A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Twenty hours till Leadville - Embracing the Challenges

It's amazing what one can learn when running 100 mile races. Even if one thinks he didn't learn anything, he finds after all that he's learned a great many things in these races.

I found that the first two races of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning are like that. Especially when it comes to adapting to the conditions of the race.

I used to fight the conditions and try to bend it to my will. Even when I was a competitive triathlete, I tended to take this approach. I used to have a certain goal time in mind for half-Ironman and Ironman races. Damn the conditions, the time was all I wanted. So I used to fight the wind, the rain, the bumpy roads, the hills to keep a certain pace. And if the conditions started to get the best of me, I would swear and curse and increase my effort even harder to maintain my pace. More often then not, I used to blow up spectacularly in the race and resort to walking to the finish with a mediocre time.

I've realized that the first two races of the Grand Slam has forced me to come to terms with a different way to approach the race. And I'm starting to realize that this is the more sound way to do these races. Instead of fighting the conditions, I have to learn to embrace them, absorb the pain that goes with the conditions, and keep moving forward while making adjustments to adapt to the conditions. It's quite a novel concept, especially with my goal-oriented approaches, but this approach has gotten me through the second hottest Western States on record and a very humid Vermont race filled with biting flies.

In Western States, I knew I was running in triple-digit temperatures. The heat felt like it was ready to melt my face off in those canyons. But I accepted the heat, made it my own, and kept going forward with it. I found that I can tolerate a higher level of pain with this approach. I also had major blister issues. I initially fought the blisters, by stopping at every aid station and trying to lessen the pain, but at mile 85 I decided to just embrace the pain, and get to the finish line, when I would deal with the blisters. From mile 85 on, each step I took was agony, but I accepted the higher level of pain and that got me to the finish with enough time to keep my Grand Slam attempt going.

In Vermont it was the stifling humidity and the biting flies that challenged me in this race. It wasn't the perfect day that I had a year ago when I finished under 21.5 hours. But I embraced the humidity, the disgusting wetness that I had to endure, and basically ignored the biting flies to concentrate on my goal to get under 24 hours and obtain a belt buckle in the race (Vermont only gave belt buckles to those who finished under 24 hours; a plaque was given to people finishing over 24 hours and under 30 hours). Yes, I wanted to try to match the 21.5 hours that I did last year, but I knew the conditions were much harsher, accepted the fact that it was not going to happen, and made the adjustments necessary to finish decently in the race.

In the early part of the year, when looking at the Grand Slam as a whole, I always thought Leadville was the race that would most likely knock me out of the Grand Slam. The fact that it utterly destroyed me 2 years ago sobered me up to the fact that this race takes no prisoners. Yes, I've lost 27 pounds and gained a lot of hill-climbing power for the race in the meantime, but I cannot take my increased fitness for granted. At some point, or maybe at every point, of the race, I'm going to have to embrace the challenges and accept a higher level of pain in this race, maybe the highest level of pain that I've ever faced. I know that tomorrow is going to be hell, but I'm determined to accept the conditions I face, make it my own, and keep pushing forward with the sole desire to finish.

 Hope Pass - the conditions here can be extreme. At 12,600 feet, it's tough to breathe up here. Plus, it's been known to be stormy up here also. Whatever conditions I receive up here, I need to embrace them and make the necessary adjustments to get up and over this section effectively.

There is a Leadville pace calculator that is circulating around the web. In order to make 25 hours you have to do so-and-so; for a sub-30 hour finish, you have to do this-and-that and reach this aid station at a certain time. In the past I would have looked at it, and studied it to a fault. And if I was to miss a certain goal time, I would fight harder to get back on pace again.

I only took one glance at the table this year, and then I left it behind. No studying, no intermediate goal times, no forced pace. I realize that this is a generic table that one shouldn't take seriously. And the worst part is that it doesn't take conditions into account that is unique to this year's race.

This year, I'm going at my own pace, am going to accept the conditions imposed on me, will make the decisions possible to adjust to those conditions, and will embrace the challenges these conditions represent and move forward the best I can under those conditions. I feel that this approach is the best chance of finishing this race, and at the best possible time.

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