Friday, November 30, 2018

A Sudden Change of Plans

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”    ~ Paulo Coelho

Coming into Winfield, mile 51
The first half of 2018 went quite well:  A BQ in Feb, an awesome, new for me, 50k in Moab in March, a death-march through the frigid monsoon of Boston, and then 10 days later a moderately successful run at the very challenging The Canyons 100k, collecting my 4th year lottery ticket for Western States.

That was the first half of the year. Now, what next? Well, another go at LT100, of course...Third time's a charm, or, third strike and you're out...
Well, Leadville 2018 did not go as hoped, and that repeating theme has me vexed, and leaves me, mid-August, with a gnawing dissatisfaction.

********************************************
How I hoped it would not end:

As we emerge from the trees at the base of the Hope Pass descent inbound, the lights from Twin Lakes look so close. I already know that those lights are where my race will end. I've been here before. This time feeling better and a bit closer to the cusp. But in the end, that matters little. I warn Peter that those shining beacons are not as close as they look and we still have the fun of crossing the icy cold river. I look north into the darkness, where I know the trail goes on past Twin Lakes up towards Mt. Elbert, where I should be right now, and I see head lamps bouncing up the steady climb. It's about 10:15 and I'm about a mile from Twin Lakes, but the cut-off is 10:00 p.m.. Why, I think to myself, are lights there now? No one should still be there at this time.

As we quickly walk through the damp chilled meadow, Peter and I talk about the adventures we've been on over the course of our almost 30 year relationship - but this one is new, at least for him, and new for me in that he is with me for the first time during an ultra. He has seen me in a way he probably never has before.

"Just so you know, I won't be trying this again. This is it. There are too many other things I want to do, and time is running out." I say as we jog slowly, side by side, the moon behind, illuminating Mt. Hope and the pass that looks so painfully beautiful from here.

We pass a couple parties coming out looking for their runners. It's well past 10 now, and we are minutes away from Twin Lakes. I watch as the headlamps continue bouncing their way up the three mile climb out of the aid station. So close and yet so far.

I learn later that the cut-off was extended to 10:15, which explains why I saw those light when they should not have been there. There is no way I could have known that, but something inside me wonders, what if? What if I had known? Would I have been able to make it? That's a question that I will never be able to answer.

As we run into Twin Lakes remaining crew clap and say "Good job runners". I laugh. I want to cry but I'm too defeated to cry. I'm just done. Done. Done with it all.

My daughter runs to me and gives me a hug and I hold her tight. I am so thankful to have her in my arms.
*************************
To be honest, I did my best that day. One of the things about Leadville is that for those who need to be mindful of cutoffs there is no letting up for at least the first 63 miles. It is very hard to be pressing for 17 or 18 hours, knowing that you have no wiggle room, no time to let up. Keep pushing on. There is no time for lolly-gagging. This race was, and remains, the only race where I've had to think constantly about the time. I have no margin for error. But throughout the day I am frustrated with the logistics of this particular race: The number of runners, the singletrack sections that get bottled up, and the out and back course. All these can add to so many wasted minutes, minutes that add up for me. Thinking back, I easily lost 10-15 minutes around Turquoise Lake, another 5-10 leaving May Queen, then I'd estimate a good 20-30 minutes just covering the last section on Hope Pass above Hopeless aid station, caught behind two very long and very slow conga lines. Then dealing with traffic coming back up from Winfield. When I look at the GPS data and how I was moving at different points, I estimate losing at least an hour, and possibly more, just on the outbound 50 miles and this is not due to AS management, as I spent very little time at any AS and I made up a lot of time on sections that are more open.

Leadville is followed by some low and pessimistic days. I'm pretty confident I could finish this race, but I really feel that the traffic jams for the first 50 miles may be a deal killer for me. Could I somehow improve on this? I don't really know. A lot of it is not in my control, and trying to beat the crowds by going out much faster for the first 5 miles, seems a bad strategy as well.  But, if I pace well, only to be stuck behind folks who don't get that making cutoffs is not enough here, then that strategy fails as well.

