Saturday, October 22, 2022

Big's Backyard Ultra 2022

Sweh photo! PC: Howie Stern


Have you ever torn your achilles while taking a dump? Well, I sure as shit have! … At a world championship sporting event no less. I'm really working on that Legendary status in the world of ultra running. ... We'll get to that in a moment ...


First and foremost, I want to give a shout-out to the rest of the Team USA runners, their crew, the timing staff, the Jeer Squad, the various behind-the-scenes folks like the media organizers and photographers, the other teams and organizers around the world, as well as everyone at home who followed along. As a Team Championship event, I was so incredibly proud to be a part of Team USA, grateful for the opportunity to represent my country (even though it was for an oddball fringe sport), and, above all, beyond ecstatic when we secured the Team Title.


Early miles with one cool dude (Keith of the Island with Holes?) and one badass lady (Jennifer Russo). PC: Howie Stern


My 2021 exploits are … infamous -- a failing knee somewhere around Hour 63 that eventually was held together with random bits of sports wrap until I finally relented and quit with the assist after Hour 84. After the race, I injured my "bad" hip and most of the last year has been spent trying to keep that problem at bay, but at least the knee got better. Training has been lackluster, races have been nothing but failure after failure, I got COVID again, and also a chest cold that was just as rough as COVID. Oh, and I got a Morton's neuroma flare-up a few weeks before the race, and scheduled an emergency cortisone shot for the Tuesday before the race. So yeah, not ideal conditions to compete at Bigs. That said, I think overall fitness and speed aren't nearly as important as 1) prior experience, 2) understanding how your body is affected by sleep deprivation, 3) level-headedness, and 4) stubborn persistence. Despite the crappy training and signs pointing to a possible shit-show, I still very much felt that I could suffer my way to 100 hours if need be, and planned accordingly. That's right, I wasn't anywhere near tip-top shape and yet thought to myself "400 miles? yeah, sure, that seems totally reasonable!"


My goals were fairly simple:

  1. Team USA Victory
  2. Go until my body quits


Action Shot! PC: Keith Knipling


So lets cut right to the whole body quitting part. During the 48th hour, while we were on our final Night 2 road lap, I had the urge to go to the bathroom, but didn’t want to wait 30 minutes to get back to the portapottys at camp. So, like nearly all of us have done on multiple occasions before (and since), I hopped into the ditch, walked a few paces over to the tree line, squatted down, and did what needed to be done. Afterwards, I started to stand up and heard/felt a sharp, painful pop coming from my right achilles just above the insertion point into the heel. Swelling in the ankle was almost instantaneous and my calf seized up. Teammate Jason Bigonia was running by right as it happened and commented that it looked like I was trying to "lift a bathtub" by myself. I started clunkily running to the turnaround point, and was somehow able to get back to camp in a decent time.


Is Howie trying to snap a pic of me? Better look away like I'm too cool. PC: Howie Stern

My crew chief, Jack, did a hell of a job wrapping the ankle up to keep it secure, and then he sent me off to begin the first trail loop of Day 3. I was noticeably slower, but found the right effort-level to get in just before the 3 minute warning for the next lap. This was repeated another 10 times. The effort-level slightly ratcheting up each time just to pump out the same nail-bitting attempt at a 56-and-change lap time. Usually, another 4 or so team members were in my immediate vicinity the whole time, and I did my best to keep hitting the same checkpoint times so we could all keep making it in hour after hour.


Lubin' up them toes. There's your money shot, Squirrel's Nut Butter! PC: Howie Stern


Then I went out on the first Night 3 road loop and started to mentally prep for chasing down 72 hours. But that 60th lap was incredibly slow, and the achilles area was in a good bit of pain. The footfall and stride pattern for the road was much different than the trail, and it was really aggravating the popped achilles. What should've been an easy 48min loop was a 55minute struggle. Pain in my left MCL was starting to appear -- a very similar feeling to the dead right knee of 2021, and something that briefly popped up during Night 1 -- likely due to the slight limp/hobble caused by the achilles injury. So I had Jack wrap my knee to stabilize it, just to be safe. He helped me out to the corral and when he let go of my arm, I nearly collapsed, unable to bear weight on my right foot. I'm not sure if he caught me or I somehow caught myself, but I genuinely thought I was going to fall straight to the ground mere seconds before the bell rang.


"Howie, I'm exhausted! Leave me alone and stop trying to take pics of my sweet mustache." PC: Howie Stern

I slowly hobbled out of the corral and started the turn away from camp and down the road. I tried to shuffle into a jog but my right foot just wasn't doing anything. I couldn't jog, I couldn't even power walk. I hobbled for a few moments, then broke down crying as I watched the rest of Team USA journey on into the night. In 2021, I was at peace with throwing in the towel after 84 hours of running -- Harvey and I had broken new ground and the future was full of potential. When the realization that I couldn't go on washed over me this year, I felt a deep mix of sadness, loneliness, and despair. I wanted more from myself. I wanted more for my team.


Once I composed myself, I tried to get down the course as far as I could, in a last-ditch effort to keep going. I had a goal to make it to the 1 Mile marker as fast as I could, check my time, and assess from there. But at 0.5 Miles I got disheartened and checked my watch -- over 15 minutes had flown by. I sat down and proceeded to rip the wrapping away from my knee and my ankle, hoping that would give me more mobility somehow. I peeked at my ankle/achilles area and the entire ankle was engulfed in fluid. I limp-hobbled another 100 yards, stared off into the distance where the 1 Mile marker was, then sat down again in frustration.


After a few more tears, I picked my sorry ass up off the asphalt, turned around, and headed back to camp. When I got to the top of the hill near the final turn back into camp, I stopped and laid down, then patiently waited for the remaining members of the team to stroll by so I could cheer them on. Once the next lap started, I stood outside Laz's driveway and greeted everyone that remained, offering well-wishes with a lump in my throat. Then it was off to the timing tent to hand in my tracker.


Receiving my Quitter Coin. PC: Keith Knipling

After everything was said and done, I went to my foot doc within an hour of getting home, and he confirmed there is a divot in my achilles where it presumably burst. An MRI is pending, but we're expecting it to show roughly 50% of the tissue torn -- enough for an extended stretch of recovery and rehab, but not enough to warrant the added complications of surgery. So I'll be hobbling around in a boot for the next 4-8 weeks and working through an absurd amount of physical therapy to encourage proper regrowth of the tendon and build back functional strength. Maybe I'll progress fast enough to make it to Hellgate in December -- my all-time favorite race -- but then again, maybe I won't. It's undoubtedly safer to just plan to miss it. But coming to accept that is … devastating.


This is what happens when you get old and don't incorporate enough strength and stretching into your training...

If I said I was satisfied with how Big's turned out this year, I'd be lying. But I was honored to be a part of Team USA, and thankful to have made meaningful contributions to our team victory. I'll happily take team success over an individual PR. So, perhaps, I am content with how things shook out. It feels good to be World Champions alongside those other 14 incredible athletes whom I shared endless miles with in that little corner of the world known as Laz's Backyard.


Thanks to my wife for holding down the fort at home and juggling, quite frankly, an unfair share of work and parenting duties. Thanks to Jack for being in my corner yet again. And thanks to the handful of VHTRC folks at the race who made it feel like the good ole days of racing in Virginia.


Relaxing in the early hours of the race. PC: Keith Knipling

Showing eventual winner Piotr Chadovich how it's done. PC: Howie Stern

Confab with the crew chief (probably me bitching about how I don't want to eat anything). PC: Howie Stern

So afraid of cutoffs with the janky achilles that I donned a hydration vest to run multiple hours non-stop if need be. PC: Keith Knipling

Just a couple of photography nerds shooting the shit by the shitter. PC: me