Thursday, September 4, 2008

Arkansas Traveller 100M Oct 07

One of many ways to prepare for a race is to read other runner’s racing blogs. The two common denominators for advise is to expect the unexpected and 100 miles is like living a lifetime. Both are very true and I should only live to be 67.7 years old. The very thing I thought would keep me from completing the race turned out to be a strength and preparing for the unexpected would have made me something less than a boy scout. Before I get into any details of the race, I need to go back to post Old Dominion race time. I like to take a week off following a race to reward my body and allow it some recovery time. Getting back into training slowly was not a problem with the temperature in the 90s. After a couple of weeks, I had this nagging pain in my left outside knee which I was, unfortunately, familiar with and knew exactly what it was – ITB (Iliotibial Band Syndrome). I had the same experience in my right knee a couple months before the Marine Corp Marathon in 07 and knew I had to back off the mileage, lots of ice, and a steady diet of ibuprofen. Out comes my engineer brain trying to perform high level math to modify my training schedule so I could get all the long runs, and required weekly mileage, in the bank before the first week of October. Just as I was making some progress with my ITB problem, my right Achilles tendon started to bother me on a Saturday long training run. This was something I had never experienced before and was unsure how to deal with it. After some research, and a little denial, more rest and less hill training was the answer. Not what I wanted to hear. So, here I am at the end of July, 100 deg temps, low in training mileage, and two injuries with just 9 weeks before race day. With lots of prayer and some tender loving care from my wife, I was able to work through the injuries and started to really ramp up the mileage, while being ever so careful not to injure myself again. My research for the Arkansas Traveller 100 mile run revealed this epic adventure would consist of forest service roads, Indian trails, and 1.5 miles of pavement for a total of 12,000 feet of climbing and the same for the declines. I needed to get some trail running training under my feet to condition all of the little stabilizers I usually never get to use running on flat surfaces. A friend from work gave me the directions for some bike trails just across the border on the SC side (F.A.T.S: Forks Area Trail System) which I could use for some trail running experience. There are four loops which total 25 miles through the SC woods in the middle of nowhere. The trails are well maintained and a nice relief from pounding the pavement. My body was very grateful and rewarded me with no injuries. The four loops all started at a common trailhead which made refueling and water convenient. Other than the occasional snake, one needs to be continuously monitoring spider webs which were most annoying.
My long runs usually consist of a 30 - 35 mile run on Saturday followed by a 20 - 25 mile run the next day. This way you get a feel for what to expect when running on tired legs . . . One weekday morning after dropping the kids off for school, I hopped across the border for an early morning trail run and found myself covered with spider webs. They are difficult to see with the woods as the backdrop and the first bike rider or runner on the trail ends up clearing the path for everyone else. One time I ran into a web and had a close encounter with the tenant. If anybody had seen me they would have thought I was practicing some old aborigine dance. The tree spiders are harmless, but why is it that 8 legs mounted on a body weighing in less than an ounce causes us giants to behave the way we do? More to follow on the spider thing! My training routine consists of a three week buildup followed by an easy recovery week, and then repeated over and over and over……I had to skip the recovery week in order to get all my long runs in which is the most important part of any endurance event. My long runs usually consist of a 30-35 mile run on Saturday followed by a 20-25 mile run the next day. This way you get a feel for what to expect when running on tired legs, and to teach yourself to go slower on Saturday although you may feel like going fast. Sometimes I would work in the yard all day in the heat, spend time with the wife and kids in the evening and see them all in bed before going out for a 17 mile run at midnight to the airport road and back. Training also consisted of weight training 3-4 days a week and many sit-ups and push-ups on non-weight training days. With my last long run behind me, a three week taper before the race was next to allow my body to fully recover. The hard part is bottling-up all that energy while trying to keep your mind off the race and getting lots of sleep at night while you try and convince yourself you’re not thinking about it when you really are. The first week of October, Laura and I started to gather all the supplies I might need during the race: extra batteries, gels, moleskin, bodyglide, flashlights, kitchen sink . . . Laura made arrangements with her parents to take care of Josh and Letice, and her sister Tammy was traveling from Columbia to go with us and help Laura crew. Every detail of the trip was reviewed: Early departure on Thursday and drive 8 hours to Little Rock Arkansas – Drive parts of the course on Friday and pre-race check in – run Saturday and Sunday – leave Monday. I never thought Thursday morning was going to get here, but it finally was. I took the kids to school and they gave me a special dad hug for good luck. Back home, I finished loading the Avalanche which consisted of 95% running stuff and 5% everything else. You would think all someone would need is a pair of sneakers, shorts, socks, and a shirt. How much room could that possibly take? You would be surprised. We were finally on the road, with Laura in front navigating our journey and Tammy in the back with a couple of good reading books in hand. I did what I always do on long trips and zone into driving mode while the sisters got caught up on any news from the past 12 hours. All was going great and the only thought in my mind was, “Did I train enough?” and “Did I get enough long runs for what lay ahead?” We made