Monday, May 19, 2008

Stretching of Limits --The Surreal Long Stage: How is this possible?: Part 2

Within moments of the start I find myself in a small cluster of a dozen or so runners at the front of the race. Several runners are taking "flyers", where they push the pace hard for a couple minutes to enjoy being at the head of the race, but then quickly fade as showtime ends and their un-warmed up and fatigued bodies revolt at the idea of running hard for more than a few minutes. It's hard not to want to follow the series of micro-surges, but I'm concerned about blowing up before the big climb. I try to ignore what's going on around me and just run. I lock into a pace that feels a bit quick, but also feels manageable for the first 5K. Soon, I realize that I am alone at the front. It is quiet -- very, very quiet.

Am I dreaming? Have I gone off-course? Where is everyone? I quickly look back just to make sure that the field of 750 runners is really behind me. Behind me -- unreal. What an odd site -- the entire race behind me and a huge, sandy, and desolate climb ahead. Suddenly, the silence is interrupted by the sound of a helicopter ripping through the sky. It's flying low and sideways to capture video footage of this long line of runners snaking across the desert. I struggle to control my emotions as my mind begins to process what is happening. Keep it together Jeff -- keep it together.
We hit the base of the climb and two runners pass me. I decide not to chase, although I feel a slight sense of panic that after these two pass me, the rest of the field will follow -- swallowing me up like a cycling peloton reels in the breakaway cyclist moments before reaching the finish line. Am I falling apart -- self-destructing at the start of this climb? A third runner passes -- a Moroccan with a low number (top 10). He looks elite - almost certainly a professional distance runner. I decide that I'm OK with him passing me - he's in a different league. He speaks to me in French and then broken English. He's telling me to follow him. I stay on his heels through the steep climb, first up rock, then soft sand. The pace is brutal for such a steep slope. His running looks effortless. I'm hurting and struggled to hold his pace. When it's too steep to run, we speed-hike and scramble. I trip on a rocky section that feels more like mountaineering than trail running. My hand makes contact with a sharp rock edge, tearing the flesh between my fingers. A bleeding hand and max heart rate takes its toll and I lose my drive to stay with the Moroccan. He drops me. The final stretch of the climb is so steep and exposed that a fixed rope is installed. I grab the rope and scramble the final meters, yelling in a primal tone when I reach the top. I've somehow met the first challenge of the day in the top-5. This isn't possible.
With my Moroccan friend now out-of-sight on the downhill side, I sprint over the pass and start threading my way down a fairly technical descent. It's time to take some chances to gain time on those less comfortable in the mountains (or perhaps more sensible than I am!). After months of training in the Alps to go hard on the downhills and years of loving my play-time in the mountains, I'm feeling pretty comfortable going for it on the descent. In a special zone, I take in the beauty and energy of the mountains around me and my feet seem to land in all the right spots. I enter a narrow gorge -- boulders are all around and the terrain alternatives between rocky steps and sandy patches. I nearly lose my balance on a loose rock. This scares me -- had I fallen, chances are that the surrounding rocks would have won out over my skull.

I'm soon out of the gorge and onto the flats, having passed one runner on the descent. I feel great -- knee pain is mostly gone and the heat is OK. I turn on my iPod at this point, hoping that I'll have enough battery power to keep high energy tunes pumping for another 9-10 hours. I reach the first check point, unscrewing my water bottle caps while still running to save time. The officials punch my water ration card - I quickly re-fill my bottles and take off -- not wanting to waste any time. For the first time in my life I feel like I'm really racing.

Run 9 minutes - walk 1 minutes: Terrain-permitting, I stick to this routine. During each walk break, I stay very busy. It's all about self-care. At the walk breaks I alternate between taking salt tablets, mixing energy drink or Nuun in my water bottles, and eating. When the minute expires, it's back to running. A few guys pass me during my walk breaks -- it kills me. I want to abandon my walk breaks and give chase, but patience and great coaching prevail. I stick to my race plan.

For the next several hours I run alone, only seeing a few runners in front and a few behind. The field is quite spread out at this point, as the opening climb served to shatter many a body and psyche. Plus, it's starting to get warm -- very, very warm.

I enter a dunes section and pull out my compass to navigate. I see three sets of footprints in the sand in one direction and three in another. I'm apparently in 7th position now. I'm careful with how I place my feet on the surface of the dunes. (If you land with a flat foot, you often can get away with a quasi-normal stride and prevent the energy-draining and dreaded sinking of your foot when you break through the surface.) Suddenly, I lose the footprints in front as well as any sense of other runners near me. I briefly consider backtracking, but decide that I don't want to risk the time loss. I push through, following a rough compass heading. Ten minutes later I exit the dunes into a vast expanse. I've reached a wide valley and I have no idea which way to go. I consider pulling out my roadbook to look up the heading, but decide to take one minute to breathe deep (don't panic Jeff) and look for clues.

There -- a reflection. Several kilometers away I see the sunlight glimmer off of a support vehicle. Within another 10 minutes I'm back on course. This little mistake cost me some time, but I can't worry about this now. I'm just happy that I didn't get myself really lost out here.

My legs are feeling fine and the heat is bearable. I'm not running fast, but I'm staying consistent and somehow fending off the field of runners that I've been expecting would swallow me up for half a day now. Following the third checkpoint I reach another significant climb. I power-walk it and reach one of the most beautiful ridge lines I've ever seen. I regret not having my camera handy, but not enough to take the time to retrieve it from my pack. The route follows the ridge line to a scenic perch and then drops down a steep sandy section. I'm feeling really slow on this stretch, but perhaps the others are as well, because no one seems to be gaining on me. The sandy descent ends in a very long off-camber traverse through soft sand. It becomes extremely uncomfortable to run with my feet at such an odd angle. Only occasionally do I get decent purchase on the sand. My ankles are flexed and compressed at their extremes. Dig deep, find inner strength.

The traverse spills out into a long, relatively flat section heading into the salt flats. Through the occasional sandy section, I can find only 6 sets of foot prints as I lay down the seventh. In the distance I finally spot two runners and soon gain on them. They are walking, presumably on a quick walk break. I expect them to re-pass me any moment, but refuse to turn my head to check on their progress.

I enter checkpoint 5 in 5th place. It's getting really hot. I fill my bottles and then douse my face with part of my second 1.5L bottle. I see a photographer jump in front of me to snap some shots.

Within seconds I'm running again. I feel that I'm running on borrowed time -- that any minute reality will return and I'll find myself in 400th place -- comfy in the middle of the pack where I've always been. I see a runner ahead walking off to the side of the road, apparently with stomach problems. It's my elite Moroccan friend from the first climb. He loses his lunch, but restarts his progress soon after I pass. His gazelle-like stride is gone and now he's walking for the finish line. I motor on, wondering if a stomach ailment will hit me as well before the day is over.

I soon enter a special Zen-like zone. I put all of my thoughts and energy into thinking about my dedication for this stage -- to all who have supported my charity drive for ING Chances for Children and UNICEF. I envision the face of each person who has donated and each person who has sent me notes of encouragement to the Bivouac. I think of the children in Brazil, India, and Ethiopia who will receive the fruits of such generosity. I feel an enormous surge of strength from these thoughts. An hour passes to my surprise and suddenly I'm arriving at another checkpoint. At this moment I realize that I may be able to finish within 10 hours. This just isn't logical.

I return to my focus zone and try to ignore the heat which the last checkpoint reported had topped 50C/122F. I enter another section with soft sand and an uneven surface. I feel like an underdog boxer in a late round just trying to hold on for survival. I stumble often, but manage each time to catch my balance before hitting the ground. Regardless of what's happening with my feet and balance, I keep pushing through -- driving my legs forward like a diesel engine. I see another runner ahead and soon pass him on a short uphill section.

