Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The North Face Ultra-Trail Du Mont Blanc (100 Miles)

Well, it's another race off the list, and another painfest logged into the books. The North Face Ultra du Mont Blanc proved to be the toughest thing I have done yet. And I can just hear the "oh sure, whatevers" now...since it seems that I say that just about every time I get back from a adventure. But since I do keep upping the anty on my races, and choosing harder and harder ones, then it all just makes sense I guess.

I had trained quite hard from this as many people on my FB updates might have noticed..from doing trail races throughout the summer...Old Gabe 50K in Montana (11,000 ft of elevation gain/loss), the Mohican 50 Mile trail race in OH (5,000 feet of elevation gain/loss) and the Rattlesnake 50K in WV (7,000 feet of gain/loss)..or the countless hours I spent pulling tires, or climbing hotel stairs, hours running on soft sand, or on stair masters, etc. And I had come off the 150 miler in Namibia in the spring, so I'm not really sure where the training actually "started", since it seems it hasn't really "stopped" anytime in the last couple of years. So I surely couldn't be accused of a lack of commitment for this one.

We had a long, tiring trip over to France, but I perked up as soon as we drove from Geneva to Chamonix. I'll never forget my first glimpse of the Alps in our bus ride. I looked out the widow and was amazed to see the snow capped mountains, and the spiked peaks just about everywhere I gazed. I got chills down my spine thinking that in a few days, I'd running up and down those beasts...and a mixture of excitement, fear, and doubt rushed through me..and the old thoughts of...have I done enough, did I train hard enough, long enough...came rushing into my head!!! By the time we arrived in Chamonix, I was as nervous before a race as I've ever been.

Well, onto the race....the race began at 6:30 PM Friday evening and although I had planned to rest and sleep some during the day before the start, I had too many things still to prepare, and honestly I was so damn scared about the race, I couldn't sleep even if I had tried!! The experience at the start of the race, was just behind my Hawaii Ironman finish, as the coolest thing I've ever experienced. The air was just electric... and seeing everyone lined up...all 2,300 of us, a massive amount of people for a 100 mile ultra...was just amazing!! As the gun went off, this incredible sort of Gladiator movie soundtrack music was blaring over the speakers, and as we ran through the quaint streets of Chamonix, everyone was lined up on both sides yelling and cheering...and people were hanging out of windows waving and screaming. I felt like we were an army of warriors that were heading out to brave the dangers of war, and that many of us wouldn't be coming back...and many wouldn't!! It was such an incredible experience and I must have had chills for the first 3 miles...absolutely amazing!!! If I could have just bottled that feeling, and kept it for future use...but I'll never forget it.

I wish that kind of exhilaration would have lasted the whole race, but of course I knew it wouldn't...and it didn't...unfortunately it slowly turned into a plodding nightmare of pain and misery!!! The first 50 miles actually went relatively smooth and steady, and even though the climbs and descents were BRUTAL, we powered up strong, and ran the descents easy (and I say we because my friend Alex was also running and we stuck together throughout, which in a race of this distance, is a small miracle itself). But despite the "easy" descents, believe me, nothing was easy about coming down steep terrain like that, and by the halfway mark, my quads were toast!! It took me about 16 hours to reach 50 miles, but then everything seemed to grind to a halt and go in slow motion. Every other checkpoint seemed to be coming slower and slower, and harder and harder...well, probably because we were actually going slower and slower!!! At some points, my legs were so sore from the descents, that I was actually able to climb up the mountains faster than I was able to go down them!!! Fortunately though, some of the most beautiful scenery was in the beginning, and I made a point to look around and appreciate the beauty of my surroundings before I knew what was to come...me staring down at my own two feet, just putting one foot in front of the other!! In the beginning, I kept thinking of how few people are lucky enough to see this part of the world...these amazing mountains..the snow capped peaks, the green valleys...the fresh cool mountain air...the snow melt streaming down the mountains...the peace and solitude. And then of course at other times I thought, how few people are stupid enough to sign up for this torture!!


But another issue that came early on...was that I had developed the most horrid blisters on each of my heels, from making the steep climbs. And they actually weren't even blisters...but rather they seemed to have skipped the blister stage, and gone straight to the skin being just ripped right off my heels...and so I had 2 totally raw sores on my ankles that were absolute AGONY for just about every step. Looking back on it, I still can't believe I was able to plod on and on in that kind of pain!! And I think the only thing that took my mind off of it, was the pain in my ass!!!!! LITERALLY!! I had also developed the most insane chaffing on...well, no other way of saying this than to just say it...so my ass cheeks and "beyond"..if you know what I mean!!! I felt like someone overnight had jammed a piece of sandpaper down my shorts between my butt cheeks! Hell, I was so out of it over the TWO nights I ran through, that it might have been entirely possible. With every step I took, my ass was grinding away...OH MY GOD..talk about misery!!!! At each checkpoint, I would stagger into the rest area and right in full view of everyone, hike down my shorts and cram Hydropel (lubricant) down "there"!!! Gee, I wonder if that might have been the reason for some of the dirty looks from those lovely Frenchmen!!! I bet THAT ruined a few appetites!!! Or maybe the others just weren't happy because so many of THEM were quitting, and despite me walking bowlegged and limping for 70+ miles, this damn American with no manners, just wouldn't quit!!!

There were times when I thought to myself no human should ever voluntarily put themselves through this kind of pain and misery! There were many times when I was so exhausted and worn down, that I simply couldn't conceive of making it up the next hill in front of me. I remember at 3am (on the SECOND straight night), on probably the hardest climb of the race...with terrain so steep I was climbing using my legs AND arms to grab rocks and vegetation to pull myself up...and thinking to myself that this was the most insane thing EVER and what in the HELL was I doing here...I was in HELL actually. But the thought of quitting, knowing my mind set and that I'd have to come back the next year and try again, was just NOT an option. If the CIA wants to get the goods from the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, they should do away with the water-boarding and just sign some of those boys up for UTMB, and they'd be singin like birds before 50 miles!!!!

But believe it or not, there were fleeting moments...however rare...when I felt as alive as a person could feel...when I felt like I was doing something that so few do, or can do, or maybe are too smart to try to do...but it was a amazing feeling...like I was really and truly living life...breathing it in, feeling it raw, feeling it's wonder, it's pain..and at least trying things and experiencing things that so few people actually do. So many people live their 9-5 lives and ask me why I would want to do this...and unfortunately those people just wouldn't ever "get it". And of course I asked myself that question a million times, but deep down, and as much as I bitch and moan and complain about it...I know why I do it..I love the challenge and wondering IF I can do something, and it makes me want to go out and try it. And the feeling of accomplishment when it's done...and completed...THAT is a feeling that no money can buy!!!

So on and on it went, for the 2nd day and night, a lot more of the same...massive ups and downs...burning up during the day, cold at night...and hours passing...pain from this and that...sometimes more this, than that...wondering if my body would keep it up, or at least listen to my brain telling my legs to "keep on keepin on", well past any good sense...and a lot of thinking...and thinking...and more thinking...it's amazing how much you can think about in 42 hours...and then other times of not thinking at all...the body and brain going so numb that you're in a trance...a moving trance...and hallucinating...seeing things in the woods that weren't there...hearing things Alex said only to find he hadn't opened his mouth. I don't imagine LSD has anything on this!! And it was interesting to get to checkpoints and see people that looked to be much tougher than me, throwing in the towel. In a way, it gave me strength thinking that "that guy" is quitting but I'm still standing...but other times I'd think "holy shit, if he's done, what the hell am I thinking"..but then off I'd go...just gritting and bearing it. My buddy James from the UK was due to run also, but came down with an injury at the last minute, so he was nice enough to meet me at a number of aid stations and carry some of my carbo powder and gels, which helped out a lot and I owe a great thanks to James for that...thanks buddy!!!

Actually the scariest part was only about 6 miles from the finish...it was super hot and sunny and we had reached the top of the last brutal climb, and I was actually getting really dizzy and lightheaded and thought I was going to seriously pass out. I had run out of water on the climb and was having to literally shake my head to knock off the dizziness. I made it to the last checkpoint and told Alex that I thought I was going to pass out. I poured cold water on my head, and drank some, but nothing seemed to work. I was afraid to tell the race officials for fear they would make me stop and wait, or worse...stop me all together!! The thought of the race being out of MY control, and for me to have made it that far, and still maybe just pass out, was horrifying. I always said that I would NEVER quit on my own, unless I just passed out...and here it was actually happening...so I quickly said the hell with it...if I'm going to pass out, it's going to be running, not sitting at the aid station. So I filled up with water (or thought I did) and took off down the mountain. In my delirium of exhaustion, I thought I had filled up my camelbak with water, but apparently my rolled up jacket was pressing on the water compartment (all other times I had taken the jacket out so as to give room for the water to flow in) and so only about 5 ounces (one drink) went in, and I was too out of it to even notice..that is until I had left the aid station and was well away from it and then tried to take more than a sip and realized that I was out of water again, and still 2 hours to run...not good!!

But it's amazing what adrenaline will do to the body and before I knew it, Alex and I both were cruising down at a great pace. The closer we got down the mountain, the faster we went. When I reached "civilization" again, and the thought that FINALLY after 42 hours of virtually non-stop movement..being awake for well over 50 hours, I was going to finish!! As I got closer to the finish, the number of people cheering and the sound of the crowds increased, and so did my disbelief that it was actually almost over...oh my God, I have never wanted to see a finish line so bad in my life. and the thought of Chelsea waiting for me there, spurred me on even more. I ran the last few blocks with people lining the streets cheering, and the music playing, and my emotions were all over the board...thrilled, exhausted, delirious!!!!! I had done it...what a moment and at the very second I crossed...RELIEF... just relieved that the pain was over...well, it still isn't over as I gaze at my feet...but it was DONE!!!!!

I finished in 833 place out of just under 2,300 runners with over 900 people dropping out!!!! I was NOT one of them...YES!!!!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Namibia: Beyond Racing the Planet

It's been about a week since the Namibia Racing the Planet Ultra...and still with that amount of time gone by, the pain is still more fresh in my mind than I would prefer. And one look at my feet shows that they took quite a beating out there. When I landed back in DC after about 40 hours worth of traveling, they looked more like the feet of my 95 year old grandmother, than my own...but are slowly but surely coming along!! And the TV show The Biggest Loser has nothing on these races, as I lost a whopping 14lbs trudging through the desert of Namibia!! WOW

I was racing this event without my 2 Aussie teammates Michael Hull and Pete Wilson, and so even though I wanted to do as well as I could do, I also thought it might be the only time to experiment with some of my previous race plans...mainly the amount of calories I bring. That part of the plan, I had gone back and forth with a dozen or so times. At the very last minute after picking up my pack and it feeling like I had a family on my back, I decided to toss out a bunch of my gels and sports drink powder. BAD decision!!!!

Let me first say that the terrain in this race was over-the-top BRUTAL, with the 1st day having us go down the Namib version of our Grand Canyon and back up the other side. And let me add that it is the 2nd largest canyon in the world behind our Grand Canyon...and not much smaller. The check points are usually spaced out to ensure that we can refill our water...the only thing that the race gives us the entire week...but this 1st day proved to be tricky and for whatever reason, even though I NEVER run out of water...this particular day, under these tough conditions, I was caught without a single drink for 2:15. At one point, in the middle of the heat of the day, I had the chills and good bumps..a sure sign of heat exhaustion or worse. I managed to finish up and basically stagger across that day's finish line.

But the problem with me, is that I wanted to keep doing as well as I possibly could each day. The smart thing would have been to simply walk a day and recuperate..take it nice and slow and try to get back above my dehydration level...yes, the "smart" thing...but I'm not often accused of being smart..more often stubborn...pig headed, etc etc...so each day I pushed and pushed...not necessarily running fast..but when you feel like you're going to fall over just walking, any speed running is pushing it. In the last desert race I competed in, I felt as strong as an ox..energy to spare...excited, refreshed...this race it seemed, every mile was a struggle. I didn't necessarily go much slower, but rather just made myself continue...but the pain and misery of going and going when I wanted to just lay down and quit, was ROUGH...very rough!!

And I also was some serious rooky mistakes...let me summarize my 1st day of disasters. Well, 1st of all my wife Chelsea and I went over to Africa early and were lucky enough to go on a gorilla trek in Rwanda. It was an amazing experience but the food there was not exactly up to par and so living on french fries and coke for 3 days is not exactly the pre-race program most recommended before a 6 day, 150 mile, self supported race through the canyon, mountains, and desert of Namibia. So I didn't have a lot of rest going in, and felt like I had already lost a few lbs before the race even started. So anyway, 1 hour into the race, one of my trekking poles broke, then I after reaching the bottom of the canyon and running through a stream and sand, I decided that I'd better put on my sand gaiters (like snow gaiters for skiing that keeps out the snow..sand gaiters keep out the sand). The gaiters attach to the shoes with Velcro that I had a cobbler sow onto my trail running shoes. It was only after I sat on a rock, dumped the sand out of my shoes, and try to put the gaiters on, that I made the shocking realization that my idiot self had the WRONG Velcro side sowed on my shoes....the SAME one as on the gaiters and so they matched instead of being opposite and thus actually sticking!!! The word SHIIIIIIIT could then be heard, throughout the canyon as I yelled that upon realizing my brilliant move!!!! "This is perfect" I said to myself....show up at a race through sand withOUT the means to keep it out of my shoes!!! So anyway, no real time to ponder the "what ifs" and "if onlys"...just had to TRY and put that behind me and "keep on keepin on"...sand be damned!!!!!! That would prove to be easier said than done!!!!

So forward onward 2 more stages after the 1st day and it was more of the same...PAIN...EXHAUSTION...I just never had it. I ran relatively well though, despite my energy level and the 1st 3 days I still finished between 48th and 58th place...out of 214 starters...not bad actually, but the misery that it was causing was becoming quite a lot to endure!!! And once again, the terrain we had to cross, was so hard core, you would have to see it and experience it yourself to actually believe it. When I thought back to the fact that I had trained for this by running 7 "road marathons" on PAVEMENT...and FLAT...it was laughable...what the hell was i thinking!!!!! That gave me some good cardio, but did virtually NOTHING to prepare my legs for the climbs and descents, and rocks and sand of this race....CRAZY!!! So...we finish about 40K on day 3...got to bed about 8pm in the tent..and then for the long day...62 miles worth...we had to wake up at 2am, get in buses, and were driven 5 hours to the start. And of course I didn't sleep in the bus...so add sleep deprivation to all the fun, and the long day was already shaping up to be a doozy!!!

100K of running on 95% sand...wow...can I tell you how much that SUCKS!!!! No energy, not enough calories, low on sleep, and now I've got to run 62 miles in sand with a back pack that weight about 20lbs!!! LOVELY!!!!! The temperature as we were running directly into the sun into the 2nd stage was 109 degrees!!! I literally staggered into the check point, babbling incoherently until the race staff dumped some water on my head and I popped back into reality. As I sat on a seat and surveyed my surroundings, it felt like I had somehow left a race and woken up in a war zone. There were runners sprawled out everywhere...and dropping out left and right. Only 2 check points into a 10 check point stage day and people were calling it quits. I took about 10 minutes there and realized the atmosphere of giving up was WAY to prevalent there and quite contagious, and I didn't want it creeping into my body and infecting my brain as well!!! I had to get the hell out of there...whether I felt ready or not. I saw way to many people stronger than me, throwing in the towel. But if there's one thing I have learned in all my races, is that it's not about the strength of people's bodies..but rather what's in their head that matters in moments like this. I may not have the biggest and strongest legs, but I do have the mental strength when it counts. And at that moment, I had to really dig in and use some of the strength to get my ass up, and the hell out of there...moving onward in the right direction!!!

