Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Pacing Storm Trooper at the Peak Ultra 500

This is a story about Zombie's experience pacing Storm Trooper:

Nick Storm Trooper Bautista is a fellow member of TAC (The Animal Camp) and I had never met him  in person until I started pacing at mile 300 during a 500-mile race. Through countless texts, emails and posts I did learn enough about him before the race to make me want to help him fight for his goal.

Nick's sense of humor

Nick went from running a half marathon to a 100 miler. Then after two, 100's he went for a 500 mile race. Mind you this isn't a 500 mile course with steady dependable conditions it is 500 miles on some of the toughest, gnarliest terrain located on a 10-mile loop on an exquisite yet unforgiving mountain. The course changes every year and it is crafted by a Race Director that designs it for those that want to go beyond their limits.

There is positive energy in and around this mountain and if you are looking for a challenge this is the place to do it. In my very first loop I knew I loved the course. It started with 2 miles of vertical climb up the mountain. After summiting, there are 8 miles of varying terrain with limited places to move at normal speed. The trails are named and since you loop over them again and again you learn them well: Labyrinth, Warman, Fusters, Lovin' It, Noodles Revenge, Escalator, Stairs. This course also comes with a little wildlife such as bears, coyotes, and giant porcupines that climb trees.

One, 10-mile loop with 4200' of elevation change. The mission: 50 loops.
Four 500 mile racers set out at 4pm on Day 1 (Thursday May 5/23): Joel, Nick, Michelle and Willy. 
The weather in the first few days was torrential rain and temps in the upper 30's,
dropping to 29. One of the days saw flurries.
Welcome to the start of another loop
War paint

Humidity and high temperatures in the 80's following those days of freezing rain. The runners ran, slept when they could and hammered away at the mileage.

On Facebook we watched as Nick and the others increased mileage one loop at a time. Willy led the pack until mile 250 when he stopped running the course and went out on his own to run another 250 miles on the other trails!

This put Nick in the front of the pack but he also he had a 4-hour deficit on his time. That mean that given the current pace, on Sunday Day 10 at 4pm the race would be over and Nick would need another 4 hours to complete the 500 miles. 10 days of running straight to miss it by 4 hours. Brutal!

Nick kept at it despite the weather. He pushed past the endless mud and took apart the course loop by loop: 250, 260, 270, 280, 290, 300!

His earlier crew and pacers included Hurricane Irene, NJ Shore Run Steve and Shore Run Ev. I arrived on Day 6 and went out to pace Nick starting at mile 300. We cranked out a 2:56 loop and things were looking up. Now it was up to Nick, Jeff and I. Jeff and I were Nick's anchor pacers. Jeff was also Nick's Crew Chief and looks like Hannibal from the A-Team.

310, 320, 330... 350... 370, 380... 400, 410... The miles went up but the days were coming closer to the final cutoff: 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. The elephant in the room? That 4-hour deficit. It just wouldn't go away and stuck with us.

I think it was in the morning of Day 7 that we laid it all out to Nick: "Every minute counts. We have three, 24-hour days to go but every minute will matter. Stay positive and we will do this. It will happen." Again and again we said this. We sold Nick on the idea that, if needed, he would have to sacrifice what little sleep he was getting to reach his goal. But with days to go he was already seeing faces in the leaves from the sleep deprivation.

Nick worked with us to eliminate any wasted time. He would come in from a loop and then he was fed, hydrated and back out the door with the next pacer. It became such an efficient operation a NASCAR pit crew would have been proud.

We had help from Michelle who was also running the 500. She saw that Nick had a real chance at the 500 and backed off of her goal and made it 400. Her boyfriend Dr. Bob had been pacing her but she lent him to our crew. He was also kind enough to work on Nick's masticated, torn and blistered feet. He helped a number of times even going out to pace Nick on a loop while Jeff and I rested. Michelle said "Nick is doing so well he wore out both of his pacers." Ha!

Pacer life:
There was no real sleep for us either. Maybe an hour or two a day and this went on for several days. After finishing a loop the other pacer had a short window to take care of a number of things: (1) Clean up the mess from the pit stop (2) Change clothes. (3) Shower with a garden hose if you wanted to get fancy (4) Drive into town to get hot food for yourself and Nick. (5) Eat (6) Prep your gear to go out on the next loop (7) Prepare supplies for Nick's next loop (8) Try to ignore the adrenaline and fall asleep for an hour. 

On Day 8 it was in the upper 80's for the second day in a row and humid. Nick was moving strong from the previous round and we booked it up the mountain for that first 2-mile climb. There was a construction vehicle working and beeping away at the top and we could hear it from a long way off. The heat, humidity and the noise got to me and I fell apart. I felt awful. I didn't want to talk we just ran. Thankfully we crossed paths with Willy and he kept us company until we made it to the bottom of the mountain.

That night I had coordinated a surprise for Nick. His wife Alison, friend Coryna with her daughter drove up from New Jersey. They showed up just before Nick went out on another loop. He was definitely shocked but so very happy and that is what we needed right about then. Nick was now psyched and it was a boost. Alison and Coryna helped and went to get food from the town. We were doing well.

Nick skipped sleep that night and ran throughout the entire night into Day 9. Both Jeff and I had great loops with Nick and he raked up the miles. 420, 430, 440.

Things were going ok and we were making plans to for Nick to finish this thing. There was no more elephant. We might even run all night long into Day 10 and finish this thing early! We had talked on the trail about sitting with our feet in the river drinking beer on Sunday and it actually looked like it was happening.

Everything was going great but unfortunately not everything stayed great. The loop between 12 and 4pm on Day 9 was the start of our downfall. I paced Nick again during the hottest part of the day. We knew this was going to be a brutal loop but we didn't know the toll it was about to take on Nick.

Nick came in blazing from the previous loop. We power hiked the 2 miles up but like the previous day it was fast. Near the top Nick started acting a little weird. Most of it was ok and just a little off. At one point I think we were singing Hi Ho Hi Ho it's off to work we go. And we did sing it very, very loudly. After the summit we popped out of the woods and met his wife Alison, Coryna and her daughter at a little road that meets the trail near the top. They shared food and gave Nick some extra water. Then we were off and running through the woods in that terrible heat and humidity. Nick started having trouble focusing. He didn't think he was going to make the final cutoff but I kept explaining we were back on schedule. It was all good. I knew that we could even come in four hours early if we skipped sleep on the coming night. Nick wasn't believing me. We ran on and on through the most brutal part of the day. Sometimes the words coming out of his mouth were very difficult to respond to. It was based on the reality around us but presented in a confusing way. I recognized that I felt that awful only 24 hours ago. and I just needed to get him through this loop.

We are still miles away from base and we douse ourselves in the water from a cold stream. Why is it so unbelievably hot after freezing rain a week ago? We kept going and were still on a pretty good pace but it had been a very difficult loop. As we neared the end Nick says "Give me the information." Of course I am confused but try to follow him. He seems distressed. "What information?" "How fast are the runners completing loops?" "Nick do you mean the 500's? 200's or 100's?" This is inconsequential to what we are doing. Then it comes out again "Give me the information." "Ok what do you want to know?" "What happened between the top and the bottom of the mountain?" Oh shit, he's definitely out there. "Well we ran from the top of the mountain down. We saw Alison and Coryna. It's ridiculously hot out. You're almost done with the most difficult loop we have left and we knew this one would be bad." "What else?" "Well you were kind of out of it up top." "Ok."

In reality it was a much more difficult loop with similarly confusing conversation. When we got back I should have forced Nick to rest but we oversold him on the time-criticality thing and he was eager to keep going. The lack of sleep, heat, humidity and never-ending stress of finishing was getting to me and I wasn't thinking straight either. In hindsight I should have stopped him for a few hours.

The Rescue Loop
Nick went back up the mountain with Jeff around 4pm. I was hungry and needed food from the store but that loop had been so distressing I went myself to have a mental break from the endless cycle of loops.

I had just finished forcing down a hamburger when Coryna comes into the cabin and tells me Nick is out of his mind. He didn't recognize his wife or in-laws who apparently surprised him at the summit. Something went down on the mountain and Nick was upset that everyone was staring at him. Jeff  asked for myself or Willy to come lend a hand. Nick was our responsibility so I said I would go.

I had pictured Jeff and Nick struggling to get down the mountainside similar to the last loop. Coryna dropped me off at the summit and I launched on the trail. That was the first time I was unleashed and tore down the trail to catch Nick and Jeff. I was even carrying a space blanket just in case I could get Nick to lay down and sleep on the side of the trail. What I didn't know is that Nick and Jeff had been moving at normal speed since the event and that it would take me 5 miles to catch them.

When I finally caught up Nick seemed pissed and wanted to know why I was there. He was asking why I ran there and kept going on about it. I tried to explain and reason with him but I could see Jeff behind him shaking his head left to right "No". He couldn't be reasoned with. We had more confusing talk for instance a few days ago when I had broken a hiking pole while we were running. I replaced it at the time with a stick from the side of the trail and had been using that for the last 40-50 miles. Nick chose this time to tell me that I can't use one stick and one pole because I am unbalanced!

The remaining 3 miles back to the cabin were made even longer because Nick had a problem with his toe. He thought it was broken and things got to be so messy he was limping at maybe a mile an hour. He took his shoe off and wore it like a clog. Then he cut the side open. He was mumbling under his breath that Jeff is taking him to Heaven because we were climbing for so long. He was sarcastic "Are we still on schedule?" We were still ok but he didn't believe me. He was getting pissed and paranoid. I became frustrated and moved up ahead on the trail to get some space. That didn't help Nick's mood either. Someday we will laugh at it but at the time he was saying things like "These aren't my poles!" But they were his poles.

Eventually we arrived back at the cabin after a 4-hour loop. Even back in the cabin he said "These aren't my shoes!" But they were his shoes! Dr. Bob arrived and looked at Nick's toe and taped it to the next one. Nick was confused and either thought that he finished the 500 or that the day was over and he already passed the cutoff. It was hard to tell what he was saying. Nick agreed to sleep for a few hours.

He went to bed at 10:30PM. He had run 460 miles and had come so very, very far but he was in terrible shape both body and mind. We agreed to wake him at midnight and try to get him to go back out. He had fought so hard and for so long and we had to try. When we woke up him he would have 16 hours to run 40 miles. This race couldn't be any closer.

Nick went from being behind the curve with the 4-hour deficit to almost finishing early for a 500 mile race. In my opinion the sleep deprivation combined with 3 sequential days of 86 degree heat and humidity ultimately did him in. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Nick and this man is a modern day Gladiator.

Now put yourself in Nick's position on that last night. Imagine you have experienced the challenges I mentioned above and that these lasted an intense 9 days. You are exhausted and beat up and your crew forced you to sleep for the first time in 48 hrs. But it's only been an hour and half and now someone is shaking you awake. They are saying you have to wake up. You have to get up if you you want to finish the race. What would you do? The timing seems hopeless: four, 10-mile loops in 4 hours each. It is doubtful there is enough time to run 40 miles on this hardcore terrain before the final cutoff. Go back to sleep or get up?

Well Nick got up. Nick got up out of a comfortable, safe place and he sat down in his command chair. He pounded caffeine while we got his shoes on. He stood up. He geared up. He marched back out into the night and faced the mountain.

That last trek up the mountain was so terrible and gratifying at the same time. This man continued as he fought his way up the steepest part of the course. He climbed until he couldn't aim his feet anymore and it was time to stop.

It was a superhuman 460.5 mile run and I am honored to have had some part in it. Realize that those 460.5 miles had over 193,000 feet of vertical elevation. The distance alone is staggering. But there was distance + vertical + technical terrain + weather + nutrition + gear + sleep + blisters and on and on.

All of these moment and challenges can never be captured although several of us will try to memorialize what we can in our race reports.

Nick persevered through ever changing and incredibly difficult trials. He changed my view of the limits of physical and mental strength.

460.5 miles with >193,000 ft of total elevation change

Favorite moments

  • Running through the woods quoting Predator and favorite Schwarzenegger lines. "Get to the choppa!"
  • For four days Andy the Race Director kept asking if the water on the trails had dried up completely. Why are you asking? Mud doesn't go away on this mountain. It's not possible.
  • Bright white moths dive bombing our headlamps, faces and occasionally in the mouth.
  • Running through the night thinking I was seeing a really strange pair of reflectors up ahead in the darkness. When I got closer it was two possums practicing for a National Geographic video on the trail.
  • Running along the trail and smelling ammonia. Nick tells me it's coyote piss and we have to stop to mark our territory. Later that day I kept wondering if that will keep the coyotes away or mark us as targets. We heard them howling later that night.
  • A tree falling in the woods. It was so loud that it sounded like the stupid smoke monster knocking over trees from Lost.
  • Surprising Nick when his wife Alison showed up. (She was extremely patient and calm while we urged her husband on to destruction)
  • Swirling around Nick's 500 mile cooler desperately looking for coca cola while we are short on time. We started laughing when we realized it was mostly filled with beer.

Post-race: Hannibal, Storm Trooper and Zombie

A link to the movie