The journey of an ultrarunner is often marked by successes and failures while racing. To some degree this is okay, but do not confuse success in racing with a lack of struggle in training or life. It is perhaps my struggles that have most pushed me towards my success on the trail.
I used to be a pretty average, middle pack runner with this idea that the leaders, the elites, were simply a different breed of a runner than myself. I wasn’t one of them. I was resigned to that fact, and for the longest time, it held me back. As your life situation changes, so does your outlook on life. It wasn’t until about a year ago that my mentality changed. Looking back on my running career thus far, I realize that I was on a plateau for my first four years in this sport, and I only got off of it when my mentality changed. Running truly is a sport that gives back what you put into it.
Race morning my confidence was at an all-time high. I was coming off my biggest training block to date and hadn’t missed a single workout in over a month. My body was rested, tapered, tuned, fueled, and most of all hungry. Hungry to prove to myself that I am in control of my life. Hungry to evidence all of my training, much of which, like many other ultrarunners, is done alone and without recognition or understanding. I’m not big on sharing my goals with others, but my goal this race was the course record, and I was ready mentally to go somewhere deep to get it done. On the start line, I gave the appearance of being nonchalant and casual, sporting a Christmas themed Rabbit tank and bright green FKT shorts, but I had zoned everything and everybody else out – barely taking in the pre-race briefing from James.
The gun (Or just Jame’s voice?) went off and I wanted to set the pace. I took the lead with about 5 other guys and was incredibly relaxed for the first mile. I didn’t feel the need to continue the sprint and quickly found myself ~5-7 seconds behind the leaders a mile or so in. Then on a short downhill, I let my legs run and could see the single track in the distance so I gave a quick push to take the lead just before we hit the trail. I knew I would be stronger on the trails, and for the next 5-7 miles, I was able to open up about a minute gap.
I was in a deep mental state early on, focusing on staying relaxed, maintaining form, and being efficient across the trail. I was so zoned out I nearly missed an early turn between the first and second lollipop. Without an attentive volunteer, I could very well have given the race up within the first hour (many thanks!).
Glenn Tachiyama was camped out taking photos on a beautiful part of lush and open coastline, and seeing a familiar face was a welcome boost. Remember, I’m not accustomed to front running. I wasn’t sure if I was being too arrogant with how hard I was pushing so early, but I had committed to my game plan and was either going to make it or blow up spectacularly halfway through.
The race until the Cornet 1 was mid-level technical with some tight turns, lots of roots and sections of exposed rock, but I didn’t start to hurt until I hit the more runnable loops. I had an idea that I had to do 49 and 48 minute ~6.8-mile loops to match course record pace, and I was happy to finish my first loop in just 47 minutes. However, at this point, I was not expecting to see 2nd and 3rd place only two minutes later after turning around (I figured this meant a 4 minutes gap). I gave ‘em the most relaxed “go get ‘em boys” that I could muster, but deep down I wasn’t sure I could hold my pace for the second loop.
My goal of negative splitting the two loops quickly turned to push to manage just a small positive split. Here is when I checked in with my form again, making sure my cadence was holding above 170 steps/minute and I was holding strong in the core. The couple uphills on this loop slowed to a power hike, but I still let my legs run on the downs. It was maintaining the high cadence on the runnable downs that kept me remotely on pace. I was thrilled to have held onto 49 minutes for my second lap, but at this point, my hamstrings were already starting to cramp. My super crew mom handed me one last water bottle for my final aid station pass, but what should have been my fastest miles on the road took everything in me to hold what is normally my easy pace.
This mile of the slightly uphill road after Cornet 3 sent my hamstrings into full seizure mode. Not just cramping that you can bend over, take some water, and stretch out, but a total depletion of glucose when your legs fail to respond to the commands your mind is sending them. I mentally broke the last small hill before the finish and fell into a pedestrian hike for about a minute. I was hiking, looking back expecting to see two runners working together to pull me in. This is the moment of the race I am least proud of.
At the top of the final hill, a thought came to mind. If I’m hurting this bad, I could count off the fact that they are too. This was not time to focus on enduring my own pain, but instead, time to inflict as much pain as I could on the two behind me. This thought gave me the boost I needed to push through the last mile and a half of more technical terrain to the finish. I was running on empty, leaving my form to the wayside as I dodged up and down several small but relentless hills littered with rocks, roots, and branches leaning into the trail. Here I even cut one corner too tightly and caught my shoulder on a good-sized branch – earning a few nice looking scratches on my left shoulder. I could hear the finish line before I could see it, and when it finally emerged I broke into a smile as I gave one final push to the line to come 5 minutes under the previous course record.
After 3 hours and 49 minutes of guts, grit, and pushing into uncharted territory, I finished what I set out to do. My goal was high. My goal was arrogant – because there is no reason I should ever think that I work harder than absolutely everyone else – but after a great year and intense focus, I was able to come out on top just this one day. The lone celebration was short-lived as second-place Nick Duff came storming in just three minutes later – probably looking stronger than I.
There’s no logic that tomorrow, next week, or next year should be the same though. I have to fight for what I want and will continue to embrace the struggle going forward. This only cements my mentality that I get out exactly the effort I put into this sport. I am still formulating what exactly my next goal is, but you can count on two things. It will be equally as arrogant as this goal, and you won’t find out what it is until after I either fail or succeed to accomplish it.