Project Carbon X2: Strike 2
On Saturday, Jan 23, 2021, Chaski Founder and Coach Tyler Andrews (along with several others on Team Chaski) competed at HOKA’s Project Carbon X2, an attempt at the 100km (62.2 mile) world record. Below he shares his experience in his second try at the distance and the mark.
I think I woke up naturally before my alarm, not a hint of sunlight, a tick before 04:00am. The gun for the HOKA Project Carbon X2 100km Race was set to go off at 07:10am and with 3+ hours I had plenty of time to get ready to go. I packed my bag and headed down to Jim and Jess’ room and finished up a coffee, Jim rounding off the second red bull of the morning already.
The mood was calm and light-hearted as we headed towards the shuttles, which would drive us the couple of miles to the “Brown Tower”, just next to the drag racing strip where the race would start. We all rode in silence, still pitch black outside, and alone, each of us separated by a few mandatory seats.
Once there, we set up shop and played the waiting game. Everything was feeling good as Jim and I headed out for a very slow jog together out behind the finish line. The weather was perfect, without much wind and cool enough for gloves. There was just an inkling of dawn on the horizon to the east.
Then it was all business and all routine -- and it still did feel like routine, despite nearly a year passing since the last time I’d really stood on a start line. Warmups off, race shoes on, everything triple checked. Drills, strides, and then we were on the line and gone.
The pacers ran to the front and took control of the race, forming a line of four and allowing us to tuck in behind. In the pack was Jim, Hayden Hawks, Craig Hunt, Cole Watson, and me. We settled in and my watch had 3’40 at the first km -- just about perfect -- and I don’t think I looked at it again until we passed 5K (my watch buzzing just as we crossed the mat) almost exactly on WR pace at 18’27-28.
In the moment, these early stages felt okay, but not great. Aerobically, I often found myself literally only breathing through my nose, my mouth closed, but somehow the effort still felt a bit more focused than it should have been. I felt less bored than these early miles should merit. Still, I thought nothing of it and figured it’d take some time to “warm up” and I knew I’d have some amount of rough patches both early and late, even on a good day.
The first lap was slightly modified and I remember it feeling a bit longer than I’d liked -- though, this too I’d anticipated. After that, we had eight identical laps of 6.95 miles to bring us to 100km (62.2 miles). I tried not to look at the splits (my watch buzzed every 5K and that was all I checked) as the pacers were doing an excellent job running even and controlled.
Still, things just didn’t feel right.
Fairly early in the race, maybe lap 3, I started to feel some sharp pain in the pad of my outer forefoot on the left side. This was new and somewhat alarming, but I also knew that weird things would probably come and go. I tried to listen to it but not let it affect me. I continued on.
I also remember approaching the 40km mark - a big milestone in my mind - and just feeling like I was really burning a lot more matches than I should have been at that point. I could feel myself slipping towards the back of the pack and not getting dropped, but just having to work a lot more to stay with the group.
I’d had to use the bathroom for a while (which I don’t think is a deal-breaker; for what it’s worth, Jim took a bathroom stop as well), and finally took the opportunity to stop while the pacers were still in and we were nearing the halfway mark. I was not feeling good at all at this point and -- based on the same experience in workouts -- knew that if I could stop for a second, catch my breath, use the bathroom, and get going again, I’d feel a lot better.
And I did for a mile or two; but I quickly found myself having trouble catching up to the group. I couldn’t seem to close the gap despite trying as hard as I could and finally at 50km (~3h05), I saw that I was actually losing ground and running quite a bit slower.
This is where mentally things started to go downhill. I knew that things weren’t feeling great, that those first 3 hours hadn’t felt quite right; but I was still running in the 3’50s and thought that I might be able to settle there and hang on for a long, solo second half, picking folks off up front. I tried hard to stay positive, but fairly quickly the 3’50 became 4’10 became 4’40 became 5’30 and things had completely fallen apart. My legs were completely shot, both my feet now felt terrible on the outside forefoot pads and I was barely able to keep shuffling along.
I remember Jess yelling at me at the crew’s aid station around 55km which honestly probably kept me from dropping right there, but I also kind of knew I was f***ed at that point. I crossed back over the highway and that’s when I started walking for the first time. I honestly probably would have just walked it in to the next aid station, but could see the lead pace car coming, so tried to run a bit again so as to not embarrass myself (quite as much) in front of what I figured would still be an in-tact lead pack.
I was pleased to see Jim already pulling away, but bummed that he had a long way to go by himself, just staring at Eric Senseman on the back of the lead car for the next 2.5 hours or so. Craig was maybe 10m back and Hayden quite a bit farther. I think Cole had already stopped.
(Aside - I did shout something relatively positive to Jim saying that I felt good and was working my way back up or something, mostly because I didn’t want him to have any kind of negativity in his head and figured he might be bummed to know that my day was already over).
I think I jogged for a while more after this, thinking I’d at least try to make it to 40 miles or so, but the overall time was just getting slower and slower and I was feeling worse and worse. I was doing a lot of math about how long it’d take to finish at this rate and I thought back to what Jim had said the day before about how many DNFs there would be, about how the (relatively) small finishers’ bonus wasn’t enough incentive for people to walk/shuffle in for hours to 7 or 8 hours.
