Lean Horse Hundred 2008
"It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…. The credit belongs to the man…whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, …… who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
-Theodore Roosevelt- "Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
I have heard many explanations for why us ultrarunners do what we do.
Some of us have moved up in distance because we seek a challenge beyond PBs, pace and time. Others, like me, were never fast to begin with but we are too stubborn (or too dumb?) to mind going all day and into the night.
For many, if not most of us, ultrarunning is not just about the running. It is not about the buckles or the finish times. No, it is about the spirit and the community, it is about being amongst other like-minded individuals striving for the same goal. It is about running with and not against others. It is not only about answering questions such as "what was our time?" but also about discovering "what kind of time did we have?"
Ultrarunning has become a spiritual endeavor and an all-consuming passion for a lot of us. Going long puts all things into perspective… everything that is superficial and unimportant falls away… Our family, friends and other loved ones, our happiness and our health: these are the things that truly matter in life. We retain this mindset even when we are not actually running.
And yes, one side benefit of so much running is that it also allows us to eat whatever we want whenever we want!
And I LOVE to eat!
When asked by non-running friends and family or even some other runners why do we do what we do, many of us reply with the mountain climbers adage and variations: "Because it is there" and "Because we can." But I read a recent article in Ultrarunning magazine taking this one step further, "We do it because we can…. and also because we can fail."
Most ultrarunners are successful people in their personal and professional lives. So why do we choose an activity with such a high chance of failure? Why don't we choose golf or something else easier and more socially acceptable?
We chose ultrarunning precisely because it is so difficult. Precisely because the odds for success seem unlikely… humanly impossible even…. and because the odds of failure are so high. The outcome of any race is never a given… until you finally run, walk, shuffle or crawl across that finish line. Even the elite sometimes stumble, make mistakes and DNF. They too are mortals, just like all the rest of us. Amazing and unbelievable mortals they are, but still human.
With great effort comes great rewards, but also risk of failure. No one ever said that ultrarunning is easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it.
The taper week before the race I did almost no running at all. Just swimming and a couple of 2 and 3 mile jogs. I was a bundle of energy and both nervous and excited.
As I told some of my co-workers: "I already know how much it hurts to do 50 miles… I can't imagine how much it will hurt to do 100!"
A gentleman with bronchitis coughed right in my face in clinic on Monday and caused me some anxiety afterwards. I still remember DNFing at Glacial Trail 50m last year because I woke with a fever and an upper respiratory infection the morning of the race. I have heard of some ultrarunners sequestering themselves in solitary confinement the last few days or week before a big race to avoid exposure to ultra-destroying germs.
"Just leave the food by the door and go away!"
Though such eccentric obsessive behavior won't win any points among colleagues and family members, I can understand. I had trained long and hard for this race. I sure did not want to be sidelined another time because of a stupid cold again. Fortunately my handwashing and wearing a face mask did the trick. I was lucky.
The weather prediction was for the weekend to be sunny and warm- 70-80s during the day and 40-50s at night. After running long runs in the 90-100 degree afternoons over the previous weeks, I was as ready for heat as I could be but I was very grateful that I would not have to test out my heat acclimation.
The pre-race meeting was at the race headquarters located in the Mueller Center of Hot Springs, South Dakota on Friday afternoon. Other than first and last 16.6 miles on a dirt road, the entire run would be along the George Mickelson Trail to just south of Hill City… and back. The final cut off would be 30 hours. There would be other cut offs at each of the aid stations along the way back.
However, we were told during the pre race meeting that these times were soft and not hard cut offs. As long as we looked strong and there was any hope that we might make it, no one would be cut from the race only because of missing a cut off. If we finished after the 30 hour formal cut off, we would still get a posted time, we just wouldn't get a finisher's buckle.
The race director told us: "You're here to run 100 miles and we're here to help you succeed." The audience responded with loud applause.
The president of the local chamber of commerce welcomed us. He told an inspiring story of pioneers settling this part of the country, his grandmother raising her children in a log cabin we would pass by and how her spirit of overcoming against all odds is alive and well within us. He hoped it was OK with us that the town of Hot Springs had officially named the weekend: "Ultra Crazy Days" because so many of the local townsfolk think what we do is crazy.