Well, this long day would go on and on and on. Under "normal" circumstances, it would probably have taken me about 13 hours to do a stage of this length, but with the difficult terrain, and my energy level, I ended up plodding along for over 25 hours!!! Wow!!! Walking up and down the sandy mountains, all night long, on and on and on, I had some of the lowest lows I've ever experienced in a race. I staggered and staggered and more than a few times wondered to myself, what in the hell am I doing here!!! This is ridiculous!! Nobody should ever voluntarily put themselves through this type of pain and misery. I don't know how many times I had to stop and dump the sand out of my shoes...and can't even explain what a pain in the ass it is to stop, try and sit down without everything cramping up, and go through the process of taking each shoe off,sometimes socks too!! Just the most simple of things becomes and incredible choor after hours and hours of marching. Through the darkest part of the night, we went over some of the toughest terrain and I couldn't believe we were having to negotiate mountain crossings in the delirious, exhausted state we were in. And when i say "we" for the 1st time in the entire week, I finally met up with a guy named Rob Bolton, who teamed up with me and we stuck together and forged on. We were both hearing things, and seeing things and it was quite a night as we continued on! We didn't chat a whole lot, but just knowing I was sharing the pain with someone who was feeling the same misery as I was, made it easier!! Each and every check point seemed like it was 5 miles further than we thought. What an excruciating existence we were living, trying to get from one to the next. We go over a climb and say "oh it HAS to be just up here" and then get there to find NOTHING..and repeated this disappointment countless times...oh my God. An aid station worker asked me what I needed and I said "a loaded f#@%* gun!!!!!" I just wanted to end the misery!!! I remember trying to imagine how wonderful it would feel when this was all behind me...but man, did it take what seemed like a lifetime....25 hours...are you kidding me!!!

So I finally stumbled to the finish of the long day and virtually collapsed into my tent floor...AHHHHHH!!! I knew then that I was going to make it and even though the thought of another 20-some miles through monster sand dunes the next day sounded like one of the craziest things I could ever imagine having to go through..I knew I could and WOULD do it at that point!!! Needless to say, this race was WAY harder than it was supposed to be and about 50 people dropped out along the way. And the ones that had made it so far, were very vocal in their feelings about what we were subjected to. For many, the thought of continuing on was proving to be too much and many were threatening to pull the plug on their own race...and amazingly for the 1st time ever, the race organizers actually dropped 10K of the "dune day" the next day. That was one of the most beautiful pieces of news I had ever heard. If I had had ANY liquid in my body at that point, I might have shed a tear..but a tear was still way to much water to waste and so I just silently rejoiced in my head.

So the next day started the dune day and I had drank water just about all night long so as to try and re-hydrate AGAIN!! And with the thought of doing a bit less mileage that day, and knowing it was the last difficult day since the last day was just a 10K sprint to the finish, I actually was feeling energized and really gave it a go!!! I moved pretty quickly up and down the massive sand dunes, and knowing that at any moment, the sight of the blue ocean was going to be over one of those dunes, only spurred me on even more. And then the moment finally came..after 6 days and miles and miles of brutal terrain, days and days of pain, I crested a monster sand dune and I caught my first glimpse of the ocean. WHAT A SIGHT!!!! I could almost imagine the cold water and feel the cool breeze. It was for this very experience that I had signed up for the race. The thought of going for miles and miles of sand and running into the ocean was something I had dreamt about...and finally it was within my reach. I actually sped up and finished in a dead sprint and it wasn't more than a few minutes before I had shed my clothes and was running down the beach, into the water!!! OH MY GOD...THE BEST!!!!! It was worth it....well, not totally, but pretty damn close!!! I floated in that ocean and tried to let the water wash away all the pain I had experienced...use it to clean all those negative thoughts from my soul...that long dark night was slowly but surely fading away!!! What an ending!!!

As I mentioned, the last day was a quick 8K sprint along the beach and into the little town there on the Namibian coast and I made quick work of it and right to the cooler straight to the celebratory beer...AHHHH...nice and cold...hell, why not have another...ok, 3 more I believe..so what..I was dehydrated right!!!!!

