Monday, September 15, 2014

My Ultra Run Around (and around) the Lake

Why would anyone of a sound mind decide to run in a circle for 12 hours (never mind 24)? For me, I wanted to challenge myself and see how far I could push my body. Specifically, I wanted to train for a new distance, to set and reach new running goals. The 2014 Ultra Around the Lake organized by the Somerville Road Runners provided the perfect opportunity. It was a pretty flat course, not on a trail, and only 30 minutes from my house in Boston.

The training was exactly what I was looking for. The most important aspect of training for an ultra is the “sandwich run,” in which you run back-to-back days, usually on the weekend. My first such run was back-to-back two-hour runs. I gradually increased time and mileage each week, peaking with two weekends of a four-hour run on Saturday and a five-hour run on Sunday (totaling 48 and 49 miles, respectively). Although I had wanted to hit 50 miles in a sandwich run before race day, I felt that, even falling one mile short, I was physically ready to run my first ultramarathon. The two-week taper was tough to wait out but necessary in that it brought back a little spring in my step.

I felt prepared leading up to race day. My four sighted guides were scheduled, I created a manageable nutrition plan for my crew, and my daughter and I had everything packed two nights before race day.
Race morning (July 26) arrived on the back of two unsuccessful nights of sleep, so I felt a little nervous. I rarely drink coffee before a race but decided to get a small iced coffee and bagel before we left Boston. While in the car, my six-year-old daughter, Lucy, and I pinky-promised each other that I would run for 12 hours and she would behave for 12. I had more confidence in her ability to hold up her end.

Pulling into the race parking lot, I thought, “Damn, I’m really going to run for the next 12 hours!” We passed a number of 24-hour and relay racers on the course, and I immediately noticed how tired some of the 24-hour racers, who started at 9:00 PM the night before, looked (understandably so).

We met up with Josh Warren and his wife, Lisa, and set up our “camp” site. I work with Josh at the Massachusetts Association forthe Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). Josh was my sighted guide for the first three hours as well as an official entrant in the 12-hour race. We hit the porta-potties a few times, so I knew I was well hydrated for the start. We ran into a few folks Josh knew, including BJ Williams, who works with the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts. All of a sudden it was 8:45 AM, so we headed over to the start line.

We saw our friend Liza, who was also running her first ultra (and crushed it with over 40 miles!). We started in an empty parking lot about .8 miles from the timing mats on the race course in order to get an official marathon time after completing eight full laps. Therefore, the first lap was 4 miles and subsequent laps were 3.17 miles (5K). I started the race with my CamelBak filled with Hammer Nutrition HEED (electrolyte drink) and a Clif bar in my pocket.

We crossed the timing mats as we entered the race course, and as we looped by our site, Lucy ran toward us for the first of many high fives. My legs felt strong on the first lap, and I think we ran a conservative first loop of 41:21:7. This was slightly faster than my 10:45-minute/mile goal but nothing to be alarmed about.

                                                Josh & Kyle early on
I was alarmed though about the amount of foot traffic on the course and the condition of the sidewalks. I knew the course was open to the public. However, I hadn’t anticipated the volume of walkers, runners, and dog walkers with leashes, many of whom were running/walking in the opposite direction around the loop. Additionally, some of the sidewalks were pretty rough, and a long section shortly after mile 2 cut across numerous driveways, meaning we had to step down and up curbs frequently. I wasn’t prepared for this. Josh was a tremendous help and immediately sensed my anxiety, so on the second loop, we ran on a wide shoulder between miles 1 and 2. We hopped back on the shoulder around the 2.5-mile mark. This slightly altered route allowed me to focus simply on running and was a huge mental relief.

During the second loop, I started taking in food and Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem, a high-calorie drink mix. My nutrition plan called for approximately 300–500 calories per hour. Around this time, I realized that I had forgotten to eat my standard pre-race meal of PB&J and two bananas. Thankfully, I had eaten a bagel on the drive up. So, on the third lap, I ate most of my PB&J, which brought on the onset of my GI issues. Between the HEED and Perpetuem and the sandwich, I felt incredibly bloated.

