Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ruminations on Pushing the Limits and Improving Performance. The 2012 Year-End Review.

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." -Theodore Roosevelt

They say the best way to learn something is to teach it. Perhaps that is why I like to summarize race reports in a blog post. Its the best way for me to reiterate to myself what I've learned along the way.

The 2012 racing year was quite an undertaking full of personal records and many successes. It wasn't without a few snags and obstacles along the way including my first bout of Plantar Fasciitis in May and 2 heartbreaking DNF's at the end of the season, one due to burnout and the other due to undertraining after the birth of my daughter.

Last year I spent the summer months from May to August hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and came into fall of 2011 with the biggest aerobic engine I've possessed. I was fresh physically from several months of no running, and the legs were mechanically strong from carrying a loaded pack for over 25 miles per day for thousands of miles. I got in a lot of miles throughout winter and spring and managed to keep the intensity up as well, getting in quality speedwork for the first time in my career which lended itself to an incredible spring season;
  • An epic battle and PR at Louisville Lovin' the Hills 50K in February.
  • A 50 mile PR of 6:25 on trails at Land Between the Lakes 50 Miler in March.
  • A 15:26 100 mile PR at Umstead later in March.
  • A 2:44 marathon PR on a hilly Derby course in April followed by a win at the Backside Trail Marathon the following day. 

Craig Dooley's money shot at February's Lovin' The Hills which my sock sponsor, Swiftwick has on their homepage now! Chasing Grossman on the final climb to my 2nd place finish. A highlight of the year.

The day it all caught up to me. Half- Iron Tri in Taylorsville. Plantar Fasciitis demanded attention after a fast spring.
Not surprising, in May my body was ready for a break, and during a Half-Ironman distance triathlon my Plantar Fascia screamed in protest and I knew it was time to back off the speedwork for the year and cut my mileage down. This was a blessing in disguise as it introduced me to my PT whom has addressed various areas of functional imbalance like weakness on my left side in the hamstring and glutes. 

Fun times during my "off-season", pacing Traci Falbo to an Overall Win at the Hawthorne 12 hour Run, beating all the guys and setting a new course record. Beast!

In June I focused on PT and crosstrained a lot although I had planned on running the highest weekly mileage of my year to prepare for an undertaking of confounding proportions. In July Eric Grossman, Rebekah Trittipoe, Anne Lundblad, Rob French and Myself attempted the Tour De Virginia. This 600 mile stage race covered the Appalachian Trail through Virginia over a 2 week span. We averaged over 40  miles per day and climbed nearly 10k' daily. The recovery, crosstraining, and PT must have worked for me, because on July 14th Eric, Anne, and I were successful in our attempts. It took me 140 hours total. Temps were between 104-108 degrees every day during the first week. The race definitely pushed all of our limits but every day was beautiful. Each morning involved pushing past the threshold of the of the unknown and possible. Each stage was intoxicating and consuming in all the right ways. The experience was nothing short of euphoric.

En route Tour De Virginia- A 600 mile stage race on the Appalachian Trail. Anne Lundblad, Myself, Eric Grossman.

Done! I couldn't have run with a better group of characters. Possibly the highlight of the decade, the time of my life. 
Following the TDV, I only waited 6 short weeks to undertake my first ultra to capitalize on the aerobic gains experienced from the Tour De Virginia. I won the Iron Mountain 50 Miler on September 1st. I hadn't done speed work since April but my climbing legs were strong from the Tour and I bested my time from the previous year by 10 minutes. I ran what I would consider one of my strongest races. It was also my first negative split 50.

Winning is good, but beating friends is even better! Proud to finally get a win against some fast guys who've spanked me in the past!
My focus race for the year was the Ultra Race of Champions 100K in late September in which I DNF'd because I was fried, mentally and physically. Part of the reason I focused on building road speed early in my year was for a hopeful podium finish at UROC and a bite of the $20,000 prize purse. I was not disappointed greatly to DNF because I was proud to make the right choice so quickly, and bail at mile 8 of the race, enabling my recovery in the following weeks. 
Sitting on the UROC Elite panel. The biggest production of the year.

What should also be mentioned is the birth of my daughter was supposed to be 10 days after UROC. Pushing hard at UROC would have prevented me for being there in full force for my wife and family. Mentally I tend to be wasted for a week or two after a big race. Kara ended up going into labor early and I am proud to stay I was more supportive and patient than my usual self during her 34 hour labor. I was right there the whole time and treated it like the biggest ultra of my life, (and I won as a pacer.) I was incredibly impressed with her strength and attitude an it helped encourage me to be as supportive and present as possible as we welcomed our daughter into this blue spinning planet.

A different kind of "pacing" during Kara's 34 hour labor. Grace I've never known before, being patient and supportive, encouraged by her non-stop positive attitude and inability to complain once.

Denali Ann Shellhamer was born on October 5, 2012.

I have always been of the persuasion that you can't undertrain for a race. Fitness is not lost as much as people believe on the short term. It takes a long time to lose endurance. During the month of October I focused on Kara and Denali, and put running on the back burner during Denali's first few weeks of life with us. I trained when I could, but only got in about 20-30 miles per week during the first half of October and capped my mileage at 45 the last week of October when Kara's parents came to help with Denali.

I guess I truly put my faith in the fitness base I had developed over the year. I went into the Pinhoti 100 on November 5th fully recovered and mentally recharged. I had only run an average of 20-30 miles per week for  6 weeks and my goal was to just enjoy Pinhoti and run 100 miles on a beautiful course. I still wanted a top 5 spot and wanted a 19 hour time which would be a one hour forty minute improvement over 2 years ago. I guess when you're competing at the top level of the sport, small losses in fitness equal drastic drops in comparative ability, because I DNF'd Pinhoti at mile 70 after the heat shut me down. I had been running top 10 most of the day and gaining but after 15 hours my energy levels dropped to zero and I couldn't eat or drink. Even though I was running incredibly conservative, I just didn't have 100 miles in me that day after the low mileage the previous 6 weeks. The good news is that I was fresh mentally and ready to run again the day after Pinhoti. Since I had the opportunity to recover over the previous month my legs felt better than they had in months and my motivation was through the roof even the week after running a mountainous 70.

Now it's back to square one. There is no one formula to success. I pushed myself past the breaking point this year, and was smart enough to know when to call it quits and recover at UROC. Now I am doing that once again. I had planned on running the Bandera 100K in January and now I am altering my schedule for the following year to once again build up my base and work on speed. I'm scratching Bandera and the Montrail Ultra Cup races to avoid that plateau that many runners hit when sticking to the same thing too long.

It's time to start anew. I cant ride on the coat-tails of the previous year anymore like I've been doing since August. Just like after a very successful 2011 spring season when I went out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and build my base, again I now must start fresh and begin realigning reality with ideals.

I'll continue to work on functional strength and be proactive about hip strength and equal hamstring strength and see my PT. Once again I am going to be doing  800m repeats for VO2 improvement and threshold work for another spring marathon PR and improve my 50 mile and 100 mile times like I did last year. I will build and peak and push myself as far as I am capable, and then when the bottom drops out, I will recover.

No matter how many bulls I ride in this rodeo, there is always learning to be realised and improvements to be made. Each year requires recovery and you can't function at 100% all the time. The year has been an amazing and rewarding one. My overriding goal in this sport is to be doing it for decades to come. This year saw progress towards that goal in addressing strength through PT.

Pushing past the limits of what I thought was possible was a theme of the year. I ran the Backside Marathon one day after a 2:44 Derby Marathon PR and won. It was a success to me just to run well, regardless of the win. I wasn't scared of injury or failing during the Tour De Virginia even though training the month prior wasn't what I wanted it to be. Nonetheless, I pushed the limits and succeeded in something I didn't know I was capable of. It was something that had never been done before. I raced the race of my life at Iron Mountain only a month after the TDV and will never forget it even though I figured the TDV would have left me weak and in need of recovery. Then the bottom dropped out, and I needed to recover for UROC and went into Pinhoti refreshed and recharged but not in peak form.

Not being afraid of failure can yield the greatest rewards, and also dish out the most humbling experiences.

I leave the year with the words of Teddy ringing in my ear:

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." -Theodore Roosevelt

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pinhoti 100 Race Report. (A lack of tenacity.)

Running a 100 mile ultramarathon is not a feat of the individual. Regardless of what one may think, 100 mile ultramarathons are a team sport. Whether or not runners use a crew, pacers, drop bags, etcetera, finishing a 100 mile run is an accomplishment  of an amazing team of volunteers, runners, family, and friends whom stay up day and night and even spend months in advance preparing to facilitate the 15 to 30 hour journey of 100 mile runners. I often say the reason I love the sport is because of the community that surrounds it, and it is that community which succeeds when THEY enable each runner to cross the finish line.

This past Saturday I attempted to run 100 miles on the Pinhoti trail in Southeastern Alabama. The race is a mountainous 100 mile race involving over 16,000 feet of climbing on mostly singletrack hiking trail. I have run the race before and finished strong two years ago at the event after overcoming a rough patch near the halfway point of the run. My wife was my pacer during that run and with her help I continued to run through my rough patch and eventually recovered from nausea. I  came back in to good form for the last 35 miles and ran strong finishing third. With the help of someone to run with me and help me "get my stomach back" I was successful. During my first 100 miler at Mohican I was also paced by my wife who didn't let me quit and pushed me through some rough times when I felt deathly. Even though I had broken my ankle she knew her job was to push me forward regardless. At mile 90 of my first 100 race in 2008 at Mohican she had a Physical Therapist tape my broken ankle and we walked the last 10 miles to finish. It was with the help of others I completed my goals.

The week leading up to Pinhoti I felt good things were in store. My energy levels were fully recovered and I was well rested. I felt better than I had felt in months. I had DNF'd early at the UROC 100K nearly a month prior to allow for more recovery and I was feeling strong again and ready to run long. My mileage had been low over the last month to recover and also because I was focused on being a dad as my daughter, Denali, was born exactly 4 weeks prior to the Pinhoti 100. I needed to run lower mileage to recover and it worked because I was running strong in training and feeling good. I was mentally ready to conquer the Pinhoti 100 even though the last 6 weeks held the lowest mileage I had run in over a year and a half. I was confident even with the low miles I still had a good base to work with. Given that my training had been reduced and I hadn't slept much because I was focused on Denali over the past month I knew that I had to alter my goals going into this years Pinhoti 100. I simply wanted to run a even paced methodical race in which I ran extremely conservative in the first 50 and my nutrition held strong. I wasn't concerned with a podium finish and I didn't really care about overall placement. I just wanted to run a wise race in which I didn't fall apart for a decent finish. Given what I just said, I was still aiming for a top 5 finish and a time of 19 hours, which is 1 hour 40 mins better than 2 years ago...

I barely made it to the starting line in time and without much ado in the morning I was off for my 5th 100 mile finish. I started off letting the rabbits run out in front and found myself passing people near mile 20. I was holding a top ten placement and continued to pass people most of the morning and afternoon. From miles 1 to 50 I ate perfectly and drank as scheduled but it kept getting hotter. I kept using restraint and ran slow on the climbs and ran as conservatively as possible. I tried SO hard to do everything right and stick to my plan of running a nice and strong race, not looking for a performance of a lifetime but just run a good 100 mile run. I was at ease and playing my cards right. My legs felt good and they never faltered. My energy levels however, waned throughout the day. Each mile seemed like many, and there were no highs to balance the lows. The humidity soared to nearly 100% and although the temps were only in the 80's, I had been running in 40 degree temps over the past month. My head swelled and my body was covered in salt. On the biggest climbs I ran as slowly as possible to leave gas in the tank for a strong finish.

Coming in to Adam's Gap at mile 55, I did not rest as I had two years ago. I forged on accepting a minute of walking as recovery instead of stopping and hoped to finally have a high to balance the lack of energy but it never came. Every mile I became more dizzy and I was not able to eat. I was miserable. It was all I could do just to make it to the next aid station. The prospect of running 40 more miles seemed impossible, but I could run 5 more to the next aid station.

Near mile 60 I started to try to force food down even though I was nauseous and dizzy and my energy levels still waned and lessened. My legs still felt OK but I was shot mentally. Each step was agony and I was extremely tired. I knew finishing this race would be one of the hardest things I had ever done. (With the exception of finishing that first 100 miler at Mohican in 2008 with a broken ankle.)

I mustered all the courage and stamina, and more importantly, all the positive energy I had to leave the aid station at mile 65 and ran to the next aid station at mile 69, Porter's Gap. I ran with a professional mountain bike/adventure racer who had broken his toe and I tried to use his grit as inspiration.

At mile 69 the aid station called Porter's Gap resides. Porter's Gap is a milestone because once you leave Porter's Gap you don't see your crew again until 18 miles later at Bulls Gap, which means you'd better be ready to run 18 more miles leaving Porter's Gap.

When I reached Porter's Gap I faltered. I sat down. I thought about Umstead and how I would already be done if I was running 100 there. The Pinhoti 100 is not for the faint of heart. The course is challenging like no other. It's in a whole other league. Running down in to Porter's Gap several runners passed me and I became discouraged. I thought about my goal to just feel good and run strong regardless of placement and how I didn't feel good at all and I had done everything in my power to still feel good. I felt like I had failed at my goal and examined DNF'ing as an option. I discussed this with my crew who tried to persuade me to continue. I began to justify a DNF however I was not injured and so I should  have pressed on. I never should have stopped and sat at Porter's Gap, and I definitely should not have thought about if I could have made it the 18 miles to Bull's Gap to see my crew again. I should have pressed on, relentless, but I failed.

Was it pride? Was I concerned that I wouldn't be top ten if I continued on? Was it heat exhaustion and dehydration? My head was swimming and I felt nauseous, but I wouldn't have been in medical jeopardy had I continued, it just would have a been a long lonely mountainous rocky rooty slog though the forest in the dark, but so what? I don't want to admit that as those runners passed me heading into Porter's Gap I thought about sliding further down in the top ten... but I did.

DNF'ing is the greatest failure in this story.

There is nothing respectable about what I did out there. Sure, I stopped being miserable and got to go to bed by 10pm, but I let myself down and failed to serve a greater purpose of maybe motivating someone to push through hard times. The going got rough and I quit. I said out loud at Porter's Gap several times, I DON'T WANT TO QUIT, I DON'T WANT TO DNF, but I couldn't summon the energy. I could not force myself to stand up. The thought of one more step was torture mentally NOT physically.

I went many years without ever DNF'ing a race. There are definitely instances where a DNF is the smart thing to do, the RIGHT thing to do, even the respectable thing to do. UROC this year would be an example of that. I am glad I did it there but this was different at Pinhoti. I was recovered and well with nothing other than maybe a bruised ego to lose.  I can withstand any amount of physical pain, but on that night, I was weak mentally and bailed after almost 70 miles and 14 hours. I've pushed through all kinds of mental and physical adversity but I lost the battle that night. After trying everything under the sky to regain my energy levels and escape the dizziness with no success, I called it a day. I quit.


Like I said, dropping at UROC was necessary. I was fried physically and needed to recover and that happened. The lower miles which allowed my subsequent recovery left my endurance a little short heading into Pinhoti where I faltered mentally. I could have pushed a much higher pain threshold if I was running a shorter race and done well since I was recovered. I was however, running a 100 on one of the toughest 100 mile courses in the country. My lower mileage weeks over the past month were possibly catching up to me, or maybe it was the heat, I don't know. I know I could have run a strong marathon or 50 miler, but not 100, not that day. I couldn't smart my way though a 100. and just "will" all these things to happen. My legs were great but I was in the bag due whatever was zapping me, heat or whatever it was.

The good news is I'll be running again this week and I got in a good training run at Pinhoti, nearly 70 miles on technical terrain with tons of climbing.

It meant a lot to get messages from friends regarding my DNF at Pinhoti this year, but here are the facts: I quit. I failed. I inspired no one, and did no good. I am learning from it. I am moving forward. I try to learn something from every race and this one threw me for a loop. I have never been in this situation before and it got the best of me.

You know what they say: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It WON'T happen again. I won't be that weak next time.

Surround yourself with a great crew. Use a pacer. Push until you can't push any more, (barring injury), and then  push some more. When you try to quit, allow awesome crew members and pacers to grab you by the shoulders and literally shove you back out on the course. Be an example, and inspire others with tenacity, grit, and greatness. Do not be weak.

And yeah, as for me I'll heed my own advice, and use this once again as a learning opportunity; a chance to grow as a runner and mature. I'm not down, just calling it out for what it is, not scared of the truth as it stared back at me. I'll be back for more. I'll be racing Hellgate 100K in December, but now I also need to come back for vengeance on the 100 mile distance, at another mountain 100 miler, not an easy one either.

During the race I wore:

Pearl Izumi Compression Shorts with ZERO Chaffing
Montrail Mountain Masochist with ZERO foot issues.
Swiftwick Socks
Black Diamond Sprinter Headlamp / Petzyl Tikka XP2 Headlamp

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