This is how it works-
I love to run but there are times when I would rather not. This is when the voices start. Chants, name calling, guilt and reverse psychology is how they get me up and out the door. I don't really mind the voices and have actually started looking forward to their daily calls. Together we have formed a running club that supports, encourages and competes with each other. I love these peeps. They are much more experienced, talented and tougher than I am. Pushing me out the door, through the hard miles and up the monster hills when I am feeling lazy or want to give up. Some people have "real" training partners, coaches and support crews. My team is ALWAYS with me and helps me to keep my eye on the prize and not veer off the track. Sounds crazy- Yeah, probably is.........

Friday, November 9, 2012

Arkansas Traveller 100 Miler

“Man... Am I glad to see you.”  This is what I told him. He was just a kid really, barely 20, if even that. His enthusiasm displayed the innocence of youth. He had run a few hundred feet down the monster hill to meet me. His response was simple and welcome, “We’re glad to see you too, number 75.” The whole scenario seemed surreal, like a scene out of an old war movie. his headlamp had confused me at first because the trail was so dark with the fog muting the distance. I had been alone for so many miles that my first thought was that it wasn’t real and  was, more than likely, one of the famous ultra-runner hallucinations that I’ve heard so much about but never experienced. I was somewhere between confused and in awe as he took “my order” and ran back up the hill. Wait.... let’s do the time-warp thing and go back a few miles......

The 2012 Arkansas Traveller 100 Miler has been on my radar for awhile. Partly because it is only about 4 hours south and partly because I know the RD is outstanding and partly because I wanted validation that I was really an ultra-marathoner. Whatever the reason, I made the decision to register for it earlier this year. This coincided with my decision to start training with Coach Jeff from PRS Fit. ←--VERY smart move on my part.

My friend, Charley had once again agreed to come crew/pace for me. I have personally never paced/crewed anybody through one of these things but it looks MUCH harder than running 100 miles. Fortunately Charley is a top notch pacer and knows how to deal with my, uhhh, issues. I would have loved it if that dude with the amazing mustache (Jon Wilson) could have made it but he had some real life things to take care of. Charley and I arrived in Perryville, Arkansas for the packet pickup. without a clue as to where we going to stay. All I really knew for sure was that the closest motel was 30 miles out and I had a tent. This is one example of why I NEED Jon Wilson to crew for me, he is much more organized. Sleeping in a tent is fun. Sleeping in a tent the night before a 100 miler is not so much fun. Sleeping in a tent after a 100 miler is torture.

Part of the packet pick-up/ check in process is the required weigh-in. This race followed the standard 3-5-7% weight gain or loss procedures. This means that at 3% a warning is given, at 5% the runner must wait until their numbers go under 5%. At 7% they are finished. I weighed in at 201 lbs. This meant that at 187 lbs my day would be over. I know that 14 lbs seems like a lot but it’s not really that much for me and if the temps got high.... Truth is, I was just nervous about the whole thing. Why? I don’t really know. I knew for a fact that I could cover the distance. I knew that my training was better than my previous 100’s. I also knew that this was a much tougher course than the Rocky Raccoon, which is relatively flat, and that is what had me nervous. I have always questioned the legitimacy of my ‘ultra marathoner’ title and somehow, in my twisted little brain, this race was going to prove or disprove the validity of all my past ultras. Whatever.... on with the story.

Charley and I woke up on race morning to the sounds of... I don’t know, cows? Pigs? Sasquatch? We were at the campground about a mile from the starting line. The sounds had started at like 4 a.m. Since there was no way to sleep through the racket we scrambled around in the cold and headed to the start area. I’m still not sure exactly what the sounds were but we did find the source. A large sound system at the start/finish line was pumping it out. Whatever.... I needed coffee and went in search of a cup on the way to collect my bib. I posed for the required “Search and Rescue” pic and was ready to get started.

The gun went off and the day began. It was dark but I chose not to wear a headlamp or bring a flashlight. It was easy enough to “trail” off the others as the first mile was pavement and the next few were on a gravel road. I enjoyed these first few miles and passed the time chatting with several runners. At one point, I was running with this English dude who was wearing a pink tutu. We chatted briefly before I kicked up the pace. Little did I know what a huge role he would later play in my race. After an awesome aid station stop for mini pancakes and bacon, it was time By to turnoff on the single track trail portion. Fortunately, daylight had come and the trail had sufficient light to navigate.

I really love to run single track trails. It seems to take much less effort for me to run at a solid and decent pace. The uphills never seem big and the downhills always make me dance. By dance, I mean that I find my groove and am able to run with clarity and vision, hopping from side to side, bouncing over rocks, logs and whatever potential hazards the trail holds. During the final miles of this portion of the race, I caught up to last year’s winner and we talked about the course. He had run the Traveller several times and was able to relay a few tips about what lay ahead. I eased ahead and came into the 16 mile aid station in 3rd place overall. Huh?

I zipped through the aid station, telling Charley that I didn’t need anything and I would see him at mile 31. Things felt great, my energy was high and the adrenaline of 3rd overall had me ready to run. So I did, and by mile 21 I found myself in 2nd place and “racing”. This was a huge mistake and very much out of character for me. I don’t “race” these things. Very few people can and do actually race a 100 miler. I’m not one of them.  At  5’11” and  200lbs, I look more like a spectator than a runner  and my plan is always the same. Go out, run MY race, smile, laugh and don’t die. There is nothing in the plan, or even remotely fun, about “racing”. Thankfully, the Running Gods recognized this mistake on my part and punched me in the mouth around mile 25.

The temperature was around 40 degrees, I had a long sleeve shirt on and a doo-rag. Perfect clothing and perfect weather for me. Perfect. All was right with the world, I was flying along, holding 2nd place and daydreaming about 1st and then...... BOOOOOOM!!!! What the?? Then the rain came. Just a few drops here and there at first but it very quickly turned into a downpour, complete with crazy loud thunder and freaky close lightning. Oh, and it was the coldest rain in the history of cold rain. Within just a few minutes I was completely soaked and freezing. My hands were numb and every part of my body ached because of the cold. I was miserable.

Isn’t it crazy how fast things can change? One minute, I was cruising along at a decent clip, whistling zippity doo-dah and all that, the next minute, I was dropping back, getting passed and hating life. All I could think of was quitting. I really wanted to quit. I did not want to be on the trail and I didn’t want to run another 75 miles. I took a wrong turn and realized my mistake after the trail came to an abrupt end. I had to backtrack to find the course. This didn’t add much, one mile altogether, but it was incredibly demoralizing. This was the absolute lowest point I have ever hit in a 100 miler. Of course, I knew with 100% certainty that I wasn’t going to quit but I wanted to. 

The scenarios running through my head were not real elaborate or creative but they seemed like excellent ideas at the time. I could fake an injury. Maybe even throw myself on the ground, hopefully get muddy and draw a little blood, then limp in to the next aid station where they could drive me out on whatever ATV they had for emergencies. I didn’t really think my ego could handle all the name calling I would get for that so I put it out of my head. Maybe they would cancel the race due to the lightning and inclimate weather. I could call it a day at 50k and save face. “I really wanted to run the whole 100 miles but they cancelled the race. Real bummer, yo.” This actually seemed like a rational and plausible scenario. I mean, it COULD happen. ← Stupid things we tell ourselves.

I was really struggling. The rain had tapered off and it was more of a steady drizzle then downpour at this point. My legs were cold and tight, fingers frozen and hurting and my face was numb. My focus was simple. Just keep moving forward towards the mile 31 aid station. Charley would be there with my bag and I could find some dry clothes, warm up and figure out a way to keep going, though I didn’t know how in the world I could. So many people had passed me that I had no clue what place I was in anymore. 10th? 11th? 27th? No clue. Then I heard footsteps again. Remember the dude in the pink tutu from earlier? Yep.

I remember thinking about the irony of being passed by a dude in a pink tutu. In that moment, miserable as I was, it made me smile and pick up the pace just enough to stay with him. We started chatting, even though it was very difficult for either of us due to our frozen faces, and managed to bring each other from the depths of despair to a place where it seemed possible that things might really get better. Keith Straw travelled from Philadelphia to run this 100 miler just weeks after completing the Grand Slam of Ultra’s. If you don’t know about the Grand Slam, google it. In fact, google Keith Straw if you want read about a real ultra runner and a very accomplished and impressive athlete. We ran the next 35 miles together and his insight, stories and anecdotes made the miles go by very quickly.

Keith and I rolled into the aid station at mile 31 with a plan. We were going to take some time, warm up, get some food and put on dry clothing before getting back on the trail. Of course, this was not a legal agreement. Charley brought my bag and I found a dry shirt, gloves, hat and my good old Relay for Life jacket to repel some of the rain. After a quick and cup of coffee, and having my water bottle refilled, I decided to get moving. The rain had picked back up and I gave Keith a nod of respect as I left the aid station, figuring he would take a few more minutes. Within a few hundred feet he joined me with a look that said, “Dude... thought we had a plan?” Turns out that we did indeed have a plan. Just had to get past the low point to remember what it was.

We ticked off the miles and our spirits rose. My legs never really recovered from the cold but they still carried me at a semi-decent pace. We told a few jokes, many stories and compared our running resumés as we powered through the steep Arkansas terrain. His resumé is very impressive, one of those dudes that I would call “the real deal”. I told him about my pink tutu experiences like we had something in common. He told me about running 135 miles across the desert. It seems like a ridiculous comparison now.

The first weigh-in came at the mile 48 aid station. Stepping on the scale, I was surprised and relieved to see that my weight was 200.6. This meant that through roughly 50 miles I had managed to keep my nutrition/hydration in check. It also gave me a little extra confidence for the second half of the race. The Arkansas Traveller is an out and back course but the turnaround doesn’t come until around mile 58 and pacers are allowed from 48 through the remainder of the 100 miles. Charley joined Keith and I as we grabbed our headlamps and left for the turnaround point. The next 10 miles were a lot of fun but seemed very tough because there were so many steep downhill sections. I know it sounds weird but the downhills were killing me and I really wanted to walk. I remember saying, a million times, that I couldn’t wait for the return trip so I could walk the entire 10 miles.

A really odd thing happened at the turnaround. After running downhill all the way there, I found myself running downhill again. Huh?? This is how our mind plays tricks on us during these things I guess. Another really odd thing happened at this point. I felt great. better than I had since mile 16. Around mile 60, Charley and I started passing some of the other runners. Unfortunately, Keith didn’t feel this same surge of energy and, in the unspoken agreement common of all ultra runners, we left him behind. I’m not sure what happened here but I found myself running most of way back to the mile 48/68 aid station and passing several more runners. We made it back for my second weigh right before dark. I was very pleased to know that I just needed to run roughly a 50k in the dark. I stepped off the scale at 201.2 lbs. This meant that I had gained slightly over the past 20 miles. I understand the how and why but it still seems insane to gain weight over that distance. Whatever.

At this point, because Charley was the only crew member and the only pacer (thanks Wilson), he had to drive back to the next aid station where crews were allowed. This was mile 83 but we had hatched a plan. He would drive to the aid station and run the course backwards until he found me. Looking back, it seems insane that somebody would do that after running 20 miles in the freezing cold. Throw in the fact that he had been up since 4 a.m. and surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all day.... well, he’s a pretty good dude.

This is how I found myself in the “old war movie” with the kid taking my order. I had just stumbled down the steepest, darkest and coldest hill on the entire planet and was making my way up the exact same hill. Okay, it wasn’t the same hill. Couldn’t have been. But it seemed like it. I was sure that for the last six miles that I was in some weird parallel universe or maybe just my own private version of Ground Hog Day where nothing changes. Down one monster hill and up one monster hill. Repeat. It probably was nothing like that in reality but I was past mile 70 and that is the place where reality and fantasy converge. It has too. There is really no other explanation of how we can keep going, keep running, keep smiling, keep pretending that stumbling around on a trail in the dark through the forests of Arkansas in search of a belt buckle is somehow rational and normal behavior.

After I left the “old war movie” aid station, the trail turned into a much more runnable section and I was able to pick the pace back up. After about a mile, I could see Charley. Even in the dark, his unique running form was clear as day and made me laugh. Charley is a 2:49 marathoner with the silliest running form you will ever see. He told me we had 5 miles to go before hitting the mile 83 aid station. This was good news because the drizzle/fog had soaked my gloves and my hands were freezing. Charley is a great pacer. He knows when to push, when to pull, when to talk and when to shut up. He stayed about 10 feet in front and guided me through the rocks and around mud puddles, going just fast enough to make me want to cuss at him but just slow enough that I didn’t dare. For somebody that has never ran a 100 miler, and never will by his own declaration, his expertise and wisdom would make you believe that he is an old and wily veteran. Guess some dudes are naturally gifted. He certainly is.

“Number 75. 4th place. 202 lbs. 202? You’re doing pretty good for a big guy....” This made me smile as I stepped off the scales for the final weigh-in at mile 83. I didn’t think it was too bad either. I was pretty pleased with the weight which was, again, a slight gain and right in line with where I wanted to be. To say that I was very pleased with 4th place would be an understatement. This was the first time since the turnaround that I knew my actual position in the race. I hadn’t passed or even glimpsed another runner, other than Charley and the kid from the “old war movie”, since around mile 55. At this point, Charley had to drive back to the finish line where he would park and again run the course backwards until he found me. As we parted he predicted my finish time to be 21 hours and 30 minutes. Yeah, right. I was just hoping to finish under 24 hours and not die.

It’s a weird feeling to be running on a trail through unfamiliar territory alone in the middle of the night. Okay. It’s kind of creepy. Not like Friday the 13th creepy more like Blair Witch Project creepy. The trail was marked with yellowish glow sticks and they were staggered just far enough apart that I would start wondering if I had missed a turn and was off course. Every once in a while the glow stick would split into two. And then move. Creepy, yo.... I never did see the animals behind those eyes but some were small and some were big and they were all much faster than me. My mind wandered and I kept thinking that if I got attacked by a bear, mtn. lion or Bigfoot himself, would somebody find me? Would the dude behind me stop to help or just cruise on by? What about my belt buckle? Where was Charley?

I was within a few hundred feet of the final aid station at mile 93 when Charley came flying up the trail. Apparently, the captain of the aid station had questioned whether or not our pacing plan was legal. Charley had to wait there until she had contacted the race director and verified that he was okay to bring me in. We had never thought about this not being allowed but it was a legitimate question. Crews are only allowed at certain aid stations and I’m pretty sure that this was not something that had been discussed at the pre-race meetings with the aid station volunteers and race officials. After a 15-20 minute delay the decision was made that Charley could pace me the rest of the way and I would not be disqualified. I laughed as he filled me in because I had never thought about not finishing due to disqualification.

We walked for the next 4 miles because the trail was covered with rocks. My feet hurt, my legs hurt and the rocks were loose causing my ankle to roll when I ran. Basically, I was 94 miles in and the wheels on the bus were going flat. Charley had verified that I was indeed in 4th place and, armed with this knowledge, I was very content to walk and hold my position. We walked and laughed continuing to push toward the finish line. At some point, I talked, slurred is more like it, about eating an elephant and an IRC ghost. The only reason I know this is because it’s on the video. After what seemed like forever, we hit the gravel road. This signaled there was only 2.5 miles left to the finish line. The first half was downhill and, in some cruel joke, the final half was uphill. Charley tried ot get me to run the downhill section and I refused. My quads were screaming and there was no way I could run. Impossible dude.

Just as we hit the bottom of the hill, Charley pointed out a head lamp bouncing around and coming down the hill behind us. “Man.... I don’t want to race. #$%&!!!” Remember what I said earlier about not “racing”? Yeah, that doesn’t apply at mile 98. I decided to race and hold my position in 4th place. If this dude wanted it then he was going to have to take it from me. Every once in awhile I surprise myself and am able to push my own perceived limits just a little further. This was absolutely one of those times. I ran. Not jogged. Not stumbled. Not pimp limped. Ran, baby. It felt like I was rolling sub 6’s but I’m sure they were 10’s. Uphill. I crossed the finish line in 4th place overall with a time of 21 hours 29 minutes and 27 seconds. Looks like Charley missed it by 33 seconds. Freak.

As we stood at the finish line the dude that I was “racing” came across. He looked crazy fresh. What the???? Wait a minute.... Where was his bib number? “Oh, I’m not a runner. Just a pacer.” Uhhh.... So I killed myself racing a pacer? Hmm... Cool. My guess is that Charley knew this. Like I said before, dude knows me.

1 comment:

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