Afterwards, I quietly introduced myself. I told him that I thought the name of the weekend was just fine. Many of us ultrarunners think we are crazy too.
Haliku drove up from Denver Friday night. My best friend… he is a brother to me. The plan would be for him to pace me after the 50 mile mark. Of course by that time, I expected that my "running" would not even be a fast hike for him. The main reason to have a pacer is to provide mental support so that you do not drop simply because you are feeling sorry for yourself but also on the other hand, to keep you from doing do anything stupid or dangerous, such as continuing to press on after you should have stopped.
At the pre-race dinner, I met a couple of other runners… Will from the UP of Michigan and Dave from Oregon. It was Will's first hundred just as it was mine; Dave had run in two other hundreds, one a DNF and another successful.
We chatted about what to expect. The weather conditions would be ideal and the course straight forward, making getting lost unlikely. That meant that if we DNF'ed this race we would not be able to use two of our favorite excuses: bad weather and getting lost. We joked that before any race it is a good idea to have a few possible excuses in your back pocket to use for DNFing, just in case the need arose. (See my other post about Ultrarunners' Favorite DNF excuses).
Little did I know that later I would learn a new, previously unthought of, reason to DNF.
After going back to the hotel room I preventively taped my feet as has become my routine before all major races and long training runs. Since starting to do so, and also wearing Injinji toe socks, blisters have no longer been much of an issue.
That night I slept restlessly. It didn't help that the person in the hotel room above us walked around loudly late into the night and then finally woke up for good at 3AM.
I was not alone in my nervous anticipation.
The race was to begin at 6AM. At the starting line, I introduced myself to the legendary ultramarathon-walker Uli Kamm. At 61 years of age, he has walked hundreds of ultramarathons, finishing even before some of the runners. Originally from München, Germany, he has lived in Colorado for 12 years. My mother's family still live in Nürnberg. UIi told me that to put it into perspective for my European family, what we are about to attempt is go approximately the distance between München and Nürnberg.
His advice was to take it easy: do the first half in 14 hours and then the second half in sixteen. Having completed numerous hundred milers including three previous Lean Horse Hundreds, this being his fourth, he seemed to know what he was talking about.
The first part of the race headed north out of town. Then it rambled through dusty and rolling dirt roads until it met with the George Mickelson Trail at Argyle Road at mile 16.6.
The weather report was turning out to be accurate. The day was warm with those clear blue western skies I love so much.
Along the way, I saw another runner, Holley, whom I met at 24 hours at Laramie. She remembered me: "You were so positive at Laramie!" Later in the race, she told she was sure I would finish, because I looked strong. We ran together for a few miles before I fell into with another group.
Along the way, I met up with Dave who was running with Lisa. Lisa and I recognized each other from this spring at the Greenland 50k. We were the very last two to finish…. but finish we sure as heck did!
The three of us ran together for quite a few miles. Along the way, we had a great conversation about all kinds of important things, more that I will recount here.
Lisa tried to convince me to agree with her about the question: "Are ALL humans basically good?" I agreed with her for the vast majority but only to a point. My opinion was that, yes, most people are basically good, and of the others, most of them would also be good but have chosen to do stupid, thoughtless things or they simply don't know any better. However, I held out from sharing her opinion completely because as much as I wished it were not true, I think there are a few out there who are inherently evil. I know because I have met them.
Dave was very entertained listening to us go back and forth. Lisa never did convince me completely. However, rather than focusing on the 0.1% (or maybe is it 0.01%?) that we did not agree upon, I'd much prefer to say that we agreed 99.99% of the time!
Good conversation is one of the most enjoyable aspects of running ultramarathons. We look at the races not as an ordeal to be overcome, though they are, but rather as a social event to enjoy, an all day and all night party with buffet tables every 5 or 6 miles! Ultra races are the reward for all the months of training, not the end unto themselves. Simply making it to the starting line without injury and not chickening out beforehand is success in and of itself.
Of course other races are not like this…. when I tried to talk with some of the other runners during my first and only 5k fun run this spring,…. most of them looked at me between breaths like I was crazy.
Well, of course I am CRAZY!
I'm an insane, tenacious-as-hell-but-slow-as-heck, ultrarunning-turtle— don't ya know?!
In one short section along the trail we found black currants, white currants, red currants and gooseberries. We spent a a minute picking some of them. Their tartness tasted good and was a nice contrast to sports drink and energy gel.
I found and tried some choke cherries later but their astringency was not as pleasing. There is a reason they are called "choke" cherries.
There were also wild plums but they would not be ripe for several more weeks.
At mile 20, the Lime Kiln Aid station we stopped for food/fluids.
One of the most important aspects of ultrarunning is proper hydration and caloric intake. I had practiced what types of foods I do best with during my previous races and training runs. The aid stations had my favorites: turkey and cheese sandwiches on wheat, bananas. boiled red baby potatoes rolled in salt and potato chips.
I still retain my aversion to energy gels that I developed for unknown reasons this spring… so I avoided them.
At Pringle (mile 24) we stopped at the aid station and resupplied. Above is a picture of Dave smiling with raisins. It was one of the four places where we could have drop bags. Because my family was not here to be crew for me this time, my drop bags were stocked with anything and everything I could possibly need.
Very soon after, we would hit the 25 mile mark and had to say our goodbyes to Lisa. We tried to convince her to do the full one hundred with us but she was registered for the half-hundred. We were not ready to end our deep conversation.
But there will always be next year!
After mile 25, Dave and I ran together for a short time before he headed off.
I felt strong. To finish in under 30 hours, our average pace had to by 18:00 minute/mile or less. Of course, we all try to run faster than that. This pace is an average of aid station stops, walk breaks, shoe changes, potty breaks, stops to pick berries and the actual running. An 18:00 min/mile does not sound hard but try to do it for 30 hours!
I had written up and laminated a pace chart with expected times for every aid station. One column was 15 min/mile which would have been too fast if I exceeded , and a latest column which was an 18:00 min/mile pace behind which I must not fall. All through the afternoon my average was around 15-16 min/mile and my heart rate was at goal. I felt strong and was hydrating properly, not over or underhydrating. My pee was clear and every hour or two.
"I am going to do this," I thought to myself, "today just might be my day. This will be the day I run 100 milles."
I don't normally run with music. Part of it is for safety… there are four wheelers and mountain lions in these hills! And the other reason is that I happen to enjoy the sound of the wind through the trees and being alone with my thoughts.
However, for this race, I made an exception and decided to bring an MP3 player. I loaded it with Native American Pow-wow music. When I was running alone, the rhythmic drumming and chants helped me maintain my rhythm and take my mind off the pain and fatigue. I thought the music would be particularly appropriate given that we were running in the Black Hills or Paha Sapa, sacred to the Lakota and other Native peoples. As I ran, I thought about the sacred Sun Dance Ceremony.
Is the ordeal that we put ourselves through as ultrarunners much different?
As I ran, I looked down at my shadow on the ground before me. There suddenly appeared another shadow over my left shoulder that floated with me for 30 seconds before it drifted off. I looked up and was inspired to see that it was a red tail hawk. She was quite literally watching over me. I considered it a good omen.
I was relieved that it wasn't a vulture circling overhead!
At the Carroll Creek aid station, mile 30, I was very hungry. I ate TWO turkey sandwiches, a half-banana and several potatoes. Almost immediately, I realized the mistake I had made. If I was so hungry, I should have carried the food with me and nibbled on it until the next aid station.
My stomach was unsettled and so I did not eat again until Oreville aid station at mile 45.2, but that was only chicken soup. Haliku offered me some mushroom/cheese pizza which I turned down… also a big mistake I would later learn.
As I headed towards the 50 mile turnaround, I saw Will, Dave and Holley on the return trip in quick succession. I was not far behind them. They all told me as we passed I looked strong and that they were sure I would make it. I told them that I thought I would too, unless something happened.
