Monday, July 18, 2011

TRT 100: When trying isn't enough

The short story of my Tahoe Rim Trail 100 experience is that I missed a late checkpoint cutoff and timed out at mile 80. I was unceremoniously swept from the course after a night-long battle with sore feet — about 15 percent of the pain was caused by blisters and 85 percent by a deeper soreness that made every step feel like I was hitting the bottom of my feet progressively harder with a hammer. I really wanted to finish this race and I tried to gut it out. The ginger-stepping slowed me down too much, and by the time I realized my pace wasn't going to cut it, it was too late. But I genuinely tried, and I think that's what makes the DNF particularly disappointing. I ate well, I felt strong, I loved the course and I ran as smart of a pace as I could maintain. I gave this race my best effort, and that simply wasn't good enough.

But that's the short story. The long story is a richer and more variable journey that I'm grateful to have experienced. The Tahoe Rim Trail 100 started at 5 a.m. Saturday near Spooner Lake. Years of trying to make better use of mornings and several 24-hours-plus endurance races have taught me that it really doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing — anything between the hours of 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. is just not my time to shine. But I was buzzing with excitement about the mammoth undertaking in front of me. Not only was I going to attempt this 100-mile effort, but I was going to attempt it alone. Beat and I agreed to run our own races. We shared a good-luck kiss at the start and joined the 100 or so other runners pressing into the pre-dawn darkness.

Because it was so early in the morning, the first hours of the race are pretty much a blur. I followed a long line of people into a bank of mountain fog high on the Tahoe Rim. Trail runners are unique in that I think most prefer to be in the mountains alone or with one or two friends, but we seek out races for the community and socializing.

You might wonder why one would want to go into the mountains with 100 other people, but the support network becomes a hugely enriching part of the experience. The course consisted of two 50-mile trips around a braid of three loops, which meant I met the leaders a few times. They were always red-faced and moving at a pace I could scarcely conceive, but without fail, even in the coldest, loneliest parts of the night, they all looked up and offered words of encouragement. Ultrarunners are good people.

My morning fog continued until about mile 10, when the first competitors of the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 started to pass me. The race started an hour later, but of course my own conservative pace meant many of the 50-milers would eventually pass me. Constantly disrupting my rhythm to let runners go by proved to be surprisingly demoralizing. I let it get to me more than I should have, mostly because most who passed me did so while I was gingerly jogging down a descent — I struggle the most with descents — and they flew by with enviable ease. Just before the second aid station, about mile 12, I moved over to let one of the 50-mile leaders fly past. I caught my foot on a rock and careened toward a table-sized boulder where I knocked my left shoulder and knee cap hard. The knee bashing was particularly painful and throbbed for the next 10 miles, which also threw my mojo off a bit.

But there was no denying that the course was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and smiles came easily in the first 20 miles. I started meeting and chatting with friends who were competing in the 50-miler. I was really digging the turkey-and-mustard sandwiches and fruit at the aid stations, so I was taking in a lot of useful calories. I also maintained a good intake of fluid, because my required checkpoint weigh-ins consistently came in with only a pound or two lost or gained. I've never participated in a race that had weigh-ins and thought it entertaining to watch how my own weight fluctuated during a race. Once, a racer in front of me weighed in at five pounds higher than his starting weight, which in my understanding is fairly typical during an ultra-run. Alarmed, he asked the medic what he could do to keep his race weight down. "I hear running is a good way to lose weight," the medic replied.

A few times, I purposefully disrupted my slow pace to charge uphills for the sheer joy of it — climbing steep alpine terrain is my favorite kind of running. Even in the early miles, I did notice an big heart rate spike and shortness of breath on my harder climbs, no doubt a result of the sustained high elevation, which averages 8,200 feet and never drops below 6,800 feet.

Beat had a strong first half and I never saw him on the course after the race start, but I did leapfrog a bit with my friend Steve, who was struggling with the elevation but still crushed my pace on the descents. We left the luxurious Diamond Peak aid station (a ski resort lodge) and started together up the climb to Diamond Peak. The race officials had warned us that it was a direct ascent up a ski slope, but I really had no idea how brutal it would actually be. We gained 2,000 feet in less than two miles on a 25-percent grade with no switchbacks. It was absolutely grueling in the direct sun at mile 31 (and 81!) of a 100-mile race, just mean, but we tried to keep good humor about it. I started referring to the climb as "Wickersham Wall Nevada," — my own esoteric reference to the killer steep climb right at the end of the White Mountains 100 — and occasionally mumbled "@#$! Wickersham." Of course I was the only one who found this funny, but it did improve my mood during the hour-long, Achilles-burning grind.

