February 7, 2009
After getting sick before the Pinhoti 100 race last November, I had plenty of time to adjust my training schedule and do some specific workouts to improve my speed (speedwork). I also knew that holding true to a training plan during the holiday season, along with a demanding agenda at work, would be a new challenge within itself. I always establish a weekly plan for the entire training cycle as a roadmap to follow. Although I sometimes don’t always hold true to the plan with other priorities in my life, I don’t let this derail me from achieving my final goal. I realized that I needed to be honest with myself, identify my weaknesses, and establish realistic goals within my capabilities all the while pushing my limits. Based on past races, my main problem is inexperience -which usually only comes with time, and learning all you can about this sport. With only two years under my “buckle-less” belt of running these respected distances, I realize I have tons to learn before I can expect any level of consistency.
Nutrition is another weak area for me and I needed a better plan to keep from bonking the last 30 miles. I took a page from Andy Jones-Wilkins’ playbook by pushing more solid food and powder drinks the first 50 miles and water, gels, and whatever sounded good the last 50 miles. He would also slow down going into aid stations to lower his body temperature which would allow receiving food easier. I used this on my long runs and felt comfortable with it. What I did notice is the hotter the temperature, the less my stomach was receptive to food. By slowing down and letting my body temp come down a few degrees before eating helped a lot. I remember this one long run (36 miles) at FATS and it was cool in the high 40s. I used Perpetuem powder mix and Fig Newtons for the first 20 miles and peanut butter filled pretzel bites for the next 16 miles. I was so hungry towards the end and could not wait for more food - This was a first for me. I realize I do much better in cooler environments with lower body temps than in the hotter conditions.
I’ve read about the benefits of speedwork, seen what other highly performing athletes were doing, and become aware of the risk for injury with this specific type of workout. This is not recommended for beginners or someone without a solid base established. I started with 600 meters repeated 6 times once a week. This was at first a lot of hard work by maintaining a consistent time for each repeat and redlining my heart rate. The first couple of times I did this, I was not looking forward to it. After about 6 weeks of this, I started to feel a difference in my speedwork and raised the bar to 800 meter repeats. I noticed my daily runs getting faster, and I felt my level of effort had not changed – Faster turnover rate with same level of work. I also focused on more quality runs and less junk miles. My weekly mileage count was not as high as I would have liked it (70 miles vs. 90s), but I felt good with the quality miles I did run. I also got my body weight down from 160 to 155 lbs, which is still high for 5’7”, but I have a medium to large frame.
My research for the Rocky revealed an easy 100 miler (100 miles is never easy, just some more challenging than others) on root infested soft trails in the swamp lands of Texas with only 5,000 feet of elevation change. This is a 20 mile loop course which is repeated 5 times. The aid stations where close so I only needed to carry one handheld bottle. My primary goal is to always finish, but with my training and this being a fast course, I had a good shot for a sub-24 hour finish. Based on my other races on the schedule this year, this seemed to be my best chance to hit the mark. I planned on two 4-hour loops and two 5-hour loops which would leave me 6 hours to complete the last loop. I would wear my lighter waist pack, and based on what I had read from other runners, my road shoes. Usually, I use some combination of road and trail shoes depending on the section of the course I am running. Not a lot of climbs on this course, the trails are dry, and all I had to manage were the roots. I heard from past reports of these large surface roots everywhere which demanded focus to navigate over to keep from busting up toe nails, ankles, and other body parts when falling. Trail shoes are heavier but offer more protection. Road shoes have little protection but are lighter and faster. I planned to wear my road shoes with the option to switch if things didn’t go well.
Well, here we go again with reservations made, the Avalanche packed, Laura and I picked the kids up from school, and headed southwest to spend the night in Mobile, Alabama. During the trip, I was wondered what it would be this time that would be the barrier to crawl over. Vermont was road construction and locking the keys in the truck, JFK was helping the young lady out of her car during an accident, and Arkansas was bad direction and school issues (see previous race reports). The next day we had beautiful weather for traveling and the trip from Mobile to Huntsville was uneventful except for some Friday afternoon traffic north of Houston. The state park was easy to find, package check-in smooth, and the briefing standard. The hotel was just five minutes down the road; we found food to go, and the race gear was laid-out for the morning. Wow, it’s still early and looks like a first for a good night’s sleep. I took a Tylenol PM to help, set the alarm for 4 a.m. and lights were out at 10. My mind was at ease and I slept great all night. The next morning Laura got my peanut butter bagel ready, fresh coffee, banana, and a boost drink. She has this down to a routine along with getting the kids ready and stuff loaded in the truck. She is really awesome and very good when it comes to getting chaos organized. All I had to worry about was getting dressed, stretching, eating, and breathing. With it being a short trip to the race, I was able to check-in early and mill about with the other runners for 30 minutes. Laura and the kids were looking for a spot to set up camp for my return after each loop. I took a few minutes to remind myself to stick with my plan – Start slow, establish a comfortable pace, eat lots of solid food while the temps are low (50s), take S-cap every hour, drink a lot with the temp expected to be in the lower 80s, and enjoy the scenery.
Loop 1 (20 miles)
Loop 1 (20 miles)
Before I knew it, the race was on and we started to move forward in the dark. I was near the front third of the pack, but with 239 runners, I didn’t even hear the countdown. It felt really good to be running again after the taper and two days of travel. I carried a handheld light only for the first 45 minutes of darkness but did not need it with all the other lights around. It was really, really slow at first with some of the slow runners in the front. I even had to stop and walk to keep from running over the people in front with no place to pass. But I didn’t get worked up because I knew it would be a long day and this would help me to keep it slow. After seeing a couple of runners trying to kick the roots out of the way (the only thing moving was a bone) and nearly falling, I figured I best pay closer attention to the trail.
There were several conversations around me with runners getting caught up with life, but the one that got my attention was this lady (Texas ultra runner Abi Meadows) telling a guy about her experience with getting into the Barkley 100 (Toughest endurance event on the planet with 52,900 feet of climbing – fewer than 10 finishers since 1986 with more than 500 attempts). She was really pumped about it, and rightfully should be. I had a chance to talk a little with her and asked, "How does one train for such an incredible challenge?" She replied that she has been running these long distances her entire life and Barkley was always on her dream list. She shared some interesting childhood running stories with me as well. With sunrise approaching, and the traffic starting to thin some, I wished her luck and felt the need to stretch the legs some.
The first 6 miles were mostly easy running on soft trails. To this point, I did not find the roots that troublesome, but could see it being a factor later in the race when the legs get heavy and the mind starts to fade. I dropped my flashlight off at the Dam Road aid station in my drop bag, refueled, and headed out for what I heard was a long 3 miles out and 3 miles back to Dam Road aid station. Again, the path was smooth, few roots, and slight up and down hills. I passed a few runners, and a few passed me as we were all looking for a good pace to settle into. Before I knew it, I was refilling at Dam road, and on to the mostly rolling 4 mile dirt road run to Park Road aid station. For some reason, this was the longest, and slowest stretch of the entire loop because it was mostly on a dirt road and not trail. I could hear the cars going by on I-45 which told me I was close to the aid station. All my aid station stops were less than 1 min for water only. The run back to the starting line was enjoyable with it being mostly trails. On this last section, I ran through the course in my mind and was thinking how enjoyable it was. The trails were very runnable and well marked, the hills were gradual, roots not nearly as bad as I had anticipated, super volunteers, and just a lot of fun. I told myself this was going to be a great day and everything was falling in place as planned.
I made it back to the starting line in 3hrs and 55 minutes (perfect pace) and started to look for my crew. I first saw Josh and he took me over to where the girls had set up camp. As planned, Laura had some chicken broth warmed up, another handheld ready to go, and another baggie full of fig Newtons for my waist pack. As with every good race, what a great opportunity to purge with the porta-potties so close – it’s better than the woods. I spent a little longer than I should have with Laura and the kids, but had to tell them about how great the trails were and how great I felt. With the rising temperature, I changed into a short sleeve shirt. They briefly shared with me how they conquered this spot and about some of the other crews they had talked with. It was time to grab my gear, hug my crew, and go back out for loop #2 of 5.Loop 2 (40 miles)
It was nice to see the section I ran in the dark at the start of the race. I really wanted to pick up my pace, but reminded myself my pace was perfect and would pay dividends in the last two loops. It didn’t take long for the temperature to climb up as I settled into another comfortable pace. Before I knew it, I was at the turn around point (furthest point out) and on my way back. Nevertheless, the dirt road stretch between Dam road aid station and Park road aid station still seemed to take forever. I was focused on eating as much food as I could, taking S-caps, and getting fluids in me. I did have a two mile stretch where I felt a little hot and low on energy – sluggish. I told myself this was just a little bad patch I was going through and just had to keep moving and drive through to the other side. Sure enough, I started to come out of this little funk and feeling more like I had at the beginning of the race. Now I found myself running down the final stretch back to the starting line (4 hrs and 5 min loop). This time my crew was making lunch with grilled cheese and chicken in a tortilla wrap – most excellent. I still felt really good and sat down for a few minutes to enjoy my chicken broth and allowed it to settle in my stomach. Josh reminded me to grab my headlamp, and figured I only needed a small handheld light for the last couple of miles. Laura and the kids were so much more organized this race and had everything ready each time I saw them. My supplies were ready (cloths, shoes, med kit…), chicken broth warm (not hot), and extra bottle already filled. I changed shirts again into something a little cooler; shared some more about the trails, restocked, and went back out for the next loop.
Loop 3 (60 miles)
I was telling myself that at this time with the VT100, I was starting to get muscle cramps and having difficulty holding a steady pace. Now I felt really good – no cramps, positive, strong and felt like running. I knew I was now running in the heat of the day and that I had better hold back a little so I didn’t overheat – save it for when the sun had set and temps had cooled down some. When I made it to Dam Road aid station, I grabbed two turkey, cheese, and mayo wraps which really hit the spot. The three miles out to the turnaround point was uneventful except for a strange craving for a Coke. The more I thought about it, the more it consumed my every thought. This has not happened in previous races, but it was very real now and I really wanted a Coke. I still had two miles until I reached one of the bigger aid stations (Dam Road), and this gave me some incentive to pick my pace up to get there faster. When I finally reached Dam Road my taste buds were geared-up for a refreshing Coke and I could hardly wait. I can’t describe how disappointed I was when the volunteer informed me they just ran out of Coke but more was on the way out. I asked another volunteer and got the same response. I thanked them for their support, filled my bottle up with water, and made my way towards the slow part of the course. I was so bummed and just felt really bad. After a few hundred yards, I told myself to get it together, get tough, and refocus on the next aid station. I found a great radio station (The Point) with all 80s music jamming in the buds and found myself on the upbeat side again – Life is good. I finally made it to the Park Road aid station as it was starting to get dark. A guy asked me if I was okay and I told him that I would be doing great if he had a Coke. He replied with, “How many do you want?” I downed 3 cups and it never tasted better. I looked down for something else to snack on and gummy bears caught my eye. I have never tried these in a race before but for some reason they looked and tasted really good. I have heard that if your body craves something, then it was because it was lacking. Perhaps it was sugar my body needed! During the last 4 miles back to the starting line, I hooked-up with this guy that was holding a good pace. We were on cruise control and rolling with the terrain. We passed a few more runners, gaining momentum each time. Some of the runners out there were starting to drag, and here we were just flying by them in strong form. We took turns leading and just enjoying the moment. I was thinking 60 miles coming up and still no cramping, tightness, or problems. With it getting dark and the temperature dropping, I might even hold onto another 4-5 hr lap for the last two. The main aid station was all lit up as I ran down the last stretch with people lining both sides of the entrance and cheering us on (4:40 lap). My crew had warm chicken broth ready, light gear, and a change of shirts.
With 60 miles on these shoes, although I was having no foot problems, I decided to change into a fresh pair (only 50 miles on them from training) and a half size larger. I told Laura how good I felt and I was not having any problems except with my unusual Coke craving. The kids looked like they were having a good time running around in the dark with their flashlights. Laura gave me an update on some of the crews around us and their runners. I thanked my crew and told them how much I appreciate their support. With my headlight on, a flashlight in my hand, and a waist pack full of gels, I was ready to hit the dark side.
