It Turns Out 100 Miles Was Just Enough

Last week I completed my first 100 mile race in 20 hours and 45 minutes. I finished in 2nd place. I exceeded all my expectations. It went better than I could have imagined. I ran the second half nearly as fast as the first and never really hit a real wall. At the end I was feeling really happy. Before the race I wrote a blog entry trying to make sense of why I had decided to run a 100 miler and I didn’t feel that I really had any good answers for it. Primarily I was concerned with my tendency to always be looking for the next big thing and wondering if anything was ever going to be “enough”.

After completing the race I feel like I’ve found many of the answers I was looking for – and that I found them in some unexpected places. Throughout history people have gone to the mountains for solitude and to find hidden knowledge. I feel like I came back down from the mountain having learned some important things about myself physically, socially, mentally, and spiritually

Physically

I am always surprised by what my body can do when pushed to it’s limits. Part of the draw of these events is about finding out what your limits are. I love that with hard work and training you can take a challenge that was previously impossible into one you not only complete but also feel like you have mastered. When I first signed up for the 100 miler I had notions that I would be lucky to simply finish. But as I trained and developed a better understanding of the challenge and what it was going to take, I felt like I could do it in under 24 hours. Due to the hard work I put in and seeing tangible results when I tested my fitness leading into the event, I started to feel confident that not only would I finish but that I could compete for one of the top spots. My expectations went from over 24 hours to under 24 hours to 18 hours and then settled in at around 20 hours.

I had a wide array of interesting physical sensations throughout the race. I followed the advice of some great mentors and keeping my effort level in the aerobic level and not running at a level that was unsustainable for the long haul. At first that was somewhat difficult. I’m used to running out in the front and make a sustained push at the limits of my ability. It was hard but also enjoyable to hold something back. I started feeling great. I showed up to the start injury free and as fit as I’ve ever been.

I had the hardest time physically from mile 34 to 44. The sun was at it’s hottest and the course was a set of exposed rolling hills that seemed to be endless. It looked like this should be relatively flat on the elevation map but it was undulating and tedious. As I finished the first 50 mile loop I started to have some back pain and I was discouraged about having to do the whole thing again before I could finish.

Then something astonishing happened. I stopped at the aid station at the turnaround and had a warm welcome from my family. I was able to sit down for a few minutes and eat some real food. I took an ibuprofen. I changed my shoes. I was in the aid station for probably 10 minutes. I stood up and started back up the mountain and I felt really fresh. I felt great. I settled into this state of euphoria that lasted about five hours where i was just eating up the miles and having a great time. All my little aches and pains fell away. I was running the flat and downhill sections well and hiking up the steeps vigorously. I felt like the longer the race went on the stronger I was getting.

As the carnage set in among the front runners and I started to pass people or others in front dropped out and my place in the standings went higher, I felt better and better.

I was goofy in the aid stations – making conversation with anyone who would talk to me and inviting them to come and run a few with me. It was just really fun. I was so happy. I did start to feel more tired around mile 85 to 100 but I was still moving well and in high spirits.

Nutrition was an interesting. I feel like I did a good job winning the calorie race. My mentors often pointed out the need to make sure you didn’t get in a calorie deficit and I did a good job eating a lot on the course. I’m sure I got at least 200 calories per hour. I ate as much real food as I could in the aid station and tried to eat at least 1 to 2 energy gels between aid stations. With 18 aid stations per loop that translates to well over 30 energy gels in less than 21 hours which grosses me out more each time I write it. But my body handled it relatively well with only some minor stomach issues.
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Winning the calorie race

When I finished the race I was still running and ended feeling happy and satisfied – it was a far cry from the pain fest I felt when I finished the Scout Mountain 100k two years ago.

Socially

Running is often a very lonely sport – especially for me as I rarely train with other people. However, this race really brought me closer to people in a way way that I’m very grateful for. It is interesting to see people’s responses when they find out you are going to run a 100 mile race. This was a big deal for me – it’s something that I’d thought about doing for a long time and had never done before. As I told people about it I really appreciated their encouragement and their support. Very few of them told me how foolish I was and made fun of me.

The folks at work did something very special for me. The day I left the office for the race they performed a Indian ceremony for me called a Tika to give me strength and good luck. The ceremony consisted of marking my forehead with vermillion, sprinkling some rice on me, and putting a garland around my neck. Although I get very uncomfortable being the center of attention I deeply appreciated the sentiment. I have worked with these folks for several years and spend so much of my time with them. I appreciated their support and interest. Along with the ceremony they had my favorite Indian dessert – Gulab Jamun – and some energy gels. In addition my friend Avais gave me a sweet 100 grill for my fist.
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A huge send off from the team!

