Saturday, June 30, 2012

How Western States Helped Me (Temporarily) Conquer A Phobia

I am, to put it mildly, afraid of snakes.  At my older son’s second birthday party, we hired a company that brings exotic animals to come entertain the kids.  I was holding Cooper when the presenter brought out a six-foot, black (non-venomous) milk snake.  Parental instinct be damned, I dropped Cooper and ran as far and as fast as I could.  Being bitten by a snake is probably my greatest fear.

Which is why I was rather surprised during the last 20 miles of this year’s Western States Endurance Run, that I really wanted to see a snake.  Specifically, an enormous, venomous (preferably non-lethal), rattlesnake.  As Sam (my friend and pacer) and I left Green Gate (the top of a climb at mile 80), things got very difficult for me, physically and mentally.  I thought a stick on the side of the trail was a rattler and came to a dead stop, Sam nearly crashing into me (he, perhaps mostly to be supportive, said it did look a bit like a snake).  We then ran over a dead baby snake.  As my body shut itself down, my mind kept trying to tell me that time goals were unattainable and started playing horrible tricks on me.  The worst?  Actually wanting to get bit by a rattler, so that I could lie down and have a good excuse to stop moving.  It seemed that we were not even moving.  It felt like I wasn’t actually running anything.  As my pace continued to slow, as each slight uphill grade seemed insurmountable, giving in to “defeat,” to expectations not met, became a tempting siren song.  That rattler could have given me the “out” I was looking for, and allowed me to live in the land of “what ifs” instead of facing the reality of the day, of my feelings about a sub-par performance.

When you set high expectations and fall short, it is a bit hard to not feel disappointed.  I went into this year’s Western States with a goal of running under 17 hours.  Knowing that the field was incredibly deep, I knew that this sort of performance would in no way guarantee a top-10 finish (in fact, 10th place ran a 16:18, a time that, almost any other year, would have won the race outright), but I was fine with that.  I wanted to leave Auburn knowing that I had performed at the level I am capable of.  I had the training, had rested, and believed I could meet my goal.  My mom and dad had traveled to the race to “take care” of me (thank you both, I needed your support more than I knew, or probably let on).  Sam Jurek, a good friend, had traveled to crew and run the last 38 miles with me.  This race was not just about me – I wanted to run my heart out.  I ended up finishing in 18:11, a time that, while others may not care, did not satisfy my ego (more on that later).

The race starts in Squaw Valley with the fire-road climb up the Escarpment, a ~4 mile, ~2,500 ft climb to 8,700 feet.  This part of the course frightened me from the day we arrived in Squaw.  Sam and I had gone out for a jog, and after running the first two miles, I had to stop.  My lungs burned.  I got tunnel vision and nearly passed out.  Was this altitude or something more maligned?  Would I be able to “run” this climb, just two or three days later?  The second day we hiked up to the top of Escarpment, and I felt much better, meeting Jay Smithberger, a speedy 100-mile runner from Ohio, who is running the Grand Slam this summer.  Later in the day I jogged a mile up, and felt fine the whole way.

On race morning, a pack of about 20 guys took off up the hill.  I desperately wanted to be there, but decided to be conservative, and not run hard, hiking good portions of the first climb – the race was not going to be won in the first 3 miles, and, to be totally honest, I didn’t have the wheels to hang on the climb.  Far from the typical Western States weather though, we were greated with a New England winter – high winds, sleet and hail (the wet/cold would last for much of the first 40 miles).  I was determined to be very conservative through Robinson Flat (~30 miles), and, based on the various reports I heard, was doing well at that (I was running with ultra-runner extraordinaire, Mike Wardian for much of this, and he relayed that the leaders were 15 minutes up, 10 miles into the race.  This was rather discouraging, but, I should have asked how far the next people were – only a few minutes.  I definitely got psyched out by hearing that 15 minute number).  I was cold, and at one aid station asked for something hot to drink.  They offered some soup and a campfire.  I took the soup and, probably not much more than 20 miles into the race, the campfire sounded much too inviting (alas, I did not enjoy its appealing aroma and inviting embers).

That pretty much sums up the next 50 miles.  I would eat soup or broth.  I had nothing on the uphills, and so hiked a lot more than I wanted to.  I passed a few people, got passed back when I was using the port-a-potties (no major stomach issues though, which was a big change from my first 100-miler).  I moved.  I felt like I was not moving quickly, so I just moved forward.  I was running downhills fine, uphills, not so much.  I was trying to get calories.  I was trying to rebound.  The finish was never much in doubt, I knew I could cover 100 miles, but I was here to run hard.  I felt like I was letting myself down.

Sam joined me for the duration at Foresthill, mile 62.  I forced down some solid calories and then we took off down Cal Street.  Running felt good and we passed a couple of guys in the early stages (one of these guys, who I had seen at the start because he was sporting Salomon and Slovenia gear, would later pass me with about 12 to go and stay in front of me).  It was clear that our job was to get in calories and move (looking back, I probably had a spot early on where I wasn’t taking enough calories – I was trying to eat solids to save my gut for an all-Gu diet at the end – and this may have created a calorie deficiet that I never really climbed out of, which might explain my general lack of energy for much of the day).  We did okay for the first 15 miles or so, and then got a big boost running into the Rucky Chucky river crossing – we caught up to Lizzy Hawker, who had led the ladies’ race from the go (she had since been passed by Ellie Greenwood, who I shared a number of miles with early on).  When you catch up to one of the best runners in the world (even if she is a she!), it certainly helps the morale a bit.  That, and I was looking forward to a nice, cold crossing of the American River to ice down my sore knees and legs.  This was, it turns out, the greatest disappointment of the race for me (more so than not finishing as quickly as I would have liked): instead of fording the river on foot, Sam and I were thrown into a boat with Lizzy and her pacer.  Apparently the water was still too high.  Sam and I were bummed, but we kept moving on the other side – up Green Gate, which I had decided to hike the whole way (Lizzy would run sections, and, somewhat comically, not gain anything on us.  Sam and I hiked the whole thing and we reached the top maybe 5 or 10 seconds behind).

Hiking up Green Gate (which is over a mile) was probably a mistake.  Mile 80 is at the top, and when we got there, it was as if my legs had forgotten how to run.  Looking back I should have forced myself to run more than I did (Sam made the effort to get me running for short stretches, but I did not budge) to keep the legs moving.  The next twenty miles were a grunt-fest (literally.  I was grunting or moaning with nearly every step from here to the finish), punctuated by a couple of decent patches of running.  Sam got to witness me at a pretty dark time - several hours where I was questioning everything I have put into running, questioning why I wasn’t running as hard as I wanted, as hard I as believed I could.  We passed one or two more people here, but it was of little consolation.  I wanted one of two things: the finish to magically appear, or that rattlesnake to materialize to let me lie down.  Maybe more calories would have helped.  Maybe more hill training.  Maybe more mental toughness.  At that point, it didn’t matter.  I just wanted to be done.  It has been said before, but the last 20 miles of a 100 are pretty special place (and even though they were miserable, especially because they were taking me much longer than intended, they really are special).   

