DON’T RING THE BELL
I’ve always wondered if the real stories of struggle in these endurance events are at the back of the pack. People (like me) who are the weekend warriors, trying to accomplish something selfishly epic, biting off more than they can chew for the moment of glory it can achieve.
Yet isn’t that the point of all the training and dedication we suffer through; to light the dormant fight we all have within ourselves.
The Bryce Canyon 100mile trail race is a scenic, mountain course that runs along the western edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in Utah. The race is run at high elevation, with most of the miles between 8,000 – 9,000 ft.
It is also a WSER and UTMB qualifier, which is exactly why I registered. My ultimate goal is to one day run WSER, the world’s oldest and most storied 100-mile trail race.
In retrospect, I can tell you that the biggest obstacle I witnessed running the Bryce 100 wasn’t the never attempted 100mile distance, the 18,565 feet of elevation gain, the stifling 40C+ desert heat or lung sucking effects of 9,500 feet of altitude to the unacclimatized. Admittedly, I have never experienced all of these challenges at the same time, yet they all still paled in comparison to the real challenge I faced here.
The biggest obstacle I wrestled with was my own mind. I quit this race at least 50 times in my head. When things got too tough, I found myself waivering and repeatedly questioning why I was running this damn race. My biggest surprise was just how powerful our negative, defeatist monkey mind really is.
For Navy SEAL recruits, Hell Week is the defining operational training program that tests physical endurance, mental toughness, pain tolerance, teamwork, attitude, sleep deprivation and ones ability to perform under high physical and mental stress. Above all, it tests determination and desire. The Instructors make it easy, even honorable, for students to come out of the cold: simply ring the bell that signals defeat, and enjoy doughnuts and coffee in front of your suffering former classmates.
I mentally rang the bell so many times during this race it was getting hard to hear myself think.
Mistake #1. My game plan is to maintain a conservative pace early in the race, but the temperatures are cool and terrain super fun, so I find myself running too fast for the first 19miles before hitting the first aid station, 1.25hrs ahead of schedule (Sorry Alan!). There is no cell reception, so I wait around for an additional 30 minutes for my crew (Andrea and Ted) to arrive. I thought I was conservatively pacing myself, but instead expeditiously purged a large volume of glycogen stores right out of the gate. Result: My crew ball me out for pacing too fast and I play catch up for the rest of the day.
Mistake #2. The entire 1st day is marked by ~50% walking due to considerable elevation gains and stifling heat, which had the combined effect of beating me down mentally and forcing me to come face to face with the fact that I arrived in this desert with potentially unachievable expectations. Those expectations centered around how I envisioned this race was going to execute (i.e., within 29hrs), even though I really had no benchmark from which to measure the efficacy of those expectations. This is of course only my first 100miler!
As the intensity of the race unfolded, I struggle with an avalanche of “I can’t do this” excuses that my monkey brain throws at me. I become more mentally discouraged as the day progresses, certain a shiny new belt buckle is not in the cards.
Mistake #3. At Mile 28, I miss the trial marker heading out from AS #3 and subsequently run down a gravel road for 2 km before realizing there are no other runners and no trail markers in sight. I turn around and slog back up the steeply inclined road. To pass the time before I get back on track, I invent new words of profanity during the 45 minutes that just evaporated. What a putz.
Mistake #4. As I approach Mile 41 late in the day, I get this idea in my head that I’ll take a quick shower in the RV to recharge at the next crew station, Straight Canyon. My crew is understandably surprised when I show up and proclaim my change of plans. In the process of avoiding the mental dread of heading back out for what would be the toughest, steepest climb of the day (the majestic Pink Cliffs at over 9,500ft), I effectively kill 60min doodling around the RV before heading back out.
There are many more mistakes I‘m certain I’ve made, but in an effort to keep you awake, I should keep this story somewhat on track….
BOUNCING OFF THE BOTTOM
Once getting up and over Pink Cliffs, I show up at Crawford AS (turnaround point) around 11:30pm, just 1hr before final cut-off. My electrolytes are shot, and my nutrition plan has become ineffective. I can barely stand and literally fall into the RV. BIG mistake.
I’m no stranger to bonking, and apparently, I’m a slow learner. I crashed hard at last year’s Nut100km in Oregon with just 8kms to go. The effects are overwhelming. You adopt an unflattering gate (one step forward and two steps sideways), exhaustion sets in, and you flirt on the verge of collapse. At that race, it took a medic 2 hours to turn me around. This time, my team did it in less than 30min.
Unfortunately, once your electrolytes crash, at least in my case, it can take a very long time to pull back out of that deficit.
