My first 200 mile attempt I failed. I traveled all day and didn’t get enough sleep the night before the race. I was miserable and quit at 100 miles. But after a 19 hour break, I got back in and tried to sprint the last 100 just to stay ahead of the cutoff. I bit the dust at mile 168. Last time I checked, Viaduct Trail in Pennsylvania didn’t have the 200 mile option anymore. But Potawatomi did. However, instead of a 79 hour cutoff, it was 64. This year there was no chance I was going to be able to sneak in a 12 hour nap…
I’ve dnf’d a few races and when I do I have a subtle uneasiness that sits with me. That feeling grew last year when I attempted another 200 – at Potawatomi – and failed again. My training was light and my ankle couldn’t hold up to the hills as a result of it. I stopped at 140 miles while Melissa ran brilliantly to finish her 150 mile race. My excitement to see her finish overshadowed any disappointment. I knew I didn’t put in enough training so I got the itch to really try. Meaning plan it, train for it, and show up prepared to really see if I could do it. If I really tried, I think the uneasiness would go away, whether I crossed the finish line or not.
I am not uneasy anymore.
After a back injury in December and not running for a few months, my training plan this year started something like this:
Tuesday – Rich McCaleb has a bib available for the Frozen Otter. Melissa petitions him to transfer the bib to me. All parties accept.
Wednesday – 8 mile run
Thursday – 6 mile run
Friday – massage
Saturday – 64 miles (walked the last 7 miles)
It was a rough start but the “couch to Otter in 4 days or less” plan worked. I wrote a training plan for the next 3 months and the first month was building a base with strength training. I did plenty of cross training like cycling and swimming, and made sure my diet was clean. The next 5 weeks were building aggressively and the last 3 weeks were taper. I had a day of speed intervals, a day of hill intervals, 2 days I lifted weights, midweek long run, and back to backs on the weekends. I peaked at 100 miles and felt strong.
Did I mention that while I was training, Melissa was about to have our baby? When she hit 40 weeks, we were getting nervous that I might have to put off my race until next year. Baby Emilia was born April 1st so I got to enjoy our beautiful baby for 9 days before the race started. As I gazed at her time and time again that first week, I vowed to show her that anything is possible if you really try. I want to be a father that tries, all the time, at everything I do.
And while all this is going on, my thoughts are with my sister and her family. Just after my Potawatomi attempt last year, my nephew Nick passed away suddenly. We were all so sad and I could only think that after all my days of excess, I should have been the one to go, not Nick. And I wished I could have taken my sister’s pain away. I resolved to finish this race in memory of him.
Our plan was to leave for the race Thursday morning, pick up an RV on the way, and set it up early enough to get a few hours of sleep before the race, which happened to start at midnight. I didn’t want to do what I did at Viaduct Trail. I planned on two 45 minute naps. Maybe at 100 miles and at 150 miles. I needed to be well rested in order to run that night, the next day, and part of the next night before my first nap. Helping me to carry out my immaculate plan was Melissa, Jack our dog, and baby Emilia. Her sister Marlene and boyfriend Delfino were coming Friday to help Melissa with the baby and crew me. I felt that I needed attentive crew rather than pacers for success.
The plan started falling apart before we even got there. The RV rental company was going to change our trailer plug but had trouble with it which set us back a few hours. By the time we got to Potawatomi, it was almost sunset. As we started to set up the RV, we could not get the electric to work on it. It turns out they forgot to install the battery. That cost a couple more hours. It was about 10:30 when I was ready to lie down. I figured an hour was better than nothing, but all I did was stare at the ceiling wondering if starting the race with no sleep would be critical to finishing or not.
