I’ve never cramped like that before. I had been moving well up until that point, and while it didn’t last more than a couple minutes at the time, it was a sign of things to come. Why was this happening? The week leading up to the race was pretty unremarkable, other than the fact that we were racing in Europe. My flights to Portugal were on time and easy, my legs felt good in the couple days before the race, and the squish was in full effect. The only concern I had was if the smoke from the annual burning season would affect us. The days would start clear but by the afternoon, a thick smoky, haze would settle over the landscape. Combine this with the 75 degree temps we were experiencing (15-20 degrees warmer than normal from what we were told), and I thought it might play a factor in the race. In any case, everyone would have to deal with it, so I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying. I got to the start line feeling healthy, rested, and focused.
The race started with a bit of a blunder. With so many people packed in at the start, some pushing was inevitable. I had stashed an extra empty water bottle in my pack, anticipating that I’d need it later in the day to accompany my 2 soft flasks (1L total), as there were only 6 water stops over the 85k/5000m gain route. However, within 10 steps of starting, someone bumped me from behind. I stumbled, almost went down, and felt my bottle pop out of my pack. There was no chance to pick it up in the crowd, so I just kept running and hoped that my flasks would be enough when things got hot. Other than losing a bottle, things started well enough – I had to pee at the start line but waited until around 2k in, at the start of the first climb, to relieve myself. Many people passed but I was not worrying at all about it because we still had 83k of racing to go. My plan was to start conservatively, cover the first climb and descent well within myself, and then start moving up.
The plan went as intended after that. The remainder of the first climb was spent moving up through the field, but I could always see headlamps in front of me. I wondered how far back I was as it was hard to tell but didn’t really think too much about it. I was focused on keeping my breathing relaxed and not breaking an ankle on the descent. The first descent was super technical over large, loose rocks covered in leaves and moss, making it hard to see what was stable and what wasn’t, which was further compounded by us being in the dark. I let a lot of people pass me on that first descent, but emerged unscathed and quickly started making up more places on the runnable sections. I passed Jared Burdick (another member of team USA) around here and knew that Mario Mendoza and Tyler Sigl were still up ahead somewhere. For fuel, I ate a couple of PickyBars for breakfast and 2 more during the first 2 hours of the race. Then, I switched to Gu as my stomach doesn’t like eating solid foods on the run for the most part.
About 20k/12miles in, I caught up with a Brit who I initially thought was Tom Owens but introduced himself as Andy Symonds. We ran together, talking politics and gradually picking off more people, until the first aid station at the 30k/19mile mark. It was finally light out and was able to stash my headlamp in my pack. I grabbed some coke, refilled my water bottles, and was on my way. Andy left ahead of me but I could still see him out on course. On the next bit of climbing, I passed Mario and a couple other guys. I was still feeling quite good and was looking forward to tackling the climb to the highest point on the course before the day got too hot. I had been eating and drinking regularly and had one full flask for the 7-8k climb which started around 37k/24miles into the race. However, as soon as I got across the dam and started up, my left leg cramped. I was definitely surprised because I was feeling good and hadn’t had any indications that cramping would be an issue this early, and because it wasn’t my hamstring or quad or VMO, it was the whole inside of my leg, from the thigh through the knee and down into the lower leg. It would just freeze up and I while I could ease the pain while stretching, I couldn’t really walk, as my knee was locked at a slight angle. Then it started up in the right leg and I was really stuck. I had just eaten a gel so I didn’t think my electrolytes were the issue, but who knew. I took a swig of water and gradually the pain eased and I could continue moving upwards. Before long, it was as though the cramping had never occurred – I felt no residual effects in my legs and was quite happy about it. The rest of the climb was fairly uneventful, and I passed Tyler at this point, less than a mile into the climb. He didn’t look too good and I’d later find out that he’d run out of water more than 3 miles from the top. Not ideal. As I got to the top (47k/28miles), there was a water station where I downed several ounces of Coke, ate some cake, and emptied out my right shoe for the 8k descent to the 2nd big aid station at 55k.
Things went well enough on the descent, although there were some super runnable parts and my left knee was a bit sore just below the patella (likely the tendon), but that was alleviated when we got off the fire road after a mile and dropped straight down the side of the valley. We climbed a bit heading up into the 2nd aid station where Richard, Nancy, Jade, Lauren, and Jessica (managers and SOs of other team members) were waiting, and the cramping briefly resurfaced again. I had some more Coke in the aid station and made my way out, only to be hit with more cramping anytime the course moved uphill. I could run the downs fairly well, but anytime the route turned up, I would cramp on the insides of both legs. This wasn’t ideal as I was starting the final climb (7k/4miles long with around 950m/3000ft of climbing). I fought my way up, but it took forever, as I was perpetually fighting off cramps. It took me 95+ minutes to travel 4.8 miles, with the final 1.8 miles taking me 54 minutes, while the route climbed 450m/1500ft. By the time I got to the top, my legs were cramping so badly that I couldn’t steer. A medical staff member asked me in broken English if I needed help because I couldn’t heed their directions. I tried to convey that it wasn’t because I was losing my mind, but simply because I couldn’t control my legs. I think I got my point across by continually waving him off until he left me alone. Once over the top, I realized that I couldn’t run at all. My quads, VMOs, and hammys were all shot from the climb, and all of my stabilizers had gone too. So I started walking the 2 miles into the 3rd major aid station. My watch died on the way, having lasted 8 hours and 11 mins, and I was on my own as several people passed me, including the women’s leaders, with maybe 2 minutes separating the top 3 women. They were flying.
I finally got into the aid station where Nancy kindly asked me how I was doing. I responded “F*cking terrible” (sorry Nancy). My spirits lifted once in the tent, though, as I drank more coke and ate half a croissant. Unfortunately, I learned there that Yiou and Larisa had dropped for the women, leaving just Corinne out on course. She’d go on to finish but also had a tough race. I left the aid station with a smile on my face, resolved to walk the final 12k/7.5miles if I had to. The race organizers were doing a gear check there too, and asked to see my jacket and headlamp. Sneaky sneaky. It was also kind of ridiculous, if you ask me, for them to force us to carry a cell phone, rain jacket, headlamp with extra batteries, and safety blanket for the entirety of a race that started at 5am, would be finished in the daylight, and was run in 70+ degree temperatures with the max altitude being 1300m. Anyways, I found myself almost completely unable to run anything but flat, where I could manage a shuffle. People continued to moved past me, and Jared caught me maybe 3k/2miles after the aid station. I wondered when Mario and Tyler would come through, but little did I know Tyler would drop at the final aid station and Mario was walking as well, dealing with dizziness. He fought to finish to give us a complete team, walking longer than I did, most likely.
The final miles ticked off slowly. I gradually became more able to run but had to keep taking Gu’s every 15-20 minutes to stave off full-on cramps. There were a couple of punchy climbs in the final 5k/3miles that would have hurt were I able to run them. As it was, the descents hurt more than the climbs that this point, and the final 3k/2miles into town descended over 300m/1000ft and were just miserable. I could barely lift my legs as I approached the finish, and had to be sure to run on the smooth gutters and not the cobblestones for fear of catching a toe.
I finished in 10:38:14, 61st overall, and somewhat disappointed. I was happy that at no point had I considered dropping, but after what was a disappointing 18th last year in Annecy, I had come for some redemption and had fallen well short. The men’s team (Jared, Mario, and me) finished 15th out of 25 teams, a big drop from silver in 2015. Hopefully next year’s team will have a better go of things.
In the aftermath, my legs were shot. They’re feeling better after a couple of days, but I’m still fairly sore. The biggest puzzle was trying to figure out what caused that severe cramping on the insides of both legs. When I look back at the race, I think I wasn’t drinking enough early on. Temps were cool and I was moving well. I never even came close to running out of water while almost everyone else went dry at some point, so something was clearly going on with my fluid intake and once it was too late, there was nothing I could do about it. It’s a lesson I’ll take with me into future races and hopefully it’s something I don’t have to learn again. On the positive side of things, I never doubted I’d finish. My spirits remained high and once I’d come to terms with the reality of my situation, I was smiling and having a pretty good time despite being in considerable, constant pain. I’m disappointed with the result, especially given that Andy went on to finish in the top 10 and I think that I could have had a day like that. The course was geared more towards my strengths and I really could have moved in the last 12-15k had I been able to. For some perspective, the final 12k took me 1hr48min, or 14:20 mins/mile pace – and the terrain was mostly downhill! I’ve been in Bay 2 Breakers centipedes that have run under 38 minutes for 12k. Every step really was a battle.
Finally, for the data nerds, below is a table showing distances between checkpoints, time elapsed, splits, paces, and places. I got as high as 19th place 2/3 of the way through the race before giving up 40+ spots in the final 30k/20miles. It’s most disappointing to look at those places, as my plan of starting conservative early and moving up was clearly working before the wheels came off. Oh well, that’s why we run the whole race…
As for what’s next, well, not much is currently on the calendar. I’m headed to Boston again in April and will run the Dipsea in June, but haven’t decided on a race schedule beyond that. The main reason for my lack of planning is that Rachelle and I will welcome our first child in February and I don’t really want to have any obligations heading into my newfound parenting responsibilities. But, that being said, Rachelle has already said to me that she knows I need little running goals to remain sane (which is why I’m going to Boston and one of the reasons I married her), and so I’m sure I’ll jump into some longer stuff before the year is over. In the meantime, I’m beyond excited for parenthood and the sleep deprivation/coffee consumption that is sure to follow.
And finally, before wrapping this post up, I’d just like to thank Nancy and Richard for organizing, driving, crewing, and caring for the entire team during the trip to Portugal. Things went seamlessly thanks to their tireless efforts and Yiou and I were lucky enough to be able to stuff our faces with soft pretzels in the senator’s lounge in the Frankfurt airport because those two spend so much time traveling for the good of the MUT scene. Thanks also to Bryon and Meghan and Mauri of iRunFar for their tireless efforts in covering all of these races PEWPEWPEW. And thanks to everyone else I might be forgetting who played a role in getting our team over there.
See you at the Deuce after TNF50 in December.
Shoes: Nike Kiger 4 prototypes
Kit: team USA / Nike
Pack: Nike Kiger pack
Jacket: custom Nike trail jacket
Fuel: PickyBars, Gu, Coke, cake
Headlamp: Fenix HL55
My Strava Data until my watch died:
And Strava data for the whole race from Andy Symonds: