At the end of 1999,
three long term goals for endurance events
mill about my head.
More importantly, I want to be sure of my motives before I commit. Endurance events are survival games. Perseverance confers a degree of success. Quitting implies failure.
I am not yet sure about an Ironman; besides the training, which I am confident I can do, I want to be eager to repeat the experience again and again. Boston is a natural choice, but running fast enough to qualify proves an elusive goal. As for ultra distance runs, I am as sure as I can be: I envision myself surviving them for decades to come. These constraints ultimately lead me to go after a hundred miler first.
By way of example, let me address a different question: why do people gesture when they speak? One might think that a person gestures to help the audience, but in fact a person gestures to help himself. Studies test this conjecture by having a subject relate stories either sitting on his hands or gesturing. The accuracy and precision of the story improve dramatically when the subject gestures.
I write these reports because they help me understand what I do. I make them public because the exposure forces me to articulate my thoughts more carefully. That readers occasionally find them useful or amusing is a bonus.
On September 7, 2000 I head out for a run. A typical run. An ordinary run. I have no reason to expect an accident.
After warming up, I spend a mile on a steep trail section. The idea is to prepare my quadriceps for the descents on the Appalachian Trail at the JFK 50 Miler. As I finish the last loop, I feel a sharp pain in the center of my back. A yellowjacket has stung me.
I do what I always do with a sting: I ignore it and continue with my run. Given my prior experience, this is a reasonable, although unfortunate, decision. It is the last reasonable decision I make that day.
About twenty minutes later, the insides of my ears start to itch. Although I know that something is wrong, I take no action. In fact, I continue on with my route - still headed away from home.
Five minutes later I reach my planned turnaround. My entire head now itches like crazy, and my lower lip feels, and in fact is, gigantic. I start inspecting the other bike trail users, wondering abstractly which ones might have cell phones. I refuse to admit that my situation is serious. In my place, you would naturally say to yourself:
Gee! I'm going into anaphylactic shock - a genuine medical emergency! There is no way to predict how severe my condition will become. Therefore, I must seek medical attention immediately. That way, the medics will be on hand if and when I stop breathing.Not being you, I don't say this to myself. Instead, I start off for home, three and a half miles away. I never get there.
At first, I can still run tolerably well, although I find myself breathing hard. But gradually my insides turn to jello, and a mile and a half from the house, I can no longer run. So I walk briskly. For the first time I take a look at the insides of my arms. The skin on each is covered with a single enormous hive perhaps eight to ten inches long. I still don't seek medical attention. Instead, I walk as quickly as I can down the trail.
Half a mile from the house, I reach the dojang. My insides demand immediate bathroom access, and so I stop in. I stagger out of the bathroom, now certain that I cannot cover the last half mile to the house. The reaction has progressed to my venous system, and my blood pressure is headed down. My brain is getting just enough oxygen to remain conscious. This necessity, rather than logic, finally makes me admit, although still only partially, that I need help. I ask Julie to call ... Becky.
I can hardly recite my telephone number. I tell Julie to ask Becky to bring her Epipen. I alternate my energy between not passing out and not throwing up. Matt and Becky arrive a few minutes later. I am aware of their arrival, but I cannot so much as turn my head to acknowledge them. Becky takes a few seconds to assess my condition, and then does what I should have done 45 minutes earlier, back when my ears first started itching. Becky calls 911. Matt watches the paramedics load his Daddy into the ambulance and cart him off to Fairfax Hospital.
Why did I fail to believe that I needed immediate help? How I could be married to a person with serious allergy problems yet not appreciate the severity of my own allergic reaction? Why could I not grasp the very real possibility of respiratory arrest? I am still contemplating those questions. There are important lessons here, and I don't want to miss them.
Ignorance is a multiheaded monster. As I relate my story to my allergist, Dr. Rosenblatt, she turns to Becky and states more than asks:
You gave him the Epipen.
So, the paramedics gave him epinephrine.Again, it is not a question.
Should they have?
