This is not the race report I expected to write.
This is not the race report I was prepared to write.
This is not the race report I have any business writing.
Last year I had the very good fortune to be introduced to 3 Days of Syllamo, a 3 day stage race in the heart of Arkansas. It runs Friday-Sunday. Friday is a 50k, Saturday is a 50-miler, Sunday is a 20k, which makes it a total of 94 miles over three days.
3 Days has been going on for something like 13 years now. I tell people it’s like summer camp for ultra runners. The same core group has been going for years and has become like a family. Some of the most experienced trail runners and best people come from all over the country to spend time together this weekend. They swap war stories, catch up with each other, and challenge themselves to strap the shoes back on one more day and see what they can do on the trails. It is without a doubt what trail running and trail races SHOULD be in my mind.
That first year I ran Day 1, helped on out Day 2, and ran Day 3. I spent the weekend sponging up every bit of knowledge I could. I tried to keep my big dumb mouth shut and my eyes wide open. I learned more than I ever thought existed about trail running. I learned about the physical tricks of the trade, like why it’s a really good idea to go stand in the ice cold creek water for a bit. I leaned about the mental tricks, like how to make yourself strap your shoes back on when everything hurt and you really, really, really didn’t want to. This all culminated in Day 3 when I had the Best Run Of My Life. Everything clicked 100%. I got a small glimpse of what trail running could really be for the first time. I wanted to do that again.
I wanted to go back.
I knew I’d be back.
I HAD to go back.
I had to run all three days.
I decided 2016 was going to be The Year I Ran My First 100-Mile Race. Spreading 94 miles over three days seemed like a logical way to prep and test where I was at.
I spent all winter training pretty rigorously. I didn’t skip workouts, I didn’t allow myself excuses. I started eating vegan in November in an effort to drop weight. I resumed strength training at the gym and hit the hill repeats hard. I built up my weekly mileage slowly but surely. I thought about how much life was going to suck at mile 38 on Saturday afternoon and tried to think of how I was going to get through that.
At the same time, my personal life started to go through some very dramatic and personal upheavals. Things got completely topsy-turvy and utterly messy. It was an extremely rough time. It gave me fuel to run long on cold days and taught me to embrace being uncomfortable. Running gave me time to think and process through everything going on. I found some very good friends who amazingly let me talk through things with them while on the trails. Being able to train and stay focused on a goal got me through a really rough patch.
A month out, I had a minor freak out. I was intimidated. I felt like I hadn’t done enough, like I’d run out of time to train and was screwed. What the hell had I signed myself up for? No way was this going to happen. I was an idiot who was going to wind up lost and injured in the Arkansas wilderness, with nobody but myself to blame.
Then I went for my last long run before the race, a 30 miler. Everything clicked. My nutrition was dialed in, my body felt strong. I had an extra gear. I began to think this might be possible. I woke up the next day and went for a 15 mile run and felt even better. Nothing was a struggle. Nothing hurt. That’s when it clicked.
I could do this.
I was GOING to do this.
Now, believing that and knowing that are two different things. Two days before race day I started to prep my mind for the Impending Suck. Doing something like 3 Days, I imagined there were just going to be times when you felt like utter shit, when everything hurt, when the only thing that would keep you going is sheer mental fortitude. Big Strong Ultra Trail Runner, RAWR. I was willing to do that and deal with the consequences, but I had to build up the mental strength to prep for that.
I tend to think of all things as being a fuel tank. You can be physically strong, but only for so long before your tank runs dry. You can be mentally strong, but only for so long before your tank runs dry. Your tank can always run dry. The only thing you can really do is make the tank bigger.
With all the Personal Things happening in my life, my mental strength was consistently running somewhere around 1/4 full on good days to flashing E oh my god pull over now and refill. There were a few days of pushing the car along to the next filling station. Refilling the Mental Strength Tank to handle 3 Days was not easy. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how I did it, other than the sheer excitement of it finally being Race Weekend after many months of training and thinking about it. I shut out everything else and just focused on the weekend.
If you successfully finish all 3 days, your grand massive prize is a rock from the course. They go out a few weeks before hand and pick up rocks from the course, then hand paint them with the race logo and year. You read that correctly, you run 94 miles in 3 days and the reward for your efforts is a damn painted rock. Normally I give less than two craps about race prizes and swag, but as I started to refill the Mental Strength Tank, one goal became prominent over all else:
I was going to get my damn rock.
My game plan going in was simple: Finish all 3 days. Preferably in one piece. Preferably un-injured. Preferably without completely embarrassing myself. Preferably while having a great time. Above all else though, JUST F’ING FINISH.
I travelled down with a group of friends from Lawrence who were going for the first time. It was a blast getting to watch them see the event for the first time and made me re-appreciate the event all over again, but I knew I shouldn’t run with them. I needed steady hands of experience and wisdom for at least a couple of the days. Luckily, my great group of running and workout buddies from KC were also going. They had been to 3 Days multiple years, if not since the inaugural event. They knew the trails and knew how to handle the weekend.
One of the things I learned from the first year was that it was a zero-sum game. If you raced Day 1 hard, you screwed yourself for Day 2. If you raced Day 2 hard, would you have anything left in the tank to get through Day 3? If you saved it all for Day 3, you should’ve run harder on Day 1 & 2.
I just wanted my damn rock.
I quickly decided that the best plan of action seemed to be to run all three days evenly. Don’t push hard on any day. Go nice and steady. Stay reasonable. Let the experience of the weekend wash over me and try to not get killed. I have a tendency to go out way too fast like a total asshole. This was not going to work. I didn’t want to blow what I had on Day 1 and have to sufferslogsuckfest through the rest of the weekend.
I was going to get a damn rock.
I decided I was going to run Day 1 with my KC crew. They’d get me through. They’d keep me from doing something stupid. They’d be great company at a good pace for the day.
Day 1 was everything I expected and then some. Beautiful single-track through the scenic Arkansas countryside. The race packet says “Elevation Gain: As much as I can find”. Day 1 proved it when the trail suddenly went completely off trail and had a mile long downhill section through bushwhacking un-marked territory, only to immediately turn around and take you right back up the hill you had just hand machete’d your way down.
I had some great laughs with my KC crew and some better talks. As they do every time I get to run with them, they amazed me with their generosity of spirit, warmth, kindness, intelligence, and strength. That day was no exception. These are my people.
Day 1 ended with a faster time than Day 1 the previous year. My feet hurt, but I knew that was due to the thinner shoes I elected to wear for the day. Standing in the ice cold creek water felt amazing. I even managed to NOT slip and fall all the way into the water this time too! The weekend was off to a good start!
Day 2 was an early morning, but aside from my sore feet, nothing really hurt. I slept well and felt good. I didn’t dare say anything to anybody though lest I be cursed at mightily.
Day 2 I got to run with another of my favorite people to run with, a friend who came down to run the 50 miler exclusively. It was either her 2nd or 3rd 50 miler and she was really looking forward to the experience. The weather was PERFECT, slightly chilled at the start, then warming to the perfect 50′s and partly cloudy for the day.
I had another good run. I walked all the hills and ran the flats and downhills. This combined with good company made for another great day. It was an out-and-back course and felt like it took FOREVER to get to the turn-around, but MAN what a difference it made psychologically once I got there. Evidently it did for a member of the KC crew too because she came out of nowhere and blazed past us around mile 30. My friend was running on fresh legs and seemed like she needed a push, so I told her to ditch my slow ass and go run with the KC crew gal. She took a little convincing, but she finally took off and caught up with the other lady.
This became the first time for the weekend I was running solo. It was wonderful. I tried to keep up a decent pace, but not TOO fast. Stick to the plan. Nice and steady. Keep eating your Tailwind. Don’t look at your watch. Keep your heart rate low. Leave something in the tank.
After an hour or two, I caught a glimpse of my friend. She was running solo. She became a carrot to catch back up with. It took a few miles, but when I finally did it became clear we were glad to see each other. She had tried to keep up with KC crew gal and did so for an hour or two, but finally had to pull back, which meant she was running solo too. We immediately lifted each others spirits and started to contemplate that we might actually do this thing for realsies.
The last aid station came and they said “Only 5 more miles!”. Multiple people have shown me empirical data proving me wrong, but I would SWEAR it was really 7 miles. It felt like it took FOREVER, especially once I made the mistake of looking at my watch and seeing the time. Instantly the goal became to beat a certain number on the watch. I started to push. I got more serious. My friend told me later all she could hear was forceful breathing and grunts behind her and she was a little frightened. I get quiet and evidently a little intimidating when I get serious. Pre-apologies to anybody who ever sees me like this. I’m really happy, I promise!
