Tuesday, September 11, 2012

my first 100 part 3: Go time!

(this is a long one so grab a cup of coffee or tea, find a comfy chair, and enjoy)

I couldn't really believe that it was actually time. As I rode from the meeting area to the start area I engaged in conversation with one of the race directors, Pam, and long time volunteer, Phyllis. We made small talk about the race that included a recap of my yearlong journey to get to this point. Phyllis made a comment that included "...if you finish..." I immediately piped in, "I WILL finish."

That was my mindset going in: I WILL finish. Even if I have to walk it in, the dreaded 'death march,' I am going to finish. Unless of course I actually break something. Short of that though I was committed to the task at hand to run 100 miles. At the starting area I had overheard someone say that they were "hoping to finish." That won't cut it. One must decide they WILL finish. Only then is one truly ready for the race before them. Ray Zahar, one of the three men who ran across the Sahara desert, said that running extreme distances is "...90% mental, and the other 10%, is mental!" I was ready to experience first hand whether this was actually true. My training of 50 miles per week was definitely on the low end for those preparing to run 100 miles, but that was what I could squeeze in. So though I questioned the physical side of the race, I was now unwavering in my mental resolve. Phyllis replied, "Ok. I'm gonna hold you to that. I'm not gonna let you sit down at the top of the hill." (mile 96 where we would turn and run back down to the finish). "It's a deal," I replied.

Coeur d'alene CG to Hope TH, mile 0-12: The Interviews

The first 12 miles start at Coeur d'alene Campground on Palmer Creek Rd. and run mostly downhill to the start of the Resurrection Pass trail on Resurrection Creek Rd. At 3:00pm sharp someone yelled go and we shuffled off. David Johnston did a quick head count as we ran: 15 starters. People were running easy, chatting, and enjoying the beautiful day. It was around 70˚ with clear blue skies, a little warmer than I preferred because I'm a heavy sweater, but a gorgeous start to the race. Runners began to separate into groups as we increased the distance, mostly grouping by their pace. My main goal at this point was to run easy, which was going to be difficult to do because of the downhill grade of the road and the excited energy of everyone running, and my secondary goal was to find someone to run with later in the race, primarily through the night as I knew it would be difficult alone. I chatted with 2 brothers who were doing the race for the first time. I thought they may be a good match for me to run with but they were pushing the pace a bit much for me so I let them pull away and resumed running at an effort I was happy with. I caught up with 3 ladies, all teachers, and ran/talked with them for a bit. One gal was on her first 100 mile attempt (she was out front of their small group), another on her 2nd 100 miler, and the third lady was a veteran with over 20 100 mile finishes. Their pace seemed good, if not just a touch fast, but the conversation was easy and the miles passed as we talked. One of my race strategies was something I had come across on a blog and had committed to memory, "In the first half of the race walk before you think you should. In the second half run before you think you can."At a slight uphill I began walking and they pulled away as well.

At this point I was almost right in the middle of the pack with 8 runners ahead of me and 6 behind me. I began running again and caught up with Mike Smith. We talked as we ran and I quickly learned that Mike was a very accomplished  runner with over 60 100 mile finishes since he began running ultras in 2000. In fact, ResPass would be his 7th 100 this year! If everything went well, he was quick to add. Wow! I thought, this is someone to learn from. I began asking him rapid fire questions and learned he had ran most of the 'big ones': Western States, Hardrock (3 times actually), H.U.R.T., Leadville, and on and on. It was his goal to finish all the different 100 mile races around the country. We talked about running at altitude, training, and the strategy of just finishing. In the short time I talked with him I definitely learned a lot. About 4 miles before the trail head, my brother-in-law Shane and his wife Mandy, my wife Tiffany and all the kiddos pulled alongside us in the minivan and hooted and hollered. It was great to be able to see them before setting off into the night. I introduced them to Mike and we chatted a short bit as we ran next to the van. We said our goodbyes and good nights and they headed to the campground. Mike pulled off to meet his crew as we ran into the trail head parking lot. I figured I would see Mike again on the trail as I grabbed my loaded backpack from the aid station. I strapped in and headed off onto the trail.

