After Eric’s relapse this year, we spent a lot of time together: checking things off of the bucket list, getting to and from appointments at the hospital, driving home just to be with family. After the appointments stopped and my routine at work returned to being normal, I still wanted to do everything I could to help. So in September I registered for the Ironman 2010, to what some people have called “putting the “I” in L.I.F.E.”. However I hadn’t been training for over a year now, and my body has rapidly fallen out of shape. You wouldn’t believe how much you can lose in just a year or two of not doing anything. Drinking beer, not watching what I eat, the stress, and the fact that I was not physically active added 25 pounds onto my weight. Little of what I had worked for in years past remained. I know some of you will read this and be like, “Oh but he can get it back easy, he’s used to this sort of thing!” Compared to past years, it’s been anything but easy. I can tell my metabolism is already slowing, and my muscles atrophy faster than they used to before. The only thing that hasn’t changed is motivation. When it gets painful, or I am tired I’m able to silence it just by thinking of Eric, especially during his darkest days at the hospital.
So, with a little less than a year before the big Ironman, there was no time to waste. With the chance that Eric might actually be there to see me for this one, I wanted to do my very best. I want to absolutely smoke that course. I knew I had to get my weight down and endurance up so I’d be physically able to do the workouts and train as hard as possible in the spring and summer. This meant zero junk food, and no more weekends out at the bars with friends. In October, I learned that a good buddy of mine, Chris Clausen, would be running in the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile marathon in Huntsville, TX in February. Chris and I have known each other for about 5 years now. Back in college we were on the triathlon team together, and one of our spring breaks was spent cycling the roads and climbing the hills around Austin, TX. Up until then, Chris had finished three Rocky Raccoon 100 mile marathons. He’d convinced me that if I worked hard enough through the cold winter, I too could finish the race. Skeptical, yet intrigued, I signed up in November for the race in February.
Most of what I worked hard to gain in years past was now gone. I had to work extra hard just to get my body ready to do even a 5 mile run at a slow pace. To think I’d be able to run 100 miles in just a few months was almost unthinkable. But I pressed on. My fiancé lives 400 miles away in St. Louis, so my days at work and school became long so I could get down there on weekends. I’d bring my running shoes down there with me, and I bought a headlamp so I could run at night while I was in Madison. In just a few months I was able to put in 10 miles in a little over 1 hour and 12 minutes. This was a good step, but I was still too heavy to be running 10x that much. About 6 weeks out, Chris and I started putting in our longer runs; sometimes it was by time and we’d do 2 or 3 hours, sometimes it was for distance and we’d go 15 or 20 miles. In January my fiancé Megan helped support me through a 25 mile run on flat terrain in Southern Illinois. I thought it went considerably well, but I ended up developing a nasty arch strain because of it, forcing me to take weeks off of running with less than a month to go before the race. With some help from a massage therapist friend of mine, Suzie Neas, I was able to nurse it back to full.
The morning of February 5th came quicker than I had hoped and expected. But nonetheless, I was feeling confident and very excited. Chris and I arrived in Dallas at 10am on that Friday morning, rented a car drove 2.5 hours south down to Huntsville. We picked up a bunch of necessities at the local Wal-Mart: Red Bull, Boost, bananas, muffins, Gatorade, batteries, sandwich bags, and toilet paper. We checked into the Motel 6 where we were greeted by Katrina and prepared our bags for the aid station. That evening we had a giant pre-race spaghetti dinner. I got to meet a bunch of people that would be running with us the following day. 360 people were signed up for the 100 miler, 340 people for the 50. We had to drop off our bags at this dinner the night before, so everything we needed had to be planned for and packed in advance.
The race is 5 laps of 20 miles. You have access to one of your bags at the start and at every 20 miles. The course is designed in such a way that you have access to your other bag at mile 6, and then you do a 6 mile loop so you have access again at mile 12. And then it’s another 8 miles back to the start line again. We’d need headlamps for the start of the race since it began in the dark, and again in the evening when nightfall hit. We planned it so that we each had a headlamp in both bags so we’d never be caught in the dark, and brought extra batteries in case they went dead. There were very few port-a-potty’s out there, so I got together some TP and put it in baggies small enough that it would easily in the pocket of my shorts. This way I could relieve myself out on the course if no bathroom was available. (I never did this though). There was enough Red bull, Aleve, and Boost to last any 75 year old party animal at least 3 months. But I knew when I was out there between miles 60 and 100, I’d need all the energy and pain relief I could get. I also packed as many cold weather running clothes as I owned. The high would be 65, the low 40.
I had a hard time sleeping that night. We watched a good chunk of “A Time to kill” and then turned out the lights. We woke up at 4:15am the next day feeling very awake and relaxed. I lubed up the parts of my body that I knew would chafe, scarfed down a couple of bananas and muffins, loaded my handheld water bottle with Gatorade and headed out the door. By the time we got to the start, there was less than 15 minutes to go. I had a GPS watch on my left wrist, and a regular stop watch on my right. The batteries in the GPS are only good for about 6-8 hours, so I could use them for only a lap or two to help pace before they went dead.
Boom! The gun went off at 6am. The air was chilly, the sky was dark. I kept a beam from my headlamp on the trail, and tried to stay as relaxed as possible. The trail was narrow, and with almost 400 runners on the course we were off to a pretty slow start. I didn’t need to worry about starting out near the front. We had timing chips on our ankles, so my official time wouldn’t begin until I crossed the start line. It was like watching a bunch of penguins slowly waddle their way along, waiting for things to space out before the slow jog could begin. The course was through a thick forest, with roots and debris all over the place. You really had to pay attention to your footing; it was very easy to trip. It had also been raining a lot the previous week, so there were some very swampy parts of the course, where your foot could sink all the way in mud. I definitely wanted to avoid this. Wet shoes meant wet socks, and wet socks meant a greater risk for blisters. I had to keep dry. Avoiding these obstacles took an excruciating amount of energy at times.
Chris is a much stronger runner, but I wanted to stay with him for at least the first lap or two to learn the course, and get some advice and a feel for what to expect from someone with experience. It was like 12-14 minutes/mile for the first couple. As soon as things opened up though, Chris and I slowly dropped the pace until we were doing a comfortable 9 minutes/mile. The first 10 went by so quickly that it felt like the race hadn’t even begun yet. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. At mile 12 I stripped off my pants, gloves, and headlamp and put them in my bag. I intentionally started with the other headlamp in my start bag, so now I had one in each bag not knowing exactly where I’d be when it would get dark later than evening. At mile 15, there was an aid station and Katrina was waiting there for us with a camera, snapping pictures. Megan and my Mom had already spoken to her and she yelled to me that they said “Your Mom and Megan say hello!” That was pretty neat for me, because even though they weren’t physically there, it felt as though they were.
After we finished the first lap at mile 20, only 3 hours and 20 minutes had gone by. With a 30 hour time limit on the race, I had over 26 hours to do the same thing I had just done, four more times. I kept doing the math in my head, calculating how many minutes per mile I would need to move to finish the race by the 30 hour cutoff time. And then I would calculate how many minutes it would take me to finish the race under 24 hours, for which there was an award for. I only needed to average 4 minutes/mile and I could finish under 24 hours! How easy is that?? I could almost walk that pace! We made a quick bathroom stop, grabbed some food, and I pre-emptively popped my first Aleve expecting to feel at least a little bit of pain in the coming lap.
I stayed with him for the next 7-8 miles, and then decided it was time to slow the pace and run my own race before I dig myself into any kind of deficit. Because even though 9-10 minutes/mile sounds pretty slow, I knew it was not a pace I could hold for 100 miles. It was at this point, mile 28, that I realized I had no run farther than I had ever run before. To think that I still had 72 to go, haha! It was so far, yet I knew I had all the time in the world to get it done. What a day this was going to be. So I let Chris take off, and I found some other runners behind me that were going a slower pace. We were on that 6 mile loop that you do before you get access to your second bag for a second time at mile 12.
Little did I know, these weren’t 100 milers, they were 50 milers. Their course is almost identical, only it has fewer laps and a couple shortcuts. So these people I was chatting with were only at mile 8, and I was at mile 28. All of a sudden I came to the aid station with my bag, and it felt like it came way too soon. I had missed a checkpoint somewhere! I confirmed with the lady at the aid station that my friend Chris had not yet come through, which means I definitely took the wrong path. I was instructed to turn around, and do it all over again. I ran the course backwards, hoping to reach the checkpoint sooner than if I had gone frontwards…which actually turned out to be yet another mistake. The checkpoint was 2.5 miles away frontwards, and 3.5 miles away backwards. I must’ve passed 50 runners yelling at me that I was going the wrong way. Eventually it became too tiresome to explain to them all of my situation, so I just started responding by telling them I wanted to run extra miles. Eventually I passed Chris going the other way, and shouted a few explicatives. I ended up running 11 miles for what was supposed to be a 6 mile loop. That really wore me down mentally, but I kept trucking along. I knew that even if I collapsed at their mile 95, I had finished the full 100 miles.
At mile 35, I could feel a big hot spot on the ball of my right foot, which I knew could mean a really big race-ending blister. Katrina was there again and she dialed Megan so I could say hello. It was super nice to hear her voice in all of this. I kept on going. The hot spot was becoming increasingly sore, and fast. My legs were quite bloody. I had taken a few spills tripping over roots; sometimes face planting into the ground before me. My legs were bloodied from some thorn bushes I had to run through to avoid some swampy areas. Despite my efforts, my shoes were still caked with mud. I had to get to mile 40 soon, whatever blisters I had forming on my feet were becoming a big problem.
I finally reached the checkpoint and they sat me down with a couple of medics. Let me tell you, the people volunteering at this race are the nicest people in the world. Plus a lot of them have done this race so they know what to expect and what advice to give. They sat me down and took off my shoes and socks to find an enormous blood blister on the end of one toe, which had a toenail ready to fall completely off. One other toenail was black, and I had a few blisters, but nothing too uncomfortable. That hot spot on the bottom of my foot though…oh man. The transverse arch of my right foot, the one that goes side to side right before your toes, forms a little crease every time I put weight on it. Now normally this is not a problem. Even over the course of a marathon this has never been a problem. But after 40 miles, I now know that this will turn into a something of a deep gash. The medics applied some antibiotics, some glue, and taped everything up really good.
It was at this point I called my mom. She was happy to hear me, but eager for me to be done with the race. She wished me luck and I went out for another loop. The time was now 2pm, and I had 22 hours to finish 60 miles. That amounts to about 18 minutes per mile, which is walking pace. So I decided to walk for a bit. A couple miles down the road, I really started to feel great! I finally opened back up into a jog and was holding a pace similar to what Chris and I were doing the first lap. I got out to the aid station, and the support crew there figured out where I made my mistake in my extra loop earlier. They were willing to shave off 2 miles for me, not full 5, but still this energized me even more. I felt great. I was eating a lot, drinking, and peeing totally normally. I was going to finish in under 24 hours!
At mile 55, something with my legs began to change. The pain was crushing, but I expected crushing pain so just kept ignoring it. All I needed to do was keep moving. But step by step, my body was burning, everything was telling me to stop. Sometimes I found myself alone in the woods shouting at my legs. I caught up with some other 100 milers that were at the exact same distance I was, and found some comfort in talking to them. It helped to work through it together with them. They clearly had more experience, and were better built for this sort of thing. Their arms and legs were so lean; I figured they must have weighed around 70 pounds lighter than me. But judging by the looks of some of their faces, they looked to be on their last ounce of energy too. Night was creeping in fast; the temperature was beginning to drop. I didn’t have my headlamp, and all I had on was a wet shirt and shorts. I knew I needed to get to the start line quickly. I needed more clothes, and I needed to be able to see where I was going.
It was at about 2 miles before the start line (mile 60 or 61 counting the extra I put in earlier) I found myself unable to jog. I could only maintain a slow walk. My quadriceps muscles were toast, completely torn up. People going the other way would ask me how I was doing, and I could barely mumble any sort of response. As I made my way to the start line, I found myself standing completely still, and then falling backwards. Onlookers let out yelps of worry. I got back up and kept moving. If I could get to the start line I could revive myself with fresh food and electrolytes, and put on some warm clothes. The cameraman that was there working for the race saw me coming, but kept his camera down. I looked so horrid he wasn’t going to take a picture of me. But I stopped to stand before him and put my arms up in the air, and he took one anyways. 50 feet later I crossed the line, and collapsed into a chair.
Another hot spot had been forming on my left foot, exactly the same as the right. But first I needed to get warm. I sat underneath a heater for a few minutes, until Katrina saw me. She came over with some blankets and a sweatshirt I had in my bag. My temperature was low, and support crews were feeding me chicken broth and doing everything they could. The race director came over and I explained to him how I got lost. We figured I was somewhere around mile 62-63, and he lined up a 38 mile course for me to run so I wouldn’t need to do any extra. I tried standing up, but couldn’t. It was like I was paralyzed. My legs had literally stopped functioning. If I could not stand up on my own, how was I going to go out and do another 38 miles in the cold? And to make things worse, my hat, gloves and pants were in my other bag, 6 miles down the road. Before today, 38 miles was farther than I had ever gone.
I made the choice to pull myself from the race. It crushed me thinking I had let down my brother Eric. I called him first, but he laughed at me when I thought he was disappointed, he assured me I had still done a great job. Megan said the exact same thing. I was also comforted to discover that 62 miles is the same distance as 100 kilometers, but I still went home empty handed. I hadn’t accomplished what I had gone down there to do. Chris, meanwhile, had been running at the same pace we started at in the morning and never slowed down. He broke his personal record by over an hour and finished in 18 hours, 16 minutes. Congratulations buddy!
As for me, it’s back to the drawing board to train even harder, and try this again some day. At least this will help put Ironman in perspective and slingshot me into some solid training this coming spring. A big thanks to Katrina and everyone else out there for making sure Chris and I had everything we needed, still glad I could have this experience!