Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Ultra Runner Within Me

My involvement in ultra events during the last few years has introduced me to a unique breed of athlete.  Typical ultra marathon fields,  much like the bulk of the participants in local 5K, are not wiry and intense and seemingly malnourished.  The typical ultra marathoner who might finish mid-pack in a 5K, however, is much more likely to beat the thoroughbreds in the long run.  Reminiscent of the tortoise and the hare, the often thicker and older ultra runner is often more willing to simply plod along early and remain steady and obstinate in the face of the late-race suffering to hold on for a fine and respectable finish.  Meanwhile, the speedster has a much greater likelihood of dropping out after their bold and risky early pace causes a dramatic crash or a race-ending injury.

Ken Chlubber of the Leadville Trail races first told me this in July of 2007.  I had stopped by the LT shop when I was in town for the LT100 Training Camp.  Ken's insight into the psyche of ultra runners allowed him to size me up within minutes.  He asked about my endurance background and my ultra experience.  Then he warned me that I fell dead center in the group of runners most likely to DNF the LT100.  He told me to focus on hiking up and down the nearby mountains during my preparation.  I told him that I had decided to enter the race after easily climbing both Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert in one morning by climbing fast and running down. I also related how I planned to climb several of the 14ers, but he seemed concerned that those climbs would not be enough.  He also warned me that it would be difficult to return from Indiana and be successful at the extreme altitudes presented by the LT100, especially if I went out too fast and put my body in a hole in the first few hours.

Over the next two days I ran with the lead pack of runners during the training camp.  These were experienced, successful. and tough runners.  And I hung right in there with them as we ran most of the LT100 course, including a double crossing of the 12,600-ft Hope Pass.  And so I gained a lot of (false) confidence.   Ken knew a lot about ultra runners, but he did not know me!

When I flew in for the mid-August race I bore even more confidence.  I had just finished ten weeks of running an average of 80 miles per week while running only 3-4 days each week.  I had logged more miles during those 10 weeks than I had during the entirety any of the previous 20 years.  I was fit and strong and ready to finish my first 100 mile event. I ran comfortably along during the first 38 miles, constantly picking up places.

Unfortunately, while my leg was locked out, my right heel crashed hard on a stone while descending the steep and rocky road leading into the Twin Lakes Aid Station at 39.5 miles. It hurt a lot at the time, but I had forgotten about it by the time I left Twin Lakes.  The climb from 9200 ft to 12,600 ft Hope Pass went as planned.  It hurt!  I power hiked more than half of it with a HR of about 145, which is the HR I have while running 6:40 pace on the roads.

I remembered the jammed knee as soon as I began descending the back side of Hope Pass.  This winding and extremely steep trail drops about 3000 feet in three miles.  It is brutal.  I had descended it twice in training in 24 and 25 minutes while flying on the edge of control and using my hands on trees to  keep me on the trail.  During the race I could not run down Hope at all due to a sharp pain in my right knee.  Once on the 3-mile gravel road that gently climbed to the turn around, I was able to go back to running.  I passed many of the runners who had passed me while I walked down (ironically) the back side of Hope.

The knee continued to get worse, with the swelling becoming apparent as I was forced to walk back down that shallow road.  Walking where I was supposed to be running caused a lot of frustration.  Back at Twin Lakes (61.5 miles) I ate well, drank well,  gathered my night gear for the coming darkness, and took two ibuprofen.  Stopping had not entered my mind.

In the darkness that came as I was approaching Half Moon Rd. I regained the ability to run up and down.  The ibuprofen was working.  Then, near the tree line, with about a marathon to go, I was forced to walk again.  I struggled to keep up with a group of runners by alternating shuffling and walking with a very stiff right leg.  I hobbled into the pole barn-turned-aid station a little more than 19 hours after I started the LT100 with intentions of still breaking 25 hours.

When I reached the Fish Hatchery, I went through the normal motions.  I ate hot soup and drank fluid.  I was tired and sore, but I was nowhere near finished.  Or so I thought.  "That knee does not look good," said a paramedic.  Looking at it for the first time in hours, I didn't recognize it as my own.  My normally knobby knee was hidden within what the doctor guessed was 250-300 cc (mL) of fluid.  It was as large as my quad.

"You want me to wrap it for you to push that fluid out and give it some room to move?"
"Yeah, sure."
After the wrapping I stood up and lost my breath.
"You sure you want to try to climb Sugarloaf on that?"
I walked to the edge of the pole barn before remembering my second shirt.  As I turned to get it I felt a pop in the knee and a sharp pain shot through my body.

When I woke up and my mind cleared a bit there were several people standing around me.  My wristband was gone.  I had been "cut" out of the race.  Damn.

That was a defining moment in my life.  I doubt that I would have entered another ultra in my life.  If I had finished the LT100 that year I would have stuck with running road miles and hiking on trails.  If I had finished the LT100 that year I would not have reached the point where I absolutely have to run on trails.  I would not have gained the tranquility of early morning trail runs in snow, sweltering heat, blustery winds, and lots of mud.

I would not know of the many deer, foxes, turtles, and wild turkeys that move gingerly through the nearby forest at dawn.  I would not have found the Canal Loop in Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky.  I would not have been able to travel nearly as many miles in the mountains of Colorado, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  And I certainly would not have realized the synergism of combining my loves of running and nature.

Lastly, without that painful LT100 failure, I would not have found the ultra runner within me.

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