Monday, January 13, 2014

Lost Opportunity - 2014 Bandera "50K" Report

How I spent my New Year's Eve.  An omen of things to come. 

When a person approaches their physical limitations, a mental chess game occurs, where the brain must reconcile the extreme demands placed on your body, versus the current integrity of the system and the potential reward for that effort.  It is a law that governs all activity, but is especially applicable to running 62+ miles through rock-strewn, cactus-laden desert.

That said, I'm convinced that if dropping out* does not cross a runner's mind each time they race, they're simply not running their hardest.

(*or somehow relenting in other ways, such as slowing dramatically, or resting at aid stations)

However, there comes a time in every race, beyond that chess game, when you make the decision to go all in: when commitment is total, you buy in - body, mind, and soul - and you push with everything you've got. 

I live for that moment; those are the those rare, special moments that - if lucky - happen a handful of times a year.

But to get there, you have to suffer, you have to endure; you have to be able to get to that place.  And to get there, you need proper preparation, patience, and more than a bit of good luck. 

My training in preparation for the Bandera 100K was specifically aimed at that commitment.  Since late-July, I have done next to no speed work.  Instead, I went back to the aerobic drawing board, focusing on absolute aerobic strength - power - with long, easy, restorative runs: the type of work that I did so well in 2011 that set me up for my terrific 2012 campaign.

After three solid months of aerobic power, I began to run hard - with a purpose.  Instead of arbitrary track and tempo work, I hit the trails: tempos and intervals, all on the trails, and all at the end of long runs.  The purpose was to lubricate the commitment switch: fatigue the system, the force it to run hard.

The results were striking: long runs of 3-5 hours, with 30-60 minute hard-charging finishes.  I was shocked with how strong these runs felt, and how fast I could run, despite the lack of conventional speedwork (or mid-run fueling!).

I ran big miles in December, as I did in 2011, but nearly all at low-intensity.  After a terrific work-out race on the 14th, I felt strong and ready for Bandera.

Logistically, I would replicate the pre-race schedule from 2012: travel back to Wisconsin for the holiday season, rest there for a week-plus, then travel directly to Texas.  This plan worked beautifully last time: I was able to have a relaxing, enjoyable time consisting of easy running, spending time with friends and family, and resting. 

Tux Selfie at my cousin' John's wedding.  I made that $#!t look good.

Action shot of the groomsmen and ushers.

But from the get-go, those plans began to unravel.  After a family wedding in northern Minnesota, the bottom absolutely fell out of the thermometer - and my body, with it.  Temperatures plummeted below-zero, making for miserable mileage back in Wisconsin.  But I pressed on with the big mileage (12-18 miles per day), knowing I had but one more week of work - and limitless rest ahead.

Sunday morning in Duluth, MN.  Cold as hell. 
On Monday night before New Year's, I met one of my best friends for a night run in our hometown.  The temps were below zero, but winds were calm.  It was a great run that allowed us to catch up for the first time in months.  While we ran for over 45 minutes through the quiet darkness, I failed to warm-up in the slightest.  I felt frozen, fatigued, and..."off", but I chalked it up to fatigue.

That night, when I went to sleep, I dreamt that I was really sick.  But when I awoke, it wasn't a dream.

I was sick.  Really sick.

Since changing my diet to include high volumes of raw vegetables and fruits, and cutting processed foods five years ago, I rarely get sick.  Often, a virus will sneak up on me: I'll have an "off day" at work, then realize, "Oh, crap!  I guess I'm sick!", only to feel 100% the next day.

When I awoke on New Year's Eve, there was no doubt: I felt  f#@&ing terrible.

I canceled plans for New Year's Eve, and hunkered down, anticipating a down day, maybe two. 

That sickness - undoubtedly the flu, which hammered the Twin Cities area that week - knocked me flat-out for a week.  The fever was so bad that my whole body hurt, and it was all I could do to lie next to my mom's gas fireplace for hours at a time.  Running was absolutely out of the question; even if it wasn't zero degrees out, I didn't have the energy to leave the house, let alone exercise.

My cocktail of choice on New Year's Day.
The fever lasted for six days.  I ran again for the first time on Sunday, January 5th: a mile-and-a-half run cut short because my toes went painfully numb. 

It.  Sucked. 

There would be no enjoyable morning runs, or socializing with friends and family.  Even reading a book was too painful, mentally.  Instead, I intermittently zoned in a out of consciousness, especially since sleeping at night was made difficult by stifling congestion and overall claustrophobia from the blankets required to keep the chills away.