At noon, after about four laps, my second guide, Mark Gaffney, joined us. Mark is a BEAST and super nice guy. His dad has the same eye disease as I do (retinitis pigmentosa), so Mark is a very active sighted guide. Josh ran with us for a loop to orient Mark to the course. He pointed out where we ran on the shoulder and some of the tougher sections of the course (such as when we passed the farmers’ market). Mark is an accomplished ultrarunner, so I felt incredibly comfortable with his insight and support. We clicked off a few laps averaging about 12:30-minute miles. I knew I was running slower than my goal of 12-minute miles, but Jill did some quick math (always nice to have a nonprofit         finance person on your crew) and told me I was still on pace for 50 miles. My mileage goals were a high of 57.95 and low of 51.

On lap 6 I was still having GI issues and was feeling very tired. I could begin to feel a low creeping in, but Mark encouraged me to keep moving (we stopped at the site to get food/fuel on the go but kept moving otherwise). Lap 6 was my first 13-minute mile, so this brought me down even further.
I tried to focus on the course and scenery and not on my energy during lap 7. For the first time I took in the beauty of the lake and the kayakers/sailors on the water. This helped a bit, but I was still struggling. The negative thoughts were upon me, and I grew very quiet. When we looped around to the final stretch before the timing mats our relay friends, who cheered for us EVERY single lap (they would yell, “We love Team With A Vision,” and note whenever I had a new guide), picked me up a bit. 

However, by the time I got to our site, I was done. I couldn’t believe that I was this exhausted and hadn’t even run 26 miles. This was the first time I told Jill I wasn’t sure I could run the entire race. She later told me that I was incoherent and mumbling and swaying a bit. I grabbed some fuel, and with Mark’s encouragement, we headed back out.

With my legs dragging and my mental state low, I walked more than I had in previous laps. We grabbed some water at the mile 2 aid station, and I continued to walk. I walked up a slight incline, and Mark said, “You ready to take it in at the top of the hill?” Mark is a BIG dude, so when he asks, I do as he says. We jogged to the corner of the last straightaway, and Mark said, “Let’s run through the timing mats and to the site.” Although this was my slowest lap (just under 14-minute miles), I felt better coming into the site. Lucy’s smile and Jill’s firm encouragement were awesome. Mark suggested we walk from the site to the mile 1 marker and eat on the way. All I heard was walk, and I got going. At the mile 1 marker, we did indeed begin to run to mile 2. Then we walked a stretch, and when we hit the top of the slight incline, we ran. From there I could see the stoplights that signaled the turnoff to the timing mats. “I can do that,” I muttered to myself. I whispered, “Let’s go, Robidoux,” a few times to get me going. When we turned onto the final stretch, the relay team greeted us with cheers, and I heard someone say, “He’s been running every time he passes us.” I didn’t have the energy to tell them I had been walking not too long ago.

Side note: If anyone from the relay team (the one with the older gentleman with long whitish hair and a Guinness shirt) is reading this, THANK YOU for all your support and encouragement. You kept me going around that corner and down the final stretch.

We continued the same run/walk routine, and the rhythm pulled me out of the low funk I was in. My Garmin died right around this time, so it was nice to simply run based on distance markers and not have to continuously look at my watch.
We completed lap 8 and 26.2 miles at 5:20. I didn’t know until after the race, but I was in 23rd place at this time. Also around this time, our friends Meghan (Meghan was my sighted guide for the Providence Marathon, a race I dragged her to two weeks after we had both run Boston) and Caroline (Mark’s sister) showed up to cheer us on. It was a big pick-me-up to see familiar faces at the site and to have their help with fuel/food. Thanks so much for showing up!!
We hit 29 miles after lap 9. It was the farthest distance I had ever run.

With Jill’s help, I put on some new clothes right after lap 11. I put on a white shirt to help with the heat and what I thought were a pair of fresh socks, and I reapplied Vaseline EVERYWHERE. I have two pairs of the same socks, and Jill told me after the race that she put the same ones I took off back on me. Not a big deal because in my head I had a “fresh” pair of clothes. I had to sit down to put on new socks, and this was the only point in the race that I stopped moving forward (except for an earlier bathroom break). My buddy Neil, who crewed most of the day (THANK YOU), picked up extra ice, and Jill started to make me “ice bandanas” to keep my head and neck cool.
I held on to the nice rhythm and run/walk sequence and kept my splits in the low 13 minutes for the next 3–5 laps.

Sean Chatlos hopped on as my guide right around 4:30 PM (Mark took a quick break then paced Josh the rest of the day to log an unplanned 40 miles!). Around this time, I ran into BJ Williams, and it was nice to run with him for a few miles. Hope to get out to Western Massachusetts for one of the 5K races he organizes.