Unfortunately, something did happen…
Haliku joined me at just before the 50 mile turnaround. The photo above is kind of fuzzy, as I would be mentally only a short time later.
From the 50 mile turnaround at Hill City almost to the Mountain View aid station mile 59.5 there is a long hill. We walked/shuffled up it but I had not choice but to slow down my pace considerably. My body just wouldn't go any faster. Within only a few miles, I was far behind an 18:00 min/mile pace and slowing down.
I had hoped that after Mountain View trailhead, I could make up some time on the downhill, but for some reason I couldn't. My running…. er, shuffling… had deteriorated to where it was even slower than my walking. Not a good sign. I thought that I was simply tired from the almost 18 hours of running.
Another runner, Ronda, came up from behind us. She offered words of encouragement and paraphrased the commonly repeated ultramarathoner aphorism: "One hundred miles demands much, but the rewards it bestows are great."
But then, only a couple of miles out of Harback Park aid station (mile 64.5) in Custer, my legs became unsteady. I felt as if I were going to fall down. I was not dizzy in the lightheaded sense, not how I feel when out in the hot sun too long or when dehydrated. No, this was different, I had dysequilibrium, was shaky and could not focus. I had great difficulty finding my words.
I asked for energy gel and am grateful that Haliku was there. If I were alone, I am not sure how well I could have opened it by myself. I might have had to bite into the gel pack like some kind of wild animal. What if I had to sit down on the side of the trail? I could have gotten chilled or even hypothermic. Scary.
Within ten or fifteen minutes, I felt much better. My mind was functioning again. We walked into Harbach Park mile 64.5. When we arrived Ronda was still there with some GI issues but she eventually headed out.
I decided to drop. We were only about ten minutes past the midnight cut off. If we had had more time, I would have stopped for a half hour, and gotten some food in my belly. From past experience, I know that no matter how bad you feel at one moment, you could be a totally different person a half hour later.
But I had slowed down so much, we did not have that option. Although the cut offs were "soft," neither Haliku or I relished the idea of a 36 mile all-night death march with a 32, 34 or even more hour 100 mile finish, that is, if it were even possible. I wasn't sure I would have even been able to make it to the next aid station. It was hard but an intelligent decision. And it is really difficult to be intelligent during an ultra.
So what happened?
I believe I experienced a hypoglycemic event. Low blood sugars of 30 – 50 mg/dl has been reported in endurance athletes. Normal is 70 to 100 mg/dl. I am not a diabetic and so I do not carry a glucometer and could not test. However, the signs and symptoms were classic.
What happened is that after eating too much at mile 30, I misread my body's signs later that I should start to eat again. The chicken soup at mile 50 and mile 54.8 tasted great but it didn't have any calories. Once the body uses up all of it's glycogen stores there are only two choices: slow WAY down so you can make new glucose from protein (ie muscle breakdown) as well as burn more fat (which I did and which lost me a lot of time but still wasn't enough) – or – stop completely and eat a real meal containing carbohydrate, preferably complex and simple, along with a little protein and a bit of fat…. plus give it all some time for it all to digest.
Although energy gels will treat the hypoglycemia, after depleting glycogen stores, they are only a quick and temporary fix. Without replacing glycogen, I would have needed gel every 15 – 20 minutes to keep from crashing again. You might be able to tough it out the last few miles of a marathon but taking gel constantly for the last 36 miles of an ultra would make for a very long night. Especially with my aversion to gel.
If only I had an IV of dextrose packed in each of my drop bags…
Despite being one of less than 300 physicians in the US board certified in nutrition, I completely forgot my own advice. I ignored all that I already knew. After mile 40 or so, it is difficult to think very rationally. Of course, there is absolutely nothing rational at all about trying to run 100 miles anyway. It was ironic for an endocrinologist to be sidelined by hypoglycemia,… but it was completely my own mistake. I was on my way to my first 100 mile finish- had I not stopped eating.
