The Evolution of a Running Mug
From an overweight wanna-be jogger to a 100 mile ultra runner…
On a cold January day in 2006, without realizing what was happening, I took the first few steps in the evolutionary process. These steps were accompanied by a lot of gasping for air, sweat and an overwhelming desire to quit. That first mile was a horrible, miserable experience that left me tired, nauseous, hungry, sweaty and slightly embarrassed. The next day, feeling tired, sore and defeated, I ran again just to see if I could. Over the next few weeks I played many mind games to keep returning. There was no thought of becoming a “runner”. Just the idea that I would be in a little better shape.
After about 5 months and 30 pounds, I registered for a local 5k. Again, just to see if I could. I showed up nervous and feeling a bit out of place. There were so many “runners”. It certainly didn’t take a trained eye to spot them either. Flashy shoes, running shorts, shirts from races past and, of course, the high stepping sprinters. Waiting in line at the port-o-potty, (Did I mention that I was nervous?) a dude that was an obvious runner and veteran of these type events, asked me if this was my first 5k. I signaled that it was. He smiled and said, “You’re going to love it.” I wasn’t so sure but smiled and tried not to show fear as I walked to the starting line. I lined up somewhere in the middle, behind a few kids and in front of the strollers, ready to go. And hopefully not end up dead last or worse….
I managed to come in at 21:07 which was good for 2nd in my age group. They gave me a trophy which, looking back, was like giving a drunk the keys to the liquor cabinet. I started hitting a 5k (or two) every weekend. The PR’s and medals were piling up and I was a full fledged crackhead. In July, after running 5 miles exactly once, I decided to run a 10k. Guess what? Yep. Now I had a new PR to beat. A 42 minute finishing time scored a 2nd place age group medal. More crack please…..
In November of that year I registered for a ½ marathon. How hard could it be? My awesome Nike+ iPod-shoe thingy told me I was running 10 miles without much trouble. (I later discovered the actual distance was more like 8 miles) No problem, right? Wrong. I spent the week before the race with the flu. I should have stayed home but… you know. I HAD to run. I learned a LOT that day. There were buses transporting runners out to the starting area and I jumped on the first one. I knew nothing about drop bags and it was cold. The starting point was smack dab in the middle of nowhere and I froze for at least an hour. After a while, I noticed some runners from a running club in Springfield, MO. Knowing these guys were “veterans” I decided to try and hang with them as long as possible. This turned out to be a good plan. Along the way I noted that these wily veterans were not only drinking water or Gatorade at the aid stations but they were also eating. Gels, candy, cookies, pretzels…. This was all new to me and I couldn’t really understand how it was possible for them to eat or why it was necessary. All I wanted was a little water and to not puke.
Around mile 8 (interesting I HAD been running 10, right?) I hit the “wall”. Hard. I hated every miserable step during the next 5 miles. Hated it but didn’t want to be “that guy” that started too fast and had to walk or DNF. I held on and finished with a much better time, one hour and thirty minutes, than I had anticipated. It was also good for 5th overall and 1st in my age group and I decided it wasn’t so bad after all. Watching the full marathoners limp into the awards ceremony, I was in awe and couldn’t understand how they could go double the distance I had barely managed to cover. I was certain that I could never achieve that level of fitness.
Fast forward one year. I was nervous and full of doubt at the starting line of my first marathon. Charley, my friend and training partner, and I had just received some words of wisdom from a veteran of many marathons. “Start slow, it will feel ridiculously slow, or you will pay later. YOU WILL SUFFER” <—This did nothing to ease my nerves as we set out those first few miles at a seemingly slow pace. Looking down at my Garmin (Yep. I traded the iPod shoe thingy) it showed us at slightly over 7 minutes per mile. It was much too fast but SEEMED slow so we carried on for 18 miles. This is where Charley and I had to split ways. He was feeling strong and I was ready to die.
I ran, jogged, limped and really wanted to quit over the next 8 miles. I had never done anything as hard or miserable as this and I never would again. My mantra was “One and Done”. I crossed the finish line in 3 hours 13 minutes and some change. This was about 15 minutes faster than I had realistically expected and also good enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. <—-Isn’t that the carrot many of us chase in the marathon world? I limped around, thinking I would drop dead anytime and resolved that there would NEVER be another marathon for me. Never happen again. Ever. No way. Not me. Screw that.
