Providence Marathon Race Report

May 6, 2014

Providence Marathon
Sunday, May 4, 2014

This is what a Boston Qualifier looks like!

Randy and Thor crossing the finish line of the 2014 Providence Marathon, a performance that netted Randy a Boston Qualifier!

There is a popular saying in running that goes, “You get out of the marathon what you put in.”

Having recently completed my 100th marathon, running them in every imaginable way – racing hard to my potential, running for fun at easy pace, pacing friends, and even drinking beers each mile after 20 – I should know. Because it’s true. You get out of the marathon what you put in with your training.

As if a cup to fill, one marble for each quality training session, you add more and more to the contents of the cup right up until race day. Then on race day when you toe the starting line, you start extracting from the cup one marble per mile, assuming you have been smart on pacing and hydration and with other in-race decisions. Two or more come out at a time for each mistake you make. Push mile 10 too hard and two come out. Fail to drink enough in the first 8 miles and three come out. If you have little in the cup to begin with, you have even less to take out. These will not be there for later. They are now gone, you left with fewer marbles.

If the time comes when these withdraws from the cup are forced upon you two and three and even four marbles at time, this is when you learn the most about yourself as an athlete. These are the moments where that flight or fight survival instinct is triggered. Some runners fight on. Some shut down. If the goal is in your core, and if you are fully committed to it, you push through that pain. If the goal isn’t as clear, you will likely cave in on yourself with an avalanche of negative thoughts that, in the end, take you to your knees beside the road, your race over.

I have played witness to survival instinct in myself many times through my running career. Just last June, when I attempted my first 100 mile race, things got so tough for me after mile 83, when my knee gave out, forcing me to drag my wounded leg behind me in a quest at that goal. My emotions had spun so far out of control that I gave up on myself time and time again. I tried to drop out. I even dropped out! But somehow I got back out there, in the race, and kept going. I sat beside the trail, in complete darkness, ready to call my day done. When all I wanted was to lie down and even plotted to do it, somehow, some way, I got back up and kept going. I owe much of that to my buddy pacer who stayed with me over that last 25 miles. That night, I had a glimpse into my soul, deep into my core, to see exactly what I was made of. And you know what? I actually liked what I saw. I gave up on myself time after time, but each time I got back up and kept going. I refused to be defeated. I would not quit.

Randy digging deep as Thor guides him toward a Boston Qualifier!

Thor guiding Randy at Mile 18, when the going would get very, very tough. Pictured is Randy digging very deep while Thor kept on an efficient run-walk pattern.

I was reminded of all of these complicated feelings this past weekend, Sunday, May 4, 2014, to be precise, at the Providence Marathon as I teamed with Randy, a runner friend with 100% blindness, to Guide him in his quest at qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Randy and I met two months ago through Running Eyes, an organization connecting folks like me – a runner wanting to volunteer to Guide – with a Visually Impaired runner looking for a Guide. At the time, I had several races on my front, so we promised to stay in touch until my schedule freed up. We did. We connected so well that, when my schedule opened, Randy asked if I would Guide him at the Providence Marathon. Feelings were mutual, so I had no problem saying, with great enthusiasm, yes! We did a 10 mile training run together, where I guided him 10 miles on the Nashua Rail Trail, and decided to give it a go.

After that short training run with Randy, I had a good idea on his pace and what he was capable, but I was also made aware of how little training he really had. I know he knew this, that he was under-trained, so instead of harping on the negative (I’m a glass three-quarters full guy), I instead derived my energy from the fact that he was fully committed to this goal, he was driven, and he had a background hiking mountains – all 48 4000-footers in the Whites – in his pocket. If there is a will, there is always a way.

And when it comes to marathons, if the shit ever hits the fan, there is only one way through to the finish, and that’s through will. So although I had my reservations on his fitness, I knew he had what it took to do this. I saw it in his character. And since I knew the ultimate goal was to qualify for Boston, I took out a pace chart, looked at various paces and times, for both the first half of the race, when I knew we’d be running, and again for the second half, when I assumed we’d be walking a lot; then I thought about what I gathered Randy for in terms of pace and how long. Through it all, I came away with the confidence that I would get him qualified for Boston. The only question would be: how ugly would it get?

I would find this out when race day finally came, but I would also see a bit of myself in there, a confirmation that my pal and I were cut from the same cloth.

Early Sunday morning of race day I met up with Randy, his guide dog Autumn, and his wife Tracy at the convention center in downtown Providence. We moved through registration swiftly. After leading Randy to the bathroom for a last potty break, the four of us made our way over to the race start outside on the street. As we neared and the crowds of runners got bigger, Randy handed over Autumn to Tracy and we were off to the starting line, just Randy and I, connected by a tether. 5 minutes later, it was announced the national anthem was coming. Randy asked me which way the flag was. “To your right”, I said and then settled in silent prayer for our nation’s song. Within a minute, the race was started!

The race had a total of 1000 runners in the marathon. Since it was so crowded, and because I had us line up near the back of the race, near the guy holding a 4:15 finish time pace banner, it took us two minutes to cross the starting line.

Respect for each other kept the train rolling.

Randy digging very, very deep. One of the reasons our teamwork was so effective was that we both totally respected each other.

Once across the timing mats – “bump for timing mat”, I called out – it was crowded but we always found space to run. In the first mile, I tried to stay on the outside so that I could guide Randy around all of the turns and zigzags. Posing more technical than I liked were cones in the road marking the line we should take so that we can share the road with cars. With so many people still near us, I made a conscious decision to stay away from those, as they came upon us very quickly due to them being so low to the ground and concealed by runners.

Randy likes to use what is known as a hard tether. A hard tether is merely a sighting stick. I hold the grip end while Randy holds more loosely the other end. This allows for Randy to shift up on the stick when he needs to get tighter behind me (command “Tight behind”) and for ebbing and flowing of running and pumping arms and normal movement with two people running together.

Because we were passing people in these early miles, and because it was still crowded, we had to stay pretty tight and on heightened awareness, something that for me would never end, not until many hours later. Coming through the crowd from behind them, people were a bit surprised to hear me call out “on your left” or “coming through,” especially when there was enough room for one person. They showed a look of surprise until they saw that I was guiding a blind person; as soon as they saw this, they realized we needed a bit more space than just single file and then showed a different look of surprise. And once this happened, the energy and applause were unmistakable and much needed for my rock star friend.

We motored along comfortably, with us chatting with each other and those around us. As a Guide, I am constantly interrupting the flow of conversation to point things out, so although it could appear rude to those around us, everybody respected us and understood what was happening, even when it was a friend of mine who came by our side to chat.

Around mile 8, as I guided Randy along a busy, bumpy and very uneven suburban street, with cones narrowing our path and cars to our left, I saw up the road, on the other side of an intersection, familiar faces. It was Tracy and Autumn, Randy’s wife and dog. I told Randy immediately, as they were still out of earshot. As we neared, I saw the emotion in Randy and heard it as his voice cracked with love. What was so special was that we were not expecting to see them until mile 18, but here we were, barely into the race, showing support. In hindsight, this was the beginning of Randy starting to falter, with the day getting hard. The display of raw emotion told me this. When the body gets fatigued, those feelings come out more readily. And Randy was just starting to get there.

Immediately after seeing Tracy and Autumn, we entered a neighborhood and squirreled through streets to an out and back section that featured a u-turn marking mile 9. I warned Randy about the turn in advance. As we went into the turn, I called, “slowing, turning in three… two… one”; I did this as I applied pressure forward and in the direction we need to go on the tether to guide him around the tight curve.

Out the other side of the u-turn, Randy suddenly stopped short. The 180 degree tight turn threw off his equilibrium. His eyes were rolling in circles, and he was wobbly. I came up beside him to help him find balance. This happens to him every once in a while. It’s par for the course for being 100% blind, even to light. Where some blind people see some light, Randy’s world is one of complete darkness. Light, as you could imagine, and especially shadows, help orientation, but Randy doesn’t have that luxury, so this is what happens. After a minute we were walking and then back to running, Randy now with a stable equilibrium.

The course was a combination of city streets, busy suburban streets on the way out of the city, neighborhood, and bike path. I learned very quickly that all of the changing surface types and navigatables made this a very technical course to guide someone through. But I was up for the task, constantly calling out potholes, uneven pavement, steering through manhole covers, pylons on the bike path, and around runners, more potholes, cyclists, cones, police cars, aid stations, and much, much more. Because I was 100% in the moment being a Guide, the day actually went very quickly. At least it was that way for me. But it didn’t appear that way for Randy. Randy was slowly sliding into the hurt box, a function of his training. He was now getting out of the marathon what he put in through training, which meant it was getting ugly and about to get uglier.

"We did it!"

Immediately across the finish line, the mission complete and the goal accomplished. Thor is bringing his hands down from having raised them in a victory celebration.

Mile 12 was when Randy took his first forced walking step, where his body said no more running, not right now. His training had taken him comfortably enough to 10 miles. After that, his breathing got erratic, and then he fought on for two more miles, where we were now. In spite me forcing us to go slow, there comes a time when there are too few marbles in the cup. To that point we had been very efficient in our forward progress, and I knew we could walk plenty from here to the finish, and still get the Boston Qualifier of sub-5 hours. I didn’t panic even when Randy kept asking how much time was left; this just told me that it was on his mind, which told me he was hurting yet more. Even so, to this point, Randy didn’t complain. He was holding strong mentally even though his body was betraying him.

By mile 15, the going got very tough. Randy was quiet more than not. He also started coaching himself out loud. “Come on, Randy,” I’d hear him say to himself. “Get with it. You can do this. Snap out.” Sensing darkness, I used this as an opportunity to take even more control. I forced him to keep his mouth shut – “no talking back; let me talk at you. You need to conserve”. Randy spoke back. “You mean I should shut up,” he asked in a joking manner that wasn’t exactly looking for a response back. “Yes, Randy,” I said, “shut the fuck up.” We both laughed, and Randy, ever the student in whatever he does, took the lead and shut the fuck up. From there we fell into a nice run-walk rhythm. I based our cadence on his breathing. I kept him focused on staying in the moment, and I kept reminding him of all of his supporters. This helped him motor on. And every once in a while, I reminded him, “Conserve… Don’t talk back. Let me talk at you. You need energy for the last 10 miles.” And Randy followed suit.

One the reasons I think Randy and I teamed so well in this endeavor is because we a keen mutual respect for each other. Randy leaned on me in the first place because of my experience in the marathon. For me, I knew what he had done to live a healthy, full life with blindness, and I had seen how he climbed whatever mountain was in front of him. Tracy, his wife, said after it was all done, that we probably worked well together because Randy does well with engineers. I don’t know the reason, but I know respect of each other drove our teamwork. And now it was Randy’s time to lean on me, and he did.

To this point, my mouth was non-stop running. Before you say, “yeah, of course it was, blabber mouth,” know that the words spewing from my mouth were nearly all Guide commands and information, such as “uneven pavement, no trip hazards”, “speed bump ahead, step high in three… two… one,” and so on. I was 100% focused on being a guide. I had to. Any relaxing of the brain could mean a trip and fall. Although I told a few stories, the truth is that playing guide, especially on this course, took all of my attention.

During our time on the road, it wasn’t uncommon for runners to talk to Randy and send him along with inspiring words and “That a boy’s!” But what also stood out was that many runners would actually come up to me to thank ME! I was a bit perplexed and always kept deferring attention to Randy, as he was the brave one, the one doing the hard work. Sometimes I don’t see things the way others do, and I only come out of this more ignorant state when someone uses certain words to get my attention, to force me to look at it differently. For me, I was out there doing something cool, giving back to the sport I have extracted so much out of, and helping somebody achieve a long standing dream. It was nothing more. It’s just what you do. I have a gift, and I am paying if forward. It’s what you’re supposed to do. It was no big deal. I thought that way until this one woman runner got my attention. She came straight up to me, ignoring even Randy, and said, “Thank you for giving your time to guiding your friend.” She went on by saying, “He,” meaning Randy, “is an inspiration to everyone out here… and it’s because of you.” She ended with, “I’ve been behind you for the last few miles and see the work you’re doing and see how awesome you’ve been calling things out. This doesn’t happen without you. Thank you.” Those words, and the sincerity of them, sunk in. I got it. It took a while. But I got it.

After the woman got her message through to me, I thought back to all of the other people and what they had said along our journey so far. That’s when I connected the dots to the realization that this, right here, was my reward for helping Randy get his Boston Qualifier. I smiled to myself — called out yet another pothole, “watch your footing” — and thought of Heather and my boy back home. For a while I have had the feeling that I am in the best part of my life. And this just further confirmed it. I don’t think I could love my life any more. And that includes my love for both of them. Perhaps this is why I am ultimately in the right place to give back in this manner. It feels so right that it is no big deal.

This boost of emotion came at a good time, because the day was getting hot, Randy was struggling even more, and my energy needed to stay high because not only was I playing normal guide duties, but I was now also playing drill commander, feeling out when to run, when to walk, and keeping him focused and motivated and moving forward. Because although I still felt confident on a Boston Qualifier, I knew that only happened – the ultimate goal achieved – if I kept us motoring forward, and that included running as much as Randy’s body would allow.

With mile 18 came a nice boost when we came upon Tracy and Autumn, Randy’s wife and dog. Since I knew to expect them at that point, starting at mile 16 I kept reminding Randy that we would soon meet them again. This proved well because it got Randy to focus on a small milestone. If he wasn’t thinking about how much farther we had left in the race, he was in the right spot. This I knew. So I broke up focus to goals we could realize within a half hour, for at that point anything farther was, simply, too far for a beat up, tired body to process.

Tracy and Autumn did not disappoint. They came at a perfect time, just when Randy was slipping further into himself.

After that boost of energy, we went back onto the bike path. The path was mostly straight, wide open from trees or brush, and running parallel to the ocean. This wasn’t ideal. As the wind swept off the water, it came blowing at a steady 25 mph or more directly into our left side. This proved challenging for Randy, because as the wind shifted him, it threw off his center of straight. I learned very quickly that to help best guide I needed to always keep pressure forward on the stick, as if I were tugging him forward. But since I did not want him to use that as a cue to speed up and thus burn him out, I told him, “Follow the stick. I will keep pressure on it forward to keep you straight. But do not speed up. Just make sure you always feel the pressure. But do not speed up. Stay light on your feet. Short strides. I got you. You are good.”

Randy, in complete trust of my guiding, forged on. And on. And on. It wasn’t pretty — in fact it was downright ugly — but he followed every single one of my commands, both in guiding and in keeping him running and forcing him to start running agai. I made sure we ran light and easy — and I forced the pace very slow so that we could last running even longer — until his breathing ran out of control. That’s when I would force him to run just a bit longer and then walk. I forced these in, all with his full support, around natural landmarks, such as hills, all of which we were now walking, to maximize his time running, and his time walking, so that we would be most efficient in moving us toward that Boston Qualifier.

"Finish line in three... two... one!"

Randy and Thor team to get Randy a Boston Qualifier!

Not once did I worry about getting in under the 5 hour wire. My buddy was a fighter, and I knew he’d fight through this, even now when his legs were seizing on him. You get out of the marathon what you put in, and his work was paying him back in not a good way. But with his spirit and will working overdrive, I still felt comfortable that even though his cup was losing marbles, running toward empty, what he had inside him would help him string out each marble to get him farther yet along the course. Randy stayed focused and worked through the hurt.

When we reached mile 23, I knew again it was a slam dunk, though in his tired body and mind, Randy kept asking the time. I would tell him but get him back to focusing on staying in the moment. We carried on this way, fighting into a stiff head wind, me applying a steady pressure forward on the stick so that he would know which way was forward, so that the wind would not throw off his center. Meanwhile, other runners were joining us. At times we had a small army of runners around us, each listening to my words and commands, “short stride, not fast, just short steps, slow down, short steps, breath, stay in the moment, focus only on my words and your breathing.” We did this through mile 25.

At one point Randy came out of battle armor to make an announcement. To this point I had him on a nice walk-run cadence, running when his breathing was back under control, and stopping running when his breathing started getting too deep. I said, “Randy, we’re going to run in 30 seconds,” he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” As I assessed when to next run to give Randy the breathing he needed, he perked up with renewed energy and said, “I lied to you. I told you before the race that I’d follow all of your orders, and I just went against that. I lied. Let’s go. I’m ready.” I laughed, told Randy that he didn’t “lie” to me, and said, “Okay, if you’re sure you can give me some run, we’ll go in 10 seconds.” In 20 seconds – I gave him a bit extra – we ran again, and again Randy dug deep within his soul to see what was there, and what he saw was that he would not quit. Even when he wanted, even when his body was shutting down and muscles seizing, Randy would not let himself quit. I smiled at his pain in a way of showing mutual respect. This right here must’ve been what it was like for my pacer, looking into my soul, when in my 100 mile race the year before I too was in a dark, dark place, giving up on myself yet still finding a way to keep going. Randy was a true warrior. He was living to fight this day – not another day!

As we moving beyond mile 25, Randy, hearing by sounds of cheers the crowd growing thicker and louder, cheers reserved especially for him in his battle — both those on this day and that of a lifetime – Randy asked “where are we?”, referring to where were we on the course. “A half a mile, tops!” I told him. He perked up, “I want to run the rest of the way.” I knew this was still a long way, but I knew he would give me his all, and I knew that all we had to do was to get a little farther and the crowd would suck him right into the finish line.

Run we did. I got Randy to stay slow, to not race himself, and then painted the picture of what I was seeing. “The course bends left up ahead. I see other runners turning and picking their heads up. The finish line is down that road. This is the final turn.” But I still needed to coach, “I want you to stay at this pace. I will tug you around the bend. The road is uneven from here until there. Pothole. More uneven pavement. Pothole. Give me a high step in three… two… one.”

Meanwhile, the crowd, seeing my Randy, was now going mad; it was deafening. To command Randy, the only way he could hear me was for me to turn my head around toward him so that my mouth was pointing at him.

“Turn coming in three… two… one… feel the stick, I’m pulling you left around the turn… feel the stick… Randy, the crowd is three deep. They see you. Feel it, brother. They see you. Those are for you. Pothole. Another pothole. Dip. Rise. Uneven pavement. I now see the finish line. There it is, Randy. You did it. There’s a big finish arch spanning above the road. That’s the finish line. You did it. Another 50 yards. You did it. Pothole. More uneven pavement.” Randy, so excited, was pushing the pace. I could feel it on the stick. “Easy,” I said, “stay easy. 40 more yards. There it is, a big arch, people everywhere. They’ll all looking at you, cheering for you. You did it.”

Just then Tracy, along with Autumn, jumped into the road. “Randy, it’s Tracy, I’m right beside you,” Tracy yelled out to Randy. “I have Autumn with me.” As this played out, I glanced back to see a joy on Randy’s face I will never, ever forget.

Guide duties called, even down a finish line chute. “Dip,” I called out as I whipped my head back to Randy again to alert him to an indentation in the road.

“Dude, I have my hand in the air.”

As soon as I said that last line, I let out a holler and looked back again to give another command. Immediately after calling out a pothole, I processed the sight of Randy, hearing from me that I had my hand in the air, thrust his fist in the air and keep it there.”

“We did it. We did it.”

Randy was aglow in victory. I was too. And so was Tracy and Autumn.

“10 yards, Randy.”

“Wide open street. Uneven pavement the rest of the way. You did it! Here it is. The finish. Coming in three… two… one!”

Randy still had his fist in the air, as did I, when we crossed the finish line. Time on the clock was 4:42. We did it. Randy qualified for the Boston Marathon.

It would be a day neither of us will ever forget.

Immediately across the finish line, Randy and I embraced in a hug at the battle just had. He fought one hell of a fight, and he won it because he believed in himself and me as a Guide. Our teamwork was unmatched in its efficiency.

After we let go, Tracy and Randy hugged. Tracy then took Randy over to the side, away from the crowds, to connect Randy back with Autumn, his guide dog. This moment struck me in a profound way for a lot of reasons. Now that Randy and I were untethered, and that the goal was now complete, I felt a strong sense of relief, even freedom, that I could now let up on that heightened awareness I had held for the previous 5 hours. Freedom was walking without looking for tripping hazards. And pride, for seeing Randy through to this goal and getting a glimpse into his soul. Like with my own glimpse, the one into my soul, I like what I saw in Randy’s. It didn’t escape me that he had this fight in his because he was the ultimate warrior to get to where he was today, a marathon finisher and an entrant in the 2015 Boston Marathon!


TARC 100

June 24, 2013

Friday, June 14, starting at 7 pm, I toed the starting line of an 100 mile trail race. It was my first race at this distance and a long, long dream of mine that, honestly, was never a goal because, well, I never thought I could or would ever want to challenge myself in this way. However, life, as it does, changes, and I found myself with goals and dreams. And so at 7 pm this past Friday, I, along with 200 others, set out in attempts to run 100 miles in the bounds of 30 hours.

TARC 100 – Due to a month of heavy rains, including a deluge the two weeks prior, the trail conditions turned into a painfully slow shit show slop fest in the mud and pooled water.

You might ask: how can you possibly run 100 miles? And what do you eat? Very few people actually run 100 miles straight. In perfect conditions, I have run, without stopping, over 50 miles. But 100 is too much, especially when it is trail, which contains rocks and roots and elevation change, all of which wear on you even more. The only way to power yourself for hours on end is to fuel and hydrate. I eat every 20 minutes and I sip on water so routinely that it is second nature — probably taking a gulp of water every two to three minutes.   Our bodies are engines, and so in order to power it for a long, long time, we must fuel it and keep it hydrated. There’s more to it, but that’s the essence.

Conditions on the trails were very, very, very bad. A rainy month preceding the race, not to mention the last two weeks in which we received more rain than we typically get in three months, made the course dangerous, slow, and very difficult to navigate. Water pooled over so much of the course that you had no choice but to wade through. Common was having water come up to my knee, sometime my hip. No joke. And you can’t run through the puddles like you can on streets, because you don’t know what’s in the puddle. Run through, hit a rock or root you can’t see, and your race is over.

TARC 100, Lap 1 – Still smiling, still feeling good, and shoes still mostly clean

The first of four loops (25 mile loop we did 4 times) was very slow, but I was still in good spirits if not far more tired than I should  have been. I was starting to get worried about how tired I was this early in the race until when I completed the loop I saw hordes of people dropping out of. I was later told that 25% of the field dropped out after the first lap. It was that brutal. I was slightly buoyed by the fact that I was not alone in wondering why I felt like I had run 50 instead of just 25. Either way, I kept going. It took me about 6 hours to complete the lap.

TARC 100, Early on in Lap 2 – Leaving aid station in the darkness

The second lap was, like the first, in complete darkness. It was sloppy and slow and I started to fatigue. I even considered dropping out, but I went on. I thought I hit lows, and I did, I just how no idea how low a low can really get, at least not just yet. By the end of this lap, with me now 50 miles in, I was just over 13 hours into the race. It was 8:30 am. I thought I’d finish these two laps in under 12 hours, but since this was one of those epic type races, I didn’t pay attention to how fast or slow I went. My goal was to finish. Speed didn’t mater. My energy was renewed with the notion that my pacer would be joining me for the next lap. In races this long and grueling, the race permits you to have a pacer to run with you. They keep your spirits up and, more importantly, stay with you during a time when, well, things can happen. I mean, running a 100 miles isn’t a healthy thing; it takes a tremendous toll on the body. Health conditions can arise quickly.

TARC 100, Lap 3 – Part way into Lap 3

The third lap was when things got very difficult. I was now joined by my friend Hank, who would be my pacer from mile 50 through 75. I had turkey sub to get me off to a good start and was feeling good again. I call out the turkey sub because it — and other food items like it — is what is considered “real food” — real as opposed to Power Bars and Gels. Real food gives back more energy but is difficult to carry, so we often opt for gels and bars packed with energy. Not long into this third loop, things got very ugly for me. In my head, I dropped out a few times, but each time Hank kept me in the game. I told Hank before this event that his goal is to make sure I do not drop unless I have a physical, real medical issue where I just cannot move on. Blisters, not feeling well, and being tired are not reasons to drop.

I knew I’d go through the emotions, so I told him up front to never let me drop out. And he, thankfully, drove that role better than I could have even hoped. He kept me in the game when I myself gave up. This lap was spent running and walking. By then I wasn’t able to run for long periods, mainly because when the terrain would get technical or tilt up, I had nothing in me to run. This is normal. But I was still able to run on the flats and downs. Troublesome was the fact that my left and right knee, each at separate times, started to give. Although I was still able to run, I knew that feeling, and I knew it wasn’t good. It always means that eventually it will get bad enough where I will no longer be able to run. As we were finishing this lap, there’s a two mile section that contains roughly 1.5 slow miles of wading through mud and pooled water covering the trail. It reminded me of being in the Amazon. It was during this time when my energy levels dropped very low. Beyond low. Hank kept me going even though I was now moving slower. This lap took 7 hours. We com

pleted it around 3:30 pm Saturday. I had now been running — or, really, moving forward with both running and walking — for 21 hours. If I could keep going, I was on track for a 26 to 28 hour finish. If I could keep going…

The fourth and final loop was brutal. It started with me being buoyed with another turkey sub and the fact that my other buddy, Andy, was joining me as my pacer while Hank was now leaving. Andy and I have run together for nearly 15 years. He, like Hank, is a great friend who knows me very, very well. I felt bad because he, being so fresh and spry, was getting me at a very, very low point. But that was also his job. I had told him the same deal I told Hank: don’t let me drop out unless it’s an emergency.

TARC 100, End of Lap 3 – Grabbing a turkey sub before heading out with Andyman on Lap 4. The ugliness was about to start.

After gobbling up the turkey sub over the first mile of this final lap, Andy and I got back to running. For 10 minutes. Shit hit fan again. I was trashed, beyond tired. My legs were cooked. My lungs were tight. My heartrate was high. And my energy and spirits were low. Poor Andy. We walked the rest of that segment, three miles worth. As we were walking, I came up with a plan: I was going to drop out. After mulling this over in my head for an hour, I finally told Andy. “Dude,” I said, “I’m really sorry, and this has nothing to do with you, but I’m done.” Andy asked what I meant. “I’m thinking about dropping out. I’m done. I have no energy. I can’t even power hike. That’s the part that worries me. I can’t do this for another 20 miles.” I was walking so slow. I was like a 98 year old man who’s always 25 paces behind his more healthy and younger wife. Andy asked me if I was sure. He reminded me that he wasn’t supposed to let me drop out. That’s when I told him, “Look, I’m done. But I’ll be fair to myself here. Once we complete this 4.5 mile segment (each 25 mile loop was a 4.5 mile loop that came back to the start/finish area, plus a 20.5 mile loop, so we were on that 4.5 mile loop, with me at mile 79.5 and coming back to the start/finish, where I had a cooler, chair, and bag of clothes, gear and food)… once we complete this 4.5 mile segment,” I said, “I’ll be fair to you and to me. I will sit down for a while, have a turkey sub and coke, take some salt, and reassess then. But if I’m still lacking energy, I’m done.” Deal. We got back to the start/finish area, with me now at mile 79.5, and I grabbed a seat, had my sub, and nursed a coke. “I think I’m done,” I said to Andy. He wasn’t sure how to respond. He was new to this type of racing, so he didn’t really know that he had to get me out of this funk by trying to help me figure out why I was feeling so low. He didn’t yet know that there is always a reason — always an answer to get you back going. After a half hour, I finally stood with defeat in my eyes. “Andy, I’ve put this off for a half hour.” Andy knew what was coming. He did his best to remind me that I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. “If it were easy,” Andy told me, “I would be doing it.” I laughed. But I was done, defeated long ago. “I’m handing in my timing chip.” Before Andy could catch me, I walked away. I hobbled over to the timing station, my legs so stiff that my knees wouldn’t bend, and went up the race director. “Josh,” I said, “I’m dropping out.” Josh, the race director, asked if I really wanted to drop. He said to sit down for a while. He reminded me that I had plenty of time before cutoff. I said I already did sat. I want to drop. Are you sure? I don’t know. I’m defeated. That’s when his friend jumped in. He said, “The next aid station is in 2.5 miles. Just go there. You can do that. Get some food in you, grab some salt, and go to the next station. If you want to drop out, then drop out there. We’ll send a buggy to come get you.” No, I’m defeated. But in the back of my head, I didn’t want to drop. I wanted to keep going. But I had nothing. That’s when Josh said, “You’ve come so far already. 80 miles. You can’t just quit. You look good. You’re healthy. You have to go on. Here’s what I want you to do. You’ve been sitting for a while, so I want you to walk with really long strides down this grassy section. Long strides. Stretch the legs. Then when you get to the pavement (parking lot), try to run. Even if it hurts. Break up the junk in the legs. Take high steps.” I stood there as I processed what he was saying. He was right. I was in a funk. I needed to somehow break out. And maybe this would work. One long stride after another, I walked the grassy path, and then when I hit the parking lot, I started running — like really running — and then did high knees, bouncing on my feet, renewed. I ran back to Josh and his friend and Andy and said, “Andy, I’m in. Let’s do this!”

Andy and I set out toward the next aid station. I was feeling far better, and I was running again. And I was dreaming again about finishing this race. I marvele at the ups and downs — extreme downs. In decent time, Andy and I got to the next station, at mile 82.5, and kept going. For a half mile. My right knee, holding on by a thread, finally gave. I tried to numb it out by forcing a run, but it would take it. I had no choice. I would have to walk the rest of the way. Assuming the dark times stayed at bay. Unfortunately, they did not. Again, I came up with a plan to drop, but each time I went to tell Andy, I somehow fought off the urge, and I kept power hiking. Each time, Andy sense my negativity, figured out I was slipping into a dark place, and got me back out. Wading through water and mud didn’t help the knee or my energy. By mile 85 I couldn’t even power hike. I was reduced to a slow walk, dragging my leg behind me. My knee was done. I was done. But Andy, now having learned that those dark periods come and go and that it’s his job to make sure I keep going when it gets dark, kept me going. And going. My knee got so bad that at times I had to stop and sit for 5 to 10 minutes to get it back to the point I could walk again. I knew these periods beside the trail weren’t good. Time was running out. In between those periods, I was back to that dark place — no energy, no power, barely walking. But Andy kept me going. One of the things I learned was that after 75 miles, Power Bars and Gels no longer gave me energy. They did nothing for me. So it was at the aid stations, where I could get real food, when I would get real energy. Because of this, Andy, back at the mile 80 aid station, where I almost dropped out, grabbed a Ziplock bag and stuffed it with pizza (three slices) and turkey sandwiches. So every twenty minutes, when my watch would beep signaling it was time to eat, Andy would rip a slice of pizza in half for me to eat or he’d give me a turkey sandwich. He joked that I was the real Dean Karnazes. This worked well for a long time. But it didn’t always work. I still found that dark place. Not able to talk, for it took too much energy that would take away from moving forward. I was surviving. Barely. It sounds gruesome. And it was. Dark and ugly. But Andy kept me moving forward. I learned long ago that in endurance sports, when dark times come, the only way to keep going is to block out all thoughts, especially when they turn negative, and stay in the moment. You focus on the here and now, not the finish, not anything else. Breath, feel it, step, repeat. I barely heard the frogs croaking and the coyotes howling in the darkness. On I forged.

After what felt an eternity, we finally, and I mean finally, came to the aid station at mile 90. I was now under 10 miles left. It was 10:30 pm Saturday night. I had been running for 28 hours. I had 2 hours and thirty minutes to hike 10 miles. Could I do it? I knew the answer. I would not make it. I couldn’t. I could barely walk. Running was out of the question. I tried running time and again, hoping the pain would numb out, but each time after two paces, I was reduced to walking. At one point, desperate to keep moving forward, I ran a pace, walked five, ran one, walked five, with each run pace on my left leg, the one with the good knee. I was no faster. And then reality hit. Another dark period came. My knee was wonked, and I had no energy. By this point I had to sit on a rock beside the trail every half mile. Wading through the mud took too much out of me. Each time I sat, I saw time slip away. I had to finish by 1 am, which was no less than two hours away.

By the time we got to mile 89, I knew I would not make the 30 hour cut off in the race. So tired and beat, I no longer cared. There was nothing more I could give; that much I knew. I also knew that as long as I followed Andy’s step, listened to his words of encouragement, and stayed focused in the moment, I would go through many more dark, dark periods where I’d want to drop, but I would get through them, keep moving, and finish this thing.

And that’s when things started to change. For the bad. And these bad things were completely out of my control. Not in my head, and not in my body. As Andy and I made our way in complete darkness, the path lit only by our headlamps, with me now moving forward for 29 hours over the course of three days — three days! — and 95.5 miles, two runners came the other way, these two, a runner and his pacer, on their way toward the finish only two miles ahead of me. As their headlamps came near, the pacer said, “Are you Thor?” Yeah, I said while wondering how and why they would know my name. I knew a lot of people on the course, but I didn’t know these guys, and yet they knew my name. Was someone looking for me, and why? The pacer went on, “Two guys behind us are looking for you.” Looking for me? Were they just concerned about my safety? Or was there more to it? I would soon find out.

As I made my way toward the next set of headlamps in the darkness, a familiar voice called out ahead: “Is that Thor?” Yeah, it’s me. “We’ve been looking for you.” As they came near, I realized it was Paul, a runner friend who had volunteered his time on the course at the aid station. But it didn’t yet occur to me that there was a reason he was looking for me. As Paul and his volunteer friend joined Andy and I, they turned and walked with us. Paul said, “You sound good. But your knee doesn’t look good.” I was dragging my leg behind me. Paul didn’t have the heart to say what he was really there for, why he was really looking for me. Instead he went on. “I got a beer for you at the aid station.” I laughed. Paul knew me well enough to know that I like my craft beer. “Ha, I’d love a beer but I have 5 miles left. A beer would knock me out right now. But thanks for the offer.” Just then Paul realized that I didn’t get what he was trying to but never quite got around to saying. “I’m really sorry, Thor,” Paul finally said with straight honesty, “you didn’t make cut off into the aid station (at mile 95.5). You missed it by 15 minutes. I can’t let you go on.” And there it was. My race was over. I made it 95.5 miles in 29 hours and 20 minutes.

Many people are saying sorry, offering that it must be bitter sweet, suggesting that it wasn’t fair. There’s nothing bitter sweet here. I gave it my all. I kept going when even I gave up on myself. I quit 20 or more times. But each time I got knocked down, I somehow, some way got back up and kept going. And going. And going. Why? I don’t know. I really don’t. I thought a lot about this. Maybe it’s ‘Just because.’ It’s the best I got. And in this race, I gave it the best I had. I am in awe, as it if were someone else, at the stubborn fight, the never quit approach, in me. I mean, I was left for dead time and again. But I kept getting back up. I took the fight to the battle. They had to yank me from the course. I would not let it defeat me. And I didn’t. I didn’t.

Green Papaya Marathon

March 18, 2013

Green Papaya Marathon
North Reading, MA to Waltham, MA
Thursday, March 14 2013

26.2 mile marathon-distance run
3:26:35 (7:53 pace)Route: here

Run Report

Between jobs and with a lofty summer goal in the TARC 100, I decided to use my unstructured time away from work wisely by getting in a marathon distanced run. When Heather told me that she was meeting her brother for lunch mid-week at the Green Papaya Thai restaurant, my mind started working and, after playing around with, I had my goal. I would run marathon distance from my house in North Reading to the restaurant in Waltham.

Starting at my house, I ran due west straight into a rather steady and chilly headwind. Due to the cold morning (made colder by wind chill) and two days in a row with 10+ miles, including one with speed, I struggled for the first 8 to 10 miles with my pace in the low 8:00’s. Although I was not looking to run fast — or any given pace — low 8:00’s was rather slow, and it didn’t exactly feel smooth.

I followed a route west on Rt. 62 straight into the town of Bedford, where I hooked up with the Minuteman Bike Path. By this time I started feeling better and was running a pace comfortably in the 7:00s. Took MM bike path south into the well-known town of Lexington, where I then went due south-west toward Waltham. One trip around a reservoir and I reached my destination at the Green Papaya Thai restaurant, where Heather and her older brother were waiting for me. We had a nice lunch. Then home.

Pace started in the low 8:00’s and progressed faster to the mid 7:00’s, all comfortable. Best part was that I could have logged more miles, especially if I eased back on effort a bit. This bodes well for my attempt at the Boston Double.

Rás na hÉireann 5K

March 13, 2013

Rás na hÉireann 5K
Somerville, MA
Sunday, March 10, 2013

5K (3.1 miles)
Finish: 18:03 (5:49 pace)
31st place overall of 5000
3rd place Master 40+
Mile 1 – 5:46
Mile 2 – 5:47
Finish – 6:28 (5:52)

Race Report

Just as Irish eyes start smiling each March with the advent of St. Patrick’s Day, so too does the Rás na hÉireann USA 5K, a race otherwise known as “The Ras”. Only, in this case, the Irish eyes smiling were those of Bernie, my Irish friend, as he comes knocking on my door for the Clock Tavern pub team in honor of “The Baker,” someone who loved this race more than most.

As I have in previous years, I told Bernie to sign me up. The Ras has become among my all-time favorite races in the Boston area. It is way up there with Eddie-O’s Cambridge 5K events and Doyle’s. Although I was excited for the fun to be had, I was a little apprehensive — or perhaps curious is a better word — of my race fitness, especially after just coming back from a lower calf injury that had sidelined me of fast running for nearly 3 months.

How would my legs spin up on a 5K? Could I get under the Mendoza line of 18 minutes flat? I was excited to find out but not all that hopeful.

Knowing my race pace fitness was not where it had been at the end of last year when I was running mid 17-‘s for the 5K (17:30 @ NR Turkey Trot, 17:38 @ Yulefest), I decided to get to race site early and warm up by doing a full loop of the course. I felt decent enough but just didn’t seem to be smooth when striding out to race pace or faster. My breathing was okay, but I was a bit ragged. My knee often felt as if it would give out, as happens when I’m not fit.

Ras na hErieann USA 5K – Nervousness on the starting line in Davis Square.

After a few more strides by the starting line in Davis Square, I was as ready as ever, so I wiggled into the starting corral three rows from front and waited for race start. That’s when Todd Callaghan, a friend from mountain running, said, “Hey Thor!” I had been wondering where Todd was, as I know he does this race every year, and I know he is the guy to chase for me for the Master’s crown. Todd clocks in the 16’s for 5K’s, slightly out of my league. But I like racing with him because I can usually gauge my fitness by how close I stay to him. Either way, seeing Todd on the starting line meant that I was now shooting for 2nd place Master. 1st was his.

Before long, the race was started. Off the starting line I went along with 5000 others. Unlike in prior years, there was very little jostling, no elbows, and mostly clear path. As I got up to speed relatively easily due to such a long warmup, I couldn’t help but note that this was surprising because it was obvious that there were more people around me this year over most, which meant I was a little slower. My fitness really was a bit off. Damn.

Over the course of a gradual up hill first mile, I settled into pace. I was breathing hard yet just on the edge of control. The hill has a great way of selecting placement in race by ability, and this hill was honest enough to do just that. By the time I got to the top, most runners were in place; there would be little passing the rest of the way. I went through Mile 1 in 5:46. A little slower than I’d like. No matter, I was still running hard and now focused on being efficient with all movement forward and all energies pushing me on.

A minor victory, I got by two guys who looked to be in my age group. The gray hair gave it away.

As the course makes it’s way through a traffic circle en route to the second mile, I passed two more runners. I tend to be a slower starter, even when warmed up, so I knew that I’d nip a few with nobody or very few passing me back. And that’s what happened.

Me being a slow starter isn’t exactly true. The truth is that others are fast, and they fall off pace, even if just a little. I tend to run races with fairly even splits. It’s because my strength isn’t about getting out the gate fast; my strength is being able to hold onto the pace I get out with for longer than most. I honestly don’t run much faster. This is what I thought about as I passed one more.

Just beyond Mile 2 (5:47), the course takes a right and sweeps down a fast way. Instead of thinking about the finish and how much distance was left, I stayed in the zone, stayed focused on being efficient, and spent my awareness on trying to close the gap to a few runners ahead of me.

This strategy worked well, as I closed the gap to 10 seconds before the final turn and hill on the course. From there until the end, a section that is arguably the fastest on the course, I was all-out, but so were they. I gained very little time on them, though none moved ahead, and nobody passed me from behind.

The final stretch was long, perhaps .75 miles, on a gradual down hill. It’s too early to kick. But I kicked anyway. I wanted to break 18 minutes, and this was my time to grab back seconds, as I knew I ran well with my current abilities, but I also knew that I was a bit slower than normal.

Kicking early meant that I had to be in control both physically and mentally. I stayed focused on form as I ran as hard as I could without tipping the over the edge of control. I pretended I was doing Top End Speed pacing on the Treadmill, running as fast as I could, focusing on keeping my center of gravity under me, not over-striding, and being strong yet fast and efficient and running on top of my feet.

Lucky me, I was able to hold on. Finish came in 18:03. I thought I might get sub-18, but it wasn’t happening. Not today. Victory of sorts came as I took 3rd place Master 40+. So I didn’t run as fast as I had hoped, but I did get a Top 3 spot among the old guys, a goal of mine coming in.

As I had streamed into the finish line, I was surprised to see my friend Samantha (Sammie Girl!) on the side of the road cheering me on. After I finished, we regrouped, and that’s when I talked her into a cool down run. It was an unexpected very nice treat.

Not long after that, we got our Irish (and Guinness) on. The Ras proved fun once again!

Black Panther (Cat) 26.2

March 7, 2013

Black Panther (Cat) 26.2
Salem, MA
Saturday, March 2, 2013

26.2 miles
Finish: 3:06:53
Marathon #84
Marathon-A-Month #17

Race Report


Two and a half months after pulling up lame with injury in the lower calf, deep within the Soleus muscle, on the side of the Chelmsford Bike Path in early December while on a run with my bud’s Dave and Jay, I was finally able to get back to health and running hard.

During this time I was (somehow) able to keep my marathon-a-month streak alive by limping through the New Year’s Boston Marathon when my injury was at its peak, and then by doing the Cape Cod Frozen Fat Ass 50K, where I miraculously came in 2nd place overall even though I could not run any faster than an 8 minute mile. Neither of these were smart, but I did them nonetheless to the tune of the streak at 16!

This meant I needed #17! Insert Black Cat 20.

A quick study of the course map showed that I could double up on a portion of the course (mile 3 to 6, including the turnaround at 4.5) plus an additional .1 miles per doubling) so that I would get marathon distance in a timed event where the clock at the finish would read my marathon finish time.

My goals coming in were to notch another marathon and after a warm up test my legs with marathon pace effort.

And that’s what I did.

When the race started, I was well in the pack chatting socially with friends and fellow Goons: Jen, Ann, Karen, and a few others.

By mile 1, I eased into a slightly faster pace, perhaps running a comfortable 7:45 to 7:30.

That’s when my buddy Tim came from behind to my side. Tim and I chatted together and with those around us through to the turnaround at 4.5 miles on this double-looped course.

Mile 5 came in a total time of 38:30 (7:42 pace). By this point, it was time to get into marathon race pace effort. I qualify race pace *effort* since I didn’t plan to look at my watch to see the actual pace I was running. I just wanted to get to the same effort of when racing a marathon. I figured with me having had no quality runs through most of December, all of January, and nearly all of February, race effort would be slightly slower than my true marathon pace (6:50).

In hindsight, I was probably running 6:55 to 7:05 in those middle miles through to 24.

The first loop was smooth yet uneventful. I came through in a time of 1:13:56 (7:23 pace). Pace for those five miles was 7:05.

Now making my way out on the second loop to the turnaround, I started counting runners in front of me as they were coming back. I was surprised that although I was running easy, or at least had been running easy for the first five miles, I was pretty far up in the race, and there looked to be few, maybe two, Master runners ahead of me. Even though I was sure I could catch several of these runners by the end of the loop, I decided that there was no glory in this race in finishing high up and that I should stick with my original plan of logging marathon distance. Spying results after the race was over, I learned that I would have been 2nd place Master runner. But no matter.

To the turnaround I went, back .1 miles beyond mile 16, and then as I should have continued straight, I turned around to do this 3.1 loop again. And then I did it again.

To this point I was running a touch easier than marathon pace effort. I figured I was on target for a 3:10 marathon, maybe 3:08 or perhaps 3:07, fastest. I was within myself but now working quite hard, as expected. What wasn’t expected, mainly due to ignorance, was how hard running a marathon really is. I say ignorance because I do this often. I set myself for wanting a goal, such as logging a marathon, without thinking about the pain that comes with it and the amount of work required to see it through.

The work came for me as I passed mile marker 15, which for me was mile 21.2. I was buoyed when I realized that I was on my way to a decent marathon time and that I was actually feeling in control. Part of this was to be expected, as my effort was purposely just shy of marathon pace effort, but part was a little surprising (in a good way) due to the length of my absence with injury.

By mile 24.2, the day was finally catching up with me. I was still in control, still powering forward, but now feeling as if my pace was falling slightly. I didn’t fight it too much, as I wasn’t there to bury myself but rather to get in an honest marathon-distanced run.

Mile 24 (7:01), 25 (7:13), and 26 (7:17) went quickly enough.

As I rounded the final corner with the school and the finish line in sight, I wondered what the clock would read. To this point I had not looked at the race time, nor did I know my pace, so the gift was the prize of seeing the clock for the first time.

I hoped it was a 3:0x. In my heart I knew it would be.

Finally, the clock was visible. It read 3:06:53 (7:07 pace).

Photo credit Brent Doscher

Marathons List Update

March 6, 2013

I finally got around to updating my Marathons List through early March 2013. At current standing, I have logged 84 marathons.

The list includes Ultras, marathons, and Ironman marathons. Also included are unofficial marathons where my goal was to run marathon distance.

At first I had not included unofficial marathons in the total count, but just recently — mainly because I had a change of heart after dreaming about the day I get to run my 100th — I fell back on my cardinal rule, which was:

“If the purpose of the run was to log marathon distance, and if it was timed [by me or other], I would count it.”

And so my count jumped by a few. So in some circles (Marathon Maniacs), some of these would not count, the truth is that, well, it’s my list — so I get to make the rules!


As always, an updated version of this always lives here!

The plan is to continue my marathon-a-month streak, hopefully through two years — currently at 17 months; will make the second streak of two years — which will take me to roughly 90 marathons by the end of the year.

Once I get within spitting distance and can smell number 100, I will formalize where I will run the prized Century number. Current thought is to either wing my own so that I can run it with friends and have family there, or I will return to the Cape Cod Marathon, site of my very first marathon back in October 1990.

Hopefully I will get there within two years, three tops.

Winter Break: officially over!

March 5, 2013

Winter Break and my hiatus from this space is officially over!

New year with new goals. I am committed and motivated.

Since my last post, an October entry last year in Training Week, I have been busy racing and running with a rambling of focus, which is how I always treat the off season.

Notable runs/races (not all races included):

During this time I have been able to keep my marathon-a-month streak alive (as of this writing, streak at 17 months) despite a recurrence of a chronic Soleus (lower calf) injury. I am now on top of the injury, with my streak in tact, and looking ahead to 2013.

Speaking of 2013, although it’s hard to lay out a race schedule now with a newborn at home, this is what I’m thinking:

  • Mar. 30: Bad Ass Fat Ass 50K
  • Apr. 15: Boston Double (Boston Marathon x 2 w/5 am start downtown)
  • Apr. 27: TARC Spring Classic 50K
  • May: Epic Training Runs!
  • June 14: TARC 100

List does not include small races, such as VERT, random 5K’s, etc.


Canadian Death Race

August 31, 2012

Canadian Death Race

The Canadian Death Race, a 125K (~78 miles) through the Canadian Rockies covering three major mountains with over 17,000 feet of ascent, entered my consciousness as a possibility not long after crossing the finish line of TransRockies Run last year.

TransRockies was a six day stage race covering 120 miles through the Colorado Rockies. My buddy Jay and I did it in 2011 (which as of this writing was last year). We had such an amazing time — it was epic! — that I had fallen in love with the Rockies and, in general, running up and down “real” mountain trails. Perspective and sense of purpose is found on top of the world. I have never felt so alive than I did as I romped among and often above the clouds.

This yearning for an equal or bigger race lead me to a brother event of TransRockies called TransAlpine Run. TransAlpine is an 8 day stage race through the Alps with more mileage and elevation than TransRockies. Problem was… I couldn’t find a friend to talk into teaming up with me.

Meanwhile another friend of mine, Carolin, had mentioned, “Thor, look at the Canadian Death Race.” I did, but just in passing. I wanted TransAlpine. So I brushed it off.

Months went by, me still without a teammate, I started poking around on trail runner and ultra websites. I kept seeing “Canadian Death Race” pop up time and again. So finally I checked it out, like really looked at the details. It seemed a cool race, but it also seemed a bit too ultra-like for me. I was more looking for a stage race like TransRockies.

As more time went by, something in me changed. I found myself periodically looking at the Death Race website, this time reading up on nuances of the race. “125K through the Canadian Rockies.” “17,000 feet of elevation gain.” “The Death Race Coin must be carried and surrendered for safe passage across a ragging river.” “A prayer flag must be retrieved on top of Mount Hamel for proof that you achieved the turnaround at the end of the ridge trail.” Little at a time, I was being drawn in. The challenge seemed so steep that I feared failure more than I yearned to take on the challenge. Fear of failure grew to the point where it finally hit my consciousness. I couldn’t stop thinking about the race. It morphed into a race I had to do.

As I was thinking out loud about the race and whether I should do it, my buddy Ross told me, “Strike when the iron is hot. If you’re fit and motivated, you have your answer.”

Ross was right. I was fit, and I was motivated. What held me back was that I feared failure. Failure kept me from committing. Ross’s words helped me see that the iron was hot. If I didn’t strike many years ago when the iron was hot, I never would have done Ironman. If I didn’t strike last year when the iron was hot, I never would have signed up for TransRockies. When, I questioned myself, did I let fear steer me away from races?

And so here I was, eying the Canadian Death Race, with fear of failure reigning supreme. I had my answer. Fear of failure, I knew, would motivate me to to train properly. Fear of failure told me the journey to and through the event would be epic. Fear of failure had me sign up for the race. Fear of failure would drive me in training the rest of the way. There was more to it, but at the time I did not see it. I merely looked at it as my last hurrah before I would face the greatest ultra marathon of all, fatherhood, something that scared me even more.

But first I had the Canadian Death Race, the toughest event I would, to date, ever do!

Race Morning

As I stepped outside my motel room door race morning in Grande Cache, Alberta Canada, a tiny mining town at the northern reaches of the Canadian Rockies, I couldn’t help but notice that the cool mountain air was warmer than previous mornings. I took a deep breath, as if to get a better sense for what I could expect from the weather, and made a mental note that I should dress a little lighter than planned, at least at the start.

Wide-eyed and excited for the day, evening, night, and perhaps if I’m lucky morning, both early and late, I went back inside my room and repositioned the long sleeve tight-fitting shirt, one I was going to use at the start, to my gear bag for easy access should I need it on a later leg of the race. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would prove to be a good choice both in the morning and many, many hours later, in the early morning of next.

My gear bag was now ready to go. It contained seven separate over-sized Ziplock plastic bags: One for each of five legs, including all of my nutrition for that leg plus mandatory items and several niceties; another labeled “First Aid” filled with tape, Vitamin-I, extra SaltStick salt tablets, Bandaids and Body Glide; and the last, “Extra Food”, containing extra PowerBars, Gels, and a PB&J sandwich carefully crafted with extra jelly, all in case I was out on the course longer than expected. Also in the bag were extra pairs of shoes, socks, shorts, and shirts.

Due to the grueling nature of a race such as the Canadian Death Race, gear can play a pivotal role in your success in the race. With a 24-hour cutoff for completion, the Death Race is a rugged 125K, or 78 miles, of mountainous terrain covering three major mountain passes and 17,000 feet of ascent, all broken into five legs. Course aid, more minimal than most ultra marathons, is available by way of a runner’s support crew at the transition points from one leg to the next. On top of that, there is an extra aid station just behind halfway on the two long legs, Leg 2 and Leg 4, and an extra station on the last leg.

With a forecast calling for sunny and high puffy clouds with temperatures starting mid-50’s and climbing all the way to 90F, I was already wondering if I would have enough water during the race. I could carry ample nutrition, so I wasn’t worried about having enough, but with water, my pack only had a capacity of 2 Liters… and I feared it wouldn’t be enough, especially for the anticipated heat of the day.

Not long after getting dressed and eating breakfast, there was a rap on the door. It was Henry. “You need a ride to the start?” he asked.

I knew Henry from Trifury, my old traithlon club. We did a few runs together over the months leading up to the race. When my wife Heather said she would not make the trip due to her being too far along in pregnancy, Henry most graciously offered up the duo of his son and father, Little Henry and Big Henry, respectively, to be my support crew. This would work out well, I knew, because I figured Henry and I would be very near each other over the course of the five legs.

To the start Little Henry drove; Henry and I, both relaxed, chatted idly. I couldn’t help but note that it felt like the calm before a 24-hour storm otherwise known as the Canadian Death Race.

There’s something about big races like this. Nerves seem to stay at bay. Perhaps it’s because you know what you’re up against. Or maybe it’s because the pace is usually mild, so you know the hurt doesn’t come on until many hours into the race, and when it comes it does so gradually, as if lulling you into a slow, steady slog. This is very much unlike racing a marathon, where you’re in the hurt box by mile 8 wondering already if you’re in over your head.

The only thing over my head ten minutes before race start was clear blue sky and a great big sun playing peekaboo behind occasional tall clouds.

It was a glorious day. It didn’t escape me that I was living a dream.

Leg 1 – Downtown Jaunt, 19K (~12 miles)

The first Leg of the Canadian Death Race started in the small mountain town of Grande Cache situated at 4110 feet above sea level and finished 19 kilometers (~12 miles) later at the Flood Mountain Aid Station (3600′) at the base of the first “real” mountain of the day, which we would tackle in the next leg.

With a net elevation loss of 500 feet, Leg 1, called “The Downtown Jaunt”, featured a quick jaunt through town that had us start at the official Start/Finish Line, go out and back through town, and return to and go under the Start/Finish Arch. This proved ceremonial in that spectators were able to see the field of soloists and relay runners before we heading out onto the course proper.

After a total of 6K on pavement, the course turned right onto a trail system featuring rugged gravel and hard-packed dirt roads and anxious single and double track trails. Constantly rolling up a hundred feet and down 150, this section contained several creek crossings, unavoidable puddles left over from a heavy rainy season, and deep, shoe-sucking mud. It was said that the course this year would be more wet than normal years. This, unfortunately, proved true, and it made the going far slower than it should have been.

Features of Leg 1 included views, from both high up and at eye level, of Grande Cache Lake and Peavine Lake, including a ridge trail that offered a spectacular view of Peavine Lake and the mountains of Willmore Park as backdrop.

Just before the first full aid station marking the end of the leg and the beginning of the next (Leg 2), we got to experience what would be the first deep mud bog of what would be far too many on the day.

Although there was a net loss of 500 feet, the course of Leg 1 was slow going, which would prove to be good for forcing an easy pace but not so good for making aggressive race cutoff times.

But before we got there, we had to start.

After being dropped off by Big and Little Henry and posing for pictures, Henry and I made our way to the starting line. We timed-in at the timing station, something we would have to do often over the next 24 hours, and got to last minute chores. I was all set, but Henry had to take care of business, so I waved goodbye and wished him luck.

Not long after parting from Henry, I bumped into Issy. Issy is a good friend who lives in Rhode Island. We have many mutual friends and are members of the same running club, Tuesday Night Turtles. Although we never got to train together for this race, as we had hoped, we stayed in touch over the months since signing up. On top of that, we saw each other at select races, Mount Washington being one. We agreed that we’d run together for as long as possible if it made sense regarding pacing. Issy is a good kid. I enjoy her company. So I had no problems teaming with her. In fact, I welcomed it. I wasn’t on the starting line to rip off a fast time; I was on the starting line to finish and hopefully have a lot of fun in a challenging way. The dream had me crossing the finish line; there was no clock or timing boundary in that vision — other than crossing the line in under the 24-hour limit.

The good thing about Grande Cache being such a small town and with the race scaled down to a manageable size was that things happened very quickly. Before long, so too had the race started.

Along with 375 soloists and 750 teams, each with up to 5 runners, one for each leg, Issy and I began the journey that was the Canadian Death Race. Even before our first steps we knew the odds of finishing as a soloist were less than 50%, and that was on a good year, not on a sloppy wet year like this. Would we be among the finishers? I didn’t know, but I was excited for the challenge and ready for whatever experience lay ahead.

Out and back through town we ran, we then made our way again through the start/finish area, where we waved excitedly at the sight of Big and Little Henry, my support crew, and Chris, Issy’s boyfriend and support crew. Chris was easy to spot with his red hat. The Henry’s weren’t easy, but Little Henry always found a way for me to see him.

From there the commotion died quickly. We were filtering out of town on pavement to the trail head. Because Issy and I started in the middle of the pack, and because we were chatting away, we got stuck behind runners who were far slower than us, which meant that we were forced to walk more than we would have otherwise. I didn’t get anxious or try to run around or over anybody. I knew this slower pace would force us to go easy. The only way to run for up to 24 hours is to take it easier than you expect. There’s no other way. I got the message. And I took it to heart. It was a long day in the office — make that a long FULL day, afternoon, evening, night, and next early and late morning!

Forced to go so slow left me far more energy for chatting with Issy and meeting other runners. By and large, most people on the trails were relay runners. Soloists were taking it even slower. During this early portion of the race, the trails were clogged and now getting sloppy. We were able to run around most puddles, for there was almost always an alternative path around. It was obvious the course was notorious for being wet, so much that there were alternate paths around troublesome areas. Unfortunately, this keep-your-feet-dry party did not last long. Not even 10 minutes on the trail and, there it was, a large puddle covering the entire trail including all side trails. Issy and I, with no choice, splashed away. Our feet got wet. Little did we know our feet would next be dry a full day later.

During the fun-loving splash-fest that dragged on a little too long, we bumped into Henry. Although it was still so early in the race, bumping into Henry gave Issy and I a shot of adrenaline. The three of us carried on for several more miles up and down the rolling, wet, boggy terrain, each of us already covered in mud.

Before the race, I had set my watch to beep every 20 minutes for duration of the event. The audible alarm was my cue to eat. Rule of thumbs says that you should consume 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of endurance activity of races longer than 6 hours. Training has showed me this to be about right. I don’t get anal on the numbers since I like to play “catch up”, where I feel free to consume various real foods at aid stations, including catching up on missed calories should I be deficient. I’m also good at listening to my body, such as when it tells me that I’ve accumulated too much in the stomach.

To keep me going, my nutrition strategy was as follows: Every 20 minutes I take either a half a bar, be it PowerBar or Cliff Bar, or a full gel. Since PowerBar contains 40-46 grams of carbohydrate and gels contain roughly 25 grams, that gives me 65 grams, or roughly 325 calories, per hour, give or take. Sometimes when I’m not feeling like a bar or if I sense I have too many calories in my stomach, I will do two or three gels in a row — one per 20 minutes — since gels seem to be easier to digest for more quick energy. Only when I know I have too much in the belly, like really, really know, I will skip a feeding or have less than a half a bar. The rule I live by is, “The only way to power your way for 24 hours is to fuel yourself like an engine.” Feeling lousy is not an excuse to not get in calories. So for each hour I consume one of: a full PowerBar and gel, half PowerBar and two gels, or three gels.

The course to this point was mostly rolling double track trail filled with water and many wet spots. If it were dry, the trails would have been entirely runnable and not at all technical, however the wet month preceding the race changed the make-up of the terrain to be sloppy and even dangerous. It was common to come to a large puddle covering both double tracks of trail, and you had no option but to tiptoe around or find an alternate path, which there more often was, because you couldn’t tell just how deep or rutted it was in the puddle. Often ankles were twisted or feet got stuck when someone would attempt to scamper through.

During this revealing stretch, I started getting an idea of just how slow the course would be this year. Leg 1 was supposed to be among the driest of the day. And this was forcing us to walk far more than I expected. It was so slow that we couldn’t help but get stuck behind a long train of runners that were… walking… around all puddles and taking any alternate paths around the mess.

Suddenly the train was stopped in its tracks. There before us was a knee-deep puddle covering all sides of the trail and carrying on for 50 yards. It was here where someone in front of me hopped up on a soft but steady bog to the right in attempts to carve a new path. I followed suit, oblivious to the fact that to our immediate right was a fence cordoning off restricted land. A few paces up, the land was softer. We were navigating the top of deeply grooved quad tracks that were sunk due to water. Just then my left foot slipped down into the quad track. I was going down. Instinct took over. I reached out with my right hand to the wire fence to catch my fall. As soon as I grabbed, barbed wire sliced the palm of my hand clear open. Shit! That hurt. Blood was immediately visible from two small gashes in my hand. I licked them clean and moved on with more caution.

The course next became far less technical as it navigated both Grand Cache and Peavine Lakes. Issy and I, along with Henry, were still together. It was during this stretch when I started talking with a guy wearing a lime green shirt. Lime Green Shirt Guy was making his 3rd attempt as a soloist in as many years. The first year he fell victim to the aggressive race cutoff at the end of Leg 3, where he was pulled from the course. The second year he finished in 24:24, but because it was not under the 24 hour race cutoff, his time and finish didn’t count. That same year his wife participated in the event as part of a relay team. Her team finished, and she was awarded a shiny Canadian Death Race Coin, which she proudly displays on their fireplace mantel in their home in Edmonton. He told me how she would joke with him about her earning one of the prized Coins while he did not. So this year he was set on getting a Coin for himself. His goal was to get in under 24 hours. Lime Green was a great dude to know because, little did I realize at the time, he would come back to help me in each of the next two legs. Lime Green would be a race savoir. Also handy was that he knew the course well and what it meant for race cutoffs.

Although the going was slow on Leg 1, Issy and I ran most of it and came out feeling very comfortable. I was already so present and into the experience of the race that this leg seemed to fly by. I was exactly where I wanted to be. In the last kilometers, we gained a bit of time on Henry before finally reaching a very crowded transition area marking the end of Leg 1.

Because it was so crowded with relay runners and still too early to string us out along the course, timing-in at the timing station took a good five minutes. I added another five minutes waiting on line to refill my hydration pack. But once out of the tent covering timing station and aid station, Little Henry found me right away and ushered me over to where he had set up shop with mine and Henry’s gear bags. Henry, having brought his own water to refill his pack, was already there. As we shifted things around, shed clothing from the first leg, and restocked with bars and gels and reapplied sunscreen, Chris, Issy’s support crew, found us. Which was good. This way the three of us could regroup and start Leg 2 together.

Canadian Death Race, Leg 1, was slow, but everything was on track, the dream intact.

Leg 2 – Flood & Grande Mountain Slugfest, 27K (~17 miles)

The second leg of the Canadian Death Race marked the beginning of the real work, with two major mountains to climb including a total elevation gain of over 6000 feet, all within 17 miles. This is would be akin to running up Mount Washington and then some. Keep in mind that Washington is a paved road; Flood and Grande Mountain, here in the northern Canadian Rockies, are not paved. Swirl in slop and bog and you have a hell of a slow-going challenge.

After ascending 2200 feet to the top of Flood Mountain, the trail from the summit of Flood to the summit of Grande is characterized as the roughest piece of trail in the Death Race, replete with a full 3K (roughly 2 miles) of steep up and down, rocky and mud-filled drop-offs, each of which bottom out in shoe-sucking micro bogs. Two creek crossings and more slop and you finally get to the top of Grande Mountain, another 2000 feet higher. This section is called Slugfest, and, as I would soon to find out, for good reason.

Coming off Grande Mountain was the most dangerous part of the entire course. The trail followed a power line as it dropped, suddenly and with all the steepness terrain could muster, from the summit all the way back down to the edges of the town of Grande Cache. This section was as dusty as the other side was wet and boggy. It was dangerous and very anxious, with steep, steep drop-offs; one slip or misstep and you would fall, easy, 200 or more feet straight down, because once you slipped you would not be able to stop. It was that steep.

The goal here, as was stressed by race officials before the race and even one staffed along the course, was to not get hurt. Too many people have had their races ended here, by injury. The footing really is that unstable. Serious injury is even worse, as it might be two, three, or four hours before help could get to these remote reaches.

Leaving the first transition (from Leg 1 to start Leg 2), me, Issy, and Henry were all together. We were still in good spirits but knew the real work was about to begin. And it did quickly, as the climb started not even 1K in. This was where Issy and I started pulling away from Henry. I didn’t know it at the time, but the next chance I would get to see Henry would be many, many hours later as I would come into the transition point from Leg 4 to 5.

As Issy and I lumbered on, the terrain now a steady up, we were so far back in the middle of the pack that we were passing other runners with easy. Had we not been soloists with dreams of completing the full race, we could have run far more, so we power hiked efficiently and ran only when it made sense.

Just then a voice come from behind us. “Thor!” It was Carolin, a friend from my online triathlon group and, I’m now happy to report after spending hours with her and her husband in the days after the race at a brewpub, dear friends. We chatted briefly and then got back to motoring the ascent. Before long Issy and I were again passing throngs of both soloists and relay runners. This was not unexpected because we paced so slowly in the first leg. I was hoping this would happen, as it told me that my pacing was just right.

Heading up Flood Mountain, the first real one of the race, the day was warming up quickly to the point where it was hot. At a temperature near 28C (~88-90F) I was sweating non-stop but otherwise nailing my hydration and to this point my nutrition. Being on top of my hydration actually worried me because with it being so hit I was sucking down water and getting concerned about possibly running out of water. The concern would unfortunately prove valid an hour later.

Issy and I finally reached the summit of Flood (6085′). We took a short break before starting back down so that we could both grab more nutrition from our packs to bring to front-facing pockets. We knew what lay ahead, so it was time well spent.

Not long after, we came upon the beginning of a 10K section affectionately called Slugfest. Issy wanted to stop to retie her shoe, which had been bothering her. This was smart, for Slugfest was no joke. It reminded me that I should retie my shoes as well. Mine weren’t bothering me, but I was concerned with all of the steep downhill ahead — sections greater than 50% down and some so steep they dropped off at closer to 80%. I propped a foot up on the mountain to minimize the distance I had to bend over and then untied and retied my shoes, each in turn, in a lock lace pattern that would hold my foot in place to better prevent the toes from jamming into the toe box of the shoe on the steep descents. Toes slamming into the front of the shoe had dome me in a few months ago during a training run, and I knew that if it happened here it would spell the end of my race. Lock-lacing works. Look it up if you’re a mountain runner and have this sort of issue. Even if you have a pair of trusty trail kicks, if you have to run down a mountain for two or more hours and you haven’t done that in training recently, consider Lock-lacing.

Down Slugfest we went.

Gnarly and pocked with knee deep mud bogs on crazy-steep descents that were not runnable even for elite mountain runners, Slugfest was wet, sloppy, slow, and dangerous. This anxiety-laced section required full attention and hand over hand scrambling and occasionally helping other runners, because if one slipped, like dominoes, we’d all go down a long, messy way. After dropping 500 feet in far less that a tenth of a mile — no joke it was that steep and gnarly — it went back up a 100, back down another 200, up 100, down, up, and finally up and up and up. More than 7 times I stepped on what looked sturdy mud, when my foot would sink, as if slipping, up to the knee. They call it shoe-sucking bogs, and it was!

During this section I learned that I was a bit quicker than Issy on descents. I had gotten a hint of this earlier, so before starting this section I warned Issy that if I got ahead of her, not to worry, I’d find a convenient spot to wait so that we could regroup. By then I was committed to the team effort.

Slugfest was so hard and technical and slow that this point, where I would be able to connect again with Issy, would not come until we were through the entire section, which finally ended on top of a beautiful lookout (5400′) not long after Washy Creek (4750′) somewhere between Flood (6085′) and Grande Mountains (6520′). As you can see by the elevation markings, it was a lot of ascending and descending in short distance.

Before I even got to the overlook, my earlier fears of running out if water were realized. This worried me because I knew the aid station wasn’t for another several kilometers, and with the day so hot and the going so gnarly and slow, I would burn up. The only thing going for me was that I had thankfully hydrated so well to that point that I had enough in the tank, so to speak, to enable me to continue powering for the half hour it took to get to the end of Slugfest on this lookout.

Bruised and slightly bloody in spots from grabbing tress and brush to help steady down the drop offs of the last few kilometers of Slugfest, and covered in mud from the thigh down, I finally made it to the lookout. Slugfest was now done. Much to my delight, there were 8 to 10 others sitting down taking a break from the battering handed out by Slugfest. It was like a war zone, runners downed tending to ailments from both course and weather, the harsh reality of the brutal habitat of the Upper Canadian Rockies. As happy as I was to see so many people, I used it as an opportunity to seek water. One thing about this type of race, and really typical of any ultra marathon, is that the race is so grueling that runners on the trail help other runners, with everything, no questions asked. Something about how hard these races are, especially this course, going through same hardship and range of emotions, we know to offer help to others because our time might be next.

I got to work. “Anybody have extra water they can spare?” I asked to no one in particular.

A tall skinny guy in white sparked up, “Yeah, I do. I have more than half a pack left.”

I looked at his pack. It looked to be small, at most 2L — the same as mine. Flags went up. He was bone dry and had white salt marks caked on the side of his face, a sure sign of dehydration, while I was soaking wet as if I had just stepped out of a backyard pool.

“Take as much as you need,” tall skinny guy said, “I’m not drinking it anyway.”

I leapt into action. “Dude, thanks,” I said as I slipped off my pack and opened it. “I appreciate it.”

As he was dumping water from his lack into mine, I said, “I’m going to pay you back. Stop right there. I don’t want to take all of your water. I want you to drink — take a big gulp.”

“I’m just going to throw it up again.”

“I don’t care. You need to drink. Do you have salt? You need a salt tab?”

“I have eCaps, but I haven’t had one since Leg 1.”

“Dude, you gotta take one, and drink. I don’t care if you throw it up. You need it. You gotta force it. Your body will absorb some of it, even if you throw it up.”

Tall skinny guy took my advice and popped an eCap in his mouth. I watched as he struggled to wash it down with a sip of water. He was in bad shape, and it was too early to be in this bad shape.

Ten minutes later, Issy emerged through the brush to join the lookout party. Survivors of Slugfest, all of us. Issy adjusted her pack before we moved on. She had run out if water too, only a guy on the trail gave her a full bottle of Gatorade. She was golden. We were ready to roll. Back down hill.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Yup, let’s do it.”

As Issy and I continued on to the descent, this one thankfully far less boggy and at least mostly runnable, my friend who gave me the water followed behind us. “I’m going to try to stay with you guys,” he said. A minute later my friend was gone.

Being on a descent, I again put distance on Issy. I was getting tired by this point, which made me taking my pace a little easier. I figured I’d do my thing and periodically wait up for her so that I wouldn’t get too far ahead, and that’s what I did.

Several kilometers later the trail opened up to less technical trails. I used this as a chance to let Issy catch up; from there we stayed together.

By now the day was only getting hotter, and I blew through my water again. Thankfully the aid station was close enough to fake my way. Or so I thought. I found myself constantly reaching instinctively for the hose to my hydration pack even though I knew there was nothing in it. I was searching, I knew, for even a small drop of water. Once in a while I’d even get one. Which was good. But this was bad!

Just then I saw a familiar face. It was Lime Green Shirt Guy from Edmonton who was making his third attempt at the race. We had connected on Leg 1 for a few kilometers. “How long until the aid station?” I asked.

With a friendly smile, Lime offered, “At least 4 kilometers.”

Shit, this was not as close as I had thought.

Lime must’ve seen displeasure in my facial expression because he cut to the chase. He asked what was wrong. I said I needed water. That’s all it took. Lime stopped running immediately, bent low, and told me to take a sip from his pack. I squatted low, tipped my head and pinched the valve to the hose on his pack. I couldn’t believe how amazing his water tasted. So thirsty I was that I noticed the slight sweet taste of part Gatorade and part water — he told me later that it was roughly a 25% Gatorade mixture. He would offer again 20 minutes later. Runners helping runners, I was grateful! He, Lime Green Guy, was my savoir even though I was now starting on a major deficit.

Finally, Issy and I along with Lime Green made it to the aid station. I cameled up right away by shooting back not one, not two, not even three, but four small cups of Gatorade; so thirsty I was, I chased those with a cup of water. Next I took my pack off and refilled it. I was now caught up with a full belly and a smile back on my face.

Out of the aid station, the three of us stayed together the rest of the way to the top of Grande Mountain, which we reached in roughly 45 minutes. The views on en route to the summit were beautiful. Deep blue sky with puffy white clouds held command as the view into the valley surrounding us was magnificent. I felt so small up there, yet I felt so alive.

At the top of Grande, we timed-in at the timing station and took a second to feel the cooler wind blowing in our hair. The trail had been so hot that this felt refreshing. Which is exactly what we needed, because we were about to hit the most dangerous section of trail on the entire course, the descent of Grande Mountain along the power lines.

Dry and dusty, the trail dropped fast and furious. Sometimes the grade was over 75%, too steep to run, even with poles, which neither Issy nor I had. Other times the trail was only tipped down at 25%. I had hoped this section would be far more runnable, but now, stopped dead in my tracks and trying to navigate down a ledge drop off, I knew why this section had become affectionately known as “the power lines.”

The power lines went on for the next 10K worth of trail, taking us all the way back to the edges of the town of Grande Cache, where we would return to the start/finish area, thus completing the leg, before starting out on the next, Leg 3.

With that much down hill, I put a lot of time on Issy. There was a point when I lost sight of her. I decided that the terrain was so dangerous that I was best off continuing on, not waiting on this section, and regrouping back at the bottom.

Running down hill for that long takes a massive toll on the quads. Although I felt mine, those around me seemed to be far worse. Many complained about the lack of down hill running. I smiled to myself knowing that I did all I could, and I think it was enough, with down hill running. My quads were taking a beating, and I could feel them wearing, but they were on top of the terrain and the beating being handed out.

After the halfway down point, the tiny town of Grande Cache became more visible way down in the valley. It was such a nice sight that I had trouble taking my eye off it. Because the going was still so treacherous, I tried to spy looks only when I could with more easier footing.

By now I was hauling pretty good, running and leaping when I could, especially as the mountain gave me something, that I really put distance on Issy. There was a point when, just after descending for 30 minutes or more, bombing straight down the mountain toward town, I stopped to get a look back at the path from which I had just come. A closer look at the trail revealed many of those I had passed. But Issy, she was not one of them. She, I knew, was farther back. That’s when I decided to forget about waiting up. I would forge ahead. Issy and I could regroup back at transition. And that is exactly what we did.

Finally to the bottom of the descent, the trail popped out onto the streets of Grande Cache. I know knew exactly where I was. It was 3 or 4 more kilometers, all of paved road, back to the start/finish area marking the end of the leg.

Completing this leg was special for me. I was looking forward to the shot of energy of coming back through town knowing that the next time I’d be here would be perhaps hours later while accomplishing the dream.

Into the park I ran, off road and onto a grassy field of the park entrance. In front of me was the start/finish arch. Throngs of spectators and relay runners cheered on either side of the chute. I pumped my fist and stopped to have someone grab a picture. Although she never got off a picture, I now realize that the whole moment is stored in my head as a nice memory.

As I came down the chute and crossed under official Death Race start/finish arch, I saw Little Henry right away. He was waving for my attention. I timed-in and then filled up my hydration pack before joining my crew of Big and Little Henry. Several minutes later, Chris came over to say that Issy had just finished. I didn’t know how much time I had gained on her on the power line section, but I knew it wasn’t much since I had waited every now and then until only the last several kilometers.

Either way, I was happy to be back together with her. We made a good team, and we were having fun. So I went with it.

Leg 3 – Old Mine Road, 21K (~13 miles)

The third leg of the Canadian Death Race was known to be the fastest and easiest and one of the most beautiful of the whole race. Although it had stunning scenery at times, I’d say that it was my least favorite for viewing the natural beauty of this harsh land in the north reaches of the Rockies.

With a net elevation loss of 1000 feet, this leg would descend to the lowest section of the entire course, when we would hit the very bottom of the Smoky River valley floor. This crafted a recipe for slippery, not to mention rocky, creek crossings. At the lowest point, there would be knee deep water for 25 meters, and more if it was considered a wet year, which this was.

Relatively short and flat stage compared with the two previous legs, with relative being the key word, this old mine road would have been hard even as standalone. But no matter, I was excited to be on this leg. In my mind I had broken the course down into Leg 1 being the social leg, to just get us going; Leg 2 a hard one but one I knew I’d get through in good standing as long as I power hiked the ups and ran easy the downs and flats; Leg 3 a bridge to gap the two tough Legs, those being 2 and 4; and Leg 4 the segment that defined the race. Leg 5, if you made it that far, was the victory lap.

But Leg 4, that was the Canadian Death Race. The Bike leg in triathlon is to Ironman what Leg 4 was for the Death Race. Get through Leg 4 with even a slimmer of energy remaining and you are rewarded with the Party Leg, that being Leg 5, the final leg. The lure of the finish on 5 will push aside negative thoughts. Get to Leg 5 and you are a Death Racer — Go Death Racer!

Now staring on Leg 3, I was closer to the meat of the race. Which showed that I was making progress. To still feel good at this point with so much of the course covered, that only bode well for a shot at the dream.

Issy and I regrouped and set off on the course. This was the first time in the race when it occurred to us that although we were moving along at a sturdy if not slow pace, we were ahead of cut off times by only a small margin. I couldn’t help but note that this was probably the first race in my entire running career where I had to keep an eye on the race clock.

Through town we weaved before heading onto trails. From there the course headed straight up, surprise-surprise. Thankfully this leg had more down — far more — than up, so it wasn’t long before we were back running again. The downs were gradual but more technical. Fairly dry, it was littered with an explosion of large and small boulders. We made our way slowly, but I was content because we were running most of this. Leg 3 was fun even though it featured the least amount of scenery. Fun because we chatted the entire time; we even hooked up with a few others along the way. Little did I know I’d see some of these same people many hours later, and they would look far different and have only a trace of the energy, or maybe life, they exhibited now.

After dancing between boulders for several kilometers, we finally made our way to a more technical system of trails reminiscent of those back in the northeast. Some were runnable, some were not; some were wet where you had to find a detour while others were dry and smooth. Creek crossings were plenty.

By then the day was really growing hot. It was getting on by 4 pm. I did a double-take at my watch when I saw the real time. It was almost 4 pm! We were at the lowest elevation on the course and we were feeling the heat. Sun rises late here so far north in Canada, and it goes down late, too, so this was really the brunt of the day. At one point I grew so hot that I had a flashback to this year’s Boston Marathon in which temps hit record highs with equal amount of high DNF’s and slow times. I felt overly hot although I was well hydrated and still sweating. But I was getting low on water and was sure I would run out before transition.

As Issy and I scrambled up a wet bank between a conglomerate of trees, I saw on the other side, down 20 feet below us, two guys cooling off in a mountain creek. They were splashing cold water on their faces and hands; one guy even dipped his hat in and placed it back on his head. This was a shot of adrenaline for Issy and I. We joined in for a much needed soaking. We would go on to do this several more times in the upcoming kilometers, as it was the absolute hottest part of the day, the mercury pushing 90F, throwing yet another test at our hydration. In hindsight, splashing cold mountain water on my face and hands and dipping in my wrists in was a pivotal part of my race that had I not been able to do that when I did the end result might have been different.

Not long after the last creek cool off, the trail cut across a meadow of tall grass and wild flowers. It reminded me of the field of poisonous flowers in the movie The Wizard of Oz. For a second I allowed myself to feel sleepy. I realized this was silly and only a matter of me being tired. Snap out, I coached myself. Snap out I did.

After the meadow of wild flowers, we went back into a small forest section and, just before we completed it, came across a section of woods that was unlike any I had seen before.

Amid thick forest to the right and a scant few pines to the left, the path up ahead looked like Mother Nature had laid before us a thick, gooey mess of chocolate mousse. Looking warm and moist, it also appeared smooth at the top and airy, as if a goop of thick molasses flowed over the forest floor as if a pan. The only indication this was a section we should avoid was the foot prints of previous runners. Some foot marking sank, or perhaps disappeared, seemingly very deep, through to the other side. Others started out and then reversed course. And even others, they disappeared! Issy and I joked about how many dead bodies were stuck deep in the muck. Probably a few hundred, we mused. I found a path around by hugging the far right of this Mother of all Bogs. I would learn later from my good friend and Death Race mentor Petra that this was a form of… Quicksand! Yes, quicksand. Have you ever seen quicksand mud? Me neither. Until now! This really was a Death Race.

Finally around the Bog of all Bogs, I ran out of water. Thankfully we were finally on a hard-packed dirt road. This, I knew, meant that transition was at most 10k away.

As I was now vocally fretting over my lack of water, we came upon two guys, one who I had met earlier, Lime Green Shirt Guy, who saved me on the last leg by letting me sip a few times from his pack, and another who we had seen before. It was fun hooking up with these guys. We all got along and seemed to work well together, though while we were together we did a little too much walking, but that was only because the talking was so good. My savior friend Lime Boy knew the course well and said we had 5k left once we crossed the bridge. I smiled when he said this, because right there, within sight, was the bridge and the highway on the other side. I asked again about the course and cutoffs, and my friend assured us that we were on track for meeting all cut offs, but there wasn’t all that much room to slip. Although I could have run this entire stretch and many before, since I was so hot and now completely out of water, I didn’t want to push too hard; but I needed to run at least easy so that I could get to water more quickly. Not long after crossing the highway, I got desperate and asked my pal if he could spare a sip of water. He enthusiastically obliged and from there until the end of the leg he generously donated several more sips. It wasn’t enough to hydrate me, but it was enough to hold me over. I would have to catch up once we got back to transition. Because of his kindness yet again, I was able to run the rest of the way in.

The last several kilometers of Leg 3 were along the side of Highway 40. Although I desired to run on the shoulder of the road for more efficient and faster running, the shoulder was deemed too dangerous and not permitted. So we had to run in the trenches, or really the ditch, where the side of the road fell off to just before the forest started. This is where water runoff from the road would pool in makeshift streams. It was relatively elevation free, though the terrain was more rugged and pitched for uneasy running. Attention was required.

At the end of this section was transition and the next aid station. Being out of water for so long, I was now starting to dream about when I could play “catch up” with my hydration; I desired a great big cold glass of water. As we neared transition, we saw a handful of people who had walked back up the road to cheer on runners. It was low key but fun. Still, my belly ached.

Finally we reached the end, me and Lime Green Guy a little ahead of Issy and the other guy, and now were entering the chute to the timing station. The course here was marked with orange ribbon attached to tall wooden stakes in a way to guide runners toward the timing station. Halfway through the chute, now with a smile on my face and my eyes on the guys at the end of the chute sitting in chairs at the timing station, a wasp shot suddenly from the tall grass and zipped straight at me to the inside of my left calf. OUCH! The fcuker stung me. SHIT! It hurt like a son of a bitch. In fact, it hurt so bad and took me by such surprise that I had trouble slapping it away with my hand. Shit. The wasp was still stuck in my leg, still stinging me. Another whack and it was gone. Left in its wake was a sharp pain that cause me to limp. At least 50 spectators and volunteers saw me grab my calf. One asked, “Calf cramp?” No! “I just got stung by a bee! It hurts like hell.” I limp-ran the rest of the way through the chute to the timing station. After beeping in, I went immediately over to the water table to re-fill my pack and slug down in “catch up” fashion an extra three cups of water. Cold and icy like the ocean, the water burned as it went down my throat. I was parched. Water never tasted so good.

Now with a full hydration pack and water in my belly, I started looking for my crew. There, with a hand raised above the mass of people, mostly the crews of other athletes out on the course, was Little Henry.

To this point in the race, Big Henry and Little Henry had been awesome. I had looked forward to seeing them at each transition. Big Henry always found a way to make me smile. Always. He’s got a great sense of humor, and he likes go use it, and apparently he likes to use it on me. We became friends for life when as he was incessantly ribbing me about how I wasn’t strong enough for this type of race, I grabbed his shoulder, looked him square in the eye, and said in a serious manner, “Do you want me to drag your ass into the woods over there and kick the crap out of you?” Big Henry laughed. So did I.

As good as Big Henry was, Little Henry was even better. He took control right away. As soon as he would see me coming through the timing station, he would make sure I saw him so that I knew where to go. It may sound easy, but with 375 soloists, each with a support crew, and another 750 teams, these transition areas were crowded and littered with gear and blankets. It’s like finding a friend’s spot on a public beach when all you know is to look for a yellow towel.

Here at Transition 3/4, Little Henry got me seated, thrust my bag of gear and nutrition in front of me, and slowly but methodically started asking me questions, the same one’s I had listed out for him on a Crew Instructions sheet I prepared in advance. Henry patiently waited between each question so that I could process them.

Just then a guy tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you the one who got stung by a bee?”

I nodded. Yeah, that was me.

“You need to get ice on that. My wife got stung the other day, and she swelled up.” Before leaving my side he sympathetically asked, “You’re not going on, are you?”


“You’re not a soloist, are you? You can’t go on.”

“Yeah, I’m a soloist.” I have to go on.

“Get ice on that, and please be careful.”

Just then Little Henry pulled together a bag of ice. As I untied and pushed off my shoes, Henry took his awesome duties up another notch. “I have a turkey sub for you,” he said, “Do you want it?” You bet your ass I’ll take a turkey sub! “You want a Coke or Ginger Ale with that?” Before I could answer, Henry offered, “They’re cold.” You bet your ass I’ll take a Ginger Ale!

Trying to hold a baggie of ice to the area of the bee sting, which still stung like crazy, I slipped off my shoes, pulled on a fresh, clean pair of socks, and slipped back into the shoes. Although my feet were battered, they were still good, and I was able to run at my discretion, so I decided to just change out my socks. Henry thought my feet looked the part of rough, so he snapped a picture. Meanwhile, I took the most amazing sips from the miniature green can that held no more than 10 ounces of cold, fizzy soda. Ginger Ale never tasted so good. I decided to hold off on the sub. I didn’t want to waste precious time eating in Transition when I could do that more easily, and in a more time efficient manner, once I got back on course. After all, we were bumping up against time limits. Secure we were, but looming they were.

Finally, Issy and I were re-stocked and ready to go. Both Henry’s and Chris, Issy’s support crew, wished us luck. Off we went, me with a turkey and provolone sub in my hand and a big fat smile on my face for it. I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to eating real food. PowerBars and Gels and PB&J grew old, by 5 hours. The sub did not disappoint.

Leg 4 – Hamel Assault, 36K (~23 miles)

Having made cut-off by short enough time, you would have thought I’d have been concerned over the next cut-off, halfway up the mountain. If not, you would have thought I’d be gearing up for the 10K (6.2 miles), 4500 foot steady ascent of Mount Hamel in front of me. No. I was wholely focused on one thing: enjoying like I have never before the turkey and provolone sub in my grip. Trying to run and breath and eat at the same time forced me to enjoy this sandwich thoroughly. Eat bite was fresh and wholesome. It was as if I hadn’t eaten a morsel in two days. I ate it with purpose, but I ate it slowly with great enjoyment. I wanted this feeling to last, it was that good. I told Issy more than once how amazing the sub was. I thought it a shame that I wasn’t able to thank Henry right then and there for this treasure. No matter, I ate the sub, every last bit, for I knew it was back to PowerBars and Gels after it.

As the trail tilted up, the terrain got more and more gnarly, with wet, slippery conditions, roots cluttering the way, and deep grooves that were injury-prone — one slip and you slam your leg on a root or rock. During this stretch, I told everybody who would listen, and even those who wouldn’t, about the awesome turkey sub I just inhaled. It was like being in heaven.

Although I was getting closer to heaven with this massive ascent of Hamel, I wasn’t in heaven and didn’t feel as if I were anywhere close. This was hard work.

On the way up, I had a mental cue to know that the 10K ascent of 4500 feet was broken almost exactly into two segments. You would know you’re halfway, people said, when the trail hits an opening before dipping back down briefly. It is here where the trail catches the shoulder of the mountain. From there it goes up again, this time on a rock-cluttered trail, which honestly was better than the wet root-strewn slop of the first half.

We didn’t know it at the time, as things were a bit confusing, but by passing the shoulder of the mountain and checking in at a timing station, we went through one of the final cut-off points that we would have to worry about. We had to get there by 10:15 PM, and we did that with hours to spare. This was all in hindsight, and we didn’t know this station was it — we thought it was at the top of the mountain — but either way, we were closer to the top of Hamel, and now we were already over halfway up. I knew in my heart that the hard part would be over once we hit the summit.

The entire way up, including before and after midway shoulder point, the pitch was too steep to run. We didn’t see a single person, even relay runners, run a step. It was too steep and too long. However, there was something we did see, and it wasn’t pretty. Only ten minutes in, just after I finished the sub — have I told you yet how awesome the turkey-provolone sub was? — we started seeing runners… coming back down the mountain. This was a bad sign. The course doesn’t come down this way; it goes down on the other side of the mountain. These runners were ending their race; they thought it easier to drop out by going back down to the base of the mountain rather than continuing on toward the top. At first this confused me, as to why runners would be coming back down, but once I fought through tiredness to apply reason, the grim looks on these people’s faces told the true story.

Issy and I stayed focused by chatting most of the way. There would be times when conversation would drop, but one of us would break it by either calling out a trail hazard or by telling a story. Since I’m good at both, I did each in equal parts. “Wanna know a random fact?” I said at one point on the climb. “The Canadian National Anthem is my favorite national anthem. I have liked it since I first heard it when I was a kid watching the Olympics. I don’t know why. I just like it.” Little did I know at that time that this would come back to me in a special way, but not until after the race.

To this point in the race, I was fueling well, hydrating well enough that I was able to play “catch up” at the aid stations when I did run out, getting in electrolytes (thank you, Salt Stick), and pacing so easy that I felt okay physically but remarkable mentally. I was still focused and very in the moment. I was able to pay attention to my body and its needs, and I was able to talk at ease. In fact, I may have talked a little too much; but hey, it must’ve been a nice distraction for those around me. Either way, I was plugged in and enjoying the experience.

Hamel, with a summit of just under 7000 feet, provided spectacular views in all directions to the valley’s below. Issy and I finally completed the 4000 foot climb. Upon reaching the forestry tower at the top, we were directed by race officials to continue out and back along the cliff bluffs at Hell’s Canyon. The end of the out and back was where we retrieved a prayer flag as proof that we indeed made the turnaround. Views were stunning. Cliffs dropping before our feet. And a cool, almost cold, breeze giving push. I never felt so alive as I looked far down into the valley trying to spot on the horizon where we had just come from. Making it this far, to me, meant that I made it through the toughest part of the course. From here on until the end, all I had to do was to just keep on keeping on, though little did I know that I would again have to worry about cutoff time, this one the 24 hour snap at the finish line.

After handing over our prayer flags, race officials permitted us to time-in. I had one of the volunteers take a picture of Issy and I. The views were too good to not grab a photo. After grabbing the keepsake we began the descent of Hamel.

Strewn with boulders and deep ruts, the descent, while not technical, was dangerous; any falls would be on unforgiving ground. Course description of this leg on the race website states: “Read the waiver section about being in remote areas and not being rescued in time to prevent serious injury or death.” Issy and I were about to find out that this line is highlighted for good reason.

A half hour later, just as Issy and I were in the beginning of the descent, darkness settled, and it did quickly, as if a switch had been flipped. No longer able to make out trail hazards, we stopped, took out our headlamps, and turned them on. It was 10:30 PM. And the sun had just set. Here on top of Hamel, located 8 hours driving distance northwest of Calgary and 4 hours north of Jasper, the day thankfully goes to sleep late. This gave us an extra 2 hours of day light. Unfortunately, we were still up high on Hamel, and we had a very long way to go. With only headlamps lighting the way, the going would get even more slow.

A minute later, it was completely dark. Issy was having a hard time moving faster than a normal walking pace. She wasn’t able to see well with her headlamp, as the light was screwing with her eyes, and although she never said as much, I think she was slipping into a dark place. The voice coming back at me, while there, was weaker, even hoarse, and not resembling the voice of even an hour earlier. She was, I guessed, bonking. This section was even slower because of it. No matter, I was content that we were close enough to making all of the cutoffs, and I didn’t want to leave her here on the mountain, so I stayed put and used the time to tell stories and make jokes about bear encounters.

At one point, we were moving along at a better clip. I’d take a few running steps here and there, with the hope of pulling Issy along a little more quickly. And she’d be right there. We were still chatting, me more than her, but still having a good time. Then suddenly the trail before me disappeared. I stopped cold in my tracks. The trail was gone. This meant one thing: while headlamps lit the way, it also created shadows, especially on the down sections, and you learned that when the course went dark, that was where the trail suddenly dropped. Stopped at the tip of the dark section before me, I shined my headlamp straight down to see the trail drop 25 feet. “Be careful,” I said to Issy as I had countless times before, “and follow my path down. The trail drops here. Try to grab trees on the side to steady yourself down.” Using both hands to grab trail-side trees, we eased down the dangerous drop going backwards. I waited for Issy before we both moved on again together.

Not long after, still making our way down the mountain over toward the Ambler Loop section, my headlamp started running low. I used the opportunity to stop, move a few PowerBars and Gels from the back of my pack to the easily-accessible pockets up front, and changed the batteries. As batteries wear, you get used to the dimming light, but you don’t realize just how bad it gets until you switch out for new ones. Poof, the 20 foot world in front of me was alight again! I should have done that an hour earlier.

As time dragged on, racers, both soloist and relay runners, drew to each other. By the time we were halfway to the Ambler Loop Aid Station, I had a train of 4 others, including Issy, behind me. To keep bears away, I made sure to keep chatting. I figured that as long as we made noise, the grizzly and black bears would hear us long before we them, and they would scamper away. Although I heard a few loud noises on this very dark section, none seemed too close to home. That would come later, on the next leg.

Dropping elevation, even as night was now in full effect, made me pull off a set of arm warmers I had put on. It was getting hot again. As I was trying to stuff the arm warmers in the tiny pockets of my Tri-top, which I had underneath a short sleeved tech shirt so that I could stash PowerBar and Gel wrappers and other things, my headlamp shone off trail to my left. The illumination of my light disappeared. Suddenly I lost balance. It was then when I realize that the terrain dropped steeply only a foot off the side of the trail. After processing this through my weary brain, I was able to steady my feet again, but not without stopping. “Sorry,” I said to the four others behind me. “Make sure you have good footing. It drops steeply off to the left side.” This happened several more times before we got to the next aid station.

And then it happened again. I ran out of water. This time, everybody near me was in a similar situation, though they still had some water remaining. I decided not to beg for water because of how well I had been to this point. I would beg, I decided, if I needed. But I didn’t need. Not at least yet.

A half hour later, still several kilometers from aid, we came upon a creek that cut across the trail. A girl behind me who was familiar with the course and area offered help for my dehydration. “If you still need water, this here,” she said pointing to the freshly flowing water, “is probably good. I would trust it.” With that vote of confidence, I figured that it couldn’t hurt to at least fill up my water bottles with the mountain water. I wouldn’t touch it unless I got really desperate. This was, in my mind, a safety measure.

The trail here got wet again. We hopped around puddles and at times had to find news path around. It’s not easy splashing through deep, rutted puddles in complete darkness, as you don’t know what’s in the water and where the hidden craters appear. We had to be careful carving new paths too because, in the darkness, it was often hard to see if one step too many off trail would be a drop down of a few hundred feet. Although this was again slow going, we finally got to a point where I saw light way ahead up in the distance. A few paces farther up trail, we heard voices. Finally, we made it to Ambler Loop Aid Station.

Ambler Loop Aid Station was special. I had been looking forward to this for the last several hours, because at Ambler we, as soloists, got to access a bag that we had dropped off pre-race. In my bag I put pretzels, more fuel, a can of Coke, and a Snickers bar and banana. What I craved most was the Coke and Snickers. And damn, they did not disappoint! Snickers? Best ever candy bar. And I’m not even a candy bar fan. Coke? Heaven infused with fizz! Make a commercial out of me. I was fueled and pumped.

From Ambler Loop, the course went 5K out and back on a slim loop. To make sure runners covered the complete course, we were required to time-in halfway through the loop. The loop would return to the same location, back at Ambler Loop and the aid station, which was good, because I had consumed so much water in catching up from going into dehydration that I had to re-fill my pack again with water, and it was only a 5K loop!

This section was also when I got confirmation on Issy’s state. I think she was bonking because this was perhaps the most runnable section of the entire course so far, and she wasn’t able to take more than a handful of running steps. I didn’t force it. So we mostly power hiked. It was slow going. We chatted the time away and hooked up with another guy to help.

Through Ambler Loop the second time, we were now making another descent, this one the final off the mountain. The descent was, thankfully, a gravel utility road that proved smooth enough, with few ruts, to be entirely runnable. It was here where we lost a lot of time, as Issy couldn’t run. It was also here when reality set in. We would have to run consistently at some point in order to make the 24 hour race cut-off. I knew we would complete Leg 4 in time — I wasn’t worried about that. Bit I was not so sure on the 24 hour cut off at the finish line. I worried aloud in hopes of getting Issy to run more. But she was too hurting too much to doing anything about it. No worries, we instead hiked off the mountain. It was fun, as we kept the chatter going the rest of the rest of the way down. Others would come by, and we’d chat with them too. By and large, most people we met were from Edmonton, the nearest city, about a five hour drive. But many were from all around the world.

This was also when I decided to check if I had cell service on my phone. As I powered up my phone, bing, bing, bing, bing… text message after text message came through. One from Heather, showing confidence in me. One from Little Henry. And several from my pal John, who was in Amsterdam, of all places, trying to get me a message before he jumped a plane. John told me to “Be the ox!” He got me to laugh with, “You smell like a goat!” I messaged back: “I. AM. OX!” I also told him that I was coming down from the last mountain but still had a long way to go. “Still feeling good. Feel good about a finish!” That was my way of saying that I was in control and having fun. This exchange with my Dawg, and the note from Heather and friends, really lifted me.

The gravel access road was long, for the night was now working on morning, but we finally got down, walking far more than running, and to the transition at the end of the leg.

Coming into transition was somewhat surreal. Here were the first real lights, coming from street lights and flood lamps, we’d seen since day light disappeared a long 6 hours earlier. We had been so far removed from civilization, and we were so deeply fatigued, that just seeing other people and light, even if artificial, raised our spirits. But something about it was strange. And I still cannot put a finger on it.

As we entered the finish chute to the Leg, Little Henry, my support crew, caught my attention. I was wondering if I would see Big Henry, too, though part of me figured that it would have been too long a day and night and early morning for him. But by now, I was developing a relationship with him, and I was now looking for his humor to give me another shot of adrenaline. Much to my chagrin, there would be no shot of energy. Quite the contrary. When I got there, I saw Henry — not Big Henry, not Little Henry, but Henry Henry — it was like a sledgehammer slamming into my chest. I know how hard Henry trained for this event, and I know how much he wanted it, and even though I was now living proof for how hard the Death Race was and how tough and aggressive the cut-offs were, I felt such sadness that I started choking up. It really is a Death Race.

After timing-in, I filled up my hydration pack, downed three Dixie Cups filled with Gatorade, and then made my way through the crowd. High above a full moon was staring down, wondering what the commotion was. Still thinking of Henry, my left eye watered. Just then both Henry’s ushered me to the crew area, where they had set out chairs and a blanket and my bag. Little Henry got right to work. “Did you re-fill your pack with water?” he asked. I nodded, yes. “Do you want to change socks or shoes?” As soon as I said that I wanted to change my socks, he got to helping me get off my right shoe — that was still caked with half-dried half-still wet mud — while I did my left. Meanwhile, Henry jumped in with his own help. Henry was good too because he knew exactly what it was that I might need to do or hear.

Just then Chris, Issy’s support crew and boyfriend, chimed up. “You guys are close to cut-off. I thought you’d be in by now. You might have to move faster if you want to finish.”

Chris was right. We were moving too slowly. At this rate, making the 24-hour cut-off would be close. We had to move.

Chris stressed again, this time shaking his head while doing so, “You have to move faster. I don’t know if you’re going to make it. It’s going to be close.”

Chris, again, was right. We might not finish in time. Fear set in.

Leg 5 – The River Crossing, 24K (~14 miles)

The fifth and final leg of the Canadian Death Race starts with a gnarly, steep climb and continues through wet, deep bogs, featuring a roller coaster up and down of mostly unrunnable trails.

Before I could tackle the first climb, which was roughly 500 feet, I had my first issue of the leg. My left shoe was too tight. While rushing to get through transition as quickly as possible, I changed socks and tied too quickly my shoes. The left needed adjusting. Still worried about time but knowing I could run and move along more quickly than Issy, I told her to continue on. “I’ll catch up,” I said. She was good with it, and up she started climbing, the gnarl kicking in right away with rutted, grooved wet trail on uneasy footing.

Not long after, I caught up and slid into the lead. Many parts of this trail was hand over hand, foot up, heave yourself up, and go. And then do it again. I knew it was roughly 8K, or 5 miles, to the boat crossing at Smoky River. But at this pace, it would take a long time. We were so slow that I now got really worried about cut-off.

Four kilometers up the trail, there were finally more runnable sections, only I was mostly alone in my efforts. I asked Issy if she could run at least a few short sections, and she did. But it didn’t last long. The trail was too gnarly, and she was still in a dark place and had trouble seeing. At one point I noted just how far her voice sounded shot, so much more than it did hours earlier when I noticed the same thing. She wasn’t talking, so I decided that the best thing I could do was to not talk to her — so that she didn’t have to waste needless energy replying — but instead talk to her. I called out trail side hazards. “Careful here… big drop.” “Try to run.” “Watch your footing.” Meanwhile, another girl filtered behind Issy. I would gain some distance on them, but always making sure to stay in sight, and stop for them to catch up when I got too far ahead. I figured this was best to help the train move most efficiently, since I was up there posing as a rabbit, a pace I imagined she would want to hold. Because I knew she knew it would get lonely, especially in this darkness, not to mention the noise of bears breaking branches and moving around in the distance. On this stretch I heard so many movements in the darkness that it got scary. I decided to keep it too myself. To warn the others might mean a slower pace. I wanted to finish. Before cut-off. It’s what I came out here to do. And now I was getting selfish about it.

After what felt like 5 hours (it was only 2:30), we finally came closer to the boat crossing and the River Emergency Station. Although I could not see the boat, the river, or the aid station, I could hear the boat and hear the rushing water of the angry river. Just then a loud noise thumped on the forest floor to my immediate right. Shit! A bear. A second later I could see the shadow of the bear in the dark morning. Shit-shit. Thankfully, the trail darted left, away from where the bear was, and just around the bend was a tiny hut, with a light illuminating outside of it and the emergency aid station. The bear probably smelled sugary drinks and treats of the station. Either way, aid came at a good time, as I had just sipped my last drop of water.

As I refilled my pack with water, I noted that I had gained so much time on Issy and the other girl that I was done and out of there before they arrived. I lingered a second longer, and that’s when Issy and the other girl came through the thicket of forest where the bear was. “Issy,” I shouted as she came down a short decline to the aid station, “I’m going ahead. I’ll wait up for you at the boat.”

The boat crossing was something I had been looking forward to experiencing. The crossing of the bloated Smoky River was as much a part of the race as was Slugest, the power lines, and the ascent of Hamel Mountain. At race packet pickup, the day before the race starts, each soloist is given a Death Race Coin. The coin must be carried from start, through each leg, to this point by the river. It is here, on the edge of this ragging river, where we must hand over the coin to the Grim Reaper — a character cloaked in black with a scream mask, like a grim reaper — for passage across the river. No coin. No ride. Game over. Try again next year.

No joke.

My coin was tucked deep in my pack. I was all set. I dug out the coin and placed it carefully into the outstretched palm of the Reaper. After paying passage, I was permitted to time-in at the timing station. Meanwhile, the boat was on the other side of the river motoring back my way. During the wait, Issy and the other girl found their way to where I was. I watched as they ceremoniously paid the Reaper. It was a little silly, but it was also way cool.

As the motor boat swung around in the river to position itself for boarding, I asked Issy how she was doing. Next, I used this non-running or hiking downtime as an opportunity to prepare her for the telling of my newly crafted plan on getting us, or at least me, to the finish line in under the 24-hour cut-off window. “I have two things I want to tell you once we’re on the boat,” I said as I was ushered forward by a volunteer. It was now my time to get on the boat.

The boat swayed and bobbed in the fast-moving river. I eyed the boat, as if to time the waves, and stepped down onto the bow before swinging the other leg on. Once on, I climbed down into the cabin with the assistance of the driver. The boat rocking side to side, I sat behind the driver while Issy and two others came on board. Wasting no time at all, the driver told us to hold on and then, with a quick look back to make sure we were secure, reversed the boat and then gunned it across the river.

The ride took all of 30 seconds, which was long enough to get a glimpse of Sulpher Mountain standing stately before us, and to tell Issy of my plan.

“I am really afraid of not making cut-off,” I said with pronounced seriousness. “If the terrain ahead is what we just came through (the 8K from Leg 5 start to the boat crossing), we will not make it. Two things I want you to know: when we get to the other side (of the boat crossing), I am going to run. I can finish this. I know I can get in under 24 hours. I feel good; I can run. I want you to do your best to run too. I want you to hold my shoulder. I will get ahead of you. But if I see your headlamp behind me, I will wait up. But I am running. I don’t care how fast we run. But I want you to run. Just hold my shoulder or make sure you can see my headlamp. I believe in you. I know you can run.”

Otherwise we might not make it.

As bad as I felt saying this, trying to force Issy to run, I wanted to finish, and I wanted to do it with her. After working so well as a team together for over 20 straight hours, and after having so much fun on such epic terrain with such spectacular views, I wanted to finish this with her. It was the right thing to do. But I also didn’t come all this way, spend all this money, to not finish when I knew I could. Selfishly, I wanted to run. After Issy hit a dark spot until this point, I wouldn’t allow myself. But now, selfishly, I granted myself permission.

In short time, the boat pulled close to shore on the other side. There was a person there to help us jump down onto rocks that were still in the water. There was no other way. Issy and I timed-in to the timing station and then set out, Issy first, me second. Much to my surprise, Issy was running, and we were going up a long hill, one I knew that would continue on for nearly a 1000 feet. She was running, and I was content sitting behind her. A few hundred feet up, the trail again turned unrunnable. As we power hiked, with me now taking the lead, as I have longer legs and can power hike a bit faster, I told her again that I was not going to slow down. “I will run when it becomes runnable. Do your best to hold my shoulder.”

As the trail eased back to more runnable, I started running. It wasn’t long before I gapped Issy. Curious, and wanting to see if Issy was running, giving it her all, I stopped. And there she was, not far back. I let her gain a few more paces before pulling away. “You’re doing awesome,” I offered. “At this rate, we will finish. Just stay focused.”

Stay focused Issy did. She held close enough to my headlamp that although I waited up often, she was running and she was getting stronger. During this time we came upon a girl who we had been working with hours earlier. She joined in. “Follow us,” I told her. “Try to hold my shoulder. We got it if we can keep this up.” Buoyed by the finish and not making cutoff, we started hauling with strength and speed. And a lot of conviction! We were doing this. We were really doing this.

In our favor was that not only was the trail becoming more runnable, darkness was starting to lift, and the terrain wasn’t as jerky up and down but rather more flat and not too technical.

We ran. And we ran fast. I couldn’t help but note that it was the fastest running we did since the race started.

A half hour later, not only were we still running, and our new friend still with us, but we were passing other runners, both soloists and relay runners, and we were moving even more quickly. Every now and then I still had to wait up, but they were both there, including Issy. I cannot tell you how happy this made me. I was proud that Issy pulled through, proud that she tried to run and tried again when it didn’t last, because I know the dark place she had been in, and I know it wasn’t easy. To play witness to Issy digging so deep and finding within something, anything, to power forward was special.

As we ran, we came upon other racers once every 10 minutes. We would share hellos, talk about how hard this was, and wonder aloud if we would make cutoff. During this time, the girl we were running with, Kyla, started taking glimpses off to the side down into the valley. “I think Grande Cache is over there,” Kyla said as she pointed off the side of the mountain to an apparent clearing. This finding excited all of us. At the time, Issy was about a minute back but still moving quickly. Kyla and I agreed it would be nice if we at least saw a sign telling us how much father we had to go so that we’d have an idea where we were. Our GPS watches had run out of charge long ago. We were in the dark.

After the race, Kyla would later contact me to thank me for setting such a solid pace and for calling out trail hazards and in general providing conversation, even if with myself, as distraction. It was a nice note; it made my day! Thank you, Kyla. We made a great team.

Just then our prayers were answered. Kyla blurted out, “120!” On the side of the trail was a sign that read, “120K” We had 5K left to go. We both looked at our watches. “We got it! We did it. We’re going to make cutoff. We can walk the rest of the way in if we have to and still make it!” Kyla and I exchanged a steady high-five as we ran. It was a pretty sweet moment. The dream would be realized. I was now sure of it! Issy was behind us by a little ways, and I knew she would make it too. This was a very special moment for me, realizing the dream was all coming true. Even now, weeks after this moment, as I sit here typing this report, I feel the same emotions bubbling up. Pride. Proud. Persistence. Those words come to mind.

As the trail meandered through the forest, we came upon another runner who informed me of what was ahead on the trail and what we should look for. After learning just how little we had left, I stopped to wait for Issy a final time. When she came to my side, I held up a hand in high-five gesture. “We did it!” Issy slapped my hand. “We did it!” I explained the remaining parts of the course as we continued running.

The course from there opened up onto a hard-packed dirt utility road used for vehicular traffic. We ran until the road tilted up, exactly as my friend had informed me minutes earlier. We ran as far up the grade as we could and then efficiently transitioned to power hiking. Up and up this road went, steep and long, for maybe .75 miles, before it flattened out. On the way up, we came again upon Kyla and another soloist. At this point we had at most a kilometer to go. We could see town, this time not from high up on a mountain looking down at it as a play thing, but this time for real… we were on the edges of it. Town proper was just down the road. The four of us did high-fives again. We did it.

Town was only a left turn away, left again on main street, and then right into the finish. While the dirt road on which we walked was runnable, we all settled for a walk. We could have run. But we did not. Instead, we formed a communal procession, as if to share in exactly what we were about to accomplish, as if to prolong the experience, as if to just be with each other, for each of us had just survived an epic battle of mountain, demon, gnarly terrain, even bear.

What was striking to me was that we all knew that we were purposely slowing it down, perhaps to make this last a little longer. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this was our way of trying to understand just what we had accomplished. We used that time to put it in perspective, the goal set so many months earlier and eyed for each and every day since. And here we were, the dream about to be realized, the goal being accomplished as we walked and talked. Time no longer mattered. We were going to finish. We did it.

As we made our way to the main street, we jumped back on a paved road for the first time since it was previously light, a long 13 hours earlier. As soon as we went left on main, we could see spectators cheering us on, congratulating us, kids on the side of the road giving us thumbs up. It was then when I realize just how crazy this whole thing was. 125K? That’s 78 stupid miles! Over three major mountains? With 17,000 feet of climbing? Had I really been moving forward, both running and hiking, for over 23 hours? I had. I felt it in my mind and body. But it was a dream.

On the road with only a down hill remaining before the right hand turn into the park for the finish line, the four of us decided to separate once and for all so that we each could have our own finish line. We let Kyla go first. Then the other guy. And then Issy and I, us together.

Down the hill, right into the park, and there it was — the finish line! It was now full morning light, and people were crowded around the chute to the finish line arch. Issy and I smiled and cheered and pumped our fists. As we filtered into the chute, running comfortably, we first saw off to the left Chris, Issy’s boyfriend and support crew, and then we saw Henry and Little Henry off to the right. I pumped a fist in their direction and continued on to the finish.

We did it. We ran for over 23 hours. Much of it hiking, but we did it. The dream, and the goal, accomplished!

Once I went under the finish arch and across the line, a race official had me time-in at the last and final timing station. This would be the final beep-beep I would hear. The morning was just getting started. High above were puffy clouds floating in a crisp blue mountain sky. I noticed. Because I was looking up. Straight up. Still stuck in a world of complete awe over what this body had just done. I could tell then and there that this experience was transforming. It had to be. It was that big. The goal that hard. The challenge that steep. And I did it, and I did it feeling as good as you could. Perhaps the biggest gift was feeling so good that, like a photographic memory, I have it all preserved in my head as memories. The detail in this report is testament. Those precious experiences were not clouded by dark times of feeling ill with no energy, but rather they were full and alive and now they were stored in a place that propped me up, high. Really high. That’s when it occurred to me what my next big ultra marathon over towering mountains would be. It was clear, because it occupied my thoughts: fatherhood. This time, the thought was not angst or nervousness if I could measure up. No, not at all. I knew that if I could conquer the deepest wooded sections and remote mountains high in the northern Canadian Rockies, then Fatherhood would be a slam dunk. I completed the Canadian Death Race. I can do anything. Including that next ultra. Perseverance and strength will ensure that I am the best father I can be. I now know that. To that I say, Bring It!

Post Race

One-hundred twenty five kilometers of mountainous terrain now completed within the 24-hour cutoff window of the race, I was finally able to stop. And sit.

My support crew of Henry and Little Henry came immediately to my side and after congratulation hugs and high-fives they whisked me over to the side of the finish line chute where they had camp set up with chairs, a blanket, and my gear bag. Chris was there, too.

As I sat in a lawn chair trying to take off my shoes and socks, it hit me that it was actually a pretty chilly morning. The sun was barely up and not yet warming the day. Dew covered the grass. And my sweat was starting to freeze on my damp skin. Spectators around me wore jackets and sweatshirts and stood with their arms folded tightly or their hands stuffed in pockets.

Just then Chris handed me a tall Molson Canadian. The beer was fitting and very welcome. I cracked it open by pulling on the tab and held it up for a toast with Issy. After congratulating her, I thanked Chris for his support over the last 24 hours, and then I thanked the Henry’s. They knew I meant it. And I did.

Although the beer tasted crisp and clean and far better than PowerBars or Gels or even bananas — anything that wouldn’t convert to sugar right away — it made me cold within 5 minutes. Since both Henry’s had been out for duration, Henry himself doing the honors after having run for 12 hours, I didn’t want to keep them any longer, and I could tell they could use some warmth, so I drained the remainder of my beer and wrapped up quickly. We all vowed to meet back at this same spot in 6 hours for another event, the Kids Death Race.

The Kids Death Race was a 5K race that had a little bit of everything. Not only was it fun to watch young children get so into the event, some performing in front of their mother’s or father’s who had just completed the big event, the full Death Race, but it was also a great gathering of Death Race participants. Since the race ended at 8 AM, most people stayed in the area for the day, and most of those came out to watch the Kids race.

Fifteen minutes before the official start, the race director got things started with introductions and an announcement of rules before handing it over to a talented local singer for a rendition of the Canadian National Anthem.

“O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command…”

That’s when it hit me. Emotions flowed. It wasn’t the lyrics. It wasn’t the message. It wasn’t even the music or the flowery delivery of the words. Feelings acute, no longer able to stay inside, my eyes teared as the singer switched from English to French.

“Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix!

Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits…”

It was then that I let go of the focus I so fought to hold for the last 24 hours. It was then when I realized that the goal was achieved, that I not only did it but I also helped another person achieve theirs. It was then when I realized that it was not a season’s worth of work that reaped this sow but rather the body of work over many, many years. I had just achieved something my younger self would never have even considered as something achievable. I am in awe of what I just did, as if it were someone else, yet the prize is that I was so present, so in the moment, that it all happened not quickly, not slowly, but in real time. Even weeks later, I still do not have the proper words to describe this feeling. But there, listening to the most beautiful rendition of the Canadian National Anthem, with the singer switching back and forth from English to French, I cried tears of joy behind my sun glasses.

But that wasn’t only it. This I now saw clearly. Tears were there because it was obvious to me that what I achieved was far more than just me powering forward for hours over tall mountains. Tears were there, I knew, because this was a test for myself. I had done this very thing, played this exact game, when I was a kid. Faced with a daunting challenge, my younger self would come up with arbitrary tests usually having nothing to do with the real challenge. Reason in my head saw to it that if I could pass the arbitrary — and unrelated — test, I would be okay for the real challenge still to come.

Now here I was, as an adult, so many years later, reverting back to my senseless ways. But this time it was all too clear. The theme was there, right from the beginning. If I could get through the Death Race (the test), or so the argument went in my head, I could get through real ultra marathon ahead of me. Fatherhood. That’s what this was really about. My fears of being a father. Could I do it? Could I be the father I wanted to be?

Tears fell because I finally had my answer.

That’s what this was about, Charlie Brown.

“God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Standing there on a grassy hill before the official Death Race stage and finish line arch in the northern reaches of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the tiny town of Grande Cache, tears rolled down my cheeks as I listened to the Canadian National Anthem. I knew full well that I had just re-wrote my own personal history. When ever again I hear the Canadian National Anthem, I will no longer first think of it being my favorite anthem; instead, I will first think of the challenge imposed by self and race that was the Canadian Death Race. And then I will say, “What a lovely anthem.” Because I now know what it represents to me, not just a lovely anthem.

“O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Thank you, Canada. For your mountain. For your people. For your guidance and clarity.

Mount Washington Road Race

June 20, 2012

Mount Washington Road Race
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Saturday, June 16, 2012

Results (vs. 2011, 2010)
7.6 miles
Finish: 1:26:02 (1:28:33, 1:28:56)
1st Half: (41:44, 41:38)
2nd Half: (46:49, 47:15)
109th Overall of 1000 (122, 149)
99th Males (103, 126)
10th Age Group M40-44 (19, 18)
Total Ascent: 4727 feet (summit: 6288 feet)
Avg. Grade: 12%, extended 18%, final 100 yards 22%

Splits (vs. 2011, 2010)
1 – 8:46 (x:xx, 8:38)
2 – 10:36 (19:19, 10:41 : 1+2=19:19)
3 – 11:16 (11:25, 11:29)
1st Half – 41:05 (41:44, 41:38)
4 – 11:32 (11:54, 11:59)
5 – 12:36 (12:47, 12:53)
6 – 12:05 (12:53, 12:39)
7 – 11:46 (12:30, 12:33)
7.6 – 7:20 (7:44, 7:58)
2nd Half – 44:57 (46:49, 47:15)
Finish: 1:26:02 (1:28:33, 1:28:56)

Race website: here
Results: here
Scott Mason photos: here
Joe Viger photos: here

Race Report

If you had told me before the race that I would smash a Personal Record (PR) for the course, I would have believed you just as much as I would have if you told me that I’d run sluggish, even slow.

Coming into the 52nd running of the Mount Washington Road Race, I knew I was fit and I knew I was strong. It would be my third go in as many years up the rockpile. But with a lack of the hill-specific training that I had in previous years, I wasn’t expecting much.

Due to the grueling nature of the 12% steady grade of the auto road, with sustained sections at 18% and a final stretch at 22%, I always envisioned the way to perform your best was through specificality in training. Sense to me for a speedy run was you had to train on similar terrain. Because I hadn’t done as much course-specific training as I had in previous years, I didn’t think this year would be my one to breakout. Victory would have been to run the same time as I had last year (1:28:33), or anywhere within the 1:28 range, PR or not. This didn’t mean I would try any less; it just meant I was realistic, if a bit naïve.

Being as fit as ever entering the race gave me confidence I would at least run to my potential with my current set of tools. More confidence came after a conversation with Dave Dunham, Mr. Mount Washington himself, who said very directly that heavy base miles typically translates into fast times on the mountain. Dave suggested that it wasn’t so much about training on sustained grades but rather putting in lots of miles.

Lots of miles I had. Ensuring this was a target summer race of the Canadian Death Race, a 125K (78 miles) ultra-marathon covering 17,000 feet of total ascent over three major mountains. I was so focused on – and, really, nervous of – the Death Race that instead of training exclusively for Mount Washington, I was logging trail runs in the mountains north of three hours and one as long as 5, not to mention a 50 mile ultra (Pineland Farms) that took me 8 hours. Mount Washington, the road race, was rendered a stepping stone to a higher plateau. Sure, I was feeling strong and fit, but I was eying the Death Race, not the old man named Washington. And I trained for the Death Race, not the old man.

It was only the day before the race when I started questioning my motive, wondering if I had overlooked this race too much. Mount Washington is tough. It is grueling. And it can be ugly. In my two previous times running it (2010 and 2011), I hit a level of desperation during the race that I had only ever hit during the marathon portion of each of my Ironman competitions. Running up Mount Washington forces you to stare deep within your soul to see if you really want it. If you want it, you will survive. If there are questions, even a one, you will suffer. With something this brutal, can you really run the rockpile successfully while treating it as a run-of-the-mill 5K?

The answer, I found out, was yes, but you have to be fit, and you have to know what you’re in for. Thankfully, I was fit, and having run the road five times prior (two races, three training runs), I knew exactly what I was in for and exactly how to do it.

Race morning dawned clear and a touch crisp. Temperatures were in the low 50’s heading toward the 70’s by race time. I thought about putting a sweatshirt on for the drive to the base of the mountain but decided that staying cool would have benefits, because I knew the sun would make low 70’s feel closer to 85F.

Upon arrival at race site, I parked in the grassy field beside a white circus tent. I hopped out of the car and peered into the sky toward the mountain named Washington. For the first time in a few years, you could see clear to the top, where several antennae’s marked the summit, also known today as the finish line. Rumor had it the wind up top was light, 15 to 20 mph, and temperatures would be in the low 50’s by the time we got there. It was a perfect day for racing.

Mountain Washington Road Race has morphed into a family reunion of mountain runners from all over the New England region. Having been in the community for a few years, I know most of these people plus now even know some from around the country. Being that this year’s race was designated the USATF National Mountain Running Championship and for men the selection race for qualifying for the US National Team competing in Italy later this year, I had even more hugs, high-fives, and fist-bumps to get through before I could get ready.

An hour later, I slipped on my singlet and pulled tight the laces on my shoes. This year I decided to run in a pair of Mizuno Precision 13’s. These, with great thanks to a thoughtful friend who hooked me up with them, are my new go-to pair of shoes for all tempo runs. I simply love their soft, light-weight cushion ride. The shoes are so comfortable that I forget they are on my feet. Even though I had only logged a handful of tempo road runs, none with any elevation to speak of, I knew these would help me rock the course in comfort and with performance.

With my Precision 13’s on and ready to roll, I warmed up on the opening quarter mile of the auto road. As soon as I got my sweat on, I turned back down and rambled around on the trails at the base of the mountain. Stride here, stride there, two miles later, my legs were pumping, ready for Old Man Washington. I found my good buddy Jeff, and into the starting gate we slipped.

Each year I laugh because as I stand at the foot of the auto road along with 1000 other runners, I can’t help but note that the mood is in steep contrast to that of a marathon. Here, with such a grueling challenge ahead, where most will suffer more pain than they have ever before, people are light and friendly. In most marathons, angst mists the air like a heavy fog; nervous energy has runners either bouncing on their toes or tight-lipped singularly focused on the road ahead; idle chatter is an unwelcome guest. But here at the base of the auto road, everyone is chill, chatting idly, happy to be living life a little fuller. 7.6 vertical miles? Bring it. I love that.

BOOM! A canon exploded the race to a start.

Off the starting line I went, side by side with Jeff. We jostled for position among those around us. The start at this race is always tight, as the road narrows quickly to the length (barely) of two cars side by side. A few hundred yards later, now into the meat of the climb, we were finally beyond slower runners who, in their minds, thought they were faster. A steady 12% grade will quickly sort the field by ability. This day was no different.

By Mile Post 1 (8:46), I was dug into the climb at a steady rhythm, constantly varying effort at a micro level so that my breathing was always on edge of control. Jeff, stronger than I at climbing and, really, in races of all distances, gradually pulled away from me.

By Mile Post 2 (10:36), I lost my rabbit; Jeff was too far up. I still saw him, but he gapped me too much to help. That’s when I hooked up with fellow Turtle (Tuesday Night Turtles, my new running club), Chris Jasparro. Both of us breathing deeply, we grunted and connected with a few finger waves. It was code to mean that we’d run together as long as possible. By this point the morning was growing quite warm. Still chugging along at a steady clip, I watched beads of sweat, one at the time, fall to the tilted pavement beneath my feet. I knew better than to pray for a wind. At this mountain, you can never trust the wind. It can turn on you quickly as the trees shrink in size.

Chris and I exchanged leads several times and at other times ran side by side through Mile Post 3 (11:16). Jeff, my rabbit of the first two miles, was now out of sight.

When the Half came, I noticed right away that it felt as if it came far more quickly than in previous years. Where usually I have several dark moments within Mile 2 and 3, this year I was mentally plugged in, and I was feeling strong. Although I didn’t feel as if I was moving fast – hindsight backs that feeling with early splits compared to previous years being only 39 seconds faster – when I saw the time on the clock (41:05 at Half, 3.6 miles), I knew I was at least set up to match or beat my previous best as long as I didn’t crumble to a walk.

Through an aid station just after half, I gapped Chris a bit, but by the time we hit Mile Post 4 (11:32), he had gapped me and more.

Even before Mile Post 5 (12:36), where the road tilts to 18% for a mile-long stretch, Chris was now pulling away to the point where I was no longer looking for him. I could still see him, but looking up that far was too much strain on the neck. I let him go. Chris would eventually power on for a great race.

For the first time since the canon fired at the start of the race, I was running without a rabbit to chase. Still on the section where the road is dirt, I spied a view off my right side to Wildcat Mountain ski slopes in the distance. This is among my favorite views, and although this is the part of the course that will make or break you – it is arguably the toughest – it is my favorite part of the course, too. In racing a marathon, I always look forward to mile 18 to 20, because you never know how you are going to feel; even a perfectly executed race plan can fail, where you find yourself in dire shape at that point. Or you are strong and still on pace for a rocking fast run. This stretch, the dirt road at Mount Washington, is that for me. If you come out of that stretch still intact, still running strong, and still mentally plugged in, you will likely finish well as long as you constrain your energy output through Mile Post 6, much like you would finish strong in a marathon.

Although I felt slow on this section, I got through it and was now back on the pavement around mile 5.5 heading toward the next aid station. My breathing was on the tippy edge of control. I was working as hard as I could. The only assistance I got was from a gentle breeze that cooled ever so slightly.

