Wednesday, November 8, 2017

MMTR 50: All You Need is Proper Motivation.

After getting a solid helping of humble pie at Grindstone 100 in October, I took the opportunity to do some reflecting, and writing that blog post was helpful in terms of finding my way back to why I started running long distances in the mountains in the first place. One change from those early days (North Georgia Adventuring with Reeve during Grad School) that I just can’t shake and don’t want to shake is a desire to have my best result when I do actually enter a race. Running with Jordy, Brett, Pawel, Sean, Rick, and the rest of the BBurg crew (looking at you VT Ultra kiddos and alumni) has motivated me to compete while I’m completing these races. The trick seems to be striking a healthy balance and maintaining a clear focus on the joy of just being “out there” each time.

My first MMTR 50 in 2014 came just six days after running the Marine Corps Marathon. It wasn’t a great recipe for a strong showing, and I managed to finish in a very slow 11:42. That’s always been a bit of a sore spot for me. MMTR is a tough race with a stout elevation profile: 

But, I've always felt that I was capable of running a better time on that course. Getting back to MMTR proved to be a bit of a struggle with other goals keeping me from returning. This year things worked out to return to MMTR. I had all this leftover fitness after the Grindstone DNF and no race to use it. MMTR was still open, Ginger was cool with me leaving town for the night to chase this particular windmill, so I took the chance. Here’s the story:

Rick Burleson and I decided to join forces and work together at MMTR. Rick is completing the BEAST series and he’s in great shape heading into the last bit of that race series. He had an impressive Grindstone and was fit for a good push at MMTR. We had both had some time to reflect on our motivations, and it proved useful for us to spend the day together driving up to the race. We had plenty of time to chat about our recent reflections. Running with Rick was even more useful. We had similar goals: Go out, have fun, be grateful for the chance to spend the day in the mountains, and go as fast and hard as we could. The number 1 motivation was: Enjoy the day and be grateful. The number 2 motivation, for me, was to race myself. I wanted to better my previous race, and truly explore what I was capable of on the course.

Our strategy was pretty simple. Run hard, but smart to Long Mountain/Wayside (mile 26ish), get in and out of the loop with legs to roll, and then burn the ships in the final 15.

Things played out just like that.

We pushed out of the comfort zone that sanity calls for when you have 50 miles on tap for the day in the first few miles of darkness to avoid placing ourselves poorly in the field at the start. I wanted us to be surrounded by people who would push us all day. We ran all of the early climbs and worked to keep the average pace around 10 minutes. Seeing some friendly faces (Leif, Henry, Mike Jones) was a big lift in the early miles.

After rolling through Robinson Gap, we took what the course gave us and bombed the downhills, logging some Sub 7 and Sub 8 miles to put some time in the bank. I’ve been working on descending this year, and that work paid off. My quads didn’t complain at all about the pounding. Rick’s clearly weren’t sad about the pace either as he was pushing me to keep up and just let the miles flow. Mindful of the goal to get to Long Mountain in good shape for the climb to the loop, we did hike some of the ups heading to the Long Mountain aid station. As we cruised down the flat last mile into the AS, we came around the corner to find Brett in a full Gingerbread man costume. Brett cheered us on as we rolled past and hooked up with Jordan, Kristen, Leif, Butchie, Henry, and the rest of the crew. They got us in and out quickly with fresh socks and full bottles to make the climb up to the loop.

Leaving Long Mountain, we encountered a very fast moving Rick Gray. Rick was having himself a DAY. He’s always such a joy to hook up with on the trail. His positive attitude and wealth of knowledge are always a welcome companion. Wanting to get to the loop in good shape, I just hooked up with Rick and tried to stick with him on the long climb. He eventually left me and went on to a great finish (Congrats, buddy! You inspire me).

I had the distance to the loop wrong in my head, so I had to adjust my plans a little on the fly, but things worked out OK, and I rolled into the loop feeling good. Rick Burelson and I got separated here and there but we eventually hooked up and ran the loop together. By then, the rain was pretty steady and the footing was bad. Those miles (33ish-38ish) went slower than I’d hoped. I basically lead a conga line of 8-10 runners through to the punch- talking some smack to Naval Academy guy who said he wanted to be a SEAL. I gave him some good natured ribbing about how that was a bad idea because he’d have to spend all of his pay on hair product, but that’s another story…

I came out of the loop and Jordy and Brett pushed me to just keep moving so I wouldn’t get cold. It was now getting pretty nasty out there, and I’ll admit I was a little tired. But, I was motivated. I was still hoping to somehow claw my way back on pace for a dream sub 9 hour finish. I knew that was basically impossible, but you know how I roll: Aim big.

I pushed the next descent as hard as I could and then settled into a hike on the second to last climb. Sub 9 was slipping away, but I wasn’t worried about it too much. Sub 10 would still be a big PR for me. I hiked the next climb and just focused on trying to get to the last climb and the last single track section feeling good. Here, I ran into a little problem with nutrition. I was cold and didn’t really feel like eating. I didn’t realize that I was calorie short until I took a little spill by kicking rock hiding under the leaves. I was getting a little fuzzy in the head and not picking up my feet. I laughed at myself and ate a gel. I pushed myself to run again and the same thing happened about 30 minutes later. This time, I ate 2 gels, popped in my headphones and decided it was time to go big or go home.

 Once I knew I had less than 5 to go, I just ran as hard as I could. I knew the last 3 miles were downhill and it was time to stop looking at my watch and just run. So, that’s what I did. With 4 to go, all the miles were sub 10. I realized at this point that if I just ran as hard as I could I could finish in under 9:42, which would be a 2 hour PR on the course. So, I just kicked it.

On the final descent, I saw Brett and Henry. They were out on the course letting folks know how far it was to the finish. Brett said: 1.4 to go. I emptied the tank. Mile 49 was 7:05. I was cranking. I had passed two people in the last few miles and now I had 5 more in my sights. Alas, they were too far up the road, and I ran out of course. I finished 47th overall at 9:41 flat.

I could not be happier. Can't you tell? 

First of all, I had been seeded 224 out of a field of 279 runners. Beating my seed by that many places is a point of pride for me. More importantly, though, I managed to race all 50 miles and still remain focused on having fun. Sure, a lot of it was Type 2 fun, but it was fun. Jordy had told me that having fun and trying to go sub 9 were probably mutually exclusive goals. And he was right. But only kind of right. The fun for me still rests solidly in trying to do things that are really hard. If I have an audacious time goal to push for, it’s more fun even if I don’t reach it.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend the day in the mountains with my friends. And I couldn't have done it without this crew: 

I’m even more grateful that I have a hobby that lets me push myself and keep learning about how to be a better runner and a better person. Running teaches me both because of the shining examples of friendship, support, and joy that I get to see every time I go “out there” and explore. Thanks to Clark Zealand for putting on another great race. I appreciate the hard work he puts into his races and the support of all the amazing volunteers. 

Thanks for all the support and encouragement. It feels good to end the running year on a high note. I’m looking forward to having some down time. I am really looking forward to hanging out with PT and supporting Ginger as she runs the Richmond marathon this weekend. She’s going to rock it out!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Sometimes You Just Break a Few Eggs: An Honest Look at Grindstone 2017

It seems odd to write a report for a race I didn’t finish, but I spend so much of my time at work making the point that writing is a crucial means for processing experience that it seems important that I go ahead and process my Grindstone 2017 experience this way. And, it also just feels like the honest thing to do.

I typically write a report for all of my major races, and it feels like it would be disingenuous to not write about a race where I failed to achieve my goal. I don’t think we present an accurate view of ourselves if we don’t share the hard times as well as the good times. So, here’s the short version: I didn’t have what I needed to make it happen this time. I dropped at North River Gap 1 even though I was running well because I didn’t have the mental game figured out this time. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Now for the more detailed version, which I think is where the learning happens.

My goal for 2017 was to follow up a pretty successful year of running in 2016 (100 mile PR at Umstead; Grindstone finish; The Year of the Runaround; Top 10 at EDU) by exploring a new level of difficulty. I decided to do fewer races this year and focus on doing two mountain 100s fairly close together. I figured it would be an interesting challenge that would also enable me to spend more time at home trying to be a good husband and father, which is my top priority after all. So, I focused my energy on TRT 100  mid July and Grindstone 100 in early October.

When I finished TRT in July, I had the very strong feeling that I should pull out of Grindstone and call it a year for 100 milers. I was mentally exhausted from pushing through and finishing strong (for me) at TRT. Two weeks later, I was still not recovered and felt like garbage. It seemed like the smart thing to do would be to let go of the plan for two 100s close together. The mental cost of TRT and the slow recovery were signals that failure was a likely outcome. I almost sent Clark the email a few times, but I never did. Then, on the last weekend of August I did two hard runs on a Friday and Sunday and felt great physically. That made me feel confident that my body could handle Grindstone. September training went great. I was running strong, climbing well, and recovering from each training run quickly. My confidence grew. The “double” I had committed to doing seemed like a good challenge again. I convinced myself that I had proper motivation and built a pace plan for a sub 25 hour finish.

I arrived at the start line excited and feeling like I was ready for a good day.

My legs felt great. Pawel, Bradner, and I lined up together ready to work together for as much as the first 50 miles as we could. It was exciting. Adrenaline was pumping.

The first 3 miles flew by. I was feeling great. We passed Jordy who was taking photos a couple of miles in and I flashed him a big smile.

Then, reality came crashing down around me.

Right around the time the 3rd mile clicked off, I started struggling mentally. Why was I here? What was I doing? I could not access any of the joy I typically feel in the early miles of a big challenge. I told myself to just relax, run smart, and wait for things to settle out. They didn’t.

Bradner and I came into AS 1 at Falls Hallow right on Pawel’s heels. Just under an hour. A few minutes ahead of my goal pace. That should have made me happy. My response: “Gee, that’s nice.” I topped off my water bottle, grabbed a PB&J and rolled on. A few minutes later, I put on my headlamp and chatted with Bradner about his Vol State experience this summer. We talked about lots of fun things. None of them could distract me from the odd feeling of dread. I did not want to run 100 miles today. I kept admonishing myself for letting negative thoughts control my brain. I went through all of my normal mantras. None of them were working.

On the climb to Elliot’s Knob, I settled into a strong hiking pace. I kept telling myself to stop dwelling on the negative. I reminded myself of all the advice I’ve given others over the years: Break it into chunks. Run aid station to aid station. Don’t think of it as a 100 miles; just get to the next aid station.

I couldn’t listen to myself. I didn’t heed my own advice.

I came into AS 2 (Dry Branch) exactly at my goal time/pace for the section. Again, I thought: “Ok. That’s nice.” I took no joy in the fact that I was running strong, feeling good, and setting myself up for success. I couldn’t get out of this negative headspace. I could not stop obsessing about the fact that I still had 85 miles to go. I couldn’t shake the dread I was feeling. I kept thinking: Why am I here? I just did this two months ago. I don’t want to go through this again right now.

I knew I was in trouble, but I just kept pushing because that’s what I do.

This continued on my way towards Dowell’s Draft 1. For the next 7 miles I thought about dropping at DD 1. I just didn’t have any motivation to continue. I got to DD1 and saw Jordy. Normally, this would cheer me up. Jordy is such an inspiring, happy guy that it’s hard to be negative around him. He asked how I was doing. All I could say was: “I don’t want to be here.” He tried to cheer me up, got me to make a funny face for the camera and said: “Just get to North River Gap. It’ll be Ok.” So, I did. I knew he wouldn’t give me a ride, unless I had a really good reason. I didn’t. Physically I was fine. So, I pushed a bunch of calories down the hatch and took off into the night.

I ran strong for the next 15 miles. I kept pushing myself thinking that I just needed to find a rhythm. My legs responded to each challenge. In my head, though, it was a battle royale. The negative demons were winning. In the end, this is what I decided: If you can be honest and just admit that you just don’t have the mental game to finish, you can drop. But, you have to be honest. No BS. You have to be honest and confront failure.

So, I did. I came into North River Gap and told Sean: I’m done. I just don’t have it today. He did what a good friend would do and tried to talk me out of it. He reminded me of all the things I’ve said a million times: Just keep going, you’ll feel better. Just get to turnaround, the sun will come up and it’ll get better. You can do it.

But, I knew I couldn’t. Well, I knew I could. I knew I could still finish around my goal time.

I just didn’t want to. I was tired mentally and I had zero motivation to finish. So, I didn’t.

Writing those words was difficult. Admitting failure is hard, particularly hard for me because I pride myself on reaching goals and doing things that are difficult. But it’s the truth. I didn’t have what it took to finish Grindstone this year.

