Monday, May 20, 2013

The Comeback Kid: A Massanutten 100 Story

(photo courtesy of MoutainPeakFitness)

There were three comebacks that happened on Sunday May 18th, 2013. The first being a comeback from months of injury and doubt to finish one of the toughest foot races in the country. The second being a comeback back from a recent back strain that got reaggrevated at mile 70. It nearly caused me to drop out at mile 78. The third and final comeback was avenging my DNF from 2009.

It was May 7th, 2013. All morning I had been stairing at my computer deciding whether or not to click the submit button. I was on the VHTRC's Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 "remove from event" page. I had eveything filled out and all I had to do was click a little button and I would be removed from the entrants list. Afterall, it was just two days earlier I had strained my back again from sleeping awkwardly on it. Those pesky lower back problems. Sigh. On and off since I was 14 years old, and now was a pretty crappy time for them to revisit. On a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being so painful I can't tie my shoes, or get out of bed), my body was around an 8 or 9. Not the place to be two weeks away from attempting such a grueling event. May 7th was also the last day to withdraw and receive a refund, and thus, removing myself from the entrants list seemed logical.

However, as May 7th came to an end and midnight arrived, I never allowed myself to click the submit button. So many thoughts had been lingering throughout my mind. I had waited so long to get back to Massanutten. Four long years, in fact. Though injured the entire fall and winter, I had forced myself to reinvent my running so I could squeeze in five weeks of quality training. 20 mile running weeks turned into 40 miles, and then 60, 80, and eventually 110 by May. Simply put, I had worked too damn hard to be ready, and I owed it to myself to at least make it to the starting line.

The race itself really isn't as important as what happened before, or even after. I chose to run a smart race and not risk gunning for a sub 24 hour time. Five weeks of training, for what it's worth, wasn't enough to make a sub 24 hour finish plausible. Why chance it? Instead, I opted to run a smooth and casual 26-27 hour projected finish pace through the first 70 miles. I didn't feel tired, and every time I arrived at an aid station I looked fresh as a daisy. A lot of folks commented on how, even after 60+ miles, I looked like I hadn't even been running. Then, in the blink of an eye my worst fears became a reality. On the steep climb up Jawbone my lower back completely seized up. Everything I had worried about happening in the previous weeks was coming to an ugly fruition. Over the next three hours I spent significant time stopping to stretch, rest my back, and figure out how to minimize the sharp pain running down my back with every step.

So many doubts afflicted my consciousness. "I should have just removed myself from that damn entrants list!". "Mike, why the hell did you come out here? You knew this would happen." "Your race is over". "Drop at the next aid station. Afterall, 78 miles on this course is still something to be proud of". "Mike, you have suffered for over three hours now, the next 34 miles will take you 12-13 more. You don't need this." "Be safe Mike. Just drop and don't hurt yourself. It's not worth it". "Two starts at Massanutten. Two drops.". "You just flushed that $185 entry fee down the drain."

Crossing over Kern mountain in the black of night was a dark journey through my mind. I was slowly beginning to lose the battle of wills. I just wanted to be done. Crisman Hollow road might has well have been the road to perdition. I slowly walked down the winding pavement to route 211 and the visitor's center aid station. I took my time in order to reflect a bit, because I knew my race was going to end in just a few short miles. Pretty soon this silly notion of running 100+ miles will be over and I will be in a warm car headed back to a haven a sleep and rest. Oh the irony. Such a difficult race, and yet the one thing to take me out was an injury that had nothing to do with this race, or even running.

When I arrived at mile 78, I told the volunteers I was dropping. I met my friends Tabitha, Ryan, and Emily and told them what had happened. I received no pitty as they urged me to keep going. But, they didn't get it. My back was jacked up, and another 26 miles of notoriously rocky mountain trails was not in the cards. 26 miles in my current condition meant at least another 10, or more hours on the trail. I was going to drop. Again, no pitty. I wrapped myself up in warm clothes and a sleeping bag, and laid on a cot to loosen up my back. I staired at the night sky, then at my friends, and listened to their encouragement to just keep going. I thought about what would happen if I dropped. What did I even have to go home to? My empty apartment? My job that is getting the axe in six weeks? All I would be bringing back with me would be dirty clothes and sense of longing for not acheiving what I ultimately set out to do. That's what makes me an ultrarunner. But, I just continued to lay there. Thinking. Pondering. The clock continued to tick. A lot of time was passing.

"Ok Mike, it's time to go." Those were the simple words my friends gave me. Like a boxer getting up on the count of nine, I made my way back to my feet. Sometimes it just comes down to how much you can take and keep moving forward. Albeit slow, we soldiered on through the dense foggy night as I fought off sleep deprivation. I had been up since 2:30am the day before, and was now nearing 28 hours without sleep. For most of my 100 mile races, I have finished near midnight, but this was an entirely different beast. My back was now a fleeting thought as lack of sleep had become my new nemesis. Eventually, I stopped along the trail for a five minute nap. Five minutes of bliss. When I got back up, I was recharged as if I had slept for several hours. As the sun came up I was a new man. Though most of the final 26 miles were incredibly slow, I closed out the final seven miles with the heart of a lion. It wasn't fast, it wasn't pretty, but I'll be damned it WAS a finish.

I will add, the one good part about having such a slow race is that I felt remarkably good post race. Considering the challenging nature of the course and terrain, I was quite pleased to come away with no blisters, no sore feet, and only minimal residual soreness in my legs. I actually looked so fresh at the finish that a lot of people (especially the ones who heard me say I was dropping at mile 78) thought I had dropped and had come back to cheer on the runners. Another friend even thought I had dropped and come back to pace a runner in. He didn't realize that I was still in the race and the runner who was with me was actually my pacer.

Closing thoughts: When I DNF'ed Massanutten in 2009, the only souvenir I got was a car accident, shards of window glass, and two bloody legs. This time I got a buckle, and from experience I will say getting the buckle is better. Big thank yous to Ryan Quinnelly and Emily Warner who paced/crewed me for the final 26 miles. A special thank you to my friend Tabitha who crewed for me most of the day and helped make my back feel better at mile 78. Tabitha had the epic task of crewing two runners, both of which had rough days, but eventually finished because she is a badass crew person. There's no doubt that without their encouragement during the race, and specifically at the crucial moment at mile 78, I was 99% going to drop. I am humbled by the amount of time and energy all of you put into this weekend to make things happen. You are amazing! Thanks also to all the volunteers who were out there from the early morning and the wee hours of the night to see us through.

Massanutten in 2014? We will see........ ;-)

-Mike Bailey


ultrarunnergirl said...

Way to rise from the dead, Mike! It's amazing how down you can be, with zero hope, and yet ... you do it.

Huge congrats on your comeback!

Casseday said...

Great job Mike. It was good to see you -- ever so briefly in the darkness.

Meg said...

Right on, Mike - congrats on the race and the finish. I'd dare to say that finishing under such stressful, grueling personal conditions and mental mountains is far more satisfying than running a swift race without issue. Awesome job!