Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Can YOU do a triathlon without arms?

This guy can.

Now...with that in mind, think about your own limitations. And now forget them forever.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

40 Miles: AKA "JUST the 40"

"If you can do 31 miles at WyCo, then you can do 40 miles at Clinton Lake."

That is pretty much the reason I did this. Because Sophie said I could. Whether that logic was appropriate or even rational is no longer the point. As with pretty much every other crazy new thing I've attempted, all it took was for that seed of belief to be planted in my head and I took care of the rest.

I honestly don't even remember when this conversation took place, or if it was before or after the 50k in February. Yes, the same 50k where I nearly passed out from hypoglycemia in the last mile. Regardless of how that race went, or more importantly how it felt, I decided...with some encouragement...that it was time once again to push the distance a little further for my next race. 40....that's only 9 more than 31. And it is true that Clinton Lake trails are nothing like the teeth-gnashing nightmare that you find at WyCo.

And so it was...

I had signed up for the marathon, but since I knew both race directors and was pretty certain I'd be 'voluntold' to help at packet pickup, I figured I'd probably be able to make the switcheroo to the 40 miler without too much difficulty. Sophie tried twice to convince me to bump up to the 100k race(61 miles). The first time was 3 weeks beforehand, during Brew 2 Brew, and the other I'll mention later. It didn't bother her that I would be exactly doubling the longest run of my life, nor that I wouldn't have time to put in the distance for it. When I finally mentioned my nagging achilles tendon issues, she relented(the first time).

Preparing for this race has been an entirely unique experience for me. In the past, I have always approached new distances with a great amount of apprehension and self-doubt. Not so this time around. Ultrarunners have a very laid back way of making huge physical undertakings seem like they're really not that big of a deal. Lately I've been sort of questioning whether or not I respect that philosophy or not. Especially considering I have seen bumper stickers that read "You did a marathon? How cute."

Personally, I love love LOVE seeing others getting active and exercising. My dad just ran his first half marathon, for example, and I couldn't be more proud. In my opinion, there is no distance too small for me to be proud of somebody for completing. If you did your first 5k, I'm thrilled. Two of my good friends just did their first marathons, and I am ecstatic for them. Coming into this race, aside from my non-runner friends who were all predictably slack-jawed at the prospect of what I was choosing to do, most of my runner friends pretty much had the attitude of "Cool. You'll do fine."

Not a big deal. Ok.

Packet pickup, which I helped out with, was a very similar experience for me.
"What race are you doing tomorrow?"
"Oh, JUST the 40 miler" or "Oh, JUST the marathon."

I'm not sure if it's a conscious thing, but the language that ultrarunners use can either be interpreted as very laid-back and supportive, or extremely pompous and elitist. I was having a hard time deciding which one it was, and thinking about it was leaving a bad taste in my mouth. More on that later...

The week of the race, I ended up getting sick...even had to miss a day of clinical, which is not necessarily a good thing. Questions started to arise about whether or not I'd be running, or if I'd just bump down a distance, or if I'd give it my all and if it came to a DNF, so be it. I realized I'd just have to see how I felt on raceday.

So to briefly summarize, I came into my first attempt at 40 miles realizing that it really wasn't a big deal, and fully prepared to fail if I had to. No pressure...literally. Perhaps that's why it went so well.

My last 50k had ended so poorly that I wanted to make sure that I stacked the odds in my favor as much as I could. I was bringing my big camelbak, plenty of food, and I even remembered sunscreen! I never remember sunscreen. The hydration lessons I learned from my triathlons last year would prove to be helpful, and I wanted to make sure and eat a LOT every chance I got. 

When I woke up on race morning, my nose and upper airways were full of gunk. I was coughing and sniffling, and I more or less felt miserable. I snoozed once and was about to call it quits, but I decided to get up and see if I could just get things rolling by being up and moving around. I hadn't actually decided if I was racing or not,  and I was still coughing up wads of stuff, but I went ahead and started gearing up to race. I lubed up my toes, heels, armpits, and thighs. I put on socks and compression sleeves..shoes, jersey w/ pre-pinned race bib, grabbed my drop bag, and headed out the door. Now that I think about it, I never actually decided "I'm racing today"...I just kinda got ready and went with the normal routine.

