My third Sky Race of the year took me to the Franklin Mountains of El Paso, Texas. I woke up the morning of the race in my tent where I was very comfortable. Forcing myself to move forward and to begin my routine felt like a chore. The morning was quiet and peaceful. It was not until after I ate my Frosted Mini Wheats that I felt the winds begin to pick up. I had a couple minutes to spare before I needed to catch the shuttle to the start, so I took the time to really weigh my tent down to prevent it from blowing away. 30 minutes later, the wind went from, “Wow, it is a little breezy this morning”, to, “Oh my gosh this wind is pushing me, do you think they are going to postpone the race?”
It felt like a dream or a chaotic scene in a movie when I jumped out of the windowless van and being completely confused as to where I was. Feeling the power of the wind blowing me over and the headlamps of the hundred of other runners all flashing in every direction. I was disoriented and cold. I found where I needed to place my drop bag and I stood in line for the bathrooms. If it was not for the race director Rob, guiding everyone to where the starting line was and counting down the minutes before the start, the start of this race would have been really crazy. I had three people in line ahead of me when Rob announced, “Three more minutes until the start!”
I went into the race believing I could race alongside my biggest competitor, Jim Walmsley, who earlier that year was on pace to break the Western States 100 course record, but with 9 miles away from the finish, Jim made a wrong turn. Thus having the most epic 19th place finish in the history of the race. My strategy for competing against Jim was simple; do not let him go. I wanted to be in striking range all the way up to the summit of Mount Franklin.During the first 1.5 miles of the race, Jim flew past me. I tucked in behind him and fed myself positive thoughts as we cut through the high winds that were pushing against us. To be honest, I was not prepared from my training to keep the pace Jim decided to throw down. As a result, my legs were heavy for the third half of the race. The pace Jim set was his strategy of losing me. Eventually the pace mellowed out when he realized I was not going anywhere, at least for the first 10 miles. His descent was flawless over this rocky, brittle desert terrain. Jim’s technique was to me, reckless running.
The pace we were going at on this poor footing trail was insane! I had never run this fast down hill before in my life. Regardless of how hard I was trying to keep up and still save some of my legs for he second half of the race, Jim still continued to pull away. As I watched Jim increase the gap between us, I learned of a totally new gear of descending hills. I saw what is possible, and I want to be able to run with such little effort and high faith in my footing down a mountain that technical as he was doing.
Jim and I came to a point of the race after the second aid station when we went through the worse feeling any trail runner fears most. The flags we saw did not make sense to the layout of our course. Yes, we were going the wrong way. This is the worse feeling you can get as a trail runner, having the wisdom and courage to turn around and back track to see where you messed up. This mistake cost Jim and I just under a mile off of the course.
We discovered where we made our mistake then began the climb up the correct trail towards Franklin Mountain. Jim and I could see two other runners making the same mistake we previously made and Jim yelled out to them saying they need to turn around. We yelled again together to get their attention so they could begin their chase after us. This mistake of stopping and turning around would happen to me one other time during this race, where I would have lost only two minutes, but added recovery, to my overall time.
With 10 miles left in the race, and Jim long gone out of the picture, I felt heavy, tired and my stomach was upset. My symptoms may have been related to the lack of training, the heat of the day and from chasing Jim in the first portion of the race. But this is the sport in a nutshell; fighting through the challenges that come unexpectedly out of nowhere. I was now playing defense. Walking at some of the clearly run-able sections of the course and hoping that third place would not come around the corner and see me. I was hoping that I created enough of a gap between the other runners to be able to get away with this.
I was not only fighting gravity to move forward but even the crazy winds. As I was pushing through the exposed flat sections of the last 10 miles of the course, the soft sand would tease me of my effort to find a solid foundation to push off from. If running through soft sand and being pushed back by the strong winds was not enough, even the vegetation in the desert got the memo from the race director to make the runners go through hell. Ducking and dodging the towering, flimsy, Ocotillo’s branches as they whip their thorns over the trail made out to be another obstacle for this race. As the trail rolled on, I was hoping to catch a visual of the finish line. After many turns, it finally appeared. Luckily, there were no other runners on my heels and I crossed the finish line happy to know I was the second place finisher, (or first loser).I later heard my time and I was shocked to hear I broke the old course record, along with Jim. We broke the course record even with the extra detour and 2,000 feet of gain compared to last years course. This race was a confident booster for me because I ran this Sky Race in under 5 hours. So despite losing to Jim by 20 minutes, I am holding on to the fact I finished well even feeling like shit for the last 10 miles and knowing that I can improve my fitness so much more.
This confidence boost of knowing I am capable to run and compete with athletes like Jim, have lead me to wanting to train harder. After my final race on November 5th at the Trail Marathon Championships in Moab, UT, I am going to take a short time off and then switch my gears towards being faster on my runs with high attention towards recovering smart and eating well between my runs. My fire right now has been given a lot of fuel and I am ready to step up my game.
This is going to be my new adopted training method. Run every run with a purpose. Be bold and intensify your runs followed after with a good night’s sleep, recovery food, and hydration in between runs. Go after challenges that seem impossible and learn from them. Become mentally strong through the challenging workouts you place yourself in. Train in the heat and start with a climb. Seek the windy and rainy days to get to the summits, not as the excuses. These intense efforts will build a foundation of toughness that you will be able to rely on during the tough times of an event. Mimic the courses you sign up to compete in by training on similar terrain and grade as often as you can. Feed yourself with positive thoughts. Besides, the most memorable runs are the ones where you are placed in uncomfortable conditions.
Look at others for inspiration. I am looking at Jim’s style of descent as inspiration to helping me reach that level of running. How am I going to do this? The trick to be able to pull this off is to train at this high intensity and pace during training runs… Run recklessly fast while staying in control and relaxed and still have gas in the legs to turn over on the up hills and flats… I do not expect to get this down right away, I am sure this will take time. I know eventually that I will find a way to be able to run the way I saw Jim run.
Being confident in a plan that will guide you to achieving your goals is the best way to reach them. Enjoy the journey of seeing the places and the people you meet along the way. This sport has blessed me personally with more than just running and staying in shape. It has given me a new outlook of the world and how I am able to put myself in it. I have options and I am in control over how I want to react in this place. I do not have to go with the flow, I can survive doing the things that give me joy. I am making a home in my passion and I invite others into my residency.The Hints and methods I mentioned above are what I will be focusing on as I continue to chase my dreams of fulfilling a career through the sport of Ultra Running. I hope these tips can find a way for helping you achieve your goals.
My last Sky Race this year is in Flagstaff, AZ. I am currently leading the US Ultra Sky Series and I will be taking my energy and confidence into the Flagstaff Finale 55k Sky race, knowing what is possible. I will run my race the way I envision it, with life and passion.