By my athletic standards which usually exceed the Los Angeles Clippers’ by a mere half a basketball length, the 2010 running season had already been a success: five marathons, two ultras, and two race wins. The only problem was I did all those races mainly as preparation for the goal of completing a 100-miler—something I had only successfully done once before, and barely. And my intended century run for the year—the Grand Mesa 100—turned out to be a disaster rivaling David Hasselhoff’s wayward footwork on Dancing With the Stars.
So I signed up for the Boulder 100—an annual race an hour’s drive south of home—but not until days before the race. After the Grand Fiasco, you see, motivation waned, work beckoned, free time poofed, and aside from the Omaha Marathon, training constituted little more than walking up and down the stairs between my home office and the refrigerator. My vacillation ended only after I resolutely decided that “I’m signing up; I can’t be afraid of failure” and tossed an envelope containing a $130 check into the mail drop like tissue down a toilet.
This didn’t stop me from talking with machismo to my girlfriend Leah. “I may be undertrained,” I conceded, “but I am going to keep on running until I make it to 100 miles or the organizers KICK ME OFF THE COURSE.”
She wondered if I should have a pacer. “I practice rugged individualism,” I assured her. “But if you want to….”
She decided she wanted to. And so did my buddy Eddie, who heard about this event from our friend Raquel the night before. He texted me a few hours before the race shortly after I woke up, saying that he was going to be in Boulder anyway. Would I like him to pace? “Sure, if you’d like to…”
I had just rounded the second lap—or Mile 14.4—of the big reservoir in Boulder, Colorado when someone sneaked up on me riding a USPS-edition Trek Madone. It was the Eddie-meister on the type of morning where if there really was such a place named Utopia, this would be its weather: cool but sunny, with air as still as a windowpane and fresh as a turnip. My bud coasted along while I jogged slowly for a couple minutes, walked for 20 seconds, and repeated the process. He stopped now and then to shoot photos with a hulking digital SLR and to, ahem, admire the female bods that were trotting along.
“So far so good,” I replied when he asked how I was feeling. “I’ve been walking a lot in order to conserve energy. Yet I’ve still been managing 12-minute miles.” In any other race, I would have been absolutely red-faced for going a mere five miles per hour, but as my overall pace target was 14-15 minute miles, this was roadrunner-like despite the effortlessness of it all.
Actually, it was almost painfully slow, but I knew from experience that if I was going to make it to the end, I would have to go even slower. So when Eddie said adios after keeping me company for half-a-lap, I reduced the pace to 13-14 minute miles, not wanting to feel the first pangs of pain or concern until Mile 60 or so.
It was not to be.
At Mile 27—just beyond a marathon—I could already tell that I was feeling more tired than at Mile 40 of the Free State 100km Trail Race earlier this year. And that course had mud that literally sucked shoes off with each step! Lack of training was already manifesting itself.
At Mile 35, I realized another problem: I felt super bloated and yet I couldn’t pee. I had been force-feeding 20-30 ounces of barely drinkable Heed Sports Drink by Hammer Nutrition every hour and was positive I wasn’t dehydrated. I also recalled a story by an ultra-cyclist friend who experienced the same symptoms and deduced that it was hyponatremia. The solution, then, was to intake more salt. I started to chuck five Hammer Endurolyte capsules (with 50 milligrams of sodium each) with cola at every aid station from that point on, and beginning a few hours later I was able to water trees with regularity, much to the relief of not only the trees but my bladder and mind.
Before I made it to Mile 40, however, I was already having an acute crisis of confidence. I just couldn’t believe that despite mixing slow running with walking with such discipline and regularity, the legs were so feeble already and I still had over 60 miles to go.
I tried not to think about how many more miles (or, worse, kilometers) were left, and instead thought in terms of laps. “So far I’ve done five laps—almost six—so I have just over eight more laps to go.” Doh! It didn’t make me feel much better, especially when considering that those six laps had taken half of the morning and all of the afternoon and it was almost dark.
Ultimately I fought off my misgivings by focusing on short-term goals while intertwining my thoughts with optimism typically reserved for the utterly naive or offspring of Fred Rogers.
“If I can make it to the start of Lap 8,” I reassured myself, “then I’ll be halfway done.”
“Then if I can just finish one more lap,” continued the train of thought, “then Leah will be here and she will pace me for four of the remaining six laps.” I tried not to think about how the heck was I going to continue moving during those two laps without her.
