(Written by Coach Mike)
What do you know about Hubris? My 2021 was full of it.
You would think that after reading about characters like Icarus (or maybe Adam and Eve depending on your reading fancy) from the time I was a child and to my children now, I would have some “take-aways”. However, every so often I reach too far, have the wax on my wings melt, and I learn this same lesson over again.
At the beginning of the year, I decided to run the Lynchburg Ultra Series. A 4 race series that has the Holiday Lake 50k, Terrapin Mountain 50k, Promise Land 50k++, and the Mountain Masochist Trail Race 50 Miler. I wanted to win at least one of the races and also aimed to win the entire series. I earned high places in all the races and won Terrapin Mountain. I went into the last race (MMTR) with an hour and 20 minute lead over 2nd place in the series. Things were right on schedule. I should be able to coast this series in for the “W”.
The only problem was that Mountain Masochist was in November, which left me the whole summer to get into other things (races).
Nelle and I traveled to Washington state to chase a fast marathon time at the “Jack and Jill Downhill Marathon”. I did some good tempos leading up and was hoping to run 6-6:15 pace which would qualify me entry into all of the US Major Marathons. Low and behold, due to good pacing, patience, and getting competitive in the final miles, I ended up WINNING the marathon!
I also entered the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners Summer Trail Series. It was comprised of 4 short trail races (5k-5 miles in length) sprinkled throughout the summer. Despite getting 2nd place in all four individual races (to various stud high school runners), I was the series winner.
So far, this year sounds like a pretty sweet dream, right? It was. I was killing it and having a great time. While I was still doing a good amount of training, I wasn’t really worried about how hard any course was, or what competition I was up against. I was ready to fill my race calendar with any other challenges I could squeeze in.
And then it happened: I bumped into Rick Kwiatkowski who was the race director for “Andy’s Backyard Ultra”. It’s a “race” where you run 4.2 trail miles every hour, on the hour, for as long as you can. Last person to be able to complete a lap in the hour wins. I’ve never done that type of challenge before, and there was 3 weeks between that and Mountain Masochist, so why not???
Now, these Backyard ultras can go on for days. As long as there are 2 runners to keep going, the race continues. I figured that I could do at least 100 -150 miles, or 24-36 hours. 150 miles?!?! That should be good enough to win. My pride and ego said, “I’ll just do that.”
Wrong on all accounts.
At around 45 miles, 10 loops, my semitendinosus tendon on my left leg (behind the knee) was beginning to complain… a lot. I massaged, applied muscle rub and took some ibuprofen. Once that kicked in, I was good for several more laps. I was running easy, finishing each lap with plenty of time to rest and eat before starting again. At 62ish miles, it started coming back. I repeated what I did before, but it was less effective this time. I was in a death spiral because I was having a hard time running. There were still 14 or so people in the race and I was doing all I could to continue on, but on lap 18 running was no longer an option, and I couldn’t walk the 4.2 mile loop in an hour. I was done.
I sat in my chair. Cold. Sleepy. Beaten. Broken. I sat and watched as the other runners started their next loop, and the next. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks on me, but they looked fresh, laughing, and enjoying the process. The process I got kicked out of because it was too hard for me. I should have been running all of those laps. Then again, Lucifer thought he should be the most powerful in Heaven and look how that turned out. At 3am I couldn’t take it anymore. I drove Nelle and I home. At least there I could be miserable in a familiar place.
When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I wasn’t just sore, but I was injured. It became apparent that I couldn’t run and that I probably wouldn’t be able to put my running shoes on again until the Mountain Masochist race, IF THEN! I wasn’t worried about winning the race, but I did need to hold onto my 1 hour 20 minute Lynchburg Ultra Series lead.
Fast forward to 4 days before the MMTR50, I found myself walking without pain, even able to run a couple miles here and there, but still doing Epsom salt baths, and all the little things to help continue the healing. I haven’t really been sick in a couple years, but now I’m dragging through the work day with a cold/sinus infection that is kicking my ass and not allowing me to pack in the food like you should be doing days before an Ultra race. This is the beginning of the perfect storm.
Mountain Masochist Race day:
Just finish within 1:20 of Steven Tucker (2nd place in the LUS series). That’s all I have to do. No problem. I beat him in all of the other series races, and I’m ok with not beating him today, as long as I stay within an hour:20.
I started out VERY easy. BTW: Do you know how hard it is to let a pack of 12 guys run away from you at the start of a race when you’ve beaten them all before? I sound like a cocky little shit saying that, but it really was hard to watch their headlamps disappear into the pre-dawn darkness ahead of me. The good news was that I had no pain, and other than a sinus headache, I was ready to slowly shlog through this 50 miles with only the finish line mattering.
