Monday, October 26, 2009

Heartfelt Thanks from the Heartland and Upcoming Runs

Wow.  I am humbled by the comments on my Heartland post.  Thank you all for your kind words and support. 

An interesting question I have received from several different sources recently is, what's next? 

After two weeks of glorious gluttony, I can honestly say I don't know.

I've got Bandera on the schedule again (only the 50km), but not much else.  I'd like to run Waco again and pace the Cowtown 50km.  But really, I don't currently have any pressing need to accomplish anything at the moment.  I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  It is what is.

At least of one thing, I am certain.

Pumpkin Spice Lattes from Starbucks are marvelous.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


“On a good day, running 100 miles is f*cking hard. Period. On a bad day, it’s borderline impossible.”
-- Anton Krupicka, two-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100

2009 Heartland 100 Mile Run from Ryan Valdez on Vimeo.

Kansas is not flat.

This fact became abundantly clear five miles into the Heartland 100.

But let’s start at the beginning. No, let’s start before the beginning. Let’s start at 2:45 a.m. on February 8, 2009. That’s about the time I raised the white flag in Huntsville State Park and officially surrendered any chance of finishing the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile endurance trail run. My feet were blistered and bruised; my inner thighs were red and chafed; everything ached. I could barely walk. It was over.

After a few weeks, exhaustion gave way to anger, and anger gave way to imprudence and misguided intrepidity. And that is how I ended up registered for Heartland, a 100 mile race taking place in mid-October in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

I began my Heartland training in earnest just as the mercury began its screaming ascent into triple digits. Friday night lights went out just as the sun went down to allow a few hours of shut eye before the alarm roused me at 3:00 a.m. for the endless hours spent running anywhere and everywhere in west Fort Worth. This was my summer. Every single weekend. Train, train, train. Needless to say, it was not ideal.

As October 10th neared, I checked the Cassoday, Kansas weather forecast with greater frequency and interest. Ten days out, temperatures were hovering in the mid-40s. Five days out, the gurus at were predicting lows in the high 20s. Two days out, freezing drizzle was on the schedule. The day before the run, with rain sloshing through the streets of Fort Worth, I prepared myself for a cold, wet slog through rural Kansas.

My Heartland crew consisted of my friend, Miles, the lone running buddy misguided enough to think that driving around gravel roads at all hours of the day and night would make for fine weekend vacation. Miles’ flight from Houston landed at 7:30 a.m., and by 7:45 a.m., we were cruising north on I-35 in a steady downpour.

The drive to El Dorado (where our hotel was located, about 20 miles southwest of Cassoday) was uneventful but for the lunch stop at Granny Had One, a fantastic find in Guthrie, Oklahoma that won us over immediately with the omnipresent and intoxicatingly wonderful smell of homemade apple pie.

We checked into our hotel around 3:00 p.m. and then made our way to the Cassoday Community Center for packet pickup, pre-race briefing, and dinner.

I knew things were looking up when I was handed race number 69.

After gorging on salad, roast beef, smothered chicken, potatoes, and apple pie (left over from Granny Had One), I had little trouble getting to sleep around 8:30 p.m.

In the morning, my iPhone told me the temperature outside was 29 degrees. Perfect conditions considering my hundred degree training efforts. (Irony intended.) I appropriately lubed up the trouble spots, slathered Hydropel on the feet, and pulled on a pair of shorts, a long sleeve shirt, a short sleeve shirt, a jacket, some Moeben sleeves, a hat, and gloves. I had never worn this much attire to go running. (And by the end of the race, I would have even more on.)
My pre-race breakfast consisted of a bowl of oatmeal, a bagel, and a cinnamon roll. After noshing on the morning refreshments, we de-iced the car windshield and drove the 20 minutes north to Cassoday for the start of the race.

With little fanfare, a volunteer gave us the old “3… 2… 1… GO!” and we were off and running into the pre-dawn darkness.

During that first hour or so, I met up with Thomas, another runner from Texas who, like me, had DNF’d after 70+ miles at Rocky Raccoon earlier in the year. We were both out for redemption.

Over the first five miles, the run was fairly flat, which is what one justifiably expects from Kansas. After a few 90 degree turns, however, we headed into a valley. And then up. And then down. And up. And down. The hills weren’t Bandera-brutal, but they weren’t Rocky Raccoon-relaxed either. Rolling might be an accurate description, but it sounds a bit pedestrian for the toll they would eventually take. They continued incessantly throughout the entire event.

