Ultramarathon Musings

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I’m writing this as I wait for my flight back home to Port Angeles, Washington after the most incredible, painful, exciting, amazing, physical experience of my life—The Lean Horse 100 ultramarathon in South Dakota. The guys who trained me describe 100-mile trail running as living a lifetime of emotions in a weekend, and I was not let down.

The course follows the Mickelson Trail, and this year it featured over 7,200 feet of elevation, heat in the mid 80’s, a lightening storm, rain, wind, and a beautiful view of the Crazy Horse monument. Just before 6:00 a.m. on race day, I lined up with the approximately 300 other participants, brave souls to say the least. Race director Jerry Dunn counted down, and we were off. I didn’t have a set strategy, only to go slow, listen to my body, and enjoy the course. I started with a 3:1 run to walk ratio (three minutes running followed by one minute walking) for the first couple of miles before meeting up with friends who were alternating between 4:2 and 5:2 ratios, a strategy that seemed much better than mine.

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At mile 32 my energy began to drop. I quickly took an extra hammer gel, electrolyte tabs, caffeine-infused chocolate chew, and water, all of which helped for about a mile. But shortly after, the sharp pinch in my right IT band, paired with the tightening of my right calf that soon followed, told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to get to the next aid station quickly and spend some quality time rehydrating. I waived my friends to go on ahead and slowed my pace. At mile 34, both calves started balling-up and twitching, telling me I was in pretty serious trouble. I had been drinking about 60 ounces for every five miles so I was about three gallons into my water for the day. But even drinking at this rate, I still required more fluid and time to recover. Fortunately I soon reached the aid station, drank over a half-gallon and ate 1,500-2,000 calories of food. After checking my feet—which were still holding up well—I was back on my way.

By mile 40 I was feeling much better. I switched to a 1:5 ration on the running and walking which kept me at around a 14-minute mile pace. At mile 55, the sun went down and night rolled in. Though night running is usually a favorite of mine, this particular evening a thundercloud joined the experience and during mile 62 there were up to three lightning flashes per minute. The headwind, rain, and cloud formations were breathtaking, but as exciting as the weather was, I was definitely relieved when it passed. Everything was being felt very vividly by mile 67, especially the various forms of pain my feet were introducing me to. There was the shooting pain from blisters on both main pads of my feet for example, that stood in sharp contrast and helped distract from the aching pain on the top of my right foot and all my toes. The way the body communicates is rather impressive, and I was very relieved when that particularly unpleasant conversation it was having with me subsided.

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Many times in the race I just absorbed the moment, allowing myself to experience the dialogue in my head and visualize my thoughts, realizing this was exactly where I wanted to be. There was very little attachment to finishing, there was no rush. For me, it was about being in the present, truly living and enjoying every new passing soul I encountered.

Every ultrarunner has experienced the phenomenon of time slowing late in a race. There are markers every five miles but if you had told me I walked a marathon between miles 75 and 80, I would’ve sworn it was longer. I remember a few times thinking of a famous quote, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” As this thought crossed my mind, my entire body shuddered in rejection of that label.”I’m no coward,” became my mental refrain. I made friends with fatigue and convinced it to heighten my awareness, clarify my presence, and fuel me forward. After all, I was living my passion. The character, compassion, and humble nature of ultrarunners are qualities to behold, and to be counted among their members and share experiences with these great and mighty spirits is what I love.

Ultra’s,however, aren’t for the faint of heart, and as much as I was cherishing this event, my body and mind were going through a level of intensity and continuous bombardment of pain and anxiety that I can’t describe with justice. I did a fair amount of “zombie” running from miles 80-90. It’s a style of forward progress that’s just as it sounds, and commences when exhaustion leads you to believe that swaying back and forth across the trail with your eyes closed for seconds at a time is the most efficient and safe way to proceed. The internal voice that comes to your aid tells you to keep moving, keep the pace. It’s as if you have to think the thought, capture it, and force your body to take the action. You signal your body to move and it doesn’t, so you tell it again…and again… until finally, reluctantly, it carries out your command.

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From miles 89-96 I moved very slow and steady, enjoying the scenery. I reached the last aid station, drank an extra bottle, and picked up the pace for the last four-mile flat stretch into Hot Springs and the finish line. As I rounded the last corners I could feel the 80+ degree heat pounding down on me and it felt amazing. I walked along the creekside then jogged the last stretch to the finish. Crossing the ribbon, I made my way to the award ceremony, caught up with new friends, and received my first ultramarathon belt buckle. More than just a metal memento, it was my badge of honor, my permanent testament to a journey well traveled.

Robert DeCou is a fitness professional at Conditioning Specialists in Santa Barbara. Along with his prowess at ultramarathons, Rob is also an Ironman Triathlete and cyclist who has biked across the United States…three times.

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