Sometimes you have to go backward to move forward.
I’m going to try something a bit different. I usually put a lot of pressure on myself to write something others find compelling. I really like how my friend Kelly writes for herself. So, I’m going to write for myself. There’s much I’d like to tell my future self about running 100 milers. Here goes.
Clearly, the biggest lesson logistically is my shoes. My minimalist New Balance MT110’s don’t provide enough cushion. I can run 50 miles in them and my feet are sore, but bearable. But after 60 miles the bottom of my feet hurt badly. So, I’ll have to experiment with some other trail shoes that have more protection and cushion underfoot.
This race showed me that my body is tougher than my mind. I need to figure out how to prepare myself mentally. I never thought I would have to deal with thoughts of dropping at mile 57. The way I felt at 57 this year was how I felt at 70 last year. I’m ashamed at how intensely I tried to find a legitimate way to quit. I couldn’t quit just because I was tired and my feet hurt. But I literally imagined all kinds of ways to have a “real” reason to drop. Like “accidentally” twisting an ankle or falling off a boardwalk. I reasoned that I had to find a way to quit before returning back to the start/finish area. I knew I would never be able to convince everyone waiting for me.
The mantra that worked best was “block it out.” It helped me deal with the pain on the bottom of my feet. It required lots of mental focus, and ultimately I wasn’t able to maintain this indefinitely. It worked for a while, and then I would fall apart again.
When I was going through one of my dark times, I grappled with the question, “Why do I do this to myself?” I quizzed my pacer, Jon. I didn’t really want an answer. It was just another way for me to express my inability to deal with the situation. Later I realized the only answer is simply to see if I can do it; to see what happens when I try.
Here’s the lesson: It’s going to hurt. You’re going to want to quit. There will be many dark times. Don’t pretend like this stuff isn’t going to happen. You have to find a way through the dark times.
I finally found a way to deal with my feet pain. Despite misgivings about taking medicine during races, I resorted to ibuprofen. So, that leads me to my second major issue, sleepiness. Around mile 87 I started having trouble focusing my eyes on the trail. It’s like when you are reading and you get sleepy; you can’t focus on the words. Your eyes glaze over and lose focus. They get heavy and you have to struggle to keep them open. I remember taking a short rest break and it was all I could do not to curl up in a fetal position on the ground. Jon did everything he could to keep me going. One time I was stopped, hunched over on my knees mumbling about how we should go back. Jon said, “well, let’s make a decision while we walk.” And I kept walking.
I tried intensely focusing my eyes. It worked for a couple minutes, but then the sleepiness was even worse. I noticed several steps that “swerved.” I noticed that Jon noticed it too. He reached out a couple times ready to catch me. Finally I said, “we’re going back,” and turned around. We started walking back to the aid station. Jon stuck out his arm to stop me and said, “We’re doing this because it’s not safe to go on, right?” I said yes. He suggested we run to stay warm.
We were on one-way trail at the time. So, we had to pass other runners. I knew – that they knew – we were going the wrong way. They must think something is wrong. They must know I’m quitting. My mind was racing. I wasn’t stumbling anymore. Finally I stopped and confessed to Jon, “I wish I was still falling asleep. That would make this a lot simpler.” We stood in silence for a moment. Then I took off… in the forward direction. We ran with purpose. We ran it all – uphills, downhills, and flats. We ran with intense purpose. Most importantly, I ran with alertness. I wasn’t sleepy anymore. That section of the course was the most mentally challenging section, and I wanted to be done with it. At least when I was half way done with that section there would be no option of turning back again. Jon and I discussed what had happened. We had gone the wrong way for 12 minutes. Ironically, turning around to quit was the trigger that woke me up. I was blown away. I couldn’t believe that had just happened. It was un-scriptable, unbelievable.
There’s a lesson here for sleepy ultra-runners and their pacers. And it’s not necessarily that you need to quit in order to wake up. But you need some sort of extreme shock to wake you up. I imagine it could take different forms. Imaginative pacers might have a great time with this. I’m thinking air horns, masks, costumes, props, etc… Shock and awe, baby.
Two things stand out as really good mental tactics. During my first dark time at mile 57 I told myself it will get better. It was hard to believe at the time, but it did get better. After recovering from my sleepiness problem around mile 90, I was running hard and strong. I told Jon, “I’m going to have another issue before this is over.” And I did. My feet started hurting badly again. Thankfully I knew the solution to this one; more ibuprofen did the trick.
During the dark times it’s easy to question, why ever try anything difficult? Perhaps now is the best time for me to answer myself that question. Something definitely happens when you reach the end of yourself. And it’s not simply that you realize you have the strength within your own self to go farther or longer or harder than you ever dreamed. It’s that you can’t make it through life without help. I believe this is because we were created to find fulfillment in helping each other. We weren’t meant to face life alone. With about a half mile to go Jon said something about me being a beast. I replied in truth, “I’m just an idiot that knows how to pick amazing friends.”