Eventually, the run did finish, far short of my personal expectations, but in a classic, “This-is-why-we-do-this-sort-of-thing” way.  In the last mile and a half there is a climb up Robie Point that feels interminable (I am curious to go back and see it, when not completely wiped).  About 100 yards shy of the crest (although Sam had promised me long before that the climb was over!), the neighbors of Robie Point had come out in force.  There seemed to be over one hundred people there, yelling and screaming, kids on scooters giving high fives, Christmas lights, music.  I had the biggest smile on my face, because, as one New Englander (Kevin Sullivan, who happens to have finished top-5 at Western in 2009, and who’s time I was chasing for most of the day) told me, “No one cares about time or place.” I finally “got” what he meant by that.  While my ego is bruised because I didn’t meet some self-imposed goal, in the end, those people were cheering for me as much as they were for the winner, or for others who would be finishing 12 hours behind me.  My family wouldn’t care if I won, got top-10, or met my goal.  They just want daddy to be able to walk.  I got to share those incredibly tough last miles with a great person and friend,and the day with my folks, and those who were “watching” back home (my aunt, on Eastern time, stayed up to the bitter end - she said she was glued to her iPad!).  Sam and I ran around the track at Auburn High, I hugged Craig (the soon to be RD) as he gave me the finisher’s medal, and hugged Sam, thanking him for his support in what was a very dark time for me mentally.  I looked for my parents who got to witness me finish a 100 miler (they took great care of me throughout the day, with patience and fuel for both the body and spirit).  And now that it is over, my feet are not swollen, I can walk normally, and I’m back East (unfortunately, already thinking about what is next - damn you ego and short term memory loss!), I have two, overwhelming thoughts: One, I am still afraid of snakes, and two, thank goodness one never showed up – although it may have given me the adrenaline boost I needed to run like hell!  
ROCKY (ROAD)

5 years ago, when laid-up with my first-ever running injury, I stopped eating ice
cream. This past summer, my two little boys asked me why I never eat ice cream.
Claiming a healthy lifestyle, I vaguely told them that, after I finished my first 100-
miler, I would take them out for ice cream and actually eat some too. Looks like it’s
time for me start thinking about what flavor to get . . .

ROCKY RACCOON 100 MILER

We must always be gracious to our hosts, especially when they are as wonderful
as the folks from Tejas Trails. A huge thanks is due to Joe and Joyce Prusaitis and
their exceptional volunteers for marshalling the small army that makes this event
possible. From my perspective it was flawless. Thank you all. I have a whole new
respect for Texas!

This was to be my first attempt at 100 miles and I was approaching it as a practice
run for Western States in June. My primary goal in any race is simply to finish, but
entering Rocky I added two additional goals: finish in 15 hours, plus/minus and
hour, and finish top-5. From a goals standpoint, the race was an incredible success: I
learned some invaluable lessons for Western, finished in 15:35, and was fifth. Here
is the (nearly 3,000 word) blow-by-blow, starting at the very beginning.

EMAIL: Me to Joe (Rocky RD): I’m a neophyte to the 100 mile distance and am
planning to run alone. If you know of anyone who might be interested in pacing the
last 20 miles, I wouldn’t say no.

EMAIL: Joe to Me: Meet Meredith Terranova [a human dynamo].

EMAIL: Meredith to Me: I’ve got a great guy to run with you, Pete.

The stage was set, and all I had to do was get myself to Texas. After tweaking my
knee on my 32nd birthday (December 24), I had had about 6 sessions with PT
Danielle Clark at Boston Sports Medicine in Somerville (any folks in Boston looking
for an excellent PT, I cannot speak highly enough about Danielle’s skills),. My body
was healthy, and I knew the training was there to get me to the finish line in a time
I could feel good about. I felt remarkably calm, and knew I would be running 100
miles on February 4. I did not feel cocky, but had a total belief in my preparation.
The anxiety I did have centered around how many GUs I would be allowed to carry-
on the plane (I was bringing a lot – too many, as I learned). Despite my desire to
travel sans-checked luggage (I’m cheap), I checked a bag ($25 dollars on top of my
plane ticket? Really?). I (and the bag) all arrived safely in Houston on Friday, and I
headed the hour north to Huntsville State Park.

I finally got to meet Meredith and Pete (veteran of some gnarly 100 milers) the night
before the race. They proved their incredibly kind natures by introducing me to a
second pacer, Bryan, who would run miles 60-80 with me, Pete’s wife, Kristy, and
Meredith’s husband, Paul (an accomplished ultrarunner/triathlete), who would be
offering encouragement and crew-support during the race – all for a total stranger!
(Meredith and Paul were really crewing/pacing for Ian Sharman, but stuck around
at many aid stations to cheer me through). I proved my lack of race experience by
asking them how to assemble the chip-timing bracelet we would be wearing.

Race morning began with an unwelcome wake-up call. After being hot and, mostly,
dry (the course had been in near-perfect condition), around 4:15 AM the heavens
opened up and it rained. It rained hard. And it kept raining. Hard. One can either
embrace this sort of situation or suffer through it. Given the downright pleasant
mood of everyone, it seemed the former was the preferred philosophy on this day.
By the 6:00 AM start, the rain had let up (a bit), and we were off.

The race is 5 loops of a 20 mile course, with several sections you run twice each
loop. Every step is runnable, and if you’ve ever run in places like the Fells or Blue
Hills around Boston, you will feel like you are running on a road. As expected, a
group made up of Ian Sharman, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer, and Osawldo Lopez were
running at a very fast clip. I found myself about 1 minute back through the first
several miles, thinking that I had a long day, and not wanting to push things too
much too early. The course was superbly marked, making it easy to follow. I simply
ran at what felt like a comfortable pace. I found myself running alone for much of
the first loop, just keeping a comfortable pace, finishing the first loop about 5 or 6
minutes down from the leaders.

I ran the second loop entirely alone***, after being buoyed by the all-star crew of
Pete, Kristy, and Bryan at the start finish (***One is rarely alone on the Rocky Course
– there are a lot of people. I was thrilled to see so many friendly/furry Trail Animals
from the Boston area, including Dima (who gave me accurate splits all day, and made
me smile while telling me to run faster when I had about 7 miles to go), Karen, Gail,
Jason, a gentleman who volunteered at Stone Cat (sorry, my memory was shot at that
point!), and “Sully’s Friend.” I also saw Randy, who I met in the airport the day before,
who managed a strong finish).

As I approached DamNation the second time (26 miles in), I had my lowest moment
of the race (which is saying a lot – if you keep reading, you’ll understand . . .). My
knee started to get tight, like it had been off and on since November, and for the only
time in the race, I thought, NO! I STILL HAVE 74 MILES TO GO! I was on top of my
calorie intake (until the last 14 miles, I only used the aforementioned GU, GU’s new
Grape Roctane drink, and, thanks to the wisdom of TARCer Julie O’Mara, ginger).
This time through the DamNation loop was fairly depressing. The loop begins with
a long straightaway over some gentle rollers, but it just seemed to go on forever, my
mind slowly creeping to the negative, as the knee continued to give the slightest hint
of getting angry. Fortunately, by the time I finished the loop the knee felt fine, but it
had definitely raised some doubts in my psyche. At the next aid station I told Pete
that the knee was being a little funky – I think mostly as a way to simply accept what
was happening (and because I like to whine).

To find a good groove, and try to forget about the knee (which was feeling fine at
this point), loop three started out just running a pace that felt very comfortable,
trying to build up momentum like a big Diesel train. As I headed out, I saw one 100
miler a couple of minutes behind me, looking strong, which gave me a little extra
motivation (as did the crew All-Stars, who kept me in and out of aid stations in a
flash – whatever I needed, they had, ready to go. They were topnotch all day). After
seeing the crew at the first aid station (mile 43.5), things started feeling good, and
I just went with it. There were about 3 miles to go until DamNation and it clicked
by easily. It got even easier when 100 yards before the aid station I saw Oswaldo
Lopez, the 2011 winner of Badwater.

Oswaldo looked like he was hurting. After being up on me by ~8 minutes six miles
before, he was limping and moving slowly (he later told me that through 30 miles
he and Ian had been running 7:00 pace). I was stoked by the possibility of taking
over fourth and building a strong lead, but I introduced myself, and said, “BAMOAS
OSWALDO! Let’s run fast together!” He understood, and hung on my back. At first
he was doing a lot of grunting on the little rollers, but we kept at it – chatting in a
comical mix of English and Spanish (Oswaldo was probably hallucinating and in
need of a medical check when he said he was impressed with my Spanish!) - and
made very short work of the next ten miles, hitting some low 7:00 miles out of
DamNation. And then I learned my first lesson about the difference between 100
milers and 50 milers: I cannot exclusively eat GU!

