Live and Learn – The American Ultrarunning 100 Mile Championships
By Gary Griffin,
Many moons ago, back when I was first getting my feet wet at the ultra distances, I recall asking a veteran competitor one day, “What’s the secret to running 100 miles?” I thought that I would never forget his response, which was essentially, “You have to go out there and make mistakes and fail a few times before you will succeed.” In other words, there is no formula for reaching the finish line of a 100-mile run, but there certainly are a number of obstacles along the way that can be overcome only by encountering them in real time. You can read ad nausea about nutritional needs, the demands of the course, sleep deprivation, foot care and mental preparation, but nothing prepares you to run 100 miles like trying to run 100 miles. Back in September of 2003, when I first toed the line at this distance, I was keenly aware of this wisdom from years gone by. I went into that race struggling with a leg injury, but also with a summer of distance running successes behind me, and made a conscious decision to “seize the day,” feeling that I may never get such a chance again. The ultra gods were smiling upon me that day: I made it through the run in under 23 hours, but paid for it dearly for the next 12 months, running very little and coming face-to-face with the harsh reality that my running days may have ended. The main problems that day, other than the injury, were wicked blisters that covered the entire front pads of both feet after 50 miles and some severe bleeding from an orifice of my body that I would rather not discuss in this public forum. Perhaps for that reason, my recall of the event is rather vague – no doubt some sort of defense mechanism that the mind erected to block out the experience.
With the Spring of 2005 came the gift of healing and a renewed hope that maybe I could return to the ultra scene, though I had no illusions early on that another date with the 100 would become a reality. I felt strongly called to the distance, though, feeling that if not for the injury and the blisters 2 years earlier that just maybe – maybe – I could run under 20 hours for one of these things. Breaking 20 hours in a 100 is akin to a sub-3 to a marathoner, and I was just dumb enough to think it was possible with a lot of hard training, a good taper, and no blisters. And so, I set my sights on September 10, 2005 and Olander Park, Ohio, “The Yankee Stadium of Ultrarunning” and the USA 100-Mile Championships. Clearly, I had forgotten that long-ago wisdom of the veteran who warned about the unknown monsters that await the unknowing and overconfident ultrarunner along the 100-mile road.
My training plan was simple: do lots and lots of long runs, regardless of the pace, and do them back-to-back-to-back-to back and get used to “running tired.” (I asked Jeff Bryan one day if he thought it better to do 10M-10M-10M-10M or 20M-rest-20M-rest, and he replied that he thought it better to do 20M-20M-20M-20M. I didn’t ask JB any more questions after that!) For a 10-week period I averaged near 75 miles a week – an all-time high for me. As I felt myself hardening to the miles I ran faster, and raced at least once a month at the marathon or ultra distance from January through August, including an all-night 8-hour run and another 8-hour run in the broiling heat. I read up on foot care and with duct tape and several pairs of socks at the ready, I felt that obstacle was whipped. I also learned the trick to stemming the tide of orifice blood, so as I trained, I felt the only two things that could stop me were injury and failing to taper, the latter being something that I have always found very difficult, yet incredibly necessary.
Two weeks before Olander Park I basically shut it down, feeling that anything beyond that point was only inviting trouble. My tender hamstrings had been getting worse, but by race day I was rested and pain-free. I was so, so ready. Put me in coach. I’m ready to play.
We arrived in Ohio the day before facing a forecast of temperatures in the mid to high 80s … supposedly far too warm to run 100 miles, but suitable to me – one who seems to thrive on high temps. At the pre-race dinner the race director introduced the elites that were present – one of whom was Roy Pirrung, the national champion in my age group and one who was called that night “the second best American ultra runner.” I turned to my friend Scott Ludwig, who also was running the next day and observed, “He had better bring his A-game, or he’s going down tomorrow.” My confidence had morphed itself into cockiness. In the game of ultrarunning, which is 90% mental, such behavior is not necessarily bad. At the time it was what I needed to say and dwell on, knowing what lie ahead.
