Thank you Rockhoppers! This race was an amazing intro to ultra and your hospitality. The report below is published on my blog, www.lifeisnotametaphor.wordpress.com.
This is the first 50 miler of the season for me. Wait… that’s true. More accurately, however, this is the first 50 miler in my LIFE! I am not an endurance neophyte, nor would I consider myself a savvy veteran. Having completed two seasons of triathlon training that included two 70.3 Ironman races and one 140.6, a series of factors led me to focus my energy on a season of ultra races.
An ultra is defined as any race longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). Prior to the RR50, I “competed” in two marathons (one coming as part of the Ironman), several half marathons, and a 30k. The 30k bears most of the fault for diving headfirst into the ultra community in 2014. Back in October, I flew to London for work and added a weekend trip to Lake Garda in Italy to the back end of the trip. I traveled with a group of South Africans living in London, with whom Liezz connected me. That run was completely magical and changed my view of running completely.
We traveled the Italian countryside from Venice to Garda, eating family-style meals of baguettes, prosciutto and mozzarella. At night, we dined on pasta and carafes of red wine. The entire group trained for the race, but approached it as an excuse to visit a beautiful corner of the globe and spend time with good people. I believe it was this approach that allowed me to completely relax and enjoy each moment of the race.
The race began around 9:30 am and our group scattered gradually at different paces. I never settled into one group, rather choosing to converse with several, increasing my pace by a few ticks to join the next person in queue. By the time there were only 5k left, I realized I had so much left in the tank that I completely went for broke. My Garmin was acting up on me, so in the absence of a true indicator of pace, I ran like I did back when I was 10 years old – with pure joy and abandon. As I ran through the chute, Europe’s “Final Countdown” was blaring (I was looking for GOB on a segway), and no kidding, I began to cry.
This moment is forever crystallized in my memory and taught me a truth that was previously hidden – those crazy people who just run might be on to something. There is paradoxical simplicity (most people are capable of running in some capacity) and complexity (what is that enigmatic runners’ high and where can I get one?). The run in Garda evoked a simple joy that was missing in my own competitive sports since my last NCAA wrestling match.
With this experience, along with the requisite reading of Born to Run, I resolved to spend the next year chasing distances I’d never dreamed of. The A-race on this season’s calendar is the Leadville 100, with several learning experiences along the way.
Friday, February 7th:
Team Thompson drove into Huntsville State Park around 6pm for packet pick up and headed to our B&B 4 miles away. We had seen a 5 Guys on the way in and decided we’d grab a quick burger and head to bed early. Not knowing exactly where it was located, I called upon Siri for advice. After a shouting match with Siri, which clearly hurt his/her feelings, he drove us past Sam Houston’s statue five times before dropping us in the middle of a cornfield, like a UFO in Roswell.
We acquiesced and found a Subway at a gas station. Lily and Nina caught the drama bug and decided to showcase our parenting skills to the youth group of 30 high school students that had arrived seconds before we got in line. I have never been so grateful for a Subway sandwich when it was all said and done. Fittingly, we ended up at 5 Guys the following night to celebrate two victories – finding it and completing a 50 mile race!
Left to right – Liezz, Nina and Lily – the best race crew a guy could ask for! They were unbelievably patient and encouraging as they stood around waiting for me to complete each 16.7 mile loop of the RR50. The aim of a crew is to be more encouraging than sympathetic – which they pulled off perfectly. They thought for me when my mind was going loopy, made sure I had nutrition and hydration squared away, and gave me a kick in the pants to get back out on the trail.
Saturday, February 8th: RACE DAY!
Race morning came quickly. Sleeping in a B&B meant that we were much more comfortable than had we camped in the park with the majority of racers. It inevitably meant, however, that our sick princesses alternated waking up throughout the night, and what little sleep there was to be had by Liezz was eaten up attending to the girls before they woke me completely. I slept relatively well and was all systems go when the alarm went off at 4am.
The drive to Huntsville State Park and getting my drop bag situated was surprisingly simple. Liezz and the girls dropped me off at the starting tent around 530am, wished me luck, and there I stood for 30 minutes. I waited around in the starting tent wish other racers. We were all shivering, partly because the temperature was in the mid-30’s and partly due to nerves. It was reassuring to catch up with Josh Johnson, a running buddy I met on an early morning McAllister Park run back in San Antonio, just before the gun went off and we shuffled off into the mines like Snow White’s 300 Dwarves.
Below: I’m getting my iPhone situated. I rarely run with music, but decided I would plug in some Explosions In The Sky and Sigur Ros for ambience while I ran in the dark. I expected to naturally fall in line with other runners at a similar pace, at which point, the plan was to unplug and make some friends.
Above: All of the miners with the requisite reflective clothing, hydrations packs and headlamps, ready for another day. With a 92% finish rate at RR50, there are fewer canaries on this course than typical ultras.
My race plan was the following:
– Loop 1 – run 20 minutes, walk 1 minute, consume approximately 270 calories/hour of solid food, drink water with Nuun tablet whenever thirsty (usually a sip every ten minutes), avoid gels if at all possible, take 1 SaltStick every hour, scope out aid stations for goodies (jelly beans, chips, soda, quesadillas, potatoes, BACON!, Akaushi filet – maybe there is a niche for the 1% of the 1% who like doing obscure suffering-based events that I could host where Akaushi will be available – I will even let Zuck slaughter it himself in keeping with his commitment to learning animal husbandry)
– Loop 2 – continue with the run 20, walk 1 or 2 , while also briskly walking any incline, keep tabs on nutrition and hydration situation, adjust where calories come from (add gels if necessary), make sure calories are consumed at ~20 minute intervals, see above for snack inventory (BACON!)
– Loop 3 – stick to what worked on Loop 2 and hang out for dear life, definitely grab Coke at each aid station, eat a can of Pringles for good measure (once you pop…)
A race starting at 6am in February means running for about an hour in the dark. Beginning in the dark adds an element of excitement, palpable anticipation, and DANGER! The course isn’t considered especially challenging compared to more technical or higher elevation races. What Huntsville State Park does have, however, are seemingly innocuous roots sprawled across the entire course. I have gradually adapted my stride as a runner toward a more efficient “shuffle,” leaving little clearance between my feet and the ground even during the first several miles of any run when my legs are fresh.
The results, as friends who have run with me can attest, is a strange combination of clumsiness and athleticism. I have taken some tumbles on completely flat stretches and done the angry stare back at the leaf that tripped me. I have many “grassy knoll” conspiracy theories. I catch myself more often than not, however, and have even thrown my shoulder out in some spastic, desperate contraction to avoid serious damage. My only fall on this day was from one of the roots while running in the dark when I was completely fresh. And from the yelping I heard amidst bobbing headlights, I was not the only one.
The highlight of Loop 1 was, without a doubt, running (unintentional pun) across Jason & Jeff (from cooktraineatrace.com). These guys were an amazing inspiration and super fun. I’m glad I didn’t know Jason was the author of a food/training blog advocating a plant-based lifestyle at the time, because the hilarity that ensued while we ran together dealt mainly with taking shots at Cross-Fit, paleo eating, and really any athletic sub-culture that devolves from the athletics that started it. It was self-reflective , genuine, aimed at everyone and most importantly, lasted nearly 8 miles. Just as we were inventing the next endurance craze, Hog Hunting, Loop 1 came to a close. As we jogged in at approx. 2:40, our spirits could not been higher.
This is the part of the race where I knew that I would hit uncertainty. The farthest I ran in training was 32 miles. That run, however was broken into 14, 5 and 13 mile chunks to accommodate training partners. The longest I had ever run at a single time was 26.2. Since one of those was after the Ironman, I knew I could do it, but I also trained to avoid the inevitability of suffering – maybe not in the actual race, but during the recovery phase. The extent of the suffering, however, is part of the “why” that goes into choosing ultra. I will never know how much my body can endure unless I keep pushing – and there’s something about my “central governor” that suggests I am incapable of truly pushing to a fatal limit. So yeah… uncertainty shows up on Loop 2.
I took my time getting out of transition, making a full costume change of shirt, socks and shoes. Within a few miles, I felt my hip flexors tightening up and kept pushing expectations of what the next 30 miles would bring out of my head as quickly as they came. The first race of any distance I’ve undertaken has always been devoid of true expectations. I had tentative goals for my first marathon, 1/2 Ironman and full Ironman races, as a means to train effectively, but qualitative goals kept a freshness to these events. For RR50 in particular, I was determined to soak in every bit of this experience, hopefully completing it under 10 hours.
I caught up with Jason, Jeff and a woman named Gail around mile 21 and kept pace until about mile 28 when nature called me in for a pit stop just past the DamNation aid station. I thought about trying to catch up, but resolved to save any reserve I had until Loop 3, assuming I would need it badly.
I felt pretty awful about halfway through Loop 2. I could tell from my Garmin that I was losing time compared to my first loop (which was to be expected). The temperature never climbed into the 50’s as expected, hydration and nutrition felt fine, but there was this drifting feeling of being in no-man’s land. I wasn’t close to finishing, but I was as fatigued and gone as far as I ever had on any run previously. I never actually felt any more fatigued than I did at mile 30, and as for Loop 3, my disposition and speed improved considerably.
Above: I finished Loop 2 and changed shirt and socks again. Liezz was a trooper and did my thinking for me. She made sure I had the calories I needed in the correct pockets of my hydration pack, made me confirm what I had been eating and shoved a Larabar in my face as I headed out for Loop 3. I spent several miles missing my girls before the turnaround for Loop 3. It’s funny, but unexpected emotions like that are part of what draws me to keep pushing distance. Thoughts that arise from stillness become indelibly stamped on my brain when mixed with the endorphins activated in endurance sports – my memory becomes sharper the more senses are involved.
This is where the story gets interesting. I left the aid station telling Liezz “I don’t feel so great. This is getting hard.” As I shuffled forward, I kept thinking back to Gracie’s advice when we signed up for Leadville. “It’s all about ‘relentless forward progress.'” You may as well as have put that on repeat in my brain, because each step I took, I felt as though I was trying to convince myself that’s all it took, relentless forward progress.
Unfortunately, there aren’t very many stories that took place on Loop 3. I began by fighting out the dark thoughts that were creeping into my head. Volunteers at the aid stations, as always, were unbelievably encouraging and selfless. I tried to converse and keep playful banter going at each aid station, but at some points, my lucidity failed me and I was flat out punch drunk. At DamNation on Loop 2, I refused Endurolytes because I had SaltStick and believe it to be a superior product. Somehow I decided to joke about mine being amphetamine salts and that I knew a way to beat the drug test at the end. …Awkward pauses followed because they were talking to a guy in the middle of the pack, but replied back “it’s your race man!” I am also grateful that my demands for “COKE!” as my tact abated were responded to with multiple shots lined up for immediate consumption with smiles behind the service.
As I arrived at mile ~40 at the DamNation aid station, I felt like I was having a repeat of Loop 2 where I started to slow and had stomach distress. I was really excited to catch up with Jason and Jeff, knowing that if I could keep up with them, the time would pass a lot more quickly. I told them I was going to run ahead so I could duck into the woods and take care of business without them dropping me like on the last loop. My hope was that we could support each of finishing, but based on the last loop, it was up to me to get out in front so I didn’t fall behind.
The craziest thing happened.
I ran ahead scouting out a spot in the woods to read the paper, but settled into my new pace. Before I knew it, I wasn’t looking for a place to stop, but was a few miles into an accelerated clip. I ran along the lake and passed another racer who encouraged me saying “great pace – keep it up!” Then I started doing math (poorly as usual) and took stock physically.
I’d kept with my pacing, nutrition and hydration goals within reason. Nothing was hurting more than it had for the last 20 miles. I wasn’t cramping, hungry or thirsty. So I thought… “let’s go for it!” I ran the last 8 miles about a minute faster than my average, securing the moral victory of a negative lap split between Loops 2 and 3.
After 50 miles of suffering, I finally crossed the line at 8:34:43 and officially completed my first ultra marathon. The Rockhoppers welcomed me with open arms, then sat me down in a camping chair with a cup of Ramen and a gooey cheese quesadilla. Liezz, Lily and Nina were an incredible crew and support team – and I can’t wait to return the favor at Liezz’s next race!
Thank you to all!