Me and the race mascot chillin’ pre-race start. I was privileged to take part in Saturday’s 3rd Annual Sehgahunda Trail Marathon along with the other founders of TrailsROC.org and many other friends. What an awesome day! Here’s the recap…
Oh, Sehgahunda. You little bastard.
At this point in my short (I was obese less than three years ago) endurance racing “career”, a trail marathon isn’t too bad. I’ve soloed longer trails. 10-12 hours spent mountain biking or trail running are second nature by this point. Heck, I was actually using Sehgahunda as a part of my off road triathlon training because I’m tackling a solo off road Ironman triathlon later this year. Coming into Saturday’s race I’d already thrown in a 100 mile single speed road bike and 2.5 mile swim in the week prior just to see how my body would respond to it all. So I know what I’m capable of and had no reservations at all headed into Saturday’s race. I showed up ready to go, not play it conservatively, and see how fast I could crank through Sehgahunda’s 26.3 miles of trail with a goal of finishing in the 5:30 range – give or take half an hour.
But in my racing experience I’ve also learned, mostly the hard way, that I need to listen to my body. Especially with endurance undertakings. There’s a time to push your limits. The pain cave has become a familiar “friend” by now. But there’s also a time to back off, cut your losses, and live to fight another day. Like when you’re risking heat stroke; like during Saturday’s race.
I showed up Saturday ready to play. A single speed road century and 2.5 mile swim already under my belt during the preceding week – to see how my body would react to my upcoming off road Ironman undertaking – I was confident and felt great heading into Saturday’s race. Different from the long, off road solo undertakings I’m used to tackling, I went into Sehgahunda ready to push myself both physically and mentally in a different sort of way. Aid stations? People cheering? Drop bags? Piece of cake. I’m used to doing this self-supported and solo. So I cranked through the first 12 miles or so right on target at a 12 min/mile pace (which would have had me finishing around the 5:30 mark)… but then my body got other ideas.
I’ve never had stomach problems on endurance races. Ever. I did Saturday. Man it sucked. I’m pretty good at ignoring the hurt, but somewhere after the second race checkpoint about ½ way through the race my stomach started feeling horrible. Having learned the hard way from my past experiences with heat stroke, dehydration, and cramping, I knew that I simply had to keep downing the fluids, calories, and electrolytes, but the more I took in the worse my stomach felt. And so the less I took in the worse my dehydration got. It’s a maddening cycle that only complicates the already daunting mental game that is endurance trail racing. At around mile 18 I knew that as much as I didn’t want to pull out – it might come down to making the safe decision rather than risking continued dehydration and possibly heat stroke.
I had heat stroke once back in high school on a 5 mile training run in the July heat of central Pennsylvania out by myself on a back road. I got cold. I stopped sweating. I blacked out momentarily… I was lucky enough to be about 2 miles from my start point and shuffled back without further incident. Thankfully I didn’t pass out in the road. But it definitely shook me up and ever since then I’ve had a very healthy respect for the heat.
So Saturday, deep in the woods by myself, knowing my time splits were continuing to tank rapidly and I was falling towards the very back of the field, I knew there was a good chance the prudent choice might be to pull out. I hate pulling out. I don’t quit things. I’m not a fast athlete, but I can go longer than and suffer more than most people. At that point in the race I stopped to see if a bathroom break would help alleviate my stomach problems. My urine was practically brown. That’s a bad sign. Than I started sweating noticeably less; almost stopped sweating. Another really bad sign. By the time I made it into checkpoint 5 at mile 19.4 I was seriously considering pulling out. Not because of my muscles – my legs were fine, definitely tired, but no cramps – and my mental game was still fine, but I know my body and the reality was I was risking heat stroke. I sat for a few minutes. Iced my neck and head to get my core temperature down, fueled up and headed back out… But about .3 miles back down the trail I started feeling cold. That was the deciding factor. When heat stroke becomes a real possibility it’s time to call it quits. Sure, I had the motivation to finish of a beautiful wife, my 3 amazing kids, and my parents waiting at the finish line for me. But not wanting them to see me show up in an ambulance is also a very relevant kind of motivation. So I turned around, headed back in to checkpoint 5 and pulled out of the race after covering 20 miles. Cut my losses. Live to fight another day.