It's a difficult situation and one I do not know how to resolve, except to move on.

********************************
After Leadville the plan was to take the rest of the year basically for recovery: Just fun stuff, no pressure, except I still was on the wait list for the Barkley Fall Classic - But if I had finally completed LT100 then I could have let the rest of the year be what it would be. But running the Leadville 100k (with the added distance to and from Winfield, Twin Lake inbound is now at about 63 miles) is a bit of a crusher. This is the problem with DNFs: You've run a long way, and maybe it was a great adventure, perhaps you learn a lot, but you haven't actually done anything, except that you have. This is a tricky time because most runners don't believe that they "deserve" a rest, a recovery, a downtime.

One of the things I've been feeling all year is that I've lost a lot of speed. My focus for The Canyons is getting in as much weekly vert as I can, which I discover is super challenging during the winter. But with 15,000 feet of gain and 15,000 feet of loss over a 100k, I know that that is key to finishing. For Leadville I actually focus on the running - since most of Leadville is very runnable, and most don't train well (including myself in past years) for that instead focusing on the climbing. I also add in a LOT of heat training since the physiological adaptations for heat are very similar to those for altitude. But, running at the hottest times of day also slow me down. By August I feel slow, heavy, sloggy...
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And like that, I decide to completely shift gears. I've wanted to run Tunnel Hill 50 for several years, but it's never fit into my schedule. Suddenly it dawns on me that I can do it but that means pulling myself off the BFC waitlist. Right now I don't feel that what I need is more hill slogging, so I sign up for the Tunnel Hill 50 miler. This I hope to be a "fast" 50, something I love running and have been missing.

I give myself a couple weeks to recover from Leadville and I'm back at it, now reintroducing more tempos and timed pick-ups into the mix. I'm still slow, and that's hard to see, but each week I feel a little better.

Since January, I've been dealing with some breathing issues which I've never had before. At first the issues come and go and I don't really take note of them. But then they become more persistent. I finally email my doctor and she orders me an inhaler for exercise induced asthma. But it doesn't really help. All winter, spring and summer I deal with wheezing and shortness of breath, but it is not predictable. Finally during the Silver Rush 50, at about 12,000 feet, after a horrendous electrical storm hits a group of us circling around Ball Mountain, I am wheezing and hacking for the next 18 odd miles. On track for a 12ish hour finish and feeling good up to then, I drag my hacking self for the last third of the race into the finish at 13:42. The next day I email my doctor again, knowing that LT100 is out of the question if that happens again. She sends me in for a full pulmonary function test, which comes back normal. My theory is that I have chronic sinusitis, which is the root of things. She decides to give my theory a go, and I start daily nasal steroids, which seem to help within days. And with only one little bout prior to LT100 (during Chase the Moon 12 hr), things seem to be better.

Fast forward to three weeks before Tunnel Hill: I am suddenly, and for no discernible reason, wheezing and hacking again on every run, and for hours after every run: Fast, slow. Warm, cold. Windy, calm. Wet, dry. It does not matter. And with that, my "fast" 50 chances seem slim to none. I really have no interest in just running a 50. And, I consider dropping.

I try everything that first week: Sudafed, nasal steroids, homeopathic remedies, nasal irrigation, humidifies, everything I can think of to try. I have one really good run two weeks out. I've taken sudafed, my inhaler, and nasal steroids, and run my fastest run in months. I feel like myself again. I can breath! Of course, running and taking sudafed is NOT a good idea, and I know that. But, as it turns out, that doesn't matter, because that good run was not to be repeated.

So, about a week and a half out, I try to figure out what my options are.  On a whim, I email Steve Durbin, the RD for Tunnel Hill:

"I know both races are full, but I'm wondering if it's possible to switch from the 50 to the 100?"


