Tag Archives: tough

Oh, The Pain, and a Grandmaster Prepares for a Race

IF I DON’T FINISH THE GRANDMASTER 50 THIS WEEKEND, it’s the fault of the Super 5K runners last Sunday.

Because they didn’t eat enough hot dogs.

Follow along here. Fewer hot dogs eaten meant there were a lot left over. And as the Super 5K is a Zero Waste event, they were packed up for composting rather than dumped in the trash. And as Zero Waste captain, I lifted the compost cart into the trailer. Whereupon I pulled a muscle in my back. And it still hurts to stand up. So therefore, … logically, …

I am following a “three I” rehabilitation program. Two of them (ice and ibuprofen) are the advice of my trainers at Body Specs. The third I came up with myself.

Apply liberally to mouth at first sign of discomfort.

Levity aside, it was my own stupid fault. There is a correct way to lift the compost cart, but I was in a hurry and used one of the many incorrect ways. Just goes to show how quickly and easily one can screw things up at precisely the worst time to do so.

Now for a bit about this weekend’s race.

I’d planned to work on strength training this month rather than run an ultra. But I got interested in the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), an intriguing and insanely popular race which in addition to a lottery, requires two qualifying races. So I began looking for qualifying races that would fit my 2020 schedule.

The Grandmaster Ultra caught my interest because it’s a UTMB qualifier and is only open to runners 50 and older – hence the name, “Grandmaster.” (As much as I’d like you to believe it means something like Grandmaster in chess, the truth would come out sooner or later.)

50 miles of this. Looks like fun, right?

Despite my untimely injury, there is some good news. I’d gotten in a three-hour training run the day before, so other than the back thing, I feel ready to rock this race. I have a good physical base from year-round training, but the brain also needs to be prepped for the sheer monotony of running at a slow pace for hours on end. And slower is tougher. Don’t believe me? Try it sometime.

The race itself will have the advantages of a new setting, the adrenaline rush from being there, the company of other ultrarunners, and a set goal of reaching the finish line. Long training runs have none of those, so pushing through three hours (and a bit over 20 miles) was enough. Plus I’ve run other 50-milers, and longer, so I have some idea of what to expect and how ready I am for it.

The other good news is we have 24 hours to finish, a very generous time. Most 50-milers I’ve run have cutoffs around 14 hours. And it looks like the weather will be good, too, with sunny skies and the Arizona desert temps ranging from 40 degrees to 65 or so. Since I just need to finish to get the UTMB qualifying points, the keys for me will be to run easy and stay hydrated.

As for being a bit hurt, I don’t expect to get much sympathy. When the subject comes up among runners, even those “of a certain age,” it’s about how they sucked it up and kept going. Like the time I asked someone what his toughest marathon was (“Colorado. At altitude. And I had pneumonia.”). Remember that guy who cut off his hand to escape from dying in the wilderness? He’d fit right in with trail runners. I’m not gonna say a word. Even if I need to hobble across that damn finish line, I’m just fine, thank you.

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.