In November 2014, I dropped out of World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM). On the fringes of adrenal failure from Tor des Geants, my weakened body couldn’t handle the demands of another 24-hour event that season. My weakened ego received no respite though as I returned to HURT 100 in January 2015. Full of my own high expectations, I sabotaged my own race by making a poor nutritional mistake 60 miles into the race. Between the Adrenal Fatigue, the nutritional self-sabotage and the lack of solid employment, I was heading towards a rabbit hole of depression and considered shelving ultra-running all together.
In the midst of all of this though, there was David. The coach I hired in the center of all self-loathing and misdirection. At our first meeting I went to tell David why I wanted to hire him,
“I want” I said opening my mouth as my mind drifted to Ryan Atkins at WTM, Rob Krar at Western States, Iker Karerra at Tor des Geants and the whole wide spectrum of endurance athletes who I unfairly compared myself against, “to be faster, to be more in control…And to be in the sport for a long time.”
With no races on the horizon and no set training period, I was grateful for David’s patience with me. He must have known I was in the upswing of an adrenal fatigue phase. His approach was “control” over speed and he emphasized “working-in” as much as I “worked-out”. Increasing time spent meditating, practicing yoga and tai-chi patterns, I slowly developed a heightened awareness of my muscles and breathing in these relatively stationary practices.
It was in the translation of this awareness to trail running though where I was most surprised by David’s approach. It was working. Month after month, my mileage hovered around 75 to 80 miles per week at most with only two days a week spent developing speed. But the day I ran a 4:57 mile around the track for the first time since High School, I knew I was going to bring something special to the Fat Dog 120.
“Nick! Why didn't you read the race guide BEFORE we drove out here?” I was exasperated at Nick’s ability to plan his race strategy to a T, but fail to read anything other than what time to be at the race start on Friday.
I can’t entirely blame him; after a week of hiking the West Coast Trail, playing tourist in Vancouver and visiting family, I felt incredibly present. So present, in fact, that I had trusted Nick to have some semblance of an idea of where I would need to be during the race. Instead, here we were sitting at the “Wrong Turn Tavern” in Keremeos, British Columbia, stealing Wi-fi and hurriedly writing down the rough directions of where I would need to be during the race and, more importantly, how to get there.
Temperatures, as Jade and I huddled around the start line were much cooler than I anticipated. “Yay less stomach issues!” I said excitedly to Jade as I gave her one last kiss and gathered behind the front pack of runners.
|Last minute preparation before the race.|
We were off! And quicker than I could comprehend was some twenty-five people or so back from the front runners stuck in cattle line heading up single track. I glanced around and to my ego’s delight, I couldn’t recognize a single person. My lack of pre-race research had paid off, I was calm and these people? They were all potential friends on the same journey, not competitors to crush! At least, not yet.
Around 100 feet or so ahead of me I picked out one runner. Jade was eyeing him at the starting corral and mentioned he looked like a good runner. Backwards white hat, strong build, clear glasses and curly hair. Something of a mix between Scott Jurek and Jesse Haynes, alternating between a fast walk and a light run, you could tell he knew what he was doing.
“Are you Nickademus?” I heard a runner behind me say. I glanced over my poles and pack and figured the Tor des Geants logo on the poles must have given me away, damn! The gig was up!
“Yup” I replied, the guy’s name was John, he’d placed third at the Tahoe 200 last year and was planning to run pretty hard at this event as well. We talked a little bit about the race and the current climb before he continued on past me and disappeared around a corner. Although through the conversation he’d now towed me up to the heels of the runner in white hat, Nathaniel, as I shortly learned his name.
Good runners are easy to spot. Their breath, their pace, their ability to hold a conversation with you on climb without gasping for air. Nathaniel was one of these and that struck fear into my heart for later in the race. Without saying a thing, I followed silently behind him. Carefully analyzing his uphill form, his stride on flat terrain and his movement on downhill grades. I wanted to know what I was up against.
In a controlled voice, he turned around to me
In a controlled voice, he turned around to me
“Would you like to pass?” he asked.
“No, I’m cool here thank you!” I said back to him in my best diction possible.
The two of us got to chatting and joking about the race “not beginning until mile 90” but the subtle investigations into one another’s strengths and weaknesses had already begun.
He asked me about my time goals in the race.
“I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes” I said averting the question.
From the moment I stepped onto the course, I was going for the record. Not a single other person was to know though.
At the summit of the first climb, I took off from Nathaniel and started to open up my stride on the long downhill. I wasn’t surprised to catch four, then five runners who’d huffed and puffed past me on the uphill climb. I knew from years of racing that energy was much better spent the flats and downhills than it was on the ups.
|Feeling strong at mile 18|
The first aid station, at mile 18 for Nick, was only a half hour drive away. Granted, it was on a dirt road but there was and the opportunity to see big horn sheep and a variety of birds. While I waited for Nick I thought, “So I’ll have this camera for when he comes over the bridge, this one for when he comes through the station and then this one as he’s leaving?” As I waited, I debated on how to best take photos while also ensuring that his pack was full. I pulled out a book I’d wanted to read but quickly put it away in frustration. This was a game of anxiety, not relaxation.
Smiling and running through a light mist I ran over a bridge into the mile 18 aid station where Jade greeted me with fresh salty dill pickles and a strong kiss before heading onto the fire road.
I was only a few feet ahead of another runner who whizzed by as we turned off the road up a steep grade. I dug my hiking poles in deep into the sandy soil and slowed my pace down as I watched the guy ahead of me bolt into the woods. Minutes later, I caught up to him. He was seated on a rock breathing heavily, “phew high heart rate man!” he muttered over to me, as I nodded and wished him a good race.
After a decent climb, I arrived at the next aid station. I’d been crushing salt pills under my tongue and sucking on pickles to prevent early race cramping and it was working like a charm. I chugged down some of my Carbo Pro at the aid station as three other runners came in seconds behind me. They startled me, but this wasn’t the place to start vying for position. Not yet.
The course continued on a low uphill grade as it emerged from the forest into a bald high alpine meadow. In the far distance, I could see two other runners just ducking out of my sight. Then suddenly, BOOOMMMM!!! Massive soul-shaking thunder erupted from the clouds above me. The last thing anyone running through a tree-less meadow wants to hear. CRAAKKKK I watched as lightning struck the ground maybe a hundred meters or so from where I was running. I broke down my poles immediately and quickly threw on my rain jacket as dark clouds blew in and raisin sized pellets of hail pelted me from the side.
After leaving the last aid station, I had noticed that the air felt stagnant, the electricity vibrating. “This lightning is terrifying!” I thought as I drove the winding route between Princeton and the east gate of Manning Park. My mind wandered to where Nick was now, likely soaked to the bone and dodging lightning.
I waited until the thunder sounded to move again and sprinted to the closest tree, forgetting my boy scout lessons and the fact that you aren’t supposed to run to the tree’s, but I wanted to avoid being the tallest thing in the meadow. And with the metal hiking poles, I was fearful I’d be even more of an attraction.
I ran to the rhythm of the thunder. As I sprinted from tree to tree. I was no longer running the race to compete, but to survive this lightning storm. It was a welcome change in mindset.
I ran lightning strikes right up until I was on the heels of the next runner, “Nick!” “Nick!” We exclaimed. It was Nick Pedatella, I’d raced with him at Jemez Mountain 50 and Tor des Geants and knew him fairly well. Talk about surviving the lightning storm and a similar storm at Hardrock 2014 that he’d encountered occupied our minds as we ran into the next aid where we both welcomed large warm muffin squares of Canadian fry bread. As we continued through the now pouring rain, it felt almost like cheating to be eating such a delicious bread in such atrocious conditions.
By the river crossing I’d pulled a bit ahead of Nick and another runner. I’d just finished glissading down a muddy wall that was once the trail prior and despite the cold rain I was overheating from the intense downhill running. A volunteer crew watched in shock as I paused in the middle of the river and splashed the cool water on my face, neck and thighs “got to cool off!” I yelled over with a smile.
I grabbed a slice of watermelon and a bite of a warm cheese quesadilla was off. It would be only another two miles or so before meeting Jade at the mile 41 aid station.
As I waited at the aid station, I thought about Nick and hoped that he was taking his time in the conditions; everything would be far more slippery and much more dangerous, especially with the lightning.
I turned from fire road onto the highway, one of two sections of the race where I’d need my safety vest. I was mildly terrified as I watched a massive semi-truck round a tight corner in the pouring rain, splashing up a huge puddle of water towards me. I could only imagine having survived the lightning, a semi-truck now hydro-planning, flipping and squishing me into oblivion.
“Love!” I ran into Jade’s arms giving her a tight hug.
Not long after Nick came in, smiling. “Love!” He exclaimed, and I gave me a hug before sitting down to scarf down the grilled cheese a volunteer had prepared.
“Your only about ten minutes back from the lead guys” It was great news, but at this point in the race, I wanted to be nothing more than a distant lurker.
I quickly got down to the dirty task of swapping out his shoes and socks before sending him back out into the rain. I didn’t want him to get too cold during the night portion of the race, so both the aid station captain and myself urged him to changed his shirt and throw on his rain jacket. He looked strong and, strangely, almost happy to be out in this weather.
After a quick mandatory gear check, I was startled again, as five runners poured into the aid station, only minutes behind me. I wasn’t racing yet, but after I grabbed another bite of a grilled cheese sandwich, I didn’t need to be there any longer either. A good kiss to Jade and I was out of there.
The downpour intensified as I quickened my step turning back onto a downhill single track from the fire road. It was nice to have dry shoes for ten minutes, I thought to myself as I brushed against the low lying skunk weed which emptied its water soaked leaves all over my lower body.
Towards the upper half of the third climb, the rain dissipated and a thick blinding fog moved in its place. The terrain continued at a moderate grade over easy terrain, but I recalled looking at the course profile and knew that flat “runnable” terrain was around mile 78-99, so despite the fact that I could run, I chose to walk and save myself.
It was nearly pitch-black by the time I arrived at the small tarp held up by a few sticks and hiking poles that constituted the aid station. I felt awful for the poor volunteers huddled closely together over a jet-boiler in the corner of the tarp amidst the rain and fog.
“Hey guys” I said smiling, “watcha got cooking?” I was eyeing a fresh quesadilla a man had just placed on a small pan above the jet-boiler. I wasn’t sure if it was for him or another volunteer, but I guiltily accepted the delicious calories when they glumly offered it to me. Quesadilla in hand, I turned on my light and returned to the darkness from whence I’d came.
It was a long night, I pulled up to Cascade at only 8:30pm and I likely wouldn’t see Nick until 11 p.m. I pulled out the sleeping bag, ate some bananas with almond butter and set my alarm for 10:30 p.m. to get some sleep.
In the midst of digesting the delicious quesadilla, I’d lose the trail every hundred feet or so from the thickness of the fog. I lost maybe seconds at most wandering back and forth scanning the ground for footprints or tree’s for trail markers.
I jumped when all of a sudden a runner flew by me, his bib read R-120. “Good he was part of the relay team” I reassured myself as I listened to a bear bell jingle and jangle on the back of his pack. Wondering deeper into the fog I thought, “should I have one of those?” and then I took a glance at my surroundings- the night, the pissing rain, the thick fog-“nah we humans are the only species dumb enough to be out in weather like this, I’m safe.”
With the pressure of potentially missing Nick, I had a hard time catching z’s. Instead, I closed my eyes and tried to relax my body. Something was better than nothing.
Ensuring that I walked every moderate uphill, I’d finally made it to the long downhill section of Heather Trail where all of a sudden below me, I saw lights!
Excitedly, I upped my pace and hurried down the mountain. I caught up too quickly for it to be the leader of the race though. They were aid station volunteers, loaded down with heavy backpacking gear, my mind raced back to the West Coast Trail Jade and I completed the previous week. I felt bad for them and hoped they didn’t have long to go.
“It’s so dark here,” I said. “Do you know where the aid station is?” I asked the woman as she replied that she didn’t. I continued to stumble around the dark parking lot. A man directed me to a spot about fifteen feet away, completely bare. Amy (another runner’s wife) and I, looked at each other and then continued to wait.
Lucky for the both of us, glow sticks dangled from the tree’s on the switchbacks below me, the aid station was near.
As I ran in, a man in a blue coat turned around,
As I ran in, a man in a blue coat turned around,
“Nick! Damn your moving well!” said John, before darting off from the aid station. John was leading the race and didn’t sound so excited to see me. I scarfed down some chips and stared down blankly at some old bacon covered in solidified grease,
“Ya, it’s a bit old” the volunteer said, “but it’s still good” I grabbed two pieces and started back towards the trail.
I thought about Nick, still trudging on through the pitch-black forest. After the lean-tos had been set up, Amy and I helped the volunteers organize the drop bags and start preparing hot chocolate and bacon for the runners. Bacon had been a very constant theme throughout the race.
“Matt!” It was Matt Cecill, the current course record holder “pleasure to meet you!” I said with bacon bits flying out of my mouth, “we’re going for your record” I said smiling motioning ahead to the trail where John disappeared minutes ago.
“Go get it man! Good luck!” he said as I choked down the last piece of cold bacon.
It wasn’t long before John and I were running along the same switchback. The way I saw it, I had three options: 1) blow past him and take first place now, 2) stay annoyingly right behind him until he snaps at me and breaks down, then take first or 3) Don’t be a dick, make a new friend and run with him working against the night together. I went with the third option.
We soon found ourselves miles down the trail, happily chatting everything from work to training to proper form, in no time it seemed the two of us were now only a few kilometers from the 72 mile aid station. It was only in the last kilometer that I noticed John had a little less “pep” than me.
“John, you’ve got five minutes here!” I said, staring him in the eyes as he quickly sank into a deadly comfortable chair alongside an even deadlier heat lamp, two comforts that you’ve got to avoid in a race like this! “John five minutes!” I muttered ask I stuffed a few cookies into my mouth and took one for the go. I left and with it taken first place, five miles prior than I wanted it.
“#100 is on his way!” Announced Linda, one of the volunteers I had met. “That’s Nick!” I exclaimed “We were just radioed in that he wants bacon and eggs?” Their statement was more of a question but I went along with it. “Okay,” I said. “Is it all right if I cook it?”
“Yippee! I get to see Jade in five miles!” I exclaimed out loud to the forest. I tore through the five miles of undulating hills and it seemed almost instantaneous that I was on the gravel road headed towards the dim sodium lights of the Cascade Aid Station at mile 78.
“Nick! I made you bacon and eggs!” Jade was the best. She was the reason this was going so well. I gave her a tight hug and momentarily sank into a death trap of chair, scarfing down the hot meal while Jade changed my shoes and slipped on a fresh pair of Injinji Trail Socks.
“I feel great!” I said jolting up from the chair and going right into a few of my favorite yoga poses. A good kiss from Jade and I was off down the road!
“Wait Nick, poles?” She asked.
“Nah, I don’t need no poles, I’m a Nick-a-fly!” I said cockily flying around the corner.
Driving to the next aid station, the only information I had was that it was roughly 2 hours away and that I would need to get off at exit 168. To stay awake for this portion of the drive, I turned on Doctor’s Radio, which I found through the Sirius channels. A doctor was explaining how to remove hemorrhoids via an elastic band method. I was grossed out by the conversation, but it passed the time.
This was the promise land, miles 78-99, flat undulating terrain where I could finally make some time on Cecill’s record. I turned my GPS for the first time and ran an 8:30min/mile then a 8:32. I‘d be back to Jade at mile 90 in no time! I ran right through the Sumallo Grove aid station eyeing a tasty looking chicken avocado quesadilla, I reached out to grab it but then recoiled my hand in the last second, at the pace I was going it would be only an hour or so before I was back with Jade. The rest of the section went like this:
3rd mile: 9:07, okay there was a small hill, I’d recover the slow mile.
4th mile: 10:05, okay not cool. What the hell are all these fallen logs all over the place? Is that the…trail…
5th mile: 15:05 Gah! Where are my poles!?! And what happened to my promise land? Where did these climbs come from!?!
6th mile: 15:01 Okay turning this stupid GPS off.
On and on the road went, and the talk shows continued to disintegrate into extremely scientific and medically intense issues of vaginal dryness, hemorrhoid surgeries and Epidermolytic ichthyosis, among others. Finally, I read the sign for the campground. I had made it!
Two hours and some minutes later, I arrived at the aid station, nearly an hour and a half slower than the sub-24hr pace I had anticipated staying on track with.
Right on time, Nick came into the aid station. He looked tired, and angry, and voiced his opinions strongly. “That sucked,” he said, then sat in a chair, switching between hot soup, Coke and the Interphase Shake–a bad combo, to say the least.
“That was horrible! I’ve been lied to!” I dramatized to Jade as she loaded my pack with food for the next segment, “I’m never leaving my poles again!” I proclaimed grabbing them from Jade and turning back towards the trail.
Minutes down the trail, a relay runner caught up to me.
“Want to run together?” he asked.
“Sure” I muttered and started galumphing behind him, I held onto him for nearly an eighth of a mile before his fresh legs carried him off into the distance beyond me. I broke down into a fast walk.
I finally had the opportunity to sleep. I set my alarm for 5:45 and dozed for half an hour before groggily preparing Nick’s final crew necessities.
Glancing down at my watch it was 5:00am and I was somewhere near mile 93, I only had 5hrs to travel 27 miles if I was going to go under 24hrs and only 6hrs and 45min’s if I was going to break Cecill’s record. As my headlamp illuminated seemingly infinite stretches of trail covered in fallen logs and tree roots, I started to think that perhaps even the latter would be a struggle. I needed to make it through mile 99, the last aid station, before 6:30am if I wanted a decent shot at the record.
I ran hard into the aid station and decisively avoided looking at my watch as Jade loaded me up with Ginger chews, espresso beans and gummy candies, premium fuel for the last 21 miles of the race. After giving her a good hug and an energizing kiss I was off towards the climb. Nervously, I pulled back the sleeve of my rain jacket, 6:15am. I could do this.
He was on pace for the course record and I knew he could grab it if his spirits stayed high and he kept consistent with this pace. One last kiss and he was off. He was going to do it!
I remembered people muttering about this climb at the pre-race meeting “steepest thing of my life!” “False summits everywhere!” “Impossible!” My memories recollection of what was apparently ahead of me, wasn’t a good one.
The trail was climbing at a decent grade, although what felt like hours into the climb, I’d yet to do a single switchback. I felt like I was just looping around the massive climb. Looking up only brought up more despair than hope. Trees seemed to extend forever into the hillside with no visible light in sight to indicate that I was anywhere near the summit.
Finally a summit! The sign read “lightning lake” and pointed to my left. The fog seemed to be penetrating into my mind as well now, I couldn’t recall if there was one or two aid stations left in the race and the distance of either seemed to just confuse me more.
At lightning lake, the weather unlike last week’s gorgeous skies and hot temperatures, the morning was cold and windy. I stood huddled up in all of the clothing I had, in the car, including Nick’s sweats and Gut Check hoodie.
Shortly, Camp Mowich was in sight.
One guy and one girl clapped loudly for me and cheered me over to their tarp. A small array of Gu’s laid out for us runners and I saw the guy kicking back eating a bag of lay’s Salt n’ Vinegar chips…I eyed them a bit more.
“You want some?” He said in a muffled voice.
I nodded silently, reached into the bag took a handful and took off back into the ever persistent rain and fog.
The girl at the aid station said something about five more false summits and eight kilometers to the next aid station. But I’d heard at mile 99 a man say something about three false summits. As I glanced at my watch as I grew heavy with anxiety, was it three or five? And could I make it in time?
The volunteers at the finish weren’t certain that Nick, or anyone, would be breaking the course record in these conditions but I knew he could do it. The only question would be by how much.
The first climb literally took my breath away. The steepness of the ascent just didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the race. These beasts belonged more in something like Andorra’s Ronda del Cims or Tor des Geants, not here.
The second climb was ever more crippling. I refused to look at my watch and uttered under my breath, “it’s all over, good shot Nick, nice try!” But suddenly, I turned the corner and there it was! The final aid station! I shot a look down at my watch 9:45am, nearly 45 minutes faster than I’d expected to be there. I was going to make it.
The hellish climbs persisted and my hopes rise and fell with each new ascent and descent. After passing the third false summit and seeing trail markers on a fourth summit in the distance, my heart sank. The girl was right.
Elated, I reached the top of the true summit and anticipated a smooth buttery descent like the race had given me for the other 110 miles. To my demise the RD’s had somehow transported the jagged rocky terrain of the Italian Alps to Canada’s otherwise smooth Cascades. I was irate and frustrated, to be this close to the record yet foiled again by this slow moving technical terrain!
The next time I looked up from the ground, I could see Lightning Lake some hundreds of feet below me through the trees. The finish line. I was getting close.
The trail flattened out as I crossed the bridge at the southern edge of the lake. Volunteers walking the course clapped as I passed by,
“Relay runner?” they questioned.
“Nope, solo” I said with a beaming smile, eyeing the finish line in the nearby distance.
I tried uttering a loud “hey” from across the lake to alert Jade but my voice cracked, I opted for a guturral “wraghhhh!” instead which seemed to travel as I heard the small group of volunteers and Jade cheer from across the way.
After two hours of waiting and standing and doing jumping-jacks to stay warm, I heard a bellow from the opposite side of the lake. There’s only one person who screams like a mad man when they’ve had a successful race and are nearing the finish–and that’s my boyfriend.
As I rounded towards the final stretch, I thought about how I’d sabotaged HURT 100, dropped out of WTM, the months of training under David, the working in and the tai chi, it all paid off. Finally this time, I’d let myself win.
|Running into the finish line|
|Top 3 men, Nathan (man w/ white hat) Left, Myself and Gabe (right).|
|Cold, rainy finish|
Final Distance: 120 Miles
Average Pace: 12:33min/miles
Elevation Gain: 28,454 feet