Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Bury My Guaranteed Barkley Entry at Wounded Knee

Wow! So I really don't even know where to begin.


I'm going to have to start with a long round of Thanks:

  • To my wife, for allowing me to disappear for 6 days while juggling care of the kids and your demanding teaching responsibilities, I couldn't have done this without you and your continued support and belief in me.
  • To my mom, thank you for coming in and looking after the kids for a couple days
  • To my crew chief Jack, well, words can't adequately describe just how grateful I am to call you a friend and to have had you by my side during this race.
  • To Katie and Andrew, I wouldn't have made it far into the 4th day if y'all hadn't come around to help out with the crewing, because, man, I definitely needed all hands on deck in those exhausting hours. I mean, honestly, how incredible is this community, where folks you never really knew before are suddenly, selflessly committing themselves to a fellow runner, to massage their legs, to shovel food down their throat, to support them and look after them.
  • To my fellow runners, thank you for letting me share some miles with you. And thanks for putting up with my snark and sarcasm … it can be endearing once you get used to it, at least that's what I tell myself.
  • To Laz and Sandra, thank you for sharing your home, errr … yard, and for providing a stage that allowed me to achieve far more than I could have ever dreamed.





Let's jump right into the fray, when things got dicey!


Night 3 at Big's, the World Championship for the Backyard Ultra race format. Over 60 hours of running already complete. That's where things got … interesting.


After a few hours of night running, my right knee started to feel weird. A couple hours later I had stabbing pains around the MCL with every footfall. It got to the point that I could no longer run more than a few strides at a time without wanting to collapse in pain. So I started power walking the road course, which was fast enough to get me through each loop with a few minutes to spare. But then around hour 66, even power walking was too painful. So I had to devise a new method of dragging my body down the road.

I realized that as long as my right knee was fully locked, I had no pain, there was just a very dull ache from ground contact rather than a knife being stabbed into my knee. So I spent the next few hours working through various iterations of a sideways straight-legged skip-hop-thing. To get into an upbeat frame of mind around this time I ran with headphones for my first and only loop, jamming out to Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia album. It was exactly what I needed to maintain focus as I worked out the kinks in my new "running" form.

I would forcefully use my good left leg and arm to propel my body up and forward, and while in the air I would swing my dead right leg forward to prepare for a straight-leg landing, then I would rock my body forward again while balancing on the straight-leg and proceed to the next stride. Sometimes my body was facing almost forward, other times I was facing nearly perpendicular to my direction of travel. It was a crazy amount of effort to drag my body down the road and I was barely making it back in time for the 3-minute warning bell.

Going into the race I had a few goals, one of which was to time out and not quit. It was a pretty big goal for me to write down because it implies a more competitive spirit than I'm typically comfortable assuming during a race. Basically, I wanted to keep going until my body quit on me. That goal was at the forefront of my mind during this 8+ hour dead-knee period of the race. Not once did I consider quitting. It was more about finding a way to survive to the next hour. I was hyper-focused the whole time. And going through a 3rd night without adequate sleep, I was surprisingly lucid and didn't even need caffeine.

That said, I knew with absolute certainty that my knee would not get me through the day loop, the trail was just too rocky and slow. So, by killing myself to get to dawn, I could effectively "give up" without giving up -- by taking what would likely become a 70-90minute stroll through the woods on the 73rd loop and timing out with my head held high.


When I finished Hour 72, I came into camp and a flurry of folks helped Jack tape and wrap my knee, and then push me back out to the corral. The first half mile of the day loop is a road out-and-back and man did it hurt. I limped back through camp to start the trail section, with Harvey and Mori out of sight. I was appreciative of everyone's effort to get my knee in shape, but fully aware of the fact that I was 100% screwed. Just outside of camp I fell for the first time all race. It was a hard fall. I saw stars. My knee exploded in pain. I got back up and could hardly drag my leg through a rock-hopping section of the course. I slowly hiked the first hill and tried to manage the following descent. I lost control again and slammed hard into a tree.

And then, magically, I pushed off of my dead right leg and the stabbing knee pain was replaced with a manageably uncomfortable ache. As I hobble-jogged into a flatter, straighter section of the course, I started pushing the effort, madly swinging my good left leg and arm to propel me, and gingerly pushing off with my dead right leg. As I found that I could start bending my right knee and pushing off of that leg, I transitioned from sad, pathetic, injured walk-jogger into a rabid animal. Quite simply, I said "Fuck it, I'm finishing this loop!" Instead of hiking the uphills I sprinted them, sometimes even clawing with my hands. My pace felt absolutely uncontrollable. I was redlining, hard.