He quickly responds:"Yes. I’m limited on the total number of runners. I’ll switch you." 


Oh shit, I think: "Let me check a few things before I commit"


"Sure. I can move you up as late as packet pick up on friday." 


What have I done? Why did I ask that? I'm not trained for a 100! I mull this over for a couple days. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking...this idea that popped randomly into my head, now has me clenched in its fist.
“It sounds plausible enough tonight, but wait until tomorrow. Wait for the common sense of the morning.” ~ H.G. Wells
Well, I have no desire to just run a sub-par 50. That was not the goal here. So, if that's all that's possible, I don't want to do it. But, finishing the 100. That I could get excited about, even if it's also terrifying.

On Friday, one week before the race, I take a deep breath and hit "send":


"Okay. I'd like to switch from the 50 to the 100."


"I’ll switch you  

Thanks, Steve
See you soon"
Believe you can and you’re halfway there. ~ Theodore Roosevelt
The next week I spend stalking Weatherunderground, seeing with each passing day an increasingly frigid forecast, fretting over attire and logistics, and quieting intermittent panic attacks and WTF moments! 

Just before bed, the night before I leave, my leg milagro, which I've worn since receiving it at the Hideaway 50k in Sept 2017, breaks, falling to the ground. I hold few superstitions, but those I hold are strong. I tuck it into the zipped pocket of my Salomon vest. I can't run without it, but I fear this is some sort of portentous omen.


Friday morning I leave my silent, sleeping house at 3:30 am., almost miss my flight to St. Louis, drive two hours to Marion, IL, and collapse at the hotel, bleary eyed but unable to nap. It's only 1 p.m., but I'm just done. Sandra, who's running the marathon on Sunday, is due to arrive some time soon and I'll need to let her in, so I tell myself I will nap after. That never happens. We go to packet pick up, and then return to the hotel to eat and watch mindless TV. I usually try to find a Wholefoods to get a salad bar concoction of brown rice and tofu and veggies for my night-before dinner, but, I discover that the salad bar at 9 a.m. in St. Louis is mostly breakfast stuff and a few cold salads. A real "DUH" moment for me, but there certainly isn't a Wholefoods anywhere beyond St. Louis in this neck of the woods. So, I'm eating several mystery concoctions of cold pasta, potatoes, and under-cooked veggies.

We turn in kind of early, thanks to Sandra being good about these things, and...I actually sleep a bit, which is unusual the night before a 100.

We both wake up a few minutes before our alarms, and stumble down the hall to get our first cups of coffee. There is a 5:30 a.m. silent bustle of runners and hunters.

The forecast now is for a high of 35 degrees and a low in the teens. With sunset at about 4:45 and sunrise at 6:30, it's going to be a long, dark, cold night. Trying to plan to have everything I need at various points given these conditions is a bit nerve wracking. I am also worrying about my breathing. I have all the things I hope I will need, but if the wheezing hits I will just have to play it by ear. I hate having these uncontrollable concerns hanging over me.

We head off to the start in separate cars since Sandra will come back to sleep, and then drive back again to run the next morning. She follows me. I have no cell signal and though we made the half hour drive the evening before, I miss an exit, which I realize immediately. She exits. I see her calling but the signal won't allow me to answer. I do an illegal u-turn and gun it back to where I should be. She's stopped on the shoulder farther back. I stop, waving and blowing my horn until she sees me - and, we are back on track...I think. I choose to see this as my jinx for the day.

At the start area, runners are huddled in one small, somewhat heated building. Thank god for that building. It will be a life saver later. Abbie arrives ready to run her first 50 miler.



And we're sort of ready to go. And, we all just sort of start running, doing a loop around the park before heading south for the first 26 out and back miles.


I, optimistically, have shorts under my light Houdini pants. But those pants never come off until I trade that entire kit in for thick fleece pants, at 50 miles, for the icy cold night to come.