And he was right. I let my pride and disappointment take over and shuffled across the last major intersection and finally veered off course and into the port-a-john where I finally sat down and stopped my watch at 4 hours and 20 minutes and just under 40 miles.
Ashamed, I hobbled back to Brown Tower. I drank some water and sat in the bathroom and let myself cry, the thousands of miles leading up to this point feeling like a waste -- again -- with nothing to show for them.
I cleaned myself up and found my phone and pulled up the live stream and was able to watch Jim’s last 15 miles or so, the excitement as he came through with a lap to go and almost 2 minutes in the bank and the agony of watching him throw himself down the home stretch -- such a deceptively long straightaway -- and just miss the mark.
Despite my own day being a complete disaster, I was glad to be there for my friend at the finish, trying to block the cameras as he booted a bunch of neon liquid into the trash can. He’d left everything out there on that course; it was an unbelievable display of physical and mental ability.
Still, it was bittersweet. I’d thought an awful lot about this finish line and what it would feel like to stand there together having gone 1-2, breaking the world record, destroying the rest of the field, etc. This wasn’t what I’d envisioned, but I also knew it was a possibility. We were trying to do something no one else had ever done before, and while my day was still inexplicably bad -- there’s no way to sugar coat it; something was dramatically wrong from the start (1) -- these events that push the limits and boundaries of human capability will always leave a trail of destroyed bodies behind them; it’s an honor to even be a part of them.
Finally, I’m tremendously grateful for having the health and fitness to even stand on that line with the idea of chasing this mark. I wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for Jim and his friendship and the many miles shared together in this buildup. I’m looking forward to many more to come.
For now, though, I’m trying to let my body heal from what was (still) a long and challenging day for my body and mind. And I’m trying to figure out what happened so that I can learn from this day and move on.
Whatever happens, I’m still here, still finding new ways to push my limits, and still searching for the next goals that excite me, scare me, and give some sense of purpose to what we do every day.
Stay with us.
— Tyler Andrews
- - ADDENDUM
The most frustrating part for me about Saturday’s race was the completely inexplicable (to me) experience of what actually happened and how I felt in the early stages of the race. It’s worth noting that of the many longer runs I’d done at or around this race pace over the previous few months, Saturday’s run felt by far the worst (and the data agree), even though some were done at 7000 ft above sea level. It’s important to note that even 1 week out from race-day, I was running this same pace at a lower effort on a hillier course with no problem.
Why? What changed in that week?
With a few days of hindsight and the opportunity to examine the data from my watch and compare it with other workouts, I’ve come to a few conclusions and possible explanations.A few important pieces of information:
- My heart rate was significantly higher (more than 10 bpm) than it should have been at the same effort (i.e in workouts running the same pace in the same shoes, even at altitude, the HR was significantly lower).
- This matches my experience of having the effort feel too hard in the first 2-3 hours of the race, though it’s important to note that this did NOT impact my race experience as I never once looked at my HR during the run itself (so, there was no feedback cycle of seeing the high HR early and getting freaked out by it).
- The HR data came from a chest strap (the same one I use regularly) and doesn’t look buggy, so I believe the data are accurate.
- The other data that look weird are my average cadence for each lap, which are significantly lower than usual (176-180 on race day vs usually more like mid-180s at race pace). This may not sound like much but is actually really significant.
I’ve established 3 hypotheses which I’ll rank in order of simplicity (but I think are in reverse order of likelihood).
- “Some bug” - being a bit sick would explain pretty much everything, the high HR and perceived effort especially. My resting HR from that morning was normal, though, and I had no other symptoms so I think this is unlikely.
- Taper weight - it’s possible that I put on a few pounds of water weight during the last few days of the taper. I don’t think this would make a significant enough difference to account for what I experienced, especially because I should have sweat off most of any excess water weight in the first hour or so of the race.
- Low cadence - To me, the low cadence explains almost everything (and I can kind of explain the low cadence -- bear with me). Taking fewer steps means each ground impact (i.e. step) is more forceful (i.e. destructive to tissue and joint and bone). This explains the extreme foot pain and muscular fatigue at a pace that should have been much more sustainable for much longer. It also explains the higher early HR earlier as I was literally running with different mechanics than I’m used to.Now, why was the cadence lower? It’s possible that I shot myself in the proverbial foot by being really well rested and tapered. The pace was so easy on fresh legs at sea level that it almost felt like a quick easy run vs. a race. I often find my range of motion improves with a taper/down week, and so it’s not surprising I was able to easily extend the stride length significantly.I think the body simply settled into a lower cadence, longer stride run early in the race and -- for whatever reason -- it turned out that was much more muscularly, energetically, and metabolically costly than how I’ve been running in workouts.
If we assume this is right, what could I have done differently? What could be done in the future? I’m not sure. It’s certainly never an issue I’ve had before but I think running more ultras which require honing a speed that’s (relatively) more relaxed will require some investigation.
Whatever happened, I’m glad I have SOME ideas as my final result looks pretty darn similar to 2019 but I think what actually happened out there was completely different.
If you have any thoughts or ideas, please feel free to message/comment/etc.
Ty, Jan 25, 2021
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