Tag Archives: mental toughness

Once More Around the Block, and The Best Pacer Ever: 12 Hours at Dogwood

I clambered up a long, steady rise out of the trees onto a wide field of grass and sand. Up ahead I would cross a road and descend back onto the woods for the final part of the loop. The sky was dimming and a cold breeze had started up

“You’re doing GREAT!” a woman’s voice shouted.

I looked around but saw no one. Was I hearing things? I was over eleven hours into the Dogwood 12-Hour race, and the way I was feeling right then, anything was possible. I was giving all I had to get through this final loop and hold onto third place.

Then someone burst out of the trees behind me. . .

****************

The Dogwood is in the category of races measured by a fixed time, rather than a fixed distance. The most well-known is the 24-hour race, but there are shorter and faster varieties including 48 hours and even 72 hours.

These events usually take place on a short loop of road (such as one mile) or on a running track. Results are tracked by loops completed. Advantages include always having gear and refreshments close at hand, and relay team planning is simple, since each exchange takes place at the same point. Disadvantages include – well, sheer monotony – which is why I’d never run one. I like a variety of views and terrain in my ultras.

The Dogwood, however, caught my eye. I wanted an ultra around the end of March and the loop was on trail and decently long (3.4 miles). And it was in Virginia, meaning warmer weather and near where my daughter Tori lives. She even accepted my offer to pace me for a loop. Win!

I showed up at Twin Lakes State Park at 6:30 a.m. and was joined by a couple of relay teams and around 30 fellow solo runners suffering from the same condition – namely, that we find running all day something to look forward to.

I’d set a goal of 15 loops (50 miles) with an average 40 minutes per loop, which on paper would take ten hours. I would use the two remaining hours as cushion. Any extra loops would be gravy, and perhaps just enough to get into the top five.

Off we go.

We set off at 7:15, just as the sun was coming up over Godwin Lake. We ran along the shore for a bit, then up a gravel road and onto singletrack along rolling hills with a few long climbs and some fast downhills. There were a couple of stream crossings, which required nimble steps on the rocks to keep feet dry. Up to a road crossing, then back into the woods, one rooty section, then a final climb to the main park road for a downhill sprint to the finish. Quick stop at the aid station, then back out again.

I ran the first two loops with a nice chap named Alex. The morning was sunny and cool with soft, dry trail, absolutely perfect conditions for a race. My steps were light and easy, and the loops flew by. I lost track of him after that, and settled into running alone, maintaining an aggressive but sustainable pace.

Just as with the Land Between the Lakes 50, I felt terrific for the first third of the race. After five loops I was ahead of my goal pace. But I was beginning to feel subtle hints that things were going to get tougher. My legs were starting to complain on the downhills, and the bottoms of my heels were developing hot spots. I taped them more thoroughly and hoped for the best.

Finishing up an early loop.

My loop times began to slip, but I held onto the 40-minute average until loop 12, at which time I was told I was in second place! Perhaps I’d have been better off not knowing, because I struggled on loop 13, with my slowest time by far. My mind began suggesting that fifteen loops would be quite enough, thank you, regardless of any extra time. Breaking through that mental wall would take some effort, but I’d deal with that if and when I got there.

At the aid station, I met up with Alex again. Turned out he was the leader, one full loop ahead of me. He offered me his company for the next loop, and I set off with renewed energy. Unfortunately, the third-place runner (Corey) had also picked it up, and at the top of the gravel road he caught up to us. Both he and Alex were feeling stronger than I was, and on the trail they politely excused themselves and took off. Well, then, third place would have to do.

Trail runners are the best. They’ll smile and praise your effort while they blow your doors off.

Then, as I finished loop 14, there was Tori, all set to pace me for a loop. And so we ran loop 15 together. She’s a stronger hiker than a runner, but she gamely pushed through it. My one worry was that whoever was in fourth place would catch up. And about two-thirds of the way through the loop, someone ran by at a steady, deliberate speed.

Well, nuts. But what did it matter? A run with my daughter meant far more to me than a podium finish. And after this loop, with my 50 miles logged, I could quit! The clock read 10:30 as we came in. 90 minutes left, but with thoroughly fatigued legs and burning feet, I was happy to call it a race.

Just to be sure I wasn’t in podium contention, I checked with the scorer, who shook his head. “That guy who passed you is two loops behind,” he said. “You’re still in third.”

“So…I suppose I should get back out there,” I said, trying to sound upbeat about it. He agreed. “You’re looking strong!” Perhaps he was being kind, or perhaps I looked better than I felt, but he wasn’t helping me quit. Just one more, I promised myself. Just one more.

I pushed aside the physical and mental exhaustion and walked onto the sidewalk along the beach. Then, as with the previous fifteen loops, I began a slow jog. Final loop started; now just finish it.

I start one of the later loops. Photo courtesy of Dan’s wife, Luce( sp?).

By the clock I had plenty of time, but I still had no idea where the fourth-place runner was. So I ran it scared, at as quick a pace as I could muster. If I had to run this final lap when I’d already mentally checked out, then dammit, I needed something to show for it!

Then, more than halfway though, I heard the voice from nowhere. And as I crossed the road, ready to let it go as a mystery, someone came out of the rise and ran toward me. Fast. Smiling.

*************

He was a kid, perhaps ten years old. Behind him came a woman I assumed to be his mother. Obviously her shout had been meant for him, not me. Such was my mental state that I checked them for race bibs! Seeing none, I finally relaxed and focused on just getting through the remaining mile. Loop 16 and 54.5 miles completed in 11 hours, 23 minutes. Fourth place was 14 loops. I needn’t have worried.

Podium: Me with Alex (left) and Corey (right), who are helping keep me vertical.

The bonk hit me fast and hard as soon as I’d finished. Sitting didn’t help, so I lay on the ground. Alex and Corey, bless them, looked after me and helped me stand back up at awards time. For my third-place finish I got a bottle of Tiramisu Stout. Tori and I split it. She helped, after all.

Best pacer ever!

This was a small race but really well run and a lot of fun. More people should do this one; it’s a hidden gem among ultras. Dan, the race director, is hoping to turn it into a 24-hour race in the future, which may well make it more visible and popular. I hope so.

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Peak Experiences

The last few weeks have been peak training time for my spring marathons and ultras. And let’s just say I’m feeling it.

So what does “peak training” mean? Extra miles per week, longer “long runs,” and heavier weights and additional sets at strength training. And with hill-loving Coach Rob setting the routes, PR Fitness group runs make sure my legs and lungs get some good work in.

If you think this is a viable option for long runs, you can stop reading now. You don't get it.

For long runs? Thanks, I’ll take the snow and hills, please.

The extra physical effort is just part of the experience, however. It being late winter in Michigan (*), conditions have varied. This morning I ran 18 miles with a big, enthusiastic PR Fitness group in shorts and single top layer, bright sunshine, and clear, clean roads. It was easy to feel good out there, even with tired legs.

But just a couple of weeks ago, I ran 20 miles by myself on a cold, gray, blustery day on snowy roads. With no one to pace with or keep me motivated, it was hard to remain focused. I had problems with my shoes, I needed several biological breaks (too much coffee), and with sweaty clothes it was a struggle to stay warm.

Along the 20-mile route that day.

Along the 20-mile route that day.

With five miles to go I stopped at a cafe for a snack and water and took stock. I would be on a busy road at rush hour, going uphill, and it was getting dark fast. It would have been easy, perhaps even sensible, to call a cab (**) for a warm ride home. Instead, I took a deep breath, stepped outside, and slogged out those final miles.

Good question.

Good question!

Would missing those five miles hurt my time at my upcoming marathon? Not likely. The 15 miles I’d already run were probably equal to at least 20 miles on a good day. And I might get hurt during the last stretch due to the weather and road conditions. Physically speaking, there was no reason to finish the run.

But Coach Marie understood why I did. She’s had many of those herself. “It makes you mentally stronger,” she said. And when things go wrong, or the unexpected happens, or you “hit the wall” five miles from the finish line, it’s the mental toughness that gets you across it.

Great weather and a happy body are treasured by runners when they occur, but they provide a very limited view of what we’re truly capable of. This morning’s run was wonderful, but the one two weeks ago did more for me. The miles in the snow, or rain, or mud, or 90-degree heat (with precautions, of course) tell me far more about what I’m really capable of, and give me confidence that I can accomplish my goals.

Building character.

Building character.

Not that I want one like that every week.

And “peak training” is nearly over! Soon I will begin tapering – easing back on mileage to recover and be at peak condition on race day. Sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, extra rest can be as challenging as peak training, in a different way. I think I’ll find a way to get through it.

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(*) Actually, conditions are never predictable in Michigan. It’s part of the appeal of living here.

(**) I don’t really buy into this Uber thing yet. Call me old-fashioned.

