Sunday, October 14, 2018

Bromont Ultra - 100-miles of Trails

In an ongoing effort to keep these self-indulgent race reports at least somewhat interesting to read, I decided to try to write this one backwards. We'll start at the finish line and it will be an interesting tale about a guy who, over the course of 30hrs and 4mins, gradually feels better and better about the things he's doing to his body.

I know more people would read these if I edited them down and made them shorter. I'd apologize for the length of this one up front but I’m not really sorry and I'm not writing it for anyone or anything. I discovered along this run that I like to write about things like this because a lot gets forgotten in the midst of life. One day I'll want to reflect and teach people in my life about vulnerability, and believing in yourself, and love and friendship, and what it means to trust someone with your whole heart, and about dedication and grit and sacrifice and mental attitude... This is how I'll do it.

I know everyone doesn't have to run 100-miles to learn about these things, but it's the best way I know how to explore them and amplify them that at this moment in my life.

Base camp is a big open equestrian field. A house-sized white tent encapsulates a big party including a band, excited spectators, a bar, and live tracking of racers on a TV.

The finish line was still unreal to me even having had stepped on it a couple extra times at the end to make sure it was actually under my feet. I walked a little further and sat down in a cold fold-out chair; I gave my body permission to relax. The loving touch and comforting feeling of a friend's warm hand on my back was all it took to break me down into my second or third fit of tears in the past five minutes.

I can't remember the last time I broke down like that.

The race director came to shake my hand and congratulate me and the photographer was loving the emotionally overflowing scene. I wish I could add a caption to these finish line photos but I'd argue that there is only one other human that'll know exactly how I felt here.

At this point, my body is structurally sound. My muscles are broken down and stiff and exactly how you'd expect them to feel after running 100-miles. But there's no "structural damage,” such as a rolled ankle or broken bone or something like that. Pushing yourself to physical limits safely requires a structurally sound body. I've given up on the 100-mile distance three times prior due to rolled ankles and it has been frustrating (among other feelings).

Mile 99.9

Two hundred meters away from the finish line, Leah and I were moving about 15min/mi pace and I felt the entire run wash over me. I was reactively starting to whimper and wanted to try and control myself a little more. I slowed down to take a couple deep breaths, "Act like you've been there before," I said to myself. That was not about to happen. As we approached closer, Leah tried to duck off to the side and said that I should cross the finish line by myself. I hadn't said actual words in a long while but I remember telling her that I couldn't have done it without her and she had to come with me. A volunteer came out to scan my race-bib and she said something in French. For the first time since entering Quebec, I didn't ask for English. I don't know exactly what she said, but I felt like I knew what she meant and that was the straw that broke the back of my emotional camel. I gave the volunteer a huge hug and the tears continued to roll in a half-funny, half-sad, all-hysterical way.

Mile 89 - This was the crux of the run for me by a long shot.
It's a little after 9:00 on Sunday morning. I am sitting in a flimsy fold-out chair next to a table with a couple of jugs of water on it and a piece of laminated paper reading AIDE-TOI (HELP YOURSELF)

I couldn't do any such thing.

The pain in my legs, plus the sleep deprivation, plus the low blood sugar was putting in some really hard-hitting blows to my mental state. By this time, a few of the runners of the shorter distance races were galloping by me at what looked like a blazing speed. I was careful not to come to a full stop at many stations along the run, and I only sat for a few minutes when I did, but this plastic chair could have very well been the electric-chair for me on this run. It was the lowest of lows I've felt in an endurance activity and I didn't think I'd be able to continue. I put my head in my hands and cried for the first time in a long while. I was just sad. Even though I had come 89-miles, 11 more seemed impossible.

Leah somehow knew the perfect recipe of how much sympathy to offer me to get me out of the chair, followed promptly by how hard to kick my ass to get me shuffling along the trail again. It is a delicate concoction for a pacer to conjure up. I asked her to come pace me knowing that she would know exactly what to do/say in this very moment. She is an amazing human; our friendship runs deep and she knows me well. She's going to school to be a nurse and I know if she unleashes half of her heart, mind, ambition, and potential on the nursing world she'll be a modern day Florence Nightingale.

It was this motivation from her, plus a chance encounter with a man in a car about 50 meters away waiting for another runner, that got me moving again. The stranger looked at me and waved his hands excitedly from a distance as he shouted something in French. I looked at Leah questioningly (she doubled as a translator as well), but she didn't quite know what he was saying either. He went to his trunk and walked over with a can of Red Bull. "I was trying to tell you that 'Red Bull gives you some wings,'" he said laughing. I chugged it and shook his hand and I smiled just a little smile at him; it was the type of smile that you try and not-smile after you've been crying hysterically. The not-smile that one smiles when the hissy-fit ends and the world makes sense again but you don't want to admit it.

As we moved on for the next few minutes, I was looking at my watch, the time, and the distance incessantly. Leah beckoned me to put it away. She said something like, "Time doesn't matter anymore. We're going to finish."

