breaks, I finished this loop in about 3:10, still feeling okay.

In the third loop, the wheels came off a bit.  Just outside of the Dam Road Aid Station (colloquially, the "Dam Nation Aid Station," due to its being the beginning and end of a six-plus-mile loop, the longest unaided section of the course), I waved to a couple of runners who were coming back, took my eyes off of the ground, and caught my toe on a root.  I sprawled forward, fortunately onto soft pine needles, so there was no real damage done.  But, having hit the deck, I was a bit shaken, and so, a couple of miles later, when I went to try to swallow something, I choked on it, and immediately had a violent vomit reflex.  Although I didn't actually vomit, my body wanted to, and it took some standing still, followed by some slow walking, to bring me back to "comfortable" (in a relative sense, considering that I was some 7-plus hours and nearly 50 miles into the race).  As a result of that episode, I stopped eating for a bit, and soon found myself dizzy and low on calories.  Fortunately, I was carrying a few gels, so I pounded those, then headed quickly, yet conservatively, to the next aid station, where high-glycemic-junk-foods of every variety awaited me.  While it was an ugly, slightly slow patch, it was far from the typical "bad patch" that people talk about in these races, and probably cost me only about 10-15 minutes, as my overall lap split of 3:25 suggested.

No major mishaps on the fourth loop, as night began to fall and people began to turn from runners into zombie-walkers.  I continued at a steady pace for the most part, taking walk breaks only when I felt that they were absolutely necessary, and continued my trend of not being passed by anybody, but not making what I believed to be any major passes, either.  It's worth pointing out that in a loop course that doubles back on itself in several places, it's hard to tell when you're passing people as opposed to lapping them.  So I could have been legitimately passing lots of people, but unless they were people that I could recognize under headlamp light, there was no way for me to know.  And, in a way, it didn't matter to me.  By this time, I was fairly "locked in," making steady progress, enjoying the race, and not really stressing too much about anything.  I turned in another 3:25 lap, and felt no dread at heading out for one more lap.

In the final loop, things got tougher, in a relative sense.  Given the general trend of my laps getting slightly slower each time, I anticipated more effort to counteract the natural slowing effect, which I needed to counteract to the maximum extent possible if I were to run a mid-16-hour race, as my prior lap times had now positioned me to run.  I can't say that the last lap hurt any more than the prior laps.  But it definitely required more focus than the previous laps.  As far as I could tell, I was in no-man's-land, with nobody close to passing me, or nobody close to me to pass, and the best I could do was to continue doing what I had been doing.  I ran the final lap entirely in the dark, which slows progress somewhat, as a headlamp can only illuminate things so much.  In spite of some slower first segments, and nearly running headlong into Jason Lantz as he was coming out of the Dam Road/Dam Nation loop for the final time, and I was going in, I managed to hold it together, especially in the final segment of the last lap.  About a mile from the finish, I was running up behind two runners who were walking abreast, and I said "excuse me," but they must not have realized how quickly I was coming up on them, and were slow to move out of the way.  To avoid running headlong into them, I half-stepped, and caught my toe on a root, falling one last time before the finish.  Again, as a fall into soft pine needles, very little damage happened, beyond a dirty arm and a slightly skinned knee.

If anything, the last fall gave me a little adrenaline boost that I may well have needed to finish as I did.  Near the beginning of the last loop, I had contemplated walking it in at the very end, not because I expected that couldn't run, but because I felt as though I had given everything that I had, and done as much as I could have reasonably done that day, and that a finishing sprint would serve no purpose.  But with the adrenaline surge still fresh, and the finish line so close, I started pushing a little bit, and managed an impressive finishing kick, which maybe a half a dozen people who could find the live finish line webcam and were watching it at nearly midnight (Eastern Time) may have seen.  Slightly more importantly, I edged out the 12th overall/10th male/7th USATF finisher, TJ Dunham (who I later found out that Jackie had been repeatedly mistaking for me in the dark, saying hello and being puzzled by why she never got a response) by less than a minute, having no idea that he was behind me the whole time.  (You know, for whatever that's worth.)  I also edged out the 3rd place female finisher, Shaheen Sattar, who had apparently been chasing me for the better part of the race, unbeknownst to me.  (You know, for whatever THAT'S worth.)  If nothing else, maybe I learned my lesson after the near edge-out at the finish of the NCR Trail Marathon this past October . . . all the way through to the line, all the time.

Not knowing any of that at the time, I raised my hands in triumph at the finish line anyway, and happily accepted the super-awesome re-designed Sub-24-Hour Finisher belt buckle and USATF medal for 6th Place Male, Open Division.  Then I congratulated all of the near-finishers to me, in their various states of disarray (Nicole Studer, the female winner, being the sweetest, and in the least disarray), and proceeded to spend several hours by the heater, lounging in a Texas-flag-themed camp chair, nursing a cup of mashed potatoes, and eventually nodding off to sleep.

I spent most of the time between my finish and Robin's and Jackie's finishes (just under 28 hours, and just over 29 hours, respectively) in the finish area tent, picking at the aid station food, helping out distressed runners where I could (turns out that chafing is EVERYBODY'S problem, and that the extra Butt Paste that I had brought along is decidedly the answer), and generally enjoying being outdoors (although never too far from the heater for too long, as I was having trouble maintaining my core temperature in the 50-degree, off-and-on rainy weather).

And now we come to the moral of the story, if there is one.  At the time, during the race, I felt as though I was giving everything that I had, and that I couldn't possibly have gone any faster.  After the race, I reasoned that my near-vomit escapade on the third lap cost me up to 15 minutes in time, but would have made no difference in finishing place, and was probably incidental to the experience.  But once again, considering just how broken every other finisher near or ahead of me seemed to be, and how functional I am as I type this, I wonder if I had more, and just wasn't able to access it, for whatever reason.

But regardless of what I had or didn't have left in the tank, what is clear to me is that this is the second-fastest 100-mile race that I've ever run, and through smart training, planning, and, most of all, working with my body and with life circumstances in general, I managed to maximize not only my performance on race day, but, more importantly, my life experience as a whole relative to this race.  The biggest accomplishment here is not my finishing time, but the way that I got there - through continued focus and resilience, while allowing things that could have been distractions or detriments to instead compliment or contribute to the experience.

I'll stop with that line of commentary here, as it's pretty much impossible to talk about this sort of thing without drifting off into various platitudes that soon start meaning nothing to people that haven't already had the experience, and therefore don't really need to hear them in the first place.  Let it suffice to say that for once, I truly feel the weight and value of all of those over-worn, home-spun sayings about patience, persistence, and commitment to excellence.  I'm sure that there are plenty more life experiences on the way that will one day make what I believe today to be a deep understanding of all of this seem relatively shallow, but for now, I consider this a major milestone not only in race performance, but in overall maturity in that other silly game that we're all playing, called "life."

And so, after an ambiguous past few months, it is once again clear to me that I'm on the right track, I'm doing things the right way, and that, regardless of what the deal was that day, there's more in the tank for the future, and many more good things on the way.

That, and I STILL haven't seen a single gosh-darn raccoon, rocky or otherwise, on that course.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Race Report: 24 The Hard Way (2013 USATF 24-Hour National Championship)

First, let me make one thing clear: running as many miles as possible in 24 hours, on the same loop, over and over again, is its own special type of hell. If you're looking for a "good time," look elsewhere. The race ends only when either the clock stops, or you give up. Until that point, your reward for completing a mile is . . . the chance to complete another mile. Your reward for fatigue and pain is . . . more fatigue and pain. 

So why, on earth, you may ask, would I want to do this? Well, I've been pretty quiet about running this race, because for me, this was a very personal endeavor. Here's why:

My introduction to ultrarunning was a 24-hour race (Around the Lake in Somerville, MA in 2007), and I was instantly and irrepressibly fascinated by what could be possible under such unusual rules. How many miles could somebody run in 24 hours? More importantly, how many miles could I run?

Since then, I've run ultras at many other distances, up to and including 135 miles (Badwater), but the 24-hour race always held a special appeal to me. In my mind, it continued to be a pure challenge of human limits, and one that I continued to want to test myself against.

And I did, several times, with mixed results. After a strong second-place, 111-mile performance at the Back on my Feet 24-Hour Race in 2008, under brutal heat and humidity, with virtually no shade, I failed, not once, not twice, but three times at the North Coast 24-Hour Race (the USATF National Championship race in 2010, 2011, and 2012), each time failing to make it more than 70 miles before throwing in the towel, deciding that being rewarded for my pain with more pain was no longer tolerable.

But after Badwater this past summer, and my huge comeback in the last 65 miles, I was soaking in the pool at the Vdara in Las Vegas with Chris, who's been around since I started this crazy ultrarunning thing, and when he asked me what was next, I paused for a minute. I considered the fact that I was pretty healthy and strong for once, and that the 24-hour riddle still felt distinctly unsolved. So then, with little hesitation, I told him, "24 The Hard Way - 2013 USATF 24-Hour National Championship."

So I trained with focus and confidence for the next few months, consistently racking up the miles, pushing the tempo runs, and concentrating on quality recovery. A week away from the race, I still felt a little uncertain about how this was going to go down. I would be flying solo, and with so many prior failures, history was not on my side. But on paper, I was going to show up rested, healthy, strong, and the wiser for my mistakes. Here was my opportunity; time to make the most of it.

I arrived in Oklahoma City and navigated all of the pre-race business with no major hiccups. I even got in some quality time at the Oklahoma City Monument (highly recommended if you've never been - a truly artful, tasteful, and meaningful memorial). 

One thing that I didn't do (and here is where the self-critique starts) is set very specific goals. I had a vague idea in my mind that 120 miles would be decent (at least a PR), 140 miles would be nice (solid total, and 5 miles more than the minimum to make the US 24-Hour National Team), and 160 would be super-awesome (but probably too hard). But I didn't really cement these in my mind, and I didn't hang too much of "success" on their achievement. Really, I just wanted to run respectably for 24 hours, and not drop out early, as was historically the case.

And so, a few minutes before 9 a.m. on Saturday, 25 October 2013, all of the runners gathered on the bridge just outside of the Bluff Creek Park loop, the 0.9675-mile monster that we would all battle for the next 24 hours. Make no mistake about this: while Chisholm is a gracious race director and an excellent host, the course was definitely doing this "the hard way," and not just because of the asphalt surface (traditional for a 24-hour race). With 50+ feet of gain/loss per loop, the elevation change added up to about 5000 feet over 100 miles, which eventually becomes significant. The weather was overcast and in the mid-50s at the start, but it steadily got colder overnight, and, after the afternoon rain, this was not the direction anybody wanted the temperature to take.  All of these conditions put together meant (to me, anyway, and certainly in retrospect) that this was a day to race against the competition, and survive, and not to set records or otherwise be a hero.

But of course, this is a championship race, and none of that stopped anybody from trying. So while I stayed within myself for the first 6 hours, running comfortably and barely pushing, the leaders were surging ahead. I was feeling okay, and getting comfortable with the loop, but I could feel (vaguely, since it is hard to tell where anybody is in a race like this) that I was losing ground. This was disheartening, and was further complicated by the fact that I couldn't quite get the nutrition right. My energy felt a little low, I had to pee too much, I wasn't eating enough, then maybe I was eating too much . . . On and on like that, and even though I kept going, the "comfortable groove" that I was hoping to settle into would never materialize.

All the while, I tried to suppress the negative thoughts. "Jeepers, that first hill feels like a mountain now." "Oh great, somebody else is passing me." "Yuck! Here's that spot that smells like poop again." But when you are forced to submit to the same stupid (albeit tree-lined and generally pleasant) scenery for hours and hours, you lose some mental resolve. It didn't help (alert: more self-criticism) that I hadn't been getting as much sleep as I would have liked in the week prior to the race. Not that I was falling asleep on my feet, but I just didn't have the mental energy to turn that negativity around.

But I kept putting one foot in front of the other, putting on a good show for the crews hanging around the start/finish in their makeshift tent-city, while each time I would cross the line and pass my lonely duffle bag, sitting in the grass on the side of the path, and wish just a little bit that somebody was there to encourage me, hand me fruit snacks, or even just tell me what lap I was on. Eventually, I started feeling bad for my bag, which got rained on, and then the rain froze on the bag overnight. Sometime shortly after that, I considered the possibility that I might have been losing my mind.

For everybody else's part, they were plenty courteous. Aside from one runner being rude to the start/finish folks when there was a lap count issue that affected everybody early on, and another runner who very aggressively requested AN ENTIRE CAN of Red Bull overnight, all of the other runners, including the race director, were encouraging each time that I passed. And that's all well and good, but I've heard all of that before. That brutally unbiased observer, to give me the straight story, wasn't there, and I found my resolve waning and drifting.

And so, struggling with the cold and low energy, at around 9 p.m., about 12 hours into the race, I stopped in the start/finish tent, and stared at the leader board. I was somewhere low on the list, with my 75 miles, and I imagined that everybody else was still going strong and charging hard. Laying down, under blankets and harsh floodlights, against the background hum of the generators, was what I knew how to do, and it seemed as though this would be yet another failed effort.

But I couldn't sleep, and I didn't feel that bad, so I got out there, this time in a jacket and long pants, and resumed running, about 45 minutes later. And just like that, I was back on track, knocking out the laps on the dark, dark path. 

About four hours later, my energy started falling, and with it, my confidence. I wasn't going to be able to keep this up. I stopped again.

And again, 45 minutes later, I was up and running. I marveled that not once, but twice in the same race, I could make such a significant comeback. Better yet, my legs barely felt sore, and my feet were plenty comfortable in my Nike Pegasus 29+ "Team" shoes, in green and white, which I added yellow laces to as a tribute to G-PACT, my Badwater 2013 charity, and the disease which my little sister struggles with. So maybe I could do this.

And then, another four hours passed, and I found myself with no energy, and little will to continue. I had been trying to make six laps an hour, but it was getting difficult, and having fallen off twice already in the same race gave me no confidence in my ability to continue. I had no idea what mile or lap I was on. All I wanted was for the clock to stop and the race to end. I wanted to stop running.

My stomach was shut down. The same water that I had drunk an hour ago was sloshing in my stomach. I grimly contemplated that this must be what gastroparesis feels like, and was darkly amused that I had inadvertently managed to connect to the disease and the charity cause by inducing it in myself. At the same time, I reasoned that people, including my sister, could live (albeit uncomfortably) with it, so I may as well keep on running.

And that I did, pushing through the blinding low points with slow jogging or walking until the lights came on again. I was getting a vague sense that I might be passing people and moving up in the standings. That was encouraging. But I had given up on any mileage goal. I just wanted to keep moving forward, mostly to prove that this beast hadn't won again.

Finally, the last lap came around, they handed me a flag with my number on it, and I had the next six minutes to run as much of the loop as I could before time was called. Part of me wanted to slow down or stop. But a better part of me wanted to prove, one last time, that the 0.9675-mile monster hadn't gotten the better of me. I pushed one last time up the mountain, one last time down the hill, cruised one last time on the never-ending straightaway with the maddening hill near the end, and ran one last time under the Christmas lights, still generator-lit at nearly 9 a.m. Two minutes. Push push. Then, at last, the gun. Relief. Who knows how I finished. Who cares. I could finally stop running that loop.

I trudged unceremoniously to the finish area with another runner, chattering about the race as if it hadn't been pure torture that had just ended a few minutes ago. 

And then, when I reached the finish line, and saw the results, I experienced an appropriate mix of elation and disappointment. My last surge had impossibly propelled me to third place overall, just seven miles behind the winner, and a mile ahead of Connie Gardner, of 2010 North Coast "why did you stop?" fame. But alongside that was the disappointment that I had made "only" 133 miles, narrowly missing the 135 minimum mark needed for US National 24-Hour Team consideration. 

But joy won out, and I thanked the race director copiously, before I sauntered over to my duffle bag to lug it, by myself, to my rental car, where I would go on to change my clothes, sleep in the back seat of, drive to an Indian buffet where I would eventually stop eating due not to being full, but fatigue, sleep some more, repack my stuff, and ultimately drive to the airport to catch a flight to Detroit for a work trip. Cage the Elephant was generally right:  "there ain't no rest."

Overall, a few days later, I have mixed feelings about this race. On the one hand, this is almost the most miles that I've run at one time, and certainly the fastest that I've ever run a distance this long. But my legs aren't trashed at all. This may be the first time after an ultra when I was back to normal running the next day. So I left something on the table. And with that "something" being 90 minutes of stoppage time, it's hard not to think that what I left on the table might have been the win, and the auto-qualifying spot on the US National 24-Hour Team.

But ultimately, I accomplished my basic goal - to legitimately push my limits in a 24-hour race. I survived, and, in spite of some errors, turned in a pretty solid result. 

And going forward from here, I feel even more optimistic about the future. The good thing about leaving something on the table is that you know that there's more out there, and greater potential to reach. Based on this performance, I am now more confident that, if not this year, some year soon, I will be toeing the line at the 24-Hour World Championship Race, proudly wearing "USA" across my chest. 

And beyond that, who knows. But there has to be something, and that's still a huge part of the appeal. 

So on this, my birthday, and the start of a new year in my life, I'm excited about the road ahead - especially since, health and powers above willing, I will be running it.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Race Report - Lehigh Valley Marathon

You know what they say - sixth time's the charm.  Well, okay, nobody really says that, but apparently that was the deal.  After five failed attempts to run a sub-3:05 marathon after September 2013 and qualify for Boston 2014 (Baltimore 2012, NCR 2012, George Washington's Birthday 2013, Rock N Roll USA 2013, and New Jersey 2013, to be specific), the Lehigh Valley Marathon was my last chance before Boston 2014 registration opened.

So I took, in a relative sense, no chances.  After Badwater, I had two weeks of 50-ish miles, then stepped it up in the following four weeks to run 85, 85, 71, and 85 miles.  Long tempo runs on Wednesdays, short, fast intervals on Fridays.  Doubles most days, longer singles on the weekend (up to 2.5 hours on my feet at a time).  You know, all of the fundamentals that need to be part of a program to run faster at a long distance. 

I was pretty fortunate that after Badwater this year, I didn't suffer a total meltdown, and was able to put in that sort of volume without forcing it or suffering too badly.  (Of course, if I really had to force it, or suffer a lot, this whole thing wouldn't have worked, anyway.)  I was also fortunate that the vast majority of this training was enjoyable, and that I didn't have to drag myself out the door too many days (even at 6 a.m.).

So given all of that, even though I made the slightly risky decision to "train through" this marathon, in anticipation of bigger events ahead (more about that later), I was pretty confident that even coming in on 58 miles in the six days before the marathon, I would still meet my goal.  And if not, well, I'd failed so many times in the past year that I could deal with it.

The lead-in to the race itself, minus the pre-race parking fiasco (maybe somebody should have thought more seriously about doubling the number of runners, to over 2000, as opposed to less than 1000 in previous years), was pretty hassle-free.  Packet pickup thankfully did not involve a forced scavenger hunt through the expo to pick up all of the piece-parts of the requisite swag bag.  There were plenty of low-priced accomodations in the near vicinity of the start of the race.  The number of runners was reasonable for the layout of the course, and there was no fight to secure a decent position in the starting corrals.  After a round of the National Anthem, and a round of "Face Down" by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, off we went.

Within the first couple of miles, I was questioning my plan not to significantly taper leading up to this race.  In my experience, tapering can fail in both the "too much" and "not enough" modes.  Either you taper too much off of too little volume, or taper not enough off of too much volume, and either way, you feel "flat" to miserable during the race. 

The good news was that I wasn't feeling miserable.  But the bad news was that I was feeling "flat." I was moving up in the pack by virtue of being aggressive on the early downhills, but otherwise, I was just sort of plugging along.  It felt like the average daily training run, except that my legs were moving slightly uncomfortably fast.  Still, as long as I wasn't losing ground or slowing down too much, I reasoned that I could at least hang on.

For about the first six miles, nothing too eventful happened.  Then we reached the gravel trail, which would be the majority of the rest of the race.  Some runners love this kind of surface.  But speaking from strictly a "speed" perspective, it's not as fast as pavement, and I could feel myself dropping back at the same effort level.  This was a little bit disheartening, but at least it was shady and there was a good view of the river. 

I reached the 12-ish mile relay exchange point at 1:21 and some-odd seconds, which, by my math, put me at just under 3-hour pace.  This was the first time I had gotten any feedback on my pace, since I decided not to wear a watch.  (Again, this is a strategy that can fail both ways - you can wear a watch and then be enslaved to it, not listen to your body, and push yourself to early failure, or you can not wear a watch, listen to your body, and drift off pace until you're too far behind your goal pace to catch up.)  I wasn't feeling a lot better at this point, but I wasn't feeling a lot worse than I did at the start.  So, more or less, all was well.

The race continued, mostly on gravel trails, with a few short paved sections, and only gradual hills here and there.  As I pushed past 17 miles, I started catching some of the people who had gone out way too fast and were now paying for it.  Eventually, I reached the 23-ish mile clock point (seriously, would it hurt to put the clocks in locations with clearly marked distances?) at 2:36 and some seconds.  This left me with only about 5 minutes to spare under 3:05 if I didn't push all the way through to the finish, so I carefully stepped on the figurative gas for the last three-plus miles of the race and hoped that nothing would break.

As I rounded the final turn towards the seemingly interminable straightaway to the finish (they always seem that way, don't they?), I heard a man shouting "3 minutes!" Not wearing a watch, and not wanting to ask "3 minutes until what?"  I assumed that he meant 3 minutes until 3:05, and broke into a wobbly-legged kick (yeah, definitely not tapered enough).  I started thinking that maybe not wearing a watch was a mistake, and that just passing people a lot in the second half of the race wasn't a good enough indicator of my pace.  The idea that I had maybe screwed this up one more time was not very appealing to me, but it was at war with a strong compulsion to just keel over right there, as there was not enough gas in the tank for much more push at the speed that I was pushing.  As I got closer to the finish line, I realized that he had meant 3 minutes until the 3-hour mark, as the "2" in the front of the clock time came into focus.

But before this revelation could result in any sort of relief, I ran past the finish line, staggered forward, took my medal, walked about 50 feet, and collapsed in the grass for about 10 minutes.  Finally, I had done it.  But there was no catharsis.  I just felt numb.  (Emotionally, that is, although feelings of numbness were coursing through my extremities.)

It wasn't until after I had gone to the bathroom, grazed the post-race food and drink, and was sitting on a rock near the finish line, about half an hour later, watching the river rush in front of me, that I felt anything at all. 

I felt thankful, not for the race result so much as the process that had gotten me there.  The repeated failures, the struggle back to health, and finally feeling as though I could run again without being in constant pain or misery . . . the race result was really the culmination of all of this.  It felt good to be back to a place where I had been before, but with a new, wiser perspective on it.  And I felt thankful for everybody and everything that made this possible, all at once.

Looking ahead, I'm feeling confident that I can train through this race, pace 3:05 at the Baltimore Marathon next month, and then put in at least a PR effort at 24 The Hard Way at the end of October.  The 24-hour race was my unofficial introduction into ultrarunning, and, since then, a good effort at a 24-hour race has repeated evaded me.  But now I think I'm in a place where I'm ready to get closer to my potential in this event, and I'm excited to see where the next two months of training take me.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Badwater 2013: Spirit Walker

It's happened every year, at least to some degree. But this year, it was the worst. As I crossed over to the right side of the road, to retreat to the relative cool of the crew van, just 18 miles into my 2013 135-mile Badwater run, the first and foremost thought in my mind was: How on earth am I going to finish this race?

Not that this was entirely surprising. After 2012's Badwater left me so physically spent, it was hard to imagine coming back to Badwater in 2013, especially considering how poorly I was running in February. But I had made a promise to my little sister to run Badwater in 2013 for G-PACT, and that, above all other reasons, was why I came back to Badwater 2013. Although I trained well, got much healthier, and improved my fitness greatly in the months that followed, my race results had been a mixed bag. There was really no way for me to be confident about a strong performance, and as race day got closer, this anxiety intensified.

On the logistics side of things, though, things came together without incident. With Chris and Shannon crewing again this year, and Meredith, a veteran of Badwater as both runner (most recently, last year's last-place Badwater finisher) and crew member, replacing Jackie (who is attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning this summer, which conflicts with Badwater), the assortment of gear and goods needed to run this race came together quickly, even affording us time to visit the Hoover Dam before the race. (I've wanted to visit for the past three years, but somehow, preparations always seem to take longer than expected.)

Since you've seen plenty of Death Valley pictures on my Facebook page and on my blog, here's something different: a nifty picture near the Hoover Dam. 

Race morning came, and although my own preparations were quick and efficient, loading the crew van was not. Being stuck behind slow-moving tourists who were yielding to runners from the earlier waves meant that we made it to the start with just 10 minutes to spare, missing the group photo, but in time for the national anthem, for which I wore a pair of pink-and-blue wayfarer-style glasses, with giant kisses on each lens, in the interest of being one step ahead of the trend - this year, the "Badwater Store" was selling these glasses, the kind that my entire crew wore in 2012, and Chris Kostman himself was sporting a pair, of white (our team's color) no less. 

(This year, our team's name was "The Spirit Walkers," at Shannon's suggestion, after the relatively obscure, vaguely obnoxious, oddly infectious Ween song, which pretty much sums up our approach to this event: Hence, the feathers pinned to my cap and my wristwatch, although I think this will not be as trend-setting as the sunglasses.)

After the group countdown, we were off, and for a few minutes, I thought that, in consideration of what was expected to be extreme heat this year, even for Badwater, we would all run conservatively. But of course, about ten minutes in, this all went out the window as people started going off the front, stringing out the starters. I did my best to keep things under control as the heat rose, but I found myself passing the Furnace Creek time station just 10 minutes slower than my split last year, under much hotter conditions. I didn't feel too bad, so I reasoned that things would all sort themselves out . . . 

Which they did, in a less-than-desirable way. Shannon hopped out to start pacing me (pacing is allowed from the 17-mile mark at Furnace Creek to the finish), and I responded by immediately going into heat-exertion induced dry heaves. Of course, I'd been here before, as recently as last year at Badwater, but this I couldn't shake. I moved forward more slowly, but after another mile or so, I had to temporarily throw in the towel and head over to the crew van to cool down. After 15 minutes or so in the van, I went back after it, but it wasn't more than another mile before I was back in the crew van, packed with ice, hoping to feel better. The fact that Dean Karnazes had already "staked out" (gone off the course temporarily to seek assistance, medical or otherwise) was at least some reassurance that everybody was suffering.

By 3 pm, and about an hour of time-out in the van, I was back on the road to Stovepipe Wells, moving at a more controlled pace. I told my crew that hopefully now, the worst of this was over, and it would be relatively smooth sailing to the finish. 

Of course, this turned into a falsehood, as the temperature continued to rise above 120 degrees, with a hairdryer-hot crosswind making it feel even worse. Even with ice in my bandana and my hat, the heat cut right through this, and my pace slowed further as I neared Stovepipe Wells, the 42-mile mark. I reached the time station about an hour and a half slower than my 2012 split, feeling far, far worse. 

Still, I was not alone in my misery - Shannon Farar-Griefer and her gingham-dress-clad entourage were lingering there, and rumor from my crew was that Oz had blown up there as well. So I took about half an hour to eat an ice pop and try to cool down in the van before I continued. Townes Pass, with its 5000 feet of climb over 17 miles, is no joke, and I wanted to do everything in my power not to break down on the climb.

But sure enough, the blasting headwind and the continued heat meant that I continued to struggle. Just a few miles past the Stovepipe Wells time station, I got back in the van again, for another 15 minutes or so, wanting desperately to quit (although never saying it out loud, which, by Meredith's logic, doesn't count). My crew urged me back out there, but after another 15-20 minutes of trudging misery, I returned to the van. Shannon was clearly climbing stronger than I was, and I was feeling worse by the minute. Thoughts of not finishing the race and disappointing everybody who had supported me were getting louder in my mind.

