There is an old Yiddish saying that translates to “Man plans, God laughs.” I have been thinking about that quite a lot as the weeks drag on from quarantine. As someone who has geared my entire life toward traveling abroad and racing, my plans have been laughably tossed aside by the universe.
I’m reminded that the world is under absolutely no obligation to bend to my desires. I’m also reminded that there is still a vast plethora of things to be grateful for during this time. One of those is the fact that I was able to partake in possibly the last major ultramarathon in the U.S. before everything else was postponed indefinitely.
I dubbed 2020 my personal year of the trails by the end of an exciting 2019 that entailed a rollercoaster of training and racing all over the world. After Boston, Tokyo, Berlin, and CIM, I was ready to do something other than the road marathon for a bit. Trails have always been my favorite, but it wasn’t until this year that I decided to focus wholly on trail ultras.
By the end of March, I had done three. I started off with a muddy 50k at the appropriately named Swamp Stomper 50k in Millington, TN. Then I found a 55k race that qualified for UTMB points in Ibarra, Ecuador during my time in Quito training in the Andes. While I was in Ecuador, I switched my plan of racing the Marin 50k to the Pioneer Spirit 50-mile.
On the dark starting line, I recognized the lithe figures I’d heard so much about. Powerhouse guys like Tim Tollefson (#6 UltraRunner of the 2019), Matt Daniels (#9), and Max King were milling about, getting loose. I knew I was ready. Reveling in the quiet confidence that only comes with remarkable preparation, I was resolute in being a top finisher that day.
I knew that all my training in the Ecuadorian Andes gave me an advantage on this challenging course, which would climb 4,500 ft. and descend 5,500 ft. It was a privilege to take on this gorgeous trail in the Sierras of Northern California.
The race shot off very quickly as Tim, Matt, and a few others immediately went into low-6 min/mile pace. My confidence propelled me into the darkness, tucking in behind Max King in 6th. I was going too fast but didn’t care yet. Cold rain came down into my eyes and obscured the meager window of light from my headlamp, reminding me of stars streaking by the Millenium Falcon as it entered hyperdrive.
Trail running is very engaging, especially in the dark rain. Being way out on a trail with restricted vision and trying to go fast is a skillset that’s fun and risky to develop. The terrain constantly changes underfoot, and focus is critical to make continual adjustments and micro-decisions on every foot strike. Even smart choices can mean a rolled ankle or a fall.
It is exhilarating.
Through the streaks of raindrops flying past my field of vision, I witnessed Max looking incredibly smooth over the rough trail. I wanted to emulate him and the way he flew down sketchy, rocky, wet descents; he never broke stride through mud, horse manure, or questionable forks in the trail. I was indulging myself by trying to stay with him, of course. When my watch showed the first mile split at 6:30, I knew that it was time to come back to reality. I didn’t even have to back off for Max to disappear into the darkness -- I just stopped pushing so hard.
I was in 9th position with about 40 miles to go.
Despite the unrelenting gray and nearly constant rain, the course was stunning. At one point, the trail opened to reveal the North Fork American River and California’s tallest bridge, which spans a huge gap between Sierras. I loved running a part of the renowned Western States course. Amidst the trees and the hilly terrain, my Andean experience came in huge as I ascended the long climbs with relative ease. I gained ground and passed competitors while still feeling under control. Aid stations were coming quickly, and foods/liquids were going down well. About 30 miles to go.
Here and there, I would gain a position, only to lose it to someone else. After a while, I wasn’t sure if I was holding 9th or 10th, but I knew it was close. The sense of urgency to walk people down was very real as I trudged along. It would prove to be extremely motivating when I questioned whether I could finish.
The darkness of the pain cave began creeping in as I approached 30 miles. This was expected of course, so I filed it away. Efficient form became critical as the technical trail continued demanding high knee lift, careful foot placement, and focused attention on the next stretch.
As many athletes know, the onset of fatigue is not linear. By mile 40, discomfort increased by an order of magnitude. The worst for me was between mile 38 and 43, when I was fully immersed in my personal universe of agony. My hip flexors were maxed out from climbing hills and clearing big rocks in stride. I started tripping more because I couldn’t pick my legs up high enough. My quads were shot from constant pounding on downhills, forcing me to slow down and slip more.
Those final miles were, frankly, grueling. I wish I could say that I had a breakthrough and found oneness with the universe. I wish I could say the Rocky theme song was playing in the background as I heroically montaged my way to the finish. But none of those things happened. I was deep in an abyss of suffering. My pace kept slowing, which meant that the torture would be prolonged. The gaps between aid stations felt longer and longer, and that’s because they were.
My vision started narrowing, blurring the green foliage into dark, wet dirt. My coordination fell apart as I struggled to stay in the center of the trail. My pace tanked, and these last miles felt longer than the entire first half of the race. Another racer passed me. I felt like my decline was in full swing, and ominously, it felt like my goal would slip away with the next runner to pass me.
The fastest way home was to snap myself back together. It was non-negotiable. I determined that wallowing in this pity party would only make things worse. More importantly, it was going to make this take even longer. The best solution was improving my form, adjusting my mindset, and simply not stopping. This is the specialty of the best ultramarathoners – not letting the highs get too high or the lows get too low.
I took in some extra fluids and calories at the next aid-station and saw my awesome crew, lifting my spirits. I also saw a racer ahead of me who was clearly falling back in the pack. I passed him within a few minutes of leaving the aid station. I was still barely hanging on to the top-10.
I was positive that I was in the last few hundred meters but tragically saw no sign of the finish line. It was here that a man standing and taking video encouraged me and said, “…only a mile to go”. Of course.
50 seemed like it would be all I could handle. Then it became 51. Then it became 52. Welcome to ultras (and questionable GPS accuracy). I desperately scraped the bottom of the well yet again, the same way I had when it felt like nothing was there an hour ago.
Finally, I heard my girlfriend yelling for me, heard music bumping over speakers, smelled the barbecue at the finish line. I turned on the jets to a “blazing” finish somewhere around 8:00-min. pace to finish with a total time of 7:18.
A smiling volunteer handed me a finisher’s medal and told me that I finished 8th overall.
It was hardly a celebration at first. I hobbled toward my crew of mom, brother, and girlfriend and the mood more closely resembled seeing a loved one in the ER. The emotional weight of the endeavor bore down on me as my legs cramped relentlessly. Talking proved difficult because of how wrecked I was, desperately needing calories and liquids but not having the stomach to handle it among all the painful sensations that were coursing through me. It was as intense as any part of the race.
In my 3rd ultramarathon, I ran a personal longest distance among some of the best in the nation. The course and conditions threw a lot at me – at times, more than I thought I could handle. Things got ugly, but ultimately ended in barriers broken and a huge goal accomplished.
It was indescribably tough, but that challenge also made it beautiful. Experience stripped to its barest, purest form (even at the awards ceremony). One foot in front of the other. One hill at a time. Reaching limits but finding ways to continue. That’s why we do this crazy stuff after all.
- Matt Weickert, Balega Impi ambassador