Athletic Confidence Regained
A couple years ago I tried to qualify for Boston which meant running long and fast. I failed and I injured myself. Last year I tried to run this 100 mile race, Pigtails Challenge 200/150/100. I stressed myself out and dropped at mile 73 in just over 19 hours. This lead to a slump in athletic progress, diet and training neglect, and a feeling of having just hit my limits. My athletic confidence had been shattered. Sure, I was still knocking out marathons and even got my wife running half marathons (to my surprise) and on a personal level, I was feeling great, had spousal pride and generally very happy. But still, I had this nagging problem. I just didn’t feel like I was ever going to be able to move on to a higher place, to accomplish more difficult challenges. Between work, life and all the activities we find to fill our waking moments, I could comfortably ignore this feeling. I didn’t sign up for the 100 race again but I did see something interesting on the race web site – a raffle ticket link. A bunch of race directors from around the country had donated race entries for ultras, almost all 100 milers. It’s for a great cause and I thought what the heck, who knows what chances I had to win an entry.
So I bought some raffle tickets and won. Won big. Three 100 mile races including Pigtails Challenge, NYC Expo and the Mogollon Monster 100 (which is actually 106 miles). I am thrilled to win this but wonder what I might be getting myself into. Pigtails is a great entry way to the challenge of a 100 mile race. A safe trail doing 9.4 mile loops, a short 6 mile leg start to round it up to 100 miles and with two well supported aid stations. NYC Expo is a small, low key event through the streets of NYC, one giant circle covering the entire city. There is a 100k option too which sounds more suited to how I would want to experience NYC running for the first time. Big problem is the race is the same date as a business conference I am attending with my wife so this race is being put off until 2014. The Mogollon Monster 100 is a serious trail run in northern Arizona on climbing trails at altitude over some nice mountains. In the race’s first year, 2012, 43 runners started and only 9 finished! I want to go, but I am fully expecting that if I don’t have my ducks in a row before the race (my ducks being named Diet, Strength, Health, Support and Confidence), I would be dropping at some point. But I would love to try as this country is very beautiful and similar to where I grew up in New Mexico.
Pigtails starts on Thursday with the group of runners trying for the 200 mile distance. On Friday the runners going for 150 miles start and Saturday us runners going for 100 miles start. The 200/150 runners have to finish by Sunday morning and the 100 mile runners have a cutoff of 32 hours finishing at 2pm Sunday. Starting at 6am Saturday morning, cool and crisp, we begin running.
Leg and lap 1: Easy and confident strides, speaking with new friends and waving to old running acquaintances. I know the gentle inclines and short hills that feel effortless now will grow to major obstacles.
Lap 2: Remembering that I have many more laps to do, I settle down to a comfortable pace.
Lag 3: My feet feel good so I continue the aid station without taking too much time. I am enjoying the tortillas with Havarti cheese my wife made for me the night before. Real food is really important on ultras! I’m drinking electrolyte sport mixes as well and that seems to help me through the first 5 loops but the taste turns my stomach by lap 6 and I switch to water for the remainder of the race. At the start/finish/main aid station I scarf down watermelon, orange slices, bananas and small sandwiches. Everything else just looks gross, and just the thought of trying to eat GU makes me nearly nauseous. I know on other shorter races (you know, 50k and marathons) I’ve GU, ate cookies and candies, generally any carb/sugar that fell in front of me. But now I crave healthy substance.
Lap 4: I am joined by my wife for a lap and she does a great job pacing me. She has come a long ways in the past year with her running and now can easily pace this distance. She decides I’m doing much better this year and encourages me along.
Lap 5: I am slowing down now and I can tell my toes aren’t doing well in my Montrail shoes. It’s the middle toe on each foot, tapping the top of the shoe inside on each step. Normally not an issue until you start doing lots and lots of miles. The result would be two nice little blood blisters under those toenails.
Lap 6: Before starting this lap I decide to change shoes but find my swollen feet do not fit into my second pair of trail shoes! Luckily I have also brought my Luna Sandals and change to those. I finally start this lap thinking it would be my slowest and the beginning of foot troubles. But no! The sandals were the perfect choice and I feel like I have new legs and feet! I run one of my faster laps and feel wonderfully renewed. No more toenail pain, no hot spots, all is good.
Lap 7: John Wallace III joins me as a pacer on a whim and he keeps me entertained with stories of his adventures running self-supported across America in 2004, a truly amazing feat! It’s fully dark the last few miles and I see these flashing red/green armbands, a bright head lamp, on a yellow shirted, big guy who runs by us and I realized that it’s my friend and coworker Mark Cartwright! He said he was going to come pace me but I never got his phone call. Turns out he couldn’t find my number. Well, Mark runs right past me and John while I’m yelling ‘MARK’ But Mark has his headphones in and continues running on – I’m too tired to chase him down but John volunteers. I continue marching forward and John turns around to catch Mark. After a while[JM1] , here they come and we all have a good laugh at our reunion. I am at what has to be my second happiest point during the race. In fact, I’ve been the smiling fool this entire race, never a dark moment.
This marks the first main goal of this race to be accomplished, beating the distance and time from my attempt last year. I covered the same distance shaving off over 2 hours. I’m happy. But I am getting tired and my coach (my wife) says that it’s time for a break. It’s just after 11 PM and we take off to clean me up, rest for a bit and get some clean run gear. I’m lucky to live so close to the race course! By 5 AM I am back and running.
Lap 8: I feel great, the morning is beautiful and I can immediately see which runners took a break and which runners kept going. Sure, not taking a break means you finish earlier but at what cost physically and mentally? I knew my total running time was going to be over 24 hours so I figured I would rather take a nice break and run healthy, happy. A couple runners out there were looking ready for the medics! I was really concerned for them, but those people were making a personal choice and have their own agenda, goals, different from mine.
Lap 9: I’m doing the math now and counting hours vs. pace. I’m doing well and have plenty of time to finish as long as I can keep moving forward, and stay at a steady pace. I’m alternating running and walking efficiently. Another very accomplish runner here on the Pigtails Challenge course is Ras Jason Vaughan (the Ultrapedestrian Ras) who has just completed his 200 mile distance earlier this morning. I had just read his blog earlier in the week describing his incredible journey crossing the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim no less than 3 times! One of his tips on how he kept himself moving when all he wanted to do is stop, is saying ‘OK, I will take 100 steps and take a break if I need it’. So I would run for a bit and when I wanted to walk, I would start counting to 100 before either continuing to run or walk. If I walked, I would again count to 100 steps, assess how I felt and usually, I was ready to start running again. My lap time is pretty good and I have plenty of time before the 32 hour cut off.
Lap 10: I think I was more mentally tired than physical tired. I was tired and this would be my slowest lap. But I knew I had this and while tired, I was not hurting and felt healthy. About half way through the lap I receive a call. My wife is going to meet me and pace me to the finish. This immediately has a positive effect, I pick up the pace and run to meet her. We finish the last mile together, hand in hand most of the time. She also special delivered a can of Diet Mountain Dew! Yes! I pound it like a teenage with a beer.
Finished! I come in at 30 hours, 50 minutes. There is only one other runner left on the course, Kathy, wife of Ras, and she is working on her first 100 miler as I was. While we wait for her to finish, I am given the VIP treatment by Jess Mullen, who has ran at 15 of these 100miler or greater distance races including Badwater! Betsy Rogers, another accomplished ultra-runner, cooks me hotdogs to order while her husband Matt Hagen entertains us all with humorous running stories. Van Phan, our race director anxiously paces, exhausted with her fantastic efforts to put on this great, challenging, family fun oriented race. Every time I came into the aid station it was like a family picnic with yummy foods, kids playing and lots of social mixing.
We wrap up after race course is closed and come home. I’ve done it and feel good. However within 24 hours I feel something shift, something different, a feeling I haven’t had in a long time, confidence in my ability to achieve more than what I thought possible. I feel a new dedication to my training, my diet. I lost weight during the race as expected, but haven’t gained any of it back and continue to work on getting back to my optimal running weight. One restful week after the race, I feel ready to begin training and I’ve expanded my cross training routine. What’s next? Big city marathons like Seattle Rock’N’Roll, my favorite low key family style marathons like First Call and I’m now doing half-marathons with my wife now (we both just became Half Fanatics). Will I be running 100 mile ultras again? Only time will tell! Whatever I do, I know I will give it my best.