Normally, I go into mind-numbing detail in my race reports, about pretty much everything and anything. I have verbal diarrhea when it comes to re-living my ultra running experiences and think of them as kind of blueprint for the newbie ultra runners out there (like me) - and what they can maybe expect in these kind of events. This time though, I'm going to do things a little differently and focus primarily on the physical and mental aspects of my race, as opposed to every minute detail from start to finish. Why focus on that? Because right now I'm angry... But don't worry, there will still be plenty of verbal diarrhea.
I could talk about what a beautiful morning it was - how the huge harvest moon setting behind the foothills of the Front Range, with dawn breaking at our backs, was simply a spectacular sight to behold as we headed out westward from the start line.
I could talk about my typical race experience of overhearing conversations of the fairer sex's relationship trials & tribulations - this time the story being an "Erik" with a "K" vs. an "Eric" with a "C" mistake almost ending in relationship tragedy.
I could talk about crossing paths with four large doe's - two of them bounding across the trail 15 feet in front of me.
I could talk about the ominous sight of afternoon thunderstorms rolling in over the foothills, or some early morning rain over the skyline of Denver, far in the distance to the East. And how those sights will be locked in my minds' eye forever.
I could talk about how much I enjoy interacting with the other trail runners; Helping out #31 with an equipment malfunction about a mile into the race, by simply handing over one of my race bib safety pins, since she was down to just one. Or, helping out a runner who was apparently suffering badly from leg cramps coming into the 33 mile Fox Hollow Aid Station, by sharing a couple of Salt Stick Caps with him. Or just simply asking others who appeared to be struggling on the trails if they were OK, and trying to give them a little a little bit of motivation and encouragement - "Great job! You're looking good! Keep up the great work!" On second thought, I am going to talk about that, and the mental aspect of it to me, but a little later on.
There are lots of things I could talk about and share and go into mind-numbing, drool inducing, detail about... but I'm not in that frame of mind right now. Right now I am extremely disappointed, angry, and simply in a state of WTF. And I've let those things spill over onto the World.
I went into this year's Bear Chase 50 Miler setup fantastically for a great day and a great race. I'd done my second ever 50 mile race, The North Fork 50 Mile - a relatively tougher race (in my opinion), with with a lot more climbing and at higher altitude - at the end of June, and while I had some difficulties, I finished and ended up with a result I was happy with. In the middle of August, I paced my buddy Chris for the final 40 miles of the Leadville Trail 100 - a task that took over 12 hours, through the entire night, from sunset to sunrise. My regular training, while on the light side, had been good. I'd been feeling stronger than I had ever felt. My comfortable pace was faster than normal, my HR was down, and my climbing was constantly improving. I'd busted my ass to get out of bed at 2:45am on Sunday mornings to do my long runs, so that I'd be home for when my girls were waking up and I wouldn't miss out on family time with them.
By mile 23 of The Bear Chase though, still only my third 50 Mile race ever, none of that made a lick of difference. Mentally, I had reached the lowest of low that I had ever reached before. The only things going through my mind were; "Why the f*ck am I out here? I have no business being out here. I'm not a runner. WTF was the point of all my training? It was all for nothing - a waste of time. I could have been in my nice warm bed sleeping and having morning snuggle time with all of my girls." I was having a total mental collapse. I'd gone through low points in each one of my previous races, but never anything like this. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Today was MY day.
I personally don't care about where I place in these ultra races that I've come to really enjoy and love in a short time. I'm out to beat me and my own goals, and no-one and nothing else. Maybe if this was a lifelong thing that I'd been doing, and if I was actually fast, it would be different. But I'm not fast, and the 2012 Bear Chase was the one year anniversary of my first ultra - the same race in 2011. That race almost killed me (or so it felt at the time) but I finished it. At this point I've been running for less than two years total. It started out as a way to get fit, that came about because of my Doctor telling me I was a heart attack waiting to happen. I find it to be a challenge - physically and mentally - and I enjoy that. I love the solitude, and the immersion into nature and the outdoors, that is trail running. I enjoy the logistics involved in long runs and races. I enjoy learning about the physiology involved, and what my body can, and cannot, do. I enjoy the people, the camaraderie, and the brotherhood and sisterhood that permeates the sport.
