I’m going to get this out of the way first: triathlon is for pansies. OK, maybe not Savageman, and no I haven’t done 140.6 yet. But I have done a flat 70.3. I nearly drowned when the ocean current switched directions at Dewey Beach. I DNF’ed in 95 degree heat at Eagleman, unable to move, weeping uncontrollably, 4 miles short of the finish. I’ve been stung by multiple jellyfish wrapped around my legs at the beginning of a race.
Still, I can say without qualification, that for me, the Hyner View 25k Trail Challenge was far and away the hardest thing I have done yet. At the start line, I did not anticipate that it would be that, but after finishing, I now know why. And it goes beyond the usual suspects: undertrained, still very overweight, slow in general. Those were all in play, but they weren’t the main challenge. We’ll get to that eventually. I have many pictures, and this is a story of triumph. But it wasn’t always that way.
The Other Race Report
We endurance addicts, whether new to the scene like me, or multi-decade veterans, are all searchers. You’re supposed to learn something about yourself through challenges. The challenge is always relative. When I came off the hill at Snowfest in February 2011, tears streaming because I couldn’t believe I did that whole 3.5 miles, it was like my own Everest at the time. For some, walking a flat 5k in under an hour is an achievement that takes months of preparation. Some people run 135 miles in Death Valley and think “hey, why not do this three times back-to-back?” And we have found a community called runners who welcome all of us, from the fattest newbie all the way up to the Dean Karnazes, Scott Jureks, and Cheryl Zwarkowskis of the world.
But for those of us still struggling to find out if we can do what we once could not, the darkness doesn’t go away instantly. The continual inner demons in my head force the issue for me all the time: do you really think you belong here? And often, the answer comes out: NO YOU DON’T. Fighting that voice is the hardest part of this whole venture.
It is for that reason, that between miles 7 and 9, on the way up Johnson Run, that I wrote this race report in my head:
I do these things to find out what I am made of. Today I found out. I am made of QUIT and FAILURE. Everyone stop looking at me, I want to go in the corner and disappear. Doughboy will stay doughboy. There will be no ironman.
The thoughts in my head got so ugly that a scenario flashed by, ever so briefly, but it did happen. I imagined myself dropping out of the race at the aid station at the top of mile 9, and instead of contacting Meg to tell her I could probably get a ride home with those who brought me (finishing about the time I thought this) – I had an image of me just hitchhiking away. No idea where. Just disappearing because I couldn’t face my family with another failure.
Now look, this thought passed in a fraction of the time it took me to type it. I didn’t mean it seriously. But as thoughts do, it did inhabit me briefly. That’s how dark the doubt, self-hate, and frustrations can get when you’re trying to become something you know you can be, but are not yet, and couple that desire with an impatience that is part of why you aren’t that person yet in the first place.
I chased the demons out and tried to convince myself that I would not DNF today from mental failure. I said that the struggle is not what defines me, but how I decide to move on through it. I was still going up a long long hill, and hit my second wind, but I became convinced that the body was going to say otherwise today. I was not honest with myself that this was still the mind’s weakness, not the body’s. I had fleeting thoughts of “well, if I twisted my ankle or broke a bone, I could certainly DNF without shame.” Oh yeah, great plan. That was still the mind trying to lose. I recalled the relief I felt when DNF’ing Devliman last year due to a broke spoke that slowed my bike down. I was happy that it was a mechanical failure, and therefore “not me” but after the fact I realized that no, I had mentally given up as well. So no free passes for the spoke. I am taking vacation time and returning to Devilman in two weeks to get that monkey off my back.
By the time I arrive at the peak of Black Forest, approaching the aid station, I was already done in my head. There are only three aid stations where you can get out of this race. The RD is firm in the pre-race messages: do not go into this unprepared. This is not to try for 4, 9 or 13. We have sympathy for injury. We have no sympathy for unprepared. More events need this kind of bluntness ahead of time. I knew that if I was getting out, it was at mile 9. As I approached the aid station on the road, I got to go across some flat mountaintop, and I realized that my body wasn’t as broken as I thought. I entered the aid station mentally on the fence.
The Turning Point
The aid station at mile 9 is somewhat hidden. It’s along an access road, but you can’t tell you’re on a peak from looking around. The Hyner view overlook is breathtaking. The view from the third peak leaves you with no doubt you’re on a mountain. But at the mid-point, you’re not looking at anything daunting right in your face. That’s a blessing and a curse.
At this point, I knew that if I dropped out, I could safely get a ride without anyone giving me any crap for it. There were some 25k folks standing around that looked to be done. I knew that I had already accomplished a lot. I could drop out. It would not be the end of the world. My family would still love me. I would not be beaten or shamed by the RD. No one would be at the finish line doing this:
I reviewed what I had already done, and if I were done for the day, I could still be proud.
How I Got Halfway
In the driveway of the Sportsmen’s Club, we gather on a dirt road, and head down the hill, over a bridge.
Turn onto another road and enter the bottleneck of the single track trail that will test your goat-like abilities until Humble Hill.
This is the only picture I have of Humble Hill. To the right of this sign was an abandoned push lawn mower. Any other day I would have taken photos of that odd sight, but it was too random to worry about this day.
This was the first real climb. It was hard. It was steep. I passed some people, people passed me. It was relatively short, but daunting. I had no physical ability to take photos, but my phone was in use as I put in music for the first time. Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s mashup album Collision Course was just what I needed. I took it slow, and I got to the top. I felt amazing. I forgot I was only halfway up the first mountain of three.
I thought that if I just had to do that a couple more times, OK, that was hard but I can do it. I felt differently when I got to the top of Hyner. Getting to a point where I could see how far I could fall was not helpful. We’ll get to that.
The last steps to the peak are in total clearing, no woods. The wind was vicious. As I got to the stone edifice, there were people on the steps cheering us on. I tried to go around them. I was stopped. “No, the trail goes left.” I thought they were joking. They were not. I was supposed to walk out in front of the edifice. You know, the one they launch the hang gliders from. That spot, that drops off like a cliff. There’s no railing there. I am dizzy just thinking about it. I leaned and put my hands against the wall as I inched my way across, looking nowhere but down at my feet. Had I looked to my left out to the vast nothingness inches from my body, I may have passed out, and fallen to my death. I am still absolutely convinced this was a possibility. Looking up at the mountain after the race, I could not believe I walked in front of that. I still don’t believe it.
At the first aid station, I was already concerned that I would not be finishing. I was not yet too tired, but I knew that I was only 1/4 of the way. Sure, I was 1/3 done with climbs, but downhill is often harder, and I would learn that soon enough. I paused, hesitated, and moved on. I had made it to the peak in under 2 hours. I spent a good 8-10 minutes there, using the bathroom, getting food, making the decision to continue.
BTW, check out the flagpole for evidence of the wind. No hang gliding this day.
By 2:19, I was slowly making my way down the first mountain. Meanwhile, the winner was crossing the finish line. I still cannot get my head around this. I’m already impressed at the 4:30ish times of normal mortals. When you see that course, and know that someone did it in 2:19, you have two choices: either they are superhuman, or you are subhuman. While I know that guy is a mortal, made of flesh and blood, my only option that allows me to continue with my life on this planet is to place him in the superhuman category.
Back to my doubts and anxieties.
Trail Running is Different
Forget comparing apples and oranges. Sometimes things are so hard to compare, I say it’s like “apples and napalm.” A triathlete discovers quickly that swimming in a pool vs swimming in open water are such different experiences, they really ought not be under the same category of “swimming.” Then go from a lake to the ocean, and you have another leap of qualitative difference that is beyond describing until you’ve done it.
Trail running is the same way. The difference between a run like Hyner and a road race is so vast, I think we need a new word that is not “running.” A mile is not a mile. It’s an eternity. 16 miles is only the very beginning of the story that is Hyner. I had only run 13.1 road miles before, sometimes solo, once at the end of a half-ironman. I hadn’t gone further on foot until Saturday. But distance is nearly irrelevant when you are dealing with this.
