Department of Anthropology
Much of the race is now a blur. The result was better than I dreamed, and in writing what I remember of the race I hope to bottle some of that magic to uncork again in the future!
The Keys 100M would be my 6th official 100M race, and the 8th time I’d go the distance.
2009 Superior Sawtooth 100M 33hr 49min
2010 * 100M training/fun run ~23hr
2010 * Spartathlon (153M) DNF @ 60M
2013 Kettle Moraine 100M 23hr 25min
2013 Mohican Trail 100M 23hr 48min
2013 Burning River 100M 26hr 05min
2013 Hallucination 100M 22hr 38min
2013 * 24 The Hard Way (100M split) ~21hr
* 100 miles attempted or completed as part of other run/race
The Keys 100M would be my first real shot at a strong 100M performance with some experience under my belt. Superior Sawtooth in northern Minnesota was quite hilly and technical, and I finished despite a number of major and extended lows. The training run in 2010 was in preparation for an ill-fated attempt at Spartathlon. The training run went OK, but I really struggled with nutrition and electrolytes at Spartathlon (DNF) and dropped with medical complications.
After a little break to finish graduate school and move from Atlanta to Indiana and the start of my career, I wanted another go at Spartathlon. I knew I’d need a lot more experience, and in the summer of 2013 ran the four hundred milers associated with the Midwest Grand Slam. I approached all four races conservatively, making adjustments to figure out where I was going wrong and what it would take to carry my body over the distance. I tried a few different strategies, but struggled with nutrition, or heat, or injury in each race.
So at the start of the Keys 100M, I felt a huge monkey on my back. After 8 attempts at the 100+ mile distance, I’d finished 7, but still hadn’t figured out how to manage my races (especially nutrition and electrolytes) with any consistency. I consumed too many calories, or too few calories, or too much protein, or too much fiber, etc. I kept striving for enlightenment, but a breakthrough proved elusive.
After a while, I started to wonder whether I just wasn’t mentally strong enough to be competitive at this distance. I didn’t want to believe that, but I couldn’t escape the self doubt, either.
I’d read a blog post by Scott Jurek (http://running.competitor.com/2014/04/inside-the-magazine/the-long-run/the-long-run-eating-on-the-run_28754) as I prepared for Keys where he noted intake of 0.7-1.0 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram body weight per hour works for almost all endurance athletes. I’d been focusing much of my previous races on finding the right number of calories, and in the process consuming too much protein or fat which slowed me down. Or, I’d get into a death spiral of too few calories, followed by low motivation, and too little intake, and around and around. It sounded right to focus on carbohydrate intake, and so I did the calculation for my body weight weight and found Cytomax and Roctane to fall in that range for a 21 oz. bottle (lasting 40 and 60 minutes respectively).
The new plan would be to take all calories from these mixes, and supplement with pinches of sea salt. I hoped alternating the two mixes and taking the salt directly on the tongue (rather than as a capsule) would help combat sugar/flavor fatigue. I’d had some issues consuming all sugar in the past, but that had been with a lot of gels. I thought it might go down easier in liquid form with the right amount of electrolytes.
I figured each drink mix would fuel 5 miles (40 minutes when I was feeling good, and 60 minutes if I wasn’t). Drop bags could be placed every 20 miles, so I left 4 pouches of mix in each drop bag except the last one. By 80 miles, I figured I’d be sick to death of the mix and left myself only 2 drink pouches along with plain flour and corn tortillas. [I would later regret skimping on the drink mix there]
Water and ice would be available every 5’ish miles, and my plan was to carry two 21 oz. bottles of drink mixed at 10 mile intervals and top up with ice/water at the 5 mile coolers in between. In the past, I’d adopted more of an eat/drink what feels right, only to struggle with inconsistent energy levels. So I hoped the more measured approach would improve consistency.
With the plan in place, and everything laid out, I went down for a good nights sleep before the race at dawn.
I went off with the first wave at 6:15am. It was still a little dark, but we were otherwise blessed with ideal conditions. Temps were forecast to top out in the high 70s or low 80s, low-moderate humidity, with intermittent cloud cover and a stiff wind at our backs. Some were predicting a “South Florida Track Meet”, but I was just happy for a better shot at a personal best and to check the self doubt that had been building with my 100M struggles!
After the start, Aly Venti went right out in commanding fashion and a number of other great runners followed suit, if a bit more restrained. Dave Krupski, Katalin Nagy, Traci Falbo, Chris Roman, and Grant Maughan went out around 7-7:45 for the first mile and I trailed behind at around 8:00 pace. After a couple miles the leaders were out of sight, and the back of the lead pack seemed to have settled in right around 8:00 pace.
I held 8-8:30 pace through the first 10 miles. I felt really comfortable, and was running efficiently, but I had planned to go out around 9:00s. So, I settled again into the pacing strategy I’d maintain the rest of the race: 1-3 minutes of walking every 10 minutes depending on how I felt. Walking just 1 minute if I felt good, or up to 3 minutes if I felt like hell. My running pace stayed pretty consistent at around 8-9 minute miles, and with the walking breaks averaged between 9:00 and 11:00/mile.
It was pretty smooth sailing for a few hours, and I felt the first rough patch between 25 and 50 miles in. For the most part, everything was still OK, but the day was heating up and I was starting to feel some bloating (stomach) and acid like reflux. My stomach felt really full and I’d get resurgent waves of foamy drink coming back up. Not much, but enough to spit out. It didn’t feel good, and occasionally made it harder to get enough fluid (and calories) down. But, thankfully, it didn’t slow me down too much…yet.
I found some Tums at the Mile 50 aid station which helped a bit, and by mile 53 (start of the 7-mile bridge) was back in a happy mental space. The breeze was really stiff at our backs at this point, the view was amazing, and I was feeling great! I found myself singing out loud and preaching “this is gorgeous!” and “this is exactly what I hoped for!” to everyone and no one. I was grinning from ear to ear and really enjoying myself!
The stomach problems would come and go thereafter, with periods of nastiness broken up by relative comfort. Candied ginger, procured at a couple aid stations, seemed to help a little. But unfortunately, the effectiveness wore off as the race wore on.
I stayed pretty focused on moving from aid station to water cooler to aid station, and walking 1-3 minutes out of every 10. I continued taking the walking breaks even when I felt good, to provide a little insurance against blowing up later. I also erred on the side of taking longer walking breaks if I was on the fence between 1-2 or 2-3. I told myself I’d risk shorter walks later in the race if I was up for it.
At mile 60, I calculated I was about 30 minutes ahead of 18 hour finishing pace. By mile 70, I was about 45 minutes ahead and quickly gaining confidence. With the exception of my bloaty and refluxy stomach, I was still feeling pretty good. I was still making conservative decisions to protect the 18 hour finish, but started to hope that if things went well I might sneak under 17 hours. That was a fun thought!
At mile 70, the aid station volunteers told me I was in 7th place and about 15 minutes behind 6th. At mile 75, they told me the gap was down to 9 minutes. I’d never really been in this position before. But, with that information, I started racing.
It turned out that 6th runner was Dave Krupski. Dave and I had a couple mutual friends and had been introduced a couple times, but didn’t really know each other. I knew Dave was a really strong runner, having finished 1st male here in 2013 and I’d have to be smart if I wanted to get, and stay, in front of him. By mile 78 I could see him up ahead, and figured he must be going through a rough patch for me to have made up that gap so quickly.
Either way, I needed to make a definitive pass, and so eased back a little on my pace, took a healthy 3 minute walking break to store up a little extra oomph, and then went for it. I’d have 2 miles to build a gap of my own before we got to the 80 mile point, where I’d have to pull off and take care of a few things at my drop bag. Since Dave was running with a crew I knew he wouldn’t need to stop so I had to make these two miles count if I wanted to maintain the lead.
I put it down for those two miles and built a few minutes gap coming into the aid station. I worked as quickly as I could, but had to refill and mix a couple bottles, stash some tortillas in my belt, swap my long sleeve shirt for a tank (night was coming on), dump my sunglasses, and hope they had some more Tums or ginger I could take with me.
I got it all done, but used up the gap, and Dave and his pacer came rolling through the aid station just as I was leaving. We ran together for about 1 mile and chatted. When he heard I was running solo (without a crew) he generously offered his crew to help me with whatever I needed. And his crew repeated the offer every time I’d see them over the remaining miles. You’ve really gotta love the camaraderie at ultras!
We were on slightly different run/walk schedules, and he broke first for his. As we split, I probably picked up the pace a bit: running and walking a bit faster, and taking shorter walking sessions. Dave had said he wasn’t interested in racing over the remaining miles, and I mostly believed him. But, I was having a hell of a race, and if I could stay in front of him it’d be my first time on the 100M podium. I could totally understand why it might not matter much to him (he was 1st male last year and went out hard to win this year, for gosh sakes), but it was a big deal for me and I wasn’t about to just roll in the last 20 miles.
Unfortunately, my stomach problems had not gone away and as I started pulling away from Dave it got worse. Adding insult to injury, I was forced into a Port-O-John at 15 miles to go with diarrhea. Fortunately, I got in and out fairly quickly and kept the lead I’d built over the last few miles.
Between 15 and 10 miles to go, the bloating was bad and I wasn’t able to drink nearly enough to keep calories and energy up. As a result, I rolled into the 90 mile aid station with about an 8 minute gap ahead of Dave but was low on energy and not thinking clearly. I wasted a couple minutes unsure how to deal with my stomach, and not sure what to eat or drink, before realizing I needed to find a toilet again for #2 round 2.
