Saturday, May 07, 2016

IT83: Looking for that breaking point

When I first heard that people ran races of 100 miles, I was skeptical. How is it humanly possible to do that? I couldn't imagine. But as I gained more experience doing ultramarathons, it became clear to me that I would try. I didn't know if I could do it, but I wanted to find out.

For my first attempt I chose the Indiana Trail 100. I had paced my friend Chris N. there the year before so I was familiar with the course and I knew the organization and race atmosphere was second to none. (After having done it myself, I can confirm that the RD, volunteers, aid stations, etc., are the very best I've ever seen.) There would also be lots of support from people I know, and it wouldn't be too long a haul for my crew and pacers. The course, in good conditions, is magical. Easy, rolling hills, wide, manicured, grassy paths, soft double track, and a few single-track sections, all of it entirely nontechnical and enticingly runable. In good conditions it's a wonderfully fast course. In good conditions.

Last year, rain rendered the course anything but easy. And when the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and the cold descended. All too well I remembered the crawl through the mud, every step a victory as Chris N. worked his way doggedly through the final 16.7 miles of his journey. When I registered for this year's race, I knew I risked those conditions myself, and I could only hope for the best.

And so as I prepared my gear and supplies for the big day, I watched the weather forecast like a hawk. I had reason to be hopeful; for a time there was rain predicted for Sunday, but not Saturday. Then the rain forecast shifted to Saturday afternoon, but it still wasn't a death knell. The chances were not absolute, and if it hit late enough in the day it wouldn't do as much damage. I packed rain gear and extra layers. Gloves, extra buffs. Socks, so many socks.

I went into the day still holding to the goal that I had formed, to break 24 hours. I knew everything would have to be perfect to hit that goal, and the chances of doing so on my first try were not great, but I needed something to schedule for so I could tell my crew when to expect me at the end of each of six 16.7-mile loops. My B goal was to finish within the cutoff of 30 hours. The closer it came, the more nervous I got, way more nervous than usual. I always have a little anxiety before races, even local 5Ks. But it's minor, just butterflies in the stomach, something I can control by taking a deep breath and remembering that I trained for this. This time I truly didn't know if I could even make the distance, let alone predict how fast, and nothing I could tell myself would convince me of anything other than the long, hard day in front of me. 

Lyrics by Mollie!
After arriving in the park and picking up my packet, I spent some time at the prerace meeting talking to friends who were there to run and volunteer, and then I went for a final easy shakeout run With Alicia and Mollie. We fixed dinner and spent a really nice evening in the park cabin I rented. We went over my gear, supplies, and tentative plan, and then they surprised me by singing a song to the tune of the Proclaimers' I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)! It was embarrassing but hilarious. But soon enough it was time for bed. I didn't expect to get much sleep (I had gotten 7.5+ every night that week so that didn't worry me), but my nervousness made it even worse than I'd thought. I lay there fidgeting, getting up once an hour or so to pee. I honestly don't know if I slept at all. From 3:00 to 4:00 a.m., I just kept checking my watch. Finally at 4:00 a.m. I got up and started to get ready for the 6:00 a.m. start.

I made coffee and tried to nibble on a bagel with peanut butter. I already knew it would be a bad day for my stomach. I'm never good at eating in the morning, but the struggle of forcing down just a mini-bagel definitely did not bode well. My stomach felt light and nausea clawed at my throat. My gut roiled. I told myself to calm down. Often I have a sour stomach in the morning, especially very early mornings, and then feel fine later.

Nervous as fuck with the Marks and Chris N. Photo: Chris Buehler
We drove over to the start/finish at 5:00 a.m. and brought our stuff up to the large tent set up by Terry Fletcher and the folks of Indiana Trail Running. This "basecamp" is a huge part of why I wanted to do IT100. It's a beacon of warmth and comfort at the end each lap, a place where your gear is guaranteed to stay dry, and it's full of friendly faces who are ready to help. It's also a dry, warm place for pacers and crew to hang out during the long breaks between my appearances. The only problem is leaving it again!

