Saturday, April 23, 2011

I Am an Ultrarunner! - Chapter Three/The End is Here

The clock said 10:45 pm as I strode out of camp for the fifth time.  Little did I know what lay on the trail ahead.  Had someone asked me if I were prepared for what unfolded on this loop I would have said no, but would have charged ahead anyway.  This is what I came for as Scott Jurek is known to say.  Pain was to be expected.  The physical is brutal, whether one chases a PR in a road 5k or is on a quest for a Boston Qualifier in a marathon.

What I find lacking in the shorter distances - yes, 26.2 miles is now short for me - is time to experience and deal with emotional challenges.  The marathon field can sweep you to the finish so long as you stay on your feet.  Running with hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands has that effect.  Hell, my BQ in February was due in part to the 3h10m pacer practically crawling up my back over the final 2/10 of a mile.

I did not have the luxury of a pacer yet.  Still on my own.  Lars, my pacer stopped by after my third loop to check on my times.  I felt the night would be fine but knew he would be necessary to cover the final twenty-five miles.  So the plan was to text him a time to show up for the final two loops.  Before Loop Five I sent a message asking that he show up a seven o'clock to begin number six.  Seemed reasonable enough given that my knee was looser.  Unfortunately that loose easy feeling would not last.  

In fact any chance at feeling good evaporated in the night before I escaped the glow of the campfire.

From the first true step into this loop my right knee felt worse that before.  I find that any attempt to describe the pain in the joint is sadly insufficient.  While I speculated about the nature of the injury earlier in the day, I was not completely aware of what it was - ITB.  

Iliotibial Band Syndrome.

Fuck.  Me.  


I have experienced knee pain before.  This was an entirely different kind of hell.  The mud was not a bother.  The cold was not a problem.  The very fact that I was still on the course was the issue.  Any downgrade was excruciating.

I shall apologize now to any and all ITB sufferers for my April Fools Day joke.  Very poor decision.  Bad karma.  Rotten mojo.

I knew I was screwed when the first aid station was not reached in less than 90 minutes.  Of course it was nearing midnight and I needed to be careful, but I had sufficient light from my headlamp.  I just could not make steady headway with the knee.  It took two hours to reach aid station #1.  

By the time I reached the point that I assumed was halfway I was three hours into the loop.  It is obvious that I am on a six hour trip.  The wheels are officially off.  My mind begins to reel.

The problem with being alone is I have no one to distract me.  No calming voice to talk me down from the ledge.  No one to say it will be OK.  Even the iPod has lost its appeal.  I was entering a very low place.

So the pain of the knee was causing me to stop dead every few minutes.  I didn't know how to stretch the ITB so I just kept walking.  Stopped went the pain got too much and started again once it subsided.  It was in the final three hours that I really broke down.

I chose this race for numerous reasons, some of which I'll go into later.  All of which seemed extremely valid prior to leaving for Portland.  They all remained valid once I was on the trail.  But only one reason kept me moving.

My wife.

Without Andria this trip would not have been possible.  Without her a great many things would not be possible.  Life without her is one of my greatest fears.  The emotional dam burst when I played out the call home.  The knee would make one hundred miles impossible.  Stopping short would be a failure.  In my mind at least.  Not getting that buckle would make this trip a waste of time.  Anything less than one hundred miles would be a colossal waste of money.  Everything had been built up in my mind to get that trophy.  It would validate everything.  Even if you don't understand what the buckle represents you know the buckle means something B-I-G.  Now I would have to explain to Andria why I had to quit.

To quit...

Something I am all too familiar with...

Quitting is one reason I went to Port Gamble.  To learn how not to quit...

Every time the thought of talking with Andria entered my head I doubled over in pain.  Imagine the worst stomach cramps possible.  However this pain was not physical.  Sure, the knee continuously reminded me it still connected two leg bones together (the first person to point out my error in anatomy will get a personalized Fuck You via FedEx overnight shipping) and continued to be overwhelming.  But the emotional pain was something else entirely.  I always stopped quickly though, fearful that another runner would appear from the darkness and crash my little party.

I'll say now that other than at the two aid stations I never saw another soul from the moment I left camp till I returned.  That is a long time to be alone in emotional misery.  Granted, Aron Ralston was in a much deeper situation when he cut his arm off, but dammit, this is my moment.

Combine the physical pain of the knee and the emotional anguish in my mind with the absolute dreadful nature of the loop's back half.  The gravel jeep road winded on and on after the second aid station.  There were not many landmarks so I could never gauge how far I had to go, other than rough guesstimates based on time.

I did find a distraction in the form of a jigsaw puzzle.  The race - this was no longer a race but rather an ordeal meant to be endured - had scattered before me and needed to be pieced together if I were to get out whole.  Time to assess everything:
  • My knee was shot.  The thought of repeating three more loops in my condition made me want to vomit.  Thankfully I did not.
  • I was running out of time.  If the fifth loop were to take five to six hours then I would blow past the mandatory cut off and be unable to finish the 100 miles, regardless of my physical condition.  My current pace projected out to six hours for the loop.  I would come in around 400am.  With stops for rest after each loop I would require another eighteen hours to earn the buckle.  From four o'clock I would have only fourteen hours till the cut off.  I might successfully beg for an extra hour... or two.  But four or more hours would be unreasonable.
  • This loop would give me one hundred kilometers for the weekend.  Roughly sixty-three miles.  No further loops would mean anything in the context of recognition by the race organizers.
  • I was freezing.  The forecast called for clearing skies by dawn, which would certainly warm me up, but the drop in temperature only made the joint pain worse.
A decision had to be made and lived with.  It actually was pretty rational in the end.  One can say I quit at Mile 57.  I simply had to walk another six miles through swampy and hilly trails to tell someone.

Being rational did not make the final few hours any easier.  In fact it became more difficult.  I just wanted out. I was ready to be done.  But I still wanted to go so much further.  Slowly I picked my way through the final single track.  While still on the gravel road I turned around thinking I had missed the turn in the darkness.  Fatigue did set in over the final hour.  I was peeing constantly.  It was the only thing keeping me awake really.

I began to make my way through that last swamp.  The downgrades hurt.  The water was cold.  The idea of stopping did not feel any better.  Then I stood at the base of the final climb.  Up and over and I would be done.  I remembered the second time I passed this way on Saturday morning.

I was with another runner, another ultra virgin.  He was largely unsupported except for one buddy at camp.  He said his friend might pace him for one loop but wasn't sure.  He had run one marathon I think and was underdressed for the day, but was willing to go as long as possible.  He even admitted he wasn't sure what to expect.  

Here's a secret, even the veterans sometimes have no clue what to expect.

I don't recall his name, so I am clueless as to how he finished.  I really hope he got that buckle, although I don't think so.  At any rate, on that second loop he was lagging behind as I neared the crest of the final hill.  As soon as I saw that camp I called back that we were back and raced in.  I never saw him again.

The climb now was extremely rough.  Aside from the knee I knew this was the end.  I still had yet to accept the finality of it all.  Still fitting the puzzle pieces together in my head.  That would take the rest of Sunday to sort out.  All I could think about was the pain of quitting.  Giving up.  Killing the dream of having the buckle handed to me.  Instead that fucking Lumberjack was handing me my ass.  On a plank.  Full of splinters.  Damn you Lumberjack.  There is no humor in these words.

When I finally crested that hill, maybe no more than a tenth of a mile away from the camp, I broke down again.  The spasmodic waves of emotion washed over me.  There were fits of fear, anxiety, terror, shame, self-loathing...  Whatever you can think of to cripple the mind at a moment like that, I experienced it.  The seconds passed by like hours to get back in camp.  I pulled off my red blinker light.  I heard Jodi call out in the stillness that she may have seen me.  So I turned off my headlamp.  I needed these last few minutes alone.

Finally I straighten up, held my head high, or as high as possible, and dragged my ass to the finish line.

As I approached the timer's table I called out:

Bib #1852...

Fifth loop completed for one hundred kilometers...

I'm done...

Previous installments - Chapter One/Arrival & Departure
                                     Chapter Two/Chasing the Lumberjack


  1. I can only imagine the emotional torment and how that impacted everything physical. Yes, it's a journey about emotional and mental toughness. Just the thought of being alone with my own thoughts for six hours in the dark is daunting.

    I see no failure except in your knee. It gave out long before anything else.

  2. Wow! Amazing Logan. That is some epic shit! Thanks for sharing the raw emotion of it all. Thanks for your openness and honesty in taking us on this journey with you. There's 100 miles in you. I know you will do it someday. Maybe sooner rather than later. Who knows...

  3. Hardcore man. The highs and lows of ultras. Your wounds will heal and you'll be able to share your scars at the next ultra. The ultra virgins will be in awe and underestimate the truth in your claims. The ultra veterans will nod and smile because they've been there before.