The Hitchcock Experience
In 2017, I decided to tackle another 100-miler. And, as usual, I chose one I thought more difficult than the last. And, as usual, I failed to complete the race. It started a self-inflicted "pity party" where I was beginning to think that 100-mile races weren't my "thing".
Then, in September, I woke up one morning to my wife telling me she had signed up for the Hitchcock Experience half-marathon the night before as I was sleeping (race registration opened up at midnight). My friend & pacer, Jody, had tried to sign up at 5AM and he was wait-listed. It's a popular trail half marathon in the Loess hills East of Omaha. So, hearing that Angela had signed up gave me a little bit of jealousy. I wanted to run, too! But, the half marathon was already full. :-(
Some people might remember, but last December, I attempted the 100-mile race at Hitchcock. The course took a mean toll on me both physically and mentally. I opted to quit at mile 75 with a fairly swollen knee tendon(s). I didn't even make a blog post about it because it was kinda depressing.....my second attempt....my second failure.
Well, in late October, I decided I would run the Hitchcock Experience half marathon.....eight times. So, I signed up for the 100-mile race again. (Hey, I've said in past blogs that I'm not a very smart man!)
Hitchcock is a mean course. You might think Iowa is just another flat state, but Hitchcock can prove otherwise in a matter of minutes. The course is a 12.5-mile loop with 2,464' of elevation gain and descent. The 100-mile course is 'just' 8 loops....with a total of 20,000' of elevation gain. Each mile contains anywhere from 70-400' of elevation gain. The hills are just.....RELENTLESS. And, they aren't the kind of hills you just jog up....they reduce you to walking immediately. They are so steep you can reach out and touch the ground in front of you as you walk/climb up them.
|Hitchcock Nature Center -- What a gem of trail running!|
For some reference, my Garmin has a goal of 25 flights of stairs per day for me. When I run in Excelsior Springs, it takes about 2-5 miles to get that goal. Within the first three-quarters of mile #1 at Hitchcock, my watched buzzed alerting me to my accomplished goal!
To add to the 'flavor' of the course, the trails take you up onto ridge lines with beautiful views of Omaha's skyline.....and gusty, bone-chilling, Northwesterly December winds.
(Running) The Hills
I, generally, enjoy running hills. Yeah, they are work to climb, but the reward is the descent. I absolutely love to bomb down hills. And that is exactly what I did in last year's attempt at Hitchcock. And, about 60-70 miles into the race, the constant pounding of my 175lb frame on my knees took it's toll and I quit with a fairly swollen patellar tendon in my right knee. This year, I knew I had to go easier. As insurance, I brought along cheap knee braces for both knees. I told myself at the slightest inkling of pain in my knees those braces would go on and not come off.
If I was going to go easier on the downhills, I knew I had to make up that time somewhere else. Anyone who runs with me knows I can climb the hills with the best of them. So, that's exactly where I placed that extra energy. I didn't run the very steepest hills, but I pushed up them. Like I tell Jody all the time......"walk with purpose". I walked, without stopping, every hill until probably about mile 80. In fact, I took extra brownies from each aid station and put them in my hydration vest. I told myself, "Walk with purpose to the top of this hill and you can have a brownie". It was like baiting a child to do something, and it worked beautifully. I don't have enough fingers and toes to count all the people I passed going up the hills each lap.
Slow It Down?
So, how did my first lap at Hitchcock go? I just fell in line with the other 100 mile runners and ran a comfortable pace......which turned out to be 2:15. That would have been good enough for 8th overall in the half marathon. That was 18-hr pace! I grabbed some soup, refilled my water bottle, took a picture of my Garmin and posted on Facebook for Angie & Jody to see. Then, figuring I had beaten both my wife and pacer(Jody) back and there was no reason to wait, I headed out onto lap #2.
|Lap #1 - Too fast or just right?|
I continued my comfortable pace, my hill attack strategy, and my downhill conservation efforts.....and I pulled into lap #2 around 2:30. I started to tell myself that if I could just keep the laps under 3hrs, I'd be banking time for later laps when I'm hurting and still maybe even touch that sub-24hr finish. As I rolled into the aid station, I was almost immediately chided by Angie for 'going too fast' that first lap. I didn't need much, so I just grabbed more soup/ramen and refilled my water bottle and left.
Lap #3 brought more of the same. My plan was working. My body, amazingly, was working like clockwork. This was a bit of a surprise because I went into this 100-miler more banged up than ever before. Two months earlier, on a training run, I had rolled an ankle pretty badly. Less than two weeks later, I rolled and popped that ankle again. For the next six weeks, I would drop my weekly mileage in hopes of finding an equilibrium between resting a bad ankle and getting my miles in.
|Weekly mileage just tanking due to injury...|
The weekly mileage kept dropping because the ankle just wasn't healing. Then, during the week of Thanksgiving, I told myself I needed some good miles. I put on 70+ miles that week and the world seemed right again.
The ankle injury wasn't my only injury. I was dealing with plantar fasciitis in both feet, but particularly the left foot (the one with the ankle sprain). And, I had developed tennis elbow in my right arm, which I use exclusively for carrying my handheld water bottle. My body was falling apart on me.
Nevertheless, loop #3 only took me 2:35 and I was still feeling good. I rolled into the aid station, changed some socks, refilled my water bottle, gulped down soup/ramen and coke, and headed out again.
|37.5 miles and still cruisin'|
Lap #4 brought me to the halfway point and I had finished the first 50 miles of Hitchcock with no falls, no sprains, no muscle spasms, feeling pretty good, and in 10:45. Still sub-24 pace and still moving along very efficiently. I was, however, telling my crew that my legs just felt dead. Not exhausted, per se, but dead. When I'd ask them to pick the pace up or climb harder, there just wasn't any "giddyup" in them. But, we were still moving forward, and doing it at a pretty good clip, so I wasn't about to change what I was doing.
|50 miles complete! Ramen & Coke please!!|
I want to break here and say this is where I decided that everyone is wrong when they tell me to slow it down. My body isn't built for slow. It hates slow. I think I even told Jody at the aid station, "Instead of slowing down....let's just feed the hungry dog, ya?" Meaning, I was tired of everyone telling me to slow it down because that kind of effort or strategy doesn't work for them or for most people. Well, I'm not most people. I like to go fast. Like Scott & Stacey would say to me, "Shake and Bake!" So, you know what? SCREW THAT SLOWING DOWN CRAP. I'm gonna run what my body tells me is comfortable and effortless. And, if that pace looks like suicide pace to the rest of the world........so be it. Let's just keep my body fed and hydrated!
|Did that just happen??!!|
The next 50 miles...
I've been very adept at getting thru 50 miles and 100k and this year's Hitchcock was no different. I knew the next 50 miles would get worse. But, as my friend, LeeJae tells me, "Get your shit together, Carol!". I just had to keep my shit together.
Jody was ready to go out on lap #5 with me but I told him 'no'. I wanted him to take me to 75 miles, which was basically my personal best (82.2), and get me started on the next lap. If I could get out onto lap #7 I would finish this race.
So, I headed out onto lap #5 alone but feeling very accomplished. There was nothing particularly eventful on that lap. I finished in just under 3hours. Still knocking on the door of a really, really good race and respectable time.
|Eyes starting to get a bit glossy. Ramen and coke again!|
Jody was ready to go, and after 62.5 miles alone, I was ready for company. Jody always tells me I'm a 'social person' and I most certainly am. We started off on the lap and we talked about how the half marathon went for him and Angie. I was pointing out every root, rock, turn and climb. Jody asked if I had a 'photographic memory'. I do, but my recollection of the Hitchcock course, at this point in my life, is coming from experience (this was about to be my 12th lap all-time here).
Around mile 65, I told Jody that my right foot hurt and we needed to stop and look. If I've learned one thing, it's that when you feel something rubbing, you stop and correct it before it explodes on you. We stopped in the middle of the night, in the middle of a field full of cow patties, and I sat down to remove clothes. I peeled away my three layers of socks to reveal a pretty big blister on my right pinky toe and another blister underneath the first. There was nothing I could do, but the aid station was about 1.5 miles away. So, I geared back up and we continued.
At the aid station, I took a seat in their heated tent and asked if they could pop my blister. The aid station worker accepted and went to work. He popped and drained my blisters and put a band aid on it. After several minutes, I managed to get my socks back on. I had my usual ramen & coke and we headed out. The pain was pretty intense. Jody and I both agreed that it would eventually dull itself. I knew my left foot was in the same predicament, but I didn't want to look at it. I had seen both my toes after lap #2 and they were bleeding.....I didn't want to see or think about it until I was done.
|Fixing a flat!|
Jody and I traversed the hills for another nine miles. We relentlessly attacked the hills and managed a 3:30 lap. My pace was still fantastic. Jody had ran 25 miles of Hitchcock's hills and I could tell he was done. If I would have asked him to do another lap, he would have because he's that type of guy. But, I knew the rest of the race was gonna be on me.
Unfortunately, at this point, the hills and the injuries were starting to drain my energy at an exceedingly quicker rate. I sat in the main aid station at mile 75 for atleast 15 minutes just shaking my head and wondering how I was gonna do another marathon. Eventually, I sprawled out on the floor and told my crew that if I fall asleep, wake me up in 30minutes. And, that is exactly what happened. Suddenly, I lifted my head and they told me my time was up.
|Just a quick nap!|
I grudgingly changed some clothes, layered up, and headed out onto lap #7. I knew I would be freezing from spending so long in the nature center only to exit into 25-degree weather. But, one of the positives of Hitchcock is that within a mile, you are climbing a massive hill and your heart rate will jump and your body will warm up.
My mission on lap #7 was to eclipse my personal-best of 82.2 miles. I continued to chug along, but my pace had slowed due to the blistered feet. I never stopped climbing the hills. I never lingered at aid stations. I just kept plugging away. The pain from the blisters, sore Achilles and now sore knees were all piling up on me, but my legs were still just moving fine.
I managed lap #7 in 4 hours. It was now 23 hours into the race. There would be no sub-24 hour finish today. But, that was never really a goal. The goal was always....JUST FINISH. I was pretty down and out after 87.5 miles. I sat in the main aid station too long. I kept telling Angie that maybe my body just wasn't built to go 100 miles. That the pain was greater than last year. She wasn't having any of it.
And, after a while, she put on her clothes and offered to start the final lap with me. This would put her mileage past anything she'd ever done. But, she didn't care....and out the door we went.
|I'm dead....she's like "this jackass is finishing this one"|
As we left the nature center, it was becoming more apparent that my miles of running were behind me and we would be walking a LOT of the course. And, we did just that. There was a few moments of running, but it would only last 30 seconds and then back to walking/hiking. After five miles, the trail comes very near to the start/finish line. After five miles, Angie had had enough of my whiny attitude. She was asking if I wanted my hiking poles and suggested she could quickly grab them and bring them back to me. Eventually, I just told her to forget it and go back to the start/finish....I would do the last 7.5 miles on my own.
I don't know what it was, but almost immediately after leaving Angie, I did some running. I think the course is pretty easy at that point and I took advantage. It would only take a few minutes to reach a point where I was back to forced walking.
I plodded my way thru the course until mile 97. There's a big hill at approximately mile 10 each lap. The other side of that hill is the last aid station and then 2.5 miles of rolling hills to the finish. I ran that hill. I could smell the blood in the water. It was starting to hit me that I was really gonna pull this off.
Immediately after leaving the final aid station, I ran into Jennifer B. She was a fellow Kansas Citian. She was an accomplished ultra runner. She was finishing up her seventh lap. I slowed down my hike a bit and chatted with her. I don't know if she welcomed it or not, but I continued to walk in front of her only a few yards and just talk. We chatted about our races, our kids and the course. It passed the time. And, at that point in my race, time was of no concern. Finally, we came to the final hill that would lead to the finish. I wished her the best and said I had to finish this my way. I picked up my pace. I tackled the hill relentlessly. I could hear the people cheering at the finish and from the tower. One of the screams I heard was Jody! I could hear another person saying "Run!".....which is kinda funny because the finish of each lap (and the race) is probably a 400' climb over a half mile. And the last 80 feet of the trail climb about 20' up. So, I mustered up what energy was left within me and I finished a 100-mile race the way I've always wanted to.......running.
I did it. I tackled the hardest course I've ever been on. I took revenge on a course that took it from me a year earlier. I battled back from a pretty low spot and thru some nasty injuries. I had finally done it. I finished in 28:22:53. It wasn't a great time, but it wasn't a DNF. I was 12th overall. The drop rate was pretty high, and of the 50+ that started the 100-miler, only 22 finished. I was finally on the right side of the drop rate.
I immediately hugged Jody. Besides Angie and myself, I'm not sure this finish meant so much to anyone as it did to Jody. I'm so glad he was there to see it through with me!
|The race swag.|
It will take weeks for this euphoria to wear off. I still keep the buckle with me as I tackle my daily life. The meaning behind it is so much more than just a reward for completing a race.
|Earned, not given.|
There is no one who deserves more credit than my wife, Angela. From the moment I crossed the finish line, I kept saying "we did it". And, I meant that. Yeah, I did the running part, but Angela did everything else. She watched kids while I did weekend back-to-back long runs. She bought my running gear and kept me well geared. She encouraged my running. And, she took me out on the course to start that final lap. I can't do these races without her support. I love you, Angela!
I already made a Facebook post about Jody, so here it is verbatim:
Jody is my hero!I can't wait to answer the call when Jody decides to tackle a big race. I will be there!
During our run last night he was calling me ‘Superman’, but the whole time I couldn’t help think about how selfless he has been for me.
Jody has traveled from Colorado to Michigan to Omaha to watch me chase a crazy dream of running 100 miles. He does it without question and without thought.
True friends are hard to find. But, friends who will strap on a headlamp and traverse a sadistic course of punishing hills in sub-freezing temperatures after already running a half marathon on those same hills without so much as a peep of complaint are immensely harder to find.
His advice and companionship during some of the lowest moments in my life cannot be understated.
I was so glad to see him at the finish line today...he was the first person I had to hug! I honestly could not have accomplished today’s feat without you, Jody!!
A 'Thank You' to Jennifer B. is deserved, too. I know she probably didn't think much of it, but our talk for 2.5 miles was fun. It kept my mind off the pains. It was fun to listen to her stories. She was really the only runner who I spent any time talking to. I was happy to see the post later in the day confirming that she had finished.
My running friends, who are too numerous to list individually, deserve my thanks as well. They get up at 3AM to run with me. They run in the cold, heat, rain, snow, etc. We run in the dark. We pound the pavement. We tear up trails. We give each other hell about our failures AND our successes. Running has brought us all together. Running doesn't define me, but every mile, especially with these wonderful people, adds to the person I want to be.
In the end, it wasn't the physical aspect that I had yet to conquer, it was the mental one. And, this time around, I held it together for most of the race. I still have work to do, but I now know what it takes.
I'm ready for the next challenge.