And then, towards the end of the loop, at the base of the final hill, I saw Harvey and Mori off in the distance. And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was back in the game. Never before in a race have I felt so utterly overwhelmed, both physically and emotionally. That hour of running was a whirl of pain and emotion and struggle that I can barely remember, but that I will also never forget. I don't know what the future holds for me in this sport, and I may never achieve anything as big as the record-breaking Assist at Big's ever again, but the 7am hour to start the 4th day at Big's in 2021 feels like an inflection point, a phase shift in how I view myself as a runner and what I believe I am capable of. It was the most rewarding hour of running I have ever experienced.


That's it. That's the obligatory poetic, inspirational blog post.



…But if you care for some more details about the race, here they are…


The Leadup:

I qualified for Big's with an at-large slot from my 56 hours at Capital back in May. My downfall then was a combination of sleep deprivation and caffeine mismanagement. So this time around I had a formulated plan for how to handle each.

For sleep, I had a cot and a zero-gravity chair, I had headphones and a sleep sounds app, I had an eye mask, I had plenty of blankets and even a weighted blanket to make me feel instantly cozy.

For caffeine I had 50mg dissolvable strips that I could carry with me and drop the moment I got cloudy or sleepy.

All the rest of my planning remained much the same as with Capital, but I felt the focus on sleep and caffeine would pay dividends. Despite most of the international qualifiers not being able to make it to the race, there was enough talent in the starting field to take the race well into Day 4, and possibly even into Day 5. Now, I don't consider myself an elite runner -- my training and mileage are crap, I don't have a single notable win on my resume -- but I'm pretty good at staying level-headed and I don't mind the grind of longer races, so I fully expected myself to be mixing it up with the big kids right up to the end.

I drove down from STL and picked up my crew chief, Jack, at the Nashville airport before continuing on to Bell Buckle to set up our tent. Then it was a low-key dinner of delicious McAlister's Deli and early to bed. I tossed and turned all night, only getting a few hours of sleep despite downing what felt like dozens of melatonin. In the morning, while I wasn't rested, I felt ready to tackle a few days of running. NBD.

Did I bring enough crap?!

Prepping the tent, and wearing my obligatory pre-race t-shirt.

Using a secret incantation to bless my pillow for successful catnaps in the days to come.

Team kits?

This is gonna be fun, right?


Day 1:

The first 24 hours were super low key. I ran comfortably, I chit-chatted other runners, and I introduced some runners to my obnoxious sarcasm.

I stayed calm between loops with breathing techniques, and made sure I was on top of my calories. I started out trying to take in 200 calories of my Long Haul drink each hour and then supplementing with 100 calories of gels, chews, or some kind of quick snack. I think I wore an old pair of Altra Timps for the trail and Altra Torins for the road.

Most importantly in this first day, I built up the courage to have a couple of random conversations with Maggie and Courtney. Did the words coming out of my mouth make any sense or was it incoherent jibberish … who's to say?! But I was running and chatting alongside two "famous athletes" I look up to more than anyone else in the sport. So, yeah, it was a good day!

Proof that Maggie and Courtney are my new BFFs.

I ran into some frustrating troubles that could never be resolved fully over the succeeding days -- despite having repeatedly tested my new headphones which I'd primarily planned to use for rain sounds to help me sleep, we had connection problems with my phone and one of the buds straight-up had no charge and never charged up throughout the race. Turns out, the rubber/foam attachment was too big and was popping the bud off the charging pins … despite the fact the attachments were made by the same company. So a good number of overnight hours were spent trying to figure out the best way to get me my Pavlovian rain sounds response and also effectively block out the rest of the noise going on in the camp. Run of the mill running problems, right?!

Running is soooo hard.


Day 2:

Physically, Day 2 was a breeze. Another great day to be out on the trails with perfect fall weather. Hours 25-35 made it clear to me which runners out there came prepared with trail legs and which ones did not. The transition from overnight road miles to the sometimes-technical daytime trail miles looked very uncomfortable to some. But I found it to be a great opportunity to change up muscle groups and get into a relaxed running groove.

Acid reflux reared its head, something I had never experienced before Capital. And while I kind of expected it to happen at some point, my nutrition plan was woefully inadequate to properly accommodate the new problem. I knew that temporarily shifting to water instead of Long Haul would help, but the hundreds of dollars of food I'd brought along were not very useful -- lots of chocolate, salt, and baked goods (baking soda/powder). Even something as bland as a banana was often too acidic for my throat. We mustered through, but it got a bit testy at times, with me unable to effectively articulate how much I now thoroughly despised every single piece of food in my tent, and with my crew chief unable to do much of anything about it. I dreamed of the blandest foods imaginable -- unflavored oatmeal, white rice, cream of wheat. Luckily, I snagged a bag of rice from Steve Slaby, and while it was absurdly over-salted for my taste, it went a long way to helping me keep my nutrition on track.

In the overnight hours on Day 2 I finally figured out the most comfortable way for me to lay down. I'm a stomach/side sleeper and the cot was just not working out how I'd hoped, but my body was finally tired enough to pass out laying back in the zero-gravity chair … that is, once I yelled at the neighboring tent in the middle of the night to shut the heck up cuz I could hear them through my noise cancelling headphones.

Me failing at passing out on the cot. And yeah, that's a superhero cartoon duvet for my weighted blanket. Again ... running ... hard stuff.

I believe I started dosing caffeine in the overnight hours of Day 2. I'd originally planned to keep at 50mg/hour once I started, but I quickly found that a 50mg pick-up was gentle enough to not overwhelm me but also enough to support 3-4 hours of alert running.

The biggest problem with the overnight hours came from my shoes. Since 2015, about 90% of my mileage comes from Altra shoes. I love them. They fit great, the work great. But lately their shoe design has been, well, spotty. For years I could take any pair of Altras and wear them right out of the box, no break-in necessary. I thought 20 miles of pre-race running in a brand new pair of Torins would've been more than enough, but I quickly found on Night 2 that the tongue is atrociously designed. The tongue is too short and also too stiff, and it continually jabbed into the bend in my foot with every single stride. I likened it to the feeling of a credit card edge being jammed into my foot non-stop for 12 hours. It was so frustrating that I had to abandon those shoes for Night 3, and at the start of Night 4 I even took to hacking the tongue off altogether, literally the first time in my life I've had to make alterations to a shoe. So yeah, I dunno, Altra, maybe you can work on that and lemme know when you fix the problem. K Thanks!


Day 3:

I'd wanted to go with a brand new pair of Altra Lone Peaks for Day 3. Like the Torins, I'd put 20miles on the new Lone Peaks to break them in, but they felt wildly different than the previous model. The structure of the toe box was both rigid and flimsy, the material kept rippling into a U-shape that receded into the toe box space and would put pressure on my toes, and the stitching area that formed the toe box felt rigid and stiff and was rubbing my big toe like crazy. This was the first time in 6 years I'd donned a pair of Lone Peaks and didn't enjoy them. So after the first loop, I had to rip them off in a panic and abandon them for a pair of Altra Timps, which felt fantastic.

After a few hours of daytime running, the hallucinations started. The accumulated sleep I'd bagged the past 2 days certainly helped here because my mind was strong enough to write off the hallucinations for what they were rather than freak out like I did at Capital. It started off with a gorgeous multi-million-dollar cabin in the woods that I'd somehow never noticed before. Tucked away in the trees, it was tall and boxy with dark green metal siding and tall, narrow windows, and there were a couple of small balconies on the second floor. It was the kind of modern aesthetic you might see profiled in Architectural Digest. After rounding a turn and still being able to see it, I stopped momentarily and walked briefly into the woods to get a better look, but it kept disappearing on me. It was then I realized it was a figment of my imagination. I hollered back to Harvey, who was right behind me, to confirm that what I was seeing was not, in fact, real, and he happily let me know I was losing my mind.

A couple laps later I saw a mint-condition early 90s black Mercedes sedan abandoned in the woods … it was just a big rock.

And throughout the day and into Day 4, I continued to see more houses and cabins.

Deep into the Night of the Fucked Up Knee.


Day 4:

After my miracle hour, I settled into a groove. I was hitting decent splits on the course, my knee was mildly cooperative, and I was getting pampered like crazy in camp. Each time I came in, Jack was toweling me off and prepping an ice bandana; Andrew Moore had come over to shovel food down my face and torture me with a percussive massage gun; and Katie Wright, fresh off her own 28 hour effort at Big's, helped prep nutrition for the next hour and tended to my knee. It was absolutely unbelievable. I mean, in the moment, I was sometimes incoherent, sometimes a sassy pain in the ass, and sometimes uncomfortably silent, but after the race was over, I was able to wrap my head around the fact that people I didn't really even know had come over to prop me up and keep me going for over 12 hours. "Grateful" doesn't even begin to describe how tremendously indebted I feel to Andrew and Katie for their assistance.

Mid-race action shots ... eat, foot care, eat some more.

Honestly, much of Day 4 felt pretty routine. But then, in the last few daytime hours, starting around 79 or 80, my knee started getting iffy again. I had to be very careful about placement. The right leg wasn't allowed to be the lead leg for any turns or to get around any obstacles, and I was spending more and more time at the start of each loop trying to warm the knee back up. Every few minutes of sitting down between loops would cause stabbing pains in the knee at the outset of the next loop.

As night approached, I wasn't sure how long my knee would be able to hold out on the road. For our first night lap, I high-tailed it so I could get into camp early and take care of my feet, which had been in an old pair of Torins for 100 straight miles now, and the odd side-skipping action I was doing earlier had both torn up the shoes and caused a slew of blisters. My knee wrap was also proving problematic and needed to be readjusted.

I hopped out of the chair with new socks and shoes and a newly wrapped knee, ready to tackle the 85th hour. But from the first steps, I could tell my knee was toast. I gingerly walked a quarter mile to the bottom of the hill and I just knew that I was done. I'd already spent an entire night hobble-jogging and side-skipping, and I had absolutely no confidence that I'd be able to make it to the turn around in under 30 minutes. And most importantly, with the resurgent stabbing pains, I had no idea if I was just suffering from some run-of-the-mill overuse injury or if I was causing real structural damage to my knee. And while I had the goal of timing out, my wife and I always have an understanding that I will listen to my body, and my body had made it painfully clear that my right knee was toast long ago and that I'd been running on borrowed time. So, I turned around to hand in my timing chip and happily accept The Assist.

No caption required.

Me, Jack, and Laz. 


I didn't go to a doctor to check out my knee, but it took 7 days post-race to be able to walk without pain. Inflammation finally went down after a few days, but there was still a lingering heat coming from my MCL after 10+ days and the wrong motions while walking or navigating stairs sometimes produced moderate pain. 14 days post-race and things were finally feeling "normal" enough to go for a short, easy jog.


I lost 2 toenails, in what was the easiest toenail removal process I've ever dealt with as a runner. Blisters formed under each nail and grew so big that the nail literally rested on top of the blister. Once I popped those suckers, the nails practically fell off my toes. So yeah, if anyone out there has problems with damaged toenails during ultras, I highly recommend just extending your run for a couple hundred more miles to make the removal process a piece of cake!

The world's easiest toenail removal!


I temporarily held a share of the Backyard world record for 3 hours. That's insane! That's something I could not have fathomed even a year ago, when I wondered if my body could go much more than 48 hours. So I feel like I definitely earned a few weeks off from running, the first extended break I've had in years.


As for what's next with this race format … well, my ultimate goal with Backyards has been to explore my limits of fatigue and sleep deprivation to better prepare myself for whenever I'm gifted with the opportunity to start Barkley. With this last effort, I've gained the confidence I was looking for to know that I can handle the potential mental and sleep-deprivation effects of running Barkley. So, technically, I don't think Backyards have much of anything left to offer me when it comes to my Primary Running Objective. But I'm guessing my 84 hour effort will be enough to qualify me for Team USA at the World Team Championships in 2022. And while it's not quite the same as, say, an official USATF kit for the 24Hour national team, it'd be an honor to represent the United States at next year's Big's. So, expect to see me there, with tons of other incredible athletes, seeking out Day 5 and Hour 100. Let's just hope my knee holds up for the next go around!


Gear List:

Shoes: Altra Torins, Timps, and Lone Peaks

Clothing: Patagonia Strider Pros (every run, every race, for ever), and random shirts

Lube: Squirrel's Nut Butter, which worked like a charm for 84 hours straight

Socks: Injini (every run, every race, for ever)

Caffeine: I found some caffeine strips on Amazon -- 50mg caffeine, 25mg theanine. They worked like a friggin charm.

Nutrition: Long Haul sports drink, SIS gels, Clif blocks, and a bunch of random food.

Sleep: cot, zero-gravity chair, blankets, eye mask, earphones and ear plugs, weighted blanket

Confidence: love and support from family and friends.

Random Photos:

Taking a knife to a poorly designed tongue that literally bruised my foot.

The Night 3 side-skip-hop demolished my shoes.

Post-race feet and ankles so swollen they couldn't slide into my amazing, glittery sandals.

Tent city at Big Dog's Backyard Ultra.

Action Shot ... to prove I did more than eat and sleep and lounge around for 3.5 days.

Hell is a 4 mile long stretch of flat pavement that you're forced to run over and over again.

Post-race interview? That was weird.

Got stuck in bad traffic on the drive home. Pulled over to nap. Forgot to turn off my lights. Oops! Ended up doubling my 5hr drive home.

Me dressed up as the Backyard World Champion for Halloween. I think I won the Most Obscure Costume award for my neighborhood this year.

And finally, here are some more boomerangs of the side-skip-hop-thing in action:

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