Since the beginning of the dirt road to here, a stretch of nearly two miles, I was now passing many runners. A few jockeyed by me only to stop and walk. As long as I kept running, I knew, I would go by all of them. What I’ve learned is that those run-walking eventually fall off, most of them right away. Passing runners buoyed me. When the road would tip down to 11% from, say, 13%, my legs, although deeply fatigued, turned over quickly. I knew I could have a good finish, although I thought I was roughly at the same pace as last year. I never know because, truth be known, I don’t study splits or compare numbers; instead, I run to my ability every time out and let the chips (and time on the clock) fall where they may. What can a clock do more than running to my ability can? In my mind, nothing. This also sets me up for one of the most natural surprises. But that surprise wouldn’t come for another 2 miles.

Just then I started thinking about the finish and what my time might be. Before I could guess that I would finish near or perhaps slightly faster than last year, maybe with a 1:28-even finish time (last year was 1:28:33), I realized that my mind was drifting. I had to wrestle it back to focus on the race. “Dude,” I thought to myself, “stay plugged in. You’re not even at 6 (Mile Post) yet. You know there is still tough running through 7. Stay focused.”

STAY FOCUSED! Back to focus I went.

Mile Post 6 (12:05) came quickly and with it a shot of adrenaline. Mile 6 was site of the Heartbreak Hill Strider supported aid station, where I had several friends handing out water. Although I was too tapped out to jump for a high-five, I made eye contact and did a finger wave first to Chris Dunn of acidotic Racing, and second to my buddy Tom.

Swigging a cup of water, I listened to Chris and Tom yell encouragement. Chris took it up a notch. “Go Thor!” he screamed. “Jeff just went by. Go catch him!”

Jeff? Just went by?

I had a new/old rabbit to chase. A long glance up the winding auto road yielded… nothing. Another glance… nothing. I didn’t see Jeff. But I did see Chris, another of my old rabbits, and he was, wait, there’s Jeff!

With Jeff now in sight, perhaps 3 minutes up, I thought there would be no way I could catch him. That is, I thought that way until I saw him power walk when the road tipped up. That gave me hope that I could at least close the gap. Just when I worried that I would run out of room to chase him down, I stopped the thought as silly. Instead, I focused on a rabbit to pull me the rest of the way.

Mile 6 to 7 is usually when I go through another dark period. Somehow I get out of my head and let myself believe that I’m almost there. Although you are almost there, you still have a lot of tough running left. That’s the part that gets me every year. But not this year!

Without a care on when the finish might come, I powered through Mile Post 7 (11:46) with only one goal, to catch Jeff. I had closed the gap to now, at most, a minute.

By the time the road lightened up, Jeff was now directly in my sights with only one other runner between us. I couldn’t help but notice that Jeff was now powering along with strength. Where before he was power-walking the steepest parts of the road, he was now running up. Damn. He would later tell me that around that point he took a look back to see where I was, and when he saw me he knew he had to get on the horse and stay there.

Stay there he did. Jeff hit the final section, a 22% stretch known as “The Wall”, 30 seconds up on me. That is exactly where he would finish. In all, over the last mile, we both motored by 5 or 6 others, first him, then me.

Next it was my turn to battle The Wall. As I started up, I heard my name being called. I wagged a few fingers to show acknowledgement as I continued to pump my arms. I had no extra energy to break rhythm.

Up the Wall I went, I powered around and around the bend, until finally the finish line, and the clock, came into sight. Because I hadn’t looked at my watch, even when I hit the splits, I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I gave the mountain my all. My belief is and always has been that if I run every step of the way, not pausing to walk a one, I will have a good race, or at least I will race to my ability with the tools that I have. Seeing the clock for the first time, just like I do in marathons, is among the most natural, awesome surprises in my life. I want it to read one thing, but I have only an idea based on how I felt, and today, now at the top of the mountain, really on top of the world, having achieved my goal of running every single step for the third year in a row, and knowing that I felt great, I could only imagine what the clock would read. No need to guess, as I am who I am and it is what it will be. And so when I saw the clock, half expecting it to read 1:28:xx, specifically because that’s what I had guessed back at Mile Post 5, I found a stray bit of energy to make a fist and pump it has hard as I could.

The clock read 1:25:52, :53, :54…

I couldn’t believe it.

I ran as hard as I could, trying to lift my legs, get them turning over more and more quickly as the path to the finish lets up from 22% to flat. I thought only one thing: Holy shit!

Holy shit, I just rocked this beast.

Try as I did, I couldn’t get the time to stay in the 1:25’s.

Finish came in 1:26:02. With an average pace of 11:19, this was good for 109th place Overall, 99th place Male and 10th age group M40-44.

The final .6 miles (7:20) was the strongest I had ever felt on that section. If there ever was a way to put an exclamation point on a run up the rockpile, that was it.

Pineland Farms 50

May 31, 2012

Pineland Farms 50 Mile Trail Race
New Gloucester, Maine
Sunday, May 27, 2012

50 miles
8:20:36 (10:01 pace)
Ascent: 3500 feet over three loops
25th Place Overall of ~150 (200 registrants)
7th AG M40-49

*3.5 mile loop + 25K (15.5 miles) loop run 3 times
3.5 – 29:09
25K #1 – 2:23:35
25K #2 – 2:29:38
25K #3 – 2:58:13 (ugly)

Race website: here
Course map: here
Elevation Profile (for 25K loop): here
Results: here (scroll down for 50 mile results)

Maine Running Club: here

Race Report

Confession time:

When I approach a race that is out of my comfort zone in difficulty level, say an ultra marathon, or one in which I will run far out of my comfort zone in attempts to achieve my potential, for example a marathon in which I want to run hard, I tend to ignore the race itself and the pain I will go through. I do this by not thinking about the race. Instead, I distract myself by either ignoring the race completely or, if I do think about it, visualizing myself being strong on various portions on the course. I let the day come to me rather than anticipating it every waking hour. The former allows me to head into a race stress free, while the latter amps up frenzied anxiety. I prefer one over the other.

This technique – or, really, this coping mechanism – works for me most of the time. It allows me to sleep in the days leading up to the race. I spend little time thinking about the race except to visualize myself being successful.

Unfortunately, once in a while, this strategy doesn’t work.

At Pineland Farms 50, a fifty mile ultra-marathon that is part of a trail running festival in New Gloucester, Maine, this approach bit me in the ass.

I totally overlooked this race by ignoring it. Did I really think I could jog a 50 mile ultra-marathon? Did I really think I could go into this race with the only plan being to jog easy? Apparently so.

By ignoring this race, I let my guard down; this helped me slide into a fast pace in the early going. I had no idea just how relentless the roller coaster hills on the course would be. Where I had hoped to be ready to run strong for many, many hours through to the end, I was now making decisions – or, truthfully, NOT making decisions – that would see me run strong for a few hours and then suffer through several more.

The only thing going for me was that I was fit and mentally plugged in. In other words, although I was not anticipating a battle, my training over the past few years left me ready for one – it was just that I was not expecting one.

Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival caught my attention a few months prior. Friends told me this event is a perfect late-spring ultra marathon with great organization and some of the most picturesque trails you can run on. So with the Canadian Death Race as my target race for the year – coming two months later in early August – I realized that the 50 miler would be the right stepping stone to take me toward my real goal of the Death Race.

Overlooking this race had me not doing my homework on the course profile. I had heard the course was rolling hills, but I didn’t do research to find out what that meant. “Rolling hills” to some is prairie land and poppy fields to others. Little did I know that the course was so choppy, up and down like a runaway roller coaster, there were few sections that were flat. Mentally and physically, I was ready. But that didn’t help me make the right decisions early on with my pacing.

I went out a little too hard. And it bit me in the ass. This proved to be far more work than I anticipated, all because the coping mechanism that keeps me sleeping well in the days before the race, this time failed. I needed to do more homework.

Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival is a family event with races of distances from 5K all the way up to 50 miles. There is even a 5K Canicross event where you can run with your dog! The way it is set up bodes well for the longer races, since the courses loop by the start/finish festival area many times.

The 50 Miler was essentially 3 laps of a 25K (15.5 miles) loop. Because this was shy of 50 total miles, there was a smaller 3.5 mile loop prepended to the day.

After the race started, I settled in to a comfortable breathing pattern on the opening 3.5 mile loop. The rolling nature of the course started right away. Up and down we went. Not long after, I hooked up with a guy from Central Massachusetts. As we swapped stories, we both remarked that we were probably going too fast. “Just means we’ll be walking sooner,” I joked. Funny. Or maybe not.

Upon completing the 3.5 mile loop, we swung back by the start/finish area. There were early morning spectators cheering us on. I used this as an opportunity to hit a Portopotty. It was odd, because here I was, stuffed squat in a green stink chamber, with people outside clapping. I did my business, snapped the door shut, and said to those now looking at me: “I felt like I had my own personal cheering section in there.” I was pointing at the Portopotty. “Thanks for the support!”

Back running, I was now beginning the first lap of the 25K course. Having started on the fast side, and due to the nature of the hills on the course, I had a hard time slowing down. Hills are like that. You have to work to get up them, whether you are going hard or easy. I decided not to fight it. Just run, I coached myself. Had I known what the rest of 25K course profile looked like, with those relentless ups and downs, I would have coached myself differently. Live and learn. How do you like funny now?

Lap #1 was a fun ride, almost an exploration expedition, as I soaked in the scenery and tried to take mental notes of key landmarks for the next two laps, when things would no doubt get tougher. Nice about the course was that each of the 25 kilometers were marked with large white signs on trailside. Because of the potty break, I spent the first three kilometers (roughly two miles) passing people until finally the pace at which I was running was the same as those around me.

In and out of dark forest and cutting across pristine farmland, the course rolled and snaked. Someone would tell me later that the land was designed by an architecture firm who has made world-class cross country ski resorts in Norway, Switzerland and even was part of Salt Lake City Olympics. It was easy to see. The course alone, with wide trails of grass and others of hard-packed dirt and pine needles, was worth the entry fee alone. One day when I get into cross country skiing, I thought as I was out there, I’ll be back!

At roughly 7K into the first lap (total mileage 3.5 miles + 7K = 8.25 miles), I came upon my friend Jay Pags. I met Pags earlier in the year when we ran the GAC Fat Ass 50K together. Pags was one of the guys who talked this race up. It was good to see him out there. We chatted until one of the steeper hills came upon us. Pags and another fellow took the smart approach by walking. Me, I still haven’t decided if walking hills is my thing, not at least on a 50 – but definitely a 100 — so I ran easy, light on my feet up. I repeated this for most of the first two laps. Once in a while, when the trail tipped up a bit too much, I walked to give my legs a break. The third lap, however, would be different.

By the time I got to 10K into the first lap, I had a good idea of the aid station setup. This was important since in a race this long you tend to break up the course by segments defined by aid stations. To this point I was drinking often, and even though the day started on the cool side, it was now warming, even getting hot at times, and I was sweating non-stop. This was good. I also was gobbling gels and had a few peanut butter and jelly squares.

Back into the forest the course went as it made its way again toward the start/finish area. This section was bit hard to get a feel for. Because of that it seemed longer than it really was.

Each 25k lap has, as my friend Mat would say, a “front nine” and a “back nine,” in golf speak. The front nine was a 15K loop on the west side of farm and forest land that would start and return to festival area. The back nine was a 10K loop that did the same on the east side. So in completing one lap, front nine plus back nine, you go by the start/finish line one time before swinging out on the back nine to complete the loop.

Now on the back nine, I was feeling more fatigued than I would have liked. Too much too early. It was then when I knew that I had started too hard for the course. If this were Stone Cat or another 50 mile course, I could have done this same pace. But not here, not on these hills. And the back nine was filled with more of the same. Up and down and up and down.

Finally, I hit the “Final Mile Aid Station,” the last aid station on the loop, and completed the first lap in 2:23 time. Add in the first 3.5 mile loop and I was now nearly 20 miles in. I grabbed a few more gels from my bag, which was under a tent by the finish area, which I had just passed, and started on the second lap.

Lap number two grew hot. Although the temperature wasn’t that high, when in the open farmland of tall grass, of which there was a 12 foot swath of path cut for the race, it got muggy and hot, probably because of the moist, humid air lingering around in this grassy ecosystem.

Sweating good and fueling right, I made my way through the course. By the first aid station and to the second, which we loop in and out of a total of three times, I couldn’t help but think again of the course and how well it was marked and the trails maintained. In fact, the course was so well marked that it was impossible to run off course. There was never a doubt where to go. Even if you had your head down, there was still no way of going off course. So well it was that course markings weren’t even needed in most areas, although they were there.

It was on the second lap when things also got hard. I kept up with gels and peanut butter & jelly and now even fig bars and bananas. My hydration was good, and I even popped a salt tablet. But the constant up and down was wearing on me. My legs were having a tough time turning over when I ran down the hills, and it was taking more and more energy out of me to go up. This is also when the camber of the farmland started tweaking my ankles. At times the course cut across grassy hills – not up or down, but across – on a camber, or tilt, 20% or more. I was feeling all sorts of pains and twisting motions in the ankles.

My favorite part of the course was among the toughest. Just out of the Yurt Aid Station for the first time (Yurt is the station that the course loops out from 3 times — it is the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of 5 total stations), the course cuts through tall grass about six feet high. The trail was mowed low, with dead grass still in the path making footing tough. This pointy grass would poke your ankles and shins. As I was ascending the open farm land amid this tall grass, again with the grass up to above eye-level, you could see way up the hill where the path goes, see the path cut right — see only because of the heads bobbing above the top of the grass line. A closer look would show the course switching back and forth all over the hill as it made its way up. What I liked about it was that when you finally made your way through the ascent and were now at the top, you could look back to see the cut in the grass of path where you came from, and if you were lucky you’d see a head bobbing about the trail to prove, yup, that’s where you came from.

On this part of the course I felt as if I were in a video game. We were all Lemmings making our way through the course. I toyed with this video game idea for many ups and downs.

Somewhere in here my mental sharpness got blunted, in case you hadn’t noticed already. But it was, at least temporarily, in a way that favored me. I had learned to count the number of times I hit the Yurt Aid Station. I knew I had to come into and out of it three times before the course would start heading back, marking the end of the front nine. As I came into the Yurt the second time, it hit me that this wasn’t the second time – it was the third! I was that much farther along. I used this mental lapse as a clue to catch up on my fuel.

When doing long endurance events, every once in a while I will do what I call is a “catch up” on either my hydration or nutrition or both. I drink and eat along the way, but the “catch up” is a time when I get in more than a few sips or bites here and there, to catch up in case I was running low. And with that kind of mental hiccup just happening, I knew there was a good chance I needed it. Third time at the Yurt aid station, I caught up.

To this point I kept telling myself that lap 2 was the hard one. If lap 1 was the social lap, and 3 the party lap, lap 2 was the tough one. Just get through it, and the fun lap, the final one, would start.

Lap 2 finally came to an end in 2:29. I was happy with the time because I thought I would be much slower than the first lap. First was 2:23. This wasn’t far off. But that would change.

Through the festival area I went, without stopping, and onto the third lap. I wanted to get this over with. I was growing hot, tired, and I knew the next lap would get ugly. To this point I was mostly running by myself. I would come upon other runners from time to time, but they would mostly be those in the 50K race, and some in the 25K, once in a while somebody from the 50 miler. I never felt alone, for you could always hear through the trees cheering from a distant aid station or chatter from other runners on the zip of the zag of the course. Plus, the next aid station was at most 4K away.

The third lap is also when I paid the price for having started the first lap on the fast side. Where I was hoping to plod my way through the farmland and to each of the aid stations, a Lemming making his way through the maze, I was slipping more into survival mode. One thing I made sure to do was to stay focused, keep my mental game entirely plugged in, so that I wouldn’t suffer more. Embrace the pain became my game.

Hills were growing steeper, and I was walking more of the ups. About 3K into the loop, my legs grew so fatigued that I was not able to run well down the steeper hills. This was perplexing because my quads, something that often get hammered on courses with a lot of descent, felt fine. They were not sore. But they were fatigued, as were my hamstrings and in general my whole body, and running down hill fast was not at all possible. So now I was not only giving back time on the ups but I was also giving back on the downs not to mention slowing down on even the mild ups and downs and flats, where ever they were.

From there until the end, my breathing was labored. I was running as easy as possible, but with the ups and downs, I was tapped out. Walk the steeper ups, easy tip-toe jog down the downs, and simple plod on all else. I kept focused, kept trying to “get into the land”, as I called it. There was a long stretch where I was listening to birds chirp. When I lost focus, I’d get back to focusing on breathing and keeping it on edge of control. Soft-step easy up the ups. Easy does it.

After what seemed forever, I finally made it onto the back nine of the last lap. I now had 10K more to go! Embracing the pain and deep fatigue, I forged on.

Over the back nine, things in the race changed drastically with those around me. I was not only picking off some of the slower 50K’ers, I was passing many 25K’ers, too. Not only that, but also, the 50 mile race was shaking up. I passed several runners with orange bib numbers; orange was the color for the 50. Some of those whom I passed looked like death. Just as I was getting buoyed, other orange bibs came by me. I probably looked like death to them. I would try to hang with each of the five that went by me, and I would for a short while, pulling me farther along the course, but not too long later they were gone.

Where my “party lap” was supposed to be the entire third lap of celebration of completing 50 miles, like a victory lap, then was cut short to just the back nine, it was now getting so tough that the abbreviated party lap of just the back nine was cut even further to the “Final Mile Aid Station” – with one mile left!

What made this bearable was that having been through here two previous times, I had a good idea of how the course was set up, and I had several landmarks to check off as I went by.

Now at the Final Mile Aid Station, I was so psyched to finish that I went quickly through it. I didn’t need anything. I was about to finish my second 50 mile ultra marathon. I had a mile remaining. And I wanted to get it done. So I opened my mind further, soaked in the land, the experience, and even the hurt over the final mile.

Deep down I knew that this course, even with me underestimating it by looking beyond it, would prove to be awesome training for the Death Race. With the steady up and down, this hurt is now in my body in the form of strength. And by not anticipating the hurt and how long it would be, this too is now in my mind in the form of mental capacity.

Death Race, it’s in me. Mind and body.

After passing on the outside of the finish line chute six times during the course of the long, grinding day, I was now ready to cross the line. With high-fives from friends, that’s what I did.

Finish came in 8 hours, 20 minutes, and 36 seconds. This was good for 25th place overall of 200 registrants (150 finishers) and 7th AG M40-49.

Lap 3 was 2:58, nearly 30 minutes slower than lap 2. Yeah, it was ugly. But I was still in control, walking only by my own accord on steeper up hills.