When setting goals and placing expectations, I've always tried to be bold but reasonable. I've never thrown myself at a challenge that I had absolutely no hope of achieving. Perhaps some challenges seemed larger in my mind than they were in real-life, but for the most part I've chosen to take small bites when it comes to new PRs in speed and distance. I don't know if I should be aiming higher or not, but as far as my satisfaction with being an athlete and achieving desired results more often than not, I have been pretty happy with this approach.
And then occasionally, I fail utterly and completely in setting a goal that is reasonable and realistic for my abilities. But not in the way that you think...
As this race approached, as confident as I was in my training, I still kept a wary eye on the weather and the trail conditions. I knew that sloppy trails could make or break my day. If the trails stayed dry, I would have predicted a finish as fast as 6:30 if I raced intelligently and had good legs. If it rained leading up to raceday, I was still confident that I'd break 7:00 barring any unforeseen circumstances, raceday blowups, or nutritional screwups. Two years ago, I had hoped to break 7:00, but I neglected my nutrition and blew up with 2 miles to go, missing the mark by 5 minutes. And face-planting in the snow with about 100 meters to go. Classic!
Although quite chilly, raceday morning arrived with sub-freezing temperatures. This was actually a blessing, as we might catch a break with the early mud being frozen before the day warmed up. I arrived at the race site an hour early by accident because I apparently thought the 50k and 20 milers were starting at 7 am. Better than being an hour late, I suppose. Nonetheless, I hung around, chatted with volunteers and set up my drop bag at the main aid station.
I was pretty satisfied with my nutrition plan for the day, though I must admit I broke the Golden Rule of racing on a few items(aka Never try anything new on race day). In addition to my normal Honey Stinger chews, electrolyte tabs, and PB/Nutella wraps, at the last minute I decided to throw in some coconut water for before each loop, and some beef jerky for the journey. I had always wanted to try beef jerky during a race, just so I could be "that guy". Ideally, I envisioned myself as a tough grizzled 60 year old dude in a full Ironman, riding a 20 year old bicycle, full beard blowing in the breeze, chewing on a hunk of dried meat as he passed some young whippersnapper who would look on in awe at the spectacle. Maybe someday...if I can ever actually grow a beard.
As 8:00 drew near, I begrudgingly stripped down to my race attire, shedding the warm fleece and extra beanie. I walked over to the starting area and began chatting with some Trail Nerd friends who were also racing. I was too far away to hear Ben's pre-race instructions, but I more or less knew the gist of what he was most-likely saying. "Follow the flags, don't be stupid, if you get lost you're stupid, if a sign tells you to 'slow down' then you should really slow down, here's a lighthearted anecdote about a guy who broke his leg there..."
HONK! The air-horn sounded signaling the start of the race. I was caught off-guard in mid-sentence with the guy I had been talking to. I immediately look down to start my watch and realize I've put it on upside down.
Helluva way to start a race. I wonder what else I've neglected as I orient my brain to press the correct button. The watch happily bleeps at me as I begin jogging forward. I'm pretty far back in the pack, so I make an effort to pass as many people as possible on this first stretch through the open field and up the hill. Once we hit the trails, passing will not be so straightforward, and I dislike being stuck in a conga line and having my pace dictated for me. I made it a decent ways towards the front of the pack before that first left turn off the road and onto the trails. Twas' the moment of truth...
|Doing work on solid earth!|
As I warmed up, I set down a pace that was mildly aggressive. I wanted a strong first loop. After so many long days on this course, I knew it like the back of my hand...the hills I could run, the hills I needed to walk, and the best lines on the technical downhills where I could steal free speed. I occasionally would find myself unable to pass a runner, but took these opportunities to remind myself that I could afford to slow down for a bit and conserve for later.
|Triumphantly emerging from Wyandotte Triangle|
|Prime WyCo real estate|
My watch tells me 1 hour and 50 minutes of race time have elapsed as I stride away from the aid station to begin my 2nd loop, still munching on my PB/N wrap. Across the field, which is now not much more than a wide swath of mud with the occasional blade of grass defiantly bursting through as if 300-400 pairs of shoes just couldn't keep it down. Up the hill onto the road, left turn...