it to Atlanta with no surprises, but that would not last long. This is when the wheels started to fall off. As we passed through the west side of Atlanta on our way to Alabama, the girls needed a pee-pee break and the truck could use a splash of gas. Driving out of the gas station we saw a Dunkin’ Donuts – the defenses broke down and the truck took a hard right turn into the closest parking spot. Laura’s phone rang so Tammy and I went to do some recon work. As we were waiting in line, Tammy asked me how long it would take me to run the race. I responded that I was hoping for 24 hours but would most likely be closer to 28 hours. She had the most puzzled look on her face as her eyebrows scrunched-up and her eyes glazed over with a perplexed expression! She rephrased her question, in complete disbelief, and asked, “How many days do you plan to run?” I replied the same as before but said it would be non stop all day and all night. Her blank stare got even more serious as we stood in line at Dunkin’ Donuts waiting for our turn in line. I heard an “Oh my God!” as she came to grips with just what she had volunteered her time for. She realized that she would be up all day and night, nonstop, crewing with her sister as they waited hours in the dark for me to come running into the aid station to assist me in whatever it was that I might need. I casually replied that Laura will want the double chocolate donuts and I will take the sourdough and blueberry. Tammy got her thoughts together long enough to pick her donuts as she tried to wrap her mind around just what I was going to do. Driving from Atlanta to Birmingham was uneventful – Except for the B’ham road markings. I exited the interstate for highway 78 to Memphis. As we followed the road signs for about five miles, the highway 78 signs stopped and by the looks of it, we were on the wrong side of town. I mean really wrong side of town. We saw a beer truck at a convenience store, and I was hoping nobody would shoot me at a major intersection during the day while asking for directions. The driver informed me we were not close to where we needed to be and gave me very detailed directions to some place for which I’m sure we were not headed. I said thanks, turned around, and retraced my path back to the interstate to look for road signs. We stopped at another convenience store and Tammy got out this time, in a safer neighborhood, and received some good directions. The clerk said she gets this question a lot because the road signs are all messed up in B’ham. I strongly agree. After losing a good hour, we finally found our way to 78 – onward to Memphis. I was thinking what else could possibly go wrong with this trip! Laura took over the driving duty as I crawled up in the back and caught a nap. It was getting late as we approached Memphis and I had told the girls we could stop later and get some really good barbeque. Memphis is known for their good barbeque. Unfortunately for us, Memphis came and went with no sign of barbeque for the 30 minutes pass-by. We crossed the Mississippi river and found a Cracker Barrel restaurant for some breakfast at 7PM. Finally after a 2 hour drive on I-40 west, Little Rock AR and the Marriott were a welcome sight. After a good night’s sleep, and waking up late Friday morning, we drove 35 miles west to Perry AR for the weigh-in (158 lbs), packet pick-up, attendance at the crew briefing, and to check out the course.
It was a good turnout for the pre-race briefing at Lake Sylvia as Chrissy and Stan Ferguson (Race Directors) gave a fly-by of the rules and hazards. More than 150 runners signed-up for the race from all over the country (CA, CO, NY, FL . . .) as well as a few runners from Canada and Japan, all of whom were mostly relaxed until Chrissy mentioned that hunting season opened tomorrow! She said, “Just don’t act like a deer or bear and you won’t get shot.” That was comforting to know (not), as Laura looked at me and her body language said, “Let’s go to Wal-Mart and wrap Christmas lights around you just to make sure there is no mistaking you for some furry animal.” Chrissy mentioned the trail would be marked with pink streamers and glow sticks (for night time) every half mile. She also mentioned that we should not be surprised if some of the glow sticks are missing at night because some of the locals like to play tricks by collecting them. If they only knew just how much of a lifesaver these markers are when your body is totally depleted and in pain while navigating in the woods at O’dark thirty . . . A wrong turn and a couple of miles off course might be just enough, mentally, to break a runner down. A few years back they saw a truck driving down the road with a green glow coming from the back. After the briefing, we had over an hour to kill so we drove to two of the aid stations where Laura and Tammy would have access to me. The mountains were beautiful but the dirt roads were a little rough. I was thinking this was going to be hard on the feet after running all day. Little did I know at the time that this road was about as good as it gets.We went to the Lake Winona aid station and talked about 30 minutes to this gentleman who was sponsoring it. We finally broke free from him and decided to go a couple more miles down the dirt road before going back to the pre race spaghetti meal. We went as far as the road would take us before turning into a very rocky trail which looked like it was not fit for man or beast. As we started to turn around, we heard a very unusual grinding sound coming from under the rear carriage of the truck. With no cell phone signal, and what sounded like a gear broke in the transmission, I had to wonder how much worse things could get! I had Laura slowly drive the truck forward as Tammy and I pinpointed the source of the chilling grinding noise. After several attempts, it sounded like the right rear wheel. Upon further examination, and a change of luck, I spotted a rock wedged between the wheel and drum. After stripping the truck for something to dislodge the rock, Laura’s suggestion to use the tire wrench turned out to be effective. What were the odds for a rock to get lodged were it did? Maybe this was a sign of things to come! We finally made our way back to the spaghetti meal. We lounged around awhile and enjoyed the beautiful view of Lake Sylvia.
