My foray into the Indiana Trails 100 mile endurance race came as the result of my first DNF at the Kodiak 100 mile endurance race in August of 2019. I had made several strategic mistakes leading into that event seven weeks earlier which resulted in my dropping out at the 25 mile point. I erred in not allowing enough time to adapt to altitude at Kodiak (7-10,000 ft. elevation), in deciding to use the race provided nutrition in lieu of my preferred Osmo + Gu system, and in attempting to go caffeine-less in the days leading up to the race. Massive headache, nausea, and gastronomic rejection of nutrition and hydration commenced about six hours into the race and I DNF’d after arriving at the 25 mile aid station with only ten minutes before the cut-off time.
Kodiak 100 was to be my “A” race for the season and I had selected it because of the six UTMB points that it offered for me to re-qualify for the 2020 UTMB lottery. A finish would give me 11 points out of the required 10 points and lock-in an entry place in either 2020 or 2021. Failure to garner the points basically means back to the end-of-the-line and start over again in the next lottery.
Upon returning home in the midst of that dejected, bewildered state which descends from an incomplete objective, I tried to remember some of the things I’d picked up in my recent 7 year ultra-running career: “If you don’t fail you’re not setting hard enough challenges”, “ Anything can happen on any given race day”, etc.
After a couple days of mucking around, I resolved to at least explore whether there was any possibility of salvaging my UTMB effort. This late in the season the number of race opportunities has dwindled and choices are few. So imagine my amazement when I discovered on Ultra-Signup the Indiana Trail 100: a 100 mile race worth 5 UTMB points in Albion, Indiana, just twenty mile from my mother-in-law’s home on Lake Wawasee. With only 8,000 ft. of vertical gain, five 20-mile loops at near sea level, a 30-hour cutoff, and seven weeks for me to retrain to peak, it looked very achievable. It was as if the stars had aligned: How could I turn down a chance at redemption!
In a Kodiak 100 debrief later the next day with my Ultra-Coach Bob Shebest we discussed a game plan for putting the DNF behind me. When Bob told me he knew exactly how I felt about dropping out in an ultra, there was absolutely no doubting the sincerity of his condolences; here was a professional level athlete and a senior recreational runner sharing the same experience. We discussed the next easy race, goals for next season, and potential remaining UTMB qualifiers including this 100 mile race in Indiana in early October. As the end of our telephone meeting approached Bob suggested that I really consider the IT100, to which I responded “Bob, I went ahead and signed up earlier this morning so I wouldn’t lose the spot”. Somehow I think he already knew…
About this same time I ran across an article in Trail Runner magazine by David Roche titled “So You Had A Crappy Race…Now What?” David’s article pretty much validated everything that I had been processing over the previous week. Particularly the premise that “Bad races are big opportunities if you let them be” and “You don’t run in spite of the trials. The trials are the whole point”.
So You Had A Crappy Race … Now What?
The 25 miles that I had put in at Kodiak had barely made a dent in my conditioning, and so ramping back up to the 100 mile race distance seemed easy at first. I managed a couple of near 70 mile training weeks and seemed to be on my way to peak performance four weeks out from race day when disaster struck. While out on a five hour peak-week training run at Lake Sonoma, I took a bad step which jammed my right knee, overloading the joint. I finished the remaining three hours of the workout, but the next day it was apparent that I had developed a full-blown case of patellar tendonitis, the dreaded “runner’s knee”. I nursed myself thorough the taper portion of that final training block and even arranged for a cortisone injection one week prior to race day in an attempt to placate my angry knee. The shot in the knee helped enough to turn my attitude back towards “Just finish the race in 30 hours and get the points, no matter what”. I received further instruction from this athlete’s favorite PT practitioner, Dave Townsend at Santa Rosa Physical Therapy, on how best to tape my knee for additional support in the event that it started giving me trouble during the race. (I probably looked a bit odd walking around before the race with one knee shaved in prep for a potential tape job).
The 6:00 am morning start saw temperatures of 34 degrees F, cold and breezy, but the rains had stopped and the course was drying out nicely. Huddled in the warm, cozy Main Tent at the Start/Finish I exchanged good luck wishes with my newly found friend from Sebastopol, Janice Bondar and her sister Linda Bondar who had traveled to Indiana for their first 100k attempt. Upon overhearing a remark that there were a bunch of people last year who started late because they were still in the tent, I decided to pry myself away from the flames of doom early in order to await the starting line outside in real conditions. Minutes later we were ushered off on our first 20 mile loop by race director Mike Pfefferkorn into two hours of cold, dark, breezy Midwest morning with the promise of an entire night of the same later that day.
One of the big lessons I’ve learned working with my coach Bob Shebest is the importance of managing my condition during ultra events. Personal race management starts with things that I can control such as equipment & clothing, fuel & hydration, pre-race sleep, etc. For race clothing I went with skin tight bottoms as recommended previously by Skip Brand, HRC; tech shirt with arm-warmers (for later removal, uh right); Patagonia long sleeve ventilated zip top, Patagonia nano puff vest, and a pair of recently commissioned Hoka Speedgoat 3 trail shoes. Two soft bottles filled with Osmo and a handful of Gu in my Salomon Skin12 vest and I was traveling lighter than I had in any previous ultras. This trail austerity was facilitated by the abundance of aid stations and volunteers on the fantastically well-appointed IT100 and the fact that forecast temperatures would be lower than I’m accustomed to in California. This meant that I could carry less fluids, hit up aid stations for additional calories every few miles, and adjust my kit and clothing every twenty miles at the Main Tent aid station.
At most ultra distance races, I’ve found a pre-race warmup unnecessary, and so I started this one out at a brisk race walking pace, which for me is around 14 min/mile. This fast-walk pace gives me time to warm up thoroughly, establish a sustainable baseline heart rate, and get a feel for the course. An added benefit was that I didn’t have to worry about tripping on obstacles or stressing any body parts early on. The bulk of the field gradually passed me by, but even at this fast-walk pace I could theoretically finish the 100 mile distance within the allotted 30 hour cutoff time. So I resolved to keep walking until daybreak, which in this westernmost portion of the Eastern Time zone would come at 8:00 in the morning, about two hours into the race near an aid station at the seven mile mark. Traveling with both a head-light and waist-light gives me better depth perception and allows my peripheral vision to follow my foot placements in the more diffused light of the waist-light. A dimming head-light called for an unplanned early stop to pull off the trail and replace the batteries, which saw me lose several more positions, but there was still a string of headlights behind me and it was very early in the race. Seven miles in and not a drop of sweat on my body, which is my goal for cold weather travel. In cold conditions like this, I figure that as long as I’m not sweating, and still making forward progress, I can keep up the pace indefinitely and with no risk of hypothermia. The no-sweat indicator has worked well for me in training and it played a key role in my success in this race.
Refilling of hydration supplies has been problematic for me over many races. I have gotten much better at getting-in and getting-out of aid stations, but I still suffer a significant time loss in fumbling with bottles, powder packets, refilling, etc. In this race, a single bottle refill and a couple bites of food at Mile 7 probably cost me five minutes. But I also used this opportunity to adjust my pack and rig from night-running to day-running mode. At about 180th place, this was the farthest back in the pack that I would be for the remainder of the race.
Once I started running at first daylight, the miles and aid stations just seemed to roll by. I only had to deal with one more hydration bottle delay at Mile 12 after which my superb crew (mother-in-law Peggy Walls at the race site and spouse Kim Walls running traffic control back home in Santa Rosa) executed flawless bottle refills and bottle drops for the remainder of the race, including hot tea & Gatorade fill-ups at key intervals during the night. I was prepared to solo the race and hadn’t counted on this level of support, but watching Peggy get into the spirit of the race competition made this a particularly memorable event for me! With her help, I was able to essentially skip three aid stations per loop and reduce my stops to only the Main Tent and the 12/32/52/72/92 mile aid stations. Consuming a 250 calorie + caffeine Spring Energy Speednut every 5-6 hours provided me with a noticeable boost as well. The effect on my progress was dramatic, and I continued to march up the field: 120th place at the 20 mile first loop, 84th at 40 mile second loop, 66th at 60 mile third loop, 41st at 80 mile fourth loop, and finishing 30th at 100 miles. Needless to say I never could have accomplished my best ever 100 mile time and finish without the support of my crew and the excellent volunteer staff at IT100.
I’ve never been on such a well maintained course: 100 miles of flowing single track, hard-packed wide trail, and off-camber grass (what an apropos description). Did I mention that many sections had gnarly roots painted fluorescent pink & orange? Major intersections were blocked off with yellow caution tape and signage was plentiful so there was never any doubt on route finding (There was that one sign that I missed at Mile 18 leaving the parking lot by Park Administration, but a fellow runner called out to save me). Beautiful autumn colors and falling leaves with a steady, crisp, cool wind, and filtered sunlight through the trees set the tone for the day. “Plan for anything, expect nothing” as coach reminds me before every race. So my in-race drama began with minor stumbles around 15 miles in: “Gosh, I’m shocked to find roots and rocks on this course” my body language projected to the runners around me. At about 25 miles came my first fall; a rock or root tripped me up, however I quickly shoulder-rolled and popped back up to my feet. A little dust, no serious damage, but the message was received: “This course is not inherently dangerous. But it is unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect”. Forewarned is forearmed I supposed; but not enough to save me from another negligent fall at Mile 35. This time I was not so lucky; in the blink of an eye an invisible hand at my feet launched me into the air with no point of contact. Fatigue slowed my reaction time and translated my ad hoc roll into a full shoulder tackle of the glacial esker with a sickening crunch. Thoughts of another humiliating DNF crossed my mind along with intense bargaining to walk or crawl the remaining 65 miles if necessary just to finish the race. Although this could just as easily have been a broken collar-bone incident, my ribs took the brunt of the impact, made worse by the hard tops on the two soft-bottles I was carrying at the front of my vest. I briefly walked back up the trail to see what had tripped me up amongst the leaves and trail detritus, but quickly concluded it was a waste of time as the runner behind me was closing in “Did you lose something, can I help you find it?” she offered with a smile. Just my dignity and sense of trail security I thought to myself. “If the bone ain’t showing then keep on going…” is the running adage that seemed to apply here. I wasn’t spitting up blood, there was no grinding noises from by ribs, and besides I was pissed off now. So nowhere to go but forward, keeping in mind that I’d been put on final notice: I had no more falls to give, a third and I would be out…
The idea of posting a sub-24 hour, 100 mile time was deep in the back of my mind leading up to the race. More of a fantasy than an actual goal, since part of the mental preparation I’ve been working on over the past four years is to let go of race outcomes while sticking to a primary goal of just finishing with an emphasis on running the best race that I can via good race management and strong execution. On paper, the IT100 looked like a potentially fast course compared to the other ultras that I had participated in. It is near sea level, with cool temperatures, and has modest vertical gain of only about 8,000 ft. Certainly a PR was possible, but a sub-24 finish might be a stretch and I could not afford to jeopardize those 5 UTMB points. On race day as I finished Loop 2 at a projected 20-hour 100 mile pace, the idea of a sub-24 hour finish took hold. All I had to do was maintain my current effort, keep eating & drinking, not get lost, not fall again, and not succumb to hypothermia. My legs were still strong and Loop 3 would be a total daylight run. Even so I rigged for night running and switched out of my cushy & grip-fast Hoka Speedgoat 3 shoes into my tried and trusted Saucony Ride 7 trainers (my 20th pair of this model) to take advantage of the additional ground clearance and extra toe-space for my swelling feet. This turned out to be a crucial decision for the better as my mangled toes would testify to at the conclusion of the race.
I had been told by wiser (not older, since hardly any of my running friends are older than me nowadays) that in a five-loop 100 mile race the fourth loop is the one to watch out for. The fifth and final loop pretty much takes care of itself because, well, you’re on the home stretch. But that fourth loop can really mess with your head. So, in this case, forewarned was a good thing and I proceeded to go out and crush Loop 4. I discovered that the roots and rocks were actually easier to see in the dark with my two headlight setup. The fluorescent-pink painted roots were a welcome sight now too. Kind of like running-by-numbers: put your right foot here, left foot there, hop this way, etc. Pre-stashed bottles at Mile 72 aid station and helpful volunteers sped me along. Getting lapped by the race leader at Mile 75 (Mile 95 for him) was really not such a bad thing; he seemingly wasn’t really running that quickly: “Heck I could probably move that fast…” came a fleeting thought. Peggy got me out of Main Tent aid at Mile 80 with hot tea and a fist bump in no time flat.
Shortly before Main Tent aid at Mile 80 the wheels had shown signs of coming off. Fatigue in my left calf turned to cramping, and thence to a total lock-up every time I stopped or slowed; my right Achilles was flaring red hot with friction trauma; and I couldn’t cough or blow my nose lest my ribs explode in pain. Just like Doc. Yinger had predicted, the original right knee patellar tendonitis with which I had come into the race had faded into the background as if to say “Why are you looking at me?” But I placed guilt on that knee anyway because I knew it had started a kinetic chain of events that was going to make my final 20 miles miserable.
Attempting to run after leaving Mile 80 I tried to engage running speed, but there was nothing there! Visualize the Millennium Falcon “Jump-to-Hyperspace” scene in Star Wars; I pushed the run button and there was no response. By now my left calf had cramped to the point that I could barely manage a walk; shots of pickle juice provided at least some psychological comfort. My right Achilles was burning with fire at every step; I hadn’t changed socks when I switched shoes and the accumulated friction had sent it over the edge. I knew from experience that both of these annoyances would heal with time, which I would have plenty of following this season-ender. But it was clear that my slowed pace wasn’t going to reconcile with the goal of a sub-24 hour finish, so a new tactical plan was in order. The words of my coach came back to me: “There’s no excuse for not playing good defense…” So that earlier sub-14 min/mile fast-walk baseline pace that I had refined at the start of the race? Yep, back to defense baby. Taking it to the bitter end, whatever that may be…
Pushing hard toward a sub-24 hour finish, I now resolved to run everything that looked runnable. In other words, any trail sections clearly free of rocks, roots, and obstructions mandated hustle. I focused on keeping my stride compact and my foot placement tight & contained within the worn portions of the single track. In the grazing light of my double-headlight setup, it became easier to avoid the land mines that had tripped me up earlier in the day. My world thus reduced completely to a small ribbon of dirt directly in front of me, I dwelt in flow state for the better portion of the night. No pity, no whining, and no projections: Just assess, manage, and keep moving forward…with certainty towards an uncertain end…
So it was at Mile 93 that I was surprised by an unfamiliar tone from my GPS watch. I glanced down just as the message faded out “Battery Critical Low – Saving Activity”…then nothing but a dark screen…WTF! I usually carry an extra charge battery with me because I know that my GPS unit can only go about 20 hours on a single charge. In retrospect, I had given it a quick boost at Mile 40 aid and it indicated 70% charge remaining so I had let it go. But I had also slowed down the last 60 miles, eating into my allotted time. Now I was seemingly screwed with no data for time, pace, or remaining distance (or heart-rate for that matter, although HR was irrelevant at this point as I had been nailing it in the zone all day). How was I to challenge a sub-24 finish with no watch? I just laughed at this nonsense because it was so ironic and fitting for the circumstances; in that moment I truly believed that I was right where I was supposed to be. I knew by scratch calculations in my head that I should be able to snag a sub-24 hour on paper, if I kept the pace up and finished strong. At this point, the only card remaining in my hand was the one marked “RUN YOUR ASS OFF” and now seemed like the right time to play it. So it was by pure dead reckoning and visceral feel that I finished the remaining 7 out of 100 miles, leaving everything out on the course, with perhaps my best splits of the entire race.
Crossing the finish line in 23:26:20 and collecting a sub-24 hour finisher’s buckle from Race Director Mike Pfefferkorn provided a much welcome sense of closure to a long season of growth, challenge, and learning for me. This season hadn’t come together exactly as planned, but as I went down the list of accomplishments: UTMB qualified…check; WSER qualified…check; 100 mile PR…check; sub-24 100 mile …check, I had to acknowledge that it was a very good year.
Become a hero in my own story…check.