I was feeling nauseous and on the verge of getting sick again. The heat and unfiltered sun wasn’t helping deter my thoughts from the laboratory experiment going on deep inside my belly. I was on loop 1 of 3 at the Cuyamaca 100k Endurance Run in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, East of San Diego, and I was—for the first time—becoming intimately acquainted with the dreaded “wall” that everyone had been warning me about since I started ultra running.
After 30 torturous miles, I stumbled into the aid station and picked up my pacer, Rob DeCou, and headed out for loop 2. “Drink water! Do you have Tums? Want to sit down and eat something? When was the last time you took salt pills?” I could hear him asking me questions as we ran, but all I could think was no, I don’t want to stop, no—I can’t stop. Maybe it was the Irish blood in my veins, or the saying that the Irish don’t quit, but stopping was not something I could do, not after everything I’d been through. So we kept going.
Now, I don’t want to bore you with numbers, and running to me isn’t about the numbers anyway— it’s about much more than that—but I am an Engineer by trade. I consider myself a closet nerd, and I do geek out over numbers. Maybe I was just giving myself another reason to create a spreadsheet, but I worked out three possible outcomes for the race: A, finish in 11:30, B, finish in 12:30, and C, finish in 14:30.
Unfortunately for my game plan, I hit that proverbial wall at around mile 18 of the first loop. This was my first real encounter with the wall. I originally thought I’d already crashed into it in last December at the North Face Endurance Challenge, my first 50-miler. But, as fate would have it, that was Mr. Wall’s younger and more manageable cousin, Mr. Hurdle. It took some effort, but I was able to overcome Mr. Hurdle.
At Cuyamaca, I tried a new strategy, which was to go out hard and get in front of the pack!
Wait, that’s a lie—that’s no strategy of mine—or was it that guy, Mr. Wall, sitting on my shoulder and encouraging me to do this at every start line, regardless of my game plan? Who can say, but suffice it to say I went out hard—really hard.
I was running at a pace 5-10 minutes ahead of my “A” goal, and h-o-l-y shit, did it feel good! So good, in fact, that I decided to feed off that runners high rather than the food in my ultra vest.
It was early, and the sun had yet to cast its spell on the marvel that is Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, a high desert 50 miles East of San Diego. The temperatures were low, I was on a new trail, and it was my first 100k journey. Saturday, October 1st, was a morning cultivated for one thing: running!
Cuyamaca Peak stands at just over 7000’, and the climb up to it was both memorable and painful. These are two words synonymous with ultra running, and the spectrum of emotion is part of what attracts me to the sport. Mr. Wall had already been whispering in my ear a couple miles before the climb. He laughed, yet applauded my starting line efforts and warned me of the intoxicating and addictive pleasure of the runners high. It’s a lesson I’m still learning to heed in this ultra running career and journey of mine. My coach, Peter Fain (http://runondirtcoaching.com), had fully prepared me to run up Cuyamaca Peak, but because I had gone out too fast and slacked on my nutrition, I was beat and I had to walk it.
Let’s take a trip down Metaphoric Irony Lane and go deep into our thoughts for a moment—admittedly, another reason why I am attracted to these long trail runs. If it wasn’t for the slow, painful climb up to Cuyamaca Peak, I am reluctant to believe that I would have noticed the beauty and allure of the changing landscape. I would have been too engrossed with my “numbers.”
I’d had a conversation with my wife, Tara, super crew and supporter, about deserts over the weekend. Tara, a child of the desert, has strong ties and bonds to a land that often seem dead and lifeless to me. I prefer the abundance of trees, mountains, rivers, and lakes, settings that speak and breed life. As I trudged the 10+ miles up to Cuyamaca Peak, I watched as the landscape around me evolved from high desert to resembling the alpine home I am now familiar with. With each passing pine tree, I felt life being breathed back into me, slowly but surely extinguishing that deathly feeling Mr. Wall was whispering in my ear. I was coming back to life.
I finished the climb to Cuyamaca Peak, the last 1/2 mile reminiscent of a paved KB Powerline, a steep ascent that Coach Fain had me tackle on multiple occasions during my training. I refueled at the Aid Station, soaking in the scenery and missed calories from the miles before. With food in my belly, lube where the sun doesn’t shine, and goosebumps on my arms, I started to run again, full of life! I was enjoying every single step, picking up speed, delicately placing my feet like I was dancing to an unsung tune as I quickly descended into the ever-changing landscape.
Sadly, the euphoria only lasted about three to four miles. It wasn’t Mr. Wall knocking on my door this time though, it was some gnarly, technical downhill trail that wasn’t in the runnable wheelhouse for Sean Flanagan. I was walking again, and another runner, a veteran of Cuyamaca, informed me that this only lasted for four more miles. ONLY!?! Anger crept in, and doubt and anxiety. Once again I was having conversations with Mr. Wall. There were 2-foot drops in some places, and I cursed each one as they insulted me with my slow pace.
When I finally reached Cuyamaca Camp, it had been six hours since I started the race, and I had my doubts about whether or not I’d return there to finish later that day.
Now, my original plan for Cuyamaca was to have another pacer, my good friend Kane Cullimore, who recently finished the Castle Peak 100k without a pacer. After seeing his performance, I started to convince myself that a “true” ultra runner doesn’t need a pacer, I was going to do this alone.
Rob was recruited (luckily for me) rather unexpectedly. We’d stayed in LA with him and his wife, Kristin, on our way down to Cuyamaca, and he offered to come out and pace me for the second loop if I needed him. Now, Rob is a veteran ultra athlete himself, and we’d just spent nearly the whole month of June preparing for and completing RAAM (Race Across America), a 3,089-mile solo cycling race from California to Maryland. As Rob’s crew chief for that race, I’d been thoroughly impressed with his grit and stamina and ability to complete the impossible. I knew that, in whatever capacity, Rob’s support would be priceless.
I was happy to have Rob there, but I’ll admit, I was feeling confident. I fully planned on coming in from loop 1 feeling amazing and telling Rob I didn’t need a pacer. I had visions of telling Rob and Tara I was moving so fast that any pacer would have trouble keeping up with me. Reality told a different story, one of meeting Mr. Wall and vomiting on the side of the trail, and questioning what idiot pays for an experience like this? I don’t think I fully understood the role and responsibility a good pacer provides until that 12-mile loop with Rob. After about 10-15 minutes gathering my thoughts, guts, hugs and kisses from the misses, Rob and I were off.
The hot and fully exposed 2nd loop was the shortest of three at Cuyamaca, but it was without a doubt the hardest on the course and in my career. Rob and I walked a good portion of it while I recovered from my clash with Mr. Wall. We caught up on life and, for the first time since the race, chatted about our experiences during RAAM. I realized then that Rob was an inspiration to me. If he and I hadn’t crossed paths years before, I highly doubt I would have been out there on that trail with him. I might have still been running road 10k’s!
Through Rob’s coaching and conversation, I was able to make a full recovery. The crash had cost me hours, and I was way past my “C” goal, for those of you that still care about numbers. We rallied, we ran, and I came into Camp Cuyamaca at the end of the 2nd loop with renewed energy and perspective.
I can’t explain the overwhelming feeling of anticipation I felt a few miles out from camp, accompanied by giggles and goosebumps. Just seeing Tara, my #1 crew chief for life, with a smile on her face as we came in, did more for me than any Gu, caffeinated gel, or runners high could. Tara, a champion high school cross-country runner, was always encouraging me to come out for a run with her during our early days of courtship. I declined each time, most likely with a look of disgust as I headed to the gym to “pump iron” with my chest bumping buddies. Another inspiration, I was doing this for her, because of her, just as much as for Rob and myself. Trails will rue the day that Tara and I run our first ultra together, but first Tara needs to get rid of Mr. Wall’s evil brother, Mr. IT Band!
There is much to say about the 18 miles of loop 3 of the Cuyamaca 100k, but most ultra running stories are about the trials and tribulations. Loop 3 was for me. It was for my thoughts and conversations with my brother, who is another reason—no, THE reason—I journey on these trails, pushing my body to these limits. The last 18 miles were my miles, my brother Ruairi’s miles, and we fucking owned them!
P.S. For the closet number nerds out there, I almost clocked a faster time on loop 3 than loop 2, event though it was six miles longer, and came in more than an hour before my anticipated pace after my meeting with Mr. Wall and loop 2. I finished 29th overall, with a time of 13:31:48.