Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Easiest Decision I’ve Ever Made

Being an ultra-running dork, my life was devoted to “watching” the Western States 100 on June 29th of this year.  What stood out the most that day, despite all the incredible performances, was this image:



Most of the last 6 months of my life have been spent preparing for and imagining my run at the Vermont 100.  I asked (and got) a lot of sacrifice from my family: “Liz, I’ve got to get a 5 hour run in Saturday, and then a 4 hour run Sunday.”  “I am doing this race in a couple of weeks.” “I need to get a solid workout in tomorrow.”  Common theme here?  While there is a lot of good that comes from my running, it often comes to resemble that Toby Keith song, “I Wanna to Talk About Me”.  Don't get me wrong, it's a great song, but that's just not an ethos I want to live my life by.           

The Vermont 100 felt different.  It felt like running at home, the merging of my Vermont roots and my present life outside Boston.  I grew up about an hour north of the race, and Liz was going to crew for me (the first time she would see me during a race).  My family (siblings, cousins, parents, kids) would be there at the finish. My friends Justin Contois, Eric Ahern, Michael McDuffie, and Anthony Parillo had all volunteered to crew or pace throughout the day, and SamJurek was running his first 100K.  Justin arranged an incredible place for us to stay at Ascutney Mountain Resort.  It was a weekend event, a celebration of summer, friends, and running.  Competitively, I wanted to run near the front.  My ego wanted to win.  However, having approached a race like that before, I knew, for me, that would not make for a happy or satisfying day.  Ultimately, I was approaching this race as a recognition of all the sacrifices I ask of my family – a way for us to share the experience and to show them (and me) that it is worth it.  It was a celebration of the running community that has become such an integral part of my life.  As I told the eventual winner, Jason Lantz, when he asked me about my time goals during the early miles, “I’m less concerned with a time, and just want to run happy.”  And, even with the ultimate outcome of my day, that is exactly what I did. 

In late March, I decided to try something completely different in my running – I hired a coach.  Ian Torrence and Emily Harrison quickly changed my routine.  No longer did I just log as many miles as possible, but I had weekly workouts.  The results came quickly.  Minutes were shaved from my daily commute to/from school.  I became faster.  I was more confident on hills.  I actually felt energetic most of the time.  Things felt good.   As race day approached, my confidence built. 

The week before the race was spent with my folks up in Waterbury, VT.  I went gluten-free, as an experiment, looking to maximize my performance as much as possible (might be something there - the stomach seemed better than usual).  I did one last workout on the dirt track at my old school.  We celebrated my niece’s birthday.  I felt surprisingly calm, with only brief moments of that anticipatory anxiety/excitement that so often come with these events.  Not feeling over-confident, I simply knew I was prepared to run well.  I knew that I would be running 100 miles through my home state.  And I damn nearly did.

Fireworks announced our departure.  Real, honest-to-goodness, 4th of July fireworks, lighting up the pre-dawn sky.  With each shell being launched the slope of the distant hill could be seen.  About to take my first step on a 100 mile journey I was transported to my youth.  The scene before me had been played out years before, on the River Road in Duxbury, Vermont, staring in awe not only at the explosion of colors, but at the lightning bugs answering the concussive booms in kind.  The sound of each shell echoed off the surrounding mountains then and now.  Calm.  “GO!”

Friday, pre-race, Jack Pilla, ultra-stud and former winner of the Vermont 100 had graciously offered to pick me up on his drive down to the race, where he would be pacing and crewing.  Jen Sorrell and Kristin Lundy (also driving with Jack) kindly offered up the front seat to me, and we spent the ride reliving those awful moments from races it seems only other ultra-runners can appreciate and understand.  I was able to hang out with the “Vermont Crew” for much of the afternoon, a testament to the welcoming nature of this community.  The vibe was rather relaxed for a pre-100 mile run, and, once I met up with Justin and Eric, we headed over to our luxury chalet and began settling in.  A few back and forths between there and the start/finish and before I knew it I was laying in a comfortable bed, alarm set for 2:23 AM.  One massive thunder storm and a surprisingly restful (half) night later, and I was up (as were Justin, Michael, and Anthony, who were generously coming to the start and crewing the early miles, especially since it turns out they basically didn't sleep that night).  We drove to the start/finish, which swarmed with excitement.

Running through Woodstock around mile 11, was a trip down memory lane.  I shared these miles with Ian Sharman and laughed as we went by the Billings Farm & Museum, site of many elementary school field trips for me.  I very nearly choked up as we ran near the Woodstock Inn Tennis facilities, site of many of my first tennis tournaments.  Running felt easy.  I had so many memories of this place.  I knew I could create some more incredible memories on this day.  I already had.  And I continued to do so.

My son, Cooper, was doing a sports camp with his cousins the week before.  We would pick up his cousins and then head up to Colchester, reversing the process on the way home.  On Tuesday we changed the routine and headed over to the Bolton “Pot Holes” a series of cascading swimming holes with cliffs to jump off.  As we got to the water on this 94 degree afternoon, it was clear many local youngsters had had the same thought.  A herbaceous smell wafted through the air.  Beer seemed to be flowing as quickly as the water.  Cooper jumped from an 8 foot cliff.  My 13 and 10-year-old nephews jumped from 20.  Not willing to let me them show me up (too much), I did something that my fear of heights had prevented me from doing the first 33 ½ years of my life: I jumped off a cliff.  From 26’ 4” above the water (and yes, I argue, being 6’4” makes it look that much higher), I felt oddly calm.  I simply knew I would leap into the water below.  No nerves.  I jumped.  It seemed to take longer to hit water than it should have.  I did it again.  I carried that calm into the race.

Mile 30 and I found myself still running with Ian and now Nick Clark.  I felt relaxed, the running was easy, and then it almost ended.  Leaving Stage Rd. Aid Station/crew access point, you run down the road for 100 yards and then take a right onto some mowed fields/trails.  There was a six-foot, wooden bridge to cross, which, with all the moisture in the air,  was very slick. My feet flew up from under me and I very nearly bit it.  Views of a cast to match Jacoby’s (my younger son) danced in my head (the poor guy broke his arm a week before and is in a full-arm cast for 3 -4 weeks).  I managed to stay upright and simply laughed, reminding myself to be present and appreciate every step.  I passed Ian on the ensuing climb and sort of leap frogged with him and Nick for the next many miles, sharing conversation which helped the miles click off.  Both were very friendly and it was fascinating to get their takes on the little race-within-a-race as they push each other in the Grand Slam.  I was running the race envisioned – controlled effort, feeling relaxed, not worrying about what other people were doing or how far back I was. I was present in the experience.  I was enjoying every scene, every step. 

It was amazing to see so many TARC folk at the pre-race meeting Friday.  I’ve come to realize that these crazy events are like a rolling family reunion, replete with everyone’s favorite uncle, Kevin Mullen.  You would be hard pressed to meet a happier person than Mr. Mullen, and his is an energy shared by most at these runs.  Even knowing what we were about to do the next day, it was relaxing to be in such good company.  Jill "The Cookie Lady" Puleo and Chris "C1" Haley lent me some duct tape for drop bags.  A 100-miler is truly a shared journey, as we all cover the same course and suffer the same struggles.  Knowing others are there supporting you, even in the smallest of ways, makes it possible to continue.

Pulling into Camp Ten Bear One, I saw our car.  Liz was there!  100 feet up, I saw her in the road.  She had timed it perfectly.  It was a great moment.  I ran up to the crew, weighed in, and gave her a kiss.  The Contois/McDuffie/Parillo pit-crew was on fire.  Everything ready, but I wasn’t in any great rush.  I was sitting in 6th place, but feeling super strong.  Some cold bandanas, another kiss to Liz, and I ran up the hill, out of Ten Bear.  My confidence grew – I had been running nearly every step, only hiking a few spots.  I caught up to Justin (Engle?) on the flat section about a mile outside the aid station. He had been ahead of me all day, but was starting to seize up.  I tried to get him to run with me a bit, but he graciously encouraged me to go on.  I did.  5th place.  The crew had told me Sebastien (a wonderful person and great runner, who I have gotten to know) was in the lead, but looked like he was hurting.  Nick was just minutes up.  I opened my eyes to the scenery and soaked in the beauty of my home state.  One of the neighbors of the race was offering sprays from a hose.  I (literally) soaked in the beauty of the cold water.  I was running happy.

