“It is not about the time, it’s the experience”
Says Gordon Ainsleigh to me twice during the race. He wanted me to not focus on my finish time but instead to just savor the experience. He is a wise man, the founder of modern ultra-running and the founder of the Western States Endurance run. It is the first and most epic and iconic 100 mile event in the USA and the world 100 mile championship run.
My mom always said I was “pushing my limits” and that has remained a strong undercurrent throughout my life. Running a 100 miles in one day is much like life in a day. It is full of richness, ups , downs, and raw emotions.
Early on we all have big dreams and aspirations and we are full of optimism but as the years slip away most people never achieved the life they had dreamt about.
Life, as well as running far, is optimized with big giant audacious dreams but without preparedness to lay out a pathway to achieve them this just leads to disappointment and frustration. Many people don’t achieve their dreams simply because they have preconceived ideas on their limitations. They think some kind of talent must be required but it is not. Hard work and dogged determination still works.
Whatever you are trying to achieve will require goals backed up with discipline, consistency and a dose of patience. We know life is unpredictable and not always fair and if your dream is epic you will be operating outside of your comfort zone and likely to fail sometimes.
The key is to learn from those experiences. Lazarus Lakes says success is not the absence of failure, it is just the determination to not quit.
I knew the key to Western States 100 mile Endurance run was to not quit. Very simply, I would either make it to the finish line and succeed or I would fail. I have done #93 marathons and ultramarathons and 6 Ironman events and I have made about every mistake known to man so I’m familiar with failure.
And I knew I was likely to suffer more at this run than at any other event. There was going to be 18,000 feet of ascent and 22,000 feet of descent. In the first 4 miles we would climb to an altitude of 9,000 feet and then have to run through 12 miles of snow with wet feet. The day would bring blazing high temps in the canyons, followed by a river crossing, then cold temps again at night and then scorching heat the next morning.
By mile 10 I had slipped in the ice and crashed on my knee. It would hurt the next 90 miles. By mile 20 I had developed blisters and GI issues which I just had to deal with.
Successful ultra-running requires you to address your issues right away and be a problem solver. Pain and suffering can be great learning lessons in life. Running 100 miles is more than just a lesson in survival but an education on the essence of living a life well lived. It’s about dealing with our everyday challenges and persevering.
Most people fail because they just want a quick fix but they refuse to change their mindset. This is as true in healthcare as it is in running. People will do anything except change the way they think.
For me, the 7 year process of completing Western States was a personal journey of discovering who I am at my core. For 7 years I made training schedules, ran most days of the week, did about 10 marathons and ultras a year, worked on my nutrition, discovered my optimal weight and the foods that fuel me the best, and learned to be patient which has never been my strong suit.
People say ultra-runners get good at suffering but suffering is such a negative word. I have really just become very comfortable being uncomfortable. It happens when you are constantly redefining your limits.
I’ve always pushed my limits so over a period of 27 years of racing I just kept pushing the distances to see how far I could go and it’s been a very neat experience in my life.
I’ve learned you can always take one more step. You can always keep going. David Goggins says can’t quit when your tired, only when you are done!
You have to train your brain with positive self imagery, positive self talk and visualization but you have to have knowledge and do some research as well. I had spent time on the Western States course, studied maps, watched every you-tube video and movie I could find and memorized everything about it.
The power of the human mind is limitless. If you want something bad enough you can achieve it. Running ultras separates out those who are motivated from those that are disciplined. Motivation comes and goes but being discipled is very liberating. Once you decide to quit eating junk or drinking sodas you don’t have to keep debating with yourself everyday whether or not it is ok to eat junk or drink sodas. You can focus on other endeavors.
Lazarus Lake, founder of the Barkley’s Marathon says, if your legs are shot your mind will carry you to the finish but if your mind is shot your legs aren’t carrying you anywhere”
Ken Chlouber, founder of the Leadville 100 mile run which is ran across the high Rocky Mountains between 9,000 and 12,600 altitude, says, “ running 100s is about changing your life. You are better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can but you have to believe in yourself and commit not to quit. You have to be willing to dig deep. Going slow is not a character flaw but quitting is!” Pain is temporary but quitting lasts forever.
And I knew quitting was not an option for me but the steep mountains and rough trails at Western States eventually took their toll on my quads and my legs were toast. I was resigned to shuffling and power hiking. My stomach had been upset most of the day and I wasn’t taking in many calories so my energy levels were low. Sometime before sunrise I was so tired that I feel asleep walking and just fell over in some bushes. It scared the heck out of me but I was just so thankful for those bushes catching me.
The second daybreak came and I could see better and move faster. My eyes had grown tired of sorting through the rocky trails through a headlamp and we stopped at a creek crossing and washed the dirt off and I felt half human again.
Regardless of how badly you felt coming into an aid station, the volunteers were so enthusiastic I just had to smile. There were volunteers for each runner and I always had a volunteer greet me by name, help me figure out what I needed and get me going again.
But there isn’t anything like family and friends and mine were up early with me for the 5AM start of the race. Ultra- running is unlike the NFL or NBA as regular guys like me have a chance to participate in the world championship race and line up shoulder to shoulder with the pro runners and it was awesome.
Seeing my family at Robinson Flat at mile 30 was equally awesome as they had divided up duties and operated as efficiently as a pit crew at the Daytona 500. I kinda hated to leave good company so soon but it was getting hot and we were in the canyons, the most challenging part of the course.
At Duncan Canyon I saw my friend, the legendary Gordy Ainsleigh. He is one of the toughest guys you’ll ever met. He is also a chiropractor and gave me a quick adjustment, a pat on the back, and a big ole smile! He said very reassuringly, “ I will see you at the river crossing”. “Yes sir!”
At the top of Devil’s Thumb, a massive 2500 foot climb, very steep, at the heat of the day, I asked my aid station guy if I could sit in a chair for just 5 minutes. He put me on a timer, stood by me wearing his Western States belt buckle, loaded me with ice, food, drinks and encouragement and then kindly kicked me out in exactly 5 minutes. “ if you want one of these buckles son you are going to have to get moving”. No whining on the mountain so I struggled to my feet and disappeared down the trail.
Coming into mile 56 at Michigan Bluff and then at Foresthill at mile 62 where I met my family again and my pacer and long time adventure buddy, Paul Zani, was like the grandest of parties. The energy and excitement was so contagious and after changing shoes, gear, and a quick photo, we were off into the night.
But the 16 mile downhill to the Rucky Chucky river crossing was tough and humbled my hopes for running in fast. My poor wife, and chief of crew, was waiting there with Gordon Ainsleigh and Dean Karnazes, famous Ultra-runner and author of several books including my favorite, “Ultramarathon Man” at about 2 AM and they helped me and my wobbly legs get down the river bank and into a boat which rowed us across so we could climb 2 miles straight back up the mountain!
At mile 97 is No-Hands bridge which is very familiar to me and really a place where I felt secure that I was going to finish. It is followed by another 2 mile steep climb to Robi Point which is a paved road and the last mile of the race. It was lined with cheering crowds like the Tour de France! It seemed surreal after being in the remote mountains for the previous 28 hours!
Probably the best part of the race was the last mile, not because I was finishing , but because my son, Ian, had met us at the top of Robi Point and was there to run with me to the finish line around the track in Auburn. Priceless.
I don’t think it would be possible for me to ever forget the emotions of running across that finish line and getting my metal and buckle. It represented 7 years of sacrifices made by myself as well as my family for which I will always be grateful. I was so very happy we could all be there to celebrate.
And below is my favorite Bible verse Isiah 41:31 that I carry with me. It literally blew onto my feet one morning as I was leaving the YMCA and was vital that day:
“But those that hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint”