Failure After Failure and the Lessons Learned

Following the miserable yet amazing experience I had at the Hennepin Hundred in 2016, I knew I had to follow that up with something even more insane. Why just run 1 hundred mile race when there are so many out there. After a little research I decided that I was going to attempt the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. This is a series of 5 hundred mile races that all take place in the Midwest and they are all about a month apart. The way I saw it, I would just train for the 1st race and let my fitness carry me through the next 5 months. I signed up for all 5 races (Indiana Trails 100, Kettle Moraine 100, Burning River 100, Mohican 100, and Hallucination 100).

It bears noting a few very important details before going any further with my description of the races. First of all, I had decided that my fueling plan for hundreds was atrocious and needed a serious overhaul. Taking in a ton of sugar in training and racing was OK when I was just doing triathlon and shorter events but it killed me in the hundred. I also have a family history of Type 2 Diabetes and while I was nowhere near overweight I had high fasting blood sugar levels and my triglycerides were really high (both precursors to Type 2 diabetes). I decided to do some research and came across some ultra-endurance athletes who were eating a very low carbohydrate diet and fueling mostly off of body fat. That meant that they didn’t have to eat nearly as much during races. The more I read up on the low carb diet the more it sounded like it was something I needed to do (not only for performance, but for health reasons as well). I went all in and started a very strict Ketogenic diet in December of 2016. I knew I had to give my body a few months to transition to being a much better fat burner so I gave myself plenty of time before my training cycle came up for the next year.

The other small detail that comes into play at this point in time is the fact that I’ve been dealing with Ulcerative Colitis (UC) for the past 7 years and it had been rearing its ugly head again. For those of you who don’t know what UC is, I’ll give a really quick description. It’s an autoimmune disease that affects the lining of your large intestine. It causes massive inflammation and ulcerations which lead to bleeding in the colon. My most concerning symptoms were uncontrollable bowel movements that would come out of nowhere. When I had a flare-up, I could spend 4-6 hours on the toilet until my entire system was empty and would continue to have bowel spams (very much like dry heaving). The medication I was taking didn’t seem to be doing anything. I didn’t trust a thing my doctor said because he told me that food had nothing to do with my symptoms. I knew damn well that certain things that I ate made my symptoms worse, so I took my health into my own hands. Cutting out sugar and grains helped out a lot. The biggest issue that I was facing was that every time I tried to run I had to stop after a couple of miles to poop in the woods (and now you know how I came up with the name of my blog). This happened even when I wasn’t having a flare-up and it wasn’t just every once-in-a-while…it was every single time! I was relegated to running on my treadmill at home so that I could jump off and run to the bathroom every 30 minutes or so. How the hell am I supposed to train like this? Never mind training, how the hell am I supposed to race like this?! A few times my flare-ups would get so bad that I was hospitalized because I’d crap everything out of my system and wouldn’t be able to eat for days. These bouts usually happened right after I caught a cold or if I was really stressed at work. I’d gotten really good at fasting for multiple days in a row as a way to give my guts a chance to heal. I figured out that if I fasted for 24 hours before I ran, I could make it about an hour before I had to stop and sometimes I didn’t have to stop at all. I had done multiple 20 mile runs this way leading up the to the first race and figured that I found my answer to being able to race (or so I hoped).