Leah to the Rescue
Mile 50 was indeed a nice psychological hurdle to get by, and I was actually feeling fairly decent during Lap #8 (at least better than Laps #5 and #7). When I was finishing Lap #8, it was already 10:00 p.m. and Leah was on her feet waiting for me. It’s hard to express the joy and relief I felt at that moment even though I still had 43 miles to go.
We jog-walked for a couple miles while other runners sped past us like they were riding dune buggies and we were sitting on a park bench. “Relay runners,” I assured Leah. I didn’t want her to feel alarmed at how slow I was going or know how tired I really was.
One runner who kept passing me but wasn’t doing the relay was a chunky guy with short-cropped hair wearing hot-rod flame-emblazoned arm warmers and listening to an iPod at volumes befitting a Rolling Stones concert. Both of us employed a run-walk strategy except his was more like sprint-crawl-sprint-crawl-sprint-crawl, and we were leapfrogging each other the entire day.
Leah and I successfully made it through Lap #9 but fatigue was getting the better part of me and at the aid station I decided to refuel and drink warm chicken broth containing potatoes. I plopped myself on the curb while elevating my legs over a cooler, and Leah held the cup and spoon-fed me sip by sip. When I finished about 90% of it I finally said, “We better get back out there,” and off we went.
The soup stop was less than five minutes, but legs had seemingly aged 100 years since then. They weren’t cramping, but they just did not want to follow any more instructions from neurotransmitters. My entire body was rebelling and urging a permanent rest, and after minutes of muttering a pathetic trance-like “omigosh, omigosh, omigosh,” I froze dead in my tracks like someone had just intervened and stopped me with a handgun.
I wrapped my arms around Leah, giving her a long hug. This was it; my legs were done.
Finally, she whispered, “Do you want to go on?” I paused for a second or two, but I really didn’t have to think considering how earlier in the week I basically guaranteed that I would keep soldiering on unless forced otherwise.
“Let’s keep on going,” I replied, and we started moving again.
It was the closest I had to a complete meltdown all day, but as if a genie had snapped her fingers, I was back into a decent (if 17-minute-miles could be called that) run-walk pattern. I no longer was moaning like a zombie and I certainly was not talking as that required too much energy. In fact, from that point on, 90% of the time I had to talk, I resorted to a whisper.
Fortunately for Leah, there were other folks on the trail to socialize with. I was completely oblivious to any of her conversations with the others, but she recounted them days after the race.
“We passed by one runner,” Leah said, “so I asked, ‘How are you?’ He replied, ‘Well I’ve been having diarrhea for the last 51 miles, HOW ARE YOU??'” Poor guy; maybe his body was disliking that nasty Heed stuff even more than mine.
“Then there was another runner running in the other direction who was actually looking pretty good. I asked him, ‘How’s it going,’ and he replied, ‘Great, BLECHHHHHHHHH!’ He coughed up blood!”
One runner I did overhear in my braindead state was during one of my final laps in the race. She was running in the other direction so I only caught a few words of her conversation with her pacers, but they were precisely this: “this STUPID race…” If I wasn’t so tired and in complete agreement with her, I would have toppled over bursting with laughter.
Anyhow, somehow I made it through the night on my feet (including Lap #11 solo), and Leah got me through Lap #12. I trudged the first half of Lap #13 alone (unless you count the one dozen elite women from Japan doing a super fast-paced training run around the Boulder Res who kept sprinting by me), but at the turnaround I encountered a familiar face. It was Eddie and his dog Abbey who had come looking for me. They—along with Leah in a few more miles—would pace me until the end of the race.
If Eddie wasn’t an endurance athlete himself who was familiar with others looking like the marrow had been sucked out of their bones, I imagine he would have been both shocked and ready to dial 9-1-1 upon seeing me in such an agonized state in contrast to the last time he saw me, 20 hours before. Yet he didn’t act very alarmed and kept prodding me along when I pretty much just felt like keeling over and dying otherwise. He continued to give non-stop rapid-fire marching orders (“there you go, try to start running again, yeah keep it up, come on”) until Leah joined us for the final lap.
In the ideal scenario, the knowledge of “just one lap to go” would cause a surge in adrenaline, an instant energy boost knowing that the finish is so close. But in my case, the body just shut down. I kept trying to swing my arms and shuffle my legs a little faster to break into a trot, but saw from Leah’s lack of increase in walking speed that I still was going no faster than walking pace. Finally I resigned to just a walk, unable to sustain a pace more rapid than 20 minutes per mile. I was just thankful I was still able to move, unlike one participant I passed a few hours earlier who was wearing a huge knee brace and was only gingerly inching forward by stepping with her left foot, then swinging her bum leg through a 45-degree arc to move it forward, and tediously repeating the process. What she was doing out there and which one of the Boulder races she was doing (e.g., relay or 100-mile?), I had no idea.
