No 100-Mile Runner

I’m not a 100-mile runner.

Sure, I’ve completed three 100-mile races; but, I am not a 100-mile runner.

Instead, I’m a 40-mile runner, who may or may not, endure up to 60 miles of suffering, simply moving along just enough to eventually possibly complete the hundred mile distance.

My last three 100 mile races have been heart-breaking. At the Keys 100, stupid mistakes with my feet forced me to failure, and at the 2010 Western States 100, poor race execution lead to the choice being made for me by the race’s medical staff; but at Rio Del Lago 100 this weekend, I was not having fun and I made the choice to avoid enduring hours upon hours of continued and pointless suffering.

94 started, 44 bailed out. I was one of the 44.

Finding some clarity at Rio Del Lago

I was excited to run the Rio Del Lago 100.

Christian and Jean Pommier
photo: One of ultrarunning’s elite, and 3rd place finisher, Jean Pommier, with me at packet pickup

Right now, I’m fit.

More fit than I have ever been in my adult life.

I was sure that not only would I be able to handle the Rio Del Lago 100, but that I could most likely post a strong personal record and finally capture that elusive sub-24 hour 100-miler.

Neither of which playing out as I had expected; but that’s ok, because along the way I did a lot of observing of other athletes and the 100-mile culture, with a heaping helping of personal soul searching, and came away with a greater understanding of what exactly I want out of this running addiction.

The start

I like to run races. I do not like to walk. I understand that for most ultrarunners, it’s best to be as conservative as possible, taking lots and lots of walking breaks early on – but I just don’t want to do that – which should immediately illustrate why I shouldn’t be doing these distances, yet.

The first, I dunno, 15 miles or so, were probably my favorite – both the terrain and the fact that I was running free and happy. A few miles out from the school, we got to run some of the nicest, rolling single-track of the day, and all the while with huge expansive views of beautiful, refreshing-looking Folsom Lake, the far-off foothills and a colorful morning sky. I felt great and because I’m stupid (a common thread in my reports), I found myself running in a front pack with two local runners.

I knew we might be going out a little fast for me, but some of the course markings were missing in these early sections, and after almost making two wrong turns, they invited me to stick with them since they knew the course really well. They kept referring to me as, ” Hey, Georgia” and I was enjoying their conversations.

The trails in California have mile markers, and I was amazed at how fast the miles were clipping off. …Amazed and frightened because I knew I was NOT listening to the advice of my elders in the sport, and I was sure to eventually pay the piper.

If someone was to ask me, “Did you come to run, or did you come to finish?” I’m not exactly sure how I would have answered.

Cardiac climb

About 20 miles into the race comes the first real significant climb, Cardiac. I was with cool Bay-area runner Hao Liu on this climb, and I just tried to stay with him as we climbed steeply to the canals. The climb was challenging, and although not one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever done, it certainly woke me up and made the trot to the Auburn Dam Overlook (23-ish miles) less-than-impressive.

I did take the opportunity to jump in and soak in the canal plumes which cooled me off quite a bit. Like a hippo, if it’s a hot day and there’s cold water around, I’m a shoe-in for a dunk in any available water source.

Hitting the Western States Trail

By the time we hit the Western States trail, the heat was in full effect. No clouds, just bright blue sky with a searing sun overhead producing temps well into the high 80s and low 90s with little-to-no breeze at all.

Once we arrived at no-hands bridge, a popular landmark runners cross during the Western States 100, and only a marathon into the race, I was already slowing down and getting passed by people who I haven’t seen at all during the earlier part of the day.

I started thinking about what DC and other experienced ultrarunners are constantly trying to pound in my head, and how they surely would be laughing at me about now. How graceful and strong I must have looked at mile 11 …while now, at just a little over 26 miles, I’m clearly and quickly headed south.

K2 …now this is a climb

I dunno, man, I think K2 is as hard as Devil’s Thumb on the Western States course. Here’s the word from the Rio Del Lago web site:

Be prepared for this mother and fuel up in anticipation – it is essentially a firebreak with seven false summits. I would approach it on the basis that “you haven’t got to the top until you’ve got to the top” – never anticipate the false area ahead of you as the top! Some parts of it are very steep, but it is nowhere near as long as say, the Western¬†States climb up Devils Thumb, the Angeles Crest one up to Mt. Wilson, or the Leadville climb up Hope Pass. It can be rather ferocious, however, particularly as things should be heating up by then. But you get it over with relatively quickly, as it is only 1.25-miles although you gain approximately 1,000 feet in elevation.

Halfway up the climb, I met Ling, a runner from West Sacramento, and she thankfully gave me the head’s up on the false summits – easily some of the most deceptive series of false summits I’ve ever experienced. Thanks Ling and congrats on coming back to life for a strong finish!

The Olmstead loop

I did not like this section. Hot as hell, fully exposed for 7 miles through what felt like one giant horse pasture. I got passed by a bunch of runners here too as I was starting to get whittled to a run-walk, sorta-shuffle strategy. Not good. Not this early. If it was a “choice”, that’s one thing, but I had no choice. The heat was burning me up and with no sunscreen and no shade, I was getting terribly burnt.

After the loop, I sat down to change socks and shoes, and as I was pulling on the first shoe, the inside of my thigh starting to cramp. The panic reaction tossed me out of the back of the pickup truck bed I was sitting on, which then resulted in a chain reaction of leg cramps and some kind of weird side muscle-chest cramp thing that caused me to SCREAM in pain …and then took my breath away. It was horrible.

