Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Long Awaited 100 Mile Journey at Coldwater Rumble

The Long Awaited 100 Mile Journey at Coldwater Rumble

It’s been over a month since I crossed the finish line of my first ever 100 miler, and another 26 hours prior to that when I started that journey. Although, I know that journey took place many months before the starting pistol even went off.

I felt like my 100 mile journey began back in 2012 when I finished the USA Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston (do you like how I snuck that in there..?). After that race, I took some much needed time off and then began ramping up the mileage and training runs on a hell bent journey to run another fast marathon. The training seemed exciting and sexy, especially when you talk about 5 min mile repeats and fast 22 mile long runs or speedy track repeats. And, as the year continued on, I was fortunate enough to pace a friend of mine - Loren Wohletz at the Hardrock 100 miler in Colorado that summer. In my first experience witnessing the trials and tribulations that some of these humans experienced in their race and upon arrival at the finish line; I thought to myself, “I want to feel that grit when I run”. Lucky for me Loren is crazy and loves to run races, and luck for me the Mt. Taylor 50k was being hosted for the first time that year. So naturally, I felt like this was a safe way to dip my toe into the Ultra Trail scene.

As the years flew by, with many races under my belt, I thought it might be time to attempt a 100 miler. That elusive distance felt so natural of a challenge. It perfectly matched up to all the 100 mile weeks I was doing over the years, and I felt that accomplishing a 100 mile race was only fitting of an experience to add to my life. Fast forward to the summer of 2020, and the introduction to “Virtual” races. It’s September and Zach and I finish the Virtual Boston Marathon, which would also be the beginning of my 100 mile training. I had the idea of attempting a 100 miler in 2020. I put in for the Leadville 100 lottery in February, and of course didn’t get in. I thought about the Javelina Jundred, but then COVID happened and getting out there in October didn’t seem like a reality. So, the next option would be something in early 2021. The Coldwater Rumble 100 was another race put on by the good people at Aravaipa Running, so naturally it made sense to sign up. Granted, the buckle looked really cool too!

Ok, so in September I had my sights set on a January 100 miler, but hadn’t signed up due to COVID restrictions and complications our State has with traveling out of our state. I was prolonging signing up to the last minute possible, but also wanted to mentally prepare myself to run 100 miles. My training was going pretty solid and I decided to jot down my actual training plan in preparation for Coldwater. One thing I enjoy about racing is the experimentation of training. I wouldn’t say I have mastered the 5k, 10k or even the marathon, but I have good intuition on what works well for me. When it comes to trail running, or more specifically the 100 miler, I have no idea what I am doing. I’ve consulted with many 100 mile veterans and trail aficionados but I wouldn’t know exactly how to train for it until I put the work in myself.

With four months until the race, I plotted out a simple plan of just plain running. I also signed up for a virtual racing tournament called The Trials of Miles which consisted of time trial races in an elimination format with races consisting of: 5k, 6k & 8k distances throughout the month of September and October. I didn’t plan on doing any shorter speed workouts for these races and just attempted to keep my mileage up and increase my long runs. I always told myself that you could probably run any distance fairly quick with 100 mile weeks and strides. However, I wasn’t doing 100 mile weeks, but I was doing some strides. For those weekend races I managed to run the following times on the Bosque Bike Path:


Sep. 19th: 5k - 16:38 (5:21/mile pace)         

Sep. 26th: 8k - 26:57 (5:25/mile pace)

Oct. 10th: 6k - 19:32  (5:14/mile pace)

Each of these time trials were done on Saturday then followed by a Sunday long run. After my last one on October 10th, I got a really solid 26 miler in the foothills. That was my longest training run so far in preparation for my 100 miler. The following weekend would prove to be more of a test, as that was going to be my 38th birthday and I had planned a 38 miler to celebrate it around the UNM North Golf Course. With October well underway, and that 38 miler done, I felt pretty confident in what I had planned for the next few months. I had a few interruptions planned in my training, along with plenty of miles, but no real workouts. October would be a steady build up to longer long runs, November was going to have one weekend of just hiking around on my Deer hunt, while the other weekends would again be solid long runs leading up to a 30 miler. December was going to have a 40 mile long run and some back to back big days, with another weekend devoted to a hunting trip; which meant hiking around the mountains. This all seemed like a solid plan.