Dr. Rosenblatt simply buries her head in her hands. When she recovers her composure, she proceeds to explain the conditions and mechanics of epinephrine use in complete detail, as if to innocents.
Which, as is painfully obvious, we are.
The story has a happy ending. Matt gets to keep his Daddy and Becky gets to keep her husband. Two months of venom therapy desensitize me to future stings; an additional five years should make the change permanent. My insurance picks up the bulk of the tab. As far as medical conditions go, sting allergies are completely treatable, assuming you survive the initial encounter.
For the record, exactly when do you use the Epipen? It is simple - at the very first sign of a systemic reaction. Locally, your arm or leg or finger or whatever got stung can swell up like a balloon and hurt like the dickens, but that doesn't much matter from a medical perspective. Eat some Benadryl and you'll be fine in a few days.
On the other hand, if any part of your body not local to the sting - skin, ears, lips, GI tract, respiratory system, circulatory system, just to mention those in my personal experience - shows any evidence of an allergic reaction, use the Epipen right away. Don't wait. You can hardly use the autoinjector if you have already passed out. The epinephrine will turn you around. Then call 911, because when the epinephrine wears off twenty minutes down the pike, you may be right back in trouble. After you recover, go see a good allergist.
Race weekend arrives in a rush. On Thursday I fly to Manchester, NH - roundtrip at $97. Mark picks me up. The weather is near perfect - a bit warm for running, but very dry, which, as far as I am concerned, is much more important. On Friday we pick up a few last minute supplies and head up to Woodstock to pitch the tent and soak up the ambiance. Although sleep is a bit short on Friday night, the stars make for an impressive show. Early Saturday I check in, walk past the tuxedo clad piano player seranading us with the theme music from Chariots of Fire, and trot off into the darkness. I am excited, and I feel good.
Up. Down. Through an aid station. Repeat. I roll along, a bit faster than I should, but not much. Gradually the day heats up. The long hill up to Barr House is the first real effort. Fortunately, a bit of cloud cover eases the heat. For a few miles, I run with Dan, a virtual child at 20 as far as ultras go. We chat, and I give him some of my salt. Ultimately, Dan drops out, but I miss this part. Together, Dan and I reach the first mental checkpoint: Camp Ten Bear at 44 miles. A young woman is passing the time weaving a garland out of flowers. It is a no brainer. Dan gets the garland; I get a hearty "Good Job!".
I am doing well - no weight loss, minimal chafing, no foot or leg problems, and food is going down easily. Mark meets me with my drop bag. I switch socks, put on a new shirt - Coolmax Alta mesh, great stuff indeed - and transfer my two Epipens from the bike jersey I have worn all morning to the UD backpack. I definitely don't want to run out of water on the next section. I set out on the Ten Bear loop - just shy of a marathon - in the full heat of the day.
A few miles in, I encounter my first victim. Number 217 sits on a log a short way up a steep hill. He cradles his head in his hands and explains that his legs simply won't work anymore. We have yet to reach the midpoint of the run; 217 obviously has no chance of finishing. I ask if he needs help; he claims "No" despite my expressions of skepticism. I tell him that I will let the next aid station know he is having problems.
I have a laminated pace chart taped to my race number. It is an invaluable mental tool. I know exactly where I am relative to where I want to be all day long. Up until the fiasco at Bill's, this works out to about 15 to 30 minutes ahead of splits that should yield a 24 hour finish. The idea is to reach Tracer Brook at 54.9 miles in about 12 hours.
At Tracer Brook, I feel good, and I am still slightly ahead of pace. I also know the pace chart has just become much more forgiving, since it gives me 12 hours for the next 45 miles. My illusion of power and control is soon shattered by a small sign on the side of the road: "Hill, Next 4 Miles". So much for the pace! I walk, and I walk, and I walk. Prospect Hill is hot, dry, and seemingly endless.
At this point in the run, I enter the crash/recovery spiral. At the Prospect Hill aid station, I am drained, a feeling that is not helped by some locals speeding by and raising huge dust clouds. A few miles later, at Cox's, I pound down some cheeseburgers, find shade and cool for the first time in hours and feel good again. After another few miles, the euphoria expires, and I face a miserable trek back down into Camp Ten Bear. I am only able to run about half the downhill - a bad sign indeed.
On the other hand, the second visit to Camp Ten Bear means "PACER!" Mark is ready and waiting. After I step off the scales - the Ten Bear loop has sucked a net 4 pounds of water out of me, I switch socks again, put on a fresh shirt, eat some soup, drink some coffee, switch to the belt water carrier, and generally spend 15 minutes recovering. Mark and I walk out of Camp Ten Bear for the last 50k. Despite my problems, I am still 20 minutes up on my goal pace.
After the climb from Ten Bear, I gradually recover over the next fifteen miles. Having a pacer is great. I regale Mark with a description of the Barkley, which makes our current situation seem tame, of course. We are rewarded with relatively smooth, relatively flat (for Vermont) dirt roads that wind down to Ascutney. After a short steep trail section up, we roll into Bill's at the 83.4 mark.
I feel reasonably good, considering that I have been at it for 19 hours. The scales reveal that I have managed to restore one of the four pounds of water that the Ten Bear loop claimed. I am optimistic that we will come in under 24 hours, thereby earning a buckle instead of just a finish. How hard could it be to go 17 miles in 5 hours? As I contemplate this question, I make my first serious mistake of the day. I sit down. That this could be an error may sound odd to the casual observer, but every ultrarunner knows that the most innocent looking chair can diabolically suck a runner right out of a race. It almost happens to me.
In a mere five minutes, my perspective changes completely. As we roll out of Bill's, I feel absolutely wrecked. Even on the flat, I don't have enough enery to do more than walk at a very slow pace. Worse, I develop a blister behind the big toe on my right foot. It quickly becomes bad enough that I could no longer run even if I had the energy. Mark and I slowly plod towards Blood Hill. DNF thoughts crowd my brain. I manage to keep my mouth shut, and the phrase "DNF" does not cross my lips until we are perhaps 10 feet from the finish line. There, I mention the possibility as a lame joke.
At Jenneville, the 90 mile point, I pull off my sock, examine the damage, and listen to the siren song of the DNF demon. My brain enumerates the reasons why a DNF is the logical thing to do. Let's see: My right foot is killing me, and continuing will certainly make the blister worse. Finishing in 24 hours is no longer even a remote possibility. Jenneville is a very short drive from Smoke Rise Farm. I could be in bed in half an hour. I could even have a beer first. I have gone 90 miles - 40 miles further than ever before. Isn't that enough? I have no energy - just staying awake is hard. Pressing on means hours of slow walking. What kind of a "run" is that?
All I have to do is signal one of the volunteers. I need only utter these two words: "I quit." This is by far the most difficult moment of the entire run.
I silently pull on my sock and shoe, and slowly limp down the road - towards the glowsticks that mark the route. Ten more miles of slow walking. Mark joins me, unaware of how near we came to being done for the night.
An eternity later, well after I watch my second sunrise of the event, Mark and I make our way under the finish banner, directly up to our tent, and to bed. We only get a couple of hours before the sun bakes our tent, but the sleep really helps. With remarkable efficiency, we pack up and head home to Mark's house.
Besides the bit about the chair, of course. I already knew that, although I had never experienced it before.
Why run hundred milers? It is clearly not for health reasons. Running itself can certainly be healthful, but ultra running crosses from health to something else. That said, ultras aren't particularly unhealthful either, although it is hard to disagree with the volunteer at the last aid station:
"Excuse me, Sir. I don't know if anyone has told you this, but you look like $&!#."
One way of describing my run is that I spent 90 miles wearing myself out to the point where I had to decide, under duress, how much I wanted a finish. This is not a recommended way to run ultras, but it is nonetheless a relatively common one.
At Jenneville, I learned I wanted that finish very much. I hope that next time I will understand why.
You may wish to visit the home page for the Vermont 100 Miler.