The impact was subtle. Gentle heel strike on a small bend in the trail, moving upward toward the road around a small cadre of spectators. Whilst the runner exited the trail amidst the clapping and cheering, the ground stirred. As chance, luck, fate or irony would have it, my race was to end a mere 30 seconds later. 13.5 miles in to a 100 mile run that I had trained 10 months for, and spent the previous 2 weeks in Colorado acclimatizing to the thin air.
Though I completed the Leadville Trail 100 last year, my good friends Joe Bafaro and Jim Hughes did not. When you train that long and commit yourself to a goal that large, leaving unfinished business is never an option. So I was determined to go back with them, this time with the hopes of breaking 25 hours; a benchmark time for Leadville.
Training this year was much different than 2015. Coming off a heel stress fracture in 2014 and one of the worst winters in Massachusetts’ recorded history, I didn’t run until 5 months before the August race. All went very well in training and in the 2015 race, other than the fact that the ultimate lack of training caught up with me at mile 70 and I was forced to walk almost the last 20 miles.
After recovering from the 2015 race, I started training in November 2015 with the goals for 2016 being to run a Boston Qualifying marathon, break 25 hours in Leadville and have the opportunity to register for the 2017 Western States lottery.
By early December it seemed as though there was one injury after another. My left lower leg was the 1st concern, especially as that was the precursor to my heel fracture the year and a half before. After taking it easy for almost 2 weeks, my left hamstring decided it wasn’t going to cooperate and limited my ability to walk comfortably, let alone run. After recovering from that and putting together a solid 2 weeks of training in, my left hamstring almost tore while on a treadmill speed workout and left me reeling… and only 8 weeks before the marathon. With a lot of treatment from Mike Roberts (dry needling, graston, cupping, taping) and an improved strength and conditioning program, I was able to resume training with about 6 weeks to go before the marathon. Heading into the Rock and Roll Marathon in New Orleans in late February, the longest run since November was a mere 9 miles. Despite this, both Joe and I ran Boston qualifying times, and Joe ran to a huge personal best and 1st BQ! My wife also set a personal best in the half marathon and overall it was a great trip.
|Post Rock 'n' Roll Marathon|
After returning to Massachusetts and Ultra training, things continued to be up and down. My right hamstring, right lower leg, left hamstring, right foot and right knee had all acted up at some point, and in some instances (right leg and foot in particular), it felt as though I had a broken bone. I was surely convinced multiple times that that I was done running for the season. The worst day was that of the Bear Mountain North Face 50 miler. Jim was dealing with his own hamstring issues and bailed on the race. Joe, who is bulletproof, was good to go and ended up being the lone one of us to run that most challenging of races. I had done very well the week before on a trail 16 miler, and just 2 weeks before that had run 32 miles, from Whitehall reservoir in Hopkinton, to the Boston marathon starting line and along the Boston Marathon course itself the day before the actual race. There were no issues with any of these runs. For some unknown reason, a day after the 16 mile trail race, my right foot wouldn’t lift up, and then a day later I thought my fibula was broken. The Bear Mountain race was skipped and I thought the racing year was over. Then, a mere 8 days later, it was as if nothing happened.
From there, the training progressed, though the body never felt great. I was taped on my hamstrings and ankles for every long run leading up to Leadville. I had one more transient 8 day right foot “fracture,” where again, I thought my race season was done, and then nothing else major until the race. In all, after the February marathon, the long training runs were: 23 miles, 33 miles, 26 miles, 30 miles, 33.5 miles, 34.5 miles, 25 miles, 38.5 miles, 38 miles, 26 miles and tapering down to Leadville. The longest run took just under 8 hours and 80% of the running was on trails.
The key to breaking 25 hours in Leadville when you are from a low lying state like Massachusetts and not insanely talented, is acclimatization. Though it takes months to truly acclimate to altitudes over 8,000’, your body can become almost 75% acclimatized in just 2 weeks. So, with the blessings of my wife and family, I travelled to Colorado just about 2 weeks before the race. I was able to enjoy Boulder and Copper Mountain, Hike 3 separate 14,000’ peaks (Bierstadt, Evans and Elbert) as well as run the fabled Magnolia Way outside of Boulder (made more popular by Chris Lear’s book “Running With the Buffaloes”). All was not perfect however. More hamstring issues continued, and though I was able to find some great cranial sacral massage therapists and discover what Float tanks are all about, it weighed on my mind to the point where I hoped it wouldn’t interfere with my ability to finish, let alone finish in under 25 hours.
|Pre Leadville, just before 4am|
Leadville race morning was your typical 2 am wake up, but this time Mike was there to tape my hamstrings and ankles and try to dispel some inner concerns about my body holding up for the 100 miles. Most runners need psychologists twice as much as physical therapists. Having finished the year before, there was not the same sense of nerves as in 2015. The start was relatively bland and Jim and I stayed together through the 1st 12.5 miles and the first aid station. I remember saying to Jim around 10 miles in, “nothing given, everything earned.” It was my mantra for the day. At the May Queen aid stop, I filled my bottles and belly, told Jim to go ahead as he left his pre-filled pack in his drop bag, and then started moving. I would catch him in about 20 minutes, or so I thought. Leaving May Queen aid station, there is a great stretch of single track through the woods that climbs up to the Hagerman Road, which starts the climb up Sugarloaf Pass, and over 11,000’. And, my hamstrings were for the most part, not giving me any trouble.
On the very last climb before Hagerman, a section where you typically walk the 30 feet to the road, I recall seeing a spectator, a 50ish year old man, step down from the road surveying the trail as if he lost something. It registered as odd, but nothing more. Within seconds, someone was 2 steps ahead of me yelling “ouch” and a second later I was swarmed by bees and stung about 5 times. 1 little bugger was latched on to the inside of my right lower leg above my knee and wouldn’t let go. 1 second later, the bees were off and I was standing on Hagerman pass road in shock. One of the race organizers, Abby Long (from Boylston, MA!), happened to be standing there with a concerned look on her face. I told her I was stung by bees (I didn’t even know bee’s lived over 10,000’) and that I didn’t have my epi pen. And then the regrettable decision process started. I decided I would keep going, but if something didn’t feel right, then I would turn around. I spent the next mile trying to convince myself that Colorado bees were somehow different from Massachusetts bees. Maybe the venom here won’t affect me. Maybe Colorado bees are “stoner bees” and therefore wouldn’t do something like end my race. Yes, those are the actual quotes from my brain…and I’m not proud. After a mile of running, Hagerman road takes a hairpin turn left, starting the switchback climb to the top of Sugarloaf. After about 30 steps I stopped, looked down and to my left and realized, FINALLY, that should something bad happen, I was going to be in serious trouble (next to a short cliff essentially). After 30 seconds of indecision, I turned around and headed back with the singular thought, “I don’t want to die.” As I’m running back against all the runners who were once behind me, fear keeping me moving at a good clip, people kept asking if I was OK and wondering why I was running the wrong way. After saying “yes, yes, yes,” I quickly realized it was “NO, NO, NO!” My chest started constricting, my head dizzy and panic hastened. I tried asking one of the runners where the trail head was, but could only muster a pathetic attempt at, “where are people standing?” I slowed, and then stopped, wobbling. Scared, not wanting to collapse and die, I put my hands on my knees and looked up. Through blurred eyes I could see Joe, instantly recognizing his stride, and he asked me if I was alright. He helped me down on the side of the road near a couple who were just sitting on a blanket and spectating. Everything was spinning, I was struggling to breathe and panicked. I could hear Joe asking runners passing by if anyone had an epi pen and, of course, no one did. He ran back to get help. After several minutes laying on the ground and thinking only of my wife and kids (more like 15 minutes according to Joe), a car came barreling up Hagerman road with his horn honking. He helped me into the car and I reclined the seat. I remember seeing Joe one last time, and left him to continue on his 100 mile journey with this little nugget of encouragement; “I don’t want to die.” The stranger driving the car pulled a 3 point turn, and on the final turn, I heard sirens. He was banging on his window as the Ambulance started to speed past us, but the driver realized his quarry was already in a car, and he stopped. As I was being put on the stretcher and ambulance, I repeated my new mantra of “I don’t want to die,” replacing my mantra, “nothing given, everything earned.”
I told the paramedic what my blood pressure would be, and was correct; it was 70/30. I received the epinephrine and waited. Eyes closed, feeling the turns and bumps of the ambulance, reality started to set in that Leadville was over. Assured that I was going to live and see my wife and kids again, my mind quickly focused to wondering which 100 mile race I would be able to sign up for and when was the ideal time to do it. As irrational as it was, I needed to focus on a goal rather than the situation. I was at least thankful that the sting happened early and I hadn’t really had a chance to beat myself up at all. I was able to talk to my wife on the phone after a short while, and everything mentally started to feel better.
Upon discharge, Pete and Nate, friends who made the trip specifically to pace me from miles 50-90 and who now weren’t going to get their run in, picked me up and took me back to the course to cheer on Jim and Joe. With the reality now set firmly in place, it was a great experience to be able to help Jim and Joe at the aid stations and cheer them on as well as see the course from another perspective. It also made me appreciate even more the difficulty family and friends have in trying to support us in these types of races. Though unbelievably disappointed in not finishing the race, there was a certain amount of pride I felt at knowing I finished the race the year before and seeing for a 2nd time how truly difficult a course it is. With neither Jim nor Joe finishing last year, I don’t think I had truly let myself feel good about the 2015 race, until now.
Mile 60, Nighttime.
Other than a few recent people who didn’t know me and yet feel like they had to offer me their “condolences” and words of understanding, I was surrounding by Jim and Joe’s family and in a fairly good place. I was still on that roller coaster of emotions from, “it is what it is” to “Why me” to “Damn bees!,” but overall, I was thinking more about Joe and Jim than anything else. Both Jim and Joe were in rough shape at mile 50, which is often the norm as you just summited and descended over Hope Pass and had to turn around and do it again. We expected Jim to make it back in 4 hours, and Joe the same, but 30 minutes after Jim. We waited. With much concern as it took longer than expected, we were so relieved to see Mike and Jim come through with about 30 minutes to spare before the cut off. We tried to help as much as we could to get him transitioned quickly and moving on. He was hurting but ready to go.
And then came Joe, a mere 5 minutes later, rejuvenated, smiling, and ready to go without even stopping! We had a few brief words before he took off for the last 40 miles looking about 10 million times better than he did over 4 hours before at mile 50. With Joe looking so good, and Jim leaving as well, we made our way out of the aid station, getting ready to head to the Outward bound aid stop at mile 80. As we made our way back to the road, however, Jim’s brother Joe who was pacing Jim from mile 60-80, came running to get us. Jim was in trouble. As he made his way out of the aid station and started the next climb, he became faint and the fatigue hit him like a sledge hammer. After sitting with him for about 15 more minutes, it was clear that his day was done. The weather earlier was incredibly hot, and while at altitude, someone as strong as Jim would need to consume an amount of fluid that is beyond what most human bodies can handle. And so it was that his race was over, and all of the emotions that came with that decision; months of hard work, and in this case, 2 years of training, travel with and without family and yet a goal unfulfilled. We all left the race, back to Copper Mountain where we were staying and put ourselves to bed, with a milieu of thoughts and feelings to be dealt with another day.
2 AM: Woke up to go to the bathroom and check for update on Joe: made it through to Outward Bound and going strong.
4:30 AM: Another bathroom wake up and another update. Joe made it to May Queen and anticipated finish would be 8:30AM.
7:30 AM: We all set off back to Leadville to be there for Joe’s finish. Once parked, Mike and I headed down to the 1 mile left spot where families typically await their athletes. I made a slight detour to the Hospital to hand off my insurance card so my Emergency room visit would be covered, and then headed back to the finish. At this point, with 24 hours to reflect, I was in a much better state. Sad for Jim (heartbroken really) and so happy for what Joe was about to do that it was almost impossible to have any concern about my own race failure. I walked down the trail until I found Joe and his son Joey making their way back to town. 2 miles out actually. The pride and happiness I felt for him is hard to describe.