As the first mile beeps, we sing:
"99 bottle of beer on the wall, 
99 bottles of beer.
You take one down,
pass it around..." 
and then wait for the next mile to continue.
I will continue to do this into the wee hours, though I will lose count.

For the first 10+ miles out to Karnack, things tick along fine. Abbie and I run comfortably, chatting - I learned what a "slough" is as opposed to a "slew", and we catch up on kid doings and life - and so far my breathing is working fine.

As the sun rises higher, the trail glows orange, light filtering through the autumn leaves. It will not look like this the next time I come this way.

We come into Karnack and Sandra is there. Since she is not technically crewing, I was not sure when I would see her other than in Vienna which we will return to after this first 26 miles and then again at 50 miles. Abbie has a couple friends crewing for her, so they are also there.


Neither of us need anything at this point so we just continue on to the turnaround three more miles out.

By 12ish miles I am starting to think that I need to pace myself better. Tunnel Hill is a non-technical, fairly flat race. Most see this as "easy". But while the terrain may be easy, it is also very easy to run yourself into the ground early on. I keep reminding myself that I'm not running the 50. We hit the first turnaround and a bit later I decide to take a pit stop off the trail. I tell Abbie to go on. I'll catch up or I won't. I see her ahead for the next 2 miles, but I decide it's best not to try to catch up. That quick pee-stop, however, has initiated some throat stuff, which is how the coughing always starts. I get back to Karnack, at mile 16, and the coughing begins as we work to refill my bottles and restock my gels. It's just a little cough, but it's there. As I walk out of the aid station getting everything back where it belongs, I pull out my inhaler and give it a puff. For the first time ever, I actually feel it help. Soon I start running again. Now I decide that with each mile beep I will walk a tenth of a mile. I do this for the next 10 miles.

I return to Vienna and restock.


And then I head north for the next 24 mile out and back. The first nine miles is a steady, but modest, uphill. It's not hard, but nine miles of that is grinding. A few miles out, Zach Bitter flies by about to finish his first 50 on track for a 100 mile WR.

Just before the famous Tunnel, for which the race is named, I see Abbie walking ahead. I stop and walk with her. She's cold, nauseous, and pretty darn miserable. We're about 35 miles in, which is when things get really tough for a first 50.  We are about a mile from the Tunnel Hill AS, so I tell her to just get there, get some warm clothes and to just keep going. I start an easy jog as I see the tunnel appear.

The tall sandstone walls along the trail block out any sun, and it gets very damp and cold. Long ice-cycles hang from the cliffs above. This is going to be kind of creepy at night, I think to myself. I come into Tunnel Hill AS do a quick refuel, and head out for the last two miles to the turnaround. When I return to the AS I decide to change shoes. I love my light Altra Escalates but I trade them in for a bit more shoe, and though I don't need a trail shoe for this trail, my Lone Peaks are just what I want.

Abbie comes in just as I'm about to leave. After feeling like quitting 10 miles ago, she now has, 9.7 miles to go. Being under 10 is important at this point. I can't take it, having 59.7 to go. Laughing, I say "I have to leave now. I'm sure I'll see you shortly."

All day I've been thinking about the fact that I have to do this all again, but in the dark and alone. I also think about how the next time I'm here, I will be almost done. Then I will only have 9.7 miles left.

The trip back to Vienna is uneventful. Abbie passes me at some point and as the sun sinks it starts to get bitterly cold. With a couple miles to go, I can feel my core getting chilled. I need a complete clothing change in Vienna. Darkness hits just before I get to the AS and I reluctantly pull out the headlamp. I come into Vienna having run the first 50 miles in 10:38.

