Thursday, December 4, 2014

Peak Ultra 200


The Challenge of the Peak Ultra 200:

Run up and down a mountain, on a rugged 10 mile loop in the Green Mountains of Vermont and repeat the loop 20 times for a total of 200 miles and 76,680 feet of elevation change. There are only 3.4 days before the cutoff and the runner determines how to spend that precious time.

Before 2014, only 4 people had ever finished this event and the last finishers were in 2011. About a dozen brave souls try every year and it says something for the 2012, 2013 and 2014 racers that they even attempted 200 miles with such a low chance of finishing.


Preparation:

I spent a full year readying myself mentally for this race. I visualized everything that could go wrong and the state of mind I would need to have in order to push through.

As a responsible husband and father, most of my physical training took place at 5AM before my wife and daughter woke up and during my daughter’s naps on weekends. Any parent of a 1 or 2 year old would fully appreciate how difficult it is to train properly for a marathon or even a 100 with a young child. It takes quite a bit more planning and dedication to be an active family member, hold down a full time job and face the leap from running 100 milers to the rarely attempted 200.

I also set up a totally kickass team ready to go (Dima and Jane). Over the course of 6 months I helped prepared them for the challenges we could face by sending concise, weekly emails to get them familiar with my 100 mile experiences and what we might encounter for the 200. They, in-turn, prepared themselves physically and mentally to pounce on those challenges and they did.

But I wasn’t only training for the 200 and doing the things above. I was also transferring from NYC to Boston, selling our condo, buying a new condo in the state we didn't live in (delete yet), finishing up a 30 person project I was managing and learning about new projects and new people in a new office. (Delete balancing this with training for the 200 miler)

I still showed up to the Peak Ultra 200 in the best shape of my life.


The Other Side of Things:

I have to admit it wasn’t all planning, attack and take down the 200. I signed up to race a year before the event and knew in my gut that I was planning to only go there to give it my best shot. You could say I expected to try hard, but ultimately fail.

But there also existed the part of me that wanted to find the way to succeed! On a training run I saw this graffiti on a bridge. It had a real influence on me and helped me to shift my mindset. I became determined to do everything I could to finish the 200 or blowup on the mountain trying.



With my Dima and Jane's help, I completed the Peak Ultra 200 in 73 hours and change. I am not a fast runner and I do not have a natural born talent. I had only run my first 5k, 7 years ago. But I took on the improbable and made it happen. And now I feel awesome because I have set such an example that I hope will influence my 2 year old daughter as she grows.

This blog post isn't total recall of this awesome, epic adventure but for those interested in what happened, here is what I can remember.


10-Mile Loop. 1917 feet of gain. First two miles at a slight uphill.


Pre-Game

As I started driving up to Vermont for the race, my confidence was good but mixed in with a healthy amount of fear. Every year the organizers change the course. It may seem strange that a runner would sign up for a race and not know where they are going or what elevation or terrain they will face but consider that part of the mental challenge of the Peak races.

Race HQ. Also the site where at 180 miles into the race, I at all of the pizza left on the table.

I drove up Tweed River Drive to my team's camp site that was located halfway up the mountain and along the course. It was getting dark and I sat in a camping chair and chilled out. There was a large stream behind the site which created a really nice ambiance. It was a good choice to have our team's camp site up on the mountain like this. The race started with a 2-mile brutal climb and our tents were located on the course at about the 1 mile mark. This meant for me that at the end of the loop, I wouldn't stop at Race HQ with the others but instead keep trucking up the mountain for one more mile. At this point in a loop, my water supply would be for the most part used up and that meant I was carrying less weight up a very tough climb. By comparison, the other runners starting their loops at race HQ at the bottom of the mountain and face a the 2-mile climb with their packs full. The location of our camp site would give me a planned break halfway up the climb where I would normally take time to refuel, take care of feet, change clothes etc.

The sun was setting and I sat in my chair eating a second dinner. Over the next few days, Jane and Dima, would arrive and meet me here at this spot. Dima, my long time friend, was to be the Team's Base Camp Manager and manage a team of 4 pacers. But then at the last minute 3 pacers bailed and it meant Dima would be alone, awake at base camp for several days and Jane would be burdened as my only pacer. Jane had run a one 50k before and little did I know but she would more than double that to pace me for 70 miles! It was truly incredible and inspirational to witness. The reader should know that I had put a lot of effort into preparing the full team for the last 6 months. Having lost 3 out of 5 team members right before the epic adventure began really had potential to f me up mentally. But it didn’t, so I guess that meant I was ready.


0 to 10, The Course

It was about 40 degrees and freezing when I woke up and it took me awhile to get my ass out of the warm sleeping bag. I loaded up my pack with Nuun and water, ate some peaches and pounded a Boost.

I recall looking around at our camp site and having the realization that for most of the race, everything here will be happening very slowly for Dima and Jane. But for me, my time here would pass dreamlike as I faded in and out of the camp site over the next few days.

200 Milers with Race Director Andy and Don

The start came and went before I knew it. I can only recall Andy Weinberg the Race Director saying: "This course has been marked 3 times. If you get lost, you better find your way back on your own. Anyone that admits they got lost is a DNF."

We were off and climbing and it felt great weaving up the first part of the course. It started immediately with a very steep, 2-mile heart pounding climb up up and up! That was totally brutal on the legs and would only get worse.

The location for the camp site was already paying off because as I passed it half way up the first climb I was able to drop off clothes that I no longer needed.


Each 10 mile loop started with a 2 mile climb looking pretty much like this.

A little more climbing then through the Labyrinth!!! The Labyrinth is the best part of the course!

In this photo I'm checking to see if everything is still attached.


After the labyrinth, there is still some more climb to the summit.



Starting the descent from the summit.

Then it was downhill on switchback, switchback, switchback, switchback and more neverending switchbacks. Then a steep climb back up, then more switchbacks. Finally there is a quad-killing descent on a terrible route covered in large boulders and nicknamed Middle Bitch. Thankfully I only had to do that descent 20 times!

Then it was a long way up and down through the trails named Stairs and Escalator. Then back down to the end of the 10-mile loop.

TAC Teammates Steve and Nick were racing on the course for another event and renamed the trails. Thanks Steve for photos in the report! http://www.njshorerun.com/



10 to 30, Course and Crew Chief Dima




The second time up the mountain I found myself hungry for some real, cooked food. It was strange that I was running but still eating solid foods. Something good was happening here.

Dima arrived to crew and I took him through my gear. I showed him all of the OCD labels I had on everything.



Then Dima applied his own OCD, in addition to my OCD and the results were outstanding. He ran the Operation near perfect for the next 65 hours. 'Perfect' is not something I expected I would use while writing this 200 race report but that's what Dima did.

Substituted in an old photo. Dima had a raging bonfire going for us all weekend long.

What do you want in your pack?


40 to 60 Food, Running Backwards & a Zombie

On one of the switchback sections near the end of the loop, four mountain bikers zipped by me at some fast speeds. They were trapped on the trail because our course was roped off to keep us in. The bikers kept going back and forth in front of me trying to find a way out. But each time they passed I had to hop off the trail to let them go. At one point this totally messed me up and I headed back on the course in the wrong direction. It was confusing and although I would memorize every turn, rock and mud puddle, I hadn’t done it yet so I kept on backtracking. We were so spread out that no one was coming along the trail either so I would know which was the correct way. It was pretty stressful wasting time and energy and I must have looked like a rat in a maze that had come completely unglued.

I passed through Race Headquarters and climbed halfway up the mountain into my camp to regroup. Dima had picked me up a sandwich from the General Store and I couldn't believe I ate half of it. I normally can't eat solid foods in ultras but at this race it was different. I wanted hot food, deli food, and food with flavor! On one loop I ate a burger at the top of the mountain and then when I reached the bottom I ate a second hamburger. During the race I ate many slices of pizza, soups, dozens of fun-size Snickers bars, cherry tomatoes, grapes, peaches, deli sandwiches, eggs, sausage, bacon, watermelon and hot dogs. Pretty much anything I could get to was eaten. I didn’t even touch my high calorie, long chain carbohydrate ultrarunning drinks.


The Animal Camp (TAC) was represented at the Peak Ultras. Here I met up with Nick Storm Trooper Bautista and NJ Shore Run Steve on the trails. http://www.theanimalcamp.com/ 
Steve and Nick

I looped out and back for my 60th mile at dusk. Things had been going pretty well so far. But now it was dark and I was falling asleep pretty hard on my way back to camp. It pretty much sucks trying to move forward while your body is falling asleep against your will. I really wanted to stay awake. I tried my best to stay awake. But I stumbled left and right. Yup, Zombie Mark had finally arrived at the Peak Ultra 200. I made it back to camp and went down for a 1.5 hour nap. Literally. I went down: I opened the door but then crashed into the side of my tent.


60 to 100 Sleeping on the Trail

The next loop was much better having had a little sleep. I met up with Kevin, another 200 miler, and we chatted it up and the time flew by. But the next loop Zombie was back and I felt like The Walking Dead. Twice I had to lay down on the trail and sleep. The runners were so far apart from one another that no one came by. I felt like I was the only one out on the course.

But then the sun rose and I had my trademark rush of energy. That deep, deep blue sky separated from the blackness and I started moving fast. It had been about 24 hours of running and I had completed 80 miles. I was approaching the sign-in/out sheet and Andy the Race Director spotted me from afar and yelled "Someone help out Mark!"

"It's ok!" a surprised voice said "He's lucid!"

Soon, 90 miles was complete and I was back at camp eating a plate of sausage and eggs.

I then cranked out mile 100. And on the advice from a friend that completed the 200 in 2011, I made a point of it to blow through camp at mile 100 and get myself well beyond that halfway mark.




100-150 and Badass Pacer Jane 

I reached Dima at mile 101 and Jane was there! My one and only pacer Jane that would push her longest distance record from 30 miles to 70 miles! Jane has a superbly awesome personality and a compassionate soul. She is also one of the toughest and most badass people I know and that says a lot. She has fought through 3 Death Races and completed one of these races officially. For the other two, she missed time cutoffs but ignored the race officials and kept on racing anyway. She put in so much effort another Death Race finisher mailed her the coveted Death Race skull and it was his only one. That’s an example of Jane, her spirit and now you can see how fortunate I was to have her at my side to pace through this epic event.

I made it back to camp and picked up Jane at mile 111. We went out for our first loop together and we talked about life, our families and shared endless endurance stories. I mentioned to her that the Boost drink had been working for me but that I was almost out of the drink. We were far out on the trail but somehow Jane found a signal and called her friend in the area. She put in an order and hemade a special trip to the store and then delivered more Boost drink to our camp site.

The Most Badass Jane


We did a loop to mile 121 and the Boost arrived! Then Jane taped my feet because of hot spots that formed on the pads. If those hot spots continued untreated then that would have been the kind of mistake that could have ended my race early.

The second night was going to be the toughest night run for me so far and having Jane pace was going to be critical. Night running was also one of her strengths which balanced with my weakness. We headed out into the night and I started the Jello sleep. It was a complete suffer-fest and try as we might, we weren't making much progress. It had rained for a period that night and so I couldn't lay down on the trail. Jane miraculously found a flat shelf under a tree that was completely dry. I passed out cold and woke up rearing to go.

We made it to mile 130 and then arrived back at camp. Dima suggested we nap so we could power through the last night loop.

1.5 hours later each of us woke up drenched in sweat and freezing. It was in the upper 30's!!! Running apparently triggered a hormone that made the body store water. When we were no longer exercising, the hormone released the water which typically happens at night. Jane and I experienced this and we both were wet, shaking and shivering in the near freezing weather. This is the only time in the race that I thought to myself “This 200 is a little crazy.”

Jane and I went for another loop and as we were finishing, the sun was also rising. We blasted off!!! It was so refreshing to finally be able to move fast and we took mile 140 down!

Just finished 140.

Jane and I with Hannibal Jeff Seymour


Passed these signs 20 times each.
The one on the left I had to think about every time I passed. But with a 4pm Thursday night starting time and the difficulty of the course it was spot on.

As the loops and days were passing by, Dima stayed ready. I don’t know if he slept during the 73 hours but if he did it wasn't more than an hour at a time. Whenever I arrived at camp, he would make it a point to ask questions and write down everything I thought I might need for the next loop. Then when I arrived for that next loop, he would go over the list from a few hours ago and confirm that I still wanted that drink, or that food, or if I still wanted to change socks or change to warmer gear. Sometimes he would have to remind me to do the essentials like apply lube for chafing. He would pick up food and wood for the fire. And yet somehow he still found the time to also feed himself and have a roaring bonfire going for us all night, every night. Dima had never crewed an endurance event before but he handled it in such a professional manner it was like I borrowed him from the crew of an Elite runner.

The next loop I went out solo and it was early morning which always gives me a rush. I absolutely hammered the loop and flew back in record time. I chowed down on bacon and eggs. And oh, did I mention that now I had run over 150 miles.


150-200 Bored, BBQ, Stars and the Finish Line

I went out for a second solo loop and I was totally bored. Things took a downturn by the time I finished 160. I had been focused on the pounding on the pads of my feet and my left knee was now throbbing. For the few occasions in my life that I had knee pain, I have never had knee pain in that place. But it wasn't critical or sharp, just very concerning.

For the next loop, miles 160-170, Dima had planned for Jane to rest up for the final push. but I really needed to change things up so I said to my team "I need a FUN LOOP." We grabbed two small video cameras and started running and filming. (The movie link is below if you're interested. Just hold on for a few more rambling paragraphs)

170 was done and we were approaching race HQ. It was the end of the day and the barbecue for the 30 and 50 milers had started and so we stopped by. I ate hot dogs, a hamburger and watermelon. I was so unbelievably exhausted and it was catching up to me. With some down time I had a rush of emotion because I knew that I was going to finish.

After the BBQ, we climbed that first mile up to our camp site and I dropped Jane off so she could rest before the big push. I headed out towards mile 180 in a pretty good mood but I was actually feeling concerned to be out my own again. I had started really feeling the mileage and could only find some comfort in that this was my last solo loop and possibly my last trial.

I looked forward to having the 30 and 50 milers to share the trail with. Seeing so many other people might help pull me forward. I turned on some hardcore music and was off. Before I knew it I made it over the summit and was on the downhill. I had started passing some of the other runners. This was also a strange experience because at times I had felt like I was running but yet not passing the people just ahead of me and they were walking! Reading this you might think yes that makes sense and my perceptionwas screwed up right? Except to add to this description, once I had finally caught up and passed, I was then able to bomb down the trail and move far away. This slow motion-fast motion happened a few times on different parts of the trail and I couldn't figure out what had actually happened.

By now I knew there was definitely something happening to my knee. Oh shit, maybe I had assumed I would make it too soon. This became a mental downer because I had to constantly balance between moving forward but not doing something that I would later regret.

Even though I thought I was running in slow motion, and I had made it back to camp in record time (2.5 hours). I even surprised Dima when I showed up. Jane continued sleeping and with 180 miles complete, I passed out for almost two hours.

To reduce swelling in the knee I took an Aleve before I went to sleep but woke up with the knee throbbing anyway. Fantastic. Jane was heading out with me and we took it easy starting on the climb to the summit. We had just under 20 miles to go!

