Monday, December 10, 2012

The Hard Core

Squishiness has proven a persistently annoying aspect of life on earth. Sure it made sense when all of us were buoyed in that great wet womb of our genesis. And we have made considerable strides with shells, plates, and bones now that we dwell on desiccating and gravity-ruled terra firma. Still, poke or gash us with even a meagre stick and we bleed.

My vulnerabilities have been all too apparent in the five weeks since I ran the Mountain Masochist 50 mile trail run. Hurricane Sandy, itself a mere droplet cast off from Mother Nature's sneeze, had spawned a system of storms that spanned the entire East coast. The Blue Ridge Mountain range in Southwest Virginia was lightly brushed as if by a passing coat tail. It was still enough to cause considerable trevail. By the time of the race on November 3 several inches of snow remained on the parts of the course above 2400' and front runners would have to break trail through some knee-deep snow drifts.

My plans to prepare for the Hellgate 100K were foiled by the fallout. Inflammation of the peroneal tendon on my left ankle cast a shadow over any training I tried. The pain was significant and only manageable by staying on my toes and keeping that ankle rigid when climbing. This might explain the continuous soreness of my left achilles tendon -- not an injury to be toyed with. Finally, a sharp pain at the top of my hamstring was eerily reminiscent of the “deep butt” high hamstring tendon syndrome that can be a multi-year injury for distance runners. The pain plagued me for the last several weeks and prevented me from running at speeds faster than six miles per hour. I kept expecting the pain to pass and to be healed enough to run one of the toughest ultras around.

I considered withdrawing. As the race approached it became clear that if I did start, I was just as likely to have to quit due to injury as to finish, and even if I did manage to limp through I would not be performing at peak fitness -- not only because I was injured, but because injuries had prevented me from training as I would have when healthy. A plethora of personal and professional responsibilities vie for my attention all the time. I could spend the weekend grading final exams, working on the house, or playing with my kids. The scale was perched right on the line between “go” and “don’t go.” The slightest additional weight would have made all the difference.

And there the scale remained even as we rode to event headquarters in Staunton, VA on Friday evening. JJ Jessee drove my van with Micah McFaddin riding shotgun. They were coming to crew for Beth Minnick, who rode in the back with me. We had our feet propped up and our heads resting on our pillows. I dreamily imagined that we were driving through the night toward a distant destination. And then I wished it really was so. Had JJ said he changed plans and was going to drive us through the night to New York City I would have readily gone gone along.

Not even the race director’s public provocations at the pre-race briefing could snap my head back into it. He announced that I had the current course record [11:03] and taunted that I wouldn’t be able to break 11 hours. I didn’t want to say out loud that I had serious doubts about my ability to complete the course at all. That I was getting ready to start anyway seemed completely surreal.

Even a sense of dread would have been better than the escapist fantasies I was turning to. I was about to be abandoned 66 miles from the safety of the finish, in the mountains, at midnight, and I was starting lame.

About the only thing that registered true at the start was the prayer offered by Frank Gonzales for David Horton. Though Horton seemed himself in every respect this weekend, he will be undergoing major surgery today [He is likely registering at the hospital as I post this]. The normal commotion of the start line gave way to complete quiet. While running ultras may be something people do for recreation, it would be hard to overstate the impact that Horton has had on peoples’ lives. He started the “ultra scene” in the East, and Hellgate is perhaps most representative of what an ultra means to him: huge withering climbs, brilliant wide-open vistas, plenty of brutal technical terrain but also miles of free running. More than that, though, Hellgate is intimate. Entries are capped to keep the numbers low -- 140 runners this year. Horton knows you. And he wants you to face your demons, even if it takes Forever to do it.

Many times, including at Hellgate in 2005, I have started a race with grand plans that were gradually worn down until I had to surrender and accept that my fate is subject to forces beyond my control. Hellgate 2012 is the first time I have started a race already surrendered.  I had no pretense that I could control the outcome. Of course that didn’t relieve me of the need to prepare -- just the opposite. I outfitted myself with great gear from The Aid Station. I got an amazingly bright Princeton Tec Headlamp and carefully arranged to swap out batteries. And I also left my clothes in the van so that if I did drop on the course I’d be able to get them from JJ and Micah.

As it turns out my fears were well founded.

The ankle and the hamstring hurt enough that I wondered what the other runners would make out of my visible limp. I stayed well behind the front runners. Despite the very easy pace I almost immediately started having stomach trouble. My dinner had not digested and my stomach became painfully distended. I drank water at the first aid station but it just made me more bloated. I picked up my hydration pack and gels at the second aid station but didn’t touch either until 2:30 am when my stomach finally started to empty.

I broke the race into thirds. Two warmup marathons and then the race. The first marathon (OK, 22 miles) ends at Headforemost Mountain and I hoped to be there before 4 am. The second marathon ends at Bearwallow Gap and I hoped to be there before 8 am. The first marathon was nearly all miserable. I started to feel moderately better on the final climb to the Headforemost aid station. I had been able to eat and drink some. As long as I stayed on my toes and didn’t flex my ankle that pain was manageable. The hamstring only hurt when I opened up my stride. I was surprised to find myself in third place leaving the aid station. Jason Bryant had dropped and returned to Camping Gap. Frank Gonzales had apparently taken even longer than I at the aid station. That left Troy Shellhamer (my comrade on many recent adventures) and “some guy way out front” who turned out to be Alister Gardner. Despite my tutelage, which frequently includes sincerely offered tips on how to beat me, Troy was sporting a headlamp that included a blinking red light on the back. This is no doubt a great safety feature for road cycling but for a mountain ultra run through the night this better suited the purposes of his competitors. Unwittingly, Troy helped carry me through two critical periods of the race: the entire first third when I just wanted to shuffle past the miles in meditative oblivion (focused on the blinking red light), and the final third that I’ll detail below.

I fully recognize how bizarre this is going to sound and I myself am tempted to attribute to me some special strength of will or character but the truth is that we just don’t have the right model for how the human body works.

I was injured and feeling unwell. I started running at midnight by the light of my headlamp in the mountains. Four hours later I was being HEALED.  At 4 am I started the second marathon feeling the way I “should” have felt had I trained optimally, stayed healthy, and then tapered down to a complete rest and (of course) skipped the first marathon. One has to wonder -- would “go run in the mountains” be a better generic prescription for what ails you than “just take it easy”?

So I ran the second marathon with alacrity. After Jennings Creek (27 miles)  there are two long sustained climbs and descents on gravel and double track that allowed me to open up my stride and blow out the old carburetor barrels. I passed Troy and gapped him by what I thought would be an insurmountable distance. I had apparently suppressed the memory of all the technical single-track in the approach to Bearwallow Gap. I have an edge over Troy on open terrain, but he is very strong and, for a midwesterner, remarkably able to maintain his speed over rocks.

The race starts at Bearwallow Gap. I was about 16 minutes behind Alister and maybe two minutes in front of Troy. More importantly I was one minute ahead of my pace from 2006 when I set the course record. Considering that I had been as much as 23 minutes behind Alister, I thought both the course record and the win were still in play. It sure wasn’t going to be easy. After 44 miles through the night the running was work. Completely gone was the euphoria of the middle marathon. I gritted my teeth and almost felt myself pull at my legs to get them to keep running on the climb out of Bearwallow. Contouring around the mountain I caught occasional glimpses of Troy behind me.

On the technical descent before Bobblet’s Gap (about 50 miles) the wear of the run began to show. Cramps in my feet and calves made navigating rocks difficult. My knees hurt. I hadn’t refilled my hydration pack at Bearwallow and ran dry, which kept me from eating. My energy reached a low point just before the aid station. As I refilled and grabbed several chunks of boiled potato Troy arrived. He hooted at his sister who was crewing for him and I knew he’d be excited to be racing me once again so close to the end of an ultra. I overheard her say something about his “double espresso shot” and I figured he was getting ready to get even more amped up.

Sure enough he came cruising by me on the road descent after Bobblet’s Gap. I might have smiled to myself if I felt I had the luxury. This would be Troy’s first trip through the Forever section. It doesn’t help for someone to tell you about it -- you have to go through it. Taking it alone is tough. Leading someone may be tougher. Troy runs strong and steady -- I’ve learned that across the many miles we have now put in together. I was happy to once again tuck in behind him.

During a training run three weeks prior I had warned Troy that he shouldn’t wait until the last aid station to make his move on me. So I was just thinking “way to go!” after he had surged on the first downhill of the Forever section when I caught back up to him because he had tripped and fallen. He got right back up and shook it off but the surge was over. He led the full distance of that section with me right behind him. As my energy severely ebbed -- as it must -- so did his. Our pace ground down to a shuffle on those final climbs before the Day Creek aid station. When at last we emerged from the Forever section Troy looked like, well, Hell.

I had taken my caffeinated Clif Shot about 10 minutes before, and at the aid station I chugged a small cup of Mountain Dew. Alister had been through 10 minutes before so I knew he was no longer within reach. It was 10:10 and I knew exactly what I had to do to break 11 hours: run every step of the final three mile climb to the parkway. The last three downhill miles are a given -- I could run those fast regardless of what I had been through.

My body -- the squishy part -- did protest. Everything possible had been squeezed from it. “Nothing left here,” it said and just for proof my legs became leaden weights. “Good,” I replied, “then there is nothing left here to care.” And in fact I did feel that everything soft had been stripped away. All that was left was one simple commandment “run every step.”

No doubt we are fleshy beings held fast to the physical world. Our freedom waves in the breeze like a flag run up a tall pole. We mount ourselves to an infinitesimally thin yet absolutely liberating hard core. We must stake our claim, make our promise, and then hold fast no matter what. That is the essence of human freedom and the greatest joy of our longest runs.

Hellgate 2012 Results: