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!  

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