“Ha ha. 6k? That’s like four miles. Four miles is a joke.”
I was wheezing so heavily through my nose that I thought my left nostril might rip. It, meaning my nostril, was beginning to feel like loose skin flapping in the wind each time I was fortunate enough to begin exhaling the oxygen–nay, CO2– that was trapped in my lungs, stretching the shit out of my diaphragm and forcing the aforementioned wheeze out of my flapping left nostril. I refused to breathe through my mouth. This was a training run. This was way below my (self)prescribed distance. I’m an ultra runner. I run 100 miles a week. Four miles is a joke.
I was never a cross country runner. I didn’t come from this background. I began running largely as an escape, an attempt to get away from the bullshit. I needed to get away from my phone, away from my boss and away from anyone who wanted to contact me. I ran from people and for myself. Then, a time came in my running career where performance started to become a bit more important.
Running was now a habit. I had run everyday for three years. I was enamored with the simplicity, the solitude and the brain chemistry. In fact, I was addicted to all three. A couple of my more scientifically inclined friends started referring to me as a junkie. I was after the brain chemistry, they said. I needed the dopamine to function like a normal human being, they said. I couldn’t be trusted to control my reactions in everyday situations unless I had run for at least three or four hours, they said.
As I had ascended to this level of junkie, I was clearly ready to have more performance-based aspirations. So what to do? I felt like my running had plateaued a bit. I was running consistently and I was maintaining a solid weekly mileage, yet I still felt like there was something missing… an unexplored side of my craft.
“Fuck that shit!”
Was my initial response to my wife’s inquiry of whether or not I’d like to run a 6k race for her work.
“You realize I’m currently training to run a 100k, right? And you furthermore realize what a big fucking deal I am, right? I mean, I might have a good– if not relatively good– chance of finishing in the top 20 of a trail race in which 99.99999% of people have no idea exists and if they did realize it existed would (somehow) care less about it?”
Long story short, I lost my argument and I was toeing the line with a few hundred other runners on a balmy September morning in the Santa Monica Mountains at the Heroes in Recovery 6k. I’m not exactly one to make excuses *cough cough* but I had like 65 miles on my legs already that week and I was entering this race with far less knowledge of the distance than was ideal. My shortest race to date was a marathon and I only had one of those tacked to a 15-race resume.
The crowd around Paramount Ranch wiggled, the gun went off, and the participants of the Heroes in Recovery 6k danced their ways down the trail. I stayed with the first group, probably six or seven guys, for the first kilometer of so, until the first mildly sustained climb, at which point I looked down at my watch and saw that I was pushing a 5:40/pace. Way too slow.
I dug into the hill and passed a couple runners on the ascent, sucking wind heavily as we crested the small peak, grateful to fall into the descent down into the tiny valley below. I did my best Scott Jurek impressions and kept the wheels turning, owning the transition, and started my climb out of the low valley when I glanced at my watch. I had only run for .86 of a mile. And I was about ready to puke. I certainly wanted to stop. It was reminiscent of the latter stages of an ultra for me.
But this wasn’t an ultra. This was a 20-min race. I needed to get it together. I was rolling. The hills at Paramount Ranch certainly were. The elevation on my Suunto was. My stomach felt like one of Kanye’s waves. Then, I saw a runner ahead of me. I couldn’t really breathe. But I felt like I had to go. There he was. I had a little climb, my advantage. Next thing I knew, he was behind me. My nostril was flapping. I couldn’t breathe.
Mind numbing pain. The hysterical sucking for air. Loss of limb function and general motor control. Theatrical vomit sensitivity. All things I was taking for granted the first few years of my running career. It was mostly mountain tops and sunsets and easy mountain mornings over coffee… ridgeline traverses and butterflies floating on descents into lush valleys. Summits and sunsets. Now, I tasted pennies and blood in my mouth and I wanted nothing more than to stop running. Immediately.
