Suddenly a chill comes over me and I start to shiver violently, uncontrollably. My teeth chatter and my arms shake as if I am having a seizure. And this is on top of the nausea that hit me minutes earlier after eating and drinking at the aid station. Vomiting seems like a good idea. Sitting down with my head in my hands is also appealing. The sun has set and complete darkness is minutes away. I have been running since 5 AM, covering 66 miles (106 km) during the past 15 hours. I could stay at the aid station until I feel better, but violently shivering and extremely nauseous, I enter the trail in the darkening woods. Alone.
During the past few years, I started to become interested in running ultramarathons. I ran my first marathon in 2011 and last year in October 2013 I ran my first ultra, Run for the Toad, a 50K trail race. A 50K is not that much further than a marathon, but more challenging due to the trails. I finished in just over 5 hours. I was happy with that but not with the nausea that start afterwards.
Running 100 miles (161K) is much different than a 50K. People use the word "crazy" when they first hear about 100 mile running races. I tell people you have to be at least little crazy to want to run 100 miles. With a milestone birthday coming up in mid-2014, I knew this might be my only opportunity to convince my wife to go along with such a crazy idea. If I didn't do it in 2014, I'd probably have to wait another 10 years. Michelle tolerated the the idea and the training, but she was never thrilled nor happy about. But she she didn't ask me not to do it. I would have obliged, of course.
I followed the "50 miles per week" training program from the book "Relentless Forward Progress" by Byron Powell of iRunFar.com. This would be on the light side of 100 mile training, some might saw the minimal mileage. its not that much more than marathon training, but several of the long runs are longer. Due to injury, I did very little running for 5 weeks (weeks 3-7) of the 24 week training program. But after that, I mostly exceeded the suggested mileage by a little each week. I did seven long runs of marathon distance (26 miles / 42K) or longer, include a 50 mile (80K) run. The training recommends the 50 miler be done as a race, but that didn't work out for me -- so I ran it as a self-supported training run instead, starting at 3:30 AM in the dark and ending after noon of a hot and sunny day, in 9 hours and 13 minutes. I didn't want to run another step -- how was I going to do double that distance, just 5 weeks later? (And by the way, again, after the run was finished, I became nauseous and vomited a few times. I wasn't able to eat or drink until 2 hours later.)
With three weeks to go until the race, i decided to a but more mileage that the plan and ran 2 marathons back to back: one on saturday and then again the next day. I finished each with almost the exact same time: 3 hours and 58 minutes. That felt good, the idea being to help train my body to run on tired legs.
With 2 weeks to go until the race, I was supposed to be tapering, reducing mileage, taking easy. But I was in Boulder, CO on business and could not resist the mountains. I did three mountain runs totaling 5,000 feet of elevation. I figured as long as my quads could recover in 2 weeks, it might be good adaptation for the 100 miler.
B2R Strength Training
In addition to running, I also did some strength training using a program from B2R from Eric Orton. In you have read the book Born to Run, you may recall that Eric Orton was the person who trained Christopher McDougall to be able to run the Copper Canyon ultramarathon. I used both "Level 1" and "Level 2" of the B2R program, which focus on lower leg muscles and perhaps more importantly on stability/balance muscles including abs, hip flexors, and glutes. How much did this help me? I can't be sure, but I can say that I did not feel any weakness in my back, hips, or glutes during the race (even late in the race), though my legs were certainly sore and tired (mostly my quads).
Aug 1 - Driving from Toronto to Akron Ohio
I was hoping to arrive at packet pickup around 3pm. This meant leaving Toronto just after rush hour traffic, around 9-9:30 AM. We left a bit later than that. And with a toddler and 3 month-old baby on board (and grandparents), suffice it to say that there were plenty of bathroom beaks, plus a stop at the Duty Free shop. With a long delay at the border and even longer road work delay on I-90, we finally arrived at packet pickup just before 7pm, when it was due to close down. Phew. Yes, I was stressed, even though I know that being stressed before a race is not a good thing.
I was hoping to get to bed by 8pm that night, but it was closer to 10PM. I only got 5 hours sleep the previous night. I set my alarm for 2:35 AM.
Lost in the Akron Fog - Getting to the Shuttle Bus
We stayed in Akron, about 17 minutes away from the shuttle bus pickup spot (according to Google maps). My father in law was driving me to the bus, rely on Google Maps to guide us. Google maps failed us and we found ourselves in some small residential Akron streets in a dense fog. The bus was due to leave in about 20 minutes. Plan B was a Garmin GPS unit, but I didn't know the "street address" of the pickup. I entered 1 Broad Blvd and hoped for the best. The GPS unit guided us through a myriad of small streets and I had no confidence we were getting there (we later confirmed that the Garmin unit was set to "shortest distance" instead of "fastest time" -- it is a fun setting, try it some time). At almost exactly 3:30AM we arrived and I spotted the school buses. We made it. Again, I was stressed, but then relieved.
