Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Paradoxes of Ultramarathons

I did it! I completed the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning by running four 100-mile trail ultramarathons in one summer (14 weeks). If you're interested in the details, I've already written race reports for each of the four races: Kettle 100, Mohican 100, Burning River 100, and Hallucination 100.

I keep saying that I learned a lot this summer and I had a great time running the Grand Slam, so I thought I should write about my observations so I don't forget them and so you can learn from my experiences.

Hubris and Humility
It takes hubris to sign up, but humility to finish.

It takes a lot of hubris to sign up for a 100-mile trail ultramarathon, much less four in one summer! I mean, do I really think I can run four 100 mile races in one summer? That's crazy, right? It's not nearly as crazy as most people think, but it takes a lot of bravado to sign up and devise a training plan.

But it takes humility to finish. You need to listen to your body when you're training, tired, and sore. You need to know when it's "just not your day" and you cut that long training run short by 20 miles. It also takes humility to go out slow, accept your mistakes, and push through the suffering to the finish line. Running 100 miles is a very hard goal, and honing the right combination of hubris and humility is an important key to success.

Solitude and Community
Ultrarunning is a very lonely sport. It's really hard to find people who want to run 26.2 miles on a treadmill with you in January. Anybody up for a 35 mile long run this weekend? I run thousands of miles every year alone. Even during a 100-mile race it's not uncommon for me to run for 5-6 hours at a time and not see any other runners. For a stark raving extrovert like me it almost enough to induce paranoia.

But at the same time, ultrarunning has a unique sense of community that I haven't seen in any other sport. In one race this summer I invited a lampless runner to run a few miles with me until the sun rose enough to see the trail better. This summer I've seen runners help each other out in the middle of a race by digging lost shoes out of the mud, navigating confusing trails at night, and encouraging other runners toward the finish line. Maybe it's because misery loves company, but ultrarunners have a well-earned reputation for taking care of their own and it's something that I appreciate about this sport.

Individual and Team
Ultrarunning is an individual sport. Most of the races I run only have a few hundred runners and there's no points or team scoring. It's just you, the other runners, and the clock. Let's be honest, if I tell you my finish time on a particular 100-miles course most people don't know 1: that 100-mile races exist 2: if I even run the whole time 3: if the time I told them is any good. In the end, it's me against the the clock, cutoff times, my fears, and my insecurities. It's me against me, and that's what I love about it!

One person runs the race, but there's usually a team of people behind the curtain. In my case it's a supportive wife who misses me during my long runs but knows I come home more alive than when I left. It's supportive family such as my sister who has crewed and paced every one of my 100-milers with me. An ultrarunner herself, she's seriously the best crew chief you could imagine. There are also dear friends from near (Wheaton, Lombard, Chicago) and far (Cleveland, Toronto, Washington DC) who have sacrificed their time, money, sleep, and quads to pace me through my various races. I don't know how to thank these folks other than to promise to return the favor when they are faced with the same temptation.

I'm the one who crosses the finish line four times this summer, but there's a team of people making it possible.

Pride and Gratitude
I'm so proud to have accomplished my goal of four 100-milers in one summer. There are a few different grand slam series each summer, but only a few dozen people in the world accomplish this sort of thing in any given year. By comparison, there are hundreds of people who summit Everest every year. I don't consider myself an elite athlete, but I run among some very unique and determined runners and I'm honored to be among their ranks. I'm thrilled to have done something that just a few years ago was inconceivable to me, if not impossible.

But I have to recall how grateful I am to God for keeping me healthy, healing my injuries, and helping me run strong all summer. Twenty-two years ago, in the heyday of high school, I was in a hospital room recovering from leg surgeries, not once, but twice on each leg. I was in bed for a summer. I was on crutches for months. I was in physical therapy for longer than I can remember. I had to learn how to walk again. To this day I have extensive nerve damage in my left leg and foot as a result of those surgeries, and it's the thorn in my flesh that reminds me to be grateful for how God has healed me and what He has brought me through.

In high school I was a runner, so when I faced injury, surgery and recovery my world was shattered. Today I'm a child of God that loves to run.This identity that comes from my faith is something that cannot be taken away by an injury, a DNF, or even death. I love running, but it's just running. Jesus is the real source of abundant life.

Bigger and Smaller World
Running such long distances has allowed me to see the world in new ways. When I run by something on foot I see things you can't observe from a car, I talk to people I'd never meet, and my fears shed away as my world gets bigger. Whether it's running through rough neighborhoods on a 35-mile run to Chicago or tearing up the trails at 2am on a night run, I feel more in touch with the world around me than I ever will sitting in my office or driving my car. This summer, my world got a lot bigger.

But now when I see a sign on the highway that indicates the next town is 45 miles away I can give you an accurate estimate of how long it would take me to run there. I can run places I used to drive. I can go all week without even driving my car because I know I can go places on foot that other people won't even try. This summer, my world got a lot smaller.

I Want More and Need Less
This summer of new challenges and adventures has made me hungry for more. I want to run more, take new risks, and see new places with old friends. I want to spend more time in the woods than with my laptop, more time with my family and less time in the office. I don't want to get stuck in the ruts of life and look back with regrets. I want more out of life than ever before!

But I also realize how much less I need. Instead of circling for a "good spot" I can park at the far end of the parking lot and walk to the store. I can miss a meal and not be grumpy. I can get up in the middle of the night with a sick kid with no bitterness. I run faster but drive slower.

I have bigger dreams, but lower expectations.

Suffering and Joy
Running a 100 miles is really hard and only possible because of thousands of small decisions. I decide to do a 25 mile training run on Saturday morning even though I'd rather sleep in. I decide to do the same thing on Sunday morning before church. I decide to go to bed at 8pm and wake up at 3am. I decide to keep running when it hurts, when I can't feel my legs, and when I can feel them too much. I decide to keep going when I've run for 22 hours straight, it's the middle of the night, and my body is begging to go to sleep. I live in a culture that seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but that's not how I want to live. There's nothing romantic about masochism, but through suffering I am humbled, shaped, and molded into a better runner and a better man.

But there's also great joy in trying to beat the sunrise, accomplishing a goal and savoring the victory of the finish line. When I reached mile 97 of my fourth race and my sister reminded me that I had actually run 397 miles of my 400-mile goal I was impelled to the finish line. With light feet and a joyful heart I devoured those last three miles and sprinted through the finish chute. You don't always have to go fast, but you have to keep moving forward.

The Finish Line
So how do I end this cathartic writing experience, especially when I'm not sure anybody has bothered to read this far? I guess with a reminder to myself and a challenge to you:
  1. Make the most important things the most important things. For me, that's faith, family, then everything else.
  2. Try new things. Don't let your world get small.
  3. Don't be afraid.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hallucination 100 Race Report

So my last 100-miler of the summer (14-week span) was the Hallucination 100, which is part of the hippy-wacky Run Woodstock weekend at the Hell Creek Ranch Campground near Ann Arbor, Michigan. By now I was 100% confident that I'd finish this race and complete the Midwest Grand Slam  of Ultrarunning. But I was hungry for more than just a finish. I wanted to train hard, taper smart, and apply the lessons I've been learning all summer for a real finale of a race.

With my wife, friend, crew, and pacer 

That said, this race was different from the other 100-milers I've been running in a few notable ways:
  • It's a six-loop course with identical 16.7 mile lap repeats
  • The race started at 4pm on Friday instead of the typical 5-6am start
  • My wife Cindy was going to pace me for one lap
  • The elevation was less than usual
I wasn't too thrilled by the first two, but quite excited about the last two variables. How different would this race feel? Would I be more sleepy with an afternoon start? Could I really apply the lessons I'd been learning or would I be thrown off?

I decided I wouldn't let myself be thrown off by these new variables. One of the lessons I've learned this summer is the power of a good attitude, even when faced with obstacles (cold rain, deep mud, sleep deprivation, torn shoes, etc.). By contrast I've seen runners get really bent out of shape over little things that they can't control or fix and it's like watching them drown right there on the trail.

So I wasn't thrilled about the idea of six repetitive loops, but realized I could turn it to my advantage by using it as a pacing tool. I've consistently gone out too fast and faded too much in these 100-milers, so I was aiming for a more evenly-paced race. 

Enjoying the first loop in the daylight

Despite my good intentions I still went out a bit fast, but more self-controlled than ever. The first loop was calm and easy and I was taking in every last detail of the course. This would be the only full loop that I'd complete before sundown (I managed 1.5 loops before I had to turn on my headlamp, more on that later) so I wanted to remember everything I could.

One loop down, five to go
I finished my first loop in about three hours, grabbed some food and fresh water for my CamelBak FlashFlo, and got right back on the trail. In addition to more even pacing, I was also committed to faster aid stations. This first loop was a good one and I didn't waste any time.

There's not much to say about the second loop except for one mistake that almost cost me dearly. A few miles into the second loop I saw my crew (wife Cindy and friend Ryan) and asked for a headlamp in case I didn't get to the next aid station before sundown. I didn't plan and communicate well, and when Ryan brought me a head lamp which wasn't the one I wanted I refused it and said I'd just get the one I wanted at the next aid station. The sun was still high and I was feeling fresh, but that was a foolish decision. A thick tree canopy can really keep out a setting sun, and as I was approaching the next aid station I felt a bit of panic as the single-track trails were getting darker and darker and I still didn't have a headlamp. At this point I realized that if I missed my crew at the next road crossing then I would have to run on the shoulder of another smarter runner with a headlamp. I am so grateful that I caught Ryan and Cindy as planned, grabbed my headlamps (one for the head, one for the waist, built in redundancy and better depth perception), and kept running with a huge sigh of relief. Lessons learned? Plan more carefully, communicate more clearly, and just take a stupid headlamp...any headlamp!

I changed shoes twice during the race
As I completed loop two (~3:15) I asked my crew for my "shoe kit" which consists of:
  • towel (for sitting, washing and drying)
  • gallon jug of water (for washing)
  • fresh socks
  • fresh shoes
  • Bodyglide
  • Blister kit (just in case, never used)
I took a few minutes to freshen up my feet which always feels great to me. I switched from my Brooks Glycerin road shoes to Brooks Cascadia trail shoes for a more confident footing at night and my first pacer, my sister Laura, and I hit the trails.

Loop three was my first full loop in the dark. I love running at night on the trails and the weather was really nice, so we churned through the miles and made it to the half-way mark (3 loops, 50 miles) in 10 hours and 5 minutes. This was one of the slowest time I've ever run for the first half of a 100-miler which was right on target for my pacing strategy.

A bit after midnight my good friend Ryan (he came all the way from Toronto) was waking up at a nearby hotel and preparing to run lap four with me. We met up on the trail around 1:30am and burned through another 16.7 miles loop. I don't remember much about the run, but I do remember good conversations about marriage, family, and friendships. The other thing I remember about this loop is two delicious pieces of vegetarian pizza. We're talking red onion, bell pepper, banana pepper, mushroom, and feta. Over the summer I've been eating fewer synthetics (gus, gels, blocks, etc.) and more real foods (rice balls, dates, pizza, etc.) to good effect. I felt strong and was hoping to finish the loop by 7am, but because of better pacing I completed the loop in just a little over four hours and made it back to my next pacer, my wife Cindy, shortly after 5am.

Cindy and I love to run together and I'm grateful we share a common passion for something so fun and healthy. We've run thousands of miles, several races, and even a couple of marathons together. But Cindy doesn't like running at night. She doesn't like running on trails. And she was hesitant about pacing me for almost 17 miles. But I assured her that we'd have a great time together and that all her pacing miles would be in the daytime. But I was having such a good race that I completed my fourth lap more than an hour before sunrise and wondered how brave my dear wife would be. While I was changing my socks and shoes Cindy was putting on her headlamp and she was ready to run without a single complaint.

Adam and Cindy ready to start loop 5 in the dark, oops!

We ran a solid hour in the dark before the sun started to rise. This section was a little funky for me, but not nearly as "dark"as previous races. I was getting really sleepy, but was so grateful to have Cindy with me. I don't remember too much about the rest of this loop but Cindy tells me that when the sun came up I came back to life, started talking loudly, and was greeting and encouraging (loudly) all the other runners we passed. Cindy like the running and we enjoyed being together, but she didn't like the trail experience. I diagnosed her with trailclaustrophobia as she really didn't like the sections of narrow, rutted, overgrown singletrack (my favorite).

As we finished lap 5 I was alert, excited, and still able to do mathematical calculations in my head. I was scheming for a PR and was determined to make it happen! And who better to help me than my crew-boss/pacing-queen sister, Laura? Laura has been such a huge help through this entire adventure so it was entirely fitting that she'd finish my last loop with me. Are you doing the math here? She paced for more more than 33 miles! Her pacing alone was an ultramarathon!

By now the day was getting warm and I was getting pumped. We charged out of the aid station and I felt like I had new legs. I was whooping, hollering, passing people and tearing up the miles. I knew I was going to PR and scheming to sneak under 22 hours. I was focused, held good form, and maintained a solid pace. The temps rose and I was draining my water reservoir quickly, but the aid stations took good care of us. By now we were sharing the trails with runners from other distances including 50 miles, 50km, marathon, and half marathon. When the aid station volunteers would see those of us with the 100 mile race bibs on they'd pull us aside to their secret stash of ice and solid foods that they didn't have out for the rest of the runners. I hope I'm not spoiling any secrets, but it was much appreciated.

With only four miles to go I was doing the math, picking up the pace, and eager to finish. Laura was pushing me hard and keeping me going with a focused intensity. At miles 97 Laura reminded me that for the Grand Slam I should be telling myself that I had 397 down and only three to go. I must say that perspective was very encouraging and I was pushing hard and running up every hill. About two miles from the finish I told my sister I was going to run the next hill, but she decided to walk. I felt bad leaving her, but I couldn't hold back and pushed on to the finish line.

I pounded out the next two miles, ran through the last couple of turns and hills (well-memorized by now on lap 6) and charged back into the campground, around the last turn, and toward the finish chute. I felt like I was finishing a 5k, not a 100-miler! I sprinted across the finish line with a scream, a jump, and a fist pump!

Finishing strong after 100 miles!

As I walked through the finish area I was surprised to learn I had finished eight overall and first in my age group with a time of 21:46:47. I was thrilled to take almost an hour and a half off my PR and felt strong the entire race. I couldn't have done any of it without the selfless support of my friends and family who crewed and paced me through so many miles. What a blessing!

After the race I did some math and calculated all six lap times:

  1. 2:50
  2. 3:24
  3. 3:51
  4. 3:54
  5. 4:14
  6. 3:33

Happy to accomplish my goal
Several new friends I met this summer finished shortly after me and I enjoyed comparing notes and swapping stories with them. It seemed like we were all able to apply what we'd been learning throughout the summer and put together strong races. Instead of finishing beat up and worn out, we were finishing stronger, faster, and better than ever!

The impact of the race caught up with me over the next hour as my legs were hurting, throbbing, and aching. I kept walking to keep my legs loose, got a refreshing shower and a short nap, and Cindy and I drove back to Chicago to reunite with our four young kids. We went to church Sunday morning and I was feeling good. On Monday morning I got an amazing one-hour massage and felt fantastic. I ran a few times that week and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I recovered from such a long race.

Now what's the future hold? I have no idea. I do plan to run a marathon this week in Hamburg, Germany and then in early October I'm going to attempt a Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim crossing of the Grand Canyon. After that I'll settle into another Chicago winter, read some books, try some new recipes, share good meals with great friends, and dream about what's next...

But before we're done, would you consider making a one-time, tax-deductible donation to Show Hope? They are a great organization that cares for orphans and gives adoption grants to families who want to adopt children but need some financial help to make it happen. My four 100-mile ultramarathons have been dedicated to Show Hope and the good work they do. If you've been inspired by my adventures, please make a donation to help children find forever families!

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Thursday, September 05, 2013

Burning River 100 Race Report

Some people spit out race reports immediately after the race, as if they're trying to capture those fleeting, sleep-deprived memories before they're gone, distorted, or exaggerated. There's a distinct advantage to that strategy, but for me it takes a bit of time for the experience to settle in before I can distill it down to a blog post. This race was particularly sweet because it was my fastest time so far for a 100-miler (23:08:03), my favorite course, and a repeat of my first 100 last summer.

This race was my third 100-miler for the summer in my quest to complete the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and aside from a waning case of tenosynovitis in my left ankle I was ready to run! I knew the course from running it last year, I had great crew and pacer support from my family, and the weather looked promising (more on that later).

My mom kindly hosted a pre-race planning dinner at her home the night before the race where we had some great pasta and bread and a lengthy planning session after the table was (mostly) cleared. I love having crew and pacer support, but on a point-to-point course there's a lot of estimating, sequencing, car-dropping, and other logistics to sort out. The biggest challenge is estimating my arrival times at so many aid stations. Now that I've got a few of these hundreds under my belt I'm getting better at my pacing and I think I arrived at every aid station throughout the day within ~15 minutes of my estimates.

Planning my pace, crew, and pacer handoffs for the day,
We wrapped up our planning, got a great night's sleep, and my sister picked me up around 3:30am so we could get to the start at Squire's Castle and get checked in for the race. With a full moon and cloudy sky, the castle looked a bit spooky in the late morning darkness. But the overwhelming feeling was excitement. With thousands of miles of training and countless hours of running invested in such a big goal, all the runners buzz with excitement as we wait for the start of the race. We milled around in the cool air greeting familiar faces, taking anxious pee trips to the edge of the forest, and making sure our Garmin watches were ready to go.

And promptly at 5am we were off for the first 10k loop through the woods. It was a wonderful start to the race and I was able to chat with some other runners and even ran a few miles with a woman who didn't think she needed a headlamp for the first loop (she was wrong). After the first aid station the sun started to rise and I was able to give my headlamp to my sister (crew extraordinaire) and bolt out of there with a whoop and a holler. If I remember correctly, it also started to rain about that time. And if I remember correctly, it continued to rain for about ten more hours!

The next several miles went smoothly and I managed to keep my aid station times to a minimum. I came into the Shadow Lake aid station around 26 miles in about 4:30, got a quick foot lube and shoe change, and was back on the trail.

Happy feet make a happy runner, switching from my Brooks Glycerins to my Brooks Cascadias

Exiting this aid station I missed a turn (the first of many) and got off course about 200 yards before I realized my mistake and double-backed. I usually have a very good sense of direction and am very attentive to course markings (I attribute that to my high school cross-country days) but the course frustrated my this year. Several times throughout the day (none at night that I can remember) I got slightly off course and had to double-back to pick up the right trail. I know the first ~45 miles of the course VERY well, so it was extra frustrating to waste those minutes here and there. I'd estimate that half the blame was on my inattentiveness, but the other half was on the course markings. I'm grateful for the volunteer efforts that go into course markings, but this course was not marked as well as other courses such as Kettle 100 or even BR100 2012.

Complaints aside, I've learned that keeping your cool is the best strategy. Whether it's a missed turn, a dropped gel, or a painful fall you've just gotta keep moving, find your way through or around the obstacle, and not get flustered.

A few hours later I came into the Oak Grove aid station around mile 42, right on schedule. By now the rain was really pouring, so a covered shelter, a hearty snack, and the encouragement of family was a welcome distraction.

Feeling weary from hours of rain
The rain was wearing me out a bit, but not nearly as much as the slippery, muddy trails. I think the next 40 miles felt like one of those Muddy Buddy races: crazy wet, slipping constantly, mud often over my ankles and me just hoping my shoes stay on. I kept my shoes on and only fell once (ouch on the right hip with a big airborne thud). After a few miles I got my first pacer, my sister Laura who paced me ten miles. But I also had a very inconvenient shoe issue...

Unfortunately I caught my right foot on a root in the mud around mile 50 that completely ripped the upper of my shoe off the front sole. So that means I had to run ~15 miles with an open-toed shoe through insane mud until I could get to the next aid station where I could change shoes. I was scooping up lots of mud with this shoe damage, but like I said before, you just learn to deal with stuff and keep moving. It was annoying, but I don't think it slowed me down much.

At about 65 miles and 13 hours I got three treats: new shoes, new shorts, and a new pacer: my wife Cindy. She's always been amazingly supportive of my racing and training, but until that moment she had never paced me in an ultra. It was only a five mile stretch, but the mud was insane. Her sweet encouragement and delightful conversation helped those miles fly by.

My beautiful wife ready to pace me to mile 70+
I picked up Nathan (Cindy's cousin), my next pacer, at the Pine Hollow aid station (mile 70.6) where we strapped on our head lamps and headed into the woods. I was on target for my race plan and the rain had finally stopped, but we still had some tough miles ahead of us. I usually don't sit down in an ultra, but I took a few extra minutes at the Covered Bridge aid station (mile 79.6) to collect myself and get ready for the hills ahead.

Headlamps, check!
Nate has been so helpful and supportive through several of my ultras over the past year and I'm grateful for his steady pacing and humble spirit. We plowed through the next 6.4 hilly miles after Covered Bridge, managed to miss many wrong turns that tricked other runners, and met my sister Laura (that's right, she did TWO pacing legs in one race) at mile 86.7.

Laura was my last pacer for the night
We did a quick exchange and Laura and I hit the trails again with only 14 miles to go! I honestly can't remember too much of the next several miles but I know I changed shoes one more time at mile 93. It might seem silly to bother with a shoe change that late in the race, but by taking good care of my feet I haven't had a single blister in any of my three hundred-milers this summer, so I'm sticking with what's working!

I was hoping for a 22-hour finish, but that slipped away in the night as my pace faded. As we tackled the lsat couple of miles I was hoping to squeeze in under 23 hours. I was so excited that my 100th mile was a zippy (at least it felt zippy) 9:40. We climbed the stairs out of the park and headed toward downtown Cuyahoga Falls, but the course was measured at 101.0 miles and I watched 23 hours pass me with a little sigh. I did finish in 23:08:03 which is a PR and a time I'm proud of.

Happy with a PR time!
So that's three down, one to go! My next race is this weekend in Michigan and I can't wait to race again. I feel like I learn valuable lessons about nutrition, pacing, patience, and discipline during each race and I'm hoping to apply all those lessons for a grand finale of this Grand Slam on Friday night!

If you've made it this far I want to ask you a question: Are you inspired?

Many people have told me that they're inspired by the races I'm doing, and I want you to be inspired to action! Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Show Hope. They provide care for orphans and give generous grants to families who want to adopt a child (international, domestic, and many special needs children) but have a hard time with the costs (often $10-50k) of the process. Thank you!

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