In the zone at mile 80.
If anyone knew what to do, it would be Lisa. For the past two years, Lisa Smith-Batchen has mentored me in my running endeavors. We have become friends. She is an extraordinary, world-class endurance athlete and ultrarunner. 9-time finisher of the Badwater Ultramarathon (with two first place finishes) and winner of the Marathon des Sables in 1999, Lisa has competed in dozens of ultramarathons all over the world, and has even completed the Badwater double crossing. This past summer, she ran 50 miles in 50 states in 62 days. If anyone knew how to handle a little knee pain, it would be Lisa.
I called her up and her cheerful voice came on the line.
"Hey kiddo," she said. "How's it going?"
"Well, not too good Lisa. I'm at 40 miles and I've got this pain in my knee. I'm not doing a whole lot of running. I'm worried that if I continue at this pace, I won't be able to finish in time."
"Where on the knee is the pain?"
"It's like right in there. It feels like there's a little popping."
"Maybe the bone is out of alignment."
"I'm not going to DNF. I will walk the rest of the 30 hours if I have to," I exclaimed defensively
"Of course. I understand. Look, do you have Tylenol," she asked.
"I think so."
"Take three or four Tylenol. This summer when I did Run Hope, I got this really sharp knee pain and I thought I was finished. I took some Tylenol and the pain went away. I was able to keep running and we took care of the knee. Take three or four Tylenol. Take them with food and then see how you feel."
"Keep it up, kiddo. You are at 40 miles already. You are at that point where things are going to start to hurt. Just keep moving. Run what you can. If it hurts less to run the uphills, then run the uphills. You can zig-zag on the trail so your weight doesn't come down directly on your knee."
"Thank you, Lisa."
Ice bath to heal my legs. This recovery method was taught to me by Lisa Smith-Batchen. It works.
We hung up. It was nice to just hear her friendly voice. I did what she told me: at the next aid station, I popped four Tylenol and headed out once again on the trail. I could still feel the pain in my knee. I would run some, and the pain would swell, and then I would stop and power-walk. Run, then walk, then run some more. On and on it went.
By mile 50, I was starting to get a bigger appetite. Before the race, I had assembled and cut up several peanut and apple butter sandwiches on flaxseed bread. I downed a quarter of sandwich every now and then, but for the most part, I stuck to gels and Heed to get my calories. At one aid station, a woman cut up some avocado for me after I told her I was vegan. Each time I went by that particular aid station, she would have avocado ready for me, saying, "Here you go, Vegan Boy!" I downed the delicious, rich-sweet flesh of the fruit and continued down the trail.
Eventually, I heard a man's voice on the trail that sounded so familiar. I knew I had heard it before, but I couldn't place where. Then, I saw him. Just ahead of me. A short, small-framed man with gray hair and thick mustache.
"Bob Becker, is that you," I called out.
He turned around. "Yes it is!"
I had talked to Bob on the phone a few weeks earlier. Bob is a fixture in the ultrarunning world. Director of the Keys 100 Ultramarathon in Florida, he is a tough-as-nails guy with an impressive resume of ultra feats. Bob helped me out a while back on a paper I was writing for law school. I was interviewing race directors about how to put on an ultramarathon for my sports law class. My topic: the legal aspects of putting on an ultra trail race. Bob was gracious enough to share his wisdom.
"You don't remember me, but you helped me out a while back with my sports law paper," I began.
"Of course I remember you!"
We ran together for quite a bit, chit-chatting about this and that. Sometimes he would run a bit ahead of me and I would fall behind, only to pass him up a little farther down the trail. Back and forth we went, from aid station to aid station, swapping friendly encouragements as we passed. It was nice. And I enjoyed his company very much.
Before long, I noticed that the pain in my knee had subsided. It was completely gone! The Tylenol had worked its magic. I could run again! Sure, my quads were burning and my feet were aching, but that kind of pain was tolerable, expected. This renewed liberation lightened my spirits. I felt like I was invincible, on top of the world. I took off at a steady pace.
On the trail, I bumped into Shannon Farrar-Griefer. Shannon is an ultrarunner out of California. She is also the founder and owner of Moeben sportswear line. I first met Shannon in 2010, when I first attempted Rocky Raccoon 100 (I DNF'd that year at mile 66). I was running at night and I tripped on a root and fell. She helped me to my feet and asked me if I was okay. I ran with her for a bit, bitching about the falls I was taking. "Don't worry, I've had my share of falls, too," she assured me. It wasn't until after the race that I realized Shannon was quite a figure in thee ultrarunning community. Mother of three, she has completed Badwater five times and was the first woman to complete the Badwater double. Shannon was here for her for her sixth Rocky Raccoon 100 finish. When we saw each other on the trail, we hugged and gave each other words of encouragement as we each ran towards our respective fates on the course.
The sun had already set. When I came in for my third loop (mile 60), I met up with Joe Barber. Joe had agreed to pace me from mile 60 to 100. He is from San Antonio, Texas, and I first met him while training for Cactus Rose 100 in 2010. Joe was set to run Cactus, but he pulled out just before the race because he was busy getting ready for his wedding! He works as a fitness trainer for the U.S. Army and has raced marathons and triathlons for over seven years. Joe was ready to run by the time I got into the aid station.
At first it was all fun and games. We talked and joked a lot as we ran into the night. He asked me questions about my training. I tried to respond briefly. It became increasingly difficult to concentrate on the trail and hold a conversation at the same time. Eventually, I got so fatigued, all I could do was listen to him talk. Gradually, my run devolved into a slow and tiresome walk. The night was in full bloom, and my spirits were depleted. I knew that this fourth loop was going to be the most psychologically taxing. Lisa had told me beforehand not to think that way.
"If you think it's going to be your worst loop, then you can bet it is going to live up to your expectations. Don't think that way. Make it your best loop," she urged.
I tried to stay optimistic, but no matter how much I told myself I wasn't tired, I could feel exhaustion taking over. The soreness in my legs creeped into my brain. Slowly, the pain trickled into my consciousness, invading my thoughts and suffocating my optimism. I wanted to quit. Joe noticed my dangerous silence and he at once snapped me out of it.
"We need to keep running," he told me. "I want you to do four minutes of running and one minute of walking," he instructed.
"Okay," I said.
We took off running. It was a slow and painful run. It took every ounce of effort to put one foot in front of the other. My quads were screaming. My calf muscles were begging for mercy. Keep running. One more minute. Thirty more seconds. Then, we walked.
"Four more minutes. Come on! Four more minutes," he called out.
I obliged. The four minutes seemed to go on for an eternity. Then I walked for the shortest minute of my life. I relished every second of that minute of walking, but before long it was time to run again.
"Four more minutes. Come on! Four minutes, man!"
I began to thoroughly abhor Mr. Joe Barber. The man obviously didn't understand the pain I was in.
"Come on, dude! Two more minutes of running!"
The man is trying to kill me. That much is obvious, I thought.
He made me run up hills and down, flats and root-covered sections. The routine of 4-1-4-1 was relentless. Never-ending. Run. Then walk. Then run some more. I felt trapped in the ruthlessness of it all. On and on it went, all night long, an endless string of run/walk alternations. Throughout the whole ordeal, I hardly spoke a word.
At the aid station at mile 70, I noticed a small stinging sensation on the side of my left foot. I sat down in one of the chairs and took off my trail shoe. When I pulled the sock down, I noticed a big red blister on the side of my heel.
"Hey Joe, look at this."
"We have to pop it," he said.
"Why?" I didn't want to pop it. I felt like any pain in my feet I could deal with.
"We have to pop it because if we don't it might pop in the shoe and make a big mess," he explained. "Better to pop it now and get it out of the way."
He got a safety pin from the volunteers at the aid station and pricked away. A brilliant little streak of pus fluid jet-sprayed out of the blister. I laughed, unable to contain myself. It was so absurd. Only in a sport this wacky could I induce this man, a total stranger, really, to squat down over my stinky feet in the middle of the night to pop an ugly blister on my foot. I think he recognized the ridiculousness of the situation, too, because he started laughing as well. He wiped the skin area with a baby wipe and I put my shoes back on.
Before long, we were back on our run/walk schedule.
