I didn't walk how you said I should walk/
I walk how I do walk/
And that's fine.
It didn't go how you said it would go/
It went how it did go/
And that's fine.
- Tom Rosenthal [Take Your Guess]
The many summits of the Skyline trail in Manning Park are among the most beautiful places in the world. Jagged rocky peaks stand sharp against a brilliant blue sky, and white glaciers sit in the shade of the north-facing slopes. It is impossible to be in such a place and not enjoy it, as badly as your day may be going.
I will not hide it - I truly really really wanted my first ultra win at Fat Dog this year. After a couple of race cancellations on my part, I had made this my goal race for the year and was looking forward to crushing it. My training has progressed significantly from last year, and I knew that if I could stay out of aid stations and keep moving I would have a good shot at challenging Vincent's 8:32 course record from last year. The plan for the race was simple - go out at a comfortable pace, slow down a bit during the hot sections from Sumallo to Skyline aid stations (km 16-48) to keep my legs fresh, then hammer up and over Skyline trail to the finish.
The weather was perfect for the 9 am start, not too cool but going to be a warm day. I took the lead from the start and enjoyed the section from Cayuse to Cascade. My nutrition plan was literally clockwork - a simple 22 minute timer to remind me to eat a gel, maintaining a steady 300 calories per hour.
Running into Sumallo Grove aid station I was feeling perfect and was happy enough with my pacing at just under course record pace. I still had lots of gels, but filled up a couple of water bottles before heading out between the gigantic cedars beside the river. The early part of this 17 km section was nice and shaded, and reasonably cool along the river. After a while though, the trees cleared a little and the clear sunshine filtered through.
Then I ran out of water.
This was such a rookie mistake, and I'm still coming to grips over it. Although I only ran perhaps 20 minutes without water, this was not good - I don't have too much warm weather experience anyways, and couldn't risk getting dehydrated at all. Most of the people I passed along this stretch were wondering where on earth the aid station was - it really felt longer than 17 km, but I think we just didn't do as much research as we should have - I know I had forgotten exactly how far it was to Shawatum. This was the start of the end of my race.
Stage two in my problems happened just as I was heading into the aid station. Breathing in a deep sigh of relief, I inhaled a fly. Not just a normal in-and-spit-out, but a proper in-the-lungs aspiration. When I went to cough it out, I ended up retching for a few minutes instead. Even worse, I could still feel it in there, causing the retching reflex.
The aid station volunteers at Shawatum were awesome, and I left with lots of water and a renewed supply of gels. Five minutes on the trail and my timer went off, and as normal I pounded a gel. Immediately I felt it coming back up, and fifteen seconds later I was hunched over the side of the trail. I drank to replenish the water I had lost, and waited a few minutes to let things settle. Unfortunately the next gels came straight back up as well. And the next. And the next. I don't know if it was overdoing the gels, the heat, the short time without water or the retching from the bug, but my stomach was NOT happy with me.
I was losing energy and water fast, and focussed on just making it 15 km to the Skyline aid station. I knew I needed to sit, drink and eat something other than gels. I was also getting worried about my salt supplies since all the chips I had eaten had going out as well.
I made it into Skyline Aid a few minutes under course record pace with my legs feeling fresh and ready for the climbs. This was supposed to be the moment I'd waited for - quick change of gear and up over the final 33 km to the finish, but it wasn't to be.
I sat, I ate, I got my bottles filled, I talked with the volunteers, then I found myself on all fours spewing into the dirt.
I tried pickles, ginger ale, chips, watermelon. I puked some more. I got myself off the ground just long enough to give Oleg a high-five as he came into the aid station.
I lay down in the shade, I used an ice pack to cool off, and I puked again. Regrettably I don't have any pictures to share of all this, I know you're just dying to see it for yourself.
Oleg headed back up the trail. I worked on getting things under control. Skyline trail is so remote, and I didn't want to go up there without some knowledge that I would at least be safe.
In the end, I stayed in the aid station for an hour and four minutes.
I need to thank the volunteers at Skyline Aid station. You brought me food, you filled my water, you moved a cot into a bug-free shelter and brought me ice. You kept me company and gave me every resource I could ask for. In return, you got to see a smelly tired runner puking his guts out. Thank you so, so much - I know Skyline Aid sees a lot of carnage, but know that there are so many people who continue because of the support that you give. Thank you.
I have no regrets - safety is the important thing. I didn't cause an evacuation on trail, and I didn't ruin anyone else's race by being overly reckless and needing help. I probably could've gone out a bit earlier and finished earlier, but to do so would have meant risking more than my own safety.
When I felt that at least my body temperature was under control, if not my stomach, I left the comfort and security and proceeded to walk hills that I had trained to run up. For a while I seriously considered turning around and earning my first DNF, but could picture that red entry on ultrasignup.com and just walked instead. I chewed gels and said "mmm!" to convince my sore and angry stomach that I was happily eating chocolate pudding, and managed to keep down perhaps 250 calories, which really isn't enough for 47 km of mountain running.
Even without fuel, my legs were pretty happy to keep on marching. I heard that I was still in second place for the 50-mile, and I started to pass a few 120-ers here and there. I took inspiration from these people who had been out for more than 160 km and 30 hours, and were still moving. I pushed away the the thoughts of a DNF and ignored the prospect of an afternoon's slow starvation as the alpine beauty opened up around me.
I hiked the uphills, I ran down and sometimes walked when it was flat. I tried to not fall down and to enjoy the views whenever I could look up. My brain was operating on a minimum of energy, and even now, 48 hours after my problems started, I am still having some trouble functioning (a record number of typos here). At times, you need to readjust your goals and enjoy where you are and what you are doing, regardless of whether it meets your previous expectations. Adapt and move on.
I crossed the finish line in 9:38, eight minutes slower than last year, and 1:06 behind the course record. My finish was pretty emotional for me, not least because of the weakened state I was in. After thanking Heather for a great event and explaining why I looked like I was dying I celebrated my second place finish with a series of all-fours puking and an hour and a half in the medical tent retching until my exhausted stomach muscles fell into fatigue. It wasn't until late that evening that I was able to keep any food down.
Sometimes things don't go to plan, and it is important to be adaptable and to learn from your experiences. It's also important to just be happy with things as they are, how they are. I'm just so grateful for having the chance to hang out with some amazing people for a weekend. Being a part of an event like this does put things in perspective, and I really have nothing to complain about. Yes, my day didn't go to plan, but that happens. As the shirt says, "suck it up whiney baby."
The only question is, what distance for next year?
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains