World 100k Championships 2018
Chatting comfortably back and forth with Veronika Jurisic of Croatia, and Gina Slaby, USA team mate, the beginning laps of the World 100k Championships 2018 sort of clicked along, although with a slightly nagging feeling, literally in my gut, that things could go more wrong than right. The course was very a beautiful, rural, rolling farmland road out and back paved road, from the start/finish arch right smack in front of the Hotel Golfer in Sveti Martin na Muri (pronounced Sweaty Martin, much to our mirth).
Being on Team USA for the 9th consecutive time was an honor and privilege I do not take lightly. I have grown to love this event for the worldly experience, the reacquainting myself with several runners from around the world and especially with former team mates and above all, our team managers Lin Gentling, Lion Caldwell, Sue Herber, Timo Yanacheck and Anne Heaslett, who dedicate vast amounts of time and energy into making our race and stay as smooth as possible.
Sveti Martin is located in the northeast corner of Croatia, only minutes from Slovenia and Hungary. It is rich with farms, vineyards, and acres and acres of corn. The accommodations were at a sports complex complete with 4 swimming pools, including thermal mineral pools. Two days before the race Mark and I spent some kid time, going down the water slides, laying by a pool, and i finished with a good soak in the hot pools.
A team meeting before the traditional parade of nations was held with last minute information on where we were going to receive aid from our management and handlers, as well as other places on the course. We learned that the course was closed to traffic, and we were to report any sort of rule breaking we might see to our management. Then we assembled at the local pub with all the other nations where local children were given plaques with the country’s name that they would escort in.
We were second to last in line according to the alphabet, followed only by the host country Croatia. The colorful uniforms of the the different countries against the autumn sky of deep blue was truly stunning. We paraded to a grassy knoll above a large seating area filled with locals and team accompanists. We were then entertained by a local vocal group of women singing the Croatian national anthem.
A pasta feed ensued, and then everyone was off to rest up for the next morning’s race. I got a good amount of sleep, and was up and at the cafeteria by 5:00 am to get some eggs and coffee into my body. Once I was costumed up, numbers in place, I made my way to do a bit of a warm up with some strides. I felt good! The weather was perfect, in the 60s, slightly over cast, and the mood of the runners was positive and exciting.
At 6:45, our team entered the holding pen, making sure our chips were working, and hung out there until the start, chatting with runners from other countries, all smiles and full of hope. Mark hung out taking pictures of us all, and ready to go to work for me as soon as we were set off.
At 7:00 am, the horn went off, and in moments we were winding our way down and out of the hotel parking lot, then a sharp left onto the road in front of the pools, then a sharp right to go past the pub, another sharp right and we were on the main road of the course. Due to the length of the out and back course being “odd” at 7.5 km (which does not neatly divide into 100) we had a short loop first, of 2.5 km. We barreled around and back up to the row of country tables and crews, and at the very end at the USA table, Mark was ready with my first bottle of Tailwind. Team mate Gina Slaby and I were near each other, while Emily Torrence, Devon Yanko, Liza Howard, and Caroline Boller had inched ahead a bit.
Under the start/finish line, we completed the mini-loop number 1, and now had 13 full 7.5 km loops to go. Going by my perceived rate of exertion, I kept very conservative, and was happy to see that initially I was running 7:45 pace. I meant to keep my checking of the pace to a minimum as I didn’t want that to dictate my effort. I soon was running with Croatian acquaintance from 2016, Veronika, and we chatted easily. Even so, when I checked my pace after laps 2 and 3, I was in the 7:37 range – which would put me well under 8 hours. Gina had been running close behind, and I saw my team mates regularly on the out and backs. On lap 4 I needed the bathroom, and opted for the nearby corn field. Coming out, Liza was approaching from the turn around. “Nothing to see here!” I joked. With that stop I hoped I was clear to go for the rest of the race.
Each time I came to Mark he handed me a fresh bottle of Tailwind, and thru 4 laps I was feeling pretty good. By the 5th lap, I was ready for just water. Mentally I was trying to get past 7, so I knew I would be half way there. My gut wasn’t awesome, but hoped the water would give it break. Veronika had pulled ahead a bit, so I just muddled along on my own.
Meanwhile, I was able to witness the lead men and women. Our own Geoff Burns had taken the lead, smiling and looking smooth. He was surrounded by some Japanese and South African runners, and my perennial favorite Italian Georgio Calceterra. Georgio is a multi time World Champ and we have become foreign friends over the years – we can use google translate but otherwise its lots of smiling and nodding. The important thing to know about him is he finishes what he starts. I have twice passed him in races when he’s had a bad day, but he always finishes and I admire him for that. We had Jesse Davis, Chikara Omine, Matt Flaherty, Isaiah Janzen and Anthony Kunkel all fairly spread out. For the women, Devon, Emily and Caroline were pulling ahead of me with Devon and Emily eventually running strong together, moving up into the top 10, with Caroline close behind. Liza wasn’t too far between us, and Gina just behind. It was great to be able to cheer each other on.
Before the race, Liza had asked “do people drop in this race?” and I let her know emphatically, yes, they do. The first 50k can be beautiful to watch, everyone fresh, full of hope and ambition, and the second half looks like an ultra running war zone. And true to fashion, I began to watch and unravel myself. First I saw Geoff fall of the lead, only to learn later he had been clipped and tripped and crashed and burned hard, and never quite recovered. Anthony had seized up and dropped. Isaiah dropped from some lingering issues. Matt stopped before the impending injuries became real. I watched Devon go from 4th place, down in places while her face showed that she was cracking.
Meanwhile, my body was rebelling. I had started the race with 4 imodium to block the tendency of my body squeeze everything inside to the outside. After 4 laps with one pit stop and the feeling that I was going to lose more, I asked for 2 more imodium. Going to straight water didn’t seem to help – my gut was going into squeeze every time I tried to put in more effort. I tried coke, electrolyte beverage, a banana, but nothing would stop it. Back at the home base, I asked if we had any sprite or ginger ale. We didn’t but when I came back, 9 laps in, Mark miraculously produced a beautiful bottle of cold Sprite. I chugged it. It was wonderful. I left feeling hopeful for a comeback, but within a half mile, my gut felt as if someone jabbed a knife in and started to twist my bowels around it like a screwdriver. It was so painful I nearly stopped in my tracks, but managed to keep walking and grimacing and wondering if my day was over. At last it stopped and I eased my way back into running, along with another pit stop in a corn field. At this point Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was the only song on my mental playlist. Again as my compatriots met me, we cheered each other on, albeit with less enthusiasm as those early laps. Gina caught and passed me, having recovered from her own issues.
With 4 laps to go, Mark produced another Sprite, and I had to tell him it didn’t work out so well. I drank the electrolyte they had there, took water and gel, but was so messed up and behind on calories that I was reduced to a jog. When I got to the turn around again, I learned that Devon had dropped. I told Sue, who was our only aid out there, to call the front end folks and tell them to tell Devon to wait for me and run with me. I knew that if she just took a breather, ran with me as I was slowing more and more, that she could rally and move back up in the field. Meanwhile, I was getting slower and feeling worse all the time. And the runners were starting to look pretty haggard.
I have never so badly wanted to quit in a race. I had to continue coming up with reasons to keep going – for one thing, I was representing Team USA, I wanted to be a good sport, and a finisher, to exhibit gratitude and above all be a team player. And while I was not likely going to score for the US, I wanted to be at the ready in case anyone else dropped. Also, I was competing as a masters in the World Masters Athletics championships, and had a good shot at winning my age group. Lastly and perhaps most importantly – I really didn’t have a good reason to drop. I was suffering big time, but wasn’t in any real danger. I could walk it in if I had too. Some of my favorite runners are those that I have passed in a race where they should have beat me by a good margin, and yet they kept on moving. And I love little more than to cross a finish line in a race, no matter the outcome. My ego may take a bruising for a slow time, but it’s better than regret.