I looked on the bright side: "At least I'm getting this out of the way now".  I thought I had plenty of time to recover - and the off-work time to fully rest - so I could be 100% for Bandera.  But as the illness dragged on, into the next week, the clock was ticking.  I did several short runs on race week, but they were either in breath-stealing cold -- I ran a single mile at an air temperature of -23F (wind chill -50F?) on Monday -- or in the ultra-dry air of the indoor track - neither of which were amenable to a sore throat and irritated lungs.

A little easy running at the Knowles Center in the WS 2013 vintage Pearl Izumi N2's.

Getting some mileage in with Evan J the Tuesday before race day.
On Wednesday night, I did my final cold-weather run, in "luxurious" zero-degrees  conditions, and I coughed for an hour afterward.  But the fever had abated and I felt rest and ready to go.


We flew from Minneapolis to San Antonio on Thursday morning.  A special treat was having my great friend Jimmy - a veteran of the '12 and '13 WS campaigns - actually fly our plane from MSP to SAT!  Very cool, and a first for him to have friends or family on one of his flights!

Jimmy in the cockpit of his CRJ. 

Jimmy showing his versatility in fixing the overhead bin door above my seat.
An action shot of me, my mom Meredith, and Jimmy from the cockpit of the CRJ, upon landing in San Antonio.
Getting into San Antonio was a breath of fresh air.  Literally.  To feel and smell life-giving warmth and moisture in the air was uplifting. I got my own car rental and headed to central San Antonio to run.  In '12, I found a fun little urban playground - Brackenridge Park - filled with fun, undulating zig-zagging single track.  I went back there in '14.  The temps approached 70 degrees; so glorious was it that I ran shirtless, zipping up and down the short, steep hills, conjuring the steep, rugged hills less than two days away. 

From there, I drove west to Bandera and convened with my mom and her friend Teri at a vacation rental two blocks off the main drag.  We had a relaxing evening, and I slept well.

Assorted images from Bandera, Friday morning.

 On Friday, there was the usual pre-race nerves.  Anxiety has been a big issue for me in the past year-plus; it smothered me prior to Western States and my goal for 2014 is to better manage it.  It begins by managing expectations, but it also has to do with setting the mind and spirit in the right place, prior to the race.

Mark Allen is a huge inspiration and role model for me as an athlete.  In a recent blog post on his coaching website, he talks about pre-race preparation and the importance of "having a conversation with the mountain".  That idea - of talking it out with the course - was a phenomenal one.

So, on Friday afternoon, I drove to the Hill Country State Natural area to check in and get in a warm-up jog.  Last time, I ran the first mile of the course; this time, I decided to do the last mile.  I ran uphill to the plateau of the last climb.  Then, at the precise point where I passed D-Bo in 2012, I hiked off trail a bit, into the scrub.  I had a seat on some rocks, and "talked to the mountain".

I talked about the importance of listening to my body - and the mountain - and only taking what it would give me in the first lap; to be patient and composed early; to be confident and strong in the middle sections, and only in the last third would I truly compete - as I had done in 2012.  I talked about the importance of gratitude - of this opportunity to run amongst old friends, to meet new ones, and to explore my own limits.  Lastly, I talked about keeping perspective: the reality that whatever happens tomorrow - great or not - I am lucky to have a terrific life that will scarcely change either way, regardless of the outcome. 

Then I ran back down the mountain.

I felt at peace and ready to run.

That night, I had one bit of business: I drove across town to Camp Terranova.  Super-Crew Meredith, my good luck charm from the '12 race, agreed to help crew me, in addition to Paul.  I gave her a couple bottles and my water and honey mix.  We chatted a bit before I headed back to the house for dinner and an early bed.

The curse of the Number 1 Bib.  Photo: Meredith.
I slept well on Friday night; a rare gift.  I was up at 5 and out the door by 5:45, and parked at the course by 6:15.  I had a great dynamic warm-up and easy jogging before the sunrise start.  I finally ran into Jorge at the start line: he was jacked up and ready to go, in classic "Mr. Wonderful" fashion.  I was my usual subdued self.  I gave a quick greeting to Brian Condon, a fellow UW-La Crosse graduate and cross-country runner from my PT school days.  David Laney bounded about on those 2:18 marathon legs, and Chikara Omine stood on the start line, hungry for more than just three dozen Krispy Kremes.  RD Joe Pruisatis counted down to zero, and we were off. 

Morning at Hill Country SNA.  Photo: Meredith
Meredith helps get my USATF ID on right.  Photo: Casie.
Ready to go.  Photo: Meredith.

The Start Line.  Game faces.  Photo: Casie.
We're off.  Photo: Miles Ellis.
I was shocked at how easy things went out.  We ambled along the 600m of flat, wide double track, a whole group of fellas, including a few unknowns.  Jorge and I talked briefly, pre-race.  I told him about the "typical" huge drop-offs from the first to second laps: commonly >30 to upwards of 60 minutes slow-down, and I talked about the importance of running easy and pushing the second lap. 

As we hit the narrow, rugged single track of the first climb, the field strung out: Terranova surprisingly right up there beside Laney, who seemed remarkably conservative.  Condon and Jorge were just ahead of me up that first climb.

My focus on the first lap would be as much aerobic discipline as possible: conservative climbs, then hard downs and focused flats.  As such, I fell back a bit on each climb - even as Jorge power-hiked ahead of me.  But instead of easily catching up on the downs/flats, I struggled to maintain contact, as my legs felt flat and heavy.  By the time we approached the second climb, I fell back and lost contact with Jorge and the rest of the field.

I would see no other runner the rest of the day.

I felt relief in being alone to run my own plan; however, I was a little anxious about hitting the desired splits.  I wrote my '12 splits - good for a 4:00 opening lap - on my hand and I was determined to hit them. So you could imagine my dismay when I hit Nachos AS (5.5mi) over two minutes slow.  I got a quick bottle fill, then took off again.

After the undulating opening section that featuring two substantial climbs, the second segment to Chapas AS (~11 miles) is fast, forgiving trail, ripe for fast, easy running.  But my legs felt heavy, as if I was already on my second lap.  It was difficult to get them moving, but I hunkered down and focused on form: hip hinge, opening the pelvis, strong elbows.  I moved along.

My legs perked up a bit at times, but otherwise stayed flat.  With my inability to cruise the flats, my plans for an aerobic first lap were unraveling.

I hit Chapas another full two minutes slower than '12.  I was now four minutes down, but I didn't panic.  A seamless aid transition, thanks to Meredith, left me with two full bottles and a packet of S!Caps without breaking stride (sorry aid folks, but E!Caps and S!Caps aren't even close to the same: you might as well call those "I Can't Believe It's Not S!Caps")

Chapas AS (Mile 11): Meredith Terranova gives me a quick bottle and S!Cap fix like a champ. 
I already look like shit.  Photo: Meredith
Chapas to Crossroads #1 (~15 miles) is even more runnable: mostly flat, smooth, buttery singletrack nearly the whole way.  But I continued to struggle.  I felt so heavy, almost achy, everywhere.  The D-word began to creep into my mind.  But as I shuffled along, I still felt strength: my legs wouldn't go, but I felt like I could run that pace all day.  "I won't slow down", I told myself.  I thought if I could just grind that pace all day, unrelenting, I could still come back.

For some reason, the section to Crossroads was shortened.  Although I was noticeably slower, my split into Crossroads #1 (40:xx) was 4 minutes faster than '12.  Suddenly, I was "on pace".  Another quick aid-less station bottle exchange and I was off again, buoyed by the notion that I might still hit close to 4:00 for the first 50K.

The section to the Three Sisters was desolate.  I saw no one as I ran away on the doubletrack, then onto the steep, rugged, sotol-crowded "trail" up the namesake triple-climb.  I felt clumsy and weak on this section, yet the energy was solid.  There was hope.  I shuffled my way through the ridiculous sotol plants and hit the 50K runners as the trail gave way to doubletrack again. 

I continuously checked my watch, approaching, then exceeding my '12 split of 37 minutes.  Ugh.  I finally hit Crossroads #2 at 41:xx. "How could I be a minute a mile slower?", I thought. Meredith was gone, and Teri had my bottles - another bad sign.  Deflated, I continued on.

Fueling was good: I guzzled the honey water, which tasted great, and chased it with water.  I drank an average of 2/3 of each bottle between each aid station.  I didn't have to pee, yet felt like I could.  I was neither thirsty or low.  I just felt...heavy.

Things really began to unravel after Crossroads 2.  The trail was littered with 50K runners and I struggled to get past them.  Not because they wouldn't let me pass, but because I was so heavy, so slow, that I struggled to reel them in. 

My whole body began to ache.  My head throbbed.  It was warm and sunny - nearly 70 degrees - but I felt cold. 

Sickening.  I was so done.  It was over.

I shuffled along toward Last Chance.  My body was shutting down.  But I was committed to getting back to the start.  My section to Last Chance - normally a brisk 33 minutes - was over 40 and included several walking spells. 

Hitting Last Chance I was shocked to see my mom and Teri there, along with Dave James, cheering me through.  I should've dropped right there, but mentally, I hadn't quite wrapped my head around it, and the thought of walking out of that aid station, then another "ride of shame" to the start/finish was out of the question.

I refused bottled or aid, and shuffed on to the last section.

Any doubts about dropping were completely erased on the double climb and descent to the finish. I felt terrible.  My legs were shutting down completely and I found myself walking down the rugged, ridiculous technical rock characteristic of this section.

As I shuffled along, I had flashbacks to '12 - when I first saw D-Bo on that first climb, aggressively gobbling up the rocky trail, methodically reeling him in - while cramping.  There'd be no such glory today, only memories.  Finally, finally, I hit that final plateau, when I rushed past him and plummeted down the hill. 

This time, I picked my way slowly, nearly tripping several times.  Finally, I bottomed out, and shuffled to the start/finish. 

It was packed with spectators.  Lots of cheering for Bib #1 that was wholly undeserved, and unwelcome.  Teri offered bottles, I waved them off.  I crossed the mat and asked for Joe. 

I turned in my chip.  Done. 

I felt just miserable.  I laid on the grass, in the pure sun of the day, feeling achy and cold.  Moments later Fernando, Jorge's friend, came in.  Shortly after, Queen Meghan, having a great day. 

I didn't stay long after that.  I was angry, utterly disappointed.  I wanted out of there. 

I drove the half hour back to the house.  I showered, ate a bit, and laid around.  I watched the race unfold via Twitter.  Jorge was nailing it.  It was hard to watch.  I wanted him to run well, but I wanted to be there with him.  "F#@% that, I'm not going back!" quickly turned into, "F@#%, I gotta go!".  I dragged my ass out of bed and got in the car.

I made it back with minutes to spare before Jorge charged the finish line in record time: 8:02:27.  Most notable was how he did it: his 3:48, 4:15 (+27) is the best turnaround in the history of the race.  Laney wasn't far behind (8:07), and Chikara ten minutes behind him.  That trio will be joining Paul Terranova - who came in a distant forth - in toeing the line in Squaw Valley in June.

I stuck around and chatted with the guys, namely getting some details from Jorge about his day.  I'm so proud of him.  I know he didn't have to the 2013 that he wanted to have in the major ultra races, so to see him storm Bandera, take the win and the course record, was a major statement and progression in his career.  He deserves that prize. 

Then, after Paul came in, I took off and headed back to see the family. 

Jorge wrapping up the win and CR.
Me and The Champ.

Jorge and David Laney, 1 and 2.  Not Pictured: me, taking third...

The Terranovas all smiles after another successful campaign.  Paul should not let Gary Gellin know what his splits were.

In many respects, this entire trip was a utter disaster: instead of a relaxing, enjoyable time with friends and family, I spent the bulk of it in dogged sickness, miserable, bored, and lonely.  I hardly saw any friends, and my family time was truncated (indeed, I got my own brother sick, so that, once I was starting to improve, he was miserable).  I barely ran, I didn't relax.  And I missed the hell out of my girlfriend, who was two thousand miles and - at times - felt lightyears away. 

But, in retrospect, I feel tremendous gratitude for the experiences I did have: I got to spend a bunch of great time my with nephew Evan J (including some track and football last Tuesday) and niece Josie (I have the "uncle record" of >10 minutes holding her without intense crying - on either of our parts!).  I had a couple important conversations with my mom and sister.  And even Chelsea and I processed some really important issues during that time.  Indeed, more was accomplished than I realized at first glance.

But the best treat was meeting my mom's half-brother - my "half uncle"! - Miles and his wife and daughter.  They drove down to the race and spent the weekend with us.  For me, focused on the race, this was a bit of an afterthought going into the weekend, but it turned into the highlight of the weekend.  He's a great guy and I was shocked, flattered, and incredibly grateful for his encouragement and warmth towards me and my efforts on Saturday.  That, and yet again, there was another group of folks who've never seen an ultra who left that day, touched and impressed by the special-ness of the experience. 

My mom and her half-brother, my Uncle Miles. 

The family!  L to R: Leslie, OOJ, Meredith, Miles, Casie.  Photo: Teri.

The faithful cheering crew, waiting at Chapas AS (L-R): Teri, Casie, Miles, Meredith.  Photo: Leslie.

So not all was lost.  As the dust settles on the race, and this trip, I am left searching for important lessons and things gained from the rubble of lost opportunity.  The time spent with those folks - my family - stands out the most right now. 

