Thanks for visiting my blog. This is where I document and share all of my running adventures with my friends and fellow runners. The good, the bad, and the unquestionably painful. All for your entertainment! Enjoy!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Elephant Mountain 50k: Running on Empty

Is it better to DNS or to DNF? 

I've heard that question asked dozens of times and I've also listened to a wide variety of responses, backed by individual beliefs or personal reasoning for whatever the respondents opinion is. It seems like an easy enough question but it's not. Not at all. And most importantly, I think the answer reveals a lot about the person answering the question because it drills right down to the very core of what motivates you to run in the first place. 

I was faced with that question as I was going into the Elephant Mountain 50k this weekend. I had just come off a miserable race at the Moab Red Hot 55k the previous weekend. I was plagued by severe lower GI issues during that entire race. Then, two days later, I was bedridden with the worst stomach flu I have ever had. During the course of my illness, I lost 10 pounds of my already limited body weight and I had only managed to choke down about 1000 calories all week. And most importantly, I hadn't had ANY beer.

On Friday, I was able to try to run again. It wasn't exactly a confidence building run, but it was a run.

Then that same Friday evening, I flew to Phoenix so I could "race" the Elephant Mountain 50k on Saturday morning.

Well....maybe "race" isn't the right word. Nonetheless, I was headed to Arizona.

I woke up Saturday morning and knew I wouldn't be running the entire 50k. I still felt terrible, but much better than I had in previous days. Jo and I made a plan for my inevitable exit from the race and we headed to the start line.

I met up with a lot of great friends before the race and enjoyed being back at another Aravaipa start line. These are my favorite races and as soon as I got out of the car, I knew I had made the right decision by making the trip.

I met up with Anna Piskorska and Mike Reddy before the race started. These are friends that we met when we lived in Pennsylvania and they had made the trip out west for this race. Anna has always been a runner that I looked up to. She has a very impressive race history and can run with some of the fastest men on the trails. Like me, she is a past Across The Years winner and she has run for the US 24 Hour Team. I was excited to see what she could do at Elephant Mountain.

The weather was blissfully warm, but was going to be uncomfortably warm in a few hours. I didn't plan to be on the trail that long.

Givin' It a Go...

The race starts out with a long runnable ascent on a typical Arizona mountain bike trail. Loose sand and rocks with a few washed ruts mixed in for good measure. I settled into a slow, easy pace and made the climb.

The sun was just coming over the mountains and the desert was quiet and beautiful. I soaked it all in, just happy to be on the trail with what little health I had at the moment.

After cresting the top of the climb, we made a nice, gradual descent into a beautiful valley with sweeping views of saguaro cactus and rolling hills.

I was yielding to anybody that pressed my position, reminding myself that I wasn't racing today. I wasn't even trying to fake it. I was just doing what I could to get down the trail.

Two miles in, I pulled off the trail to adjust my shoe and stepped on a cactus, which promptly lodged needles deep into my foot. I should be used to this by now but it still hurts like hell. Not rushed, I sat down and worked them all out of my feet before moving on.

I felt conflicted about being on the trail because I felt like I was posing as a racer. Part of me wanted to run hard so I could show respect to the event and the other runners and part of me just wanted to roll with the trail and breathe it all in. It's not an easy thing to do when you're a competitive person.

The first aid station came pretty early and I would normally cruise right on by. Today, I stopped. I chatted with the volunteers and drank a few ounces of Coke from the table before pressing on.

Almost immediately, I realized the Coke was a bad idea. My stomach wasn't pleased and started to cramp right away. I knew I would eventually have stomach problems but I didn't expect it in the first three miles.

Acid was rolling up my throat and seemed to stop right at the back of my tongue. I would slow my pace and eventually walk until the acid dropped back into my stomach. After running for a while, the acid would return and I would walk again until it settled. I repeated this for the next several miles, constantly worried that I was going to puke. The puke never came, thankfully.

Despite the stomach problems, I was still enjoying the trail. It was a fast course and probably the prettiest trail that Aravaipa Running uses. I had heard others make the same claim and that was one of the reasons I was so intent on running it, regardless of how I felt.