The race started at 5 AM, with many runners wearing headlamps or carrying handheld flashlights. I just had my tiny LED running light. The first (pre-dawn) section was all road, and I didn't need any more light than that. I started off near the back of the pack, making sure to walk even the slightest incline. But sat the first 8.7 mile section progress, I must a have sped up a bit as I found myself passing a bunch of runners. My plan was to run easy on the roads as long as they were flat, and let gravity speed me a bit on the downhills.
The First Half
I finished the first 13 miles (all road) in 2:22 in 86th position out of 280 runners. At the Polo Fields aid station I took my handheld water bottle out of my pack and filled it for the first time. My plan was to not drink or eat anything during the first 2 hours. In fact, my hydration strategy for the race was to drink as little as possible (but still drink to thirst) -- this might might sound crazy to some (more on this later). I felt good, relaxed pace, breathing was easy. So far so good. The sun was up, but it was hot, at least not yet.
The next sections were most bridle trail (horse-riding trails), muddy in parts due to a combination of rain from the previous day and the horses' hooves. More hilly than previous sections, but the flat and downhills were mostly runnable. During my 50 mile training run I had planned 5-minute walk breaks every hour, but here I was walking only the uphills. This was the plan, mainly because the first half of the course was billed as easy and more runnable. Later, on more technical trails with more hills, mud, and then darkness, I planned to do more walking.
I arrived at the Oak Grove aid station (40 miles / 64K) after 7 hours and 45 minutes, in 73rd position. I was feeling oak, legs a little tired. It had just started to rain and was threatening thunderstorms. Here I changed out of my Merrell Bare Access 3s and into my almost-new Bare Access Trails. Very similar shoes, minimal (8mm) cushioning, zero heel-to-toe drop, very little "support". They key difference is that the latter has an outsole with 4mm lugs, designed for trails and hopefully would help in the promised mud in the upcoming sections. I also changed shirts. I continued my practice, started a bit earlier, of placing a ziploc bag of ice under my hat, to keep my head cool.
Two aid stations later I arrived at Snowville, the almost-halfway point, 49.6 miles after 10 hours and 20 minutes. But I was pretty drained, and stomach started to become uncertain, food was not appealing, especially not the dates I was carrying with me as fuel. I continued to eat several slices of watermelon at every aid station, but at Snowville I also had a small cup of Coke, which I never drink, but many ultra runners swear by it during events like these. I needed something. I arrived at Snowville in 75th position, but left walking.
The Second Half
I think I walked most of the section from Snowville to Boston, with plenty of people passing me. I arrived in 93rd position, borderline nauseous. I changed my socks for the first (and only) time, both pairs were Injnji Trail 2.0 toe socks - awesome running socks. My feet looked and felt fine, so far so good on that front (blisters are common in 100 milers and are a big reason for DNFs). At this aid station a volunteer (actually he was a pacer waiting for his runner to come in) was very helpful and introduced me to salted watermelon. I had heard of various Ultra tricks of the trade, but this one was new for me. Sounded horrible, but I was ready to try anything. And my plan was to keep eating watermelon anyway -- its not like he was suggesting I try the grilled cheese. Because I have read "Waterlogged" I knew that runners don't need to take in salt or other electrolytes during endurance sport -- despite a lot of advice to the contrary. And I also remember that the author has noted that there is evidence to suggest a benefit to eating salt -- but one that has nothing to do with maintaining sodium levels in the body. Evidence suggests that people feel much better almost immediately, too fast for any changes in sodium balance, that it must be acting directly on the brain. Remembering this, I took a piece of heavily salted watermelon and starting eating. Whether it was that or the Coke or the ginger ale, I started feeling better. Less drained and slowly my stomach improved. I spent a lot of time at Boston, more than I wanted to start at any aid station -- but I think I needed it, no regrets.
(While I was at Boston, I recognized Kimberly Durst after reading several of her race reports and posts to the BR100 Facebook page, contributions that I found both interesting and helpful. She arrived at Boston after me but left before I did. I considered introducing myself at Boston -- and few times subsequently -- but the expression on her face suggested it was not a good time)
The next section was still slow, thought I started to feel better. I arrived at Pine Lane in 105th position. I think this was the section where I fell for the first time. I hit a root and went down. Nothing major, though my calf decided to spasm from the sudden movement. That hurt worse than the fall. I continued my new protocol of salted watermelon and Coke + ginger ale at each aid station. Perhaps this was low in terms of fuel intake, but it seems to be working...
Until the next section, which was 6.7 miles long, but felt even longer (an opinion shared by other runners as well). I had filled my 10oz (330 ml) water bottle with Coke instead of water -- knowing that I would probably need some fuel during this long section. But it didn't last long enough. I supplemented this with some ice cubes from my under-the-hat-ziploc-bag, which gave me some additional fluid, but it still wasn't enough.
I arrived at Ledges depleted and drained. Having now completed two thirds of the course (66 miles), I arrived walking in 103rd position, not feeling very good at all. The sun had just set, or was just about to, not sure which. But daylight running was over, that much was for sure. Same deal, salted watermelon + Coke + ginger ale. Then I went to get my headlamp and flashlight out of my pack (which I had picked up at Boston from my drop bag). This is when the nausea started to hit, as I sat in a chair (perhaps a mistake!) to dig out my headlamp and flashlight and load a battery into my handheld. I wanted to be sick, vomiting would certainly bring relief. But I needed that fuel I had just eaten, I wouldn't make to the next aid station, another 6 miles way, without that fuel. Then saddening I was freezing, and the shivering started. I used the porto-potty as a few other runners waited outside, the whole thing must have been shaking from my increasing violent shivering -- they were probably wondering what the hell was going on. I made a mental to ore to laugh about this later, but I was in no mood for laughing in the moment. As I left the aid station I was shaking and shivering so much that I was sure somebody was going to grab my arm and haul me back, but no one. A couple of volunteers looked at me strangely as I proceeded to the trail entrance, but I think they were just teenager directly traffic. They said nothing.
And so violently shivering and extremely nauseous, I entered the trail in the darkening woods. Alone.
Many runners have pacers, which are allowed after ~50 miles -- pacers help with encouragement, navigation, company, etc. But I had no pacer and no crew. I was on my own and I was in a bad way. I told myself to keep moving forward, exaggerated my arm swing in hopes of warming up. I kept resisting the urge to sit down on the said of the trail and put my head in my hands .... or throw up ... or both. But I kept going, walking, probably quite slow. I conjured up images of my wife and kids smiling, which helped, but I continued to struggle. At this point I found myself stumbling sideways at times: I was starting to fall asleep while walking in the darkness. This did not help my forward progress. As slowly because to warm up and the shivering started to subside, a runner with a pacer passed me, also walking but walking faster than me. I recognized somehow that it was Kimberly Durst again. Though I couldn't see her face in the darkness she seemed in better spirits, probably from having her pacer by her side. They conversed at they walked and I tried to keep up, still fighting the nausea. I joined in the conversation a little, but I mostly focused on staying awake, keeping my stomach contents down, and trying to keep pace with the two in front of me. Gradually my stomach recovered over the next few mils of walking. Soon thereafter, Kimberly and her pacer stopped to urinate -- I thanked them for letting me tailgate and pressed on alone. Being able to walk with them for a few miles really helped -- could I have made it on my own? Maybe, maybe not, but I am grateful. I was then able to walk even faster and I even managed to run a few bits of the remaining section.
After that slow recover section, I arrived at Pine Hollow aid station in 111th place. With 72 miles completed, I had more than a full marathon to go. Much of it on technical hilly trails, and almost most all of it in darkness. But my stomach was out of the danger zone, and my plan was to keep up the nutrition protocol and walk all of the hills and difficult technical sections, and slowly run where I could. It might have been in this next section where I felt the second time, running a slight downhill approaching a wooden bridge -- I went down and manage to keep my handheld flashlight in my hand as I hit the dirt, literally. I cursed loudly in the darkness, but no major damage done.
Pre-race hype had me expected the worst from the "Perkins Loop", a hilly and muddy horse-riding trail. It delivered as promised and then some, a lot of hills, a lot of mud, and it seemed to never end. I walked 95% of it. It seemed like most runners around me did the same.
After the perkins loop the next section was about 50% road, which I welcomed and ran on the flat parts and downhills. I arrived at the Botzum aid station in 86th place, having passed some runners and probably because others had dropped from the race. Feeling okay, I spent very little time at the aid station, use the porto-potty for the second time in the race, and was off.
The Final Stretch
I was into the final stretch, two more sections. After about 24 hours, only 10 miles to go and much of it was supposed to be runnable. And so, I ran. My legs were tired, especially my quads, but I was able to run. I think my running form was good, though my pace must have been slow. The second sunrise of my race was fast approaching, and the birds had started to sing. I kept running. I started to pass others who were walking, some struggling, but most just walking. And I kept running. Even some of the slight uphills, I kept running.
Because I wanted to make sure my stomach would be receptive to fuel at the final aid station, I walked for several minutes prior to arriving at the Memorial aid station in the early dawn. I stayed only a minute or two, but this was the only aid station where I was the only runner.
4.5 more miles to go. The next section started with a long hill up a red brick road, which I walked. But most of the rest I ran, continuing the pass people along the way. And then it started to rain. I kept running. Then I stopped to unplug the USB charger than had been recharging my iPhone (I was tracking the race with an iPhone app) -- I was worried about it getting wet. And then I ran.
Somewhere around this point I started to marvel at the fact that I was able to run at this stage. My previous longest run was 50 miles, and I didn't want to run another step after that. Only 9+ hours. Now I was over 25 hours into it and able to keep running. How was that possible? I am the first person to tell others that anyone can run a 100 miler or other ultra. Yes, it takes time and dedication and training, but you can do it. Ultrarunners are not superheroes. But after 25+ hours, as I continued to be able to run, I couldn't help but think 'Shit, I am Superman'. It truly is amazing what the human body is capable of.
With the final single track trail section complete, the finish was less than 1.5 miles to go. Much of that was up a long hill, which I walked. When it flattened out, I ran the rest of the way, rain still coming down. I did NOT sprint the last 100m, something I used to enjoy doing for race of any length (It's very fun, but my stomach complains afterward!). I kept an easy pace and tried to maintain good running form. The finish was anti-climactic, but that was expected.
I finished with a time of 26 hours and 13 minutes, finishing in 45th place overall and 12th in my age group. (If I was a week younger, I would have been 9th in my then-age-group!). It turns out that I ran the second-last section with the 13th fastest time and the final section with the 19th fastest time.
Much to my relief I was able to eat and drink almost immediately after finishing. I had a veggie sub, some fruit salad, and a blueberry muffin, and continuing a them from the entire race: very little water. Within 10 minutes my legs stiffen up and even walking was very difficult. Funny how you can go from running to hobbling in a very short timeframe. I had the "foot clinic" people check my feet and bio no surprises there, because despite running 100 miles in minimal shoes, my feet didn't hurt. They were tired, but no pain. They found a tiny blister that I didn't feel at all. I am not surprised because I had good socks and shoes with a wide toe box. Most shoes -- including popular ultra shoes like Hokas -- have a narrow toe box and after 24 hours of your toes being squished, blisters are inevitable. I am happy with my decision to stick with Merrell's barefoot line though I seriously consider Altra, well known for their zero-drop shoes and wide toe boxes.
Hydration - Drink as Little as Possible
Few runner will agree with this strategy, but I think it worked. Much of the rationale come from Waterlogged. I recommend the book for all runners, but if you are not up for the whole book, you should read iRunFar's coverage which has a really good summary of the key point (Part 1 and Part 2). I learned that becoming seriously dehydrated in endurance sports is very unlikely, especially given the frequency of aid stations in a race like this. Thirst is the foremost symptom of dehydration -- if was really thirsty, I would drink. The other key thing I learned from the book is about hyponatremia, a serious condition caused by drinking too much water/fluid. This apparently affects more people more than others. I had some hints (but zero proof) that i might be one of those people. After the 50K and then the 50 miler, I was sick both times, vomiting pure water, which is a potential sign that the body is trying to expel excess fluid. I could not be sure. So I figured the best way to avoid over-hydration is to drink as little as possible. The first 2 hours I drank nothing. After that I drank about 2-3 oz of water per hour until the half way point. After that I most switched to soda (2 small cups at aid stations + 5oz per hour in handheld water bottle) then later switched to 3-4 oz of Heed per hour in my water bottle. I also had 3-4 slice of watermelon at every aid station possible. I feel like this hydration approach worked.
Two days Later
I can walk! Even up and down stairs. Still a bit stiff, but I am shocked that I am not much much worse. I was hobbling for weeks after the 50K (and then the marathon I ran 2 weeks later). I am even using my stand-up desk -- I figured I'd be sitting for a least week afterwards. My feet feel fine and my back is okay too. I continue to be in awe of what the human body is capable of doing and how fast it can recover from extreme bouts of activity.
Despite a few low moments, I enjoyed my first 100 mile experience. A big part of what made it so enjoyable was the community surrounding the race, the friendliness of the other runners and volunteers. I ran the race with no crew and no pacer -- the aid station volunteers were my crew and they were awesome. Immediately asking what I needed, how they could help, etc. There seems to be an amazing community of trailer runners in NE Ohio, I enjoyed being a part of it for a short spell. The tips and encouragement on the Facebook Page were super helpful to a first-timer like me, coming in from out of the country, unfamiliar with the trails and 100 mile ultras in general. Thank you to all those who helped make this a fantastic experience.
Other 2014 BR100 Race Reports: