Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Unknown Runner

[note - a momentary break in the ongoing series]
[edited- 1/30/14 to provide original blog link to Tsutomu Nagata]
As I sit here nursing a traumatic first time loss of my big toenail I have time to pause and reflect back on my first 100 where I stayed in the game - not merely struggling to the finish.

Photo courtesy of Aravaipa Running.
Just before the first aid station of the 100mile race.
Who is this guy matching my step? After the first aid station into the Coldwater Rumble 100 I moved to the side of the trail and let the unknown runner come abreast.
“Good morning. Howsit goin?” I say between gulps of a bar and water.
“Huh? Hello.”
“My name is Catlow. What is yours?”
“Hm? Englis not very gut”
“oh. Nagata.”
“yes. Nice meet you to.”
And we continued on. Realizing our pace was too fast for me to sustain and wanting to better assess Nagata as a runner I pulled over around mile 12 to water some desert scrub. And, that was a mistake. Nagata turned on the heat and quickly pulled away. At each aid station the gap grew. Completing the first loop at mile 20 I ask Nick Coury (the RD),
”Who is that guy?”
“We have no idea. Some dude from Japan.”
James Bonnett strolls over as I refill by bottles and wisely advises me to slow down as that is not a sustainable pace. I listen. I complete my 2nd, 20mile loop 22 minutes slower and find myself 20 minutes behind Nagata.

Nick informs me that Nagata is a fast runner who ran a 100km in 6hrs and 44min. I shoot back,
“Are you sure he knows this is a 100mile not a 100km race?”
My goal for this early season race was to simply gain experience running 100mile races. No records, no racing. Just to overcome my distance-related fears, hone my hydration and nutrition, and get in some base miles.

Discovering this unknown runner early in the race revved up my competitive juices. But now 20minutes behind at mile 40 I considered myself out of the game and tried to block him out of my mind.

Then at the mile 51 aid station I was told he was only a few minutes ahead, not looking very good, and walking a bit. Ah, he blew up and now is suffering. I’ll reel him in, pass him, and then forget about him and I can go on with my original focus.

At the mile 56 aid station I catch him. He looked exhausted. Worrying about him, I ask him if he is ok. The low desert can be harsh even in January. With assurance I then quickly move out and down the trail. Two minutes later Nagata shows up back on my heels and matching my pace. Who is this guy? What resolve to press on! I’m impressed but also fearful that he may have recovered and is ready to move on again. I determine to stay in front, control the pace, and not let him ahead of me like I did the first lap.

We roll into the start/finish at mile 60 – 8 minutes slower than the previous 20mile loop. Nagata continues to stay on my heels. I am at my limit but I feel I can sustain the pace. My stomach is knotted so chews and bananas only; my toe hurts and sand is in my shoe but I can’t afford the time to change my shoes; I press on and maintain the lead to control the pace.

About two-thirds around the 60-80mile loop there is a fun, fast downhill to the aid station. I use my downhill skills to let loose. A small gap opens on Nagata. I race threw the aid station – recognizable as a blur. Dusk is at her finale and the light dims. I wait to turn on my light as I wish to be invisible in setting my gap on Nagata. With ~2miles to starting the final loop (mile 80) I flip on my light and glide into the start/finish only 7 minutes slower than the previous loop.

Steve Poling comes up to me as I restock with my Mom’s help and asks if I want a pacer for the last loop. Do I? I have been so focused on Nagata that I hadn’t considered having a pacer. He mentions his runner quit and he would enjoy the experience. What the heck…why not then?

I set out on my last loop with Steve at my side. Nagata is nowhere in sight. I wonder what might have happened. Not wanting to take any chances based on earlier race dynamics I continue to push to maintain my pace. Steve and I dispense with the pleasantries and focus on the rocky trail ahead.

My legs are tired. I gag on a chew and hurl the last few I consumed onto the side of the trail. I barely break my stride and keep moving forward. Nagata could come up any second. Steve became my surrogate Nagata – running at my heels for the last 20 miles – and helped me stay focused.

Photo courtesy of Aravaipa Running.
Celebrating the finish! 
We fly into the finish – only 3 minutes slower this final lap then the previous loop – at 15:09. A new 100mile PR and on a slightly tougher course than Javelina Jundred. I’m ecstatic! But where is Nagata?

Read Tsutomu Nagata's account: translated into English or original blog in Japanese – a must read! I am grateful for the opportunity to test my racing game with this unknown runner and admirable competitor. He kept me focused and pushed me to finish my first 100 feeling strong. His friendly camaraderie throughout, his resolve to keep up even when exhausted, and his tenacity to finish after frustrating setbacks is an inspiration.

To running and pushing ourselves beyond our own mental limits.

Cheers to you Unknown Runner!

I glance at my grossly swollen toenail and know it is worth the loss. I look forward to this racing season and representing Run Steep Get High Mountain Running Team. C-ya on the upward trail!

Many thanks to Aravaipa Running and volunteers for a great race! Thanks to my Mom for crew support and love!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Part III. A breakthrough - redefining myself as a runner with barefoot form.

Running was a challenge for me since high school. Intense track training my freshman year left me walking painfully from shin splints and eventually forced me to quit track. My first running defeat. I avoided running through the rest of high school. Through college I occasionally “tested” my legs but found I could not run more than a mile without intense shin pain the following days. I happily continued other athletic pursuits in competitive road and mountain biking and swimming through college. Then graduate school started. Short on money and time, I became determined to take up running again. I figured it would provide a short and cheap workout outlet, 2-3 times per week for ~20-30 minutes.

2007 Club 10k Nationals
My first big-time race with great friends!
On the sidelines at the 2002 Tucson marathon and cheering on some friends, I ran into an old family friend, who was an experienced runner and triathlete. While chatting Mr. Soro zoomed by – barefoot – for yet another Tucson marathon win. My friend remarked how that guy was for sure going to destroy his joints and knees running barefoot.

Perhaps not. We have been running for thousands of years. Running shoes have only been on the market for the last few decades. Perhaps it is the way we run which can be damaging – not the running itself.

2007 Pemberton 50K
My first ultra!
So – with the power of the internet I searched “barefoot running” and read up on the biomechanics of running barefoot. But, how to start? My feet were tender as a baby’s bottom. With advice from a few barefoot running websites I started running 1 day a week around a grassy park and 1 day a week around a track – barefoot. Running barefoot forced me to redevelop my form which I then focused on imitating when on the road. I slowly made the switch from heel striking to fore-foot running.

My runs quickly grew longer and more frequent with less pain from my shins. Within a few months I had gone from 10-20 miles per week to 30-50miles per week. I was hooked! Within the year my new gait was effortless and comfortable.

Now both mentally and physically I declared myself a runner and continued breaking former limits and enjoying my new found freedom to explore – running!

It is hard for me to believe I wasn't able to run more than a couple of miles until changing my form in my mid-20s. No special shoes, inserts, or medical aid needed. Now I can explore the mountains at will and challenge myself to 100 mile races!
Why I love takes me to far and away places in the mountains.