Background: Despite my relatively injury free training the last four months, my final two weeks of training for the SweetWater 50K were dictated by my Achilles. On Tuesday April 5th, I began my last hard run for the season: 2 x (20 min at Tempo Pace + 20 min easy). Although I started the run somewhat fatigued, I figured that a week and a half would be enough recovery time for my body. During my previous fast runs, I had endured some Achilles and ankle pain, but it always went away the next day. So, whenever it started to flare up on runs, I would always just push through it. Thus, when I started to feel my Achilles hurt slightly toward the end of my first hard interval, I thought very little of it. Yet, when I finally finished and began my recovery jog, it intensified. At first, I decided to sacrifice part of my second interval, but then it started burning severely. After trying to run on it for another minute, I was forced to stop. Even though I couldn’t finish my workout, I wasn’t that disappointed considering one more hard workout wasn’t going to increase my fitness significantly. Right then, my body needed rest more than anything anyways. So, I walked to a friend’s house and got a ride home.
The next couple of days saw no improvement in my Achilles. I took off Wednesday and cycled on Thursday after testing it on the trails with no luck. The next day I was able to run for 2.5 miles in ½ mile intervals, and over the weekend, got in a 40 min elliptical workout. Also, I began to feel my right Achilles hurting along with my left one. At this point, I had lost most of my hope for being able to run 100% on race day and was slowly starting to think over the possibility that I might not be able to run at all. Divine intervention was what I needed now. and I began to pray that all of my hard work from the last couple of months would not be in vain.
With my first taper week trashed, I entered into the final week before the race. By the end of the week, I had only ½ mile of running under my belt instead of my planned 26, yet I also found a glimmer of hope. On Wednesday, I met with the trainer for our school. After testing my Achilles’ flexibility, strength, and health (looking for bumps that might indicate a tear), she showed me how to strengthen and stretch my Achilles (eccentric calf raises, lower leg stretches…etc). However, her best advice was to tape my Achilles. She not only showed me how to tape it, but also provided me with pre-wrap and tape. Along with taping, she suggested that I use heel cups to limit the range of my Achilles and that I ice and heat it extensively. Considering this was my last chance at salvaging the race, I paid careful attention and ultimately implemented all of her advice. On Friday, I taped my Achilles and tested it on a ½ mile continuous run; it felt great. Problem was that I would have to run more than 60x that distance the next morning.
Race: Race morning came with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was pumped to race after having a significantly better training season than last year’s newbie attempt. However, on the other hand, I wasn’t sure whether I would make it past the first mile without severe pain and be faced with racing against the cut-off time. We got up around 5 am. All I had to do was to get dressed and make sure all of my gear/nutrition was loaded into the car. On Friday night, I spent over two hours collecting my gear and calculating my nutritional needs (with the help of Hammer Nutrition.) This year I was determined not to bonk 2/3rds of the way through; dealing with my Achilles would be enough. Once Jacqueline ( one of my best friends and a vital part of my support crew) arrived, we began the drive out to SweetWater State Park.
When we arrived at 6:45 am, the park was already buzzing with runners. Before I got taped up, we headed into the group shelter to pick up my race number and shirt. In the shelter, I got a glimpse of Christian Griffith from run100miles.com, but my other ultra-running friends hadn’t arrived yet. So, we headed back to the car to mix my nutrition up and tape both of my Achilles. On the way back, I caught up with Mr. Schaffer, my project facilitator, who helped me with my training. With 30 min or so before race time, I laid across the seats of my car while my parents taped both of my Achilles. Truthfully, this would be the most important part of my preparation. Next, I fixed up my fuel belt. For the first half of the race, I planned on fueling with Hammer’s Sustained Energy (about 230 cal/hr) and water. With a last minute pee and prayer, I headed to the starting line. On the way over, I found out that because of the rain the previous night, the water crossing was scrapped. Not that big of a deal, but I would miss it. Finally, with a shout from the race director, we were off.
