Leaving the Comfort Zone

A comfort zone is unique to every person, and most people find it hard to leave it. But we need to break out of it here and there to learn who we are and what we are capable of. Last weekend I stepped outside my comfort zone during the Nutcracker 12 Hour endurance race and learned some valuable lessons, and overcame some demons along the way.

Just a couple years ago the idea of running a longer distance than a marathon sounded completely crazy. To me even the marathon distance really has always seemed too long, or basically what needed to be done to complete the IRONMAN distance. Before my 4 IRONMAN events during 2003-2005 I had only done 1 standalone marathon – the 1987 NYC marathon. I however always enjoyed running but in smaller amounts. Or, better said, in shorter distances. I would now say that my perfect race distance these days is somewhere between 20-30km. But should we only pursue events or distances where we excel?

That last few years I had sought out different challenges. In 2016, I ran 48km during ÖtillÖ Swimrun Engadin in Switzerland, but with all the runs broken up by swims, the total distance did not seem too bad even though you still had to run it all. Over time, I slowly ramped up my running mileage and this year I am already over 3,700 miles of running despite more than 6,000 miles of cycling. Much of that mileage is due to me signing up for various events which just a couple years ago seemed unimaginable: a 50 miler in in Arizona, a 100k on the treadmill, a virtual 1000km race across TN (and back) and various other events along those lines. COVID-19 has actually helped me here as many other events were cancelled and thus I could just train more and push myself more with nothing looming in the distance. I had the Boston Marathon in April on schedule and would have slowed down my mileage and I'd likely never have signed up for that virtual TN crossing. But with Boston gone I could just sign up for various other races and events. Before COVID started I had also signed up for the Black Mountain Monster 12 Hour race in June but when it was postponed to 2021 I decided to run 100km on my treadmill on that day to test myself. I managed to run the 100km in 9:38 and after that felt that more was possible, and I wanted to test what was possible.

The Ultra Trail Mont Blanc CCC 100km event had long been on my radar, but now the Western States Endurance Run also was on my bucket list, and in order to qualify for both of these events I needed to run more longer races. Some to actually qualify and others to find my limit, and along those lines I had signed up for the Nutcracker 12 Hour race last weekend. It was a very well run and safe event and a good test for myself and my comfort zone, but for those with possibly more modest or higher speed goals - there were also 3 and 6-hour options.

My good friend Rob Van Houten offered to be my crew for this 12-hour adventure and he gave me plenty of good advice along the way. He and his wife Colleen Jay are very experienced ultra runners, and super nice people on top of that. We also managed a few training sessions together and I felt decently prepared. I even tapered for this event and took some of the running mileage out but kept the intensity. Three weeks before I had a 89 mile weekly volume, 2 weeks prior it went down to 68 miles, then 48 miles and during the race week only 25 miles, and I felt good going in. My thought was that if things fell in place, I should be able to reach 70 miles and be at the pointy end of the race, but I needed to run smart for that to happen. The goal was to run 9:20 - 9:30 pace for the first 8 hours and then see what I had left after that. My friend Ken Bush had also entered the race thanks to my enticement but we planned to run separately.

Race day weather was perfect with early morning temps in the low 50s and highs near 70. The 12-hour race started at 6:30am and most of us headed out with headlamps for the first 10-mile out and back loop on a crushed gravel trail between the towns of Erwin and Dunn in North Carolina. I wore a thin jacket over my Salomon Advanced Skin 12L hydration vest and planned to drop it off with the headlamp after the first loop. The headlamp came off quickly and the jacket not much later and I felt good about the day ahead, but my Boco Gear X mask stayed on as early on it was still crowded with runners. By the time the second loop started the field was much more spread out but with an out and back course we now would always encounter others on the trail.

The race organizers told us that we had to have masks on in all aid stations and ideally as much as possible on course, and threatened disqualifications for those who did not oblige. Most folks seemed sensible and masks were seen everywhere in addition to various Christmas themed costumes. The next 2 laps were seemingly going well, and I steadily moved up through the field on a steady diet of liquid and solid nutrition. I tried to eat something every 31 minutes and I was following that plan. After that 3rd loop my friend Rob was going to pace me from mile 30 to mile 40 and at that point I noticed my quads being slightly sore. We walked a bit just before the 35-mile checkpoint but still arrived there well below 6 hours and thus had 70 miles within reach. At that point I had moved to 3rd place overall.