Looking back and reflecting on my running log I have plenty of pros and cons to dwell over. Some positives I can proudly state are getting in those 30 milers in on the weekend, along with a mid week 20 miler on Wednesdays. I also had one solid 20 mile night run, which finished at around 2:00am to get my body a little prepped for a night segment in the race. Some downfalls I had were not stimulating my body with different workouts. Maybe a few strides here and there, but there wasn’t much variation. Note to self, do some workouts! I think I didn’t do workouts because of the fear that I wasn’t going to be prepared for the endurance aspect of a 100 miler. However, working different energy systems could help with endurance, which I neglected to focus on. I remember my first 50k at Mt. Taylor and the training I did for that race was more marathon specific with a slight emphasis on trail running. That race was a success, but I didn't learn from it nor did I incorporate that training into my 100 mile training. 

Now, once Christmas rolled around, my IT-Band really started to flare up on me. I wasn’t able to accomplish my 40 miler I had planned due to that, and cut it down to 30 miles. I took a few days off in attempts to let it heal. I got a massage (the first one in this entire training cycle since April), and continued to rehab it. I managed a 20 miler with Sean at Pine Flats and then proceeded to do a 3 week taper instead of a preferred 2 week taper I was planning. I guess it worked out.

Once race week came along, I had no idea what to do training wise. If all went well, I was going to have a 100 mile day plus whatever mileage I did that week. Was I supposed to run like 30-40 miles plus the race? That still wouldn’t amount to my highest mileage week, so I guess that would be okay…? I had planned to take one day off, and just run 4 miles each day and see how I felt the day before the actual race. With that said, I got 114 miles for the week. Kinda weak if you ask my younger marathon self, but perfectly adequate for my current nursing IT-band self.

After finally realizing it is race weekend and being surrounded by my wonderful crew of: Arlene, Andrea, Marc, Sean, Truth (Marc’s son) & Zac (Andrea’s Boyfriend), I was ready to do this thing. It was Friday night and Marc being the prolific chef that he is,  graciously decided to cook for us. Sean and Marc were also racing the 52k and 4 miler respectively on Saturday, so it was very thoughtful of Marc to provide a first class meal of Chicken Marsala. The lightly battered chicken would melt in our mouths like the Arizona sunset fell over the horizon. Our conversations at the dinner table were filled with everything from race strategy to nutrition to butt chafing to the possibility of never doing this again to the possibility of recreating these moments again. All and all, it was nice to have friends around. It brought a sense that this is why we do these races; they are a capsulated moment of memories that will never be recreated again. No matter how many races you plan to do, each one is a unique experience filled with countless memories, and I was excited to bottle this memory up and archive it as an Epic experience.

I do remember not fully engulfing my every waking moment to study the course or plan out drop bags along the course. At Coldwater, you are allowed pacers at mile 60 or at sunset; whichever comes first. So I did plan for Arlene to pace me from mile 60 - 80 and Andrea from mile 80 to the finish. Besides that, I had a cooler full of goodies/snacks/drinks at the start/finish and a plan to just make it to mile 60 in one piece. So the night before the race, I figured I had everything planned and didn’t lose too much sleep over it. I was surprised how well I slept. Usually the pre-race anxiety gets to a runner and you can’t get much sleep, however, that was not the case for me. That could have been a sign of possible bad things to come on race day.

On Saturday morning I was up at 4:45am, which was only 1 hour and 15 minutes before start time. Our Airbnb was like 10 minutes from the start, so we didn’t need a whole lot of time… in my mind. After a quick breakfast of a Pop-Tart and coffee, we got everything together and headed to the start. With all the COVID safe protocol’s initiated that Aravaipa Running has; such as a wave start of limited runners, masks to be worn, temperature check and a pre-screening questionnaire, all of us were ready to go. Even the start/finish area would have limited crews, and they were spread out. The course itself was a giant 20 mile loop shaped almost like an eight. There are 3 aid stations on the course (Coldwater, Pederson, Coldwater) plus the start/finish. You hit Coldwater twice because the course cuts back to it on the return loop. All and all, it’s set up quite nicely. The longest stretch would be 7.9 miles and the shortest is 3.4 miles.

