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Monday, September 7, 2009

Overcoming the Grip of Death...

In nineteen days, I will be running my second 100 mile race, the Hallucination 100 Miler at the Woodstock Trail Running Festival. The first time around (Burning River) resulted in a DNF. Many lessons were learned. I'm better prepared. I trained harder; I put in more miles. I solved many of the problems that arose the first time around. I have a better food strategy, better anti-chafing plan, better foot care plan, a larger crew with more pacers, and a more realistic expectation of what to expect as the race unfolds.  The most significant preparation, though, comes from the experience of having failed. 

Ah, failure. 

It is perhaps the greatest of life's teachers. Prior to Burning River, I read as many 100 miler race reports as I could find. The lessons were wonderful. I read about the death grip that hits sometime after dark. Based on my marathon and 50 miler experience, I was familiar with the physical and psychological peaks and valleys associated with distance running. 

 I had enough experience to know the valleys were always followed by peaks... you just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I had developed some pretty good self-affirmations to help deal with the inevitable pain. I had run in the dark to prepare for the time after the sun went down. 

I thought I was prepared for that grip of death. 

Oh, how very, very wrong I was. 

Going into the race, I was confident. I cannot count the number of times I told myself I was going to finish this race no matter what. Going into the race, I knew I was a tough son of a bitch! There wasn't an ounce of self-doubt anywhere in my body. I felt great the night before the race. I felt even better standing at the start line. When the race started, I KNEW I was absolutely bulletproof and had this one in the bag!

Such is the nature of delusion. 

The wheels, of course, fell off. It was around mile 50. I was feeling fatigued. My knees had been hurting for the last 15 miles. Going uphill was slow, downhill even slower. My feet were swelling in my now-too-small Vibrams. I had to ditch my Injinji socks to help compensate for the swelling, which led to several painful blisters. The too-small shoes I was wearing had caused the dreaded under-the-toenail blackening. 

My groin, ass-crack, arm pits, and hands were chafed. I could feel the salty sweat burning. The only thing that distracted me from the many pains were the other pains that sprung up with frightening regularity. 

The last food I consumed was a cold piece of sausage pizza at mile 35 or so. I knew I had to eat, but the thought of food made me nauseous. As I coasted into this aid station, my crew was still chipper. I think I was smiling, but I started having doubts. Serious doubts.

Still, I kept pressing on. One foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. Never give up. Mind over matter. I knew the drill. 

At some point between 50 and 55, I started to seriously question if I could finish. I went from about an hour ahead my goal pace (28 hour finish) to barely staying ahead of the cut-off pace. 

 Miles 55-60 would change my life.

Darkness fell, and with it came what would be a nightmare that, even today, is difficult to accept.

The pain that had been growing seemed to intensify with every step. I was reduced to a slow zombie-esque shuffle. Walking down the slightest decline was so painful, I had to walk sideways. I had pressed on with the expectation that this valley would eventually blossom into a peak. I repeatedly told myself the pain would go away and I would be inundated with a rush of endorphin-fueled euphoria. 

The peak never came. 

The valley just kept getting deeper and deeper until it felt like a bottomless chasm. I wanted to quit. I didn't care about finishing. I didn't care about my social media runner friends who were looking to me for inspiration. I didn't care about letting down my crew. I didn't care about my family. I didn't care about anything. Consumed by the cold and darkness, I just wanted the suffering to end. 

I kept hoping the next aid station would be around the next corner. It felt like I was slogging through the darkness for hours. I seriously considered lying down on the trail knowing my crew would find me... eventually. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that the misery would end faster. 

The trail went through an area with several houses. Each light I saw brought a brief sliver of hope that the light was from the aid station where my crew would be waiting, and this Hell would be ending... then I would fall into a deeper abyss when I discovered it was just another house. 

At some point, I eventually stumbled into the aid station. I sat down in a chair as my crew hurriedly refilled my bottles, gave me some food that I don't remember eating, and gave me some warm clothes. At this point, I was shivering uncontrollably. I was hoping an aid station volunteer would see my "obviously unable to continue" state and pull me from the race. I'm not quite sure what my crew was doing at this point, but it felt like I was sitting in the chair forever. 

Even now, in that strange world where time stood still, where I could feel everything and nothing at the same time, I don't know why I didn't quit. I guess that must have been a victory for all the mental training I had done to prepare for the "Grip of Death"...

Suddenly my crew was pushing me out of the chair and on to the trail. I don't really remember how I got out of the chair, but I do remember the sense of dread of knowing I was walking into something that terrified me. I can't articulate what it was I feared. It wasn't the darkness, the cold, or the pain. In retrospect, the fear came from the thoughts I had in the last section that I had refused to acknowledge. 

The next 3-4 miles through the wilderness that is Suburban Cleveland was, to that point, the low point of my life. It was as if every negative emotion I had ever experienced congealed into one giant blob of darkness. All the pain, regret, disappointment, grief, suffering, and depression I had ever experienced was felt all at once. 

 I only have vague memories of that 2 hour journey up and down hills and stairs. It was a death march punctuated with moments of dull disembodiment followed by sudden, unpredictable episodes where I would be thrust back to the cold, dark, pain and hopelessness that had come to define the last few hours of my life. 

I remember having moments of clarity where I was able to talk. I even remember a point where I noticed my heart was racing despite the fact that I was moving at a 30 minute per mile pace (170 beats/minute... I thought I was dying). 

At that moment, I was atop a steep ridge. I shined my flashlight into the darkness below. About twenty feet down, I saw what looked like a huge pile of jagged rocks. I stood on that cliff for what felt like an hour, but was really probably no more than a few minutes. I was mentally preparing to jump off. I knew the fall would cause a serious injury and would guarantee I would be pulled from the race.

But there was also the distinct possibility I could get seriously hurt and, given the remoteness of the location and darkness, I might not be found for a long, long time. There's a real chance I could die. 

And I was okay with that.

Standing there in the darkness, I was in such a cold, dark place, literally and figuratively, I had accepted the finality of ceasing to exist instead of continuing on. And I felt... relieved.

I don't know why I didn't shuffle off that cliff. I don't have a conscious memory of turning back towards the trail and continuing on. 

But I did. 

I don't remember much after that. I didn't have a perception of time. In retrospect, having experienced this state a few times, I know I was likely dehydrated, glycogen-depleted, and sleep-deprived. The central regulator in my brain was going berserk with self-preservation in a feeble attempt to get me to stop moving. 

All I really remember is the pain. very muscle in my body was stiff and throbbed with a dull pain. With every step, the bones in my feet, legs, and pelvis would send a searing pain shooting up my body. I could feel a grating irritation on every inch of my skin. My brain was overloaded with a symphony of pain signals that seemed to be coming from everywhere. 

I do remember the shivering. I knew it was cold, but I didn't perceive it. Logically, I knew it was cold, but I didn't feel it. But I didn't feel warm, either. I do remember stopping once, thinking maybe the pain was preventing me from perceiving temperature. When I stopped, the shivering got worse. But I didn't feel any temperature. I remember thinking it was sort of like a dream, where you just accept that which is illogical. 

My crew members eventually backtracked from the next aid station and met me. One of the crew members informed me I was about 30 minutes behind the cutoff pace. I was definitely done. When I got to the aid station, I would be pulled from the race.

I remember him telling us this... it was a feeling of relief but did nothing to change my severely handicapped physical and mental state. We eventually slogged into the next aid station at 64.7 miles. Once they pulled the tab from my bib, I could finally relax. 

I think I thanked the aid station workers. I was the last person on the course at that point, so I was keeping them from getting the rest they deserved. I apologized to my crew for giving up. It was a horrible feeling of defeat. It was the first time in my life I had tried to push my limits and actually failed. 

At the same time, it was such a sweet feeling of relief to sit down knowing I could finally relax. 

Wouldn't you know it, but 30 minutes after sitting down in the passenger seat of my pacer's van, the chasm of Hellish suffering lifted. Suddenly I felt great! I was unbelievably stiff and still in some pain, but I would have been able to run at that point. 

 Son of a bitch. 

 It turns out the saying is correct- It never ALWAYS gets worse

The lesson learned was a difficult-but-necessary lesson to learn: 

Even the deepest chasms eventually lead to peaks. 

That course crippled me, physically and mentally, in ways I had never imagined possible. But that seemingly miraculous recovery made me realize the abject misery I felt that almost led me to hurling myself off that cliff onto the rocks below was temporary. 

I survived. Somewhere within me, I had the ability to overcome that darkness. I barely escaped the darkness that day, and the race itself was an unquestionable failure. But what a valuable failure it turned out to be. 

So now I am on the verge of toeing the start line again at the Hallucination 100. I am better prepared. I learned from my training mistakes. I learned from my logistical mistakes. I've grown as an ultrarunner. Most importantly, I now know what to expect. I know that Hellish chasm is awaiting me somewhere on that 12.5 mile loop. I know I will get the opportunity to experience the searing pains that accompany extreme physical activity. I know there will be points where the allure of stopping will be overwhelming. But I also know that the chasm isn't bottomless. I know the pain and suffering are nothing more than a temporary condition that I can survive. I've built a kind of resilience that I didn't think possible. I've learned how to silence the voice of self-doubt that echoes in my head; I've learned how to escape the Grip of Death. I anticipate the opportunity to prove to myself that I can overcome my self-imposed limitations. Only nineteen more days...



I wrote this post around fourteen years ago. I went on to finish Hallucination, my first 100 miler finish. The next year, I finished Burning River where I ran a little over the first half barefoot, and finish in a pair of shitty huaraches sandals. I'd go on to also finish Western States in less than 24 hours, Grindstone, and Bighorn. I'd run the TransRockies 6 day stage race and the Across the Years 72 hour race. I'd travel the country for two years, publish a few books, become an extremely prolific blogger, win a pro mma fight, earn a brown belt in jiu jitsu, own a gym, and become a cop at the age of 47. There were plenty of failures in there, too, because I learned trying to accomplish seemingly impossible goals is the only way to really grow... even in failure.

And I have that experience on those cold, dark Cuyahoga Valley trails to thank. After that Burning River experience, something inside me fundamentally changed. My relationship with self-doubt and facing seemingly impossible challenges evolved. I didn't become fearless, but I acquired an ability to act despite the fear. 

If you found this post, there's a very good chance you came from my current blogging project (BRU2.) If you keep reading the blog, you'll see whispers of this Grip of Death post frequently; the lessons I learned that day have been a constant backdrop for everything I do. Hopefully it'll inspire you to start trying stuff you think is impossible. 



  1. best. post. ever. you discovered this is not a battle of you vs. your abilities. it's you vs. your mind. now that you have been there, and know that - there will be virtually no stopping you.

  2. That was the worst race report I have ever read. Not going to lie, it scared me a little :p

  3. Looking forward to seeing someone finish MI's first 100 miler in FiveFingers.

    I ran a loop of the Poto today in the KSOs and it was rough. Forgot how rocky that thing is.

    Hat's off.

  4. You are going to do SOOOOO much better this time, for having already been into the fire once. That, and figuring out the Vibram issues, which it sounds like you've done.

    Good luck and happy tapering!