100 miles ahead: looking the beast in the eye

It’s almost time. The event that I was waiting for and preparing for for the last year or so. The 100 mile run. The Chimera.

Now, I always knew that completing this race was not going to be easy. All I was hoping for was that when I stood on the starting line I would be able to tell myself: OK, I did all I could to prepare for this; now let’s see whether that’s enough.

Sadly, reality got in the way.

The first 8 months were great. After running 50 miles in The Lakeland 50, in August 2012, I got the taste for trail running and, after moving to California in October that year, I started developing it further. I was running at every opportunity I got, exploring the “neighborhood” and sometimes venturing much further. I was doing decent mileage with decent elevation gains. I was also enjoying myself immensely in the process.

It all collapsed in June 2013. I run Big Basin 50k, clocking my best time ever for that distance (on the trails). But I miscalculated. I kind of forgot that just one week later I registered for the San Francisco marathon. No problem, I though, I’ll take it easy in the marathon and all will be well.

All was not well. Early on in the marathon my calf snapped. I was stubborn and limped to the finish line, barely making it in the time limit of 6 hours. But it took me almost 2 months to recover from this injury. 2 months of no training and multiple false starts into it.

What’s worse, it seems like I lost something along the way. Before the injury I took every opportunity I had and every spare minute to go running and I was looking forward to my weekend long, exploratory runs. After the injury I just couldn’t find back this passion for running. Sometimes I had to force myself to go for the training. Instead of looking forward to the weekend runs, I was often looking forward to being done with them.

This clearly had impact on my training. Instead of 5-6 weekly trainings that I was hoping to do I was usually ending up with 4-5. Sometimes less. If you think that’s a minor difference, think again. Ultramarathons, especially over a distance as long as 100 miles, are all about the mileage. Mine, in recent months, sucked.

There are smaller things too. Even in my most optimistic plans I was aiming to finish in 24h (I don’t anymore). That means not sleeping through the night. On top of that I never sleep much the night before the race, so I was planning on substantially catching up on sleep in the two weeks before. It didn’t work out. Actually I mostly slept little or badly and often both.

Tapering is a good thing but due to various circumstances I essentially stopped my training abruptly almost 3 weeks prior to the event. That’s not tapering. That’s asking for trouble.

That means I should at least be well rested, right? Wrong. I have an old left hamstring injury that troubles me with throbbing pain whenever I overdo it with running. I also sometimes have lower back pain which (long story) I always associated with not drinking enough water… But I forgot that another thing that sets off my hamstring is stress; I had enough of that lately to set it throbbing with pain like crazy. And my back is hurting so that I can hardly bend without wincing in pain.

Today, the day before the race was also far from perfect. First an 11h flight. Then 3+h spent in the car, on what should be less than an hour drive; permanently stuck in traffic. That meant I didn't make it for today's registration. Which means I'll need to get up at 3am to be at the starting line at 4am for race day registration. So much for getting some sleep.

Could it get any worse? You bet. When I got to the hotel I realized I don't have my HR monitor chest strap. I must have left it at home, in Nijmegen. I jumped in the car and drove like crazy to the closest shop with sporting goods, making it 5 minutes before closing time. Not much use, as it turned out they had some Polar watches but didn't sell straps separately. So I'll be running without HR monitoring. Now, those of you who know how much of a stats freak I am will recognize the gravity of this situation ;)

I always knew that, unlike for most races, when I stand on the starting line of the Chimera I will not know whether I’ll be able to finish it. 100 miles is not a joking matter. The longest I ever did was 50 miles. And even then I had help: running most of the race with Kristof and Tim was an unbelievably powerful boost (kudos to you guys). I don’t expect to have this kind of help here. The field is smaller, the distance is longer and I’m not a big talker, especially while running (which does not help making friends in such a race); it’s likely to be a more solitary experience.

Given all I said above, should I even be trying to run it? I don’t know. To be honest not racing crossed my mind. But too much trouble and preparation went into this to give up on it so easily. I have to at least try, while being fully aware that I may not be able to do it and I may need to call it quits.

Of course that’s about the worse possible mental state to start such a race with. It’s 100 miles. I will be dead tired and my body will be screaming at me to stop. It’s going to hurt. A lot. So I need to be ready for that. I cannot just give up when the going gets tough.

The proper mental state for such a race is to think: I will do it no matter what or I will die trying.

The problem is, I don’t want to die in this race; not even in the figurative sense.

What kind of gives me some hope is what everyone seems to be saying: running such long distances is not nearly as much about physical fitness, as it is about strength of character. I’m not in the best of places when it comes to physical form, but if it really is more about the brain than it is about the legs, then perhaps it wouldn’t help all that much if I was?

Also, let’s be honest, perfect conditions for a race rarely happen. It’s life with its twist and surprises and before every race I have a long list of complains about the things that could have done better…

So what’s my race plan?

I don’t really have one. I’ll have to play it by the ear. As usual the main challenge will be in going slow at first. Very slow. 100 miles. 6700 m (22,000 feet) of elevation gain (for comparison that’s 75% of Mount Everest’s height). I have no illusions; to finish I’ll have to walk plenty and the earlier I start the better, keeping my pace in check.

I am certainly going to forget about the goal that I had in mind all along: finishing in under 24 hours. This was always a grand goal, but Ultra Signup, which (based on previous races), was giving me a target time of 23:17, made me believe that maybe, just maybe, it’s not unattainable.

Now I just want to finish the damn thing. Just. Yeah, right.

So I guess the plan is: screw the time. I want to get to the finish line. Even if in 34 hours (race limit). Even if crawling at the end.

But again, I don’t want to push too hard and hurt myself, so if my body really gives up on me then I’ll have to give up on the race. No walking injured this time; not even close. It will be a pity to surrender to the beast, but hey, there will be more opportunities to conquer this distance.

Let’s see what happens. I'll need to get up in 5 hours and the race starts in 8. Wish me luck :)


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