I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was indestructible, but I also didn’t know where my breaking point was. Over the past two years I’ve had a pretty heavy race schedule, with an ultra, long FKT attempt, or iron distance triathlon about every six weeks. And for the most part they went pretty well, great even. Sure, I was just hanging on through some of them (most recently, Lavaredo) knowing that I wasn’t in the best condition for them, but I had never in my life DNF’d a “normal” race (i.e. Barkley and The Grand Round excluded).Read more
Lavaredo had a lot of firsts for me: first time in Italy (and Austria, after driving down from Munich), first time in an ultra that big and competitive, first time competing in an ultra between April and November, and first time in a race in anything that would be considered an alpine environment. I had an unforgettable experience and I think I ran a fairly smart race, but in the end it wasn’t my best outcome. Oh, and yeah, first time in a helicopter too.
Compared to the my recent novella on The Grand Round this will be a comic strip, complete with a nice punch line at the end (actually the punch line part is bigger than the race part). I need to move on and shift my focus to the two biggest races on my calendar for the year: Ronda dels Cims and Tor Des Geants.
I owe an enormous thank you to La Sportiva on this one, who not only sponsors me but sponsors the race. Without them that punch line may have been an absolute logistical disaster. It was also great to see a number of my teammates there from across the world; congratulations go to many of them for great performances (including Sophie Grant and Rachel Normand from here in the UK – 9th and 15th females).
Lavaredo was crammed into my schedule just a few weeks after the Grand Round and a few weeks before Ronda dels Cims. I wanted to run a smart, consistent race and not go out too hard.
After looking at recent results and considering the conditions this year I thought that I could still aim for around 14 hours and see if I could slip in to the top 10 (I nailed one part of that equation – 10th place ended up being 13:59). I had actually never finished outside the top 10 in an ultra, and while I recognized that I had also never been in an ultra with such incredible competitive depth, I figured I owed it to myself to at least give it a shot.
I found someone’s results from a previous year that I could use as a template: around 40th at the first checkpoint and then consistently picked people off to finish 9th. Perfecto.
One of the reasons I wanted to focus on ultras is because I personally just enjoy the environment and the culture more than triathlon. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the big event that some European ultras are made to be. I’ve gotta say, it was actually kind of cool (but any more would probably be too much for me). It was good to get the adrenaline going, but then within a few minutes you’re out of town, out of the crowds, and it’s just like any other ultra.
I will admit I may not have felt the same way if I was in the normal corral getting crushed by 2,000 other runners. Somehow I had enough ITRA points (things like Barkley and The Grand Round don’t get any points) to get into a reserved corral and had plenty of space. I even got to chat with Tim Tollefson and Gabe Joyes, two of those people who for me I feel like I know (from online interactions and knowing so many of the same people), but had never actually met.
Off Into the Night
At 11 PM we took off from Cortina. As planned, I started off slow. Then Caroline Cheverot passed me. Let me be clear, this wasn’t a reaction of oh I’m getting “chicked” I can’t let that happen. It was quite the opposite. It was a reaction of “there’s someone who knows the course and knows what they’re doing and is probably gunning for around the same time as me.” I slipped in behind and stayed within sight of her on the first climb. Then, for better or for worse I flew past her and a half dozen other people on the first descent.
I actually came in to the first split 3 minutes slower than my template, so all was good. Then after the aid station (all I picked up was water) I got some of the worst bloating and stomach cramps I’ve had in a race. I thought about trying to stop somewhere to force myself to poop or puke. My theory is that I overdid it a bit with eating the day of the race. Normally I sleep all night, wake up, have breakfast then run. With the night start I had a big breakfast then pretty much snacked all day.
In any case, I kept on, but could barely eat and had horrible stitches in both sides. Eventually the cramps went away but my stomach didn’t feel decent again until, well, the next day really. After that point I relied almost 100% on gel and water. I got down less than 1,000 calories during the nearly 16 hours of the race.
Even before the caloric deficit should have been a problem, though, I also just felt completely sapped of energy. Maybe it was the late start coupled with a few nights of poor sleep leading into it, maybe it was the altitude, maybe it was insufficient Grand Round recovery (probably a little of all of them), but it just felt like there was absolutely nothing there.
Caroline passed me back at mile 20 something, and shortly after that the worst thing happened. People started passing me on a big climb. Hills are for me in ultras what the run was to me in triathlon: that’s where I do my passing. But I had nothing. I couldn’t do anything other than watch them go; it was such a helpless feeling.
We got above treeline for the first time around mile 30, and after that climb the quitting thought honestly entered my head. But, I quit Barkley and Grand Round, I’ve never DNF’d a “normal” race, and as much as it might suck I was going to continue running on fumes all the way to the finish barring injury.
Here Comes the Sun
But at the top of that climb came the sunrise, and the first beautiful views from the top of the Dolomites. I also got a pep talk from Matteo from La Sportiva and he set my sights on what lay ahead: a nice long somewhat sort of almost technical descent.