Hope TH to Resurrection Pass, mile 12-31.5: My time

Crossing the bridge over Resurrection Creek began the unsupported portion of the race. After running the first 12 miles on a gravel forest road, the next 76 miles would be on singletrack trail across a mountain pass in the heart of the Kenai Mountains to an area called Cooper Landing, and then back. Cooper Landing, 50 miles into the race, would be the next aid station and also the turnaround for the race. I set out from the aid station alone. I figured I would run a comfortable pace, walking the hills, and eventually someone would probably catch up to me that I could run with. I knew at this point that there were at least 6 people ahead of me on the trail with the teachers and Mike close behind me. I soon caught up with Pete who was running ResPass for a 7th time. We chatted briefly but he was moving slowly and seemed to not want company so I forged on ahead. Since these 38 miles were unsupported I carried everything I would need on my back: water, food, extra clothing, first aid, and a button that pictured a skeleton running and said "keep on trucking." This was my motto for the race. The mantra I developed was "Stay Strong, Keep Moving, All Day." In previous races and long lonely runs I had repeated various mantras to keep me going and motivated. Once it had been "Chocolate Muffin, Chocolate Milk, Krispy Kreme." Whatever it takes sometimes...Today though, I knew my mantra was sound: if I could keep moving forward I would finish. No stopping today except to refill my water bottles at streams along the way, that was my goal. The miles passed without much thought. It was still beautiful out and I my sleeveless shirt and short-shorts were thoroughly soaked with sweat. I knew I had a complete change of clothes at the 50 mile turn-around and a long sleeve shirt in my pack so I was too worried about cooling off as night arrived.

I had run the first 12 miles in 2 hours, 30 minutes faster than I had planned. It had been tough to go slow early on, but now I settled in to the routine I had developed over hundreds of miles in training. I would run for 20 minutes then walk for 2, also walking any hills or inclines that would potentially elevate my heart rate or breathing. The first half of my race strategy, "walk before you think you should..." echoed through my head almost constantly during this section. I climbed through the river bottom, cow parsnip lining the trail, continually gaining elevation through the forest. At East Creek, about 25 miles in I passed a small tent that was pitched back off of the trail. I didn't see it until the last minute and barely could hear voices over the rush of the creek. Looked like a couple of people eating a meal, I figured they must be backpackers and continued on not giving them much more thought. The trail had left the river and the forest began changing from primarily Cottonwoods to a mix Spruce, Alder, and Birch. Lots of mountain bikers use this trail and must ride side-by-side through this portion because it was like a double track trail with singletrack down the center. I bounced between the middle and outside lanes trying to find the smoothest, most runnable surface. It was slightly off camber and mildly annoying. The trail crosses several smaller creeks as it ascends, switch backing in and out of the drainages. On one climb out of a drainage I saw the rump of something just around a corner up ahead on the trail. It was slightly shadowy and I was wearing sunglasses so I couldn't really identify what it was. It suddenly turned and for a moment I could see the head, maybe a coyote? A lynx? Not quite sure and it trotted off. I whistled at it, they way you would whistle at a dog, but of course it didn't come back. Shortly after this I began to hear the faint sound of bear bells behind me, someone was catching up.

Even though this was a trail that had frequent bear sightings, I hadn't brought any 'protection' other than my wits, which some who know me might argue is no protection. Anyway, bear bells have always annoyed me, bear spray would have added weight and taken up valuable pack space, and of course I wouldn't run with a gun. I had a whistle though! I've found that being aware of one's surroundings seems to be the best defense when recreating in areas where dangerous wildlife is present. Common sense like, if you're near a salmon stream make noise, if a bush is moving in the woods on a windless day don't go near that bush, stuff like that. The bear bells behind me would ring out as I took walk breaks, then would fade away as I ran again, but they were gaining. I was out of the woods now and into the alpine meadows of the pass itself. As the trail undulated along the taiga, right before the sign marking the pass proper, the bear belled runner jingled in behind me. "Hi. I've been chasing you for the last 5 miles."

Resurrection Pass to Cooper landing TH, mile 31.5-50: Into the night

It was Diana, one of the teachers I had run with earlier. She and her husband were at the tent I had passed back at East Creek. She had stopped for a hot soup dinner and had now caught me. She had wanted to run with someone through the night as well and had chased me down. I'm sure it hadn't been too difficult. We reached the Devil's Pass intersection and cabin shortly after meeting up. Pam and another volunteer were there, having biked up the Devil's Pass trail to monitor the race and mark the only tricky intersection on the entire course. It was nice to have human company and hear a little bit of cheering after so many hours on the trail alone. I was in good spirits as the slowly setting sun illuminated the mountain pass and peaks around us. We wound our way down through fields of alpine wildflowers that glowed iridescently as they caught the golden rays of sun, which was beginning it's long summer descent from the sky. At this time of year in Alaska, the sun drops from the sky for hours. It was close to 9pm at this point but would still not be fully dark for another 2-3 hours.

As we ran, Diana and I shared conversation about everything from our jobs in the school district to running and racing philosophy. It was nice to be able to have this running dialogue and the hours and mile passed with relative ease. Diana quickly adopted my run/walk and walk the hills strategy and so we remained together through the one technical downhill portion and around Swan Lake. The moon was on fire as it rose from the mountains behind Juneau Lake. As dusk settled around us we cruised along the trail hugging the shore of the lake. We were both quiet and reflective at this point, almost 40 miles into the race. This is also the point, mileage wise, that I anticipated hallucinations. It had happened before at this distance and it was nice to have someone to confirm what I was seeing.
Me: "The moon is on fire, right?"
Diana: "Yep, looks like it."
Me: "Ok."

Darkness settled in around us about 6 miles from the turnaround and headlamps were dug out from the pack and illuminated. My batteries were weak and I considered replacing them with fresh ones from my pack, but Diana's lamp shone past me and I could see ok. I decided to wait until the aid station. Passing the intersection with the Juneau Falls sign I knew we were a 5 mile downhill away from Cooper Landing. Diana hadn't really eaten much since meeting up. She reported that her stomach was pretty unsettled. We were both pretty quiet at this point and I kept checking in with her, encouraging her to eat and drink. I don't know if she did though as she was running behind me the entire time. All of a sudden I saw the reflection of golden eyes right off the side of the trail. We immediately stopped and I said something like "there's some eyes!" Shouting and whistle blowing ensued and the creature moved back off the trail, only to stop, turn, and then re-approach the trail. Thinking this was a bear we continued to shout. As my eyes adjusted and depth perception sharpened I could make out that this animal was small and I could make out small pointy ears on the top of its head. "I think it's a lynx," I said and moved forward slowly. It was less than 15 ft. away at this point and instead of running it just crouched down. We walked slowly by and it remained crouched right off of the trail. We passed within 4 ft. of it. Amazing! Glad it wasn't a bear!

We continued down what seemed to be the longest downhill ever. The lights of cabins and cars on the Sterling Hwy below played tricks on our perception of where we were. More than once I thought we were right above the aid station, only to go further and further down. Finally, we began passing the leaders of the race. Dave Johnston first who encouraged us we were close and that there was "a feast down there," then the others. The quiet second place guy, the brothers who had picked up a pacer and seemed to be having a great time, then Emilio who assured us we were actually almost there...really though. He said we would pass 3 glow sticks on tress and then hit the TH and aid. Sweet! I spied the first yellow glow stick. It was really there, almost halfway finished with the race! The next two glow sticks were such a welcome sight then we emerged from the trail and into the warmth of the aid station!

