Friday, 22 June 2012

A time to appreciate

I have, of course, spent many hours over the past few years considering what motivates me to run long. This is a necessary process, I think, for anyone facing the realities of ageing and slowing down.
It was, after all, 23 years ago that I ran my first Bob Graham round with 3 cigarette breaks and almost no knowledge of suitable running food.  In those intervening years I have had the fabulous fortune to enjoy many mostly injury free running years and, through a combination of luck, determination and being prepared to fail, to experience some wonderful successes. 

One of the things I did admit to myself was that I am a competitive animal. My brother and those around me will testify that I can turn almost anything into competition – who can eat their cereal quickest anyone! To be near the front of a race gives me a kick; to challenge a record likewise.
But then there is what running long represents; simplicity and an extended focus on a single goal. In our fractured daily lives we flit from this to that, juggling priorities and often passing the time with largely superficial experiences and conversations. Running 100 miles gives us plenty of time with ourselves and, if we are lucky enough to have the company of a pacer, with another person who shares at least the excitement of being out in the wilds at odd hours of the day. The shared adventure sets the scene for a more meaningful dialogue about ambition, motivation, faith in others and what is important.
So I realised that a previous resolution to quit running 100 mile events was not going to stand. Well, I started one last year and failed at mile 64 so even if I never ran another, at least finishing what I started seemed like the minimum courtesy. In fact some half decent training was a minimum courtesy; in 2011 I was undertrained and faking endurance. I can’t really understand why no-one told me or why it took me so long to figure it out but the reality was that I had run the 50 mile distance or more only about once or twice per year for the past 3 years. Back in the day I was probably covering that sort of distance once per month on average. Well Duh – it’s going to make a difference right!

So, enough of the thinking and on with the doing. You have read this far so thank-you and I will assume that you have followed the plan for the year so far. In summary it goes like this. A great run at Ray Miller 50 mile in late Feb, a new course record on the 68 mile Backbone trail in March, a tough run at the Sonoma 50 in Mid April and a tough run at Fellsman in late April. In both the latter races I took longer than hoped but felt strong through to the finish.
What I realised relatively early on was that races and the hard run at Backbone were taking more from me than they were giving. This was not always the case.  In my younger days I would race, recover within days and be back to the training. The race pace just added an edge that took my fitness to the next level. Now, a 50 mile race knocks me out for at least 2-3 weeks meaning that the mileage actually suffers rather than being boosted by the race miles. So, going into San Diego, I knew it would not be a romp but I did hope to feel strong provided I started steady. 

A little about the race; firstly, it’s a misnomer. Downtown San Diego is 45 miles away and the race actually takes place in the hills around Laguna – it is a wonderful area mixing Alpine terrain of upland meadows and pine/granite scenery at around 6000ft elevation with dramatic views from the main ridge 5000ft down into the Anza Borrego desert.   A god chunk of the course runs along the Pacific Crest Trail and it almost all single track trail. A view of the course profile leads many to think this is an easy 100 and that is probably what I thought last year but rocky trail, enough ascent to feel and the combination of a little elevation, high daytime temperatures and  very cold night time temperatures make this an event with a bit of a sting. Some years the finish rate has only been around 60%.
Compared to last year, the day dawned balmy, no early morning frost and comfortable to run in a short sleeved top. Having slept in a cosy cabin rather than a frigid tent I felt good and ready to run. Deliberately siting myself in the middle of the pack I thought I would escape any pressure to be up front but the powers of the internet mean that rankings are widely available and I had to deal with 2-3 incidents in the first few miles where I would try to let people pass me but they would say “oh no, I shouldn’t be in front of you” – well, maybe that was then and this is now.
Much of the course is stunningly pretty, especially the early miles in pine scented meadows with far reaching and lush views. Actually the course is a series of loops so whilst on one hand you feel you are covering enormous distances, on the other you continually see reference points such as the golfball radar installation on the ridge. The first 24 miles were great, totally steady and set me up nicely for the descent into Noble Canyon – this is a long long long 7 miles down into a much drier area and I ran dry a good mile out from the aid station but it didn’t seem to do any damage and, refreshed by the ice bath sponge, with some food in me and 2 iced water bottles I was quickly onto the challenging little 50 mile loop. Last year this is where I started to swoon – it’s about noon by this time and the section has no shade. This year, though, I was passing a few people who looked exactly like I felt last year. After the loop it’s a long, long 8 mile mostly up section and it was at the end of this in 2011 that I first wanted to quit. What a difference, this time I ran in on my toes, feeling fresh and raring to go; still eating well and ready to chew up the miles.   
Now for some Pacific Crest Trail time – it is a pretty spectacular section, never more than ½ mile from the highway but it’s out of sight to the West and as you run along the benched trail just off the main ridgeline you look East, down around 5000ft to the Anza Borrego desert.  All the way through to mile 64 I was steady and, by this time, despite the slower start, I was around 60 minutes up on the time from last year. Somewhere between 64 and 72, though, it got dark, a lot cooler and the effect of eating less started to kick in. By the time I arrived at Sweetwater Aid Station I was chilled, sore and definitely slower. With Lynn’s help I put on long sleeve and windproof, hat, buff and gloves and with a fresh and cheery Krissy to pace me I set off for the climb back to the main ridge. Within 10 minutes I pulled over to add leggings to the equation – that was all the clothing I had and it still was not enough.  By now I was being passed a little but didn’t really care and thoughts of quitting started to crowd in. Back at Sunrise Aid station (fortunately for me, sunrise was still several hours away) I added a second long sleeve top, a second hat, a large strong coffee and 2 mugs of potato bisque to the equation – to good effect – we picked up the pace and for around 5 miles it was great until the calorieometer hit zero again. That seemed to be the pattern for the next few – into the aid station, get some soup or similar, pick up a little then fizzle out. 

Now this is work! - climbing out of Noble

Poor Krissy, she urged me to try a gel as I hit rock bottom again and had to endure 5 minutes of empty retching as my stomach voted loudly its displeasure at more gel. The next couple of miles on a completely empty tank were pitiful but then, as the sun came up and warmth returned, we reached an aid station less than 10 miles from home and a bacon butty was miraculously offered and consumed.
In short, the final 28 miles were slow and I was passed by many people. At the time it felt intense but my pacer was incredibly patient and we did see the stars, a fox and a glorious sunrise. There is something magical about being out there in the very early dawn and lots of memories of past times spent in Scotland and elsewhere in the quiet still of morning flooded my mind.
Well, as you know the pleasure of finishing lasts many times longer than the discomfort that seems so all encompassing at the time. It took me almost 26 ½ hours but wearing the sweatshirt with pride makes it all worthwhile and, with the benefit of poor short term memory for some of the finer details, the weekend is already a rosy memory. It’s great to have notched up my first 100 mile finish since 2008, whatever the finish time.
...and that leads me on nicely to conclusions and thinking ahead to the future. Is this is good point to retire from 100’s? (again!). Well, my conclusions are:
  • Reading my articles is probably almost as much of an endurance challenge for you as running the races is for me. Thank you again for sticking with it!
  • My body has changed and I expect that is permanent; a consequence of age and 23 years of running long. If I were to race again, the build up needs to build me up and that means long training runs but not hard races. Interestingly, my good buddy Roch Horton ran no longer than 31 miles all year in his build up and did one 50k race. He posted a great 22 hour time.
  • I am not as tough as I used to be or thought I was. Without my pacer and crew I would probably still have quit when I was cold and struggling to warm up. Not wanting to risk needing some sort of emergency assistance I would have found the reason to drop
So, the conclusion is that I need to either use this opportunity of completing the course to retire gracefully from 100 milers which would be entirely reasonable after all these years OR I need to find a race so tough that time is almost incidental. So outlandish that it’s not putting me on the edge of deciding whether to continue or quit but it casts me adrift in a sea so large I have no reference point even against which to judge that decision; a race where the finish is as elusive as walking on the moon. 

Does such an event exist? Maybe!

Can I get an entry? Let’s  see!

Am I man enough? I will think on that!  

With many thanks to Glenn Tachiyama for the photographs.  


Anonymous said...

Well done on your recent victory Mark. I don't know you but it didn't stop me feeling for you! Many's the time, after a hard trek or bike ride in steep, rugged terrain in the heat, that we think - never again. This is absolutely the last time.
Give it a few hours and it's more a case of, 'Well, that was pretty good.'
I can't envisage running 100 miles though - good on you!

Mike said...

Well, after 4 years of ultra running, all what you have desribed happens to me on a 50 miler but ... I still have aspirations to meet, mountains to conquer and challenges to face off and reading this has given me a whole new impetus. Congrats on yet another 100!, don`t forget your offer of help for my first Fellsman next year :-)

Morgan said...


Only just caught up with your blog.

I'm with you on the ageing issue. I've only raced twice this year. 110 kms at Ultra Trail Serra de Tramuntana in Mallorca and about the same at UTMB.

I had a decent run at UTMB, 800+ places gained through the race. Running in the second half. It's good not to be too tired from racing.

Sounds like Hardrock might be on your mind again. Or how about this?


Woah The News said...

I know you haven't posted in a while, but I am hoping you still check posts / comments. Do you do much nighttime running? I want to start trail running at night because of the dark nights, but I haven't got a clue where to start. I have been looking at this head torch but don't know too much about it.