Braden has been at the start and finish lines of many of my races, including the one in Tahoe that took me 7.5 hours to complete. He has flown across the country twice to be with me at the Boston Marathon and this summer he will be flying thousands of miles to be there in Chamonix as I take on the OCC. So when he decided to run his longest race ever, and do it on a trail, I knew I would be there for him in the way he has been there for me so many times. Since we all know he is a much better orator and writer than me, I will let him tell the story of how he crushed the shit outta his first big trail race. All I can say is that I am super proud!
I spent 2015 trying to recover from Achilles tendinosis. By December I had rehabbed myself to the point of being able to take on the marathon relay at The North Face Endurance Challenge in Marin with a good friend, Jean-Michel Boujon. I’ve never been a serious runner, but I do find something spiritual in trail running. The trail relay was an accomplishment of which I was proud: Two 10k loops in the headlands brought me to tears after the race. I recall going for a warm-down jog and stopping to cry for a few minutes, uncontrollably.
That’s the second time I had broken into involuntary crying due to extreme physical and mental perseverance. The first was summiting Mount Shasta. It seems that, for me, when a physical event gets so challenging that it tests my mental will, overcoming that challenge opens up a cathartic rush of emotion. It’s a euphoric experience. It reminds me that crying isn’t always caused by something bad. It becomes a reward for having the guts to test the boundaries of my capabilities. Now, not only do I welcome crying – I aspire to it.
I have always thought that one of the best things about running was that anyone could do it anywhere anytime. There’s really no supplemental equipment needed, and no field or court to reserve, no financial cost. Running is classless. Why then, I asked myself, would I ever pay to do something I can always do for free? Why fork out $75 to run in a race when I can go run free of charge? There are obviously arguments to be made about the competition and comradery of the race atmosphere, but my answer to myself went a different route. Upon reflecting on The North Face run, I decided that I could only justify paying to run if at least one of the following criteria were met: 1) if by running I was raising money for a charity or other worthy cause, 2) if it was a relay or other team oriented run, or 3) if the event made me cry. The value of those criteria increase in order. I’ve always preferred team or partner events, but if it’s going to force me to balling my face off that’s ideal.
A couple beers at the Deuce made Jenny Maier even more persuasive than usual. She convinced me that the Folsom Lake 35k would be a great first solo trail race. “Hmm” I thought, “it’s not for charity, and it’s not a relay, so will 35k make me cry?” After the quick (but painfully not so quick) math, I decided that 21.6 miles of trail would indeed make me cry. How could it not? That would be the farthest I would have ever run at one time!
Not 48 hours had passed and I was assigned a running coach. The guarantee of crying is only further reinforced when your coach is referred to as The Punisher. I will spare all the details, but let me simply say that, after some early speculation, my wife’s regimen of building endurance fitness by repeated running on already tired legs paid off. Of course it wasn’t like this was my first experience with hard training. Anyone who has gone on a “casual” or “easy” run with Amy knows that, in reality, you’re in for the worst kind of punishment. And by worst I mean the satisfying kind that makes you stronger…after you get over the feelings of anger and resentment for dragging you up cliffs like a sickly donkey that…I’m getting off track, sorry.
Folsom Lake was here, Johnny Cash was playing, and Amy and I were accompanied by the European Union of Jean-Michel and Paddy O’Leary. I had tapered, anxiously, and my legs felt great. I had hydrated to the point that I could no longer even see my own pee it was so clear. It was a beautiful morning with a blue sky and cool air. I remember looking up into the sky just before the clock went off and reminding myself to enjoy being alive on such a day. In a true rookie move, I did not start in front of the pack but firmly in its middle. This resulted in frustration from Coach Punisher since starting photos were inaccessible. Not much more than 100 meters in I heard my name being yelled by familiar voices. Emerging from the trees like the children of Sasquatch, our great friends Iain and Shannon were cheering for me in what I then determined with calculated reasoning was a surprise. What fuel this was! It’s amazing how much juice one gets just seeing friends along a run, but a surprise at the start? That was golden, and it sent me flying.
Figuring I would not be competitive and had nothing to lose, I decided to push myself. I was running faster than my training runs but was not out of breath. I was maintaining that ideal balance of speed and comfort on the beautiful single track trail. If anything my hamstrings started to say ‘hi’ a bit, but nothing concerning. In a 21.6 mile trail race I was shooting for roughly a 3 hour and 15 minute time. I arrived at the halfway turnaround (it was an out-and-back) at 1 hour and 30 minutes. It was then, after quick chatter with the aid station volunteers, that I realized I was in the lead.
“Holy shit am I gonna win this thing”? I asked myself. How funny would that be – first race and I bring it home? I was beginning to get really excited, and I was still moving really well. I even had dreams of finishing around or even under 3 hours. Somewhere between mile 13 and 14 the polycramps began (I feel polycramps is the best term I can come up with to describe “all the cramps”). At least everything from the waist down. My hammies went from saying ‘hi’ to ‘BLLLAAAAAHH THIS SUCKS!’ I hobbled into the aid station six miles from the finish and got electrolytes. I asked for salt and a volunteer poured three salt tablets into my hand and said, “I think they say one per hour.” I stared at him in the eyes and housed two pills. I grabbed a cup of yellow stuff and another volunteer said, in warning, “That’s Mountain Dew.” I stared her in the eyes and housed it (first Mountain Dew in easily a decade). It was at this moment that the runner behind me passed me.
It would take quite a salty miracle for my muscles to feel good enough to kick it like I did in the first half again. For a while literally every step came with at least two cramps: one in my hamstring, one in my quad, and sometimes one in my calf. After the electrolytes and salt kicked in – and I had drastically changed my form to avoid cramping – fewer cramps occurred but pain level was high. I’m not sure I was even bending my knees anymore; it felt like I was swimming standing up. I conceded to myself that I would not win this race after all. Instead, I needed to focus on not giving up more places!
With a little over a mile left the trail flattened out to run straight over a stretch of the dam. The tree cover was gone and the sun was full on. Anyone who has run on a perfectly straight stretch of road knows how psychologically difficult it can be. You know you are getting closer to the end, but it sure doesn’t seem so. It’s like walking on the strip in Las Vegas, except you don’t even have the people watching to get you by. Just pain. Every step. This was somewhat alleviated by Jean-Michel and Paddy meeting me on the dam and running with me. That was a massive mental boost. It probably took three or four minutes to run that straight stretch but it sure felt like a half hour. Without the European Union, it would have felt like days.
I turned the final corner and closed out the race. I finished in 2nd place overall and 1st in my age range (30-39). My time, after all that, was 3 hours and 15 minutes. This was shocking to me since I swear I had some 10 and 11 minute miles in there when the cramping was real bad. I had figured closer to 3:30. But I suppose the swifter first half made up for lost time. Amy was waiting for me behind the finish line. I halved over, hugged her, leaned my head against her body and cried.
Why had I cramped up so badly? I was not dehydrated, that was certain and I had taken electrolytes in the form of Tailwind at every aid station. The consensus from my seasoned group of supporters was that my legs simply had not run that far that fast before. The cramping was probably inevitable. Even if I had slowed myself in the first half of the race, the whole point of doing so would be to kick it later, at which point the cramps surely would have come. One can only speculate. More than anything I am still equally surprised and proud of my finish. I had never imagined myself being competitive in such a run, which is probably why I had trouble paying to run in the first place. But here, at Folsom Lake, I had it – I had it won! It was in my hands, in my grip, and then my grip tightened to the point that it squeezed out and was lost to the wind. The most frustrating thing about the polycramps must be that you are debilitated but not because of lack of energy or jacked heart rate or wild breathing or any other typical running villain. I had energy. I still felt good, and my lungs were great. My legs simply would not go. After I got my medal I hugged a tree and cried for another minute or two. Not in pain or frustration. I cried because I finished despite all that pain and frustration, without sacrificing too much time.
If the problem is that my body wasn’t used to running that far that fast, then the only remedy must be to run farther faster more frequently. That’s the extent of my self-coaching, and I think The Punisher can design the rest. I will be teaching a Study Abroad course in Italy this summer, and will take advantage by running a 40k in the Dolomites of the northern Italian Alps in July. Then, I plan to return to The North Face series in December, this time in the 50k. That’s gonna have to make me cry, right? If so, I’m in.
Thanks to Inside Trail Racing for putting on such an awesome event will well stocked aid stations and to all the volunteers who made the day possible!