Sandra has my stuff in the small heated building which is buzzing with activity. Lots of runners mill around having finished their 50 and getting ready go go home, or go out for a celebratory beer. Abbie finishes about 8 minutes before me and she is heading out with her friends and her mom home (her mom lives not that far away). Everything in me wants to end this here. I whine that I want to leave too, somewhat in jest, but not. The race allows you to drop at 50 miles and get the 50 mile finish and buckle. The rate for 100 mile drops to 50 is deceptively high for this race since the stats don't reflect it as DNFs. Many 100 milers drop here. I remind myself that I did not come here for that. I dump my stuff in a small hallway and just strip down and change. I don't even care. Everything comes off. On goes: Fleece pants, Balega wool socks, gaiters, Smartwool quarter zip long sleeve shirt, light Patagonia puffy jacket (donated by Abbie), UD Ultra jacket over all of that, buff, wool double layer mittens, hat, headlamp, a charger to recharge my watch, refilled bottles, extra packets of Tailwind, gels (GUs, HUMA, and Honey Stingers), Honey Stinger waffles, and hand warmers. Lots and lots of handwarmers (thanks to Sandra). I go outside and head to the food tent and get a big bowl of noodle soup.

For the next 50 miles, soup will save me!
When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.~Ralph Waldo Emerson
I reluctantly leave the warmth and cheery lights and human company of the tent and head toward the darkness beyond. I give Sandra a hug and tell her to go back to the hotel now and sleep. I'm good. She protests a bit but knows that I want to do this alone from here. And, she has her own race tomorrow.

This is when things really start getting grim. Everyone is just bundled up and plugging along. I jog, I walk, I jog, I walk. For the rest of the night it is a battle to maintain any body heat. Running is necessary to keep warm. At the AS five miles out, they have pancakes. OMG. Pancakes! Those pancakes are the best. I walk out with a handful and savor their homey warmth.

Onward, onward. I get to the turnaround, and say to myself, "I don't have to come back here again!" At Karnack inbound I have more soup, change my headlamp batteries, and head on. I start thinking about those pancakes. For the next five miles I think about those pancakes. My bottles are freezing up. I try to hold my mouth over the nozzles to warm them, but it's a loosing battle. It's so cold that pulling out a gel and actually eating it is a huge effort. I need to get to those pancakes. I need some Coke. I walk up to the aid station with happy anticipation. But there are no pancakes. They've run out of fuel. There's nothing left. No coke, no chips...no pancakes. I want to cry. The group of us standing there, a look of disbelief on our faces, are by no means even close to the last runners. There are runners hours behind us.

To note, the race does a phenomenal job managing a very difficult situation. These temps are record breaking for this area at this time of year, and they really rise to the occasion. This is the only chink in the armor all day and night. But, for me, it is a bad time for this to happen

I leave deflated. The next five miles are so, so, so long. I want to hope for soup in Vienna, but I'm afraid to risk that hope.

Then at long last the night lights up. I come into Vienna at mile 76ish. I grab my stuff, now covered in a layer of what almost appears to be rime ice, and head indoors. Inside is a scene of destruction. Runners are sprawled out, all over the floor. Some in sleeping bags, some curled up under jackets, some waiting for friends beneath electric blankets (brought in by the race). I try to keep my wits about me. The next 10 miles are going to be rough. There's an AS a little over 2 miles out, but then nothing besides some water jugs (which will probably be frozen) until the Tunnel Hill AS. I need to make sure I have everything I need for the cold hours to come. I so desperately do not want to go back out there, but I stuff those thoughts, get busy with the tasks at hand, and don't allow those electric blankets seduce me.

I take my dropbag back out, drop it with the others and head to the food tent. Thankfully there is still plenty of soup! A runner, who has just finished, is at the table, excitedly relating his story to his friends. One friend stands up and says "Dude, I still have 24 miles to go". Yeah, that's what I was going to say.  I refill my soup and leave the warmth and light behind and walk toward that mat that beckons the frigid darkness. I disappear into it, sipping soup and knowing that the next time I'm here will be a good time.