The first two miles was on the street around the lake. To my amazement, I easily held pace with the other runners and my Achilles gave me no pain. On the way around the lake, we witnessed an awesome sunburst over the calm lake waters that blew my mind. Coupled with cool weather in the lower 60s, the start was going extremely well. After the first couple of miles, we hit the trail and quickly found out that wet feet would be a theme for the race. Next, we rappelled down a concrete wall into the flowing run-off ditch for the lake and back up the other side. My Achilles held strong. Following the run-off ditch, the course headed down a rocky hill, crossed a stream, and eventually led us to the river’s edge/the beach. Here I found my crew cheering me on and I stripped off my running sleeves since I was getting warm from running.
The next part of the course winded through the trails at the park and along the river’s edge. Because of the rain, some of the trails were flooded at points and thus my shoes never really dried throughout the whole race. Eventually, the race headed out of the park and toward the infamous gas-line climbs and Top of the World (TOTW.) The approach to the climbs was relatively easy and my Achilles was still doing well. At mile 6.9 and about 1 hr and 20 mins into the race, I hit the Tributary Aid station, a new addition this year. Since I was still feeling strong and on top of my nutrition, I ran through the aid station and after running along a strange retaining wall, began the last part of the approach to TOTW. I entered the gas-line climbs feeling strong, but knowing I was little more than 8 miles into the race. To my surprise, Jacqueline and my dad hiked out to the climbs and snapped a couple of pictures of me coming down one of them. In total, there are 6-10 ranging from a typical neighborhood hill to “I just wanna cry” hills. The “I wanna cry” hill is actually not climbed directly. To the race director’s delight, just off to the side of the hill is a gulley filled with rocks and covered in leaves. The first time is not that bad, but the second time is pure pain for the quads. After the climbs, I ran to the Top of the World where my mom and sister were. I grabbed an almond butter sandwich and ran to the School Spur aid station. Again, I was good on fuel and just topped off my water bottle before heading back out. My Achilles felt fine and I kept a decent pace all the way to the power-line climbs.
The power-line climbs also have one epic hill, however instead of climbing up it, you run down it. Yet, because of its steepness and the loose rocks, it’s more of a slide, a very scary slide at that. After this hill, there are a couple of more climbs and then the course heads back into the park. Up until this point, everything was going smoothly and I felt great. However, once I climbed up to Jack’s Hill Aid Station, I began to have trouble with my right knee, not the actual knee (although I will refer to it as my knee from now on), but a tendon down the outside of it. This upset me a lot since the next few miles were completely flat (i.e. runnable) and I had trouble running more than a minute at a time. So, I had to cover these miles switching between a physically painful jog and a mentally painful walk. The trail then wound back into the core of the park and dumped us out near the start of the race on the roads. Here, I found my support crew and smothered my knee in Arnica cream (anti-inflammatory cream.) As I walked past them, I told them I wasn’t able to run because of my knee and turned down their offer to doctor me up there. Instead, I told them to plan on re-taping my left Achilles and treating my knee at mile 17 on the beach. Because the water crossing was cut out, the second loop of the course was actually a repeat of the first instead of cutting around the other side of the lake. Walking along the road, I became very frustrated that I wasn’t able to cover this part of the race in a jog, forgetting that I should be grateful that my Achilles were holding up so well and actually barely hurt at all. Understandably, I was upset when I finally rolled into the beach aid station. However, thanks to my crew, I left this aid station with high hopes. They re-taped my left Achilles, gave me something to numb my knee, and helped me switch out my nutrition. For the second half of the race, I planned on ingesting gels and perpetuem solids after eating a almond butter sandwich for my caloric needs for the first hour after the aid station. In lieu of my fuel belt, I ran with a hand-held bottle and a small belt. With that, I headed back out to tackle the last 15 miles.