I hustled in to the nearby Shell station, but the pity party had already begun. The bloating over the previous 5 miles had slowed my pace, I worried Dave was probably catching back up, and my ability to get under 17:00 was slipping away. With butt on the porcelain, and head in my hands, I tried to shake off the feeling that everything was coming unwound.
I finished up my business, headed back outside to see Dave and his pacer cruising by. In the dark he thought I was an aid station volunteer and asked how far ahead the next runner was. So much for not racing! I waved at him, might have said something (don’t remember what), and got back to collecting what was left of my wits.
And then I looked up and lost it again. George Myers had rolled into the aid station as I was getting my belt back on and we chatted a couple minutes. He looked strong and had started in the wave behind me, so as we sat there in net time he had a 5 minute lead on me. Mentally, I nearly checked out.
My stomach wasn’t cooperating, my energy was low, I’d now need to hold 10 consecutive miles at 10:00 pace to finish under 17:00. With Dave’s experience and competitiveness I figured I’d need to go even faster to catch him, and faster yet to get 5 minutes up on George. Hell!
I left the aid station before George, but failed to get fuel for the last 10 miles. In my last drop bag (mile 80) I’d only had enough drink mix for 10 miles, and the tortillas were definitely not going down. And now I’d left the 90 mile aid station with little more than a few sips of Coke. What a kick in the shins! I despaired for a couple minutes until George caught up.
We ran together and chatted for about a mile. He looked strong, and was really positive. I told him Dave was just up ahead of us and he could likely make the podium if he pushed a bit. Without hesitation, George took off. I was so impressed by his reaction. We were now 91 miles into this race and his competitive fire was still burning!
As soon as he left my stomach settled a bit, or at least my head refocused on the competition, and I felt better. I picked it up and matched George’s pace. He was now 100-200 yards in front of me and I caught up a few minutes later when he took a quick walk break. We passed Dave with maybe 8 or 9 miles to go.
I was now in a much better mental space. George’s company and dash for an opportunity at the podium snapped me out of my pity party and I was now thinking we still had a shot at getting under 17 hours.
I picked up the pace a bit more and encouraged George that we could still get under 17 if we went for it. I didn’t have enough fuel, but hoped I could drive through 10 miles on heart. To hell with my stomach, to hell with my everything else. I was going for it! After a couple minutes I realized he wasn’t coming with me, and my head immediately started calculating what I’d need to do to overcome the 5 minute head start in just 8 miles. If he continued to run at the 9:00/mile pace we passed Dave with, I would need to average nearly 8:00/mile.
But he was looking strong, and I thought he might also pick it up and fight over the last 8 miles. If that was the case, I would need every second I could get. And so I broke my run/walk routine and went for it. I dropped it down to about 8:00 miles, skipped all walking breaks, and blew through the mile 95 water cooler.
With 4 miles remaining, we turned off Highway 1, and in so doing lost the mile markers I’d been leaning on to gauge progress and pace. I started getting increasingly anxious that George was on my heals and picked up the pace a bit more, to maybe ~ 7:30/mile. Over the last 2 miles I was really hanging on by a thread and desperate to know how much further I’d have to push.
Suddenly, the finish line emerged at the end of a short path to my left, and my heart sang! A few more steps and I was over the line!
I couldn’t believe it.
Ten miles back, I saw almost no chance to get under 17:00. Yet, I’d just crossed the line over 18 minutes under! Which also means that over those last 8 miles I must have averaged about 7:45/mile battling stomach bloat and low blood sugar. I’d just proved to myself, once again, that where the mind leads the body will follow!
As soon as I crossed I looked to the clock and started counting. Would George make it across in the next 5 minutes? I really hoped he’d finish strong, but more like 6 minutes back And the same, of course, for Dave.
After a tense but celebratory 5 minutes, and with congratulations from Bob Becker (race director) and Mike Melton (timer), I was informed I was the 2nd male and 5th overall runner across the line. I could hardly believe it. The moment was so so surreal. I’d thought I was racing for 3rd male and 6th overall, but had apparently been misinformed. What a pleasant surprise!
It wasn’t a perfect race, and I lost time to stomach issues, drop bag digging, drink filling/mixing. But I feel I’ve finally, FINALLY, kicked that monkey off my back. I kept it together and came across with a strong run. I put together a solid nutrition plan (with the bloating and reflux clearly indicating room for improvement, of course) and executed it reasonably well.
But it also seems there’s no rest for the weary. Going back over the race, I can’t help but add up the minutes I could have gained here and there. As excited as I truly am to be a newly minted member of the sub-17 club, the celebration only lasted about 72 hours before I began coveting sub-16 membership. Those minutes are out there to grab, and I’m more excited than ever to go scoop them up!
Photo credit: Cindy Ginsberg Schnell (three photos with me in the frame), Bryce Carlson (other two)