It was a beautiful morning. There was a slight chill in the air, no wind, and partial cloud cover. I arrived, checked in, and began stretching and doing the normal pre-race nervous thing. Except I wasn't really nervous. I really had nothing to lose except for maybe setting my recovery back a few days on my cold. I lined up with the other 100kers and the "just 40 mile"ers in an arbitrarily chosen spot that represented the starting line. Ben once again gave a very casual welcome speech with pre-race instructions, looked at his watch, and then said "go". So we went...down the hill on a gravel road and then a hairpin turn onto the trails.

I chose not to bring my Garmin for this race. I knew it would be inaccurate, it would crap out after 6 hours(and I'm not that fast), and I really had no interest in knowing how slow I was moving. So I ran the majority of the race with little idea of how far I had come except for a few obvious milestones along the way. A few miles in, I found myself in the middle of a decent sized "conga line" of runners, which is fairly uncommon in long trail races. Usually the pack spreads out pretty uniformly, but we had about 20-30 runners all strung along. At a certain point I realized that I was due for a salt-capsule and after deciding I really shouldn't put it off any longer, I exited the conga line and stepped to the side to access my camelbak. The group ran ahead and I never saw any of them again. That probably means they were going too fast for me anyways.

There were a few other runners that I would yo-yo back and forth with, but for the most part, I ran the next 5-6 miles in complete solitude. It was peaceful and calming to just tick off the miles one by one, with only the sounds of the forest to accompany me. I saw the occasional racer pass by going the opposite way, including one who shouted some very encouraging words to me..clearly a much slower runner than he was...and who I eventually recognized again when he later won the 100k race. Whatever ill thoughts I had about the ultrarunning community vanished into thin air as I once again was reminded why trail runners are the friendliest and toughest athletes out there. In an ultramarathon, it doesn't matter how fast you are...everybody suffers.

I had run on these trails numerous times, yet they seemed so foreign on this day in such a different setting. Occasionally I'd catch a hint of familiarity in a tree branch I remembered having to duck, or a particularly rocky section that I had to walk. I had been running or biking on these trails for a decade, but it all seemed new today. The Land's End aid station came and went. The Corps of Engineering building aid station came and went(I ate a lot of food). An insidious worry became solid after about 3.5 hours of running and roughly 17-18 miles. I hadn't peed yet. I realized that I was getting behind on hydration, or my kidneys were shutting down. I immediately thought of all the cold medicine I was on, trying to remember which ones were metabolized in the liver as opposed to the kidneys. I stopped to pee, just to see if anything came out. A little bit, but it was not encouraging. Very small volume, and darker than I hoped for. I made a note to keep drinking....and MORE!

I finished the first 20 mile lap in just under 4 hours, reapplied sunblock, took some ibuprofen, grabbed some more gels and a powerbar, then headed back out to the sounds of cheering from my friends. I ended up leaving the aid station with another guy named Joe and we ran quite a few miles together, exchanging stories and small talk. I talked about school and life in the midwest, and he talked about his grandkids and Texas humidity. He was doing the 100k, and as it turns out he was a race director in Austin. I dropped him a few times, and he caught up a few times, eventually passing me for good when I stopped to try and pee again. Still very little, and very dark. I was really REALLY starting to worry now. I felt ok for the moment, but I knew if I didn't start peeing soon, my day was going to go downhill very soon.

In nursing school, there are certain things they really hammer into your head. Therapeutic levels of certain key drugs, ideal ranges for sodium and potassium levels, etc...one of those things is the absolute minimum hourly urinary output. 30 milliliters per hour. That's basically a shot glass of pee every hour, otherwise medical folks start to get nervous. I had been running for about 5 hours, and I was pretty sure I hadn't peed 150 ml in that time. And the sun was coming out. As I rolled into the Land's End aid station for the 2nd time, I was concerned. I announced that, in addition to having my camelbak filled up, I needed to drink a LOT of fluid and fast. The aid station volunteers hopped to it and in no time I had downed 5-6 cups of water, eaten some fruit snacks, a banana, and some other munchies.

One lady at the aid station thought she recognized me. I started naming off things I do which she might recognize me from...no....no.....no.....she asked if I ever did Dog Days....yeah a few times....do you know Melissa Sigler? Oh yeah......then a thought occurred to me....have you heard of a band called Sellout? .....Yes....YES! You're that guy!..... I'm that guy....most of the other volunteers immediately also made the connection. One of them even said, "If you're in Sellout and somebody thinks they recognize you, why wouldn't you just say that first?".....I guess we're kinda popular or something? Who knew?