It's now that these types of courses are mentally tough for me. We're at about 19 hours in and some are coming in to finish. I say "great job" as each runner passes, but I hate them. No. That's not right. I don't hate them. I hate ME. I hate being me. I hate that I'm not them!! I just need to keep moving forward. Every step takes me closer to the last turnaround. And for the next 12 miles that's all I'm focused on. It's just a night and this night will pass. The question is, how will I let it pass?

This part of the race you see very few people. Occasionally you pass someone, or someone passes you. But it is very dark, and quiet, and bone-chilling cold. There are long stretches of nothing but darkness and the tunnel of light my headlamp provides. Time ceases to exist. It's just me and my footsteps, the cold, the fuel management, the breathing. I use my inhaler two more times during the night. Each time it, thankfully, keeps things at bay.

I get to the tunnel, and yes, it is a bit creepy at night, and then I see the light of the AS beckon through the darkness. All their coke is frozen solid. They have some strange ramen type soup, but it will have to do. The last two+ miles to the turn around are the worst, mentally, for me. It just never seems to come. "Where are the freaking lights!?!" Finally I see them. Two women sit in the dark, Christmas lights adorning their small tent. "You guys win for decoration." I tell them. We laugh, I take a sip of unfrozen coke, and then I turn around.

I turn around for the last time. I am finally heading home.

But as I pass through the Tunnel Hill AS for the last time, I am well aware that this is still not a done deal. Having suffered from Hypothermia in the past, I know how fast it can catch you. I've been cold now for hours, 14 hours to be exact. 14 hours of brutal cold following many hours of general cold, and it takes its toll. I know I haven't been fueling. Every time I eat, I have to expose skin, so there's a mental game to be played. Eat...freeze...eat...freeze. Which shall I pick now?  But I know I need to eat to keep generating heat. I need to eat so that I can occasionally run when I feel my core temperature drop dangerously low. Over the past several hours I've had moments where I have not been entirely lucid - several times, at bridges crossing steep ravines, I almost miss the bridge as the leave-covered trail blends in with the leave-covered grass in the darkness. These moments shake me as I look down at the drop just steps away.

As the sun begins to lighten the horizon, I look at my watch. My sub-24 hour hope died many miles ago. Spending 60+ (total) minutes redressing and reassessing at miles 50 and 76 did not help.  But had I not taken that time, things most likely would not end well. Doing the math about 6 miles from the finish, I decide that I want a time that starts with 25. That is all: 25-something. Just then the marathon runners begin to pass, going out toward the tunnel. Almost every single one of them cheers me on: "You're awesome", "You're amazing", "Great job!" I smile and weakly thank them, but they add a little pep-to-my-step. As I approach an underpass, a few miles from the finish, I see Sandra running towards me with a group of marathon runners. They all cheer me on and Sandra gives me a hug. "I will be there when you finish" I tell her.

From that point I just run. The last aid station is full of happy volunteers some of whom have not slept much. There is no way that I'm stopping now, but I call out, "Thank you volunteers for being out  here with us for this long and cold night!" They clap and cheer me on, tell me I look great, which is a lie, but I like it...

Many times, all through the day and more so through the night, I think of that sign, often held by cheering supporters: "Someday you won't be able to do this. This is not that day".  And that thought keeps me from stopping time and time again.

And as I near the finish, I am so thankful for this horrible night. I am thankful for getting through it. I am thankful for sharing some of this journey with friends. I am thankful for doing most of this alone. I am even thankful for it being harder than it should have been.

But, at this moment, I am most thankful for being done.

25:49:18.
PR
2020 WSER Lottery qualifier, #5



So while I was not trained to run 100 miles and I did not plan to run 100 miles, and the decision to try to do so was, in many ways, a bit foolhardy, somehow, in spite of it all, I managed to run 100 miles and I did that only because I wanted something. That something was simple and raw and real: I wanted to do what I thought I could not do but what I believed I could do.

Sometimes it's best to think less and believe more.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.” ~Roald Dahl

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