“Sometimes we do hard things,” I wrote on the MTA Facebook page as a way to announce the completion of my first 100K recently.
It was a hard day for sure, just under 15 ½ hours, well off my A goal at the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. But it was good enough to finish 38th overall out of 121, many of whom did not finish the race.
For me, the race was about the finish — and just getting to the start line. Crossing the finish line was the culmination of more than a year of training, with more ups and downs than UROC (11,000 feet of elevation gain and an equal amount of descent).
One year ago, I underwent emergency abdominal surgery four days before UROC, which obviously scrapped those plans. I texted race director Francesca Conte from my hospital bed, explaining the situation and without hesitation, she allowed me to defer my entry to 2019.
With my quest and clock set back a year, I focused my immediate goals on getting healthy enough to leave the hospital. (Surgeon estimated four to six days, I was out in three and a half.) Shorter- and longer-term goals were first to regain my health and strength, and then to build back up to marathon shape for the Chicago Marathon in five months, followed by the Chattanooga 50-miler about eight weeks later.
I’ve already detailed my journey on my RunSpirited page.
In the past year, I’ve learned a lot about myself. And I’ve been motivated by the Marathon Training Academy (MTA) community. The inspiration has taken many forms, from simple Facebook likes on my updates to reading the success stories of others to customized training plans by my MTA coaches.
Coach Angie Spencer guided me through the initial recovery phase from surgery through Chicago and Chattanooga. I could not have achieved my third-fastest marathon time at Chicago without her guidance. After Chattanooga, it was time for a change and Angie suggested Coach Steven Waldon would be a good fit for me and my goals. Up first: UROC.
Before the race
The morning of the race, I met up with Emily Eiland and Tina Vaziri-Leasor, who are also MTA members. They were both doing their first 50Ks.
We had a few minutes before the start to share our stories, wish each other good luck and spread the MTA love. Meeting up with MTA members has been a fairly common theme at races. I had a great time at an MTA meetup the day before the Boston Marathon this year. . I have also met other MTAers at the Honolulu Marathon, North Face Endurance Challenge Series in Wisconsin and the Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon.
While there is no shortage of running “friends” who I have met via social media and at races, the MTA community is different. We cheer each other. We support each other. We offer helpful advice.
And after bidding my MTA sisters Emily and Tina farewell, it was time to line up for my first 100K.
62 miles, dozens of questions
There was a chill in the air as the clock ticked closer to the 6 a.m. start time. As my head swirled with excitement, it also buzzed with questions related to the rainy forecast.
How frequently would it rain today? How strong would the storms be? Did I have enough extra gear in my UltrAspire vest to keep warm? Would my extra shirt, socks and rain jacket stay dry so that I could change later if need be?
I did not stay cool for long. As we scurried down a grassy section toward a mostly gravel road, my core temperature warmed up. In a few hours it would feel warm under the bright sun. Thankfully, when the rains came — five or six times intermittently — it was more of a relief than burden. And I never tapped into my backup gear but it was reassuring to have with me.
The UROC course had been re-routed from a point-to-point to a double loop out-and-back due to some winter-related issues on some parts of the trail. To start, we headed west to about Mile 16, then hit a turnaround point and returned to the start.
At the Mile 4.7 aid station, a volunteer called out when I left that “this is the most beautiful section of trail” that we would see. He was absolutely correct. I shared part of this journey with another runner and we both agreed that the views were outstanding.
Since this was an out-and-back, the lead 100K runners were coming back toward us. Based on my count, I was in about 50th place when I hit the 16-mile turnaround point. At that station, the first since Mile 4.7, I took in some calories, mostly from gluten-free tortillas and peanut butter that a helpful volunteer whipped together quickly.
I headed back on the trail toward the start-finish area. After crossing the roughly halfway point, Mile 32ish, I would head out to the second half of the course, another out-and-back.