Ok, let’s get into the grit of the actual race. I apologize for the lengthy lead up to this portion of the race, but here goes nothing…

Loop 1 (Mile 0-20):

The first ½ mile has a steep uphill, which was nice to have as it kept your pace slow. However, after that it was a nice rolling course with sand, some sharp uphills and downhills, and cactus as far as the eye can see. I stayed well behind the lead pack of 6 runners, and even further behind another string of maybe 6-10 more runners. The pace was close to my goal time of 20 hours, but naturally at times I was running a little quicker. That goal pace was about 10 minute pace per mile. Also, that first loop seemed to go by quick. I hit each aid station feeling good, and just planned to refuel my water and electrolyte drink along with a few gels. The plan was to intake 200 calories every hour, which meant 2 gels an hour or anything else I could muster to eat besides those awful gels. The back stretch of this course had a sandy wash leading up to Pederson aid station. After that it rolls back on some nice packed trails leading you to Coldwater aid station, and then a nice 4 ½ mile jaunt back to the Rumble Headquarters (start/finish). I can in around 3 hours and 20 minutes, which was very quick. I saw Arlene at the crew area and she was setting up shop. That was definitely comforting to see. At this time, Sean Abeyta and Marc were already underway on their races, and little did I know Sean was smoking the field in his 52k. Marc was also crushing his 4 miler and would come out the other end a new man, resilient and accomplished on the trails. All of this was unseen by me at the time, but I could feel their energy on the course and was hoping to capitalize on this positivity.

Loop 2 (Miles 20-40):

After shedding my headlamp and ready to settle into a solid pace, I left Rumble Headquarters feeling good and ready. A slightly lighter pack would also be welcomed on the next 20 mile loop. I would also say these 20 miles were not that eventful. I managed to keep my fuel intake going and kept the hydration up as well. From Coldwater aid station to Pederson, it got a little warm. By this time I would say it was around noon, and the winter sun was still beating down in the Estrella Mountain range. Out on that wash area, I basically drank all my liquids and was just pushing hard to get to the aid station to refuel. I would say I made it without consequence, but that little bit of dehydration would prove to be detrimental in the long run. I headed out of Pederson feeling ok, and kept pushing onward to the Rumble HQ to finish my 2nd loop and step foot into uncharted mileage territory. I got to Rumble HQ at around 2pm, which was about perfect pace. I got to reconnect with Sean and Marc and congratulated them on their epic races! Sean ended up 3rd overall and pushed himself to the well, and Marc was all smilies with his 6th place performance on rough terrain. Their successes made me feel accomplished as well, and I wanted to keep that momentum going. However, the halfway point was beyond the horizon, and I felt like my confidence was dangling on a string. I had a solid sense of my composure when I was around my friends and Arlene. It’s like I was “holding it together” when they were around me as I packed my vest and stuffed random calories into my bag. I could hear Sean yell out, “Nice work man, you’ve got a mileage PR right here, this is the furthest you’ve ever run!”, as he was exhausted from his own mileage PR in the 52k race. I embraced all those distractions and tried to stay grateful to even be running and healthy, but I knew the moment I left and ventured out alone, I wouldn’t be able to control whatever was percolating up inside of me. The unknown wasn’t something I was ready to embrace.

Loop 3 (Miles 40-45):

Once I had everything I thought I needed, which by default I forgot to bring a headlamp, I knew I needed to get out of there before my emotions got the best of me. Arlene said good-bye and reaffirmed that I was doing great, and I quickly took off at a not so quick pace. Once my crew was far enough behind me, that’s when it hit me. I was probably just 1 mile away from Rumble HQ at mile 41, and I just felt a combination of overwhelming joy, happiness to be running, selfishness to be running and then actual physical pain in my legs. After shedding a few tears of all those random emotions, I continued onward, but the tightness and slight pain in my IT band wasn’t disappearing like the salty tears from my eyes. I managed to jog at a pathetic pace and got to Coldwater aid station. Again, I got what I needed and left with an annoying twinge in my left leg. I guzzled down more liquid on the course as it was getting very warm, but then realized how hot this next section would be. I think I still kept moving along but I distinctly remember at mile 45 thinking how this wasn’t going to happen. I started to go down a bad mental path of despair and disdain. I told myself that I wasn’t going to finish 100 miles and that once I completed this loop, I would be done. There was no way I could continue like this. I wanted to go back to 5ks and comfortably hard, yet shorter distances that I was familiar with. That I wasn’t built for running 100 miles. Yes, it was a series of one bad thought after another, and I kept dwelling on that for the next few miles. As the sand slowed down my pace, my mind would be racing with more negative thoughts and the ultimate conclusion was that I was going to drop out.

