Take a look at yourself

Don't be Keith

Come to finish: know where you're at now, what you'll need later 

I was horrified when I first saw this image of myself at what I am guessing from the darkness was somewhere around mile 70 of the Kettle 100 last June.

It was mile 82 when I dropped last year after succumbing to some severe chafing. I had done everything I could think of to prepare for success, but somewhere around miles 75 and more than 20 hours into the race I started doing the math. There was no way at the pace I had slowed to that I would make the finish before the 30 hour cutoff. And there was no way to move any faster. The pain of my raw thighs (and other things) rubbing together was too much. I decided it was best to drop and run another day. The goal of completing my first 100 miler would be placed on hold for another year.

While listening to TRN earlier today and their show on Unitasking, Meghan Laws (Arboghast) mentioned how she places all her concentration into the act of running when she is out on the trail. No music and conversation is at a minimum because Meghan says she is constantly checking in on herself – how’s the breathing, are there any hotspots, pains or niggles to be concerned with and address before they become larger issues later in the race.

That made me think about my past two races at Kettle. In 2015 I made it to the 100K mark before dropping with a knee injury. Then there was the chafing at 82 in 2017. Could these issues have been avoided? Sure, I think anything bad can be avoided if you have some sign telling you something is going to happen. But those signs rarely appear as if from nowhere and even when they do you may look straight past them if you don’t know to look for them.

The knee injury was brought on by an IT band strained during my training for the race. So between the IT issue and the challenge of navigating the constant undulation of short choppy hills Kettle is known for, my running gate changed forcing me to compensate in a way that placed extra pressure on that knee to the point where it gave out. So I learned what had happened and that I needed to do more hill and strength training to better prepare for the trail’s infamous ups and downs along with more stretching, and strength and agility training to keep my IT healthy. 

The 2017 training was amazing and I came into the race healthy, well conditioned and ready to take on those hills. It was a beautiful race day morning and we were all ready for the rain that was forecast later  that day. No problem, I thought. It was supposed to be a hot day and the rain would be a welcome break. I’ll spare you the details of the entire race, since I have already discussed the day in the Kettle post-race report, so let’s fast-forward to the point where I look like Keith Richards after a long weekend. 

This, like I mentioned earlier, was around mile 70ish. My pace had slowed precipitously as the pain from every step forward grew to the point of – well you know that feeling when you rip off a bandage from a wound and it rips off part of the scab with it – imagine that feeling with every step. So I felt as bad as I looked, which is not an easy task. That photo was telling. It reminded me of the Trail Runner magazine story with the before and after race photos of ultra runners. These races give you so much but there is also so much that you give to the trail and it most definitely shows. 

So my question, going back to what Meghan said, is how do you tune into yourself from the gun, and even before the gun during the months of training. How do you continue to look at yourself and ask, “Where am I at right now and what do I need to give myself so I have what I need to succeed?” 

Tuning into your body and “checking in” is key.  I’ve never worn a heart rate monitor, but I’ve heard all good things from those who do. Using the 180 formula in conjunction with a HRM is a great way to maintain a sustainable long-distance pace over the course of the race.  Even without a HRM, you can use your training runs to gauge what your optimal pace should be for any given distance. Using the time on your feet to listen to your body and how it reacts to varying conditions can give you valuable feedback for race day. One day you might be out for a long run and rock it with out a problem, but the next week doing the same course and duration may find you bonking half way through. That’s where the observational research comes in. Weather, temperature, what you ate the night before, sleep, hydration and so many other things can contribute to how a run plays out. Keeping a training log that captures all these elements can be incredibly helpful. Having a record of how you felt, what conditions were like, your pace and other data for all your training is a valuable tool for understanding yourself as an athlete. That’s what training is for, not just to get in shape but to get in tune with yourself and how your body reacts in different situations. 

For me, as I think was the case for many out on the course on that stormy June day, it was excessive moisture soaking us to the bone and tons of mud sucking at our every step that took a toll over the miles. How do you train for that? I’m not sure, but you can anticipate it. I had drop bags, but none with any change of clothes, Glide or anything to stave off chafing. So by the time I felt the pain it was too late to avoid the damage, but should it have been a game stopper? Checking in and managing that by asking for bandages at an aid station or some advice or help would have gone a long way to keeping me on the path to the finish line, but by then I wasn’t thinking all that straight. I was tired and all I knew was that I was in a lot of pain. But now that I have experienced that, I can learn from it and bring some bandages or check and see if any of the aid stations will have first aid available. Knowing ahead of time and putting contingencies in place are important for that person you will be at mile 82 who is tired, discouraged, sore and ready to call it quits. Sometimes it only takes that little bandage or change into some new shorts or a pair of dry socks to make all the difference.  

What I really enjoy about training and doing these races is that you’re always learning and striving for some big goal. There was a small part of me that was happy that I dropped short of the goal last year, because that meant that the goal was still there for me to go for next year. More time to learn what works and what doesn’t. Another important lesson I continue to learn is slowing my average pace. This is the case with most ultra runners where we go out all excited about the day and full of energy. At the start we sprint out with the pack like we’re in a 10K road race; not thinking of the person we’ll be at miles 60, 70 and 80. So I plan to carry a picture of that grizzled old man running through the Wisconsin forest in the wee hours last year. I will do everything that I can to make sure that bewildered look doesn’t reappear. I will make sure that he is well fed, stopping at every aid station to partake in the bounty for as long as it takes to take in adequate nourishment to get him to the next aid station. I will make sure he’s drinking plenty of water as this is the basis not only for a successful hundred miler but for life itself. And when it rains, I will make sure he changes into dry clothes and is appropriately lubed with Glide or Squirrel’s Nut Butter.  

There is a saying that running 100 miles is like living an entire life in one day. Even though I have yet to complete my first 100, from what I have seen it does mirror a lifetime in many ways. There are so many highs and lows that occur when you’re out there on the trail. Just as with life we negotiate every change in terrain, emotion and condition as we move forward one step at a time, because that is all we can do. And as is the case with life we learn from watching others. As we get older we slow down and can’t do as much. We see this from watching our parents and other elders in our lives. Knowing that we too will be that age we work when we are young and sock some of that income away for that person we will be later in life. The same holds true in these races. Holding back early in the race when what you really want to do is open it up and tear down the trail because you want to make sub 24. Or walking those up-hill sections when everyone around you is running by can be tough, but you’re thinking to the future to that person you will be at mile 70. You want some fuel left in the tank because you know your future self is going to need every drop.

Nobody ever said ultras were easy and as you can see it’s not just the physical that is tough. Some would say that there is more mental exhaustion that occurs from all the thinking and planning and decisions that need to occur over the course of traversing 100 miles of rocks, roots, mud, heat, cold, darkness, exposure and the occasional falls that come with the adventure. 

So much to think about, but if you’re in this sport it’s not because you don’t enjoy the challenges it offers. Happy trails!