July 24, 2014

Vermont 100 - Silencing The Voice

I only had one question when I reached Polly’s, the last aid station of the Vermont 100 mile endurance run…“how far is it to the finish line?” I calculated around 3.5 miles, but after running for 19 straight hours, I knew my numbers were a little fuzzy.

The man behind the table didn’t hesitate. “It’s exactly 4.8 miles to the finish,” he barked as I reached for my third cup of Mountain Dew. It was now 11 p.m. and his words were a punch to the gut. I thought I only had 3.5 miles to go, but it was really 5 more miles. All I could do was shake my head, and reach for a chocolate chip cookie. Then I grabbed a cup of warm broth and continued down the trail.

I’ve written that running 100 miles is like living a lifetime in one day. The ups and downs that it brings, the elation and disappointment, the pleasure and pressure, they are all there, strung together from hour to hour, even minute to minute, on a neural continuum. What I feel right now, I’ve come to learn, is altogether different from what I’m likely to feel after taking a few more breaths, or a few more steps, toward my destination.

The challenge now wasn’t whether I could make it to the finish. Heck, I had already run 95.2 miles and I wasn’t about to quit now. The challenge was whether I could finish in under 20 hours. I had kept the thought of this in the back of my mind, hoping that if I had a good day and ran smart, it could pull it off and have a new personal record. But was it within my grasp? With only an hour left, 4.8 miles to the finish and a big climb still to come, negative thoughts began to flood into my head.

I started to hear a voice. It was telling me that I had no chance. That I might as well not even try, because making it nearly 5 miles in less than an hour would be impossible. Then came the coup de grace…knowing I’d been running for 19 hours, the voice asked, didn’t I deserve to take it easy now?

There is an element about Vermont that is historic in the world of ultra running – and it involves horses. The concept of horses racing 100 miles is nothing new, and in fact dates back to 1955. Now in its 60th year, the Tevis Cup is an endurance event where horses and their riders cover 100 miles in one day in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Back then no one had ever thought of a person running one hundred miles. Then, in 1974 a young equestrian by the name of Gordy Ainsleigh showed up at the Tevis Cup with his horse to ride one hundred miles. But his horse got sick and was unable to compete. So Gordy chose to run it by himself. Thus began the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, and the hundreds of 100 mile races that followed.

Like Western States, Vermont is one of the few 100 mile races where humans and horses run on the same trail. At Western States they run on different days. At Vermont horses and humans all run together - at the same time. To state the obvious, it makes for an interesting event. There is something primal about running side by side with horses along rugged trails in the middle of a forest. It is as intimidating as it is intriguing, and it is all sewn together with a stitch of adventure.

There is only one mile marker on the entire 100 mile course at Vermont. It is at mile 99. When I reached it, I stole a look at my watch. I had just 12 minutes remaining to finish under 20 hours. I knew I could run one mile in twelve minutes, as long as there was no more climbing to come. But there was more climbing to come. So I climbed. And climbed. Up the side of a hill that seemed to have no end.

By now the voice had gone quiet, and I was moving over the countryside without the burden of hearing what I can’t do, or what was impossible. Now I simply listened to the sounds all around me, my own footsteps, the distant voices of the finish line. I was now just a passenger moving along this dark Vermont trail, destined to take these final steps that would carry me to the end of this long journey. I turned the corner. I saw the lights of the finish line.  I saw the clock. 19:58:08, :09, :10, :11.

I raised my arms. I did it.

July 18, 2014

Vermont 100 Live Link

Another year running through Vermont’s green mountains, on a deceptively challenging trail, on my way to a destination somewhere in the mountains of Utah. I promised myself to take this one as it comes to me, and not to go at it like a raging bull. It is, of course, only number two of the four, so patience and staying in my zone will be my mantra for the first half. Then we see what happens. To all of you running and riding tomorrow, have some good fun out there. I hope to see you at the finish line!

Click here to link to 2014 Vermont 100 live race results. My number is 66. 

July 12, 2014

Sugar: Safe or Suicide?

It kind of snuck up on me. And it wasn’t the first time, so I should’ve known better. But the best lessons are learned on the trail. In the grasp of the elements. In Nature’s laboratory. So I promised myself. This time I won’t forget.

Do you believe everything that you read in the newspapers or magazines? What about TV? If you’re like me - a bit of a skeptic - you probably struggle to find the truth from the media and advertising. There is so much information out there, so much of it conflicting, it’s hard to discern fact from fiction.

This is one reason I like to train for and run ultra’s. To learn. From my own experience, about my body, and what works for it, and what doesn’t. What I can trust, and what I can’t.

There is a little lie I recently discovered since running ultras. It’s a lie most of us believe, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes ignorantly, but a lie nonetheless. And now that I know it is a lie, every time I doubt myself, and believe it again, it bites me. It happened as recently as Western States. Fortunately I caught myself, and was able to pull away from its damaging ways.

Here is a little factoid I want to put on the table: In 2010, the average American consumed 132 lbs of sugar per year, more than ever recorded. In the same year, 35.7% and 16.9% of adults and children, respectively, were obese. Again, more than ever before. Is it just a coincidence, or does the fact that refined sugar is linked to diabetes, obesity, hypertension, fatigue and depression have anything to do with these trends?

