Thursday, October 13, 2016

Race Report: Hold Stumt

As much as I enjoy writing, there wasn’t much of a point in writing a race report for TARC 100 anyways since it will be getting shelved indefinitely for a variety of reasons, including decreasing demand.  Plus, I’ve never been a big fan of ultras run in laps, whether it’s because I find them to be utterly boring, pedestrian and uneventful (see: my 2015 Blackfoot 100k race report, or lack thereof) or because they usually evolve into a longer-than-necessary stay inside the pain cave (see: 2015 Javelina Jundred, 2015 KUS 24h).  So instead of the usual recap about my adventure, I’m going to focus more on how I mitigate things when the act of trying to leave a world of hurt feels increasingly Sisyphean in nature. 

I had originally signed up for TARC 100 because I wanted to catch up with my friend Larry, who I originally met at the 2014 Sky to Summit and stuck with me when I sort of blew up on the back ten miles.  We were also both at the 2015 Georgia Death Race but I only saw him at the start line, so I figured a 100mi race over four loops would give me enough face time to shoot the shit with him.  Unfortunately, he hurt himself at the Cat’s Tail marathon the week prior to the race and informed me he wouldn't be making the trip north for TARC.  

As noted in a prior writing, TARC 100 wasn’t a qualifier for anything either and I was pretty much only running this to high-grade my Ultrasignup score and my Ultrarunning Race Series points--both objectives extremely ancillary to what I want to get out of running.  I had also elected to run the race since Ultrasignup tracks DNS’s anyways, because I paid money for this shit (this particularly resonates with me since I was raised by working-class immigrants), and I’ve also found that I usually fare better when I run with no shits given (see: 2014 Sky to Summit, 2015 MSIG Lantau 50K, 2016 Big Bend 50mi) so I wanted to see how I’d turn out if I left my ego behind and ran 100mi just for the giggles.  

TARC stands for Trail Animals Running Club, and they operate in the New England area.  Like the Calgary Trail Runners group I help with running (PUN TOTALLY INTENDED), they endeavor to “make the trail running experience accessible to as many critters as possible” and host weekly training runs, but they take it an extra step by keeping club fees free and by throwing on a low-cost no-frills race series to share the journey of reaching or surpassing our ultrarunning goals.  I knew to leave my high-maintenance trail diva persona at home when I saw the US$90 entry fee for TARC 100, but the absence of a drive for profit adds a bit of character to the race, mostly because they tend to attract only the most passionate of volunteers.  As Massachussetts' only hundie as at time of writing, TARC 100 is nestled in the suburbs of Boston on the Hale Reservation, surrounded by stereotypical WASP-y, upper-crust, not-neoclassical-but-also-not-colonial-holy-fuck-that-could-be-Greek-revival mansions akin to Uncle Phil’s crib on Fresh Prince, or the kind of shit you’d see on a brochure for an early 90s Buick Roadmaster station wagon.  I don’t mean this in a condescending manner, but it was just unbelievable to see so much unadulterated wildland hiding behind massive developments, much like Fish Creek in Calgary.  The race was segmented into four 25mi loops, with aid stations every 4-5mi, but because they were making the most out of the trails on the Reservation, you’d be within earshot or visual contact of stations from miles away, or worse—being tempted to bushwhack a shortcut and pointlessly shave off a dozen minutes or so.  We’d start out at a beach, prior to running what resembled fingers of out-and-backs over classic Beast Coast tight-corners, mud, rocks and roots towards the perimeter of the Reservation and back towards the pond in the center, with the exception of mi17-18 of each lap, which was an uncharacteristic sojourn onto flat farmland prior to reentering a tight forest and back to the beach.  Fall was in full swing, and along with the fantastic New England colors, the forest was filled with sounds of acorn nuts falling, and squirrels and field mice scampering across to harvest them.  