Sean was my sighted guide for Boston Marathon training, so I’ve logged a ton of miles with him. I am incredibly comfortable with Sean and really appreciate his energy and the quiet confidence he brings to running and guiding. Above all things, Sean was instrumental in making sure I continued to take in fuel other than liquids. He knew that I was having GI issues and that the 35- to 45-mile mark was crucial. In addition to my crew’s awesome work getting me fuel, Sean was insistent, yet supportive, that I continue to take it in.

                                                    Sean, Kyle & Jill w/ Ray photo bomb! 

I can honestly say that laps 10–12 clicked by pretty uneventfully in terms of how I felt physically and mentally. That said, I was beginning to count down the number of laps to the 51-mile mark (16 total). I began counting down in earnest during lap 5 and tried to trick my brain into thinking I was still aiming for 18 laps. At some point, Jill told me I was in the top 20 runners, which I thought was crazy. But knowing I was doing so well did give me a boost of energy.

My final guide, Ray Charbonneau, joined on lap 15 (or maybe 14—my memory is a little foggy this late in the race). Ray is an experienced runner and guide (he guided me earlier in the summer during a 5K), so I was comfortable with him. What I wasn’t comfortable with was the amount of time left and arithmetic necessary to figure out how many more laps I could do. My brain just didn’t have the capacity to do “runner’s math.” I was getting increasingly anxious trying to figure this out and asked for Ray’s help when we crossed the timing mat and passed the overall race clock. Ray was instrumental in getting me to calm down, to focus on the current lap, and to stop worrying about future laps. This was HUGE!

We completed lap 16, and I broke the 50-mile mark—51.603! I was an ultramarathoner!!
he race clock read 23:05 hours (there was also a 24-hour race), so there was no doubt we were heading out for another, and final, lap. I completed lap 16 in 40:37, which was my fastest split since lap 7.
Over the course of the race, I had asked the crew how Josh was doing, so I knew he was killing it and still on the course with Mark.

I ate a final goo chomp, ditched my handheld, and headed out feeling pretty good. I told Jill, Lucy, and the crew to head to the finish line with my white cane and a beer. It was a little past 8:00 PM and already dusk. We knew that it was not safe to run on the shoulder with live traffic, so we decided that Ray would run in front of us with blinking lights that I could see to follow. Sean hopped back on (these guides are amazing!) to run as my guide with a tether. This was my first race experience running with a tether, so I was definitely nervous.

Somewhere during the first mile, we passed a group of runners, and someone commented that it wasn’t dark enough for Ray to have the blinking lights. Obviously, my mental patience was stretched, but I proudly bit my tongue and simply told him that I was visually impaired and the lights were very helpful to me. I’m sure there was no ill will in his comment, but I do hope he reflected on my answer post-race.
After the first mile of that last lap, it was completely dark. This was my first time running at night “completely blind.” We passed the mile 2 aid station, and the volunteers were cheering us on. I wanted to run from there, but the ups and downs of the sidewalks were too much. I had energy to run forward, but my quads were absolutely spent so I couldn’t handle the sudden transitions off the sidewalk. I completely trusted Sean, but the dark, the tether, the up-and-down terrain—all were very new for me. We decided to run the short distance between the sidewalk transitions and then walk. Although I knew we had plenty of time, I asked Ray and Sean to check their watches. We were good. We made the final turn running, and I could see the finish and hear the cheers. I picked up my pace as we were passing the relay team and heard people yelling at us from behind. Josh and Mark were right behind us!

We ran together as a team, and I jumped up and stomped on the timing mat at 11:49:47. It is hard to describe the amazing feeling of finishing the race with all four of my sighted guides (also thrilled that Josh placed first in the men’s division and second overall with a total of 61.122).

I ended up completing 17 laps for a total of 54.7 miles and finishing 11th overall and sixth in the men’s division. It proves that good things can happen when you simply keep moving forward.
Finishing any race is an emotional experience. But being so physically and mentally drained added a whole new layer to the experience. All I could think was I FUCKING DID IT. 

I set my goal to run an ultra, I was dedicated to my training plan (and incredibly supported by Jill and Lucy), and I was prepared and executed my plan on race day. My one uncertainty going into the race was my mental strength, so I’m proud that I pushed through even when things got tough.

I am an ultramarathoner!