How to Run 100 Miles in a Day or So

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Betty Draper: How are the [bottles] already open?
Ronnie Gittridge: Betty, we don’t want life to look difficult, now do we?
Mad Men, Season 1: Episode 9

Relatively few people want to run 100 miles at one time. That is roughly the distance from Atlanta to Chattanooga, Salzburg to Innsbruck, or mental health to insanity.

I discovered this rare breed of foot races exists two years ago at work; a co-worker came into the office on a Tuesday wearing an air boot on each foot. He had hairline fractures throughout his feet and told us what he had done that weekend. From the comfort of my chair, I recalled the extent of my running achievements: 6.2 miles in the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta after graduating high school. Therefore, when he said he ran the Rocky Raccoon 100 in south Texas, it made an impression. Or maybe it was the broken feet and air boots. Why did he look so thrilled to be in so much pain?

Perhaps it is because everything for humans boils down to pleasure and pain. The path to each of these frequently starts with the other—you’ll either find this obvious or think about it later. Many things in our lives follow this counter-intuition. Essentially, I believe the longer you can do something painful that has a purpose, the bigger the reward. Pain with no payoff is pointless torture. So, is it pointless torture or does a 100-mile race have a purpose? Right this way.

I spent December 2015 recovering from two events: one physical in November, one intellectual in December. I wrote about it here. If you are new to this thought emporium, start there because most of it is applicable and relevant to this race and it provides proper context to this post.

Although I had sworn off 24-hour endurance races while wet and shaking in the Las Vegas desert at 3:00am last November, once you get a taste of these, nothing else is quite the same. When I got back to Dallas after Christmas, I found myself typing into Google: most scenic 100-mile races. Oregon was at the top of my list for states to visit, so when I found the Mountain Lakes 100 in Oregon on September 24th, I couldn’t resist.

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I said last year the “why” is unique for everyone and although the foundational reasons for me are the same as they were 18 months ago, it has expanded and evolved. Fundamentally, it has become a metaphor for everything that I do and equanimity is the goal. But I have also realized going through this type of process helps you understand and accept reality. Eventually, running stops being about running and becomes a placeholder for the way you commit to things in your life.

My most important goal of 2016 had even less to do with running than running, but regrettably provides scant reading interest. It was passing Level 2 of the CFA program on Saturday June 4th. On January 26th, I found out I made it through Level 1 and signed up for Level 2 the following day. Four days later, the Mountain Lakes 100 registration opened. With a few clicks, I had committed myself to 300 more hours of isolation studying before June and 1,000 miles of torture running before October on top of my job and personal relationships. Hey maybe I’ll sleep next year.

DSC_4665.jpgLast year, everything was comparatively new. Waking up for Boot Camp was motivating and exciting. Running 40-70 miles per week was unchartered territory. This year, Week 1 of my Training Plan called for 40 miles. Ground Control to Major Tom. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.

Some people hire a coach and/or nutritionist. Depending on your level within the sport, this could make sense for you. However, even with an Olympic coach, a glossy meal-by-meal nutrition plan and cutting edge ultra-marathon research, the fact remains: there is no substitute for miles on your feet.

To get the miles you have to be consistent. I try to be consistent across the areas of my life, but I often fail and the discipline doesn’t always translate to other activities. I’d rather run 10 miles than fold clothes. I never skip a run, but my clean clothes would come out of the dryer on Sunday night and stay on my bed until Thursday.

The average laundry-averse male lives 78.4 years, so if I don’t cross that finish line in September I wasted 1.3% of my life. The stakes are high. If you want to play high stakes anything, you must have a healthy respect for the possibility of failure. The higher the stakes, the higher the probability. Those who compete at the highest levels have failed. It is not that they are ok with it, quite the opposite. It’s just that they get over it quickly and move forward. The key concept is they are in the game.

How do you walk that ever-dangerously thin tightrope between confidence and over-confidence? Nothing noteworthy happens without the former, while the latter is disastrous. I had two conflicting ideas at the same time: Of my 130+ training runs, I was nervous I was unprepared (see “miles behind” below) on all of them except 3 or 4 near the end, but simultaneously there was never a doubt in my mind that I would complete the race within the 30-hour cutoff time. One of my favorite things I have obtained over the past 18 months is a deep appreciation for the fact that everything has a process. Once you figure out the process (hard), execute on the process (hard) then you have what you want (easy). A + B = C. This is the heart of engineering and a path to confidence because it is always looking to break down problems to get closer to what we want. I knew what the process was, all I had to do was execute on it.

Another principle that must be learned for successful running but is much more useful in the real world is acknowledging your emotions without being controlled by them. You grow comfortable with the wide range of emotions you experience and this teaches you about yourself. It’s ok to feel anything, as long as you keep running. The most convincing person you will ever meet is yourself telling you to take the easy way.

The carrot to keep you going is the special euphoria after a run. It is comparable to very few things, and it’s uniquely reliable. We can’t help slapping big fat unrealistic expectations onto everything we do, which sets ourselves up for inevitable disappointments (we have to keep doing this though because there are currently no known alternatives to growth). If you have never felt the runner’s high or find running boring, give it one last chance and run a half-marathon before completely writing it off. I only ask that you resist any urge to put a “13.1” sticker on your car.

Enough with the theory guac guy, let’s see your pain. I was injured in January with plantar fasciitis in my foot, a pulled calf, and tweaked knee, but recovered in February and began running short distances with regularity for a couple of months before my 28-week training plan began on April 1st.

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The 6 ft. course map and Mount Jefferson the morning of the race

April

Miles completed: 100
Miles behind schedule: 106

Off to a good start.

May

An injured friend asked me to run in her place for the Dallas Skyline Half-Marathon on Sunday, May 1st. I had spent the previous 3 days between Alabama and Atlanta for my grandmother’s banger of a 90th birthday party and returned to my apartment in Dallas at midnight the night before the race. With an 8:00am start-time, Sunday morning was brutal. The guys and girls in the white jackets with stethoscopes say your max heart rate per minute should be 220 minus your age. I’m 27, so a dead sprint would be approximately 193. My average heart rate over 13.1 miles was 185. I was in bed for the rest of the day. It was hard to rationalize how out-of-shape I was. My 1:47:29 finish (8:11 min./mile) was less of a time problem than an exertion problem. If it took that much effort, a marathon would be a more reasonable September goal. The only time I’m reasonable though is at work.

Very few endurance races require a fast pace; all of them require you to keep moving. Some brave souls asked, “Can’t you just walk?” If it wasn’t a waste of your time, I would suggest trying. To meet the 30-hour cutoff time necessitates just under an 18-min. mile, and it sounds like you can walk that—you can, when you are fresh and on a flat surface. Once you inevitably slow down to a 20-min./mile uphill then you have to do a 16-min. mile to make up for it, which is probably going to require you to jog, which is more tiring than walking. You can quickly see how this feedback loop spirals into an unacceptable finishing time.

June

CFA Exam. I didn’t run that Saturday.

My time freed up, but it was starting to get warm.

Training outside in Texas during the summer is difficult to describe and almost unnecessary if you live here. If you’re in Dallas in June, July or August, you can leave an air conditioned room, walk through a parking deck and by the time you get to your car you’re scrambling for the “MAX COOL” button, and you never had direct exposure to the sun.

On Saturdays, I woke up between 4:00-6:00am in an attempt to finish runs by 10:30am before it got too hot. Perhaps I was a wimp, but when the temperatures were in the 90s, every mile I would have to stop for water and walk for a moment because the heat had sucked the energy out of me. One of the worst runs of the year was a solo marathon around White Rock Lake a couple times and up the White Rock Creek Trail. By the time I finished, salt was all over my face. I was dehydrated, and I looked like an extra on the Walking Dead.

Average Week

Monday: Only strength training day (gym)
Tuesday: 4 miles (shortest weekday run; if I’m going to run fast, this is the day)
Wednesday: 6-15 miles (longest weekday run)
Thursday: 6 miles
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: 9-27 miles (longest run of the week)
Sunday: Usually less mileage than Saturday; sometimes the same (preferably within 24 hours of the Saturday run, Heaven forbid your legs have a relaxing weekend)

July

The only exposure I had to elevation was hiking in Norway for a week.

While we were there, my girlfriend at the time said, “Did you know your eyelid is inflamed?” I said that I had vaguely noticed it. “Well, it’s been like that for a few months.” Oh great. When we got back to the US, I went to the optometrist. After a few questions he determined the cause: when I wiped the sweat out of my eyes hundreds of times over the summer, the salt irritated the eyelid, which is sensitive. Once irritated, the heat aggravates it causing it to become inflamed. A headband mitigates the problem. The solution: stop running. Add inflamed eyelid to the list of things I would have to manage until October.

Back in the US, on Saturdays I began going to the North Shore Trail, a mountain biking course in Grapevine, which would give me the closest glimpse of race conditions. A primary difference between road and trail is the absence of long straightaways in the woods. Pace changes can be measured in minutes, not seconds, when you have to navigate switchbacks and are constantly turning.

August

A friend encouraged me to drop out of the race and try again next year because I was behind in the recommended mileage of my training plan by 372 miles. There are a few reasons for this, but a rule-of-thumb in the sport is to limit weekly mileage increases to 10% (e.g. if you ran 40 miles this week, run 44 miles next week) and gradually build up. Ain’t nobody got time for that. In the months leading up to April, I was running ~15 miles per week. As much as you just read about me preaching the importance of executing on processes, I was behind and there is no excuse other than if I would have jumped immediately from 15 to 40, I risked injuring myself.

The peak of my training encompassed back-to-back 70-mile weeks.

Monday: Rest
Tuesday: 4 mile morning run @ SMU track (7:15 min/mile)
Wednesday: 15 miles Uptown-Downtown-Uptown-SMU morning run (9:30 min/mile)
Thursday: 6 miles night run (9 min/mile)
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: 25-27 mile trail run
Sunday: 18-20 mile run

September

The hard work is over. Sort of. Tapering is of interest to athletes because it is inherently counter-intuitive, but really appealing, to think doing less is doing more. When you see your suggested weekly mileage drop from 75 miles to 40 to 20 to 10 the week of the race, it’s natural to anxiously think there is no way this is the right strategy. However, the data supports it. Fine, I will run less.

Now that things were slowing down, there was time to assess the situation. Judging overall fitness on a scale of 1-20, I was probably at a 15—1 being Kenneth Bone, 20 being a Navy SEAL. If I sprinted 100 meters I would be out of breath. But if it was less than 55 degrees with no humidity, I could run 20 miles and my shirt would be dry. Throughout the training, by spending so much time on my legs and largely neglecting my upper body, I was nervous I would turn into a Scrawny Steve. It took longer than I expected, but by early September my clothes started fitting looser than I wanted.

To offset my concerns about getting too skinny, I started to feel “it”. On my runs leading up to the final week, I started to get chills from excitement. Your body knows when something like this is coming. Think coming down the stairs on Christmas morning as a child. I missed my target mileage by just under 400 miles, but I felt strong.

If worrying accomplished anything, I would love doing it. But the only influence I could have on my performance at this point was getting sleep and eating well. The only fear that was hard to shake was the uncontrollable, such as twisting an ankle on the course. Otherwise, when I landed in Portland on Wednesday, two days before my dad’s arrival, I felt completely relaxed. One of my college roommates, Scott, picked me up from the airport and showed me around the city. Over the next day and a half I did touristy things.

Late Thursday night, after taking a break from the hours of preparing my meals for both before and during the race, my best friend sent me the following text: “Motivation from a biologist: pain, fear, and exhaustion even, are just your brain’s representation of its stimuli. They do not objectively exist. They only exist in consciousness as a construct of your mind.”

I read it aloud to Scott and he said, “Yeah, except stress fractures, those are real.”

Race Weekend September 24-25, 2016

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“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
―Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Course Terrain

  • 88.7 miles of single-track trails
  • 9 miles of gravel roads
  • 3 miles of jeep roads
  • .25 miles of pavement

Elevation Gain/Loss

10,800 feet of gain & 10,800 feet of loss = 21,600 feet totalmountain-lakes-100_aid-stations-detailed

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Mountain Lakes 100 Course Map

It will be helpful to run through some basics first. The orange part on the map above is the course and the purple lines are roads for the crew to use between aid stations. Your crew helps with everything from refilling your water bottles and providing gear for the next segments to emotional support to get you standing up and back on the course. The Aid Stations (“AS”) are all fairly similar, with 3-10 energetic selfless volunteers providing water, PB&Js, candy, Pringles, salt tablets, pickles, and energy gels during the day, adding soup broth, rice, etc. at night. Chairs are available to sit in and some of the stations have paramedics and heated tents (beware of the chair: comfort is your enemy deep into a race).

A majority of the runners wear a hydration system (e.g. CamelBak). I use one made by Inov8 that has two ½-liter collapsible water bottles that fit into pockets by each side of my stomach with a straw that tucks into slots by my shoulder. The pack has 2 compartments in the back for additional water, clothes, or food. The engineering is unbelievable because when empty, it is essentially unnoticeable.

The course: Starting at Olallie Lake (Mile 0), you head south, completing a loop around a mountain, and return to the starting line (Mile 26). From there you head north to Clackamas (Mile 55) and complete a loop around Timothy Lake returning to Clackamas (Mile 71), then all you have to do is get back to where you started at Olallie Lake (Mile 100.95).

There are 16 aid stations that are on average 6 miles apart—the longest is Segment 3 at 9 miles (also the steepest segment), and the shortest is 3.6, the distance from Aid Station 16 to the Finish Line. Crew members are only allowed to be at 7 of the 16 aid stations, primarily due to logistical issues and road access, so make sure you can live with any gear you have for up to 30 miles.

Due to the “out-and-back” nature of the race, several of the aid stations were passed twice, stopping at it the first time heading north then again when heading south. For example Red Wolf was both AS#8 & AS#13.