I have a problem though. I've let the ultra running community reach an elevated status in my mind and have come to believe that ultra distance trail runners are a perfect example of all that is good in people. I've allowed the idea to become greater than it actually is. What I really NEED to do though, is see ultra running for exactly what it is - a microcosm of society in general. What I tend forget, and Chris just reminded me of just moments ago, is that everyone is different, and everyone has different goals. I tell that to myself all the time - but needed a big reminder of that after this event.
I'd set some goals for myself before the race. 1. Finishing in more than 11:00 hours would be a disappointment for me. 2. I'd be very happy with a 10:30 finish. 3. I'd be over the moon with a sub 10:00 finish - and so I did my pace charts with a target of a 9:59 finish. Last year took me 11:40. I was looking for a a significant improvement in that time, which I based on my fitness and newly-gained experience at these events.
"When you give it your all, it’s hard to feel comfortable the whole time. Being out of your comfort zone and being OK with that is an important part of running ultras. It’s fairly easy to feel comfortable and want to keep that state all the time. To do great things, you need to step out of your comfort zone and be vulnerable." - Timothy Olson.
I'd read that quote just a couple of weeks ago and it struck a chord with me. Chris and I came up with a new acronym and had been discussing 'JBC' frequently on our lunch runs. JBC = Just Beyond Comfortable. This is personally when I feel my best, and typically perform my best, when running - when I'm JBC. I wanted to put that to the test today, and so I did. I got dialed into JBC fairly early and was feeling pretty good about it all.
The first lap (12.5 miles) of four, I came in 12 minutes under my pace goal (which was 2:10) at 1:58 and was pretty much running a PR for the 1/2 marathon. Faster than I planned, but I felt good and was running JBC, and not over-extending. My HR was about 10 beats higher than it had been in training recently, but fueling was on track as was hydration, so not to worry. My only real concerns on that first lap were a little bit of a sloshy stomach, and the three river crossings. After the three river crossings, my feet, most specifically the index toe on my left foot and the index and middle toes on my right foot, were feeling some discomfort on the toenails. It wasn't a big deal and the discomfort subsided before long. I never really gave it a second thought.
|End of First Lap - Feeling good|
My three problematic toes now felt like the toenails were going to rip right off. The first lap was just some discomfort for a while after the water. This time though, was much, much, worse. I'd taped my toes before even starting the race. My left index toe I'd lost my nail on a month or two prior, and it was still a little bit sensitive. So, I taped it. I taped it in training and I had taped it at Leadville - nothing different this time. My right foot index and middle toes, I'd noticed a few weeks prior, would become irritated just a bit by a small ridge that had developed on the insole of my MT1010's. So, I taped them. If they bothered me just a little bit on a short run, they'd probably be toast on a 50 miler. I'm a big proponent of being proactive when it comes to my feet. I've read too many horror stories about blisters and toenails ending someones race. I've always been proactive, and this time should be no different. I had taped them with 3M Nexcare Absolute Waterproof Cushion Tape. I've used this stuff tons, and love it.
So, I was hobbled a bit and feeling a good amount of pain in these three toenails. It only slowed me down a bit but mentally, it destroyed me. Just three miles later I was deep in the mental pit of anguish I described earlier. I was at my 20 mile wall, which I've always had to push through, but now I had the extra toenail issue too, which I would not expect to have in a million years. At the same time, I had the inkling of some pain in the tops of my feet - really minor, but there none-the-less. Thanks to my deteriorating mental state, everything just seemed magnified and seemed to hurt that much more. And I'm amazed at how fast it hit me. Within 35 minutes, the time it took me to get from from mile 20 to mile 23, things had taken a huge nose-dive on me - and the worst was yet to come.
I came in 18 minutes faster than my plan at the 25 mile point at 4:15 elapsed. I'd shaved even more time off and had those minutes in the bank. I planned on closing out that bank account and use all 18 minutes to regroup at the half-way point - if not physically, at least mentally. My girls were all waiting for me at the start/finish line cheering me on. Of course, as is always the case, the tears started as soon as I saw them. Just like last year, they had made me some awesome signs with the very vibrantly colored words "Go Daddy!" and "Yay Daddy!" written on them, and they had ice packs ready for me so I could cool myself down (they were disappointed that there we no sponge buckets). It looked like they were having a lot of fun hanging out and playing at the start/finish line. I told Diana that I was in a deep, dark, pit mentally and that I was majorly struggling. She made the point of telling me "You said that last year too at this point. You can do it." But today, I somehow knew, was different.