Miles 46 - 60

After fully being ok with just finishing this loop with complete and utter self pity, I started to realize that it was going to get dark soon and that I did not have a lamp. I needed to rally myself to the aid station, refuel since I am completely out of water and hurry back to the Rumble HQ before darkness approaches. I would guess the time is around 4pm, and the sunsets around 6pm in Arizona at this time of year. I had about 9 more miles and was not going that fast. Things were not looking good. Oh, and my IT band wasn’t happy either. My decision to keep going was still buried into my subconscious, but the hopes of dropping out and just getting to mile 60 in one piece were at the forefront. I thought I better start running a little quicker than a pathetic walk, and maybe, just maybe I could damage my IT band so bad that I would have to drop out. I was also wrong about when the sun was setting, so by the time I barely made it to Coldwater aid station at around mile 55 point whatever, the sun had already set over the desert horizon. As many other runners were taking out their headlamps and lighting up the trails with a new sense of invigoration, I continued to embrace the self pity of using my iphone light as a beacon of hope through the darkness that lay ahead. There was no questioning how pathetic and underprepared I was and how accepting it would be for me to drop out. This was my excuse. And so this last section was run along side a mountain trail and I was attempting to run far behind a runner who had a lamp so that I wouldn’t trip down the side of these trails. Full on darkest was upon us, and I believe it was around 6pm. I only had like 2 miles left, but I was very worried my iphone light was going to drain the phone battery and the temps were dropping quickly as I also didn’t bring any warmer clothes for the journey ahead. With all these “challenges” I kept telling myself, I heard a voice yell out “Jesse!?”. In my slight disillusioned state, I just said “Hey what’s up?” without even knowing who it was. After a few seconds, I realized it was Zac and that he had an extra light for me and listened to me complain about how bad the IT band was hurting. He gave me some words of wisdom, that we should just focus on one thing at a time, and that was getting back to the Rumble HQ safely and reassess the leg there. It was well received information and I gladly took it and focused on the task at hand.

Rumble HQ at Mile 60:

The location of the this aid station being at the start of every loop is quite cruel. There are just too many emotions when you enter this finish line area. It makes dropping out all that much more inviting, and yet this time I was 99% in on dropping out. Now, once I saw my crew at around 7pm here, I wanted to embrace the comforts of what felt like home and not take a step out on the course again. I was really holding in all my emotions of just quitting and realizing that I would be a failure. Yet, Zac being the physical therapist that he is worked on my leg a little and confirmed that it was “a little tight”, but helped release some of the tension with a proper massage. Arlene then proceeded to rub every kind of muscle ointment on my leg while Andrea grabbed together some headlamps and stuffed my pack with fuel. And after consuming over 20 gels, we left those out of the pack. Sean offered me a Pop Tart, and then stuffed more crap into my pack, “just to mix it up” he said. But, I just sat there nibbling on some solid warm food and contemplating how I could get out of this situation. My IT band wasn’t a good enough excuse, being able to eat and hold down food wasn’t an issue, being slightly dizzy and cold wasn’t a real concern, so my Crew did what a good Crew does; they said just get out there and keep moving. 

Arlene would be with me at this point and I almost felt sorry that I was planning on dropping before sharing the 20 mile journey with her. I knew it was going to be a special moment for us, and I was trying to rob myself of it. She didn’t even hesitate to grab her pack and was eager to start. I couldn’t back out now.

I grabbed everything together and I went through the finish/checkpoint mat and Arlene and I were off. Not even a few steps in and Arlene proceeds to ask “tell me how you’re feeling, what’s going on?”, and that little gesture of kindness that she always has, broke me. She then said, “let’s just hold hands'' and we did as we climbed the first hill while I wept in even more self pity. Since Arlene knows me the best, maybe I could get away with explaining to her that my IT band was really hurt and that I couldn’t finish this damn thing. I did the math and the pace we were going would barely put us under the cut off of 32 hours. Arlene did something uncharacteristic of her; she just listened and let me blab away with an almost worried look on her face. I so desperately wanted to drop out, especially when my watch clicked off at mile 62, which I thought was a good stopping point since that was 100k. I felt accomplished and knew the end was near once we would arrive at Coldwater aid station for the umpteenth time - that would be my finish line. 

Upon arrival, there was a nice fire pit ablaze with 2 runners soaking in the warmth. I walked directly towards it and sat down on a log and listened to the conversation the 2 runners were having. After learning that one was about to drop out, and the other was an actual volunteer who attempted this race last year, only dropped out as well, I felt I was in good company. They would understand my pity and confide in my reasoning to drop out. Arlene again, just listened to all of us, probably buying in on my pathetic story with a hopeful admiration that I did the best I could. But, when the time came to actually drop out, she told me I had to figure that out, and that this was all on me. It was my journey. I took some ibuprofen and waited a few moments so I could find the clarity to actually mutter the words, “I am going to drop out”. Which never really happened. I stood up and walked over to the aid station and asked what I would have to do if I were to drop out. The lady looked a little puzzled, but knew exactly what I was trying to get at. So instead of just telling me what I wanted to hear, she looked over her shoulder and called for a man named Keith. 