Loop 4 (80 miles)
As before, I started off slow to let my food settle down some before picking up my pace. I kept telling myself I couldn’t believe how good I felt with 60 miles behind me compared to other races. I was maintaining a solid pace and kept passing a lot of runners who were struggling. I really felt for them and kept giving words of encouragement as I passed by. Most of them had pacers (I didn’t for this race) who were also trying to motivate them. A couple of Ultra friends (Rooster and Gabe) gave me some excellent advice which was to use a handheld along with the headlight to help judge the tree roots better. I was thanking them as I ran in the dark and had no problems navigating the roots. I was in and out of the Nature Center aid station, across the road, and still running everything except the uphill sections. When I arrived at Dam Road, I saw a few runners on the side and ready to drop. One lady was lying on a foldout chair, wrapped in a blanket, and losing everything in her stomach. Another guy was also stretched-out, wrapped in a blanket, and shaking like a leaf. I grabbed a cup of chicken soup and started to walk out as fast as I could without spilling any. I did not want to hang around the negative vibes when I was feeling so good. On the way out, I noticed the front ball of both feet started to bother me. I didn’t think much of it at the time, and told myself this is not unusual for me at this point of the race (66 miles). My feet do get sore from all the pounding, but nothing I couldn’t handle for the remainder of the race. I was telling myself I was really doing this and had a great shot for a sub-24 hour race. My mind still sharp, muscles a little tired but not cramped, and energy level felt good. This was my race and knew I would be feeling this good on my last lap – I couldn’t wait. I ran by a few more runners / pacers and it felt good. The downhills started to really bother my feet and I found myself changing my impact zone to give me some relief. This didn’t help much and I figured I just needed to suck it up and keep moving. I did hear some rustling in the woods from time to time but figured it was just some armadillos. Never spotted any, nor did I see any other animals the entire time. I hit this one section along the lake where you can look across and see the main aid station with all the lights and cheering from supports and crews. The sky was clear, stars blanketed the sky, and a full moon beamed down. What a beautiful night and it felt good to be alive and doing the thing we do, except that my feet were really starting to be a royal pain. It was time for a gel and grabbed a double mocha with caffeine to give me a boost. I wanted to stay on top of my calories and get as much in me before heading out for the last lap. The strange thing was when that gel hit the bottom of my stomach, I almost lost it and anything else that was in there. Thank God nobody was around me because I made this awful gagging sound while trying to keep everything down. I walked for awhile so my stomach could calm down and it worked. What a close call and I still don’t understand why my stomach reacted that way. I made my way into Dam Road aid station once again, and saw more runners along the side looking for a ride back. I quickly refilled my water bottle, cup of Coke (this time they had some), more gummy bears, and headed back into the darkness. I checked my time and was still in great shape for sub 24, even with my feet slowing me up. It went from being tender to outright sore and almost painful. It was slow going along the rolling dirt road. I looked back to see if anybody else was closing and saw some headlamps in the distance. I finally made it to Park Road aid station and drank some more coke. The volunteers were great and very supportive. It was like they could read your mind and tell what you wanted. This guy asked if everything was alright and I told him if I had another pair of feet I would be great. I said I better get moving and would see him one more time. I grabbed a handful of gummy bears and headed on my way to the main aid station. There were some nice downhill sections along this part of the trail which I tried to run but the pain had magnified greatly in my feet. I told myself I should have had them check out my feet at the last aid station but figured I could get to the main station and get them looked at. It was only 4.4 miles and the last aid station didn’t look like it had much for foot care. Besides, it was most likely just from the pounding and had become tender. Not much you can do for this but keep moving. I finally got to the point where I could no longer run and even walking was becoming painful. I was still ok on time as long as I keep moving, get my feet looked at the next stop, and back out for the final lap. I had gone too far, still had hopes for a sub-24, and if nothing else, I would finish with a new personal record. Every step I took became progressively more painful than the last. A runner and their pacer passed me and were not looking too good mentally. I could tell they were struggling, but moving better than I was. I told myself how ironic it was that I felt physically strong and mentally good but could not move because of my feet. I really had to focus to block the pain out so I could keep moving without losing too much time. This stretch took forever to get through and I still had 1 mile before I could get any help. I tried walking on the inside and outside of my foot to discover it didn’t help any. I even tried just walking on my heels, but this didn’t help either. There was