Let that image sink in for a minute.
But it’s not just the elevation and climbing. This picture tells some of the story. It is hard to know what those angles mean until you are actually on them. And I tried to take some pictures. They don’t even begin to show reality.
No, for me, the major challenge was not what I expected. I thought the power/weight ratio that I struggle with due to my weight still being 250+ would be the problem.That didn’t help. But people as heavy as me did this in much less time. People far older, and far far younger (8, 9 and 10!) did this challenge. There was one other major block to my ability to move through this course at a reasonable pace.
It is hard to put this into words. I was afraid of falling at least 50% of the time on this course. I don’t mean stumbling ahead of myself like one might normally expect when traversing rocks and roots. No, I mean I was convinced that at any time, I might fall literally down/off the mountain, to my severe injury or death. The goat paths and switchbacks were narrow. The downhills were mind-boggling. The steep climbs felt like I was daring death with every inch I moved. In places where most people went by at a normal walking or running clip, I was taking each step over rocks with the care you’d reserve for crossing a bridge over a ravine.
I can’t express how serious this is for me. I have no balance, and a deficient (or warped, but definitely dysfunctional) body awareness. It’s something that I already knew, but the experience of Hyner has brought into tight focus. I have some theories as to where this comes from.
1. My history of extreme obesity. – I am only recently able to sit in a chair in a room full of people, like a restaurant. I would always seek a wall seat or a booth. I have always had this sense of sticking out and being in everyone’s way. I still constantly apologize for taking up space. I am sure that a talented therapist could unpack that on several levels.
2. I have always been unbalanced. I joke that my center of gravity is two feet above my head. Since ending my intra-mural wrestling career in 6th grade, I have avoided all activity that implied a need for balance. Even at the humdinger challenge, I held up a lot of people at a log crossing. I am very tentative with anything requiring balance.
3. I suffered a pretty terrifying fall once. It was 1999 or 2000. I was leaving a rural church at night, carrying a guitar in each hand. I took a shortcut (fat man karna here) to the parking lot, but in the pitch darkness with no lights, my eyes had not adjusted. I walked right off a 5 foot wall, Wile E. Coyote style and landed on my right knee. The shock of it sticks with me to this day, along with the small meniscus ligament tear that went un-repaired at the time.
These are the most tangible factors I can identify. Put them together with a general anxiety over not being comfortable in my own body as it is, and you have a guy who fears every step of a course like Hyner. It got worse as the course went on, but from the first goat path, the signs of my terrible fear were there. I can’t say I conquered them. I merely forced them aside.
I have some ideas on going forward, I’ll save it for the end.
Back to Mile 9
So what knocked me off the fence at the aid station? I was convinced it was OK to drop out (and it was, and to anyone who did, no judgment here – none. Please hear that.) I had means and opportunity. And it was gut check time. If I was going on, I was finishing. The next aid station was at the top of S.O.B.
I approached the aid table and grabbed some food. I looked back and realized I had just walked past a familiar face to any PA trail runners, and a guy who has personally helped me on many occasions. Joel Heasley. Joel knows my typical run pace well, and my anxieties, and my personality. If I remember this part correctly, he said something like “hey! It’s Andy!” smiled, and said “better get going, the cutoff’s coming!” Now he was just joking of course, because he knows all about my experience meeting course sweepers. (I was well ahead of that problem at this point, unbelievably. Though most 50k folks had already passed me.)
WARNING – NEXT PARAGRAPH IS CENSORED BUT STILL POTENTIALLY OFFENSIVE
I said to Joel “OK man, you know me and you know what I do. So do not take this lightly. Do not f*** with me today.
He laughed, appropriately. But he could tell I was not at my strongest or clearest. I told him I was about to drop out, that this station was the deciding factor. That I needed to know how bad S.O.B. really was, since if I went on, I’d have to do it. I wasn’t interested in the next aid station as a drop out point. If I got up S.O.B. I was finishing.