I met some really interesting people on the course. I ran for about 10 miles with the race founder and former race director Brandon. We had a great time discussing our families and how we got into this crazy sport. I also ran with a few of the women who were leading the 50 mile race. One of them totally puked her guts out at mile 40 but got right back up and started running again. It was super impressive – that woman is tough as nails. My favorite people are the aid station workers. They are lifesavers to the runners out there trying to chase their crazy dreams. It was so fun to share the experience with them and thank them for sitting out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night waiting for a runner to show up every hour or so. It was a huge boost to have them help me out and get me some food and to just talk to me after running alone in the dark for several hours.

My wife Carrie and my family were amazing. I was also excited that my little sister Mindy and her family came to the race and they even found a way to drag my Dad out. Since the race starts a mile from Carrie’s parent’s home they were also there throughout the day to support me. It was so emotional for me to roll into the aid station to a huge crew of cheering fans with posters smiles for me. They were even willing to hug a stinky ultra runner. They were so excited to share the signs they had made which had a different theme for each aid station based on something we love – Disney, Star Wars, The Amazing Race, Harry Potter, and Light Up the Night (glow sticks for the aid station they met me at after dark). I was so glad to be able to share the experience with the people I love. Getting hugs from my little girls at the aid stations was a huge energy boost. Giving Danny the opportunity to see me doing something I had worked so hard for was important to me. Carrie is my rock – this just again reminded me of why marrying her was the best thing I’ve ever done and how staggeringly lucky I was that she picked me. Having my Dad there was extra special. Like most fathers and sons our relationship can be complex – but all of that fell away when he was there at the finish to cheer for me and give me a hug at 3:45 AM.

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So although I’m a lone wolf, when running this race reminded me of how many great people I have in my life and how willing they are to help me reach my goals.

Mentally

At a certain level a 100 mile race is as much about mental toughness as it is physical. There are so many opportunities over the course of 21 hours to decide to give up. Although I didn’t hit nearly as many physical lows on this race as I have on some of my other races I did find myself in a few spots where I was tempted to call it quits or to slow down. There is an option at the half way point to stop there and get an official time for a 50 mile run rather than a 100 mile run. To combat that I just didn’t let myself contemplate that option. Plus my sister made it very clear when I arrived at the halfway stop that I was not allowed to stay very long.

Throughout the long night of running it was often thoughts of all the folks that were rooting for me that kept me pushing forward. I wanted to finish for all the folks at work and my family that had been supporting me all day. None of them probably cared too much about my time though. It was the SRC Brooks running team that I’m a part of that gave me a bit of competitive fire to want to place well. All for the glory of team SRC Brooks!
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Dad and I at the finish

Spiritually

There was a moment at about mile 65 at dusk as I was running up Red Mountain for the third time that everything just fell away. All the concerns of life and the weight of being me was overshadowed by the experience of just being alone running up a mountain. It’s in these moments that I feel closer to Diety than at any other time. When my body is fully engaged in propelling me up the hill, my heart is full of the joy of all I see around, me and my senses are overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. My spirit soars and I feel like I’m flying.
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View from the top of Red Mountain at dusk

Why did I do it?

For all of the above reasons – although many of them I didn’t consider until I was actually in the middle of the experience. The real reason is closer to a combination between the drive to always try to do something bigger and harder (because it’s there) and a curiosity to simply find out what it’s like to run 100 miles. I was reminded that I don’t really need a great reason to try something like this – it’s more about the process and journey than any specific reason. I’ve decided to reject the idea of “enough” when it comes to taking on challenges – no matter what kind of challenge it is – running, career opportunities, parenting adventures, etc… I never want to be in a place where I am not curious to find out what’s next and take on a big hairy opportunity when it presents itself. I’ve lived in my own skin long enough to know that I’m not wired like that. What I do want to work on is making sure I’m being deliberate about the choices I’m making when I do take on these challenges. Am I ready to pay the price to reach the goal? Is it the right time for it? What will I have to sacrifice? I don’t feel I want to run another 100 miler right away. But I’m sure if the right challenge comes along at the right time I’ll be ready for another journey of discovery. Barkley Marathons anyone? Just kidding Carrie :-).
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Single track down McBee Ridge

What’s next?

Boston Marathon in 2 weeks – April 18. When I signed up for the 100 miler and made it the primary race on my schedule this year I knew it likely would impact what I could do at Boston. My training this week has made it clear how painfully right I was. I just don’t have the leg speed to run a fast marathon in two weeks. Instead I’m going to enjoy the experience and I’m still looking into doing the double Boston. Since I’ll be having fun with it I should be able to do some live tweeting @whatsnextmatt with #2xboston

After that I’m planning on backing off for a bit and letting my body catch back up. I may run a half in late spring since I’m feeling so fit.
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