On the way back to the start and mile 40 I had to walk more, and the wheels slowly started to come off. I sent Rob ahead to tell his wife Colleen that she could just run on her own and that pacing me might became very tedious. But when I started my 5th lap Colleen was waiting for me ready and eager and I could not argue with her, or better said she would not hear it. I ran some of that loop but by now it was very painful to run, and actually every transition from walking to running and running to walking really hurt. My walking pace also slowed down from low 12-minute a mile pace to 14 and 15-minute pace, and by now my stomach was pretty unhappy too. I could still eat but had no appetite and I felt a bit bloated. Doubts started to come up and I wondered if my day would end much earlier than anticipated. But my friends had driven sacrificed their whole day to support me and the idea of letting them down seemed even harder.

With 50 miles recorded I stopped for a minute, drank some RC Cola and gave myself a little reset. After I started moving again I took in gels more frequently and slowly the stomach felt better and between miles 50 and 60 I actually ran more and faster. The new goal now was to get at least 100 km and there were sections where I ran 7:40 pace as it was almost easier to do than running at 9:20 pace, but I had to dig very deep to do so. My walking however had now slowed down to 15-minute a mile pace, but my slowest mile pace between miles 55 and 60 was 11:13 at mile 59 and the fastest I managed was 8:20 during mile 56. The female race leader passed me during that time and she looked completely effortless. And Colleen was simply awesome and entertaining all along. I think I surprised her a bit when I started to run faster, but maybe I drained the tank a bit more than I should have. Possibly the horse smelling the barn a little bit far out.

I finished mile 60 with just about 90 minutes left and I knew that reaching 100 km would be no issue. But I had passed some folks and did not want to give these places back, so the plan was to keep pushing. At that point I had to run on the shorter 1-mile loop, as did all runners who had less than 2 hours to go. I managed 12:39 pace walking for mile 61 but after that the remaining miles were all slower than 15 minutes per mile. After mile 63 I really wanted to call it a day, but I could see the next guy in the race only about .5 of a mile behind me, so I could not stop. I pushed on and by that time I no longer drank or ate, and it was only will power driving me forward. I finished mile 65 with just about 8 minutes left in the race and knew that neither I nor the guy behind me could finish another mile, and I thus ended my day. I was happy that I had hung in there but I could already feel that my legs were totally worked, and my feet fully unhappy.

They handed me my very cool Nutcracker Endurance run medal and I am pretty sure they would have told me not to go out for another loop if I had not seen the light yet. I ended up in 7th place out of 105 finishers and that was done with 11:35:09 moving time. Any time not moving was mostly in a bathroom or at an aid station, but most of my nutrition I was able to grab on the run thanks to my friend Rob. He had set up a table and handed me whatever I wanted. I tried to eat mostly solid food with only gels every 90 minutes, and had an assortment of bananas, apple sauce, salami, pretzel rolls with butter and ham, GoGurts, Baby Ruths, PayDays and much more. Plus I had plenty of extra water flasks for my vest so I would never have to stop to refill one. I basically handed empty ones to Rob as I came through and he in return gave me full ones. Since we did a little loop at the start and finish area, I could also tell him which food items I wanted and he would have it ready before I headed out again. It worked flawlessly and I would say that having a crew or a sherpa is likely the ideal scenario for such a race. A pacer can help too, but that likely depends on each individual and some races do not allow pacers, or only allow pacers after a certain point.

My buddy Ken Bush whom I mentioned earlier managed 60 miles and for this age group triathlete that was his longest run to date by quite a distance. He was hurting at the end of the race just like I did and also hung in tough despite, but we both learned valuable lessons from it. It does not matter how well prepared you are for an event, there is always an opportunity for adversity, and you have to learn to adapt and overcome. The more you step outside your comfort zone the more you may have to adapt, but the reward is even greater.

Next for me is Zion 100 and SwimRun Lake James in April and the Black Mountain Monster in June, Ödyssey Orcas Island in September and maybe the Boston Marathon in November. Plus surely I will discover some other possible adventures. But will you? Are you willing to step outside that comfort zone?