Monday, April 10, 2017

Oil Creek 2016: Diamonds in the Ashes

   Oil Creek is my focus event every year. Much has been written about the allure of this incredible trail event with incomparable natural beauty and the contagious support and enthusiasm of the ultra community. It is a place that has become special for me and my family, and it was here that I was determined to make my first attempt at 100 miles along with my brother Eric and trail brothers Jeff Kacszak and Mike Koontz. Having completed the 100k the last four years, I knew I was ready for the challenge of pushing myself to the brink of endurance.
   It's important to note that for me, completing such an accomplishment would have little meaning by myself. I was looking forward to the fact that I had talked my brother into a second 100 mile effort after he was sure his OC100 finish two yeas ago was enough. Jeff would also be making his first attempt, and I would visualize the three of us trudging through the darkness of that third and final loop before emerging from the 7 mile "Going Home" loop battered but victorious together. I knew I would be fine through the first 100K. My training effort focused on the requisite long miles with some strength training, as well as several ultras leading up to OC. As the weeks passed, I was growing tired of training and was especially encouraged by how good I felt at mile 70 (according to my Garmin) of the Montour 24 in July despite the incredible heat and exertion of that day. The three of us decided to shut down after 70 miles since it was not our goal event, but I had the confidence that I could have kept going had I chosen to do so. While I'm not a very fast runner and the word "elite" will never appear in my eulogy, I was prepared to mentally and physically endure the suffering it would require to attain my first 100 mile buckle.
   It's funny how life can throw those wicked curveballs at us, though. We think we have everything under wraps and we make plans based on assumptions that are actually beyond our control. One of those assumptions for me was that the emotional stress of seeing my only child depart for a foreign country to serve as an intern with International Justice Missions would have a nominal impact on my state of mind at Oil Creek. Running has always played an important role in stress management, but I had completely underestimated the toll that emotional stress can have on a person. It's been said that emotional stress carries 100 times the weight of physical stress, but I didn't want to believe that. I had worked all summer to push those feelings of concern and loss almost to a state of denial. When the days began to count down to her departure, I was, in every respect, a grieving parent. My excitement for her involvement in such a noble, compassionate effort was tempered by the fact that my only child was leaving home for a year. Every concern and contingency for her well-being was compounded as each day passed. And while I leaned heavily on my faith, I struggled, slept little, and found myself distracted. And on September 25th, she flew halfway around the world.
   With just days to the race, I looked forward to the solace and solitary healing that trail running often provides. By focusing on every step, every breath, every footfall, every moment, I anticipated that the focus required by running Oil Creek with family and friends in attendance would recharge me. After wrestling with the anticipation of my daughter's trip, it had arrived; she was safely established on the other side of the globe, and now I could focus - at least for the next several days- on running the race I had trained so long and so hard for.
   And then life threw a second pitch- this one a fastball to my head, and I couldn't duck in time.
   On Tuesday the week of the race, I fell ill. At first I thought maybe it would pass, but as day turned to night, the intensity of the illness led to a full revolt of my digestive system that left me weakened and feverish. Tuesday turned into a fever-laden Wednesday, and despite crawling out of bed to teach a grad class Wednesday night, I just as quickly returned and remained there through Thursday. How could this be happening to me? Oil Creek was supposed to be the big event - the signature on my season! By Thursday night I had convinced myself that my fever was gone and I was feeling better. I was able to re-organize and double check my drop bags; I was even growing excited about the upcoming race. By Friday, my adrenaline had taken over. I would be toeing the line for my first 100 miler with my brothers and I was eager to depart for Titusville!
   On Friday, I picked up our pacer (Mike) who was so excited about pacing me that I felt sure there was no way I could fail to disappoint him. His excitement was contagious and for awhile, I forgot I had been ill. I knew I was weakened by the last few days, but I was sure I could hammer through it. Then, somewhere along I-80, the fever came back. I told no one. As I broke out into a sweat, I tried to keep up the casual banter about our race plans with Mike. At our pre-race meal, I told no one about how I felt. There was no way I was going to miss this race. I didn't want to dampen their anticipation with my own agony. Despite no appetite, I slowly tried to put down a plate of spaghetti. I was counting on a good night's rest to be ready to go by morning. "This can't be real; this can't be happening, not at Oil Creek", I thought.
   In retrospect, my race was over before it began. I had no business even being out there, but at 5AM, I was packed and ready to go, envious of the nervous energy and excitement exhibited by other runners. I had none of it. I was simply there, hoping against hope that after a few miles, training would kick in and I would be able to go on sheer force of will alone. But here I was- there was still a chance. I didn't want to let my brother down - this was a day when epic memories would be made! We had all promised to start out slowly and conservatively, but I knew well enough that Jeff was strong and would start out faster. I was hoping to tag along with Eric at a nice, easy pace, but told him at the start to just go ahead, because I had no idea how I would feel the first few miles. The countdown began, there were cheers, and we headed off into the cold and damp morning. Rain was in the air but was forecast to clear out by mid-afternoon. I knew the sun and warmth would pick up my spirits and who knows? By that time, I would be back in my groove, right?
   By mile 4 I knew I was in trouble. Every step I took was a major effort; I felt like I was running with an anvil in my pack. My heart rate was elevated, my strength was sapped. I slowed down. "No worries", I thought, "It's a long race. It will get better". I slowed down to an easier pace. Eric ran on ahead. But then a new problem developed: everything I was taking in was just sitting in my gut. My stomach was walled off and was simply filling. There was no processing of anything. Only 4 or 5 miles into the race, I was already beginning to cramp. "This can't be good", I thought. I sipped more Tailwind. It just cannon-balled into my stomach and sat there.
   I began to feel light-headed, and the only thing I recall about the next few miles was plodding one step at a time into the Wolfkiel Aid Station. As I stumbled in, I did my very best to look fine, but I had to grab a table to steady myself as I thought I might pass out. Terrific aid station volunteers asked me questions; I don't remember responding. My only thought was how in the heck I was going continue on to Petroleum Center, because I didn't think I would make it. I was in trouble, but I knew my family was just 7 miles ahead. I began the steep climb up the switchbacks, which might as well have been Mt. Everest. My strength was sapped, I was lightheaded and dizzy, and my stomach was now beginning to become distended. Nothing was working. Nothing was processing. Nothing...Nothing..
   During the stretch between Wolfkiel and PC, a section I really enjoy and look forward to, I began to experience a little panic. As I ran, I seemed to fade out as if in a dream. Several times I "woke up" to find myself off the trail, disoriented, or confused. I remember specifically stopping at least two times trying to locate the trail, only to find it was just a few feet to my right or left. Here I actually became a little panicked. If I couldn't control my direction, what the heck was going on? Was this a dream? What am I doing? At one point, I thought I was lost. I stopped and tried to reorient myself. When I came to my senses, as it were, I realized I was standing in the middle of the trail.
   It was sheer force of will to continue on into Petroleum Center. Climbing Ray's Everlasting Hill, I had to stop every ten feet or so to gather my strength and regain some sort of composure. I was beginning to unravel. Several runners passed by, boosted by that early morning energy rush and with bounce in their step.
    "You ok?" they asked.
    "Yeah, I'm good", I lied. I just wanted to crawl by a log and fall asleep. That or call to be evacuated.
   What usually takes me about 2 hours and 15 minutes turned into a 3 hour and 40 minute ordeal. I was way off, even for a conservative pace reserved for 100 miles. I emptied both my bottles shortly after Wolfkiel; it was all in my stomach. I refilled at a water station and drank greedily. Cramping, thirsty, cold, and dizzy, with a bloated stomach, I finally staggered out onto the road leading to PC. I saw a photographer on the bridge and used every ounce of energy to try and look good. Looking back at that photo, it's hard to imagine the hell I was going through just to put one foot in front of the other.
   At this moment, though, I still convinced myself I would try to go on. But I didn't know how I could. I knew I was way off pace; it had been an epic struggle just to make it to this point and I was afraid of those apparent lapses in consciousness where I would feel like I was waking up to discover I was still participating in a trail event. By this time, Jeff was way out ahead; my brother was also well into the back half of Loop 1.
   And I was alone. Alone when the waves of emotion for my daughter crashed over me. Alone when my body broke down. Alone to confront the cold, stone-faced reality that I would not get to press on with my brothers today. Alone when I felt a year's worth of training slipping away for nothing. It was one of the lowest points in my life.
   When I got to PC, I tried to smile for the camera, knowing my mom would compile an album of the day's epic adventures for each of us to treasure. But today, this would be a monument to defeat. As I sat down at a picnic table with my crew, they were asking questions, preparing me to continue as they had not yet fully realized what was happening. My head was spinning. I looked up at Heisman Hill and the path ahead.
    And then I put my face in my hands, and I sobbed.
    I knew I had to drop.
   I remember seeing Brian Newcomer; I walked over and mumbled something to him about not being able to go on. I don't know why, but I even felt like I was letting him down. I don't recall what he said to me.
   I was letting down my family, my brother, my friends. I was letting down my daughter. I was letting myself down. That's how I had framed this effort. Instead of epic accomplishment, today would be a day of epic defeat. Crushed. Devastated. Angry. Disappointed. And tired. So very ,very tired.
  Cold, soaked, exhausted, bloated, and anguished to the point of tears (I am not ashamed to admit it), I officially DNF'd for the first time in my life.

   It's March 28, 2017. Five months after the epic crash at Oil Creek, I'm still looking for diamonds in the ashes. I'd like to say this will be a story of magnificent resilience and redemption. But after focusing so hard on Oil Creek by putting miles on my feet and time and training under my belt, I cannot find the drive to pick up again. My daughter is still overseas; I miss her terribly. Other priorities and commitments have evolved, and I wonder if I will ever summon the will to go back to Oil Creek for another attempt at the 100 miler. This season, I've scaled back both my training and my list of events. I've lost my motivation; I seem burned out.  I want running to be fun again; I want to fall in love with the prospect of overcoming what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle. Funny thing about life, though: sometimes we can only handle so many challenges at one time. And this year, Oil Creek will have to wait. But it's there, in the back of my mind. I am getting older; time is running out. But it's still out there. 
   And I will lace up once again. 
   And I will get after it.

Call of the Wilds 2015: Flirting with Diasaster

Before I start sounding like I am making up excuses for my rather pedestrian 9hour and 17 minute finish at this year's Call of the Wilds Mountain Marathon (more like 28-29 miles with 7400ft. elevation gain), let me make the following admissions:

  • My training this year is significantly behind last year's mileage and difficulty. No excuses - it's just that trying to balance life this year was more difficult, stressful, and demanding, so I simply have not been able to focus on improving over last year's performances and have been in "maintenance mode" as a runner. 
  • I did not do my homework for this year's race. Last year, I finished at a respectable 8 hours and 4 minutes - not bad for the first time on such a difficult course and rather acceptable considering I viewed it as a training event leading up to the Oil Creek 100K in October. This year, I hardly looked at a map and relied on memory (most of which my mind erased for my sanity and protection). 
  • I failed to consider what might happen if weather conditions were more typical for mid-August instead of last year's temps which were in the mid to low 70's. And that, my friends, was probably the biggest mistake I made, turning a challenging trail run into a struggle just to finish intact and healthy. This year's temps reached 90 degrees in nearby Williamsport and humidity was as high as 95% before sunrise. The temps would prove to be a near insurmountable body blow to any hope of repeating or improving upon last year's effort. 
Now for the things that went completely wrong:

  • As a result of the temperatures and humidity, I was losing water at a rate much faster than I can ever remember. Sweat was literally dripping off the front of my visor like rainwater throughout much of the race (except when I stopped sweating altogether, which was a different issue). I simply was not able to hydrate quickly enough nor adequately enough through my Nathan bladder, and sucking on that hose just did not give me any indication of how much or how little I was rehydrating. Regardless, conditions were so difficult for me that I could have been carrying two milk jugs full of water and I don't know that I could have replaced lost fluids quickly enough. How bad was it? At the beginning of the race I was part of a cardio study and I had to weigh in with all my gear. After two days of hydrating as much as possible and two huge plates of pasta and meatballs the previous night and a full stomach from breakfast, I weighed in at a surprising 178 with all gear fully loaded (still surprising to me - I weigh around 166 and thought 178 was obscene). When I completed the race, I was weighed in at the finish line (granted my hydration pack was not as full at that point), but my weight was 167 with full gear. Net loss of 11 pounds. At home this morning, I weighed in (without gear, obviously) at 163. 
  • I completely screwed up my hydration in a manner that can only be considered comical (if it weren't so stupid and dangerous). I have SaltStick caps I use to replace electroytes, and the bottle reads about 550mg of sodium chloride per cap. That's alot, even when losing electrolytes and salt, and I generally use those caps by "feel", meaning I will wait until I sense a familiar weakness or cramping sensation to indicate I should take a tab. Too much salt is dangerous in warm weather conditions, so I defer to a more conservative use of those tabs. However, I recently purchased another brand called "Rehydr8" which only carries about 200mg of sodium chloride plus other electrolytes, so the recommended dosage is more than one tab when taking them - or - as I thought during the race, I can take them a little more frequently and maintain a constant intake of electrolytes and salt without overdoing it. Well, being the overly cautious idiot that I am, I packed both the Rehydr8 tabs and the SaltStick tabs in case I didn't like the Rehydr8 and I could fall back on what worked in the past. Within the first hour, I grabbed a salt tab after gushing sweat like a mobile shower and completing the first climb (which was a rude awakening and a reminder of the epic difficulty of this course). Instead of grabbing a Rehydr8, I grabbed the more potent Salt Stick. Not a problem, except for the first three hours, I took tabs at one per hour and ended up with a gut full SaltStick tabs instead of the Rehydr8. Now I'm loosing way too much fluid and taking in way too much salt without proper dilution. And now I am hurting big time. 
  • The heat. I can usually muscle through heat. I did fairly well at the World's End 50K and completed the Oil Creek 100K during a day that featured well-above normal temps and humidity. But today was absolutely brutal. Throughout most sections of the course, there was absolutely no air movement, and it was hard to maintain any level of exertion without overheating and becoming dizzy, nauseous, or weak. On top of that, most of the exposed sections of the course (ridgelines and fire roads) were pounded by the sun and again, without alot of air movement. It was crazy. If I try to run through it to get past it, I overheated and wanted to lie down by the trail. Speed hike it and I end up being exposed to the sun and heat much longer than I wanted, gradually wearing me down. It was absolutely a no win situation, and by the time I faced the last major hill after Aid Station 4, I didn't see how I would finish this race. 
  • Aid Station issues. As I mentioned, my hydration was completely messed up. Taking the wrong salt tabs, then recognition of that fact, made me stop taking them for quite awhile. No problem - I supplemented with my own food and grabbed some pretzels at aid stations. By the way - it was so hot outside that any peanut butter and jelly sandwiches prepared felt like they were made on toast. I knew I was in trouble by aid station 3, and apparently, so did a few volunteers who insisted I take their water bottles even before I climbed the macadam hill to the aid station. I felt the urge to use the restroom, so I stopped in and that's when I had a scare. I managed about a shot glass full of fluid and it was very, very brown. Now we have issues. Although not tea or cola colored, I was definitely in the amber range. So now I am forced to linger at the aid station for far longer than I want to, slowly sipping water so as not to get sick on my stomach while trying to rehydrate. In the sun. By aid station 4, I knew that I was not likely to match my time from last year. The conditions, combined with hydration errors and perhaps a little less training than before, turned the day into a battle of endurance. The clock didn't matter. Now it was a matter of whether I would even finish. And I wasn't quitting unless I passed out along the trail. By the last aid station, I had to use a kiddie pool to cool my body temp down. I allowed myself to find a little shade and sat in the grass while eating watermelon. All told, I probably lost at least 40 minutes total at aid stations just making sure I could cool down, rehydrate, and summon the energy to keep going. 
  • Humidity - As anyone knows who has done the Call of the Wilds course, it's not a course for beginners or casual trail runners. It is not a recreational course for fitness runners. It can be ruthless, technical, brutal, and punishing. After finally reaching the summit after some gut-busting climbs, one would think a nice downhill section would allow for one to make up some time. But at Call of the Wilds, many of the downhills run through loose rock, scree, and old stream beds, making the downhills a threat to break an ankle with every step. As if that weren't enough, the humidity seemed to glaze the rocks in oil, and even my Brooks Cascadias had trouble finding any grip as I'd slip and slide through the descents even slowing for fear of breaking or turning an ankle. Last year, I remember bombing through some of those descents, but after being gut-punched by the heat and in a much different frame of mind and body, I was descending many of those sections far more purposefully and cautiously. Kudos to the elite folks who can crush those sections - I'm just not in their league. 
I'm usually a top third finisher, but not this time. My only consolation was that guys I usually finish with also seemed to struggle and lost as much as an hour from their previous year's time. What I'd like to learn as how the top finishers - not necessarily elite guys - managed to crush the course, stay hydrated well, and perform as well as they did. All told - this was not my day and I complicated it with a series of errors and by becoming dehydrated. I fought that issue from behind the rest of the day, and although I haven't seen the final tally of finishers, I suspect the heat claimed quite a few DNF's. 

I'm not sure I'm going back, although there is a part of me that would like to make Call of the Wilds a focus race instead of a training run to see if I can strategically and physically master the course.

Note: I went back in 2016. Did it again. Suffered again, too. There's no way around it: this is one of the toughest trail events anywhere in PA.