As the morning progressed, the sun winked a few times and even came out briefly, but persistent 20 mile per hour winds from the north kept the warmth away. Cold, gray clouds soon hid the sun from view, leaving, as one participant put it, “a sullen gray sky scowling down on the hills, valleys, cattle and the tall, waving, brown prairie grasses.”

At mile 8.2, I cruised through Battle Creek, the first manned aid station, fairly quickly. My plan was to keep moving as long as possible, minimizing the time spent idling.

As for nutrition, I intended to stay with solid foods as long as possible and to avoid caffeine until nightfall. A few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a handful of Pringles got me going.

The ups and downs continued past another unmanned aid station until I reached mile 16.8 and the Lapland aid station. Miles was there to meet me, and I needed the motivation. The wind had increased in ferocity and had slowed my pace considerably, even on the flat portions. I couldn’t even think about the 83.2 miles I had left to go.

After chowing down on some snacks, I turned toward the east and headed substantially downhill and briefly under cover of trees for some respite from the relentless wind. Alas, what goes down must go up, and so began yet another series of climbs. At the crest, the course turned north, directly into the icy gusts.

A few miles down the road, I came upon Steve Grady, a fellow Texan who always seems to be running these crazy races with me. Steve was headed back from the 25 mile turnaround on his way to a successful 50 mile finish. We briefly commiserated about the cold before continuing on our respective ways.
At the Teterville aid station, I checked the time. It had taken me about 6 hours to cover the first 25 miles. I had 6.2 miles to go to the next aid station.

Run on a rutty, uneven dirt road dried hard with mud, this 10 km stretch was the toughest on the feet. The route was primarily uphill, and I stopped more than once to tighten my laces as my feet bumped around inside my shoes. I figured bruising and blisters were inevitable.

By the time I reached the Texaco Hill aid station, I had covered 31.2 miles and was starting to feel fatigue settling in. A husband and wife couple was running this aid station nestled off the side of the course. They fed me some potato soup and refilled my pack.

From Texaco Hill to Ridge Line, I traded positions with Long Vu, a 60-year old Vietnamese runner from Oklahoma. Long was running his 4th Heartland, and he gave me some tips about the course and what to expect. The wind grew in intensity as our overall elevation continued its climb to the highest point. We passed several old-school oil rigs still pumping away. The horizon stretched for miles and miles. Endless prairie as far as you could see.

I pulled into the Ridge Line aid station around 3:30 p.m. and immediately and unfairly bitched to Miles about the wind as he patiently filled up my pack with fresh water. Sitting down for a minute, I was offered some “prairie pellets.” I’d never heard of nor tasted “prairie pellets” before. As the first bite made its way past my lips, I knew I had made a new friend. The food of the ultrarunning gods, “prairie pellets” are a multi-bean soup made with little smokie sausages, barbecue sauce, and tomato paste. Tons of carbs, protein, and sodium, “prairie pellets” are DAMN tasty when you need ‘em.

Despite the “prairie pellet” boost, as I left the aid station, I noticed the first serious signs of calorie deficiency, as my hands began to shake uncontrollably due to the cold. I shivered for a good quarter mile or so until my body finally generated enough heat to keep me warm. Over the next 6 miles, I pulled out my iPod for some much needed motivation.

Nearing the Matfield Green aid station, I passed a few small, secluded homes. As one of the residents was unloading his pick-up truck, I asked him how much he would charge for a room for the night. “Trust me, you don’t want to stay out here!” He replied. I’m not sure what he meant by that.

Eventually, I crossed I-35 and arrived at Matfield Green, where Miles met me with a Coca-Cola and a 6-inch Subway sandwich, my first substantial calories of the day. I was at mile 42.5. I had 7.5 miles to go until mile 50 and the turnaround. It was somewhere around 5:30 p.m.

I grabbed my loaner satellite radio and pulled on a pair of old school sweat pants. Miles and I then walked out of the aid station. He stayed with me for a half mile or so as we made our way back across I-35 and onto the trail. I was shivering and not motivated to run, but Miles gave me just right amount of encouragement and attitude. As he turned back toward Matfield Green, I had started a slow jog.

My mood improved dramatically once I left the highway and was back in the prairie. As I climbed to the highest point on the course, I saw several runners headed back. I came across Thomas around an unmanned aid station near some utility towers. “Just two and half miles,” he told me. “Once you hit the turnaround, you’ll feel better. I was feeling pretty low until then.”

I flipped on my satellite radio, tuned in the Texas-Colorado game and zoned out.

At Lone Tree, I had made it 50 miles. It was around 7:15 p.m. I ate a hamburger, refilled my pack, and got moving.

The Texas game kept my mind occupied as the sun completely disappeared. The cloud cover kept the moon and stars away, and soon my world shrunk to the small tunnel of my headlamp. If I flicked the light off, I was enveloped in suffocating darkness.

And then the wheels started to come off.

Around mile 52.5, my left knee started to ache. A little at first, but with rapidly growing intensity. I walked. A lot. Even the downhill portions. Swinging my leg forward hurt. The inside of my knee was tender to the touch.

This was not good.

I made it back to Matfield Green still hurting, but not in horrendous pain. I told Miles I would see how it went.

The 6 miles from Matfield Green to back to Ridge Line were rough. By the time I death-marched my way to the next aid station, I was hurting. Miles saw it on my face. As I made my way inside the aid station tent, I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t be emerging to run anymore.

I sat down and ate two cups full of “prairie pellets” and solicited opinions for the volunteers on what to do. I was leaning towards quitting. It was in the 20s outside, I was calorie-deficient, my left knee was shot, and I knew that if I did leave, I would have to make it a 8.2 miles before I would have another opportunity to bail. That’s a long way in the cold, dark night by yourself. At my pace, it would probably take me at least two hours to get there.

I stayed inside the warmth of the aid station tent for about 15 minutes thinking about what I should do. Finally, I slammed two Advil and a Coca-Cola and headed into the night. Miles walked with me until I stopped shivering, then he headed back to pick up the car. I shuffled as best I could and walked when the pain got too intense.

Up until this point, my fatigue was limited solely to my physical ailments. But somewhere along the way from Ridge Line to Texaco Hill, things started to get weird. I was completely alone, in pain, and exhausted. My headlamp started to play tricks on my brain, making the terrain illuminated by the halo of light appear to pulsate back and forth. Vertigo-like symptoms started to surface. I pulled out a flashlight to help ease the nauseating light-show.

In spite of the dizzying optical illusions, I somehow bumbled my way into Texaco Hill and managed to scarf down two cups of potato soup and some more Coke. I tried not to stay too long. The aid station volunteers told me that I had a mile and half or so until a sharp right turn would take me on the long downhill over the nasty, rutty road. I thanked them and reluctantly trudged off into the night.

About ten minutes into this stretch, I thought I saw another runner’s light behind me. I started calling out, only to eventually realize the light was coming from the Texaco Hill aid station a mile back.

To keep the heebie-jeebies away, I cranked up the tunes on the iPod for the next 6 miles or so.

As I made a left turn at the bottom of the downhill, I could see a single light in front of me. I thought it might be Miles walking backwards to meet me. It wasn’t. Instead, a mile or so up the road, I came upon the Teterville aid station. The single light was a lantern hung outside the aid station tent.

I had caught up with three runners, and we were all in various states of disarray as we huddled together in the tent. I had covered 75 miles, and my stomach was done with solid food. Miles fished me out two Boosts from my drop bag. I chugged one immediately and stashed the other one in my pack. Miles told me I was “tough as nails.” I felt like I was falling apart exponentially with each step.

The 8.2 miles from Teterville to Lapland were the toughest mentally. On several occasions, I thought I had missed a turn and was convinced that I was lost in the middle of nowhere with no way to contact anyone. I got pretty freaked out. Eventually, a glow stick would signal that I was still on the right path.

I also started seeing things that weren’t there. Rocks that looked like giant insects or strange, Tim Burton-esque sculptures. I took my wool cap off to try to shock some sense into my addled brain.

I turned right and started the long descent under the trees and then back up to the Lapland aid station. As I neared the tent, a volunteer and Miles both walked out to meet me.

“Are you from Kansas?” I asked the volunteer.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but f*ck the Flint Hills,” I muttered, only half-jokingly.

At Lapland, I had about 17 miles to go to finish. It was nearing 6 a.m., and I had been on the move for 24 hours straight.

I chugged a Boost, grabbed another one for the road, and told Miles I would see him at the finish line somewhere between four and six hours later.

The sun slowly broke the horizon over the next hour and half, and its presence was a welcome sight. I was happy to turn off the headlamp and the flashlight and not have to wonder what was ahead of me. Now I could see it. Endless rolling hills.

I passed a handful of runners over the next hour as I neared the Battle Creek aid station. Most looked pretty rough, and it was hard to say whether or not they would make it under the cutoff.

When I finally arrived at Battle Creek, I asked a volunteer how strictly the 30-hour time limit was enforced.

“Very strictly,” she said. “But you’ve got plenty of time.”

Easy for you to say, I thought.

I slammed more Boost, more Advil, and more Coca-Cola and then made the slow trek out of the valley and back toward Cassoday. Once I got back on level ground, I figured things would get easier.

They didn’t.

Cassoday has a lone, cigarette-like tower in the center of town that marks the finish line. Because Cassoday is flat, you can see the tower for miles. And it never seems to get any closer.

The last 4.8 miles seemed to go on forever. I wanted to be done. My knee was throbbing, my eyes were dry and bloodshot, and my energy level was non-existent. Walking was taking too long, so I started doing a weird, side-to-side hopping thing every hundred yards or so. I used the telephone poles by the road as my guide. I would alternate hopping and walking every time I passed one. While it might not have gotten me there any faster, it at least broke up some of the monotony and provided the illusion of greater speed.
Finally, I turned down the last stretch—a quarter mile straightaway to the finish line. There weren’t many folks out there, but those in attendance clapped and cheered. I tried to run—or at least look like I was running—and limped my way across the short, white chalk line painted on the side of the road as a few cars whizzed by.  It had taken me 28 hours, 53 minutes, and 31 seconds to cover 100 miles on foot.

I thanked Miles and the volunteers, and then proceeded to drag myself directly into the car where we turned the heat on immediately.

And then things got worse. (That’s not where you thought this was going, was it?)

I don’t know exactly why, but I got dizzy and started seeing spots. I was nauseous, yet didn’t want anything to eat. On the drive home, I dry heaved a few times.

Back at the hotel, I tried to get out of the car and quickly realized that my left knee was stuck—it would neither bend nor straighten. Any attempt to do either sent pain shooting through my body. I felt like (1) someone had taken a baseball bat to my lower body, and (2) I was suffering from a nasty bout of the flu.

Miles more or less carried me into our hotel room, where I collapsed on the floor, still in my running gear. I stayed there for about an hour and half. Over that period of time, I talked with Nell, my friends, and my folks. I ate a Whopper Jr. and drank two root beers. Eventually, I was able to sit up with getting dizzy. I took a shower, changed, and crawled into bed. We ordered pizza and turned on the Cowboys’ game. I ate four slices and passed out for about 3 hours, waking up only to eat again and reapply ice to me knee.

The next morning, I was stiff but mobile. My left knee was the size of a grapefruit, and my toes intermittently became tingly and numb, but at least I could hobble. I continued to ice my knee for the next several days, and slowly the swelling subsided. It’s now more than week later, and I’m pretty much recovered. I even made it to the gym to ride a stationary bike for 30 minutes.

Looking back, I am convinced that Anton Krupricka had it right.  Running 100 miles if f*cking hard.  I am still somewhat shocked that I made it. There was no runner’s high, no sense of euphoria during or after the run. It was hard. Plain and simple. In the end, I’m grateful for the experience, but I’m not sure if I ever want to go through it again.

Thanks go out to my supportive wife and child for allowing me to spend the past year running virtually non-stop.

To Miles for staying out there with me all day and night.

To Dave Fannin at The Body Firm for the invaluable cross-training and the words of encouragement.

To Jason Costantino and Michael Appleman for joining me on those 4 a.m. training runs.

To all the volunteers at the Heartland 100 for keeping me well-fed and moving along.

And to everyone else, family and friends, who supported me during my quest.

Vaya con Dios, amigos.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sincere Thanks

In March 2007, I ran my first ultramarathon in Waco, Texas.  The Waco 5-0 (now called the Toughest N' Texas) was a small trail run in Cameron Park consisting of three 10 mile loops.  Early in the run, I hooked up with a runner from Houston appropriately named Miles.  We stayed together for most of the first loop. 