I learned a valuble lesson the hard way: no matter how hard you train, what kind of physical shape you are in, how well you hydrate or how close you stick to your goal pace… if you don't eat- you will crash- sooner or later. Prevention is much better than trying to deal with it after the fact.
No fuel = no go.
One good note: I have a new understanding for what so many of my diabetic patients must go through when their blood sugar is low. Also, I was able to post about this on the professional blog which I write twice a week for the medical journal: Endocrine Today. (I apologize… the editors only allow comments from physicians and other medical professionals at that site). I love when my personal and professional interests intersect but much prefer they not be in the form of DNFs.
Of the 112 starters, 83 finished and 29 DNF'd including me. That is a 74% finish rate, fairly high compared to most 100 mile ultras. The race director was correct when he said that he and the others were there to do everything possible to ensure our success.
After a few hours of sleep, a big breakfast, and taking Haliku back to his car parked at the 50 mile turnaround, I was able to get back to the finish line and welcome the other runners in. Will finished in 24:33 (awesome!), Dave finished 24:46 (also awesome!) and even Ronda made it in at 29:34.
Lisa also had already finished the 50 mile in 17:02. She was in last place but I told her… last place is still helluva lot better than a DNF!!! I would have LOVED to have finished dead last in the hundred instead of dropping at mile 64.5!
Lisa even won an age group award, she was second out of two females age 30-39. Based on my calculations, in order for me to ever have any hope of ever winning age group awards, I will have to out-live the entire rest of the field. I'd basically have to keep doing these at least until no one else my age is left.
Hmmm… 100 miles for my 100th birthday….
The following week, I was sore for only a couple of days, but surprisingly much less sore than after any of the 50 mile races I have completed. Perhaps it was because, as Haliku pointed out, this was the first 50 miler after which I also included a 14.5 mile walk/shuffle cool down.
Already I am dreaming of future ultras….there is the Javelina Jundred in Arizona in mid-November. Hmmmm?
Haliku has tempted me with the possibility of running the Boulder Marathon just for "fun" on September 21st. He will be using it as training for his upcoming 24 hours at Boulder in October. I think I will take him up on it. I will already be in Denver that weekend taking the general vascular medicine board certification exams.
A dedicated trail ultramarathoner, I have actually never run in an organized traditional-length 26.2 mile event. I've run countless 20 – 30 mile solitary long training runs plus my eight ultramarathon races; but I've never actually run a formal 26.2 mile marathon race.
When I decided to start running ultras, I completely skipped the marathon and began with 50-k's. The marathon distance does not scare me just as the 50 miles no longer scares me. But don't get me wrong, I am not overconfident… I respect the distance….any and all long distances. However, I know, that at least for this time, I won't need to worry about my endurance.
Heck, Lean Horse turned out to be just a 64.5 mile training run, right?
My main challenge will be: how in the heck do I pace myself for a such a short race? Running 26.2 miles at my usual 50 or 100 mile pace would be simply wimping out. This run will just be for "fun" so my time is not important. Of course, on the other hand, I'd like to push myself to be a little bit faster than I normally might. I have a few weeks before race day, I think I will see how well I recover before I decide on pace etc. My body will tell me what I will or will not be able to do.
In my heart and mind I know I can run 100 miles… I just know it.
Some day I will.
The next time I only need to avoid making any stupid race-ending mistakes. Even though I didn't get as far as I had hoped, I did run farther than I ever had before. In June, I had wanted to run 100-k but dropped at mile 41 because of severe lightning storms. Well, now I have a 100-k plus run under my belt, even if I don't have an official 100-k "finish."
In any case, to me the Lean Horse Hundred 2008 was a success… not a failure… even though it didn't go exactly the way I had planned. I did learn a valuable lesson about nutrition during a race.
Next year, I will be back. I hope that I won't repeat the same mistake or discover any new ones to make. Some ultrarunners require three, four, or even more attempts before they finally succeed in completing 100 miles. I sure as heck hope it won't take that many times for me.
Teddy Roosevelt was certainly no runner but he gave us words to live by:
If we fail, at least we fail while daring greatly, so that our place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
I am enjoying my rest and recovery but I cannot wait until next time!