There is something that you can see and feel when you look at someone who has been running, hiking and moving for almost 30 straight hours. It looks on the surface like complete and utter fatigue. But there is also a sense of supreme satisfaction buried under the surface. It’s a look, or perhaps a sense of calm, but it’s definitely an inner peace that has been reached. Joe had that, and it was great. As a group: Joe’s wife Kristin and son’s Joey and Stevie, his pacers, Jim and Jim’s brother and Dad, myself and Nate and Pete (my would be pacers)… we walked and ran in to the finish. Joe crossed in just over 29 hours. He wouldn’t walk the same for a week, but he wouldn’t be the same forever. There are few people who have more grit, perseverance or tenacity of purpose than my friend Joe Bafaro. So much so, that watching him cross that line was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Having trained and tapered for a 100 mile run, and then making it through about 15 miles of said run, it leaves a person with just a little bit of energy to burn. I needed to climb a mountain, both literally and metaphorically. So, with Mike, we set out for the summit of Copper. In total, we ran about 13 miles and climbed the 2800’ to the 12,400’ summit and hung out a bit. There were storms out in the distance and you could see about 6 or 8 different 14’ers. I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but it wasn’t about running, just everyday life, as we’ve done so many times before. But somehow, someway, that run got me grooved. I didn’t feel my hamstrings, or my foot, or my leg or any of the nagging issues I had just the morning before. It was as if the DNF, being there for Jim, watching Joe finish, and running with Mike had cured me of whatever ill’s had infected my brain.
Coming back home and seeing Audrey and the kids was so special. There was a banner in the garage and I missed them so much. There was definitely sadness as they knew how much the race meant to me, but they made it all OK. Plus, my daughter and our family had a very big day coming up in a few short weeks. Audrey had already researched what 100 mile races were qualifiers for Western States and what might be possible (because she gets me). Though late September would have been perfect, I decided to sign up for the Javelina Jundred just outside of Scottsdale. It was a race a good friend of mine was thinking of doing, but had to bail as the 41-year-old elite runner had a genetic cardiac defect uncovered, and needed his Aortic Valve replaced. So, I was to do it alone. The Halloween weekend race consists of 5 loops in the desert, and is termed the “party in the desert,” known for people dressing up and having fun.
Training from here on out was almost too good. Doing a desert run that didn’t have the large summits or altitude of Leadville changed the approach. I spent more time running and less time climbing. You can’t live in Central Massachusetts and not have a significant amount of climbing on any run you do, but I wasn’t running Wachusett anymore; no more ski slopes, no more rock climbing and descending. Now, it was about running. The week after Leadville I ran for 5 hours and 33 miles. A week later 6 hours and over 37 miles. 2 weeks after that 7 hours and 43 miles and 2 weeks after that 7:30 and over 45 miles. There were many shorter runs in the 2-3+ hour range and my max mileage hit 73 miles one week. Other than the occasional sore knee, I nailed the nutrition and pacing required to sustain the training while Mike had me on a nice core program done almost daily to keep me healthy.
3 weeks to go, Jim’s Redemption
His race consisted of four 25 mile loops just outside of Boston. As it was a busy Saturday for Mike, Joe and I, we weren’t able to get to the race until the last 50 miles where we were set to pace him for the final 50. As expected, Jim had a great 1st loop in just over 5 hours. His 2nd loop was around 7 hours. Jim and I set out on his 3rd loop as the sun was setting. The loops were accessible in 2 different areas that allowed us to alternate as pacers for each of the loops. I took the 1st and 3rd parts of loop 3 and the middle part of loop 4. Joe had the middle of loop 3 and the finish while Mike paced Jim through the 1st part of the last loop. Also, as expected, the race became very difficult as the hours dragged on and the overall lack of training, and terrain difficulty took their toll. That…and the rain. As soon as Jim started out on the 4th lap, around 2 AM (he’d been running since 6 AM the day before), it started pouring. Joe and I grabbed some sleep in Jim’s tent, set the alarm for 4:30 to be ready to pick up the pacing duties. He arrived to our transition point, walking, yet happy, around 5 AM. As the rain poured down, Jim and I slogged up and down rocks and trails as both fatigue and pain set in. We talked, listened to some music, but mostly just passed the time in our own heads, talking about this and that. Struggling more than I’ve ever seen Jim struggle before (away from Leadville), something clicked with about 8 miles left (92 miles in). He just started running again. We ran the last few miles to our final transition point, had Jim change out of his soaking wet clothes and Joe and Jim were off to the finish. Mike and I were off to get coffee, sugar and seat warmers.
Seeing Jim, along with Joe, crossing the line, once more filled me with a pride usually set aside for your own children. When you spend hours upon hours over several years running, and training, and talking about these things… when you finally do it, and are there to witness the moment; it’s special beyond description. We stood there, Mike, Joe and I, near the finish, watched Jim embracing his wife and children. All of us happy to our cores as we could see and feel that look of incomprehensible fatigue coupled with complete and utter satisfaction.
|The 4 Amigos|
The Sonoran Desert, Scottsdale
The race was on Saturday October 29 and into Sunday October 30. With Halloween the day after, and not wanting to miss anything at home, I opted to fly out the day before and take the red eye home Sunday night; a quick business trip.
The final 3 weeks of training went perfectly fine. I ended up running/walking about 33 miles the day of Jim’s race, and there were no issues down the stretch. My friend Todd, who moved to San Diego months earlier, drove out to the airport to pick me up and spent the weekend with me as the lone crew/race support.
The Javelina Jundred (pronouncing the “J” as an “H”) is dubbed the “party in the desert.” About 600 people were registered for the 100 mile run and many more for the 100K run. The 100 miles consists of 5 loops that have you reverse direction each time, with the 1st loop having a 3-mile additional segment. With temperatures expected up into the 90s during the day, the goal was to pace slower than normal during the heat of the day, and essentially try to run the middle of the race as one would typically run the last 20 miles; slowly and with a lot of walking.
The 1st loop went very well. I paced it very relaxed and even, ate and drank at the aid stations, and met and talked to a bunch of different runners. The 1st 3 to 4 hours of any ultra-race always feels good, or at least, should. The key to doing well and finishing is how you manage the race when you are feeling good. The best advice ever given was from triathlon coaching guru and qt2 systems founder, Jesse Kropelnicki: "if you feel good early, eat more. Don’t go faster." The 1st loop ended in just under 4 hours, 22.5 miles down and in the 9 min pace range, which is fairly unsustainable for me, and most runners over 100 miles. The weather was getting warm and it was time to eat, drink and slow down a bit.
At the end of loop 1, Todd was there to assist with food, fluids and whatever else he could do to help.
This was probably the easiest stretch of terrain on the course. It is gradual uphill for just over 9 miles, along beautiful desert hard pack, shale and sand. It is fairly runnable in the uphill direction and very runnable on the clockwise loops that remained. The weather started turning hot and out came the BEES! Not just a couple, but, MORE bees than I've ever seen in my life! It makes sense to me now, looking back. High heat, desert landscape, and all of a sudden sugar, sugar and more sugar every 4-6 miles for them to feed as though they've died and gone to heaven. Though quite nervous and keeping myself at a distance, I made a pact with the bees. “If you don't bite me, I won't bite you.” Either they listened or they appreciated the fact that I dressed like them. Regardless, they didn't bite. The aid station volunteers were amazing, as usual, in helping me with fluids and food so I didn't have to be in harm’s way. From the 1st aid station on loop 2, 26 miles in, and for the next 6 hours, at every aid station, it was an opportunity to fill up my arm sleeves, hat and voodoo bandana with ice. Without it, I couldn't imagine. Over the course of the next 24 miles, temperatures reached 102 degrees in parts of the desert and there was no shade to be found, anywhere! Fortunately, as the temperatures spiked, there was an 8 mile gradual downhill stretch back to the start/finish area where Todd was waiting. Amazingly, despite the wicked heat, I felt really good, even flexing for some pictures...
|Flexing at mile 42|
I finished the 2nd loop ahead of my anticipated time, and though I did slow down, I was hopeful it was enough and that I wouldn't have to pay later. I spent a little over 10 minutes in transition (that's a long break) and made sure I fueled well, and changed my run shorts due to a slight thigh chafing issue. It was right at 8 hours leaving for the 3rd loop, and reversing exactly what I just did.
I reached out to family and friends for a song that was very meaningful to them, and the back story as to why. The response was amazing! The playlist, between my songs and everyone else's, reached over 100 songs long and would have lasted more than 8 hours. And every song had meaning, which helped on so many levels. It was like I brought everyone I've known and/or cared about in my life with me on this journey. There were moments of laughter and moments of tears. Much reflection and much, much more.