Up to that point the race had basically been a series of gravel roads, and I completely felt like a fish out of water. The descent gave me some energy and confidence back, and after dropping about 10 spots over the previous 15 miles I stopped the bleeding and held position to the big support point “halfway” in (How to frustrate an ultrarunner? Put their drop bag at the “halfway” point, 5K past actually halfway.)
For the next few hours I was completely alone in the most remote and most technical section of the course (but still, really not technical). It was glorious, just a fun day in the mountains. It didn’t matter where anyone else was, I was back in my element.
Then came another long descent. Time to get back to this whole racing thing. I cruised down it, my legs continually seeming to gain strength. I’m nearly convinced at this point that my body takes about 50K to get warmed up. I was feeling strong and ready to make a final charge.
Then with 16 miles to go someone told me it was all downhill, and me, knowing there was a final long downhill stretch and being stupid enough to believe that person, let it rip a bit more before encountering a pretty good climb. When I got to the top I was excited again and thought this must be the big final downhill. That pattern repeated itself no less than 6 times, a mental dagger every time.
When we finally did hit the last big downhill stretch (with about 8 miles left) I took off out of frustration more than anything. I flew down the mountain, the temperature continuing to rise as I arrived in the valley. I came back into town feeling pretty good and enjoyed my run through the chute.
Yay, a Helicopter Too?!
After finishing I sat down for a few minutes, and the hard effort, the heat, and the nausea I had battled for the last 15 hours all finally caught up with me. I was taken to the med tent, where they took my blood pressure and stuck an IV in me. Ok, I thought, that’s normal and it will probably help my recovery anyway.
After a bit, all I wanted to do was go back to the hotel and take a nap. I had just finished hard in a hot race after running all night; it seemed that being hot, nauseous, and sleepy were quite reasonable things. Then I actually did manage to puke. Perfect! I feel much better now!
But at some point they decided to take an EKG. I had no chest pain, and absolutely nothing other than the hot and sleepy thing (nausea gone now!). I also don’t speak Italian and had no idea what they were saying or doing. Next thing I know I’m in the back of an ambulance going to the local hospital.
They hooked me up to a better machine and some more people looked at it. At this point I’ve kind of figured out what’s going on and I try to explain to them that my EKG has certain abnormalities in it that are well-studied, perfectly normal, and nothing to be concerned about for an endurance athlete. Let me re-emphasize: I don’t speak Italian. At one point I even tried Spanish.
It comes to the point where they’re telling me I may have had a heart attack and I need to go via helicopter to a better hospital where a cardiologist can see me. I’m still 99% sure there is absolutely nothing wrong, but when “heart attack” is thrown around that 1% chance looms pretty large. So, off in the helicopter I go. My first ride in one! And over such a beautiful landscape! Except, I was strapped to a gurney and couldn’t see anything at all.
The cardiologist started doing an echocardiogram. It’s basically a sonogram of the heart, and the last time I’d seen one of those there was definitely an abnormality: two babies instead of one. By this time I had also managed to reach Jessi, and when the cardiologist left for a bit I called her. I’m an OCD data scientist, of course I have EKGs of myself stored on my computer. I also work in cyber security, of course sensitive medical documents are stored in a hidden encrypted folder with a 24 character passphrase and a keyfile. I walked Jessi through the process of unlocking it and sending me a previous EKG (great, now I’m going to have to change it all because the NSA was probably listening to our phone call 😛).
When the cardiologist walked back in I showed it to her. “Oh, it looks exactly the same. This is normal for you.” So there I was. No heart attack, but stuck in a hospital in who knows where. They still tried to wheel me in for a chest x-ray, but at that point I at least knew that no is still no in Italian. I had been scanned about 4 different ways and over a dozen needles had been stuck into me. Grazie, but I’m done.
I was wheeled into the recovery room, to await…. ok I have no idea what to do now. Fortunately the people at La Sportiva were on top of things. You know, the ones who actually speak Italian. They found an English speaking taxi driver who came into the hospital to tell me how to get myself out of there, and then drove me the 1.5 hours back to Cortina. At around midnight I was finally back in my hotel room and allowed to sleep.
It was an unbelievably frustrating experience, but let me be clear: I hold absolutely no ill feelings towards a single one of those doctors. On the contrary, I’m incredibly grateful that they did their jobs so well. It was kind of amazing to see a system in work where the utmost caution is taken in the patient’s best interest regardless of what it takes. I’ll admit I do feel a bit better knowing I got such a thorough exam after a race and checked out just fine. If anything, I feel a bit guilty that I wasn’t able to explain things a bit better due to the language barrier and that I used resources that I really didn’t need.
There is just one thing for me that is a problem, and is unforgivable really. My favorite post-race meal is pizza and ice cream. And there I was in freaking Italy for the first time ever, and my post-race meal consisted of some unidentifiable mush in a hospital recovery room. This injustice must be corrected. Tor Des Geants just became even more important…
Oh, about that race
My summary observations:
- If you look at place, I actually ran a fairly good race: first checkpoint at 37th, then dropped to somewhere in the 40s during my low point, then on the 2nd half worked my way up to 32nd overall, 29th male (so I reiterate, Can a Woman Finish Barkley?).
- I need to be more mindful of eating on race day for a night start
- If I’m going to compete at events of that caliber, they definitely need and deserve more focus. Three weeks of maintenance mode isn’t enough. I do think I’m capable of top 10 at something like that, but I also think that if I’m going to focus on fewer things then I should probably choose things that I’m more well-suited for. The more elevation, technical terrain, miserable conditions, briar patches, navigation, weird old guys with a cigarette and a sea shell, etc. that are thrown in the better I can do.
So bring on Ronda and TDG, a bit more my style. 🙂
Gear and Nutrition
I wore the same thing the entire time despite the big swing in temperature and I ate pretty much only one thing, so this will be pretty simple. I have relationships with a number of the companies below, which you can see on my Partners page (and find a few discount codes).
For the food, it was just two flasks of my Raspberry / Peanut Butter Chocolate Hammer Gel mix, along with a couple of cups of fruit at later aid stations (kind of like Dole fruit cups, but Italian).
I again went with the XOSKIN double socks – toe socks with normal socks over top. I also used Run Goo on my feet again. I have absolutely no scientific data to back this decision up, but with that strategy now having resulted in absolutely perfect feet after both the 72 hours of continuous wetness of the Grand Round and the heat and fast descents of Lavaredo, it’s going to be what I do every, single, time.
I also used XOSKIN compression shorts and a form-fit short-sleeved shirt the entire time. Over the socks I wore La Sportiva Akasha with Ultimate Direction FK Gaiters, and I accessorized myself with a UD Ultra Vest and a Petzl Actik Core (compact but stayed nice and bright for the full 6 hours of darkness).
I had a pair of Black Diamond poles because I really wanted something collapsible for this race, and they did quite well. They were just a little heavier than I’ve become accustomed to.
I did not achieve what I was aiming for on The Grand Round, but I ended up with more than I could have hoped for. I have never been more proud of a failed pursuit or gained as many unexpected positive outcomes. Of course I wish a few things had gone differently and that I had been able to finish. I’m an overly competitive goal-driven Type A perfectionist who is horrible company for a “casual” game of anything, and falling short will always gnaw at me. I went out to seek a challenge, though, and based on the criteria I laid out I got exactly what I was seeking. If everything was predictable, there would be no excitement or passion, no adventure, no exploration. In a way, the plan has to be for things to not go according to plan.
As it stands I had an incredible adventure and learned a great deal, both specific to the challenge itself and more broadly applicable to my own life. I also learned that there is at least one thing that I can reliably plan on: the passion and selfless support of the fell running community. I’m still in a bit of disbelief at their generosity, and I come from a place that I’d say epitomizes southern hospitality. I’ll tell you what, though, we sure ain’t got no monopoly on kindness.Read more
I wanted to get my thoughts on why I’m doing this “Grand Round” out ahead of time, before they’re forever altered by the pain, joy, and experience of actually doing it. For my own sake as much as anything, I wanted them crystallized in writing and set aside for me to reflect on afterwards. Because honestly, I’m terrified. This is likely to be more challenging than even Barkley, and I haven’t been this terrified of anything I’ve attempted since my very first attempt at Barkley. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; actually I’d say the opposite.Read more
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need
We’ve all at some point or another had those lyrics stuck in our head, and we’ve all probably had a number of situations where they were quite appropriate. I think a key word that really gets overlooked, though, is try. You don’t just sit there and have what you need fall into your lap.Read more
Training for Barkley is a bit of a conundrum as it is. There are so many variables involved in the race that it is impossible to optimize training for all of them. This year I had a couple more wrinkles thrown in: I was getting ready for a big move and trying to somewhat hide the fact that I was doing Barkley. At the same time, though, I had the benefit of more experience and more confidence under my belt, and a much different mindset approaching the race.Read more
I know I haven’t posted anything in a while. The whole moving to the UK thing hasn’t left much time for writing blog posts. On the running side, though, here’s a bit of what I’ve been up to in the past month.
I did this as a fun project and challenge on my home turf, not really as anything related to Barkley. It was a personal challenge, and I chose to share in hopes that it would motivate others to set their own big challenges, or to come visit the park to challenge some of the records. I think it’s safe to say, though, that Brett’s record isn’t going anywhere. Probably ever. Plus, no one will ever run that same course again… it totally wouldn’t trigger the segment on Strava.
I still need to write up my full race report from Franklins 200, but I did go ahead and put together some thoughts on lessons learned from the race. You can find them over on the Ultimate Direction blog:
Unlike other John Kellys in DC, I’m not afraid to put my name on an op ed. Granted this one is, or should be, much less controversial. With so many high profile issues, a lot of smaller but important things can slip through the cracks, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Everyone knows about national parks, and yes they’re incredible, but it’s really the smaller, more local things that most of us get to experience on a more regular basis and that more directly impact our lives. A lot of those are at risk without the renewal of the LWCF.