With just over one mile to go, two female 100-mile racers that I was ahead of the entire race until then jogged past me, and I was entirely helpless to respond. Eddie—who would normally give me a hard time for getting chicked—took one look at my grimacing face and said, “ok, I won’t tell [our friend Alyssa who also likes to tease me] about this.” Instead, we stopped for a few seconds to take a photo of Leah holding a mile marker numbered ‘1’ on it with me looking at it and basically thinking, “!@#*, we still have one FRICKIN’ mile to go.”
We got to pavement, and while being passed by women did not motivate me to break into a trot, the time clock did. I looked at my watch and saw that I could finish in just under 27 hours if I managed to run, so for the first time in five hours I was finally moving as fast as a five-year-old looking for his momma. Leah and I crossed the finish line as Eddie snapped photos with his beast of a camera: 26 hours, 57 minutes.
We did it.
It took several days of home-arrest and long nights of sleep to be able to get up and down the stairs without having to cling on to the handrails, and my forefeet (which became very blistered after 84 miles) required even more recovery days to not ache with each step. But all in all, I felt fortunate that I didn’t suffer something like a twisted ankle, a tweaked knee, a cramping quad, a severe shin splint, or a puking stomach that could have prematurely ended my race.
Despite the level of torment I experienced (I swear I looked and felt worse than most of the other runners, although Leah assures me that was not the case!), it was just a general feeling of utter exhaustion throughout my entire body that I felt. I also never resorted to pain killers, in contrast to other racers who were chucking Advil like they were jelly beans.
Mentally, I was Leprechaun-lucky to have Leah and Eddie there to pace me. After we were done I felt that if they weren’t there, there was absolutely no way I would have finished.
Speaking of Leah, she deserves special kudos for pacing me for 28 miles—no small feat considering that she had never run more than 14 before. She even completely forewent sleep (like me), going far beyond normal girlfriend duties. She can even say she did a marathon now (ultra-marathon, actually). I’m so proud of her.
The race staff and volunteers also merit many words of thanks. The event was supremely organized and, aside from the Heed (which the organizers were obligated to use since Hammer Nutrition was a sponsor), I have nothing to complain about. Even the course (which some might view as monotonous) was gorgeous, with the Northern Colorado foliage bursting with its autumn glory, the iconic Flatirons and Rockies taking witness to this unusual human endeavor.
Would I do another century run again? Considering the agony I was in—a feeling that probably only ranks slightly lower than childbirth or suffering from cancer—right now I am thinking that completing two 100-mile footraces in my lifetime is enough. The distance, frankly, is absurd. While driving the 50 miles home from Boulder to Fort Collins, I was thinking that 100 miles is a long way to navigate even behind a steering wheel. Maybe if I had time to train five times harder then the distance would be more reasonable, but until then, no.
But I know better than to ever say never. After all, it is possible that even the L.A. Clippers will wear NBA championship rings one day.
Lap 1 (Mile 7.1): 1hr24min (11:46/mile)
Lap 2 (Mile 14.3): 1hr23min (11:37/mile)
Lap 3 (Mile 21.4): 1hr28min (12:19/mile) With Eddie for 1st half of lap
Lap 4 (Mile 28.6): 1hr32min (12:53/mile)
Lap 5 (Mile 35.7): 1hr39min (13:52/mile)
Lap 6 (Mile 42.8): 1hr41min (14:09/mile)
Lap 7 (Mile 50): 1hr46min (14:51/mile)
Lap 8 (Mile 57.1): 2hr07min (17:47/mile)
Lap 9 (Mile 64.3): 2hr06min (17:39/mile) With Leah
Lap 10 (Mile 71.4): 2hr12min (18:29/mile) With Leah
Lap 11 (Mile 78.5): 2hr22min (19:53/mile)
Lap 12 (Mile 85.7): 2hr25min (20:18/mile) With Leah
Lap 13 (Mile 92.8): 2hr28min (20:44/mile) With Eddie for 2nd half of lap
Lap 14 (Mile 100): 2hr24min (20:10/mile) With Eddie & Leah
1st half: 10hr53min (13:04/mile)
2nd half: 16hr04min (19:17/mile)
Total time: 26hr57min (16:10/mile)
Placing: 13/36 men, 19/48 overall