We arrived at the top for my 19th mountain summit and shut off our headlamps. The sky was incredible! Stars beyond stars. As we were looking up and admiring the view I said to Jane:

"Are the stars moving around for you?"
"No."
"Ok then. I think I am tripping balls."

We power hiked through the darkness listening to music. We moved steady and eventually reached a muddy hard left that meant runners were almost at the start of Middle Bitch. We traversed down on that quad crushing descent and reached the river. We shut off our headlamps for one more look at the sky. We watched a satellite moving along the horizon and then an actual shooting star burned across the sky with the tail trailing behind it. Awesome! I made a wish!




190 was done! Both of us were struggling against the sleep. Stumbling up and down and all around the trail. We arrived back at camp and took a 30 minute nap. Oh man that time was so painful to wake up. Dima, are you sure that was 30 minutes?

We left camp and then climbed up, up, up and up with the sun rising in the sky. We reached the summit for the final time. It was bittersweet.


Jane and I at the final summit and mile 194ish

We completed the rest of the loop slowly and did not run hard with the sunrise like we had done on the other 2 mornings. I couldn't wait for us to meet up with Dima at the finish. Everything was a struggle. The pads of my feet were sore and blistered. The knee was hurting. The chafing was horrendous. My hands had huge blisers. Even my pack dug into my shoulders.

Around 7:30am we finally made it to the finish where Dima waited for us. We had a HUGE Team Hug and I could barely stand up. I couldn't believe we were finished? Really? Yes, it had taken 73 hours and change. I became the 7th person to ever finish this race since it was started in 2010.


Dima, Mark and Jane. 

Andy the Race Director came over and handed me the 200 Mile buckle. Someone wrote my final time on the board and the epic adventure was over. Yes, it was totally and utterly bittersweet.




Thanks and Movie Link

Dima and Jane,

I can't possibly thank you enough for what you have done although you know I do try to send thanks often. You rocked it as Crew and Pacer and I wouldn't have made it if you two weren't so dedicated into making the 200 happen for me. You were completely selfless and gave all of the support needed for the challenges that we faced. And because of your dedicated, we had some difficulty but wenever hit a bad place. It actually went pretty well and made it a ton of fun. Thank you for sharing this experience with me.

Zombie Mark



Made some Zombies for my team with the help of an experienced painter Tom Nyetflix Bisbee.

Peak Ultra 200 The Movie: https://vimeo.com/106668105



Post Race Ramblings

Quite a few people have asked me what this experience has done for me and I’ll start off by saying this is really difficult to explain!

It took me about 6 months to accept that I had actually run 200 miles. It was on a very challenging course with very little time to fix anything that went really wrong. And 3.4 days doesn’t allow room for much error. I am still shaking my head as I type this because it doesn't seem like it was real even with the photos and video to prove it.

I am feeling a disconnect with it all and this is so at odds with the accomplishment because now I feel almost insignificant. I went out to prove I could achieve something at a level much higher than most conceive. But once I got there I was surprised. I feel like I glimpsed just how little we have come in such a long time. I don’t feel that I did something insurmountable with the 200. I feel like I only scratched the surface of our capabilities. A marathon? Great. A 100? Outstanding. A 200? Wow. Well, not really because I think this is achievable if more people tried and if we did not constantly limit ourselves to what others are doing around us. Achievement shouldn't be going only a little beyond what you had done before. And achievement shouldn't be set by passing your peers by a few lengths. It should be about dreaming big for yourself and then taking all of the little steps to make it happen.

Has this adventure changed me for the better? Definitely yes. I feel more confidence in myself for planning and executing. I feel like I raised the bar a bit. And of course now I know I can run much farther than I had thought possible 1 year ago. But I kind of wish more people were pushing themselves forward but in their own way. Ultrarunning is altering the perceptions of our physical capabilities. But what if we were to start another revolution and we did the same with our mental development? If we could all just start moving forward just think about what kind of good that could mean for us.


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