So, as a last resort, similar to what I did in 2011, and with Shannon's blessing, I lay silent, by myself, in the dark crew van, for an hour. I didn't really sleep, but an hour of collecting myself made a huge difference. I returned to the course, Rhapsody-enabled iPhone in hand, and blasted Attack Attack while I, well, attacked the climb. I started moving more comfortably, as Shannon, Meredith, and even Chris took turns pacing me up the climb. I passed Shannon Farar-Griefer and her crew apparently having some sort of picnic behind their van on the side of the mountain, which made me feel even better about my progress (they laughed at our water gun system of cooling, so it all worked out for everybody).

When I finally reached the top, it was "business time," and I gained some momentum on the downhill. I could see the line of blinking crew vehicle lights ahead of me in the valley. We were now in a sort of no-man's-land, as all of my early stops had separated us from the rest of the race. But I was running a good downhill pace, and slowly but surely, I was gaining on the runners in front of me.  Meredith paced me in to Panamint, where I tried to use the restroom, but discovered that it was occupied. In the interest of never spending more time at Panamint than necessary (see previous years there), I just left. Walking away from Panamint quickly is always at least a minor victory.

It was now 5 am, which put me at about 4.5 hours slower than my 2012 split, mostly due to stoppage time, as opposed to running slower. So I knew that I had the legs to do this, if I could just hold it together for the next 63 miles. With the sunrise, I perked up a bit, and made brisk progress up the climb to the Father Crowley overlook. I was chatty with both Meredith and Shannon as they alternated pacing me, and feeling better about how this was going. 

Sure enough, in four hours, I had covered the tough 18 miles from Panamint to Darwin, the mile 90 time station, where Meredith welcomed me with a little "Darwin dance." And sure enough, I was passing plenty of people, which was a mental boost, even if some of them (like Tammy, who was fascinated by the fact that she was "ahead" of me, even though she had a 4-hour head start) were in earlier starting waves. (In Tammy's case, she tried to get her pacer to take a picture of her ahead of me, but by the time the pacer got the camera set up, I had already passed her for good.)

Holy cow, I'm running Badwater! (From more or less this section of the race; I just like this picture.)

From Darwin to Lone Pine, a 32-mile stretch, the course becomes more runnable, and, channeling some of last year, that's what I did. In spite of a 15-minute nap break, because I was falling asleep on my feet, I covered this section in 6 hours, getting stronger and stronger as I got closer to Lone Pine, fueled by Kaskade, Ke$ha, and New Order blasting on my headphones. My crew and I had finally hit on a sustainable strategy of water, soda, spraying, and ice bandanas, and everything was clicking. The crowning achievement was passing David Goggins about a mile away from the turn to Lone Pine, at a 7-minute mile pace. Who knew what place I was in at this point, but the surprised, "who the hell is THIS guy?" looks that I was getting from those in front of me, zombie-marching while I approached at a full-on run, told me that some people were going to be very surprised that I was hot on their heels . . .

At this point in the race, this was pretty much everybody's view of me.

Shannon and I blasted through Lone Pine, hollering, screaming, and fist-bumping with the sheer joy that comes with running that fast after having covered 122 miles on foot, and we jay-ran across the street (albeit inside the crosswalk) to Portal Road, where Jimmy Dean Freeman, who I chased in my first epic climb up Mount Whitney, and who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, encouraged me to "climb like you're chasing me!" I told my crew that this would not be a wobbly-legged climb this year, as it was last year, and I proceeded to put on a climbing clinic, power-hiking up the hill, head forward and headphones still blasting. I didn't speak much, lest I lose focus on the task, which was not only to power up the climb as fast as possible, but also to make sure that I didn't crap out at some point, so that, as I had promised, Meredith would get to see Mount Whitney in the daylight. (As a "slow" finisher, she always ends up climbing Mount Whitney at night, and was excited by the prospect of seeing it in the daylight.)

And then, somehow, almost impossibly, for the second year in a row, after over 100 miles of running, I had passed Dean Karnazes.  I couldn't believe how I had done it.  To this day, I'll still never understand how it happened.  But I did it!

As is the case in this part of the race, the air gets cooler and the climb gets more comfortable near the top, in contrast to the 109-degree heat near the bottom. So I sped up closer to the top, not really sure what my split was shaping up to be, but having a vague sense that I might be on track for a PR. I was pushing the edge at this point, low on calories but not wanting to eat and upset my stomach. I was feeling woozy with a little over a mile to go, but two well-timed bags of chilled fruit snacks later, I was feeling strong again, and powered through to the finish. My crew and I ran through the tape together, finishing in 32 hours, 7 minutes, and 51 seconds - a 3 hour, 12 minute split to Whitney Portal, slightly faster than my 2011 march. And of course, Jimmy Dean Freeman was there to share in my success, and offer me handfuls of peanut-heavy trail mix. Another victory. 


We got down the mountain as quickly as we could, in our starved, sleep-deprived state (those post-race hamburgers at Whitney Portal really hit the spot), and headed for sweet sleep at the Whitney Portal Hostel. Sweet, sweet sleep.

I finished 3.5 hours slower than last year, and 8 places lower, but ultimately, I think that I ran a smarter, better race. Last year, I had the benefit of "mild" weather, a tailwind, and plain old luck. This year, many more things were stacked against me, from my long recovery to health to the extra-hot weather. I had my share of low points and then some, but I worked through them well, and ultimately ran the last 63 miles of the race, from Panamint Springs to the finish, in 13 hours - an hour faster than my best for this section, including a new PR on the climb to Whitney Portal, and, overall, about the same as the top finishers' splits on this section of the course. So, in a way, this year's Badwater was a lot like this year's buildup to Badwater - fumbling and frustrating in the early going, but eventually smoothing out, and going on to exceed expectations. 

I am deeply thankful to all of those who supported me and my efforts this year, and the years prior - family, friends, crew, donors to G-PACT, and I'm not going to list any more right now because I'll surely miss people. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, you all are the reason why I ran Badwater this year, and you all are the reason why I kept fighting to turn the race around and finish strong. And thanks to all of you, fingers crossed, I'll be back again next year, for my fifth consecutive Badwater, with the goal of making it the best yet.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


. . . Before the race has even started, I've met at least one goal; as of today, $2000 total raised for GPACT.  So of course I'm raising the bar - the new, lofty goal is $4000.  Because, hey, why not?  And, as I did last year, I'll write whatever you want, in whatever color marker you want, on some article of clothing that I wear during the race.  If you haven't told me what you want written yet, let me know soon.

In other news, I thought that there would be more levity here in this blog since the last post, but there hasn't been.  Not in a bad way, exactly.  It's just been work, work, work, and then work some more to put the finishing touches on the best possible training and preparation that I could muster for this race, considering the deeply compromised state that I was in back when this journey started in February. 

All things considered, it's been a solid effort.  I've averaged 82-ish miles per week for the past four months, and 93-ish miles per week for the past month.  Last week (30 June - 6 July), I ran my first honest-to-goodness 100-mile week (i.e. without a ridiculous race to prop up the mileage) since - get this - the last week of January 2012.  And that was a week that, like each of the preceding weeks, included a quality long-hill day.  (Most weeks included a hill day and a tempo day, but considering the magnitude of last week's hill workout, and its proximity in time to the race, I'm okay with just a hill day for last week). 

Typical minor dings, scrapes, and bruises aside, I feel no worse for wear.  Obviously, a one-week taper is a bit of a gamble, but considering the relatively short length of my mileage build (about half of how long I had to build last year), I'm guessing that I have a little less damage to repair.  In any event, random unfortunate events aside, I'll most likely be lining up on Monday much healthier than I was last year.

But that's all the numbers and technical stuff.  What has me the most excited about this race is the level of mental focus that I have going in, which has steadily increased since the TARC 100 fiasco.  My training in the weeks following TARC has been some of the most consistent, joyful running that I've done in a long time.  Especially in the past couple of weeks, there hasn't been a question in my mind about whether or not I was going to do the workout that day.  The workout was going to happen, and it was going to happen according to the plan, and physically, I was responding.  And there's a quiet joy in the rhythm of that kind of consistency in training - the joy that comes from the slow, steady progress towards a desired state of fitness.

And there's also the more visceral joy in the process.  The sweat pouring down as I clip along at a measured pace under a blazing-hot afternoon sun, in 100+ degree humid Baltimore City heat.  The smile that I can't suppress as I fly down a steep hill at breakneck pace, the scenery blurring in my peripheral vision.  And the sublime relief that comes at the end of a long, hot run from downing a huge glass of ice water and flopping on my back on the cold-floor, with the stereo blasting Kaskade.  The process feels good again, and has felt particularly good lately.  And that means something.

But make no mistake about it - by and large, Badwater this year is not about me.  While it's certainly encouraging and exciting to feel this level of joy in running again, I don't need to go all the way to Death Valley in the middle of July to feel it. 

But I do need to go all the way to Death Valley in the middle of July for a lot of other people - the folks at GPACT, my little sister, all the people who donated to support GPACT, all the people that I've trained with in preparation for this event, and all the people that have otherwise sponsored, supported, or encouraged me to get back out there, for whatever reason.  All of you are the reason why I need to go back to Death Valley, and all of you will be the reason why I will be able to endure the inevitable pain and suffering in the 135 miles between the Badwater Basin and Whitney Portal.

So that's all for this blog until after the race.  Stay tuned to the rest of the internet (Facebook, the Badwater webpage, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, whatever) for updates in the meantime.  And thanks to all of you for getting me to that starting line - you'll get nothing less than my best effort between there and the finish tape.