When I turned 40 this year, I set a goal I had coined 40@40. The fall was about achieving a PR by running a 10k within 40 minutes. Accomplishing that in November, I turned my attention to the other goal—running 40 miles.
While both pushed me to my limits; they were two extremes. One I had to hit specific time goals along a specfic route; the other I had to endure whatever nature and my body decided to throw at me.
This 40@40 also symbolized a spiritual transformation as I complete the first half of life and move into the second half. The first half was about attaining and achieving life objectives like graduating college, finding a career, getting married, having kids, buying a house and starting a church plant. Now the second half is about moving from attainment to attuning.
The purpose of the 40 miles on rugged terrain in the Uwharrie National Forest was to move from attainment to attuning. No longer did my pace matter, splits were irrelevant, gps miles were skewed. The attaining goals of PRs and FKTs faded away as I attuned myself to my body, the terrain around me and my Creator.
Clearly this race left me with far more headspace to contemplate life than the anaerobic shock experienced during the 10k.
To get to this start line, however, required three major adjustments to my training.
- Long, Long Runs
- Mental Shift
While I had run a 50k two years prior, I also ended up in urgent care because of poor hydration. Therefore the first adjustment was I became more focused on my nutrition. Removing alcohol, gluten and dairy from my diet while maintaining a heavy focus on protein was key. Also I started drinking 100oz of water daily to keep my muscles from turning into beef jerky.
As the race day approached, I developed a plan with my coach. 1000 calories 3hrs before the race, then every 30 minutes, his uniquely designed YonBons and Tailwind. Basically, that became my food source for the day.
This also required my training to be longer than normal. As I was told, “you are not truly an ultra runner until you have done a ‘training marathon'” (during which I PRed my marathon race pace). Honestly, I was nervous how many weekly miles my coach was going to push me to because while training for a 10k he had me logging 40+ miles/week. Based on that ratio…I calculated he’d make me do 258.1 miles a week! Graciously, he kept my midweek milage reasonable and just made my long runs, long long runs. Unfortunately, the weekend I was ready (and actually excited about running a 30mile training run) I got the flu. Luckily I had bagged 22 miles at Crowders, 24 miles, 27 miles and another 22 miles (with speed work tossed in the middle) for my long training runs.
“It is better to arrived undertrained and healthy than overtrained and injured.”~Charlie McGoogan
The final adjustment was minor but designed to make a mental shift: it was as minor as when I stopped writing “Day Off” in my calendar and began to writes “rest” as a reminder that rest days are not days off. I finished every run at .01. So if I was supposed to run 4, I ran until my watch said 4.01. 13 became 13.01, etc. No big deal…except for two mental shifts. It made me mentally say there is always more work to be done. It also skewed with my pacing and time, which moved me away from really caring at the end of the day what the watch said.
So with the training done…I arrived at the start line at 7:00am.
“Training is 90% physical [and] 10% mental, while racing is 90% mental [and] 10% physical.“~Meb Keflezigh
It was still dark, but the sun was coming up. So the first decision I had to make was whether to wear a head lamp for the first two miles on the trail in order to carry it the next 18 miles as unnecessary weight. I decided better footing was more important than the miniscule weight. So off we went.
Thankfully, on the ride over to the start line, I sat (quietly) beside two men who had recently run the Uwharrie 100 miler. Seeing them right in front of me helped me watch a seasoned ultra runner’s strategy. So when they started walking the first 900 foot climb, I walked right behind them. When they sipped water at the top of the first incline; I sipped my water.
The first 8 miles I told myself were the warm up miles. I just did not expect the amount of loose rock along the trail. This kept me from dropping into a steady flow for awhile. But eventually I found my pace, and around mile 5 it felt like off we went.
Uwharrie Mountain Run did a phenominal job of setting up aid stations along the route. The rhyhtmic structure of them helped me break the race into different sections (5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29, 32, 35, 38, FINISH!) Plus their regularity allowed you to focus simply on getting to the next aid station versus completing the race.
This was another lesson learned through this process. Too often the goal and objective can feel way too overwhelming. Such as when I told my son the longest training run I did was 27 miles and he replied “Dad! You would still have a whole half-marathon left to run!” That sort of perspective made it daunting. However, when I could break the race into 30 minute sections, it proved much more doable. You simply had to run the mile you were in.
You don’t need to be smart to be an ultrarunner—you just gotta hate quitting more than pain.David Clark
So as the miles clicked away, so did my concern on finishing the course. I reached the halfway point nearly precisely at my unspoken A-level goal (for those non-runners: often you set an unspoken A-goal, a realistic/tell your friends goal, and a still-happy goal). That unspoken goal was 4 hours for the first 20.
As I climbed the last 100 feet to the turnaround, suddenly the person behind me came bursting past me. I was uncapping my water bottles to refill and checking my YonBon stash when the runner blew past. Only as I arrived at the food table did I notice her hoisting a trophy. She was the first 20 miler to finish…and they had started an hour after me! WOW–she was fast!
Turning around, I now knew what to look for and expect as I headed back. I knew at this point the race moves into a mental challenge. The day before, rain had saturated the trail, so while I was one of the first 20 runners on the way out…the way back meant that over 200 people had churned the mud into a sloppy mess. So I knew the course on the way back, while similar, was also going to be much harder. [speaking to a 60yo+ woman who had run the 20 miler for the 5 previous years, she said this was the muddiest/hardest course to her].
Therefore, the first fun distraction was the realization that I would get to pass every 20 miler coming back. Plus I had a few F3 friends I knew running the race, so I started to wonder when I would see them.
The encouragement of the 20 milers and the F3 friends helped me clip through the next 5 miles without much thought.
Then I made a mistake. I came across a deep creek crossing that required me to get off the trail and locate another path across. On the way out, I had stopped and surveyed my options. On the way back, I just trudged forward. I also came across a dozen hikers at this exact moment, who were cheering me on. So off I went…with another 40 miler on my tail. About 100 yards onto this trail, I looked through the woods and saw two 20 milers running along the creek on an entirely different trail. Thankfully at that very moment, I realized I was on the wrong trail and had taken another runner off course. Had I not seen those other two runners, it is very likely I would still be out there looking for the finish. Back tracking ever so slightly, I got back on the trail and began to run the 3rd half-marathon.
Mile 26 was dedicated to my daughter as I prayed for her, dreamt about her future, and praised the ways God has made her. Mile 27 was dedicated to my son Jack, where I praised the Lord for his mercy and healing hand. Mile 28 was given to James who loves to cook and that is when I came across an aid station, which on my spreadsheet should not have arrived yet. It is here where I realized that by this point…the watch was meaningless. Time was irrelevant. What is the difference between finishing in 7:59:08 and 8:01:42 or 8:47:59? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was finishing, which seemed very likely. So I got to praying for my final son…when suddenly my knee started to hurt.
In my training I had read about the two types of pain you may experience. Sudden and excruciating, sharp pain…or a dull but constant pain. Sharp, shooting pain means something is wrong and you should stop immediately. Constant pain means you are okay to push through (please do not take this as official running advice because I am simply recalling what I remembered in the moment). However, I did not know what you are supposed to do with sudden, constant, excruciating knee pain. So I kept pushing on.
At the next aid station, I stopped for some soup (See plan above). And the guy said all the soup out was cold, but he could heat up some more soup if I gave him a minute. At the moment, however, I was afraid of what would happen to my knee if I stopped so I gulped down cold soup (which was disgusting) and pushed forward. I would hand the keys over the jester that lurked deep within.
Our governor is buried deep in our minds, intertwined with our very identity. It knows what and who we love and hate; it’s read our whole life story and forms the way we see ourselves and how we’d like to be seen. It’s the software that delivers personalized feedback—in the form of pain and exhaustion, but also fear and insecurity, and it uses all of that to encourage us to stop before we risk it all…most of us give up when we’ve only given around 40 percent of our maximum effort.~David Goggins
I knew, however, at the next aid station awaited the greatest prize for me: My Family!
So I pushed forward. The knee was getting bad by this point. But I pushed forward. It was at its worst when I went downhill. So I walked the uphills, walked the downhills and tried to eek out any miles while on the flats. Finally I got close to the aid station knowing that any minute I would see my family. That proved enough of an adrenline rush that I began to pick up my pace. (Notice how I went from 15min miles to 12 at mile 32!).
As I came to the aid station and heard them cheering, I was elated to see them. They got me some soup and food and I mentioned to Lindsay, “Does my knee look swollen? It really hurts.” She tried to stretch it but it caused me to cramp up and so she just looked at me and said, “No, no it looks good, you look great! Just keep going! You only have 8 miles to go!” So I pressed forward.
By this point in the race, I knew my pace had fallen off but I just kept clipping away at the mileage.
Then my watch died.
And God transformed the 40@40 experience for me. During the 10k, I had to stay within seconds of my goal pace or the entire race would be ruined. Therefore, I love that while my chip time officially read 39:58, my watch at the finish line said 40:00.5. I had attained the goal precisely. So, for the watch battery to die somewhere around mile 35 was God’s way of reminding me the purpose of the 40 miler was not a time but to attune my heart to him.
So, I began repeating the memory verses I had been working on as part of this 40@40 goal: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart.”
Just before the race, I was given a rock from Shiloh–the place God led the Israelites–to carry in my pack. Here…somewhere around mile 35…with my knee in pain, my stomach no longer tolerating any food, my body pleading for the finish line, I thought about the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness. I knew my challenge was gonna end; they never did.
Pain is simply a mental calcuation of effort multiplied by how much perceived time is left to endure. Too much time left, the pain will grow exponentially. Pain, though, is relative. You ask someone who has never experienced anything traumatic, and they will rate a papercut as a 10. You ask someone who has experienced trauma, and that pain will drop to a 2.
So all you have to do is run the mile you are in.
“I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of Heaven and Earth.”Psalm 121:1-2
Therefore, the final five-ish miles were me and God talking out life. And helping me see that I have achieved everything in life I could ever have wanted. I am blessed with an amazing wife who not only tolerates my crazy ideas but comes to cheer them on; four amazing kids who are thriving in school and have close friends to support them; an incredible church community who I consider dear friends in Christ; and a God who created me and hills…and for some reason was not ready to be the Great Physician and heal my knee in that moment. I wondered/worried if He wanted me to be like Jacob who after seeing God face to face left limping.
I decided even if my knee was that bad, I’d finish this thing.
That is when the finishing tent appeared, and my wife and kids started to cheer. And I ran gingerly down to greet them.
At the finish, my wife hugged and kissed me and said, “By the way, your knee is really swollen I just did not have the heart to tell you.”
- Total Milage: 40
- Total Time: 8:48:45
If it’s not on Strava, did it really happen?