If there’s one guarantee about running an ultramarathon, it’s that the unexpected will happen. It’s just a question of what and when. It’s part of the odd appeal of running for crazy long distances in remote places. Safe, urban cattle-drive marathons? No, thank you. And so I was back in the Arizona desert this weekend for another Grandmaster 100K.
Given Omicron and my wife’s health situation, I was grateful to be here. And my friend and VM150 pacer Charlie was there too, running the same event.
My goal was admittedly ambitious. After last year’s wrong turn that cost me the 100K win, I was aiming to redeem that, and, if possible, beat the course record. (Other than that, no pressure, Jeff.) Applying lessons from last year, I carefully packed warm clothes in my drop bags, reviewed the course directions, and mapped out my expected pace, aid station arrival times, and finish time. After a Thursday run where I checked out some course changes, I felt ready to go.
Well, to paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke, no ultraurnning plan survives contact with race day. All you can really hope for is to be as prepared as possible for what will get thrown at you, and resilient enough to handle it.
The unexpected appeared early on. In 2021 I quickly became the lead runner. This year several others started aggressively, running even the hills and deep sandy places. At the aid station 12 miles in, I stopped, as planned, to put on more sunscreen, stow a jacket, and shake sand out of my shoes. Just a few minutes. But when I checked out, the leaders were already long gone. I was annoyed but not worried; there was a lot of race left. At the halfway mark of the first 50K loop I was right on schedule.
And then things went south in a hurry.
The back half of the loop has long stretches of flat, firm terrain, and I was looking forward to opening up my stride and making good time. But my lower back tightened up, and it was soon too painful to do anything faster than a jog. I stopped to stretch, with no improvement. Unexpected, all right: this has never happened to me before. Nuts. I soldiered on to the aid station at mile 22, took some aspirin, and made a pride-swallowing decision.
Had this been the final loop with just nine miles to go, I’d likely have sucked it up and gone for broke. But there were 40 miles to go and I worried about lasting injury to my back if I tried to stay in contention. So I took my trekking poles from my drop bag and hiked to the finish.
And the unexpected struck again. I found myself enjoying the hike. Released from my pace schedule, I relaxed and took in the scenery around me, which was one of the reasons I keep coming back here. I got more familiar with my poles and how to use them in tricky spots. I stayed cooler in the afternoon heat. And it gave me time to realize I was actually in a great situation. With a 48-hour window, I could rest my back and finish on Saturday in daylight instead of risking more injury by doing the second loop that night.
At the finish I told the race directors of my plan (so they wouldn’t wonder what happened to me), went back to my Airbnb, stretched and applied heat to my back, and got some sleep. At 6:30 Saturday morning I was back on the course to git ‘er done.
The final loop was everything the first one was not. My back pain was gone and I ran smooth and easy. And I met Charlie about two miles in. He had gone all night and was about to finish his first-ever 100K! (You rock, dude.) I finished mine in the early afternoon, feeling good and thrilled to be a finisher as well.
And the unexpected wasn’t done with me. I wasn’t the final 100K finisher!
On Friday, late in the first loop, I saw a runner lying down in the shade of a cactus. Turned out he was out of water and not feeling well. I gave him water and suggested we walk together to the next aid station. Having been in similar situations myself, I was happy to help. I explained my plan to finish on Saturday, which he thought was a good idea for him, too. I checked the results, and he finished about an hour after me. Good for you, Brad! You rock, too.
But had I been running my plan instead of hiking, I wouldn’t have been there to find him. So perhaps someone else had a plan for me that day.