Friday, May 1, 2015

The Things I Carry (Indiana Trail 100)

Few feelings, I've found, truly compare to the sense of having sunk...and not only sunk, but having sunk in the sense that one was swinging at a target the size of an elephant with a barn door, and still completely missed. Barkley was not fading. In fact, it seemed like the more time passed, the more I became obsessed with it, and my memories of the ridge contours, the streams, and rocks only became more vivid and defined; and, Indiana-- my immediate concern, slipped nicely into that crack between the center console and the driver's seat where things go and are completely forgotten about for the next 3 years. The problem with that, of course, was that Indiana Trail 100 was not happening in 3 years, but 4 weeks after Barkley, and I didn't have time to sit around feeling sorry for myself while dreaming about a "next time" that, quite frankly, might never be granted.

I didn't train. Period. I kind of swayed and sashayed into race day like leaf in a breeze, hanging onto my Barkley training for dear life while hoping, simultaneously, that it would serve as a kick starter for the more beastly things I had planned in preparation for Ouray 100 later this summer. I mean, because what better way is there to kick start training for the altitude and elevation waiting in the Rockies than a flat trail race nestled between the cornfields of Indiana? I made ambitious weight loss goals that, on the morning I left for Indiana, had resulted in a four-week net loss of an impressive 0.7 pounds. I didn't seek pacers or crew. I packed my drop bags an hour before I left. I had about as much enthusiasm as most people have cleaning their toilet after a catastrophic overflow.

Sleep overtook me very early, and while I woke frequently (as I always do the night before a big race), I probably still accumulated a solid 6-7 hours of quality sleep-- more than I typically get before a race of this distance. I was a little concerned about getting cold overnight, and I'd only packed my Inov8 190's and 212's to last me the entire distance, despite the forecast anticipating a 100% chance of rain. But, I still felt reasonably confident that I could handle what was coming. A tool I've been using since running the USATF national 50 a couple years ago, and that has been very successful for me, is to break the race into bite sized hunks. In this case, it was in a hailstorm of pieces of varying distances and lengths of time. I had drop bags at both drop bag locations. I had clothing, lighting, and foot care at both locations. I would start in my lighter weight 190's, and then switch to the 212's at 50 miles. And, as the IT100 consisted of 6 x 16.6 mile loops, I would focus first on reaching 50 miles in 11:30 or better, then 66.6 under 17:00, and then 83.3 under 22:30. If I could hang onto these plans, I'd feasibly finish under 28:00, regardless of course conditions. I'm very good at whittling away an entire cherry pie in an hour, bite by bite, piece by piece. I planned to eat the IT100 the same way.

Because I have a bad habit of shooting into the early dark miles like a bullet toward an iron wall, I intentionally started in the back of the pack. It actually took 40 seconds for me to even reach the starting line after the gun sounded, and I was jammed behind so many slow-moving runners that I estimate we reached the two-mile mark in probably close to 28 minutes. Irrationally discontent, I finally made a move, and began passing dozens of runners. It was cool but comfortable, and the grass was wet from the overnight rain, but it wasn't yet raining. I felt fast, and it felt good. The first loop passed in a blur, and I headed into the tent to change into my pants having covered it much faster than I should have, despite the slow start, in about 3:06 (11:15/mile).

The rain started a couple miles into my second loop. I knew it was coming, but had secretly hoped it would hold off at least for a few more hours. Rain meant mud, and my shoes had to last 50 miles a pair. I hurried through the aid station at 21 miles and into the woods that waited. I knew what I was going to encounter. This might be a good time to pause for an educational intermission, since the best point of reference I can offer for what would go down on this section (~4 miles) can only be understood after having seen it: Wipe Out.

I'll reiterate that I knew it was coming. The ground wasn't particularly stable during the dry first loop, and with hundreds of runners traveling it teemed with the rain, it was only going to deteriorate by the hour. Bad. How it had gotten so bad so quickly was pure witchcraft. I sacrificed a minute or two finding the few inches on the side of the trail near the thorns and brambles just to save my shoes and feet for at least one more loop. I rationalized it was better to eat two minutes now as opposed to twenty later patching damaged feet. I finished loop 2 in a more conservative, comfortable 3:55 for a net time of 7:02 (12:40/mile).

I started loop 3 feeling bad. Nix that. I started loop 3 feeling low-- very low. My time was fine, and my feet were holding up fine. But my stomach was sour, my legs were cramping, and it was still raining. I'd mistaken a cup of pickle juice for ginger ale at the main tent, and I was burping up brine like nobody's business. I wretched once along the side of the trail on the section where the vacation cabins overlook the woods, but nothing came up but acid, and I walked the entire road stretch to the first aid station at 37.5 miles. All I could think was, "how the hell am I going to finish this race when I feel this fucking bad at 40 miles?" Walk the next 60 miles? No. I'd be better off calling it a day at 50, or even 66 miles, than walk for the next 20+ hours in the cold, rain, and slop. This was just foul. The mud was worse, and looked like horses had been galloping through it, deep sinking holes filled with water dotting the unavoidable mud pit that was clearly growing like a cancer. At the next aid station around 42 miles, I was at a crossroads. In my drop bag was a small travel sized bottle of Advil. I knew it was not advisable to take it, and I knew the risks involved. But, the pain in my hip and cramping in my left hamstring had rendered me incapable of running. I could take a couple and hope for the best, or I could plow onward in agony and probably quit either at the end of this loop or possibly the next one. I popped open the bottle and took 3 pills, washed them down with hot soup, and threw in a few TUMS for good measure. Hell be had, I was in this horse and pony show for the long haul, no matter what I looked or felt like at the end.

photo by Robert Gee

If few things compare to the sinking low after a racing disappointment, on the opposite end of the spectrum, few things compare to the intoxicating high of bone and muscle pain easing away into oblivion, 45 miles into a 100 mile race. I ran like it was going out of style, and then I ran some more. I think I even laughed and whooped out loud at one point, sailing down a hill so fast I almost cartwheeled into the lake. Was this what it felt like to be on Speed? Hell, I didn't care. I ran across the timing mat for a 50 mile split of 11:26 (13:43/mile), and immediately dove into changing shoes and gathering supplies. I'd hit my first target, and I was feeling good enough that I didn't anticipate 17:00 being a tough call to answer for the next loop, even with the extra time I was spending in the tent. Terri Lemke, who had paced me the last 35 miles of Burning River 100 in August, found me and brought me some grilled cheese. I love Terri; she's serious and kind hearted at the same time, and sat with me for a few minutes talking about the race. A lot of people were dropping, apparently, but I wasn't going to be one of them. After grabbing my good headlamp and checking the batteries, refilling my bottle, and dunking the last of my grilled cheese sandwich into salty soup broth, I was out into the elements, running and hopeful.

It continued into dusk, through the 4 miles of You Shall Not Pass mud that had spawned a 5th mile; and then, it continued into the darkness. I started to feel cold toward the end of the loop, and also started to slow down finally. The muscle fatigue was returning, and with a vengeance, but the crippling bone pain was still far enough at bay that I didn't feel completely overwhelmed. I finished the loop in 16:07 (14:30/mile), although I'd spent so much time in the tent after the previous loop that I'd actually been faster during loop 4 than the previous one. I was nearly an hour ahead of my 17:00 goal, which meant I had a little extra play time for the last two loops.

I was going to need it.

It was cold, dark, and humid as I set out on my 5th loop. And, I was walking. Somehow, the high had unraveled so fast I didn't know what hit me, and I didn't have another dose of Advil I was willing to commit to the cause. I cursed at the mud. In fact, cursing isn't a strong enough word for what I did. I was 71 miles into the race, wearing one black glove with skulls on it and one pink glove, I'd pulled a red shirt over my jacket, turned my cap around backward, my face was bloated, and I was screaming hoarsely at the mud like I needed an exorcism. It answered with an owl hooting and a 10 foot slide that would have put Michael Jackson to shame in his heyday. Getting to the aid station at 75 miles was a task fit for a gladiator, and gladiator I was not. I was the idiot thrown into the ring to get maimed and slaughtered by the gladiator. At the last aid station around 80.5 miles, I ate everything I could get my hands on-- two quarters of grilled cheese sandwich dipped in soup that I then drank, half of a banana, two cups of soda. I did my best imitation of running that I could execute, but I was actually not moving any faster than my speed walking pace, so after about three quarters of a mile of this nonsense, I walked the rest of the way in to the timing mat and tent, covering the 83.3 mile distance in 22:00 (15:50/mile). My pace had become staggeringly slow, largely because of the long stops, but technically I was still on pace to beat 28:00. In the tent, I changed the batteries to my headlamp, refilled my bottle, but really couldn't choke down any more food. I figured, it was only 4.2 miles to the aid station, so I shouldn't run into trouble.

Four miles at the beginning of a race are a warm-up. Heck, 4 miles even twenty miles into a race can still be covered reasonably fast. But, after 83 miles in cold, soggy, slop, 4 miles felt like an eternity. I started talking to myself. And, my eyes started to do this Cookie Monster thing, rolling around everywhere but where I wanted them to focus. I couldn't get the thought out of my head, and it made me laugh out loud, shaking and sputtering. I was a car running out of gas and unable to stay on the road simultaneously. And, I couldn't go any faster if my life depended on it. In other words, I was becoming hypothermic. I made it to the aid station intact enough to tell the crew I needed heat, caffeine, and hot food. I also wanted a nap, but reasoned with myself the mental fatigue was a byproduct of the dehydration, hunger, and cold. I wrapped myself in a space blanket and slapped on some duct tape, and after about 10-15 minutes eating, drinking, and consuming copious amounts of caffeine, set back out to finish what I'd started. "Daylight in an hour", someone yelled at me from the aid station as I left.

photo by Robert Gee

It always brings relief. One of my running friends described it as "the coming of God after the disaster yesterday", and that is precisely what it was. The sun rose over my shoulders as I was climbing through the thick mud and standing water near the end of Satan's Paradise around mile 93. I still wasn't moving fast, but daylight was upon me. The muscle fatigue was a dull constant, and the aching in my hip had reduced me to exclusively walking. The battle for 28:00 was going to be close. Very close. So close, in fact, that as I passed the final aid station and asked for the time (27:09) I determined I had 50 minutes to cover 2.67 miles, and didn't even bother to stop; I just kept going. That, on wet, rolling hills, equated to 18:43/mile, or a brisk walk. I tried to run, repeatedly, but I physically couldn't do it. Without a phone or watch (I wore or carried neither) I blindly gauged my pace at 19:00/mile, which was going to put me about a minute over my goal. At the final stretch where the short section of pavement opens onto the grass, I tried really hard to run, and I probably looked utterly ridiculous staggering over the finish line.


I'd missed my goal by 100 seconds. One second per mile.

But, I considered this race a success, for several reasons. First, my training was insufficient. I was heavy, and had been on a perpetual taper since Barkley (and actually since two weeks before Barkley). Second, I ran with no crew or pacers. I knew exactly what I needed at every aid station, and did not rely on suggestions or others fetching supplies for me-- except in the case of hot foods that were in pots or pans on the other side of a table. I took care of myself, and really learned how to be completely self-sufficient in horrible conditions for 100 miles. I satisfied all my objectives, except the time goal, which I missed by a margin of less than 2 minutes.

I have a series of smaller races waiting for me now, including the Mohican 50 mile trail race, and the Buckeye Trail 50k. I'm optimistic, and finally feel like I've come to terms with my Barkley least, in the sense that I accomplished my first training run toward my next attempt, whether that is next year, in two years, or twenty.

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