My Hurtin’ Heel in the “Hoodoo Hundred”
“Man when this race is over, I really gotta do something about this.” I muttered this as I my right heel throbbed with every step, on my second time up a ridiculously steep climb around mile 85 in the wee hours of my second morning of the Bryce Canyon 100 Miler.
With my Achilles hurting for the last six months, I had hoped I could escape serious pain by stretching a lot, using tons of Motrin and altering my stride. As the race went on, I could tell things were getting pretty serious. Any time I tried to run fast or if I had to go up on my toes (climbing), it felt like I was being stabbed by a knife in my heel. Anyway, there was nothing I could do now but plow on towards the finish then deal with the issue later.
As usual, I had prepared perfectly for the race. Even though I didn’t have a lot of long runs, I had lots of high-quality back to back tough workouts with plenty of altitude training, yoga, strength training and mental toughness training. I made sure that I had plenty of rest the last few days also. The day before the race, I could tell things were likely to go well.
I really needed a good experience and most of all I needed to finish this damn race. I DNF’ed (Did Not Finish) my last race in the Yukon last February. As a result, my confidence in my mental toughness had taken a hit.
I slept in my car and even in my race clothes, near the starting line to make things easier on me come I your job as I race morning since we would start at 5 AM and my hotel was about 45 minutes away. I slept pretty solidly and even slept through my two alarms, being awakened at 4:30 by some chitter chatter outside the car. Thank goodness for that! I walked up to the starting line only about two minutes before the gun went off feeling a little bit rushed.
For the first two miles, we were in the dark and the other racers around me seemed like robots since we really couldn’t see each other’s faces. All of us are half-asleep and were now focused on the task at hand. I did see some absolute goofballs dressed in tank tops and shorts with otherwise only a hat and gloves for the cold weather. I thought of them as complete fools considering the temperature at the starting line was about 34°.
Soon we faced a climb up a super steep single track embankment consisting of thick gooey slippery mud. The racers clogged up here waiting for the person in front to make it up the slope. Some even crawled on all fours so as to not slide back down the slope. For the next mile or so, it felt like we were running with cinderblocks strapped to our feet because of the heavy mud that we couldn’t shake loose.
At the first aid station which was only mile nine, most of us still stopped to get in some early calories for the miles ahead. For breakfast just a little bit ago, I had had an Ensure and a 400 cal Pro Bar. The first 20 miles were very runnable with wide-open double track on a mostly gentle decline. I told myself “Man, this race isn’t nearly as hard as people said it would be.” Soon I’d receive a wake-up call. Before long, we entered the section with amazing panoramic views of the race’s trademark “hoodoo’s.” I loved running among these hundred feet spires of red tall rock formations. They were so picturesque that I even stopped to take some photos but they didn’t turn out well because my lens was foggy from the cold. Major bummer.
The next few miles took us down into the Red Canyon aid station where we would start a five mile loop among more gorgeous hoodoo’s after some tough climbing. Here my heel started to really cause problems. During this section, the weather turned nasty again with temperatures down into the 30s and a weird type of snowfall called ice pellets. I like the weather variation and it didn’t bother me because I was dressed well. My hands and face got super cold so I just stepped on the gas to try to warm up. It worked. I blew through the next aid station since I had been there less than hour previously.
I had been told to get ready for some serious climbing in the next 15 miles or so. As the miles passed, my right Achilles was blowing up! But my good old Ace-in-the-hole, Motrin knocked the pain down to a tolerable level. It still hurt like hell though! I just hoped I wasn’t causing permanent damage.
I looked forward to getting to the Proctor Canyon aid station which was mile 49. From there I had a two-mile downhill to the starting line/finish line where I would turn around and repeat the whole 51 mile loop again.
A weird thing happened at the turnaround: the race director was having the prerace meeting for the 50K and 50 mile runners who would start their race at that very spot in the morning. They all cheered me as I came down the hill, crossed the timing mat then did an immediate U-turn to head back up the hill. I felt like a rock star with all the silly attention. I thought how nice it would be to step stop here and be done. I had to shift my focus to the thought of how challenging the next 51 miles would be in the upcoming cold nighttime air. Now I knew exactly what to expect having run those miles once already.
