Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My Quest for 100 Miles

A couple of month ago I heard about this ultra marathon being put on in Oklahoma City called 24 The Hard Way. They offered a variety of races in the way of on-road and off-road timed running events. Well my heart lies in the dirt metaphorically speaking, and I've already done a 50 miler, so naturally I decided on the 24 hour trail ultra. The Double Dirty Dozen. The catch? Yes, there's a catch. This 24 hour run was going to be done on a 2 mile loop that you do OVER and OVER and OVER.

I have goals. Dreams. Aspirations. I really want to do some of the harder 100 mile ultra runs in the future, and I figured this would be a great introduction to the discipline. The course was going to be pretty flat, but the mental anguish of seeing the same trail over and over again would be tough. So over the next couple of months I started preparing physically, but mostly mentally for 24 The Hard Way. I cycled a lot, ran a 36 and 26 mile run, and lifted weights about twice a week. I was ready to roll.

October 24, 2009. 9 am. I've just ducked into the trees along with the other runners to begin my 24 hour quest. It's a sunny, but windy and cool morning. The trail is wet from the previous weeks of rain. Spots are muddy. It cakes to my shoes, adding a couple pounds to each foot. In the beginning hours of the event, the loop seems manageable. Flat. Soft ground. It begins in the trees, a technical section of steep, short ups and downs, a conglomeration of roots, small tree stumps and sharp corners. A third of the way through, the course opens into a soft and flat double track road that winds through the park, climbs a very small hill, and at about the two-thirds mark empties back into the trees where the single track picks up again. This last section of the course is flatter, but still packed with roots and stumps, with some windy sections and a small (I mean small) hill climb to the loop finish where the aid station sits. And your next lap awaits.

Mtn Biker on the trail. Roots and stumps abound.

I spend the first couple of laps trying to figure out pace, how I'm feeling, and the areas where I'll need to begin walking soon. I had spent the last week resting and tapering, and at times felt like I was fighting off something. My body was tired. So I wanted to test how I felt in the beginning stages of the race. Surprisingly I felt great. The rest had been beneficial. My heart rate seemed low, legs felt strong. I felt great all around. Every single lap I would grab 2 cups of water and 1 cup of gatorade from the aid station, run 20 yards to to my support crew (My buddy Charlie Brickman from Colorado and my lovely wife Nicki) and grab some sort of food, and then back off into the trees for the next lap.

Midday coming off trail and into aid station

Almost every time I came through, a new friend would be there to greet me with encouraging words. Many stopped by throughout the day to see all the fuss, cheer, and just hang out. By noon I was 16 miles in, feeling great. I had taken it easy, walked a little bit, ate well, hydrated correctly and was on cruise control. My legs were aching a tad bit, but for a 220 lb guy who doesn't belong in ultra distance events it's the name of the game. I knew my weight would factor in the legs as the crux of the event. I had it covered.

Aid station. Shared by both off road and on road races

12:00 pm was the start of the 6 hour race on the trails and so flooded in new faces to mingle with and talk to. My buddy Kyle Griffith who had ran the Rocky Raccoon 50 with me jumped in and I ran into him a couple of times. When you are on the trail for that long, it's good to see people, chat, feed off each other's energy. Obviously I would be passed many times by speedsters gunning for the 6 hour times. It was fun.

Feeling good

6:00 pm marked the 9 hour mark for us 24 Hour runners, and the end of the 6 hour run. And it got lonely on the trail really quick. At this point I was 44 miles in and still feeling pretty good. I was about a half lap behind the leader, but gaining quickly. I had met a very nice Asian man named Kim earlier in the day. He was a fellow 24 hour competitor, but he had opted to walk the entire distance and time. I had lapped him numerous times during the day, each time I would pat him on the back and tell him great job. He would return by saying "Good job Andy, you strong". It was a welcome sight to see him every so often. He was fit, strong legs, good gait, even composure.

My "runner's high" carried me long into the night. I was still eating and drinking well. I had begun to walk more as the night had come. My headlamp was good, but hidden roots and stumps had caught my toes quite a few times since the sun had gone down, and left agonizing pain in their wake. I needed to slow down. For safety, and for energy conservation.

I think at this point I have to admit my obsession: I wanted 100 miles. I had to get it. It's all I thought about during my time on the trail. Every lap I would calculate in my head averages that I had to keep in order to get 100 miles. I was completely obsessed. I wanted a huge cushion for the last 3-4 hours of the race just in case I was wasted to the point I couldn't go on. I was obsessed to the point of unhealthy compulsion. I never even put on my iPod. Ever. If I was listening to music I couldn't figure out these averages of laps and times and numbers and speeds. It became a sickness in me.

By 9:00 pm I was still feeling ok, but my legs were really bothering me. I popped a couple more Ibuprofen. The technical, steep ups and downs of the trail were killing my quads. I was 56 miles in. Ahead of schedule. I wanted 100.

