Monday, April 2, 2012

Week in Review: 25-31 March, and Umstead 100 Epic Fail Report

Getting the numbers out of the way:

25 March: 15 miles, half with Jesper (see previous blog post - 120 minutes)

26 March: 7 miles at APG, some faster parts in there (down to 6:30-ish/mile - 50 minutes total)

27 March: 1 easy mile (10 minutes) - sick

28 March: 1 easy mile (10 minutes) - sick sick

29 March: 1 easy mile (10 minutes) - sick sick sick

30 March: 3 unintentional miles (30 minutes), searching for my misplaced car (which ended up getting towed right before my eyes)

31 March: 83 miles (1080 minutes), or, in more human-readable form, the first 83 miles of the Umstead 100, in 18 hours

Total time: 1310 minutes
Total distance: 111 miles

And now, what you really came here for: the race report.

My Umstead 100 failure is, even a day later, still a difficult thing to pick apart, let alone digest (especially with the knives-of-fire feeling in my stomach continuing as I type this), but, since "I always try my best" has become my mantra lately, here goes:

Coming into this race, I was not exactly feeling my best. In addition to being sick for most of the week leading up to the race (which, due to a hectic schedule at work, was improving on a very slow timeline - one day of complete rest would have totally knocked it out; instead, I had to settle for 3+ days of gradual recovery), the morning of the race, my car was towed (story for another day), and I had to get it back from the impound lot before I could even begin my drive down there.

Still, I suppose it could have been worse. As recently as Thursday night before the race, I couldn't take a full breath without chest pain, so it was a relief on Friday to finally be able to breathe fully for the first time in a week. And Serge Arbona, an ultrarunner from the Baltimore area who has won Umstead a few times, had his car break down on him on the drive down - fortunately, not too far from the race, so Mark, Johnny, and Katie were able to drive out and pick him up (and Johnny was going back to Baltimore after the race, so Serge had a ride home), but the car wasn't coming with him.

So with a "nothing is perfect, so let's just work with what I have and see what happens" attitude, I arrived at the (entirely too-long) pre-race briefing on Friday, and totally unintentionally, found myself sitting underneath the poster listing the top times on the 100-mile course (no pressure). After the briefing, I found Mark Manz (who I was staying with, whose recent training mileage and race performances have been pretty much flawless, at increasing distances, and who lives just a few miles away from the course, and trains on it all the time - again, no pressure) and company, and it was off to dinner, Target, and bed, perhaps wasting a little too much time (but having a lot of fun) in the process.

I slept pretty well on the floor in Mark's apartment (Serge apparently slept on a board in the woods, much to Christian's chagrin, so I think that sleeping in hard, uncomfortable places is pretty much as critical to being a champion ultrarunner as eating pizza and Nutella), and woke up without too much foot-dragging at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, with everybody else. Maybe I woke up more easily than usual because I was vaguely excited about what I was about to do.

I don't think I ate much of a breakfast, but I also didn't feel very hungry. Not having to drive to the race was a luxury (Johnny did the honors). We got there in plenty of time, and baffling ordeal in the start/finish lodge aside (we were told to "just set your drop bags anywhere near the back of the room," a direction which would later become problematic), it was a very comfortable way to begin an experience that would become very uncomfortable . . .


<3 . . . minutes before the start of the race. (not an S&M club, as somebody later suggested)

The Umstead 100 is 8 laps, 12.5 miles per lap, on a "crushed gravel" surface, which is so packed down at this point that it's basically a road (think NCR Trail with hills, for Baltimore people). The gain/loss is 1000 feet per loop, or 8000 feet total, so while it's not flat, it's not unmanageable, either, as none of the gain or loss is steep enough to truly force a walk. So this is basically a very fast course, and it was my hope that I could at least run sub-16-hours here and set a new 100-mile PR.

And then here's what happened, lap-by-lap:

Lap 1: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Just a little bit fast, due to the typical "everybody goes out fast in a race, no matter what distance the race is" energy. But after Mike Morton decided to go way ahead of everybody and run 6:30/mile, I decided that it was stupid to chase that, settled in, and soon, I was consistently hitting 8 minutes per mile, right on target, even with the hills. Since I was running shirtless, the light rain kept me cool and comfortable, and the pace felt manageable. Some stomach pain was creeping in, but nothing to be terribly alarmed about (or so I thought).

Lap 2: 1 hour, 40 minutes. The most uneventful lap. Now really locked in on my pace (considering that 1 hour, 40 minutes per lap equates to a 13:20 finishing time), I was, at least temporarily, enjoying this rolling run through what turned out to be, now that daylight was in full (albeit cloudy) effect, a really pretty park. The hills were actually a welcome break, as they allowed me to switch up the pace a bit, and also helped to mentally break up the course into smaller sections. In spite of my solid lap, people who were insistent on going out stupid-fast were actually gaining on me and passing me. This was a little bit demoralizing, but considering the kind of pace I was on, I was content to just let this go, even when one runner commented about how fast Morton went out, and how nobody was going to catch him. (I responded that if Morton can run 6:30/pace for 100 miles, more power to him, but I doubt that he can, and it doesn't matter anyway, because his race has nothing to do with what we're doing here.) I was also trying to be content to let my stomach pain go, but this would prove to be a mistake . . .

Lap 3: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Here was where things started to go wrong. No longer able to ignore my mounting stomach problems (which I suspect were a result of the cold not having entirely cleared my system - I have a history of sinus residue causing my stomach to be very upset), I stopped for a bathroom break twice on this loop, costing me about 10 minutes (and Mark passed me during my first bathroom stop, just past mile 3 of this loop - another mental blow). The other 10 minutes off-pace was due to deliberate slowing to try to contain my stomach problems. Unfortunately, the problems were also getting to my legs, and I was starting to get those involuntary twitches - the ones you get when you're behind on fluids/electrolytes. Between being sick, and the continuing light rain keeping everything cool, I had apparently been losing water and salts more quickly than I thought, or than what would be typical for me under these conditions. Now the best I could do was try to drink more, take more electrolyte tablets, and hope that they would absorb in time to bring things back to where they were at the beginning of the race, when everything felt better . . . But things were clearly trending in the wrong direction. Even sort of randomly seeing Sniper and Jon at the start/finish probably wouldn't be enough to fix this . . .

Lap 4: 2 hours, 32 minutes. And, now the wheels fall off the cart. Full-on "knives-of-fire" feeling in my stomach with even the slightest exertion (random, stabbing pain), and pretty soon, those knives were stabbing my quads, too. I continued my "slow down and hope the race comes back to you" strategy, but it really wasn't working. I started walking a lot (including with Toni and friends for a bit - which was nice, because misery loves company). The thoughts of just giving up at 50 miles (since they give you credit for finishing the 50-mile race if you finish the first half of the 100-mile race) were getting louder and sounding more sensible, considering the death march that this was turning into. And then, just when I felt like my race was trashed, and I stopped to take this picture, just past the 8-mile mark:



. . . who should come flying past me, lapping me, but Superman himself: Mike Morton, and a woman who was apparently pacing him. Because it had felt like too long since I had run, and, what the heck, why not, I decided to chase him down the hill. And, surprise, I caught him fairly easily, and passed him. But then the road went uphill, and, figuring that he was going to run, I decided I would also run up the hill. To my surprise, I was actually gaining distance on him going up the hill. I overheard his pacer say something about "guy in the red shorts," and I quickly got the sense that she was not happy that I had passed him (even though he was just about a lap ahead at this point). So, with some egging on, on the next uphill, he passed me . . . only to slow to a walk once he had about 50 feet in front of me. Ridiculous. So I power-walked to close the distance a bit, then resumed running and passed him again.

This game continued for the remainder of the lap - passing him, getting passed again on a hill, at which point he would slow to a walk, and I would speed up and pass him again. On the fourth pass, I heard his pacer, exasperated, shout "oh my God!" . . . which led me to believe that his pacer was pushing him to do this, since he didn't look at me or say anything to me while this was happening. After this pass, I kept my slight lead on him all the way through to the end of the loop, at which point I arbitrarily decided not to play the game anymore - I had held off being lapped for 50 miles, a nice round number, where I was going to "quit" anyway. Mike kept going, of course, dropping his pacer and not acknowledging anybody at the start/finish.