He pulled a third party into the conversation. Dave Hunter. I had seen Dave earlier in the day. He was wearing a sweatshirt labeled Race Director. I mistakenly thought he was the RD for Hyner. The Grand Slam RD’s had these made, so Joel had the same one as Dam Half/Full director. Dave is the RD for Megatransect. Anyway, he and Joel tried to give me an impression of S.O.B. I remember saying “I don’t mind having to get on my hands and knees. I just don’t want to be somewhere that I can fall to my death.” I also said I was worried about falling on top of four other people behind me and killing them. A nice lady at the aid station remarked “well, that’s very considerate. You get the sportsmanship award!” She chuckled. I was dead serious about that scenario. They told me that wouldn’t happen. I was somewhat convinced to move on, but still wavering. Dave started hyping me up with a pep talk I can’t recall, but it worked. He took ahold of my arm and escorted me over to the path, and said “I’m going to put you on the trail if I have to” or something like that. I walked a few steps into the woods, turned around and said “well, I suppose now I really don’t have a choice in the matter.” I got some cheers, and I moved on.
I don’t know how long I was at that station in real time, but in the fluid tapestry that is my life and memory, it will always feel like an eternity.
I went down the hill with a renewed sense of purpose and drive, knowing I would finish. I wouldn’t yet know how, but I was past the point of no return. The steep downhill over a total rock goat path maybe two feet wide was hell. I was passed by most of the remaining 50 folks on this descent, along with a few 25k runners who could handle the descent far better than I could. Nearing the bottom, a 4-time finisher was paced with me, and we crossed the creek and started up the switchbacks. A tired-looking slow but steady walking 50k guy who was half my weight edged by. More narrow steep switchbacks, around the side of the next mountain. The other 25k runner (was it Karen?) and I kept together and ended up off the path somehow. We had to do an impromptu S.O.B. warmup and cliumb straight up the mountain to get back on the path. Soon after, we got passed by not just other 50k runners, but… and I wish I had gotten my phone out of the camelbak to photograph this to prove it happened….. a guy carrying a bike up the mountain. He was fully intending to ride it down somewhere.
Soon after this, we were at the base of S.O.B. climb. I cannot possible describe this. I recorded a short video which isn’t worth posting, in which I assure my kids I love them. I am serious when I mean I thought I might die here. I had to tell myself again and again that there is no possibility of turning back, you will not live here, you will not get a helicopter. You have to go up that. Again, the difficulty of hauling myself wasn’t the worry. I have strong legs. But the sight of the edifice, and the lack of balance or upper body strength, or a rope, led me to the worst fear I had all day. Worse than walking in front of the hang gliding launch. Up until that point, that was the scariest thing I had done. Within hours, that slid into second place.
I can’t count how many times I stopped on S.O.B. But I couldn’t stop long. I would lose all strength and slide away. I cramped a couple times, from positioning, so it went away easily. I had little opportunity to pause where I felt comfortable sitting still to get energy. I knew that if I lost all momentum and simply fell, this was not like American Ninja Warrior where I’d just drop into a shallow pool and climb out to safety. This was either going to be the place where I got the top, or faded to black. It was my feet, or being on the news, and not in the good way. In the “didn’t prepare to pay for a helicopter rescue/extraction” way.
I did glance at my watch on the one rock where I could sit semi-comfortably and catch my breath. I could not look back. I would spike my heart rate and drop dead of an infarction right there. So I looked at my wrist where the pace window on the 310XT was blank. My imagination sparked a monologue by the Garmin who said “pace? What pace? You’re dead still. Move an inch and I might have an answer for you. Pace, that’s funny man.” It was somewhere around this point that Morgan Freeman appeared in a vision, not as God from Bruce Almighty, but as Red from Shawshank Redemption. If you know the film, you know the line. Say it with me. “get busy living, or get busy dying.”
A few minutes later I was never so glad in my life to be freezing in the wind, talking to over-eager Boy Scouts and washing my hands from a hose.
I took some time at the station, met another 50k runner from Texas who looked WAY underdressed for the day, but who pressed on. Another 25k climber joined me on the rest of the journey, who had the same caution with the downhills and balance as myself.