Stopped to Remove More Cactus Needles From my Feet

I started to get pretty warm and salt was building on my clothes and face. I attempted to drink from my pack but I had to spit it out. My stomach was bloated and the acid started to shoot to the top as soon as I put anything in my stomach. Not being able to hydrate can be a real problem in any race, but there's real danger in the desert.

But I was still enjoying the trail. Seriously.

Around 8 miles, I started to feel better and I pushed the pace for a while. I almost felt normal for the first time all week. I was launching over rocks, cruising down the trail and smiling. I began to think about actually finishing the race. Then I felt like crap again and was smacked back into reality.

This section of the race is a long out and back before we split off and run a loop before finishing. I began to see 50k runners coming back at me and knew I must be getting close to the turnaround.

Jo would be waiting for me there and that's where my day would end.

 Mike Reddy Looking Good

I saw Jo waiting on me at the turnaround, at the top of a steep climb. I slowed to a walk and climbed the hill, feeling conflicted about my day. I knew it was over but I didn't want it to be. No matter how hard I tried to talk myself into continuing, my better judgement won out. I was pushing my luck as it was and it was time to call it a day.

When the volunteers asked for my number at check in, I gave it and told them I was "out" and kept walking right to the car where I deposited myself into the seat like a ton a bricks.

We ran to the hotel for a quick shower and fresh clothes and headed back to the finish line so we could cheer for all the inbound runners and enjoy some time socializing.

That's always the best part of any race anyway.

I was especially happy to see Anna finish in 3rd place. She's one of my running hero's and I was excited for her. I knew coming to the heat was going to be a real challenge, considering the winter the east coast has had, but she did an awesome job.

Anna Piskorska Finishing Strong!

I was also happy to be there to see Mike finish. When you mix a good attitude, a lot of heart and some talent, you get a runner like Mike Reddy. He's just a great guy.

Anna Greeting Mike at the Finish

My stomach settled enough that it allowed me to have a cold beer while cheering and nursing the finishers. Being at an ultra finish line is something everybody should do, even if they're not a runner. It's a scene full of drama. Stories are made, filled with epic highs and lows. People are crying, laughing, collapsing and jumping in triumphant joy. Sometimes all at once. There's nothing else like it. It's the culmination of so many things. To me, it's the definition of LIFE.

Is it better to DNS or DNF?

I could have stayed home in Utah, saved some money, got some rest and that would have been fine. Moreover, it would have been the socially acceptable thing to do.

But I didn't.

I flew to Arizona, ran and dropped out. I even KNEW I wouldn't finish, but I still came all that way.

And for me, that was the right decision and I have no regrets.

When running is such a big part of your life, it's mentally devastating when your health or an injury prevent you from doing it, or from doing it well. It's like having a part of you ripped away without knowing if you'll ever get it back. And if you do, you never know if it will be the same again.

Thankfully, for me it's a short lived illness and I'm almost over it. I'm beginning to run well again and my speed is coming back to me. In a few more days, things will be back on track and I'll pick up where I left off.

It's nice to have a place in the running community even when I'm not well. And it felt good to be there for other runners so I could help them enjoy the day they've been working hard towards. It's useful to get that perspective from time to time.

I'm happy that I didn't DNS.

Monday, February 17, 2014

2014 Moab Red Hot 55k: The Impossible DNF

Have you ever had one of those days when everything just fell into place perfectly? When the running Gods were smiling down on you and you were having the best race ever? I have. But this wasn't one of those days. 

Crap. Nothing more. Just CRAP.

Due to some untimely changes in my daily routine, I had been feeling pretty rough lately. I've been eating at odd times and losing sleep. Both were taking a toll. I woke up on race day feeling terrible, but committed to getting this thing done.

Pre-Race with Good Friends

I've run the Moab Red Hot 55k before, so I knew exactly what was waiting for me on the course. Pain mostly. And maybe some variable, and probably annoying weather.

I love this race because it brings out a great crowd of ultra runners. The field is usually stacked with a lot of talent, as this is the "Spring Opener" for a lot of runners. It's definitely not a race that will allow me to be competitive, but it's still a pretty awesome experience. I intended to run it as a training run and my only goal was to have fun and hopefully finish faster than the previous year.


The course has variable terrain. Some loose sand, packed sand, gravel, boulders, and of course, plenty of slick rock. The entire race is run on Jeep trails, so just imagine where you would take a borrowed Jeep and that's pretty much it.

After some pre-race mingling, the Race Director, Chris Martinez, sent us on our way.

We're Off!

The first climb is almost instant. It's not a terrible ascent, but it's long and crowded. I ran behind Jenn Shelton for a while, wondering what kind of day she would have. My good friend, Ryan Lauck was running by my side and we were making short work of the climb together. That first hill does a great job of sorting the field out. It forces runners to find their place in a hurry.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer Photography 

Ryan started to pull ahead of me and I didn't even attempt to keep pace with him. I knew he had a grand plan for the day, and I certainly did not.

 Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer Photography 

I eventually fell in with Kendall Wimmer, a good friend that I seem to share trail with whenever we're running the same race. I met Kendall at the Bear 100 last year and I credit him with saving several minutes on my finish time because he practically drug me the last three miles, refusing to allow me to walk. I only complied because Kendall is a lot bigger than I am.

"Running" with Kendall Wimmer 

 Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer Photography 

We came to the first aid station and passed right on through without slowing down. We were all chatting and enjoying the run. At least superficially. I was already having trouble but was hoping it would pass.

My stomach felt bloated and it was painful to run. I tried to ignore it, hoping it would work itself out.

It didn't.

We were eventually joined by a couple of other northern Utah runners, one of which was Jen. Jen is a newly sponsored Hammer Nutrition runner, so I'm somewhat partial to her in a race. She's a very tough athlete and an amazing person to know. I was really enjoying our time on the trail, but it wasn't enough to take my mind off the pain brewing in my guts.

I was beginning to worry about it at mile 9.

Photo by Kendall Wimmer

For the sake of complete disclosure, I really had to crap. There's just not a nice, flowery way to say it. I can sugarcoat it all day long, but at the end of the day, there's no way to put a good spin on it.

Part of my brain tried to convince me it was just gas, but I wasn't about to rely on it just yet.

Every runner knows this....NEVER Trust a Fart

I took a big shot of Hammer peanut butter gel around mile 10. This was my first calorie intake of the run, but I had been sipping some water and Endurolyte Fizz from my hydration pack. The gel and water seemed to be compounding the bloating. I needed to get this fixed fast.

Photo by Kendall Wimmer

Photo by Kendall Wimmer

I began to fade as the pain grew more intense. I stopped to relieve some pressure on my bladder, hoping that would help, but when I stopped running, the pain in my stomach intensified.

Slowly. Grinding. To. A. Halt...
Photo by Kendall Wimmer

Photo by Kendall Wimmer

I had finally had enough! I pulled off the trail, totally unprepared for a pit stop of this "nature", but I didn't care. I would improvise. Like the Marines. But I bet they keep toilet paper handy. So I'll improvise like a bear in the woods instead.

To my utter astonishment, I found the perfect spot waiting for me. Seriously, this couldn't have been planned any better. Just off the trail, behind a large juniper, I found a downed log and a plant with large, soft leaves. It was natures perfect toilet. I was impressed.

I quickly wrapped up my business and hopped back on the trail. I made a quick stop to pull a few cactus needles out of my left foot (VERY normal thing for me), then I resumed my run.

Things were going well for the first 6 or 7 feet. Then suddenly, the recently vacated area in my body was inundated with a new resident. A bigger, more eager resident.

I plodded along, now seriously annoyed and in pain.

Photo by Kendall Wimmer

I reached the aid station and stopped long enough to tear about 150 feet of paper towel from a roll sitting on the table. As I ran down the trail, the stream of paper towel in my wake must have been a beautiful site.

I was scanning the desert for another PERFECT spot to take a pit stop. This section of the course has very sparse vegetation and I wasn't having any luck finding a place to pull over. I don't think there was enough cover to provide privacy to a Jackalope, let alone an almost full grown man.

I eventually found a spot that would suffice and I hurried through the process. Well...I tried to hurry. The new arrival in my lower GI was evidently reluctant to vacate. I begged and pleaded but faced a lot of unnecessary resistance. After a considerable amount of time, there was some concession on the part of Mr. Hanky, but not nearly enough to improve my situation much. I reluctantly went on my way.

I had lost so much time by this point, that I found myself running among unfamiliar faces. I could tell I was deep in the pack now and still in pain. My chances of improving my position weren't looking good.

Over the next few miles, I stopped 4 more times to try to relieve the pain and I had almost no luck.

My only solace was the natural beauty of Moab. This race course is a beautiful place to run and I tried to focus on the beauty, reminding myself that a bad day on a Moab trail still beats most every other day.

I was still unable to eat and I was only able to drink small amounts of fluid. This only compounded my problems.

When I finally made it to the mile 22 aid station, I had already decided to DNF. There was no way to talk me out of it. My mind was made up. I was DONE.

Or I thought so anyway. Here's the conversation that ensued:

Me: I'm not going to finish. How do I get out of here.
Volunteer: Just head the way your going and you'll find the finish line.
Me: How far?
Volunteer: 12 miles.
Me: Do you know what DNF means?
Volunteer: That's the only way out of here.
Me: How about I drop over the cliff right behind you?
Volunteer: You better have a parachute in that hydration pack!
Me: You're new to this, aren't you?

With the devastating news that I couldn't get off the course, I started walking toward the finish line, trying to scan for a way down and onto a road. It seemed hopeless. I kept heading to the edge of the cliff, hoping to find a gentle way to the bottom. Nothing.

I hunted for ways to DNF but none became apparent. I pondered the expense of an airlift, but decided against it.

Who makes a course that it SO resistant to DNF'ing?? Frustrating.

I began getting passed by a lot of runners. It appears that many of them knew who I was and several were surprised to see me. I got tired of hearing, "HEY! You're Kelly Agnew. (long pause) You must be having a bad day!"

Really? I wanted to hide.

If there had been sufficient building materials on hand, I would have constructed a new house and sent for my things. I didn't want to go another step. But I did.

I knew I had friends WITH A VEHICLE at mile 31. I planned to climb in and get a ride the rest of the way. That's right! I was fully prepared to drop at mile 31. Nothing sounded more appealing to me.

Then I met up with another runner and we began to talk. Before long, mile 31, and my friends came into view. Through the course of our conversation, I realized I was being foolish. I decided to suck it up, endure the pain and finish the race.

The last 3 miles really sucked.

I finished, barely getting in under 7 hours. This is a tough course, but not a 7 hour course. But at that point, I was beyond caring about my finish time. I was just happy to be done.

Sharing the Gory Details with my Bride
 Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer Photography 

Beer Makes Everything Better. And so do Good Friends.

Luke Nelson. A truly Great Guy. 

 Hammer Nutrition Athlete, John Fitzgerald, Top 10 Finisher
 Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer Photography 

 Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer Photography 

After a couple of cold beers and some camaraderie, I began to feel much better. The pain faded, my smile returned and things were back in perspective. 

I had planned this as a training run. Albeit, a much faster, more entertaining training run. But I definitely learned some things and I'm happy to have struggled in training so I can maybe avoid it during a goal race. And I had to remind myself that shit happens. and sometimes it doesn't, no matter how hard you try.

During the course of the 34 miles, I only managed to get one gel down and approximately 35 ounces of fluid. Not an ideal fuel strategy for a tough race.

Me and Myke Hermsmeyer. My Hammer Nutrition Sponsor Coordinator.

I'll live to run another day and in retrospect, it wasn't all bad. I enjoyed the company of a lot of really great runners, I enjoyed the beauty of the Moab desert and got to run on bare ground. Things could have been much worse.

I want to thank Hammer Nutrition and Myke Hermsmeyer Photography. Myke is a great guy, an excellent photographer and an amazing partner at Hammer Nutrition. Those guys do a lot to support me in my racing and it's greatly appreciated.

Jo and I will be traveling to Arizona next weekend, where I will hopefully have a much better day! I hope to see many of you out on the trail very soon.