50 Miler Done, Next Race…Hennepin Hundred!

If you talk to anyone in the Ultra community, they will tell you that running a 100 as your second ever ultramarathon is ludicrous. Well, it’s like I always say…I’ve never been accused of being sane. How much harder could 100 be than 50? It’s only twice as long. Plus, I have a newfound distrust of race directors so I will definitely do my research to make sure it’s a nice flat race (won’t be making that mistake twice). I figured a year to train ought to put me in pretty darn good shape for a hundred so the search began for the perfect race. After a lot of research and deliberation I landed on the Hennepin Hundred. Not too terribly far from where I live, super flat (I verified through multiple sources up to and including satellite imagery and topographical map study), toward the end of the year so I’d have plenty of time to train, and the trail condition was basically the same as what I run on every day (super non-technical crushed limestone). I also found out that Oswaldo Lopez would be running this year (previous winner of the Badwater 135) and he would be chasing the 100 mile world record.

Training for this race started out much the same as every other off-season training…weights. I know this is usually a topic that runners don’t like to talk about, but I’m not one of those runners. One of my undergraduate degrees is in Exercise Physiology and did some extensive research on the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes. Needless to say, I spend an embarrassing amount of time strength training as well as all the other goodies like core work, balance, power (plyometrics) and cross-training. I think there are not many 140 pound ultrarunners who are dead-lifting 350 pounds for reps. Anyways, I was getting strong in the off-season and putting together a solid (but boring) training plan for the 6 months leading up to the race. In my triathlon training, I mixed in some intervals and hill training. I went to the track for some workouts, and did my long slow days on the weekends. This year I’d be doing almost exclusively long slow runs just trying to build up my endurance base and the durability in my legs. If my benchmark for running 50 miles was to be able to knock out 10 miles in training like it was nothing, then the benchmark for 100 miles had to be something a bit more extreme. My goal for the summer was to be able to build up to back to back 20 mile days (20 miles on Saturday and 20 miles on Sunday). It was a long summer and I was able to knock out 4 or 5 of these back to back 20 mile weekends before I started ramping down for the race. I have to say that I felt pretty damn confident.

My wonderful wife would “crew” again for me on this race so I wanted to make sure I had a plan going in for her to meet me every so many miles at aid stations. This time she would just bring a mat that I could lay on and get a quick massage before continuing on. We figured that she’d meet me about every 10 miles (since that worked out pretty well for the 50 miler). The problem was that this was a point-to-point race so she’d have to do some driving and navigating by herself…at night (I think we know where this is going). I didn’t really change anything with my nutrition or hydration plan since it seemed to work out pretty well in all my other races. It didn’t strike me as odd that I had over 50 GU packets packed for the race (I almost just threw up while writing that last line). I had never run in the dark before, so that was an unknown that I didn’t really think was going to be an issue (haha). Training, planning, prepping was complete. Now, off to the race!

We got to the packet pickup location and stayed for a quick briefing about the race and then there was a little slideshow about one of the runners who was going to run the 100 miles…TWICE! He was doing this as a tribute to his daughter who had passed away previously that year. They also introduced Oswaldo Lopez and told a little about his record attempt. We wrapped up at packet pickup and went back to the hotel to get some sleep before the big day. I’ve never been too nervous before a big race so sleeping is never a problem. I had a bit of a sore hammy so we decided to put on some gel that heats up (kinda like Ben-gay). It felt soooooooo good…until it didn’t. It was like when you eat a Ghost Pepper and the first bite is not too bad and then the fire god punches you in the esophagus and melts your face. Yeah, exactly like that but on the backs of both of my legs. I jumped out of bed and ran to the shower to try and get the gel off. No matter how hard I scrubbed or what I did, it didn’t come off. It had already soaked into my skin and I thought for sure that I’d have 3rd degree burns after it was all over. It finally died down enough for me to get a few hours of sleep before the early morning wake-up.

We made it to the race start with plenty of time to go. My wife had her directions on where to meet me at all of the aid stations that we planned out beforehand. The race clock counted down and they the gun went off and off we went. I settled in right at the back of the pack since I knew I was really going to take my time and not run too fast at the beginning of the race. The weather was perfect for running, a bit chilly in the morning but the sun was shining and it felt great after we got warmed up. After about 5 miles or so, I really settled into a groove and totally lost all awareness of how long or far I had run. Before I knew it, I was at the 10 mile aid station where I met my wife. She had the mat ready so I flopped down and she started massaging my legs. I didn’t really think anything of it, but man did I catch hell from other runners. One guy laughed as he ran past and said, “If I asked my wife to massage me during a race she’d probably punch me in the face!” He was just jealous that I had a secret weapon and he didn’t.

The course was everything that was advertised. It was nice and flat, crushed limestone, and right along the Hennepin Canal. I soon fell into the running trance again and ticked off mile after mile like they were nothing. I felt like I was floating down the trail. The aid stations along this stretch of the race were fantastic. There was one aid station about 35 miles in that was like the biggest backyard bonfire party you’ve ever seen. They were dancing and blasting music. The energy of that aid station was insane! They offered me a shot of Fireball and I thought they were joking. Nope, they had the bottle ready to pour me a shot right then and there. I thought who in their right mind would do something like that. I’d fall over within 50 feet of drinking a shot of that during a race. I asked if anyone had taken them up on the offer and they said, “Oh yeah, lots of people.” Even Oswaldo Lopez downed a shot and a beer at that aid station! Un-freaking-believable! About 5 miles after that I saw Oswaldo running back towards me as this was one of the only out and back sections of the race. This put him at about mile 60 and I was at mile 40. I marveled as I watched him approach, flying down the trail as effortlessly as if he were out for a Sunday stroll. I gave him a WHOOP! and told him to go get that record! He smiled and told me that I looked great and to keep it up. Boy, that had me floating all the way to the 50 mile mark. I’ve always loved witnessing people who are the best at what they do. Excellence is so rare and when you come into contact with it there’s something that’s very uplifting. I made it to the 50 mile mark at about 10 hours! That’s a PR of over 2 hours on 50 miles and I’m only 1/2 done! I was feeling pretty good but the legs were starting to get sore and night was quickly approaching.

Thus ends the fun part of the race. My pace really slowed down between the 50 mile mark and the humpin aid station at mile 65. It was dark by the time I got there and my dinky little head lamp didn’t work worth a damn. I’m lucky that the trail was flat as a pancake and didn’t have any trip hazards or I would have been done for. My legs were really starting to hurt and I was getting very tired. I made it to the party aid station and they had a huge fire blazing. I managed to find my wife who was not in a good mood because she’d gotten lost on her way to this aid station and wound up driving through a cornfield Dukes of Hazard style. She was really having a hard time navigating at night on the country roads. I was nearly falling asleep so she gave me some coffee and I was off to the next aid station. The next stretch of the race was where the real suffer-fest started. I couldn’t stomach any more of the GU that I had and I’d eaten so much sugar that the caffeine was no match for the insulin coma I was falling into. I was reduced to a very slow walk-jog because my calfs, hips, quads, pretty much everything hurt. I decided to put on some compression socks to see if that would help my calfs. I had to start mentally breaking down the race into smaller and smaller segments. I would tell myself that I would try to jog for 5 minutes and then walk for 1 minute. Eventually I got down to jogging for 100 steps and walking for 5 minutes. It was during this stretch that I fell asleep 3 times while running! Each time I startled myself awake just before falling into the Hennepin Canal. Mentally and physically I was cooked. I walked into the next aid station and found my poor wife freezing and dead tired. She’d gotten lost again and barely made it to this aid station in time (even though I walked most of the way). I ate some soup and a few grilled cheese and decided to get back out on the trail or else I’d risk not making the 30 hour cutoff.

The next section of the race was filled with more misery, falling asleep on my feet, and hallucinations. By this time, I could only jog a few steps before the pain in my legs was so bad that I had to stop and walk again. The night seemed never ending and was playing tricks on me. I started hearing voices coming from the canal. They started out talking loudly and then started laughing (pretty sure this was a hallucination). I saw animals that weren’t there, avoided a bear trap that I’m almost certain wasn’t there, and ran through a tunnel that I later found out was never there. It was like being trapped in some sort of bad dream and waiting to hear the kids sing “1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you”. I was only partially conscious for the better part of 15 miles. I happened upon an aid station that looked like it belonged in a Vietnam POW camp. I honestly didn’t know if it was real or not. There was almost no lighting and it just had a small table with a few items and a guy wrapped in a blanket manning the station. There were bodies strewn about (a couple of people sitting in chairs looking half dead, someone laying under the table passed out, and at least 2 others laying in the weeds). The carnage was impressive. I felt like if I didn’t get a little sleep at this point I’d likely end up in the canal. I curled up in a ball on the ground and joined the other walking dead. I set my alarm for 15 minutes to wake up and get back to work. I slept for maybe 5 and then woke up with an insatiable yearning to get back out there and suffer some more. After I left the aid station and made it about 100 yards I saw something very strange that I thought must be another hallucination. I saw a light shining straight up from the ground. It was like those movies when God appears and light shines down from heaven, only the exact opposite. As I approached I noticed it was another runner laying flat on his back in the middle of the trail with his head lamp pointing straight up. We were both totally out of it at the time and I’m sure his face looked the same as mine as I passed by and confusingly asked, “Hey, are you alright?” He replied back, “Yeah, I’m just stretching.” Now I know a bit about stretching and I haven’t ever seen some shit like that in my entire life! I’m pretty sure that was just his automatic response because he didn’t feel like telling me that he was contemplating how shitty it would be to die out here in the middle of nowhere. This odd encounter wouldn’t be our last.

The pain I was feeling was all-encompassing. There were parts of me that I didn’t know existed that were in pain. Finally, one specific pain decided to trump all the others and became the focus of my attention. It was just to the side of my right knee and felt like someone was taking a hack at me with a hatchet every time I took a step. Just about this time I knew I’d be relegated to walking for the rest of the race. I started looking at my watch and doing the math in my head and realized I wouldn’t have enough time going at my current pace to finish in time. While I was thinking about all this the sun decided to start peaking above the horizon. I’ve never felt such relief while being in such pain in all my life. The sun just rejuvenated me mentally and I decided I no longer cared about the pain. I started running again and pushing relentlessly forward. I made it to the next aid station (I think it was about mile 85) where my wife and good friend were waiting. Judging by the look on their faces I knew I looked pretty bad (I’m sure they could tell that I’d been crying for the past hour or so). I figured out that the extreme pain that I was feeling on the side of my knee was from the compression socks I decided to put on (that’s a lesson I won’t soon forget). I took those damn socks off and my wife did some massage on that area. I rested for about 10 minutes and then decided that I better head out if I wanted to finish on time. Just as I was heading out on the trail again another runner was finish up at the aid station and was heading out too. We decided to team up and suffer together. This was the same guy I say laying in the middle of the trail during the night contemplating his own existence (told you I’d meet him again). He looked way better actually being in a vertical position.

Dean and I jog/walked the rest of the race together. We talked and motivated each other and just created an unbelievable bond that only people who suffer together can create. At the next aid station we found out that our wives had actually made friends a long while back since Dean and I were on a similar pace they were sitting at all the aid stations around the same time together. It was so funny because Dean and I got to the aid station at the same time and were laughing and talking and our wives were doing the same thing. We still had a ways to go but we knew we’d make the cutoff. This wouldn’t be the case if we hadn’t met up and pushed each other to run a bit longer before taking a walk break. The feeling of the last mile was indescribable. We saw a runner coming back the other way and realized it was the guy who was running the race TWICE. Seeing that just blew our minds. We couldn’t even fathom how that was possible. The finish line was in sight so we decided to run it all the way in. We finished together just like we ran for last 15 miles of the race. We finished in just a shade under 28 hours. To put that into a little perspective, Oswaldo Lopez didn’t break the World Record but finished in 14:22.

It’s really hard to describe the feeling that I had finishing that race. It seemed like such redemption from so many failures I’d had in my life (more on that in future posts). This was my chance to face all those demons that tell you to quit when you are in pain or tired or suffering and say Not Today! I felt like everything was right in world. I felt an extreme sense calm, contentment, and peace. Maybe I was actually dying and wasn’t smart enough to head for the light. Whatever it was, that race profoundly changed me as a person. That feeling was better than any drug. This is something that I will be chasing for as long as I’m able.

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