Even by my standards this is really, really late for a race report. But that is in no way a commentary itself on the race, I’ve just been a bit busy with the whole moving to another country thing. It was an extremely well organized event with a great community and a challenging course that I came away from with quite a few lessons. Thank you to Rob Goyen, Trail Racing Over Texas, and the volunteers who put this race together, and also to Gina Fioroni, John Sharp, and Jaime Aparicio, my impromptu crew who turned out to be invaluable when things didn’t exactly go as I planned.
A Respite in the Desert
Knowing that my competitive triathlon career would be ending with a single race as a pro at Ironman Arizona, I had been looking ahead for the perfect way to start my life as a full-time ultrarunner. Rob mentioned this race to me last year at Bandera 100K, and it sounded perfect. The timing was just right, giving me enough time to rest a bit and then get myself back in shape, and without interfering with our planned move to the UK.
That was the plan. In reality it was crammed in pretty tight between work, saying our good byes to DC and friends there, and of course taking care of the move itself. So what better way to escape things for a bit than by running circles in the desert for a couple of days?
And of course the 200 mile distance, my first that long, was perfect as well. It’s always been my approach to jump in way over my head and if I don’t make it, at least I quickly know exactly where I stand and where to go from there (first race after 10 years off and never doing further than a 10K = marathon, race I set my sights on when I first started “official” ultras = Barkley, first triathlon I signed up for = Ironman Maryland). So sink or swim, I was going to jump in.
Finally, I’d be a bit disingenuous if I didn’t say that the large prize purse was a draw to the race for me. It was actually just a few days after Jessi’s birthday, and I told her we’d have to wait and see how nice of a birthday dinner she’d get. 😉
Wait, this is the desert, right?
The morning of the race, I got an early start with Gina and John to head to the start. John was running as well, with Gina crewing for him, and they were kind enough to split some logistics costs with me. It was raining, and as we headed to the start I pulled out my phone and saw an email from Rob: the start of the race had been moved due to the rain! We quickly turned around to head to the new start, arriving and walking up there two minutes before he brought everyone out of the tent to start.
I took the lead as we went out and up the first climb. It was a steady, but not torrential rain, and it wasn’t overly cold. As we looped around the new first section, I checked behind me and saw two headlights bounding along still not far behind me. Part of me wanted to go for a sizable lead early on, and part of me wanted to enjoy some company and easier miles before really needing to buckle down later in the race.
I decided to continue steadily, and let the people behind me decide whether they wanted to catch up. They did, just as we looped back to the start / finish and started the big climb up North Franklin Mountain. One of them continued a steady jog up the bottom portion of the ascent, and I let him go, a bit puzzled.
It wasn’t long before the 3 of us grouped up on the climb, and found ourselves off course. For as well as the course was marked, that section hadn’t been intended to be done the first time in the dark and in the rain. We found ourselves on the ridgeline, where the strong winds quickly cut through us and did away with any notion of it not being overly cold.
We headed back down to where we last knew we were definitely on course, and found another runner coming through the turn (in the correct direction) where we had gone wrong. We continued our climb, and found that we had dropped a few spots back.
By the time we reached the top, two of us had regained the lead together. We grabbed our bracelet and signed the book marking we had visited the summit, and headed back down. I don’t know what it is with me and races that are 5 loops and about 60 hours that involve a long climb to a peak with a radio tower on top and an item I need to collect, but, there I was.
And to add to the parallels, I found myself running alongside a Canadian, Trevor Meding. His accent wasn’t as thick as Gary’s, but I found hearing it next to me both oddly comforting and terrifying at the same time. We ran together for quite some time; he’s a great guy and I really enjoyed the company.
Oh yeah, this is a race
I had no intention of trying to pull away from Trevor early on. I thought the continued company could save my mental strength for later in the race. At the same time, though, I had no plans of doing that at the expense of my physical strength. I continued on at the pace that felt right, and as we started a climb about 15 miles in Trevor dropped back.
In my head I thought, “OK, I guess it’s just me now.” Since the gap was there, I decided to try to grow it a bit and give myself some cushion. After all, this was a race, and I was there to compete. When that switch flips in my head I don’t care if you’re my best friend, my brother, or anyone (something my brother will readily attest to), I’m going to do everything in my power to beat you with any method I can (of course as long as it’s honest and sporting).
