Monday, June 25, 2012

A journey of the strong heart

What do you do when you DNF at a 100 mile race?  You sign up for another to finish what you started. At least, that is what I did.  And, what happens when you DNF for the second time?  You begin to doubt yourself, but you sign up, yet, again, because you know there is no way it's going to happen, again.  And, what if you DNF on the third try?  You really begin to question yourself. And, labels begin to stick.

So, three DNF's in a row later and another year without any luck in the Western States lottery, I sign up for Black Hills 100 miler.  Coincidentally, it was the same weekend as States and that worked out perfectly since training through an entire Austin summer in the heat and humidity isn't something I consider fun. Of course, a lot of things aren't considered "fun" in running, like hard effort hill repeats and mile repeats.  But, that's what you do to get better, or in my case, try to hold on to any sliver of strength or speed in an aging body.

DNFing as many times and in succession can play havoc with a person's psychology.  You can have all the best intentions and purpose going into a race, but it's what happens during the race with your body and mind that trumps everything. And, since I choose to go sans pacer and crew, it can turn into the equivalent of trying to conduct an operation on yourself in mind and body.  But, I choose this path.

The weather was predicted to be unseasonably hot, but I still packed a light jacket and a pair of arm sleeves in my running pack, just in case. I didn't want anything to provide for an easy excuse if conditions changed.

Before we began the race, a Lakotan medicine man offered a prayer, some wise words, and a song sung in his native language.  I relate to the native americans since I grew up in a part of the country where it is ingrained in local and regional history. Simply, I feel connected to it and it was a welcomed way to begin the race.  One of the phrases the medicine man mentioned was to run with a "strong heart".  This made a connection with me and I would say those words out loud during many parts of the race when doubt entered my mind.

It was obvious the conditions would be challenging, especially when you're not even a mile into a race, running on a concrete sidewalk to the trail, and the first drop of sweat beads up on the brim of one's visor.  I've never experienced this type of humidty in a mountain area and I would run drenched in sweat for almost every step of the race.

While I made a pace chart and taped it to one of my bottles, it was more of a guide to calculate caloric needs before the race and ensure I was carrying enough gels and, more importantly, electrolytes, during the race.  I didn't create an overly aggressive pace chart, mainly, because I wanted to minimize any discouragement that, inevitably, occurs when splits begin slipping away.  I had made a promise to myself that I would not get discouraged when, not "if", things didn't go as planned.  Of course, making plans and promises to oneself before a race is much easier than during the race.

One thing I have struggled with over the past few years is low back pain.  During an extended effort, it can be very uncomfortable and I have used low dosages of ibuprofen to counter it.  But, since the weather was expected to be hot, I told myself I would not take any unless the pain became unbearable and that happened just after mile 17.  I had packed some in the pocket of my handheld before the race, but, apparently, it had fallen out when I was pulling an electrolyte capsule out of the same pocket.  I had packed a few more ibuprofen in my mile 50 drop bag, but that was over seven hours away.  Thankfully, Olga caught me during a climb and I asked if she had any to spare--she gave me all she had.

When I arrived at the next drop bag aid station (Dalton Lake), I joked with the volunteers that I couldn't believe my wife had passed me since she knows I have a fragile ego.  They laughed, I laughed.  If you can't laugh at yourself...  I was, even, passed by a guy wearing a multi-colored running skirt who was slowly running up one of the climbs.  I just shook my head and thought, "well, I've been chicked by my wife and now I'm getting passed by a guy in a skirt"--priceless!  I would find out later it was Eric Clifton.  I got by him a few aid stations later as the heat was taking it's toll, even on him. 

My plan was to take it very easy after 10am and keep it that way until I could, eventually, hide behind the shadow of a mountain ridge as the sun descended lower into the evening sky.  That would be considerably past 7pm.  The day was very challenging, due to the heat.  But, I kept on top of hydration, religiously consumed electroylytes (but not too much!), and kept tossing down the gels at the rate of three per hour.  But, eventually, I was feeling the conditions.  At one point, I couldn't run downhill because of almost immediate bouts of nausea.  I was, also, feeling it on the flats, so I had to walk sections that I needed to run.  Thus far, I have never puked in a race. I'm not certain if I should be proud of that, but I think it has more to do with self preservation and the simple fact I hate puking.  You couldn't go through an aid station or go very far on the trail without seeing someone puking or, laid out on the side of the trail bent over.  Even I succumbed when I came across a huge table-sized rock and laid down for about 20 minutes in the shade of the abundant pine forest.  The top of the rock was just high enough (about 3 feet) that I could catch any breeze that passed through the forest.  I had been looking for a good spot to just rest beforehand.  I was dreaming of wandering into the forest far away from the trail and taking a long nap so no one would inevitably pass by and give the customary, "you ok?".

On my long descent into Silver City (mile 50), I saw Olga grinding up the tough climb with a smile on her face on her way back towards the finish (50 miles out, 50 miles back!).  Since I had been counting the runners coming towards me, I knew she was in 9th place overall and first female. We quickly exchanged a few words, a quick kiss, and were both onwards to our next aid stations.

Arriving at Silver City (mile 50)
I had been looking forward to sunset the entire day because that, typically, means a drastic temperature cool-off in the mountains, but that didn't happen.  I'm assuming the humidity had something to do with it.  After I had made it to the mile 50 turnaround and looked at the time (almost 7pm), I made some quick calculations and knew I would have to endure another day of heat and the most exposed portion of the course.  Additionally, the forecast was for even higher temps than Saturday.

Strong heart...

One thing I noticed when retracing my steps after mile 50, was the lack of runners on the course.  I kept a general count for the next 20 miles and realized there had to be a lot of drops--substantially over 50%.  It was very quiet in the darkness of night and about the only time I would see a runner was when I would pass one or see a few at the aid stations.  Otherwise, it was me, the noises in the forest, and complete darkness.  So dark, in fact, that, for fun I turned off my headlamp and put my hand in front of my face.  I couldn't see it!  Even, when I reached the 7/10ths mile gravel road before Nemo, I turned off my headlamp, again, going into what I call "stealth mode".  You'd think I would be able to see a white gravel road, but I couldn't.  So amazingly dark!

Although I packed my iPod and intended to use it after mile 70, I never did.  I didn't even have a desire to listen to music.  Often, when I really need to focus in a race, the music becomes a distraction and all my energies need to be at the disposal of my mind and body.  Around, 4am, just after I took a really bad fall (somersaulting and having my lower spine land on a sharp rock while my headlamp and both bottles catapulted into the tall, forest undergrowth, poison-ivy everywhere unfortunately), I began to hear the birds and heard an owl hooting in the dark, still night.  I thought that was really early, but considering the sunrise is around 5am, it made sense.  Nonetheless, if I had been listening to my iPod, I would have never heard the music of nature.

With the new dawn fastly approaching, all I could think about was how I needed to finish off the last big climb after Elk Creek aid station, mile 83, during the "coolness" of the early morning.  This would ensure I avoided the blazing sun and delay the eventual furnace that would soon entail.  Thankfully, I did just that and was fortunate to run in the shade of a mountain ridge until mile 90.  I had been dreaming of finishing before 10am that morning because, barring disaster, I knew that Olga had won the women's race.  But, I would fall just 41 minutes over that dream.

Eventually, I would leave the Black Hills proper behind with about 7 miles to go and running through an open fields and a few exposed ridges with temperatures already climbing close to 90 degrees was anything but enjoyable.  Upon arriving at the final aid station, I was quickly in and out and as I left, the emotional weight of the past 3 DNF's slowly lifted.  Although, I had what is considered the steepest "bitch climb" on the entire course I knew I would, eventually, finish. 

I walked a good portion of the remainder of the race and, finally, upon reaching the wide, concrete sidewalk that would lead me the last mile to the entrance to the track, I ran.  I knew I would finish.  I had broken a streak which began almost two years ago in Utah.  I could now stop thinking of how I seem to give up when things get tough.  And, while things definitely got tough, I had promised myself to not give up when things got challenging.  So, I embraced it--even loudly spoke at the aid stations during the first day to "bring on the heat!".  I have noticed there have been a lot of parallels between the 100 mile distance and life.  Finishing this race after so many consecutive failures a was monumental task.  There are times when we can let our thoughts rule our life no matter how biased they may be.  Was I overcome with joy when I crossed the finish line? Filled with elation?  No.  I was relieved to finish the task.  The buckle will just go into my nightstand drawer.  It was more than about running 100 miles.  The time is inconsequential. Runnng 100 miles means nothing. Everyone deals with their own challenges in life.   It was truly about winning a personal battle with a voice inside my head that was telling me I quit too easily when things get "interesting", whether it be running, but more importantly, life.  The Lakotan medicine man was right.  Running is tough and there is only one way to run.  And, that lesson can be used for things more important than running.

Strong heart...


David Jacobson said...

Way to beat that "voice inside your head" into submission Larry!

Olga King said...

I was so straining my eyes looking for you when the awards were given, thinking it would have been a perfect ending for a perfect weekend. But in the end, it was your ending, and it was perfect as is. Knowing how tough the course - and the day - was, and where your emotions were, I am thrilled beyond believe about your accomplishment...your turn for the trusting in your heart, not your passing thoughts. The meaning of this finish will stay with us for our life.

Moogy said...

Thanx for sharing Larry. That race was on my radar until they changed our sailing schedule on us.
I'm SO glad you reached your goal, no-one deserves it more. To be honest, my two prior 100 mile efforts were also DNFs (medical crap) and that scares the shit out of me going into my race in Sept. But I am going to keep your words in mind and most likely keep a print-out of this post in my pack!
Good on ya dude!

Jacob Evans said...

Awesome job Larry. I'm so happy for you and totally motivated by your effort. Amazing perseverance!

meredith said...

So thrilled for you!!! Now to relax and enjoy your summer :)

MJ said...

Excellent report Larry. I am so happy for you both.

Julia said...

Strong heart indeed Larry. Well done.

theueckers said...

I was at the aid station to hear your "fragile ego" comment. It stuck with me all day. It was heartening to see both you and Olga on the course worrying about each other. Good job defeating the demons.
These Black Hills are my home in the summer but I'm in North Central Texas the rest of the year. I hope to run into y'all again.


Larry said...

Thanks to all for the kind words. :)

DiscoStuGotz said...

Great report and a huge congrats on your accomplishment! Well done!