We set up my little corner and I went through my final prep: pinning on bib number, filling hydration pack with Tailwind, putting on headlamp, breathing. Nervousness pierced me and I wanted to double over it as if I'd been physically impaled. Finally, FINALLY, it was time to line up and we were off. 

Loop 1: 3:27
I wanted to run 12:30ish pace for the first loop, and when I looked down after a bit and saw 12:40, I was pleased. I settled into an easy shuffle, walking any inclines, and that kept me right at 12:30-12:40. I ran for a bit with my friend Kim before letting her go on ahead (she was doing the 50-mile race). A little while later, a group of guys I know, Mark, Brian, Clay, and Chris J., caught me and I ran with them for a bit too before they slowly pulled ahead. I kept up my 12:30s.

It was so beautiful at first! Photo: Dawn Stine
The first loop felt fine. Not great, but solid. My gut still felt off and I couldn't think about solid food, but I did fine with gels, chews, and Tailwind for about 800-900 calories total for the loop. I passed two out of the three aid stations without stopping, and only paused at Rally to take off my gloves and have Erin stow them in my pack.

We were treated to a beautiful sunrise before the sky started to cloud over. It was cool and breezy, and the trail was soft from rain a couple of days before, but dry. At some point I realized I had forgotten to turn off auto pause on my watch, which was annoying because I wanted to have an accurate average pace (taking aid station and bathroom stops into account). But at least I could compare my total time with time of day and keep track of my moving time versus overall time.

Loop 2: 3:42
Mile 17. Photo: Chris Buehler
I stopped into the basecamp tent and refilled my gels, chews, and Tailwind, keeping some solid food on me so I could have a go at that too. Chris N. had taped a picture of my dogs to the lid of my supply box (there would be different pictures throughout the day) and that brought a big smile to my face. I dropped off my headlamp for the day but kept my gloves. At that time, we expected the rain to hold off until about 3:00 p.m., so I didn't take my rain jacket yet. I stopped quickly in the portajohn, hoping to the relieve some of the discomfort in my gut, and then started the second loop feeling pretty confident.

The second loop was much like the first. Solid food was a no-go, but gels and chews were staying down. The course was soft but dry. The clouds increased. I pulled over two or three times to pee, more often than normal but I've had worse. Between Schoolhouse and Rally, it started to rain very lightly. It didn't seem so bad; it barely made my shirt damp. I felt comfortable. 

My crew met me at Rally just to say hi and I was really glad to see them. I took another portajohn break and then paused to say hi to them. "Halfway to pacers!" I said gleefully, and then took off again. The misting rain continued, and I kept telling myself that if it didn't get any worse, then everything would be fine. I caught up to Kim and we ran together awhile before she pulled away again. I was working on eating another gel when suddenly an especially bad wave of nausea overtook me. I pulled over and threw up. It's actually the first time I've ever thrown up while running! Two quick heaves of syrupy liquid and I immediately felt better, good enough to just keep sipping Tailwind.

This time I didn't quite finish off my Tailwind and I lost 100 calories' worth of gel, so I give myself 750 calories for the loop. Another efficient basecamp stop for a refill and to grab my jacket, and I headed off again. I took off my long sleeve layer and stowed it in my packet, then put the jacket on over a tank. My crew urged me to try harder to eat solid food, and this time I took along a Clif sweet potato packet for something more substantial, along with a 500mL soft flask of ginger ale to help settle my stomach.

Loop 3: 4:26
About mile 38, coming into Schoolhouse.
Photo: Russ Jensen
I was a little freaked by the vomiting, and my gut still made itself known. I was still close to Kim and we sometimes ran together and sometimes just close by. I also ran with a nice woman named Carrie from New Hampshire, whose bib number was only one higher than mine. I nibbled at the sweet potato and my stomach seemed to be working on it okay. I kept sipping Tailwind as much as I could to keep some calories flowing that wouldn't further upset my stomach. It just felt so iffy, and I was really worried about losing more calories.

At Rally, I was able to run right by the aid station without stopping and soldier on. However, within a mile, I started to regret that. The mud was starting to get treacherous; it wasn't deep, but it was slippery, and it was slowing me down. Consequently, I was starting to get cold. The rain didn't soak through my jacket, but it clung wetly to my bare arms underneath. My gloves became soaked through and my fingers were going numb. I wasn't generating enough body heat with my movement, and I wasn't eating enough to keep my energy up. The rain was getting worse, and I didn't want to stop to redo my layers in the cold; I was really annoyed that I hadn't kept my long sleeve layer on under the jacket. Should have known better. I slipped and slid through the mud and it was in this section that I realized my first goal was gone. My legs hurt just as badly or worse than they had in previous 50-milers, and the thought that I wasn't even halfway done completely undid me for a short time; I actually started crying quietly as I slogged. But my spirits lifted as I approached Schoolhouse.

About mile 47. Photo: Russ Jensen
Finally I arrived at Schoolhouse Back, about mile 47. My hands were so cold and numb that I was unable to get my gloves off and a volunteer had to help me. Let me just start gushing now about how incredible the volunteers at this race are. They make every single person feel like an elite athlete. On this occasion, he helped me off with my gloves, while another lady brought hot chicken noodle soup and a pair of plastic gloves like food service workers use. They suggested wearing these under my gloves to trap heat and keep out moisture. Take a seat, MacGyver. With my gloves off, I downed some hot soup and noodles and then put on my long-sleeve shirt and the jacket back on over. It was a very lengthy aid station stop; putting the plastic gloves on was really hard with my clammy fingers and then getting wet gloves on over them was a struggle, but this man didn't hesitate to help me the whole time. THANK YOU!!

Fortified and with dry hands, I set off again and actually felt pretty good for the last bit.

Loop 4: 7:01
In fact, I felt so good that I thought, hey, I don't need to change any more clothing! My core is still warm and dry! I can keep moving well enough to keep my legs warm! And now I have Mollie to keep me company and make me laugh! My crew found another Clif sweet potato packet to give me some more substantial calories, refilled my pack and my soft flask of ginger ale, and we were off.

Unfortunately, my sunny feeling dissipated almost immediately. I took small mouthfuls of the sweet potato, but even that was a struggle to get down. My gut was bothering me immensely, and after a mile or so I had to stop to relieve it. That helped a bit, but it didn't last long. It seemed that either my gut or my bladder (or both) bothered me almost the whole time. Also, the cold was digging into me and I realized it hadn't been smart to leave without changing into longer pants. And then I realized I hadn't picked up my headlamp. We were going to be WELL after dark at the rate I was going and we only had Mollie's headlamp. I had to hope that someone would notice and meet us at Rally with it. In the meantime, Mollie offered me her rain jacket in an effort to warm up my core a little bit. I managed a sad little shuffle and we slowly made progress.

Not literally accurate...but accurate.
The mud was getting deeper and stickier, sucking relentlessly at my shoes at each step. It took a lot more effort than usual to stay upright and pick up my feet. And the rain was worsening. Somewhere in here I began to voice my doubts about whether I was going to be able to make it the whole distance. I subjected Mollie to every bit of my normally inner monologue. My own sense of determination was bruised and bleeding in the corner, so she had to take its place. She later compared it to the journey of Joy and Sadness in the Pixar movie Inside Out.

The thought of going through this twice more overwhelmed me. It wasn't just fatigue, it was pain--my legs had gone more than 50 miles and they were hurting. Also around this point was when the mud started actually soaking through my shoes and socks and forming hard little mud balls beneath my toes and the balls of my feet. In effect it was like small rocks. Every step hurt. Add to that the cold and I knew my current layering situation wasn't working. I told Mollie we'd have to stop at Rally so I could change into tights and fresh socks, and to add another layer on under my jacket. We made good progress as it started to get dark and managed to get there before full darkness fell. Alas, no crew and no headlamp, but I put that out of my mind and concentrated on dry pants.

Erin and Chris B. were (still!) working and they took care of us, working on getting my jacket and gloves dry and bringing over my drop bag. Chris N. had taped onto the bag a picture of David Tennant (my favorite Doctor) with the caption "You are awesome" and that helped. I brought out dry pants and socks and changed gratefully, using paper towels to scrape away as much mud from my bare feet as I could before donning fresh socks. The warm tent and some hot soup revived me. Chris even gave me a beanie to wear, which was a nice improvement over my buff. They even found some vinyl gloves to replace the plastic ones. I refilled my soft flask with Mountain Dew, hoping the extra caffeine and sugar would help.

Mollie asked around and found someone willing to let us borrow his headlamp. In fact, he said, "We're all family here," and told us not to worry about returning it. I posted this anecdote on the race Facebook page because I was so touched by the gesture. At the time, though, I was so dazed that I barely registered what was happening. We set off again. 

Frozen? Check. Sticky? Check? Falling apart? Double check.
And here came the very lowest low point of the entire race. The mud was unreal, constant, grasping. The rain began to fall in buckets through the darkness, soaking my head, running down under the collar of my jacket in rivulets, and soaking my clothes underneath the waterproof layer. It slowly spread out from my back to my sides, down my arms, and around front. My entire body felt frozen and within two miles, the mud balls were back in my shoes. Every agonizing step meant I had to haul my foot out of the mud--thwup--and find stable spot for it--squelch. My mind simply could not comprehend how awful it was, or how I would keep going for 40 more miles. I kept asking Mollie, "Why is this so horrible?" I even apologized for asking it so many times. After a while I stopped doing much talking at all and just cried. I don't remember the last time I fell apart so utterly. The trails that had seemed so wonderful hours earlier were unrecognizable now; every incline was a precarious, hunched scramble to keep from sliding backward. Some hills were slanted to the left or right so that with every step, we slid back and to one side constantly, in danger of falling right off the trail.

But thanks to Mollie, we kept moving forward. She was relentlessly cheerful and would not take no for an answer when she asked me to eat. I can't remember what else I ate, and it became no less of a struggle to force it down, but it seemed I nearly always had a morsel to work on. She encouraged me to pick up my gait to a shuffle whenever it was possible. We reached Schoolhouse Back and paused again so I could get some hot soup in me. We didn't really know what to do about how cold I was other than hope it stopped raining and get back to the start/finish so I could change clothes again. While we were there, we started talking to another pacer, Crystal, whose runner had dropped her earlier. She asked if she could run in to the finish line with us and we said Sure! The more the merrier.

I don't remember much about the last segment of Loop 4 other than general misery and the carrot of dry clothes hovering in front of me (not a literal hallucination, fortunately!). I was cried out but I kept slogging and squelching forward with little exhausted moans at every step.

Loop 5: 7:32
I can only imagine the relief of my crew when we finally stumbled into the basecamp tent! I had originally estimated a little over four hours for this loop, and while they knew I almost certainly wouldn't hit that with the conditions, I was so overdue that they were worried. And Alicia had been sitting ready to pace for hours. I took a long break here, the longest of the race, to change every top layer (this mile split was 55 minutes, so probably spent 35 minutes stopped). I was soaked through under my jacket and my hands were shaking so hard I couldn't hold a cup of soup. Chris N. stripped off my gloves and used his own hands to warm mine. I meant to say I had another thicker jacket in the car, but Chris and Alicia both offered their jackets so I put one on. Dry sports bras, a cozy base layer, the warm dry jacket, dry gloves, and most especially the news that the rain looked to be over for the night: I almost wept (again) with relief. I sat for a little while by the fire and tried to eat and drink as much as I could: soup, coffee, I forget what else. There was pizza but I couldn't even think about it. My hands were shaking so badly that I could barely hold my cup. Meanwhile, my crew worked on changing my socks and scraping the mud deposits from my feet.

At last we were ready to go and I followed Alicia out of the tent. I was in a bit of a hurry to get going, not so much because I wanted to go but because waves of nausea were making it pretty clear I had limited time before my stomach rejected all the food I had just eaten and I didn't want to throw up in the tent. The pair of us made it maybe 100 yards before I had to double over and let it go. This time I had to heave for quite a while before I felt I could go on, and I didn't really feel much better. So Alicia got to start her loop of pacing by holding back my hair! I lamented the lost calories, not least because it had been so much effort to swallow them all. I had more Mountain Dew, and I sipped a little and it seemed to be okay. We went on.

My thoughts on Clif Shot Bloks.
I managed the slightest shuffling gait for a little while at first, but it was so slow that Alicia was able to hike alongside me easily. Once the mud really got going, though, it became impossible for me to break out of a walk, and it wasn't a fast walk either: just a drunken stumble. Every few minutes Alicia would pass me an energy chew and I reluctantly but obediently put it into my mouth, chewed it for a few minutes, and finally managed to swallow. I had to wait a few minutes after each one before I could tolerate another. Around mile 3 of that loop, Chris N. met us nearby our cabin and gave us a pair of hiking poles that he had borrowed from our friend Heather. He also gave me some Tylenol. I had some with me, but having someone hand it to me forced me to take it. I have trouble swallowing pills on a good day, but I chewed up an energy chew and swallowed the whole thing together...barely.

Now normally I would say this course is the very last trail upon which you would want or need hiking poles. But in these conditions they were a godsend. Having extra points of stability in the mud made a big difference, and we made relatively good time to the next aid station. However, my shoes and socks and once again filled with mud balls and it was quite painful to walk or run on them, so once we had to get them off and scrape away the excess mud from inside. More soup, Pringles, goldfish crackers, and we were off again. I kept up with the poles but also noticed that my arms were beginning to tire. Something to work on, for sure! It would have been even more pronounced, I think, had it not been for the extra conditioning I got from doing yoga recently. They also made it quite the fumble for me to get to my hydration bite valve and drink. For the rest of the loop, Alicia and I traded off with the poles. I tried to keep sipping, often with Alicia's reminders, and she kept passing me energy chews, goldfish crackers, and later, cheese-its.

At some point during this loop, I became fully aware that I wasn't going to finish the race, and I wrestled with that realization nearly as much as my legs wrestled with the mud. I still had some resolve to keep going, but was there really a point? I didn't know what the finish line cutoff was to begin loop 6, but I knew intimately how impossible it would be to do it in any fewer than six hours, and as time ticked away, I knew that unless I grew wings on my feet it was hopeless. Alicia tirelessly encouraged me to keep going, to speed up, and I tried, but there were sections where it took all my willpower not to stop, and our forward progress was achingly slow. The desire to stop consumed me. It was irrational, because if I stopped I would get cold and there was nothing else out there, only darkness and mud and cold puddles. But I still wanted so badly to just stop and stand there forever. I told Alicia (so many times) how badly I wanted to stop, how much it hurt, how hard it was. I don't even remember feeling any pain in my legs by this time (my feet with the ever present mud balls was another story), just the soul-sucking void of utter fatigue.

As we inched closer and closer to each aid station, I began to reason with myself that this didn't have to continue. I COULD stop. I could drop, we could call Mark, and he could drive me back to the cabin, where I could sit in front of the fire and not move. I wasn't even sleepy. I didn't want my bed.  I just wanted to be motionless. There was no shame in dropping, none at all. These races are hard no matter what, and the conditions were extraordinarily difficult, and this was my first attempt. I had already gone many miles over my previous limit. All I had to do was say, I'm done, and it would be over. Why not? What point was there in continuing? I knew I couldn't finish so why not cut my losses?

But as we approached Rally, I found myself preparing to keep going. The section from Rally to Schoolhouse is the longest one between aid stations and had been a mental battleground since loop 3. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it. But once inside the warmth of the tent, with the tireless volunteers I knew from ITR, Johnathan and Ken, taking care of us, I did feel better and I knew I had a little more in me. I sat for a little bit while we yet again worked my shoes off and scraped out the mud. I even agreed to try eating a grilled cheese sandwich. It looked so good at the same time that eating it was practically unthinkable. I managed a few bites, as well as a couple of Pringles. My stomach still roiled, but it accepted them.

