|Photo: Paul Nelson.|
Forty is a weird age. The average life expectancy in this country is less than 80 (I'm pretty sure), so statistically speaking you've pretty much crested the hill at 40 and physically you tend to start feeling those niggles lingering just a bit more than they did just five years ago. But at the same time most 40 somethings still feel vibrant, full of life and - at times - as giddy as a prepubescent teenager. Or at least this 40-something does.
Through the prism of a runner's time-obsessed eyes, entering the 'master's' division presents interesting new challenges. Can I defy the law of averages? How long can I compete against kids half my age? Will I ever win another race? Will I still be running 20 years from now? Should I just focus on competing against others in my age division? Which races offer masters money? Should I use my master's standing as an excuse to just 'enjoy' running and not be so obsessed with trying to compete? Is it time to start mentoring and focusing on others with more talent, stronger drive and years of optimal performance ahead of them?
These are just some of the questions I've had rattling around in my head this year, and I think the noise had an impact on my drive to succeed. I turned 40 almost exactly one month before Western States and then proceeded to perform terribly there (after winning my first race as a master, I might add). That was a tough pill to swallow. Maybe I was over the hill and maybe it was time to retire to pasture, a racing afterlife of comfortable and well-earned jogging all the way into my 90s.
But I'd committed to running the Steamboat 100, put on by my good friend Fred Abramowitz, and I wasn't about to renege on that commitment. I gave myself a month to wallow in self-pity post Western States, and then went about the business of figuring out what went wrong and how I was going to fix it. After a bit of reflection, the two primary reasons I came up with for failing at Western Sates were lack of conviction and a sour gut.
The lack of conviction manifested itself both in training and on race day. I didn't have the drive in the spring to run the miles I knew that I needed to in order to be competitive. I ran a few token 100 mile weeks, but I just didn't have the desire to really stack those weeks up back to back over the period of a couple of months. This lack of physical preparation led to a downward spiral in mental belief, to the point that I found myself on the starting line in late June not really wanting to be there. The outcome of my race was sealed long before I started puking on the way to the Auburn Lakes Trail aid station. The nausea was just a final nail in the coffin.
But with the help of friends and family, I started digging myself out of my funk, and worked on building a mental foundation for Steamboat. The first rule I implemented was to respond positively to any questions related to the race. By telling others that I was looking forward to it, I managed to also convince myself. The second rule was to teach myself that nausea didn't have to be inevitable. Working closely with local dietician and accomplished ultrarunner Abby McQueeney Penamonte I was - for the first time - able to develop an in-race fueling strategy based on testing and fact, rather than guesswork and hope.
The nutrition formula was pretty simple. After a half hour metabolic treadmill test conducted at 100-mile effort, I was able to ascertain what my in-race fueling needs were. Considerably less than the 200 - 300 calories per hour I'd been trying to cram down my throat in previous races, as it turns out. The results suggested that I burn fat very efficiently and as such don't need much more than 100 calories an hour to maintain respectable energy levels while performing at 100-mile effort. That's the equivalent of one gel an hour, and quite contrary to conventional ultrarunning wisdom that mandates forcing a gel down your throat - come hell or high water - every 20 minutes. I'd tried that and it didn't work.
Not long before Steamboat, a friend sent me a link to a blog post that Pam Smith - of Western States fame - had written earlier this year. I have an immense amount of respect for Pam, but nowhere near her work ethic when it comes to figuring out - and implementing - the science behind performance. So it was with much glee that I read her article recommending a nutrition strategy based on limiting caloric intake to levels well below that held as gospel in the ultrarunning community. My plan to not start consuming until at least two hours into the race was also given the nod of approval by Pam. There was even advice on post-puke strategies, but I was committed mentally to not puking so I filed that one away in the contingency drawer.
The other part of the puzzle was to keep effort levels firmly under control. There is a direct correlation, I have found, between effort level and your gut's ability to process fuel. I was bound and determined to keep things casual all day and all night at Steamboat. My whole family had come out for this one, including my parents all the way from England. They had last watched me do the 100 mile thing at UTMB in 2011, where I registered the only DNF of my ultrarunning career. I absolutely could not let this one spiral out of control. Discipline was required.
|Love you, Mum!|
"This feels easy right, Zeke? We're not being stupid here ... right, Zeke?"
I'd look back a few switchbacks and see the rest of the pack, but knew that if I moved any slower I'd start tripping over rocks. The effort was fine; everyone else was just being ridiculously cagey. As we transitioned to rolling singletrack, I dropped Zeke and found myself solo at the front of the field. I didn't let it bother me though. My breathing was super controlled and the effort was way easier than it is has been at Western States and other 100 milers, so I rolled with it, popping an 80 calorie peanut butter pack exactly two hours into the run.
|"This is easy, right Zeker?"|
The seven hour mark, give or take an hour or two, has traditionally been the tipping point for my stomach in these races; the point where nausea starts kicking in and I start the long drawn-out internal monologue:
"To puke or not to puke? That is the question."
Prior to 2013, when the puking floodgates opened at Leadville, I had been firmly in the camp of puke avoidance at all costs, typically being able to get by on coke when things starting turing sour. However, an eruption at mile 88 on the Leadville course, some 50 meters down the road from May Queen, had put an end to all that, and I moved from a history of never having puked during a race to almost incorporating it into the game plan. I proceeded to spill my guts again at the base of the Boulevard - mile 96 at Leadville - then twice at the Wasatch 100, endlessly at UTM Fuji, and then again at Western States. I was on a four-race streak. And it sucked.
Seven hours and 40 miles into Steamboat and the gut was still shipshape, though. I had stuck religiously to the plan, and while I had been swallowed up by a pack of seven other runners at the front of the field, I was elated to be in the race and consuming without concern. I wouldn't describe my energy levels as particularly perky - the formula needs to be tweaked - but I was running. The lack of pep was exposed on the long climb in the dark back up the Fish Creek Falls trail, where for the first time I lost contact with the front of the field and found myself running in fourth or fifth.
|Fish Creek on the way down and in the lead.|
The 4,000 foot descent to the Spring Creek Ponds aid station at mile ~70 was a long one, but uneventful and controlled. My stomach was still intact, I was consuming and I wanted to keep it that way. I allowed myself another small portion of ramen at Spring Creek before beginning the long climb back up to Summit Lake and Buff Pass. A few miles out from the return to the Dry Lake aid station (mile ~75) I begun to find myself hiking sections that I knew I should be running, so I decided that as my stomach was still feeling good I'd allow myself another bowl of ramen to supplement the liquid fuel and to see if I couldn't re-stoke the furnace.
Unfortunately, I ate too much and on the ensuing seven miles of uphill gently graded dirt road to Buff Pass I had to drop the effort significantly and found myself walking long sections (slowly) in a bid to give my stomach the time it needed to shake the nausea. The familiar puke/no puke internal dialog kicked back into gear, but I was determined to buck the trend and make this a no-puke outing, even if it meant giving up places against the rest of the field. Finally near the top of the climb, the nausea abated and I was able to get back about the business of running and racing. Unfortunately, I had consumed nothing over the span of the last two hours, so energy levels were low.
At the toasty Summit Lake aid station, I nibbled on a grilled cheese sandwich, pleased that this was even an option and making sure to exit the aid tent quickly enough to avoid losing the body heat that I would need to get me through the next section of rolling and high-altitude trail. The outside temperature had become legitimately cold, so I was definitely motivated to keep a warmth-generating effort going. Nonetheless, I knew that I'd probably given up any chance of catching third on the slow climb to Buff Pass.
Unfortunately I was producing a good amount of heat while still allowing for lazy breaks of hiking on stuff that I should have been running. By mile 96 (of 107), I had given up fourth to a charging Ryan Ghelfi, who was running impressively at his first go at the distance. He left the penultimate aid station, a fourth visit to Long Lake, as I was entering, but I didn't have a whole lot of fight in me. The mission for the day had been to run my race and complete it without any massive blowups.
I think I achieved that. And while I didn't close the final 20 miles with the kind of fight and focus I would have liked to have done, I was happy to still be nipping away at my fuel and getting the job done with over 100 miles completed. Descending the final 3,500 feet into the finish at the base of the ski hill, I was generally happy with the way the race had played out.
I had broken the puking spell, I had remained largely positive the whole way around, and I had rekindled my belief in my ability to run 100 miles at a reasonably competitive level. Oh, and I had made a bit of cash in the process too. A good day at the office, with a nutritional foundation to build from, and a renewed - if still tempered - sense of purpose for the South Africa Sky Run in November and then further afield to the 2015 season.
Thanks to everyone who believed in me this summer and especially those who helped convince me that I still have a few good races left in me, and then helped me make the practical changes needed to achieve that.