Excuse me. Are you the one who wrote that blog about High Lonesome last year?
It started with tacos.
It always starts with tacos.
These tacos happened to have spicy cabbage and Korean beef tips.
The person asking the question about a blog, 1000 miles away from my own home was a complete stranger to me.
Though not for much longer.
Yeah, that was me. Haha. Hope it doesn’t rain this year. Me? I’ll be all over the place, again.
You would think after a year of the insanity that came with High Lonesome, mountains, a Mazda 3, and weird food items in the middle of the night; nothing would come as a surprise or shock to me this year.
However, like in good fashion and failing to miss a beat, God had a chuckle, and decided to teach me a lesson.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
After learning so many lessons as a volunteer at High Lonesome in 2017, there were some serious upgrades that I needed to make before jaunting back out into the rocky rendition of chaos and calamity.
A few changes*:
Needless to say I was ultra-prepped for my journey. It also helps, as a side note, that I was able to purchase an all wheel drive vehicle before this adventure even started because this time I did not want to consider what lied on the other side of the cliff.
Through communication with the race director (Caleb) and the people in charge of the aid stations (Kelsey and David) I started to put together a solid itinerary of the race, weeks before anything even started.
Schedule of Events:
I’ve learned that with race planning, ADHD, and my overall Spider-sense of chaos, it is best to have a plan weeks in advance.
I forgot to take into consideration the element of humanity.
It was Summit County that reported it first. A hiker had fallen down a mountain. I did not think a ton about it because…I met Adam Campbell, I know Hillary Allen’s story by heart, and it was someone that I did not know. These things happen, right?
High Lonesome reported it next. It wasn’t a hiker, it was a runner, and it wasn’t just a runner, it was Hannah Taylor. It was last year’s female winner of High Lonesome. It was an elite. It was a person. It was real.
It was gone.
Now, in full confession mode, I did not know Hannah personally. I remember her flying by me at St. Elmo last year smiling. I know she was fast, but I can’t make a claim to being her friend.
That does not mean it does not shake me like the rest of the running community.
High Lonesome started to slowly take on a new form to me personally. It was not just a race where I can construct my own written oration of crazy, it was now personified. Internally I no longer wanted to just wing it and laugh it off, it was Hannah’s race, and I should do my absolute best because that’s what everyone else would be doing.
Sounds kind of cheesy coming from a volunteer, right?
12:00 PM Thursday: After staying an eclectic AirBnB the night prior in Colorado Springs; my wife and I journey into the actual mountains on route the High Lonesome. The objective was set, help with what needed to be done to make the race was ready. We stepped** into the shiny high school, and Kelsey immediately put us to work. Our job was relatively simple; the aid stations all had specific locations around the music room. All the aid station supplies were located in the middle of the room, we were given an inventory list of each aid station and just had to make sure it had all of the supplies. Frankly, between inventory experience at Subway for myself and Starbucks for my wife, it was a steady three hours of movement. One of the things that makes this running community so awesome is knowing where the aid station supplies came from. Some of the pieces were from High Lonesome themselves. Others though were items supplied by the race director of Ouray 100, and others were items from Hardrock 100. The concept is simply; people work together in order to make the whole picture better for the entire community. Honestly, it was moving (and felt a lot like home). We chatted with the other helpers. They were real, super runners. In fact, they started talking about CCC, UTMB, NWS, WWW…I got lost in all the different letters flying by. All I know is one of them said, “By the way Sabrina, good job at Hardrock.” Hearing that made me realize something about Sabrina right off the bat…
…she must be awesome because she was able to run the Hardrock 100***!
The trail community reading this understands the hand-to-the-face moment that should have taken place at the moment.
Kelsey, through my moment of dumbness, pulled us together to inform us about a change
to the usual aid station grub for this year. Each aid station was going to have a unique item at their station; Skittles, snack size candy bars, cheese puffs (goodness), etc…She explained that each food item would have an image of Hannah, and a quote from her. All of these specific food items were her favorite things to eat during a race.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.
While working on inventory we kept finding that there were missing water jugs for the aid stations. At least I thought they were missing. It turns out that all 97, 7 gallon water containers were being stored at Andrew’s house in Salida, just waiting for someone to drive over there and start filling them with water.
It was at that moment, in the dry Colorado summer, that I knew those years of wedgies were all worth it. My years of being a football water boy had finally paid off. Kelsey, without missing a beat, sent me to Andrew’s house to fill 97, 7 gallon containers of water for the aid stations.
I was greeted by
Forest Gump when he ran across the United States Andrew. Andrew was the natural man. He looked like he ran forever, nature flourished around him, in fact there were deer that were laying down in the yard next to him…IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS CITY LIKE IT WAS NO BIG DEAL. My wife and I started the long process of removing the plastic label off of each container, each sticker off of the containers mouth, rinsing each container out, filling the container, and sealing the container.
Thank goodness for a clean water hose.
The containers were filled in around two hours. Afterwards I stayed at the house, waiting for the aid station captains to pick up ‘their share’ of the water. If you’re ever curious how to converse with the good people of Salida, put a bunch of water containers in the front yard of a desert town. It does the trick. I shared my stories with twelve people throughout the evening before I disappeared for the night.
Honestly, High Lonesome was started off right where it left off. Doing weird things for good reasons.
It was only at Taco del Gnar that the world started to get strange. A polite woman asked me if I had written a story about High Lonesome last year. Naturally, embarrassingly, I confessed to that sin. She enjoyed it, said her son ran the race, and this year they were in charge of the Antero Aid Station. You read that right, he ran the race last year and came back to volunteer this year. The conversation over tacos resulted in two realities:
9:00 AM Friday: I found myself thoroughly enjoy the God-like power of all wheel drive while cruising into St. Elmo. My wife enjoyed the reality and Chip & Dale scurrying all over the place for fun while I went running. While we parked the car in St. Elmo, I saw Ryan Smith come flying by along the road, easily the first place runner in High Lonesome. I started to trek after him to the aid station to see what was going on, and how he was doing. You can imagine my surprise when my slow, snail, soul-sucking self arrived to the aid station before he did. Confused yet? Me too. I started to chat with the aid station, and that’s when we discovered the critical reality: coming up the trail there is a fork in the road. If you go left you head to Tincup. However, you must stay right to go to Cottonwood Pass and back before moving on to Tincup.
Ryan went directly to Tincup.
Like a nightmare out of Hardrock, we started moving to redirect him. However, our terror was soon wiped away when Ryan came flying up to the station. He had backtracked back to the fork, and corrected his route to St. Elmo. I’m rarely around race leaders (minus that one time I could hear Kaci Lickteig when the rest of the field went the wrong way in Omaha), so seeing Ryan up close was…well…actually…quite normal. He stopped, grabbed some food, and was extremely chill. He laughed with us a bit, decided on some gels, and after some pleasantries he was gone. I would not see Ryan again, and I would only hear of him again when he crossed the finish line in a course record 21:02:59.
Leaving St. Elmo, fearing that my wife had been kidnapped by the cutest creatures on the
planet, I begin my jaunt back to our car in the ghost town. On my way down I found Anthony Lee in second place, and even had the opportunity to give him a fist bump on his way to the aid station. It was those little moments that truly set the tone for the race; sure they were elites, fast, and likely to do crazy awesome things, but they still respected the human condition and were willing to take those few seconds to smile while on their own journey.
The runners were High Lonesome.
12:00 PM Friday: After freeing my wife from her fuzzy kidnappers (she was a great hostage, so kind), we began the trek to Hancock. Last years memory recalls the rain, the narrow road, and the Mazda 3. We were obviously free of two wheel drive, and it wasn’t raining, and frankly…the road wasn’t that bad in all comparison. We rolled into the quiet
world of Hancock, unknowing that in a few hours it would look like a small town football game on a Friday night.
However, with the downtime prior to setup, it gave me an opportunity to do something that I was so super nervous about; actually running on the trail. Because it was Hancock, and because my timing is impeccable, it started the raining the moment I started down the trail. It rained on me the whole time, giving me a glimpse of the misery for the runners from last year (no wonder they were so cranky). Personally though, it was a perfect blend of excitement and terror. I had never tried to run that high in the mountains, I had never tried to disappear on a trail by myself in the mountains (it was safe), and for one split second I allowed myself to be a bit reckless…and I let myself imagine what it’s like coming down this trail into that mile 48 aid station. It was only 3 miles, but after this summer and all the weird health stuff, it was my reminder that dreams still exist to be accomplished.
I came back into the aid station to the volunteers covering themselves in glitter and neon
I kid you not.
They decided that ‘rave’ was the theme of the aid station, and hey…I ACTUALLY GO TO RAVES!
With glitter in my beard, mushrooms
consumed painted on my face, and my actually raving shirt from a Krewella rave months ago; I was ready to bounce my way through Hancock for the night.
My instructions were simple; all I had to do was park cars. Personally, I loved this because it gave me an opportunity to interact with the crew members of all of the runners. Something I have a slight, morbid obsession with. Each crew team that came through were cheerful, energized, and extremely friendly. A few remembered me from the year prior, one asked where my red jacket was, and another was curious why I wasn’t running (har…har…har…). As I continued to pack in the vehicles, I started to notice that the vehicles were not leaving in a rush. Literally, the road to Hancock began to look more like a major sports event (minus that one drunken, 45 year old man who thinks that the coach should have put him in back in ’85 to win state…just me instead). Hancock was getting packed at the actual aid station. While this was all taking place a car had been parked just next to my own. The runners/crew/humans were throwing a ball for a dog up the mountain.
The next thing I knew was one of them coming up to me with a bag of cookies…
Hey. We got into our junk food stash, want some cookies?
Like I’m declining that offer.
As we conversed over the hour, I started to learn more about the two then I could have ever imagined. While the primary race of High Lonesome was indeed a bunch of people sniveling, crying, and snot-rocketing their way through the mountains, there was also a relay going on at the same time, on the same course.
Yes, dearest reader, there was a relay race at High Lonesome. I’ll never have flashbacks of my high school coach looking for a fill for the 4×1600 meter race ever again. Why the relay? Those in the relay were all friends of Hannah, and they were running the course in her memory with her bib that she was to have during this race. They were some of her closest friends, and it was a challenge to keep it together listening to the story. Each pair ran 25 miles a piece. The first pair was struggling, not because of the terrain or the course, but because of the reality. Just knowing that of these rugged movers was heartbreaking in its own right.
As time drew near for the trade off, the two went over the aid station, and had a small request for myself and my wife at the vehicles. Would we watch their dog? I am not a dog person, but I really like people in Colorado, so inherently my answer was a resounding yes. The dog was chill, and his name was Saco.
I had no idea that Saco would be the mascot of the race.
I had no idea that Saco had been recently adopted by the two I was talking to.
I had no idea that Saco had a history of some stroke-like symptoms that caused his face to droop a little bit in the cutest way.
I had no idea that Saco had been Hannah’s dog for years.
I had no idea that I could draw close to a dog (especially after being nipped at, at the actual aid station by another dog).
Saco just laid down in the shade, drank some water, and watched the world go by. I
couldn’t resist by to scratch his head and just remind him that he’s a good boy. He helped me park cars for about an hour, and also find Rick Mayo of Mile 90 Photography, before the rest of the relay team came back to the car.
After departing from Saco and from parking duty (still proud of that), I hiked back to Hancock to see absolute insanity in the best possible way. The sun was setting, the air was getting rather chilly, and people were sitting in chairs, standing on rocks, or wandering into the woods waiting on their runner (I am so sorry for that poor soul that I spotlighted around 9:00 PM in the woods, you were very sneaky). When each athlete finally came in, Hancock erupted with cheers and screams. You honestly would have thought that the finish line was right in front of you. That’s where I met the man that I would refer to as “Taco & Tequila” for the rest of the race. He looked excellent at Hancock. Meaning, he looked pretty rough. However, a conversation about Korean Beef Tip Tacos at Taco del Gnar with a beer after the race sounded appealing enough that he left for his next leg (that or it was so nauseating that he just wanted to get away from me…I have that gift). Heather came into Hancock also, a bit cold, but in good spirits. I found out much later, like after the race, that she had signed up for this race partly because of last years report (meaning, she’s a glutton for punishment). An hour of bottles being filled, runners being chatted with, and a handful of social miscues on behalf of myself, and I labeled Hancock a success.
I bid my farewell to the station, and began my long trip to Monarch Pass with a simple thought of fact in my head:
The crew members were High Lonesome.
12:00 AM Saturday: There are a few things that are guaranteed in life; death, taxes, and bowel movements. Last year I had the great fortune of stumbling across a bathroom in the middle of the night in Poncha Springs on route to Monarch Pass. Obviously, like any other time, I had high hopes of the same low point in my life. My wife, half asleep, delirious, and questioning why on earth this was a ‘cool thing to do’ for an anniversary (love you), sat shotgun as I wheeled up my beloved Shell.
Only to learn that hours of operations had changed (times are tough), and the store…and bathrooms…were closed.
While my insides continued to die, we made haste to Monarch Pass. There really wasn’t a plan at the pass, just a chance to get some rest before our next stop at Blanks Cabin.
Wheeling into Monarch, there were two things that were immediately noticeable; the fact that it was freezing cold with wind, and also the stars in the sky. Last year Monarch as a foggy mess of depression and poor choices (both for runners and for myself). This year the sky graced us with its own light during the middle the passing night. I could see the stars, the Milky Way, Venus, Mars, and just about everything else out there (except Sputnik…I don’t want to see Sputnik). The moment, short lived, was a clear reminder of why we come out and do stupid things in the woods. It’s for the moment where the world, the self, and the universe connects together between chattering teeth and Ramen Noodles. After checking in with “Rock” at the aid station, I popped the seats down in the back of our vehicle, pulled up my quilt, wool blanket, 500 pillows, sleeping bag, and hunkered down for a quick sleep.
I never slept.
First, the theory of car camping is solid. However, if you don’t have something comfortable to lay on between you and the framing of that car, the ridge from the seat will give you a reason to visit your chiropractor upon your return to civilization.
Second, we were in a parking lot. Each time a crew members vehicle parked, the lights came through the window. I opened my eyes to realize that with the stars I was finally being abducted, or it was just another random DUI checkpoint.
Reality is this; the natural world, stars, planets, moons combined in the stillness of night…that’s High Lonesome.
6:00 AM Saturday: After a drive on a ‘road’ that would make the road to Hancock blush, we found ourselves in the isolated aid station of Blanks Cabin. There was no cabin, it was just a few tents and plenty of cows. At mile 82 this is when the runners start to get a crazier look in their face then usual.