Richmond 13.1: The Other 60 Percent

One week before the Nov. 14 American Family Fitness half marathon in Richmond, I went out for my regular Saturday group run. Since I was tapering, I kept it to ten miles at a moderate pace.

On Sunday I knew I was in trouble.

The run had taken more out of me than usual. I felt drained and weary, and did not bounce back the next day like I normally do. And this was after a week of cutting back. Since I was going to attempt a PR (new best time) in Richmond, this was not good. So – what to do?

Against every instinct, I decided to rest the entire week,  cancelling my Monday gym workout and Aikido class, and skipping the Tuesday night run. A short bike ride on Wednesday was all I allowed myself.

Resting? What a crazy idea!

Resting? What a crazy idea!

Finally, arriving in Richmond on Friday, I felt my energy returning. But was it enough to run 13.1 miles hard and fast? When I got tired, would I have the physical and mental fortitude to keep going and set that PR?

Then I came across an article about Jesse Itzler, an ultrarunner and entrepreneur who’d be considered an overachiever by 99.9 percent of the planet. Not Jesse; he decided he needed to “shake things up,” as he put it. So he hired a Navy SEAL to kick his butt for a month. In the winter.

You can read about that crazy month in his book, Living with a Seal: 31 Days Training With the Toughest Man on the Planetor go here for the CNBC interview. Along with ice water soaks and night runs, the SEAL gave him lots of advice, including this: “When your brain tells you you’re done, you’re only 40 percent done.”

Well, when a Navy SEAL says that, I believe him. Anyone who survives a year of that training, including the infamous Hell Week, ought to know. Could I use this little gem of wisdom to get me through the tough part of the race, when my brain would be strongly suggesting it wasn’t my day and how about we slow the hell down? I hoped so. Even tapping a little of that other 60 percent would be a plus.

Sure, *you* go ahead and tell this guy he's full of it. I dare you.

Sure, go ahead and tell this guy he’s full of it. I dare you. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Race morning was sunny and about 38 degrees, good conditions for a fast race. I warmed up with a jog of a mile or so, with some short sprints at the end. I felt ready to go and lined up near the front of the first wave to ensure I could get out of the gate and into stride quickly.

Anything under 1:33:49 would be a new personal best.

I’d decided on an unorthodox race strategy. Instead of trying to hold my target pace of 7:00 per mile for as long as possible, I would run sets of two miles at 7:10 and two at 6:50. I hoped the varied pace would keep my mind engaged and provide some recovery time at the slower pace.

The first four miles went exactly to plan – two at around 7:08, then two at 6:50. I didn’t recover as much as I hoped on miles 5 and 6, but I hit the 10K timing mat at 44:00, right on schedule.

Then we entered a park and began about two miles of gently rolling hills. I struggled to hold my pace and was breathing hard. With over six miles left, I felt fatigue set in, and the mental chatter changed accordingly:

Well, looks like a week off wasn’t quite long enough. What did you expect? You ran a 100K not long ago and it takes time to recover. How about we ease off a bit? Just not your day. No big deal, right?

Fortunately, I was prepared for it. I played the trump card.

Hah! We’ve only reached the 40 percent mark. Let’s press on and see what we have left, shall we?

With that, I relaxed, took some deep cleansing breaths, and pushed through the final inclines and out of the park.

Digging into the other 60 percent.

Digging into the other 60 percent.

The remaining five miles were by no means easy, but the worst was behind me. At mile 11, I surged to catch up to a couple of other runners and stuck with them, trying to match their stride and cadence. Together we hit the final half mile, a wide, sprint-inducing downhill packed with loud spectators on both sides. Richmond bills this event as “America’s Friendliest Marathon” and based on what I saw, I can’t disagree.

As we passed the cameras at mile 13, I looked at the finish line clock. 1:32! With a downhill-assisted 6:40 final mile, I finished in 1:32:43, a new personal best by over a minute!

Also taking part - daughter Tori (center) and Jess, her SO, finishing the 8K..

Family fitness! My daughter Tori (center) ran the 8K despite a bum foot. her SO Jess (right) also finished the 8K. Great job, ladies!

And even better, I’m feeling good again. Yesterday I ran ten snowy miles without any trouble, then went home and shoveled my driveway clear – twice. Guess what I was telling myself out there?

Mr. SEAL, wherever you are, thank you very much.

Yesterday's snowfall in Ann Arbor.

Yesterday’s snowfall in Ann Arbor. Thank goodness I have my energy back!