The volunteers attended to us immediately. Getting my name and drop bag they made me aware of what was available: soup, potatoes, various snacks, water, first aid..."Do you want a chair? Food?"
"Not yet, just some dry clothes and the outhouse." As I changed clothes I could hear wretching coming through the thin wall of the outhouse. I felt fortunate and blessed that everything was going so well for me at this point. Feet were good, knees felt fine, no major chafing, stomach was solid, not too tired...Wow! I think I really can do this.

Cooper Landing TH to Resurrection Pass, mile 50-69.5: Each step closer

I emerged from the outhouse refreshed, but stiff and returned to the aid tent. One of the racers, Tony was sitting with the first aid gear spread before him. He was being tended to so I busied myself with restocking my pack for the next 50 miles. I didn't want to sit yet because I had read so often "beware the chair!" So I remained upright until everything was readied, then I sat. The volunteers took my pack, refilled the water, and brought me a few salted potatoes. I ate a couple and asked for a handful of peanut m and m's. "I'm starting to get cold," Diana, who was seated next to me exclaimed. The power of suggestion made me feel cold all of a sudden as well. "Yeah, let's get moving," I said, or maybe just thought, not sure at this point. I had changed into another sleeveless shirt but thought I'd heat right up on the climb out. Even though it was dark and 2:37am it was still probably 58˚ or so. We began power walking up the hill out of the parking area. It seemed much steeper than I had remembered it. Diana led at this point and really pulled me up the hill. I was hitting a major low mentally and just kept in mind that each step forward at this point was a step closer to the finish.

Since we were not moving that quickly, I started to cool off and began thinking about adding a layer. I didn't want to stop our forward momentum though so I was relieved when Diana announced that she was cold and going to put a jacket on. I dug my long sleeve shirt out of my bag and continued on. Did I mention how much of a low this was? My stomach was mildly revolting, partly from the food I consumed at the aid station and partly from using my headlamp. The bouncing beam in front of me made me nauseous. Diana stooped down and picked something up.
"Did you drop something?"
"No, picked something up."
It was a small plastic Mulan figurine. Weird. We continued on. Sometime later, "You still have Mulan?"
"Yep. I'm just holding it."
I was actually a bit envious that I didn't have something to hold on to.

We passed the rest of the 100 mile runners coming down this hill. They were in various states of mind. Most seemed done. Mike though was still just plugging away. One woman was clearly over it. 5 people would drop at the 50 mile aid station.

At the top of the climb we switched positions. As the light of day increased, so did my mental state. I was sick of the headlamp even stating at one point that I was going to chuck it into the woods as soon as I didn't need it. I didn't though and was very glad to turn it off and put it away. We resumed our run/walk rhythm but the ratio was now closer to 10:2. Wrapping around Juneau Lake for a second time I was almost feeling good, but not quite, especially since I knew that the short technical climb was just ahead. Starting up hill I immediately started to feel poor again. I tried to power through it though and soon realized that Diana seemed to be dropping back. I stayed with my routine and would hear her coming closer when I walked, then dropping back when I ran. My hydration bladder was empty at this point and so were my backup bottles. After stopping at a stream to fill up Diana was right behind me. We walked up a short rise and then she said, "Should we run this part? It's flat." I replied sure and began to run. I wouldn't see Diana again until around mile 95.

Cruising into the alpine meadows of the pass I could see Tony up ahead. I seemed to be catching him but was not really concerned about it. There was still a lot of race left. I caught him right at the Devil's Pass intersection but I stopped to ask Pam, who was still there, if she could put my headlamp in my pack and getting out my sunglasses. She kindly complied and I was on my way. I commented to her that I thought my mind was so bored that it had checked out of my body, which made the physical task easier. Little did I realize that this would be the battle for the next 30 miles of the race.

I caught up Tony again shortly and discovered that his back was bothering him. I was feeling good so offered my condolences and continued running. Sun filtered through the surrounding peaks, warming everything it touched including my skin. I stripped off my long sleeve shirt and enjoyed the feeling of the crisp morning on my bare arms. Soon I passed the post marking the pass proper and glanced down at my watch, 7:57am. I couldn't believe it. I was an hour and 3 minutes ahead of my realistic time goal.

Resurrection Pass to Hope TH, mile 69.5-88: Mind games

The next several miles/hours seemed relatively uneventful. Feeling good after the pass sign only lasted the next hour, maybe less. I passed Emilio during this section below the pass. He was sitting and holding his knee. He gave me encouraging words as I passed, "Good pace!" I would see him again. After leaving the meadows and beginning the descent I again felt low. My run/walk ratio was now often 10:5 or even 5:5. The 'triple track' section angered me. Tony and Emilio both passed me through here, my 5th place standing dropping back to 7th. I soon passed a couple of hikers who asked if I needed anything. I let them top off my water bottles as I was running low. One of them commented that it was really commendable what I was doing; I was his hero. The encouragement was nice to hear, but did not much alter my mental state. Arguing with myself became the norm as I ran in and out of the creek drainages.
"I want to stop and lay down."
"But if you stop you're not any closer to finishing."
"But I don't want to move anymore."
"I don't care each step is closer to the finish."
This dialogue repeated over and over inside my head, my body just waiting for my mind to decide. The consensus seemed to be that we'll keep moving because that gets us closer to finishing. I did though compromise and allow myself 5 breaks, hands on knees, breathing heavily, but no more than 20 seconds. This seemed to keep everyone happy.

At East Creek I passed Diana's husband who seemed to be anxiously awaiting her. I let him know that I had last seen her quite a ways back and she had been hurting, maybe even walking. He said he'd bike back to her and bring her some pop tarts, at least I think that happened. Finally, I had lost the majority of the elevation gained the previous day. I so wanted the next turn or creek crossing to be the one that would bring me into the final descent through the big spruce forest with it's carpet of pine needles across the trail. Finally I was there. I don't know why but it was comforting to be in the shade and cool of this forest. Part of it was because of the softness of the trail, but also I had an idea of where I was: less than 10 miles from the trail head. My GPS watch had died back at 15 hours in and 64ish miles. Using the backup watch with time only didn't provide any mileage details. Someone was on the trail behind me. It was the leader of the 50 mile race that started in Cooper Landing at 6am. "Are you running the 100?"
"Tough as nails, bro!"
Really? I didn't feel super tough right now. The second runner passed without a word, then the third. He offered a word of encouragement and continued on. Moments later behind me I heard, "Is that worm?" It was my buddy Jared who was running his first 50 miler. Seeing him and chatting for a bit was immensely uplifting. As he pulled away I asked him what mile he thought we were at. He said he wasn't positive but probably around 80 for me. I'd hoped I was further but this knowledge combined with seeing a familiar face propelled me into a high that would last the next 2 hours. I was back to running 15-20 minutes and walking 2-5 now. A little bit later some passing bikers confirmed that I was now 7.5 miles from the TH. "Almost there!" they shouted. To which I replied, "Yeah, and then 12 more on the road," to which astonished exclamations were heard.

I was back in the river bottom alternating between periods of cottonwood forest and encroaching cow parsnip. Resurrection River was right next to me and I was plugging away. I was on pace to arrive over an hour ahead of my realistic time goal. I had told my wife Tiffany that I would get to the Hope TH between 12:30 and 2:30. Another of my brother-in-laws, Brandon, had planned to begin running back towards me at 12:30 and run the rest of the race with me. Expecting to see him any moment I was surprised when I realized how close I was to the end of the trail and hadn't met him yet. Cresting the last rise in the trail I barreled down hill to the clearing before the bridge. Brandon took about 3 running steps towards me when I shouted out to everyone. It was amazing! 22 family members and friends were surrounding the area. I was 1:30 hours earlier than I planned. They had just arrived and had gotten the kids sat down. Running down to my wife and kids surrounded by cheers I felt on top of the world. They encircled me as I quickly relayed the night's events and answered some questions rapid fire. After congratulations and a quick group picture I crossed the bridge and checked in with the aid station. They seemed surprised I didn't need anything but my family had met me with flat coke, a banana, and something else to eat (don't recall), and had filled my water so I was good to go. There was a drop bag there and in retrospect I wish I would have grabbed the food inside as I would run out later. I forgot that I had given my last snickers bar to a 50 mile runner who had been without food since the pass. With Brandon leading the way, we hit the road for the final 12 miles.

Hope TH to Hope School, mile 88-100: The HILL (from hell)

The final 12 miles would retrace 8 miles I had previously run, but instead of running back to the campground it would turn around at mile 96 and finish at the Hope School. The first 4 miles on the road were familiar because I had run them the previous day, but had also run them during my failed 50 mile attempt. My momentum from the extreme high coming off the trail lasted most of the next hour. As the family and friend caravan drove out, all hooted and hollered from their vehicles. I felt truly blessed. Brandon and I chatted and ran and I felt myself fading. No biggie, I was prepared for this. I wasn't prepared though for the hill. 1600 feet of gain over the next 4 miles. It was brutal, unexpected, demoralizing. It honestly erased the pain of the previous 92 miles. All I could think about was the hill. Brandon encouraged me along, but I was moving agonizingly slow. Looking back I'm sure Brandon was bored out of his mind on that climb, but I was so thankful he was there. I really could not have finished without the encouragement, prayer, and support of so many. I kept looking for the first big switchback because I knew that meant I was almost to the second big switchback that was the turnaround. The hill kept going and going and going. About 2 miles from the top I saw Diana for the first time since mile 64. She was walking up the hill, faster than me, with her husband biking behind. I wondered if she had been walking this whole time and had caught me b/c I was moving so slow. Somewhere in this stretch I also passed Tony. 50 mile runners were streaming both up and down the hill at this point but they were a blur. I kept moving forward, even breaking into a power shuffle for the final 1.5 miles (I knew the distance b/c my bro-in-law Shane drove by and clocked it in the van). I asked Brandon to walk directly in front of me so I could close my eyes. I walked this way for probably 20 minutes, just listening to the sound of his footsteps and open my eyes occasionally so I wouldn't fall over. Finally we were there. I saw Phyllis and said, "I know you said you wouldn't let me sit down, but I have to. Just for 5 minutes." "Ok," she replied, "but don't expect me to help you up." I ate a candy bar and sat on the ground. When it was time Brandon helped me to my feet and I shuffled off. Pretty soon I was able to break into a run and slowly, slowly I could increase the pace. I re-passed Diana, who was still walking, Tony (but he was still on his way up), and some 50 mile runners. I was flying...probably not really but compared to the up portion I was. I asked Brandon to not get too far ahead b/c it was easier for me to maintain momentum if he was close. He complied and in no time we were at the bottom of the hill. It had taken almost 2 hours to hike up the hill from hell and 45ish minutes to run down. Only a mile or so to go. I was actually running now and amazed with the bodily/mental contrast happening inside of me. I felt amazing, but desperately wanted to stop running, but wanted to go on forever. Tears welled up in my eyes as I reflected on the last 99 miles. I couldn't believe it. After a confusing intersection the school was in sight. Pumping my fists into the air I cruised in. My 4 year old son came running down the street to meet me. My 'entourage' was cheering. I felt amazing. I actually crossed the finish line twice: once officially and once hand in hand with my son.

I had done it. I was exhausted, ecstatic, and truly humbled. Such a mix of feelings. I held my 15 month old son in my arms and kissed his forehead repeatedly, fighting back tears that didn't seem to make sense other than just the welling up of so many concurrent emotions. Surrounded by family and friends, powered by their prayers and support, I felt so blessed.

Wow. 100 miles. 25 hours 37 minutes. 6th place. I couldn't really believe it. Still can't...