Thankfully, after witnessing my drama scene, some triathlete dudes came rushing over, sat me down on their chairs, and changed my shoes for me.

Thanks, dudes, whoever you were. You saved me.

Back to the Auburn Dam Overlook

The trip back down to No Hands Bridge was a very enjoyable run and for a second, I thought I was recovering…

…but, the gradual climb out on the Western States trail took all that away in a hurry. The mid-day sun was in full effect and I had now been baking for well over 5 hours straight in it. Because of the time of day, this gradual climb out on the Western States trail was really rough on me since I was burnt to a crisp and fatiguing rapidly. The sun was perfectly positioned directly on top of me the whole way back out. I walked 95% of this 4-mile climb, and all the way back to overlook, inches from total heat exhaustion.

Why didn’t I wear sunblock? I don’t know. It never occurred to me. I never expected to be so exposed during a trail race, I guess.

If you know me, you’re not surprised.

The black hole

From the overlook, the rest of the race was simply a back-track to the school, opposite the way I had come through earlier, and honestly, I have nothing to say about it other than I was miserable and no longer having fun. I began questioning why I was here. I began questioning why I think I can do this distance on the type of training I’ve been doing.

I was observing other runners in which I’d come upon, and many were also suffering. I stepped outside of my body and watched this collection of stragglers all suffering through various portions of the course and all of a sudden none of it appealed to me. In fact, I have to admit I started to think about the recent TV show about obsessions and the ultrarunner they portray on that show, and kept thinking, “is this me?”

I started thinking how we all refer to “running 100-milers,” but aside from a few shuffles when the terrain got easy, I hadn’t seen anyone really running for hours. At least not until those with pacers starting passing me, but even then the dynamic was the same – spunky pacer, dejected runner – and it was occurring to me, right or wrong, that with pacers and crews and all that, it becomes a team sport and the individual effort changes.

I started feeling bitter and lonely. Bitter at feeling disadvantaged for not having someone I know and love to help lift my spirits, …while lonely and jealous, …well, for the same reasons. Not proud of it, but I am who I am and I felt what I felt – regardless of warrant. I gotta tell it as it was.

I knew at that point that while I respect and love many of the people I meet in this sport, the 100-miler events are not satisfying running events for me right now, and I was 100% sure that my intentions for the sport have definitively changed. I no longer want to suffer in the woods beyond my current ability just to prove that I can.

I’ve already done that and I wear the reminder every single day.

A moment of clarity

First, for my own knowledge as I look back on all this someday, after Western States I had already come to the realization that for the style of running that I enjoy, coupled with the realities of life, my training, and my “under-graduate” experience level, 100-milers are simply out of my league. At least for the times in which I would like to complete them (24 hours or less).

I started chasing time goals last year in the 5K (3.1 miles), 10K (6.2 miles), marathon (26.2) and 50K (31.2 miles) distances, and I LOVE IT!

I love it because it’s all about “running” and running fast(er).

My previous post from my proud run at Laurel Valley illustrated how I had come to the sport backwards, never having had a real introduction to speed, and shorter distances first. In a way, I think this phenomenon will happen more and more as ultrarunning grows and becomes exposed to more athletes who are intrigued with the sport but may not have been runners before.

My moment of clarity came about a mile or so after I left the Cavitt school aid station. Slowly and pitifully making my way down the levee, I was cramping horribly, terribly chafed between the legs, teeth-chattering-chilled from the sunburn and no longer running at all.

Just walking.

I had 13 hours to walk a 50K, but why? What was I to gain? Another buckle? More pointless suffering and potential injury?

I was not having fun.

So, I shut off my head lamp, laid on the ground (using my water bottle as a pillow) and stared up at the stars while listening to the comforting waves on the shore of Folsom Lake.

And I made my decision that from now on, I was only going to run what made me happy.

When I surf, I smile from ear to ear, like a little kid. My wife loves, loves, loves when I get to surf because she knows she’s going to get “happy Christian” for days. She likes to see me happy, and nothing makes me happier than surfing fun waves on a sunny summer day. That might just be the definition of heaven for me and I was reminded of that during hurricane Earl.

Lying on the ground, I found myself smiling just thinking about it.

Running isn’t surfing, but running hard makes me happy. Chasing times and redlining make me happy. It’s animalistic and its raw and unbridled. These are things that my aggressive nature understands, and I enjoy it so much more than calculated strategies of conservation necessary for my ability level at the very long distances.

I don’t like to think that much, nor have to prepare that well.

Not yet.

For now, I’m attracted to the simplicity of showing up and hammering with all I’ve got.

In 100s, that strategy is not only stupid, its completely impossible, and a waste of my time and money.

I’ll be back

But I’ll be back. Just not until I’m willing to put in 70-100 miles a week in preparation for a 100-miler. I want to first become consistent with 5-ish hour 50Ks, sub-10 50-milers, and while it may or may not have much relevance to 100-milers, lots and lots of faster 5K-thru-marathon races.

Once I become a better runner, I’ll have a better chance at running further and for longer periods during 100-milers.

In this runner’s opinion, there’s no better way to respect the distance than being prepared.

100-milers are no joke.

The black hole