  • I'm now in third place with 10K to go.
  • I left the start line 8 hours ago.
  • It's still daylight, but the sun is starting its fall, right over where I think the starting line rests.
  • This is not real - this doesn't happen to a regular guy.
I reach into my front pack for one last gel, but sadly there is nothing there. I could use some nutrition to get me through this last hour - oh well! My thoughts of food are interrupted when I see another runner ahead -- he's walking. I reach him and notice he's another member of the Moroccan contingent. He's mixing an energy drink. I pass him thinking that the moment he finishes his 'dinner', he'll speed past me.

The sun is low in the sky and burning straight into my eyes. My knee is hurting again and I'm slightly dizzy. The hours of running alone and the intense heat are getting to me. I need strength -- I need support. I begin a series of visualizations -- not quite hallucinations, but not far off either! I see my friend Sean directly in front of me, turning around to look me in the eye every 30 seconds to tell me to stay strong and stay with him. I then see my family off to one side and my friends off to the other. They form a long line, reaching the way out into the desert. They take turns running by my side, telling me to keep pushing hard for the finish line. My wife, my parents and in-laws, my grandmothers, my sister --my coach, my colleagues, my friends, my boss -- they all have a moment to share a cheer or a look of encouragement. My late granddad appears to tell me to "stay tough, boy - stay tough". My body is spent and my mind is at its limit. Everything hurts, but I'm filled with an enormous energy and waves of emotion that are surging me to the finish.

The finish line finally comes into view. I'm running on fumes. This is not how I envisioned finishing this stage. It's not dark. There aren't hundreds of runners ahead of me. With only one set of footprints between me and the finish line, from a mystery runner that I never saw, I push and push and push myself to run as hard as possible to the end of the stage. Tears fill my eyes when I see a fairly large crowd gathered at the finish. I make once last glance back, as if expecting 500 runners to suddenly pass me, and see only an empty desert. I launch myself across the finish line to the sounds of cheers. As I'm gasping for air and trying to make sense of what has just happened, a camera crew jumps in front of me, asking in French and then English how I feel and what it was like out there. I can't speak - my emotions are stretched to their limits along with the rest of me. I manage to state that it was the hardest thing I've ever done and that it was a surreal and beautiful experience. This is the most glorious moment of my sporting life. I'm dazed. My eyes are still filled with tears as I'm handed my evening ration of 4.5L of water and walk off on my own.

I'm suddenly pulled aside as I'm walking to my tent. It's a race official and she's instructing me to go to a special tent, where my equipment will be inspected. I'm confused by this request. I ask her why. She says that they have to ensure that the top runners have all required equipment, including the minimum food levels per day. As we walk to the tent I try to explain that I'm not a top runner. I explain that I was in the main field, not the elite 50 that started later. She says "I know, but you came in second in the main field and your time was fast overall. Now, let's make sure that you have your compulsory gear." Once in the tent, I drop to the ground and start unpacking my backpack. I'm able to quickly find my compass, anti-venom pump, signal mirror, etc., but have a moment of panic when I can't find my lighter -- not being able to show it would have cost me a time penalty, which could have easily wiped out my hard work in the stage today. I find the lighter finally and prove that I have the minimum food levels for the remaining stages. With this unexpected inspection passed, I stumble toward my tent and make the following audio recording that I believe captures the emotions and experience of the day very well.

Later I send an update to Becky and she posts to the blog. (It may be interesting to read it again after knowing the full story.)

With my endorphin high starting to wane, I begin to feel the pain in my feet, knee, and well .. everywhere else. Within moments of collapsing in my tent, I'm shivering, so I cover up in my sleeping bag and try to make a recovery drink. Darkness arrives and my tentmate (who had exited the race, but will be back in 09!) shows up in shock that I've finished already. She helps sort out a tent snafu with the race officials that involved me having to move tents during this tough recovery window and then helps me prepare a cold freeze-dried meal - yum. I manage to eat this not so great meal, desperate to get the calories in my body, and soon enter one of my worst nights of so-called sleep ever. My legs alternate between shaking and aching all night as I go through periods of shivering in the cold and sweating as if it were still mid-day.

