Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Life's Aid Stations

Ultrarunning events, particularly those of 50 or more miles, are often compared to life. Runners begin their journey prepared - with fresh legs, energy, and all of the tools for however they define success. Some runners simply hope to complete the journey and feel good about themselves and their accomplishment(s) while others strive to be the best. All motivations are equally valid and are up to the individual to define, accept, and ultimately be satisfied with.

Many runners will begin the event way too fast and suffer significantly or be forced to end the event early. Others will take a more methodical and conservative pace which results in an overall better experience, often times better results, and increases their likelihood of making it the entire distance. It's critical for runners to take care of their nutrition and bodies. Seemingly minor problems such as blisters can develop into much larger problems as the race progresses. There are always highs and lows. A runner can feel like they can't go on at mile 60 but feel strong at mile 70. Regardless of how the race is run, the athlete's body will slow at the end and be wrecked by the finish. And while the pain is significant, the journey along the way is what makes the effort worth while.

My year in running has thus far been defined as the year I've focused primarily on long distance trail events, having completed a 100k mountain run in northern California and more recently, a 50 miler here in Wisconsin. One of my most memorable take aways from these events is how generously the aid station volunteers cared for the runners. I've run plenty of road events where aid stations were identified as a mere place to maybe grab a very quick swig of water before carrying on in an expeditious pace. In difficult 50ks and 50+ mile ultras, they are much more. Unless the runner is going to cary a significant volume of calories and hydration, they are absolutely required for completion.

These volunteers give up a full day or more of their time to ensure runners stay safe and maximize their chances of reaching their goal of completing the event at task. They bake (sometimes quesadillas or pancakes!), set up tents, lay out several different nutrient dense food options, they repair blisters, touch other people's sweaty stuff, fill packs with ice, provide encouragement, deal with those who are moody due to glucose deprivation or lack of sleep, and clean up the mess when it's all over. They are unselfish angels whose character contribute to the culture and spirit of ultra distance running.

This week has been one of the most difficult of my life. I've felt anger I've never felt I was capable of feeling, sadness that left me wondering how I could possibly continue moving forward, sleepless nights wondering what the future will hold.

I've always had an ever-changing network of friends I could count on to have a good time with but never had much of anyone I'd feel comfortable confiding in. Fear of being judged or shamed has always kept me from getting close enough to anyone in order to share my darkest, deepest, rawest emotions with. I haven't had the confidence to make myself vulnerable, fearing I'd be perceived as crazy or carrying too much drama. After all, who wants to be friends with a downer?

This week, in my broken state, I was so desperate to make myself feel better that I found the courage to talk to people I trust but have never been vulnerable with. I came to them in a raw state. With some I cried. I talked about my fears, my pain, my mistakes. I've been a ragged runner, exhausted, beat down, on the verge of quitting, and unable to see the finish line. These friends and family members have listened, loved, and given me strength. They've been my life aid station volunteers, and I'm so grateful for them.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Canyons Endurance Runs 100k

April 29th at 9:57pm I completed the most physically and mentally challenging endeavor I’ve ever attempted – The Canyons Endurance Runs 100k. I write this not as a race report or course description for other ultra runners who may be looking to sign up in future years, but for myself, family, and friends. So that as my memory fades I’ll have a reminder of what I went through. So that when I contemplate signing up for one of these again, I’ll remember the pain and suffering I endured for several hours. It’s an attempt to shed some light for family and friends who may wonder why crazy Cody decided to travel to California to attempt something so entirely self serving, require so much commitment and sacrifice, and be so seemingly extreme. I’m writing this now, the morning after the event while my emotions are still raw and my memory mostly in tact.

Let me preface this with educating you, the reader that these events aren't unique, they're not all that unsafe, and there are thousands of people who do them every year. The sport of ultra/trail running is exploding and in an article posted by Ultrarunning Magazine, there were an estimated 247 50-mile, 141 100-mile, and 100 100-kilometer (62 miles) running events in US and Canada in 2016. They vary in terrain, temperature, and difficulty. There are also running events that are upwards of 200 or more miles and winter events that require pulling a sled with required supplies for as far as 160 miles or more across vast frozen tundras. Perhaps I'm biased, but these people aren't crazy. They don't lack value for life (I would argue the opposite). Most don't have life imbalance issues. They like adventure, they like nature, they like the camaraderie associated with trail and ultra running, and they like testing their physical and mental capabilities.

I’ll start with a quick summary of the event. The Canyons 100k (62 miles – although actual distance of this event was 63.6) is a double out and back (25k and back northeast on the trail and then 25k and back southwest on the trail) originating and finishing in Foresthill, CA – a couple hours northeast of San Francisco. The course is entirely on the Western States trail – first used by Native Americans and then heavily worn by horses during the early gold rush years. It’s since become familiar by the Western States 100, the oldest, most prestigious, and arguably most competitive 100 mile run in the US. Demand for entry into Western States is so high that those wishing to enter need to run a qualifying race to enter a lottery. For those applying their first year will only have a 2% chance of being selected (chances increase each consecutive year assuming a qualifier has been completed). Qualifying races are held globally; all of which are 100 milers or difficult 100k events. I selected The Canyons as a qualifier, knowing that if I want to some day run Western States I need to start collecting lottery points now. For reference, I ran part of the race with a guy aged 51 years who has qualified for Western States 6 times without having been drawn in the lottery system.

The course was incredibly difficult, with 9,000 feet of ascent during the first 50k and then 5,000 feet during the second; the equal amount of descent would prove to be the bigger challenge. The terrain was unbelievable – beautiful vistas, the American River, and at least a dozen river / creek crossings (my feet were never dry!) Adding to the difficulty of the elevation ascent and descent was the heat. The Canyons are notoriously hot and temps exceed those in nearby towns, my reference point from where I received my weather forecast. I don’t know exactly how high the temperature got in the second half of the course but my guess is that it was mid to upper 80s or maybe even 90F.

Although no training plan ever goes perfectly and simulating the race conditions while living in Wisconsin is absolutely impossible, I put in the time and came to the start line in shape. I believe showing up for an event like this without giving oneself the best possible chance of success is irresponsible and disrespectful to the event, the organizers, the volunteers, and the other runners. I am meticulous with my training log and my year-to-date mileage heading in to the event was at 939 miles with 82,359 feet of climbing. I believe I worked as hard as I could work given my base level of fitness while keeping life balance in check and not becoming injured or over-trained. 

These photos were taken prior to race day

Heading out of Michigan Bluff toward Eldorado Creek
Between Michigan Bluff and Eldorado Creek
Between Eldorado Creek and The Pump
The Volcano Creek Crossing at mile 2 and mile 30

The race kicked off at 5:30a, shortly before sunrise. My legs felt great and I set off at what I though was a sustainable effort. I was really strong on the climbs and flats, passing a lot of other runners. I was however highly inexperienced and underprepared when it came to the downhills. The result was a game of leapfrog, whereas I’d catch or pass runners on the ups and they’d fly past me on the downs. My calorie intake was sufficient and I when I arrived in Foresthill after completing the first 50k in 6:40 I was 43rd of 326 starters. My legs were feeling beat up but I knew the 2nd half of the race had an easier elevation profile.

My optimism and goal of having a sub 13 hour finish quickly diminished shortly after leaving the Foresthill aid station. The second half of the race begins with several miles of sustained downhill and within a mile or so I was walking and clearly ran too hard the first 32 miles. The pain in my quads was too significant to push hard with 30 miles of race remaining. By mile 33 the temperature became uncomfortable and my stomach resisted much-needed calories. By mile 38 I was dry heaving with nothing in my stomach to vomit. At one point I was able to suck down a gel but within 5 minutes lost it the same way it went in. I was also cramping. Every time I had to climb over a downed tree, my feet or hamstrings would cramp up. Vomiting was incredibly painful in my abdomen. My body was lacking sodium.

The aid station volunteers were amazing. They filled my bottles, cheered me on, provided humor as my mind began deteriorating as quickly as my body was. Still, the physical and caloric deficit was too significant to recover from by only taking 5+ minute aid station stops. Not only was I nauseous, but I also experienced vertigo every time I’d stop moving forward or step to the side of the trail to allow runners to pass by. Vertigo when on a single-track trail with 500+ feet of fall into the raging American River is not a good feeling. There are absolutely no words to describe the dark mental state I was in – it was an impossible reality of shuffling along for more than 20 miles, vomiting, dizzy, watching other runners pass me by, having quads so sensitive that going downhill felt like someone was hitting my quads with baseball bats. I was also hallucinating – I repeatedly thought there were footsteps behind me but I’d turn around and see no one. I was also certain I saw a black bear cub on the trail, which froze me in my tracks – it turned out to be just a dark spot in a tree.

I wanted to quit so badly. I was broken both mentally and physically. If I had a mile to go, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but the prospect of battling for 8 or more hours nauseous and in pain seemed impossible. What was the point of this self-inflicted torture? What am I proving? My friends and family won’t love me any less. Will I love me less? What kind of muscle damage, heart damage, and kidney damage am I doing? I don’t belong on the same course as those who have run multiple 50 mile, 100k, 100 mile events and with people who live in and train regularly on this type of terrain.

These reasons to quit were outweighed by:

How disappointed am I going to be in myself if I throw in the towel? Will quitting make it easier to quit next time? What does it say to my kids when they ask me how the race went and I tell them I quit? What does it say to my family who made sacrifices by supporting my training runs and my mother who traveled to California to watch me run, when I tell them it wasn’t worth finishing?

When I got to Rucky Chucky, the aid station 75k (47 miles) into the race and the second-half turnaround spot I sat down to regroup. I took my headlamp out of my drop bag (finishing in the dark was now inevitable), and read some cards my kids had made for me. All of my time and place goals were out the window. I just needed to finish and could do it as long as I made relentless forward progress the remaining 16, uphill miles.

And so I trudged along, making my way up 4,000+ feet of ascent over the remaining distance. I stopped by the remaining 2 aid stations and was comforted by vegetable broth, quesadilla, and coke. I made to sure to repeatedly thank the volunteers, for whom I am so grateful. I saw brightly colored orange and purple wildflowers along the trail and it seemed as though Paul and Lucas were along the course, cheering me on (Paul’s favorite color is purple and Lucas’ is orange). I was in a delirious, emotional mental state; I called out to the flowers every time I saw them, “Hello Paul and Lucas!” I’ll admit it; I cried a few times.

As the temperature lowered and my electrolytes replenished, my appetite crept back. Unfortunately my headlamp battery started to die (I had no idea I’d be on the course as late as I was – rookie mistake by not bringing a backup battery and putting a fresh one in before the race) but I found a woman with a bright light who I could follow. I returned the favor by making good humor and exuding optimism (she was in rough shape as well). I never lost my outwardly focused humor throughout the entire race; in hindsight, the lighthearted quips were the best means I had to cope. At the last aid station, I joked, “think if I push hard I can catch the leaders?” An aid station volunteer replied, “you’ve maintained your humor!” To which I said, “it’s the only thing I have left!!” By mile 61 I found a second wind and ran hard to the finish line, finishing in 16:27:40 and in 121st place. The 2nd half of the race took me 9:47 as compared to 6:40 in the more technically challenging first half. Out of the 326 starters, 102 of them dropped or fell so far behind that they missed aid station cutoffs and were required to leave the course. So while I wallow in my suffering, nearly a third of the field had a more challenging day than I did.

The lessons learned transcend race strategy or preparation. I learned how to dig deeper and for much longer than I’ve ever done before. As someone who is always finishing road races in the top 5% or so of the field, I now understand that these events aren’t always about the finish time, place, or even completing the 63+ mile mountainous course. They’re about the battling self-doubt, testing one's ability navigate out of a deep mental cavern, fighting through significant physical limitations, problem solving, respecting the course, respecting the distance, appreciating the volunteers, and embracing the unique camaraderie with and admiration for fellow ultra distance trail runners – a community that’s unique to any other I’ve been part of.

I spent 8 hours telling myself I’d never do an event like this again. There’s a required level of experience and wear and tear on legs that’s required for success in ultra distance events (typically defined as any distance longer than a 26.2 mile marathon). Shorter distance road running / marathon fitness does not directly translate to finishing an ultra. If you’re in shape, you can fake a marathon finish or even a 50k. When I say “fake,” it’s not that these accomplishments aren’t earned or noteworthy (I’m incredibly proud of my finishes). However, if you’re well trained with little experience and go out at a reasonable pace you can make it 20-25 miles before really suffering. Even when your pace slows, there’s so little race left that your finish time isn’t significantly affected and you’ll never be chasing cutoff times. Everyone I was hanging with in the first part of The Canyons 100k had completed more than 10 ultra distance events. They floated down the steep, technical descents, their stomachs held, and their quads kept them running. They absolutely suffered and worked hard but they had better self developed tools to work through the challenges that inevitably come with races such as this. I believe in the case of long ultras, there’s no substitute for experience. If I could do it all over again, I’d run several 50ks and maybe a more flat 50 mile or 100k before doing The Canyons. Lesson learned.

I’m thankful for so many things. My wife and kids made sacrifices I’m so appreciative of. Although I do my best to work training around family fun and commitments, I am certainly absent for large chunks for time for reasons that are entirely self-serving. I’m thankful for my mom, who gave up an entire weekend only to fret at the finish line wondering why it was taking so long for me to complete the second half of the race and not realizing I had a headlamp in my drop bag. The volunteers and race organizers were critical to getting me to the finish line. They are selfless, caring, and wonderful people. I will return the many favors. I’m privileged to be part of the Madison Trail Runners. Although I don’t make group runs as often as I’d like, I’ve learned from them and they inspire me every time I refresh my Strava feed. Lastly, I’m grateful and have a tremendous amount of respect for everyone who toed the line with me. Some of them suffered more and less; all of them had the courage to fight the mental and physical battles that come with an event like this.

Will I put my name in the hat for a ~2% chance to run the Western States 100 mile in 2018? Absolutely.

Elevation profile in relation to time as recorded by my Garmin