THIS is what I expected. Sloppy, muddy, slippery doom stared me in the face as I trudged once again onto the trail. Each footfall, intended to propel the body forwards, included at least a slight budge to the side and back, robbing me of the full amount of momentum it could have otherwise provided. And in some places, you could lose ALL of it.
And then, there were the bogs. Shoe sucking. Soul sucking. Disheartening. Infuriating. I picture the "swamp of sadness" from Neverending Story, and the scene where it swallows up Atreyu's horse because it's just SO SAD. And that's only a slight exaggeration. Only slight.
Even just a few miles into the 2nd loop, my legs are really beginning to feel the punishment. All the extra effort required to slog through this unholy wasteland has brought a distinct fatigue into my body. I'm forced to walk more often. More than I would have expected. I don't have a clear feel for how fast I'm generally moving, but it doesn't feel adequate. The mind games begin as I wonder how much time I'm losing, even though my watch is RIGHT THERE telling me that I'm more or less right on pace.
|"Typewriter Feet" - patent pending|
|Kickin' and a-gougin' in the mud and the blood and the beer...|
Fall Down Hill spits me mercifully back onto solid earth as I cross the grassy field behind the dam and begin to work my way up the Dam(n) Hill. I take this opportunity(as I did on the first lap) to take a salt cap and a deliciously mouth-watering piece of beef jerky(Seriously, this stuff was a total game changer). As I reach the road, I'm walking. Until the Best Volunteers On The Planet™at the upcoming aid station start going completely ape-shit crazy-go-nuts bonkers at my arrival. Seriously, can't say enough about them. With 5-6 complete strangers so enthusiastically celebrating my approach, I have no choice but to run the 30-40 yards between us. Quickly downing a few orange slices and slamming a cupfull of whatever electrolyte beverage they had laid out, I thank them all and I continue a solid trot up the road. It just seems so foreign to have my feet staying put for this stretch.
Fester's Wander was similarly messy, including two hills that were steep enough and muddy enough that the race director was nice enough to tie up ropes so that we could have a means of ascent that didn't involve desperately clawing our way up on all fours. Thanks Ben! The remainder of the second loop was difficult, but manageable. 3 Hills were just as steep, but with the added difficulty of the reduced traction.
As I finished out this loop, I was beginning to pass some of the slower 10 milers. This is always nice because it gives me an opportunity to pump up other racers and feed off of the energy they give in return. Basically all trail racers are awesome people. I even ran a stretch of this loop with a guy wearing, I kid you not, khaki shorts and a button up! He was faster than me, but he seemed confident that I was on pace and able to break 6 hours. Fat chance, but thanks for the encouragement! The remainder of my thoughts on this loop involved how much more my legs hurt than I had expected, and dark and dismal thoughts of what the final loop had in store for me.
Also, how flippin' good this beef jerky was!
I rolled back into the main aid station right at 4 hours, having run the second loop in 2:12. I was still right smack dab where I wanted to be. Trying to ignore the fatigue in my legs and worries about my third loop, I hit my drop bag for coconut water and another wrap before getting my hydration pack filled again and hitting the trail for the last time. My second loop had been roughly 30 minutes slower than my first, and projecting my third loop to be equivalently slower than my second, I was putting myself at a 6:45 finish at best. This seemed exciting, but one can never know what's going to happen on your last loop. These worries clouded my head as I finished my snack and turned onto the trails once again.
I'm not sure how I missed it. Perhaps my mind was blissfully occupied. Perhaps my mind was blissfully blank. Both are great options. But it took me at least a mile to realize something...
Where the hell did all the mud go!?!?!?