I was amazed how well the race seemed to be going. Even with the Wickersham Wall, I completed my first 50K in eight hours, which was my goal, and felt great. But I've participated in enough long races to know that they haven't even started until at least halfway in, maybe even 70 percent. I still had a long, long way to go.

And of course, just when you think something is going great is usually when it starts to fall apart. During the descent into the Hobart aid station, near mile 40, I started to notice the familiar blunt pain, which I refer to as "hurty foot," that has dogged me on all of my longer runs. I knew this pain was likely, even inevitable, but I still took it as an extreme blow to my morale. It's difficult to describe this pain because I haven't pinpointed the cause exactly, but as I mentioned before, it seems to press right down to the bones and feels like a broad hammer slamming against the bottom of my foot. It is an overuse injury but experience has also taught me that it's largely superficial. It doesn't seem to cause any long-term damage, and so dealing with it becomes an exercise in pain management. This has so far proven to be an insurmountable mental obstacle for me. Sure, you can slap yourself endlessly without lasting physical harm, but at what point does the pain become intolerable?

I was not looking forward to finding out just how long I could endure the beating. I started up the gradual climb to Snow Valley Peak and tried to mitigate the pain by consciously landing on my forefoot rather than my mid-foot, which is my more natural stride. Of course, doing anything that doesn't feel normal throws off my already precarious sense of balance, especially after 40 miles of running. Eventually I tripped on nothing and face-planted into the dirt, again. Frustration started to bubble to the surface.

The Snow Valley rim contained my absolute favorite kind of running — a smooth dirt trail along high alpine tundra, with patches of snow, wildflowers and stunning views on all sides. Sadly, this did little to improve my mood.

Just below the peak, elevation 9,000, a group of volunteer boy scouts from Carson City had set up a surprisingly well-stocked and organized aid station. The only other access point was a very rough and steep doubletrack, and I was amazed they were even able to cart all those supplies up there, let alone organize them in individual wind-protected containers. The volunteers had lined the trail with playful signs and waved flags as a couple other runners and I approached. All of these fun details should have made me feel better, but the awesome aid station only made me feel annoyed with myself for being so grumpy.

It still surprises me how childish and irritable I can become when I am physically tired and in pain. A man who caught up with me after I stopped to take photos of flowers said, "You know, I bet we'd both be a lot faster if we didn't stop so often to take pictures."

"Then this race would be even less fun," I snapped humorlessly, and instantly felt bad about my snippy retort. What was wrong with me?

I crested the ridge in a gust of cold wind. I stopped to put on more layers and felt a rush of trepidation as I gazed over the seven-mile, 2,000-foot descent in front of me. This was going to be hurty and hard and I was only halfway through the race. After I found my arm warmers, mittens and windshell, I fished out my iPod as well. It was definitely time to begin employing coping techniques. Headphones are a controversial topic in any endurance sport, and more often than not they're explicitly discouraged. But for me, music isn't just a diversion, it's a meaningful part of my experience. And sure enough, less than ten minutes later the Shuffle dredged up a song from a new album I just downloaded and hadn't heard yet, "St. Peter's Cathedral" by Death Cab for Cutie. The song has a joyful tone and the lyrics imply a message about living life to the fullest, repeating the line, "There's nothing past this." The words struck a deep cord as I rounded a corner and caught my first glimpse of the stark desert mountains and Carson City on my left, sparkling blue Lake Tahoe and the snow-capped Sierras on my right, and this whole alpine paradise drenched in color by the saturated light of early evening. One of the aspects I cherish about hard endurance efforts is the way they strip me down to the simplest version of myself, exposing strong emotions and vibrant memories that normally linger too far below the noisy surface of my life. I was filled with a strong sort of love for this place, these mountains, and wanted to do anything for it, to express my love through the steps I took, pain be damned. "There's nothing past this," I whispered as I picked up speed, covering up the pain signals with music and light. Seven miles seemed to pass in an instant.

I returned to the start/finish to find Beat waiting for me at the halfway mark. He felt strong during the first 50 miles of the race but also developed some foot pain. He has a bigger and much more daunting race in France coming up in just 10 days, so he had already decided he would drop at even a hint of a problem so as to not risk injury. I was excited to see him and proud of him for making a smart decision. We compared bloody knees and I told him about my moment on Snow Valley peak and the surprisingly incredible run downhill. I also told him I planned to slow my pace down quite a bit in order to persevere to the finish. It had taken me 14 hours to run the first 50 miles, and I had just over 20 more hours before the finish cutoff. "Fast" running dealt proportionally harder hammer strikes on my tender feet, but walking and ginger-step shuffling seemed achievable, and I only had to average 2.5 mph to make the cut-offs.

