Tag Archives: pain

Gut Check at the Potawatomi 50

My first (and possibly only) ultramarathon of 2019 is done. I can’t say I enjoyed every mile, or even most of them. Yet I’m grateful for the experience. Lemme tell ya why.

I’ve run 22 ultras now, and every one has been memorable, whether for a competitive time (Veterans Memorial, Dogwood), extreme heat (Lighthouse) or cold (Yankee Springs), challenging terrain (Voyageur) or the surreal (Burning Man). Last Saturday’s 50-miler at the Potawatomi Trail Races combined sticky mud, hard climbs, and physical discomfort into a thirteen-plus hour sufferfest.

My shoes after the event.

It was worth it.

The race website quotes a runner as saying, “…they took all the hills [in Illinois] and put them ALL into one spot and called it McNaughton Park.” Having driven across Illinois, then run in the park, I can confirm this is true.

With 1,600 feet of elevation gain per ten-mile loop, I climbed nearly as much in 50 miles as I did at the Kettle Moraine 100. The uphills are sudden and steep, including one with rope assist. Yet they are exceeded in quad-shattering ferocity by the downhills, aptly described as, “elevator shafts.”

Two friends, John and Kurt, were responsible for my presence there. Kurt was attempting the 150-miler (15 loops), while John would try the 200, a 20-loop exercise in torture which awards a belt buckle too big to wear. This I wanted to witness. I settled on Saturday’s 50-miler as my limit after an inconsistent winter of training, but I was there to see them off at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Kurt (left) and John, just before race start on Thursday.

On Friday I volunteered at the base camp aid station, ran a few miles to keep loose, and went to bed early. I headed down the muddy path at 6:00 Saturday morning fired up and feeling good.

One mile in. Welcome to nine more miles of this!

The first loop, messy, slippery, and still a bit dark, was quite fun. I completed it in two hours flat, which I was very pleased with. No PR here, but even with a shoe change or two I expected to finish in around 11 hours. That plan went south starting late in the second loop.

Runners climbing one of the signature hills in the park.

A burning sensation appeared in my lower abdomen, almost like needing to pee, except I didn’t. This had happened at the Lighthouse 100, which I’d blamed on an unfamiliar electrolyte drink. I’d stuck with familiar food and drink this time, but here was that pain again, and getting worse.

Not wanting to quit, I pressed on and began experimenting. I tried drinking less, then a lot. I consumed more salt. I tried eating and not eating. After loop three I sat for a while. Nothing made any difference whatever. Even ginger ale and a Tums had zero effect. The day was pleasant and the trail was drying out nicely, but the constant pain was ruining any chance of enjoyment.

I made it through lap four (40 miles) and collapsed into a chair next to the timer. “Ready for your victory lap, Jeff?” he asked. No, I was not. In fact, I felt a tingling in my hands and flush in my face that signaled a bonk coming on. I got to my feet, walked to a nearby grassy patch and lay down for a nap. Plenty of time for one. Heck, with race cutoff over 24 hours away, I could even leave, recover, sleep, and finish the next day. I dozed for about twenty minutes with the afternoon sun warm on my face and body.

When I got up, a miracle had occurred. The abdominal pain had vanished, and I was full of energy. Victory lap on! I walked the first mile just to be sure all was well, then ran the rest of it comfortably. With competitive pressure gone, and feeling well again, I was able to fully enjoy those final miles. I finished just as it was getting dark. At 13-plus hours it was my slowest 50, but I was satisfied. And grateful.

So what made the experience worthwhile? I learned I could push through a long period of discomfort. That I can use a bad situation to learn more about myself and what I’m capable of.

Also, two things stood out about how my body performed. Though my quads were screaming from the downhills, they held up, and everything else – glutes, hamstrings, calves, even knees – felt fine throughout. And on a steep, muddy trail, I didn’t fall once. I give full credit to the trainers at Body Specs for their attention to whole-body training and stability work. All those one-legged squats and work on the wobble boards paid off. Thanks, Skip and crew!

This will pay off…this WILL pay off…

And how did my friends doing the crazy miles make out? Mixed results. John’s attempt at 200 ended after five loops and a rainy, miserable night. He was understandably bummed, but is already looking forward to his next challenge. Kurt finished his 150 miles at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, one of three to complete that distance. And four runners actually completed the full 200. Outstanding work, guys. I am in awe.

Just a Little More

WAY BACK AT THE dawn of history (around 2007), I was on the mat at the start of a weeknight Aikido class. Our instructor worked us through the warmup routine until we got to the wrist stretches. Then he stopped for a moment.

“I was asked recently how far one should take a wrist stretch,” he told us. “Everyone is different, so there isn’t an absolute answer. But in general, take it to where it begins to hurt. Then push it just a little further.”

I’d been taught in exercise class not to stretch into pain. But his approach made sense to me. Where it begins to hurt is the limit of what the body is used to. To become more flexible requires pushing into the uncomfortable, just a little. Not enough to cause injury, but enough to trigger an adaptation. And we were to determine that point ourselves. The intent was to reach and push past our own limits, not someone else’s.

Okay, perhaps this is more than "just a little"?

Pushing past my limits of pain. Whether or not I asked for it.

I soon found that the principle of “just past your limit” carried over into every part of Aikido training. You can sit for five minutes in seiza? Great, how about six? I’ve never been the most flexible guy, but with practice I could eventually manage twenty minutes in that posture during Sensei’s lectures in advanced class. Leg-numbing, agonizing minutes, but I did it. The pain sometimes diverted my attention from what Sensei was saying, but as was explained to me, that too was part of training.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

For my next trick, I will stand up. Or try to.

Later on I was introduced to the complementary concept of “just one more.” Think you’ve done as many breakfalls, or buki strikes, or whatever, as you possibly can? Well, you could probably manage just one more. Repeat until you’ve reached your goal. The brain knows it’s a scam, and yet it works remarkably well. To this day I use it at the gym during particularly brutal workouts.

Just one more - or 40 more. I forget.

Just one more – or 40 more. I forget.

During more than ten years of Aikido study, I’ve had many opportunities to use both “just past your limit” and “just one more.” Sometimes I use them consciously, but the excellent teaching and the example set by the senior students have already built them into the class atmosphere. You push through the challenges because that’s what everyone does. And pushing your limits little by little adds up over time.

But there have been a few occasions where my limits were not only pushed, but blown out of the water. Sometimes, like with a test or a race, I know what’s coming; there’s time to prepare, to psych myself up.

And then there are the ones that drop out of the sky, smack me upside the head and dare me to beg for mercy.

It’s July 2010, near the end of an intense, two-hour advanced class. 90 degrees in the dojo. Sensei calls for a series of breakfalls. We begin with backward falls and progress to forward rolls. Sensei calls out the first sixteen (two series of eight), and then each student in turn calls out another sixteen. There are six or seven students in the class and I’m the most junior, so I count last.

My attempt at a forward roll.

My attempt at a forward roll.

The set isn’t all that bad, but Sensei immediately begins another. I’m now really tired and sore, and my form is slipping. But I keep up as best I can. At my turn to count the adrenaline kicks in, and I complete the final sixteen rolls. I stand in dizzy, triumphant exhaustion. I’d pushed past my limit.

Except Sensei doesn’t call a halt.

“One more set!” his voice cries though my fog of fatigue. “Hajime!”

WTF? This isn’t “just one more,” it’s dozens more. I’m already past my limit! But the other students start the breakfalls, and there’s nothing for it but to go along.

My world shrinks to a small rectangle of canvas, the sound of my labored breathing, the mat quivering from the slapping of arms and legs to the inexorable “ichi-ni-san-shi...” cadence of whoever’s counting. My pants are untied and coming loose. I can barely push off the mat enough to roll instead of drop flat on my face. Just one more. Just one more.

Then, finally, it’s my turn again. I’m ready to collapse into a soaking pile of dogi-clad bones, but I call out those last sixteen rolls like a Marine. If I’m going down, it won’t be with a whimper, dammit. “Roku!” Roll and stand. “Shichi!” Roll and stand. “Hachi!” Roll and stand.

Yame!” Sensei calls. It was over. We lie flat and relax, then stretch. My head clears, and we line up for end of class. Sensei smiles at us. “Excellent work,” he says. “Four hundred! And no one quit!”

Four hundred continuous breakfalls at the end of two hours of hard work. I’m stunned. From the accomplishment, yes, but also from what Sensei has just said. Quit? As tough and as painful as those sets were, the thought of giving up before Yame had never entered my head. Never an option.

Looking back at it now, those roughly twenty minutes were truly life-changing for me. My body had put out the effort and endured the pain to push past its physical limits, and I’d had the mental discipline to hold myself together during it all. Out of it came a sense of inner confidence that I was capable of far more than I’d imagined before.

'Nuff said.

‘Nuff said.

The class took place years before I became a marathoner and then an ultrarunner, or started cycling centuries, but I think that my Aikido training, and in particular that one breakfall session, made all that possible. All that “just a little more” and “just one more” had set the stage to go well past, and many more than, my previous limits.

Thanks to my wonderful Aikido family for the lesson.

Run Woodstock Part Deux: Shutting the Brain Off

Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical. – Yogi Berra

Training for my first marathon four years ago, I ran 16 miles along the back roads from Honor, Michigan to Beulah and Benzonia, then back. It was a pretty route, but by mile 13 I was sick and tired of running it. Not physically exhausted, but mentally.

Three miles still to go, the little voice in my head said. That’s practically forever.

There was no shortcut back to my car, so I had to stick it out. It helped that I’d strategically parked at an ice cream shop. But I was pretty discouraged. In two months I have to run this and ten more, the voice said. Given this run, how am I gonna do that?

Shirt-Running Sucks - 2

The answer was to do more long runs to get the mind used to that distance. And after making some basic adjustments, such as conceptually breaking up long runs into manageable segments, I had no more trouble with self-doubts.

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

With that level of mental discipline I got through my first marathon, first 50K ultra in 2012, and first 50-miler in 2013, so I figured I would be okay for the 100K in 2014. Instead, I hit several mental challenges that I was unable to overcome:

Empty Tank of PatienceDistance stretching. Four miles (the distances between aid stations at Woodstock) are short hops on the road, but on singletrack that same distance seems doubled. Distances also stretch out in the dark, so trail running at night called for a full tank of patience. Instead, it was one of the first things I ran short on.

The worst was the section leading to the second aid station. During my second loop it seemed like I would never get there. When I finally did, all I could think about was having to do it twice more. My attitude had soured, and I was no longer having fun – a bad sign on an ultra run.

I thought so!

I thought so!

Pain management. Sore feet and chafing got worse as the night wore on. By the third loop the Body Glide wasn’t working and I was constantly adjusting my shorts, without much relief. More pain came from tripping on roots and rocks, and from branches in the trail that stung my ankles. I dealt with this increasing discomfort by getting more and more frustrated.

Bonking. When inadequate hydration and electrolyte management caught up with me, I didn’t have the focus to work through the nausea and correct the imbalances, and allow myself to recover. Despite having plenty of time to rest and still finish the race, I dropped out at the 56K mark, done in by a combination of things, but above all, insufficient mental discipline.

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

Yeah, those tabs pretty much covered it.

Over the subsequent year I fixed the bonking problem, but as Woodstock 2015 approached I still worried that I needed a way to handle the mental challenge of those loops in the dark. Help came from an unexpected and last-minute source.

The night before the race I went to a local runner’s clinic on handling long runs. Most of the advice I’d heard before, but one comment stood out: the need to shut the brain off.

Not completely, naturally; a trail run requires being alert to the course and your physical condition at all times. What needs shutting off is the mental chatter – the continuous stream of trivial thoughts, especially the negative self talk and worries. So I would work on getting into a “zone” – a disciplined, quiet mind, at peace with itself and living entirely in the moment. Here’s how I applied it.

One flag at a time.

How do you finish 100K? One flag at a time.

– I created a mantra for myself: Focus on the trail in front of you. The milestones will come. Every time I began to fret about how much distance I had left, I silently repeated this mantra and I would settle back into the zone.

– During the stretches when the aid station seemed light-years away, I would remind myself, It’s really not that far. It just seems longer. I even used it when I passed a runner on that interminable second segment. “Man, they must have moved the aid station,” he said. I assured him out loud what I’d been telling myself silently.

– When I tripped over roots or rocks I told myself firmly that it was over and in the past. Then I’d forget about it. If that didn’t work I would stop and walk until I returned to the zone. Running is a happy activity for me; I would not run angry.

– When pain came in my feet, legs, or shoulder, I did not fight it. I acknowledged it was there, embraced it as part of the experience, and let it go.

– Staying hydrated and salted kept me on an even keel. I had no nausea or swings of equilibrium to deal with. But just in case, I was prepared this time to deal with it. As I overheard one pacer telling his runner, “You’re not having a bad race. You’re having a bad moment. You will get through it.”

marathon-sticker

The results exceeded my highest expectations. I stayed in a steady, positive mental state throughout the race. And one week later I’m still on that high. Maybe I should do this more often?

Make More Mistakes