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.