Although I was able to run out of the aid station and for a couple of minutes, my knee pain quickly came roaring back. I resorted to a quick walk and ran as much as I could handle. Since the second half of the race for most ultras is noticeably slower (at least in my experience), the slower pace allowed me to talk with a couple of the other runners. One of the guys I hung with for a while had trouble with his legs cramping and like me, could only handle a minute of running before stopping. Despite this, he was enjoying every bit of the run and couldn’t believe how beautiful the park was. Within an hour after the beach aid station, we hit the Tributary Aid Station again (although I think they renamed it for the second loop) and I took three to five minutes to ice my knee. Just like earlier in the race, I was feeling good all-around except for my knee. Next, we hit the last part of the approach to the climbs and I ran a significant portion of them despite my knee. Since my knee was preventing me from running when I felt good, I absolutely destroyed the gas-line climbs this time around. Although I was fatigued just like everyone else, I had specifically practiced walking up steep hills during my training (I called them Purcell Repeats after the hill I did them on.) So, contrary to last year’s race, this section actually saw me passing other runners. At the top, I ran to the Top of the World and toward the School Spur aid station. Sick of being at the mercy of my knee (which by the way didn’t respond at all to the numbing cream, anti-inflammatory cream or ice at all), I ran almost all of this section by effectively disowning my knee. I didn’t care how much it hurt; I didn’t stop unless it gave out. To my amazement, I saw my coach and project facilitator who weren’t that far ahead of me and also Christian, who was obviously in a lot of pain and barely shuffling. Coming into the last aid station, I grabbed some ice and iced my knee for another 3-5 minutes. About 6 hours into the race, I ate some chocolate covered coffee beans to reenergize my system. I was fatigued, but not enough that I needed rest; so I headed back out, telling my crew that was about an hour from finishing. Adopting the same approach to my knee as before, I ran through it, ignoring anything it threw at me. Coming off of the TOTW, one of the guys I met on the trail passed me, exclaiming that he was going “balls to the wall” to the finish. Amen, my man. Only the power-line climbs were left.
During this section, I passed Christian and told him to hang in there. (According to other runners, he was peeing blood and literally stumbled into the TOTW aid station.) Finally, I came off the last power-line climb and ventured back into the park. Once in the park, I continued to push and was aggressive with my Achilles and knee, not caring about how they felt. Coming into the last aid station (which was manned by a very cool guy that assured me I had only 5K left in the race), I was feeling good on nutrition and committed to giving it all I had to the finish. On my way, my right foot began to pulse with pain right where I had an anchor of tape for my Achilles. Although at the start of the race the tape wasn’t tight, my foot had swelled throughout the race to the point that it was getting choked by the tape. So, on this last stretch, I not only ignored my knee, but also my throbbing foot. As I came back to the core of the park, I began to feel the finish and picked up my pace. The trail then dumped back onto the street and I ran my heart out all the way across the finish line. Final time: 6 hours 57 minutes. 86 out of about 200.
Near the end everything was a little blurry, and when I came across the line, I immediately sat down and yanked off my shoes and compression socks to get at my tape. Once I ripped the tape off, I felt so much better and I spent the rest of the time barefoot. After talking to my project facilitator, coach, an ultra friend, and the JROTC sergeant from my school (who ran a smoking fast time), I got a plate of barbeque chicken and sat down. My legs were shot and I was hungry, although not as much as last year when I ran out of fuel. After numerous pictures and chatting a little with the other runners, we drove down the river’s edge and I soaked for 12 minutes (my favorite part of every visit to SweetWater.) After my ice bath, I climbed my last hill of the day back to the car with the help of my sister and Jacqueline.
Next Day: Well.. I could just say that everything hurts, which is true, but I’ll do a quick rundown of the most painful spots.
After a decent night’s sleep, I woke up and when I rolled over, was reminded of yesterday’s race. I eventually made my way downstairs to eat breakfast and to find a couch. Most of my movement is followed by a quiet whimper, but for the most part I am able to move under my own power. Climbing up stairs is a pretty big deal, since I have to crawl up them. Standing isn’t too bad, but when I lose my balance I have trouble with my legs responding in time to keep me upright. A warm shower helped and I plan to soak in an Epsom salt bath later today for the soreness. My quads and back are absolutely shot.
Next year I’m definitely coming back… mentioning the race puts an instant smile on my face today and I find my pain humorous (as does my family.)
Closing Thoughts: I couldn’t have done this race without the help of the trainer, my mom, and Jacqueline. With only a couple of days until the race, I had run out of options and hope. The trainer was able to provide me with a life-saving solution and saved my race. My mom was vital in my preparations leading up to the race and took care of me on the course perfectly. I am also thankful for her very good taping job on my Achilles. Finally, I found Jacqueline’s faith inspiring and attribute a large part of my success in this race to her, since her insistence that I believe that God would give me strength ultimately led to my finish.