Race Bubble

It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday and I’m cruising around the backroads of Georgia, race-chasing the Georgia Death Race 2014. Our kids are in the backseat, laughing and joking with each other, which is pretty amazing for an 11 and a 14 year-old on an early weekend morning. IMG_2011

Fast forward and I’m sitting, wrapped in a sleeping bag waiting for Scott to come down the ridge to the finish line. It’s been a great day, catching up with my man at Aid Stations, chatting with other families, and chumming it up with Captain America (who is the coolest 7-year-old boy in a supersuit that I’ve ever met); and now I watch every headlamp bob down the hillside, straining to hear his familiar whistle letting me know he’s coming in. It’s brisk, the night is clear, the kids are wandering somewhere in the darkened campground and I’m enjoying the fact that my cellphone has such spotty coverage that I haven’t bothered to check email at all.

Next morning we’re heading home when Scott turns to me to ask about school or the work I’m doing and I hush him. “Shh. Race-bubble, babe. We’re not home yet.” Race bubble – that protected time to not be thinking about life-come-Monday. I relish the time away as much as he does, I think. I’m not actually out on the trail, but I’m in it with him. I’m absorbed in supporting him and occasionally keeping track of our boys. The craziness of it all is a universe unto itself, requiring steady attention while at the same time releasing me from being too serious. The motto I have with the kids on race weekends is “Full Faith and Confidence, and a little bit of Stupidity.” We traverse terrain that our little SUV wasn’t build for, braving roads that are so iffy that they are only dotted lines on a map, hugging the interior of the mountainside with 100 yard drop-off mere inches from our tires, and navigating through potholes that’ll knock out the suspension on a monster truck. Both my kids now know how to read an actual map, in the dark, with a headlamp and printed directions that usually say “in about 2.7 miles,” or “this is where it gets tricky.” We estimate the time down to minutes, gauging whether we can squeeze in a quick trail climb to some waterfalls, or race back to the cabin for some R&R before getting to the next Aid Station. My kids know what an Aid Station is.

Is it always idillic? Nope. It rains. It snows. It’s cold or something else has gone awry: an injury, race called off, etc. But it all happens inside race-bubble and becomes its own little compartmentalized experience that, while standing apart from life-as-we-know-it, fully informs and nurtures our everyday decisions.

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What to put in a drop bag

Most ultra distance events, and even some marathon distance races, allow for drop bags.  Drop bags provide the runners with an opportunity to retreive items they otherwise would not have access to during the event.

I put everything into it's own bag to make it easy to find what I am looking for.

I put everything into it’s own bag to make it easy to find what I am looking for.

A drop bag can be just about anything from zip lock baggies to camping bags to trashbags.  However the RD may specify the size and type requirements in the runners manual or on the website.  My personal preference is to use dry bags sold in the camping section of the big discount stores and Amazon.  Anything will work but stay away trash bags, which could be mistaken as, well, trash.

General Considerations:

Redundency is the key thing to remember.  If you are sure you are going to need something like salt, gels, or socks, make sure you pack some in each bag.  Anything can happen between the time your drop off your bags and when you next see them on race day.  They can go missing or be sent to the wrong aid station.  At a recent race, heavy rains caused the RD to make a course change due to flooding.  As a result, I was not able to get to my drop bag to retreive my back-up headlamp after my primary failed.  Luckily for me, I was able to borrow one from my pacer.

Plan your Race: Generally, RD’s will list the aid stations, milage, and pace times in the runner’s manual.  Use this as a guide on what to pack in each bag.  You may need different items depending on when you plan to arrive at each aid station.

Packing: As you can see in the photo above, I always place the items inside a plastic bag.  I keep similar items together so that when I arrive I can just grab what I need without rifling though the entire contents.  Also, it keeps everything dry.  Nothing is worse than looking forward to a dry set of clothes only to find them soaked and muddy when you arrive.

“What do I put in them?”  

For the most part the answer depends on the race and distance.  Hundred mile events need a lot more than 50′s which need a lot more than 50Ks.  I will list what I pack for a hundred. As an educated and experienced runner, you can add or remove based on your personal needs.

In Every Dropbag:

Food/Gels:  I always pack some type of nutrition.  The aid stations will have the standard fare, but there are only so many boiled potatoes, pretzels and candy a person can consume.  Gels are a staple.  I pack a variety of gel flavors, packing my least favorites for the early miles and my go-to, “I can always eat it” flavors for the second half.

Medical Supplies: Salt Caps, Bathroom Wipes, Lube, Tums, Liquid Bandaid, MoleSkin, & ginger chews.  If you wear them, contact solution may be a good idea.

Clothing:  I always add a change of shirt and socks to every drop bag, if I can.  I also plan out my distances and add warmer clothes if I am expecting a temperature change, or to bags I know I will pick up at night.  This would include things like long sleeve shirts, pants or tights, gloves, arm warmers and a hat.  A visor also comes in handy in poor weather by keeping the rain and snow out of your eyes.

If running at night or Bags for the second half of the race:

Headlamp & extra batteries: If I am going to be out there overnight, I will always put enough batteries in each drop bag to change my headlamp twice.