At that point I would’ve thought the race was over, but Fleet Feet / Yellowjacket’s poor race organization (which came as a big surprise because they’re always very much on their game) meant that DNF’ing wasn’t quite so simple. I would have thought that “so, how do I get from here to the finish line?” would be a normal question? Apparently not. None of the volunteers – including the race doctor – seemed to know the answer. None of the empty cars at the checkpoint were offered. Something about “well, you could walk down the dirt road in the general direction of the finish line and see if you can catch a ride? Or maybe someone at the next checkpoint will know the answer? Or we might have room in a vehicle later on once we tear down?” was mumbled. Really? Not helpful. Let me get this straight… I DNF’d because I was very much risking heat stroke, only to end up walking towards the finish line on a back road (by now out of the cooler woods out in the open under the hot sun) hoping I don’t get heat stroke post-race? Wow, what an awesome way to end a DNF.
I was pissed to say the least. That’s putting it very, very nicely. With no cell phone to call for a ride and no ride being offered I had no choice but to start walking the dirt access road in the general direction of the finish line. Not only did this happen to me but to two other DNF’ers along with me at checkpoint 5. All this under the watch of several volunteers as well as the race physician… who than drove by us in her empty car without so much as slowing down to offer us a ride.
Wow. Poorly played Fleet Feet / Yellowjacket. Really, really poorly played.
Thankfully a friend was heading back to Mt. Morris to get his car and stopped to chat and let us use his cell phone to call ahead and let family know what was going on. A mile or two down the road at checkpoint 6 we were greeted by some volunteers and relay team members who actually seemed to know what was going on and – after making sure we were ok – allowed us to hitch a ride back to the finish area. To his credit, someone from Fleet Feet eventually stopped by the checkpoint on his rounds and was positively livid when he found out that we’d been left on our own. But by that point I really didn’t care. And I still don’t. That shouldn’t happen. Ever. It was absolutely pathetic.
It’s a good thing my fascination with Sehgahunda transcends the race organizer snafu‘s. Aside from the post-DNF logistics, Sehgahunda was an utterly amazing day. And I will definitely be back next year to kick Sehgahunda’s ass. Even having to pull out 20 miles in, it was still an incredible experience. The fact is that DNF’ing is sometimes par for the course in endurance racing. When you’re out there pushing yourself sometimes you do actually find your limit. It was just one of those days. In hindsight, I still wouldn’t have changed a thing about how the day went. Given the circumstances I know I made the right call and I have no regrets.
I suppose that if I’d tapered properly for Sehgahunda and not squeezed the rest of an Ironman into the preceding week I probably would have done fine. But that wasn’t the point. This year’s Sehgahunda was part of training for something bigger and it definitely served that purpose.
Sehgahunda is truly a remarkable race. I’ve never experienced a course so beautiful and brutal that doesn’t involve mountains. It’s all rocks, roots, gully drops, and steep scrambles. There’s nothing flat. There are no smooth sections of trail. It is thoroughly relentless. And it is utterly beautiful. The views of the Letchworth gorge are breathtaking, the ravines, fern fields, pine tree forests, and old growth trees have an almost mystical presence. The place has an ancient spiritual quality about it – one that leaves you feeling privileged for having been part of it.
I happen to have a rather unique perspective on these experiences, because 3 years ago I weighed over 60 pounds more than what I do now. I was obese. Not “Biggest Loser” obese, but definitely, by the BMI charts, I was obese. I’m really proud to have accomplished what I have since then. I’m thankful for my family and friends, my health, and the ability to race off road the way I do. Endurance racing has allowed me to discover more about myself than I ever knew I was capable of, and I get to do things in regular training that most people only dream of. It really is a privilege. I pushed myself out there, but I didn’t put myself in the hospital, so that‘s good. Sehgahunda isn’t going anywhere. It’ll be there next year for me to destroy. And destroy it I will!
In follow-up to this post – please read my follow-up regarding FLEET FEET and YELLOWJACKET RACING. They made everything right…
The deepest respect to my friends and other TrailsROC.org founders who positively destroyed Saturday’s race! Good on ya, guys! Well done! Final race results are here: Yellowjacket Racing – Sehgahunda 2012