Blanks was absolutely one of the most incredible aid stations I have seen in some time. Check this out, the kitchen area was ran by a guy who owned a restaurant and a guy who just enjoyed serving people (never being around an ultra in his life). They volunteers outside of the kitchen were roaming about pestering runners, and it all led up to the captain; Emily.
Fun fact about Emily: Prior to moving to Colorado, she lived and ran in the Kansas City/Lawrence area. In fact, she ran with the same people I currently run with back home, before heading west.
Emily is absolutely insane.
Emily, when not running, jumps out of planes and tries to break world records with lots of other people jumping out of planes. When Emily is running, she has a tendency to get “trench foot” while running, and also has a history of picking up a lost calf and carrying it back to its mother during the race.
I. Kid. You. Not.
Emily had an unofficial 10 minute timer before she “kicked you out” of the aid station, and was adamant about throwing a no hitter in relation to no drops at her aid station.
Ladies and gentlemen; I would like to introduce you to Trail Nerds/Mud Babes/Trail Hawks West led by Emily. It was a slice of home…10,000 feet up.
The runners started trickling in before the
plague convoy group of crew members really descended (ascended) to Blanks. Nothing brings more joy to me then getting to belt out, “Bring out yer dead!” at 6:30 AM when a runner is coming into an aid station. Alex (kitchen) was the master of breakfast burritos (because…ultras…because…running…because…Colorado) made to order for the runners. You read that right, we were yelling out orders like a little restaurant while Alex was cooking. Crew members were already crying, runner had been crying (for miles), and the aid station crew was there keeping tabs, writing down numbers, and making sure everyone was attended to. Honestly, I had a hard differentiating between this event and the recovery from a natural disaster (I’ve done both for the record), minus the fact that people paid for this event. This included finding Taco & Tequila having the time of his life. In fact, he was having so much fun that he almost made an error that he would have never forgotten. With a smile, he looked at me and said…
You should pace me in.
Dearest reader; there are bad ideas and there are ideas that are so bad that they appear great. My gear was in my car a 1/4 mile away. In fact, because of my packing, I actually had all the mandatory gear in my pack. I had my shoes already on, and my running pants already on. If I wasn’t so adamant about getting him out of the aid station, I would have done it. That’s my confession; I would have gladly paced that last 18 miles. It would have been a horrible, horrible idea on so many levels. However, the waivers were at the aid station and my gear was checked.
I let him move on without me. The second year I turned down a pacing opportunity during this race (and the second year a pacer didn’t become stranded at High Lonesome). Also, I was still reeling from the crew member that looked at her runner earlier in the morning and said (after he laid down when he came in), “Oh? You just needed some time with your kiddie blanket to feel better now?”
The cutoff at this aid station was 2:30 PM. I had gone out on the trail to walk a few runners into the station to keep them moving because it was beginning to get hot. Threw ice on a runner (seriously Colorado…it’s called boob ice!), and by 2:20 PM we were missing one runner. Emily looked at me, strapped a cowbell on my neck, and said, “Go find him!” while I took off running into the woods for my third trail run of the entire race.
He was just moving at his own pace, on route, and he looked great. His story was one that will divide people, but at the same time bring about this amazing sense of joy. He ran the race last year, and completed it in those nasty conditions. This year, he came back from Georgia, and signed up a week prior to the race. His friends were already entered. The concept was for him to run with his friends through the whole race. Georgia is different from Colorado. At one point he waited 45 minutes for them at an aid station early in the race. Unfortunately, altitude sickness got to both of them and they dropped, leaving him behind schedule and alone. He kept moving though without concern, and without a single regret. He left our aid station with 4 minutes to spare. Some could argue that his idea wasn’t bright and selfless doesn’t equal success, but he truly did not care. His friends waited for him at Blanks, and got him back out. That moment of selflessness echoed through the whole aid station.
Georgia was High Lonesome.
4:00 PM Saturday: In a barren field up the grueling, cruel, paved hill from Princeton Springs sat the start/finish line. Through the dust and wind, we arrived at the end of our High Lonesome journey. Runners were coming in left and right; blisters and tears were scattered throughout the worn resting in chairs. Chili was being served with Laws Whiskey on the side. Start/Finish wasn’t a place for the survivors this year, it was the place of the winners, the runners, and the joy of the sport.
David from Golden Mountain Runners (GMR) met me there with the BOCO GMR hat that I so desperately had wanted since unofficially adopting myself into their running group. Buzzing with a porter, Laws, and a few amazing cookies I just took in the entire moment. The kissing, hugging, photos, and stories. This was it. This was exactly where I wanted to be at the exact moment. I wanted to see the finish, the finishers, the fight, the emotion, and I wanted to mentally record it for my own dark times. Their stories and their images would be my fuel for my adventures.
Eventually, the reality of what had gone on in my own body started to emerge. I exhaustion began to set in, and I realized that I still had two hours to get back to Colorado Springs for a shower, food, and a place to sleep. I said goodbye to Caleb, Kelsey, David, Lauren, Anthony and the list really could go on for hours. I was leaving a family reunion that I actually wanted to stay at.
Driving out of the field and getting ready to turn onto the road, I pulled a KeKe and jumped out of our moving vehicle. Heather, whom I had seen at Hancock and Blanks, was 200 meters away from the finish line. She was moving, and that’s what counted. I had told her crew that I would be at the finish line for a while. I gave her a hug, said how proud I was to see her do something amazing, and then got out of the way. It was her race to finish.
An hour later, cruising through the rain heading into Colorado Springs, I sent Caleb and Kelsey a quick message. Thanking them for allowing me to hang out and create chaos with a purpose throughout the race.
Caleb replied first. He stated that I should have gotten a High Lonesome edition bottle of whiskey for my work.
It was a super kind gesture.
I replied back:
No worries about the bottle. Let me earn it 😉
Even though I never knew her; I’m pretty sure that’s what Hannah would have wanted.
She is High Lonesome.
For the new reader; we left off on this random adventure of nonsense with a trip to the emergency room, Troponin, and chest pains. After four and half hours of entertaining nurses with unstoppable word vomit (I am so sorry to the University of Kansas Emergency Room), I was informed that I would be seeing a cardiologist and have a stress test done in mid-July.
Reminder from the rules of the previous post:
Rule 2: Yes, you do have to go get a stress test in July. That will cover anything else that may have been missed.
Oh, if only life was that easy. Granted, I had been restricted on my activities up until my followup on July 9th. This meant that I only had to survive the Night Hawk 50K, not actually run in it for 2018. It also meant going a little stir crazy, really embracing the ADHD, making a ton of origami cranes*, and making random trips to Colorado.
No big deal.
I had two objectives in relation to my health:
In an early morning, fighting the traffic of Johnson County, Kansas (bring on “the 405” world), I stumbled into the Mid-America Cardiology Office at Overland Park, Kansas. I was the youngest in the room by 50 years, and I wore all my running gear because I was told I was going to get a treadmill.
Being nervous I walked into the room, and started the process…
Go ahead and step on the scale.
*Reads 260.5 pounds*
*Steps off scale*
*Cries on the inside*
The nurse and I stepped into the cold medical room of a flat table, one-ply paper on the bed that would be a God-sent if you needed as toilet paper after 40 miles…but only then, and she started with the standard routine.
Checking blood pressure.
So she checked the blood pressure.
So she got quiet.
So I stared off into space.
So this was the most awkward date I had, had in years.
155/105. Is your blood pressure usually this high?
Ha! If you think that’s high, you should have seen it in the emergency room when it was 163/137!
*Nurse walks away*
I sat in the room alone, fidgeting, trying to understand why these rooms always feel so cold, listening to my heart, and trying to figure out if I could get in the miles I wanted during the week.
That’s when the doctor came in.
I thought that the doctor was a cardiologist (ignorance is bliss people), but later I would learn it was a PA (physicians assistant). She gave me a quick look, looked at my chart, and said…possibly…one of the most awkward things I’ve heard in quite some time…
Shawn. Do you understand with this kind of blood pressure you are on the cusp of being at high risk for a stroke?
We’re going to get you started on some blood pressure medication today.**
So I got quiet.
So she left.
So I felt sick.
So, in my running singlet, this was the second most awkward date I’ve had in years.
After I stepped out of the office with my prescription and schedule for the real stress test (because somehow that wasn’t it), I did what any normal person would do after being diagnosed with high blood pressure as an ultramarathon runner at the age of 30…
I went and got a shake, two cookies, and nearly lost it at the gym that I train at because I was emotionally devastated.
Yes, even as a sub-par, daydreaming athlete, I felt broken. Also, because of the time between the medication and the stress test, every day felt like a ticking time bomb. However, there were so many people that found themselves frequently calming me down, showing me articles of ultramarathon runners who are on high blood pressure medication, and I even started to get random, vegan cookbooks in the mail from friends elsewhere in the United States.
The world was telling me to eat broccoli, and hope that I would survive.
I kept running with the new medication in me. There were no to very little side effects, but the toll it took on my brain was extensive. Medication is new to me, something that doesn’t happen too often, and after a stellar month of running in June, July was slowing down and quickly turning into the summer from hell (no pun intended in relation to the heat in Kansas City during this time). I made some adjustments to my diet (DASH, yay!), and counted down the days until my stress test.
Results: Objective 1 ended like a dumpster fire you find with MLB baseball teams (or at least their trash cans in their parking lot).
I had dialed down the miles, focused on yoga and strength, and enjoyed frequent meals of hay. Sure, it was only two weeks since the blood pressure medication started, but after a round of panic attacks, I was feeling solid. Heat running scared me, but like any good runner…I wasn’t dead…yet.
The stress test comprised of three specific tests: echocardiogram, treadmill stress test, and a nuclear heart scan. The catch was no caffeine for a day before the test, no food from midnight on to the test…allow me to repeat that…a runner was not permitted to eat between midnight and the test at 9:15 AM. People! I almost died of starvation (and they almost died of me being hangry).
For this stress test I waltzed into the office ready to slay anything before me. I was rocking my Run 816 singlet, BOCO hat, and my 6″ compression Ruhn Co. shorts (shout out to the 93 year old that couldn’t take their eyes off of me! Again…I am so sorry).
I can say, looking back, that I would never wish a stress test on anyone. It’s, well, stressful. They started by making me feel like I was expecting and was in my final trimester by smothering me with the gel that you see with ultrasounds, and running through an echocardiogram.
The technicians were silent. The only time they spoke to me was when the needed me to breathe, hold my breath, breathe normal, let some air at, get some air in, etc…
It wasn’t the Simon Says that made my hyperventilate, it was seeing my heart beat on a screen, and watch people do their jobs…silently.
I was convinced something was up.
After an hour of that out-of-body experience I finally got my treadmill. Now, a friend of mine that runs ultras (like, actually runs them) had been on the treadmill test before. Meaning one simple thought…
…I have to beat her on the treadmill.
After the kind folks hooked up all the cables on me (while shaving a smiley face into my
chest hair), they allowed the newest version of Doc Ock to step onto the treadmill.
The rule was simple: I had to keep track of where I was on the pain chart. They started me moving slow and at an incline. Every three minutes the treadmill will automatically speed up and increase in elevation.
Basically, I was running hill repeats and I was rather giddy. I started pounding the rubber while they kept looking at my vitals, and checking my blood pressure. It was crazy hard (remember, no food since midnight), but I lasted a solid 15 minutes on the device. I maxed out at a 204 HR (104% of my max HR), and a blood pressure of 200/100 (the only time that is normal is while conducting strenuous activity, as the poor lady had to remind me…frequently). I also set a course record on the treadmill for the amount of sweat left on the device after finishing. No regrets.
Directly after the test they shot a nuclear isotope into my body, giving me the strength of The Hulk (missing the intellect of Bruce Banner though), and set me up in the machine to watch that particle move through my body. I fell asleep.
I started this whole process at 8:00 AM. I was completely finished with everything by 3:00 PM. That gives you an idea of the duration of the full order of an echocardiogram, stress test, nuclear heart scan, and blood panel. Afterwards, a scheduler set me up with my next appointment to go over the results with a cardiologist.
Results: Something was fishy with the echocardiogram, and the salad shop just down the road was a disappointing lunch.
I so wish the story ended right there, but trust me…things are about to get even stranger…
I was first scheduled for the next Wednesday to go over the results. On Tuesday I was told that I need to see an actual cardiologist (because I wasn’t going to this time either?), so they moved me to the next Wednesday. On Wednesday, while at my parents house, I received a call again from the department. I was informed that they were needing to change my appointment again. Becoming a little more confident in my patient rights I asked what was going on for all of this to happen.
The. Next. Statement.
Shawn. Looking at your information, we need you to see a cardiologist because your tests had some questions in them.
Your coronary arteries are hardening, so you’ll need to get in to see what options…including heart surgery…may exist to get this addressed.
Go ahead. Reread that quote again.
What you’re telling me is that even though I ran a 50 mile race last September, even though I ran a 50K mountain race in June, even though I climbed a mountain a month prior to this…my arteries are hardening?
You can only imagine what my search history on Google looked like for hours after that. Like any decent human I panicked, and spent the day problem solving, learning about stents, reading articles about ultrarunners and blocked arteries, and trying to get a grasp on what was going on. I went from training, running like crazy, to sitting in my car thinking about heart surgery. It was that fast.
The race director of The Hawk 100 suggested that I call the cardiologist for more information (shoutout to her for being an awesome mother over the past month). I called and left a message, directly after telling my administration of my school I may have heart surgery during the school year.
At 4:30 PM, while trying to process all of this with my wife, the phone rang. I answered it because I thought it was a friend that I had just spoken with about heart attacks, and overall cardiovascular health.
It was a nurse from the cardiologist office. Her name was Mary, and she asked what was going on that had me worried about my meeting with the doctor.
I gave her the story.
Shawn, I am so sorry. We do not even have your test results back. It would be impossible to give you that kind of information. I am so, so sorry. I have some of your information here from the blood work and the stress test. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, so let me take a look at a few things because that does not make sense.
Shawn, you there? Great. Listen, your blood panels are perfect. What information I have from your echocardiogram shows a very healthy heart. I can’t imagine your fear, but know that what we’re looking at shows that you are very healthy.
The conversation lasted a few more minutes, lowering my blood pressure (HA!) in the process. I was able to sleep that night, soundly, for the first time in three weeks…after I had to go back and tell everyone that had been tracking me that it was all a clerical error.
I woke up the next morning, Friday, to another phone call from the cardiologist. They felt horrible about the mistake made, so instead of me waiting a week to see him, they were wondering if I would like to come in within the next hour.
I was out the door.
I met with Dr. Dak Burnett from the University of Kansas Cardiovascular Health. He’s in his late 50’s, early 60’s I’d guess? When he walked in he wanted to know what went on with the scheduler and the ‘hardening of the arteries’, so I repeated the story. They had long since launched an investigation into the phone call and discovered that someone had read me the results of another patient.
After getting that out of the way; Dr. Burnett hopped right into the facts:
Your echocardiogram was abnormal during your tests. If you were a 70 year old woman who didn’t move, we’d be prepping you for surgery because of your heart. However, because of your background, you are on the opposite end of the bell curve in relation to heart health.
Your heart is enlarged, but not just the muscle tissue that gets many people in trouble. Everything is enlarged, including your coronary arteries. What this means is you ‘idle’ lower than the average person. It requires less strokes from your heart to move the same blood through your body. We would compare you to an elite soccer player because of this, and if the department existed, we would be tempted to move you to sports cardiology. It’s a fascinating heart, and it has evidently adapted for what you do with the miles you log.
I kind of felt proud.
Overall, if someone did not know my background as a runner, the tests would have been off substantially, raising flags in the process. However, because of the amount of running that I do, my heart has adapted to that environment, and displays on tests that it happens to be extremely efficient.
I have zero heart issues. My sodium levels, cholesterol levels, self esteem levels were all right where they should be.
That was the first area of discussion.
The next piece was the blood pressure. I had been on Norvasc for three weeks at this point, and it had not put a dent in my blood pressure (still 150/96). Obviously, this is still a massive problem because a 31 year old should not be walking around with that kind of blood pressure. The doctor put me on Losartan along with Norvasc. It’s also a very friendly “runner drug”, but staying hydrated is super important because of what it can do to your kidneys.
I brought up the weight with him also because no one made a comment of…well…I weigh a lot!
Could you lose weight? I guess? If you want to? No one talked to you about it because you can run 40 miles at 260 pounds. Also, you could change your diet, weight, sodium intake, etc…your blood pressure is not going to be affected by those changes.
This one is 100% genetics, and you’ll be on these drugs for the rest of your life.
Fun fact about this doctor; he’s a hiker. He hikes things like the Andes Mountains, and backpacks across entire countries. It was such a relief to hear that about him, because he’s active enough in an extreme sense that he understands my own
Before stepping out I asked if there were any restrictions to activity. His words made my day:
Go run your ultras.
I left his office and drove straight to the gym to share the information.
I ran just under 6 miles that night.
I ran 4 more two days later.
That’s the most miles I put together in three days in over a month.
Training for my next 50K starts next Monday.
Moral to the story: Sounds cliche, but seriously, if you are doing something considered an ‘extreme sport’ by the rest of the world (be honest people), get yourself checked out by a doctor just to make sure everything is functioning as it should.
*I made zero cranes.
**This is the first time in my life that I have ever been given a prescription.
Do you want to kill yourself? Do you want to harm yourself?*
Yes, that is how you start out any interesting story that connects somehow, someway to strange world of trail running and all the insanity that comes with it.
I need to preface prior to the waterfall of thoughts, beliefs, and poor choices to state that I am not a medical professional (and the world is a slightly better place because of that). Everything that I am typing comes from personal experience (over the past 48 hours) that I firmly believe highlights the actual risk that is associated with our sport today.
Without further ado…let’s talk about breaking my heart…
First, let’s begin with a confession. I am competitive. Mentally at least, physically is more like a daydream on the days that I forget my medication. Internally though I am competitive. Even during strength class, when required to carry kettlebells like a jug of moonshine from down south down the street and back…yes, I wanted to complete it first. I am opening my heart, soul, and fears to confess that as a trail runner internally I am competitive.
Because of that, and my lack of experience, knowledge, skill, hopes, dream, etc…I tend to want to rush everything to ‘catch up’ with everyone else. However, the fun part of trail running, especially the endurance races, is that isn’t how it works. Patience, grace, and humility tend to be the building blocks of success.
I tend to miss those blocks, step on them in the middle of the night, and then wonder why we didn’t just replace the world’s landmines with Lego’s instead.
I am a teacher in my other life. That means the summers are designed for a time to recharge, refresh, and more importantly…run. The month of June this year was just littered with all sorts of new opportunities for me. Whether that was running the North Fork 50K, climbing around Quandary Peak, fishing in the Missouri heat, or learning that raves at night clubs have dress codes…I was moving around the nation literally the day after school got out.
Here’s the kicker to all of that though…
I never stopped.
I told myself that I would “recover” after North Fork by fishing and camping an entire weak in 90 degree heat in southern Missouri. The recovery from that trip would be me attempting (and failing) to climb my first 14er in Colorado the following weekend. Finally, the ease back into ‘reality’ I would not do anything strenuous for a while, I would just go to a rave, and finish the month with another 50K. Granted, to make sure I wasn’t too lax throughout the month I had yoga, a yoga mala, strength class, ab class, Monday run nights, Friday speed sessions, and all sorts of goodies in-between.
The knowledgeable, experienced runners know exactly where this story is going by now.
Two nights ago, on another normal Monday night run, I went running with my friends (yes, they are real). The final mile I was feeling spunky (because it was only 80 degrees, not the standard 1000 degrees outside), and in turn I dramatically** picked up the pace.
Dramatically: Going from a comfortable 16 minute pace down to a 10 minute pace and holding it for nearly a mile on single track.
Upon finishing my attempt at the land speed record (and likely causing the seismograph in the community to go off) I slowed down and walked out for some fresh air. That’s when I noticed my chest hurt. Yes, seriously, it felt like I had a cramp in my chest near the center. I laughed it off (freaked out internally) and went to dinner. At dinner I had a classic meltdown in front of the people at the table (so sorry!), and talked about my concern. They were all super chill.
I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning. The dull ache was still there (this is where the medical folks reading this go, “You’re an idiot!”), but I decided to go to yoga because I couldn’t figure out the different between a physical issue, anxiety, and a panic attack. After too many namaskars to count, a ton of sweat, and a moment of relaxation broken up by a Harley Davidson zooming away (to another country? Too soon?) I made the comment that the cramping, dull pain was still there…except that it was a little further to the left.
The next comment, I kid you not…
Go ahead and get in my car. We’re going to go get you checked out at urgent care. Actually…we’re going to the ER.
Now, this comment came from a person with medical background, someone very knowledgeable, and likely someone who did not want to perform CPR on my gangling, pasty body. I didn’t question, I just followed.
I could tell you the story of being in the ER, but solely off my writing style I’m certain you
can imagine what kind of dumpster fire that was. My blood pressure was through the roof, they couldn’t get me calmed down, and I could not shut up. Frankly, it was less like a hospital visit, and more like the final 5 minutes before a race starts.
After two EKG’s (heart stuff), a blood pressure cuff that freaked me out, two blood tests, a bag of IV fluids, being asked at least 10 times if I wanted to kill myself, and a really creepy lady named Betty (psych eval); I was out of the hospital by 12:30 AM this morning.
I went in at 8:00 PM last night.
Thankfully all of the signs for a cardio moment, like a heart attack, were negative. In fact almost everything looked rather healthy. However, there was one indicator on the blood work that caught the attention of all three doctors, nurse, and creepy Betty (you had to be there) was this stuff called Troponin. There was an amount of it that was found within the blood tests. Troponin is a protein enzyme that should stay in your heart, not the rest of your body. It is a protein that helps your heart contract when it is going through the beating process. If you have some sort of heart injury, heart attack, cardiovascular failure, Troponin can show up in your blood work.
It showed up in mine.
I was hooked to an IV, and practically told to chill. The results from everything else were not indicative of a heart attack. However, with that protein floating around, something was obviously amiss somewhere. After the IV was finished they ran the results again; the Troponin levels were back to normal. According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, if Troponin levels continue to stay elevated for days (10-14) it can indicate a heart attack has taken place. However, if the numbers drop there is a strong consideration of another piece in play.
Once the head doctor got my story of what I do with my free time (hehe), and started looking at the charts, everything was coming into focus. While preliminary (stress test ordered for next month), his thoughts are that I overexerted myself over the past month. Imagine your body being dehydrated for an entire month, imagine not taking legitimate rest days for an entire month, now you’re starting to see the same picture he was seeing.
The reality is that I pushed my heart, along with all other muscles, too far, too fast, and this was the result. Yes, I did injury my heart in this process. No, it was not a heart attack. Yes, it can result in a quick recovery if
you I play by the rules.
Rule 1: No, you cannot go run the Night Hawk 50K this Saturday. The doctor indicated that by crossing his arms in the form of an “X” and saying, “Times three.”
Rule 2: Yes, you do have to go get a stress test in July. That will cover anything else that may have been missed.
Rule 3: No, you cannot run or do strenuous activities prior to the stress test. You need to rest.
Rule 4: Yes, those closest to you will kill you if you try to violate any rules mentioned above.
Rule 5: Learn to rest.
For the experienced runner much of this information above is redundant and a whole lot of ‘duh’. However, for the rest of us I really do think it is a crucial lesson. I did not get an advantage over other people, I did not ‘up my game’ on the trails, and yes I did hurt myself in the process. The good news is that I am surrounded by knowing individuals who repeatedly keep me from making really bad choices, or at least are there to pick up the pieces afterwards.
It is easy to get excited, wrapped up in the fun, and in some cases make stupid ideas because they result in hilarious stories. At the same time, there is a fine line between trying new things and causing harm to yourself and your passion.
For once, even with a smile, let this be my lesson so that I can run further next time.
*I learned that it is common for people with heart attacks to sometimes feel lousy before the incident and become extremely depressed. Hence the constant checking.
**For humor purposes; 16 minute mile to a 10 minute mile…that’s dramatic in my world
I have learned of a few sayings in the trail running community over the span of the past two years:
The mountains are calling, I must go
Not all who wander, are lost
I am pleased to share that after studying each saying, reflecting on them with
granola crunchy hipsters trail runners, and dreaming of the cliche world of tattoos with these sayings on my wrist, back, foot, and heart…that I have come to a solid conclusion:
Both of these sayings are just traps set by higher powers in order to snare humans into despair, misery, and quite possibly death…or worse…all three.
Our story begins within the confinements of Arc’teryx. No, this is not a French statue, nor is it alphabet soup. Instead it represents some weird, dead bird-animal-thing that would make Jurassic Park blush if they knew how evil it truly was. In 2018 the dead bird-animal-thing has taken on an even scarier presence for people like myself; an outdoor clothing store. It was here, within the center of Denver, Colorado that I ran into two people that should have immediately been my indicator that I was in the mix of bad company, and eventual poor choices:
While chowing down on a burger** after hearing Adam speak about his endeavors and remarkable recovery, with Caleb, Kelsey, the manager of Arc’teryx, the winner of the 2017 High Lonesome 100 (Anthony Lee), my wife, and other random people throughout the region, I began to wonder if we’re all connected through bad ideas, good beer, and uplifting stories of perseverance.
Translation: I was near several insane people at the same time that can easily give way to an awesome opportunities to make some really stupid choices.
Welcome to 2018; my first race of the new year, and one thing really still hasn’t changed…
I’ll still find ways to harm myself in the middle of the woods surrounded by darkness, death, and poor choices. Why change what works?
Prior to adventures in the mountains and summer heat; I…being ‘all-knowing’ decided to “warm up” by traveling to the Potawatomi Trail Runs (aka: “The Pot”) in Pekin, Illinois. That’s next to North Pekin, South Pekin, East Peoria, and Peoria. Practically speaking; throw a compass out on your dash, drive to the middle of complete hopeless isolation, leave Chicago, find the other spot of hopeless isolation and you have found Pekin, Illinois.
Driving into the region is quite phenomenal. Understand that Potawatomi takes joy in their elevation claim through each loop (1600 feet). However, if you take any route into the area all you see if flat, corn, flat, corn, Casey’s Convenient Store, flat, and corn.
Do not let your guard down.
Do not feel better about your choice.
Do not go gently into that good night.
You. Will. Suffer.
It. Is. A. Lie.
“The Pot” is an older race within the midwest region. Having existed for well over 10 years. Translated into ultra-years that is quite a duration of pain and suffering. It is a strange race. There are several distance choices; the 200, 150, 100, 50, 30, and 10 mile options for all runners. The course is a
simp…unique 10 mile loop through almost all single track and a few water crossings. 200 and 150 runners start Thursday, 10 mile runners at night on Friday, 100 and 50 Saturday morning, and 30 Saturday night. The only rule? Be done by 4:00 PM Sunday. That’s it. That’s all you have to do.
Originally, I was slated to run the 50 mile race. However, with a random string of random injuries I made my first smart choice of my running career, and dropped to the 30 mile race. That meant that I would be starting in the dark, running through the night, and whimpering into the morning hours. The race, being in April, should have been moderate weather for the time of year. However, Mother Nature couldn’t just get over herself for one split second, and so it snowed at “The Pot”.
By the time my time came to start, the air was cold, the sky was clear, and we were moving between 20 and 15 degrees. Please note those water crossings that were still in this realm of hell.
The beginning of the race is a lie, much like the hope that you have in your soul, you start flat. Really flat. In fact, so flat that I’m proud to report that my first mile was under 10:00 minutes (any experienced distance runner knows what that means for later…). I was cooking under the stars. The beginning is an open, flat prairie priming you for the rest of the night. At mile two, next to a power line, I saw my first omen; a fried, dead woodpecker. That was all it took for me to realize that the night was just getting started.
After witnessing the crispy rendition of Woody, the trail began to show its real teeth. Like a bad roller coaster, I was soon plunged into the eternal darkness, this time without that attractive girl sitting next to me, that I waited all through middle school for that one moment, at that one drop, so that I could place my hand in hers…and cry like a little baby for the next thirty seconds, and remain dateless through the rest of your school years. No? Just me. Continuing on…
The course turned into a single track that weaved through the night, like an elegant, borderline murderous prose from Poe. I was stepping through and dropping down the best I could. One slip, and the flash backs of Bryce Canyon came flooding back,
If I fall right here. I’ll be impaled and then my neck will be snapped by the rocks 200 feet below. This is really scary at 10:30 at night…
I had been warned, via Facebook, that there was a rope on the course to assist you up a hill. Now, even at home we have a rope for a hill, and it is used when the course is muddy, but it isn’t…that bad. Knowing that, in the back of my mind, I continued my trot through the woods of darkness, and eventually my trail ended.
Literally. Just stopped. There was no place to go, I thought I got lost, and then while pondering my next move I heard it. That noise that can be distinguished over all other noises in the woods: profanity. I heard the “F#*@!” above me, and looked up. Just like the scene from Men In Black where the guy sees the other guy plastered to the ceiling by bug juice, I looked up and found where the trail had gone.
In the middle of the night the trail goes up, and it isn’t an incline…it’s a real wall. That rope? It wasn’t a guiding rope. It was that rope that you failed to climb during gym class through elementary and middle school. That’s all there was, and you had to figure out how to get up the evil thing. People were positioned, like drunk mountain goats, along the wall, cursing, crying, and Facetiming their loved ones, knowing it would be their last moment on this planet. I eyeballed the rope, eyeballed my waistline (while inserting a disappointed “sigh”), and realized it wasn’t going to work for me. Instead, I used the trail to its advantage. In northern Illinois there are no rocks on the trails. It is merely dirt and tree roots; that’s all. The roots are really annoying, unless you have the ability to convert them into a ladder.
Yes, at mile 4, I used the roots as ladder to drag my sorry self up that trail in the middle of the night. After catching my breath, thanking God above, I began on the next leg of the journey.
Unfortunately, what goes up, must go down and in “The Pot” that means it goes down at the same rate of angle as it does up. I thought my toes were going to bust through my shoes, my knees were going to crack, and really my ankles felt like T-1000* felt when he was trying to walk after being frozen by the Terminator with liquid nitrogen. That, was the downhill.
The process repeated itself throughout the course. The water crossings were…well…cold, and there were even reports of people getting slush in their shoes while crossing. It was that cold**.
Now, one of the highlights of this unique race is if you are a short distance runner, you get to enjoy running next to the amazing 150 and 200 mile runners. Granted, you’ll be tempted to pat them on the back. However, you won’t for two reasons:
It was not worth the risk.
By mile 7, I had started to realize that this course was quiteawful, my nightmares were flooding my soul, and the screams in the woods were intoxicating to the fear within me. Make no mistake; it was a hard, hard route. You could get lost, you could drown (maybe), you could freeze to death…in fact…there were so many random pieces to it, it felt like I may have taken a wrong turn and wound up at a random, secluded, race in the mountains of Tennessee.
It was at the moment that I thought that ridiculous notion, that I came across an intersection, and sure enough, to my right, was it. Through the paltry light of my headlamp, almost as an attempt to add insult to my evening, was a locked…yellow…gate. Similar to cooked woodpecker, its omen was one of reminding me what I was doing, why I was doing it, and what I needed to do to get out.
Past another creek crossing, through the labyrinth of dirt, I made my way to the disk golf course. Less than half a mile from the finish line I am proud to say that I finally got lost in a race, for approximately one hundred feet. Past that, it was just a short, hobbled stretch into the start finish line.
One lap: Completed.***
Upon passing the start/finish line. I walked over to my wife, laughed a bit, and proceeded to drop from the race.
Yes, you read that correctly, I dropped after 10 miles, just one loop. Why? Because my foot hurt and this was not my goal race. I have had physical therapy, more needles than I can count, A.R.T, and x-rays over the past four months. It has been frustrating, but thankfully it has been progressive. If I had gone out for two more laps (20 miles) there was a high likelihood that I could have messed up my foot with a real injury, and sidelined myself from a 50K in June. It was not worth the risk. Mike, the race director, was humored enough that he took a plaque and with a Sharpee wrote, “10 Mile” and handed it to me. I laughed at the aid station walking out, and I cried in the car heading to our hotel. Dropping is hard, and the regret afterwards is even worse.
Granted, even with dropping, that just justifies my excuse to cut classes and go run this race again (highly, highly recommended).
*Truly, he was the real victim
**Shoutout to the ladies who pulled trash bags over their shoes prior to hopping into the creek, you are the real MVP
***For the math pros out there; that would mean you would run that same course 20 times for the 200 mile race
Someday’s it is best to be cliche.
Looking through the last week of 2017, and the first week of 2018, I noted the people who braved that rabid society of judgement and departure, and posted their goals in the running/health world for the upcoming year.
Make no mistake; I am not a fan of resolutions just because January 1, 2018. Nothing exploded. No one died(ish). Computers still work (s/o to my Y2K peeps). However, I would venture to believe that resolution versus goal could be a fair argument. We make goals. I make goals daily; one day it is only one cookie, one day the goal is twelve. My goal this weekend was to run for hours in the cold, my secondary goal was to eat McDonald’s driving home after said first goal. We are goal driven creatures. We scream the word (in multiple languages) for fun and excitement, it is an embodiment of society. We have to create goals, otherwise the world of Wall-E is closer then any of us care to confess.
With that rant said, all robots aside, I would love to divulge into my goals for the 2018 race season. My self-esteem tends to run between 0-1%, so most judgement is treated like the fur of an otter (they are so cute!), so enjoy these goals while I type (and enjoy my 10% Southern Tier Choklat Stout).
Goal #1: Less is More
I ran a total of 10 different trail races in 2017, that does not include the three suicide missions (AKA: pacing) deep into the night in sketchy places throughout the Midwest. The truth is, much like a drooling, peeing puppy, I got excited about this whole ‘trail thing’, and tried to load up on everything I could find like an American at a buffet.
However, similar to the reality of the soft-serve machine, more isn’t always better. Killing the vanilla ice cream with a pound of gummy bears just because you can doesn’t make the dish any better. Many times, especially with licorice, it makes it worse. I am grateful that I made it through 2017 without injury. Truly, that is a blessing that should be highlighted. I should have been injured, and I should have had several DNF’s. Thankfully, it wasn’t necessarily the case by years end, but something to reflect on.
For 2018, I have three races (and one poor choice) highlighted for my race season:
While I would love to sign up for everything out there, I think it is wiser to have focused training sessions and seasons. Doing so, along with doing it right, can build up to a more successful race. I’ve survived my first year, now I would like to thrive in my second year.
Goal #2: Harass More Runners
More pacing. More volunteering. More Fireball.
There is a belief within the trail running community that volunteering for a race is, in many ways, more rewarding than actually running the race. In many ways I 100% agree. It is fun to disconnect from society, hang out with the other rejects, tell horror stories, and after that runner is done puking; encouraging them to keep moving along the trail. Those are memories, people!
I still loved the medic from High Lonesome 100 that explained for each race she signed up to run, she would also sign up to volunteer at another race. While it is (surprisingly) easy to get addicted to the trails, it is also only because of people, that we are able to enjoy them.
One addition I would add to this goal it to spend more time with our local trail building community; Urban Trail Co. Throughout the year they have maintenance and building days; because I live so close to one of our circuits, there is no excuse why I can’t grab and shovel and pitch in.
Goal #3: Century Mark
It is reckless, I 100% recognize that it is reckless. This year I would like to complete my first 100 mile race. I have a site picked out, a race I know of, and a training schedule to go along with it. I’m not years into the trail running community, but it is something that I definitely want to complete this year.
It is not for the sticker, the buckle, the Instagram likes, or even the blog (though it should be absolutely, mind-blowing stupid with humor). Selfishly, I just want to do it for me. I want to run 100 miles in the woods free of this world. I just want to explore every aspect of my soul; from the highest points to the lowest, and back again. Most of the time I do things because I want a funny, stupid story out of it. This one time though, this one race, I want to see something new about myself that I didn’t know existed.
…and then days later I’ll write a stupid story.
Goal #4: Focus
Anyone who has ever had to work with me in the gym or a yoga studio or at home or at work or at…well…anyways, focusing sucks. I hate it. I hate having a single track direction for anything. I would rather splinter out into a million ideas. However, when it comes to these races and these goals for this year, I can only find success if I focus week in and week out. That means not necessarily getting caught up in fun games with friends, not taking extended vacations, and not binge watching AKB0048 (again). Focus breaks down into training, rest, and diet. I am blessed that my wife has decided to eat grass for the rest of her life (AKA: vegan), so that has absolutely adjusted my diet within our house. I have an insane amount of support within the running community, the health community, and the nutrition community. Focus means relying on others for help when I don’t have the answer, and from this only-child’s perspective, that’s a hard thing to do. Additionally, focusing for nine months is not an easy task (shoutout to all the mothers out there).
There you go. A quick compilation of ideas and goals heading into the 2018 season. Summed up; so much revolves around quality over quantity. It feels strange saying that, but in the end that is a lesson learned from 2017. I have had fun surviving, but now I want to become faster and stronger. I want to wear those ideals better than Kanye (and half as good as Daft Punk).
Happy 2018 from one sucker to another!
…hehe…I’m getting crafty with my titles…
True story; I delayed on writing this race recap simply because I am an extremely conceited individual. Translation; I read last year’s race recap for The Back 40 trail race, and I laughed so much reading it that I convinced myself I couldn’t do any better. Vanity truly is my middle name*.
The Back 40, as alluded to last season on “stupid runners”, is a beautiful 20 mile loop in northern Arkansas. The race is held in December so that all can enjoy the reality of winter in the Ozark region as I did as a young, broke college student who had recently been dumped.
Cold. Windy. Grey. Death.
There was no ‘heat wave’ to speak of this random weekend of December, no, it was just cold and windy. The race started at a balmy, tear jerking 21 degrees**. Like all other smart runners I stayed in the tent near the start/finish until the race director politely guided us to the starting point to give his announcements…
Hey! Y’all are fart’n near the open flame heaters I’m not talk’n to y’all in here, otherwise I may die. Get outside!
Welcome back to The Back 40.
Mentally, I came into this race in search of a break. I finally was able to admit it within my own mind. I was tired, worn out from running, and winter sucks. I wanted to relax, do yoga, eat cheeseburgers, and stay away from being in places where the air hurts my face. In my own warped reality; The Back 40 was my ‘swan song’ to a year of traumatic, near death experiences.
All I had to do was survive.
I started in the field where I should have (dead last), and had all the necessary equipment on me. I chose my small UltrAspire device because I only wanted water, Tailwind was for ‘last ditch efforts’, my dear Honey Stinger gels, and I wanted a spot to hold my peppermints. Those same peppermints that I had my wife go grab fifteen minutes prior to start because I forgot mine in Kansas City. The irony is while I hate winter, I do enjoy winter’s kiss in the form of Starlight mints while crying in the woods. There is something soothing of remembering being picked on with candy canes in elementary school from my classmates each time I eat a peppermint…a reminder that somehow, something could be worse compared to dying at mile 15.
There was no gun, no timer, no beep, just our beloved RD yelling, “get go’in” to flush us down the tube of immortality. The twenty mile was the event that I had signed up for. Initially, pre “The Hawk“, I thought I wanted to do the 40 mile option this year. Of course, I realized that, that was a horrifically stupid idea and only wanted twenty out of The Natural State.
Within the first quarter mile I made two very quick realizations:
I learned that I could run a race in the event that one of my arms was immobilized (because I could see myself dislocating my shoulder in a mountain race and going on to win it…har-har-har) due to my wardrobe malfunction. I am already shunned in my ‘real life’ outside of the running world, so naturally I was mortified of dropping my drawers to expose my pasty self to all those good souls out for this December stroll. At the same time, I was trying to warm up and get moving, so walking wasn’t necessarily an option either. Embracing my inner-Kílian I continued running, swinging one arm like a mad pirate singing a Disney song, and kept the other snuggly attached to the waistline of my pants.
This went on for a half mile. Finally, when the single track started to remind me of ‘good ole times’ I stopped to adjust my pants. After ensuring that no blood would circulate below my waist, assuring all passing runners that I did not already need a salt tablet, I took off for the rest of my 19.5 mile adventure.
Realistically, a lot has changed personally since running this race a year ago, over the rocks, the hills, and the overall terrain nothing really bothered me. I say this half joking, but by mile 5 I was so thankful that I had decided to attempt races in the mountains. That time helped me mentally understand that I truly wasn’t going to die in Arkansas, and that indeed things could be much, much worse.
At mile six I departed from the two that I had tracked for the majority of the race.
What that really meant; I stopped at the aid station and they were fast. This slow pace would pay off in the later mileage as I would learn that one of our runners was indeed struck by a deer running through the course. People, I cannot make this stuff up.
At mile ten I had started to figure out the system of the trail that we were on. The trail is actually labeled every .25 miles. This can either be a great thing for those of you who are curious about your location, or a death sentence for those of you wondering, “Will this ever end?” Important note: The race and the course do not match. There is a two mile difference from what you see on the course and what your actual mileage is. Meaning, because God (and the RD) enjoy toying with humans, the tree may read 10 miles, but the truth is during The Back 40 you would have only traveled 8. This translated to me doing elementary math the entire time that I was out on the course. I cannot express to you how much of a struggle that can be for some of us.
Finally, I decided that I would look at my watch when I had accomplished thirteen of the
twenty miles. After two aid stations and some time alone in the woods (a lot) I looked at my screen and sent a text to my wife letting her know where I was mileage-wise.
The elementary math came flooding up when I looked at the 13 mile mark.
3 hours and 5 minutes…
It was at that moment, between a man with a chainsaw up the hill and the creepy red balloon near the drainpipe, that realization had dawned on me. I had just set a half marathon personal record by 35 minutes.
…and that’s where I lost it…
Between the broken oven and two water heaters in the ditch along the trail I had snot and tears running down my face; while trying to also ingest a honey based gel. In so many aspects I was one ugly ginger running around in the woods of Arkansas (something tells me I will not be the last). While this year had been triumphant in the sake that I escaped with no injuries and only one DNF; personally I was seeking just one example, one moment that demonstrated that I had grown. GOATz was close, but I chose to drop the 50K, so in my head…it did not count. This though, along the rugged moguls (not to be mistaken with muggles) and razor rocks, this was real, this was proof, this was
evidence that I was doing something, anything right.
Through the mental celebration of growth I missed the part about seven miles remaining in my journey, and through that blissful ignorance, one stumble across a rock and it hit.
Since “The Hawk” I have had a rather annoying cramping issue. It isn’t in my back, calves, quads, hamstrings, etc…I get the same cramp at nearly the exact same part of any long run. Imagine, someone taking a golf ball made of metal, heating it to approximately 212 degrees, and then pressing it along the inside of your thighs, just below your waist.
