Thursday, December 25, 2014

1000 Days of Consecutive Running

One million four hundred forty thousand minutes;
One point four million moments ablaze.
One million four hundred forty thousand minutes;
How do you measure, one thousand days?

In miles? In shoes? In races? In laps ‘round the track?
In DNF’s? Aid stations? Belt Buckles? Muscle malaise?
In one million four hundred forty thousand minutes-
How do you measure, one thousand days?

The Goal: Run at least 1 mile every day forever
The Result (so far): 1000 days, 9863 miles, and four pairs of shoes

It’s hard to say if I could ever imagine the reality of the ultra runner I have become. I started this thousand-day adventure on 31 March 2012. But it really started long before that.  I’ve always enjoyed running and have been fairly good at it. Some of you may use different adjectives to describe how good I was (or am), but I never thought I was some super human like the Flash. I remember back in fifth grade when our teacher, Mr. Richwood, would take us outside and tell us to run to the end of the field, around the backstop, and back to the classroom. He’d give us a decent enough head start and then come charging after us. One time, he must have miscalculated or something because I nearly beat him. Whatever the reason, it made me feel pretty good about my ability. In junior high for P.E., we ran a mile every single Friday. Needless to say, I loved Fridays. By the end of seventh grade I was able to get my time to just under seven minutes. And by the end of eighth grade, just under six. I was a decent runner for high school cross country, running frosh/soph my freshman year and varsity the next three. But neither I nor our team ever made it to state. Even though I could run a 17:30 5k, I wasn’t even close to making it to state. Maybe it’s because this was California and there was a little more competition than in other states. In any case, I quickly found out that there were tons of people faster than I was and way more willing to push themselves to the limits to be better. I never liked pushing my limits. I wasn’t good at blocking out the pain and going faster. I couldn’t ignore what my body was telling me. I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of beating. I just liked running for enjoyment and pleasure. When I got to college, I didn’t even bother trying out for the cross country or track teams. I ran a 5k turkey trot my freshman year, but other than that, every run I did was just at whatever pace I felt like and for however long felt right. The internet was still new at the time (and I don’t think Garmin’s or their ancestors existed yet) and so I didn’t have much of a clue as to how far I was running. I didn’t even have a car to measure the distances and I never logged any of my times either. I just ran when I felt like it and tried to get others to go with me, to which they’d say, “I can’t run that fast/far. You’ll kill me.” And I still today reply with, “I’m asking to run with you. I’m not gonna leave you behind. I’ll run, jog, walk, or whatever with you for as long as you want.” And I think I’m pretty good at doing this without making them feel like they’re holding me back. If I want more, I’ll go run an hour warm up before we meet up or run a really long cool down.

I teach high school science. I somehow got involved with the school’s cross country team after a few years of teaching. Twice a week I would run with the team and do whatever they did. It was fun and brought back a lot of memories. For two years I did this, and then I was asked if I wanted to be the coach for the team. After much consideration, because it’s something I had thought about doing for a long time and would totally enjoy, I turned down the offer. The next year I went to a new school and they had no sports program. Someday, though, I would love to be the cross country coach that runs with the team and ends up exposing countless kids to the exquisite bliss that is ultra running.

Last year for one of my best friend’s (Brian Neesham) birthday, I wrote him a note thanking him for introducing me to the runner that I had become.
It started with you telling me about birthday runs when I was 28. I thought that'd be really cool, even though I'd never run anything longer than 9 miles or so. I mapped out a 28-mile course and that next weekend I went out to do my birthday run. The first 16 miles went by with no problems at all. Then I hit a wall and walked most of the next 10 miles and jogged a tiny bit. After stopping at a friend's house, I was able to finish at survival pace. Those 10 miles sucked so much. But instead of crossing something off a bucket list, I vowed to not let that happen again. So, when the fun Houston summer was over, I started running a lot more and added in much longer distances on the weekends so I could learn how to handle those situations. By the time my 29th birthday came around, I knew I was ready. I completed those 29 miles at just under 9 minute pace. And then for the next year, you convinced me that since I already knew I could do 30, "Why don't you try 50?" So of course I think this is a great idea. I missed it by 4 miles (I had to call it quits as I realized I was walking and staggering around like a drunkard) but still kept a 10:16 pace. RAGNAR informed us (we did the Texas RAGNAR and the next year it was cancelled for good) that we could have a free team if we got at least 3 members together from our original team. I chose the Wasatch Back (Utah) and got an ultra team (6 runners instead of 12) together to relay-run 197 miles (of which I ran 76 miles). I had ran an actual half marathon the year before and was going to do it this year as well, but I saw the price had risen a lot and didn't feel like paying that much. I looked at other races like the Houston Marathon. But it was already sold out (6 months before the race). So I looked around for something interesting when I stumbled upon this race called Rocky Raccoon. It was a 50/100 miler. Wow! I never knew races of such distances even existed. Since I knew I could basically finish 50 (birthday run) and since I finished 76 (RAGNAR) within 24 hours, I decided that I just had to try the 100-miler. I had no idea how to train for it other than I needed to run a lot. My weekly mileage ranged from 30 to 70 miles a week with long runs ranging from 24-35 miles. I felt confident that I would succeed with this race. And with freezing temps (it was 23 when the gun went off) and frost covering the course, I finished in 19 and a half hours. My new passion was found. And I owe it all to you for getting me started in the right direction. Thank you so much. And have a great birthday.

And thus my life as an ultra runner was underway. I was in love and totally addicted. And like all addictions, they start off small and continue to snowball. In 2009 I started keeping a running journal, but I only wrote down runs that were at least 7 miles. By 2010 I started making some goals. Between January and December, I wanted to run 1500 miles. I still didn’t have much regularity in my running schedule. I went out whenever I felt like it. My goal was completed in September, but that didn’t stop me. By the end of the year, having completed over 2100 miles, I needed a slightly tougher goal. So I doubled the goal of the previous year’s mileage. 3000 miles in 2011. This was the year when I started ultra racing, running both Rocky Raccoon 100 and Cactus Rose 100. By the end of the year, with one week to go, I noticed that I needed almost 100 miles to obtain my goal. Thankfully I’m a teacher, and time was not an issue. I ran between 12-20 miles every day, a total of 101 miles for the week, and completed the year with 3002 miles. At this time, I noticed that I was taking a lot of days off. My records are kept on Excel, and I figured out how to quickly count how many days off I’d taken over the last two years. In 2010 I ran 180 days (185 off). In 2011, 255 days ran versus 110 off. Sure, my average daily miles looked great (just under 12 if you didn’t count the days off), but 110 days is over three months. I couldn’t believe that I took three months off (though not consecutive) from running. My goal for 2012 was to minimize the number of days off. I didn’t know what I’d be able to handle, but surely I could do better than I had been. January passed without a day missed. The first week of February brought Rocky Raccoon 100 again. I took a couple days off after that race, but got back to running right after that. I missed a few more days that month and some more in March. I don’t know what came over me at the end of March 2012. Maybe it was Drew Myers posting that he had been running at least a mile every day for a year. Maybe I realized that I really wanted to accomplish my goal; that I wasn’t really needing all this rest and I just needed to stop being lazy. But on 31 March 2012, I vowed that I was never going to take another day off for the rest of my life.

Running every day wasn’t usually too difficult. I just had to go out and do it. And then the next day I could worry about what I was going to do then; I just had to take it one day at a time. Finding time wasn’t hard when I made it my priority. I remember learning lessons about time management growing up. You get a jar (that represents your day) and you gotta fill it with as many rocks as you can. The bigger the rock, the more important that task is. Well, my running rock is one of the first rocks into my jar every day. Getting out in the morning on weekends was hard as my brain always tried to convince me to stay in bed. Sometimes things came up and I wouldn’t be able to get out until after the kids went to bed. I’m a volunteer firefighter for my city, and I typically work one or two 12-hour shifts on weekends. Those days I had to wake up early or face a consequence that I never wanted to experience. A few times I just really didn’t want to go out. But no matter how much or little I wanted to go run on a particular day, as soon as I got out there, I was happy and couldn’t remember why I even considered not running. Back in the saddle again. After finishing some of my kinda long races, I’d be in old grandpa mode the next day. And even though these races would start on Saturday morning and I wouldn’t finish sometimes until early Sunday morning, I never counted those after-midnight hours as a Sunday run. We’d get home and I would take Amy (and sometimes the kids too) and we’d go “run” as fast as I could, which was really just a shuffle or a walk. I felt that it helped the healing process along if I got out and moved despite the muscle soreness. After a day or two more, I’d be back to normal pace for short distances and after another few days, normal distances were no problem either. By Friday or Saturday I could go out and run a half marathon no problem.

Earlier this year, Amy and I separately met Rob Goyen and his posse at some of my races. He informed us of his series of races (Brazos Bend Trail Races) and I quickly added to my race schedule. What used to be just two yearly races was upped to three and then in 2014 up to eight ultra races. Amy teases me about how I promised I’d only run those two races each year. But I’m pretty sure she’s okay with it (since she’s in charge of the kids while I have a day-long time-of-my-life). And I’m fairly certain that my race schedule is only going to be added to. But all of this came about because of Rob and his idea of forming a team that would support some local runners in realizing their running dreams. There are currently seven of us on Team TROT. We’re getting to know each other and helping support each other at races. Rob and his sales background found us sponsors with Altra, Hammer Nutrition, Epic Bars, and Trail Toes. I had little to no knowledge of these brands a few months ago, but have really come to love them as I was exposed to their products. I could only imagine that one day I would turn out to be an athlete that had sponsors for running. I still think it’s crazy and dream-like that I would be chosen to be part of this team. Who knows what lies ahead in my running future? I don’t really know, but it’s going to be quite the adventure as it comes to pass. Now on to 2,000 days.

Thanks so much to all that have supported, inspired, and run with me along the way: Amy Zmolek, Brian Neesham, Drew Myers, Rob Goyen, Lorenzo Sanchez, Thomas Orf, Team TROT and the HATR’s, Juan Medrano, Josh Udy, and many others (especially the countless volunteers at all the aid stations along the race courses).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Brazos Bend 100

Brazos Bend 100
13-14 December 2014

“Stay on Target” or “I Gotta Pee”
-Gold Five (Star Wars)  -Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)

I had been looking forward to this race for quite some time. There really isn’t a race I’m not excited about, but this one was going to be fast. And I was certain that I was going to run my best time on this very flat and very non-technical gator infested course. Slight were the worries of going out faster than I’m used to, but I planned on actually carrying a water bottle during this race and carrying some Gels to keep water and food intake more steady throughout the race (instead of just gorging myself at each aid station).

Seconds before the race started, fellow teammate Melinda Coen showed up and we ran together for the first 14 or so miles. Some of my favorite memories of running ultras include running with someone, especially when it lasts for a long time, such as this two and half hour stretch. You get to know people-what they’re really like. And it’s so much fun just cruising along at a slow jog and conversing. Before you know it, huge pieces of your super long course have already been put behind you.

After I left Mel, I was pretty much by myself for the rest of the next two laps (miles 15-50). You’d think that it would be boring spending that much time just running by yourself. But I do enjoy it (though not as much as having someone there). It’s like my brain gets to think about whatever it wants to. I don’t have to constantly think about how I’m going to get these students to understand this physics concept and all the different angles I can approach the given topic. I don’t have to worry about if the blooper at the fire station is going to go off and what I’m going to do for whatever possible scene we are called to. I don’t have to worry about how close that car is to me while I ride my bicycle home from work or while I’m out on my daily run. I just have to run and let my brain run wild with whatever comes to mind. Maybe that’s why I don’t like running with headphones. It’s not so much the safety issue. I just like to be able to think about stuff without any distractions. And running a race that literally takes all day gives me plenty of time to accomplish that. (And perhaps this is why, when I do wear headphones, I’m listening to audiobooks. Although I’m not free to think about whatever, books do allow plenty of imagining to take place.)