During that time, Miles encouraged me to run Bandera.  So ten months later, I headed deep into the hill country, where I completed a tough 50 km trail run.  And Miles was there.  We talked about Rocky Raccoon, and in February 2008, I toed the line and finished Rocky's 50 mile event.  And Miles was there, running the 100 mile event and coming home with a belt buckle. 

The next year, I did the Waco 5-0 again, and again, I found myself running with Miles.  We talked about his 100 mile race, and I told him I was thinking about trying for 100 miles at Rocky Raccoon in 2009.  To prepare, I signed up for a series of races during the winter of 2008 and early 2009--the Ultracentric, Sunmart, and Bandera. 

At Sunmart, Miles and I found ourselves running a couple laps together during the 50 mile race. 

The next month, we hooked up for the last 10 miles or so of Bandera and death-marched our way to the finish line. 

At Rocky Raccoon, we shared a pre-race dinner and discussed our plans for finishing the next day's 100 mile run.  Unfortunately, we both fell short. 

When I signed up for the Heartland 100, it was no surprise that Miles enthusiastically agreed to pace me over the final 40 miles.  We traded e-mails and plans throughout the summer.  Miles even made it up to Fort Worth to run El Scorcho Tres.  After that midnight run in July, Miles prepared himself for the Where's Waldo 100K run in Oregon.  Leg issues caused him to drop around mile 44.  And the leg issues lingered, affecting his ability to pace me at Heartland. 

So we adjusted the plan.  Miles moved from pacer to crew.  And he was out there the whole time that I was, meeting me at aid stations, filling my pack with water, encouraging me to keep moving.  He slept in the car, drove across the prairie, and did everything in his power to ensure a successful finish.  And we finished.  I could not have done it without him. 

It's amazing how we've bonded over the past two years almost exclusively on our enjoyment of the misery and the ecstasy that comes from running ridiculously excessive distances.  The people you meet on the trail can become some of your best friends, even if your shared experiences are limited to the despair and the delight of ultramarathoning.

Thank you, Miles.

p.s. Heartland race report coming eventually, amigos....

Sunday, October 11, 2009

2009 Heartland 100 Results

100 miles: 28 hrs, 53 mins.

61 runners started the 100 mile run. 41 finished.

Details to come.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"Partly cloudy with a high of 44 and a low of 29. 30% chance of showers in the afternoon. 15 to 25 mph winds. Cold." -- the weekend weather report for Cassoday, Kansas. (sigh)

Monday, October 05, 2009

It's not always all about running. With less than five days until Kansas, maybe it's time for some marginally tantalizing tidbits that don't necessarily involve the perplexingly prolonged pounding of pavement.*
  • Ezra James is making the rapid transition from toddler to little boy. 

  • Nell has decided to run the Austin Marathon on Valentine's Day.  She ran her first marathon in Washington, D.C. two months before becoming pregnant with Ezra.  That doesn't mean anything, does it?**

  • Oklahoma State beat Georgia, then lost to Houston.  Houston beat Texas Tech, then lost to UTEP, who lost to Texas.  USC beat Ohio State, then lost to Washington.  OU's 2 losses this year are both by only 1 point.  BYU, who along with Miami beat OU, lost to Florida State, who lost to Boston College and Miami.  I could go on.  The point is, college football is crazy this year, the rankings are ridiculous, and a playoff needs to happen.  In the meantime, however, I cling to the Longhorns' #2 ranking.  Alabama and LSU better not jump us.

  • I've got Roy Williams and Jason Witten on my fantasy football team.  It'd be nice if Romo would throw a pass to either of them.

  • I enjoy an occasional rainy day, but every day is a bit excessive for North Texas.

  • Why is there a Ronald Reagan Freeway in Arlington, Texas?

  • A recurring pet peeve involves the incorrect use of the word, "literally."  For example: "It was so hot, I was literally burning up."  No, you weren't, jackass.

  • I'm not a grammar snob.  I just want us all to learn to read and write real good.
  • UPDATE: I feel compelled to point out that I was well aware of the glaring gramatical error in the preceding sentence.  I was literally shocked when my attempt at humor was lost on some readers.

* I do, however, enjoy a hearty use of alliteration.
** No, it doesn't.  And don't get any ideas.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Heartland Anticipation

One week from today, I will be northbound on I-35 headed to the Heartland.

As the date rapidly approaches, doubt has crept into my mind. Am I ready to run 100 miles? Am I overtrained? Am I undertrained?

I suppose I will find out in 8 days.


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