I had the fleeting thought of changing into my MT110's that I had in my drop bag. I opted for fresh tape on the toes, and a dry pair of socks instead. No shoe change. I was convinced that the shoes were not the issue, since I'd done 40 miles at Leadville in them, new, right out-of-the-box with zero issues, and that fresh socks and fresh tape would sort things out. My tired legs I could struggle through on - I did it last year here. And my feet, well, they couldn't get any worse. Never once did I think that the combination of cushiony/spongy/stretchy tape, wet feet, wet socks, and wet shoes could be the issue. I ran this race last year in Merrell Trail Gloves with no socks. No issues. But, I'd never tested this exact, wet, combination before.
After my 18 minutes of re-grouping was up, which seemed to fly by in about 2 minutes, off I went - at a trot - with my girls yelling "Good luck, Daddy! We love you!" I probably wasn't even out of sight of the start/finish line before I was walking again. Yes, my legs were sore, and tired, and my hip flexors were screaming, but it was my feet that were the real problem. Specifically, the tops of my feet. They were sore as hell. And not dull, achy, sore, but, red hot poker stabbing sore, right on top of my foot immediately above my arch. WTF is that?!? Whatever it was, resting at the AS for so long did nothing to help it get anything other than worse.
I was barely doing 20 minute miles, and my feet felt like someone was driving spikes right through the tops of them. Every step was complete agony. There was no way I'd finish the race under the cutoff at this rate and I'm really not interested in just finishing. Been there, done that. I want to at least be sub 11:00 hours. My left foot was hurting, but the right one was by far the worst. I'd try to run by compensating for the right with the left but that wasn't working so well. It was just too painful. Even walking hurt like crazy. Never have I ever thought about quitting during a race before. Today was my first. I wanted to quit. I was not having fun, and I wanted to quit. Before I even got to the Pelican Point AS, only 3.2 miles from the start/finish, I was planning my drop. I'm not sure why, maybe because I was still clinging to a sliver of hope, but I continued right on through the AS and kept on going. It was 4.6 miles to the next AS and I would drop there - if I could even make it that far, which I was far from certain that I could. There were the three river crossings that I was dreading but there was a chance my girls would be there waiting to cheer me on, and I could just ride out with them, tail tucked between my legs. I was so pissed and frustrated, that every once in a while I let out a loud "F*CK!!!" from between clenched teeth, or pickup a decent sized rock and hurtle it as hard as I could at a nearby tree. Why don't I have the testicular fortitude to get my sorry ass moving and to finish this godd@mn race?!?!?!
There was a constant stream of 50 mile and 50k runners passing me on this third lap. Hardly a one even noticing me literally hobbling and limping along. And here is where my "problem" from above, about an elevated status of humanity in the ultra community, comes into play. And I needed Chris, and his seemingly infinite wisdom about trail running and ultra races, to give me a good kick up the arse about, and remind me of. I'm actually embarrassed now to share my feelings - but I'm going to be brutally honest about how I felt at the time, in the moment, and even for a few days afterwards, and try to show how low I had sunk, and how far south my mind went on me. So here goes (and if you are going to get bent out of shape, or have easily hurt feelings - just stop reading now); Maybe everyone else was just buried in their own misery, and that's fine, I've been there in that misery, but never have I not tried to motivate or cheer on another runner, or make sure a runner was OK. I continued to do that, even now still. Even cheering on the runners going past me; "Hey, looking strong! Keep it up!" That to me is the essence and fabric of the ultra running community - everyone looks out for everyone and everyone wants everyone to succeed. But my outlook at this point suddenly took a big turn towards the "F*ck you" spectrum. My mental state had sunk that low. I'd become the person I never thought I could be out on the trails. Ultra running is my haven; my fortress of solitude; my escape from the real world of sh!t on the news telling me about people having their wheelchairs stolen, or people beating their grandmothers to death, or bomb threats at a daycare. Ultra running is where my faith in humanity is intact and strong. I switched off and talked to no-one, unless spoken to (which would momentarily help restore my faith in humanity, but only momentarily - one time being when I shared the Salt Stick Caps I talked about earlier). Like I said, I was in the shit, and descending into the bowels of hell (how's that for dramatic?). My feelings before writing this report, and even in the early stages of writing it, were that I wanted to immensely thank the handful of people that did take the time to slow down and make sure I was OK. That I wished I had noted your bib numbers so that I could thank you individually by name. That these good folk, in my opinion, have the spirit of true ultra trail runners. I tried to chalk it up to this being an 'urban' trail ultra, and that hoity-toity road runners were out here trying to show up the trail runners on a "fast course." That "city" runners had no class and were too self-absorbed to care about anything other than themselves. "Mountain" runners and mountain ultras were different, were better.