Indeed. These same paths that were sucking my will to live a mere 2 hours ago had somehow transformed. During that time, the sun had climbed higher in the sky, bestowing upon us light and heat. The trails had begun to dry ever so slightly, and with that drying came the transition from pudding consistency to Play-Doh consistency. And furthermore, the runners ahead of me had been so kind as to tamp down a good portion of the trail surface, resulting in a slightly soft, smooth, and delightfully tacky running surface(With apologies to the Hooters restaurant chain). As my mind became aware of this gift from Mother WyCo Superior, I realized that my legs actually felt fantastic. I was tired, but I was moving really well and definitely still had some juice left to spend.
Knowing full well that I had been been handed a rare circumstance that I did not deserve...the trails actually IMPROVED on the last lap...I knew I had to earn back some trail karma to show my appreciation to the gods and goddesses of trail running. Over the next several miles, I made a point to pick up any bits of trash that other racers had either accidentally(it happens) or intentionally(assholes happen too) dropped on the course. I'm normally not really a superstitious guy. But in an ultra, I am not taking any chances.
In the midst of this joyous realization, while tearing down a hill, out of nowhere I roll an ankle HARD. I nearly faceplant as I reel from the shock and sudden pain. I stubbornly continue running, trying to pretend it didn't happen...just keep moving...just keep moving...I'm fine, I'm FINE! But I did need to stop for a moment and take stock of myself. I rotate the ankle around, gingerly at first, and then more forcefully, now confident that nothing was broken, torn, or strained.
I take this moment to once again offer my gratitude to nobody in particular that I didn't just break my ankle clean in half. After all, it is the sorrowful man who forgets that Wyco Giveth and WyCo Taketh Away. With this in mind, knowing that this trail was taking a lot from me today, I decided that I needed to take some of it with me. I knelt down and scooped up a fingerful of wet WyCo Earth and gave myself some warpaint, Ultimate Warrior style(Ok, I did my best with the crude materials available and no mirror).
I continued forward with renewed resolve and maybe just a hint of additional humility.
The trails had improved significantly, though there were definitely still occasional problem spots. Liiiiike ........Fall Down Hill. I once again put to good use the previously mentioned tactics of negotiating this treacherous humdinger. And thus went my first and only fall of the day....
I was typewriting my feet into The Switchback(if you've run this course, you basically know which one I'm talking about) as I prepared to make my approach for the mud ski run. Partially into the corner, I begin to lose control. Core muscles activate, arms flail, knees quiver, CONTROL!
I come to a complete stop, halfway through the turn. I stand there silently, grateful that I didn't fall. As I contemplate my next move(there's nothing within reach that I can grab to anchor myself for forward progress) my feet begin to slide again, ever so slightly. Realizing there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent what was about to happen, I resigned myself to my fate and watched helplessly as the slowest fall in the history of trail running transpired. My feet lazily slid downhill, and with no leverage to keep my torso above my feet, my upper body went uphill. SPLAT!
I laughed heartily at myself and at my predicament. That fall literally happened over about 10 seconds, start to finish. My left leg, left ass cheek, and both hands were now coated in sticky, slimy mud and I was HAPPY about it! I was going to wear this mud as a Brown Badge of Courage for the remainder of my day. And I was probably going to end up ingesting at least a small amount of it if I wanted to use those same hands for eating. I got around that in the short term...
...across the field, up the hill, to the aid station, where one of the Best Volunteers On The Planet™ doesn't hesitate for a moment before hand feeding me a couple orange slices after seeing that my hands were not in the cleanliest state. I mean...seriously...where else would you see that happen?
Onward and upward, the Dam Hill falls for the final time, I scream down Broken Leg Ridge, clamber up the Slicker Than Snot w/ Ropes section and approach Fester's Wander as I see the "4 Miles To Go" sign. My brain has always been notoriously bad at calculating splits on the fly, but all evidence points to the fact that I might be able to hit 6:30 if I keep the hammer down. Fester's Wander has not really dried out much, and it's an ordeal getting through some sections of it, but I put it behind me and see the next mile marker sign. Further calculations confirm I'm on pace to hit 6:30. Or maybe even slightly under.
Wha-Wha-WHAAAAAAT!?!?!? This was my "best case scenario" if the trails were in good condition. The trails were shitty, and I'm going to maybe beat this time?
This realization put some fire in my belly and I charged out of Fester's Wander wondering why I felt so great all of a sudden. Probably because I was smashing to pieces a goal that I thought was "reasonably possible". Each further mile marker, in half-mile increments, cements in my mind the idea that I'm blowing this shit out of the water. I realize I'm not only definitely going to break 6:30, but now I've got a shot at 6:20. With two miles to go, I do some more math and realize that 6:15 is the new target.
I'm churning along and who do I spy up the trail? Of all the people in the trail running world, I see Jim. This is the same guy who I met at this exact race two years ago. To sum up, on that particular day, he passed me in the last two miles because I had experienced an epic meltdown, and finished one spot ahead of me. On this particular day, I was the one passing him in the last two miles. If I believed in a deity or some manner of controlling force in the universe, this would be a significant moment for me. The Universe's way of saying, "Hey Danny, way to manage your nutrition. Here's a little friendly retribution for ya!"
I battle through 3 Hills for the last time and suddenly I'm at Ye Olde Iron Post. This is the random rusty bar that is stuck into the ground alongside the very last sharp and slight uphill of the course. It appears to have no business being there, but it has always been a signal to me that I was almost home. I always give it a tap for good luck as I pass, and since I was feeling like a million bucks at that moment, I stooped down and gave it a kiss in thanks for always being there. 100 meters from the finish, I kick into top gear down the hill towards the finish line.
Screaming, hooting, and hollering, I enter the clearing of the main aid station and charge at the finish line, arms raised in triumph and head spinning in disbelief. I leap across the threshold and revel in the beauty of the moment.
|Look! A porta potty!|
Final time - 6:17...A PR by almost 50 minutes.
|Showing off my hard-earned mud. And a sticker and stuff.|
How did this happen? How COULD this happen? 6:30 seemed possible, 6:45 seemed doable, and breaking 7:00 seemed likely. Until now, I had never so severely UNDERestimated myself. In addition to how thrilled I am with this race, I wonder if I should have been aiming higher. Shooting for 6 hours instead of 7? Who can say? Maybe with that approach I might have overexerted early on and blown up too soon. I can say for sure that I'm definitely on the hook to go for 6 hours next year. Giddy up!
Beyond that, I have learned some solid things. Put in the miles and TRUST in that training. Planning and practicing your nutrition WORKS! This effort seriously rivals Ironman Coeur d'Alene as one of my most intelligently planned and successfully executed races of all time.
I've gotta give some serious thanks where they are due. Big ups to Heather C for being my Saturday morning buddy for some 10 and 20 milers out on the course. Lots of thanks to Katie Lewis for keeping my body in good working order with her amazing ninja massage skills. Seriously...go see her. She'll fix your broken bits. Lots of love to Kate at Westport Yoga for helping get me out of the house and start really building my yoga practice into something I can be proud of, the Yin to my running Yang, if you will. I'd like to thank my loving parents who were busy packing for a trip to sunny Mexico while I was suffering in the cold and mud. Couldn't have done it without you! And in all seriousness...for all of the wonderful support and encouragement you've given me my entire life. You're without a doubt the reason I am who I am today...and I like who I am a lot. I love you both more than I can say, and after all your hard work and all the shit your three sons put you through...you damn sure deserve this vacation! To Ben Holmes and the Best Volunteers On The Planet™, thanks once again for a stellar race experience. You are the best at what you do, and it shows. I'll see you guys at Free State!
Finally, I'd like to thank Jack Links, the makers of such fine products as Matador Beef Jerky. Your dried meats are some of the best I've ever tasted. If you are ever interested in sponsoring an ultramarathoner, I'd be willing to hear your offer.
Thanks everyone for reading! It was a helluva race and I'm glad to have shared that day and this story with all of you!
Photos courtesy of Tyson Hofsommer and Dick Ross