no way I was going to quit moving forward, but I had to go somewhere else in my mind to forget about the pain. I finally made it to the stretch along the main road leading into the main aid station and I knew I was close. The closer I got, the worse the pain got with every step. I thought that if I could get my feet turned around, I would still have a good chance with the way everything else was feeling (5:30 lap). I hobbled my way over to where Laura and the kids were and the first thing I said was that my feet where killing me and needed to look at them. I sat down and Laura had to help me get my shoes off. She then pulled my outer sock off, followed by my injinji socks, ever so gingerly. She took one look at the bottom of my feet and I could tell by the expression on her face that it was not good. I asked what it was, and she was lost for words. The front pad of my foot had separated and formed a silver dollar size blood blister on both feet. This all now made sense why it was so painful. I told Josh to get the tackle box and grab a needle. I remembered from reading the book “Fixing your feet”, by John Vonhof, that popping a blood blister was very bad because of the chance of getting an infection directly into your blood stream. I had to try something because another 20 miles in the dark over root infested trails would be very difficult and painful. Laura sterilized the needle and helped to bend my leg so I could perform some surgery. The needle nearly bent in half trying to get through the calloused skin. Once in, I moved the needle around in circles to enlarge the hole and allow it to drain. I had to do this a few times as a thick bloody mucous fluid flowed out. I tried to use the clippers to cut a flap, to allow drainage while running, but the callous was too thick to work with. After I got all the blisters on my feet drained, Laura sterilized them and started to trim the newskin bandage to provide some protection. I was shivering really badly about this point and Renee got a blanket and wrapped it around me. Josh grabbed me 2 ibuprofens to go with my chicken broth, and he topped off my water bottle. Laura got the newskin on, coated my feet with Vaseline, and got a new pair of socks on. She loosened the laces on my shoes so I could get them in without too much pain. I pulled on the laces tighter than normal to keep my feet in place and prevent any movement. I’ve had blisters before and have always (except Arkansas) been able to drain them and keep going with no problem. Most blisters don’t bother me, and it has been awhile since I’ve gotten a blister with the changes I’ve made through trial and error. About this time I knew my 24 hr goal was gone but I still had to finish if nothing else. I sat there for a while and enjoyed the moment without pain and the warm chicken broth as I waited for the ibuprofen to get into my system. I started to get that comfortable warm feeling and knew better not to stay too long and said that I needed to get going.
Laura and Josh helped me out of the chair as I was ready to get going on my new feet and hit the trail for one last lap. But it only took one step and I knew it was not any better. The pain was just as bad if not worse. I headed towards the start / finish line, which was about 50 yards away, hoping the pain would ease a bit only to find it getting worse with every step. I turned around and stood there for a few minutes before hobbling back to my crew and said to just give me a minute to walk around and get my feet numb. As I attempted to walk, Josh was at my side worried I might fall and hurt myself even more. Every little twig and pinecone I stepped on would send excruciating pain up my body. I kept pacing back and forth hoping the pain would get better with each step but it only got worse. The reality started to sink in and I was left in complete disbelief thinking I was not going to finish this race when just 8 miles ago I was looking at the best race I’ve ever had and a sub-24 finish was in sight. I kept pacing back and forth trying to make this work, but I was headed further away from any goal I came here with. I sat back down and said I have time and just needed a little longer. This was Arkansas all over again and Laura knew I just had to come to terms with this in my own mind and do the smart thing before I did some real damage to my feet (if not already). I got back up and tried to pace around again only to find myself in a bad position. The pain was just too great, and the thought of 20 miles was just beyond what my feet had in them. I looked over at Laura and said I’m sorry baby but I just can’t go any further like this. She assured me that it was a smart decision based on what my feet looked like, and the problems I was having just trying to walk on level ground. It took 10 minutes (and a lot of moans and groans), to travel 50 yards, as Renee went with me to tell the officials that I could no longer continue with the race and needed to drop. The official also assured me this was the right decision to make because being out in the middle of the course would make it very difficult to get me out if my feet completely failed.
Laura and Josh had the Avalanche 90% packed before we made it back. I knew in my heart this was the right decision, no matter how hard it was, although I was still in disbelief at how this race turned out. We went back to the hotel we stayed in the previous night and crashed until noon. With a late checkout, we were on the road and trying to get some time behind us before stopping for another night. Laura drove the first leg of the trip while I rested.