What a load of nonsense. It's complete and utter bollocks how I was feeling at that moment of the race, and even continued to feel for days afterwards. I feel like such a fool now. But, that's how I felt at the time. Amazing how the mind works. Amazing how I projected my anger and disappointment in myself onto others for my own shortcomings. I'm sure I wasn't the only person limping along out there. And, did I really expect every single person out there to ask if I was OK? It's not like I was collapsed in a ditch. I was upright and moving. I was just feeling sorry for myself.
How do I feel now? Chris put it best - "I just know that putting too much hope/thought/stock/whatever into how people behave during an extreme hours-long physical/mental battle against others/course/internal demons/whatever is a losing proposition that is best saved for the finish after everyone has a couple of beers in them and can laugh about being pushed off a cliff by that one fast guy."
My real problem was that my feet were shagged, and that I was suffering a total mental collapse, and not the fact that someone didn't ask me if everything was OK. It's a godd@mn race, not a love in. Just because I'm not out to win it, or place top 10, or top 50, or whatever, doesn't mean others aren't in that situation. Like I've said a ton in the past - everyone is different - I'd just forgotten that.
The cold water at the river crossings felt not too bad for a moment, being cold enough to numb things a bit, but that was fleeting and things were pretty much just getting worse. When I arrived at the Fox Hollow AS, and was asked by the volunteer what they could get me I said; "My family. I want to drop." Problem was, my family wasn't here. Casey (sp?), from Fargo, ND, was an angel of a volunteer, texting and calling my wife (leaving voice mails) to let her know I was at the AS and having problems. I sat on the medical cot there, and waited, wallowing in my misery. Finally Diana called back on Casey's phone. I told her what was up and she told me that she'd get a hold of Chris, who was out looking for me along the course, and let him know what was up. About 10 minutes later, Chris came screaming in on his mountain bike carrying all of his camera gear (he was out and about taking pictures of the race that you can see here). If there was any hope of continuing, Chris, an ultra-marathon and trail running machine, would help me figure it out.
|Not feeling so great at the river crossings.|
It was rough going and I kept checking my watch and waiting and wondering if/when the Tylenol would kick in. Eventually it started to help out a little bit, but it took a long time, and wasn't 100% effective. I'd say it brought down the pain by about 50% though. Chris would pop-up from time-to-time along the trail, snapping pictures of me as I struggled past.
|Credit: Chris Boyack ©|
As far as my mental state sinking so low, and not being able to pull out of it... I really have no idea why that happened. I was just fixated in the most negative fashion on everything - and I let me beat myself.
I know now that in the grand scheme of things, a DNF is not that big of a deal. Most people have been through it, and why should I be any different? I'll learn from it, I'll grow, and hopefully it will provide motivation in the future. I've got my health, I've got my legs, and I've got the pleasure I get out of running. It sure could be a lot worse. I just need to get over it, which the process of writing this report, and the support of friends and my family, is helping me do, and move on. And, as I always say; what doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.
I think I'm going to take a break from running and training for a few weeks. I'm looking forward to coming back with a fresh attitude and outlook and decide what the future holds. I'd been mulling over some grand plans for 2013, which I told myself hinged on the outcome of this race, but for now, I'm just gonna rest and let my body and mind heal. I'll blog in the not-to-distant future with a "Reflections & Plans" posting.
Here is the link to my Garmin data.
To Casey, the Fox Hollow AS volunteer from Fargo, ND - if you read this... Thank you for everything! I'm sorry I bailed before personally thanking you face-to-face.
Thanks to my friend Chris, for all the support, advice, and wisdom that you continue to provide.
But, thanks most of all to my three girls - I love you - and I couldn't do any of this without your love, your understanding, your patience, and your support.