So the mental games began. I wanted to create a sizable enough gap to get Trevor to decide to protect 2nd instead of gunning for 1st. When we had the next out and back section to the summit about 25 miles in I was careful to mark my times in my head. I passed him going the other way and did the math: he was about 25 minutes behind. Progress, but definitely not enough for comfort in a 200 mile race.
It was during this next stretch that the winds picked up like I had never seen. It was all I could do in some sections to stay upright. My visor was blown off and I instantly thought it was gone forever, sailing off into the sky like a kite. Before it could fully escape, though, it got caught on a cactus way up the hillside. I scrambled up and retrieved it, grasping it in my hand the remainder of the loop. As I came in to finish the loop, there were people out there trying to fly drones in that wind. And here I thought we were the crazy ones!
I had kept a strong pace, wanting to grow the gap but of course do it without risking blowing myself up. At about mile 50, I asked at an aid station how far back Trevor was. 25-30 minutes. What?! Dang, I thought I had been making progress.
We climbed to the summit again and I was hoping I could make it back down before he started his ascent, which I thought might take a bite out of him mentally. But we crossed paths, and I did the math again: 25-30 minutes? Oh come on! I couldn’t shake him. The tables were starting to turn a bit on the mental side and I was growing frustrated with myself.
So I let loose on the descent, cruising along for a few miles at a sub 7 clip. I continued around the rest of the loop with a true surge, feeling confident I was putting distance on the rest of the field.
Then I got my first lessons about running in the desert: 1) distances aren’t always what they appear, and 2) it gets really cold really fast when that sun goes down. I could see a light near the end of the loop and decided I could make it there before it got cold.
A problem I have, that I think might stem from growing up in the East TN mountains where you can rarely see more than half a mile in any direction, is that I am horrible at estimating long distances by sight. There’s no telling how many times I’ve gone on a “short” run towards something on the beach, only to still be running along 10 miles later promising myself that it surely can’t be more than another mile or two.
So there I was, as the temperatures plummeted, promising myself that the start / finish surely couldn’t be more than another mile or two. Some advice I got in one of my first ultras is that once you feel cold, it’s too late. To a lesser extent I believe the same principle applies to feeling hungry. By the time I got to the start / finish at mile 90, my core temperature had dropped and I was in extremely rough shape.
It doesn’t always get worse
But then again, sometimes it does. “It doesn’t always get worse” is something else I was told early on in my ultra career, and that I have repeated to myself countless times in nearly every race. There are so many ups and downs in something of that length, and our body’s ability to continually bounce back is amazing.
When you’re actually at that low point, though, it’s incredibly hard to convince your own mind of that. I had planned on a 30 minute nap, and after lying there under at least half a dozen blankets with a heater on me and doing nothing for those 30 minutes other than shivering uncontrollably, I can’t say the thought didn’t creep in to my mind: I was done, toast. It was over.
I’ve never DNF’d anything not named Barkley, but the thought I could not get out of my head was “I feel this incredibly awful, and I still have an entire TWOT to go? There’s no way.” Gina did her best to convince me that I could still do it, but I knew I at least couldn’t right at that instant. I laid back down, eventually warming up and falling asleep, no alarm or any instructions to anyone to wake me.
Two hours later I opened my eyes and sat up. Of course I didn’t magically feel good all of a sudden, but I wasn’t shivering and the thought of eating something sounded… possible. I asked where Trevor was. He was lying right next to me. I had put a solid gap on him of close to two hours before coming in to the aid station. So I was still tied for first, and there was still a significant prize purse now just 112 miles away.
If not for those two facts, I still can’t honestly say whether I would have continued. Trevor may have won the mental game right there if he had come in, saw me laying there, and gone straight back out to put a 30 minute lead on me before I woke up. But of course with 112 miles still left, that may have ended poorly for him.
Back from the dead
I got up, geared up, ate up, and headed back out to retake the lead. I was stiff, and sore, and mentally still not all there. But that didn’t concern me at that point. I was at least warm, and I got a huge amount of sleep, and I had started enough Barkley loops to know how it feels coming back out of camp after a rest. It hurts. Your body is screaming at you to turn and go back to the comforts you just left behind.
A few miles in, the magic did happen. I loosened up, managed to re-focus, and the game was afoot (I’m trying to work on my British sayings). As my body came back to life my mind finally rushed back to its greatest source of strength: previous points of weakness. 2016 Hellgate 100K, where I sank so far that I started doing the math to figure out if I could walk the rest of the way and still make the cutoff, before resurging to come back for a top 10 finish. 2017 Lookout Mountain 50 Miler, where I had a nasty stomach bug the night before and ended up running one of the smartest races I’ve ever run to take the win.
There is no greater source of strength in a bad situation than having overcome a situation that was as bad or worse. If I could make it through the rest of Franklins, it would be added as one of the greatest weapons yet in my arsenal of comebacks from low points.
I was back. And I was determined to end the race on that loop. I felt strong, and I had no intention of letting this high point go to waste. Of course I had to be smart about it, but I knew that eventually I would probably hit another low and if I saved too much I wouldn’t be able to use it then anyway.
I headed back up to the summit, about 110 miles in and eager to see the progress I had made. I don’t recall the exact amount, but I believe I had grown my lead back to about 40 minutes. I continued on, feeling good for the remainder of the loop.
It ain’t over yet
As I started the 4th loop, I had grown my lead back to over an hour and a half. I wanted to keep my foot on the pedal, but not so much that I created unnecessary risk (rolling an ankle on a speedy descent, faceplanting on a rocky section, or just in general over-extending myself). I made it up and down the summit before 2nd place started their climb, and I finally felt in control.
I got close to the finish of the loop mainly without incident, this time smart enough to add enough layers as soon as the sun went down. I could also start reversing the thought I had had earlier about still having an entire TWOT left, and start counting down: only a Horton 100K left, now only a normal 100K left, now just a 50 miler.
But then my feet decided to remind me that they had been running over unbelievably rocky, rough terrain for 160+ miles. They were sore, and I suddenly felt the sharp pain of blisters in multiple places. I struggled up and over the final hill, taking twice as long as I should have. I arrived back at the start / finish hoping there was a foot problem miracle worker there.
Enter Dr. Jaime Aparicio. I’m still not sure what black magic he did, but within 15 minutes it was like I had a brand new pair of feet. My problem had been that I had foolishly left on the same pair and same size of shoes for the entire race (Courtney does it, why can’t I?). And then the rocks. I never want to see another rock in my life. They relentlessly pounded my feet.
Eventually my feet swelled up so much that it didn’t matter what type of shoes, socks, or anything I had on – nothing can save you when your shoes become 1-2 sizes too small. I know that I have issues with swelling, maybe Courtney doesn’t as much, but that’s why everyone’s game plan has to be different and personal experience is so valuable in ultrarunning. The next time I’ll rotate shoes every 50 miles or so and go up at least half a size near the end.
For real, though, let’s finish it
While Jaime was fixing my feet, I was given the news that Trevor was no longer in second. Thure Baastrup had overtaken him and was surging. I had grown my lead to about 2 hours, but I had no intention of letting this be a close finish.
With my new feet I headed out for my final loop, gradually loosening up again. When I felt my energy was peaking from the 15 minute rest, I started running. Not jogging. Not “hey this is 200 miles let’s pace ourselves.” This was it, and it might be the last time I feel strong in the race.
The loop starts with a mini-loop of about 8 miles before passing back through the start finish. I felt that if I could finish my mini-loop before 2nd place started theirs, that the door would be shut. When I finished, they had not yet arrived.
I put all systems into disaster prevention mode, and went down for a quick 15 minute nap. I woke up a few minutes early, and headed back out for the final stretch. Each step I took was so gratifying to know that I would not need to cover that step again.
I made it up and down the summit and to the aid station on the back side of the loop. Gina and John met me there with some pizza, and I had a couple slices before going down for another 15 minute nap. As long as I could stay mentally alert I felt confident that I had it.
When I headed out for the final section, a new motivation entered my mind, though. I calculated that if I picked up my effort just a bit, that I could feasibly make it in before sunset and not have to deal with another plummet in temperature. It was just the incentive I needed.
I surged up the final climb just as the sun set behind me on the horizon, surprised at my own legs that they were still willing to run on that grade after 200 miles. The finish line is a powerful force indeed.
I came in in 60:53, missing my secondary goal of breaking that 60 hour mark but meeting my primary goal of taking home the win (and a nice birthday dinner for my wife!).
I don’t recognize my feet
John and Gina took me back to the hotel, and perhaps the most amazing thing of the race happened: nothing burned when I got in the shower! Absolutely nothing! But my feet… my feet were in rough shape. John let me borrow his shoes, which I think were a comfortable fit at what would normally be two sizes too big for me. Otherwise, I honestly didn’t feel all that bad and felt I could be back at it (gently) within a few days.
Those few days would also give me some time to digest the race. It had been a truly unique experience: between the terrain, the wind, the sudden and drastic swings in temperature, and of course the distance. It was a true challenge, and the perfect way to kick off my season, my full-time ultrarunning career, and my pursuit of longer races that are much more suited to my abilities than these “short” 100 milers. 😛
A number of lessons I took away from the race I posted over on Ultimate Direction’s site. After further reflection, those are all still very much true: have a great plan, but don’t be married to it and keep a level head when things go south. In a way, those aren’t all that unique from other ultras I’ve done, but the need to remember them is amplified enormously by a challenging race like the Franklins.
I also left one very important lesson out of that blog post, though: when you’re running in the desert always carry toilet paper. There are no leaves, and everything is hard and prickly.
I was happy with how most of my gear performed for that distance. I did have the foot swelling issue, but I really feel that was a personal / circumstantial issue. Most of the companies below are ones that I do have relationships with, which you can view in full on my Partners page. You can also find discount codes there for XOSKIN and Hammer if you want to try them out.
For apparel, I had on the same XOSKIN form fit short-sleeved shirt as my base layer for the entire race. As the temperatures fluctuated I added an XOSKIN long-sleeved shirt over it, and then went to thermal layers when it dropped even further. I also wore their toe socks and calf sleeves for the entirety of the race. I did remove my XOSKIN compression shorts about 100 miles in, but otherwise my only apparel changes were due to temperature and I didn’t use any lube at all. I feel I probably need to go up a size on the compression shorts at that point, as they just started to feel a bit tight after 100+ miles (again a common occurrence for me personally). And again, nothing burning in the shower after 202 miles – amazing.
I wore La Sportiva Akasha throughout the race, one pair for the first 164 miles and a 2nd pair for the remaining 38. They gave me good protection, confidence, and stability on the rocks, and over that distance on that terrain I think it’s impossible to not start to feel it, especially if you want good stability and weight as well.
I wore my trusty Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest 4.0 for the entirety of the race as well, the same line of vests that I’ve been using since my first Barkley four years ago. With the availability of aid stations at this race it was maybe a bit overkill, but certainly good to have the extra storage for emergency items during those cold nights.
I also used their FK Gaiters and new FK Trekking Poles. The gaiters didn’t let a single pebble into my shoes the entire time. The poles, well I did break their tips when they got jammed between some rocks, but I’m really glad the pole itself didn’t break instead like a lot would have. And I am going to have to secure the pieces that hold the wrist straps in place a bit better. Overall, they had a great feel, grip, and weight and I’ll continue using them as long as I don’t need something collapsible.
My nutrition plan at this point has gotten consistent enough that it’s honestly pretty boring. It works for me, so I’m gonna keep using it. Per loop I relied mainly on 2 bottles of chocolate Perpeteum, a flask with a mixture of raspberry and peanut butter chocolate Hammer gel, a couple of Hammer oatmeal apple bars, some homemade food like salty maple nut energy bites, and of course at that distance some higher calorie items like my go-to pizza that I would add in before naps (giving my body time to digest it before moving again). I also had Endurolytes, anti-fatigue caps, and tissue rejuvenator as needed, usually every 1.5 – 2 hours.
Lighting was with a Petzl Actik Core, which was bright, reliable, and comfortable. With good visibility and a well-marked course there was no need for the extra weight of one of the super high-powered models.