Rocks in a hard place
This time 100K runners went in a north-east direction, doing the 50K course. I headed down a hill, made a turn and started navigating around a small pond when I saw Emily coming toward me. She was closing in on her finish — well ahead of the goal time she had mentioned earlier in the day.
It was inspiring to see Emily running so strong and so happy. Little did I know that she was probably so happy because she was done with an incredibly tough section of the course.
Soon after seeing her and other 50Kers heading to the finish, I left the trail and hit roads for a few miles. UROC is 90 percent single-track, with a few short sections of roads to connect trails.
At this point, the rains were fairly heavy, probably the heaviest they would be all day. But that wasn’t the most challenging part.
Rocks. Sharp rocks. Large rocks. Jagged rocks. Loose rocks. Slippery rocks.
They didn’t make up the entire second half of the 100K. But it seemed like it.
Originally my goal was a sub-13 hour finish. Throughout much of the first section, I was holding that pace. As the terrain became more challenging, I began power hiking more. And my pace slowed. And my disdain for the rocks grew.
“I just want to run,” I told myself. “I don’t want to be walking. Why did I do this? I like races where I can run and not have to stop and walk.”
The rocks were relentless. I found myself wishing to be back on the road. Not because it was a few miles from the finish but because it was runnable.
In this section, as in many ultra races, runners leapfrog each other. I would pass a runner at one point then he or she would regain momentum and would eventually pass me. Same for me as I stepped off the trail for some runners, who I would catch up to later.
As I looped back toward the finish line, still with about 15 miles to go, I recalculated my goal time. Who I am kidding? I did that basically every mile after the halfway point.
I knew that UROC would give out a special buckle for all of those finishing in under 15 hours. All other finishers would get a different buckle. A sub-15 was totally doable for me.
Until it wasn’t.
I was on pace for that finish until around Mile 50 or so, when there was significant climbing through Mile 57. The last mile of which was the steepest and hardest climb of the race.
As my pace receded, my quest for the special buckle fell out of reach. Instead, I reached for something else. I grasped for the memories from one year ago.
That previous year I could not run nor power hike. My walking was not through the mountains of Virginia. It was strapped to an IV cart, through the corridors of the fifth-floor of the hospital. I didn’t pause at aid stations for nutrition; I paused at the nurses aid station, asking for my delicacy of the time, ice chips.
I also paused at the glass windows overlooking the nearby highways, neighborhoods and businesses. I would have given anything to be outside in those days. Walking, running, crawling in the fresh air. It didn’t matter.
But now I was back. Back on the trails, as miserable as the rock-laden trails were, I was back. As I concluded in a blog post written in my hospital room a year ago,
“We run because we know that someday we won’t be able to. That day has not come for me yet.”
And so, as I emerged from that brutal climb back to the roads, I ran. Mother Nature had unleashed one more strong rainfall. The roads were hillier than I imagined. Still I ran. Cars and trucks zoomed by. Still I ran.
I knew I wasn’t going to hit the 15-hour mark. I reset my goal to beating 15 ½ hours. As I began to summit the final uphill grassy section to the finish, I could see the timer at 15:29 something. I pushed through, crossing the timing at and becoming a 100K finisher.
Throughout the day, but especially during those final miles, my thoughts flashed back to the previous 12 months.
I am thankful for my family who still doesn’t understand this crazy ass passion I have. But my wife and sons are supportive as I redefine what is possible for myself.
I am thankful for other family members, friends — real and virtual — and others who reached out with well-wishes for me a year ago.
I am thankful for coaches Angie and Steven who escorted me on this epic journey. Without their training plans, support and encouragement, I never would have been able to get to the start line much less finish UROC.
And, last but not least, thanks to my MTA family for your well-wishes, support and kudos. It’s an honor to be part of this family.
Your story and journey are incredible and inspiring. Congrats on slogging through it and finishing strong. I look forward to seeing you again, hopefully soon
Thank you, Mitch. It was a pleasure seeing you at Boston again. Best wishes to you on your running journey, until we meet up again.