"In ultrarunning, the pain is inevitable, but the suffering is optional" -Al Bogenhuber
Prologue: I had tried this race in 1997 as my first 100. I trashed an ankle and maybe even fractured my fibula on a rock about mile 20 and had to drop out. I’d gone on to finish 3 other 100s but wanted to come back and finish this one. I didn’t make the Western States lottery so decided to do this AT.
I trained well, hitting about 480 miles in the 10 weeks of training before my 3 week taper, which is almost certainly a record for me. Strained my hamstring doing 800m repeats during my last hard workout, 22 days before race day. Didn’t run much during the taper, but the hamstring seemed better. Until Sunday, 6 days out when it hurt all the way during my final, easy 12.5 mile run. I was worried all week but it didn’t bother me one bit during the race
Flew to Little Rock, weighed in at 191 lbs dressed, met Tom Watson, my crew and pacer for the last 32 miles, ate at the spaghetti dinner, etc. Tom and I camped with other runners just over 1/2 a mile down the road from the start/finish/headquarters My non-ultrarunning friend Jonathan was planning to drive down Saturday from St. Louis to pace the 19 miles from 48 to 57.
Race Day: The switch to Central Time Zone and relatively late start meant I got a fair amount of sleep. The race starts on some downhill road and I was worried about my hamstring so held back just a little, but it was fine. Then on some good dirt road and I’m moving well, trying to hold back. There is a decent, but not steep climb up to where you start on the Ouachita trail which is fairly rocky single track. The whole race takes place in the Ouachita National Forest. I’m not sure but think Ouachita is a Native American word that means “abundant rocks of all shapes and sizes.”
I ran well here, passing some people who were obviously not very good trail runners (since they were slower than me!). With my ankles having troubled me in other trail runs I spent a lot of time doing ankle strengthening exercises and working on balance and propiroception using a balance board. This really paid off as I ran better and even when I stepped funny or rolled an ankle I pulled out of it quickly with no lasting effects.
I ate 6 pieces of bacon on my way through the Brown’s Creek Aid station at 11.9 miles. Yumm. I skipped a Succeed electrolyte tab figuring I got enough sodium for that hour from the bacon. A few miles later, I briefly passed a woman who was running very well when she stopped to tighten her shoe laces. Since I knew Chrissy Ferguson, who often wins the woman’s race, was behind me, I figured this woman was really doing well. A few minutes later she passed me back when I stopped to pee. It would be the last time I was passed for 80 miles (more on that later).
I got into Lake Sylvia at 16.4 miles in like 3:10 and headed off. The woman, Tracy Thomas was just ahead of me. I thought now that the trail part was done we’d have easy dirt roads (I should have remembered from 8 years ago that are lots of very rocky “roads” (they have little resemblance to anything I’d consider driving on). I noticed it was warming up, but wasn’t too worried yet. I made it down 132C where I’d hurt my ankle last time, and the climb up to Electric Tower. I was able to run down to Rocky Gap, despite all the rocks and passed one guy moving slowly. I wasn’t sure if he’d gotten hurt or was just being careful. Then I ran a long way alone, which is unusual for me.
The course alternates between some pretty rocky stuff and decent dirt road, but there are lots and lots of rocks. I had decided to wear road shoes, but would probably do trail shoes if/when I do it again. The rocks weren’t big and the footing wasn’t horrible, but the cumulative effect just got to me. Coming down Smith mountain I pondered the amount of potential energy converted into kinetic energy and then lost to friction by runners kicking rocks.
I felt a couple of hot spots on my feet (L heel rubbing my shoe and small stone in bottom of R shoe) but, stupidly, didn’t want to waste time stopping. I couldn’t find my gaiters when packing so I went without
When I got to Chicken Gap at mile 46.1, they told me the leader had already gotten to the Turnaround at mile 58 and dropped. Wow, I though, he must have been flying.
I got to Powerline apparently just minutes after Jonathan arrived, having driven all the way from St. Louis. Would have sucked if he’d missed me. The woman who’d passed me 30 miles ago was just leaving as I got in. This section is where I really started to struggle with the heat. Even though I’d lost some weight for the race, I am still big (6’2” and ~190) and just don’t handle the heat very well. It took a while until we saw the leader, who didn’t look great. The woman was flying as she was way in front of me. I passed a couple people near the turn around and figured I was close to the top 10, but didn’t pay enough attention to know exactly where I was (I’m not that into my place which is generally somewhere in the middle).
Jonathan, who had been itching to run at the start, started to tire on the way back to Powerline, even having trouble keeping up with me a bit. He is a road runner and not used to the hills and rocks (although this is one of the gentler parts of the course). He didn’t have a light so I waited a bit for him, but to be honest I didn’t mind as I was struggling a bit too and appreciated the rest. I was amazed to see runners still heading out, calculating they had little chance to finish under the 30 hour limit.
Soon enough we were back to Powerline where Jonathan got some needed fluids and fuel and Tom Watson and I took off. It was dark by now, but hadn’t cooled off like I hoped. We made pretty good pace to Chicken Gap and ran some coming down Smith Mountain. I missed out on some of the famous food by not being in the mood for soup or stew at the right aid station (I never did hear about any burritos) but enjoyed the pimento cheese sandwiches that Mickey Rollins had. I had 1/2 a sandwich on the way out and a whole one coming back.
I started to fade and couldn’t run much of the descent into Winona. I’d expected people to be streaming by me by now, but no one did, not yet. We passed someone else moving very slowly up from Winona and made it to Rocky Gap. The climb out of there went on forever and it seemed there were more rocks than on the way down (maybe the volunteers used the interval between the slower runners on the way out and the leaders coming back to spread out a few more?).
I was, to put it mildly, very cranky from here on in and appreciate Tom putting up with it. By feet were hurting, as were my quads and I was starting to chafe. In addition, I started needing to make frequent pit stops. I’ve never had more than two bowel movements in a 100 miler so this was a new experience. I violated the “no-muling” rule to borrow wipes from Tom once I ran out of toilet paper (you may criticize me as you wish). I stopped maybe 6 or 7 times total, then went about 4 or 5 times Sunday after I was done. Not sure why. I was also very tired despite taking cola at most aid staions (and a “Monster energy drink” or frappacino at each major staion). I’d often close my eyes for 2 or 3 strides at a time to get a rest. The resulting kicked rocks didn’t help my feet feel any better.
We trudged on. I had read you could run the whole way from Electronic Tower at mile 91.4, but I couldn’t run much even on the descent into Pumpkin Patch, and had no taste for pumpkin pie there (although I did have a piece on the way out). 132C is flat to gently downhill, but I just walked on. Now the people started coming by with 4 runners passing me in the last 5 miles. A lot was bothering me now but most of all my breathing really bothered me when I ran. In retrospect I wonder if all the dust from the trucks and SUVs, and the dirt roads in general gave me respiratory problems. I thought I heard some wheezing when I was falling asleep after the race, but didn’t have my stethoscope so hard to say. On Sunday, I noticed I had a cough productive of a bit of yellow phlegm.
I couldn’t even really run the last mile or 2 of gentle downhill on good dirt road once we got off 132C. We hit the pavement, then Lake Sylvia, then power walked the last hill up to Camp Oauchita and the finish. I finally ran the last 50 yards or so to finish in 22:48:50.
Post-race: Tom told me I’d finished 9th, which I could hardly believe, but the heat had gotten to a lot of the faster runners. We drove back to our campground (after I walked right past my rental car, assuring Tom it wasn’t mine) and Tom showered while I wiped off with diaper wipes. We both slept a couple hours before getting up, me showering and heading to the awesome breakfast provided by the race (hotcakes, eggs, many varieties of breakfast meat and grits, a personal favorite). Then we picked up Tom’s car and I went to get my buckle at the awards ceremony (a civilized 30 minutes).
The trip home was okay, but I wondered what people thought about a (relatively) young guy like me walking so gingerly through the airports. Now on Tuesday night, I’m feeling a lot better. I got a massage from my wife last night, which really seemed to help. My feet are pretty ugly, but I’m sure they’ll get better. The big one on my heel is oozing a ton of fluid so I’m having to change gauze all the time. I ate about 5000 calories today including a chocolate croissant in the afternoon and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream for dinner at desert. I tell myself I need all the calories to recover.
I’m disappointed to not have run faster, or at least finished better, but everyone I know is congratulating me on how well I did. I guess finishing 9th impresses them, but that is probably more reflective of the field than my performance. On the other hand the course was much tougher than I’d expected (tons of rocks); I’m a strong climber but not so good with rocks, so I think it is not a course that plays to my strengths. I’m also a poor hot weather runner, so that hurt me too.
As far as the future, I think I need to recover for a few weeks before I consider what I want to do next. The thing that has me down is that I didn’t really enjoy myself the last 1/3 of the race. I don’t really see the point of going through that again, but in my previous 100s that hasn’t been the case. I guess we’ll just see how I feel in a few weeks.
My understanding is that I’ve qualified for both the 2006 and 2007 Western States (the qualifying period for 2007 started 10/1, conveniently). Since I didn’t make the lottery this year, if I don’t make it for 2006 I’m guaranteed entry in 2007. But before I enter I want to make sure I’m willing to commit to all the training it will entail.