Monday, April 22, 2013

Free State 100K: "Me vs Myself" and "Feelin' Right"

Wow. This is a lot sooner than I usually try to bang out a race report, but there's so much to tell I want to get it all down while it's still fresh in my brain and raw in its emotional impact.

So Yesterday was such a physical and emotional roller coaster, I am inclined to just start spilling verbal diarrhea and foam at the mouth as I retell this fucker. However, as usual I need to throw in a little bit of backstory leading up to the race for context. Patience, my friends.

If you follow my blog regularly, you know that I was coming off of a very successful day running the Brew2Brew solo and was feeling strong coming into this weekend. Nothing hurt and I was confident in my training and more importantly, I had put in the time and had my nutrition and hydration set in stone and ready to kill some bears.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of foreshadowing, something bad is about to happen
It seemed so innocent. It was a slow night at work and I was browsing Facebook during a long stretch of time when my patients didn't need anything. (Hey, it's night shift. Sometimes all they need is sleep.) Somebody had posted an ultrarunning podcast on the Trail Nerd Facebook page and a subsequent discussion had begun regarding hydration strategies and preferences. I weighed in with my opinions and what has worked for me in the past. I realized that I was commenting in a discussion about a podcast I hadn't actually listened to yet. And thus, 2 days out from the biggest, longest, most brutal race of my life, I LISTENED TO A FUCKING PODCAST ABOUT HYDRATION.

To be fair, I seriously thought it would just have some tips and tricks that some badass had gleaned over his years and years of running and that I might be able to pick up some last minute ideas to help my own race be that much more awesome salsa. As it tuuuurns was an interview with Dr. Timothy Noakes, a professor of exercise and physical science, veteran of 70+ marathons and ultras, and a bunch of other really impressive stuff(read about him here), and author of the new book "Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports". Are you starting to see a problem here?

This guy was essentially turning everything I thought I knew about hydration on its ear. Drink Early And Often? Not according to this guy. The worst part is that it all MADE SENSE. His explanations were well-thought out, and he had the research to back them up. Even down to the body's hormonal regulation and ADH(Anti Diuretic Hormone, the stuff that causes your body to retain water) my medically inclined brain it hit home in a big way. For a long time, I have relied on my urinary output to gauge how well hydrated I was, and this guy even went so far as to say that it didn't matter at all how much you urinated during a race. Ummm...

Shit. Immediately, I thought back to every epic blowup race I've ever had and how I felt. Was I really overhydrated every one of those times? The symptoms certainly fit better. I am inclined to go into a lengthy explanation of fluid and electrolyte homeostasis, but this is already dragging on too much. The point is as follows:

All that confidence I had in my race plan? Yeah...

I tried not to think about it...told myself it was an interesting concept that I definitely wanted to put in some time researching and finding out if it was really as legit as it sounded, maybe even something I could eventually incorporate into my own training and racing. I TRIED! But as we all know...even the smallest seed of doubt can, under the right circumstances and with enough time, blossom into a fully grown Fuck Off tree.

SO....The Race!

Everything was butter. I was well rested, good meal the night before, packed and ready to go, enough sleep. This thing was going down. I had the usual pre-race jitters, but surprisingly absent was the nervous pre-race poo(Luke H requested that I NOT talk about poo in this race report, so this is for him). For some reason, I always have a nervous pre-race poo... and it's not a pleasant poo by any stretch of the imagination. But I usually do the deed and I'm good to go. I have been extremely lucky to be blessed with an almost complete lack of GI issues during races, and this is the minor exception. This particular morning, nothing. I took it as a good sign that I was ready to crush.

I showed up, set up my drop bags, did a little stretching and had some chit chat with the quality folks that you are bound to find milling around at a trail race, and specifically a Trail Nerd event.

Great. Fucking. People
Makin' faces, like I do.
We all lined up, got the usual pre-race spiel from Race Director Extraordinaire Ben Holmes, and off we went! It was the usual conga line you would expect hitting the trails, and I just so happened to have been chatting with Chris W at the start, so it came to pass that he was behind me in that conga line. We continued chatting as the miles began to tick off. The faster folks pulled ahead, the slower folks got passed and after awhile we were settling into a really nice easy pace and a good rhythm. Dave E and Emily R eventually joined us as our small conga line joined with another group. For the first 10-11 miles, I was running easy and content with this group, and was surprised to find that I was actually leading a group of about 15 runners who seemed satisfied with the pace I was setting. This was good and bad...good because I had clear view of the trail ahead of me and I could choose my own pace, but subconsciously it was hard not to feel pressured to run a certain pace because of all the people behind me. I tried not to let it get to me, and I was relieved when the occasional runner made a pass and went on ahead.

This first stretch was nice because I was just running and not thinking about anything in particular...just enjoying the company of some quality Trail Nerds and enjoying a brisk beautiful morning. This group pulled ahead of me as we approached the Corps of Engineering aid station and they continued on without me as I took my time getting some food and grabbing some things out of my drop bag. I didn't see any of them for the rest of the day, which was fine...this was my race and I wasn't beholden to anybody else's pace. Chris W went on to a sub-8:30 finish in the 40 miler, and Emily R was 1st place female in the 40 miler. Big time congratulations to them!

As I pulled out of the aid station and continued my journey, for the first time that day, I was alone. And then everything slowly and steadily began to fall apart.

At first it was just a sensation, nothing more. Legs felt kinda heavy, but not bad. Felt kinda tired, but not overly so. I was walking a bit more than I would have liked, but wasn't worrying yet. Not yet.

Small senstations slowly made their presence more noticeable. The legs weren't just heavy...they were kinda sluggish. I wasn't just tired...I was sleepy. Like, not in the "Yawn, ah that's better" sort of way. More like, "I want to lie down and take a nap on the trail." What the hell is going on?

And then, somewhere around Mile 15, I began to come apart at the seams. Just in subtle ways at first, but negative thoughts were creeping into my head. Doubts about The Plan. Worries about how weak my legs felt this early. Something was definitely not right.
The "Yuck" face was intentional.

I finished my first loop in 4:10, which I thought was respectable. I know SOMEBODY asked me how I felt and I have completely blanked on who it was, but I told them I felt weird. And I did. Things were just off. I swapped some clothes, hit my drop bag, grabbed some food(the ONE thing I know I did right was eating enough), and with no other excuse to continue loitering I pointed myself back down the hill and onto the trails.

As I began my 2nd loop, once again by myself, I started to tear myself apart piece by piece. Every self-defeating thing that I could have conceived to bet your ass I found a way to work it into the forefront of my consciousness. First on the Danny Sucks menu was how my legs felt. Immediate self-blame for Brew2Brew..."Fuck, I knew it was a bad idea. I thought it would be ok, but sure as shit, here I am, barely a third of the way through my 100K and my legs are fucking toast. Way to go, shithead." And so on and so forth...

The next course was from that wanker Dr. Noakes. As I tried to listen to my body and figure out what was wrong and what it needed, despite everything that had worked so well this year, race-tested and Danny-Approved...I couldn't tell which way was up. "Shit. My head is swimming and I am really starting to feel awful. Could this Noakes guy be right? Am I dehydrated or overhydrated? If I start drinking more, I am pretty sure this will get better...BUT WHAT IF IT DOESN'T!?!?!?" I was so unsure of what to do, that out of fear I chose to do nothing, which in effect was the same as choosing the side of Dr. Noakes. I peed once, and it wasn't much, but then I wasn't sure if that was even a bad thing or not. At the very least I knew that either way I needed to keep taking in salt, so I did so.

I even took some time to dwell on my former relationship, which is ALWAYS great for my emotional well-being. Nice touch, Danny's Subconscious.

There are times when solitude is a good and welcome thing. However, when your race is falling apart, the weight of every mile left in front of you is on your shoulders, and your mind is systematically telling you how much of a failure you are, it's not necessarily the best thing. I was in no-man's land out on the trail. The longest stretch between manned aid stations, and nobody even remotely near me on the trail. Miles and miles passed and not a soul in sight. My spirits were beginning to sink, and knowing that I'm supposed to be ENJOYING this, I criticized myself for not doing so. Good strategy, huh?
You've still got 40 miles do you feel?

So I was essentially in the Pit Of Despair at this point. I felt awful, both physically and emotionally, and I was hating on myself in a big way. I was absolutely dreading every step I had yet to take, and I was terrified that it was only going to get worse. In the midst of this self-made hell I had banished myself to, I FINALLY stumbled upon some more friendly faces at the MooseJaw aid station. What's more? They had grilled cheese sandwiches and BACON! It was hearty and delicious, and though a small thing, it was a boost to get some proper food down the hatch. I was still in a serious funk, but sometimes the small things make just enough of a difference to get by.

I continued on without much improvement in how I felt physically, still moving pretty slow and walking a lot. It was at this point that I hit my rock-bottom low point of the day. This dude with a trekking pole who looks to be 60-70 years old(I looked him up, he's 57) comes TRUCKING up from behind me and passes me like I was standing still. At the same time as being in awe of this old hardass, I am filled with shame and self-loathing for whatever choices I have made that led me to this exact moment. Within a few miles I pass within earshot of the finish line area. I can hear the commotion and excitement of people coming in, finishing half marathons and marathons, or just finishing a loop of whatever race they were doing. I wanted so badly to be somewhere else and to be doing something else...and it would be so easy...just hang a left up that road and this nightmare would be over. I'm a stubborn asshole, so I didn't quit. But just the fact that I wanted to quit is what is significant.

The Wave...

And then it happened. A few miles further and I cut down onto the red trail(video courtesy of a fellow racer). This portion of trail skirts right along the lakeshore and is very rocky and pretty fun if you've got the legs for it. I didn't think I had the legs for that kind of running. I'm not exactly sure how or why it happened, but somebody in my brain just said "Pick up the pace...see what happens." It couldn't make things any worse, so I tried. I switched my slow and sloggy shuffle to a higher cadence, dancing from rock to rock, almost as if I enjoyed running and was having fun. Except I did, and I was.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, here I was running really well and enjoying it. Maybe it was the sun beginning to peek out from behind the clouds, or maybe it was the gentle cool breeze coming off the lake and hitting me in the face(my money is on this one), but a switch flipped. Many of my ultrarunning friends who have done 100Ks and 100 milers have often said that you have to "ride the wave" when it comes. Periodic bursts of energy that supposedly just come and go, and we were to take advantage of them. Well, this wave came and I rode it for all it was worth! I had no idea how long it would last, but I didn't rightly care either.

Somewhere around Mile 25, still on red trail, I see Old Badass Trekking Pole Guy and I'm gaining on him. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. I really don't suspect that I'd stay in front of him for very long anyways, but it might mean something to pass him, so I slowly pull up behind him, wait for an opportune moment, and then I call out, "On your left. Don't worry though, you'll probably catch me again in a mile or so. I'm just riding the wave."

What he said next was probably just a throwaway smalltalk comment in his mind, but to me it absolutely changed everything...

"Well, you gotta run when it feels right."

He said it as if it were the most obvious thing anybody ever knew. Like he had learned that lesson way back in kindergarten. But in that exact instant, I forgave myself for everything. Yes, I had a bad stretch of miles, but that was over now, and this dog still had a lot of fight left in him! All of the self-doubt and criticism from the past 10 miles went straight out the window and as the enormity of that weight lifted off of my shoulders, a huge grin broke across my face. I knew things were going to get better. And they did.

I wasn't necessarily running faster, but I was running with a light heart and I was finally able to live in the moment and enjoy my day. I rolled in and out of Land's End, past Lake Henry, past the boatyard, and before I knew it, I was approaching Corps of Engineering again...roughly the halfway point of my race! A group of runners were gaining on me approaching this stop and they were talking about their post-race meals. This conversation suddenly reminded me how much I wanted, more than anything else in the world, some REAL FOOD...something like a large pepperoni pizza.

With food on my mind, I came into the aid station and went about my business, getting in my drop bag. Then Bryan W, who had run the Garmin Half earlier that day and had arrived to volunteer at this race, walked up to me and asked, "What do you need?" I told him I didn't know. He then said, "We have tacos." And then I answered in the affirmative, including every swear word I could think of. "Make it happen." He ran off and shortly returned with a beef and cheese soft taco. As I sank my teeth into it, a noise escaped me that you might expect to hear in a pornographic film. A moan of utter satisfaction and ecstasy as I experienced a full blown foodgasm. And there were possibly a few more swear words, I'm not entirely certain.

I was halfway done. I had just eaten a delicious taco. And...hell, nothing else. Those two things were enough on their own, but I was pretty happy with life at the moment, needless to say. The next few miles before I hit Land's End again, I passed the one-and-only Lou Joline...80 years old and still out there cranking out the marathon. A true inspiration for any bear killer, I hope I'm that tough when I'm his age. The miles passed...not easily, because they were hard physically...but they were good miles. I was excited for my last loop. Being more than halfway done was a big deal mentally, but having some company would be absolutely heavenly compared to what I went through 20 miles ago.

I rolled back into the main aid station to cheers from wonderful people. This time I was in a much better mood. I had been texting time splits to my mother all day so she could keep my pacer informed of my progress and also post updates on Facebook. Sure enough, the second I arrived, Matty M was standing there ready for duty. He immediately assessed the situation, asked how much I'd been eating and drinking(I left out the fact that I had basically trimmed my fluid intake down to almost nothing) and grabbed me some food while I grabbed my headlamp and some warmer clothes for the final loop. I took one last look at the food table, grabbed one last orange slice, then I high-fived Matty and said, "Let's do this."

The Pacer...

Thinking about this race, I had long debated whether or not to have a pacer. I've always prided myself on being a relatively self-reliant athlete when it comes to training and racing. I do as much as I can on my own, and for better or worse, I can fully claim whatever results I get as my own. I liked the idea of doing this full race by myself...the training and the racing. When Ashley A asked me if I had a pacer yet, I said no. She then told me that Matty wasn't busy that day and that he's an excellent pacer, so I went ahead and decided that I wasn't so certain about being able to finish that I'd reject that offer. I think Matty said "Yes" before I had even finished asking. He's a helluva guy, for certain. And a helluva pacer, to nobody's surprise.

Within the first few miles, I knew I was going to be fine. He was making me eat something every 30 minutes, helping me plan what I was going to get at the next aid station to save the time I would invariably spend going "Hmmmmm, uh let's orange S-Cap.....uhhhh". But more important than all of that, he was keeping me talking. We exchanged ultra stories. We talked about life. Shit, I'll probably never remember half of what we talked about out there, but the fact was that there was no way in hell I'd find my way back to that deep dark hole I dug for myself earlier.

This got me thinking, and I kinda had another pretty significant epiphany. Forgive me for how cliche this sounds, as I myself nearly rolled my eyes when I realized I'd have to include it in my blog ...BUT....Life is a lot like an ultramarathon. Ugh....really, Danny?

Really. Deal with it.

Let me elaborate. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I finally overcame my own stubbornness and contacted a therapist to help me work through some issues in my life. It was one of those things where I felt like I should be tough enough to figure it all out on my own, and that there are people who are way worse off than I am, that I should feel lucky to be as happy as I was. But I wasn't as happy as I could be. I'm coming to my point...sure I was physically capable of running that entire 62 miles by myself. Sure I am completely capable of living my life without paying somebody to listen to my problems and help me figure out solutions to those problems.

But I guess in life and ultramarathons, sometimes it's just nice to have somebody to talk to.

Best comment yet:"You look like you're fencing"
And having Matty along was brilliant. We traded off on who took lead. He kept me eating and on-task at aid stations, and he kept my spirits up. The last loop probably hurt the most, but I didn't notice it due to the excellent company I had along with me. The miles simply ticked off as Matty continually reassured me how well I was doing. Whether or not it was true doesn't matter, it matters that I believed him. We hit Corps of Engineers for the last time and realizing I had less than 10 miles to go, I struck a triumphant pose to send to my mother, reassuring her I was still alive and moving.

We busted out the headlamps and as we prepared to leave the aid station, there was a girl who left right ahead of us. A tiny spark of competition lit inside me as I calmly told Matty, "I want to beat her." It's always about the small victories.

We headed off into the dwindling dusk light, firing up our "torches" as we entered the woods again. The girl was keeping a pretty solid pace for about half a mile until she hit a technical section. She slowed to a walk and gingerly tip-toed through the rocky section. Seizing the opportunity, Matty blazed past her with me following shortly after. My strength was once again my technique, and we quickly put a sizeable gap on my new #1 archrival. Ok not really...but I did end up finishing almost 20 minutes ahead of her.

Elation and exhaustion
After we hit Land's End for the last time, with just under 3 miles to go, I knew this thing was in the bag and I took lead and pressed the pace with every drop of strength I had left. The miles were marked for this last section of trail and I celebrated each one as we passed them. The hooting and hollering began with about half a mile remaining. We hit the gravel road that led to the finish area and I romped up the hill screaming like a bat out of hell. Ben, a handful of volunteers, and a couple remaining racers were there cheering like I was winning olympic gold, despite the fact that I was finishing 38th out of 45 in the 100K distance that day. With a fist pump and a shout I crossed the line. Ben handed me my 100K belt buckle and sticker as I relished the moment. For the past year, I had looked forward to this moment, and it was finally here. How did I feel? Sore and tired, but supremely satisfied.

The trusty pacer
Overall, I am thrilled with how my race went. I was slightly shy of my expected finish time, but I never really cared about that. My nutrition was spot on all day. My hydration? Well, I'm convinced that I truly was waterlogged after drinking too much on my first loop. When I backed off on my water intake and increased my salt, I slowly began to feel better. It may be the thing that saved my race, but I'll never know for sure. Additionally, even though I severely cut back on the fluids, my urine output stayed about the same. I think I'll be ordering Dr. Timothy Noakes's book after all because I need to know more.

As always, the race itself was executed to perfection by the race director and his army of fantastic volunteers. I've spoken at length about just how well staffed these races are, so I'll keep it short. All I'll say is that it's not every day that you recognize the guy filling your hydration pack as Darin S, the guy who won the 100K two years ago. In many other instances, the volunteer helping you out at this moment actually ran the half marathon earlier and is now giving straight back to the race they just finished! It is for these reasons I am proud to call myself a Trail Nerd, always and forever.

So...I know I've dragged on quite a bit, but now the question is thus...

What's next?

Well, aside from the immediate future which will be spent recovering and relearning how to walk properly, I'm not exactly sure. My tentative plan was to use this race as a litmus test to see if I think I can do a 100 miler this fall. That answer is not yet clear to me, but I have come up with an even better question.

Do I WANT to do a 100 miler this fall? Whether I can or not is one thing, but I'm going to have to sort through this experience and decide if I think doing a full century is even right for me. I have to figure out what challenge will make me the happiest in this particular year of my life. Matty and I talked at length about getting burned out on running and ultras specifically. He and I agreed that it seems like some runners will tackle a certain distance not because it is their heart's desire to conquer it, but because they think that's the next thing they're supposed to do. I don't want to do a 100 mile race because it's the next logical step, or because I think I should, or any other reason other than it being the one challenge that would bring me the most happiness and fulfillment to meet.

So I don't have an answer for the What's Next question. Maybe I'll focus on yoga for awhile. Maybe I'll just do a bunch of shorter ultras for the rest of the year. Maybe I'll throw in a triathlon to mix it up. Who knows? All I know is that this race was the right challenge for me this week.

Maybe next week's challenge is just happiness. My first therapy appointment is in 8 hours. That sounds like a good place to start.

As always, thanks for reading and for your overwhelming support! When I got home from the race, as exhausted as I was, I could not go to sleep before reading through about an hour's worth of comments and messages on Facebook. There were countless moments during my race, especially during the bad parts, where I simply thought of everyone who was following my progress via my mom's updates, and of all the great and uplifting things you were sending my way! In a small way, you all helped carry me through those miles, and I feel lucky beyond description to have so much love and support from so many amazing people.

A race isn't truly over until you drink a beer out of your race mug while ogling your finisher's award.


  1. That's a great race report. Congrats on the 100K performance. While I wasn't the one who posted on the TN site, the podcast about water intake, I had hear it before. It was quite eye-opening really. I am glad to see it worked for you. While I only ran the half-marathon, I noticed I was probably waterlogged myself and will fix that next time. Again, congrats!

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm gonna have to do some serious research and refiguring of how I drink during my races from now on. I've got a friend who is gonna loan me that guy's book, so that's a good start I figure! Cheers to your half marathon!

  2. That was me who talked to you at the end of the first loop - wish I could have helped more to get you out of your funk. You seemed a little distracted and said you just felt "strange". Glad it got better for you!

    1. That TOTALLY was you! Usually it's just names I have trouble remembering, but I couldn't even recall the face of the person who had tried to help me. I was almost certainly hyponatremic now that I look back on it, and I'm so glad I was able to recover, otherwise I most likely wouldn't have finished. Thanks for volunteering and at least attempting to help my distracted funky ass!

  3. Awesome report says this new Trail Nerd here (that would be moi). I have now officially volunteered twice and ran one race with the Nerds. Looking forward to more! The trails make me feel like I am finally home and all the fucks on the Nerds page, even more so. Love this group already!

  4. Awesome report, ride the wave and therapy including! As for Noaks, experiment. I hate the fact that "drink more" and "drink less" is such a not quantitative advice, and IS different for each of us! Say, I drink a bottle between AS's at Freestate, about 16 oz - if I carried 2 bottles, would I have drunk more? If my bottle was smaller - less? If the day wasn't 60F, what's then? I live in TX nowadays, and in the summer go through 2 bottles in 1 hr run. But at the same time, because I get so heat-trained, in a winter, I run without water for that very hour. Listen to your body. And adjust salt per water consumed and temps and sweat rate, not book advice:)

  5. Great report, Danny! And excellent perspective about the 100-miler (or any other race, for that matter). I try to take the approach of "Run what makes you happy." Maybe it's a particular race that captures your attention, or getting to run in a place you've always wanted to go, or doing something that doesn't involve running at all but that captures your interest. There are more bears out there for sure, and I know you'll find 'em and slay 'em!

  6. Thanks for the report. I kind of look at life as being like an UM, though I have never run one. Mom says you say I am a worrier (about your knees, hips, etc as you get older) and everything else! I guess you are right. I better start exercising mine or I will not be like those older characters you encounter on the trail. I am glad you are doing what makes you happy. I need to find a trail without too many hills and no dang tree roots or protruding rocks! I may just make one around the perimeter of the yard. You blasted that race all to pieces. I am so happy you have your own mind to contend with and all your friends to help you along the way.

  7. Great report.
    Also great race, I am fairly positive that I was in the previously mentioned group that was discussing the post race meals. In fact, I do believe that it was you that offered me some of your delicious beef jerky. I myself went on to finish the 100k that I set out to do that day. It was a tough course, but anything that doesn't challenge you, doesn't change you.

    1. Glad you were able to see the finish line! Your visions of fish tacos and hush puppies were definitely making me hyper aware of having not eaten a proper meal in quite some time, though maybe that made those aid station tacos all the more wondrous! Happy trails!