My ‘taper’ regime was as follows:
  • Two weeks out: a gentle 44mi jogdown into the Grand Canyon, back up the other side, back down and back up the same side I went down on.  Moving time was ~9.5h with an elapsed time of ~13.5h so it wasn’t too fancy, but I got the exposure to both hot and cold I needed. 
  • Eight days out: PB’d my half marathon time……..during a rather long lunch before going back to work. 
  • Seven days out: Won a handicap 5K fun-run (where we had to guess our 5K finishing time and run as close as possible to said time without the use of any timing device) while wearing an inflatable T-rex costume, a mere eight hours after giving a half-litre of blood; pace averaged at around 4:48/k.  This was nothing compared to the heat training I did for Angeles Crest, and I had never felt so dehydrated before in my life.
  • Six days out: a gentle 50k run from Canmore to Banff and back………except our group of 20ish stopped 28k into the run at a brewpub, and broke out the shotskis and pintskis prior to running back (obviously to another brewpub, conveniently at the finish). 
  • One day out: volunteered for nearly twelve hours setting up the race, spending most of the day on my feet.  I could have spent my time in Boston instead, doing things like touring the Sam Adams’ brewery or The Green Monster or whatever, but that city scares the shit out of me when it comes to parking.  
    • (In keeping with tradition, I ended up getting a private tour of Jack’s Abby’s stupid new 67k ft2 "microbrewery" the day after the race, just because I wanted to walk up a couple more flights of stairs.  But I digress.)   
Evidently I couldn’t have cared less about this race, but the last time I delved into why the fuck I registered for a race, everything hit the fan and I found myself steps away from my first DNF.  As a result, on top of getting my money's worth I also challenged myself into finding the things that free me from an existential tragicomedy.

As I was taking a very casual approach to it, I picked the Dave Proctor school of goading others into a suicide pace and then seeing who’s still left to party at mile 75.  I hadn’t tried this before and I’ve always had a stubborn central governor who liked to play it safe with just finishing and collecting my belt buckle, but figured I had nothing to lose from this race besides my sterling zero-DNF record.  I also had a little confidence from being able to PB my half-marathon time during a lunchtime run a week prior to the race, so I figured that if I was able to find my flow state and get my head screwed on right (i.e. channeling that sweet rage into something productive), I’d be able to execute decently.  

One: For the spirit of adventure

The start was quite casual too—the fake gun sound went off five minutes late and, despite funneling ~56 runners into a narrow single track, I pretty soon found my suicide gear and was running well at the front of the pack, with only a few others in sight by the time I was three miles in.  I hung out with the eventual winner Will Swenson for a little bit, and we picked up his literal next-door neighbor Joe at the first aid station Trading Post five miles in (who would also come in third at the race), and it slowly came out that the former had finished Western States in a sub-24h timeframe as his first hundie two years ago.  Remembering the shitstorm following my first lap at Javelina, I instinctively said HAHA NOPE and throttled back a little bit and let these two guys fight it out Soon I was back running in distant proximity to a few others, all alone in a blanket of trees.  
Ten miles in.  (📷 Chris Wristen)
I kept aid station loitering to a minimum—probably with less than a minute at each station—and besides chance encounters with someone from the Cambridge Sports Union and the first-place lady who hung out with me for five miles--what kept me going on the first lap was a drive to fill in the gaps between where I had been the day prior to this during race setup, and understanding what was beyond the next hill (spoiler alert: it was another hill).  

Despite running most days on road, I'm more inclined to do trail running in a foreign place, because the absence of civilization and amenities makes me realize who I actually am and what really stresses me out.  Mother nature does this in an amazing way--if you spend enough time in the middle of nowhere, you can't control what she makes you realize about yourself, but she gives you enough room to grow at your own pace.  Given my training regime as of late, I didn't need any motivation to run 25mi, but unconsciously the bus driving the first lap was powered by the mandate to find some stupid things that would make me decide whether I should persevere or be a total bitch about it.  And if it was the former, I'd find even stupider hills to keep testing me and finding what would break me. 
end of the first lap.... (📷 Chris Wristen)
...but just after a quick detour to clean the sand off.  (📷 Chris Wristen)

Two: For the recognition/celebration? of your fitness and ability to do stupid things

When I got to Trading Post the second time, the volunteers told me I was in fourth place, and, having wanted to keep this to a casual affair and settled somewhere mid-pack-ish, I naturally responded with “bullshit”.  The RD, Josh, was a little surprised too, especially following all the tasks he had given me the day before (more on that later), but having been reminded by my fellow R2R2R running mates that I had never podiumed before, I decided to go hunting and find this guy from Cambridge up ahead of me (not that this race went three-deep with any special awards).  I caught up with him a little bit short of where he passed me on the last lap, let him catch up to me at Grossman (the second aid station) while I jumped into Powissett Pond to cool my legs, and then went forth again while he refueled.

What kept me going in building my lead on him was that I kept reminding myself that the ability to run races of these distances is in fact a privilege not to be taken for granted.  I have truly been blessed with a job that supports this vice, in the form of line managers looking the other way when I disappear for a casual lunchtime half marathon (sometimes on 50%+ single track) and in the form of being compensated handsomely enough for my hilarious annual entry fees, travel and physio costs.  I have truly been blessed with parents who picked Calgary to emigrate to, giving me challenging terrain to grow up and sharpen my teeth on.  I have truly been blessed with good health and a relatively injury-free couple of years, and a strange, almost-unnerving ability to recover quickly following races of this distance (tooooooooooouch wood).   And it truly would be a damn shame if I let that all go to waste.  