We decided to head back to Little Rock to get some last minute supplies and turn-in early for some good rest. After an uneventful trip to Wal-Mart, and grabbing some Chinese food-to-go for later, we finally arrived at our hotel later than expected. The shrimp fried rice really hit the spot, but now it was time to go through the pre-race ritual for setting-up my gear. My drop bags were rechecked for the right gear and labeled to be dropped at strategic places along the course where I thought I might need them. It was around 11PM when we finally hit the rack. My mind was thinking about how quickly the 4AM wakeup call would occur. I laid there thinking about the challenge I would face in the morning as I tossed and turned from side to side. It was now 1AM and I was still awake with just 3 hours before the alarm would ring. I had read that this was not uncommon, and would not hurt my performance as long I had had a good night sleep the past two nights. At some point I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew was that the alarm was ringing and my feet were headed to the shower for a wakeup. The girls were great and pulled everything together (ice in coolers, coffee, bagel, gear,…) and we were soon headed out to the truck and to the race at O’Dark in the morning. Laura handed me a cup of coffee, a bagel & peanut butter, and a banana for the drive. When we arrived, we only had 20 minutes before the race started, and I had to park up on a hill a couple hundred yards down the road.
I quickly checked-in and got my race number and Laura pinned it on my shorts. As she fought with the safety pins, my thoughts regrouped as the reality of being here, doing what I had trained so hard for over the summer, finally hit home. I was busy earlier, going over everything I needed and reviewing the map and strategy with the girls, that I really didn’t think about what I was about to do. The words of Chrissy (race director) from yesterday’s pre-race briefing entered my thoughts that less then 0.008 percent of the world’s population have the opportunity or capability to do what we do and we should not forget it: Be very grateful of your gift. Laura finished the pinning without drawing any blood as I glanced off to my left and there stood the last chance for me to take a nature break in a civilized fashion (indoor bathroom and not a Porta- Potty). My business was done so I flew down the steps of the cabin and into the dog dance for a sign of success. I quickly gave my wife a kiss and bolted over to the starting line when the sound of a shot gun echoed in the humid air signifying the start of the race. By the time I hit the starting line, most of the runners had just left which put me at the very back of the pack. The good thing was all my pre-race jitters were gone and my legs and body did what felt natural which was burning energy while running down the road. It felt so good to be running again after holding back for three weeks in the tapering phase. I had to be careful not to get carried away and burn up all my immediate fuel or else face bonking earlier in the race. At the same time I was concerned with the whole pack in front of me, not wanting to be trapped on the 8 miles of single trail where passing would be a problem. After a 1.5 mile paved road section, we took a left turn on a dirt road which made for some good running. The only problem was it felt like running in soup. It was already hot and the humidity made for an early sweat fest. After passing a good number of runners, I throttled back and settled into a comfortable pace. This is when I ran into Sam from New Orleans who was a Chemistry Professor at one of the local colleges. This was Sam’s first 100 mile attempt, like me, as we talked about the difficulties in training in the South during the unusually hot summer. For hill training, he would run up and down parking garages. For me it was running from the basement to the roof (150 feet) in the west stair case in the turbine building at work with an average temperature of 100 degrees. Sam told me about the devastation that hurricane Katrina did to Louisiana and its impact on his life. I never thought of just how traumatic it must have been until Sam gave me an inside look at how his life was turned upside down with no community or support structure. We ran a little further when the woods were calling him and we wished each other luck as I continued down the road. Shortly there came the first aid station (Browns Creek, 5.2 miles) as the morning light started to break. I was good on water so only recorded my number and kept on moving. I was very cautious not to spend too much time in aid stations unless I absolutely had to. With 25 aid stations, it’s easy to lose 2 hours when a 3 minute stop feels like 20 seconds. I had no idea where I was in the pack but was still focused on passing a few more runners with the Ouachita trail up next which would be a real bottleneck for 8 miles. Before long, I ran into a series of switchbacks as the smooth dirt road climbed up about 800 feet until the Flatside Pinnacle aid station came into view (8.6 miles). I emptied a baggie of Ultra powder in my water bottle and took my second Succeed cap (salt & potassium) as the aid station captain recorded my number and the attendants asked me what I needed. They quickly refilled my water bottles (I carry one in each hand) and I was off in about 30 seconds. This is the start of the Ouachita trail section which was flagged by blue markings on trees. It started with an uphill climb on a rocky trail which was not clearly defined. Then the trail got worse as varying size rocks littered the trail with trees close enough to dislocate a shoulder if not paying attention. After about a ¼ mile climb up, the trail turned down hill and the speed picked-up. I was constantly scanning the trail and planning my next 2-3 steps while being careful not to clip a tree, twist an ankle, or trip and get a face full of rocks. From a previous report that was posted, this was considered a technical trail and was very demanding which could easily knock you out of the race due to injury. With all this in mind, I actually found the trail enjoyable as I felt like a kid back in Vermont storming down some hill. Two other runners and I were flying along the trail as we approached other runners and would patiently wait for the opportunity to pass. Most runners were very generous and would pull off to the side to make room. Before we knew it, we had arrived back at Browns Creek aid station (12.2 miles) with the smell of breakfast in the air. Some of the aid stations have different themes and this one was known for breakfast. I quickly got my bottles refilled and grabbed a handful of bacon and a couple pieces of pancake as several runners were hanging around and taking a break from the beating of the trail. The trail went uphill again as the pace slowed down for the next mile. By this time the temperature was rising and the humidity was really bad. I kept reminding myself to take a succeed cap every 45 minutes and keep drinking because balancing electrolytes would be critical under these conditions.The trail never gave any relief from the rocks and trees until the last ½ mile section. I passed a few more runners which looked to be really struggling. I crossed over a knoll and started down the other side when I could hear the sounds of people and cheerleaders cheering. It was down a short section of smooth dirt trail when the Lake Sylvia aid station came into view. The trail dumps onto a road, and the aid station captain records my race number as I enter the area.
