Thursday, July 28, 2011
It bothers me. It nags at me. I feel a twinge every time I talk to someone about my two previous DNFs. (Did Not Finish) It’s something I should be able to do. Yet I have not.
I think a fear of failure is a normal thing for a human being, but I don’t think it is simply failure that we fear. I think what really scares us is witnessed failure. Falling on your ass when you’re at home alone is one thing. Biting the dirt in the middle of your local Target is something else entirely.
I don’t really get much of an audience at a race, but I am surrounded by my peers, and the results live here online for the rest of time. I think I have handled my losses well. Even when I have failed to finish, I have still, often, accomplished something that I am proud of. But this will be my third attempt at this distance. There are people traveling in from 4 states specifically to support me at this race. I want very much to finish - and still I may not. I can't say that would be an easy thing to deal with.
But this really is the very simple, utter truth: It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And the only way I could truly fail would be to not even try. Just by crossing the starting line, I will have already won. Not only the satisfaction of the effort, but a profound contentment at the knowledge that so many people care enough – and care enough about me – to show up and help me do it, or to send me thoughtful well-wishes from afar. It’s kind of like what old Scrooge found out that fictional Christmas Day: You can possess all the things in the world, but you’re only rich if you have friends and love.
I have every intention of finishing this race this weekend – I Am Not Talented, But I Am Stubborn – but even if for some reason I do not, I still feel like a lucky man.
Now let’s DO this thing.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Not me. I get by with a little help from my friends. I enjoy the luxury of a support crew. I like the idea of having a pacer, someone to run with me in the wee small hours late on the course.
But it’s one thing for me to drag my own butt all the way out to a race three states from home and spend a weekend working my way from aid station to aid station along a 100 mile course. It’s something else entirely to ask a small group of people to trek out there with me to sit out in the woods for 30 hours just to help me limp through it all. If I finish, I get a nice little award from the race director, a permanent record of my accomplishment to show off to my grandchildren (or you fine folks). The people who come with me just to carry me through it? Well, they mostly just get a sweaty hug from me, and my eternal gratitude, and, you know, hopefully not a sunburn or too many bug bites.
So, yeah, I’m pretty humbled to have friends willing to do that for me.
My team for this year’s Burning River 100 is coming together. I got confirmation this week from two friends in the Cleveland area who are both in to pace me for chunks of those last 40 miles. That brings my crew total to five. Five gracious, generous people who are going to show up and help out of the goodness of their hearts. That = a bounty of riches.
This is who they are:
THE LOCAL YOKELS:
I first met Sean & Amy at the 2009 installment of Burning River. Sean and I ran a big chunk of the first 50 miles together, shared a lot of stories along the way, and got to know each other about as well as any two people can who meet during a race. Amy was supposed to be running the race with him, but had to change her plans in the weeks before because of a foot injury. Instead, she insisted that Sean still run, crewed for him during the race… And Sean repaid her by popping The Question at the finish line. (She did say ‘Yes.’)
They passed through Chicago last fall and stayed over with me for the weekend. Sunday morning they convinced me to come out and run a little race with them, and we all did a brisk little half-marathon together. They will both spend a chunk of time pacing me overnight at Burning River this time. Sean will take me from around mile 62 to mile 75. (Sean will also be pacing a second runner, later on the course, after he has dropped me off at 75.) Amy is planning to take me the last 12 miles of the course. More than the pacing help, they have also offered up their home for all of us to stay at during race weekend. Have I mentioned that they are awesome? You meet a lot of great people in the ultrarunning world, but they are two of the best.
THE JEET KUNE DO MAN:
I met Ryan while on a little show tour four years ago. He worked on the house management staff for the theatre, and was assigned to drive our touring van that spring. It was during that little show that I ran my first ultramarathon and, soon, my first 50-miler (much to the amazement of everyone on the tour). Ryan’s dad was a runner and he inherited the habit from him, but his first obsession was martial arts. Jeet Kune Do is the style that Bruce Lee developed. His goal was to create a martial art practice that would exist outside of parameters and limitations – an idea that will fully apply to running 100 miles.
Ryan will be driving out from Chicago during the day on Saturday and will do about 15 miles with me overnight, bridging the miles between Sean & Amy. He was famous on our tour, four years ago, for starting us out each and every morning with a new ‘Chuck Norris’ joke. I'll be looking forward to sharing some quality time with Ryan -- and to hearing a few of those jokes.
My girlfriend, Jennifer, is flying out from New York to play crew for me out on the course. This will be her first time at an Ultra and the first time she’ll see me in a race. As a runner, your crew is just vital. It’s a lot like a pit crew at a NASCAR race: the driver pulls into the pit, and his crew does a full service job on the car (and the driver) while he just sits there waiting for them to finish so he can go back out and race more laps. The pit stop has to be brief and furious, but without that pit crew, neither the driver nor the car will finish the race. Stretch all that out over a 30 hour event, and remember than my crew will only be seeing me for a few minutes at a time every 2 or 3 hours. That’s it. They get to an aid station, wait two hours for me to get there, then I arrive, grab some food, maybe a couple of supplies and a few minutes later, I’m gone, and the crew heads to the next station to wait some more.
But I can’t do it without them. Having a good crew means there is so much less for me to have to think about. It means so much. Not least is the moral support of having my beautiful girlfriend out there in the woods urging me on. I’ll be looking forward to seeing here every 5 or 6 miles. (As an added bonus, Jen is a licensed massage therapist. At some point, those skills will be a gift.)
Finally, my sister, Heather, is returning, once again, to run this little show and keep everything together. She was with me for my first 100-mile attempt at Burning River in ’09. She came all the way out to San Diego with me to try again last June. I DNF’d them both, but she is almost as determined as I am to get me to the finish line this time. We’ve both learn a lot over the last two years. Hopefully, that applied knowledge and some stubborn sibling will-power will see us through.
Heather really is a perfect crew chief. She’s a professional stage manager, she’s used to making decisions, she’s not bashful about asking other people for what she needs, and she's willing to step in and step up whenever the situation calls for it. Plus, she’s, you know, my sister, so she loves me and worries about me is unafraid to coddle me or push me as she sees fit. These trials and errors the last two years have been as much hers as mine, and I’m very glad she’ll be back out there with me one more time. I'm also glad that Jen will out there with her, so she won’t be alone. I think, between the two of them, they might even have a little fun with it all.
As for me, my job is simple: Just keep moving forward, get myself from aid station to aid station, and never forget to say thank you thank you thank you to the incredible people who are volunteering just to help me do this silly thing.
Thank you, guys.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
I don’t think this particular issue is one that most runners have to fret about too much. At a 10K or a half marathon the primary concern in simply hydration, and a little salt intake. Marathoners have to give it a little thought, but for most people a good sports drink and a few carb-rich gel packs along the way do the trick. (That’s how it works for me, anyway.)
The caloric playing field will be very different at the Burning River 100-Miler next weekend. I fully expect to be out on the course for 28 hours. I’ll be burning off and discarding calories at a steady clip for the entirety of that time, and replacing those calories will be crucial. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve trained your body to physically handle the distance, if you don’t properly fuel the engine you’ll wind up stranded on the side of the road.
I say I haven’t “mastered” this process, but I haven’t been bad at it. I do eat during long races. Ultras always offer well-stocked aid stations at regular intervals and I have taken advantage. But a specific plan for calorie replacement? No. I will attempt to correct that oversight next weekend.
Research says there is a limit to how many calories your body can process in an hour, whether you’re in the middle of a race or not. Over-eating could result in stomach or digestion problems that would sink my race the same as not eating enough. I’ll be aiming for an intake of 300 to 350 calories each hour.
In the first half, I’ll aim for liquid calories, because the body processes them much more quickly – sports drink, energy gels (at 90 calories per pack), maybe watermelon, if it’s out on the course again this year. Every time I see my crew, I’ll be drinking a bottle of Ensure, a nutritional supplement drink intended for the elderly that also happens to be great for ultra-runners (230 calories per 8oz. bottle, plus protein).
As the race goes on, I’ll begin to focus a little more on solid foods. After 12 hours of the race, it’s just nice to actually eat something. Bananas (150 calories each), salted potatoes (130 calories), PB&J (250 calories) are also somewhat easy to eat and very useful out on the course. I may also take in chicken noodle soup, oatmeal, pretzels, potato chips, and other food commonly found at the overnight aid stations. I’ll also take regular salt tablets (and maybe even a few doses of aspirin) along the way.
Hopefully my crew and I will be able to track my food intake during the race with a clipboard and a log sheet. If it looks like I’m running low, they’ll be able to push me to eat more. The biggest eating sin I usually commit is not eating enough, because I don’t “feel” hungry. So when it’s offered, I tend to say “no” when I should say “yes.” With the log my crew won’t have to take me at my word that I’m feeling fine, and perhaps can help keep me from being stubborn.
I’ve read advice from more than one ultrarunner saying the only way to run a good 100-miler – or any ultra – is to eat, eat, eat. You have a good training build-up, take in the proper calories on race day, and you will finish your race. Sunny Blende, an aptly named sports nutrition scientist, has been quoted defining an ultramarathon thusly: “It’s an eating and drinking contest, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.” I intend to operate on that theory on the 30th & 31st.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
I consider these broadcasts extremely addictive, and get sucked in by them every time I catch a glimpse while flipping channels. No matter how many times I have seen each year’s 90 minute special, I watch it full through to the end and cry and bawl as each runner struggles, triumphs, or fails. They capture so very well what it is like for us "normal" people who take a shot at one of those ultra-endurance events, and I’ve been through all of it: The highs and the lows, the overwhelming heat, the solitude of the after-dark, the pressure of the clock, the failure of a DNF, and the deep, extraordinary satisfaction of a completed race.