The Indiana Trails 100 is held kind of out in the middle of nowhere Indiana at the Chain O’ Lakes state park. It is run on a 20 mile loop so it would be slightly reminiscent of my first 50 mile race. My wife would crew once more for this race and I think the only saving grace was the fact that she didn’t have to navigate to aid stations and just had to meet me every 4-6 hours at the start/finish. I fasted the day before the race in hopes that my guts would cooperate enough to make running bearable. I had some Keto friendly foods packed in the car that I’d pick up after every loop to eat. My plan was to go as long as I possibly could without eating because I knew as soon as I ate I’d be making pit stops in the woods. I only took water with me on the first loop so that means I ran the first 20 miles with no calories and being fasted for 24 hours. I actually felt really good on the first loop and when I got back to the car I did eat a few things (mostly fats and protein). I think I had a hard boiled egg, some bacon, beef jerky, and a Keto chocolate mousse that was really good. I did have to drop trou in the woods a couple of times on the first loop but it wasn’t too bad. The second loop was a different story. For the next 20 miles I probably spent at least an hour squatting behind dozens of bushes. The bowels of hell were getting nice and fired up at this point. The worst part is that all the time squatting really starts to make your legs and knees stiff after running that far. I guess it’s also not a good thing that I wasn’t getting any nutrition into my system…it was just going right through me. I made it back around from the second lap looking much more haggard than the first lap. I told my wife that I was having a lot of trouble and was having to stop a lot in the woods to poop. She knew I was nuts and wouldn’t listen to her if she tried to get me to stop so she just helped get my food ready and gave my legs a quick rub. The third loop was much the same as the second although I didn’t have as much left in my system so I didn’t have to stop as often to fertilize the bushes. At this point my energy was sapped, my legs and feet were hurting and I was just miserable. I made it back around from the 3rd loop just as the sun was going down and a massive thunderstorm was brewing. I decided to hang out under the tent at the start/finish line with all the other runners until the majority of the storm passed. This did not help the cramping in my legs at all. The longer you stop the more you look and feel like the tin man. I put on my rain gear and figured it would just be a long wet miserable night. I was barely jogging by this point in the race and within about 5 miles the wind really started whipping and there was sideways rain that literally hurt when it hit you. Lightning was flashing all around and branches were crashing down from the trees so I decided to park it at the next aid station and ride out the storm. Some things just aren’t worth dying for. This is where I got eaten by the chair monster. The aid station tent was filling up with runners and everyone had a wide-eyed look when they came in from the storm. It was pretty gnarly out there! The race director was monitoring the storm and after about 45 minutes informed us that the severe weather was past. It was still raining pretty hard but the lightning and wind died down quite a bit. My buddy Dean from my last 100 just happened to be working that aid station and he got me motivated to get off my ass and get back out there. After leaving that aid station I was barely able to walk, much less run. It took an hour just to get loosened up a bit to be able to walk without severe pain. I only remember a few things from that night. I remember not being so tired that I was falling asleep on my feet like the last race (thanks to not having massive sugar crashes). I remember being really cold and wet. I remember each mile seeming like an eternity. I remember crying for a good portion of the night (I really don’t know why I get so emotional during races). I remember having music from my phone and signing out loud to pass the time. I also remember feeling some relief that it was pitch black so I didn’t have to go that far off the trail when I had to crap. It was a sufferfest trudging from one aid station to the next. I knew there was no way that I was going to finish this race. It took me 4 hours to go 2 miles between aid stations at the end. I finally crawled into the last aid station on the 4th loop and had already missed the cutoff time at the start/finish line which was another 3 miles away. They tried convincing me to try and make it to the start/finish line (even though I’d be stopped there) but I didn’t have anything left mentally or physically to spend another 6 hours out there. I sat shivering and defeated in that aid station until someone pulled around in a truck and gave me a ride back to the start/finish. My phone had died during that last loop so I couldn’t call my wife and tell her what was happening. She looked worried when I made it back because I’d been out there all night long and it was now morning. I didn’t want to talk about it and my friend Dean tried to cheer me up a bit by saying, “Hey at least you didn’t quit. You stuck it out until they made you stop because of the cutoff.” I knew in my mind that I actually did quit on myself. Had I just kept on moving through the storm my legs never would have seized up and I might still be running. They gave me the chance to make it back to the start/finish to wrap up the 80 miles but mentally I gave up. The way I felt after this race was a far cry from how I felt after my last race.