Brian Rusiecki is an awesome runner.  I look up to him.  A lot.  At my first successful ultra, the Fells 40 Miler, we tied for the win.  When I saw what he accomplished the rest of that year, I was humbled sharing that victory with him.  Whenever we toe the line together, I always joke (probably much to his annoyance) that my strategy is to simply hang with him as long as I can.  Pre-race Friday I told him this again and he said he would let me go on ahead this time.  I joked that he would simply be waiting to pass me at mile 95.  He did it a few miles earlier this year.

Right around the mile 50 mark, the course goes steeply up Keyes Mountain Road.  It starts out as a road and quickly becomes a jeep track and trail.  I decided to not run this exposed stretch, and conserve some energy for the later miles.  My quads were starting to ache, but I was still happy.  About halfway up this climb, Brian powered by me, looking super strong.  He claimed to not be feeling well, but certainly didn’t look that way.  I kept him in site for many of the ensuing miles, but, as we started the descent, I noticed the quads were getting very, very sore.  I figured this is what they felt like at the Vermont 50, and I had just run a bit more than 50 miles, so no great concern.  Just didn’t want to do anything foolish with just under half the race to go.  Brian left the aid station right as I pulled up.  Sebastien was there, and, smiling as ever, announced to me that his race was done and he was “simply going to finish.”  He was hurting.  He left the aid station before me, but I knew I would catch him.  I dallied a bit, icing the quads hoping to give them a rest and to see if Ian was still lurking.  Brian was a minute or two up the trail.  Ian wasn’t in site. 

I first met Sebastien at Stone Cat two years ago.  When Sam and I set a foolish pace the first two laps, he was right there the whole time.  He eventually finished second.  This past year, he set the early pace, and I only caught him with about 2.5 miles to go.  He came over for pizza and ice cream that night, as his wife and three kids had stayed home in Quebec.  By chance I saw him as he crushed the Boston Marathon this year.  When I caught him around mile 55 at the Vermont 100, I was running a hill he was walking, but smiling.  I told him to just jump in behind and stick with me and we could clip the miles off.  He did.  We pushed the up and then the down.  The quads were getting really sore.  No site of Brian.  We reached the unmanned Tracer Brook aid, and I told Sebastien we should skip it as it was less than 2 miles to the new Seven Seas handler station.  We started running up the next climb (the course is basically always going up or down.  There are very few actual flat sections anywhere).  We ran side by side, passing 100K runners.  I heard Sebastien offer some words of encouragement and then drop off.  I pushed on.  Toward the top of the hill I caught sight of Brian about 100 yards ahead. 

It was around this point that running the downs became more than unpleasant.  The quads, which I thought were well “seasoned” to the task, were barking loudly.  There had also been an odd “sloshing” in my stomach – not the typical sloshy stomach feeling, but something that was not right.  When I first heard it, it sounded a bit like my bib was hitting my shorts (it wasn't), or some sort of drum in my stomach (there wasn't).  I stopped at the aid station before Ten Bear Two to see if they had a port-a-potty.  No luck.  I ran up the road a ways and used the bushes.  Trouble: I couldn’t squat.  At all.  Figured out how to take care of business somehow and jumped back on the road.  Ian was 20 feet back. “Hey Josh.”

We shared the next couple of miles.  I mentioned my stomach and he helped me trouble shoot (although one of his suggestions was to moderate the pace.  My ego wouldn’t let me do that, especially since we both knew that Nick and Brian were just a couple of minutes up!  In retrospect, that may have saved my race).  I pulled a bit ahead and, as we began the long descent that eventually leads to the climb into Ten Bear Two, I began to grimace as the quads just flat hurt.  I was moving reasonably well, but a pebble got stuck in my shoe and I had to stop to adjust it.  When Ian passed he asked if all was good, and I said it was, just had to fix a pebble.  As I did, I noticed my right quad (the more painful of the two) was swollen pretty well.  At almost mile 70, I expected this, although perhaps not quite so bad, yet.  I took it easy on the rest of the descent.  I stopped at one point and walked a couple of steps.  “Just run, you’ve got the uphill soon.”

I was looking forward to the climb to Ten Bear Two since last year’s race. I spent a lot of time here last year and, when Justin Contois had rolled through, made him run it with me.  From the day I registered, in the back of my mind I wondered if I would be tough enough, like he was, to run this climb (in all honesty, I half expected Justin to be at the bottom to prod me up the hill).  One of my greatest memories from the day will be of answering this long-asked question in my mind, and running up this hill, and, in reality, not feeling completely horrible doing it.  The run down to the aid station?  Not as pleasant.