Keith was laughing with friends by a space heater and excused himself to get up out of a chair to walk towards the aid station volunteer and myself. He had a drill sergeant look to him as an older gentleman wearing an all black sweatsuit. A rugged and chiseled face along with a shaved head under his beanie were all could be described of him with a slight smile as he approached. But his demeanor was very calm and collected as he asked, “what’s up?”. I explained that I was thinking of dropping out and that my IT band was hurting, and with that response he vollied a series of calm questions of: where are you from? Have you ever done a 100 miler, or a 100k or a 50 miler, and what mile am I at, and how bad is the IT band? With each answer, he responded with, “oh okay…” as he was waiting for my mumbling to end so he could unleash the most pivotal speech my mind and soul was craving to hear.

Keith told me the most praiseworthy words as if I was listening to my high school graduation speech on how far I had come to make it to mile 65 and how admirable it would be to drop out at this point of the race. He even did the math and knew I would make the cut off even if I walked the rest of the way; which I would rather have quit than to finish walking in at 2pm the next day, but he knew the ultimate goal was to finish. And finish by all means necessary, even if it meant crawling to the finish. I felt that I was crawling, but he reaffirmed that if I could manage the pain in my leg and “suck it up” that I could just focus on one thing at a time, which would be to make it to the next aid station. Then to the next, and so forth. And before you know it, you will be done. “You didn’t come all this way to quit” is probably one of the most iconic and cliché lines in ultra running, but the way Keith said it made sense. Oh, and my favorite line, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” was uttered from this trail whisperer as I was already packing my vest with gels and grabbing a hot cup of ramen. Keith and Arlene just looked at me and they both knew I was ready to go. I was also fortunate to get Keith’s name before I left, as he said I would most certainly finish this thing and write them letting them know I accomplished what would be the hardest endeavor I would put myself through. So thank you Keith for those words of encouragement. Also, I think the Vitamin IBU kicked in as Arlene and I took off jogging towards Pederson aid station.

These next 15 miles were filled with some humorous doubt as I felt like I could manage the pain and pace to finish in under 32 hours. I was already well off my goal pace of 20 hours, but I knew at this point it wasn’t about a time, it was just about finishing. Arlene witnessed some low moments, but she knew after the Keith interaction, that a little encouragement was all that I needed. That, and staying fueled and eating hot food at the aid stations. 2am rolled around and we were hobbling along into the Rumble HQ with Andrea awaiting a newfound runner with hopes of finishing at all costs.

Final Loop (80- 100 Miles):   

I knew prior to this last loop, that miles 40-60 were going to be the hardest. I also knew that once I got some pacers, it was going to help tremendously. I also knew that Andrea was going to kick my ass and make sure I finished this damn race in a respectable time; as she had a lot of damage control to work with as I was fading a lot. 

We managed to get out of Rumble HQ fairly quick and right before the steep hill, Andrea tells me that we should definitely look for a fast 100k for me after this race. That was a sign that even though there were 20 miles left, I was going to be ok. This last loop was probably uneventful for Andrea and she was probably just as sleep deprived as I was, but I know I couldn’t have finished without her aide. Towards the back stretch by Pederson aid station, I got a little dizzy and light headed, but after a quick bathroom break off course, I felt a lot better. We got moving again and rounded out the last aid station very quick as the sun was just rising. 4 more miles were all that stood in front of us and the finish.

The Finish:

I could almost embrace every ounce of emotion that trickled over me throughout those 100 miles as Andrea and I could hear people cheering at the finish line. I saw Arlene, Sean, Marc and Zac just smiling and clapping, and I so badly wanted to be done. As the finish creeped closer to me with only a few hundred meters of space between us, I thought I was going to be more of an emotional wreck. I thought that once I got that buckle I was going to grasp it like a chalice with immortal praise. But, I think I was all emotional out from the pervious 26 hours. I was just happy to be done and back with people I loved. I was happy to stop moving and to let my brain stop pushing me forward towards an imaginary line. I was just happy to finish 100 miles and know that with so much love and support, I could do it. It wasn’t pretty or exceptional, but all the countless other emotions I felt on the course were priceless and something I was searching for. I definitely wanted to be pushed to discomfort and see how I would react. I dug a very deep dark hole and luckily I had people to reassure me that I could get out of it. I don’t know if I would recommend this to anyone, as I was hating my life and every decision that led me to that painful dark hole, but I’m glad I made it out and have a life that I am beyond grateful for. It was a journey I will never forget. 

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