The Grades

Mechanics: B/C.  Very mediocre.  I felt left hamstring tightness early, but was able to self-correct.  I felt like I was using my hips and arms well, early.  But in the last ten miles, when the body shut down, so did the stride.  It was rough.  Post-race, my right calf and ankle were stressed, and my left hip and adductors over-worked.  Clearly my right hip extension was off.  Again.  (In retrospect, I feel like my old right foot favoring has returned.  Damn.)

Pacing: N/A.  Irrelevant.  I listened to my body, and I was slow.  Then I got really slow.  If anything, I should've DNF'd five miles earlier. 

Fueling: A-.  With terrific crewing from Meredith (and Teri), fueling was seamless.  Overall, for 50K, I took only one bottle of Gatorade as aid from any of the five aid stations, an all-time low of external aid for a big-time ultra.  Felt no low-points whatsoever on the honey-water mix.  No gels, no food.  I took two S!Caps, chewing both.  I finished a bit low on fluids, but I stopped forcing fluid in the last seven+ miles.

Mental Toughness: B-.  Not great.  I tried to stay positive and make the best of a failing system, but there was no overcoming it.  On the plus side, I controlled pre-race anxiety really well and was composed, early.

Joy: C-.  Not great.  Very little to be joyful about, but I avoided a flat-out failing grade by returning to the finish to cheer on the top four guys.  That was, by far, the hardest part of the whole day.

Worst of all?  I'm off the JW Christmas Card List, again!  I wonder how many results in a lifetime ban? 
Closing Thoughts...

Logistically speaking: now what?

Of course, several post-race conversations centered around how else to get a Ticket:
  • Sean O'Brien?  No way: too fast, too soon.  
  • Rocky Racoon?  A hundred-miler in three weeks?  That's a real stretch.  
  • Sonoma? The most competitive race of the spring? Wishful thinking.  
  • Ice Age?  Three weeks after Sonoma, and in May?  It smells of desperation...but maybe.
But, maybe I need to truly be OK with not racing Western States: to give back, work medical at Michigan Bluff, or pace.  Give something.  Either way, I feel compelled to accept what happened this weekend and commit to the long-term: to resting, regrouping, and giving my best efforts going forward in '14, wherever that may be. 

The immediate plan (subject to change):
  • Two to three weeks off of formal run training
  • Spend time focusing on other areas of my life (my relationship, work, being a better partner, brother/son/uncle)
  • One week completely off of any exercise (other than yoga)
  • Resume light strength training (from which I've already rested the past two weeks) in one week
  • Resume swimming and light cycling in the second and third weeks

As for my racing?  I don't know where I stand.  It's so difficult to fail yet again at a major race; to again feel left out from what the rest of the fellas are doing.  It touches old wounds for me, and it makes me question, once again, whether or not I'm good enough to run with these guys, to be mentioned in the same breath as the Maravillas and Laneys of ultrarunning. 

Clearly, my role as a high-level competitor in the ultrarunning community is undoubtedly finite as I age and races become more and more competitive, but is that chapter already over?  I sure hope not, but days like these make me truly question that.  

But, as my Grandpa told me over the phone on Saturday, "Well, SHEEEEIT, JOEY!  You gotta take the bad with the good!" 

Wise words.  


  1. Wow. Great report Joe. This must have been hard to write. You did the best you could for the day. Sometimes you just can't control what happens on race day. You'll get them next time!

  2. Sick is sick! Nothing you could do about that. Your days are far from over. Looking forward to getting back out there with you and seeing how you approach your next goal.

  3. Joe, thanks for being so transparent. I've had races like that as well, where my body (ITB) hates me. I hope you find it in you to pull together another amazing race in the future. You sound like its there. Its just going to have to be the right day. Looking forward to hearing about the rest of your 2014 year.

  4. Yes, you were sick, real sick...unfortunate as that was, it kept you from being in great readiness come race day.
    As a 62 year old who has been racing since 75....never give up, it just becomes more of a challenge! ;-)
    Good luck with the rest of the year, my guess is things will now turn around and you'll be up there with the big boys again.

  5. Joe, from our discussions and my following your career, I'll say yes, you ARE good enough to run with the best. You're on a journey: enjoy it, you've come farther than you realize. The time will come when you don't need to think about splits, they happen; you don't need to think about form, it's there; you don't need to think about chasing down the runner in the lead, the runners behind you do. Cheers, Bruce

  6. There is no doubt you can hang with these boys and gettin sick can mess with your head as we never quite admit to what it can and will take out of us. Rest up, heal up, and you'll smash the next one Joe!