Liz, Anthony, Eric, and McDuffie were ready.  I told them the quads were really sore and Eric jumped right in to ice them down, apologizing to Liz for being so "intimate." I laughed (at least inside).  I hit the port-a-potty to try to settle the stomach.  I had decided to skip drinking for 25 minutes in an attempt to let things settle (took a gel instead) and it seemed to have helped.  My weight was down three pounds, right around where I wanted it.  Eric was ready for the task of pacing to Cow Shed (where, like the boss he is, he would then head back to Ten Bear to pace Frank Hackett for the last 30 miles!).  I was moving slowly.  I was tiptoeing the downs.  I could get some momentum on the flats, but I wasn’t even hiking the ups that fast any more.  Erik was great and helped me appreciate the beauty around us.  While I was still feeling good mentally, he definitely helped me keep the negative thoughts out as he proclaimed wonder at different views and sites, and showed a genuine appreciation for simply moving, through the woods and on these beautiful roads.  It was postcard Vermont.  We ran up the hill to the Spirit of ’76 where Liz and McDuffie met us.  TARCer Cesar captured the grunt with video evidence.  As we left the aid station, I started running up the road, hoping that there was more up, as it was less painful and I could still run that direction.  Alas, the volunteers caught me and pointed me down a trail.  Teeth bared, we plodded on. 

At Western last year, I felt sorry for myself almost the entire race.  I didn't have the day I had pictured because all I wanted was a top-10 finish.  I didn't appreciate the history of the race or the beauty of the trail and people out there.  I was there to beat the course, not embrace it.  It was rather pathetic and it had a huge negative influence on my performance.  Despite being in much more physical pain this year, mentally, I was embracing the experience, the journey, which was my goal.  I knew it was not going to be easy, but my mind was willing to accept the physical pain.  I was (with Eric’s help) remembering to soak in the scenery, the beauty that is Vermont, a place that will always be home.  I enjoyed pushing the negative thoughts out of my mind and, as they crept in with the mounting fatigue, forced myself to look at my surroundings and smile.  When Eric stayed at Cow Shed, I had 5 miles until I met Liz and McDuffie, who would join me for the final 11 miles.  I enjoyed those 5 miles tremendously.  There was a long, flat section, where, despite quads that now just hurt with every step, I ran, at a pace I thought might be making up some ground on Ian, Brian, and Nick.  I ran some hills.  I caught Sam, who was in a world of hurt, but mustered the energy to run with me for about a mile, at which point he told me to go catch Ian, and I set off with a mission.  The mission line loomed, but there were a couple runners up ahead I needed to catch.  It was beautiful.

And then, just as quickly, it wasn’t.  Coming into Bill’s at mile 89 I checked in with medical.  I was totally cohesive, and my weight was the same as my starting weight.  Privately, that caused some concern – I had just put on 3.3 pounds over the last 19 miles.  They asked how I was feeling. “Great, considering I just ran 89 miles.” A truth (even if the quads hurt like hell).  They asked if I had been peeing. “Yes!” A lie (I had peed twice all day, but, given what I had heard at Western last year, was not too concerned with this, and figured the medical team at Bill’s didn’t need to know).  McDuffie and I were on our way. We had 11 miles to catch Ian, Brian, and Nick (heck, even Jason and Chad!), and I was hell bent on catching at least one of them.  Liz set off to meet us at Polly’s, a mere 6.9 miles up the road.  And just like that, the wheels came off.

For the last 40 miles or so, any pause had led to a difficult restart, especially for the quads.  Torturously, leaving Bill’s is a fairly steep (albeit short) downhill.  I nearly walked.   With Michael in the lead we hopped a small, muddy pool, and I decided to stop to try to pee (I think the medical team’s question put this in my head). “FUCK!”  Michael looked back and asked what was up.  “My pee is really dark or bloody.”  In a second, all momentum was gone.  I was really concerned.  Why?  One: My weight was up, when I thought it should have been down about 5 or 6 pounds.  Two: Something that resembled coffee (or beet juice in coffee) had just come out of me!  Three: I remembered that picture from Western States about the color of your urine.  Mine was definitely in the “Guinness” category. 

We ran a little bit, mostly in silence, as we tried to figure out what to do. Finally I said I just needed to hike to wrap my mind around the situation.  Our conversation was a bit like stream of consciousness (it is probably pretty clear which parts I added, and which parts McDuffie added):  Should I not drink?  I mean my weight is up, so I’m not processing water.  Maybe that's why my stomach has sort of been sloshy?  You took one salt back at Bill's.  Okay, let's try one more.   Do I drink as much as I can?  I’ve only peed a couple times all day.  Maybe this is just a sign of dehydration?  Pee can get pretty dark.  But my weight is up.  FUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKK!  If it was blood, some times the bladder can just get abrasions.  Maybe we should try to run.  SHHHHIIIIIITTTTTTT!  What they hell are we gonna do?  Alright, let’s just run.  FUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKK!  What if something is seriously wrong?  What's that thing that Erik Skaggs had?

Being an ultra-running dork, I read a lot of blogs and reports, and have read several stories, including ones about Erik Skaggs, AJW, Diana Finkel, and other top-ultra runners developing rhabdomyolysis and ending up in the hospital with kidney failure for extended periods of time.  Skaggs' story in particular stuck in my head.  The one thing I seemed to remember being the common denominator was this super-dark urine.  Finally, I just said to Michael, “I’m freaking out about this” and we hiked it in to Keatings at 92.4.  The plan was to consult with medical and see if there was a course of action that could remedy this on course.  I was fairly certain what was going on, but had no idea what I should do to treat it.  We got medical on the radio and they advised aggressive hydration and an ambulance to the hospital.  It became a no-brainer for me.  I was in a spot where I could cause some serious psychological damage to my family.  I couldn't do that, not when they already give so much to let me pursue these goals.  At mile 92.4, my race was done. 

A crew of volunteers were able to drive me and McDuffie to the hospital, which, it turns out, was just a couple of minutes away.  They got word to Polly’s, where Liz was, and told her what was going on.  Fortunately my cousin was there as well and was able to drive to the start/finish to tell my parents and Cooper and Jacoby where I was and that they would not be seeing me at Silver Hill Meadow in triumph.

It took a bunch of fluid to get the pee flowing (and there was not a lot that came out at first), even though I wasn’t too dehydrated (and electrolytes were spot on perfect).  When I finally did pee it was like that Guinness in the picture above.  Admitted to the hospital, and got a night there.  Given my early and secondary numbers, they had told me to be prepared to stay through Monday.  Fortunately, the numbers all started improving pretty quickly, and I was able to come home after less than 24 hours.  When Cooper first came to see me in the ER he said, “You could have just hiked to the finish.”  I have to say, I was more than a little proud of him for thinking like that.  However, I told him that sometimes we have to make our decisions not based on what we want, but what is best for other people, and that it’s more important to think about those we love first (this said, stopping was also the best decision for me at this point, as continuing would have brought further damage and could have seriously complicated the medical situation.  As my father, a family doctor in Vermont, told me about my numbers, even my liver function, subsequent to my discharge from the hospital, "Jeezum Crow!").


And, in the end, that’s what made this a super-easy decision for me.  I knew, without doubt, that I could have finished, maybe even moved up a spot or two. I was satisfied with my physical effort, even if it came up a bit short.  But, thinking about those last 7.6 miles, and what further damage I could have done, I was, in no way willing to put my family through my experiencing kidney failure or worse.  I think we are attracted to these distances because they do, in almost every way, strip us down to the core.  In that moment, when all that stood between me and the glory of the finish line was the distance of my daily run to school, I based my decision not on my own ego, my own desire to achieve a goal, to feel successful, but on how my actions would impact those I love.  Crossing the finish line became a superficial pleasantry to the reality of the situation faced, and I am, perhaps arrogantly, proud of myself for not thinking from my ego in that moment, but being present enough to recognize reality and not merely live in the world and outcome that I had envisioned over the last 6 months.  A 100 miler is, ostensibly, a competition, but it is also, however clich├ęd this may be, a journey of self-discovery.  I often tell people that my family is the most important thing in the world to me, while, hypocritically, thinking about how I can squeeze my runs in around them or making them change their plans to fit my running schedule.  As I spent yesterday afternoon jamming with Cooper and Jacoby to some cheesy (but oh so wonderful) pop music, instead of still being hooked up to an IV (or worse) in a hospital, I like to think that, at least this one time, I got it right.  Maybe I will continue to in the future.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get to see those last 7.6 miles of the Vermont 100.  If the family is on board.