That is my cramp.
I’ve looked up the causes and adjustments needed to prevent these cramps. In the running community I have found absolutely nothing, but inside the biking community I’ve found that it can be very common. I can tell you that it is debilitating and a silent killer. The bigger issue is knowing that these areas of my legs cramp up only when going uphill. Well guess what…
ALL OF ARKANSAS IS NOTHING BUT AN UPHILL, BOTH WAY JOURNEY TO DANTE’S NINTH LEVEL OF HELL
The last four miles turned into a painful, dragging, slow eternity of torment. Similar to when you get stuck in one of those passive aggressive business meetings after a potluck dinner in a small town church. No? Just me?
Nearing each half mile I was having to stop and stretch out my legs to break up the cramping. I attempted to be productive; I drank the Tailwind, ate the salt caps, licked the salt lick, and about everything else thinking that would diminish the cramping. Nothing.
The fight stayed with me for the duration of the rest of the race. Finally, hopping off of trail onto the paved path that nearly resulted in me going pantless in the beginning, I slowly trotted into the finish line.
I finished The Back 40, 20 Mile race one hour faster*** than I had completed it in 2016. This was the feel-good ending I had wanted for the 2017 year. I’m not Kaci, Kristen, Leia, or any other fast soul. I know this and accept this, but that does not mean I don’t want to see growth in myself like anyone else.
Naturally, while bathing in my accomplishment, the RD laughed and said I had time to start my second loop…
…I’m still slightly apologetic for giving him that “one” good reason why I wouldn’t be heading back out for another lap.
2017, peace out.
**Nope. I hate the winter. I hate the cold. You are not going to be able to convince me otherwise. The end.
***Learning that my first mile, nearing the completion of the moon cycle, was 10:46 helps that PR
Back in the hellish days of July, with a balmy temperature of 114 degrees (in the shade), I desired to run the Psycho Psummer 10 Mile race in Kansas City, Kansas. The purpose? Simple; new photos from Mile 90 Photography, and just as important, I wanted to see if I had improved at all over one year of trail running.
However, due to the ingenious idea of cruising along the Barr Trail in Colorado Springs, Colorado completely undertrained and out of my mind, I made one smart decision in not signing up for Psycho Psummer.
My time of repeating a race would come later.
In fact, it would come much later. Out in Nebraska, along with the runner killers referred to as GOATz. The same people that tried to massacre me in the grass, hide my corpse along the gravel, and destroy whatever was left of my feet out in Iowa would ensure that I would get to experience my first repeat race.
In the most colorful way possible.
Heading into Omaha, Nebraska late Saturday night my wife and I met up with “The Legend” and a few others at a local Greek restaurant (that is a thing). I had absolutely no idea what I ordered, but it involved rice and potatoes so I figured that would be something my body would need in the coming hours as I would peer over the shoreline of the prestigious, gorgeous, deadly Lake Cunningham. Halfway through enjoying meat with white sauce at the table, I started to consider the reality that I was facing the next day. Originally, I had signed up for the 50K race in Nebraska. It turns out though, after running for 50 miles in the middle of Kansas (because God enjoys watching you make stupid decision, while laughing along with Michael), that it takes time to get over that experience. Time…time…time…TIME! I thought that it would take a week to recover from
praying playing in the woods that long….
Try six weeks and at least three dozen buffalo wings before ‘normal’ came back into my world of running. After listening to wise words of wisdom of people far faster than myself, I made a mental note that I would likely drop from the 50K to the 21 mile in Omaha. After all, in one year I had already ran my first ultra, I had ran my first mountain race, I had ran my first 50 mile race; frankly, in 2017 I didn’t think there was much left in my soul to give to show that I did “that thing” out in the woods.
You can run a race just to…well…you know…run a race.
So after a night of
absolutely amazing of sleep snoring endured, tortured evening of kinks in my neck, and nightmares of grading papers, I awoke at 7:00 AM Sunday morning for the Greater Omaha Area Trail runnerz Trail Runs 50K (or some weird title like that). I decided, compared to last year, that I would attempt to run this race with a handheld. No vest, no gels, no breakfast (hehe), just a handheld, mixed with water and Tailwind. I knew the aid stations would have HoneyStinger gels that I could keep down, and I would reward myself for eating a beehive during the race by eating raw fish after the race (looking back, and seeing that typed out, I truly am a stupid human). There were a few guarantees as I walked up to the start/finish line of this random 10 mile loop course:
The 50K runners started at 8:00 AM with the rest of the runners (21/10.5/5) starting at 8:15 AM. The horn started and I did what any smart person would do; I walked my
carcass straight across the start line for a fun day in the woods. I walked for the first half mile because the conga line of a death march was moving so slow that running was futile. It was only when I saw a photographer that I attempted to move (photo evidence notes that I failed at that) with passion along the course. Eventually, we came to our first hill. Instead of going up the hill though, we went straight past it on the broken asphalt section. Last year that broken section was the route coming back to the start/finish line.
Maybe we were running the course backwards this year?
Note: I was in the very back of the 50K pack at the time that the entire group realized that we had taken the wrong direction. Again, the field went the wrong way.
Due to my slowness in life I was able to live out the reality of “The Walking Dead”, as my colleagues, all these amazing runners slowed to a stop, turned their bodies towards me, and with the face of fear, frustration, and death came running right at me. Meaning, a half mile into the race I did what any smart person would.
I took off sprinting.
I sprinted up that hill in record time. Why? Because the amazement sat in that I was going to do something that was quite impossible…
I WAS GOING TO BE IN THE TOP 10 OF AN ULTRA RACE! SAUCONY SIGN ME! MOTHER I’VE MADE IT! PRIDE, CHECKS, FOOD, HATS…SHOES!
…it was the most euphoric 500 feet in my life.
Of course, natural selection worked itself out just fine, and before I knew it I was back in the end of the field once again. Though, between the weather and just being in the woods, I did not have much to complain about.
I was not running a race to see if I could survive (for a change of pace), I was just running because I wanted to. I ran along the pine trees, I ran along the fields, I ran along the gravel alongside the lake, and I ran through the aid station. I ate my gel, I carried forward, and I just embraced the day. The reality was this; aside from the beginning, it was a beautiful moment to soar.
After the first ten miles I came into the start/finish line, and…well…I felt fine. It is still weird typing that out, because I remember last year when I finished the first loop at this race. My wife had to walk away from me to ensure that I went back out on the course. Make no mistake, she was there to greet me with Body Glide upon my arrival. However, like all good memories, the moment I turned to talk to her. She was already wishing me luck from her picnic table across the grass from the course. Meaning, some things never change, and my wife hates watching me waste time.
The second loop I got to do something special, at least in my own special world, I actually ran with another person for an entire loop. Back at The Hawk 50 in September, there was shuffling behind me from mile 26 to mile 30. The shuffling was that of a Michelle, a notoriously elusive creature that tends to wander the woods on their own. They are sneaky, cunning, and if you find them in the right part of the day, they are a great partner to trample through grass with. Michelle and I have a similar pace (that is a lie, she is faster in pace, but I did not want to be lonely). She is also from Omaha, so seeing her at the race on the second lap meant that I had someone to work with through miles eleven to twenty one.
Because the weather was unlike The Hawk, meaning it was actually normal for a change of pace, we were able to talk and run.
People; did you read that last though?
Go back and reread it.
…we were able to talk and run.
For like the first time ever I carried on a conversation with someone while I was still moving at an appropriate pace. Dearest reader! I was doing the thing! The time together
was wonderful, when you’re both not miserable, the miles really do cruise by…as does Kaci and Kaci’s twin…nope…never mind…rather certain that was her mother…they look so similar.
As we embarked on the final few miles of lap two I had made up my mind about starting the third lap for the 50K; Michelle was still on the fence while we ran along the fence, and the ruts…my goodness, this course reminded me how much I really missed running on rocks versus dirt and grass.
Crossing the line after the second loop I politely walked over to the tent and asked to drop to 21 miles instead of the 50K.
Are you sure? You’re not dropping.
What I have learned about traveling along different trail routes with different tribes, is eventually you cross paths with people that remember you from doing other stupid things. Sadly, the man running the timer, counter, etc…remembered me from another race, and swore that I was out of my mind for dropping my distance. We haggled back and fourth for thirty seconds over my soul and my life before my true skills of years past** came up with the victory.
I dropped to the 21 mile. It was the first time that I have ever dropped a distance since starting trail running. Did I feel alright? For the most part; yes. Could I have made the cutoff? I make no promises. Could I have completed the distance? Yes, but in the process I would have had significantly beaten my body to a hard point of recovery.
The decision fell on 21 because my body was still getting over The Hawk. My mind was still getting over work (teacher). My heart was there, but my mind wanted me to be smart for a change. There was nothing monumental for me to accomplish, and I was/am completely ok with that.
After thanking Michelle for the time, she went back out for her 50K finish. I fell right back into the exact same routine as last year following the same race. Grab my chair, grab a cup of chili, and wait behind the same two people from last year (seriously!) to be treated and stretched. Afterwards, I enjoyed the weather, my wife, and watching our friends finish their own adventures.
Following a night of sushi with my wife, friends, and “The Legend”, we embarked on our three hour journey home. Monday morning brought with it some aches and pains, but compared to what once was, I could at least get to my classroom without the elevator that day.
Weeks later, texting with an amazing runner, they made note of my choice to drop down, read my thought process, and made a comment that stuck with me…
You’re getting stronger.
At least in my head; that comment was not in relation to my physical strength.
Humorously, after all was said and done, I only set a personal record on the GOATz course by 22 minutes compared to the previous year. The notable thing is understanding that I could have kept going, I did not feel like death, and unlike last year, possibly most importantly…I had fun.
*Seriously…40 some odd degrees is absolutely stupid…
**Debate. My only athletic advantage in life was debate…try to process that thought…
Has anyone else purchased a pretzel only to wonder what being a pretzel is all about?
Neither have I.
However, I did grow up in a world that was bent on ensuring that I never spent anytime around those long haired, hipster, Fair Trade Coffee sipping, granola crunchy yoga people.
Since my adventures began in the world of trail running I have transitioned to growing my hair out to embrace what is left of my youth, and to look like those cool guys that wink at the camera while running up 9000 feet along a mountainside surely spelling (spilling?) out their inevitable doom. I’ve adjusted my diet significantly, and I enjoy wearing my trucker hats on any given day. Factor in the reality that my wife causes me to drowned in a world of fair trade coffee (aka: Starbucks as an employer), and one of our runners owns their own coffee shop, it is merely fate that aligned itself in this post-apocalyptic time that caused me to mumble under my breath in this early week of fall…
The truth is after The Hawk 50 was completed I had already made a few plans/goals of what I wanted to do with my life, if indeed it still existed after that race; I wanted to increase strength training, run a little less, and increase flexibility. Meaning, I was curious about this whole yoga thing that my childhood church tried to convince of its origins being of the devil (along with Pokemon cards for some reason) was all about.
Inevitably, through a few clicks on my phone, and a quick drive downtown I found myself in front of the place that already causes so much ‘good pain’ in my life; Phys. Ed. KC. As it turns out, not only can they push you to the level of dry-heaves, but during their downtime they can also craft you into the newest pieces of modern art through their yoga classes.
Feeling extremely insecure about myself I signed up for the “yoga for athletes” class. I felt guilty doing so due to the reality of not considering myself an athlete, but every other class offered was for those with some experience, and it would be a sin against the mighty yoga people if I had signed up for one of those.
Tuesday evening, after wrangling 100 pubescent students (and getting paid for it) for the day, I walked into the yoga studio; of which from now until the end of this piece I will refer solely to as “the tomb”.
The tomb was a white room; walls, ceiling, floor, stage…stage? Everything was white. The smell was of something you would truly only find in a yoga studio; sage? Sandalwood? Tuberose? Frankincense? It smelled like a Yankee Candle store had burned down inside the tomb…in the best way possible! The scent of the room was enough to calm the mind, prior to the stretching experiments.
Naturally, like any good thing that may be associated with ancient medicines of Asia (I completely made that up), one must remove their shoes and socks upon entering the tomb. Sit crosslegged along your yoga mat (Subway sandwich), take a few deep breaths, and eventually we were led into our first pose: rest.
I kid you not; I found myself on my stomach, resting my head on my hands, closing my eyes, and listening to the latest sounds of Enya. The instructor informed us that she would be coming around and adjusting us. Meaning, like what a cat does to your favorite blanket, she is going to kneed you into comfort. For 90% of the world out there, that is completely fine. For the 10% of us it is a dying fear. Not because of touch (massage win!), but because of the fear of knowing that the instructor is pushing on your organs, you’re on your stomach, you ate a fast snack prior to coming in, and bless her soul she is uncomfortably close to your export port…
I have been in tornados, floods, and hurricanes…I have never prayed as hard I did in that one moment…
Please. Don’t let me fart.
After the most fearful/relaxing process was done. It was time to get busy in the world of yoga. I was ready for the crane, the praying mantis, the salutation of the sun, but the instructor…in such sweet sounding tones…simply said…
Alright. Let’s go into plank position.
Sweet mother of all that is good and evil. I paid to be stretched, and instead I’m getting a previous of the same class that already kills me on a weekly basis. However, I managed to get into plank. From plank we moved one foot close to our face (haha!), and slowly moved up the body. Eventually I was sitting in a chair, focusing on breathing, listening to one voice, not talking to myself unlike when I am in the woods, and noticing the profuse amount of sweat I was already losing.
I did yoga, and I needed Tailwind as a recovery. This is my life.
After moving from rest, to plank, to cobra, to foot by face, to chair, to praise hands, to…I can’t remember all of them; I was feeling alright. I was hot, sweaty, experiencing my own world of ‘hot yoga, and feeling ok with my choices.
Until I heard…
Now, we’re going to go through that three more times.
WARNING: THERE ARE REPS IN YOGA! I REPEAT, REPS IN YOGA! It’s a lie, it is all a lie. It isn’t granola crunchy’s running the show, it’s real athletes and they will kill you!
Through the screaming in my head the minutes continued to tick by. I became a Sphynx at one moment, another I was a table, this thing was like a mashup of charades and what happened to the castle people from the curse in Beauty and the Beast.
Yet, even through the shaking of the planks, the cramping during the table, and the excitement of the sun salutation; there came one consistent theme: peace.
Even through the humor of the entire experience, the truth is that for a change of pace, I was extremely calm. My mind was clear, I was not bouncing off the walls, I was in a moment where life finally caught up to me and it was refreshing.
Granted, this moment came towards the end, while us puppets were laying on our backs, eyes closed in the tomb, and the music had mixed in to the sounds you hear at the funeral home when your great aunt Agnus finally died in that town of 500 people. Truly, in the strangest metaphor possible, I felt as if I had been buried. Between being in the tomb, the tones of peace (and grief), and the smell of things I’m certain were also used to bury Jesus; I too felt lifeless.
fun… good…unique experience though; this session to came to an end. I did get to say the signature word “Namaste” at the end. I bent over to roll up my mat, and without even thinking twice I noticed something:
I could bend over and grab the mat. In fact, even though I was somewhat sore from the planks, my body felt so incredibly loose. It felt so loose that a day later I was able to make appropriate lunges during the weekly strength class I attend.
I have come to appreciate my strength classes while trying to become a stronger runner. However, there is a different place of appreciation in my heart for that yoga session. I have a super, super hard time paying attention, focusing, and sleeping at night. Those are three things that I personally struggle with on a daily basis (so much so that once at strength class the ‘step up box’ got taken away because I was not paying attention). I can confess that after a session in the tomb, my focus was better, I paid attention to other people, and most incredibly…I slept remarkably well that night.
To no surprise, as I continue to try new things inside and around the world of trail running, the more I am learning about myself and my body. Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to gliding through the woods in search of mileage…perhaps I am search of something more…
Not really, I am looking for an excuse to eat buffalo wings, but yoga is fun too!
09/23/2017 UPDATE: For clarity purposes there needs to be an adjustment to this story. I believe that I have not been faithful with the full essence of this race. Locally there have been a few questions that have floated around in terms of my final six miles of the race, and for the sake of a weighing conscience, and for the transparency being known in the community the adjustment is near the bottom of the story in bold. I apologize to the trail running community for delaying in the transparency during the The Hawk…
God allowed others to compete in a relay race with my life…
Somehow, I came out the winner…
It has taken me days to find ways to unhinge my metaphorical jaws in ways to make sense, make light, make fun of the events that transpired over the past weekend. Against all things that should exist in life, I managed to finish my first 50 mile trail race. I went back to where so many of my adventures started a year ago; The Hawk at Clinton Lake, Kansas.
Reflecting back on the adventure that started Saturday I almost chuckle and laugh out loud at the vicious, voracious cycle my life has taken since I started to ‘play in the dirt’. A year ago I wound up volunteering in an event in which I knew one person. I did not know who I was volunteering with, I did not know who was running around in the middle of the night, I just knew that I was supposed to serve and watch as my one friend completed her first 100 mile race.
I know jokingly I had talked about one day being on the same course also doing something similarly stupid.
I had absolutely no idea it would come so soon, and emotionally it would wind up meaning so much to me.
I apologize in advance if this lacks humor. Just go warm up some leftover spaghetti, and let my brain attempt to crank away at this race recap, in the format of one of the craziest, symbolic relay races you’ll ever read about.
The week leading up to The Hawk started in possibly one of the worst ways. It started with a sneeze, a student who refused to use a tissue, and by Wednesday I was shaking with a throbbing headache. The week leading into the biggest race of my life, and somehow I managed to pull the straw of becoming sick with a seasonal cold. Naturally, I contacted Kristen, who has kept me from dying on multiple occasions over the past year, and her response was exactly what I feared…
Running will help clear up your head a bit.
I was not getting out of this race. Realizing that my attempt was futile I settled for second best; I called into school that night and took my first ever sick day the Thursday before The Hawk. Between old school anime seasons and wadded up tissues in the corner, I laid in my bed, heaped in blankets and sweat; cursing in my mind that this was going to be hard. The first hurdle had been set, and I had managed to do my best in trying to clear it…I smashed right through the thing, fell face first, licked the rubber with my tongue, cried in my heart, and knew my life was soon going to be over.
When Friday rolled around I left school immediately, snagged my wife and camper, and took off for our campsite. It had been decided that with a 6:00 AM start an hour away from our house, camping may be a solid option. We pulled in, swallowed approximately 500 gnats, and made our way to packet pickup.
Packet pickup looked like a mix between Woodstock and a Sunday morning Garfield cartoon strip. People with long hair, no hair, pants, short shorts, tank tops, throwback shirts to a 100 they ran 5 years ago, and lasagna permeated the air. The race directors gave us a quick preview of the exciting race that was coming in less than twelve hours and stepped away for us
prisoners runners to enjoy our last meal. The veterans were laughing, the rookies were shaking, and overall the atmosphere had the makings of a Normandy invasion.
Deep down everyone was secretly scared to death.
After talking and crying to “The Legend”, I slumped into my camper, listened to my wife’s fear, swallowed nearly another gallon of water, two NyQuil, and set my alarm for 4:30 AM.
At 2:00 AM I awoke in a NyQuil fog to silence, minus my wife’s calming, soothing, methodical snoring. The world was still, I world had paused, the world knew that the end was coming for me and it was offering up all of what little time it had left.
I STAYED AWAKE FOR ANOTHER TWO HOURS IN MY BED SNIVELING WITH THE REALIZATION THAT I COULD NOT ESCAPE MY OWN DESTINY.
By 4:30 AM I stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth one last time, and prayed that last night’s lasagna would shift through my bowels. In almost comedic fashion, while brushing my teeth, the door kicked open and a man who I can only assume eats pre-workout for breakfast busted in the restroom.
WOO! It’s go time! You ready man! Let’s do this!
He didn’t even brush his teeth, he just yelled and stepped back out of the restroom into the starry night.
Shaking from fear of such neighbors I swallowed some toothpaste, rinsed my face, tried to punch the mirror, and started to get my running gear on.
Execution day was here.
First moment of excitement; wearing a speedo with actual pant legs. Being as how I
refuse to go into a single race without breaking at least one unspoken rule; I chose trail running rule #32 to ignore; do not try new gear on race day. I had just received a pair of experimental compression shorts that swore by their ability to not chafe*, and also had no seams. Sucking in my gut, praying to God, I hoisted these leggings onto my torso. Adjusting into my best impression of Michael Phelps I threw my singlet on, grabbed my pre-packed…pack, and headed to the start/finish line.
The moment I stepped near the start/finish line was the minute God handed off the baton to the first competitor; Rick. Rick, photographer with Mile 90, who has seen me way too much this year, pulled me aside to grab a quick photo. It has almost become tradition to somehow get a photo with him no matter what race or state I am currently in. Rick looks
like an American assassin whose glare would make a bullet to the brain seem more desirable. He is terrifying…and then he talks. You listen to him, see him smile, listen to him laugh, and even though he’s a photographer there is something about him that just puts your mind at ease.
Rick had an effortless handoff to Misty at the sound of the horn. For the first 13 miles Misty, one of the first people to hang out with me in the dirt last year…EVER!…stayed with me through the woods. We nailed our aid station, stayed for 30 seconds, grabbed our food, and were out. Misty and others who I had spent countless Saturday mornings with, kept me moving at a perfect clip in the early morning hours. I managed to achieve a personal record in time on the first 13 miles.
At the second aid station, West Park Road, Misty flipped the baton to Ben. Ben came through Psycho Psummer earlier this year, and exclaimed to me (volunteering at the time)…
Stop doing that crazy mountain s*#!
He pulled up next to me along the highest climb of the race, and we just moved in the
same motion. Make no mistake, Ben is 500% faster than I am. He is an ultra runner, but he chose to stay with me for a few miles. We talked about our love for the mountains, love for running, and how great the trail running community really is. I was feeling on top of the world; I was keeping a comfortable pace with a real runner! I was finally doing it. We were running and talking together, coming back up on another group of runners, when Ben said something that caught my ear.
Oh yeah. It was just a small heart procedure.
Why was I running so well with Ben? Because he had just had a ‘minor’ heart operation! Here I am trying to keep pace with this guy, and he’s just grateful his ticker is still ticking. Humble pie truly tastes so, so bitter at times.
After Ben and company moved forward I was able to hang out in the woods with myself while keeping my eyes on three ladies in front of me, as strange as that sounds. Ben, unknowingly, handed off to a trio from the local Trail Hawk organization that I had spent time running with, time volunteering with, and just time listening to them share their stories. They are the definition of ‘love for running’. They run and do crazy things because they just love to move in the woods. They are not extremist, they do not hang out in the mountains, they just run for the beauty of it. They kept my soul calm and occupied for a solid six miles heading into Land’s End aid station. They may never know it, but just knowing they were in front of me and laughing, that kept me moving one step at a time.
At Land’s End I sat down for the first time; 20 miles into the race. The aid station crew, including a crazy man I had once watched run into an aid station like an airplane on his 100 mile race, grabbed my pack and like a pit crew worked on my bladder because it had managed to get stuck shut. I enjoyed the ability to catch my breath, refocus, and just take in the moment. It is a strange sensation when you’re the runner and you’ve been so used to being the volunteer. You almost feel guilty, until you try to open your pack and realize your fingers are covered in so much sweat that you can’t get anything open. Volunteers are the angels runners don’t always deserve, but definitely need in order to survive.
From the trio of ladies, to Gary at Land’s End, the handoff found its way into one of the stranger hands of the day; Dan. Dan was a man from St. Louis that I found in the final two miles of the first loop. We both hiked it back into the start area. What was strange about Dan was the fact that Dan knew of me. He had volunteered at Shawnee Hills 100 a few weeks prior at an aid station along the course. While pacing a random runner, I went through his aid station twice. Somehow, through poor choice, we both wound up on the same trail together in the middle of Kansas. We were both grateful for the opportunity, and also understanding that what we were trying to accomplish was not an easy task, and potentially very stupid.
From Dan at the start line, the baton finally found its way into the hands of one of the most prolific, monumental people in my life; Leia. I found her at start/finish manning the aid station. I could have cried. The temperature was getting a lot warmer than many of us had predicted, runners were struggling, and I was extremely nauseous; something I had never experienced in a race. The only food I could have kept down at that point was gels from Honey Stinger…even the mandarin flavored ones. Even Tailwind was making me sick; resulting in just Ginger Ale in my UltrAspire flask like a hungover frat member. I looked at her, and I am sure I looked absolutely pathetic, and…trying not to sob…said…
My stomach hurts. I can’t cool down. I’m really struggling and I don’t know what to do.
Part of me was so relieved to tell her, because Leia would know exactly what to do in this situation. Part of me was devastated to tell her because I was struggling, and I was failing my mission to run 50 miles. Leia, if I am being brutally honest, is on a very short list of people that I so desperately want to impress. She is the runner I want to be like, the human I want to mimic, the goal that I want to strive for. Partly because I saw her run her first 100 the year prior (to the date), and partly because she has been a huge part of my running success. The baton of this relay race was in good hands. After a cheese and bread sandwich, some ‘junk ice’, and my pack refilled with water and food; Leia was sure to kick me out and send me back for my second loop.
The world needs more Leia’s.
From the start line back to Land’s End the heat finally got me. The rocks around me were spinning, I could not get my eyes to focus like a busted iPhone camera, and I was severely hurting. On top of that there were these footsteps that I kept hearing right behind me that were driving me absolutely insane. The heat does that. In the first opening I stepped to the side to allow the crazed runner to pass, and what do I find?
I found Michelle.
Michelle had been hiking behind me since the start line on our second lap. I knew Michelle from another hellacious run; the GOATz Gravel Classic. Michelle was a GOATz runner, and had come down to hang around in the woods for a few fun filled hours. Michelle talking about her life, children, job with AAA, and moving to Omaha years ago kept me sober enough to make it back to Land’s End. Upon reaching our destination Michelle continued her trek of greatness.
I saw Gary at Land’s End and I sat down.
I still do not know how he knew it. But Gary Henry knew immediately that I did not have enough calories in my system. My bottles got filled, and then the next thing I knew there was a bowl of boiled potatoes in my lap. I started to slowly eat them, thinking of how many of my students would be laughing at the Irish guy eating potatoes**, and I started to feel better. I must have crashed on my calorie plan because food, while sounding terrible, continued to wake me up, wake me up, and wake me up with each aid station. Upon sitting at the station and watching runners come in, I saw the next person to step up to God’s relay with my life.
The same soul that got me to Texas, fixed my feet, and filmed me finishing my first ever ultramarathon in February of this year at Rocky Raccoon 50K, wound up next to me at the same aid station along the shoreline of Clinton Lake. I had this sudden realization that Megan is strong and kind enough that she’d keep me moving if I got out of the chair. I asked her if I could go with her, and she said that I should go ahead and start and she’d catch up.
I ran my fastest two miles of my second lap after that aid station. However, miles into the stretch Megan was nowhere to be found. I blame long legs. I turned on the music on my phone, and just enjoyed running God’s relay by myself for a while. My stomach was calm, my legs were fresh, and the breeze was blowing. I wasn’t fast, but I was moving. Megan caught up with 13 miles left in the race.
With 5.5 miles left before our final aid station; Megan and I trekked through the dark woods, hoping that it would start to cool off. It never did. My black shorts were now two tones of white from the amount of salt that I had lost. In five miles I had managed to eat two cheese quesadillas, learn about the band M83, and listen to a runner belch in a way that middle school boys would clap…yell..and blush in awkwardness. Megan brought joy to my life, and got me six miles from the finish line.
Then, in the stillness of the night, sitting at Land’s End, the anchor of this mindless, eternal, 50 mile relay showed their face.
The lady I saw crush a 50 mile race three weeks prior, the lady that I nearly died on gravel with in the early summer, the same runner that I almost drowned with as her pacer…as a complete stranger…in April, was there for me. God could not have picked a better anchor out of the entire bunch.
I didn’t have the energy to hug her, but I wanted to. Brandy, who had already completed
her 50 miles, found me at Land’s End with ginger cola (thank you Pepsi). She looked exhausted, but she smiled, was so kind, and gave me what I needed to journey through the hardest six miles of my life. Additionally, Brandy laced up and in one way or another ‘carried me’ for the final six miles of the course. I am thankful that my wife had trumped my level of intelligence and had checked with the race director on allowing this to take place, as this would be something outside the guidelines of the race rules, and I had failed to take the appropriate steps prior to the race to ensure that this would be allowed. If it had not been for my wife thinking clearly (after running her first marathon previously in the day) myself and Brandy could have been facing disqualification because I had not followed the race rules. Graciously the race directed permitted “The Legend” to join me for the final miles of the race. At mile 46 I started dry-heaving; another first, Brandy reminded me that we were not starting the ‘vomiting game’ this close to the finish line. At mile 48 I was doubled over, trying to catch my breath, and hearing my heart nearly explode in my right ear. “The Legend”, although being completely exhausted, never walked away. She found ways to find laughter, find dancing, and find ways to compare which of us were more stubborn in the September evening heat.
At mile 49.9 “The Legend” broke away from me at this point
of this of the relay and yelled, “Runner coming!”, as I started to painfully jog my way into the finish line. At mile 50 Rick yelled, “SMILE!”, as he snapped a final shot of me ending this race. The night was old, the day was gone, and my first 50 mile race was in the books.
Upon reflection; there is no way I could have ran this race by myself. Ironically, this is the first race that I have spent the majority of the mileage with at least one other person. That has never happened before. Realistically, I don’t deserve the community that I’ve been given. I don’t deserve the legs that I have, and I definitely don’t deserve to be able to have these kind of adventures to share with other people.
I thought, going into The Hawk 50, that this race would destroy me in a way that would cause me to want to stop for a prolonged period of time. In a way, that was the plan. Moving from a 10 mile race in July of 2016 to a 50 mile race in September of 2017 is reckless. How I managed to walk away (barely) from The Hawk with zero blisters, very little chafing, and no serious injuries is completely beyond my understanding. Furthermore, what is even more baffling, is the fact that I still want to go further and I want to go faster. It isn’t necessarily because I have something to prove, it truly is because I have found a niche within my own culture that is so much to fun to be a part of.
It would also be noted that towards the final months leading up to The Hawk I changed my training pretty significantly. I tried to focus more on strength development then necessarily getting mile after mile after mile. I am convinced that if I had not had the guidance of strength training I likely would not have finished The Hawk this year.
This race truly showed me how we are all connected, and for some of us, we really cannot be successful unless we allow ourselves to rely on others to give us strength.
*Chafing began at mile 40, only after being soaked with junk ice
**Currently my students are learning about immigration, stereotypes, and the Irish potato famine
I envision this magical moment in the kingdom of Ida Grove where a woman suddenly awoke with a revelation…
Yes! I see the challenge. I understand the goal. There must be a way to achieve 1000 feet of elevation gain in a single loop at a trail race in Iowa. Ida Grove must be the location. This must happen!
And so…I see sleepless nights of hand drawn maps, course outlines, and endless days of Strava information of one weaving through the maze of Moorehead Pioneer Park.
Thus, after time of toiling, sweat, and blisters; like all good mythological beings the Mazathon and the Trail of the Dragon was born.
Pan would have been proud of this devilish delight…
Somewhere along US 59 highway between Des Moines, Iowa and Sioux City, Iowa is the sleepy town of Ida Grove. With a few thousand people, it is mostly noted for its unique architecture. The town is made up of castles.
This is no joke.
Someone with too much time and money decided to build facades of castles throughout the city. Factories? In the castle. Housing? In the castle. Dentist office? In the castle. Knights Inn? No, not in the castle, in fact there isn’t even a Knights Inn in Ida Grove.
Just to the west of this special, little community is a small, historic park. Old buildings, graves, and a strange wanna-be ski lift, litter the lush area. This is home to two of the newer trail races in the flyover world.
The Mazathon and the Trail of the Dragon.
Now, to add an element of confusion, the two races are ran at the same time and on the same trail (more or less). There is a delectable flavor of distances for you to choose from. Embracing her inner Baskin Robins, race director Susan Knop offers a fun filled day of the following:
Originally, knowing of this event, I was going solely to support and crew “The Legend” on her ’50-mile-it-is-a-warm-up-for-the-next-50-mile-race-in-one-month-because-I-am-a-super-strong-runner-race’. However, as I began to look at my own training spreadsheet I noted that this day also called for 18 miles for myself.
The exact distance of the 2/3 Mazathon.
So, with some leftover change and plenty of room for poor choices, I paid the fee and signed up for the race. The concept would be simple; I would run my race two hours after seeing “The Legend” leave for her 50 mile. I would finish in a few hours, and then I would assist her as crew for her final two laps. My wife would be there the entire time, and this would be a flawless race for everyone.
After spending the evening in a hotel in Denison, Iowa that would have made Cheech blush*, my wife and I traveled to the start line of the race early Saturday morning. “The Legend” was wound for sound with her running buddy Angel. They were representing the entire state of Missouri on the 50 mile race.
There was no gun, no horn, no whistle, no lit cigarette, just a “Get going!” from the race director, and the runners were off. Myself? Pulling a High Lonesome, I jumped back into my car and went back to sleep for 90 minutes.
At 8:00 AM I began my adventure. The course was advertised as having a few climbs,
plenty of elevation, and being very pretty. With “the mist”-like fog rolling around in the trees, our group also took off into the woods for a delight romp in the wilderness.
Usually, I have something tragic to say that would foreshadow impending doom during a race, but truthfully this course was so well marked with perfect weather that there really was no room for problems on this beautiful day. I flew down the root-wrapped hills, enjoyed some single track, and finally started to approach the meadows.
You run through meadows.
Meadows equals mowed grass.
Mowed grass in meadows is equivalent to Satan, himself.
Soaked shoes on a bank of grass that mimicked only turn four at Daytona greeted me, and slowly but surely my body started to give out. It started with a few needles of pain in my feet, a slight cramp in my hips, and eight…count them…eight miles into my race I was absolutely wrecked. This is unfortunate because the course was so beautiful. Winding, like a maze, through the woods you see everyone countless times (and they offer you salt because you look hurt countless times as well**), you climb a hill to a cemetery from the 1860’s, and you get to listen to manic runners from Omaha scream about clowns being up at the top of the hill.
After meeting the only aid station on course, I hobbled through the final miles of my first loop.
Like any other good looped race that involves my wife meeting me at the start/finish, she smiled, talked a little bit, then proceeded to kick me back out on my second loop. By five miles in my feet were starting to ache. They were starting to ache in a way that I had not really noticed before. I was moving at a staggering 25:00.00 minute per mile pace, and deep down I wanted to just be done.
I wanted to be done. I was terrified of The Hawk 50 coming up because of the pain, how slow I was moving, and how much I struggling to just complete 18 miles. I got upset about how I looked, how I was moving, how I wasn’t ‘growing’ like other runners, and how I was fearful of injury, stress fractures, pushing too hard, messing something up, letting others down, letting myself down…I was out in the woods and I was not having fun.
Yet, through the stillness of the August air, I heard it…it came sharp. It came swiftly. It came up right behind me, and nearly scared me to death.
Low and behold, in my darkest hour, here comes the knight to save the day. “The Legend” caught me on her third lap. To no surprise there was laughter, smiling, and all sorts of randomness that followed. I did not want to be alone, I wanted to be with someone, so I figured I would risk the injury and follow her out to the aid station.
Holy mother she was fast! The faster I moved, the harder I breathed, but also the better my body felt. My feet still hurt, but my body was feeling looser with each step I was taking at a quicker pace. We rolled into the aid station together, and I did the only thing I knew how to do…
Brandy, what do you need? Give me your bottles.
Knowing that my movement was a joke, Brandy had informed me that she was in first place female for the 50 mile. Reminiscing on the last time she was leading a race, I realized getting her out was more important than myself trying to ‘be fast’. After all, technically this was just a ‘training run’*** for me.
By the time “The Legend” left the station, in comes the second place female, Angel. Instead of taking off, it was talking to her, filling bottles, grabbing food, and seeing her off also.
Finally, being out of excuses to stay, I left for my final three miles.
They turned into a walk.
A painful walk.
A walk full of tears.
I’ve done pain. I’ve done stupid. I have never done stupid pain like my feet experienced towards the end of that 18 miles. It hurt to walk, it hurt to apply pressure, just unreal pain through all of the bottom of my feet. Both. Feet.
I hobbled through the finish line, ripped my shoes off, and just sat at the table near the start/finish. I suppose overall I felt fine, much better after the beer, but I could not get over the pain/fear of what had happened to my feet.
Sitting at the table I was able to take in the entire event, while trying to put my feet fears to rest. This race is incredibly relaxed. The race staff all knows one another, the local cross country teams help out, and along the main building is a list of sponsors that helped make this race happen.
While moving down the list of sponsors I saw it.
I saw my answer.
I saw the reasoning for all my problems.
That same, darn organization that has tried to kill me at “Kaci’s Training Course” and…A GRAVEL ROAD IN THE MIDDLE OF NOTHING…had been supporting this race also. It all made sense! The curse of GOATz found its way to me in Ida Grove, Iowa.
Laughing in a style that only my wife would understand, I danced in my head for finding my answer to all my problems. I ate another cheeseburger, and just like Free State, where legends were made, I began the wait for “The Legend” to return.
When she came in to start her final loop; I saw something very interesting in the makeup of the 50 mile women’s race. She was still in first place. However, Angel and the 3rd place runner came in ten minutes behind her. Meaning, in the ultra world, the women’s race was going to be close. Personally, remembering the race in April, I selfishly wanted her to win. She earned it. Deserved it. People needed to see what I saw; they needed to see how Hulk-strong this runner really was.
My wife and I waited
…and waved at a drunk wedding party…
…and fought off locals who were trying to eat the aid station food…
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The conclusion of the women's 50M from the Trail of the Dragon Ultra. Brandy "The Legend" (aka: the lady that helps me make really poor choices) taking 1st place female on the inagural 50 mile event in under 13 hours! #trailrunning #ultrarunning #running #runkc #ultramarathon #health #fitness #fit #gainyourwings #friends
“The Legend” finished her Trail of the Dragon 50 mile in under 13 hours. She placed first female, and fourth overall. Angel, the other runner from Kansas City, placed second female, and fifth overall.
Even though I felt beaten to pieces; seeing those two finish was so motivating. It gave me the ‘like Mike’ sensation of “I want to be like them when I grow up”. As for my award? I am proud to embrace the acknowledgement of receive my first DFL award.
Curious about my feet? I did some research, talked to the owner of the shoe store, went to my physical therapist, and then I also looked back at all my data from the miles I had logged.
450 miles on the same pair of shoes. My feet issue came from the fact that I had worn my shoes into nothing inside. Knowing this I switched out shoes, and wouldn’t you know it, I haven’t had any issues since.
If you are looking for a fun, challenging, chilled race you have to check out Ida Grove, Iowa. The race fees are low, the environment is great, and I have never seen a course so well marked in all the places I have visited.
It wasn’t necessarily my best race, but of man, I got to see a legend return and show no mercy on a course.
And it was epic.
*I now know what that smell was in Colorado…
**I made it to mile 6 before someone asked if I needed salt…new PR
***18 mile training run…I hate my life…
My car, a Mazda3, is currently moving at approximately two miles per hour. I have been on the same county road for just under twenty minutes. The temperature is 44 degrees, it is pouring rain, and I have not slept in 20 hours. I ask myself, “Is a volunteer for a race going to become its only casualty?”
Several weeks ago my wife and I had an amazing idea. We rarely go on vacations, like I don’t think we actually have ever gone on vacation. This year we settled on a fun adventure. A friend of ours, the one who is solely responsible for the majority of the expeditions into trail running for both of us, had signed up for a race in Colorado. How cool would it be to surprise her at the finish line? We checked with her coach, everything sounded good, so we started planning our trip.
A week into the planning we learned that my wife and her new coffee shop would be opening a week earlier than planned. Meaning, the vacation was a no-go. However, that still left me with a car full of gas, a beard that was being called back to the mountains, and a strange desire to serve chicken broth at 11,000 feet. I contacted the race director and filled out a form to volunteer for the race. He approved, and the email exchanges began. At one point I was to serve at one aid station, later I was moved to another, and in the end the simple question was asked, “Why not do all of them?”
The stage was set. I was heading to Colorado for the inaugural High Lonesome 100 as a volunteer. I would work the aid stations for 24 hours; collecting information, sharing stories, and serving fried eggs to a very hungry runner at 2:00 AM.
So eerily similar to every trail race I have ever been a part of; I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
To fully understand the trip, allow me to give you a few little pieces about High Lonesome. It takes place in the Sawatch Range of Colorado near Salida and Buena Vista. The entire course is a single 100 mile loop, with a 12 mile out and back journey at St. Elmo.
Climbers Runners will reach as high as 13,200 feet as they cross several peaks stretching through the continental divide. Cutoff for this race is 36 hours, and the fun begins at 6:00 AM Friday morning. 12 aid stations, seven of them being accessed by crew.
Heading in as a volunteer I had multiple sets of clothes to change into, a cup for coffee, some snacks, more weapons than necessary (bears, you know), and a handy rain jacket that had been delivered to my house an hour prior to leaving for this journey.
Going into High Lonesome I had assumed that it would be wise to apply all volunteer knowledge to practice; runners need everything; food, water, vaseline, sleeping bags, beer, and hugs…lots of hugs. Upon arrival my day had been set with three primary aid stations and a fourth one “just for fun”.
Aid Stations #1: St. Elmo
Elevation: 10,000 ft
St. Elmo, Colorado
Theme: Bears and Chipmunks
Time: Friday 8:00 AM MST to 4:00 PM MST
The first challenge is getting to St. Elmo. Like all mountain areas of Colorado, St. Elmo is not real. It is a ghost town, a figment of our imagination that is adorably haunted by chipmunks who rule the area with their tiny, cute fists. There is a convenient store that is open “9ish-6ish”, and the entire plot of land is privately owned. Because St. Elmo is a tourist destination (15 MILES OFF OF ANY NORMAL ROAD GOING TO WHO KNOWS WHERE IN THE MOUNTAINS), parking was crucial. St. Elmo allowed access to crew members, so I was placed with the daunting responsibility of dividing up three types of drivers heading into town. Crews for the runners, town visitors for the chipmunks, and ATV/Jeep/Motocross/Tanks/Optimus Prime for all the ‘Colorado roads’ to explore.
Thank goodness humanity decided to be kind on this day because aside from nearly being ran over by the local heating and cooling guy that deemed my life less important than a 9/16 pipe wrench, everyone was amazing. All visitors were encouraged to feed the chipmunks, but not to feed the runners. They would eat all the visitors food, I knew it. The crew would park their vehicles along the side of the dirt road/cliff/river, and begin the mile hike to the actual aid station. What did end up becoming fascinating for the day was the amount of visitors and crew members of other runners that would stand along the road and cheer in the runners as they arrived into town.
Nearing noon the sky began to cloud up, the lightning began, and the rain started to fall. The runners, humorously, seemed to enjoy the light shower as they came into town. I, thankfully, had my trusty rain jacket that I had put on at roughly 11:00 AM (this is an important detail). At 1:00 PM I was starting to become hungry, and with the aid station a mile away, I decided to just chill and drink coffee at St. Elmo.
The face of hunger, like a pitiful child, must have been across my skin because a woman, far more athletic than I will ever be, was kind enough to offer some food out of her vehicle. This is when I discovered the joy of fried rice. Out of a ball of aluminum foil came the joy of sticky Jasmine rice with quinoa, red peppers, scrambled eggs, bacon, and a bit of cheese. She went on to explain how this balanced food item was great for fueling, along with cooking instructions. I had no clue that I would learn about what to eat while watching people punish themselves along the mountains.
What I didn’t also consider was the realization of eggs, cheese, bacon, and other goodies mixed with coffee in my digestive track would begin a brew that would push the limits of life, liberty, and the cleanliness of my pants.
At 4:00 PM, while it was raining, I was relieved from my post and informed that the Hancock aid station was only 5 miles away from St. Elmo. I packed up my soaked lawn chair, my coffee, and said farewell to rodents and rocky mount riders alike and began my ascent to Hancock.
Aid Station #2: Hancock
Elevation 11,000 ft
Time: Friday 5:00 PM MST to 12:00 AM MST
The first amazing challenge of this aid station, as a volunteer, was just getting to the darn place. Hancock doesn’t exist, it’s a relative of St. Elmo. Like a washed up high school quarterback, it was a has been and is no more type of railroad town with an attempt at cabin building. How do I know? Because the remnants of said cabins are slowly sliding down the mountainside to the only road to the actual location of Hancock, or in my case, the aid station.
I had asked one of the race officials if my Mazda3 could make it to Hancock. The response…
Drive slow. Watch out for the potholes. You’ll be fine.
Trusting a Colorado native on road advice is like trusting a Texan on neutrality of state pride…it is very ill-advised. Hancock was a 1000 foot climb from St. Elmo on a rain soaked gravel “road”. You can watch for potholes all you want, but the reality is they make up 96% of the road. The other 4% is left to collapsing cabins. It was 5 miles…5…miles…to Hancock on that road. It took me a total of one hour to get to my destination. While I’m putting around with my 4 cylinder gas sipper, four wheel drive monstrosities straight out of Jurassic Park are flying the opposite direction (had to be velociraptors…I’m convinced). Naturally, like all good things involved with rules of the road, this required me to hug the right side of the road a little bit. And by a little bit, I mean another two inches would have resulted in my car tumbling down the mountain and revisiting the St. Elmo ghost town (likely as a permanent resident).
Finally through the light sprinkles of the sky, I arrived at Hancock. I was greeted by two mustache wearing ladies who showed me where to park.
My first job? Parking.
This is about the time the night started to turn entertaining. Crew members were rather perplexed as to why they saw another red jacketed ogre directing traffic where to park. This came with laughter amongst the rain increasing. It was while standing in the rain that I met John. John was also volunteering and somehow had grown up in Kansas City,
small world. We shot the breeze, talked about our love of trail running, spoke to Canadians (first time I ever met Canadians in real life), and tried to keep warm. I started to notice that as 8:00 PM MST arrived I was starting to get cold. The temperature was dropping along with the rain at 11,000 feet in the air. After adding another layer of clothes I walked up to the actual aid station, roughly 400 meters away, to spend the rest of my time at Hancock.
Upon my arrival to the actual station I witnessed possibly one of the most amazing acts of sportsmanship out of the whole race. From the photographer…
A runner came in well before his crew. He needed his rain shell jacket before leaving, but it was 400 meters in the opposite direction of where he would be traveling. I witnessed, mark my words, the lead photographer from Mile 90 Photography offer his rain shell to the runner. Naturally, the runner politely declined and still grabbed his own rain shell. That moment though; that captured what trail running is all about. The photographer, someone without a horse even in the race, was willing to give his own rain shell to a random runner he has never met until that one moment.
This was a very busy station. There were so many things going on all at once. Hancock was full service, plus drop bags, plus runners could grab their first pacer, plus crew access, plus…and this is a good one…a mandatory gear check prior to leaving the station.
Remember that line from Enemy at the Gates where the Russian official is yelling out orders about the first man grabbing the gun, second the ammunition, when the first is killed the second grabs the gun? Alright, Hancock had nothing to do with rifles, but the dialogue within the aid station in the late hours were just as intense.
The rain was pouring down in buckets, the temperatures was now in the 40’s and still dropping. NOAA has put at a weather bulletin for the area that we were sharing with crew and pacers…
A chance of 40-50 mph winds. 1/2″ hail. Frequent cloud to ground lightning.
It was not a scare tactic, but it was a reality for the runners leaving. After Hancock they would be in the dark going up the mountain side to a 12,500 foot ridge. The weather is extremely unpredictable, and the models were throwing out alerts left and right. Somehow, someway at 10:30 PM MST I wound up with the gear list/pacer/time in/time out sheet checking with runners and pacers for a brief spell. I could barely hear the
runners over the rain. The aid station was churning through broth and coffee at an alarming rate, and the medics were doing an amazing job keeping the runners warm. Not to overdramatize the event, but there were a few moments where Hancock was much more reflective of trench warfare of WWI instead of an ultra marathon. The difference? We weren’t dealing with artillery shells from the enemy, we were having to fight with mother nature. This is the first aid station where I think I did a little bit of everything. At one point I was checking pacers, another I was trying to talk a runner through their options of dropping, running, or waiting for their crew, and another moment I was standing in the pouring rain with my headlamp like a lighthouse just trying to spot runners coming up the boulder path to our station.
It. Was. Intense.
At 11:45 PM MST I had received my next set of orders. I was to leave at midnight and travel to Monarch Pass. There I would find some rest, warmth, and time to recover a bit. However, that also meant that the only way I could get out of Hancock was back down the same road I came in on. The same road that had been dealing with non-stop rain for over six hours. Pitifully I looked at John and asked if he was leaving at any specific time. Realizing that my poker face is pathetic, he said he would leave around midnight. I asked him, this is a true story, if I could follow him out because I was that afraid of the road.
Of course John was ready to rock, and I had placed my faith in him. Surely, a Colorado man of his stature would whip through the road quickly in a stylish, tall, AWD vehicle. Ensuring that I would be taken to safety.
He showed up in a Honda Odyssey.
Nothing against the van, it is a great vehicle, but my faith in humanity (and my own life) slipped slightly at that moment. However, John was not playing around. We cleared that road in less than 20 minutes.
Knowing that I was free from the clenches of death, I started my journey to Monarch Pass.
Aid Station #3: Monarch Pass
Theme: The Devil
Time: Saturday 1:00 AM MST to 7:00 AM MST
The good news about Monarch Pass is the reality that it is directly off of US 50; there is no Colorado road to fight. The bad news? It is an hour drive on the highway from Hancock to the pass. It is a trip. Halfway through the journey, it hit…the eggs, bacon, coffee, and other colorful items that I had ingested. Naturally, I am terrified of porty-potty’s (I know all the runners are laughing at me now, it’s alright, I ate lunch alone in school), and I sure as heck am not taking the gamble of leaving my own choices 6 inches in the ground, while realizing I could be tracking in a bear to my untimely demise.
Between the cramping and the stench of the car; I saw it like a beacon of hope. Some small town 24/7 gas station with restrooms on the outside of the building. I hopped out of the car at 1:00 AM MST and marched up to the guys side.
SOMEHOW IN THE MIDDLE OF NOTHING THE MEN’S RESTROOM IN ONE STOP GAS STATION WAS BEING OCCUPIED AT 1:00 AM MST!
A polite woman and I used sign language to figure out what was going because our language barrier at that time of night was not going to achieve anything. Being panicked, feeling the doomsday clock ticking inside me, and replaying that image of the inmate exploding in The Dark Night caused me to fly into the women’s restroom at the horror of the kind lady in the van watching.
After coming back to life with my second wind (hehe) I finished my journey to Monarach Pass. St. Elmo was special, Hancock was rough, but Monarch Pass had an element of fear and creep that only Steven King could whip up. On top of Monarch Pass sat this aid station in a parking lot in the middle of nothing. There was no traffic, there was no movement, just the slow creeping of the fog, and the local aid station workers wearing devil horns*.
Remember learning about coal mines? Remember that image from October Sky or The Hunger Games in which the miners would come up the elevator. All you could see was their headlamp? They looked like worn corpses just trying to find eternal rest?
Welcome to Monarch Pass.
Even after Bryce Canyon I have never seen so many half-dead runners in my life. From the aid station, if you looked across the highway, you could see the runners coming down the ridge. The bouncing lights would take another twenty minutes to find the actual station. When they crossed the road, mixed with the fog, all you could see was their headlamp searching for sanctuary from the elements. The tap, tap, tapping of their trekking poles for many of them were their only ways of expressing life.
This is where aid stations become hugging stations.
I’m so cold.
That was a lot.
Do you have something warm?
I got lost in the fog. I could not find a #@^! thing.
That was hard.
Every runner came in with a different thought as the early morning pressed on. At 2:00 AM MST the aid station was cooking up fried “Waffle House” eggs for one runner. At 3:00 AM MST another runner came in convinced that the race director had lost his golf clubs on the ridge behind us. The crews were wearing down, the aid station was calm, the runners were cold…realistically…we all needed daylight. At 4:00 AM MST after eating a wonderful scotcharoo that painfully reminded me of my ex-girlfriend from college, I sat down in my chair. That is when I started to notice the shaking. It would come and go, and eventually it just came to stay. My legs were shaking, my upper body was shaking, the world was shaking. Without causing alarm of my own internal earthquake I walked over to my Mazda3. I turned the car on, cranked the heat up to 90 degrees, and grabbed my pillow.
The exact thought in my head…
I’m just a volunteer. I should not feel like this. I should be helping. I have to warm up. I am so embarrassed.
At 6:00 AM MST I woke up to the strangest, borderline hallucination I have ever witnessed. Standing in front of my car was Leia. Leia was the runner from Kansas City, Leia was the one that got me into all of this a year ago; Leia is unstoppable.
Why the hell is Leia in front of my car?
Forgetting that I was at an aid station at the summit of a mountain in Colorado, I scrambled to get out of the car. Smacked my head on the doorframe, lost a glove, cut my forehead, and tried to get to Leia.
I timed out at Middlefork.
I did not know what to do. I was speechless. I wasn’t sure to say, “I’m sorry”, or “you’re awesome”, or “I’m amazed” because I was scared that anything was going to result in crying…by either one of us. I just listened as her crew grabbed her, got her into a warm vehicle, and took off.
That one moment summed up the entire experience. When you volunteer you become so emotionally involved with the people actually running, whether you mean to or not, that when they find heartache. You find it also. It is nowhere close to what they had experienced, but you can still find the lump in your throat. Somehow, someway you want to cheer for everyone. It is not about the person who comes in first, though that is awesome, it is about the survival of the whole field.
At 6:30 AM MST, after witnessing that brief event, I apologized for sleeping in my car and at that moment I saw Chris enter the parking lot, while the rain continued to pour.
Chris and I met at Hancock. Her shoes were soaked, so she slept in our aid station for nearly an hour waiting for dry shoes. We talked about her plan of action, especially since she was doing the course without a pacer. Eventually after some rest, some broth, and some dry shoes she left Hancock. She reminded me of “The Legend” back home. So much mental, but physically so strong.
Seeing Chris at Monarch Pass made my own experience. She came into Monarch smiling. She grabbed some coffee, got some bacon, and I walked with her back out onto the course. Witnessing the energy levels that she had made me so happy. Chris was my ‘feel good’ story of the race. There was a lot, including my ginger-beard brother, my Cleveland twin with the same name, and the crazy Canadian, and so many more.
After Chris left, feeling my age coming before me, I realized that my journey had come to an end. It was time to leave, but I had one last place I needed to travel to…
Aid Stations #4: Start/Finish
Time: Saturday 8:00 AM MST to 10:00 AM MST
I never had met the race director. All I knew was that his name was Caleb and he ‘had legs of a road runner’. The intent was to travel to the start/finish line, say thank you, and head back to my hotel for some rest. Upon arrival what I saw was another aid station. I saw a few runners, already finished, resting at the finish line. However, runners were coming in with cold core temperatures. So, myself and three other people started to build a quick aid station with camp stoves and JetBoil** contraptions. The biggest request was just broth. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this experience, but volunteers should try to make an attempt to visit the finish line when they are done serving. Why? Because that is when you get to witness the most incredible reward. It is not the hat, the shirt, the whiskey, etc…it is seeing people that you’ve been around for split seconds through the darkest parts of the night come across the finish line. Children running with fathers, runners limping into the finish; the laughter, the crying, the cramping, the kissing, anyone who understands what is going on will cry at the finish line. I enjoyed boiling the broth, but I loved seeing the finish of the runners. It was inspiring, but it was also fulfilling. It made me believe that my time out in Colorado was well spent, and that somehow, someway I was able to assist those runners achieve the impossible.
I also burned my hand on the pot and realized that my lack of sleep was catching up with me.
At 10:00 AM MST I took my rain jacket off for the first time in nearly 24 hours***, I shook hands with Caleb (without making any leg comments that some at the aid station volunteers had told me to), and slowly walked along the side of the finish line ‘funnel’. I walked along the road with two recreational hikers enjoying the morning, got into my Mazda3 that smelled like wet dog, took a deep breath, and started my journey to some well needed rest.
It is hard to still be a ‘new runner’ and watch events like this unfold. You are both equally intimidated by being around such high caliber runners that you’ll likely never be like, and at the same time your heart longs to accomplish a similar journey. It is an internal paradox that I have not found an answer for.
That was one of the most exciting, adventurous, exhausting, taxing, rewarding journeys I have ever had the blessing to be a part of in the trail running community.
…and I was just volunteering.
If you find a High Lonesome runner around you; give them a hug.
Don’t ask questions, just trust me on this one.
*Mile 66.6, get it? Devil, 666, Hell’s Hill, etc…I thought it was clever.
**I have now seen enough JetBoil devices to successfully send at least one man into space by one of these aid stations. Probably Monarch Pass.
***Best $14 I have ever spent! Thank you Trail and Ultra Runner Facebook page for the lead! Retail was $130, I’m still proud of myself.