USATF 50mi Trail Championships: An Anecdote

March 5, 2021

I dubbed 2020 my personal year of the trails by the end of 2019. I'd had quite an exciting rollercoaster of training and racing all over the world. After Boston, Tokyo, Berlin, and CIM, I was ready to do something other than the road marathon for a bit. Since first finding the sport of running in middle school, the trails have always been my favorite. The longer, the better. It wasn’t until this year that I decided to focus wholly on trail ultras.

By the end of March, I had done 3. I started off with a muddy 50k at the appropriately named Swamp Stomper 50k in Millington, TN. Then I found a 55k race that qualified for UTMB points in Ibarra, Ecuador during my time in Quito training in the Andes. While I was in Ecuador, I switched my plan of racing the Marin 50k to the Pioneer Spirit 50-mile.

The reason? I was feeling great in my altitude training and confident I could handle it. Also, my friends (and Hoka pros) Tyler Andrews and Anna Mae Flynn strongly suggested that I go for the USATF Championship race. Finishing top-10 there would be better than winning in Marin. After many days of deliberation, I cemented it in my mind: I was doing the 50mi and running in my first national championship race.

This amplified my training in Ecuador as I put in 5+ hour efforts in the mountains with Ty. We spent a lot of time well over 10,000ft altitude and climbing many vertical kilometers each outing. It allowed me to practice the skill of eating and drinking enough to sustain effort. And it all came in handy.

Racing with Ty at eh Chota Trail 55km Ultra in Ibarra, Ecuador

The Race

Race morning was cold (~40F) and rainy – in other words, a regular Weickert race day. When I showed up to the starting area in the wet, chilly 5AM dark, I was mostly filled with immense gratitude. I had been training hard for the longest race of my life, and it was miraculously not canceled. The COVID-19 situation had begun to snowball by this point in mid-March, as had containment measures. Like a hero snatching our event from the jaws of widespread cancellations, the race director masterfully coordinated with authorities to adjust the championship and keep it alive. This was quite possibly the only race happening in all of California – the Marin race was cancelled.

On the dark starting line, I recognized the lithe figures I’d heard so much about. Powerhouse guys like Tim Tollefson (#6 UltraRunner of the 2019), Matt Daniels (#9), and Max King were milling about, getting loose.  I felt good, and I felt ready. Reveling in the quiet confidence that only comes with remarkable preparation, I decided that I was going to be one of the first people across the finish that afternoon.

I knew that all my training in the Ecuadorian Andes gave me an advantage on this challenging course, which would climb 4,500ft and descend 5,500ft. It was a privilege to take on this gorgeous trail in the Sierras of Northern CA.

The race shot off very quickly as Tim, Matt, and a few others immediately went into low-6min/mi pace. My confidence propelled me into the darkness, tucking in behind Max King in 6th. I was going too fast but didn’t care yet.

Start of the 2020 USATF 50mi Trail Championships

Cold rain came down into my eyes and obscured the meager window of light from my headlamp, reminding me of stars streaking by the Millenium Falcon as it entered hyperdrive. Trail running is very engaging, especially in the dark, especially when it’s raining or snowing. Being way out on a trail with a restricted field of vision and trying to go fast is a skillset that’s fun and risky to develop. The terrain constantly changes underfoot, and focus is critical in order to make continual adjustments and micro-decisions on every foot strike. Even smart choices can mean a rolled ankle or a fall.

It is exhilarating.

Through the streaks of raindrops flying past my field of vision, I witnessed Max looking incredibly smooth over the rough trail. I wanted to emulate him and the way he flew down sketchy, rocky, wet descents; he never broke stride through mud, horse manure, or questionable forks in the trail. I was indulging myself by trying to stay with him, of course. When my watch showed the first mile split at 6:30, I knew that it was time to come back to reality. This was going to be a very long day if I did it well, but I was setting myself up for a world of hurt and a very possible early drop if I kept this aspirational pace up. I didn’t even have to back off for Max to disappear into the darkness -- I just stopped pushing so hard. The self-control was only strong enough to back off a hair, it took several more miles to truly settle in.

Chugging along at mile ~10

Early morning light softened the darkness into a gradually paler blue, illuminating my beautiful scenery for the first time about an hour into the race. I took a second to enjoyed myself while preparing for the big climbs on the horizon. I was in 9th position with about 40 miles to go.

Despite the unrelenting gray and nearly constant rain, the course was stunning. At one point, the trail opened to reveal the North Fork American River and California’s tallest bridge, which spans a huge gap between Sierras. I loved running a part of the renowned Western States course. Amidst the trees and the hilly terrain, my Andean experience came in huge as I ascended the long climbs with relative ease. I gained ground and passed competitors while still feeling under control. The miles clicked by but began feeling tougher with the accumulating ascent and descent. Aid stations were coming quickly and foods/liquids were going down well. About 30 miles to go.