Big Sugar, or the companies that contest the danger of sugar to human health, have (to date) convinced the federal government that sugar is “generally recognized as safe.” However, Nature, one of the most prestigious journals on the topic of science, published an article in 2012 entitled Public Health: the toxic truth about sugar. The article reported that sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are not only addictive in the same way as alcohol and cigarettes, but they are the cause of a worldwide epidemic in obesity and type 2 diabetes. Remember the big tobacco lie?

Why does this matter to us ultra runners? Because we too consume too much sugar when we run and even when we aren’t running. Have you had any pasta lately? A bagel? Call it what you want, it’s all sugar. I recently witnessed an ultra runner eating a frosted waffle coated in syrup. And yes, I’ve been known to down a few donuts and pancakes in weaker moments (let alone post workout beer or wine). Yes, carbs are just a couth term for sugar. Once it hits your gut, its all sugar.

But here is the thing. The body does what we ask it to do. Ask it to burn sugar as it’s primary source of fuel, then feed it sugar. But there is a down side to the high carb/sugar diet, and it is complex.

Unlike a diet rich in saturated fat and protein, the high sugar/carb diet will teach your body to rely primarily on sugar, or glycogen, which is stored in your liver and muscles, for fuel. The problem with the sugar/carb diet is that your body can only store enough of this stuff to keep you going for a couple hours. So what happens when you want to run for 5 or 6 or 24 hours? Well, you have a couple choices. One choice is you can keep sucking down sugary gels and blocks every thirty to forty-five minutes, and hope your stomach can process this junk so it makes it into your blood stream and your muscles. But what happens if your stomach doesn’t cooperate, which is very likely at some point during the long hours of an ultra. Have you ever seen someone dry heave? There is one other choice when relying on sugar/carbs for fuel. Bonk.

My Favorite Ultra Cuisine
When I reached the aid station at Michigan Bluff, mile 55 at Western States, I made the mistake of refilling my hydration pack with Gu Brew instead of water. Until that point I had been eating high fat and protein sandwiches mixed with water and Vespa. But the Gu tasted so good! So subtle and sweet, it went down like, well, sugar water, which is what it is. I liked it so much I stopped drinking water and found myself drinking just Gu Brew.

Well the fun didn’t last long. Here is the email I wrote the next day to Peter Defty, GM at Vespa Power, maker of the supplement I’ve used with lots of success at 100 mile races:

Around Michigan Bluff, I started drinking Gu Brew instead of water. This is where I noticed a material disconnect from the Vespa [fat burning] zone. Normally when I’m in the Vespa zone I feel that ember-like energy flowing through my body, so that if I come upon an climb or section that requires extra effort to keep running, I just keep grinding through it. However, after taking all the sugar in the form of GU brew, the ember was almost extinguished. I found my self struggling to stay focused mentally while my energy fluctuated. Finally, when I realized what was happening, I dumped all the sugar water and went back to water. The ember started burning again as I entered the evening section of the race.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand and trust my body more than any other source of information. And when it tells me things, all I have to do is listen. Because it always speaks the truth.

Keep it real runners. 

July 1, 2014

Western States 2014 - The Thread that Runs Through

Photo courtesy of Bob Szekeresh
Sometimes it takes longer. No, it always takes longer. But when it comes, it is all that I need. All that I reach for. And more. But it isn’t easy. To wait, patiently, with my head down, doing the hard work.

When I started writing this post, I just had to get up and walk away. The words weren’t there. Then I remembered. And how could I forget? I just completed Western States 100. This time, finally, on my third try, the lesson was learned. What did I remember? That if I really want something, I cannot go to it. It has to come to me. And when it does, I best be ready.

It wasn’t until I saw the lights of No-hands Bridge at mile 97 that I realized it had finally come to me. And, this time, I was ready. I ran with a single plan. One purpose. To get through this menacing trail without letting it consume my spirit like it has in the past. To run into all its elements, its traps, its deceptive descents, and then run out of them, on my terms, all the way to the finish line.

I chose to run Western States solo this year, which is without a crew and a pacer. I’m glad I did it this way, because of the volunteers. There was an older man at the Robinson Flat aid station, his name was Perry, and he took me to a chair so I could sit for just a minute or two. He helped me with my drop bag and told me that he too had run the race several years ago. He was proud of that. We talked for a while as I fiddled with my supplies. Then he sent me on my way. And I thanked him. There were many other moments like this one.

To put yourself into the hands of others, people you’ve never met before, and let them help you when you are at your weakest, with no other motivation than to just help you, well that is really something. And to see an acquaintance you barely know waiting for you at the finish line at 3:30 in the morning, who stays with you for several hours to make sure you are ok, well that is really something too. It is this thread—to help others—I’m finding that runs through our sport. This is what I will remember the most about Western States this year.

As I ran toward the finish line, I raised my arms into the air. It had to come the hard way. It always comes the hard way. But when it came, it was all that I needed.

Thanks to all you out there who helped me.