Fifteen minutes later, as Charley and I enjoyed a beverage or two in the beer garden, we started making plans for the next one. He had finished about 5 minutes ahead of me and was thinking about a sub 3. So much for not doing that again. Amazing how quickly the pain goes away with a beer or two and the weight of a finisher’s medal around your neck. We agreed to register for the Little Rock Marathon in March. Time to start training…..
Of course, I didn’t train. At least not like I should have. We patched together some Runners World marathon plans, adding and subtracting to suit our lives. I averaged 26 miles per week instead of the 40-60 we had planned on. Whatever. I already had one marathon under my belt (plus I had forgotten how bad it hurt) and I wasn’t going to run it fast anyway. I learned a lot that day too. I learned that hill work is important. Very important. I learned that 26.2 miles is a long freaking way. Again. Most importantly, I learned how to have fun and relax when things get tough.
I came into the mile 22 aid station hot, tired and ready to quit. I grabbed a cup of water and jokingly asked if they had any beer. When the lady handed me a cup full of some hometown dark lager, I laughed, stopped and walked for a minute. Sucking the suds down gave me a chance to regroup and rethink how I felt. Yes, I hurt but wasn’t I supposed to hurt? I mean, it WAS a marathon not a picnic in the park. If it was easy then it wouldn’t be special. Time to shut up, smile and run home. I finished just under three hours thirty minutes and marked it with a WOOOOOOOOO!!!!! <—–The first of many.
I have a few stories about lessons learned during a marathon. Like running one in the freezing rain while suffering from pneumonia like symptoms. Or the one that I strained a calf muscle at mile one, fell down and then managed to hobble the next 25 miles for a 3:30 finish. Or the time I limped….. never mind. They’re basically all pointed toward the same thing. Unless you are pissing blood, can see the bone or are dead…. keep moving. I’ll save those “war stories” for the movie version and move on to the next phase.
Ultra runners are psycho. Why would anyone even want to do that? Just doesn’t make sense. These are the thoughts that made me want to go “just five more miles” and graduate to the underground and secret world of ultra running. Of course, it was only a thought. Who has time to train for one of those even if it is only five more miles? Charley must have because he had signed up for a 50k in April of 2009. There was no way I was doing it. No way. Not me. Screw that. <—This again.
It wasn’t very surprising when I found myself registering online for the 50k at 8 p.m. the night before the race. I woke up early the next morning and made the 100 mile drive. This was the inaugural year for this event and nobody really knew what to expect. The “trail” turned out to be incredibly flat and entirely crushed gravel. It was one of those “rails to trails” projects, I think. Whatever. My longest run in the past 5 months was a 15 miler just two weeks prior. Still, I felt like I could at least “cover the distance.” This event was combined with a few other race distances. A 10 miler for sure. Maybe others, I really can’t remember. One thing I do know is that once we were past the finishing points for the shorter races- the aid stations became unmanned. A few plastic gallons jugs of water, cups and pretzels placed along the trail here and there. I had never experienced anything like this in the marathon world. To say I was surprised would be an understatement.
It’s weird but somehow just the sight of another person during the long stretches of an ultra can make all the difference in the world. I was very unprepared for the unmanned aid stations and my spirits started to drop as I struggled to keep going. I knew that I wouldn’t quit and probably couldn’t if I wanted to. It was a point to point course and, like I said, there was NOBODY around. So I pushed on and finished in a respectable 4 hours 20 minutes. Good for 5th overall and 1st in my age group. Charley had finished in 1st place with a 3:35. Did I mention he is freakishly fast?
The drive home was kind of tough. Those 5 extra miles had my legs cramping and my brain screaming. Never again. It was easy to see that I wasn’t cut out for ultras. That kind of mileage is better left to freaks and hard core veterans that know how to endure a special kind of pain.Those people are wired different or something. My plan was simple. Stick to what you know. A marathon or two per year, a few 1/2’s, sprinkle in some 10k’s and a handful of 5k’s. Train for the distance that I would run. That was my plan. It was a good one too. I stuck to it for almost 5 months.
I had this crazy thought that because the 50k wasn’t on a “true trail” that somehow it wasn’t really an ultra. Maybe it was just a long marathon? I don’t know why I thought this but I did. In September, Charley decided to run a 25k on a trail in Tulsa. For some reason I signed up for the 50k at the last minute. Again, I had not trained for this distance but thought I could somehow manage. We started our journey with a 5k (my first sub 19) on Saturday morning before making the 4 ½ hour trip to Tulsa. The packet pickup was at the Runners World Store. Worked out good because I needed some new shoes and they just happened to carry Nike Pegasus. Not the trail version.
The next morning it was pouring down rain as we made our way to the trailhead. The 50k started in the dark and I was prepared. Brand new shoes, a crappy little flashlight and a belt to carry my water bottle. As we started, I fell in line with some slower runners on the single track trail. I had never been in a trail race and didn’t really understand trail etiquette so I stayed behind for the first few miles. I couldn’t see anything with my flashlight anyway. Well, except for the ground every time I tripped and fell. The other runners probably thought I was drunk
as many times as I fell. And cussed.
When the trail finally opened up I took off like I was running a 10k and quickly caught the leaders, eventually taking the front spot. This didn’t last long and I dropped back into about 10th place where I tried to regroup and settle into a pace. The rain was steady but the trail wasn’t too bad. Yet. Around mile 11, I heard my name and looked up to see Charley in the lead of the 25k crowd. They started an hour later than the 50k. We ran together for a few minutes and he pushed on for the win. Did I mention he is freakishly fast? The 50k course was basically the 25k ran in both directions so it was nice to see Charley at the “turn around”.
This was where things got interesting. Running the course backwards was much different. The course had become a soupy mess after so many 25 and 50k runners had crossed. It was like running an entirely different course. I slipped and slid along the trail sometimes going up, down and sideways. At one point, around mile 22, I was powering up a hill with my head down and really pushing when I came to a sudden stop and fell straight back. As I pulled myself up from the ground I realized what had happened….. a tree jumped out and hit me. That or I ran straight into it. Whatever. A quick glance behind to make sure nobody had witnessed this mess and I was off.
Two miles later I came to an unmanned aid station. Awesome. Time to refill “ye olde water bottle” and rehydrate. Huh? My bottle was gone. Guess I lost it when the tree attacked me. This was not good because I still had about 7 miles to go (a little extra as it turned out) and the rain had stopped leaving it warm and muggy out. I grabbed a Dixie cup and filled it 398 times before moving on. The course was marked very well so I can’t really blame anybody for the wrong turn I made at mile 29. Fortunately I realized my mistake in less than ½ a mile and turned around. I hit the finish line in 6 hours 5 minutes. Only 30 minutes behind the winner. Guess it had been a rough day for everybody but my time was good for 6th overall and first in my age group.
Many lessons learned here…. (1) New shoes are fine to wear for 31 miles in the mud but Oklahoma mud stinks and the shoes must be thrown away. (2) When running on the trail watch for unfriendly trees. (3) Carry a handheld water bottle. (4) On single track trails always announce and pass on the left. (I was schooled by a not-so-friendly veteran) (5) Don’t turn left when you should stay straight. (6) Train for the distance or you will feel like death.
This should have cemented the fact that I was indeed an ultra runner. Not sure why but I always felt like a fraud if I told somebody I was indeed an “Ultra Marathoner”. I knew that 50 miles was entirely too far for me to attempt and 100 miles was just plain stupid so this was it. Technically an ultra is anything over 26.2 but, for me, I still had some doubt. It was fun to joke around with close friends but in my mind- I was not an ultra runner. For that matter, I questioned whether or not I was even a marathoner or “real” runner. It had only been 3 years since I started running.
An interesting thing happened in late 2009 and early 2010. Something that had nothing to do with running yet it had a huge impact on MY running future. Both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer. In just a few months time everything in our lives flipped upside down. It’s weird how you can go through life and just ignore something as big and evil as cancer but that’s what I had done for 37 years up to that point. Sure I knew that my grandfather had died from cancer back in ’76 but I was barely out of diapers and watching Sesame Street back then. This was the first time cancer had a true and real impact on me. To keep my mind clear during this time I would skip out of the hospital for a run. This is when I stopped asking “Why” and started asking “What are you going to do about it?” I came up with a plan. It was time to go long.
The decision to raise money for the American Cancer Society through the Relay for Life was simple. The hard part was figuring out HOW to get people to donate. The Honor Scroll was an idea that I had heard about on a podcast. Somebody had ran a marathon while carrying names of those touched by cancer. I loved the idea but knew that I would have to do something a little different to make it work. I found a 50 mile trail run in Arkansas that looked like a rugged and challenging course. Not that the 50 miles wasn’t challenging enough by itself but why not throw in some rocks, creeks, single track trails and one pretty intense climb over Pinnacle Mountain? Seemed insane to me. Perfect. Now I just had to convince Charley that he should do it too.
We ended up with close to 200 names on the scroll and around $1,200 raised for the ACS. Charley did line up with me and even managed to raise some money for the Special Olympics. He did this by wearing a cotton shirt with sponsor names on it. Yes. I said cotton. We were ready. Charley and I ran together for about 35 miles. At this point he was having trouble with a twisted ankle and I was actually getting stronger and feeling good. At his urging I went ahead and pushed towards the finish line. The next 13 miles passed with relative ease. I had passed a few people and thought I was in about 5th place. As I ran the final two miles my pace quickened and I cried. The tears came fast as I thought about the names on the scroll, the journey WE had made together and the importance of fighting back. I crossed the finish line at 8 hours 47 minutes for 3rd place overall.
The sense of accomplishment upon finishing the 50 miler was beyond any previous feelings. Bigger than the first marathon. It felt like maybe, just maybe, I had found the “perfect” distance and that maybe, just maybe, I was an ultra runner. I’m sure that I’ve experienced the elusive runner’s high other times but this time there was no doubt. I was high as a kite and loving every minute of it. To show up for my first 50 miler with the Honor Scroll and the pressure of the many “eyes” watching via the different social networks and actually surpass all of my predictions and expectations was unbelievable. It was awesome. For about 2 days.
There is a quote attributed to Lou Holtz that says, “If what you did yesterday seems big, you haven’t done anything today.” This is one of my favorites and it was stuck in my head as I limped around the following week. I couldn’t help but look forward and wonder what was next. For the first time, I felt like my running had made a difference. That it had an impact. That it had meaning. A purpose. It was like I had discovered the secret to running. It had nothing to do with the distance or a stupid claim to an imaginary title of “ultra marathoner”. The secret was much simpler. Find a cause bigger than yourself, give it your all and never, never quit.
Two months later I found myself running laps on the high school track. It was the middle of June, the temperature was in the 90’s and I was wearing a pink tutu in full view of hundreds of people. This was the best I could come up with? Wearing this ridiculous thing in public? Embarrassing not only myself but my wife and her family, all life-long residents of this community? Yep. This was my grand plan. It seems silly but I learned a lot that night. (1) 54 miles on a track is a lot of laps. (2) 54 miles on a track is easier than it sounds if you do it for the right reasons. (3) People seem to like it when a dude wears a pink tutu. (4) I no longer cared if people laughed at me.
The rest of the year was a blur filled with some great experiences and many firsts. I decided to try a small sprint triathlon. Not that big of deal except I wanted to see if I could do it without training for the swim or bike portions. Jumping in the lake for the open water swim was a little wild considering I had zero clue how to “swim”. I didn’t drown and went on to survive the bike portion on an antique Schwinn mountain bike that topped out at 16 mph. Overall it was a ton of fun. Really dumb but fun. In October I ran a 50k while wearing the pink tutu and raised a few bucks for the ACS. Lots of laughs before the race. I placed 5th overall and that seemed to quiet things down some. A week later I managed to hit my first sub 3 marathon and then did it again two weeks later. I was feeling good but started to get that old nagging feeling that maybe I needed to something BIG.
I started kicking around the idea of running a 100 miler. It was just a thought. A far fetched idea. And then I signed up for the Rocky Raccoon 100 without really thinking it through. Once I was financially committed it was time to find a crew. Who else but Jon and Charley? They had both run enough training miles with me to understand how my sometimes irrational mind worked. After a couple of quick phone calls they were both on board and excited, I think, about the upcoming experience. Now I just had to “train”. This is an area that I’ve always struggled with. In the beginning, I could rely on the inter-webs and magazines to find a one size fits all plan and tweak it to my needs. Lately, I had relied on the “shut up and run” plan that had worked well and brought PR’s in every distance over the past 6 months. I decided that plan would probably be good for a 100 miler too.
I decided to use this event as another fundraiser figuring that 100 miles might bring a few dollars for the ACS. When I lined up it had brought in over $1,100 in donations. I was pumped to be running for those touched by cancer. It was easy to push past the pain and the overwhelming desire to quit. Charley and Jon kept me in the game and each paced me for 20 miles. I honestly never felt so bad as I did during the last 20 miles of that night. In fact I’m pretty sure I would have quit had it not been for the great honor of running for so many. Crossing the finish line in 20 hours 59 minutes and receiving the sub 24 belt buckle was an unbelievable feeling. It took me a little while to understand that I had actually done it. The same dude that could barely run 1 mile only 5 years before had crossed the finish line in a 100 miler.
Two weeks. That’s how long it took for my body to recover. Two weeks. I decided that I wasn’t cut out for this craziness. Never again. Not me. No way. Screw that. <—Seems familiar. Yep. A return to Rocky Raccoon in 2012 proved much better on all fronts. WE raised $1,700 for the ACS, Jon and Charley both came to crew but this time Jon ran the 50 miler. His first ultra distance. Two months after running his first marathon. I was fortunate enough to watch him cross the finish line and it gave me a huge boost to push on through. Everything felt much better and there was never a huge desire to quit. I even found the energy to drink beer at mile 73. And mile 93. Life was good. Despite very muddy and wet conditions I crossed the finish line in 20 hours 43 minutes. Nothing sweeter than a PR on top of everything else. Recovery time was only days this time around. Much better.
In 2012, Jon and I started the Idiots Running Club. What started as a simple joke between friends caught fire and became a “thing”. The idea behind it is simple but there are always those that don’t get it….. Everybody that runs has at least one person in their life that will call them an idiot. Just the way it is. In most cases it is probably true. Only an idiot would do the things we do. Running in the heat, cold, rain, wind or snow. On the roads, trails or treadmills. Trips/vacations are planned around running events or training schedules. We set alarms on the weekends so we can go long. Ice packs, ace bandages, foam rollers, ibuprofen, and good old DIRT can fix any injury…… Face it. You are an Idiot. Might as well join the club.…
The IRC is all about having fun and not taking ourselves seriously. This works for me. I know that my fast pace is somebody’s slow pace. I know that my picture in a magazine or an age group state record is not that big of a deal. I shake my head at this junk knowing that it has zero impact on my next run. BUT it’s the kind of stuff that makes it fun for me. These are the kind of things that keep it loose. The kind of things that allow me to wear a pink tutu and run through the mud and laugh at myself. It really is much easier to go for a long run if you’re having fun.
I may be an Idiot but I’m not entirely stupid. I started training with PRS Fit founder and Coach, Jeff Kline. He has introduced me to heart rate training and strength training. The “shut up and run” method that I used in the past is not entirely gone. In fact, the more I train with Jeff I realize it wasn’t that far off. He still wants me to shut up and run. Just has me doing it a slower pace and for longer periods of time and more miles. Funny thing is…. I have avoided injury and have never felt stronger as a runner. With my third 100 miler coming up in just a few weeks it will be very interesting to see how I fare after following the advice of somebody that actually knows how to run.
So that’s it. There’s a ton of things I’ve left out and I may revise this in the future to include some of those details. Running has brought many changes to my life. Beyond the obvious health benefits it has provided. I look at the world a little differently and am a little less likely to judge people without having a few facts. I’m also less likely to care if they do judge me. I have learned that PR’s and medals are great but watching your friends rise to a challenge and set their own PR’s is even better. Some people will dismiss what you do out of jealousy or ignorance and others will treat you like a Rock Star. I have learned that both are equally important for the ego. Running for a cause bigger than myself will always, always, always outweigh any personal accomplishment.
When I started this journey back in 2006, there was never a thought that I would become a runner. Once I became a runner it took awhile to understand that running is an ever changing experience that is completely different for each person. It is a personal journey that brings about many different experiences, emotions and sense of purpose. I’m still struggling to understand where I fit within the running community. To say that I have found my niche as an ultra guy, cause runner or an Idiot would be silly and premature….. I’m still evolving, yo.