Significant mental, emotional, and physical fatigue is guaranteed to hit each runner late in a long ultra. One of my biggest struggles has been staying mentally and emotionally engaged late in an ultra when I no longer have a shot at achieving my A-goal. Instead of pivoting to my B-goal, I spiral into an intense period of self-loathing. This negative headspace mars my experience from one of pride and gratification in completing the race to an experience defined by a mix of self-doubt and negative self-worth. My finish at Pinhoti this year would mark a significant achievement in successfully overcoming the late race mental demons by shifting my mindset to a healthier narrative.
I raced Pinhoti in 2018 and was having a perfect day that felt nearly effortless until mile 70. Unfortunately, a painful bout of pes anserine bursitis flared up and reduced me to an awkward mix of jogging and hobbling over the last 30 miles. Originally on pace for finishing around 19 hours, I slowed dramatically and finished in 21:39. The 2020 edition of Pinhoti was a shot at redemption after my unsatisfactory finish in 2018.
Start to Adams Gap (0-55)
Everything was going well through the first 55 miles of the race. I was running at a comfortable effort, and I arrived at Adams Gap in third place. The only surprise through the first half of the race was the sporadic rain from miles 10 through 50. The forecast was projected for a high in the mid 70s. Not a terrible forecast but definitely warm and muggy for November. I went back and forth from liking this pattern of intermittent rain and thinking it was cooling me off, to then hating it for the unpleasant humidity that lingered. I left mile 55 feeling good and was looking forward to the mental boost Brian would provide in pacing me over the next 20 miles.
Adams Gap to Pinnacle (55-75)
Brian did an excellent job pacing. He kept me distracted and entertained while also reminding me that I was continuing to move well. Earlier in the day, Marcelle informed Brian that I could sing all the lyrics to “Ignition” which led Brian to fact check this statement. Singing this song in its entirety several times and breaking extended periods of silence with, “Toot toot, beep beep!” was a highlight.
While I was still managing to run at a fair pace, I noticed a subtle shift in my energy levels. I was accounting for the expected fatigue, but there was a noticeable uptick in my perceived exertion. Maintaining a consistent effort was becoming more challenging. I felt a brief spike of energy after taking a gel or salt pill but that boost would pass too quickly.
In hindsight, I did not properly account for the high humidity earlier in the day and my consequent higher sweat rate. I was drinking enough water, but I needed to increase my sodium intake. Jason Koop’s sodium recommendations from Training Essentials for Ultrarunning targets 600-800 milligrams of sodium per liter of fluid. My post race food and hydration analysis showed that I was needing at least 200-300 more milligrams of sodium per hour. I believe my high rate of perceived exertion in contrast with my low energy output over the second half of the race was attributed to my sodium deficiency.
The five mile climb up to Pinnacle was once again the crux of the race for me. In 2018, it was on this climb that caused the bursitis in my calf/knee to become seriously painful and finish the last 25 miles on a jog, hobble, walk regimen.
Feeling low and aware of the upcoming climb to Pinnacle, I downed two caffeinated Speednut Spring gels within an hour. I’ve had some legendary caffeine highs from this humorously named Spring gel. Each gel is 250 calories with a high fat content. This was not a wise decision, and my stomach had a difficult time processing the dense calories. My stomach never quite settled back down for the remainder of the race and getting in solid calories over the last 25 miles was a struggle.
I finally made it to the top of Pinnacle and took my longest sit of the day. I changed my socks and tried to drink and eat as much as I could. Thankfully, Izze’s were still going down well. I sat there slightly dazed and forlornly contemplated the fact that I still had 25 miles to go.
Pinnacle to Bulls Gap (75-85)
I had been running Appalachian Anton style all day sans shirt but finally needed a layer after sitting atop the windy ridge at Pinnacle for 10 minutes. I was starting to shiver and knew it was time to start moving. Alondra was now pacing me for the last 25 miles, and I was worried it was about to be a shit show. I was no longer feeling peppy, and I had concerns about my ability to consume calories for the remainder of the race. Knowing I needed to move faster to warm up, I gave a loud whoop, started running, and was surprised to be feeling a little better after the mini break.
Nonetheless, I was falling off pace to achieve my A-goal of going under 20 hours. I was still in third place and this helped in keeping the self-defeating narrative at bay. I kept reminding myself that I was still managing a decent pace despite my lack of calories. I also thought back to how painful the bursitis in my knee was in 2018, and that I was not dealing with that pain this time! I kept highlighting these positives with Alondra and tried to ignore the thoughts of wondering how far back fourth place was.
We were less than a mile from Bulls Gap, mile 85, when a runner went flying by us. “Don’t worry, I’m just a pacer,” he said. It was alarming how fast he was running. Alondra and I were trying to figure out if he was just out for a run and waiting on his runner to get to mile 85 or if he had left his runner because they were injured. Several minutes later a lone runner passed and confirmed that it was his pacer who had passed us moments before. Dang. I was now in fourth place. I was disappointed but not surprised given how much my pace had slowed over the last 10 miles.
