Wednesday, June 12, 2013

An education in bad ideas

It wasn't surprising that the Bryce 100 cut me down to jagged pieces. My internal system was a mess. Heart rate was erratic, respiratory system continued cranking out phlegm and withholding oxygen, and my digestive tract would not get back online. It took me an hour to eat a simple Subway sandwich the evening after the race, and although I recovered my appetite for some meals following that, usually I just choked down what I could while feeling nauseated the whole time. I was planning to return to California on Monday, but I couldn't face the 12-hour drive. I could barely get out of bed. Things were bad.

On Tuesday, I needed to work on deadline for the Alaska newspaper company I contract for, so I knew I'd need to remain in Utah one more day. Despite only achieving sleep in fitful bursts, I'd had enough naps on Monday to feel somewhat rested, and awoke with renewed optimism. At this point, I'd convinced myself that some of my struggles in Bryce and the aftermath were the result of an infection — bacterial or viral — that I'd caught from my dad and that was exacerbated by diminishing my immune system during the high-altitude race. I'll never know for sure, but by casting a portion of the blame to external forces beyond my control, I could claim "recovery" and go for a hike. It was my last day in Utah, after all, and I wanted to make the most of it. I picked Lake Blanche, a six-mile route with 2,900 feet of elevation gain, topping out at 9,000 feet. It was a beautiful day — 62 degrees and sharply clear — and I let renewed vigor whisk me into an ambitious pace. A hard march up to the lake, and then, because I needed to be back by the time the Alaskans started their work day, a run all the way down. Although I was still struggling with lightheadedness and breathing much too hard, my legs actually felt strong. "Maybe, just maybe, I can run a 50K this weekend," I thought.

Wednesday's drive home was tough. I still didn't have much of an appetite, and was craving fresh fruit and lettuce that I did not have. I ate candy because candy will always give me energy if I need it, but of course candy doesn't provide necessary nutrition. I pulled off the Interstate twice to take short naps. It was 99 degrees in northern Nevada, and sleep only held for ten minutes or so before I woke up in my oven of a car, feverish and drenched in sweat. I arrived home around 11 p.m. The body was pretty angry with me at this point, but there was a lot to finish on Thursday in time to grab a red-eye flight to Pittsburgh.

Beat had a business trip planned to conduct some meetings with colleagues at the Pittsburgh Google office, and the timing just happened to coincide with the Laurel Highlands Trail Race, a 50K and 70.5-mile run along the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail put on by our Iditarod-veteran friends Tim and Loreen Hewitt and Rick Freeman. I am working on a book project with Tim, and thought it would be helpful to meet with him face-to-face, so I advocated tagging along. Beat wanted to run the race but I refused to commit one week after Bryce, insisting that I'd just show up and help at an aid station or check people in at the finish. The day before the Bryce 100, I caved into temptation to put my name on the 50K roster, reasoning that it would be fun to run "if I feel okay."

Really, the easy way to tell this whole story would be, "I barely finished the Bryce 100, had a horrible week of recovery, and yada yada yada, I ended up signed up for the full 70-miler in southwestern Pennsylvania one week later." Yes, by the pre-race meeting Friday night, my name had been transferred to the main roster. After a red-eye flight in which I did not sleep at all, I was delirious enough to think that going as far as I could would be a good challenge, even though I didn't think the full 70 miles was likely. After all, for the long efforts I am training for, it's most important that I acquaint myself with continuous forward motion when I feel wrecked. The Laurel Highlands 70.5 would be an important learning opportunity.

Beat makes back-to-back 100s look much easier than they are. I ran Laurel Highlands last year, and I do consider it on par with a 100-mile effort (although, of course, shorter.) But the combination of short but steep climbs and descents on relentless technical, rocky singletrack demands constant focus and persistent effort, and a moderately tight cut-off demands a modicum of speed. The Laurel Highlands 70.5 demands running. Although in my world there's no clear distinction where hiking ends and running begins (and really, I'm fine if you want to call everything I do hiking), there is one big issue I have yet to reconcile — when I am tired, I am not good at running. Not good at all.

Traveling out to the 5:30 a.m. start with Tim meant that we had to wake up at what amounted to 12 a.m. Pacific time. "I'm usually not even in bed at this point," I mumbled as I gulped down coffee with a hint of morning bile. Although the only active thing I'd done since Bryce was my Lake Blanche hike, I thought it was reasonable to believe my legs were still in good shape. I just had to get everything else on board.

By mile two, it was clear that my shattered pieces were being held together with brittle masking tape. Stomach was gurgling, heart was racing, lungs were searing even though I was now comfortably close to sea level again. I thought I should feel this way at mile 52 of the Laurel Highlands, not mile two. I had a strong sense that I was not going to finish this race and made peace with it, which was a cop-out, really, and too soon to hold up my white flag of surrender. But the truth is, I probably would have become despondent otherwise and not even remotely enjoyed the remaining miles in front of me if I committed to finishing the race no matter what. Of course, I was determined to keep trying, and doing the best I could do, and be mindful of the cut-offs.

Still, I was falling apart. Beat waited for me at the 11-mile aid station, where I arrived a full half hour after I did last year. My dizziness had hit a point where I had to stop and take slow and deliberate steps over the many narrow log bridges for fear I'd topple into streams. There were a few tears in my eyes and my lungs were filled with gunk. "I'm so tired," I gasped. "I'm just ... so tired."

It needs to be noted that Beat ran and struggled in the Bryce 100 last week as well. But he is the model of determined recovery, and he looked fine and was moving well. He said he would stick with me and I begged him not to. "If you run with me, you're hurting your chances of finishing," I warned. "I am okay at slogging when I'm tired, but running — running is hard for me when I'm fresh. This is just, this is ... (toe slams into boulder) Ugh."

I thought I was beginning to improve, but it took Beat all of 30 seconds to leave me in the dust once we agreed that him pacing me wasn't the solution. Still, I was moving okay to stay ahead of the cutoffs, and my legs and feet were fine, and as long as I could keep a few calories coming in, I should be able to continue my experiments with persistent forward motion.

At the mile 33 aid station, I met a friend of Tim's who was surprised to see me. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought I saw you were running the 50K."

"I bumped up," I said. "Huge mistake; I can't say it's going particularly well."

"Well, you're doing alright," he assured me. "You're committed now."

I had a good run to mile 39, passed about 12 fellow struggling back-of-packers, picked up some minutes in my cut-off buffer, and convinced myself the worst was over. I asked the aid station volunteer about the timing and she informed me that I had three hours to run the next 7 miles. "Even at slog pace that's doable," I thought with a smile. And I wasn't even slogging anymore; I was almost running. This was great! I was recovering on my feet. I was learning!

And then, as they say, the wheels fell off. I completely lost control of my stomach, and low-level nausea swung to high-level nausea. I was probably bonking. I'd neglected to keep eating when, as I did at Bryce, I realized that I felt better when my stomach was empty. But with so little in my stomach now, it was my GI tract that rebelled. Within a mile of feeling like I'd finally crawled out of my hole, I took my first frantic trip into the woods.

Oh, delirium. It was late afternoon now, and long shadows spread across a bright carpet of ferns. The muddy trail pinched through dark corridors between house-sized boulders, lined in moss. "It's so beautiful," I thought, as though that realization just came to me. For forty miles of the Laurel Highlands, I'd been so intensely focused on maintaining movement that I'd largely ignored the whole reason I enjoy long-distance efforts, and why I'm even trying to increase my distance range — I love to move through the world, and look around. My strength was so diminished that I was stumbling over rocks even when walking slowly; looking up and appreciating my surroundings was really all I had left. I took another trip into the woods, during which I calculated the minutes I had until cut-off divided by my current pace. I pondered how much I was going to fight for it once I got out of the woods. I admit I did not have much fight in me.

The sweeper and a couple of the runners he was herding must have passed while I took my third trip behind the trees. Later, I would be scolded for getting off the trail, but honestly, doing what I needed to do in plain sight would have benefited nobody. The clock ticked close to 7:30 and I thought I was fairly close to the aid station. I could hear the mosquito hum of motorcycles close by. I imagined bursting into a run for one final rage against the cutoff, but my legs were so wobbly that my daydream only ended in me on the ground and bleeding after smashing my head against a rock. Bad runners should not try to run technical trails when feeling so bad, I reasoned. If my slog couldn't get me there before 7:30, then that was okay, I reasoned.

It didn't. I crossed one of the few streets that bisects the LHHT at 7:36 and crawled up the hill to mile 46.5. Five volunteers had the aid station already dismantled and were packing up trucks. They were surprised to see me. The sweeper passed through 15 minutes earlier and said no one was left on the trail, so they got ready to go. Ten minutes later, and they would have been gone. I wondered what I would have done if I arrived and no one was there. "I probably would have had no choice but to call Tim to inform him where I was, and continue on the course to the next aid station," I thought. I was pretty low on water, but I likely would be okay to travel the next 10 miles in the evening with what I had. I could drink from streams if I was desperate — I even carried a few iodine tablets with me because I am a prepper like that. The 46-mile dropbag had my good headlight, but I carried a spare. The dropbag also had food and warm clothing, which I also was not carrying much of — but I wasn't eating anyway, and perhaps a bit of chill would motivate me to move faster. Part of me wished that I arrived after the volunteers left, so I would have chance to try what probably would have proven to be an incredible challenge (and likely futile, since I'd probably just be cut off at mile 57.) And part of me, probably a larger part, was incredibly relieved. I leaned forward against a tree and fought an urge to vomit. Rick called and told me he'd come back to pick me up.

He took me to the finish, where I chocked down a small bowl of vegetarian chili before crawling into my rental car and passing out cold, for three hours. I managed to miss Beat's finish just a few minutes before midnight, where he loped in strong as ever after shaving more than two hours off his 2012 time. He's amazing, honestly. I don't even understand how he does it. I try to understand, and then I convince myself I understand, but I don't.

Do I regret traveling to Pennsylvania? Not in the least. We had a great weekend with Tim and Loreen, and spent so much time talking about Iditarod Trail adventures that I was nicely distracted from my physical blahs. Do I regret signing up for the 70.5 mile race? Maybe a little. I don't think I did any damage beyond possibly prolonging a minor illness, but I admit I'm disappointed. Although I will never subscribe to that "finish at all costs" mentality that drives some runners, I concede that DNFs kinda suck. If I had only just stuck with the 50K, I could have logged a tough finish without the meltdown — but then again, if I had only attempted the 50K, I wouldn't have experienced the thought process, decision making, and coping I went through during a meltdown.

Valuable lessons, indeed.