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The fact that my calves were already feeling lactic while climbing unusually large and seemingly endless dirt stairs by mile four just reinforced the fact that UTMF was a bit of a different beast. A 100 mile run in which approximately 30% of the terrain was paved and fully runnable, yet the remaining 70% would somehow contain nearly 30,000ft / 9,000m of climbing and descent. It just didn't make any sense to me. The math seemed to be missing a variable. How steep could the terrain really be? Oh hardy har har har. The joke was in fact on us and the equation was about to be balanced, one painful mile at a time.
With a 3pm start time and a 5:30pm sunset my Princeton Tec headlamp was now shining bright. I had held my own over the opening miles and slowly moved my way up into the top ten, and then the top five. Within the first mile of this climb I now found myself up in fourth. Just two miles later and the course topped out at close to 5,000 feet, in which I was anticipating a super enjoyable descent. Though the terrain disappeared nicely at a near 35% grade in the upper portions I picked my way though it before I started to experience acute and intense foot pain. Foot pain directly where I had broken my foot twice before. Foot pain that I had not felt since getting back off of crutches over a year and a half prior. The pain would be brief but super intense and left no doubt as to its whereabouts, and it was freaking me the f#@k out. The sensation never lasted for more than the individual foot strike and was acute enough to balance perfectly with allowing me to continue racing while never allowing me to stop worrying about when it might flare again. A nice little internal dialogue ensued in which I basically told myself that I'd have to pull out of the race if it didn't somehow rectify itself. I've been in hospitals in New Zealand, Australia, El Salvador, Honduras, Oregon and Hawaii. I've filed over $20,000 in out of country medical claims (that have all thankfully been fully covered by my $75 annual policy) and I simply had absolutely ZERO intentions of adding Japan to my international hospitals list. At 36 years of age I'd really prefer if the next time I end up in a hospital is when Linda and I start a family in a few years time.
One, two, three, four, five. Five "f#@k me" moments in about an hour of running. As the terrain eased underfoot the pain within the foot disappeared altogether so I just decided to roll with it. In a funny conversation with friends after the race.
"It was an intense localized pain from about hour three till four, but then it subsided and I never felt it even one more time over the next sixteen hours of running"
By the time I'd reached the water station at about mile twenty three the foot pain seemed a distant memory, though I was then hoping that it was not going to be terrain specific and simply spike in pain again on the impending descents. As mentioned though it subsided and never flared again. As a preventative measure I actually had an x-ray on it today and even my Doctor could not believe how great the images looked. All is good and it just seems to be 'one of those things' that can happen when you go and run for a full day in the mountains.
I spotted Australian runner Brendan Davies hitting the water station ahead of me but failed to notice that I'd passed him in transition. About a half a mile after the water station there was a volunteer on the gravel road who was directing me to my left and onto a singletrack climb. The course flagging, which included reflective lights, pylons, volunteers, volunteers with mini light sabers and just generally anything and anyone in place to ensure you did not take a wrong turn was truly beyond anything I'd ever seen in a 100 mile race. It's a testament to Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, his team and the entire Japanese running community, and quite the site to behold. This volunteer directed me to my left. There were little blinky lights on the flagging tape up the climb. I looked left, then up, then up further, then straight up. I tried to make a joke in English to the volunteer which involved me using my arm like an airplane taking off. We were about to go vertical.
You never really feel like you're racing up this terrain as your cadence is so low, though the lack of oxygen reaching your brain leaves no doubt that you are indeed pushing to you maximum pace just to continue forward momentum. Before I realized it I was closing in on the headlamp of then second place French runner Cyril Cointre. I pulled ahead of Cyril just before our 50% grade climb gave way into a 53% grade descent. Cyril pulled right up to me and all of a sudden we were kind of caught up in a 'who's the better downhill runner' game among two guys who obviously prided themselves on how they could cover downhill terrain. Nothing about what we were doing felt overly intelligent but it was fun to have another runner to push the pace with.
After a slight uphill grind in the landscape I promptly took my head out of my ass and pulled aside, waving Cyril past and simply saying "you lead" to which I immediately let him go. We were less than thirty miles in and on the first of what was promising to be many sizable descents. It was far too early to be revving the pistons up. Not ten minutes later did my quads reiterate my decision by starting to cramp.
'You've gotta be kidding me' I thought. I glanced at my watch to see I'd been racing for approximately 4h30mins. 'This is bad. This is really bad. I don't know if you can recover from this Gary? I think you've potentially already made mistakes that are going to haunt you for the rest of the race.'