And, that is OK. Here’s why:
If you follow this blog, you’ve seen me write a lot about making omelets and burning ships. That’s just who I am as a person and a runner. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing and doing RIGHT. For me, a big part of ultra running is staring into the abyss and confronting failure. Gary Cantrell (aka Laz) wrote an insightful column (link) where he said: “We can’t find out how much we can do without taking the chance that we will overreach.” Those words resonated with me because I find kinship in the idea that we can’t truly find our limits if we only attempt things that we KNOW we can do. That means we have to stop viewing falling short as a negative thing. Our culture abhors failure. We shy away from it. While I don’t advocate blind risk or being foolish, I do strongly believe in the value of learning some lessons the hard way. I’m quite certain that some folks thought my pursuit of TRT and Grindstone was ill-advised. I admit that I was wracked with doubt for a time this summer and overcome with it during the race. But, I did feel physically up to the task. I hit all of my markers in my short training block. I had no lingering pains at the start line. Mentally, though….

The mental aspect of running long distances can’t be overlooked. I have to admit that here is where I made a crucial error. I talked myself into thinking I was mentally prepared, but I clearly was not ready for the challenges of walking right up to the edge of what I’m capable of this time.

 This weekend I found the edge and fell right off into the abyss. I was unable to claw my way out of that abyss and complete the task at hand. It seems odd to say, but I’m glad that I did. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be writing about a successful pursuit of my goal and the joy of seeing Ginger, PT, and all of my friends at the finish. I’d certainly rather be writing about the pride I would have taken in my “double” this year. But, I can’t. I was unable to do it. I have, however learned a few things:

  • 1.     Motivation is, as one might guess, crucial. Without proper motivation difficult tasks can become impossible. I started Grindstone without the proper motivation. The goal of the “double” wasn’t enough for me. Grindstone was just another challenge—not THE challenge that I was invested in Friday night. Before I toe the line at my next 100 miler, I will be sure to carefully consider the motivation behind that choice and make sure it is rock solid.
  • 2.     Mental recovery and preparation are crucial elements of success. Much like motivation, I knew this already in a theoretical sense, but this weekend really showed me what happens in practice when you are not mentally prepared for a task. I can look back at the last 18 months of running and see that I just kept heaping challenge upon challenge without taking the time to re-supply the mental stores needed to meet those challenges. Now, I can see that mental recovery is just as important as physical recovery.
  • 3.     We can not be afraid to fail. In the end, I think that’s a big reason for my inability to claw my way out of the mental abyss. I was unable to think about anything other than how I would explain why I quit the race. As much as I’ve thought (and talked) about embracing challenges where failure is a likely outcome, I allowed it to dominate my thoughts in ways that were counter-productive. I can’t allow that to happen in the future. I must be willing to recognize that the very concept of success depends upon the potential for failure. Much like joy and sorrow, you can’t have one without the other, so we should not fear either.

In a very odd way, dropping at North River Gap was a cleansing experience. I had to actually admit that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. That was hard. It was also freeing. It has allowed me to stop putting so much pressure on myself—pressure that was robbing me of the ability to enjoy my hobby. Now, I know that overreach won’t kill me. It won’t destroy my sense of self. The outpouring of support and understanding from my family, friends, and fellow travelers in the ultra world reassured me that we don’t have to be perfect. We only have to be honest. I suppose that’s one reason I’ve decided to write this post and share it. Maybe someone who’s struggling with whether or not to chase a goal will read this and see that failure isn’t a bad thing. It is, in fact, instructive. If we are open to learning from it. I’m sure I’ll keep learning. I do know this: I’ll take what I’ve learned and apply it to my next adventure, which will certainly include audacious goals. While I will make sure I’m prepared physically AND mentally for the challenge next time, I also won’t allow the fear of failure to consume me when faced with difficulty.

As always, I want to thank Ginger for her unwavering support. I know this pursuit of windmills would not be possible without you. Thank you.

I also want to thank Sean for his selfless dedication to supporting me at races this year and in life in general. I look forward to paying you back. Chris, thanks for being there. I promise, you’ll get to run next time you travel to wander in the mountains with me. Brett, Jordy, Pawel, Rick, and the rest of the Bad Idea club- you guys are the best training partners and friends I could ask for. Thanks for all the support. I’m looking forward to our next adventure.

I also want to throw a HUGE congrats to Pawel. He executed his preparation and race day plan perfectly at Grindstone. He finished his first 100 in 23 hours and change. Amazing. You inspire me, buddy. And you’ve taught me a lot. Rick B and Bradner also deserve big congrats for amazing finishes this weekend. I’m proud to call you guys friends, and I hope we can hit the trails again soon. Thanks to all the folks in the Blacksburg running community, especially all the folks at Runabout Sports!. We have the BEST people!