Graduation Day – the Lean Horse 100 Mile Run
It all started back in the early 1990s. I had just begun to get my feet wet in the ultrarunning world when the idea of running 100 miles first struck. In many ways, that seemed far beyond comprehension, and one of those things accomplished only by the best of the best. So when I found myself in the presence of an ultra veteran months later I felt compelled to ask what I thought was a fairly simple question: How do you run 100 miles?
Maybe I was expecting to hear some sort of textbook training routine, or perhaps a recommended regimen of 50 mile races, followed by a 100K or two before attempting the distance. I figured there surely must be a formula – some sort of secret routine that would guarantee success should I ever bring myself to such a level that I could even consider a 100-mile start. What he said, though, remains indelibly etched on my mind, for his response was simply this: “You need to learn how to run 100 miles.” I believe that in the annals of wisdom imparted to me over the years, those words are near the top of the list.
“You need to learn how to run 100 miles …..”
Some things we set out to accomplish have a steeper learning curve than others. My Daddy taught me how to change the oil in the car without spilling it all over the driveway in two lessons, and I learned how to be a pretty decent auctioneer in a week of auction school. On the other hand, I’ve still not mastered the TV remote or come anywhere near to being competent with any number of simple computer operations.
Learning how to run 100 miles fell into the latter category.
My first attempt came in 2003, a few months following a high mileage summer coupled with the elation of running 60 miles or so over two days with my friend Scott Ludwig as he powered to a 6th place finish at the Badwater Ultramarathon – a 135 mile journey through Death Valley. Brimming with confidence from that experience, I accompanied Scott to the US 100 Mile Championships at Olander Park (Ohio) and proceeded to have a disastrous experience. Oh – I finished, and even finished with a somewhat respectable 21:52 — but it wasn’t pretty. I walked much of the last 50 miles after going out far too hard, and had blisters so bad I could hardly walk for a week. Two years later I was back at Olander Park, duplicated the 2003 mistakes, and even added some major nutrition/hydration failures to the mix. Somehow I made it to the finish, shaving a whopping 7 minutes off my 2003 time. My desire waned. I was frustrated. I had gone to the starting line twice with lots of miles under my belt, something I thought constituted the basic requirement for 100-mile success. As I continued to reflect on those two attempts, I recalled the words from years gone by:
“You need to learn how to run 100 miles ….. “
I am the first to admit that I am hydration and nutritionally challenged. My running partners call me “the camel” – a moniker hung on me for my seeming ability to run miles and miles in the summer heat without water. Furthermore, I have traditionally taken very few calories in any form in races of any duration. I ran my PR marathon in 1991, taking no water and zero calories for 26.2 miles. I also remember the day I ran the 30K at St. Marks followed by several hours of yard work without taking anything to drink. This proves absolutely nothing except that the human body is capable of great adaptation when exposed to a certain routine over an extended period. It was not only ridiculous behavior for one striving to be the best that he could be, but it also was not healthy. Karl Hempel would probably have disowned me as a patient had he known.
Improper hydration and nutrition were not the only barriers to 100-mile success. There were pace issues and blister issues as well, along with who knows how many other things that could surface out there beyond the 50 mile mark. As fate would have it, I found myself in the presence of two gifted individuals who had mastered two of these elements. In October, 2007 I got a lasting lesson on pace during a 50-miler on a glorious fall day in Door County, WI from David Yon. David’s plan called for patient 8:35-8:45 miles for the first 40 – a pace that I would normally eschew — and dearly pay for late in the race. By following David’s lead, though, I had the race of my life to that point, eclipsing my 50M PR by nearly 30 minutes. Two 30-hour adventure race experiences with Ed Baggett in 2007 and early 2008 forced me to deal with my nutrition and hydration issues. Ed was counting on me, and he continually and patiently urged me to feed my body to enable it to keep going. Finally, a breakthrough of sorts. I learned that by pounding down the calories, I was able to perform at a higher level. I still wasn’t where I needed to be, but had turned the corner so to speak.
One other thing just “happened” that really seemed to equip me for the 100 mile stage. I learned how to run. I’m not talking about pace or hydration or nutrition. I’m talking about running form, and it came about totally by chance.
I had been troubled by chronic hip and hamstring issues for years – conditions that I just learned to deal with. Every step hurt, but being a runner, I assumed that that was how it was supposed to be. Besides, as an ultrarunner, I wasn’t taxing my legs in the same way that the 5K/10K crowd was, and could do the “ultra shuffle” for hours and hours and just deal with the pain. Yet, while casually running alone on the single tracks at Maclay two years ago I suddenly realized that I was running without pain. As I continued along I observed that I was running upright and that it wasn’t my legs that were carrying me forward as much as it was my center. Now, I am not a student of running form or much of anything else when it comes to running, but I believe that what I found myself doing (and which has become the norm for me now) is that after 25 years I finally discovered how it is that we are supposed to move ourselves forward. My hamstring and hip issues had vanished, and it seemed as though my legs were no longer doing the work. The “cooked shrimp look” that Dana Stetson uses to describe one’s posture during the latter stages of a long run was gone.
In early 2008, while dealing with a 2-month layoff from a stress fracture, I felt that maybe I had learned some of the things that I needed to learn to run well at 100 miles. It was time to go back to the line, and the Lean Horse 100 in Hot Springs, SD in August seemed to have my name written all over it. . .
In the mind of an ultrarunner, a sub-20 hour 100-miler is akin to a sub-3 hour marathon. In my 1991 PR marathon I missed that goal by less than 2 minutes. The idea of running 100 miles sub-20 was not even in my thought process. And yet, as my summer training progressed, I felt I was becoming more capable of it. Friends had told me about the course – 16 miles of rolling country gravel road, followed by 34 miles of the mostly flat Mickelson Trail (a converted rails-to-trails on cushioned, finely crushed stone), repeated in reverse for the final 50. I was “cautiously confident,” fully aware that much can go wrong in 20 hours or so of running and that one mistake can turn 20 hours into 25.
In the weeks and days leading up to the race I was blessed with encouragement and wisdom from family and friends who had been along this road with me. Their confidence in me helped to raise my confidence in me – an essential ingredient in any success. At the pre-race meeting, featured speaker Scott Ludwig reminded the 170 or so entrants in the 100 and accompanying 50-miler that getting to the finish can be far more mental than physical. Confidence and the ability to fight through occasional darkness are mandatory components of endurance running.
After days of pretty intense heat (the hottest day of the year was two days before the start!), race day dawned cool and dry. Peg was to crew for me and put up with my whining and puking and whatever else I was going to endure, and urge me to hold fast to my pre-race plan calling for the approach that David Yon had held me to in Wisconsin. She was also going insist that I “drink, drink, drink and eat, eat, eat.” The best laid plans . . .
The 16 mile section at the beginning was hillier and a bit rougher than expected; nonetheless, it was cool and dry, and I kept myself hydrated (!), and by mile 20 was 20 minutes ahead of a sub-20 hour pace. I had projected to hit mile 50 in 9 hours, but found myself there at 8:20. Nonetheless, I was feeling very well in relation to how I had felt at the same stage during my 2003 and 2005 experiences. It was far too early to get caught up in heady thoughts of having a happy ending – after all, I still had 50 miles to go. At mile 70 I was still comfortably ahead of my projected pace but was having trouble drinking and had totally stopped eating. I held on through mile 75 but hit a bad patch from miles 75 to 83 where I was faced again with that hilly gravel road. Somewhere around mile 80 I felt my time goal slipping away and made peace with the fact that it was OK – I had done all I could do and I should just enjoy the night. Rural South Dakota is dark, and the sky was filled with more stars than I had seen when I worked in New Hampshire nearly 40 years ago. As coyotes howled around me and bats swooped in and out of my headlamp, I thought of all those folks who had urged me on from a distance, of how lucky I was to be out there with Peg, and of how good it was going to be to lie down and sleep. These are the things that I really live for, and there was no place that I would rather be. Going into that 16-mile stretch, I was dreading the uphills, and didn’t have any great expectations for the downhills. But – something magical happened out there. I found that I could run the downs with authority and concentrated on relentless forward motion on the uphills. I refused to look at my watch to avoid the disappointment that I thought it would reveal, and pressed on until the final aid station at mile 96. Looking at my watch, I thought that I must have been hallucinating — 18:04. “No way,” I said. “You don’t have your glasses on and you can’t see.” I looked again. 18:04 it was. I had gone from 20-hour pace at mile 83 to having an hour in the bank at mile 96. The effort had left me pretty tapped out, and the last 4 miles wasn’t anything to write home about, but I was fine with that. It was over. When I crossed the line, Peg said, “You did it.” I said, “No honey, we did it” and it was so, so true. I did it, along with Peg and all of those who encouraged me and urged me to change things in my program that had served as obstacles in attaining my goals at this distance. There was one other person who played a role in that 19:02 as well. I’ll never know his name but I’ll always remember what he said:
“You need to learn how to run 100 miles …..”