EDIT: Mike Morton later sent me a Facebook message to clarify that his pacer was not exasperated, but instead impressed by my effort. And Mike, for his part, was just racing, as fast as he could. So no hard feelings here - just a thing that happened. :)

Lap 5: 3 hours, 25 minutes - yep, problems. Although, in retrospect, most of the time that I wasted on this lap was at the "airport loop" turnaround. About a mile and a half into the loop (during which Serge and his pacer, Christian, encouraged me to run with them, but suddenly, the knives of fire in my legs were back again, and I took two horrifically painful steps and decided that it wasn't happening, although I appreciated the thought), there was a turnaround point . . . with chairs. I sat down, at about the 52-mile mark, and just watched people come past the turnaround for the next hour. Fast, slow, running, walking, whatever - I sat there, drinking sweet tea and taking electrolyte pills and just hoping that my legs would stop twitching involuntarily. Eventually, when the twitching had somewhat subsided, I decided to get up and start walking, and for a little while, I walked with Meredith, until I stopped to go to the bathroom, they walked ahead, and then I had to run to catch them, at which point, I decided to just keep running, and wound up finishing the loop in a somewhat reasonable time . . .

Lap 6: 2 hours, 58 minutes. And then, crash again. After what seemed like a momentum gain (albeit a slower one than the one from Lap 4 into Lap 5), starting on my sixth lap, things started feeling terrible again. At this point, I was near Tony Portera during the airport loop section of the course, and we stuck together for a little while, until he ran off, looking and apparently feeling a lot better than I did at that point (he would go on to finish in 19 hours and change - awesome run for him). I walked most of the way to the far-side aid station (at mile 7), then mounted a brief charge, then crashed again, then reached the unmanned aid tent at a little over 11 miles into the loop (or about a mile and a half to go), when I crossed paths with Mark, on his way to a finish of just over 14 hours (third place, just two minutes behind second). Somehow, I managed to run in with him, and to look and feel totally fine doing it, even though we were more or less finishing-sprinting at that point (low-to-mid 7-minute-mile pace). I congratulated him, and then told him that he could leave (advice which he did not take to heart). After some confusion (which involved being offered three other headlamps), I found my headlamp, then headed out for my 7th lap, hoping the momentum would carry through . . .

Lap 7: 4 hours, 50 minutes. But unfortunately, not so. After another mile or two of running, the stabbing pain was back, reducing me to a walk again. Fortunately, sort of out of the blue, I got a text message from Meg D early in the lap, and our subsequent text banter at this critical juncture in the race kept me from giving up the ghost. And when I say "critical," I mean that this last little bit of running had sent my body into such a deep downward spiral that even walking almost the entire way to the far-end aid station, once I got there, my legs were twitching, my stomach was protesting, and my body was on the verge of near-collapse. So I went into triage mode, and ate some potato soup and whatever else would go down, and slept on a cot for a little over an hour. When I woke up and went to stand up, the pain of the first few steps was pretty close to unbearable. But after a few more steps, it became apparent that walking was a possibility; running, however, would not be. I continued my long walk to the end of the lap, just as it began to thunderstorm. Perfect.

Lap 8: 3 hours, 39 minutes. And speaking of storm, I had pretty much had it at the start of this lap. At no point did anybody ever organize the drop bags (rendering mine somewhat useless), so, in frustration, I walked into the cabin, straight to the back where my drop bag was, stumbling over dozens of walking wounded and strap-hangers otherwise, grabbed my iPod shuffle out of the bag, and walked out, ignoring everybody who was offering to "help" me. I felt bad about storming off like this, and later apologized to people, but at this point, there was nothing anybody could do. I had a little under 5 hours left to make the sub-24-hour cutoff, and while I had thought at the end of lap 6 that maybe I could rally and finish the last two laps in 4 or 5 hours, apparently, this was not going to happen, and the best I could do was to just steadily walk to the finish, so as not to risk another crash like the last one that happened on the 7th lap, and risk not finishing under 24 hours. I texted Mark and crew and told them emphatically to go home, since they had actually stayed around during my last lap (my slowest of the entire race) - I felt bad that I hadn't been more adamant about this point sooner. With my music blasting (Lady Gaga, Rage Against the Machine, and Andrew WK, mostly), I did my best power-walk-to-the finish that I could (which I knew that I could do, since this was about the distance of the climb up Mount Whitney at the end of Badwater, and I've done that twice now, both times in less-than-idea physical states). And after a few hours of walking in the dark, passing other people walking, and only being passed by one other person, in spite of the fact that I walked the ENTIRE lap, I was finally walking up the steps to the finish line . . . and I tripped a little and stubbed my left big toe on the third-to-last step, letting out a very loud expletive as I registered my only black toenail from the race . . . which pretty much summed up my experience right there.

22 hours, 46 minutes, and 12 seconds later, this catastrophe came to a close. I got my belt buckle and my split sheet:


(plus a penny that I found on the porch of the lodge as I walked in right after the race - one more for the Speedgoat 50K jar . . .)