I didn’t stop at the mile 53 Proctor Canyon aid station again having just been there. I dealt with that stupid, steep, muddy, slippery climb up that friggin’ embankment again. I hated it even more the second time. I pushed on to the mile 60 Blue Fly aid station where I had a drop bag. Here, I put on more clothes, drank an Ensure and half a Five Hour Energy while ripping off my left third toenail along with the huge blister that caused it. A young volunteer winced in disgust as I did so. I asked her for a couple Band-Aids which she retrieved without saying anything. I think I ruined her future as an ultramarathon aid station volunteer!
Feeling like I was high on crack cocaine from the Five Hour Energy, I made good time over the next 15 miles. At the Coyote Hollow aid station, I had to really dig deep to psych myself up for the upcoming hilly section through the hoodoo’s. I had become really, really cold, so much so that I now was wearing all the clothes that I had with me. My rain jacket and rain pants made all the difference as the extra layer helped me keep in the warmth. I still couldn’t warm up my hands though. I wore two pairs of merino wool liner gloves and a thin pair of mittens. I scrunched my hands up into a ball and pulled them into my jacket sleeves. I flicked my hands continuously trying to shake some warm blood down into them. Eventually, this solved the problem. An aid station volunteer said there were a lot of people who dropped out because of the cold. I thought some of them had to be the dopes I saw at the starting line wearing almost nothing. Sure enough that ended up being the case.
The effects of the cold temperature and the caffeine that I had just drunk made me pee a lot. I had been drinking a new apple flavored electrolyte drink that I noticed made my pee green. I had never had green urine before in my life! This was kind of a freaky experience for me. I knew I hadn’t slept in many hours so I started to think that my mind was starting to play tricks on me as it so often does in my ultra marathons.
Next up was the five mile Red Canyon loop that crushed my Achilles as I described earlier. Coincidentally, just as I reached the top of the climb, I told myself that “hey daytime has come again.” At that very moment, my headlamp went dead. What perfect timing. For most of the nighttime miles, I probably could’ve run without a headlamp at all because of the gorgeous light from the brilliant full moon shining down upon us. I called it the “Headlamp in the Sky.”
Back at the Red Canyon aid station, things had changed significantly. This was the turnaround for the 50 KM runners. Now instead of great solitude, I shared the trail with lots of other runners. Their positive energy and words of admiration lifted my spirits.
At the Mile 94/Hillsdale Canyon aid station, we now were joined with the half marathoners as this was their turnaround point. Now the trail was packed with hundreds of other weekend warrior types. I had trouble passing long conga lines of mostly walkers on the single track trail.
The weather became very nice with sunny temperatures in the upper 40s. I now had only one long sleeve shirt on up top. My running pack was now stuffed to the brim with all the clothes I had been wearing.
The last five mile climb before the final two-mile downhill seemed never ending. It took forever because I couldn’t pass the other walkers. I told myself just to chill out and try to enjoy the experience. Though I’ve done many longer and tougher races, the overwhelming sense of satisfaction of finishing another ultra made me euphoric. Earlier in the race, I had envisioned how pleasurable it would be to simply lay down and look up at the sky at the finish line. I also imagined eating a big fat juicy steak for dinner, with ice cream for dessert that night.
At the mile 100 Proctor Canyon aid station (my fourth time through there), the volunteers recognized me and cheered me on to the finish. The last two times I did this two mile section, I had it pretty much to myself. This last time it seemed almost like I was running through a college campus as there were so many people finishing either a half marathon, a 50K, a 60K or the 50 mile.
I can’t describe the sense of satisfaction of crossing the finish line of an ultra, no matter the distance or difficulty. I kissed my finisher’s buckle and went over to sit down in a chair in the shade. It felt oh so sweet. I got my Mo-Jo back. My time was much slower than expected but I finished 25th out of 108 starters. There were tons of DNF’ers which shows that it was a pretty hard race.
I’m proud of how I executed my race. I’m even more proud of my mental approach: I broke the race down into smaller and smaller units-even into moments. I tried to win as many moments as possible. And, I kept a positive and grateful mindset. This formula worked perfectly. I think I’m on to something here. (Thanks to my mental skills coach, Brian Alexander)
This year, I’m throttling back a bit. I’m only doing one more race this year, the Moab 240 in October, before I tackle the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 next January. I plan on really focusing on the mental part of my training. I want to get to the point where I can tolerate unbelievable challenges in any fashion. My ultimate goal is to become truly “unbreakable.” I’ve come a long way over the years but I have a long way to go though.
Now about that Achilles of mine.