Alas, instead of actually focusing on building my cushion with 4th place, I went full-contrarian and focused on keeping it simple and living in the moment.  Hearing the confused crickets chirping in the heat of the afternoon, charging at counter-charging dogs attracted to the many smells coming off my body, riding the hills like a roller coaster and taking corners like Fredric Aasbø.  Not everyone is in the same situation I am, I made damn sure that those living vicariously through me would not be disappointed.  I savored every tinge of pain and discomfort, knowing that this voluntary suffering is nothing compared to those immobile from battling terminal illness.  Sure enough--I did build the cushion I wanted in doing so (well, kind of).  

Three: To feel alive

The wheels started falling off on the third lap, when Hurricane Matthew started spinning off a wee drizzle that wasn’t too much of a bother—I still found it warm enough to run in just a singlet and no arm warmers or gloves, and in fact it felt good on my legs—but unfortunately the water was lubricating all the rocks into slippery surfaces that the 600+km Speedcross 3’s I had changed into at mile 34 could not handle.   I had started the first 34mi on fresh, unused S-Lab Speedcross 4’s which ended up being too narrow even for my Salomon-acclimatized high-arch feet, and I had a barely-used pair of S-Lab Wings 8 SG shoes left to use, so I elected to stick with the Speedcross 3’s for another 25mi to spare my swollen feet from the pain of these famed toenail killers a little bit longer.  

I’ve cited the work of Mark Manson before, and I constantly use his writings a means of self-help.  He recently released his first self-help book, and towards the end he talks about a story where he, following the death of a close friend, inches closer and closer towards the edge of a cliff at Cape Horn.  He obviously comes back to solid ground, where a puzzled Australian observer asks him how he’s feeling.  Despite having been so close to death, he replies that he feels “alive”.  

Such a mentality was what carried me through on the third lap—faced with quads on the verge of collapse, shoes with no grip and about to be thrown into the road-running pile, runner #69 (not Cambridge) putting me back into fourth place at the start beach due to my lack of tactical focus on the previous lap, a dying light bringing upon an increasingly claustrophobic forest of unremarkable features constructed by the Blair Witch herself, stupidly-positive 25mi splits, the certainty that Matthew was about to up his game and drop a monsoon on us—I pushed on, grinding my shoes on so many roots along the way and stubbing the same toenail I lost at GDR in 2015 multiple times--all for the feeling of life, and to tell the risk of death and grievous injury to go fuck itself. 

It’s an odd feeling and paradox—that we tend to feel the most alive when we are closest to death, when adrenaline kicks our fight-or-flight response into gear.  I’ve sometimes said that my adult life just seems to be one giant poorly-planned suicide attempt, when in fact it’s really been one giant adventure to make the most out of the short time we have on this world.  And I found it particularly apt that here I was, running the swan song of this hundie, struggling against the decreasing hours this race had left in its current form and attempting to justify the case for even a fat-ass style event next year.  Josh had put on the front page of the runners’ guide the phrase, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, and I kept repeating this in my mind as my legs started seizing.  Nothing in this world is pain-free, and she will always challenge you to fear death, to focus on surviving instead of living.  But, as Charles Bukowski once mused--"we're here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us".  

Four: To finish what you started

As with these types of races, the last lap is usually the hardest as that is when your body is on the verge of physical and mental collapse (well, for mediocre athletes like me), and you’re so close to a warm bed, an ice-cold beer, or, if I’m in the Southeast, a Waffle House that could be unlocked by just tapping out.  Ending your suffering would be so, so easy.  Unfortunately, nothing in this world is free and you are entitled to nothing; everything, whether gratuitous or not, is to be earned, including the right to tap out.  

The last time I had saw runner #69 was back at Grossman on the third lap with his pacer, so I had been running by myself in the 100M field for quite some time.  I had been passed by the odd 100k runner or encountered tail-end 100M runners but for the most part I had been talking to myself for the last eight hours.  After departing the start/finish I tried to engage an 11-12min/mi pace on the flatter stretch between the beach and the Trading Post, but unfortunately my stomach was having none of it.  Naturally this threw my fueling regime way off, and, combined with all the crops I was dusting and the fact we were heading into Sunday morning, I could feel my energy levels falling.  I popped my third 200mg caffeine pill of the day which amazingly had zero effect, and knew that this was going to be a long-ass marathon.  I braced myself for getting sent down into fifth place but elected to make any challenger to my current position work for it.

I took a few more minutes at Trading Post to empty my bowels, and while doing that I suddenly remembered that, in my haste of chasing #69, I didn’t exactly use any hand sanitizer after dropping a deuce back at Grossman at mi59.  With the issue diagnosed I worked on rebuilding the lost calories without additional GI tract distress, and ended up focusing on a blend of Tailwind in gradually-increasing concentrations and pepperoni sticks on the field, while eating cooked food or broth at the aid stations.  

Unfortunately this was a long-ass battle to build up my energy and I found myself falling asleep fighting my way up to Noanet, the 15mi point for the 25mi loop.  I stumbled in to find a lap-three 100miler occupying the cot already, so I asked the AS captain, Carolyn, if I could borrow her crash pad and just lay on the ground for five minutes.  She let me do so but, as an experienced ultrarunner, Carolyn knew that five minutes of shuteye does fuck-all, so she elected to not wake me up when that time elapsed.

It was almost as if Mother Nature had my back and turned on the faucet after six minutes and with my legs on the verge of seizing, forcing me to get up and put my jacket on.  (Either that, or she was weeping at my demise.)  I pounded down some broth and grilled cheese and kept going on what I knew would be the slowest ten miles ever.  

The forest was increasingly quiet now--it was now approaching the graveyard shift, and the sequence of turns, climbs and hunting reflective tape and signs was becoming increasingly monotonous.  In my lunacy I fought this with a thought exercise, the same one that fucked me up at Javelina--I started questioning the point of all of this, and why we go through all of this shit just for a belt buckle (and in this case, a sexy finisher's sweatshirt).  There are much easier ways in life to get a sweatshirt and a buckle than running 100mi for it.  

Eventually this led me to ask myself what the point of going balls-out on lap one was if I was going to quit.  In fact, what is the point of racing, period, if you know you're going to quit?  Your character builds so much quicker when you persevere in the face of extreme adversity, instead of pulling out your big book of excuses, tapping out early and wearing a silly I HAZ A SAD face so people can pity you.  

I took the IB program in my Senior High years (full, not partial!), and I had this awesome chemistry teacher who always expected us to be on time and in-class, with the only extenuating circumstance to be a grevious injury to your writing hand.  I like to think the same mindset applies to my running--I'm relatively healthy and fully functioning (touch-wood), I have a pair of legs, and the forest is ripe with branches usable as trekking poles.  I have any incredibly stubborn mind which probably wouldn't even let me quit if I had to put some of my internal organs in my pockets, and I was in the company of some of the most passionate and craziest aid station volunteers ever serving up a ridiculous menu.  Everything was there for me, and all I needed to do was to punch the clock (PUN TOTALLY INTENDED)....but I hadn't earned the right to neglect that duty It's always easy to contemplate quitting in the absence of external punitives, but that's just a state of mind.  I committed to myself that in addition to the belt buckle and sweatshirt, I would also get a pretty good life lesson out of this (namely the fact that I could sustain more pain than I thought I could).  

I lapped a few more 100milers by the time I got to Powisett Farm at mi96.  I saw that it was just after 330am, and, remembering my 100mi PB was still 25:25:24 from Javelina last year (because West Highland Way doesn't count), committed to sub-24h'ing this.   It was definitely doable--95mins to cover 4mi with a douchebag set of hills in the middle.  Lapping one more 100miler, I managed to grind back to the finish line just under 23.5h--where Josh promptly told me he had some stuff he needed help moving.  
I told him I got there as fast as I could.  
There’s an article in the October issue of Ultrarunning magazine, where the author speculates why a male friend would have said that racing 100mi is harder than childbirth (and also, the audacity to say that).  She hypothesizes that it’s because you can quit mid-race, but can’t really do that during labor.  Unfortunately, with all due respect to my lady friends and family, and especially to my mother—I must say her argument has at least some merit.  Resisting temptation to tap out on an epic odyssey of substantial personal growth is very fucking hard, and is almost as painful as the physical pain being inflicted.  But on both sides of that coin--it's worth every step, no matter what you're tangibly trying to get out of it.

By the numbers:

  • Time: 23:29:00
  • Unofficial distance: ~100mi
  • Unofficial elevation gain: ~10000'
  • Placement: 4/63ish
  • DNF%: 43%
Stray observations: 

"are you lost, little boy?"
    Wait, is this not something people do regularly?
  • I’m not a big believer in running karma, but: having decided to shelve my ego prior to this race, I decided to volunteer for a 12-hour shift with “race setup and registration” the day prior to this.   What that eventually meant was that I had to pretty much single-handedly empty the TARC cellar on the Reservation of race equipment, help divvy up the food and equipment into aid stations, move the tents and coolers onsite, and help check in early birds at the start/finish.  On top of that, it became apparent twelve hours prior to the 100M start that the sanitation company had put two outhouses in the wrong location and there was a late decision to redistribute a third into a more spaced out location, but unfortunately said company pulled its staff from the field two hours prior to this realization, and didn’t work Saturdays.  Alas, Josh, one other volunteer and I found a Reservation groundskeeper and we moved all three by hand.  So when I dropped my ultralight Salomon rain jacket somewhere between miles 62-63 the next day, I’m pretty sure standing on my feet for almost twelve hours and literally moving all kinds of shit (PUN SO, SO INTENDED) the day before in order to get the race set up had something to do with the jacket magically appearing at mile 71 once I got there, in time for the precipitation to start. 
    • Ok, my placement may have also had something to do with Friday too. 
    • Seriously--even if you don’t have my endurance and can’t last that long—volunteering at setup--even just at the start/finish--is also a good way of getting oriented with the course, especially for destination races where you don’t have any chance of doing recce well ahead of the race.  Even though this was a race involving running in loops, I credit my efforts in keeping my shit together when the forest went all Blair Witch-y in the dark to being able to visit all the aid station locations the day before, and understanding the lay of the land. 
to be fair, I did end up spotlighting a deer on mi98.  also, it is the perfect weather for a long run.
  • I should note that it now concretely appears I tend to PB my 100mi times at races where I suffer from existential angst.  
  • Things I brought for the traditional start/finish potluck of these no-frills races: cookies and scones (thanks to Deb for the idea of the latter!) 
  • Has anyone ever had their sense of taste affected by drinking ALL the pickle juice at a 100mi race?  Asking for a friend. 
  • There’s a part of me that likes to think that Air Canada’s reduction in Maple Leaf Lounge menu items has something to do with me hanging out in them immediately prior and after my hundies. 
  • #69 ended up in second place.  That number.
Shoutouts and such:
  • Carolyn and the trail angels who found and facilitated the weirdly quick return of my rainjacket.  Much obliged and it was right in the nick of time!
  • Josh, for letting me put in my time on Friday, against all common sense, and for running such an amazing event.  Hope to see it as at least a fat-ass in the near term because I have never seen a race with such value.
  • Larry, for introducing me to the wonderful TARC family.  You better be at Hyner!
  • Carolyn again, for following through on my request to be constantly heckled.
  • All the volunteers, especially the ones who camped out and spent more hours on course than I did, even when including my Friday hours.  Pretty sure your endurance is much better than mine!
Up next:
  • This is very likely my last 100mi for the year, and there won't be any further 2016 race reports.  
    • I will be down in Kentucky to bring home some bourbon for my 2017 aid stations during Veterans' Day weekend, and also to opportunely run the 50K Rough Trail. (I may have those phrases on the wrong sides of that adverb there.) 
  • During December, I will be returning to Georgia to see the Battle for Black Rock race off on its definite swan song, so it can make room for a new 100mi.   Uncharacteristically, I will be flying down just to volunteer and hopefully learn a few things, and also to opportunely bring home some moonshine for my 2017 aid stations. (I may also have those last two phrases on the wrong sides of that last adverb.)
  • A lot of my 2017 schedule will be contingent on lottery outcomes as I am eligible to throw my name in for UTMB, WSER and HR100, but will need to adjust my budgeting and schedule if I make it into one of those.  
    • Barring any grievous injury, my first fully-committed 2017 race will be on Catalina, doing the 50mi Avalon race.  
    • I've signed up for the 100mi Northburn Station race as well in March, to serve as my now-annual completely-unnecessary Hard Rock qualifier, but may pull my entry if things don't go so well at the lotteries.  
The road to perseverence lies by doubt.
--Francis Quarles


  1. Loved this race report! Great job on the race (and report)! I just finished my first 100, and my husband asked which was harder, running a 100 or natural childbirth. Haha. Maybe I should start insisting that they give out belt buckles for labor. Faster deliveries = bedazzled buckles. :)

    1. thanks and thanks for reading! out of curiosity, how did you answer jon?

      those bedazzled buckles would favor anyone on their eighth child though. just saying.