Temperatures peaked early in loop 3. I had to wait a little longer for ice and food at the 1st aid stop back, but it was well worth it. Iced and fueled, I made my way to mile 50, at just a few seconds past 10 hours of running , and right at 4 pm. The weather started to cool a bit, and at this point and I was able to swap out my desert hat, bandana and sleeves for a dry cap and sleeve free arms. Miles 52-62 and the finish of loop 3 were quick. It was all downhill, all runnable, AND the temperatures became more comfortable, dropping back into the 80s with the sun dropping behind the mountains. I finished loop 3 in under 4 hours and now was way ahead of where I thought I'd be, by more than 2 hours. Even Todd wasn't waiting for me at mile 60 as he went to get water at the wrong time. My body feet were getting sore, as well as my left arm from wrenching it while reaching for something earlier in the race. I switched shoes from my trail topo mt2 to the more cushioned Hoka Gaviota, and they felt amazing! Heading out on loop 4, the darkness rose, the headlamp and belt lamps turned on, and it was go time; I really felt great.
The music really took over at this point. My body was sore, but nothing hurt. Feeling good, I was able to run essentially the entire uphill section. At the halfway aid station, Jackass Junction, they were in full party mode: disco ball, dance area and cheerleaders. All too surreal 70 miles into a run. After that jolt of energy, the next 2 miles were the most technical of the relatively non challenging terrain. I was walking and jogging with about 4-5 people who were also just over 70 miles in. I kept taking opportunities to put a few steps between me and them, and it further energized me. Over the next 3-4 miles I really picked it up. And then, the nausea started. Deep down, I felt like it was time I was going to unravel. It's happened in my previous 100 mile runs. Something always goes wrong! So it was bound to happen. But, this time, I had help. “Rise Up” by Andra Day came on. And I thought of my best friend Joel lying in a hospital bed with a fractured hip and a fractured life listening to this song. My pain and discomfort disappeared. Then, “No Easy Way Out” came on, from Rocky 4. And, just like that, the nausea was gone. Time to get a pacer and finish this thing.
Todd and I left right at 16 hours, 10 pm. Todd’s biggest concern helping was the pacing. He's done 4 ironman and several marathons and is one pretty driven individual. But he hadn't been running in a few years and just relocated to San Diego. I thought there was very little chance of me running hard the last loop of the run and figured it would be half walking and half running. I wasn't counting on feeling so good, nor was he. There aren't too many people who can just go out and run 20 miles with very little training, especially after driving from San Diego to Arizona, sleeping about 2 hours, and waiting all day and evening in the heat. And he killed it! We jogged and talked. We spoke of the race, California, childhood, family and mostly, just sort of moved along, amongst scattered headlamps of other runners, Scottsdale lights off in the distance and under a moonless sky, all the stars shining bright.
We hit mile 90 at midnight. Breaking 3 hours in a marathon is a big deal. It's a benchmark time. Same with breaking 10 hours in ironman. 20 hours is that time for a 100 mile run. All I had to do was hold it together for the last 10, and it would be done.
Downhill running hurts! My quads were screaming, but part of me was more worried about Todd, who was holding up great! With about 5 miles left, someone went flying past us. I realized that was the 1st person to pass me since about mile 30. After spending a minute at the last aid station, we had just over a 5k left. My watch had died by mile 92, so it was a feel thing. But it felt like a 25-26 minute 5k. When I hit the finish area, it marked the end of a long and emotional year. The training and ultimate disappointment in Leadville for me and then Jim. The joy for Joe and then the joy for Jim. And finally my turn. 19 hours and 38 minutes and 17th overall, 3rd overall for age 40-49. To read more highlights of the Javlina Jundred click here.
When Leadville happened, people told me that things happen for a reason. Maybe it was God’s way of saving me from something is what I was told on many an occasion. Perhaps. My feeling has always been that things just happen. Whether it's god’s way or not, they are out of your control.
But, what you do after that something has happened is where you can make it right. Why should we accept not achieving what we’ve worked so hard for? No chance. The Javelina race gave me a benchmark run (sub 20) that was never something I thought possible with the season I had, or the age I was at. However, despite the setbacks, and life being life, it proved that keeping at your goals, working at it and grinding, pays off. Just as bees do when building a nest, they won't be deterred. It may sting a little, and you might get stung, but that's life.