Satisfied that I had just given myself a sufficient bolus of fluid, I thanked the volunteers for their help and headed back down the trail. I was still very worried about my hydration, but 15 minutes later I stopped to relieve myself and was extremely relieved(durrr) at the clarity and volume of the fluid I voided. And for the rest of the day, it only got better. I was empowered by the fact that I had encountered and overcome such a threatening raceday situation. I got behind on fluid and was able to intelligently deal with it and catch back up. For great justice!!!

When I rolled into the Corps of Engineering building aid station, out of curiosity I asked how many miles were left. They informed me that it was 9 miles back to the main aid station. I had run 31 miles. 50 kilometers. Each additional step would constitute the furthest I had ever run. I glanced at my watch and it read just under 7 hours...if they had stopped timing right then, I would have a new PR for the 50k. I stuffed my face with food, thanked everyone, and set off towards the finish.

At this point, I began to make calculations in my mind. My goal was to finish in 10-11 hours. My brain's calculations were telling me I could do it in 9. I told my brain to shut up because this wasn't about time. My brain came back with "Come on.....9 hooooooooouuuuurs....you know you want it." I told my brain we would continue our current pace and reassess the situation at Land's End, which was 3 miles from the finish. I knew I had some kick left, but I didn't want to blow up early. So I continued. The legs were definitely getting heavy and of the 5-6 times I almost fell during this race, they were all in this last 9 mile stretch. The solitude was stunning. I knew there were tons of other runners out here, but I was having 45-60 minute stretches where I saw not a soul during my second lap.

I kept checking my watch, because my brain had more or less convinced me that we should finish in under 9 hours, and I knew Land's End was oh-so-close. I knew I was fine on fluids, so I wouldn't have to refill the camelbak. I downed one last gel and a salt cap for good measure and I finally arrived. A few other runners were there, including a young buck who looked fast and was doing the 100k. I grabbed a handful of chips and another banana, and we left the aid station together. I recognized him from packet pickup. His name was Alec. This was his first ever trail run....and people think I'M crazy. He admitted to me that he had bitten off more than he could chew, and had decided to finish 40 miles and call it a day. This trail running stuff is HARD, as it turns out. I asked him how he felt about finishing sub-9, and let him know that if we ran the last 3 miles faster than 15 minutes apiece, we'd make it. He didn't quite have any speed left in his legs, but he wished me well and I punched it.

It was the same as I felt nearing the end of the winter 50k, except this time I knew I had the calories to back it up. For some reason, when you know you're almost done, your body can do amazing things for you...assuming you have fed it properly. I burned up the last 3 miles in 34 minutes climbed the last hill up to the main aid station and crossed the finish line with a huge dorky grin on my face.

Final time: 8:48:37

I felt great. I felt amazing! My awful cold had been a complete non-factor for the entire day, and I'm pretty sure I coughed less when I was running than I would have had I not been running. I realized that at no point during the entire day had I ever been in distress of any kind, aside from being slightly low on fluids for awhile. If this was how 40 miles felt, I wonder how much more I could do? Remember when I said that Sophie had tried TWICE to convince me to do the 100k. The 2nd attempt happened at this exact moment. She told me that I should do another loop. She told me that conditions would never be better than they were right then. She told me somebody could pace me, it would be great, and I'd get a belt buckle(100k finishers get belt buckles instead of medals).

The crazy thing is that I actually considered it. Very briefly, but it didn't seem like the stupidest idea ever, and that amazes me. I realized that I really could have kept running, but my mind was already made up. I prepared myself to be done now, and I was done now. I know I was probably physically capable of grinding out another 20 miles, but that's not how I would have wanted it. It would have gotten ugly. And besides, I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of slowly and methodically challenging my knowledge of myself. Half-marathon? Sure. Marathon? Sure. 70.3...140.6? Yep. 50k? You got it......40 miles? Abso-freaking-lutely! Is a 50 next on my plate? Or maybe I try for some new PR's on old distances? Who knows?

I am currently not registered for a single race and that is somewhat liberating. There are a few races which I have mentally committed to, but aside from that, the remainder of my athletic season will be exactly what I make of it.

I saw a sign during my first ultramarathon that read, "It hurts more and more, and then it stops hurting more." Or as 100k finisher Joe put it, "It always never gets worse." This is what makes me believe in 50 miles...it makes me believe in 100 miles. Sure there is a lot more that goes into those distances, but from everything I've heard and experienced, the pain of an ultra builds up to a certain point, and then plateaus. The difference between 40 and 50 is simply the willingness to suffer through that pain for another 10 miles. Knowing this...someday I will run 100 miles.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rock the Parkway Half Marathon

On Saturday, I ran the half marathon at Rock the Parkway in Kansas City. It was my slowest half marathon ever, and that includes my 13.1 times from both half-ironmans. I suspect it was slower than my 13.1 splits from the marathon in my full Ironman. I was not attempting to PR, but I was nervous for this distance for the first time since my first 13.1 in 2007. Having said all that, I still believe that this was my most meaningful half marathon ever. That is because this race wasn't for me.

This past weekend, my father, age 64, ran his first half marathon with me at his side.

To rewind a bit, this all started Thanksgiving 2009. I think I was doing a training run while I was home visiting and I somehow convinced my father to come along. He and I ran through Emerald Hills, up Soest Rd into town and turned around at Rolla Middle School. It was 6.2 miles...a 10k...a nice round number. It occurred to me that he had maintained a pretty decent pace and didn't seem too physically distressed afterwards, so I suggested to him that he could probably finish a half marathon with a little training. He tossed the idea around, and with the occasional prodding from me, he agreed that he would do it.

Well, he didn't really train much, or at all, and the following Spring he entered to run the 10k at Rock the Parkway, a distance he was familiar with and confident he could finish. Needless to say, with no training it was a bit physically taxing for him. Additionally, the weather was absolutely miserable. He ran that one by himself because I was busy PRing my half marathon at sub-1:40.

I can't say that I should have been surprised when he told me after the fact that he didn't think running was for him. I begrudgingly accepted that he had given it a fair shot, but that unfortunately I had not succeeded in converting my father into a runner. At the same time, in the back of my mind, I knew I owed it to him to try again someday. There was still hope.

The following summer, my brother completed his first half marathon and his first triathlon later that Fall. At some point over the course of watching me finish an Ironman and watching my brother do his first races, I suppose my father's brain started revisiting the idea of running. He mentioned to me at one point that he might decide to try a half marathon after all. That was all I needed...the blood was in the water and I was a shark.

I may have brought it up to him every time I spoke to him, but maybe not. All I know is that he signed up for his first half marathon early this year. He began to train...not just sporadically run...but he had a PLAN. Between my advice and online training plans, he pieced together an outline for how to build up to 13.1 miles.

He was initially very faithful to his plan, but I could tell that he was occasionally falling off the wagon. He was having pain. Sometimes during the runs, sometimes after, and sometimes lasting quite a while. I began to have concerns for my father. As much as I wanted to be an inspirational force in his life, I didn't want to injure him with my hair-brained schemes to make him a runner. I didn't want him to break something that perhaps wouldn't heal. I believe his longest run took him up to 9.2 miles, after which he took a break due to the pain he was experiencing. His intention was to rely on only short runs for the next month until raceday. As it turns out, he did almost no training for the last month before the race.

I was concerned that he might decide not to race. I was concerned that he might race and injure himself. I was concerned that he might race, not finish, and experience disappointment, both in himself, and for letting me down. I know that I'd have been proud of him either way, but he may not have seen it that way.

The plan was for me to pace him. We were going to shoot for 2:30, but race realistically if that didn't seem attainable. I simply planned to stick with the pace group if he was able to keep up. I gave him an idea of how the race would go, the overall pacing strategy, and some nutritional advice, but I decided that as his pacer, I would make sure all of these things happened so he could just focus on running and enjoying his day.

Race day rolled around and there we were, standing in a crowd of hopeful runners. I could tell that his nervousness was already beginning to fade, ever so slightly, with all of the positive energy flowing around at the event. We couldn't hear anything that was being said at the start line because we were so far back, but apparently there was a national anthem sung, and then the race started. I wouldn't have known except for the fact that they usually sing the national anthem, and I also observed that all the heads from way up front were beginning to bob up and down. That meant they were running now.

The wave of head bobbing slowly but surely swept through the field of runners until it got to us. So we followed suit and began slowly trotting forwards. It was several minutes before we actually arrived at the starting line, and I heard all the watches chirp as everybody began keeping track of their official times. The target pace was 11:26/mile, and the plan was to start around 12:00 for the first few miles. The pace group left us behind a little bit, but they were always within sight.

It was a cold morning, but it was clear and the sky was blue. I knew it was going to be a beautiful day once the sun came up. He wore my gloves for awhile, and once his hands warmed up, he gave them back to me so I could wear them. The first few miles were kinda quiet. I believe we were both deep in thought, but I was honestly a little uncomfortable. This was my father, and I was his son, his friend, his pacer, and his "distraction from the pain in his legs". I couldn't think of anything to talk about. This has never been a problem before, but suddenly my father was in my world...sharing it with me for the first time. I think those first few quiet miles I was simply reveling in the fact that this was happening! We eventually began talking about things, but I couldn't tell you what they were. It was just nice to have a chance for some man to man conversation.

After a few miles, our bodies were warmed up, and our muscles had begun utilizing glucose more efficiently, so we raised our pace ever so slightly and rejoined the pace group. I think my father had never done a training run where he started slowly, and he was surprised at how easy his target pace felt after having actually warmed up properly. The pace group leader opted to have the group walk some of the hills to conserve energy, so we followed suit. I will point out that at no point did my father walk out of necessity. I am confident he could have run the entire way without needing to stop and walk.

Miles and time passed and we continued running comfortably. I occasionally asked him how he was doing. Pain in one or both ankles came and went, but overall he at least claimed he was doing ok. I took him at his word and we continued running comfortably. Using my GPS device, I pointed out when we passed 9.2 miles...his longest run ever. I also pointed out when we passed his longest time running, but I forget what that mark was. We continued running comfortably.

The last few miles were gently downhill, which was a big mental hurdle out of the way for my father. With how good he felt, our current pace being quite a bit faster than his target, and having actually left the pace group behind, my father at some point Knew that he would finish. The rest was just style points, which I know was important for him. He wanted to finish strong, and a sprint to the finish line seemed just the way to do that. With just over a mile remaining, he dropped the hammer and I proceeded to be astounded to see how much speed this 64 year old man still had in the tank after 12 miles. He ran mile 13 in 9:17.

My father and I came within sight of the finish line and we made a break for it. I was happy to see several of my friends along the finish line who were cheering for my dad. We also passed my mother who was cheering as a proud mother and a loving wife. We crossed the finish line at 2:25:49. More than 4 minutes faster than my father's goal. 45 minutes slower than my PR from the same race a year ago, but this was so much more satisfying to me. I got to enjoy inspiring somebody, my own father, to visualize a goal, to believe it possible, and to achieve beyond their expectations. My father got to have a taste of that thing which I have come to crave. Not a legitimate chemical runner's high, but something much more common. Finish lines. What they represent to me, and to many runners, is proof positive that you have accomplished something great. Not to say that my father isn't an accomplished man...far from it. But I'd be willing to bet that a few years ago, he would have never seen himself standing breathless and exhilarated and admiring his ginormous new finisher's medal for a half marathon. I am fairly certain that he learned something new about himself through this entire process, and I'm just glad to have played a small part in his journey.

I am absolutely convinced that this man can finish a full marathon, but I'll leave that up to him...not to say I won't casually mention it from time to time. :-)

Congratulations, Dad!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Show some respect...and get f*cking inspired!

I have a friend who, in my eyes, is an utterly amazing athlete. She is running Boston in a few weeks and is shooting for sub-3 hours. She is also an amazingly inspiring person, not only because she does amazing things, but as a friend she is incredibly encouraging. I am reposting something a friend of hers posted and I will now be reconsidering some of the language I use when I describe her.

Most notably:

"I’m not a freak of nature. It’s taken me a long a** time and a lot of hard work to get here. People think I’m just a natural runner and naturally fast. That’s not fair to me to say that because it sort of negates all those workouts I did where my legs ached, my body was exhausted, and I wanted to quit because it hurt… It negates the sacrifice and the social life I gave up in order to get here. If it all came naturally to me I’d be racing marathons at a sub 2:30 pace by now."

...and also...

"Look at your most recent races and the challenges you faced — you still PRed. You wanted it. You did it, regardless. You want it. You do it, regardless."

First of all, I can identify with the freak of nature comment. From my perspective, some of the things she does seem freakish, but that's only because I haven't done them(yet?). I also know that many of my friends might hold the same opinion of me, because I have done things that seem freakish to them. None of them were easy for me either, but I have always tried to make it clear to my friends that all of these things are possible with hard work and belief in oneself.

Second, it really is true that we can do anything if we want it. Sometimes we need to be reminded of this, and my amazing friend is always willing to remind me.