We didn’t make the artificial goal time I just invented in the last 5 miles of the race, but we finished strong and felt good! I was sore, but nothing HURT. I went and stood in the ice creek again and marveled at the day I just had. I never hit the pain cave. I never thought about bailing. I never had a dark moment. I felt pretty damn good all day long. I had stuff still in my legs for Day 3.
I went to sleep and woke up for Day 3 feeling…pretty damn good. I was a little tender in spots, but my feet felt better that morning than they did the morning of Day 2. (Side note: I’m officially a believer in shoes with more padding for longer distance stuff. Makes a HUGE difference.) I was looking forward to strapping on the shoes again and getting some more trail time on Day 3.
My other friends were limping around like Frankestein. Their pain was evident in the wincing on their faces with every step. They had the permanent 1000-yard stare in their eyes. All they wanted was to be done with Day 3, then go home and sleep for another 3 days.
I dared not whisper a word of how I felt to anybody. I would instantly be thrown over the nearest cliff and quickly forgotten about. I would never be spoken of again. He Who Felt Great On Day Three would become a curse word henceforth.
That is, until the Day 3 course featured a 3/4 mile climb of bushwhacking straight uphill. No switchbacks, no breaks, straight up a certified Big Ass Hill where there “trail” consisted of some ribbons tied to branches, a foot deep of leaves covering rocks and sticks and who knows what else. Oh, and a few trees fallen down that you got to monkey under or over, because around only meant more steepness.
Halfway through Day 3 is where life started to get hard, but not the hard I expected. I had juice still in my legs, but weird stuff started to happen. My hands started to lose sensation and fine motor control. I started to lose coordination as much. I hadn’t fallen at all, but I totally ate dirt twice on Day 3, both times on tiny little rocks I should’ve easily gotten over.
I was getting tired. My physical tank was getting more empty. My mental tank, however, was not.
When I hit the turnaround on the Day 3 course, everything got lighter. For the first time the whole weekend, I gave myself permission to think about it.
I was going to get my damn rock.
I had done it.
I had 5 miles left. All downhill and flat.
Fuck it, let’s torch the rest of this tank.
I started sprinting.
And by sprinting, I meant I FELT like I was sprinting. My watch later told me I was most definitely NOT sprinting, but what does it know anyway? Stupid accurate GPS, shut your face.
I started seeing other runners ahead of me. The stupid primal thing inside began to scream. “Catch them. Don’t let them beat you. Push harder. Go faster. Smoke their ass.”
I started picking runners off. I bombed down the bushwhacking hill faster than any sane responsible person would’ve. I know this because I passed three people on it and every one of them gave me the mouth agape look of “What the hell are you doing, you colossal idiot? You’re going to break a leg and roll down the rest of this hill until you end up in a bloody heap at the bottom.”
I didn’t care, I had done it. That Damn Rock was calling my name so loudly I could hear it from miles away. The fabled Sirens of old had nothing on the song Damn Rock was piping into my earholes.
I saw another runner up ahead. I pushed. I passed. I saw another runner. I pushed. I passed.
This went on for the entire final 5 miles. At a certain point, Autopilot took over completely. I started to see myself at the Finish line, with the RD handing me my rock. I could already feel the massive dam of emotions and energy building up. I was going to get my Damn Rock.
When I finally turned the corner and saw the Finish Line in sight, I started to tear up. If you’ve never seen a grown man run at a dead sprint with tears in his eyes, I can assure you it’s a hilarious and disturbing sight.
I crossed and immediately the RD was right there. He picked up a rock from the box and I instantly thought it was the most beautiful thing I can remember ever seeing. I remember him handing it to me and me trying to hide the fact that I was crying from him as I gave him a hug and told him thank you, then I took a few steps away and broke down.
Everything from the past year just rushed out of me in the space of 5 minutes. All the training, all the highs, all the massively deep lows, all the effort and emotion and energy, it all came out.
I had no business running those three days and feeling as good as I did. I did not expect it at all. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it was possible to have the weekend I had. But somehow, it did.
I had done it.
I had gotten my Damn Rock.