Friday, June 8, 2012

Running on a Prayer

                To me prayer is as much a part of my daily run as the shoes on my feet or the route that I choose to run.  I can’t think of a better time or place to meet with my creator than when I am running.  It is one of the greatest gifts he has given me and there are few other activities that give me a greater sense of being or purpose than simply running.  It is the special sanctuary that he has provided for me to meet with him.  There is not a race that goes by where I don’t call on him for strength before or during the event.  That being said there are plenty of races where I am full of energy and confidence and while I realize this strength is a gift from above it does not take a lot of faith on my part to see myself finishing the race.  Saturday was not one of those days.  As I stood at the aid station at the start of my third loop through Great Falls Park during The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile in DC, hands on my knees, eyes fixed on my feet, it was hard to envision myself finishing the next loop.  I closed my eyes said another prayer and started walking out of the aid station my brother Andrew next to me as my pacer now.  “I’ll finish this loop” I told him, “Then I might think about finishing the race, but it’s not likely.”
 The day had actually started off pretty well.  We took off from the start at 5am and within a few minutes it just me and two of my college teammates, Jake Reed, and Dan Hibbs out front.  They had both come up from Lynchburg the night before and stayed out my house.  I have run countless miles with these guys so the early hours passed quickly as we caught up on our lives and sloshed through ankle deep mud.  We ran together out front through the first Great Falls loop, going out a little past the first turn around by difficult run when we didn’t notice the ribbons stopping.  It was a good thing I was at the panel event the night before or else we might have tried to keep going!  Near the end of the first loop Dan who was running his first race over 10 miles started to tire slightly, and although we all stayed together my stomach was starting to cause issues, and it was becoming apparent that Jake was the strongest of the group at that point.  As we began the second loop things started to get interesting.
 I made it about 200 yards out of the aid station when breakfast started to come up.  Jake and Dan kept moving were just barely out of sight by the time I was back running again.  On the first climb of the loop Jake started to pull away from Dan and by the top of the climb I had pulled even with Dan as well.  I attempted to catch Jake on the downhill and got to within about 10 seconds of him by the turnaround before I had to stop and throw up again.  I kept moving pretty well through the remainder of the second loop hoping that my stomach would start feeling better.  Somewhere along the way I lost sight of Jake, and the doubts started coming.  By the time I finished the loop my stomach was getting worse again and I was just wishing that the day was over. 
 Through the third loop I reached one of the lowest points that I had ever reached during any race.  Nothing I ate would stay in my stomach and my body was beginning to feel deprived of any sort of energy.  There were a few things that got me through this loop. Number one was God, I don’t know if I had the strength to stand and still he kept me running.  After that the support of my wife Leah kept me going.  She is always incredibly encouraging and I couldn’t stand to drop out after dragging her out at five in the morning to watch me run.  Still I am not sure that I would have continued on if it wasn’t for the support of people out on the course.  I work at The Running Store, which is less than an hour from where the race takes place and I have met some awesome people there over the last few years that were running as well, and cheered me on as they passed me out on the course.  I had also met several people at the panel event the night before the race who I recognized out on the course as they yelled “Go Jason!”  I tried to shout encouragement back to everyone but at times I was too tired to say anything so if you read this I want you to know you guys were awesome out there!  At the first turnaround on the last loop I was able to get an idea of how far behind Jake I was.  I had been told two minutes when I started the loop but as I began to descend towards difficult run he was already hauling back up the hill at least 4-5 minutes up on me and looking devastatingly strong.  I was reminded of a workout at Liberty my senior year when I had been doing a threshold type run with some pickups out on the IM fields.  I was actually feeling pretty good and generally had a good amount of distance on Jake in workouts but with a mile and a half to go he was still with me and I remember thinking that he must be feeling pretty good.  Then we went up a small hill and he just left me continuing on to run close to 4:40 pace for the remainder of the workout.  He wasn’t going 4:40 pace as he passed me going up the hill but he looked every bit as strong as he did that day a few years back.  By the time I finished the third loop he had extended his lead to eight minutes.  At this point I had finally been able to keep some fruit down and although I wasn’t feeling any stronger I knew that with food in my stomach I might start to feel better soon.  I was still thinking of dropping out but the encouragement I was receiving along with a strange trend I had of feeling amazing during the run back between Great Falls and Algonkian got me out of the aid station for the long haul back to the finish. 
   It’s never something that I notice happening but for the third year running I left Great Falls feeling terrible and then by the time I hit the single track along the river a few miles later I was flying along an feeling amazing.  Well at least feeling amazing.  The last two years I would have been flying, today the mud made that next to impossible.  What had been slick conditions on the way out with a few areas of deep mud on the way out had become a trampled mud soup for the return trip.  At one point I saw the toe of someone’s shoe, barely visible, sticking up out of the mud.  Later on someone would tell me that this guy had lost his shoe in the mud and continued on to finish the 50k with one shoe!  I hope that’s true, because that’s an awesome story.  Despite the mud I still felt like I was keeping a strong pace as we closed in on Frazer aid station I was shocked to see Jake up ahead of me.  I had started to have hoped of catching him but was mostly resigned to the idea that this was his day and I was happy for him.  As I caught him I asked him how he was doing and he said that he was cramping pretty bad and was having trouble running.  I told him to hang with me and kept my pace.  I felt bad but I didn’t know when my next crash was coming, I half expected to fall apart in the final few miles and have Jake come back past me again.  As the final miles wound down the crash never came and I still felt strong as I came out of the woods with less than half a mile to go.  Matt Woods was standing there and gave me a high five, at the exact spot where he ended our battle last year in one of my best ultra races ever. 
As I crossed the finish line I could barely believe that I had finished much less won.  I think the finishing picture shows it all on my face, fatigue, relief, and thankfulness.  I know that this was a day where my strength was not enough.  I know that it was God’s strength and the encouragement of some awesome people that got me through.  A few minutes later Jake crossed the line to seal the 1-2 for our old Liberty University team.  I think it would have been a really interesting race if he hadn’t cramped up and I look forward to racing him again when we can both have a better day.  I love all of The North Face events but DC is special because it is close to home and I get to see so many people I know race and see their hard work pay off as they cross that line.  In the women’s race fellow TNF athlete Nikki Kimball took the win in course record time which is crazy considering course conditions.  She has been having a stellar spring and it will be exciting to see what she can do at Western States.  I should also note that it was Nikki who got me set up with The North Face in the first place!  Dan finished his first, and he says only, 50 mile which was impressive because this was a spur of the moment decision for him and his longest run before had only been two hours and thirty eight minutes!  I think he summed up the pain that ultra runners go through best later that night around a bonfire at my house when he said “my blood hurts.”  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain!

When you are planning to run an ultra, or any race for that matter, there are a number of challenges that you are faced with.  You try to have a plan for what you will eat and drink, what you will carry, and what you will pick up at Aid stations.  You prepare yourself mentally for the competition, the challenging sections of the course, and the pain that you will put your body through.  But often times the hardest challenge can be overlooked.  In this case that was getting up at three in the morning.  As it turned out when three A.M. rolled around on Saturday I was not up to this particular challenge, so I reset my alarm to 3:30 and went back to sleep.  Unfortunately the inevitable can only be prolonged for so long, and less than an hour later, along with my faithful crew (wife Leah, and my brother and sister), and fellow racer Jordan Whitlock, I was boarding a bus for the short ride to the start line.  Fast forward one more hour and I found myself, along with several hundred fellow crazy people who would give up their entire Saturday to run 50 miles, charging under the start banner and into the dark misty woods, months of training and planning behind us, 50 miles of mountains, rocks, and adventure ahead.                                               

 The course at Bear Mountain wasted no time getting down to business. After 200 meters on a paved road at the start the course dropped down a hill into the woods and we were scrambling down a trail that resembled a semi dry creek bed.  I settled into about 4th or 5th place running next to my friend Jordan and tried to enjoy the friendly conversation and stay on my feet until the sun came up.  There was still a large lead pack as we hit the first aid station, I tossed my bottle and headlamp to Leah and she handed me a full bottle on the run.  Now that’s quality crewing! A few miles after the first aid station things started to thin out a bit as we hit the first real climbs.  Mike Dixon, recent winner of the Vermont 50 held a small lead, and I ran in the chase pack with fellow TNF athlete Leigh Schmitt, Ben Nephew, and Brian Rusiecki who was just coming off a very solid 6:14 win at the Bull Run 50.  The humidity was very high for spring in NY and even though I had an easy rhythm going I felt that I was breathing harder than I should have been as we topped the early climbs.  Coming through the second aid station I swapped my bottle on the run again and continued back into the ever-present fog.  Over the next section of the course Mike continued to lead, as I settled in with Leigh, and Ben, who both looked very strong.  We talked a little while we tip toed over and through wet slippery rocks occasionally catching a glimpse of Mike up ahead of us.  We cruised through aid station three in the same order and entered what I consider the toughest and most scenic part of the course.  Each of the next three aid stations are separated by around 7 miles of rugged, slow terrain.  No aid for the next hour!                                                     

       After scrambling over a gnarly rock section and through a swamp the course shoots up a rocky incline and out onto an open rock outcropping with 360 degree views.  To racers on Saturday this meant a panoramic view of white, as the fog continued to hang low over the ground.  The openness also allowed me to see Mike for a while and I picked up the pace a little to catch up to him.  Coming into aid station four at mile 20.7 Mike and I were running together and Leigh was only a few strides back.  At this point I had battled through some stomach problems but was feeling strong.  I left the aid station a few seconds ahead of Mike and as we came to a creek I decided to jump in.  I was warm and my feet were already as wet as they were going to get so I figured I should cool off, so I hopped into a deep pool completely submerged myself and then jumped back on the trail with Mike feeling like a new person. I would repeat this several times over the course of the day.  Over the next several miles I was able to build a small lead over Mike and Leigh.  Coming down the last descent to the aid station at camp Lanowa my confidence was hitting an all time high. The next thing I knew I was hitting the ground. Fall number two, a PR for falls during a race for me. There went my confidence! I picked myself up off the ground made sure I wasn’t hurt, and then continued down the trail to the aid station and mile 27. Following the aid station there I battled some more stomach issues, and the low points that everyone goes through during an ultra, but by the time I got back to Anthony Wayne with 10 miles left I had refueled and was feeling great again.  At this point I was told that Leigh was in second a few minutes back.  I hadn’t banked any more time on my lead since camp Lanowa at mile 27 so I knew he was running strong.  The final 10 miles of the course flew by.  I felt strong and although I knew that I had picked up the pace I will admit that I glanced back a few times over the final miles to see if Leigh was in sight, especially during the climb over Timp Pass!  Once that final climb was behind I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the run into the finish.  It was a great feeling coming up over the final hill and seeing the finish line, my family and everyone that came to support me.  I wouldn’t be where I am without their support and encouragement.  I threw my arms up as I crossed the line, gave a prayer of thanks, and got a hug from Leah and my team manager.  A few minutes later Leigh crossed the line in second followed by Ben Nephew in third.  Brian and Mike were only a few minutes back rounding out the top five.  After I recovered for a few minutes I grabbed a hot meal and enjoyed the atmosphere as I watched Jordan finish out his race and my friends Bob, and Dan finish up their 50k adventures.  The North Face and Hawkeye do an amazing job of putting on events and it was awesome and inspiring to watch people celebrate as they crossed the line and reached their goals.  As for me my goals for the day were achieved, now it was time for recovery and preparation for my next set of goals.  Only four weeks until Endurance Challenge DC!  Should be fun!