This was most likely a low point for me as I questioned if I really had what it took to keep participating in these events and run with this exceptional crowd of athletes, although I have completed 100 miles before. I was just really miserable and full of self doubt, but I never gave any sign of this to Laura and the kids. In fact, she was already planning our return trip to Texas next year and was saying how much she enjoyed this race compared to some of the other races. But after I licked my wounds and got some sleep, I realized I was just feeling sorry for myself. Besides, when you work hard and smart for something, the accomplishment never feels better than after suffering a few defeats beforehand. It was now time to just suck it up and get over it. My family drove two days and stayed up all night and not once did they complain – How awesome is that!
Along with beating myself up inside, my body was having a hard time trying to regulate my temperature - Hot one minute and cold the next. I had little muscle soreness, but my body was fighting something and was struggling. I figured I would just give myself time and let my system heal itself physically and emotionally. We stopped for gas and I wanted to give Laura a break from driving. I drove down the road for about 15 minutes and told Laura I’m having a difficult time concentrating and pulled over so she could take over driving duty. I did not feel I could safely drive without putting my family or someone else in harm’s way. My wife is really awesome and strong in these situations and took control of everything. It was very comforting to know my wife was the strong type that could take over when I was out of it. I went back to sleep, and the next thing I knew, we had pulled over for some fresh LA seafood at this nice restaurant. Although food still did not sound all that appealing (which is unusual for me after races), I knew I needed to eat to give my body fuel for recovery. It was still painful to walk, but knew I had to move around after sitting in the truck for 7 hours. I’m sure I looked ridiculous hobbling into this nice restaurant with sweatpants and crocks on, but I didn’t care at the time. I can only imagine what some of those folks were thinking! Nevertheless, the food and service was great and I said we would stop there next year (hopefully not hobbling as bad). On the way out of the restaurant, we saw a Holiday Inn next door. With a belly full of food, and darkness upon us, the decision was easy to make to get a good night’s rest. The next day I still felt bad as my system continued to battle something. This is my third 100 mile race and I’ve never had this much trouble recovering before. I’ve been sore and tired, but this was just a really fatigued feeling as my body was still struggling to regulate its temperature. After I slept most of this day as well, we finally arrived home in GA. I told myself that if I didn’t feel better soon, I would need to see a doctor. Fortunately, the next day I finally started to come out of this strange funk I was in and felt much better. My body temperature felt normal and my appetite was returning. It did cross my mind, and I was getting a little concerned that I may have had some sort of infection from the blisters, but all is well now. Despite the outcome, Laura and the kids really enjoyed this race, and are more than willing to see this one next year.
Although my confidence took a hit, it also made me even more determined to not only go back to Texas next year and get some more (Bring it on), but work that much harder for my next race. I feel I learned a lot about myself this race, and it confirmed that the changes I made in my training plan improved my performance. On the other hand, I’m more confused than ever about what to do with my feet. Everything else can be working great, but without feet, you’re not going anywhere. Adjustments in training really helped my performance by adding speedwork, and focusing on quality training miles and not junk miles. I’ve done some more research into heart rate training and which zones to train in and which heart rate zones do nothing to increase ones performance. The nutritional changes made a difference by sustaining my energy level and keeping my muscles working strong well into the 2nd half of the race. I still have some work to do with food so I can be consistent with the hot summer races coming up. Although I did nothing different in the race than I do for training with proven shoes, and it took 70+ miles before my feet came apart, I have a few theories which may have contributed to my problem. I had no foot problems until I changed into a ½ size larger shoe at the 60 mile mark. My current shoes were working well, I just wanted a fresh pair for the last 40 miles, and I’ve done this for my past races with good results. Maybe my feet did not swell as much as in past races and the larger size caused more problems! The calluses on the bottom of my feet were also too thick which is not favorable. This is not a problem now because the callous fell off. This was the first 100 mile race I tried to complete with road shoes only; maybe I need to stick with trail shoes which offer more protection. I will make some changes, but won’t know if they work until my next 100 miler because it takes 70+ miles to see if it works.
I didn’t reach my goal this time, but I walked away learning something new. I love the challenge of pushing my limits, making adjustments, and waking up the next day in search of a new accomplishment. Like they say, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.
I give thanks to my Lord who gave me this ability and to my awesome crew (Laura, Josh, and Renee) who put their lives on hold to support and provide care for me. Thanks to my family and friends who kept me in their thoughts and prayers all weekend, and showed compassion when things didn’t go as planned.
Races are like life - You’re given the test first, and then the lesson.