But I couldn’t. There’s some asshole ahead of me with his tank top hanging around his neck like it’s a fucking a cape and he thinks he’s the flash and he seems to be slowing down a bit and I really really want to pass him. I also really don’t want to yack on my shoes.
I kept pushing my legs, looking for my turnover like a fat kid in a Pillsbury factory as we switched back onto a little ridge and dropped steeply into a wide gully that I immediately recognized as the single aid station on the course. I wondered why it was only a kilometer in as I blew past at an unsustainably fast pace only a few minutes ago but I guess it made sense now as I lollipopped back out with only a kilo to go.
Despite any pain I was feeling, there was no chance I was letting off the gas. I was feeling alive. Lungs and stomach be damned. Like I previously made clear, it’s fucking 6k. Less than thirty minutes. Let’s go. This is what I came for.
I slowed a bit to take in the commotion that was mostly the overweight, hiking contingent of race crowded around the oasis, still only a .62 of a mile into the race, refreshing themselves on electrolytes and refined sugar, when I noticed, in my periphery, a runner cresting the lip and plummeting toward me at breakneck speed. The runner in front of me was just exiting the climb out of the valley and out of sight and I had this sweat-inducing vision of being passed and the two runners in front of me battling it out, gladiator style, sprinting barrell-chested toward the finish line with the requisite scantily clad women cheering them in as I gasp for air and vomited on myself in the dirt a few hundred yards back, just out of sight (and mind).
As that outcome seemed less than ideal, I decided I needed to stop being a pussy. I had less than four minutes of running left and I was on the verge of passing one runner and about to be eclipsed by another. I was in the heat of battle like I had never really been in an ultra, at least in such close proximity, where runners are usually spread over vast distances and regularly stop for significant amount of times at aid stations. No, this was different, and it was fun.
It was a similar adrenaline rush that I feel at the beginning of a race, with all the people around pushing hard, but this was complete with the late race brain chemistry (I had been going for a bit), the simultaneous feeling of being chased and hunting someone else, all coupled with that amazing smell of the barn (I had pushed and I was ready to be done– and it was close).
Despite the sense of stomach bile rising steadily up my throat, I couldn’t help but smile. I was having fun. I was running, I was racing, I was testing myself against other people and natural terrain. It didn’t get much better. I finished 5th, just out of the money (fucking 4th place got $100) but the experience opened my eyes. It was great experience, not only running fast on a trail but racing against other people, pushing myself beyond my limits to find that finish line before and (unfortunately) after a few people.
I crossed the finish line, jogged out fifteen or so strides and then bent over with my hands on my knees. A volunteer ran up to drape my medal around my neck and for a split second I started formulating an apology for yacking on his shoes, but I held it in- even after he walked away, and didn’t puke up my morning coffee.
In the beginning of my ultrarunning career, I spent too much time running too slowly. I spent too much time where it felt too good. Most of the time, it is supposed to feel good. Like the sunsets and butterflies and shit I was talking about earlier. But those moments where it feels good are only highlighted even more by the moments of deep suffering.
As an ultrarunner, neglecting the high-end of your own spectrum can come with severly negative consequences. For one, sprinting is good for your running technique. Most of us run pretty perfectly when we’re sprinting and it’s always good for our overall mechanics to feel that (especially if you’re like most people and your slower-paced running form sucks balls).
Secondly, when you run really hard, you’re always out of your comfort zone, and that’s where the growth really happens. It’s an inconvenient truth, but a truth nonetheless. The more time you spend outside of where it’s comfortable and sunsets and butterflies, the more you grow and the better you get. Just look at what guys like Dakota Jones (who placed 2nd and 3rd at Hardrock) and Tim Tollefson (who recently took third at UTMB) have been doing the last couple weeks:
Running slow and recovering on the move certainly has it’s place, but in your hard workouts, when you try to improve your ability as a runner, it doesn’t belong. As they say, you gotta have easy and hard workouts, from now on, I challenge you to make sure your hard workouts make you look forward to your easy days. You’ll be a better, faster runner for it.