I had various company with me along the way. Sara Haizlip Bell was a part of a 24 hour team with her husband Rob and her brother Ben. She wanted some extra miles, so she ran with me quite a bit. My good friend Maury Birdwell had signed up for the one hour run, but instead decided to bust out 10 miles with me on the trail. Phillip Wilson, my friend and bicycle racing teammate showed up and ran a fun lap with me. I got a good luck kiss from Nicki almost every time through. It was energizing.

By 11:00 pm I was hurting. My hips had begun to ache horribly from all the walking I was doing. When I did walk, it was a fast pace. I wanted to continue on my pace for 100, so my walking gait was long and quick. Unfortunately my body is not used to walking, much less taking large steps in the process. That, compounded with the thrashing my quads were taking on the drops and short steep climbs, and my lower extremities were in a world of hurt. At this point in the game I was only running on the flat double track sections. And that was a struggle. Sara had been running with me for about an hour or so, and the company was good. But I was at a point where talking wasn't much fun. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I passed Kim along the double track. We exchanged pleasantries. It would be the last time I saw him.... 64 miles in.

Around 12:00 am Sara took a break and Charlie jumped in with me. I felt horrible. I didn't want to talk. My pace had slowed tremendously. I had to walk a couple of full laps. I told Charlie, and he was ok with it. So we started on the slow slog through the technical sections of what I had decided to call Bluff Creek Hell Loop. Charlie is a quiet guy by nature. I like to talk. But not many words were spoken in that loop. My thigh muscles literally felt as though they were tearing away from my femur. I don't even know what a hip-pointer is, but I guarantee mine was at a Defcon level 1. My mind was weakening. My pace was slowing dramatically, and my hopes of 100 were slowing starting to slip away. We finished the lap. 68 miles.

For some reason I knew that this next lap would probably be my last. Call it intuition. Call it weak mindedness. Call it premature resignation. I'm embarrassed to sit here and type those words. I've always considered myself a strong minded individual. Stubborn. Willing to endure massive amounts of pain for pursuit. But just before 1:00 am on October 25, 2009, I quit. 70 miles in. I quit. I sat in a chair and buried my face in my palms. I quit. I watched stronger runners on the paved 24 hour race go by. I quit. My energy reserves were still there, but my legs and mind hurt. I quit.

As I limped over to turn in my timing chip, I longed for my bed. But the embarrassment of quitting wasn't worth the comfort of my pillowtop king mattress. Even as I sit here 3 days later, my legs are healing. I feel pretty good actually. I'll go for a spin on the bike today. I don't have any blisters. I have sore ankles. I have a couple of black toenails from those blasted roots. And I have much regret for quitting. Could I have kept going? Probably. I would have had to walk at a snails pace for a while, maybe even slower. Maybe my legs would have rejuvinated? Maybe not. But the problem is I'll never know. I quit. I'll never know if I could have hit 100. I thought it was out of my reach. I still had 8 hours to get 30 miles. But I quit.

Life lessons are awesome. They come in many different forms. This race meant nothing. I had no money to win, no fame to gain. I just wanted 100 miles, and I wanted it horribly bad. When my obsession-filled calculations let me know that it was slipping, my mind weakened and the legs followed suit.

24 The Hard Way was a wake up call for me. A lesson learned. I great experience. I didn't get my 100 miles. I suffered. I learned.

Note to self: Don't quit. Don't obsess. And for God's sake, please lose 10-15 pounds before the next ultra marathon!

Monday, October 19, 2009

24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell Through My Eyes

Almost 3 weeks have passed since the 4th annual 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell in Arkansas. I'm still tired, but satisfied. For those who don't climb, or for rock climbers who actually live UNDER a rock, this event is my baby. It's one of, if not the largest and best rock climbing competitions in the nation and I've had the honor of being the "mastermind" and director of the event since it's inception in Sept 2006.

Without going into too much depth, this event was birthed back in early 2006. Quite a few buddies and I had gone to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch for the weekend to climb. This place is a wonderland of sport routes stacked on top of each other, side by side, on steep gritty sandstone cliff lines. It's a dream. So naturally a day of cragging at this location logs quite a few routes; it's not uncommon to get in 10-20 routes in a day without having to move too fast. The idea first came as a "we should see how many routes we could do in 24 hours" kinda scheme. Then it moved to a friendly competition between friends. Then a small event where we invite others. The finality came as a full-on competition with sponsors and climbers and fun. The idea was born, and I met with Barry, the owner of HCR. He gave his blessing. The rest, as they say, is history.

2009 24HHH was a beautiful event in my eyes. Recent weeks of rain had beautified the Ranch to picturesque proportions. My new wife Nicki and I had arrived late on Tuesday evening to rain, fog and high humidity. Many of our good friends from Colorado had already arrived and we were stoked to see them all, spending quite a few hours chatting on the porch. The stage was set. Countdown had begun.

But the next few days raised many unanswered questions: The recent rains had heightened my worries that we'd have a large number of wet routes. The weather forecast also gave a strong chance of rain during the event. What would we do if it rained? Had I let too many climbers into the event this year? What if 20 of the routes were wet? That would result in waiting lines at routes. Bottlenecks. In addition, I was also waiting for certain companies to send the swag (that was supposed to have been mailed 2 weeks earlier). What if it didn't come? How would the scoring go this year? Would there be hiccups? Had we streamlined it effectively? What about climber check in? Had we informed our volunteers adequately on rules? What about injuries? Would climbers be smart this year? Would we make it through without injuries? Did we truly have the right emergency procedures in place? You see, I want every person involved in 24HHH to drive away from the ranch on Sunday afternoon with a sense of satisfaction. I want everyone to have loved the event. I want everyone to be happy. If even one individual leaves the on Sunday saying "That was not very well put on", then in my eyes I have failed. I want perfection.

Fast forward to Friday: Banners hung. Climbers registration packets stuffed. Barn ready for sponsor booths. Swag organized, and here. Rain has stopped, routes drying out. Carabiners hung on high traveled routes. Packet pickup running smoothly. Pasta dinner about to begin. Waves of people arriving in the canyon. Bands setting up. Energy high.

Friday evening is a blast. HCR's chef Nick whips up some killer spaghetti for the dinner and all bellies are filled. Slackline comp is a hit, and tricks are plenty. Vendor booths are great, barn loft is packed. Speleo box time trials are epic, with big Brett being stuck for 25 minutes. They barely finish, as Big Smith is going on stage down in the natural amphitheater. Big Smith is a huge hit as a large crowd gathers for much dancing. As the music winds down, Pimpin and Crimpin winds up the party back in the barn as Lost at Sea makes due with one microphone and rocks the house. I hear the keg floated.

Saturday morning comes. I wake up to an electric buzz in the canyon. People were psyched to get this thing rolling. The sun was out, clouds and rain were gone. The sounds of climbing gear and voice chatter rings in my ear as everyone gathers around the Trading Post for the climber meeting. I look out over the sea of people to see catchy costumes, nervous faces, 24HHH veterans who know their strategies, 115 ropes, onlookers who are just here to watch, faithful volunteers, a man with a shotgun, a scenic backdrop, and 2,299 fingers that will soon be shredded to ground hamburger. A short meeting, climbers creed, volunteer meeting, and a shotgun blast and the 4th annual 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is underway.

What do I do for 24 Hours once the event begins? Well, I've thought it over. I could probably run the show with a two way radio from my cabin porch. Trust me, I've thought about it. It'd sure make things easier on me. No. I have to be out there. I want to see everyone. I want to feed energy. I want to talk to the competitors. See how they are feeling. Encourage. Answer questions. Make sure everyone is having fun (remember?). Make sure volunteers have everything they need. Help with check in's. Help with scoring when initial cards are turned in at 10 pm. Keep people awake. Create energy. There is much to do.

As the sun slowly starts to creep into the canyon I breathe a sigh of relief. The night had come and gone with no injuries, no accidents. We had smart climbers this year. Strong climbers this year. Energy was high, and every hour on the hour all night long a deafening chorus of yells and screams could be heard loud across the canyon as energy was renewed and psyche was strengthened. Every time it happened, a shot of electricity shot through my body and I was proud to be a part of this massive event. The camaraderie and community at 24HHH is second to none. Friendships are forged and cultivated. Perseverance is tested and won.

10 am comes and scorecards are turned in. Our scoring people work masterfully in tallying. Smooth. Time to head to the barn for awards.

As I stood in front of the 300 or so people in the barn loft on Sunday morning I saw dirty faces, used tape, exhausted bodies, and 2,299 fingers that had just sent thousands upon thousands of routes at the hardest endurance event in the United States. I was proud to just be a part of this. I handed out horseshoes to the best climbers of the day. I hoped they were proud. They should be.

Within 30 minutes Horseshoe Canyon Ranch went from a population of 500 to around 20. It was ghostly. I cleaned and gathered up, said some goodbyes, thanked many, and walked up the hill to my cabin to collapse. But I didn't. I sat on the porch with good friends talking about the weekend. I was exhausted but I couldn't sleep. I was proud.

There are countless individuals who have had a part in this past year's 24HHH success. Way too many for me to list here. It doesn't happen on this scale without you. I give a huge thanks, a deep bow, and a 10 minute standing ovation to you all.

An event of this size is a full year in the making. It's a revolving door of cycles that begin again immediately after each 24HHH has ended. Sponsors, paperwork, emails, $$$, volunteers, Facebook,, blogs, marketing, advertising, photos, more paperwork, and logistics. I've already begun for 2010. It's gonna be bigger, no doubt. And better. With new surprises.

Do you mountain bike? What about trail run? If so, keep your ears to the ground. It's coming in 2010....

Thanks to Lucas for the photos: