Sunday, November 29, 2015

One Hundred Miles of Reflections

What follows are my reflections and learnings from crewing and pacing for my girlfriend, Amber Wilson, in her first 100 miler: the 2015 Pine to Palm 100. I may also be her running coach.

Lots of miles means lots can go wrong (and probably will).

Looking too serious at mile 28
You’ve already heard some iteration of this 100 times, but it’s important. And it doesn’t just apply to the race itself. Amber suffered a significant training setback due to a strained knee coming out of the Speedgoat 50k. The suspect cause was kicking a rock forcefully (but recovering mid stride) in the middle of the final descent. In retrospect, we probably didn’t allow enough rest following the race, and running again the following week inflamed her knee. This resulted in several weeks of no running at all, her only activity being a few pool runs. We both had high expectations for her first 100, but, after some initial frustration, she re-calibrated her goals and expectations for the race. On race day we saw her for the first time at mile 28. She was frustrated, mostly because she’d started feeling nauseous and wasn’t moving as fast as she’d hoped. She ended up battling nausea and stomach issues from mile 20something through to the finish. We tried to get her to relax at first, and over the next 20 or so miles, she did a great job of coaching herself and readjusting her expectations again. This is important because...

Perspective is key.

You, the runner, signed up for this race. You might have had big hopes and dreams, but you’re lying if you say you didn’t also think about how wrong everything could go, too. You are running these races by choice (as far as I know, anyway. Maybe Russia is holding athletes’ children hostage to force their competition?). That’s not to say you can’t complain, but you need to keep a straight head on your shoulders. How bad do you want to achieve your goals? If they’re anything worth striving for, you won’t achieve them if you’re not 100% committed. If you don’t want it bad enough, at some point in those 100 miles the pain won’t feel worth the potential reward anymore, and you’re going to quit. Know that (warning: cliche) the pain is temporary. Will you regret stepping across that finish line? Not likely. Perspective is key, not only for the runners, but also for the crew and pacers. Which is why...

Trying to crew AND be a pacer is challenging and probably a mistake.

Crew on duty at mile 48
Crewing a 100 takes a ton of energy. Not just for the physical demands of staying up all day and night, frantically breaking up and down your runner’s mini aid station, driving around hopelessly lost on endless, dark, gravel roads. It also takes mental and emotional stamina to endure the stresses of hope, disappointment, hurrying and waiting, and trying desperately to bolster your runner in the few moments you see them every two or three hours. This is a trying task for the crew, just those couple minutes at a time. The pacer, a good pacer anyway, is on 100% of their time with the runner, providing the emotional and mental anchor for their wandering minds.

I helped crew all day with Amber’s parents (who were total heroes out there) until I found Amber in the dark around mile 65. As I’d put my running clothes on to prepare for pacing duty, I already felt exhausted. But I was hopeful. I thought that once we were running together I could motivate to mix in some more running, bump up the average pace a bit, and finish in short order. Reality hit me like a 2x4 in the face as we trudged through the darkness some 10 or 15 miles later, realizing just how terrible Amber felt and how trashed her quads really were. We were going to be out there a long time. “I didn’t sign up for this,” I thought to myself, as we walked slowly through the darkness. I was feeling bad for myself. I didn’t want to walk for another 10+ hours; I wanted to lie down and go to sleep. THIS IS NOT A GOOD MENTAL SPACE FOR A PACER TO BE IN. Luckily, I quietly extracted my head from my own ass with some self-coaching. Some tears from Amber helped me realize I was being a self-centered jerk, too. What I needed all along was...


The second sunrise of the race
100 miles is a very long way (no matter what Speedgoat Karl says), and change is the rule rather than the exception. The darkest moment of the race came at the mile 80 aid station. Our crew couldn’t drive there, but the aid station volunteers were fantastic. Amber felt awful and the finish was feeling out of reach. On my insistence and that of a volunteer, she took a 20 minute nap. On awakening, she tried to get some more fluid and calories down and immediately regurgitated it all into the bushes. There were a few more tears and she was on the verge of calling it. Her line of thought as I read it was, “how can I possibly run another 20 miles???”

Luckily, I was ready. I had been busy doing some math and self-coaching while she slept. If we could move at 3 mph- a concerted hiking pace- we could make it in well under the cut-off time of 34 hours. Frankly, it sounded awful to me. I could barely stomach the thought of being out there another six-plus hours myself. But the thought of her not finishing was even worse. We just needed patience. When I proposed we could walk it in with time to spare, I saw the light of hope flash in her eyes. She realized she could still make it, and then she realized she would make it. What we had been overlooking was...

You can walk until you die.

And no, you’re not going to die from running a 100 miler. Probably. For Amber, she was lucky to have moved well earlier in the race, and she’d built herself up a buffer on the cutoff. When shit hit the fan, she had breathing room to take a nap and walk it home. That won’t always be the case. But walking is the one thing you do every day, whether you want to or not. You’re good at it (though you should all practice you power hiking, because honestly, most of you suck at it). Your quads might be blown and your hamstrings like limp noodles, but you can walk, damnit. Feel bad for yourself? Hurts too much? Think you can’t go on? If you want perspective (see above section) think about the survivors of the Trail of Tears or the Bataan Death March, everyday people (not trained athletes) that marched hundreds or thousands of miles, through horrendous conditions, facing real desperation and starvation. You’re not really suffering, my friend, you’re doing this for some kind of depraved notion of fun or accomplishment.

The finish in sight and I think she's trying to slap me?

By the end of the race I think I was moving worse than Amber was; a nagging hip issue coupled with our awkward pace created some very angry supporting muscles. The last 15 miles were the best miles of the race. We had both accepted the reality of walking it home. The last five miles were pure insanity. Cry-laughing our way walking down endless, steep dirt road and switchbacks as the temperatures climbed into the 90s, the ridiculousness of it all was too much to handle. It was so awesome and terrible that it was hilarious. The ending mile- a paved road so steep you wouldn’t think it could legally exist- was just too much. I jokingly made comments about the tuck and roll method to take us to the finish, but I thought about it rather seriously for a minute. Then when we finally had the finish line in sight, Amber turned around and saw another woman running up behind us. She said something along the lines of, “I’m not getting passed at the finish line!” and started hobble-sprinting down the road. Amber, who had walked most of the last 20 miles in great pain, was suddenly “running” scared from a woman who was just out for a morning trail run. It was too much to handle.

I’m only half-joking when I say it took me, the pacer, a couple weeks to recover from Amber’s race. Though I still cringe a little when she speaks excitedly about signing up for another 100 (she entered the Western States lottery…), her performance, her grit and determination, was nothing but inspirational. Being a part of Amber’s race was an experience I continue to learn from to this day.

I might even put my learnin’ to practice (and get my revenge and by making her crew or pace for me) next year if I take another go at the Bighorn 100...

No comments:

Post a Comment