Backup light & batteries:  Batteries Batteries Batteries.  In fact I pack extra batteries in my Gel’s zip lock just to make sure that I don’t forget to grab them.

Portable Charger.  I picked up this portable charger, the Goal Zero Switch 8, at a camping store prior to a race earlier this year and have been thoroughly pleased.  It can hold enough juice to fully charge an Iphone.  I have used it for my phone, ipod, and GPS watch.  Don’t forget the charging cable.

Shoes: I will sometimes add in a second pair of shoes for the back half of the race.  On longer races your feet may swell, so make sure the shoes are a half to a full size bigger.


Other Considerations:

Lip Balm!

Liquid Germ Killer

Sun Screen

Bug Spray

Toothbrush and tooth paste.  OK, I’ve never done this but there have been time I wish I had.

Did I forget something?  Leave a comment.




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The Entitled Runner

A typical Saturday and/or Sunday in our house looks like this (depending on whether it’s a training weekend): Scott is off on a long run and I’m hitting the farmer’s market, doing laundry, cleaning, cooking, taxiing the kids to friends’ houses or friends to ours, walking dogs and generally taking care. Somewhere around the time I’m vacuuming, the irritability sets in. Why am I doing the work of the four people who live in my house while my husband goes off to frolic in the woods? Who the hell else in the world gets to waltz out the door for half the day while the rest of us do the work of running a household? And it’s not just the time on the run;  it’s the hour getting ready, the 2 hour round-trip drive to the mountain and back, and then the 2 hours eating, stretching, eating, showering, eating and resting until he’s ready to get up and do some yard work.

IMG_1597I’m done, I think. I’ve crossed the line of being supportive to being an enabler. If he wants running to be a part of his life, he’s going to have to figure out a way to fit it in, not me.  I’m putting an end to this particular entitlement program.

Then I get this text: “Hey. love you so much. I miss your kisses. Looking forward to spending the afternoon with the kids.”

Awww, you bet your ass you do.

But, sure enough, I can feel the prickles starting to recede and the big guns settling back in their holsters.

The more I think about it, I realize that I’m just frustrated. As the stay-home parent, nothing is outside the bounds of my job description. I don’t really have weekends and holidays, and it’s incredibly easy to get into a habit of taking care of everyone else first. On one hand, Scott’s running keeps me motivated to take care of myself; but, on the other hand, it’s a easy trap for that enabling mindset.

I like to think about what one dad said, when he talked about why he comes out to his son’s races as mobile support: “these guys and gals are doing something amazing, superhuman, and I want to be around people like that.” Of all the things Scott could be doing on a Saturday or Sunday, nothing makes me more proud of him, or helps me think about setting my own amazing goals, than him running. He teaches me to explore myself as an individual, not just a mom and wife. He goes because I tell him to go. He goes because we both know he’ll be a better person when he comes back. He goes because it’s who he is, and we wouldn’t be who we are without him.

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Accepting Injury

I've spent more days like this than I care to mention.

I’ve spent more days like this than I care to mention.

It’s been a few weeks since my last entry.  Well really it’s been a few months.  On Sept 22 – 23 at the Georgia Jewel 100 I injured or aggravated the heck out of my IT band.  I was out for the entire month of October.  During that time I was consumed with the fact that I was injured, spending every waking thought on finding some means to recover in time for my “A” race of year in early November.

A quick Google search on injuries & running will return a multitude of lists and articles describing the five mental states of an injury: Denial, Anger Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.  The articles read as if each phase has a concrete start and end and, once through, one does not return to a previous realm of mental anguish.  In reality, the injured person moves back and forth from one stage to another, like waves on a beach.  Progress is made; setbacks happen.  One day the runner has accepted the injury and the next he or she is wallowing in despair – days pass vacillating between denial and reality, anger and compassion, bargaining and demands, depression and hope.

I learned something from my time on the couch:  Acceptance is your best friend.

Denial starts before the injury – maybe discounting the ‘twinge’ or that feeling that something ‘just isn’t right’ and continuing to train, perhaps even for weeks prior to the injury.  In my case, I had some IT band tightness just as I started my taper but, instead of seeing someone or using the roller, I assumed it would heal before the race.  High mileage runners are going to have some aches and pains, and for every one that turns into an injury the runner will have a hundred more that don’t.  The point is to recognize that there is not a way to tell if what you are feeling is a precursor to an injury or just another ache.

Injury brings depression.  It is as much a part of the recovery process as swelling and ice. There were days I felt like I was on the verge of tears, beating myself down for causing the injury and missing my race.  Daisy-chained to depression are guilt and shame, for being so self-absorbed and missing the time I now have with my family.  My advice? Ignore things that minimize what you are feeling.  Skip articles that talk about looking on the bright side.  These suggestions miss the point, failing to understand the importance the sport plays in our lives.   A better approach is to accept the self-absorption and the depression.  They will clear in their own time. Accept the process. Think about it as a race and just get to the next aid station.

An injury shows you who loves you…well, who likes you enough to stick around.  My mouth ran nonstop about my injury and I managed to turn every social interaction back around to me.  For the folks on the periphery it’s not such a burden, but for those on your inner circle it’s a much bigger deal.  I’d open my mouth to say one thing and out would come something about my knee.  I apologized to my wife and kids over and over again.  I just needed to talk.  It’s OK.  Your friends and family will understand.  They want to help.