Alondra and I made it to Bulls Gap a minute later. The guy who just passed me was making his way out of the aid station. It was frustrating to finally get passed. But it was even more disheartening to be in such a depleted state and see the other guy moving so well and with such a sense of urgency. The negative self-narrative was starting to build as I sat down and took my time in trying to down some much needed calories.
At Grindstone and Hellgate last year, I slowed significantly over the last several miles to then be passed by other runners finishing strong. In each of those races, and now this one, I had been having a great race but failed to properly take care of myself. My failure to properly execute my hydration and nutrition plan resulted in my inability to finish strong. The frustration mounted as I sat there venting and drinking some liquid calories. All of a sudden, another runner had now come into the aid station. Damn it! I was now angry and the negative self-talk exploded. Here it was happening again. I was getting passed towards the end of a race, because I had failed to be disciplined and take care of myself. But rather than be defeated and sulk, I hopped out of the chair ready to go. I was not going to drop from third to fifth over the last 15 miles without putting up a fight.
And then, as Alondra and I were about to leave the aid station, I learned that second place had recently dropped out after spending a considerable amount of time at this aid station due to stomach issues. So our contingent of third through fifth place was actually second through fourth place. I was back in third place with second place having just left the aid station and fourth right behind me. What a whirlwind of emotions! I went from being dejected, to angry, and now supremely focused and motivated.
Bulls Gap to Finish (85-100)
I left the aid station telling myself I would give it everything I had to hang on to third place. I realized I didn’t have much left to give and that it was a real possibility that I could get caught by the runner behind me. Everything was aligned perfectly for me to repeat the self-defeating spiral that has plagued me toward the end of previous races. But this time was different. I turned my thoughts to my crew and how I didn’t want to let them down. Marcelle, Brian, and Alondra had been out there all day with so much genuine enthusiasm in supporting me. I knew that they were rooting for me to go under 20 hours and finish in the top three, but they were not going to deem the day a failure if I did not meet those goals. It was only me who was going to view the day as a failure.
I was able to move well over this section thanks to the runnable miles of gravel road, newfound determination to hang on to third place, and Alondra’s calm encouragement. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of Brian and Alondra’s pacing styles. I was wanting to benefit from Brian’s playful personality from miles 55-75 while I would still have the mental capacity to appreciate his jokes and wit. Then Alondra’s calm and determined presence would be perfect in getting me through the last quarter of the race when it becomes primarily a battle of will.
Minutes from reaching the last aid station at mile 95, the runner behind me had finally caught up and passed me. I was now in fourth place. I was fighting so many emotions. I wanted to cry, scream, and laugh all at the same time. I lost all the motivation that had been fueling me over the last 10 miles.
I made it to the aid station and dejectedly sat down for a few minutes. I drank as much ginger ale as I could manage. The toll of the day abruptly weighed down on me. The emotional and physical energy I had expended over the last 10 miles in trying to stave off the runner behind me left me spent. I wanted to just walk it in.
Those last five miles were some of the most emotionally and mentally intense miles of my life. But having Alondra there made a huge difference. I have so much respect for her and didn’t want to let her down. I knew she wasn’t disappointed in me. But I also knew that she would be doing everything she could to get to the finish as fast as possible if we were in opposite roles. I thought of Marcelle and Brian waiting at the finish. Instead of letting that pressure and fear of letting them down make me feel like a burden and a failure, I used it to push me. I also felt all the frustration from all the races where I’ve been passed towards the end and used this to fuel me. Those last five miles were slow and not pretty. But I am so proud of them. I was pushing as hard as I could. Again, it wasn’t fast, but I didn’t succumb to the usual late race pity party.
I finally made it to the finish line. I felt so much pride and relief in being done that I began to cry. I had successfully fought through the negative emotions and redirected my mindset to keep pushing myself to the finish. Funny enough, those tears quickly stopped as the dried up salt around my eyelids poured into my eyes from the tears and stung like crazy.
I finished in fourth place with a time of 20 hours and 43 minutes. I missed out on a top three finish and my A-goal of going under 20 hours. However, the most significant and personal aspect of my race was that I had successfully battled through the late race mental demons that have so often plagued and infuriated me.
Lesson #1: I have to work on my nutrition and hydration. I’ve always prided myself on having an iron stomach. I have never thrown up during a race or had intense nausea ruin a race. But I’ve developed a false sense of reliance in my ability to maintain a steady dose of calories throughout an entire race. For Grindstone, Hellgate, and Pinhoti, I have failed to keep eating the requisite amount of calories over the last third of the race due to lack of discipline in continuing to eat and drink while dealing with slight nausea. I also need to stay on top of sodium replacement, so that I remain mentally vigilant and also allow my stomach to keep efficiently processing liquids and calories.
Lesson #2: This race taught me how to use my support team to bring out the best in me when the day doesn’t turn out as planned. It’s only me who is ultimately upset in not meeting my A-goal. My wife and friends are not let down in my “failure” to meet my A-goal. I am my harshest critic. Shifting my focus from myself to my support team can bring out my best during my most extreme times of self-doubt. The outcome and experience are ultimately defined by giving my best possible effort on the given day. And it’s important to remember that your best effort is a constantly moving target in ultras.