When I learn of the final stage results in the morning, I'm in shock -- 2nd place in the main field and 24th overall when factoring in the elite group. I ran my heart out for 9 hours and 2 minutes, proving to every middle- and back-of-the-packer out there that anything is possible and that you should never, ever accept that your limits and your potential are fixed.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Stay tuned for "The Relentless, Arduous Push to the Finish".


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Stretching of Limits --The Surreal Long Stage: How is this possible?: Part 1

Before I can tell the story of the Long Stage, I think we need to spend a few minutes revisiting my mindset when I signed up for this adventure a year ago, my expectations going into it, and my background (or lack thereof!) as a competitive athlete. Where to start ... how about backwards? For readers who may not know me well, I'll share a highly condensed version of my background:
  • 1995 and prior: overweight, sedentary, unhealthy, entirely nonathletic
  • 1996: Signed up for an Ironman as a motivator to lose weight; finished and experienced a major lifestyle change
  • 1997-2007: Finished several more Ironmans and lots of marathons, triathlons, and long-distance cycling events. Best finishes ever were toward the front of mid-pack.
  • Not slow - not fast. Marathon PR: 3:42 Ironman PR: 12:10 Not bad, but not exactly in the running for a high place!
  • No ultramarathons ever.
So now that you know where I was coming from when I signed up for MDS, you'll probably understand why my goal all along was just to finish. I remember Coach Lisa telling me a year ago that the time limits were generous enough that you could finish even if you walked most of it (although a walk like that is far from easy!). Knowing that I could walk if I had to, I signed up thinking that with a great coach, focused training, and perseverance that I could finish. Finish -- that's it .... Finish. It wasn't until a couple weeks before the race that Lisa broke the news to me that I had a "race plan" and that her race plan for me was built on her belief that I could earn a top 100 spot -- maybe top 75.

What did I think of this? Well, I thought that I had a wonderful coach, who much like a mother believed that one of her own was capable of anything, even if that "anything" was entirely unrealistic. I thought that she was overlooking the reality of my background, my lack of Olympian genes, my lack of ultramarathon experience, my lack of speed, etc. While astonished that she would think I was capable of being somewhat competitive at an international ultramarathon event, I was also inspired. She lit a fire inside me by believing in my drive, spirit, and potential.

The race plan was simple: run the first three days easy, except for the last hour -- race that hour. Then, on the long stage (78K/47 miles), race ALL OF IT - hard! I remember thinking: "This is nuts! RACE the long day??? I'll be lucky to survive it, much less race it."

She instilled in me the belief that an epic performance on the long day would make a huge difference in the final standings. So with all of this talk of racing, I experienced a major paradigm shift. I started to see myself as a competitive athlete -- not just a former fat-guy who was out to finish, but a gladiator entering the arena with victory as the only option. I became much more serious about the weight I would carry -- shaving grams wherever possible. I decided not to take the solar iPod charger, to take only the clothes I would run in, and to take less food. I still thought that I would have to be incredibly lucky to finish the week in the top 100, but I wanted to maximize my odds and leave it all on the line in pursuit of something that I really didn't think was possible, but that perhaps was if I really stretched my limits. This probably sounds quite bizarre, but it's reality: after 12 years of endurance racing, with Lisa's belief that I could finish in the top 100, I finally started to see myself as a real athlete.

I never would have imagined that I would be in a position to sacrifice time on the third stage as a tactic to get the start time and group that I wanted on the long day. That's exactly what happened though as I was suddenly moving toward the top-50 during Stage 3. (Again, this was very surprising because I had been battling intense knee pain since the start of Stage 2.) On all of the stages except for the long stage, all 800 athletes start together. On the long stage, the elite top 50 start 3 hours later -- right at noon. For many reasons I didn't want to start with this group -- mostly because I didn't see myself as worthy and thought that it would be embarrassing and lonely to get dropped 5 minutes into the stage -- left to run 12+ hours alone. My Stage 3 strategy worked perfectly, so I was all set to line up for the 9AM start with 750 runners in the main field.

My strategy was to run in the lead pack up to the first big climb (at 4km). The climb was so steep that a fixed line was installed near the top. It also contained loose rock and a narrow route, so the race organizers said to expect delays. I wanted to avoid waiting in a queue at all expense, so I knew that I needed to be in the top 10 or so when the climb started. I believed that once I was on steep mountainous terrain that my passion for hills would take over and that I'd get up the incline on pure adrenaline. Once over the big climb, I planned to run 9 minutes and walk 1 minute -- over and over until I reached the Finish line 12 or more hours later. I decided to pack my camera away, so I wouldn't lose any time taking photos during the stage. I repacked my front pack several times to ensure that I could locate everything quickly, by feel. My compass was the most handy - just in case I needed to navigate (assuming that I was in one of the leading groups). I also had quick access to anti-inflammatory meds, salt tablets, and food. I didn't plan to stop for any breaks, so all my nutrition would be on the run or during walk breaks. I would unscrew my water bottle taps on the final run in to each aid station and stop only long enough to fill the bottles with water. I would speed walk all the steep ups and run the downhills hard -- even if rocky or sandy. I would ignore the knee pain, and if that proved impossible, I'd focus on the pain and turn it into its own energy source. I didn't know how I could race a 50-mile stage with legs that were already trashed and a knee that hurt so much I had to limp whenever I walked, but I intended to do anything and everything possible to minimize the time it took to finish the stage. At the same time though, I wanted to enjoy the experience, to savor the sights, sounds, and even the feelings my body experienced -- good and bad.

The night before the long stage, I went for a walk in the desert with the printouts of emails sent to me from friends, family, and supporters. I had four pages of emails. I was touched - my heart was warmed by such wonderful support from around the world. I decided at that moment to dedicate the long stage to everyone who had supported my charity initiative for UNICEF and ING Chances for Children. I stopped by the Internet tent before going to bed to send Becky the following note:

"I'm dedicating my run tomorrow to all who have supported the ING CfC/UNICEF charity initiative -- You are all running with me on Wednesday and I thank you immensely for the support you've offered. "

I didn't sleep well. Lots of tossing and turning on the hard ground -- and every time I turned, my knee would hurt enough to wake me up. I awoke at 6AM and nervously ate breakfast. Two hours later I found myself walking away from the start line for some solitary yoga time. I needed to get away from myriad conversations on heat, blisters, water, distance, and food -- I needed to enter a zone of peace and inner-strength. I entered Warrior II pose, with my fingertips pointing at the mountain we would climb early in the stage. My energy level increased as I connected with the desert. I closed my session with tree pose, where I found calmness to balance the pre-race nerves I was starting to feel. I focused on finding calmness through deep breathing. I bowed to the mountains and dunes, sharing a Namaste with an environment I hoped wouldn't punish me too much during my brief visit and better yet, would reward me with a scenic, safe, and quick passage.

At 8:50 I lined up on the front row -- another first. The helicopter buzzed the start line several times. Patrick Bauer (the race organizer) announced in French: "You have 34 hours to travel 78 kilometers. Good luck." I felt a huge rush of emotion and said to myself "This is your day Jeff. Make this the race of your life. This one is for everyone who supported you. No regrets. Race."

Cinq, Quatre, Trois, Deux, Un! We're off!

.... to be continued ....

Friday, May 2, 2008

Stages 1-3: How could we have underestimated this challenge?

To give you a seat right next to the action for the first few stages of the MDS, I've created a video with tunes, photos, and daily pre- and post-stage audio updates. The soundtrack has special meaning for MDS 2008 competitors as it's a tune we were treated to each morning in those final anxious moments before the stage started. The sights, sounds, emotion, and commentary in these videos captures what it's like to be there perhaps better than words alone ever will, so please sit back, relax and enjoy a sample of life at the Marathon des Sables!

Stages 1-2

Stage 3

Please feel free to share the link and videos.

Coming soon .... "Stretching of Limits --The Surreal Long Stage: How is this possible?"