Getting a Cortisol injection into my knee

Getting a Cortisol injection into my knee

Depression breeds Anger. I was always on that edge of snapping out, and my temper was pretty short. I had to work really hard to not take it out on everyone around me. As for Bargaining, once I agreed that I was actually injured, the most bargaining I did was with myself.  I would read up on physical therapy exercises and do them to exhaustion.  By the injured runner’s math if it takes 8 weeks to heal by doing this exercise once a day, I’ll do it 4 times a day and be ready to go in two weeks.  Life does not work this way.  With healing, often less is more.

Lastly, get some help.  All my blabbing about the injury lead a running friend to suggest ART (Active Release).  I had tried stretching, RICE, massage, strengthening, and cortisone injections.  Nothing helped.  I started working with an ART therapist known in the local running community, which worked wonders. I improved quickly. While I did not improve enough to participate in my “A” race, having a therapist knowledgeable with the physiology of running (and with running long distances) helped me address the root cause of the problem.  After a month, he has been able to make subtle changes to my running form and I am back out on the trail with my sights set on a 24hr run in Dec and a 100k in Jan.

So Like I said Acceptance is your best friend, but I am by no means a master. I suffered mentally for weeks about my injury and fully expect to do it all over again the next time.  I just hope I learned a little something this time around that will make the next time a bit easier.

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The lesson is simply: You cannot fear…..

The following post was written by guest writer Lauren Hadley and originally appeared on the UltraListServ.  Yes we got permission.  :)

**warning – long rambling post from a newbie**

I have my first 100 mile race in 45 days. I have to admit the training for
this race has definitely taken me by surprise. Not in the way that you’d
probably expect – “Oh it was so much harder than I anticipated” or “I’m so
much more tired” (although those things are true). It’s surprised me in how
much I’ve learned about myself. Things I haven’t been ready to face until
now, things that I could swear to myself in the mirror weren’t true that
I’ve learned are in fact part of who I am.

I could sit here and go on and on about everything I’ve learned, and how on
each progressive long run, I feel myself losing the masks I use to disguise
myself, and the layers I use to cover myself. But, I want to focus on one
particular lesson that has literally changed my life the past 6 months.
The lesson is simply: You cannot fear…..


One of the many stairs on the Foothills Trail. (Source: Foothillstrailultras.com)

One of the many stairs on the Foothills Trail. (Source: Foothillstrailultras.com)

Sounds really cliche and I’m sure most on this list are thinking “well that was anticlimactic”, but for me, it’s been life changing. It might help to
give a [super] brief background on myself. I was raised in an affluent family, given all the opportunities to succeed in the world. Taught from an extremely early age that my life is a series of choices, and that each choice has a consequence. Want to fail a test? Fine, but be prepared to
live in a cardboard box when you grow up. You can’t escape consequences….absolutely every action, every thought is a choice.

That thought process pushed me to be very successful by society’s standards. I graduated early from high school, then college, then my masters. I joined a prestigious firm, I was successful. But the fear that had started as a seed as a child had grown to a monster by the time I turned 24. The feeling that.. at any moment I could make a choice that
would ruin everything. The more I achieved, the more terrified I was to
lose it. It even affected my running. I didn’t run a lot of days because I
was so terrified that I would injure something and “ruin everything”.

This race has changed everything. I had my reasons for wanting (perhaps
needing?) to do a 100. That would make this post way too long so I’ll leave
those out. But once I committed (10 months out from the race), I really
committed. Problem was, I had this life I had built up. My job which just
happened to include 14 hour days on a regular basis at this firm. I tried
to keep the running up but I found myself working til midnight, driving to
the gym, running from 1-3am, trying to sleep 3 hours and then get my butt
back to work. I was a mess. My health was deteriorating, my anxiety had
become unmanageable without medication, I was a wreck. Then performance
reviews came around (6 months out from the race). My boss told me that I
seemed “distracted” at work and perhaps I was focusing too much on
“extracurricular activities” such as running. I was dumbfounded. The only
thing I was doing besides working was running. It was the **one** thing in
my life I did to relieve stress and they were suggesting that I stop that?

I began thinking about my life and realized that my entire life I’ve been
making choices “for the future”. This is smart, but it left the “now”
completely unoccupied. I’ve been completely consumed with building a future
for myself, to the point that the present became irrelevant. I decided I
wanted to live. And more importantly I wanted to live NOW, right now, in
the present. I walked into the office on my 24th birthday, and quit my job.
The job I had worked for since middle school. I was so terrified my hands
were shaking. But soon after, I found another job and as the fear subsided
there was another feeling; exhilaration.

And that…. was just the beginning. 50 hour weeks led to a lot more time to
run! And one decision to overcome fear started leading to a landslide of
other similar decisions. I decided to not be scared of running on sore legs
anymore (and learned that your body will tell you if its too much – just go
out and run), I decided not to be scared of running in the dark (it’s
actually quite peaceful)…. to not be scared of stomach problems on a run
(worst case find a gas station or tree if you’re in the woods)… and those
are just a few running-related examples for what seems like an entirely new
way of thinking for me.

I guess what I learned is to not to fear life itself. Yes, choices have
consequences. Some consequences you live with for the rest of your life.
But in general, most decisions are not life or death. Especially when it
comes to running. For goodness sakes, just relax and and go run.

In conclusion, the past 9 months have been extraordinary. I doubt I would
have experienced this (or at least not yet in my life) had I not decided to
run this race. Thank you Mike Melton for inviting me, and as cheesy as it
sounds, I feel like however the race turns out on December 21st, the
experience has already changed my life for the better.

-still learning and amazed at the wisdom on this list-

Lauren is training for her first 100 mile race December 21st – “Ancient Oaks”. Lauren has been running since late 2009, completing her first marathon in 2011 and first ultramarathon in 2012. Her ultimate goal is to be able to run multiple 100 mile races in beautiful locations each year.

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Inspiration Page

We’ve added a new page to catalog the qoutes and lines runners will repeat over and over again to help movitivate us to keep moving.  Feel free to send me something that has worked for you in the past.


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I Thought I Could, So I Did.

This article was contributed by Mike Blumenthal.  Mike is a trail runner, and an Appalachian Trail caretaker in Pennsylvania.  This article marks his first attempt at the half marathon distance.  

I got an email from our local running store last Thursday re: a trail half marathon at a nearby state park. I’ve been working steadily on increasing my weekly mileage up to 30 miles per week, after a long sordid history of running injuries, but my longest run to date was 8.8 miles on the road. But I love these trails and it’s close, so I registered, because even at 43 years old, I have still have the attitude ‘if I think I can do it, I can do it’.

The weather finally cleared Saturday morning after three solid days of rain, so I thought of how nice it would be to ride to the race. My 1989 BMW K100RS has panniers, so packing running gear and securing my stuff during the race wasn’t going to be a problem, but I did consider the possibility of getting injured out on the course; the race director was warning of lots of mud, slippery rocks, roots and wooden bridges plus several stream crossings. I also considered being simply tired and wiped out after the race; would I be in any condition to ride home safely? Well, I thought I could do it, so I did it. Packed the bike up at 6am and arrived at the gravel/grass parking lot at 6:30. Found a solidly packed gravel spot and put the bike up on the center stand, popped the panniers and geared up for the race, trading my riding gear for my running gear.

The race itself was awesome – the course had drained fairly well and although there were several boggy areas up to my calves, shoes making cool schlorping sounds as I slogged though, there were also many stream crossings through bracing frigid water to clean off. It was a bit treacherous at times, but my shoes (Saucony Virratas) maintained excellent traction on the steep descents, the rocks and roots and the climbs alike. I was channelling my inner mountain goat.

I had set myself a goal of finishing in under 2 hours, but had an unplanned pit stop at mile 5; evidently one shouldn’t eat spicy chicken chili the night before a race… who knew? So after squatting and desecrating our state flower for at least 5 minutes, I decided to just relax and enjoy the trails rather than think about my time. As I got back into the rhythm though, I found myself catching and passing the runners who had overtaken me during my potty break. Felt really good, so I kicked during the last 2 miles and came in at 1:49:28, 16th overall and 8th in my age group.

As I approached my bike to head home, I noticed that she was leaning very slightly to the right on the center stand, but nowhere close to the tipping point, so I geared up, hopped on and gave my mighty heave-ho! to rock her forward…

…and spent the next 10 seconds locked in a mortal struggle between gravity and a 600 lb. bike (plus full panniers) that came down off the stand tilted slightly to the right. It was a close thing, and to make matters worse, the outside of my right foot was grinding into gravel, turning my ankle slowly inward. I had time to consider just letting her flop, but all my hard work bringing her back to life from a forgotten existence in the corner of a dark garage, my appreciation of her colors and lines – yes, my pride…, I found my inner hulk and slowly, slowly got her back up.

Put the sidestand down, grabbed my water bottle and a banana and walked to the nearby 0lake and just sat on the sand for 10 minutes to make sure I hadn’t strained/pulled anything. Meditated on the day so far (it was only 10:30am), decided all systems were go, hopped on the bike and took the long way ’round.

Epilogue: hobbled around a bit Sunday morning from sore legs, but I thought I could do it, so I did it.


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Pack list for 100 Mile Ultra.

One of the more common questions from a new runner is what to bring/pack for a hundred mile race.  This list assumes that you know to the pre-race meeting and packet pick up.  Exact items will vary depending on the race and temps.  Have at it.

SS Shirts (all)
Headlamps (2x)
Ipod Charger
Honey Stingers
Vasaline (several needed)
Yoga Mat – Old
Compression Shorts
Fresh Fruit:
Towels Cloth
Duct tape
Socks (Injini)
Blue Berries
band aids (blisters)
Paper Towels
hand warmers
ziplock bags
Nip Band Aids
Trash Bags
LS Shirts (x3)
Foam Roller
Liquid Bandaid
Ipod (x2)
Running Pants
Garmin 310
Hand Sanitizer
Ice/Cooler Packs
Running Jacket
Garmin 305
Race Route – Crew
Thermal Shirt
Olive oil
Garmin Chargers
Medical tape
plastic cups
Car Charger USB?
Mole skin
Fork, spoon
Drop Bags
Post Race shorts
Choc Chips
Race Route – Runner
Post Race Shirt
Coffee Press
Race Vitamins
Post Race jacket
Ginger Chews
18 AAA Batteries
Post Race Shoes
Granola Bars
9 AA Batteries
Calf Sleeves
Energy bars
Gloves? (x3)
Sparkling water
peanut butter
GatorAde (Green) (x4)
Breakfast food
Big Fat Burger
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Training for the Mental Game

IMG_1464Once I became interested in running  an ultra race, I read everything I could find on the subject.  I became a frequent visitor to websites like IRunFar.com and trailandultrarunning.com.  A simple Google search brings up races, blogs, race reports and training plans to cover just about any race or distance out there.  There are ultra running email listservs for questions, comments, and whatever seems to cross your mind.

But what is not there, what is utterly lacking, is the mental preparation aspect.  Few, if any, training plans or articles cover how to prepare yourself for those points when the race just plain sucks.  Nausea, cramps, diarrhea, confusion, pain, and lack of will are just a few of the more common occurrences.  Geoff Roes’s report on his Iditarod run talks about how he was overcome by emotion and broke down in tears at an aid station.

IMG_0004During a recent event, I came to an isolated section of trail and my demons took over.  I started beating myself up for being so selfish to leave my family for hours upon hours for training, just to do it again when the event came.  Over those 5 – 8 miles, I have never come so close to dropping out of a race.  I wasn’t tired; physically I could go on, but mentally, I just desperately wanted to go home.

This stuff happens.  If it has not happen to you yet, it will.  Just like I know it will eventually rain, at some point you are going to be suffering though, battling the voices in your head, and fighting like hell not to tear off your race number and take the DNF.

So how to prepare:

The Long Run:  Yup, you guessed it.  The best gauge of whether or not you have it, whether or not something works, is the long run.  Find a course with similar landscape and hit it for hours.  My training runs tend to be 7 or 8 hours.  Keep going when you’re tired.  Keep going when your legs and back ache.  Keep going until all you want to do is go home.  Then go further.  Sounds obvious, eh?  Reality is that many runners quit when things stop being easy.  Over a hundred mile event, everyone thinks of quitting at some point.

Run when you don’t have it in you.  If you’re training for a 50 or a 100, you are already training all the time.  Mentally you have to prepare yourself for those times when everything falls apart.  It all comes and goes.  Things will be great for a while, then something will will hurt, or you will be sick.  Don’t worry.  Don’t let it eat you.  It will not last.  In a few miles you’ll feel differently.  Maybe worse, maybe better, but what you’re feeling now isn’t worth the mental space to worry about it.  If your mind says that right now is the worst time to run; GO FOR A RUN.

Train When it Sucks.  We’ve all had it.  After working all day, or the daylight hours have gotten away from you, it’s later than you want it to be.  Maybe cold and rainy, or sunny and hot, that’s when you need to get out the door and log some miles.  You’ll feel right as rain within a mile or two.  But it’s the practice of going that you need to reinforce.  It’s just like leaving the aid station; you have find your ”get up and go” and get up and go.

Solo Long Runs.  We are social creatures by nature.  We share our grief and our sorrows and feel better in the end because of it.  During races, you’ll find yourself running alone more often than not.  Once, during the Bethel Hill Moonlight Boogie 50 Mile, it had been so long since I had seen another runner, that I jokingly asked myself if the race had been cancelled and no one told me.  If you normally run with a buddy or a group, at least twice a month, plan to run your long runs by yourself.  It will build your confidence and you will learn how to motivate yourself to keep moving when you don’t think you can go on.

IMG_0060Stomach problems.  To simulate gastrointestinal distress, eat a big meal and go for a 10 mile run.  I unintentionally stumbled upon this one.  I wanted to spend some time with the family after work before heading out for a run.  My wife’s cooking is too good to pass up. I went for my run and had to deal with stomach problems over the next hour and a half.  But I did learn that no matter how bad I felt, it was temporary.  One mile I would feel the urge to dash into the bushes, the next I’d be fine, only to repeat it again a few miles later.

Run at different times of the day.  It’s easy to get into habits with your running.  We all run when it’s convenient.  I work a full time day job. On weekdays, I normally run in the evening, but one day a week I  get up at 4:15 AM and put in 10 miles.  Few ultras start at times that match your running schedule.  Varying training helps you to become familiar with what it will take to keep going on race day.

Run doubles.  Running doubles means to run multiple times within a 24 hour period.  This is pretty easy to accomplish if you wake up early to run.  Run 10 miles late in the evening, then get up before dawn the next day and slog out another 10.  Lots of running plans add this to the weekend long run; for example, 7 hour run on Sat and a 2 hour run on Sunday.  This works too.   The point is to log miles when you’re at your most drained.

Get yourself a Mantra:  Get yourself a saying that you can use every time things look tough.  During training runs, I’ve used “if it was easy, anyone could do it,” and, “this is a <Insert Race Name> mile.”  During races, when looking up at a climb where everyone else moans, I say “now THAT is some quality up. I paid for that up,” or “gimme some more of that up“.  A buddy of mine talks to the flags used to mark the trail.  He calls them confidence flags, and seeing them means he can finish the race.

IMG_1490Lastly, Don’t Quit.  Don’t quit during training. Don’t cut your miles short because you’re tired or hungry or want to sit down.  Don’t quit when you’ve fallen behind schedule.  Don’t stop when all you can think of is getting home.  At a 100 race last year, it was 80+ degrees in November when I saw a guy collapse into a chair at mile 40, shivering.  I thought he was done.  No way they’d let him go and no way he’d hold it together over the last 60.  His race looked over.  Well guess what?  I have a photo of him holding the buckle at the finish line.  He walked the last 60 miles.  Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.  Let the sweepers pull you off.

The more running I do at the long distances, the more that I think I’m only training when it sucks.  If I come back from a run and feel like a million bucks, it was just a pleasure run.  But when I am miles away from the car, hands on knees looking up at another hill, wondering why I am doing this, and questioning if I still have enough in me to get home, I know I am logging quality training time.

Perhaps the reason there isn’t a lot out there is because there isn’t a lot one can do about it.  I’m not so sure.  While I added the items listed above into my training, I still have my demons.  Maybe there are more tips.  If you have some, please post a comment.  I’d love to see them.

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Overcoming Self Doubt: Double Top Detailed Race Report

Friends and family always ask me why I want to run 100 miles, and I never have a response that seems to answer the question. After running my second 100 mile trail race, the DoubleTop 100 in Georgia, it’s becoming more clear to me that the miles aren’t the only accomplishment. It’s having also faced the internal challenges, and coming out the other side, that lures me back onto the trails.

View from the trail after the final climb

View from the trail after the final climb

The official DoubleTop 100 race, run in March, was cut short this year due to severe weather (read more).  Email conversations led to an invitation by the DoubleTop and Pinhoti Slam Race Directors (RDs) to organize a group re-run in April. Anyone who participated in the original Double Top 100 mile event was welcome to join. Finishers would be awarded the official Double Top 100 Buckle, but it would not count as an “official” finish.  Twenty runners signed on. The DoubleTop RDs, Perry and Kena, volunteered to organize the aid stations & volunteers, run support, and be the overall glue that held the event together.

Heading into the event, I had the usual doubts about whether I was ready, especially since I would be running without a team or crew.  This would be my first race without anyone from the group that got me interested in running ultras.  We had trained and raced together.  We supported each other throughout the 2012 race season, offering advice and encouragement, and I contemplated the wisdom of running 100 miles without dedicated support.  I had never gone more than about 35 miles alone, not to mention all day and all night.  I worried about getting lost, dropping from the race, getting sick, or physically and mentally breaking down.  There would be no one, NO ONE to pick me up. But, being the only one with DoubleTop on my radar, I entered the group re-run as a solo runner.

My plan was to stick with the group, even if it meant running slower or faster than I wanted to.  Keeping with others, and getting to know them, would help distract me from my internal naysayer and keep me from getting lost.

Perry gave a brief pre-race meeting, mostly to let us know that there would be fewer flags. The March race had over 2000 flags marking the trail. This time, they put out 700 flags and some reflective tacks, and I was grateful for every one of them.  This race would require some diligence – no zoning out for me.

Within the first couple miles of the race, everyone was in good spirits, but apparently no one was paying attention because we missed a turn, adding one bonus mile.  Two miles later we made another wrong turn and, <BAM>, two bonus miles.  Not even at the first aid station yet and I had managed to go off course twice; however, the world did not fall apart.  Maybe I could handle it.

The Climb out of the valley.

The Climb out of the valley.

We checked-in at the first Aid Station (A/S), Bear Pen (mile 4.7), and continued on the next stretch, which had multiple water crossings, as the trail stretches out along a stream.  My shoes and feet were soaked, but the water was more refreshing than it was in March.

We took a short break at at A/S #2, Cohutta Overlook (mile 11.1), and headed out on one of my favorite sections of the course.   The trail headed downhill and wrapped itself along a runnable, but tight section of steep switchback turns.  Quick stop at AS #3, Three Forks (mile 14.8) , which was manned by one of the runner’s dads, and back out the trail.

My wife knows me.  She knows where my demons would come up.  Despite the fact that she could not crew this time, she was there for me.  Over the first few hours of the race, we sent text messages back and forth.  I’d send her photos and she would send a words of encouragement.  It gave me a connection that I could carry with me on the trail.

A/S #4, Double Top (mile 20.5) was a drop-bag point.  I picked up a bunch of gels, salt caps, and a dry pair of socks and headed out. This next stretch  was new to the course.

A/S at Double Top

A/S at Double Top

For the official race in March, the RDs weren’t able to get a permit to use this 10-11 mile section of the Pinhoti trail.  Instead the runners ran the same distance over forest service roads.  Because this was a small group run and not an official race, we could stay on the Pinhoti Trail.

The RDs seemed a little too excited about this section, I thought perhaps because it added another layer of cruelty to an already challenging course.  My cynicism could not have been more misguided. It starts like the other trails, winding up and down, but within a few miles the trail takes a dramatic turn downhill and begins with the first few tributary crossings. At the bottom of the hill, the trail turns sharply to the left and follows a fast moving stream.

This section is possibly the most ideal piece of trail of any race in the South East.  Several waterfall views, thick flora and multiple knee deep water crossings make this one of the most interesting and beautiful bits of trail I’ve ever run. Should the RDs get permission to use it for the official race, it will jump to the “must do” category for ultras.

IMG_1473The trail gradually gains elevation over the next few miles, making it runable for the most part.  We caught up with some other runners, one of them being the organizer for the Pinhoti Slam, Dan, who was eating an apple.  I can’t describe how much I wanted an apple.  I had visions of that cartoon from my childhood, where two guys are stuck in a lifeboat and see each other as food.  Or maybe I was Gollum, Dan was Frodo, and the apple was the Ring.  The only problem was that I was pretty sure he could take me.

After a brief refuel at A/S #5, Top of Pinhoti (mile 31.5), we headed back out on the trail which, for the first mile or so, goes downhill on a Forest Service road.  It descends, then runs flat for a while before crossing the Jack River.  Once across, we only had a little more than a mile or so to the aid station.  Dan and I had run this stretch together but at the foot of the climb, he let me know that he was going to wait for another runner to catch up.  He bid me farewell, and I was on my own.

Considering that I didn’t know the terrain or the course, and that I had already strayed off the trail twice, it seemed like a good idea to stick with some folks; yet, with one mile to the aid station, here I was, walking uphill, alone.  I kept looking back, hoping someone would catch up, but it didn’t happen.  I reached  A/S #6, Old Tearbritches (mile 36.7), in 4th place.  I reloaded the water and gels, ditched some gear, grabbed a headlamp, and changed my socks and shoes. I did everything a little more slowly, as I waited for the rest of the group to catch up, which they did, and we headed out.

IMG_1476Everything after Old TearBritches was new to me, since the original race was called off at this point.  From here to the next A/S, roughly 11 miles, the trail rises over Flat Top mountain then meanders along the ridge.  Heading out, everything was uphill.  Dan gave me some instructions on the trail, asserting that I could not get lost, which gave me the permission that I needed to move at my own pace.  I slowly pulled away and, by the time I crested Flat Top Mountain, I was alone again.

There were a few more small water crossings, but the highlight of this section was the unmanned A/S Perry and Dan had carried in: food, water, and confirmation that I wasn’t lost!

I hit some low points around mile 45.  I could not shake the sense of loneliness. Maybe it was low blood sugar or some other physical cause, but my cell phone was almost completely dead, and the awareness that I had left my wife and kids was beating me down.  Compounding these feelings, I knew I would have to traverse this, and another 11 mile section, alone and at night. Facing this particular mental challenge would be my biggest hurdle.  As the miles wore on and I grew more tired,  I thought seriously about dropping out of the race.  Like Luke entering the cave in the Empire Strikes Back, I was facing my own dark self.  With no signal, I used the last of my phone’s charge to record a video for my kids.  Blinking back tears, I shut if off and focused on what I needed to do, instead of what I didn’t have.  I took in some gels, turned on some tunes just kept moving forward.Trail Roots

After a bit, I came across a turn where most of the marker flags had been knocked down, though I couldn’t figure out why. I replaced the flags and headed out.  Upon reaching A/S #7, Bear Den (mile 47.6), I recounted my store to Kena.  “Oh yeah,” she said “it was probably a pig”.

A PIG?  Visions of Hogzilla crossed my mind. I knew what to do if I encountered a bear or a coyote, but a pig?  She should have kept that one to herself.

It was then that I noticed someone sitting in a car.  It was the race leader.  He dropped for personal reasons. I was now in third.

The three miles from the A/S to the turn-around point was all downhill.   I pondered the meaning of “personal reasons”.  Family issue?  Torn ACL? Did he see hogzilla? Not that I needed to know, but the more I thought about it, the more it shook me.  The same thing happened at Pinhoti when, at the mile 30 aid station, two people turned in their race numbers right in front of me.  It messed with my head. I had run through 11 miles of the most isolated section of this course, with monster pigs, and was still around to tell the tale.  It became apparent that my biggest obstacle was sitting on top of my neck.

Shortly before the turnaround at A/S #8, Walosi (mile 50.9), the runners in first and second passed me, having checked in at the turn-around and started back.  I estimated that they were probably between 1.5 – 2 miles ahead of me.  I wasn’t in a hurry, but it was nice to know that the front of field wasn’t too far.  I checked-in , drank what I could, and headed back out, hoping some other runners were close behind. I saw the guys behind me about 1 or 2 miles after I left the aid station.  Assuming that they weren’t in a hurry either, I figured my best chance for company was to catch the guy in second.

The last 15 miles had almost beaten me, and I didn’t want to face those same miles alone and at night.  To keep my head out of the gunk, I focused on closing the gap between me and the runner in second place.  He was, by my estimate, 2 miles ahead.  In reality, I doubted that I could catch him, but it was a goal I could hook into for the rest of the race.  I turned on my iPod and focused on catching up.


I was in and out of the Bear Den A/S (mile 54.1) and headed into the night.  The last bit of the sun set over the mountains, letting darkness fall.  Headlamp on, I got comfortable with the thought that I would not see another person for almost 3 hours.  For the most part, I hiked the hills.  I gathered some makeshift walking sticks and powered up the inclines, as much as I could, then ran the flat and downhill sections.  The miles wore on, but it was not nearly as soul-sucking as I had imagined.  The food and gels, along with a series of podcasts, helped fill the void.  I set a goal to arrive at Old Tearbritches by 11 PM.

Before I knew it, I had fallen into a routine. Hiking the hills, running where I could and listening to “Wait Wait Don’t tell Me” on my Ipod, I was able to manage my psyche.  Anytime I started to circle the drain I focused on just making it to the next aid station.  That’s it.  Wanna Quit?  Still gotta make it to the aid station.  Want to sit down? It will take longer to get to the aid station.  No matter what garbage my doubts gave me, the answer was the same — get to the next aid station.

I can’t describe the feeling of seeing the lights at Old Tearbritches (mile 65.1).  I yelled and cheered.  I wanted fans screaming my name, or fireworks.  I wanted something to mark this moment.  Then I saw the guy in second place exit the woods just in front of me.  I never really thought that I would catch up to him.  At some point over the last section, he fell and smacked his knee.  By the time he had reached the aid station it had swelled and he couldn’t run.  The words “I gotta drop” passed his lips as he sank into a chair.  I tried to encourage him to try and make it to the next A/S but, as hard as it was for me to go on alone, I recognized that the decision to drop out of a race after 65 miles, while in second place, after weeks of planning and months of training, was much harder.

Before I headed back out, an Aid Station volunteer handed me his phone to call my wife, which was a huge mental boost.  Within a few minutes, I was revved up and ready to go.  I reloaded my pack, grabbed my portable charger & cables (see this article on the portable charger), spare batteries and headed out on the trail again.

I was getting comfortable with the night.  During the day there is a lot to look at, and you can gauge the terrain ahead.  With a headlamp, you see only what’s illuminated, drastically reducing visual and mental wanderings. Since my range was about 80 feet, that’s what I focused on.  The section is pretty wide and straight-forward.  Nowhere to really wander: a few creek crossings, then the trail starts uphill and it doesn’t stop for about a mile or two.

I stopped briefly at the Top of Pinhoti A/S (mile 70.2), refilling my water and changing out batteries for the next 11 mile stretch.  The volunteers had strung some christmas lights around the A/S for some added cheer. Back on the new section of the Pinhoti trail, the elevation drops for about a half mile then levels off for one of the only flat sections on the course.  The nagging loneliness had abated and I felt pretty good.  Other than a couple of stretches of tricky footing, I ran most of the first five or six miles.  In fact, over all, there was a net elevation loss over this section.  But when it went up, it was steep.

I played the game of allowing myself to think the next A/S was just around the next corner or over the next hill, when I knew that neither was right.  When I finally did see it I gave a couple of hoots and howls to let them know I was coming.  The RD, Perry, was manning the Double Top A/S (mile 81.2). “What do you need?” he asked.  “Just sit down and talk with me for a while” I responded.  It was nice to have some company while I dug through my drop bag.  With 80 miles behind me, I can run the last 20.  I recall telling myself (probably out loud) that I could “do 20 miles in my sleep”.  At just about 4:30 AM, I stepped back out on the course.

Sun Rises as I left the Mile 90 A/SI was surprised to be in second place, and more surprised that I felt as positive as I did.  I didn’t want to run alone, yet I had covered almost half the race solo.  I was worried about finding my way at night, but I managed through the hardest part without getting lost.  I even managed to change the headlamp batteries, in the dark, several miles from civilization, without incident.

The sun came up as I left Cuhotta Overlook (mile 90.7).  The last 10 miles were a beat down.  Maybe I was just getting tired or was just ready for this to be over, but I walked a lot – ran when I could, but walked a lot. Heading up to the last A/S at mile 95, I was thrilled to be almost home.

Back in Fort Mtn State Park I stopped to point out where I had come fromThen comes the RD’s joke: the aid station sits at the bottom of the valley, at about 1700 feet above sea level. Over the next two miles, the trail ascends to 2850 feet, about a 1150 foot gain in elevation. That’s a heck of a climb at any point, but positively brutal to stash it in the last five miles! On the plus side, I did see my first bear.  For the record, he saw me before I saw him and started to run away before I even registered what it was.

I bounded over the trail back in to Fort Mountain State Park.  With only two miles left to go, I ran with everything I had.  Once I hit pavement, I didn’t want to stop.  I hit the finish in front of Cabin #4 at 27:50:39. 100 miles accomplished. Doubt abated. Demons caged. Still don’t have an explanation for why I do what I do, but I can say that I did what I didn’t think I could.

Buckle and Beer

Buckle and Beer

First Race of the Pinhoti Slam: Done.  Next up Georgia Jewel 100 on Sept 22 & 23.




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