She said it with conviction and I put it away for the rest of the race.

Not knowing the time helped a ton. Time was a distraction at that point; a delusion from where I needed my mind to be. The only thing that mattered was the current moment. The step being taken: both of these things one million times over. Eventually, if I placed enough faith in the current moment, I knew the finish line would find its way to me. I never have been one to live in the "safety" of the future anyways, it's been worked into a cliche but the future is truly never guaranteed, so there's no use praying away a powerful feeling, even one so "unpleasant" as mile 89. In another step there's a chance I might get hurt, or worse, and never get to run again. If that were to happen, I'd long and pine for the "miserable" feelings of mile 89.

Mile 79 - 5am Sunday Morning
This aid station put the "Bro" in Bromont. It was right in the middle of the last hard climb and these bros had a roaring campfire lit, they offered to make me whatever I needed, and they were bumping reggae tunes that were ironically peaceful for the torture that the rest of the race was doing to me. More importantly, they were the perfect mix of "Get in, get what you need, and GTFO."

The sun would be rising soon and this was one of the things I was looking forward to the most of this race: having gotten to watch the sun set, then run through the night, and then watch the sun rise again--- all in the same run.

The only time things got really weird for me was right before I met up with Leah at mile 76. I was alone on the trail for a long while and very obediently following pink flags when my headlamp reflected something else back at me. I stopped dead in my tracks and covered my lamp with my hand briefly, then removed it. Again, the light shone on what I thought I had seen--- Two eyes were about 150ft away in the woods looking right at me. They were far enough off the trail to not worry about, but close enough to sense something else tracking my every move. If I had to guess, it was a deer, but what was strange was the sense of companionship that came after I watched it a bit and concluded that the animal was not a threat.

I've always called BS on people with stories like these, but I got the overpowering feeling that the animal was actually someone I had known briefly before he lost his battle with cancer this past summer. This man took a genuine interest in my desire to start coaching and writing and even though I only really had a handful of meetings with him, he always left a lasting impression on how I wanted to live. He vested himself deeply in our conversations and asked questions about my running that no one has ever asked before. To me, he was a man that was extremely self-aware and not afraid to be vulnerable. I'll never be able to explain why my brain connected seeing this animal at 2:30 in the morning on a trail in Canada with the thoughts of the late Mike Pimentel but that moment was real and I think he was actually watching in those woods.

Mile 70 - 1am Sunday Morning
I've been wandering around in the dark and rain for what seemed like forever. It wasn't one thing that bugged me about the night. I've run in the dark before, I've run on slippery trails before, I've run through heavy fog, and I've had to pay attention closely to trails to not get lost. But the combination of all of those things at the same was a mental battle and slowed me down big time. My number one goal was to keep my ankles in tact. My legs were in really rough shape at this point but I could have powered along a lot faster had only one of these obstacles not been present.

I checked in to the aid station at Chez Bob (which was actually someone’s garage). Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' was on the radio, which I thought was also all too appropriate for the moment, to the extent that I thought it was a joke.It was great to get a hug from Kenny. This is also the part of the race where Ken gave me the shirt off of his back, literally. Because that is the kind of guy he is. It was also fitting that it was his Sugarloaf Marathon shirt; his first marathon, and I was there watching him dig deep within himself to finish that run. I tried to laugh and joke around with the rest of the support crew there but my jokes didn't seem to be landing.

They also did a weigh-in at this stop to make sure people haven't lost too much body weight during the run. I hadn't been this nervous for a weigh-in since Pop Warner football where my dad would have me suck down a large iced coffee a couple hours beforehand so the diarrhetic effects of coffee would hopefully shed any last minute "dead weight."

The object of this particular weigh-in was the opposite though, so before I stepped on the scale I stuffed a quarter of a PB&J sandwich in my mouth and washed it down with my self-made 50/50 mix of gatorade and coffee, then ate boiled potato rolled in salt. I weighed in two pounds heavier than I started. This was a good sign.

I made one last attempt at humor as I stepped off the scale and got on my way. I belted out the last part of the song and danced my way out of the garage with eyes locked on the woman who weighed me in... (the lyrics were all too fitting)

Once I ran to you...
Now I'll run from you
This tainted love you've given
I give you all a boy could give you
So take my tears and that's not nearly all
Oh tainted love
Tainted love
(I didn't miss a word… and made it super awkward (read: awesome))

I left with what I really wanted (among all of the foods), the reassurance that no matter how tired my legs are or broken my body is, I still get joy out of putting a smile on a stranger's face even though they don't speak the same language. Also, If you give me the opportunity to dance with abandon and make a lame joke or two… I'll take it. Every goddamn time.

Emotions tend to roll from sky-high to “Chokey-from-Matilda”-low during long races. This was no different. It’s wild how fast the “king-of-the-world” feeling fades, but also plays key in recognizing that the lows will likely be gone if you keep going a little bit beyond yourself. Only an hour or two after the halfway mark was when I hit the first low. It was quick but it was very distinct and significant. It was my first experience with some hardcore thought repression. As I climbed one of the next climbs, it seemed that every single insecurity in my life crept into my head all at once…

You're never going to finish a 100-mile run.
Why can’t you just like a “normal job?” You’re barely squeaking by financially.
Your writing sucks and no one even reads it.
You don’t bring anything good to the table and you’ll never positively impact anything.
You're not a good athlete. You’re still too heavy to be a runner.
No one wants to be coached by you.
You're a huge fake.
Your friends and running/triathlon club buddies secretly think you suck. You’re a bad leader.
You won’t find a tenant for your house and you’ll be forced to foreclose on it.
There’s nothing you can do about any of this.

These thoughts suck. But they’re real. I had to stop in the middle of the trail to think about how I’d deal with them for a minute. The only way I’d be able to finish the run is if I found a way to completely forget about them for the rest of the race. I’m not talking about just telling myself to think about something else when these negative thoughts come up, I am talking about actually forgetting this very moment entirely.

I managed to do just that somehow. I put all those negative thoughts and insecurities in a box and then saw them dissolve. I wouldn’t think about them again until the drive home when my realtor texted me. It’s wild what your brain can do when it’s in survival mode.

Mile 50 - Back at Base Camp/The Start/Finish line - 6:30pm
Judging from the technicality of the trails, the elevation gain, and distance, I predicted I'd be at the halfway point at 6pm. So, I was a tiny bit behind but was on track. I hugged my crew and let them know what I needed from them. I was on top of the world and feeling great at this point.

Fifty miles on trails is far and away my favorite distance to run... and be done. But this time, my legs were in for round two. Forced to make the decision to run back onto the course. I once read the idea that for a few moments, every day, every man becomes a genius, with moments of huge clarity and where everything just makes sense. You've got to capitalize on planning things in these genius moments because soon, one way or another, distractions creep into life and you're back to being a lazy idiot again. The best you can do when you're in savant-mode, is to make decisions easier for yourself when your the idiot. Well, I was in and out of this check-point like a brilliantly-guided idiot.

There was an electric fence right before the final stretch of the finish line. I had an overwhelming urge to grab it, just to see how it felt. I have no idea what this says about my mental state at the time but I actually stepped further away from the fence to distance myself from it as I ran alongside it.

Mile 40 - Lac Gale
The miles between 40-50 were long and arduous. The trail marched you passed Base Camp on your right and then a big loop around it, before you actually finished there. My head was on straight and I was likely jamming at that point. Nothing really mattered and it was way too early to be thinking about anything other than running and eating. The more miles done in the daylight was less having to be done at night.

The only bummer about racing in a land that doesn't primarily speak your language is the trail-talk-BS that you get along the way most times. I like shooting the breeze with everyone. Especially early on. I did chuckle at one point when I passed a guy on an uphill. He said something in French and I politely asked for English. His broken English then replied with a kind smile and encouraging tone, "I said, you are a robot!"

I smiled and didn't quite know how to reply other than a chuckle and "Merci!" I ran along for a few more minutes pondering what that could have meant. When I realized what had probably gotten lost in translation I laughed out loud. I am guessing what he meant to say was, "You're a machine!" as in, I was going uphill fast.

I saw Leah and Ken for the first time at the Mile 40 Lac Gale aid station, but I was mostly just in and out.

Mile 21
Miles 21-40 kind of flew by. This is the flatter portion of the course and offers some good time/relief to check in and fully refuel/rehydrate.

I got a couple text messages from friends and family along the way. My cousin crushed her first half-marathon and another friend was running the BAA half marathon. These things made me really happy.

The Start
The first miles went by extremely fast. There was some trail talk but the only thing I remember thinking from the first few hours is that Allez! is infinitely more motivating to hear than Keep it up!

The campsite was on point and the race vibes were incredible. After checking in and getting my bib, Leah and I made our way over to one of the fire pits and asked one of the race volunteers if we could make a fire. It seemed like a fire was on everyone else’s minds, and the fresh fire wood was right here too, but no one really took it upon themselves to get it going. The guy we asked seemed curious as to why we even asked for permission. Yeah, absolutely. Why wouldn’t you make a fire in perfect weather like this?

As we got it going, about a few groups of people came over one-by-one to join in and chat. The vibes were high as we cooked our pea soup. Good fire, good food, great people. The venue was on-point and everyone was smiling. I thought back to the start of the last 100 I attempted, where my tent was passive-aggressively thrown out in the field and I was forced to field complaints and listen to negative comments all night long.

As I climbed into the sleeping bag I thought about how awesome real support and real friends will affect someone trying to do something like this. This time I was exactly where I needed to be. And I was so ready. I remember vividly thinking about how grateful I was for everything surrounding me at that very moment.


  1. Great report. I don't know how you guys deal with the agony of those last 20 miles. A real crucible for your soul! Great job, Billy. Very happy for you to have conquered this. And the photos...

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