Having contemplated all the above, I knew I need some help from the crew. As I made it to the team table for the 11th time I found myself bent over, hand on knees, and wheezing out some sobs. I heard Mark say “oh no!” and I gathered myself up, looked across to team doc Lion and said “I need to be fixed”. In no time Lion and Lin and Mark had me in a chair, Lin sponging me legs, Lion giving me Mylanta chased with some electrolyte, and Mark doing his best to get me what I needed to get me on my way, while Devon, Anthony, and Matt watched. “I don’t want to DNF” I said, and they assured me I wasn’t going to. I had 3 laps to go, just over 12 miles. It sounded short but it seemed like torture all the same. Just then, Geoff came sprinting thru, on his way to the finish line, and our group went crazy as he was being chased closely by two others. He held on for 5th, and then Caroline came thru strong as an ox, grabbed what she needed and was now only 2 laps from finishing.
Finally I was up and out. I felt a bit better, and very much cheered up. Isaiah was sitting very near the start/finish area, full of enthusiasm for each of us going through, having turned his disappointing performance into head cheerleader for those of us still out on the course.
Trudge trudge trudge. This was my worst experience at Worlds, ever, in terms of performance. I recognized suffering in myself and all around me like never before. With the course being and out and back, there was no escaping the eyes of all the competitors, and no escaping the head on carnage. Why do we do this? And why was I now already working on my plan for re-qualifying for the team, since I certainly wasn’t going to today? How is we both love and hate something so passionately at the same time?
As I was completing lap 12, Emily caught me. I asked how she was doing and she indicated her quads had blown up earlier but she had rallied to have a decent finish. As much as I enjoyed her company I urged her to go ahead, since time is what we are measured on. I slowed at our team table once more for a bit more Mylanta and electrolyte, and jogged off to the supportive words of Mark and the rest of the crew.
Now I got to see the lead woman from Croatia coming in for strong finish in 7:20 – a fabulous time, followed by a German women, then Japan, who placed 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th. Pretty hard to top that as a team. Our own Caroline Boller came charging into 12th place, and soon after, Emily in 16th. I trotted along in stubborn determination barely overriding my desire to just sit down. Every sip of water caused a gut reaction. Next I saw Liza to complete our team scorers, and a few minutes later, Gina, who also had another lap to go.
Back at our team table, I took another shot of Mylanta and electrolytes, and rejoiced in the fact that I had just one more lap, and was surrounded with support and empathy from the team table. Back out on course, I ran by Isaiah, yelling “just one more lap!” and he cheered me on well beyond my passing of him. The entire experience by now was getting as tedious as this report – sort of like having to clean your plate of some really nasty food. But I made it around, and coming to the team table for the last time, Lion asked me if I wanted the flag. I most emphatically did. I fought hard to survive this misery, to represent our country by showing respect for the event, the organizers, my team mates, and my fellow competitors.
Crossing the finish line was sweet. My team mates were all there waiting for me. As Mark snapped some photos, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe and might pass out. Lion sat me down, put my feet up, checked my O2 levels. Oxygen was fine, but I was dehydrated and the blood had pooled in my feet. It was a day of first – first time not scoring for Team USA, first time not re-quaifying for Worlds, and a personal worst time of 9:00 and change. But I did pull of the WMA age group win. Both mens and womens Team USA came in 4th place.
So once again, my GI issues dictated my outcome, but with a more in-your-face impact. I’ve consulted with my good friend and excellent nutrition coach Stephanie Howe Violette and her take is my lower GI has become damaged from the chronic ischemia imposed by long runs and intensity over time. I have been lucky to have been without any side-lining injuries for over 10 years, which also means I haven’t really had significant down time. As such, I’m take a few weeks off from running to let my gut heal, and adjusting my diet to promote better health down there. Meanwhile I can get some other real life work done. Like washing windows, cleaning cupboards, weed eating…
Many thanks to my wonderful team managers and handlers – Mark Laws, Lin Gentling, Lion Caldwell, Tim Yanacheck, Anne Heaslett, Sue Herber, and my awesome team mates Liza Howard, Caroline Boller, Emily Torrence and Gina Slaby, to my sponsors who continue to believe in me – The North Face, Injinji Socks, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, NOW Foods, and Nathan Hydration. And to Steph for helping me get my gut back on track.