Thursday, June 28, 2007
Sizing up the competition
In August and September of 2003, Joe Kulak ran the last 2 races of The Grand Slam (Leadville and Wasatch) as well as the last race of the The Last Great Race (Angeles Crest), setting speed records in both races series that still stand today. In those same 2 months I rode two ambulances to 2 ERs after attempting on very hot days my first Ironman distance triathlon and my first 50 mile trail run, upsetting my then fiancee with each garbled long distance cell phone call to reassure her I was alright (but had just the opposite effect). Joe would end up solidifying his place in ultrarunning history by being named that year's Trail Runner magazine Male Trail Runner of the Year, the USA Track & Field Mountain/Ultra/Trail Council Ted Corbitt Award for Male Ultrarunner of the Year, and the UltraRunning magazine runner-up for Male Ultrarunner of the Year. I'm sure his wife thought he was the bomb. My then-fiancee meanwhile kept talking about making me sign a pre-nup that I would never again attempt any athletic event taking more than 5 hours, and I had no quick way to prove her unreasonable.
I didn't know who Joe Kulak was. It goes without saying he'd never heard of me.
So I am a bit taken aback when, less than 4 years later, before the start of the Kettle Moraine 100 mile and km endurance runs, Joe Kulak comes up to me and greets me, "you must be Mark Tanaka." Joe tells me when I looked surprised, "you've been tearing up the trails at all these 50-k and 50-mile races all spring..." One of his informants, he explains, is Oakland's Garett Graubins, who paced him last year at Western States.
A year earlier I had run a while, off course and lost since the course hadn't been finished being marked, with a talented Jeff Kozak at the a now defunct Overlook 50k Run. I asked him, "Ooh, whoa, aren't you pretty famous?" "Me? No. I think you are mixing me up with Joe Kulak." A few months later I saw the full page North Face ad in a running magazine with Joe puking into a large Western States official barf bucket, before he "regrouped to finish in the top 15...Endurance is..." I had mentioned to Ohlone race director Rob Byrne that I was doing Kettle in 2 weeks, and felt like I might have a chance at winning, except that I saw Joe Kulak's name on the entrant list. "Well, at least you'll have the advantage that you know who he is, and he won't know who you are," he told me. Mingling at the race start, I thought I saw someone resembling the bent over figure from the ad, but looking much more formidable.
Later I hear what I think is his bluff: "I haven't raced since I did a marathon last fall...I'm thinking more like 18 or 18 and a half." Out of shape or not, I know that Joe's 100 mile experience is 8 times mine (his 24 to my 3), that he never really frequently raced shorter distances, and he admits to having done a 5 hour training run a couple weeks ago. I also remember the previous fall, when a puking Jon Olsen would regroup at Rio del Lago and still break his old course record and finish almost 2 hours before me. And Graham Cooper, although not training as hard as he did on his work sabbatical last year, broke his Quicksilver 50 mile record this May. These elite guys are fast, even when off their peak.
How California boy came to run this midwestern race
We were shooting for our 2nd baby around June or July, so I reluctantly tore up my filled out application to Western States back in late November. As it turned out, we weren't sure my wife was pregnant until January, with the delivery date sometime in September. So I probably could've gotten away with running it had I made the lottery. And if not, I would get automatic entry for 2008. But alas, I must start over.
So, even though happy and excited about another kid, ultrarunner that I'd become, during the winter I was having major regrets, wondering if there was another 100 miler I could do instead. And yes, there was-- the Kettle Moraine 100 mile endurance run, and nice, it's in southern Wisconsin. My wife's entire family lives near Chicago, my son has cousins there to play with, so I ask her, honey, do you want to go to Chicago at the end of June? You know, before we can't take any more plane rides for a while? She says yes, briefly pauses, then asks, spouse of an ultrarunner she's become, so, is this for a run? But she's cool with the plan.
I'd actually read about the Kettle Moraine ultras on the internet 4 years ago, as I was finishing (and much looking towards the end of) my medical residency training in Chicago, shortly before my summer of trial-by-fire endurance race hyponatremia and rhabdomyolysis. I was already unconsciously getting bored with road marathons and somehow stumbled across the website for this get-small-kettle-from-Peru race with the insane distances of 100 km and 100 miles. Whoa! I toyed with the idea of signing up, but I would be finishing an overnight-call-every-3-day trauma rotation and realized my tight schedule wouldn't logistically allow me to attempt something so crazy that might knock me out for a couple days after. (In retrospect, yes, since I wouldn't've known what I was doing, it would've knocked me out for at least a couple of days.) But, what a cool amazing feat to attempt. In a way then, I've waited 4 years to return and do this race.