At the 12 mile aid station, Nelle did a great job of aiding me and informing that the leaders were rolling along about 15 minutes ahead of me. The news that shocked me was that Steven Tucker was the one leading the charge! My head is always doing math and I quickly calculated that gaining 15 minutes of lead on me every 25% of the race would give him an hour on me at the finish. That is getting close to the 1h20m I was protecting. He was doing exactly what he needed to do try to win the day and steal MY series!
“MY” series? Who did I think I was?
I pushed on and new energy came as I clicked the miles off with the sunrise. I knew that there was a turn around at mile 20 and I would be able to see the runners ahead of me. A perfect opportunity to get a time check on their lead. I really need it to be no more than 20-25 minutes at that point. I was feeling pretty good, still no pain, and only minor fatigue.
I’m going to be ok. I’m a badass runner that can do badass things. I can fight with the best of them. I am like Achilles, half man and half…. BAM!!!! I trip over a rock and hit the ground hard!
I don’t get up immediately. In fact, I just stayed on the ground not moving. It took me a bit to understand and accept what had just happened. I felt pain in my left knee, hip, elbow, and side of head. Thank goodness I was wearing gloves or my hands would’ve been cut up too. I think this is the true point when THIS Achilles got shot in the heel.
Finally, I get up, brush myself off, take inventory on how much skin was lost and body mobility. Head is good. So, I started walking, trotting, and then mostly back to regular run.
I started seeing the runners coming back toward me from the turn around. Tucker was still in front and looking pretty good. I took note of the time: 3 hours 23 minutes into the race. My buddy McLane Grow was in 2nd and also looked good. John Andersen was in 7th place and gave me some words of encouragement. I reached the turn around and looked at my watch: 3:39. Ugh. That means Tucker is 32 minutes ahead of me plus however many minutes I spend at the aid station there.
This aid station was pathetic for me. They had so much food and I asked for the one thing they didn’t have. I felt really bad about that. I ate some salted potatoes, and set my water bottle down as I rummaged through my drop bag. I ate a few things and threw my drop bag back, only to find that I had set my bottle right under my bleeding knee and now it has blood all over it. It’s just one thing after another.
I started back up the trail and almost immediately I can feel the injury from the Backyard Ultra starting to flare. I keep my pace easy and just focused on getting to the Aid station at 27 miles where Nelle would be. Each mile it got worse, but luckily a lot of it was uphill and I used that excuse to walk a fair amount.
As I approached the aid station, I was very happy to see Nelle, but she didn’t have the same excitement to see me. She had a puzzled look on her face. “What’s going on?”, she asked.
“What do you mean? I’m grinding.” I said probably more sarcastically than needed.
“But you didn’t come up the trail, you came up the road. You are supposed to come up the trail.”
I can’t believe this is happening. I have to turn around, go back down the road a bit and turn on a trail. Frustration hit a different level. It only added on a half mile or so, but with my leg not really working, it might as well have been 5 miles, not to mention it’s more TIME that Tucker gains on me.
Now that I’ve gone the right way, we are able to talk and evaluate the situation. We figure he is leading me by 50-55 minutes now. He’s looking good, and I am not. I have 23 miles to go. I can’t really fathom covering another 23 miles, but I’m a gamer. Nelle asked me what I wanted to do. I told her “I have more try in me.” The next section was a 4 mile loop that would bring me back to her again, so let’s go.
I put headphones on to listen to music (which I never do) in hopes of getting my mind away from everything else. However, about ¾ mile into the loop I stopped seeing course markings. I didn’t remember seeing any turns, but I had no choice but to go back because I didn’t want to go the wrong way. This was another momentum crusher, because after backtracking a few minutes I ran into some other racers. They confirmed they hadn’t seen any markings either, but I was indeed going the right way. I had doubled back for no reason. More wasted distance and time.
By this point my left leg is shot. My knee cap, hip, and elbow are all beaten and bloodied from the fall at mile 17. The back of my knee is worthless. I’m stumbling every third step because I’m not raising my foot high enough to clear rocks/roots. My last two miles have been 21 and 19 minutes. It’s over.
I do my best to finish the loop and get back to the aid station where Nelle was waiting. I was preparing for the discussion about dropping out. My fear was that she would try to get me to continue even though I had 17ish miles to go. To my surprise when I got to her she said only two words, “You done?”. I shamefully nodded my head and headed over to the chair.
Sophocles couldn’t have written this better. One minute I’m on the top of my game, challenging anything or anyone to take me on, and the next I’m injured on the shelf trying to muster the gumption to walk to the car after collecting my first set-distance race DNF.
But no one to blame by myself. This was self-inflicted heartbreak.
We did go to the finish line to see some of our friends finish. I congratulated Tucker on winning the series, as well as McLane for winning the race. Luckily I was able to crack a few smiles before thanking the race directors and shoveled my pitiful self into the car for the long ride home.
Some lessons are really difficult to learn, and I doubt I’ll ever stop riding that fine line of being aggressive/overreaching. I can only hope to zero it in a little bit better, and maybe keep one cheek full of that humble pie at all times.