Humility & the steep end of the curve
Elise looked at me, eyebrow raised, and paused. “No you’re not,” she said. “Just come, sit down. Eat something. Rest. You can keep going.”
I really wanted to believe her – she held my arm while I staggered toward the aid tent – but the truth was, I’d already made up my mind, more than three hours ago.
I’d just arrived at Bonnevier Aid Station, 66 km into the 193 km Fat Dog 120 trail race and I had been moving for almost 12 hours. The course up to this point consisted of two five-thousand foot mountain ascents, traversing spectacular and varied terrain with panoramic mountain vistas, alpine meadows and forest trail.
The day had started well enough – even though the race began with an ascent of Red Mountain, summiting at 2400 m, and the temperature would rise steadily to a high of 35°C, and the air carried the smoke haze from one of the worst forest-fire years in history – the climb felt good. I knew that to survive a race of this length, I would have to keep the effort level as low as possible for as long as possible and, for the most part, I felt like I was doing just that.
After the first climb, the trail then descended about 1200 m to the Ashnola River. I was feeling relaxed, so I paced behind a couple of runners at moderate speed, picking my way over boulder fields and down the long single-track to the valley below. It felt conservative but it was definitely running and I found myself wondering “is this the sort of thing you regret later?”
When I arrived at the Ashnola Aid Station at 29 km, something was wrong. As soon as I stopped running I started to feel foggy and my body was heavy, but my effort level and the distance would not normally have elicited this response. I knew it was hot, because the Body Glide I tried to apply to my legs had melted off the stick, but I didn’t feel hot, which was weird. I ate some food off the table, packed my hydration bladder with ice cubes and forged ahead. It was just past 2:30 in the afternoon and I was slightly ahead of schedule to meet my family at Bonnevier at around 8 pm – that was good.
Leaving the aid station, the course covers several hundred metres on gravel road before beginning the next ascent up to Flat Top Mountain. I was feeling generally unwell – not exactly tired, but slightly somnambulistic, disconnected – sludgy. Starting the climb did not make things better, nausea set in, and the slow upward trudge seemed unreasonably hard. I had been here before though, and I told myself: “This is an ultra! Things get worse, then they get better. Just keep moving and moderate your effort, and you’ll get through this.” And it did get better, and as I climbed I was treated to more incredible scenery: a burned-out forest littered with starkly graphic blackened trees giving way to meadows, wild flowers and spectacular views.
Then it got worse. Much worse. As quickly as the nausea faded, it returned like a heavy fist to the gut. Minutes later, my right quadriceps muscle went into spasm. Shit. I am no stranger to cramps, my first 50k involved massive cramping which began at about the 30k mark in one leg and persisted for the rest of the race, eventually spreading to both thighs, calves and shins. I had managed them by stopping, stretching, walking and popping the occasional salt pill, but in that race, I also knew that I needed only to grunt my way through 20 kilometres to get to the finish – it wasn’t 120 miles.
As a result of that experience, I obsessively read about Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping (EAMC) and discovered that ultimately, no one really knows what causes cramping. The most current research suggests that the heat, dehydration and electrolyte-imbalance hypothesis that has been subscribed to in most of the modern era, has not been adequately proven. In fact there are several studies that seem to disprove the notions that temperature, fluid loss due to sweat, or serum electrolyte balance have any causal relationship with cramping. (Numerous references are cited in this study)
In the last few years, the EAMC theory that has gained wide acceptance in the endurance running community is the neuromuscular hypothesis. It essentially says that muscle overload and neuromuscular fatigue cause an imbalance between the excitatory impulses and inhibitory impulses that control muscle contraction which then leads to involuntary muscle contraction and therefore, cramping. This is hypothesized to be a ‘preservation’ impulse from the nervous system – a neurological mechanism that serves to “slow you down” to avoid catastrophic harm. The primary solution to cramping then, is to slow down.
Anecdotally, it is widely known that drinking pickle juice or other strong, salty-tasting beverages or food can provide rapid relief of muscle cramps. Following the neuromuscular line of thinking as described above, it is believed that the way pickle juice works is that something about the taste triggers a neurological reflex somewhere in the back of the throat that follows the same neural pathway as the cramping impulse. This then, can cause the overactive muscle to release. It is not the nutrition of the pickle juice that is easing the cramp, it the brain-effect (also referred to as the Central Governor).
At that particular moment though, I was not overly interested in the nuance of cause. But I did find some sense in the theory. Relating it back to my previous experience – I had also faced periodic muscle cramps when I ran the 70-mile version of Fat Dog the previous year, and I was able to work through them by walking, stretching and otherwise ignoring them – the “Central Governor” theory seemed accurate. So I decided to take the same approach here and just pushed on.
When you sign up for an ultra marathon, you don’t envision dropping out – such thinking is a death knell. I’m not usually one to give doubt a voice in the process, but by the time I summited Flat Top Mountain, doubt was in the midst of staging a coup. Things had steadily progressed for the worse: the cramps had spread to both quads, abductors and calves and the nausea was beginning to overwhelm me. My stomach felt better walking but my legs were better running. But in truth, there was not much running. To complicate matters, I knew that my family was supposed to meet me at Bonnevier and my boys (8 and 5 years old) would not be able to wait too long – it would be getting very late.
So I decided: I would drop at Bonnevier. Given my current state of decline, I couldn’t bring myself to even imagine that I could continue for another 140 km, but paradoxically, I also needed to hustle to get to my family. I descended Flat Top much too fast, the muscles in my legs taking turns locking up every four or five steps. I gritted my teeth and put on my bravest face, running with others that actually were having good days, but I flailed downhill recklessly, feeling like my body was short-circuiting and out of control. By the time I sat down at Calcite Aid Station at 57 km it was like there were worms crawling under the skin of my legs – all the small muscles were pulsating and writhing. I was frightened by the prospect of what would happen if I stayed seated, so I got up and left.
It was after 9:30 PM when I hobbled up the side of the highway into Bonnevier, totally destroyed. I think my state shocked Elise and to some degree, it shocked me. She refused to believe that I was going to quit, but when she placed her palms on my calves and felt those subcutaneous eels, she began to understand – there was no going on.
When you plan for a three-day event and you drop on the first day, you are left a lot of time on your hands to ponder what went wrong. Luckily, the weather was good and we were camping as a family in a beautiful spot – Manning Provincial Park. It was a peaceful spot to contemplate what had just happened. The next day, it was hard to imagine that I had been feeling like I was at my physical end only the night before. I was confused, frustrated, damning these ludicrous races and wanting nothing more than to take a break from it all. It was unthinkable that I would attempt this foolishness again any time soon. That same morning however, Elise was already plotting what we would do differently next year. And on the drive home, as soon as we had a cellular connection, I signed up for the Finlayson Arm 100k, just four weeks away.
For better or for worse, I have a very short memory for pain – after the race I moved quickly from shame to defiance to enthusiasm. After all, this was my first attempt at a 100-mile (plus) race, and I really have very little experience running ultras at all. Though my weekend ended early, I learned some important lessons about ultra logistics, and I had discovered a new problem – cramping – to solve. And as I’ve found myself saying from time-to-time: “Isn’t life just the story you tell yourself later?”
My severe bout of cramping sent me off on another round of binging on articles, podcasts and other literature to try and figure out what was going on, and how to solve it. I will write about my findings which I put to the test in A Tale of Two Races – Part Two