56 miles in, after running strong with Oswaldo for the past 10 miles, I had to stop at
the aid station for a pit-stop. While doing this, Brooks Williams caught up. We ran
together into the start/finish, where Bryan would be joining me for miles 60 – 80. I
had been hoping to run more with Brooks, but he stopped to change socks, I needed
to keep moving to stop getting tight. As Bryan and I started, we almost immediately
caught Ian Sharman, and Paul (who was pacing Ian). I asked Ian if he wanted to run
with us, but he was clearly hurting. Still, passing the guy with the course record
and such talent was rather uplifting 60 miles into the race (to his great credit, after
dropping, Ian stuck with the All-Star crew for much of the remainder of the race
cheering folks on).

Having Bryan along was a great morale boost. His shiny shoes made me laugh,
thinking about what they would look like after some of the muddier sections (to
his credit, his shoes stayed shiny for a long time). I was still taking in GUs, but after
60+ miles of that, the body was starting to “get rid of it.” I felt as if I was running
pretty well, but on this 4th loop, started to make more “pit stops,” which killed some
momentum – I would gain ground on Oswaldo, only to lose it in the bushes. Brooks
caught us at the end of the DamNation loop (where Meredith started pacing him),

and we ran together until I needed to make another pit stop. The running still felt
smooth, but I was becoming less responsive – I had to tell Bryan that some stories
would have to wait until the end of the race, because the mind didn’t have the ability
to run and talk in great detail at this point. Bryan and I cruised into the start/finish
for a final transition with the All-Stars.

With a final start/finish transition with the crew All-Stars, Pete and I took off, less
than a minute behind Brooks and about 10 minutes behind Oswaldo. This was
unchartered territory – I would be running further than I ever had. Pete was patient
(he does teach middle school . . .) putting up with my inability to communicate,
and, at this point, my very frequent pit stops. As we pulled into DamNation to
begin the final loop, I contemplated what to do to get the gut back on track. Pete
suggested forgoing the GU (we only had 14 miles to go!). Knowing that Josh Finger
(who finished 6th) was only about 25 minutes back at the start of the last loop and
I was having to stop so frequently, we went with Pete’s idea (Meredith had been at
DamNation, and offered my an Imodium. I was nervous of any side effects, so did
not take it – perhaps a poor choice). A few more pit stops were needed, but at mile
90, I had my final trip to the side of the trail.

Unfortunately, with this final stop, came a new problem. Stepping back onto
the trail and starting to run, my left knee, which had been bothering me since
November, seized up. For a moment, I thought I was done, but with Pete’s steady
presence, we started jogging and it loosened up. We kept moving as best we could
over the next several miles, running a couple around 8:15 pace (according to my
Garmin). We pulled into the final aid station, and, having not been taking any GUs, I
stopped for Coke. I drank a couple cups, and psyched myself up for the final push.

The race nearly ended about 50 feet from that last aid station. The knee did not
realize it still had 4.5 miles to the finish. Suffice it to say that it hurt. This may
sound clich├ęd, but I actually thought about my family who had been following the
race all day online. I thought about taking my boys out to ice cream. The idea of
stopping quickly left my mind, and again, Pete offered a steady presence. After some
rather unsuccessful walking steps, we decided it would be better to simply “get it
done.” I started “running.” The knee loosened up (with the exception of these two
moments, it never actually hurt at all during the race). I felt the need for another pit
stop, but Pete kindly suggested that we just push forward, lest the knee lock up. We
hit the out-and-back from the start/finish. We hit the boardwalks/bridges. ~1.5
miles to go. Was that a guy driving an ATV telling us, “Good job!”? Did Pete really
say, “Good job driving” back to him? 0.5 miles to go. I told Pete I was really looking
forward to sitting down in a chair. We ran the last little hill. The final turn. The end.

Sitting down has rarely felt so good. Ramen noodles have never tasted so good.
Taking my shoes and socks off has never felt so good (although it was a bit
embarrassing that Paul had to take them off for me . . .). I have never washed that
much mud off my legs before. And, a day later, when I got home, my boys have never
looked so stunned as we all sat down to enjoy our ice cream together (we had Oreo,
cherry, and ginger snap). Looks like I’ll have to finish another 100 pretty soon . . .

THE AFTERMATH

Thank goodness Pete, Kristy, Bryan, Meredith, and Paul were all there. They got my
car, helped me walk to it (after sitting for a while, I could put no weight on the knee),
drove me back to the Motel, and Paul basically carried me up to the room. The
interesting thing was, with the exception of the left knee, the body felt surprisingly
good. The next morning, with the knee so sore, I contemplated buying crutches. I
also noticed that my right ankle was a swollen (and, naturally, both feet were a bit
swollen). As Meredith had foretold, the Ramen post-race had settled the stomach a
bit, but I hadn’t really eaten much after the race. So Sunday morning, I headed over
to IHOP.

There were many knowing nods walking into/out of the restaurant (and motel, and
airport) that morning. It was clear who had just spent the better part of the past
24+ hours running around Huntsville State Park. We shared a special bond (and a
special “walk”). It was great travelling back with Dima and Karen – we were all a
little punch drunk so we could abandon all civility and just relax (I also managed
to score us bulkhead/exit row seats for Huston - Phili. I was the last person on the
plane from Phili – Boston, and the flight attendant took such pity on me that she
allowed me to literally fall into a 1st class).

I finally got home at 2:00 AM, using my rolling suitcase’s handle as a make-shift crutch.  I was tired.  I got to the door, and there, in my 5 year-old’s handwriting was a giant poster saying, “Congratulations Daddy!  We Love You!”  Perfect.
With the exception of my left knee and right ankle, the body feels
surprisingly “spry.” I only got one small blister – impressive given my feet were
wet and muddy for 15+ hours. Yet the drive back to Houston, and then 4+ hours on
planes did not serve me well. By the time I got home at 2:00 AM Monday morning,
my feet had both ballooned, with my right foot/ankle (where I had been wearing
the timing chip for most of the race) about 4 times it’s normal size. My wife took
me to the ER yesterday morning (after I had called in to school, and we had gotten
our boys to school). Sitting in a wheelchair was surprisingly comfortable. It was
reassuring to get X-rays showing nothing was broken in the foot, ankle, or knee. It
was very reassuring to have ultrasound and find no blood clots (given the swelling
in my foot, I was pretty freaked out about that – I wish I had taken a picture, as it
was, objectively, impressively swollen). I was told to not go to work until at least
Thursday, and to basically lie on my back with my feet up for the next 2 days, taking
Aleve.

As I write this, the knee is still sore, but greatly improved. The left foot is back
to almost normal. The only real issue continues to be the right ankle/foot. Still
swollen (but I can actually see the bones at the top of the foot, and there is no
longer a straight line between the ankle and calf. Not sure what exactly caused the
issue with the ankle – I never twisted it during the race, but did notice that it was a
little swollen around mile 80 (expected). I had tried to make the timing chip very
loose, and even switched it to the other foot at mile 80. All I can figure is that it has
something to do with the chip and swollen ankles (now that the swelling has gone
down a bit, there is a pretty big dent right where the bracelet was, so I’m leaning
towards that being the issue . . .). Hopefully nothing too serious, but I’m going to see
an orthopedist tomorrow, and given the progression from yesterday at 2:00 AM to
now, I’m encouraged. The ankle feels insanely tight, but I’m just happy it doesn’t
look like a grotesque balloon anymore (I wasn’t planning on running this week
anyway!).