Saturday, February 24, 2018

2017 Western States - Not as Tough as I Thought

No, no, I'm not talking about the race itself.  Sure, I had heard from ultrarunners I respect that I'd already run "tougher" 100 milers in Cascade Crest and Pine to Palm.  And those races are tough, no doubt.  But Western States, the supposed "easier 100" was in no way that.  I have never had a better training block.  My diet was as good as it's ever been, I followed the Jason Koop plan of intensity earlier in the year and then had my most consistent volume and vertical ever in the two months leading in to Statesmas.   I took into account my racing over the past five years, what I had learned over four years of pacing and crewing this race, analyzing the Ultrasignup and Ultrasplits data, and I just knew I was capable and ready for a finish around twenty-seven hours. I was ready.

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson

And then the race started.  Fifteen miles of snow and ice bridges and mud that pulled the shoes off your feet.   It wasn't just me.  All 369 runners got punched right in the mouth.  Any buffer you had against your goals, whether that was a course record, silver buckle, staying ahead of the cutoffs, or my twenty-seven hour goal was simply gone by Red Star Ridge at mile 15.8.  So I found myself in a situation I really didn't imagine, fighting the cutoffs from the start.  But I didn't stress, just like I knew I was in shape for twenty-seven hours, I knew I was tough enough to get this done.  After all, I'd never DNF'd a race.  I've fought wrecked IT bands, trashed quads, a shut down stomach, heat, mud, smoke, and the mountains themselves.  And I'd always made it to the end before the cutoffs.


The University of Kent's Samuele Marcora has published multiple studies that show a common theme - fatigue largely isn't a muscular issue, it's a mental one.  From a December 12, 2014, New Yorker article titled What is Fatigue
"Marcora believes that this limit is probably never truly reached—that fatigue is simply a balance between effort and motivation, and that the decision to stop is a conscious choice rather than a mechanical failure......Considerations like heat, hydration, and muscle conditioning, Marcora says, “are not unreal things, but their effect is mediated by perception of effort.” In other words, they don’t force you to slow down, as happens with the failing frog muscles in the petri dish; they cause you to want to slow down—a semantic difference, perhaps, but a significant one when it comes to testing the outer margins of human capability."
I'd say 100 mile mountain runs in 100+ degree heat qualify for "testing the outer margins of human capability," especially mine.  Thanks largely to the tough conditions in the high country, my goal of a 27 hour finish, one that would have me comfortably ahead of the cutoffs the entire race, was out the window before I hit the fifteen mile mark.  I was behind the average 30-hour finisher splits all day long.  By the time I got to my first pacer, drained from puking on the climb up to Devil's Thumb and another tough climb to Michigan Bluff, I was almost exclusively walking.  I just couldn't run much, I was spent.

With my final pacer.  PC Richard Walstra

But as almost always happens, that external push from Jim got me running a bit more. "Dude, you have to run this part."  I switched pacers at Foresthill and Wally used cajoling and constant pace reminders in an effort to keep me moving faster that I wanted to.  And then Jim picked me up again at the river telling me, "you're probably going to hate me for awhile." He knew he was going to have to push me.  He negotiated, bargained, pleaded, ridiculed, distracted, joked.  Whatever it took to keep me moving faster than I wanted to.  And of course I could.  Oh I was physically fatigued, but my muscles weren't shutting down. "You can puke, but you have to walk while you do it," said Jim at one point Sunday morning near mile 90.  So instead of sitting (again) on the side of the trail, walk I did.  And then I ran, and ran a little more.


Tim Noakes first put forth the Central Governor theory back in the early-2000s.  From an iRunFar article written by Joe Uhan:

"Noakes’s model, the Central Governor Theory, proposes that it is the brain that dictates exercise intensity and duration in order to ensure its own survival.
The brain is inherently selfish: it only cares about itself. It will do anything necessary to ensure it gets a steady flow of oxygen and sugar, and a reliable mechanism for transport. That said, any physical effort that might jeopardize those values will be tightly regulated. If not, the conscious brain might team with the body to literally run itself to death by either destroying skeletal or cardiac muscle, or by starving the nerve tissue of sugar and oxygen."

I feel like I haven't yet shown in a 100 miler that I'm tough enough on my own to overcome my brain, my Central Governor.  So while I'm extremely proud of all of my race finishes, I want to test my own mental toughness, to prove to myself I can push through.  I'm not talking about putting my health at risk, just finding a way to keep moving, keep running when my brain is trying to convince me otherwise.

So with some first-time lottery luck, a few months back I got in to the Angeles Crest 100, solo division.  No crew. No pacer.  Just me and my Central Governor, battling it out.  I'm looking forward to the fight.

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