After walking up the fire road and winding around, we came out to a clearing and could see S.O.B. in the distance.
The rest was downhill. But it was the hardest downhill ever. My anxiety grew worse all the way down Huff Run. I kept seeing myself fall off the path. While it wasn’t likely a fall and roll down the hill would kill me, if I were unconscious, could easily drown in 4 inches of the roaring creek. I had unfortunately rested a bit in my head, thinking that S.O.B. was the final challenge. It wasn’t. I was passed by even more people. I hit the 8 hour mark on the way down. I felt confident that I could make it in 9 hours. Then I got on that stone goat path. Sliding, crawling. Pressing on, because there was no other choice. I knew I was tied up with fear, but sitting down and waiting to be rescued was not an option. Relentless forward progress, no matter how slow.
By the time I got back to the road, as in, paved road, I almost knelt down to kiss the asphalt. I only didn’t because I wasn’t sure I could stand back up. By now my watch already read 16.35, and would register another mile by the finish. That’s how much wavering I did on this course. The flat jog to the bridge and across it to the club was the longest flat I’ve ever seen.
By now the sun is not quite setting, but mostly done for the day. A few cars are going by, and as I enter the dirt road to the finish, I see a few runners leaving. I ask if they saw two worried kids at the finish. They knew there were people there, but couldn’t identify them. One last little hill around a bend so that you come to the club finish line away from the driveway. That’s the part I will call S.O.B. 2.0. Or “Really? We’re not done with this?”
What you need to know before the finish is this: I have the most amazing wife and kids I can imagine. They came up to the finish to get me, 2 hours from home. They came earlier than the 8 hour mark, which was not the best choice, as my finish time was 9:42. This meant a long long wait in the cold, and my daughter gets very worried. She spent a good bit of time crying, and convinced I wasn’t making it back. I will not put her through that kind of finish line anxiety again. She was the most overjoyed when I came through the woods and they knew it was me. They greeted me with the flag I got for them. I forcibly held back the tearful release I thought might happen. I needed them to see me smiling.
My life support crew.
And there was a small surprise waiting with them. Remember the pep talk at mile 9? Well, guess who greeted me.
Yes, my new friend Dave Hunter was cheering me on at the finish.
As it stands right now, I know more about my fears and anxieties than I did before. They weren’t surprises, but were strongly confirmed over this course. But if I were given choices of what I would be forced to do next weekend, I would choose a road marathon, a 100 mile bike ride, or being covered in scorpions.
I do believe I will do this course or one like it again. However, before I can do that, I have some serious training to do. And I don’t mean mileage. I mean mental training. Meghan gave one excellent suggestion that I finally get into yoga to help with balance and body awareness. That’s one aspect. I need to deal with my fear of falling. I talked to one fellow hiker who was last to finish last year, and vowed never to come back. She did it again this year with her daughter. She got over an over-reliance on poles and came back. I know that if I prioritize the terrain, I can do Hyner again.
And when I do Hyner again, it will be my A-Race for the year. It will be the focus.
That will not be 2014. Even if I thought I could be ready mentally, next year it will fall on Easter weekend. That is absolutely not an option for me. I have no plans for that day itself, but the lead up and day after make that combination impossible.
However, Meghan is committed to running it next year. So I have decided where my place is next year.
Mile 9 Chaplain
I want to volunteer to help with the race next year. I would like the opportunity to see the winners climb up S.O.B. if possible. But depending on the timing, what I want to do most of all, is be there at mile 9 where the decision is made to make or break. I will be there for my wife, cheering her on. But more than that, I want to be on site as a cheerleader for anyone who is on the fence. I have been there, I know how scary and hard the decision to continue can be. But I also know how glad I am that I went on. I can communicate that. But I can also ease the dark side for those who decide that today is not that day. I feel that my skill set from my profession makes me the guy who can switch from cheerleader to grief counselor and back pretty easily.
So if Craig will have me, I plan to tag along with Joel and appoint myself the Chaplain of Mile 9 for Hyner 2014.
Until then, look for the fire engine red Cobalt with these stickers.