Here and there, I would gain a position, only to lose it to someone else. After a while, I wasn’t sure if I was holding 9th or 10th, but I knew it was close. The sense of urgency to walk people down was very real as I trudged along. It would prove to be extremely motivating when I questioned whether I could finish.

The darkness of the pain cave began creeping in as I approached 30 miles. This was expected of course, so I filed it away. Efficient form became a larger focus as the technical trail continued demanding high knee lift, careful foot placement, and focused attention on the next stretch.

As many athletes know, the onset of fatigue is not linear. By mile 40, discomfort increased by an order of magnitude. The worst for me was between mile 38 and 43, when I was fully immersed in my personal universe of agony. My hip flexors were maxed out from climbing hills and clearing big rocks in stride. I started tripping more because I couldn’t pick my legs up high enough. My quads were shot from constant pounding on downhills, forcing me to slow down and slip more.

Grinding through when things began getting very real.

My vision started narrowing, blurring the green foliage into dark, wet dirt. My coordination fell apart.  I felt drunk as I struggled to stay in the center of the trail. My pace tanked, and these last miles felt longer than the entire first half of the race. Another racer passed me. I felt like my decline was in full swing, and ominously, it felt like my goal would slip away with the next runner to pass me.

There were moments where I felt on the brink of breakdown, where the only thing keeping me moving was the fact that I was still in the top-10.

The fastest way home was to snap myself back together.  It was non-negotiable. I determined that wallowing in this pity party would only to make things worse. More importantly, it was going to make this take even longer. The best solution was improving my form, adjusting my mindset, and simply not stopping.

I took in some extra fluids and calories at the next aid-station and saw my awesome crew, lifting my spirits. I also saw a racer ahead of me who was clearly falling back in the pack. I passed him within a few minutes of leaving the aid station. I was still barely hanging on to the top-10.

This is the specialty of the best ultramarathoners – not letting the highs get too high or the lows get to low. The legends stoically managing the overwhelm to see what’s there, and, maybe, see what’s on the other side.

Those final miles were, frankly, grueling. I wish I could say that I had a breakthrough and found oneness with the universe. I wish I could say the Rocky theme song was playing in the background as I heroically montaged my way to the finish. But none of those things happened. I was deep in the abyss of suffering. My pace kept slowing, which meant that the torture would be prolonged. The gaps between aid stations felt longer and longer, and that’s because they were (in minutes).

I remember seeing that I had only 6 miles to go and feeling excited to have 45ish minutes left. And then, an awful realization washed over me: I was averaging just over 10:00 pace/mi. I had at least an hour to go if I sped up.

A runner passed me like I was going backward. I couldn’t even attempt to give chase, but I could simply keep going.

A few minutes later, I saw a racer that had clearly dropped. 8th or 9th now.

Arriving at the last aid station, I hardly felt relief. I still had 5 miles to go and realized that my watch had been deceiving me. As the pain consumed me, I looked down every few minutes to count down the tenths of miles left until the next food stop. It was here I realized my watch was reading 1 mile longer than the course. I adjusted my mental countdown to 51 rather than 50 and tried not to think about it.

Another runner passed me with just over a mile left. It took everything in me to stay upright and move forward.

I was nearly to mile 51 and tragically saw no sign of the finish line. It was here that a man standing and taking video encouraged me and said, “…only a mile to go”. Of course.

50 seemed like it would be all I could handle. Then it became 51. Then it became 52. I desperately scraped the bottom of the well yet again, the same way I had when it felt like nothing was there an hour ago.

Finally, I heard my girlfriend yelling for me, heard music bumping over speakers, smelled the barbecue at the finish line. I turned on the jets to a “blazing” finish somewhere around 8:00min pace to finish with a total time of 7:18.

Almost home!

A smiling volunteer handed me a finisher’s medal and told me that I ran 8th overall.

Sometimes, crossing the finish lines feels empowering and victorious. There was some of that, but it was drowned out by the fact that I was messed up. Just because the running is done does not mean the suffering stops so abruptly.

It was hardly a celebration at first. I hobbled toward my crew of mom, brother, and girlfriend and the mood more closely resembled seeing a loved one in the ER. The emotional weight of the endeavor bore down on me as my legs cramped relentlessly. Talking proved difficult because of how wrecked I was, desperately needing calories and liquids but not having the stomach to handle it among all the painful sensations that were coursing through me. It was as intense as any part of the race.

In my 3rd ultramarathon, I ran a personal longest distance among some of the best in the nation. The course and conditions threw a lot at me – at times, more than I thought I could handle. Things got ugly, but ultimately ended in barriers broken and a huge goal accomplished.

Still cramping while receiving awards

It was indescribably tough, but that challenge also made it beautiful. Experience stripped to its barest, purest form (even at the awards ceremony). One foot in front of the other. One hill at a time. Reaching limits but finding ways to continue. That’s why we do this crazy stuff after all.

Cheers to recovery drinks.

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