I finished my first 25-mile lap in 3 hours 42 minutes. This was basically the plan. I really wanted to finish in less than 16 hours (my best time was earlier this year at Rocky Raccoon-17 hours flat). I know that most people typically slow down towards the end, so I wanted to be closer to 15-hour pace for as long as I could so that if I slowed down, then I could still reach my goal. And if I didn’t slow down too much, then it’d be bonus for me. The second lap was finished in roughly the same time (3 hours 46 minutes) and half of my race was completed in 7 hours 29 minutes. Still on target.

At this time, 50 miles into the race, I was feeling alright. I’ve never run this quickly before and then still have to run another 50 miles. I was in uncharted territory and didn’t want any ambushes. I kept taking the Gels and water throughout the race, and I really think they helped keep my muscles fueled. If I could change one thing, it’s that I would eat more solid foods, such as pbj’s or the little burritos at the aid stations. I think they would help a lot and then I wouldn’t be cursing at eating yet another Gel. (I was sick of eating them, but continued doing so throughout the race.)

About three miles into my third lap, I saw Thomas Orf again as we crossed paths. He seemed to be in the same spot, roughly a mile and a half or so behind me, for the last two laps. We slapped hands and tried to pump each other up as we went in opposite directions and then were both back to being alone. During this third lap, my mind started slipping. It didn’t have the firm death grip on my legs, keeping them strolling along the smooth trails. I started walking different sections. Twenty, nineteen, … one, GO! Sometimes I count down with every right step. Sometimes every breath. Sometimes I pick a tree or course flag that’s up ahead. And my brain is pretty good at putting its foot down and getting me running again. I did this up through the half-way point for the loop.

I started my third lap at 1:30. Three and a half hours later is when I expected to finish this lap, which would have me back at the start/finish a little after 5 pm. After I finished about seven miles, I started to realize that I was probably going to need my headlamp before I finished this lap. It gets dark around 5:30, and I had already been walking too much. And the back section is all woodsy, which means it would be darker earlier. This was so not good. And I had no way of communicating to Amy that I was really going to need my headlamp.

So I’m at the half-way point for the loop. There are still about 12-13 miles remaining. It’s still relatively light out, but I can see my shadow getting longer and longer, and it wasn’t pushing me forward like it should have. But then my savior comes up. Good ol’ Thomas Orf. He caught up to me. We talked a bit. “You have a light?” “Yeah.” “Sweet. You care if I run with you? My light’s 13 miles away.” “Sure, but I’m not much of a talker.” Not much of a talker. We talked almost the whole time. He told me how he’d, up to this point, run every step (minus the stops at aid stations to eat and fill up water). I was amazed at this. And at the same time, I was very worried. If I was going to run with him (he had a light for when it got dark), I was going to have to run. He wasn’t going very fast, but we were going to be running the whole time. I had to get it straight in my mind that walking was not in the foreseeable future. Thomas and I kinda knew each other; we’d run a lot of the same races. We finished ‘together’ just a month earlier at another 100-miler in Dallas. But we had never talked much. And once again, we’re back to what I love about ultras: talking with other ‘crazy’ people. As we ran, I noticed that my legs weren’t really hurting at all. Yeah, I wanted to stop. But that was just the lazy part of me saying ‘You’ve been on your feet all day. Take a break.’ But I was feeling ok. Actually, I was feeling better than when I started this lap. It’s all in your head. But it’s really hard to get your head to convince your body of this.

We were on the final half mile when it was really dark. But we could still see the trail well enough. We came in a few minutes before 12 hours. A four-hour lap could still give me what I wanted. It was going to be close. And then all hell broke out. I had to get a warmer (and drier) shirt. I needed something different to eat besides those damn Gels. I didn’t want to go anymore. Thomas had already left. It’s not like I was exhausted and couldn’t run anymore, but I still had 25 miles to go. Basically another entire marathon. And I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. But with help from Amy and other great friends, they sent me off. “Ok. Calm down. CALM down. CALM DOWN. You got this. Let’s just run ‘til we get to [this one part of the course nearby].” And once I got there, “Ok. Good job. Now, let’s get to the next part where the trails cross and you can walk.” I was hoping I could trick myself into running that far, and then once I got there, skip the walk and just keep running. But the walking part of me won. I continued this ‘run until x and then walk for x seconds’ for quite awhile. I saw Thomas as he was coming in from one of the loops and I had to go out on it still (putting him about a mile in front of me). Encouraging words were exchanged, and we continued on alone.

At the aid station, I made sure I ate some peanut butter jelly sandwiches (among the oranges and bananas I always eat). I walked for the next five minutes while I tried to eat that half a sandwich. Once it was finally consumed, I continued with my running/walking stretches. Upon reaching the spot which was only 200 m from the finish (though you turn away from it to run 18 more miles), I was feeling much better. Time to get back on target. I still had a small loop to do before I got to the super long back section. There was an aid station back there and some much needed encouragement. “Is this your last loop?” “F*** yeah it is!” “Awesome! And it’s okay to say F*** out here. Go get ‘em!” High fives were exchanged and I was feeling really really happy. I was gonna go get ‘em. Back on target. When I crossed the road (in a few minutes) and go to that back section, I was gonna get a move on. I could just feel it waiting to come out. I must have run for ten minutes before I took a short walking break. ‘Ok, that’s enough. You can take a break when you’re done in a couple hours.’ So I picked up the pace again. I wasn’t going at any record speeds, but I was running. And the longer I was out there, the better I started to feel. And consequently, I began running faster. I was back! And now the B goal (which was just to be faster than my PR of 17 hours flat) was not what I wanted. I wanted my A goal (sub-16 hours). And with how I was feeling, and in spite of my little hissy fit an hour ago, I was back on target.

I hit the last food aid station, picked up another half pbj (and oranges and bananas) and was outta there. Once I finished eating that pbj I was running again. About five minutes onto the trail, I heard someone coming up behind me. ‘Awww crap.’ But he turned out to be a relay runner. So no worries. I just continued pounding out my last half marathon. And I started to think about how much my last lap was going to help me finish strong. A lap earlier, in this very spot on the course, I wasn’t in the mood to run, but was still able to run the next 13 miles. And here I was, a lap later. Would I run the rest of the way in? Hell yeah I would. Thomas was finishing his last loop through the woods as I was going out on it. We again exchanged encouragements and I screamed (though he didn’t hear me with his headphones on) “I’m back baby!”

That last loop through the woods seemed like forever. I kept expecting it to be over only to find another late-night-wormhole (many parts of the course seem to get longer at night). But I finally made it out. Now I just had to stay to the right side of the trail to avoid the hanging branch that was somewhere ahead on the left. And now I made it to the last water aid station. Just three more miles! There were five big turns until I got out of the woods. Four more. Three. Two. One. There’s the sign! Just two more miles!

The whole time as I was running through the woods I kept sipping water. I don’t know if I really needed it, but I was holding a water bottle and it gave me something to do. The closer I got to being out of the woods, the more I had to pee. But with as fast as I felt like I was going, I was under the impression that I was back on target for sub-16 hours. And with as much as I had to pee, I was not going to be a few seconds over 16 hours (like I finished 18 seconds over 17 hours at Rocky Raccoon) just because I stopped to pee. No. I was going to run the rest of the way in and then I’d relieve myself.

I crossed the road one last time. There was the windmill at the visitor’s center all lit up like a Christmas tree. It was just a half mile to the finish. Let’s go! I picked it up a tiny bit. There’s one little bump (almost literally) 200 m from the finish. I could see the green lights of the finish line and I ran with whatever I had left in me. The timing clock came into view. 1. 6. Crap! I was over 16 hours. Oh well. 16:33. A little more than I was hoping for. But still, I was happy. I was a half hour faster than my fastest time. I crossed the finish line to see my wife and friend, who both wanted to talk and congratulate me. “I gotta pee.” And it felt so good. So good to be done; so good to not have to pee anymore; so good to have finished strong (minus the 7-mile hiatus); so good to have friends and family at the finish who support me in my addiction.