About mile 82. Photo: Debi Alexander
On we trundled, our pace glacial. My emotions were totally out of whack. I would cry and giggle in the same breath. Alicia mentioned a climactic plot point from the movie Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and I wept because it was so sad but has a happy ending. I wept with relief when the sky lightened and I realized I didn't need my headlamp anymore. I was still wrestling with the burgeoning knowledge that I was on my final loop, and when the sky lightened, I knew it for sure. We were easily two hours out from the start/finish, and I had six hours left to do that plus another entire loop. Thinking back to my two 3.5ish-hour loops from the day before was enough to make me cry some more. I think Alicia had been hoping to shield me from this knowledge as long as she could, but instead of making me want to give up, it filled me with relief. I think if I'd been allowed to go on, I would have, but having someone force me to stop was different.

I actually mustered some real running (it was through shin-deep mud and up slippery impossible hills, so it was a 15-minute mile, but still!) leading up to the last aid station, mile 80. We paused for more soup and when offered bacon, I couldn't turn it down! I ate most of a slice. They had pancakes too, but that was more than I could handle. We set off again and although it wasn't any faster, my mood was better. It was all a soup of disappointment and elation that I would be able to stop soon, but it was better than the despair I'd been feeling for so many hours.

Photo: Chris Buehler
I shambled into a jog again in the last half mile or so, and even kept it up right to the finish line. Crossing was merely symbolic, since I was only on loop 5, but it still felt good. I had missed the cutoff by about an hour. Even the cutoff only allowed five more hours to complete the race, and I honestly don't know if I could have mustered such an effort. I was only relieved I couldn't try--I didn't have to keep searching for that breaking point. All my eggs were in the basket for this race, so stepping off and trying again this season was not an option. I embraced Alicia, Mollie, and everyone else in sight, and we all cried a little bit. It was almost melodramatic after the storm I'd been through.

Someone at some point said that a 100 doesn't hurt any more than a 50, it just hurts for longer. I would say that at least up to 83, that's accurate. My legs felt more or less like they do after any other ultra, or a road marathon. The soreness faded by Tuesday. I'm taking a full week or more off, no matter how my legs feel. And I'm still not making any future racing plans just yet. I just want to take some time to run exactly as much as I feel like.
Photo: Chris Buehler

I'm wrestling a bit with the DNF (it's only my second one ever), and hemming and hawing about silly things like whether I deserve to wear the race jacket (which, I am, because I'm sorry, it's an $80 Salomon jacket, duh. And I feel that I earned it.). I know that when it comes to 100s, I'd better get used to DNFs. I knew that going in and I'll never forget it now.

It doesn't matter how hard you try, or how much willpower, training, strength, or resolve you have. You might still fail, and I think that's where the allure is. What can you overcome? That will always be an open question that demands an answer, and I imagine that answer will never be quite the same from race to race. Part of running ultras, I think, is being humbled, and striving, sometimes uselessly, against failure. The failure is the teacher and the striving is the lesson. Twenty-six hours of striving taught me a lot this time, and sooner or later I'll put what I learned to good use. All I know is that I can do better, and I'm eager to try...eventually.

I wish there was a way to adequately thank my pacers and crew: Mark, Chris N. (who was to pace loop six but was either cheated of a good piece of training for his 100 or dodged a bullet, you decide), Mollie, and Alicia. Chris might have missed out on the pacing, but I saw him often around the course, and he thought of everything. His advice before and during was valuable. Mollie and Alicia especially got to see me fall apart pretty spectacularly. If you want to learn a lot about a person, pacing him or her in a 100-miler is a GREAT way to do so! Mark has been patiently helping out around the house with the things I usually do and has been supportive every step of the way during my training for this, and when I couldn't even finish it for him, you know what he said? "Next time will be better."

Here's the Strava file for the race. Some kind of weird malfunction stole a mile from me, but I promise my watch said 83 when I stopped!

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