I gave Melissa and Emilia a kiss before I left the trailer just before midnight. I made a few bottles and had my nutrition laid out on the table. The first 12 hours were self-supported so I would be coming to the trailer after every loop until the 150 mile start at noon on Friday. We had a canopy but it was too windy to set up. I wanted to keep my loops under 3 hours including breaks and come in under 60 hours. If something went wrong, I had 4 extra hours to work with and still make the 64 hour cutoff. The 10 mile loop is hilly (1600 ft elevation gain) with 2 water crossings and a steep climb called Golf Hill. It has a rope which I heard becomes handy when it rains and is muddy and slick. Brian Gaines and Tiffany Dore were also attempting 200 as well as Ryan Dexter. I didn’t know the other 6 racers.
The first few laps were going fine. I lead for 2 laps and then Ryan blew past me on the 3rd loop. He gained 1.5 miles on me that loop. Part of that might be because my headlamp died about 3 miles into the loop. I knew the trails there well enough to navigate in the dark but Golf Hill was tough in the pitch black. Its a miracle I didn’t fall or even trip. I was only taking in calories at the trailer between loops with the exception of my bottles of CarboPro, so I was starting to loose energy after a couple laps. I had never used it before but Melissa said it was good so wanted to try it out. I drank an Ensure every lap with a tablespoon of olive oil in it. Then I would try to get a little bit of something solid in me before heading back out. After the 5th loop the 3 aid stations on the course were open.
With no sleep going into the race, I seemed to be able to hold the pace I wanted. Until mile 70. I was having trouble staying awake as it turned to night. I fiercely wanted to hold off on sleeping until about 4 a.m. I figured I would get to 100 around that time. If I went to bed too early, I might need a 3rd nap later. I also didn’t want to face going out into the cold night at 3 a.m. after napping in a warm car. I would rather it be light out. I pushed through those last couple laps and at times falling asleep while running. I would find myself running off the trail and snap out of it, go back to the trail and start running again before falling asleep again. This happened the last few miles. The hallucinations were a step up from what I’ve experienced before. These were in Technicolor as opposed to just seeing something move out of the corner of my eye, or see shapes that resemble random animals or monsters. I was dreaming while running. It’s hard to explain properly. When I got to 100 miles at 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning, I had been awake for nearly 48 hours. We decided my naps should be 1.5 hours so I started again just after 6 a.m.
When I changed my socks my feet were raw. Running with wet feet was taking its toll. After a couple loops on Saturday, I ran into Kamil. I didn’t realize he had come down with another friend, Randy, to help him complete his first 50 mile trail run. We ran together for 2 loops before they finished their 50 and left.
At this point I am at 140 miles and am calculating what time I need to finish the last lap before my 150 mile split. I wanted to redeem my 150 mile time from a couple of years back and maybe beat Melissa’s 150 time from last year.
Melissa’s time was 45 hours and in order to have a chance at a 60 hour finish I would need to finish 150 in 45 hours or less. I finished in just under 45 hours and decided to take my second nap at 170 miles – just 2 more laps. Again, I wanted to sleep during the darkest, coldest part of the night so I would start when the sun is coming up. However, those last 2 laps before my nap were exceptionally difficult. My feet at this point had deteriorated to the point of raw flesh and I was falling asleep while running again.
At 160 it was around midnight Saturday night. I felt that was the time I decided whether I was going to finish or not. I told Melissa that I wasn’t sure I could go on. The pain in my feet were so painful I didn’t think I could go one more lap. I needed to finish 170 by 4:30 in order to sleep for 1.5 hours and have 10 hours to finish the last 30. I believed that not finishing by 4:30 Sunday morning would mean defeat once again. I needed the sleep and I needed 9-10 hours to finish the last 3 laps. Melissa suggested getting a pacer for the next lap and Scott Laudick was at the right place at the right time. He agreed to go with me even though we warned him it would be 3 or 4 hours. He accepted without hesitation so we bundled up to accommodate the slow pace. During the first mile there is a loop in the field before going back by the start/finish area then heading into the woods. During this loop I realized what I really needed was to re-engage and run this lap just like I had the last 16 times. I needed to fight, the way I wished Nick had fought for his life. Pain became secondary to the goal once again and I asked Scott if he could take my extra layers of clothing back to my crew area. This would ensure that I would continue to run and commit 100% to finishing this lap, and the race. I had my focus back so I headed into that lap without Scott. But the focus was only good while I was awake to act on it. About halfway through the loop I started falling asleep and dreaming while running. I kept running off trail into the woods before waking up. About 6.5 miles into the lap I stopped and tried to calculate how much time I had left to get back in time. I fell asleep there standing up for about 15 minutes. If I didn’t find a way to stay awake I wasn’t going to make it so I started talking to myself as I ran. It worked! By keeping a conversation going with myself I was able to not doze off for the rest of the lap. I got back about 4:40 and immediately went to sleep.
After every lap, Melissa, Marlene and/or Delfino were there to take care of me. They helped dial in my nutrition and take care of all the details that were essential to continue. They put me to sleep, woke me up and gave me my bottles all day and all night for as long as I needed them to. I never felt they wanted me to quit in order for them to get relief from crewing. They were as committed as I was every step of the way to finish no matter how difficult it became. They woke me up just after 6 am Sunday morning to help me through the last 3 laps. At this point I know that 60 hours won’t happen but I would be very happy with a finish under the 64 hour cutoff. I felt that because I forced myself to finish 170 the night before, and got a good nap in, the pressure was off. The hardest part of the race, the part that made me question whether I had what it took or not, I got through in the middle of the night. The last day was to be relaxed and enjoyed. But I still needed to keep focused because one mistake could mean the difference between finishing or not. I was having issues with my right knee off and on throughout the race so I was hoping it would hold out for 30 more miles.
Lap 18: No problems
Lap 19: Still no problems
Lap 20: Knee stops working at mile 196
Going into my last lap, my family arrived to see me finish and share the victory so I knew they were waiting for me at the finish. Melissa and crew, after 3 days of relentless support, were there as well as all my ultrarunning friends, including Alfredo. He made the extra effort to come down to see the finishers at a time when mobility was difficult. But with a running community that is always willing to help each other out at any time of the day or night, we can do more together than what we can do alone. I hobbled as fast as I could the last 4 miles and came in 47 minutes under cutoff. It was a very tight margin considering I pushed the pace at all times, knowing there was no room for any significant errors. We celebrated, took pictures and felt successful from our massive effort. Except for lack of sleep going into the race, we did many things very well. My nutrition worked great. I used the entire container of CarboPro, somewhere close to 6,000 calories. I took in about 7,000 calories from the Ensure, 2,000 calories from olive oil and maybe another 1,000 calories from peanut butter. The aid station food was maybe another 2,000 calories for a total of approximately 18,000 calories. My training worked very well too. I would have preferred another month of training but maximized every workout. After the race, I was interviewed by Scott Kummer and Cory Feign for the podcast “Ten Junk Miles.” From the time I woke Thursday morning until the end of the race 80 hours later, I slept 3 hours. Finish time 63 hours 13 minutes.
Completing this race would not be possible without the following people:
Rich and Eric Skocaj – Knowing I wanted to finish a 200 miler and not finishing last year’s unofficial attempt, they made an official race this year. This is my favorite race course and they are the best race directors out there.
Marlene and Delfino – With nothing in it for them, they crewed me selflessly all the way.
Melissa – She wanted this as much as I did. She bought me shoes, took on extra responsibility during my heavy training, and even gave up her socks during the race when mine weren’t working. She was there from start to finish whether I was going to finish or not. Oh, and she birthed our daughter too…
I would also like to thank the race volunteers. They got me through many tough spots and are so humble. And thanks to Kamil and my family for coming to see me. And finally Nick, Allyson and family. Allyson gave me a letter to read upon completion of the race. I waited a couple of days to read it and one part has really stuck with me. She believes Nick knew they loved him. I hope Melissa and I can say that about Emilia when she gets older.