And as I side note, I was awarded the "Spirit Award". It's an award they present at the finisher's banquet, to the competitor showing the most positive attitude and good cheer throughout the race. Wow, I think they may have mis-interpreted my incoherant babbling, for good cheer!!! Well, actually as much complaining as I just described, I did manage to put a brave face on my pain and always tried to be positive when I got to an aid station...thanked the volunteers...hell, I WAS happy to see them..who wouldn't be. They all worked quite hard as well, so even though I was hating life more often than not, I kept a smile on, and looks like it paid off!!! It was quite an honor to receive it... and that plate, along with the race medal, are just more "bling" to add to the wall!!!!!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Racing The Planet: Namibia

In just a couple of days, I'll be heading off for two once in a lifetime adventures. My wife Chelsea and I will be flying to Rwanda to go on a wild gorilla trek. These magnificent and endangered animals are something we have both wanted to see for a long time. With reports of their poaching and the de-forestation, who knows how long they might still be here. Since I was heading back to Africa for the 5th time for another ultra-distance race, Chelsea decided to join in the adventure, and planned our gorilla hike. After our hike is complete, she will fly home and I will head across the continent to the West African country of Namibia for my 2nd half of the trip.

And I am running a 150 mile, 6 stage, self-supported race in which the competitors must carry ALL of our gear (except water and a tent). My pack will start out weighing a bit over 20lbs, and it will surely be an huge challenge lugging that while climbing the highest sand dunes in the world. The Fish River Canyon is another major landscape feature to note, as it is the 2nd largest canyon in the world and one we will be climbing down and back up it...thousands of feet!! Namibia is a sparsely populated country that has a wide range of amazing landscapes and extremes in temperature. We have just been informed by the race course setters, that they are currently experiencing temps down to 30F degrees at night and up to 104F during the day.

You can follow my progress (or lack there of), check my bio for past races, and even email me encouraging words that will be delivered to our tents...all at: http://www.4deserts.com/beyond/namibia/
And one last note of thanks to my friends Ben Wilson and Tim Hurt for coming through and sponsoring me for this race. Ben runs a investment fund in the UK called Sure Investment and Tim is the head of the US division and they were nice enough to really hook me up!! Thanks guys!!!! I really appreciate it...and will try to not throw up on the nice company logo!!!lol

Below is a description provided by one of the race organizers:

RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009 gets underway in just two weeks with two hundred and fourteen (214) competitors from 38 countries expected to participate including a record number of past champions who will be vying for top places

(9 May 2009, Hong Kong) -- RacingThePlanet is set to stage its next endurance event in Namibia on 17 May 2009. Traversing some of the most spectacular dunes and stunning landscapes of the oldest desert in the world – the Namib Desert, RacingThePlanet’s six stage, seven day, 250 kilometer self-supported footrace, features a field of 214 from 38 countries. The event kicks off with a steep descent into the Fish River Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world, an area rich with local wildlife such as Mountain Zebra, Giraffe, Oryx, Steenbok, Springbok and even leopard. Competitors will make their way through the African bush traversing lunar landscapes and over some of the most demanding and challenging sand dunes in the world to finish at the Skeleton Coast in the charming town of L├╝deritz.

Thanks to the unwavering support of the Namibia Tourism Board, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and other government agencies in Namibia, competitors will have access to some of the most remote and pristine areas in the country, and will be the first ever humans to have crossed parts of the landscape.

About RacingThePlanetRacingThePlanet® is a unique category of rough country footraces that take place over seven days and some 250 kilometers in remote and culturally rich locations around the world. Competitors must carry all their own equipment and food; they are only provided with water and a place in a tent each day but are supported by professional medical and operations teams. RacingThePlanet is international; the events typically involve competitors from over 20 different countries who are able to mingle around the campfires and in their geographically mixed tents. Currently the events consist of the 4 Deserts, a series which encompasses the Gobi Desert in China, the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Sahara Desert in Egypt and Antarctica, and a fifth event which roves to a new location each year. Time Magazine recently ranked the 4 Deserts #2 on its list of the world’s top endurance competitions.