Just when you think you have a routine down, life has a way of surprising you. The processes and plans that seem so established can easily just vanish, leaving you in unfamiliar territory.
Long distance races are proof of this idea, and being successful requires the strategic execution of adaptation. We as runners need to be prepared to change tactics in a moment’s notice, and we are all aware of the stakes – at best suffering, at worst failing (or serious injury, depending on which you think is worse).
The 100 mile race is a chess game, where our minds are making move after move to push ourselves forward. The common adversaries: course conditions, our equipment and most importantly our own bodies. The routine of running – putting one foot in front of the other – becomes more difficult as the miles pile on.
Luckily, most possible problems in ultras are well-known and relatively easy to plan for. In fact, we ultra types have a systematic problem-solving set. We know symptoms of malnutrition and dehydration and we have aid to fix those. We have blister kits and salt tablets and rain jackets and spare batteries. We have several ways of modifying or tying shoes. And of course we have cell phones and in many cases a small army of people dedicated to our success.
At Long Haul I learned about a new issue, one that I did not have a solution for: My brain wasn’t working right. It did not want to be happy. It did not want to enjoy the race. My brain was just poison, and I still can’t really explain why. That’s the only way I can think of to describe it.
I had chosen Long Haul for two main reasons. First, the timing worked out. Second, its in Florida and I want to get every Florida buckle for some weird reason. My goal was to PR, which would mean coming in under 26 hours. 26 hours is my standard flat 100 time, and I want to start doing better than that.
To make things interesting I was also going to do several new things. I did not tape my feet like I normally do (which was a good choice). I went out faster than I normally do (which was also a good choice). And finally, I would have a pacer later in the race. More on that later.
As is my custom, I drove to the race location on the Friday before my event. Drew from the Tampa contingent of FUR was awesome enough to let me crash. We had a great pizza dinner the night before with some other runners and friends. Another new tactic – I had beer the night before the race.
Aside – I really love running in Florida because of its amazing running community. I always see familiar faces and feel at home at those races. Plus, they make every race a party somehow.
The race started well enough. Long Haul is a 20-mile circuit of trails that you repeat five times. The trails range from paved bike trail to salt marsh to rough wild boar habitat – standard central Florida fare. I decided to run the first circuit at a moderate pace and finished in about four hours. This was definitely putting some time in the bank for me and is a little faster than I typically start. But I felt great.
Things started to change on the second lap. It started to get hot and I slowed a bit. My conscious mind told me that this was good strategy but deep down I knew the heat was affecting me worse than it should be. Long Haul has a lot of out-and-back sections, so you see other runners often, and I began to notice myself lag more and more behind the pace of other runners.
And this is when the race started getting weird for me. I have done several races is high temperatures and while there is always an element of misery, I have never felt as sapped of emotional energy than I did on this loop. It was January so I was obviously not acclimated, but even so I did not expect my brain to feel so sluggish and ambivalent.
Ambivalence is actually the best adjective to describe most of this race for me – which his strange, because I love racing. There is no place I’d rather be, no matter how tough the going is. I don’t know if it was the hot Florida sun or I just had an off day or what, but I basically emotionally cashed out. That’s what I mean when I say my brain did now want to work right. This was not a ‘down’ moment (I’ve had those) – I just could not emotionally find any enjoyment and it confused the hell out of me.
I knocked the second loop out in about 5 hours. The third loop was uneventful. I remind myself in loop races that each loop is different – morning, afternoon, evening, late night, morning again…so this was the sunset/first darkness loop. Like I said, I was cashed out emotionally. I was getting sick of the little 3 mile lollipop (and not looking forward to doing it several more times) and just could not get in my groove.
However – I had a glimmer of hope. My friend Michael, who lives in Tampa, had offered to pace me for the fourth loop. This actually became a great motivator for me during the second and third loops. It was just something DIFFERENT. More importantly, I was looking forward to the companionship…which for me was a new thing.
I rarely use crews or pacers. I actually enjoy being in the middle of the woods alone at night. This is undoubtedly one of the best benefits of being an introvert.
But at Long Haul, Michael was going to pace me for lap 4 and my golly that was FANTASTIC because I could not put together a positive thought to save my life out there.
So I finish the third lap, come back around to AS2 and pick up Michael. His wife Dahlia was coming as well! That was awesome. The three of us headed down the lollipop and had no trouble making fun conversation. I had met Michael in 2012 when I still lived in Orlando. We met at a 12-hour event and later split travel logistics for the Wild Sebastian 100, which was the first attempt either of us had at a 100. We ran about half of that race together – I later finished, he did not.