The end of the 4-year itch
So here I am, now 4 years later, all pumped to do something that was almost unthinkable a few years earlier. Despite advancing to the next decade, I'm having a great spring racing season, setting personal bests in every race, most spaced or even as little as 8 days apart, including a sub-8 Ruth Anderson 100k, a sub-7 American River 50 mile, a sub-5 Ohlone Wilderness 50k. I was ready to kick some butt in the Midwest from where I originally hail. 40 is the new 30.
I had originally reserved a tent site at Whitewater Lake for the weekend, but we were able to rent a house for the weekend at nearby Lake Geneva with about 1/2 of my wife's family and so my parents coming up from Ohio would also have a room. This would have been ideal, and the day before was a relaxing day spent around the sleepy town and beach, except that my wife's nephew cried all night in the room next to us, and then I got up at 4 a.m., which is 2 a.m. Pacific Time, and couldn't get back to sleep. But, who sleeps well before these things anyways?
So at the start line, after I come out of the well-timed Portalet (miraculously almost no line). Shortly after I am asking where the start line is. An apparent veteran of the course, probably thinking I'm a neophyte who is going to run too hard and burn out at mile 40, bemusedly points to the trail and asks me "so do you plan on winning this race?" I think "well, I would've liked to have" but point at where Joe was standing and answer, "well, HE probably will, so no."
Soon enough, RD Tim Yanacheck is counting down the seconds and then I, still wondering what I forgot, along with the others at the front, take off. Course mile markers for the 5 miles to the first aid station reveal my gut feeling is correct-- 7:30 minute miles times two. The first 2 miles are a surreally-manicured mowed grass path, not too hilly, before giving way the first of several sets of roller coaster hills. I run and talk with Kyle Amos, from Kansas, who ran a sub-21 hour here 3 years ago, and was returning to ultrarunning after a hiatus I think for child rearing. I am not close to being out of breath, but I know we are going WAY TOO FAST. But as Kyle comments, it's really hard to hold back when you feel so good and fresh at the beginning. Plus, since there are runners in the relay and 100km race with us, there are enough people ahead of us.
The course reaches the Ice Age Trail at mile 7.4 at Bluff aid station, where we head out towards a turnaround at 50km. We enter a more technical single track section. Somewhere before or after here I hear steps catching up and it's Joe Kulak, and no surprise, he looks and sounds very unwinded and strong. We talk a bit. It starts raining, which maybe feels good, but maybe this would be more helpful later in the day when it's hot. My vision gets blurry from the drops on my glasses. On the approval of everyone I asked, I'm running in road shoes, not trail shoes. I'm not being careful with the roots and rocks and sharp turns and over the next hour I land with my each of my feet inverted 2 times each. But maybe it isn't just my vision, as I do this even when it stops raining. I see people come into the ED all the time with this and they go out with crutches for at least a couple weeks at least by this mechanism, but being an ultrarunner, I'm able to keep running. Unfortunately my subsequent ability to really let go and pound down the steeper downhills becomes impaired, and it would be another 2-3 weeks before they feel close to normal.
Nonetheless, I slowly pull away from Kyle and Joe, who are chatting it up. I consider hanging back and enjoying the conversation, but my natural relaxed pace feels a little faster, and I figure with my ankle twists, I need to stay focused on the trail. I catch up with Solomon Geht, a student from University of Illinois debuting at this distance a little before pulling away maybe around Emma Carlin, leading to the open grassland. It's too early to be too hot, so this is uneventful except for one puddle I should dodge, but I run through it, thinking there will be more coming. The RDs had told us that the course drains well--they were correct.
During the open spaces, I try to look back and see who's following, but I can't even see where the trail is cut into the tall grass and can't remember what everyone is wearing anyways. I try to relax and run my own race, the original plan before my mind was corrupted with competitive instincts. At the aid stations, they tell me there are 2 or 3 runners ahead, and supposedly 1 of them in the 100 mile race.
A little hilly single track and going up to Scuppernong, and then firetrails, where I see this fast-looking runner I hadn't seen before, running back up the hill, looking like he was going to keep running fast. The people at the last aid station had told me the 100-mile guy ahead of me's name, Eric Bonk, whom I'd never heard of. I reach the turnaround about 10 minutes later, so he is at least 20 minutes ahead. I find my minimalist drop bag with an 8 ounce can of liquid nutrition I chug and an unnecessary "just in case" gel I'd stashed. Someone comment, "now THAT'S a drop bag," as I run out. Within 75 seconds, I see Joe Kulak coming in, looking pretty good and relaxed. Kyle comes by only a few minutes later. I feel the pressure of Joe and Kyle so close, but then try to rationalize it down--since I'm nowhere close to that first place guy, I can just go for the age-group award. I fight mild nausea through most of the next few miles due to the breakfast drink, but I never hear or see Joe behind me.
From about mile 40-50, I'm feeling fairly fatigued, in comparison to my Rio del Lago run last September, and I'm wondering if I haven't pushed myself too hard, with less than half the course finished. There are soon no other runners coming the other way, so I'm pretty much running alone. Crossing 50 is a psychological boost, but I'm not suddenly bursting with energy. I have to remind myself that everyone is probably just as tired, and I haven't seen Kulak since coming out of Scuppernong.
At the return to Bluff (55.5), I see the fast runner Bonk sitting in a chair, not even close to getting up, looking like he might have...uh, sorry... bonked. I head on in toward the Tamarack and Nordic. The mile markers for the 5 miles leading up to Nordic (mile 62.9) are encouraging. I get in sometime over 9 hours and 35 minutes. I learn the only runner ahead of me is in the relay, so now I'm both pleased that I'm even ahead of the top 100k finisher (who I later would discover is the 3-time Ted Corbitt Award winner and race founder Kevin Setnes, still fast at 53 as evidenced by his 7:51:49 at Mad City 100K earlier in the spring). The downside to confirming my being in the lead is that I now feel more pressure to push myself.
I'm fairly disorganized at Nordic. For no good reason except that I stuck it there, I change out my white cap for a tan one with ears on the sides and the back, which I later regret because it's too hot. I ask a volunteer to figure out how to strap an iPod holder I hardly use to my left arm. I cram the headphones into my back pocket as I don't need the music yet and can't deal with the tangle. I almost leave, but then actually backtrack to drink my 2nd breakfast drink I was supposed to drink when I hit the aid station. The only efficient thing I do is decide NOT to get out my cell phone and call my wife and tell her I love her ("the wifey call"), an omission which Rio del Lago director Norm Klein might appreciate. My watch split button as I leave Nordic is 9:38:52. I am nauseated again for about 5 miles and consider swearing off the breakfast drink thing.
The next two splits I'm still doing sub 10 minute miles: 48:26 for the 5.1 to Tamarack, and 22:22 for the 2.3 to Bluff. As I leave Bluff, I am surprised to find my parents sitting on the ground, my dad reading a magazine, my mother doing a crossword puzzle. I say "hi," but feeling stalked fairly close, don't want to stop to chat. I was expecting them just to show up at the finish, or was going to call them after I finished. They missed me at Nordic, and were directed by the RD to Bluff. Obviously they haven't figured out how to predict my arrival by my pace and split times. They tell me they'll see me at the next crewable aid station.
How my parents came to witness the insanity of ultrarunning when they would have preferred my hobby to be giving recitals as a concert pianist
So, the fact they they were here hanging out at an aid station, was something I would never have anticipated just a few months earlier. I had long stopped telling them about all my races. Closeted ultrarunner-- don't ask and I don't tell. On one visit, my dad felt the need to lecture me. He asked me "Why do you have to run those stupid distances? Why can't you be happy with 5k?" So I was surprised when they suggested that they come up and visit my in-laws in Chicago-- treat them to their home-made wine, see Yo Yo Ma at Millennium Park, hang out with their grandson, oh and maybe see me at the race.
Having never really been crewed before and realizing they've never witnessed this sort of thing before, I'm not hoping for a lot of logistical support. But if they could drop me off and pick me up, I wouldn't have to rent the car and drive under the influence of too many miles, or make my 6-month pregnant wife drive me.
Delusions of grandeur resulting from the stress of having run more than 70 miles
I'm looking forward to seeing a new section of the course as I take a sharp left back onto the Ice Age Trail. My split as I made it out of the 3rd visit to Bluff aid station (mile 70.3) was 10:49:40 and since I've covered more than 2/3 the distance, I start really feeling like I can win. I manage to turn on my iPod Nano and activate the shuffle function, and the music gives me a boost. I do some calculating and realize that if I do 10-minute miles, it will take me less than 5 hours to finish the race, which would put me under Eric Clifton's course record of a few minutes under 16 hours. Wouldn't that be cool, set a new course record? And wasn't Clifton an elite ultrarunning guy? In my mildly altered mental state, and in my ignorance of the terrain to follow, I actually think maybe I can go for this. I figure if I can come close, then I don't have to worry about Kulak so much. I start pushing the pace at what I figure is something close to 9 minute miles. I'm feeling like a badass. I start breathing hard. I'm thinking, wow, I used to only breath this hard during my 50k's, and only recently started breathing like this at some 50 milers. Now I'm doing it on my 100's. I go on for 2 to 3 miles like this, feeling like I'm really pushing my limits now.
Then I realize I'm really pushing my limits, too hard. In fact, with more than a marathon left, I feel I've pushed myself so hard that I'm feeling OUT OF BREATH. Dude, what the hell are your thinking?! I am less a badass than a dumbass. As I am forced to slow down considerably up a mild upgrade, I realize I have risked burning myself out and crashing and losing the lead. While continuing forward, I try to allow myself to recover my breath, to reach a new equilibrium at a sustainable pace, while awaiting cramping, nausea, or some other wall.
Fortunately I'm able to recover, although it becomes clear that 9-minute miles are out of the question.
I see my parents at Highway 12. My dad tries to take a photo of me leaving the station with a digital camera I gave them for Christmas a few years ago, but it has too much shutter lag I later see. Soon, I'm climbing this big hill, and it's obvious that the stretch between Highway 12 and the turnaround at Rice Lake will result in a much slower pace than the flatter sections I have been running.
I see Kulak about 15 minutes from the turnaround, so my lead is about half an hour. I feel like this is a pretty safe lead, but realizing that crashing is possible, I try to push and run as many of the uphills as possible. Apparently this was a good move, because Joe later tells me he figured he could cut my lead if he ran all the uphills, but at each aid station the gap remained unchanged. Tom Riley greets me coming the other way--we've never met, but he recognizes me. I had met his very fast brother Jeff at Quicksilver 50 mile 3 weeks earlier.
I come back to Highway 12, realize I have to get my little plastic drop box myself since my father would later tell me he couldn't figure out what I meant by "drop bag." Again, I was not expecting to be crewed. I put on my headlamp and try to put on another one around my waist, but the light pops off and neither I nor a volunteer can figure out how to get it back on the strap--another stupid problem I could have prevented by better preparation.
So I grab the the hand-held flashlight as a spare. I turn my light on and off for the long stretch until shortly before the next manned aid at Bluff. I realize the other problem with my prior calculation--darkness tends to slow you down. I feel a little paranoid that I will see Joe with amazing night-vision from all his prior 100's, sneaking up on me, even though he would really have to haul major ass. Another runner making his way out to the turnaround makes bowing motions to me as we pass each other, and I'm simultaneously embarrassed, amused and appreciative.
After I turn towards the final 7.4 miles, I get no more compliments on my speed from runners going the other way, since I'm mixed in with people still coming up on the 100k mark. in respect of the longer time they'll be running, I try to tell everyone I pass great job, keep it up and have fun out there. (By the way, I really just enjoy doing these races, whether I have a chance at placing or not.)
As I search with my flashlight and see each marked off mile during the final 5 miles, I realize I'm close to coming under 16:30, so make the half-hour mark a goal to shoot for, yet dubious of my ability to change my pace significantly. As I finally see the start & finish banner, I hear my father call out, is that you, Mark? He captures me crossing the finish line, another first from a family member, since my wife usually misses this when she does show up. All these photos are from his camera--thanks, Dad!
RD Tim Yanachek is all excited, I guess because I beat last year's time by over 2 hours, and maybe because I beat Joe. After I walk around a bit, he presents me with the trophy, a handsome engraved English imported copper kettle. I'm really happy to have run so well and to have my parents there to witness it. Kulak comes a little over a half hour later, elegantly coming 2 seconds under 17 hours. If I hadn't been there, his time would've been the 2nd fastest in the history of the course. Not bad for someone supposedly out of shape. He is generous in his praise; I'm sort of embarrassed, because he probably would have killed me if he were better trained. But the nice thing about our sport, is that it sometimes allows the little guy to get some cookie too. I feel honored to be able to have raced a great athlete and true sportsman, and extra pleased that my victory came only with a fight.
I'd like to stick around and and meet and congratulate more runners as they come in, and talk more with Joe and everyone else, but learning that my parents have been out all day after they dropped me off--golfing 18 holes and were barely at the house, I figure I need to let them go home and sleep. So we go. They were impressed with how nice everyone including Tim was. My dad expresses his sincere appreciation that I ran fast, because he felt sorry for all the friends and family parked there waiting for their runners to finish in the middle of the night or next morning. Of course, I tell him, that was my main reason for pushing the pace. Not to win a copper teapot or beat an ultrarunning legend, but to prevent my parents from losing sleep. My dad then tells me I should've asked Tim for one of the smaller kettles that everyone gets as a finisher's award, and my mom scowls at him (in Japanese) "Papa, no!...why does he have to do that?" He also concludes, upon examining my trophy kettle, that it won't hold water, becase of the holes poked it in to attach the engraved plate on the front. Days later they tell me they still think all this ultrarunning is crazy and that will probably be the last time they come out to watch me this long. Gotta love my parents.
I do think I'll be able to convince them to chauffer me to another 100-mile race somewhere in the Midwest.
Thanks RDs Jason and Timo and all the dedicated volunteers for all your sweat and hours in putting on such a great race--I had a blast! (I should probably thank Hammer Nutrition also, because I must've downed a few gallons of their Heed sports drink and over 15-20 Hammer gels.)