And then I flopped down in a cot in the cabin and slept for five hours. I woke up feeling sore, but not miserably so, and I spent a few more hours socializing with Serge (who ended up dropping out at mile 85 because he was throwing up uncontrollably), Christian, and whoever else happened to be wandering by the start/finish. Eventually Mark and crew showed up, and after a brief attempt to sort out the headlamp fiasco (since the drop bags were disorganized, when I came in from my sixth lap, it took a while for somebody to find my headlamp, and, in the meantime, I was offered three other headlamps, and somehow, Johnny lost his headlamp in the process . . . we never did find it), we went our separate ways - I had lunch with Mark, Katie, and Zane, and we had a good laugh over all of this (and other things), and then I began the long drive home, stopping at the 930 Club in DC for the Andrew WK show (which was pretty awesome - party till you puke, indeed).

So none of this was very pretty. And, to be very honest, the last two laps felt really pointless to me, since it was clear that I wasn't going to meet any sort of time goal of meaning, other than sub-24, and I didn't feel as though I had anything to prove by finishing. But at the same time, with so many people pulling for me to finish, I felt as though I owed everybody my best effort, and that's what I gave. Unfortunately, that day, it wasn't as good as I had hoped it would be.

And now that I have a little bit of distance on the situation, I can appreciate the positive aspects of it a little more. Since I was going slower than I typically would have, I had a lot more opportunity to socialize with the other runners when I was working through my low points, and that was something different and fun. The course is actually a lovely place for a walk, so of all the places where I could be forced to deathmarch, this was one of the least-bad places (with the MMT 100 being near the top of the "awful" scale in this regard). And I am really grateful for all of the people who supported me throughout the race, both at the race and from afar.

And in an even broader sense, considering how sick I was before the race, I made it out alive, without making myself sicker, and without injuring myself, so that I can continue to train through this. In fact (huge confession here), this was the first run of any substantial distance in about five years where I didn't have nagging knee pain afterwards. I tend to have somewhat loose joints, and my knees tend to get a little swollen and irritated from running, so in the past couple of weeks, I've made a few minor changes to my stride to correct this problem. In the long-term, the fact that I was so successful in doing this, and that it held up over a variety of speeds, from slow trudge to fast run, over 100 miles, is a huge confidence boost that I'm on the right track. But in the interim, there are muscles to re-train, and this might have been a contributing factor to that "knives of fire" feeling in my quads. (Although I still think that the lingering sickness was the main problem here.)

So once again, and now more than ever, a huge thank you to everybody who supported me during this race, and congratulations to everybody who finished. (And a special huge congratulations to Mark Manz, who ran 14 hours, 16 minutes and change in his first 100 - amazing stuff. Not to mention he let me crash at his place, and, outside of the race itself, we had a fun weekend together.) Yeah, maybe I'm sounding like a broken record with this lately, but I really do enjoy the fact that because of everybody's support, all of this "crazy" stuff that I do takes on a life and a meaning that's bigger than just a bunch of wackos running around in the woods all day. And I've got more than a few big running events planned in the months ahead, so stay tuned - this one was just a speedbump on the road to awesomeness. :)

4 comments:

  1. as a runner, i flatter myself that i get what you do better than most people, but i still find myself amazed sometimes. the reports on good races are impressive, but it's the bad one's that really get me. i kid you not when i say that i had very serious thoughts about dropping out of cherry blossom at mile 8, and this despite the fact that i wasn't having any difficulty beyond the fact that racing is hard. even on a good day, i always consider stopping, or at least taking it easy (that being a relative term), so the idea of refusing to quit when faced with so many reasons and opportunities to do so is endlessly impressive to me. as is your ability to use capitalization, and paragraphs, and stuff.

    so, ya know, keep doing what you do.

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  2. Thanks for the votes in the "don't quit" and "keep on writing about these things" columns. Because if people weren't voting that way, I'm not sure that I would do either to the extent that I do.

    And good thing you didn't drop out of Cherry Blossom, because then that would have been a DNF, and not a PR, and the latter letters are much better. :)

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  3. I ran with you a bit on lap 1 and was impressed with how strong you looked. Continuing on even when things turn south (very, very south) is commendable. Good job toughing it out.

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    1. Jon - thanks! I enjoyed running with you. Wish the way that things were going early on could have continued all day, but oh well, some days are like that. Hope to see you at another race in the future!

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