Monday, June 15, 2015

Once You're Signed Up For It, It's Gonna Happen.

17 years ago, I met another runner from Minnesota named Burt Carlson.  Burt was already a living legend.  He’s much older than me, but he was running at least two dozen marathons a year.  He also did ultramarathons.

The first time I saw Burt at a race was during the FANS 24-Hour Run in 1998.  He wasn’t moving very fast, but Burt ran just over 100 kilometers.  Three months later, I saw him again at the pre-race dinner for the Olander Park 24-Hour Run in Sylvania, OH.  He was entertaining other runners with tales from races all over the world.  It seemed like any race I had heard of, Burt had already done.

In 1999, I bumped into Burt at the Fox Cities Marathon in Wisconsin.  He had run a marathon in South Dakota the previous weekend, and he was going to do the Twin Cities Marathon the next weekend.  That’s three weekends in a row.  At the time, that blew my mind.

I asked Burt, “How do you race so often?”  I loved the simplicity of his answer.  He said, “Well, when you’re looking at the race calendar, and you see a race that looks interesting, you sign up for it.  Once you’re signed up for it, it’s gonna happen.”

He made it sound so easy.  At the time, I was still working on running marathons in all 50 states.  I was doing three or four new states a year.  I was also doing FANS, making a total of four or five races a year.  To me, that still seemed like a lot.

Eventually, I joined Marathon Maniacs.  Then I started to adopt Burt’s philosophy.  I started planning race schedules that most people would consider insane.  First it was 23 in a year … then 32 … then 53.  The first time I ran marathons on three consecutive weekends, it was a big deal.  A few years later, I was running them on five consecutive days.

For a long time, it seemed like Burt was right.  It was mostly a matter of attitude.  Once you signed up for a race, you made a mental commitment to it.  Then you would somehow make it happen.  It really worked.  It seemed like the hardest part was avoiding travel mishaps, so I could make it to packet pickup on time.  If I made it to the starting line with a race bib, the race seemed to take care of itself.

When it gets tough is when you have an injury.  In 2012, I pulled a hamstring five miles into the Lost Dutchman Marathon.  One second, I’m running fast.  The next second, I can’t run without a limp.  I toughed out five more miles at a slow pace, while telling myself that I could still break four hours.  I was in a lot of pain, and I realized I was going to make my leg worse by continuing to run.  One thought kept me going.  My flight to Phoenix was expensive, and I went there just for the race.  I didn’t spend that much on airfare to NOT finish a race.  I walked the last 16 miles, finishing in 5:20.

I generally book my travel anywhere from two to six months in advance.  I couldn’t run at all, but I had another marathon in two weeks.  I also had one two weeks after that … and two weeks after that … and two weeks after that … for months.

A week later, I tried to run on a treadmill.  The best pace I could manage was about 15 minutes per mile.  I know people who walk faster than that.  Even at that pace, I could only finish one mile, and even that felt like way too much.  By the end of the week, I progressed to five miles at a pace that was still pretty slow.  Then I flew to New Orleans for the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon.  I couldn’t fathom how I could possibly run a marathon.  I was taking a leap of faith.  Somehow, I would find a way.

The day before the race, I was limping as I walked to the expo.  I was hoping for a miracle.  Then I found one.  Pro-Tech Athletics had a booth there.  They had braces and supports for every imaginable running injury.  One was a hamstring compression wrap that was easy to adjust.  I bought it.

Even wearing the compression wrap, I needed to be careful not to run too fast.  My friend Shannan was doing the half marathon.  Shannan was going to run at a pace that might be safe for me.  One of the nice things about that race is that the marathon and half marathon followed the same route for 12.4 miles.  If I didn’t feel up to running the marathon, I could always switch to the half marathon.  If I couldn’t make it that far, I could stop at nine miles, when the course passed close to my hotel.  We lined up in one of the last corrals.

Running at Shannan’s pace – with a compression wrap – was something I could manage.  I finished the race in 5:09.  More importantly, I didn’t make my leg worse.

Two weeks later, I ran another marathon wearing the compression wrap.  I was closer to my usual pace.  Two weeks after that, I ran a marathon without the wrap, and ran just fast enough to qualify for Boston.  Two weeks after that, I ran two in the same weekend.  I was fully recovered.

It wouldn’t be the last time I pulled a hamstring.  The next time it happened was in October of 2013.  This time I had races scheduled every weekend for the next 10 weeks.  On some of those weekends, I was doing two marathons … or three … or four.  On the weekends that I only had one race, it was always a race where I was counting on qualifying for Boston.  This was during my final push to qualify for Boston in every state.

I took it one race at a time.  I listened to my body.  Sometimes I wore the compression wrap.  Sometimes, I didn’t, but I held back.  Somehow, I managed to run qualifying times in the races where I needed them.  By the time I got to the last race in my schedule, I was healed.  Unfortunately, after 10 weeks of racing without any real training, I was also getting out of shape.  In that last race, I couldn’t run fast enough to qualify.

I never questioned if these races were going to happen.  I took it one race at a time.  I assumed I would somehow finish.  Then I found a way.

That’s not to say that’s I’ve never had a DNF.  In June of 2012, I dropped out after 55 miles of the Western States 100.  Now I have a monkey on my back.  I’m determined to eventually go back and finish.  Last year, I dropped out after 48 miles of the Bighorn Mountain 100.  That was especially hard to take, because it was supposed to be my qualifying race for Western States.

Now I have two monkeys on my back.  First I need to go back and finish the Bighorn Mountain 100.  Then I need to get into Western States, so I can eventually finish that one too.

“Once you’re signed up for it, it’s gonna happen.”

If only it really was that simple.  Determination can carry you a long way, but sometimes it’s not enough.

In early May, I suffered a groin strain.  I was scheduled to run the Ogden Marathon a week later.  I realized I wasn’t sufficiently recovered, so I let that one go.  I had a few non-refundable expenses, but I did my best to cut my losses.  A week later, I was signed up for the Med City Marathon.  I started that race, but dropped out halfway, when I was having groin discomfort.

My next race was the Comrades Marathon.  I was willing to have a DNS at Ogden.  I was willing to have a DNF at Med City.  I wouldn’t give up on Comrades.  I had almost $2,000 of travel expenses that I couldn’t recoup.  If I didn’t do the “up” course this year, I wouldn’t get another chance until 2017.  I would never get another chance to go for a back-to-back medal.  It was now or never.

I finished that race, but not without some discomfort.  It probably delayed my full recovery from the groin strain.  I had three more weeks to recover before the Bighorn Mountain 100, but I’m not quite there yet.

I could have cancelled my flight without penalty, but I had to do it at least 72 hours in advance.  That was this morning.  I didn’t cancel my flight.  I’ll travel to Wyoming on Thursday.

I’ve agonized over this decision for the past week.  I have two monkeys on my back.  Bighorn Mountain is my only qualifier for next year’s Western States 100.  If I don’t finish one, I also don’t qualify for the other.  Those monkeys get heavier every year.  I have to finish this race if I possibly can.

I have a tough race schedule in July.  It includes a triple, a tough trail marathon, a road marathon that descends 4,500 feet, and a 78K trail race through the Swiss Alps.  Getting through those races in one piece will be tough.  It’ll be impossible if I don’t go into them healthy.

A few days ago, I had serious doubts about healing before this weekend.  I felt much better yesterday and today.  I’m not 100 percent, but I’m getting closer.  I have four more days before the race.

If I mess myself up, and can’t finish my July races, I’ll probably have regrets, even if I finish the Bighorn Mountain 100.  If I don’t even attempt Bighorn, I’ll always wonder what would’ve happened.

“Without the possibility of failure, there can be no success.”

I don’t know who said that, but it’s what drives me to do races like Western States and Bighorn Mountain.  They’re not supposed to be easy.

I’m going into this race with a possibility of failure.  I’m also giving myself a chance to succeed.  One way or another, it’s going to be a memorable experience.

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