Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Tackling the TARC 100

Let me put this right out there-training for a 100K trail race was the most difficult mental and physical thing I’ve done. From my very first training run, I struggled running in the woods. My legs and calves ached and my already weak ankles were toast from frequently rolling them. I also put up two DNFs in my first two trail races/trg runs, a 12K in the Blue Hills and 50K in Medfield, MA, both Trail Animal Running Club (TARC) races.

My confidence was shattered and for the first time ever I was questioning if I was able to accomplish a goal because of my low-vision. Running trails is so different than running on the street. Due to my narrow field (I have a 3-5% field in both eyes) and inability to see contrast (i.e. rocks and roots on the trail) I was tripping and falling everywhere and forced to walk through technical sections-even with outstanding guides calling out every root, rock, step down/up, and turn.

I had already put it out there that I was aiming for a 100K in October but at the time of the 2nd DNF I hadn’t signed up. I finally decided to reach out to Adrian Broca, Jason Romero, and Richard Hunter, peers who are excellent runners, have completed ultra trail runs, and also have low-vision (two of them have the same eye disease as I do). Talking to them and getting tremendous feedback about trail running (Jason even recorded a video about poles, lights, etc!) reaffirmed my commitment to making this work and gave me the confidence to push forward.

Fast-forward to the end of my training and welcomed taper time. I spent my taper weeks running on pavement and doing ankle strengthening exercises multiple times a day, including while waiting for the MBTA bus. I felt confident going into the race and felt like I had a shot at the 18 hour cutoff.
Taper time is often spent mentally preparing for a race as much as it is resting your body. I felt mentally strong and confident. However, I started to have a lot of feelings around my role as a runner who is also blind/visually impaired (B/VI). Like all athletes with disabilities, I often just want to be a “runner,” or “skier” with not the added B/VI qualifier. Part of this is driven by the fact that I was embarking on something so few runners attempt. So why not call me a runner, or ultrarunner, and leave it at that?! This is also why I advocate so often for person-first language. I also know that I, and many of my peers are often in a position to raise awareness about being active regardless of your vision and breaking down barriers at every opportunity. I’ve somewhat made peace with this and accept my awareness raising role, but be warned it still kicks up some feelings for me.

Race morning was here and my guide Michelle and I pulled into the Hale Reservation parking lot right at 5:30AM. When we got to the Start/Finish line the Race Director introduced himself by saying “Hey Kyle, its Josh Katzman” and I replied “Hey, how did you know it was me (I had my white cane out)?” Josh quickly replied that he recognized my foot fallJ Josh and the entire TARC crew have been SO supportive of me and my desires to run TARC races. Without blinking an eye, they said yes to my guides, made it possible for me to switch out guides at different spots, and continually asked what else they could do to help. True class acts all around.

After a quick trip to the woods (one of the top reasons why I love trail running), the group of about 20 100kers were off just a few minutes past 6:00AM, roughly one hour after the 100 milers. Due to the unpredictability of being able to run different parts of the course, it was tough putting together a race strategy with firm paces. However, I thought I could finish the first 12-mile loop in about three hours.

With our headlamps, reflective gear, and Black Diamond Trekking Poles, Michelle and I jogged down the beach and headed into the woods. We were able to run this section at a somewhat comfortable pace so I constantly reminded myself to breathe and take it slow. Michelle is an incredible guide so I was very comfortable running two steps behind her, with her calling out the footing and when we were turning. The first 12-mile loop was mainly on the larger 25-mile loop but there were a few sections not on the official course.  

After an hour or so I felt pretty good and settled into a decent groove as the sun began to rise. It is really cool being in the woods and getting to experience daybreak. A few times Michelle called out “smooth sailing, lazy feet” which is my favorite cue. I can totally relax, both mentally and physically, and simply enjoy running. It was so quiet in the woods-all we could hear was nature-birds chirping, small animals scurrying about, and small twigs breaking beneath our feet. Simply beautiful!
 I was running with my Nathan pack filled with Tailwind and pockets stuffed with bars, gel caps, and salt tabs. We cruised through one of the smaller aid stations and shortly the trail opened up into Powisett Farm. This spot was a highlight of my day partly because we were running on grassy farmland, the scenery was beautiful, and the Farm aid station was less than two miles away. When we left the farm I asked Michelle our pace and it was just over 16 min/mile. This took me down a notch or two. I thought we were running more than walking and would be closer to the 15 min goal. After the farm we popped back into the woods and were greeted by some rolling single-track and a few small hills, but nothing too major. After another couple of miles we dropped our average pace to 15:30 which picked me up.

Somewhere in this section I tripped and went down knee first. I actually executed a nice roll and almost stood right back up but my left knee took the brunt of the fall and had a nice gash on it. Thankfully, I had some Advil on me so I immediately downed two and kept going. We were able to run a little bit more so I excitedly asked Michelle our pace. Turns out she lost her phone somewhere behind us, and my Garmin was off, so we didn’t know our pace or mileage. Oh well, keep running we said.

Now the fun begins. We soon came upon Mark’s Knob which is a gravely hill, roughly at 30% grade, but short. We power walked the hill and were soon engulfed in some gnarly single track that was strewn with small jagged rocks, roots, and numerous boulders to climb over. I was not expecting this and it rocked me (pun intended) mentally. Our pace became laborious seeing that we were constantly stepping up onto and off of rocks. I spent the next mile or so stewing on why I was doing this-it was no fun constantly tripping and regularly falling. I was done and already crafting my drop out excuses to my wife and guides.

We finally cleared this section and had about .7 miles of easy terrain back to the Start/Finish. About a ¼ mile from the S/F Jill greeted us and I could tell she was “curious” on what took us so long from the last aid station. That last section dragged us down and we were well over my goal pace and even behind the cutoff time pace. We finished the 12 mile loop in 3:43, almost 45 minutes past my goal time.

Michelle & I finishing the first 12 miles. 

I downed half of a breakfast burrito (should have held the spicy salsa), a bar, some delicious noodle soup from the aid station heroes, and stuffed a salted baked potato in my bag while Jill refilled my Tailwind. My new guide Steve lost his phone right before we arrived so we were once again without pace or mileage. Maybe in a road race this would have been a big deal but in all honesty this didn’t stress me out too much. Our plan anyway was to run the runnable terrain at a comfortable pace and walk the other sections as quickly as possible.  
Steve and I headed out on the first of two 25-mile loops shortly after 10:00AM and there was a mix of runnable single track and “rock gardens” as Steve likes to call them which we had to walk. We ran past a number of gorgeous ponds and even crossed a narrow dam like structure in which there were about 40 students/tourists cheering us on (what exactly were they doing out there?).

Steve is an experienced trail runner and was very good at simply saying “let’s run and make up some time” and off we went. We passed through Grossman’s aid station and again was greeted by Jill. I downed a few pieces of watermelon (my new favorite trail item), refilled my pack and continued plugging along. I was pleasantly surprised that my stomach was feeling great. Although not low on energy, I was constantly getting hungry a mile or so before each aid station which was fine by me.
Shortly after leaving Grossman’s we entered the Noanet Woodlands section which is a combination of very runnable trails along with the tallest peak. Steve pushed the pace when we could and I felt really good. The climb up Noanet is about a 5 minute, calf/quad burner. We climbed this a ton during our training runs, including a few repeats, but I swear it got a little higher come race day. The top afforded a nice view of Boston and there were a few hikers up top to say hello to.
We picked our way down and were able to run a bit. At one point, Steve saw a runner in front of us stretching his legs on a horse jump (some serious horse dung on the trail!) and I was THRILLED that I may actually pass someone. Steve called out “let’s run” which I think got the other runner moving. I had him in my sights for a few minutes then lost him when we came onto a technical section. Oh well.
Steve guiding me through one of the many "rock gardens" w/ "basketball" size rocks.
We arrived at the Noanet aid station feeling good and once again Jill greeted us (see a pattern here-she rode her bike to every spot!!!). The two TARC volunteers were incredibly helpful in setting us up with food and refilling my pack. VIP treatment all around. Jill said there was another 100k runner about 30-45 minutes ahead of us so she told Steve and me to get going.

Around the 18 mile mark of the loop (hey, I was already 30 miles into the race!) Steve handed over the guiding reins to Samantha. Like Steve, I met Samantha through the TARC Facebook community (you all rock!) and we did a number of training runs at Hale, including a 5:00AM run in the dark. Samantha is a strong and resilient runner who also keeps me moving forward.

Samantha & I cruising in Powisett Farm. 
I was still smiling and looking forward to sharing the Powisett Farm section with Samantha. At the farm, about one mile from the aid station, the 100k leader cruised passed me. Yup, I had been officially lapped. We ran strong into the aid station which I found out later from Jill created some confusion because folks thought I was in 2nd place. Nope, but still moving forward.

We left the farm and headed toward the Mark’s Knob section. See above for all the fun had in this section. 

It was close to 6:30PM and dark when we arrived at the Start/Finish. That lap took 9 hours and I had been running for 12:36:13, a new personal record for time on my feet! It was clear that I was not going to make the 18 hour cutoff but there was no doubt I was going to keep going. I may have even joked with Josh that I may have a third lap in me. My feet were starting to get sore with a few hot spots on top of my toes so Jill kindly helped me change my socks and apply a fresh coat of Vaseline (don’t knock it until you try it) on my feet, change my shirt, grabbed more potatoes and a half of rice/bean burrito, and Samantha and I took off.

Heading out for the second lap! 

About a mile in Samantha saw some sort of small four-legged animal but she didn’t know what is was. Maybe the Yeti? Times like this I am thankful I cannot see a thing in the dark! My left knee was throbbing by now and the multiple Ibuprofen wasn’t having an impact. It hurt to bend my knee and killed going downhill so I knew this was going to be a slow lap. My main focus was relentless forward progress and to finish regardless of the time.

A mile or so before Grossman’s we ran past a wedding reception in the middle of the woods. That “whip/nae nae” song played. My 8yo daughter loves this song so I may or may not have busted out a small “stanky leg” in her honor.

I was pleasantly greeted at Grossman’s aid station by my friends Michael and Chris and Michael’s son. Jill mentioned earlier that they were coming out and this helped to keep my spirits high. I downed what may have been the greatest grilled cheese ever, stuffed two more halves in my pocket (dirt was the least of my problems at this point), and said goodbye to everyone around 10:30PM.

Michael, Chris and Harry (nice photobomb!) out cheering us on! Thanks, fellas. 

I think Michelle hopped on the trail with us after Grossman, hiked up Noanet Peak with us, and took over at Noanet aid station. I was getting pretty tired so very thankful for Samantha’s guiding expertise getting me up and down safely.  I had calculated previously that Noanet to the finish was 10.91 miles so I was excited when one of the volunteers said she ran it this morning at it was 10 miles. I had already gained .91 miles! I downed two cups of hot coffee and set out (slowly) to tackle miles 52-62. We left Noanet at about 1:00AM Sunday!

About ½ mile from Noanet I started to shiver. I had a long-sleeve on and gloves but couldn’t get warm. Michelle kindly gave me her sweatshirt, which went to about my bellybutton, but fashion would have to take a back seat to comfort.

My knee was done with the whole running thing so I was power-walking the runnable sections. At some point a runner came flying up behind us and when we pulled over to let them pass it was Steve out to join us for the final stretch! These guides are rockstars, right?
A runner had returned Michelle’s phone and Steve found his so we had mileage info (I could care less about pace).

We came upon our old friend Mark’s Knob and slowly climbed up it. My legs actually had some life in them but my overall body was fading quickly. At some point I figured out I had passed the 55 mile mark which was a new personal high. At this point I was taking anything I could to pick me up.
I don’t know how to describe this section other than pure physical and mental suffering. My eyes were closing mid-step and I couldn’t stop yawning. My quads had some energy in them but both knees were shot so it was a challenge to simply sit down to slide down some of the boulders. At one point my pole got stuck in a mess of underbrush and when I pulled it out I swung my pole in a fit of fury (aka mini-tantrum). Thankfully, I didn’t hit Michelle or Steve. On a couple of occasions I stepped onto a boulder only to rock backwards. I’m pretty sure Steve held me up once or twice.
I was totally honed in on the mileage and I just wanted this to be over-or to be able to take a nap on a rock.  I was minutes away from full on tantrum mode. I convinced myself that Steve and Michelle, also known as the two sighted people in our group, had gotten us lost. I was so pissed I had to count back from 10 multiple times to keep from yelling at them. At one point I asked Steve to run ahead to see how much farther to the top of Mark’s Knob. He (correctly) said no as to help light up the trail. It took us another 30 plus minutes, and yet another sunrise (not as memorable as the first), to circle back to the top of Mark’s Knob. Michelle and Steve did an amazing job tuning me out and focusing on moving forward. We are almost there…

Samantha was waiting for us which afforded me the opportunity to run the final mile or so with all three of my sighted guides. We quickly stopped at the Road Crossing aid station so I could take off the sweatshirt (had to look good for the finish!).

Adios, small sweatshirt! Photo Credit: Dave Metsky

After a brief section around the water we met Jill and were shuffling on the beach heading to the finish. I could hear people cheering and cowbells ringing with 200 feet to go. Michelle was guiding me and we took a right up the rock stairs, onto the paved path, and across the timing mat with Jill, Samantha, and Steve right behind me. 100 kilometers in the books at a time of 25:22:18. The second lap took me approximately 13 hours.

L to R: Jill, Steve, Kyle, Samantha, Michelle aka the best crew & sighted guides ever!

I am disappointed in missing the cutoff but this doesn’t take away from the fact that I ran 62 miles in on very technical terrain. I trained for this opportunity and I achieved it, regardless of my vision or lack thereof. I will officially finish an ultra trail run but for now I am going to enjoy this one.

Quick Hits
·         I didn’t pass one single runner but more importantly every runner who passed me was so supportive and friendly.
·         Enough can’t be said about my three guides and Jill for crewing the entire race. You all have my complete TRUST (even walking over that narrow dam) and RESPECT.
·         TARC volunteers are the unsung heroes of this event.
·         I only rolled my ankle 3-4 times so the last minute, two weeks of PT and strengthening exercises paid off.
·         Carrying trekking poles for 62 miles was tough but it made all the difference. Props to Mike Wardian for being the first one to recommend them to me.
·         At one point I counted how many times Samantha called out “roots” and it was well over 200.
·         I’m always looking for trail sighted guides so holler if you want to run with me (kylerobidoux atyahoo dotcom).
·         If not in Boston but interested in being a sighted guide, check out www.unitedinstride.com
·         Congratulations to everyone who started both the 100k and 100 milers and to all of the finishers.
·         I will expect watermelon at every trail race!