The Greatest Magic Trick I've Ever Performed. Disappearing, Reappearing, Disappearing Quads.
I huge component of ultra running and more specifically 100 mile running is the ability to constantly and honestly assess your physical situation so that you can make appropriate decisions that ensure you are able to perform at your optimal level. I was struggling through some tough decisions and realizations that also forced me to question the first 4+ hours of my day. Had I gone out too hard? Was I running someone else's race without noticing it? Could I maintain my current slightly slower pace without cramping or would I have to slow further? Was my race effectively done? Would I be forced to drop out? Would I even finish this race today? How could this be happening to me? Quad strength and resilience was one thing I worked hard at and prided myself on, how in the world could that be my weak link on this day? Were my quads getting better or worse? How was my nutrition? How was my nutrition? How was my nutrition? How was my...
I'd been doing a decent job at staying in the optimal range of 200-300 calories an hour since the race had begun but I had been ignoring the overwhelming sense of hunger that would not subside no matter how many race food calories I injected. Looking back over my day in that moment I realized that I'd in fact eaten very little in advance of the 3pm start. It was now 7:30pm and I hadn't had much of a meal in nearly twelve hours. The mere recognition of this seemed to prompt an unsettled grumble in my belly as if it were calling for help. I had a Hammer bar in my pack so I reached back and promptly devoured it. Sure enough, some solid calories combined with the slightly slower pace and my quad cramping subsided. This small victory felt pretty huge in that moment and I high five'd myself in my mind for working my way through it.
What goes up must go down and on this ridge that meant going up again, and then down again, and then up, and down and up and down and up and down again, and then for good measure you went up a sixth distinct spine before finally dropping some 2700 feet in just over a mile with a maximum grade somewhere in the 57% range. From start to finish this approximate 12m / 19k section took three full hours. An hour after the first quad issues my quads started to speak to me again. Once more I managed to eat them back into submission.
When we finally dropped down off this ridge we hit pavement and flat runnable terrain again. Time to wake up the legs!
As I was approaching the mile thirty-three aid station in third place, while running paved roads through a small town, a Japanese runner wearing #113 came screaming past me like he was in a 10k road race. The only thing I could figure was that he was looking for the accolades that would come with arriving at the aid station in third place while also being the first Japanese runner. There was simply no way that he was running a smart race and his pace certainly wasn't sustainable so I wrote him off without a second thought. Turns out most of us did. Hara Yoshikazu wasn't one of the pre-race favorites and I knew this when he passed me. I'd paid attention to who my competition was and who I needed to be aware of. Hara was in fact running his very first 100 miler, though he had won a 100km trail race in a time of 6h33m, which is pretty nuts. This of course was all information that I would not be able to source until after the race. In that moment Hara was just a runner that I was certain would either DNF or slow considerably and struggle to finish at all.
We could not have gotten any luckier with the weather for the race as just hours before the race started a few rain clouds passed over the starting line and we were concerned for what might lay ahead. In the end we ran under a cloudless sky AND a full moon! So bright was the night sky through this exposed section of the course that I managed to shut my headlamp off and simply run by the light of the night orb over my shoulder. Though we were covering a mix of paved and then gravel surface road it was at least an isolated backroad in the forest with absolutely no car traffic or outside distractions. It felt as though we were running through a park and with my headlamp off, lit from above, clicking off mindless miles of the race I found one of those rare and special moments of peace. This is why I do this I thought. This is special. This journey and sense of adventure is what I crave from life.
I have a storied history of getting lost in races. It was this and this alone that forced me to once again turn my headlamp back on as I knew I'd never live down missing a turn in the night because I was running with my headlamp off. Not two minutes after I switched my lamp back on though did I end up jumping over a dormant snake on the side of the road. Just an over sized grass/garter snake was my best guess but having been confronted by a brown snake in an Australian expedition adventure race once I at least decided to pay greater attention to where my feet were landing.
As the road angled upwards the motivation to continue running waned, but again there was no reason other than mental fatigue to break stride. At about this time I spotted Cyril up ahead and walking. As I caught him all he said was "how far?"
To which I responded "About 3km"
Taking it down a notch three hours earlier had saved my race.
There was a slight and slightly unexpected out and back as we approached the next aid station. Hara came running towards me, to which I spat out, "Wha!? Am I going the right way!?"
His general lack of response told me that his English probably rivaled my Japanese, and that this was likely an out and back.
Next up was Julien, now less than five minutes ahead of me. I was in third AND I'd managed to make up eight full minutes on him in that section, but Hara was now eleven minutes clear of me and showing no signs of weakness. It was clear now that Hara was indeed a threat on the day, a completely unexpected runner was not only in the lead but he'd been making significant gains over all of us on the faster sections of the race.
Out and back sections can be pretty tough in trail races. The forest and mountains can hide so much, with runners merely minutes apart never once catching a glimpse of each other. In referencing post race splits it's evident that nothing really changed through this section in terms of competitors behind me catching up, however they were now thrown in front of you like they'd appeared out of nowhere and were somehow running twice as fast as you. The out and back was only a few miles long and I said hi to nearly half a dozen people behind me. This had the effect of getting kicked in the nads repeatedly. Again like unicorn wings, not something I've yet experienced in my life, but basically how I'd expect it to feel.
I had JUST made up nearly ten minutes on one Julien Chorier yet somehow because there were half a dozen runners within thirteen minutes of me I became convinced that the wheels were coming off. So convinced of this was I that I started coaching myself for how to react WHEN those runners behind me caught me. In essence I was prepping myself for the inevitable letdown that would occur and attempting to rally in advance of this letdown to ensure that I didn't temporarily give up on myself WHEN those runners caught me. This is a common reaction when things like this happen in racing and basically I was recreating it in my head to attempt to limit my loses once it actually unfolded. I promised myself that I would make every additional effort necessary to latch onto those beasts behind me once they tracked me down and I'd fight like hell to keep from getting spit out behind them. All the while being 100% certain it was an inevitability.
Clearing another aid station without seeing a runner from behind and learning that I was holding my own against the two in front of me was reassuring. The next section of the race contained the literal and figurative high point along with one of the weirdest things I've ever heard of in a trail race, a mandatory walking section.
Immediately after departing I was instructed "no running in this section." This had of course been covered in advance of the race but now that I was confronted with its reality I was disappointed that the terrain was in fact so damn flat and easy. To be all alone in third in a highly competitive 100 mile race and then to self govern walking over terrain that you would be forced to run if you sneezed or caught your toe on a rock was a bit torturous. It demanded trusting that your opponents were in fact honouring the same rules as you. Given that Japanese culture is probably the most honour based society on the planet I convinced myself that should I chose to run I'd surely be struck down by some god of the trails and have my foot clear severed in half should I break their code of conduct. Not a minute later I came across two volunteers almost hiding in the woods and holding up a sign in English,
I was congratulated with a ceremonial golf clap for adhering to the rules. Truth be told though I was shoulder checking the entire time while attempting to channel my inner Olympic speed walker, swaying my hips hither and tither and had I spotted a headlamp closing in on me I was prepared to erupt into a sprint as there was no way a gap of the minutes I possessed could be honestly closed if everyone were walking, speed walking or not. I saw no lights and was thankful for it. The flat slowly steered itself upwards and before long a hike was all anyone would be able to sustain anyways
As we topped out at the highest point on the course at just under 6,000 feet the full moon illuminating Fuji immediately to our left, as we were now on her flanks, the landscape transformed itself into a lunar style volcanic rock. Volunteers manned the high point and said in broken English,
"Okay to run"
I basically asked them to repeat those words three times before I exploded into a scree field of volcanic rock, taking a few kilos of it with me in my shoes to deposit at the next aid station.
|Photo Credit Shinpei Kosecki|
Hearing that I was eight minutes back I was hoping to make up five minutes over the next ten miles of the course. I wanted to arrive at A8 - 121.7km and hear the words,
"You are just three minutes behind the leaders!"
If I remember correctly it was 3:30am what I started into the climb and felt just slightly better than Death on a Monday after a long weekend. It was finally time to use my greatest weapon, my music. I pulled out my MP3 and bluetooth earbuds and fired it up. Within minutes I was wide awake and moving faster over the mountains than even I would have guessed possible. Singing out loud, pumping my fists to the beats, anticipating and embracing the terrain ahead rather than fearing it. The music in my ears quickly made me feel at one with the earth under my feet and though I'd hesitate to say I felt like I was floating over the terrain I became confident and almost hyper aware of my every stride. This confidence lead to more unencumbered running than a body wearing nearly 13 hours of constant movement would normally possess. My questions about IF I was making time on Hara and Julien were replaced by questions about HOW MUCH time I was making. I simply knew that with relatively consistent splits between all of us over the last forty miles that I was now outpacing my nearest competitors.
The sun started to rise and presented a scene of beauty that left me nearly pinching myself. Fuji in all her glory, a full moon lingering off her shoulder, a red blanket colouring the horizon, and a Lake Yamanakako appearing from within the shadows down below as though a curtain had been drawn back on its slumber. A brief moment after digesting all of this and there were photographers and videographers dotting the landscape in front of me. They'd positioned themselves for just this moment in the race and I threw my arms in the arm and screamed,
"Can you believe this! This is AMAZING!!"
I came around the corner and he was right in front of me. I had no inkling that I was so close to Julien
As I pulled up alongside him he asked, "Who's that?"
I responded "It's Gary"
Even though we'd met a few days earlier and spent enough time together via the team to become acquaintances he just was not expecting to see ME and hence did not process who Gary was. I pulled alongside of him and as he looked over to see just who was there he inadvertently uttered "Oh non non non"
This was comical for numerous reasons, not the least of which was that he just seemed to have blurted out his thoughts more than anything else in particular. I managed to translate what that meant into English though.
"Umm, excuse me! Non, non, non. There's a clause somewhere in your Salomon contract that states that you can not pass Julien Chorier. I think you need to step aside and revisit what you signed IMMEDIATELY you smelly Canadian bastard."
(Julien could not be a nicer person. None of what I said above was actually thought by Julien, at least not that I know of. He in fact came up to me post race and specifically commented on how impressed he was by how I was moving at that point in the race...before he laughed at me for beating me and jabbed me in the eye with a French flag...and he even apologized for not realizing who 'Gary' was in the moment. Class act all the way with a great sense of humor as well)
I had just passed Julien Chorier. If I'm not mistaken Julien had yet to be been beaten in a 100 mile race and his resume is stoopid stacked with amazing results. It was mile 75'ish and in that exact moment in time it was the best I'd felt compared to where we were in the race all race long. My Imagine Dragons song I referenced in my HURT race report was next up on my playlist and the trail cut left and proceeded straight down. My adrenaline was pumping and within two minutes of passing Julien I could no longer see him behind me on an open section of trail.
I'D WON THE RACE! It was mile 75 and I was in second, but with all the positive emotions that had collided inside of me it was like a cheetah had mated with flying squirrel that'd co-evolved with a flying fish...that'd be one badass creature with wings mind you, I was dropping miles like I was counting in the 90's for distance and not the 70's.
Mile 75...76...77...78...79 into the aid station with cameras and live feeds and the unexpected 2nd place runner getting his fair share of early accolades.
"How do you feel?"
"Like this race is about 21 miles longer than I'd realized"
I was in and out without seeing that not only was Julien just over five minutes behind me, but he had now teamed up with fellow French legend and co-pre-race favorite North Face runner Sebastien Chaigneau.
I knew within a mile of departing the aid station that I'd given too much too early. I'd made a mistake and now I had to pay for it. This was my sixth hundred miler yet I should have and do know better than this. I was internally scolding myself as I processed just how bad the damage was.
Could I finish? Definitely, eventually, with a 48 hour cutoff at least I would hope so.
Could I catch the lead runner? Absolutely not.
Could I hang onto second place? Doubtful. It's not like Julien Chorier goes 'oh I was passed by a runner. On no no no, I guess that is that and this race is over for me, it was nice while it lasted'
Could I hang on to top ten? I certainly hoped so but honestly I was in a bad spot and I knew it.
Head down, go to work. Don't think, just do. One foot in front of the other. Eat, drink, repeat. Distract the mind as much as possible. Try not to look at the mileage on the Ambit as it's clicking off slower than paint drying. Try to stay positive. Try not to freak out at the fact that Julien has just passed me while I was filling my water bottle at the next water station. I swear he shot laser beams through me with his eyes as if to say don't even f#@king think about trying that shit again!
Try not to look straight up at the fact that this climb appears to go on forever. Try not to freak out over the fact that Sebastien, who I haven't seen since mile five, has just appeared out of thin air and is passing me like I'm moving backwards. Am I moving backwards? Hard to tell but either way I'm giving it all I've got.
Seb tells me the worst is yet to come.
"Yup, steepest section of the race is yet to come."
Nothing, and I mean nothing on my course profile eludes to or prepares me for what's to come. I honestly thought I was about to the top of this section, the apparent last significant climb of the race, but in fact I was on false summit one of three and the top was a clear cut rock scramble. I LOVE rock scrambling, when I go out for a f#@king ROCK SCRAMBLE not for a 100 mile running race!
Foot hold. Hand hold. Foot hold. Slippery mud from the frost overnight that's melted in the sun. Literal movement backwards. Hand hold. Root Hold. Rope Hold.
Am I having a heart attack?
No you just wish you were so that you'd have an excuse to stop.
THE TOP! Shit you've gotta be kidding me. The downhill is so steep that I have to use the ropes on the trail to make my way down the supposedly easier side of this mountain. Only six more miles / ten kms of downhill to go until the final aid station.
A10. Mile 90. KM 143
They tell me the splits to the three runners in front of me. I laugh in their faces. I grab my supplies reminding myself that I'd still really prefer to finish 4th over 5th, and 5th over 6th, and 6th over 11th. I feel like the finish line is somehow moving further away from me. I detour to the actual aid station and literally twelve volunteers behind the table stand at attention and almost try to 'sell me' on their foods in front of them. They're wonderful. All of the Japanese people have been. Everything in this race save how I've actually run my final twenty miles has been wonderful. I take a slice of orange and everyone celebrates in unison. I realize I'm the first runner that's touched anything outside of my own supplies that my crew has laid out for me. I eat five slices of orange and they count off each and every one. It's comical and heart warming all at once. I thank them in my best broken Japanese and get on with my near but not quite death march to the finish line.
It's not the climbing miles that scare me it's the flat and downhill miles as those are where I'll lose the most time to my stalkers.
About 45 minutes later,
"Eight miles / thirteen kilometers, all downhill"
It was toughen up time and I was really struggling to convince myself that this would all be over shortly, and that the faster I ran the sooner it'd end. I walked and shoulder checked more than I care to admit. Then I caught up to the very last runner in the shorter STY race. The three sweepers around him were all but literally sweeping him off course. I detoured his way and threw my arm around him and told him how strong he was, how he was almost home, how everyone would be so proud of him. I knew he wouldn't understand the verbal language but communication and support comes in many forms. He found me on FB two days later and thanked me via google translator. I told him how much he'd helped me without realizing as much. I think in hindsight I was attempting to speak to both of us.
The terrain gave way to a steep gravel road descent. I leaned forward under the assumption that inertia would propel me forward and that somewhere tucked away deep inside I actually cared if I fell on my face or not and I'd prevent that from happening by moving my legs faster than they'd moved in hours.
I was too close to quit now. Too close to not win 4th place. We passed through a temple at the bottom of our last climb, right before the gravel gave way to pavement. The temple and temple grounds looked impressive and warranted stopping to appreciate them further, at least that was the latest argument that popped into my head as an excuse to stop torturing myself.
I could see the finish line now, though it was closer in sight than it was in running distance as we were to run an arc around the lake and across a bridge first. Purgatory. My legs started cramping. I didn't care. One mile. A half mile. A quarter mile. Nothing but cheers and applause. Nothing but smiling faces and positive energy and love. Nothing but pure elation.
|Photo Credit Shinpei Koseki|
|Photo Credit Koichi Iwasa|
The hardest 100 miler I've ever run.
The most talented field of runners I've ever gone up against in a mountainous 100 miler.
I couldn't be happier. I couldn't be more proud...in that moment I thought as much, but just sixteen hours and fifteen minutes later I was happier still, I was far more proud.
Thank you Japan
Thank you Kaburaki
Thank you amazing UTMF volunteers and organizers
Thank you Team Salomon, especially my crew who I could not have succeeded without
Thank you Justin Jablonowski and Rich White for hosting/helping me/us in Japan and motivating us to sign up in the first place way back in November
Thank you Kim and James for the surprise congratulations decorations upon our return home
|My amazing crew. Photo Shinpei Koseki|
I sincerely hope to return again and to ideally spend more time in Japan appreciating and exploring the culture and the history further. I've dreamt of going to Japan my entire life. I've dreamt of running an internationally competitive mountainous 100 miler since 2008. I've dreamt of being healthy and at the top of my running game since 2010. I've dreamt of Entering the Ninja since I was five years old. Three out of four ain't bad I guess, three out of four ain't bad.
|Photo Credit Shinpei Koseki|
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