Passing by the local cheerleaders out volunteering to provide support, I see Laura and Tammy off to the right hand side with all my gear staged wondering if I needed anything. I told Laura that it had been a rough trail, but a lot of fun to run if that makes any sense. This was one of seven aid stations where a runner could see their crew so I planned on spending a few minutes with them. Laura said I looked really good and was close to the front of the pack. I was surprised – I must have passed more runners than I had realized. The lady next to us said I looked strong and asked me if I had written my wife an apology letter! I was a little confused by the question and asked her, “What do you mean?” She said that her husband writes her a letter each race and tells her to read it around the 50 mile mark because that’s when your mood turns ugly from all the pain and you tend to snap the head off your crew members. Laura looked at me like where is mine but I reassured her not to worry – although I made a mental note to write one for my next 100 miler. Tammy got my bottles refilled and put some more supplies in the camel-pack.
I told Laura earlier not to let me linger too long for it was easy to lose a lot of time. She did her job by telling me to get going and keep moving. I thanked Tammy again for being here for me and gave Laura a kiss as I headed out down a nice smooth dirt road. The same one I thought yesterday was going to be hard on my feet. I knew the road would be ending in a little more than a mile before branching onto a forest service road. A younger runner with a 3 inch Mohawk was just in front of me as we cruised down the road. I kept wondering how he managed to keep his hair standing straight up without any movement while running. This would have made for a really awesome commercial for his moss supplier. My pace was a little quicker than his as I passed him and wished him the traditional good luck and looking strong. He said the heat was taking a real toll on his system and that he had to slow down to recover some.
I knew this road was too good to last as the 4 forks (really 3) intersection was in front of me and I was going to take the less traveled road. These are called forest service roads but look more like a washed-out stream bed with a lot of rocks. The running was slow as the rocks kept pounding the feet. There was a stream crossing but fortunately the level was low and it was easy to cross (rocks) without getting wet. Although, I was thinking coming back over the stream late in the race and dark would prove to be a greater challenge. This part of the run was when time was going by slow for some reason. I had a couple runners in front and behind me but never close enough for a conversation so I cranked-up my MP3 and jammed on. I arrived at the next aid station (Pumpkin Patch, 22.4 miles) for my usual refill and grabbed a handful of rock salt, potato chips, and a banana. I thanked the aid station support for volunteering their time to come out and support us. The next section was back on dirt roads for good running but it was mostly uphill, so not a lot of time could be made-up from the rougher slower sections. It was at this time I fell into cruise control. Kind of like driving a long time and you hit that driven mode and just go. Someone once asked me what do you think about running all those hours? It’s like you’re in a time warp and the hours start to feel like 30 minute clips. Your mind is constantly analyzing the trail and your body’s functions (watch for dead tree on right, feet feel ok, no hot spots, keep legs loose, take a drink, 20 minutes before next gel and S-cap, nice view, feels hot, drink more, don’t trip on rock, needs at next aid station, calves ok, manageable pain, another drink, hope girls ok . . .). The next aid station was Electronic Tower (24.7 miles) as I did the usual routine of water, handful of chips, and a thank you. In and out in a minute and still feeling good, except for the feet were a little tender from the rock beating. Shortly leaving E-tower, I was back on a primitive road but fairly flat and smooth surface. This lasted for a couple of miles before the rock fest started as I got closer to the next aid station called Rocky Gap which lives up to it’s name. Did I mention that there were a lot of rocks on this run? The trail got progressively worse the closer to rocky gap the miles got. This was more like a RTV trail with rocks, falling trees, and more inclines. When I reached Rocky Gap (mile 28.9) the aid station volunteers were very nice and supportive as they took care of any needs in a speedy fashion. It was the usual stop and I added another small handful of rock salt and some fruit. When I left the aid station, I was thinking there is no way possible another rock could be placed on the trail. I was wrong. I made a right turn up another hill completely covered by, you guessed it, more rocks. I crested the other side to only be faced by a painful run down the other side on more rocks as my feet begged for relief from the constant pounding. To appreciate these rocks, they were on average the size of your hand to a little larger completely covering an uneven ground mixed in with some larger rocks and washed-out areas. It was a miracle I didn’t twist my ankles or trip and get a face full of rocks. It was very taxing on the mind and eyes to be constantly scanning and thinking about were to place your next step. After a good mile and a half, or more, I finally made a turn onto a smooth dirt road which I thought was rough yesterday when we drove a small portion of the course. It was all down hill into Lake Winona aid station (mile 32.2) which was a much welcome sight as I knew my crew would be there to give me some encouragement (the 2nd crew access). I passed two runners just before entering and rounding the corner to hear the clapping and cheering as I approached the aid station.
The road leading up to the aid station was littered with crew vehicles as everyone waited for their runner to show. I got a lot of support and words of encouragement as I passed the other runners’ crews. They recorded my number (this is done at all the stations) and wished me luck. I got a lot of “you’re looking really good” but if they only knew how badly my feet felt.I heard Laura’s voice and she showed me where her and Tammy set up the chairs for a shoe and sock change. She said I looked great and wanted to know what I wanted for food. I said I don’t think I can stomach a lot of solid food because of the heat (90 degrees with 87% humidity). She got me a PB&J sandwich and a baggie full of cold red grapes to take with me. She is an awesome crew chief and did everything right by telling me I needed to get some food in me for later so I won’t bonk. My feet hurt but everything else felt sort of good considering the conditions. Although I had no blisters at this point, I changed shoes and socks so my feet would feel a little fresher. Some of the aid station supporters came over and told her and Tammy they had to stay at the aid station and plan on working it next year. They really liked them as if they were family, although I wasn’t surprised with their personalities and their ability to add some spice to the conversations that take place in these aid stations. They can make friends with almost anybody with their childhood growing up as Navy brats and traveling all over (excellent social skills which I didn’t have until later in life due to my travels in the Navy and elsewhere). After a few more laughs, Laura told me it was time to go. With my water bottles filled and food in hand Laura and Tammy did exactly what I needed: Get going and see you at Powerline. They did everything right by telling me I needed to get moving. I was right on schedule for a 24 hour finish but knew the worst part of the course was coming up and that I would lose some time during this climb up Smith Mountain. The change of shoes did feel good which made the trip to Pig Trail aid station manageable (36.8 miles). There was some carnage there as a few runners were sitting down to regroup. I did the usual quick stop for water and a thank you. Immediately leaving Pig Trail was when the road turned into a nasty rocky trail which was where we turned around yesterday when we had the rock in the wheel problem. This was all uphill on more rocky trails and washed out gullies not fit for man or beast which quickly turned my feet from ok to feeling really bad. The pain in the heel and fore front was getting really bad as my pace slowed down and other runners were starting to pass me. I did not like this feeling and stepped up the effort so nobody else passed me despite the pain in my feet. The next aid station is Club Flamingo (39.7 miles) which was unique in itself. They line plastic pink flamingoes along the trail leading into the aid station. They also offer beverages other than the usual water and soda. There were more than the usual number of runners hanging-out, as this was a tradition for some repeat runners to do a shot at the makeshift bar. They must have an iron stomach to put a shot down in these conditions. The thought was unpalatable so I quickly got my bottles filled and off I was.The road out of Club Flamingo was smooth and downhill, but this would only last about a nanosecond. A quick turn upward was the road to the top of Smith Mountain for a series of switchbacks. Although in my mind when trying to visualize this part of the course in the planning stage, for some reason it wasn’t as bad (just slow going). The smooth road ended shortly after I thought I was approaching the mountain top and turned into another rocky trail. The rocks were not as bad as before for they were spaced further apart. The only problem was this section was like running along a Powerline section with tall weeds and grass in the open. Some caution was required because the rocks were sometimes hidden in the weeds. The night time return through this section would most likely prove to be challenging. The view was beautiful as I looked around and started to wonder if this section was ever going to end. It was a continuous moderate uphill trail that just keep going and going and going. This younger lady was behind me as she approached and passed at a really good pace for an uphill portion. She looked strong and was in her zone as I was wondering if her feet hurt as much as mine. There was no way they could or she would not be moving this fast. I needed to figure out what she was doing right with her feet that I wasn’t. The rest of me still felt strong, energy level still good, and no cramping. It was hard not being able to move as fast as I felt. She was out of sight when I finally made it to the top. For some reason The Smith Mountain aid station (42.9 miles) and Chicken Gap aid station (46.4 miles) are like a blur in my mind. Maybe because my thoughts were centered on seeing my crew at the Powerline aide station and getting my feet fixed. I do remember the nice downhill run leaving chicken gap on drivable dirt roads. I was thinking this was my first weigh-in of the race and was hoping I got enough fluids in me to keep my weight within the limits. The race has a 3%/5%/7% rule: loss of 3% of body weight and you are encouraged to drink more, 5% and they hold you until your weight is under control, and 7% you are automatically withdrawn with no ifs or buts. 7% can cause serious problems for a runner and could lead to major issues if not corrected. A runner may not realize just how serious his or her situation is because you have been ignoring pain for the last 12 hours and are driven to complete the race. You don’t always think clearly at this stage of the run. I was sorting out in my mind what I needed from the girls. My feet felt worse since I changed shoes last so I planned to change back into the original trail shoe I started with. As I entered the Powerline aid station (48.5 miles) the sun was still up and the road was lined again with crew vehicles.
I saw the Avalanche on the right with Laura and Tammy waving me by and telling me to check in and get weighed first. I heard some more “you look great” and clapping as I approached the scale. I removed my camel-pak and handed off my two water bottles for refill before getting on the scale.
