62+ miles in and I am laying down just off the side of the trail trying to settle myself. There is less than a mile and a half to go and I'm at one of the worst places I have ever been in a race. I'd been dry-heaving for a spell at this point. My body was spent and broken. I'd been using a branch on and off again throughout as a 'nature's trekking pole'. Now I had two and I wasn't even climbing. Despite not having the race I planned, there was a shot at a respectable sub 13 hour finish and top 5 placing. There was an hour and eighteen minutes to cover a supposed 4.5 miles with a big climb coming out of the last aid station (58.2 mile). Yet, here I was now, taking 3-5 minute laydowns on the trail to move a couple of hundred feet before rinsing and repeating all because I could not stop the urge to dry-heave when moving upright.
How the heck did I wind up here like this?
To answer that question, we have to go back to last May. I had targeted World's End as a challenging 100K A-race but never made the starting line due to a bout of anxiety. Still wanting to challenge myself, I looked into the Twisted Branch Trail Run up in NY. It was the 100K distance I had missed out on at WE. And to boot it was sponsored by Montrail. I entered the race. Going in, I was fit and ready to go only to not make the starting line. While sleeping my truck, around 1am, I woke up with half my nose swollen. Opting to be medically cautious, I immediately drove home.
So this year around Feb, the race director, Scott Magee reached out to me to see if I was interested in participating in this year's race. My response amounted to something along the lines of HELL YEAH!!! This immediately became my summer A-race. I was excited to see what I could do on this course. Also, Twisted Branch fit in nicely with other plans leading up to the event except until they didn't.
Apparently, the time between February and August is a long time where anything can happen. Heck, the time between mid-June when I ran TGNY 100 and mid-August is a long time. It was within this span, that the seeds to me laying on the trail were borne. Except, I didn't really know it.
It was in this span that my life stresses severely spiked. Or at least the stress levels spiked for me. Another person might have reacted differently. Without bogging down in those details, three main things happened. Deck added onto the house (planned financial stress but still stressful for me nonetheless), important project at work thrust on me suddenly on the day I return from a mini-vacation and my company being acquired. Other stress points did too but I'd rather not write all day on what gives me stress. (You've probably already heard enough in the history of this blog.) I started to unravel. At one point, Peg mentioned to me that it didn't look like I was enjoying running. Let's face it, I wasn't enjoying much period. (And I'm confessing I was not my best self. I just didn't realize it. Just keep going.) With these stress points, I was spending a lot of time in the 'fight or flight' phase. It's incredibly taxing on the body and doesn't resolve itself quickly, even if you think you move past it.
Anyways, I was still looking forward to the race and felt confident that I was fit. Going in, I felt I could win and at worst top 3. Considering there was prize money this year, it gave me extra incentive to throw down. Of course, I had to get to the race site first. For this, it was going to require 5 hours of driving. Ugh. It could be I've done too many of these drives or just hate long trips in the car but it was the part of this I was looking forward to the least. With having to get up to Hammondsport for the shuttle to the start/camp on Friday night by 6pm, I opted to leave my house around 10am so I could read and relax a bit. Settle myself down from the drive it you will. After having to stop at three stores to pick up Shot Blocs (REI had them while the two cycling shops where I have gotten them in the past were out, in addition to another cycling shop and running store being out earlier in the week), I was on the PA Turnpike NE Extension on my way. After driving throw some scary rain with a gas refill and Arby's fry stop, I made it around 4pm where I relaxed in the back of the truck for a bit.
Eventually, I caught the shuttle out to the overnight camping at Ontario County Park. The location to camp was awesome. Arriving at 7pm to get my bib and catch an 8:15 race brief made it a tad later to settle in than I would like. Especially, since I had to set up a tent and have everything ready for a 3am wake-up, dress and repack for a 4am start. A little reading and Sudoku relaxed me until it was time to sleep. I slept well and woke up nervous but ready. I had decided to race with my Nathan VaporKrar pack with ExoShot bottles filled with Tailwind upfront. In the upper pockets, I had my ShotBlocs. I also had my Nathan Hipster on in the event the ShotBlocs bothered me where they were located. (Never ended up needing to transfer.) Shoe wise, I went with Montrail FKT's. I knew the course had various terrain and heard the stories of the course beating people up (Hello, 44% finishing rate.) and felt it would be the right shoe. I had considered going to LaSportiva Vertical K's but given the rolling of the course and the feeling the shoes a bit too tight for my liking in that moment of decision, I left them 'on the shelf'.
