Originally, we were supposed to be starting in Guatemala City and running to the coast, but a few days before the start we heard of a change in route. We were now starting close to Antigua, the oldest city in the America’s, and running to a different part of the coast.
I had always known we would be running downhill and I knew I had to be cautious about my approach to the start… without realising it, a runner who has not trained specifically on downhill terrain can tire very quickly as the quads, soak up all of the additional compression on every step. I had already resolved I would walk a significant amount of the first 25km leg because of the descent. Driving up to the start line only confirmed my fears that we had a big descent ahead of us!
Driving there, I have to admit, I was a little anxious. I looked at my altimeter watch and realised that over the first 25km we would be descending 4,500’. To say I had not trained for that exactly would be an understatement. I made a mental note of the steepest parts of the descent as we drove uphill to the start line past angry, steaming volcanoes. The red lava flows would be visible to the runners as we started among a triad of tall Guatemalan fire breathing monsters. In my mind, I was having a difficult time as I wrestled with the concept of attempting to recogise certain parts of the road in the dark. While certain sections looked really steep during the day, at night I knew they would be hard to distinguish.
Near the top of the ascent, we stopped at a gas station to fuel up and use the toilets when Matt suddenly realised this was the actual start line. Now we had three hours to relax, think, stretch and plan. The excitement usually prevents sleep, yet I knew that sleep was the best thing I could do. I had been up since 6:30am, had not slept during the day and the race started at 5pm with a cut off of 8am the following morning. A daunting challenge to say the least and I wished I had slept more but it was too late now.
Individually we kept reminding ourselves that we were doing this for the children of Guatemala and Nicaragua as we psyched each other up for the start. At 5pm the first runners would be John and Kim and myself. John and Kim would run for 25km then Janet and Jackie would take over followed by Matt and Brady and then finally at around 4am, Kristen and Petra would take the team to the finish. For the entire 100km, I would try and run close to the relay team so as a team we could hopefully all cross the finish line together.
The team was joking and taking photographs and admiring the stunning scenery in the Guatemalan highlands. The weather was hot and sunny but we were assured of some cooler temperatures overnight which would be very welcome.
I changed into my running gear and prepped my backpack with leg one supplies, enough boiled potatoes, fluid and carbs to get through 25km and hopefully be ready for the second leg. On average I needed to consume a litre per hour of fluid and 300 calories per hour to stay nourished. I needed to do that for approximately 15 continuous hours. My first backpack had 3 litres of fluids and 900 calories of food – almost half the average daily intake of food an adult would consume.
In the ensuing time, I started to question my choice of running shoes. I had put on a pair of New Balance Minimus shoes. I had run two 50km+/- runs in them and loved them. I had however brought two other pairs with me. A traditional pair of Saucony’s and another set of Nike 5.0 Free’s, again a minimalist running shoe I really liked.
My thought was whether I could actually benefit from the cushioning of the traditional shoe on the downhill segment, even though my feet were now conditioned to a minimalist style of shoe! At the last minute I switched to the traditional shoe and probably made the first serious mistake. I committed to the decision and joined the huddle near the start line just in time to hear the start had been delayed for 30 minutes because of excessive traffic on the road.
More laughs and nervous anticipation as we high fived each other and encouraged each other to get to the end.
Finally at 5:30pm, we left. There was not a great amount of runners, maybe 50 or so at the most but every single one of them had one or two cars so there really was quite a convoy heading down the road.
John and Kim took off at a strong 25km pace, but I did not want to get sucked in to the competition. I stayed near the back of the pack with about half a dozen solo runners and we gingerly moved down the hill in procession.
I had my headphones on, which I usually don’t wear running because of wildlife in the bush in Canada… it is always good to hear the snarl of a bear or cougar as you are running! Curiously I didn’t enjoy wearing them and unfortunately what they were doing is masking a very bad running form. When I removed my headphones, I was concerned by the slapping I could hear from my shoes. In my transition from traditional shoes to minimalist shoes I had gone from a solid heal strike to a mid-foot landing which felt a lot more comfortable and less tiring. Now, however, I was landing on my heel and felt as though I had no control over my foot landing as it slapped down like a beavers tail. Something was not right, but I put that thought aside and kept running. Several of the solo runners exchanged positions and I recall having to stop for a pee and then mentally deciding I needed to get back to where I was previously, and running past four or five runners to get behind the person I was using as a “pace bunny” originally.
It didn’t take long for me to realise, in the dark, it was not very easy to estimate the gradient of the road and my pace was determined by competitiveness, not common sense… this was only the first 25km of a 100km race and I knew inside I was not running well.
Over the years, I have perhaps adopted a “Chi” running style which stresses a “tall spine”, pelvic tilt and a slight lean forward with most of the body very relaxed. For some reason, I was not doing that now. There were instances where I would remind myself to stand tall, but after a few minutes, I know my shoulders rolled forwards, I slouched and started plodding, not a good omen.
After 15km I realised the shoes I was wearing were not good at all. My feet had definitely become accustomed to a minimalist shoe and the choice of a traditional runner had been entirely wrong. Instead of feeling relaxed, I realised that my feet muscles were seriously growling which was not at all usual after only 15km.
I continued to run in the pitch dark. Occasionally our video crew would drive up and film a conversation for a while or I would listen to some music, all the time, eating my boiled potatoes and drinking copious amounts of liquid.
I was well hydrated, in total stopping to pee about 4 times in the first 25km, and I had consumed almost all of my 3 litres of water by 20km. I kept running past waving and cheering Guatemalans in the dark, all shouting “vamos, vamos”. The occasional dog would run up and faint an attack, but generally only being about 12” tall, they would quickly back off and run off in to the shadows.
At twenty kilometres in to the run I realised that I had run more of the downhill sections than I wanted to. I was already feeling tired. Was it the humidity? The food did not feel as though it was getting to my muscles, yet it was the same food I would eat in Canada.
My driver, Edwin, patiently followed at a snails pace as he settled in for the longest lasting 100km journey of his life! I asked the film crew how John and Kim were doing. They told me the guys had finished very strong and that Jackie and Janet were now out running, but John and Kim were going to keep going to raise more funds. I realised I was further behind that I had originally intended.
I signaled to Edwin to come up to me and decided I had had enough of the running shoes. Quickly I slipped into a new pair of minimalist shoes and some dry socks and topped up my fluid bladder and grabbed a handful of food. I pressed on to 25km, but I knew something was not right. Instantly my feet however, felt at home and more comfortable in the newer designed shoes.
Running at night, I found the hardest thing to battle was the body’s natural chemical. Tryptophan is a chemical that induces tiredness. If I had been running on my own I would have made attempts to sleep later in the day and go to bed later and help my body adjust to late nights, but as a larger group we were all scheduled on some activites which kept me on a normal daytime routine. I was hoping adrenaline would keep me awake, but my eyelids were heavy.
My feet were feeling better, but I was more sore than I should have been. I took a break to walk for a little while and swallowed some Ibuprofen. I passed the 25km mark at about 3 hours and ten minutes. That was actually where I wanted to be after doing some walking downhill. Clearly, many of the solo runners had the same plan since there was a string of support cars ahead of me with hazard flashers on.
One runner behind me gave up at around 25km, perhaps the hill gave her a hard time too! Ahead of me I did notice some cheating. One runner called his car and jumped in, only to be driven further down the road and continue. It seemed pointless, there was nothing to win other than a memory!
I plodded on as the thick, heavy darkness become almost oppressive. My pace was slow. I remember thinking my pace should be slow and fighting the urge to speed up. If I could do the next 25km in a similar time, I would have two spare hours and it would give me 4.5 hours per 25km leg after that, I knew I could walk that pace if I had to.
The hardest part of the run as a solo runner was having nobody to talk to and solitude allowed my mind to play too many games with me. I yearned to be on a relay team. Our teams were running in pairs and I knew upfront there would have been lots of camaraderie and competitiveness. I was left alone, to the darkness and my weary thoughts. I adopted a steady plod and just told myself to focus on the next short stint.
At this point on a marathon I would be full of energy and coaxing other runners along beside me. Now I felt as if my pace was very slow. As I looked ahead, it would appear the solo runners paces were similar, I did not seem to be gaining or losing ground on the gaggle of runners I was close to… if anything I was gaining ground. I am not sure what it was about Guatemalan runners, they never seemed to pee, drink or eat. I was eating as much as I could keep down, drinking litres of fluid and wearing it on my back. By comparison, the Guetmalan runners appeared to chat to people in their support cars, never take a pee break and very rarely eat or drink.
It seemed to take forever to get to 43km, the marathon distance. I knew then I was bagged, but still believed I could run to 75km and then walk if I had to. My feet were very sore, but I could keep pushing to 50km and then change socks, it would help me feel refreshed. Most runners get the same tired feeling in their feet and the run then becomes a mental battle. While the feet may growl a lot, they generally reach a crescendo of anger and then stay the same, it is just something that many runners are able to condition themselves to.
I was taking longer than expected and at about 46km, Jackie my wife surprised me and joined me! The good news was that she had finished her leg with Janet in 2hrs and 27 mins, a really competitive time. Now my son Matt and his friend Brady were running their section.
Brady and Matt had not done too much running. The most they had ever run was perhaps 8km and Brady had the disadvantage of only having a half a foot on his right leg. A challenge with cancer as a little baby had led to an operation that left him with a “special” foot. However, his “special” foot was such a special shape that he had no running shoes, just a pair of plastic ankle boots that had been specially broken in! Who was I to complain my feet were sore…. Brady was such an enthusiastic young man whose confidence would carry him to the end despite what his feet, hips and legs told him, he was an inspiration to many.
Jackie stayed in the car for a while, then decided to physically join me. She realised that something was wrong. My style that I usually adopted to run had long gone. My slouch ensured that I was running heavily and slowly and at times when I walked, I was physically falling asleep and staggering over the road running the risk of being hit by a fast moving Guatemalan transport truck!
She insisted on running on the outside of me to keep me close in to the verge and together we ran and chatted. I really enjoyed the company but I did share that I was not feeling energetic. The food and drink seemed to be gathering in my stomach and not being digested. I had not peed once in the second 25km leg which was a concern. After about 50km, I needed to stop running. I stood on the side of the verge and put my hands on my knees, bending over to take a breath. Jackie’s hand rested on my back in a very caring manner, and I knew that she saw my weakness.
It was then that our running career nearly came to a permanent end. The biggest concern running at night, aside from the rats scurrying under your feet or the snakes crawling out from the grass, was the vehicle traffic. This was a very busy road from Guatemala City to the coast.
As if in a dream, I remembered hearing the screeching of tires. It seemed to go on for at least ten seconds and is if in a chapter of the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, the world almost stopped spinning. I knew something was bad, very bad. Clearly a car or truck was about to smash into the back of my support vehicle we were standing in front of and the length of time the tires were locked up for would indicate some serious speed was involved. I looked up to assess the situation and just as I did, a very tight fist on my bicep pulled me off the road into the ditch. My instinct was to look first to see where the impact would happen and decide where to go to avoid it; Jackie’s instinct was to get away and so in the ditch we went. I managed to get my footing briefly and turned my head to see if the vehicle was going to join us in the ditch but my wife’s clutch was too strong and as quickly as I got some footing, she forced me to join her in the bottom of the ditch.
The car managed to avoid my support vehicle by eventually stopping on the inside, but thankfully not joining us in the ditch. We were heads down, feet up, looking at a starry sky not sure whether to laugh or cry. Whatever we were lying in was tearing at our clothing and like stingy nettles, was leaving a rash. The offending car reversed out of the verge and spun it’s wheels in anger as it re-joined the highway. Edwin our support driver was naturally very worried for us as we had completely disappeared from his view, and we waved frantically from the bottom of the drainage ditch trying to get his attention and let him know that we were OK. I think we laughed, it was a relief from the running, but the short interlude didn’t take my mind off the running enough.
We set back in to grabbing more miles. I would set targets to run to distant signs and then walk for a while. I knew I was walking too much but the walking pace was quite strong and I was keeping up with the group in front so I felt as though the pace was sustainable.
At about 53km, Matt and Kerry joined us. They had heard from the camera crew I was struggling. Matt asked me a few questions, looked me in the eye and then put his runners on and started to run with me. He exclaimed I was in fine shape. He had seen a lot worse in the runs he had done and ahead of me were people who were doing worse than me. He encouraged me to set some bigger goals and try and catch the person in front, but inside, I was feeling empty. I could run a kilometre or maybe two and then I had to walk, the tank was drained, and I did not know why.
At 55km I explained to Matt the food did not appear to be working and as I walked I was falling asleep. We decided it would be good to take a nap. The support car came up, I told the team I was going to take a ten minute micro nap and then carry on. I asked Jackie to rub my feet which were incredibly sore after the bad choice of runners at the beginning.
Ten minutes felt like 30 seconds. But I did feel a little refreshed. As we started to run, Matt was full of encouragement and we saw we were not that far behind the runners in front. Apparently the solo runners numbers had been deteriorating and it felt good to still be running. Matt and I discussed my time and felt as though I could still get to the finish line if we could pick up the pace.
The fight with the Tryptophan was waning.. it was around 2am and I wanted to sleep. I needed to fight the feeling, but it was overwhelming. Matt was absolutely stellar in the way he guided me and supported me for the next 5km and then I finally said “Matt I don’t think this is working! I am not sure I have the energy to get to the end”
The discussion ensued about the fact I had no obvious injury, although my running style had evaporated. If I could eke out some more pace, we could finish on time and I would get more energy at some point if I kept going. I decided to take another quick nap while the team discussed my fate.
The back seat felt so comfortable. I was so tired and yet I could not fall asleep. Jackie kindly massaged my feet and then the inevitable call to action came. I put on a new t shirt, the old one heavy with sweat. It felt fresh, but the Tryptophan was leaping out of every crevice in my body again as I got onto my feet.
With fresh socks, a new shirt and an attitude that I could get another 5km… I put one foot in front of the other. This time, Jackie and Kerry were running with me and being incredibly enthusiastic and kind.
I felt I was walking at a snails pace so I forced my legs to run. Kerry was very complimentary and I could not help but notice I was losing ground on Jackie who was walking! I told Jackie that it was devastating to a guys ego to not be able to run as fast as a woman could walk and so she kindly broke into a run. She had already ran 30km now and this next haul would take her to 35km. She had so much more energy than me! What had I miscalculated?
My sense of humour kicked in again as I told Jackie that the least she could do, out of respect is run behind me and let me feel as though I was running. Deep inside I knew that my energy was waning still. I had been hoping for the point that I had read about so much, the point where an ultramarathoner suddenly stumbles upon a renewed sense of energy and picks up the pace to run better than they had done in the first 25km. Sadly I was not finding it!
I kept going to 65km. We were in an illuminated entrance to some sort of industrial plant. Matt came out of the car to chat. I explained this should be the end for me. I was very rationale. I knew I could continue walking with some running and I had a good chance to making 85km to 90km but I would miss the finish line (the late cutoff). What was more important, I felt, was to support the team who had put so much effort in to getting themselves to Guatemala, training, raising funds and now doing their first ever race… it was my responsibility to be there and cheer them on. After much discussion, some of which I recall sleeping through, we decided if I was happy with my own decision, we would call it a night and drive ahead to find the team!
I expected to be incredibly disappointed, but the sense of relief I felt since I could now be driven around was immense. I had run further than I had in my life and something, I am still not sure what, did not quite work. I had a new experience under my belt and the curious thing was I had already resolved to come back and finish what I had started.
The Cabrakan 100km ultramarathon was supposed to be a one time event. Now I had not finished it, I was confused by the fact I wanted to do it again, I know I can do it, on a different day with different preparation and more experience, I will be able to run my first 100km, for now, my first ultra was 65km which I am proud to add to my resume.
In the last installment, I will share with you how the rest of the team did and how the next day felt for all of us!
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