Everyone has his/her individual strategy, and although I thought about it, what relevant experience would I be basing my strategy on? First off, the weather forecast showed highs that were colder than the lowest temperatures Dallas had seen in the past 6 months, and if it rained that would change everything I had planned from number of times I changed socks to the type of clothes I would wear. Next, I had never run at ~5,000 ft. altitudes, nor had I run on any long gradual inclines. And finally, this would be 46 miles longer than my farthest run. My dad often provides concise solutions and he stayed in character by saying in late August, “you’re going to have no idea until you get out there.”

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Let’s pause for a moment and talk about cognitive psychology. You’ve probably heard the word “framing”. It is an information-processing bias, in which people behave differently based on the way words (information) are presented. In other words, it is everything.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to talk to a professional golfer about the phenomenon of how golfers (people) compound mistakes unnecessarily. Just because you hit a ball in the water does not condemn you to a bad round. However, most people let the negativity impact the rest of their game and so it does condemn them to a bad round. His remedy was, instead of thinking about a round of golf as 1 game of 18 holes, think of it as 18 individual games, separating the whole into manageable pieces. This powerful framework can make all the difference in the world. When strategizing, the usefulness of the analogy became obvious and I decided that would be the way to think about the race. All I had to do was get to the next AS, which would be on average 6 miles away, and everyone can run that far. With 16 aid stations and the Finish Line, I was one segment short of a perfect comparison.

The night before was unique. The Olallie Lakes Resort is a resort in the same way a tent is a place to live. It comprised of cabins with no electricity, no cell phone service, and no plumbing. Regardless of the absence of amenities, the cabins had been booked for months. After a few attempts, we parked the miniature van on a relatively flat spot for the night (otherwise the blood would rush to one part of your body). We folded the seats into the floorboard, forced an air mattress in between the walls and slept in sleeping bags. I slept from 8:00pm to 1:00am, was up until 2:00 and then back to sleep until the alarm went off at 5:00am. 8 hours the night before a race is 3-4 more than you can usually expect.

Just before the race, tensions were high between pops and I because he realized the importance of knowing the distinctions of my gear later than he would have liked.  I was alone in the back of the mini-van covering myself with Desitin to the point my lower half looked like I was covered in icing, but this is the surest recipe to avoiding chafing and blisters.

Although the community is very friendly, you can feel the individuality of it. We all have our own way to get in the zone. Everyone there knows the next 30 hours will, to varying degrees, influence the rest of their lives. There are two types of participants: ones prepared for these year-round, here to compete and ones like me who consider a finish a win.

8:00am
The beginning of the race…should you even get excited? It almost seemed like a waste of energy. I could already imagine how desperately I would crave that energy in 64 miles.

There were absolutely no excuses to be found. The conditions were perfect, the forecast showed a low of around 40 degrees and a high of 60 (perfect running weather). The furnace I trained in all summer called Texas turned out to be a #blessing because my body had grown incredibly efficient. I don’t know the math, but if your body makes 5-6 hour runs work in 100-degree heat index weather, then 50 degrees feels like a moving sidewalk with misting fans. Instead of slurping water like Moses after the desert, I was drinking it in a controlled manner like a normal human being.

The trail was so beautiful it seemed as if an ad executive was tasked with creating an advertisement of Heaven, he was given all resources imaginable and this was his final product. From an energy perspective, the first 18 miles felt easier than some 3-mile runs I have been on because I was a tourist. The scenery around every turn was postcard-worthy. However, a benefit to postcards is you don’t have to run up the mountains on them. The elevation was such a drastic departure from anything I had ever run before I laughed with another runner as I told him, “This is so bad, even if I knew it was going to be like this, I would have been too lazy to train for it.”

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Segment 3: 9.35 miles & 2,600 ft. of elevation gain (photo by Sandra James)

Everything was going perfectly until halfway through mile 19, where I gained an appreciation of the vague adage about expecting the unexpected. Four other runners and I were hovering around the same pace and came to a manageable incline, which we decided to jog. As we were passing an otherwise unremarkable tree, I felt a sharp pain on my lower left calf and let out an unrestrained “mother F****R!” Before I had time to register what had happened three of the four other people yelled their version of the same sentiment. We warned the runners behind us, “Bees!” while I tallied up the number of stings—3, my favorite number.

The mindset required to complete an event like this can be summed up by the guy’s answer to my question:

“Do bee stings affect running?”

“Does it matter?”

12:30pm

After AS#3, there were some gunshots in the woods, and while I don’t traditionally keep track of hunting seasons I assumed that was the explanation. An older man—who was already bleeding from an apparently nasty fall—was running in front of me as we were passing another pristine lake with birds resting calmly on the water nearby when all of a sudden my body impulsively froze after hearing a gunshot aimed at the birds less than 50 yards from us; the bleeding man, the flock and I didn’t wait around to investigate. If getting stung by bees was low on my list of things to expect, guns were even lower.

I didn’t listen to music, and I only saw 2 people on the course with headphones. Part of the reason is simplicity, because that is one more thing you have to keep up with, but mainly this is a unique experience that is worthy of full attention. I came a long way for this, and good or bad, I wanted to savor the moment.

A veteran ultra-marathoner I ran with for a few miles said, “At Mile 26, you want to feel about the same as you did when you started the race.” That was true as of Mile 20, but when I returned to Olallie Lake (Aid Station #4) at Mile 26, although I felt as good as I could have expected to feel, it wasn’t like I did at the beginning. By then, Paul had arrived—he drove down that morning from Seattle to pace me for the last 30 miles. He rode with my dad to the other aid stations and would ultimately try to get as much sleep as possible before it was time to join me at the Clackamas Ranger Station (AS#12, Mile 71). He was going to have an unusual day. Because of the uncertainty around how I’d feel late in the race, who knows what time I would be there? The range was probably midnight to 6:00am. Imagine trying to get a decent night’s sleep before running 30 miles when your alarm may go off at any time over a 6-hour period and you need to be ready to run an ultra-marathon as soon as you woke up.

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Aid Station #4

2:00pm

Spirits were high until I left AS#5 (Mile 29.65). This is when the race really starts because you won’t see your pit crew again until AS#9 (Mile 55), 25 miles later. My stomach started to hurt while I was trying to force a chicken quesadilla down, knowing I needed to get calories early on to set the foundation for the rest of the day, while walking a seemingly never-ending incline. When studying the course map and elevation changes, the big mountains draw the most attention. The little ridges in the chart go unnoticed, until you’re on them. I would get into a good rhythm then meet a hill, all but forcing me to walk it. I was alone for an hour or two.

During a stretch in the late afternoon, I noticed one of my water bottles was missing. It is the exact panic you would experience if the gates were closing to your flight and you couldn’t find your cell phone. I went back to look for it and the sun was setting. I didn’t want to think about the potential implications of not finding it. Within 5 minutes, I saw a woman was walking up the hill towards me holding it. We can board the plane.

Regarding technical trail running, everywhere you put your foot matters. I estimate that stepping on a rock or tree root impacts the bottom of your feet as much as running 2 additional miles.

The most depressing part of the race was the stretch from Mile 45 to 55. At Warm Springs (AS#7), my feet hurt. By feet I mean the ball of my right foot and by hurt I mean I started to breathe differently when my foot hit the ground. And it wasn’t just my feet. If my knees or leg muscles felt that way on a normal run, I would have stopped and taken at least a day off. You’d like to think that by crossing the 50-mile mark at AS#8 you can breathe a sigh of relief, “over halfway”. Unfortunately, that little vessel of satisfaction smashes against the rocks of reality when your GPS watch ticks to 54.01 miles over an hour later, and you realize you have over 46 miles left to run. It started to feel like pointless torture.

Speaking of GPS watches, current technology allows for precision down to the foot, yet somehow the watches will vary from the aid station signage by up to 2 miles. This was particularly frustrating for me because it was another source of uncertainty and stress. It’s like life before Google Maps, if I had paper directions and they said turn at the road on the right in 1 mile, and my odometer showed I had been driving for 2 miles with no roads on the right.

The aid stations are complicated to strategize around because they are both necessary and disruptive. Each minute spent at one is one minute not spent getting closer to the Finish Line. But if you don’t spend enough time there, what do you have to look forward to when you head to the next one? If you don’t get enough energy and rest, do you jeopardize finishing the race? The only place time goes faster than at an aid station is in one of those game show tanks with money blowing around. The elites will aim to spend 2 minutes or less at each one, which is about how long it takes me to get the 3 water bottles out of my pack, hand them to a volunteer to be filled, and put back into their pockets. If you change a piece of clothing or socks, add 3 minutes.

Nutrition for this race was similar to WTM: chicken quesadillas, CarboPro/protein shakes, and Amino Energy w/ water. In a way, I improved on making sure I got calories in, but I should have consumed more caffeine. A substantial percentage of my calories came from the aid stations. I ended up eating a lot of PB&Js in the first 40 miles, and you can only eat so many before they start their inevitable path through the pipes. The soup broth was an unexpected source of warmth. I can still remember the feeling in my palms clinching the cup. Ultimately, I guess I managed to take in 5,000-8,000 calories, but I suppose I burned somewhere in the 13,000-16,000 range.

I drank 1.0-1.5 liters of water between aid stations and then another .5-1.0 liter at each one. I also may have set a course record for number of pee-breaks. The most conservative estimate would be 35 times on the low-end. Several runners reassuringly told me this was a good sign, indicating my “system” was working well. Good, bad, or meaningless, I used the opportunity to lean against a tree to rest while my body did its thing. Again, there’s a downside to all this relaxing beyond the time lost. I could have fallen asleep on any one of those trees. If I could fall asleep standing up peeing, you can imagine how every fallen tree on the trail that runners had to climb over looked like a suite at the Ritz. I heard someone went to sleep in the woods. This takes a toll on the psyche.

At times, the isolation and exhaustion were so deep that I found myself wondering, “Is this even a real event, or am I getting Punk’d and I’m out here running through the woods for the amusement of a studio audience?” The insane part is, even if that were true and at Mile 71 you stopped the 108 people who ultimately finished the race and told them that there was some joke being played on them…they may have laughed, but they would have finished the race. You have invested your soul into it by then.

What’s it like running in the dark? Watch The Blair Witch Project. Headlamp and a trail.

Regardless of your degree of independence, I can assure you that although solitude is profoundly enjoyable, invaluable and necessary at times, people need people. Solitude turns into loneliness the moment you decide you are ready to see people and they aren’t there. The worst part of loneliness is that one second can seem like an eternity, whereas when you are with someone an eternity can seem like a second, or at least a second can still feel like a second (excluding extreme cases). This is especially true with pain and suffering. If your headlamp is the only light in the woods, the hairs on your arms are standing straight up begging for warmth, and you haven’t seen another sign of life in over an hour, the eternities start to add up.

The exhaustion had practical effects. I thought about my feet for entire segments, only to get distracted by food, music and people and forget to ask for pain medication at the aid stations. When I stopped moving, I felt the residual burn from the bee stings. Thinking back to my friend’s text, the pain and exhaustion started to feel like they in-fact objectively existed.

Talking to the other runners is a wonderful part of the event. There are no boring people out there. Whether you spent 30 seconds or 4 hours with someone, you would enjoy the time together and then you would go on your way at different paces, with only positive feelings remaining. Few areas of life offer such clean breaks.

I met Stewart, a 42-year-old from Mount Airy, NC, around 5:00pm (Mile ~40). Trekking poles in-hand he was moving, his walking pace was faster than some people’s running pace at this stage. Stewart is the type of guy you would want next to you in a war. If you hear him talk for 5 minutes, you understand without him ever having said so that there is a better chance of the mountains flattening out than him giving up. On-and-off we spent the next 30 miles, or 8.5 hours, together. In the thick Oregon forests, twilight lasts for only a moment and by 7:00pm, it was completely dark. I had talked to him for several hours before I ever saw his face. Although we were close for a long time, “together” is misleading. I had to stop to pee so frequently that it seemed like I was primarily running to catch up with him, then by the time I did I was out of gas and had to walk hard to match his pace. The further in the night we got and as our spacing grew, the less time he spent talking and the more time I wished that he found something to say.

I had heard/read about the hallucinations from other Ultra runners and had largely avoided them last year. Not this time. It was weird. Rocks were dogs and leaves were sheets with ghosts on them. When I ran past them and the light was focused on them, they were back to rocks and leaves. I needed my brain to finish, and when it started letting me down, I started questioning everything.

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Volunteer at the aid station in costume

The question gets asked, “How do you keep going?” I could go on and on about Stoic philosophy and embracing the transient nature of pain, but the essence is almost unsatisfying in its simplicity and a clothing company trademarked the idea: Just Do It. Whether you are at Mile 37 or 91, are you going to take the next single step? If you are going to quit at 37, why did you do the previous 36?

1:45am

The most surreal part of the weekend was the approach to the Timothy Lake Dam Aid Station. The back part of the course feels more secluded than the rest because everyone’s pace is different—145 people spread out over ~50 miles may mean hours without seeing other runners. Judging from the map, the trail is right on the water, but whether the lake is visible or not during the day is little consolation for the fact that at night it is not. This is demoralizing when you are hoping for some scenery to disrupt the monotony of night forest hiking. By this point, I was in a series of running spurts that quickly extinguished my energy and was forced to return to walking, which was more painful on my feet than running. So here I am, surrounded by darkness, and suddenly, I emerge from the woods onto what felt like a massive illuminated fashion show runway made of concrete, lined with red, white and blue stringed lights bordering the railing on the right side of the dam. On the left, there was the absolute silence of the lake. On the right, the white noise of the water rushing through the dam. The primary source of light was the stars above. It felt like I was walking through the world’s biggest planetarium; the only place I had seen this many stars blanketing the sky was in the Australian Outback 4 hours from the nearest gas station. The stars had been visible for the entire night through the trees, but I could only catch a quick glimpse without risking tripping over a rock on the trail. I took this moment to walk backwards, the only time this would be possible, allowing me to give the muscles in my legs used to go forward a brief rest and have a little enjoyment for the first time in hours.

Adding to the dream, the 3 volunteers at the aid station were dressed in Halloween costumes and warm jackets listening to music. From their attitudes, you would have guessed it was 2:00 in the afternoon, not morning. Stewart spent less than 30 seconds there, while I had to collect myself for a couple of minutes before I could convince my feet they should move again. I tried to generate heat while drinking broth and watching my breath. Aside from a brief nod at the next aid station, that was the last time I saw Stewart.

My watch died at Mile 69, nearly 18.5 hours in. It’s advertised with a 24-hour battery life. C’est la vie.

On the hunt for food & Advil

On the hunt for food & Advil

Clackamas Aid Station #12 (Mile 71) ~2:30am

This was an important Aid Station because any gear adjustments made would have to last until Mile 97, or practically the end of the race. I was on a mission and I couldn’t risk forgetting what I needed. “[Dad] take the watch and plug it in so it can charge while we’re doing everything else. I need Advil now. I need to drink at least half a bottle of [my caffeine drink] and a full protein/carb shake. Let’s make sure I have my backup headlamp.”

The EMT gave me 4 prescription-strength Advil while someone else was taking care of my water bottles. In hindsight, it was comical that he was trying to sell me on why this dosage was safe because of the amount of fluids and food passing through my body. At the time, my feet were in such pain if he offered to saw them off and put prosthetics on that would allow me to finish the race I would have heard him out.

This was also the coldest part of the night.

Paul was suited up and ready to go. The three of us came over to the van and my dad had a chair set up and everything I could possibly need laid-out across the back. I decided to stay in the same shoes, they were the newest and had the most cushioning. My jacket had sealed all the moisture inside of it so my base layer compression shirt and long-sleeve shirt were wet. I thought nothing of taking my clothes off, the cool air deceptively felt refreshing on my skin, before changing into dry shirts. I reapplied Desitin and SportShield everywhere. I slid pants on over my shorts. My watch had charged to 17%. I put my gloves back on.

I didn’t realize it but my teeth had started chattering. I chugged my shakes and we were ready to go. We started walking off towards the trail, when it hit me, “Wait, I am really cold.” If I had ignored the hypothermia symptoms last year, I would have certainly been forced to drop out of that race 9 hours into it. Knowing that, as much as I wanted to see if running would warm my blood up, it was risky so I told Paul, “I need to go back to warm up.” We got in the front seats of the van and turned the heat on. I was wearing a jacket, so if I got too warm I would start sweating and then as soon as we got outside it would be even worse than the previous cold. We stayed in there for 3-4 minutes and although the clock was ticking and this became my longest pit stop, it was worth every second.

3:00am

30 miles to go.

You have to respect the pacers, especially Paul. Although he hadn’t gotten the results at the time, he had qualified for the Boston Marathon with a 3:02 marathon in San Francisco. These last 30 miles nearly matched his longest run to-date and here he was, helping me finish a race in the middle of the night that was going to be at a considerably slower pace than he was capable of. He not only did some research to discover the best way to pace someone was by running behind them—allegedly the runner feels pressure to move as fast as possible—he also had memorized most of the elevation changes, so he would suggest appropriate jogging intervals in anticipation of the hills, where I would need to walk. Having someone of sound mind that you could outsource your thinking to was indescribably helpful. Those are also some of the purest, open and honest conversations you will have.

5:00am

If you want to simulate the exhaustion felt at this point in the race, put your favorite running shoes on, take 6-7 Benadryl and go for a 16-mile run.

I didn’t know it was possible to fall asleep while running. As Paul later suggested, it’s analogous to falling asleep while driving. It’s between 5:30am and 6:00am, and the only light I had seen over the past 11 hours, outside of the Aid Stations, is the 250 lumens coming from my headlamp. The specs said this thing would shine at the same intensity for 60 hours. Given it would only be dark for a fraction of that time, the risk-assessment side of my brain thought 49 hours was a pretty good margin-of-safety. Wrong. Paul told me my light was dimming. I did not want to disrupt the pace to stop and get my backup headlamp out. The intermittent hallucinations I had experienced from midnight to 3:00am gave way to full-on dreamlike states. Later, I was staring off at the trees in front of me and the trail seemed to twist and turn like an endless video game, my body effectively on auto-pilot taking each step. Unwittingly, I was enjoying the battery dying because it was getting darker, allowing my body to fall asleep. Before I knew it, I tripped over a root in the trail and my head had apparently been nodding because it popped straight up with eyes wide open, returning to consciousness. “Are you okay?” Paul asked. “Yeah,” without realizing what exactly happened…until it happened again moments later, except this time I tripped on a rock. This repeated itself a few times before I started to get irritable. How far was this damn aid station and when the hell is sunrise?

My watch died again.

6:02am

Worst moment of the race.

We get to the small aid station and I sit in the closest chair. I ignore the loud music and the guy in the mascot costume trying to cheer me up. Despite the extreme tiredness, throughout the whole race I could talk coherently, in full sentences. The volunteer tries to make eye contact thru the small slit in my eyelids. I ask if there is a heating tent at this aid station. He says, “Yes, but please don’t go into it. The sun is rising and you will feel much better in just a few minutes.” I could see the sky was lighting up but I still couldn’t see anything in the woods. I felt pathetic and weak. My arms pushed me out of the chair, I stood up and we walked away from the heating tent, towards the trail.

6:04am

Best moment of the race.

I could see the trees. The sun was up. There are no words to describe the contrast in mental/emotional states and energy levels that occurred the moment my body realized it was daylight. It was then that the prospect of finishing the race went from abstract to concrete. We were going to do it.

The only question was: when? The miles were slow. Our average moving pace was 17:10/mile. The Advil was barely masking the stinging in my feet, so around Mile 84 Paul gave me 2 ibuprofens and a B-12 vitamin. Surprisingly, running felt better than walking, maybe because the impact was felt over a shorter period of time. So you may think, “what a convenient problem, why don’t you just run the whole time then?” I ran out of juice. Short bursts were quickly doused. Now that it was light again, you could see the inclines up ahead.

8:00am-10:30am

The only substantial moves being made at this point were in one direction, down. At best you maintain. The difference between Saturday morning and Sunday morning was the difference between seeing your favorite food and seeing your favorite food after it gave you food poisoning. The scenery interested me in the way the lines of a page might interest you if you were writing 100 sentences for punishment. Sure, you notice them subconsciously, but you are really ready to finish the sentences.

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Aid Station #15 (The Pinheads) Mile ~90 Chugging pickle juice to prevent/relieve cramps

At the final aid station (#16), my dad was expecting us–he had parked the van as close as possible to the tent. I changed shirts, removed any unnecessary weight from my pack and took off my pants. It was warm again. It was past 11:00am so if we were going to make a sub-28 hour finish we needed to go faster than we had all night.

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Paul and me approaching Olallie Meadows, the final aid station

The last mile was longer than a mile. Imagine a movie scene where the long-lost characters are running at each other in dramatic slow motion to reconnect and the scene goes on for 11 minutes and 3 seconds. Every time we saw a turn in the trail I thought that was the final one before getting to the pavement, which would have meant we were less than 1/10th of a mile from finishing. My pace was faster than any of my previous 75 miles. Knowing I was running on fumes—physically and mentally—I was nervous that as each turn was met with more trail and rocks instead of asphalt that the disappointment would manifest itself in my body collapsing. Paul found a subtle way to get me there. “At this pace, we will finish 45 seconds before noon.”

When it came, I didn’t have to convince myself I was motivated. The trail changed to pavement. The morning silence became cowbells and cheers. The trees became people. Paul went faster so I went faster. Then I saw it.

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11:52am
Miles: 100.95

When I crossed the Finish Line, one of the event organizers handed me the universal finisher’s prize for 100-milers, the Belt Buckle. We took a picture, and then I went up to my dad and his smile let me know that it was over and I could smile too.

I needed food, so I inhaled a few pancakes and pieces of bacon, but existentially, I wanted nothing. My dad asked me what I wanted to drink, and they had a keg of beer and freshly-brewed coffee, two things I like. I thought I wanted both so that’s what I said, but after a sip of each, I set them down.

I took my socks and shoes off. I sat on a rock, put my feet in the cold Olallie Lake and looked up at the indifferent Mount Jefferson.

Does a 100-mile race have a purpose? Of course not.

 

24 Hours in the Desert: The World’s Toughest Mud Run

Plemmons_WTM 2015 Cliff Sunday

If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
-“Pure Imagination”

The 24 hours threw me off.

It started with a phone call in February to my friend Sam I hadn’t spoken to in years. Before the call ended, as a last-second thought, I asked how he stayed motivated to workout with a busy schedule. He said he “throws a big goal” in front of himself, having a purpose helps him stay driven from workout to workout. Of course I asked him for an example, and he said the past two years he has done a mud run at Lake Las Vegas “like the Tough Mudder events you’ve heard about, but this particular one is 24 hours.”

Like you, my initial reaction was, “that’s f***ing ridiculous.”

It took me a moment to understand what he was saying, and another to accept that it was possible. Less than 6 months before the conversation, running more than 10 minutes on the treadmill would have been a non-starter for me. So thinking about running a 5-mile obstacle course for an entire day seemed like it might as well have been swimming from New York City to London. Once I recovered from the initial shock (the second time he did the race he finished in the top 5%), I congratulated him on the massive achievement and we hung up.

Then it marinated.

World’s Toughest Mudder (“WTM”) 2015 description: The goal is to complete as many full 5-mile laps as possible in 24 hours. Each lap has 800 feet of elevation gain and 13 water obstacles, meaning roughly every ½ mile you are swimming or wading through freezing water. The temperature was 65 degrees and sunny on Saturday but dropped to 39 degrees in the middle of the night before creeping back into the 50s by noon on Sunday. The first 60 minutes is a “Sprint Period” with no obstacles. At 3:00pm an air horn goes off that can be heard around the course signaling the opening of the 21 obstacles. You must be on the course at 2:00pm on Sunday actively pursuing a lap to earn the Black Finisher Headband. You have until 3:30pm to finish your final lap.

Why?

The why is unique for everyone.

It may be useful to walk through my decision-making process, which has largely been influenced by Ray Dalio’s Principles. I want my life to be full of interesting experiences and this impacts my choices, especially big ones. I’d prefer to approach life as an endless set of projects instead of one continuous event. I never want to ask “how’d I end up here?” and be disappointed. When faced with a decision, it’s helpful to imagine you are 85 years old looking back on your life. Which choice would you regret least? Then there’s your answer.

I believe in discipline; maybe even borderline masochism. I also like the idea of delayed gratification. I’ll give up one marshmallow now to get two later. This seemed to fit the bill.

I officially signed up July 2.

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The Pit on Friday Nov. 13, the day before the race

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience.
Romans 5:3

Training

Burpees. Run 10 miles 5-6 days a week for 10 weeks. (You can skip the rest of this section.)

If you want more detail… There are two parts: the obstacles and running. I don’t have a YouTube fitness channel or a protein shake sponsor but I have been playing sports for a long time and workout regularly, therefore, I figured the obstacles would be manageable, and that I should spend the majority of my time interval-cross-training and running. The goal is to catch your breath while running.

I am not a runner. At least I wasn’t. I never understood it. Runners typically look hungry and it is hard to see the appeal beyond the observation from philosopher king Ron Burgundy, “apparently you just run, for extended periods of time.” Then in late 2014, some coworkers signed up for a half-marathon that I reluctantly agreed to enter. From then on, it has essentially been impossible to stop. The post-run high is real and it is as addictive as anything else.

WTM 2015_The Pit

In her New Yorker article on running, Kathyrn Shultz said, “the essence of the experience remains invisible.” She’s right. The Katy Trail, where I did all of my weekday runs, was a great place to reflect and listen to music—highly recommended if you can avoid the armed robberies. Most of my thoughts on runs are positive and it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the day. The first 2 miles of any run are the worst for me but it gets better from there.

Although I officially registered in July, I started training in May. That’s a long time between Day 1 and Race Day. I thought about it for hours every day. It was a weird experience because I was putting my body through amounts of pain I had never felt, and for what? An abstract idea? I had no base case to compare it to. I had never done a mud run, obstacle course, or even a marathon. For lack of a better word, it didn’t exist.

On top of this and work, I was studying for the CFA that has a suggested average study time of 300 hours. 2 marshmallows.

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The dust

Usually I sleep well, with the worst part of my day being waking up to an alarm and pulling the covers off. For weeks in August though, I slept horribly. I would wake up in the middle of the night, paranoid and sweating, knowing I was unprepared.

If I got tired during a workout, I would feel guilty and think to myself, “oh, you’re tired? After an hour. That’s great. You’ll probably meet your expectations if you’re expecting to come in last.” I needed to significantly pick up the intensity. One of my coworkers is serious about fitness and goes to Jay Johnson’s Boot Camp, a 5:30am class in various locations around Dallas. All you need is a mat, weights and water. Think P90X but outside and more aggressive. After my first class I lay on the concrete and stared at the stars until I could breathe normally. I finally felt like I was on the right path.

September & October

Now, if this was a sales pitch, here is where most of you slam the door in my face: giving up alcohol. There was no other way around it for me. I know people that don’t get hangovers. I envy them and consider that a super-power.

You young professionals out there might think, “if I gave up alcohol, I would be a millionaire.” Not so fast. All things being equal you would save money, but all things are never equal. You can throw as much money at this event as you want. During training, I went through 4 pairs of shoes. When you need a backup for every piece of gear and you realize you have spent $175 on socks and $164 on 4 pairs of compression shorts, frugality is easier said than done. There is the gear expense and then there is the time expense. Time is money, and all clichés are true.

Dating: out the window.

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You have new things in your life to balance that you have never considered, like maximizing your glycogen stores and not shitting in your wetsuit. You wonder what a grown man would be doing with Desitin (the baby diaper rash cream). You almost forget what hangovers feel like.

Average weekday

4:45am: Alarm goes off. Set snooze button for 3 minutes
4:48am: Get up. Clif Bar, pre-workout shake, fruit cup
5:30am-6:30am: Boot Camp (2.5-3.5 miles)
7:15am-7:30am Drink protein/coffee shake while studying
8:30am-6pm: Work
7:00pm: Get home, Clif Bar, pre-workout shake, fruit cup
7:45pm-8:45pm: 7-mile run
9:15pm-10pm: Dinner, shower, etc.
10:30pm: Sleep

Rinse, repeat.

On Saturday mornings I would do a long run (9-20 miles), usually around White Rock Lake and Sundays go to the gym for muscle-ups (back), jump rope (endurance), and dead-hangs (grip strength for obstacles).

Diet

The diet is ironic because you would think running 7-10 miles a day you can eat whatever you want, but it’s not that simple. The longer and more intense your workouts become, the more sensitive your body is to the inputs. If I ate a huge burger at lunch, my night run would be sluggish. Mexican for dinner? Good luck running up 24 flights of stairs at the Omni at 6am.

Breakfast: Blend up an ice-coffee-protein shake, green smoothie and ~7 eggs (1 egg, 6 egg whites)

Lunch: 2 salads w/ chicken or sandwiches (always double the meat)

Dinner: Chicken/fish with brown rice/sweet potato and avocado

I keep turkey jerky, apples, and other snacks at my desk, then deli turkey and Greek yogurt in the refrigerator. I probably never went two hours without eating except when I was sleeping.

Ideally, you want to practice how you play. Living in Dallas made things like running in a wet suit or finding a hill impossible. For everything else, I tried to replicate the course conditions. Safe to say I failed at that. On some long runs, I would stop every quarter-mile to do pushups or burpees. On really long runs, I would eat a chicken quesadilla halfway through.

The peak of my training was October 17th & 18th when I ran 40 miles in a weekend, 20 on Saturday, 20 on Sunday—which made 74 miles for that week. From there, I tapered down.

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Throughout the entire process, I must have asked a hundred questions to the two guys I knew who had done this before. I would text them anywhere from 7am to 11pm asking anything from what happens if you throw up to where to clip your strobe light.

This consumed my life. I even came down with what we’ll call the Crossfit Syndrome, where you can’t help but post workout-related social media updates that no one aside from yourself cares about.

Food 1

Meal prep

Around Halloween, most of the hay was in the barn from a physical perspective, leaving the mental preparation. You want to avoid comfort because you will get soft. The 2-3 weeks before the race I stopped taking hot showers.

My friends and parents were extremely supportive. One friend, a former triathlete, wanted daily updates on workouts, without regard to his imminent heart surgery. My dad was going to leave in the middle of his two-week annual hunting trip to Illinois to fly to Vegas, be my pit crew then fly back to finish his hunt. My mom asked about the training every time she talked to me but waited until October to ask why I was doing it. She also said, “No matter what happens, you should be proud.” I said, “that’s ridiculous. Failure happens and you have to be honest with yourself about it. I’m not going to shoot an arrow and paint a target around it.”

When I finished packing I gave myself an ultimatum: you are either going to finish or go to the hospital. That meant leaving my sleeping bag at home.

Feeding Lion

The frost. It sometimes makes the blade stick.” –Gladiator

The Race

I flew into Vegas on Friday afternoon, with more luggage for a one-day race than I brought for a month-long trip to Europe. I had called Southwest on Wednesday to let them know I would be bringing several plastic bags of white powder labeled “protein,” “CarboPro,” and “caffeine” through security.

My uncle met me at the airport and drove me to Lake Las Vegas where I checked in to the hotel, which was walking distance to the course, if you had a lot of time to walk. By the time we set my tent up, my dad had flown in and taken a shuttle to the hotel. The hotel, aware of the race, had a carbo-loading buffet with pasta, pizza and salad for $20. My dad summed up the experience with his observation, “this is really bad food.” But it had the calories and got the job done.

Sadly, this was the same night of the Paris attacks, but due to traveling, the time difference, etcetera, I was too tired to watch TV. Fortunately, I did not have race anxiety and slept through the night until 5:30am.

For the first 4 years, the race started at 10:00am. This year they moved it to 2:00pm. I viewed this as an advantage because you would have 4 more hours of energy during the night, the most exhausting and cold part of the event. The downside to a later start is that your total waking hours would be much longer and due to the quick sunset the total time spent in a wetsuit is about 22 hours, meaning slower laps.

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The Gamble: Roll a die to determine which obstacle you climb

We went to the Pit as soon as it opened at 10:00am to put my food, water, and gear in the tent. Before any race, you want to be off your feet as much as possible, not carrying cases of water and gear a half-mile. Note to Mudder Headquarters: fix this.

1:00 PM: All participants had to be at the starting line. An hour before the race? Are you kidding me? The GoPro I bought specifically for this was on the fritz so I unsuccessfully messed with it for a few minutes before talking to some veterans who had run all 4 previous WTMs.

The rule-of-thumb is if you are able to go the full 24 hours, you will most likely finish in the top 10%. That means 90% of the people will not. Judging by appearances, at least 50% of the people  were more prepared than I was. They looked like they were either ex-military or serious Obstacle Course Race competitors. The only consolation I had was knowing I had put a lot of hours into getting my mind and body ready for this.

The WTM emcee started talking at 1:45PM, and I couldn’t have been more ready. The only thing I remember him saying was, “you don’t finish at the Finish Line. You finish out there. And you make it to the Finish Line.”

Lap 1 Saturday 2:00 PM (50:32 min)

My body had so much energy that when the race started I was relieved it had an outlet. Most runners say you want to be the tortoise instead of the hare, but here the hare gets rewarded at the beginning because  skipping obstacles in that first 60 minutes is an advantage, even though it’s a long race. By this point I knew my body well enough that it was going to take a few miles to warm up. At Mile 4, my calves felt the 800 feet of elevation, and I instantly regretted training in Texas. Overall, I felt good though and came into the Pit for a quick protein/Carbo Pro/chia seed shake (thanks for the suggestion Trevor Cichosz).

Lap 2 (1:10:04 min)

When I heard the air horn, I was ~6 miles in. I came to my first obstacle and thought to myself, “How many people fall off that thing?”

WTM 2015_Obstacle_Balance

Vertigo

Next obstacle: Operation–named after the board game. On Friday night, walking back to the hotel from the Pit I saw the “Warning: Electricity” sign next to the walls and told my uncle, “that’s going to be the easiest obstacle. They can’t take the risk someone gets electrocuted and dies.” I ate my words. You take a 10-ft hooked metal pole, put it thru a metal-lined 8-inch hole, and try to retrieve a ring on the opposite wall all while standing in water. I grabbed the pole, put it in the hole and about 8 seconds later the pole grazed the side of the hole, sending 10,000 volts through my entire body. This happened 3 more times. I was so pissed off I went straight to the penalty: carry a 50 lb. bag of concrete a total of 300′ and through a 30′ corrugated pipe before dropping the bag off and heading to the next obstacle. I was only going to become less focused as the race went on, so I went straight to the penalty every lap.

Lap 3 (1:29:26 min)

This was the first “normal” lap with all the obstacles. I thought I would be too focused to talk. However, talking to other people is one of the only distractions from the pain. Midway through the lap I also developed the mantra that kept me motivated for the remainder of the race: Don’t bitch out.

Lap 4 (1:42:01 min)

I felt like I could destroy ISIS.

Lap 5 (1:51:48 min)

The significance of being wet and how it affects you physically and mentally cannot be overstated–it was by far the most difficult aspect of the race. Being cold is one thing. Being wet is another thing. Being cold and wet for an extended period of time is indescribable. The closest thing I can think of would be that first sensation when jumping into a pool lasting for hours.

When I crossed the finish line, I was shivering like Leo when he told Rose to never let go. I came into the Pit and I could tell by the look in my dad’s eyes that I wasn’t doing well. He knew better than to suggest I stop, but he also made me realize unless I warmed up it might be out of my control. I got into the tent, stripped everything off except my compression shorts and put a blanket around me as I sat cross-legged trying to generate heat. Somehow it worked. I noticed myself shaking less and able to think about something beyond warmth. I asked my dad to get the plastic bags ready (they help your feet slide through the neoprene leg holes). I got into the 5mm wetsuit, he helped zip me up and I put the separate hood on. My eyes were the only exposed part of my body. This all took 34 minutes and was my longest pit stop, but I needed every minute of it to get myself ready for the next 16 hours.

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King of the Swingers

Lap 6 (2:02:41 min)

This was the most (relatively) comfortable lap of the entire race. I even looked forward to the water obstacles to get some fresh cold water in my suit. That changed. My muscles started cramping and locking up in areas I had never had problems with. I was tired. I had waited until about 10pm before taking any caffeine. If I took it too early I was afraid my body would stop reacting to it.  On a given day, I usually put 2 scoops of a pre-workout powder in water and take one shake before Boot Camp then one before my night run. During the race, I had 14 scoops and four 5-Hour Energy drinks. By noon on Sunday I had taken 3 days-worth of recommended caffeine servings. If anything, it helped keep me from falling asleep, but other than an initial boost from 10pm to midnight I barely noticed it.

The Cliff opened at midnight. I knew it was close because the guy next to me anxiously reported it was 11:55pm. Shortly thereafter, a race official appeared ahead of us, picked up the course marking stake and moved it a few feet to the right. It was midnight.

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The 35′ free fall lasts just a moment longer than it feels like it should. What helped me was focusing on one of the spectators across the lake. Depending on your perspective, The Cliff was the easiest obstacle on the course. However, the guy with blood pouring out of his nose on Sunday morning sitting on the rescue pontoon boat unlikely had that perspective.

Lap 7 (2:20:03 min)

Then came the inevitable. I hit a wall. This was much different than running. I had the expectation that I would transcend the pain and enter this meditative state, like a monk. In a way, that is what happens, but not really. The pain is acute and sustained–the only “break” is when your mind briefly gets distracted while it’s focused on completing an obstacle. The paradox is the race would be objectively easier without the obstacles, but you need the obstacles to disrupt the monotony. Rolling under barbed wire, feeling the rocks in the mud hit your bones was not conducive to reflection as much as it was to dizziness. Crawling up an inverted tube with water spraying you in the face from the top went from comical to demoralizing. The mud in my wetsuit was getting heavier.

In nearly every part of your life, someone can lie to you. In the desert, 12 hours into this race at 2:00am, 39 degrees, soaking wet, the person next to you cannot lie. More specifically, their body can’t. The guy in the pink spandex thong is nowhere to be found. The logo on your clothes doesn’t matter because it is covered in mud. No matter how much someone loves you and wants you to succeed, they can’t climb that wall for you. It is you. Alone. Against yourself.

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Mustard & bananas help reduce cramping

Midnight to 5am was hard. And by hard I mean the hardest thing I have ever done. While crawling through the corrugated pipes, what I wanted more than anything in the world was to lie there and close my eyes for 5 minutes.

Lap 8 (2:17:55 min)

My body was rebelling against me. The plan was to power-walk up hills and run the flat parts and downhills. Queue Mike Tyson: “Evweeone has a pwan until they get punched in the face.”

The buoyancy of the wetsuit allowed me to float on my back on the longer swimming obstacles like Hump Chuck and Statue of Liberty (75 meter swim with a lit tiki torch), which offered some relief to my legs. The lifeguards looked tired.

You question the sanity of your strategy to keep warm by urinating inside your (borrowed) wetsuit.

Lap 9 (2:04:31 min)

The most uplifting moment of my life may have been sunrise on Sunday morning. I don’t remember where I was on the course, I only remember feeling like it was going to be dark forever and seeing the light made me realize I had made it through the hardest part. Only 8 more hours to go.

Lap 10 (2:16:43 min)

I picked up my 50-Mile Brown Bib and felt like I was out of the woods. The next tangible reward was the out-of-reach 75-Mile Silver Bib and I was past the point of considering it a failure if I had to stop. It was certainly the hardest I have ever worked for a piece of clothing. My dad had no idea what he was getting into when he said he would do this. He didn’t know the 2pm rule (remember you have to be on the course pursuing a lap). I said I wanted to get 60 miles. He said, “I do not want to be out here at 3:30pm.” By this point, he had been awake for over 30 hours.

Plemmons_WTM 2015 Brown Bib

50 Miles Pit Stop

Lap 11 (2:54:35 min) Total Miles: 55

The last lap was supposed to be a celebratory one. Instead, it was the second coldest because of a costly mistake. On Lap 10 the sun was up so I decided to switch into my shorty 2mm when I got to the Pit because I was getting hot.

I forgot the wind was supposed to start at noon.  This lap had to last 2.5 hours to make it past 2pm. I intentionally took my time on this one, but the slower pace resulted in my body losing heat faster than it was making it. People said if you tried to wait by the Finish Line for a few minutes, they would make you go through and start a new lap. No thanks. With no good options, I just kept freezing. Coming up to the Cliff, the final obstacle, I was met with a 30-minute bottleneck. Listening to 50 people in front of you smack the water one-by-one was exactly the punctuation mark this damn thing needed.

2:18 PM Sunday

I make it to the Finish Line. Shaking. A girl gives me the coveted Black Headband, they take my picture, and I go directly to the medical tent to get a blanket. I can’t see my dad because the wind was blowing at least 30 mph kicking off a dust storm. When I was warm enough to leave the med tent, I found my dad and changed into dry clothes. I have never been so comfortable being naked in front of hundreds of people. My dad’s text to my mom clearly showed he shared my misery, “Thank God we stayed for the sandstorm!”

When it ends you might think there would be a celebration of some sort or at least a pat on the back. The ceremony is the next day so what you see is an anticlimactic scramble through a dust cloud to leave. I felt drunk. I was uncontrollably irritable, Siri telling me to “Turn Left Now” made me want to throw her out the window. All I could think about was getting into a bed. After getting Chipotle. I wanted to tell my dad how genuinely grateful I was for his support, but it came out as “EXTRA GUAC!”

As we walked in to my uncle’s house I felt it sink in. It was over. He and my dad were patient–I could hardly walk or talk–so they helped me get around and finish my sentences. We shared a couple laughs while we ate and checked the race results, then I hobbled into the bathroom to take a shower.

I can’t remember if any of the laps were fun. When the mud washes off though, you are a different person.

Before

(Before)

Post-race.jpeg

(After) 37 hours with no sleep & wetsuit-hood-hair