Author’s Note: All Jeff Browning quotes are reconstructed from memory. While I think I did an accurate job remembering what was said and how it was said, we were running (fast) up a mountain at the time.
“Within five years, Walmsley will be out of the sport.” My ears perked as the musing from Jeff Browning came floating over his shoulder. My head snapped back toward the trail and Jeff, away from Sullivan Canyon, slowly being awoken by the soft morning light.
“You think?” I wondered aloud.
“Have you seen that dude’s Strava?” Jeff asked. “He’s running sooo much. Too much. One hundred and forty, one hundred and sixty mile weeks, one after another.”
“And super fast too.” I added.
“If you look at anyone who’s had any longevity in this sport– like me or Meltzer– we’re consistently putting in 70-80 mile weeks. There’s a place for a 100 mile week in a training plan. But you can’t be there all the time. You’re gonna flame out. That’s exactly what happened to Tony.”
I think it was right around this point, when I heard Jeff casually referred to Anton Krupicka as “Tony” during a conversation he was having with me that I started to realize how lucky I was in the present moment. Not only was I running with Jeff Browning (in the lead of a race) but he– one of the most successful, competitive, smart ultrarunners in the world– was dropping knowledge on me like a professor.
“I think you can run year-round if you stay in that 70-80 mile range.” Jeff said. “You don’t really need an offseason.”
It was only 7:15am but it was already getting hot. We were hammering hard uphill, climbing away from Will Rogers State Park en route to Trippet Ranch in the heart of Topanga. My hat felt heavy with sweat. I glanced down at my watch as we approached the top of the Will Rogers trail: we had been averaging just over eight minute per mile pace for the first seven miles, which had over two thousand feet of vertical gain and no relief– maybe 10 cumulative feet of descent.
“Would you go out this hard in a 100 typically?” I asked.
“No, definitely not. We’re going out pretty hot right now,” Jeff said glancing back at me with slightly raised eyebrows. “For 68, this will be ok for me. In a 100, it’s too risky. Once the wheels fall off, they ain’t going back on. I like to make sure I can run the last 50k of a 100. If I can just run nine minute pace, I’m picking people off. I was in 17th at Forest Hill last year at Western.”
And we all know how that turned out. I was just trying to soak in all of the wisdom I could from a guy who is 45 years old and still crushing 100 milers in big mountains (he finished just behind Kilian at Hardrock last year), has consistently shown an ability to be competitive and run an exceptional smart race from start to finish (regardless of what is happening at the front of the pack). His nutrition is on point. He basically invented drilling screws into your shoes for running on snow and ice, making anyone who purchased “running crampons” feel like a total moron.
“You trying to go under the FKT today?” I asked. I had been wanting to ask him this from the first moment we started chatting but I had held off. Somehow I don’t think I really wanted to know the answer.
“Yeah….” Jeff said casually, “I’m just trying to finish in the daylight. Under twelve hours.”
The current FKT stood at 12 hours nine minutes, set by Mark Hartell back in 2012. Before that, Chris Price had it for a little bit but he ran it the “wrong way”: West to East, which is less vert and ignores the historical significance of the trail. It’s run the way it was established: East to West. And there’s also just something beautiful and poetic and perfect about descending the Ray Miller trail down toward Pt. Mugu, racing the sun toward the horizon, hoping to reach the finish line before it disappears beneath the endless expanse of ocean. Running back into smoggy Santa Monica isn’t as satisfying for a number of reasons, regardless of how much closer it may be to my apartment.
“Twelve hours seems kinda slow for 68 miles.” I stated, fully aware that with over 15,000 feet of climbing, most people tell you the Backbone runs like a 100 miler. I was simply attempting to draw attention to the fact that not a lot of fast people had attempted the FKT and any number of runners could probably come and break it if they were interested (as Jeff would do that day).
“But dude,” Jeff replied, “It’s just so technical. And there’s a ton of climbing. The guy with the FKT has won Hardrock a couple times.”
And it was true. The Backbone is super technical. Jeff didn’t need to tell me that. I had run every step of it (with a tiny exception on a recently re-opened section). Mark Hartell certainly was a badass: he won Hardrock and finished second there twice. He finished top-five at Western States and top-twenty at UTMB. It’s not like he was some scrub who rolled off the couch and decided to go for a run on a random Saturday because he was bored. This was a highly coordinated attempt by a highly accomplished runner.
“But I guess if you’re gonna set the FKT, a race is the time to do it, with all the aid you could ever need laid out for you.” I added.
“Yeah, it’s kind of weird. There’s not many races that take place over routes that people run for FKTs…” Jeff said before trailing off. I was half hoping we were going to get into a philosophical discussion about the relative merits of unsupported vs supported vs full race aid station FKT attempts. Not only was Jeff Browning a total badass, he was a super cool guy.
As we floated into Trippett Ranch, the first aid station at mile 11.5, Jesse Haynes running along side us holding his GoPro in an outstretched arm, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
I was so into the conversation with Jeff, I realized I had barely drank anything and my shorts were already soaked with sweat. We kept saying how hot it was going to be today. Fuck that, it was hot right now. I filled my bottles– that were only half empty– tossed a cup of water on my head and was pounding down Dead Horse toward Topanga Canyon Blvd, hot on Jeff’s tail.
I broke my stride and fell into a power hike for the first time on the super steep pitch behind Topanga Elementary. The conversation and basically just the presence of Jeff Browning had pulled me out of myself a bit. I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough water, I wasn’t checking in with my stride, and I hadn’t even thought about nutrition at this point.
This was my big concern. It seems to always come down to nutrition for me. I just hate eating when I run. I can easily go 50k in a training run without eating anything (before or during). As soon as I eat, I feel like everything goes to shit. All of the sudden, I have to content with the food in my stomach as well as the miles in front of me. It seems like more stress than relief.
My plan in this race was to wait until I got hungry and then eat what looked good off the aid tables. Not exactly the dialed-in nutrition plan of someone like Jeff Browning (whom I had witnessed pulling a pill bottle out of his Strider Pros and popping a small capsule about 45 minutes into the race) but I was hoping for the best.
The three-mile climb through the canopied Hondo Canyon went surprisingly well. I was cooling off a bit in the shade, trying to drink water and still climbing strong. It’s almost 2,000 feet in a 3.5 miles and I was able to keep my pace solid and my cadence high. As I turned onto the Fossil Ridge Trail, about a mile from the second aid station (at 20k) I left the shade of Hondo Canyon and started climbing along the exposed ridgeline. The sunlight felt heavy beating down on my back as I drained my second 20oz bottle. I immediately slowed in the heat. Luckily, I was starting to feel hungry just in time for the aid station.
I bombed into the Lois Ewen Overlook– an exposed intersection with a small parking lot at what is essentially the top of Topanga, tossed my water bottles to my crew for refilling and started perusing the table for food. I slammed a couple dixie cups full of coke and then started eating an almond butter sandwich. There were some rolled up tortillas stuffed full of avocado that looked tasty so I shoved two in my waist belt and was off down the trail, mouth full of almond butter and Wonder bread, looking forward to the first extended descent after 18 miles of non-stop climbing.
I knew I was dehydrated. I started to think that I was more dehydrated that I thought when I literally could not swallow the second half of my almond butter sandwich. It was just stretching around my mouth in a dry mess. When I exhaled, little bits of bread were wheezing their way out. It felt like I had sand glued to the inside of mouth. It took me a full 20oz bottle to get it swallowed. I felt like Ron Burgundy; it was a bad choice on a hot day.
As soon as I started to push the pace on the descent, my abs started to cramp. My abs usually start to cramp when I get pretty dehydrated. They’re fucking weak. Another thing I need to work on. I HATE walking descents. It kills me. For me, mentally, it’s on par with sitting in a massive traffic jam on the 405. There’s all this free speed available, I can run fast without exerting effort. I can’t handle it if I’m forced to walk. I should probably work on that, too.
I flexed my abs as hard as I could and decided to push through. They kept getting worse. I continued pounding down the switchbacks toward the Piuma Trailhead. The cramps spread across both sides. I kept pounding. Two minutes later, I was bent over the side of the trail vomiting. Violently. My entire abdominal cavity felt like it was stuck in a twisted mess that could never be untangled. I had to walk now. I was already dehydrated and I just threw up all my water. I walked it in to the aid station at mile 25.8, exactly four hours elapsed.
By 4:35 elapsed, just as the runner in third place was coming through the aid station, I still couldn’t keep anything down. I was cramping all over my body. My quads were twitching up and down with little cramps in every muscle. I was done. My faith in my ability to bounce back is significantly diminished when I can no longer eat or drink. When I start throwing up, I sink to a very dark place mentally. I kept telling myself that I would get to the aid station and replenish and feel better… it wasn’t happening.
I need to figure my shit out. I’ve DNF’d my last two races. I put together the best training block of my life, including three consecutive 100 mile weeks, only to have it derailed by poor decision making and a complete failure to stay on top of my hydration early in the race. All that time and effort. Countless hours. Then I don’t do the one thing I know I need to do because I’m so engrossed in a conversation with Jeff Browning? I suck. I’m weak and stupid. And drop-sick.
I recently heard a quote from Jim Walmsley talking about ending suffering in a race. It was something to the effect of: “Only covering the distance ends the suffering.” A week after my race and I can tell you that he’s right. I dropped out and I’m still suffering. I didn’t end when I ripped the race bib off my shorts and got in the car.
I need to learn from this and move on. I need a nutrition plan. I need to learn to hydrate better on all my runs, not just my races. I need to get more in touch with my body. I need to get better at running slower sometimes or walking if I need to. I need a more optimistic mentality when things go wrong. As my wife pointed out later in the day, I didn’t even mention dropping at the aid station, despite how poor my condition may have been, until that third place runner came through and passed me. I need confidence in myself. Confidence that if something goes wrong, I can bounce back and push through.
Going forward, I’m ready to embrace the low points. Instead of fighting against them, I’m going to welcome them wholeheartedly, like an old friend. Even in my training, I’m going to relish each and every attempt I have to truly suffer. It takes a lot of work and a lot of effort to get to those places. I’m going to be looking forward to it next time it happens. It will be another opportunity to test myself, to find out who I really am. Let’s just hope I can show up next time.