As we came in for our fourth loop (mile 80), I was thoroughly discouraged. My feet were killing me, but that wasn't too big of a deal. What sucked the most was that I was just so psychologically down in the dumps. I couldn't muster up any optimism. I needed some relief. Anything to pick me up out of this dull funk. So, I did something kind of risky.
"Hand me my bag," I told Clarissa
She brought it over and I reached down for my old Asics shoes.
"My feet are hurting in this trail shoes I'm wearing. These old Asics are comfortable. I'm gonna change into them," I explained.
As I picked up the beat-up pair of old Asics (a road running shoe), I noticed a pair of fresh socks.
"What the hell. Might as well change socks, too. These DryMax socks I'm wearing aren't really holding up too well anyway. They are all wet."
The pair I was putting on was brand new. They were folded neatly in their packaging. Joe and Clarissa looked on as I fumbled with the sock.
"You've never worn those socks before," he asked.
"No, actually. I haven't. To tell you the truth, I've never even tried this brand before."
The socks I was referring to were Injinji Toesocks. I picked them up at the running store a few days before the race and had never used toesocks before.
"Is this a bad idea," I asked Joe.
"Well, maybe. You don't know if the socks will work for you."
"What's the worst that can happen," I asked.
"Worst case scenario, the sock could keep slipping under your heel and -"
"Look," I interrupted him. "Worst case scenario, these socks cause my feet to hurt more. My feet already hurt. What's a little more pain, right? No matter what, I'm finishing this race. Trust me, I am not going to stop just because my feet hurt."
We set off on our final loop. By this point my Garmin watch had died, so I had no idea how long it was from one aid station to the next. That's a hard thing to handle when you are living from aid station to aid station. Eventually, your thinking becomes very single-track: where is that stupid aid station already!
By mile 90, I was so tired that I was nearly falling asleep on the trail. Joe was falling asleep, too. He was swerving off trail like a drunk driver until he would smack into a tree. On and on it went. When the sun came up, I felt so disconcerted. The thing that brought me to was the sight of that beautiful lake, the steam rising off it like a eerie specter. As we came to the lake, the sun was just rising over it, causing me to squint in the brilliance of the sunlight. I had made it through the night. I knew the end was near. But, the task at hand was far from finished.
With Clarissa. Immediately after crossing the finish line.
At mile 96, he left me. He said he had to get home for a Super Bowl party that he and his wife were throwing. Joe, my pacer, had to leave. I felt kind of devastated. Abandoned. Would I be able to make it on my own? I had serious doubts. Four miles seemed like an eternity. I looked around. There was no sign of any other runner. I didn't know what happened to Dave, Lee, Steven, Bob, or Shannon. I took off from the aid station, that last, final aid station. I felt alone. Just four more miles.
I called Lisa.
"Savor it," she told me. "Use this time to reflect on everything you have accomplished and savor this final, miserable process."
Before long, four miles became three. Three miles became two.
My phone rang. It was Dave Carder.
"Did you finish," came his happy voice.
"I'm at mile 98," I told him.
"Wow! Keep moving," he exclaimed. Dave told me he dropped from the race. I was saddened by this. I eventually found out that Steven, Lee, and Shannon had dropped from the race as well. I want nothing more than for my friends to have a successful race. But, these ultra runs are not always about finishing. The end is not the most important goal in ultrarunning. The journey is what matters most. Each of my friends had embarked on their own special journey. Mine was not over. Not yet. Keep moving. I started to run.
Each step was kind of miserable, but I could practically smell the finish line. I wound and twisted my way through the trail in the woods. The sun beat down on my brow, and I felt a glorious rush of excitement. My legs kicked up faster. Soon, I was running at what felt like full speed towards the end. The trees whipped past me. The pine-needle covered ground flowed beneath my feet. I could hear commotion in the distance. Voices. As I rounded the corner, I saw it. The finish. Straight ahead of me. About a hundred feet away. I mustered what strength I had left and I took off. The pain in my legs gave way to a kind of bliss. There was Clarissa. She was cheering me on. There were the race directors. They were holding the buckle. My buckle. With fury, pain, pride, happiness, humility, grace, and a thoroughly grateful heart, I crossed that finish line.
Me crossing the finish line.
For Part 1 of this race report, click here. For Part 2, click here.