4am hit and we were off. A small group of us formed single file pretty quickly. It was a friendly talkative group and that made me happy. There was talk about shoes. The trail ahead. Rich Heffron and I did some chatting about Philadelphia. Around the first aid station, Jim Sweeney pulled away on a long road section. He was locked in. Rich and I gained on him as we were together, until we were no longer. My race all changed with a simple down tree. For whatever reason, I am not entirely sure, going over that tree spiked the sensation of anxiety. For me, I feel that in my chest/heart. From a couple of years ago when I was knowingly running with anxiety and dropping out of races, I knew it was not necessarily a level of my ability or being over/undertrained. However, I did not come up to Twisted Branch to DNF. Immediately, I went into manage mode. Mind you, I am not even 12.5 miles in to the beast. This was way too early but I figured I could recover. Keep running smooth. Keep the sensation down (which in the middle of the race, I referred to as my heart rate spiking.) What I really needed was to get into a rhythm. One big problem with that. This race does not allow for much rhythm if you are not on. It is the perfect opportunity to just be flailing endlessly. And to be honest, that is the way to describe my day. Decent patches mixed with horrible patches. If you look at my section splits, 4 sections, one of which is my last, were attrocious. Otherwise, it was not all that horrible of a race. But when those bad sections cause you to lose 20+ minutes to the top 3, you are in for it. I was in for it.
After the second aid station, Scotie Jacobs passed me. I just couldn't even muster any sense of keeping contact at that point. Then I got into a groove on a downhill only to miss a right turn. During my backtrack hike up the hill, I was passed falling into 5th. In fact, I was behind two other people making the turn as I picked back up the trail again so I was in 7th. Eventually, I moved back up into 5th and yo-yo'd with Seth Almekinder (now a 3-time race finisher) throughout much of the next few aid stations before pulling away some after The Patch AS around mile 35.6. At no point was I really enjoying much of anything. Normally, I feel like I'm taking in the scenery even if the day is rough. At Twisted Branch, I was so far into the suffer well, I was not even taking mental pictures for my memory bank to appreciate.
I kept adjusting my goals. Going in to the race, it was win. Then it was place third. (A sub 11 was also included in there.) Now it was make it under 12 hours. I told myself make it 40 miles in 8 hours and I have a shot maybe. Still I was thinking 14 hours was more realistic.
When I hobbled my way into Bud Valley at just before 40 miles, I got a surprise. Pat Heine, another member of the Pennsylvania trail/ultra runner community, asked if I wanted a pacer. Considering where I was, it was a most welcome offer. I said 'sure' and after downing some coke, we were off. Right off the bat, I pretty much laid out the landscape: my day sucked, looking likely at 14 hours and my pace is crap. Not to mention I was still continuing to have 'anxiety spikes'. When they got bad, I would sit on a log or rock to re-center myself. Somewhere in there I apologized for being slower than my normal self. Pat was a sport. He was originally crewing/pacing a friend of his who dropped out. Having Pat did give me a boost as evidenced by the third fastest segment time of the day to the next aid station. Mike Welden who say me at AS3, remarked I looked better when I reached AS 8 at Glenbrook. Of course, I followed that with a lousy segment that may or may not have been the one where I sat down at a cemetery in the middle of the course. What I do remember is having to sit on a log in a spot that Pat ran into people he knew. It was also in this segment that I laid down for a couple of minutes on the side of a gravel road stretch. For everything Bud Valley to Glenbrook was, this was almost the complete opposite. One thing that was decent feedback was, when I was moving, I moved well. Just I couldn't keep it consistent. Arriving at Lake David took forever. However, I managed to string two decent sections together. Pat told me when hit 6 min pace for a couple of segments.
At Mitchellsville, I sat down and got some coke on ice along with some great course info what lied ahead. A short 3 mile section and a 5 mile stretch. The 3 mile stretch was my favorite of the day (here is one of the rare mental images of the course, I have) despite going left when I should gone right again. This cost a minute or two. Still, as we neared the last aid station, the potential for a sub 13 was out there. I had an hour and twenty minutes to go 4.5 miles (gonna say it now....BS this stretch is longer.) I felt good and told Pat I was going to power up the climb that stood before us. And using one of nature's handy poles, I was. Then at some point, things went south. Bad. Mentally, the course broke me as I didn't know at what point the descent began. And then, physically, I wanted to dry-heave. Still we moved. Periodically, I was asking Pat how far we had gone (I don't race with a GPS watch) and pace. Both figures pointed to still a good shot at sub 13. We hit the little road section before the final switchback down on the Triad Trail. Or course, we hit the Triad Trail and it is not fully downhill and I'm done. I just shut down. I'd been stopping to dry-heave before we hit the road but now I needed to do that AND lay down on the trail. I was trying to search the landscape to see how close to the bottom we were but I couldn't find it. It just looked too far. With that, I broke. Seth ended up passing me with less than a mile to go. And then as I laid down what ended up being around 1/2 mile from the finish, two more people passed me dropping me to 8th. I was toasted. I was not using two branches to keep me up and moving. Not too fast or I would begin to dry-heave again. Eventually, the finish was in sight. And instead of running it in like a moment of glory, I walked with my branches accompanied by Pat over the line. The final section took me 1:58 minutes. For perspective, Seth finished 27 minutes ahead of me for 5th after being 13 minutes behind me coming out of the last aid station. I will say finishing by the lake is pretty cool and I think I would have appreciated it more on a different day.
Upon dragging my carcass over the line, I took off my pack and laid down. Scott, the RD, got me some ice to put under my neck. I can't remember who said it but I was told to also try to get some under my armpits for cooling me down. Not going to lie, it was pleasant just laying there. Whatever was going on around me really didn't matter. I didn't have to get up because at that point, I didn't have anywhere to go. My suffering was over.
Really have to thank Pat Heine immensely for offering to be a surprise pacer. Pat was the hero of the day. I really would not have been able to finish the way I did without him. Even with my needing to dry-heave, lay down, whatever, he did keep me moving. Mentioning how long I was down for at moments was an incredibly helpful nudge. He was a breath of fresh air and allowed me to not be in my own head for the 6 hours and 25 miles on the course together.
Also, want to thank Scott Magee for organizing such a well run event. Sure, some of the logistics for solo folks between the start/finish is hard, especially with a 4am start time, it appeared to have gone off without a hitch. Sorry, I couldn't put on a better show. Of course, I don't think that matters with the show Jim Sweeney put on in crushing the course record by 50 minutes! Thanks so much for having me.
Many many thanks to the volunteers. All of them were beyond incredible. They really made an impact in getting me to the finish.
Now, when I started this blog post, I included 'Lessons & Reflections' in the title. Much of what I have said tackles my reflections of the race as those in the moment points but not necessarily the real crux.
Trust me, this is going to be short.
- Running after/with anxiety is hard. It might be a sign to scale back. This is one of those lessons I think I know but keep forgetting. Pushing through is counterproductive.
- Usually, on a bad day, historically, I've taken the DNF. I'm proud to have pushed through to finish. While not the redemption I wanted, it got me there unlike last year when I never saw the start. I adjusted as needed to throughout.
That's it. Told you it would be short. Those really are the biggest takeaways worth noting.
Where do I go from here?
Originally, I planned on another 100K at the end of next month out in CO. It is flat and multi-loop. Considering still going out and doing a different distance. I'll take the next two weeks to see. A vacation in the woods is around the corner. Those always help so it would be foolish to completely write off the 100K but right now if I had to guess, it is likely a 50K if I make the trip.
Chances are getting in another 100 Mile in this year is probably too much for me. I need to cut some stress load and the logistic worry of planning for one might be completely counterproductive to the long term.
At this moment in time, I might just need a season of local 5K's. (Let's be clear this does not rule out any long races. I just probably should not be doing 1-2 drive a month of 3-5 hours.) Little travel and less time from a race perspective might be what I need. To circle back around to Peg's comment about looking like I'm not having fun, I need to get back to that fun. You could say there is more to life. I just don't always remember that with tunnel vision.