Preparation & Strategy
By the time I woke up, I was already feeling the impact of the altitude. Training at the sea levels of Virginia for a race at the high elevations of Utah was not going to be a vacation getaway. I woke up with nasal congestion and a slight headache. In less than 24 hours, I would be crossing the start line of one of the oldest and toughest foot races in the country. Is it too late to back out or just too early to be frightful?
Steven got me out of bed, made us breakfast and in no time, we were out of the door to the event center to check in and attend the pre-race brief. Right before we left the house, he made sure I had water. For the whole weekend, he monitored my eating and my hydration. He made sure I was always drinking water or eating something.
Food, extra running shoes, socks, warm cloths, headlamps, and positive attitudes were essentials that we had to pack. Strategy was to take it really easy from the beginning, pace myself, and not to forget to eat, drink and breathe. Elizabeth of MPF made sure she lectured me on this. But did I listen and obey fully?
Steven had taken his time to make us some coconut milk rice with chocolate & cherries, and jelly with peanut butter. These were nicely packed in foil wraps. Part of our race day plan was Steven getting me to the start line before 5am, turn around and drop off the car at the finish line, catch a ride back to Lambs Canyon at mile 39, wait for me there, run back the last 61 miles with me to the finish, then drive us home. I must agree, my job was easier than his. Together, we were dedicating the run to Sept. 11 Memorial.
Welcome to Heaven or Hell!
At 5am, the gun went off and about 323 hopeful runners dashed across the start line heading towards the mountains. I was about the last of the runners to cross that line. With the sun still asleep, I followed the others along the trail heading for the first peak. I realized just before the start that I had accidentally packed my headlamp in a different drop bag, so without letting this bother me, I tactically used the illumination from the lights of other runners to guide my steps through the trails as I patiently awaited the breaking dawn.
It was a mix of pain and beauty every time I looked up. Chains of light matching into the sky. Beautiful to behold but the painful truth was that these were runners already ahead of me. I will have to follow their path. The only way forward is to ascend. First 10 miles of the run was a straight vertical climb.
As my heartbeat began to race, I could hear my own breathing as I put one leg in front of the other. I told myself to calm down as I began my yoga breathing practice. In no time, the trail thins out into a single track and the gradient was so steep that the butt of the runner before me was right in my face. I had to make an executive decision of keeping my pace while I endured his series of farts. I had no other option as this is just the least of all other challenges. By the time I reached my first summit after 13 miles of continuous climbing the sun was already out.
Miles 13 - 18
The first official aid station was 18 miles from the start, but luckily for me and others, in the middle of nowhere around mile 5 and 13 were volunteers who on their own time spare their resources and strength to bring aids to runners. Their aids came in handy. Never had water tasted so good.
As I began to trot my way to the first official aid station, I passed a lady who noted verbally how good I smelled, "It feels like romance in the air" echoes another lad. Right on the spot, I was going to ask her on a date, treat her to breakfast or lunch at the next aid station, and maybe even watch the sunset together later that night. But then, I remembered how I developed a sprained ankle the previous year during a race while talking to another runner without paying attention to the terrain, about the same distance into this run. I smiled to myself and quickly moved on. I wasn't ready to leave anything to chance, coincidence or not. More so, this is not a date run. This race is an official business for me. There will be another chance...
The next couple of miles came by slowly as hours flew by. I do not remember if there were any flat surfaces as I was either climbing up or running down. The first 18.5miles took me 5 hours and my running shoes were beginning to wage war against my feet. Major problem that can be. I ran on with more care and kept a positive perspective.
Big Mt. Pass, Mile 39
Steven had been tracking my movement. Our plan was to meet him at Big Mountain Pass aid station between 4 & 4:30pm. I got there sooner. Unknown to me, I had banked on time at every aid station prior. I check in, fill my hydration pack with water, grab some food, and out within 2 min. I even saved a zip lock bag that I used as my to-go fruits bag. I try to eat every chance I get going uphill, and try to run at a comfortable pace descending.
I got to Big Mt.Pass aid station around 3:46 pm. almost 45min earlier than planned. Steven had been there even sooner as he foresaw this happening. By the time I got there, I weighed in and realized I had only lost less than 3lbs from the previous day. That was a good sign so far, but Steven was concerned I did not start eating well from the start. He was right. I forgot to pack real food for the first 18 miles so I had been finger picking on some of the vegan friendly limited options from aid station. I must accept that I am now a very picky eater when it comes to aid station options. A lot of food dosen’t settle in well with me.
Like a race car checkpoint, Steven took off my hydration pack, refilled with water and food while he served me some of the rice balls he made the previous day. He gave me half liter of water mixed with chia seeds and insisted I finish it. Within 12-15 min of my check in, we were both out of there, approaching our first series of minor climbs together.
It felt good to have finally gotten rid of the running shoes I had been using all day. Downhill running was becoming a blister evoking major pain. I left with fresh but different set of running shoes and that was a really big relief.
The beginning of my darkest moments
Everything was going on well until my body began to play little tricks on me. My nose had been running since the start and I had given up all effort to even blow or dry them out. I just let the flow take its natural course the whole race, from one sunrise into the other.
That dark moments began when my stomach gave up on digesting any food. With Steven initially running by my side, I began to lag behind as I slowly withdraw into an inner void. This was not part of the plan. With every stride, it felt like I had a ball of stone in my stomach being tossed back and forth, up and down. Such an uncomfortable feeling. Eventually, just before we got into Lamb's Canyon aid station (52.48 mile), the stomach finally gave up, its content via a projectile of vomit. Relief follows.
Going Through Hell
I stopped to let it all out because peeing and running is a skill if a guy knows how to aim, but I am yet to master the art or science of vomiting without stopping.
Steven was there to tell me that was a good sign. "Don’t hold back, let the stomach reset, let it all out..." After I was done, we picked up our pace into the next station where he helped me with some soup, change of socks and we picked up our packs to start another climb into the dark night. Not as many stars in the sky, we noticed. We had spent almost 20 min at that aid station. I felt relieved. The cloud of darkness over me lifted, but only for a brief moment.
Lost into my own void, again, everything and everyone else around me became invisible. Poor Steven, he had to endure this for over 15 hours. He tried everything possible to reach out to me but I was zoned out. He later made me realize that my pace during this period had dropped to sub minimal effort. Like a zombie, I just followed him while he would stop at intervals to make sure I wasn't far from his eyesight. Couple of times, I caught myself sleep walking/running. On the edges of cliffs and rough trails of Wasatch, this was not a safe thing to do. But then, I could care less.
I began to suffer. My physical strength had reached its maximum threshold and my mental strength was beginning to deplete. There was a brief moment when I could not take it anymore. The only thing that got me going was the reason why I was there. Once again, I asked myself why? Why the torture, what was I doing there?
At that moment, it came back to me. My heart was to beat for those whose hearts are no longer beating. Feel the pain for those who no longer can. I was running, for those who will never run again. To the lives that have been sacrificed since the start of Sept 11, 2001.
Getting High Again
From our projected time, we were supposed to be at the Brighton aid station (mile 74.63) before 3am but we had lost so much time with me not being an active partner. Little did I know how difficult I was making everything for Steven. Luckily for us both, at this aid station, I was able to revitalize and slowly come back to life. It’s amazing how our body is able to adapt and overcome. I have come to learn through running as it also applies to life, dark days don’t always last forever, “tough times never last…”
I had some of the coconut rice with seaweed and miso mixed in warm water. This was our last major stop before facing the highest peak at mile 77 standing at 10,467 feet above sea level. We were out in 15min. Zsuzsanna Carlson who was there pacing for Barry, helped us to get ready and told us Barry was just ahead of us. She told us to catch him and finish with together!
Together, Steven and I began to march on like we can defeat anything together. With such confidence, we began to catch up, then pass other runners. Although my cheap headlamp had been failing, Steven ran right behind me while his headlamp shed light to our path. The terrain was very rough, rocky and highly technical, but we moved through it in the dark like we were untouchable. I felt my moments of high once again. We caught up with Barry and left in within seconds. He was strategically pacing himself up that ascend. We reached the peak in no time and began to descend.
At a point coming down this mountain, I asked Steven for the backup flashlight. I held it with my teeth as I began to run down this rough unforgiving terrain at such a dangerous speed. "Am I going to pay for this later? I do not know, but for now, it feels good". I felt the runner's high and I embraced it that moment. Oh, the feeling. I was flying. High and higher, I soar. Free again from myself!
I eventually slowed down for Steven going into Pole line (mile 82) aid station. This was our target to drop off all night materials we no longer needed as the sun was out by then. Together, we ran, seeing the sunrise the second time. The worst part of the night was over and we felt any other challenge to come could not be as bad as whatever we had endured. With the new dawn came a new attitude and new perspective.
Enjoying the View
From that moment forward, we both agreed I was no longer chasing the sub 30 hour finish time. I had lost so much time during the night. Ultra races is not usually a race against others, but it is a race against one’s self. We took our time at the subsequent aid stations, chatted with volunteers; Steven was even able to take care of his chafing at some points. With the break of the day, we took photos together, observed the wonders of nature and saw how much of art and science Mother Nature is into. The majestic view around made me gaze in awe of Mother Nature. Other runners began to catch up with us and pass but we paid nobody no mind. In matter of hours, Barry passed us as well and we bid him good luck. We had lost so much time that finishing in 35 - 36 hours would be the most realistic experience.
Civilization is Calling
As time ticked by, hanging out for 36 hours was no longer appealing. We had been up and running all day and all night and now the second day, hoping to achieve our goal of crossing that finish line. So close, but yet feels so far. Almost impossible, but slowly, we began to pick up our pace again.
Although I was still struggling holding down any food, I tried to have a little drink at a times just to make sure I was not completely dehydrated despite not eating any food after vomiting the second and third time in the last few miles. With about 13 miles to go, we began to count down. The last few miles were not completely as easy as anticipated. The long winding road felt like a road to nowhere.
In less than 1 mile, we finally smelled civilization. It looked like an illusion with no finish line in site, but we kept gaining speed regardless. We spotted Barry and Zsusanna about 3/4 of a mile away and Steven charged us to finish with them. One stride at a time, we began to pick up the pace. Breathing in and out, as relaxed as a lake. We began passing people again. Some runners did not fail to express their amusement, but we were too busy chasing the finish line. It took all inner strength and effort to keep up pace with Steven who enjoys to finish all his races as fast as possible. Nothing felt more rewarding seeing the finish line just around the bend, and with all that I had left in me, I made a dash for it. Caught up with Barry and together, we crossed that line, 31:06 hours later. And oh, boy, was I glad it was over. "Never again", I said out loud!
Throughout the race, Steve ensured I was constantly eating until the time I was no longer able to hold anything down. Not even water was doing through my system since I noticed I was not peeing as frequent as I needed to considering the amount of water I was drinking. I also should have started on solid food right from the onset. It wasn’t until late before I realized that the first 40 miles was planned on grazing at aid stations, to which the bulk of the nourishment, I get picky at eating. Although I still ate, I guess I did not replenish adequately.
I only got one training session out of the new pair of shoes I started with. Despite noting the discomfort during this training period, I associated the discomfort to bad socks. I should have tried it out with better socks prior to race day. The North Face pairs were the actual problems but it was too late for me to know. I had to endure 40 miles in them. A very risky call.
Surprisingly, Steven and I felt great after the run. Throughout the whole course, no memory of sore legs or cramps in any way. I also was able to go back eating solid food later that night. High altitude can be rough! Off to the Grindstone 100 this weekend!