Terra chips? Such a gourmet aid station treat! As soon as the vegetable-oil-salt-beet combo hit my taste buds I felt more in equilibrium. Pringles, Lays, and even fish-flavored potato chips in New Zealand had hit my lips midway through ultra trail races before, but this Terra chip consumption (at a 20-something-mile aid station) during the inaugural Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca, NY really hit the spot. A lot goes on in my mind during such long trail efforts (ie. “how is my girlfriend Sandi Nypaver doing?” “What is my lead in minutes [or seconds!]?” “Do I have enough gels?”), but the fair/food spread (as well as the wonderful volunteers) give my thoughts some positive tangents to follow: “Did these gourmet Terra chips come from the local Wegmans?” and “RD Ian Golden is really putting on a great inaugural race with these fancy chips!”
[note: Nope, I'm not sponsored by Terra chips!]
Sometimes positive tangents are all you have to put your faith in when things go sour. The Terra chips were deliciously sweet, but getting to the point to appreciate their subtle salty flavors mixed with various veggies took a change in perspective on my part. Let me rewind to before the race:
My girlfriend Sandi had a very eloquent blog post recap about the Cayuga Trails 50 and putting things in perspective. The week going into the race was a lot harder for her than me given how low her iron stores have been and the fact that she had an operation done a mere 4 days before the race! But Sandi also writes about how our finishing places and times are just numbers that don’t tell the real story behind the scenes; the processes that we all overcame to cross the finish line (regardless of place or time). She goes on to mention that we don’t know the backgrounds and stories of our fellow runners who may have just worked a 60 hour week or are going through a divorce. But we are united by the joy of the struggle that it takes to complete 50-miles with 8,000 feet of vertical gain and hundreds of stone steps.
As a professional trail runner with a slew of sponsors I am quite fortunate and spoiled. Getting to the starting line with a string of solid training under my belt was easy. However, the race itself was a high pressure event for me and the physical and mental demands take their toil…
At mile 33 I was 90% sure I was going to drop from the race. I had about a 3-minute lead on the field and reports from iRunFar declared that I was looking strong and poised. The fact of the matter is that I was running on the edge of bonking and my hamstrings were rigid and tight. Like most 50 mile races I’ve experienced, I was in a state of fairly intense fatigue and pain already from the first 20-miles. A large rock in a rather shallow river crossing at 33 miles almost put the nails in the coffin that surrounded my desire to even finish the race.
My SCOTT Kinabalu trail shoes worked great to get me through the muddy sections and slick sets of steps, but when I clumsily ran right into a large rock in the river I prompted tripped and banged my knee. The impact caused me to twist around in pain and land on my back so my shoulders were engulfed in the stream. As I lay in the water for a couple seconds I thought back to my first ultra, the Chuckanut 50k when I earned 5 stitches for falling on the very same knee. At about the same instant my hamstrings seized up and I yelled out-loud in pain from such a debilitating cramp. I’m glad nobody was around to witness this spectacle because I’m sure it would’ve been quite a show!
As I walked up the bank of the river and into a little hill on the trail my mind got negative. I thought about how I was dizzy and how my knee surely would need stiches (there was a bit of blood running down my leg). I thought about how I’ve been racing too much this year already and that my legs needed a break before Mt. Washington anyway. I convinced myself that at the very next aid station I’d throw in the towel and call it a day.
Problem was the next aid station was a good 3-4 miles away. It was going to take a long time to walk there! I took my last gel and decided that maybe I could muster up a slow jog…that way at least I won’t be caught by too many people before I DNFed. I started thinking about the $2500 prize for winning the race and how a $0 payday would really hurt my yearly income (when you run for a living you rely a lot on prize money from races!). I thought about how disappointed I was after DNFing at the North Face 50 championships in San Francisco I thought about my girlfriend and her sister still out there competing on the course and all the runners who started with much harder circumstances.. Suddenly after about a half mile I felt like I could pick up the pace…I went from a walk to a jog to a run!
My thought processes totally changed:
I may have been on the edge of bonking, but I knew that last gel I took would start kicking in in another 5-10 minutes.
The blood on my knee got washed away from the river and rain water and there was merely just a little scratch…nothing that would require stitches! (I’m not a total wuss as it is still quite bruised though).
If my hamstrings would cramp up again I would just have to stop and stretch (something I ended up doing about 5 more times)..plus, maybe the salt from more Terra chips would help!
This shift in perspective was all it took for me to continue onward. I think if the aid station was near the scene of my fall I may have dropped at that very point in the race when my thoughts were at their darkest. Meghan Hicks of iRunFar.com later asked me: “Did the physical manifest the mental or did the mental manifest the physical?” I replied that I thought the physical pain of the fall and cramping was what made my thoughts turn so negative. Generally I try to take the mental aspect of distance running totally out of the equation by just focusing on the physical: If I’ve trained well and my body is ready then it can perform a specific task..hopefully. However, one cannot deny the inevitable connection between brain synapses, leg muscle fibers and (most importantly) the heart. The perception of pain seems to change with different body systems and in the hundreds of distance races that I’ve competed in there are only a handful where I can say that I willed myself to go 100% into the deepest and darkest amount of pain that my body could handle before it actually totally failed (this seems to be a little easier to do in shorter races like the 800m when you can merely lock yourself up with lactic acid). Learning to combat the fatigue of racing an ultra is still a continual process for me, and little “mental tricks” like breaking the distance into smaller segments, or just focusing on the current situation at hand can make the difference between finishing or stopping at 33 miles.
In the end I was able to re-establish my 5 minute lead and pull off a win at the inaugural Cayuga Trails 50. Thanks to the hard work of RD Ian Golden there was a very generous prize purse that will help Sandi and I pay rent in Colorado, train at a higher level, and purchase more healthy food. But the end result (my slowest/worse 50-mile time by 30min btw) doesn’t really matter as much as the process that it took to get there. The drive up from Cleveland with the support crew of Steve Hawthorne (Vertical Runner in Ohio) and Rachel Nypaver, the support from RD Ian Golden, funding and gear from my Sponsors, and the support of the ultra-trail running community (fellow runners like yourself) are what made this race possible. Everyone toed the starting line with a different background story (some filled with more challenges than others), but after running through lush wooded forests, up and down rocky steps and through gorges with magnificent waterfalls, we all shared a new experience.
My video recap of the experience:
I believe the more of these experiences we have the more challenges we face; the more challenges we face the more creative solutions we gain in our toolbox of solving problems. I believe that that in itself leads to a more enriching life. Running may be an escape, a hobby, or a “job,” but the passion behind training for these experiences, the camaraderie of fellow runners, the physical and mental challenges one must face, and new perspectives that can be gained surely make it infused in one’s life style. If that lifestyle involves some Terra chips every now and then (as well as some beer) then I’m all in!
See you on the trails,
About the Author (Author Profile)2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier, Mountain runner, Author of "Running For The Hansons," trail runner, videos for Vo2max Productioins, LLC.
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