There was a short segment at the beginning of coverage for the ’10 championship that focused on those “age-groupers” as they waited in the quiet morning before the race, sitting silently with solemn expressions, steeped in anticipation, trying to control anxiety. The camera lingers on them in half-time speed, the dim light of pre-dawn lining their huddled bodies with a distance glow, and the voiceover poses the question you can see on each of their faces: “Is this possible? Can I do this?”
It’s the question on my mind, too. No matter what you’ve done, no matter how you’ve prepared, you still have to go out and run that race, on that day, and sometime the distance, the course, the weather... sometimes they beat you. Sometimes it’s not possible. The image of the previously omnipotent Paula Radcliffe weeping in pain and frustration on the side of the road in Greece in 2004 is indelibly etched in my mind. Four years later, in China, Deena Kastor was felled by a broken foot just 3.5 miles into her marathon. In 2009, Scott Jurek DNF’d at the Western States 100 only 48 miles into the race – an event he not only finished by won 7 times in a row between 1999 and 2005 (he set the course record in 2004). His quote after the race? "I went to the well, and the well was just dry." And then, of course, there are my own, personal race failures from the last two years...
The fact of that question – Can I Do This? – was clear on those Age-Groupers faces in Kona, and it gave me goose bumps. It is always a legitimate question, and you won’t have to look too closely to see it on my face in the next two weeks, either.
But having the question in mind is one thing. Defining my own answer for it is something else. You know what answer I intend to submit.
Monday, July 18, 2011
So it is with great concern that I peruse the forecast for the coming week. My date at the Burning River 100 still won’t happen until the end of the following week, but for now the entire Midwest is set for a serious heat wave that will last, at least, the next 7 days.
I am lucky the race is scheduled for the following weekend and not this next. Weather.com currently forecasts a high in Cuyahoga Falls, OH, on Saturday the 23rd of 91, with rain, which means high humidity. Just three days later, on Tuesday the 26th, the high is forecast to drop to 81. I can only hope that trend continues into race weekend on the 30th and 31st.
I plainly recall the growing dread I felt in October 2007 when each morning I checked the heat predictions for Chicago Marathon race day, and each day the temperature forecast went higher and higher and higher and still higher. You can see your quality race performance slipping further and further away, totally out of your control. I trained for, and expected run a 3:45 marathon that year. My final time was 4:48. I’m trying not to think what effect similar heat could have on my 100-mile attempt.
I’m not panicking. I choose to think that we’re getting this super hot week now, because a cooler, more temperate week is destined to follow for us on race weekend. That, and I also remind myself that it IS a thing beyond my control. I’ll get in my final training miles, try to enjoy my taper weeks, and keep my mind as bright as possible, doing my best to ignore the darker (hotter) peripherals. With any luck the title of this race won't become any more apropos.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
The latest bump in the road was a little more than just a bump. While playing softball two Wednesdays ago, I had to dive back into 2nd base, and somehow managed to slam my left big toe into the infield dirt. It hurt instantly, but not enough to keep me from playing the rest of the game. The next morning, though, I woke to find it badly bruised and swollen, and I worried that I had broken it.
Just over 3 weeks before Burning River and I was afraid I’d broken my big toe. An unmitigated disaster.
But it seemed impossible. I couldn’t have hit the ground that hard. And I was wearing cleats, with their stiff foot beds, and spikes. I’ve stubbed my bare toe on the coffee table harder than that and not broken anything. But the pain the next morning was unavoidable and it was difficult to walk on it.
My father was a dentist and oral surgeon, and he’s always my first source for general medical advice. We talked over the phone, and based on my descriptions, we both agree that it likely is not broken, but only very badly bruised. We plot a schedule of icings and ibuprofen and decide that will we know inside of a week if it really is broken or not.
In spite of the positive diagnoses, the condition of my toe meant I had to skip out on my final planned training race. I was supposed to head up to Wisconsin that Saturday for a 50-mile race. It would have been a very hot race on a less than easy course, but finishing that race, no matter my finish time, would have been a great, final confidence booster before Burning River. Instead, I had to wait nearly a week before I could run on my toe again. Valuable training time lost just when I should have been at the peak of my build-up.
It’s been 11 days now since my injury. I’m running again, and planning to throw down one more 20-mile training run in the next couple of days, but it’s just 2 weeks ‘til BR100 and I’m left wondering again if I’ve been able to do enough to be ready.