Race morning dawned clear and warm. 75 of us lined up for the 10 a.m. start, including fellow Darkside Running Club mates Scott Ludwig, Al Barker and Susan Lance (the first two with long-time ties to GWTC). After an hour or so I pulled up to two individuals that seemed to have a steady pace well in hand, and said, “You guys seem to have this figured out. Mind if I tag along?” It was several miles later that I learned one of my mates was Steve Peterson, who had won the San Diego One-Day (24 hour run) last December with 140+ miles and would go on to win this affair in a little over 14 hours. Realizing I was in over my head, I backed off a bit. In retrospect, I had no business being there in the first place. The day continued to warm, finally reaching 87 degrees, but I felt good – at least I did for 9 hours. No blisters, no bleeding, no problem, but thought “Darn …. I sure have been thirsty.” Until this year, I had never been a soda drinker during an ultra, but during both 8-hour runs I had seemed to benefit from the sugar and caffeine of Coke and Mountain Dew late in the race. This time, I didn’t wait until late – I hammered them early on. “You have to go out there and make mistakes …. before you will succeed.” Ahhhhh – that voice from the past. At a little over 50 miles and 9 hours the cramps that I had rarely experienced seized my body, turning my left leg into some sort of grotesque spasm machine. I knew what was wrong but still didn’t understand how it had happened. Dehydration had gotten to me in the low humidity, but yet – I had been drinking. Little did I understand that it was what I had been drinking that was the culprit! There was an abundance of water and other electrolyte fluids and I was hammering the Coke and expecting it to sustain me. For two hours the cramps persisted until I finally stemmed the tide with double doses of Succeed!! Caps and water and a concoction prepared by an experienced physiologist and endurance cyclist, Dave Sowers. His words of “This may make you puke, but it’ll heal you” were all I needed to hear, and it did its magic to my contorted legs. So – one mistake overcome. We weren’t through yet, though. I still had a bag full of mistakes to overcome!
Shortly after the legs began feeling better my stomach went south on me, with the Coke diet being the likely culprit. The sun had gone down, the night had cooled, and the conditions were ripe for running. You weren’t talking to my stomach, though! Any attempts to run for extended periods brought on serious nausea. Our friend Dave said that it was, again, related to dehydration, and that it was simply the abdominal muscles cramping instead of the legs. In any case, it persisted in varying stages of intensity for the rest of the night. It made for a long night – a very long night – but with encouragement from Peg (who was always there for me) and Jeff back in Tallahassee, as well as untold others that had sent me off with wishes of strength and perseverance, I finally got to the end.
By the time I finished, 21 hours and 45 minutes after the 10 a.m. start, Roy Pirrung had showered, had a nice meal, and was probably on his way back to his home in Sheboygan, WI. He had lapped me for the first time after about 9 hours, and as he came by I picked up the pace to run with him a bit. I said, (lying a bit) “Roy, I was hoping you wouldn’t show up. But – having seen you run, I am glad that you did. It is an honor to be on the same course with you.” As I struggled along over the next several hours, he always had an encouraging word. He’s a class act.
I finished. It was not pretty, but I fought through some very real nastiness and finished. Even managed to capture third in the age group, which considering the sort of company I was in, is very satisfying. I was lucky, though, in that I had Peg and a whole host of people sending forth their hopes for my success. I made a million mistakes, and maybe next time I will remember the wisdom of that veteran ultrarunner from years ago and realize that there is still a whole lot of learning to be done.
Interestingly, in the latest issue of Ultrarunning magazine that arrived this week, the editor, Don Allison, tells of an ultrarunner that failed in her first 16 attempts at 100 miles before succeeding in her 17th such effort. Don, an accomplished ultrarunner, observed that he experienced two “gut-wrenching DNFs” in his first attempts at the distance, and was questioning his ability and willpower to get it done before reaching his goal in try number 3. He wrote that he could not even imagine the sort of willpower that it must have taken to endure 16 DNFs before finally finishing a 100. The fact that the wheels came off for me last weekend have got to be taken just as another part of the journey that is life and that is ultrarunning. There’s always something to learn and there will always be obstacles out there. I was very, very lucky.
Live and learn.