I set out alone as darkness descended, working to push the foot pain to the back of my mind. A nearly full moon rose over the tree tops and I relished in the quiet and solitude as I moved through my tiny tunnel of light. I love night efforts; I've said before that they're my favorite part of endurance racing — all of my senses sharpen and I feel a heightened awareness for the world around me even as I further detach from my own ego and physical limitations. Still, pain is a powerful distraction, and my foot soreness was not going away. On top of this, both of my feet had become quite swollen, and because of this I had developed a multitude of blisters in unexpected places, such as the bottoms of my toes and along the sides of my feet. I took long breaks at aid stations to try to cover the blisters. My hasty methods were remarkably ineffective, and the blisters caused an electric shock of pain when they popped a few more miles down the trail. For a while I tried to take the ultrarunning advice to just ignore my blisters and their superficial pain because ultrarunning is all about pain management. I started down the Red House loop, a six-mile spur that was by far my least favorite section of the course because it contained a very steep and muddy descent, several stream crossings, a boring flat run through the trees and a very steep ascent back to the aid station. I dreaded this section and moved slower than molasses through it, partly falling asleep on my feet and partly just mitigating my pain by slowing to a near-stop. I wasn't fully conscious of any of this, or of the vast amounts of time that were passing beneath my sore feet and labored breaths.

When I made it back to the Tunnel Creek aid station, mile 67, I decided that I was going to spend some time working to mitigate the pain I at least had some control over, my blisters. I removed my shoes, washed my feet with alcohol wipes and set about the complicated effort of applying effective coverings. Still, my mind was terribly foggy and the well-meaning race volunteers were distracting me, chatting about my shoes and cold weather gear until I could no longer focus on the very specific list of chores I had planned during my crawl around the Red House loop. Other back-of-the-pack racers milled about, some who had already dropped from the race and some who the medics were essentially trying to talk into dropping, either because their hydration levels were worrisome or their oxygen levels were too low (I felt short of breath as well and was curious to find out what my own oxygen level was at, but then thought better of asking to be tested because I didn't want to be pulled from the race.)

One volunteer, obviously an experienced ultrarunner, observed how long I was taking to wrap my blisters, understood I was already running close to the cutoffs and took on the noble role of trying to hustle my butt out of there. "Where's your pacer?" he asked as he approached me.

"I don't have a pacer," I said. (Interestingly, a majority of the 100-mile runners in the TRT race had "safety runners" with them.)

"This your first hundred?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said. (In small talk, I usually told people that the TRT100 was my first 100-mile run attempt, even though I've completed the Susitna 100 on foot. Like snow biking and mountain biking, I view winter and summer trail running as essentially two different sports, and it was simpler just to call the TRT100 my first rather than try to explain this viewpoint.)

"Better to have a pacer if it's your first," he said. "They keep you moving."

Even with my foggy mind, I understood his implication. "I know," I replied. "I'm leaving soon. I just wanted to try and fix my feet a little. They're really sore and they're causing me to move really slow. Pacers can't really do anything about your feet."

"No," he said. "But training will. How has your training been?"

"Well," I drew a breath. Confession time. "I'm really more of a cyclist. I do both cycling and running, but probably mostly cycling."

"What's your weekly mileage?"

More confessions. "I probably average 20 miles a week or so, in training. I've done a few long runs training for this race, 50K races and such."

He shook his head. "No way can you run a hundred on 20 miles a week. Riding a bicycle won't do anything for you in a 100-miler. You want to train for an ultra, you have to build a base. You have to run and only run."

I nodded miserably. "Maybe this wasn't worth it to me," I said. "But it was a grand experiment all the same."

The volunteer's words of wisdom weighed heavily as I started up the next climb. What kind of egotistical delusion made me think I could fake my way through a 100-mile trail run? Beat runs 100-mile races on similar weekly training miles, but he also runs a lot more races essentially as training runs, plus he has a vast running base to fall back on. I have a solid cycling base, an iron butt and a strong back, but my feet are as soft as a cashmere. And the only way to fix that is to train on my feet — and train patiently. Attempting two hundred-mile foot races in my first year of running at all really was overly ambitious.

But I was frustrated by the fact that I still felt strong and relatively fresh. I wanted this TRT finish, I really did, and I wanted to believe my determination and endurance could get me through it. Then I would have that trail 100-mile finish and I would know I could do it. I wavered between hard determination and raw dread at the prospect of 30 more miles of foot pain. But I also grasped for optimism, for the perhaps misguided belief that things can always get better.

Whenever I didn't focus intensely on forward motion, my pace slowed to an extreme plod. My daydream phases were a nice mental relief, but I often snapped back to alertness only to find myself gasping for air and barely moving. I reached the bullwheel aid station to find everyone asleep, so I continued up to the peak. With a new view of the horizon, I noticed for the first time the streaks of red lining the horizon. Was it really almost morning? I pulled out my GPS and felt an adrenaline rush of dismay as the screen flashed the time, 5:11 a.m.

I was only at the top of Diamond Peak, which meant I still had nine more miles to reach the next aid station. Although I had been avoiding the math all night long, I did remember that the mile 80 cutoff was 7:35 a.m., which meant I had only two hours and 24 minutes to make nine miles of mostly downhill trail. Four miles per hour would require actual running, which I hadn't successfully coaxed my feet into doing for some hours. I started down the hill at a run, holding my Garmin handheld device so I could watch my miles per hour. A painful shuffle only netted three miles per hour, and trying to walk fast did the same with even more general soreness. When I tried to gut my way into a solid running stride, the pain actually brought tears to my eyes. If I raced this cutoff, I'd be racing cutoffs for the rest of the race. I couldn't manage that level of pain for thirty more miles. It was impossible.

I sat down on a rock and indulged in feeling sorry for myself, letting the crocodile tears run down my cheeks. Just then, Steve ran up behind me. This surprised me because I had already deduced that I must be at the very back of the race at this point, and also because I was sure Steve was in front of me. As it turned out, he took a wrong turn in the night and ended up on a four-mile detour. Now he was racing the cutoffs as well. He was struggling with the elevation, but he's also a strong downhill runner.

"I don't think I can make it," I said. "But I bet you can."

As Steve took off down the trail, I tried one last-burst effort to keep up with him. Every step was like an electric shock coursing through my feet. It was impossible to think about anything else but a white curtain of pain. I went blind to my surroundings and lost track of Steve almost immediately. I checked my GPS and even this seemingly monumental painful effort was only scraping the 4 mph barrier. Even my best effort was not going to be enough. My thoughts were numbed enough by the pain that I had to slow down to let the reality soak in.

More crocodile tears. Sometimes you just have to let it all leak out. And sure enough, I started to accept my failure and feel better about my situation. The sun was rising over the Nevada desert, casting more gorgeous light over the Tahoe Rim. It was a beautiful morning, I was alone in the mountains, and I had just run farther on dirt than I ever had in my life. There was nothing else past this — except for the nine-mile walk of shame I still had to make to the 80-mile cutoff.

I walked painfully slow because even slow was becoming painful. I was enjoying the scenery and I didn't even really care how long it took me, I didn't want to endure any more pain than I had to. The minutes crawled by and I took frequent breaks just for a chance to emerge from my mind's gray cloud into the beautiful morning. I was still three miles from the finish when the 7:35 a.m. cutoff came and went. Another runner and his pacer passed me at 7:30 a.m., startling me completely because I was sure I was alone out there. "Is this downhill fun or what?" he exclaimed.

"I can't run," I replied miserably. "And we're too late to make the cutoff."

"I know," he said. "But at least we can finish in style." And with that, he continued flying down the hill. I envied his attitude, and tried to work on improving my own.

Beat met me about a mile and a half from the checkpoint. Seeing him made all of my disappointment rush to the surface. "I'm so sorry," I blubbered. "My feet hurt."

"I know," he said. "But you did great. Really." He had a huge smile on his face and didn't look at all disappointed in me. "I hope you had a great time anyway."

"I did," I said. "I really did."

And that was the truth of it. I had a fantastic experience and I learned a lot. I set out for these outlandish goals knowing that failure isn't just possible, it's likely. But I learn so much more from my failures and I gain so much more from my successes during these far-reaching ambitions. My feet are still tender but the pain is already fading, and along with it the disappointment about my DNF. What remains is love for the mountains that I traveled and memories of the great moments.

Here's a map of the course. My GPS watch battery died after 18 hours. My handheld recorded 14,000 feet of climbing in 80 miles.