With baited breath, the aid station attendant looked at my weight and checked the numbers on my wrist band (% weight numbers in permanent marker) and said I was 2 pounds over. This was very good info which told me I was either getting adequate fluid in my body to compensate for my sweat rate, or my kidneys were failing. Hopefully it wasn’t the kidney thing. I told them I wasn’t leaving just yet and needed to see my crew (they record entering and leaving aid stations). I walked back about 30 yards to the truck where my crew was waiting and asked if I was ok like something was wrong! I said I was 2 pounds over and could really be kicking some fanny if I had a new pair of feet. The girls looked at the road and said yaw it looks a little rocky and rough. I said this was as good as it gets for running surfaces. I sat in the chair and had a hard time reaching to my shoes to remove them so Tammy without hesitation grabbed a leg and started untying my shoes while Laura got a fresh pair of socks ready. The shoes came off hard and the socks were worse. I had a blister which completely covered the whole right side of my right foot all the way to the bottom of the heel. I had a similar one on my left foot but not as big. The bottoms of my feet had some smaller blisters on the surface but most were between the calloused section and the inner foot. Tammy popped the blisters and drained the fluid (a real gusher) out of it and Laura got the medical supplies ready. I didn’t think we were ever going to get the fluid drained. Laura looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to continue?” She said that most of the front runners (expected to win the race) had dropped out due to sprained ankles or because of the hot and humid conditions. She had overheard that a lot of runners had already dropped out prior to reaching Powerline. I said, “No way am I stopping – I just need to get my feet patched-up.” She was convinced at this point that I was ok although still concerned.While the girls worked on my feet, Laura and Tammy told me about the tarantula-like spider back at Lake Winona. A group of them had been standing around chatting when someone saw the hand-sized fuzzy spider on the dirt road near them. Nobody bothered the spider as it made its way across the dusty dirt road and into the woods. She also warned me not to use the Porta-Potty here for I would surely throw up if I hadn’t already. They had a Porta-Potty stage at all the major aid stations with crew access. Laura had the call of nature (pee-pee), and with her not the type to go tramping through the woods to make a donation, her eyes saw relief at the sight of this portable bathroom. When she swung the door open and entered the enclosed space, she almost lost it when the intoxicating odor filling every space in her lungs. She quickly exited in some sort of dignified manner and told Tammy she needed her help. Tammy held the door open to get some fresh air in the bathroom and stood guard while Laura took care of business, quickly. I told her the woods have lots of fresh air, but she reminded me there where lots of spiders also. After some major surgery on my feet, the girls helped me put my socks and trail shoes on. I had a drop bag here just in case the girls ran into problems. I had my light and batteries which I didn’t need with it still being light out. I told Laura that I would put the head lamp on when I get to Chile Pepper (another crew access). They had swung by Taco Bell and picked up two chicken burritos, which I was able to stomach as they mended my feet. Time for the drill sergeant to come out and Laura said I better get moving. She reminded me these were my instructions, and like a good crew chief, she suspected I wasn’t thinking as clear as I was earlier. At this point she took over and did the thinking for us. My feet really hurt the first couple of steps, and my legs were a little tight from sitting down. I built up some momentum to resemble some kind of running form as I trenched off down the road. I told the girls thanks and said Elvis has left the building to signify to the aid station personnel that I was off on my way. I did notice a lot of runners stretched-out and just waiting for a ride back. I did not need to see this and had to keep moving. It was an easy run with it being mostly downhill to Chile Pepper (52.9 miles), but my feet were getting really tender and painful on the forefront of the feet and my toenails started to get sore. I just kept plowing through the pain and convinced myself that this was normal. The girls were there waiting and wondering how their patch job was working. The blisters were not as bad as before, but everything else with my feet hurt. I knew there was nothing that could be done at this stage so told them I was good. Laura and Tammy told me about the attack from a wolf spider just before I got there. A group of them were standing around and chatting when someone saw a wolf spider on the dirt road near them. Laura said this was the biggest spider she has ever seen as it got in an attack position with its two front fangs like objects twitching. Someone was telling them that they were popular in this area of the woods and known to jump several feet. The girls kicked dirt at the man eating spider which made the spider hop towards someone else. As the spider made its move for a 6 ft something 200+ pound man, he fought back in an ancient ballerina attack style. She said it was really funny to see this big guy hopping around like a ballerina on his tippy toes protecting the people around him. He eventually won when he accidentally landed on the spider and the spider was no more.
Laura said to put my headlamp on for the next section but I said I will pick it up when I return from Turnaround. I grabbed my handheld flashlight and told the girls I will see them on the dark side. Although it wasn’t dark yet, Laura’s gut instinct told her that I needed my headlamp and asked again if I was sure on the headlamp. I told her no worries, I was good, and would see them shortly. With bottles filled and a couple of boiled potatoes rolled in salt in the tummy, I was out of there for the out and back portion. I was running at a really good pace on the downhills and passing a few runners as the night quickly approaches with a blinding blanket of darkness. I could not see anything and was totally relying on my flashlight to guide me. I was thinking if my light goes out, I would be in bad shape with the drop-off on the side of the road into snake and spider city. I finally arrived into Turnaround aid station (mile 58) and got my number recorded. I spotted some chicken soup and the aid station supporter offered me a cup (yum-yum). With it cooler and night time, I did not use as much water and only had to refill one water bottle. With water bottles and flashlight in one hand and chicken soup in the other, I was moving again on my back to Chile Pepper to see the girls. Exiting the aid station, I met this older gentleman from Texas so we shuffled together on our way back. We used Vicente’s flashlight for the primary and mine as the backup. We had both left our headlamp behind and now wished we had not. Vicente was the talkative type which was ok with me after the long day with little company. After looking at the split times, we were actually within a few minutes of each other throughout the day but never saw him until the turnaround point. He works on a golf course and fixes the members Jaguars’ for extra money for his races. The ironic part is Vicente does not own a car and rides his bike or takes the bus if travel is in order. He traveled by bus from Texas for this race and will be taking it back the next day. He was really laid-back and easy to talk to. This year he did a couple of 100 milers out west including the Badwater in Death Valley. I believe this was his 10th time running the AT-100. He says there is something about this race that keeps bringing him back. His best time was in 22 hours (sub 24 hour buckle). He said this was the worst year he has experienced yet for this race. By the way, Vicente is 54 years old, running Ultras for the last 10 years, and going strong. I told him about my brief history with the sport and he hoped I stay with it. He said it gets more rewarding as the years pass. The conversation with Vicente briefly took my mind off the pain in my feet, but it would not last long as I found the down hills were becoming most painful on my toes and forefront. Both Vicente and I were basically shuffling along but it seemed to take forever to get back to Chile Pepper where the girls were. Vicente said he was getting really tired and wished he had a cup of coffee. I told him he was welcomed to some no-doze at the next aid station. Back at the fort, Laura and Tammy were starting to get concerned about me because it was taking longer than expected for me to show-up. They even grabbed a flashlight and walked about a hundred yards down the dark and spooky dirt road until something round and dark caught their eye on the side of the road. The first thing they thought of was a bear cub as they looked up in fear. As curiosity got the cat, they took a closer look and discovered it was a trash can on the side of the road. Their concern was my light might fail and I would be scrambling back and getting hurt in the process. Shortly after, Vicente and I were approaching the Chile Pepper aid station (63.2 miles) when a gentleman directing us towards the aid station said two beautiful ladies were waiting for me. I said thanks and very shortly found the girls laughing on the side of the road over the bear like trash can. We checked in and grabbed another chicken soup and a few boiled potatoes rolled in salt.I told Laura I would be ready for my headlamp at Powerline. Meanwhile Vicente and I planned to stick together for our return trip to Powerline. She told me she actually used the outside bathroom as her and Tammy found a good spot between two trucks on the side of the road. This was really stepping-out for my wife. She got Vicente 4 no-doze with instructions not to exceed 2 caffeine pills every 4 hours. I gave Laura one of my water bottles because I was only empting one between aid stations the last few times. They shared one more brief spider story which was about another crew member with a headlamp on and scanning the ground when darkness fell. Laura asked him what he was doing and he replied by telling her about finding a wolf spider crawling up his leg and spazzed-out. After a short pause she said, “Get going” and off Vicente and I went. The last section seemed to take a long time, but this section was even longer with more uphill stuff (makes sense, mostly down hill going out). It wasn’t just me as Vicente was thinking the same thing. The temp felt like it increased a little as we worked our way out of the valley. I wish I had kept my extra water bottle because I got really thirsty and only had a few sips left. It was about this time that my feet were just killing me. The toes felt like someone was dropping a 5 lb hammer on them with each step, and the bottom of my feet screamed with pain as every pebble on the dirt road felt like a needle being jabbed into my foot. The blister on my right heel was back and worse then ever, and the one on my left foot was growing. Then I felt what I presumed was a toenail floating around in my sock. The reality was starting to settle in but I kept refusing to accept it. The last mile into the Powerline aid station (mile 67.7, for the second time) was the most painful and slowest of the whole day. We got the clapping thing and lots of praise as we approached the aid station. It’s kind of weird with it being totally dark and out of nowhere this very bright area appears with people. I hopped on the scale for the 2nd of three weigh-ins and reported no gains or losses. I was exactly 158 lbs soaking wet. I told them that I was not leaving now and had to see my crew.Vicente picked up his headlamp and was hanging around for me. I told him that I would be awhile as I needed to work on my feet some more and to go ahead. He said he would go slowly, not by choice, and hopefully I would catch-up. I sat in the chair really stewing over my dilemma. The girls got my shoes off and started in on popping my blisters, again. My feet were really swollen as my toe nails had a dark-bloody color to them: Especially my big toe. I sat there thinking about what lay ahead with the rocky trip over Smith Mountain and Rocky Gap from hell. Not to mention the couple of thousand feet of ascension and the down hills. I sat there with Tammy on one side and my wife on the other as I really let this reality marinate within myself to make sure I could live with the decision I was about to declare. I fought with myself for a few minutes until my thoughts were clear enough to realize this was the right decision to make. Ironically, a good friend of mine at work that does serious bike racing told me to prepare myself in case I have to DNF. He said you just never know. I put my feet back into my shoes but had a difficult time because they were so swollen. I looked up at Laura and said that I was sorry but I needed to drop out of the race. Somewhere in my heart, something told me she already knew this but was waiting for me to come to terms with it. Laura told me not to feel bad because over half the field had already dropped out due to sprained ankles, foot problems, and heat. I managed to stand up with a little groaning, and my leg muscles locked-up from sitting too long, as I slowly walked back to the aid station official. They asked if I was headed back out, and I responded that I was done for the day, stretching out my right arm to get my band cut-off (official indication that one is out of the race). He asked one more time if I was sure as he raised the scissor. Without hesitation, I said my feet were in too bad of shape and could no longer continue. As I walked away, I looked to the side and noticed several runners laid-out and out of commission like myself. I found my way back to the truck as the girls said another runner who dropped out back at Chile Pepper needed a ride back with us. I also had a runner ask for a ride as well, so the three of us runners crawled up into the back seat of the truck, with the seat covered with towels, as the girls jumped in the front. As we introduced ourselves, we felt like we had to explain why we dropped. The first young man started to empty his stomach (several times due to the heat and humidity) back at Chilly Pepper and was unable to continue. The second one had foot problems like me. We must have looked really bad, and definitely smelled worse, as the girls started to gag for air. I think we were too tired and in pain from our muscles starting to cramp-up to notice the stink, but the girls definitely did and immediately rolled the windows down. With a long trip back to the start / finish line, we didn’t hang on long before we looked like three bobble-heads in the back seat cruising down the road at 1 AM in the morning. We dropped the guys off as we said our good byes and off we were, back to the hotel. I don’t remember the ride back (asleep) but do remember taking a long time to get out of the truck and doing a double-leg hobble to the room. A nice warm shower really hit the spot followed by some more medical attention to my feet. Laura had to put my shoes, socks and cloths in a plastic bag and seal it due to the stink. In no time I was crashed-out, as Laura said every now and then, I would roll over to get comfortable and would groan every time. The next day (really same day) I was very sore in the legs and shoulders, but forced myself to stretch and move around to speed-up the recover. The next day I drove us back to Atlanta and Laura drove home from there. She asked me if I was ok with my DNF and I told her I wasn’t but that it will make me stronger for the next time. She said “I know you’re not going to do this rocky trail from hell.” My only response was a death grip on the steering wheel and a locked-jaw look as I stared down the road. Tammy heard the comment but didn’t know how I had responded. Laura said, “I knew he would be back next year to get payback.”The last thing on most people’s minds would be to think of another race, no less repeating this one. Not me – there was nothing at the moment I wanted more than to race this again next year. Maybe I will come to my senses later, but I doubt it. I may have lost this battle, but the war is not over. I will come back stronger next year, and better prepared, to stare into the eyes of this demon as I tread all over it. It’s in my nature. Overall, only 47% of the field completed the race (the lowest finish rate in the history of the race and one of the lowest finish rates when compared to the 40 plus Ultras in the country). Only one of the four Death Valley 135 mile Ultra finishers completed this race. The Death Valley race is in the middle of summer, 135 miles from 280 feet below sea level to the 8,300 foot porto on Mount Whitney for an elevation gain of 13,000 feet and an average temp of 120 degrees – the harshest foot race on the planet. With only six weeks before my next race (JFK 50 in Maryland), I needed to focus on recovery so I can make it to the starting line. Most will say it takes six weeks to recover from a 100 mile run. Looks like I have a little margin. Looking back at the race I learned many things. What I thought was a weakness turned out to be a strength with respect to my mental alertness and physical condition. What I thought was being over prepared by giving extra attention to my feet turned out to be my weakness. The unexpected did happen and I was not equipped to deal with it. Afterwards, I learned that the seasoned veterans will change shoes into a ½ size larger part way into the race. Following the event, I had my foot sized for a new pair of running shoes and somehow my foot grew ½ inch causing my current running shoe to be too small. I now wear a size nine. I also noticed most runners wearing Montrail trail shoes which offer more support, padding, and a bigger toe box than my current trail shoes. I now have a pair and they feel a little heavier but far more support. I also discovered that the original inserts that come with shoes don’t offer the support or padding that special inserts offer. I now have a specialty insert formed just for my type of feet and location of pressure points. Most runners use double socks or nylon and padded socks unlike the thin single socks I used. I now have better socks. My big toe nail is completely black, I lost three toenails, the blisters are healing, and I now have a new race on the horizon which I can’t wait to start preparing for when the body is ready. I can’t thank Tammy enough for volunteering and supporting my ambitions. Her first time crewing, she did an awesome job taking care of my blisters and needs. I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did if not for her help. My wife was absolutely incredible as my Crew Chief, and knew exactly what was best for me when I couldn’t think clearly for myself. She was my strength and motivator when my body hurt and pain took over every thought. After seeing the foot problems I experienced, she immediately researched what other runners were doing, looked over reviews, and bought me new socks and shoes. With her in my corner, even when I don’t finish, I still win. “Thank you baby, for supporting my craziness. I couldn’t do it without you and the kids.”

1 comment:

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