Michael heroically came back to buckle a few months later at Long Haul. Luckily for me, his experience and pure positivity were just what I needed. Not to mention Dahlia, who is straight up awesome and told me more then a few interesting and hilarious stories about Michael.
Long story short, those guys made even my malfunctioning brain begin to enjoy the race.
And then the thunderstorms hit.
Midway through lap four, the wind picked up. Thunder. Lighting. And then rain. Heavy rain. We got my jacket on (it was a group effort) and kept moving. At first it was not a big deal. I even think Michael and Dahlia enjoyed it to a degree. To me in started as an inconvenience, a novelty. After so many races I had never been stormed on like that, o it was cool just to experience something different.
But it didn’t really stop. Apparently a big system was passing through. The rain was constant and pretty hard. Water started to stream inside my jacket via the neck opening somehow. Wet is fine, but I also began to feel cold. Inconvenience became discomfort. I don’t know if I really let on to Michael and Dahlia, but the rain got to me mentally. I hated it.
My pace had slowed a bit as expected and I was doing miles in the 15-17 minute range. One the return trip through AS2 Dahlia tagged out. I took a break to change my shirt and add a layer. In a sense it was good strategy – I felt a lot warmer and more comfortable with a long sleeve shirt added. But it was also a signal about my mental state, since I hate spending time at aid stations. Changing my shirt was also an excuse to stand under a canopy out of the rain for a few moments.
An interesting moment happened. I asked the AS staff how long the rain was going to stick around. They said until mid-morning (it was like 2a at the time). That news punched me directly in the heart. I think I almost cried – that’s how miserable the rain had made me. I didn’t even expect myself to have that reaction; I have never been that mentally weak before. But I had no choice but to keep going and be miserable.
Michael stayed with me for the rest of that lap, staying upbeat and showing no negativity about the weather. That was motivation for me not to let it bother me either (but it did). We finished out lap 4 and Michael ended his tour of duty as my pacer. To think that he and his wife were out running with me through a thunderstorm all night is humbling and I can’t express enough how grateful I am for their help.
OK, so here we are at lap 5. I had a little over 6 hours to finish in order to come in under 26 hours and PR. On paper that is fine, but I was not in great shape. You see, along with the rain and a course that was now half mud basically, the double whammy of Scott Peters late night ultrarunning had began: Puking and Sleepwalking.
The first half of lap 5 was rough. I won’t belabor it, but I had slowed to 17-20 minute miles because seemingly every few steps I had to dry heave. It was pretty bad. I thought I had gotten out of the woods with the sleepwalking thing but it struck me hard around 4. Thank golly no one could really see me, I was like a creek monster trudging through the swamp puking on everything.
And the rain kept up. I gave up avoiding puddles and just went through them. You could not even recognize other runners because both of you had your head down and the rain almost literally obscured what you could see in front of you.
I had a moment where I stopped under tree that had fallen over the trail. The tree sheltered me from the rain, so I could look up and just take it in. I was in the middle of Florida, surrounded by snakes and boars, in a thunderstorm, in the dark, while the rest of the world was sleeping. I love this shit.
When I hit AS3 I asked them for the blandest food they had. “Oh, we can do bland!” said Susan. And they gave me pretzels. Voila! Calories! Salt! Eureka!
And then on the AS3 loop, when I was doubting whether or not my pace would be enough for the PR, everything…just…got…better.
The sun came out. The rain stopped. I held down food. I wasn’t tired anymore. I actually began to have fun. I took some more food at AS3 on the return and began the back half of lap 5 with a completely refreshed mentality.
Its crazy how that happens when the sun comes up.
Coming back into AS2 and doing the lollipop for the last time, I felt great. I saw a lot of wrecked runners though. I have not seen a lot of race reports but I’m guessing it was a long night for other people as well. It was really nice to be able to recognize faces again and share mutual encouragement as we all worked to knock out the last lap.
I met the race director on the way out through AS2 back to the finish line – Jen Pearson. She was really cool and they run an awesome event. She told me that next year the weather would be better.
I spent the last two miles purposefully running through puddles. I felt like a kid again. That’s the magic of running sometimes. I finished the race in 25:35, good for 12th place.
Thank you to Michael and Dahlia and Drew and all the volunteers. Long Haul is really cool event, great for first-time hundreds and good for runners to bring their families to. FUR is awesome.
Not to mention those with a fondness for snakes. Did I mention I saw several? But only when it was dry. Not even the reptiles were dumb enough to be out in the rain.