We drove home and I tried to mend my battered feeling of self-worth before the next race which was about a month away. The next race was Kettle Moraine 100 which is run on the Ice Age Trail in southern Wisconsin. My plan for this race was much the same as the IT100 except I was going to make sure that no matter what happened I wasn’t going to stop and spend a lot of time in aid stations. In my mind, that was the main cause of my suffering and ultimately not finishing the last race. I still had gut issues so there wasn’t much I could do except fast before the race and try to hold out as long as I could without eating anything. This time my wife wouldn’t be crewing the race so I was running solo. This was the first time I needed to have a drop bag so I made sure to load them with the stuff I could eat and other random things I might need. I would have no choice but to eat some stuff from aid stations but that’s just the way things go. The race started and I remember thinking that the terrain was very odd with a lot of short rolling hills (I guess these were created from the glaciers). It was like snaking along a roller coaster for a good part of the beginning of the race. There were sections with a lot of tree roots and rocks. I started tripping really early in this race. I only bit it a couple of times and never really got seriously injured, but I knew I really had to pay attention to my footing. I still had to stop off in the woods a few times to sling a deuce, but it wasn’t as bad this race as it was at IT100. I remember not feeling too terrible for most of the day. The hills and forest gave way to a huge meadow that was blazing hot in the middle of the day. There were also sporadic thunderstorms that soaked portions of the trail and left ankle deep mud which caked my shoes and made my feet weigh about 20 pounds each. This made it even harder to avoid trip hazards and I eventually caught my toe on a rock that sent me careening. I didn’t go down but my leg near my shin started hurting after that. I remember not thinking too much about it and carrying on with the race. I made it to the 100K point in the race right as it was getting dark and thought I felt pretty good. I was covered in mud but grabbed a little food and headed back out on the trail. It was shortly after this that my leg really started hurting. I started slowing down quite a bit on the trail. I was feeling a sharp stab in my shin with every step. Now that it was dark and I only had a headlamp, it was even more difficult to see the rocks in the trail. I must have tripped another 40-50 times over the next 5 miles. If this segment was filmed and put on a blooper reel, nobody would have believed it was real. It was almost comical to me except for the excruciating pain that I now felt in both of my legs at the shin. It got so bad that I couldn’t even lift my feet off the ground because my legs hurt so bad. I ended up walking backwards and just dragging my feet for a long time because that was the only way I could keep moving without doubling over in pain. When I couldn’t walk backwards anymore I tried crawling. Eventually I was just curled up in a ball on the side of the trail trying to figure out what I was supposed to do next. I didn’t know what to do…I was stuck. I’d been out in the dark for many hours with legs that didn’t want to work and was in horrendous pain. At this point it didn’t matter if I was sitting still or moving, the pain was still pretty much the same so I figured I might as well be moving. It’s interesting that I remember very little from the trail at night other than the searing pain that I was in. As I think back, there are only a couple of visual memories of that night but I can still feel the pain in my legs 2 years later. I managed to hobble along at a pace that required a sundial or a calendar, not a $500 Garmin. I think I probably cried and cursed and yelled for at least a few hours that night (again with the crying…I really don’t know who this person is). I don’t remember the sun coming up but I do remember hearing voices and then seeing a lake through the trees. This was the Rice Lake aid station and the turnaround point for this particular leg of the race. I made it 82 miles and knew I was lucky to make it that far. I called it quits and staggered to a chair at the aid station. By the look on the aid station volunteers’ faces I was in pretty bad shape. They were getting ready to close up the aid station and I think they were just waiting on me to get there because they got a call from the previous aid station and heard from a few runners that I was still out there and having a pretty rough time. I hitched a ride with one of the volunteers back to the start/finish and gathered my stuff for the drive home. My legs hurt so bad that I had to use my right hand to push down and lift up my right leg to work the gas and brake of the car. It was a miserable drive home, not only because of the pain, but because I’d failed again. After I got home and took a shower to clean the caked mud from my legs I knew exactly what had happened. I’d torn the Anterior Tibialis muscle on both legs due to the excessive tripping on roots and rocks. I had massive bruising from the middle of my shins all the way down to the bottoms of my feet where the torn muscles bled internally throughout the night. I ended up taking a week off of work so that I could heal up a bit. I had pain in my legs and a limp for 3 months afterwards. That ended my racing and running for almost 2 years. The trauma from that race re-activated a series of severe flare-ups from the UC which had me hospitalized a couple of times. I thought my running days were over for good. Even months later after my legs had healed I couldn’t even run for 2 minutes on a treadmill without having to stop and run to the bathroom.

So, not only had I failed at 2 races in a row but I also had to drop out of the other 3 races that I’d signed up for as part of the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. I didn’t always think this way but in my wise old age I’ve come to realize that failures are really just opportunities for learning and improvement. I see it fitting to end this blog post about failure with a bunch of the wisdom that I’ve gained through suffering so that others may not have to. One of the most important lessons that I was too thick-headed to realize at the time is that your health is much more important than a race. It should have been a pretty big red flag that my intestines were so damaged that I was literally shitting out everything that I ate during runs. It is not a good idea to fast for 24 hours prior to attempting a 100 mile run. These are pretty common sense notions that I just couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see. These mistakes not only contributed to my failures in 2017 but also kept me out of running for 2 years. Health comes first, then running! The next major lesson was “Beware the Chair!” You will hear a lot of ultrarunners say this but hopefully my race at IT100 really helped to illustrate how bad it can be. If you have to stop at an aid station for longer than a couple of minutes, DON’T SIT DOWN! Stay standing and move around and stretch. This is especially important in longer races (100 miles and farther). Next on the list is nutrition. If you want to be a fat adapted runner like myself and try Keto or low carb, I highly recommend it but heed my warnings. DO NOT try to fuel during races with fat and protein. This does not work and is not as efficient as burning body fat. It takes a loooooooong time to digest protein and fats. I highly recommend training very low carb and even doing fasted runs to optimize fat burning and utilization, but using simple sugars during the race. You will still be burning a ton of fat for energy but topping off the tank with carbs to keep you going. You won’t need nearly as much calories and sugars digest pretty fast. My food choices during both races led to my gut issues being far worse than they should have been. I did really like the fact that I never fell asleep or had any hallucinations during the night though. Undoubtedly a positive effect of the diet change. Train on trails that are similar to the races you’ll be running. I had been training on very non-technical trails where I never had to look at foot placement. Then when I got on some more technical trails I was not used to picking my feet up a bit higher which resulted in some pretty gnarly damage to both of my legs. This also goes for races that are run on tracks or asphalt or at elevation or in the heat. Race specific training is very important so you can understand what you’ll be dealing with on race day and it doesn’t become a race ending issue. The last of the biggies that I took away from these races was that I leveled up way too fast. Typically only very seasoned ultrarunners will attempt 5 ultras in a season. I was far from a seasoned ultrarunner (although after these 2 races I definitely have a few more gray hairs). These are the major lessons that I’d taken away from these failed attempts but there are a lot of other smaller lessons learned. Don’t worry about the weather (unless it’s life threatening). If it’s raining, you’ll get wet…no big deal. I really don’t NEED a massage every 10 or 20 miles. My legs hurt either way during a hundred. I felt surprisingly comfortable racing alone. I didn’t have anyone else to worry about and everything I needed were in my drop bags. I spent too much time and energy checking my damn watch. I don’t train or race with a watch anymore and I love it. You really get to know your body and your body will tell you when to slow down or speed up. Worrying about the time and pace and HR and and splits and everything else takes away from the experience of racing and running. I run because I enjoy it, not because I want to look at numbers all day. I normally hate listening to music while running (because it distracts me) but I found that listening to some hardcore music at night really helps to keep me pumped up when there’s less visual stimulation around. I learned that drinking to thirst does NOT work in ultras. I wasn’t thirsty but found that I hadn’t peed in about 8 hours. I forced myself to pee a little and it looked like Coke! That’s really bad. It took me 4 hours of diligently drinking and eat a ton of salt before I got my hydration back under control. I’m always forcing myself to drink now, even if I’m not thirsty. 100 miles is a long ass way, so it doesn’t matter if you get stuck behind someone slow for a while or someone comes up behind you and you don’t want them to pass. If you are still moving forward by the end of the race, that’s a good thing. Unless you are an elite athlete, you are not really racing against others…you are racing yourself. I’m sure there are other gems in there somewhere that I haven’t yet realized but these are the things that I am currently putting to use in my training and racing. And in case you’re wondering, yes I am back to training and racing this year. It’s been a long road but I’m back in the saddle.

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