I am rather new to the ultra running community. The 2016 Castle Peak 100k was my first 100k. I have been running with the Donner Party Mountain Runners for a little over a year. This has coincided with a large transition period in my life. I took a few steps back to align myself with life’s more important priorities.
The transition has not been easy but I will spare you the boring details (or ‘juicy’ depending on your inner gossip girl). The trail running experiences and community have kept me grounded, optimistic and moving forward during this.
What I found in pursuing the Castle Peak 100k was a visceral challenge that was straightforward when compared to life’s twists and turns. This experience has given me some insight into what it took myself to cross the finish line of a difficult and unfamiliar challenge. Three of these seemingly simple things were: (1) don’t fall, (2) trust the trail and (3) community is a powerful motivator.
I had made the decision to pursue the Castle Peak 100k in May of this year after becoming frustrated with some of those pesky life details. I needed to achieve a difficult physical goal to maintain my sanity. I met with Peter Fain to talk about the possibility of running the Castle Peak 100k with a little less than four months to train. Optimism was not abounding! However, I ended up making the decision and began training with a purposeful energy. At times this newfound vitality got me into trouble.
For those of you who have not trained with Peter Fain I’ll give you a quick example. Every Tuesday morning in the summer a group meets at 6:30 am for an hour workout. As we gather around for instructions on one of these mornings, a slight glimmer appears in Peter’s eye. We are standing on an innocuous fire road next to a 45-degree slope with an 8-inch wide billy-goat trail heading directly up. The directions are: sprint up the ‘trail’ (~250 feet of climbing), recover while you run a quarter mile along the flat fire road at the top, charge down a second ‘trail’ to the lower fire road, recover while you run back to the bottom of the first ‘trail.’ Then repeat ten times! He smiles…we grimace. Oh, and I must mention that many of us are lapped by Peter at least once.
It was during this early morning workout I started to get a taste of dirt in my mouth…literally. After a couple laps on the merry go-round I tripped on a very small rock on the flat fire road section. It was a full superman fall that drew blood on all of my extremities. This was to be the beginning of the summer of falls. And it always happened on a section when my guard was down. Bang!…mouth full of dirt.
These patterns of clumsiness become quite evident. So much so that Peter’s weekly training schedule started to include a specific instruction to not fall. To most people this is inherent. I, on the other hand, needed to place extra focus on self-preservation. And I did start to be more actively focused. The result, besides having a very well stocked first aid drawer, was that I spent more time and energy planning where to place my feet. I’m proud to say that I didn’t fall the entire Castle Peak 100k! Amazingly simple I know…but for some of us it is these little details that can sink the ship.
The second insight is related to the state of mind I found myself during the race. I had done my physical homework. I had a plan. I knew the course. I knew how tough each section would be on its own. But I was unsure how my body and mind would respond to the course all at once. That unknown was scary but there was nothing I could do to remove this lack of experience.
To cease the worry, I eased that question mark into the back of my mind and instead concentrated on the few feet of trail directly in front of me (i.e. the only thing I could now control). Again, for some, this may be a non-issue. But for me, breaking such a large challenge down into bit-size chunks helped me stay calm and focused on the immediate job at hand (i.e. place one foot in front of the other without falling!).
In hindsight, this was not a conscious action but one I had learned by accident during training. I chose to seek the direction of a coach for the obvious advantages. A side benefit of this was it removed the daily decision of what activity I should be doing. By leaving this up to a coach I had removed the ability to ponder my situation each morning and instead just got up, put my shoes on and went out to run. During the race, I felt this habit return by automatically accepting the course without fear (#Unafraid). I didn’t allow the big question mark to enter my mind for long. I was able to focus directly on the immediate section of trail and got into a rhythm of eating the miles instead of the dirt.
The third insight was fully evident during the race. I was lucky enough to have my parents as crew and to know many of the aid station and race organizers. Each time I ran into these people it was a jolt of energy to the system. I was actually very surprised at how much a smiling face increased my stamina and shook off the cobwebs.
The picture below was the most impactful moment during the race. I had just come out of the Hole in the Ground, which I found very difficult; physically and mentally. I knew my parents were waiting at the aid station. As I came across the train track, my good friend Sean Flanagan (one of the race organizers), was standing there taking a few snapshots. After a few pats on the back, a quick rotating of the tires, I was back on the trail with a bounce in my step. I was to feel this over and over with each run-in with all the friendly folks out on the course.
I suppose that it should not be a surprise to realize that having family, friends and a community supporting you is a powerful motivator. But it was incredibly impactful to be reminded of this in such a simple way. My sincerest thanks to all of you! I now understand how great an uplift this can be during a lengthy race so will do my best to return the favor in the future!
Lastly, I am grateful to the founding members of Donner Party Mountain Runners. You’ve done an incredible job in creating a fantastic community that is talented, supportive and inspirational. The impact of the community reaches beyond the trails. I’m already signed up for winter training and ready to plan the next adventure. Onwards…