With a little less than 80km remaining in the race, I find myself busy defending my bailout position to Andrea and Ted. Instead of maximizing a game plan on how to get out of the aid station and back on track, I pulled out a calculator and attempt to defend how utterly impossible it would be to skirt each of the remaining 6 aid station cut-offs and finish this monster on time. Luckily (and comically to anyone watching), my mental cognition is so deteriorated that I forget how to do even simple math. “Let me see, 80km remaining times pace times … ” … “hey, how much time do we have left?”… “hold on, what are the pace units?”… “what time is it?”… An entertaining example of just how pathetically deficient my cognitive reasoning skills have become.
Ted and Andrea waste no time stepping up to the plate. They pull me back together and get my electrolytes back on track. Fortunately, I’m able to keep down two bowls of Ramen noodles and two electrolyte tabs (over 2000 milligrams of sodium!!) which pull me out of the hole. Once my condition becomes relatively stable, Andrea solidifies in me that we are absolutely going back out on that course, and that she has no time for any resistance from me (of which I am dolling out plenty!).
We pull out of Crawford AS at 12:20am, just 10 minutes before cut-off, and headed back up the steepest part of the course, the majestic and mammoth Pink Cliffs. Time is of the essence, we have no windows of time remaining. We have to make every cut-off from now till the end or suffer elimination. All in all, I burned through almost 4 hours that 1st day, 4 hours of painful mistakes, and 4 hours I was not getting back.
Mile 62: We make it back to Straight Canyon by ~3:45am, restock my race vest, pick up Ted, and pull out with just 1 minute remaining before cut-off. The entire remaining 60km of the race is marked by successively skirting every subsequent AS cut-off, sometimes within minutes. Little did I know at the time, but this had the beneficial effect of keeping me on pace for the remainder of the race.
Ted, an accomplished athlete and 5-time Ironman podium finisher (age group), focuses his entire training and competition nutrition plan in 10min increments. The entire race (swim excepted) is managed in efficient, focused and effective 10min segments. As Ted and I push through the night, he shows me how to adapt my nutrition strategy into a segmented 10min systems check. This has the effect of ensuring I ingest sufficient calories consistently with metered accuracy without overwhelming my system, and managing the effects of heat, elevation and altitude in smaller increments. This has a remarkable effect on my ability to recover, and I remain dialed in to his trusted nutrition plan for the reminder of the race.
As we work our way back up the course, Ted pulls me out of yet another crash by effectively introducing carbs with metered accuracy. “Systems check” becomes my mantra and ensures we both know where my energy and cognitive faculty stand at any moment. He helps me pull away from that dragon once again and pick up the pace through metered energy management. A shuffle here, an easy downhill run there. Soon we’re making up lost time and the game plan is looking up … at least until we get to the next AS. At Mile 75, I was about to learn another lesson on energy depletion.
You may believe you are recovered and home free, but under the hood another crash is waiting. Electrolyte deficits are exceedingly hard to overcome. Lingering just a bit too long at the AS, my energy levels fall hard again for the 3rd time in 6 hours. This time, a quick recovery isn’t in the cards. Even with our best efforts, I can’t pull out of the deficit this time. I struggle for over 2 hours to do anything but walk. Even slow shuffles cause me to buckle; it seems my legs are finally spent.
My mind feels like its 1000lbs. It’s crushing me with the weight of what is still ahead, the 40C+ heat, the elevation, and a body plagued by perpetual crashing.
Also, right from the start of the race yesterday, I was mentally hung up on completing this race in 29 hours. Setting your anticipated target pace is not an out of the ordinary thing to do. My problem was that I had committed to not running 36 hours even before I started running this race. No way was I running two afternoons in this desert sun inferno. Every time a mistake burned up precious time and pulled me further into running through the second day, I was further discouraged from continuing. I already felt like I failed because I knew I had exceeded 30hrs run time, and was about to be trapped in the baking heat of another desert day.
My concerns were not insignificant. Runners were leaving in ambulances. Up on the plateaus in the baking heat, we passed people laying beside the trail with IV bag’s hanging from a nearby tree. Medics were scrambling to keep up with the demand of dehydration and heat exhaustion. It’s easy to show up and toe the line, but it’s exceedingly hard not to give up when life becomes unbearable. I was wrestling a bear, and that bear was my mind telling me “I can’t”…
Then, something that is nothing short of magical occurs; A lone man claps.
At about Mile 82m, 2 miles before Proctor AS (the final crew access point before the finish), a lone man appears ahead of us standing in a forest grove beside the sandy trail. He probably has a son or daughter running and wanted to greet them early. We absolutely had never laid eyes on one another before, and he certainly doesn’t know that I am in the midst of a mental meltdown. Yet he starts to clap for me. He’s clapping so loud I think his hands must be burning, and he bellows out in his deep masculine voice “Congratulations 100miler, you got this! Way to go!”
I’m dumbfounded. Up until this point, I had mentally beat myself down countless times as I struggled, helplessly searching for the strength to even mange a partially fluid gate, and had traveling at a laboured, painfully slow pace. We had just spent the last 2 hours attempting to restart my creb cycle while grinding up ‘telephone pole’ inclines, yet, I hear this man clapping for me, and I take off.
My legs erupt under me, my eyes well up, and I start to outwardly bawl an emotional outburst that has come from somewhere deep inside. In an instant, I am emotionally overwhelmed and face the realization of the very moment that is unfolding in front of me: I know the reason I am here. In this exact second as that lone man in the woods starts clapping for ME, I realize that I am here to FINISH. I’m here to fully realize this challenge I set out to conquer. I’m here to conquer my demons and right this ship. My first 100miler and the Western States qualifier ticket I am gunning for are on the line.
And for possibly the first time in the entire race, I become 100% selfish, something I had wrestled with for 2 days as I subconsciously road AS cut-offs and manufactured excuses. I know now I’m fighting this fight for me, no one else, And I deserve it. I deserve to reach for a goal and grasp it even when its inevitability is fleeting.
I just bolted. Ted, who is running behind me, and couldn’t possibly know what had just transpired in my emotional body, watches in disbelief as I pull away. My legs woke up not because the constant stream of sugars I was ingesting every 10 minutes for the last 4 hours finally found their way to my burning muscle fibers. My legs, and my heart, opened up because I want to win MY race. For ME. And I deserve the win. For once, I finally get out of my own way.
After a few moments of scratching his head at the sight of me burning up the trail, Ted quickly recalibrates our game plan. Hold back on downhills, remain conservative on my pace so it will last the remaining 16miles, and don’t stop at Proctor AS. Not even for a second. Just drop my race vest and keep pushing. He’d refuel my pack and Andrea will run it up to me reloaded and pared down to essentials. Since I was now picking up Andrea as my pacer for the last 16 miles, she would manage my fuel intake and keep me on a finishing pace. And push we did. Andrea and I started picking off runners left and right. At Mile 92, I blow by the final AS while Andrea reloads my pack with ice and water, and we both gun it for the finish.
And the finish was EPIC. Coming out of the hoodoo canyon, the finish line feels just within reach. It is now 5pm, 1 hour before cut-off. Since this course is an out and back, I desperately search my memory for the desert thicket that marked the final road exit opening to where we began this odyssey the day before, but I forgot just how many canyon ravines separated us from the finish line. Each canyon is followed by another, and another, and another. Minutes tick by. I ask numerous people how far the finish is, they each have a different answer. I finally figure out the finish arch is about 5km away. Cut-off was 6pm, it’s now 5:23pm.
Just then, I hear Ted calling out to me. He had walked out onto the course to pull us in. Ted has this megaphonic voice that can command attention. Immediately, it fires my fast twitch fibers. He goes into command mode, barking orders like a drill sergeant: “Come on! you’re almost there!”. I find a dormant guttural voice and respond “Hooyah!”. Another command fires back at me “One more hill, I promise” (which he said at least 4 times!), and “Don’t ring the bell god damnit!”.
My deep-seated desire to right this ship after 2 days of challenges and painful mistakes, earn the right to grasp at this finish, and give my incredible friends the win they also came here for, pulls me along the 3 or 4 remaining ravines that finally empty out onto the dusty road that separates us from the finish arch at a lightning pace. Ted hammers me with more commands “Push damnit”, “Don’t ring that bell” and “How bad do you want this”, the whole time dousing my head with cold water from his water bottle. The desire to finish under cut-off is so internally fueled, so visceral, that I run the final 5kms in 32.6min, and the final kilometer at a 4.40min/km pace, possibly my fastest split ever, and an astounding feat (for my ability) after almost 36hours on my feet.
To run a 32min 5K at this point in the race destroys everything I thought I knew about the human body. The energy to push that hard after almost 36 hrs of high elevation punishment is not found in the fast twitch fibers of your quads or efficiency of your creb cycle. It’s found in the mental desire to SUCCEED.
We round the final corner crossing the finish line together screaming “Hooyah” at the top of our lungs with only 6min remaining. Official finish time: 35:53:55. Epic.
Sure, it takes grit, mental fortitude and tenacity to train for and finish an endurance race like this, but it also demands an epic team to help pull you through your own mental demons and finish the job. Thank you guys. I’m eternally grateful for your uncompromised support, encouragement and friendship. There can be only one 1st 100miler, and this would have NEVER happened without you.
And thank you lone clapping man in the woods. You have no idea what you’ve done.